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The 4.25-ish mile course is a great fun test of trail running…..it has some great climb, fun downhill, single track, switchbacks, along with plenty of rocks and logs to navigate…”
Tag Archive for trail running
I knew nothing about my next race held at Kettletown State Park going into my first ultra of the season. Partly because it is located up in Connecticut (I rarely seem to venture there, just drive through it a lot) and partly because it was to be the inaugural race put on by some folks known as Trail 2 Trail.
I chose to do the 50K, the longest option of the four races (5K/10K/20K were the others) and this hugely excited me because it would give me one more state to tick off my slow completion of 50 states. Yes, going beyond the marathon distance counts and for the really curious, no, I am not even close to being halfway done!
I picked this race believing it would be good build up into my two 50 mile races, Vermont 100 and then onto something I keep harping on about, Tahoe 200. My imagination told me the course would be fast and there would be a good chance of a PR on it. My coach however had other ideas for me whether my imagination was right or wrong. He strongly encouraged me to take my racing cap off and treat it like a 50 miler (in terms of pace). Just a few days prior, the rule changed a bit more. It was now to be treated like the first 30 of a 100 mile race. I knew he was right, I just honestly didn’t want to hear it. You see, putting a bib on and taking it easy is more of a challenge than touching my toes. For those that don’t know me well, I cannot touch my toes!
Regardless of speed, I went into the race-non-race fully prepared. Some would even say over prepared. A tall runner in full neon joked with me at the start line “I take it you’re doing the 5K?” friendly mocking me about my fully stocked up hydration pack. The game plan today (other than not to race) was to eliminate all of the mistakes from two weeks prior at Bear Mountain. Today I was going to carry two water bottles. One was full of water, one was my timely prize from CLIF that I received the day before the race. I had S-Caps. I had gels. Lots of them. I even had a bag at the start/finish area so I could do blood tests, change shirts or just get more of all of the above mentioned nutrition. How does the saying go? Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I was prepared to make sure Bear Mountain was a one-off mess.
The course at Kettletown was a 10K loop. A small loop on one side of a lake and then a larger one on the other side, shaped like the number eight. This design layout allowed for frequent aid stations. The aid station being the same one of course at the start/finish area. The race director explained to the group of over a hundred runners that there were no electrolyte drinks available. I already felt my IQ increase for my detailed prep work. For the 50K route, we were told that after three loops, we would reverse the course for the last two for no other reason than it would mix it up. To start the race, a song would be played and when it was over, we would begin. As we waited at the imaginary start line listening to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, I couldn’t help but feel this all had a touch of ‘The Barkley Marathons’ to it with its quirky rules (or maybe lack of them) and interesting version of a start horn, gun or general loud noise. If you wanted a race the opposite of the New York City Marathon, Kettletown State Park was fast becoming a hot favorite for any tri-state runners.
The song from my years of puberty finished, we all hesitated and then realized we were meant to start running. Tiffany ran by my side (she was competing in the 20K) at the front and we quickly started climbing up a grassy bank into the wooded trails. Runners passed me by left and right and I watched as Tiffany ran ahead and soon went out of sight going uphill. With four different races going on at once, it was impossible to know who was racing what. With my racing cap left at home, I didn’t have to worry about this. It actually benefited me to have everyone thrown together.
Being clueless to the course, I threw out an idea that around five hours would be a good finish time; not killing it and or backing off too much (I was in the mind sight of opting for the first coaching suggestion of running it at 50 mile pace). One hour per loop would also be simple to track. my time game plan was of course planned out naively still without knowing what was in store for me. For starters, the previous night getting ready at home, my phone alerted me to a flash flood in the area! I smirked at my phone and then towards Tiffany and thought of my recent mud bath adventures at Bear Mountain. Would this be round two?
In reality, the mud or wetness of the course wasn’t ‘that’ bad. That’s not to imply my feet were dry though. A mile in to the race, I found the first muddy puddle and then a second one and then a stream crossing. You get the idea. It was virtually impossible to not take at least one step into the aqua and most people around me just went the most direct route. I already liked my Saturday company.
At the start of the descent from the climb, the course soon split. 5K runners were to go left (although I’m not sure I had actually seen any) and we (10K/20K/50K) descended a technical route over to the right of football sized rocks down to a small two plank, slightly unstable footbridge. Once over this, we headed back up, through tightly cropped foliage and over more rocks before descending steeply to the start of the loop down to the start/finish. A quick check of my watch and I noted the small loop was almost an exact two miles. With all my liquid still fairly full, I had no reason to stop at the aid and proceeded on across a really cool wooden bridge that crossed a fairly lively river. This was immediately the most scenic part of the course so far. Scrambling up and over big rocks alongside the river was a test of good core and foot skills. People were guessing the best route towards the next flag and making mistakes all over. Some went off course to the left, others to the right. I guess by the fifth loop we would have it figured out but for now, it was trial and error stuff.
Over a road marshaled by one of the organizers and I was back climbing again. I ran gently up all of it but knew deep down this would not be the same later. The trail turned flat and then presented a gradual downhill of sweeping single track over pine needles twisting and turning through the trees. It was a great section of trail. Dare I compare this section to part of Western States? …This part of the course felt like a section at Western States! Brownie points to the course designer for making me think of WS out there!
