Recently I’ve posted about different ways of talking to yourself while running, and in reading Ian’s race report from a 50-mile ultramarathon in the Shawangunks, I was impressed by his thoughtful strategy for mitigating risky conditions and his on-the-move decision-making.
By guest author, Ian Erne (shared with his permission – thank you, Ian):
I managed to finish the RockTheRidge 50-miler on a very rainy day with temperatures in the 40s. Approximately 100 of my fellow ultramarathon enthusiasts/competitors had to DNF for various reasons. Hypothermia being the biggest reason. As I stated in a previous post, I was under-trained, but felt I could finish if I ran conservatively and intelligently.
At the start, the temperature was 52 degrees, and there was no rain. When I looked about and saw what others were wearing, I felt overdressed. However, as a meteorologist, I knew what was coming, so I made no gear changes. Full rain gear and a light insulating layer under that with gloves and a hat. I felt being too warm was preferable to hypothermia. Due to being under-trained, I knew that walking in a cold rain would likely leave me shivering uncontrollably. I had to manage my energy reserves conservatively in this winter like rainy weather. For each 1000 foot increase in elevation, the temperature falls about 3.5 degrees F. The first 4 miles of the race are predominately uphill, and I was very warm, so I decided to walk this section, and at about 2 miles in it began to rain lightly. Overall, the first ten miles were fairly easy on me with manageable weather conditions, and my gear was working well, though I was still too warm.
Leaving aid station 1 (Spring Farm) the rain seemed to intensify, and it is nearly 14 miles until the next major aid station at Lyons Rd. This section of the course has you climbing to the Albert K. Smiley memorial tower at about 1500’ in elevation. At this point I was running fairly consistently, and walking steep sections. On my way up to the tower, friends Jim Bixler and Chris Regan were coming back down, and both looked strong and happy. Arriving at the tower, I began to feel my first chill. There was a rather strong wind and a driving cold rain, and I could see my breath. I decided to stop in the tower (a dry spot) and check my gear. A young lady followed me in and did the same thing. She changed into a dry shirt, and I wrung out my waterproof cloves. Leaving the tower, I said just 34 miles to go, and Mother Nature smacked me in the face with a cold driving rain and a wind gust. (Thanks, I needed that!) I pulled my rain jacket sleeves down over my gloves, and this helped keep them drier, so that is how I ran the rest of the race. Running down from the tower was fairly uneventful and, dare I say, fun.
Soon, puddles were getting to be a rather unavoidable part of the course, and so keeping my feet dry soon became impossible, and every time you stepped in a puddle your feet got an ice cold bath. I had applied a water-proofing treatment to my sneakers, but deep water circumvents this protection. At this point, I now had wet feet and wet hands, but everything else was fairly comfortable. As I was heading up Overcliff Rd, another friend, Kristin (Kiki) Hjeltnes, passed me like I was standing still. She seemed to be very cheery and upbeat. We exchanged a few quick kindnesses, and then she was gone. The next five miles were fairly uneventful except for a team of three that were dressed for a summer run, and not moving fast enough to stay warm. One of them was shivering uncontrollably, and I’ll admit that I was worried about him.
When I arrived at the Lyons Road aid station, I was looking forward to replacing my light insulating layer, gloves, socks, and sneakers with items I had placed in my drop bag just for this eventuality. This, of course, means removing my rain protection. As I looked about for a tent to change under, I noticed that there was no tent for this, and there was no place to sit down so that you could change your shoes and socks. I was forced to open my dry waterproof drop bag in the rain and, at this time, it was pouring. So, as I’m sure you can imagine, the dry stuff inside didn’t stay dry for long, and I then decide that attempting to change in the rain would actually make things worse. At this point I quickly ate my lunch and grabbed a cup of hot chicken broth with rice from an aid station volunteer. That was the best chicken broth ever, and it briefly took the chill away.
