MY JOURNEY TO EASTERN STATES 100 AND THE PA TRIPLE CROWN

A race report by Brooke Schell

“This is what trail running is all about.”

It all began back in 2015. I was fairly new to the trail running community, but quickly fell in love! Karen Blandford had reached out asking for help in crewing Jim at this race called Eastern States. Being new to it, I didn’t think much of it other than an opportunity to see what running 100 miles looks like and an opportunity to help a friend out. I knew I would never run 100 miles, and even told many people how crazy these runners are. After one weekend of witnessing this amazing event, I became curious.  I started asking questions, wanted to know how this affects the body, wondered why someone would do this and what they get out of it, and the list goes on and on. Standing at the finish line, watching the runners take their final steps on the course, I became inspired.  Maybe someday I can do this too…..

In 2016 and 2017 I had the opportunity to crew and pace for Brian Stones. 2016 was a horrible year with strong thunderstorms, tornadoes, trees down all over the roads, and just a bad mix of conditions for the runners to go through. There were a lot of DNFs (did not finish), and I didn’t blame any one of them for calling it quits early.  No pacing happened that year, but Brian returned in 2017 to earn his finish and buckle. I paced him to the finish, and as we came down Panther Run, you could hear the cheering from afar.  How cool is this I thought! I might have to consider this for next year. I was so inspired, once again, by all the runners. Seeing their determination and motivation made me want to be a part of this someday. That December, I decided to run my first 100 miler in Virginia called Devil Dog 100. I became hooked on the 100-mile distance. Why? I still don’t have that answer myself. HA HA!

2018 I made the decision to give it a go. I heard about the PA Triple Crown and thought I might as well attempt that if I am going to attempt Eastern States. Hyner 50K and Worlds End 100K would serve as training runs for this beast of a course, and so my journey began. I decided that in order to do the best I possibly could do, I wanted to be accountable to someone and have someone help me along the way. I work best that way.  I love and do well with constructive criticism, tough love, and structure when it comes to athletics. Who better to ask than Mike Ranck? Mike, to me, was the God of running. He coached me in HS track and was what I consider an expert in ultra-running after completing Western States multiple times and many more ultras (too many to list, actually). He graciously accepted the challenge, and so the training began. I won’t bore you with the details of training, but I can tell you that he gave me everything I asked for. There were days I hated him, but only because he pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and then there were days I loved him, when I would see my progress and know he made it happen.  He not only told me what to do, but he did it with me! That was pretty awesome, and I cherish all the training runs I had with him. I can honestly say I was in the best shape of my life while training that year. Hyner 50K came and went, Worlds End 100K came and went, and then it was time to focus on the big one: Eastern States.  I was ready mentally and physically, and I was getting nervous and excited after completing 2 of the 3 races. 

Then, the shocking email arrived. We were told that Eastern States was being canceled due to permitting issues. WHAT!?!?!?!?!? I remember the day well! I must have read that email 10 times thinking it had to be a joke. Many phone calls later to friends who were in the same situation, and it was confirmed that the race was indeed canceled! There were tears! Tears of frustration, anger, and sadness, knowing that all that hard work and sweat equity would have to wait. I was so disappointed that I vowed right then and there that I would not sign up for this again for fear the same thing would happen. Long story short, I didn’t let my training go to waste, and I decided to run Oil Creek 100 that October. I did well there, but it just wasn’t the same.

In 2019 I stuck to my vow and did not sign up for the Triple Crown. I can honestly say I was still bitter about the previous year. I did get back to the Eastern States atmosphere, but only as a pacer for April Zimmerman. I decided to get back to running for fun and not train so hard and enjoy the time on the trails with friends. Mike and I continued to train, or I should say, stay in shape just in case I decided to run another 100-miler. I soon learned that Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We continued to run until he could only walk and then it became too hard for him to do the things he loved. He passed on September 11th and my running has not been the same since. He was and always will be a big inspiration to me! He has taught me so much, and I carry him in my heart on every trail run I do. It was in the following weeks after his passing that I decided I would someday attempt the PA Triple Crown again, and put all his effort into training me to good use. It would just be different this time because I would have to recall his training style by memory and my written notes of when he was here. Thankfully I had a folder where I kept precise notes on my year of training with him. Would it be next year I sign up, or the following?

