Jessica Velez: Reflections on my 70-miler

This is a guest post by Jessica Velez who participated in the 70-mile division of the 2019 SRT Run.  I was at checkpoint #5 when she arrived with only a few minutes to spare, and based on her pace at that point I didn’t think she would make it to checkpoint #6, but she did, this time only seconds before the cut-off, strained, blistered, and sopping wet.  Given the risks associated with rain, darkness, and cooling temperatures I offered her the option to drop here and get a ride to the finish, but she barely acknowledged me, instead got to work replacing the batteries in her headlamp, and then headed off into the dark, wet forests for the final 6-mile stretch, arriving at the finish in 29 hours and 49 seconds, and along the way demonstrating the values of determination, self-reliance, and endurance that we seek to celebrate with this event. — Ken.
Why did I do it? It wasn’t for fun, I wish I had the level of fitness where 70 miles would be fun. When I run marathons- they are fun, I socialize, take in the views, people watch- I actually have a lot of fun with marathons. I signed up for a 70, because as I finished my 50 miler at Rock the Ridge in 2017- I felt like I could have done more. I wanted to challenge myself and see if my body was capable of the “more”. Why did I choose the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT) race specifically? Simply because it was local and scenic and priced extremely reasonable.

I started this experience back in June of 2018, when I reached out to Anna Peterssen, a prior course finisher, looking for advice on the course and how best to prepare. The best advice she gave- go out and become familiar with the trail. It’s a really hard trail- not only because it’s ridiculously technical, but also because it’s not a single trail- but rather a connection of trails. This means the blazes aren’t the same color as you transverse it- and with the multitude of crisscrossing trails out there- it’s really difficult to stay on the correct path- even with maps!
So in late June of this year I headed out to High Point, New Jersey, which is the starting point for the race… and started hiking/running the course in sections. I quickly came to the realization that I was in over my head. Not only was it difficult to stay on the correct trail, the trail itself was a trial. Rocks, roots, mud, water, steep climbs and steep descents to name a few of the challenges. Add to that the bears and snakes I kept having encounters with. And finally- I am not a very competent trail runner… if there is a rock or a root on the trail I am either smashing my foot into it or tripping over it. There are trail runners who I swear have billy goat in their blood, I am not one of them. My trail running tends to be slow and cautious… which does not make for a very good trail run.
I really had no confidence that I could finish this race. I simply hoped I would. In May of year I discovered I had the wrong date for this race- which led me to double book myself for the weekend- I had signed up for the Dutchess County Classic Marathon for Sunday September 15th. The SRT starts on Friday September 13th and finishes on Saturday September 14th. Race fees are not refundable- so my thoughts were, if I completely wash out on the SRT I could redeem myself at the Classic. I also had in my mind that if I finished the 70 miler, and like the 50 miler felt like I could have given more, I would next be signing up for a 100 miler. If this was the case I planned to finish not only the 70, but also head out on Sunday to finish the 26- giving me a taste of what running a 100 would be like.
As I mentioned, the SRT started on Friday 13th. There was a full moon too! Although it was too overcast to see it. Not the best omens, but I don’t think they had much of an effect. I started the 70 miler with 17 other runners; we were 14 guys and 3 girls. Weather was cool- perfect for running. I placed myself to the back of the pack because I know I run slow. I found myself leapfrogging 2 other runners Raymond Russell (multi-time finisher of the SRT 70) and Michael Merner (1st 70). It was a comfort running with others as I traveled down the course in the dark through the woods. As the miles started to count down- I actually felt pretty good physically and emotionally. Chatting with Raymond was a huge confidence booster, a sort of; if he can finish this course so can I! I believe God helps you through others that he places in your path- Raymond was one of these; I will point out the others as I continue my story.

Credit:  Tom Bushey Photography
When researching how to safely procure water on the trail- I decided to go with water purifiers, they were easy to use and light weight. I chose not to purchase a filter system- because they seemed bulky; a somewhat important fact as I would need to carry it. I now regret this choice. I had marked out the plethora of streams on the course to refill, but as I came up on them- they were all dry. Even with all the rain we’ve had! I was left with scummy pond water- while I am certain I didn’t scoop up any frogs or fish… I’m not certain what was truly in there. I did use a little extra of the purifiers. It was gritty and slimy, and I still can disgustingly taste it. I honestly don’t know if I may get sick from what I drank?
