It’s hard to be objective or very credible when reviewing your first ultra race and second true trail race, so I won’t attempt to be. Instead, I hope this review provides the view of a seasoned road-racer dabbling in the trail arena, complete with misconceptions, mistakes, and milestones. It’s a long review…but, hell, it was a long race.
Thanks for reading and happy running!
After a long cross-country coaching season ending at the national championships in mid-December, I entered the new year planning to build toward an early spring marathon. With about 20-weeks off from full-time coaching duties before outdoor track season, there was plenty of time to get geared up for another attempt at a 26.2 PR. With a cautious build over the first few weeks of January, February dawned with bitter weather conditions and lots of treadmill miles. Despite Mother Nature’s unwillingness to cooperate, I was still logging solid weeks of 55-65 miles. Years ago, these would have been moderate weeks at best, but with children and age factoring into training design, I’ve found myself focusing more on density of training rather than volume (see Running Thoughts – Episode 1). With 16-weeks of solid training, consistent long runs hitting solid training paces, it was time to commit to a race!
With the exception of some high profile late-April road marathons, the northeast marathon calendar from February-May is something of a ghost town. With no attractive options to be found, it was either expand my travel or expand my plan. I’ve been considering a trail marathon/ultra for some time, and began to dabble in trail racing last summer, so when I stumbled across the English’s Ridge Rumble on April 7 and found it was located in my old stomping ground of Green Lakes State Park in Syracuse, it seemed meant-to-be. The only problem – it was a 50K race (further than I had ever run), on what I later learned to be one of the most challenging 50K courses most people will ever encounter, and it was sold-out.
Watching the organizing group’s Facebook page (Salt City Trail Running), I jumped on the opportunity when someone had to withdraw from the race and a spot became available, figuring what could go wrong? This ignorance would prove both a blessing and a curse.
Upstate New York April’s can provide every conceivable weather condition, and April 7th did not disappoint. The morning greeted racers with frozen ground and temperatures in the low 20’s. I had debated at least a dozen gear options given the wildly inconsistent forecasts, but ended up going the lightweight tights and a shell, 2XU compression socks, Adidas Ultra Boost ATR’s, Nathan Vapor Krar hydration vest, Nuun Hydration orange mango drink mix, and PacificLabs Accel Gels, with EERC trucker cap to top it all off. Despite my lacking experience in this discipline, my gear and fuel plan proved to be a strong point.
[The options aplenty]
Loop 1 – A lovely meander
With roughly 50 other 50K participants (there would be close to 100 others in 10-mile and 20-mile options) gathered around a large oak tree which would serve as the start and finish line, we received instructions regarding the 3 loop course, and with little fanfare set off on our adventure. Participants were immediately greeted by a half-mile climb up a rutted, but runnable, dirt path. This would become a common experience throughout the 10.33 mile loop as race director, and race namesake, Scott English, managed to find nearly every significant climb in the park accounting for the 1200-1400 feet of elevation gain on each loop. Anticipating this challenge and daunted by the distance, I set off with a small lead group at a conversational pace ranging from 8:00-8:30/mile (I would later learn that perceived effort shifts wildly over four hours of climbing and descending!).
[Final climb of loop 1 – all smiles]
After roughly 3 miles, our group had become a trio and we settled into a comfortable routine helping to guide each other through the well-marked but unrelentingly challenging terrain. A roughly two mile section of rolling grass trails, aptly called the Serengeti, provided the only mid-course respite from the incessant climbing before heading off to a final set of two challenging hill climbs of winding wood-chipped trail and gravel respectively. I crossed the start/finish line feeling great having averaged 8:01/mile for loop one and set off on loop two, this time alone.
Loop 2 – Whoops…rookie!
Having moved into the lead of the race while others stopped briefly at the start/finish aid station, I began loop two alone but feeling great. By this point, the sun had come out and began to soften some of the frozen tundra that had covered loop one. This slightly softer footing immediately began to take its toll on my efficiency and energy, and by the time I was finishing the second hill climb of loop two, a steep gravel climb to the on-course aid station at mile 13, I was feeling the effort of the first loop, but still generally feeling strong and confident. Racing down to the only turnaround point on the course, I was able to gauge my slim lead on the second and third place runners, and estimated about a 4:00-5:00 gap. Bolstered by this, I made the first of what would be several rookie mistakes and pressed the pace running 7:28, 7:58, 7:21, 7:12, 8:40, 7:26 over the rest of loop two, and came through the start/finish alone and moving quickly after averaging just under 8:00/mile for loop two, only to immediately pay for this foolhardy ambition on the first hill climb of loop three.