2020 I decided I wasn’t quite ready to take on the task of the Triple Crown and decided I would instead do another 100 miler as a test–to see if I could train without Mike and still be successful. I signed up for The Mohican 100 in Ohio that would be held in June. Well, COVID put a stop to that and instead moved the race back to October. The course was different due to park permits not being signed due to COVID restrictions, and this race was a lot of roads, which I am not a fan of. I did well, but it wasn’t the trail race I was hoping for. During this race, I cried for Mike and wished he were there, but I knew he was watching from above, and I just wanted to make him proud. Prior to Mohican, I had started to have pain in my ankle when I would run. It would sometimes go away, but as time went on, it began to hurt all the time. Being the stubborn runner that I am, I ignored it, continued to run on it until it would keep me up at night and wouldn’t stop hurting. I still ran, but finally made the dreaded appointment to see a foot doctor.

2021 started with an X-ray at the doctor. The doctor came into the room after reviewing the images and asked me when I had broken my ankle. I sat there in shock and kind of laughed while thinking I have no idea!  Turns out, apparently, I had broken it in the past year or so, and now, since it healed on its own, I had what they called “ossicles.”  I was now referred to Dr. Jeffrey Zimmerman at Berks Foot and Ankle Surgical Associates. He did an MRI and discovered that the point of the ossicle had rubbed and torn my tibial tendon. So, major ankle surgery in February prevented me from giving the Triple Crown a go in 2021. During recovery and therapy I had lots of time to think and miss being out there on the trails. I made up my mind that 2022 would be the year!  I wasn’t sure how the ankle would hold up, but I was determined to give it my best shot; plus I had unfinished business from 2018 that I now needed to attend to!

2022 PA Triple Crown here I come! The training began and I prayed that my body and ankle would hold up. I will admit, my training was not where it should have been. Some weight gain through inactivity with the ankle, menopause, and just lack of caring at times, really made it tough some days to get out there. I did the best I could. Well, I probably could have done much better, but my motivation just wasn’t there like it had been with Mike. I was thankful to have Christine Daniels, Donny Mengel, and Rhoda Smoker who would get me out the door to run. I did many runs alone, but they were a big contributing factor in getting me to do longer runs.

Hyner 50K came and I was not motivated at all to do that race. My goal was just to finish and then that would be one race down with two to go. It was a beautiful day weather-wise, and I finished in a decent time. My motivation increased a bit, and then it was time to focus on Worlds End 100K. I did what needed to be done for training, did some cross training as well as road and trail running. I still was lacking the motivation somedays and was now really missing Mike. I missed that accountability. Days went by and Worlds End quickly approached. It was another beautiful day in the woods, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather! I started to struggle late in the day and cutoff times were getting closer. This is the first race I ran where I felt like I had to beat the clock. Thanks to my amazing crew of Christine, Rhoda, and Donny, they got me to the finish in time! 

One race to go, and it was the big one! No turning back now. 

As the days and weeks went by, I began to get more and more nervous. I was never this nervous for a race in the past. I knew I had to finish this, and I wasn’t sure how I would do it. I had done some training runs on the course and had some experience with pacing at Eastern States in the past, so I knew how difficult this course was.  So many questions in my mind.  Can I do it? Will my ankle hold up? Will my body hold up? Am I too old for this? How will I deal with the humidity that we have been having?

Finally, race week arrived. My husband, Steve, was probably thinking, “Thank God, now she can soon stop obsessing over this race and stop talking about it.” I don’t know about other people, but when I sign up for a big commitment like this, it consumes my mind for weeks, even months leading up to the actual event.  Always thinking about strategy, training, race day, gear, food, weather, my crew, pacers, you name it–if it has to do with the race, my mind is there.  

