The trail season coincidentally began with the first real day of spring in the area. Since Warren Street’s friend Sebastien introduced me to the Breakneck Ridge Trail last summer, I’ve visited the trail a half dozen times, enjoyed it with dry, humid and icy/snowy conditions. I even loved to initiate a wonderful chase (I only started it, then the big dogs came to claim the territory) for the Breakneck/Beacon FKT (video) because there are sections of trail here that are not the common runnable Central Park Bridal Path. Sections of the ridge involve plenty of hand and arm work, as well as some ass action to slide on some rocks while going down.
When I heard that Ian Golden was putting up a race in the woods between Cold Spring and Beacon, I felt excited right away. After joining the Mountain Peak Fitness / Red Newt Racing Team, this was the first opportunity to meet the whole crew after our initial get together in February on the same trail, just covered with an extra 2 feet of snow.
My little health issues during the first part of the year kept me doubtful about my preparation for the race. I did not know if I wanted to run the 25k or the full marathon. Looking at it in perspective, I thought the marathon distance would have been a great training tool for Cayuga 50, which would serve as a great training run for the LUT in Italy. Then I saw on ultrasignup the list of Running Gods that was signing up and I had second thoughts: “maybe I should avoid the marathon”, “I don’t have endurance to run the whole thing”, etc.
Eventually I decided it was time to get a nice bath into the pool of humbleness and face reality: sign up for the marathon and try to learn from Ben, Iain, Ryan, Glen, Jim, Steve, and whomever signed up; get my ass kicked brutally and find more motivation to train more and better.
Having had the chance to check the course twice the two weeks prior to the event, I was glad that the snow and ice were all gone. The only two unknown variables were the amount of mud along some sections near the creeks and whether or not the rocks paving the trails were going to be slippery or dry after the forecasted rain the day prior.
I was very nervous for the race, mostly because I feared I was going to have a bad day and my subpar preparation was going to show. I tried to rationally convince myself that pretty much everyone had a less than ideal preparation, given the winter we had, but – as usual – it is not that easy to trick our own mind…especially because when thinking that nobody was running mountains with the snow, I immediately thought about Ben Nephew’s video at Mt Tammany, running like an unstoppable wild cat.
A huge improvement in the self esteem levels came a week before the race when – while exploring the second part of the race – I met Steve H. and he told me his bet for the race. I told him my goal was to sneak under 6 hours, and he thought Ben could go under 5. Well, if Ben can get under 5, he will be long gone, so I can just focus on my race.
The adrenaline started building up again when I received from Elizabeth, the MPF RNR Team uniform. I tried it and it looked really cool. My only doubt, being just a bit superstitious, was whether or not the uniform had good or bad luck. Ahahaha…I am so dumb sometimes. More importantly, I generally do not wear things that are not tested a few times before, so I was not sure about using or not the shorts that came with the singlets.
They were a bit longer than what I am generally used to, but they had the wonderful perk of having 4 nice open pockets around the waist and one zipped pocket on the back. These features were certainly appealing and perfect to keep my car keys safe and extra bolts for energy without making the handheld too heavy.
I exchanged a few messages with Ben the days leading up to the race, and he told me to keep an eye on the registration list because more names could pop out last minute. Sure enough he was right and out of nowhere the list grew longer and the field a bit deeper, especially with the Russian Fruitarian joining the massacre.
I’ve heard a lot about this guy, many people talk about him, and I really never had a chance to run against him. At the Febapple two years ago he was running the 50 mile, and dropped to the 50k (which I was racing) and finished virtually behind me, even if he was doing another race basically. In Cayuga 2013 he got lost after tasting Sage and Matt’s dust and I found him wandering around the woods going the opposite direction. I dropped too, at the 25 mile, to preserve a bad ankle, and after that we never crossed paths again.
I did run against the other main contenders – Ben N., Ryan W., Iain R,. Cole (who did not race Breakneck) – in Cayuga 2014 and or Manitou’s Revenge. Running against is a strong word. Let’s say I was just using the same trails way about an hour or more behind them. I knew there was no competition with them, I knew they are on a different scale, but still it is nice to admire somebody and try to do your best aiming at their performances.
Going back to registration – and I shared this thought with a few folks after the race – I was hoping to see more people participating and supporting Ian for putting up this incredible race. I heard for the longest time people in NYC complaining that there are no races around the area, except Bear Mountain, that if you want to line up for a challenging race you need to go out west, or travel far. And now? Now they have one just outside their door and…they prefer to go to DC and run The North Face DC. I wonder why. I thought they wanted to demonstrate some toughness, I thought they wanted to take on real challenges, I was hoping…that’s all. Not judging here. Just hoping that we all support better those people that are helping our “sport”.
Race day came and Michelle and I drove to Beacon early in the morning. Enough time to park, pick up our bibs, get dressed, meet the new trail adept Fabio, and then get a couple of strides to break the first sweat and line up for the start. Of course, after taking a group photo with the team to bless the new adventure together.
