This event started with a Wednesday night red eye flight from Seattle, WA to Newark, NJ (New York City). As soon as I hit the ground the race began! The actual North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile trail race at Bear Mountain NY didn’t start until Saturday morning, but the race to get to the event was on. My first obstacle was navigating the New Jersey transit system. I always thought that “origin” referred to where you where starting from rather than where you were going, but I guess New Jersey Transit disagrees. Luckily there was a transit official there to set me straight :-). After navigating myself to New York City I spent the day seeing great friends, doing my last training run, having famous New York pizza, picking up my race packet, eating a giant steak, and then driving north out of the city to my friend’s house near the race location. Once I reached my friend’s house, I passed out for around 10 hours getting some much needed rest.
The Friday before the race is always a very well planned out day that includes plenty of eating and relaxation in the form of large, well rounded meals and a movie. This time around it was the movie Thor, which despite so so reviews, I liked. My friend David and I were both running the race and our wake up call was for 2:30am for a 5am start at Bear Mountain. This meant that, because my body was still on west coast time, I’d feel like I was waking up at 11:30pm on Friday night. I struggled to get to sleep, which is normal for me the night before a race. I don’t think that it’s so much the nerves as much as it’s just hard for me to fall asleep so early, not to mention I was really excited for this race. Do you remember when you were little and how it felt when you were trying to sleep before you knew you were going to Disneyland the next day? That’s how I felt! Just EXCITED! I tried to make myself sleepy by reading Dean Karnazes’s new book “Run”, but after a chapter I was just getting more pumped up. I finally fell asleep around 11pm. 3.5 hours isn’t that bad….
My eyes flipped open at 2:29am, a minute before my alarm was to sound. I just laid there waiting for it, to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. After the sound of the chiming harp that is my alarm, I jumped out of bed and headed to the kitchen for pre-race porridge. This is kind of like a cream of wheat on steroids. After breakfast I added protein powder and Nuun to my CamelBak, showered up, put on my race gear, and we headed out the door for the race. It was important that we got to the race site by 4:30am in order to check our race drop bags. These are bags that you have available to you at designated places on the course. The bags usually have things like extra shirts, socks, sandwiches, or whatever you think you’ll need down the stretch of the race. As we were pulling up to the race site, I realized that I had forgotten my CamelBak at the house. We didn’t have time to drive back to get it, so I had to improvise. Knowing that The North Face sells gear at the events, I was hoping that they would have something available that I could buy before the race. Unfortunately their gear vendors weren’t there at the early hour of 5am. The best thing I could get my hands on was an aluminum 20 ounce water bottle that Gortex was giving out to the participants of the 50 mile race. My first reaction to this mess that I got myself into was complete shock, but after thinking about it I remembered that a lot of the top racers only carried 1-2 hand held water bottles during the races to keep the additional weight to a minimum. I would just run the race like a top racer.
Some of you may know that my top time for a 50 mile race was 9 hours and 30 minutes and that I was shooting for a sub 9 hour time at this race. That being said, I did know that this course at Bear Mountain was significantly harder than any of my other 50 mile races had been, but I didn’t see a problem with setting a high goal for myself.
As the time got closer to 5am, the 200-250 participants started moving away from the heat lamps, shaking their muscles loose, and clicking on their headlamps (required for the start of the race). The 5 minutes leading up to the start of the race seemed to fly by, and before I knew it, the announcer started yelling, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!” And we were off, running into the thick woods of Bear Mountain, New York with our headlamps cutting through the night. For all of the ultra marathons that I had run in the past, I had started near the back of the pack and worked myself up to the front over the race, but for this one I wanted to start with the faster runners to see how I could hold up. As we ran into the woods I felt great and was running up the hills that most of the other runners were walking. It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t go out too fast because you’ll bonk and feel blasted for the 2nd half of the race, but I had this quote from my brother running through my head “Your body will forgive you after the race, so push hard,” (or something like that). I also really wanted to see what I was made of and am fine with suffering and pain.