EASTERN STATES WEEKEND IS HERE!!

Rhoda, Brooke, Christine, and Donny (left to right)

The nerves really started kicking in. I had never been this nervous or nauseous before a 100-miler. Friday night consisted of packet pick up (I felt like I could vomit at any minute) and takeout food from the Waterville Tavern, which, by the way, was delicious! My crew laughed at me and my nerves, but that’s OK; it was all in good fun. I laughed too at the thought of how nervous I felt. I managed to get to bed by 9:00, but then the tossing and turning started. Thankfully I had a good night’s sleep Thursday night. I somehow managed to get a few hours. I had my alarm set for 3:20 a.m. I like to get up and have a little bit of time to double-check that I have everything ready and eat something. 

It was now time to go. We made our way up the road to Little Pine State Park and saw the mass of people gathering around. I went to check in and congregate with friends. This is really happening! The butterflies in my stomach had thousands of babies! I stood in the start line, said a silent prayer, and heard the count down 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and we were off!

The first couple of miles were a nice easy pace to warm up and get the nerves out of the way. I chatted with Mike Zimmerman going down the road and onto the trail at the campground. This became a conga line, and we were single file. I got the urge that I must pee. What? Not already, it must be nerves; I can’t possibly have to go. I ran a little more until I realized this was not nerves. I stepped into the wood and sure enough I had to go. I got back on trail and went another mile before I felt the same way. Oh no, what is happening so early on? Again, I stepped into the woods as I watched runners pass by me. I panicked, thinking I am already falling behind. This happened one more time, and I was getting worried. Bladder infection? Not now! By the time I hit the first big climb, I was good to go. Turns out, it was all just nerves! 

I was dreading that first big climb, but it went better than I had anticipated. One down, many more to go. There were a few “Idiot Runners,” myself included, that had hoped we could run the course together. I saw Kip Hoffman up ahead. Kip and I recently ran 6 hours together at an Idiot event and we had a blast! My goal was to get up to him and see how far we could run together. Once I reached Kip, I also noticed that Andy Styer was close by, as well as Jason Karpinski. We formed a train and ran together while talking and laughing. Kip stepped off to the side for a bathroom break, and as he was heading back to us, he yelled my name. I turned to yell back, and before I knew it, I was on the ground.  No blood, no bones so all was good. Thankfully it happened in a grassier section. I’m sure I gave Jason a good laugh as he watched me tuck and roll. 

Andy, Brooke, and Kip

This train of ours continued for awhile, picking up people along the way, making the train bigger at times, and at times we lost a few. In the end, we were a strong force to be reckoned with and the miles just seemed to fly by. We came into the Ramsey Aid Station and I saw a port-a-potty. I wanted to take advantage of that, so I went over, but the people inside were taking forever! Kip was gracious enough to bring me food while I waited, and after what seemed like an eternity, we were off again on the Pine Creek Rail trail. 

We hit the next big climb on the Tiadaghton trail. This seemed like a never-ending climb, but eventually we made it to the top. We had a flat section before dropping into Bull Run and eventually worked our way towards the Pine Creek. I remember running along here thinking how narrow the trail seemed. One wrong slip and you were down the steep drop off to the creek. That didn’t last too long, and before I knew it, we were making the climb to the State Forest Research Center where I would see my crew for the first time. 

Kip, Andy, and I got refueled and were back on the trails together. We had a long road climb up Lower Pine Bottom Road before turning into the woods onto Wolf Path. I wasn’t prepared for this climb other than April Zimmerman coming up to me at the last aid station to tell me, “This next climb is a bitch!” She was right!! The next 20 or so miles the train of 3 tried to stay together as best as we could. We sang, talked, laughed, told jokes, did anything to make the time go by. It worked! I can honestly tell you, though, that I will never hear certain songs the same way again! I think the theme song by that point had become “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” 

Brooke conquers another climb

As we approached the Hyner Aid station (mile 43), the train of 3 became a train of 2. Andy was slowly slipping behind. I had begun to start feeling some hot spots and knew once I reached my crew I would need to take more time then I had hoped to change socks and get some spots taped up. Kip and I agreed coming into Hyner that since we were picking up a pacer that we would continue on with them and if it worked out that we stayed together, great, but if it didn’t, we both understood. I was just so happy to have shared all that time with him and Andy, and it really did make the time fly by. 

