For the fourth straight year, I decided to physically and mentally put myself through the rocks and roots of the Bear Mountain trails at The North Face Endurance Challenge. Being just up the road from my base camp of NYC, this race is hard to pass up. The event marks my anniversary into the world of ultrarunning (50K in 2011) although this time, I was back to try a new shorter distance than usual; the classic 26.2.
Getting to just run today came about thanks to the flexibility of The North Face staff, notably Susie and Karen. My original reason for being at Bear this year was to volunteer but when the runner in me figured out I could squeeze a marathon in between two volunteer shifts, I shouted “sign me up!” and a long day ahead was put on the calendar.
May 3rd – Race Day
I arrived at the very misleading grassy fields of Bear Mountain at 3:30am with Rui. He was about to undergo his first ever 50 miler and was definitely one of the first to arrive. My schedule for the day was; 3:30-8:30am registration tent, 9am-1pm?? marathon and 1:45-7:30pm registration/t-shirt printing. Arguably, this was an ultramarathon day for both of us, just that my GPS device would be unable to back me up on this one.
I was introduced to Nick in charge of registration. With a sea of laptops out and ready, the job at hand at first seemed a little overwhelming for so early in the morning. I watched as he checked in the first 50 miler runner and took a mental note of what had to be done.
As soon as the next runner came by, it was my turn. The key to my job was to basically not hand out a bib and plug it in the system as something different. If the shirt or socks I handed out were the wrong size, I could live with that but the bib being wrong would have killed me! Luckily, I had a cup of coffee at my side and after not messing up the first guy, I got on a roll and like clockwork, I became a veteran at registering runners in and wishing them good luck!
After the 50 milers left at 5am, the 50K runners slowly emerged and a new wave of registration begun and then once more for the marathon runners. Marathon runners! That was my race. It was time to shut up shop and get ready for my race.
I had eaten my breakfast albeit nothing that great (a dry half of bagel, Nature Valley granola bar and a banana) at 7am but hadn’t paid as close attention as I would have liked to with my blood tests. Working a new gig and it being so early, I wasn’t as focused as normal going into a race. By the time I was scrambling to get ready for my race, I had begun my day of what would be many mishaps; mishap #1 – lack of constant blood glucose monitoring pre-race.
My glucose ten minutes prior to the start was far higher than I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t be needing any glucose intake until at least the second aid station (mile 9) but still carried three gels in my shorts for safe keeping.
In unison with not testing my blood frequently throughout my busy morning, I had barely drunk any water. Counting two cups of coffee did not count. I probably had one bottle of water in six hours. And that was just pre-race. To think not carrying a hand-held would save me time would in fact do the opposite when I would start to get dehydrated later on; mishap #2 – lack of hydration.
With five minutes to go I was just about ready. I had decided to go with compression socks over no-show socks. My theory lay with all the mud and slush expected out on the course. With a higher sock line, the risk of debris flying into my shoe would be reduced. That’s all I had, so I went with it!
I met up with De’Vang and Ruth at the start area, friends from different NYC clubs and my T1 buddy Kirk who I’ve not seen in a couple of years. As the horn sounded, I sped across the grass field heading for the underpass; the gateway to the trails where the adventures awaited. Within the first 400 meters, my feet were soaked in ankle-deep muddy water as I ran straight through the huge puddles splashing whoever was in close proximity. This puddle was really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone knew the course was technically tough but the water and mud were extra star guest appearances for today’s race.
A couple of guys jockeyed hard to control first spot and I left them to it sitting content in third. Remembering my coaches words “run within yourself” I tossed my competitive ego aside and let runner after runner pass me by as we climbed up for the trail for the first three miles.
As much as I let them runners go ahead, I consciously counted my placing as I was adamant that the majority of these runners would come back to me later in the race. De’Vang joined me by my side and another runner called John. We ran together, conversing energy on steep ups with power hiking and running the rest. We had no intention of splitting up and rolled into the first aid station (Anthony Wayne) together tied for 11th.
I grabbed a couple of cups of fresh H2O and swiftly kept going along the road to the next section of trail. I checked my watch to see it took less than 30 minutes to get here. This meant we were ahead of course record pace. This was not a good thing! I told the guys the news although we didn’t really do anything about it. Inevitably, the trail did it for us.
