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!

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