Rock The Ridge 50 Mile Endurance Challenge 2015 by Ben Nephew

When you look back at most races, especially ultras, there are usually areas for potential improvement. As I was preparing for Rock the Ridge this year during my big two week training cycle following the Breakneck Point marathon, I realized that improving on my 5:58 from last year (2014 race report) was going to be highly unlikely. The weather had been absolutely perfect, my training had gone well and was suited to that type of race, and I was lucky enough to have one of those days. This year, my training has been more suited to a solo trek to the North Pole and I kind of ruined myself at both Mount Tammany (race report) and Breakneck Ridge (race report and thank you, Iain Ridgeway!). However, the RTR event is too good a course and event to pass up, and I had gotten in a couple of 6 minute miles at Breakneck, so I figured I was good to go. On top of the insanely spectacular course, it is a great addition to the local running calendar and supports educational programs for underserved kids at the Mohonk Preserve.

While not perfect, the weather this year looked good, and I was excited at the potential of being able to run with Michael Daigeaun for some or most of the race. We met last year at the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, NY, and the RTR course seemed like it would be a good fit for him. For the first two years of RTR, I was mostly running by myself. When we met up before the start of RTR, he was interested in trying to work together. As I was catching up with some of the local runners I had not seen in a while I actually managed to get ready for the race. I got so distracted last year, I’m not sure I stretched much at all. As I was doing my short warm up this year, I of course ran into Joe and Elizabeth, who were ready for the start with their cameras long before I was ready to race.

Similar to last year, it was cool at the start and four of us, Michael and me and a couple relay runners, started out at a good clip. The first mile was moderate, but we didn’t slow down all that much for the next three uphill miles. For my Garmin data, my watch was reading short all day, so all the mile splits were faster than reported on my Garmin file. The pace felt reasonable, but as I started to do the math as we got closer to the first aid station at 9.8m, I told Michael we were going to be a bit early compared to my split last year, which I had thought was fast. This section of the course loops around a couple of times, and it was fun passing the other runners as we were on our second loop. We soon passed my MPF RNR teammate Jason Friedman, who informed us we were less than a mile out from the aid station. We were going to be very early! The damage ended up being about 4:30 faster than last year, which can only be described as a lot over 9.8 miles.

I wasn’t exactly taking my time filling my bottle with Coke, but by the time I turned back to the trail, Michael was a good 100 meters up the hill. I figured he was feeling good and I settled into my own pace as we climbed up toward Mohonk. As we passed the 10 mile marker, my watch read 68 minutes, and that was including the aid stop. I caught up to Michael over the next mile or two, and we began the steep climb (grades up to 16%) together. We were climbing well, and it seemed like there was a chance we could run under 6 hours if the temperature stayed relatively cool. After some moderate climbing, we hit the only single track section of the course, which ended in a steep set of stairs. I pulled a bit ahead at this point, but figured we would regroup back on the carriage road.

The next section of the climb was moderately steep and very twisty, and I suddenly lost sight of Michael. I figured he had stopped for some reason, and kept on with a steady pace up towards the tower. The view from the tower is always great, but last year we could not loop all the way around due to a construction project. This year, the course ended up winding back and forth right around the tower, and the views were ridiculous. I think I stopped breathing for a few steps and just about stopped running. I would have stopped if that had been needed to take in the views, but with the perfectly smooth carriage roads, you can easily stare out at the views while you run. I just about snapped my neck at one point, though. You could see the entire Shawangunk Ridge, the Catskills seemed like they were only a couple miles away, and it was so clear I could swear I saw the Adirondacks at one point!  Due to the time of day, I had the view all to myself, which is not a common occurrence up there. I was still only 4:30 ahead of my 2014 split at Skytop, so apparently I settled down on the climb.

The view must have been a bit too inspiring, as it looks like I dipped below 6:00 pace on the perfectly runnable descent towards Rhododendron bridge. I will mention there are two very rude uphills on this section that I do not like, at all. At 20 miles, I was 5:00 ahead of my 5:58 pace. I pride myself on running rationale races, so I cringed a bit when I realized I was on 5:45 pace. At least I had made an adjustment after those first 10 miles, and I was still trying to back off, sort of. I knew I had to dial it back over the next 10 miles or my race was going to be over. It was clearly getting hot, and this is not a 5:45 kind of course, considering it has 5k more vertical than the JFK 50.  