From mile 5, we climbed up and up, some on trail, some on road and were joined by one more runner, Brandon. He wasn’t your typical looking trail runner; covered in tattoos, sporting tri shorts, but then again, is there even such a thing as your ‘typical trail runner’?
Brandon was a top guy. This was his first trail race jumping across from the tri scene to get his feet wet. Well, we were all doing a good job of that today. Every mile or so, a puddle emerged that was so long or wide, the effort to try to stay dry was just not worth it. Plus ploughing straight through them is always more fun! The blister risk was going to be high today but we wouldn’t find out the results until we were done hours later. I put my faith in my CEP socks and Brooks Pure Grit and got on with the task at hand.
I ended up letting the three of them go ahead. John was the nearest to me but De’Vang and Brandon felt good enough to push on harder and actually caught the next group ahead by doing so. I took a gel from my pocket as I felt this may have been the cause of why I was letting them go ahead. At the summit, I ran over a section of large flat rocks (very common in this state park) and looked down the other side at the steep descent to come. Low and behold, everyone was there delicately scrambling down the rock face. I used my downhill skills to catch back up with a few of them and get back in the mix on the fringe of the top 10.
As we headed around Silvermine Lake to the mile 9 aid, for no apparent reason, my left contact lens begun to act up. At some angles, my vision was OK, but for the most part, my view was just a blur. At the aid station, I made a B-line for the nearest car mirror; mishap #3 contact lens malfunction.
Before the volunteers could tell me I was going the wrong way, they figured out what I was doing. Keila was cheering everyone on with Michelle Mason and came over to investigate. She grabbed some water and poured it into my cupped hand with the lens waiting to get cleaned up. I put it back in but my nothing had improved.
Ironically, the mirror belonging to the car was an EMT vehicle! I didn’t even notice (hard to with one eye working!). The EMT guy was scrambling for saline trying to be of assistance, probably more used to twisted ankles than failing contact lenses. He finally came to my rescue and showed me a small plastic tube of the stuff which I snatched and intuitively bit off the plastic seal to his hygienic horror. I forgot, this wasn’t really “my” saline as such. Nothing a few wet wipes wouldn’t clean up though right? I dosed the lens in saline and tried again. It was slightly better but nothing like normal. I had been hanging around for a couple of minutes now and my pack of runners had this time most definitely fled. I decided ‘good enough’ and got back on the trail.
I chased down two runners splashing my way through more deep puddles of mud not wasting any time with the dry feet route. They had made the most of my blurry pit stop but finally I re-took my position. By mile 11 I was ultimately out there alone chasing a pack of five or six that I could not now unfortunately see, even through a stretch of flat(ish!) trail through the trees.
The highest point of the course was halfway but first I had to get there which required a fairly grueling power hike. I rejoined John again and we worked together up it. At the peak, my watch showed me 2:05, a sub-4 time goal I had set myself now seemed dubious. The fact I was behind on time was the least of my worries though. My left eye was showing me double and triple rocks! Planting my feet in the right safety spots had become a tougher challenge than normal out here.
Once at the high point, I got to run along a relatively flat section. A fallen tree made for a natural hurdle and as I took off, I immediately felt a sharp twinge in my left sartoris muscle (the muscle that wraps from the hip over the quads into the medial knee point). Mishap #4 cramping. This was not a good omen for the 13 more miles that remained. A first cramp is never a last for me. I only had one choice; to back off the pace to try to tame the pain away.
Another tree obstacle appeared down the trail and though I climbed over it with slightly less aggression, now the other leg gave out. Sartoris left and right were forcing me to deal with some serious pain management skills. Chasing the pack had now become a distant goal. Trying to see, stop cramping and getting some fluids inside me jumped up the hierarchy fairly quickly.
Not carrying S-caps or a hand-held to sip on fluid was proving to be a disaster. A rookie move. I had justified to myself that this was just a marathon and I would be fine without both and quicker on my feet if I wasn’t handling a hydration bottle. But a 4-5 hour run is the equivalent of a fast 50K for me and in that race distance, I would never think twice about carrying fluids. It’s just what you should do.
