A few months ago after returning from our running vacation in Florida I began to look around for a few US races that looked interesting and more importantly challenging. I already had a couple of 100 milers planned for the summer so I wanted something shorter then that but falling into the pushing your limits category. In the end I settled on the Pikes Peak Marathon (coming in August) and the 50 mile trail run at Bear Mountain, NY which is part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series.
What attracted me to this race was that it was suppose to be very technical trail with a lot of elevation change. It was also close enough to drive to and fit in nicely with my build up towards my first 100 miler this year so I signed up. I had no illusions about this being a tough race but didn't anticipate what a monumental struggle this run would eventually become.
Some surfing around the net gave me some good insight into the race and put me in touch with Eric via his blog. He ran it last year and was going to run it again this time so we made plans to meet up before hand. I also found out another Canadian runner, Kendra, who i hadn't met but travels in the same Ontario trail running circles as I do was going so we got in contact as well. I was definitely anticipating fun.
Prerace -Omens of Doom?
Things start out badly long before the official start of the race. I had problems sleeping on both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Kim is driving so I figure I can get a nap on route to the Catskills. As we pack up the car on Friday morning. I sit my phone and the GPS on the top of the car to open the door. I grab the GPS and promptly forget about my phone until we hear it bounce across the ceiling of the car while we are doing 120km on the QEW. Bye Bye Iphone it was fun while it lasted. It becomes the first road kill sighting of the day. The worst part about this (even more then what a new phone will cost) is that I actually paused before I put my phone down and considered the fact that I could forget it there. Then I did. Ridiculous!
The 8 hour drive goes okay but takes 10 with delays at the border. We see a great deal of road kill after we cross the border including a coyote and at least 3 deer. Large black crows are dinning on many of these. Poe would tell me otherwise but I try not to read to much into this. I feel like I am stepping into a Stephen King novel. You are on a road trip, no phone, dead things abound, soon an old lady will start screaming craziness at you, nothing good is coming if you keep going.
Also Eric is not going to run the 50 miler as he was dealing with an injury but invites us to dinner at his place once we get into town. We get to the motel which is okay but overpriced and somewhat seedy. After checking in we head over to Eric's place.
The drive takes about 20 minutes and we go up and over the mountain. I don't know if the mountain we go up and over is Bear Mountain but I don't like the look of it at all. What have I gotten myself into here?
Eric and his wife Tani are great. We have a fantastic dinner and talk Ultras for awhile. Once again thanks guys!! I get some good insight into the course. It really sucks that Eric isn't running but he is going run the 5k on Sunday with Tani and the kids. Before we know it we are headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before the big race.
All I need is 5 to 6 hours sleep, that all. I still run and function fine on 5 hours, no problem. Tick tock, tick tock. I can not sleep. The time slowly ticks by as I lay in bed wide awake. I am so tired but sleep doesn't come. I try not to look at the clock but its impossible not to as I watch potential sleeping time disappear and there is nothing I can do about it. The last time I remember seeing the clock it said 1:30 AM which gives me only 2 hours until I have to get up. This is going to be bad.
At 3:30 the alarm goes off and we are dressed and are out the door in a flash. I am exhausted and have not even run a step yet. We head over to the hotel that Kendra is staying at and pick her up to give her a ride to the start line. Somehow we find the start area without issue although it was more luck then good planning. There is no parking at the start line, you have to park at another area and then take the race provided shuttle to the start. Kim drops us off and will meet me at aid station 4 (no crew access at 2 or 3) in a few hours. That way Kim can sleep a bit longer incase we drive back to Toronto Saturday night. I should be fine until that point which is 20 miles into the race. I have my breakfast ensure , salt tabs and will just use race provided gels until then. That way I can just run with a hand held bottle and no fuel belt early on.
At the start
Kendra and I get to the starting area and pick up our race kits. It is time for the comedy of errors to begin. I realize that I have left my breakfast ensure on the floor of the car with Kim. Thats 360 calories that I am really going to need to avoid bonking. This is really, really not good. Running 50 miles with no breakfast is a Kamikaze mission. No choice tho I am just going to have to deal with it.
The Race - Up, Up and Away
The race starts and I head out with the other 200+ runners into the darkness. The sun will soon be up but headlamps are needed early on. You have to keep your headlamp for the first hour or risk being DQed, that means I will have to carry it for the first 20 miles or dump it at an aid station and never see it again. I run at what I feel is a decent pace. For the first few miles it is mostly double track some areas are tough with lots of large lose rocks but not really too bad. It is however almost all uphill, nothing too steep but continuously uphill. Then we are into much harder single track. It is light by the time I hit the first aid station at 4 miles. I feel okay about my race so far.
Anthony Wayne to Silvermine
This feeling doesn't end up lasting long. The next section is generally all uphill on single track and very technical trail. I am noticing a problem with my breathing and HR. My HR is much to high for easy pace and easy breathing I am currently doing. I know this is due to the lack of sleep and messed up nutrition. I have to trust my breathing / effort level or my HR. I go with effort level even though I know deep down that this is a mistake. Soon I will come to regret this choice. I am still running well by all outward appearances but am starting to worry. The trail is really technical but stunning with part of it circling a lake. I am still in good shape at the 9 mile mark. I see my first bloodied runner at this aid station while I get a gel. The reality that there is good potential for a face plant on this course is driven home even harder.
