by Matt Brophy
That’s a pretty common–and pretty reasonable–question to be asked if you tell someone you’re going to run a 100-mile race. But it’s not a question that a fellow Pagoda Pacer is likely to ask. In fact, many of my closest friends in the club are the answer to that question. So many runners in this club have a history of not only doing crazy, extreme things, but also then convincing their friends that they, too, should do crazy, extreme things. Why run 100 miles? Because the Pagoda Pacers convinced me I should do it, I could do it, and what the heck was I waiting for?
The fact that I regularly run with multiple runners who have each finished multiple 100-milers blows my mind, but it also means that I had access to a wealth of advice about how to prepare for this madness. Of course, not everyone agreed, but I was able to cobble together a plan that I thought I could stick with, as long as I didn’t get injured. I would try to average 40-60 miles a week (which I did for nearly 8 months), and throw in a bunch of 50k’s, a couple buzzards, and maybe one 50-miler a couple months before the race. (It ended up being closer to 43.) I eased off once or twice when I felt like I needed extra recovery time, but I was pretty consistent with my mileage and long runs. I also tried to be a little more disciplined about my diet, and mixed in some strength and interval training to try to improve my efficiency. I managed to stay healthy and get my weight under 130 pounds, which was the lowest it had ever been as an adult. (I know that sounds really light, but remember, I’m 5’3”.)
Added benefit: I was able to fit into that awesome sailor costume for Blues Cruise.
Originally, I wanted to run the Midstate Massive Ultra, which is a point-to-point race that starts in southern New Hampshire and traverses the entire state of Massachusetts from north to south. But this race conflicted with the wedding of a very old friend that I really didn’t want to miss, so I ended up pivoting to the Oil Creek 100, which was the following weekend. (Steve Vida, whom I had convinced to sign up with me, also graciously pivoted to accommodate my needs). Little did we know we were trading in a cool, dry autumnal weekend in New England for a massive mudfest in western PA.
There were some benefits, though, to switching to Oil Creek. Garry Rarer, who had offered to crew and pace me, knew the course (as well as the race director) well, since it is close to his hometown. So I was able to get some insider knowledge about what I was up against. Also, Oil Creek is a 50k loop that you run three times (plus an additional 8-mile “coming home” loop), so it was much easier, logistically, for my crew. They would just have to shuttle back-and-forth between two access points (Titusville Middle School and “Petroleum Center”) and wait for me to eventually show up.
In the week leading up to the race, I kept checking the forecast. Each time I checked, it looked worse. Chance of showers turned into chance of severe thunderstorms with strong winds. By the time Yuriko and I drove out there, it seemed pretty certain that it was going to rain on-and-off (if not continually) all weekend, and the course was destined to become a muddy mess. Prior to this, I had estimated my odds of finishing as 1-in-2. I told Yuriko, “Now I think it’s more like 1-in-3.”
The night before the race, at our Airbnb, I tried to go to sleep around 8pm, and after lying there for who knows how long, I finally fell asleep.
The alarm woke me up at 3am. I had some breakfast, got dressed, got my gear together, and then put on my headlamp to walk the dogs. It wasn’t raining. Then, just as Yuriko and I got ready to load up the car and make the 30-minute drive to Titusville, the rain started. By the time we got to the middle school, it was coming down pretty steadily. It would continue, with varying intensity, for the next 11 hours.
The First Loop (Start to 31 miles: 5:00am to 12:18pm)
The race started at 5am sharp.
The first time around the course it really wasn’t that bad. Yes, it was slow and muddy, and there were some slippery parts, especially the switchbacks coming into the first aid station, but it was still fairly runnable. Steve and I ran together for much of the first half of this loop, but I left Aid Station 2 before him, and then ended up running the remainder of that loop by myself.
Around mile 20, for some reason I felt good, and I started to really think that I was going to be able to do it. But as I got closer to the end of the loop, my stomach started to act up (probably due to those delicious aid-station breakfast burritos), and I wasn’t so sure. I popped out of the woods, hit the pavement, and felt pretty drained. How was I going to do two more loops??
