The Bear Mountain 50k was my first ultra-marathon years ago and holds a special
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.
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).
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.
- Hydration: I decided to finally take the plunge and run with a handheld in 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 ULTRAKRAR race 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.
- Shorts: Patagonia 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.
- 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 capelin base-layer naturally.
- 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 Burts Bees MIRACLE 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.
- Calories: VFUEL. 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?!
- Footwear: I normally like to run trails in very light shoes (Salomon’s) however,
given I knew there would be TONS of rocks I needed more protection – so I used the Challenger 3’s from HOKA 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 Nike WildHorse – they are 50 mile proven and have much better treads – in the end, think either could have worked.
- Socks: Injinji. Always. Forever. And ever.
- 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.
- Schwag: You finally got it right North Face – excellent long sleeve hoodie for post-race lounging. Great job!
- Squats, Push-Ups & Deadlifts – there’s always discussion about how strength
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.
- 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.
- 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….
- Rest/Recovery – Because I was not sleeping as much and because I’m just a fat, old
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.
- 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.
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:
- If you’re feeling low, it will get better – just keep going
- Just get to the next station, don’t worry about finishing the race
- Broth cures everything – it’s trail magic. Pure and simple.
- Don’t forget to eat stupid. You did it again. You forgot to eat. Stupid.
- The cut-offs are very conservative – don’t rush, just keep on trucking
- 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.
- Find a reason not to quit. There are plenty.
- The reason to stop (family) is sometimes also a good reason to keep on going (family)
- 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.
- 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.
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
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?”