For those who are unfamiliar with ultra trail races, a 50k covers the distance of just over 31 miles. Now add in a forest full of roots, rocks, boulders, stumps, downed trees, streams and terrain which will bring you up and down a total of 13,650'. Mountain Madness 2012 is held in Ringwood, New Jersey.
Two years ago I was new to the sport and ran the race for fun. Last year I came in 1st place and set a new course record so this time I was determined to run strong. My training has been consistent having run on the course several times with the MPF Campmor Trail Running Team. The turns were familiar and the course was memorized so we knew what to expect. Being familiar with the trails is part of a smart training plan since this technical trail race demands extreme focus and attention. My plan was to use this 50k race as part of my training for the upcoming Oil Creek 100 (Julian's race report!). Given the generous cash awards offered by Mountain Peak Fitness this year, there's been a lot of hype about this particular NJ Trail Series event. Rick & Jenn from the New Jersey Trail Series do a fine job in hosting this race each fall and it seems to be a favorite of their many races.
I met my team in the parking lot for a quick group photo, fired up my legs then headed down for the race briefing. Not before long the countdown began. At this moment I felt the past year whiz by as I stood next to teammate Randy Miller again (he held MoMa's title in 2009 & 2010). As we started running about 1/4 mile stretch before the first climb I was focusing on how I planned this race to be different and let others lead. Many warned against leading the pack this time and how it would be a mistake. There was a group from the Raritan Valley Road Runners who were racing as well. It seemed like 3 in particular who were on a mission to place 1,2 & 3.
As we rounded Shepherd Lake I was in the front of the pack trying to slow things down and see who would pass. This strategy lasted about a minute before I shifted gears and took off (so much for my strategy!). I soon made a quick turn onto the red trail and began running the first climb of the race. About half way up I spotted Joe from Mountain Peak Fitness, all geared up and filming the first footage of the runners scrambling over a fallen tree which lay across the trail. I continued on and could hear runners close behind. A few miles ticked by and my legs started to loosen up. Someone shouted from behind "he's beginning to surge", I then turned up my tunes to silence them out.
Not before long, Mike Dixon made his move. This guy is FAST and has a reputation for winning whatever he runs from 5k’s to 50 miles. As he passed on my right, it appeared as if he was not even pushing that hard. Continuing on up the climb holding his fast and effortless pace, he soon disappeared. I couldn't help but think, is this guy going to hold onto that pace for long or is this surge a strategy of his? Next up was Jayson Kolb, another Raritan runner who passed me before aid station #1 somewhere on the blue trail. Back to plan "A" it was, the pressure of leading subsided and I began to follow his lead so now I was running in 3rd. We had a few brief words and held together up to the top of Skyline drive with no one else in site. I began to spot him looking over his shoulder a few times only to find me running behind. It appeared as though he was trying to shake me off his tail. Jayson is a good runner... he placed 8th @ North Face 50 earlier this year and recently took first at the Wildcat Ridge Romp 50k back in August. I sensed the tiger in his eye and his desire to win.
"Six minutes" shouted Joe as we ran past him off to the side of on yellow trail. That’s right... Dixon had 6 minutes on us already, this guy was moving! We ran into AS2 and my buddy Dan O'Keefe was working the table and quickly filled my bottle, I don't think I even stopped. Team mate Harry Hamilton took my trash and re-supplied my pockets and I was off with one Gu in hand. Within a blink I was happy to see Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness cheering on, it was all just a blur. With number 2 out of sight I bolted down trail noticing another teammate Tahir tucked into the brush with video camera in hand. Soon I was on Jayson’s tail again all the way to aid station 3. My strategy was to keep on him forcing his pace, keeping him on his toes and, hopefully, beyond his comfort level. After cresting the ridge up on yellow, the trail changes to a steep downhill covered in loose rocks. I see Jayson lose his footing and go down on one knee. Amazingly, he quickly recovered and continued on.
Not before long, we ran into AS3 side by side. This one wasn't in and out like the others, I actually stopped to fill my bottle and grab a banana. I noticed a volunteer approach Jayson with a look of concern on her face. No sooner did she say "look at your knee, it's bleeding all over, are you okay??" I shot onto the paved road which is ½ mile stretch all downhill. My pace was intense & there was no time to waste. "On your right, on your right" I yelled as I blazed past two 25k runners and hit the trail up orange. I was certain that this was my chance to widen the gap. The whole way down orange I ran dangerously fast over technical rocks, past day hikers, dogs and runners from the 25k event, and I was feeling good.
"One minute" yelled Joe as he appeared off to the edge of trail standing there to my surprise. This encouraged me to push on and soon into aid station four I went. Team mate Phil was off to the side and instructed me to run up a short slope to find the table. Elizabeth filled my bottle & handed off my fuel, I was off in a flash. I made it a point to take in some needed fuel and mentally prepare myself for what lay ahead. The green trails first climb is pretty steep. I started off running, then power walking, soon holding onto my quads wanting to run but unable to move any faster than a steady uphill march. Only a few minutes passed until I reached the top then I was able to move much faster and headed up the trail. The sections from here back to Shepherd Lake are a mix of rolling, semi-technical, rocky terrain with a few stream crossings. Seven miles later I exited the woods and began to run around Shepherd lake towards the finish. This year Rick decided to mix things up a bit and set the course in reverse. It can be a mind game having to cross the finish miles before you actually do! Harry hooked me up at the table with a quick bottle refill, I kissed my wife on the cheek then was off to complete the final section of the course.
In a flash as I rounded the lake, my friend Jason Friedman came bombing out of the woods down the trail heading for the turn around. He was in third and I only had one half mile on him at that point with 6.5 miles to go. Seeing Jason forced me to run the entire race loop faster than I wanted. In result, a few miles passed then my left quad locked as I sprinted up a short rolling section. I had no option but to stop as my left leg just would not move. The more I stood there the worse the cramp got. I tried leaning over, straightening it out, rubbing it out, banging on it, even swearing at it, but nothing would take the cramp away. I could feel the seconds tick by, it felt like an eternity. I began to hobble and dragged my seized leg. Within a few steps, the pain finally went away. I was back to my frantic pace with only 2 miles to go taking a quick look over my shoulder to find no one in sight. I rushed to the familiar sight of the lake, and ultimately, the finish line for the last time. Crossing the finish line in any distance race is such a great rush; it’s a moment in time that plays out frame by frame.
I finished in 2nd place behind Mike Dixon who took first & set new course record. Raritan runner Dave Allara made some serious time on the last section and managed to pass Friedman, finishing about two minutes behind me. Jason Friedman delighted the crowd with his 4th place finish. Jayson Kolb pushed through his injury and finished 6th. I was proud to be part of this race, a great group of people with great sportsmanship & so many from Team Mountain Peak Fitness / Campmor out on the course showing their support! Thank you all for such a great day in the woods.