Running within myself now meant trying to avoid cramps. Even so, I still managed to pull some people back. I passed by one guy who told me “you’re now in 9th” to which I replied “no way!” Then a few hundred yards later, I passed a back of the pack 50Ker who declared “Wow, you’re in 5th”. I felt like the next person was going to say I had won an all-inclusive Caribbean cruise for four people. I had to ignore the noise around me and focus on the basics; running.
That was harder said then done. My cramping was spreading like a bad disease and now it had started, it would be hard, almost impossible to stop. Occasionally I just had to pull up and wait out the pain. Standing still while I cramped up took me back to my first 50 miler at JFK where I had the same situation. But this was happening, three years later! If you don’t cramp, let me just say you are lucky. The pain of cramping is unbearable. And then when it happens during a race knowing you have to run X miles just twists the knife in that bit more.
I reached a fairly unique looking aid station at 18 – Owl Lake. The set up was the back of a pick-up truck with various cups laid out! Craving some food I looked around at the offerings but only saw water and what appeared to be orange juice. I grabbed a cup and took a big swig immediately spitting it out onto the floor. Not orange juice. Then my eyes (yes, even the blurry one) spied a half-finished bottle of Coke at the front of the truck. I asked the volunteer for the Coke which he somewhat reluctantly fetched. Pouring me a cup, I downed it and reached out for more in true Oliver Twist fashion. A female runner next to me liked the look of the Coke and so she grabbed the last cup. I’m pretty sure the Coke was not meant for us but it did me the world of good! While a few tired runners from the 50K and marathon lingered at the pickup truck, I got out of there ASAP and knew I had jumped a couple of spots in the process. At a wild guess, I sat in 13th.
More climbing, more descending, the course unsurprisingly was relentless. My feet were dry and then soaked, it was described later by someone as the hardest Tough Mudder they had ever done! After a fairly standard section of trail, I felt a small stone playing around in my right shoe. I curled my foot inside my shoe to try to relocate it to a less annoying spot but it ended up going under my mid-foot which made it worse! I checked my mileage and pulled up by a branch to use as a step. I had 8 miles to go and knew the right thing to do was to just remove it. Mishap #5 foreign object in my shoe. That is the golden rule of objects in your shoes other than your feet. Take them out before they cause more problems than they are worth.
Reaching for my shoe was harder said than done however. My legs was so tight, my hamstrings immediately cramped up. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place (pun intended). I had to just keep going to take the shoe off which intensified the cramping. I eventually just yanked off the shoe. The foreign object fell out of my shoe easily enough but my laces were double knotted and tied as tight as you could imagine. I picked at the knot for minutes and watched one, two and then three runners go by. Mishap #6; laces in a knot. The unfortunate luck I was having was almost comical.
I eventually released the laces and put my shoe back on – if not for a little more cramping. I slowly caught up and passed two of the runners that had whizzed passed me as I dealt with mishaps 5 and 6. I got to Anthony Wayne aid station and didn’t spend a great deal of time there as I noticed the final runner who passed me was loitering at the food table looking pretty beat.
Anthony Wayne aid meant this was now the last aid station for me, 4 miles left. That’s what I hoped at least. I turned a sharp left rather than my usual route through the car park (the 50K/50M route) but hesitated for confirmation from someone. Keila was again close enough by to give me the nod that I was correct and said I was Top 10 or close to it.
I was literally going back the way I had come in the morning, the now barren course marked with all the distinctive ribbon colors labeled for each race distance. If I was just going back the way I had come, I knew the majority of the course was going to be downhill.
But after a mile of climbing up and following these ribbons I stopped and looked around. No one was around, there were only the sounds of birds, rummaging squirrels and me. I declared to myself that I had to be lost! My mind started to spin. I began to think that when I finally made it back to the world of civilization, I would figure out my mistake but it would be too late. I would have my first ever DNF because I went the wrong way. I already knew that turning back four miles and then running another four the correct route would have put my mileage super high for the day and that was definitely not going to be good long-term. The mind does some crazy things when tired!
