NJ Trail Series Muddy Quarter Marathon - April 5th, 2014

This weekend I ran a race that was more or less the craziest thing I've ever been involved in. Here is my overly detailed recap, with a crapload of numbers pulled from my GPS of the race and some lovely photos provided by NJ Trail Series and Hillcrest Photo.

The course:

First and foremost, understand that there were no trails here. Essentially, a straight line path through the woods was marked and you ran through that line - regardless of what rocks, mud, streams, fallen trees, briars, swamps, or small chasms might be in your way.

The next thing to mention is the elevation - the concept of snaking or switchbacks to ascend or descend a hill in the manner that a sane person would choose were completely ignored on this course. The route may have been planned by an ibex. Again, the straight-line method was the answer to everything, and it seemed that this line often sought the steepest or most treacherous route to get up or down an incline.

Over just 6.5 miles, the total elevation stats were 2,414 feet of gain & 4,825 total feet of elevation change. Per mile, this is 1.6x as much elevation as the NJ Trail Series Mountain Madness run I did last year, which was called Mountain Madness for a good reason.

Another note about the elevation: Before today, the most extreme mile I'd ever run in terms of height was the first mile of the main trail to Sunfish Pond at the Delaware Water Gap, which climbs 482 feet (and also descends 36 feet) within that mile. The first mile of this race covered 839 feet up and another 270 down. Yes, that's 1,109 feet of change in a single mile.
So with these things in mind, here are some examples of things I went through/over:
  • The first half mile from the start line was up an active ski slope that ascended 470 vertical feet. Here's a picture of the view going up part of it from from the NJ Trail Series Facebook page.
  • Four legit swamps with calf to hip-deep water (keeping in mind it was 40 degrees outside)
  • We literally ran on top of a beaver dam and also had to jump off a small waterfall in a stream.
  • A mud pit hidden behind a log that acted like quicksand and swallowed my left leg almost to the waist.
  • A 6-foot mud embankment above a stream that could only be climbed by grabbing onto tree roots from the hill overhead and hoping they supported your weight as you pulled up without any footholds.
  • I don't even know how to describe some of the steep downhill sections in the woods, except for perhaps "very likely the most dangerous thing I've ever done in my life." (One downhill section covered 200 yards at a 36% grade on loose rocks and leaves. That is INSANE.)
  • After having already been on the course for nearly 2 hours, there was a 350 yard uphill climb that rose over 300 vertical feet on nothing but smooth snow. The only way to get up without sliding backwards was on all fours, digging in with your hands.
  • The final 3/4 mile to the finish line was straight downhill on the packed snow of another ski slope, descending over 650 feet. I alternated this by jogging recklessly downhill on snow and intentionally diving on my ass in the steepest parts to slide down the hill at incredible speeds. This was one of the most fun things I have EVER done. Like snowboarding without any gear in a pair of shorts. In a related story, the bottom of my right ass cheek feels like it was clobbered with a baseball bat covered in nails right now.
  • (Thanks to someone on FB reminding me of this one) - There was a brief but steep ascent at the base of one hill that required us to pull ourselves up on a thick metal wire. I don't even remember what it was attached to - probably the base of a ski-lift support tower or something. So thankful to have been wearing gloves there!
Let me try to provide some perspective on the length and steepness of some of these hill climbs. In my previous race experiences, there were two hills that really stuck out to me as the most challenging. The first was at Run For Your Lives Maryland course, which was was an 85 foot gain over 0.07 miles (23% grade) in pure mud. The other was the final Summit at last year's Mountain Madness in Ringwood - a 20% grade gaining 135 feet in 0.13 miles, but after I'd been on the course for over 12 miles and was spent. Each of these has now been downgraded to a minor annoyance in the annals of my memory.

