Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Monday, March 21, 2016

2016 Mt. Tammany 10!

Blood on the Mountain

If you're one of those "death before DNF" ultrarunners, you may want to take note that I am alive in the photo above. I will just put the spoiler right up front here and tell you that this race report will not have the storybook ending. Those of you who remember that in the first movie, Rocky lost - and that somehow it was still a good movie anyway - read on. I won't promise a story that good, but I'll do the best I can.

Why the Mt. Tammany 10?

I had almost forgotten about the Mt. Tammany 10. I became aware of the race a little over three years ago, before its 2013 running. I'd been looking around for spring trail races with a lot of elevation change to use as set piece long runs in training for Laurel Highlands - and this little-known gem in mid-March in the Delaware Water Gap on the border between PA and NJ just a few hours south of me seemed ideal.

As it quite often seems to happen in a pursuit like ultramarathon running, priorities change, injuries intervene and other plans and goals take over. There are a lot of races, and there is so little time! Mt. Tammany 10 drifted out of my mind for a while.

The one constant in my life in the sport though - as a long-term, as yet unachieved goal - has been my desire to run the Laurel Highlands Ultra. Last June I went down to ignominious defeat in my first attempt at the full 70.5-mile distance there, timing out at the very first checkpoint at nineteen miles. I had taken the big-mountain running of the Laurel Highlands far too lightly and paid the price for it - and planning for redemption in 2016 began almost immediately. Trails and hills had been incidentals in my training for a couple of years as I had focused on road ultras. I immediately began making them central again last summer (even though my only remaining scheduled race at the time was a fixed-time road ultra).

That race 'out of the way' (such an inappropriate way to refer to ARFTA, a race sure to remain one of the very high points in my memories of the sport) I was able to get really serious. I went to work cutting weight in October while simultaneously stepping up weekly mileage. I used my fifth running of the Mendon 50K in November as a psychological switchover to once again thinking of myself primarily as a trail runner. By the end of the year I had dropped about ten pounds and I had run over 600 miles, with regular weekly outings on some of my old favorite and too-long-neglected trails. Weekly elevation gain in the 3000'-4000' range started becoming somewhat regular.

I made a special trip to the main post office in town to mail in my old-school paper entry to Laurel as soon as possible the day that registration opened. Everything was aimed at Laurel and it only made sense that any spring racing would be chosen to support that - and then I remembered the Mt. Tammany 10.

"I think it's finally time."

I registered while there were still maybe fifteen slots remaining in the race (capped at forty runners).

So what is the Mt. Tammany 10?

The tilted, rocky terrain of the Shawangunks
Mt. Tammany is a popular hiking spot in northern NJ, right across the Delaware River from Stroudsburg, PA. The 1527' peak affords amazing views of the Delaware Water Gap, and the nearly four-mile hiking loop formed by the red dot, and blue dot trails (linked by a short section of another trail to close the loop) is a very popular day hike in the region. The Mt. Tammany 10 ultra is ten circuits of that loop, ten climbs to the summit (well over 10,000' total elevation gain - really 12,000' or more), with a ten-hour time limit (actually a ten-hour cutoff for beginning your tenth loop). Tens, get it?

I haven't yet mentioned the rocks. The mountains here are formed by huge tilted beds of rock known as the "Shawangunk Formation," and Mt. Tammany is pretty much a giant rock pile - everything from house-sized boulders to the ubiquitous scree and all the way down to fine sand. This course is technical at a level I have never experienced.

This is the best picture I could find, and I hope the owner doesn't mind me using it.
Quite a bit of the climb looked like this (and I recognize this spot).
(Photo credit - NYNJ Trail Conference)
Coming out of my defeat at Laurel last year I knew that I needed major improvement in hill climbing and running over rocky terrain. Mt. Tammany would deliver that.

I almost blew it again though! Three years ago when I had first looked at this race I had no illusion that I could finish it. I was brand new at this stuff and forty miles with that kind of elevation and that kind of time limit was just out of my league. It would be an excellent way to jump-start spring trail and hill training enroute to Laurel, but I could harbor no pretensions of really doing well at Mt. Tammany. Three years later I still had it mentally pigeon-holed as just a training run, so I almost went into another race disrespecting it - and worse, selling myself short in the process.

I have some terrific friends who wouldn't let me do that though. When I expressed my doubt about my ability to finish this race they helped me get my head screwed on right. Maybe I could finish or maybe not - but the way to find out was to go run one loop at a time and run them like someone who was going to finish. If a concept as weighty as honor can be applied to what is, after all, just a hobby, there is no dishonor in giving your best and having it not be enough. There is only dishonor in not giving your best.

I went to Mt. Tammany to climb it ten times.

