I (attempted) to run The North Face Bear Mountain 50 miler yesterday (5/5/12). I’ve registered for my first 100, Virgil Crest in late September, so I really want to get several 50 milers in as part of my build-up to Virgil. I ran Bear 50K in 2011, again only as training since it fell on a day I had a 30 miler scheduled, and I didn’t like the corporate feel--very non-ultra-like. Even the runners were different--too many people wearing iPods and fancy clothes. The vibe was much more of a road race than an ultra. But back to this year--I needed a spring 50, I didn’t get in Bull Run as I’d hoped, and Bear was certainly a good course--very, very hard, a perfect “supported training run” just 90 minutes from home.
I ran 14:32 pace for the 50K last year. The cutoffs for the 50 miler were about 16:48 pace. I knew this would be a big challenge for me given the course--14,000+ feet of elevation change and lots of very technical trail. I went out yesterday just trying to stay ahead of the cutoffs so I’d be allowed to finish (I knew I could finish, physically--I can ALWAYS finish). Really need to work on race technique, no matter how hard I try I usually go out faster than I think I’m going. So I used heart rate to control my effort level early and not go too hard too soon. Wish I could just feel my effort and pace better, but I can’t (yet) and the HRM has been a good tool for me in the past. My best 50 ever, 11:42 at Bull Run last year, came while I was wearing the HRM and regulating my effort early on. Surely not due solely to the HRM, but that didn’t hurt. So, I went with it again.
The night before: Camped in my van near the race and got up at 2:30am to catch the shuttle to the start. This, too, was good training for the 100--running with almost no sleep! Gotta say, a minivan is, to me, the ultimate ultra machine. I’ve taken groups of folks and loads of gear to distant races comfortably, and camped in it countless times. Lots of room in the back for a bunch of running gear and supplies that just live there year-round. What’s not to like? Maybe I need an “Ultra Mom” bumper sticker for it :)
The start: At 5:01 am we were off. Weather was great, maybe 50 degrees. It was foggy, so the rocks were wet but nothing too bad. The dirt was perfect--not too soft, not too hard, just right. Excellent. On the down side, I was really kicking myself for not changing the batteries in my headlamp, though I knew they were fresh. Or maybe I was going to have to spring for one of those 170 lumen suckers before Virgil, because this thing just wasn’t cutting it. And finally, just before I didn’t really need it any more, I decided to try pushing the buttons--it has all different modes, proximity lighting, red light, yada yada. Duh. When I turned on the REAL headlamp it was like the freakin’ sun had come up. Glad we got that straightened out.
Aid Station #1, Anthony Wayne, 3.9 miles: I was 4 min ahead of the cutoff (this was a soft cutoff, just a pace indicator really--there were only two hard cutoffs where you could be pulled). Ok, fine to warm up with but I wanted to build a little more cushion.
Aid Station #2, Silvermine, 8.6 miles: 8 min ahead of the cutoff and running very comfortably. Picked it up a bit on the second leg. Felt super.
Aid Station #3, Arden Valley, 13.9 miles. 10 minutes behind the cutoff. Oops. Heart rate is great as long as it fits with the pace you want to run. Not so much on this leg. Couple runners who knew the course told me (after the fact) that the third leg always kicks their ass. Now the problem was that the first hard cutoff of the day was at AS #4, and I had to make up some time. Getting to AS #4 was now my race--miss the cutoff and I was done. So I got after it. Hard. Passed lots of runners. Next comes the first “North Face” moment of the day...
Aid Station #4, Skannatati, 20.7 miles. I could see the aid station through some trees as I came down a steep and slightly technical section. It was gonna be close...really, really freakin’ close. Fortunately, I put the hammer down. Fortunate, because 50 feet from the AS a guy in a red shirt (as he would become known to many runners that day) is looking at his watch and shouting at me “Hurry up, 30 seconds to get here.” Huh? WTF? Are you freakin’ serious? Yeah, I’d put the hammer down to play it safe but didn’t think they were going to be that rigorous about it. Twenty seconds (20 seconds!) behind me came a group of 5 or 6 runners. Red Shirt pulled them. I’m surprised they didn’t bury him under some of those Bear Mountain rocks. We all showed him our watches that all showed it was still 10:47 am, the cutoff time. But he said he was on the radio with the RD who made the call. I felt terrible for those people. And there was another hard cutoff at 2:34 pm. Why not just let them continue and see if they can make the later cutoff? For that matter, why even have two hard cutoffs, or at least why enforce the first one so rigorously? Yeah, if you’re 5, 10, 20 minutes past that first cutoff, ok, but 20 seconds? (I’m not exaggerating this point, they were right on my heels). So this was my tipping point: Fuck The North Face. Never running one of their races again, nor buying any of their products. But I’d made the cutoff (which, apparently, was an “in” cutoff--just get there by the cutoff time and you’re ok....keep reading...) and was allowed to continue. Whew.
