Wednesday, May 8, 2013

one bear of an ultra

(photo credit: Hillary Johnson)

Note: this race report also appears on

Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k, Bear Mountain State Park, New York

The day began early in Anthony Wayne Recreation Area, the huge lot that serves as the shuttle pick-up and drop off area for the Bear Mountain Race. I was fortunate enough to have carpooled with my friend Sue, who owns a 19-foot Sprinter, fully equipped with beds, sink, lights, phone chargers, and that all-important piece of runner’s equipment, the coffee maker. We camped in the far end of the lot, saving us the trouble of having to drive from hotel to shuttle and allowing us at least 15 extra minutes of sleep.

My alarm went off at 5:25am. A few fellow campers stood in front of the pop-up next door. Three of them were wearing down jackets, hats and gloves. Though the forecast was for sunny skies and warm temps, the morning air in the Catskills had a bite to it. I dressed quickly. As I pulled tight the laces on my Salomon XTs, I heard the sound of fabric tearing. I looked down to see a two-inch-long, half-inch wide rip in my right shoe. To be fair, the shoes had been around the trails a few times, and had a few small holes here and there, but since the soles were in good condition, I liked to think of these holes as extra ventilation. This new rip, however, was a little disconcerting. I wondered if the aid stations stocked duct tape. Too jittery for a proper breakfast, I nibbled on a bagel and banana, filled my mug with rocket fuel, and made my way over to the shuttle.

The race is sponsored by North Face, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the booths, massage tents, and general glitz one usually finds at road races. But, having recently run only trail races in which you practically need a GPS just to find the starting area, I found myself somewhat awed. The packet pick-up booth was staffed with young, tan blonde women decked out in colorful North Face hats and jackets. An unstaffed booth held a large bowl of free energy swag: Clif Bars, Shot Blocks, gel packs. Three or four warming stations, small fires giving off welcome heat, peppered the area just beyond the starting line. There was a podium. Later, runners would take turns posing with resident North Face Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes, the superstar behind the event.

The 50k start was divided into two waves. I tried not to think too much about the elevation chart on the course guide, which really had to be a joke, anyway. A sadistic joke. Approximately 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and almost 10,000 feet of elevation change. If not a joke, then surely a typo.

Having gone out much too quickly in my last 50k, I sidled up next to my training pal and toughest competitor, “Nadia,” so nicknamed for her trademark cartwheels across the finish line. I had no delusions of keeping up with Nadia for the whole race, but I have witnessed her conservative starting strategy, so I decided she’d be a good running buddy for the first few miles.

As Nadia and I wove our way through the runners, vying for a decent position before we hit single track, one thing became immediately and abundantly clear: I hadn’t tapered properly. Tapering is usually the part of the training process I look forward to most, and unlike a lot of runners I know, I tend to taper conservatively—three weeks rather than the more trendy two. I have even been preachy on occasion: “Smart tapering is every bit as important as smart training.” But, the previous week, there had been a half marathon in my town—on roads!—and I hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to run. “It’ll be a training run,” I said. “Yeah, right,” my husband responded.

His dubiousness was not unfounded. It’s tough (impossible?)not to get caught up when you’re running with people who are actually racing. As a result, I ran much faster than I would normally, on terrain (pavement) that is much more unforgiving than dirt. By Thursday, two days before Bear Mountain, I was still sore and stiff. I felt slightly better by Friday, but the first hill on Saturday morning let me know that my legs had not recovered.

“Not sure I have this in me today,” I said to Nadia. She reminded me that it often takes 7 or 8 miles for the legs to warm up. That’s true, I thought. This will be a recovery run. I’ll take it nice and slow. I won’t worry about place, or time. I’ll just enjoy the scenery. Right. A 31-mile recovery run.

For the first four or five miles, my feet were the focal point. I was worried the laces wouldn’t hold; at this point, they were the only thing keeping my right shoe together. But as the field of runners thinned out and the course became more technical, I had to concentrate on the terrain, which often consisted of sharp rocks covered in loose, dry leaves. The first four miles were mostly uphill, though not strenuous (at least, not for someone running on fresh legs).