As soon as we started Iain, Ben, Ryan and the Russian lined up in the front and tackled the trailhead with great momentum. The good thing is that here nobody tried to do anything stupid and we all ran together for a mile or two. Then something weird happen. Another runner that was in the group with us tried to push the pace and missed a turn on the trail, losing about 50 feet. The guy started swearing and sprinted back pretty upset reconnecting with us. Then he faded back, and we saw him only hours later at the finish.
Knowing Denis’ fame I was expecting his infamous early race fast pace, but even he was controlling his effort. I think that only going up sugarloaf he pushed a little the pace and forced the effort going down towards Route 9. I think that Ben tried to close the gap with him immediately, and the two of them took a little lead from me Iain and Ryan, probably 10-15 seconds.
Here I also dropped my bottle while trying to eat, drink and run all at the same time. No big deal Iain passed me, then a couple of hundred meters after he missed a right turn and I called him back immediately. At this point we all got together at the base of Breakneck. Denis and Ben ran straight to the trail after a very quick pit stop at the aid station, while I decided to avoid stopping, knowing that AS 2 was not that far.
Iain and Ryan were close by and reconnected immediately. We hiked Breakneck Ridge together, and I sensed that Ben was not pushing as much as he could have, after seeing him running up with the snow in February.
After taking the right turn on yellow we headed down towards Cold Springs and here Ian Golden joined us for the run. The pace was not super fast, and I was enjoying the moment because I finally found people that run in a smart way and are aware of the overall difficulty of the race. Once we hit AS 2 Ryan had a little incident tripping on a rock, but got up immediately and ran it off. Those four started clicking a couple of miles at 6 minute per mile. I was not too happy about that. It was still too early to push and destroy my legs, so I let them go, and while keeping a good pace, I maintained a more balanced effort. I followed probably 20-30 seconds behind and made up the gap at the beginning of the Washburn after the abandoned mining area.
I tried to stay back, letting the veterans dictate the pace, falling back a few seconds whenever they were pushing a little more. We basically all continued in a group, but the lead kept changing randomly. After the stretch on the yellow Undercliff trail we got to AS 3 (same as AS2) and got my perks from Amy who was volunteering and kindly kept some extra things for me. Here I think someone tried to pull a fast one and take off. I did not realize if it was Denis or someone else, but the group got a little stretched out on the flat section going up to the ruins.
At the ruins we all got reconnected because…only Ben and I knew where we were headed and the others did not know exactly how to interpreter the directions of a sign. From that moment on we kept going together till the 25k mark at Settlement Camp. During the descent to the camp I briefly talked to Ben and I saw he was slowing down just a bit compared to the others. I asked him what his impression was about Denis, the only one of the group that was not part of the team. He told me he had no idea, so we approached quickly the aid station. Here I did not need to get too many things. Refilled the bottle, got some cold water on my face and neck to cool down (the sun now started cooking us well with temps going up to the mid 70s) and took off.
I feared that someone was going to run the hill like a maniac, so I wanted to get a little advantage at the beginning and basically do an easier effort climbing up. I saw that Denis quickly lined up behind me, but it did not bother me. He was about 1-200 ft behind, and I checked the gap when making turns. Sometimes it was getting bigger, sometimes smaller.
I had a few minutes to think about the race and tactics. I thought it was very cool to be there with the big dogs of the north east. How could I have imagined this scenario, when only less than 3 years ago I lined up for my first trail race, a half marathon in Bear Mountain? And only 2 years ago I did my second trail race? I was experiencing joy that was propelling my run. However, I realized quickly that it was still too early in the race; I began thinking that I could have pushed and gain a little lead to be wasted in the Fishkill section of the race (which I knew was going to be long and boring for me).
Then, after a couple of miles from Settlement Camp, I heard some quick steps and someone breathing heavily coming up fast on my left. It was like a train locomotive coming up. I thought it was the Russian Fruitarian – at first – but when I got passed I realized it was Iain. Glimpsing back I noticed that Ben and Ryan were close, while Denis started losing some ground.
I did lose my advantage on the climb, true, but my effort was not as intense as the one they were producing. When we took the left turn on the white trail heading to Beacon Fire Tower, Iain had just a couple of seconds on me and Ben was not far behind. We kept pretty much the same gap from there through the Casino Trail and the yellow Wilkinson trail, till almost the Fishkill trail, where I started feeling tired of all those little ups and downs. The sun also started to hit us more directly in those sections where trees gave room to short bushes.
Ben gained on me and passed me decisively. I tried to follow for a couple of minutes, but I needed to stay focused on my effort, not his or Iain’s. When I hit the section near the Bulldozer (I think it is called Dozer Junction), I realized the two of them were gone. Behind me I had no idea what was going on and in my mind there was the vivid fear of seeing Denis popping up. I also knew that sooner or later Ryan would make his appearance and claim his territory. He was going to be a main character on Beacon hill, that was a fact.
