Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Megatransect Race - A trail marathon with several twists

Sometime late last year, I came across the website for the Megatransect Race in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. I don't recall the circumstances that surrounded my stumbling across it. It may have been a fellow runner's suggestion or a googling of the phrase 'batshit crazy running ideas,' but I discovered this race that took place in the mountains of central Pennsylvania a short drive from my childhood home in Carlisle. It was of a slightly undetermined length (the website gives the rather vague description of a 25+ mile race), largely due to the fact that it can't be compared to any other race out there, marathon or otherwise. The route changes year-to-year, though several highlights are included in each running, so even comparing it to previous Megas is not an apples-to-apples type thing.

It may be marathon length, but calling the Mega a trail marathon is to completely ignore what makes the Mega... the Mega.

I tried to sign up last year. The race was in September. It was July. I was about 7 months too late. See, registration opens for the Mega on Jan 1st at noon... and is full by 1:30. The field is extremely limited thanks to the trail restrictions, and it's an extremely popular race. So, I set my phone to remind me on New Year's eve to not get so wasted that I couldn't fill out a race form at noon the next day.

The 2012 race filled up in 30 minutes, but I was in. Some friends weren't so lucky. So, as the 2012 calendar slowly clicked toward September, I alone waited for the trip to Pennsylvania.

I flew up on Thursday, choosing to stay the night in my old hometown and cruise past the few places I could remember from my youth. The house I grew up in looked exactly the same. The streets were familiar... but so much smaller. The early fall weather was amazing as I walked down High Street past Dickinson College and an intersection that makes an appearance in my book coughGetitHerecough. My elementary school looked completely different. The hamburger that I had for dinner (and the one for lunch the next day) at Scalles was blessedly the same. It reminded me of what fall seasons were supposed to be like and gave me hope that the weather would be ideal for the race that Saturday.

I spent Friday night in State College, a respectably-sized town about 30 mins south of Lock Haven that is known for being the home of Penn State more than anything else. I had an early morning, so I didn't get to experience the thrills of PSU partying. But, I found myself wondering what brings out-of-staters to the college. It's a nice place... but it's in the middle of nowhere.

The Mountain was angry that day, my friend
The next morning, I was on the road early and arrived at the Castanea Picnic Grounds to find a growing mob of camelbak-wearing hikers and runners. The Mega is an odd race in that a wide spectrum of competitors crawls out of that early morning fog. You'll see your singlet-wearing road runners lined up next to full-spandex suited trail runners. Mountain climbers trot out from the starting line as the distance runners pull away. Each competitor had their strong and weak points, and it made for an interesting day.

The first three miles were on a gently sloping road. Here, the lithe distance runners pulled away. I kept a steady pace thanks to concerns over whether or not I'd even be able to finish. Two weeks earlier, I had been diagnosed with giardia (mountain water stomach fungus, for you laypeople), and the pain and discomfort I felt was only amplified by the antibiotic regimen I had to endure. Suffice it to say, I did not train in the final two weeks and my body was so racked with trying to heal itself that keeping my legs in running shape was not high on its priority list.

I wasn't sure I could climb a ladder much less a mountain. Still, I stepped off and finished the opening road section at about a 9 min/mile pace. Not my fastest, but I wasn't sprinting. I was simply dreading what the rest of the day had in store. As a show of camaraderie with my growing GORUCK family, I wore a GRC shirt and my GR1 ruck with some snacks and a water bladder. I can say with all honesty that it was nice to hear periodic comments about GORUCK and people running next to me asking about my challenges.

We GRTs are everywhere. After 3 miles, I turned with the pack of runners into the trees... and stopped.

Trail run my backside.

The trails comprising the Mega route are thick, steep, and rocky. About 50% of the trail is actually 'runnable,' and only half of that is safely runnable. You're taking your life (and your knees and ankles) into your own hands if you run many of the sections. That's not to say we walked... we climbed. Fast.

The first trail section was difficult in that the 700 or so runners were still largely bunched up. With different skill sets, some people hiked up the hills faster while others excelled on the road work. This meant many people had to fight past the slower climbers for miles 4-6. It was painstakingly slow, more so than any race start I can recall. Most runners know what I mean when I say that the first mile of any major race is a stutter step/slalom exercise as you dive around other runners. This was ten times worse than that.

It was at around Mile 5 that I came upon what I'll call the Mega Mantra. Other racers understand that some people (largely rookies) start out the Mega fast and hit a wall thanks to the rigorous course. Or, they assume these people that sprinted by them on the road will get caught on the hills. Or, the hill-climbing speed demons will be caught and passed once the pack emerges from the trees. So, the mantra I heard every time I passed someone...

"Heh... we'll catch him on the flat sections."

About halfway up the boulders. Great view. Awful trail.
With the questions surrounding my stomach and overall body weakness coupled with my lack of knowledge about the Mega, I feared they were right. What did I know about what I was getting into? As it turns out, they were wrong and likely just projecting. But, more on that later.

