For my last race of the year, I returned to the site of one of my more spectacular failures to see if it would be third time lucky at the ultra-marathon distance. Having finished fourth in the 25k at the inaugural Trail Festival in 2011, last year I attempted the 50k distance for the first time. This was only three weeks after my goal marathon, so I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time on the trails, but I assumed my road racing fitness carry me through. Long story short, I went out way too fast and had a painful last ten miles, having to will myself to even continue to walk. I placed seventh but with the ugliest splits you’ll ever see (2:01 first half, 2:46 second half).
This September, I then attempted to run a six-hour ultra in Silver Lake Park, which was ambitious given that I was still early in my injury recovery phase, but nevertheless, my strategy was again ill-conceived, resulting in very quickly transitioning from being amongst the lead runners to lying flat on the grass and refusing to go another inch.
Would it be third time lucky at the ultra distance? I decided the best way to be sure would be to make my own luck, by resolving to run more conservatively than I’d ever done in a race before. It probably also helped that the elite coach who’s designed my Boston training plan has me starting on Monday, with the first hard workout on Thursday. So I needed to come out of this race intact and able to recover quickly.
The race got started a little late (I’d learn later that the hard-working race organizers Matt and George of King of the Mountain Events had to make last-minute course adjustments – no rest for the weary!), and I settled into an easy rhythm in the company of our team President Mark and Publicity Director Josh, who were running the 25k. Somewhere ahead of me were my speedy first-time 50k teammates Ian and Issac: I’d led them on a three hour training run the previous weekend to give them an idea of what to expect, but somehow I knew they’d be taking off at a pace I couldn’t commit myself to. As I remarked to Josh, I was Yoda and they were my Jedi Knights – I had to trust them now to do their thing.
The first few miles around Camp Kaufmann were a little confusing to follow – around 30 of us took a very minor shortcut (less than 1/10 of a mile) about 2 miles in, thankfully race director Matt was on hand to re-route us and get the confusing section taped off for the following loop. With that snafu behind us, I just wanted to focus on following the trail markers. Eventually we’d get out of this section and onto the trails I know intimately, and at that point I’d be able to settle into running my own race.
The other early concern was to get a feel for what the overall race distance would be. Last year’s 50k was said to be 30 miles, but measured only 27 on my GPS device: switchbacks and tree cover mean a GPS, which measures discrete points every second and assumes a straight line between them, cannot accurately gauge the distance, and the faster you run, the greater the inaccuracy becomes. This year, we were treated to mile markers (which I understand to be a rare luxury in an ultra), and I could see that I was getting roughly 0.9 miles on my watch for every mile marker. 10% “extra free” is a nice bonus!
Pace aside, my other strategy change was at aid stations. Last year I had a marathoner’s mentality. Grab the cup, keep running, slurp what you can as you move, don’t waste any precious seconds. I learned my lesson: seconds don’t matter in an ultra. Even if you’re waiting a minute or two to get across a busy street (as happened later on the first loop, at Richmond Hill / Forest Hill Road), it’s not such a big deal, that’s useful recovery time. So, I took my time to refuel properly, exchange small talk with the volunteer (“next time you see me, I won’t look nearly this good”) before getting on my way.
It was about this time that I joined up with a runner from South Brooklyn Running Club. One of my favourite parts of running this 50k, both this year and last, is when I get to play tour guide. The non-Islanders are usually surprised at the beauty and the challenge of our trail system. The least I can do is make them feel welcome, give them the inside scoop on tricky sections coming up, imminent road crossings, where to get back on the trail after those crossings, and so on. My favourite tour guide moment had to be the section of trail that I’m trying to get officially named “The Ledge”, the almost unrunnable, steeply banked narrow section of Blue Trail next to Snake Hill, with its breathtaking views.
Speaking of road crossings – I’d just told my new friend that we had a 1/4 mile or so to go before we’d hit one coming out of High Rock Park, when suddenly the trail lurched unexpectedly to the left, down a bank to the foot of a 30-foot high near-vertical mound, with pink streamers indicating that, yep, this is where you’re going to go next. “Are you f****ing kidding me?!” was my reaction – I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. After getting the top and looping around, we found ourselves…. exactly where we would’ve been if we’d gone straight for a minute instead of making the left turn and following the markers. “Well, that’s going to be strictly on the honour system the second time around”, I joked to my SBRC friend. And yes, I did do it twice – I can provide the GPS evidence if needed
I eventually lost my friend after the Nature Center aid station at about 14 miles, he felt he’d gone out too fast, having originally tried to go with the leaders. It was great to have company for so long, but now it was time to steel myself, for shortly I would be coming through the start/finish line and having to set out for a second loop. If the mind is even starting to lose focus, I knew from last year that this can break you.
On the way up towards Moses Mountain I caught sight of my new training friend Kerry, easy to spot as the only runner of the day in short sleeves. I’d first spotted her up ahead when we were stopped at the road crossing I mentioned earlier, but it had taken a while to fully catch up. The timing turned out to be perfect, as I got into shouting range just in time to see Kerry miss a turn, and get her back on track. She’d go on to finish as the first female, and second overall, in the 25k race. A fantastic performance.
Back to my race, last mile of the first loop, time to make some decisions about what I need from my drop bag. Change of shoes? Music? In the end, I stick with my shoes. The previous day’s rain had made the trails softer (and for the most part not that muddy), and I really think that helped my feet. I did pick up a handheld bottle of Gatorade, so I could sip continuously rather than wait for the aid station, and grabbed my iPod, walking the first quarter mile or so of the second loop while unravelling the headphone wire. No panic, very calm, seconds don’t matter. See, I’m a wise trail guru now!
