Think Like A Train
By Tom Butler
In early July I traveled to Lanesboro, PA to participate in the 5th running of the Viaduct Trail Ultramarathon. The inaugural race (2007) was 68.63 miles long, and the only two runners were the current race directors, David Kennedy and Carl Albright. The following year was a 50/100 mile race. The 50 mile option was removed in its third year. In 2011 it transformed into a 100/200 mile race; with time limits of thirty hours for the 100 mile run, and seventy-two hours for the longer race option.
The number of entrants was limited to 30 for both races combined, due to the limited number of volunteers available to monitor the participants. I was seventh on the waiting list. Commitment paid off as other runners opted out and I was moved steadily up the list; receiving an invitation in time to switch from the 50 mile, to the 50K, at the Finger Lakes Fifties the previous weekend. I was highly motivated to have another shot at 100 miles.
I started out a little too late Friday evening and discovered Google’s recommended route through Auburn and Skaneateles is poorly advised during the camping/tourist season. I reached Lanesboro well after dark, which made navigating the narrow twisting roads much more challenging. The roads were more like paved paths through the woods, with houses thrown in occasionally. The town is small so it wasn’t hard to locate Luciana Park beneath the Starrucca Viaduct from which the race derives its name. Many runners chose to spend the night in the park in preparation for the 6AM start. There’s also an early (4AM) start for VTU veterans (those familiar with course).
The course is a 25 mile out-and-back along an unimproved rail-trail, with aid stations at the start/finish, turn-around, and one about halfway through the course. It gradually climbs 900 feet to the town of Thompson, with two “dips” along the way, and then returns to the start. The second dip exists where the trains used to cross the valley via bridge; only a few support pillars still remain of that structure. Much of the trail is dirt and cinder, with fairly large gravel (the type common to railroad tracks) littering the trail between the middle aid station and Thompson. They are a significant challenge as they are usually spaced just far enough apart to allow for stepping on single stones frequently if one is not constantly vigilant; which makes them a potential source for tripping, foot tenderness, and blisters.
This is a FREE event, so runners are encouraged to bring what they need for nutrition; and to contribute a little extra for sharing with other participants and volunteers. This request was generously honored; thus the aid stations were overflowing with nutrition choices. The race directors promised us all the clean drinking water we’d need to go the distance; and they delivered. A drop bag can be left at the start, and a second bag can be delivered to the turn-around at the other end of the course.
I spent the first couple hours setting up my drop bags in my vehicle, using a crank-style flashlight to illuminate the process. This is an endeavor better performed prior to leaving home. I slept on the seat/bed in my van and managed to get about four hours of decent rest before the sounds of runners preparing for the day made it no longer possible to relax and forget about the event soon to begin. There weren’t any port-a-potties (except one which happened to be at a construction site on the course). Luciana Park has two outhouse facilities with no light and/or toilet paper; so bring your own, and be prepared to utilize the woods along the trail.
A few runners took the early start option. The rest of us gathered beneath the viaduct shortly before 6AM. The trail directions were pretty simple; “think like a train”. The race director explained that the course follows the old train route and trains don’t turn fast or climb steep grades; so if we were in doubt about which way to turn, go the route that a train would follow. This simple advice was usually correct, however, I still took a wrong turn where the old bridge used to cross the valley because it involved a steep downhill and a sharp left-hand turn. It was necessary to pretend that the old bridge was still there and imagine where it would connect to the distant hillside. Fortunately, as I was retracing my steps, trying to figure out the right way to go, a veteran passed me and led the way to the trail up the other side of the valley. Other than that, the trail was very easy to follow.
At the start, it was apparent that one tan young man with a chiseled physique was likely to lead the effort from beginning to end. He disappeared in a cloud of dust as everyone else began their long determined meander of the course. The day was forecast to be hot, so I planned to keep my speed in check and stay in the shade as much as possible. I was also recovering from a serious skin infection that required clean dressing and protection from sweat. I decided to skip the sunscreen for the early morning leg, expecting sufficient shade to keep me out of the sun. I put the sunscreen in the turn-around bag, planning to apply it before the return trip.
Shortly after leaving the start, I encountered “the bridge”. The bridge is an old railroad trestle, relatively short, but not solid. Instead, many found it necessary to step carefully from one railroad tie to the next, across the gaps in between, which showed the creek about 15 feet below. There was a recommended alternative of climbing down to the creek, and wading across, for those fearful of crossing the bridge. I skipped across, a little too overconfident, and nearly slipped on a round beam that was still damp from the previous day’s rain. Recovering my balance, I continued across and briefly joined a small group at the rear of the pack.
I began my run/walk strategy of run 7, walk 3, and this moved me ahead of the small group. I found myself closely pacing a gentleman who was speed walking. I commented that he was moving at the same pace and he responded by stating he was walking slow and sped up. I guessed that we probably wouldn’t end up conversing so I just resumed my own pace and eventually passed him. We would end up being close in pace for a long time.
I made the first aid station in about 80 minutes and the first turn in just less than three hours. The “walking man” passed me at the aid station while I was attempting to improve my bandage (salt was getting through). It turns out the waterproof bandages I bought were not very adhesive and would not hold to my skin even after wiping away the sweat. One of the aid station volunteers had some medical tape, so I used it to assist the bandage (and a second bandage over the top edge) before starting back down the trail. I got a quarter mile before I realized that I had forgotten to apply sunscreen. I decided to cling to the shade and try to keep going. I found a nice stream to soak my head in a few miles before reaching the 25 mile mark.
