Sunday, June 11, 2017

Lancaster To Mt Pocono


For a little over 25 hours on Friday June 2, and Saturday June 3, the 12 members of Team Get the Hill out of the Way traversed 204 miles from the rich Amish farmland of Lancaster County to the steep slopes of the Poconos.  The Ragnar phenomenon had more or less escaped my attention until I got a text in the early spring from my friend Lenore seeking “fast guys” for a relay her friend Diana was putting together. My racing schedule was already getting a little full, but I liked the relay concept and that the end point would not be far from our cottage in Buck Hill Falls, so after a verbal commitment from daughter Maddy, I said “I’m in”. 


A little back background on the Ragnar format: teams consist of 12 or 6 runners who take turns running 3 - 10 mile segments of a 200 mile +/- point to point course.  Our particular unit was mixed gender 30+ or “submasters” division.  The women were required to run a minimum of 50% of the legs.  Sounds simple enough, but add to the mix the fact that the 12 runners are then divided into 2 vans which alternate every six legs navigating from exchange zone to exchange zone and it starts to get tricky.  Equipped with an awesome set of maps and an equally good phone app we had the tools to keep it all straight.  However, before we even started our problems began, John C, who was supposed to do yeoman’s duty for Van 2 developed a foot injury the week before the race so was switched to Van 1, and Mary, had already scratched her first 2 legs due to her son’s middle school graduation. Rather than replace her, Shannon and Diana each added 1 of Mary’s to their set.  Positions were being shuffled up nearly to race time, not a recipe for smooth going for a machine with 12 moving parts. But so be it - it was George, Shannon, David, John C, Kristen, and Mary (on Saturday) in Van 1 and Maddy, Jeff, John G, Diana, Marie and Xander in Van 2.  After a quick breakfast at Di’s house we hurried to Stauffer Park in Lancaster for the start.

A little bit more on Captain Diana - she is a veteran of more than 12 Ragnar events, from W Virginia to So Cal. Most of Van 1 were also experienced Ragnarians as well. This Ragnar experience, was a little like being part of cult following of a rock band or soccer fan club - a funny little subculture that you never new existed.  A clever often slightly risqué team name being a starting point.  Of course you have to have matching shirts!  And oh, the van decoration.  And the “kill count’ and the “tagging” of other vans.  All was revealed when we rolled into Stauffer Park in the Highlander.  Highlander?  No, not a small RV - a Toyota Highlander aka Van 2.  Lady Di persisted in calling it a mini-van, but the cold hard truth was, it’s not even a particularly big  SUV.  6 people, cooler, water jug, food, gear for 6 people, sleeping bags, folding chairs….With masterful packing and a large roof top carrier we fit it in, with a little room left for the humans.  Maddy highjacked the blue tooth audio system and supplied us with road music that would ebb and flow for the next 25 hours.


The start area was strangely quiet, and I was starting to wonder where the competition was, but when we looked up our team number, the poster resembled a page from a funny phone book - 280 teams!  However all but 6 of them had already started the race leaving as early as 5:30 AM.  This would be an important dynamic as the race unfolded, and critical to the kill count. The Ragnar supplied pace calculator handicapped the teams to allow more to finish together in Mt Pocono. After a safety briefing a gear check w walked to the line where Shannon took the first leg of 3.7 miles. Van 2 Yelp searched the best Deli in Lancaster and shot off to The Flying Pig Deli for a last bite of real food before racing. That part of Lancaster which includes Lancaster Brewing Company had a notably hip urban feeling to it that would soon give way to the strange mix of sprawl and Amish that typify the seeming endless edges of Lancaster, and also the first 12 stages of the race. Tech consultant Maddy also set up a group text that would be our primary means for communicating w Van 1.  We became concerned when after 30 minutes there was no word of Jon taking off on leg 2 - apparently the last minute line up changes had not made it to Shannon, and breakfast just before the warm start did not sit well and led to a 45 min first leg.  We had barely started and were already 17 mins behind our calculator! Fortunately Jon C ripped 6 min miles for his 8.4 mile 2nd leg and we were back in the mix.


Fortified with deli fare we sped to Exchange 6 to pick up our race numbers then back to 5 where Lady Di was subbing for Mary and taking the stick (a bracelet actually) from George.  The day had turned sun-splashed and quite windy and we finally escaped the drecky sprawl of Lancaster and got into some pretty countryside. Getting restless, I decided to jog to the bottom of the hill that led to the exchange and got there just in time to see someone coming fast but turning the wrong way.  I had seen George at breakfast but this guy was a pretty far away , but I guessed and yelled “George!!”, he turned, and then “this waayyy!!” Fortunately the wind carried my voice and we averted catastrophe on Leg 5!  Di steamed a mostly downhill leg, passed to Kris, and then it was back in the Highlander to get Marie to #6. A note on Marie - Marie was Maddy’s XC captain at Oberlin College and the two had recently reconnected just in time for Marie and husband Xander to fill the last 2 spots on the roster. The Brooklynites joined the Van 1 contingent who came from Maine, New Mexico, and xxx as the non-Phila members of the team. Most legs allowed the vans to follow (but not pace) their runners, so we were able to drive ahead, cowbells ringing, to urge the team on.  It was about this time we noticed a group of young shirtless men running very fast, and we quickly dubbed them “D1” as they looked like the Villanova guys hitting the country roads for a workout. They were in fact the Reading Area Track Club and had made up their hour handicap on us about half way through Marie’s leg.  Movin’!.  Xander took a fast leg 8 passing to me on a pretty stretch of road near New Holland.

