Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Race Report: Riding The Tiger at Breakneck

So you fancy yourself a trail runner huh? You like to climb, feel the burn in your legs, then bomb the descents right? You think your pretty badass I take it? Well then, why don’t you go run the inaugural Breakneck Trail Marathon and 25K up in the Hudson Highlands? You’ll be fine it’s ONLY a marathon. (insert facepalm) This was the voice inside my head rattling around. I kept thinking of that classic Bruce Willis quote in the original Die Hard movie, “come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

The Breakneck Point Trail Marathon and 25K is put on by Ian Golden owner of Red Newt Racing based in Ithaca, NY. They put on such great trail events as Cayuga 50 and of course Virgil Crest just to name a few.  The website states that Breakneck will have “a cumulative elevation gain on par with SkyRun marathons, and a few of the steepest ascents and descents of any trail race in the country”. That description is clearly laying down the challenge that this race is not for the faint of heart and not for beginner trail runners. It’s basically a mountain race not even a trail race. To put it in perspective, the marathon had a final gain of 10,900 VF and the 25K had a mere 5,700 and change as shown on my 310XT. So race day was here and it was time to “run steep and get high!”

I signed up when it first opened up on ultra signup after hearing about it from Dylan over on the TrailWhippass FB page. I figured it would be a grueling but fun training run with a chance to get some serious vert on my legs heading into Dirty German 50. I have never been to the area let alone run here but the pictures from the top of Breakneck Point were amazing. I knew it would be the most difficult race for me to date due to the elevation changes but little did I realize just what I had signed up for. Staring at the elevation chart it was obvious the climbs were going to be brutal. In my head I was fixated on getting through the climbs and then being able to run whatever flats there were and even running the descents. That was my plan. Yea right good luck with that plan, insert facepalm here you stupid.. stupid man.

I arrived at the Settlement Camp after a long 135 minute drive and jumped in line for the porty potty. It was here I met Ron Kappus from New Jersey. We both have many mutual friends and got to talking. We run the same trails at Trexler Preserve and we talked about him running the Tammany 10 over the winter. He’s also running MMT100 so in hindsight this was perfect training for a rocky course such as MMT. But that’s one of the best parts of these small grass roots races, you always get a chance to meet familiar faces and have great conversation. I then picked up my bib and went to my car to get my gear ready. It was here I realized the girl gave me bib #1. 

Not sure how I pulled this number.

I was a little taken aback by that. I am in no way worthy of wearing that number, I’m a mid pack runner on my best day but more like a back of the packer on most days. On this course I was way in the back. I really should have walked that bib back and requested a different number but I was trying to get everything ready and really was not thinking totally clear. It made for a good story and some of the volunteers at the aid stations were shocked to say the least when I rolled up. I certainly got some flack for it. "Hey look guys here comes #1 what a badass!" It was all in good fun. While getting ready at my car I was also parked right next to Matt Imberman another TrailWhippass member from Brooklyn. We quickly exchanged greetings and wished each other a great race.

Ian warning us of the impending pain!

Miles 0-2.6

I got in line at the start and Ian then welcomed everyone and gave a quick pre race greeting. We were then off up the grassy field and into the woods to start the first 1,000 ft climb for the next two and half miles. I loved how the climbing started immediately. No mile or so of blacktop to warm up on. I really wasn’t running here it was more like a fast power hike and the trail was on par with a rocky ATV type service road once we left the initial wooded area at the base of the mountain. It was a nice long grinding type of climb but nothing like what lye ahead. It was rocky with various wet spots from flowing streams but very runnable if you were fit enough. I opted to hike it to warm up with a few spurts of running when we entered a clearing and ran along the power line easement. I felt good. I felt like this was going to be a great day and the weather was phenomenal with clear blue skies and temps forecasted to top out at eighty! I am not a hot weather runner, I prefer the cold but I didn’t even think about the oncoming heat. I was just thrilled to be exploring a new place with spectacular views and good vibes. It was almost as if the mountain was tempting me like the mythical Sirens of Greek mythology that would lure nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. The mistress of the mountain was luring me in and I followed right along.


When I was ten years old I had a much older stepbrother and our bedrooms were adjacent to one another’s. He was your classic 1980’s badass metal head equipped with chain wallet and tech school credentials. He would blast Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Ozzy and Dio from his room while entertaining his many girl friends. I remember Dio’s tune Holy Diver vividly. The album cover was really pretty cool as well to a ten year old. To this day I have a fondness for the old metal bands from back in the day. Holy Diver came on my playlist on the long drive home and strangely some of the lyrics seem fitting to this course.