A water cooler with a stash of white cups sat idle on the trail and marked the end of the fun downhill. I then climbed some switchbacks which kept the grade manageable but still took a good grind until reaching the top which gave a partial overview of the lake now well below. Remembering looking out at the lake pre-race to try to gauge how hilly this course could be, I threw out a guess that the top of the hills were probably 400 feet above the lake. I assumed that now I had seen the lake, I was at the top of the hill.
My course knowledge was proving particularly worthless! The trail turned left and then up again over some wet rocks. I grabbed all sorts of thickness of tree branches to save me from spilling over and then up a big rock step, Kettletown’s equivalent to the Hillary step before clambering along a ridge line to now, the true peak. From there, the trail got really fun again with a long descent mixing the flat and random juts of rock and roots all the way back to the road. From there it was a third of a mile back along the rocky river stretch and over the wooden bridge to the start/finish aka race HQ.
When I got there, I wasn’t ready at all to be efficient with my stop. I was like a racing car pulling into the pits without any idea what I needed. I first dashed across to my backpack and rummaged for my blood tester. With a reading of 82, it was time to get some more quick carbs on board. I grabbed a few more gels and loaded them into my side pockets of my pack and then went to refill my bottles.
I should have had them ready in my hands and done this immediately in hind sight. By going to my bag first I missed the opportunity of the water cooler being free. Now I was waiting behind a runner to finish and losing time. It shouldn’t have mattered due to my non-race agenda but it bothered me that I was making small mistakes again and mistakes cost time. I need a chalk board to write “I will learn from this” multiple times over as punishment and by Tahoe, I will be a pro.
Once the cooler was free, I poured in a new powder packet of CLIF and refilled the other one with water. A glance at the time read 1h 07. If that was to be an honest pace for the day (as was the plan), I was looking at a 5:35 finish time. Probably a better conservative time than trying to go sub-5 without calling it a race.
I climbed up the long open trail again recalling my first mile split in the mid-9’s. I repeated this pace again and then realized I needed to focus more on my glucose numbers than my Garmin numbers. Why I didn’t mix both water bottles with CLIF was lost on me with my BG at 82 but I stopped to correct that at the top of the hill.
Like a scene out of Breaking Bad, I was in the middle of nowhere trying my best to pour a container of powder into a small water bottle hole and making a real mess of it! With the majority of it making it into the bottle, I sealed the cap, brushed the excess powder off my hands and marched on up the trail.
In the valley of the trail this time around was a lost and bewildered runner coming towards me shouting “where is the start?” To begin with, I had no idea what race he was trying to be in. I soon figured he must have made a wrong turn and come back the wrong way along the 5K route to a T-section which is where I met him. After suggesting his best bet was to follow me and run three miles back to the start from where I was, he decided to seek a second opinion from a nearby hiker instead.
As I had been assisting, a runner I had been running behind and catching for the last mile decided to take no part in the puzzle of how, where or why the lost runner had got himself into this pickle. She had shot off up the hill and away from me again! Once I was back up the ridge line, I had managed to catch her again not impressed with her lack of desire to help and now with the last mile and a half down to the start/finish over a nice grade, I opened my legs up and pushed on ahead.
As I approached the wooden bridge, this was now my landmark to get water bottles ready and go straight to the cooler. I was excited to see Tiffany at the finish and learn how her 20K race had gone. She came over to me as I filled my water and was not too happy to have finished second. It was tough because I was having a grand old-time of it, enjoying the course, running conservatively and all of that good stuff and she had just finished a hard-fought race and had this raw emotion of defeat. But as I left the aid station, I thought about it and realized how much competitiveness she has inside. I kind of liked that she was mad. I was happy she wanted more and not content with how she did. Maybe because it showed me, she always wants better, always trying to improve. We are very similar in some ways and that is a probably an attractive personality trait we both give each other.
On the third and final loop (in normal direction), I had a guy in a white shirt on the hunt for me. We had been going back and forth since loop two and now I was hearing loud rustling along the trail close behind me, I was surprised he was back again but decided to keep moving forward without reacting to it. With the downhill back to the lake over the next climb, I pulled away once more and ran the rest of the third loop solo.
Going up and around the ridge of the lake, a runner in blue came bombing towards me. I waited for the next runner, probably Dan from November Project (the neon runner) bringing chase but no one came. Wow, I thought, he is on loop 4 and has a huge gap. Impressive.
At 30K in the bag, I was back for more liquids. Brian (the guy in white) was calling it quits which really surprised and disappointed me. The yo-yo game we had been playing for a few hours was officially over. The RD approached me and said something about ‘done’. Given my bemused look, Tiffany interrupted and explained what he was asking. “No! I am not done, give me more!” I responded. With 20K left, my mind was nowhere near done and I had to verbally say it with meaning before my body could even process that bad idea.
Loop 4 was the start of reversing the course. The concept was quirky enough let alone the results of it; some runners ran the big loop first but once at the option to go reverse, went the normal loop direction, some ignored the rule completely and kept running the same way and then their were others (me) that took the rule literally and ran the whole 10K loop in reverse.
It was easy enough to navigate the red flags and when I saw the back of a whiteboard, I knew that made sense too. Whether I was right or wrong for doing it this way (let’s say I was right), the race as such was now just a bunch of time trialists’ going all sorts of directions in Kettletown.
When the top five guys all came at me in the opposite direction, I realized I was the one isolated and doing it differently so at the last start/finish to refill my water one last time, I discussed with the RD’s the Wacky Race situation out there and decided I wanted to go back to the normal direction.
