Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Febapple Frozen 50-Mile Victory!

Coming into the final aid station at mile 47
(all pictures taken by O. Lam and E. Acosta)

Well it somehow happened again.  I've somehow come away from a race weekend with a victory in my pocket.  I knew that with all of my recent running and hard training, that I had a shot to perform well at this year's running of the Febapple 50, but I was not expecting a win.  The weather forecast on Friday was calling for a beautiful day, up into the 50's.  I knew there'd be some residual ice on the course, but that it would probably melt throughout the day.  My only real goal for the event, was to try to run as consistent a race as possible.  In other words, I wanted to try to eliminate the all to prevalent problem of burning the first loop too fast, and then slowing down significantly over the subsequent loops.  

The Febapple course features a ~10-mile loop, and I told myself that I really wanted to try to do each loop under 2 hours, BUT to make sure the first loop wasn't faster than 1:30.  I wanted to keep all 5 of my loops within 30 minutes of each other.  I know this would mean that the first loop would feel ridiculously slow, and if I was to do well, would mean a lot of late-race passing....but so be it.  I did NOT want to be tempted to go out fast, like I almost always do.  This was going to be about consistency and enjoyment on the trails.  I wanted to actually be able to run all 50 miles, and not be exhausted the final 10...walking too much.  As you can tell by the title photograph of this post, I was in fact running at mile 47, and did all the way to the finish...all while *mostly* smiling too!  It turned out to be a fantastic day, and one of my best overall races to date.  I felt great, ran one of my best times, and honestly enjoyed the trails.  I was admittedly nervous about the course, and just assumed it would feel very "urban" being so close to the big cities of Newark and NY.  Well I was proven incredibly wrong.  The park (North Mountain Reservation Park), was an absolute GEM of a park.  Beautiful, scenic, and very wooded.  I felt completely disconnected from the urban hustle, despite its obvious proximity.  

The course was essentially a 10-mile-long figure-8 shape, taking you about 4 miles on the first loop, coming back to the start, and then taking you out 6 on the second loop.  There was a secondary aid station at the far end of the course at about mile 7, before you turned and headed the last 3 miles back to the start.  There was also a surprising amount of elevation gain per loop.  I had assumed the course would be "flat", but was happily surprised by the 1250' of gain per loop (~6300' total).  Not bad for a small park outside of Newark.  Add to that, the course was littered with technical rocks to navigate, and a whole slew of solid (and very slippery) ice that hadn't yet thawed.  Over the course of the 5 loops, the slick ice would turn to slick mud.

Park Location

The course (green pin marks miles 0, 4, and 10 for each loop))

Profile of a single 10-mile loop

I stayed the night in a little hotel outside Irvington, NJ, and was able to make it to the start in about 10 minutes.  There were about 25 of us starting the full 50 to a cool/brisk morning.  I did my best to keep warm and was reminding myself constantly not to go out with the leaders.  Just hang back and have fun.  I wanted the race to be about consistency, not speed over the first half.  I knew if I ran smart, I'd catch a fair number of runners late in the game.  Still it's hard not to get caught up in the "I should build a small cushion" game.  I purposely wore my heart-rate monitor for this race, just so I'd stay under 155 bpm (preferably under 145).  For the most part I did keep my heart-rate in check, pushing a little hard at the start.

Rick McNulty (Race Director) moments before the start of the 50 mile
I'm in the back in green shorts / blue shirt standing on the sheet of ice.

And we're off!

One of the things I really liked about this course, is that it had just enough change of scenery and hill work, such that you never got bored.  The miles really did go by quickly.  You never had a "long stretch" of anything.  This is always a nice way to break up the miles.  The first 4 mile loop began with a mile-long straightaway, followed by a nice technical downhill (the longest of the course).  You eventually work your way around a couple of small lakes and back up to the top of the mountain after a really good climb.  Before you know it, and after some very nice single track, you come back into the start area around mile 4 to refuel.  I was running steadily and at a very smooth pace with another runner (Scott), and we didn't stop at all.  I wore my single bottle vest, so had plenty of supplies (I have a tendency to waste time at aid stations if I'm not careful).  Scott was keeping me moving well, so I went with it.  The 2nd half of the course was my favorite.  It takes you 3 miles out along some remote and beautiful sections, hitting the farthest point at the remote aid station (mile 7).  From there you turn back towards the start and run a nice 1.5 mile-long stretch of very runnable trail.  I always made up good time on this stretch.  Then, you finish with the most scenic stretch along a waterfall trail (that was completely iced over), and a final quad-busting climb back up to the start area.  Like I said...great little course.

for two laps, Scott and I plugged along together at a really good pace.  There were probably 6-7 people ahead of us, but I was sticking to my plan.  My first loop took 1:36, so while perhaps a smidge fast, was within my desired window.  Still, I wasn't worried.  I told myself that I wanted to aim for about 1:45 for loop 2 and I had already thought of places in my mind along the course where I could slow up or walk little hills.

There were many patches of ice along the course that required some vigilance and concentration.  I saw a lot of people take spills throughout the day, so I made sure to slow it down over these parts.  By the time I was on loop 2 with Scott, the temps had risen into the 40's and the sun was beaming.  It was turning into a gorgeous day.

