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.