First off, everyone who didn’t change direction had an advantage of course knowledge. When you run a 10K loop three (or four times) in a row, it’s pretty fair to say you get to know the course well. My loop 4 felt like a whole new course. And secondly, if I was as close as I thought I was to them, I had better go the same way. Yes, I wasn’t here to race but if they were tiring and my pace was staying moderate throughout, I wanted to know about it both physically and visually by perhaps climbing a place or two on the board.
I checked my glucose and was happy to see it perfectly in the right zone. Now doing the shorter loop of two miles again first, the leader sped by me. That meant he had almost two miles on me. But another guy was in my grasp. We had passed along the single track minutes earlier on the end of my loop four and now I could see him ahead and not looking too hot.
He said his hip flexor was shot and refused and water or S-caps I had to offer him. I returned to the lake with a marathon in my legs and still felt good. Tiffany exclaimed “You are not racing are you?” to which I replied “No, it’s not my fault people are getting tired!” with a cheeky smirk. “Then how are you catching them?!”. That was the first time I knew my proximity to the leaders was for sure closing. Now that I could sniff blood, it was hard not to push a bit harder, see who was around the next bend. This is obviously a huge pitiful of using a race as training miles.
I crossed the wooden bridge and saw what Tiffany was talking about. Another runner appeared who I had not seen for a long time and one I would not have got by continuing to go in the reverse loop. Down went third place without any fight either and now just like that, I had a podium spot.
Knowing the leaders large gap, the only mystery that remained was where was second place? I knew who it was now. They guy in blue that had been going different directions on the loop all day long. Talk about everyone going different directions, this guy just made up his own rules from the get go! But regardless of everyone’s direction, the distance would be of course be 50K for all. And I also knew one more thing, he would be coming towards me on this final four mile loop stretch.
I knew exactly how to gauge the gap. If I hit two miles to go before seeing him, it was advantage me, if I saw him first, advantage him. Did he know this? Maybe, maybe not. I pushed the next mile hard, up and down the craggy rocks and over the ankle-deep stream one last time, through the over grown trees and up high overlooking the lake. The course was second nature to me now. The watch beeped mile 28 and there was no sign of him.
Within ten seconds though he appeared. We exchanged nods and went our opposite directions. It was a 2 mile time trial to the finish. Game on. I climbed the ridge line harder than I had all day now and ran down the other side even harder knowing my route back to the river was slightly easier to traverse than his. I had snuck on the racing cap for better or worse most definitely now.
Coming out onto the path where the loop meets, I knew if I saw him, I could still push harder but I arrived to nobody, not a sound. I stopped to listen, I would have heard a pin drop. I scrambled the rocks by the river one last time, managing to run off trail one more time (I never did learn the best route here!). Without anyone around, I was fairly confident I had clawed my way up to second.
I crossed the invisible finish line in 5:37, climbing a surprising 5,000 feet of up over the distance and being confirmed as suspected as 2nd overall by the RD’s. I saw Dan Berteletti (the winner) sitting on the grass at the lake and congratulated him. I received my wooden medal and a buff. No fan fare, no fuss. I enjoyed how low-key it was and the guys who had put on the show for us or was it us for them? Probably a mix of both I guess, it was an exciting and close finish for a 50K.
The best part of the race though was that my legs felt great and my glucose levels were equally cooperating. Pushing the last loop was definitely not the game plan and the dangers of pushing hard in small tune up race scenarios need to be cut out to avoid burn out. The bigger picture has to be Tahoe and every training run and even ever race needs to focus on just that. I will grow as a runner if I can manage my competitive nature. Just as I know now to let the guy fly by me on a Tuesday night in the park, I now need to let the guy in a C-race do the same. If I can’t do that, I need to stay away and run 31 miles away from a race environment. This is a skill I am clearly yet to master. For now, one ultra down, many more to go for 2014 and a new state on my list is complete.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
P.S. Wardian won. I’ll get him next time ; )
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
A year ago I stepped up to what many regard as a ‘real’ ultramarathon; 50 miles. The race to me was simply known as JFK. I have since learned much of its history. It is the oldest 50 mile foot race in USA, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and implemented by President Kennedy in 1963 to make sure all military officers were fit for war. The course has stayed the same each year since. Starting out in the small town of Boonsboro, MD, the race is 15.5 miles of road climbing and Appalachian Trail (AT), just over a marathon on the C&O canal towpath and ending with 8 miles of rolling road hills into Williamsport, MD. I learned a lot from my first 50 in 2011, mostly don’t assume your body will keep going without fueling or pacing! I was however ecstatic with my 7 hours 13 minutes and 33rd overall. How could I not be? It was a PR!
I returned to this historic race for precisely that reason. This year was the 50th running of the oldest 50 mile race in the country. I signed up in Spring for one of the 1,000 places against 10,000 people and was lucky to get a place. I think I put about six stamps on my envelope come to think about it, just to make sure I had paid enough postage and maybe it would get there even quicker!
Race Day: November 17th 2012
I woke up at 5am to temperatures just above freezing that would rise to a high of 52. Perfect running conditions. First, great weather in Leadville (no thunderstorms), then Chicago (no heat) and now JFK. The weather gods have been kind to me this year. Walking the half mile from Boonsboro school to the start line on the main street bundled up in five layers, I had the intention of starting the race with a long-sleeve top over my Brooks ID singlet and wear hat and gloves. I scanned what over runners were wearing and decided to scrap my extra layers and go singlet and sleeves from the start. A final pre-race blood test had me at 240. My glucose had risen from 143 at breakfast. Not ideal and a slight miscalculation of bolus intake. I already had my hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade which I now wished was just water. I poured half of it away, upset with myself for not having water to replace it with and/or having a better starting blood glucose. Probably both. I increased my basal rate on my insulin pump and knew I could get water at aid stations to stay hydrated. I would figure it out, I always seem too.
