Sunday, July 8, 2018

Bear Mountain Blues

It had been three years since my last romp through the woods in Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks. I had a rough day at the 50k there in 2015, and it remains my slowest 50k to date. They say time can heal all wounds, right? Well when I registered for North Face's ECSNY 50-mile, those mental scars had healed pretty well and I forgot just how difficult the terrain can be, leading to unreasonable expectations and some prolonged suffering.

2018 was actually my fourth time running the North Face's New York event. I ran the half marathon with Adam in 2012 when I was new to trail running, returned in 2013 to run the full marathon during the buildup toward my first ultra, and then ran the aforementioned 50k two years later. Although I signed up pretty late this year for the 50M, it fit into my schedule and I'd been strongly considering for quite awhile.

PC: Joe Azze/Mountain Peak Fitness
The course is a loop that starts and ends near Hessian Lake at Bear Mountain Sate Park, although most of it runs through the adjacent and much larger Harriman State Park. The land has a lengthy history behind it dating back to the Revolutionary War era, and it contains about a third of the Appalachian Trail's 90 miles within New York State. Bear Mountain also serves as the locale for the obscure Bob Dylan song "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues."
Well, I run right down and bought a ticket
To this Bear Mountain Picnic
But little did I realize
I was in for a picnic surprise
Had nothin’ to do with mountains
I didn’t even come close to a bear
I spent the night before the race renting a room via Air BnB at a guy's house in Newburgh, 20 miles from the park. Vincent, the owner, was there during my stay, along with his buddy who was visiting from Houston. They asked about what I was up to for the weekend so I told them. Usually conversations with unsuspecting non-ultrarunners turn into a sort of Spanish Inquisition with a lot of awkward explanations about eating and peeing, and disbelief on the side of the non-ultra parties. "Really!? I don't even like to drive that far, har-har." Although neither men are trail or ultra runners themselves, they were unfazed by my discourse and tales of previous races. Vincent, in fact, had section-hiked the AT, and his friend had several
finishes at the Houston Marathon in his younger days. The night ended with a standing invitation for a place to crash if I ever decide to run Houston.

With a 5:00 a.m. start time, this was the first sub-100-mile race I'd done where headlamps were necessary at the start. The 50-mile race alone had over 300 starters, so the field was split into four different waves with each wave starting a minute apart. I guess the idea was to prevent or limit log jams as the trail narrowed. I was in Wave 3, but it didn't seem to help a whole lot in the middle of the pack — the double-track trail was wall-to-wall with people for the first few miles. In retrospect I expended way too much energy trying to dodge slower runners over those first few miles.

The course started off with us traipsing along the 1777 Trail through something called Doodletown. I found out later that this trail is the path on which Sir Henry Clinton led his British troops to fight the Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery during the American Revolution in — you guessed it — 1777.¹ By 5:30 the sun sun was high enough to switch off the headlamp. The first aid station had a headlamp dropbox for runners without crews, but I opted to keep carrying mine to cut down on the logistics of getting it back at the finish.

PC: Joe Azze/Mountain Peak Fitness
A brief stint on asphalt gave way to a nice scenic loop around Silver Mine Lake. The lake looked beautiful as the early morning sun poked through the pines on the opposite shore, reflecting off the calm surface at a very steep angle. The three miles around Silver Mine is my favorite part of the course. However, this is where the things really starts to get rocky. Much of the trails from here on in are littered with fist-sized rocks. It's as if a thunderstorm of granite moved through the area centuries ago, strewing its debris across the forest using the Poisson distribution.

The 50-mile course splits off from the 50k course around mile 14. When I reached this point the next 22 or so miles were unknown territory. The first few miles after the split were rough; tons of blowdown made the trail more like an OCR course as I maneuvered slowly with a small pack of runners over, under, and around dozens of massive, uprooted trees. In some spots we were squeezing through passageways no more than a foot wide, and at other times trying to climb over trunks four-feet in diameter. This stretch was but a small section of the Long Path, which extends continuously from New York City all the way up to Albany. Fortunately the obstacles eased up as we dropped down to Lake Skannatati.

It was somewhere around mile 20 when I began to bonk. It wasn't all that surprising, given that I'd been feeling pretty worn out since running the Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon on April 8. I thought that taking it relatively easy in the first half of Bear Mountain would allow me to have a decent race, but I turned out to be wrong. I could already feel the cumulative fatigue setting in and tried to maintain a respectable pace over the next seven miles of (mostly) fire roads. Mile 23 brought me to the Camp Lanowa Aid Station where I spent way too much time changing socks and dreading going back out for another 27 miles. (My feet were somehow already torn up inside my Hoka Challenger ATRs, hence the sock change.) Scotie Jacobs was here and he was having a worse day than I was. If I was struggling and he was moving at my pace, then I knew he must be really suffering. The six-mile loop back to Camp Lanowa was almost entirely flat dirt roads, but I was still barely running. I decided to continue grinding it out to the end.

The last 20 miles were a real slog. Scotie passed me coming out of the Anthony Wayne Aid Station at mile 41 and he looked fresh as ever. The 50 miles culminated in a steep, scree-covered climb up and over Timp Pass and I was reduced to a near crawl. I remembered this climb well from the 50k and had been trying to put it out of my mind all day. The descent on the pass' north side is just as rocky and slow, making it tough to determine which is worse — the ascent or the descent. Luckily the bottom of Timp Pass rewards all runners with the penultimate aid station, followed by 2.5 miles of smooth bridle path that runs predominately downhill. This last little stretch served as a victory lap as I made my way back down to the finish along with runners from all the other distances. The result was a 10:53 finish — one of my slowest 50-mile times to date. (Full results.) For comparison, men's winner (and defending champion) Mathieu Blanchard ran a 7:01.

Since the Breakneck Point was moved to September this year, Bear Mountain served as the opener for the area's ultrarunning season. A lot of runners I'd traditionally see at Breakneck were here, including members of the MPF/RNR team, a handful of Ithaca runners, and a bunch of NYC people I'd met at Breakneck and Manitou. I caught up with my friend Mina (whom I'd met in the beer line here when we both ran the 50k in 2015) over a post-race Sierra Nevada lager.

The course was well marked and maintained and organization was tight for such a large-scale event. This has been the case each of the four times I've run the race. The volunteer crews were incredible, and I appreciate every individual who was up at some ridiculous hour and/or stood out in the sun all day while us runners had our fun. Thank you! Lastly, the runner amenities are above expectations given the reasonable entry fee. Post-race food, beer, and recovery perks (like ice baths) are abound, plus instant results. Add to that the swag and shuttle ride to the start, and you've got yourself a top-level event in terms of production.

The North Face ECSNY left my body trashed, but it wasn't long until I started feeling back to my old self. Over the next few weeks I started sleeping better and feeling less fatigued during routine easy runs. Looking back, I think was trying to do too much too soon, pushing through an eight-week block of Tempo Run efforts² with Skunk Cabbage and Seneca7 right in the middle. After recovering from Bear Mountain, I started training almost exclusively on trails with a lot of Steady State running and it's seemed to help get me feeling back to normal.

Post-race ice bath torture session. 

¹ American General James Clinton, with help from his brother (NY governor General George Clinton), got his Patriot ass handed to him by Sir Henry Clinton during the battle. England got it's Loyalist ass handed to it during the war. 

² Following Jason Koop's plan from his book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning.

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