North Face Endurance Challenge: Trailing My First 50K

One of the biggest difficulties in the area of ultrarunning seems to be getting agreement on how to define the term.  There are at least two camps on this subject, and the concepts that are part of the greater discussion are complex and sometimes confusingly intertwined.

Perhaps it would help to start by distinguishing two primary terms:

Ultrarunning – this is commonly ascribed to running long distances, or for long periods of time.  It doesn’t necessarily carry with it specific time or distance parameters.  In an informal sense, it’s typically construed to mean “a lot of running,”  but without enumerated parameters, the term is somewhat nebulous.

Ultramarathon – this term is more specific than ultrarunning because of its invocation of the word ‘marathon.’  Most people will agree that a marathon is a distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (or 42.2 km), so it follows that most will also agree that an ultramarathon is comprised of any distance that is greater than 42.2K.

Many questions abound about how to tie the two terms into one.  It might be helpful to the sport of running to do so, as it would quell all the debate, and allow folks to devote their energies more to their physical pursuits than to arguing with their running brethren.  But much like the quest in physics to define a Grand Unification Theory, arriving at a broadly accepted common denominator for ultrarunning seems, well . . . distant.

For the way I like to look at it, ultrarunning is when a person undertakes a long run that devours an especially large chunk of time.  The run can be on road or trail, and can range from the formally timed (such as a race) to running without a watch.  In that sense, I have considered myself an ultrarunner for quite some time, despite having never run in an official ultramarathon event.

With the above all being said, I ran my first ultramarathon two Saturdays ago at Bear Mountain, NY, as part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series.   Like all of the other events in the series, the Bear Mountain event was a two-day affair, with Saturday May 7th featuring the Marathon, 50K, and Gore-Tex 50 Mile events, and Sunday May 8th hosting the 5K, 10K and Half Marathon.  All of the races in the 2011 series (5 regional events across the country) are on trails, and the Bear Mountain races take you on some of the gnarliest trails you’ll ever run!

My task was to complete the 50K, but the task began well before May 7th.   I had been doing longer distance training since the first part of the year, including a 32-mile run around the island of Manhattan in late January, and several multi-hour trail runs in Harriman State Park since the melting of the snow in late March.  With my five previous experiences at the Escarpment Trail Run, coupled with my winter distance training, I was confident that I was ready to tackle 31 miles of mountain trails.

And so it was that the day began at 5:00am with a subtle nudge from my phone alarm clock.  I’d been a ‘good doobie’ (a phrase I learned from my mom while growing up) and laid out my clothes and race bag the night before, so all that needed to be done was to have my breakfast and morning coffee, and by 5:30 my girlfriend Catherine and I were out the door and on our way to Harriman State Park.  We arrived at the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area a mere 20 minutes later, and I’ll publicly admit now that I had pangs of guilt in having such a short trip to the race venue.  Friends I had spoken to later that day told me that they’d gotten up at 4:00am, and even one person as early as 3:30am.  I thought to myself “Isn’t it nice to have this fabulous park right in my own back yard?”

My friend and training partner Kevin was already there waiting for us when Catherine and I arrived, and 10 minutes later my friend Paul fell into formation with us as well.  Cath took a few pictures of the three of us, and then bid us adieu as we made our way over to the line for the shuttle bus to the race start.  The bus ride was short and uneventful, with one exception – just as we pulled into the Bear Mountain parking lot, a girl on the back of the bus began sobbing almost uncontrollably.  Upon someone’s asking, she said “no, no, it’s OK, I always cry like this at the start of races.”  It made me recall a time early on in my own racing history when I would customarily vomit prior to the beginning of a big race event.  I’m glad those days are behind me, but I couldn’t help but be sympathetic to this fellow runner.

The starting area was full of activity.  During the 45 minutes or so of pre-race, I saw a number of running friends, and I kicked it about with many of them in between Kevin, Paul and I all trying to pick up our race numbers, check our drop bags, and make the requisite visit to the port-a-johns.  The most notable cluster of friends was a group from the Essex Running Club in New Jersey.  I’d known my friend Ellen since last summer when she joined me on one of my runs in the Harriman trail project, had met Mark during a Meetup run in the park last month, and was introduced to Glenn and Jane the week before at the Leatherman’s Loop trail race.  But a new person to me was their friend Stephen, and he rounded out a great group of folks who really know how to have a good time on the trails.