The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt fired the starter pistol to get us under way at 7am sharp. I sat right behind the two favorites; Max King and David Riddle before they quickly pushed up to the very front. As the top 25 of us quickly took off from the main pack, I immediately wished I had kept my gloves as the cold wind rushed over my hands.
The pace was fast, faster than I had thought possible. 7:02 at mile 1. I had studied my Garmin data from JFK 2011 and knew I was too aggressive in the first half of the race which led to a breakdown in the second half with cramps through miles 32-38. So why was I running a 7-minute mile?! In my defense, the start of the race is a good time to jockey for position before the trail section and road miles are always going to be quicker than trails.
My plan for this year’s race was 8:30 average pace through the first 15 miles and 7:30’s for the last 35. This would equate to a 6 hour 30 minute race. Plan B was: 6:43. Why so precise? A 30 minute improvement from 2011 sounded nice and Plan C was to go sub-7 hours. My training seven weeks post-Chicago consisted of not much training. Rest had become the new mileage. My longest run had been 16 easy miles.
We soon climbed steeply for a mile and jumped onto the first section of trail. As the sun rose on my left, the shining light flickered through the trees making it hard to see the trail but at the same time, was one of those beautiful images that remind you why you are a runner. This trail section was fairly wide and still a frenetic pace for 50 miles. An aid station appeared so I grabbed a cup of water as planned to balance out the effort of the first few miles.
We hit a road section again, in the woods now, and climbed again, this time steeper to get to the highest point of the course. Ellie Greenwood was a few yards ahead of me and I studied her as she chose when to run and when to walk the hill. I copied her. My average pace had fallen to 10/min miles but I trusted what I was doing. This is the two-time Western States 100 champion as well as numerous other amazing achievements in the sport. Others around her chose to run the whole way up. I knew I would see the majority of these people again before the race was over.
A familiar looking volunteer from last year pointed at a narrow gap into the woods and I now knew we were onto the magical AT section for 10 miles. This is by far the toughest part of the course, not because of elevation changes but the jagged rocks buried under and around large brown leaves. The pace now fell into that 8:30 range but the energy expenditure felt like 7:30’s. As tough as it I say it was, it is and will always be the most fun part too.
I joined forces with a familiar face, Derek Schultz on the AT, a fellow Brooks ID runner with a very strong ultra background (Laurel Highlands Ultra course record holder). He bombed the downhills and I caught him on the flats as we shared stories for a few miles. We passed the JFK 50 legend Eric Clifton in his trademark outrageous running tights (neon pink this year) and Derek chatted to him while I closed the gap on a pack of three ahead.
I tagged on the back and we became a solid four, staying in order passing the early 5am starters. The last few miles of AT are where the rocks get trickier as your brain gets more tired. It’s also a place that has put a nice dent in my right shin for life from my fall last year.
Just as I thought to myself I may just get off this trail without falling, down I went at the feet of two men from the 5am start. They were staring straight down at me as I moaned in some serious pain. One of them said to the other “That one looked like it really hurt” as if they had been hanging out at the third corner of NASCAR all day comparing car crashes.
They were right. That one did really hurt. My left foot got tucked under a rock and down I went hard on my right side, my right knee connecting perfectly with a rock embedded on the trail waiting to cut me open. I very gingerly got up and got handed my water bottle that must have flown off course during the downfall. I looked down to see if the pain was actually warranted and saw a nice line of claret over the notch of my tibia and was relieved. I mean, if you’re going to fall and moan about it, you want to see proof it hurt right! I hobbled, I walked and finally I ran again and slowly got back into my stride, relived it had not been any worse.
At 14.5 miles, I was now functioning like nothing had happened back there. I descended the steep Weverton Cliffs switchbacks down to the Potomac River. A 1,000ft drop in less than a mile. There were lots of 5am runners in this section so I had to communicate well to get by without any more drama. If the switchbacks had a tree on the inside, I grabbed it and swung around the turn without losing too much speed. Clearly the fall, had not hurt my confidence.
I heard lots of cheers below and soon ran through a large crowd of spectators including Michael Chu as I got close to the C&O canal towpath section. At the aid station prior to this 26.3 mile stretch of flat monotonous running was Tiffany, being a trooper running around Maryland all day supporting me. She greeted me with a huge smile and handed me my blood tester. I pricked my finger, blood strip already set up and got my reading: 275. 27…what?
My glucose went up after 15.5 miles? I filled my water bottle with water and kept on going. I analyzed in my head why 275. I had thought that maybe on the trail I was going low around miles 10-13 so knocked back two gels, which in hindsight I never needed. I readjust my basal level from -60% to -20% and would see where my glucose was again at mile 27.
I checked my average pace for the first third of the race; 8:25. Just faster than I had planned but I was happy with that. Now was time to get into my faster stride. I was hitting 7:38 average for the first few miles of the canal. Not quite the 7:30’s I would need for Plan A but it was still early in the race and I found my pace to be manageable. The most important thing was not to run a mile faster than 7:30 even though I felt good. I passed a pair of runners who made a comment “The race doesn’t start until mile 30”. It made me think. I actually put that in my head but changed it to mile 35. I still remember how quickly the body can fall apart from miles 30-35 with that ‘still X miles to go’ mentality.
