Sunday, March 27, 2016

NJ Ultra Festival 100: Pre-Race Thoughts

I'm in taper mode at the moment, which means that the time I would usually spend running is being spent freaking out about my upcoming race. In about a week, I will attempt to run 100 miles on a trail for the first time in my life. Yeesh! To ease my nerves, I thought it would be useful to write out my training and lay out some concrete goals for the race. Here goes...


Despite some nagging Achilles tendinitis issues early in year, I ran my highest monthly mileage ever (255 miles) in February, and I'm on pace to match or surpass that mark again this month. Here's what my weekly mileage looked like for those months:

Distance (mi)
2/1 - 2/7
First full week of running after 2 wks off
  2/8 - 2/14
Still feeling good!
2/15 - 2/21
2/22 - 2/28
Recovery week 
2/29 - 3/6  
  3/7 - 3/13
3/14 - 3/20
First week of taper 
3/21 - 3/27
Easy running from here till race day

Most of my training mileage came in the form of "medium-long" runs, as prescribed by Uncle Pete's marathon training plan. These runs were typically between 9 and 15 miles, with the first half of each run at about 9:00/mi and the second half at 8:20/mi.

I'm pretty happy with the mileage that I managed to put in over the past 8 weeks. My only concern is the lack of hill training that I was able to do. As my last hard workout on 3/19, I ran an 18 mile loop around Round Valley reservoir, which included 3,800 feet of climbing. It took my quads 4 days to completely recover, which is not a great sign considering the Ultra Festival course has 5x more elevation gain than that over its 100 miles. Oh well...

The Course

The NJ Ultra Festival has traditionally been held on flat trails, leading to blazing fast finish times over the past few years (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). This year, the race organizers decided to mix it up and move the course to the Princeton-Blairstown Center in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The new course now features over 16,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of descent over sixteen 6-mile loops. [Note: the course was originally supposed to be a 10 mile loop, but one of the land owners backed out at the last minute]

Elevation profile for each 6 mile loop

For comparison, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states (Mount Whitney) is 14,505 feet tall. For further comparison, the climb from Everest base camp to the top of the mountain is a paltry 11,500 feet (although, as I understand it, it's slightly chillier there than in New Jersey). The good news is that all this climbing will be excellent preparation for my A+ race in October - Grindstone 100 - which has over 23,000 feet of elevation gain.

Since the course is located entirely on private land, I have not been able to run any of it. However, the race organizers hinted that the trails there are comparable to the ones at Febapple, minus the FUS sections. This means that it should be fairly runnable terrain for me. On the other hand, this thing is apparently part of the course as well.

This should be fun at mile 98!

So it appears that this course will be a throwback to my obstacle race origins. As fun as that rope bridge looks, it might be a bit much for me after 20+ hours of running.

Race Strategy

As with all ultras, my main goal is just to finish the race. However, after weeks of preparation and some successful early season races, I want to make sure I get my money's worth. Here are my somewhat conflicting ideas on how I'll approach the event:

  1. Run patiently, but assertively: I don't want to burn out in the first half of the race and be forced to walk for the last 15 hours. But I also don't want to finish with the feeling that I didn't give 100%. This is a delicate balance in any race, but particularly so in 100 milers. Luckily, my finish at Febapple, where I maintained an 11:00/mi average pace, gives me a good indicator of my current fitness level.
  2. Let the terrain dictate my pace: One of my favorite features of Strava is the "Grade Adjusted Pace" (GAP) that is calculated for each segment of a run. GAP accounts for the fact that running uphill is harder than running downhill, so your uphill pace should naturally be slower than your downhill pace. In the case of this race, I want to run at about a 10:30/mi effort level for as long as possible, which might mean a 16:00/mi pace on uphills and 9:00/mi on downhills. Some of you might recognize 16:00/mi as a brisk walking pace - that's exactly what I plan to do! Walk the ups, bomb the downs, and maintain a steady pace in between.
  3. Even(ish) splits: In marathon running, the mark of a good race is running an even split, meaning the first 13.1 takes exactly as long as the second 13.1. In ultramarathon running, even splits are almost impossible because muscular fatigue eventually slows everyone down, regardless of how cautiously they ran in the first half. The most successful ultrarunners will typically slow down by 5-10% in the second half of a 100 miler. Mid-pack runners like me should usually aim for 10-20%.