Because, at Mile 6, we hit the boulder field. This is the epitome of the Mega. If you've seen any albums of Mega pictures, 3/4 of it is this. It's beautiful, and from the top you can see out over Lock Haven and much of the river valley below. But, it's about 2/3 of a mile straight up and over boulders. It taxes the calves and quadriceps as well as whatever mental preparation you were able to bring. Still, taking a break every few hundred feet to turn around and take in the view is a great way to recharge the batteries. Fortunately, I had scaled similar boulder fields in Colorado only weeks earlier. I pushed through...

Yea.. this is a 'trail' race
Across the boulder field, I met more GRTs and we tackled Rattlesnake Ridge. A couple miles further, we reached the Mile 10 (and, eventually what would be the Mile 17) aid station. Peanut butter sandwiches. Gatorade. Chocolate. Peanuts. It was heaven.

And, as I refueled, the leader came into the aid station. Only, he was at Mile 17.

Damn it.

I plunged back into the woods, alone and determined to run the section I could... even the rocky sections that had me bounding down the trail more than running. It was parkour in Pennsylvania, wooded with a roof of reds, yellows, and greens. Leaves fell around me as I ran, skipped, and bounced through the trees.

It was pretty damn cool.

I reached a small creek. It was about 1030 in the morning, but the trees kept the sun at bay. Only a cool, muggy breeze sneaked past the denuded trees. I crossed the slippery rocks and found the section of the race evilly referred to as K2 in reference to the soul-sucking mountain on the border between China and Pakistan that is the Earth's second tallest.

They use this picture in ads to imply you
can actually run a good portion of this race
This section of the race included rope work to keep you from killing yourself. Using the thick blue line, I pulled myself up the 30 feet to the ridge and tip-toed along it. With some places only 8 inches wide, the trail had a steep dropoff to the floor 50 feet below. It was technical and tough. I hated this part and found it the most difficult of the entire route. It seemed unending.

But, end it did. The trail opened a bit and I ran. Miles 12-14 disappeared beneath my feet. The field of runners was so disperse now that I could go 5-10 minutes without seeing another competitor. Breaking into the open at 14.5 miles, I found the 'midpoint' aid station. I call it that because it was actually more than halfway, but the mountain only allowed for aid sections to be placed at certain spots. I took a break here for several minutes, even 'ruck flopping' on to the ground to relax. Much peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were enjoyed. There was much rejoicing. Racers drifted in and rested.

I heard horror stories. The race organizers had placed ATVs at sections along the route and all were equipped with radios. Other racers had overheard the support crews talking.

One woman had cracked her skull open and had to be carried out. Another had dislocated her wrist. Yet another had a broken ankle.

As my GORUCK family would say... this race wasn't nothin'.

As I watched people drift in, drained and dehydrated, I realized that I was gaining nothing by sitting. I stood up and started walking to the trail. I started jogging. I started running. Another mile down the trail, we once again cut into the trees. Up and up and up... I came across a guy that recognized my GORUCK shirt, though he hadn't done one. Brad said his brother-in-law had. We passed the next several miles talking about why we wanted to do something so stupid. Together, we made it to the Mile 17 aid station.

We were back at the top of the mountain. It had to be downhill from here, right? I was so excited to reach the aid station - knowing I had a chance to tend to a growing blister on my right foot had driven me for the last few miles - but I stayed there mere minutes. I apparently reboot quickly... I was once more in the trees, this time with my eyes set on the Mile 22 aid station. Maps were hanging at the stops, and I thought it was fairly level through to 22.

The Rote Overlook: A race highlight
My legs were burning by this point, so I took the opportunity to break into a trot and stretch them out. I passed handfuls of people stretching out sore muscles in the thick underbrush. They appeared thankful to have a wide enough trail to pull off to the side. We dipped slightly and then rose once more, reaching the Rote Overlook. I stopped here for the view of the valley. Most impressive and beautiful in the early afternoon sun. Sadly, I couldn't stay long as a group of racers were coming behind me, and I feared being stuck behind them should the trail narrow. I ducked into the trees and left the clearing behind. And, we descended.

Down to Mile 22's station. "Only four more miles," I heard. One up, three down. "Yeah," another worker said, "He says that, but I'm not sure it's true."

Well, the initial run to the mountain was 3 miles of open road. I can't be that far from breaking out of the woods, right?

To you, mountain,
I wave two middle fingers
Oh, yes. Yes I can. Cuz Mile 23 was straight MFing UP. The 'K2' section was technically difficult... this part just sucked. It was demoralizing to have just run down the mountain for two miles only to have to go back up. The trail narrowed to shoulder width, and passing anyone was out of the question. Unfortunately, though we started this section spread out, it was inevitable that people would get eaten for lunch here. All it took was one person to start bonking, and we piled into each other like a folding accordion, forced to slow to our leader's pace.

No one complained.

