Two years ago, I was a pretty inexperienced ultra runner. I had done a handful of 50K’s, one 50-miler and was supposed to run my first 100K (62 miles) at Oil Creek in Pennsylvania the second weekend of October. My training leading up to it was kind of a joke. I had done a few 20+ long runs and PR’ed the Akron Marathon. The week before Oil Creek, I decided to cram in a 20 miler and not even halfway in, I could barely walk, my right knee was in so much pain. A friend was waiting at the turnaround point of the run with aid and I hitched a ride back to my car and took the rest of the week off.
I went to Oil Creek anyway, figuring I would rather try and fail than not try at all. And fail I did. By mile 15, the pain was so bad, no amount of Advil was helping and I had to jog/walk to the next aid station at mile 22. I got there around 12:30 pm, sat down in a chair and cried. It was my first DNF (did not finish).
That day had haunted me ever since. I chose not to do it last year and run JFK 50 instead. So this was my year. I mentioned in my last training log that I decided against another 100 miler this fall because of well, life, and I really wanted to dedicate my training to Oil Creek. A 100K finish there was more important to me than anything and working toward that goal was the main focus of the last month and a half of my life. I had set a goal to finish between 12-13 hours, but didn’t really care about what my finish time was. But I knew that a time under 13 hours would put me in contention for a women’s podium finish. Maybe even a win.
The week or so leading up to the race, things were falling into place and it seemed almost too good to be true at times. I’m usually not one to care about bib numbers and knew that they didn’t do elite ones for this race, so I wasn’t too excited about it until I saw mine: 626. My birthday is June 26. It was a sign and I was hoping it would be a good one. Then, I somehow convinced my friend Jeff to go with me and crew and pace. After the stress of packing drop bags and writing pace charts had gone away, I was antsy to get to PA.
Even though I hadn’t raced since Mohican, I didn’t have as much of a freak out the night before. My training had been solid and I had never felt so ready or confident leading up to a race. I was a little nervous about the pain in my butt I’ve been having on and off all year, but had over-packed so I had plenty of Aleve if it decided to flare up. Around bed time, I started putting a lot of pressure on myself and started to freak out about the race a little bit. What if I went out there and blew it? What if I didn’t place? What if I DNF’ed again? Too many what if’s were running through my mind and I had a pretty crappy night’s sleep.
The race started at 6 am and was two 50K loops. The loops are about 28 miles or so of trail with some miles of grass and flat bike path at the beginning and end of the loop. The race is described as “unforgiving, gnarly, historic,” and it’s exactly that. The climbs were long and neverending, the rocks were plentiful and it was every bit as technical and difficult as I remembered.
I went out with the lead pack of guys from the start and felt like we were moving at a pretty comfortable pace. One guy took off and the rest of the pack of maybe six or seven stuck together on the bike path. It was so dark and quiet and the only sound was our feet hitting the pavement. When we hit the trail, the men took off and I followed closely to the other woman in front, someone I know from home. She stopped pretty early on to take off her outer layer and at that point, I took the lead.
I ran the majority of the next sections completely alone. The course is made up of four sections, with aid stations breaking up each one. Just as I was leaving the first aid station, the sun was starting to come up and I could take my headlamp off (I also fell right within a tenth of a mile of the first aid station). Out of each aid station is a nice long climb and one of the worst is out of the first aid station up long, winding switchbacks. At the top, there’s a really beautiful overlook over the creek and though I was running hard, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The colors of the trees were beautiful and the sunrise was perfect. I couldn’t help but smile really big and say out loud without thinking, “this is f*ing awesome. I love this shit.”
As I neared the second aid station, I started to pass a few 100 milers in the back of the pack. I hit the second aid station a little earlier than schedule. A few of my friends from home that were crewing for some friends running the 100 were there along with Jeff. It was nice to know I had someone at the aid stations waiting for me and that I’d be happy to see. I didn’t stay in the aid station for long, kept the conversation strictly business about what I needed and wanted and gave him some directions for what to have ready at the start/finish and was off. I didn’t know how much time I had on the next woman, so I didn’t want to waste any time.
