The North Face Endurance Challenge (Bear Mountain, NY) – 50k2.0


“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win ..” — JFK

After six hours on my feet, I was starting to get tired. Really tired. The pros would have finished long ago. Not me. The torrential rain stopped bothering me a long time ago; the fatigue was starting to get real. And while drowsiness was certainly one symptom of hypothermia, I wasn’t convinced that I had entered the danger zone – my hands were cold, but not quite blue and I was still thinking clearly. As much as one can think clearly after six hours running over mountains. Clearly, I needed to consider dropping at the next aid station – that would be the sensible thing to do. There’s nothing to prove any more. But then what? Head back to the city with a DNF? What good would that do? You’d have some people to answer to this time around; lots of sacrifices were made to get you to the starting line – you don’t want to have to look them in the eyes and say you stopped just because you were cold or wet or tired or frustrated or scared or hungry or exhausted or broken or whatever – no, you lead by example this time and just keep on moving…. no excuses..

Background

The Bear Mountain 50k was my first ultra-marathon years ago and holds a special

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The first race left it’s mark.

place in my heart. The original race was slower than I had hoped but easier than I had feared. Sure, I wound up slicing both of my achilles tendons 10 miles in but today that’s only a *fond* memory. I feel very little pride any more on that first race. Rather, it’s a reminder of how to royally botch an ultra: poor nutrition choices, poor gear choices, poor food choices, poor technique, poor training – a real cluster. A half-dozen ultras later, the doubt would come back full force: this time would you be stronger, smarter, faster, older, fatter, slower or just make different mistakes this time around!? So many voices with questions to be answered.


Weather

This year was all about the rain. Now I’ve run in the rain before – I used to live in 90England – but I’ve never…EVER… seen this much rain during a race before – it must have rained for 12 hours that day, maybe more. And it was cold. So you needed to be layered when it counted and un-layered when it didn’t. Peal yourself like an onion or be pealed. I was smart enough to bring gloves, jacket and an extra layer in a zip lock bag but those comforts quickly descended into soggy obscurity. An extra Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight Crew proved very helpful as my pace slowed down but timing the layer proved problematic  – very surprising that I needed the layer at all but when you’re wet and it’s cold you need to be very, very careful. It doesn’t take a lot to start incrementally tipping towards instability, broken ankles, broken bones & all manner of danger. And it all happens very, very quickly – a slow pebble of doom which quickly turns into a boulder.  This year, there was a lot of carnage: broken/sprained ankles, mud slides, heads smacked on rocks, race bibs pulled due to hypothermia, you name it. The runners at the start knew what they were doing – anyone with doubts or a lack of commitment wouldn’t have showed up in these conditions – anyone who started was truly a winner regardless of place, time, or finish.

Technique

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Starting nice and dry? Nope.

Now with the wet and cold weather comes danger. And change. While I was excited to tackle the old race I ran last time, the truth is that this was a totally different course. The highlights were still the same, especially the scrambling up the top of the mountain and the mother of all hills around mile 28 – but a lot was just different visually. Sure it was the same trail but it sure didn’t look like the same trail. All of the downhill sections I used to bomb down were now resembling a slip-and-slide. And even going uphill seemed different in places. On the upside, I was definitely more focused on technique because I did not want to make a mistake that could result in an injury. So I kept up the short steps under my center of gravity, rarely opening up my gait for fear of over-extended my stride and losing balance. It was a conservative approach but finishing relatively unscathed was now the goal. Or more correctly, making it to the next station was the next goal (whatever the station was).

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A big change this year for me was that I committed to the deep mud and water; ran right up the middle of the path, even when it was totally waterlogged. Lots of times you try to avoid getting wet by skipping over stones. It’s exhausting and it doesn’t really save you any time – you just need to get muddy and wet. You get back to that joyful feeling of being a kid again splashing in puddles and it all starts to be nothing but FUN. The other benefit is that the cold water reduces swelling over time – the only hindrance being if your shoes do not drain well – then you’re fucked.

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In The Zone – FINALLY!

Another interesting note was that previously, leaves were problematic – they were slick and hid rocks. This year, the leaves were so wet that they were often the STABLE part of the ground – avoided the mud-slide and levered the leaves.

