Monday, January 14, 2019

2018 in Review and 2019 Plans

It's a new year, and I have some big plans in store. But first, let's take a look at all the crazy crap I did in 2018.

2018 in Numbers

Total miles: 2,138 miles (3,440 km)
Miles per week: 41.0 miles
Time spent running: 487 hours (20 days, 7 hours)
Total elevation gain: 520,113 feet (98.5 vertical miles)
Number of marathons & ultras: 8


2018 was the year where I finally admitted to myself that I enjoy mountain racing more than road racing. Case in point, I ran my lowest total mileage since 2014 but did way more elevation gain than any other year, nearly hitting 100 miles of vertical gain and loss. Here's a quick recap of my racing and other adventures.

My racing season started in February with the Mount Mitchell Challenge, which I treated as a long training run. This was the first time that Alex and I visited the Black Mountains, and the scenery at this race convinced me to come back again in 2019 (more on that later).

Starting line of the Mount Mitchell Challenge

One week later was the local Lenape 50K, where I again took it easy but still managed to hang on to 3rd place and snag a sweet home made trophy.

Some fast dudes. And me.

In April, I managed to PR in the marathon distance for the sixth straight year with a 3:12:56 at the NJ Marathon. However, I only managed to shave 2 minutes off my previous best after a full season of careful training, and this race convinced me that I don't particularly like road marathons any more. I will probably not run one in 2019.

Feeling good around the 10K mark of the NJ Marathon

Next up was the infamous Manitou's Revenge 54 miler, which was the first ultra that I had really raced since 2017's Grindstone 100. I was so nervous that I couldn't sleep at all the night before the race. On race day, I turned that nervous energy into some fast early miles, and I finished in 11th place with a 20 minute course PR despite a rough finish. Manitou's Revenge has quickly become my favorite race on the planet, and I am heading back in 2019!

The course at Manitou's Revenge is somewhat technical

In July, I headed up to New Hampshire's White Mountains for a solo adventure. I ran the Swan Song Loop, which is a 28 mile route that seeks out the most difficult trails in the Presidential Range. Rather than shoot for a particular time, I stopped for snacks and pictures along the way and really enjoyed a perfect day in the mountains. I plan to go back and run this route a little faster in 2019.

View of Mount Washington from Boott Spur on the Swan Song Loop

My "A Race" for the year was supposed to be Fat Dog 120 in August, but it was canceled at the last minute due to wildfires, which forced me to sign up for Grindstone 100 for the third year in a row. But first, I made a stopover at Frozen Head State Park to take on the Barkley Fall Classic 50K for the third (and possibly last) time. I put in a solid effort despite poor training and even poorer heat acclimation, and I finished just under ten hours, a 15 minute personal best.

People seem to like this picture for some reason. I'm glad my suffering amuses you.

Due to the cancellation of Fat Dog, Grindstone 100 became my only way to qualify for the annual Western States and Hardrock 100 lotteries. My 2017 race had gone really well, and I felt like I accomplished everything I wanted to do at Grindstone. So 2018 was an uninspired performance which was made significantly worse by a combination of poor decision making and tough race conditions. I finished in 27 hours and 59 minutes, by far my worst 100 mile performance to date. But I got those dang lottery tickets.

Grindstone in 2017 when everything went pretty well. 2018 was not so pretty.

Last but not least was the Hellgate 100K. Despite only being two months after Grindstone, Hellgate was a 2020 Western States qualifier. Needing only to finish under 17 hours, I took it easy and used this race as an opportunity to meet new people and see some new trails. I finished in 14:47 and got my lottery tickets for next year, which means I don't need to run any more qualifier races for a while.

View from our drive down to Virginia. This was the most scenic part of the weekend.

2019 Plans

So here I sit with no qualifiers needed this year (Hardrock qualifiers count for two years). I can run anything I damn well please. That means it's time to... some terrifyingly hard shit!

I'm planning three 100 milers this year. Each one will be the hardest race I've ever done at the time I attempt it. One of them is at high altitude. One is a brand new race which is expected to have no finishers. They are:

  • Hellbender: 26,000 feet of climbing and descending through the Black Mountains of North Carolina (I told you I'd be back there!). In it's inaugural race in 2018, only two runners finished under 24 hours. One of them was Karl Meltzer, the greatest 100 mile runner of all time.
  • Ouray: One of the hardest 100 mile races on the planet. Ouray involves over 40,000 feet of climbing and descending through the rugged San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The course climbs multiple 12,000' peaks, and the first half of the race is almost entirely above 10,000'. Can I finish this thing under the 52 hour cutoff? Only one way to find out.
  • WTF: A new race from the RD's of Manitou's Revenge. WTF is an invitation-only Barkley style event which involves 108 miles, 40,000' of climbing, and long stretches of off trail navigation. It will be self supported and unmarked. May god help us all.
This schedule is extremely ambitious, and I'll admit that my heart rate spiked when I hit the "Register" button for all of these. But there's no point in playing it safe when there are so many adventures to be had. If I fail, I'll fail proudly and spectacularly. Happy New Year!