In order of least difficult to most difficult
  1. Finish under the 30-hour cutoff: I have the fitness to finish the race, but ultras are unpredictable. A lot can happen in 100 miles, so this has to be my bottom line. Barring injury or a lightning strike, this should be doable.
  2. Sub-24 hours: This is the holy grail of ultramarathons: 100 miles in a day. Gordy Ainsleigh was the first person to do it back in 1974, and thousands more have done it since. That doesn't mean it's easy.
  3. Sub-22 hours: This would be close to my TGNY100 time from last year, but on a much harder course. This is a stretch, but it's within the realm of possibility based on my recent races. If this happens, it means every part of the race has gone perfectly for me.
  4. Win the damn thing: I'm not going to chase the front-runners if they set a quick pace at the beginning of the race. But you better believe I'll push hard if I'm within spitting distance of them around mile 80.

And lastly, here's my ideal pacing strategy for the race, based on the original 10mi loop course. My times will probably be slower on the new course, which has more elevation gain and river crossings. [My original #3 goal was sub-20, but that is much less likely in the new course]

Distance (mi) Pace (min/mi) Lap Time Total Time

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Short Race and a Long Training Run

Two mostly unrelated thoughts from this past weekend:

  1. Racing is hard, regardless of distance
  2. Running through New York City never fails to entertain me

Here's how I came to those conclusions.

Looney Leprechaun 10K (Saturday)

For the past few years, Alex and I have had a tradition of running holiday-themed races, usually with Alex's mom Julie. Starting with the Hangover Run on New Year's day and finishing with the Christmas City Classic in December, we usually manage to hit most of the big holidays. So of course when we heard about the Looney Leprechaun 10K trail race in Tyler State Park, PA, the three of us had to run it.

Hangover Run 5K, Revolutionary Run 10K, and Christmas City Classic 5M

Those of you who follow this blog (Hi Mom!) will know that I've mostly been racing ultras over the past few months. Combined with the fact that I've been avoiding speed work due to a recurring achilles tendinitis issue, this means that I now have no idea how to pace myself at shorter distances. It will soon become apparent to myself and everyone else that "as fast as possible" is not a sustainable pace.

Race day was sunny and warm (for March), with a high of over 60 degrees. I lined up near the front of the pack at the starting line, figuring I was at least capable of a top ten finish in a race this small (150 starters). The starting gun fired and we took off. Two men immediately went to the front of the pack. The pace felt manageable, so I stayed a few strides behind them.

For short races, I have my GPS tell me my splits every half mile. So half a mile into Looney Leprechaun, my watch beeped at me and displayed 0.5 mi, 3:02. Well shit. A 6 min/mi pace? I can barely run one mile at that pace, let alone 6.2 miles. This race was going to hurt.

I am not a smart man.

As those thoughts were going through my mind, the eventual race winner blazed by me, putting me in fourth place. I tried to do some damage control and let my pace slow a bit, and the three lead runners all pulled away, never to be seen again. The course wound its way downhill through rutted fields and along a fun stretch of single track with views of the Neshaminy Creek. We eventually crossed the creek on the beautiful Schofield Ford Covered Bridge. My pace naturally slowed a bit on the technical trails, but I felt like I was still going strong.

Schofield Ford Covered Bridge

Just past the half way point, the course climbed a short but brutal hill which forced me to walk. I couldn't believe it. I've never walked in a 10K. This course was no joke! I got back to running, and the course passed back across the bridge and returned to the rutted fields and the long uphill path to the finish line.

I had been running by myself ever since falling to fourth place, so the sound of footsteps behind me at mile 5 was as clear as day. I was being stalked. I was low on energy, but hated the idea of being passed this close to the finish line. I pushed hard on the uphill, but the other runner stayed right on my heels. My lungs burned. I was breathing fire. Eventually, I gave in and let him pass me. As luck would have it, a photographer was standing at the top of the hill and captured this exact moment.

