Monday, May 5, 2014

Race Report: TNF 50k Bear Mountain - So. Many. Rocks.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I underestimated this race, but on paper it shouldn’t have been that hard. Sure, finishing times were slow and I saw the course described as “the hardest 50k in the country,” but pain is quickly forgotten and runners are apt to recall their most recent race as the “hardest ever,” forgetting the same level of pain just months before. The elevation gain wasn’t that bad, the profile and climbs seemed modest and after all, it was upstate New York. How hard could it really be?

As I lay on the ground half-eavesdropping on the 50-mile winner chatting with the masseuse, waiting my turn and surveying damage inflicted on the raw skin of my lower legs, I heard him say “I think that was the hardest 50-mile I’ve ever done.” So there’s that.

I had been running well leading up to the race. No injuries to speak of, a half marathon PR on a not-PR course, and I had finished several long runs feeling strong, including a 33-mile training run with over 7,500ft of elevation gain just two weeks before. If anything, I was worried I had over-trained and under-tapered, but that is an affliction with which I am quite happy to live these days.

I did my best to survey the course ahead of time, scrolling through photos and reading race reports. I even found a local San Francisco runner who finished last year’s race in about my goal time and pinged him for some tips.

So when I toed the line for my second race in New York in the past six months, I felt confident and ready to run. Within a mile, I learned what “technical” really means, and for the third time in as many 50ks this year, resigned myself to the fact that I’d be running the entire race with wet feet. So it goes.

The race kicks off for about 14 miles of gradual climbing with some short descents interspersed. My strategy was simple: take it easy for the first 15, then race it home. I settled in with the lead two women, who literally chatted the entire time I was near them. Impressive. It sounded like they were just out for a training run, and given that they finished together – literally at the same time, I guess they really were.

For the first few miles there were 10-15 runners ahead of me, which was actually a bit further ahead than I had planned on being. As we climbed up out of the second aid station, a group of about six runners pushed past. I let them go. I stayed with the ladies and we wound our way up, scrambling at times, to the ridge and the top.

A bit about the trails on Bear Mountain.

Imagine a trail that isn’t so much dirt as it is rocks. Just rocks. Jagged rocks that range in size from baseballs to watermelons. Then layer on creeks that, as one fellow-runner put it, prefer the trail to their own creek bed. Where it wasn’t wet, leaves had fallen from the trees last fall where they had remained, undisturbed, concealing the rocky terrain below. You’d put your foot down and it would either go left, right, forward or back. If it stuck, it was likely because you mashed down right onto the point of one of the little bastards. Now try to run.

Where the rocks weren’t wet or hidden by leaves, we were running through mud. Mud you sunk into shin-deep. Mud that threatened to suck your shoes off – which it succeeded in doing to more than a few other runners. You could avoid the mud by skirting the edge of the “trail” and crashing through dried bushes that ripped the skin off your calves.

Sometimes, as a respite from the mud and rocks, you’d get to ford a river. For a while I tried to avoid these, rock-hopping across. But as the morning wore on and the temperature rose, dunking my battered feet into refreshingly cool water trumped dancing waterlogged shoes over the rocks, risking a slip and a dunk.

There were perhaps 10 runnable miles on the entire course. And two of them were on pavement which, for the first time in my trail running career, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see. I’ve never been happier to run on hard, unforgiving, solid ground.

But really all you need to know about these trails is that on a 5-star rating system for "Technical Terrain,", North Face gives the Marin Headlands, including the Dipsea, a two out of five. Bear Mountain got all five.

But despite this so-called “technical” terrain, the first 15 miles were positively enjoyable. I took it easy, ate and drank comfortably, and my legs felt strong. They were tired, but not overly so, when I reached the top and I was happy with my position and how I felt. It was time to race.

Or, do my best to race when keeping anything resembling a reasonable pace was so incredibly difficult. I picked it up and gradually started reeling in the pack of six who had left me at the bottom of the hill. We hit pavement and looped around a lake where I could see a handful of runners ahead of me, stretched out along a gradual upslope into the mile 14 aid station.

What these east coasters had on me technique-wise on their silly not-trail-trails, I had on them on anything even remotely smooth. Cherishing the road, I made up time and eased into the aid station pumped and ready to run.

I took off in tandem with a guy I had seen a while back who seemed to know the trails well. I settled in behind, chatted a bit and hit a long gradual downslope. It was definitely the highlight of the run. The trail was challenging, but not overly rocky. Hopping fallen logs every 50 yards or so, we zigzagged our way through meadows and woods, through creeks and over boulders. We were running, albeit not all that fast. But we were running.

If you let your concentration drift, even for a moment, you’ll eat shit. And eat shit I did, tripping on a rock that seemed to pop out of nowhere. I was down before I could process what happened, but fortunately found a soft spot to fall and popped back up. The guy I was following didn’t notice I had tripped, ear buds blaring.

I eased off just a bit, but more than anything kept my head down and focus aimed at the trail.

Rocks and fallen trees gave way to an actual trail, so I passed my descent partner and another runner we had caught. I had now recaptured all the spots I lost on the descent and set out hunting the group I hadn’t seen since the start. Reveling in the smooth trails, I settled into a comfortable pace and for the next half hour, ran basically alone for the first time all day.

