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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

2018 Fat Sass Switchback Challenge - Six Hour




Tougher Than Hyner In a Lot of Ways


Slideshow of the Fat Sass Switchback Challenge. Photo credit for all photos used in the
slideshow and blog post goes to the wonderful volunteers that made this an amazingly fun event!  

The Fat Sass Switchback Challenge is a distance/timed event orchestrated by Sassquad Trail Running, a division of Core Total Training and Fitness LLC. The event in its inaugural year (2018) offered runners a 5k distance option or the choice of two timed event options of three or six hours. I opted for the six hour challenge. It was managed as a self-supported fat ass style race, so no entry fees, no aid, and no swag. Even without aid provided, there was a designated park table for runners to donate community aid to and it was about as good as any aid station I’ve passed through. The organizers did ask in place of an entry fee that runners bring non-perishable food items to donate to Livingston Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that assists Livingston residents struggling with unexpected hardships by providing short-term financial and in-kind support. I was happy to contribute to the cause and have the opportunity to run a race on some new trails.
The course is a trail loop just a little over a mile (roughly 1.05 miles according to my Garmin data) in
Near the end of the one mile loop.
distance. The elevation gain per loop is 274 feet according to my Garmin data and 313 feet according to my Strava data, so trust whichever data set you feel is more accurate. Runners take on the course in a clockwise direction starting at the Locust Grove picnic area of South Mountain Reservation in Millburn, NJ. The trail starts with a climb up about 5 switchbacks (hence the name of the event) of primarily smooth trail for about a half mile before reaching the top of the ascent. There is then a short stretch (less than a tenth of a mile) of flat paved road before making a right back onto the trails. From there it’s about a half mile descent down more technical, rocky trails before returning to the picnic area.
I registered for this race to use it as a long training run with a good amount of elevation gain ran at a faster pace than I’m willing to push myself to without any competition. It was also a matter of convenience; I was visiting my in-laws the weekend of the race and the park it was held at was only about an hour from their house. For all those reasons and no entry fee while donating to a good cause, I couldn’t resist. Having never visited the area where the race was, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the trails. I knew there would be some elevation gain because the description on the Ultrasignup page said that each lap had about 291 feet of gain. However, I never did the math to figure how much gain I would accumulate based on distance goals until the night before the race when I was telling a friend about it. I casually told him that I planned on running thirty some miles in the six hour period. Then I did an estimate of the math in my head:  30 laps X 300 feet = 9,000 feet of gain. Shocked, I redid the math using a calculator:  30 laps X 291 feet = 8,730 feet. At this point in the conversation, in near disbelief, I told my friend that that’s more gain than Hyner 50k and I likely wouldn’t be running as far as I had planned to in the six hours. Setting goals for timed events that are pretty much out of my reach seems to be a habit for me. I did the same thing when getting ready for the six hour Running with the Devil.
Thankful that I figured out how much tougher of a race this was going to be than I expected the night before rather than during the race, I tried to get some good rest before my early alarm went off. Unfortunately, a good night’s sleep was not to be had. This weekend was the night of the Fourth of July fireworks display so the kids got to bed late to begin with after that. Then one of the two woke up a couple times during the night and had trouble getting back to sleep. So, after a few hours of
A rocky, but not the rockiest descent.
broken sleep I got up, ate some breakfast (peanut butter sandwiches), and drove to the park. I got there early enough to get situated. I checked in, dropped off my charity food donation, added my community aid of
Swedish Fish and olives to the aid table, and got my personal aid station organized. Since this was a self-supported race I brought enough Gatorade and calories to get me through the entire six hours. Since I’m a bit frugal and I only had one gel on hand, all of my calories came from that single gel, three cans of Wal-Mart brand cola, and a tube of green cake frosting. I know, sounds gross, but it works and it’s not like gels really taste all that great anyway. Since it was at most a six hour race, my plan for fueling didn’t rely on any real food. I basically just wanted quick energy from simple carbs and some caffeine. The soda and frosting met all my needs.
After a few words from the RD, Kim Levinsky, the race began. Interestingly, and maybe it was just for the sake of simplicity, all runners (5k, 3 hour, and 6 hour) started simultaneously. I guess in this manner, a single clock could be used to time all three events simultaneously. Another interesting part of the organization of the race to me was the lap counting system that was used. At the completion of each lap timed event runners would record their place at the time on a chart that had all the runners’ names in that event listed. Similarly, 5k runners recorded their time rather than place at each lap. With this system, you always knew what place you were in and could get an idea of how far other runners were in front of and behind you. A volunteer was there to assist at all times as the board could get a little confusing especially after a few hours of running trail laps in the heat and your brain is getting a bit foggy.