*Jaws theme* Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun dun dun dun dun dun DUN DUN!

"Nice job," I said to the other runner. "I hate you," I mumbled under my breath.

He put some distance between himself as we continued to climb. That was probably my penance for going out too hard in the first half mile. I bombed down the ensuing downhill trying to catch up, but it was too little too late. I crossed the finish line 30 seconds behind him in a time of 47:18, good for fifth place overall and 1st in my age group.

At the finish line, I spent some time chatting with the runner, whose name is Steve. It turned out that Steve and I had both run the Bucks County Marathon back in November, where I set my PR (he beat me at that race too). He was a cool guy, so I guess I can forgive him for passing me in such heartbreaking fashion. Together, we ran a short cool down back along the course until I met up with Alex, who seemed to be feeling good. I paced her in to a solid finish in 1:06:57, good for 7th in her age group. Julie came in a few minutes later in 1:09:06, also 7th in her age group.

The post race festivities included a delicious pancake breakfast, during which I got my age group award ($20 Wawa card. Woo!). But more importantly, I refueled with bacon. We also got a coupon for a free beer at the local bar, which we took full advantage of.

Mmmm... bacon!

So another fun race is in the books. My streak of consecutive third place finishes has ended, but I ran a strong overall race and got to enjoy a new set of trails. I also reminded myself how much a 10K could hurt.

TGNY100 Training Run #1 (Sunday)

After a nearly sleepless night (daylight saving cost me an hour), I woke up at 5am on Sunday morning to make the long trek into New York City. Despite my sleepiness, I was excited for the first group training run for The Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition.

During the spring, race director (and American record holder) Phil McCarthy organizes four group training runs for TGNY which allow runners to learn the course and get acquainted with each other. The first training run is a beast: 35 miles from the starting line in Times Square to scenic Randall's Island in the East River. The remaining are all much more manageable at 18-26 miles apiece.

For me, this run was also an opportunity to see friends that I made during last year's training runs and race. In particular, I was looking forward to catching up with Charlotte Dequeker and Ke'mani Smith. The three of us were 100-mile virgins during last year's training runs, and we bonded over our shared ambitions and fears for the upcoming race. Charlotte and I shared a few miles late in TGNY when we were both too tired to run. We finished within 30 minutes of each other. Ke'mani and I had run together earlier in the race until a torn quadriceps muscle began to slow him down. He nevertheless finished the race, proving that ultrarunners are a remarkably strong and stubborn bunch.

Times Square is amazingly empty at 8am on a Sunday. Picture taken by Tiger Ellen Nguyen.

We all met at 8am at the TKTS booth in Times Square, and at 8:15 we were off. We split into a 9min/mi group and an 11min/mi group. It took some time to settle into a steady pace. An 8:22 mile early on made we worry that I was not going to be able to keep up with this group. But eventually, we slowed down a bit and got into an easy rhythm.

At mile 11, we stopped at Twin Donut to grab some snacks and use the restroom. I really wanted to get one of their famous giant donuts, but I was afraid that I would have to taste it for a second time a few miles later (if you catch my drift). Instead, I bought a banana, mostly to satisfy the manager who repeatedly scolded us that the bathroom was for customers only. At this point, we also met up with Tommy Pyon, who has won the three previous TGNY 100 races (as well as a bunch of other ultramarathons over the years). We also bumped into Grant McKeown, who helped organize training runs last year and volunteered at the 100K aid station during the race.

The 9 min.mi gang. Picture taken by Grant McKeown.

I'll spare you the details of the course, since I already devoted an entire race report to doing just that. But it's always fun to run through New York City, and it's even more fun to do it with friends. I talked to Ke'mani and Charlotte about their race schedules for the year (we're all running TGNY again). I found out why Phil moved to New York City from his home state of Nebraska (short answer: music). I picked Tommy's brain about pacing the NYC Marathon and getting sponsorships. And we passed by an infamously overdecorated house, which Phil immortalized in his holiday card to the TGNY runners.