Just shy of marathon distance, I saw a deer ahead on the canal path. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them while out on the trail. As I got closer, I waited for the deer to see me and bolt but it never did. I ran around it giving the guy some space but clearly not enough as it begun to follow me and then decided to chase me! When did deer ever chase humans! My pace went into marathon mode for a few yards until it either felt sorry for me or just got bored with this running thing.
I then teamed up with a human. We chased each other back and forth but not like the deer. We decided it would be easier to say hi, acknowledge we were running the same pace and run together. He (Nick), like many others in the race was part of the military, based at West Point, NY. We ran into a main aid station at 27 to lots of cheers, still chatting away. Tiffany was there again, ready to help me with my blood test; 250. Well, going down but still not low enough to start really eating much. I gave her my handheld water bottle, no need for that anymore as now aid stations were frequent along the canal path (every 4 miles or so) and I was carrying gels in my compression short pockets anyway (if I would ever need them), so I didn’t need to be lugging around Gatorade on heavy arms. Tiffany told me we were in 26th and 27th place.
I caught back up to Nick and we carried on at our pace. We discussed our JFK races from last year, both with similar stories of good but not great performances. He was way ahead of his time goal so when he stopped to take an S-cap and said he would catch me back up and never did, I wasn’t too surprised.
I hit 50K and knew the next few miles would be the toughest mentally. There would be aid at mile 34 and the next main one at 38. The aid station at mile 34 never seemed to come as the long left bend around the Potomac River just kept on going and going with no one in sight. I almost wanted to see another deer! My pace was now slipping towards the 8 minute mark and I wasn’t feeling great. I knew I wasn’t going to cramp like last year; I had been taking two S-Caps on the hour like clockwork. It was my sugar. This time, I knew it for a fact. I could feel the symptoms of a hypo, not just the effort of running 34 miles. I finally saw a dozen Santa and elf hats and an area decorated in tinsel. What a great sight! A volunteer asked what I wanted and I said “Everything!” I grabbed two cups of Coke, M&M’s, orange slices, pretzel sticks and some cookies. I told them, this was the best aid station on the course. Partly because it was decked out for Christmas but also because mile 34 of 50 miles sucks! It’s far enough into the race that you’re really hurting but still too far enough from the finish, you can’t get too excited about it being ‘almost’ over. I played games in my head; 8 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. ‘Lets go’ I told myself.
I left the aid station swiftly and munched on the food. I had three cookies left. I ate one but quickly realized I was not carrying any more liquid. Their was no way I could eat the other two cookies without getting a really dry throat. I decided to keep them by putting one in each of my short pockets. I don’t know why I did this, I had gels on standby if need be but laughed to myself as I felt like the Cookie Monster taking on the JFK50! Churning out these mid-30’s miles was real agony. I knew a 6:30 finish time was off the table now but as I turned a corner onto a long straight away, I saw a great sight; three runners way ahead. I knew I would eventually get to them. This image gave me new energy. Seeing them and my mile 34 aid station intake made me feel so much better. The pace came back to 7:35-40 and I closed the gap gradually. Eventually I passed them and knew I was now closing in on the top 20 of the JFK50. This became a new goal in itself, one that I did not plan or think about at all pre-race.
I kept my placing but felt my energy and pace dip again as the final aid station on the C&O canal path was not too far away. I pulled out one of the cookies from my shorts and ate it with an energy gel, about 50 grams of simple and complex carbs as one. My mistake of experiencing two hypos close together was that I had tweaked my basal rate of insulin between miles 27-38 and I had been too aggressive to bring my glucose level down.
At the aid station, Tiffany asked how I was doing. My reply was negative for the first time “I’m so tired”. Rightly so, 38 miles is, well 38 miles. But it wasn’t the distance. My glucose was 90. Proof that I had been fighting hypos. I took a Gatorade from her and downed it in seconds and grabbed some Jelly Belly Sport Beans.
I pushed on but still didn’t feel great. The third place woman passed me and I watched her as she ran with an effortless stride (unlike me). I realized she was hurting too, just not showing it. I kept her in sight and as my glucose rose from the Gatorade and sport beans, my body felt better and I noticed on my watch that there were now only 10 miles left. That’s nothing, I said! 2 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. Dig deep. And I did. 7:09, 7:07 for the last two canal path miles.
I had caught back up and re-passed her, promising her beer and pizza at the end for helping me. By keeping her in sight, we had both closed the gap on some other runners who were now also behind us. One of which was third place runner Jeff Buechler from last years 2011 JFK. I felt bad for him, his leg must have blown up or something to be this far back from the leaders.
My pace was now really going up in gear. My glucose felt like it was back to normal and I was about to hit the last section of the course; the rolling asphalt hills. The part I like to forget, is the immediate climb off the C&O canal path which is 200m of pure agony. Your pace goes from hare to tortoise as you clamber up it. I didn’t dare look at my heart rate data but I’m sure it was close to max. I reached the crest with no desire to go any further until I saw a runner ahead. As I ran along the farm roads, one turn then showed me that after him there was no one left to catch. With under 8 miles to go, I was convinced this would be my last place to take. I contemplated sitting on him until one mile to go but quickly realized he was suffering far worse than me so passed by, wished him well and I truly felt sorry for him even though we had over a 10K to go. I asked him if anyone was ahead. He said no. Why would he have said yes? He knew it would only motivate me to kick on. Smart runner, dumb question from me.
