The Wildcat Ridge Romp is a multi distance (10 mile, 20 mile, 50k, 50 mile, 100 k) event organized and managed by the NJ Trail Series group. It takes place at the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area in northern New Jersey typically in mid August when it is nice and warm; I’ll elaborate on the heat for the event this year a little later. All distances for the event are run by repeating a 10 mile loop as many times as necessary to finish a runner’s chosen distance. The course is primarily single track trail with a few short sections of ATV trail, paved road, and fire road mixed in. The trail is pretty technical in my opinion with some semi treacherous rocky sections and enough elevation change to keep it interesting even if it was completely smooth runnable trail. My Garmin data showed a little under 1000’ of elevation gain per loop with 4702’ at the end of the 50 miler. The one creek crossing at around the six mile mark of the loop offered a solid bridge so wet feet due to creek crossings were not an issue. Unfortunately, due to other reasons wet feet would not be avoided altogether.
Following finishing my first 50 miler (North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain, NY) recovery went well and faster than expected so I returned to my normal non-training routine of running. It was mid May and I was feeling confident and motivated, but had no other races lined up for the remainder of the year. The North Face 50 miler was intended to be the running pinnacle of the year for me in 2016, but returning to running afterwards left me looking for a new challenge. Since my first attempt at a 50 miler went better than expected, I thought attempting another and improving my time at the same distance would be an achievable goal to work towards. I especially thought it was a doable goal because I wasn’t aiming for a massive improvement. My finishing time at the North Face 50 miler was 9:04:29. I was hoping to improve my 50 miler time to under 9 hours. My thinking was that if I could find a similar 50 miler, shaving five minutes off of my time wouldn’t be that much more incredibly difficult. If I hadn’t had to stop to clear my colon at the NF 50 miler, I would have already been under 9 hours. In my mind, I was literally one poo away from my goal.
I decided on the 50 mile option of the Wildcat Ridge Romp with about two and a half months of time to train. It seemed to be the perfect attempt for me to improve my 50 miler time since it was described as having similar terrain and almost identical elevation gain. The NF 50 course had just under 7000’ of elevation gain according to my Garmin data while the Wildcat Ridge Romp course elevation profile showed 7223’ of elevation gain for the 50 mile course. I followed the same training plan I had for the NF 50 miler which was based off of the Ultraladies 50 mile training plan (http://www.trailrunevents.com/ul/schedule-50m.asp). The training seemed to go just as well in preparation for the Wildcat Ridge Romp as it had for the NF 50 miler. Everything seemed to be going as planned for me to achieve my goal: similar course difficulty, almost identical training, and a great outlook going into the race. I was extremely confident up until about a week before the race when I started checking the weather reports.
|50 Mile Elevation Profile|
|Hourly weather data|
I planned to run this race at a steady pace. For me that meant averaging 1 h:48 min. per 10 mile
loop. A friend (I’ll refer to him as RP going forward) of mine had registered for this race as well so we took off at the front of the pack from the start and ran the first loop together. Throughout the entirety of the day, weather was a factor and from the starting line to the actual start of the trail was no exception. It was hot and humid, even at the 6 AM start. While the heat and mugginess this early made things uncomfortable, the absolute worst effect of the weather this early in the day was the amount of dew everything was covered in. The race starts in a small parking lot and then follows less than a quarter mile stretch of grassy area along a road before turning onto a gravel road that takes you to the trail. It was during this short grassy stretch at the start that the dew had the biggest impact, soaking the shoes and socks of all the runners. Once on the trail, the dew continued to keep our shoes and socks wet. Because much of the course follows ATV trails, they are not maintained to the same pristine conditions you may expect for most hiking trails. Sections of the trail stretched through non-forested open areas. Through these sections much of the vegetation on the trail edges was 2-5 feet tall, heavy with dew, and leaning hard onto the path. Running these sections kept me pretty much soaked from the waist down.
|An example of how some of the ATV trails looked|
The first four miles of the loop to the first aid station were a mix of these sections of wooded trail and
open stretches. There were no significant climbs up to this point, just a lot of short climbs and quick descents. At around the three mile mark (not positive about this location) there is what looked to be a great overlook site, but upon our first passing it was too dark to see much. RP and I refilled our water bottles and moved through the first aid station quickly. The first mile after felt about the same as the first four miles with a short stretch where we ran along a pond edge for a nice change of scenery. It was right around the five mile mark where we hit what seemed to me as the most significant and technical climb of the course. Not that it was the longest climb of the course, but probably the steepest and most rocky.
