Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Breakneck Point Marathon

To put it briefly, this is just a really cool course.

Race director Ian Golden marking the course
Photo by Mountain Peak Fitness


In 2016 Alex and I discovered the Breakneck Point Half Marathon, organized by New York's Red Newt Racing. From a training standpoint, it made absolutely no sense for me to participate that year. I was coming off a 26+ hour effort at the NJ Ultra Festival two weeks prior and I had the NJ Marathon two weeks afterwards. My legs still hadn't recovered, and I wasn't sure how I would respond mentally to another technical course. We both ended up having a blast, and we were extremely impressed with the quality of the race.

So if the half marathon is fun, the full marathon should be twice as fun, right?

I had a pretty good training block leading up to the race this year, peaking at 70 miles per week with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. I spent a few Saturdays in early April doing hill repeats at Mount Tammany to work on my uphill hiking and technical downhill running. As it turns out, both of these skills had degraded after a winter spent almost exclusively on roads.

Refining my technique one mistake at a time

By race day, I was feeling pretty confident and was ready to spend a day in the mountains.

The Course

The marathon course consisted of three loops which were connected by out-and-back sections.

Breakneck Marathon course map
Loops labeled in the order that they were run

 The six major climbs were:
  1. Unnamed Hill
  2. Breakneck Ridge
  3. Bull Hill
  4. South Beacon Mountain
  5. Lamb's Hill
  6. Unnamed Ridge
Each of these had its own particular challenges, the details of which will be discussed in painstaking detail later in this post.

Not for the faint of heart

Pre Race

Alex and I drove up on Friday night to avoid getting up ludicrously early on Saturday. We set up our tent in the dark and got to sleep a little after midnight.

Tent City
Photo by Stacey Parthenon

At 5am, we woke up to a very wet tent and sleeping bag. Not the greatest beginning to the day, but it was enough encouragement to get us up and moving. We got dressed, heated up some bagels and coffee over our backpacking stove, and then huddled in the car with the heat running until it was time to start.

The morning was a brisk 40-something degrees, but the forecasts called for partly sunny skies with temperatures in the mid-60's. I was chilly in my shorts and short sleeves at the starting line but knew I'd feel fine once I started running.

I had a few minutes to catch up with Charlotte Dequeker, Jay Lemos, Julian Vicente, and a few other running friends at the starting line. Charlotte had just recovered from an injury that had limited her running over the winter and seemed excited to start her racing season. Jay was coming off a very solid 2nd place finish at the rugged Mount Tammany 40 miler and looked to challenge for a top-10 spot at this race. Julian had finished Grindstone last year and paced Jay at Tammany, so his ability to run technical terrain was clearly on point.

With the NJ marathon coming up only two weeks later, I told myself that I was going to treat this like a long training run. I planned to hold back enough that I could resume my marathon training plan immediately after the race. Since I had run the half marathon course in under 3 hours on tired legs last year, I figured I could run the full marathon in 6-7 hours without killing myself.

Let's do this thing!

We started at 6:30 as a mass wave. The first couple hundred feet took us uphill through a grassy field before we were funneled into a single track trail. Everyone jockeyed for position to avoid being caught in the ensuing log jam.

The crazy ass start to the race
Photo by Mountain Peak Fitness

After some shuffling of positions in a first few tenths of a mile, I settled into a jogging pace on the first long uphill. Miles 1-2 were "douche grade" climbs, to borrow a term from the East Coast Trail and Ultra podcast, which is to say that they were too steep to run comfortably, but not steep enough that I would allow myself to hike.

During the climb, I ended up chatting with Julian and Chang Hyun, another Grindstone veteran who turned in a stout sub-24 hour performance last year. It turned out that we were also all planning to run Manitou's Revenge 54 miler in June, so we bonded over our mutual love of brutally difficult races. Chang and I would end up running the same pace almost the entire day and leapfrogging each other every few miles.

At mile 2.5, we topped out on the unnamed hill and had a couple miles of rocky running along a ridge line. A long runnable downhill then brought us back to Route 9D and the first aid station at the base of Breakneck Ridge. With an hour elapsed, I still had a full bottle of Tailwind on me, and I passed through without stopping.

