Ben Nephew's 2014 Rock the Ridge 50 Mile Race Report
While I run in New Paltz, NY all the time due to it being Steph’s hometown, I rarely run on the carriage roads. I love singletrack and that area has some of the best. The carriage roads winding through the Mohonk Preserve are also some of the best, and the scenery along the roads is spectacular so I was excited when they announced the first Rock The Ridge 50 last year. When I think about it, if the carriage roads were only a foot wide, they would resemble singletrack in many other areas, such as the Headlands north of San Francisco. The course traverses one big loop from one end of the Preserve to the other on wide carriage roads mostly covered in track grade cinders. There are some rougher sections that are rocky but nothing technical other than a short singletrack section. Most of the route is either up or down with plenty of grades over 10%, and the course climbs about 6k. All along the route are picture perfect views of pristine forests, waterfalls, lakes, rock formations, the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Mountain House, and the Catskills. I ran 6:18 on a somewhat warm day last year and I was hoping to run a little faster this year with cooler weather.
The race started at 6:00am with the sun just rising and the light on the tree lined start was amazing. I settled in behind the leader biker, Jason, and the first time I looked down at my Garmin, I saw an average pace of 5:50. It felt like 6:50, and I knew then that there was a possibility that it was going to be a good day. While I had just met Jason, we became friends within a few minutes. Despite living in the area his entire life, he was incredibly enthusiastic about all the trails in the region, and particularly excited about leading the race, as he would get to ride on trails that are off limits to bikes. You just don’t see that level of excitement from local people all that often. Maybe that’s why I was running too fast over those early miles. We started up the first climb to the Mohonk entrance and Guyot Hill, and my legs still felt good. When Jason had to get out of the saddle and work a bit to stay with me on grades up to 14% on Guyot, I again thought I might have a good day going. I could also just be running myself into the ground... We got a great view of Bonticou Crag, where I was destroyed by the local climbers in a terrifying Red Bull rock scramble race years ago. We then rolled down to the Spring Farm Aid Station around mile 10. While I knew he was going to be at the race, it was a nice surprise to see Joe Azze along the course with his camera! Despite the significant climbing, I was averaging right around 7:10 pace, 2 minutes faster than last year.
At this point, Ryan, running in second, caught up to Jason and me as we made our way up towards Mohonk. We all introduced ourselves and discussed the perfect running weather. Despite testing my water bottle, it apparently didn’t have a good seal and was raining Coke down my legs whenever I put it in my waist pack. That was going to be very annoying. As Ryan and I took the short singletrack section connected two roads, we lost Jason for a bit until he realized what had happened and caught back up with us. By this time I was running up to the stone tower overlooking the Mohonk Mountain House, where we had our wedding reception and take the boys to do the Lemon Squeeze, which is the ultimate playground for kids that like to hike. I had pulled away from Ryan on the latter stages of the long climb, and Jason and I were alone as we made our way back down, dodging Mohonk staff that informed Jason that biking was not allowed in that area.
By 20 miles, I was averaging 7:06 pace when I noticed a happy looking runner running down the overcliff trail towards me. To my surprise, it was Steph! We exchanged quick hellos, and I told her my legs were starting to feel it. Maybe I should have backed off after the first 10 miles. I tried to back off a bit and give my hamstrings a break on the next few flat miles. Jason kept telling me that I was killing it, and that I was going to crush my CR, but I told him it wouldn’t matter unless I got to 40 miles in decent shape! Along the way he was giving updates to the race staff with his radio, and I was providing some input on markings as well. It was a nice distraction from the effort at times. No distraction was needed on way up to Awosting Falls, which was roaring from all the recent rains. I hit halfway in about 2:57, which was 7 minutes faster than last year. This was a little concerning, as my original plan had been to try and run a similar pace for the first half and make up time in the last 25, where I faded last year. The legs felt good so I just went with it as we worked our way up the long climb to Castle Point. I almost dropped Jason as he had some technical difficulties with his new carbon ride that he had just put together. I thought a gear was going to explode and impale me at a couple points! He resolved his shifting issue, and we both cranked up the hill. The views out to the nearby ridges I have run and further off to the Catskills were unreal. My average split was obviously creeping higher, but not all that quickly.
