About 3 months ago, when it became evident that a New England winter would not preclude outdoor training, I got an idea that I wanted to do the North Face Endurance Challenge in Bear Mountain, NY. After considering the various distance options (ranging from a 50-miler to a 5K), I picked the marathon — 26.2 miles and 4222 feet of elevation gain — which was on Saturday. Then, Mr. P decided he would do the half-marathon distance on Sunday (which served as a training run for a 22-mile mountain race next weekend). So, we decided to head down to Bear Mountain with Little Boy and our camping gear and make a fun- and pain-filled weekend out of it.
We left Friday after work and stopped at a Hampton Inn in Danbury, CT. After a mostly restless night caused by light pollution seeping around the curtain, we woke up at 5:30am, grabbed a bite to eat and strapped a sleeping Little Boy in his car seat. It was more than an hour to Bear Mountain, during which I silently freaked out about the task at hand. We arrived at the starting line at around 8am and milled around with the other marathoners, waiting for the 9am start. The 50-milers started four hours ago at 5am, and the 50k racers at 7am. I have to say, I had expected most of the hard-core runners to be in the earlier races, but the marathoners looked like a buff crowd: lots of fit, skinny men and women with slim hips and bony arms — the opposite of me, with my tree-trunk legs and pear-shaped profile.
But in trail running, looks can be deceiving. The race started rather gently; it was four miles to the first aid station, “trending uphill,” and I took it easy. I could tell the people who would be in trouble — they were the ones already breathing heavily and sweating while trying to keep up their pace. I passed some people. I also stuck my right foot directly in a puddle and thoroughly soaked my shoe and sock. On mile 3. Brilliant!
Little Boy and Mr. P were waiting to cheer me on at the Anthony Wayne aid station at about mile 4. Despite my soggy sneaker, I felt great. I have raced on much more technical trails than this and the pack was starting to spread out. And there were my boys, cheering me on!
Without my trusty iPod to keep me company (headphones were allowed but I never wear them for trail races), and with the scenery not being as breathtaking as the brochure promised (it was a foggy day), I started to get, well, not bored, but in need of distraction. For a few miles I traded positions with a slightly younger woman who was one of the skinny people I eyed at the starting line. She passed me on the flats but couldn’t hack the uphills. On one long rocky descent, she was directly behind me; for sure, she was an agile runner, obviously good technically, and I thought we’d be able to run together for a chunk of the race. But she faltered on one of the uphills. Then, I met a nice young man (skinny, of course) from NYC who asked if I minded him following me — “Your pace is really good for me, and you find great ways around mud.” He trailed me for about three miles. It was very motivating for both of us. He declared “I’m on Team Meredith!” Then, he totally bonked on an uphill and I never saw him again. So much for Team Meredith.
At the bit-past-halfway (13.9 mile) aid station, I filled my hydration pack and chugged a few glasses of energy drink. I ate some M&Ms but they made my stomach queasy. Indeed, no solid food passed my lips since my 180-calorie nut and fruit bar at 6am — unless Chomps energy chews count as solid food. As I prepared myself to continue running, I realized that there were about 8 people — runners — waiting for rides back to the starting line. They were done. Some people had ice packs on their ankles, but most… just looked done. This wasn’t the race they were expecting.
With the herd thinned, I ran mostly by myself for about 3 miles. The course leveled out a little, and two young chiseled male runners blew past me. My legs felt a bit beat, so I slowed down, but I was still solid on the uphills. I began passing two guys who would in turn pass me on the flats. We traded positions like this for the next 4 miles. One of the guys was in pretty bad shape, talking about “how f**ing dead” he was and “f*** this” and “f*** that.” He was a little scary. The other guy seemed, like me, to be okay but with awareness that his limits were nearing. We all stayed within sight of each other until the last aid station at mile 20.9.
Then, for the last 5 miles, I was on my own. I walked up all the hills. I “ran” down the hills. I desperately wanted my iPod to motivate me. Just when I felt confident that no one would pass me, a skinny blond woman running with two men cruised by me on a downhill. Shot! Every woman who passed me would knock me further in my gender and age group standings. It was funny, because before the race, my only objective was to finish within the 8-hour time limit without twisting an ankle. But now that I was in the thick of it, my competitive side took over.
I was running with a GPS watch that told me I had already reached the 26.2 mile marker, yet the finish line was nowhere in sight. This was extremely frustrating. Finally, when my watch said 26.75 miles, I could see the buildings around the finish line. I began to run faster. A 50-miler passed me — a gaunt man with a beard who was whooping with joy.I can only imagine… 50 miles of that. I crossed the finish line and got my medal. Six hours, 27 minutes. Firmly in the middle of the pack among women.
I looked around for Mr. P and Little Boy. They weren’t there. (Before the race, I had told Mr. P to expect me around 7 or 8 hours, but what did I know?) I walked around drinking water, so very very happy to have finished. Ten minutes later, my boys showed up. Little Boy was a little disgusted by how smelly, sweaty and dirty I was and avoided me.
I wasn’t hungry at all, but I dutifully got my free meal and my free beer — neither of which I could finish. Little Boy snapped a photo of me while I was sequestered in the beer garden.
All I really wanted was a shower, so Mr. P drove us back to the campground so I could avail myself of the free hot showers for, oh, about 20 minutes. Then I sat by the fire, so tired that I could have skipped dinner and fallen asleep, but Mr. P insisted that we go out to eat. We found a Japanese restaurant and I devoured a bowl of udon (much more interested in the broth than the noodles). Then we headed back to the campground to settle in for a long night of discomfort (at least, I was uncomfortable) under the clouds and rain.
We awoke the next morning at 6am. Actually, I was awoken by rain at about 4:30am, but I was happy to continue to lay down. Surprisingly, my muscles weren’t nearly as sore as I thought they would be. Mr. P and I both ate bagels (I was beginning to get hungry) and we broke camp (after waking up a poor Little Boy, whose slight sleep deprivation strangely wasn’t yet manifesting in his behavior.)
The half-marathon started at 8am. Mr. P was pretty relaxed, much more than I was before the marathon, partially because of the reduced distance, but also because we now knew the trails were not as technical as we expected. Also, Mr. P is skinny
After the race started, we took a shuttle to the first aid station to cheer on Mr. P at mile 4.
After our fleeting glimpse of Daddy, we then went back to the starting line and played in the grass. The 10km race and then the 5 km race started. For once, I could be a spectator to a race without feeling jealous of the runners! I registered Little Boy for the 1km kid’s run that would start after the majority of runners came in. Then, I watched the finish line. Mr. P expected to finish at about 2 hours and 30 minutes and indeed, he did just that!
Soon, the kid’s race began to converge. Little Boy seemed excited to run, but we were unsure if he’d follow the other kids without our help. So Mr. P ran next to him (though he was hardly the only parent running). And Little Boy did awesome! He ran nearly the whole time and came into the finish line strong!
The funny thing is, when they came in to the finish line, Mr. P was still wearing his half-marathon number and the announcer assumed he was just finishing the half-marathon and called his number (probably didn’t connect him with the black kid running next to him!)
After the kid’s race, we posed for a picture with celebrity ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes, who was a constant presence during the weekend. Super nice guy, really inspiring, and his legs are just unreal! Little Boy was a tad unsure about Dean.
With all three of us having done well in our respective races, we headed to the car and started the long drive back to Boston. What a memorable, wonderful weekend!