Six weeks ago I had this compulsive idea to sign up for the Blues Cruise 50k Ultra Trail run. I found out about the race through a friend who had done it a few years ago and it has always been floating around in my mind. I really didn’t have any real intentions to do another race after finishing the Steelman Olympic Tri in August. I always wanted to try doing an ultra-running event and something finally jarred me to sign up for this one. I had already fallen pretty deeply into off-season mode at this point and had already gained about 13 lbs, so getting into greater-than-marathon shape would be a bit of a stretch. I changed my goal to basically building up some longer than marathon endurance and not really focus on speed. Instead, I would just enjoy the being out on the trail for the day.
My weekly training for the race consisted of more difficult hour trail run, a bit slower less technical run, then one longer LSD run on Saturday, followed by another hour run the Sunday to shake out the previous days run. Rest days would be sprinkled in between. The long Saturday runs started out at 2.5 hours and worked up to around 4.5 hours before tapering a week out from the event. I have to say I really enjoyed getting off the road and into the woods for my training runs. I am fortunate to have a ski area a couple miles from my home that has some pretty technical mountain biking trails that make for serious trail running. Along with a few face plants and turned ankles. Trail running will quickly teach you to lift your feet.
I also had a week of vacation in Asheville, NC thrown in there which was a help. If you are not familiar with Asheville, it is a very outdoorsy and active place. There are vast amount excellent mountain biking trails in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest just outside of the city which make for fabulous trail running. So I was able to log some good miles down there trail running and mountain biking. We had planned this trip before I signed up for the race, but it could not have worked out better. I would also recommend picking up Trish Browns’ book “Asheville Trail Running: Taking Bent Creek and the Mountains-to-sea Stride” which is a great resource for the trails down there.
On Sunday, October 4th I headed down to Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, PA for my first trail ultramarathon. I hadn’t overly advertised that I was doing this event since I didn’t have any great expectations about my performance. I just wanted to complete it in whatever time it took. It is the off-season and this was to just be something fun and different to do. I heard that the ultra running scene is a bit more laid back and fun compared to the typical road running scene where people are obsessed with times and pace. That sounded a bit more my style and I was looking forward to it. Also, the thought of running in the woods all day sounded like a lot of fun. Wow…running just for the fun of it? What a concept?!
When I arrived at the lake, I followed another car into the Dry Brooks Day Use area where the race start was located. I followed him down to a parking lot where people were setting up some tables and tents. I was surprised to see that we were the first runners there. This was really odd given I was only an hour earlier than the start of the race. I thought “Wow…this really is laid back!” After I made a trip to the port-O-john, the guy from the other car asked if I was running in the race. I said “Yes.” He said, “I don’t think this is for the race.” Just after the words left his mouth a lady below yelled “Are you guys here for the race?” She then followed up with “it is down below closer to the lake.” Doh! So we drove around the other parking lots and finally found the one with the race start on the other side of the hill. There was a race sign down the road with an arrow on it, but it was past the point where we had made a left turn. Not a great placement.
Despite being a little later now, there still was not a large amount of racers in the parking lot. I headed over to the bib pickup table to get my race number(#295) and some swag. We got a really nice, soft long-sleeved tech shirt and a running hat plus some race flyers and RoadId coupons in the bag. We would also get a long sleeve 3/4-zip pullover for finishing the event. A pretty good deal considering it was only a $70 race. I have done tri’s costing double that and got much less.
It was a relatively cool & cloudy morning ranging in the low 50’s(F) which was perfect for a run. We had recently gotten a ton of rain in the last week, so I had no idea how muddy the trails were going to be. Fortunately, it stopped the day before and was holding off for the day. The forecast actually showed a high of 60 and partly cloudy with a bit of wind. I hung out in the car and just chilled while more people rolled into the venue. I told my wife Denise not to come because I didn’t want her to have to sit around there for what would probably be about 6 hours or so and it was silly to drive two cars there. I told her I would post updates on my Instagram and also turn on the Live Tracking feature on my Garmin 920xt so she could watch my progress in real time. That is if it worked this time and I had cell coverage.
