Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Best Climbs and Rock Scrambles near NJ

Living in the so-called flat lands of the East Coast, it can be difficult to prepare for rugged mountain races. But if you look hard enough, you'll find plenty of steep and technical climbs within driving distance of the NY, NJ, PA area. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order, all within a 3 hour radius of northern/central NJ.

Rock Scrambles

These are not necessarily the steepest trails, but they'll show you the meaning of the word "technical."

Giant Stairs

: Palisades, NJ
Description: Boulder field at the base of the Palisades Cliffs on the Hudson River. Starts on a paved section of the Long Path, then descends down the Shore Trail. Once at the bottom of the cliffs, scramble over car sized boulders on a relatively flat trail. Then climbs a steep but well maintained trail to the parking lot.
Biggest climb: 504 ft. over 0.38 mi (25%)

Lehigh Gap

Location: Lehigh, PA
Description: Rocky section of the Appalachian Trail from the Lehigh River to the Kitatinny Ridge. Portions of the trail require the use of all four limbs. For extra fun, stick to the ridge line above the AT where the views are better, then follow a social trail to get back to the AT when the ridge levels off.
Biggest climb: 927 ft. over 0.97 mi (18%)

Bonticou Crag

Location: Mohonk Preserve, NY
Description: Short and sweet! Follow the well maintained Crag Trail to Bonticou Rd. The crag is a white cliff face which rises abruptly from the road. Scramble over a massive pile of giant rocks to reach the summit where you have spectacular views of the Catskills to the west. For more fun, follow the trail north to Table Rocks, to find giant crevices in the bedrock.
Biggest climb: 157 ft. over 0.09 mi (33%)

Lemon Squeeze

Location: Mohonk Preserve, NY
Description: Not for those with claustrophobia! From the Labyrinth Trail near Mohonk Lake, follow blazes through a boulder field climbing under several house sized boulders as you ascend the face of the rock. The trail is so narrow that you might be required to take off your pack and hold it in front of you.
Biggest climb: 219 ft. over 0.26 mi (16%)

Pyngyp Mountain

Location: Bear Mountain State Park, NY
Description: A short steep scramble up a series of rock faces from Palisades Interstate Parkway to the summit of Pyngyp Mountain. Unfortunately, there is no parking on the parkway, so you'll need to hike about 3 miles to get there.
Biggest climb: 623 ft. over 0.66 mi (18%)

Onoko Falls

Location: Jim Thorpe, PA
Description: A 1.3 mile loop following a waterfall up a steep rocky trail. In the winter, the waterfall can freeze and the trail will be covered in ice, so traction devices are a must. This trail is crowded in all seasons.
Biggest climb: 676 ft. over 0.62 mi (21%)

Breakneck Ridge

Location: Cold Spring, NY
Description: A series of rock slabs which climb from the Hudson River to the summit of Breakneck Ridge. The trail is always crowded on nice days, so expect to get stuck behind other hikers. Also note that the trail is scheduled to close for maintenance some time in 2019.
Biggest climb: 1,172 ft. over 1.05 mi (21%)
Trailhead parking

Anthony's Nose

Location: Garrison, NY
Description: Basically a smaller, steeper version of Breakneck Ridge. The trail makes a staggeringly steep climb up a rock face overlooking the Hudson River before joining the Appalachian Trail. This is just across the river from Bear Mountain, so it's easy to link up with other climbs.
Biggest climb: 703 ft. over 0.30 mi (44%)
Trailhead parking

The Beast

Location: Lock Haven, PA
Description: This is just over 3 hours from most parts of NJ, but it's worth the trip. The Beast is one of the largest and steepest boulder fields in the region, climbing well over 1,000 feet to the summit of Mt. Logan. Navigation is a little tricky, so it's best to follow a GPS track if possible.
Biggest climb: 1,126 ft. over 0.66 mi (32%)

Big and Steep Climbs

For those days when you want to get a ton of vertical change without moving horizontally too much.

Mount Tammany Red Dot Trail

Location: Columbia, NJ
Description: The Mecca for NJ area trail and ultra runners. The Red Dot trail is a steep, technical ascent of Mount Tammany from the Delaware River. Runners often opt to descend the Blue Trail which is slightly more runnable. On hot days, a quick dip in Dunnfield Creek is a nice way to cool off after a tough run.
Biggest climb: 1,039 ft. over 1.00 mi (20%)
Trailhead parking

Mount Tammany West Headwall

Location: Columbia, NJ
Description: A breathtakingly steep and faintly blazed social trail used by rock climbers to access the cliffs on the south face of Tammany. From the Dunnfield Creek parking area, follow a drainage ditch along Rt. 80. Look for faded green blazes on the trees leading up the steep embankment on your right. If you reach the boulder field on the south side of the mountain, you went too far.
Biggest climb: 1,115 ft. over 0.49 mi (43%)
Trailhead parking

