187 inexplicably fit men and women strutted to the starting line to begin a 100 mile brutal race through the rough, backwoods terrain of Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio. Between 18 1/2 and 32 hours later, a mere 90, less than half those that began, staggered across the finish line. Those who DNF’d (Did Not Finish) did not suddenly decide to put down a box of twinkies, belch, turn off Netflix and jump up off their couch to run 100 miles. Rather, they were collectively brave, fierce competitors who had likely devoted months of their lives training obsessively before donning their bib numbers. And they still failed. This fact should serve as a ominous warning to those of you considering taking on the Mohican 100 challenge.
The Mohican 100 is a supremely challenging, prestigious race through some exceptionally tough terrain. The first ever USATF Ultra Running Championship took place at the MO-100 in 2005. It is the fifth oldest ultra-running race in the USA and the second stop of the Midwest Grand Slam. If you’re brave enough to register, take it seriously or suffer the consequences. Train in comparable conditions, or I promise, you will not make it. 15,000 feet of elevation gain and loss will mercilessly hammer your joints. If they are unaccustomed to the pounding they will endure running down very steep stretches of treacherous terrain, they will surely fail you.
Getting and Staying There
In the center of rural Amish Country, Mohican State Park is located in Ashland County near Loudonville. If you live too far to drive to Loudonville, be forewarned there is no really close airport to fly into. I chose Columbus only because I wanted to fly out of the same airport I flew into. I had decided to spend the week after the race recovering in Florida, as I knew I’d need it. Columbus had the most affordable flights flying into Fort Lauderdale, where I recuperated the following week.
Upon landing in Columbus, I rented a car to drive about an hour and a half to check into a hotel that was about 25 minutes from the race. I selected this particular hotel because I did not want to stay in a cabin, tent, or very expensive hotel. These are issues any potential runner should consider before registering. I knew I’d want a comfortable bed to sleep in the night before the big race as well as the night after. I think it is also especially important to eliminate potential sources of psychological stress leading up to an ultramarathon.
As soon as I arrived at the pre race meeting, I was dramatically reminded that I was no longer in Jersey City. The overwhelmingly friendly people created a relaxed, fun atmosphere at an event that was incredibly well organized. I checked in after waiting a mere moment on a short line. Volunteers had everything I needed in one place, from my bib number to the extra items I ordered, a t-shirt and a long sleeve zip up, all waiting for me in a neatly packed bag. The pre race meeting was inspiring and featured some men wearing 1000 mile buckles that had completed at least 10 Mohicans.
The Mohican volunteers at the fully stocked aid stations were genuinely eager to help me complete my journey in any way they could. Without them, the race would not have been nearly as enjoyable. The level of service they provided was honestly first rate. Honey sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, pretzels, gels, and quesadillas were some of the aid station fare I enjoyed during my run. The medical team was equally impressive. The race had a medical trailer and area with four wheel, all terrain, vehicles to get to people in desperate need of medical attention. Each aid station had a doctor and some even had podiatrists and physical therapists, all of whom were eager to help. I lost count of the number of times someone asked, “Can I get you anything?” or “Are you doing ok?”
Mo-100 runners included people from age 21 to 70. They came from all over the country, including Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, California, Texas, and the greatest state in the union, New Jersey. The runners were just as friendly as the aid station volunteers. I fell in with several people and got to know them during the race. The ultrarunning crowd is truly a most friendly and special group. Everyone’s a little crazy and a metaphysical bond of some sort is formed when you suffer through such a harrowing experience together.
The Course – Terrain
I’ve seen the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, the Fjords of Norway, the Painted Desert, and many of the most spectacular castles of Europe. But let me tell you that some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen were among those backwood trails in Mohican State Park. It was a true wilderness experience. Ninety five percent of the course is on trails that wind through the lush 5,000 acre Mohican Memorial State Forest. Runners run alongside cliffs, meandering streams, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, a dam, and find themselves running up and down incredibly steep sections of trail, which in some cases has challengers scrambling over fallen trees and up extremely steep terrain. There is even a hand over hand root climb. There are two long sections of staircases. While this may appear easy or fun to run down, it mangles the joints because running downhill is 2-3x times harder on them because of the impact force. As I was running through a hemlock forest, I actually paused for a moment to absorb the beauty and take a mental snapshot that I hope I keep for eternity. You won’t find many comparably scenic ultramarathons.
Roughly the first ten miles I ran were frustrating. I began the race near the front and as the stampede of runners turned off the paved road onto the trails, we formed a conga line that lasted about 10 miles. You see, long stretches of these trials are only single person wide. It is neither easy to pass someone, nor is it easy to allow someone to pass you. So, I basically got stuck trying to keep up with the guy in front of me for fear of annoying the people behind me. It was disconcerting and I found it impossible to enter a flow state or establish a rhythm when I was constantly worried about who was trying to pass me or keeping up with the guy in front of me.
