Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Race report: Rock the Ridge

Happy at the finish
📷: Stephen Stewart-Hill

Crap, no posts since February?  What the hell.

I wish I had some great excuse, but I don't.  Not much has happened on the running front, at least from a personal standpoint, since Rocky Raccoon.  I've been building up the coaching service a little bit, and spending devoting a little more of my mental energy towards working with my athletes; I've continued to spend time trying to develop the exercise science project I've been working on for the past year; and much of the leftover bandwidth I'd usually devote to the blog has instead been focused on the podcast.  But you'd think I could find a few minutes for an update in there somewhere.  I guess not.

Recovery from RR100 went...OK, I suppose.  I continue to have difficulty bouncing back quickly from big efforts.  This is in part because I do tend to let myself go a bit after a buildup to a goal race.  I took two weeks completely off, which I think is fine, but I also took three or four weeks off my diet, which would probably be fine if I ate like a reasonable person during that time.  But I don't--I just shovel in as much crap as I can.  At that point, trying to ease back into training carrying an extra ten pounds is just prolonging the agony a bit.  Then I have to suffer through my usual three week adjustment period to being back off the carbs, and suddenly, it's almost April.

As I started thinking about the spring season and how it would lead into the summer and fall, I wasn't sure exactly where the focus would be.  I had planned on a return to the Cayuga Trails 50 mile, which I've run four or five times now and is a race I absolutely love.  But family commitments that weekend made a trip to Ithaca impossible.  When a spot opened up in the Rock the Ridge Endurance Challenge, through one of the race sponsors (Health Quest Sports Cardiology, which manages my exercise testing program, at least for now), I was happy to take another crack at my hometown ultra.

I ran the first edition of RTR, in 2013.  The race has grown into the largest annual fundraiser for the Mohonk Preserve, a private, non-profit land trust that maintains over 7000 acres of open space in the Shawangunks.  Over the first five years, the race was a jointly-managed event between a pair of local RDs and the Preserve.  The Preserve decided to take over full responsibility for the race in 2018, and I joined the race committee assisting the new RDs, Jon Stern and Mark Eisenhandler.  We had some growing pains last year, as a bunch of folks who were veterans at race organization but new to the ultra scene tried to wrap their heads around what our stupid sport is actually about.  But for 2019 I felt like the committee did a better job at bridging the divide between "fundraiser" and "ultramarathon," and despite the largest field in the race's history--about 400 starters, plus another 50 or so relay teams--the event went off more or less without a hitch.

Given my sluggish return to training, my goals for the race were somewhat meager.  I had run some OK workouts in the buildup, but consistency had been lacking, and I had only a few longer efforts of 20+ miles behind me.  I was certainly a little undertrained.  One week before the race, I ran a fun tuneup at the Red Wings After Hours 8K, a nighttime trail race in Wappingers Falls, about twenty miles from home.  I had run the inaugural After Hours race last year, taking the lead from the gun and opening up a substantial lead before missing a questionably-marked turn in the dark and adding on nearly two miles out-and-back before I found the course again and battled back to finish eighth.  This time I surrendered the lead shortly before the mile mark but ran a solid race, closing to within 15 seconds of the lead or so with a mile to go and running 40:40 on a dark, hilly course.  I wasn't quite sure how that would translate to a runnable 50-mile effort a week later, especially with my relative lack of longer efforts, but I thought seven hours was a reasonable goal if everything went well.  I resolved to run the first half of the race as easy as possible while keeping the pace under 9:00/mile.  Most of the climbing at RTR takes place in the first 50K, culminating at the highest point on the course, Castle Point, just past the 30-mile mark.  I set a goal of 4:30 for the first 50K, hoping that would give me chance to finish strong over the mostly downhill and flat final 20 miles.  I knew seven hours would be somewhere near the front--despite being one of the largest 50-mile races in the country, RTR is not known for particularly deep fields, as it caters specifically to mid- and rear-pack runners.  But I wasn't going to commit to racing for the win.  Ben Nephew, a three-time winner of the race, would not be racing, but young speedster Etan Levavi, who had come from way behind to upset Ben last year in a sprint finish, was back to defend his title, and I figured he'd be the favorite.  I just wanted to have a good, long effort, get as close to seven hours as I could manage, and we'd see where that landed me.

Passing time in the early stages
📷: Kate Schoonmaker
After a flat opening mile, the race climbs about 900' over the next three miles, and I ran as easily as possible, trailing a couple of relay runners but among the leaders, cresting the hill, just about four miles in 36:05.  This was almost 5 minutes slower than I had been at the same point with Ben in 2013, when I crashed over the last 15 miles and struggled to a 7:29 finish.  It was a bit alarming to be so much slower, but it was very, very early, and I focused on keeping the pace as slow and easy as possible.  Over the next several miles I was passed by a slew of runners, including Etan, who opened up a small but substantial lead.  Don't panic, I repeated, we're not racing for a while yet.  Just make steady progress.  I came through the Spring Farm aid station, at 9.6 miles, in a relaxed 1:25:22, a little less than a minute back, in seventh overall, and began the long slog up to Skytop Tower.  The course climbs over 800 feet in the next 5+ miles, and I continued to focus on a relaxed effort, not worrying about place as I yo-yo'd between third and eighth.  I hit the 15 mile mark, right below the tower, in 2:07, over seven minutes slower than 2013 but feeling much more relaxed, running in fourth place. 

