FORKSVILLE, Pa. – The howl of cheering voices and clatter of cowbells in the distance echoed off the hemlock and hardwoods, joining the patter of raindrops and squishing of footsteps in the mud as the only sounds in the forest on this damp, dark night.
The finish line was less than a mile away; within earshot, it felt tantalizingly close. I’d be there soon, if I could just navigate this final windy descent.
“Chris! Be careful!” implored Alex, my girlfriend and pacer, who followed 20 feet behind me, watching as I slipped and stumbled along the muddy, rocky trail. The beam from my Black Diamond headlamp cut through a dense fog, revealing that the singletrack had eroded into half-track, with barely six inches of width available for foot placement. I grabbed trees to my left for support as the ground to my right crumbled and disappeared down the hillside.
I was running on fumes; drunk on Gatorade and exhaustion. This was the final – and most harrowing – battle with a course that had proven to be every bit the beast that I anticipated when I signed up back in January. I wanted to take on a race unlike any I’d ever attempted, with a course that would test me mentally and physically every step of the way and dare me to quit. I wanted to stare failure in the eye and see if I would blink.
Now, after nearly 18 hours of running, hiking, and climbing in the Endless Mountains on the Loyalsock Trail and the Worlds End 100K course, the staring contest was about to end in a tie – and, as is the case in baseball, the tie goes to the runner.
Staring Down Temptation
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources describes Worlds End State Park as “Virtually in a class by itself, this wild, rugged and rustic area seems almost untamed.” The Worlds End race directors even issued a warning: “This is NOT a beginner-level ultra and participation in the race should not be taken lightly.” I spent three months reading those descriptions daily; tempted by the words; wondering if I’d have the guts to actually sign up to take on my longest race ever on some of the gnarliest terrain in America. Upon giving into temptation and registering, I read that description nightly, taunted by it and haunted by it.
When not working, logging miles on the trail or putting in work with my physical therapist to get my left foot healthy enough to race, I studied the course obsessively. I read every race report, absorbed every social media comment about the course, and looked at every photo I could find of the trail in hopes that I’d be just a little bit better prepared.
Staring at a course with 12,400 feet of vertical gain, an endless supply of large rocks scattered throughout, and rain in the forecast, I knew this would be the most technically difficult trail I’d stepped on anywhere in the world. I was prepared for that. I’d done enough work physically that I believed my legs could get me to the finish line. Most critical to success, in my estimation, would be mental toughness. The course was supposed to be slow with lots of steep climbs, few switchbacks, mud, and a tons of mind- and toe-numbing rocks. Long stretches of hiking would be required, but I’d read that the course also offered up opportunities to open up and run. Could I be mentally tough enough to endure all of the obstacles, stay on top of my hydration and nutrition, remain positive during the rough patches, and still stay focused enough to spot every opportunity the course gave and exploit it to my advantage?
I was about to find out.
At 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, May 21, Race Director David Walker reminded us of the course markings and briefed us on course conditions (It wasn’t yet hot enough to be worried about rattlesnakes; bears had been seen on the course every day that week; don’t run into porcupines; and the last mile … the last mile’s going to hurt). Once he was done speaking, we gathered at the starting line and, at 5 a.m., he sent us down the trail.
The “Warm-Up Loop”
At a glance, the Worlds End course appears to be two loops. The smaller loop encompasses the first 19.3 miles of the race and ends a short walk from the start/finish area, followed by the larger loop covering the final 44.5 miles. The course is backlogged with the biggest climbs coming later in the race. Basically, as the course grinds you down, the terrain also gets harder.
Based on that assessment, I – wrongly – referred to the first 19.3 miles as the “warm-up loop.” I carried two handheld bottles and no pack for this stretch of the course, hoping to get ahead on my fluids while moving faster and keeping my core temperature low. The bottles worked well, but it turned out that section of the course was plenty difficult and much more slow-going than I’d anticipated.