|View from the pond edge|
|View from overlook|
Miles six and seven were a bit more technical than the first five with much more exposed rock sections and a long (about a mile) descent with a couple pretty steep sections that were a little gnarly. The long descent was followed by a long climb of about a mile and a half. This section of trail felt different to me as well as it carved its way through continuous forest passing large boulders and keeping me alert as a few more technical sections required a little rock hopping. At about the six mile mark the course reaches the lowest elevation and crosses a bridge over a small creek. After the creek crossing the course hops onto a stone road that begins climbing alongside the creek. About three quarters of a mile later the road leads you to what appears to be a very aged stone structure. At this point the course leads you to a short climb behind the stone building and out of the woods to a steep climb up a grassy embankment to a paved road. We then followed the road (Split Rock Rd.) across a large dam which held the water supply that was feeding the creek adjacent to the road we had just climbed. Just on the other side of the dam at mile seven was an unmanned water station thankfully. Seeing all that water and having a nearly empty bottle was mentally draining in some way. We filled our bottles quickly, dumped a little water on our heads (we were only about 1:20 from the start, but the heat was already affecting us), and continued our run.
The next couple miles were similar to the early miles of the loop with a mix of wooded and open sections, although I’d say this later section was composed of more open than wooded. At least it felt that way with the sun out as it seemed shade was hard to come by and the sun was already feeling warm during the second half of our first loop. At the 8.5 mile mark the course passed by the mile four aid station again and then followed another rock road for about a mile on a gradual descent until spilling out into a neighborhood on paved roads. After about a quarter mile run on the neighborhood blacktop roads, the course hopped back on the trail for a very short stretch before dumping us back to the initial gravel road that led back to the start/finish area.
We checked into the start/finish area at about 1 hour and 50 minutes, just a couple minutes slow to meet my target time. At this point that time split was a confidence booster because I felt like I hadn’t started pushing myself too hard or nearing that exhaustion line anywhere during the first loop. RP and I filled our bottles with some Gatorade and took in some calories before heading back out. Since the start/finish area was the only fully stocked aid station, I was relying on GoGos applesauce squeeze pouches as my only source of calories between 10 mile loops. Each pouch was 3.2 oz and 60 calories. I ate three during the first loop and took three more before heading back out for loop number two. If all things went perfectly, this may have been a fine nutritional plan: 180 supplemental applesauce calories during each 10 mile, sub 2 hour loop and primary refueling at the completion of each loop at the main aid station. Unfortunately, not everything went perfectly. As the day went on and the heat started to wear on me I began slowing down. This meant longer stretches of energy exertion with fewer calories consumed. Although I wouldn’t say that nutrition was the largest contributing factor to my ailing performance throughout the day, I would say it could have been adding to an already troubled situation.
I headed back out with RP for our second lap with the plan to try to push this lap a little harder than the first. I figured if I was going to meet my goal I didn’t want to have to make up time on my final lap during the hottest part of the day. I realized after a few miles that RP wasn’t with me anymore. We had chatted during the first lap about running together and splitting up. We even joked about whether we would hold hands at the finish as we shared first place. We knew what each other’s goals were so I wasn’t completely surprised to find myself alone. During the remainder of this lap the heat continued wear on me. Although the dew was long gone, I was still drenched from a steady flow of sweat. I almost stopped at the creek crossing during this lap to dunk my head and cool off, but I knew the water aid station was just ahead and somewhat reluctantly passed on the opportunity. I finished up my second lap and checked into the start/finish area at about 3:50, even further behind my target time after trying to push myself harder during that second lap to make up the couple minutes that I needed. It was at this point that I started doubting the feasibility of making my goal of a sub 9 hour finish.
|Map of the dam crossing|
It was at some point during my third lap that I started coming to terms with not achieving my main intention of the race. The heat was getting more and more oppressive with every lap. My water bottle was either empty or nearly empty every time I reached an aid station. It had been about five hours since the start of the race and I don’t think I had urinated once. I tried to pick up my pace during this lap, but my body just wouldn’t respond how I wanted it to. I continued to fall further off of my target pace. Most people recommend having tiered goals going into a race. I didn’t do that because I was so sure I’d be able to hit my A goal of a sub 9 hour finish. It was looking more and more like that wasn’t going to happen. I decided I would make up a secondary goal on the fly to stay motivated. I was in the lead since RP had fallen back during the second lap, so what better goal to stay motivated to the finish but to hang on to the lead? So finishing in first became my tier B goal. During this lap I stopped at the creek crossing and dunked my head and soaked my shirt in the cool water. I was so happy I did because at the next water station there was only enough water left to fill my bottle (20 oz.) about halfway.
