Boulder Field 100km Recap

Lessons Learned from a first 100km Ultra Run - 9/10/22 - Hickory Run State Park, PA

This was a doozy… my first 100km race.

Following my first ever 50km last December, I decided to make this jump to see what I’m truly capable of. The allure of ultra running for me has been about finding my breaking point, and then breaking it. I knew the physical demands would be high but I also knew that my mental fortitude has been tested many times in different ways to be prepared. 

I’d like to preface this by saying life, family and unforeseen circumstances impacted my training regiment heavily. But so goes life, and quite frankly, I am aware that no one “has it easy”. So for measure, what should have been a typical 5-6 month build to 70mile weeks with multiple 20+ mile long runs came up short on my end.  I did get the chance to run one 24miler bringing my highest weekly mileage to 62. Because of this, I entered this race with a reasonable bit of doubt about finishing this without hobbling over the finish line.  

At the start - feeling excited

So anyways, the race kicked off at 5am which meant the first 1.5hr was under headlamp. The trails at Hickory Run state park are notoriously rocky, rooted and keep you busy constantly scanning for hazards. However, there were plenty of old jeep roads that made for more convenient paced miles. The first 13 was enjoyable, other than a few kicked rocks early on leaving my left toes well on their way to banged up. Also at this point I already felt pretty sluggish, with the sensation of possible muscle cramping beginning. It was alarming because my pacing felt too conservative to fall to the thoughts of seizing up this early in the race. Around miles 14-15 I made a bathroom stop and when I came out I got mixed into the 18miler heat that went off at 730am. All the sudden it became really easy to keep up with a majority of runners at a faster pace that I should have picked.  

The first Boulder field crossing around mile 20 was a great change of scenery and my legs started to feel slightly better. There was a good bit of walking after this section where running seemed suicidal from the fear of tripping and falling over jagged rocks. Not to mention, my kicked stone tally was easily in the double digits at this point - almost as if my left foot now had a honing beacon for immovable stones. I came out of Boulder Field with 2 other 100k runners which was nice to have the casual conversations about training, family and our likes. More walking ensued in the late 20s and just before the half way point. My feet were very achey and my ego was a bit bruised to see the 1st place 50k runner pass me with a half mile to the finish/turn around point. Just for perspective the 100k field had a 2 hour head stat on the 50k runners. 

Feeling it - somewhere around 5.5 hours in.

At the gear drop I made a shoe/sock change, lubed up my feet, rubbed my legs down quick, changed my shirt and grabbed more fuel for lap 2. I was feeling hopeful, but only to combat the level of doubt that was rapidly creeping in. Some of my slowest miles accumulated through the 30s and I took an unfortunate spill around 34-35 starting with of course, another kicked rock buried deep in the ground. Fortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing rolling and when I felt my knees give out I instinctively rolled through my shoulder and kept my arms tucked in. Everything went flying, as we like to yell when snowboarding, I had a “yard sale!”.  Head phones, sunglasses and even a tiny part of my soul left my body for a moment. I checked for injuries, to which thankfully I found none. So, I picked up my gear and walked for a good mile. What pissed me off the most, was the fact I was fully present, listening to some music for the first time in 2+ hours and was going very slow. But for some reason I still couldn’t pick my foot high enough to miss these stones. I had later learned that one racer had actually fallen and succumbed to a fractured wrist/forearm from reaching out with their hand to break their fall. If you're reading this and plan to take up trail running - learn how to fall and roll!

After my fall, I started hiking and tried to admire the forest.

Feeling deflated, I hoped the 30s would magically somehow be over with. By time I hit the 40mile mark I succumbed to my old man shuffle which might as well been a power walk. I knew at this point I could finish before the cut off time even if I walked 2 miles for every 1 jogging. To say this point of the race was miserable would be an understatement. Everything hurt and the questions of why I’m doing this, what it will be like when it’s over and how the next 20miles would be were consuming. I’d practiced so many mindfulness techniques but up until this point I hadn’t used any of them. I basically spent the last 2 hours in and out of cursing it to be over and “I’ll make it somehow”.  

After the second Boulder field crossing around mile 50, something shifted. I knew there was a horrible rocky section coming up that forced me to keep a strong hiking pace. As soon as that single track cleared to the gravel road I changed my intention to stay present and actually run. I questioned all the reasons I was moving at a snails pace. I wasn’t injured. Yes, everything hurt and my brain was scrambling. Yes I felt inside out from fatigue, back ache and sore muscles. But there was no reason I couldn’t run other than physiological discomfort causing my mind to tap out.

2nd Boulder Field Crossing

I finally got present with myself and counted every other step up until 4. Then I repeated, over and over again. Suddenly the thoughts of the future and past were unable to distract me and my mind was busy on the next 4 steps. I’ve used this wonderful technique before and it’s quite amazing how the breath will sync up with your steps. And before you know it a huge meditative process sinks in and you are in flow. No pain. No problems. Just joy of right now, running down the mountain. My feet all of the sudden felt nimble, supportive and much more strong. I opened my heart up to the possibility of actually running the last 12. From mile 51 on I kept an actual running pace and passed about 7 other racers all in disbelief that this guy was running past their hobbling jog and walk (no judgement; as this was me for the previous 2 hours). 

One pair of racers actually asked me “what’s the secret?”.  I replied with some BS inspirational quote: “it’s mind over matter” & “ you just have to deal with everything else after the race”. And although some of that’s true, I think the better response was “there is no secret”. You have it in you, you just have to get your mind out of the way. And that’s where the counting helped me. 

The last aid station was surprised to see me come running in as the lady said “Whoa! How can we help you?”. I grabbed a couple snacks and carried on to which she said “There’s a few more not far ahead of you”. Thinking back on this I never really cared what place I finished, I just wanted to be done. Passing racers was merely a byproduct of me focusing to stay present. Miles 55,56, and 60 were some of my fastest splits ranging from 7:25 to 9:27. This mental feeling of the finish line approaching always has a positive outcome on pace and I find it interesting that most runners can achieve their fastest miles even after succumbing to hours of slow, pain staking miles just prior. 

I crossed the finish line at 13 hours and 40minutes without the overwhelming cramping in my muscles or hobbling form that I pictured at the start of lap 2. This is something, I still don’t have a great explanation for. I think nutrition/hydration strategies were fair but not optimal. Part of me wants to believe that the intense running I did brought such a strong euphoria/dopamine release that it helped me push any lactic acid out through the sheer force of movement that I sustained for 80minutes. I was surprised to learn I finished 7th overall and 3rd in my age group. For my first 100k this was certainly a rewarding experience. I came away feeling like I may never run that distance again but also in awe of the capability I pulled out. 

Really Surprised to walk away with an age group placing.

Lesson learned, it doesn’t matter how you start, only how you finish as the popular race phrase goes; “Finish Strong!”. And the possibility that you finish with a great ending is there if you chose it. You just have to let your mind get out of the way. 

Finally, I would like to end this recap with a million recognitions to the people that ran the show. To the aid station volunteers and everyone involved putting this event together you were some of the most supportive people I know. Even the random strangers who were out for a hike and gave a lot of cheer, respect and praise - Thank you! 

I feel grateful to this running community.