Monday, April 25, 2016

Breakneck Point Half Marathon

View of the Hudson River from Breakneck Ridge
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Question: what do you do when you have a marathon scheduled four weeks after a tough 100 miler? Do you (a) take some time off to let your body heal or (b) try to maintain your weekly mileage to stay fit? The answer, if you are me, is (c) sign up for a crazy-ass half marathon on some of the steepest terrain in the region. YOLO!

This is the story of the Breakneck Point Half Marathon.


In the Revolutionary War era, the Hudson Highlands were heavily mined for copper and iron ore, the latter of which was used to make cannons at the nearby West Point Foundry. Quarrying at the base of Breakneck Ridge exposed massive vertical rock faces, giving the mountain a ridiculously steep elevation profile.

An exposed rock face on Breakneck Ridge
Photo by Quincy Koetz at The Pursuit of Life

I've hiked the Breakneck Ridge Trail a few times over the years with Alex and our families. The scenery is amazing (see above), and the rock scramble up to the summit is reminiscent of our rock climbing days. The first half mile of the Breakneck Ridge Trail climbs over 950 feet, an average grade of 37%, through boulder fields and massive rock slabs. The NY-NJ Trail Conference website describes the trail thusly:
"Despite its relatively short length, this is generally considered to be the most strenuous hike in the East Hudson Highlands. It involves steep climbs over rock ledges that can be very slippery when wet. You'll need to use both your hands and your feet in many places along the way."
A climb like this requires a cautious, slow approach. It would be absolutely crazy to try to run up it. So of course when we heard about the Breakneck Point Races, Alex and I had to sign up.

The Course

Half Marathon course map

The Breakneck Point Half Marathon is a lollipop shaped course, consisting of three big climbs and descents. The total elevation gain is about 4,500 feet, or 340 feet per mile. This is comparable to some of the most extreme ultramarathons in the world, such as Hardrock 100 (330'/mi) and Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc (305'/mi). It also happens to be almost exactly the same as the Barkley Fall Classic (340'/mi), which Alex and I both ran last year. Not bad for an east coast race!

Elevation profile for the Breakneck Point Half Marathon

The first climb is a long meandering ascent that skirts the side of South Beacon Mountain, topping out at 1,300 feet before plunging back down to Route 9D at the bank of the Hudson River. From there, the course makes its ascent of Breakneck Ridge, by far the steepest climb of the day. After summiting, the course then descends the back side of the ridge on the rocky Breakneck Bypass Trail, which completes the looped part of the course. The last five miles are then the same as the first five, but in reverse.

Goals and Strategy

It's always hard to come up with a time goal for a course that I haven't run before, especially only two weeks after running the hardest race of my life. Nevertheless, it's nice to have a general idea of how long a race will take. Here's what I came up with, based on the race results from 2015:
  • Finish faster than my full marathon PR (3:25ish)
  • Don't die on Breakneck Ridge
  • Seriously, don't die on Breakneck Ridge. To quote the race directors:
"We'll have EMT's and/or physicians [...] but there's not too much they can do if you take your eye of the climb or trail and fall hundreds of feet off a cliff."
Other than that, I just wanted to enjoy the course and see whether my legs still worked. I figured that if this race took as long as a full marathon, I should aim for about a 7:38/mile effort (my goal marathon pace) for as long as possible.

I opted not to carry any water on the course since I didn't want to restrict my movement on the Breakneck Ridge ascent. Instead, I stuffed a few Gu packets into the pockets of my shorts and decided to chug water at the three aid stations along the course. The weather was very mild, and this ended up being a good decision.

The Race

After a 90 minute drive, we got to the starting line at 6am, just as the sun was coming up. This gave us an hour to check in and mill around before the race start. I caught up with the ever-cheerful Charlotte Dequeker and the human mountain goat Jason Friedman who were running the full marathon. I also spotted Cheryl Wheeler, whom I had just raced against at the NJ Ultra Festival. As the race director gave his final (completely inaudible) set of instructions, I squeezed my way toward the front of the pack at the starting line. A few minutes after 7am, we were off!

