I am an arrogant, foolish, stupid, stupid man.  I’ve done two 100 mile races (finishing one) so obviously know everything there is about running them.  I can sit in my chair at home, plan out a strategy, and then expect everything to go perfectly come race day.  It’s a perfectly flat course so of course there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d run much, much faster than I did during my first 100 miler.  I said in my preview that I thought I had 24 hours in the bag and I honestly thought there was no way I was running slower than that. I definitely would not have believed I would run almost the exact same time as Oil Creek.  I’m in similar shape as then and that’s what really matters, right?  Um, apparently not.

Downward Spiral on a Flat Course

Kate and I camped at the start/finish line this year so I only had a short walk to start the day.  I got up a little after 5am with plenty of time to make multiple trips to the porta-potties.  I had my standard pre-race breakfast of TastyKlair and coffee.  After some short announcements and a quick prayer, we were off right at 7am.

At the start, totally innocent of what is about to befall me.
At the start, totally innocent of what is about to befall me.

I spent the early miles warming up and getting into a nice groove.  It usually takes me about 5 miles before I feel comfortable and that was the case Saturday.  The weather was a bit warmer that I expected so I didn’t have to worry about shedding clothes after 5 or 10 miles.  I met up with a guy from Newtown Square a little after mile 20 and had a nice time chatting with him for several miles.  He was running a bit faster than I wanted, but I still felt pretty good so no big deal.

I saw Kate at the Brunswick aid station for the first time right before mile 30.  This was the

Gas and go stop at Brunswick before things started getting real.
Gas and go stop at Brunswick before things started getting real.

biggest/most important aid station as we passed it 4 times and was where my second drop bag was.  I didn’t need anything out of it this early so grabbed some gels and was on my way in no time.  Kate is such an amazing crew member during these things.  She’s been waiting to see me for hours, yet only catches a brief glimpse as I fly through the early aid stations.  Always supportive and never a negative thought.

It wasn’t too much farther that I realized I had gone out too fast.  My legs started hurting about mile 35 so I started shifting into survival mode.  I would take 4-5 minute walk breaks every couple miles.  It wasn’t too much longer until I was taking them every mile.  I walked all of mile 42 just to see what kind of walking pace I was able to manage (turns out 15:40).  The percentage of walking then slowly continued to increase until I got back to the start/finish at Manidokan.

This was my primary gear stop to get prepared for the night.  I had given Kate a list of things I was going to need (rain coat, gloves, hand warmers, portable charger for my watch) the last time I saw her and then added body glide right as I was coming in.  This was all as insurance so that I didn’t forget something.  I was pretty dialed in though and at the 12 1/2 hour mark, this was the first time I spent more than a minute in an aid station.  I also decided to swap out my tech shirt for one that was a little warmer.  Overall, I took about 10 minutes but wasn’t worried about time.  I didn’t need the gloves or hand warmers yet, so tossed them in a pocket for later on.

Open section of the towpath about 4 miles out from Manidokan.
Open section of the towpath about 4 miles out from Manidokan.  Yes, I’m walking.  No, there’s nothing wrong with that in a 100 miler.

The last 40 miles started with a bit more walking as my legs and hips started getting more and more sore.  It wasn’t until about 65 miles that I made the race saving realization that it didn’t hurt quite as much if I rocked back and forth a bit when I walked and ran.  I didn’t have to do this in a really pronounced way, but a little waddle to the left and right felt pretty good and allowed me to move quicker than I had been.  So I penguinned my way down the trail.  It’s a little ironic that it was at the same point in the race last year where I spiraled down to a DNF, that I figured out how to keep going.  I was mentally much sharper throughout this entire race than either of my other attempts at the distance.  I was able to problem solve my way out of potential problems before they ever got to be more than mere annoyances.

When I got to Brunswick for the third time at about 10:30pm, there was a train blocking the tracks to the parking lot so I wasn’t able to see Kate.  I only had to drop off my portable charger in my drop bag so didn’t spend more than a minute or so here.  Now was the long 22 mile round trip to and from the aid station at Noland’s Ferry before I would be back.  About 5 miles in, the rain started and wouldn’t stop for the final 9 hours of my run.  The temperatures were 10-15 degrees warmer than last year at about 50 degrees, but I was much better prepared regardless.  Between the rain coat and hand warmers I was never uncomfortable.  It wasn’t too long after the rain started at mile 75 that I stopped trying to run altogether.

I got into Noland’s Ferry and took an extra 5-10 minutes to warm up a bit.  I wasn’t cold necessarily, but it was going to be a long 6+ miles or over 2 hours to the next aid stations and I needed some coffee to warm up my insides a bit.  This was more preventative than anything else.  It was kinda funny because there was a portable heater that several other runners were sitting around, but I took a chair far away from it.  I didn’t need the warmth so didn’t want to get sucked into sitting there too long.  Right before I left, I had a volunteer text Kate to let her know about when I would be getting back to Brunswick.

