Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge/Bear Mountain Half Marathon

Spoiler alert: we did it..

Spoiler alert: we did it..

A month before the North Face Endurance Challenge, I signed up up for the Half Marathon event on a whim. I knew about this series of trail races but had never been able to fit one into my schedule — when a trail runner I know asked if I’d ever participated, and I realized this year I was free to race that weekend, I signed up without too much thought.

I was already registered for the Brooklyn Half two weeks later, so I figured I’d be ready to run 13.1 miles, and I wasn’t considering the Brooklyn Half a serious goal race so I was comfortable adding another big race immediately before. Right after the NYC Marathon in November, I thought I’d want to try and PR at the Brooklyn Half, but by this spring that felt impossibly out of reach. I’d had a lazy (in terms of running) and busy (in terms of everything else) spring, and knew I was no where near PR shape. In the past I’ve had substantial goals for the Brooklyn Half and haven’t wanted to jeopardize my fitness with a tough race 2 weeks out — this year, without that pressure or a rigid training plan hanging over my head, I decided the excitement and challenge of a trail half made this impulse registration the obvious choice.

I had utterly failed to start a formal training plan for the Brooklyn Half but still hoped I’d be able to get some consistent mileage in before this trail race. I hoped the earlier “deadline” and intimidating elevation would be enough to motivate me, and I’d get a bit closer to proper racing shape before both races. But I still had a lot of long workdays to contend with and didn’t get back to a lifting routine, structured training plan, or even consistent hill training, and by the time race week rolled around I was feeling very nervous about the challenge facing me. I figured I would take about 3 hours to finish, which is markedly longer than my recent long runs except for one —run slow and easy with a friend— and the elevation and technical trails are just impossible to replicate on my usual routes. I wished I’d run more bridges and returned to lifting heavy in the gym, but the fact was that I simply hadn’t. All I had going for me was the idea that when I signed up, I had faith in myself, and that confidence was based in something real: a stubborn attitude, grit on the racecourse, and experience running long distances.

Race Day

The New York Endurance Challenge races are located at Bear Mountain, which is a little under an hour’s drive from my home in New York. I rented a car to head up that morning, and my boyfriend, who decided to jump into the 5k event, drove us both. I was pretty nervous by race morning: rainy, humid weather, a distance I felt barely prepared for, elevation and technical trails I definitely wasn’t prepared for, and my usual pre-race jitters add up to some serious anxiety. We arrived at the parking area, a short shuttle ride from the race start, around 6:50am and I finished changing into my race gear. After a lot of deliberation I’d decided to wear shorts and not capri leggings, and a tech t-shirt with a rain jacket instead of a long-sleeved shirt. I didn’t want to overheat during the race, especially knowing how poorly I handle humidity, but I also knew on such a long run I might want some protection from the elements and some way to keep warm.

An ominous start.

An ominous start.

The half started at 8am but the event website made it seem like racers had to be on shuttles by 7am — in hindsight I now know they’re just trying to get everyone ready early! It turns out that the shuttles from the Anthony Wayne parking lot to the main park entrance run continuously, as the 10k and 5k racers get ready for their 9:00 and 9:15am starts. My ride down was short and uneventful, except for some poor guy who slipped down the muddy bus steps at the end of the ride — not an ideal way to start the day! We all trekked over to the start area through the light, chilly drizzle and huddled in the tents there. I scored a seat on an unused massage chair in one recovery zone tent, and waited as long as I could to check my bag, use the bathroom, and get ready for the race itself. I didn’t want to get too cold before the start and tried to keep an old mylar heat sheet wrapped around my legs, but eventually gave up and tossed it.

