Monday, 30 September 2013

Ramapo Mountain Madness 2013 - New Jersey's toughest wee ultra

It's now six months since we moved to New Jersey from Scotland.  We live about an hour north west of NYC, not far from where the suburbs stop and the mountains begin.  They are modest mountains, less than 1,500ft high, but steep and rugged enough to make for scenic views and challenging ultra marathon courses.

Ramapo Mountain Madness is a 50km race with about 5,000ft of ascent and descent up, down and around the Ramapo Mountains.  The race started last Saturday at 9am, and I had time for a leisurely breakfast before driving for twenty minutes to the start at Shepherd Lake.  After picking up my number and a few quick chats with some of the north New Jersey trail running community that I had ran with in the past, we were off at an easy pace on a smooth, wide trail around the lake.

Half a mile into the race we turned off onto one of the many blazed trails maintained by the New York - New Jersey Trail Conference, and for the next 39km the sections of smooth, wide trail were few and far between, and always disappointingly short in length.  The blazed trails that the race follows are for the most part technical single tracks with lots of rocks, roots, fallen trees and other obstacles to slow you down.  It was impossible to settle into a rhythm for long, having to constantly break stride because of an extra rocky patch or because of the trail descending down some big boulder steps.  Occasionally the trail would be smooth, hard-packed earth and my feet could have a rest from the battering they were taking on the rocks, but these sections would only last for a few hundred metres at most.

I had ran a few sections of the route in training so knew what to expect and my plan for the day was just to finish and enjoy myself.  The forest colours have just started to turn and rather than the solid dark green of the last few months the leaves were a palette of golden greens and rusty browns.  A handful of trees sporting scarlet or bright yellow leaves hinted at the spectacle to come at peak foliage in a few weeks time.  With the sun bathing the forest in beautiful fall light it was a day to enjoy and not get hung up on times and places.

The course had well stocked aid stations every 4 or 5 miles and a section of out and back at half-way which allowed all the runners to encourage each other.  At about half way I was feeling good, the energy gels from the aid stations were working well and a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans every so often seemed to be keeping a bit of zip in my legs.  I started pushing a little harder from then on and caught a few runners that had started off faster then struggled later in the race - the day had warmed up more than I think most of us expected, which maybe caught a few of the faster starters off guard.

After about four and a half hours of running on single track trails through beautiful forest there was a short, steep climb up to the top of a hill and view to remind us that we were only 30 miles from the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world.

The Ramapo Mountains with the skyscrapers of Manhattan on the horizon
A few hundred metres after the viewpoint there was a big pile of bear scat in the middle of the trail - luckily I was far enough down the field that any bears would either have been scared away or be full by the time I got near them.

The last aid station was right next to the finish line before the race route headed out for a final 7 mile loop on mountain bike trails.  The last seven miles of the race were the easiest running and the fastest part of the course for me by about a minute per mile.  It was good to feel like I was running strongly on this last part of the course and I made up a few places.  Although the trail was less rocky now there were some other obstacles to slow us down.

It wasn't just rocks and roots on the trail that we had to watch out for...
Once I'd finished taking a few photos of my harmless, but very impressive looking, friend I was soon on the smooth, wide lakeside trail we had started on and ran the last few hundred metres back to the finish.  I crossed the line in a little over six-and-a-half hours - I'd hoped to get under seven hours so I was pleased with my time.  After a lie down in the sun and a quick thank-you to the race director I was just trying to decide whether to have a burger or a hot dog from the barbecue that the race organisers had fired up, when I received a text from my wife to say that my son had just fallen in the playground near home and broken his arm.  I thought I should probably go and see how he was so unfortunately I wasn't able to hang around and chat to the other runners.  It would have been good to hear some other race tales.

I'll hopefully get out for many training runs in the Ramapo Mountains since they are only ten minutes in the car from our house, and I'm already looking forward to Mountain Madness 2014.  Thanks again to the race organisers and helpers for putting on such a great event, and to all the runners for the camaraderie and encouragement that I like most about this sport.  My son's arm isn't too bad and he is enjoying all the attention.  I could probably have stayed for a burger after all.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Stormin' Norvin

After a few inches of snow on Friday morning and a day of sleet and rain, Saturday was a lot more pleasant - not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was a few degrees above freezing.  I did some more exploration of the forests and trails in the north New Jersey area by heading out to Norvin Green State Forest for an 8 mile run.