Silvermine to Arden Valley
I make my first navigation error here going off course but only about 100 meters or so. I had been watching a runner in front of me and missed a turn in the trail. Easy to do as the turn was not so much another trail as it was scaling straight up a 50 ft. rock face. Some parts required both hands to climb. Damn so its going to be one of those course is it. The running up to and on the top of this ridge is really tough. Its still mostly climbing, steep climbs, smaller steep downhills and more climbs. Somewhere right around 12 miles I turn my ankle on a downhill. Damn it, same ankle injury that has plagued me all year. It hurts but is manageable for now. I make the Arden Valley aid station and down a couple of gels and some coke.
Arden Valley to Lake Skannatai
Some more gels and its back on the course. More technical, yeah really you probably see a theme by now, with single track along swamps and streams. For awhile there is mostly normal climbing nothing too tough, but only for awhile. Navigation error #2 happens here and I end up a good km off course with about 10 other runners. We have missed a turn into another huge accent. More climbing where hands are needed. We are soon on the top of a mountain, its just rock face with occasional trees. The view is spectacular and near the edges a little scary.
The "trail" I use the word lightly here, goes across the top for some time. There is more scaling up rock faces and down the other side. I am liking this but am slowing down. I am having a real issue with the trail markings. The trail is marked by orange tape and in the bright sunlight it is hard to see from a distance as it blends in with the background. I find myself stopping numerous times in an effort to find the next marking. This is pissing me off. Sometimes the markings cant actually be seen from the previous marking. Not a big deal on a well defined trail but some of this trail is not well defined at all. This is my only real complaint about this race. Please use a better marker color. On other parts of the course where there were other markings for the marathon etc. those colors were easy to see. The 50 miler is hard enough already!
I am slowly approaching Bonkland which is not a place that I really want to go but it just keeps getting closer. Finally I am off the top of the mountain and into the downhills. I am rolling into full Bonk mode now. All I need to do is hang on until the next aid station, meet up with Kim and get my nutrition sorted back out properly. Then all will be well again. I hear people cheering in the valley below and I am soon into the aid station. Salvation.
Lake Skannatati to Camp Lanowa
I have spoken too soon. There is no salvation here. I stand at the aid station looking around. There is no Kim. Kim is MIA. Every curse word I know is bouncing around head like a indian rubber ball. I refill my bottle, down a few gels and put a couple in my pocket for later. I look around the parking lot again. Where the hell is she. I am not sure what to do now and my bonking is making clear thinking hard. I do the only thing I can do. I head back out onto the trail.
This leg is 7 miles and I know that I am going to soon be in big trouble. I have one water bottle and one salt tab. Instead of coming back from my bonk its only going to get worse. I was suppose to now be carrying 2 water bottles, gels and salt. One bottle is not going to properly hydrate me for this long section which is followed by another long section.
I try my best to be mad at Kim but really I am not. I am just mad. Kim has lots of crewing experience and for her not to be at the aid station means that something went very wrong. It doesn't help that I have no idea what that is. The whole run is going to shit.
I can remember very little about this section except that I just worked hard to keep myself moving forward. I know it was hard but in my state a walk to the convenience store down the street would have been an epic track. I am forced to ration my liquids by Kms as to not leave myself with nothing to drink later in the section. Good lets add dehydration to the bonking just to make it more interesting.
The trail is still beautiful but in a mocking and menacing way. It is relentless and punishing. For the first time in the race I realize that I am so slow and destroyed that not only will I not put up a decent time but I may not be able to make the cutoffs. Wow, this really boggles my mind. It forces me over into the darkside. I still have half the race, 25 miles to go and am totalled.
Somehow I eventually come out of the woods and into the next aid station. I am not really sure how this happened.
Camp Lanowa to Tiorati
Kim is at the aid station. She tells me that she (and many others) could not find the last aid station. She drove around for 2 hours looking for it. Later I would find out from someone who knows the course that the road to the station is semi hidden and there are not signs. If you didnt know it was there you could drive past it 20 times and not see it.
I refuel, get my other fuel belt and head out again. Camp Lanowa is a cutoff point and I am in with 50 minutes to spare. The next aid station is the last hard cutoff before the finish line. I have 2:30 to run the 6.5 miles. I see a faint glimmer of hope. Seeing Kim has also lifted my spirits.
Back out on the trail I am working a new plan. Run when I can, walk if I have to but take it easy and let the calories I have and am consuming bring me back from the edge. This section has a lot of runnable areas with not too many crazy climbs. A km after the aid station I see a woman coming back down the trail in the opposite direction. Her face is blood and her nose looks messed up, it is stark reminder of what can happen out here.