The start of the race
Photo by The Ascent Collective

The first 200 yards of the course crossed an open field before funneling all 300 runners into a narrow section of single track. I attempted to sprint out to the front to avoid the ensuing bottleneck, and ended up in a comfortable position with about 50 people ahead of me. After a quarter mile of single track, the course turned onto a wide jeep road and then onto the rocky Notch Trail as we made our continuous first ascent. My GPS showed 10:48 and 9:51 for the first two miles, which climbed 700 feet in total. Strava tells me that this is equivalent to a 7:36 pace on flat terrain - perfect! However, I would find out afterwards that my heart rate was screaming at 170 bpm during this section. Apparently I'm still not good at climbing.

After 2.5 miles and 1,100 feet of continuous climbing, we topped out on a rocky ridge near South Beacon Mountain and began our steep, technical descent down to Route 9D. Usually the downhills are where I can really open up my stride and pass people, but the loose rocks that littered the trail slowed me down to a shuffle in most spots. I passed a few people here and there, but did not move up significantly in the field.

At mile 5, we hit the first aid station and I threw back a cup of Tailwind, a cup of Coke, and a cup of water in rapid succession. I also ate an espresso Gu for good measure. Time to see how my stomach handles some sloshing! Luckily I didn't have any issues with this fueling strategy. I made good time on the runnable decent down to Route 9D at the base of Breakneck Ridge, hitting 8:19 for my mile split.

This is where the course got crazy...

Eventual marathon winner Ben Nephew climbing Breakneck Ridge
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

The first pitch of the Breakneck Ridge Trail climbed up a steep boulder field to a false summit. A few sections actually resembled bouldering problems, requiring careful hand and foot placement to scale the rocks. At the top of this section was a flat landing with a flagpole where I remember stopping to have a snack during previous hikes. This section also provides one of the best vistas of the climb, offering a spectacular panorama of the Hudson River as well as Storm King Mountain on the opposite side of the river. I stopped for a moment to appreciate the view before resuming my climb.

Slab climb on the Breakneck Ridge Trail (not me)
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

The next pitch involved sections of slab climbing, which is my favorite type of rock climbing. This is where the soles of your shoes are put to the test. We scrambled up several 10-20 foot sections of 45 degree rock slabs on our hands and feet. A few of these scrambles brought us precariously close to the quarried cliffs, where we could see 500+ feet straight down to the riverbank. This climb brought us to another false summit, where a bagpipe player was just starting to play a jaunty tune. I would later find out from Alex that a local running club had brought a case of beer up to this area and was handing out Dixie cups of Yuengling to runners. As the saying goes, races are like mullets: business in the front and party in the back!

This felt a little like a funeral, which seemed appropriate.
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Despite the views, anyone who is unfamiliar with Breakneck Ridge was bound to be disappointed at this stage of the climb. After more than 900 feet of climbing and many apparent summits since leaving the road, there was still 300 vertical feet separating us from the true summit. Luckily, I remembered that there were a ton of false summits, and I soldiered on as quickly as I could. Somewhere around this part, I hit mile 7. My GPS showed 28:21 for that mile alone! I'm somewhat comforted by the fact that even the marathon winner, elite mountain runner Ben Nephew, took 20:00 to cover the same stretch of trail.

A line of runners forming behind me. Slowpoke.
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Near the apex of the climb, the half marathon and full marathon parted ways, and I found myself alone at the rocky summit. The hardest part of the race was now over, and I just had to descend down the mile 8 aid station (same as the mile 5 aid station) and then backtrack along the first five miles of the course.

The descent down the Breakneck Bypass Trail was scattered with bowling ball sized rocks, deep piles of oak leaves, and downed tree trunks. This was the most technical descent of the day, and this mile of trail took over 13 minutes to complete despite losing 700 feet in elevation. This section also included my only real wipe out of the day. I snagged my foot on a log and pitched forward in slow motion. I managed to contort my body in mid-air and landed softly on my side in a pile of leaves. Crisis averted!

