Race Report: the Groundhog Fall 50
Two laps around a 25 mile course, mostly trails, outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. No mountains but many hills; 6200' climbing for the 50 miles.
Forest, farms, reclaimed strip mine areas, old pipeline right-of-ways and a few relics of the Petroleum Age.
September 11, 1993. 5AM.
This past weekend saw the tenth annual and possibly final Groundhog Fall 50, a much-loved ultramarathon that began life when a few runners decided to challenge the horses in what was then a horse race. A few years later a mountain biking event was added, so you had runners departing before dawn, cyclists at dawn, and horses a few hours later. The folks coordininating all this and responsible for the running and cycling events were Gary and Millie Buffington, who grew up in Punxy but now reside in Pensacola, Florida, and do all this work remotely. The aid station workers, turn marshals, spaghetti dinner cookers, etc. are Buffington cousins and inlaws and neighbors and old school teachers... Their hard efforts combined to lift this event head-and-shoulders above other ultras---from the free camping, to the Friday night dinner (where EACH athlete gets announced), to the coffee and doughnuts Saturday morning, the well-marked race with well-stocked aid stations, barbecue and beer after, Saturday evening award ceremony (where again EACH finisher receives their buckle) and Sunday morning ``buckwheat cake'' breakfast. (Gary's dad grows the buckwheat.)
The 1993 application included a note that this would be the last year of the race, unless new management that can carry on suitably can be found. During the race, rumors circulated about new management, but nothing solid...
The 1991 Groundhog was my first ultra (stayed in cheapo motel both nights). In 1992 my wife Nancy ran her first (and, so far, only) ultra; we camped the first night and stayed in the nice old hotel in town on Saturday. This year we decided to camp both nights, so Friday afternoon we set up our tent, then headed up to Adrian (a ``town'' consisting of a street, a few houses, a post office, a ballfield---site of the 22m/47m checkpoint---and a church, site of the dinner). A brief rain shower blew through, and treated us to two rainbows. A good omen!
At dinner we chatted with old familiar runners and met quite a few new ones (including rec.running's very own Doug Freese (hi Doug!)). Back at the saddle club we gathered around a campfire with a lot of Pittsburgh's South Park Runners, plus anyone else that wandered over. I sipped a homebrew (glad I brought that!) and at 10PM Nancy and I crawled off to the sleeping bags.
My overwhelming feeling was relaxation---36 hours to not think about my thesis, and come morning a chance to get out and enjoy the trail. Earlier this summer I had entertained thoughts of PRs, but with a heavy workload cutting into training (the last time I had run over six miles was at the Darwin Six-hour in early July) there was no chance for that.
Saturday was clear and COLD. ~40 degrees (F) at the start. Perfect running weather! Meteors flew by overhead during the national anthem... off we go!
I decided to try to run a smart race; part of this strategy was to be near the front of the pack at the start to avoid getting hung up on the stream crossings in the ``Tar Pit'' sections in the first few miles. That worked well. But then another mile or two and I was having trouble staying on the trail---found myself running by Braille: if I hit trees and branches and brambles, then I wasn't on the trail anymore. I realized that my flashlight was almost dead. (Guess I should have changed the batteries after the last one...so much for running a smart race!) Met up with Bob from Dayton Ohio (easy to remember once daylight came, since he had ``Bob'' on the front of his shirt and ``Dayton Ohio'' on the back).... ten minutes later HIS flashlight died. Oddly enough, this didn't slow us down all that much---there was just enough ambient light to pick out the white marks on the ground (which, since no horses or bikes had been through yet, were still there).
Fortunately, not too much more time went by before a runner with a working flashlight caught up, and we stuck with him until dawn. Oddly enough, a number of the runners I was with then---Bob, Dan the rookie, Sam B., Doug F---I would see on and off for the rest of the race.
Not too much to report for the rest of first loop. Despite the dry conditions, the trail offered fairly good footing, except for one short but steep descent... a few miles later I noticed that my hands were covered with blood. I hoped it was my own; as I cleaned up with a handi-wipe (good thing to carry in your pack!) I discovered that yes, it was my own: those tree trunks I grabbed on the way down that short steep section...
Rolled back into the Saddle Club at 4h07m...met Nancy and quickly swapped bottles, dumped some trash from the pack, discarded the thermal shirt, changed t-shirts, and grabbed the fishing hat. (Another part of my ``run smart'' strategy was to follow Horton's advice and minimize stop times). Off into the woods again...
Starting the second loop, I thought how much more fun it is the second time around---you can begin to open up, and (once you're past the first aid station) (which, by the way, was staffed by a fellow dressed as Santa) the mileage remaining starts getting very reasonable. By 28 miles I had convinced myself that I had a couple of monster blisters developing. (I never had much of a problem or paid much attention to blisters until Old Dominion, my one and only DNF, this June. Infections are not fun.) Started to think: is this a price I want to pay? After a mile with that thought, I realized that if the blisters are there, I'm going to have them whether or not I finish. Might as well keep going... It clouded over a bit at one point, and I realized how unpleasant life would get if, in this cool weather, it started raining. (Perhaps there's some really small, lightweight something I can carry in my pack next time in case of sudden cold...maybe a grocery sack.) No precipitation came.
I felt pretty good, reeled in three runners in the last two miles, and crossed the finish line in 8h34m... 13 minutes faster than my best 50 mile time, and 26 minutes faster than my best time on the new Punxy course. The dreaded moment: I removed shoes and socks to find... one blister, under one toenail. And that's it. Soaked it in Betadine/water mixture the color of weak tea, per podiatrist's advice. (Betadine is our friend!)
We hung out with the Virginia Happy Trails Club, who convinced us to come down for the Bull Run Run in April. ``Us'': watching people finish, Nancy decided that she wants to get serious about her knee exercises and get back to ultras again... and she and Annette Scott are considering running an ultra together, maybe BRR. I traded a bottle of homebrew for a motel room key to take a shower, and then took a nap in the tent. The last stragglers came in to standing ovations. (Jim and Rebecca Moore celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary by running the race together, albeit slowly). Learned that Doug Freese (~8:23) ``I'm so damn congenial I don't know WHAT to do'' won the Mr. Congeniality award (this year featured special awards, selected by the Vet Check aid station crew). Overall results:
An hour or two at a campfire; one runner regaled us with stories of how much fun it is to run the Marine Corps Marathon while carrying the US flag---each Marine you pass (and there's a lot: all the volunteers are Marines) stops what they're doing and salutes. Later that night, I learned a crucial lesson: if you're sleeping in a tent after a run, make sure things are arranged so you can stretch your legs out! Sunday morning in `92 there was a prayer service at the finish line; Bill Beck, the runner who organized that, couldn't make this year's race, so I ended up leading it...Dave Horton said he'd say a few words, but showed up ten minutes late and missed the whole thing. The buckwheat cakes were good, as always.
May the GHF50 rest in peace, or see you all next year (as the case may be)!
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