It was brilliant.  Norvin Green State Forest is a hilly, rugged 6,000 plus acre area of forest with lots and lots of maintained trails.  The land was pretty much scoured clean by ice sheets during the last ice age and in many places the soil never came back so I was running on big slabs of granite a lot of the time - always fun. 


They were tough trails though, very rocky and either up or down - no flat, smooth, easy miles to be had, every one had to be worked for.  My feet were aching by the end of it - for most of the run the rocks were hidden under a few inches of soft snow and I was constantly jamming my feet between rocks or landing too hard on an unexpected rock.  The good thing about all the bare rock though is that there were more viewpoints than in most of the forests round here, including a few with the obligatory view of the Manhattan skyline 30 miles to the East.

I was running pretty slow and taking lots of photos but it was good just to be out on such a beautiful day in a very scenic bit of forest.  I think I need to enter a race to get myself motivated and have been looking into what's on offer round here.  There's a 30 mile race in September that looks good but it would be good to do something a little longer.

Miles run on New Jersey trails - 58.  Bears seen - 0.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

A run in the woods - Harriman State Park

Not long after we decided to come and live in New Jersey for a few years I read "A Walk in the Woods", Bill Bryson's book about the Appalachian Trail.  If you've read it (and if you haven't, you probably should), you'll know that much of the US is cartographically challenged when it comes to any passtime that doesn't involve an internal combustion engine.  Luckily, in the North East, there is an organisation called the New York - New Jersey Trail Conference who maintain hiking trails in most state parks and recreation areas, and also publish detailed maps of those trails.

Last Monday I became the proud owner of a couple of NYNJTC maps - North Jersey Trails and Harriman / Bear Mountain State Park.  Harriman State Park is in New York state, just over the state line from where we will live in New Jersey.  It's a large state park of rugged, forested hills and lots and lots of lakes.  This morning I drove the 20 minutes or so from Allendale, NJ, up to Harriman State Park to run some of the trails and make some use of my new map.

There had been a few inches of snow last night but once I left the parking lot on the main trail up to Pine Meadow Lake it was ice that was more of a problem.  This is a very popular trail and the new snow plus the snow from last week had been trodden down to ice.  After a mile of skittering about on the path I took a different, less popular, trail and soon was running through a couple of inches of soft snow - heaven. 

The NYNJTC maps show all maintained trails - meaning the trails are kept clear of debris and are marked every so often with paint blazes or little plastic rectangles nailed to trees - and also show where the good views are.  Since the state parks are pretty much forested in their entirety, there are only certain places where you can get a view rather than the continuous views of the deforested hills in the UK.  I took a trail up Diamond Mountain as it had a few viewpoints marked on it.

And I wasn't dissapointed - the views were good, a low milky sun was doing it's best to warm me up, and the snow was just deep enough to be a joy to run through without being too tiring.  From the top of Diamond Mountain I looked out over snow covered forest for pretty much as far as the eye could see in all directions - it was difficult to believe this was only a one hour drive from the centre of Manhattan, until I noticed I could just see Manhattan in the distance.  Amazing.

I dropped down the hill and round Pine Meadow Lake, which must be a very pleasant place to be in the summer, then set off on a trail to Ramapo Torne - I'd been speaking to a couple of hikers on the way down from Diamond Mountain and they said if I though the view from there was good I should go and see the one from Ramapo Torne.  The trail out there was pretty tiring - the ruggedness of the area means that the trails are either climbing or descending, there are very few flat bits.  And it's rocky too so there's a lot of climbing up and lowering yourself down rock steps.  Nothing serious but just enough to make it impossible to get into a nice smooth running rhythm.

 After some more great views of the surrondng mountains and forest, and of Manhattan, I ran the last couple of kilometres back to the car park down a gentle downhill snow covered trail.  There can't be many better ways to finish a run.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Run New Jersey

A few months ago my employer offered me a job in New Jersey for a couple of years.  After many late nights discussing the advantages and disadvantages for us and the kids, me and my wife finally decided it was an opportunity we would probably never get again and we should do it.  And so it is that I am spending two weeks in New Jersey getting to know my new place of work and looking for somewhere for our family to live.