Never a dull moment in NYC!

We stopped briefly at Orchard Beach at mile 23, where I sat for too long and tightened up ("Beware the chair." -Phil). We continued on our way and made a pit stop at a convenience store around mile 27, where I bought the biggest bottle of water I could find and immediately chugged almost the whole thing. I spent a few miles talking to Keila Merino, who won the first TGNY in 2012, finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch) in 2014, and is planning to run across the US this summer. I led the pack for a while, trying to remember where to turn (gotta hone those navigation skills).

At mile 35, we got to explore a new part of the course - the newly completed pedestrian path from the Bronx onto Randall's Island. 

The Cathedral (No, that's not it's name. That's just what I call it)

Then after a short 35.3 miles and 6 hours of running, we were done. Charlotte, Ke'mani, and I walked together across the Triboro Bridge and back into Manhattan, where we parted ways. I stopped at a deli and got the most delicious turkey sandwich and Coke that I've ever had, then hobbled to a subway station to begin the long trek home.

Thus ended a long weekend of running (and my first 80 mile week of the year). My legs still feel good, which gives me some confidence going into my first 100 miler.

With the NJ Ultra Festival now less than three weeks away, I'm starting my taper. At some point I'll probably put up a pre-race post with some goals and logistics, so keep an eye out for that.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lenape Trail Run

Do you ever question your orientation? I do it all the time.

...let me rephrase that...

Do you have a poor sense of direction and get lost easily? Because some days I feel like I need a map and compass just to find my living room.

This is a story about my navigation abilities, or total lack thereof.

Run Fat Ass, Run!

The Lenape Trail is a 34-ish mile trail that connects Newarks Ironbound district to South Mountain Reservation in Millburn, making an inverted U across northeastern NJ. Named for the Lenape tribe that used to occupy most of the state of NJ, the trail consists of roads, rail trail, and some technical single track sections near the end. In principle, the trail can be followed by looking for yellow trail blazes on utility poles and light stanchions. In practice, the blazes are old and faded or otherwise hidden by bushes, snow banks, pamphlets, etc., making navigation a serious issue for people who are not familiar with the course.

The Lenape Trail

The race was designated as a "Fat Ass" run, which means that there were no additional trail markings, aid stations, crews, or spectators. The internationally accepted rules of a Fat Ass are No Fee, No Aid, No Wimps. We were on our own. So at 6:30am on a chilly Saturday morning, 21 intrepid runners met at the western terminus of the Lenape Trail, parked their cars, boarded a train for Newark, and set off on an urban ultra adventure, carrying everything they would need for 34+ miles of running.

A Short History Lesson

Those of you who are from the northeastern US might recall that the winter of 2014-2015 was, for lack of a better phrase, cold and snowy as shit. At the March 2015 running of the Lenape Trail Run, 18 inches of snow blanketed the Lenape Trail, with drifts that were more than two feet deep in some places. In one particularly snowy section, my GPS log from that event shows that I "ran" a 19 minute 20 second mile which was almost entirely downhill. The winning time, and I should remind you that this is only a 50K, was 7:24. What I'm saying is, it was not a fast course.

Fast forward to the present day, and the weather was almost perfect. The snow from the January and February storms had completely melted, and the forecasts were calling for 40 degree weather and partly sunny skies. The previous course record of 5:16, set during the snowy 2013 race, looked poised to fall.

The Race Is On

After arriving in Newark, we all took turns violating the tiny bathroom in the train station while a homeless man gave himself a sponge bath at the sink. I distinctly remember staring at an abandoned pair of crutches, streaked with fresh blood, leaning against the wall of the bathroom stall while I attempted to complete my pre-race ritual. Ah, Newark!

After a short pre-race briefing by race director Christian Focacci and a couple quick pictures (which will be uploaded when I receive them), we made our way out to the sidewalk and quietly started the race without so much as a ready-set-go. In attendance was Eastern States 100 runner up Jay Lemos, 3:03 marathoner Jason Friedman, Frozen Fools runner up Chris McGovern, Febapple 50K winner Kait Sheridan, ultra veteran Chipp Winston, and NJ Trail Series race director Rick McNulty.