At 5:35 PM, nearly 11 hours after the start of the day I was finally running!  A tailwind pushed me the first 2 miles then a crosswind nearly knocked me down.  I passed 5 runners and Lady Di chalked the “kills” on the side of Highlander. Di took her proper leg and passed to the other John - this one being Goldthorp of fame, and also local expert commentator for the 2017 Broad St RunTV coverage.  At 7:30 PM +/- John passes to Maddy our last Van 2 runner.  We are heading north and the terrain is hillier and Maddy gets about 800’ of it over 2 miles, but looks strong and is running fast.

As we cheer from the road someone checks the rulebook and notes that headlamp and reflective vests must be worn after 8- and though she is going fast she won’t make it back before then, so we do full speed running hand off of vest and headlamp and keep within the rules! After Maddy’s great hill climb Di tells us we have still only lost the initial time from Shannon’s leg.

(Talkin’ ‘Bout) NIGHT MOVES

Van 1 now takes legs 13-18 and we get to eat and rest a bit.  Pasta Salad c/o Jon C, lemon pound cake from Eataly, pretzels, NYC bagels and cream cheese, fruit salad, left over from breakfast all consumed on a delightful asphalt table outside Highlander.  A little foam rolling and we were off to Exchange 18 at Blue Marsh State Park.  It’s now completely dark, but as we enter the park it looks like a football game has just let out - there are vans everywhere! Many adorned with christmas lights - yes, we had them too.  It appears that we had finally become a part of the mid-pack. Maddy, John and I hit the grass for 30 mins of near sleep, while Marie and Xander waited word of Kristen’s arrival.

Marie’s kill count* of 21 passed confirmed that we were making up ground in a hurry.  Xander was in at 25 kills, then Jeff on a the biggest climb so far took down 29.  All this in the pitch dark.  But darkness accented by a weird fluorescent array of bibs, glow sticks, shoes with lights in the heels (do they really make those for adults?!).  The Ragnarians are an extroverted bunch and as I made my way up the climb it was like swimming through a school of iridescent tropical fish.  John hands to Maddy at “Moyer’s Large Gravel Lot” - some sort of Ag depot with animal pens, trucks and equipment mingling with the party vans.   At some point in this overnight odyssey, Maddy does, in fact, cue up “Night Moves” (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, in case you’re not a Classic Rock radio fan) and it actually sounds pretty darn good.  Van 2 all hit their marks on the overnight legs and later everyone will agree that the night moves, I mean, running was one of the best parts. 

* at some point Maddy’s many hours at GFS Quaker Meeting finally stirred her to take exception to the “kill count” obsession and ask that we downplay this and get on with the business of running, and maybe sleep a little too. We were having trouble seeing out the windows because of the hash marks anyway.

DID ANYONE CHECK A RECENT FORECAST??Our work done we cruise out to the Mahoning drive-in Theatre in Lehighton.  Really!  In an inspired move, the race organizers have us set up camp at a still viable drive-in theatre- welcome to small town America. The outdoorsmen - Maddy, Jeff and John, set up a bivouac next to Highlander, and as the words - “it’s it really great sleeping outside” escape Maddy’s mouth, a light rain starts - and then continues.  Maddy, not amused, takes the last seat in the van, while John and I man up and then actually fall asleep for several hours in a steady rain! John has had enough by 6 and by then a gray light suffuses the drive-in. We knew where we had to go next - there would be coffee, hand dryers and Egg McMuffin’s - the 24 hr Mickey D’s on the edge of Lehighton.  Oberlin and then Brooklyn living had clearly deprived Marie of joys of the McCafe as she picked over her breakfast sandwich, and shared that a torn contact had left her essentially one- eyed.  Maddy accidentally jumped the line in front of a psycho sporting an IBEW t-shirt and he nearly made her pay.  Guess the dude needed his coffee bad.  The coffee was wonderful and the rain was abating. Di missed the whole scene asleep in Highlander.  Van 1 acquitted themselves nicely on their night moves and once again Marie took the slap bracelet from Kristen for Leg 31.  We are now nearly 30 mins behind the pace calculator.  It is really hard to run fast in the dark!


We are in the heart of Pa Coal Country (or former coal country?) in Carbon County, and the landscape is carved with deep valleys, which meant some stiff climbing for Van 2’s last 6 legs. After one last session with the hand dryers, we found ourselves in the surprisingly quaint town square of Lehighton, and we waited for Marie.
She looked strong as she made the exchange w Xander.  At 10.5 miles and 1405’ of elevation gain this leg stood out as the toughest of the Relay- a fact not lost on the organizers as it warranted it’s own special medal. We intercepted Xander about halfway up the mountain running fast, but also with a nose bleed (talk about altitude!).  Intrepid wife Marie applied first aid and he didn’t miss a step and then she paced him a bit, now going down the mountain.  At the foot lay the mountain biking mecca of Jim Thorpe - a charming spot with a Victorian feel, train depot and the Lehigh River.  The race gods had provided us with a coffee stand in the town square and we ordered another round which we were enjoying when X bombed into town.  The problem with going down into a gorge is that you have to get back out, and cruelly the leg did not end for another mile up and over the river.  We were seeing very few teams now but were still gaining on those that were left, and Xman passed 2 more up the final hill.  Strangely though these guys arrived at the exchange before he did, and then one said “the guy with the tattoo and sleeveless top missed the turn!” - Xander was still headed up the mountain!  Di  jumped into Highlander and went one way, and I back tracked the other way.  She found him quickly, slogging up the 10% grade and brought him back to the exchange, where the officials said he could hand off to Jeff without penalty. He looked shattered, and surely earned the “poc-o-nooo” special medal.