Early on during the second loop (Mile 17)

Scott and I stuck together for the entire 2nd loop and it seemed to go by even quicker than the first.  I was already familiar with all the little bits of the course, and practically had it memorized.  I stayed on top of my nutrition and salts all day and ate regular fruit strips and snacks (as well as salt tabs).  As we crossed the mat at loop 2, we had a total loop time of 1:41...another perfect time.  I was happy that my plan was panning out, but I knew that the hardest laps were yet to come.  I kept asking myself, would my stamina hold? I was cautiously optimistic.    

Half-way through the race (mid-loop 3, mile ~27)

Loop 3 is where things changed.  I still hadn't really passed anyone, so just assumed I was still in ~6 place.  It was really hard to tell though as many of the faster 50k, 20m, and 10m runners had passed me, and more-than-likely some 50 milers had dropped out or dropped down.  I had no real way to know, and honestly didn't care to ask.  So plugged along.  It was somewhere in the middle of loop 3, probably about the half-way point of the race, that I re-affirmed that I wanted to finish all 5 loops under 2 hours if I could.  I decided to aim for about a 1:50 on loop 3 and then a 1:55 on 4, and right at 2:00 on 5.  Somewhere during the last mile of loop 3, I finally dropped Scott.  I'm not sure what happened to him, I just know at one point near mile 29 I turned around and he was gone.  I found out later that he stopped after his third loop. I finished loop 3 in 1:48, so was exactly on the schedule I was hoping for, but with 20 miles remaining.  I trusted in my training, and went out on loop 4 running non-stop for the first 4 miles.

By the time I made it to the midpoint of loop 4, I was familiar enough with the course and my times, to be able to extrapolate loop finish times quite accurately.  I had estimated a 1:50-1:55 finish time for loop 4.   When I got the the 37-mile aid station, I finally asked the volunteers how many 50-milers were ahead of me.  For the previous 2 hours or so, the course seemed incredibly empty.  Most of the shorter-distance runners were now done, and I felt completely along on the course.  They informed me that just one other runner was ahead of me (Jonathan).  What?  Really?  I was in a close 2nd place? And...he was only 10 minutes ahead of me to boot!

I made the decision not to chase Jonathan down though, but simply to keep doing what I was doing, and if I caught him great, if not...well then no worries.  I just had to hope that maybe he went out too hard and would be fading a bit.  I left the station with the mission of just finishing my penultimate lap in under 2 hours and saving whatever I had left for a strong final loop.  I crossed the timing mat in 1:52 (right on schedule) just as I was coming up on the first place runner.  I had caught him.  Now....what to do.

Loop 5 was a stress-filled, yet exhilarating ride.  As I left to start the loop, I noticed Jonathan sitting down.  This was my chance to go for it.  I thought if I can get out quickly, perhaps I can build a large enough gap, where he won't know how far ahead I am and give up on me.  I was forgetting that the loop was still 10 miles.  That's a long way to run hard after 40.  Still, I went for it.  I left the station quickly and run the first 1.5 miles at 9 minute/mile pace.  I figured there's no way he would keep up with me.  I was wrong.

He did, and he did well.  No matter how hard I ran, every time I stopped to take a walk break or catch my breath, I'd see his pink shirt come around the corner just a few hundred yards behind me. It was thrilling...but man was it an anxiety rollercoaster.  I managed to play the accordion game with him for the first 7 miles (blowing completely through the 4-mile aid station).  I'd gain a little on him, and then he'd come right back.  At one point he was probably only 10 seconds behind me.  

As I came into the 47-mile aid station, I was honestly unsure if I'd be able to hold him off any longer. He was still holding my tail, and even gaining a bit.  By the time I filled my water bottle he was just coming into the station.  Had he not stopped for water, he would have actually passed me there.  I remember vividly filling my bottle and watching him come in out of the corner of my eye thinking, "crap!...I'm gonna lose it".  Turns out, the photographer snapped a picture at that exact moment.

Looking over my shoulder while getting water as the 2nd place
runner coming in just 20 seconds behind me.  The victory would
not be coming easy.

The last 3 miles were exhausting.  Thankfully the 1.5 miles after the station are very runnable, so I did my best to maintain about 9 min/miles over this stretch.  I though I must have built even a small cushion on him...but nope.  There he was, persistent as ever.  I figured if I could just get around the waterfalls, then we'd both be walking the final hill up towards the finish line and I'd probably be able to hold him off.  I made it to the climb and he trailed about 15 seconds behind me.  When I got the top of the climb, there's still about 0.2 miles to the finish of flat runnable course.  I had to stop and walk for a few seconds because I was simply so exhausted.  I looked over my should and saw he was about 30 seconds behind me, with about 0.2 to go.  I knew, pending some disaster, if I could just limp/jog my way in, that I'd get the victory.  I jogged across the timing mat, and Jonathan came in looking much better than me, just a short 25 seconds later.  He made me earn it...that's for sure.  My closest finish for a top-3 finish ever.  It was incredible....and oh so thrilling.  There's no doubt that I finished faster, because of the chase.  My final time was 8:49:29.  Definitely not a course record or a PR, but pretty darn fast for me considering the course (and good enough for the win!).  My 2nd fastest trail 50 to date (by only 6 minutes).  My fifth lap time was 1:53, so in total, all five of my laps fell exactly within my planned timing window (1:36, 1:41, 1:48, 1:52, 1:53).  I was absolutely thrilled with this outcome, and was really only sore for one day after. 

Again, Rick and Jennifer have managed to put on another spectacular event, at a great venue.  Instead of an award or metal, my victory prize was a huge discount on the 3 Days at the Fair registration.  So, it looks like I'll be heading back to NJ in May to go for that elusive 250 again.