The pace was going great and I was cruising along enjoying the run, but I noticed very early on that I hadn’t done enough of my training on extremely technical terrain that was similar to what Bear Mountain had to offer. I noticed this because the balls of my feet were getting very hot and irritated at about 5-10 miles into the race. This feeling will always catch up to you during an ultra marathon, but usually not this early for me. Knowing that it wasn’t a big deal, I just accepted the pain and kept enjoying the run. Around the 10 mile mark the sun had come up, but was still low in the sky, and I was running down a hill toward the shore of a beautiful lake. As the sun was reflecting off the lake I was thinking about how amazing the lake looked, and how lucky I was to be in that exact place at that time, and right at that moment, WHAK!!!!! I was on the ground, water bottle rolling down the trail, both hands bloody due to rocks scraping dime size pieces of skin off the palms of my hands, and bruising up my left knee. I jumped up (partly in shock due to my surprised clumsiness), grabbed my dented water bottle off the ground, and kept on trucking. Fortunately there was an aid station less than a mile away that had disinfectant wipes that I used to clean and sting the crap out of my hands.
After the aid station, I was dumped out onto a road that lead up a long and gradual hill which allowed me to see how many runners were ahead of me. I only counted 12. Knowing that there were probably a few runners that had broken away, I was guessing that I was probably in the top 20 and feeling good! As I headed up the hill I drank some of the Nuun in my water bottle and tossed a few Sport Beans into my mouth. This immediately upset my stomach (which is actually normal for my first dose of Nuun and sugar). It got me thinking, that for my next race, I might try eating carbs that are a little lower on the glycemic index to see how my stomach and body would feel. The problem that I run into is that I never eat sugar or fluids with the semi fizziness of Nuun when I’m not running a race.
Because of my upset stomach, I put my pace on cruise control and just kept pace with the other runners around me. Usually I have this innate need to keep passing people, but at this point I knew I couldn’t keep that up. Fortunately as the race continued, my stomach issues went away and I kicked my pace back into gear as I rolled toward the 20 mile mark. But just as I was approaching mile 20, I started feeling an increasing pain in my left hip flexor. This is usually no big deal, because over the years I’ve learned how to stimulate the opposing muscle group of a painful muscle, making the pain go away. As I was dealing with getting my hip flexor to relax, I rolled into the 20 mile aid station. I tried to time drinking the last of my water/electrolyte fluid in my water bottle about a mile before reaching the aid stations, so when I got there I could load up on lots of water, oranges, salt, bananas, and pb&j sandwiches, and refill my bottle with GuBrew. I actually found that my body likes the GuBrew much better than the Nuun. (Sorry Nuun, I think you guys have a great product, but my body prefers the GuBrew.) In addition to GuBrew, water, oranges, bananas, salt, and pb&j sandwiches, the aid stations have brownies, pretzels, Coke, Mountain Dew, and potato chips. They also have port-o-potties, which I desperately needed at that point. For some reason the simple sugars make me have to GO, so I double timed it to the portable toilet only to find that there was no toilet paper, and the North Face Crew hadn’t thought to keep a few extra rolls ready for the runners. You don’t want to know what I was considering doing at that point… Luckily this aid station was close to a popular trail entrance where hikers were parking and entering the trail for their morning hikes. I shook the thoughts of having to endure going without toilet paper out of my head and ran around asking hikers if they had some precious TP. The 4th person I asked had some and I was saved (not to mention the runners behind me in line!).
As I left the aid station, for some reason that left hip flexor wouldn’t relax and kept getting more and more painful. At around mile 25 the pain was so bad that I had a serious heart to heart with myself to decide if I should even continue the race. Knowing that I was not only running the race for myself, but also to inspire others to push themselves off of their asses and into healthy lifestyles, I knew that my body was going to have to physically shut down for me to quit.