Once back at the aid station, I again swigged a few cups of water, tailwind, and soda before beginning the long trek back to the start/finish. There's not much to write about the next few miles, except that they were slow and hot, and my feet started to ache from the accumulated punishment of the past few weeks. It took 46 heart-pounding minutes to climb the three miles to the final summit. I passed one other runner along the way, but otherwise saw no one the entire time.

Near mile 11, I passed a couple of race volunteers, who informed me that I had two miles of downhill running left. I was able to open up my stride a bit in this wide semi-technical double track, and hammered out 9:49 for mile 12, and 8:13 for mile 13 (my fastest of the day).

At the final turn, a little kid was standing with his mom at the side of the trail. His hand was outstretched, pointing toward the finish line.

"Is this the high-five station?" I asked him, reaching out to slap his hand.

"No," he replied firmly, pulling away and furrowing his brow. His mom cracked up. I smirked to myself.

Swallowing my feelings of rejection, I flew down the final few tenths of a mile, happy to still have some life left in my legs. I crossed the finish line in 2:54:29 in 21st place.

Post Race

The post race festivities were some of the best I've experienced at any race. The organizers had a great selection of sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and - best of all - kegs from a local brewery. The weather was gorgeous and I staked out a spot to eat and drink while I waited for Alex to finish.

Since I finished a little faster than my marathon time, I expected her to come through only a little faster than her marathon time. So when she called me only 4:09 into the race, I was concerned that she had dropped out. In fact, she had had a great race, and was calling me from only 20 feet away. I had completely missed her crossing the finish line! Oops.

We sat around for a little while and watched the half marathon runners trickle in. At 5:04 into the race, a cheer erupted from the crowd as marathon runner Ben Nephew came tearing out of the woods. Sprinting to the finish, he looked more like an 400 meter runner than a marathon finisher. He crossed the line in 5:05:08, breaking his own course record by seven minutes.

All in all, this was a fun little race. The volunteers were excellent, the course was spectacular, the weather was perfect (finally!), and the food and drinks at the end just sealed the deal. Despite dealing with some lingering pain from the NJ Ultra Festival, I feel like I ran a strong race. Meanwhile, Alex reaffirmed her belief that she's a much better trail runner than a "real runner" (in her own words), finishing in the top 20 women.

We will definitely be back next year.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

NJ Ultra Festival 100

Running over the Bass Lake spillway midway through the race

5:00 AM, April 3 [20 hours into the race]

The wind roared through the trees, driving half-frozen raindrops into our faces. Trees creaked and groaned as branches dropped from high above.

"Is that... Is that a train?" Alex asked.

The howling wind was playing tricks on our ears. The ground, soaked with water from the ongoing storm, had long since turned to mud. A particularly strong gust pushed us almost completely off the trail, our feet unable to get any traction.

"What the fuck, Alex?" I yelled. "I mean... just... what the fuck!?"

8:00 AM, April 2 [1 hour before race start]

We set up an EZ-Up shelter next to the starting line of the race. This would be our race headquarters for the next 24+ hours. The course was a 5.75 mile figure-8 loop, consisting of the 3.35 mile "Woods Loop" and the 2.40 mile "Lake Loop." The 100 mile distance consisted of 17 Woods Loops and 18 Lake Loops, meaning that I would pass through the starting area 34 times before the race was over. Each full loop contained 1024 feet of cumulative elevation gain and an equal amount of loss, for a total of about 18,000 feet of climbing.

My morning crew consisted of Alex (crew chief), my mom, and my father in law Dave. We chatted for a bit, while I sorted through my gear and vaselined the soles of my feet in preparation for the 105 water crossings (yes, really!) along the course.

Settling in for a long day. Bass Lake is in the background.