“Shiny diamonds
Like the eyes of a cat in the black and blue
Something is coming for you”


Miles 2.6-7.1  aid station

Your view at the top of the first climb. Sweet!

At the top of the first climb was a great view of the Hudson River down below. I quickly snapped a picture and downed some tailwind. I took a breather for a minute before running on. We then had a 1,000 foot descent for a few miles down to the highway 9D. This portion of trail was run able albeit pretty rocky and technical but I enjoyed it. It was steep and slow going. Replaying the race in my head I’m pretty sure I ran a little to hard here because the cumulative effect of blown quads was coming head on like a runaway freight train. This is where having local knowledge of the course probably would have helped me plan better. I was also exerting much more energy then I normally do. My heartrate monitor that I always wear was showing I was hitting zone 4 which was not what I wanted. The heat was creeping in, the heartrate was high, I was sweating a ton, and I was slamming my quads on the first descent.

“Race for the morning
You can hide in the sun 'till you see the light
Oh we will pray it's all right”

I popped out at the road right along the Hudson River and ran up to the first aid station. The volunteers here were great. I heard a little razing about my bib number from one of them and I was smiling and apologizing for it. It was a great station. Volunteers really make a race and they deserve the thanks and smiles. This is the start of the signature climb right at the tunnel. A volunteer was coming down the path from the cliff scramble reminding the runners to stay focused and breath. I wasn’t understanding that until I passed him and looked up. I know I muttered “jesus christ” under my breath when I laid eyes on that monster.
The signature climb up to Breackneck Point, photo by Matt Imberman.

Another 1,000 foot climb basically vertically to the top and I hate heights. I knew my heartrate was really elevated here and I was burning through calories like crazy on this climb. My tank was quickly emptying and the race just barely started. This climb has false summits which was demoralizing and would slowly strip your will from your grasp. The boulders increased in size the higher you climbed. They started out basketball size, then washing machine size, then you were scrambling over car size slabs eight hundred feet above the river. You just gotta love it! It was here where the true suffering began and it was only mile six. This mile took me forty seven minutes. After much climbing and sweating I reached to what I thought was the top but it was just really the halfway point to the summit. The view here was spectacular, it was precarious but simply breathtaking. I definitely hung here for a few moments just to soak that glorious view in. I snapped some pictures, chugged some more tailwind, and continued on to the summit. I finally reached the top only to look down to see the descent. No rest for the weary. The descent looked like boulders leading all the way down to the hollow. It was here I ran into the RD, Ian. How cool was that to see the race director just climbing effortlessly up to the point to check on things. He gave me great words of encouragement and some tips on the trail descending all the way down. I shock his hand and thanked him and I said “hey how about a trailfie?” His words really gave me a boost.
Look who I ran into on the course, the RD Ian.

This joy would end quickly on the brutal descent that followed.

Jump on the tiger
You can feel his heart but you know he's mean”

After I left Ian and started the descent it soon became clear to me that I was already on the back of a big nasty cat. I was riding the tiger and hopefully he didn’t spin around and rip my face off. I was officially on the hardest course imaginable and it was only getting more difficult. This course was unlike anything I have ever run on. I like climbs, I like rocks, but I am also used to having some miles on a course were you can make time up and open up your stride and get in a groove. I was finding it nearly impossible to run on this course or get into any kind of rhythm. It was technical to an extreme level. I just wasn’t prepared for it.  Gone were the thoughts of running some sweet buttery single track in between the climbs. There was to be none of that. These were my thoughts running across the little foot bridge into the mile 8 aid station. This tiger is one mean SOB.

Miles 7.1-11.5 aid station

 I gathered myself and slammed Gatorade, refilled my bottles, and half a banana. Again the volunteers here were so great and helpful and cheerful. It makes you forget the suffering a bit. One of the volunteers said we got 4.6 miles to get back around the loop. No sweat I said to her as I smiled nervously. Thankfully this stretch was a long leisurely almost two miles back down to the highway 9D. Some of this section was even paved going past the ruins area. Never thought I would be happy to see blacktop, but I was. My legs felt really tired even on this section. This is where the whisper of a DNF entered my thoughts. I have never had one. The battle between mind and body was on and the mind was winning.

