Off to a great start
"God! Damn it!" I yelled to no one in particular.
I had just tripped over a rock and sprawled out onto the trail, slamming my right kneecap into another rock as I fell. Pain radiated down my leg as I got back on my feet. I glanced down at my GPS. Mile 12. I had 38 more miles to cover, and I had just incapacitated myself.
Let's back up a bit
The Febapple Frozen 50 is a trail race organized by the NJ Trail Series, whose stated mission is "to make running fun again." To that end, founders and race directors Rick and Jennifer McNulty always choose interesting and often highly technical trails for their races. They warn on their Facebook page that "These will not be PR courses."
The course for Febapple was a 10 mile loop consisting of a mixture of technical single track and smooth fire roads. Runners had the option of running 10M, 20M, 50K, or 50M. With a 100 miler coming up in April, I decided to run the 50 miler as my tuneup race to make sure my training, nutrition, and gear were all up to snuff. My primary race goal was to avoid re-aggravating my achilles tendinitis, which had forced me to stop training for two weeks earlier in the year. My secondary goal was to run conservatively early on and to keep my 10 mile splits as even as possible. However, I gave myself permission to run with reckless abandon at the end of the race if I had a chance to win.
At precisely 7am (Rick always starts his races exactly on time), the 50 milers were off. The starting field consisted of 28 runners of various abilities and backgrounds. Among them (according to my internet stalking) were Barkley 100 finisher (yes, that Barkley!) John Fegyveresi, 2:43 marathoner Jamie Stroffolino, 2:55 marathoner Jonathan Warner, and last year's 4th place finisher Jesse Wolfgang. This would be the most competitive ultra I had raced since the Barkley Fall Classic (no, not that Barkley) back in September 2015.
|The start of the Febapple 50. I'm on the left in the bright yellowish-green shirt.|
The first mile of the course was a very runnable section of double-wide packed dirt trail. The field went out at a quick pace, the lead runners vanishing from my sight within a mile of the start. I tried to hold back, reminding myself to run my own race. My first two miles came in at 8:41 and 8:32 - probably too fast, but not a suicidal pace. I power-hiked the first climb while a steady stream of runners passed me. By mile 3, more than half of the starting field was ahead of me and out of sight. I promised myself that I would pass most of them back before the end of the race.
I got my first chance to do so around mile 5, when the course went down a steep single track section that was covered in ice. At this point, it is useful for me to introduce a term to describe the terrain in this section. Nick Hollon coined the phrase when talking about several root-strewn section of the HURT 100 course - "fucked up shit." To keep this blog at a PG-13 rating, I'll abbreviate this as "FUS" from here on.
So anyway, we got to the FUS section of the course at mile 5, and I immediately felt like I should have brought ice skates. I did my best to stay off to the side of the ice, but the trees and rocks lining the trail forced me to constantly jump or slide across the slick path. It was like running on a slip and slide. Any missteps left me sliding down the trail, flailing my arms wildly in hopes of snagging a tree branch. Despite how awkward this section felt, I managed to flail my way through it faster than a few other runners, slowly moving up in the field.
Beyond the FUS was the mile 6.5 aid station, which marked a transition from single track to fire road for a few miles. I managed to throw down a few quick miles (8:40 and 9:26) before the course wound its way up a long climb back to the start/finish area. I finished my first loop in a respectable 1:45 (10:30/mi), still well behind most of the other runners, but feeling strong.
I'm not superstitious, but I am a little stitious
I would like to pause the ongoing story to tell a relevant anecdote. Back at the 2014 Frozen Fools 50K, I was running with another guy early in the race. Almost the entire course followed the Appalachian Trail, so all we had to do was follow the white trail blazes on the trees. Well this other guy was having trouble staying on course. He was constantly missing turns and wandering off the trail. When he stopped to take a leak, I pulled away from him, thinking to myself "This poor bastard is definitely going to get lost out here." I don't believe in karma or cosmic justice, but within minutes, I had unknowingly taken a wrong turn. I followed the wrong trail for over 3 miles down a steep hill before realizing my mistake. By the time I got back on course, I had lost 90 minutes of time and had run an extra 10K. I finished in last place, barely ahead of the course sweepers.
So you would think that I learned my lesson about judging other runners. You would be wrong. Early in lap 1 of Febapple, before we got to the FUS section, another runner was complaining to me that there were - and I quote - "so many rocks." I thought to myself, "Yeah dude, it's a trail run. What were you expecting?"
Around mile 12, I was replaying the conversation in my head, as one does. I was pitying the poor runner, because he was probably struggling with all the rocky sections of the course. He wasn't a seasoned trail runner like me. Do you see where I'm going with this?
Trip. Fall. Splat. "God! Damnit!"
Justice was swift, and it was brutal.
For the record, I'm usually pretty stable on my feet. Probably because of my low center of gravity and sturdy legs (thanks, viking ancestors!). But for some reason, I had tripped and fallen almost the exact same way on a training run only a week prior, banging my right shin on a rock. So here I was, a quarter of the way into my first ultra of 2016, and my right leg already felt like garbage. I couldn't believe it. I took a few tentative steps. My knee almost buckled under my weight. I stood there feeling sorry for myself for a minute. Ryan you suck. Ryan you suck.
I took a few more steps, and the pain began to dissipate. I took another look at my knee, expecting to see exposed bone and blood streaming down my leg. Instead, I saw a little scratch and a single droplet of blood. I shuffled forward a few more steps, carefully avoiding the rocks in the trail. With each step, the pain subsided a little more. I began to realize that I was probably fine.
