The magical, mystical Blue Mountains

I’m going to have to apologize up front. I went into this race with the full intention of actually paying attention to the course so that I could provide an accurate description for those who would consider making the well-worth-it trek to the Georgian Bay in Ontario for this North Face Endurance Challenge. However as usual I was lost in my own little wonderland of racing and would have a very hard time recounting what I encountered at any given point in the race. Except for maybe the last 3 miles where around each corner – surprise – let’s climb up the ski slope some more! And then descending the face of the mountain one last time – using every ounce of energy to not come tumbling down. But let’s back it up a little.

The Prep
Friday morning I drove from Syracuse to the Blue Mountain region and I was immediately enchanted by this place. Beautiful rolling terrain, windmills, fields of wild flowers, unicorns. Yes, I’m certain there were unicorns in this picturesque fairy tale land. It had been over a month since my last ultra and to say I was amped to race is an understatement. Once I saw where I would be racing my excitement grew ten-fold. I checked in to my hotel at 6 and heated up my good ol’ pre-race curry while I sat in bed with my course guide fanned out around me. It was time for a cram session! Looped courses make it easy to strategize but this course had no rhyme or reason. At this point all I knew is that I wanted to beat last year’s winning time which was 5:46. So let’s shoot for 5:30!

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I had the course map, the elevation profile, and the aid station-to-aid station detailed course description in front of me and came up with my plan. I rehearsed the plan over and over in my head. I considered writing it down on my arm – sure I would forget. Nah – I hammered it into my brain – I was ready.

The next morning brought gorgeous sunny skies and perfect temps to start the day. Obviously, I was in magicland! As I lined up at the start I met Anne Bouchard and she definitely looked strong – I needed to watch out for her. Since there was going to be a lot of climbing in the first few miles my plan was to go out easy – always my biggest challenge. Since I was sure Anne was right there with me I hit the first mile at 7:40 and reminded myself, repeatedly, of my plan. And this is about the point where I cannot tell you much about the course.

The Course
Let’s just say it was a steady mix of running across the exposed slopes, running up ski trails, running down ski trails, hopping off ski trails into extremely twisty turny single-track trails through the woods – going up, going down. There were some sections of stone access roads, dirt roads – long straight roads where you could see yet another climb ahead of you. Around mile 7 there was a small cheering section ahead with signs as we made a right turn. When you see a sign that says “Make this hill your bitch” you know you’re in trouble. There were even some sections of paved roads which were nice for opening up your stride a bit. In some of the wooded sections the trail was so soft and the trees were so tall you felt like a small spec floating along. There were some rocky sections, roots, wooden bridges – but not a very technical course. We crossed one small stream, twice. I loved the mix.

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The Company
I can’t tell you exactly where I linked up with Matt – it was very early on in the race. I also can’t tell you who came upon whom. But we seemed to fall into sync with each other as we traded on and off leading and we began to chat. His goal was 5:30. Perfect! It was a great distraction as I realized by mile 5 or so that my “rehearsed” plan of how the course was to play out did not at all match what I was experiencing. I don’t know how to explain it really – as the race went on I realized that I actually had no clue of what I would encounter at each chunk of mileage so I threw my plan out the window and just raced! The other perk of running with Matt is that he had pretty extensive knowledge of the course. There was a long section running through very tall grass. My tick-phobia was kicking in big time.

Me: Matt, do you have a tick problem here?
Matt: A what?
Me: Where I’m from I could expect at least 20 ticks on me at this point.
Matt: I’ve never had a tick. Found one on my dog once.

