A Tale of 2 Races - Part 1 - NJ Ultra Fest 100 Mile Race Report

Note: I've never written a multi-post race report. Until now.

“Don't forget the joy this weekend, Marcus. It likes to go hiding in the dark hours of the night but it's still there if you look for it.”

Those lines appeared on my Facebook wall as I was packing for my trip to the NJ Ultra Fest and my first attempt at the 100 mile distance.

They were written by Leon Lutz, a local runner known as much for the length of his beard as for the length of his runs. Leon was speaking from experience, both from his own successful hundred mile race last year as well from his hectic lifestyle which often sends him on his regular runs when the sun is gone. Very well, Leon, I thought. I’ll look for the joy.

I won’t use this post to recap my training, though I recognize that the runners who stumble upon it will be particularly interested in it. That being the case, let’s just link to my public running log here. You’ll see a lot of long runs beginning ninety days prior to the race, no speedwork (I didn’t want to risk injury) and only one back-to-back.

I stayed home from work on Friday while the family went off for a half day of school (if you don’t know, my wife is a teacher). I knew that by the time we came home Sunday we’d all be exhausted so I got the groceries and whipped the house into reasonable shape.

A few days prior I’d learned that northern New Jersey had been hit with about six inches of snow the previous weekend, which was more than I’d seen all winter. As the week progressed, temperature reports out of the area suggested that while melting was likely, it was a slow melt and I had no idea what shape the trails would be in when we arrived.

The course for the NJ Ultra Fest starts on the NJ State Fairgrounds. Runners exit a large pavilion (which had a roof but the coldest concrete floor I think I’ve ever felt) circle a mile of pavement and then turn onto unimproved rail trail.

Unimproved rail trail means a couple of things. Because it’s rail trail, it’s certainly flat and certainly straight. For runners seeking speed, those are good things. However, unimproved also meant that the terrain shifted from grass to mud and ruts. And perhaps most important in this case, unimproved also meant there was no drainage, which meant that a couple hundred yards of easy running were often broken up by fifty yards of sloppy, icy mud.

Rail trails can also be boring and this one had that quality as well. We ran down one end of the rail trail about 1.5 miles to a gate, which we were required (honor system) to touch. From there, we turned around and went in the opposite direction for about four miles, to where the aid station was. This longer stretch included four dilapidated bridges, which the race director had frugally patched with 2x10s. Because it was an out and back, that meant each of our ten loops required eight bridge passages. Coming off of the second out-n-back returned us to the fairgrounds and the only hill in the entire loop, no more than a couple hundred yards long.

To be clear, there are ultra course built for beauty and awe. This one is built for speed and simplicity. But I would also argue that it’s built for comradery. The Ultra Fest includes races from marathon distance up to one hundred miles and all of the out and back assured you would be passing people most of the day. You get to see other runners far more than in other races. This was good both for cheering for each other as well as getting a feel for where your closest rivals were.

When we arrived at the fairgrounds, I was relieved to see that much of the snow had melted, though I suspected that meant the trails would be in bad shape (a huge understatement). I had been texting my buddy, Ryan, throughout the week and while he expected to arrive around the same time as me, I’ve come to learn that Ryan’s late to most things except the finish line, so we made plans to hook up at the start.

From there we went to the hotel check-in, where we bumped into Richie Sambora. My wife was thrilled by this, but I was a bit too distracted by what was coming to be properly awed. Not that I have anything against Bon Jovi.

An early dinner gave way to an early bedtime, and a mostly restful sleep. I had my alarm set for 5am and woke without it at 4:50am. My Sherpa/wife drove me to the fairgrounds. I don’t remember much about the conversation, likely because I was trying to maintain some sense of Zen. After dropping off my bags, I stayed in the warm car until about 6:30, leaned over, kissed her and said, “OK, let’s do this. Go get some sleep,” and got out of the car. I tested my blood sugar just before the race and was thrilled that it was a perfect 112. I ate a Clif bar with no insulin and prepared for the start.

Inside the building I saw Ryan’s bag but no sign of Ryan. I correctly assumed he was making a final pit stop prior to the race and greeted him with a hug two minutes before the start when he walked out during the pre-race briefing.

Many in the briefing commented on the large pack of runners for a race this long. Though I don’t know an official count, calling it a hundred wouldn’t be the worst guess. And just like that, at 7 on the dot, we started.

Ryan and I chatted for about a minute before I told him to go chase the lead pack of five that was moving in front of the main field within a half mile. As for me, I settled in around 15th, both because that’s where I felt I would be at the end, and also because it felt quite easy without being too slow.

Within a quarter mile of being on the trail, we came face to face with what the trail conditions would be. There were roughly six patches of mud scattered along the few miles. Each patch was about 20 yards long, filled with icy ankle deep water. Six patches times two for an out-n-back times ten loops meant we’d have to negotiate roughly 120 terrible spots, in addition to 80 rickety bridges.

Avoiding the patches by going onto the shoulder was possible in some cases, impossible in others, but even where there were shoulders, they quickly became icy slides that would work to drive us into the mud. Conditions weren’t ideal and as more and more runners hit the trail, they were all but certain to get worse.

Still the first lap was all about remaining calm and finding a place in the race. I caught myself going too fast with a small pack and slowed down. Then I got annoyed by two guys talking too much for my taste and had to speed up. Finally, I found a middle ground.

Though I was cold at the start, I soon had confidence in my choice of tights, gloves, long sleeve shirt, topped by short sleeve shirt. I was warm without being too warm.

As I rolled into the fairgrounds at the end of my first loop, I felt confident that the race was off to a great start. My first lap was ninety five minutes, which meant 9:20 miles plus a 3 minute walk during the only hill on the course. I stopped at my bags for supplies and pulled out my blood sugar meter, and was shocked to be staring at a 310, while my CGM said 94. Somehow I’ve have to lower my blood sugar 200 points while eating enough fuel to still put in 90 more miles.

End Part 1
Continue with Part 2.

Comments

  1. What a cliff hanger! 310! Wow. Bring on part 2.

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  2. "I’ve come to learn that Ryan’s late to most things except the finish line" - that's fantastic and if you know Ryan, this is right on! Love that guy!

    I can't wait to hear about more in Part 2!

    And kuddos to Allie - she did an amazing job keeping all of us "stalkers" up to date throughout the day. Please let her know how much we appreciated her updates!!!

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