Monday, May 25, 2015

Gnarly Times: The North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain

On the first weekend in May, I headed down to the Hudson Valley for a 50K trail race as a warmup for the Cayuga Trails 50 Miler. I've previously run the half marathon and full marathon at the North Face Endurance Challenge: New York, and thought the 50K would be a solid training effort for Cayuga. (I crashed at my friend Adam's house the night before the race, which helped immensely on the logistics. Thanks Adam!). Based on my memory of the marathon from 2013, I figured I could break six hours in the 50K without putting in an all-out effort. The 50K race started at 7:00 AM. After some brief pre-race announcements from Ultramarthon Man and North Face athlete Dean Karnazes, we were off, and by 7:05 I had already realized how wrong I'd been.

Pre-race sunrise. Looks to be a beautiful day!

 "And we're off!" Photo: Ultra Race Photos

Cruising in the early miles. Photo: Ultra Race Photos
In the two years since I'd run the trails at Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks, I'd forgotten how the tough, gnarly terrain took a pretty good toll on my body. Despite being in better shape with more trail running experience this time around, I was still running that same marathon course plus an extra
five mile section on the side. I guess I had suppressed the painful memories from the years prior - memories of struggling up the steep ascents, running down 15% grade on dry creek beds composed of loose, sharp rocks, the heat of the late morning, and the 4000+ feet of total climbing and descent. As I ran the first mile, on the most runnable section of the course none-the-less, I already felt like I was struggling and would be in for a long day. I immediately began to doubt the prospect of finishing in sub 6:00.

Photo: Ultra Race Photos
For whatever reason, I began to feel quite a bit better after passing through the first aid station at mile four. Maybe I just needed a few warmup miles, since I hadn't tapered much for this race. After a brief uphill section on a paved road, the course veered back onto singletrack for a few miles. I kept myself busy during this stretch by thinking about how I wish I had a pair of Altra Lone Peaks to make running the trails easier. The Merrell Bare Access Trail shoes I had on were falling apart and were worn down too much to provide much traction on the rocks and in the mud. Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company ordered some Lone Peaks in my size to try out when I got back to Ithaca. Obviously that was no help to me now, but it was all I could think about for the next few miles as the trail circled around Silvermine Lake.

Before long though, the course started to get pretty gnarly as it merged with the Long Path. A lot of steep ascents with some mini rock scrambles while traversing a ridge made for a long stretch between aid stations. I think it was somewhere around mile 15 where I inexplicably sat down on a trail side bolder simply because I didn't feel like climbing up the steep ascent that was now staring me in the face. I began to have doubts about whether or not I'd finish this thing.

"Save your legs for Cayuga Trails, the race you've been training for since January."

"Forget it. If I can't handle 31 miles here, there's no chance at ever finishing Cayuga."

"You're only halfway. The second half will be way more hellish than even this."

Several runners passed my listless corpse here on that boulder and a few kind souls checked that I was okay. I gave them the good old ultra-grunt as an automated reply. I'm not sure how long I sat like this - in reality probably only a few minutes - but it seemed like an eternity. At some point I glanced down at my watch, studying the numbers as if the distance display would magically read 30.9 miles. It did not, but the pace display of "0'00/mi" hit me like a bolt of lightning. Where does this little Finnish piece of electronics get off with taunts like that? "All you gotta do is avoid sitting on your lazy ass all morning and another ultra is in the books." I vividly remember that shocking revelation - "As long as that Suunto pace reads something other than 0'00/mi, you're guaranteed to finish this thing." And with that new-found wisdom, I started up the rocky hill.

"Gnarly, Dude!" Photo: Ultra Race Photos
The next several miles went pretty well after eating downing some caffeinated GU gels and Cliff Shot Blocks. At mile 21 I descended to the Anthony Wayne aid station. It was here, two years ago, where my friend Adam stood along side the road with a camera, taking my picture, and I felt so fried I didn't recognize him until he started talking to me. This time around I felt much better. Shortly after leaving the aid station, a guy came flying past me. Way too fast to have been running behind me all this time, I realized it must be one of the 50M leaders. Sure enough, it was eventual 50 mile winner Brian Rusiecki looking strong at what was (for him) mile 41.

Photo: Ultra Race Photos
An hour or so later and I realized the final aid station was less than two miles ahead. "Just make it to the 1777 aid station and the rest is downhill," I thought with a sudden elation. As if in response, a guy running just in front of me muttered out loud, possibly to himself "Okay, just up and over that ridge." I completely forgot about the long, rocky climb up to Timp Pass, a true heartbreaking hill that puts Boston's little speed bump to shame. After running for five hours and beyond a marathon, I was ready for it to be over. The climb up and over that pass took an eternity.

Next up - Cayuga Trails! Photo: Ultra Race Photos
Finally in the home stretch with a few easy miles remaining, I was in a much better mindset and the pain was minimal. I found myself walking along side a guy and discussing the impending finish. He kept pace with me, running and walking and told me how this was his first ultra. Walking up the slightest incline, I flat out told the guy "After we reach the top here, we are running down to the finish line. You don't want to finish your first ultra walking it in, right?" He agreed, and together we took off downhill at the fastest pace we could manage. The final paved path into the finish area was lined with cheering spectators. Newly invigorated, I ran hard over the final flat half mile, crossing the mat in a few minutes over six hours.

The post-race runner amenities were plentiful. Runners were treated to a post race massage, a delicious hot meal, and free beer from Sierra Nevada. We also had access to an ice bath tent, a foam roller tent, free print screens on our race t-shirts, and a boatload of samples of Cliff products to take home (which I eat regularly even when they aren't free.) The North Face event organizers went all out to accommodate runners before, during, and after the race. For such a large scale event, it was very well organized and thought out. (I'd say the same for the previous two times I ran at the event.) Surprisingly, the entry fee is on par, if not cheaper, than many smaller scale trail running events of this distance. Although the course at Bear Mountain is very difficult across all the distances, the cutoff times are fairly generous. The races consist of the 50 miler, 50K, marathon, and marathon relay on Saturday, and a half marathon, 5K, and 10K on Sunday. I'd definitely recommend North Face New York for first time ultra or trail runners.

Enjoying a beer by the lake.
As I walked around to the event tents and took some time to relax, I encountered several people from Ithaca. A few I knew, and a few others I'd never met came up to me and introduced themselves when they recognized the logo on my FLRTC singlet. Feeling right at home, I also struck up conversations with people from all over the US, and even a few international runners.

At last, it was time to hit the road for a four hour drive home. Feeling pleased with the day's work, my thoughts as I pulled out of the parking lot were simply "Bring on Cayuga Trails!"


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