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Monday, June 10, 2013

From "Prepared to Fail" to Reassuring Finish:  TNF Bear Mountain
50 Mile Race Report, May 4, 2013
The previous few months had been off-kilter with training and racing and just general mental and physical "hygiene."  I really hadn't had a race effort that I could be reasonably proud of since last June's Bighorn and then the stress fracture layoff last summer.  The training for Bighorn had been choppy in terms of both volume and quality as compared to the last two years.  Fortunately,  I may have stemmed the bleeding a bit with early May's effort at Bear Mountain (then subsequently the pacing at Massanutten two weeks later and last training before the taper).  Nothin' like a little home cookin', I guess!
Overview:  "Steady, slow, and unspectacular" and "surprisingly even energy levels" probably sum up the effort on a glorious spring day on amazingly dry trails for this time of year.  The hard intermediate cutoffs (miles 22 and 34) are very tight for a course with 7,000'+ of climbs and mostly technical terrain.  As with 2011 --my previous time doing the 50 mile at TNF-BM--I squeezed by each with a few minutes to spare even though I felt I was moving fairly well pretty much throughout.  Course knowledge and knowing where I was time-wise, but also having another gear leading up to 34, all paid off in their modest ways.  But things slowed from there to 40 as I paid the price for the surge to make the cutoff and the legs felt lazy.  I slowly picked it up (or at least it felt like it!) from 40 and really did from 45, and managed to pass a good ten or dozen runners over those final ten miles to the finish, just missing the 14 hour mark by a little over three minutes.  (Though as I look back on splits, maybe they were just slowing faster than I was?! Oh well....)

My time of 14:03:37 was basically 18 minutes slower than two years ago, good for 265th of 275 official finishers and (based on one report) around 370 starters from this year's two waves.  Yet in the end, a finish (any finish but especially the way I finished) built my confidence that I'm still legitimately in the hunt for another Bighorn finish.

My biggest takeaways had to do with (1) the benefits of overall experience with managing cutoffs and intimate course knowledge in terms of getting through a challenging course with tight cutoffs (gee, that sums up my Bighorn learning curve too!); (2) a very even flow of energy with close to zero stomach issues which I attribute to finally dialing in what works for me in food intake in terms of using Vespa every 3-4 hours (yeah!); and (3) how much more agile I felt on this type of surface and terrain going back to my Vasques and leaving behind the Hoka's.  Lessons I'm going to try to take to heart at Bighorn coming up in...four days!

Pre-Race Confusion

So, like I said, this is my "home course," where a group of us train all year round and have put in a fair amount of miles already in 2013.  So, who did I end up racing it with in terms of riders who went up with me?  Three (fun) folks who mostly (except maybe Mat) don't really train (much if at all) on trails and two who were new to the distance or at least to trail 50s and whom I just met that day.  You see, my normal training partners who I've logged countless miles with this year fell by the wayside in  weeks before the race and months with an assortment of injuries, family stuff, and maybe motivation issues (sometimes maybe I'm too hard on them, like I am on myself?!).  This was ironic, for I got into the 50 mile event in part to sort of have the experience of training and racing for an event with good friends, and for a couple of them it would have been a first-time crack at the distance. In the end, they all dropped down to the 50k, which started two hours earlier and obviously ended early, so we didn't see each other. It kind of bummed me out going into the event, I'll admit.

Another weird element was that, somehow, in the zeal to get all my "training races" ahead of Bighorn locked in back in February, I mistakenly put it down as taking place on the following weekend on the trusty family kitchen calendar, where all important stuff gets posted.   No problem right?  Except that, as the driver eager to get us all on the same page with night-before accommodations which were proving difficult to find, I magnified the stupidity by booking three rooms for four people on my credit card--non-refundable, non-changeable on the idiot website hotels.com (never again!).  Realized that maybe three weeks out, with just enough time to secure a babysitter for Mihiret as Esperanza had told me she had a conference that day (except she got the date right1).  So in the end we had to make it a super-early morning (3AM departure for the 5AM start), but it worked out ok. But I did have to eat like 500 bucks for my brain freeze.  Gulp!

So, that all left me a little unsettled in advance.  Then on top of it my poor to seriously subpar outings at my last three races left me particularly worried about the cutoffs going in.  With this being my longest outing and last race of the Bighorn training season, six weeks out from the main event, an early DNF would really doubly kill my Bighorn buildup (mileage-wise and psychologically).  That's when I had the bright idea a couple days before to carry all the requisite stuff from the get-go (extra empty bottle, purification tabs, park maps, cell I wouldn't normally carry in a race)....all so that I could go self-supported and carry on at least back to the car at Anthony Wayne should I get cut off at Skanatitti or Arden Valley, the two intermediate cutoffs.  Prepared to fail?!  Maybe, but somehow I think this relaxed me as I knew, hook or crook, I'd get my 40-50 miles in, and would be able to let my riders know at the finish to plan accordingly.   The other good move was doing my last long run nine days before and then doing a pretty serious taper the last week (listening to my body, which I'm not always great at!), more than I had planned.  That left me well rested at the start which really helped.

