Thursday, October 5, 2017

Grindstone Pre-Race Thoughts

Last year, I ran Grindstone because I needed a qualifier for Western States and Hardrock. This year, I don't need a qualifier. Instead, I'm running Grindstone because I want to improve on last year's results. I figure it's best if I write this all down so I can keep track of my various goals.

This picture adequately describes my mental state near the end of the race

A Goals

  1. Finish under 24 hours: With better training and better weather in the forecast, this just might be possible
  2. Keep a positive mentality. This also means being nicer to my pacer during the race, regardless of how grumpy I feel... (sorry Alex!)
  3. Run a negative split: The first half is a net uphill. The second half is a net downhill (and 2 miles shorter). If my legs survive until the end, I might just have a chance.

B Goals

  1. Beat last year's time: I ran a weak last 20 miles last year. This should be easy to improve upon.
  2. Be nice to Alex: Seriously. She's doing me a favor. Even if I have a low point, there's no reason to be a dick, no matter how bad my legs hurt.
  3. Run an even-ish split: If my second half is within an hour of my first half, we'll call this one done.

C Goals

  1. Finish the race: I've never DNF'ed a 100 miler and I'm not about to start now. Finish the damn thing!
  2. Don't end up single: If I'm going to piss off my wife/pacer, I should at least mitigate the damage. Maybe I should buy her some flowers in advance...
  3. Finish the damn race: I'm putting this again because it bears repeating. If the bone ain't showing, keep on going!
Happy trails, and good luck to my fellow Grindstoners!

NJ Appalachian Trail FKT

This is my FKT. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Running along the Kittatinny Ridge late in the day
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

What the heck is an FKT?

I've been meaning to dip my toes into the FKT waters for a few years now. For those of you who don't obsess over running like I do, FKT stands for "fastest known time." A relatively new concept in the running/hiking community, an FKT attempt is essentially a time trial over a specific route. Unlike traditional races, an FKT can be attempted at a time and date of the runners' choice, which is useful for avoiding bad weather and planning around other races.

FKT routes can be anywhere from minutes in length to multi-week journeys, such as Joe McConaughy's 45 day traverse of the entire Appalachian Trail. The de facto authority on FKTs is Peter Bakwin's website, which chronicles the attempts on various routes in the US and abroad.

Let's do this thing!

For the past few years, I've had my eye on the FKT for the 72 mile New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail. I had hiked and run various sections of the trail, but had never strung them all together in a single attempt. In fact, it appeared that no one had done so until NJ ultrarunner Zack Price attempted it in 2016, setting a benchmark of 19 hours, 8 minutes, and 25 seconds.

With a several month long break between races in the late summer, I tentatively added this FKT attempt to my schedule early in the year, intending to run it in September when the weather had cooled slightly. Due to family commitments and my training schedule, I only had a few weekends where this was feasible. As luck would have it, the weather reports for Saturday September 2nd showed clear skies and mild temperatures. Per tradition, I posted my intentions on the FKT boards about a week in advance and invited anyone to come watch or participate.

Oh shit, I guess we're really doing this.

With a date set, I now had a week to figure out the logistics of running across an entire state. Pacers, crew, navigation, and gear all had to be sorted out in advance if this run was going to be successful. 

The first decision was which direction to run - northbound or southbound. This ended up being an easy choice: most of my friends and family live closer to the PA border than the NY border, and I'd rather have more support at the end of the day. Besides, the PA border is only minutes away from Hot Dog Johnny's, which is our traditional post-hike dinner spot. The allure of hot dogs and fries would surely propel me to a speedy finish.

