Tuesday, October 02, 2012

2012 Mountain Madness 50k Race Report

The morning was grey and there was a hint of Fall in the air as the morning rains wound down as runners began to arrive at Sheppard Lake for the Mountain Madness 50k organized by the NJ Trail Series.

Ultra Runners Line Up for the Start
Runners greeted each other in the parking lot and calmly entered the pavilion to pick up their bib numbers and use the facilities before a long day on the trails that lay ahead.

The mood was unusually relaxed as fewer than 100 runners gathered for the pre-race chat. Rick (the race director) ran through his list of topics from trail markings to distances between aid stations, he answered a few questions and with his final words he warned us not to follow the guy ahead of you because he doesn't know where he's going.

With that we lined up for the 9:00 start.

Leaving Sheppard Lake
The clock unceremoniously counted down to 00:00 and we departed the recreation area to a smattering of enthusiastic applause from a small group of friends, family and ultra enthusiasts.

As a group we trotted past the beach closed for the season. We made our way around the southern end of the lake and onto the red trail.

The sounds of our feet on the gravel roadway muffled the conversation. We traveled for just under a half mile before the path took a hard turn off the gravel and we began the first climb of the day.

The path was soft with the recent rains and freshly downed leaves. The pace dropped to a power-hike as the congestion of runners climbed the northern end of Mount Defiance. Collectively our breathing became labored and the conversations diminished as we hiked to the top of the first climb.

The terrain leveled and we paced ourselves into smaller groups. For the next 4 miles or so there was a sense of Déjà vu as we crossed the backbone of the ridge and turned to the left to descend a dozen feet or so sand witching back again to the right and then climbing back to the top of the ridge and repeating the cycle again. 

Around the fourth mile the trail snaked it's way around a sapling and started a slippery descent. My footing failed and I rolled my ankle hard.

I managed to stay on my feet and ignored the temptation to stop and walk it off. I ran through the pain in an attempt to prevent if from stiffening up.
Feeling Good Mile 4

The next several miles uneventfully meandered through the woods of northern NJ. At 5.5 miles I reached the first aid station which was loaded with goodies. I eyed a bowl full of colorful M&Ms -- "Wait! I'm Vegan". I grabbed a Hammer Gel and a couple of Newtons and left without guilt.


I found my pace and continued my journey following the orange tape hanging from the tree limbs that marked the course. I was more or less alone and running well. I powered up the inclines and was confident in my foot placement. 

My pace was motivated by the sound of voices a few hundred yards behind me.

In a lapse of concentration I seemed to have followed a side trail that took me off course. I sensed something was amiss and my eyes scanned the branches for the orange course markings.

Slightly off course
As I made my way to the top of the brushy knoll covered in weathered blueberry bushes I happened to return to the marked trail. Just a few yards down course was the runner who was following who by now was close enough to confirm that I was back on course. 

I was still running strong and I continued to use the trailing runners as motivation. I ran confidently for the next few miles and paced the group out of the woods and to the second Aid Station at 9.1 miles.

I topped off my water bottle, had another Hammer Gel and a couple of pretzels. I remembered to pull a electrolyte replacement from my belt and downed some fluids as I walked back into the woods. 

I tucked my water bottle away and started a gradual downhill. The trail was clear except for a series of roots that emerged from the worn path like a series of beach waves. Just as I noted the obstacles one reach up and dropped me hard.

The fall shook me up... with the ankle tightening up and the hard fall, I seemed to have lost my Mojo.

I went into aid station 2 feeling great but came out differently. I seemed to have lost my confidence... I was being extra cautious and tentative in my footwork.

The next few miles were a challenge, not only did I have to mentally overcome the after effects of the fall but some of the course markers seemed to be spaced out a little bit too far and I didn't want to get lost.


Yellow Trail Ridge View
I made my way along another gravel road that passed through a camp with cabins of grade-school campers and smoky campfires.

When my GPS chirped at the 11 mile mark a nearby runner commented, "Only 21 miles to go", his attempted optimism brought me little comfort.

I was struggling. I was tired and my ankle was bothering me, it took a lot to keep going. 

On the upside, I was grateful to know I was finally heading north (which meant I had reached the southern most portion of the course) and although I was lagging, I was able to keep the group I had been running within reach.


Keeping Others Runners within Reach
At the third aid station (mile 12.9) I was greeted by the smiling faces of the volunteers. They filled my water bottles for me as I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some more pretzels. I asked them how I was doing for time and I was told I was 3 minutes ahead of the cut off time but the only aid station that would enforce the cutoff was Sheppard Lake. The last aid station before the final 7 mile loop to the finish.

I wasn't interested in getting pulled from the course at the last aide station and rather than lose any more time at the aid station I thanked them and headed out again.

I caught up to one of the runners I had yo-yo-ed with since about the seventh mile. We chatted a bit as we climbed over a ridge and turned north on the orange trail. We fell silent and into single-file as we worked our way through the rock fields at the bottom of the ridge to our left.

After a welcomed descent we turned right on another gravel road. We talked a bit and spoke of our concerns about cut-off times. Together we were determined not to get SAGed.

Although strewn with rocks, the road had a reasonable downhill grade and we were sure we were making up time as long as the favorable grade continued. 

Apparently we had missed a turn and as we were approaching the next aid station two runners were heading towards us and in a helpful gesture directed us to our left.


View from Hawk Ridge
Without thinking we headed in the suggested direction. We turned left and crossed a small wooden bridge and began the brutal climb up to Hawk Ridge.

This hill was relentless. My heart was pounding and my hip-flexors screamed with the strain of the climb. 


As we scrambled the incline we realized we were with another group of runners we hadn't seen before and it became clear that we skipped the fourth aid station.

The good news was that we made up a lot of time, the bad news was that it was going to be another 5.35 miles to the next aid station (which was an unmanned water drop). After that it would be another 2.75 miles to Sheppard Lake.

At the top of the climb I was feeling better. I was tired and my feet were sore, but I had found a level of effort I could comfortably maintain as we descended the back of the ridge we just climbed. 
Sheppard Lake Aid Station

The miles passed slowly and the climbs were far from over. I began to look forward to the unmanned aid station, but, I suspected that we were going to get there and there wouldn't be anything left for us... I was right.

That meant by skipping aid station four we were going over 11.25 miles without an aid station.

All I could think about was getting to the Sheppard Lake aid station. I had enough fluids and I ate my Cliff Shots and kept up with my electrolyte replacements.

I now knew where I was from my training runs, I pushed myself hard and paced myself for the next 2.75 miles. I knew I was close... I sensed it. I could see another runner just out of reach but I was able to keep him in view as I used him to target my effort.

On the Road Again
At last I emerged from the woods to the road along Sheppard Lake. For a moment I was confused when I saw runners heading towards me. They assured me I was right and that this was the best aid station, there was -- plenty of food and drink!

I reached the Sheppard Lake aid station (24.25 miles) and had half a sandwich, a handful of grapes, another fistful of chips and I guzzled a Mountain Dew and I was back on the road around the lake. 

I didn't get pulled...

The final loop was painful, my GPS seemed to defy reality as it measured time and miles from a slow-motion dimension.


The last loop loop took me over an hour and a half, but I finished. 

I'm not too proud to admit, I needed the full time limit (+) to finish, but it's also worth mentioning this was my longest run since my injury by 12 miles and my longest trail run by 16 miles.


Distance: 50k (31 Miles)
Time: 8hr 4 min
Elevation Gain: 4,750 ft

The Elevation Profile

The Course