At mile 3.9, runners arrive at the first aid station, which is back at Anthony Wayne. I had my first salt-soaked potato of the day, hoping it would serve as a magic elixir for my legs. From the aid station, runners encounter about a mile of technical trail. This was the terrain I found most appealing: the rocks were a mental distraction from my fatigue, the single track reminiscent of the trails I run in Connecticut, at Sleeping Giant and West Rock and Brooksvale Park.
More challenging was the .6 mile section of road (according to the course guide, this is a section where runners can “relax” before heading back into the woods). The air was beginning to heat up, and without treacherous terrain to distract me, I had to focus on the arduous task of actually running. Fortunately, Silvermine Lake was to my right, giving me a much needed aesthetic focal point. The field had really spread by now, and, back in the woods, I found myself alone at times. At one point, the path was overrun with fallen trees, and police tape diverted runners away from the trail: it was honest-to-goodness bushwhacking. The guy in front of me halted, then scratched his head. “I actually don’t do much trail running,” he confessed. “Is this really the trail?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a trail. It’s marked with ribbons, so it’s the right way.”

He allowed me to pass him, and I waded through the prickly brush. Just after this came a technical ascent up a single track trail. I took small steps, my quads heavy and tight. I heard footsteps; someone was actually running this section. Nadia, whom I had encountered at the aid station at mile 13.9 about five minutes earlier, came sailing up behind me, looking fresh and strong. “See you at the next aid station!” she called cheerily as she passed, but I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her again until the finish.

I don’t have a 50k in me today, I thought again. The Les Miserables soundtrack played endlessly in my head, getting stuck for a while on the line, “How long, oh Lord, before you let me die?” Somewhere around mile 15, I decided I’d had enough. At the next aid station—which, conveniently, was at the shuttle parking lot—I was out. My first DNF. I was sad, and I cursed myself for having run that half marathon last week, but I considered it a lesson learned. I’d come next year, do a smarter taper, actually enjoy the course.

As I trudged down the paved road into the aid station at Anthony Wayne, Cathi, a woman from my trail running club, passed by in her car. “Go get ‘em, Trish!” she yelled. “You look great! Nadia’s up ahead!”

The energetic volunteers at the station uttered similar words of encouragement. “You look really fresh,” they lied. The lies helped. I ate another salted potato—my seventh or eighth of the day—and asked one of the women re-filling hydration packs what mile marker I had reached. I had lost track, and I was far too exhausted to take the map out of my pack. “I don’t know,” she said. Was I the first person to ask this question?

“Mile 20!” another volunteer called. I absorbed that information. 11 more miles, I thought, still debating. That’s like one more loop of the Traprock course!

This realization had the opposite of a spiriting effect. I took a long drink of Gatorade, one more potato for the road, and followed the orange cones through the park and back into the woods. I passed another runner, slowly, who muttered an unintelligible encouragement and gave me a half-hearted wave. “You, too,” I mumbled back.

Back on the trail, I passed a large group of hikers, hoping I wouldn’t have to stop and let them pass me. I contemplated bailing out one more time: it was less than a mile back to Anthony Wayne, where I had seen Sue’s van in the parking lot. I didn’t have the key, but maybe I could climb in through the sun roof. Take a nap.

The first part of this section was smooth and flat. “This is nice, isn’t it?” another fresh-looking runner said as he passed by.

“It should be,” I said, “but I seem to be having the most trouble on the ‘easy’ sections.” It was true: hills were an excuse to walk, and technical downhill was, well, fun. Smooth, flat trail? Forget it.

“Well, then, you’re in luck, because it’s going to get rocky soon.”

And then, yes! Technical downhill! My feet felt lighter all of a sudden, and I skipped over the rocks, over a stream and then. . . into a stream. My shoe—the other shoe, the one without the holes-- had caught a branch sticking out of the water, and I heard that sound again, the sound of fabric ripping. Miraculously, the laces had once again remained intact, but the front of my shoe was now a flap. I pushed my toes back in. I muttered an expletive. The hiker sitting on the rock across from the stream chuckled.

I resigned myself to the possibility of joining the barefoot running movement that very day. Duct tape, I thought again. Add that to the list of essentials.

I climbed over a moderately brutal section called The Pines, looking forward to more technical downhill. But this time technical did not equal fun. It equaled ankle-rolling, somersaulting, and general discontent. Loose footing, dried leaves. “This soooo sucks,” muttered a guy who had come up behind me. Expletive. Yep.