Next was the issue of getting food and water during the run. Thankfully, Alex was free all day and sacrificed her entire Saturday to crew for me. My friend Derek, who paced me at TGNY in 2015, offered to accompany her for the early morning hours, and Alex's parents offered to join from mid-morning until the end of the day. A handful of friends were also available to pace me for the later sections of the day. Included in this mix was the FKT holder Zack, who was working through an ankle injury, but offered to accompany me for 10-15 miles.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that navigation has been a consistent issue for me over the years and has cost me large chunks of time in races. Not wanting my FKT to be derailed by stupid mistakes, I pored over my Appalachian Trail guide book and determined check points where I could meet my crew at 1 hour increments.

Map of the NJ section of the Appalachian Trail

The NJ section of the AT follows the NY/NJ border northwesterly up to High Point State Park at the northern corner of the state before turning southwest and following the Kittatinny Ridge along the PA/NJ border.

NJ Appalachian Trail elevation profile (southbound)

The majority of the trail runs along rocky mountaintops, ascending 11,000 feet and descending 12,000 feet in the southbound direction. This makes for very slow running in certain sections. However, there are also a few eminently runnable sections of boardwalk, grass, and pavement, particularly in the early sections of the course.

It's so early that it's not even late!

Wanting to finish in daylight (and before Hot Dog Johnny's closed), we settled on a 2am start time. This meant going to sleep at 8:00pm and waking up at 11:45pm to get out the door by 12:15am. Now, I'm no stranger to early wake up calls for races. But usually "early" means 3:00am. Maybe 2:00am in extreme cases. The kind of times that are so early that they make you say "it's so early it's late!" while everyone around you rolls their eyes.

However, an 11:45pm wake up was even earlier that our typical bed time. When our alarm went off, we didn't even feel tired since this was more like a power nap than actual sleep.

"Alex," I said with a sly realization, "it's so early that it's not even late!"

Thankfully, after only 3 hours of sleep she found this funny.

Anyway, Alex, Derek, and I left the house a bit later than planned and made it to the trail head around 1:30am. From there, Alex and I would have a short but steep hike to the NY/NJ border on the Appalachian Trail. I started my watch at 1:40 and recorded a GPS track just for this section. Per the recommendation of Rick McNulty, I will report two separate times for my FKT: the time spent on the actual AT and the "car-to-car" time, which includes the hikes to/from the trail heads.

While Derek drove to the first road crossing with my supplies (he is an amazingly good friend), Alex and I made our way up the 800 foot climb up to the border, walking very slowly to conserve energy. It was pitch black and the bright orb of the moon peaked through the trees just above the ridge above us. It was a surreal experience being the only people on a remote trail in the middle of the night. I found it exhilarating. Alex was terrified. Unfortunately, she would also have to hike down this trail alone after leaving me at the border. Sorry Alex!

At the NY/NJ border and ready to go!
Photo by Alex

After a few quick pictures and a kiss, I was off!

NY/NJ Border to Rt. 94 (Miles 0.0 - 9.1)

I started at 2:24am, 24 minutes later than my initial plan. Close enough...

Alex ran with me for the first few hundred feet while live streaming a video to Facebook before turning off to make the descent back down to her car. From there, I was on my own.

The weather was a crisp 40 degrees, and I could see my breath in the beam of my headlamp with every exhale. The sky was clear and the moon provided some ambient light. It was perfect running weather.

The first mile was along a rocky ridge line. It's always difficult to follow a trail on this type of terrain, and the footing was unstable, so I took my time. After dropping a few hundred feet into a wooded area, the trail became easier to follow, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not terribly technical. I had not scouted this section beforehand, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

I got to the first checkpoint at Warwick Turnpike (mile 3.6) with 45:17 elapsed, already 15 minutes ahead of my guesstimated schedule that I had made for my crew (based on a 17 hour finish). Having run very conservatively so far, I was ecstatic with this start to the day.

Derek and Alex were both waiting for me when I arrived and they cheered as they saw my headlamp appear from the woods. I grabbed a new bottle, took a swig of Coke, and was back on the trail in seconds.

