Looking at the three pictures it would be easy to assume that the Bear Mountain edition of The North Face Endurance Challenge has gone much the same way the past three years. But that is one of the amazing things about ultra races. The course can, be the same, the competitors can be the same, the start can be the same, and the race can even finish the same way, but the experience that takes place between those points, even though it may result in the same finish, can be vastly different each time, and no matter how much you think you know you can always come away with a new lesson learned.
My first year at Bear Mountain was my second ever ultra marathon and the first that I was truly taking seriously. I started fast, could not shake Leigh Schmitt, realized how tough a technical ultra could truly be, spent myself by mile 25, and watched Leigh run away from me, as I walked up a pathetically gentle grade. At that point I decided ultra running was not for me and that I would drop out at Camp Lanowa and never run an ultra marathon again. My wife however was not at the aid station so I couldn’t drop out. I started jogging, prayed, felt better, prayed more, started running, caught Leigh and won the race! I learned that day to always keep moving no matter how low you get.
Last year was probably my easiest experience in an ultra. I started out slower, ran with Leigh, and in the second half opened up a small lead that I held to the finish. I had low points but no moments of crisis.
This year was truly a challenge and although I was able to pull on my experience from the previous two years to reach the finish line, I faced newer and tougher obstacles than before. The race started out well enough. I had forgotten my headlamp but with the help of some other runners the trail was plenty lit for me. By the time the sun came up a group of four of us were solidly in the lead. Jeff Gosselin from Quebec, Willie Shefer from Hawaii, Iazaldir Feitoza from Brazil, and myself. After a few more miles it was down to Willie, Jeff and I as Iaza was feeling tight. The three of us ran together through most of the first 20 miles, until just before Lake Skannatati, when Willie started to fall off and Jeff started to pull away. It was then, just before the aid station at 20 miles that I took my tumble. I knew that one day I would take a gnarly header I just expected it to be in training instead of a race. But this course has some pretty rugged spots and all it takes is one misstep. Luckily for me this one happened in front of a camera so I don’t have to describe the fall! You get to watch it!
Credit for the video goes to Joe Azze. There are a few things I would like you to note about this video.
1. The hyperextension of my left leg as I fall. I don’t know how I didn’t break anything.
2. The sound when I hit the tree. Volume does make this video better
3. Last but possibly most impressive I would like you to note that I kept the package of Sport Beans in my mouth through out the entire fall. Even when my head bounces off the ground. I don’t remember holding onto them but apparently I didn’t want to litter so I gave them to my dad at the next aid station. If you carry it in you carry it out. I did leave some skin on the rocks though.
Joe mentions in his blog that he didn’t expect me to finish. Immediately following the fall, and countless times afterwards I shared his sentiments. As I got up my left leg was completely numb and I still thought it was broken but as I started to walk it held my weight. After a minute of walking feeling started coming back to my leg and although the knee hurt slightly I was able to run slowly and was happy to be alright. As I came into the aid station I said my most fervent prayer of thanks, and asked for the strength to continue the race. I took an extra few minutes at the aid station to refuel and get my courage back up. I could feel my shirt sticking to the blood on my back so I took it off and hit the trail again. 2 miles later I was back in the zone! I had just found my rhythm again when I missed a right turn on the trail, I saw the ribbon in my peripheral right after I passed it and as I shot off the trail to get back on course I cranked my ankle. This was actually the tougher injury to deal with. I walked for a bit and as I started to run again my Achilles and shin tightened up. It made running uphill very painful so I hiked the climbs. I was already slow on the descents because of my knee so I knew I was losing time.
Brian Russiecki passed me just before camp lanowa, and as I left the aid station Leigh was just coming in. I was struggling with the idea of finishing but surprisingly over the next three miles I was able to get in a rhythm again and I told myself that I would race to the next aid station and that if I caught Brian I would keep going. Then I hit a steep climb and as my spirits started going down again I swore that I would finish no matter what. Partly because I actually had reasons to quit and wanted to fight through my problems and finish, partly because I knew that no matter how bad I felt that God could carry me through, and mostly because this was my mom’s first time watching an ultra event of mine and I didn’t want to wimp out. I had just made this decision when I saw Brian and Jeff at the top only about a minute ahead of me. I assumed Jeff was long gone so seeing the lead only minutes ahead put me back in the game and I started the chase. I didn’t catch Brian by the next aid station but I did catch Jeff.
I was just coming into the aid station as Brian was leaving. The past two years the next section of trail had been one of my best so I felt confident that I would catch him. I started off strong looking for a burnt orange shirt. Apparently they must be in style because every other hiker on the trail, and there were quite a few hikers, had a burnt orange shirt. My hopes would rise every time I caught sight of one just to have them dashed when I realized it was another hiker. I was moving well at this point so I knew that Brian must be flying. Finally, on the one small climb between 35 and 40 I caught him. I thought I would pass him and breeze on to the finish but as we hit the downhill again he picked up the pace and instead of breezing away I started having trouble keeping up.
I knew at that point it would be a fight. At mile 40 I stopped to fill my bottle and eat. Brian continued on and gained about 30 seconds on me. I had to fight to catch him but after about a mile I did. At that point I really wanted to settle in but I knew he was stronger on the downhills at the moment so I pushed the pace on the climb. I was afraid of crashing but I was able to drop him. I never looked back so I didn’t know if I was pulling away or not but as I left the aid station at mile 44.7 I could hear cowbells ringing up the trail and I knew he was within a minute of me. The next section over timp pass is always tough and I knew if I could get over it strong I would hold on to the finish. My calves were spasming but I kept pushing hard to the top and drinking and by the time I started down the backside of the pass the spasms were gone. Then with 3 miles to go I rolled my ankle again. I heard it pop and it hurt so much that I yelled. But at that point there was nothing to do but keep going. I kept praying for my ankle over the final miles and it actually didn’t tighten up.
As I neared the finish Leah handed me my TNF Jersey and I put it on as I crossed the line. I was shocked to see that I had run my fastest time on the course by over ten minutes! I had walked a lot more than previous years and had assumed that I was going slower! Brian finished strong only a few minutes after me, with Jeff holding on for third. Leigh who was recovering from a bad bike crash came in fourth.
Every year this race at Bear Mountain has been special for me. I love it because it is back in my home state and my family can come. I love the atmosphere of the event, and although it beat me up pretty bad this year I love the rocky technical terrain. Each year has been special but the trials that I went through on the course, all the prayers that I prayed and all the times that I had wanted to quit but didn’t put this win above the rest. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the next one! Congratulations to all my fellow competitors and sufferers in The North Face Endurance Challenge this year. And a big congrats to my friend and fellow traveler Jordan Whitlock who embodied the spirit of all ultra runners on Saturday by never quitting!
pic from mountainpeakfitness