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.


  1. Ali great to Hear your getting out on the Trails, Not sure about the Snakes and Bears, Hope your boy is recovering Well.

    1. Thanks Norry. You'd like the trails over here, very much like Scottish hill paths.

  2. Congrats on a solid race over the highly rugged MoMa course! Oh, and welcome to New Jersey. Glad that I missed that snake!

    1. Thanks Mike. Congratulations on a great win and blistering fast time.