MPF Athlete Mike Zusman's 2013 Mountain Madness 7 Mile Trail Run “Racing above Threshold!"

I wasn’t sure what to expect racing the 7 mile Mountain Madness trail run, but my hunch was that the relatively short race would be fast from the gun. While I was operating under a number of assumptions, things started off as I had envisioned. I had a quality 15 minute warm up, and I was at the front on the starting line.  As planned, I was the first person through the gate as we exited the parking lot on to the trail. Years of mountain bike racing has taught me that it’s good to be the first person leading into the singletrack, and avoid any potential bottlenecks and delays. In a short & fast trail run, the same rule applies.

Mike at this years race. Photo by Ron Mathewson

While we weren’t actually on any singletrack yet the gate was just the same kind of bottle neck, I became focused on not blowing myself up leading to the first climb. I knew I wanted to stay at the front, but not run any faster than necessary. I had no idea what to expect, and since 7 miles is relatively short, I was mentally prepared to get passed by much faster runners on the flat, opening double track.  No one passed me, but I was joined by Barbara from Greenwood Lake, and Rick a.k.a. the race director. They were the only two folks I saw the entire race.

Rick took the lead and I followed him up the first climb, and down the first descent. His gap was growing on the descent. I’ve sprained my ankles enough that I’m a cautious descender, but I quickly realized I needed to take some risks if I was going to stay competitive. I caught back up to Rick as the trail turned upward, and passed him just as we crossed the pipeline for the first time at just over 2 miles in.

Shortly thereafter, Barbara came speeding up on my left. Early in the race she told me she was an experienced road runner, and I suspected she would smoke me if we were on pavement. We hung together for about a mile through some road and single track sections, until the road turned downhill. Remember -- this is Ringwood State Park -- so when I say road, I mean washed-out, rocky, fire-roads, with ruts and baby-head sized rocks designed to help you sprain your ankles.

When the road turned downhill, I remembered the gap Rick opened up on me earlier, and I used that as some motivation to help me open up my stride. Let’s just say I let it all hang out, and ran downhill faster than I would normally feel comfortable doing. When we got to the flats, Barbara caught up to me quickly. My quads were heavy, and I knew what was up ahead.

Back in the day, they called the next section of single-track the “death march,” but that was before those nice switchbacks were cut. I remember being 15 years old and having to push my bike straight up the muddy, slippery, fall-line. Anyway, at mile 4.5 it was time for 1 mile of climbing technical single track, which is what I love. Barbara and I were still together, and I wasn’t sure how we would stack up against each other at this point in the race. She indicated that I should take the lead into the climb. At first I hesitated, but I ultimately went ahead and attacked the trail as hard as I could with quick feet. As I neared the top of the switchbacks, I thought I may have blown up. I took five walking steps and just as many gasps for air until I heard Rick and another racer talking somewhere below me. That was enough to get me going again, and I was off again, full-gas.

The last mile of the race was very technical, but mostly downhill. I don’t remember many details, other than high-knees, carefully planted foot strikes and realizing that it was my race to lose. I stayed focused and fast through the finish, and won my first ever foot race. Somewhere in those 58 minutes, I scraped my knee. I can’t remember where, but I know I didn’t fall, so it must have been going over or under one of the many downed trees on the course.

Mike's data from the race

Looking at my data afterwards, I saw that my heart rate averaged 175bpm for the entire race, which is pretty much above my threshold. I don’t know that I’ve ever put in such a consistent effort, even on my bike. This is interesting to me because of the minimal approach to training I had to take this year, and the lack of running time. For all of 2013, I’ve only logged 18 hours of mostly slow, easy running prior to this race. In January, I was injured, my wife and I were learning to be new parents, and my business was (is) in a growth phase. While the year was full of external stress, with Joe Azze’s guidance, I was able to rehab my injury, get strong, and stay mentally fresh. In another blog post, I’ll get into the details of what the year looked like and some of the things I learned along the way.

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