2016 Rock the Ridge 50 by Iain Ridgway
This race was never on the schedule but first Ken then Ben contacted me to see if I would run. I was really interested in a fast 50 mile ‘trail’ race. I use the inverted commas as it is generally a very fast course on the carriage roads of the Mohonk Preserve; however whilst fast it also contains a significant amount of elevation change, albeit very gradually. It certainly appealed but fell at a busy time of year.
However with an upcoming move and increased Daddy day care duties fast approaching, I’m racing far more than I typically do in the early part of 2016. With Ocean Drive Marathon, Naked Bavarian, Springle Track, Breakneck and now Rock the Ridge 50 this is my busiest start to a year for a long time.
Ben kindly invited Gwen, Meredith and I to stay at Steph’s mums house the night before the race so the logistics were all pretty much taken care of. All I had to do was run a solid 50 miler, hopefully stay close to Ben. Having been soundly dropped by Ben and the lead pack at Breakneck only two weeks previously I was far from confident I’d even make half way with Ben and I also haven’t run a runnable 50 miler since Cayuga back in 2014. I was disappointed with my Breakneck run, whilst I didn't expect to compete with Ben there this year I wasn’t happy to be almost 30 minutes behind him, after being with him 10 miles in. Injury issues affected winter training but since the new year I’ve been happy with my training, luckily my inherent selfishness (which my wife will testify to..) has meant having a newborn hasn’t overly affected training so I feel fitness is starting to return as we enter the main season.
My plan for the race was pretty simple.. hold on to Ben. We set off and I expected it to be just us but we had a relay runner and then another runner joined us who we thought was in the 50 miler too. Steadily we pulled away and I sat in behind Ben on the long first climb and Ben seemed strong, whilst the pace was a tad hard for me, I felt I wasn’t dipping into the red so just followed along, soon we dropped the other runner and it was just the relay runner and us on the long 3-4 mile climb to the first fluids station. Ben was obviously stronger early on but seemed happy to keep me along for company. Looking at recent results Ben has ran most of his previous 150 miles on this route solo.
This race is just the perfect hybrid of road and trail, just miles and miles of slowly undulating crushed gravel wide trails, occasional sections of stony and slightly technical ground but it just winds around stunning vistas of the Mohonk Preserve. Having ran at Springle Track and the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival I’d seen small sections of the Mohonk Preserve but this was my first time really seeing all the carriage roads.
Ben was powering through the early miles and I just held on. The unspoken idea for me was we’d push to break his old record but with the recent fires in the area I’d expected a changed route and we then found out it was a slightly longer route. With not knowing the course I was happy to just sit in behind Ben. To be honest I was just wondering how far I could follow Ben for.. ‘Make the first aid station’.. then ‘Make 10’.. It wasn’t like a flat race where you can watch pace, so at the start I switched my watch data fields so I couldn’t see time, all I could see was average pace, lap pace and distance. Average pace would give me a rough idea but without knowing the course ahead I couldn’t predict anything. For the whole race I never once looked at my time nor asked Ben how we were going against his previous times.
We climbed over skycap and enjoyed the views but as we approached 20 miles Ben was struggling with his stomach and didn’t seem as keen to push the pace. Still my view was 45 miles. Keep together if we could, just having someone to pace off, even the occasional words would help time pass but from miles 25 onwards I felt I was actually feeling better. Ben warned me there was a long 6 miles of climbing between miles 24 and 30 up to Castle point, which I doubted. How can they fit 6 miles of climbing? As we climbed past Awosting Falls, steeply but never steep enough to walk, the climb just went on and on, past the lake and then around and over point after point until we finally reached Castle Point. I was definitely feeling my hip flexors by now but Ben said he just felt empty. I did consider making a break around then but I had no real desire to run the last 20-25 miles in unless Ben’s pace really dropped. From there it's actually almost all downhill so I was keen to get the pace down into the 7’s which we did and Ben just sat behind me as we started the long run to the finish. On the way back in we were passing the runners heading out so received support from many which helped keep us going. I don’t think either of us said much in return as we were both feeling pretty bashed as we approached the last 10 miles. The consistent running in this race really destroys your legs and I was thankful to have Ben alongside to help keep the pace solid.
I’ve seen Ben produce some impressive runs but this probably ranked as one of the most impressive runs I’ve seen from him, he just sat next to or behind me, from being empty at 25 miles he just kept on going. I was keen to keep the pace high but never red line and see where that took us as we approached 45 miles, with a good few miles of flat running where we managed to hold our pace in the mid 7’s. The sun was well up in the sky now but it was probably only mid 60’s so about ideal temperatures for a long run.
The climbs over the last section are all small, rarely that steep until the climb at 45 miles but we still kept on a run going and climbed well before we started the long final descent. I decided with probably no climbs to go I’d attack the last 3-4 miles back to the tower. The descents are smooth and gradual so holding mid- low 6 minute miles over the last section wasn’t too hard, a quick glance back revealed Ben was still hanging on which worried me I’d gone too soon, but I managed to keep the pace up and hoped I’d managed to open up a few minute gap. There was one worrying section on a long grassy traverse that was quite out of place with the previous well maintained crushed dirt roads which had me worried I’d missed a turn but thankfully I spotted the barn Ben had pointed out on the way and it was just a final retracing on my steps. There is one sting in the tail, a short climb on the road but then a lovely run in down the tree lined grove to the tower. I finished in 6:12, Ben just two minutes back in 6:14. The last 3.5 miles I’d averaged under 6:30 minute miles which was pretty pleasing. Still a good chunk outside of Ben’s record of 5:56 but with the course being slightly longer a respectable enough first effort.
Overall a great final long training run for Cayuga Trails 50 and a bit of a confidence booster after not having a great run at Breakneck. Still work to do for the year ahead but the main thing was my body held up OK and I’m pretty running fit at the moment, but worry I will struggle on the steeper terrain at Cayuga. After two days off I was back running which is always a good sign that I’m finally getting some robustness back.
Gear wise I used the new Ultimate Direction Access 20 waist pack with its very accessible 20 oz water bottle and small pouch which meant I could carry the GU gels that I almost exclusively used, and on my feet I opted for the Hoka Clifton’s due to the hard packed nature of the course. These were perfect, I could feel the occasional stony section, but the cushioning seemed to protect the legs on the long descents.
The course is very picturesque, very fast, undulating but still fast and it would be great to see it get a stronger field from runners. There are not many more scenic fast 50 milers. Thanks to Ben, Ken and Todd for the encouragement to enter and providing a great race and company. Next up is Cayuga Trails 50 miler, the USA Track and Field 50 mile trail championships.