At 8:10 I started getting ready. I was carrying my running Camelbak which was stocked with a few Amrita Bars and some Osmos Hydration mix packets which I was trying out. I also had a drop bag that I would pickup at the 18-mile aid station. I packed a PB&J, some rice chips, Skratch hydration mix and a fresh pair of socks. I had purchased a pair of CEP compression socks a couple days before the race, which I got more for the protection from the elements than the compression. I packed the other pair of socks in case I didn’t like the high compression socks.
And We’re Off…
I headed over to the race start, dropped off my drop-bag along the way, and lined up at the back of the start line. I snapped a quick selfie to let my wife know it was starting. It wasn’t long before they were calling out the last few seconds countdown to the start and then we were off.
The herd of around 400 runners gently ambled up the road and then broke off onto the trail. We then were down on “all fours” as we maneuvered under a gate that kept motor vehicles off the trail. It was starting to feel more like a steeplechase run than an ultra. I quickly regretted lining up so far back in the pack as I got stuck in a long line of slower runners as we made our way through the singletrack trails. I kept trying to spot some passing area ahead while still maintaining some view of the immediate trail coming underfoot. In hindsight, getting behind some slower runners may have been a good thing since it kept me from going out too fast.
Trail running is a whole different animal compared to road running. Not only do you have to pay attention to the typical personal things while running but you also have roots, rocks and hills to deal with. Not to mention other runners in front of you, which only gives you a split second to make decisions or else you are doing a face plant in the dirt. If you are not focused and in-the-moment while trail running, you will be done pretty quickly. And not in a good way. In addition, you most likely have a few pounds of water strapped to you and anything else you need to carry along. The aid stations are usually a bit more spread out due to the inaccessibility to the trails.
The First 10 Miles
The first 10 miles were pretty easy. The terrain was fairly flat and once I got past the slower folks I was able to pick up my pace a bit. My mile splits decreased down to a 10min/mi pace by my 10th mile. I did get slowed down by a bee sting on the back of my right calf and I turned my ankle about 3 times. I thought my new socks had a tag or pin poking in the leg, but I eventually realized I had been stung. The socks did a good job of protecting me from the weeds hanging over the trail, but they don’t do much against bees.
I also have a bad left ankle that frequently rolls on my for no apparent reason. This usually happens on flat terrain too, so I can never blame it on something when it happens and I just have to look stupid. Well, it didn’t fail to happen 3 times on the flattest part of the race. The last one really hurt too and I wasn’t sure if I would recover from it. Of course, it happened when I was in the middle of a long line of runners and everyone was asking if I was ok. It did eventually shake out and I continued on.
Photos at 7-mile point compliments of funwithphotos.smugmug.com
I took in extra water at each aid station along with some pieces of boiled potatoes with salt on them. In between aid stops I would nibble on an Amrita Bar that I neatly stashed into the little pocket on my Camelbak strap. I would slurp some water from the hydration pack routinely as I ran along. I was eager to drain it to get some weight off my hips, but I guess that would require taking a pee which I only did once.
Things Start to Get More Difficult
So much for the easy stuff. At mile 10 I finally encountered the much-anticipated hill known by mountain bikers as “The Judge.” On Strava it is known as the Stump Ln Climb. I have ridden it, or should I say walked my bike up it before, so I knew what I was in for. It averages a 14% grade of 3/10’s of a mile but has sections that are almost up to 30% grade. Going down the other side was no treat either. It was a little more of a switchback trail which helped level out the steepness.
Things started to get a bit tougher from the “The Judge” on. We climbed about 1000 feet in elevation gain over the next 6 miles, where we only about 800 in the first 10 miles. My pace started to creep back into the 11-12 min/mile range. My plan was to walk fast up the hills, bomb the downhills and steady on the flats. I started getting some tightness in my hip flexors which was fighting for my attention. I tried to ignore it and figured it would go away eventually or just be replaced by something else that hurt more.