Hunter Mountain via Becker Hollow Trail

Location: Elka Park, NY
Description: Really, I could have picked any climb in the Catskills, but this is one of the biggest. From the Becker Hollow parking lot, this trail climbs the east face of Hunter Mountain, eschewing switchbacks in favor of a more direct route. The trail is constantly wet and very rocky, making footing difficult. On the bright side, the view from the fire tower is amazing on sunny days. For extra fun, link up with the Devil's Path after summitting.
Biggest climb: 2,119 ft. over 2.03 mi (20%)
Trailhead parking

The Leg Destroyer

Location: Hamburg, PA
Description: They called it that for a reason! This is a gas pipeline cut that branches off from the Appalachian Trail at the Schuylkill Gap. The steepest section rises 339 ft. over 0.16 mi. (40%) and is covered in loose rock, which can make it difficult to stop if you descent this trail with a full head of steam. For more vertical, check out the AT on either side of the Schuylkill River. This area has a crazy amount of elevation gain per mile.
Biggest climb: 847 ft. over 0.61 mi (26%)
Trailhead parking

Mount Beacon Trail

Location: Beacon, NY
Description: A rocky but runnable trail that climbs from the town of Beacon to the fire tower at the top of Mt. Beacon. To maximize elevation gain per mile during hill repeats, turn around at the overlook, where you'll have a 180 degree view of the Hudson Valley.
Biggest climb: 1,011 ft. over 0.98 mi (20%)
Trailhead parking

Bear Mountain via Major Welch

Location: Tomkins Cove, NY
Description: Ascend Bear Mountain from the Hudson River by way of single track trail and steep rock slabs, then descend via the AT. Good views from the top, but these trails and the surrounding area are very crowded on nice days, making it difficult to descend quickly.
Biggest climb: 940 ft. over 0.90 mi (20%)

Camelback Mountain via Cliffhanger

Location: Tannersville, PA
Description: Climb Camelback Mountain on a double black diamond ski slope, then descend via the blue square Nile Mile, which is a gravel road in the summer months. Beautiful views from the top, but the slope is not maintained during the summer, so prepare to bushwhack a little, and check for ticks afterwards.
Biggest climb: 748 ft. over 0.55 mi (26%)

The Frozen Snot Course

Location: Lock Haven, PA
Description: Home of The Beast, this course was designed to pack the most elevation gain into the shortest distance possible. In the 11.4 miles of trail on this 14 mile course, runners climb and descend 5,650 feet, with multiple climbs and descents of 1,000+ feet. The steepest of these is Barb's Kiss My Ass, which rises 1,022 ft. over 0.47 mi (42%)!
Biggest climb: 1,126 ft. over 0.66 mi (32%)

Spring Road Races (are finally over!)

Spring is road racing season for me since the trails tend to be a muddy snowy mess, plus I think some fast flat running is a good way to gauge my fitness each year (#anysurfaceanydistance or whatever). The downside to this tradition is that - as I have come to learn - I don't really enjoy running on roads. No sir, I'm definitely a trail runner through and through. So here are some quick updates on how my road races went, and then we'll get back to the good stuff in a few weeks.

Lenape 50K: New Year, Same Navigation Issues

So here's the good news: I spent less than 10 seconds off course at the Lenape 50K this year, shattering my record low of 14 minutes set last year. The bad news is that my missed turn was literally the very first turn on the entire course, less than a tenth of a mile into the race. Early enough that the entire field of runners watched me make this mistake and then yelled at me to get back on course...

Thankfully this wasn't a sign of things to come

The point is that despite running this race four times now, I still apparently have no idea where I'm going. I've been informed that my previous race reports are terrifying for first time runners because they think the course is impossible to navigate, and they imagine themselves getting horribly lost and dying of exposure in downtown Newark. Well rest easy, fellow runners, because it turns out that I'm just a fucking idiot.

Anyway, here goes my account of 2018...

Lenape Course

The Lenape 50K is a point-to-point fatass, which follows a faint series of trail blazes through roads, greenways, and forests across northeastern NJ. The course gets progressively more difficult as the race progresses, with much of the final 10 miles on rocky single track.

Course map. The race runs from east to west.
Elevation profile

The Race

Having just run Mt. Mitchell the week before, I again promised myself that this would be a long run effort, rather than a full race effort. No last minute dashes for the finish, no seeing stars on the final uphill, none of that funny business. Just a nice moderate effort for 5-6 hours to work on my endurance before the NJ Marathon.