Once?!? This truly is a magical place! No ticks! As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being any bugs at all. When we reached the halfway point I looked at my watch and asked “the 2nd half is easier than the 1st half right?” He responded with a resounding “yes”. We were well ahead of 5:30 pace and this got me pumped.

img_4897-1Matt and I ran alone for quite some time before Tarzan caught us. Okay his name is Anthony – something I did not know until I looked him up in the results – so during the race he was Tarzan. He was very built for an ultra runner, and the fact that he was shirtless accentuated this. After he passed I was mesmerized by his calf muscles. He was also full of positive energy which made me want to hang on to him. He would occasionally let out a loud whoop, or start clapping, or yell back at us “you guys are doing great – keep it up!” This guy was great! It was also his first 50k – he was obviously having a blast. His goal was top 10 and I was sure he had it in the bag. For a while the 3 of us ran together but they tended to linger at the aid stations when I was prepared to breeze through quickly. I felt a little guilty about this but without any knowledge of where the next female was I had to race my own race. I actually thought about asking for some info at an aid station but decided I didn’t want to know. I’d rather keep racing scared the way I like it.

With about 9 miles to go I took off at the aid station and was feeling really strong so I started to push. This was also sparked by looking at my watch and realizing that sub-5 hours was surely going to happen. On an undulating forest trail I heard that loud shout from Tarzan in the distance and I returned the call. When he caught up to me I could tell that although we were both running strong, we were both struggling with the distance between aid stations in the last few miles. By now the heat was turned up and although there was aid stations o-plenty they seemed so far away. And we were now back on the ski slope with a lot of sun exposure. I kept thinking to myself it would all be downhill from here. Wrong! There were a good 5-6 climbs in the last 3.5 miles. Just when you thought there is no way there can be another climb, you made a right turn into another wall. This was taking it out of me and soon Tarzan was out of view.

I hit that last aid station with one mile to go – the steep downhill… Almost as steep as Loon Mountain’s Upper Walking Boss. After running it at mile 6 of the race I knew what I was in for and tried to hammer down it to the best of my ability. Seeing Tarzan pass a runner on the descent made me want to get one last pass too. And right near the bottom I got it. From there it’s a short shot across the mountain to the finish line. I crossed in 4:46:17 – 1st female and 8th overall.

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The Hoopla
I have not experienced such a lively finish line outside of World Championship races. A long line of spectators screaming and ringing cowbells made the finish feel amazing! And then of course there was the award ceremony which seemed more like a concert. The crowd was packed tight and deep making it hard for the award winners to get to the stage. We quickly learned what this was about – November Project was in full force at this race as there was a marathon relay event. The top 3 overall males and females were brought up for each event. As their name was announced the crowd would chant their name. Once the podium shots were taken the “crowd surf” chant started and every one of us answered the call. It was a unique experience to end an amazing race day. North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario, I love you. I’m pretty damn sure we’ll meet again.

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I may have said it once but I’ll say it again – The North Face Endurance Challenge sure knows how to host a top-notch race event. I’m glad I discovered this race series and can’t wait for the Championship event in December!

P.S. Good luck to Anne who will be heading to UTMB to race CCC – my goal for next year!

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Mind the Mud – The North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50k

logoIt’s hard to put into words how excited I was leading up to this race. It was my first trail ultra of the year and I was ready! Even the deteriorating weather forecast throughout the week couldn’t suppress my excitement. A little cold, rain and snow wasn’t going to kill my vibe – this was looking like a fast course! I had a 50k PR time etched into my mind and I was itching to grab it!

I woke up Saturday morning before my alarm went off – a sure sign I was ready to race! First thing was peer out the window into the artificially lit parking lot – I could tell it had been raining quite a bit throughout the night but it appeared to have stopped. Next order of business was to check my weather app – cloudy and staying below 40 throughout the race but the rain seemed to be gone during the window I would be racing. This put even more of a spring into my step. After eating 2 bananas and a packet of almond butter I mixed my Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration drinks for the day, layered up in plenty of clothing, and was on my way to the parking area where shuttles would await to take us to the start.

