After a 50 miler, most people shut it down for a few days, weeks, even longer. Fortunately I have friends who don’t. Joe mentioned midweek about the Greenbelt 25K/50K at the weekend. Keila and myself were sold instantly and just like that, this became the next race.
We tossed the idea of the 50K around all week but opted for the more sensible 25K option; an out and back (the 50K was a double out and back). We knew we could always add miles on if 15.5343 didn’t satisfy our legs and lungs. When training for 100 mile races (which all three of us are), the long weekend runs (yes, plural) are standard practice. Throwing a bib on and being surrounded by other trail runners can make those miles more fun.
The forecast was rain and lots of it! I didn’t mind that, it would beat getting hot as we had last weekend at Bear. We pulled up at a peculiar industrial lot in Long Island. This was the home of Greater Long Island Running Club (the host organizers) in Plainview. We filled out day of registration forms, grabbed bibs and t-shirts and got ready. This was a no fuss local race. My BG was just right, I grabbed a gel to carry but would rely on the aid stations for Gatorade top ups today.
The 50K runners had begun one hour earlier. A couple hundred of us set off at 8:30am. I followed three guys who seemed to know where they were going. After an interesting sharp u-turn around a traffic cone down an asphalt road, we entered a tiny gap in the trees and found a trail. This, I guessed was the magical Greenbelt trail I had heard so much about from various friends for years but never taken up the opportunity to explore, until now.
I held third place and felt good. I saw second ahead but first had disappeared. The trail was mostly flat, single track with winding turns and a few small downed trees to hurdle. I didn’t know much about the course other than we were running north to Cold Spring Harbor and then turning around and coming back. My Novo Nordisk team-mate, Ryan, had told me midweek the course was relatively easy (he ran in 2012) but he did get lost that at the end and cost him the win!
I slowly closed in on second place over the next mile. We crossed a road and he looked me straight in the eyes, said nothing and ran away. I shrugged and continued to follow him. He would look around a few times checking on me and who was behind me. By the end of mile two that would be no one. We had created a gap already battling for 2nd place.
The course was marked with orange ribbons but these were fairly spread out (this was no North Face event). Sometimes this runner in front of me would choose a trail route without a ribbon in site. I was truly lost and confused so needless to say, happy to let him lead me up to the turnaround point. Maybe I should have listened to the race instructions at the start rather than hide under the canopy from the downpour!
The trail remained single track, a few small climbs and descents, a field crossing hugging the perimeter and standard rocks and roots but this was by no means a technical course. It actually felt like a vacation away from Bear Mountain.
At a smaller road crossing an a quick sip of Gatorade at the next aid station, we descended a long section. I decided it was time to go ahead, I was ready to stretch my legs and felt as if I was losing too much time on first place being guided. I asked the guy what signs he was following. Orange ribbons I knew but it was the white paint markings on trees – the Greenbelt trail that I had missed from the race instructions. Good to know!
I hadn’t planned to be so aggressive with the race. I actually came into the ‘race’ without much of a plan. I knew I wanted an easy(ish) out and a strong back/finish (something I have been lacking in my last few races).
At 5 miles, some serious climbing ensued. Big steps were the first sign of things to come and the hiking began. The 50K leaders were coming towards us so this was now a time to race smart and look up too. Continuous climbing and small ascents were continuous.
I hadn’t had much time to figure out how my new Suunto Ambit watch worked. The one basic feature that was incredibly helpful, as always though was heart rate. I was hanging around the 170 bpm. I stuck to my old trail trick of not letting it go any higher, no matter who was around. I was now hiking frequently to keep my effort even.
Some of the trail now was not only hilly but more technical. Vast tree roots, a drop off going left as the trail wrapped to the right, that kind of thing to keep it interesting. Trees proved good support for climbing hills and also useful brakes for the shorter descents.
I crested another hill and saw the best view on the course; an overlook to the north shore, a good indicator I was close to the turnaround point in Cold Spring Harbor. First place ran by me, we acknowledged each other but my greater concern was how far ahead he actually was. I checked my watch so I could gauge the true time gap between us when I would eventually hit halfway.
I descended some steep steps to a handful of people at the aid/check point. Before I could do the math, they all made sure I knew I was far behind first place “Todd”; a big hint that he was the local hero and I wasn’t to mess with him!
I didn’t need to try. I was four minutes back and my recovering legs (oh, I didn’t mention I was tired?!) had no desire to push much harder to reel Todd in. If his wheels fell off, so be it but I wasn’t going to gun it, not for a race we had only mentioned a few days ago.
I said adios to the Todd fan club and climbed up the steps inbound. I was curious to see the gap I had created on my early guide. I was conscious not to be walking or looking anything like the word ‘tired’ when we were to meet face to face.
He ran by but his concern was what was on his heels; 4th place was now a stones throw behind and my buddy Joe was also close in 5th. I didn’t calculate my gap from them but it felt too small. I pushed the pace up a fraction. My hiking stride lengthened and my descent running took a few more risks now.
Saying so, I still stuck at my HR plan, well, no higher than 172 bpm seemed to be my new comfort limit. I had to keep reminding myself that walking hills was perfectly reasonable, everyone chasing would have to climb the same grade and tire themselves out more if they chose to run them. I truly believed running these would be foolish and punished later in the race on the flatter section home.
I said ‘hi’ and ‘nice run’ to all my fellow racers who were still on the outbound. It was a great atmosphere, even while the rain began to start belting it down. I think (most) people enjoyed the trail and rain combination.
Back at the aid station meant the tough hills were now firmly in the bag. It also meant I could grab a quick Gatorade to keep the levels up. As I had pushed my pace a bit more than I wanted too, I thought it was worth asking the volunteers how far ahead the leader was.
I got blank stares at first. “Oh, you mean Todd? He is um…well gone”. My legs were too tired to question if the locals were calling my bluff. I had five to go and was happy with how I was doing managing the race.
The long home stretch was largely uneventful. There would be no Todd sightings, no attack from behind. It was just me and the trails. I was cranking out some great 8/min miles. It felt like a training run now. I wasn’t hammering it and red lining but I also was not cruising. It felt, well, not too far from perfect.
Just as I calculated I only had one more trail mile to go before I would hit the asphalt, I surprisingly saw people at the end of the trail. I got directed to the left which was confusing as an out and back course told me I had to go right here. At least got to avoid the tedious traffic cone u-turn I guess. It didn’t make sense but who was I too argue.
I ran the road downhill and could now understand how Ryan had got lost the previous year. The next marking was nowhere so I had to go from memory as to where my left turn was meant to be to get to the industrial car park finish.
The rain was now really hammering away. I pulled into the home straight. No crowd here, not even a photographer. Just a clock timer and some cones to finish between. The race directors were all hiding under the canopy to keep somewhat dry. This really was a no fuss local race. I kind of digged it.
I found Todd under the canopy. We small talked. He has won this race three years in a row now. His strategy? Bomb ahead and make the catchers get discouraged by the gap when they see you coming back. At least I know for next year!
Joe came in just after the woman’s winner in 4th and Keila soon followed in 6th (2nd female). Taking 2nd, 4th and 6th a week after 50 miles was pretty satisfying but just being out on new trails getting the legs going was definitely why we were there.
We grabbed lunch and made new friends, some of which were local legends; the USATF 50K race director and an ultra pioneer with a Western States and Badwater finish from the 90’s. A great (wet) Saturday morning well spent just down the road from our concrete jungle home of NYC.