Friday, May 8, 2015

First Annual New Paltz Pizza Challenge

Logo courtesy of Vinny Sickles

"This is the first time I'd rather be running than eating pizza."
--Chris Regan, co-founder of Team Pizza Racers, while eating slice #6

As most running/eating stories begin, this one starts in college.  At Cornell, we had six "all-you-can-eat", buffet-style dining halls, spread out across the 750-acre campus.  Our meal plan would allow you to visit as many of these dining halls, as many times as you wanted, within each specified meal period (generally a 2-3 hour window).  Naturally, it didn't take long for the cross-country team to decide that a race between the six dining halls, consuming a meal at each, was a great idea.  The 2.5-mile Dining Hall Classic started in 1991 (predating the famous Krispy Kreme Challenge by over a dozen years) and was won by this idiot.  The race was held every December, following the end of XC season, until 2002, when one of the greatest ultra runners in the world ended his three-year winning streak--and the race itself--by reportedly running through a glass door.
Gathering at the start.
Photo: Jodi Friedman
I ran the DHC one time, my senior year, placing an unimpressive 11th, and I have no particular affinity or aptitude for such events (as anyone who has followed my beer mile career well knows).  But upon moving to New Paltz in 2004, I was struck by the density of pizza shops in our small town.  Our quiet little hamlet, barely a mile in length, with a population of less than 7000 people, housed no less than eight pizzerias (no doubt supported mostly by the 6000 or so full time students at SUNY New Paltz). My love for pizza knows no bounds.  Slowly an idea began to percolate--a brilliant, stupid idea.  A one-mile race through town incorporating a slice at each pizza shop.

Mike Selig, food-racing visionary.
Photo: Tara Siudy
This brilliant idea lay dormant for several years.  I envisioned an official race, necessitating closure of Main Street, a near-impossible task, and so the event did not seem possible.  But in 2013 I mentioned it to Mike Selig, a former college teammate who had just moved to the area.  Aside from being a top-flight mountain runner, Mike has some experience organizing food races.  He had hosted a fast-food challenge in Boulder and was the originator of the Mighty Mile in Buffalo (think beer mile, but with tacos), which in its sixth year was drawing 40-60 runners annually.  He encouraged me to follow my "dream" in a, shall we say, less conspicuous capacity.  And so the New Paltz Pizza Challenge was born.

For our first event, I wanted to keep it small.  I didn't want any issues with holding up traffic, upsetting the NIMBY-leaning element of our town; I also didn't want to make any of the pizzerias feel as though we would harm their business on a busy spring Friday evening.  I reasoned, we'd put it on once, small-scale, and show everyone that it was not only possible, but low-impact and fun.  Not wanting to call undue attention--or have someone give me a flat-out "no"--I notified only the pizza places where I knew the owners.  I did no publicity.  The field was invitation-only and capped at 16 people.  (For ease of ordering.  Two pies, get it?)

Dylan and her first-grade teacher, Matt Elkin
Photo: Jodi Friedman
Unfortunately about a month before the race, one of the longtime pizza shops in town closed their doors, so we were down to seven slices, but that was OK.  I assembled the field and stationed volunteers at each "aid station," whose job it was to order the pizza, make sure it was ready for the runners, and serve as the referees, enforcing the rules at each stop (no running indoors, no vomiting indoors, must finish each slice completely before leaving, etc.).  I came up with a 5K+ loop to emphasize the running aspect a bit more, and established a menu.  And on Friday evening, May 1st, we gathered behind the Water Street Market and took off.

I started off fast, leading Selig and Brian Oestrike by just a couple of seconds through the first half mile down the rail trail to Village Pizza, where we settled in for a cheese slice.  I'm not much for eating fast, but did I mention I really, really like pizza?  Plus, since I've become a bit wedded to the LCHF thing, my pizza consumption has dropped precipitously.  I scarfed down my first slice in over a month like a ravenous hyena, leaving in second place, about 30 seconds behind Brian.
The leaders at AS1: Oestrike, Selig, yours truly
Photo: Tara Siudy

The stretch from AS1 to AS2 is the longest uninterrupted running segment on the course, about 1.25 miles of mostly steady uphill running.  It took me about a mile, but I caught up with Brian about two minutes before we reached Rocco's Pizzeria, where we attacked a cheese-less slice of Grandma's pizza.  I was feeling good, both running and eating well.  I left in second again, only about 5-10 seconds back this time, with Selig, Mike Halstead, Brian Hickey, and Mike Siudy all eating vigorously, less than a minute behind.

