by Jason Karpinski
The year begins to wind to an end; the sometimes dreaded, but always highly anticipated, task of reviewing your year and planning the next begins to take hold. As runners, this means looking back at a year of triumph, tribulation, and many miles shared with countless friends. This time also means planning out the upcoming year of races and personal challenges. I will look back on this year as by far my most challenging year of running. Fortunately, it was also a year full of successes.
Back in 2021, I attempted, and DNF’ed, World’s End 100k. It was my first attempt at that distance, and as some may remember, it was a day that would challenge even the hardiest of runners. Somehow, with very minimal training, I managed to complete 58 miles before being pulled for time. But as many failures do, this propelled me to push my limits by attempting “The Blacklist”. For those of you who are unfamiliar, as I was in 2021, the Blacklist is a series of what are claimed to be the toughest trail races in Pennsylvania: Hyner 50k, World’s End 100k, Eastern States 100, and the Black Forest 100k. Each of these races presents its own challenges, and each requires a fair amount of training and preparation. I have shared my experience at a couple of these races in the newsletter earlier in the year; however, I failed to recap the race which finished off this incredible ride of a year: The Black Forest 100k.
Midnight, October 2nd: 70-ish anxious runners toe the line just mere feet outside a pavilion at Hyner Run State Park, surrounded by a surprising amount of cheering family and friends. For about a dozen of these individuals, it marks the final start to a year-long mission. (Spoiler alert: only 9 complete this grueling task.) What lies ahead of all these individuals is 7 hours of non-stop rain brought by the remnants of Hurricane Ian, 64 miles of constantly undulating hills, minimal aid stations (5 fully equipped; 3 water-only), and a couple dozen swiftly moving water crossings. In case you missed it, this race starts at midnight. This reason alone starts to show why the race slogan is “Diabolically Epic”. The other part that makes this race a bit different is that the racers are not allowed any outside crew or spectators from the moment the race begins until they cross the finish line. You truly do have to rely on your drop bags or of the ever-helpful strangers that run the aid stations.
The first 15 miles seems to breeze by as we get accustomed to the soaking conditions, muddy terrain, and pace of those around us. Although in my experience there were not many fellow runners to be seen after about 5 miles. As with most ultra trail races, you get to spend minutes and often hours at a time alone in the woods with only your sloshing water, your crinkling gel wrappers, and your own thoughts (sometimes the best and oftentimes the worst company).
As I approach the next aid station, I begin to feel tired. Throughout the year I have learned to know this tired. It is a tired not due to lack of sleep or accumulation of mileage, but rather the dreaded blood sugar low. I arrive at the aid station and proceed to have a feast: 3 pierogi, half a grilled cheese, an Uncrustable, a cup of chicken noodle soup, Coke, Mountain Dew, and water. I restock my pack with gels, and I am off to traverse the next 13 miles to the next aid station.
After my gluttonous undertaking at mile 18, I begin to make the next climb, which is about a mile and a half of switchbacks, and about 500 feet of elevation gain. It takes about 3 miles until the food begins to take hold, and I swing from the extreme low to an extreme high which leads me not feeling tired, but rather half unknowingly sleepwalking for 2 miles. I recognize it is happening as I catch myself opening my eyes a couple dozen times just as I am about to take an ill-fated step into a rut in the trail or a small boulder. After this passes, my legs and body begin to click again until about mile 24-26, when I do not manage to avoid said small boulders. I kick three rocks all with my left foot which leaves my 2nd-4th toe feeling as though the nails have been lost, only being held in by the Injinji toe socks. Anyhow, this is trail racing after all, and the show must go on.
Fast-forward to 5 miles left in the race. I have all but decided I am going to “walk this one in,” knowing that I was well ahead of the 17-hour time limit. While powering up a hill of switchbacks familiar to those who have run Hyner, I look down to see two brightly colored shirts making their way up. In my head I was tired of the race and tired of seeing people pass me and I told myself that no one will pass me from there to the finish line. I took off running and somehow managed to run the fastest 5 miles of the entire race. There were only two miles to go, as I started to make my way down the final hill. It was a technical descent with plenty of roots and rocks; however, my legs, mind, and body told me to let it all go for broke and simply let go. I passed the final runner I would see on course.
At the start of the race, I had placed an Apple Airtag in my pack in hopes that Michelle and my mom could track my whereabouts throughout the race. It was at this moment shortly after seeing this final runner that I heard the ping of the Airtag for the first time. This sound broke me out of my extreme focus and pace and reminded me of why I do these adventures. It is a reason many of us do these races: to prove to ourselves and those around us that the limits we set are only limited by our minds, because our bodies have so much more to give than we know. I proceeded to spend the next half mile with tears of joy and gratitude streaming down my face. These tears were replaced with childish joy, yells, and laughter as I made my way out of the woods, across the gravel path, and finally rounding off into the air across the finish line. My legs immediately hurt, my body tightened up, my feet screamed, but my mind was calm, quiet, and fulfilled.
This year was one I will never forget, and one that I owe so much to those around me. From friends joining in on many training miles, veterans giving me advice about the races and strategies, my family for telling me I am crazy while also telling me they are confident I can do it. And finally, to Michelle, for sacrificing so much of her time which allowed me to leave the house, oftentimes well after my bedtime, to get a run in. All these folks have heard my thanks but deserve to hear them repeatedly. The year was memorable, but the best is yet to come; 103 miles only opened the door to possibilities, and I know I have so much more to give!