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Marathon Mishaps at Bear Mountain

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The North Face Endurance Challenge – Bear Mountain, NY

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.

pink bib

Pink bib for real trail runners!

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!

Catching up with Kirk,  pre-race

Catching up with another T1D, Kirk Noreen pre-race.

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.

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

Not your typical marathon elevation profile!

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.

Mile 4; chatting with De'Vang and John in close proximity.

Mile 4; chatting with De’Vang and John coming into Anthony Wayne.

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.

mile 8.5

Mile 9 at Bear ; the obstacle course on water!

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.

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

Marathon Course. Flat on paper!

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.

Passing by a couple of relay runners late into the race.

Passing by a couple of relay runners late into the race.

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.

Last push for home.

Mile 26; Last puddle and push for home.

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.

Done! A mental triumph if nothing else to claim 11th spot.

Done! A mental triumph if nothing else to claim 11th spot.

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!

De'Vang ran a great trail race to claim 7th. If he hadn't have gotten lost. maybe a top 5 spot.

De’Vang ran a great trail race to claim 7th. If he hadn’t gotten lost, maybe a top 5 spot.

Jumping Shenanigans with the instigator (Elaine) and De'Vang who ran a great race for 7th.

Jumping shenanigans with NYC buddies; Elaine “instigator” Acousta and De’Vang

Post-race “Debrief”

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.

The 2013 Finale: ‘California Dreamin’ at The North Face 50 Mile Championship

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I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.

I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Last race bib of 2013. 18 for the year and what a year!

Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.

The course profile - no altitude worries but....

The course profile – no altitude worries here but relentless climbing nonetheless.

It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.

TNF50 Course Map

TNF50 Course Map: luckily the course is well-marked!

After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

Departing for the adventure at 5am. The sea of headlamps begins.

We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.

I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.

We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.

Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.

At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly  down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test  which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!

The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.

Pirate's Cove. Photo credit:

Pirate’s Cove. Photo credit: Ultra Sports Live TV

Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid.  I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.

The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!

I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.

The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.

Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

The neon effect: Vargo, Wolfe and Krar bomb past me at mile 25. Photo credit: Trail Porn.

Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.

I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ –  a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.

Single track leading out to 'wrecked car' and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

Single track leading out to ‘wrecked car’ and the turnaround point. Photo credit: Strava

It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up  top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.

But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

Stinson Beach view. Photo credit: mountainrunningdventures.com

I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.

I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear.  When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.

I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south  geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station

Back up to Cardiac Aid Station Photo credit: Mountainrunningadventures.com

Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.

This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started  my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.

I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.

I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.

At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.

I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.

Mile 40 - another surge uphill.

Mile 40 Coyote Ridge Trail: another surge uphill with glorious views among the Marin Headlands.

The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.

Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.

At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.

Last few miles on this great course!

Closing miles on this great course! Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out behind the Marin Headlands. Photo credit: The North Face.

Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

Home stretch pushing as hard as possible for 9:15. Photo credit: Tiffany Carson

I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.

We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

Post-race with soon to be crowned URY Rob Krar who won the race. #thatbeardisawesome

I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.

I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.

We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

Post-race festival at Marin Headlands.

 

North Face DC 50M: Keeping up with Wardian (almost)

tnf dc BANNER

Walking under the start/finish blow-up North Face arch at Algonkian Park ( a few miles upstream of DC) brings back fond memories from last year. I surprisingly won the 50K event here, by far my biggest “W” and was back. This was to be no defend my belt day though, I was cranking it up a notch to “the big boys” 50 mile race as my running friend Kino would say. I needed a second 50 mile race in my legs for Western States 100 and with four weeks to go, this made a lot of sense.

I had a plan for the race. It was fairly straight forward. 9/min mile would get me in at 7 hours 30 minutes and a top 5 place based on previous results. Midweek leading up to the race, DC (and New York for that matter) got hit with heat wave temperatures in the 90’s and humidity sky-high to boot.

Knowing this didn’t throw me off my time goal but I did begin to toss around different ideas with people of how to run in such heat. I hate the heat but part of me was secretly happy. Western States 100 will be hot, probably hotter so in terms of ‘training’, the conditions were going to be a great test for me out there. The best advice came from my Novo Nordisk teammate, Matt Patrick. “Run em while you can” he said on the plane ride down their meaning run your miles before it gets too hot you have no choice but to walk. The race begun at 5am so I had at least two or three hours of cooler temps (if you can call 70’s-80’s cooler!) before the sun was to rise and the sauna was to kick in.

Out and back course with three loops at Great Falls.

Gore-Tex 50 Miler: Out and back course with three loops at Great Falls.

My new plan was to run 8/min miles early for as long as possible, maybe to the Great Falls aid at 19 miles. By the time the sun was beaming down on us, I would have a gap on competitors who would have to work really hard to catch me. If I was out of sight an albeit a mess, I still might pull off a good time and placing.

Now, most of my friends disagreed with this plan calling it borderline suicide or not saying anything and just pulling me the ‘ug face’. I think part of their disagreement made me want to experiment with this kamikaze idea even more. Something is definitely wrong with me!