My plan for this race was to go out hard in the early road miles as sort of a tune up for the NJ Marathon in early May. I carried four 20oz. bottles of Tailwind in my Ultimate Direction vest and brought a few other snacks just in case. My biggest decision leading up to the race had been which pair of shoes I would use. I had been logging lots of road miles in my Brooks Glycerins, which were the only shoes that seemed to keep my achilles tendons happy. On the other hand, they would have absolutely no grip during the technical trail sections later in the race. I opted to protect my tendons, and brought the Brooks. This would turn out to be a pretty good decision. But the best decision of the weekend was printing out turn-by-turn directions onto four strips of paper and wearing them on my wrist, an idea first thought up by my permanent crew chief (also, wife) Alex Thorpe to keep me from getting lost at TGNY.

Just a few turns

Speedster Jay Lemos immediately took off like a shot, never to be caught by anyone else. My Strava stalking detective work shows that he was running 7:30ish miles on the early road sections. Too fast for my slow legs to keep up. I chugged along at an 8:30 pace, losing sight of him within 2 miles of the start. I briefly pulled ahead of the pack, but I was quickly reeled in by Rick McNulty and Chipp Winston as we entered Branch Brook Park. The three of us worked our way through the paved footpaths of the park together until we came out to a 5-way intersection. My direction bracelet told me to make a right, but it didn't say whether it was a sharp right or a slight right. While I was trying to make up my mind, Chipp and Rick picked a direction and ran off. By the time I realized they were right, they were a minute ahead and the pack had caught up to me again. "That's my one navigational mistake for the day," I told myself. Feel free to start laughing now...

The trail wound its way across Booth Park in Nutley, westward through a residential area, and then crossed the Garden State Parkway on a footbridge. Around mile 9, I found myself running with Jason Friedman, whom I had shared some miles with at last year's event. I had been having severe digestive issues that year, and he had a hip issue that forced him to power walk much of the race, so this year's race felt like a chance at redemption for both of us. Distracted by our conversation, we quickly missed the entrance for Brookdale Park (mile 10), and had to find a side entrance to get back on the Lenape Trail. Mistake number two.

By mile 12, we had made another wrong turn and somehow found ourselves on the Lenape Trail, but running in the wrong direction. Using my handy direction bracelet, I managed to correct the mistake, but not before we had added an additional half mile to our race. Mistake number 3. Mile 13 is where the trail goes off road, starting with a 250 foot climb up to Cedar Grove Reservoir. My road shoes slipped a bit in the mud as I climbed, but I told myself that this short section was a small price to pay for the comfort during the road miles. At the top of the climb, the New York City skyline appeared off to the east, clearly visible in the crisp winter air. I caught up to and passed Rick in this section, who was in good spirits, but told me that he had gone out too fast and was suffering the consequences. He also mentioned that Chipp was having trouble navigating, and I would probably come across him soon.

The woods were a welcome reprieve from the noise of the city streets, and the trail lazily wound its way around the reservoir, concluding with a very cool section along a ridge, which was bounded on both sides by a small stream. However, I once again managed to add a few tenths of a mile to my route by missing a turn in this section.

This is my jam! Photo credit:

Now running alone and in 3rd place, the miles ticked away as the trail followed a gas pipeline through flat runnable terrain for miles 18 and 19. At mile 20, the trail abruptly turned onto the road again, and I wound my way through residential streets and into downtown Verona. It was here that I had spent 15 minutes walking in circles last year, confused by a left turn blaze placed a quarter mile before the actual turn. Now armed with my trusty direction bracelets, I competently stayed on the trail. Nothing could stop me now!

At mile 20, the trail entered Verona Park, and made almost a complete circle around Verona Lake before exiting the park. It was here that I finally caught up to Chipp, who had run a complete 1 mile circle around the lake and ended up back where he started, having never seen the turn. Navigating together, we eventually found the poorly marked blaze that led out of the park and into another residential area. I was glad to have company again, and we chatted about our common goal of getting accepted in the Western States 100 lottery. We again missed a turn and ran an extra quarter mile, but laughed it off as a harmless mistake (#4).

