Saturday, November 12, 2016

2016 Batona 50 Race Report

The Batona 50 is point to point race with 53.4 mile and 50k options. The course follows the path of The Batona Trail. The trail derives its name similar to but not exactly in the format of an acronym: BAck TO NAture. It makes its way through the NJ Pinelands National Reserve from the north end at Ong’s Hat in Brendan T. Byrne State forest to the southern end at Lake Absegami in Bass River State Forest. Along the way it takes you on a tour through the heart of Wharton State Forest passing Batsto Village and numerous campgrounds.The trail is pretty typical of South Jersey trails in that it is a reflection of the common sandy soils of the coastal plains, resulting in high sand content and sandy trails. The second common feature of trails in Southern NJ and the landscape in general is a lack of elevation change. The Batona Trail shares the nearly total absence of climbs and descents with the rest of the landscape in the region with only 530’ of elevation gain recorded by my Garmin for the entirety of the trail. 
Elevation Profile
The Batona 50 event is organized as a “fat ass” event. Typically, “fat ass” events have no frills, no fee, no aid, no schwag, and no course markings; making them more or less a large group run. However, the organizers of the Batona 50 have gone beyond what I would consider to be the standard definition of a “fat ass” event. While there are no course markings, the trail is pretty well marked already by trail blazes so there really isn’t any need for additional markings. As for frills, there was no schwag for registering or finishers’ medals, but they did offer the option to purchase a
pretty nice looking long sleeve shirt. There was no registration fee, but the organizers did ask that in lieu of the fee that participants consider donating to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance or NJ Conservation Foundation. It was in the aid department where the event really went beyond my expectations from a “fat ass” event. The course had six planned aid stations along the 50+ mile distance, four of which doubled as aid for the 50k distance. A surprise aid station popped up during the event for the 50+ mile distance between aid stations on the second half of the course where they were about 10 miles apart. All of the aid stations were stocked with standard fuel and hydration donated by the runners and the amazing group of volunteers manning them. And heck, they even offered the option of transporting a drop bag to any of the aid stations for you!

This was my last ultra for the year and with it taking place only four weeks after finishing my first 100 miler, I was really questioning how hard I wanted to push myself while running it. I didn’t train much between the two events. I did some easy medium to short recovery runs following the 100 miler, one long (25 mile) training run, and some mid to short runs during a taper leading up to the 50 miler. In total, I ran about 75 miles in the four weeks between the two races. I was really banking on the fitness and endurance from the 100 mile training to carry over and get me through the race, which is a strategy I have never used and did not trust. Additionally, I was trying to comfort myself with the fact that the course was super flat and therefore the 50 miles would seem “easy”. All the while I knew that while one 50 miler may be “easy” relative to another 50 miler, running 50 miles is never “easy” and I knew that at some point during the run I would most likely be hurting and in pain. With these trepidations leading up to the event, I was telling myself that my plan was to go out at comfortable pace and maintain that for the entirety of the run. I stuck to that plan up until the race started.

I stood in the crowd while the race director made some brief announcements. Then with the start of the race imminent, a strange thing happened. All of the other runners towards the front of the crowd started shuffling backwards in small, barely noticeable increments. Without moving, myself and about four other runners were all at the front of the starting line and with that the race began. Three of the other runners that took off first had actually intended to be there. The one immediately in front of me, however, had apparently ended up there inadvertently due to the pre start backwards shuffle and hopped off to the side of the trail to let me pass after maybe 100 yards from the start.

The start of the race was 7 AM so the sun was just starting to rise and it was still a little tough to see the trail and blazes without a headlamp. My plan, or lack thereof, was to run with someone else with a headlamp for the first half hour or so until the headlamp would be completely unnecessary. I was going out at what felt like a pretty comfortable pace for me, but no headlamps were nearby behind me and one was not too far ahead. I figured I’d pick up my pace a bit to catch the pair of runners, one of whom had a headlamp, in front of me. I told myself that even though it was a little faster (around 8:30 miles) than I had intended to go out, it would be less than a half hour until it would be light enough that I would be completely comfortable running without any lighting.