By this point we had gotten the word that we were sitting somewhere in the top 10, probably top 5, and though I caught the 3 runners that had passed Xander they had earlier start times so we were already well ahead of them (I didn’t know this at the time though, so charged those the long climb out of Jim Thorpe pretty hard). The 10k  long leg flattened after the 2 mile climb, and I could feel the finish, and got the “old man legs” rolling at 6:30+/- pace to the hand off to Di.  If Xander’s Poc-o-nooo leg was the toughest, Di’s was surely the prettiest - a shady, dirt road with a gradual downhill ending on Hall Hollow Rd.  This was also the nicest exchange zone, as we had escaped mid-pack status, we shared the shoulder with only 2 vans.  John shared his fixyourrun philosophy, and we lounged in the sunshine.  Maddy and Xander talked hip-hop likes and dislikes, and generally all was right in our Ragnarian world.  John took off and then it was all up to Maddy to “finish this thing”.  

She was a little ambivalent about having the honor of breaking the tape, especially given the 8.5 mile, 626’ vertical nature of the leg.  John slammed his leg and Maddy turned onto Mecksville Rd, before some highway shoulder running to Lake Harmony and the Split Rock resort.  Van 2 waited at critical turns for encouragement and then met up with the rest of the team at the finish, which had the look at feel of a triathlon or bike race finish complete with orange themed blow-up finish arch.  The assembled Get the Hill out of the Wayer’s met Maddy 50’ from the line and trailed her through the giant orange pylons, and 25 hours 15 minutes, and 204.1 miles later we were finished!


We did crack the top 5!  Coming in 4th out of 258 teams that finished.  There were only 11 teams with DNFs - impressive. We were 2nd for mixed gender teams and 1st in the submasters division (30+).  Reading Area Track Club (aka “D1”) were 1st place in 20:45!!  An Ultra team (6 runners) - “sextuplets from different mothers” were 2nd in 23:44, and the final podium spot went to “make the moon american again”  in 24:41. 

Longest Leg:10.5mi  Xander X-man Wolverton

Most Elev Gain Leg:1480’  X-man 

Most Total Elevation Gain - 2457’  X-man 

Fastest Leg Pace (men): 6:00, leg 7, X-man
Honorable Mention - 7:11 (850’ elev gain), leg 35, John “The Fixer” Goldthorp

Fastest Leg Pace (women) - 6:37, leg 12, Maddy 
Honorable Mention - 6:47, leg 31, Marie

Kilz: 29, leg 21, Jeff 

Play with Pain Award - Jon C

Team Spirit (could there be any doubt): Lady Di

Other Notable Team Names: Ultra Amish Mafia, Worst Pace Scenario, Vans Against Humanity, Nights in Under Armor, Buddy Holla and the Shin Splints, 2 Men and a Van Fulla Divas……..see website for more entertainment of this sort.


It was fun, hard and really great to get to know Di, John, Xander and Marie.  Definitely fun running over night. Neat to get a little window into the weird world of Ragnar Relays.  It was a huge, somewhat exhausting effort to recruit the rest of the team, though the team assembled was awesome (and very fast).  It would have been nice to see Van 1 more but logistically not really possible. Doubling the running by being an ultra team might be more satisfying as it seemed like forever waiting to run, especially that first leg. I liked the vanning about and the navigating though at times the exchange zones  were too heavily dominated by cars. And a few more dirt roads and less highway shoulders would have been the nicest change to make.  The trail Ragnar might be the way  to go, if there is a future one, as they loop back to a common start/ finish. And no pavement!

Thank you to Diana for the remarkable amount of energy and organizing that made the run possible.  
Sorry Van 1, that we didn’t get to know you better, and Van 2, you guys were awesome.  25  hours in a Highlander with 2 hours of sleep and there was nary a cross world exchanged (except the father/ daughter type, and those don’t count)!  

Rock on Ragnarian’s!!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Javelina 100

"You seem like a pretty normal guy," said the man across the aisle from me on my flight to Phoenix. I had just finished telling him that I was on my way to compete in a 100 mile trail race in the desert. But during and now after this extraordinary experience, nothing about it felt normal at all. Surreal starts to get closer to what went down on October 29th and 30th.

Javelina Jundred bills itself as a Jalloween party in the desert, with special awards for costumed runners, and despite the serious business of running 100 miles, a carnival spirit pervades. My friend Mike suggested Javelina last winter and I liked the idea that I would be able to visit my brother Greg in nearby Scottsdale and help him celebrate his Halloween birthday. Many trail races are limited in size due to concerns about trail degradation or logistics, but this year's races (there is a 100k too) had over 800 registrants, 580 of them in the 100 miler. In addition to being large, the format is interesting and a bit complicated with 5 roughly equal loops that alternate direction. Add to that 100k runners starting an hour after us, and you have the potential for lots of mayhem! Mayhem Central is Javelina Jeadquarters, aka the start/ finish of each loop. Add in a runner's tent village, Freak Bros mobile pizza kitchen, an RV area, hanging skeletons, etc. and you start to get the picture.