Riding on the bus it was still pitch black and I had my headphones in listening to my pre-race jams. I looked to the front of the bus and noticed the windshield wipers were on full speed and we were driving through a downpour. I was happy that I made the last-minute decision to dump my dirty laundry bag before leaving the hotel so that I could keep my gear dry. After a short hike to the race start in Algonkian Regional Park we were greeted with the most pleasant of surprises – they had 4 giant propane fire pits roaring for athletes to huddle around and try to stay warm. I had about an hour before the race start so there I stood – bundled up in rain gear with my backpack stuffed into a plastic bag to stay dry. Without those fire pits it would’ve been a rough wait. As we’re talking amongst ourselves I was listening to stories about how muddy this course can get even if it hadn’t rained in the past few days. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mud – it was like ice skating. The hills become big mud slicks and athletes have had to push each other up and over. The only “dry” area was at Great Falls Park. The stories didn’t stop and although I was assuming these were over-exaggerated tales I quickly realized that with the amount of rain that had been falling, it was time to forget about that PR.

Clearing up for the start

Clearing up for the start

As the 7 a.m. start time drew near the rain tapered off and you could feel the energy building as we had some relief. I shed my layers, checked my gear bag, and lined up at the very relaxed start where Dean Karnazes sent us on our way. The first 2 miles were grass to road to gravel trail and I ran them both at just over 7:00 minute pace. This was faster than I needed to go but I figured I should take advantage of these “clear” miles. Hopping onto the trail was refreshing as the mud didn’t seem nearly as bad as I had imagined. I can deal with this! At mile 4 we hit the first climb and it was great to finally have a change in elevation. But then…the trail dropped us down along the river and that’s where the real fun started!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

So maybe they weren’t kidding about this mud! The single-track offered no option but to sink into ankle-deep slop. I’m not at all afraid of mud – I find it to be kind of fun. But yes it was slick and with all of the twisting turns you had to slow down significantly to maneuver through them. My pace quickly dropped into the 8’s and 9’s out of pure necessity to stay upright and not overshoot any of the sharp bends. I was loving it though! I knew that this slower pace would only benefit me later in the race. I also felt lucky to be in the top 10 at this point and getting some of the “fresh” tracks in the mud. We came to the next steep climb and there was no choice but to hike because, true to the stories, it was like climbing an oiled plastic tarp. Coming down the other side proved to be even more challenging, and I even considered sliding down on my rear as it may have been faster. However the random roots jutting out made me double-think that option 😉

Despite the slick and slow-running mud the miles were clicking by with ease. It had rained once and there was even a short hail storm, but neither were bothersome and I was feeling appropriately dressed for the conditions. I was only tiring mentally as I had to focus on every footfall. All I wanted was a short break from this terrain so that I could relax, settle into a nice pace, and enjoy the scenery. I could tell that the views around me were awesome as I heard the Potomac River roaring at some spots while at others it was completely calm and peaceful. For long stretches the single-track was twisting and turning through lush patches of bluebells. I was looking forward to reaching Great Falls Park where rumor had it there would be a much-needed break from the mud.

I was having fun in Great Falls!

I was having fun in Great Falls!

That break did not disappoint! Arriving at Great Falls Park I was greeted with stunning views of rock cliffs that made me say “whoa” out loud. At mile 13 there was another aid station which was also a main spot for racers’ crew, so there was an abundance of spectators, cheering, and energy. And such a nice change of pace on runnable trails! I was definitely enjoying this section (as were my ankles, knees and hip flexors) and I could finally open up my stride. There were two out-and-back sections in the Great Falls loop and around mile 16 I saw the 2nd female. By my estimate she was about a mile back. Way too close for comfort! I knew it was time to shift into another gear and tackle the 2nd half of this course. However Great Falls seemed to bring a 10 degree drop in the temps (that’s what it felt like anyway) and after feeling plenty warm up to that point I was suddenly wishing I had more clothing, especially on my legs which now felt frozen in slow motion. At the 2nd out-and-back spot I hit the turnoff before seeing her again, so I felt some relief that she hadn’t gained any ground during those 2 miles.