From my seat, I spotted elite ultrarunner Sebastien Roulier, who was the favorite to win the race. I had first heard of Sebastien when he set the fastest known time for a double Presidential Traverse in March of last year (in winter and unsupported). He then went on to place 3rd in the prestigious Vermont 100 in July, finishing in a blindingly fast 15:42. Also in attendance were 18:41 100-miler Pablo Espinosa, 24-year old speedster Chancell "Tyler" Condie, elite masters runner Sheryl Wheeler, and Frozen Fools 50K race director Dan O'Keefe. Needless to say, I regretted listing "Win the damn thing" as one of my race goals when I saw the depth of the starting field.

9:00 AM, April 2 [race start]

Back when I was young and naive. Dan O'Keefe is behind me in the blue jacket.

After a course briefing by race director Rick McNulty and a kiss from my crew chief, we were off. Sebastien and Tyler immediately sprinted to the lead as we crossed the dam over the Bass Lake spillway. I hung back and chatted with Dan about our early season races while we got a feel for the course. The Woods Loop contained most of the elevation gain in the course, so we trotted along at an easy pace.

Elevation profile for the Woods Loop (heart rate shown in red)

The course gradually climbed up to a ridge before plummeting 200 feet back down hill. A mile into the loop came our first creek crossing of the day. I had planned to avoid getting my feet wet for as long as possible, but I immediately slipped on a mossy rock and dunked my left foot into the chilly water. Oh well, only 99 miles to go... Another climb and descent brought us to our second creek crossing, just past the 2 mile mark. Here, a scattering of large boulders allowed me to hop across unscathed. One for two - that's a hall of fame batting average! Yet another climb brought us to a flat fern-covered section of woods where I was able to open up my stride a bit before descending back down to a suspension bridge crossing of Blair Creek around mile 3. From here, the course followed the creek upstream to the beautiful Bass Lake spillway (see above).

Elevation profile for the Lake Loop (heart rate shown in red)

After a quick but steep climb to the top of the spillway, we were back at the start. I waved at my crew as I passed without stopped and began the Lake Loop. This section of the course was flat and minimally rocky, allowing me to run a "fast" 11:00 mile as I circumnavigated Bass Lake. At the far end of the lake, we came to the hardest water crossing on the course: a knee deep section of the Blair Creek spanned by a rope bridge.

The rope bridge. Imagine doing this at 5AM in a snow storm.

With my left foot still drying out from my first failed river crossing, I attempted to walk across the bridge. The flexibility of the hand ropes made the crossing feel like an abdominal workout, and I decided that I was done with rope bridges after this loop. After the water crossing, the course completed its loop around Bass Lake before heading down a steep hill and back to Blair Creek. After another climb up the Bass Lake spillway again, I had finished my first full loop in about 1:12 (12:30/mi average). As I came back to our camp, I informed Alex that my 22 hour goal was completely off the table since I would have had to maintain this same pace for the rest of the day in order to hit that goal. Not gonna happen.

1:30 PM, April 2 [4.5 hours into the race]

As the day went on, I began to get into a rhythm. Following my race strategy, I walked the uphills and made up time on the flats and downhills. I didn't know what place I was in, nor did I want to know. The first 50 miles were just about conserving energy.

Around the 20 mile mark, I heard footsteps rapidly approaching from behind. As is customary, I stepped off the trail to let the faster runner pass. I recognized the bright orange shirt as soon as I saw it.

"Sebastien, right?" I called out.

"Yes...And you are?" he questioned.

"Ryan," I shrugged. I didn't expect him to recognize a lowly midpacker like myself. Struggling to come up with something witty to say, I blurted out "Nice pace!"

Nailed it.

"Thanks!" I heard him say as he sped off.

Thus ended my brush with greatness. I had just been lapped by an elite runner. Rather than let this discourage me, I did some quick math and determined that he probably should have lapped me sooner, which meant I was running pretty quickly. If he was around mile 25 and I was at mile 20, then he was only going 20% faster than me. Usually a world class runner will beat me by 40-50% at any given distance. Small victory!