I crested a hill as I opened the gap on him. He was right, no one. Just me and the road and an excruciating 7 miles to go! I chose the 8.5 road miles to think of my uncle and his battle with cancer using each mile as a year of his fight. It really helped me because I was absolutely exhausted. I went past an aid station and grabbed a cup of Gatorade to top up my glucose level. I refused to have another hypo now and didn’t care so much if I went the other way. I even threw away my last cookie like a pro cyclist would throw away a water bottle before a big climb. Every ounce mattered to me. I’m pretty sure looking back, that throwing the cookie away didn’t do anything for me!
For the first and only time on the course, we had mile markers. They were traditional wooden blocks by the side of the road with the number of miles to go. All on my own and ready to be done, all I wanted, was to see the next one with a 6 on it. As I closed in on the mile 6 board, the wind knocked it over on its back as I ran past. I laughed at that one. This was exactly how I felt! I hadn’t looked at my watch for a while. My pace at this point was what it was, meaning I had no more speed to give. It was just under 8-min pace which I knew would put me around 6:43 finish time (Plan B goal). I focused hard to remain sub-8 minute pace.
With 5 miles to go, I noticed a guy in the distance running on an adjoining road. He looked the part. Light shoes, skinny, skimpy shorts. The tell-tale signs of a fast runner. He joined the race road and ran ahead of me. After having some time to really think about this ironic scenario, genius me realized he was not a random runner, he was the next guy ahead of me! I had to assume he went the wrong way or took a pit stop. Either way, I was on his heels and soon he was another one behind me.
I turned right in between a row of small houses and saw a police car stopping traffic. I knew this was mile 46. I also knew I wasn’t going to see Tiffany here but really wanted too. This pain was really getting unbearable now. Then, of course she jumped into the street cheering me on. It was awesome. My energy was again lifted and the road was now coned off to traffic with the final 4 mile stretch.
At three miles to go, I hit another long straight and I could see three more runners ahead. One was Ian Torrence who I had run with in the pack of 4 back on the AT, hours earlier. I had to pinch myself that I was going to maybe catch this guy. He is a few years older and maybe not his old speed but this guy is a real name in ultra running.
And so it was, I chalked off more guys. My plan to not run hard early and blow up was working. My tank was close to empty but I had been slowly improving my place for most of the race. I had not been passed properly since early in the AT section.
I climbed a sweeping hill to the final aid station at the top. I remembered this and knew I was one mile shy of the end…until the volunteer shouted “1.5 miles to go!” Oh well. What’s half a mile over 50.2 miles right? I turned left to roll downhill on a main road and glanced to my left to see the last person I had passed way back and no threat to me now. I could have eased off the pace at this point and kept my place but I knew I was close to a 6:40 finish time. I made that my mission as I clocked off a 7:10 mile 49.
I climbed a slight hill on the final straight and saw the finish in the far distance. What a sight! I pushed all the way home and made it; 6:40:38 an average pace of 8 minute miles. I had just taken 33 minutes off last year’s time. What a difference a year makes in my short ultra running career.
I got helped over to a chair by the finish line where I got to celebrate with Tiffany and was also greeted to another familiar face; ultra runner Mark Rodriguez, who came out to watch. I did a post-run blood test for the first time in the comfort of sitting down; 123. A man stood over us and said “I like to see those numbers” explaining further that he was a doctor. We agreed. It was the first good one of the day!
I walked into the Williamsport school to go and take a shower. I hid from the first aid medics that would have loved to play with my gashed knee (I learnt my lesson from this last year!), chat with Ellie Greenwood (by far the best female ultra runner in the world right now) who enjoyed the fact that my last name was England like no tomorrow and met with Max King and David Riddle too. Top ultra runners but better still, top people who genuinely care about their fellow runners as much as they care about their own performances. JFK next year? Maybe. I prefer the mountains to flat courses. If I do go back, I have to consider breaking into the Top 10 males as my goal. We will see. With this much fun and support on the course, why not? For now, rest and more rest before my inaugural race for Team Type 1 in the California International Marathon on December 2nd.
Just one week after a tough (almost PR) Chicago marathon, I chose to..well, race again! My good running friend, Gary Berard, told me about a popular trail race a stones throw north of NYC which intrigued me. The race: Paine to Pain Trail Half Marathon. Runner’s World Magazine describes it as “…a giant single loop that winds its way through the woods and trails of several lower Westchester communities“.
I, of course had no need to race so soon post-Chicago. My next ‘race’, the JFK 50 was seven weeks away in mid-November and my training plan for that consisted of little more than easy miles. But the idea of a trail run only 30 minutes by car from home, made it so easy! I signed up with good intentions of treating it like a 13.1 easy run, just with a race bib on and 1,000 friends. The day before, my type A personality was fully restored and I declared to Gary I was going to race it. Team Type 1’s Matt Patrick also sewed a seed in my head texting me in the week that I could win it! (This is his home turf so he knows the course better than most).
On October 14th, we were picked up by Gary’s friend, Geoff Badner who was also using the race as a training run for the Brooklyn Marathon (the same weekend as JFK). Gary unfortunately went from runner to spectator with a bad back mid-week. I tried to convince him, it was because he was now married and just getting old but he didn’t buy it. He even went to the chiropractor to confirm he should not run. Tough luck for him, but hats off for still making the road trip and cheering on Geoff and myself, early on a Sunday.