Aid Station #5, Camp Lanowa, 27.7 miles. Nothing remarkable about this leg. I was in an out right on schedule. I had to be, as the next and final hard cutoff of the day was at AS #6. I was on a razor-thin edge and couldn’t dog it. I will say I was feeling just marvelous. Mahvelous.
Aid Station #6, Tiorati, 34.2 miles and the second “North Face moment” of the day. Really didn’t think I was going to make it at several points during this leg, but kept pushing. About 10 minutes from cutoff time, I thought I saw an area ahead that “felt” like there would be an AS there. We all know about those hallucinations. Just a bend in the trail, more trees, rocks, and roots. T minus 5 minutes, another such hallucination. Then, resignation. I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t give up, but I was fully expecting to be pulled. T minus 2 minutes. There it was!! I could do it. A quick turn on the trail and...a quagmire. Not a lot of mud on the course, but this section had it. Shoe-sucking mud, but not too much of it. Got through it, blasted up a short hill and...a road to cross to the AS. Fortunately, no traffic. The cutoff was 2:34 pm. I came in at 2:33. No problem, since the cutoffs were “in” and not “out” (or so it was at the first hard cutoff, where Red Shirt told me I’d made the cutoff and could leave whenever I was ready). I made a comment to a volunteer about never having run this close to the cutoffs and he said “oh, you have 10 minutes.” “No, I just made it.” “No, they extended the cutoff to 2:41.” Ok, whatever. I was filling my pack and refueling when Red Shirt’s equivalent at this AS came over to me and said “It’s 2:35, I should pull you since you haven’t left yet but if you go right now I’ll let you out.” Gee, how considerate of you. Fucking asshole. Two other runners who hadn’t left yet heard this and ran like cats from a vacuum cleaner. I didn’t argue with Mr. I’m-Big-And-Important-Because-I-Have-A-Radio about whether the cutoffs were “in” or “out.”. I just hoofed it and repeated my new mantra: Fuck The North Face. But now I was golden. No more hard cutoffs, save for the 14 hour finish limit and honestly, I really didn’t care if I got an “official” time. I knew the course would be a challenge for me and all I wanted to do was run all 50 miles (or more....keep reading...) of it.
Aid Station #7, Anthony Wayne, 40.3 miles. Yeah baby. We got this. I did have a letdown of sorts after making the Tiorati cutoff. Not that I felt bad. It was just like “whew, got that taken care of” and I took a pretty good break between AS 6 & 7. I was DFL when I got to AS 7, so picked up the sweep here, a very nice woman named Stephanie. She had never run an ultra, but did run trails some and, having recently moved to NYC, was happy to be back out on trails again for a day. I was feeling great but wasn’t overly thrilled about running the last 10 miles solo, and she was a great person to talk to, very positive, upbeat, fun. I felt great physically and was having a blast talking with Stephanie. All good, cruise control from here to the end, even if we did have to climb Timp Pass and go down the other side. Alternated running and walking. No issues.
Aid Station #8, Queensboro, 44.7 miles. The best AS of the day, the only one that had an “ultra” feel to it. As I (we, counting Stephanie) approached, a woman wearing a fluorescent pink wig (at least, I think it was a wig), matching pink-themed clothes, and mis-matched knee socks started ringing a bell and cheering. Others started blowing horns (or some sort of noisemakers, there were several I think), hootin’ & hollerin’ for us. There was a party goin’ on! Hung out for a few minutes here just because the people were so much fun and, hey, I was golden, remember? No more hard cutoffs, I was clear to the finish, even if I was “late.” Ran out of Queensboro feeling great and looking forward to beating Timp Pass which, as it turned out, wasn’t really much worse than some of the other climbs on the course. I knew Timp from the 50K last year, but there were 19 miles of trail that were new to me this year and they had some pretty good climbs as well so Timp, even at 45 miles, wasn’t a big deal. And slow climbs up steep rocky hills are one of the few things I do pretty well, since I train on such terrain quite a bit. I’m not a good “pure” runner, but I can go (slowly) up and down rocks all day. One more AS, then the finish.
