Last year, I turned fifty in May and started fretting about the fact that I had not done a hundred mile run in 8 years. Injuries played a major role in that. I was able to run some sort of ultra every year (except for last year), but every time I started looking into the possibility of a hundred, inevitably, I got injured. So last year, I decided to forgo an ultra and allow my body ample time to heal.
I had heard about an ultra festival in New Jersey through a friend, who had indicated that they were going to run in it. Actually, there were a few people who said they wanted to use the New Jersey Ultra Festival as their first ultra. By December, I was feeling pretty good and decided to sign up to run the 100-mile race. Training was on, with my goal for the race to be able to complete 100 miles in under 24-hours.
This winter was tough for long distance training. I like to be able to get out on the trails for my long runs, as the roads tend to beat me up. But with all the snow (and eventually ice), getting out on the trails was not something that I could do. I did get in some long runs on the roads (thanks to Katie and also to the Saturday Slugs), but not the ultra type of run that I like to have when doing a race like this. My feeling going into this race was that I was undertrained, but since I have done this before, I figured that I could use that to get myself through it.
Friday, March 18th, I took the day off, ensured that I had everything packed that I might need and drove to Long Valley, New Jersey. My son, James, the weekend before, decided that he wanted to help me out as my crew. I picked him up from a train station in Netcong and proceeded to check in at a hotel. Originally, my intention was to camp at the start/finish area of the race. Looking at the long-range weather forecast, which called for rain on Saturday, helped me decide on warmth and comfort over saving a bit of money.
New Jersey Ultra Festival consists of five races, 100-mile, 100K, 50-miler, 50K and a marathon. The 100-miler start time was 4 am; the remaining races each started an hour apart with the longer races first. So, with some of the 80 other people who may need their heads examined, I was on the informal start line just before 4 am. The course is a twenty-five mile loop, basically shaped like a tee. The problem was, due to the permits required to run on the course, the race had to finish with the west part of the course first. So we had to run four loops of the 16-mile west loop, leaving the start/finish area and returning to the area at the end of each loop.
The temperature was comfortable, with the temps coming down from the beautiful seventy’s on Friday, to a sane 52 or so at 4 am. It was forecasted to stay in the 50’s all day Saturday and drop into the 40’s and high 30’s early Sunday morning, great weather for running distance. Leaving the starting area, we ran on a trail through a farm next door to the church that hosted the run. But then, we turned left onto the road and ran for approximately ½ mile plus before we turned right to get back on the trail. All I could think about was that I would have to run on that road each time I returned and each time I went back out. Yuck!
Leaving the road, we turned into a trail through a parking area. The trail is a part of the local park system and is an access point to the groomed trail system that we would be running most of the miles on. The access trail was probably the most technical part of our run, with water runoff creating gullies and a crappy area of sharp, pointed shale rock that was difficult to run over. The first loop, I wore my Vibrams and it was difficult navigating that rocky area in them. Once past the rocks, the course went over a falling apart concrete bridge, over some more rocks and up a hill where the runners turned left onto the west section of the racecourse.
My plan had morphed into possibly completing the 100-miler in less than 20 hours, as the course was relatively easy and even though I did not get the training in that I wanted to, I thought that I could do it. To finish in less than 20 hours, I needed to do 5 miles per hour or better. After the first loop, I was an hour and a half ahead of that goal. I hoped that I would be able to maintain this pace over the course of the entire run. I felt good at the turn around, although I had to wake James up, who was sleeping in the truck (3 am is very early for him). I needed to change out of the Vibrams and I had left the shoes I wanted to wear in a bag in the truck and not in my drop bag. I think I startled him a little, but not enough that he was not able to go back to sleep after I left.
The thing about the first loop was that it was dark the entire time. Once I got through the access trail and onto the main trail, the full moon lit up the trail. I turned off my headlamp and ran the trail using the moonlight. I loved it!! Unfortunately, a lot of other people that were running had to have their headlamps on and I got blinded when they were going in the opposite direction as myself. But that did not detract too much from my enjoyment of running a trail in the moonlight. I don’t get to do that too often and it helped make the run, especially as I did it again on the opposite end of the run.
I finished the second 16-mile loop and I was two plus hours ahead of the twenty hour pace, increasing my hope that I would be building enough of a buffer for later on if I hit the wall and slowed down considerably. By this time all of the other races had started and the trail was full of runners running to accomplish their goals. It was amusing trying to figure out if the runner who just blew by me was running one of the shorter distances (most likely) or one of the runners who I was competing against in the 100-mile race. The day was comfortable, with it being partly to mostly sunny, breezy and in the 50’s. Finishing up third 16-mile loop, still holding onto the two-hour cushion (see, I was already slowing down), I felt and looked pretty good. Yeah, I am critiquing myself with a positive spin.
This picture shows the access trail with me running in the return direction (going back to the start/finish is where most of the uphill is on the course).
Part of my goal starting the day was to finish the 4 16-mile loops while there was still daylight. I accomplished this with plenty of time to spare. One of the fun things about running distance races like this is that you meet up with runners from other areas of the country and get to spend some time (minutes normally) chatting with them. I hardly ever learn anyone’s name, but it is nice to talk with someone after running solo for a period of time. One lady was running in the dark with both a headlight and a hand-held flashlight. I had to ask her why she felt like she had to have both, especially since my light was off. She had never run a trail at night and had been unsure what she would need, so she decided to make sure she would not need anything (as far as lighting). There was a guy that was running the loops at the same time as myself and he was running faster than me, but when he reached the start/finish, he would spend 10-15 minutes there, stretching and relaxing. This would allow me to hit the start/finish, get what I needed and get out while he was still there. He would pass me each time. We did not talk much during the race, but afterwards, he was still at the finish line and he said that taking a break helped him in the long run, but he had to bust his ass on the last loop to meet his goal.