I started in wave 7 of 8, crossing the start line with a group of around 30 runners. We took off across the park’s main lawn, heading away from the start/finish zone and after a few moments crossed a paved driveway, entered the forest, and transitioned to singletrack trails. The runners were energetic when we first got moving, yelling and cheering that we were finally on our way, but things quieted down as soon as we hit the trails: they were flooded, rocky, and muddy, and everyone needed to concentrate to keep moving forwards. I have run on the trails that made up the first few miles of the race and know they’re not normally so treacherous, but in the moment they were barely recognizable. To give credit where credit is due, the colored ribbons marking the course and a few small signs to direct runners away from other trails were all visible and helpful — but the terrain itself was a mess. I noticed from the start other runners were more confidently splashing through puddles, charging over rocky stretches, and navigating muddy ones, while I felt nervous and vulnerable in these areas. Over the course of the race I definitely became more daring but I rolled my ankles more times than I can count, and I think I was also much more unstable and clumsy as time went on.

I quickly took off my gloves and questioned my decision to wear a rain jacket. The weather in the woods felt warmer, more humid, and less rainy than it had in the exposed start area, and I unzipped my jacket to try and stay cool. I knew I’d get wetter that way but didn’t want to overheat early on. I know from experience that the first few miles of any run, whether it’s a race, workout, or easy jog around my neighborhood, are not to be trusted: I take a relatively long time to warm up, feel confident, and settle into a groove. I like to have at least 3 miles of warmup before a hard training session; in almost any race I don’t give myself that luxury because it’s too much time and effort to burn at the start. But sure enough, once I settled into a rhythm of running, hiking, and picking my way across mud puddles, I felt more at ease, stronger, and in control of my body. One of my worst fears was realized along the way, however. I felt like a discombobulated amateur slipping through so much mud despite my grippy trail shoes, and leaving my coat unzipped felt especially ridiculous, with it flapping out behind me like enormous awkward wings. But I tried not to focus on what anyone else might be thinking of me — until I was passing through the first aid station and overheard two men snickering about the girl “slipping and sliding, like she was skiing…”. There weren’t many other women around, so I’m pretty sure they were making fun of me. I shot them a nasty look as I passed them and their guilty silence convinced me even more.

An elusive airborne photo — maybe my ‘wings’ helped?

An elusive airborne photo — maybe my ‘wings’ helped?

Most of the runners in this race were kind and friendly, and those two were definitely the gossip-y exception and not the rule. Over the course’s length I saw many people offer water, help, and moral support to other runners who looked like they were having a tough time, and I had a few quick, lighthearted exchanges with runners about the course or conditions as we navigated some tougher areas. But there was one more interaction that really stuck with me. At one point I noticed my left shoe was loosening, probably because of all the mud pits suctioning it off my foot, and I reluctantly stopped to retie it. One young man that I’d leapfrogged a few times caught up to me just as I was getting moving again and asked if I was okay.

“Yeah, just had to tie my shoe. It was slipping off,” I admitted sheepishly.

If I hadn’t already decided overhearing two men make fun of me was my worst case scenario, then I would have proclaimed this to be it! I was mortified that someone thought I was already struggling. But I appreciated the sentiment and wouldn’t have thought much more about it if this bro hadn’t responded “Well, put it back on, Cinderella!”

I think my jaw actually dropped at this point. We were already running again so I couldn’t just stare at the guy in shock. Did he realize how rude that sounded? I was fuming, but also didn’t want to overreact and make a scene — except that I also didn’t want to say nothing at all! I’ve never been great at confrontation or witty retorts, so “Yep, that’s what I was doing,” had to suffice.

He got the message and said something along the lines of “Great, just wanted to offer some support!” but I was still seeing red. Fortunately for both of us he dropped back and I charged ahead, still turning the interaction over in my mind. Asking another runner if they’re okay — that’s a good thing. Picking up on my frustration and backing off — also good. Calling me “Cinderella” — rage-inducing! Do I look like a Disney princess waiting to be rescued? I tied my shoe and kept going all on my own! If I’d actually been in any pain or trouble, I think I’d be even more furious and embarrassed at such a quip. But at the same time, I had to admit, Cinderella is best known for losing her glass slipper. I get the joke, and coming from someone I knew or trusted, I bet I’d find that a pretty funny comment. I just couldn’t believe a complete stranger would talk to me with such familiarity, especially because calling someone a “princess” has such a specific message of weakness, femininity, and outdated misogyny baked in. I was really uncomfortable, but I calmed down after running a bit more and tried to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, against my first instincts. I decided this comment overly friendly and bold to the point of rudeness and condescension, but in context seemed to be coming from a place of friendliness and support — because he started by asking me if I was okay.

