Eastern States 100 – A Race to Remember "The Journey to Winning the Axe" by Jayson Kolb
Back in December 2016, the lottery gods looked down on me and rejected me again (fifth straight year) for one of the most prestigious 100 milers in the nation; the Western States 100. At the time, disappointed in the draw, I let my time of vulnerability get the best of me and listened to Denis Stretslov, (no spoilers, but here’s his race recap), planting the seed of an idea – to consider Eastern States 100. The race checked all the boxes, Western States qualifier (check), Hardrock 100 qualifier (check), mid-summer race (check), not at elevation (check), in the grand canyon of PA (check), stars (check). With the number of spots dwindling, I jumped in and threw my hat in the ring. Our motivations for races can be purely impulsive. Within a month, Allison helped me create a training plan that laid the foundation for my resilience during the race.
My training plan consisted of 26 weeks of running, track workouts, and the occasional but most missed workout of power hiking on a treadmill. Highlights included long trail runs on Saturday mornings, and the chance to burn rubber on the track with many Hoboken Harriers (HOHAs), who happened to be training for marathons. There were moments of greatness and their counter -- particularly after spring races, where I questioned, “Why am I doing this?” or “Why did I sign up for this race?
The spring racing season broke ground with the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon, where I placed 6th overall. A great precursor for North Face Bear Mountain races, for the most part, I felt in control at Breakneck but made a rookie mistake of not eating anything during the race (good for mental and physical training, but terrible for racing). Two weeks later I paced the 3:20 group at the NJ Marathon after twenty trail miles the day before to practice running on fatigued legs. Three days after the race, a nagging hamstring injury (a result of trying to do a track workout not fully warmed up and on fatigued legs) appeared and stayed with me for the course of the next five weeks. The pinnacle of the injury was at North Face Bear Mountain 50 miler. In Bear’s rainy spring conditions, my hamstring “popped” around mile 6.5, sending a sharp pain up my leg to my back. The race shifted to get to the next aid the race and reevaluate. I continued to run, and ran the majority of the race by myself until I picked up fellow MPF RNR teammate, Jay Lemos (who just completed Ouray 100). Jay was an awesome running partner and over the last 22 miles, let me take the lead in calling out the hills, the aid stations, and when to run/walk/eat as we shared stories. Despite the injury setback, I placed 7th place overall, missing sixth place by one second.
Later in May I ran the Pinelands 50K course with Joseph Black, his first ultra (he did fantastic!), and later paced Allison her last 15.5 miles, ending the day close to 50 total miles. Six days later, I ran the Cayuga Trails 50 Miler, where the cracks in my mental state from racing and training appeared. The first 30 miles of the race were fine, but I was huffing and puffing about my strong desire to not be at the race but instead be in bed, or drinking coffee, or with my wife and puppy, or all of the above! Despite this mental state, my competitive side finally awoke from its slumber, as I smelled blood in the water. After a few easy reel-ins, I ended up deciding to race and moved from 18th to 8th place, right behind the living legend, MPF RNR teammate, Ben Nephew. (Side note: Maybe when Ben is 50, I will actually be able to beat him, but until then, right behind him will do.)
Two weeks later I completed my fourth 50 mile effort in under 5 weeks, and in my opinion the toughest 50 Miler this side of the Mississippi, Manitou’s Revenge. I highly recommend running this race as a training run for Eastern States; the course is gnarly, has the steep climbs/descents, weather conditions that mimic ES100, and boasts more than 15,000 ft. elevation gain over 54 miles. Again, my mental state for this race was suspect. At Platte Clove, mile 31.5, I was ready to throw in the towel. Who am I kidding, I always want to end my day after a 31 mile effort. It’s a sweet spot of challenge and feeling accomplished. Tara Siudy, was not having any of it, so I did what I imagine any ultra-racer does at this point: Eat pickles, potatoes, grilled cheeses, and skittles. After leaving, I focused on surviving the Devil’s Path, and envisioned myself rolling through the last 14 miles of the course, which I ultimately did. I finished in 4th place in a time of 12:22, a 45-minute PR over my previous completion in 2015. Physically I was ready for a 100 miler but mentally I had enough of racing and long runs. After a lot of debating, I tore up my training plan and focused on repairing my mind. Scaling way back on the miles, I focused on one more hard week in July, which consisted of 70 miles of running in the dead heat of summer, and put a bow on it with a final dry run at the Escarpment Trail Run, where I finished in 5th place finish, in a time of 3:09.