I wasn’t able to entirely avoid the sun but the exposure was minimal, and still before noon, so I was able to cope. I reached the end of my first lap in just over 6 hours. I applied better bandages with the gauze and tape I had in my van and did not have to attend to the wound during the rest of the event. I was surviving primarily off of Gatorade, fruit bars, and Pringles. My sunscreen was still at the other end, so I improvised and took an umbrella with me. It was slightly awkward to carry, especially with an injured tendon in my wrist from a triathlon two weeks prior, but it worked well at protecting my skin and keeping the heat under control. I called it my “portable cloud”.
The leader passed me about 4 miles in and was still flying. I estimated he would catch me before I made Thompson. I was moving slower, due to the warmth, and reached the aid station around 4PM. I was surprised that the leader had not yet caught me; the aid station worker explained he had dropped after 50 miles due to inexperience with pacing for such a long distance. I filled my bottle, consumed my rations, and placed the umbrella with my drop bag. I figured that I could handle the late afternoon sun with whatever shade the trees afforded. The sun had only been directly overhead from about 11AM – 3PM and the trees and umbrella guarded me from sunburn. The greatest difficulty had been the nearly non-stop company of deer flies from about 9AM; many of them met their demise along the trail, although I lost count. I also lost my favorite bandana somewhere along the trail and was unable to locate it on subsequent traverses.
The second loop was completed about 8:30PM and the sun was beginning to set, so I grabbed my headlamp before heading back out on the trail. The race director warned that the temperature would drop into the low 50’s and recommended, then insisted, that I take along a shirt. I assured him that I looked forward to the lower temperatures; and didn’t wear shirts even when the weather drops to the low 40’s. Darkness along the trail brought relief in several forms; I no longer needed shelter from the sun, the air was significantly cooler, the deer flies disappeared, and the cloudless sky was filled with stars. As I headed out, I soon passed the five runners who were taking up the last positions in the race. They had mostly banded together for the journey.
Running in the dark, along a trail, is obviously different than a lighted city street. There are things in the woods that make noise; and sometimes a lot of noise. I did not see most of them, although I suspect the critters were primarily chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and skunks. In the distance I occasionally heard the calls of owls and coyotes. On a few occasions I heard a loud crashing sound in the trees over my head; it sounded like a clumsy bird with no instinct for flight. My brother later confirmed they were probably wild turkeys.
I was a few miles from the turn-around when I saw the eyes; two glowing silver disks peering at me from the trail ahead. They would temporarily disappear and then reappear further down the trail. There had been earlier reports of a bear cub sighting; that was my greatest concern. I had no desire to tangle with a mother protecting her baby. I moved slowly up the trail, trying to discern what type of animal was ahead of me. Eventually, it moved off into the woods, and I picked up my pace as I watched the place it had exited the trail. As I passed the area, I was able to see the eyes again, this time sitting motionless except for the now slightly visible outline of a head. The ears were triangular and the top of the head was rounded. The eyes followed my movement along the trail without blinking. I kept looking back to see if I was being followed. The aid station workers later suggested I had seen a coyote.
I started heading back down hill but didn’t see anything watching me along the trail on my return trip; however, I did a tall white object suddenly in the trail ahead of me. It seemed unlikely that I would find a polar bear in Pennsylvania, so I slowed my approach and tried to discern what was blocking my path. As I got closer I realized that it was a narrow but long strip of dew covered grass reflecting my headlamp beam. The darkness messed with my depth perception, making it appear tall, rather than long. I laughed and continued forward with another imaginary experience to add to my list.
I was now picking up my pace as the night got cooler and I started feeling very comfortable. I ran most of the trail from miles 63-75, and only briefly stopped to fill my water bottle at the middle aid station. I was beginning to feel very confident that I would not only make the 4:30AM cut-off for starting my last lap, but that I would complete the entire 100 miles. I did have the presence of mind to slow down for the bridge crossing, knowing that darkness and fatigue might result in an unnecessary injury from slipping on the railroad ties.
I hit the viaduct at 3:59AM. One of the workers, huddled in a sweater and coat, suggested I must be freezing. I replied, “I wish I were” because there was still sweat dripping off of me in spite of the coolness of the night. I quickly stopped at my van for more Vaseline and headed back out on the trail. I passed the race director escorting the eventual winner and he told me I looked great. I felt great as well, and reasoned that I had managed 40 hours without sleep on my last attempt so this time finishing should be quite probable. I guess that’s why I am still so mystified by what happened next; I was barely two miles into the final lap when fatigue washed over me.
I found myself walking 50 steps, leaning on my knees to rest, nearly falling asleep, then continuing on to repeat the process over and over again. I kneeled down on a solid bridge to rest and nearly fell asleep on the ground. I imagined a person ahead of me on the trail but it was only an overhanging branch. This lasted for about two hours until I reached the middle aid station. I had hoped to briefly nap there, figuring that 30 minutes of sleep might rejuvenate me. The middle aid station had been the most helpful and well stocked; even having a small cot. The cot was now put away as several people had already finished and only a few were left on the trail. The five behind me had all dropped and now I was in last place. I realized that continuing would mean facing an even hotter day and being the last person on the course. I couldn’t envision causing the volunteers to wait for me to stagger to the end and told Vicki Wargo, the aid station volunteer, that I was dropping at 81 miles. It was still a personal best for distance and time (24:35). Her husband was there, sleeping in a chair, having dropped at the same point only shortly before I arrived. While we sat there, two of the 200 milers arrived; one would head back to the start and settle for 162 miles, the other would continue to the end and be the only finisher in the 200 mile race.
I spoke briefly with the race director after receiving a ride back to the start. He was amazed that I truly didn’t need a shirt but wondered what had happened when I looked strong heading out. I explained the fatigue I had encountered and my plan to bring something along to combat such a contingency next year. Having run this race even once provides head-of-the-line privileges for consideration of slots for future years. I might even try for the 200 mile and give myself some time to sleep along the way.