Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Race Report: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain Gore-Tex 50 mile

Why run the Bear Mountain 50 mile?

In early December, I registered for the North Face Endurance Challenge Gore Tex 50 mile race at Bear Mountain, in Harriman State Park in New York. Why? Well, because I really love Harriman State Park. Back when I was in my 20s, I lived in New York City and used this park as my backyard. I was up there at least monthly, in all weather. But I wasn't much of a runner then and now I am. I couldn't resist the urge to run all my favorite trails in one day! 

Also, I had tried the 50 mile distance before, and I really didn't enjoy myself much at all.  But the course was boring, and I tend to enjoy harder courses much more.  Not in the "liking pain" way, but I just seem happier overall on difficult courses.  Bear Mountain is rumored to be one of the most difficult in the Northeast, so why not?

Well, here's why not - the 14 hour cutoff. While that doesn't sound too bad for a 50 mile race, I looked up other results for previous finishers who either barely made it or came in, unofficially, shorty after 14 hours. Some of them can run 5 miles in 33 minutes (my PR is 38:34). Some can run a sub-20 minute 5k (my PR is 24:20). There were some 3:20 marathoners in that group. I've never run a road marathon, but I always figured I was about a 4:15 girl.

Scattered among them speedsters was an occasional dark horse like myself. I might be able to pull it off, but I would need to train hard and have the race of my life.

A couple of weeks before the race, I learned that Jonny Lee Miller, current star of the show Elementary, was running the race to raise money for the charity Jonah's Just Begun. Jonah's Just Begun raises money to find a cure for Sanfilippo Disease, a lysosomal storage disease that is ultimately fatal, usually before adulthood, and the eponymous Jonah is the son of one of his coworkers.  I learned about this disease while in grad school, and I found it super exciting that Jonny Lee was raising money for a related charity!  (Note to Jonny Lee Miller's publicist:  he's incredibly popular right now with mothers that have PhDs in Genetics and run ultramarathons.)

Of course, around my house, we mostly know Jonny Lee Miller from Trainspotting. Watch this clip here where Jonny Lee Miller explains to Ewan McGregor that getting old is a downward spiral:

I imagine that both Jonny Lee and I were hoping to prove Sick Boy wrong. He may know an awful lot about Sean Connery, but he doesn't know anything about distance running.

Jonny Lee Miller, incidentally, is an awesome runner. He runs a 3 hour road marathon. He's also got some prowess at photobombing:

Yes, that's really him.

Race strategy:

Since my "topspeed" wasn't anywhere near as high as everyone else who finished, I would have to get by on heart and a good plan. Here's what I planned to do:
  • Run as fast as possible, as soon as possible: The course had a lot of boulder fields, traprocks, and hand-climbing; a lot wasn't runnable. The key for me to finish the course was to get my legs turning over the very second the trail became runnable. There would be no "walk breaks" for me if the terrain permitted a run. It still wouldn’t be anything you could take a jogging stroller on, an 11 minute mile would probably be as fast as I could go.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the caliber of the other athletes: I'd be out there with mountaineers, Army Rangers, and people who ran cross-country in college. I'd need to try to keep up with them, rather than decide I oughta drop behind them for my own good. I'd be redlining it all day, but that's what it would take to finish.

  • Don’t cry: A wildcard in my equation? I was worried I'd collapse in a nostalgic mess. If I had to cry, I had to run AND cry. And run fast, too.

The Starting Line:

The North Face really ran a fantastic check-in and shuttle system to the start line. Well done! But, damn, this sucka started early! How early? This early.

The weather was going to be perfect! It was 46, so I was able to start with just arm warmers. Not a cloud in the sky, and it was only going up to 70. There were hardly any ladies there. In fact, of 272 official finishers, there were only 33 of us. I though I'd shown up to the wrong party. 

And We're OFF!