Aid Station #9, 1777, 47.2 miles. About a mile out from this final AS, we encountered the two EMTs that were working the AS. They had decided to hike out and look for us. Stephanie had a radio and while we could hear people, for some reason they couldn’t hear us so when they kept asking where 197 (my bib number) was, Steph couldn’t get through to them. But all was good, I was running comfortably and in great spirits, very lucid, just having a fine time. A fine time. Until the radio call came in, about 3 minutes before getting to the AS. The Park Rangers had decided to call the race and ordered all remaining runners pulled from the course. It was about 7:10 pm at this point. I was DFL, so I was the only only one to be pulled. The EMTs said “gee, if you were to somehow get away from us, what could we do about it?” Which, of course, is exactly what I did. I had plenty of running left in my legs, actually, and had no problem taking off at a good gait. Which was fine, until I got to the AS, which looked like a police blockade. No rangers, but several big pickups and SUVs, some with lights and official-looking symbols all over them, and about a dozen guys in fluorescent orange vests. And Red Shirt. As I approached, they said “Sir, you have to stop.” It won’t take much imagination to guess the two words I said to them. I ran through the AS and continued down the dirt road that the course followed at this point. A bunch of guys took off after me. Didn’t take long for all but one--Red Shirt--to drop. Unfortunately, Red Shirt was an ultrarunner (well, so he said, but he had the vibe of a North Face corporate talking (dick)head. He hung with me for a few minutes insisting that I come back. I finally acquiesced, not so much for the sake of the race director and the race per se, but out of respect for the Park Rangers since (supposedly) it was their call to close the race and clear the course. While Rangers can sometimes be assholes, they’re also there to save your ass if you get in trouble, and to ride herd on the other assholes that would otherwise litter up and misuse the open spaces we love. And, after all, they do have legal jurisdiction over the park--I knew there’d be hell to pay at the finish if I went on. And so, my day was done.
What was perhaps most frustrating about this turn of events was that I have never, ever felt so strong and been so lucid near the end of a 50 miler. I easily could have gone another 5 miles, much less the 2.8 miles to the finish. Still worse: At one point the truck I was in for my ride off the course missed a turn and hit a dead end. As we were heading back to to the turn...there was Red Shirt, headlamp on (not that he needed it yet, it was about 7:30 pm with an hour of daylight left). I said “Is he running the course?” and the driver said “Oh yeah, he’s going to sweep the last 2.8 miles to the finish just to make sure there’s no one left out there.” So we had a race official sweeping the final leg of the course, but they wouldn’t let me run it with him. WTF? Are you kidding me? You can’t make this shit up....
If someone had said at the start that there was any chance of being pulled even after making the cutoffs, I would have kept my pace up more than I did. I easily could have taken some minutes off--and I would have been through the final aid station before the Rangers called the race. Or if I hadn’t spent several minutes walking with the guy who said he was hypothermic--I eventually decided it was ok to leave him alone but I got his bib number and reported him at the next aid station, which I knew couldn’t be far away at that point (though I’d always spend the time to make sure someone was alright, finish or not). Of course, all this begs the question “Why didn’t I just keep my pace up anyway?” To which I say: Beats me. I was just out having a great time in the woods, covering a bunch of miles, and not worrying about anything once I’d made the final cutoff. Oh well.
And to finish out the title of this race report: I spoke with LOTS of people after the race who GPS’d the course at between 53 and 56 miles. We all know GPS is not perfect, but so many people measuring at least 53 miles makes me think the course was indeed well over 50 miles. I didn't hear a single report of it being less than 53. They’d made some course changes this year, including cutting a brand new section to connect a couple of trails. So it seems likely that by the time I hit 47.8 miles, I’d run pretty close to (or even over) 50 miles. I wanted a hard 50 mile training run, and I probably got just that.
Random thoughts and other miscellany from the day:
- It was foggy for several hours, especially at the higher elevations. This, combined with the vibrant spring green colors of ferns and other plants just leafing out, gave this run a magical, mythical, “enchanted forest” feel. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a run so much, it was sooo cool. This is why I run trails.
- Just after Tiorati, I heard a noise. I knew what it was, but I couldn’t believe what it was. I knew it was a rattlesnake, but it was sooooo loud and strong. I stopped dead (lest I BE dead) (ok, rattlesnakes don’t usually kill people but two fangs to the calf sure would put a damper on my race calendar). I finally spotted it, curled up just a few feet off the trail in the rhododendron--a monster, the biggest rattler I’ve ever seen by far. Couldn’t tell how long, but thicker than thick through the body. Snakes don’t scare me, but that thing scared me (sorta), it was huge. I took a wide berth off the opposite side of the trail--beating the bushes ahead of me with a big stick lest some of his kin be keeping company in the area. Freakin’ cool. This is why I run trails.