It was quite the experience running the trail at night. Had an encounter with a huge porcupine… I didn’t know it was a porcupine… i could just see it was big, black and running through the woods parallel to me. I called over to it and asked that it please go away. Michael was running a little behind me- said it came out on the trail and started following me and he got a good look at it before it darted back into the woods. Heard a few coyotes calling to each other- but they stayed away. One time when filling my water bag, as i picked it up out of the water I caught site of something black clinging to the side of the bag. I screamed and dropped my bag…. luckily the water was shallow…. the black thing was the clip to close the bag. Also came across a few deer and I think a cat, their eyes glowing back at me through the dark. My head lamp became dimmer and dimmer. I switched to a really strong flashlight John lent me. I had more batteries for the head lamp, but the stronger light was beneficial… i just kept tripping on every object on the trail. With the stronger light I could at least see what I was tripping on.
Credit:  Tom Bushey Photography
The sun came up around mile 35. It was a relief to put away the lights and be able to see. With daylight I could pick up my pace a bit. I had lost my running partners by this point. Raymond had run ahead with a quicker pace and Michael had fallen back to support a runner we picked up around mile 10 (1 of us 3 girls running the 70) who was becoming ill. Sadly Lauren ended up dropping out of the race, it will be her 2nd DNF for this course. Based on the paces I maintained when I hike the trail in sections, I wrote out a plan of what pace I hoped to maintain and what pace I absolutely had to maintain so I could finish. There were 6 checkpoints along the trail. Runners have to check in to confirm they are alive and capable of continuing. Each checkpoint has a time cutoff, runners had to pass through before that time or they would be pulled off the course. As I came to check point #3, I called out my name and bib number and “gotta go I’m a bit behind my time table”. I didn’t know it then, but Anna was manning that checkpoint. She said I looked strong and focused. Night running slowed me down and I was behind my goal time, but not by much. I still felt physically and emotionally strong and capable. My feet were starting to complain about all the rocks I smashed them into- but they were still game with running. I know I was fueling and drinking appropriately at this point. I had planned to run for 26 hours and brought 26 things to eat, all about 100-200 calories each.
After mile 38, I ran into Sam’s Point Preserve and up South Gully Trail. This would be the third time I ran this section of trail. The first time I became so lost I had to bushwhack out to a road and have Ian come rescue me. I ran it a second time, to figure out where the heck the trail actually was. I think this section of the course is the hardest. It starts going up… and just keeps going up. Just when you think you’re at the top… it goes up some more. And then you drop down, cross a stream, and climb up, up, up on the other side. With grit and determination I dragged my body up that section of trail with the mantra in my head of, “there is a real bathroom and running water there at Sam’s Point visitor center” – huge motivators! Oh what joy it was to drink non-slimy, non- gritty water for the few miles it lasted!
I continued to feel pretty good up to mile 45. Then the skies just opened up and tried to drown me. The trail turned to ankle deep mud, the bare granite rock that lay exposed over large portions of trail became slick as wet ice, and I and everything I carried became soaked. My shoes filled with mud and grit- soaked in through the shoes. The gators I wore couldn’t prevent it. This caused a lot of damage to my feet. I slipped on the rocks and took a couple of really hard falls, I have no idea how I only ended up bruised and not broken. Sodden, in pain, miserable, and feeling more than a little sorry for myself- I was ready to quit. My pace was too slow- there was no way I could make it to the next checkpoint in time. I tried to call John, to do just that- quit, and have him pick me up at checkpoint 4… but the rain messed up my phone and it was no longer working (it ended up being okay- at least it’s working now). It was here that God sent me help in the form of Marcin and Joanna Mrowka. They were a couple running the 50 miler together. As they passed me, they begged me not to give up and to keep trying. Their words sunk into my spirit. I adjusted my attitude, prayed to God for strength, and picked up my pace. I made it to check point #4, before the cut off.
From here on, things get a little murkier. At one point I came across a buck, I said, “Hi deer” as I passed it. It started following me on the trail. I was scared it was going to charge. It didn’t have a large set of antlers… but they were still going to hurt. I’ve never had a deer follow me before- I didn’t know what to do? It eventually got bored with me. The “Go-Go-Go” mantra was loudly playing in my head. But the trail was still difficult, more so with the wet rocks, my feet were a painful mess, and I was getting tired. I tried pushing as hard as I could. But, it was still too slow. God sent me more help here. As I struggled up over another mountain top accepting that I could not move fast enough, Michael- the runner I started the race with came speeding along the trail behind me. He was determined to finish. Together we encouraged each other on. As we neared check point #5, search and rescue met us on the trail. At first we were concerned that we were late, but no- the check point was just around the corner. We slid into it at 6:08 pm, the cut-off was 6:30pm.
