Glacier Ridge 30k Trail Race (or, A Race in Two Parts)

I am not one to believe in omens, but it hard not to when I looked out the window of the inn in Portersville where we spent the night, I watched six vultures circling just above our van. The skies were cloudy, and it was windy and chilly. Good weather for running, I suppose, but it certainly chilly as I scrambled around the start area on Lake Arthur signing in and pinning my number on the front of my shorts. As we lined up in the start grid, I went over my plan–don’t go out quickly, don’t do something stupid like trying to follow Jason and Drew. Just run my race, and remember that I needed to cover 19 miles. Time wasn’t important; finishing was. I needed to take care of my knees on the descents, and make up my time on the climbs. Easy enough.

Then the horn blew, and we were off. I settled in behind Drew and Cynthia, and it didn’t feel like we were moving too quickly along the mile or so of bike path that lead to the Glacier Ridge Trail. Then someone said we were hitting around 8:30 a mile. Not ideal, though it feel reasonable. Reasonable at mile one, however, is not likely sustainable over 19. I did not, however, slow down, feeling like I should stay on Drew’s heels. Soon enough, we hit the single track, and the first bit of climbing. There had some speculation at the end of the week as to how muddy the course might be after several days of (sometimes heavy) rain. Roughly 300 yards into the woods, we found the answer–it was muddy. We slipped up the hill, passing a few folks, and then settled into a good rhythm on the single track. The trail continued to rise gently, and we hit a nice section of gently rolling trail on generally dry dirt.

We reached the crest of the ridge, and the trail headed down, down down. The first bit wasn’t terribly steep, but I slowed down and kept my stride under control, hoping to keep my knees happy for as long as possible. We turned a corner, and the muddy trail began in earnest. Calling it muddy may actually be a bit generous–at one point, a stream was flowing down the middle of the single track. After about a hundred yards, I realized attempting to keep my feet out of the muddy was folly, and I embraced the ankle-deep mud and water. Drew and I splashed along, followed by a two other fellows. The flow of the course readily became apparent–a 300 or 400 foot climb to a ridge, followed by a descent, followed by yet another ridge climb. Nearly every section of trail had a stretch of rather deep, nasty mud, some worse than others. My knees felt relatively good–a bit sore, but no sharp pain–but, thanks to the copious mud, my hips were quite sore.

At this point, we passed through one of the nicest sections of trail–a brief, perhaps quarter mile stretch through a stand of pines. The trail was mercifully dry, and covered with pine needles. It was pleasant to be under the cover of trees that were not barren, the trail was smooth. I even managed to enjoy this on the return leg, when all else was lost. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Drew and I hit the shore of Lake Arthur, and there, in the distance, was the 528 bridge where the turnaround (and main aid) was located. We were hopeful for a moment, then remembered that a rather large climb protected the aid, and soon enough, the trail twisted up the hill, climbing steadily to the ridge. This section of trail was dry, and as we hit the top, we found a long stretch of flat-ish, dry trail. It was however, rocky and technical, and at this point, my hips were really sore, and affecting my pace on the rocks. At this point, I knew things were heading south a bit, but I also held on to some small hope that I could turn things around at the aid. As we approached the descent into the aid, we were passed by the leaders coming the other direction, and this helped my pace for a bit, but as we hit the final steep bit before the aid, the elastic snapped a bit and Drew scampered ahead. I shuffled into the aid, stuffed a handful of Pringles into my mouth, and filled my bottle. I told Drew I was going to head out, knowing full well that stopping for any length of time might cause my legs to seize up.

At this point, I was happy to have the lengthy climb out of the aid simply to walk and, hopefully, get my legs back. I maintained a decent power hike, and soon enough I was on the ridge, watching a rather large collection of runners come the other direction, heading into the aid. Fortunately for my legs, the course looped to the right, avoiding the worst of the rocks, but still, it didn’t take long for Drew to catch me, and on the descent to the lake shore, drop me. At this point, I was okay with development, feeling that I needed to manage my own pace to reach the finish. Settling in behind me were two other runners, and both seemed mostly content to follow my pace. The older fellow even suggested we had a good pace, and, after all, we were just trying to make the finish cut-off.

