2013 The North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain 50-Miler

Overall Time: 13:12:47
Pace: 15:50
Place: 188 of 240
AG% : N/A

Weather: 45 – 75 degrees, sunny
Start Time: 5:00am

For the spring of 2013, I had two big events on my “A” list: the Boston Marathon and the Bear Mountain 50-Miler. For a number of reasons, both these races have already become very important lessons to me.

The Bear Mountain course is notoriously hard. The overall elevation gain / loss isn’t that spectacular, but the rocky trails are famous for a huge amount of DNFs. While a 14-hour cutoff time limit sounds fairly standard, in reality almost 40% of starters do not finish. My goal was in the 9:30 range. Having run an 8:35 at Lookout in December, I figured that with the more technical nature of Bear Mountain I should expect to add approximately an hour onto my time from Lookout, which has a bit more elevation gain but is less technical.

Like any good ultra, I started off my race fairly conservatively. I made sure not to push the pace in the first half and to monitor my breathing on the uphills. Starting in the dark at 5:00am, I found myself looking forward to the rising sun so that I could enjoy the scenery around me. I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day already; with the sun threatening to come out you could see how clear the sky was.

The first aid station was at mile 3.9, which allowed me to ditch my head lamp. The course up to this was point was moderately rocky with some rolling hills, but nothing too challenging. It was a good warmup for the upcoming difficult stretches. At this point no one actually stops at the aid station for anything more than maybe some liquid. With the cool temperatures and an aid station only 5 miles away, I didn’t even bother with that. I kept running and was greeted with slightly more difficult terrain leading to the aid station at mile 8.6, but still at this point everything was very manageable.

I knew that the worst stretch of miles lay between 13 and 21, and that I shouldn’t freak out if I found myself miserable during that portion while not even being halfway through the course. I had heard that there were lots of rocks, and some rock climbing in these miles. Everyone’s time would suffer accordingly, and I wanted to reserve a lot of energy to pick up my pace for the second half.

Those miles were described fairly accurately; some sections were completely un-runnable, and felt more like rock climbing (both up and down) and hiking. When I heard the course was rocky, I thought sharp, mouse-sized jagged rocks; I didn’t think of stone basketballs that I’d be navigating for hours, hoping and praying for runnable ground even if that meant the chance to fall on roots and slugging through mud.

I was lucky enough to be in the middle of a tight little pack of decent runners through these tricky miles and this helped me focus on moving forward and not the misery surrounding me. Unfortunately, at each aid station I kept losing all the running packs that I had been pacing with. They’d all stop for a few minutes per aid station, while I would blaze straight through after filling my handheld and scooping up a handful of salty potatoes to eat on the trail. I never stop for more than the time it takes to fill up my handheld bottle and grab some food to eat while running. With 9 aid stations, if I take even just 3 minutes rest per station then that’s almost a half hour in total time I’ve added to the course.

bear-mountain-50-course1
Alone, somewhere in the first 13 miles when I still had the arm-warmers on. The rocks in the background will give you a good idea of some of the terrain.

I got to the Mile 27 aid station in pretty good form; I had been passing quite a few people after the tough miles leading into mile 20, and my conservative start was beginning to pay off. There were Front Runner volunteers who were waiting for a friend of theirs to come through and pace with, and seeing some recognizable friendly faces was welcome pick-me-up. Even better, starting at mile 27 the course got very runnable. I logged some pretty fast miles here and put some big distance in between me and whoeverthefuck was on my tail. At mile 30 I decided to turn on my Garmin to monitor the last 20 miles of the race, but I failed to get signal despite having stopped for almost two minutes to pick up satellite (really, what’s 2 minutes in a 9+ hour race?). I don’t know why, but this really irritated me.

Shortly after getting my Garmin to finally work, I twisted my ankle pretty hard. It hurt. I could tell it wasn’t anything that would result in real injury (thank God), but it was irritating. The bottoms of my feet were starting to hurt. I had already fallen three times by then. The course had become more runnable, but it was still a technical nightmare – every footstep was a concentrated effort, and even then I wasn’t immune to twisted ankles and bruised feet. It was mentally exhausting. And then I realized I didn’t want to be racing this anymore. The course was so rocky that I could only afford to pay attention to the ground immediately in front of me, which meant that following the marked course was hard since it was the trees (eye level or higher) that had the markers. Oh, what I would have given for a course that had little flags in the ground instead! I was starting to not care anymore. I wasn’t enjoying myself. My pace slipped.

I no longer cared about my time goals. I didn’t care if I was out there for 10 hours or 13 hours. What’s the difference anyway? I was running completely alone after the aid station at mile 33. All I remember wondering is, “Why am I here?”

I realized I had no good answer for that. If I have to ask myself that in the middle of a race, I’ve got to reconsider being out there at all. I was no longer out there for me. At that point I just wanted to see some friendly faces and enjoy the rest of the run.

I hit the next aid station at Mile 40 and had a long and hard talk with myself (internally, of course — I didn’t want to look crazy). I still had a lot of life left in my legs, but I had lost motivation in my heart. Should I just jog the rest of the way and finish somewhere around 10.5 hours? I decided instead that I should wait on some friends who were further back in the race. One or two of them would be bringing up the rear of the course, fighting against the cutoff times the entire race. I decided that as long as my legs didn’t get too tired from sitting, I’d wait for my friends and finish the race with them.

