[Author’s Note: This is the fourth of an eight-part series in AJW’s Taproom called Race Director Chronicles, where we profile the unsung heroes who make our sport’s racing possible.]
Deep in the rugged mountains of Central Pennsylvania, sits Worlds End State Park. Surrounded on all four sides by the Loyalsock State Forest, Worlds End and the surrounding woods forms one of the largest tracts of wildland in the region. Each year on the first weekend in June the 100-kilometer Worlds End Ultramarathon takes place in the park. Composed of a single 63.8-mile loop and boasting 12,395 feet of elevation gain, Worlds End earns its reputation as one of the most challenging ultras on the U.S. East Coast.
Dave Walker is the race director of Worlds End and is a striking figure. A retired military man, Dave’s slender build and wry smile are oddly reassuring for a guy who has designed such a dastardly race. With a tight 19-hour cutoff, each year Dave warns his runners that Worlds End is not an entry-level race and, indeed, in a typical year nearly 40% of the finishers cross the line in the last 90 minutes. On a personal note, Dave was quite proud when I entered the race a couple of years ago and succumbed to my first ever DNF before making it not even halfway around the loop.
I recently had a chance to sit down and chat with Dave and ask him a few questions about his life as a race director:
Andy Jones-Wilkins: How long have you been directing trail running events in Pennsylvania?
Dave Walker: The year 2014 was my first foray into race directing with the introduction of the Montour 24 Endurance Run. I had originally pitched this 24-hour race to the county recreation commission so I could have a local timed race to participate in, but ended up being asked to be the co-director with the commission’s director. After having such a wonderful experience with this introduction into race directing, I decided for the following year to host a race in the beautiful woods of Worlds End, one of my wife and I’s happy places, and then expanded three years later to offer another challenge in the mysterious Black Forest.
AJW: What is the most satisfying aspect of your work as a race director?
Walker: I fell into ultrarunning almost entirely by accident back in 2011 and immediately fell in love with the sport. At the time, I was suffering from some residual PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from my deployment in Iraq as a Combat Demolition Engineer [in the military]. I found so much restoration in my soul after that first ultramarathon and soon came to realize that it was the challenge of accomplishing something that I really had no idea that I could do that was so healing for my mind. That challenge, that stretching the limits just a bit further than we think possible, that sense of true accomplishment, is what drives the ethos of my races. They are designed not to be completely out of reach, but far enough that it will make people dig deep to succeed. Every person that finally achieves the goal of crossing the finish line, and gives me a sweaty hug, who sheds tears of joy, who just would not quit — I hope that person is leaving my race with their soul a little bit more restored.
AJW: What makes running in the rugged country of Central Pennsylvania so unique and special?
Walker: Most people automatically think of Rocksylvania, but central Pennsylvania actually has quite a diverse landscape in the mountains. Our Worlds End races in particular feature brilliant waterfalls and breathtaking vistas, and probably the most scenery-dense courses you’ll find anywhere. But even more special, is the entire community of volunteers that support the races in Central Pennsylvania. Unlike larger races, such as the Western States 100, that have access to large pools of resources and people from the local urban communities, we are much more dispersed and lack the larger resources to draw from. Even so, the volunteers are always rated among the best in the business. But the rocks, too … and roots and rattlesnakes!
AJW: What are the three biggest challenges you face as a race director?
Walker: Primary challenges are nearly all logistics related — how to manage the various aspects of race-day needs. Our races, like many other trail races in our area, are held in remote areas of Pennsylvania. We must have many layers of safety to deal with a host of behind-the-scenes hurdles. That means limited-to-no cell service, limitations with GPS tracking, few entry/exit access points, and more. Navigating and planning for the various contingencies is pretty involved, and that can be really easy to underestimate. Our logistics team are top notch and we have developed a lot of very strong relationships with communications teams, local EMTs, and really just the communities we race in, at large.
AJW: What changes have you seen in the sport since you began directing events?
Walker: Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed ultrarunning being more normalized. Now, that might be because people had time to try something crazy, or because they were desperate for an individual challenge that still had aspects of team and community, or thanks to the various tech algorithms putting more ultrarunning content in front of us. Generally, I’ve seen more early career runners toeing the line at my races and being just very excited for the experience. It’s a lot of fun to see that “Christmas morning” excitement at the starting line.
AJW: What are you looking forward to most in the 2023-2024 event season?
Walker: I look forward to integrating back into the trail racing community on a more personal level, after my normal running and racing habits were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and my sabbatical thru hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2021. Being a race director has its own set of interactions with the trail community that’s notably different from the individual runner. More business-like in some ways. And that can take some of the fun out of the whole thing. But being able to enjoy races too, run some, direct some — there’s a healthy, happy balance there and I’m looking forward to striking it better this year.
AJW’S Beer of the Week
This week’s beer of the week comes from one of Central Pennsylvania’s classic breweries, Turkey Hill Brewing Company in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The Lawn Mowing Monk Belgian Single Ale is a big, bad beer. A classic Belgian “table” beer with an oaky, toast finish and an up-front mouthfeel that is simply awesome.
Call for Comments
Have you met Dave Walker or ran the Worlds End Ultramarathon?