Iron Mines 50k "Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated…"
The racing has not been going great for a while, with the notable examples of a 10th at Escarpment in 2018 and a 6th at Breakneck this year. Elizabeth had mentioned that people asked what happened to me, and a few hundred asked me that directly after Escarpment. Work, age, and life happened. I understand age related physiological decline better than most, so declining performances were not unexpected, and to some degree I have felt very fortunate to run so well for so long. I’ve been blessed by good health, a supportive family, and great mentors, teammates, and competitor/friends. At the same time, I’m not one to go gentle into that good night.
My training over the past year or two has been inconsistent, so the loss of fitness and poor results could not just be attributed to declining testosterone and broken parts. I’ve been able to get a better handle on training the past few months, and although I was soundly beaten by Ian at the Castle to River 50k (race report), I had a good day and it was solid performance. I was optimistically confident going in to Breakneck, so my 6th place way off the lead was disappointing. I convinced myself it was just a bad day and tried to avoid blowing it out of proportion. I upped my lawn mowing mileage and spent some quality training days at Sky Zone prior to the Iron Mines 50k. After discussing the course with Elizabeth and Joe, I was excited for the race just to check out their local NJ trails. Competition wise, I was worried about trying to hang with Jay and Steve given their impressively fast performances at Breakneck.
At the very least, it was a perfect day for a race, cool and dry, and the trails were in great shape. I greatly appreciated the logical start from Jay and Steve; Elizabeth did a good job of scaring us about the difficulty of the course, that, and we all had seen the rugged elevation profile. We knew we would be in for a rather long 50k, even longer than expected! The scenic aspects of the course appeared early as the trail wound along rolling waterfalls. Jay and Steve wondered if they should stop for a romantic moment. I was hoping that would happen, but no such luck.
The pace was sane, but we were definitely making good time and had pulled away from rest of the field. In the back of my mind I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off like they did at Breakneck, but the course did a good job of keeping me distracted. While the trails are technical, most of the mileage is quite runnable, including many of the uphills. Intensely technical sections are relatively short, and followed by flowing trails where you could stretch the legs out. For such low elevation, the number of exposed hilltops was incredible, with views making you feel you were much further from civilization. My GPS decided to drop the signal early on, which was a bit concerning, but I checked in with Steve and Jay whenever I needed a mileage update.
Mileage updates were possible because we chose to run together. This was for various reasons, social, navigation, navigation, and it involved a deliberate effort. By this, I mean that no one was sprinting off from aid stations, surging on uphills or downhills, or pushing each other off of ledges. This was a 30-40 mile race, there would be plenty of time for that later. Unfortunately, our trio broke up at about 22 miles when Jay had to make a pit stop. Steven had seemed extremely comfortable with the pace, so I braced myself for a major offensive surge. While he didn’t blast off into the trees, there was a gradual ratcheting up of the pace over the next few miles which was especially noticeable on the uphills.
He was still holding a conversation, where I was just trying to hold on. However, shortly after starting to hammer up the last big hill at 27 miles, he slowed to a walk with leg cramps and told me to go on. I pushed on up the steep slope, running grades we had been walking all day. Based on a couple of decades of racing and witnessing cramping runners, I did not expect to see Steve again. Much to my surprise, a mile later, he came barreling down the trail in back of me. We were around mile 29, so there was no reason not to try and hold on to the lead. This required swinging around trees on hard downhill turns, where my body was practically horizontal. Steven found this quite entertaining as I fled in fear. Even that wasn’t enough, and he blew by me with an impressive surge of speed.
Just as I was trying to figure out how he was running so hard after cramping, we reached a rock garden stream bed. Steven cramped right in the middle and went down like a sack of potatoes, and that is exactly what it sounded like. He again suggested I go on without him. After I checked that his teeth and facial bones were intact, I again took off for the finish. I was thoroughly convinced that he would come back from the dead yet again and run me down. The 25k runners must have thought I was being chased by a bear.
Racing hard after 6 hours of running is never easy, but this was especially difficult as I was now starting to cramp and I was unsure of how long I had left to go. What I was told was the last “quarter mile” was a full mile after being misdirected. That is the definition of a sick joke. Luckily, my legs held up long enough to get me the win, just barely, with Steven and Jay following in second and third.
I’m still not sure how you get 9k feet of climb for 32 miles in an area with no hills greater than a few hundred feet, but there were certainly plenty of hills on that course. Thanks to Ian, Elizabeth, Joe, and all the race volunteers for an awesome new trail ultra. It’s an instant classic, like Breakneck and Catstail. Thanks also to all the inspiring masters runners I have learned from over the years, Dave Dunham, Dan Verrington, John Barbour, Terry McNatt, Mark Reeder, Greg Putnam, Tim Van Orden, and many others.
For all the aging ultra runners out there, listen to Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.