A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Tale of Two New Jersey 50K's: Watchung and Batona, Jan. 4 and 19, 2014

Well, both fat ass events were held in the Garden State, on trails, with zero entry fees, and in the month of January.  But otherwise the conditions and terrain couldn't have been more different.  It was frigid cold and multiple 6.4-mile loops through  rolling, semi-technical trails in suburban (but not suburban-feeling) Watchung Reservation. Versus mild cold on a flat point to point course with mostly good footing, running north-south/southeast along the Batona Trail, through pine forests and skirting bogs, lakes, and streams. 

The New Jersey landscape I ran through for 50k #1 on Jan. 4th....

And the rather different NJ I ran through for 50K #2 on Jan. 19th

Both events were really enjoyable for me, but for different reasons .  While I ground out a finish at Watchung when most folks went home early and took a finish at a shorter distance, I managed a faster pace under the better conditions at Batona, running four more miles (36 versus 32) in 23 fewer minutes (8:20 versus 8:43).  In terms of the running in nature experience, each offered some zen feelings of their own.  Being out there solo most of the time for the four and especially fifth loop at Watchung in a winter wonderland was magical at times--I felt dialed into a steady pace that had eluded me earlier and became determined to finish by nightfall.   At Batona it was the eerie, misty ponds and the sun-splashed swamps with barren trees sticking up toward the early and middle stages. And later, as I wound through pine forests with less water around,  there was the sensation of picking it up to...get...this...thing...finally...over!
It was four degrees at the start as I sat in the idling car waiting for the start.  Just about as cold as I've ever felt it at the start of a race.  I dressed as warm as I ever have for a race, too--balaclava, ski cap, and neck gaiter on top; mid-weight long sleeve base and middle layers under Goretex jacket on torso; thermal tights under ski pants and Goretex shoes with Microspikes and winter gaiters on feet; and mountaineering under-gloves on the hands.  I had an insulated bladder and tube for my hydaation pack, and kept the tube right next to my skin  all day as additional protection against freezing.  Your regular winter gladiator, ready to do battle!  Poor Rick and Jennifer and their volunteers had no place to keep warm except brief trips to their cars, I guess, as they registered folks and then tended to the start/finish area on a day when it barely (and briefly) broke 20 degrees.
Just before the start at Watchung
Loop one (1:35:47, 15:00 pace, counts stoppage at end of loop):   Maybe a half mile into the race, a couple came running back toward the start as he shouted she was too cold.  That's a new one!  It took me literally a few miles to defrost, especially the legs, as the field was bunched together on the single track.  Lesley, who had had to move her car last minute so started a minute or two late, caught up to me a few miles in and we would run together for loops one and two.  Between the crowds and the wind-y trails and dealing with the roots and rocks and leaves lying under the snow, it was tough to get a rhythm.  But it was real pretty, especially as we crossed and then ran a little along a frozen stream.  The saving grace with the weather was that it was bright and sunny with very little wind, making it a little more bearable.  Back at the staging area at the end of the loop, we both reloaded water and grabbed a few snacks from our cars and headed back out after a few minutes.
Lesley in excellent form crossing the gorgeous icy stream
This was our footing all day long
Loop two (1:48:09, 16:49 pace counting re-supply):   Lesley started pulling away at various times and I struggled to keep up with her.  My rhythm was all off and it felt like I was fighting with the footing, despite my Microspikes. We stopped for a few photos and there was the one aid station about 4-4.5 miles in, shortly before hitting a nice section along a lake that we rounded.  I came close to telling her to go on ahead a few times, but I knew that would be a bad move as I'd settle into a real snail's pace then.  (Thanks for not pulling away, Lesley!)  On the first loop her hydration pack had frozen up, and she managed  to thaw it only with warmer water from the mid-way aid station, and then on this loop she was carrying instead a hand-held...which also froze!  But my hydration pack system was faring well against the cold, even as I was struggling despite the decidedly pedestrian pace. 
As we pulled in to the staging area, she told me she needed to re-assess whether to go on as a knee was bothering her. I also knew she wasn't really up for the whole 50k in that cold in the first place.  After going to her car, she let me know she was calling it a day (it turned out I later learned, R.D. Rick would tell her-- after she had stuffed down a bunch of food thinking she was done--that she needed to run a little over a mile through the parking area to get credit for a half finish--which she did!).  Anyway, after I had restocked food and water and downed part of a PBJ or turkey sandwich (had one of each in the car-cum-aid-station, parked right next to start/finish) and had a few little thermos cups full of coffee I'd brought, she snapped a farewell shot of me on my I-Phone and I was off. I wasn't quite sure how far I was going, but the idea of coming that far and doing less than like 20 miles or so just didn't seem right to me.  I'd had Phunt 50K circled for that day on my calendar since like October, and this was the plan B race we agreed on with our other training partner, Garth.  But he subsequently had decided his ankle and motivation to tackle the cold weren't there in the end.