Climbing up to the aid station at the end of a loop.

6:15 PM, April 2 [9 hours into the race]

The weather ended up being very mild during the day, with temperatures in the low 50's and just an occasional sprinkling of rain. I maintained an even pace throughout the daylight hours, stopping only at 25 mile increments to change my wet socks. I still had no idea what place I was in, and I wanted to keep it that way.

As the race went on, various friends and family members stopped in to see how I was doing. Unbeknownst to me, Alex had invited them to come, so each new person was a huge surprise. My dad showed up early in the day and stayed for a loop. My mother-in-law Julie drove up from Philadelphia after running a 15K that morning and stayed for the remainder of the race. My sister-in-law Kelly rode with her and helped crew me until late that night. College friends Derek and Kate, who had both paced me at TGNY100 last year, surprised me later in the day. My brother Eric and future sister-in-law Sara came by for a few hours. Each friendly face gave me a new burst of energy. This was one of the coolest things Alex has done as my crew chief, and I owe her a lot of credit for her effort.

My awesome crew! Mom and Kate in front. Eric, Dave, Sara, Kelly, Julie, Derek, and Alex in the back.

Near the beginning of another Woods Loop around mile 40, I again heard footsteps behind me. Expecting to be passed by Sebastien (or one of the other fast runners) I stepped off to the side again.

"No, I want to run with you," the runner said, as they slowed down to keep me in front.

It was Tyler Condie, who had shot out to an early 2nd place position, but had faded badly as the relentless hills took their toll on him. He informed me that he had stayed in second place (male division) until I passed him at the previous aid station, thus putting us in a virtual tie for second. We picked our way through the course for the next few miles, talking about previous races we had done. This was Tyler's first 100 miler and my first trail 100, so we had a bit in common.

We ran most of the Woods Loop together until we caught up to Sheryl, who informed us that she was the first woman and second place overall. The three of us were now effectively tied for second. Tyler mentioned something about racing, but Sheryl and I both agreed that it was too early to make a move. Having just said that, I ended up passing both of them on the next downhill to take sole possession of second place (I meant what I said about not racing yet. I just like going fast on downhills.).

Cruising on a flat section before the last hill of the loop

As I pulled into the aid station at the end of another loop, I whispered to Alex "Am I in second place?" She offered to ask the race director, but I decided that I still didn't want to know for sure. There was a lot of race left to run. Still, I couldn't shake the thought of being in second place. Second place meant that I only had one person in front of me. And ultramarathons are unpredictable. A nutrition mistake, a headlamp malfunction, any small break in my favor could put me in first. But Sebastien is a seasoned ultrarunner, I reminded myself. Don't bet on him faltering.

9:00 PM, April 2 [12 hours into the race]

I passed the half way point somewhere around 11 hours, which would have placed fourth in the 50 mile race if I had stopped there. In retrospect this was probably a bit quick on this hilly course, but I felt strong and wanted to rack up some miles before the sun set.

As the sky grew darker, I put on my headlamp and prepared myself mentally for a long night of running. I had done an 11 mile night training run with Alex a few weeks prior and decided that I liked running trails in the dark.

At night, your entire world is confined to the beam of your headlamp. How long is the next climb? Which runners are in front of me? How far until the next aid station? All of these questions become irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the next step you take. In a way, this is a microcosm for the way I approach ultrarunning in general. Sure, you can plan ahead and come up with a race strategy, but the only thing that really matters in the end is taking the next step.

Although sometimes your headlamp just becomes a spotlight for your nasty waterlogged feet.

Now that I've gone all poetic on you, this is a good time to mention that I got completely lost on my first night time Woods Loop. I missed a switchback just after the first water crossing and found myself off the trail with no blazes in sight. As I thrashed around looking for the trail, I saw a headlight coming downhill from across the river.

"Don't follow me!" I shouted as the runner crossed the river. "I'm lost."

"Okay," replied a familiar voice, as the runner veered off onto the correct path.