The next section was more rolling terrain on semi-technical single track. The trail was extraordinarily well maintained, and my mile splits mostly hovered in the 11:00-12:00 range. Around mile 8, the trail became much rougher, and I recognized that I was getting close to Waywayanda Mountain, also known as Stairway to Heaven.

View of Vernon Valley from Stairway to Heaven on our recon run

This section of trail drops over 800 feet in about a mile on extremely rocky terrain. There are a few precarious boulder hopping sections where a fall could mean a sprained ankle or a broken bone, so I took the descent very carefully. It didn't make sense to risk injury just to save a couple minutes on a 70+ mile run.

9.1 miles down and 63 to go!
Photo by Alex

Thankfully, Alex and I had time to scout this section of trail earlier in the week, and I made it through with no navigational issues and only a stubbed big toe. Near the bottom of the descent, the trail leveled out and I was able to open up my stride a bit. As Rt. 94 came into view, I once again heard the cheers of my loyal crew. I reached them in 1:53:36 elapsed, now 36 minutes ahead of schedule at 9.1 miles in.

Rt. 94 to Carnegie Rd. (Miles 9.1 - 18.1)

The next two miles through Vernon Valley were pancake flat, and I effortlessly maintained a 10:00/mi pace. I probably could have pushed a little harder, but I wanted to make sure I saved some energy for the climb ahead of me.

Most of this section was on a raised boardwalk over expansive marshlands, and I couldn't help but feel exposed. It felt like every animal in a two mile radius was watching me scurry along the platform. The boardwalk was narrow, and I wondered to myself what I would do if I turned a corner and saw a wild animal in front of me. One of us would have to jump off to give way for the other. Who would be the dominant species?

Quiz time!
Question: What animal sounds like a bear when it's pitch black outside?
Answer: They all do!

Around mile 12, I reached the base of Pochuck Mountain. On the elevation profile, this two part climb looks like a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. However, it's a steep and rocky ascent with numerous false summits. Half way through this nasty little climb, I reached Glenwood Rd., the third "aid station" of the day. With 2:41:36 elapsed, I was now 48 minutes ahead of schedule. Woo!

Back to the climb...
Photo by Alex

After another quick stop, I set to work on finishing the climb. I topped out on the rocky summit and then had a very technical 1.5 miles along the ridge before an even more technical 600 foot descent to the base of the mountain. The footing was tricky and progress was slow, but I kept pushing and eventually made it to the base of the mountain and the beginning of the Great Appalachian Valley.

This section of trail followed primitive boardwalks and frost covered grass pathways through the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. The first rays of sunlight were just starting to peak over the horizon, and the mist rising from the marshy refuge created a beautiful sunrise. I paused to take a few pictures, but still managed to maintain a brisk 9:00-10:00 pace through this flat section.

Sunrise over the Wallkill River Wildlife Refuge

The trail then turned onto a short road section, where my crew - which had now expanded to three people - was waiting for me. I arrived at the mile 18.1 checkpoint at 3:50:33 to the cheers of Alex, Dave, and Julie (Derek had to leave for family obligations).

I don't think I've ever been this happy to eat a banana
Photo by Alex

This concludes the last flat portion of the trail.

Carnegie Rd. to Rt. 519 (Miles 18.1 - 27.0)

This next section climbed slowly but steadily onto the Kittatinny Ridge, where it would remain for the final 47 miles of the day. A short steep climb from the road brought me to a field with a sweeping view of the mist blanketed valley I had just left.

View of the Great Appalachian Valley just after sunrise

Another short climb brought me the first view of High Point, the peak of the Kittatinny Ridge, which I would run past in a few short hours. With this in sight, it felt like I was making real progress. Combined with the fact that it was now light outside, I was in great spirits.

High Point Monument in the distance

The trail meandered through hilly farmlands and small patches of forest. The rolling hills were gentle enough that I could run almost every step.

Around mile 21, I had my first and only real navigational issue of the day. The AT made a T intersection with a road and seemingly came to an end. There was no trail head on the other side of the road, and there were no blazes to indicate that the trail turned to follow the road.