Gear

I changed up some of the gear selections this year with offerings from Nathan, Hoka, and Patagonia. All gear worked better than expected:
  1. Hydration: I decided to finally take the plunge and run with a Nathan handheldin addition to using a vest as supplemental storage. I didn’t really notice the difference and found loading up at stations is WAY easier when you have a hand-held. Also MUCH easier to determine how much you’ve been drinking to keep yourself on target. Think this is the way forward for me and expect I’ll go even more minimal in the future when the race has good support (like TNF always does). The Nathan Vaporkrar Hydaration Pack Running Vest was a new addition, super light, and optimal for other things to carry – like a waterproof iPhone 7 (essential given the day). It did make it tricky to use my hands on knees when climbing uphill but not in a noticeable way.
  2. Shorts: Patagonia Men’s Nine Trails – if they can avoid nether-region chafing with 10 hours of rain, then I am impressed. Very impressed. Some shorts claim to have seamless liners but they always have micro seams which can still chafe quite a lot.  The way to build shorts is to attach two pieces of fabric and then sew them on the outside so that the sections on the inside that connect have zero stitches. Done.
  3. Protection: Patagonia Houdini Jacket – while not waterproof, the jacket was good enough to shield me from the rain and create a semi-permeable warmth layer. Really not the jacket for this kind of rain to be honest. Lots of people had similar problems – in the end, it was more about keeping heat in than staying dry. Also a Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight Crew  naturally.
  4. Chafe Protection: I normally go with baby oil but my buddy Levi (who was running a 300km stage race that week in Greece) pointed me to Burt’s Bees Farmer’s Friend Hand Salve – and it’s just amazingly. I’m a convert on this product – really excellent for nether region anti-chafing. Impressed. This was the one thing I was VERY worried about given all of the water/rain but it turned out better than expected.
  5. Calories: VFuel Endurance Gel. I still didn’t eat enough but that’s the same old story as ever – really just didn’t have enough calories – sigh. Why can’t you just open your mouth and eat all the food?!?! You certainly do the rest of the year?!

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    Station 1777 (2.7 miles to go) –  time to race, let’s do this thing and I mean, OH!!!!!!! a POTATO!!?!?!

  6. Footwear: I normally like to run trails in very light shoes (Salomon’s) however,
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    I’ve seen worse.

    given I knew there would be TONS of rocks I needed more protection – so I used the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 and they worked very well. The shoes are versatile enough for road and trail miles – an all around good shoe. Not as flexible as I like, but worked for the terrain. Definitely not enough traction for the most muddy parts of the course but drained well in the caked mud and water crossings. In truth, I did slide several feet down a mud slide and my shoulder went into a rock – still, that’s not too bad given the conditions. I was debating if I should have worn my Wildhorse 3 – they are 50 mile proven and have much better treads – in the end, think either could have worked.

  7. Socks: Injinji. Always. Forever. And ever.
  8. Photos: I feel bad for screen grabbing the photos. Standing out in the rain is worth something but it’s not worth $70. Races really need to suck it up and just give these out for free. They can afford it given the race fees and sponsorship.
  9. Schwag: You finally got it right North Face – excellent long sleeve hoodie for post-race lounging. Great job!18447081_10155147417730821_4615883440431284863_n

Constraints

Training took an interesting turn for the race this year: new baby in the house! Now while the preparation for a newborn isn’t too far from running an ultra marathon (i.e. 13cdbd44de7796dd63ae8829b96a240b_marathon-you-just-run-it-marathon-meme_640-584sleep & time deprivation a plenty), the reality is that you simply have to do more with less – the time to do a 4 hour long run just isn’t going to be there as often. So the question really is: how do you optimize your training load and volume in such a way that you are (a) not compromising your availability for your family and (b) not compromising your fitness thereby risking injury due to under-training. Like most things these days as a new parent, being flexible the name of the game. Equally, given the technical challenges of the course it was very important to be level-headed and inward looking at all times – if it’s a choice between safely navigating the course and risking not being there for the family – you have to pull the rip cord. That’s a level of discipline that is essential and hard for a stubborn mule like myself. The key is being really very, very honest with yourself about your fitness and structural integrity – that’s the hardest part of training under these sort of constraints.

Training Under Constraints

In general, training for a 50k shouldn’t be that different than training for a marathon. However, Bear Mountain is extremely technical and has a lot of vert (for NYC anyway) so you really need to get hills in and make sure your quads are ready for a pounding. Well, living at sea level that’s tricky. Also, I don’t have an extra hour to commute to the Long Path on the weekends – so you have to supplement. So here was my strategy:
  1. Squats, Push-Ups & Deadlifts – there’s always discussion about how strength
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    Come on Daddy – it’s not sleeping time.. it’s PUSH UP TIME!

    training at intensity is important for runners. I think it is, but for TRAIL running it’s non-negotiable. Also given I’m short on time, I can simulate a 3 hour long run with 45-60 minutes of intense squatting in the gym. Equally, instead of doing back-to-back long runs I would run on tired legs after a major BRICK session. This had a very complementary training effect and I felt almost MORE prepared than when I was doing back-to-back long runs preparing for JFK50.

