2014 North Face Endurance Challenge : Bear Mountain 50 Miler

Twelve days after a torturous Boston Marathon, I found myself waking up at 2:15 AM to depart for Bear Mountain for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler. That’s sort of a mouthful of a name, so I’m just going to refer to the race as the Bear Mountain 50 (or BM50). With a 1-hour commute and a 5 AM start time, half the battle is waking up on time and getting to the start.

This year 4 others were silly enough to sign up with me for the BM50: Daniel G, Dominic D, Kurt S, and Luc B. This was Daniel’s 4th consecutive running of the event, despite having sworn last year never to do it again. But like any good ultra runner, the pain of the race fade away and quickly he’s on the hunt for a new challenge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my legs for this race. It was long enough after Boston that my legs weren’t sore but I still wasn’t sure how much I’d have in the tank for the last 15 miles of this race. I always feel “fine” but this isn’t the sort of race you can just wing. Additionally my mother had fallen ill two months prior to this race, and was still in the hospital unable to walk or support herself. With constant phone calls between my father and me, I had more on my mind than running around in the woods.

Starting in the dark at 5 AM, I took the first few miles super easy. There was plenty of race ahead of me and I just wanted to get the heart moving and the legs warmed up. As it turned out, my legs weren’t as fresh as I thought. I could tell early within the first 10 miles that it was going to be a very long day. They didn’t have any strength in them, but at least they weren’t sore. They were just tired. The initial goal was to start conservative (mission accomplished) and then to start picking up the pace around mile 21 and maintain a steady push to the end.

I soon found out that my easy starting pace would become my “picking it up” pace the rest of the day. I don’t know if I just didn’t have the fire in me to keep pushing or if my legs had a deep fatigue from a long training cycle that I couldn’t shake, but I wasn’t going to try and force anything that would result in a DNF. I accepted the reality and forged on.

The course this year was visited by a few inches of rain during the week leading up to the race. Mud of course was everywhere. Streams became rivers and uneven paths became long trenches of puddles and mud. Rocks became great opportunities to slip, and anyone who knows Bear Mountain knows it’s nothing but rocks: big rocks, little rocks, sharp rocks, rocks for climbing up, rocks for climbing down. In the first few miles people did their best to avoid the muddy trails and water puddles. They kept to the high side of the trail and tip-toed around as much as they could. But it was inevitable — feet would become wet. Within a couple hours most people had stopped dancing around the water and just plowed straight through. This was a trail race after all.

Things got tougher around mile 13, when a mysterious left hip pain appeared along with an old ankle injury on my right foot. Fan-fucking-tastic. It got pretty bad; bad enough that I’d inadvertently wince and hold my breath, which of course is not the most productive thing to do when trying to run. A fellow runner even asked if I was alright as he passed me by. Mind you I was still running and at the time I was surprised and dumbfounded (insulted, even) as to why he asked if I was OK, but later I realized I probably looked like a lame horse — bum right ankle, painful left hip, visinbly wincing and perhaps even audibly gasping.

With more than 35 miles left to go, thoughts of dropping from the race were going through my head. I told myself I could just drop at the aid station at mile 19 before the really difficult sections of the course started. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it to the finish. Every step hurt both sides of my body. And that’s when I started thinking about my mother.

When I had spoken to my father a few days before the race, it had been approaching 60 days that my mom was still in the intensive care unit of St. Joseph’s Hostpital recovering from a major surgery to remove a very aggressive cancer. She wasn’t able to stand up, sit up, or walk on her own. Her biggest accomplishment every day was having nurses assist her out of the bed to sit in a chair nearby for a half hour or more. While my mom could have chosen to just lie in bed and receive pain killers, she opted against that and tried to do as much as she could. Walking thirty feet down the hall may have taken over an hour, but that was only more reason to do it. If she could summon the mental and physical strength to will her body that had been torn apart, then I could finish this race. I could never look at myself again if I dropped from this race just because it was hard or just because I hurt. I chose to be in this race. I wasn’t going to dishonor my mother by choosing to fail. I wiped those thoughts of stopping from my mind.

The remainder of the race can be summarized in a single word: pain. My right ankle made it difficult to descend quickly, and my left hip made it difficult to climb. All time goals went out the window and I just went into survival mode. Initially I was gunning for a finish time of around 9 hrs 30 min, but now I was just trying to get to the finish in one piece. Whether it would be 10 or 12 or even 14 hours, I was going to finish this.

