(5k, 10k, and Half-Marathon)
With everything being canceled due to the pandemic, it was surprising that these races were able to be held. Fortunately for the group of us from the Reading area that went, the pandemic had subsided in August allowing smaller gatherings, and the races went on.
We had heard about these races awhile back, and a group of us thought it would be fun to rent a lodge in Elk County, run some trail races, and enjoy the outdoors and time with our friends. The initial group was about 10 people; unfortunately the pandemic brought us down to 6. It worked out well, as we were able to keep relatively socially distant even though we were sharing a lodge together.
The races were held in Elk County, near the town of St. Mary’s. It is a beautiful part of PA, with gorgeous vistas where you might actually get a chance to see elk grazing in the fields. We were excited about the races, and for visiting this area and experiencing what it had to offer.
Our group arrived on Friday evening, and our first stop was the famous Straub Brewery in St. Mary’s. Dinner was excellent, and the beer was rather good as well. Might as well pick up a few six packs of beer for later! Straub has a decent variety, and the lo-cal IPA is pretty tasty!
We arrived at the lodge we rented, got settled in, and relaxed. Some stretching and foam rolling was needed to prepare for the races in the morning. Once everyone had gotten prepared, the group turned in for a good night’s sleep.
We got up on Saturday fairly early, as the 5k and 10k races were approximately 30 minutes away at Parker Dam State Park. It is a lovely facility, with fishing, boating, camping, and, of course, trails for running. The races were primarily held on park roads which were a mixture of dirt, gravel, and pavement. The races were chip timed, and a “rolling start” allowed for social distancing during the race. Once you picked up your bib, you proceeded to the starting line and began the race.
The 5k was held on the main park road as an out-and-back course, with some hills. What’s a race without hills? (We’ll answer that later). The course ran past the lake and boating area, and was very well-run. Race times and results were to be posted on the Internet after the race and awards would be mailed. All of the fast runners in my age group must have slept in, as I finished in a little over 29 minutes and took first!
The 10k was held on the 5k course, but was extended on another park road for 1.55 miles. This was not the originally intended course, but trail conditions had forced the change. And the best part was that the extra 1.55 miles was all uphill! Nonetheless, we all managed to complete both races, with several of us bringing home age-group awards. Unfortunately, the fast guys showed up for the 10K, and I settled for third.
We returned back to our lodge for some breakfast and showers, then went off to tour the area in search of elk. The Elk Visitor’s Center is an excellently maintained facility, with walking trails and benches where visitors can watch for elk. Unfortunately, no elk were to be seen. We checked out other areas looking for these majestic creatures, saw some beautiful countryside, but unfortunately, no elk. Tomorrow is another day.
Back at the lodge we had the typical runner’s meal of pasta and meatballs, hoping to replace some calories for tomorrow’s half marathon. After dinner it was a beautiful night, and I had brought along a telescope, so the group was able to see some nice sights in the sky, including the rings of Saturn. We couldn’t stay up too late, though, as there was a race to be run in the morning!
On Sunday, we all got ready and headed to Emporium for the start of the half marathon. The course was originally a point-to-point race from St. Mary’s; however, with the pandemic still rearing its ugly head, the course had to be changed to an out-and-back on a rail trail. It would have been difficult to pack runners into buses and shuttle folks from the finish to the start under the existing conditions.
Off we went on the 40-minute drive to Emporium. It was a pleasant ride, and along the way we saw elk! They were just hanging out in fields beside the road having breakfast on the grasses. Finally, after being in the area for nearly 2 days, we got to see elk.
The half marathon was also a rolling start, so as soon as we arrived and got our numbers pinned on, we were able to start. Bottled water was available along the course, and we carried water with us and refilled as needed. The rail trail was flat and rather uninteresting, which made for a bit of a boring race. It was probably good, though, as we were still recovering from the previous day’s races. We all finished, and after the races we were treated to wine slushies and live entertainment! All in all, it was a good weekend, and something to be considered for next year. Having a decent group in a rented lodge made the experience even more rewarding.
Up for a little adventure? Looking for interesting races? That about sums up me earlier in the year with most everything being canceled. Then I see something pop up on my Facebook feed about the End of the Road Half Marathon. Well, this looks interesting. The course is on an abandoned section of the PA turnpike near Breezewood, and includes running through two tunnels! This could be cool! Or, it could be awful! Well, only one way to find out!
Donna Hey and I signed up for the afternoon race. With the pandemic still being a concern in mid-October, the race directors came up with the idea of having a morning race and an afternoon race, to allow more people to experience the event. Since it was a 2-hour drive, the afternoon start would allow us time to get there without having to get up at 4 in the morning. Sounded like a win-win, with the only drawback being that even in mid to late October, there could be some warm days, and a morning start could be preferable.
Race day arrived with near perfect running conditions predicted. We began our journey with enough time allowed to get to the event, pick up our packets, loosen up and stretch after the ride, and run the race. It was looking to be a great day.
I had gone into this race with a tentative goal of completing a half marathon in under two hours. I wasn’t sure that I was up to the challenge yet. I had been running intervals on the Muhlenberg rail trail hoping to improve my pace. I had initially started with 8 repeats of 2 minute intervals which got ’em about a half mile per interval. I had started increasing the interval length to 3- and 4-minute intervals, but thought I might have started too late to get to my goal. Only one way to find out!
The race started normally, with cones 8 feet apart to allow for social distancing at the start. Chip timing was used so starting back a bit wasn’t a concern. At shortly after 2pm, we were off.
The race began with a modest uphill climb, not terribly steep but nearly a mile long. At the top of the hill we entered the first of the tunnels. Headlamps were needed, as the first tunnel was over a half mile long and the second tunnel was over a mile long! I reached the first mile in under 9 minutes! I was surprised at that given the uphill start and wasn’t sure that I could hold that pace, but might as well give it a try. Coming out of the first tunnel was a decent downhill, might as well bank some time! And, since it is an out-and-back course, each downhill turns into an uphill on the return.
At about 4 miles, the course began another uphill climb towards the second tunnel, and we got there a little after mile 5. The tunnels were rather neat to run through with graffiti on the walls and the floor. And the road surface in the tunnels was in pretty decent shape, so you didn’t need to pay too much attention to footing!
Exiting the second tunnel brought you to the turnaround. I was under an hour! I might actually achieve my goal! Can’t get too excited, though, as there was still a decent uphill climb going back towards the first tunnel. At the turnaround, I grabbed a water, and ventured back through the tunnel on the return trip. Even in the dark, I managed to pick out Donna to give her encouragement.
The uphill going out to the second tunnel was now a downhill, so I could bank some time and catch my breath at the same time. That uphill going back was going to be a challenge. I checked my Garmin at mile 10 prior to starting up the hill and thought I had a bit of time to spare.
And that hill was a challenge. It was the steepest part of the course, and I even stopped and walked a bit. Today may not be my day. I finally made it to the top and entered the first tunnel going back the other way. At least there was a downhill to the finish!
With a little help from gravity, I pushed toward the finish. When I got close enough to see the clock, it was at 1:58! Come on, I can do this! Crossed the mat at 1:59:41, and the start delay gave me a chip time of 1:59:30! I did it! And also managed to achieve a 3rd place finish in my age group!
The proceeds from the race go to help the efforts to develop the area into a park, providing for maintaining and improving the old roadways. Running through the tunnels is a blast, and I highly recommend to keep an eye on this race for next year. You won’t regret it!