My BG was a shy over 200 at 4:45am. I had been managing it closely since 2am when I gave up on sleeping and got the pre-race routine going. I diluted my Gatorade hand-held bottle down slightly. No backpack today – another experiment, also a big risk because of the heat but after the back pains I got during Bear Mountain lugging around 70oz rather than 20oz (a handheld bottle weight) I wanted to feel as light as possible, especially with my aggressive start. )The DC race course is set up far better for refueling with the biggest gap between aid stations being a shy under 7 miles compared to Bear too).

My other teammates (Matt, Ryan and Benny) were still asleep at the hotel with later start times for the 50k and marathon races. I did not mind one bit getting going so early though. I would have taken 4am if I could! I stood at the front of the start line near Michael Wardian (The North Face athlete with too many accolades to list here) He was being announced by the MC, a clear favorite to win the race in my eyes.

Fast start out the gate - a white blur of rundiabetes.

Fast start out the gate – a white blur of rundiabetes.

We blazed out of the start into the field. Down a dip, up a dip, along flat grass surrounded by waist-high grass – it felt very Cross Country like. I ran on the heals of the leader. The pace felt really easy. I think it was 7 minute miles.

Pushing the pace early with the other four leaders.

Pushing the pace early with the other four leaders.

Wardian came by. I re-introduced myself after we had briefly met at JFK50 (my first 50) in 2011. We begun too small talk, dead easy guy to talk too. We ran the long flat section south and the leader joined in the conversation as we now ran as three with several others hanging behind.

A lollipop extension around a pond was a new part of the course to me. (This is not part of the 50K course). As we returned to the main stretch we passed the first aid stop. I struggled to find the water section rather than sodas (way too early for that!) and immediately I fell off the back with no one else stopping to refuel. I knew carrying water bottles I would have to stop more but didn’t expect everyone else to blaze ahead and wait until mile 8.5 aid.

At first, I thought they were gone but within a few minutes staying at a good pace and not trying to run anything but my pace, I had jumped back on to them as we went up and down the banks along the golf course. No golfers were up this early to see the shenanigans of our race. Last year, I remember we got some funny looks during the 50K!

The more people spoke, the more I got to know my company. In the lead, a guy who had just paced David Riddle (JFK50 2011 champ etc etc) to a 50M win, Michael Wardian, Nikki Campbell’s (The North Face athlete) pacer and then a quiet, serious runner decked out in North Face gear, arguably the most intriguing of the four. He was all business. For that, I decided to call him Ivan Drago, the Russian nemesis from Rocky! And then there was me. What was I doing here?! Well, it felt great and I was having fun so I stood my ground and went with the plan.

We reached the first climbs around mile 10. This would be the end of the road for the gang of five. Instantly, the top 2 ran the hill. I knew my endurance level and hiked it hard instead. Nikki Campbell’s pacer (who I later found out to be Dennis Ball- we have several mutual friends) tried to keep up, saw I was right behind hiking and quickly followed suit. Rocky’s rival followed.

Several short but steep up and downs followed as we hiked and ran south, the Potomac River on our left, water flowing down towards the capital. This was a fun section, possibly my favorite. A stream crossing was ankle-deep. the same crossing was waist deep the prior year. What a hugely different experience this was on the exact same course.

I now sat in clear third but had lost sight of the front two. I was clipping off 7:15’s and that was definitely better than I had hoped for. The sun was rising fast and he heat too. I ran through six-foot tall grass, turned a corner and saw Wardian to the side of the trail ‘watering the plants’. I ran by. Whoa. Hold that thought. I ran by Michael Wardian.

I’m a big advocate of saying race yourself, not others. Your placing is merely determined by who does or does not turn up on any given day. But, this was Michael Wardian. I had to pinch myself that I was ahead of him running in 2nd place a third of the way into the race.

I ran through an open field and used the space to have a quick look back to see what was going on. Rocky’s arch nemesis was there but not Mike.

On a flat and then long descent I stretched my legs to try to get a nicer gap on the rest. I ran into the Great Falls aid station (mile 18) in 2nd. I met my girlfriend there. I think she wanted to tell me I was going too fast but instead smiled and said I was doing great. Like clockwork, we wiped my sweaty hands down, did a blood test (144) and refueled for the first of three Great Falls loops. But just like that, I was back in 4th. Both North Face runners were really efficient at Great Falls aid and were off.

I climbed the long hill road steadily as I watched Wardian pull away slowly. By the time we hit the top, I was back on my own. On paper, the Great Falls loop looks like a maze but in reality if you just follow the arrows, it’s not rocket science.

At the first of two turn around points, I saw a teenager sitting by a traffic cone with earphones in showing little interest of the race. Probably the son of a super keen runner/volunteer Dad I assumed. He pointed at the cone and mumbled. I paused and looked at him and said “This is the turn around?”. He nodded. “Really? Are you sure? Positive?” It felt wrong “Did see two runners ahead?” He jumped off his perched rock and ran off to find them.

I turned back and felt like I had cheated my placing back into 2nd. But this was not my fault. Within a mile, Wardian was back. He joked he wasn’t having he best day with a long pit-stop and then this mis-hap. The gap on first was already quite large at mile 23, he had a lot of work to do. Off he went again to push on. I just felt great to be running almost up to a marathon with someone of his caliber. I was waiting to blow up but really enjoying being up front that my confidence was growing and my body followed suit.

