Saturday, 7 May 2016

Rock The Ridge 2016

This race was never on the schedule but first Ken then Ben contacted me to see if I would run. I’d never heard of the race until I joined MPF RNR but was really interested in a fast 50 mile ‘trail’ race. I use the inverted comma’s as it is generally a very fast course on the carriage roads of the Mohonk Preserve; however whilst fast it also contains a significant amount of elevation change, albeit very gradually. It certainly appealed but fell at a busy time of year.

However with an upcoming move and increased Daddy day care duties fast approaching, I’m racing far more than I typically do in the early part of 2016. With Ocean Drive Marathon, Naked Bavarian, Springle Track, Breakneck and now Rock the Ridge 50 this is my busiest start to a year for a long time.

Ben kindly invited Gwen, Meredith and I to stay at Steph’s mums house the night before the race so the logistics were all pretty much taken care of. All I had to do was run a solid 50 miler, hopefully stay close to Ben. Having been soundly dropped by Ben and the lead pack at Breakneck only two weeks previously I was far from confident I’d even make half way with Ben and I also haven’t run a runnable 50 miler since Cayuga back in 2014. I was disappointed with my Breakneck run, whilst I didn't expect to compete with Ben there this year I wasn’t happy to be almost 30 minutes behind him, after being with him 10 miles in. Injury issues affected winter training but since the new year I’ve been happy with my training, luckily my inherent selfishness (which my wife will testify to..) has meant having a new born hasn’t overly affected training so I feel fitness is starting to return as we enter the main season.

My plan for the race was pretty simple.. hold on to Ben. We set off and I expected it to be just us but we had a relay runner and then another runner joined us who we thought was in the 50 miler too. Steadily we pulled away and I sat in behind Ben on the long first climb and Ben seemed strong, whilst the pace was a tad hard for me, I felt I wasn’t dipping into the red so just followed along, soon we dropped the other runner and it was just the relay runner and us on the long 3-4 mile climb to the first fluids station. Ben was obviously stronger early on but seemed happy to keep me along for company. Looking at recent results Ben has ran most of his previous 150 miles on this route solo. 

This race is just the perfect hybrid of road and trail, just miles and miles of slowly undulating crushed gravel wide trails, occasional sections of stony and slightly technical ground but it just winds around stunning vistas of the Mohonk Preserve. Having ran at Sprinkle Track and the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival I’d seen small sections of the Mohonk Preserve but this was my first time really seeing all the carriage roads.

Start (credit RockhillHayes)

Ben was powering through the early miles and I just held on. The unspoken idea for me was we’d push to break his old record but with the recent fires in the area I’d expected a changed route and we then found out it was a slightly longer route. With not knowing the course I was happy to just sit in behind Ben. To be honest I was just wondering how far I could follow Ben for.. ‘Make the first aid station’.. then ‘Make 10’.. It wasn’t like a flat race where you can watch pace, so at the start I switched my watch data fields so I couldn’t see time, all I could see was average pace, lap pace and distance. Average pace would give me a rough idea but without knowing the course ahead I couldn’t predict anything. For the whole race I never once looked at my time nor asked Ben how we were going against his previous times.  

Ascending Skytop (credit Stephanie Tenuto Nephew)

We climbed over skycap and enjoyed the views but as we approached 20 miles Ben was struggling with his stomach and didn’t seem as keen to push the pace. Still my view was 45 miles. Keep together if we could, just having someone to pace off, even the occasional words would help time pass but from miles 25 onwards I felt I was actually feeling better. Ben warned me there was a long 6 miles of climbing between miles 24 and 30 up to Castle point, which I doubted. How can they fit 6 miles of climbing? As we climbed past Awosting Falls, steeply but never steep enough to walk, the climb just went on and on, past the lake and then around and over point after point until we finally reached Castle Point. I was definitely feeling my hip flexors by now but Ben said he just felt empty. I did considering making a break around then but I had no real desire to run the last 20-25 miles in unless Ben’s pace really dropped. From there its actually almost all down hill so I was keen to get the pace down into the 7’s which we did and Ben just sat behind me as we started the long run to the finish. On the way back in we were passing the runners heading out so received support from many which helped keep us going. I don’t think either of us said much in return as we were both feeling pretty bashed as we approached the last 10 milers. The consistent running in this race really destroys your legs and I was thankful to have Ben alongside to help keep the pace solid.

I’ve seen Ben produce some impressive runs but this probably ranked as one of the most impressive runs I’ve seen from him, he just sat next to or behind me, from being empty at 25 miles he just kept on going. I was keen to keep the pace high but never red line and see where that took us as we approached 45 miles, with a good few miles of flat running where we managed to hold our pace in the mid 7’s. The sun was well up in the sky now but it was probably only mid 60’s so about ideal temperatures for a long run.

