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.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Tales From The Back - My NFEC 50k Rear Sweeper Report

A couple of years ago I volunteered for the North Face Challenge at Bear Mountain as captain of the Anthony Wayne Aid Station.

Yes, it's a lot of work. Especially for someone who always wants to move. Standing still for 12+ hours delivering nourishment and hydration to runners is not my idea of a good time.

But I wanted to help out. So I indicated doing the rear sweep for these races.

Sure, it's a lot of hard work. Probably harder than aid station captain. But I was always moving, so it was right up my alley.

And it was. Despite the nagging feeling that I was going slower than I comfortably would, it was a pretty interesting experience. And I would do it again next year, if they would have me.

The rear sweep was also essential this year for my Grand Slam of Ultrarunning efforts as I always wanted more time on my feet. This week, it didn't matter how slow I was going, as long as I got good hard hours on my feet. And the position provided it.

The race, as with all of ultrarunning, has gained unprecedented popularity after all these years. More and more people are starting to realize that there are races that go far beyond the popular marathon distance, and that most of these races are done off-road.

And it showed at this year's races. So many people signed up for the 50 miler and the 50k that the event coordinators needed to organize each race into two waves.

I trailed various people during the race. Interestingly, most of these people were either new to trails, or to the distance, or both. Most of them really didn't know what they were really getting into with this race. Some I talked to just looked at the 50k distance and joined up, not knowing what kind of terrain was involved at Bear Mountain. They just did a marathon and decided it was worth doing because it was "only" 5 extra miles. They knew that this was a trail race, but never understood how difficult trails can be.

Most people who did this race for their first trail run didn't really know that these squiggly lines here mean lots and lots of lung busting hills!


The particularly nasty stretch between the Silver Mine Aid Station (Mile 8.6) and the Arden Valley Aid Station (13.9) did it in for a lot of these folks. This stretch involves a lot of steep ups and downs along a mountain ridge with quite a lot of rocks to navigate on the trails. As I was running along that stretch, the chirping on my walkie-talkie from the folks at the approaching Arden Valley Aid Station had people dropping out left and right at that station. The person I was following had a particularly tough time in that stretch; she was undergoing a rude awakening on how difficult the terrain can be when trail running as she was trying to compare it to the road marathon she recently did. I told her that there was a lot more to trail running than distance alone, and the terrain can be critical to how well one does in a race. Especially a race as technical as this.

I do believe that when most road runners switch to trails, they undergo a "trial by fire". Yes, these runners do understand that trails might be "somewhat" more difficult than road racing, but most do not comprehend the severity of this difficulty. Think about it; most road races have mile markers at every mile, an aid station at every mile, and the roads are smooth and fast to run on.  It's a good pampered feeling that most of these runners have.

That is why switching to trail racing is such a rough transition for a lot of folks. The aid stations are at least 5-7 miles apart. The hills are much steeper and strewn with rocks, and there are no signs to gauge your distance to the next aid station.

I had exactly the same experience when I switched over, so I can totally relate to the struggles these people were facing at this race. I related my first trail race, the Half Wit Half Marathon to these runners for encouragement so that they can try again next year. After bushwhacking a major section on that course, struggling up the "128 Steps From Hell", and twisting both my ankles in the process, I crossed the finish line swearing up and down never to do another trail race again. But I related how I got back in the saddle again, and, after experiencing the difficulty first-hand, I was able to go back the next year and do well, finishing with a huge smile on my face. The second time I did that race, I now knew what was expected and I made the adjustment, making me become hopelessly addicted to trail racing from then on.

Arriving at Arden Valley, the person I was trailing had to drop out, but I left her with encouragement to come back next year. She, like everyone else who dropped out that day, now know first-hand the difficulty of this course. I hope that most of these people will have the mental fortitude to come back next year and finish well.