After just a few miles with the two runners, it was daylight and one other runner that had sped up from the starting pack had joined up with us. With a little conversation between the four of us the miles started to click off and we were at the first aid station. We all passed through quickly (less than a minute) and continued on. And just like that, I scrapped my whole plan of taking it easy and decided to see if I could keep pace with these guys who were the lead pack with the exception of the front runner who was running a blazing pace and set a new course record of 7:11:00. As much as I had told myself that this is my last ultra for the year, I haven’t trained enough or recovered long enough from the 100 miler, and I should take it easy and just focus on finishing and enjoying it, I couldn’t convince myself to execute that plan. For me anyway, the attraction of ultras is to truly test yourself and find out what you are capable of. The way I see it, if you aren’t pushing yourself, you won’t find out.

One of the stretches of narrow boards.
Even though I was pushing harder than I had intended and in a bit of pain, I was still enjoying the run. The first couple hours were a bit chilly, mid 30s, but once it warmed up a bit it was perfect running weather. It may have been a bit past the time for peak fall colors as the sassafras and the sweetgum trees had nearly dropped all of their leaves, but many of the oaks still displayed the majority of their leaves ranging from green tinted with yellows to brilliant reds and earthy browns. Though the most stunning colors belonged to the blueberry shrubs that dominate much of the understory of the Pinelands. Running through the seemingly endless sea of fiery red was a reward in itself. Nearly every footfall was cushioned by a bed of oak leaves and pitch pine needles along the sandy trail. While much of the scenery along the Batona trail is consistent, it does offer some variety passing by several lakes and long abandoned cranberry bogs. Additionally, for some stretches it follows forest streams and passes through several low lying swampy areas where the trail weaves its way between the thick stands of Atlantic white cedars on treacherous looking narrow boards.

Between enjoying the scenery and the off and on conversations within our pack, we were a little over
Fall colors.
20 miles into the run before I even realized it or thought about changing my pace. It was around this point that one runner from our group picked up his pace and for the next few miles I could just barely catch a glimpse of his orange jacket in the distance every few minutes. Not long after that another from our pack picked up his pace as well and the one runner remaining with me slowed his pace. I ran alone for a good stretch of the trail after that and maintained just a slightly slower pace (just under 9 minute miles) than I had when running with the group until I started feeling some rumbling in my bowels. After assessing the situation for awhile, it became clear that I was going to have to resolve the issue soon. I didn’t want to waste much time by going too far off trail, but I also did not want to perform a public demonstration of how to wipe your ass with leaf litter and pine needles. My main worry was that I had no clue how far back the next runner was. I waited until the next side trail crossed the course and went just a little way down that trail and hopped off the trail behind some shrubs thinking “this side trail won’t have any traffic”. Well, one of the pre race announcements was to be very mindful and on the lookout for trail blazes because there are many cross trails and fire roads making it easy to go off course without realizing it. I had noticed this during the race as well as how often times along the trail there are braided sections that separate then quickly rejoin to a single trail. It turned out that this “cross trail” that I hopped off of was actually just a braided section of the Batona trail. I realized this shortly after taking care of business and going just a few paces down the trail to find the paths reconnected. Thankfully, there was enough of a gap between me and the next runner that my privacy was not disturbed.

With that catastrophe avoided, I continued on in good spirits. Soon after, I passed the 50k mark and checked my watch to realize I had just run my fastest 50k, bettering it by about 13 minutes. Even though my previous 50k best was on a tougher course (Blues Cruise) with far more elevation change, it was still a bit of a boost for my morale and encouraged me to continue to push as best I could for the remaining 20 miles or so. I was feeling a bit tired by this point so it really did help me out mentally. Although I was telling myself that I didn’t have a target time for this race, I was really hoping to keep it under a 10 minute per mile average. With that pace, I would improve my 50 mile time. I pushed on sustaining around a 9:30 per mile pace until around mile 40 when I caught sight of one of the two runners I had been with earlier that had picked up his pace. It was his first race greater than a 50k distance and it looked like the miles were beginning to take a toll on him. We rolled into the final aid station at about the 43 mile mark together.

I was feeling pretty tired by this point, but the excitement of running a faster time than I had hoped for and knowing that I could be at the finish within a couple hours had me pumped and ready to push on and wrap this thing up. After refilling my bottle and downing some bacon, a banana, and some coke I was ready to move out. I looked over at my running mate to realize that he did not look as excited or as pumped as I was to finish this run. A chair was set up just a few steps from the aid station table and one of the volunteers pointed it out and mentioned it to the guy I had been running with. I felt it was my duty at this point to tell him not to even think about sitting down. I told him to not even look at that chair, it’s only another ten miles until you’ll be back at your car and can sit down there. With that we headed out from the aid station and pushed on.