I hit the mile 18 aid station and they retrieved my drop bag for me. I was really that hungry for my PB&J but could feel some hydration setting in. I was starting to accumulate some salt which was quite visible on my black Amrita tech shirt. I poured a Skratch Labs Lemon-Lime Matcha pack into my hydration bladder and topped it off with some water. I crushed my bag of rice chips and funneled it down my throat. I also snagged some more potatoes which taste so good during an endurance event. The mile 18 aid station is the one with the ladies in the German Lederhosen outfits, so I was in no rush to leave.
Eventually, I left mile 18 aid station and pushed on. After mile 20, things started really tightening up and hurt a bit. The 1300 additional feet of climbing we did over the next 10 miles surely didn’t help at all. I was also starting to cramp up in my inner thigh/groin area which I thought was odd for running. This would be more expected playing hockey or something with a skating motion, but not running. I finally had to give in and stop to stretch it out. I watched a handful of people that I had passed earlier trot by me. One guy who I had been running with most of the day went by and held his hands up saying “what’s going on?” That was a bit heart-breaking.
In Familiar Territory
I finally reached the dam spillway that feeds the Tulpehocken Creek which is familiar territory. I knew I was only a couple miles from the finish at that point and I was relieved. I also realized that the sun had come out and it was a particularly nice day. The nice breeze kept the temperature in the perfect running temperature zone. We spilled out onto the road that leads into the parking lot for the dam but it was mostly uphill. Everyone in front of me was walking and I succumbed to the peer pressure and joined them. The pavement just hurt. My feet hurt with every step. I could have really used a pair of Hoka’s right now. I was now looking forward to getting back on the trail again. Never happy!
We came to a sign that marked the entry back to the trail and made a sharp left which led to another steep climb up a grassy hill. Ugh! I started to run again as I reached the top of the hill. It was a good thing too. As I made my way around the hill I saw a trucker hat with the Wyoming bucking horse symbol on it. My foggy mind even recognized that hat! Under it emerged my wife Denise who decided to surprise me by driving out and meeting me on the trail. It was the push I needed to get me through the last mile or two. We ran together back to the parking lot that she parked at and then I continued on.
As I crossed the driveway a few equestrians were coming up the drive as well. One tried to shortcut me to the trail but I managed to beat them to it. I pushed on and back into a more wooded section again. The equestrians caught up to me again and were running up my back. I decided to let them pass since it seemed like they were going faster than I. They were not very friendly when they passed me and they slowed down again after they passed me. I was coming right up the back of them and it was looking as if I would have to pass them. At the last minute, they sped up and then I never had to deal with them again.
We crossed another driveway and Denise was standing there snapping a couple more pictures as I slowly ambled by. I knew this was the drive that I rode in on the morning to get to the race start so I knew I was almost there. We ran along a farm field and I saw a couple guys standing along the trail with finishers shirts on cheering us on. We made a quick left after that and then I recognized the start/finsh line area. I passed one other guy before the finish who looked like he was struggling a bit.
I finally reached the grassy area before the finish line and there quite a few people there cheering the finishers on. Right before I got to the finish line, a little girl came running across in front of me(see her in pic below) oblivious that I was coming. I had to slow down and grab her by the shoulder so she didn’t run into me. Everyone got a laugh out of it though. I crossed the line in 6:29:25, which was a tad bit slower than I had hoped, but I can’t ask for much since I only started training for it 6 weeks before. I was happy just to have completed the distance and was able to enjoy the day. I am hoping my legs will keep that endurance in their muscle memory so the next time I do an Ironman Marathon it will seem short.
Finish Photos compliments of funwithphotos.smugmug.com
Given this was my first “ultra” distance running event, one of the first questions I thought to myself and my wife asked was “Will you do another one?” I think probably will. I already started searching on UltraSignup.com. I don’t know if I will do the same race or even the same distance, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. I like being off-road and in the woods and I like the more laid back culture of the people that participate in these events. I would like to do something in a place that is a bit more rugged and deeper forest. I would probably want to try a little longer distance such as a 40 or 50 miler. Even a 100k may not be out of the question.
Finish Photos compliments of funwithphotos.smugmug.com