Redemption, Hallucination, and a Moment of Bliss

an oil creek adventure

by Steve Vida

Last year, I DNF’d the Oil Creek 100-Miler after 75 miles.  It was my first attempt at this distance.

I returned in 2022 with a little more experience and confidence.  Everything proceeded as planned, and I (mostly) crushed it with the indispensable help of my pacers and crew.  I was 23rd out of 46 finishers and 84 starters.  I feel redeemed and content.

The Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs take place in Titusville, PA.  This is a well-organized event with an established reputation for outstanding aid stations and abundant course markings.  It’s a 5-hour drive from Reading, but worth the trip.  The start/finish is at the Titusville Middle School, but the course is a 50k loop in Oil Creek State Park.  The 100-mile race repeats this loop 3 times, with an extra 7-mile “going home” loop tacked on the end.

There are also 50k and 100k races with staggered starts on the same day.  My sister (club president) Michelle Henry and my daughter Olivia finished the 50k this year.  It’s a popular event with a generous cut-off time, and the signups fill quickly.  All 3 of us had great weather with temperatures mostly in the 40s and 50s.

Everything about my 2022 race went smoothly.  I wasn’t sure how to pace the early parts of a 100-miler.  So I looked back at times from 2016, averaged the splits from the bottom 2/3 of finishers and used those as my targets.  I managed to run the first loop 20 minutes ahead of target.  The second loop was 7 more minutes ahead of target.  But the biggest boost came when I picked up my pacers for the third lap, and we came through 40 minutes faster than target.

Sometimes, all you need from a pacer is company.  But Matt Brophy and Jason Karpinski were bringing the deluxe pacer package to Oil Creek: they understood me, and I trusted them.  This team (along with my wife Tracy as my crew captain) would be able to guide me through anything.

Jason joined me at the start of the third loop, not too long after dark.  I was using an hourly alarm on my watch as an eating reminder, but now it became a countdown til sunrise.  Every hour I would announce “10 hours til sunrise” and then eat a gel.  Halfway through the loop we reached the aid station where I dropped last year, and Matt started pacing.  Every step now was farther than I have ever run, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But I was able to keep up some hiking/running mixture that surprised me.  I kept up the sunrise countdown with Matt, but when we came down off the mountain at the end of loop 3, it was still dark, and I was 67 minutes ahead of plan.

This was probably my emotional highpoint during the race itself.  In my mind, I was moving like an unstoppable machine.  I had 9 miles to go and almost 5 of them would be flat.  I had so much time left that the cutoffs no longer mattered – I was definitely going to finish.  But I was also about 5 miles away from my lowest point of the race.  And I was starting to see things.

There’s about a mile of paved bike path between the trail and the school.  As we headed back to the school to complete the third loop, I spotted a person well ahead walking their dog alongside the path.  But as we got closer, there was no dog and there was no person … and I think, weren’t they right here where this sign is now?  This kind of episode repeated itself for the remainder of the race.  I’m uncommonly tolerant of lack of sleep, but at this point I had run through 2 sunrises during the race, and it felt like my brain was stretched too thin.

These few flat miles to the school and back gave me a break with a chance to fast-walk for a while.  But after 45 minutes, when I needed to start uphill again, there was a new and significant soreness in my right quad.  It wasn’t excruciating, but still the discomfort quickly sapped everything I had left.  Downhills felt even worse.  So at mile 96 I reached my lowpoint, staring at a sign that identified the next section as the “Hill of Truth”.  It was a slow and quiet battle.

Jason and Michelle met us about half a mile from the finish, and Michelle captured a photo that is my favorite from the weekend.  It’s Matt, me, and Jason walking together, but we’re spread out and clearly not speaking.  I think we look like 3 tired guys just leaving work after third shift.  And I think we give off an attitude like this is all something routine.

As we got closer to the school, Matt reminded me that I was expected to run it in.  I wasn’t convinced it was possible, but he also assured me that once I turned the corner, the energy and ability would be there, and he was right.  I lumbered down the home stretch with some mixture of disbelief and triumph.  I crossed the finish line, buried my face in my hands and choked back a quick couple sobs.  I imagined this finish so many times, but I never understood how the whole experience would gradually grind me away, and for a few blissful moments, all I would have – all I would be – is this belt buckle.