“Only parents with toddlers at home would EVER consider running over a mountain and through the woods alone for 10 hours as a perfectly acceptable holiday weekend.” – Me
What Does It Take
Moving through the mountains on foot is the perfect metaphor for life itself; twists, turns, ups, downs and the unrelenting realization that in spite of all of your hard work . . . success is never guaranteed. I find it hard to explain to the uninitiated the transformational process one goes through to move from a mindset of ’this may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done’ to ’no big deal’. One has to be picked up and dipped head first into the smoking cauldron of despair before effort becomes commonplace, problems all become solvable and the JOY you feel permeates the screaming voices of brittle bones and tired, aging legs.
After running JFK50 last fall in terrible winter conditions, I knew I had a faster 50 miler in me somewhere. As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly true – a different race, on a different day, in different conditions all make the point of meaningless comparisons basically. . . . well . . . meaningless. However, I did want to have an amazing day out and a goal to shoot for this Spring – something to put my heart, body, and mind into for 7 months. Regardless of what happens on the way to the start line, as long as I re-commit myself to the process I knew I’d be happy.
The Mohonk Preserve is one of the more beautiful outdoor areas in New York state. It surrounds a massive trail and cliff system that brings hikers, runners and climbers from hours away to escape their urban hell-scape and retreat back into nature. Knowing a lot of the trails already. I knew that it was going to have miraculous views and basically ZERO restrictive cut-offs to chase (24 hours to accommodate hikers/walkers) – unlike the JFK race where I was constantly running scared for the cut-offs and freaking the fuck out this was going to be a DAY OF LEISURE. This race is also the same weekend as the North Face Bear Mountain race – every year, I go to this one because it’s close to the city and I always regret it because it’s not really a race you can run – way too many rocks – what I wouldn’t give for a race you could run – well, here you go! This would also be my first 50 miler in the Spring – an interesting turn in both training and execution would also be something new!
One of the best features of the race was that it is incredibly runnable. Unlike some of the other trail races I’ve done on the east coast that an orgy of tree roots and boulders, this race is mostly carriage roads – which means, training on the roads was going to be a really good approximation for the race; no need to get on the trails to feel prepared.
The plan was to organize my training by major long runs and by total cardiovascular endurance effort/time a week. This way, even if I was unable to hit my mile volume targets, I could supplement my cardio with some Peloton training at home to split the difference. I did my best to close my eyes and pretend the entire apartment didn’t smell like an armpit. The biggest challenge (or so I found out later) was that my elevation and hill training was severely lacking relative to the course profile. The secondary challenge was simply having a two-year-old at home – she is certainly a delight but my training life lately has been more about waking up too early and managing parenting stress than about the miles, hours, or hill repeats.
Only parents with small children would ever consider 10 hours alone in the woods to be a vacation. That is just my life now. In spite of my training going really well, I had a feeling that I was pushing the envelope of acceptability and at some point, my body would rebel.
Training for Spring races is really, really brutal in the
northeast of the US. You are basically plowing through the winter months and building plenty of mental endurance but man it really grinds you down. 4:30AM wake up alarms make you feel like a badass but only once it’s done. In bed, it’s mostly just ass.
In order to get some elevation on my legs, I signed up for the Breakneck Ridge Trail Marathon 3 weekends out. This would put 9000 feet of elevation on my legs before the race (RTR only having 5k over 50 miles). This turned into a death march. I didn’t realize just how tough the course was and the mud and rain didn’t help – wound up pulling the plug after 8 hours, with 14 miles and 4500 feet of gain – I figured this was enough brutality for one afternoon.
Here’s where I started getting stupid. The next weekend to dial in my nutrition plan and simulate the runnable parts of the course, I woke up at 3:30am and ran a road marathon in the city. Just a simple out-and-back; no big deal. This is where I started to see my overconfidence getting the better of me – “I’ve never felt this good before”… “Everything is going to be awesome!” Right…
Well, That Fucking Hurts
The next thing I knew, I suffered perhaps the only running injury I’ve ever had – my lower back gave out leaning over to pick up my daughter. FML. Never experienced this kind of pain before in my life – running & walking seemed ok after a few days but sitting
for long periods of time was just terrible. It’s hard to see how this wasn’t running related (more on that later) but of course – pain never stopped anyone. What it DID do is increase a level of doubt in my mind – would running this race create long term damage? Am I too old for this sort of punishment? Would I never run again without this doubt? Would I be compromising my psychological sanity without this release valve ever-present and at the ready? Would I even be able to pick up my kid again!?!?!
