By Erik Price
Somewhere I’ve seen Eastern States referred to as a “Massanutten 100 on Steroids.” While I’m not completely sure how the chemistry behind steroids work, the moniker holds true: everything at Eastern States is bigger, harder, and more remote. The course is a work of art: one giant loop through the Tiadaghton State Forest with a scenic lakeside finish area in Little Pine State Park. Pine Creek Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” cuts through the center.
I agreed to pace my friend and training partner Erick Kuhlman, who I met at Old Dominion in 2016 where he edged me out in a strong debut 100-mile finish. Even after churning out consistent sub 3-hour marathons, he admitted to losing sleep over this “real” mountain ultra challenge.
As a newer hundred (103.476 miles to be exact) I had some concerns over support, which were quickly put to rest. Lots of enthusiastic volunteers manned 17 well-stocked aid stations. Pacers were encouraged to eat and drink as well, which I took full advantage of. This felt like overkill in a year with relatively mild weather, but frequent aid may be necessary considering the potential for severe heat.
Then there were the climbs and descents. Elevation gain is funny and it’s not just a pure numbers game. Straight gravel roads have a habit of feeling “not that bad,” but the listed 20,000 feet of gain at Eastern States felt like an understatement. Wet roots, unstable rocks and steep grades had us wondering if those climbs would ever end.
These mountains reminded me of childhood camping trips to the Pennsylvania wilds. I remember backpacking trips with my Dad covering 40 miles over a long weekend. This may sound like child’s play by ultra-standards, but I find it unfair to compare ultrarunning and hiking. The smell of a campfire, the satisfaction of carrying everything on your back, and the simplicity of taking your time does wonders for the psyche. Admittedly there is something lost with ultrarunning compared to traditional backpacking trips.
The last sections of Eastern States seemed to lighten up a bit on gentler grades of grassy jeep roads, but the race had one last punishment left in the form of a steep, rugged descent. We passed some vistas and interesting rock formations which I snapped pictures of, my runner focused solely on crossing the finish.
“Eastern States was everything that trail running and ultras embody. Runners and volunteers helping each other mentally and physically, and the incredible feeling of elation when you accomplish something so difficult that there were often times of self doubt. Proof that if you keep pressing forward, eventually you will see the finish line,” said Kuhlman after the race.
Eastern States has a 36-hour time limit and the 60% finisher rate was double the previous year, perhaps due to the milder weather conditions. Only three runners broke the 24-hour mark. Despite only pacing the second half, my legs felt like they had just raced a tough 100k. While it doesn’t offer the glitz and glamour of its Western counterpart, runners looking for a rugged, mountainous challenge should take note. When I finally sign up for this beast I’ll be wise to coordinate a crew and pacers of my own.