The Muddy contained the following uphill sections:
  • 470 feet over 0.51 miles (17% grade)
  • 403 feet over 0.31 miles (25% grade)
  • 390 feet over 0.32 miles (23% grade)
  • 320 feet over 0.48 miles (13% grade)
  • 188 feet over 0.13 miles (27% grade)
  • 309 feet over 0.20 miles (29% grade, completely on snow)
That last one will now be my new standard by which to judge any hill I encounter. Anything I can do in training will seem comparitively simple as long as it isn't a 29% grade in snow.

So how did I do?

In the past, I've run this distance (6.5 miles) on flat ground in about 50-52 minutes - around or just under 8:00 per mile. This race took me just over 123 minutes, and here were my individual mile times:

Mile 1: 22:30
Mile 2: 22:37
Mile 3: 18:15
Mile 4: 18:28
Mile 5: 20:46
Mile 6: 17:13

After that, I completed the final half mile in an incredibly quick 3:27. This is because almost all of that was from ass-skiing down the snowboard slope toward the finish line.

In 123 minutes on the course, I'd estimate that I spent less than 15 minutes actually running/jogging. The longest uninterrupted stretch I had of maintaining a jogging pace was 2 minutes and 1 second.

A 2-hour cutoff time was set for the race, promising a DNF to anyone who didn't make it back in that time. The organizer promised us in his pre-race speech that we couldn't do it... and he knew what he was talking about. Of the 49 racers I counted at the starting line, exactly ONE person finished just under the 2 hour cutoff, at 1:53. I was the 2nd person across the finish line at 2:03, but as far as the race was concerned I was just the fastest DNF along with every other person who DNF'd. I'm guessing the median time would've been well over 3 hours for this, as I waited around for another 20+ minutes after I finished, and only saw 1 other runner complete the course in that time.

So while it's a bummer that I was just 3 minutes over the cutoff, I feel pretty awesome not sustaining any major injuries and having finished in what would've been 2nd place. And being just 8-9% behind the top time is the closest I've ever come to winning a race. I'm really not sure how I could've cut off those 3 minutes to get done any faster without seriously endangering my life - I was going as fast as I felt was safe the whole time. After seeing the downhill speed at which the leader passed me on the the first big descent, I was almost certain that I would soon be passing his twisted corpse among the rocks on the course. Kudos to him and his footing for keeping up that speed without dying!


To anyone who might read this and consider this race in the future, know the following things:
  • As painful and/or dangerous as many sections were, it was a total blast. I had a great day.
  • Wear something full length on your legs. I wore tall compression socks under ridiculous tights, and this was a huge help. I still got a ton of bruises and cuts on my legs, even with them fully covered. If they'd been bare, I would've been a horrible, bloody mess (and I saw a number of other runners in torn up shape who had just worn shorts - like this one from the race photo set, for example). Honestly, if I ran this again I might even wear shin guards under my leggings (if I could find ones that would stay on in deep mud, anyway).
  • Also bring gloves. I was really lucky to have thrown some in my bag with me and have them on hand. They were a lifesaver going uphill in the snow, and also for being able to grab small trees, branches, etc for stability downhill in the woods.
  • Footwear almost didn't matter. Grip was just not going to happen regardless of what you had on, so just wear something light that won't absorb a lot of water/mud/snow.
  • I highly recommend ass-skiing, if the opportunity presents itself. :)

Setting forth towards certain failure!

The quarter marathon pack heading to the foot of the first hill (I was the red speck at the top, temporarily in the lead).

Course map from my GPS. Gives a decent picture of the path over the snow-covered slopes at the top, and one of the aquatic portions directly through the water in the finger of the lake at the bottom.

Elevation map from my GPS. Literally nothing was flat. You were either going up or down at all times.

Trudging through some standard gunk in my space cat leggings.

Coming down the last slope to the finish line.

A celebratory hug with my new buddy Matt after we finished. We were within a few yards of each other for the last 4 miles, and it was great to have someone to complain with so that I wasn't just shouting, "You have got to be $@!%&# kidding me!" into the silence of the forest.

Chatting with Rick the race organizer (left), Matt, and Pete (right) - the only guy to finish the quarter in under the 2-hour limit.