It was Sebastien, who had lapped me for the second time. Or so I thought. I followed him back onto the trail and tried to keep pace for a bit.

"You're doing great!" I said, in awe of his ability.

"Thanks, but I'm dropping down to the 100K," he replied with a hint of disappointment.

My heart raced. Did this mean I was in first place? Sebastien explained that he had an 8-hour drive back to Quebec in the morning and needed to get some sleep. He hadn't anticipated the race taking this long, so he was dropping down in distance. I must have passed him at back at some point because I was still only a loop behind him. I was genuinely disappointed for him, but I knew that this was the exact opportunity I needed.

We ran together for most of the Woods Loop. He complimented me on still running strong at this stage in the race, although I kept losing him on the climbs. Near the end of the loop, he slowed to talk to a friend of his on the course while I went on ahead. Suddenly, I was by myself in first place with 45 miles left to run.

Have I ever mentioned that I hate running out in front? Because I do. It's like being hunted.

I don't like being hunted.

I debated whether to tell my crew what I had just learned. I assumed that they already knew I was in first, but I kept it to myself - almost as if saying it out loud would make it more true.

12:00 AM, April 3 [15 hours into the race]

This is where shit went downhill.

There are no words to describe how severe the weather became, nor how quickly it turned from pleasant to nightmare hellscape. It was as if someone flipped a switch from "Good Weather" to "Bad Weather."

At the stroke of midnight, the temperature dropped to 30 degrees. The wind picked up to a brisk 40 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph, putting the wind chill in the teens or single digits. The light sprinkling of rain from earlier changed to a violent driving downpour. The kind of rain that stings when it hits your skin.

I quickly changed shirts and put on my rain shell. Each raindrop now made a loud *pop* as it hit the thin material. The footing on the flat dirt trail of the Lake Loop became unstable, prompting me to ask for my trekking poles (which I have never used before on a run). The downhill sections, which had been my strengths for the first 15 hours, turned into slip 'n slides. Instead of gaining time on these sections, I was forced to tip-toe gingerly while poking and prodding the ground with my trekking poles to find stable spots. I ended up on my butt more than once during these descents.

The worst effect of the weather, though, was that I was unable to eat or drink while running because my hands were occupied by my trekking poles. I tried my best to gulp down my Tailwind bottles and an occasional cup of hot chicken broth (sweet nectar of life!) at aid stations, but my stomach did not appreciate the sudden influx of liquids. Slowly but surely, my body became depleted of its precious glycogen stores. With each lap, my legs became more tired and my breathing more labored. My mile splits dropped from 13:00/mi to 15:00, then 17:00, then over 20:00. I heard from my crew that Sheryl and Tyler were working together to try to catch me. I had just a 3 mile lead on them with 40 miles left to go.

This picture perfectly sums up my mood during this part of the race

3:00 AM, April 3 [18 hours into the race]

I'm usually pretty good at staying positive during races. I understand that any race is going to hurt. The only thing we can control is how we deal with the pain. I repeated my usual mantras...

Embrace the suck.

This is what you came here for.

If you're going through hell, keep going.

I'm just gonna shake shake shake shake shake. Shake it off! Shake it off!

But even the immortal words of T-Swift were unable to bring me out of this low point. I was in a funk, and there was only one person who could bring me out of it.

"Alex," I inquired, while shivering at an aid station, "How many miles do you think you could pace me for?"

Alex had originally agreed to come out to pace me for the last 15 miles of the course. At this point, there were 25 miles left to run, and they would all be in apocalyptic weather. I told her to think about it and let me know while I ran another half-loop. She worried aloud that she wouldn't be able to keep up with me for that long.

"For Chrissakes, he's hiking the course!" advised race director Rick McNulty.

By the time I came back to the aid station, Alex was dressed and ready to go. She would have to pace me for 22 miles.

Heading out with my pacer!
(Incidentally, I tripped over those orange cones Every. Single. Time I left the aid station.)