I was still feeling pretty good at this point. I had a game plan of a 33-hour finish, and I was ahead of schedule by about an hour. I got fixed up, and it was so nice to see so many friends at this aid station. Everyone was so helpful! I was excited to pick up my first pacer: Rhoda. I was dreading the start of this next section. It is a long gradual uphill that could be runnable, but I didn’t want to run it. It was still early in the race, and I didn’t want to burn out my legs for the later miles. I shuffled along here and there, and I did run more of the flats up top. 

Then we hit the “V.” I was thankful to have picked up my poles at Hyner, because I definitely needed them here. When we left Hyner, Rhoda told me the next aid station was 4.7 miles away. I was looking forward to that knowing by then that this section would be behind me. Many miles came and went, and Rhoda realized this was the 8-mile section, not the shorter one. I was happy I could still laugh about that at this point, and it quickly became the running joke for the remainder of the time she paced me. We came into Dry Run aid station and as quickly as we got there, we quickly left with some food in hand. I was hoping to make it to the Big Trail aid station before dark so I could see the vista, but that didn’t happen. I came into that aid station and was greeted by many friendly familiar faces! Jeff Kascsak was the first one I saw, and he and his son Jacob were a tremendous help in filling my bladder and getting me food. You can’t miss their smiles!! All the aid station volunteers were awesome! Can’t thank them enough!

Next stop would be Slate Run. At this point, things are starting to get a little blurry.  I remember being on the Black Forest trail and I was thankful to have Rhoda with me. She is very familiar with this trail and at night, it looks different to me. She kept me on course and kept the conversation lively. As we approached the long gravel road leading into Slate Run, I was excited to be able to see my crew again. We crossed the bridge at Hotel Manor and came into the aid station around midnight. I was still ahead of my 33-hour schedule and still feeling pretty good. I was getting a little sleepy, but happy my feet and everything else were holding up well. I looked around at everyone and they were all bundled up. The temperature dropped, but I was still happy to be in a tank top. I knew I had a big climb coming out of this aid station, so no need for a jacket. I was happy to be doing it at night because you can’t see the top, so it doesn’t play games with your mind knowing how far you have to go. After what seemed like an eternity, we make it to the top. I was mentally checking off the climbs in my head and happy to have a checkmark next to that one!

It was flat and runnable up top so I took advantage of that and shuffled along when I could. I remember running through mountain laurel just waiting for a bear to step out onto the trail. I think I even said to Rhoda that it would be my luck to have a bear come out and knock me over. We continued this shuffle until we came into aid station 11. Here I saw Jeremy Hand, and he was so helpful in getting things filled up for me. I asked him to empty my water and fill it with fresh stuff out of the bottled water cooler. Somehow at Slate Run my water was refilled, but not with the bottled stuff. I don’t want to sound picky, but there was a huge difference the non-bottled water vs. bottled. From Slate Run to AS 11, every time I drank I felt sick to my stomach. The water at Slate Run had a strong metallic taste and didn’t sit well with me. Jeremy swapped out the water and I was good to go. I could have easily spent some more time there since I was now starting to feel sleepy and tired. A quick hug of thanks to Jeremy and then Rhoda and I continued onward. 

I was dreading this next section going into the Algerine’s. I had done a training run here with Mike and April and the black flies were horrible! It was a long slow section of climbing over mossy rocks, swatting flies, and getting annoyed with both the flies and the trail. Thankfully, the only thing happening now was the annoyance of constantly crossing over the trail and trying to see where it went. The flies must have been sleeping. As we were descending this area we saw a runner running towards us. He reassured me I was going the right way, but had me baffled as to why he was running opposite of us???? Not long after, he came flying by us again while talking on the phone. That was strange, and I know I wasn’t hallucinating. We had our own theories about this. 