The Run

About six minutes until show-time. How do I work this fool light again?
That bundled-up person with no hands standing next to me is my wife, Karen.
Daughter Kim (McHenri the Younger of Vol State fame) would join Karen
spending a chilly day waiting for me to pass by about every two hours.
I am blessed.
...and there we go...
Did I mention the rocks?

I knew the climb would be arduous. Race literature and race reports variously had it at 1200' or 1300'. My Garmin registered 1200'. With very few exceptions it consisted of steep uphill covered in rocks: rock steps, rock shelves, rock ledges, rock scrambles - there were a lot of rocks. Fortunately most of them were stable. The only breaks in the uphill on the ascent were very short - essentially a series of not-quite-flat false tops.

When you reach the summit there is a quarter-mile or so of mostly-level that follows along the ridgeline (offering excellent views of the river valley below) but, characteristically, the trail is studded with yet more rocks.

Then you go back down.

The downhill is more gradual than the uphill, and the average rock size is considerably smaller. The very small portions of it where I tended to think, "Ah, finally! Something runnable!" - were at least as rocky and 'technical' as anything I have to train on back home. The rest I had to learn to run on in-race if I was to have any hope of finishing. I asked for rocks. I got rocks.

That's me, second in line down this 'flight of stairs.'

The learning happened, and happened more quickly than I would have thought possible. I watched better runners than me. I noted the lines they chose and the way they carried themselves. I tried to emulate them. I learned that you could actually approach what looked like nothing but a field of jumbled rock on the run and trust that you would find reasonable places to put your feet on the fly. I learned that often the best line down the hill was the straight line down the hill. I couldn't do these things anywhere near as fast as the better runners, but I could do them.

There was no place on this course where you could let your mind wander for so much as a second while you were moving (and some places where it wasn't a great idea while you were standing still). I learned that the hard way near the end of my third loop.

The way the race is run you leave the start/finish area and run about a third of a mile on a paved road to the start of the loop. You run two loops and then you return to the start-finish area to check in and receive any aid that you need. I had just made it down the blue dot trail and onto the connector that would take me back to the base of the red dot to begin the fourth climb. The grade eases considerably on the connector and the surface, though still rock-studded, is man-made and comparatively smooth.

I was trotting down at an easy lope, not pushing but still probably making around 9:00 pace, when I hooked a toe on something - what it was I will never know (oh wait - I bet it was a rock). There was no recovering and I did a mid-air superman, landing on both elbows, both palms, and both knees. I rolled over once and ended up sitting upright on the side of the trail with my feet just off-trail on the creek side (the creek being a steep fifteen feet or so below). My handheld water bottle came to a stop right on the same edge maybe ten or fifteen feet down-trail.

I was just getting through the initial assessment of just how many pieces I was in when the runner coming behind me stopped to see if I was okay. I decided I was, got up and retrieved my bottle and we started walking again together. I could tell that my elbows were pretty banged up, but I couldn't feel any blood flowing or see any soaking through my sleeves. My knees felt similarly banged but showed no visible damage of any significance. Everything moved the way it was supposed to. I had been very lucky! The worst damage turned out to be my right hand:

I got a lot of mileage out of the blood. I ran with the other runner the rest of the way down the connector then left him go when we got to a bridge over the creek because I wanted to rinse the hand in the icy water to get a really good look at how bad it was before deciding what to do next. Nothing had been cut deeply. It was really just a few decent scrapes and the blood flow was slowing pretty quickly, so I opted to head back up the mountain. First-aid could wait.

I got a lot of inward pleasure thinking about what all the day-hikers must have thought of me when they got a good look at that hand after I passed them, and I quite enjoyed waving it to return greetings until I got back to the aid station - where Kim and Karen both pretty well freaked out on seeing it (and RD Alex showed considerable concern). Joe Reynolds (husband of Chris Reynolds - long-time RD of the Finger Lakes Fifties who was also running the race) fetched their very well-stocked first-aid kit and 7/16ths-veterinarian McHenri the Younger helped me clean off the blood and bandage the wound.

A couple of bandaids, some stretch wrap to make sure they stayed on, my gloves over that to add some protection in case I fell again (probably should have been wearing them in the first place), and I was back out for loops five and six! It made a longer aid station stop than I would have liked, but what are you going to do?

I spent a little more time at the aid station in general than I had intended in my race plan. The course was so technical and required so much focus that I found it difficult to eat and hydrate on the move, so I tried to make that up by jamming down some calories and drinking almost a full bottle of water at the aid station (in addition to refilling for the next eight miles). This approach let me focus on moving while I was out there and reduced chances of another mishap while trying to eat on the run. In retrospect it would have been better if I had sucked down the extra water and took the food in hand to get down my gullet while running the pavement back to the next climb. In the end I don't think that the minutes lost here were the difference in the outcome.

