A week ago I completed the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. The race consists of 50 miles of trail running and over 7000 feet of climbing on relatively technical terrain. I was running the race with friends Chris and Andrew, whom I’ve raced with in the past and described it as the most challenging they’ve done. Considering that running is my weakest sport and that it was my first time at the distance, my goal was simple – finish.
As with other long distance races, I found that it’s extremely challenging mentally to goal-set while thinking of the race as a single, discrete, piece. To think ten miles in that there are forty miles to go can be very discouraging and mentally overwhelming. To that end, I find it best to only think about the next goal, which came in this race in the form of aid stations every 7-10 miles. With this in mind, I’ll describe my race in a series of chapters, as each one had its own specific flavor.
Liz and I stayed at a motel 30 minutes to the north in Newburgh. We were up at 3:00am and out the door by 3:30. The two hours before the 5:00am start gave me plenty of time to eat (Two bagels with peanut butter, two bananas and then a few Clif Bars at the start) and get my act together before the start line. As no part of this race required going particularly hard at any point, especially the beginning, the start was easy. I just walked up and got going after a mild warm-up.
Start to Arden Valley (Mi 0-13.9) “The Honeymoon”
The first 14 miles of the race were definitely the most enjoyable for me. My primary goal was to settle into a solid pace using the strategy I had determined earlier. Run the flats (~11:00/mi pace), hike the uphills (~15:00/mi) and stride out the downhills when it was safe to do so (~9:00-12:00/mi). It was dark when the race started, but soon light enough to ditch my headlamp in my small backback and see some of the surroundings. The first stretch takes runners over two major climbs, with great views and some lakes still steaming with the early morning temperature change. I felt pretty good and ate what I thought was enough (heavy foreshadowing) at two aids before clocking in. I used my strengths, I generally passed people on my stronger suits – the hiking and downhill root and rock hopping – and was passed by others on the flats. Early in this loop I also saw my friend Chris covered in blood after taking a spill on a downhill. He ended up getting seven stitches on his head before returning at the midpoint to run the last 25 miles.
Arden Valley to Skannatati (Mi 13.9-20.7) “The Bonk”
The second stretch of the race included the most I’ve ever wanted to quit in a single race. This was the most significant “learning experience” of running at this distance. While I thought I had brought enough food and was eating enough at aid stations, I obviously had not been. I started to feel bad several miles into this stretch, and lost steam throughout the leg. This is unfortunate, because I spent about five miles suffering through what was very nice ridge running on a beautiful sunny day.
Skannatati to Tiorati (Mi 20.7-34.7) “The Rebound”
Contrary to what might be assumed, the single worst moment, and the closest I’ve ever come to quitting in a race was less than halfway through the race and long before I felt my maximum level of fatigue. Seeing my family for the first time at the Skannatati aid station, I sat on the tailgate of a truck and weighed the negative and positive aspects of giving up. It would feel nice, of course (the only positive, but a significant one). After being in a bad place mentally for at least an 1.5 hours with an additional 8 hours to be expected, it becomes very easy to justify reasons not to continue. As I shoveled food in my mouth sitting on the tailgate, that positive began to be outweighed by the negatives, namely being that I do not quit things, especially races. I do not believe that epiphany was unrelated to the calories entering my system.
Whatever it was, possibly arming myself with my country music playlist (at this distance, it also seems better to put yourself mentally in a happy place rather than an intense one given the duration), I was much improved over the next stretch, which was unremarkable except for how much better I felt and how much more quickly I covered the territory. The mental and physical rebound coupled with easier terrain led to a markedly better split over this stretch than my previous.
Camp Lanowa to Anthony Wayne (Mi 27.7-40.3) “The Slog”
Seeing my family again at Camp Lanowa yielded more good vibes, but good vibes only take you so far, and my pace slowed gradually over thirteen miles of more rolling hills. Nonetheless, this was the point where finishing began to materialize as a certainty. Mentally, the blocks of terrain between aids started to seem more palatable – 6 miles, followed by 4, followed by 8 before finishing. While i was slowing, you have enough time to easily do the mental math to determine necessary paces to finish on time – and I was well within my capabilities. I wish there was more to say about this section. Interestingly, at this point I met a dude who was doing the whole race with a backpack full of bricks as some sort of mental preparation he was doing for the “Death Race” in Vermont, a roughly 70 hour affair where you more or less get tortured the entire time. This brings me to the point that some of these ultrarunners were of a different breed than people I’ve met in some other races. In Ironman, racers are usually intense but usually just type-A, goal oriented people with jobs and families. Of course, many of these types were at this race, but this one seemed to have a much larger contingent of “crazies”.
Anthony Wayne to Queensboro (Mi 40.3 to 44.7) “Home Stretch”
For the longest remaining stretch without an aid station until the finish, I latched on behind a trio of Canadians who had been racing together for a long time – it was the 15th ultramarathon for the one guy I talked to, who did happen to strikingly resemble Forrest Gump. My GPS watch had died just prior to the aid station, and they seemed to be running a pretty good pace, so I stuck with them. This section was pretty straightforward, with the exception of one large climb.
Queensboro to Aid #9 (Mi 44.7 to 47.2) “Two Soulcrushing Climbs and a Rattlesnake”
By mile 45, I was feeling mentally finished. Even with an hour to go, it was obvious I was going to finish and spirits were pretty high. I had heard from the Canadians that this two mile patch was tough, but I figured after 45 miles of climbing, two more hills couldn’t hurt. Much of it was obviously fatigue, because they are not particularly striking on the course profile, but those hills may as well have been the biggest, steepest climbs of the whole course. The loose rock underfoot did not help either. As I began to crest the second, and larger, of the two hills, I heard a rattle three feet to my 11 o’clock. Looking down, it was a rattlesnake – I had never seen one before as they don’t live in the parts of NH and Maine where I do most of my hiking – and I was glad I wasn’t wearing my headphones or I would have stepped right on top of it. It was pretty surprising, and I think some of the adrenaline helped me cruise to the top of the hill and down to the final aid station.
#9 to Finish (Mi 47.2 to Finish)
This was the easiest leg, as it was almost exclusively downhill on fire roads. I kept a running gait the entire time, and it didn’t feel like long at all before I was running through the finish line. The much smaller field (250 finishers spread out over five hours) made for a less impressive finish than what I was used to, but i don’t think it’s the fault of the event organizers, it’s just a smaller race. The next result was crossing the finish line in 13 hours and 43 minutes, being able to walk right over to my family and then grab a cold beer. Not so bad after a long day.
In retrospect, the day did not go as planned, which is to be expected. I would guess that my nutrition-related bonk cost me 45 minutes to an hour off of my finish time, which would put me in a pretty respectable tier. It also felt good to be confronted with a challenge and confirm something that I’m fairly proud of – that I tend not to quit in those kind of situations.