Monday, March 26, 2012

NJ Ultra Festival 50K

My original intent was to register for the marathon at the NJ Ultra Festival hosted by the folks who put on The NJ Trail Series. I wanted to learn a little from the Ultra community before the 50k I'm already registered for in May.

The mild winter provided decent opportunity to train throughout and I felt I had put in enough trail mileage to move my registration from the marathon to the 50k.

I had done two twenty mile trail runs, one of which was a reconnaissance run in Harriman State Park (in preparation for the North Face Endurance Challenge) and the second was just last weekend 20 miles in the  Buffer. After those two runs I was feeling confident, knowing the NJ Ultra Festival was going to be on a reasonably flat route.

But as the event got closer my nerves started firing with greater and greater intensity. All the thoughts of unworthiness began to circulate through my head. I realized that I had done two twenty mile runs which is fine for a marathon prep, but a 50k was another 5 miles beyond the marathon distance. I was feeling the anxiety that I can only suspect I had gone through prior to my first marathon back in 1999. I was definitely going to be running into the unknown.

Race day finally rolled around and I left my house for The Sussex County Fairgrounds at about 5:30 AM, even then I was feeling the effect of my anxiety as I had a mild nausea as I drove  to NJ.

Pre-Race NJ Ultra Fest
I arrived in sufficient time to change into my gear, watch the sunrise and use the facilities (twice), yet somehow time escaped me and I found my self overdressed at the pre-race talk so I decided that I would need to run back to my car and drop off my arm warmers before the the end of the talk and the start of the run.

I ran back to the car, dropped off the unnecessary gear and headed back to the chat. I was careful not to pass through the building, since the clock for "the day" had already started and that's where the timing mats were.

NJ Ultra Fest 50k start
Back of the 50k start
As I rounded the corner the 50k had just started. I slipped into the back of the pack and was on my way thinking that was an interesting way to start

Since the course is a 10 mile loop and a 50k is 31 miles we were instructed to do an additional one mile before we entered the 10 mile trail loop. The loop consisted of some extra road mileage in the fairgrounds before heading onto the trail.

NJ Ultra Fest on the trail
Onto the trail
Like lemmings the group made an error and started back towards  the fair grounds before being sent back toward the trail.

We turned around and headed back to the intersection taking a hard right onto the trail we would become very familiar with today.

It wasn't long before there were runners from earlier starts heading towards us as we proceeded down to a fence that was our turn-around. We were instructed to touch the fence and double back.

We were a fairly tight knit group and after the first turnaround we doubled our way back and crossed Northrop Road where we originally entered the trail.

We passed through the Northrop Road water stop (that was run from out of the back of an ATV) and continued on the longer northern section of the route.
NJ Ultra Fest bridge crossing
Railroad bridge crossing

There were several "mushy" portions that required some navigational skills. In most cases runners stayed to the right unless the preferred path was to the left and there was nobody approaching from the other direction.

On the first loop, at about the five mile mark, I took a nose-dive at the first really mushy portion. My face hit the wet turf. The young woman behind me asked if I was OK. I responded that I was fine and that I suspected there was no better place on the course to fall considering how extremely soft the landing was.

We continued along and a bit further and found ourselves crossing the first of several old rail bridge crossings.

The race director had placed strips of plywood for us to cross these somewhat precarious crossings.

NJ Ultra Fest water crossing
Water Crossing
Continuing northbound we came upon the one significant water crossing. There was really only way across and it was a balancing act. Holding on to the underbrush we placed our feet on a series of rocks that just cleared the surface
The first time through it was a bit of a wait as we were all still a pretty close together and the delay was an instant re-set.

We passed through the water crossing and several more bridges all of similar condition to eventually reach the far aid station/turn-around.

After fueling up on a Hammer Gel and some Heed we doubled back on the same path, experiencing everything again, but from the opposite direction.

NJ Ultra Fest at Sussex County FAirgrounds
Sussex County Fair Grounds
When we reached Northrop Road we turned right and did a grueling up hill loop across the grasses of the Sussex County Fair Grounds that eventually led to "The Big Blue Building".

The Big Blue Building was the Holly Grail of the weekend. It was the official timing checkpoint and the marker for the completion of a 10 mile loop. My time for the 1st loop was 1:46:30

The course went through the building (where the timing mats were) and out past the main aid station and back out along the fairgrounds roads.

