Thursday, March 23, 2017

Febapple 50, Lenape 50K, and NJ Ultrarunning

New Jersey ultrarunning is getting fast, and that's pretty cool.

(And no, I'm not talking about myself)

I'm going to spoil the ending of these race reports and list the results right off the bat. The short story is that I'm a little faster than I was last year, but NJ ultra races are getting more competitive. So here are my finishing times and overall placing of my last three ultras compared to the previous times I ran them.

Previous Time
Recent Time
Frozen Fools 50K*
6:10:58 (1)
5:58:42 (2)
Febapple 50
9:17:16 (3)
8:46:23 (5)
Lenape 50K
5:49:16 (3)
5:30:46 (5)

In each race, I finished 10-30 minutes faster than the previous year, but my overall placing declined. Now, to be perfectly honest, I'm competitive enough to be a little disappointed by this. On the other hand, it's also really exciting to see the fields in these races get a little faster from year to year.

Food for thought. Now, on to the race reports!

*Frozen Fools race report can be found here

Febapple Frozen Fifty

Febapple is a fun early season race organized by Rick and Jennifer McNulty of NJ Trail Series. For the last two years, it has been my way of testing my training and nutrition plan before the spring racing season begins. I also signed up for the sake of vanity, in the sense that I needed a 50 mile result to boost my standing in the Ultrarunning Race Series. Last year, I was on pace for a 9 hour finish, but slowed down over the last 20 miles. This year, after a solid training block and no injuries, I was hoping for sub-9 hours with even splits.

Febapple Course Profile

The course is a 10 mile figure-8 loop through South Mountain Reservation consisting of a 4 mile leg and a 6 mile leg. Each full loop has three climbs and descents of about 300' each, for a total elevation gain of ~6,000' over the 50 mile course. The course a mix of asphalt, fire roads, and single track, most of which is runnable, but technical enought to give veteran trail runners a small advantage (well, not always). I set a goal of 1:45:00 per loop (10:30/mi) for the early loops and 1:50:00 (11:00/mi) for the later ones.

Got my game face on. Let's do this!
(Note the dude in short shorts. You can tell he's fast.)

Toeing the line at the 7am start was a talented mix of local runners: Christoffer Johnston (2:50 marathoner), Tsukasa Kawarai (2:58 marathoner), Jesse Wolfgang (3:05 marathoner), Ryan Timme (3:06 marathoner), John Fegyveresi (Barkley Marathons finisher), John Jenkins (18:22 100 miler), and Scott Gregor (23:07 Grindstone finisher). Whew! Compared to my relatively pedestrian 3:17 marathon PR, this was a blazingly fast field. I immediately picked Christoffer Johnston to win the race on the basis of his super short shorts (spoiler alert: I was right!).

The start of the race. So far so good!

At precisely 7am, we were off! The temperature was a brisk 30 degrees, but the weather reports promised highs in the mid-50's and cloudy skies, which is perfect running weather. I settled into a sustainable 9:00/mi pace on the flat first mile while a stream of other runners whizzed by me and quickly went out of sight.

"These doofuses are going out way too fast," I thought to myself, expecting to reel in most of them by the end of the day (spoiler alert: I was wrong!).

After a mile of asphalt, the course plunged downhill on the most technical descent of the day. I've been training on roads all winter, and I'm happy to say that my legs handled the transition to single track really well. I clicked off a 8:39 mile through this section. The next two miles were all uphill back to the aid station. I put my head down and powerhiked (i.e. walked) to conserve energy. I passed a few people in this section, which surprised me since uphills are usually my weakness. However, this section would consistently be my slowest, as I trudged to 12:17 and 12:54 mile splits for miles 3 and 4.

One of the nicer sections of the course
Photo by Stephanie Ruzicka

After 42 minutes, I was back at the start and I immediately began the 6 mile leg of the loop. After a brief flat section, the course again plunged downhill on a wet, snowy single track trail. In 2016 this section had been solid ice, and I had to brace myself on trees to stay upright. This year, the snow was soft enough to get traction, although some concentration was required. At the bottom of the descent was a small creek crossing where I managed to keep my feet dry, after which the course climbed for 2 miles on a runnable fire road. I covered these miles in about 11:00 each, and then opened up my stride on the ensuing runnable downhill (9:10/mi). Miles 9 and 10 had a steep rocky uphill and then a rutted fire road leading back to the start/finish, which I covered in 11:53 and 10:13. I crossed the timing mat at 1:44:30 for my first loop - right on pace!

And the crowd goes wild!

