RR: Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic

I signed up for the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic 50K as part of my training for JFK. It’s crazy to think that three months ago I wasn’t sure if I could run a 50K and now they’re training runs. Just two years ago I wasn’t sure I could run my first marathon and this was my 10th endurance running event. I didn’t have any time goals for this race, not knowing how technical it would be. I also didn’t taper at all, but I thought if I could come in under 8 hours then it would be a 47 minute improvement over Laurel Highlands and that could count as a good day.

I was up at 4 am to drive to Youngstown, Ohio, for the start of the race in Mill Creek State Park. The stars were out and I was able to watch the sun rise over the rolling countryside. Surely, this would be a beautiful day. The start was cold and as I went down the trail from the parking lot to the start, I hear my name and see Rick Freeman calling me over. Rick is the Laurel Highlands Ultra RD and he has run the Iditarod “Fun Run” (350 miles for anyone who is curious) a few times. He’s well-known in local running circles and his huge grin paired with the button down shirt he’s going to run in put a smile on my face. I still think it’s crazy that people like Rick know my name (and call me over), Ray Zahab wants me to be involved with impossible2Possible (expect an update on that soon, too- we have a call on Tuesday), Runners World contacted me for an interview, and Josh Cox is a fan of my Antarctica facebook page. I don’t get it.

Steam rising off of Lake Glacier at the start.

I make a half dozen other friends at the start and again I am convinced that ultrarunners are a great breed of people. We have a pre-race “meeting” (watch when crossing the street, don’t litter) and the race begins with the RD yelling “START!”

Runners listen to the RD at the Old Log Cabin

We take off down a paved road and turn up to a steep steel staircase, across a park area with tennis courts, football fields and the like and then the fun begins. The trails on this course are moderately technical single track but there are some flat stretches where you can pick up some decent speed. There are also technical climbs that stop mortal runners (i.e. me) dead in their tracks. Descents so sharp that my knees hurt (I’m 26, my knees don’t hurt yet).

Runners run down the second part of one of the first steep hills. Photo courtesy of Joel Button. 

See all those trees? That’s the trail. Go to the bottom.

There were inclines so steep that my legs sometimes slip back while I climb.

Up, up, and away

Taking a breather two thirds up a hill. At the top is the “love log.” One runner told me that when getting over the log: On the first pass, you get creative, on the second pass, you sit, on the third pass, you sit and contemplate life. He said this on the second pass after I sat to get over it. He bounded over it. I think he clicked his heels.  

Falls on this course are frequent. I don’t know if I saw anyone who wasn’t bloodied from a fall and I witnessed some brutal wrecks. One man was going down a steep incline and all I saw through the woods was a white shirt launch forward about 5 feet and then drop about 10. I can’t believe he came back from it. A 73 year old runner (inspiration!) had duct-taped his wounds! I’m also in awe that I only fell once- and I bounced back quickly enough that the runner behind me commented: “Nice save!” No blood was spilled

The course was a figure-eight broken into 1 large top loop (7.5 miles) and 1 small bottom loop (4 miles) which allowed for aid every four miles (at the top and middle of the “8”). Course volunteers are always great, but I thought the course support was particularly enthusiastic, supportive and helpful. Both loops ran along lakes and had pretty dams with peaceful flowing water.

Pretty dam we ran by several times.

Lanterman’s Mill 

The weather was 70 degrees with bright sunshine and there couldn’t be a more perfect day to run. I don’t know how to describe it, but I felt in sync. I have this image of this runner floating through trails effortlessly- Lucas did this beautifully in Annie’s Run. The lone runner who runs in perfect form through a serene setting and could be easily picked up and placed onto the pages of a running magazine. I felt seamless- like I was running strong and tall and I was meant to be running on this day. Around mile 29 a veteran of 90 ultramarathons commented on how consistently I was running.