Descending with Ben (credit Stephanie Tenuto Nephew)

The climbs over the last section are all small, rarely that steep until the climb at 45 miles but we still kept on a run going and climbed well before we started the long final descent. I decided with probably no climbs to go I’d attack the last 3-4 miles back to the tower. The descents are smooth and gradual so holding mid- low 6 minute miles over the last section wasn’t too hard, a quick glance back revealed Ben was still hanging on which worried me I’d gone too soon, but I managed to keep the pace up and hoped I’d managed to open up a few minutes gap. There was one worrying section on a long grassy traverse that was quite out of place with the previous well maintained crushed dirt roads which had me worried I’d missed a turn but thankfully I spotted the barn Ben had pointed out on the way and it was just a final retracing on my steps. There is one sting in the tail, a short climb on the road but then a lovely run in down the tree lined grove to the tower. I finished in 6:12, Ben just two minutes back in 6:14. The last 3.5 miles I’d averaged under 6:30 minute miles which was pretty pleasing. Still a good chunk outside of Ben’s record of 5:56 but with the course being slightly longer a respectable enough first effort.

Finish line photo (credit RockhillHayes)

Overall a great final long training run for Cayuga Trails 50 and a bit of a confidence booster after not having a great run at Breakneck. Still work to do for the year ahead but the main thing was my body held up OK and I’m pretty running fit at the moment, but worry I will struggle on the steeper terrain at Cayuga. After two days off I was back running which is always a good sign that I’m finally getting some robustness back.

Gear wise I used the new Ultimate Direction Access 20 waist pack with its very accessible 20 oz water bottle and small pouch which meant I could carry the GU gels that I almost exclusively used, and on my feet I opted for the Hoka Clifton’s due to the hard packed nature of the course. These were perfect, I could feel the occasional stony section, but the cushioning seemed to protect the legs on the long descents.  

The course is very picturesque, very fast, undulating but still fast and it would be great to see it get a stronger field from runners. There are not many more scenic fast 50 milers. Thanks to Ben, Ken and Todd for the encouragement to enter and providing a great race and company. Next up is Cayuga Trails 50 miler, the USA Track and Field 50 mile trail championships. 

Strava link:

Monday, 4 April 2016

Winter Great Range Traverse - Adirondacks

Back in February I had attempted a solo Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks, reversing the typical route and starting with Marcy. The GRT is one of the classic FKT's of the North East and does not get too many winter traverses. Details of the FKT are here. The lack of snow and frequent freeze/thaw cycles left the exposed rocks on the summits covered in thick ice so after a scary few hours I gave in and returned to the Garden Lot in Keene Valley determined for one more go. Reading various reports online I had worries about 3 or 4 of the more serious technical sections and a few of the ladders which can be covered in ice in winter. Since moving to the US this has been on my list of must dos. 

A few weeks later I got to spend some time with Jan Welford, an MPF/RNR teammate, at the Welts’s and Jan invited  us to stay with him and his family in Keene and get a big day out later in the winter. Jan lives in Keene NY, in the heart for the Adirondacks and is one of the most experienced mountain runners in the area, coming from a hiking and climbing background he's totally at home on the serious conditions high up in the ADK High Peaks. A few weeks later and I was back up in the Adirondacks with the Wellford’s. Jan was guiding Saturday so I went for a steady day out but the weather was glorious. Strong cold winds but almost no cloud, the first time I had experienced such conditions in the Adirondacks. The first day I just didn’t want to come off the hill so ended up with a fairly big day going over Wright, Algonquin, Boundary and out to Iroquois and after descending to the Interior Post just couldn’t resist going up to Mount Colden for one more summit, making it a 16 mile with 6000ft of ascent day.

With the forecast suggesting Sunday would be even better with light winds Jan suggested a GRT; a tough 24 mile day with just under 10k of ascent. With little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures we set off very light weight and decided we’d just play it by ear and see how things went. Soon after leaving the car we realized we didn’t even have torches so were pretty much limited to day light hours. We climbed steadily summiting Rooster Comb and then Hedgehog before starting the Wolf Jaws. There was little snow up to around 3000ft but the ice was pretty thick and exposed making it pretty treacherous in places. We were both wearing our waterproof Merrell All Out Terra Ice which allowed us to climb to almost 3000ft without microspikes due to their tungsten tipped studs. Climbing over the Wolf Jaws we hit a few ice covered ledges which were tough to climb. Jan seemed to skip up but I was pretty scared and was dragging myself through trees to try to get up, a fall would have certainly had nasty consequences. Early on I was not at all confident we’d get the route finished as I’d heard the Gothics and Saddleback had exposed steep rock which I worried would be ice covered. The line we took generally runs from the North East to the South West so the faces we were ascending were generally more ice-ridden and ice covered than the faces we were descending, which hopefully meant those harder sections would be snow and ice free.

Pic above: Jan Climbing the final ridge of Gothics

We still moved steadily through and took few breaks, Jan was chatting away and I was just grunting replies already struggling from the day before hoping to finally get some legs later in the day. After the Wolf Jaws we were soon climbing Armstrong and hit the Armstrong Ladder, another section I’d read about on line. That was fairly free of ice apart from the last few rungs which required an unsecured step on to steep ice at the top. Jan confidently made the step but again I bottled it and swung out to a tree to gain that step. The summits were glorious, dream conditions and as we climbed the Gothics the summit ridge was just glorious, its hard to describe how perfect conditions were. We were each in single layer tops and it was comfortable to stand and enjoy the view at over 4000ft in the middle of March.