The music kicks in, so do my legs, and off I go. Fourteen miles left. (I appreciated the asymmetry of this year’s course: it’s good to know that “half-way” is actually more than half-way) I’m starting to rock out and fly down the descents. The average pace on my watch is getting faster! I don’t know where I’m placed in the race, but I feel like I’m going to catch some runners on the second loop this year. I start to wonder where my Jedi Knights are.
At High Rock the second time, the aid station attendant says I might be the first 50k runner she’s seen. I don’t believe this for a minute, and say “don’t tell me that!”. Shortly afterwards I run into Matt Lebow, directing the 10k runners, he gives me a high-five and I compliment him on the course. Perceived course quality is of course directly proportional to how awesome I’m feeling – at that point, it’s the best course I’ve ever run!
It got harder, though. That was always going to happen. The second climb of “WTF Hill” coming out of High Rock had my quads screaming, and I had to dial back the effort for the next mile or two, climbing up the White Trail. Along the Red Trail towards the Latourette Golf House, I finally caught up with Issac, who told me a horror story about going off course and running four miles too far. We wished each other well and I continued along my way. It’s a tough situation – on the one hand, I definitely wanted to be doing some passing on the second loop, rather than the opposite as happened last year. But when it’s your teammate and training buddy, it’s not exactly a situation that’s going to give you an energy boost.
A little later on the multipurpose trail, I passed a couple of recreational walkers (not in the race), and then almost immediately afterwards, on the slight upslope, my legs wanted me to start walking too. But not wanting the walkers to see me stop, I managed to maintain a plausible-looking jogging motion and continued along the way. Going back into the single-track trail a half-mile later, I encountered a group of hikers who cheered me enthusiastically, which was quite a lift. “Almost there!” someone very wrongly said. “In five miles maybe”, I chuckled back.
But I did know I was at least on my way to the finish now. I switched my iPod over to my most intense playlist and maintained a good pace to the final aid station at the Nature Center, passing more cheering runners as I did so. Approaching the aid station I heard the ringing of bells. From 50 yards away I yell “I NEED MORE COWBELL“, and you know what? They performed the hell out of that cowbell for me. I ran into the Greenbelt Conservancy‘s Chris Hellstrom at the aid station. Chris will, I think, be ok if I say he’s not a regular runner, but I believe he’s the only person to complete the 50k for all three years of the Trail Festival. It’s very much an all-day event for him, but he loves his trail system, and what better way to show it.
I leave the Nature Center, cross over Rockland Avenue, and keep the music loud and pumping to distract myself from wanting to walk. For a while now I’ve been walking up the hills, that was always part of my race strategy. The trick is to be mentally tough enough to hold yourself to that bargain. As soon as you say “maybe I’ll walk this flat section too, it won’t hurt”, it’s a downward spiral. Past Moses Mountain again, over Manor Road and now I know there’s no more road crossings, this is the trail section I’m in until the finish.
I reach the 30 mile marker and blow a kiss to it. Roughly a mile to go, but it’s the Camp Kaufmann section of trail that I do not have any feel for. I’m following the pink trail markers as best as I can, but I keep thinking “Is this right? Didn’t I already go here?”. After a couple of minutes I see a figure up ahead. I’m catching someone! About time, I think to myself, I’ve been keeping up even splits and other than Issac I’ve not caught up with anyone on the second loop – what’s up with that?
I don’t have a whole lot of interest in catching whoever’s in front of me, and indeed I’m still walking up anything that could reasonably be described as a hill, but I’m still bombing down the descents, and like it or not, the gap is closing until I’m maybe 10 yards behind.
Then I see another figure up ahead! Stopped on the side of the trail, distinctive in his orange shirt, is Ian. Why’s he stopped, I wonder, he’s almost done! My attention drifts away from the guy I was pursuing as Ian tells me his story of getting lost – it’s a slightly different account than Issac’s, as Ian is convinced he’s cut the course short. We compare GPS distances, and it’s clear to me that he’s as good as run a 50k. Maybe not exactly the same 50k as me, but surely now it’s time for us to finish this thing, so I encourage him onwards – at which point he finds the speed that I know him for, and I’m the one struggling to keep up! The other runner is somewhere with us too, I’m not sure exactly where, as I’m just rambling on to Ian about how we’re going to finish this race and how I’m proud of getting this race right, but also how I’m not going to run trails again for a while and how much I love the roads, and… really, it was verbal diarrhea at that point.
We turn the final corner, and Ian, who has in his mind already decided he’s going to disqualify himself, encourages both me and the other runner to give our best to the finish line. The other runner gives it a decent sprint finish, I honestly can’t be bothered to contest it too much, and we cross the line, four hours and eighteen minutes after setting off on our adventure.
I later discovered that I’d finished in third place – I guess I should’ve given the sprint a little more effort! But then, I did learn that the second-place runner, Joe, was one of the few who didn’t follow the slight shortcut near the start, so justice prevailed in the end.
The after-party was just what this tired ultra-runner needed. A much-needed finisher sweatshirt for my shivering body. BBQ, beer and friends. Even filmed a cameo for our club’s Christmas party comedy video, about which I will say little, as I don’t understand the plot, other than that they made me RUN, and I hope they appreciate how hard that was for me after the 50k!
After the race – thanks Yessica for the photo!
A wonderful day all around. See you again next year!