Yuriko was waiting for me as I jogged back into Titusville around 12:15 pm. She had the car parked just off the course. I approached her and said, “Well, we gave it a good shot, but I guess it’s just not my day. I think I’m done.”
For a second, she gave me a look of shock and disbelief, but I couldn’t keep the gag up, and so I quickly told her I was just kidding. “I feel great!” I said, which was not quite true. We laughed, restocked my vest, and I headed out for my second loop.
The Second Loop (31 miles to 62 miles; 12:18pm to 8:54pm)
Steve was not that far behind me–I saw him heading in to Titusville as I was heading back out. (This paved section between Titusville and the trailhead was one of the few breaks from the mud.)
When I hit the trail, it was obvious that the conditions had gotten much worse. There really weren’t many runnable sections on the way to the first aid station. The climbs were frustrating, as my feet would slide back with each step, and the downhills ranged from tricky to treacherous. Sometimes you just had to find a tree to slide towards and hope you could get to it and grab it before you wiped out.
Eventually I found myself running with a guy from New Jersey who, like me, was making his first attempt at this distance, but unlike me, he was out there with no crew and no pacers. I was worried for him. He was doing all right, but it was going to be a long, long night out there all alone.
Then, as we started to get close to Aid Station 2 (at “Petroleum Center”), the skies miraculously started to clear and out came the sun. Of course, we were still soaked and covered in mud, but it was a huge boost, nevertheless. We felt a little lighter and found ourselves running again, bouncing down the trail to the road.
As we ran down the road towards the aid station, we saw a guy taking our picture with his phone. I assumed it was a race volunteer, but after he moved the phone away from his face, I saw that it was Garry! I hadn’t expected to see him and the rest of the crew (Marsha and Marcus) until I got back to Titusville at the end of loop 2. This was yet another boost to my spirits.
After I grabbed some food at the aid station, I sat down (for the first time) with the full crew around me. Yuriko restocked my vest; Marsha helped me change my shoes and socks; Garry grabbed more food for me to take on the trail; Marcus…I forget what Marcus did…but I’m sure it was helpful.
Running is not often a team sport. I wasn’t used to this kind of attention or support, or the feeling, as I headed back out there, that I wasn’t just running for myself. Now I started to think that I had to finish. My team was doing their part; I had to do mine.
About an hour or so after this, I finally hit the 50-mile mark. The sun would be setting soon, and I was just barely halfway done. I still had a long, long way to go. I also started to notice a pain on the left side of my chest. It gradually started to grow more acute, until, in a fit of paranoia, I thought that I might be having a heart attack, even though I otherwise felt pretty good.
Turns out, my vest was just a little too tight, and the plastic bottle I had been using to squirt maple syrup into my mouth every 30 minutes had bumped into my sternum just hard enough and just often enough to develop a bruise. It was a weird and silly “injury,” but much better than a heart attack. I adjusted my vest, downed some crushed ibuprofen at Aid Station 3, and felt fine as the darkness settled back into the valley.
Running alone in the woods at night is always a little weird, and it’s even weirder when you’re very, very tired. I tried to make up goofy little songs to distract myself. “100 miles / is a long way to go. / If you get stuck in the mud / You can’t call for a tow. / You gotta run all day / And run all night / Then run a little in the morning / To make it come out right.”
Before I went too, too crazy, I finally made my way back to Titusville.
The Third Loop (62 miles to 92 miles; 8:54pm to 8:46am)
Once again, my crew was amazing. I was able to quickly change my shirt, chug a 5-Hour-Energy, eat some broth and noodles, get a back-up headlamp and some dry gloves, and then get back out there. Garry was MIA for a moment, but just as I was ready to pull out, he emerged in his running gear, ready to pace me the next 14 miles.
Having pacers for the final two loops was indispensable. My “friend” from New Jersey who was trying to do this whole thing solo didn’t make it through the long night–like so many of the other 100-mile starters (58 out of 84 did not finish).