Feeling fresh, I began the course's signature climb: an 1,100 foot class-4 rock scramble up Breakneck Ridge in only 0.7 miles. For those of you keeping score, that's a 30% average grade, which is steeper than Barkley's Rat Jaw (27%). In places, the climb is so rocky and exposed that EMTs were stationed on the course in case climbers injured themselves.

Runners scale Breakneck Ridge
Photo by Brian Newcomer

Much of the climb required the use of all four limbs and my undivided attention. I reminded myself to pause and take in the views every few minutes (which also afforded me the opportunity to catch my breath). The exposed ridge offered a vast panorama of the Hudson Highlands.

View from one of the false summits of Breakneck
Photo by Alex

Breakneck Ridge is a tough climb physically, but it can be even more mentally taxing since there are several false summits. Imagine this, you just scrambled up hundreds of feet of exposed rock face on all fours. Your watch beeps, reminding you that the last half mile just took fifteen minutes (Note to self: half mile splits are wholly unnecessary in a trail race). You finally reach what you think is the top of the climb, and you look up to see this looming above you.

Well shit.
Photo by Brian Newcomer

Thankfully, I have now done this climb a handful of times and I'm familiar with the various landmarks. Of course, that didn't make the physical aspect of it any easier. After 29 minutes of climbing, I finally reached the true summit. I had gone exactly one horizontal mile in that time.

On the ensuing descent, I had to consciously remind myself that I was capable of running. Moving my legs at a high cadence felt unnatural after half an hour of crawling on all fours. Gradually, my pace picked up, and I was able to pass a few people on the rocky descent. We continued downhill for three miles, losing every inch of the 1,200 feet of altitude that we had just worked to gain. The descent brought us to aid station 2 with 10 miles and 2:15 elapsed in the race. I refilled both water bottles and swigged a couple cups of Coke (a.k.a. rocket fuel) before hitting the trail again.

Next on the agenda was Bull Hill, a 1.7 mile 1,400 foot ascent on more rocky terrain. There's an interesting story behind the name of this mountain that bears telling:
"There used to be a wild bull that terrorised [sic] the country back of that hill for many a day, till at last a strong hunting party undertook to hunt him down and slay him. Forced to flee before his pursuers, he made one final, mad rush for the very crest of the hill and plunged into space, to leave his magnificent body a broken and shapeless mass on the rocks below and his name as a legacy to the mountain he used to haunt."
The Hudson River from Ocean to Source by Edgar Mayhew Bacon, 1902
How badass is that!

Anyway, I somehow ended up between Julian and Guillermo Ayala (yet another Grindstone vet) on this climb, and they heckled each other the entire way up the mountain, calling each other gringos and making fun of each other's pace. Listening to them was a fantastic way to pass the time as we marched steadily upward.

The summit was characterized by large rocky slabs which made running fairly easy. However, the 800 foot descent was much more technical, which played to my strengths. I passed a handful of people in this section, flying down with reckless abandon. By the bottom of the descent, we had eclipsed the half way mark in the race as well as two of the three loops. I had hit 13.1 miles just over the three hour mark and figured I was on track for a 6 hour finish if things went well.

We backtracked along the out and back section of the course for a few miles and then made a short but steep ascent of South Beacon Mountain. The highest peak in the Hudson Highlands, this mountain offered a full 360 degree view of the surrounding area. I again paused for a moment to take it all in. The weather was a perfect 60 degrees, with just enough clouds to keep us from overheating. It was one of those moments that reminds me why I run races like this.

View from South Beacon Mountain
Photo by Alex

On the short descent, I ended up running with Sayard Tanis, a total rock star of a runner from Pennsylvania with many wins and a few course records to her name. I figured if I was near her at this point in the race, I must be running well. We stayed together for about a mile as the course circled the scenic Beacon Reservoir. She stopped for a moment to tend to an issue with her ankle, and I continued ahead, running alone for the first time in the race.

