With just 4 weeks to go until Leadville Trail 100, my phase #2 training plan called for the second 50 mile effort. Without getting on a plane to head west to Colorado, Utah or Wyoming, the most local race with hills was in Vernon, New Jersey. ‘Running with the Devil’ is in fact not a 50 mile race but a 12-hour timed race up and down mountain ski slopes on a 5K loop. See how far you can run in the alloted time. Last year’s winning time was 50.1 miles so I set my goal as just that.
Elevation changes of the 5K loop are extreme allowing little time for “normal” running
To 99% of the world, this seems like well…Running with the Devil. The 1100 foot ascent in 1.5 miles followed by the same elevation drop right back to the start made me fully aware this race was going to be as much mental as physical with the easiness to quit coming every 5K. This was perfect. It would be the longest time running for me no matter the distance covered by almost three hours (Bear Mountain 50 Miler; 9:13).
“Running is simple as it requires just a pair of shoes”….unless you’re running with the devil!
Friday night was spent packing endless food and diabetes supplies, spare shoes, spare socks, spare everything. I had hardly calmed down enough for bed when the alarm woke me at 3 am. I picked up Rui Guimaraes, my running brother and soon to be awesome Leadville pacer. He was tackling the 6-hour version. Nothing wrong with that, this race is hardcore and he is still dipping his feet in the ultra/trail running scene. We headed through the Vanilla Sky like streets of Manhattan and out of the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey.
We arrived at Mountain Creek Ski Lodge in plenty of time ready for the 6 am start. After my very early breakfast (bagel and bananas) my blood glucose sat at 160; all good. The goal was to keep it there for the next 12 hours. Race director, Rick McNulty, sported an appropriate polka dot jersey and gave us the lay of the land. A 5k loop started and ended at the lodge. Towards the end of the race, when time was running out, we could tack on a short 0.5 mile loop but as soon as the clock read 12:00:01 the loop would not count, the race was over.
Mountain Creek, Vernon, NJ
We had 30 nervous but excited starters. I saw a tall guy sporting the Team Type 1 kit so introduced myself. He was Ryan Jones. He had heard of me through the team and we are both doing Leadville. Unfortunately for me he was not doing more than six hours and that also meant our conversation was cut short when we started ascending the first hill. He was running it and it was steep! I let him go, I just knew that kind of output for me was unsustainable for 12 hours.
The start of 1100ft gain!
After this climbing stretch, we turned sharp left through some woods but we were now descending. I was convinced these mountain goats ahead of me were going the wrong way but they were right and we did get a mini downhill recovery. That soon ended when we started climbing in an open field by the ski lift. This hill was long and ridiculously steep. Both of my achilles were in agony and I had to stop at the top to stretch. We hit our second runnable section which was rolling terrain on a rocky trail? Was this the top? I prayed hard. The devil just laughed.
The trail ended and I saw an even longer climb. This was head down, big stride stuff. No running, looking up or talking here. This was really tough and I was just starting.
The last descent; the yellow dot is me!!
It had taken me 35 minutes to climb 1.5 miles. How was I going to hit my goal of 50 miles at that pace I asked myself. Run down hard! Sections of the downhill where steeper than the way up so I had some leaning back to do which meant braking to not lose control. It also meant a lot of quadriceps work. I arrived back at the start in 45 minutes giving Rui the really comforting news that it was really tough! I sat in a chair at the lodge and did my first ‘during exercise’ blood test; a low of 62. This was a surprise. I had taken half of my breakfast bolus at 4am and been 160 only 3 miles ago. I had no time to ponder how now, I had to load up on sugar fast and carry on. Two honey stinger gels went in the system and I carried on. This wasn’t a time to re-test in 15 minutes. I would do so in 45 minutes after loop 2.
Besides, I was fully loaded with gels in case I ran into trouble while away from my supplies. I also had my handheld water bottle full of Gatorade. Now I knew the course, I started to break it down into managable doses of pain; the climbs consisted of three power hiking sections with two runnable trail sections and the descent was just that, just get back in one piece. My pace remained the same on loop 2; a 35 minute climb, 10 minute descent and 5 minute break for blood testing, food intake and general recovery.