Runners in Newark train station before the start
Photo courtesy of Anthony Longano

After my initial navigation error (yes, I know I'm dumb), I was immediately passed by the dynamic duo of Jay Lemos and Jayson Kolb, who would run together and easily go on to tie for the win in 5:17. The first 13 miles were all on pavement or sidewalks, and I chugged along at a steady 8:30/mi effort, chatting with Chris McGovern and Joe Limone. The weather was a brisk 40 degrees and windy, but these early miles passed quickly as we discussed our racing plans for the summer. The days leading up to the race had seen snow and rain, and the patches of snow lining the road hinted at the wet trail conditions that we would face later in the day.

Early paved miles in Branch Brook Park
Photo courtesy of Anthony Longano

At mile 14, we made a steep snowy 200 foot climb up to Mills Reservation and I pushed ahead on the sloppy trail, now running alone. The next few miles were slow and wet, but otherwise uneventful. As the course went through Cedar Grove and Montclair, the course was a mix of bike paths, snowy trails, and roads, so it was tough to stay in a rhythm.

Another 200 foot climb at mile 22 brought us to Eagle Rock Reservation, where I made one of my many wrong turns last year. As I passed the trail that I mistakenly took that year, I flipped it off for good measure. That'll teach that trail to uh... let me run on it, I guess.

The trail spit us out onto Rt. 611 in West Orange, where a few tricky turns had us crossing under I-280 and then climbing a power line cut which gained 200 feet in a quarter mile of slushy, slippery, overgrown trail. This is the kind of masochism that keeps running interesting, and I made quick work of this section with a big dopey grin on my face.

A runner coming up the power line
Photo courtesy of Anthony Longano

From here, it was a short jaunt through a neighborhood (big thanks to a local woman who paused from shoveling her driveway to point me in the right direction), and then we were back on trails for the remainder of the race. Miles 27 and 28 passed through marshy areas, and I carefully crossed the icy wooden boards that were placed in particularly wet parts of the trail. A few near-falls into frigid water convinced me to slow my pace until the trail got better.

Entering South Mountain Reservation around mile 29 was a relief because I knew I was on the home stretch, but the last few miles would be the most difficult of the race. A series of hills on washed out rocky trails meant that these miles were my slowest of the day. Keeping my promise to myself, I trotted along at the same effort level that I had maintained for the previous 5 hours.

After a final rocky descent, I reached the parking lot and smacked the back of Jay's van, which acted as the finish line. My final time was 5:36:11, about five minutes slower than my previous best, but in worse conditions and a lower effort level. Not bad. As a bonus, my time was good enough for 3rd place, which meant that I got one of the coveted wooden trophies that Jay made.

Jay, Jayson, and myself showing off our hardware.
Note that they had enough time to change their clothes before I got there!
Picture courtesy of Jay Lemos

The part where I find out how much Jay likes my race reports

It's well known in the local running community that I write very lengthy - some would say tedious - reports for just about every event I participate in. Jay has noticed this over the years and tends to give me a hard time about it. But secretly, I know that he loves spending hours poring over my epic tales of heroism (and whatever the opposite of heroism is).

When I requested the above picture, Jay asked, "Is this conversation going to end up in your race report?"

A sparkle in his eye (or maybe it was the sun shining through his hair) told me that he was really asking "Can you make me the star of your report?"

Of course not, I replied with a wink, as I mentally filed away the conversation for later use.

"Good," he responded, "because that would be pointless."

Indeed, Jay.

New Jersey Marathon: New Year, Same Speed

I went into this year's NJ Marathon feeling like I did (almost) everything right. I didn't race too much in the spring and gave myself a full 8 weeks to recover from Lenape, train, and then taper. By comparison, last year I ran the brutally tough Breakneck Marathon two weeks before NJ and then Bear Mountain 50 miler two weeks after it. I also managed to avoid aggravating my right calf/Achilles tendon this year, which I have done both of the past two springs. So, pretty successful all around.

The Race

The weather on April 29 was absolutely perfect. Scattered showers in the early morning darkness gave way to a fifty degree day with partly cloudy skies and a slight breeze. Not exactly beach weather, but if you're a stocky runner who tends to overheat in the sun, this is an ideal scenario.

Getting dropped off and looking like a homeless person
Photo by my mom

I tucked in behind the 3:10 pace group, hoping to take a few minutes off my previous best of 3:15, which I set at last year's race. A 3:10 finish would mean 7:10-7:15 per mile, depending on how well I ran the tangents of the course.

Miles 1-6: 7:10, 7:04, 7:11, 7:07, 7:08, 7:12

I did my best to stay patient in the initial chaos of the start. I often find myself scrambling to pass slower runners in the first few miles in order to stay with the pace group, but this kind of early adrenaline rush can have disastrous consequences later in the race.