Mile 0 to Mile 13.9 (Arden Valley):

They did a wave start, and I got to the back of my Wave (#1). It seemed to work pretty well. The course was wide when we started, and I didn't see much misery spreading ourselves out. The miles just flew by, and I was feeling great. I was sticking to my strategy of moving fast whenever I could. The first hour was before sunrise, and we ran around Silver Mine Lake. Steam was coming off the lake, and I almost stopped to take a picture, but I needed to move! Jonny Lee, who was in Wave 2, passed me at mile 6.5. I tried to hang with him because he's adorable. I only made it a mile. Did I mention he runs a 3 hour road marathon? I'm in love, but I can't hack a run with Jonny Lee.

Mile 13.9 (Arden Valley) to 20.7(Skannatati):

This is where the 50 mile course splits from the marathon and 50K course, and this section is the entire reason why I signed up for the 50 mile rather than the shorter races. After some tough climbing, we ended up at the bald rocks section of the course.


This has to be one of my favorite places on the planet. There's no place I'd rather be than Bald Rocks.

The climb to get there was tough, and I was sucking wind, but I ran all up in those Bald Rocks. It wasn't so runnable, and almost everyone else was walking, but for me, it was playtime. Tears were streaming down my face, but I didn't stop. See race strategy.

The first cutoff, at 20.7 miles, was coming up, and I was ahead of it by..... I don't remember, but it was a lot. Yay! But it was starting to get real. The climb into the Skannatati station wasn't easy. A woman ahead of me fell and rolled onto her back while hand-climbing. Then, about 200 yards later, she fell again and this time banged up her knees, hands, and arms. She looked so sad down there, so I reached out my hands, pulled her up, and said, "C'mon sister. They're not going to feel any better sitting down there. Get running." And so I came into the aid station covered in someone else's blood.

Mile 20.7 (Skannatati) to 27.7 (Camp Lanowa): 

The aid station at mile 20.7 is where I had my only major setback in the race. I had to wait for about 10 minutes to use the porta-john. I had to use the porta-john to deal with some womens' mysteries. If I went in the bushes, I'd risk attracting bears.

The course through this section was really nice, pretty flat and very runnable. So I executed my strategy and kept my legs turning over.

Mile 27.7 (Camp Lanowa) to Mile 34 (Tiorati):

I received a pleasant surprise when I came into the Camp Lanowa aid station - my husband wearing a pacer bib! Our friends, Rob and Claire, had agreed to watch our children while Gabe ran with me to Mile 40.4. I had a little crew there waiting. Gabe helped me ditch my pre-dawn running gear, and my 10 year old sprayed me down with sunblock. Also present were my 7 year old and Rob and Claire's 5 year old.

Another runner was standing next to us, and said, "Hey kids! Your MOM is an AWESOME runner!" He then went on to complement me on my race strategy. He wasn't the only one that noticed my discipline on getting running. I got a lot of props on that throughout the day.

Running with Gabe was a lot of fun, and a rare treat - we've run together less than a handful of times. The trail was nice, and I was doing quite well. Sometime in here I almost stepped on a rattlesnake. Gabe saw it but I didn't. I still had plenty of time to spare when we hit the next cutoff at mile 34, although, by this time, my GPS was dead.

34.4 (Tiorati) to 40.3 (Anthony Wayne):

Irish Potato
I started to struggle a bit during this section. I really don't remember it much. I think we were running through single track, through some tight laurel bushes. We definitely ran past the Irish Potato!

40.3 (Anthony Wayne) to 44.7 (Queensboro):

When we arrived at the Anthony Wayne Aid Station at 40.3 miles, I was completely incoherent. I was going to lose Gabe as a pacer here. Another pacer noticed I was in rough shape, and started giving Gabe instructions on how to get me to the finish. I had three hours to make it 9.7 miles. Doable... but Gabe wasn't going on. I high-tailed it out of there before the volunteers got it in their head to pull me.

I'm a trainwreck - but still smiling!

