The Pine Creek Challenge 50 Mile Trail Run – 2021 Edition

My First 50 Miler – Post Race Report – Coach Clare Zecher

“You’re fine. This is fine. You’re Fine. This is fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.” This is what Courtney Dauwalter posted on what she kept saying to herself during her record breaking UTMB win this year when it got rough.

“I Feel Good. I Feel Great. I Feel Wonderful.”  As repeated by Kevin Golberg during his 5th place finish at the 2021 Bigfoot 200, and during his 4th place finish overall Triple Crown of 200s in 2019. 

My version? “I’m Good, I’m Great and Everything is Wonderful! You’re Fine. It’s Finally.  It’s Totally Fine. You’re Totally Fine.”

My First 50 Mile Trail Run experience was at once terrifying (a few days before), exciting, challenging, and surreal.  My fear came from concern that foot blister challenges from previous trail 50Ks and marathons would cause my skin to rip off.  Having had some chafing in humid conditions and heard the horror stories, it was possible my skin would once again tear and bleed.  If that wasn’t enough, as with any endurance event, GI problems had been an issue, and making sure to stay hydrated and fueled had been a challenge on 50K+ runs.  I was excited to do the 50 miler as I’d successfully completed 3 x 50Ks in tough conditions, and I knew the new distance would be challenging to run (my previous long run having been about 33 miles each).  The surreal part came in because, after all these years of long course racing and ultra-cycling, it felt like I’d already done this a million times, and yet I hadn’t.  Perhaps I’d simply envisioned it so many times while reading everything I could find about ultra running that is seemed more a memory than imagination.  Whatever it was, as soon as I started running, I was there in my mind, as I’d been so many times before.

The Pine Creek Challenge happens each year in September through the Pine Creek Gorge (the Grand Canyon of the East) along the 62 mile Pine Creek Trail.  It is flat and eats runners’ legs.  It is beautiful with stunning views of the river and runs of rocks that were moved with avalanche-like forces. Beautiful flowers and  trees line the path through gorge guiding you along. 

This isn’t a huge race with only 250 competitors when all the distances are included. The 50 Mile route starts as a northbound out and back for a total of 11.5 miles, with a return to the start point, and then runners head south for another 38.5 mile out and back.  There is little chance to get lost. Aid stations are generously placed every 6-8.5 miles, and the volunteers are experienced and friendly.  Overall, it’s a great course for beginners or those looking to hit a flat trail time goal.

The weeks before the race I began collecting everything I could possibly need for this race.  The primary categories were: nutrition, hydration, first aid, foot care, shoes, clothing, and “other needs”.  I put together a large Rubbermaid bin for each of these categories, and within each were gallon zip-locs labeled with contents.  (I REALLY like to be prepared!)  There was an aid station “flow chart” for my race crew, and bags were labeled 1, 2, 3, 4 and 911 in order of when I’d need them.  I knew I’d need a shoe change and probably a full clothing change at least once, so at the first change stop, I told my crew what I needed, and they handed me Bag 1 (socks, shorts, tank top, underwear and bra), new shoes, body chafe ointment, foot blister powder, bug spray, and while I was in my Wolfwise change tent, they restocked either my running belt or running vest with one of my pre-packaged 500 calorie packs of food and pre-mixed Nuun Sweat.  Yup, I prepacked out 6 x 500 calorie snack size ziplocs with a Picky bar, a HoneyStinger GF Cinnamon Waffle, 1 package of Skratch Matcha Lemon chews and 1 GinGin.  I also repared a Ziploc of nothing but Picky Bars, another of HoneyStinger waffles, another of Skratch chews with and without caffeine, a gallon bag of Tailwind with and without flavor and caffeine if everything went 911 and I couldn’t keep food down, and a gallon sized bag of hydration fluids with #1 being a pre-mixed gallon jug of Nuun Podium Sweat Mango Citrus flavor, #2 Osmo Hydration, #3 Skratch Green Tea and Lemon, #3 Liquid I.V.  Only the Nuun was pre-mixed as it had been working great for my past runs.  Like I said, I LIKE TO BE PREPARED! ?

As I approached each aid station, my crew had a camp chair and my Hyper-Volt ready for me to use while they did their pit crew thing.  It would be easier on them and me if the aid stations had food and drinks that I could ingest, but with food allergies, it just wasn’t going to work, and I’m so grateful for my crew!

My Coach, Kevin, encouraged me to perform my planned stretching routine and Hyper-Volt at every aid station and to take 5’ to do it.  I asked when I should start that, and he told me “At the first aid station, because you won’t get to the end and think, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have stopped for 5’ to stretch at Aid Station 1’.  It’s a long day and you don’t have to worry about time so take it.”  He was so right!  A quick note on aid stations, while I estimated 5’ at each initially at most, my revised estimate built from 5’ for aid station #1 and #2 early in the race, to 10’ and later 15’ when I knew I’d need to change clothes and shoes, sit and eat and just check in mentally, and then refresh and gear up for the final push home.  That was so worth it!  I had A LOT more fun than many of the runners I saw out there.

