Yesterday, the 2008 edition of The North Face Endurance Challenge kicked off at Bear Mountain State Park in New York, and proved to be a worthy challenge. The Endurance Challenge series was first promoted in 2007 and consists of a full day of races for runners of all abilities, including first timers. Each event in the series has races at the 10 kilometer, 1/2 marathon, 50 kilometer, and the marquis, 50 mile distance. This year, regional Endurance Challenges will also be held in Washington D.C.; Seattle, Washington; Madison, Wisconsin; and the national finals will be in San Francisco, California.
From my perspective, the 50 mile and 50 kilometer Bear Mountain races were epics. I didn’t run, but my crew mate, Shepard, and I made it to six aid stations and saw a lot of the course. As far as I know, this was the first time that an ultra-marathon trail race was held on these trails. The final results had not been posted when we left the venue around 5:00 P.M., but in the 50 mile event, it looked like the 100+ field of runners who started the event at 5:00 A.M. had been whittled down to less than 20 official finishers, and nearly half of those folks were still out on the course. It turns out that 19 people finished the 50 miler. 65 people made it to the 26.5 mile aid station, but 46 missed the time cut.
The single loop course through Bear Mountain State Park and adjacent Harriman State Park was even more rugged than predicted.
We camped near the venue on Friday and it rained most of the night. It wasn’t raining at the start, but it was very foggy and quite dark. However, at 5:20 A.M., the skies opened up and we had a huge thunderstorm that lasted about 45 minutes. Shep and I watched the start, then he insisted that we play a full-court basketball game. We were eating breakfast in our van when we heard the first loud thunderclaps. Deb and the other runners were well on their way at this point and I’m sure their feet were wet. I’m not really sure why the basketball court was fully lit all night long, when the NY State Parks are facing budget cuts, and charging higher usage fees on top of tax revenue. Regardless, Shep was thankful.
Even by the time runners were reaching the first aid station, merely a handful of miles into the race, the organizers were realizing that the time cutoffs were way to aggressive. With 8000+ feet of climbing and an equal amount of descending, all in short bursts; the route was a classic Northeastern layout with lots of single-track laden punctuated with rocks and roots. Debbie described it as “technical, rugged, slippery, muddy, well-marked, with very exposed rocks…and hilly.” She thrives on that kind of course and it showed. She had one of her better recent results, finishing in 10:18:11, as the first woman and third overall. Only Leigh Schmitt (8:26:22) , and Glen Redpath (9:39:31) finished ahead of her. I spoke with both of them and they regarded the course as difficult. Leigh said that the first 30 miles in particular, were hilly and technical. He said it was Seven Sisters style up and down with lots of rocks and scrambling. Another runner compared the trail to the Escarpment course, which would make sense because that is another New York trail race. Deb has done the Escarpment Trail Run (18.6 miles) once and both of us have run Sisters (12 miles) many times and those two races are high on the epic scale, and notably, a fraction of the distance of yesterday’s race. I asked Leigh how the course compared to the Jay Mountain Marathon, another race that we have done several times. He said it was harder, which is a strong statement. Again, Jay at 33 miles has more climbing over a shorter distance, more bushwhacking, and that crazy river running, but the key phrase is “shorter distance.” Leigh has run Jay in under six hours which is much less than the eight plus that it took him to complete yesterday’s course.
For the average runner reading this, “easy” for Leigh means “hard” for mere mortals. So, when he says it was hard, he means it. The results were eerily similar to the 55 mile Pittsfield Peaks Ultra Challenge which was also a new course, back in June 2007. That race was also run much slower than the race organizers had predicted. Deb also finished 3rd overall (1st woman) behind Leigh and Courtenay Guertin. Yesterday, both Leigh and Deb were rewarded with cash prizes, plus free registration to the San Francisco championship event. Last year after Pittsfield, I noted that it was rare to win money in this sport. I repeat that comment now because it is atypical. Some folks prefer the grassroots, apple pie-first prize, approach. Deb has an open mind and the race winnings merely offset expenses, though she likes apple pies too.
The third place male runner was Marc Gravatt. The second woman was Carol O’Hear and third woman was Elizabeth Carrion.
In this one post, I’ve mentioned several of the most challenging trail running races in the Northeast. I remarked several times that I wished some of the talented trail runners from out west had come out to test their legs on our terrain. We know and love those folks and they get a lot of attention in the running press and run some pretty fast times on those great events in their regions, but we are partial to our kind of courses. Like I said, I’m curious to see the results for both the 50 mile and 50 kilometer races. Even though the rain was done shortly after 6:00 A.M. (and prior to the 50km start), it left the course slippery. I saw several runners with scrapes and lacerations to their heads and legs, so I know that not everyone stayed on their feet. The course was trecherous in spots. The wind picked up and by afternoon, the temperature was warmer thanks to the sun peeking through the clouds.
This Bear Mountain race had it all. Darkness, cold, rain, thunder and lightning, hills, and rocks. I told Deb that I hope they have it again next year. A course this classic deserves to be run again. Though the entry fee was relatively high, the sponsorship and race organization were very good. A few of the aid stations may have been too far apart based on the course difficulty, but it was an early spring race and heat wasn’t an issue. I hope there aren’t too many complaints from the runners who were pulled off the course for missing time cuts. It is disappointing and I do fault the organizers for not having someone pre-run the full course to gauge the proper cutoff times. If someone did this, their math was wrong. I know, awards ceremonies and insurance are common reasons given when hard line cutoffs are enforced. I say, if you let people start a race with headlamps, why wouldn’t you let them finish one with headlamps? Arguably, the cut off times are there for the safety of the runners, but anyone crazy/smart enough to run 50 miles should know the risks. The cutoff issue seemed to be one of the only blights on the event. The volunteers that I encountered were very helpful and there were lots of medical folks on hand to assist with first aid. The multi-race format is difficult to pull off, but it seems to have worked. Originally, I was signed up for the 50km, but my hand injury, bum ankle, and childcare duties kept me on the crew for the day, which is OK. Deb says I would have complained about the rocks. She hates it when I complain.