My nutrition plan for the race was simple: 250 cal/hour in Tailwind, mixed with 20 oz. of water. This meant that I only had to swap out my two empty water bottles for two new ones at each 10 mile interval. My crew, consisting of Alex and my mom, was cheerful and efficient as always. I probably stopped for 5-10 seconds each time I came through, which was just long enough to grab the new bottles and give Alex a kiss. I figure I spent about one minute total with my crew during the race.

Laps 2 and 3 went by like clockwork, and I churned out splits of 1:43:59 and 1:44:38. While I was out, Alex ran the 10 mile race, finishing 13th woman out of 41 (she's running her first 50K in May and is going to kill it!).

Rocks and snow and more rocks
Photo by Stephanie Ruzicka

As I finished mile 30, I asked Alex to tell me what place I was in the next time I came through. I was still running strong, and was convinced that I was headed for a top-3 finish. This loop was when I first started to hurt a little bit. As the temperature increased, the snow on the course melted and turned to mud and slush. The footing became difficult, and my legs became less nimble in these tricky sections. Somewhere in this section, I passed Ke'Mani Smith, who you may remember from previous race reports. He was having a solid race in the 50K and would improve on his previous year's time by almost 30 minutes! We had the following brief exchange:

Me: Hey Ke'Mani!
Kemani: Hey buddy! Are you in the lead?
Me: Actually I have no idea.
Kemani: Well you're first in my heart.

I continued on with a smile on my face. Despite my perceived struggling, I finished the loop in 1:47:25, only 3 minutes slower than my previous loops.

Back at the timing mat, Alex informed me that I had seven runners in front of me, four of which were totally out of reach. Seven?! Holy crap! And here I was thinking I could cruise in for a podium finish.

I hit the trail, determined to pass a few more people before I finished. I ran almost every step, no longer worried about saving my legs for later. The sun felt like it was beating down on me at this point. It's funny how warm 50 degrees feels after training all winter. I scooped up a handful of snow and packed it under my hat to cool myself down. I grabbed another handful and ate it like a little kid who just built a snowman. It was probably dirty, but it was delicious! I passed a few runners on the trail, but it was impossible to tell which race distance they were running. By the time I reached the final climb, I was gasping for air as if I was finishing a 5K. I felt like Zach Miller finishing the North Face 50 mile championships (you know, if Zach Miller was a few years older and much less athletic).

Show of hands - who wants to sit down and have a beer?

I crossed the finish line in 8:46:26 with a final loop split of 1:45:45. I finished in 5th place, having passed 3 people in the final loop. Here's the crazy part: the top three finishers (Christoffer Johnston, Scott Gregor, and John Jenkins) were all about an hour ahead of me. I never had a chance against these guys! The fourth finisher (Ryan Timme) was not far behind them.

Surprisingly, the winning time of 7:45:45 was not a course record. However, the runners ahead of me ran the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th fastest times in the seven year history of the race. In fact, my finishing time would have won the race outright in four other years (granted, the trail conditions were significantly worse some years). I can only hope that the level of competition at this race continues to rise over the next few years so we can push each other to be better and better.

What worked well:
  • My crew is a well oiled machine. They have everything down to a science and are relentlessly upbeat whenever I see them.
  • My nutrition was almost perfect. I never felt nauseous or had trouble taking in calories. I probably should have had more water (hence eating a snowball), but this wasn't a major issue.
  • My training is really paying off. Unlike last year, I wasn't battling any nagging injuries, and I was never worried about how my body would hold up over the distance. I felt strong on the climbs and descents all day and was able to do 8 miles of hiking and running the next day.
  • My pacing was spot on! This is the best ultra I've ever run in terms of maintaining consistent splits. My fastest and slowest 10 mile splits were only 3 minutes apart (10:24/mi vs. 10:45/mi).
  • My gear held up really well. The new Altra Lone Peaks seem to be much more durable than their predecessors, and OH MY GOD HAVE YOU GUYS TRIED WATERPROOF SOCKS? I was skeptical of how well they would work, but my feet stayed dry and blister-free despite snow, mud, and countless puddles on the course.
What needs improvement:
  • My fitness is still just average. I'm able to be competitive in local races because I plan obsessively and I can maintain a solid pace on technical terrain. If I'm going to improve in this sport, I need to get faster.
  • My power hiking needs some work. I lost a little bit of time in this race because I was not very strong on the uphill sections. I would attribute this to a lack of trail running this year.
  • My sense of direction still sucks. I didn't mention this, but I lost 2 minutes because of a wrong turn early in the race. I didn't finish within 20 minutes of another runner, but in a closer race this could have cost me (see Lenape race report below).