At the next aid station (no drop bags here), I had planned to stay 10 minutes, but ended up being there about 20 minutes.  My hand warmers gave out right as I was entering the aid station.  I wanted to dry out my gloves, but they didn’t have a portable heater at this one (sigh).  So I thought for a minute and decided to grab a couple paper towels to go inside my gloves as added insulation.  This worked perfectly for the next 1.5 hours until I got back to Brunswick, my drop bag, and a fresh pair of gloves.  I needed some more chicken broth but all they had was miso soup and some sort of corn chowder.  Neither sounded appetizing, but I needed something warm so asked for the chowder to go in a water bottle.  Unfortunately, they must have misheard because I took one pull on it as I left the aid station and quickly spit out some miso.  Ugh.  That stuff tastes awful.

I keep jumping from aid station to aid station without giving you many details about what happened between them.  The reason is because there were no details.  I waddled from aid station to aid station in the dark as the rain slowly came down.  It wasn’t as horrible as it sounds as runners were steadily passing me in both directions, giving and receiving encouragement.  So there was some company out there though I made my way mostly alone.

At Brunswick, I spent another 25 minutes getting myself sorted out before tackling the last 10 miles to the finish.  I was thoroughly soaked at this point so changed my shirt, shoes, socks, gloves, and had my rain coat hung out by the heater to dry.  They didn’t have any coffee, but another runner’s crewmember gave me some of his Starbucks.  That’s one of the things I love about the ultra community.  They are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  I chatted with Kate who I hadn’t seen in about 10 hours . . .

Huh.  It didn’t seem like nearly that long.  Or maybe it did.  It’s funny how time seems to lose meaning as you go through these races.  I tell people it took me 26 hours to finish and the looks I get back are priceless.  They’re trying to wrap their heads around the thought of doing anything for that period of time.  I’ve done it twice now and I can’t really comprehend the timeframe either.  I guess it’s because for a decent portion of it I’m in a state of flow and one minute just bleeds into another.  This happens more at night, too.  It’s dark out and everything is reduced to a small pool of light at your feet.  The world shrinks down so there’s fewer details to take in.  There’s fewer ways to differentiate this minute from the next to the next.  So your brain just decides to stop recording.  You’re conscious, coherent, and fully functioning throughout.  It’s just that nothing seems to stick.  Objectively, the 10 hours probably felt closer to 5.

After Brunswick, the waddle continued with the only change being the size of the puddles.  I had just changed my shoes so tried to keep them dry by walking around the puddles.  That lasted for about 2 miles before I just trudged forward.  I hooked up with Vincent from NJ with about 6 miles left to go.  We swapped places a couple times, but basically walked it in together.  It was nice to have the company though neither of us was all that chatty.  Kate met me about halfway back to the finish line for some extra encouragement, but the rain was coming down hard, the towpath was entirely exposed to the howling wind, and it felt like it was 30 degrees out.  I was a little grumpy to her since I was entirely in git er dun mode by this point.  Sorry!

The last bit of trail before the turnoff up to the finish seemed to last forever.  My watch beeped 99 miles and I thought we were about there.  Every gap in the trees up the trail looked like it was the spot, but they all ended up being mirages.  Then my watch beeped 100 miles and I almost wept.  Finally, a runner and his pacer who had just passed turned off the trail.  Yes!  Vincent and I made it to the steep, single track trail, didn’t slip and fall into the creek, and up we slowly climbed.  But we were almost done so nothing else seemed to matter.  The last 200 yards is straight up this huge hill and took half an eternity.  It was the slowest finish ever.  I felt bad for the 7 or 8 people standing at the top.  You could tell they wanted to cheer, but didn’t want to stand there screaming and yelling for the 3 minutes it was going to take to cover the 50 yards.  I yelled up that’s we’re coming and would be there in a minute.  Just moving a little slow.

Vincent and I "sprinting" up to the finish line.
Vincent and I “sprinting” up to the finish line.

And then I was done.  26 hours, 21 minutes, 2 seconds.  Good enough for a tie for 53rd place out of 92 finishers with another 55 DNFs.

Three Part Failure

I think I can safely trace the origin of my woes to three huge honking mistakes.  First, I didn’t train how I planned on racing.  I did the exact same (but opposite thing last year)!  Last year I planned to run/walk right from the beginning, yet ran for all my training with only a couple short run/walk training sessions.  That didn’t work out so well, so this year I planned to run as long as I could.  Guess how I ended up training to do this?  That’s right.   Lots and lots of long sessions of run/walking.  You need to train how you’re going to run.  Maybe at some point I’ll figure this out.

