Race Report: 2015 NJ Ultra Festival 50K "Mother Nature's Last Winter Laugh" by Harry Hamilton

The New Jersey Ultra Festival 50K is part of the NJ Trail Series (www.njtrailseries.com). The race took place on Saturday March 21st, 2015. The Course is a trail behind the County Fairgrounds in Sussex County, New Jersey.  

During the week leading up to the race day of the NJ Ultra Festival a lot of the snowfall in the area had melted. By Thursday conditions were looking like a fast run. I was hoping for a nice dry long training run with good footing, without ice and snow. The plan was to run marathon pace plus one minute and see how I felt after 26 miles. Hopefully I could take off at that point in the race. Then, on Friday before race day, the snow fell once again.  

The roads were clear driving up to the race, but the day’s first issue reared its ugly head before the race even started. I was getting a flat tire on my car and had just enough air to get into a parking spot in the lot close to the race start. I quickly changed the tire with about 20 minutes to spare before the start. The last thing that I wanted to do after a race was change a flat just in case I was totally spent on energy.  

Since it snowed I didn’t want to use the last pair of my favorite Mountain Masochist race shoes  (read Harry's shoe review), so I opted to use a new pair of Inov-8 Race Ultra 290s. They performed solidly in the snow even though they were not broken in and are primarily a dirt and trail shoe. I fueled with Hammer Perpetuem solid chews and GU gels with caffeine. I only drank water since this was a short race.  

The course was marked with orange spray painted arrows in the snow.  The first mile for the 50K was a small loop followed by three 10 mile loops on the trail.  You couldn’t see where the trail was and it really didn’t matter because the runners created a single track in the snow. The second issue of the day occurred at mile 3, but I didn’t realize it until mile 7.  At mile 3 of the race we were supposed to make a right and do a 3 mile extension on the trail. Well some of us missed that turn and did not realize it until we were headed back to the start/finish area. We decided that we’d add it back on right away, head back on the course to the start/finish area, and then advise the race director. We went through the start/finish and explained the situation.  We offered to show our Garmin’s mileage as proof that we’d done the correct distance and got the OK and proceeded on.  

There were a lot of runners bumping shoulders on the trail as they passed in different directions. The 100 mile, 100K, 50 mile, 50K and marathon all had runners on the course simultaneously at one point. It wasn’t too crowded, but your feet got colder and wet from passing others when you stepped out of the track and into the deeper snow.

Just into the second loop the course started to ice over from all of the runner’s treading on the same path. The worst part of the course was that 3 mile extension that had a lot of ruts, holes and what appeared to be indentations that resembled horses’ hoof prints. There were a lot of off camber foot strikes and plenty of opportunities to push a shoe through some of the snow covered ice at stream crossings. Not to mention the chance of a turned ankle.

I did fall once on a slippery bridge and almost went through some broken wooden slats and into a stream. I pulled a toe nail back and extended a finger. Nothing serious.  It started to snow lightly about mid way through the race. I was thinking about how my MPF teammates and friends were faring at the Mt Tamanny 10 race. Whatever I countered was trivial compared to what they were experiencing. (check out Ben Nephews race report from this years race)

As the race progressed and I started to get a sense that I was still in the top 10. I really didn’t have any aspirations of getting competitive until I was told that I was in 5th place after 21 miles.  I didn’t pick up the pace though because it was still too early and I really wanted to stick to my race plan.

I managed to pull up to third place with about 4 ½ miles left on the last loop before the race ended, but I couldn’t hold it, as some youngin’ passed me and slowly pulled away for the third place finish.  As the conditions were slippery I used a lot of energy throughout the race just trying to maintain my planned pace. I was also nursing some piriformis soreness the whole week leading up to the race. My training during this week was only two walks. Sometimes it’s not worth the risk of further aggravating the injury. In this case the kid was just stronger. I finished fourth and ended up with a sub 5 hour 50K time. In hindsight, I was not happy with my mile splits, because they should have been faster. The snow hindered that, but I’ll take the 4th place and the overall time, which I think was good considering the conditions.

The NJ Trail Series mantra is “We make running fun.” I had not participated in one of the series ultras for a while and it was actually fun. There was a number of out of State runners that were competing. There were two from Colorado, which I thought was funny that they came all the way to NJ to get the same running weather as in CO. Included were some very experienced Ultra runners, one of which has done 224 ultras, and also a lot of newbies to the 50 mile, 100K and 100 mile distance. All of the competitors had a good attitude and showed a real enthusiasm for the sport.  The NJ Ultra Festival 50K was my 53rd marathon distance or longer race finish. The average distance for these 53 races is 48 miles.

Harry Hamilton