I wandered a few hundred yards in either direction before finally pulling out my phone and looking up a map of the AT on my AllTrails app. A few minutes later, I had finally located the trail again, about a hundred feet down the road and completely overgrown to the point where no blazes were visible from the road. Thankfully this excursion only cost me about 5 minutes.

So anyway... I continued onward, each mile bringing me another 100-200 feet upward in elevation. I made a pit stop next to a cow pasture and caught strange looks from my bovine spectators. I tried to moo an explanation, but they didn't seem to buy it.

Coming in to the mile 27 check point
Photo by Alex

The following miles ran together in my mind, if you'll excuse the pun. The trail continued to climb through progressively rockier terrain as it entered the more mountainous regions of New Jersey. Finally, with 5:32:57 elapsed, I reached Rt. 519 (mile 27) at the base of High Point, almost an hour ahead of schedule.

Rt. 519 to Deckertown Tpk. (Miles 27.0 - 36.0)

I had been looking forward to this part of the trail all day since this is where I would pick up my first pacer. My running friend Joe Limone had offered to run with me for the "last 40-50 miles" of the trail, in his words (also known as the majority of the distance). Joe is an experienced ultrarunner and just a nice guy in general, so I was happy to have his company.

Heading out with Joe, my first pacer
Photo by Alex

We made quick work of the remaining 600 foot climb up to the Kittatinny Ridge and past the High Point Monument, while we discussed plans for future races and adventure runs (Joe, if you're reading this, we need to plan a Devil's Path traverse!).

The last time I had done this section of trail, I had been carrying a full pack and it was raining. Now in the middle of a clear day and carrying only a handheld, I was delighted to find myself moving quickly over the rocky mountainside. I got a little ahead of Joe on the rocky descent to Rt. 23, but he immediately caught up while I changed socks and had a snack (mile 30.5, 6:15:51 elapsed).

We ran the next few miles together through very rocky technical ridge line, scrambling over rocks and occasionally passing day hikers. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the 40-50 degree range and overcast skies. I once again put a small gap on Joe during a short descent, but he caught back up on the ensuing climb. However, the next descent was much longer, and I lost him for good. Curse my downhill running ability!

I reached Deckertown Turnpike in 7:26:57, 1:05 ahead of pace.

Deckertown Tpk. to Brink Rd. (Miles 36.0 - 48.0)

I pulled into this checkpoint to find the current FKT owner Zack Price waiting with my crew. From the sight of his shorty shorts, I knew right away that he was ready to run fast.

Very different builds. Very similar race results. Ultrarunning is a strange sport.
Photo by Alex

Zack took the lead as we hit the trail, and we threw down some pretty quick miles despite the technical terrain. I couldn't get over how cool it was that Zack was helping me try to break his own FKT. It reminded me of when Scott Jurek set an FKT for the full AT in 2015 and then helped Karl Meltzer break it in 2016. Only in ultrarunning do you see that kind of sportsmanship.

The miles flew by while Zack and I discussed racing, FKT's, and our running backgrounds. He was a track athlete in high school and college with a blazing fast 15:30 personal best in the 5K. I came from a hiking and rock climbing background and can barely run a 6:00 mile. Yet somehow we have very similar times in the 50-70 mile distance (he hasn't tried a 100 miler yet). It's crazy how different skill sets can produce similar ultrarunning results!

We pulled into the Sunrise Mountain overlook in 8:10:19 elapsed (1:20 ahead of schedule), and I quickly refueled and headed out. Zack ran ahead to snap some pictures of me with the expansive vista in the background. Now doubling as a pacer and race photographer, Zack led us through some nice runnable sections of narrow single track along the ridge followed by a boulder strewn 450 foot descent down to Rt. 206. I met my crew in a parking lot just shy of the road with 9:13:51 elapsed (1:17 ahead).

