Ok, I know memory fades, and this was back on March 31st, but I'm just now getting a moment. Some background's in order first. I've done the Delaware Water Gap fat ass 50K two of the last three falls. Love the course. It goes up and over Mt. Tammany twice, one time in each direction, during the Jersey segment of that two-state event (where you cross a busy highway bridge on the pedestrian ramp spanning the very scenic Gap). The two co-organizers of that event, Alex and Dennis, let us know at last November's event they were doing this unusually structured event in March: climb up, over, down, back around the base, and then repeat Mt. Tammany....for 10 loops, in 10 hours, covering 1,000' each of vertical in each climb (actually 1,200), but they liked the symmetry of all the "ones" and "zeros," hence the "Tammany 10." Never be a guinea pig for a new ultra and some R.D.'s dystopian fantasy of a cool course?Wrong, this was fun!
Since I couldn't find a 50 miler that worked schedule-wise and that was close to the terrain and surface (read: rocky and mountainous) of the upcoming Massanutten 100 in May, I had circled this one on my calendar as one of my two longest training runs of this four-monthish training cylce...at least "time on my feet" wise, which is how I plan and figure it anyhow!
Well, I think I made the right choice! I knew going in that there was no way I was going to get in the 10 loops in that amount of time. So I thought of it as basically a "10-hour race," where I would see how many I could get in, and aim for at least 8, so I could have the satisfaction of it being a true ultra and just a bit beyond a 50K (each loop being a tiny fraction below 4 miles). In the end, my watch read 31.56 miles for the 8 loops I managed in 10:16:48. And it was definitely a great test of my endurance, mountain running skills, and just mental fortitude that was well matched to the demands of MMT!
It was a hardy band of only 14 runners who got there before dawn for the 6:30 AM start, including Chip who drove out with me. I'd seen people's results on ultrasignup.com (a nice little feature of that site) and I could tell it was a self-selecting (and quite intimidating) group of "trail animals!"
One nice little touch at the start was that one of the RD's sons who was maybe 10 or so played an out of key but very heartfelt version of the national anthem on his trumpet just before the start! Sort of set the tone for a very low-key, family-oriented, grassrootsy ultra event!
It was supposed to get up to like mid-50s only and cloud up with a chance of rain and supposedly decent winds. But felt warmer than expected at the start. Still, since we'd be heading up, I went with (as I remember) armwarmers, short sleeve, and vest. The very first climb was a little daunting, especially given the looks and reactions of people around me who didn't realize what they were getting themselves into (I didn't have that excuse!). Said one guy, whom I believe ended up calling it quits after four or five loops, "I'm getting too old for this!" as we slowed scooted by on the steep climb. I realized when I completed the first loop (being passed by Chip and a woman on the downhill section) in a time of 1:01, feeling pretty spent by the effort, that that was likely my fastest loop of the day, and any thoughts of 10 loops in 10 hours were totally realistic. Maybe 9, though?
I won't go into the blow by blow of each loop, which I don't even remember anyway. For the stats junkies, and my own benefit, I'll record the split times below at the end (oops, if I can find where I wrote them down!) But here's the basic parameters of the course: The staging area was at the visitor's center, about a half mile from the parking lot at the base of the mountain, which is also used by a lot of hikers especially as the AT also runs through. So it was a half mile of road, going under an overpass but all on flat access road with little traffic, on the starting end of the odd loops and the end of the even loops. It was only at the end of the even loops (that is, every 8 miles), that we went back to the staging area to check in, and replenish food/drink with them, or out of our cars--those who'd been there to scout things out, and were looking to really race it, parked instead at the base of the mountain lot, so they could access food/water every loop and thus carry less. Kind of felt like cheating, and Alex discouraged me when I asked him as I overheard others were doing this, saying their permit was to use the bigger less-used visitor's center lot. Whatever, I wasn't worried about competing anyway!.