5:00 AM, April 3 [20 hours into the race]

The storm raged on, and we made slow, steady progress on the course. One by one, I heard that the other runners were dropping out or succumbing to the time cut offs. Sebastien had long since finished the 100K in an impressive 12:26 (the unofficial first place finisher). Dan O'Keefe would last 16:33 before dropping out due to injury concerns. Despite my slow pace, Sheryl and Tyler were unable to make up ground on me. They would finish the 100K in 14:42 and 14:44 respectively.

It was looking like I was not going to be caught. The only question was now whether I could finish.

Alex did her best to stay positive in the storm.

"He's going the distance! He's going for speeeed!" She yelled out the Cake song she had memorized.

"Uhhh," I responded, attempting to form a coherent thought.

"Creeeeeeak," added the tree trunks around us as they swayed violently in the wind.

Our pace hovered in the 25:00-30:00/mi range. Each mile took an eternity, but we just kept taking one more step. On every climb, I would stop and hunch over to catch my breath, and Alex would dutifully rub my back and offer encouragement. The rain turned to snow, and the muddy ground began to freeze, making the footing a little more stable.

My comments to Alex, few and far between, mostly consisted of "I just can't believe this weather!" Or during particularly strong wind gusts, I phrased this thought in simpler terms: "What the fuck?!"

7:00 AM, April 3 [22 hours into the race]

Sunrise! Sweet merciful daylight! And with it came a reprieve from the rain.

Finally able to see the ground, we picked up the pace and ran a few laps.

Ha! Just kidding. I had absolutely no energy left after many hours of neglecting my nutrition. We trudged along at hiking pace while the wind threatened to sweep us completely off the trail. At this point, I was the only 100 mile runner left on the course. I would win even if it took me the full 30 hours to finish.

At least it was prettier in the daylight. Check out the whitecaps on the lake, by the way.

One by one we ticked off the remaining laps in the race while Alex sang and told me stories to distract me from the cold. I didn't realize it, but she was getting dangerously cold whenever my pace slowed. Ever the dutiful pacer, she didn't complain to me once.

With a few laps to go, my whole crew joined me on the trail for a short section. Their cheers and idle chatter was a huge morale boost, although I was unable to convey any happiness with my words or facial expressions.

Dave, Mom, Julie, Alex, and me on one of the final loops

My mom ended up running a full Lake Loop with me and Alex, despite a torn meniscus in one knee. And she wonders how I have the toughness to run events like these!

11:00 AM, April 3 [26 hours into the race]

With one Lake Loop left to go, I finally started to believe that I could finish this race. The only hard parts left were a water crossing and one last climb up the Bass Lake spillway to the finish line. The final (34th) knee-deep water crossing was freezing as usual, but I treated it like a mid-race ice bath. I would find out after the race was over that there was a much shallower section only a few feet from where I had crossed.

I am not a smart man.

Finally, after more than 26 hours of running, I found myself on the final climb of the race. The Bass Lake spillway was bathed in sunshine next to the steep trail. Alex cheered me on with every step. Near the top of the climb, my mom and Dave came into sight.

"I-P-A. I-P-A. We have scotch and I-P-A," chanted Dave.

I decided that I wasn't going to let the course get the last laugh. With a final burst of energy, I "sprinted" down the final hill and across the finish line with as much speed as I could muster (which wasn't much) to the cheers of my crew and Rick.

Finally done!

I threw my poles down and wrapped Alex up in a hug.

Happy Ryan

I had done it.

After 26 hours and 31 minutes of running, and with the combined efforts of my family and friends, I won the NJ Ultra Festival 100!

Getting my medal and finisher jacket from Rick

Race Statistics

  • Distance: 100.25 miles
  • Time: 26:31:29
  • Pace: 15:53/mi
  • Total elevation gain: 17,700 feet
  • Average heart rate: 132 bpm
  • Calories burned: 13,128
  • Calories consumed: ~5,000
  • Water crossings: 105
  • Race starters: 15
  • Race finishers: 1


I am incredibly fortunate to have a family and friends who are supportive of my insane hobby. In particular, Alex ended up spending 8 hours on the course with me, almost double the amount of time that she originally planned for. She was relentlessly upbeat the entire time despite the freezing cold weather and my ridiculously slow pace. I love you, Alex!