Full 2019 Race Schedule
(100 mile races in bold)

Frozen Fools

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Jersey Crew Takes on Hellgate

This is your annual reminder that not only do NJ ultrarunners exist, but we are pretty damn fast!

So fast that the cameras can't even capture us!
Photo by Alex during Manitou's Revenge in June

The Hellgate 100K+

The brainchild of Dr. David Horton, Hellgate is a point-to-point invitation only 100K in the mountains of central Virginia. Horton, or "King D-Ho" as his pre-race name tag introduced him, has a reputation for saying controversial things and being a bit of a sadist. He also runs one of the sketchiest looking race websites on the planet. Hence, I was not sure what to expect when I toed the line at his signature race. For the sake of those who plan to run the race in future years, here is what you will find.

Elevation profile that I carried with me
"Horton time" is listed for each aid station, whatever that means

The race is measured in "Horton miles," which means that each segment runs a little long. Hence, the full distance is about 66.6 miles, making the name Hellgate extremely appropriate. Nearly the entire course is run on fire roads, and even the singletrack trail sections are pretty mild by east coast standards. The difficulty of the course comes from the following facts:
Despite all this, Hellgate is a true runners course, requiring very little hiking from the fastest members of the field.

The New Jersey Crew

I have posted before about the state of NJ ultrarunning, but this was a race that really showcased how competitive NJ ultrarunners can be, at least on a regional stage. Here's the cast of characters:

Speedgoat Sightings and Where to Poop 

Alex, Nich, and I carpooled down to Virginia on Friday and arrived just in time to check in and get the free dinner that came with our race entry. Alex was coming off a nasty hip and hamstring issue that had sidelined him for most of the summer and fall, so he was looking to get his running back on track. Nich was stepping up to a new distance after lots of success at shorter distances in his first year of ultrarunning. And I was just hoping to take it easy and finish under the 17-hour cutoff required to get a ticket into the 2020 Western States lottery (Hellgate is too late in the year to qualify for the 2019 lottery).

Unfortunately, this would be the best view of the entire weekend

At the pre-race briefing, we thankfully didn't learn too much information. The biggest achievement during the hour-long event was figuring out who was driving us to the start, which was accomplished by Horton asking "who needs a ride?" followed by "who can drive them?" It was a frantic system, but it did the trick.

The second biggest achievement was snapping a picture of Karl "Speedgoat" Meltzer, the winningest 100 mile runner in history (and author of my least favorite running quote).

Even the Speedgoat has to attend mandatory briefings

The third biggest achievement came when Horton asked a group of Hellgate veterans what other advice they had. The first response that came back was a runner shouting "poop here!" which understandably left Horton a little rattled. After some discussion, it was revealed that there were no porta-potties at the starting line, so runners were best advised to use the facilities at the camp before our shuttles departed. Good to know!

A few short (much too short) hours later, we were standing at the starting line and singing the national anthem. Then for good measure, we also sang happy birthday to Karl, who turned 51 on race day. At 12:01 sharp Horton gave us a "ready, set, go" and we ran off into the night.

Douche Grade Climbing in the Pitch Black

If there is one thing I despise in races, it is so-called "douche grade climbs." These are the climbs that are juuuust steep enough that running is very slow, but not so steep that you feel justified in walking. The exact grade that qualifies as "douche grade" varies between runners and race distances (e.g. in a 100 mile race Jim Walmsley will run just about everything, but my slow ass will typically walk anything remotely steep). Unfortunately, almost all of the Hellgate climbs fit this description.

The first climb gained 1,500' over seven miles, and I settled into an awkward shuffle accompanied by Joe Limone, a NY runner who I see at a lot of local races. The climb was made much more enjoyable than it should have been thanks to his company and the fact that we could watch strings of headlamps ascending the switchbacks above and below us. It was a pretty cool sight on a pitch black night. Near the top of the climb, we got separated and I was running on my own. This would be the trend for the remainder of the race.

The first descent was a short but steep drop of 750' on singletrack. It seemed backwards to me that we would climb on a nice runnable road and then descend on something more technical, but such is life in a Horton race I suppose.

The second major climb was another 1,500' of ascent, this time in only four miles. This was still just barely runnable at my ability level and I shuffled along at a 13:00-14:00/mi pace, occasionally passing people who were hiking. Along the highest points of the course, there was about an inch of crusty snow on the ground. This didn't effect my footing much, but it had the delightful effect of muffling almost every sound except for my own breathing. Combined with the moonless night, I felt completely isolated from the world except for the occasional headlamp in the distance.

