The North Face 50M: Surviving the Bear

Bear Mountain - start/finish line

Bear Mountain – start/finish line

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

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

50 mile elevation chart!

50 mile elevation chart!

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

5am: the start of the adventure!

5am: the start of the adventure!

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

Mile 2

Mile 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A standard descent at Bear.

A standard descent at Bear.

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

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

Jumping through the rocks

Jumping through the rocks

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

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

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

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

Rocks and water hazards galore.

Rocks and water hazards galore.

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

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

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

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One...more...mile

One…more…mile

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

Tired!

‘Ooh – comfy grass to lie on!’

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

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

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

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

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

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

2 comments

  1. Rose England says:

    I am exhausted just reading this, Stephen! What a well written account of a very difficult challenge and I have nothing but deep respect and admiration for the way you tackled it and kept at it until the very end! So here’s to Washington DC in four weeks and I look forward to reading how well you’ve done there, too! Yay! Love from Rosie XXX

  2. Amy says:

    This race sounds incredible and looks beautiful. I have to agree with you about warm runs. Give me a nice fall day with a cool breeze or a spring rain shower any day over the hot sun. And I thought I was the only person who watered down their electrolyte drinks! I also do it with lemonade in the summer because otherwise I would drink a whole bottle of Simply Lemonade in one day.

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