Ice was the news we heard from Rick McNulty, Race Director and owner of NJ Trail Series. “Add 20-30 minutes onto each loop (10 miles)” he wrote on the Facebook group page. Jeez.
A midweek detour to Paragon Sports saved the day with the swift purchase of some Yaktrax for me and Gary. Gary asked me “Are we going to really come 1 and 2?” To which I responded “We’ve got Yaktrax!”
After walking the mile from the Maplewood train station in rural New Jersey to the 2,110 acre South Mountain Reservation we were completely spent! Our Achilles were on fire. We were not warned the walk was uphill the whole way. Warm up; done!
We checked in and watched the fellow, more hardcore runners doing the 50k and 50m who had already started. I was observing everyone. We’re runners wearing Yaktrax or spikes? How many layers were they wearing? Hat, no hat? Gloves no gloves? I could go on but I’ll spare you!
I asked the RD his view on Yaktrax. He thought about it for a while. I was kind of hoping for a confident quick answer. He shouted to a female runner in Yaktrax “Hey, Yaktrax. Good idea?” She replied “YES!” Case closed. On they went and we lined up at the start with 60 or so other 20 milers.
The guy next to me crouched down waiting for the “go” as if he was running the 800m! And then he took off like it too. Our group followed and questioned whether he knew it was 20 miles rather than meters. But the really crazy thing to me was, he wore no spikes or tracks, not even trail shoes. He wore Brooks Pure Connects, a shoe I would choose for a road race.
We ran the first mile on road. I told Gary this was the worst trail race I had ever run! And then we turned left.
A steep descent on a single track trail with patches of ice and rocks and roots. This was what is all about. We then climbed out of the valley and started crossing cold streams, tip toeing through technical sections of rock and ice packed ground. Some ascents and descents were covered in a smooth layer of ice. The Yaktrax were a dream on this. I was so grateful we had these.
Someone was on my heals as I followed Gary through the wooded trail. I didn’t like this feeling. Either pass or back off because I refused to go any faster in case of adding a new war wound to my legs. Finally he passed and went quickly ahead just like the 800m runner did at the very start.
Me and Gary observed, took note and then shared ” We’ll see him later”. We climbed a long hill. It got steeper but felt wrong to walk. This wasn’t an ultra after all. But the hill kept going and the incline increasing.
I begun to walk. We could go the same pace as running it but keeping our heart rate a lot lower so at the crest we would be ready to run again. If anyone wanted to run past here, it would be hugely likely that when the course became runnable again we would pass them by with ease.
We ran back to the start finish in even 3rd place, 4 miles in. Now we had the bigger 6 mile loop to get us halfway. We descended a hill, very runnable with much less ice. We got faster and faster really enjoying the chance to stretch out legs and get some time back.
We then realized that there was nobody around us and more alarming, we hadn’t seen an orange arrow in the snow or pink ribbon on a tree for a while. It felt wrong to stop and question it but we had to ascend to find the last marker. We climbed the hill we had just bombed down briskly searching like two golf hackers looking for the little white ball amongst trees and shrubs. Finally I saw a pink ribbon ahead and then we saw a couple of runners turn off down a different path, one we never knew existed.
The key here was not to panic. We had 15 miles to correct our mistake so sprinting now was pointless. We caught them over time. One guy we passed was all “what? how? huh?” towards me. I pointed the finger ahead giving Gary full blame for getting us lost! In truth, it was an equal mistake. We missed what was actually about five pink ribbons and ten orange arrows in the snow telling us to go right!
After a very icy descent the trail flattened out. It become very runnable for long sections with manageable smaller climbs. We turned right into an open field and passed the other aid station. I had just popped a gel and had no interest in any liquid so stayed on the dirt path towards the next wooded area. We saw a new face look at us wearing all grey. He left the aid station like he had just stolen something! I said to Gary that’s 3rd place ahead. He wasn’t having it. I was convinced. There was no way that was a 50K runner and the 10 milers hadn’t even started yet. We lost one more spot than we thought from our mistake.
He never left our site for the next few miles. I could sense he was working hard to stay ahead. We passed an amazing frozen waterfall over a bridge and then climbed again. I caught him and passed by. Then the Yaktrax started to malfunction. I was slipping every left foot strike. I was convinced I had lost a Yaktrax. I looked down preparing to see my biggest fear of the day but it wasn’t that bad. It had hiked up my foot over my toes. I found a rock to perch over and adjust it back. 500 yards later, I felt a slip, looked down, same problem. I stopped a handful of times to fix this but knew I was in trouble. For starters, now it was happening on the right foot too. And secondly, I had 11 miles to go!