Around mile 6, I found myself getting a little ahead of the pacers. In retrospect, I should have backed off the pace and let them take the full force of the wind, but I was feeling good so I forged ahead.

Miles 7-13: 7:13, 7:10, 7:07, 7:06, 7:05, 7:06, 7:12

I was still going strong through here and I stayed about 10-20 seconds ahead of the pacers. It was nice to not be in a pack of runners, getting jostled and bumped or worrying about people abruptly stopping in front of me at water stations.

I passed Alex, my mom, and Julie at mile 9, and they were enthusiastic as usual. A little while later I hit the half marathon timing mat with 1:34:40 elapsed, setting a new personal record at that distance. That reminds me, I should really try racing a half marathon again. As Alex says, "It's such a lovely distance."

Feeling good for now
Photo by Alex

Miles 14-20: 7:12, 7:17, 7:18, 7:06, 7:19, 7:19, 7:22

Somewhere in here, the wind started to pick up, and the pace group caught back up to me. I was still feeling strong, but it became more of an effort to hold my pace. Finally around mile 19 or 20, they passed me for good, and I was on my own in the quietest part of the course.

Miles 21-26: 7:22, 7:40, 7:35, 7:41, 7:32, 7:25

Of all the "walls" that I have hit during a marathon, this was the mildest. I couldn't stick to my pace, but my drop off was much less significant than in previous years. I slowly lost sight of the pace group, but I found other runners to chase down. I saw Jun Bermudez, a fellow ultrarunner with whom I shared some miles at Grindstone in 2016, and I made it my goal to keep him in sight.

My hamstrings complained and threatened to quit, so I shortened up my stride and tried to keep my cadence as high as possible. I focused on my form, reminding myself to keep my elbows back, push forward with my hips, etc... With a mile to go, I caught up to Jun. I tried to say nice job, but instead I wheezed something incoherent as I passed by.

Two tenths to go and still not dead yet
Photo by Alex

At mile 26.0, I saw my little cheering squad again, now flanked by Harry and Eileen "The Half Marathon Queen" Uberti. I managed a smile and a feeble kick as I passed by, entering the boardwalk for the home stretch.

Harry with the greatest marathon sign ever
Photo by Alex

I crossed the finish line in 3:12:56, a two minute improvement over last years time.


I'm pleased to be a little closer to a Boston Marathon qualifying time, but it sucks that I only improved by two minutes after a year of training and more rest leading up to the race. I guess the takeaway from this is that I shouldn't bother avoiding fun races in the spring to save myself for my annual marathon attempt.

Next year I'm running whatever the hell I want to, and if that means I'm a few minutes slower in the marathon, I can live with that.

Next Up

Now that this road nonsense is out of the way, we can get down to serious business.

Manitou's Revenge 54 miler is on June 23, and then the big mama race of 2018 - Fat Dog 120 - is in August. Along the way, I'll probably have some other adventures in the mountains.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mount Mitchell Challenge

Things that I like in races:
  • Climbing mountains
  • Beautiful views
  • Technical terrain
  • Beer
Yeah, this event checked a lot of boxes.

Oooh! Aaah!
...Okay, this part wasn't so beautiful

Course and Goals

The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 37 mile race in the Black Mountain range of eastern North Carolina. The concept is very simple: start in the town of Black Mountain (elevation 2,360'), climb the tallest peak in the eastern US (Mount Mitchell, elevation 6,684'), and then return. The accompanying Black Mountain Marathon follows the same route, but turns around at 5,200'.

Course Map

With the exception of the final two miles leading to the summit, the course mostly consists of double wide trail and pavement. Combined with the relatively moderate grade of the trails, this makes Mount Mitchell a real runner's course (note: I do not consider myself a "real runner").

Elevation Profile
Just one climb!

The difficulty of this race lies in two factors: the relentless nature of the climb and descent and the unpredictability of the weather. The initial climb - and essentially the only climb of the race - lasts anywhere from 2.5 hours to 6 hours depending on the runner. That's a long time spent using the same muscles. The descent then lasts another 2-4 hours, during which every runner's quads are turned into ground beef. The weather has also been a huge variable over the years, ranging from frigid with several feet of snow at the summit in 2016 to mid-70's and humid this year.