It was about 9:15pm as Garry and I headed out to start the third loop, and the rain was back. I told Garry that I had spent so much time staring down into the mud, that I had started to differentiate between three different types. Type 1 Mud was not too bad–squishy and sloppy, but you can run in it. Type 2 Mud was frustrating and destabilizing. It didn’t make you lose control, but you couldn’t get anywhere when you were in it. You wasted energy, and it wore you down. Type 3 Mud was treacherous. It was ankle-deep, and if you encountered it on any kind of a grade, you would just slide and slide until you hit something or could grab something or found yourself face-down in it. (Somehow, I managed to avoid totally wiping out at any point. Each time I did slip and fall, I was able to at least partially catch myself on the way down.)
As we made our way onto the trail, it was clear that by this point, the course was almost entirely Type 2 and Type 3 Mud. I was hopeful there might be more runnable sections on the eastern side of the creek (the second half of the loop), but here on the western side, I was just trying to stay upright and keep my shoes on. As an added challenge, the rain and the cooling temperature brought in some fog, decreasing the visibility afforded by our headlamps.
By the time we slid into Aid Station 1, I could feel big clumps of mud in my shoes, painfully pushing into odd pressure points in the bottom of my feet. Prior to this, my feet had held up remarkably well. But I had to spend a few moments here taking off my shoes and socks and trying to shake out as much mud as possible. Somehow the big clumps of mud had gotten INSIDE my socks. This problem would keep resurfacing for the remainder of the race.
I performed this shoe/sock cleaning seated at a cozy campfire with a handful of volunteers. One of them said, “Damn, your feet are so small,” to which I replied, “Well, they’re actually proportional to my very small legs.” They seemed impressed that I had retained enough of a sense of humor to joke around with them. Apparently some other runners had just been through who did not find them amusing. “How can you possibly run all day and night in this shit without a sense of humor?” I asked.
That won them over. “This guy can stay,” one said.
“I’d love to stay,” I replied. “This campfire is nice and cozy. But if I stay for a minute longer, I might not ever get back up.”
After a slow, frustrating climb in Types 2 and 3 Mud out of the aid station, we eventually found some stretches of trail that were somewhat runnable, and I was happy to find that I could still, at least occasionally, shuffle through the muck at a respectable pace. But it was still a long trek down to Petroleum Center. Garry kept me going, and he also kept me eating.
“Time for a pierogi, brother?”
He also made a point to celebrate each time I farted or stopped to take a leak. He insisted these were good signs that my body was functioning properly. As we passed the 70-mile mark, it did seem pretty amazing to me that I was still awake and still moving. I had been out there, in the rain and mud, after all, for nearly 20 hours. That was already far longer than anything I had ever done.
“A 100-miler is like going to war,” Garry says. “You train and prepare the best you can, but you have no idea what’s gonna happen once you get out there.”
We made it to Petroleum Center at 2:10am. 75 miles were behind me. Less than a marathon to go. My crew had miraculously cleaned and dried the shoes and socks I had started the race with, and as I put them on, it felt like a warm embrace from the God of Lost Feet.
Garry took a break as Marcus set out to pace me the next 16 miles. It was time to finish this 3rd loop. My spirits were high.
It would not last.
Marcus and I began the steep muddy climb out of Petroleum Center. He couldn’t believe the soupy mess he found himself in. “Welcome to my world,” I said.
After that initial climb, I was hoping we would be able to run for awhile. There are some nice, wide trails with gradual downhill grades, overlooking ravines and waterfalls, on that part of the course, and they hadn’t been super-muddy the first couple times through. They had really been quite lovely. I knew this time, in the dark, we wouldn’t have the views, but I was looking forward to the not-so-terrible footing.
By this point, though, even the “good sections” were pretty poor. And in the dark, it was hard to tell just how deep the mud went or what would happen to your foot when it landed.
My strength, like the course, was also deteriorating. As we hit the 80-mile mark, suddenly everything started to hurt–especially my ankles and knees, stressed for so long by trying to stabilize and balance myself on this slippery terrain.
“I don’t think I can run anymore,” I told Marcus. “At what point, do you think, will I be too far into this thing to drop?”
“You’re already past that point,” he said. “You only have 20 miles to go.”
“I know what it takes to run 20 miles. I’m in no shape to run a 20-miler right now.”
“Don’t think about it that way.”
“Hypothetically speaking, though, what happens if I do drop? Like at the next aid station?”