After getting my bib and timing chip in place and addressing my call of nature, I ran into my friend Jim from the North Face.  He was (and still is) the volunteer coordinator for the event, and as I spoke to him fondly about my volunteer experience last year, I watched him speak, and could tell without a doubt that he loved this event as much as I did, and would probably choose to associate himself with it for a long time to come.  But my chat with Jim was cut short, as the 7:00am start time was swiftly approaching, and shortly after Kevin, Paul and I took our positions near the back of the pack, we heard the horn, and we were off!

The immediate question, which I entertained quietly in my own mind, was “What’s the proper pace?”  I had made a commitment to run the entire race with Kevin (barring some circumstance that would prevent one or the other of us from continuing), but I knew from our training that I was probably a slightly stronger runner than he was, so I felt as if I pretty much had to let him set the pace.  And so I did, and for the first couple of miles, I alternated between hanging back with Paul, dashing ahead to be sure I was still in contact with Kevin, and bridging the gap between them.  At about 3 miles into the race, I let Kevin go (figuring that I would catch up with him later), and ran with Paul for a bit.  But by the time we reached the 3.9-mile aid station, I was waiting on Paul, and Kevin was waiting on both of us, so it was clear that we weren’t all three going to be able to run together for much longer.

As we pulled away from the aid station, Paul quickly lost contact again, and without vocalizing it, Kevin and I set about on our own pace, knowing that Paul would take nothing personally over our actions – he would run his own race, and would have a great time in the process!  It was at about this point that it felt like the race really began for me.  I’d run the course at least two times before, so I had the luxury of it all being familiar.  But this was the first time that I had raced it, so there was a bit of heightened excitement, and I felt my adrenaline kicking in as we made our way around Silvermine Lake and up Letterrock Mountain to the William Brien Shelter.

During this segment of the race, my friend Mark was running apace with Kevin and I, and I engaged him in a discussion about a mutual acquaintance of ours who seemed to have a double identity.  By the time that discussion was over, we were around the other side of the lake and almost to the next aid station.  As Kevin and I briefly stopped for bottle refills and a couple of quick snacks, I reflected fondly for a moment on a run I had done through here last August.  It was a different experience altogether to run it alone than it was to share it with others in a race setting, and although I was having a GREAT time today, it struck me for a brief moment that the greater joy was to be going it solo.

We made our way through a short section of pine forest beyond the Silvermine parking lot, crossed over Seven Lakes Drive, passed Nawahunta Lake, and then made a right turn onto a fire road that would take us all the way out to the junction of the Long Path.  The fire road section came and went somewhat unceremoniously, but upon making the left-hand turn onto the Long Path, the ‘fun’ truly began.  😉

A bit of a bog defined the next section of the race, and along with it was our first significant experience with mud.  Gratefully, there were ways to run around the muddiest areas, and that was exactly what we did, not wanting to get our feet wet knowing that there were still a good 22 miles yet to go in this challenging day.    But beyond the mud was the biggest climb of the day, and climb we did!   It wasn’t a fast climb to be sure – Kevin and I walked often.  But despite the precipitous nature of the trail, we never stopped, and over the course of the next couple of miles, we found ourselves passing quite a few people.  This was a pattern that would persist for the last 20 miles of the race, as it turned out.

After doing a hand over fist climb near the top of Stockbridge Mountain, we passed another shelter, and after several more ups and downs (one of them being the highest point of elevation in the race, at over 1300 feet), we made a left, then a right, and followed the Appalachian Trail all the way into the Arden Valley Aid station at the end of mile 14.  I’d been psychologically anticipating this aid station since the start, as this was the aid station I had captained in the 2010 race, and which was again being manned by my Orange Runners Club friends for a second year in a row.  My friend Joe was the captain this year, and he and all the others (Carolyn, Chris, Dave, Deanna and Brian) greeted me with a smile and a lot of encouragement.  Kevin and I took a 5 minute break here, and while we ate and re-hydrated, I introduced him to my friends in the ORC.  Our time when we moved out of Arden Valley was 3 hours exactly, and not only were we on well on schedule for a 7-hour finish, but the worst part of the course was now behind us.