A runnable section of trail…and a mega watermark.

A runnable section of trail…and a mega watermark.

The same runner caught up to me again, partway up another climb. He darted ahead of me and stopped on a marked curve, and I thought he was getting ready to make sure no one took the wrong fork there. Maybe he was affiliated with the race and that might be why he checked up on me so quickly. But when I asked if he was a marshal, he laughed it off and started running with me. He was bursting with excitement about running his first trail race and told me all about it without prompting: he was mostly running with his girlfriend, an experienced and measured runner, so would periodically sprint ahead to pick up some speed, and then double back to rejoin her, which is why we kept passing each other. I softened a bit after our conversation here; I think it’s really important to consider how one’s words are perceived by others, not just how you intend them, and sure enough with a little more conversation he was proving he was capable of more than just “Cinderella” commentary. I was really glad to have my horrendous first impression counterbalanced by a friendly one and kept climbing, though I never like feeling that I need to dig to prove someone’s not being a jackass to me. I used to be a lot more forgiving, but I’ve grown harsher over the years: I don’t like feeling that it’s my responsibility to give people the benefit of the doubt or a second chance to prove themselves to me — first impressions and how you treat others matter, and I feel always expecting leniency from others is a big ask and excuses a lot of rude behavior, which in turn reinforces it.

But maybe all this distraction was good for me on the course, to keep my mind off the climbs. The first peak reaches about 750 feet of elevation, compared to the start/finish zone which lies at just under 200 feet. We took a quick descent, and began climbing again. I was glad to have my own water bottle so I didn’t have to gulp down fluids at the aid station, and after reaching the 45-minute mark began my fueling plan. My body was, as usual, reacting poorly to the humidity and I felt a bit sick once I started eating, but I tried to stick to my routine of a date or Clif blok roughly every 10–15 minutes. At the second aid station, which was actually located in the participant parking lot, the course overlapped with the paved road for a bit. I’m glad I didn’t need to stop to eat or drink here: seeing the shallow climb of pavement ahead road was pretty draining and I think stopping would have lost any of the momentum I did have. Re-entering the forest and its varied terrain was energizing even though the trail remained muddy and slippery.

Some pretty steep, intimidating sections here. Click through for  full Strava details.

Some pretty steep, intimidating sections here. Click through for full Strava details.

I began to notice that other runners were passing me on the uphill stretches, and despite my discomfort with the terrain I would catch up and pass them back on the downhill and flat stretches. I’ve always considered myself a stronger uphill runner than downhill, to a point, so this was pretty surprising. When my boyfriend and I run, especially on trails, he routinely loses me on the downhills and I make up the difference on the uphills. Here, I started to realize my approach of running until the slope was simply too steep and I needed to downgrade to walking seemed to be wasting my energy, and the more experienced runners around me made that transition just a bit earlier, saved their strength, and achieved an overall pace that was equal to or slightly faster than mine. My strategy, which appealed to my pride as I passed people on hill after hill, seems to be more inefficient than walking those hills and expending that energy later in the race on other slopes. I was proud of how I could grind out some hills, but it looks like this is one of the areas I need to shift my mentality from short-term to long-term. I also noticed from watching older and more experienced runners that moving more quickly between walking and running in muddy or rocky areas would probably benefit me: there’s no need to commit to long stretches of either gait, and I should just use whichever makes more sense in any moment. Maintaining forward momentum without exhausting myself is the strategy at its simplest.