Chris Regan, founder of Team Pizza
Racers, ran the whole race in costume.
Photo: Tara Siudy
The next two stops--Pasquale's and Rino's--are just across the street from Rocco's, making for three slices in less than 200 meters.  I started to find my rhythm.  Pasquale's was a half-slice, pepperoni for me, jalapeƱos for the vegetarians; Brian maintained a slight lead, but we dashed across the parking lot into Rino's and sat down basically together for slice #4: a Caprese slice, stacked with chunks of tomatoes and mozzarella.  The eating was starting to get a little slower now, but Rino's Caprese is one of my favorite slices in town, and I was simply loving life.  I crammed the last of the tomato in my mouth and left AS4 a few seconds in the lead.

Brian caught up on the half-mile stretch to La Bella, where we entered together for slice #5; a half-slice of cheese for me and eggplant for Brian.  (I felt the need to handicap the vegetarians a little bit, given, what was coming on the last two slices.) Once again, we left within seconds of each other and ran the next downhill half-mile together.  Two slices remained, only half a block apart.

Hickey struggling at Gourmet.
Photo: Courtney McDermott
Gourmet Pizza was where the wheels started to come off, fortunately not just for me but for everyone else.  To this point we had run about 2.9 of the 3.3 miles, and just about everyone reported reaching this point feeling good, but the menu was about to take a turn for the disgusting.  I ordered up a cheeseburger pizza for the carnivores--ground beef, mozzarella, cheddar, mayo--and a broccoli-wheat pizza for the veggies. The slices were enormous, and with four full slices already on board, it was getting hard to choke down more.  For the first time, I was worried I might vomit.  But we had slowed the eating pace enough that I was able to recover a bit and got out in first place while Brian still had several bites left--my first real gap.  Only Halstead and Hickey had arrived by the time I left, so I knew my lead on the rest of the field was widening as I jogged the few feet down to Jordan's, the final stop.

Jodi and the girls were part of the volunteer team at Jordan's, and the girls surrounded me giddily as I settled into my chair with slice #7.  "Did you puke?  Who puked?  Did anyone puke?"  After about three minutes of listening to this, I finally blurted out, "Nobody say the word puke again!," which mercifully shut them up.

At Jordan's.  Nobody is happy.
Photo: Jodi Friedman
The final slice is one of my all-time favorites--Jordan's "CBR," shorthand for "chicken, bacon, and ranch."  I knew it would be murder at this point though, and it was.  I tried to be as methodical as possible.  I felt as though my lead was slipping away, but a couple of minutes passed before anyone else made their way in; by the time Oestrike and Halstead arrived together, I was halfway through the gigantic slice, and knew that neither of them would be making up too much time on this monster.  (Brian, one of the vegetarians, had no real advantage with his assigned pesto-peppers-onions combination.)  I staggered out the door several minutes later, as Hickey and Selig both arrived, but everyone looked about as bad as I felt.

I had spent the majority of the race running very well, despite having run a solid track workout the night before, but the final few hundred meters to the finish was a death march designed to move me forward at the fastest rate I could tolerate without vomiting.  My legs still felt fine, though, and I had enough of a lead to relax through the finish in 33:39, the inaugural NPPC champion.

Yay, I guess.
Photo: Tara Siudy
Sprint finish for second.
Photo: Tara Siudy
The race seemed to be a success.  The volunteers were awesome and logistically everything went off without a hitch.  Everyone complained incessantly about the final two slices, which is how I know I got the menu right.  And several of the pizzerias were enthusiastic about the idea once they saw it in action.  There's already talk of an Ithaca Pizza Challenge possibly on tap for later this year.  We'll tweak things a bit for 2016, and hopefully open the race up to the general public.  In five years we'll be Krispy Kreme big.  (Probably not.  But a guy can dream.  About pizza.)

In the pain cave.
Photo: Tara Siudy
1. Jason Friedman 33:39
2. Brian Oestrike 38:40
3. Michael Halstead 38:42
4. Mike Siudy 43:40
5. Mike Selig 43:53
6. Myron Baker 45:50
7. Mike Bakker 47:19
8. Phil Vondra 48:17
9. Vinny Sickles 49:32
10. Christopher Regan 54:30
Brian Hickey 43:09 (did not finish slice #7)
Natalie Thompson 48:16 (skipped a few slices)
Scott Field 1:04:01 (did not finish slice #7)
Greg Cecere 1:16:21 (did not finish slice #7)
Matt Elkin 1:16:21 (did not finish slice #7)