“RUN LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW.” It’s as direct as a race slogan can be, and a genuine call to action. The 2023 Worlds End 100k (and 50k) took place on June 3. The 100k starts at 5am, in the dark, and the cutoff is 19 hours later at midnight, also in the dark. If you’re still on the course when it’s tomorrow, you’ll have to come back next year and try again. For the second consecutive year, I toed the line at the 100k, this time with a bit of enlightenment on how to approach this tremendously difficult race.
It’s been a hell of a spring season. In just 6 weeks, I’ve faced the Hyner 50k, the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon, and the Worlds End 100k – roughly 120 miles of trail, and 27,000 feet of ascent (and the corresponding descent). This isn’t a normal ask of a human body and mind, and at times it’s pushed me to my limits. Waking up at 3:30 literally every day, trying to ease the pain of the previous race while simultaneously raising the bar on training for the next race, all while competing with many other priorities across work, life, and family.
“Underprepared” is a term that I use generously to keep myself grounded. But how many people actually wake up on the morning of one of the most challenging 100k races in the country and think to themselves: “I couldn’t be more ready than I am right now?”
IN BETWEEN BREAKNECK POINT AND NOW
Breakneck Point left me with a lot of questions around one specific topic: why did my adductors cramp up so badly? Was I undertrained on endurance? On elevation? Did I not have enough calories? Not enough electrolytes? Did I go out too fast?
It’s often impossible to trace race day issues back to a root cause, so I indiscriminately attacked everything that I thought might be a contributing factor by:
✔ Increasing the frequency of my runner-focused yoga routine to almost daily
✔ Adding targeted foamrolling and Theragunning of my back, glutes, IT bands, calves, and feet a few times per week
✔ Adding targeted Pso-Rite release of my glutes, hamstrings, psoas, and quads/adductors a few times per week
✔ Adding high repetition squats and deadlifts with a kettlebell a few times per week
✔ Researching nutrition strategies, landing on Maurten as the next experiment
✔ For good measure, significantly reducing alcohol intake and adhering to a very simple, clean diet
Ironically, I didn’t do much actual running. Christine was away for a long weekend after Breakneck Point, which only left two weekends to train – arguably not the best time to be loading up on distance or elevation. I slipped in a few quality workouts, but otherwise rested up.
There were some very real doubts in my mind about this race. That I was ignoring the training time on feet required to complete an ultramarathon of this caliber. That the cramps would return, and that they’d launch me into a mental downward spiral. That last year was a fluke, and that my days of finishing long-form endurance events were behind me in my thirties.
Even my stoic, indifferent shell can be cracked by the intense highs and lows that emerge during races like this.
2023 WORLDS END 100K | 16:29:19 | Strava
Like every other PA trail race that’s in the books for this year, Worlds End is in a remote area with limited wireless service and limited lodging. My hotel was about 40 minutes away in Williamsport, which meant that race day started at 3am.
I drove out the day before with Andrew, one of my dad running friends who was attempting his first 100k. His cousin Nick joined us. Tim, one of the trail dudes who I met at Breakneck Point, would also be there. Tim, Pat, Chris, and Matt, the rest of the gang that did the 100k last year, were returning for the 50k this year. You never know who you’ll bump into on the trail, and when, and for how long – but it’s always good to know that familiar faces are out there taking the same test of endurance.
The weather conditions were guaranteed to be interesting. The week leading up to the race was a heat wave, capping off one of the driest Mays on record. Race day would also be hot, but with a cooldown in the afternoon, along with some wind and maybe even rain or a thunderstorm. Regardless, warm and dry were on tap for most of the day.
On the 3:30am drive from Williamsport, I drank a Maurten Drink Mix 320, the beginning of a day-long experiment with the brand. The 4am hour felt like seconds, with barely enough time to check in, deliver the drop bags, down a pancake and cup of coffee, take one final bathroom break, and then get to the starting line.
5am arrived, and we were off. Andrew, Nick, and I started together at the back of the pack, trying not to get caught up in the first-mile sprint on road to secure a position before the traffic jam occurred at the funnel into single-track trail. The line at that first traffic jam was long, almost making me regret the decision to go out slow… until… about 50 feet ahead on the road, volunteers were waving lightsabers in the dark and yelling. Someone had made a wrong turn into a trail instead of continuing on the road – and everyone else followed. Yep, there’s no guarantee that the person you’re blindly following is on the right trail, and this would happen several more times throughout the day in spite of the course generally being well marked.
I made a declaration early on: I want this to be fun for the first 50 miles, and then the race could start. I think Andrew and Nick thought I was crazy, but it’s a legitimate endurance strategy that I always struggle to follow. A long-form race shouldn’t feel like work for the first 80% of the distance. This decreases the probability of over-exertion and the resulting pain, and ideally increases the probability of being in a position to finish strong.
Fun for the first 50 miles meant speed-hiking the uphills, jogging the flats, moving as fast as safely possible on the downhills, and spending the minimum amount of time possible in aid stations. The formula is simple: walk instead of stand, jog instead of walk, and if you’re not willing or able to jog, then walk like you mean it. A.K.A. “relentless forward progress” – it can net out to a big difference in finish time. I doubled down on the fun concept by deferring caffeine and ibuprofen for as long as possible, just to see if I could reach a “steady state” of energy and pain without these aids.