The course’s highest point came before the third aid station, at just over 800 feet (or 926 per my Garmin). Unsurprisingly I struggled with this one brief rock scramble — not only dropping my handheld water bottle as I teetered up to the top boulders, but immediately being passed by a pair of runners who seemed to be having more fun and moving faster while doing it. But I caught up to them shortly, again surprising myself with my downhill speed, and found myself leading a small pack to a section of steep trail that can only be described as a mudslide. The rich, slick soil on the southern face of the slope had been worn completely smooth by earlier runners (and presumably, everyone from the longer events the day before) and the only way to navigate down was to move off trail and slip between trees, fallen debris, and areas of the mountainside that offered something to grip onto. I took my time, terrified of falling head over heels, and even though I was passed by a few runners here I soon caught up to them once the course leveled out. Finally, we were running on fairly solid dirt, and though the trail continued to descend and then climb back up and around this peak, it remained extremely runnable.

Pride goeth before a fall…I was kind of looking forward to the outtakes, but it turns out there aren’t any photos of me wiping out after all.

Pride goeth before a fall…I was kind of looking forward to the outtakes, but it turns out there aren’t any photos of me wiping out after all.

We passed through the third aid station at mile 8.4 and headed towards the final ascent. This one was steeper, though not as high, as the earlier peaks, and instead of a rock scramble was more of a staircase. I found myself in a line of runners-turned-hikers, and except from the ones who step aside to rest and let others pass, there was no change in position here. We all struggled up and over this portion of the trail together. My pace was at its lowest here, but I couldn’t have moved any faster — and even if I was alone, I doubt I would have. The congo line of runners limited me, but also kept me moving; I didn’t want to be the runner who held up others, or had to step off the trail for a breather. But I did realize around here that there was no way I’d make my 3-hour time goal for this race. I’d covered 10 miles in 2:30, and on this kind of terrain, cranking out 3 more miles at 10:00 pace was absolutely impossible. I was frustrated with myself but not too distraught: I knew my approach to the hills and descents cost me time, and my weak ankles and timid approach to rocky trails did too, but I had been pushing to the best of my ability at all times. There weren’t times when I slacked off, or thought I could have made up a lot of time, looking back. Maybe I could cover the course more quickly —plenty of runners did— but I my time and pace felt appropriate for my abilities on this day. Like it or not, I was revealing where my skills were lacking and what my capacity for trail racing was.

But I came to these conclusions before the end of the race, and didn’t factor in one final, embarrassing moment — one that did, quantifiably cost me time and places in my age group/the overall rankings. As the course looped back on itself, so that mile 13 was just mile 1 in reverse, I became determined to pick off runners one by one and finish strong. The trail had gotten muddier and even more messy from all the half runners as well as the 10k and 5k events, but I was feeling overconfident. Several of the runners I’d been leapfrogging passed me in a moment when I hadn’t started running after a climb, and I was out to catch them again. After a smooth patch of trail, I was charging up a rocky stretch when I realized several things all at once: I was the only one still running, I was running too fast for the terrain, and there was a photographer standing in front of me, aiming his camera right at me. As I realized I was out over my skis, and on camera to boot, my left foot plunged down into a pool of water below a boulder, and I tripped over the rock on my way back up. I fell to my hands with my right leg taking the brunt of the fall — luckily I didn’t do any damage to my knees on the rocky trail. I tried to pop back up immediately and keep running, but I had to stop and shake off the fall. The photographer asking if I was okay, the runners passing me while I collected myself, and my shocked legs and hands all overwhelmed me. I got moving as soon as I could but I knew I lost valuable moments here, right when I thought I was in the homestretch, and every moment I spent limping and trying to convince myself to run again compounded my fear and embarrassment. I was certain the photographer documented my fall on camera, and while that doesn’t matter in any real sense of the word, I was mortified that I’d made it so far only to wipe out at this particular moment — near the end of the race, due to my pride, where runners were poised to pass me, and in front of a cameraman.

I’m not great at keeping my eyes open in photos especially while smiling.

I’m not great at keeping my eyes open in photos especially while smiling.

But I started running again. I caught up to some of the runners who passed me, though most of them were too far ahead. I ran out of the forest and onto the park lawn alone, and realized I was fully separated from the runners who passed me and the ones I’d left behind. The finish chute was completely empty as I gave my best impression of a sprint for the finish line. “Don’t forget to smile!” a lot of spectators screamed at me, and so I plastered a grin to my face while also trying to balance my two real priorities: running as fast as I could at the end of a tough race, and not tripping and falling in front of even more people than I already had.