The next few miles passed quickly with the company and the boost of the caffeine and sugar from the coke. Then we found ourselves on a fire road and there was no sign of the familiar pink blazes we had been following on the trail all day. We turned back following the road until we found a faint pink blaze. Thinking that this confirmed we were still on the trail, we doubled back and continued on the road until it came out to a larger road crossing we had already crossed from the opposite direction not too long before the blazes had quit appearing. We saw the trail nearby where we had
crossed earlier and knew for certain that we had made a wrong turn. We got back on the trail, running a section we had already run, a little frustrated that we had probably just added about an extra one mile loop to the final stretch of the course. We got back to the point where we made the wrong turn and I immediately realized how we had both messed it up. What looked like an arrow pointing left where the trail met the fire road was actually an arrow directing hikers from the opposite direction onto the trail we had just come from. If either of us had looked to the right at that point we would have seen that the trail was clearly blazed in that direction. Clearly both of us were feeling the effects of the miles that we had logged already. Thankfully, that was the only wrong turn we made.

We continued on together until about 5 miles from the finish when my trail companion decided to slow down to take a gel and walk for a bit. I think his stomach was bothering him a bit as he had mentioned that he hoped the coke would help settle it shortly after leaving the last aid station. I’m guessing that he wanted to let the gel settle a little before continuing with the gyrations from the pounding of running. He told me not to wait for him, but I felt kinda bad about continuing on ahead of him so close to the finish when we had run the better part of the entire trail together. However, at that point I could practically smell the finish and was running out of motivation. I just wanted to be done as soon as possible. I just gave him a nod and continued on. My brain was feeling kinda fried at the time and in my mind it was a very encouraging nod that said “Stay strong, keep up the pace and finish strong!”. Looking back, I doubt it conveyed that entire message to him.
Lake Absegami at the south end of the trail.
For the last few miles I tried to run the tank dry, but there wasn’t a whole lot left. I was digging deep in an attempt to eek out one more sub 9 mile, but the closest I could get was a 9:15. I crossed the finish with a time of 8:40:45 which I was pretty impressed by since my time goal that I was saying I
didn’t have was 10 hours. I am so thankful that I fell in with the group that I did from the start or else I don’t think I would have pushed myself to the same degree. To me, that really sums up what these ultra events are all about:  the eloquent intermixing of camaraderie and competition that drives everyone to be the best version of themselves.

Scott Snell
November 10, 2016

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

2016 TARC 100 Race Report

TARC 100 Race Report

How I Broke Two Ultrarunning Commandments and Succeeded

First lap and feeling fine!

The TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) 100 is a hundred mile race which takes place in Westwood, MA, about a 20 minute drive from downtown Boston. In fact, the Boston skyline is visible, weather permitting, from one point on the course. The 2016 running of the TARC 100 was the fourth running of the event and will unfortunately be the final running of it for the foreseeable future due to a number of reasons. From the few TARC members I heard from about putting the TARC 100 on hold, the main reason that seemed to be repeated was that a TARC member had past and the club felt stretched thin between TARC 100 and all the other races they put on. With it possibly being the final running of a race being put on by a club that already felt stretched thin, one might expect a subpar performance for overall race event coordination. The TARC 100 race director, Josh Katzman, and the TARC crew had quite the contrary in mind with an amazingly well organized event that was run smoothly and exceeded all expectations.

The course was amazingly well marked with flagging and signs both with reflective tape so they were easy to see when a headlamp was needed; it would have been difficult to get lost or go off course unless you were in a seriously foggy state of mind (or you head out fast and miss the first turn, that will be explained later). All aid stations were well stocked with everything you would expect and manned by super helpful and friendly volunteers. Additionally, the course route and the spacing of the aid stations was proof that a significant amount of time and effort was put into getting them right. The course is a 25 mile loop of primarily single track trail. There is one short section, probably less than a couple hundred feet, of the course where there is two way traffic. Other than that, there is no repeated trail during each loop. I’d estimate that the course is easily over 90% trail with the remainder being made up of short stretches along gravel and a few paved roads. It was somewhat technical, some sections more so than others, with a decent amount of exposed roots and rocky sections. There is also a fair amount of elevation change with about 2,500 feet of gain during each lap for a total of 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Not a crazy amount of gain, but definitely not flat either.