The last thing that had me nervous were the reports on the Yahoo group about check-in at the TNF Store on Thursday and early Friday (I went Friday afternoon) that the field was MUCH larger than past years and there would be a WAVE start.  Huh?!  Waves in a 50 miler?  Come on!

So here goes (for ultra fans everywhere!?) the station-to-station recap (the mileages below are all official, and don't reflect the fact that my usually quite accurate gave me 53.5 miles, which only includes one "bonus mile" off course, so this baby is maybe 2.5 miles long, but that's cool, it's an ultra!):

After arriving at the AW parking lot at around 2:55, we waited maybe ten minutes for the 10-minute shuttle ride and got to the start/finish area with about 40 minutes to spare.  We were all in the second wave, which took off maybe four-five minutes later than the first.

Start to Anthony Wayne (0-3.9 miles, 15:48 average pace):  Single-track climb up to double-wide paved and then dirt path, leading on to more technical and up/down single track, before the steep descent into AW.  I felt pretty good on this section, and probably ran more of it than I usually do.  The sun was coming up to the east over the Hudson, and by mile three or so it was light enough to turn off the headlamp.  I ran a good bit of it chatting with Mat.  The temps were comfortable as I started with shorts, short sleeve, arm warmers, vest, and hat. Following my plan, I had enough water in the Nathan pack so took no aid, though I did ditch my headlamp. In the end, it didn't really feel that much more crowded than previous years, and I was glad to be in the second wave. Avoid early heroics at all costs, it's a 50 miler for Christ's sake!

Anthony Wayne to Silvermine (to mile 6.6, average pace=14:08):  After exiting the parking lot and a short single-track section, there's about a mile of road, giving way to a grassy fire road that turns more rocky and hilly and then to gnarly single track all the way into this old bunny ski slope area.  This section was really pretty and is one of my favorites.  The views of early morning mist rising above Silvermine Lake from two distinct points along the course were spectacular.  One guy (among the greater number of foreign accents I heard this year than at any previous of my four TNF BM races) commented that it was so pretty it almost caused him to fall on a rock.  In this section one guy did in fact come limping back toward the road with a horribly twisted ankle (just a few minutes before that comment in fact), which Mat said they had seen him turn on a descent before AW.

My pace felt controlled and steady, though I felt like I could be a little more agile on the technical descents.  I reloaded water and grabbed a quick snack.

Silvermine to Arden Valley  (mile 18.9, average pace=15:11 average pace):  This 6.8 mile section is one the longest of the race, and though it comes relatively early I always "feel it" (it also comes on the 50K course, which I've raced twice before, or is it three times?).  After some early dirt road and briefly pillowy soft single track, there are a couple miles of rolling fire road, followed by a long section with some of the toughest climbs of the race and some nice views.  This year I felt better through this section than in previous years, climbing well and descending fairly nimbly.  I was glad I'd decided to opt for the Vasques (Blur), as I had felt sloppy and unstable on the rocky downhills at Traprock wearing the built-up Hoka Mafate's.

Arden Valley to Skannatati (mile 207, average pace =16:42 average pace):  This seven-mile section is the longest and toughest of the course.  It's rocky and swampy in a difficult to follow section I've always disliked, before you get to single track which rolls a while before it gets to some serious climbs and cool rocky mountaintops (balds) and descends nicely down into Skannatati.  You'd think I'd know better, as I've marked this section twice in pre-race volunteering, but I always found it tricky to follow the trail through the swamp (mostly dry this year), including last year in a training run where I ended up turning around as I felt lost and was soloing it by that point.  I ended up following some runners ahead of me, and we had maybe gone close to half a mile when someone behind us asked if any of us had seen any race ribbons, leading us all to backtrack.  Maybe an extra mile run to get back on course. Bonus miles!

I think that sort of sent my mood south, and it was starting to get warmer and I started having a bit of a dip in energy.  But when we got to the cool bald "rockytop" section with its great views and then the cool tricky descents I always like near the lake, my mood improved and I had fond flashbacks to nighttime runs through sections like that going back to Ramapo-Dunderdurg trail overnighters and thru-runs with AMC groups. (It was on one bald mountaintop where I first passed what I came to think of--I know it sounds catty--as the "three stooges"--three shirtless young guys were sort of collapsed on the rocks trying to regain their energy to go onward, one of them trying to encourage the others. More brawn than brains, if I do say so!) 