With my electronics on the fritz and the sun setting, I was determined to stick with Michael regardless of what pace he ran. The trail is just too difficult to do without mapping aids. We had 2 hours and 22 minutes to complete 6 miles. Oh how we pushed each other, each taking the lead as the other flagged. We lost the trail about 3/4 of a mile to check point #6. It was so frustrating. It was dark and foggy. Our lights reflected off the fog making it impossible to see. As Michael started bushwhacking sweeping around trying to find the trail, I backtracked to where we knew it to be and tried following it again. It was there. We got back on course and continued on. We staggered in to checkpoint #6 with just a minute to spare. I can’t believe it, 60 seconds were between us continuing on or being pulled off the course. We were beat up, tired, but continuing on. I asked the volunteers to call John and let him know that I was alive, that I cleared the checkpoint, and that I was heading to the finish. I’d be ready to be picked up in about 3 hours.
As Michael and I left checkpoint #6, we agreed to finish the race together; we had 6 more miles to do. I would not have gotten that far without him, and he swears the same about me. As we stumbled up the hill past the checkpoint, we both chuckled and confessed had we not made the cut-off, we would not have complained. We were tired and hurting. Going up that hill was SLOW. The sweepers quickly caught up to us. Our slow pace concerned them. We were able to pick up the pace somewhat once the direction wasn’t upwards. Somewhere in this section Michael started hearing voices and saw items like trucks parked along the trail. I kept seeing bright fluorescent lights flash in my peripheral vision. I also saw some animals from Narnia squatting on the side of the trail watching us go by, and I swear there were houses there too. I even pointed one of those houses out to the sweepers- a big white one. Yeah- we were really tired. There were A LOT of frogs on this section of trail. Those were real, I’m certain of that. Their eyes glowed at us from everywhere- making the woods sparkle. That was actually really cool to see. We came across a group of large glowing eyes that concerned us until we realized it was a family of deer. At one point we came upon what turned out to be simply a leaf covered in spider webs hanging between 2 trees. It was beautiful, like a piece of artwork. I wish I had taken a picture.
The sweepers tried to keep back and let us run our race… but we were barely moving. They kept overtaking us. Which was fortunate. Michael almost walked off a sheer drop-off at one point, and more than once we started hiking down animal paths. Their loud pointed conversation regarding the nice trail they were on aided us in getting back on track. By mile 68 I was having significant trouble. My heart rate was too fast and I was breathing too fast. I was nauseous, light headed, and possibly having chest pain- I couldn’t determine if it was cardiac pain or just nausea. I felt truly sick. The medical part of my brain knew I needed to get off that trail and might even need medical aide. I also knew that stopping right there, as appealing as it sounded, wouldn’t help. We were still a couple of miles from assistance. With the “Go-Go-Go” mantra on repeat I drank some scummy pond water and continued putting one foot in front of the other. It was such a relief to reach mile 69.25 which was where the course comes out on the Rosendale rail trail; a flat surface with no rocks to trip over. Somehow Michael and I were still managing to trip… on air I think.
It was such a relief to come to the finish. People, lights, food if you could stomach it, medals for finishing, and John. How truly wonderful it was to see John standing there. I fell into his arms. Dirty, smelly, a physical wreck, and an emotional one too, he accepted me into his arms and just held me. I started crying and just couldn’t stop. John had to essentially carry me to the car. As he sat me on the seat, I did a check in with myself. While I was indeed a wreck, I needed food and sleep- not medical attention. John helped me get out of my running gear. A lot of it was trashed and had to be tossed. When he helped me get off the compression socks- my feet ballooned up. I’m hoping the swelling will go down soon so I can wear shoes- I don’t think work will appreciate me walking around in socks. Unpacking my gear, I saw how much food I had left. I swear I had been eating. I clearly remember eating every hour up to mile 45. Apparently I didn’t continue to eat. I burned about 10,000 calories, but only took in about 1500…. might explain why I felt so awful at the end there.
At the end of 70 miles I could not have done more. I gave everything I had to the SRT, and she claimed it all. There will be no 100 miler in my future. I did not wake up and run the Classic on Sunday (I’m disappointed about this- I love running the Classic). I told John last night no more ultras for me… but as I write this I’m thinking about how I was fine for Rock the Ridge… and during the SRT I felt pretty good up to mile 45. So you might find me out there again completing an ultra. But 50 miles only.
Jessica Velez: Reflections on my 70-miler

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