Eastern States 100
Prior to the race, Allison and I joked about me winning the axe, I knew it was possible but maybe a pipe dream. Runners that I feel that I am on par with have done particularly well in the past. Ryan Welts won it in its inaugural year. Jay Lemos came in 2nd in 2014. Why couldn’t I do well there? During my training plan, I envisioned myself to be on the podium, and if I could put a solid 100 mile race together (previous races I have done well in the beginning or well at the end), the potential to be number one overall was not out of the question.
I had prepared my pack (Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0) in NJ early Friday morning. I had two 0.5 liter soft flasks, toilet paper, a bear bell, course profile, two honey stinger gels, s-caps! and fig bar. Thanks to some great recommendations from Jay, I left trail staples like my poles and Patagonia Houdini in my race bin. On this side of the race, I can say for certain the climbs are short-lived and getting wet in the heat of August is a non-issue. Perhaps if the weather was a bit colder or if it rained at night I would have grabbed the Houdini, but both stayed in the bin. I raced in New Balance Vazee Summit (favorite all terrain trail shoes, durable, lightweight, and great on technical), Darn Tough Socks- Crew Cut, Patagonia Strider Pro-Shorts (ample pockets), and a Patagonia Wind Chaser top.
We arrived in Waterville, Pa in a monsoon Friday evening. Allison and I ran as fast as we could from the car to the pavilion. I picked up my bib, and race swag (socks, hat, and Osprey backpack). My eyes then locked in on the prize, the axe. I touched the handle and smiled; at the time it seemed like a stretch to win the axe with a race that boasted competitors David Lantz, Samuel Jurek, and Aaron Saft. Allison and I left the pavilion and joined RVTR friends at the cabin at Happy Acres Resorts.
At the cabin, Paul Grassie had a big print out of the course and most of the night was spent talking about various plans. Renee (one of Heather’s pacers) asked me how I thought I was going to do. I said sub 24, top 5 finish is the priority, and that if it was available to me I would like to podium! Familiar with the course and competition, she paused with some doubt. Pointing to mile 51, I proceeded to share my race plan to feel fresh at mile 51 and be within an hour of the leader.
Race morning, I was last to wake around 4 am and every other runner in the cabin was ready to go. I made my way to kitchen and drank my Vega protein smoothie which also included apples, bananas, kale, spirulina, and cucumbers. By the time, I finished, everyone was exiting the cabin, where someone remarked, “Are you going to get ready?!” “It will only take me two seconds,” I responded. It did take me two seconds. However, when finalizing my pack, I misplaced my iPod Shuffle. Allison, of course, found it in my pack. Packs are great but they are also like winter coats, you never remember which pocket you put your keys in. As we exited the cabin, a very sticky-humid-stagnant air and fog blanketed the area. After that, Allison drove Denis, Angie, and me to the start. I made my way to race day check-in and made my way to the breakfast and coffee. I could only stomach a couple bites of egg cheese sandwich and some very yummy coffee from Bason Coffee Roasters. A couple minutes later, the combination of coffee and some adrenaline kicked my body into high gear. Allison could see in my eyes that I needed to go use the restroom and offered me a good luck kiss. I bee-lined to the restrooms on site at 4:53 (7 minutes before the start). I patiently waited in line but waited forever until my turn at 4:58! Luckily for me, I have no fear of public restrooms and quickly did my business. I jogged to the starting line, where I made with 45 seconds to spare.
The first 30 miles
As the race went off, I positioned myself behind the early race leaders, probably around the top 18. Take it easy. Just breathe. After a mile, plus of road, the race entered rocky single track. I settled behind a guy that was running smoothly over the wet humid sweaty rocks. I stayed my distance and in my mind coasted through the first 3.1 miles. We exchanged our credentials, he had dropped out at mile 80 the previous year. I told him I was trying to position myself to a top 10 finish. His body reaction told the whole story -- doubt. Who is this city boy who think he can go toe to toe with seasoned ultra-runners. Clearly, I was the underdog and on PA turf.