I reached the gate at 9D and turned left back onto a wooded trail that ran along the road. This was nice I thought, there are no rocks here its dirt! That euphoria lasted only a few minutes when I followed the flags back to the start of, in my opinion, the hardest climb of the 25K. This was Beacon Mountain and it went on for an eternity. It was now hot and I was in the sun on this mountain was nasty rocks and the higher you climbed the steeper it got. It was close to a two mile climb pushing 1,100 ft of gain. It was relentless and when I finally got to the top the view was another gem.

The view from Beacon Mt. actually higher then Breakneck Point. Well worth the suffering.

It was then a few other runners I had caught up to on that climb pointed out that we were actually higher then Breakneck Point. The one runner lived across the river and new the area well so he was pointing out all kinds of interesting facts. That was really cool and took my mind off the pain. I hung with these guys for the next two mile descent. We hiked mostly because it was just such nasty terrain. We ran in spurts but it was futile. I actually started to pull away from them around mile twelve heading down to the aid station. This little stretch was actually very runnable and I bombed it. I pulled into the aid station on empty pretty much using way to much energy running down this last section. I was gassed. I could feel it and I knew my day was going to end well short of my goal. The air temperature was pushing eighty degrees and the forest was still and suffocating. My quads really felt drained. I rarely experience that feeling. I chalked it up to to much braking on those hard rocky descents.

“Holy Diver
You've been down too long in the midnight sea
Oh what's becoming of me, no, no!”

Miles 11.5-16.7 finish area

Off I went from this aid station alone. I was powerhiking and already figured I would stop at the finish line for the 25K and not continue. I would be content with a DNF, my first. I was only at mile eleven or so and I was at 4 hours and slowing. I was not ready mentally or physically to be in the woods for twelve plus hours. My initial worst case scenario was to do the marathon in 9 hours. I was nowhere near that especially with the hardest climb apparently on the back part of the course. The thought that I hadn’t even seen the most difficult climb was sobering.  My goal at this point was to finish strong as best as I could and not get injured. I was thinking maybe the road marathon I had PR’d the week prior in Lancaster was weighing heavily on my legs. Cumulative fatigue was building up but that’s part of the training and listening to your body was paramount at this point rather then pushing through to the point of injury for the rest of the season. My goal race was still seven months out and I just wasn’t going to derail that. So DNF it would have to be as long as I can find my way out of this buzz saw.

“The vision never dies
Life's a never ending wheel”

To get to the finish I had to make my way from the aid station at mile 11.5 or so and climb yet again another 800 ft over the course of the next two plus miles.  I was completely alone here and it was eerie. There was no sound in the forest at this point and I saw no one. It was so quiet almost too quiet. I just tried to concentrate on getting to the finish. It was all hiking at this point and I was beaten. But on the positive side I was able to hike fairly strong through this section. Then it was another gnarly descent that was blocking my way. I gingerly hiked down this section to around mile 15 or so where the trail met up again with the original climb up from the start. This last mile and half was very runnable downhill down thru the finish area but I was gassed and only managed occasional bursts of running. I passed only about four marathoners making that long climb back out for the last loop for the marathon and they all looked strong. I gave them encouragement the best I could knowing my day here was done. I entered the power line easement trail and managed to sort of run that then darted into the woods and out into the open field area and across the finish. I ran right up to Ian who was cheering me on along with others and thanked them. They then told me no DNF. They were very gracious to allow me to drop down and finish with an official 25K time. They also had frozen smoothies at the finish that were out of this world tasty. I was so beat I forgot to stop my watch at the finish but I think my time should be around 5:47 for 16.5 miles or so.

As I made the long drive south back home I tried to analyze what exactly just happened over the last six hours. I was too tired to think about it and I just smiled. I’ll think about it later. For now I’m just going to sit here and drive.

Breakneck rocked! It truly is set up to be one of the best races in the Northeast once word spreads. I know I was mesmerized by the place. As far as the course itself, it was a soul crusher. It was everything they billed it to be. It was beautiful, unforgiving, and outright mean and nasty. But isn’t that what we really want as trail runners? Who wants easy, certainly not me? Now I know what it’s like and now I know how to train for it. For such a short distance relatively speaking it really did a number on me mentally and physically that I did not initially anticipate. But that’s a good thing. It good to raise the bar for yourself, otherwise you can’t have growth. It was great training for my spring 50 miler and fall 100 miler. I got great time on my feet and got to experience some awesome trails with some great folks. I’m fairly certain I will sign up again next spring and make Breakneck a must finish race at all costs. I will raise the stakes on myself and I want to suffer on that back half and see that climb that I missed. I now have unfinished business in Beacon New York.

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