Worms + Snakes

Race report from The North Face Endurance Challenge: Bear Mountain – Marathon distance

1) Start a marathon
2) Finish a marathon
3) Execute a well paced race with a sound nutrition strategy – feel strong at the end, and be able to run the following week as a normal training week.

Despite this being my first attempt at a marathon distance (and my first time running over 30km), this was not an important race on my calendar, rather it was a specific training situation where I could attempt to simulate some of the demands of this summer’s Transrockies Run.

Swimming under the George Washington Bridge - MIMS 2008

Swimming under the George Washington Bridge – MIMS 2008

One part that wasn’t in the simulation was driving for 7 hours the day before the race. I left Montreal relatively early – in the car at 7:00 and headed for the 15-South… got to the border at 7:46, and after a fairly long wait crossed at 8:10. I had decided to stop after 90 minutes in the car to try and keep my lower back from getting tight as I’ve had issues with that in an 8k once after a long drive, so I did this religiously, taking my time on the way down. I decided to go straight into NYC for the package pickup, which was a terrible idea. I paid a $13 toll on the George Washington Bridge, and then $24 for an hour worth of parking. It was actually nice to come over into Manhattan and see the Hudson River again – I immediately remembered swimming this section of it… and also for the first time realized how FAR it was to swim around Manhattan! I had hoped to do my easy run the day before the race around Central Park but when I realized the parking situation this was not an option so I collected my bib number and retreated quickly back upstate.

My campsite at Beaver Pond State Park - great place, even has hot showers!

My campsite at Beaver Pond State Park – great place, even has hot showers!

I found my campsite easily with the help of my GPS, and checked in and set up my tent. Then I went for a quick run down from the campsite to a trail where I had seen the flagging already posted for the 50-Mile version of the race. It was a short run of just over 5k but since I had planned to do it in Central Park I had road shoes, which didn’t take to the technical trail very well. It was good to test the terrain before the race though because I realized even though I was feeling fit the uphill’s made me work harder than I wanted to for the race distance. My shins were tender so I worked them out with the TP massage stuff that night in the tent. After that I did a ‘re-con’ tour to find the parking lot for the morning, then went to order a pizza in the local town. I went to bed pretty early since I had nothing else to do, and was asleep by 9:30 or so.

At 1:30am another camp group playing guitar and singing, not loudly, but enough that it was keeping me from sleeping woke me up. I realized that at the Transrockies Race there will be a ‘tent city’ and likely there will be other, similar noises keeping me from having a peaceful sleep. Luckily I had my full bathroom kit, which has earplugs, but it was a great reminder to include those for this August’s race.

6:00am on race day I woke up and got breakfast ready – Starbucks Via coffee, and a mix of protein/oatmeal/dried fruit I have each morning. I felt like I was bumbling around the campsite a bit. Although the timeline of the days for TRR is somewhat similar I wasted a lot of time here, and would be better with pre-packaged bags of clothes and nutrition for each day ready to go. This is one area I felt I could do a lot better at before the summer. Then it was time to head over to the shuttle parking lot (15 min drive), hop on the shuttle and head to the race start (10 min drive). I arrived at the starting line/expo at about 8:20am, which gave me lots of time to get changed, pack my race pack, and do some stretching. I was still paranoid about my lower back, which was feeling tight still, so I did a lot of stretching there. I purposefully didn’t do a warm-up run as I planned to start REALLY slow.

The race expo

The race expo

On the shuttle to the start I overheard some people discussing the race, they sounded like they had done quite a few ultra-distance trail races, and one guy mentioned that this race was quite challenging, he commented that his time from the 50k ECS: Wisconsin was faster than his previous effort at the Marathon distance here (ECS: New York). Five minutes before the start, Dean Karnazes gave a little ‘pep-talk’. He asked who was running their first marathon to which a lot raised their hands (even though it was my first, I didn’t put my hand up… I like to keep to myself before a race). His comment to us ‘first timers’ “Hah… wow… well… your second will be easier!” Based on these incidents, and because I had never previously run farther than 30km… and that was 6 days prior, I decided to set a hard limit of 160 for my heart rate in the first 22km, and try to keep it under 150 as much as possible.

2km into the race

2km into the race

The race began at 9:00am and I had already begun much farther back than I normally would. Usually at a trail race I am good for a top 5 finish, so I try to start on the front line, and monitor the race as it unfolds. Here because I was just doing a paced effort I had no expectation of my placing, and really wanted to avoid getting caught up in starting too fast, so I placed myself about 1/3rd of the way through the pack, and tried to go really steady and slow once the race began. At the end of the first km my HR had gotten over 140 for a few seconds, then we hit a small climb and I watched it jump to 161 with barely any difference in my feeling… interesting! I calmed it down and kept everything really slow and controlled. I was pretty concerned with the distance, the course and the heat (we raced most of the day in 20 degree+ temperatures), and I really wanted to focus myself on simulating day one of the Transrockies – so being aware that I would have to run essentially the same course for another 5 more days. I assumed that for everyone else they were just pacing for their one day effort… for the first 10k I was probably running in about 50th position. One issue I was having with this was that I was technically a better runner than many of the people around me so on the descents I would fly by with zero effort… but there were so many people in the way it became difficult to find places for my feet to land.