That was the only smooth or flat part of the course, however! The climb itself had to be a good 1.5 miles, and it has kind of a saddle in the middle where the grade lessens for a while and you kind of switch directions. At various points you have cool views off to the south over the Gap and the river, and out toward the surrounding countryside of New Jersey, and over the river to the woods on the PA side. The climb is pretty consistently rocky and often quite steep, and there are a couple of boulder fields to cross where balance is tricky. In a few sections you tend to be "hands on knees." But not quite as hairy as some of the worse climb sections at Escarpment 30K, or as steep as some sections I've been on in some western races like Jemez or Bighorn. Or certainly as long in continuous climb as some I've face at either of those, or will face at MMT. Yet stringing together that much climb, where your pace is around 27-30 minutes per mile on the uphill, and with such little recovery in between, did make for a real test. The ratio of climbing per mile, I figure, means you cover like half of MMT's elevation gain in less than 1/3 of the distance (9,600' in 32 miles).
The downhills, you ask? Well, it's consistently rocky and technical and windy. Partly tree-covered, partly exposed, like the climb. But unlike the fat ass where they have you do Mt. Tammany in both directions, you at least get to descend the side that has more switchbacks and spreads out the elevation gain/loss more. If you are a good technical descender, and keep your stuff together, you can make decent time. But it takes a lot of concentration, and a good bit of picking your line.
So the other section to complete each loop, of about half a mile or just a bit less, is actually a windy double-track path under dense forest cover beside and then over a river. Rolling. It's a nice chance to sort of remind your legs what it's like to run on more "normal" ground and restore a little sense of momentum, before you have to go back up and resume the power walking/hiking.
As I recall, I passed Chip on loop two on the up (I think he had stopped at the portasan) and I fully expected him to pass me back on the downs as on loop one (he being such a mountain goat and all!). When he didn't, I got concerned, and told Alex as much when I came back to check in for the first time. "Hope Chip didn't miss the turn onto the downhill!" Actually, one trail ends and another of a different color begins right there, although there's sort of an unmarked trail that seems to continue on straight that someone could conceivably take. But generally navigation was not an issue in this event, and fortunately I was wrong about Chip being lost!
I ended up pretty much being out there by myself most of the time from loop one on. Not passing or being passed. But the three top guys, and at least one woman (who ended up dropping after 7 loops with a knee isseu) and maybe two ended up lapping me. The two lead guys (Damien and Harry if I'm remembering the former's name) twice. Fortunately, they were all nice enough to exchange pleasantries as they zoomed by!
One of the other notable things was passing by or going in the opposite direction to a ton of hikers who were out. Some came to realize what we were doing, and would ask what loop we were on. "You're only on 6! that guy we just passed is on 8!" Mostly they gave words of encouragement. Though there was one group of young guys who may have had a few laughs at our expense.
I think the even loops were hardest, as less time transpired till you went right back up. You got to know every rock and foot plant, let me tell you. While my climbing felt reasonably consistent, I think my descents slowed. I felt it more in my joints and especially knees as the loops went by, and also in the toes (though fortunately no blisters or hot spots, maybe partly thanks to pre-taping the heels and balls of the feet).
Fortunately, the sun went behind clouds and it actually got cooler than it had been in the AM, and the rains never materialized despite looking like they might for a while. I ended up being on/off with the windbreaker the second half, as it was colder and windier up top.
I actually felt a little stronger the last two loops than my fifth and sixth. The RD's had said not to go up for another loop if we got back to the trailhead past 9 hours, and I made it by like 5 minutes. (Though others clearly disregarded that and hence finishers were coming in for a couple hours after the 10 hour mark.) I wavered briefly on whether to just call it a day as I prepared to go up for loop 8, as I thought probably Chip would head straight back as he was behind me, and then would have to wait a while for me. I was also mindful of the Ohio State Final Four game I wanted to get back for! But I'm glad I kept on, and got in the 8 loops.
When I finished, it was pretty breezy and overcast and chilly. Alex said I was welcome to go back out for another "partial loop," but I was happy with the ten hours and change and 8 loops. It meant waiting around for a while, but it gave me a chance to change, eat, and watch the faster folks doing more loops drift in, and Chip too. The hearty band of folks including friends and family of runners whooped it up as each one of us came in, which was kind of fun. Chip was amazing, given how little he'd been training, and the extra weight he complained about carrying around. Talk about running yourself back into shape!
All in all, it was an unsual and enjoyable experience. Very grassroots, very hard-core but at the same time with laid-back folks, and kind of an interesting format. And definitely a steep challenge, well worthy of 100 mile mountain race training! Turns out, I think two other folks there were getting ready for MMT too!
I hope this one becomes a fixture on the ultra calendar!