No Shade at McDowell Mountain Park

Greg and I rolled into JQ at 5:15am. Temps were pleasant, but warm layers got left behind as 91 was the forecasted high. The day before we had concocted our cooling strategy and in the back of Greg's truck were 20 pounds of crushed ice pre-packaged to fit into pockets of my Tim Olsen race vest. Greg asked if I wanted to start the 1st loop with them? I didn't think so, but stuffed one into the back for good measure. 18 miles later on the Escondido Trail and with the sun still low in the sky I was happy for any pre-cooling effect that I might have gained. I had joined a small group that featured Tonya and Mr Tubesock. Tonya was a chatty local in a race that featured runners from all over the US (plus entries from China, Norway, Scotland, Canada and Mexico) who runs these trails weekly. We talked some about how to handle the downhills (easy) and if it would be possible to go under 20 hours? Escondido was bleak, hot and dusty and I was happy that the other loops skipped that trail. At mile 22.3 I crossed the timing mat a few minutes ahead of schedule and high-fived with Greg, who then expertly resupplied me, this time w the full compliment of ice including in my bandanna and hat.

I was back in the desert for Loop 2 with Tonya and Mr T, and found that he had 1 upped me on the cooling strategy- he had a heavy looking roll around his neck that he periodically grabbed and wrung out over his head- a tube sock filled w ice! And I thought the days of the tube sock were long over! We passed the sock back and forth for a few miles. Most of the course is on the Pemberton Trail which slowly ascends 680” over 8 miles or so. It was tempting to run the whole way, but we mixed in some walking. Total elevation gain is 7900', and as the race website states - "not flat!". Also a part our race "friend group"was a guy dressed as a glass of beer. Also observed: the big bad wolf in full granny dress (not making this up!), bacon man, a squirrel and a general category of Tinkerbells, bees, and guys in tutus (including race director Jamil Coury). I lingered a while at the AS repacking the ice bags and it took nearly 5 miles of descending to catch the Tonya group, but shortly thereafter I pulled away from them and happily crossed the timing mat back at JQ at which point I confess I played a little air guitar, inspired by the CCR on the sound system (heat induced euphoria?). Greg had the AS thing down cold at this point and I added arm sleeves soaked in ice water and grabbed a hand held bottle, as it was still only 2 o’clock. Then from the other end of the chute I hear Mike Halovatch shout my name, and to go ahead, and he would catch up to me (he was in the 100k). Before he did, I ran up on Neela, a woman we met at the packet pick up who was this year's VT 100k champ, and also a FOH (friend of Halovatch). We ran together and eventually Mike joined us as well. It was a big lift that got me all the way to Mile 52, and still pretty much on pace to break 20 hours, but increasingly my stomach was not happy. Over the course of the race I tried Coke, Tums, and broth to get it settled but nothing really worked, so I just ate what looked good - watermelon, cookies (Chips Ahoy and Oreos!), pretzels, and kept sucking the gels to keep the energy stores stocked. I didn’t catch Mike and Neela on the descent back to JQ, though I was moving fast. 62 miles were in the book and the sun was just about down, but that famous desert temperature swing was not happening - Greg said it was still nearly 80 degrees. I changed my shirt and hat and put on the head lamp. As I was leaving the camp I heard them announce that Mike was 3rd in the 100k! Each time out got a little harder to start, but I was off counter clockwise again on lap 4.

New Moon and Headlamp Running
Not long into the loop I was joined by Brandon from Vancouver who had just had a 30 min rest in the medical tent to treat his blistered feet. Clearly the rest had done him some good and we pace-lined the 10 miles back up the mountain. I was just barely hanging on and once at Jackass Junction, was really spent. I was looking forward to the night running and for the most part it was another thrilling aspect of the race - everything looks different illuminated in a beam of light and with the weirdly shaped cacti and dessert vegetation even more so. Little mice and lizards scurried past. And then there were the coyotes, yipping and making the damnedest barking noises I’ve ever heard. At one point I even saw one skirting the shadows just outside my cone of light. The quiet solo moments were the best, but the times I was in a small train of runners was also nice because we were illuminated front, back and sides. As the night and laps progressed, I could see dots of lights defining the trail ahead of me, or gradually getting brighter as they approached.

Rattlesnack Ranch, Jackass Junction, and Coyote Crossing
Are the charming names of the 3 on course aid stations, and just like desert villages each had a different character. Coyote was spartan and quiet and the closest to JQ so you were in and out quickly. Rattlesnake was on the rocky side, a relief from the uneven terrain, and on laps 4 and 5 felt like a late night diner. After descending that rocky slope on lap 4, I took a chair next to an exhausted woman who said in a thick accent, “this is nothing like Scotland”, to which I replied - “what about the West Highland Way?” The famous walking path (also an ultra run!) has miles of bleak but beautiful rocky hills. “Well, OK, but the temperate version” she conceded. Also sitting next to us were 2 dudes, I will nickname them Joker and his Sidekick - they were going up on lap 5 while I was going down on 4 - “hey, Im only 8 miles behind you guys!” and Joker gives me a smart answer like “that is such a shame”. I drink my broth and have a quesadilla (the best food of the night) and head on down the last stretch to JQ. I’m bushed and Greg says “you’re doing it, right?”. “Yep, even if I have to walk the f*cker!” Before I go I apply tape (2 laps too late) to my right toes, which I now see are pretty blistered.