Lenape Run 50K

The Lenape Run is a small fatass style run, which has quickly become one of my favorite local events despite featuring two of my main weaknesses: road running and navigation. The course starts in the Ironbound district of Newark and follows roads, park paths, and trails to South Mountain Reservation (yep, the same one from Febapple). Since this race was only two weeks after Febapple, I decided to treat it like a long training run, although I was hoping to finish in the top 3 and receive one of the hand-made wooden trophies that Jay Lemos had brought.

Lenape Course Profile

We parked at the finish line and boarded the 6:50 train to Newark (after a frantic scramble resulting from the train arriving on the wrong side of the track). On the 30 minute ride, I caught up with "Crazy" Dan O'Keefe, who organizes the Frozen Fools 50K fatass and recently ran the epic Inca Trail Marathon. I also chatted with Anthony Longano, who had finished his first 100 miler since the last time I saw him. One of the cool things about this race is that most of the runners are training for some big event later in the year, so it's always fun to compare race schedules. We arrived in Newark at 7:17, made our usual pilgrimage to the small train station bathroom, and took a quick group picture.

The group picture is not just a fun tradition. It's also the best way of accounting for all the runners who start.
Photo by Anthony Longano

By 7:30, we were off on our adventure. The temperature was a chilly 23 degrees with a wind chill in the mid-teens. That was all the incentive I needed to hammer out a quick first few miles. I was almost immediately passed by Jay (who holds the course record) and a few other runners, but kept my pace around 8:30/mi, figuring I could turn on the afterburners later if necessary.

Early miles in Branchbrook Park
Photo by Anthony Longano

I found myself running with Chris McGovern and Joe Limone, who I know from previous races. Our running pace matched nicely, and we stuck together for much of the first 13 miles, which were almost entirely on asphalt. At mile 3, we passed through Branchbrook Park on a pedestrian pathway just as a bike race was beginning. We then ran north through the suburban streets of Belleville and Nutley and crossed the scenic Yantecaw River in Booth Park (and then crossed back over a handful of times). At mile 9, we crossed the Garden State Parkway on a pedestrian bridge, then hopped over a barricade marked "Bridge Out" to cross the Yantecaw River yet again (the bridge was fine, but closed for unknown reasons).

Crossing the Garden State Parkway
Photo by Anthony Longano

We then passed through Brookdale Park and through the streets of Upper Montclair. Finally, we left the roads and entered the singletrack of Mills Reservation. I began to pull ahead of Chris and Joe, but unfortunately had to pull over to answer the call of nature, falling behind them by a few minutes. I caught back up a couple miles later, which surprised them both since they thought I had been ahead. This would continue to be a theme all day.

At least it was pretty in some spots!
Photo by Anthony Longano

I felt good on the technical terrain and again pulled ahead by a few minutes as we followed the West Essex Trail through Cedar Grove. Shortly after, I caught up to Barry Janay and Konstantin Walmsley, who were moving extremely well, but had stopped to grab some food from the mile 17 aid station. I was carrying everything I needed for the day and passed through, unwilling to stop moving in the cold weather. This put me in 3rd place momentarily, but they would pass me back a few miles later.

Circling Verona Lake
Photo by Anthony Longano

We returned to the roads around mile 19 and entered downtown Verona, ran a loop around the scenic Verona Lake, passed through a residential area, and then left the roads again at Eagle Rock Reservation. Once again, I was back at home on some smooth single track trails and laid down a few sub-9:00 miles, keeping my eyes focused on the ground in front of me. I passed Barry and Konstantin, who had stopped to have a snack. They offered to share their food, but I was still worried about freezing to death if I stopped for too long.

Around mile 24, I suddenly looked around and realized that I hadn't seen any yellow Lenape blazes in a while. I also realized that I should have left the reservation around mile 23. Crap! I backtracked half a mile and found the turn that I had missed. The detour had cost me just under a mile of extra running and 7.5 minutes of time. I was sure that Barry, Konstantin, Chris, and Joe had all passed me while I was off course.


Thankfully I was still moving well, and I still had a shot at finishing somewhere around 5 hours. I just had to stay on course... I made quick work of the road miles through South Orange and hit the marathon mark (on my GPS anyway - it was mile 25 for everyone else) at around 3:55 elapsed time. From here, the course climbed 200 feet up a steep overgrown powerline cut.