There were few opportunities to exploit during the early miles of the race. Whether it was a 450-foot climb up a rockfall barely a mile into the race, or an 850-foot climb up a boulder field around mile four, or a muddy scramble up a steep, muddy slope along the side of a waterfall at mile seven, the part of the course that I assumed would be the “easiest” was anything but “easy.”
I hiked aggressively on the climbs, recognizing that a split was already forming in the field. I stayed in close contact with the faster crowd early to avoid letting myself get lulled into too slow a pace where I’d be forced to chase cutoffs later in the day. My pace wasn’t what I’d envisioned—perhaps two minutes per mile slower—but I used it as an opportunity to get ahead on hydration. I constantly sipped on my handhelds, popped salt caps every 40 minutes, and kept my heart rate in a comfortable zone.
I reached Aid Station 1 (mile 4.3) in a little over an hour, and got to Aid Station 2, Sones Pond (mile 10.3), in 2:18. I was nearly 20 minutes behind where I thought I’d be, but right where I needed to be. I felt fresh, relaxed, and happy. There was a long way to go, but I was in a good place mentally.
The 5.6 miles between Sones Pond and Aid Station 3 at Devil’s Garden provided the best running of the short loop. The first 3 1/2 miles were downhill on smooth singletrack, with only a few rocks and fallen trees to hop over. It was one of the first opportunities given by the course, and I ran all of it at a relaxed pace (around 11:30 per mile) and made good time. The final two miles to the aid station included 700 feet of gain, but the singletrack continued to flow so I took advantage and ran most of it, power-hiking when necessary with hands on my quads for support.
A light drizzle began to fall as I neared Devil’s Garden, and it would continue for the remainder of the race. It was never enough to soak my singlet; just enough to keep my body temperature cooler since humidity didn’t accompany the rain.
I paused at Devil’s Garden just long enough to refill my handhelds and down some pretzels and chips. I took a fig bar with me, and ate it as I hiked down the trail. The final 3 1/2 miles of the short loop were downhill, but – like most of the early part of the course – they were slower than I’d anticipated. A mile of rocky but runnable singletrack led to a long, steep, rocky descent of a boulder field. I moved quickly but patiently, grabbing onto trees for support while hopping from rock to rock. This section required both caution and aggression to safely pass without losing too much time. Finally, with the rocks behind me, the course hugged the rocky bank of Kettle Creek for about a mile before reemerging at Aid Station 4 (mile 19.3). Alex met me there, and I swapped out my handhelds for a hydration vest.
Nearly 4:25 had elapsed and 3,500 feet of climbing was behind me. The “warm-up loop” was done.
Highs and Lows
Switching from handhelds to a vest was a mistake. I knew it within a half-mile of making the change. During that half-mile long, steep 350-foot climb, I felt the pack sticking to my ribs. It constricted my breathing a bit, and I heated up quickly. This hadn’t happened during training runs with the vest on, and it was too late to switch back to bottles. I’d told Alex I was done with them, and she was hitching a ride ahead with another runner’s crew so she could pace me starting at mile 35.8.
Making matters worse, although I’d gotten so far ahead on my fluids that my stomach was sloshing a bit, I hadn’t eaten enough solid food during the first part of the race. Now, with the pack putting pressure on my sides, I didn’t want to eat anything. I nibbled on granola bars, fig bars, and chips, but I wasn’t getting nearly enough calories from food. I continued to hike hard, but my energy levels were starting to slip.
The 350-foot climb was followed promptly by another short but steep climb before beginning a 600-foot march up to Aid Station 5, Canyon Vista, at mile 22.2. All told, the 1,100 feet of gain over 2.9 miles had my heart pumping fast enough that I happily paused to soak up the hard-earned vista view while catching my breath. After refueling and chowing on a few quarters of grilled cheese, I grabbed a fig bar to snack on while hiking down the trail.
