I'm tempted to say it's been a long season. I ran my first race of 2015 on January 3, even though it was pretty low-key; the first of my two 'A' races for the year was at the end of February. By mid-October I might be ready for a break. But in reality, it doesn't feel like that long a season. All of my races were crammed into the first half of the year; since the Whiteface Skyrunning weekend at the end of June, I've barely raced at all. Maybe it'd be more accurate to think of the year as two separate seasons, with July serving as a recovery period, and this fall being the first part of a longer 2015-16 campaign that will probably stretch into next summer. So, depending on your point of view, I either wrapped up the 2015 season or kicked off the 2016 season last weekend at the Water Gap 50K.
As a member of the Mountain Peak Fitness / Red Newt Racing team, I'm certainly encouraged to enter more Red Newt Racing events. But even if I wasn't on the team, these races would be at the top of my list. Ian Golden, who I've mentioned multiple times before, is a truly great race director, with an outstanding vision of what he wants his races to be, and the ability to shepherd those visions into reality.
Water Gap was the last event on the 2015 schedule for Red Newt Racing, and it promised to be something unique for a Red Newt race: fast! Ian has a (well-deserved) reputation for courses that are not only beautiful but extremely challenging; anyone who has run Breakneck Point, Whiteface, or Virgil Crest can confirm how difficult those courses can be. Ian further solidified that reputation this year by co-directing (with Charlie Gadol and Mike Siudy) two of the most notoriously difficult trail races in the Northeast, Manitou's Revenge and Cat's Tail Trail Marathon. Even Cayuga, while eminently runnable, is a very difficult course that is easily 60-90 minutes slower than a "fast" 50 mile. So when Ian declares a course to be "fast," that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
The Water Gap 50k course seemed to fit the bill, though: 31 miles of almost exclusively graded double-track, with only about 2000 feet of climbing. A welcome change from what I'd been racing earlier in the year. As always with a Red Newt Racing event, I knew the competition would be stiff, at the very least from whatever of my ultra-fast teammates would show up that day. But I was excited to get back into racing after a pretty long layoff. Even though I wasn't in top racing form--probably more like 85%--I thought I could run near four hours on the course, which would be a nice stimulus for the training block leading up to January (more on that later).
I spent the night before the race camping near the finish with Elizabeth, Joe, Natalie, Lenny, and Ian; all would be volunteering on race day (along with several other teammates: Scotie, Zsuzsanna, Julian, and Amy; hopefully I didn't forget anyone). I woke up early and grabbed breakfast in downtown Milford, PA with Joe and Mike Siudy before Joe gave us a lift to the start, 31 miles to the south. The weather was perfect: clear and cool, in the low to mid 40s, with minimal wind.
At the start I met Phil Vondra, a frequent training partner, as well as teammates Carlo and Silas, who I expected to run away with the race. Both had to be tired (Silas was on his third ultra-type effort in five weeks, following Virgil and Cat's Tail; while Carlo was only six days off a sterling 2:35 in Chicago) but both are strong runners who had to be considered the favorites. Phil and I had a quick strategy session and decided to try to run an 8:00 minute mile pace for at least the first ten miles, then reassess. As I was basically training through, still running 75-85 miles per week, and Phil was tired from a heavy week of drinking (it's an occupational hazard, apparently), a conservative approach seemed prudent. So at least we had a plan in place that we could immediately ignore as soon as the gun went off.
Carlo and Silas went immediately to the front, joined by Justin Weiler (a strong upstate NY runner coming off of an excellent 3:44 at the Green Lakes 50K) and Tony Kharitonov (a solid masters runner from NJ). Phil and I formed a chase pack with Jay Lemos, who was finishing up what truly was a long season that had included an impressive second place at the Eastern States 100.
We came through the first mile in 7:25 or so, obviously much faster than we had wanted, about 10 seconds behind the leaders. We were able to let them go without any problem after that, but despite our efforts to find 8:00 pace kept turning out miles in the 7:30-7:40 range. Conditions were perfect, and the course as very flat in the opening miles, so we maintained the pace, chatting constantly and every mile making noises about slowing down without actually doing so.
Just past the five-mile mark came one of the few decent-sized climbs on the course, about 3/4 of a mile long with multiple switchbacks leading up to AS1 (about 10K in). I led our group uphill at a low intensity level. We caught Tony at the top and the four of us ran together through the aid station. I went through without stopping; Phil caught up within a minute, but it took Jay and Tony about a mile to rejoin us, and we continued on, running our 7:35s or so. After a couple of rolling miles the course flattened out again and remained so for the next 12 miles or so. Tony dropped back after the 10 mile mark and the three of us passed AS2 in the same fashion.