Everyone going by me on Seven Lakes Drive

Everyone going by me on Seven Lakes Drive

The first aid station was at the parking lot where we left our cars, so I made some jokes about that, but since it was only about 6k into the race I didn’t need much at this point. At about 8km we came out of the trail and hit one of the few sections of road running in the race. We ran about a km on the road and as soon as we hit the pavement everyone started to drop me! People whom I had passed easily in the trails were blowing by me on the steady uphill climb up Seven Lakes Drive. I took it in stride, and chatted with a woman who had a fall earlier – she was passing me, and I gave her a band-aid from my pack, and got her to retrieve a Gu from it for me. Once we hit the trails again everyone slowed down – I was still running on heart rate so I was pretty sure I wasn’t speeding up…

This was at about 10km, where we hit the biggest single climb of the race – which is actually a Strava segment, and part of the Appalachian Trail. Once we hit this hill all the people who really didn’t look like they should be ahead of me started really looking like they were suffering, the climb was 1.7k (probably a mile segment) and averaged 8% incline… my average heart rate on this section was 161, which is as high as I wanted it to be, and I was still passing people.


Now we hit a fun downhill part, and since the hill had cleared away a lot of the masses I picked up some speed and started to push a bit on the way down. According to my GPS I hit 3’08 km pace (5’02 mile pace)… until I caught a foot on a rock or something and went flying! I did a pretty spectacular fall where I hit the ground chest first, bounced, then literally did “the worm”dance move and almost made it back onto my feet after the second bounce. Luckily I was all right except for a (pretty badly) cut finger, so I sucked on that until the Aid station #2 where I grabbed some band-aids, which was at about km 13.5.


After that it was really not very exciting for a long time, I met up with a guy who had done the race before and we chatted for a few km’s about pacing etc, and he gave me a great low-down on what was coming up. He also mentioned that all those people that started too fast would be having issues in the back half. After I left him we got a nice forested area, which was quite pretty and scenic, this ended up at a little look-out cabin on the top of Stackbridge Mountain, which was the highest point of the race (at 401m / 1,331ft). Then we dropped down to Lake Tiorati and the third aid station at km 22.3. By this time the sun was heating up and I was realizing that I needed to eat more.


After my fall for some reason I was not following my nutrition plan as well as I was before, I was still eating approximately the same amount but I wasn’t monitoring it. At this aid station I refilled my 500ml bottle I use for Gatorade, ate some pretzels (because I figured I should since they always put those in these long trail races!), some m&m’s and two little cups of coke. I realized I had to drink a lot more than I had been both to make up for eating more, and because it was so hot.IMG_3170

Now that we’d passed the ½ way mark I was not looking at the heart rate monitor anymore, instead just going and pushing a bit harder. I felt really strong, and running was not hard. Some parts of the terrain were difficult, and the hardest thing was that sometimes I’d feel a bit gross… I realized though that these feelings passed after a few minutes, and that mostly I felt fine, so I just focused on feeling good and didn’t worry about it. Looking through the results it seems like I came through the timing check-point at the third aid station (13.9 Miles / 22.3 km) in about 25th place, which is about consistent with where I felt like I was.

Timber_Rattlesnake_(dark_coloration)Now I was passing a lot of people, some were doing the 50k or 50M version of the race, some were marathon runners that were suffering. As I came up behind 2 guys from South America they turned and said “Hey, watch out – there’s a rattlesnake there”… just as I heard something in the grass RIGHT NEXT to me. That was pretty scary, but whatever, no big deal. About 5 minutes later I came upon a group of 5 racers who were walking off the trail. The guy at the back turned and stopped me – right in the middle of the trail was a HUGE pissed off Timber Rattlesnake. It was coiled up like the one in the picture above, hissing and rattling. We gave it a big wide berth, I took my phone out to take a picture, but it wouldn’t have come out real well since I wasn’t very close… plus as I said to the faster of the guys “Fuck. That. Shit.” That was pretty scary, and not something I would’ve wanted to find running on my own. As we passed it by I turned to see if there were anymore runners coming… I couldn’t see any so I yelled “Snake up”… that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?!