Second, I had a poor strategy.  Run until I can’t run anymore?  Idiotic.  Last year’s run/walk strategy was correct, I just didn’t execute it in the right way.  I was walking a couple minutes each mile right from the beginning, which never allowed me to get warmed up or into any kind of rhythm.  What I should have done was run easy for 10-15 miles to get warmed up, then walk for 5 minutes every 15 minutes or so.  After 20-30 miles of that I should then increase the walking to 10 minutes, then 15, etc.  What I ended up doing was running until I blew up my legs.

And my final mistake was screwing up my pacing strategy.  I was supposed to run below a heart rate of 155bpm, however this was very difficult for me to manage.  That HR was only translating into a pace in the mid-10s when I was easily 30 seconds faster using a run/walk strategy on semi-hilly terrain during my training runs.  I started getting frustrated enough that by mile 12 or so I was consistently over this by a couple beats per minute and then finally just shut off the alarm somewhere not too long after mile 20 because I was tired of listening to it.  My body knew that I needed to conserve energy/resources, but I was too stubborn to listen to it.  So I ended up paying dearly for it over the final 14 hours.

And Yet. . .

The race was awesome!  Even though my performance was no where near where it could or should have been, I’m equally happy with how things turned out as I was as Oil Creek.  I would say I felt more in control during this race, but that’s not exactly true.  I don’t think you’re ever really in control during these long races because there are just so many random variables that can get thrown at you.  You can only prepare for so much and just have to roll with the rest.  I was mentally sharper for longer stretches this time so was able to minimize the risk of really bad stuff happening.  And I think that was based on the 2 things I did really well during this race: nutrition and gear preparation.

My nutrition was dialed in.  I had a gel every 3 hours supplemented by chicken broth, coffee, and a couple swigs of Mountain Dew.  Most people hear about my diet during these runs and just shake their heads.  Heck, I doubt many people who ran on Saturday/Sunday could stomach (literally!) this strategy, but this is what works for me.  I never have any interest in the solid foods at the aid stations and there were plenty.  My stomach almost got a little touchy around mile 80 so I cut back the gels to every 4 miles or so.  The consistent calories helped me stay much more even energy wise than during my last race.  I was up and positive the entire time, which definitely helped make this an enjoyable experience.

Also, I was totally prepared for this race gear-wise.  I had the right things, at the right place, at the right time.  I have never in my life used Body Glide or similar products, but had gotten some chafing during my last 100 so put one in each of my drop bags.  I started feeling a little raw on each arm and one other non-mentionable place towards the end of my first lap.  I lubed those places up and never felt them again.  I’ve had a backup pair of shoes at many races before, but this was the first time I ever swapped shoes during a race.  My feet weren’t uncomfortable when I changed at mile 90 (and goodness knows my new shoes stayed dry for all of about 1 mile), but they felt good for a while and probably cut down on the risk of really bad things happening to my feet.

And that’s the secret to my success.  Happy stomach and comfortable body leads to happy mind.  Happy mind lets me problem solve small issues before they become large ones.  Happy mind also allows me to grind out forward progress no matter how sore my legs get.  Last year the thought of walking in 30 miles was so unappetizing that I dropped because I had an unhappy mind.  This year the thought never crossed my mind even though I was at the same pace at the same place.

I’ll need this Happy Mind more than ever at my next race: Eastern States 100 in August.

Random Note on Wildlife

I saw 2 owls at about mile 52-54.  A large one swooped down across the trail.  I had my head turned up and back looking at it and didn’t notice the baby owl sitting 6 inches off the trail until I was already 4 feet past it.  It was about 12 inches of white fluff with 2 gigantic eyes that made up its entire face.  It was cuter than kitten poster.  Unfortunately, I only had a millisecond to appreciate the little critter before the thought of a protective mother owl clawing my face out entered my head.  I looked back up and was grateful to see the owl hadn’t moved off the branch.  Whew.

Leaving Brunswick for the final time in the predawn light. "Peace out."
Leaving Brunswick for the final time in the predawn light. “Peace out.”

13 thoughts on “2016 C&O Canal 100 Mile Race Report”

  1. Awesome job Phil! I felt like I was a reading the tale of a survival journey…but I guess I was. That body glide stuff is awesome, but not as awesome as Kate! Can’t wait to here how the race in August goes ..you might need to double up on the body glide for that one…maybe I can go and be on Kates crew.

    1. Thanks! You’re always welcome to come crew for Kate crewing me. The more the merrier.

  2. I thought about calling you Sunday night to see how you were and then thought better of it. Really happy for you in making this one Phil. You’ve basically figured out out how Patton won his battles. Give your people the right food and equipment and you can do anything. Well done sir! I’m up for sushi AND miso sometime!

  3. Just found your race report and so glad I did, this and your earlier DNF. Congratulations on an awesome finish! I’m taking away all I can from it as C&O will be my first hunnerd in April.

    1. Doc,

      Thanks for reading. My best advice is start walking waaaaaaay before you think you should. Good luck!

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