Trapps Bridge
📷: Maryalice Citera
Those of us from second through fifth continued to alternate places through Trapps Bridge at 22 miles, with Etan still about a minute in front.  I was clearly the strongest climber of the bunch, though I was, as usual, surrendering plenty of time on the downhills.  On the flat couple of miles from Trapps Bridge, I started feeling very strong, and allowed the pace to pick up just a little bit, careful to keep the effort in check.  Even that little bit allowed me to roll quickly up on second and third place, and I led our little chase group as we started climbing up to the main aid station at Lyons Road.  As we approached Lyons, Etan started to come back to us, and I reached the aid station timing mat in 3:24:40, 44 seconds behind Etan, who had run the nearly 15-mile split from Spring Farm to Lyons two seconds faster than I had.  I stopped only to fill my bottle and headed straight out, now leading, as Etan grabbed some aid from his drop bag.  He caught up with a minute or so, and after briefly acknowledging each other, I turned on my mp3 player for the first time as we started to climb up to Awosting Falls.

I generally view the next five miles, from 25 miles the top of Castle Point, as the crux of the race.  The course climbs over 1000 feet, much of it exposed to the sun, over that five mile stretch, the majority at a runnable grade.  I knew from the first half of the race that I was the stronger climber and the weaker descender.  My pacing to this point had been ideal--at just about 3:25 for 24.6 miles, I was almost exactly on target for a seven-hour finish.  If I was going to have any chance at the win, I needed a gap at the top of the climb--but I couldn't sacrifice the last twenty miles of the race to get it.  I'd have to walk the fine line of pushing the climb without redlining, and see where it got me.

Pushing a bit, near Castle Point
📷: John Mizel
I kept a steady tempo and effort through the climb, getting some early separation at Awosting Falls and stretching out the lead as we climbed higher.  I caught a glimpse of Etan at one point on a switchback, maybe a mile from the top, and estimated the gap at about thirty seconds.  I crested the hill and took a brief glance back.  Nobody there.  OK, time to run downhill.  Keep it steady and relaxed, but keep a nice tempo, don't let up

Back through Minnewaska Lake and down to Lyons Road on the return and no sign of Etan, 37.5 miles in 5:14, still right on pace for seven hours.  A quick stop to refill the bottle, slam a couple cups of Coke, and off again.  Waving to some friends as they made their way up to Lyons on the outbound trip, me now on the return and starting to smell the finish a little bit.  Forty miles in 5:35, hammering that 8:20 pace, trying to keep fueling.  Energy flagging a bit as I pulled into the penultimate aid station at Rhododendron Bridge, 42 miles or so, not moving quite so smoothly now.   Banana, Coke, GU Chomp.  Glance back as I'm leaving the aid station: there's Etan, thirty seconds back.

Well, I thought, that's it.  You gave it a good effort, and you're still feeling OK, but you haven't been able to shake him, and you know how well he can close.  I jogged out of the aid station, trying to recapture the rhythm, as the second-place relay team ran smoothly by.  I really had to pee, but didn't want to stop until Etan passed me, which I figured would be any minute now.

Coming down Lenape, smelling the finish
📷: Tom Weiner
Except, it wasn't.  After about four or five minutes I realized I felt basically fine and he hadn't gone by.  I looked over my shoulder and couldn't see him.  Huh, that's weird.  Might as well start moving again.  The relay guy wasn't that far ahead; I focused on trying to peg the gap and picked up the tempo a little bit.  We reached the bottom of the final short climb up Kleine Kill Carriageway, still no Etan, as I moved back in front of the relay runner.  The climb made my legs burn this time, but this was the last piece.  Switchback at the top of the hill and I could see Etan coming up behind, but I had a good minute at this point.  A minute or more with less than four miles to go.  Run under 8:00 pace and you'll make it really hard for him.  Just make it hard for him.

The relay guy caught back up, which worked out perfectly; it was keeping me mentally alert.  We hammered downhill to Duck Pond as fast as I could go, and I pulled away on the short flat stretch to Lenape Lane.  Two switchbacks here: no Etan.  A mile to go; one final, two-minute climb.  I turned to check over my shoulder, almost seizing up the entire left side of my body.  Shit, don't do that again.  But still: no Etan.  I was going to make it.

📷: Renee Zernitsky
In the end, I just missed out on the seven-hour mark (by 78 seconds) but held on for a 94-second victory margin.  The entire gap came from the climb from Lyons to Castle Point, which I ran about two minutes faster than Etan.  Our splits from Lyons to the finish were separated by a single second. 

Not my first ultra win, but my most gratifying for sure.  I came in fairly fit but a bit undertrained, not peaked, and looking mostly for a training stimulus.  I came away with a big PR and a win that means a lot to the burgeoning local ultrarunning community.  I haven't run scared like that for quite some time, particularly trying to hold off someone as talented and tenacious as Etan, and I'm grateful that he was there to push me and that I was, at least on this day, equal to the challenge.  And I was careful afterwards not to overindulge too much in my customary post-race fashion.  If I'm training through, I've got to act like it!  I've been rewarded by a relatively short (for me) recovery; after a week of feeling pretty flat and sluggish, I'm rounding back into form and hoping to start workouts again this week.

Salomon Sense Ride 2 and Agile shirt
Injinji no-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver and trucker cap