With each stop it got harder to will myself to run, but each time I did so, I was surprised that I could sustain it. Much of running this far is mental trickery - just get to the funky rock, or the aid station, or catch the guy up ahead - pretty simple, but effective. I just had to get back to Rattlesnake, where I passed more bleary eyed diners, and then up the rocky 6.5 miles to Jackass. Jackass Junction, captained by bald and bearded Justin Lutik, is the roadhouse of the Javelina 100, and with each lap the scene was a bit crazier and more surreal - before, I had noticed the female volunteers in cheerleader outfits, this last visit, there were 3 buff cross-dressed guys as well. And they were taking drink orders! As much as I love my beer, it’s never worked for me in a race, so just had more Coke, but took in the dance floor w disco ball and a solo woman grooving away, as I sat on a bench way too long. 91 miles banked, and 9 to go on the sandy, friendly to the feet, side of the park. I was completely isolated now with only stragglers coming up on their 4th lap, and a few descending on their 3rd. Out of nowhere, I hear a brief pounding and then a woman in a purple top flies past - I struggle out of my stupor and will myself to catch her, but to no avail, and I’m alone again. Turns out this was the women’s winner who has done a brilliant job of working her way through the field. Catching her wake might have got me sub 21:00, but like in bike racing, you let that wheel get away,
and it’s all over. I finally hit Coyote for the last time - 3.7 miles to go! I vow to run the whole way, and after 2 miles or so, I see 2 headlamps - it’s Joker & Sidekick!! I had made up the 8 mile gap. I can only figure that they were lured into Justin’s disco and were walking it home? They did however, shout encouragement. About this time I saw the coyote and then had my only real moment of mental weakness - I just had to walk - and I could even see the lights of JQ. Soon I did snap out of it, and entered the gate of the village. It has turned strangely quiet with a low throb of a Techno beat replacing the Rock from earlier laps. I got a smattering of applause and shout outs and as I turned the final corner, of course my sidekick was still there, and 21:14 was reading on the clock! I crossed the mat, and was handed my finisher's belt buckle (a tradition in 100 mile races).

Greg got me a chair and I shucked my shoes. He checked the website and told me I was 24th place. I had no idea - I figured top 50. There were so many people on the course going different directions it was impossible to keep track. I was deeply tired and just as deeply content, my debut 100 miler was now history. I had promised the medical contingent in the family that I would not come home after being discharged from the hospital - it looks like I may lose a toenail or 2, but I didn’t even get sunburned. 20 hours was the original goal - Ceci upped the ante to top 20 as well, but considering the day, the placing was felt beyond good. It took a very long time to walk the quarter mile to his truck.

There were 285 finishers and 289 who did not! Tonya hung in there and was 4th woman in 22:30. Brandon was 20th in 20:44 - next time he should treat his own blisters! Neela beat Halovatch by 7 minutes and was 2nd woman, but was 1:45:00 behind the 1st woman who also smoked the entire field. Zach Bitter set a course record of 13:30 winning the 100 miler by 1:10:00 and clocked 1 loop at 7 minute pace - what heat? High temp for the day was 93.
New Balance Trail Gobi’s (in “moon phase” silver and gray); Tim Olsen Ultimate Direction Ice/ Hydration Vest; did wear gaiters (1 small rock all day); Millet hat with skirt and liner (thought it would make it hot, but in fact held ice without freezing my dome); Squirrel’s Nut Butter (no chafing anywhere).

The Next Day
While I was soaking in a eucalyptus scented jacuzzi bath in Scottsdale, Greg and girlfriend Steph went back to McDowell Park to retrieve my drop back bag that hadn’t made it back from Jackass the night before. The mood was upbeat again and with the noon cutoff approaching people were still finishing in under 30 hours!

Huge thanks to Greg, who went big with his first crew experience, and to Stephanie for spending her birthday catering to a hobbled runner - beyond the call of duty, and very much appreciated!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Shawangunk Ridge Trail 50 miler

Moonlight At The Bashakill
The shuttle bus from Rosendale (where the race finishes) bumped across a narrow bridge to a small parking lot, illuminated by a single light. The 8 of us (that was it!) trotted out into the misty darkness. The race director gave us waterproof maps and our race numbers and a few navigational tips before the 6 AM start.

The Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run & Hike (SRT) is a "minimalist" race - no goodie bag with junk you don't need; no trail markings (hence the map!); no aid stations, just check points; no pacers; no water. Just you and the trail. But with 1 modern twist - a .gpx file of the course and app to run on your phone.

The race had actually already started the day before with the real hardcore, starting 12 hours earlier and another 20 miles south at High Point State Park in NJ, running over night hoping to cover the entire 72 miles of the SRT. There would be others starting later going for 30 and 13 miles. We would all hopefully converge on Rosendale, NY later in the day.

Headlamps on, we were underway.

Sandal Bro's
As almost never happens to me, I ended up finding 2 racers who wanted to run my pace. Bill and Tim were a few meters ahead of me, and illuminated in my headlamp beam I could see they were both wearing sandals. I'm not talking Nike, Teva, fancy almost-look-like-shoe sandals - these were kind of dainty- simple leather straps, thin bottom. Wow, I hope they know where they are headed? Turns out that Bill had just done the Machu Pichu marathon so it gave me some confidence that he would make it. We ran along the old D&H canal path until daylight and then into Wurtsburo for the only paved section of the course (which we complained about - ha). By mile 6 we were on the trails again, and I marveled at how the two of them could dance around the rocks and roots without tripping. And they even had all their toe nails! After about 10-12 miles, including a few missed turns, I needed to get into my own rhythm - my back, ankle and hips were all tight and I thought if I pushed a bit more it would help, so I waved bye to the Sandal Bro's and headed out along the first of many Ridge line traverses.