Mile 21 marked the high point of the course on the shoulder of Onion Mountain. The wind chill was a brisk 20 degrees and I wasted no time on the descent. I probably should have taken it a bit slower and I missed a turn and added two minutes and an unnecessary river crossing to my race. Classic Ryan! Thankfully my feet would dry out pretty quickly and no major damage was done.

Dayman, Fighter of the Nightman

I don't remember much about the next section (gravel roads have a tendency to all look alike in the dark), but eventually the sun peaked over the horizon as I picked by way down a 1,500' descent which marked the end of the high peaks on the course. Incidentally, this also seems backwards: why not have runners do the most scenic parts of the course during daylight instead of overnight? The answer, of course, is "because David Horton."

Anyway, I made a quick stop at an aid station here to grab a breakfast burrito (the food was amazing at all the aid stations!) and then another stop for a bio break shortly afterwards. This allowed Eric Anderson, a fellow Grindstone veteran whom I'd met at dinner, to pass me. I caught up quickly and we chatted all too briefly before he pulled away on a climb. He would go on to finish just four minutes ahead of me, which makes me think I should have pushed a little harder and had some company for the second half of the race. But I was not here to push hard. I was here to collect a lottery ticket and go home without beating up my legs too much.

My race continued uneventfully for the next few hours. I shared a few miles with Jersey boy Anthony Russo but I pulled away on a climb, finding that my easy start had left me with tons of energy to spare for the later miles. The course grew slightly more technical during these miles as the fire roads gave way to leafy single track. My Grade Adjusted Pace on Strava reflects this change in terrain.

Losing King D-Ho in the Forever Section

I had heard that there was a section late in the race known as the "forever section" due to its repetitive terrain and lack of any views. As I shuffled through the late miles, I kept trying to guess which section was the forever section, and I always guessed it was whichever section I was currently running. Apparently gravel roads look alike in daylight too.

Finally around mile 56, I reached it and understood what everyone was talking about. The "forever section" isn't a particularly hard portion of trail. It consists of three climbs and descents, each about 400 feet. The trail is covered in a thick layer of leaves and meanders aimlessly along ridges with no views while crossing nearly a dozen streams. It is slow an uninspiring terrain, and it comprises five miles out of the remaining ten on the course.

Until this point in the race, I had been roughly keeping pace with "Horton time," which is apparently the time it took King D-Ho to run each section when he initially mapped out the course. Now dealing with the only difficult terrain on the entire course, I started to fall behind. This was not a big deal of course, and I refused to push any harder than my planned "just finish the damn thing" effort level. But still, it would have been nice to say I beat Horton time without breaking a sweat.

Once through the forever section (FYI: forever lasts about an hour and 20 minutes), I was left with one last 1,500' climb and descent across the Blue Ridge Parkway and over the shoulder of Blue Knob. I put my head down and got to work. The miles were slow but steady, and I finally found myself on the side of the parkway with a lone spectator saying "all downhill from here!"

I took the descent nice and easy. I was going to be slightly over Horton time, but I was well under 15 hours, which sounded like a nice round number. As I cruised in to the finish, I was passed by a handful of runners who were redlining as I often like to do. As much as I was tempted, I resisted the urge to race them, and I jogged in with a time of 14:47:30, good for 44th place of 145 starters.

For a race that I didn't actually race (or prepare for in any way) I'm pretty happy with how I did. I'd like to think I could take 30-60 minutes off my time with better training and more effort, but I doubt I will ever go back to find out. Hellgate was extremely well organized and the volunteers were amazing, but those trails are just not my cup of Tailwind.

So How Did NJ Stack Up?

Well I wouldn't have made such a fuss about my state if we hadn't done something special down in those mountains. Here is the full list of NJ runners who finished:
  • #2 Rich Riopel (11:15): Rich finished 13 minutes behind Colorado's Darren Thomas. Darren beat Sage Canaday by 9 minutes at the Pike's Peak Marathon. Ergo Rich ≈ Sage.
  • #8 Nich Mamrak (12:07): Nich ran with Karl Meltzer early on and then dropped the old man like a bad habit. Nich would go on to beat the Speedgoat by 25 minutes in his first ever 100K.
  • #26 Konstantin Walmsley (13:52): Beat Jim Walmsley's Western States time. Suck it Jim!
  • #44 Ryan Thorpe (14:47): Got my lottery ticket.
  • #46 Anthony Russo (14:57): Got that sub-15 finish.
  • #51 Amy Nalven (15:17): 9th woman!
  • #53 Alex Galasso (15:23): Got back on the horse.
  • #63 Jesse Wolfgang (15:41): Beat his time from last year.
To recap, that's three NJ people in the top ten for their gender and eight in the top half of all finishers. Not bad for a little state with little mountains!