Friday, October 10, 2014

Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler, Bear Mountain, NY Saturday, May 3, 2014

As I prepare for next week’s Tussey Mountainback 50 miler I can’t help but reflect on my first 50 mile race.

So this was my first 50 miler and from the beginning I knew it was going to be a tough one. I had run at Bear Mountain a couple of times before the previous summer and knew that the climbs were steep and the trails were rocky.

I started my training in January in the middle of one of the coldest winters we have had in years. It was a long winter and there were many mornings when it was below freezing or below zero degrees outside and I did not want to get out of bed at 7 a.m. and run 25 miles. There were also plenty of mornings where I couldn’t wait to get out there in the woods and run for hours at a time by myself with nothing but my own thoughts or maybe some music or one of my favorite podcasts.

Seen on my runs: Pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, cardinals, deer, raccoons, some ominous vultures that looked like they were waiting for me to collapse so they could eat me—which on the day seemed like a distinct possibility—and various other birds and mammals of the Northeast.

Some of the things I discovered and truly grew to love were the Long Path in New Jersey, the trails of Van Cortlandt Park, and running up to Mt. Nittany from my place in PA (up the mountain and back down in 14 miles).

The Long Path
View from the Long Path
So the day before the race, I went to the packet pick up and Q&A at the North Face Store with none other than Ultramarathon Man himself Dean Karnazes and UMTB winner Rory Bosio. It was really cool to get some tips from them about how to get through the race in one piece and also about how to deal with the mud—not something I had really thought much about leading up the race day. Apparently, it had rained really heavily in the days leading up to the race and the course was very wet.

Dean Karnazes  
Me and Dean Karnazes
The start time of the race was at 5 a.m. 5 A.M.! I had to get up at 3 a.m. to get there on time, check my bags, and settle in. I decided to bring my family with me, so we all stayed in a hotel nearby with a shuttle. I got up at 3 a.m., stumbled around in the dark, and made it to the lobby in time for the shuttle to the shuttle to the start. Not many people are up at 3 a.m. (surprise, surprise), just us crazy ultra freaks. So it was cool to meet the people in the lobby nervously awaiting the day’s adventure. We talked about the course, shoes, drop bags—you know runner stuff.  I met a cool woman who was actually from Manhattan and had run the course 8 previous times, which was nice ‘cause I could grill her with questions like, “How hard is it?” and “Will I make the cut offs?” She assured me I would be fine and that most people finish, and that I had nothing to worry about.

After two shuttles through the darkness, I arrived at the start area around 4 a.m.  Still cool, there were little bonfires set up and coffee. I met several runners there, stood next to Rory Bosio next to a fire, and generally fretted about whether I was wearing the right clothes, shoes, hydration pack, etc.

North Face Endurance Challenge NY
The gun went off at 5 a.m. and off we went into the mountains in a stream of headlamps right into the mud, water, and rocks. I was very nervous at the beginning, dancing around the water and mud and generally worrying about whether I was going too fast or too slow or whether I was going to burn out before the end or get cut off. As the day progressed my nerves settled (maybe 25 miles into it or so—not quickly). I locked into a comfortable pace, enjoying the aid stations but making sure I didn’t lose too much precious time there. My goal for the race was just to finish, maybe secretly to break 12 hours. I remember telling people beforehand that it would take me between 10-12 hours (silly amateur!).

Pretty quickly, I realized the extent of the challenge ahead of me. The climbs were steep and the mud was deep. As promised, my shoes were wet and remained that way throughout the day. Just as soon as they dried out, I would find myself stepping into another huge puddle and they would get soaked all over again.

It’s interesting—I had all kinds of ideas about what it would be like to run 50 miles on a technical, challenging, mountainous course and luckily it was nothing like I thought. It was somehow not as hard as I feared, and harder at the same time. I trained really hard for this race, running around 70 miles per week at my peak so my body was ready for the challenge. The big question was always my mind: Could I keep my head in the game for 12 plus hours and not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge?

I brought music with me and thought I might use it. I told myself I would use it starting at mile 40, once the wheels fell off or I was going crazy. But as the day went on, I got used to not having music, talking to people or myself—or even just enjoying my surroundings. Turns out the way to get through a challenge like this is to connect with the other runners and to really get and stay in the moment.  So look around enjoy the scenery, make friends, take the time to let life get real simple, and pare it down to the task at hand.

It was a beautiful course. I have been going to Bear Mountain for 14 years, but somehow never got too far away from Hessian Lake, the swimming pool, and the trails nearby. I saw some amazingly beautiful things I did not know existed—things I definitely want to go back to and show to my family. I also met some awesome new people, which is one of my favorite parts about running ultras. The people that run ultras seem to be people that are highly motivated type A’s, but also a little crazy, much like artists in that way. They’re people who are curious about the outer limits of human ability and are out there doing the work it takes to test those boundaries.

Bear Mountain
Bear Mountain, NY
I finished the race in 13:18:31, well ahead of the 14 hour cut-off time I worried about all day. My next race, the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler, has a 12 hour cut-off time. That has me a little concerned, but the race is entirely on dirt roads and will probably not involve fording giant mud puddles or running up trails with water pouring down them. So maybe cut off will not be a problem. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens! All part of the fun.

North Face Endurance Challenge NY
Coming across the line with my biggest supporters!

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