Fire And Footbaths
In the spring of 2016, 8000 acres of forest in the Minewaska State Park burned in one of the largest NY wild fires in recent history. The section of the park that contains the SRT, Sam's Point, is officially closed but since we were few, and apparently deserving special treatment we were allowed in - with conditions. Namely a shoe wash prior to entering at mile 20. A volunteer thoroughly scrubbed the bottoms to rid them of potential invasives before sending us up the biggest climb of the day - South Gully Trail, 1400' up. She also noted that is was 10:15, so I had been at this for 4 hours plus and the fun hadn't really even begun. She also said the lead guy came through at 9:30!

The forest was oddly quiet and the trail looked like early spring, with lots of leaves, sticks and deadfall. As in most ultras this was a “walk a bit/ run a bit” proposition and plenty hard. Part 2 of our special treatment was a "reroute" off the top of South Gully adding 2+ miles to the route and a net gain in the climbing department as well. The detour, however, took us to the high point (2295’) of the Gunks via the aptly named, High Point Trail which ended up being a highlight of the day. It did though introduce a new sort of wayfinding experience (to be repeated many times as the day went on): following hieroglyphic like paint splotches over huge limestone slabs which lay amidst a vast plateau of laurel and scrub oak thickets.

This frequently required jumps down, or scrambles up - as much like gymnastics as running. About 1/2 way around High Point I came upon Anna, a 70 mile racer. She was sitting on one of the slabs resting. We chatted, then I moved on, made a wrong turn and circled back to her! After that I slowed down so I could scout more carefully. The sun was now fully out and directly overhead and the 2.5 liters of water I started with was nearly gone. At mile 26, the detour rejoined the SRT.

Food and Water for 12+ Hours
Due to the recent drought, most steam beds we crossed were dry, leading the race organizers to allow water at the last 3 check points. The only problem was that they occurred in the last 15 miles of the course which I wouldn’t reach until 8 hours into the run. I can't say why, but when I stopped at lake Maratanza, I splashed off, but did not fill my hydration pack. I could see Mud Pond and Lake Awosting were not that far away and by the time I reached them (mile 28) I was really needing water. I bushwhacked through brambles to try and reach the edge of Mud Pond, but turned back. Then detoured to Awosting (mile 29) and encountered a 20' ledge and again was thwarted. I sucked a few gels for the liquid and ran on. I was moving comfortably, but getting frustrated as the Scenic Trail and the orange blazed Rainbow Trail involved more crazy scrambles and paint blazes on rock.
Note: Lavender blaze indicating trail
I promise, if you look hard there really is a trail!
Just past the Castle Point Carriage Rd (mile 32) I started hearing voices coming from above--wait, those really are voices! I had just pulled a rock climbing move to swing around an outcrop and I nearly bumped into 2 hikers, who asked me if I was in a race? I replied while eyeing the water bottle bulging from his pack- "could I have a sip?" About a 1/2 a liter later I was finished drinking. Maybe they really were angels? About this time I met my next 70 miler. He was cursing that he had missed the orange blaze and did a complete loop around Castle Point, back to where he started! I descended to Rainbow Falls, dripped a few mouthfuls from the pathetic trickle and climbed hard, and then my second set of angel-hikers with water. I guess I looked like I needed help, but then again enjoying the vista from a rock in the Gunks must make people happy and generous. The Rainbow Trail ends with a crossing of Peters Kill- looking pretty brackish and slow, I almost ran on, but did find a bit of a pool and finally filled my pack!

In most ultras you can supplement the food you carry with a drop bag or choose from a table full of goodies, both sweet and savory, eagerly assisted by volunteers. At Laurel Highlands you could have a grilled cheese, made right on the spot! For the SRT, I carried it all: gels, blocks, pretzels, a bagel with peanut butter, Oreos, trail mix, sweet n salty bars - not knowing exactly what would taste good at the time, or how long I would be out there. I ate virtually all 3500 calories worth, everything but the bagel really, which supposed to be lunch, but due to the water shortage (see above) couldn't manage.

Jenny and the Undivided Lot
After the water stop, the route took me to the delightfully straight(ish) and smooth(ish) blue blazed Jenny Lane Trail (mile 34.5). Ahh, I could actually stretch out and make some time. Then I finally reached that checkpoint with the water!! - CP#4 at Minnewaska SP (mile 37.5), and also caught my first 30 miler. Of course the smooth sailing didn't last, and after a euphoric moment at the checkpoint my energy level was dipping when I hit the brutally steep and rocky High Peters Kill Trail - a climb that takes you to a gap between 2 high knobs - Whale’s Head and Dickie Barre. It finally did level out for some nice ridge running in a pretty forest, and eventually got me to CP#5 (mile 41.5).