Grey guy and Gary both passed. They weren’t too far ahead and I knew Gary wasn’t going to take off anyway. We came through halfway in 4th and 5th in 1:24.
We re-hit the asphalt mile and discussed the game plan. We knew 1st place was gone, 2nd possibly too after all. But we could see third way ahead pushing the pace. Gary had no desire to pull him in, content that this was going to be a great 20 miler training run towards Boston. But I couldn’t resist the urge. Maybe it was the feeling I got from placing 4th last weekend. I didn’t want 4th again, I wanted 3rd. So we split here.
I kept my pace in line with the guy ahead. My Yaktrax were up to their old tricks but I decided at this point to fix them, only if I slipped, I couldn’t afford to stop every few minutes. We hit the steep descent on trail and I caught him almost immediately. I could hear his breathing and see his panic in his movements to stay ahead.
We shared pleasantries as I passed. He wasn’t even going to try to hang on and said “See you at the finish”. Was he serious? We had 8 miles to go here! Regardless if he was genuine or playing a game, I pushed on hard which was the right thing to do but most definitely in the wrong place. I was back in the most technical part of the course with ice, rocks, roots and streams to jump over. At one stream I fell in and almost crashed my legs onto the rocks as I crawled out the other side. And then there was an icy turn with a nice 40 foot drop off into some serious trouble.
14 miles in and I was back to the start/finish area again. I used the angle of a sharp left to glance quickly to see what was going on behind. The guy I had passed was still around. I had 300 yards on him. I knew the next section was fast and knew I needed a bigger gap so decided now was the time to go up a gear. Luckily I also knew to look for about five pink ribbons and ten orange arrows pointing me right!
I was catching the back of the 10 milers and had to wind my way through them respectfully. Running around people was fun. I encouraged them and vise versa. I love that about trail running, something road runners rarely do. I kept the effort high; running where I could and power hiking sections of the steeper hills. I kept some gas in reserve, in case I needed it for an attack from behind.
I ran passed the 15 mile aid station. I didn’t need any gels and had no urge to hydrate (a mistake really. Hot or cold conditions, my muscles would have appreciated some liquid in them). Down a long stretch and I passed a few more 10-milers enjoying the trail in flowing conversation. But this was a stark contrast to what I saw beyond them. A runner in red going pretty hard. I had caught up to second place.
I cranked the pace that much more on the downhill and swallowed him up. Thinking he may see me and jump on for a fight until the finish, I ran passed him hard. At the bottom of the stretch we turned a tight left over a narrow bridge. I looked left and saw he wasn’t going to be a factor. As I crossed the bridge, out of nowhere I saw my Team Novo Nordisk team-mate Ryan Jones (also training for Western States 100) coming the over way. We yelled some noise to each other and high-fived (I later found out he was telling me 1st place was only slightly ahead!).
I ran past the frozen waterfall one last time and climbed up the stretch of hill pretty confident I had 2nd in the bag now. After seeing how the leader had sprinted off at the start, I could only imagine he had finished and changed into dry clothes at this point.
I crossed a road which I recalled was approximately one mile of flat easy trail to go. I kept the pace up all the way home to finish in 2:44. A solid 20 mile run which felt like 25-26 on my legs due to the difficult conditions. I immediately bumped into the winner and congratulated him. I was surprised to hear we had the same finish time. I assured him (twice) he was wrong! But it was true. I lost out by 34 seconds but never saw him. I looked at his shoes and quickly reminded myself, he would have lapped me in Yaktrax! I had no feelings of defeat like last week.
I waited for Gary who came in only a couple of minutes behind in 4th. He didn’t care about his place, a smart runner that doesn’t get the urge to race just because he has a bib on. My blood tester wouldn’t immediately work post-race because the temperature was too cold! Changing proved a slow and skilled process with cold fingers and standing on a single shoe to avoid the mud. Yes, more core work trying to stay upright after 20 miles of it! Our clothes were absolutely drenched, so it was important to do so.
Ryan finished soon after and won the 50K. A great start to his 2013 campaign. I expect nothing less from him though. I hope we can run sections of Western States together in late June. We packed up and headed off. Another 20 miler locked into the training books (albeit a little different from Central Park). A good day at the running office. I was sure I was going to feel a few aches in my body the next day in places I didn’t knew existed. End note; I was right but it was oh so worth it!