I’m not certain, but I believe it was during this lap that a group of a few runners that must have finished a shorter distance race were parked at the point on the course where you exit the trail and head into the neighborhood. They must have been waiting for runners to cheer on because when they saw me approach the cranked up the stereo playing “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers and hopped out of the car cheering. The song choice made me chuckle and cheered me up a bit for the last of the lap.
I rolled into the start/finish area a little past the six hour mark, so much for those sub two hour laps. I was feeling overheated and dehydrated. I also had the feeling that I was fighting a losing battle with my A goal steadily getting farther out of reach. Although feeling a bit trashed mentally and physically, I went through the aid station quickly to try to finish what was beginning to feel like a suffer fest as
quickly as possible. It was during this fourth lap that I started wondering how RP was doing and regretting pushing harder during that second lap. I thought that maybe if I had just kept pace with him at least I would have had some company in this misery. And misery it was. I had never felt so dehydrated or overheated. I realized at a couple points during this lap that my head had stopped sweating as my hair was dry. I felt like I had to urinate, but only a dark brownish yellow dribble came out. When I reached the creek crossing during this lap, I took some extra time to soak and cool down. I found a low rock at the creek edge and hung from it with my waist up submerged in the cool flowing water. After a couple minutes I grudgingly pulled myself out of the water and trudged up the rock road climb. It was a blessing I pushed myself to move when I did at that point because as I was arriving at the aid station on the other side of the dam a volunteer was about to leave the unmanned aid station without any water. I was beyond happy that I got there before she had left and when she offered me ice I profusely expressed my love for her. I got a full, iced water bottle, a hat full of ice, and a far improved mood and was on my way to wrap up lap four. It was towards the end of this lap that one house in the neighborhood section of the course had put out a sign proclaiming “Way To Go Wildcat Runners! Heat Index: 109.7°F”. Thankfully, they also put out a garden sprinkler for runners to cool off in.
|Trail following the creek to the dam crossing|
I returned to the start/finish area at about the 8.5 hour mark. At this point I was almost relieved that my goal time was a lost cause. I also had plenty of distractions away from those negative thoughts. RP was back at the start/finish area. By this time he had called it quits after three laps. His girlfriend and father were there as were my wife, our two boys, and her mom. I felt like I had a full crew there to patch me up and get me back out for my final lap. I put on clean dry socks and swapped out my soggy Sauconys for Altra Superiors. While doing this, RP’s dad handed me a Sierra Nevada IPA. A cold IPA never tasted so good. While getting the IPA and some calories down, I found out that of the 30 or so runners that started the 50 miler only myself and one other runner were still on the course. I guess this made my B goal more attainable as I only had to stay in front of one other runner. With that confidence booster, dry feet, and a little alcohol in my system I headed out in good spirits for my final lap.
I finished with an official time of 10:55:02 which was good enough for first place this year. As happy as I was with the results and my effort, I would be lying if I didn’t admit it was somewhat bittersweet for several reasons (I think my face at the finish kinda shows these emotions). First and most importantly, my finishing time was nowhere near my target A goal time of nine hours. Second was the fact that it felt like I got first place (my made on the fly B goal) by default. The majority of the 50 mile runners had stopped at three laps and taken a 50 k finish time. Now whether you believe that race directors should allow runners to drop down to shorter distance finishes or if you believe that runners who don’t finish the distance they registered for should be recorded as DNFs is a separate although somewhat related issue. No matter how it was handled at this race, I still would have felt like I got first place somewhat by default. I most likely was not the fastest distance runner that started the 50 miler that day. However, only myself and one other runner were stubborn enough to finish the full distance given the torturous conditions.
January 3, 2017
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