Monday, August 09, 2010

Running with the Ghosts of Oil Creek - a OC100 Race Recap

An Oil Creek 100 Race Recap

It was 4:50am Saturday, October 10th when we stepped out of the warmth of the Titusville Middle School cafeteria.  80 hopeful ultra runners stared off into the darkness of night.  Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."  Somehow I felt calm, yet unsettled.  Many questions remained, but now was a time for answers.  The horn sounded which signaled the start of the Inaugural Oil Creek 100-Mile Trail Race, part of a first time trio of races.  A 50-miler & 50k started an hour and two hours later, respectively, boasting a collective of over 250 athletes.  These events were put on by first time Race Director Tom Jennings who seemed to have the wisdom of the ages - not a detail went overlooked.

Within 50-yards, a foursome of runners jumped out to form a lead pack and took things out via a flat and fast bike path at around 7:30-per-mile.  The air was cool, but not too cold.  The conversation was cordial, if not probing... "Hi, Jimmy Dean from Los Angeles here. Who are you guys?  Where ya from?"  Joe vibrantly jumped in... "Joe Kulak here, Philly area."  The runner to my right answered, "Richard Cook, I live just outside Pittsburgh."  Up rolled our fourth, a couple strides late to the conversation, "Matt Clay, I live less than an hour from here, formerly Oklahoma."  None of the four of us could have realized it at the time, but we'd run together, chase each other and track each others' splits for the rest of the day.  We exchanged race experiences, training programs, Oil Creek course notes and a couple of funny stories from other 100-milers.  A very short half hour later, we veered right up the Boughton Acid Works trail, which reeked of sulfuric acid.  The trail was wet and semi-muddy, but not too slippery.  As we dug into the darkness of the forest, a fog engulfed us.  We started to spread out a little.  Jimmy, Richard, Matt and Joe.

Near the end of the train on the Gerard Hiking Trail was first time 100-miler Tom Sperduto.  In town from New Jersey, Tom had kissed his wife Jen for luck, listened to iPod messages from his daughter Emily, and contently trotted through the first few miles smiling and happy.  Tom, a man of devout faith, knew that he'd finish 100-miles this weekend no matter what.  He wasn't sure how fast, or if he'd even be an official finisher, but he knew that he would not stop until he was done.  "I love you daddy.  I know you can do it.  I know you can finish 100-miles."  His daughter's words echoed in his ears and brought him to tears over and over again.  Tom had no doubt.  He would dig as deep as needed.

Around Mile 17, Joe caught up with me.  After a minute of conversation, we realized that Joe and a couple runners with him had missed an out-and-back section of the course.  Joe smiled a semi-frustrated smile, turned around and headed a mile and a half back on the course to run the section he missed.  I would see Joe again soon enough.  At Mile 20, I dropped back off the pace and Richard was with me shortly thereafter.  He very comfortably and casually trotted by, looking great.  Next, Matt caught up and we shared a few miles and stories about mutual friends and other races. 

Matt surged ahead, still looking comfortable and relaxed.  We discovered that our target pace and our projected pace were a bit off, and we both came into Titusville Middle School at Mile 31 a little fast.  Matt spent much of the rest of the day 2-20 minutes behind Richard, never quite caught up but never fell too far behind.


Loop 2 of 3 (the 100-mile course consisted of three 50k loops and one 7.7-mile loop) was run through the middle of the day for us as the sunlight cascaded through a canopy of Fall colored leaves.
Temps stayed in the mid-40's during the day (dropping to the high-30's at night) and we enjoyed simply gorgeous overlook views of Oil Creek before again being swallowed up by this magnificent state park.  Mid-race, Joe finally caught up with me again.  I was around Mile 50 and Joe, unofficially, had run around 53 miles. He smiled and said, "well, glad I got that out of the way early!"  He admitted to being a little bit bummed, but resolved to leave his watch at checkpoint #4 so he could stop fretting over the extra distance.  He just chipped away at the times of the leaders.  I then ran in 4th, and from my last out-and-back section near Mile 46, I knew that there were a few strong runners within striking distance of me.  Each time from this point forward we'd hit one of the two out-n-backs and I'd see a threesome of guys who flip flopped positions - each looking stronger at different times.  The trio always included Zach Mitchell (in his second attempt at the 100-mile distance) and well known ultra trail blogger Scott Mason (aka Wasatch Speedgoat).  I ran for my life.  I saw Joe one last time near Mile 61 on his way back out for his third of three 31-mile loops.  
We exchanged smiles, a low-five and words of encouragement.  Neither of us saw each other, or another runner to chase (in front of us) again.