The next 3/4 of a mile of the course was on the roads, and after ducking into the woods and soft-shoeing it through a small swamp, we hopped onto the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail.  Just after leaving the aid station I mentioned to Kevin that this next section was the easiest part of the course, but that we shouldn’t get excited.  “Let’s just put it into 2nd or 3rd gear and hold it there, OK?” I said.  “I wanna keep some reserves for the last 10 miles.”  Kevin was on board with all that, and the running was fairly easygoing all the way to the next aid station back at the Anthony Wayne Rec Area.  But only a half a mile before reaching Anthony Wayne, Kevin rolled his ankle, and I shuddered.   “How bad?” I asked him.  “Medium bad.” he replied, and so I encouraged him to keep moving, even if it be at a slower pace.  I knew that if it was killing him, he could have the medics evaluate him when we got to the aid station.

But as we continued, he seemed to be ok, and so I felt I could move on to my next worry, which was whether or not we would see Catherine at the aid station.  She had planned an 11:15am arrival time there based on my predicted 11:30 arrival.  But we were ahead of schedule, and it looked as though we were going to beat her there.  I told Kevin I was NOT going to run through without seeing her, knowing how bad she’d feel about it!   But my worry turned out to be unwarranted, as we appeared at 11:16am or so, and she was already in position, relaxing on the lawn and waving at us as we approached.

OK, so we were at 21 miles now, and there was still a lot of work left, but we were starting to smell the finish.   After a quick bite and fillup of my handheld at the aid station, Catherine took a couple of pictures of us, we handed her our shirts (it was getting too warm to keep them on), and set off across the parking lot toward the next trail.   Here at Anthony Wayne was the first time we’d been in the open sun,  and it felt uncomfortable.  As we neared the woods, thinking of Kevin’s ankle I said to him “OK, just 10 miles left, and there’s no ‘not finishing’ now.  Even if we have to walk it in, we’re finishing.”  Kevin gave me a smile that told me that what I had just said was unnecessary.  We were going to finish…

We ran pretty happily over the next few miles, taking on our 2nd to last appreciable climb (The Pines, on the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail) in the process.  But as we went down the other side of the mountain, something must have happened, as Kevin started to wince and complain that his calves were starting to seize up.  At this point we were only about a mile from the next aid station, so I told him to run heel-to-toe and then push off with each stride, hoping it would stretch out his calf muscles.  But it seemed to do little good, so I told him to be sure and take a salt capsule (S-cap) at the next aid station.

Stopping again for a few minutes there at the Queensboro aid station, Kevin took his salt – for reasons I’m unsure about – in the form of a cracker with a bunch of salt poured on it.  It seemed odd to me, but hey, salt is salt, so I felt pretty sure it would help him.  We were now at roughly the marathon mark in the race, and we were approaching the last major climb – a gut wrenching ascent into Timp Pass, which was situated about halfway up a mountain of the same name.    I was thinking that if he could just get up and over this last hump, Kevin would probably be OK.

But as we strode along the woods road that began our trip up the mountain, he was already starting to make further complaints about his calves.  Twice more Kevin’s leg muscle seized up on him, and finally he told me to just go.  “You keep going, Todd.” he said with a grimace.  I felt bad, but being that we had agreed from the start that we would split up if one or the other of us couldn’t continue, I honored the agreement and kept moving, knowing that he would only feel bad if I didn’t.

As I plodded up the mountainside, I, too, had to stop a couple of times, but in my case it was to get a breather.  We were now well into the 6th hour of this odyssey and my wind was starting to gradually take its leave of me.  When I finished the climb into the pass, I noted the trailhead markings of the Red Cross Trail, arguably the most annoying of all the trails in the park, and decided to sit down on a rock and wait for Kevin. Two or three other runners passed me as I waited (one asking me if everything was OK, as many helpful runners will do), and then Kevin appeared.   He looked fairly good, so I hopped up off my rock and began to lead us down the menace that is the Timp Pass Road.  This next section was downhill, and began as fairly level ground.  But before long it was a jumbled mess of chopped up rocks – and combined with the downhill slope, was a sprained ankle just waiting to happen.

Kevin, sensing more difficulty afoot with his aggravated calves, urged me to ‘go’ once again as he lagged further in his pace.  We were less than 4 miles from the finish now, and I knew he would make it come hell or high water, so I gave him a smile and off I went, this time for good.  Upon finishing up on the Timp Pass Rd, the course meets with a woods road that was once an actual road in the extinct hamlet of Doodletown.  I soon came upon the final aid station at the 27.8 Mile mark – a mere 5K left to go – and I joked around with the volunteers as I made haste in continuing back onto the race course.