We hit our first major climb, again I stayed behind, as some competitors passed and pulled away. The gentleman in front of me, asked if I wanted to pass. What?! To be a minute ahead and risk spraining my ankle? No thank you. It was still dark out and I wanted to be patient on this rocky steep section until the light came out. Near the top I passed him, quickly picked off three more people who had passed on the climb, and headed into the aid station (5.8) unaware of my current 11th place. I refilled on water and left quickly. I caught one man right away and passed him before I was forced to settle behind two men. Patience Jayson, patience. I relaxed and let them do all the trail work for me. We approached our second climb, a rocky but very manageable gradual climb. I power hiked and maybe lost 50 feet on Clayton, one of the men who I had caught up to, and who was running this gradual climb. As soon as it leveled out, I started running the runnables. I caught Clayton immediately and closed in on and passed David Lantz and Aaron Saft, as we descended to Ramsey aid station (11.3). About 50 feet prior to the aid station David surged ahead. I stopped for food. Aaron surged ahead not stopping at all. They gapped me immediately. All that hard-work for nothing! But the mountains in PA are cruel and unpredictable – they reward patience.
Again, I slowly reeled them in. By Lower Pine Bottom (17.8), I had caught up to Aaron and David around 5th place, and in the process of passing Ron Wireman and another guy who looked burned out for this early in the race. I saw Allison, and she ran through her usual questions including how is it going. It’s so F-ing Humid! Otherwise, fine. I grabbed some pickles, and managed to eat some potato chips. Why are there no potatoes?!? Before she let me go off, Allison asked what I wanted. A face wipe, please!!!. She ripped open a wipe and gave me a pat on the butt saying “Go, get ‘em.” See you in 20 miles! I pulled away and caught up to Ron with Aaron right behind and David in front. As David pulled away very strongly on the next climb, Ron, Aaron, and I ran together for the next miles, including the climb. We settled in and exchanged stories about races including the frigid Hellgate of 2016. Interesting fact, Aaron was the winner of the VA Beast Series and Lynchburg series, and beat me by one second at Northface Bear Mtn…by one second!! Talk about a photo finish. I was enjoying my first low of the race, disguising the mental and physical hurt with cautious quietness and relentless focus to keep up with Ron and Aaron. On the second climb to Brown run (25.8), Aaron and I gapped Ron, and Aaron slowly pulled away from me as he powered through the climb and ran strongly on the downhill. We both passed Samuel Jurek, who at this point was walking. At the Brown run, Aaron blasted off without any water or food (I think he caught a glimpse of Danny Mowers and wanted to catch up to him). I stood in disbelief, and enjoyed a couple banana’s and pb&js, as the aid station volunteer fills my bottles. He’s crushing it!
After exiting the aid station, the course became very runnable in comparison with the first 26 miles of the course. I caught up to Danny and Aaron, of course, with food still in hand. I caught up and I still have food in my hand!!! I enjoyed my to-go pb&j as I let Aaron and Danny do the work of setting a pace. The course very gradually climbed from 25 to 31. In looking at the course profile post-race, I did not even remember this “climb” because it was very gradual. I remembered traversing the stream back and forth every 100-200 feet for 1.5 miles. JEEEEZZZZZEEEE, choose a side trail! Aaron pulled back complaining of dizziness, he said he was fine enough to walk and told Danny and I not to worry. Danny, the triple crown winner of 2017, is a welder from PA. He and I shared our racing stories. Danny ran the previous ES100 in 27 hours after blowing up at the end of the course. He told me it took him 8 hours to complete the last 22 miles of the course. This deflated my sails a bit but none the less, we kept talking. At one point, he told me that we were in 2nd and 3rd respectively. Shut the front door… Eventually, Dan decided to pump the brakes on this stretch, and I continued because the section seemed runnable. I rolled into aid station 31.6 in 2nd place!