Loop 4 in the books (12.4 miles) and the sun was now out to play.
Now my blood glucose was 82. Only just OK. More gels and some energy chews were digested and off I went. At loop 3 I appreciated the first two more, the sun was now rising. At loop 4 I now found myself suddenly surrounded by another hundred plus runners in the 6-hour and 3-hour events. It was tough to know where I placed in my race, more so now. I guessed top 10. My real focus though was keeping an honest pace of 45 minutes per loop and getting my blood glucose back to near 160. I didn’t want to get sucked into a pace of a guy doing 3 or 6 hours.
I achieved both my steady pace and glucose control for the next few hours. I was on track to run 50 miles; 16 big loops and 1 short loop. At 1pm I changed my shoes and socks. As I entered the rock trail near the summit I wondered how the new trail shoes would do on this section. THUD. Down I went hitting my shin hard on a not so blunt rock. I guess I got my answer! Two women who I had just passed, said they heard the wounded animal and made sure I was OK. After five minutes of hobbling and really thinking I had just ended my 12 hour race at 7 hours I joked to them that as it (my leg) had not fallen off, it was time to carry on.
This was unsurprisingly my slowest loop and also resulted in my highest blood glucose; 188, due to not burning as much carbs as predicted for the loop. I was now behind schedule. As well as my shin, my whole body was also now beginning to ache more and more with the heavy cement legs on the uphills and pick axes attacking my quads on the downhills.
At 3pm I found Rui sitting down amongst many other 6-hour finishers. I asked how it went as I only saw him once in his race. He won it!!! Only his second ever ultra race and he tore it up with over 28 miles. Whether he knew it or not, this gave me renewed energy. I returned after yet another loop and he told me I was in fourth place. It didn’t mean much as I had no idea how far ahead the top 3 were. All I knew was, it meant a handful who were ahead of me had dropped out at some point. I slumped into my chair at the lodge and did my routine; towel, blood test, can of coke and handful of fruit (it was all my stomach could handle at this point). I tried to imply to Rui I felt bad he was waiting for me to finish hoping he would say he was really bored and we should call it a day. Typical pacer just looked at me and said he was fine and I should keep going! I had two hours left and was really wasn’t feeling it. Finally I got up and went for “one” more loop.
It took a while, almost an hour. I was now walking sections I had run and even sat at the top of the ski lift to drink water. That was a mistake. I almost lay down and was going to have a little nap! That nap could have lasted the rest of the race time.
I returned to base and Rui informed me I was now top 3. Then he kicked my ass and told me the 4th place guy was coming after me! Why? Please just leave me alone! Their was no question of what I had to do. One more big loop to keep 3rd, my 15th loop. I could do that in one hour surely? And surely, I did. It was one of my fastest of the day; 46.5 miles in the bag. I came back to base with 11:40 on the clock. I thought I was catching 2nd place and wanted to round up to 47 miles so I just grabbed some iced water and carried on. The short loop was a steep climb up and a steep climb down. The devil was everywhere!
Now I was definitely done. I sat on a bench by the finish. Rui said well done, 3rd was secured. Then, Rick, the race director started chanting “One more, one more, one more”. Was he sicker than me?! I said no way. He did it again. Rick doesn’t know me but he certainly pressed the right buttons. I made sure to tell him how much I hated him and got up! As painful as it was, I did it and finished with 47.5 miles in 11 hours 58 minutes. I missed 2nd by three minutes Jason Friedman – last year’s winner) and first by one mile (Tony Carino). Final blood glucose; 112.
My biggest achievement though was not stopping until it was physically impossible to do any more mileage. That was what I ultimately took away from this experience. “Whenever, I had a decision to make to quit or carry on, I ultimately chose the harder of the two” Rui enforced. He was right and this is exactly how I need to function in Leadville. Thank you Rui, thank you Rick. You guys pushed me all the way.
The big W for Rui (now relaxing!) I had 3 hours to go – mental toughness time!