As I'm sure you have gathered, the SRT is not really a trail but a collection of trails stitched together, many with delightful names - Warwarsing Turnpike, Old Minewaska, and my favorite, the Undivided Lot Trail! The light was fading by the time I got on Undivided, so roughly 12 hours in, but it was another mostly straight bit and I was running smoothly, knowing that at its end was the final checkpoint at Spring Farm trailhead, meaning only 6 miles to Rosendale! I nearly gave my headlamp to a volunteer at CP#5, who asked if she could bring anything back to the start. Wow, was not giving into that impulse a bit of good luck, as somewhere after the last grueling last climb up Chapel Hill (Lord have mercy), it was dark. Running in the dark is sort of fun, but also creepy- it was still very warm and even more humid with bugs in the headlamp beam and animal noises in the woods. I knew we eventually joined a straight and flat bit of rail trail just outside Rosendale, but it never seem to come. I was also thinking of my daughter who had been waiting since before my poorly predicted 6:00 PM (at the latest!) arrival.

Trestle and the Finish

The Rosendale Trestle is a cool relic from days past when the canals and railways dominated the Hudson River area and also is only a 1/2 mile from the finish. I picked up the pace some as I hit the planks and just on the other side, caught sight of a girl with a dog! Maddy and Andy (the dog) ran with me to the finish at the Binnewater Kilns. 13 hours and 55 minutes and 53.5 miles later, the Shawangunk traverse was complete! The finish line scene was kind of like the start - a parking area with one corner illuminated, but this time with music and a tent. Race director Todd, who probably had less sleep than any of the runners, was trying to get more pizza delivered from town, handing out water and IPA’s, and occasionally playing air guitar. About 10 runners and volunteers remained, mostly sprawled in lawn chairs, some soaking their feet, but all looking very content. Cheers went up when a headlamp beam bobbed across the road to the finish.

Adam the 50 mile winner was in at 12:29; I was 2nd place. Bill and Tim stayed together and finished in 16:12. There were 2 other 50 mile finishers. 10 out of 16 finished the 70 with times ranging from 21 to 28 hours! Last spring, in the same mountains, but on carriage roads, my time for Rock the Ridge 50 miler was 7:32! The SRT was a different sort of race for sure.

New Balance Vazee Summit's were great all day- good for rock climbing and running, and lightweight. Osprey Rev 1.5 was probably bigger than I needed, but fit well even with 8-10 pounds of water and and food; and the ”digiflip" pocket for the phone was so convenient. The All Trails GPS app for iPhone was also lifesaver - crystal clear maps and controls. Sawyer carbon water filter took care of the nasty stuff in the Peters Kill, and weighs next to nothing. Lulu Surge shorts and t-shirt (now worn around the world for 7 years) are just right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mohonk Preserve Rock the Ridge 50 Mile Challenge

The forest fire at Sam’s Point had grown from 300 to nearly 2000 acres by Wednesday Apr 27. Sam’s Point, also part of the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County NY, is only a few miles from the western edge of the Rock the Ridge course and threatened to jeopardize the race. Fortunately Mother Nature delivered timely wet and cool weather and we got word on Thursday night that the fire was nearly out and that the race was a go! 

I was looking for a spring 50 miler and was nearly headed back to nearby Bear Mountain, but a casual conversation with my friend Keith, a life long hiker and enthusiast for the Shawangunks, led me to enter the RTR Challenge. As I considered the crushed stone carriage path versus the frequently unrunnable rocks at Bear Mountain my feet and ankles were already feeling happy and thankful.

Rock the Ridge is billed as a “challenge” not a “race”. Inspired by JFK’s 1963 fitness challenge to the US Marines to be able to march 50 miles in 20 hours, the Mohonk Preserve created a hike/ run/ relay event based roughly on the same parameters - an inclusive event that allows for both ultra runners and those up for a hard day’s walk in the mountains. The other distinctive feature of the event is that it is run almost exclusively on the remarkably engineered and well maintained carriage roads that are part of the 8000 acre preserve.

I hoped that my long runs on the forest roads and ridges of the Pocono Plateau would be good “race specific” training, and I toed the line with two 50k’s completed in 2016 and feeling fit. Keith and my daughter Ceci both made the trip up the night before, and we had a somewhat non traditional pre-race German dinner at the Mountain Brauhaus. Keith provided transport to the start in his antique Alfa Romeo, and Ceci was scheduled to meet me on course for miles 25 through 38. As an architect and lover of rustic mountain camps and lodges, the start alone might have justified the race as it begins below the graceful arch of the Testimonial Gatehouse. The Gatehouse was where guests entered the grounds of the Mohonk Mountain House before being delivered by carriage to the hotel itself.

The overnight rain had stopped and the sky was clearing just in time for the 6:00 AM start. Temps were about perfect at around 40 with a predicted high in the mid- 60’s, with a mix of sun and clouds. 300 people were registered divided pretty evenly between hikers, runners and relayers. The race description showed 7000’+ of elevation gain (though my Garmin clocked a bit less) but despite that, given the good surface, I thought a 50 mile PR was possible, and though local old guy, Ken Posner, had run 7:15:00 in 2015, I thought 1st master might be a long shot as well.

The first 10 miles proved to be the most challenging of the day, though my problems probably started before the whistle. I optimized sleep over more time to eat, pre-race, but still wanted to pack in the calories. I had looked for those 100% fruit juice bottles at our coop, but only found something called a “yogurt smoothie” that I chugged minutes before the start. The first 5 miles takes you up onto the ridge on a manageable but steep grade. I felt sluggish and bloated but more and more these days my starting miles are hard - something akin to the tin man, getting all the rusty joints working again. We passed some pretty farms and entered the forest still climbing. The problem started to define itself as GI related and I was asking myself “was that first aid station at 9 miles or 12??”. By mile 7 there was no more debating and I headed into the woods. I lost time and heard a half dozen runners crunch past, but was much improved once back on the path. And then able to push hard on some nice downhills.

