Baker Trail Ultra Challenge 50M, Smicksburg, PA 3,2

Elevation Gain: 6600'; High Point: 1480'

August 28, 2010 - I have had an interest in the Baker Trail Challenge Series since its inception several years ago when I volunteered to man an aid station for the northernmost event of the series. Due to the egregious injury I sustained in March my calendar for summer travel and racing in the West was cancelled. With a successful showing at the Half Wit Half I decided to enter my first post-trauma ultra to see how my heel would stand it. Given my affiliation with the Rachel Carson Conservancy folks I decided to sign up and attempt the distance over this relatively mild technical course. My attitude toward my ruptured Achilles is that if it is going to rupture again, I'd rather it be sooner than later, so that I can get on with the surgery and get back to some semblance of normality.

So, throwing caution to the wind I would once again toe the line to chase the fates. Driving to the race finish in Smicksburg, an hour from my home dark early in the morning, I had a bit of time to relax before taking the bus ride to the start near Freeport along the Allegheny River, the southern terminus of the Baker Trail. The finish would be at the working farm of Hisham Youssef and his wife, a different venue for a race finish. I would meet Hisham and his parents, Kamal and Marie, a couple weeks after the race while taking a tour of local art galleries. It was an interesting meeting and I expect to visit the Youssefs again this fall for some wine and cheese and conversation. At right are pix of Hisham and his wife and the tasty BBQ at the farm finish:

Since my brother Don and I had backpacked the 140 miles of the Baker Trail in 1976 I was looking forward to once again seeing the trail. As it would turn out I didn't recognize much of it and was disappointed that most of the trail had gone over to walking on Pennsylvania backroads. I guess over the years most of the land owners had a change of heart over public use of their land being used for the Baker Trail. Too bad.

After most of an hour bus ride from the finish in the dark runners milled around at an old industrial area along a torn up rail line that we would follow to reach the Baker Trailhead. Here I am adjusting my shoe in front of the bus in this candid shot.

The event began a little before seven in the morning, following a gravel-covered rail right-of-way for at least four miles before cutting north through the woods up a good hill on single track to reach the Baker Trail. I took up with a group that began at about a 6 mph pace and was back and forth with many of them over the first half of the race on mostly wooded undulating trails. I was cruising along nicely at an average 5 mph pace along Cherry Run, across bridges and up a nice rope climb, and felt comfortable. No pain in the heel and the body was not tiring.


I hit the first checkpoint at 11.6 miles at Crooked Creek in 2:16 and good spirits, then came through 20.8 miles at about 4:18. No problems. After half way the trails ended and the balance of the race followed macadam roads through the country. While I don't spend much time on hard pavement, it was the pervasive heat that took me to task. Temps soared toward the mid- eighties on this hot August afternoon and I got "baked on the Baker", literally.

It wasn't until 25 miles in a bit over 5 hours that my lack of training and environmental conditions began to slow me down. My younger running companions moved away from me as I hit the 33.4 mile checkpoint in slightly over seven hours. From this point forward I got into my 4 mph ultra shuffle alternativing with walking, generally reserved for the later stages of a one hundred mile race. Even though I was taking double amounts of E-caps my calves were cramping from pounding the pavement in the heat.

I coasted into the aid station at mile 41 in 9:13 after excessive walking. When they didn't have any much-needed Coke I continued on without any caffeine boost to keep me going. I could feel my injured heel and calf screaming at me as I walked on for about a mile before deciding to abandon and hitch a ride back to the finish with a generous local guy I solicited along the way. Since this was my first ultra back from injury I decided discretion merited more value on this day than valor and that 42 miles served at least as a tune up for the next couple ultra events on my calendar without doing egregious muscular and tissue damage.

Overall, I was pleased with my heel and general fitness level. Running further than seven miles in training once in awhile certainly wouldn't hurt me be better prepared for running an ultra. Nonetheless, it was a good test and my body passed, regardless of the dnf. I am disappointed in what remains of the Baker Trail in the south, however. There is nothing here that would cause me to want to return for hiking or running. It was good to see some of the Conservancy folks like Steve, Patty, and Ken though. Two weeks and another 50M coming up. I know now I can continue doing ultras, even if I have to run more deliberately to prevent further major injury.