Around mile 22, the trail entered Eagle Rock Reservation for a few miles of fun semi-technical single track. I had to watch my footing, since my shoes afforded little traction on the wet rocks that littered the trail. But otherwise, this was an enjoyable section. We hit the end of the trail and came out onto Eagle Rock Ave., a developed area with strip malls and gas stations. Now back on even footing, Chip and I were able to relax and let our guard down... and then we missed another turn. Mistake number 5 was a doozy. We went 0.7 miles past our turn and went down a 200 foot hill. This mistake added 1.4 miles and a whopping 15 minutes to our run. During this detour, Jason Friedman and Chris McGovern both passed us, and Kait Sheridan caught up to us. Frustrated, but determined to finish strong, Chipp and I got back on the course, now running in fourth place with Kait.

Now on the last stretch of road before the re-entering the technical trails, I ran a few quick miles (8:18, 9:18, 8:24) to try to regain some lost time. Around mile 29, we turned off the road for the last time and climbed up Mayapple Hill. At the top of the hill, the race director's dad had set up an aid station out of the trunk of his car (a rare and miraculous occurrence for a Fat Ass run!). I pulled into the aid station just as Jason and Chris were leaving. I had just run out of water during the climb, so I needed to stop and refill. Within a minute, I was back on the trail and in pursuit of a podium spot.

Pushing hard with only a few miles left to go, I caught up with Jason and Chris soon after the aid station. We ran together for a mile or two. I surged a few times, but Jason was on his home turf, having trained extensively on the Mayapple trails. I couldn't get more than a few strides ahead of him. Then he made his move. Remember the icy FUS section from the Febapple 50?

Yeah. This crap again.

Mile 32 of Lenape went straight up this same hill, which had since thawed and was covered with ankle-deep mud and standing water. Jason flew up this climb, never breaking stride. I'm not a great uphill runner to begin with, and in my slippery road shoes I steadily lost ground to him until he disappeared over the top of the hill. I reminded myself that there were still two miles to go, and that I could still catch him on the technical downhill sections. As luck would have it, that's exactly what happened on the next downhill. Unfortunately, it only happened because Jason had stopped to pet a dog that was walking along the trail. Maybe I was taking this race more seriously than he was...

Well, I wasn't going to let that stop me. I pushed hard for the next mile, only to have Jason pass me decisively on the next climb. Seriously, it felt like I was standing still as I watched him disappear ahead of me for the second time in a two mile stretch. I was in awe. And also very frustrated. Now with only half a mile left, I had almost no chance of catching him. On the other hand, I was now comfortably ahead of the runner behind me as well. For the second race in a row, I trotted in for a 3rd place finish. My final time was 5:49:16, almost exactly an hour behind race winner Jay Lemos, who shattered the previous course record.

My final distance for the day was 35.4 miles. I figure I lost between 20 and 30 minutes to various detours throughout the course, which probably cost me second place. On the other hand, I got a sweet trophy that was hand made by Jay (who incidentally finished so far ahead of us that he was able to go out and buy beer and coffee before the rest of us finished).

Smiling with my new hardware. Note the yellow Lenape Trail blazes.
After the race, we sat around for a few hours watching the rest of the runners trickle in. Chris McGovern finished less than a minute behind me, proving that my lead was not as substantial as I thought. Kait and Chipp finished together in 6:03. For Kait, it was her second straight 50K win. Chipp, on the other hand, won the unofficial highest mileage award, with over 38 miles for the day.

Altogether, this was a fun little race. I always enjoy the low key atmosphere and camaraderie of local Fat Ass events, although I should probably learn to stay on the prescribed course. I would like to thank Christian for organizing the event, his father for providing the much needed aid station, and Jay for making the trophies and buying post-race beverages.

3 weeks till NJ Ultra Fest 100...

More pictures from the event can be found here. Results are here, and my Strava log is here.