The next 5.5 miles to Aid Station 6, Coal Mine, went by quickly. Other than a few short climbs, the section was mostly easy running. Also, I’d met a group of the Coal Mine volunteers the night before, and they were planning to have an all-day party in the woods. I looked forward to feeding off of their enthusiasm. I first heard their hollering echoing through the woods when I was two miles away. It steadily grew louder with each step. Tom Petty was cranking on the radio – “Running Down a Dream” – when I arrived, greeted by smiles, high-fives, and tons of positive words of encouragement. I jokingly asked for a beer (which they were ready to hand me) before opting for Gatorade and a hot ham and cheese sandwich. Their service was first-class, although they made sure I didn’t linger too long. There was a lot of race left to go, and I had 8.1 more miles to cover before the next aid station where Alex would hop in to pace me.
I never cracked mentally at any point during the race, but the next stretch nearly broke me.
The adrenaline rush from the Coal Mine crew carried me through the next few miles. The Loyalsock Trail hugged the side of Ketchum Run, providing some jaw-dropping scenery only earned by putting the legs to work. I climbed the wooden ladder up the side of Rode Falls, enjoyed a view of the waterfall crashing into a pool a just a dozen or so feet to my right, and continued down the trail. A 600-foot descent encompassed most of the next two miles, followed by two climbs of about 600 feet and 500 feet before reaching the aid station.
It was during those climbs that my energy levels crashed. I did the best I could during the first climb to keep running on any portion where the singletrack was smooth and the incline was gradual, but otherwise I was reduced to a hike. I was only able to hike the second climb, due partially to the steepness of the grade – at least 20 degrees – but mostly due to my body powering down. Three or four runners passed me, including one using poles (they would have been handy on a lot of this course). I grew angry at myself for not eating enough, but couldn’t force down a granola bar. I tried to distract my mind by focusing on my breathing … long, deep breaths in, followed by a slow release. My breathing set a rhythm for my power-hiking, and I marched ahead. Finally, the trail popped out onto a road that led to the High Knob aid station.
Alex was waiting for me. A chair was waiting for me. I needed to take a load off for a few minutes.
I’d made it to High Knob in around 8:50, a comfortable three hours ahead of the cutoff. I’d built a nice cushion on the clock and positioned myself well to finish the race as long as I avoided doing anything catastrophic.
The Long Haul
Not eating enough during a mountain race in the wilderness would qualify as “doing something catastrophic.” (And I certainly know a thing or two about ultra catastrophes …)
“You’re not leaving until you eat all of this,” Alex ordered, handing me a bowl full of chips, fruit, and a sandwich. “You aren’t eating enough to replace the calories that your body is burning on all of the climbs.”
I didn’t want any of it, but her demands were on-point and likely saved my race. I took my time, slowly chewed and washed it down with a few cups of ginger ale. I spent 15 minutes in the chair, eating, resting, and rejuvenating for the final 28 miles. These calories were critical. The longest climbs were still to come.
But first … the longest descent of the day.
Returning to the trail, with Alex now joining me as a pacer, the first steps back on the course were on a 35-40-degree drop-down to the trail. The ground leveled off briefly before we reached another steep drop-down with a rope for support. From there, singletrack and a rocky doubletrack road headed down for about two miles and 1,100 feet. The miles came easy as my body processed the mini-feast I’d just consumed and slowly converted it to useful energy. I felt my reserves recharge as we neared the bottom of the hill, and just in time. I’d heard that miles 38-54 were the worst part of the course, and my Garmin was at 37.9.
A two-mile-long, mostly straight-up, 1,000-foot ascent loomed ahead. It was an incline firmly in the “not runnable” category, so I attacked it with aggressive hiking. Hands on quads, my strides matched the rhythm of focused breathing. The whistling of birds, patter of raindrops, and light clatter of rocks underfoot joined the sound of long, slow breaths in and drawn-out exhales in disrupting what was otherwise a silent climb. I was tired, my stomach wasn’t happy, and my toes were in agony from getting pummeled on the downhills and crushed against so many large rocks; but my mind was locked-in. I was quietly managing everything: my heart rate, emotions, identifying areas to run and make time – even if just for a quarter-mile or so.
My head was still in the game.
A windy, nearly 500-foot descent through rocky and sometimes boggy terrain led down to Aid Station 8 at Dry Run (mile 41.6). I spent 10 minutes there, sipping on ginger ale while Alex made me eat a grilled cheese sandwich. I took a fig bar for the road.
