By Andrew Meisler
Chutzpah. That’s the word that came to mind when I saw the posting for the inaugural Eastern States 100. The RDs actually had the audacity to riff off the oldest and most venerated ultramarathon in the country? The race circumnavigates the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” so there’s a fair degree of hyperbole right from the get-go. Then add the race website warnings: “Only the hardiest of runners will complete this circumnavigation of Pine Creek … miles of hills, rocky hollows, diverse forest and endless views … The Eastern States 100. Not for beginners.” I’m dubious. Still, the RDs are no strangers to putting on real races, with Rothrock Challenge and the Megatransect — two infamous PA trail races — to their credit. Hmm, the course does have 20,000 ft of elevation gain, scenic views galore, and seems to be filling up quickly. Well, I guess there’s only one thing to do …
The race started at 5 AM sharp. After a mile or two of flat warm-up on the park road, the real race started. Miles of ascent and descent, with steep, switch-backing singletrack leading to one of a hundred stream crossings, followed — of course — by another steep grind uphill for 300, 500, 1000 feet or more.
As advertised, the course traverses endless miles of rocks: Large, small, slabs, chalkstones, flat, tilting. Rocks in every possible configuration. They don’t call it “Rocksylvania” for nothing. Sure, there are smoother sections of trail, though these are often canting into the abyss at a 20 degree angle. And after 30 or 40 miles of rocky ups and downs, even the smooth runnable sections beg you to take it easy. The Paleozoic rocks of this region are between 250 million and 500 million years old. And that’s about the number — 500 million — of rocks on the course. And every one of them is loose.
The intense preparation and race organization by the RDs and volunteers were evident throughout. Volunteers, with some help from park staff, spent months turning 100 miles of trail – many of them little used – into cleared and well-marked trail. The race had a very friendly, low-key atmosphere, and far and away the best schwag I’ve ever seen, thanks in part to sponsorship from Nathan, who threw in a pack for every runner!
Of course there were some minor gripes about aid station fare, particularly in the early miles, and a definite underestimate of both mileage and elevation, which caused some to argue that the cutoffs were too harsh (36 hours total). I heard from the underground that the elevation estimates actually ranged from 20,000 to 28,000, but with race directors wanting to have full integrity and not over-represent the actual course difficulty, they chose the low number as the official. I have yet to see final numbers (actual distance looked closer to 104 miles), but ask anyone who ran and their legs will say it was easily in the 24-25,000 range.
At the pointy end of the field, after running in the top five much of the day and in second much of the night, Ryan Welts from New Hampshire ran together with leader Jim Blandford, from nearby Hamburg, PA, into the final aid station three miles from the finish. From there, Welts put the hammer down to take the win in 21:29:59. Given the course difficulty and the perfect weather conditions (temps in the 70s compared to the typical 90-degree days in August here), this CR could stand for a while. The course difficulty certainly took its toll on the rest of the field, with only 72 finishers out of 165.
The Eastern States 100. Yeah, chutzpah for sure. And if you have any thoughts about coming to the “Pennsylvania Wilds” next year to run this course, you’d better go get yourself some. You’re gonna need it.