In the section of sort of more rolling fire road and doublewide prior to the last set of climbs and then descents right by the lake, I overheard for a while two folks talking about Mont Blanc and some faraway longer race I'd done and various mega-events; I'd been jockeying with the guy for a while, and heard him say he knew the course and that they had "plenty of time" to make the next cutoff.  But I was looking at my Garmin  and pacechart, and realizing I needed to pick it up a little to make sure I made the cutoff--which I did for the last couple miles, including the downhills approaching the aid stations.  Pays to know the course, I thought!

In the end, I forget exactly, but I was in there with somewhere between five and ten minutes to spare (greeted by Cherie's boyfriend Wayne who recognized me and was checking arriving runners in).  Ah, if it weren't for that extra mile or so I ran, maybe it would have been closer to 20-30 minutes to spare?!  I don't think that those two runners I just mentioned--obviously experienced ultrarunners who looked quite capable of cranking it up a notch to make a cutoff--actually made it, as I never saw them again.  That kind of reinforced my sense of "rock hard cutoffs" that TNF communicates in the rack packet but doesn't really do a good enough job out there on the course in conveying (maybe with someone stationed a few miles before cutoff with watch in hand or a sign or something to let runners know the clock is ticking?).  It's hours between aid stations and without GPS you don't really have a clue how far it is to go.  Probably more than a few fit but more casual or less experienced racers (like two of my riders) were timed out at mile 22, even with a quite legitimate shot at finishing in under 14:30.  But for my experience and pretty intimate course kwowledge, there go I!  Such a damn learning curve with ultras, and I've sure had my hard knocks along the way, which surely more ahead!

Skannatati to Camp Lanowa (mile 27.7, average pace=14:43 average pace):  I knew this 6.5 mile section had a lot of runable dirt road and double-wide (past the first mile or so of single track on the Long Path).  I also knew I needed to make good time here to make the 34-mile cutoff.  While Jackie and her friend (name now escapes me) passed me, I did pass a couple folks, and there was one guy (nice but incessantly complaining about how fried he was every time I saw him), with whom I started a back and forth that would continue periodically for a few words all the way to about mile 48 when I finally passed him for good ("got to stop meeting like this!").  Tall, younger guy, and after a while it became our running joke. 

Anyway, once this section winds you through some dirt roads and back onto unusually (for Harriman) runable single and double track, it takes you onto technical single track on the Suffern-Bear Moutain trail, and up a climb starting at foot of Second Reservior (or is it Third?).  Then down a rocky descent and into always steamy and buggy (in this race) Camp Lanowa.  I was moving well and in good spirits in this section. I recall seeing someone in the last mile or so who was wiped out and injured or dehydrated or in some sort of difficulty.  Harriman taking its pound of flesh, I guess!

Camp Lanowa to Tiorati (mile 34.2, average pace=...14:46 average pace):  Lanowa was the first drop-bag location, and I re-applied sunscreen and repellent, lubed, changed shirt and hat, and re-loaded food into my Nathan pack. This is the section where course knowledge and course changes since 2011 together with I guess knowing my body well paid off in spades.  That is, in terms of getting me through a cutoff that nailed some probably fitter but more unsuspecting runners than I (if you're reading this Jackie!), just a few minutes behind me.  Once you are through this (I knew from my '11 experience), you pretty much won't be pulled from the course unless you really blow a gasket and know that you will cross the finish line, though you still face a tough struggle to make it in under 14 hours (which they crazily call the finish cutoff, when every year they recognize finishers coming in through like 14:30).

After a brief road section, you turn onto dirt road for over a mile, and then--in a course change I wasn't aware of in advance since '11 and the years I marked this whole section--they take you out to the road, so that you no longer have the S-BM single-track section going through the ORAK ruin (look it up, interesting story of the old Karo syrup mogul!), which I'd actually looked forward to as it's such familiar and fast downhill.  But you make better progress on the road this way even if the distance may be a wash and it's more boring, and then take the brief left onto the road before heading up the hill on the other side.  I'd run (er, power-hiked) that long climb up toward and beyond Irish Potato only a month or so before, and was climbing well.  Toward the top I think I passed Jackie and her friend (mentioning my concern for the cutoffs as a motivator!), only to have them (if memory serves) re-pass me or move even briefly with me on the descent toward the road, or just after.