It has been a beautiful weekend - clear skies, sun, mild temperatures and snow on the ground in the hills in north New Jersey where I am staying.  I have been surprised by just how much scenic countryside there is in New Jersey since it seems to be better know for its industry and beaches.  The north part of the state has lots of State forests and recreation areas, which are basically large areas of forested hills between 1,000ft and 2,000ft high, dotted with lakes and cut by a few river valleys. 

And there are lots of marked trails making their way through these forests.  On Saturday I went for a short run up High Mountain (which slightly exagerates its 850ft stature), following the white and the yellow trails.  The trails were mainly rocky singletrack through snow covered very quiet woods - surprisingly quiet seeing as the forest is only a few miles across and is surrounded by suburbs.  On the white trail down in a valley my heart got going a bit faster I couple of times when I heard some sticks snapping nearby - the notice in the car park warning of bears had put my nerves a bit on edge.  I met a couple of folk and it seems round here it is rude not to stop and have a good chat about things.  The highlight of the run was being rewarded at the summit of High Mountain with a view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan about 15 miles in the distance.  The sun was shining the wrong way to take a photo, but it was a good view.

This morning I met up with some of the guys from NJ Trailhead, an informal trail and ultra running group in north New Jersey.  They arrange a weekly run every Sunday and this Sunday the run was at Ramapo Mountain (more like 1,200ft) and we did a nice easy couple of hours on some fairly rocky trails weaving and winding their way through the woods to a nice peak with a view and back past lakes and cabins.  We were only about 25 miles from Manhattan yet the view from the peak was of rocky, forested hills stretching as far as we could see across north New Jersey and into New York state.  Apparently there are marked trails through pretty much all of the forest we could see, which must make up hundreds and hundreds of miles of trails for me to explore over the next few years.  The route we were running on was part of the Mountain Madness course, a 50km ultra held in September or October each year which is pretty much recognised as the toughest ultra in New Jersey because of the rough trails that it is run on.  I might need to check when entries open.

Lifetime miles on NJ trails = 27; bears seen = zero.  Long may it continue that way.

After the trail run in the morning I felt like a relaxing afternoon so caught a train for the one hour ride into NYC for my first every visit to the city - I couldn't help but swear involuntarily as I walked out of Penn Station onto the streets of New York for the first time.  What a place.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A day out on the Appalachian Trail – Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey

So if you are lucky enough to be one of my Facebook friends you might know that for the last week I have been travelling around the Western States of the US visiting a bunch of bus companies that my employer recently acquired.  You will probably have spent the week enthralled by wonderful tales of running in the morning in towns you’ve never previously heard of, and have probably been marvelling at the quality of photos that I took on those morning runs. 

It might surprise you to find out that those morning runs, starting and finishing at whichever hotel I found myself in and going along the long, straight, boring roads that were usually the only running option, were actually a bit rubbish.  It was good to see a bit of the places that I was staying in and it was good to get some exercise each day to counter some of the American size portions I was eating, but the routes themselves were not exactly inspiring. 

Today I found myself with a twelve hour layover at Newark Airport, only a short train ride from Manhattan.  Rather than hang around the airport for the day I decided to get out and about and the choice of place to go was obvious – rather than take a short train ride I hired a car for the day and drove the 70 or so miles to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and through which the Appalachian Trail runs.  I’d done a bit of research (I found a blog written by a keen hiker who can best be described as the John Kynaston of Delaware Water Gap) and had worked out a route going out linking up most of the shorter marked trails and back along the Appalachian Trail.  I was really keen to run along part of the AT since it is such a daddy of a long distance path – it runs over 1,000 miles from Georgia to Maine.

So here’s a few words and pictures on my run – about 14 miles in total but quite slow (around 4 hours) because of the nature of the path, as you’ll see, and it crept up to 30 Celsius over the course of the run.

I started off with an ascent of Mt Tammay, a modest 1,500ft hill that forms one side of the Gap.  The Gap has been formed where the Delaware River has cut through a ridge of quartzite on it’s way to the sea.  Now if you know your rocks, you’ll know that quartzite (a metamorphosed sandstone) weathers down into a jumble of sharp angular blocks typically ranging in size from small boulders to about the size of a house brick. I’d heard that some parts of the paths I would be running on were a bit rocky because of this broken quartzite.
At the start of the ascent of Mt Tammay - I thought this was what was meant by rocky trails so it seemed OK to me.  How wrong I was.
Looking into the Gap from Mt Tammay - the Delaware River cuts through a ridge of quartzite.  It was a hot, hazy day.