Great Falls cliffs - beautiful and treacherous all in one!

Great Falls cliffs – beautiful and treacherous all in one!

After the second turn-around point (people marked your bib as proof you made it, EMT was there and a full aid station – quite the contrast!) a fun descent followed with a few tricky rocks at the lowest point. This led us back to the river and to the most scenic but also treacherous part of the course – the Great Falls cliffs. Diagonal dagger rocks spread the trail and the use of hands became important. My hand-held went subconsciously back in my right hand in case of the worst happening. Tip-toeing through the rocks, I chose a safe controlled pace. This helped my heart rate lower as I slowed the intensity.

One loop done and back at the aid station. Blood glucose steady and off again. My Rocky friend nipped ahead of me pushing me back to 4th just like last time I was here. The climb was tougher but almost all runnable still.

The turn around point was now greeted with three mounted bikes, three adults and a sulky teenager who had clearer got an earful for letting two of the lead runners go past the cone and up the hill off the course! It was a pretty amusing site.

On the return to the spine of the loop you pass all the competition. This is all mind games stuff, looking at each other straight in the eyes to see if they are tired, broken or just god damn having a great day. I opted for the latter every time I had this opportunity. I hiked/ran sections now but was wary not to do so much of the hiking near my competition.

A shirtless duo were working well behind me and I feared them for a few miles since I first spotted them earlier on loop one. By the time I had clocked a marathon under my feet, they were heading on by and looked strong. I now lay in 6th.

Coming back to the aid for the final loop, I felt OK. I was running well, albeit loosing a couple of places. My glucose continued to sit tight, right in the mid-100’s. The course was now busy with two races, mine and the 50K. I overtook some of the back of the pack runners up the climb, who were not enjoying the long hill and complaining to me! I just shrugged and said “almost there”. Why complain? Negative thoughts won’t get you very far.

Wardian ran by me fully in the zone, followed by the silent assassin who still didn’t want to even say hello to me and then there were the twins looking very comfortable working as one. The turn around (for those interested) was now decorated with a natural road block (tree branches!) and an again lonesome and still sulky teenager. I kind of wanted to do a bonus loop for the next display!

I noted I had about three guys behind me but my gap was definitely a few minutes on each of them. The initial nods of heads from the first loop were now replaced with more fiery stares looking for any sign of weakness in me. But I knew they had to now push up a gear to get me and the heat was now my friend and their foe.

I was drinking really smart. 20oz (my entire hand-held water bottle) between every aid station. This worked out to be about every 30 minutes. Just to make sure I was cool enough, I was grabbing the water out of the volunteers hands and pouring it over me. The only negative of being this wet meant my CGM sensor fell out of my stomach so I was now reliant on actual blood tests for the remainder of the race.

I caught up with Ryan towards the end of the final loop. He was not having his best day with the heat really getting to him. Sensibly, he chose to run it in easy and save his energy for Western States down the road.

The idea of being paced for some of the race had been tossed around and I wasn’t that keen. I’m extremely stubborn and don’t ask for help very much I guess. But when Tiffany gave me a fresh bottle of Gatorade, more food for the umpteenth time at Great Falls with a pacer bib on standby should I want her help, it was an easy answer.

Off we went, 18 miles to go back to Algonkian Park. We ran along the riverbed getting cheered on by the Great Falls spectators. We soon took a left and cranked up a tough climb.

Benny flew by us in first place of the marathon as we had all predicted. He was a white blur of awesomeness. Tiffany and me counted minutes between him and 2nd. It took the distraction away from my pain and race for a few minutes at least. My whole body was worn out. No cramping and my lungs felt great but my limbs and torso just ached tremendously.

Climbing up with Tiffany as company at mile 35.

Climbing up with Tiffany as company at mile 35.

We reached the open field and walked sections that I would run on any other day. Was now the time the wheels were going to fall off and drop back twenty places? I did my best to keep my mind from such negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be thinking like the runners who were complaining earlier.

Running became less and less an option in the mid-30 miles. Downhills and sunshine spots, without a doubt were running territory but flats were becoming a real issue. Luckily, we hit the climbs next so I could break up the pacing between hiking and letting gravity take me back down into the valleys.

We caught up to some 50K runners. Every time I spotted someone, I hoped it was 5th but by now, I knew what and who they were. We reached my teammate, Matt and he was having an OK day but nothing heroic for him. We talked for a while in single file as I happily slowed to his pace to regroup. Tiffany departed back to Great Falls before she got stuck too far along the trail. Her surprise pacing section really helped keep me going strong.

After half a mile, walking and talking with Matt, I had decided that I had recovered enough and didn’t want anyone to gain too much time on me.

I shot off and wished Matt well. I had about 12 miles to go and all I could focus on was where the next aid station was. For what felt like miles and miles, I was hoping it was the next corner or the next or I would hear voices. My memory from 5:45am was faint, the same as how I felt. I was walking way more than I would have liked. I kept knocking back more water, kept throwing in the S-caps (salt capsules). I was holding up but it was a real fight five inches between my ears.