Loop 3 – Ignorance is most definitely NOT bliss!
Sunshine had turned the first climb of the race into an oil-slick of mud and loose, wet stones. With legs beginning to resist their commandments, I scrambled up the first climb crossing the 21-mile mark and cast my first look back down the hill for what I felt certain would be veteran footsteps clawing me back. At the summit of climb two, the first distress signals began to register as I glanced down at my watch to see the last three miles 8:53, 8:55, 8:37…UH OH! The smooth 7:20’s of loop two were now turning my quads and hamstrings into knots and approaching the mid-course aid station for a third time, I was reduced to speed-hiking for the first time, a moment that would shift the course of my race for the next 8 miles. Hoping a quick respite, some fuel, and some positive self-talk would rejuvenate my legs and effort, I made my way past the turnaround and approached the Serengeti for the last time. Emerging into the opening, I was greeted by fierce cross winds, a pop-up snowstorm, and my wheels falling completely off!
[3D course elevation profile]
The close to 3400’ of elevation gained over the prior 26 miles, my hasty road racing push through loop two, and the uncharted territory of miles beyond 26.2 welcomed me with 11:55 and 15:06 miles made up largely of walking and self-loathing. At this point, winning was no longer the internal conversation, as questions of simply finishing and surviving became the resounding mental narrative. I have run several road marathons in the past where one undoubtedly experiences “bad patches” that must be pushed through, but never had these come after more than 3 hours of running. Despite only 5 miles remaining, I was seriously considering how long walking the remainder would take me and how I would justify the disappointment to myself. As, my steps plodded slowly on, I attempted several times to motivate my legs to turn over into a slow trot. Each time, they rolled on for 100 or 200 meters before the gears ground to a halt. Depressed and dejected, I trudged on through the first half of the Serengeti before a miraculous switch flipped. On a gradual downslope, I rolled from walk into jog and it stuck. The gears began to spin a bit more freely. The jog turned into a trot, and passing by the aid station heading for the final few miles of the race, I enjoyed a genuine second-wind. Unlike my experiences in road racing, this was the furthest into the depths of despair I had ever travelled and then emerged on the other side. There was no magical gust of wind that thrust me forward, there was no specific mental talk that shifted my pace and perception. There was nothing significant about this attempt to roll back into a reasonable pace that distinguished it from the failed attempts of the past two miles, but it stuck, and for the next two miles the pace would drop back to roughly 8:00/mile and I thought, I’m back!
I was wrong! My second wind was less of a steady breeze and more of a momentary gust. The final two climbs of loop three would prove to be my undoing. With less than a mile to go in the race, the seasoned-veterans who had so methodically attacked this unrelenting course saw the wounded rookie and pounced. What was at its height roughly a 10:00-12:00 lead had evaporated after averaging close to 11:00/mi over the final loop. Able to fend off all but one of the oncoming mob, I finished as the first-place male in 4:34:25.
[After recovering, with trophy and race director, Scott English]
Final Thoughts – Sign me up again!
Despite the depths of despair experienced over the 31+ miles of the English’s Ridge Rumble, the experience cemented my intent to continue my journey into the trail/ultra world. I will carry with me a hard-earned appreciation for the discipline required to execute a race of these distances properly, and a chip on my shoulder of unfinished business!
The race itself was an absolute first-class event, so thank you Salt City Trail Running. If you’re looking for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon world of shiny finisher medals, obnoxious on-course bands, thousands of finishers in tutus, and all the other flash and pizazz that now accompanies races charging hundreds of dollars for entry, this isn’t your cup of tea. If you are looking for a tremendous personal challenge, amazingly supportive community of “competitors”, and overall soul uplifting experience, this seems like the place to be.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still intend to lace up the racing flats and attack the roads with aggressive abandon. But, I don’t think these worlds need to be mutually exclusive. You don’t need to buy spandex and singlets to hit the roads anymore than you need to don Birkenstocks and a hemp necklace to take on the trails. More than anything, my experience in my first 50K reminds me that there are as many reasons for running as there are miles to run, and each provides something that nourishes who we are and why we do this. So whether it is on the roads, in the trails, for one mile or one-hundred, I hope your experiences are as humbling, enriching, and enlightening and my experience at the English’s Ridge Rumble 50K.