As the big day got closer, all of these concerns plagued my every waking hour and faux-sleeping mind. Was this the end? Or just the beginning of the end? Did old-man-fuck-stick finally clock out?
Even after several years of running long, I’ve still not fully cracked the nutrition nut. I think part of the problem is that experience, trial-and-error and luck play a huge part in the process. For this race, I decided to try running on mostly liquid nutrition – although I have zero problems with real food on the run, later in the race being able to keep things down does become a problem. Also, in theory, absorbing liquid nutrition is a bit easier on the system – this seemed to be the case in training when I crushed a road marathon two weeks out and ended it feeling perfectly fine with zero bonks (this was even a time-on-feet marathon PR for me – what what?!?!?!?!)
Even though I was wearing a vest, I mostly used hand-helds. While they certainly put more strain on your arms and back what they excel at is ensuring you are taking in enough liquid calories at a steady rate. With a bladder, it’s very hard to tell if you are in front or behind your per-hour caloric load.
I wasn’t ruling out eating real food off the tables or gels in a pinch (which I ultimately did in a low patch). Approximately 200 calories of Tailwind every hour on a consistent basis as my building blocks of energy would ground my strategy. Everything else would-be supplemental. I seemed to be able to process this level of calories pretty well although I think I should really be taking in closer to 250-300 per hour given the conditions. Later on in the race, it became clear that the infrequency of stations meant it would be hard to be consistent on my bottle refills – I wound up taking 4-6 gels the last few hours – no real bonk but I could tell that I was running in more of a deficit than required. I felt pretty great the last 2-3 miles of the race and felt like I had more in the tank by the end. Fluids, man. Fluids.
The original plan was to run the race alone because traveling with a toddler is quite stressful and my daughter likes to throw up like Jackson Pollock in the car. An hour in the car is about the limit for us these days and funny enough the kid slept both ways – a
first! Minimizing stress pre-race is kind of the thing to do – sigh. Still, we found that going with friends from our toddler-trust made the journey tolerable (what are the odds they also have ultra-runners in the family) and the AirBNB had everything a 2-year-old would desire. It even had a crib, sound machine, kitchen and laundry room – hard not to bring them along & the prospect of having my daughter see me finish was more than enough motivation to calm my nerves about the pain in my back. The house was 5 minutes away from The Brooklyn Cider House – this did NOT help our race prep but it DID help to deal with the children and contribute to post-game rehabilitation.
The Course Breakdown
The pre-race packet is pretty comprehensive explaining the journey that lies ahead. My only gripe was that my number for this year said in bold letters: “MASTERS” – do they really have to rub it in? I’m tired. I’m sleep deprived. My bones are broken. I think we all know where I stand. As for the race, I broke up the course into a few sections:
- Mohonk House to the Tower (UP)
- Tower to the Over Cliff (UP)
- Over Cliff to Minnewaska (UP)
- Turnaround back to Under Cliff (DOWN)
- Under Cliff to the finish (DOWN)
Breaking it up this way made a lot of sense because it was basically a visualization of the elevation profile – up, up, up than down, down. One mistake I made was thinking that after 25 it’s all downhill from there. The truth is that it’s more like all downhill after mile 30 once you roll back out of Minnewaska State Park. Equally, there is a monster hill at mile 45 before you cruise back down to the finishing area. This is one of the most enjoyable last few miles of a 50-mile race ever – it’s downhill all the way back to the starting area – if you really are feeling good you can CRANK IT. But that hill at mile 45 – well that is unpleasant.