The images below were loaded on my phone as a guide to each segment: to understand how far we’d be going, in which general direction, and what the elevation profile looked like. This was helpful in setting mental expectations on what was in between us and the next aid station.
In spite of near-perfect execution of the fun strategy, we lost Nick early on and he ended up dropping out after 20 miles. Nick had a staph infection in his leg during what should have been the peak training period. A finish wasn’t in the cards for him. Andrew and I ended up staying together for the entire race, and while 80% of our communications were something like “want to jog for a bit?” – “sure”, having a partner really helps pass the time.
The heat peaked early in the day. I’m not sure if I was underhydrating, undereating, or under heat-conditioned, but I had a minor internal meltdown between miles 20-35. This race couldn’t have been going any better. We were passing people without effort, and ticking through the miles with determination. But an internal dissent was brewing. I felt like an imposter out there, attempting a distance that I had in no way trained for. The desire to tap out was strong, and it stuck with me for several frustrating hours. And then… it subsided. Maybe it was the heat breaking early in the afternoon, or me getting caught up on calories. These lows are real, they suck, and as hard as it might seem in the moment, the only way through is to wait them out.
The hills and very technical Rocksylvania trails of this incredible course will grind you down. Over time, jogging becomes shuffling. The frequent aid stations (which are top notch in their food/drink selections and enthusiastic volunteers) helped to break the distance down into manageable segments. At one point in the day, it rained… for about 2 minutes. Somewhere in the 45-50 mile range, I took a painkiller and some caffeine to ease a bit of the pain. Our projected finish time was somewhere around 17 hours, which was more than acceptable.
The last major climb came around mile 49, after the third drop bag aid station… and then as I predicted, the fun ended and the race began. The course starts to become more runnable at this point, and the amount of time that Andrew and I spent shuffling at a consistent (albeit slow) pace instead of walking increased significantly. The miles started ticking down from 13 towards 0, and we started overtaking runners who had overtaken us earlier in the race.
We came into the last aid station at a tear, to the sound of familiar voices yelling from the dusk – to our surprise, Tim, Pat, Chris, and Matt were there waiting for us! This provided a much-needed injection of adrenaline. We bumped fists, grabbed what we needed, and hit the trail. Darkness was starting to set in. The rest of the course was flat until the massive descent into Worlds End State Park and the finish line. We were on the homestretch, but running in the dark with a headlamp requires more caution.
I took a full spill on a slight downhill and immediately cramped up in both legs as my body hit the rocks. It had to happen right at the end. Not a minute later and we were back to it. The final descent is intimidating in the dark, navigating rocky switchbacks on a ridge where one spill would guarantee a few broken bones.
“Holy fucking shit, 16:29” were the only words that I could manage to get out when I saw the clock at the finish line. I was expecting 17 hours. We had clawed back a serious amount of time in a short distance. Crossing that finish line washed my soul with emotion – an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that can only be experienced firsthand. It was over. That sweet buckle is the icing on the cake.
Some additional retrospective notes for my future self:
👍 Avoiding a significant amount of pre-race caffeine, and deferring caffeine/ibuprofen as long as possible into the race resulted in very stable energy levels
👍 Deferring/avoiding the use of electrolyte pills until it felt absolutely necessary didn’t work against me
👍 Consuming only Maurten gels/solids in between aid stations gave me stable energy levels without stomach issues; I’m settled on this brand
👍 Disabling the per-mile beeps on my watch kept my mind off of the distance
👍 Not taking pictures during the race kept me present
👍 Much of what I put in my drop bags was unnecessary; the only things that I grabbed were a fresh hat/buff, extra Maurtens, and a chili picklejuice shot at mile 50
👍 The yoga, foamrolling, Theragunning, Pso-Rite, and strength work seemed to have helped my overall stamina
👎 Not lacing my shoes tight enough allowed for a lot of foot movement, and I’m going to lose several toenails as a result
👎 The downhills took a toll on my left IT band and knee over time
👎 I need a clearly defined target number of calories per hour
👎 The collapsable hand flask was uncomfortable in the kangaroo pouch in between uses, and the weight of the soft flasks became uncomfortable over time; a larger bladder in the back might be a better option
👎 Tailwind from the aid stations didn’t provide a clear benefit; solid calories and pure water seem to work just fine for me
Pictures were not a priority during this race, but one of the volunteer photographers managed to get a few action shots of me and Andrew:
Counting from race day, it’s 70 days until the Eastern States 100, the final leg of the PA Triple Crown. It’s been over 3 years since I’ve finished a 100 mile race, and I’ve failed the distance twice in that timeframe.
I’m not going to pretend that this race doesn’t intimidate me. I know what 100 miles feels like – I’ve got 4 finishes and 3 DNFs – but all of those experiences were on mostly flat road/rail trail courses, with a highly accessible support crew.
The Eastern States course consists entirely of Rocksylvania trail (technical, single/double track). The remoteness and complexity of the route eliminates the possibility of a support crew for me, so I’ll be self-managing all logistical possibilities through drop bags. And the course itself is 103 miles, with over 20,000 feet of ascent (plus the descent). In the brutal heat of August.
Breakneck Point may be the steepest race that I ever attempt, but Eastern States will be the new most challenging race. Fear is a powerful motivator, and I’m fearful of this race – so it’s time to get after it.