by Elaine Cook
I have wanted to run Worlds End for several years, after hearing Joanne Van Horn, Lori Johnson, Tom Chobot, Jess Gockley, April Zimmerman, and other rock stars talk about its beauty and ruggedness. After two years of fighting nagging injuries, I felt I’d turned the corner and signed up for the 100k in 2020. However, I continued to struggle with minor nagging tendonitis that never totally went away. I watched my calendar and training log with a growing sense of doom. THEN Covid hit and everything was cancelled or postponed. I took a hard break and started at ground zero with training. In April I was running 9 slow flat miles per week without pain, but I was sure WE would have to cancel.
Fast forward to September, and the rescheduled race was a go! I’d been running lots of mountainous 20 milers at Hamburg, but on an August training weekend at WE it took me 11 hours to run 50K–much too slow to stay ahead of the cutoffs. Worlds End allows 19 hours for the 100K. I went into the race with the audacious goal of being able to run for 18+ hours, but knowing that unless everything went perfectly, I would likely get pulled at one of the later aid stations for missing a cutoff time. The late September start meant 7 hours of dark running on wild terrain for the back-of-packers: a real concern for me in keeping on pace.
Since the 50K had been cancelled, and some runners deferred to 2021, only 109 runners started Saturday in the misty dark at 5 AM. Jogging across the starting line and through the park with Fran Mahalak, Joanne, Lori, and Laura Yoder, I wasn’t too worried about the first couple hours of dark–I knew there’d be runners around me. And there were–for half an hour or so. WE puts small reflectors on the ends of the ribbon used to mark the course, but I really wished for a lot more flags. I kept getting into gaps where I was alone, and then I’d fear I’d lost the trail and I’d slow to a walk while I searched for flags. Someone would catch me, but I was too nervous on the very rocky terrain to keep up in the dark, so I’d be right back in trouble. I kept tamping down panic until the sun came up, and I found myself running with Fran and Lea Becker, 2 veterans. Lea told me, “I’m going to finish, but I’ll be near the cutoff. Anyone after me, even now, probably isn’t going to make it.” I took that seriously, but I lost her when my husband (Alan) was unexpectedly at Sones Pond aid station #2. I dropped off my light, got updates on the Pacers running ahead of me, picked up some food and water, and set out on a mission to catch Lea.
The early morning was stunning! Golden light made the yellowing ferns glow along the rocky and low Loyalsock creek. Leaves were starting to turn, and there were purple asters everywhere. Rocks and waterfalls, up and down. There weren’t many runners around me at all. Up to Devil’s Garden, down to Worlds End, a small cluster of runners here and there passing me on technical stretches or falling behind me on runnable parts. I was focusing hard on those flags! I knew I didn’t have time to get lost and still keep ahead of cutoffs. At Worlds End my crew was cheering as I came off the Link Trail behind the Visitor’s Center and crossed the road. I got a huge lift seeing Mike Whalen and Matt Brophy and knowing they were ready to run some miles with me! Alan was waiting with a chair and my gear laid out: quick change of shoes and socks, some pickles and potato chips, water refill and a bag of gels, and I was off up the steep climb toward Canyon Vista. This section overlapped with the half marathon going on at the same time (the ultra was rescheduled to the half marathon date due to COVID). Different colored flags were everywhere, and runners were going both directions. It was confusing! I was grateful to finally branch off and onto ultra-only trail again.
The view at Canyon Vista takes your breath away! I was starting to believe I could finish, 20+ miles in and feeling great! Still chasing Lea though. I fully believed that if I could catch her, I would finish.
After Canyon, the Pacer Aid Station is next at Coal Mine. I was gradually passing some other runners and listening hard for the horns and the yelling. The Pacers pampered me and got me in and out fast, with a bellyful of soup and grilled cheese and some sage words from the ax bearer, Jess Gockley. And surprising news: I was ahead of Lea! I knew I was close to Joanne, Lori, and Laura and on pace to beat cutoffs. Eight miles to High Knob at mile 35 where Mike Whalen would pace me the next 15 miles. I consider that stretch the most beautiful and most difficult. It’s also the longest gap between aid stations, but in return you get some amazing vistas and gorgeous waterfalls. When we trained here in August, this part was slick and treacherous, but on race day it was dry and I felt like I was flying. Even the wooden ladder and eroded trail at Rode Falls didn’t scare me. I got to share some miles with Laura, and before I knew it we had popped out onto the road, and I was rolling into High Knob, over 90 minutes ahead of the cutoff.
Alan had a well-trained pit crew by this time! New shoes and socks, a quick stretch and pack refill, and Mike and I were off, butt sliding down the first steep drop and then rolling along comfortably down a long, runnable descent, up an endless climb, and back down to Dry Run. In and out, head lamps ready, another long climb and we were trying to cover miles. I was still feeling good, but getting tired and stiff and I knew I’d have trouble negotiating the rocks in the dark. Mike assured me I was on track to finish, but he kept me moving and made sure I ate and hydrated on schedule, entertaining me all the while. The woods at dusk were beautiful, but we were losing daylight. We almost missed one turn as darkness fell, but were saved by some campers, and we made it into Brunnerdale mile 50 a little over an hour ahead of the cutoff.
The pit crew was ready, and Alan got me in my last dry shoes and socks, fresh headlamp and flashlight, fuel and water, and Matt guided me out into the last leg of the journey in full dark. I was stiff and sore and growing concerned that I was losing ground against the final cutoffs. There were two big climbs after Brunnerdale; everything was rocky and difficult, and it wasn’t just dark, but also a little misty making my glasses fog up. Mike got a perky and talkative Elaine, but Matt got an exhausted, fretful, mostly silent Elaine–sorry Matt! Matt found me the flags and talked books with me–everything to keep my mind off my complaints. I know he was getting worried that I was moving too slowly. At the last aid station, Fern Rock, the volunteers told us we could make it but NO WALKING! It is entirely runnable for that last 6 miles…or would be if I hadn’t already covered 58 treacherous miles since 5 AM!
So we ran (mostly) and ran and ran and ran, and where the HELL is that last steep drop? FINALLY we were dropping down the last steep trail. I was bleeding time off the clock, too stiff to run the steep parts and scared I’d fall and in a terror of getting this close and missing the deadline. Matt was calm and measured every step. At last the trail flattened out, and there were Stephan Weiss and Dan Govern cheering us onto the paved path to the parking lot and the finish.
18:49:41, 60th of 64 finishers. As she’d predicted, Lea was the last finisher a few minutes later! A belt buckle, a hug from Alan, a blur of congratulations, and an utter crash of nausea, exhaustion, and almost cramping muscles. I missed everything that happened for the next hour, a far cry from the celebration I imagined I would have if I somehow finished that thing! BUT I had the time of my life! Epic, hard, agonizing, breathtaking, magnificent! Every single person crewing, volunteering, running, and cheering was a part of making that day great! I loved everything about it. I could never have finished without my husband, my crew–especially Mike and Matt who gave up a fall weekend–and the advice and support of my training partners and the Pacers! I would absolutely do it again, if I am fortunate enough to get the chance. Don’t ask me to tell you about it unless you are ready for an earful!