Once we got out of this downhill we were back in an exposed climb, where I was passing another marathon’er as Dean Karnazes came by the other way – it looked like he was doing the course backwards giving everyone encouragement. Dean declared that “of all the marathoners that have come by so far you guys look the freshest” – I figured he probably said that to everyone but it was still nice! In retrospect I was probably in the top 10 at that point. The guy I was passing was astonished at Dean’s comment – he mentioned something like “I can’t see how anyone can feel worse than me right now!” so I left him behind and bounced along.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 9.06.31 AM

By this time I felt really confident that the race was going to end well, I realized that my pacing had paid off, and although I would run for a while without seeing anyone at all, anytime I spied someone ahead of me I’d quickly pass them. In the 25-35km section most of the people I passed were victims of poor pacing, or lack of fitness. They were struggling, and not having much fun. We had hit a fairly non-technical stretch for about 3 km where I was jogging easily along at between 4’30-5’30 km pace (7’30-8’30 miles). I felt like I could keep up this pace, on this terrain all day without a problem, and in fact at this point of the race I realized that running was not the hard part of the day when I hit this stretch and could actually RUN for 15 minutes it felt GOOD. It was the breaking up of the rhythm and constant ascent/descent that was tough. Looking at the elevation profile afterwards and comparing it with the individual stages of the Transrockies they actually look to be A LOT easier to run than this course.

At 34k we came back to the first aid station – the one where we’d left our cars. I took my time here, grabbing some more coke then jogged off again. In the last 8km I passed a lot of fast looking marathon guys who were walking, when I went by them they all complained of cramps, which basically as I understand it is a sign of dehydration and/or low electrolytes. All the people whom I passed in this state were carrying only one handheld bottle. Looking back over the race I finished 2x 500ml bottles of gatorade, 1.2 liters of water from my pack, as well as two cups of fluid at every aid station after the first, so 2.5-3.0 litres of fluid, and I was still really dehydrated at the end. During the Transrockies I will probably bring at least one hand held bottle as well as everything I brought today, and/or drink my small bottle first, and get it refilled at each aid station.

As I rolled over 21km I had looked at the elapsed time for the first time since the start, and it was about 2:20.  The night before I had talked to my college roommate Brett, who mentioned that his pb for a road marathon was 4:28. Now, coming into this race I had no time goals, but on the registration they requested an estimated time –

Post race scrapes

Post race scrapes

which I had put as 4:30, so Brett’s time seemed like a possible goal. At half-way I know I was going to negative split but 2:20-2:08 seemed like a HUGE negative split, and I wasn’t sure if I could hit that. At 37km I looked at my watch and saw that I needed to go 25 mins for the last 5k to beat him. As I saw that I figured there was no way I could average 5 min km’s (8 min miles). The next 3 km were 5’00 – 5’13 – 5’34… and then we came to really hairy descent where I kept falling (I fell 3 times in total during the race, and stumbled and/or stubbed my feet countless times)… and then to a sharp uphill which quashed my hopes of beating Brett. Good show buddy! <<EDIT: looking back at the elevation chart I notice that the race guide shows this flat section as going right to the finish, and makes no mention of the “Grey Hill” before the end… I mean who adds an extra NAMED hill to the end of a marathon!! :) >>

I passed 2 more guys in the last 3 km, and jogged over the finish line in 4:32:56. I noticed that my GPS had me only running 41.8km, which was just fine with me to continue to say I’ve never run a marathon. I finished in 4th place overall, and although I was 34 mins behind the winner at the end, I was only beaten by 2 minutes on the last half, so I feel like I can probably race much more aggressively in the future – as long as I continue to respect the distance and use the lessons learned here.

Post race I was really really hot, I found some ice baths and soaked my bandana, then filled it with ice and put it back on my head, this helped a lot. My feet were very sore from the rocks, but overall I felt alright. This post is already pretty long so I will follow up in a few days with some lessons learned as I go forward to the Transrockies. I have 4 weeks now until Canadian Trail Nationals which is only 11.8km… certainly looking forward to that!

Cooling down with ice in my bandana, and happy to be finished!

Cooling down with ice in my bandana, and happy to be finished!


8 Responses to Worms + Snakes

  1. Nice RR! I enjoyed reading it very much!

    I like your earplug idea also.

  2. Elliot Rushton

    No way my heart rate would’ve stayed below 190 if I encountered a snake like that! Good job there were no frogs!

  3. You’re afraid of frogs?
    Also well done!

  4. Marc Thibodeau

    Very nice Race Report Tom it was like being with you. Yes I guess ear plugs for the night are a must but you should also consider something to cover your eyes as having people passing by your tent at night with a flash light or a head light will wake you up. You are really a well focused racer this is very impressive to have a plan based on your heart rate so you can make the necessary adjustment your plan for the next race. I am sure that you are now asking yourself if after the race you could have recovered in a tent and be ready for another of the same treatment. That is a tough one to answer at this stage. :-) :-) In any case you rock and enjoy your success as you deserve it. Well done.

  5. What fun! I did the TRR last year. The one thing that will be very different and present entirely different challenges than this did will be the elevation range. If you can, get to some much higher ranges to train. Have fun out there!

    • Thanks for the advice. I won’t be able to train on any higher ranges but I am able to get to Colorado for about 10 days before the race, so I can acclimatize to the altitude then. This is the price of the ‘amateur’ athlete :)

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