View from Sunrise Mountain Overlook
Photo by Zack Price

The remaining 26 miles were all part of the Frozen Fools 50K, which I have run for the past 3 years, so I felt somewhat confident in my ability to navigate, although the 50K runs in the opposite direction. I knew that the climb up from 206 would be long and rocky, but it passed quickly thanks to the good company.

The trail grew more technical, or at least it appeared to, since my tired feet kept tripping over the loose jagged rocks that littered the path. Zack asked me to avoid hurting myself while we were running together. He was worried that people would think he tripped me in an effort to sabotage my run. So I did my best to stay on my feet, you know, for his sake.

My pace slowed a bit, but I was still well ahead of record pace and I knew I had some gas left in the tank for the remaining miles. After a few more rocky miles together, we reached Brink Rd. where we said our goodbyes and Zack wished me luck. He had been nursing an ankle injury and had a race coming up, so he couldn't afford to risk any further damage. I was (still am) extremely thankful for his help!

Now I was on my own, 48 miles in and 10:08:59 elapsed (1:21 ahead). Time to see just how much gas was left in the tank...

Brink Rd. to Millbrook Rd. (Miles 48 - 62)

With steely determination, I took off down the trail at breakneck pace.

No... that's a lie.

With self pity, I shuffled down the trail at a snail's pace, whimpering quietly to myself.

Yeah, that's more like it.

Thankfully my pity party was short lived. I allowed myself a few moments of moping during a steep little climb before realizing that my negativity wasn't helping. So I put my head down and just ran. The trail leveled out, and so did my mindset. This six mile stretch wasn't particularly fast, but as always, it came to an end.

I reached Flatbrook Stillwater Rd. (mile 54) in 11:39:45 (1:20 ahead), to find that my small crew had grown exponentially! Pacers Ryan Espulgar, Harry Uberti, and Dan Wallace were all waiting for me. Dan was joined by his wife Jackie and son Lucas, Harry was joined by his wife Eileen, and my friends Andrew and Bailey had also come out to watch me suffer run. It was a party!

The gang's all here!
Photo by Alex

Unfortunately, this all coincided with the exact time when I realized I needed to apply more anti-chafe lube to some sensitive areas. It's difficult to do this when there is a crowd of people watching your every move. Oh well, sorry for the show, guys and gals!

We quickly hit the trail and we were greeted by some of the most runnable miles I had seen since the valleys earlier in the day. The combined effect of running with friends and running on smooth trail was a huge mental boost, and my pace improved dramatically. We flew along while Dan shot footage with a chest mounted GoPro.

Note to others: Dan briefly mentions my body odor and says that I "stank." He is being kind with his wording. I smelled like week old chicken that had been baking in the sun. I actually made myself nauseous a few times. Sorry to everyone who had to experience that.

Back to the run! The next few miles flew by, and before I knew it we were back at another crew checkpoint at Millbrook Rd. (mile 58, 12:27:05 elapsed, 1:33 ahead). As you can see in the video, Dan pulled up shortly before the checkpoint with some knee pain (he would turn out to be okay, but was done running for the day). After another blazing fast stop, we were back out on the trail.

I felt very light and springy as we started the climb. It was like a weight had been lifted. Perhaps a weight that I had been holding in my left hand for the past 12+ hours.

Oh shit, I forgot my water bottle!

Well that was stupid. Thankfully we were only a tenth of a mile from the checkpoint, so Harry was able to sprint back to pick it up and then sprint to catch up with us. Thank god there are no rules against muling for runners during supported FKT attempts! Harry was a trooper about the added mileage and joked that it was his speed work for the week.

From the checkpoint, we climbed a few hundred feet back to the top of the ridge. The trail was extremely rocky and off camber in this section, but the panoramic views more than made up for it. Ryan E. now acted as my photographer, running ahead at strategic points to get stunning photos.