After what seemed like hours, we finally emerged from this section of the course and headed to aid station 12, Long Branch. I knew I had to eat something, but I wasn’t feeling too hungry and didn’t have an appetite for anything. Chris Young was a welcomed sight here and took care of me. He mentioned that they had potato soup and that sounded pretty good. It hit the spot. Off we went to the West Rim trail, which would eventually lead us into Blackwell. I knew I lost some time from Slate Run to Blackwell but that was ok. I was expecting that through that last section. As we were approaching Blackwell, the sun started to slowly come up. It wasn’t light enough in the woods to go without a headlamp, but mine was starting to die. Thankfully I was almost out of the woods, because I didn’t have a back up. 

I hit the Blackwell aid station at 6:31 a.m. I lost an hour of time, but I was exactly on target for my expected time coming into there and still on track for that 33-hour finish. Rhoda was now finished with her pacing duties, and I was going to pick up Christine. I brushed my teeth (which felt amazing) and got refueled and new lube in my chafing spots. My feet were still doing ok, but I was tired (sleepy-tired) at this point, and my body was starting to feel the ups and downs more.

Christine and I headed out of Blackwell and began the long climb up to Gillespie Point.  Christine was filling me in on the crewing and how she miscalculated getting to Slate Run. She was doing her best to keep conversation flowing, but I was starting to not communicate much. I answered her questions with one- or two-word answers. I felt bad about it and wished I could be more talkative, but I was tired and focused on just getting this done. I hurt with every downhill; my quads were really starting to feel the climbing that I had already done. I knew that our next stop would be at SkyTop and they had the most amazing made-to-order pancakes. I LOVE pancakes, especially during an ultra, but my stomach wasn’t wanting much of anything at that point. I tried to convince myself that I must eat something and I tried to get my mind and body ready for a pancake. We made our way along the trails until we came to a sign that said to push the air horn, so they would know we were coming. We arrived at SkyTop, and I reminded Christine she needs to eat a pancake. I, on the other hand, was disappointed that they just didn’t sound good to me at that moment.

We got to the aid station, and we were welcomed with big smiles and helping hands ready to attend to our every need. Clayton mentioned chicken noodle soup, and I think that sounded better than pancakes, so I agreed. I was told to have a seat, and I should have known better. I don’t like to sit down during a race, but it was so inviting in the moment. I took one sip of my soup and started to feel really sick and dizzy. Christine looked at me, and I remember her saying, “You look really white.”  So thankful to have a nurse pacing me, because she knew exactly what to do. She and the medic at the aid station got me to lie back and get my feet up. I was starting to get really upset because here I am at mile 85, and this shouldn’t be happening! I get like this at the end of races, not during!  My first thought is, I really hope they let me finish! I was so afraid that they wouldn’t let me go on. To this day, I still don’t understand why my body rebels like this.  Low blood sugar? Low blood pressure? Who knows??? Long story short, Christine and everyone at the aid station were wonderful and brought me back from being pale and white to having some color again. I sat up, got some ice to go (because I love eating ice during an ultra), and we were off. 

I was feeling better, but so ready to be done at that point. I knew I lost some more time here and worried about cutoffs, but I was reassured leaving SkyTop that I was still 2 hours ahead of that, so I relaxed a bit, yet, I knew I still had plenty of miles to go. Christine reminded me that I would finally get to see my parents, Steve, and the dogs at the next aid station. She did her best to keep conversation going and told me when we would be climbing and how steep the climb would be. She was pretty much talking to herself at this point other than my one- or two-word answers. I felt bad about this, but I just didn’t have the energy to be chatty. I knew she understood, but I still felt bad! 