Lacing up my Altra Lone Peaks
 for the start!
I registered for this 100 miler more or less to overcome my fear of the 100 mile distance. My goal for 2017 is to complete the PA Triple Crown Series:  Hyner 50k, World's End 100k, and Eastern States 100 miler. Up until finishing the TARC 100 I felt confident about everything in the Triple Crown Series other than the 100 miler. Wrapping my head around covering 100 miles was something I was struggling with so I figured if I want to have any confidence next year in finishing the series, what better way than to just get a hundred miler out of the way this year and prove to myself that it is a doable distance. So, with having done a 40 and two 50 milers already this year, I registered for the TARC 100 about a month before the race. I basically viewed all of my training runs and the 50 milers as training runs building up to the 100 miler.

With it being my first shot at a 100 miler and not being familiar with the course, it was tough to decide what an achievable yet challenging goal would be other than just finishing. I figured 24 hours is kinda the standard time goal for a 100 miler that isn’t ridiculously technical or that has some other feature that would really cost you time, so that became my A goal with finishing before the 32 hour cutoff being my B goal. After my final long training runs of back to back 30 and 20 milers, I was feeling extremely confident going into my three week taper. I even feared that I was dangerously overconfident and I was going into this with way too much optimism and that quite everything I hoped this journey to be could very well come crashing down and destroy me around 70 miles in. Thankfully, that bout of overconfidence passed a few days before the race and I was filled with a more extreme version of the nervous excitement that I am accustomed to before a race.

My basic race strategy went against several of the ultrarunning commandments I have heard stressed time after time on podcasts and in race reports:  don’t go out too fast and don’t try anything on race day that you haven’t practiced on your long runs. I broke both of these to a certain degree. I planned on running the first half faster than the second half for two reasons:  I’d have fresh legs and wouldn’t feel as tired during the first 50 (novicely planning on banking time for the second half) and that I had not done much trail running after dark so I thought even if I am still feeling strong after dark, my pace was still going to suffer due to my inexperience of running trails with a headlamp (breaking two commandments in your overall race strategy, maybe not a good idea for your first 100?).  I further broke the “do nothing you haven’t practiced on long runs” commandment with nutrition/hydration. I had used and was comfortable with everything offered at the aid stations, but decided to bring a couple untested items that I’ve heard raved about on a few occasions. Those items being coconut water and Starbucks frappuccinos, neither of which really caused any problems.

Towards the end of loop #1.
The first 25 mile loop went well and was for the most part uneventful. I started middle of the pack and followed the people in front of me. Probably less than 50 yards from the start, I hear from right behind me, “you’re going the wrong way!”. It turned out the leaders missed an early turn, possibly the first one, before even getting on the trail. Thankfully it was a mistake caught early, but it made for a lot of passing early on as the lead pack attempted to get back to the lead. Other than this, the first lap was smooth and right on my target pace (12 to 14 minute miles). I was eating and drinking at every aid station as planned and was back to the start/finish area in about five hours.

The second loop deviated a little from my plan, mainly because of some chatting I did with another runner. Not that I didn’t talk with anyone during the first loop, but shortly after meeting this runner, Dima was his name, and chatting with him a bit, I found out there were only about five or six runners in front of us. I had no idea until this point how far I had moved up with respect to placement. I had no place goals going into the race, only the 24 hour finish goal which I thought would likely put me into the top 10 if it worked out. Finding out this early on I was already in the top 10 was really unexpected. I also learned that Dima had finished about 13 or so 100 milers and a few 200 milers. With this conversation, I began to think that my newbie overconfidence of the 100 mile distance might wreck my second half. Dima was way more experienced than me and good company so I decided to match his pace for a while. After about 10 miles of running together we were probably still averaging around 14 or 15 minute miles, but I found myself getting angry and frustrated that I wasn’t banking the time in daylight like I had during my first loop. I decided that whether my legs blew up or not due to my plan, I did not want to run angry or frustrated and parted ways with Dima as I picked up my pace to the higher but comfortable effort level I had maintained earlier. I finished the second loop at about the 10.5 hour mark, just a few hours before dark as planned.