Or occasionally a picture of my butt
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

After a few more miles of spectacular - though difficult - running, we reached the final checkpoint of the day, Camp Mohican Rd. (mile 62.3, 13:18:33, elapsed, 1:41 ahead). From here, it would be roughly ten miles and two hours of running until I would see my crew at the finish line. I put on my race vest for the first time all day and we headed back out onto the trails.

Within minutes, the wind started blowing and the sky grew darker. The weather reports had mentioned the possibility of afternoon storms, and now it was looking likely. At least we were almost done for the day.

View from the ridge as the clouds started to roll in
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

The rain started as a light trickle, but steadily grew heavier and we traversed the exposed ridge. After running all day, the cool water felt nice. And besides, I really needed a shower anyway.

On the other hand, the slick rocks became harder to negotiate, and I found myself slipping and sliding constantly. The boulder field of a trail near Sunfish Pond was unbearably slow, but I knew I still had the record in the bag as long as I kept making forward progress. Ryan helped by running ahead so I could follow his footsteps through the slick rocks. Harry stayed behind me, so I still had someone to chat with. It was a perfect combination of pacers!

With three miles to go, I spotted Alex ahead of us on the trail! She had hiked up from the finish to run the last few miles with me. She also informed me that the rest of the trail was entirely downhill. Perfect!

Finishing up a long run with some of my favorite people
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

With my goal firmly accomplished and no other racers to chase, I decided to just enjoy the last few miles with my pacers. I took the final 1,000 foot descent into the Delaware Water Gap at a manageable pace to avoid falling and injuring myself on the rocky trail. At mile 71, we entered the Dunnfield Creek parking lot and only had a mile of asphalt until the border.

This ended up feeling like the longest mile ever, even though it really took less than 11 minutes to cover. We reached the ramp to the walkway on the Rt. 80 bridge, and I "ran" up it at a feeble pace. I refused to walk this close to the finish line. As soon as we reached the bridge, we could see the crowd gathered at the finish line. They seemed miles away, although Strava tells me it was only a quarter mile.

Finally, after 15 hours, 36 minutes, and 25 seconds of running, I reached the PA/NJ border. I had broken the previous FKT by 3.5 hours and finished almost 1.5 hours faster than my goal time.

Photo by Eileen Uberti

From left to right, Ryan, Zack, me, Harry, and Alex
Photo by Eileen Uberti

Once again, I was greeted by an entire party. Derek had made it back from south Jersey after a very long day. Kate had driven him up to the finish and they both stuck around to celebrate. Zack had left to grab dinner but made it back in time to see me finish. And all the people from earlier had stuck around.

Most importantly, we all went to Hot Dog Johnny's afterwards and feasted on dogs, fries, and some contraband beer (but you didn't hear that from me)!


After every race, I'm left thinking to myself "it takes a village..." and this FKT attempt was no exception.

I am extremely thankful for my crew of Alex, Derek, Dave, and Julie, who all woke up ridiculously early to make sure I always had a full bottle of water and a banana to eat. My pacers Joe, Zack, Ryan, Harry, and Dan were all excellent, and the miles I spent with them were the highlights of my day. Plus their course knowledge kept me from straying off the trail, despite my best efforts. Lastly, the support I received from my friends who came out to watch - Elizabeth, Jackie, Lucas, Andrew, Bailey, Stephen, and Kate - made this truly a special event. I can't believe how lucky I am to have this many people supporting my pursuits. Thank you all!

Final Stats

Strava tracks

Total AT time: 15:36:25
Car-to-car time: 16:38:00

NY/NJ border
Warwick Tpk
Rt. 94
Glenwood Rd.
Lake Wallkill Rd.
Carnegie Rd.
Rt. 519
Rt. 23
Deckertown Tpk.
Sunrise Mtn.
Rt. 206
Brink Rd.
Flat.-Still. Rd.
Millbrook Rd.
Camp Rd.
PA/NJ Border