The Outcome

Elevation vs. Time
There! The cat is totally out of the bag now - nine loops, not ten. In order to be allowed to start a tenth loop I had to be down from loop nine by 10:00 race time. The chart doesn't show it, but my actual time at that point was 10:42:40 - a miss by close to 43 minutes. The total time on the 'flats' between loop pairs was 48 minutes, including run-out and run-in - for which I had budgeted six minutes in my race plan. That budget was actually a little optimistic, but even if I assume it only took me my planned three minutes each direction I only spent a total of 24 minutes at the aid station - too much, no doubt, but far less than the 43 minutes I needed to make the cutoff.

The real problem was the width of those loops kept increasing!

Arguably there was some time to be made up by pushing harder on that last loop, and I can't discount the slowing effect that 'knowing' I wasn't going to make it might have had - but I wasn't going to make it. I finished loop eight with 54:26 left until the cutoff - and with at least six minutes of pavement out to the aid station and back before I could start loop nine. Best case I had 48:26 to run it. I'd have had to beat my best loop by six-and-a-half minutes and, believe me, I had not saved something for a big negative split at that point!

Actually I had some bizarre pseudo-cramping thing going on pretty badly in my left thigh as I started up the stairs at the beginning of the last climb and I had to stop and sit down for a bit to let it subside. Another runner coming out for his ninth loop right behind me explained that given where it was on my leg it was probably actually a sciatic nerve issue that wouldn't respond well to massaging. I got up and started moving on up again, slowly, and it went away and didn't bother me again.

All this sounds like I'm groping for excuses, but the real reason I ran short of time is right there in every loop. They all just took too long, and I believe the biggest factor behind that is that I was just not skilled and fast enough at those rocky descents. I talked with one ten-loop finisher who came in after I finished my ninth and when I told him I'd missed the cutoff that was right what he zeroed in on.

"You have to be able to make up time on the downhills."


Though it was not to be a finish, I am well satisfied with what I accomplished at the 2016 Mt. Tammany 10. Had I taken the early start option I would have finished. My legs had it in them to get up and down that mountain one more time.  I 'proved out' the value of my winter's training, and I really believe I stepped up my trail running game to a whole new level. On the mental front, I went out for one last, brutal climb knowing there was nothing in it for me but one last, brutal climb - and one last quad-wrenching descent. I heard and felt genuine respect from the race staff and all of the other runners still present when I headed back out for number nine, and I am grateful for that and proud of myself for never once considering doing anything else.

In Gratia

Thank you, Joe and Chris Reynolds, for sharing your first-aid supplies with me.

Thank you, dear Karen and lit-tal Bimbe for supporting me and sharing the adventure. I couldn't do it without you (especially Karen).

I am grateful to the many friends on the ultra list who encouraged me and expressed their belief in me when I doubted myself - and to one man in particular whose advice was most pivotal in putting my head in the right place even if my legs couldn't quite deliver. I well remember these words he once posted, like so many other profound bits of wisdom and inspiration that liberally season his writing:

"The bitterest defeat is sweeter than the taste of never trying." (laz)

I tried, and I did not succeed - but I did not quit and in that there is no real shame or failure. I came away with a sweet taste in my mouth.

Mt. Tammany 10 Crew!
Here with the guys from Knowlton Twp. Fire and Rescue.
(Alex must have been behind the camera.)

Finally, let me say a word about the event and the people who put it on. While that seems obligatory in a race report I think it is more than obligatory here. Mt. Tammany 10 is a first-rate, low-key, old-school, tough, tough event put on with admirable smoothness by a small team led by RD Alex Papadopoulos. Every aspect of the event was well-managed and appeared flawless from my perspective as a runner. The care and concern for runner well-being was obvious and appreciated. Emergency medical support was on-site, staffed by the Knowlton Township Fire and Rescue. A barbecue was even provided for runners and their immediate families. This event is a great example of ultrarunning at its best, and my sincere gratitude to Alex and his team for a fantastic day!

I seem to be collecting unfinished business lately, but I can't think of a better place to have to come back to.


  1. Nice job! I hope your hand and scrapes heal quickly! Good job hanging in there as long as you did, and you'll get a ton out of that when you come up against Laurel!

    1. Thanks, Tiff! I think you're always the first one to read when I post a new RR. If things go as planned the next couple of months I'll be more ready for Laurel than any race I've ever done. I love being on that kind of mission!

  2. Pat I live 10 miles for Mt Tammany. I didn't know anything about the event. I didn't see it on the Ultra Board, but I'm not much of an ultra runner anymore, I do miss a lot on the board. If you come back next year let me know before hand, I'd love to meet you!
    Congratulations! You did good!

    1. Dang! Wish I'd known. We stayed right at the Budget Inn in E. Stroudsburg! I'm already warm to the idea of next year. Long way off though, and Karen may take some convincing after I talked too much about how scary it was.