I had reached Mile 22 at 2PM and been on the course for seven hours. Given my health leading up to the race, I was just hoping to get in under 10 hours. I had nothing to compare the race to other than some GRTs' times from the previous year. I figured I could beat them. My stomach left that question up in the air. But, with 4 miles to go, I was 7 hours in. Hell, I thought, I can do this in under 8 hours!

Hell no, I couldn't. Cuz Mile 23 sucked a big ole bag of excrement.

Though it wasn't raining as it had been in 2011 (I heard horror stories of that race the entire day), the trees kept the moisture on the trails. Dirt quickly turned to mud and people slid all over the mountain. We crept towards the top of the hill only to come face to face.... with more gawdam boulders.

A boulder field, evilly reminiscent of Mile 6, stretched out before us. It was here that people's souls died. I actually saw it happen. The color drained from people's faces, and I saw some of them get that look in their eyes like Bill Paxton's character in Aliens.

Game over, man.... GAME OVER!

If I still had any hope for an 8 hour finish after the climb up, those boulders ground it into dust and spit all over it. Thirty frustrating minutes later, I crested the top of the field. It wasn't nearly as high or long as the first boulder section, but it was so demoralizing after believing yourself to be on the home stretch. Plus, my legs were jello. I compensated by placing my foot on the next boulder and pushing on my knee, upward on my hands. It gave my upper legs some rest, but it was exhausting.

Cresting this section, we smelled the open air. We found an open section of actual, vehicle-capable trail and begin running. I passed exhausted hikers ("Bah! He'll wear out... we'll pass him once we get out of the trees!") and was passed by a blur as a runner, barely in control, sped down the trail. I darted past the spot where the Mile 3 water stop had been hours earlier and broke into downtown Castanea (Note: I use the term 'downtown' extremely loosely here). Blessed downhill sections spread out before me and I ran a solid, steady pace for a mile and half.

Then, I came to the infamous green mile. This final section before the turn back to the start/finish runs parallel to the elevated roadway and between it and a sprawling field of corn. It's essentially a grass-covered path along the spillway, and it's beauty was offset by the fact that you could see the end of it... and it appeared to be 8 miles away. By this point, racers are spread out every few hundred feet, and passing is rare. Most at this point are concerned less with their time than they are with ensuring their place in the finishing chute. People glance over shoulders regularly to see if they are being chased. If you look and the person behind you is running... you start running. It was comical in its own, sadistic way.

The road cut back under an overpass and passed some old houses... and more corn. Up one more low hill, and the finish line appeared in the distance. I picked up my speed around the parking lots and lined myself up for the sprint to the finish... The smell of pizza and signs for beer gave me strength I didn't know I had, and I dashed through the archway. 8:21. Eight hours and twenty one minutes. Ho-Lee-Crap.

They had BBQ for us, but I went straight to the pizza and smoothie. That banana smoothie (and the two that followed it) were pure heaven. I admired my Mega X medal (it was the tenth anniversary of
It's like a pot of liquid gold at the end
of a rainbow of tortuous water-boarding
the race) and marveled at the people around me. It was quite the gathering of old and young, men and women. The Lock Haven University running teams helped along the course - high off in the mountains - and they drifted in to grateful applause and thank-yous. I caught up with Brad, who finished about 20 minutes behind me with his brothers-in-law. I found several GRTs and traded stories and came across other people that recognized my shirt and asked me about the Challenge.

I was nauseous and weak. Exhausted and exhilarated. I recovered quickly - quicker than I expected - and completed a half marathon the next weekend. I can now honestly say that I have completed a trail marathon (the final race distance was 26.7 miles according to several GPS devices), but the Mega is anything but. It can only be compared to itself, and only then with a grain of salt. It poured down rain in 2011. The route was a mile and half longer in 2012. Aspects from year to year are the same, but it's always a new path.

Always a new path.

Any competitor - GRT, runner, swimmer, or similar - is always looking for a new path. Whether its a muddy trench carved by those that are ahead of you... right around the corner.. or a leaf-covered path that seems to have been undisturbed for eons, we are always looking for new paths.

People ask me why I do this crazy stuff (often with a rucksack full of bricks, though I smartly opted out of that for the Mega), and I am pleased to know that I've found others that share my own personal brand of competitive psychosis - not with each other necessarily, but with ourselves. People ask why I do it, and all I can think to say is that I am always looking for a new path.

Old paths are boring and commonplace. I've been down those. What's over there... what's on top of K2 or Mount Yale, or across the finish line at the Vermont Death Race? Those are the paths I want to see...

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  1. Great job on this!! Me and the original "Florida" crew did this in 2011 and got 11:49. This year some of us made it before you, though me and friend of mine made it in 8:45.

    Your write up is spot on, btw. As a fellow GRT (class 172), I can really appreciate the comparison between a GoRuck event and the Mega. Frankly, I think the Mega is harder, but I've only done one.

    Hope to see you next year!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Cory. The Mega is certainly a different animal than a GORUCK. You can't look for too much help from others during the Mega, and you really find out what you and your training are all about.

    I plan on being there next year, also. We'll have to meet up at the finish and throw back a drink.