Going into my third loop and the unchartered distance of over 50 miles I still felt good and my legs felt like I could push them if needed. I believe I was in fifth place at this time as I passed another runner shortly after parting with Dima. I wanted to maintain the pace from my first 50 miles until the sunset during my third lap. I was able to do this for what seemed much less painful than I had expected until the 10 mile aid station. At that aid station my wife was going to join me to pace me for the remainder of the loop. It was really last minute plans as my wife wasn’t even planning on coming with me to the race until maybe a couple weeks before it. I really had been planning on going solo and not using a pacer, but it was tough to turn down the offer after she had arranged to be there to support me. So after a short stop at the aid station we headed out with our headlamps on as it had quickly gone from sunset to darkness. Surprisingly for both of us, my pace did not slow down a great deal running in the dark. It changed so little that my wife had problems keeping up which was a bit frustrating for me. I’m not saying this to take anything away from my wife or to brag, because she is a good runner, but she is a very apprehensive trail runner even in the daylight. I think the mediocre at best headlamp and technical terrain were the two things really slowing her down. Anyhow, after a couple miles she yelled to me to just go on without her. It was kinda bittersweet as I wanted to run with her, but I didn’t want to have to sacrifice my pace for it. I came into the next aid station (around mile 15 on the loop) at the same time as another runner. I was pretty surprised when the aid station captain announced that we were the third and fourth place runners. I had passed other runners since the last aid station, but I had assumed they were all 100k distance runners. I passed through quickly and continued on feeling good physically for the remainder of the loop. Mentally, however, I was a little worried about both the pressure of knowing the fourth place runner was right behind me and the fact that I had left my wife a few miles back. Maybe it was that or maybe it was just the adrenaline I had flowing that helped me maintain my pace until the finish of the loop when I was able to see her again at the start/finish area and know that she had made it back safe. It turned out she was able to catch a ride back from the next aid station, just a couple miles from where I had left her. That was a bit of relief and peace for me before heading out for my final lap.

I started the final lap with the goal of doing everything I could to maintain my pace until the finish. I left the start/finish area the final time at about the 16 hour mark giving me ample time to meet my 24 hour goal. Although I hadn't gone into the race with any goals of placing, after being in third for about ten miles hanging on to that position had become a goal. Physically I was still comfortable, but mentally I was worrying about other runners who may have been waiting until the final lap to really push. I went through about 13 miles of the loop with nothing but those thoughts circling through my head (other than singing the Finding Dory song that I hear my son sing sometimes to myself, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”, only I change the “swimming” to “running”). About that time I passed a couple of 100k runners who informed that second place was just a few minutes ahead of me. Over the next two miles to the next aid station I passed about three runners. I wasn’t sure if any of them were the second place 100 mile runner until I reached the aid station to find out I was in second place. It was at that point that for the first time during the race I asked how much farther I had to go until the finish. My gps had been getting farther and farther off
After a nap and a change of clothes.
with every loop, my thinking was a little scattered by this point, and although I had an approximate idea of the spacing, I never knew the exact distances of the aid stations throughout the course. Maybe it was the mental game of knowing how close to the finish I was, but shortly after leaving the aid station I began feeling more pain than I had all day. Primarily in the lower shins just above the ankles which took me by surprise because I normally never have pain in that area and have only had shin splints once before nearly 10 years ago. I figured that a bit of pain during the last 10 miles of a 100 miler is probably pretty normal, so I accepted it and continued on as best I could. I made my final pass through the final aid station and pushed myself through the final tough stretch of the loop that the TARC crew lovingly refer to as “The Grinder”. I guess it gets this name due to how technical it is with lots of exposed rock (which had become pretty slick from the drizzle that had started in the last few hours) and how windy the trail feels through that section. It was just very difficult to maintain any pace or feel any flow when constantly rock hopping and turning. It was pretty amazing how much more difficult it had become the fourth time through compared to the first time when my fresh legs told me it was nearly all runnable. I was grateful to get through without eating it and push with anything I had left for the last mile or so of the course which was pretty easy terrain. When I saw the Christmas lights of the finish area it was a beautiful sight. The only thing that topped it was seeing my 22:02:00 finishing time and being handed a shiny buckle shortly after.

All things considered, I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome. I proved to myself that the 100 miler is achievable. I had a plan (even if it did go against some fundamentals) and for the most part stuck to it. My goal was to get it in under 24 hours or blow up trying to. My inspiration for the all or nothing mindset of that goal really came from watching irunfar’s post UTMB interview of Zach Miller multiple times. The passion, perseverance, desire, disappointment, and heartache was all on full display during that interview. As inspired as I was by that interview, it also haunted me for the last lap. During the interview Zach talks about how things had gone so well for so long until he started bonking with somewhere around 15-20 miles to go. As I was approaching the 80, 85, and 90 mile marks I was almost waiting for things to fall apart. Thankfully, they never really did and the wheels never really came off.

The Buckle!

Scott Snell
October 19, 2016