I think this is the section where there was a long grassy road. Christine was motivating at this point and got me to run from flag to flag. The sun was out in this section, and I was looking for snakes. I figured this would be a perfect location for them. Thankfully, I didn’t see any. We continued to the flag that had us turning into the woods again, and I knew we were finally close to Barrens. I tried my best to shuffle when I could. We hit a climb and after that we headed down the long dirt road to the aid station. 

Brooke with her husband and parents

I heard cowbells ringing and Christine pointed out the fact that my parents were right there at the gate waiting. I saw that my Dad had a cowbell and as soon as I got on the other side of the gate I gave him a hug and started to cry. Mom was quick to come over and give me a hug as well. They were such a welcomed sight! Christine, Rhoda, and Donny jumped into action, refilling my bladder and getting me some food while I greeted Steve and the dogs and talked a bit with them. I was about 30 minutes behind my goal. 10 more miles to go. I remember complaining about how my feet felt raw and hurt with every step, and that I wanted to be finished. 10 more miles to go, but in my head, it felt like 50. Christine kept me moving and we were off to finish this beast. 

The last 10 miles were the slowest and never-ending. I thought I was moving quickly, but realized I was not. We were alone through this section for awhile, and then every now and then, someone would pass us. I didn’t care at this point. I felt pretty confident that I would finish in the 36-hour time frame. I didn’t really care anymore about the 33-hour finish; I just wanted to finish. I couldn’t push myself any faster than I was going at the time. A few more little climbs and some downs and I was starting to hallucinate. I swear I saw tree stands in every tree I looked at. My eyes were blurry from exhaustion, and I felt my eyelids starting to close. I heard Christine talking every now and then, but I honestly felt like I was in a trance. She pulled me back on trail at one point when I fell asleep. This has never happened to me before–I fell asleep walking on the trail. How does that happen? Brand new territory for me. Then I saw an alligator and a candy cane. I needed to be finished now! 

I knew that once we hit Hacketts aid station I was close to the end. Even better would be turning onto Panther Run Trail.  That is where I would start to “smell the barn.” We came into Hacketts and I remember feeling so tired, sleepy tired. I just wanted to lie down, but no, keep going. In and out of Hacketts and then the long walk following the stream which would eventually lead us to that last and final climb. Is this really happening? Did I actually make it to the last and final climb?  So many emotions are starting to creep in.  Once on top of that final climb I knew it was pretty much downhill to the finish, but wait, I don’t recall the downhill being so long and so painful! Christine was trying to push me because she knew I could still make it in that 33-hour range, but my body was only moving so fast. I tried, I grunted, I even let some outbursts come out of my mouth with every downward step. It hurt! I came up on Erica on the downhill and I noticed she was going down them backwards. It made me feel better knowing I wasn’t the only one in pain. She graciously let us go by and we congratulated each other on a job well done. 

How much farther is this??? I am starting to think I’ll never finish.  Wait, is that people cheering?  Can it be?  I think I am there!  I tried to go a bit faster, but I just couldn’t, and then I saw the grassy section at Little Pine State Park. I saw orange cones and I knew I was there. Christine was still pushing and I was trying. We got to the bottom of the trail, crossed the road, and I was not sure how my legs were doing it, but they were running. I was numb; I started to tear up; I felt so much. 

Brooke with Steve and the dogs

I gave Christine a hug and thanked her for everything. I saw Steve and the dogs, and I knew I wanted to cross that finish line with them. I went over to him, and he handed them off, not sure if he should or not. He knew they would pull me, but at this point I didn’t care. I made it! I heard the cheering; I saw the finish and I saw that I was going to miss 33 hours by a few minutes. Oh well. The dogs were pulling; I was numb; I was crying; and I realized that I finally finished what I set out to do 4 years ago. I crossed the line in 34:03:24, and I was the oldest female finisher this year. I just conquered Eastern States 100, but more importantly to me, I am now an official PA Triple Crown Finisher! That was hard, that was tough mentally and physically, but that was a moment of a lifetime! 

Brooke and Donny
Brooke and Rhoda
Brooke and her dad
Brooke and Steve
Easter States / Triple Crown Finisher!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s