Lookin' like Klondike Bob out there--who needs gloves?!

Loop three (1:07:33, 16:48 pace counting re-supply):  This loop was about getting used to running by myself--and I guess gauging whether I could wrap my body and mind around seeing it through to what I'd signed up for. While it wasn't a world-beating pace, I felt some rhythm creeping in, and starting hitting some 15 and 16-minute miles that raised my confidence from its low ebb.  The coffee and the Advil I think I took on this loop also kicked in, the day was warming up, and I had picked up my mountaineering glacier glasses (like goggles) at the car.  They helped me kind of deal with the snow glare and get into kind of an inner zone of focus and comfort.  I remember Pete Priolo passing me (on his fourth loop) just after the aid station and confiding he wasn't sure about doing the full 50K.  I briefly thought maybe I was overheating and might shed a middle layer earlier on this loop (as I had assumed from the start I'd do as the Goretex jacket is very warm), but those thoughts faded quickly as the sun went past its high point.
Rick told me as I came in that, while I was welcome to continue on for the full five loops, he and the organizers would not be there past 4PM (7 hour mark), so I'd be on my own and could e-mail him my time. Also, that meant I should stock up on what I could from their aid table and make sure I had enough in my car to get me through the last loop.  This baby just became a self-supported expedition of sorts, and I'm feeling kind of dialed in to the idea of finishing it! Now I can't blame a cutoff or something for not finishing, either!  But let's see what loop four brings first! So, back at the car, I downed the rest of the coffee, another piece of a sandwich, reloaded food (chews, gels, Lara or Hammer bars were my main foods for the day), and refilled my bladder--and then was off again.
Loop four (1:49:46, 16:59 pace counting re-supply):  The numbers show my pace was in the 15:30-16:46 range for the first four miles (the good feeling fading a bit) and then picked up to sub-15 for a couple miles before the uphill-trending last fraction of a mile.  Overall, I was within two minutes of my overall pace from  the second and third loops.  I had settled back into a decent pace and about as much as my body could handle with that footing.  I was enjoying the turns and descents, walking smoothly up the hills, and running the flats with good energy.  Somewhere during this loop I realized I was definitely going to finish this sucker!  And I was kind of having fun out there by myself playing in the snow, feeling like I was in the flow and no longer fighting the conditions. It was such a pretty day, and now there were more hikers and walkers and some folks with dogs out, not to mention some folks on their last loop who had decided to run it in the opposite direction. 
The volunteer briefly stopped me and said I wasn't going anywhere when I came in.  But I explained Rick (who'd left) had told me I could finish, and co-RD Jennifer said if I'd spoken to Rick that was fine. It was a good thing I had brought an extra liter of water to stash in the car, as their water jugs were both frozen solid by that point!  I put the remainder of my water in the bladder, restocked snacks, ate the rest of my second sandwich, and drank a little of the hot apple cider in the other thermos.  I also made sure to grab my headlamp as well as my cell phone and an emergency heat sheet/bivvy sack--getting caught out there solo with an injury past dark, even with suburban streets and cars not far away, could be deadly on a day like that.  As I headed back out, a couple guys who had finished 50k or some lesser distance wished me good luck...and then seeing me again  a few minute later as they headed to their cars, were amazed to learn I was starting my fifth loop and shouted more encouragement! (i.e,. amazed I was that persistent? brave? stupid? didn't I know it was getting dark?!  Who knows what they really thought!). 
In pretty good spirits in the awesome late afternoon winter light
Loop five (1:40:00, 15:48 pace):  The first four miles of the loop were clearly tougher for me all day, as again as I was slower in that hillier section.  But it felt like I was moving well, and I remember passing some hikers going in the opposite direction, who shouted encouragement when they learned how far I was going and saw my race number and realized there was a race going on.  Again, I picked it up the last few miles on the flatter sections and around the lake. I knew I was racing daylight (even as I stubbornly kept my shades on), and I also wanted to at least break 8:45.  I actually ran and pushed the whole last close to half mile section (which I'd mostly walked every other loop). It's the longest uphill of the loop, and I was happy to finish (with no one around to witness!) in 8:43 and change. As it turned out, it was my second fastest loop of the day--not bad!
Walking back to my car, I saw a woman sitting in the idling parked car next to mine who rolled down the window and congratulated me. And then asked if I'd seen anyone else out there (no, I hadn't), and told me there were still two runners on the course. Wow, I wasn't even DFL!  (Officially, one more would finish per the posted results, but perhaps the other never bothered to send in his/her time to Rick?)  That news added to the satisfying feeling of having stuck it out on a tough day. A new mantra developed for 2014--finish what you started!  Here's what I wrote on the Yahoo group:  "Most were smarter than we 23 hearty  (foolish?) 50K finishers, as 144 others were content to do 10k, 20k, a half, a 30K, or a marathon and get to somewhere warm!" Personally, I was thrilled with myself for having stuck it out and notched my first ultra finish of '14.
Wow, a race in south Jersey, through the famed Pine Barrens (Pinelands as they have been "re-branded").  Point to point on a long distance trail.  What a cool concept, I thought!  Those were the attractions to this small fat ass I discovered when searching on ultrasignup back in like late November or so (back when I briefly entertained doing Rocky Racoon 100 in February and thought this might be a tune-up). I'm glad I decided to follow through with the original plan to do it, even if training partners were dealing with injury recoveries and too little mileage or other commitments.