I run, I walk, I run. I am forced to walk a very runnable section which I should be able to crush adding to my frustration. That said something good is happening. I am starting to come back just a little. I begin running more and a bit stronger. A small pack of runners catch up with me and I fall in with them. The company is good and soon I am at the next aid station feeling almost human again.
Tiorati to Anthony Wayne
We are into the aid station 45 minutes before the cutoff. I feel a huge wait lifted. I am feeling better and now only have to make the 14 hour cutoff at the finish line. I feel that barring injury this should not be a big problem.
This section is good running and I run the early part with the same group of runners as the last section. After a while the pack begins to break up and I am on my own again. It was nice while it lasted but I don't mind being on my own. Negative land has now been left a long way back on the trail.
My garmin is now giving me a low battery warning. I don't care about pace but like to know my distance and overall time so I hope it holds out for awhile. I didn't bring a stop watch as I expect to not be at all worried about the final cutoff at the finish.
There is now a new menace on the course, Black Flies. When I am running its not an issue but on climbs the begin to swarm. I have bug spray on but it is only semi helpful. They were annoy but not too bad at this point.
Anthony Wayne to Queensboro Road
Kim is waiting here for me and helps me refuel. I have 10 miles left, lots of time and am feeling much better. Soon I am out of aid station and back into the woods. I catch up to one of the guys from the pack I was in earlier who is now running with a pacer. We trade positions a couple times and then I decide to settle in behind them for awhile.
This section starts out very runnable and I am feeling tired but okay. After a couple of miles I begin to think that the hard part might be over. How dumb am I? We hit the bottom of a hill and begin to climb. The climb goes on for at least 1km and is peppered with false summits, eventually it becomes so steep that hands are needed but finally we are on top of Pines Mt. .
Both me and the other runner are numb to this sort of thing by now but his pacer cant believe how hard it is. A short run along the top and then it is back down. By back down I mean almost straight down. The trail is so steep that one false step will send you hurling down the next half mile to the bottom. Thank goodness this comes at 44 miles with my quads completely shot otherwise I might have some trouble with this.
All three of us make to the bottom safely and soon we are into the next aid station.
Oh ya and those Black Flies are now huge swarms. They are in my ears, up my nose, in my eyes. I get some extra protein just by breathing as I swallow fly after fly. Some I can spit out, others I cant. I must have eaten at least 25 flies on the accent of Pine Mt. alone. This is not fun.
Queensboro Road to 1777
I refuel and head out. The guys I was running with seem to have disappeared. I figure they are somewhere up ahead and I will catch up. I am beginning to fade again but only have 5.3 miles left and the worst is behind me or so I think.
This section ends up being the hardest for me of the entire race. It is only 2.5 miles but seems to go on forever. First is a climb up a very rocky old empty river bed ( I think). At the top the trail winds sideways along a hillside causing you to do some bowlegged running. It starts along the top of the hill and slowly winds down to the bottom. Bet you can guess what comes next cant you.
You got it another long, steep, rocky climb up Timp Pass past a nice waterfall. It is exhausting and now I am beginning to get peripheral vision hallucinations. Out of the corner of my eye I keep seeing things that are not there. Stumps, trees and bushes begin to look like animals, people and houses. So I just stop turning to look. I hope that there is no actual bear or I may not see it before it eats me.
I crest the pass, its nice and runnable up here. I will make some time up now. That idea lasts for about a 100 meters until I come to the downhill section. I know what your thinking. Downhill thats great. Well yeah not so much.
The trail is wide and semi steep but it is a bed of rocks. Think of a gravel driveway, now imagine that the stones are all the size of baseballs. Some are stable others are loose and you cant tell until you step on them. You cant step between them as its all rock. The downhill goes on for at least a half mile.
I take this area very slow, maybe even slower then the previous uphills. My injured ankle is wonky and the bloody faced woman is in the forefront of my mind. I will finish this race but not if I end up a breaking something. Eric had warned me about this section the night before but it is worse then I had imagined. Some things just defy description.
Finally after a lifetime in purgatory I am into the last aid station.
1777 to Finish
I refuel at the aid station. They are asking me how I am doing so I lie and say great. I often wonder if you should be honest at aid stations or not. They can after all pull you from the race. I lie to error on the side of caution.
There are 2.8 miles left and the running is the easiest that I have seen since early in the morning. Its mostly double track, fire road and downhill. My garmin has died long ago so I have no idea how long the last section or this section is taking me but I run the entire way just in case the cutoff is close. Before I know it I am out of the woods and making my way across the finish line.
Official time 13:18:51
Picked up my race swag and grabbed something to eat. Great swag for this race, tech shirt, arm warmers, hand held water bottle, second water bottle. Awesome.
Kendra ended up finishing making it to the finish with a good 4 minutes to spare before the cut off. Way to go Kendra!
We decided to grab a hotel room and not drive back that night. We thought we might go out for a nice dinner but by the time I had a shower we were both so beat that it ended up being a stay in pizza and beer night.
I loved this course and yes it was really hard. I will be running this race again that is for sure.