Over a small ridge line, a runner wearing a red bib ran by below. Red bibs were 50 milers. This now made less sense than before when I had not seen or heard anyone! My trail merged with his and I followed him up and away from the direction I thought I was meant to be going towards the finish.
Before long, a marker cleared my head and had pink and red arrows pointing in the direction I was going. Analyzing the speed and freshness of the runner ahead, it clicked that this was a relay runner. They run 6.2 miles each. This must be right and I must be close to the end!
My body was over it. I hoped I was Top 10 more than I believed it. With so much stop and start running, keeping track of my position today had become no simple task. I descended downhill on less rocky terrain picking up much more speed than what most of the course allowed up to this point. Already going through my mistakes and bad luck, I begun to daydream about what my coach would make of my first trail race of the season. At least I didn’t…THUD!
And there I lay looking up to the sky with tall trees lining my view all around. My first fall of the day. The palms of my hands and back of my arms took the brunt of it. I brushed myself off and got up wearily. Mishap? Nah, this is part of the deal with trails. If you switch your mind off on a technical course, the inevitable is going to happen.
I kept going but through pure exhaustion just started to break down out there emotionally, thinking a lot about my late uncle. I think about him daily but rarely get to the point where I lose control. I guess the cocktail of almost five hours out on a rugged and wet Bear Mountain race course will do that to you, especially when it’s just not your day. I wanted more from this race but it wasn’t to be my day.
The descent finally took me towards a road that I knew well from training runs. Those last few miles just run were definitely new to me which explained why I thought I was lost and why I was confused to see a 50 miler runner who turned out to be a relay runner. Funny how these things all work out and no more talk of DNF’s! I am too proud of my clean record for that to become a reality anyway.
But getting on the familiar road, I thought I was home and dry. I was neither. The markings took us back into the trail via some wooden steps that acted like a champagne fountain with the liquid flowing down to the next level below. If this was champagne, trust me, it would have been very enjoyable but this was a brutal set of steps to get up with water flowing around my feet. Not only that, I now had a runner tearing down the descent behind me on some serious mission.
Convinced it was a late attack on me, I shrugged as my body physically and mind emotionally had shut down from competing for the day. When he passed, he tapped my arm and encouraged me as if we knew each other. That’s why I love trail running. He spurred me into a running motion and I wanted to try to keep that going through to the end. In fact, he was a relay runner for November Project, a likely mutual friend of NYRR’s Paul Leak who I know is linked to the team.
The trail became heavily clad with bushes tight either side scratching on my legs and then it opened up into a far more familiar rocky trail. Now, without doubt, I sensed the end was near. But my recent encounter with the runner who spurred me on was lying ahead on the trail motionless. I ran up to him and checked in. He said he had fallen because of cramping but it looked more than that to me. He looked pretty banged up.
“Go finish your race” he yelled at me. I didn’t really have time to go into how this was more of a mental training day for me than a race anymore but once I was sure he was fine, I carried on going. Of course, within two minutes he grunted past me again back at it and giving it everything. His grit was pretty awesome.
Under the bridge and getting my feet soaked one final time, the end was all but in sight. And as predicted, my gritty relay runner was friends with Paul. Paul and myself high-fived as I was finishing and he was beginning on his journey. Pretty sweet to have so many awesome friends into the same crazy stuff as you.
4:42 was good enough for 11th and third in my age group. It didn’t match up close to my pre-race expectations. I also never envisioned so many mishaps to have to work through out there. And after a quick break mingling with the likes of Dylan Bowman and Jordan McDougal, it was back to work for me, printing t-shirts for the runners for the rest of the day!
Being on my feet all day for 16 hours was definitely one of my longer marathon experiences ever but getting to spend all that time among like-minded individuals who push themselves to the limit and then find another level is so great to be around. It was a great first trail test for the year at Bear. Now to learn from my mistakes and move forward.
Part of me regrets putting the bar so high as most of the time, this will ultimately lead to perceived failure. The other part of me tells me, that’s just who I am. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” is how my buddy Jeff Le described it to me days later. I like that he said that. He basically told me to not change my hunger and to keep setting the bar where I want to set it because that’s just me.