Finally the aid station came. I grabbed the water and gave myself a shower. Grabbed some chews and received my bottle back from a volunteer. And out. I had not been that efficient at an aid stop all day. My watch told me I was still ahead of my goal time. My average pace was around 8:45’s now. Having not seen 5th for miles, I was content with my place. I was even so wiped that if 7th had made a go at it, they could have taken it.

At the lollipop loop with 4 to go, the sun blazed down on me by the lake and I was pretty much done for the day. Then, Benny calls from behind and catches up to me. He’s still leading the marathon but not looking as good as he had done on his way out to the turnaround point.

Without much thought, I caught back up trying to go his pace. Even, if it was just for a few hundred yards. The fire came back, we started working together. I knew I had to dig deeper to stick with him through to the finish. And then, Benny stopped. He walked, he groaned in his own agony. Good to know he is human. I was now the one telling Benny to keep going, encouraging him to dig deep.

We came back to the main stretch of the lollipop and saw 5th running towards us. He asked where to go, clearly lost and panicking. He followed me and Benny. (I was less than convinced he had run the lollipop at this point).

At the turn by the aid, we had 2.5 to go. Benny was still struggling and took in more fluid than me at the aid. I was ready to go, he wasn’t and now I had 5th place up for grabs. He was staring at me in the face! 5th ran ahead. It was a tough call but I waited for Benny. We had agreed to help each other home without really saying it verbally.

A long, long straight followed. Benny put on his after burners and caught up to the guy ahead. I’m not sure where he found that energy but I had to try to do the same.

I took off and gave everything. I recall seeing 6:30’s on my watch. I passed 5th and this time with utter purpose. The problem with this, was I got so pumped that I blew past Benny too! I kept going at that pace all the way down the straight. I pretended to myself that the finish was right at the end of the straight. It was lactate threshold excruciating! I didn’t dare turn to show 6th my worry but I really wanted to make sure Benny was coming right behind.

I reached the end of the straight, an absolute mess. Definitely sub-6’s down that stretch. I stopped, turned and prayed Benny was close and not 6th place. Why did I doubt him? As Benny got to me, I looked back and saw an orange dot that signaled game over. It was almost in the bag, a top 5 place.

We stayed side by side on the golf cart down to the car park, crossed the road and made the sharp left under the finish chute. I let Benny have his moment. He had crushed the field and the marathon course record too.

Benny wins the marathon and set a huge CR.

Benny wins the marathon and set a huge CR.

I cruised in behind and was ecstatic to take 5th in the 50 miler, a year after winning the 50K. There’s something about DC racing (my marathon PR is still from Marine Corps down the road).

Benny and me celebrated, completely exhausted. Tiffany dragged me off. I knew I needed shade and found some in a tent. I collapsed there for a while, my body was in bits. I had really hammered those last four miles with Benny but to grab another place and see him win was well worth it.

A top 5 place at the DC sauna race. Yep, I was happy with that!

A top 5 place at the DC sauna race. Yep, I was happy with that!

This was a great race. A real moral boost for me after a disappointing 50 at Bear. I didn’t like the heat at Bear but this heat and humidity was way higher and I coped really well in it. I thought I didn’t like the heat. Maybe I just do well in bad conditions? This is all good feedback, looking forward to ‘The Big Dance’ in California. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 100’s and likely hotter in the canyons.

I say “Bring.It.On!” Another fantastic weekend with my Novo Nordisk teammates. We shall all regroup in 4 weeks at Squaw Valley, CA and do it all over again, just a few miles more with a bit more heat. Can’t wait.

Team Novo Nordisk #changingdiabetes at The North Face Endurance Challenge

Team Novo Nordisk #changingdiabetes at The North Face Endurance Challenge

P.S. Wardian won. I’ll get him next time ; )

The North Face 50M: Surviving the Bear

Bear Mountain - start/finish line

Bear Mountain – start/finish line

Saturday May 4 2:30am; my second installment of 50 miles at The North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain, NY was about to begin. (Yes, I ran it last year and made a conscious decision to come back). It was to be my first of two 50-milers in preparation for Western States 100.

My blood glucose was higher than I wanted, just above 200. I juggled the numbers with breakfast and basal rates. By 4:45am, just before lining up, another test, still 200. I changed out my water bottle of pure Gatorade for one of a mix of Gatorade and water, effectively halving the carbohydrates.

50 mile elevation chart!

50 mile elevation chart!

My 2012 time of 9:17 was good but I felt I could go sub-9 if everything fell into place. The race was about 300 deep and not many cared about being right at the front. Purely on my time goal, I opted to toe the line with McDougal and Schmitt (the two favorites). The weather was cool, for now in the upper 40’s but was headed towards a high of 72. I hoped the trees would protect my light skin (I’m no hot weather running fan).

5am: the start of the adventure!

5am: the start of the adventure!

We took off exactly at 5am, across the flat field, under a small bridge and then onto the trail.  The section was a lot of gradual ascending for three or so miles in darkness, our headlamps our only guide looking for the guy in front or glow sticks. There is definitely something really cool about night running or very early morning running as this was. I think it’s the fact knowing that 99% of people in the same time zone are sleeping. I know my choice. I view the 50-mile race, Bear in-particular, as an impatient hike due to the amount of walking involved with constant elevation changes. I’m pretty sure I was the impatient walker growing up, long wooded walks in the English countryside and darting off ahead.