I spent the next couple hours seeing friends come through for the marathon and the 50-miler. I met a guy named Wayne from North Brooklyn Runners who was waiting for his girlfriend Cherie. Wayne had been dealing with injuries as of late but was going to run the last 10 miles with Cherie. Thankfully, pacing someone over the last 10 miles of a 50-miler normally means not having to run too fast.  Talking with Wayne under a shaded tent, I overheard a situation under the shaded tent next to me. A guy was struggling a bit and was dehydrated. He was talking to some EMTs who looked very concerned. They were asking him if he wanted to continue and then asking *why* he wanted to continue (a silly question, honestly). He was struggling to find an answer that sounded good. It can be a little difficult to put into words the rationale behind desire and pride after 40 miles of running but quite simply he had made it too far to quit.

The guy sat down to rest for a minute. A short time goes by and he’s again talking to the EMTs. They’re advising him against continuing the race. Then I overhear him say, “I guess I should mention that I only have one kidney.”

WHATTHEFUCK!? One kidney!?

Jesus. This guy’s nuts. Perfect.

I start talking to him and find out that he hasn’t been able to piss for hours, despite feeling the urge to. When he tries, nothing comes out. He’s dangerously dehydrated and probably went out too fast in the first part of the race, so he’s hurting a lot right now. He’s afraid that when he finally does piss, it’ll come out bloody. He wouldn’t be the first.

He wants to continue, but he’s concerned for his safety. I can see in his face that he doesn’t quite know what to do.

I’ve made up my mind at this point; I’m going to try and help this guy if I can. This will give me a reason to be on the course. It will certainly mean more to me than just finishing the race alone at this point. And besides, waiting for my friend Mikey is taking too long.

“Do you want a pacer? I’m waiting on some friends but if you want someone to run with I can run with you. The next aid station is 4.4 miles away, so no matter where we are there is help no more than about 2 miles away. If you drop dead on the course I can run and get help.”

He looks me over, probably wondering if I’m crazy. I wonder if I have overstepped my bounds. I don’t want him to be offended; a stranger offering help might be a little weird and it can be hard for some people to accept help. But I think this guy had by then lost his ego miles ago. He’s talking about piss, after all. He accepts.

Before we start off together he rests for another 20 minutes to hydrate and see if his legs will wake up again. We start along the last 10 miles of the course, and I’m impressed that at this point he’s actually still running; slowly, I’ll admit — probably around a 12:00 pace — but he’s running and I just want to keep this guy vertical and moving.

The running doesn’t last long. We’re back to the rocky technical stuff as we joke about what a bitch of a course this is. His name is Matt, from Philly. He had been living in Florida training for a flat, road 50 miler until a job brought him to the northeast. He decided to continue with his 50 mile plans after hearing about Bear Mountain just a couple hours away and signed up. I can tell he’s rethinking the wisdom of his decision.

Every mile is a slog at this point. Matt is hurting on the uphills because of incredible fatigue, and on the downhills because his quads are shot. They’ve probably been gone for miles at this point, and that means that any sort of real downhill means pure pain and fear in his eyes. I’m praying for flat runnable ground, but it doesn’t come.

We make it to the aid station at mile 45. Matt’s actually in good spirits at this point, but he’s beat up physically. I point out to him that in order to finish, he simply needs to do what we just did – run about four and a half miles.  With his spirits high, he’s actually confident about finishing now.  He gets the urge to piss and excuses himself a few dozen meters for some privacy in the woods. He comes back and says his piss doesn’t have blood in it (success!). I can’t tell if he’s lying so that the medics at the aid station don’t worry, or if he’s really telling the truth. Either way, he’s lucid and wants to keep moving.

With only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, I know that we have to go over Timp Pass. Matt is still soldering on, but I just need him to get done because he’s really struggling on the rocky uphills at this point. When we his Timp Pass it’s almost with relief, knowing that after the Pass it’s smooth sailing until the finish.

We continue to chat the entire time. We talk about our running history, our races, PRs, and plans for the rest of the year. It’s exciting, getting to know someone just as crazy as me and not afraid to tackle some hard races. And it’s refreshing talking with someone new.  We don’t know each other well enough to bitch about our personal or professional lives. We don’t have a history with each other to talk about. And we don’t get caught up in petty discussions of politics.

Even with my closest friends, talking about running can involve talking about politics (of the running club we’re in). It’s a rare day that goes by when I don’t have a conversation about Front Runners, good or bad. Being alone on the trails with a stranger — though at this point, now a new friend — gives me a little bit of focus about why I run in the first place. I’m enjoying every sentence and every step at this point. It’s like I found a little part of me that I didn’t even know I had lost.

Before I know it we’re past Timp Pass. We hit the final aid station and there’s a sign telling us there are only 2.8 miles until the finish. Matt’s excited. I’m excited. The final stretch of the course is easy. Soft earth, no rocks, no big climbs, no crazy downhills. And before we know it we see a field in the distance… and then a parking lot. Spectators are telling us we have a half mile to go. And then we see the finish line.

Soon we’re running across the field with the big red finish line in the distance. Matt has the energy (the adrenaline, at this point) to still pick up his heels and we finish together. He asks what the time is, not that it matters at this point. I tell him it’s a bit over 13 hours. He had hoped for a sub-11 hour finish but that goal went out the window long ago. He’s just happy to finish a race that almost half the field drops out of.

We grab some food and a cold beer and we don’t say much. We just need hot calories and to sit down finally. I’m sort of proud of him, this guy who I have met only hours before.

This is my slowest finish time for a 50-miler (even slower than the one I did just “for fun”), but I don’t care. I lost all motivation out on the course, but I found something even more important: the value of camaraderie on the course, and remembering why I run in the first place. During those final miles Matt had kept thanking me almost every mile, but truthfully he saved me just as much as I saved him.

Soon my other friends come to sit with us and I’m told it’s time to go home. For once I’m the runner that everyone waits for to finish, but I don’t mind. In fact, I’m proud of it.

Matt and I at the finish.
Matt and I at the finish.

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