Pic above: Jan enjoying the view

Next came the major section that was giving me the heebie jeebies all day leading up to them – the Gothic Slabs. Luckily the slabs were all but ice free and the cables were replaced quite recently and pretty reliable leading to a stress free descent – Well for Jan, I was being the road running city boy and using the cables as he walked down nonchalantly. The rock was so bare we removed our microspikes for a section as we descended the exposed slabs. We weren’t too quick up to this point so we started to doubt if we had the day light so we set a target time to be on the summit of Marcy to make sure we could get off in day light. Although Marcy is the last the peak and you only have a final descent, it’s a good 8-9 miles off so can take a good 2 hours, if not more on tired legs. You can drop off before Marcy saving a good chunk at the end of the day, meaning you miss out on a pretty mundane section of the ridge, except for the views of Marcy, but also meaning you haven’t completed the GRT. Jan has completed this route numerous times but for me I was pretty keen to get the full ridge completed and I was finally starting to feel stronger as the day progressed.

Pic above: Descending the Gothics Slabs

Soon after the Gothics slabs we were ascending what was for me the last big obstacle, bar a few ledges on Basin, the south west rock face of Saddleback. For me this was the last big obstacle, I was pretty sure Haystack would be largely free of Snow and Ice and Marcy is technically pretty easy. But reading online comments the rock face on the SW face of Saddleback has a fearsome reputation and again I feared ice would cover vital holds. It was so ice free that yet again we removed our microspikes and descended easily.

Next was Basin which I knew had some serious ledges on but I thought they would go as did previous ledges and they did. At at each hard ice section there was always a handy exposed root or tree to grab onto and soon enough we had descended the last steep section and started the long section out to Haystack.

Pic above: Descending Saddleback

Pic above: Descending Saddleback

By now we’d certainly broken the back of the day. After Basin it is a pretty long descent to a col where we got water before a long climb out to Haystack. The last two peaks have a fair gap between but its mainly just trails apart from the exposed summit rocks of Haystack, which apart from a short step on Little Haystack is pretty untechnical. We moved well through this section, being in pretty good spirits that the full route would be completed and we chatting away about various FKT’s and races etc. The summit of Haystack provides a great panorama of the Western High Peaks so we stood there for a while soaking in the views before trotting off.

Pic above: Looking across to Marcy, our final peak, from Haystack, our penultimate peak

Pic above: Looking back along the GRT from Haystack Summit

Pic above: Jan on Haystack Summit

Despite only having 1 peak to go we actually had almost half the distance to go, but with only 1500 ft of climbing. We descended off Haystack and had one last steep tricky descent down to the junction with the Phelps Trail before the long climb to Marcy. This isn’t too steep so we soon emerged from the trees to see Marcy and were on the summit long before our self imposed deadline. Again we had a sit down and just enjoyed the views. It was pretty late in the afternoon but again it was not too cold, almost no wind at all with stunning views over all the ADK’s, with the full view of the days traverse laid out behind us.

Pic above: The final slopes of Marcy

With just the final descent to go and plenty of daylight we ran down pretty quick. The only potential issue was Jan’s microspike snapping just on the summit rocks of Marcy, but wearing our studded shoes fortunately made that a non-issue – but we discussed the benefits of carrying a spare microspike on future runs for such occasions.  In the soft snow we  comfortably descended what would be a technical descent in the summer and were soon down at the JBL, the last 5 k from there to the Garden Lot is always pretty tedious and despite my rapidly tiring hip flexors we made it out comfortably enough, finishing in about 8:40, a solid time for a winter traverse. Conditions were pretty good but the exposed ice sections higher up made some sections much slower than in summer conditions so care had to be taken. The final descent taking about 1:45, which is a solid time even in summer conditions.

Pic above: Enjoying our final summit

What a great day to complete a winter GRT. Without Jan for moral support I’d have definitely bottled out of a few sections but the day passed quickly as we chatted away about our families and various mountain experiences. It was great to get a few spend a few days with Jan, his wife, Megan, and Finn and Tilly. Thanks for the guiding and hospitality - Jan knows the route like the back of his hand and removed any route finding difficulties. With a 4 month old daughter it’s a great peek into the future when you get to spend time with a family with kids a few years older.. it wasn’t too terrifying :-).  And thanks to my wife for being tolerant of my frequent weekend’s away in the mountains, now that we have a little person in our lives.

Thanks to MPF/RNR for putting the team together and making it so easy to get together with like minded people for great mountain experiences. Thanks to Merrell for the All Out Terra Ice, the ideal shoe for long winter days out with mixed rock and Ice conditions and Ultimate Direction for the PB Adventure Vest. Slightly larger than a  race pack it allowed me to carry enough water food, microspikes and extra clothing to have a comfortable day out, being compact enough to allow me to easily climb steep terrain and struggle between trees and branches.

Just a superb day which will live long in the memory. It’s a stunning action packed route with many fairly serious technical sections which in the wrong conditions will provide a really serious challenge with very serious consequences should things go wrong, but it’s a superb logical traverse and I can’t wait for a summer attempt.