Now it was time to mentally prepare for those long muddy miles on the return trip. I knew they would be in bad shape, but they were way worse than I had imagined! I was still hanging tough up until mile 24 but now the marathon runners were coming in the opposite direction making this tricky single-track even more challenging. Although my Topo Runventures were doing an excellent job in these conditions, I don’t think any shoes could tackle the muck that we were trudging through. My pace had become embarrassingly slow, and at one point I said to myself “this is a race – get moving!” The reality was that I couldn’t go any faster. I was skating on the mud and each step was a test in staying upright, never mind trying to accelerate. The only acceleration was the exhaustion in my legs. My only thought was that the 2nd female would surely catch me at this pace. Thinking was not a smart idea, not at all, because the slight distraction caused a slip I couldn’t recover from and down I went onto my hands and knees. I made it all the way to mile 25.5 without a fall. At least the landing was super-soft 🙂 I tried to wipe a chunk of mud off my face which only caused it to smear. Okay, I have my war paint – let’s finish this thing! I was still certain that I was going to be caught by the 2nd female and convinced myself that 2nd place would be okay. Quickly after I had this thought I said to myself “you didn’t lead this far to lose it in the final miles”, and tried to dig a little deeper.
MUDThat was a mistake. The next fall was much more dramatic as I was attempting to move way faster than my feet could skate under me. I crafted a head-first dive and slid a good 5 feet. Safe! There was a guy behind me this time as he yelled out “are you okay?” and I could only laugh as I shouted back “yes!” I was completely covered in mud on my right side. I quickly stood up and tried to wipe the bulk of this mess off me as I suddenly felt a few pounds heavier. The mittens had to come off as they were full of very cold mud. Having nothing on my hands meant I quickly lost feeling in my fingers. The temps still felt cooler than the start thanks to the 30 mph wind gusts (that’s what I heard they were anyway). I was so close to the finish that having frozen fingers wasn’t an issue. Shortly after the fall the lead male of the 50 miler was coming up behind me – I could hear his pacer shouting out every obstacle in his path. I took advantage of this fresh, helpful pacer and after allowing them to pass me, I hopped on for as long as I could manage. I could definitely feel his pain as I watched him navigate each step with caution. And he had way more many miles under his belt!

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Instead of counting down the miles to the finish I was counting down the miles until I got to the gravel trail. I knew all I had to do was make it out of the endless mud pits. That point finally arrived and I thought “I don’t remember this stretch being so long!” I cannot even tell you how many times I looked back in those last 2 miles – convinced that the 2nd female was closing strong on me. Making that final turn to the finish line I saw that I had it! Way off my goal time but happy to have made it across the finish line in 1st place!

I may not have run the time I wanted and I could quickly tell that I was going to be way more sore than normal the next day, but I really had a great time! Racing in tough conditions makes the memory much sweeter. Being surrounded by such beautiful natural scenery makes the suffering much more enjoyable. The best part is how great I felt throughout the race – that feeling trumped every other victory! 🙂

Only 2 of us stuck around in the cold for awards

Sonja Hinish and I were the only 2 who stuck around in the cold for awards

This was my first North Face Endurance Challenge Series race and it definitely won’t be my last! I’m already signed up for the Championship race at Golden Gate National Recreation Area on December 3rd. And I would love to return to the DC race next year. The race was well-organized, the course was beautiful, and the volunteers…well they deserve an extra round of applause for this one!

This was my first race in my Topo Runventures and they served me well considering what I put them through. It was also my first race sporting my Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest. Both of these items deserve their own write-up and that is exactly what I will do. Look for product reviews coming soon!
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Finishing time – 4:36:27

 

Caumsett 50k National Championship – A Day of Shortcomings

Before I get to the race, let me first mention how I arrived here. As many of you know, I was training for a road marathon – a marathon that is taking place this weekend. The half marathon I raced two weeks prior was to obtain elite entry to this marathon. While far from a PR, I just squeaked out the time I needed. I submitted my results that Monday and waited, and waited – rather impatiently – for my entry to be granted. By Thursday I followed up with an email asking if they received my submission and when I would find out if I was in fact racing. On the following Monday, still not having heard back from them, I made the decision to bump my race date up a week and compete at the Caumsett 50k National Championship. This wasn’t really a big stretch – only one week earlier and 5 miles longer is not a huge change-up. It just meant I had to start my “taper” that day. I registered for the race, booked my hotel room and changed my focus solely to this race.
arrgghhAs luck would have it, Friday night I received an email from the Rock ‘n Roll marathon coordinator confirming my elite entry 😦 It was too late to turn back and I kept my sights set on the 50k that was now 2 days away. I also held off on responding to the coordinator, just in case something went wrong on Sunday and I would be able to race the marathon as a back-up. Luckily a back-up plan was not needed.