- Despite my razor-thin margins on the cutoffs and the debacle at the end, this was easily my best 50. In particular, I was not just lucid at the end (hey, I could still do mileage and pace math in my head--think that’s a first) but actually felt extremely sharp and focused, not to mention happy and truly having fun. Physically, I felt really strong and although I hadn’t been running a lot since making the final hard cutoff, I still had a lot of miles left in my legs and actually had started running more during the last few miles. I was ready to kick it from the last aid station. Felt so alive. This is why I run trails. Long trails :)
- To what do I attribute feeling so good? Hmmmm.....
- The slow start certainly helped.
- I religiously S-capped hourly (with one exception when I felt like I was overdoing it), fueled about every 30-45 minutes, and drank. I know how important this regimen is to me, but I don’t always execute it well during races (read: 2011 Finger Lakes 50 miler...).
- I used Hammer Anti-Fatigue caps hourly. I believe in running strong through physical and psychological training and eating/drinking right, not in finding salvation in a supplement bottle. But I often get “dead legs” for at least part of a long run and I’d read that AF caps prevent that by scavenging the ammonia produced by protein metabolism. I tried them on a previous long run but didn’t take them after the first hour or two for some reason. During Bear, I took them before the race, then hourly every single hour, and my legs never went dead. The times I walked instead of running were strictly psychological (really gotta fix that) and, in fact, it often felt better to run than to walk.
- I also tried the Suceed “pre-race pack” supplements. S-caps work so great for me, and Karl King seems to know his shit, so I thought I’d give these a shot (so much for not finding salvation in a supplement bottle, right?). Did they help? How could I really know from one race, but they didn’t seem to hurt. Will I do them again. Undecided. Not sure if they’re worth the money--not expensive, but do they really provide any benefit? We’ll see.
- For a race with a big corporate sponsor, they sure had crappy aid station food. Mostly candy and snacks. The only real food was PBJ squares and potatoes (which I only saw at a couple stations). Oh, bananas were good, and oranges. But the volunteers at many a homegrown ultra--the true ultras--put TNF to shame. From grilled cheese to pierogies to quesadillas to pizza to soup to warm ham and cheese wraps...tsk tsk, TNF. Spend some of your corporate profits on decent food. I don’t need another pair of TNF-branded arm warmers for my registration fee, I need good eats on the run.
- Speaking of volunteers--the food notwithstanding since I”m sure it was TNF-controlled--all the volunteers ROCKED! Without you, I wouldn’t get to have so much fun. Thank You, Volunteers :)
- I managed my aid stations far better than I have in the past. No dawdling. Maybe two minutes max, less in some cases. I planned ahead for what I needed (refill my pack or not, restock fuel supplies or just grab and run, etc.) and just banged it out when I got to the AS. Really feel good about this. Now I just have to do it again in future races.
- On the one hand, running so close to the cutoffs, despite the difficulty of the course, is discouraging and makes me wonder if I’m crazy for attempting a 100. On the other hand, making the cutoffs given the difficulty of the course, on a day when I was just running, not racing, and feeling so good mentally and physically after 14 hours on my feet--well, ok, maybe that 100 isn’t so so crazy after all.
- I actually slept well after the race. I think that’s a first. It was my seventh 50 miler and I can’t remember having anything resembling sleep afterwards. I’m always tossing and turning, waking up and dozing off (kinda). I got home, had some more to eat, decided it was safe to do some ibuprofen, and went lights out for 8.5 hours. Woke up feeling great. Wonder if the anti-fatigue caps were part of that?
- Speaking of ibuprofen: I’ve always religiously avoided it during long runs and races due to its potential to induce hyponatremia and renal failure. Then, earlier this year while taking a doctor-prescribed high dose for a neck stinger, I did a long run. Wow, did that feel good. So...I tried it again. And again. And I even broke down and did it during the Hat Run. But it still scares me. Some people say the AF caps (and Sportlegs) preclude the need to take ibu. I had some with me yesterday, but was never tempted to take it. Was it the AF caps? Hmmm....
So the bottom line is pretty simple: I had a great training run even if I didn’t get a time for it, and The North Face sucks. I’m feeling great the day after, ready to run some more trails. I’m surely not losing any sleep over what happened, but I am feeling great about the rest of the ultra season--I’m ready for some more!. And, like I always say (plus or minus the specifics): I spent 14 hours running in the woods with friends, and there was beer at the end. What’s not to like?
And congrats to all those who actually did finish this race--great job!!!!!
A few more pics from the day below.