But the potatoes seemed to be working at last, and when I pulled into the next aid station, I felt, for the first time that day, almost nimble. The volunteers were decked out in purple: purple wigs, purple running skirts, purple pompoms, purple calf sleeves. I looked at the food on display. I was ready for something different. A PB&J, maybe even a pretzel. A tall, bare-chested runner stood off to the side, looking perplexed. “This all looks good,” he said, “but what I really want is a milkshake.”

“Oh, man,” I said. “That sounds so good right now. Does anyone have any chocolate milk?”
No luck. I picked up a cup of green liquid, which I assumed was Gatorade. One long swig told me it was actually Mountain Dew, a drink I haven’t had since I was about twelve or thirteen. The sweet, carbonated drink was surprisingly, blissfully good.

“You have Timp Pass coming up,” the purple-haired woman said. I wasn’t sure what Timp Pass was, but I figured that if it had the word “pass” in it, it probably involved a climb. And I did remember that the last section of the elevation map was ugly. “The next aid station is two-and-a-half miles.” Another bad sign. If the aid stations were so close together. . . “After that,” she went on, “it’s just another two and a half to the finish!”

The Mountain Dew and potato high brought a rush of (misguided) optimism. I looked at my watch. It read 5 hours exactly. 5 miles left! I could actually do this thing in under six, sore legs and all! “Thanks, everyone!” I called, waving as I set off down the trail, which was a slightly rocky double-track. I glanced at my watch every few minutes. Following the blue ribbons, I turned right onto the Red Cross Trail.

And then I saw it: Mount Doom. I could almost feel the fires burning. I looked around for Gollum, or for a Samwise Gamgee who might throw me over his shoulders, but all I saw was the runner who had been behind me during the last descent. “I’m really pissed now,” he grumbled. “This late in the race? I mean, come on.” I put my hands on my hips and stared at the steep, craggy incline. Should I side-step, or does that only help when you’re cross country skiing? Could I walk up backwards? As if the grade weren’t discouraging enough, the footing was uneven, full of hidden ditches, loose rocks, and leaves. I grabbed the straps on my hydration pack, perhaps hoping a balloon would suddenly inflate, and made the long, slow trek to the top. And then to the other top, and then the top after that, which was, blessedly, Timp Pass. Between the Mountain Dew and the exertion from the climb, I began to fear cardiac arrest. I took a few deep breaths.

The descent from Timp Pass was as rocky and uncertain as the climb, but I would have been happy to roll down at that point. Applause greeted me at the next aid station. I looked at my watch. 5:45. Those 2.5 miles had taken 45 minutes. So much for the 6 hour finish.

I had one last potato and looked at the sign by the trail. “Distance to finish: 2.8 miles.” 2.8? But I had been told 2.5! I couldn’t wrap my brain around another .3. A Shot Block might help. I popped one, downed some Gatorade, and set off for the finish. Two more climbs and I would see the big red inflatable arch, the glorious finish line.
At some point during that last stretch, a very tan, very fit runner in very orange shorts glided toward me from the opposite direction. He stopped briefly. “Doing okay?” he asked? I nodded, and he was gone. Must be a trail angel, I thought. That’s the North Face for you. Later, I realized the orange wood sprite was Dean Karnazes.
Climbing the ski trail towards Route 1777E, I could hear music and cheers and the muffled boom of an announcer’s voice. “I can smell the finish!” the man in front of me yelled, and I actually felt my eyes tear up. And a few minutes later, there it was: the crimson arch. I heard the “beep” of the chip timer as I crossed. Another smiling volunteer in North Face garb draped a medal around my neck. I glanced down at my shoes; they had held together. I couldn’t wait to get them off.

Nadia waved from the massage tent. “That was hard!” she said, though she looked like she had just returned from a three mile jog. She had done the marathon two years earlier, and hadn’t remembered the trail as being quite so challenging. “It must be like childbirth,” she said. “You forget the pain.”

Ah, yes, I thought. Once the child is in your arms, you forget the agony that preceded his arrival. Otherwise, you’d never be brave enough—or insane enough—to go through it all again.

Five minutes later, waiting in line for my massage, I was cradling a cold, fruity, Shock Top, compliments of another fellow runner, California Kid. The pain hadn’t receded, but by the time the beer was gone, I was already thinking about next year.

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