It’s that time of year again, Mountain Madness 50k (aka MoMa)! For the last 3 years, this race has been a staple of my race calendar, and no matter what other events I had planned or injuries I sustained throughout the year, I have always managed to make it to the starting line of this race. It’s hilly, it’s rocky, and it’s tough. It is also one of the only ultras put on by the NJ Trail Series where you can really feel out there (as “out there” as you can feel in NJ anyway), if you don’t know where you are going.
This year things were a little different, both for me and the race. For starters the course was slightly different and being run in the reverse direction from previous years. This might not sound like a big deal, but ask anyone who has run this race before and they will tell you that navigation on this course is just as important as having the fitness to cover the distance. The course is very technical and there are so many intersecting trails in Ringwood that it is very easy to miss a turn looking down.
Things were also different for me, because except for the Bull Run Run in April, my primary focus for this year was getting ready for the NY/NJ Ironman the month before. I knew I was going to have the fitness for the race from the Ironman training, but I had a pretty tight time frame to condition myself for the rigors this kind of race puts on your body, especially the lower legs and feet. I also had to try to learn the new course route, so just about every Saturday for the last four weekends I was up on course with the NJ Trail and Ultra Runners getting reacquainted with the trails and long trail runs. The race was also going to be exciting this year, because in addition to all the local runners coming out, some trail running friends who moved from the area were coming back to run the race. Former Mountain Peak Fitness team member Tom, who moved to China, and Rob Timko from Colorado, were both scheduled to make an appearance.
Unlike many other races that start at the butt crack of dawn, MoMa has a nice 9am start and is only about 25 minutes from my house. At the starting area there were tons of familiar faces and the full MpFiT crew was there to race or for support. After RD Rick’s race briefing about which ribbons to follow and when (unless it was a leap year then you follow another color, but only if those are primary colors), the race was off. From my time on the course, I knew the first five miles into the aid station 1 were tough, and then after that it should be pretty smooth sailing until a tough climb on the green trail after aid station 4. It was really great running that first stretch, even though it was a more difficult part of the course, and time just flew by catching up with Tom, Rob, and the other trail characters out there.
Now’s as good a time as any to mention the goals I had for the race, which were mostly corrections to things that have gone wrong for me in previous MoMa’s. My primary goal was to run a consistent race and not blow up after mile 20. This race has a way of sneaking up and really punishing you for going out too fast early. Next was fast turnarounds at the aid stations, and I mean fast, one minute was too long! Last year I finished in 7:16, but my Garmin moving time was 6:54, that’s too much standing around. Finally, I really wanted to go under 7 hours, my prior times were 7:26 and 7:16.
So coming into the first aid station was my first chance to start implementing my plans, I filled up my water bottle, grabbed a gel and was on my way. Nice, I love it when a plan comes together! At this point, I was still running with Rob and Tom, and knew that the next section on the Cannonball trail was pretty runnable. We were making good time, but I had to keep making sure to stay steady and not to pick it up too much just because I was feeling good (who doesn’t feel good six miles into the race). A little before the next aid station Tom decided that he was going to pick up a ride back to the start because he had time constraints for the day. I knew going in that he wasn’t planning on running the whole race, but was sad to see him go (only because he was robbing me the opportunity to beat him properly). We came into aid station two, manned by Dan O’Keefe (RD of Frozen Fools 50K), and Harry was right there ready for action to help me refill my water bottle. Same routine as last time. Water bottle. Gel. Gone.
The next section is fairly technical, but it is a lot of downhill until aid station 3. Now it was just Rob and I running together, who for the whole last year has focused his training to do well at this race and among other things, beat me. I’m not sure I am worthy of that much focus, but already Rob was showing his much improved fitness. We ran the next 7 miles together and through aid station 3 pretty uneventfully, as I’ve run this section numerous times and knew the distances and turns pretty much by heart (which was good, because I went Garmin-less for this race). I also brought my pace down a little because I knew it would pay dividends on the big climb that was coming up after aid station four. I offered Rob the chance to pass, if he so desired, but he declined, which was probably a wise strategy because up until now he was getting all the benefits of my familiarity with the course and pacing.
We came into aid station four, and it was great to see to see Phil, Joe, Elizabeth, and Laura who were volunteering and taking race pictures. I now had my routine down at the aid stations, and continued to execute my plan. The next part of the course I knew would be the toughest, and if I could get through it feeling good, I would be in pretty good shape for the rest of the race. About ¼ miles out of the aid station, Rob caught up with me again (he had to refill his Nathan Hydration pack at every other aid station), and we tackled the climb on the green trail. While long and steep in parts, it turned out not to be that bad, which could only have meant that my pacing must have been on target. The more difficult section was actually the yellow trail that came about a mile after green. So we continued to climb yellow, passing some of the back of the pack in the 25k race. The payoff was after climbing to the top of yellow, it was almost all downhill until back to the start.
Throughout the race, I was keeping a rough estimate of my time goals to make sure I was on target for sub 7, but now I started to do the hard math, and figured out I didn’t have as much I as I thought and I was starting to hit a low. The last aid station with nutrition was about 8 miles from the start/finish area, and although there is a water stop in-between, I didn’t have the foresight to make sure to grab an extra gel when I had the chance, but I saw Rob was well stocked (it was actually his last one), and at 4:53 into the race I bummed a gel from him. It was definitely the pick me up I needed, and we led a pretty strong pace back. We now also picked up another runner (actually mountain climber turned runner, Dan), and ran pretty close until about .5 miles from the start when Rob upped his pace to get back to get ready for the last section.
I came into the start, pounded a 5 hour energy, refilled my water bottle, made another quick turnaround, and went back out for the last 7 mile section. The last loop starts on a long fire road, which I took at a pretty good clip because I knew that I only had 1:38 to do the last 7 miles to make my goal time. I was running by myself until about a mile in, and right before the first climb, I see Rob come up behind me. Man, I thought; this guy is still here, but I couldn’t help but be impressed knowing how far he had actually come from his 8:07 time and last place finish in last year’s MoMa. The last loop does not have as many climbs compared to the rest of the course, but it has smaller rolling climbs. On one of these climbs, I started walking but Rob kept pushing and jogged up the hill. From that point on, we probably had identical pacing, as I stayed about 50 yards behind him. My plan, if you could call it that, was to hang back a little and make my move about a mile from the finish. But I misjudged our distance from the finish, because before I knew it, we made a turn into the last downhill section, which was way less than a mile from the finish, and I knew Rob was running the downhills really well. CRAP! I took off anyway hoping that maybe I could catch him, but as I came out to the fire road, I could see him ahead making the final turn around the lake into the home stretch. I crossed the finish line in 6:49 (1 minute behind Rob), but 27 minutes better than last year’s PR, and with probably one of the most well executed race plans I have run to date.
Big thanks to all the volunteers and the MPF Campmor crew for the support. Already thinking about next year, and my new 6:15 goal time!