I enjoyed the views from the Overcliff trail and on the approach to Awosting Falls, and greatly appreciated the shade that was still available. At 24 miles, the course starts a 6 mile grind that ascends 1200’ to Castle point, with grades of up to 17%.  Most of it is easily runnable, but the length of the climb just wears on you, and this year it was warm on the climb. My calves started to cramp a bit on this ascent, and I made sure to stay on top of my salt intake. At Castle Point and 30 miles, I was 4:00 ahead of my 2014 pace at 3:31, which didn’t make much sense considering the hills included in those 30 miles.  

I tried to balance saving my legs with taking advantage of the steep downhill to Awosting Lake. Due to a detour this year, the course went right down to the shore, adding yet another awesome view to a course that has plenty of them. The rude awakening after Lake Awosting was that I had to run down Cardiac Hill, which was a quarter mile of 11-16% quad crushing. After Tammany and Breakneck, my quads should have been OK, but this was a harder surface. My goal at this point was to just make it to 40 miles with my legs in decent shape.

Steph had run the 14 mile second leg of the relay with her friend Nikki, and was going to ride her bike with me back to the finish. I was hoping she wasn’t expecting much conversation. I saw Joe again at Awosting Falls, where there were so many photographers it looked like some sort of photo shoot. Joe and Elizabeth had been all over the course all day, even in their car as I crossed the bridge heading up to Mohonk! Between the increasing temperature and growing fatigue in my legs, it was clear that the last 10 were going to be very difficult to say the least. I was still feeling decent when I met up with Steph, and I hoped my legs would not entirely fall apart with her riding alongside.

Steph enjoying the miles with her friend Nikki.

Steph enjoying the miles with her friend Nikki.

The last ten miles were hot and painful. My calves started to cramp, and they got worse with each mile. I guess I should mention I passed 40 miles in 4:39. That would have been a great place to stop; I would have been entirely satisfied with 40 miles with 6k of climbing at sub 7:00 pace. I really like the 40 mile distance; there should be more 40 mile races. Steph started giving me a bit more space, as I was making strange sounds and I think she was a little scared. She knew that I would not be interested in much coaching, or coxing, since we met on our college crew team, and offered just the right amount of encouragement at the right times. I enjoyed the social aspect of the race with Michael and appreciated the views over the middle miles, but if you are trying to do something difficult, there is a time in a race when anger and aggression become necessary.

At RTR this year, that time was the last 7 miles, if not longer. My energy level and conditioning were up to the challenge, but my legs were failing, mostly my calves.  Those last few miles became a loud internal battle between my brain and my body, with my brain in BOLD and my body in italics:

With those kinds of cramps, your calves are not going to make it to 50 miles.

I don’t need calves.

How is that knee lift doing?

That is what hip flexors are for.

Wow, I’ve never seen you run with cramps like that, that must hurt! Does making those sounds help?

I don’t want to talk about it, let’s just get up that hill so we can go down to the finish.

Whoa, that thing is bigger than it looks on the elevation profile.

I completely agree.

You better hit that Coke.

Good call, I’m getting a little light. What is Steph doing, weaving all over the trail?  Looks like she is trying to climb in some sort of hero gear. If she runs into me, I’m going to push her into the woods.

I don’t think we are capable of that right now, and you don’t really mean that.

If I promise not to use my calves once we get to the top, can I get some help on this last uphill?

Sure, it is not like you are going very fast.

Finally, the downhill. Steph’s right, you can do this. What did she just say about my former team?

Your quads can’t take too much more of this. I’d back off on that hairpin.

I can handle it. OK, almost fell down, I get your point.

If we go down, it’ll take a crane to get us up.

I think we have a shot at breaking the course record. I lied about not using the calves anymore.

You are going to pay for this.

Drop the waistpack.

Naked might be faster, that tower looks really far away.

Left, right.

Left, right.

Faster.

Faster.

We got it, 5:56:16, thanks!

Dude, you are crazy. You better sit down, or I’m going to drop you.

Thanks to Steph for riding along for the last half marathon. I appreciated the encouragement, and the fact that she was cheering on all the other runners we passed, as I was having a hard time doing that myself! It was great having Joe and Elizabeth all over the course cheering me on, that is some serious MPF RNR team support!  Todd and Ken and all the volunteers put on another great event, and it is exciting to see it continue to grow. Congratulations to all the runners, and a special congrats to Ken, who ran a 7:17 at age 52!

I better get training for next year!

Ben’s Athlete Page