Oil Creek State Park turned to darkness, and the darkness gave way to a dense fog.  RD Tom Jennings joked that we'd be running with the ghosts of the oil wildcatters of the 1860's in the valley that changed the world.  While I smiled at this little tag-line, dense fog and darkness seemed to consume us.  The woods in Northwest PA are creepy enough to begin with, and we ran past old cemeteries, reportedly haunted bridges and heard semi-unexplained clanking sounds coming from far off in the valley.  When the fog eased up on us, I'd make a specific point not to gaze into the woods for fear of what I might have seen.  I completed my 3rd loop (almost 93-miles) and only a 7.7-mile 'Acid Works Quitting Time' loop remained.  It was just after midnight, and I knew the hounds 

(Zach and Scott) were still hot on my heels.  At the same time I grabbed my gear with 7.7-miles to go, Tom Sperduto grabbed a cup of hot soup and headed out for his third 50k loop, 38+ miles still remained in his run.  Tom wasn't far off of the checkpoint cutoff times, but he didn't care, he planned to keep going no matter what.

As the four front runners discovered the last climb of significance on the course around Mile 96, we all struggled at points to power hike up this most epic hill of the day.  On a course preview run I heard one local call this hill 'the Truth'.  Dizzy and disoriented, a couple of us even thought maybe most of this last 7.7 miles would be flat-ish.  We were flat out wrong.  I crossed the suspension bridge over Oil Creek and stared up into the foggy darkness.  I could see a cluster of lights which I thought to be runners coming in from their third 50k loop.  Nope, not runners, there isn't a trail up that way.  Well, at least the moon looked pretty cool coming through the trees.  No wait, the moon was off in the other direction?  Whatever those lights came from, it made a peculiar noise and crunched tree tops.  I ran as hard as I could to get the heck out of those woods.  I was equally afraid of those lights I seemingly hallucinated as I was of dropping from 4th to 5th or 6th in the last 3-4 miles.  

I came out of the woods, ran up the bike path on the home stretch to Titusville Middle School and crossed the line in 21:17.  Greeted by Joe Kulak in the cafeteria, he shared with me that 
Richard Cook never faltered and ran an inspired first ever 100 in 19:13, followed by Matt Clay in 20:11.  Joe rounded out the Top 3 about a quarter of an hour later.

After a somewhat miserable attempt at sleep, I returned to Titusville Middle School to see the last hour of the race.  

I watched 7-people finish in the last 38-minutes of the race.  After Jennifer Broten finished, we got word there was only 1 runner who remained on the course.  
It was steely Tom Sperduto.  His wife Jen and friends eagerly awaited his arrival, and nervously watched the clock.  Then we saw him!  Tom rounded the final corner with about 15-minutes remaining in the 32-hour course time limit, and crossed the line in 31:46:30. 
We learned he was as close as 6-minutes from the cutoff around Mile 85, and had to speed up to make it in time.  12+ hours spanned the time between Richard and Tom, during which an additional 40 men and 6 women in between gutted it out and finished the Inaugural Oil Creek 100-Miler.  The course and conditions ended the races for 40% of the starting field, and that's 40% I'm sure will return in the next year or two to this fantastically organized event with even firmer resolve.  Everyone that toed the line in these three races at Oil Creek ended up a winner in some form or fashion, and were treated to nearly perfect weather on race day.  My running cap is tipped to all who participated, and deep gratitude is extended to all who volunteered and helped Tom Jennings put on this great event.  I'm sure many of us are looking forward to future Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs.  I know I am.


OIL CREEK 100 - PHOTO LINK (many shots by Jeremy Lock)


50K - 09 OIL CREEK 50K.HTM


Billy said...

excellent read JD, thx.

GaleRunz said...

Thanks for sharing!! I am doing my first 50K at Oil Creek on October 16th. I know what you mean about the ghosts. I have been up to OC 5 times so far to train. I haven't even been out there in the dark and it can be pretty creepy!!

I volunteered for the Burning River 100 miler here in Cleveland this year. Just gotta get over that fear of the dark. Maybe someday.....

Amy said...

Wow great place to run and the race seems so exciting. Congratulation to the finishers.

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