Mom, Julie, Dave, and Kelly did a great job of crewing for me. They constantly filled my water bottles, brought me food, and cheered loudly every time I came through. In fact, late in the race other spectators were cheering for me by name because they had heard my crew cheering for me all day. They were the best crew I could have asked for.

Dad, Eric, Sara, Derek, and Kate all took time out of their busy schedules to come stand in the cold and rain and cheer for me in 30 second intervals. I appreciate you guys more than I am able to express.

Photo credits: Alex Thorpe, Kelly Dresser, Valerie Thorpe, and Julie Dresser

Post-Race Thoughts

This race was originally intended to be an "easy" trail 100 to prepare me for Grindstone 100 in October. It ended up being much much more difficult than I originally imagined, but I toughed it out to become the only finisher.

Despite my win, I want to keep things in perspective - I am a medium sized fish in a small pond. I won this little race through a combination of training, toughness, and support, but also a fair amount of luck. There are still many things that I would like to improve upon before I tackle Grindstone.

What went right:

  • My training volume appears to be sufficient, although I will probably try to hit 100 miles per week a few times during the summer. Had I avoided the nutrition issues, I think I could have had a very strong finish. I had very little muscle soreness in the days following the race, suggesting that I did not overtax my quads, hamstrings, and calves.
  • My achilles tendons did not bother me at all during/after the race. I hope this means that these issues are over, but I will continue to monitor them over the next training cycle.
  • My mental fortitude never wavered. Despite suffering more than in any other race, I never considered dropping from the race. However, I did start to wonder how many days it would take to finish.
  • My stomach felt strong almost all day. I had no nausea or digestive issues (though I did have to slow down for a bit after eating a grilled cheese sandwich). The cold weather helped with this, but overall I feel like I have my food selection dialed in.
  • My feet held up amazingly well despite being soaked all day. I finished the race without a single blister, despite not training with vaseline on my soles. My Injinji socks have once again proved their effectiveness.
  • My crew and pacer were superb and kept me fed and motivated all day. Alex once again proved that she is the best crew chief in the country, pushing me to another victory with her endless positivity.

What went wrong:

  • My nutrition was completely off for the last 35 miles, forcing me to walk much of the last third of the race. I mostly attribute this to the trekking poles, which prevented me from eating/drinking on the run. But without the poles, I would not have been able to negotiate the muddy hills of the course at night. I will have to work on a solution for future races.
  • My hill training was probably insufficient. This was a major concern going into the race, since my achilles issues flared up whenever I ran on hills. As it turned out, my heart rate spiked during every climb (see elevation charts), which probably contributed to me burning off my glycogen supply faster than I should have. I need to do much more elevation training before Grindstone, which has 23,000 feet of total climbing.
  • I suspect that my pacing also contributed to my late race fatigue. It took 11 hours to run the first 50 miles, and 15.5 hours to run the last 50. Part of this can be blamed on the weather, but not all of it. I just don't think I have my "all day" pace figured out yet, though hopefully running TGNY 100 in June will give me better perspective on this issue.
  • My shoes completely fell apart very early in the race, and I had no replacements. I also had very sore joints in my feet afterwards, suggesting that I need a more padded shoe for 100 mile races. Immediately after the race, I ordered a pair of max-cushioning Altra Olympuses, which I will hopefully be able to use for Grindstone.


  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 2.5's (now retired)
  • Socks: Injinji socks (2x synthetic, 2x wool)
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction SJ 2.0
  • Poles: REI trekking poles
  • Food: Tailwind Nutrition (250 cal/hour)
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit2 S

Race results can be found here. GPS data can be found here and here.