“Marsha will slap you in the face. And then she’ll tell the story of slapping you in the face over and over again for years.”
When we did get to that next aid station, I was able to pound more ibuprofen. At first I was afraid about taking more, but then I realized it had been nearly 11 hours since I had been at this aid station and taken my first dose. It would probably be fine. I also got some hot broth in me and some Coke, and I shook more mud out of my shoes.
The volunteer at this aid station–Heather–was the race’s foot care specialist. She had a kind of Biblical generosity and empathy about her. She was, after all, washing and tending to the feet of suffering strangers: a filthy job which she performed like it was a vocation. My feet were amazingly un-blistered, so I didn’t need those skills, but I still somehow felt re-energized by her compassion and insight with regard to what I was feeling. “Hey, I know it hurts, but you’re doing great. I’ll see you at the finish.”
I also had to ask Marcus for his jacket at this point. I should’ve grabbed my own at Petroleum Center, but I hadn’t felt cold at the time, and I failed to realize how quickly that would happen once I was no longer running. The temperature was down to the mid-40s, and it was still drizzling. I had been shivering when I came into the aid station, but now with the broth in me and Marcus’s jacket on me, I felt a little better.
I knew, however, that it was going to be a long 8 miles back to Titusville. I was still not able to run at all, and we were covering less than 3 miles an hour. What if Marcus got cold, and I had to give him back his jacket? (Marcus insisted he was not cold, and I kept the jacket. We joked about how we would eulogize him if he ended up dying of hypothermia. “His death was tragic, but it was for the noblest of causes: so Matt Brophy could finish his 100-miler.”)
God bless Marcus. I was a miserable son-of-a-bitch in those slow, cold pre-dawn hours. He kept asking me how I was feeling, and I kept saying things like, “Pretty goddamn miserable still. No need to keep asking.” He could’ve done anything with his weekend, but he chose to march in the mud in the dark with a cranky friend who was pretty terrible company.
Eventually the sun came up (though it was still cloudy and drizzly), and I could finally take the headlamp off. We were still in the woods, but after another half hour, we hit the pavement, just before 8:00am.
“Marcus, shall we run?”
I tried, and that lasted for about 90 seconds. Even on the flat pavement, I couldn’t manage more than a fast walk, which wasn’t really fast at all. I also realized that I really needed a bathroom break, and so I hit the first available portajohn. (Actually the first had no TP–of course!–so I had to move on to the next. This was also the first time I ever pooped twice during a single race.)
Garry ran out to meet us and usher us back into race headquarters. It must have been pretty obvious that I was falling apart.
“You don’t really need anything, right brother?” he asked. “Only eight miles to go. Might as well keep moving and get it done.”
I was shocked. Don’t need anything? There were so many things I needed–clean socks, clean shoes, painkillers, caffeine, food, water, or maybe scrap all that and just give me a place to lie down. But of course Garry was right. Nothing I could do at this aid station was going to make the last loop any less painful. Might as well just get back out there and get it done. But goddamn it, let me sit down for a minute and knock some more mud out of my shoes and socks.
As I came within sight of the rest of my crew, I was struggling to fight back the tears. I really wanted to stop. More than anything. But I knew I couldn’t. No one would let me. Even I wouldn’t let me. I had to go back out there. And it was gonna hurt. Every fucking step was gonna hurt.
This was the only time I was unable to keep a positive attitude when meeting with my crew. I knew I was going back out there, but I wasn’t happy about it. I was fragile, and I couldn’t hide it.
Someone told me that Steve had dropped several hours ago. I had been thinking he would eventually catch up to me, since I had been walking–very slowly–for the past 12 miles. Learning this fact made me feel sad, but also jealous. (No one wants to DNF, but at least he was done with this shit.)
Luckily, I still had plenty of time. I had less than 8 miles to go, and it wasn’t even 9:00am yet. The cut-off was 1:00pm. There was no way it would take me over 4 hours to go 8 miles, right?
The “Going Home” Loop (92 miles to 100 miles; 8:46am to 11:14am)
The final loop didn’t turn out to be as bad as I thought it would be. The rain finally stopped, and Garry and I even saw some blue sky peeking through as we hiked back along the bike path to the trailhead. It’s amazing how a little bit of sunlight can help a body that’s ready to shut down somehow come back to life.