Picture from the course in a high snow year. Note the Stop sign on the left.
Photo from

Following a pretty rough end of 2017, I decided to run my first few races of 2018 as long training runs and avoid burning out too early in the year. I decided not to taper before Mount Mitchell nor to take any time off afterwards. My race goals were:
  1. Maintain a "long run" effort level
  2. Don't get hurt
  3. Have fun
  4. Finish as fast as possible while following rules 1-3
So with that in mind, Alex and I made the ten hour drive from NJ to Black Mountain on Friday, grabbed our bibs and race swag, and met up with David White and Cindy Huang for some pre-race BBQ. Alex was nervous about running the marathon, since she hadn't trained much over the past few months, so I wasn't sure whether talking about the course would ease her mind or push her over the edge. I tried to convince her that she could walk the course and finish well under the ten hour cutoff but she wasn't convinced. Regardless, the southern BBQ did not disappoint, and I traded some NJ beer with David for some delicious Michigan microbrews, so the weekend was already a smashing success!

Of Nerves and Run Bums

Since our hotel was less than a mile from the start, we were able to "sleep in" until 5:30. Which sounds awful until you realize that we regularly wake up at 2:00-3:00am for races (and, on one occasion, at 11:45pm). We showed up to the starting line just a few minutes before the starting gun, which was perfect since Alex was a bundle of nerves by this point and she didn't want to mill around anxiously.

Alex looks cute, but she's trying really hard not to puke

The weather was a comfortable 50-something degrees as we started off through the paved streets of Black Mountain. A couple hundred yards into the race, I spotted a skinny ginger dude wearing a bedazzled trucker cap and recognized him as Sean "The Run Bum" Blanton, the infamous race director and loquacious host of the East Coast Trail and Ultra Podcast. We fist bumped and parted ways. He would go on to have a solo adventure, exploring miles of trails off course before finishing DFL and getting blackout drunk at the finish line. Legend.

So anyway, the first few miles of pavement were pretty easy going, and I settled into a 8:30/mi effort level while focusing on my breathing. Inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 3 steps. That was the plan for the next 6+ hours. Mile 3 was the start of the real climbing, and I allowed my pace to slow while maintaining a steady running cadence.

The course was blanketed in fog, so the early miles were uninspiring. However, I inquired about a  massive group of runners wearing matching yellow shirts and was told that they were members of the South Carolina Runners of Trail UltraMarathons (SCROTUM). I also learned that they award an annual "SCROTUM of the Year" to their highest performing member. Something to shoot for if I ever find myself living in South Carolina!

As the course grew steeper and rockier, my pace slowed further, but I reminded myself to hold back and save any heroic efforts for later in the year. The trail was wet from several inches of rain that had fallen over the past few weeks, and I plodded up the slippery rock strewn path, trying to maintain my footing. Occasionally, the clouds would part for a few seconds and reveal the surrounding landscape, but mostly the views consisted of rocks and moss.

A mossy section of trail
Photo by Alex

Mile 14 marked the marathon turnaround at the Blue Ridge Parkway around 5,280' elevation. The field thinned out as we began the paved douche grade climb of 1,000' over the next three miles. Having honed this climbing gear with hours of hill repeats over the past few weeks, I managed to run almost the entire climb. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I saw race leader Morgan Elliott careening downhill towards me at a 5:30 pace! He would go on to shatter the course record with a time of 4:20:48 (7:09/mi), faster than all but the top 28 marathon finishers. Whew!

Anyway, this is where the fun started.

The Fun Part

We departed the road at mile 17 and began our assault on the Old Mitchell Trail. New to the course in 2018, this section of trail felt like being transported 800 miles north to the Catskills. A narrow track over massive boulders led us through a dense primevil spruce-fir forest. Each step had to be carefully negotiated, as the camber of the trail constantly changed. After miles of pavement and fire roads, the slick boulder strewn path was a startling change of pace (literally).

Old Mitchell Trail, mile 18
Photo by David White

Between the altitude (hey, 6,000' is pretty high up when your home is at 200') and the technicality of the terrain, my heart was beating out of my chest as my pace slowed to 15:00/mi, then well over 20:00/mi. The verdant forest was a welcome distraction from the effort of the climb, but I could not afford to take my eyes off the trail for more than a split second. A brief downhill section even had a rope for runners to hold on to. The final pitch to the summit gained 600' in just 0.6 miles. Now this was ultrarunning!

Just shy of mile 19, we popped out of the woods again and onto the paved Mt. Mitchell Trail, which took us the remaining 100 feet up to the observation tower at 6,684'. I dug my phone out to snap a picture of the awe inspiring view, only to find that I couldn't see a damn thing in any direction! The summit was completely blanketed in a dense fog. Well, such is life. Instead I took a picture of the surveyor's mark and sweet talked volunteer Jordan Chang into taking my picture in front of the summit sign (see above).

I guess this will suffice as a summit picture

After a quick stop to refill on food and water, I hit the summit road and went into a free fall descent for the next few paved miles. It felt great to open up my stride again, and I hit splits of 7:43, 8:34, 7:51, and 7:47 as the course plummeted 1,400 feet back down the mountain. On the saddle between Mitchell and Hallback, the clouds parted and we were treated to a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the Black Mountains.

