"7 Hours of Rain and Pain" 2018 Rock the Ridge 50 by Ben Nephew
I skipped the Rock the Ridge 50 last year, and I regretted it as time went on. I didn’t expect that, as I tend to want to try new races after doing an event 4-5 times, and I was completely content with what I had been able to accomplish at RTR. I didn’t really think that a sub 6 hour time was a realistic goal, and I had been lucky enough to have two great weather days and run 5:58 and 5:56, with that 5:56 in 2015 being one of the best 50 milers I’ve ever run. In addition, it’s not the type of course I’m typically attracted to, as in, not a trail race at all. I’ve completely retired from road running at this point, and RTR is basically a road race that is (relatively) kind to your body.
So why did I decide to race this year? For one, the course is amazing, even for someone that loves technical trails more than air. I’ve never seen anything like it, and this has been confirmed by world class coaches who have considering establishing major training centers in New Paltz due to the incredible carriage roads. As I’ve said many times, the carriage roads are like running on the finest cinder track through one of the most incredible landscapes you could imagine. Old growth hardwood forests, pitch pine forests where every tree looks like a bonsai project, some of the finest rock climbing on the planet, waterfalls, lakes perched on top of ridges, and so many views of the surrounding mountains, ridges, and valleys that your neck starts to hurt. It is also nice to be able to run a solid pace and not worry about your footing all the time. In addition to my faster races, I’ve had great, unique memories from each of my RTR years, from the excitement of the first year of the race in 2013 to running most of course with my teammate at the time, Iain Ridgway, in 2016.
While each year is always going to be a bit different, in general the event is typically consistent from year to year with most variables. This year, however, was definitely different in many ways. For one, I was coming into this race knowing that I have a very long objective on tap two weeks later. While this is a standard inter-race interval for me, I was a bit concerned with an adverse impact of RTR on my objective in early June. When I saw that the weather was going to be….less than ideal for race day, I saw no point in killing myself, again, at RTR when any sort of fast time was highly unlikely. I have raced the vast majority of my RTR miles alone, I train alone 99.9% of the time (that is recently not true, as I’m doing more and more miles with Gavin, which is awesome!), and I saw no point in driving to NY to run by myself all day. Jay Friedman mentioned this to our mutual friend, James McCowan, and when James asked if I was looking for someone to run with on race morning, I did not hesitate to confirm.
After a short warmup with Gav, the race got started just after 6am, and it soon started to rain. It was about 50 degrees and windy; this was going to be interesting. We ran steady up the first 4 mile climb, where I put my shirt on as rain started to build. Another runner steadily pulled away on the downhills leading into the Spring Farm aid station at around 10 miles. My jacket went on at about 6-7 miles as the rain increased in intensity, and stayed on the rest of the day.
Many of my previous RTR’s have involved racing almost from start to finish, which is not something I recommend at all. It was nice to move over the course at a more reasonable pace with James, and I don’t mean a slow pace. Especially given the conditions, we were making good time, just less self-destructive. As we worked our way to the steep inclines taking us up towards Mohonk Mountain House, we passed the early leader and settled into a pace that seemed sustainable. This was the first year I’ve run without decent views off into the distance, but we still had some incredible scenes of Mohonk Lake and the Shawangunk ridge wrapped in clouds and fog. With no one at all out on the carriage roads, it was a serene experience. We were both soaked at this point, and it wasn’t getting any warmer. This was going to be interesting.
James and I cruised down from the Tower overlooking Mohonk, trying not to destroy our quads for the second half of the race. The rain was definitely making for stiff legs, but we distracted each other with conversation, when we were not too cold to talk. I had met James before, but we had not really spent much time together prior to the race. Running together was far better than suffering through the miserable conditions alone. I’ve done enough of that for a few lifetimes, I don’t feel the need for more. I’m OK with the current level of my resilience! On that note, one major topic of conversation was staying healthy as a master’s runner.