After ascending another 500-foot climb, we enjoyed a few miles of rolling trail that was a mixture of nice singletrack, big rocks, and boggy, decomposing leaves and mud. Finally, a 700-foot climb, followed by a 700-foot descent brought us to Aid Station 10 at Brunnerdale, mile 50. My energy was fading again, so I headed straight to a chair and plopped down.
I spent the next 20 minutes refueling for the home stretch. I guzzled three cups of ginger ale, and downed two cups of chicken noodle soup to go with a grilled cheese sandwich. Alex sorted through my pack and ditched any unnecessary weight, and refilled my bottles.
The rain was picking up, and dusk was closing in quickly. Nearly 14 hours had expired; it was time to go.
The final two climbs came during the next four miles. These were back-to-back, dig-your-toes-into-the-dirt steep climbs of 750 and 600 feet without the benefit of switchbacks. Hands back on my quads, I pushed hard. I wanted these climbs done before headlamps were necessary, and time was running out. As luck would have it, we left the aid station within about a minute of two other runners, Brian Stones, of Reading, Pa., and Eli Burakian, of Windsor, Vt. Both were chatting happily, hiking strong, and setting a steady pace. We latched on with them, intent to stay right on their heels and ride their momentum as long as we could. It took a little more than an hour, but we reached the top of the last climb, followed the trail into an open field, and on to a gravel road where we found a water drop (Aid Station 11) at mile 54.9. We pulled our headlamps out, and turned them on about three quarters of a mile later when the trail took us back into the woods.
Brian, Eli, Alex, and I made our way toward Aid Station 12, Fern Rock (mile 57.9), but it was slow going. The forest was pitch black, other than the narrow beams of our headlamps. Every few steps seemed to lead to another creek crossing. The trail was muddy with wet roots and large rocks scattered everywhere; this was broken-ankle territory. The finish line would be open for another 3 1/2 hours, and we were all willing to take our time in order to get there. Spotting reflective markers was a group effort, but eventually we made our way to Fern Rock. We didn’t linger long. Ready to be done, we slammed sodas and munched on grilled cheese, and then headed for the finish line.
Most of the final 5.9 miles was through clearings in the forest. The opportunity existed to move quicker, and Brian and Eli pulled away. A drizzle continued to fall, and a thick fog settled in. I hiked at about a 17-minute mile pace, content to protect my ankles, avoid drilling my toes into any more boulders, and finish the race largely unscathed. Eventually, the trail left the clearing and returned to the woods with a little more than a mile to go, and David Walker’s words from the pre-race briefing quickly came true.
“The last mile … the last mile’s going to hurt.”
My waddle-like hobble of a run lasted only a few steps before my eyes grew wide and I realized it was a bad idea. This was the start of a more than 700-foot descent, and a day-long drizzle had turned the singletrack trail into a muddy, rocky slip-n-slide. I could hear the finish line in the distance – Brian and Eli must be there now, I assumed – and I wanted to be there NOW.
The final descent was one of the few parts of the course with switchbacks, and the singletrack quickly deteriorated to half-track. There was plenty of evidence of dirt giving out under other runners’ feet, and I could feel it slipping beneath mine. Well-placed trees kept me on the trail until orange cones finally came into view. I was in the clear, and the finish line awaited. I ran through a tunnel under the road, along the edge of the parking lot, and down the path to where it all began.
Finally, with 17:56:48 expired, I raised my weary, mud-caked right leg one final time, grimaced, and stomped on the finish line. It was less a triumphant gesture, and more about getting in one small cheap shot at a course that bulled and battered me both physically and mentally for nearly 18 hours – but never beat me.
“Survival is Triumph Enough,” reads the slogan on the back of the Worlds End race T-shirt. That was true for me at this race. I wanted to take on a course that would push me to my limits physically and mentally and see how I’d respond. I finished; I survived; that was plenty good enough. Worlds End gave me exactly what I was looking for.