Miles 31.6 - 63.8
At Happy Dutchman (31.6), I caught a glimpse of David leaving. I could care less – look at these oranges, watermelon and pickles! As I left I started running and closed the gap quickly on David. He caught a glimpse of me and with him taking off like a bat of hell and me waiting to cross the road, he was quickly out of sight. During the next stretch to Ritchie road (38.5), I encountered thoughts about hugging Allison and teared up immediately. For whatever reason, I become a mush during the race and think only about being with Allison. Knowing that it was a start of a low, I took my first and only gel during the race. I refocused on drinking water and plugged in my iPod to pass the miles because the course was too quiet. It was a treat for me and quickly lifted my spirits. At 38.5, I was thankful a volunteer was on course to make sure I did not get bit by a rattlesnake (for those who do not know, poisonous), and also was elated to see Allison again. She was excited to see me and that I was only several minutes behind David. She asked me how I am doing. Socks, I need to change my socks. As much as I love Darn Tough wool socks, and their lifetime warranty. They do not fare well in wet rocky conditions with the foot sliding in the shoe. I had some minor hot spots, but nothing too serious. I finally could enjoy some potatoes. I left the aid station but right before I entered the trail realized my watch was low on battery. I need my Suunto watch charger and portable battery (this was how I could get data for the entire course, it worked out perfectly).
I was excited that I would get to see Allison again in 4.7 miles too. I quickly took off and traversed a pretty runnable section of the course to Hyner Run (43.2). As I came into the aid station, I saw David’s crew catch eyes with me, and frantically try to get David going and out of the aid station. I casted my figurative fishing line and Allison was ecstatic that I was in such good shape. Again, I took my time in the aid station to eat food, this time enjoying more potatoes and fresh avocado (amazingly delicious). I took off from the aid station with a new mantra. Slowly. Slowly catch up to David. This stretch was one of the longest stretches between aid stations (~8 miles). During this stretch I caught up to David, as we both endured a 45 minute thunderstorm, post storm humidity, and the super strength of midday sun. We did not talk much. Perhaps because we both knew the other was vying for the axe at this point. From my perspective, I did not mind being in first or second at this point- We have a long way to go, but I felt like David was eager to be the lead runner here. (Of course, I have no idea what he was thinking at this point.) We changed places, yo-yoing for several miles, and I led into the aid station (51.4 Dry Run) with David on my heels. He had a more efficient time and quickly exited the station. I caught up to him and passed him on a section that I thought was runnable. David caught up to me on a downhill section, until I narrowly missed stepping on a Rattlesnake. I yelled back Be Careful! and then proceeded to stop. Is it a rattler?! David shouted back, “yeah.” Oh, throw rocks at it! In retrospect, I feel very selfish for continuing and not helping.
About a mile later I arrived at halfway house (54.7). Allison was displeased that I was in first place because in her mind it was too early. I could see in David’s crew eyes that they were shocked to see me in first place. After all, this is David’s turf. I quickly responded to Allison that he is right behind me. I adjusted my shoes, and asked Allison if I could be done. She said “Sure. What food do you want?” I proceeded to grab watermelon took a bite and placed it back down in the container. Allison quickly picked it up and made me take it with - I think I may have been distracted by grilled cheese. I left the aid station pretty happy knowing that the sun would not be as strong since it was bit passed 3pm. This aid station was the last time I would see David for the rest of the race. I pulled away slowly and start to put minutes between us. I descended and ascended to the unexpectedly manned water only aid station (Callahan Run, 59.4) and left in pretty good spirits since the next section was downhill, and, more importantly, I would get to see Allison again at Slate run. I arrived at Slate run (63.8) in good shape. I want Tailwind with caffeine, and my headlamp! Allison agreed that I may not make it to mile 80 before dark (which was true). I also saw MPF RNR team Matthew Lipsey, who would later pace Danny Mowers. He remarked that I looked fresh like a daisy. I am racing!!! I grabbed more grilled cheeses and smiled and hugged Allison.
Miles 64 to the finish
After Slate Run, the trail had a major climb to Algerines (69.1). This climb was steady and at some points steep but if offered some beautiful views of the “grand canyon of the east coast”. I quickly entered and exited the aid station. I felt in control and cooler temps were prevailing. They also painted a target on my back be marking down the time I entered the aid station. This is great for everyone except the guy in first place in a race. After 2.5 miles of flat runnable course, the trail quickly descended and started the next climb to Long Branch (mile 75.6). By this time, In the deep forested canyon, it was getting darker. Outside the tree line there was enough light you could see the trail. Again, I quickly entered and exited the aid station, with the focus on trying to get as many miles in before it became very dark. I lasted to about mile 78, where I turned on my headlamp. The next two miles were a little more difficult than I expected since my body and eyesight were adjusting to the darkness. I tripped for the first time, and the second time within a half mile stretch. Breathe. I will see Allison and reinforcements at Blackwell. Mike “Cat Skill” and Tara Siudy came out to support me prior to their eclipse watching trip in Wyoming. At Blackwell, they prepped my water bottles, and Mike gave a huge high five in sheer excitement. He was ready, I was ready, and we took off with one goal in mind, finish!