I should mention that this was James first 50 miler. While I was tempted to coach, because I do some of that for folks, James is the head coach at Vassar College, so I held off on instructing him on how to deal with shin splints. Considering he was just getting over an Achilles injury, he was doing great. We were well on pace to hit his target goal of 6:40, which would be fast without a boat given the conditions. Other than a few breaks, it just continued to pour on us and it was not warming up.
James went through a full wardrobe change at 25 miles and picked up some trekking poles to take some strain off his Achilles. We had been waiting for each other throughout the run, and I saw no reason for going off on my own at this point, or any point. The 6 mile grind up to Castle Point was rough on our ever stiffening legs, and things did not improve that much on the downhill back to the Lyon’s Road aid station. I will say that Awosting Falls was roaring, where in previous years it has been much less impressive. I’m not sure it was worth dealing with 7 hours of rain, but it was cool to see.
With 12.5 miles to go, James was doubtful of running in the 6:40’s, but I thought we still had a shot if we had a strong last few miles. I had warned James that miles 38 to 46 were going to be rough, and that was certainly true. Miles in this section look downhill on the elevation profile, but they don’t actually feel that way when you are running them. The hill at mile 45 also feels like a mountain, exponentially larger than on the profile. Even with the incredible drainage of the Mohonk carriage roads, there were still miles of puddles over this last section. I had to take off my timing chip and band around my ankle because it was so packed with mud and rocks that it was giving me tendonitis and sanding my skin off at the same time. James’ legs had about had enough by the last hill, and there was a considerable battle involved in getting them to cooperate.
However, once we started the last 4 downhill miles to finish, James built momentum like a locomotive. We went from 8:40 pace to 8:00, then down to 7:00; our fastest split since mile 17. Then, things got crazy. The last mile starts with a 70 foot hill and descends to the finish. James and I hammered up that last hill, not knowing that Etan Levavi had been running us down for the past 25 miles. He blew by us at the top of the hill. James and I had no idea where he came from, and I asked if he was in a relay team or running the ultra. He said “full” and James and I were shocked. After a few seconds, I reflexively just started chasing after him. My legs were so tight, I thought my hamstrings were going to snap.
I closed on him at first, but he just kept cranking down the pace, and I did not have enough time or speed to reel him in. I got down to 5:30 pace in the last quarter mile, but I ended up 2nd by 9 seconds in 6:49. James came in a few seconds later, and we had a good laugh and congratulated Etan on his wicked strong finish. Even though I have been in more crazy finishes than anyone I know, that certainly ranks up there with some of wildest. It is not often you end up with the top three at a 50 miler finishing within a minute, when the first place runner comes from over 12 minutes back in the last 12 miles! To provide some additional perspective, Etan ran those last 12 miles as fast as I did when I ran 5:56. He was rolling.
At the end of the day, I had a great time running with James, and was just glad I didn’t have to drop out with hypothermia. Half the field had to be stopped when they reduced the cut off time due to the conditions, where a few runners had already had to stop due to hypothermia. In addition to James, it was also Etan’s first 50 miler, and it was great to see both of them have strong races in incredibly challenging conditions. I think that effort in typical RTR weather would have gotten them low 6:20’s at least. I must have burned 10k calories just trying to stay warm; I was incredibly hungry for a solid two days after the race!
Thanks to all the race organizers and volunteers, that was a rough day no matter if you were running or not, and even in those conditions, the course is still special. The contrast between the carriage road and the surrounding greenery was surreal. Thanks to the Friedman’s for hosting Gav and I for the weekend, it was great to be able to hang out for once. Thanks to Gavin for hanging out all morning at the race, tracking deer and Pileator’s (as Aido calls them)! Maybe we’ll be running his first 50 there in a decade or so.
I wore Salomon Sonic RA’s for the race, which were a great match for the course. Plenty of cushioning, comfortable, light, and they drain really well and don’t hold that much water to start with. Even with all the water, my feet were in good shape after the race, and my legs recovered quickly, the quads were not too beat up at all.