Two-fifty AM is way too early to get up for a drive to a run, and the bar stragglers were still hailing cabs on Columbus Ave. as I headed out of the city at around 3:30 for the 2 hour, 10 minute-ish drive.  I'm glad the directions from R.D. Angie and the google map link she sent were on the mark, as there were a few backroads to navigate in the dark once you got off Route 206.  I nearly drove by the unilluminated sign indicating the entrance to "Batsto Village Visitor Center."  Unfortunately Chris J. from the Yahoo group would text as four of us drove to the start with Angie that he had gotten lost and didn't make it to Batsto in time for the pickup and ride to the start in Ong's Hat.   Messages she suggested to tell him it would be ok to start late and he shouldn't turn around and go home were for naught. 

By the dawn's early light...they're off!
Once at the start, we milled about for maybe 10 15minutes in the tiny parking area, so I had time for a quick pee in the woods.  Angie explained to all as she had  in the car we'd be following pink all day and that we should pay close attention as it would cross many other trails. It was pretty chilly, probably the low 20s or so. With the blast of an air horn (pretty rare for a trail race!), we were off into the woods. It had gotten just light enough that those of us carrying them could turn off our headlamps.

Ong's Hat to Aid Station #1 (Route 70?, 4.7 miles official, 5.3 Garmin, 10:49 pace):  Here we were in Lebanon State Forest, I see now looking at the map.  The trails twisted and turned and we crossed wider sandy ATV roads a lot, but they were amazingly flat and runnable compared to what I'm used to. A few folks scooted by me, but I passed a couple too.  Had to do a couple pee spots--hydration good!  The legs felt good, though I wondered if I should be running 10s and 11s that early in a 50K.  The first "aid station" was the back of a car pulled off at a clearing on an ATV sand/dirt road where the Batona crossed over it.  Quickly grabbed a few snacks but decided not to refill the bladder.

Aid #1 to Aid #2 (mile 9.4 official, 10.2 Garmin, 12:14 section pace): As I check the map, I see this section crosses from Lebanon into a portion of the trail that lies between some county/state roads and  is no longer state forest land.    Particularly scenic with mist rising over it (still within Lebanon)  was what a guy passing me called Pakim Pond, and there were some misty bogs and we had our first of many planks crossing swampy sections. I stopped a couple times to snap quick photos.  He also mentioned that he trained a lot over the Batona and lived nearby, and that we had actually passed the hilliest section of the trail--though one hill of 200 feet (which qualifies as a regular mountain on this trail!) still awaited us. 