Right before we jumped back into the mud, we caught up to a woman who seemed a little lost. (How anyone could get lost on this course is beyond me–it was excessively well-marked.)
She asked us if we knew where the final loop went. We told her it started out the same as the regular loop, but there was a left turn (clearly marked) that we would make a little over 3 miles into it. She was skeptical.
“Are you sure?”
We were sure. Still, she didn’t seem to believe us. She told us to go ahead, and she tentatively followed. I told her we would shout back when we got to the turn. She also let slip that this was her second 100-miler in as many weeks. A good reminder to myself that while I may dabble in masochism, at least I’m not (yet) fully addicted to it.
Whether it was the sunlight, the proximity to the finish, or just a desire to stay ahead of the woman we just passed, I found myself hiking a little faster and even managing brief bursts of running where the mud seemed relatively stable.
We hit the left turn a few minutes before 10:00am, shouted back that we were indeed on course, and made our way down to creek-level. Since this section of the course was only run by the 100-milers (not the runners competing in the 50k or 100k events), and only by the 100-milers who made it all the way to the end, it was not nearly as trampled as the rest of the course. In fact, I would later learn that I was only about the 15th runner to make this descent.
After crossing a nifty (and slightly bouncy) pedestrian bridge across the creek, Garry and I began climbing up the other side. This was a TOUGH climb–about 400 feet in a little over half a mile–no harder than climbing up to the Mt Penn Firetower from my house, but during my 97th mile, it was pretty daunting. I also knew, however, that it was the LAST climb. Getting back up to that ridge that I had just been on a couple hours ago with Marcus felt pretty great.
At that point, it was just another mile and a half of mud–mostly downhill–and another mile and a half of pavement back to Titusville and the finish.
I would have loved to have run more of those final sections–especially the final mile–but my legs (and joints) were just toast. The reality that I was actually going to finish this thing started to set in, and I could feel myself getting emotional.
Garry told me it was fine to walk back towards the finish, but that I’d need to run over the bridge and the last 200 yards. I thought running the last 20 feet would be good enough.
“Nah, brother, they really want to see you running as you make that final turn.”
Well all right then.
There were, of course, tears at the end, and hugs for every member of my amazing crew. I was so grateful for their support, and I was so grateful to be able to finally stop.
I ended up finishing 16th overall, with an official time of 30 hours and 14 minutes. There were 26 official finishers, and 58 DNFs. It was the highest DNF rate in Oil Creek history.
After a $10 shower at Titusville Middle School, and a heartfelt goodbye with Marsha, Garry, and Marcus, Yuriko and I went out to lunch with Steve, Michelle, and Jason to debrief over pierogi, crab cakes, and beer. After a few jokes, bites, and stories, I felt unable to eat anymore or speak in complete sentences. It was time to pick up the dogs (from a local kennel) and head back to the Airbnb.
I expected to instantaneously crash once we got back, but instead, my body started freaking out. Not only was there soreness everywhere (and some throbbing pain in my ankles), but I seemed to be developing a fever. I was shivering and achy, but also hot to the touch. I took some more ibuprofen, kept drinking water, and eventually my fever came down enough for me to pass out, probably around 6pm.
I woke up in the middle of the night soaked in my own sweat. I found a sleeping bag we had packed, put that on the bed, got into it, and fell asleep. Eventually I woke up sweating again, and then slept for a few more hours on top of the sleeping bag.
Finally it was 6:00am, Monday morning, and I got up. I had slept for about 12 hours; I was really hungry; and my left ankle still really hurt. But otherwise, I felt ok. I drove out to a nearby “General Store” to get us some coffee. We walked the dogs, packed up the car, and drove back to Reading.
On the way home, I told Yuriko that I was “retiring” from ultra-running. That’s probably not true, but I’m definitely going to take a break. And even if I run more ultras some day, I can’t imagine ever doing another 100. That was some crazy shit. Don’t get me wrong– I’m glad I did it–but never again.
But then again, who knows what bad decisions “future me” might make?