A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My First Trail Race, How I Swore Off Trail Running Then, and How I Love It Now

I owe my origins of trail running to the people at Pretzel City Sports in Pennsylvania.


In the mid-90s, I was a hardcore triathlete and road racer in New Jersey, usually going a ton of these races in the local area.

As is the local tradition of New Jersey races, there is usually a table near the registration where brochures and applications to other races can be laid out. There could be as much as 50 of these applications placed on this table.

Over a period of time, some applications for races from Pretzel City Sports started to appear on this table. What caught my eye about these applications were that they were, well, different, from the other applications.

They proudly proclaimed that they were "the carjacking capital of the world", that you have to be of limited intelligence to enter some of these races, and you're basically bear meat if you don't make your way back to the start below the cut-off time.

If you want to read some of the hilarious applications on their website, you can go to Pretzel City Sports, hover over their Trail Apps tab, and click on any one of the races that pop up. Here are a couple from their Ugly Mudder and the Half-Wit Half Marathon races.

Intrigued, several of us NJ runners decided to race in one of their events. Of course, it would turn out to be one of the tougher races in the series, the Half-Wit Half Marathon.

Yes, I didn't really have my wits about me when I signed up for this race.

Road racers tend to be quite anal in the races they enter. Or is it spoiled? Well, most road races have a nice aid station for every mile of the course, with a nice big number on each side declaring how many miles they've done. And even though some of the courses are hilly, they have the comfort of being sure footed, as every inch of the course is nice hard pavement, which is very easy to try to maintain pace on.

My first trail race was a rude awakening.


This video I got from Youtube can pretty much show you how tough the course is for the Half-Wit Half Marathon


After travelling a couple of hours to the Reading area, I started to warm up before the race. I followed part of the course where it enters a split in a stone wall and the beginnings of the single track trail.

And this is where I encountered the first hill. Two minutes later, I was exhausted.

And worried.

Going up the hill was nothing like in the road races. My footing was so unsure on the uneven path that I was not confident at all.

And I have 13.1 miles of this to do? Egads...

Right before the race, we started to seed ourselves within the group. After Ron Horn, the race director went through his announcements, we were off and running...until we had to walk.

Entering into a very small trail from a much wider road tends to bottleneck the group a bit. And as a road runner, that just destroyed any notion of pacing that I wanted to establish.

Well, later on, I realized that nobody really can't pace accurately in a trail race. But try telling that to me then...

Finally getting onto the trail, I busted my lungs on that first uphill of the race, and the wheels came off soon after. By mile 3 I was hanging on for dear life, trying to make head or tails over what the heck was really going on here. I mean, no water station every mile? No big number telling me what mile I am on the course?

After an hour on the course, I was truly wondering how far I was along. I was figuring about 7-8 miles...

Then reality hit! I finally got to one of the few aid stations on the course and found out that I only did 6 miles!

I was a guy who regularly did 1:25 for a half marathon back then. So you probably know what it's like to discover that not even half the race is done in 60 minutes.

I was deflated. And yet, little did I know that the worst part of the course was coming up.

Immediately after the aid station was the "128 Steps From Hell", a long, steep concrete flight of broken steps cut into a forested hill that totally blew my lungs out (the 128 Steps From Hell is shown for a second or two in the video above, around 2:20 in). At the top, I actually had to start walking just to catch my breath.

And the hills just kept on coming.

In competitive road running, walking, for the most part, is a sign of weakness and defeat. So when I resorted to walking at this point of the race, I was definitely not in a good place emotionally (in trail running, walking is not a sign of defeat, but can be more efficient than running on steep hills).

The downhills were no picnic either, and the footing was treacherous. On a particular downhill section on mile 8, I really twisted my left ankle bad.

When I emerged onto the road at mile 9, I was set to give up. Mile 9 was only a quarter mile away from the finish, so I was tempted to just bow out.

But a moment of insanity kicked in and I decided to continue.

The last 4 miles of the course is like a lollipop, a short, out and back section with a loop at the other end.

The out-and-back section had a beer stop. What the heck...?


I ignored the beer stop and just moved on, shaking my head. Beer at a race? Especially a race with rocks and roots? I would probably fall flat on my face if I even drank a sip.

Still, I twisted my other ankle soon after the stop. Maybe I should have drunk the beer...

The loop section had a huge hill on it, so steep that I had to stop at several points just to catch my breath. When I finally got to the top  of the hill, and back past the beer section at mile 12, I started to swear off all trail races in general.

I got across the finish line in the most rotten attitude ever. Never again was I ever to do another trail race. This stuff is for masochists! Why would anyone want to do these regularly was beyond me.

A week later, I realized that I allowed this race to have the best of me.

Two weeks later, I resolved to give this race another go next year.

During the next year, I discovered that there was a different type of philosophy surrounding trail races that is not present in road races. I was starting to "get it".

The next year, I approached the Half-Wit Half Marathon with a different attitude.

I wound up taking 20 minutes off of last year's time and crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face. I've been transformed.

Trail running for me was a "trial by fire". And I discovered I was not alone on this either. Most road runners usually have a rough transition to trail races. Some, like me, swear it off. But unlike me, they stay sworn off and stay permanently with road races.

So if you are a road runner who had a rough time on the trails, whether is with race or even just a training run, I invite you to try again.

Who knows? You might like it this time around. Or, dare I say, LOVE it. :-)

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