It's been a bit of a slog this summer. After a decent spring and a solid (if slightly unsatisfying) finish at Cayuga I took a much-needed break from training and from my usual LCHF habits. The resulting gluttony was fun for about a week; after that it started feeling almost obligatory rather than enjoyable. I started training again about two weeks and twelve pounds later (not joking), and unsurprisingly it took some time to get the ol' rhythm back. I set my sights on the Vermont 50 mile for my return to fall racing, then downgraded to the 50K when I realized my fitness wasn't quite up to snuff. My Achilles really started to flare up in early August; by mid-August I was hobbling on most of my runs and wasn't planning on racing at all for quite some time. Getting off the pavement and back on the trails, as well as back to regular visits with the great Greg Cecere at Momentum Physical Therapy got me back on track, however, and I logged on to register for VT50 two days before the deadline only to be closed out (of course.) Casting about for an emergency plan, I found the Mountain Madness 50K in Ringwood, NJ on the same weekend as Vermont. I hadn't run Mountain Madness (or any of the NJ Trail Series races, for that matter) since a rather infamous day in 2009 (which I won't go into here). I knew it was a more technical course than I'd usually prefer, but I didn't remember it being all that bad, and figured I'd give it a shot. My fitness wasn't great, but it was time to get back on the horse and kick-start the training buildup for 2018.
Training this summer hadn't been helped by the weather. July had been pretty brutal, and while August was relatively mild (although quite humid), September turned almost unbearable, particularly in the two weeks leading up to the race. Given my fitness level, the difficulty of the course, and the forecast, I wasn't expecting much; I was hoping to run around five hours but figured a 5:30 was more realistic. The weather did not disappoint; at the 9am start the temperature was already 70, and by the time I finished (many) hours later it would climb to 89 degrees with a good deal of humidity. I ran the opening few miles with two other runners at the front, a young local named Michael and another runner from Costa Rica who spoke absolutely no English and yet tried to ask us questions about the course as we were running. (We were not terribly helpful.) We took turns leading over rolling, minimally technical terrain. My Achilles was not excruciating, but was tight, and my suspicions that it was limiting my push-off were confirmed when I tripped over a pretty innocuous root and sprawled across the trail, my first real fall in quite some time. I popped up quickly, though, with just a few minor scrapes, and we continued together until about five miles in, when we came to a five-way intersection where the trail markings had clearly been tampered with. We ran around a bit, looking for the next markings without finding any, then continued in the direction we'd been heading for about a quarter mile. At this point we encountered markings that I recognized--we had come back to a hairpin turn at about the two-mile point on the loop; clearly not the right way. Our Costa Rican friend charged off down the trail again, restarting the loop we'd just run; Michael and I yelled after him to no avail, then gave up and returned to the intersection. By this time two other runners had reached the same point and were equally as confused. We spent a couple of minutes looking at the map, trying to figure out where to go. With no other markings, we headed back the way we had come, the only way we knew to get back to the start/finish, which was also the end of the opening 6.5-mile loop and would serve as AS1. The four of us came into the AS right at the hour mark, as Rick, the RD, was sending off the 25K runners for their 10am start. We grabbed some drinks and tried to explain to Rick where the issue was on the course, then started off in a group again to tackle the middle 25K loop.
Our pack of four quickly became Michael and I as we started the first major climb. The trail was much rockier and steeper than the opening loop, and we power-hiked frequently, passing 25K runners along the way. We were pretty even running on flat ground; I had a bit of an advantage climbing, but Michael bombed the descents, forcing me to work my way back slowly on the subsequent climbs. I was being patient, but really wasn't feeling great. Not terrible, but not feeling a lot of pep in the legs, and certainly more tired than I'd like to be less than two hours into a 5+ hour day. I pulled into AS2 just before the two-hour mark, only a few seconds after Michael, and left a few seconds before. I knew the next section would be mostly uphill and thought I might be able to open up a bit of an advantage. Over the next few miles I felt a bit better, finding a bit of a rhythm and seeming to open up a little gap, but when I checked over my shoulder about a mile outside of AS3, Michael was only about a hundred yards back. He caught up easily on the tricky descent into the aid station, as we hit the halfway point in just over 2:30.
At this point, I basically felt terrible. I crammed in some off-brand Coke and a couple of bananas, but really had no motivation to get back out on the trail; the fight had suddenly left me, and when Michael took off I waited an extra thirty seconds or so before leaving the aid station, thinking maybe the impetus of having to give chase would spur me on a little bit. Long story short: it didn't. I stumbled badly multiple times over the rocky terrain, overheating the whole way back down and struggling on every uphill. By the time I got back to AS4 (same location as AS2) almost an hour later I was in full death march mode, and still had nearly eleven miles to go. I knew third place was not within striking distance, but I had no idea on the gap up to the lead, and didn't really care all that much; I just wanted it to be over.
I felt a little better coming down a major descent about forty minutes later, and started running a bit better again, but a couple of wrong turns sapped my momentum, not to mention my will to live. I staggered into AS5 at the start/finish at right about the five-hour mark, hamstrings cramping badly, still needing to head back out on the opening 6.5-mile loop again to complete the nightmare. I'd say I considered dropping out, but that's not really true. I was basically resigned to my fate: I knew I was going to finish, I just didn't particularly want to. I took my time in the aid station, knowing that my finishing place was assured and that there was no more aid over this final hour-plus. After tossing back a bunch of Coke and cramming in some more calories, I grabbed the podcast machine and made my way back into the heat. The final lap passed uneventfully, if not quickly (almost eighty minutes for 6.5 miles!) and I finally jogged home in 6:18, ultimately only about five minutes behind Michael, who I hadn't seen for nearly four hours.
Not much more to say about this one. I went in with minimal expectations, and they were met in spectacular fashion. As the Stranger famously said, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. For this race, I think I'll just be happy to be finished with a long, painful day on the trails, take my lumps, and move on to the next one.