Photo by Anthony Longano

Those of you who read my Barkley Fall Classic race report will know that I have some prior experiences with these types of climbs, and I have a love/hate relationship with them. Okay, that's a lie. I freakin' love power line cuts. Nothing makes me feel more badass than bushwhacking up a steep climb. I powered up the hill (pun intended) and caught up to Barry and Konstantin at the top. One of them (I can't remember who) was cramping and I made sure they were okay before continuing on. Now I just had to hunt down Chris and Joe so I could collect that sweet hand-made 3rd place trophy.

I caught up to them around mile 28 and they once again expressed their surprise at seeing me since they thought I ahead. I mumbled something about getting lost once in every race, but thankfully that excursion was behind me! We ran together for the next few miles on the newly completed single track section that crested Mayapple Hill in West Orange. I put a small gap between myself and them, finally back in sole possession of 3rd after six miles of catching up.

Then I got lost again.


Okay, hear me out before you start judging! Jeez!

I was 5 hours into a freezing cold race, so my mind was a little addled to begin with. I came to a junction in the trail. One direction had yellow blazes which were a slightly lighter shade of yellow than the ones I had been following. The other direction had orange blazes. I remembered having this issue in previous years, but couldn't remember which way was correct. I thought to myself it would be stupid to have a light yellow trail intersect a dark yellow trail. Clearly, light yellow and dark yellow are the same trail.

Are you still judging? Well, there's just no pleasing some people.

The short story is that I followed the light yellow trail, when in fact I should have followed the orange trail. This lesson cost me another 7 minutes, 0.7 additional miles of running, and two unnecessary river crossings. I shouted a few obscenities at no one in particular when I realized this.

Back on track. Needless to say, all four people who I had passed were now in front of me, putting me squarely in seventh place. Luckily, the last 4 miles were all on single track, so there was a small chance that I could once again reel in the other runners. I caught up to Chris and Joe on a technical descent around mile 34. Rather than being surprised, this time they just seemed disappointed.

I caught sight of Barry and Konstantin a mile later, but they were still moving quickly. I red-lined my heart rate on the final climb, but couldn't make up any ground on them. They would later admit that they saw me running toward them and pushed hard to avoid being passed. The final technical descent was too short for me to make up any ground, and I finished in 5th place with a time of 5:30:43. I had run 35.8 miles in a 34 mile race.

So once again, my sense of direction has failed me. I lost 14.5 minutes and ran an additional 1.6 miles because of stupid mistakes. For reference, I ended up 13 minutes behind second place finisher Jesse Wolfgang (who you might remember from the Febapple report) and 17 minutes behind first place finisher Jay Lemos. I also missed out on a podium (i.e. cool trophy) position by 30 seconds. Such is life (for stupid people like me).

But here's the silver lining: this year's Lenape run is now responsible for 7 of the top 10 times ever run on the course! Like I said, NJ trail and ultra running is getting faster, and I'm really excited to see what next year brings.

Big thanks to Christian Focacci for organizing this event and to his fiancee (whose name I unfortunately forgot) for running the mile 17 aid station! And thanks to Anthony Longano for allowing me to use his pictures so this report isn't just a wall of text!

What worked well:

  • My nutrition was fine despite not being optimal. I carried four 20oz bottles in my pack, each with 300 calories of Tailwind. I drank one of these every 90 minutes, and the race was short and cold enough that I didn't mind the relatively small amount of water. However, I might try going even more minimal next year to cut down on weight.
  • My training was still fine, even though I only had two weeks to recover after Febapple. I didn't taper for this race, and didn't need any time to recover afterwards, running 77 and 66 miles in the next two weeks. If I can stay healthy, March will be my highest mileage month ever.
  • The runners were a lot of fun as always. One of my favorite parts of this race is hanging out in the parking lot afterwards, drinking beer, and talking to the other runners. This race really brings out a fun crowd!
  • My time off course improved from 15 minutes in 2016 to 14.5 minutes this year. Progress!
What needs improvement:
  • I don't know if I mentioned this, but my navigation skills could use some work. Despite printing out turn by turn directions and running the course twice previously, I still got lost. And this time, it cost me a cool trophy. I should really pay attention when I run.
  • My beer froze in my trunk and was impossible to drink after the race. This is unacceptable. Someone should invent a device that insulates beverages from their surroundings.

Next up...

I ended up not signing up for Looney Leprechaun 10K because of snow, and I decided to volunteer at Tammany 10 instead of running it, to avoid burning out too early in the season. That leaves three more spring races:
  • 4/15 - Breakneck Point Marathon
  • 4/30 - NJ Marathon
  • 5/13 - North Face Bear Mountain 50
Happy running!