Mile 2

Mile 3

I rolled out of the trail, just shy of 4 miles at the Fort Wayne aid station (doubling as the 40 mile aid too). I chucked my headlamp to a volunteer, shouted my bib number and kept going. I was ahead of schedule (I had sharpie data written all over my forearms for time/aid station as a rough guide).

I was in the top 20 and felt fine there. I placed 19th in 2012 so felt I was right on track. The next section was single track with rocks, roots and more rocks everywhere, basically a lot more technical than the first one. The eyes were in overdrive looking a few feet ahead, occasionally looking ahead to track the route via the runner ahead or the next ribbon marker. Eventually a more runnable section by the side of a misty lake was a great sight. The views you get to witness so early in the morning in mountains are priceless. I flew through aid two without any wasted time.

Descending a tricky single track soon followed. A few guys ran on my heels and I let them go by without a fight. I wasn’t going to force a pace that wasn’t comfortable on this terrain. I tried to let one more pass but he resisted. “No. It’s me Carlo”. Argh! A friendly face. I stayed ahead, we small talked for a while. As we then climbed a long asphalt road, my team-mate Ryan Jones caught up to make us a group of three.

Ryan had not run Bear before and made a few comments about the course so far, mostly swearing. We all laughed. Yep, the Bear sure is grizzly. The truth of the matter was, we were only 10K in and there was way harder stuff coming up for us. I checked my CGM while I wasn’t having to look for the next place to plant my foot and saw my BG had settled nicely at about 150 now.

Back on the trail, the three of us were about to do some of the hardest climbing of the course up to the peak at 15 and then again at 20. Picking when to run and when to walk was key. I mixed it up pretty good but definitely know my weakness on the trails; climbing. I let a lot of guys go here. Either they were stronger or naive. Carlo, was stronger as was the first placed woman. Ryan sat back and ran smart.

The climb took us to one of my favorite parts of the course. The trail looks like it ends with a big rock boulder in front. You look left and right searching for the orange ribbon but this is Bear, that’s not what goes on here. By my feet was a 50-mile arrow pointing straight towards the boulder.

I scrambled up the rock face using hands and feet together to get to the top. The reward is magnificent; flat rock sections to run on with views for miles. This ends sooner than you would like as you pass a small mountain cabin and descend again with hands and feet on the other side.

A standard descent at Bear.

A standard descent at Bear.

The runner below to my right shouted to a bunch of runners on my left “wrong way”. All those  climbers that went past were now behind me because they missed a marker. It’s that simple to get lost, one runner makes a mistake, everyone around follows. I felt lucky to have been where I was at the time and able to not make the mistake.

A steep and treacherously rocky descent followed for over a mile where everyone that had gone slightly astray was now working overdrive to get back in front. (Was it me or did we still have 35 miles to figure this all out?) We climbed a nasty rocky single track to the Arden Valley aid station, first heard (volunteers loves cowbells) and then beautifully into view.

Jumping through the rocks

Jumping through the rocks

A volunteer refueled my bottle. What I mistook for being Gatorade on offer was in fact the event sponsor’s brand; Clif, a similar electrolyte drink. So what? Well, I know that 20oz of Gatorade has 34 grams of carbohydrate (all sugar). What did Clif electrolyte have? Exactly. I had no idea. It was too late, what could I do. I had to assume the same carbohydrate rate. I have nothing against Clif, their chews and energy bars are awesome but I had never tried the drink. I had many gels and energy chews stuffed in my shorts and backpack so if I did need a fast-acting glucose, I had over means readily available.

A guy ahead was putting ear phones in down the road. I didn’t want to deal with passing him with music blaring so got in front before the next trailhead begun. Other than him, the pack had spread thin and I was now solo for a few miles. We ran by a rare open yellow field with the sun beaming down heavily. The trail was mostly pine here sloping heavily to the left which made for some good core work and tree grabbing skills. Occasionally, I would see a runner ahead or two and close in on them. A few big stone sections between marshy streams, remind me of the film, Labyrinth with the dog trying to get to the castle to rescue the girl from David Bowie! I guess my castle was the finish area but I couldn’t think that far ahead quite yet.

I knew from the elevation chart, I had now passed the highest point of the race. That really doesn’t mean as much as you think on Bear though due to the never-ending continuous ascending and descending and rocky terrain to stop you ever getting into a rhythm.

A guy ahead dipped his hat in a stream. I thought it was a bit overkill so early in the morning. As I passed the stream, I copied him and put my hat back on. He was correct! The sun had come up and it was already getting that hot. So hot I guess that I ran down a hill turned right and ran back towards some runners behind me. As embarrassing as it was, I was glad they were there to stop me going further than a few feet the wrong way!

Rocks and water hazards galore.

Rocks and water hazards galore.

By mile 21, I was at another aid station by a big lake. I didn’t have much time to marvel this view but Tiffany probably did. She was there to greet me and do a blood test (she was carrying my spare meter);143. I clenched my fist with joy as the aid station volunteers stared at me. Maybe they thought my lottery ticket had come in.

I refueled the large bladder of water here for the long stretch ahead. I grabbed some cups of Coke and a few orange slices. Tiffany tried to point me in the wrong direction. Now, not only was I trying to run in the wrong direction but my number one crew member was trying her best to do it to me too!