There was also a woman who I saw throughout the day who was ahead of me. She looked amazing, very strong and always with a smile on her face. Every time I saw her, I commented on how she looked. She was running like I wanted to be running, smooth and looking oh so effortless (I know that this is not true, but she made it look that way). I also saw her after I finished and I found out that she won the race overall! I had thought there was a guy who was in the lead, a very serious runner who did not respond to any of my chatter, but I was mistaken. The lady finished in 16 hours and 49 minutes and the first man finished in 17 hours and 5 minutes. An awesome run by both of them, but I always love it when a woman beats all the guys. It shows that running is a sport that men and women can and are equals, especially in the longer distances!
I was looking a bit more worn, but still running into the start/finish area. During this last 16-mile loop, the wind picked up and it got considerably cooler. By the time I finished my first 9-mile loop, I had put my jacket back on to keep myself comfortable. During that loop, the winner went past me on her third loop. I asked her if she thought that the 9-mile loop was long, as I had a hard time believing that it was only 4.5 miles to the turn around. She was not sure, but that since Rick, the co-race director, said it was 9 miles for the loop, it must be. I have to tell you, it sure did not seem that way to me. There is a parking area about ¼ mile before the turn around and as I came through it, I saw that James had brought the truck there, which was good, as I wanted to have some Gatorade that I had in a cooler. Unfortunately James was in the truck and did not see me run through. There was a group of guys who were waiting at their vehicle for their runner. They offered to knock on the window of the truck so James was waiting for me when I returned and I was able to get that drink I wanted.
After the first 9-mile loop, I started feeling out of sorts. I had drunk well during the day, drinking enough so that I was peeing at least once during my loops. But I also needed to continually eat and there really were not a lot at the aid stations that I was all that interested in eating. My appetite for food was disappearing and in an ultra race, that is not a good thing. I started slowing down considerably on the second 9-mile loop. By the time I finished that loop, I knew that the wheels were wobbling, getting to the point of falling off. Rick, the race director, told me that I was still on pace to finish in under 20-hours, but I knew that that was not going to happen. I was feeling lousy and needed to find something to refuel myself. They had finally made some soup, which I had before leaving the start/finish to head out on my third 9-mile loop. In hindsight, I should have been using my GU’s to keep me on an even keel, but I had been relying on what I found on the aid station tables. During the third 9-mile loop, I started having a GU every 30 minutes. I also walked a lot, running about 10 minutes and walking for 1-2 minutes. I lost all of the time I had built up as a cushion and then some. I started worrying that I would not make the 24-hour overall goal.
I have noticed that when I do the ultras, I seem to lose any ability to compute time based upon distance remaining. It has happened in my other 100-milers and when I ran a 70-mile trail race. I cannot seem to comprehend the calculations required to figure out how much more time it will take me to finish. The 24-hour time was never in danger, especially since the fourth and final 9-mile loop took me considerably less time to run than the third. Eating the GU allowed me to recover and I actually ran very well. Even though the wind was blowing at the start/finish area, on the trail, it was calm and with the full moon shining brightly on the trail, I ran comfortably that final loop to finish in 20 hours, 52 minutes (and 38 seconds, but the seconds really don’t matter).
While it would have been nice to finish in less than 20 hours, I am very happy with my finishing time. Being away from the 100-mile distance for nine years gave me a sense of trepidation, that I would not be able to duplicate my past accomplishments. I found out that I still could do what I love to do, which is to run distance. It is not always pretty and I seem to have issues with injury, but just getting out there seems to help. I am very glad that James came along!! I brought along my mountain bike, so that he could use it to meet up with me on the trail. It was much cooler than he expected so he only used it once, but it was critical to me as I had run short on ibuprofen and, although I do not use it exceedingly, it is very nice to have. It was good later on in the race, when I met up with a gentleman who was running the fifty-mile race and he was in considerable pain. I gave him a couple of the Advil that James had given me and tried to talk him into continuing (he still had one more 9-mile loop to do to get to fifty miles), but I believe he dropped out when he completed the lap he was on. But I would not have been able to help him if James had not helped me. He was cold and spent a lot of time in the truck to stay warm, but I was glad to have him with me. Plus and most important, he drove us back to the hotel and helped me hobble back to our room. It would have been fantastic if some of the people who had expressed an interest in running had been able to do so, but maybe next time.
The aftermath has been a bit painful. Normally, my legs are trashed after an ultra, but this course was pretty tame, so I had less muscle soreness than normal. But my feet are another story. They were swollen and it was painful to walk on them thru the following Wednesday. The major difference between this hundred-miler and the other ones that I have done is that this one is very runnable. There are very few spots where I would consider it acceptable to walk, especially late in the race. I felt guilty about thinking about walking, so I ran and ran and ran (slowly). I guess my feet did not have enough training on them to toughen them up for that and they have been slow to recover. That is okay; I wear that pain as a badge of pride for I accomplished my goal of completing another 100-miler. So, what should I do next?