As I was leaving Lyons to begin race leg 3, I stopped at the porta potties, and all three of them were occupied. It seems people were using them as dry spots to change clothes. As I waited, I began to shiver. It was about 48 degrees, windy, and raining cats and dogs. I decided I couldn’t stand about, and so away I went. Within about a half a mile I was no longer shivering, but I was definitely cool. After about a mile, you reach a section of the course which rises about 700 feet (to lake Minnewaska) in a bit over half a mile, and you can definitely warm up with a bit of running, so that is what I did. The trade-off here is that you burn a lot of reserve energy, and you will begin to sweat under your rain gear which will make you wet everywhere. So, it has to be just the right amount of running to warm you, and not too much running because that will make you wet and cold. As I was under-trained for this event, I was also worried about my energy reserves, and endurance. When I got to Minnewaska, I was able to use the bathroom, and check my gear and begin the 3.5 miles out to Castle Point and the high point (2200’) of the race. Once you get to Castle Point, at around 31 miles, the majority of the race is downhill.
On the way out to Castle Point from Lake Minnewaska you rise another 600 feet, and the cliffs along the way are all exposed to the weather, and that was particularly important on this cold and rainy day. It rained hard the entire way, the temp was easily in the low to mid 40s, and there was a very strong continuous breeze. I ran almost the entire way up/out to Castle Point with short walk breaks. I was worried about my ability to sustain running uphill in an undertrained state, but I seemed to be okay, but chilly, the entire way out. I only came across 3 people during this entire segment, and that is very unusual. Once I got to Castle Point, my confidence at finishing the race grew, and I decided I would be able to run the last 19 miles without rest, and that became the plan. I don’t sweat a lot when I run downhill, and I usually run downhill efficiently.
On my way down from Castle Point I came across a woman (Roni) and she was complaining of knee pain in both knees, and I explained that the eccentric contraction of muscle associated with downhill running is hard on the quadriceps and that can put a strain on the knees for a multitude of reasons. I also indicated that the cold doesn’t help matters. (She was wearing a rain jacket, hat and shorts.) I asked if she has had any knee pain like this before, and she said no. I then suggested, if she was worried, that she could speak to an excellent physical therapist (Greg Cecere) at the Lyons Road aid station.
When I arrived back at Lyons Road aid station, I felt wet and cool, but overall, okay. I had more hot chicken broth and rice, and grabbed some carry along food from my drop bag. It was here that I saw another competitor (Greg Brown) in my age group standing in front of a gas fired heater trying to thaw out his legs. I said hello, and we exchanged a few thoughts on the day. As I finished up my broth, and handed my drop bag in for return to the start, I noticed that Greg was nowhere to be found. Apparently, he was back on the trail for the last leg of the race.
The last race leg is 12.5 miles long, and it is mostly downhill, so the plan I formulated at Castle Point was still the plan of action. I was still cool and wet, and the weather still sucked, so I set off at a comfortable pace, enough to warm me but not enough to wear me out. Within about 2 miles I caught up to Greg, but I only slowed enough to say hello and explain that I was going to run as long as I could to keep warm, and I had no idea how that would play out. Well, it played out fairly well, and I was able to run most of the last 10 miles with very short walk breaks here and there. At around mile 46 is the last major uphill battle of the race. This is Kleinkill, and it seems an appropriate name because it kills your legs at this distance. I was surprised that my legs felt rather good, so I walked and ran this hilly section. At some point along Kleinkill the rain let up, and I was able to open up my rain jacket a bit. Go figure, 3.5 miles to go and now it stops raining. The rest of the way back to the start was rather uneventful and actually quite pleasant without the rain. One short section was a rather muddy slip and slide where I almost went flying off the trail.
At the finish, I saw another friend, Former RTR50 race director, Todd Jennings, and we caught up a bit. It was great seeing so many friends across the course and at the aid stations. The volunteers were, as always, awesome. I can’t thank them enough for all they do to make this type of event possible. In the end, there were about 300 registrants for the full 50-mile event. Of those, 222 started, and of those 139 finished. The weather created a suffer-fest, but the finishers almost all finished with a smile on their faces. People who dropped from the race made safe and smart decisions. The kind of weather we experienced can be life threatening. In the past I’ve been told that I always say that I won’t do this again, and then I’m one of the first to sign up for the next one. I seem to have enjoyed this RTR50 more than other times, perhaps it helped heal my emotional state. I finished in 10 hours and 44 minutes as the 33rd male finisher, and that’s surprising for the condition I was in.