The forecast was calling for lucky with a chance of unlucky. The prior day, the rain had been in the forecast and the following day rain as well – normally, a muddy course makes for a painful, slow race but this year it didn’t change the conditions too much because there were so many carriage roads. The day started with a fine, wet midst – a reminder of a cold London day where you THINK it’s not raining and an hour in you realize that everything you’re wearing is absolutely soaked through. This led to severe upper body chafing later in the day for me in spite of my best efforts.
While I was really expecting to see many familiar sites and sounds, I was disappointed to learn that the landscapes were completely washed out with deep cloud cover in the first half of the day. All of the elegant vistas across the valley from the tower and again from the top of Minnewaska were completely covered. Deep down I knew that I’d have to come back again in a year or two in order to make up the difference.
For the most part, there were no major casualties. My back seemed to behave itself and once I was warmed up I managed to keep a reasonably comfortable pace for most of the runnable sections. This year, I decided to run with music (how does one ROCK the RIDGE without ROCK and ROLL?!) and it made a world of difference during some of the hard times that required me to push. I cultivated 500+ songs for this very occasion and it was a REALLY nice change to JFK which BANS personal music devices for safety.
The first miles uphill flew by with rapid ease and even the long run up to the tower (which was completely lacking visibility) wasn’t terrible. The first 10-15 miles are relatively fun and the spirits of the people on the course are relatively high – with drones high above the start line you leave with much fanfare – “500+ participants” is pretty big for an ultra-marathon even if some of the runners were running the relay.
Once you’re done with the push to the tower, you finally have your first taste of downhill where you can really gain steam before you start the long journey towards Minnewaska State Park via the Over-cliff passage. The over-cliff doesn’t have much in the way of views but this is where you start to realize that it’s going to be uphill for some time. With a few out-and-back sections for aid stations, you’re already pushing towards Minnewaska and the double back section of mile 37 at Lyons Road – it’s here that you start to get closer to Awosting falls.
The falls are really beautiful but it is VERY steep and power hiking is a must as you push your way into the Minnewaska area proper. Here, what you soon discover is that you are going to push past mile 25 and beyond before you really start the descent back to the mile 37 aid station. You really do only start to regain downhill momentum around mile 30-32.
Once past mile 37 at Lyons Road (and also – who eats spicy chili at this point – really?) the course flattens out and you can start to really figure out what you have in the tank. There are a bunch of rollers here before you make your way to a major hill at mile 45 – this wasn’t terribly steep but at this point in the race I just wanted to be done.
Around mile 46, I was feeling good and popped in the tunes once again to try and roll the final miles with fun and ease. You can very quickly map out the path back to the starting line because even on a cloudy day the vantage point is overlooking the fields below. The last mile has some slight uphills and knowing you’re almost to the finish line can carry you to the beer, burgers, and smiles that awaits you. Breaking the tape, I finally saw our friends taking pictures and our children cheering “GO, RUNNERS!!” – Wow, that was just awesome.
I picked up my daughter and ran through the finishing chute with the wife in tow. I’m not sure if this memory will be forever lodged somewhere deep in her psyche but for me, thinking that it might and that she might internalize what one can accomplish in spite of obstacles was a feeling so powerful, visceral, and deep in my heart. Of course, I gave her the medal straight away – she deserved it for a day in the forest cheering for her crazy old man.
Assessing the damage took a few days. Typically, I suffer from classic DOMS – no real surprises there. Due to the humidity, there were a few more blisters and toenail issues than in previous races. Some new injuries (aside from my back) was significant upper body chafing from my hydration vest. The vest itself isn’t the best in terms of flex but think it’s MORE likely due to the excess rain and humidity. One month on and the scars are still there.
With the journey complete, we settled back into the AirBNB and went straight to hydration (BEER + WINE) and refueling (BURGERS, etc.). All in a days work – getting older, slower but enjoying things a lot more than I feared. And by Thursday (5 days later) I was feeling DAMN FINE thank you very much. The back is still feeling pretty delicate – fortunately, I understand that 9 out of 10 doctors prescribe single-malt scotch for such a condition.