"Okay Ry, let's try not to do that again." I promised myself.
The race is on
With my new found confidence that my leg didn't need to be amputated, I continued on. I patiently walked all of the uphill sections, but made up time on the flats and downhills, where I was able to maintain a consistent 9:00/mi pace.
|Moving well on the runnable sections|
It was difficult to tell what place I was in because the other races were all being run simultaneously, but I was pretty sure that no 50 milers had passed me since the first loop. I made quick work of the aid stations, stopping only long enough to swap out water bottles and occasionally kiss my crew chief. Aside from an emergency bathroom break, the details of which will be omitted from this post, loops 2 and 3 were fairly uneventful. I walked the uphills, ran the flats, and picked off runners one by one in the FUS. Lather, rinse, repeat.
|The best kind of aid|
Around mile 33, I caught up to running buddy Ke'mani Smith, who had finished TGNY100 in 2015 on a torn quadriceps muscle. He had chosen the Febapple 50K as his first trail race and was characteristically in good spirits, although he regretted not buying a pair of trail runners. He had shared some early miles with another friend and TGNY alum Charlotte Dequeker, who would go on to finish 3rd woman in the 50K. After running by myself all day, it was nice to share some miles with a friend and hear good news about another one. We chatted about training and the perils of trail running while we power hiked a big climb. At the top of the climb, we parted ways. Ke'mani would go on to finish in 6:40, a very respectable time for his first trail race.
Shortly after leaving Ke'mani, I spotted another 50M runner ahead on the trail. Now I don't often find myself "racing" in ultramarathons per se. Usually I just go my own pace and hope for the best. But my legs still had some life in them, and I wanted to do something fun. So I did my best Scott Jurek impression and hammered out an 8:30/mi pace for a half mile to pass him with authority. That felt good. Once I was comfortably out of sight, I let my pace slow back down and trotted into the mile 36.5 aid station, where Alexandra Thorpe informed me that I was now in 3rd place! The bad news was that the 2nd place runner was Barkley vet John Fegyveresi, who looked strong and was gaining on first place runner Jonathan Warner. What are the odds that a Barkley 100 finisher knows how to finish a race strong?
With renewed purpose, I set off at a strong pace, hoping to reel in the other two runners. However, I had failed to ask how far ahead they were. Spoiler alert: they both had an insurmountable 20+ minute lead on me with only 13.5 miles left to run. I ran the next 10 miles as quickly as my tired legs would carry me, but didn't see either of the two lead runners. When I got back around to the aid station at mile 46.5, I was disappointed but also relieved to hear that they were still 20-30 minutes ahead. That, combined with the fact that no runners were close behind me, meant that I could just coast in for the last 3.5 miles and enjoy the scenery.
|Frozen waterfall at mile 9, 19, 29. 39. 49|
I spent the last few miles of the course enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. I paused briefly to look at the half frozen waterfalls that lined the trail. I listened to the birds chirping, the sound of the streams, and the cool breeze blowing through the bare trees. When I crested the top of the final climb, I had a renewed energy, and I picked up my pace as I neared the finish line. I caught a glimpse of Alex and broke into a full "sprint," briefly hitting 6:30/mi. I crossed the finish line in 3rd place with a time of 9:17:16, which is a full hour faster than my previous 50 mile trail PR.
|And the crowd goes wild!|
Apparently I missed a spectacular finish at the front of the pack, as John Fegyveresi barely edged past Jonathan Warner to win by 25 seconds (8:49:29 vs. 8:49:54)! After my dawdling, I finished almost 30 minutes behind both of them, and the 4th place runner was another 18 minutes behind me. I was grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the last few miles without worrying about passing or being passed.
Overall, this race was exactly what I wanted it to be. I ran my own race and stayed fairly consistent from start to finish. My 10 mile splits were 1:45, 1:48, 1:51, 1:54, and 1:59. I could have run a little faster if I had pushed myself at the end, but I'll save that effort for my "A" races later in the year. My nutrition and gear all worked perfectly. I never felt nauseous and I finished without a single blister on my feet despite the wet and muddy condition of the course.
|Alex, Jackie, Elaine, and Otto at the mile 6.5 aid station|
I would like to thank my beautiful and supportive wife Alex for crewing me all day by herself. I am also grateful for aid station volunteers Elaine Acosta and Otto Lam, whose enthusiasm and positivity were infectious. Both highly accomplished ultrarunners, they went above and beyond to provide runners with water when their aid station ran out late in the day.
As a final aside, accomplished marathoner Jamie Stroffolino went through a rough patch with 6 miles to go. His girlfriend (wife?) Jackie, pictured above, had crewed him all day and absolutely refused to let him quit. Apparently someone had told her about Alex pushing me to finish last year's Wildcat 100K (for which I am still grateful). So to make sure Jamie finished the race, Jackie paced him in to the finish, running her longest distance ever in the process! Runners are awesome!
Thanks for reading!
Photo credits: Alex Thorpe, Elaine Acosta, and Lisa Simone
Fuel and gear
Fuel: Tailwind Nutrition (250 cal per hour, mixed with 20 oz water)
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 2.5
Socks: Injinji compression OTC
Shorts: Nike Phenom 2-in-1
Vest: Ultimate Direction SJ
GPS: Suunto Ambit2 S