The steep downhill section was tricky and I started feeling a bit exhausted. My next goal was to make it to the bottom of the trail where the week before I found a good size creek with plenty of cold fresh water. Hot and steaming I dragged myself for another 5-10 minutes and when I got to the creek I threw to the side my handheld and dipped my legs, arms and face onto the creek. I think I almost looked like a bear coming out from the cold waters of an Alaskan river after hunting for fish, and even if it costed me valuable time, the minute I spent there was very much needed to cool off and put myself together again.
The remaining smooth portion downhill was very runnable, and even if I was not hitting impressive splits, it gave me the chance to recover the legs moving steadily, without breaking the pace. Almost at the intersection with the red Casino trail I ran into Scotie who was following Joe Azze taking photos and footage of the race. He told me I was only three minutes behind Ben and Iain.
It was not a bad gap, overall. Given I lost about a minute on the creek, that means they probably gained just about a minute a mile since I last saw them. That was quite an incentive to keep up the effort without falling off the pace in “lazy territory”. Just moments later I ran into Joe and he confirmed that Ben and Iain were just ahead at the Aid Station.
While running down trying to miss the mass of hikers that was coming up and down the trail making it almost an obstacle course, I decided to avoid the trail for the last section and use the metal stairs. Definitely this was a slower route, but at least I could save just a bit more my legs.
No sign of the leading duo, yet, so I thought they were already making their way up to South Beacon Mountain. Then, all of a sudden after the stairs, they appeared. They were so close. Immediately I thought I could have made the effort to try and catch up with them. I knew the hill, and I knew I could run it even with tired legs. At the aid station I got a lot of help refilling the bottle, getting ice, and washing my face with ice cold water. I remember in particular Ian Golden being very helpful.
I headed back up where I came from and Ryan came out from the trail, in the same spot I saw Ben and Iain before. He was hot on my heels. I told him to hurry up and catch me, knowing his proverbial climbing strengths. Having a companion would have helped in those last 4 miles, even if knowing he was catching me put me down a little bit. Still, we were probably both tempted to reconnect with the lead.
I entered the stairs again and as soon as the trail opened up I gave my best climbing effort for about 10 seconds. For 10 seconds I believed I could get to the front. Then I had my first cramp. From there on I just shuffled up, a bit disappointed, but still glad of how the race was coming out. At this point the race became a journey to the finish line, there was no victory waiting for me, and there never was one. I knew it from the beginning, I was just reminded of my limits by those powerful and painful cramps that stopped me in a couple of spots.
After the first mile up (and 1,000ft up) I got a better momentum going towards the fire tower. I could not see Ryan behind me, yet, so I felt refreshed that I was not a total loser. Also, no sign of Denis. Worst case I could have finished fourth at that point. That was remarkable for me.
Before the fire tower I got totally confused with the course. I did not bring the directions with me so I was not sure where I had to go. I could not see flags anywhere (till this point the course was marked perfectly and I had no issue navigating through), so I started climbing up the white trail, the same way Steve did when I saw him the week before practicing on the course.
I couldn’t see flags so I thought something was a bit off and I ran off trail about 100 ft towards the section we used on the outback course. I saw a flag and reconnected with the trail, disappointed for losing some valuable time and climbing some extra ground that was really not accounted for in the plan.
Well, at least at this point the hard part was over, at least I thought. With left and right hamstrings cramping it was going to be a smooth transition to the finish line where a sunny afternoon would have comforted my rest and the wait for Michelle. Instead I forgot that there was another couple of little hurdles to go by: the rocky and technical section on the white trail, and hikers making it a tough going the trail.
Sure enough to make it even funnier my left hip flexor started cramping while trying to slide down a rock with an elder asian woman right down below me. She did not even realize I was on top of her, did not see me going by rolling down the rocks on my butt (a huge hat covered her face), and probably realized that something must have happened cause she must have heard me swearing in Italian.
While trying to survive the easier final descent moving my legs very gently to avoid further cramps I ran into Michelle at about 5 hours and change, which was a very good time and well ahead of the plan she made.
Feeling content that the day was going well for both, I dragged myself to the finish, incredibly satisfied for a day in which the race taught me a lot, the other runners taught me a lot and I even got to spend a bunch of time with several people at the finish line.
A huge thank you to Ian Golden for this incredible race and event. A huge thank you to Mountain Peak Fitness & Red Newt Racing Team for welcoming me into a team of talented, fast, and tough athletes who are exquisite persons to talk to and a great enjoyable company before, during and after the race.
An honorable mention to Michelle for finishing her adventure light years ahead of schedule, which means San Francisco was not an accident, and also for putting up with my stupid training plans.
A big thumbs up to Red Newt Racing & Run on Hudson Valley for providing the team with wonderful, useful and very helpful apparel for the race. Thank you also to Ryan, Kristina, Eric and Steve for sharing your race stories with me at the end of race, as well as your life adventures.