Spring Thaw Tune-up
by Victor E. Vouga
Trying to predict weather conditions for an early spring race in Western Pennsylvania is an elusive and ultimately unfruitful exercise, even though it never dissuades me from repeatedly scouring the ten-day forecasts prior to race day. In getting ready for the 2014 Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon and Trail Race, I was more interested than normal because the bitterly obnoxious winter had limited my training runs on the trail and because I was making the move from 30k to 50k for my first ultra.
The Glacier Ridge Trail is a 14-mile section of the scenic North Country Trail that winds through the Moraine State Park and skirts along sections of Lake Arthur in Portersville, Pennsylvania and offers a moderately technical trail surface and several challenging elevations. The trail surface ranges from soft, pine-needle covered areas to aggressive rocky sections and while none of the climbs are particularly steep, they are steady and fairly close together and can grind down runners who underestimate them or take them for granted. One of the appealing aspects of this race is that it is accessible to beginners, yet demanding enough for experienced runners. Race Co-Directors Dan Adley and Bob Fargo have done an excellent job planning and organizing this event the past four years and this race, offering 50-mile, 50k and 30k distances, should see growing success as word gets out.
Two years ago, it was chilly and overcast, but the trails were mostly dry, and last year, although the weather was warmer, steady rains during the week before the race created a flowing mud-fest. This year the trails offered stretches of dry, runnable single-track, interspersed with multiple patches of cold, shoe-sucking ankle-deep mud. Temperatures at the start were in the mid to upper 30s, but the unexpected twists for this year’s race were the sunny, bright blue skies and temps rising to over 70 degrees before the conclusion of the race. The spike in heat took its toll on runners who had struggled through one of the coldest winters in recent years in the form of DNFs, dehydration, exhaustion and cramps. I was not exempt from that group.
The 50-mile runners had taken off an hour earlier, but the first five miles of the roughly 15 mile out-and-back course were still in decent shape and the miles went by fairly easily in the cool, misty morning. At the 10-mile mark, where the manned aid station at Route 528 waited with a wide array of fuel and near where the 50-mile runners branched off to pick up their extra miles, several runners began commenting on the impact of the heat. The next several miles that looped through the Jennings Environmental Education Center area became more challenging with steady rolling inclines, a little more mud and a lot more sun. Even so, my running partner, Scott Cox (Ingleside, IL), a race veteran with seven previous ultras under his belt, and I hit the 528 aid station on the return trip still feeling confident and fairly strong. With the last ten miles to go, however, and all the major climbs ahead of us, the feeling was short-lived. While we were still a few miles from the next water station, our fluids ran out and the dreaded leg cramps began setting in, causing us to substantially slow our pace and curse the mud, which seemed to be magically replicating itself despite the sun.
The last six or seven miles taught me valuable lessons about ultra-running and hitting walls, but Scott’s experience, encouragement and dogged determination got me over the hills, through the pain and across the finish line tired but exhilarated. For the second year in a row, my younger brother, Eric Vouga (Ingleside, IL), bagged the coveted “Last But Not Lost” award, having stayed behind to help his partner, Amy Moffett, who had developed a nasty head cold two days before the race, limp to the finish with just minutes to spare.
As is the case in most races, the top runners did not seem to be affected by any trail or weather issues. In the men’s 50-mile race, last year’s third place finisher, Devon Olson, battled his way to first place, but only three minutes ahead of second place finisher, William Hafferty. Third place went to Patrick Moran who improved on his ninth place finish from a year ago. For the women, Siobhan Leonardis dominated, setting the female course record at 9:10:06, and coming in nearly 35 minutes ahead of her closest competitor, and fifth place overall. Second place went to Melissa Goodman, who had finished first in the 50k last year and Elise Maguire took third for the second year in a row, despite shaving nearly an hour off her time. Clearly, the competition is improving.
As a brief side note to Siobhan Leonardis’ performance, as Scott and I were coming down the last .75 mile to the finish, we exhaustedly kept looking back to see if anyone was going to run us down so close to the end. After working so hard to get where we were, we were just not in the mood to give up another spot. As soon as we thought maybe we were safe, we saw a figure in the distance, closing fast. We tried to drive our sore, muddy, cramping legs to their limits to stay ahead of this pursuer, but it was to no avail. In next to no time, this attractive redhead sailed past us, smiling easily and encouraging us to keep pushing. Scott and I looked at each other in disbelief. She didn’t look tired, hot or dirty… just a fast-disappearing, easy-running vision, undaunted by the miles. I did not discover until later that we had just gotten our clocks cleaned by Siobhan, who was finishing her 50 miles. It was initially discouraging, but it quickly turned to admiration and respect and it made me realize that even at 56, I was going to have to bump myself up to the 50-mile level soon. It is this inspiration to push myself into areas of impossibility that has sucked me into the world of ultrarunning. Three years ago I ran my first mile and had never heard of an ultra.
In the 50k, Gary Twoey took first place after finishing fourth last year, and fifteen minutes later, Andrew Brosius and Brian Frank came in second and third, less than ten seconds apart, giving the handful of spectators still hanging around an exciting finish. For the women, Melissa Pastore improved on her 2013 second-place time and position to finish first, followed by Abby Easton and Joella Baker.
And, as usual, many thanks go to all the volunteers manning the aid stations, prepping the trail and keeping it pristine. This is a great race to snap you out of your winter doldrums and get you excited to sink your teeth into a new season of “ultra” challenges.