After leaving the reservoir, I was greeted by a steep 800 foot descent down a hot dusty fire road. The last few hundred feet were at a grade of approximately minus infinity percent. In the span of seven minutes, my quads went from feeling fresh to being totally shredded. I created a Strava segment for this specific 0.7 mile section:

I do not hold the course record on this segment

At the bottom of Stupid Hill, Chang caught up to me and we complained to each other about how much that sucked. In fact, the brutality of that hill would become a common talking point among marathon finishers after the race.

Thankfully, the subsequent climb followed a picturesque waterfall up the slope of Lamb's Hill. I stopped in a few places to splash the cool water in my face and soak my hat. The climb was shaded, and my body temperature slowly returned to normal.

This makes up for Stupid Hill
Photo by Philip Pagdanganan 

As we climbed, it was becoming clear to me that the second half of the marathon would not be any easier than the first. Despite not having any Breakneck-esque climbs, the second half was relentlessly hilly and technical. Of course, I reminded myself, this is what I paid for.

Chang and I summitted Lamb's Hill (mile 20ish) together and began a rocky ridge line traverse to Bald Hill. He gave me some pointers on surviving Manitou's Revenge (which I'm really excited about). Traversing the ridge at 1,500 feet, we had spectacular views of the surrounding area, but the terrain was rocky enough that it occupied most of our attention. We parted ways before reaching Bald Hill, and I began what I thought was the final descent. I was around mile 23 and knew that the last 2-3 miles were all downhill. 23 plus 3 is 26, which is the length of a marathon. So I was almost done. That wasn't so bad!

I started to reflect on the awesome day that I'd had in the mountains, feeling thankful for another year of great weather and for the fact that I hadn't gotten off course today. I drank the last few drops of water in my bottle, knowing that there was an aid station 2 miles from the finish. All of a sudden, the trail started to go uphill. Wait... what? I was climbing again?

Poor sense of direction or not, I knew I hadn't gone off course. I figured that the climb must be just a few tenths of a mile and then we would really start the final descent. Five switchbacks and 500 feet of climbing later, I realized I was wrong. The trail finally leveled off and traversed another technical ridge for a mile and a half, climbing and descending several rock piles. I passed a few equally puzzled runners who wondered aloud if we were off course. They clearly didn't know who they were asking.

Finally, with 26.0 miles showing on my watch, I came to the final aid station. I had gone 30 minutes without water and was ravenously thirsty. A volunteer filled my water bottle and then had to fill it again when I gulped the entire thing down in seconds.

"Wow, someone's thirsty!" she said to me.

"Yeah... I think that last section ran a little long," I replied.

"We've been hearing that a lot," she informed me.

With only two miles left to go, I didn't stick around long. I took off on the real final descent, following the rocky fire road that we had started on.

I described this section as "douche grade" climbing going uphill at the beginning. Going downhill was another story. Losing 350 feet per mile, this stretch of trail was the perfect grade to run effortlessly. My only concern was placing my feet between the rocks and branches that littered the trail. I flew through here with some of my fastest miles of the day.

A mile from the finish, I crossed a perfectly clear creek that beckoned me. I was hot and covered in salt, and I really wanted to splash more water in my face. My racing instincts told me to hammer the final mile and see if I could pass anyone else. My self preservation instincts told me to save that kind of effort for another race. Self preservation won, and I happily cooled off in the water for a few seconds before gliding downhill for the final mile.

Now where's that keg at?
Photo by Alex

I crossed the finish line in a time of 6:32:57, good for 23rd of 153 finishers. This "marathon" (which my GPS measured at 28.1 miles and 9,700 feet of climbing) had taken me longer than any recent 50K aside from the Barkley Fall Classic. A perfectly brutal course!

The post race festivities were characteristically enjoyable. I grabbed a few slices of pizza and more than a few drinks from the keg that was waiting at the finish line pavilion. Alex had finished the half marathon just seconds under her 4 hour goal, and we sat in our double camp chair watching the remaining runners trickle in.

All in all, this was a fantastic race. The trails were uniquely rugged, the scenery was amazing, and the course was impeccably marked. Red Newt Racing has really created something special with this event, and I look forward to coming back every year.