I continued to feel pretty good but wondered how long I could keep up this pace.  Was I cruising for my second fastest 50K ever (my 5:42 at Calico six years or so back seeming unlikely I'd surpass)?  Or would I pay for this pace later?  We crossed a two-lane road to the same car and volunteers, and I replenished water and grabbed a few pretzels and nuts and was off back onto the single track.

Misty early morning at Pakim Pond
Lots of these boardwalks to cross on this day
Aid #2 to Aid #3 (mile 16.5 official, 17.34 Garmin, 14:18 section pace):  Eye-balling the map the RD posted, it looks like we entered Wharton SF in this section, and we would remain within it all the way to the finish in Batsto.  This was the section where the legs started feeling heavier, and I started to feel some stiffness in the lower back.  The paced slow appreciably. We also started encountering more obstacles that slowed us, like slippery planks or logs over boggy sections, with streams or standing water on one or both sides.  And sections of double track with the entire path blocked by ice-covered pools of water, which you had to bushwhack around on improvised trails while using gloved hats to weed off the brush in your face.  I say "we" because I started yo-yo'ing with a guy with whom I would end up seesawing pretty much the rest of the day.  He would run fast for short bursts and pass me, but then walk slowly, and then would take a lot of breaks, to adjust a shoe or call a friend on his cell (whom I'd latter learn was a guy ahead of us in the race).  My pace was at least steadier, as I ran more slowly but would walk less frequently and for a shorter time and more briskly. 

As the sun broke through, the views kept getting better
This section was quite pretty as we passed by a lot of water as we traveled through the forest, and the early morning mist and clouds had given way to partly sunny to partly cloudy weather.  At times it was hard to tell what was a swamp or bog, what maybe a stream or river, and what a lake or pond.  I stopped a couple times to snap pics. How often was I going to get a chance to witness this? Surprisingly, it didn't really heat up that much, and I was content to stay with my one medium and one light layer under a warm Patagonia running jacket, just zipping them down or back up occasionally.  I had a Smartwool ski cap under a running cap to keep the sun out of my eyes.

I was happy to get to this aid station, as this had been a long section.

Aid #3 to Aid #4 (official mile 21.5, 22.79 Garmin, 15:25 section pace):  I took two Advil and half a Vivarin shortly after leaving this aid station, and it perked me up.  But the momentum I seemed to pick up got lost quickly (not long after we passed a cool fire tower with a couple hikers saying hi from up above)--a couple spots of having to stop to figure out which way to turn at an intersection, or trying to figure out where one section of ATV road headed back into the woods (as we passed a camp).  Every time it seemed to come as this same other guy and I  would come upon each other  yet again.  Though we helped each other figure out the way forward, I felt like we also tended to sort of get in each other's way and got lost mostly when we were near each other and paying less attention to the trail. But, no doubt, the trail does get tricky, and skirts from ATV road to single to double track in quick succession and with little warning.

Still confused and thinking we were maybe off-trail as we saw no markings, this other guy and I eventually ran by some folks stopped by some cars whom we initially thought were race volunteers (no, a canine training unit with kids and rangers!). Then we came out to a two-lane road. Which way to turn?  Were we even on trail?  He said he'd done training runs there and he thought to the right was a place called Carranza and so it  must be a left turn.  Sure enough in that direction was a woman standing by a car and, as we approached, we saw the food and water jugs she'd placed on the grass.  But she was surprised to see us approach from that side, as we were supposed to have approached from the dirt trail just beside the car (I think we missed a left near where we got distracted by the canine crowd).  We had taken a small detour, so the bonus miles continued! 

Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

So, at this last AS before the finish, with some 12 miles to go (at least in theory), I finished off the next to last water jug by filling  my 2 liter up to about the 2/3 mark.  I asked and she told me there were six runners still behind us, so I didn't want to take any more, as the other remaining water jug was maybe half full.   I can't quite remember what snacks I ate, and whether it was her eor the previous aid where I took a few swigs of Coke.  Then it was off across the paved road and back into the woods onto single track.

This section had been pretty scenic.  Besides the firetower there were several cool swamps set back among the trees beside the trail.  Some I tried to capture on film, others it was too dark with momentary cloud cover or I was just too lazy to stop and pull out the phone/camera.