Immediately, we approached a significant climb, within minutes we heard cheering in the distance. I was in disbelief, You got to be kidding me?! Was David closer than I thought? Mike reiterated that I looked very strong and that I just needed to keep moving. (I would find out later that it was a false alarm.) And move we did, after the climb, we had a nice downhill section before another ascent to Sky Top (84.8). Sky top was pretty dope at that time of night. A generator powered white Christmas lights into the aid station. I ate some grilled cheese and refilled on tailwind with caffeine.
In this next 8 mile stretch to Barrens (92.8), Tailwind went south for me, I started to get acid reflux. I primarily drank my water flask this section and focused on putting one foot in front of the other and remove the constant onslaught of spider webs. Mike made fun of me after the race about this part, but for me, my skin was super sensitive to the silky extract from our 8 legged friends. This section in my mind was going by fast, but my pace was slowing because of the complete darkness in the PA wild. I quickly fell off Course-Record pace. I kept telling Mike, if it was light out, I would be able to manage these rocky trails, and stream crossings a lot better. I also accepted at this point that I just wanted to finish. We came into 92.8, several minutes before midnight. Allison and Tara cheered their hearts out, and they filled both bottles with water. They did not give Mike or I any information about how far David was back; this probably for the better though at the time annoying. I breezed from 92.8 to 99.1 at my fastest pace (13:10) with Mike. Mike was impressed how I was still punishing the uphill and running section; in his mind he would have been walking these if he was running this 100 miler. This provided for some relief until Mike and aid station people at 99.1 remarked that it is 3.8 miles to the finish! I thought I was in home stretch (2.8 miles), but I wasn’t. I shook my head, powered back some ginger ale and left the aid station with water only, leaving Mike behind while he was filling his bottles. This might seem mean, but runners at 99.1 do not move so fast where a pacer could not catch up.
Mike caught up and told me that the aid station people asked how he was doing. I was thrilled by this but in hindsight I believe Mike may have been saying this to keep me focused on the finish. We made our way over the last climb and a runnable ridge, then I faced in my mind, the hardest part of the course. The last section was steep downhill and my quads were shot. Each step was painful as my body tried to move freely but also braked at the same time so I did not fall. We managed our way through the fog rolling in and kept moving, very slowly. We eventually saw the lights of the finish from the distance from the deep woods. I just kept moving until we finally exited the forest and entered the roadway. The burden was lifted and my legs felt fresh. We sprinted to the finish. I pumped my fists up in the air in sheer joy. I made it. I finished!
I shook the RD (David Walker) hand, and immediately hugged Allison. Then I sat down and asked for a beer. One sip and I was done with the beer. My stomach was still pretty shredded from the Tailwind. After several minutes I remembered the axe! I won the axe!!! I was handed the axe and a log. They set it up vertically and I laughed. I am too tired to hit that small target, please make it horizontal. I did the ceremonial swing and struck the wood. Mike and I then posed with it and did a couple joke pictures because that’s what you do with a shiny sharp object. Allison took off most of my sweaty clothes and put on some dry clothes on as I waited for David to finish. As the time ticked by, I began to shiver. I thought he was right behind me. Allison said nope, he was 28 minutes behind at Blackwell. Whoaa! I explained how I felt like David was behind me the entire 22 miles. David ended up finishing 45 minutes behind, which sounds like a lot but is still very close. The third runner, and only other runner to break 24 hours, finished over two hours behind me.
The win has finally hit me. I am super excited to have the axe in my possession. I am thankful that I will be able to take the rest of the year off from ultra-running and enjoy my accomplishment. I would like to thank Allison Kolb for putting up with me for 102.9 miles plus all the miles during training. Special thank you to Mike and Tara for taking time out of their vacation to help and support me. Thank you to Lemos for giving me some advice and insight regarding the course and my MPF RNR and HOHA teammate/fellow runners who stayed up and tracked me for my entire race. All the warm comments and excitement carried me through the race!