The climb up Mt Tammay (red trail) took a little over 20 minutes, with a few photo stops.  When I came down the blue trail I was on the other side of the hill from the other ascendees and for the next hour and a half I didn’t hear or see any other people – I didn’t hear any cars or planes, it felt properly wild.  But it was by no means peaceful – the paths through the woods were an assault on the senses – I was constantly watching the trail because of all the rocks and other dangers (more on that to come), above my head was a cacophony of bird and insect calls as I went past, the smells of the forest filled my nostrils and my feet felt the sharp quartzite through my shoes on every step.  I followed the trail up Dunnfield Creek to Sunfish Pond, a very pretty wee lake which modestly claims to be one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey.  I’m not sure what the other six are. 

The rocky trail alongside Dunnfield Creek
Sunfish Pond - one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey

At Sunfish Pond I hit the AT for the first time.  I could have headed back to the car along it for a 10 mile run but decided since I was feeling okay and still had plenty time (though I was moving much slower than I had expected because of the very rocky paths) I would run out and back along the Trail to the intriguingly named Raccon Ridge and Mount Mohican, a couple of miles each way.  The first bit of the path was nice and smooth so I thought oh good, the Appalachian Trail mustn’t be as rocky as the other trails, but no soon enough it was back to business as usual.  As I returned back past Sunfish Pond on the AT this time the path became very much like the section of the WHW just north of Inversnaid – lots of clambering over boulders and root stocks, and more than once I very nearly trod on a timber rattlesnake basking on the rocks.  Luckily they slithered down between a gap in the rocks just as I got near them.  I think a few rattlesnakes on the WHW might slow even Terry Conway down a little.
The AT at Sunfish Pond could hold its own againts the Inversnaid section of the WHW...
...with some added dangers!

As I ran the last few miles down the AT back to the hire car I passed lots of walkers heading up to Sunfish Pond.  By now it was nearly 30 Celsius and they were suffering so I was glad that I had started a few hours earlier (perhaps the one benefit of having to catch a red-eye from Portland the previous evening) and by now was heading back downhill, fantasising about burritos and free soft drink refills at Taco Bell. 
Most of the trails were feet-achingly rocky.

So it was a good way to spend the day – it would perhaps have been nicer to run on some slightly less rough trails (my feet are throbbing as I write this) but I can’t fault the forest and the few vistas that I saw.  Especially since it was all only just over an hour drive from New York City.

Didn’t see any bears.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

West Highland Way Race 2012...almost

Most of the ultrarunners I know have some sort of mantra, something that they will repeat to themselves to encourage them to carry on running when energy levels are low and everything hurts.  Some of the mantras are straight to the point, like Karin McKendrick’s “K.F.G.”, which I refuse to believe stands for “Karin feels good”.

Mine is a quote from Alice in Wonderland that the fantastic David Donaghue (of ultra running collie fame) shared with me when I was worrying about my first ultra, the High Peak 40 in September 2008.

“Begin at the beginning...and go on till you come to the end: then stop”

If you have ever wondered where the title of this blog comes from, now you know. 

Last Saturday was my second attempt at the West Highland Way Race.  In my previous 7 ultras I have always managed to keep moving forward, maybe stopping for a few minutes at checkpoints to sort things out but between checkpoints always moving.  Not on Saturday.  On the climb up the Devil’s Staircase I had to stop several times to sit down and let a bit of energy build up.  Even on the downhill to Kinlochleven I needed to stop just to get myself back together.  On my final section, from KLL to Lundavra, I think I sat on every suitable rock that lies next to the path before finally deciding enough was enough and pulling out. 

I had no energy and was very dehydrated.  As soon as I started to slow down in the wind and rain I got very cold and the sore knee that I had had since 20 miles stiffened up and every step became more difficult than the last.  I think an unfortunate chain of events, starting with stubbing my toe six days previously, led to where I was, and maybe with hindsight I could have done things slightly differently on Saturday and continued to the finish but that is easy to say now. 