Over a stream via tree branch and then across the road back to the trail. The section involved lots of long straights. A part of the course to get some time back from the earlier climbing. This section is far from boring however. At the southern most part of the course, is where the magic is and only the 50-milers get to see it. Huge open spaces with flat rocks for our feet  and 360 degree views for our eyes and heart. It feels like stepping out onto a new State (Utah always springs to mind, although I’ve never been – yet!). The direction of the trail changed frantically from straight across a flat rock to a hard right or left through a small gap or jump down to a lower rock. Adult’s playground? Absolutely. My only company up here were bemused Japanese hikers who stared at me, not sure what to think! Well the impatient hiker in me could run free here and I did.

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

I rolled into Camp Lanowa aid station at 27.7 miles, now in ultra territory. Some high school boys were throwing a football around to entertain themselves cheering me in. I got a small bout of energy from them and called for the ball. This kid didn’t take into account, I had just run over a marathon or that I’m English. Yes, excuses over, I dropped the catch! (Jerry Rice would not be proud of me Team Run NYC!).

Another blood test here; 124. Not only were my numbers great, my CGM was showing me the same readings. I had been monitoring it all morning and seeing a great level of consistency, really, rally satisfying stuff. A few cups of Coke, orange slices (why change a good thing?) and back at it.

Well, “back at it”, sounds very misleading. I had now started hitting my wall. The positive was, the two longest sections were done. I knew my times were off, I wasn’t hitting my aid station goals for sub-9. My Garmin watch wasn’t helping either claiming I had run two more miles than I actually had. This began to mess with my head when I thought I would see an aid station but had to plough another twenty minutes until I actually did.

Obstacle Mountain - yes, this is part of the course!

Obstacle Mountain – yes, this is part of the course!

In between trail sections here, was a long asphalt climb. And I mean, real long! As soon as it went up, I knew I had to walk it. Ryan Jones came up by me. I hadn’t seen him for a while. We exchanged “pleasantries” about how hot it was, how tough the course was, how much our bodies ached. Oh, we also were having great blood glucose control though! Are endocrinologists would be proud of us for that. Ryan is one tough guy. He came into the race after a week of flu and therefore, obviously no running. He also had just won the NJ 100 earlier in March. We ran a section of the climb together. I felt bad to say anything to him but I had to stop and walk again. Ryan was relieved to hear it and for a moment, both of us were hands on knees in the middle of the road just saying “Oh man” in synch. It was kind of comical looking back.

Ryan found 2nd gear afterwards and kept going. I followed but remained in 1st (with the hand brake also up). The trail began again and was a nice change from the asphalt climb, well until we started to tip toe over some more basketball sized rocks all spread out. I had found a couple of new runners now to mingle with and we were all asking the same question; where was this next aid station?! At this point, the brain needs to break down the race into small chunks just to handle the magnitude of the task at hand. Aid stations are mini-goals. It’s like trying to run to the next lamppost when you’ve never run before. By the time you’ve made it, you grow in confidence and can push yourself to look for the next one.

By the time I was back at Fort Wayne aid station, I felt like I was surviving the course, not running for any sort of time. My whole body was really fighting to stay in the event while my fried brain was looking at ways out of it. I saw Ryan again at the aid station, he was about to head out. My blood here was 191. My highest of the race. I ditched most of my Gatorade and replaced it with water to weaken it like I did at the start.

Off I shuffled up the very unattractive car park area for a stretch. I caught up to Mon and Jess from TeamRunNYC. We stopped for a photo. Mon was apologizing for slowing me down. “Do I look like I needed slowing down?!” I said. I was barely alive at this point. Kino, also joined us. He was a second pacer for Jess’s first ultra. That’s one cool trio right there folks. Kino and Mon pacing the whole 50K for a friend. Hats off to all of them.

I went ahead as the trail was flat, winding left and right over a few bridges. But then trouble really came. A climb. It must have been all of six feet high. It looked and felt like agony. OK, now I’m in serious trouble I said to myself. I walked sections I would normally bomb. This was not pretty. The pain my body was letting out was almost too unbearable. A week later, I still can’t find the right words to describe this pain. Jess, Kino and Mon caught back up. Kino kept offering me gels and food snacks believing it would help. He didn’t know my sugar was 191, he instantly thought I just needed sugar. I think he was in shock to see me in so much pain! They continued as I dragged my way along pathetically losing a bunch of time. I questioned when this would be over. I still had Timp Pass coming up (a huge climb and descent). If I walked from here, that would be over two more hours, nowhere near my initial goal time. It was depressing.

I looked at rocks, I was shopping for a nice big smooth rock. If I could just find a good one, I knew I was beyond ready for a nice sit down, maybe even a nap and call it a day.  I had told myself that Keila would catch up soon and when she was here, she would just wake me up! What a great plan. No, that was a terrible plan and completely unlike my nature but I truly did think that. Let’s just say, thank goodness I couldn’t find a rock I liked.

I descended down a super steep section with Jess and co only just ahead. In my hour of absolute agony, it felt comforting to have friends close by. I was still dreading the big climb, I knew it was anytime soon….and then out of nowhere we had made it to the 45th mile aid station. A really fun party atmosphere one in the middle of the woods with lots of people working or 50K’ers having a few moments break from the course.