The next two sections are pretty runnable, with lots of flats and I figured I could use those spots as an opportunity to put as much time between myself and the second place woman as possible. The downside of that was I was passing a lot of 100 mile runners. I made sure to be as nice as possible and quite a few of them realized I was first female and cheered me on. It was even more fun when I caught and passed people I knew.
Before I knew it, I was reaching the last downhill of the loop and I could hear the noise of the Drake Well Museum. What I didn’t know was that there was a flat, one mile loop around the museum before the course links back up with the bike path to the middle school for the start/finish. Without thinking, I hit the flat road and took off, running the loop at a sub-8:00 pace. I realized my mistake pretty quickly and took a walking break or two on the bike path. As I neared the middle school, I could hear someone else behind me and some of the spectators started yelling, “go Ashley,” at her. Luckily, she made the turn to the finish line, winning the 50K for the women, while I made my way to the aid station.
Again, I didn’t spend much time in the aid station. I saw my friend and Team RWB teammate, Eric, and chatted with him for a second as well as with my friends, Mike and Lauren, who were running the 100. Mike asked when I had passed them and I said I didn’t yet, but was then. After grabbing some pretzel sticks and a payday bar, it was time to tackle the second loop with Jeff pacing me the rest of the way.
On our way out of the aid station and on the bike path, we saw the second and third place women nearing the aid station. I didn’t have a huge lead on them, but was still trying my best to not think about the fact that I was leading and just run my own race.
I’ll keep most of what happened on the rest of the second loop to myself, partly because I don’t remember and partly because “what’s said on the trail, stays on the trail,” but I will say the following did happen:
- I described in as much detail as I could my favorite scene in “Get Him to the Greek,” and then sang as much as I could of the “Furry Walls” song from the end of the movie.
- I sang several other songs very out of tune that I don’t remember. Jeff was not impressed.
- Lots of swearing while climbing up the hills.
- Lots of swearing when I got frustrated because I was dehydrated and couldn’t use the bathroom.
- Lots of swearing when I kept realizing I was still in first place and was in shock. The words, “this is f*ing insane,” probably came out of my mouth at least a dozen times.
- Wishing several times that I was running the Oil Creek 50 mile, not 100K.
- Lots of claiming that I’m never running this race again.
- I fell down two more times. On the third time, I tried to stay on the ground and take a nap.
- Jeff kept telling me over and over that I was amazing (or something of that nature) and that I was killing it and doing wonderful. At one point I wanted to yell at him to shut up, but I didn’t want to start our first fight ever at mile 58 of 62.
Somewhere around mile 55-56, I really can’t remember, I was feeling crappy. I had finally gone to the bathroom, but was getting tired. My friend Lauren (who I mentioned earlier) ended up catching up to me. We chatted for a minute and I asked where the second place woman was. She told me later she had exaggerated a little, but she told me that she was right behind me.
After that I ran pretty much the rest of the race. I stopped talking for a while and just concentrated on moving forward and getting it done. When we got off the trail and had to do the one-mile loop around the museum, I kept making Jeff look back and make sure there were no other women coming. I ran as much as I could, but the flat grass was so boring, I stopped for a few steps and then kept going. When we finished the loop and headed off toward the bike path, a bunch of the volunteers showed me their Team RWB shirts and cheered me on.
Then I started to get a little emotional. I tried to hide it as best as I could, but I did start to cry a bit when we were nearing the last mile. When we finally got off the bike path and on the street to the finish, I started to pick up the pace a bit. I was about to win an ultra for the first time! I can’t even describe how the finish felt, but part relief, part shock, part disbelief, part happiness and excitement, comes pretty close. A few of my friends were even there to see me finish this time too.
I crossed the finish line in 12:43 and aside from being first female, I was fifth overall. My highest placement ever! My time is also the fourth fastest women’s time. The rest of the night, I kept asking, “did that really happen?” Part of me still feels like the whole day was a really good dream. One that I worked really hard for.
And, of course, I can’t wait to go back next year.