The check in board used to record your place after every lap.
After considering the amount of gain I had in store for me and my readjusted goal of aiming for up to 30 laps rather than thirty-something laps, I went out at a pace that I thought would get me close to that goal. This meant running the entire climb during the first lap which wasn’t bad as it was not too technical and not too steep thanks to all the switchbacks. However, I knew full well that after a few laps I would certainly be hiking portions of the climb. I ran the flat paved section at the top at a medium effort then tried to let gravity do the work and stay light on my feet as I flew down the technical descent to complete my first lap in about 10:54. This was good enough to put me in first place at the time. I was able to maintain that pace and running the entire course for about the first four laps. After that, my times started to slow a bit as I started hiking portions of the climb. It was somewhere around the fourth lap check in that another runner I had been yo-yoing with got to the check in right ahead of me. It turns out he was another six hour runner who had been checking in as second just behind me for the first few laps. He was a bit confused when filling in his place at the board when he realized he was now in first. Which is another point that made the lap counting system interesting. It was hard to tell who you were racing against unless you happened to be at the lap check in with them. There were no markings on the bibs, so unless you asked you couldn’t tell who was a six hour or a three hour runner. Hence the reason for the other runner’s confusion when he got the lead.
I continued cranking out laps in second place for a couple more hours maintaining a pretty steady pace. The mental challenge of a timed event on a short loop was something I haven’t dealt with very often. I approached it the same way I approach a distance event:  break it up into manageable sections and then comfort yourself every time you reach one of those check points. For this event, I broke it down into two hour blocks. The first two hours seemed to go surprisingly fast. I told myself “that wasn’t so bad, just do that two more times!”. The middle two hours were the toughest mental struggle for all the normal reasons:  it got a bit warm, I was beginning to tire, and there was still a pretty long way to go. Once I got through that and into the final two hours, things began to turn around. I knew at this point it was time to push and see what’s left in the tank.


The view from a point midway up the switchbacks.
I don’t remember exactly where, but somewhere near the middle of the race I realized at check in that I had been passed by a six hour runner and was now in third. I had no idea who it was for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I continued in third place until there was a little over a half hour left. At this point if figured I would have enough time to finish my current lap and run two more before time ran out as long as I maintained my pace of around 13 to 14 minute laps. As I’m going over this and calculating the time in my head while finishing up the climb and reaching the paved section I caught sight of a few runners ahead of me. At this point I knew they had to be six hour runners, but I wasn’t sure if they were runners I was lapping or if one of them may be the second place runner. I didn’t catch them before the check point where I saw that I was still in third. Not knowing if I was taking over the second place position or not, I skipped stopping for aid this lap and decided to run this second to last lap as hard as I could. I figured if I did just take second place this would give me a bit of a gap ahead of him before he finds out at the next check in. If I was still in third, it would at least give me a chance to catch the second place runner wherever they were or I could at least say I gave it my all to try to catch them. Running my second to last lap as fast as one of my early laps I reached the check in to find out that I was in fact in second place. Knowing this motivated me to keep my pace up for my final lap and finish strong in second place with a total of 26 laps (about 27.2 miles).


The scene just before the start of the race.
The highlights for me during this race weren’t really about me or even specifically running. What I thought made this race great was the organization and volunteers that made it happen. There aren’t many trail races in NJ and even less trail ultramarathons. I’m so excited that Sassquad Trail Running has started organizing these events in NJ that are more convenient for me than driving to the middle of PA. During the race it was great seeing many of the volunteers taking time to run a few laps while they had downtime from their volunteer duties. During one of my laps, a volunteer took note of the Hyner socks I was wearing and commented about Hyner being tough and how this race compares. I replied with something along the lines of “This is tougher than Hyner in a lot of ways”. Strictly looking my Strava elevation gain data (8,142 feet for Fat Sass versus 7,507 feet for Hyner), the Fat Sass was tougher than Hyner. In a way, I feel that Hyner relieves a bit of the suffering experienced while running it with the beautiful scenery you enjoy along the way. Even with the arguably more technical terrain of the trails at Hyner, the grueling nature of repeating a one mile loop for six hours I still feel was more challenging than anything I experienced while running Hyner.
Scott Snell
July 31, 2018






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