I felt oddly relaxed going into this race. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that my training partner Jason Friedman was racing also. This race was 10 laps of a 5k loop with a small out-and-back section. In a way it was like chasing him around the track. Okay not really, I knew I should be nowhere near him on this course. But the fact that I knew I would see him occasionally would make me feel at home so to speak. When I found out Joe Murphy would be running that bolstered my spirits even more. Another competitor who would undoubtedly be faster than me, but who I had familiarity in running with (even though only for a short time).

at the start with Joe on my left shoulder and Jay on my right

At the start with Joe on my left shoulder and Jay on my right. Photo: SC Photos

It was going to be a beautiful day weather-wise. The sun was shining bright at Caumsett State Park. My biggest concern for the day was what to wear. It was in the low 30’s and expected to reach 40 by the time I would be finishing. I went with capri bottoms, a short-sleeved top, arm warmers, a hat and gloves with hand warmers. In hindsight I think I would’ve preferred tights – I do like keeping my legs warm. Otherwise I felt comfortable throughout the race except that my face constantly felt frozen. That was odd.

The course was great – a lot of flat stretches to really settle in with two rollers on the backside, and one tiny kicker on the out-and-back section. The toughest part was navigating the 180 degree turn around a cone. Simple enough on the first few laps but as the course became congested it was a spot that really slowed you down. GLIRC did an excellent job with this championship course.

I had multiple goals for this race. Beyond my A and B time goals, this race has the added bonus of being a Boston Marathon qualifier. They had a timing mat set up at the marathon mark to record your split, and then all you needed to do was finish the race for it to count. This was my first goal mark for the race – I was planning to hit the marathon mark in just under 3 hours, and then hold onto a sub-7:00 pace for those last 5 miles to reach my A goal of 3:35.

Once the starting gun went off I quickly settled into a relaxed pace, clicking off ~6:30 miles. It was only slightly faster than I needed to go, but knowing how I like to race it was good for me to have a slight buffer on those early miles. I hit the first 5k at 20:13, then 20:25 and 20:55. I was progressing as planned and still feeling somewhat relaxed. I knew within the first mile of this race that it was a race for 2nd place. Caroline Boller went out hard and appeared to be getting stronger each loop. The out-and-back section was great because it gave me a chance to see her in her groove and cheer for her, then also cheer for Jay and Joe who were both looking smooth and strong as well. And then of course, to see where the next female was 😉

Those early miles - still looking happy. Photo: SC Photos

Those early miles – still looking happy. Photo: SC Photos

On the 4th lap I started to feel that gurgle inside me. I knew I didn’t need to use the bathroom – I know it’s TMI but I certainly took care of things that morning. No, this was the good ol’ GI issue that had plagued me for a long time. The one that I have 95% under control. I was sure this wasn’t going to be an issue, but also realized that I wasn’t drinking a whole lot during these early miles. With cooler temps I wasn’t as thirsty but quickly realized I needed to start hydrating to avoid issues. Finishing loop 4 I grabbed my pre-made bottle of Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix from the makeshift aid station Jay set up for us. I decided to carry this for one loop and sip on it through those 3 miles. I clocked 21:00 even on the 4th lap.

Upon finishing that lap I dropped the bottle off at our station, but knew I needed to duck into the port-o-pot. Luckily it was a quick stop but it still interrupted my rhythm, and increased my 5k to 22:05 for that loop. At this point I was mentally struggling a little – I know that when this issue starts, it only gets worse and it saps my energy. So I focused on staying positive. Lap 6 put me at 21:45.