I stubbed my big left toe the previous Sunday while out for my final run before the race.  It’s the one with arthritis, there is no cartilage in the joint to absorb the impact so it’s bone hitting bone.  It hurts a lot for most of the following week.  I set off running on Saturday morning and although the pain has pretty much gone I just don’t feel comfortable in my running stride.  At about 20 miles the outside of my left knee starts to hurt – it gets worse and by 30 miles I’m taking painkillers and wearing a knee support.  I stub my toe again in Bogle Glen and this time it is agony.  I almost pull out at Auchtertyre but take some more painkillers and keep on going.  My stomach is starting to struggle now and I’m feeling low on energy.  Between Glencoe and Kinlochleven I grind to a halt as my body empties itself of everything I’ve eaten in the last few hours.  I struggle up the hill after KLL and just can’t get going through the Lairig.  I get very cold, my vision starts to go blurry and I know it’s time to stop.

This all sounds very negative but I’m feeling positive about the experience and I know what my limits are and that there is a point where it’s just not sensible to keep pushing.  I am very glad that I took part on Saturday – the West Highland Way Race is an amazing experience and it was a pleasure to run with so many nice people and witness some inspirational performances.  The support during the day was wonderful – it’s difficult to describe just how much some loon ringing a bell at you and shouting your name can raise your spirits (thanks Lucy).  I look back on the day I spent running up the WHW with fond memories despite the eventual outcome (and the weather), and it will be great to read about other peoples’ experiences in the coming weeks – I’ve already set a day aside to read Colin Knox’s magnificent blog post once he has perfected it.

Ian and the organisational team do an amazing job, as does everyone involved in putting this race on, so I’d like to say a big thanks to them and I have to say a special thanks to Sean and Andrew for taking care of me at Fort William.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

City of Perth Barefoot 10k

Today I ran in the first City of Perth Barefoot 10k, a rather low key and intimate race held on the grass of the North Inch in Perth at lunchtime.  The race route consisted of 25 and a bit laps of the North Inch cricket oval, with the grass having been recently cut, though not specially for the race.

The small field of competitors totalled one runner, so I was hopeful of a podium finish.  As I jogged the half mile past some parked cars en route to the start of the race, I caught a glimpse of the runner, a tired looking individual with badly fitting shorts and a somewhat effeminate running style, and my confidence was boosted by his appearance.

At the cricket oval I removed my shoes and got ready for the start - the race started almost immediately as I decided it was time to go and I only had an hour for lunch.  I settled into a seven-minute mile pace and found myself leading the race.  I was happy enough for the first few laps as the pace felt comfortable, but I was conscious of keeping something in reserve should the race become more competitive.

The first few kilometres passed quite quickly at a steady pace, though the wet weather last week followed by a couple of hot dry days had meant that in amongst the grass were lots of little worm casts which had dried into small mud spikes - just a wee bit uncomfortable on the soles of my feet.  I went through 5 kilometres in 21:10, still in first place and my pace had increased slightly.  I continued to run steadily for the next few kilometres, feeling like I was running comfortably although there was a bit of an ache in my right ankle, which I had twisted ten days previously.

After 5 miles of running my feet were starting to get quite sore - this was now the longest barefoot run I had done - so I increased my pace length to reduce the number of steps I had to take, and the number of times my feet had to hit the ground.  My pace had been steadily increasing throughout the race, and since kilometre number 3 each kilometre had taken 3 to 4 seconds less than the previous one.  It was only in the final kilometre that I felt I was having to try a bit, but I was holding on to first place which gave me an extra incentive to keep running well.  Over the final few kilometres I had to concentrate on keeping a good running form - running barefoot is a bit less forgiving if you start plodding, which I guess is one of the training benefits.

I reached the finish in 41:10, 10 seconds faster than the only 10k I have run in anger (the City of Stirling 10k in September 2006) so a small PB but I felt like I still had plenty of running in my legs whereas 6 years ago I staggered across the line and couldn’t have run another step.  My garmin measured the course at exactly 10 kilometres, which is perhaps not surprising as the course route had been measured using a garmin identical to mine.

I was delighted to have won the race - I don’t think a victory has been more fiercely contested since George Reid won the Kintyre Way Ultra in 2009 - though because of the small field there weren’t many runners to chat to at the finish and I jogged back to work rather than hang around for the prize giving.

It was a great event to have run in and I look forward to the next one - I guess the field will always be small due to the spontaneous nature of the organisation and lack of marketing, so perhaps I’ll be able to retain my title.