The Black Mountain Range through the mist
Photo by David White

Why is it so hot in February?!

Five miles and 40 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back on fire roads. It was now close to noon, and the weather was starting to heat up as we descended into increasingly thicker, more humid air. Weather records show that the high for the day was 74 degrees, but I'm reasonably sure it was more like 95. Having trained exclusively in frigid conditions for the past few months, my body was unable to shed the excess heat that I was generating as I barreled down the mountain. I thought about gritting my teeth and powering through final 10 miles, but then I remembered rules 1-3 and resigned myself to a more reasonably paced finish.

More beautiful scenery during the descent
Photo by Alex

I eased off the pace and drank in the scenery whenever possible. I also drank in some beer at the mile 31 aid station (Dale's Pale Ale if I remember correctly). After a final jarring descent of almost 900 feet in a mile, we reached the picturesque Flat Creek Greenway for the final few flat(ish) miles.

For the past few miles, I had expected to see Alex ahead of me at some point since she was anticipating a 7-8 hour finish, and we were just over 6 hours elapsed at this point. As the finish line got closer, I began to worry that she had gotten hurt or otherwise DNF'ed. Then, as I rounded the final turn, I saw her standing at the entrance to Lake Tomahawk Park, looking justifiably proud of her 6:25 finish! She crushed the race and had just enough time to see me make the final loop around the lake and under the finishing arch.

Photo by Mount Mitchell Challenge

I crossed the line in 6:35:25, good for 34th place of 158 finishers. Not bad for a "long run effort" race!

Official results (shout out to Morgan Elliot for destroying my Ultrasignup score!)


With the running portion of the day finished, we were able to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, as we enjoyed the post race buffet and Michigan's finest beer while watching the rest of the finishers come in.

70 and sunny in mid-February. Thanks, global warming!

All in all a great trip and a fun little event to start the year! I would definitely recommend this race to anyone who is looking for an early season race that has a mix of every conceivable terrain.

Next up: Lenape 50K on 3/3 (report incoming) and NJ Marathon on 4/29.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Race Reports, 2017 in Review, and Resolutions

Wow, I'm way overdue to post some race reports! To be honest, Grindstone left me feeling a little burnt out, both in terms of racing a writing. I ran a few other late season races to close out the year, but my heart (and legs) were just not into it.

This post will recap my final races of the year, break down my 2017 racing season, and outline my plans for 2018. Feel free to skip around if you're not a total numbers geek like I am.

The New York City Marathon

The NYC Marathon is the largest marathon in the world, boasting over 50,000 competitors in recent years. And at a hefty $295, it also has the distinct honor of being the most expensive race I have ever run. Consequently, I felt obligated to give this race my best effort despite not being fully recovered from a tough Grindstone 100 only four weeks earlier. This meant trying to break my personal record of 3:15 (7:26/mi) and get a little closer to a Boston qualifying time (sub-3:05).

After an early wake up to make it to the 5:30am shuttle bus (sorry Alex!), I arrived at the starting corral at 6:30. Just in time for my... 9:45 start time. Okay, three hours of standing around seemed a little excessive, but I guess the logistics of getting 50,000 runners onto a mall island and then closing every road makes things complicated.

This left plenty of time to post pictures to social media

Thankfully, I was able to meet up with Jaeson Winter, a childhood friend of mine who was also running. After being inseparable in elementary school, we hadn't seen each other in 15 years, and had coincidentally drifted into the sport of marathon and ultramarathon running. He was coming off a badass performance at Tahoe 200 (yes, really, 200 miles!), which made me feel better about my own lack of recovery time. Catching up on more than a decade of our lives made the time fly by, and before I knew it, I heard the last call for my corral.

The starting gun went off just before 10am. I was seeded in the first wave of runners in the "local competitive" group, which felt pretty cool. That meant that I was only a few minutes behind Meb, Shalane, and all the other elite runners at the start of the race.

Miles 1-6: 7:45, 6:19, 7:22, 7:02, 7:11, 7:17

The first mile climbed up the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, and I struggled to get into a comfortable rhythm due to the grade and the sea of runners around me. I knew that my first mile split would be slower than my 7:14/mi goal pace, but I figured I could make it up on the ensuing downhill. I ended up being right, as a speedy second mile quickly got me back on track.

The early miles felt a little frantic as the runners sorted themselves out, but eventually I settled into a steady pace. The crowds in Brooklyn were loud and enthusiastic despite the chilly weather and the rain spitting down on us.