I reached the aid station at mile 24 and already I was seeing lots of people struggling. By mile 28 some runners began picking up their pacers, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Pacers became handlers and motivators as exhausted runners wanted to stop.

The stretch of road from 28 leading up to 33 were fairly runnable. At least a mile or two were on road, albeit straight uphill. I began catching a lot of people here; people who had started off too fast (all too common even in 50 milers) and were reduced to a walk with 20 miles left to go. I continued my run — really, more a shuffle — and gained momentum as I passed each runner.

Around mile 38 I heard my name called from behind. It was my friend Kurt! He had caught up to me and was making good time in his first 50 miler. We exchanged pleasantries and continued to the mile 40 aid station together. He had “lost his brakes” and couldn’t control himself from flying downhill, which is how he ended up passing a lot of people. He had a “no running” policy on all uphills, so as we exited the mile 40 aid station up a very gentle incline he refused to follow me running. The section began on paved road and for once continued on a relatively runnable trail. Despite the incline I wasn’t going to walk this and so mentally I said “good bye” to Kurt figuring that he’d catch me later on the downhills.

I glanced at my watch and did some mental calculations. I had to maintain a fairly decent 12-minute pace for the last 10 miles to come in under 11 hours for the race. While this was much slower than my original goal, it became something to motivate me. With Timp Pass around mile 46, I knew that there would be some real slow paths ahead. I’d have to fight for every second.

Power hiking my way as fast as I could up Timp Pass, I managed to get to the mile 47 aid station at 3:34. I had 26 minutes to go three miles. This would be just under a 9:00 pace, but I knew that the final stretch was fast and I was going to do anything to get under 10 hours. So I ran. I didn’t even stop at the aid station; I yelled my number out and started flying down the smooth, flat trail. Oh, what a feeling it was to finally run on something other than rocks! I didn’t care about how much my body was protesting, yelling at me in pain. My pace quickened and I flew past other runners. The course was now shared with those doing the 50K distance and the marathon, so I was catching the back of those packs. I was a man out of control.

My watch’s GPS connection had been lost around mile 21, so although I knew my overall time I had lost track of distance long ago. Each aid station mile marker was clearly labeled, but in the last three miles I was cutting a sub-11 hour finish so close that I wanted to know exactly how far I had to go so that I would know if I had to pick up the pace or not. I felt like a rabid dog, running without knowing where I’m going or how far the finish line was exactly.

Then things started to look familiar again. The final half mile of the race is the same as the first half mile. I realized I would make it to my sub-11 finish!

On the final descent to the finish area, a local area hiker spotted me from 50 meters away. She was barefoot to protect her shoes from the mud, gently making her way through the muddy and wet path. Her friends were taunting her, yelling at her to pick it up and not worry about getting dirty. I saw the fear in her eyes as I approaced running at full speed. She yelled out, “please don’t splash me!” Sorry honey, I had a race to finish. Mud and water be damned, I kept pace and flew stright by her.

I crossed the line in 10:55. I had run the final 3 miles in just under 21 minutes, averaging under 7 minutes per mile after 47 miles of running.

A 10:55 finish any other race would be massively disappointing for me. But this race became about something other than time. Sometimes people ask (and I wonder) why I run, especially the long distances. I don’t always know, except that it is what I do. But today when I didn’t want to run, I was running for my mom who could not. For the two months prior to the race, I would write a letter to my mother almost every day. I’d tell her about my day, or my exciting weekend adventures, or what was coming up next. I wasn’t about to pen a letter telling her that I had dropped from this race.

My mother ended up passing away less than two weeks after this race. While it was not unexpected, I was not prepared for it. It was her strength that allowed me to finish this race, and because of that I can take pride when I look back at my experience.

If there’s one thing I learned, it is that choosing to stop — when I still have the option not to — is not something I’m about to do. Pain be damned, I was not about to feel sorry for myself and call it a day simply because things weren’t going my way. My mom had survived two episodes of cancer and 18 years on dialysis without ever giving up. Her third and final battle with cancer got the best of her, but that didn’t keep her from trying until the end. If I can ever be half the person she was, I won’t ever be throwing in the towel either.

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