And I'm sure most will come back. We trail runners really don't know what it means to give up. That's what really defines us from other runners. :-)

------

Getting into Anthony Wayne Aid Station (21.8 miles) from Arden Valley, the 50k course and 50 mile course joined up, so as I was trailing the 50k people, I was starting to see the bulk of the 50 milers start coming at us from the back. As there was a 7 mile stretch between Arden Valley and Anthony Wayne. My pace at that point was so slow that my estimation at that point was a bit erroneous. The person also in front of me was slowing down even more at the end of the stretch so that my own estimated time of arrival at Anthony Wayne was flawed. At the pace we left Arden Valley, we would arrive at Anthony Wayne at a little bit before 3PM. That was complicated by the fact that I did hear the noise of cars from the nearby Palisades Parkway. One of the 50 mile runners, Cherie Yanek, approached from behind and asked how many miles to go and, looking at my time, mistakenly told her that she had 1 mile to go before the aid station. I kept moving, looking at my watch, and seeing 3PM pass by without us getting out of the woods. Another hill, another descent, and still no clearing. Finally, at around 3:15, we cleared the woods and arrived at the aid station. So what I told her as 1 mile was more like 2 miles. Yikes!

The people I was trailing dropped out there, and so I had to pick up pace to find the next 50k person to trail, and I came across Cherie again. I guess she didn't seem so enthused about my erroneous estimate and called me out on it.  I apologized, and wished her well the rest of the race as I pushed on.

I hope to see Cherie at the Vermont 100 this year. Her quote keeps resonating in my head. "The more you run, the faster you're done". Works for me!

------

Another 50 mile runner I knew in the race, Zsuzsanna Carlson, passed by me on the way to Anthony Wayne. Next thing I know, she was sitting on the side of the trail with her pacer with a fully cramped and spasming hamstring. It was so severe that she couldn't straighten her knee. She never had that condition before but I knew it too well. But this was my quadriceps muscle at Leadville right before the ascent of Hope Pass. There is a stream crossing before the climb and when my aching muscles hit the cold water, the quadriceps locked up tight, preventing me from even flexing my legs at the knee. I was screaming in pain in the middle of the stream. Luckily, I knew that most cramps were fleeting in their spasms and that they would release over time. Mine did after a few minutes. With Zsuzsanna, I would believe so too. She was in good hands with her pacer, and knowing how tough a runner Zsuzsanna is, she would be running past me in no time. Before we hit Anthony Wayne, she indeed ran past, as strong as I knew she would.

Zsuzsanna will also be doing the Vermont 100 and will also travel to do Wasatch Front 100 this year. Her pacer will also be doing Wasatch Front. I hope to see them both on the slopes of Utah in September!

------

At Anthony Wayne, the two men that I was trailing had to drop out because they were going so slowly that it was predicted that it would be dangerously close to night in the woods should they decide to finish. It was close to 3:25PM when after hydrating myself at the station and the people told me that the last 50k before the men I was trailing left at around 2:30. That's a full 55 minutes ahead! After all the walking it gave me a great chance to finally open up and actually run a bit. And I took full advantage of it! The 4.3 mile section between Anthony Wayne and the Queensboro Aid Station (Mile 25.3) is a pretty tough section called The Pines and I took to it like a man on the mission. I was speeding up and down some rocky sections, passing some of the 50 milers on the way, making sure I told them I was the "50k" sweep, and not the 50 mile sweep (much to their relief). Before I knew it, I got to the Queensboro Aid Station at around 4:10PM. So, basically, I rattled off about 10 minute miles on that section. Not too shabby at all!

Anyway, I did finally acquire the next 50k runner a mile after Queensboro, so all was well.

------

I wound up finishing the course at a little after 6PM. Overall I had a great day. My legs are a little tired, but nothing about 24 hours of recovery cannot fix.

I'm glad to see a lot of good people on the course, including Jacqueline Choi, who did the 50 miler and is the other person in the area doing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this year. Hopefully she can be the first person ever in NJ to complete the Slam. I have a lot of faith in her; she is definitely strong enough to do it and I'm sure everyone here will pull for her to Slam this year. She definitely has my support!

No comments:

Post a Comment