Miles 7-12: 7:11, 7:17, 7:13, 7:03, 7:12, 7:06

The Brooklyn/Queens section of the race was pretty flat, and I felt good despite pushing hard. I settled in behind a young woman wearing an Oiselle brand singlet and amused myself by counting how many times the spectators misread/misunderstood her shirt and yelled "Good job Giselle!"

Somewhere in here, I was expecting to see Alex, Julie, and my mom. They spotted me at mile 8, but with thousands of other spectators cheering, I didn't notice them.

Feeling strong at mile 8

Miles 13-18: 7:23, 7:26, 7:14, 8:05, 7:20, 7:22

I was starting to get a little tired at this point, and my pace suffered a bit. Running up the Queensboro Bridge cost me 30-45 seconds, and I was unable to make up this time on the downhill side since the crowd of runners was so dense. Such is life in a major marathon! Seeing my crew at mile 16 was a huge boost, which got me through the next few miles.

Hurting but happy!

Miles 19-26

As the oh-so-familiar feeling of "the wall" crept in, I struggled to hit my 7:14ish splits. Gradually my A goal of sub-3:10 slipped away. Then, after an emergency pit stop at mile 21, my B goal of sub-3:15 also slipped away (but at least I felt much better after that!). I decided to take my foot of the gas pedal and just enjoy the last few miles. I soaked in the energy of the crowd, smiling and high fiving spectators whenever I saw an opportunity. As I entered Central Park, I spotted my crew again. I stopped and planted a big wet kiss on Alex's lips for the first time in a week (she had been sick and didn't want to infect me). So that was pretty nice.


I crossed the finish line in 3:23:33 (or 3,602nd place of 50,646 for those of you keeping score). Though my time was well short of my goals, the NYC Marathon was an amazing experience. The crowds were phenomenal, and it was so cool to reconnect with Jaeson. I'd love to go back next year as a spectator and enjoy the crazy race atmosphere again.

Reunited and it feels so good!

Frozen Fools 50K

If Grindstone has left me feeling a little burnt out, the NYC Marathon had poured a bucket of cold water on whatever smoldering embers of competitiveness were left in me for the year. Despite this fact, I was looking forward to the annual Frozen Fools 50K. A local point-to-point fat ass race held on the Appalachian Trail, Frozen Fools always attracts a colorful and friendly assortment of local ultrarunners. I promised myself that I wouldn't race this event, and that this was just an opportunity to enjoy some trail miles with a fun group of people.

About 10 runners met at the finish line at 6am on a frosty December morning, and then packed into Marcus Jones's SUV to carpool to the start. On the ride, I caught up with RD Dan O'Keefe and a few other runners about our various adventures since last year's race. Then, just before 7am, we poured out of the SUV and into the parking lot which served as the starting line for the race. I said a quick hello to Harry Uberti and his wife Eileen, who had paced and crewed me on these trails during my FKT a few months earlier. After a quick briefing - and a warning not to get lost like I do every year - we were off!

Course map and elevation profile
26 miles on the AT, followed by 5 miles of asphalt and fire roads

The Early Miles

The first three miles of the race took us up 1,000 feet from the Delaware Water Gap to Sunfish Pond. I was able to run most of the climb, but had to stop a couple times to stretch my tibialis anterior (shin muscle), which had been bugging me for the last few weeks. I didn't realize it at the time, but my calf strain from Vermont 100 had caused me to change my running mechanics, which led to further muscle issues down the line. Live and learn, I suppose.

By the time I got to Sunfish Pond, I was firmly in 3rd place, with Chris Rice and Michael McDonnell well ahead of me and Chris McGovern a few minutes behind. Sunfish Pond is the rockiest section of the entire race, and I danced along the top of the jagged boulders with the energy of someone who is only 10% of the way into a race. I struggled to get into a rhythm over the next few miles, stopping several more times for a bathroom break and more stretching.

Stalking in a Winter Wonderland

The views along the Kitatinny Ridge were pretty, but a gray sky hinted at the snow that would soon be falling on us. I shuffled along by myself, my only interactions being with Eileen and Marcus at aid stations for the first few hours of the run.

Around 10am, it started snowing steadily. The ground quickly became slippery, and the white blazes of the AT became harder to spot. As I skidded wildly along the rocky ridge line, I regretted not bringing my microspikes as Alex had suggested (she's usually right about these sort of things). My pace began to slow. If I'd had any delusions of running a fast time on these tired legs, they were now totally crushed. Regardless, I was having a good time, as the snow became a fun additional challenge after several years of running the same race.