NJ Ultra Fest
The Big Blue Building
I proceeded through he 2nd loop much like the first but with a significantly more conservative pace.

Rounding out of the Fairgrounds for the second time the temperatures were considerably warmer than it was for the first loop.

I attempted to calm myself down and run more conservatively. I found it difficult to run at my own pace with runners of so many abilities.

Soon enough the excitement abated and fatigue took over as the main driver of my pace. The soft path seemed to be absorbing significant effort and I watched my footing so as not to roll an ankle in the soft double track.

I had been experiencing minor shoulder tightness from what I attributed to carrying a hand-held water bottle. So as we approached the blue building for the second time I swung by my car and quickly swapped out the hand-held for a hydration belt that I was fortunate enough to have brought along.

I passed through the blue building for the second time (at 21 miles) knowing everything from here on would be for the last time today. My time for the 2nd loop was 1:57:53

NJ Ultra Fest Final Loop
My final loop
I emerged from the blue building and turned right onto the fairgrounds roads. Progress seemed to be dipped in molasses, the road back to the trail seemed to be an endless marathon in itself.

I made my way back and headed down the southern portion of the trail for the last time today. I'd swear some the grasses along the wetlands were greener now than they were on our first pass through.

I shuffled along determine to touch the fence of the "out and back" as my feet began to moan for relief.

I shared the course with runners of all the ultra disciplines. I wasn't entirely sure if runners were doing the marathon or the 50k or if they were running into the night by doing 50 or 100 miles.

NJ Ultra Fest trail
Occasional Solitude
By this time cloud cover worked it's way into the forecast to prevent any additional suffering.

Amazingly the packs had thinned out to relative solitude allowing me to move at the pace I was comfortable with.

The final aid station and last turn around was at the 26 mile mark. All I had to do to complete my first 50k was to get back to the Big Blue Building, just 5 miles away.

But those 5 miles were the unknown. I had never run more than a marathon distance and I was about to find out what was beyond 26.2.

NJ Ultra Fest at the Sussex County Fairgrounds
Home stretch across the fairgrounds
I mentally divided the remainder of the course into easily digestible sections. I would shuffle to the bridge and walk across it. Then I would resume running until the water crossing where I could walk across the rocks.

My feet and back were screaming but when my GPS chirped at miles 27 and 28 I knew I was going to finish and the pain seemed to fade.

I emerged from the trail onto Northrop for the very last time today. One last loop of the fairgrounds and I would be home.

The loop across the grass is deceptively long, you can see the finish and yet you are not taking the shortest route to get there.

NJ Ultra Fest Medals and SWAG
NJ Ultra Festival Medal and SWAG
I heard a long chiming from my GPS as it signaled that the battery died.

I wound my way through the fairgrounds and onto the final stretch of pavement leading to the finish line. My final lap time was 2:17:53

I finished my first 50k in 6:02:16 (and outlasted my Garmin's battery).

At the finish the race director, Rick McNulty, told me my time shook my hand and congratulated me. He gave me my finishers medal and a awesome fleece jacket with the NJ Ultra Festival logo embroidered on the front.

NJ Ultra Fest
Tired Feet
I put on the fleece which was more than appropriate since the winds were starting to pick up and the temperature was beginning to drop.

I hobbled back to the warmth of my car realizing just how much my feet were aching.

I learned a lot at the NJ Ultra Festival and it's evident to me that there's so much much more to be learned when going beyond 26.2.

I now have mad respect for the Ultra Running Community, you guys are super Bad-Ass!

Thanks to Rick and Jennifer McNulty, the NJ Trail Series volunteers and the ultra community as a whole for putting on events like this and being such a wonderfully welcoming and supportive group. I intend to return for more.

NJ Ultra Fest 50k Course
The Course

NJ Ultra Fest 50k Elevation Profile
The Elevation Profile


  1. Melissa Huggins3:17 PM

    Congrats on your first 50k! I'm sure we passed each other a few times out there! Keep on navigating the trails, keep pushing forward and adding more miles, and hopefully sooner than later we'll get you out there for your next big challenge... 50 miles :)

  2. Anonymous10:20 AM

    Great report Bix! I can't believe you took a nosedive in the mud pit! You're freaking bad-ass yourself :) Congrats on your finish...those trails were treacherous and tough. I'm sure I'll be back for another round next year soon as my body forgives me for this round. Haha! Great job and good luck in your 50K in May!