  2. Bridges – fortunately, I’m a few miles from the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s not pretty but when it comes down to it the only way to REALLY simulate running downhill is: to run downhill. So I had a few days where I did 2-3 hours of just going back and forth on the bridge and running downhill HARD. It was close to home, so I saved on the commute time and it did the job preparing my legs for the terrain.
  3. Speed-work – For a trail 50k? You betcha. Again I was shooting for the most bang for the time buck spent. By doing more structured speed-work, not only was I able to improve my running efficiency in a more compressed timeframe but I was also able to stress my body in ways that I normally don’t. A few classes here/there at Mile High Run Club helped add a new dimension to the normal long, slow, junk miles that I have normally incorporated into most of my historical training plans. Turnover practice at higher rates (even though I AM a slow runner) does help you at the later stages of a race (more on that later). Shout out to Vinnie – I requested hills and he GAVE ME ALL THE HILLS….
  4. Rest/Recovery – Because I was not sleeping as much and because I’m just a fat, old
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    Active Rest & Recovery

    fart, now it takes me a VERY long time to recover from the strength days. So paying very close attention to lingering injuries is very important – and not being so strict with my mileage. I only had one 19 mile long run in this training block and jumped from 80 miles one month to 160 miles the next ( not advised – it goes against my rules). The jump in volume definitely left me with some lingering achilles pain but in the end, the focus on rest/recovery meant I ALWAYS backed off before things got out of hand. Sleep was also a big issue (as you might expect with a newborn) but having a partner than supported the effort was key to making this one work.

  5. Super Taper – In spite of the psychological management involved in the taper process, I continue to support a VERY aggressive super-taper. 3 days of rest minimum before the race. While it’s good to shake out the legs and get the cadence going, I find that having VERY rested muscles pays more dividends especially if there are lingering random pains from a fast ramp up in training.

Pacing

Getting to the start was pretty relaxing given how close the mountain was to my apartment – a far cry from the normal 10 hour drive to who-knows-where. The last thing you want to worry about is getting to the start on time, so having dependable, reliable, transport is a must – it just makes the day start on the right foot.

My race goals were to (a) run within myself, (b) not get injured, and (c) finish strong. By this measure, the pacing strategy was largely a success. The race starts with a very reasonable 2-3 mile warm up followed by 10 miles up/down some of the more challenging hills on the course. The negative thoughts of dropping early came much faster than I had expected but it really only took some mental resetting at mile 16 (Silverline, where I volunteered last year) to remember all of the things I’ve learned through the trials of miles over the last few years:

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Feeling Low

  1. If you’re feeling low, it will get better – just keep going
  2. Just get to the next station, don’t worry about finishing the race
  3. Broth cures everything – it’s trail magic. Pure and simple.
  4. Don’t forget to eat stupid. You did it again. You forgot to eat. Stupid.
  5. The cut-offs are very conservative – don’t rush, just keep on trucking
  6. Experience does count. You had days in 5 feet of mud. You had days in the rain. Remember there’s nothing new going on here. You got through those days and you’ll get through these days too. Honest.
  7. Find a reason not to quit. There are plenty.
  8. The reason to stop (family) is sometimes also a good reason to keep on going (family)
  9. You don’t always have to get into a rhythm with your feet – a rhythm with your breathe can be just as good with choppy terrain.
  10. Mantras are great – a new mantra this time: No-e-la-ni – my new daughter’s middle name and also Hawaiian for “heavenly mist” – very appropriate given the conditions.
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In general, relaxing and taking things one step at a time seemed to work – so much so that by the time I hit the last section of technical rock that opened up to a runnable section of the trail, I was ready to MOTOR the last 3-4 miles. There was no question I would be finishing the race very strong, happy, healthy and unscathed. A very far cry from the first time I ran Bear even though this year was 30 minutes slower than the first time coming in at 8:45 (and I still bonked hard at both 6 hours and at the Anthony Wayne parking lot section – a trail parking lot waste land). This sport is weird that you can feel so far back and still finish in the 50% bucket (according to ultra-sign up – so does that make me a mid-packer? I don’t fucking know). I definitely felt much better this time at the end, so it did occur to me that maybe I’m just always going to be slower from now on. And finishing over an hour ahead of the cutoffs on a tough day felt really great. Running a conservatively paced, fun, race with time to spare just reinforces that it’s supposed to be FUN! DAMMIT!

“When your mind is telling you that you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.” — SEAL

Postscript

The mental challenge is really the thing. I casually left my race medal somewhere out there in the tents — probably, in the porte-potty. That’s a first. Someone got a nice medal for dropping a deuce in the rain – congratulations. There were just too many

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Only been a week and already we’re thinking about which race to run next…. hmmm….

other reasons to stop that day or not even show up – in the end, learning how to turn a potentially bad situation into an exceptional one is why these days are so rewarding. And now that I’m a family man, the stakes are even higher! Seeing all of my friends who run insane races with lively, young families is inspiring – you CAN combine passion and responsibility if you truly commit to the adventure and give up on making excuses. And I hope, one day, my daughter is going to have her friends say “your Dad did what?!?! He’s nuts!” And she’ll say: “Yeah maybe… but can YOUR Dad do that?”


These races really are a team sport. I could NOT have done this without the support of my virtual trail running friends and especially my wife/daughter who somehow managed to handle the midnight diaper sprints the last few weeks, so I could get just a few more hours of recovery the nights before the race. Our family strives to cultivate an active, adventurous life so why would we EVER stop doing these adventures just because there’s less hours in the day! On the trails or even on a short 30 minute run at 5am –  feeling present in the moment and appreciating all of our gifts is now and forever the focus. Well, until next year…
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Categories: Off Road, RacingTags: ,

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