At 30 miles, we were done with the climb and my average pace had only increased to 7:20, as I was at 3:37. I probably could have gone a bit faster on that downhill from Castle Point, but I wanted to make sure to save something for the last 10-15 miles. I was jealous of the bike on that downhill. We returned to the aid station at Lake Minnewaska much sooner than Jason had expected, and I was relieved to be in the last 15 miles. We started passing many runners heading up to Minnewaska, and all the runners were extremely supportive. It was a great confidence booster right when I was really starting to feel the effort. My average pace continued to drop even on the gradual uphill, and I tried to focus on getting to 40 with something left.
The 40 mile marker seemed to never come, but I was right back around 7:10 pace by that point. The sun was now warming things up, and I took off my shirt to try and keep from overheating. Flat sections were starting to feel like hills, but the actual uphills didn’t feel half as bad as last year. Jason was getting excited about my projected time, and he let every runner, hiker, biker, and climber that we passed know what was going on. I made sure to stay on top of my salt intake and calories, and hoped my legs didn’t self-destruct over the last few miles. By the time I hit the Rhododendron bridge aid station past 42 miles, I realized I had a shot at breaking 6 hours, which seemed ridiculous. Just like last year, the volunteers there made sure they had some Coke for me, which I was definitely going to need. I couldn’t contribute much to the conversation with Jason from there on out, other than an occasional grunt.
The final major hill always seems much longer than it looks on the elevation profile. However, as I looked at my Garmin during the climb, my average pace was not increasing. I waited a little longer, fully expecting it to climb, and it wasn’t moving. The final section of that climb gets steep, and I was still moving fast enough to make Jason get out of the saddle. Once we started down to the finish at 5:28, I just tried to turn my legs over as fast as I could. I was hitting low 5 minute pace at times, but there were also some muddy, rocky, or flat sections that killed my momentum. There is a gradual uphill leading to the last half mile that almost did me in. Jason was leaving me to my pain for the most part, but he pulled back alongside once we got to tree lined finish. I looked at my watch one last time at 5:56, looked at the finish tower, which seemed like a mile away, and decided that I had to at least try to break 6 hours. I hammered the last half mile like I was finishing a 10k, at least if felt that way. Although the crowd at the finish wasn’t very large, I could hear them loudly, especially Steph, from at least a quarter mile out. I crossed the line in 5:58:29, which works out to be 7:10 pace. That is 11 minutes slower than my 50 mile PR, but that time was set on a relatively flat road loop where I didn’t have to carry anything. I couldn’t have expected to run any better, and it was great to have Steph, Gavin, his cousin Miles, and my father-in-law and his wife there at the finish. Gavin only comes to some of my races, and I usually do not win. It’s a good thing in many ways, but seeing me win is not a bad thing.
I want to thank my entire family for supporting my running, even with all the teasing. Thanks to Todd and Ken and all the Mohonk Preserve staff and volunteers who worked the race; you have created a special event. Congratulations to all the runners, it was great to see so many first time 50 milers having awesome races, and thanks for cheering me on. It was especially nice to see Joe and Elizabeth Azze out on the course, with Joe getting some excellent pics and video throughout the day. Like last year, I wore my trusty Inov-8 Road X 255’s, which allowed me run hard all morning. A final thanks to my wingman, Jason. Your enthusiasm and confidence were contagious! Let me know if any of your mountain bike races need a lead runner.
While most of those who read this will be runners and understand why we run longer races, it is a question that I get asked regularly. I don’t often give it much thought. After this race, I wondered why I wanted to break 6 hours so badly towards the end. Who really cares? I realized it was because I could, which seems like a useless explanation at first. For most of us, there is very little we can absolutely control, whether its our health or the health of those around us, aspects of our job, the stock market, the actions of others, etc. Remission from cancer and recovery from addiction are not guaranteed to last forever. With a race, though, you put in your training, get to the start, and work your way to the finish. It’s a good feeling to be able to make something happen. I can’t absolutely make reviewers like my grants or papers, but I could finish in under 6:00 if I really wanted to, just as many other runners made their finishes happen.
However, I have had many races that didn’t work out as I had planned, and I would have been happy with a 6:01 finish as long as I had tried to the best of my ability. Running provides me with confidence and hope that I might be able to make something happen if I put in the work. I think that logic can be applied to any realm. If I can run RTR in 5:58, how hard can it be to win a major research grant? About 30 minutes after I finished RTR, I received an email informing me that I had won a research grant. It is not a large award, but it is a start.