I limped into the 27 mile aid station and was greated by a North Face Endurance Challenge volunteer running toward me with my drop bag. Having had to usually search through all of the bags myself, this was a great treat, except for the fact that nothing in the bad was going to help my hip flexor. I walked straight to the first aid official and asked for help. Unfortunately the first aid official didn’t have any physical therapy training and couldn’t help me, so it was up to me to figure this out. I stretched, did a leg drain (lying on the ground with my legs straight, pointing toward the sky), and tried to massage the tightness out of the muscle. Amazingly something worked and I ran out of the aid station feeling healed! This lasted for about 5 minutes and my hip flexor was locked up again, causing me to limp along. I knew that I had found a cure, but I didn’t know what it was, so I laid back on down on the ground and repeated my stretches, leg draining, and massaging. Again, this lasted for about 5 minutes.
It was around this time when I was blessed with a fellow runner who was running just a little faster than my busted up pace, and he wanted to chat. This person really saved me, and when I get home I will try to find him on Facebook and thank him for his amazing help. Just chatting with him helped me forget about my pain and kept me moving at a reasonable pace. Not only was my new found running partner great to talk to, but he also waited for me at each aid station to go through my stretches, leg drains, and massaging before proceeding onward. This routine continued until just before mile 40 when another miracle occured! As we were slogging up a seriously rocky incline (I’m talking a hands and feet scramble!), I took a huge lunging step up onto a rock platform with my painful left leg. Getting my leg up onto of the rock sent shooting pain through my hip, but as I lunged onto the rock my hip flexor released! It was amazing! The pain COMPLETELY VANISHED!!! I immediately felt brand new again! Well, at least as brand new as you can feel on mile 40 of an extremely hairy ultra marathon. This was the key! All I really needed to do was active my left glute, and my hip flexor immediately relaxed. The effect lasted for about 5 minutes at a time, so every 5 minutes I would drop into a left foot forward lunge and my hip flexor would relax. This allowed me to pick up the pace and carry some of the load from my friend who had been pulling me along the last 20 miles. This was also the first time in the last 20 miles that I was certain my body wasn’t going to shut down and I was going to finish.
We caught up with a fun group of about 15 runners and ran with them, trading energy and conversation for the next 7 miles. At mile 47 we encountered our last major obsticle called Tim’s Peak. Tim’s Peak was close to the steepest and definitely the longest incline of the whole race. There was no way to move any faster than a slow walk up this crazy incline, but we all knew that we were close to the end, so we pushed through. After we made it up this incline, it was a downhill run to the finish. Unfortunately what we found on the downside of Tim’s Peak was a steep downhill covered with grapefruit sized rocks that required very careful navigation on our tender feet. This downhill torture lasted for about a mile before hitting our last aid station and a fairly smooth ride to the finish.
As I got closer and closer to the finish, I could hear the cheering crowds congratulating the runners as they completed this amazing feat. As soon as I hear this noise I always get a shot of adrenaline that takes away all of my pain. It’s really amazing! If I could only harness that feeling for the whole race :-). I was about 300 yards away from the finish line and I couldn’t help but run faster and faster towards the crowds. I burst out of the woods and onto the large grass field where the race began and ended, and sprinted toward the finish line. My whole body felt amazing as I crossed under the large North Face arch (that marked the finish line) and was awarded my finishers medal.
I walked around the festival area and realized that I really did feel good and that the only real pain that I had was in was my hip flexor (which I continued to do lunges for). This made me happy and sad. Happy because I completed an amazing race with an immeasurable amount of pain, and sad because who knows how well I could have done if my hip flexor never started bothering me.
As I reflect back on this experience, I’m realizing that in the world of ultra endurance racing, I am still a baby, and each of these races is a learning experience that will help me become the racer who feels good for the whole race and finishes with the top competitors. Let me leave you with this: Everything you do offers you a learning opportunity, and it’s up to you to take that opportunity to learn and improve yourself. I encourage you to take that opportunity, learn from your successes and failures, and never stop reaching for your dreams!
As always, if you have any questions or comments, leave them below and I’ll give you my full attention. Please “like” and share this with your friends and followers. Thanks!