We picked up our race numbers by the start in New Rochelle and checked out the competition. Anyone in skimpy shorts or lightweight shoes or a combination of both meant competition! I was feeling mentally strong and had decided the goal was to try to make top 10, anything better, a bonus. My blood glucose read 190mg/dL just prior to the start. Absolutely perfect, I could not be happier with that.I toed the line and a rifle was fired. We all charged up a gradual hill for over 3/4 mile and I quickly found myself in 3rd place. My first mile split was 6:13! Slightly keen maybe?!
Asphalt road soon got replaced for the good stuff: single track trail with rocks, roots and a few small bridges mixed in too. I sat behind the lead two feeling pretty good. I lost ground on them going uphill but gained when going down. Then, I got impatient on a downhill and decided I wanted the lead, so I took it.
Here I was, in th lead of a half-marathon with 11 miles to go, just a week after a marathon! What was I thinking? Well, I was hoping everyone else’s heart rate were as high as mine to start with! As quickly as the idea of a nice W got in my head, it quickly got booted out again as the front two passed me. More followed. I got put in my place (10th to be exact) and had to readjust my winning goal back to my original. It was fun for a few hundred yards at least. I knew I had to back off. My heart rate was probably 175. I wish I had worn my monitor to see how high it really did get. I needed to bring this down or I would be toast well before this was over.
We continued on single track for a few miles occasionally crossing a quiet road and then entering more magical forest to explore. I was about 13th or 14th at 6 miles as the hardest part of the course was now behind us. The rocks and tree roots with up and down climbing was now replaced with flatter and wider runnable trail. Each mile for me however was getting slower and slower. Sub-7 miles were now 7:20….7:30 and then I hit my lowest and slowest moment at mile 7: 8:07. I took a Honey Stinger gel thinking maybe their was more to it than just fatigue, maybe my blood glucose was dropping towards a hypoglycemia level? Whatever it was or wasn’t, I was now heavily regretting my heroic performance at the start!
Then I heard more footsteps gradually closing in on me I didn’t turn around, i knew I would see whoever it was in a matter of seconds anyway. It was the first female. She passed and said “Hey” in a surprised tone. I responded the same adding even more emphasis on the surprise in my voice. It was my friend Deanna Culbreath, a fellow Brooks ID runner!
We both really had no idea either of us were running this. She said for us to run together (which would have been awesome) but my legs were toast and I had to go my own pace in this low moment. She ran ahead and took down the next guy soon after. She was getting cheered on by volunteers and spectators who acknowledged that she was the clear leader of the women’s race. It was awesome to witness.
Every turn I expected to lose sight of her but I didn’t and the guy in front had managed to stay with her. Maybe seeing a familiar face lit a fire inside of me or maybe it was the guy ahead who did decide to stick with her that made me feel like I had more energy deep down somewhere. I remembered the famous words of Scott Jurek “Dig Deep” and did just that. It’s hard to say how or why I got out of that mess in the middle miles. All I know is, I was grateful Deanna was out there kicking my butt because I gave me a second wind. I managed to get my pace back to 7-min miles as we continued to circled around the big loop back towards New Rochelle.
At mile 10, I had regained two or three places, one of which was the guy who had tried to hang with Deanna, but I was clueless if I was 9th or 15th or somewhere in the middle. Keila ran this race in 2011 and had told me about the age group prizes. This was not just any prize, this was an engraved beer tankard! The tangible award made some more pain go away and this became my new race goal. Yes, a glass beer tankard made me run competitive! (although who was to say how many 30-39 year olds were ahead of me).
At mile 11, I had clawed my way back to rock star ultra athlete Deanna. We had actually been pushing each other for the last mile or so. Without ever really talking about it then or since, I think we both really enjoyed competing against each other out there on the trail. I felt good and decided to press on, convinced she would follow suit.
I really had got the wind back in my sails now and was clocking low 6’s for those last 3 miles. I saw Gary standing in the middle of the woods after a turn and he did what any good running coach does; give a runner information they can use to their advantage. “Good job” or “almost there” wasn’t going to help me. His words? “1 mile to go, 10th place, next ahead is 40 seconds, 1/2 mile to the road and you finish on the athletic track”. 5 key pieces of information were passed onto me in 5 seconds. Super helpful and the best part was, we didn’t even discuss that before the race. I cannot wait to train with him for Boston 2013.
With this on board, I gunned it towards a road I couldn’t yet see. It felt longer than the half mile quoted but I’ll blame my dead legs, not Gary on that one. The road took me quickly into full view of the athletic track and I got a glance at the finish line. This got me pumped up. Not because it was almost over, because it is just like the finish of the famous Western States 100 in California!! (minus 86.9 miles..who’s counting right?).
I turned a sharp right down onto the track to do the final 300 meters. The surface felt great after 12 or so miles of rocks and uneven trail terrain. I sprinted the last straight thinking of my family, who have had a rough year, to say the least with health news, and clocked in at 1:30. I was ecstatic to come in the top 10. I had hit my race goal.
Within a minute, a got to watch some Paine to Pain history as Deanna came roaring home to win the women’s field and smash the course record by over six minutes! A great achievement and a great outing for Brooks Running all round! Geoff followed shortly after in 1:34 which surprised me as I thought he was going to take it easy and use it as a ‘training run’. Look who’s talking I guess and watch out Brooklyn Marathoner’s!