One aspect of having relay runners among the rest of the pack (without an obviously different race number) is that it was hard to tell what place you are in. I got a report early that I was 12th and figured that seemed about right but at the same time thought I might need to get a bit out of my comfort zone, so ran up some hills that normally I would be inclined to walk. This included a very long climb from miles 12 to 15 that culminated in another impressive piece of architecture - a limestone monument with at the top of a mountain (1500’) with views galore.

After a quick gaze at the structure and the Catskills in the distance, I put in some fast downhill miles that culminated in another aid station where to my surprise someone told me that I was the 5th individual! During those first 15 miles I jockeyed for position with about about 8-10 others, but then I entered a long lonely stretch and was seemingly the only person in the park (I guess they all loved that aid station?). It was also one of the few places that was not so charming and without a view! Not even a great surface - but I was on a pretty good pace and feeling good. I had packed my phone and checked in with Ceci to make sure she wasn’t still in bed. She was, in fact, eating the amazing breakfast at the Inn that I had to substitute the yogurt smoothie for! And still on schedule for the Lyons Rd meet up.

I started hitting 8- 8:30 pace and soon made it to Lyons Rd where Ceci was shouting encouragement, refilled my hydration pack and got a fresh supply of gels. Quickly we were off for the last of the major climbing for the day - a high circuit around Minnewaska State Park. The amazing limestone rock formations and cliffs are a major part of the landscape here, and we probably spent a bit too much time picture taking.

The grading of the carriage roads is so perfect that no climb seems too hard to run and with Ceci to urge me on, we tackled the long miles to Castle Point (2194’). I knew the elevation, and kept looking at my altimeter and stating definitively as we jogged in and out of the cliff edge - “this has to be it!”. Between the views and the picture taking this section went quickly despite the elevation gain. Then we plunged down, losing 1200’ over the next 6 miles. I was fatiguing and we did some side stepping/ skipping drills to loosen up as we headed back to Lyons Rd (mile 38), where I shed my pack, changed shirts and said good bye to Ceci.

After the aid station you double back on the course, and I seemed to meet the bulk of the racers coming the other way, most of whom shouted encouragement. It was still long, flat and tough. Once past Rt 44 the route picked up Undercliff Carriage Rd, a rock climbing mecca and one of the coolest section of the day. Note that, since the obelisk at mile 15 to this point, mile 38, we saw only 2 other runners going our direction, so it had been pretty much a solo affair, and though watching the climbers on their pads, and rappelling down from above, should have been interesting, mostly I felt out of energy. I had stopped keeping my splits when I was running w Ceci but now changed modes to see how it was going. Not great - 38, 39, 40, 41, were slow shuffling affairs engendering thoughts about “why” and “how will I ever do a 100 miler?” At the final aid station the volunteers perked up (I always felt like I was taking them by surprise) and seemed to know for sure that I was the 5th individual, which perked me up! And though not as dramatic as the cliffs this was a delightful small track winding through some pretty woods.

After all the down hill, at mile 44 you encounter the long slow final climb of the day, which curiously felt pretty good. It was quiet and peaceful and I locked into a zen like state where somehow you are going strong, but you are not sure exactly where the energy is coming from. Then I spotted one of the small 5 mile interval trail markers that meant I had made it to mile 45! The ridge, however, was still a few minutes off. I also thought I glimpsed a human shadow up ahead. Then as I came through the pass I clearly saw a guy a few switchbacks below. I didn’t know if he was a relay guy or individual but I reeled him in and passed without asking, and just said “good job”. More nice downhills and with 3 to go, Ceci appears again. She confirms the 5th place and says there are still 2 guys on the course between me and the finish. I go harder over the next mile with her at my side, but don’t catch sight of them.

With 2 miles to go we rejoin Lenape Lane which coincides with the first 2 miles- it is farmland and more open, but I still can’t see the gatehouse nor 3rd and 4th place due to one more small rise. Ceci peels off to retrieve the car and I am energized, and hoping for a chase to the end but once over the knoll it is just me and the allee of trees leading to the finish. I can’t quite see the clock but it is definitely a day for a PR. I go under the arch at 7:32:15 to enthusiastic cheering from the small crowd and a high 5 from the race director and a hug from Ceci. Now that is an ending to savor! Then I think I hear the timer says something about “first master”, and the RD comes over for another handshake and framed photo for my prize. “I won’t tell you how many years I’ve been a master, but I’ll take it!

For perspective, first and second place were in over an hour ahead of me, running over a minute per mile faster! And another fun fact - while chatting with 4th placer, Ken, I learned that we are practically neighbors in Philadelphia!

A few more field notes: my New Balance Hiero's (with Fresh Foam!) were awesome-no blisters, no hurting and just the right amount of cush and support; not sure if the aid stations were offering it, but a bit of real food like a ham and cheese sandwich (seriously) would have been good- I only took gels and blocks and a few pretzels and could have used a few more cals; your arms get tired too in a 7 hour race and the arm swinging and twisting we did really helped; and of course, NEVER, NEVER experiment with things on race day - i.e. Yogurt smoothies!

The Gunks are an amazing place- check them out!
Keith - thanks for opening a new door to unique place.
Ceci, another adventure in the book- well done as always!