There was a period in which I feared I would be running the entire race trapped in this conga line surrounded by people. Yet, as I began passing aid stations, it began to thin out. By mile 12, I found myself quite literally alone in the woods. Later in the race, there were long periods in which I saw absolutely no one. This was peaceful, but also mildly scary, especially when it got dark.
The single wide trail is also suggestive of the terrain. It is rough. Really rough. If you are accustomed to running on asphalt or gravel or compacted dirt on four person wide trails, this is going to be traumatic for you. Train accordingly or you will suffer and likely be seriously injured. The single wide trail is covered with rocks, holes, fallen trees, gnarly roots, and I even saw a few piles of horse crap, any one of which have the ability to snap an ankle or twist a knee. Now, imagine running it in the dark with only a little headlamp to light your treacherous path. You better pay attention to every spot you put your foot down or the Mohican will put you in the hospital. Make no mistake, this terrain is unforgivable. Make sure you pack a powerful headlamp with a ton of battery life!
Did I Earn a Belt Buckle?
I set a relatively blistering pace for myself upon completion of the first of four 25 mile loop. That caught up with me as the heat began to set in on the second loop, causing me to slow down significantly. I was confident I would earn that most coveted belt buckle straight up through about mile 40 when the ache in my knee morphed into more serious pangs of pain. As any ultrarunner knows, you’re going to suffer tremendously on a 100 mile run. But there are degrees of suffering and the pain that was emerging in my knee was slowly ticking higher on the pain scale. I adapted by running down hill relatively duck footed with my left leg. By mile fifty, the pain was absolutely excruciating. By then I was walking downhill both duck footed and straight legged, literally dragging my left leg behind me. Eventually, I couldn’t even walk downhill without being in agony. Considering the situation with my knee and my recognition that I could no longer possibly complete the race within the 32 hour time limit to earn a belt buckle, I decided to quit at about mile 52. It was a most humbling experience. The two mile walk in the dark to the next aid station was the longest two mile walk of my life. I officially bowed out at mile 54, earning me a 50 plus mile finisher medal. It was nice to receive an award, but certainly not the hardware I came for.
They say hindsight is 20/20. What I did wrong is retrospectively obvious. In a fist fight, the Pistol Ultra Marathon, the first and only ultramarathon I ever completed, would be the equivalent of fighting Steve Urkel, the quintessential nerd from the 90’s hit sitcom Family Matters. That’s precisely why I selected it as my first Ultra; because I thought it would be as relatively easy as possible to run 100 miles on that particular flat course with a generous, 30 hour cut off time. I just barely beat Urkel as I hobbled across the finish line with merely nine minutes to spare. While I managed to earn a Pistol belt buckle, Urkel really beat the crap out of me, knocking me down more than once. Indeed, he bloodied me up good and I was limping for two weeks.
So while basking in the glory of barely defeating Steve Urkel, I decided to take on a more challenging contender. I chose the Mohican 100 specifically because it is a qualifier for two of the toughest and most prestigious races in the world; the Western States and the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, a multi day, staged event in which participants run through France, Italy, and Switzerland. So, by choosing to register in the Mohican 100, I was essentially doing the equivalent of challenging Iron Mike Tyson to a fight immediately after barely beating Urkel. Yeah, it was stupid. I now know. I lost. Badly.
The Mohican 100 is a well supported, great race that is incredibly challenging and scenic. I suggest it to anyone capable of completing it. Just don’t make the mistake I made by taking it too lightly or overestimating your abilities or this race will drop you to your knees and you will stay there. The Mo-100 is also not a cheap challenge to take up haphazardly. If you don’t live nearby, you can reasonably expect to easily drop close to $1,000 between cost of registration, airfare, hotel, car rental, and incidentals. It’s a considerable amount of money to spend only to emerge from the exhausting experience with a sense of disappointment, rather than one of glory. Despite what I’ve read elsewhere, it is simply not a good first 100 mile ultramarathon for anyone. It is not a good second either, nor is it probably a good third; or fourth; or fifth… I strongly urge potential candidates to get some serious ultrarunning experience before tackling a course of this caliber. The number of people, including myself, who DNF’d (over 50%) should indicate how hard it is.
Nevertheless, I am glad I took the Mohican Challenge and it was an incredible, albeit painful, and somewhat traumatic, learning experience. Experience counts. I didn’t have nearly enough to take on the Mo-100. Though I failed to complete the race, let’s not forget to put this in its proper perspective and remember exactly WHY I am putting myself through this torture. I run far as one of several methods to prove it is possible to reverse one’s biological age by lengthening one’s telomeres. My endeavor is based upon a compelling, peer reviewed study located here. I am making incredible progress with ultrarunning (and hopefully my telomeres) and look forward to my next challenge. I will most definitely return to Ohio to fight the Mohican again. Next time, I’ll be much better prepared, and God willing, I will earn that damn belt buckle.
1 Mohican 100 Trail Run – General Info on OMBC. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ombc.net/mohican-100-trail-run/mohican-100-trail-run-general-info
2 Mohican 100 Trail Run – General Info on OMBC. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ombc.net/mohican-100-trail-run/mohican-100-trail-run-general-info