I knew I had to get it together, so I tried music and headphones. Just as I was fiddling with my iPhone, I heard from behind me, "HEY SUPERMOM!" It was the guy I met at the Camp Lanowa Aid Station. He encouraged me to bank some time during this section, because the next one was ugly. In went my headphones, and I pulled it out. I got my legs moving and brightened up. This was a very nice section of trail with a lot of runnable spots, although a lot of streams and boulder fields to keep it interesting.

44.7 (Queensboro) to 47.2 (1777):

Hmmm.... why are these aid stations so close together? Why?

Because this section includes the hardest part of the course: The Timp.

The Timp is ugly. The Timp is terrible, and it doesn't even have a view. It took me over an hour to complete this short section. I ate gnats. Lots and lots of gnats. I had a moment of horror about halfway up the Timp, when I thought I was going to pass out. When I stopped for a second to spit out gnats, and I got dizzy.  A second later I realized that I didn't have vertigo at all. I was standing on shifting rocks, and they gave me the "illusion"of dizziness. Or so I convinced myself.

Have you ever seen these memes about Ryan Gosling at the finish line with a puppy?
Puppies are for 5Ks

In my fantasy, Jonny Lee Miller was waiting for me at the finish line with a big bag of Horse.

Horse is for ultras.

Edited to add...  In case you're wondering, I've never used heroin, and I don't ACTUALLY want to try it. Jonny Lee Miller was in a very popular Oscar-nominated movie called Trainspotting in which he played a heroin addict.  This is a joke about Trainspotting.       

The way back down may have been worse than the way up. All the rocks rolled under my feet. Some struggling hikers asked me for directions. I have no idea what I told them!  I hope they are okay out there.

47.2 (1777) to 50 (finish):

They were packing up the last aid station as I came through, because I came by at the magic time of 6:12 PM - when they ought to expect the last finisher. The woman at the aid station looked me in the eye and said, in short sentences, "You can run this. It's not rocky. But you HAVE to run".

Surprisingly, I was able to do some trail math, and realized that I needed to make a 16 minute mile to finish. I had no GPS, and no idea if I could do it. So I just put on the gas and went as fast as my legs could carry me. It turns out it was a 12 minute mile; I'm really happy with myself for still being able to get moving that fast after 47 brutal miles. I got some emotional support from another woman's pacer through here.

In a couple of minutes, I saw familiar sites that let me know I was approaching the finish line. No crying! No crying! I saw Bear Mountain rising up on my left, and Anthony's Nose rising up on my right. Then the Hudson River! I was near the Bear Mountain Lodge! I knew just where I was and I was going to make it!

I came out of the forest onto a road, and saw some spectators. "Is this the finish line? Where's the finish line?" It was mostly rhetorical; I could see it! I must have looked so confused, because one of the spectators, in jeans, with a purse, ran with me for about 50 feet, pointing towards it. Thanks, lady! You're the best!

13:49!  I made it!

Running through the finish was spectacular. And also, I had a wonderful time in the finisher's area.
So many of the people I had run with throughout the day had just finished as well. We traded hugs and congratulated one another.


I had a great day on Bear Mountain.  I had 14 hours of fun and nothing hurt.  I'm definitely game to try another 50 mile race....  but I won't be signing up for an easy one.  Those easy ones are, paradoxically, just too much for me to handle.  Actually, I'm probably too chicken to sign up for this one again.  Who knows?

I have a lot of people to thank for getting me for such a great day.. First, the race organizers and the volunteers. This was a great event, and I have zero complaints. Next, Rob and Claire for watching my kids so Gabe could be there with me, dropping me off at 4 AM, to pace, and then to pick me up at the end. It was such a pleasant surprise. I’d also like to thank all of the people that encouraged me during my training. I'd like to give a special shout out to Jeremy Clegg, who, back in December, helped me hash out my training over the winter. It worked, Jeremy! And lastly, my husband, who put in a spectacular rookie effort at pacing and crewing.