A few notes from the Batona Trail Races 33-miler, October 12, 2019, which was notable for being the first ultramarathon I’ve run without shoes…
- I’d long been curious about this race because I wanted to experience the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and also because the trails were reputed to be smooth and sandy, which would be conducive to barefoot running.
- Sometimes the logistics of getting to the start are as big a challenge as the run. In this case, due to changing family plans, I had to make a choice between driving first two hours north and then three hours back south, which seemed like it might kill me, or renting a car and making the drive in a single two-hour leg. The decision went back and forth, and when I finally made the call to rent, now it was time for Hertz and National to run out of cars — this being a three-day weekend during the peak of fall foliage — but Avis had the sense to jack up its prices to extortionate levels, so there was a tiny compact available for me for at an astronomical cost, but at least my plans were set. And renting was the right call, since I came staggering in from business travel Friday morning at 2:00 AM and felt terrible the next day. But Saturday morning, after waking up at 3:30 AM, I made to the race in time to catch the shuttle to the start.
- There were a few minutes to wait before the start. 50 degrees felt frosty to a body not yet acclimated to cold weather, but I passed the time by inspecting the surroundings, discovering abundant pitch pine and blackjack oak, sassafras, blueberry heather, and some patches of pale green reindeer lichen — vegetation reminiscent of the Shawangunk Mountains three hours to the north, but instead of a steep ridgeline topped with glacially-scoured conglomerate slabs, the terrain here was flat and sandy. I’d read that the Pine Barrens total 1.5 million square miles and account for 19% of New Jersey’s surface area and that underneath the sand runs a mighty aquifer carrying 17 trillion gallons of water.
- At 9:00 AM the race director shouted “go,” and the runners took off at a brisk pace, while I headed out tentatively, with cold feet feeling a little sensitive, in second-to-last place in front of a 76-year old woman from Florida. But soon the sun was warming sand and air, and I felt more comfortable and ran a little easier, and after a little while passed a couple of the slower runners. The trail was just as sandy as advertised, covered in many places with pine needles and sometimes a few twigs, but mercifully few rocks or acorns. Sometimes the path narrowed to single-track with brush encroaching, and sometimes it widened out into jeep trails of smooth white sand, and the abundant pink blazes made it easy to follow. I passed a sluggish stream with dark waters, and later on the land seemed to rise ever so slightly, and light shone in through the pines, as if I were crossing a plateau.
- The miles passed fluidly. I was in no particular hurry, this being my first ultra in a couple of years. My energy was steady, despite the fact that I’d skipped breakfast (this run being part of a 24-hour fast). As the day warmed up, I drank more water at the aid stations.
- Nearing the end I missed a turn (this added a mile onto my distance). Just as I recognized the error and turned back, here came Jerry, a runner whom I’d passed a few miles back, and evidently he’d missed the same turn, too. I’d noticed that Jerry was wearing a shirt that said “Run for Barefoot Everett,” so I asked him who was Everett. He was a friend, Jerry said, and a great fellow — and, yes, he often ran barefoot on these sandy trails. The shirt was Jerry’s way of remembering his friend, who’d passed away in a motorcycle crash just a month ago. Since Jerry didn’t have a map, I guided him back to the trail, thinking that Everett would’ve appreciated a fellow barefoot runner lending assistance to his friend, and wondering at the strangeness of this chance encounter.
- As I neared the finish, feet and legs still felt fine, and I’d managed to pass a handful of runners, too, which always makes me feel good. Payback was waiting, however, as the last mile of the course turned onto a paved road with a rough chip & seal surface — too painful after miles of soft sand — so I hopped along on the shoulder, dodging rocks and weeds, muttering under my breath and no doubt attracting strange looks from drivers of the enormous pickup trucks and RVs rolling down the road. The course wound back into the woods on a dirt path — a brief respite — and then it was through a parking area covered in chunky gravel and few careful steps later the finish line.
- I finished in 7:36, good for 28th place out of 35 starters. I’m looking forward to my next major race, a road marathon in December.