For clothing, I ran in my CZC ballcap which has served me and so many other runners and athletes well.  Not once has sweat dripped in my eyes, I haven’t had sun in my eyes and my head never gets hot, love it!  I started out with an XO Skin tank top, XO Skin shorts, XO Skin Calf Sleeves and XO Skin toe socks. 

I had a complete outfit change packed for each aid station if needed.  Why, you ask would I pack that many outfit changes?  On previous runs my bra had torn off all the skin on my front where it had contact with my body, my socks had contributed to blisters, and often I had chafe from either a running vest or skin or a funny seam.  You just don’t know what’s going to bother you when it’s hot and humid out, and it was HUMID this day.  Granted it was 100% humidity and 72 degrees at the Mtn Lakes Ultra 3 weeks earlier when I was so soaked from humidity my shoes squelched and my bandages all fell off.  Bu the morning of the Pine Creek Challenge it started cool with thick fog, which then translated to humidity but at least we had a nice breeze and it didn’t feel hot unless we were in the sun.  Regardless, wet clothes running means chafe, so there were two shoes changes (more for feet getting sore in weird places), and two bra changes and one top change due to sweat. Having the change tent was so convenient and I was happy to see a lot of other crews had packed them for their racers too!

My goal was about 200 calories an hour achieved with 60ish calories of Nuun in a hand bottle with a Honey Stinger Waffle 140 calories, and more Nuun as desired, up to about a liter an hour (32 ounces).  Everyone has different needs for hydration, and women have a lot more to consider when figuring theirs out as hormones fluctuate in the month and one week your body is stable and 16-20 ounce an hour is good, then the next week you need 32 ounces and a lot more sodium because hormones are dumping them out of the body and it’s hard to keep cool. Thanks to the App I knew what to do hydration wise, and it worked perfectly.

In the end, I drank approximately 1 liter of Nuun per hour (Podium Sweat Mango Citrus) and ate at least one waffle or Picky Bar (mostly all waffles) every 3 miles.  At the turnaround south I ate two full svgs of Scharr GF Saltines and at least a cup of watermelon.  I carried more crackers with me, and later I tried some of my Skratch Chews, but my body was like, “Nope, I don’t want straight sugar, I want food.”  So more crackers it was.

All in all, it was really surreal. What surprised me most was all the people that I saw walking so early in the race (not by choice) i.e. mile 60 of the 100 mile and they did not look like they were going to run again. I was so happy that I hadn’t signed up for a longer race! 

My left arch got sore during the last 10 miles, and I’m not sure why.  It was funny,  but I was able to run from 47 -50.5 more like a normal run without any pain as I was smelling the barn and I hadn’t been running that fast all day so my muscles were happy to open up.   In anticipation of blisters, I taped my toes and didn’t feel any blisters or hot spots while running, but when I went to take off the tape at the hotel post race it was really painful, and I had plenty of water blisters, but they were nowhere near as bad as when I ran Shore 2 Shore.  I believe this is because:

  1. This race is flat
  2. I didn’t try to run this race fast
  3. S2S has a lot of sand in the trails
  4. S2S has 1000’ of vert in the sandy trails at the beginning
  5. I taped my toes for Pine Creek, used Run Goo, and used XO Skin socks which while wet, didn’t get soppy wet like my Injingi’s generally do

On the drive back to the hotel post race, my feet swelled so much that I felt like I was walking on club feet.  I’m not sure what exactly caused the swelling (too tight calf sleeves, irritation from spraying anti-perspirant on my feet under RunGoo, or just stopping after running so much and getting blood pooling are all possibilities).  I took off my shoes and ran a hot bath (I had started to shiver) as traditionally that’s the only thing to stop the cold chills post race (temps dropped to mid- 50s), and when I went to take off my socks, OMG! I thought pulling the toe socks off my left foot was going to pull off my toenails. 

It seems the tape kept my toenails intact, however the blisters under and around them had definitely still formed. I slowly put my foot into the water and worked to clean the sore toes with hot soapy water.  I drained the tub, rinsed it out and refilled it to warm up my body.  I managed to dress in warm sweats and laid down on the bed, but I couldn’t tolerate  a blanket on my toes as they felt like a hot, searing blade was touching them with the blanket weight.  By morning, my toes were a lot better.  As always, I was saved by my Oofos Flip Flops which I wore solely until Thursday when I wore a regular shoe again.  Muscle wise, the front of my hips were definitely tired, but overall there was little fatigue or pain elsewhere that was noticeable.  It really was simply my left toes, AGAIN, that were the problem.  We will continue to problem solve on this.

In the end, it felt surreal again.  I know I keep using that word, but I felt like I’d done it, I’d known I could do it, and that I’d done it many times.  Perhaps it comes from years of racing long, perhaps it comes from absorbing the stories of other ultra runners, or perhaps I was finally able to simply be in the moment for the entire race, but it was over, and it felt like everything was as it should be.

Someone asked my husband later that week, “What do you think about for 50 miles?” He said he didn’t know.  Well the answer is this: “How do I feel? What do I need?” and then “This is Fine, Totally Fine, I’m Fine, You’re Fine, I’m Good, I’m Great and Everything is Wonderful!”