I was in shock. I had been dreading the climb and it wasn’t where I thought it was. Two 50K runners were eating and drinking and patting each other on the back. “Right, this is it. The final push, 10K to go” one of them said. The light bulb in my low energy head went on. He’s right, the final push. I didn’t even say bye to my friends (who were having a great time by the way), I ran on, got on with it. My watch had hit 9 hours. The dream goal was well gone. This wasn’t to be my day for any PR’s. I knew I knew I had about an hour more of pain.

It was now a good mix of 50K runners and 50 milers. The atmosphere was picking up, you could sense we were all close to the same ultimate goal, finishing. A sharp left and Timp Pass begun. You could see people ahead high up climbing the big rocks to the peak of the curved climb. 3rd place woman now passed by and looked strong. My watch read 9:17 up the climb. I shook my head and couldn’t fathom how I ran that time a year ago.

And down Timp I went. Not overly fast, there was nothing to gain now but still fast enough to impress some of the 50K runners. I guess, when I did my first ultra here two years ago, I recall a runner running down this section and was in disbelief of how they could do it. It must all come down to experience on trails, leading to confidence over time. It truly is, a very different type of running than road running.

As Timp got lower, the rocks got bigger. EMT was trekking up the opposite way to take care of the guy with a gashed knee. Talk about a tough place to try to get too, Timp Pass was most definitely it. The trail finally became runnable and instantly, the last aid station was there with 2.8 miles to go. I have never stopped here and didn’t plan on starting now. A couple of 50 milers were milling around and I took advantage of that. I had no idea of my placing, nor did I overly care. My focus was solely on breaking ten hours and would need some 8/min miles to do it. I flew down the descents, over a bridge and up a climb on the far side giving it everything, I couldn’t afford to walk. But, I had no choice, walking it was. My legs were dead. I sloached moving forward. There was no way I was going to even break 10-hours now I thought.

One...more...mile

One…more…mile

A final mile and a half to go and most of it downhill, I stretched my legs again and let gravity do most of the work for me. I was playing leapfrog with a guy in green (later to find out it was Jason Friedman, a fellow NJ trail series/Leadville runner). A few more teasing ascents just to really dig the knife in and then I saw the bridge which I had gone under hours earlier. My watch read 9:56. I was relieved to know I somehow was going to duck in under ten hours. A long, long way short from my sub-9 goal but small victories are something you take at Bear Mountain, at ultrarunning actually.

Tired!

‘Ooh – comfy grass to lie on!’

This was definitely not my day. I had been looking forward to lying down for hours and chose to do so immediately as I crossed the line. This was anything but a celebration, pure relief and joy I could now finally stop moving forward. It was over.

Lots of my friends surrounded me immediately. Tiffany helped me up, Melissa gave me an ice-cold cup of water and Den Is, all smiles gave me a helping hand too. He told me he won the 50K when I asked. That didn’t surprise me. I later found out his time was 4:13 and had won by over 47 minutes!!! That did surprise me but he is something else.

An ice bath for my feet followed. I’m not used to them, so didn’t last anything close to the prescribed ‘ten minutes’. My quads and calves were completely shot. I wanted to go the medical tent, beer tent and food tent all at the same time. I opted for the DIY medical tent with ice bags on my quads and regrouped with my Team Novo Nordisk team-mates; Ryan, who had just finished ahead and Matt P – who ran the 50K (smart man).

We hung out at the finish line area on the grass bank for a few hours as we eagerly awaited our final team-mate’s arrival. Laura, had just flown in from San Diego the day before and this was her first ultra. No 50K, no flat, easy 50M, straight at it! Matt, Ryan and me were needless to say impressed. And more so, when she finished all smiles. I think we’ve just got ourselves one more ultra runner!

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

So, I left feeling slightly disappointed. I set the bar high (again). I’ve had days to reflect what the race means. Number one: I don’t quit. That’s the best news I can ask for getting ready for Western States. I managed my blood glucose control really well (I started at 200 and finished at 146 with zero problems for 50 miles). I can’t wait to do it all over again at Washington DC in four weeks. Yeah, I think everything will be OK. As Matt said, you can’t always have the perfect day but you can always have fun. That, I did for sure.

Gotta Run with Will

In September, I was honored to be asked by Will Sanchez to be on his show; ‘Gotta Run With Will’. Previous guests have included some local celebrities of the NYC running scene; Nicole Sin Quee, Francis Laros, Deanna Culbreath, Jonathan Cane and Terence Gerchberg. I had a great time being his guest discussing my running resume, managing diabetes and of course the Leadville 100 in honor of my Uncle Dave!

Will is a true part of NYC running. He has been a member of New York Road Runners since 2003, worked as a mentor with Team in Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Research) and attends the famous NYC Run Club; where I have met 99% of my New York friends! Thank you Will and the team at Gotta Run with Will.

 

Race Report: North Face 50K – Washington DC

With just 4 weeks recovery after The North Face Bear Mountain, NY 50 miler I arrived in the capital still somewhat tired. This was also due to a serious lack of sleep the week prior to the race. My head said treat it as a training run. I picked up my bib number at the store in beautiful Georgetown and got excited. A training what?