There was one last notable turn, a right-hander onto a ski trail that was just as runnable as the main Doodletown road had been.  The ski trail would wind around a small mountain and then bring us to the Doodletown Reservoir, a site not seen since mile 2.5.  As I traversed the final stretches of the race, I had the psychological good fortune of passing a number of people, which not only gave me a boost, but made the running seem all the easier.  For sure, the last 3-4 miles of the race are very runnable and welcome after 27 or 28 miles of tough going.

In the last mile or so I began passing runners going in the other direction wearing red bibs.   I was puzzled as to their identity, but would learn when I got to the finish that they were all marathon relay runners, each running a 6.5-mile loop course on some of the same ground that we had run.

I got within earshot of the finish, where I could hear the cheering and other crowd noise, and my face lit up.  “Holy cr@p, I made it!!” I thought to myself.   And with my peacock feathers proudly fanned out behind me, I dashed out of the woods and onto the grounds of the Bear Mountain recreation area.  Two hundred yards later I was running beneath the red archway of the North Face Endurance Challenge finish line, and quickly collected my finisher’s medal from a volunteer.    Wow.   It felt pretty great.  🙂

Fortunately, I had seen Catherine about 75 yards from the finish line, waving to me and even taking my picture as I approached.  I turned around and quickly made my way back to her to collect another finisher’s prize – a hug and kiss from the sweetest lady on Earth.    We began to chat about my race, but before we could really get started, Kevin appeared, and looking quite good as he tore across the finish line only a minute and a half behind me.  It was clear that he had simply said ‘no’ to his uncooperative calves and let it all hang out over the last 3 miles.   I was so proud of him !!

After a bit of celebrating the achievement, Kevin and I did a some race recapping, and he could hardly stop smiling as we talked about our travails.  In all honesty, neither our conversation nor this writeup could do proper justice to the 6+ hours we had spent out there in the woods battling the mountain trails.  And speaking of battling, Kevin had some nice, ripe trail rash from a fall he’s taken on the Bockey Swamp Trail in the 17th mile, his “badge of courage” I suppose.

As Kevin, Catherine and I were milling around and chatting with other runners, Paul crossed the finish line, and I’m sure he felt the same sense of accomplishment as Kevin and I.  This wasn’t Paul’s first 50K, or even his first North Face Endurance Challenge (he ran the one in San Francisco last December), so he was very much the veteran among the three of us.  But after catching his breath and taking off his shoes, he confessed to us that this one was pretty hard, and of course, we were all in agreement on that!

I won’t give the complete chapter & verse on the post-race except to say that it was hot standing (and even sitting) in the sun, but there was good vegetarian chili at the food tent, and a nice Captain Lawrence Pale Ale to be had at the beer truck, so all was well. 🙂 By the time Cath and I got back home it was after 4:00pm – it had been a long day.  And it was time to celebrate my first ultramarathon !

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About Todd Jennings

I am a runner, a father, a philosopher, and a writer. I am also a seeker. Among the things that I seek are beauty and truth. From an external perspective, I've found both of those things when I run in the woods or on the quiet trails of the mountain tops . With each new run, more truth and beauty reveals itself to me. And so I keep running....
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4 Responses to North Face Endurance Challenge: Trailing My First 50K

  1. PVPatrick says:

    Ugh…when you passed me, I admit the breeze felt good for a second, but what I really needed was a tow to the finish! Congrats on the strong finish to your first “official” ultramarathon!
    See you Wednesday!!

  2. Trail Todd says:

    Thanks, Patrick. And congratulations to you, too. Tow in or no tow in, you did a great job!

  3. Steven Cohen says:

    I hike in Harriman sp weekly. how about north face cleaning up all the direction signs left after your event strewn all over the trails.

    • Trail Todd says:

      Yes Steven, after that event there are certainly a LOT of trail ribbons to clean up. Each summer I see quite a few leftover ribbons that their trail sweeps apparently missed. Many times I will stop and clean it up myself, tucking the blue, orange or pink ribbon into my Camelbak. All in all I think they have about 75 unique miles of trail to clean up; it’s a big task, and I don’t envy them…

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