Anyway, once on the long sun-exposed road climb, I sort of kept up the mental momentum from the downhill, probably running 70-80% of the fairly steep grade, as everyone around me power-hiked it.  Tough work in the warm sun (hottest part of the course, and most exposed), but I felt like I could handle it.  In addition to Jackie and her friend and the tall guy I'd been jockeying with, I passed I think one other person in addition to the "three stooges" contingent, all along that mile-plus hill.  Then it was a right turn onto some double-wide, rolling fire road terrain, which turns from runable to rocky, for the last 1.5 to 2 miles or so.   I really turned it up here, as I was looking at the pace chart, the Garmin, and doing the math, and wondering if I was running out of minutes. 

Desperately hoping to hear car sounds in this forested section to know the aid station (which I knew was right past the road crossing) was approaching, I finally heard a volunteer shouting encouragement and something like "less than 5 minutes left to make it!".  While Jackie's friend (who ran ahead to tell them she was coming) and the tall guy did make it in behind me, unfortunately she and the other runners (including the "stooges") didn't make the cutoff and got timed out.  Seems a little arbitrary given the four minutes or whatever between heats and such, but I understand that aid station volunteers and captains have to do what race management tells them to. (I'd learn in the next section from my friend Iliana, who was sweeping the marathon course, that race management was very stringent in enforcing cutoffs based on what she was hearing on race radio.)

Tiorati to Anthony Wayne (mile 40.3; average pace=17:17 average pace):  Sometimes you pay the price for a surge, especially in the (however modest) heat of the day!  The first few miles are fairly flat but swampy and uneven.  I found it as hard to make decent time as on my training run in April there.  I enjoyed it more to finally get to the hills of the last few miles, where my pace and mood picked up a little. Still, I felt like I gave back time on this section, and my splits now prove it! It was nice to finally cross the parkway and get back to Anthony Wayne. I re-applied lube and sunscreen and grabbed some food from my dropbag, and was off quickly.  Mat was there when I got there, and left just ahead of me.I did the math leaving the aid station and was a little skeptical I could average like 14 minute miles to make it in under 14 hours.  But knew regardless if I kept moving I'd get a finish, and wanted to get as close to 14 as possible!

Anthony Wayne to Queensboro (mile 44.7; average pace= 17:20 pace):  From the  paved road leading south to smooth, wide trails and then onto hilly, gnarly single track for the last couple miles.  I was trying to keep Mat in sight and eventually passed him and altogether maybe 3 or 4 others I think in this section.  I came into Queensboro with a head of steam, and just got some water in my pack and took off quickly. I felt like I was on a roll and maybe had an outside shot at breaking 14 hours, but I knew the tall guy and others were not far behind. 

Queensboro to 1777 (mile 47.2, average pace=18:02 pace):  This is one of the toughest sections of the course including the infamous Timp Pass, but I still think it's bark is a little worse than its bite.  Maybe because it's shorter than other hilly single-track sections with major climbs during the race, or maybe because every year I've come through the section in the 50m or 50k I've been moving well and on the prowl.  This year included! 

Anyway, I put more distance on those behind me and passed 3 or 4 folks just past the Timp on the gnarly downhill.  I had enough head of steam that I whooshed by the 1777 AS folks (the number stems back to Revolutionary War battles, for history buffs!) along the crumbly old road and shouted I had enough water to make the finish.  The math was telling me now that I needed to average like 10, 11 minute miles to make 14 hours from 1777, which I knew was impossible at that juncture but still finishing as close as I could to it was good motivation to hustle it in.

1777 to finish (mile 50, average pace= 12:13 pace):  Here it's old unmaintained pavement uphill to double-wide and fairly runable fire road on to fairly hilly single track over the last mile or so.  I was cruising, and probably didn't walk for several miles, until I came to a hill too steep and switched to power-hike mode for a bit.  Still, one guy came up on me (was it the tall guy?), so I sped up and kept him at bay.  Then on the single track maybe a half mile from the finish, I passed a pair of friends or couple I'd seen quite early in the race who were I think from Tennessee, who shouted out encouragement. Then it was through the underpass and into the familar parking lot (where so many of our Bear Mountain training runs start) and into the field with the finish.  I actually looked like I was running reasonably fast in the official finish line photo for a change (which was true!).  I felt like I was finishing on a high note, having (re)passed I dunno a dozen or so folks over the last 9-10 miles of the race with no one re-passing me, and I just didn't want anyone sneaking up on me at the finish and raining on my little parade!

So glad I had this confidence boost six weeks out from Bighorn, and now trying to take that confidence with me into the "main event"!

1 comment:

Jacqueline Choi said...

Great job at Bear Mountain, Scott! It was great seeing you on the course. You'll do fine at Bighorn for sure :).

P.S. My friend's name is Marco! Poor guy hung back with me until I got stopped at the last hard cutoff. I will definitely be back next year and you bet I will be a million times more mindful :).