The miles clicked off fairly easily. We still made overtures about slowing down, but as we neared halfway we figured we might as well keep on the pace as long as everyone felt good. The terrain made it very easy to find a rhythm; our splits hovered around 7:30 with less than a few seconds of variation either way. We were still chatting easily. Jay had made a game of jumping over the three-foot-high barriers every time we crossed a park road or bridge, which kept Phil and I pretty entertained.
Through AS3 at 14 miles the pace remained steady; I ran through again without stopping while Phil and Jay stopped to refuel. At this point I had yet to take in any nutrition other than some sips of water. I felt a little bad not waiting for the guys at the aid stations, but at the same time, I had made the decision to go with the handheld so that I wouldn't have to stop. Neither of them were carrying water. We had each made our choice on either side of the trade off. I couldn't feel guilty.
My strategy was starting to pay off, though. I kept running my 7:30s, not consciously trying to get a gap--I was having too much fun running with those guys to try to go solo at this point--but it was putting pressure on them to run a little faster to catch back up after each break. After AS3 it took them almost a full mile to come back, having had to run well under 7:00 to do so. These surges, however short, had to take something out of them. After halfway (1:58) Jay had stopped leaping over the barriers, and through the 17 mile mark conversation had tapered off dramatically.
I took my first GU right around the two hour mark. I was still feeling great. The pace was starting to inch down a little bit, but it felt almost effortless, and we were getting into the stages of the race where getting a little more aggressive was OK. Miles 18 and 19 were run at about 7:15 pace, and past the 19-mile mark Jay and Phil started to fade away. I soloed on, into what had become a bit of a bothersome headwind, and took a second GU just before AS4 at 20.5 miles. I made my only stop here, to refill my bottle, drop in a GU Brew tablet, and pee, giving up about 30 seconds before getting back out on course.
The course started getting a bit tougher. Some rolling hills mixed with some short singletrack sections. I started feeling some discomfort in my right patellar tendon, which has bothered me on and off for some time, though not to a significant degree; and also some tightness in the left hamstring. I adjusted my stride, slowed to about 7:45 pace, and pushed forward. The miles clicked by. I passed the marathon mark at 3:18, approaching the final aid station.
On a long, flat, straight stretch approaching the checkpoint, I saw a flash of a green t-shirt leaving the aid station: Justin, in third. That was a boost. I had five miles to catch him and was obviously making up ground; I hadn't seen any of the top three since the opening twenty minutes or so. I passed through AS5 feeling strong and ready to hunt. Joe was waiting for me in the woods about half a mile later, filming me at the bottom of a technical singletrack descent. He confirmed that Justin was just up ahead. (Also that Silas and Carlo had about a mile lead on us at that point.) We were in the midst of the most difficult section of the course--some steep singletrack with a lot of sidehill running and thick leaf cover, obscuring the rocks and roots and making for some pretty slow going. My pace had slowed to near 10:00/mile, but by the 27-mile mark I had caught and passed Justin.
About a mile later the singletrack ended and I started opening up the stride again. I wasn't particularly concerned about getting caught--I felt pretty confident no one was coming back on my at this point--but four hours was looking possible, even likely if I could recapture my earlier rhythm. I was able to drop down to 7:03 pace for mile 29 and 7:10 or so for mile 30, at which point I relaxed a little bit through the final finishing stretches, coming home in 3:57 for a nearly evenly split performance (1:58/1:59).
Silas and Carlo ran together the whole way, turning in an outstanding 3:44; my third-place finish made it a podium sweep for MPF/RNR, which was pretty sweet. Justin gutted out a tough 4th, while Phil maintained a nice pace for fifth in 4:04. All in all, a very successful day for me. I met my goals of top five, top master, and four hours, all while training through. The course was beautiful, the weather was perfect, the volunteers were great, and having Phil, Jay, Mike, and the whole MPF/RNR team there at the end made for fantastic camaraderie.
I couldn't have asked for a better end, or beginning, to the season. I've got some small stuff coming up--a couple of 5Ks and 10Ks--including my high school alumni race, always a highlight of my year, and I think a beer mile as well. But I'm keeping the volume and intensity fairly high for the next few weeks, hopefully building to a large training block in December, leading into the main attraction for the next few months: Bandera 100K, the USATF championships, on January 6. I'll be heading out with Phil and Elizabeth. All of us will be looking to get our lottery tickets for Western States in 2017; Phil and I will be attempting our first 100Ks.
I'm planning on a big first half of 2016. Bandera is one of three national championships I'm targeting in my first year as a master (Caumsett in March, Cayuga in May); I won't win any national titles, but some age-group medals could be possible. And I'm toying with the idea of a couple of timed events as well, maybe a six hour, and possible even a 24-hour in July. Could be a big year! Stay tuned.