Am I in the Everglades or what?!
Looks prehistoric to me
At the last aid station, girding for the final push

Aid #4 to Finish in Batsto Village (official mile 33.9, 35.99 Garmin, 14:56 section pace)

I had gotten into a pretty good groove in this section, but was till jockeying with the same guy.  We crossed a lot of sandy ATV roads, and running on one of them I missed the quick turn back onto single track, having to backtrack maybe a few hundred yards or so to get back on trail.  Shortly thereafter, I was catching up to the same guy, when a convoy of four vehicles came our way and I had to slow down and get to the left side.  Apparently, that was when the other guy and then I missed the turn back into the forest on the right side.  So we wondered aloud if we were off trail once we saw no more pink, continued for another few dozen yards, and then I doubled back, and saw no markings the other way either.  Then I finally saw the turn we had both, separately, missed, on the opposite side of the road from where I expected it. I was pretty miffed at myself for not paying better attention, and was sort of associating my getting lost with some sort of bad karma of staying too close to this guy, though he was pleasant enough.  You get a little moody and irrational sometimes out there at this point in an all-day event, sort of seeing conspiracies where they don't exist!

Back on trail, I picked it up and started feeling like maybe I was going to finally leave the guy behind.  Somewhere along there I passed a confusing junction with a sign indicating Batsto Village was 6.2 miles away (I thought it should be five by then!) and also pointing kind of straight toward a dirt road, even though it really was supposed to point to a trail that angled off slightly to the right.  I had to stop to check it out but fortunately could sense that Batona was the smaller, hiking trail.  When I saw the other guy again later (we never did exchange names), he mentioned that he, too, had found the signage misleading. 

Somewhere down the trail I crossed a little bridge and came to a wide intersection where I could either go start or veer a little right, both on double-wide trail.  Trouble is, neither had any pink markings.  So I walked back to the bridge, saw nothing, returned to the intersection, nothing, and finally realized that there was an odd-angled turn off into the woods just after the bridge that was almost impossible to see if you weren't looking for it.  No warning, boom!  So, knowing the guy was behind me (he had stopped to fix a shoe when I last passed him) and was likely to miss it, I picked up a stick, made a makeshift arrow to mark the turn, and even drew an arrow with my foot.  An act of trail generosity that would be good for my karma, I thought! 

From there, I got finish line fever, and picked it up, and pretty much stopped walking at all the last four miles or so. I could feel my breathing getting more labored, but figured I had enough in the tank to hold on, and made sure I ate and drank a lot.  Thinking I was going to come to the spot at which there would be a sign indicating a right turn to Batsto Village following blue and white (otherwise you would overshoot and stay on pink toward the 50m finish, God forbid!), I came to a junction. It had a sign to the right to Batsto *Lake* (following blue and white) and another arrow pointing straight and continuing on pink saying "Batsto" (full stop, nothing about a "village").  Not wanting to take the wrong turn and run yet more bonus miles, I pulled out my cell and called Angie th RD, explained to her where I was and she said to keep going straight.  Sure enough, the volunteers were there stationed about a half mile ahead as she said, where in fact the turn and sign were that would lead me into the finish.  The finish, as anticlimactic as they get in an ultra world full of decidedly low-key finished, consisted of a couple guys at a picnic table by a car, along with a few runners who'd finished and were waiting for friends). Boy, those last miles seemed to take forever, and no amount of picking it up and trying to make one last push seemed to get me there. 

Anyway, I grabbed a croissant and some other snack, and since it was chilly and a little windy I headed straight for the car.  To change into warm clothes and get ready for the drive home.

All in all, notwithstanding the little navigation issues that come with the territory, this really was a fun outing on a cool and very different trail from the technical and mountainous ones I'm used to.  I would go back, and am intrigued by the idea of trying to do the whole thing end to end (though I'd need some combo of (1) an early start, (2) company, and (3) more hours of daylight or a headlamp with some good battery life!).


Neither race is really like the big races I'm getting ready for (Jemez leading into Bighorn).  But it's early enough in the year that I could afford to "play a little" and do some events that would be fun and build some endurance. I did too few events the second half of last year, and missed it.  I didn't have strong time expectations, though I wish I could have kept up a better pace in the middle at Batona, and on the second loop in particular at Watchung.  I'm still waiting for some ruboff  to my trail pace from spending a little more time on the roads and faster-turnover running this past month or so!  A work in progress, I guess!  But hey, not a bad way to spend a couple weekend January days...

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