- Timing: It wasn’t my fastest 50 miler but I was moving fairly well – it’s funny how consistent my timing has become even over different types of courses. I finished in 11:21 with 10:50 of moving time – the elapsed time is less than a 1-minute difference from 2 out of 3 JFK50s in the last few years (the last one being very poor conditions). Not exactly getting faster but holding form. At the same time, this one was so much fun and not a death march so it’s not like there isn’t more in the tank if one day I want to really red-line and go for a faster time.
- Back Pain Origins: I deduced from Physical Therapy (post-race) that my back stopped hurting simply because “everything else” hurt instead. Well technically, it’s because my quads and hips are so tight and my backward leg extension is so terrible that I arch my lower back to compensate. Over time, this imbalance stacks the cards until one little stretch in the wrong direction brings them all crumbling down. Working on that. Definitely something that can be fixed – thank goodness.
- Stomach Twitch: I also discovered a new spasm in my stomach – likely a lot of my problems stem from a weak core. Working on that.
- Tailwind: 200 calories per hour, alternating between caffeine and non-caffeine. A few times I was unable to keep this up due to station availability but I think this is a solid foundation.
- Shoes: The Salomon Sense Ride is wonderful for dirt single track and less than 20 miles (they crushed Joshua Tree in Jan) but they fell short on the rocks for some reason – I really think a HOKA or NIKE Wildhorse would be better suited for this race next year. Kind of surprising given it’s not as rocky as many courses in New England but suppose the lack of a robust rock plate does play a factor.
- Spotify: I was debating listening to trance, podcasts or a playlist – in the end, I decided to listen to my favorite playlist accumulated the last few months for this purpose. I don’t expect you to understand – but here it is. Also realized that Bluetooth headphones won’t work for 10 hours so went old school and used my plug-ins – did the job.
- TUMS: I had a bit of stomach distress that I did almost forget about – likely due to too much carbonation in some soda that I had. A friendly runner let me pop some tums in which did the trick – need to remember this trick for next time and bring these. This was a NEW thing.
- CHAFING: The vest chafed my back and my sides – likely this was because of the humidity – this is happening more often and it might also be because the Nathan vest doesn’t really flex much in the structure of the vest. Might have to upgrade to Salomon at some point – just need to find $200.
- VERT: I did NOT expect so much vertical gain from Awosting Falls into the top of Minnewaska state park. It looks pretty until you realize it’s the start of a MAJOR ascent for the next X miles.
- SLOW: You’re not slow. Those walkers who are shooting for 24 hours are slow. Damn I felt bad seeing some of them still walking when I only had 5 miles to go.
- SOCKS: Smartwool I didn’t use because it was a hot day but I think given the conditions and the humidity, it contributed to the blisters. In the future think I need socks that can wick away moisture better than the Drymax I did use which are normally just fine in the winter. I need a PHD.
- TRAINING: My full training plan is here – more or less sums up the situation plus or minus a few items that are mostly tracked on Strava. Strava’s multi-sport mode is a great visual representation of load this training block given the amount of spinning I was doing in addition to the long runs.
- SPOTIFY: The full race song playlist is here. It’s incredibly eclectic but plenty of hours I’ll never get through.
- COURSE MARKINGS: Impossible to get lost – great markings and trails on the course so you can just focus on getting there. This is a far cry from some races where I did honestly question if I would make it out of there in one piece.
- FINISH: Awesome finish line vibe – tons of people cheering, spectating and burgers/beer for the win! Really an emotional experience as always.
- PEE: So much pee – that’s what I get for going with liquid nutrition. At least I could keep an eye on my hydration levels and rhabdo. I don’t normally take this sort of fluid in and my system was definitely keeping things honest – I did wonder if I was in danger of Hyponatremia but given I was taking in plenty of electrolytes and moving well think my inflow/outflow was just efficient. Far cry from a previous race where I went to the bathroom once in 10 hours.
- AIRBNB: Our accommodation was amazing – the kids had their own room and a
TON of age-appropriate toys so they could play and enjoy the experience of being out in the countryside. They even had their own sleeping areas with sound machines, a ton of age-appropriate books – really so happy that the family could be there and that the owners thought of everything to welcome a family to the countryside for the weekend.
- TOENAILS: I completely destroyed my toenails. Again. This little piggy ate roast beef.