However, the local news greeted me to warnings of a tornado sweeping through the area! No big deal, I’m from England, I’m used to the rain and the mud back from the XC days of old. The course is the same for everyone after all.

With a not so delightful 4 hours of sleep, I arrived bright and early at Algonkian Regional Park alongside the Potomac river for the second North Face trail race of the year as part of my phase two training for Leadville 100. The grass was wet to say the least from the overnight thunderstorms and this was just the start/finish area! I checked my blood glucose, it was 235mg/dL. A couple of guys spotted me doing this “Hey, you’re diabetic? What’s your reading?” I shamefully replied “Um…235. Better to be too high than too low though right?” In my heart, I knew it was slightly too high, even before 31 miles of trail running. I try and start a race at around 180-200mg/dL. I guess the cinnamon raisin bagel was sweeter than I calculated for breakfast, maybe also combined with some pre-race stress. Rather than make an insulin adjustment I reasoned with myself to go easy on the carb intake for the first hour of the race.

Ultramarathon man, Dean Karnazes got us under way at 7am sharp. I had looked at the previous years results and decided to try to aim for a top 10 finish but the main goal was to run honest within myself, not against people I didn’t know.

Within the first 2 miles, that plan went straight out of the window! I was going 7:15 pace. I got talking to a guy called Will and I calmed down the pace with him. He was a cool dude in the Air Force and his buddy also joined us for a mile or so was in the Army. Oh boy, I’m running against some tough guys today I thought. Why did I come to the home of the military to race!

The open field and dirt path soon turned to single track with huge puddles and thick mud running south alongside the river.  Even wearing a great pair of trail shoes like the Brooks Cascadia couldn’t save me from doing some  Bambi on ice impersonations sliding all over the place. It took every muscle in my body to stay upright. We crossed some “streams” which thanks to our near miss tornado from Friday night meant we were running through ankle, knee and a waist deep water crossings. This was going to be a long day but it was a blast!

After the first aid station, the lead pack had long gone and I found my real pace. A young French guy came roaring past me and I was now in 6th. Had I gone out too fast? I caught up to him on the flats after a hill section. He was from the Pyrenees mountains! This race was going to be like a downhill wind assisted 5K for him. Arthur Al, was his name. We ran together for the next 10 miles. He would drop me on the ups, I would catch him on the downs and/or the flats. We even decided to make a sharp left up a hill at one point to go the wrong way and we lost ten places.

The course is out and back with a mid-section incorporating lots of out and back loops where you pass people in front and behind you.

This proved a great place to say hi to my NY friends doing the 50 miler which had begun at 5am. Here we passed the 4th place guy who had been trying to run away from us for 10 miles. I will never understand the logic in that move in an ultra race, especially when you don’t know who you are competing against. He was done and we had a dozen miles left. We also got a glimpse of the top 3 guys running past us. I thought nothing of it until a guy in the 50 mile race said to me and Arthur we were only two minutes back. It didn’t sound right but it sure got me thinking.

At an amazing rock section; Great Falls, with a cliff drop straight down to the river, I somehow dropped ‘Pyrenees Arthur’. I questioned my ego, dropping him on a technical section with 11 miles to go. I was now running in solo 4th.

With ten miles left, I turned a right out of a wooded area and could not believe my eyes. 1st, 2nd and 3rd all spread out on a straight section 300 yards ahead. I knew then, it was my race to lose. This moment will live with me forever. I went past 3rd, then 2nd and said “great job” with genuine encouragement and they returned the gesture as you do in the ultra world. No#1 wasn’t quite as easy to catch or so responsive when I did. Quite frankly, he was upset I had come out of nowhere to challenge him and rightfully so.

I decided to “drop the hammer” on this guy as my buddy Chris Solarz likes to say. Just like the start, I was again doing 7:15 minute miles! I finally slowed down when I knew he could not see me. I even stopped sometimes and tried to listen out for a branch cracking, a foot landing on a bridge, anything that sounded like a human being. I did this three times. Each time, silence, just me and the trails and I’m really in frigging first place!!!

I had 10K to go. Save something in the tank in case Arthur comes roaring past or number two guy or whoever, I said to myself. I changed the screen on my Garmin 610 to heart rate only. I had to keep my heart rate below 170bpm. If I saw a 7 pop up next to the 1, I walked until it was lower.

The final 2 miles included a long straight, probably 1.5 miles. When I turned right I asked a few spectators cheering crazily for me, if anyone was behind me. They said “No one, you’re good!” With 0.5 left I finally relaxed and soaked up the winning feeling. 4 hours 32 minutes. Top 10? I’ll take top 1 thanks very much! It’s only been about 16 years since I last won and yes, that was on a muddy and wet XC day. I think I like the mud even more now.

So, it had been nearly 5 hours since my last blood test. How had I done with balancing my intake of carbohydrates while running 31 miles? Nailed it; 92mg/dL. More satisfying than winning? That would be a lie, but that is a great blood glucose reading!

I got presented with a winning gold medal and a bag of goodies by Dean Karnazes, who said some very kind words to me. Thank you The North Face for a great event and congratulations to all the runners out there!

Unforgettable day!

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