Lap 7 is where I started falling apart, and I was no longer running sub-7 minute miles. I still felt the urge to use the bathroom, and now my bad hip was starting to hurt with every step. I of course started cursing road running for beating up on me. However most of my training up to this point had been on pavement and I hadn’t experienced any pain outside of the norm, so why now? Was it all in my head? I knew I needed to use the bathroom again, but the 1 port-o-pot at the halfway point was occupied when I arrived and I definitely didn’t have time to wait for it to open. I decided to tough it out until I finished the lap. I was happy to see that my lead on the third place female was growing when I was finishing the out-and-back section, but as I stopped for bathroom break #2 – this one taking much longer than the first – I began to panic that all of the time I was putting on her was going down the shitter (pun intended). Lap 7 – 23:27.

The growing agony on my face. Photo: We Are Athletes! Racing Team

The growing agony on my face. Photo: We Are Athletes! Racing Team

Lap 8 was all about trying to stay positive. The marathon mark was drawing near and I was doubting my ability to run sub-3:00. By now the pain in my hip had spread to my right glute, and I could feel it shutting down. Soon after that pain was growing in my lower back. Obviously whatever I was feeling in my hip was causing me to change my stride. I focused on form. I also made a pact with myself that I would not use the bathroom again until I hit that marathon mark. I couldn’t waste another second. I got to that out-and-back section with high anxiety as I waited to see the 3rd female coming my way. I never saw her. Phew! This eased my mind as I hit that 5k in 22:33.

I’d like to say that I pushed lap 9 to get that sub-3:00 but sadly it wasn’t happening. Now I made a pact with myself that if I just stayed strong through mile 26 I could back it off for the final lap and a half. All I needed to do was run sub-8’s for those last 5 miles and I would hit my B goal of 3:45. It was with mixed emotions that I crossed that marathon mat – my time was 3:01:22 (per Strava – not official). I was bummed to have come up short on my goal but also happy to have hit this point in the race knowing that I only had to finish this lap, and then run one more. It felt good to ease up a little – I was still running sub-8 but felt way more relaxed. Finishing lap 9 in 23:45 I confirmed that the third female was still nowhere in sight and I could “enjoy” my 10th and final loop. As I made my final turn toward the finish line I saw that I was just out of reach of going sub-3:40. I wish I would’ve looked at my watch sooner and pushed just a little harder to reach that mark, but I was satisfied with my 3:40:17 and 2nd place overall female finish. Jay was waiting at the finish line for me and we both celebrated a tough but rewarding day. Both Jay and Joe had strong races – Jay snagging 3rd in the 40-44 age group and Joe placing 9th in the open division.

The Aftermath
I woke up Monday morning feeling totally recovered. Yes, I normally recover quickly due to my vegan diet, but this was way more noticeable. I had minimal soreness in my legs, and even my hip pain had subsided. I could’ve gone for a run in the morning (don’t worry, I was smart and didn’t). Most of the soreness I felt was in my back and shoulders – likely from running tense. I thought this was a fluke at first, and that the soreness would kick in later that day or the next. It didn’t. This made me feel better about backing off on those last laps instead of pushing through the discomfort. What do ya know – maybe I’m finally becoming a smarter racer!

My unexpected energy and happy legs also had me thinking I should go ahead and race the marathon this weekend. Why not shoot for back to back races and see what I could do? How quickly I forgot the pain in my hip and how I swore off long distance road racing only 2 days prior. I was riding on a post-race cloud – feeling invincible for bouncing back so quickly and wanting a 2nd chance to redeem myself for my missed goal.

Luckily I got off that cloud (thank you Jay for helping to talk me down). I need to take advantage of this quick recovery and dive into my next block of training. It’s time to start running on trails to prepare for my next 2 ultras, and more importantly, structured bike workouts that I’ve been neglecting since September. Another long race means another week off from strength training that I cannot afford. So I emailed the Rock ‘n Roll coordinator to tell her I would not be racing Saturday just to seal my decision. Even though as I type this there is still that voice in my head saying “just go for it!” Oh the trials and tribulations of a race addict…