We wove through rolling hills, tracing the flattest path back to the parking lot and the mile 20 aid station. I felt strong and was thrilled to be running, but knew that the toughest miles were yet to come.

At Way Too Cool this year, I forgot to eat starting at about mile 22 and melted down around mile 28. So today I ate. And ate. And ate. I ate early and I ate often. I left every aid station with something in my hand, usually a banana, just like my plan. I ate potatoes and oranges and blocks and Gu. I even found papaya out there, which was amazing. But as the miles wore on, I became more and more parched, finding it harder to force down food. I had the usual bouts with indigestion but dry mouth was my nutrition enemy.

At one point I could only get though half a Picky Bar because my mouth was just too dry to eat and I didn’t want to deploy my entire water bottle to get it down.

I won the nutrition battle though, and never melted down, never bonked.

Rolling out of the Anthony Wayne parking lot with just 10 miles to go, I reveled in pavement once again. I even caught up to two runners who I hadn’t seen since the early miles. Both were walking, which seemed strange on flat ground. I was moving well but not blistering, and I blew past. We had now fully mixed with runners of different distances, but I did notice two blue 50k bibs move past me on the pleasant, winding trails. That’ll teach me to pull over for a piss.

I tried to close the gap but was once again thwarted by rocky trails and poor footing. I was even losing ground on descents, which is a rarity for me.

Miles 23-26 are a blur. I was mostly by myself, and the trail wound through bushes and trees and hills and everything just sort of blended together. I remember short, steep climbs and tricky, rocky descents. I remember fording knee-deep creeks and dancing on tired legs when dirt gave way to those all familiar rocks. I checked my watch more often than I should have, knowing there was an aid station at mile 25.0 and that a mile later we’d summit Timp Pass, a grueling, Goat Hill-esque climb with just a few miles left in the race.

After a few false summits, Timp Pass reared before me. It’s not that tall, maybe a couple hundred feet. And while steep, Goat Hill is far worse. But the footing was characteristically terrible, the temperature seemed to rise 10 degrees and the bugs. Oh the bugs. Swarming my face as I struggled upwards, I hit what was at then time a low point in the race. In crept the thought that every trail runner has at some point in a race, “Why the hell do I do this?”

But at least I was at the top. It was all downhill from here.

The descent was miserable. The worst footing yet, wet, slippery rocks as far as I could see on this glorious downhill that I couldn’t run. I was moving barely faster than a walk and got passed by a guy who just hopped down the trail as if the rocks weren’t there. I tried to speed up but rolled my ankle and almost fell.

So I resigned to just picking my way down, cursing the course and the goddamn rocks. It was my lowest point of the race. Here I was at mile 27, feeling fit and strong, ready to run, and I had to navigate these damn rocks. I fully realize that technical ability is an important part of trail racing, and that I generally have an advantage in technical situations – or what I thought were technical situations – but this was something altogether different.

After what seemed like an hour-long descent, the rocks gave way to actual trail and I pulled into the final aid station. I downed some oranges, chatted with the friendly aid station crew and took off, running. I knew the last mile or so of the course would be technical again as we retraced our steps back to the start/finish, so I ran the smooth trails hard. I had gas in the tank, running the little ups strong and sailing down the flats.

I had been running for almost five hours and was ready to be done, but it was more of a mental exhaustion than a physical one. I was tired of course, and my legs and feet ached, but given actual trails I know I had more miles in me today.

At the mile 25 aid station one of the crew had told me that I was in 11th place, which lifted my spirits. I dropped to 12th when the guy passed me doing down Timp Pass, so was determined to either chase him or someone else down to get back to 11th. Top 10 would be fantastic, but I knew time was winding down and I just wanted to take it one place at a time.

Up ahead I saw my new 11th place target, a guy running with trekking poles. I’m sure they helped, and at times I could have used poles on the tricky footing, but I’m just not sure it would be worth lugging them 30 miles across hill and dale.

I gained ground and when he started walking up a rocky, slippery hill I made my move. Probably a foolish place to pass, but I had energy where I’ve never had energy before and wanted to make the most of it. I went by sloppily, tripping and slipping my way up the rocks, finally slowing to a hike when I had put 10 or 20 yards between us.

The trail topped out and got smooth again. But no sooner than I had started running again when the rocks were back again. 

But before I knew it I was back to the home stretch and gentle, glorious grass that led to the finish line. 5:12 and 11th place. I felt that rush of emotion like my first Way Too Cool, a mix of relief and sadness welling up. Relief that the race is over, that you’re not running any more. Sadness for the exact same reason.

I wandered over to sign up for a post-race massage, retrieved my drop bag and changed out of my soaking shoes and socks while chatting it up with a guy who turned out to have won the 50-mile. Not bad company. A massage, ice bath (amazing post-race amenity by the way), plate of food and a beer and I settled into spectator mode.

Luchi and Miguel finished a couple hours later and with that, my trail racing career in New York had more than likely ground to a halt. I'll take my steep, grueling trails back in California any day. Because at least you get to run.

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