We all hung around for the awards making new friends while watching others finish. Some of my best times are post-runs, talking to people. Oh and yes, I managed to sneak into 3rd place age group for 30-39 and get my now beloved glass tankard. All that Paine to Pain was worth it! All in all, a great trail half-marathon put on a few miles north of the NYC. For any New York runner looking outside of the NYRR bubble or just wanting to dabble into some trail running, may I strongly suggest Paine to Pain 2013?
It has only been 13 months since I crossed the divide from my comfort zone of 26.2 miles in big cities and thousands of spectators to the somewhat underground world of ultrarunning described as anything longer than a marathon. I had had now signed up for my second 50K race in 8 days (on the back of my North Face mud fest).
This happened partly because my closest running buddies and I wanted a glamping (glorious camping!) weekend away from NYC, but also because my training plan called for it! The Laurel Ultra, an hour south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a famous point-to-point 70.5 mile race. I had been prodded and asked a few times to do this. As much as I wanted to, I’m a strict runner when it comes to my training plan, so thank goodness for the cop out option of ‘just’ a 50K instead!
I studied the elevation profile as usual. Three early hill climbs appealed to me as a good hard effort in preparation for Leadville but the remainder of the course seemed flat(ish) in comparison. The race topped out at 3,000 ft, nothing on Colorado’s Hope Pass of 12,600 ft to come but that’s not a road trip weekend away.
Rick Freeman (the race director, who kindly excepted our very late entries), got us underway alongside the 50K relay teams, most notably my favorite team, “Karaoke at the Monk”, running trails for the first time! I’m glad me or Keila never shared with them the website description of the course before they signed up;
“This is a very challenging course. Difficult footing is the norm, as steep grades, logs, rocks, steps, mud and other obstacles abound.”
At the start, some guys bombed it out of the gate. I was not up for such craziness, note my reaction in the photo (below).
So, at mile 12, I saw Steven and Sheila. I said “blood tester” and “chews” to them like they were my servants! (haha, sorry guys). Blood test=155. OK, but I was 225 at the start so I knew I was decreasing. I grabbed the Powerbar chews (think adult cola bottles!) from Sheila and ate them in 10 seconds flat. I asked where I stood as it was hard to gauge with the relay race also taking place. I was 5th. The one problem, the other 4 were 15-20 minutes ahead. This sounded like last week all over again but today my legs were already tired and my body was not cooperating to chase them down.
I decided to relax (it does happen occasionally) and enjoy the rest of the race for what it was. Afterall, this is not the big event and I was happy with 5th. It would still be my second highest ultramarathon finish. From here as I was now on a section of switch backs and rolling terrain on single track (my favorite kind of trail). Their were many wooden bridges to cross and huge rock formations to squeeze between. Trail running sure is a blast!
Mile 20; same drill with my friends helping me out. Blood test=195, still happy with that. I try to be in the 150-200 zone when running. Any higher and my body feels heavy and tired due to too much sugar in the blood (hyperglycemia), minus 80 and I will start to get weak and tired (hypoglycemia). The goal, don’t feel tired due to diabetes alone but if it’s because I’m a running mad man, that’s OK! Hypoglycemia (commonly referred to as “hypo”) can be the same feeling marathoners get when they “hit the wall”. It’s basically your body running out of gas (glycogen stores). Being diabetic, my gas tank can just keeps going down at a faster rate putting me in danger of collapsing or worst scenario falling into a coma. That’s when consuming fast acting sugar (simple carbohydrates) comes into play and brings me back to a safe level 80+mg/dL.
After hitting the summit of the course at 3,000 ft I took a few seconds to soak up the view (right). Why not? I reached the last aid stop at mile 26. Although not a relay transition area, I expected my friends to be there. I thought “Wow, I was so fast those last 6 miles I must have finally beaten them!” Wrong. They got lost and went straight to the finish! I was not relying on this however; for one I had the aid station, more importantly I was wearing my Salomon backpack/vest filled with enough candy to host a Halloween party. Such a comfortable piece of equipment allows me to never be in danger of having a hypo while running and not being able to get out of it, especially in the middle of nowhere.
After running through some rare open fields which was a ski resort with a stationary chairlift overhead (I thought I had run onto the set of ‘A Sound of Music’)and two more hills the end was finally close with a very friendly sign saying “50K FINISH, TURN LEFT”. I felt so bad for the hardcore guys I was passing doing the real deal 70.5 race. They had 40 more miles to go. Thank goodness for the 50K option I thought once more, I was done.
I crossed the line in 5th . My friends were there waiting and cheering and told me I could have got 4th. “What are you talking about?” I said. “I never saw anyone in the 50K race for the last 20 miles”. It was true, I was 17 seconds from 4th place but never even saw the guy until we had finished. Oh well, no big deal. The legend of Steve Prefontaine will tell you that 4th is the worst place to finish anyway!
Anyway, my glucose was 201. It was now time to get to work on bringing that down to 100. A Nike moto; “There is no finish line” explains the life of a diabetic. Continuous glucose monitoring, balancing my lifestyle with insulin intake is my 24 hour, 365 day job. As, I was adjusting my sugar levels, Keila came flying in for 3rd female, overall 8th and as for those relay newbies; they killed it with an amazing 2nd overall place. I was so happy for all of them. We headed back to our glamping retreat (a fellow diabetic’s B&B ironically) for a BBQ feast and some well deserved beers!
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!