Up and down we went, and with several hundred runners passing over these trails, the mud was even worse. There were long, long stretches of alternately thick muck and water, cold flowing water. Over my ankles. I’m not sure how I didn’t fall on my face . At this point, we hiked quite a bit of the trail, including several flat stretches. I was mostly happy about this, because my hips were really, really sore, and running, well, it wasn’t fun. At all. Early in the race, Drew asked if I wanted to do a marathon at some point, and, being only a few miles into the course, said “sure, yeah.” At this point, I never wanted to run more than a few miles, and wanted to the race to be over. The mud and climbs gave me ample opportunity to hike, but as we hit a long descent approaching the climb to the final aid, the elastic fully snapped, and my erstwhile running partners ran off into the distance, and I was alone. I shuffled down the hill, cursing the thick, deep mud and wishing I was back at the van. I gamely trotted along the flatter, drier bits, but the descents or climbs were always welcome excuses to walk. Heck, at this point, I was even walking some of the flatter bits. What a mess.

As I was approaching the last long climb before the finish, a runner zoomed by on my left. I didn’t see his number, but I hoped he wasn’t in the 30k, because given his speed, he must have gotten lost, otherwise he should be winning the race. Later, I realized he was in the 50k. I really can’t comprehend how quickly he climbed that rise. After 30 miles of running.

I took heart, however, in two things. First, I still had a good shot at finishing around four hours, which was my target. Second, despite my utter lack of anything resembling actual running, there was no one in sight behind me. Apparently going out far too quickly has some benefits. I hit the final aid, filled my bottle, and sucked down a gel. I continued by hike a bit, run a bit routine. Through one flat bit, I pulled over the trail to water the bushes. For roughly a mile or so, I was debating whether I should I even pull over–at this late point in the race, the chances of my right knee stiffening up were high, so there was a risk I would stop my forward movement never to start again. I decided to take my chances, and, sure enough, when I hopped back on the trail, my right knee didn’t want to bend much at all. I limped along the trail for a bit, convinced that now it would be hard to even make the time cut-off (even though I had roughly two hours in pocket). I stopped for a moment, bent over, and tried to loosen up my leg. A runner trotted by and asked if I was okay. “Yep, just stiff.” After a few more minutes, I could bend my knee again, and I broke into an on-again, off-again shuffle.

I figured I was approaching the last bit of trail, as I slipped down the initial hill. At this point, someone finally caught and passed me, but why did I care? I was almost finished. I turned on the road, and at this point figured I had roughly a mile or so to go. The last mile, however, seemed to go on forever. A few folks from the 50k race passed me, going rather quickly for having run over 30 miles. Another 30k runner caught me, and as we hit a small rise on the pavement, I had to walk, again, and he trotted off. Another runner trotted by just after. At this point, really I didn’t care, I smelled the barn and just wanted to finish. I didn’t even care if I walked across the finish line. The last section of gravel trail was interminable, looping in and out of the woods. Was it really this long at the start of the race? Seriously? As the trail flattened out, I broke yet again into a jog, and perhaps even sped up a bit as I saw the parking area, knowing the finish line was just around corner. I looked at my watch and realized I probably wouldn’t make it under four hours, but I’d be just over, and I was okay with that. In fact, I was okay with anything as long as it meant I didn’t have to run any more. As I approached the line, it never even occurred to me to look at the clock, but I was finished. Finished. No more running.

A day later and I’m reasonably sore. My hips are still quite unhappy. I’m looking forward to taking a week or two (or three) off, and riding my bike to work again. As for doing another long trail race, well, we’ll see. I’m sure by the summer I will have forgotten the misery, and I’ll sign up for something. Whether I’ll do this race next year is a different question. I had high hopes for good conditions, but this is spring in western Pennsylvania, so expecting good conditions is simply folly. I’m not sure I want to suffer through another mudfest next year, though, from what I’ve heard, according to recent history, the race is due dry conditions next year. The course, aside from the mud, was really great. We ran nearly 16 miles of pure single track. The climbs were reasonable, but they were many. Race direction was top notch, and the course was well-marked. The mud? Not so much fun.