As the snow grew deeper, I began to spot footprints from the two runners ahead of me. Despite not wanting to "race," I had fun trying to guess whether I was gaining or losing ground on them. I figured that every runner has a similar cadence (160-180 steps/min), so the distance between footprints should be a good indicator of speed. I counted the number of footprints I passed, and noted than for every ten steps I took, the other runners were taking eleven or twelve. Some quick math told me that I could be gaining a minute per mile on the other runners.

After a few miles of this, I also noticed that the footprints were becoming more detailed, which meant that they were more recent. I must be gaining ground! Despite my supremely nerdy sleuthing, I decided to stick to my self-made promise not to race. I kept my speed consistent and focused on maintaining efficient running form in the poor conditions.

The Exciting Conclusion

Finally around mile 20, I caught up to Michael. We exchanged a few words of mutual support, and I pushed on ahead, now in 2nd place. The course dropped down of the ridge at mile 26, and I once again saw Eileen waiting for Harry on the shoulder of Rt. 206. She informed me that he was doing well despite the slick conditions, which I was delighted to hear. I decided that I would turn around at the finish and come back to find him.

With six inches of snow now covering the ground, the final few miles of asphalt and gravel roads were slow and wet. I again regretted not taking Alex's advice to wear waterproof socks (are you sensing a pattern?). At mile 30, the course exited the woods for the final time, and I was down to my last 1.2 miles of pavement. With less than a half mile to go, I spotted Chris a few hundred yards ahead of me. The instinctive urge to sprint flashed through my mind, but I realized that - thankfully - there was not enough time to catch him. I jogged into the finish in 6:22, three minutes out of first place.

Covered in snow and loving life

Bonus Miles

After a quick change of clothes, I grabbed a pack of pop tarts from my car and set off to find Harry. I did my best to scrape some arrows into the snow with my feet, marking the course for the other runners. When I reached 206, I spotted Harry at Eileen's mini aid station on the shoulder of the road.

"Are you insane!?" Harry asked as I reached the car.

"Uh... yes?" was the best response I could muster.

Harry's course directions had disintegrated in the wet conditions, so he had been nervous about navigating the tricky turns in the final 5 miles. Hearing this, I was happy that I had decided to go back out. We spent the next hour running, swapping stories, and catching up on life events, before pulling into the finish line around 4 o'clock. A great ending to a busy 2017 racing season!

2017 in Numbers

Whew, what a year! Here are the final stats for 2017:

Distance Run: 2,517 miles (4,051 km)
Distance/Wk: 48.3 miles
Time Spent Running: 474 hours (19 days, 8 hours)
Total Elevation Gain: 380,368 feet (13.1 Mount Everests)
Number of Races: 14
Number of Marathons + Ultramarathons: 11
Personal Bests Set in 2017:

    Distance     Time    Pace
      10K           41:19   6:39
      13.1M    1:35:05*  7:15
      26.2M    3:14:51   7:26

*half marathon split en route to marathon PR

For the first time in my short running career, my mileage did not increase from the previous year.  However, my elevation gain and time spent running increase by a bit, which shows my increasing preference for mountain races. While I didn't set many PR's in 2017, that's mostly because I ran harder races than previous years. I also did not race a 5K or half marathon for the second consecutive year, and didn't run a road race longer than a marathon. At some point in 2018, I'd like to get back to some short road races to see if I picked up any speed over the past couple of years.

As an additional bonus, I was also voted 3rd in the East Coast Trail and Ultra Runner of the year rankings, which just goes to show that with a little hard work and an army of Russian trolls the support of friends and family, cool things are possible!

Rather than recap my whole 2017 race schedule, which can be found here, I'll simply list a few lessons that I learned this past year:
  1. I am not Mike Wardian. As much as I would like to, I can't race every weekend and expect my body to recover in time for the next race. Hard efforts require some recovery time.
  2. I am also not Jim Walmsley. I can't take long loping strides in my workouts and expect my calves and hamstrings to react well. Short runners need to take short strides!
  3. Running form actually matters! After months of honing my ultra shuffle on rocky trails, I ended up with an inefficient running form, which probably cost me some time in the NYC marathon. I'm working on this during my winter base building.

2018 Goals and Schedule

2018 is going to be the year of the mountain race for me. With the exception of a handful of road races, this year's events will primarily be on steep rugged terrain. I am learning that these are the types of events that I enjoy the most and perform the best in.

Once again, my top priorities in 2018 will be a pair of 100 mile races. Fat Dog 120 miler in August will (hopefully) be my longest run ever, as well as my first west coast race and first international race. And the inaugural WTF 100 in October will be a Barkley style event with most of the course off trail and minimal aid. These events will both be a significant step up in difficulty from anything I've done before, and I'm excited for the challenge.

2018 Race Schedule
(100 mile races in bold)

   4/29NJ Marathon
WTF 100