I spent most of the race chatting with fellow runners, but I also enjoyed the quiet points where I was alone in the woods. Locals who I ran into were very kind and encouraging- including an older couple who watched me catch my toe on a rock and both reached out to catch me, although I’m sure I would have inadvertently tackled them both if I hadn’t righted myself first. I also ran into my ex Chris’ sister, Alyssa, and his mom, Kathy. It was around mile 24 and I was getting a little tired so it took me a minute to realize that it was really them and I wasn’t just seeing things. I haven’t seen them in the 6 months since Chris left me for another girl while we were on the ship in Antarctica (with 6 days left on the trip, and he couldn’t man up and tell me the real reason he left me… yeah, it was cold)  and I had mixed feelings about them being there. On one hand, I think they found out I was running the race and came to see me and I really, truly appreciate that. They really are good people. On the other hand, seeing them really threw me for an emotional loop that I wasn’t prepared to tackle. It shook me for about 3 miles until I started to get so choked up that I couldn’t breathe and started to catch my toe on rocks because my mind wasn’t on the trail; thankfully I was able to use some of my mindfulness meditation techniques to refocus my attention and I was good from there. I finally met up with another runner for the last few miles which made them fly. When we reached the clearing to the finish I couldn’t believe we were already done!

View from the finish line

At the end of the day, I came in at 7:22, 1 hour and 25 minutes faster than Laurel Highlands! The vet of 90 ultras who commented on my form also said that he considered this a hard and technical course (I guess I’m biased by Laurel’s difficulty) and said that on another course we could finish 2 hours faster. Although there were flat parts where I could run fast (“fast” being relative, of course), my Garmin says the elevation gain over 31 miles was 12,000 feet; RunningAhead.com says it was 18,000 feet. Either way, I guess my experiences running in Pittsburgh have altered my perception of “flat.” I’m proud that I ran so strong without a taper and I’m psyched to be reaping the benefits of my training. This race didn’t hurt like shorter races have and I ran strong until the end (I realize this might mean I need to start running harder).

With new ultra runner friends at the finish. Me, Joel and Bob. I later found out it was Bob’s first ultra. Congrats!!  

Finishing so strong made me feel tough. I have this mental image of a woman running through the woods, getting dirty, tackling hills, roots and rocks, and being strong, beautiful and graceful all at once. I am certainly not very strong, I make no claims to being beautiful and I am surely not graceful- but floating through the woods today made me feel like I was all of the above. Today, running set me free and helped me realize that I’m becoming person I want to be. I hope there are more runs like this in store- if nothing else I’ll certainly seek it in this race next year. This was one of my favorite races and I’ve already recommended it to other runners.

Race Pros:

  • Great course support and accessibility

  • Frequent restrooms. Not porta potties, restrooms, located about every 2 miles.

  • Gorgeous course

  • Great packets, probably the best I’ve gotten. For $40 race registration, I got a fuel belt(!)* , a tech shirt, and lots of Hammer products and other goodies.

Possible Improvements:

  • The trails were poorly marked with ribbons and flour. The ribbons were pulled off the trees by passersby and the flour became thinned out towards the end. One runner commented that it was the poorest marked course he had run. At one place, about 10 other runners and I missed a turn the first time and I redirected runners who ran right past it the second and third times. I think this allowed two runners to cut the course because I left them in the dust on one loop, they never passed me (I didn’t make any stops and it was single track so I couldn’t have missed two runners passing me) and they somehow leapfrogged ahead of me to the next aid station. It was sketchy, but ultimately running is a race against yourself and I hope they didn’t cheat themselves out of an honest run.

My favorite course marking  

  • No medals! Really? One of the race organizers asked: Do you really need another medal? No, I don’t. Honestly, I’m running out of room for them and I’m not sure how to display them without it being showy.  But it’s nice to mark an accomplishment (and it helps me keep track of races). If I don’t need a medal, how about a diploma? I could use another one of those right about now. Could you please fast forward me to Doctor, Mr. RD?