I crossed the finish line in 3:13:58, and wobbled over to a table of food and water. I didn’t want to eat anything, but I refilled my water bottle and put some banana slices in my jacket pockets. I went looking for my boyfriend, who had run the 5k, and redeemed my free beer ticket (and a second, thanks to one runner who was giving his away). The rainy weather continued but I didn’t notice it until I settled in next to a fire pit and really cooled down. I was covered in mud, tired, and stiff, and in spite of everything, proud of what I’d accomplished. My boyfriend and I swapped stories about our races: his was much more triumphant than mine, scoring a top 15-finish overall, and we were both eager to come back next year (maybe in nicer weather). We piled into a shuttle for a ride back to our rental car, and weren’t the only ones in good spirits. As the bus doors closed and the engine started up, someone at the back of the bus yelled out, “Let’s do it again!”

On Reflection

Jumping into this half was an easy decision in the moment and one I second-guessed constantly for the next month. I vacillated from over-confidence to complete terror that I wouldn’t even be able to finish the race. I wrote a little bit here about how in the end, I decided that I needed to keep some faith in myself, and maintain the measured confidence I had at the moment when I registered. At that point, I was confident and hopeful that I’d show up on race day and surprise myself — and that is exactly what I did.

In hindsight, I feel a bit strange about all these photos of me smiling at the finish line. I feel that I look relieved and sheepish, instead of strong and proud. (Dare I say: badass?) In a way, I feel that I took the advice of the spectators to fit their image of what a finisher looks like — but not how I view myself. I feel that I look like a stranger here.

In hindsight, I feel a bit strange about all these photos of me smiling at the finish line. I feel that I look relieved and sheepish, instead of strong and proud. (Dare I say: badass?) In a way, I feel that I took the advice of the spectators to fit their image of what a finisher looks like — but not how I view myself. I feel that I look like a stranger here.

I also came away from this race with a clearer picture of where my strengths and weaknesses on the trails are. Having only run on trails alone and with my boyfriend, seeing my pace and endurance, as well as my ability to handle technical terrain compared to a lot of other runners was really eye-opening. My evaluation of my endurance as an uphill runner is clearly a bit misplaced — but that’s not surprising, knowing that I have consistent IT band and knee problems due to weak glutes and compensating with other muscle groups, which fits right in with less than impressive uphill paces. More importantly, my strategy for tackling long, steep, and technical climbs needs work: instead of running until I’m too exhausted to hold my pace, modulating my effort level to avoid burning out early should give me more long-term endurance. And another related change would be on the flats or rocky areas: switching between hiking and running more quickly, even if it’s just for a short distance. Overall, being more flexible with my pace and approach would benefit me, even though on the roads I think my strategy of simplicity and efficiency looks quite different. When running paved, comparatively flat routes, constantly changing pace and style feels like a waste of energy, but ironically, on the trails it’s looking like an area where I can substantially improve my running.

And of course, training. I know that training in the gym and on the roads, to say nothing of trails when I can get to them, is the thing I’m missing the most. My muscles have a lot of ground to make up, as does my mind. This trail race was less of a mental test than I anticipated, because the terrain and weather were really my limiting factors and I didn’t set aggressive, specific goals. I think having a relaxed trail debut allowed me to have fun, and I’m glad I took this approach — and I knew I was still pushing myself, but I wasn’t striving for a PR or focused on a time goal that put me under intense mental pressure as well as physical demands. I benchmarked myself in tough conditions, and I had a blast doing it, but I didn’t spend much time struggling (except for the panicked moments after my fall at the end of the race).

This race left me tired and sore, especially in my lower legs and shins, but not struggling mentally like I might have predicted. I came away happy and energized, and I want to carry that momentum forward into my other races this year. Re-learning to train hard and race hard without losing that positive energy will do me a lot of good.

Unfortunately as I write this, I know my experience at the Brooklyn Half turned out to be a demanding, draining, and often quite negative one —which underscores how important both physical training and mental strength are— but that’s a story for another day.