Watchung Marathon Race Report (Read 643 times)


    Short version:


    I decided to run a Winter trail marathon in New Jersey.  I've never done a trail run before and it was hard!  

    Rocky, twisty, muddy, hilly, and most of all damn hard to follow!  

    I fell a few times, into a stream once, down a steep rocky decline once, got a little lost, got VERY lost, forgot to bring anything to drink, got lost again, had a great time and ended up 2nd place.  

    I'll be back next year for sure! 


    Long version:

    Watchung Winter Marathon Race Report


    This past weekend I started off my 2012 plan to run a marathon-a-month.  I found a convenient race in my wife’s nearby hometown which would serve several purposes: bag the first marathon of the year, keep costs low (minimal travel, low entry fee, no hotel needed) and visit my mother in law.  Oh and try a new kind of race --I’ve never done a trail race.


    The Watchung Winter Series is unique in that it:

    • Is entirely off-road, through winding single-track trails in the NJ Watchung Nature Reservation
    • Minimally supported (two manned aid stations, one un-manned aid station)
    • No race shirts, no awards, no trophies but it is timed
    • No people on the course telling you where to turn (just follow the trail markers, occasional hash-arrows in white flower or chalk and an occasional bit of orange ribbon)
    • No spectators cheering or providing encouragement; no bands
    • Several distances to choose from: 10k, 10M,Marathonor 50k, none of which are accurate to the advertised mile


    About an 8 minute drive from my mother-in-law’s, we arrived for the chilly 8am start with plenty of time to spare; I was even able to stop for coffee along the way.  The sun was out and people were gathering and setting out their race goods.  I saw some familiar racer-friends.  Gwen (my wife) and I registered on the spot ($25 regardless of the distance).  She chose the 10 miler, I the marathon.  I didn’t feel up to a 50k and later I’d be happy I made that decision.


    Leading up to the race I had a fair amount of general training, though more cross training than running --I’ve had a very sore knee for a little more than a month.  I only had a handful of long runs (over 10 miles) since the NYC Marathon in November, but I generally believe at this point I’ve enough base-conditioning to run any reasonable distance, and the marathon has become the new “reasonable.” Plus I had no time goals, just to finish and hope my knee would cooperate.


    As the clock approached 8, Rick, the race director (RA's very own HasherRick) explained how to read the trail markers and where to look for them, and general info on the many turns we could expect.  I didn’t hear most of it because I don’t always pay attention very well and my mother in law was talking to me.  I figured I’d just be following someone anyway, or I’d wing it.  Rick explained at some point there would be two manned aid stations (one at the start/finish loop, one somewhere along the course) as well as one un-manned aid station, (just water), again somewhere along the course.  He gave his final words of encouragement, boasting that we’d probably get to run further than expected, and not to cry to him about it afterwards.  Everyone laughed.


    Gwen lined up with the first group, about 100 people.  The 10mile and 50K start first and follow the same course together --a 10 mile loop.  The 50k’ers do the loop 3x.  The 10mile’ers do one loop.  They were off, I’m not sure if there was a gun or just a verbal command.  Five minutes later the 10k andMarathonfolks lined up.  This group does a different first loop (10k) which ends at the start/end point and then joins the others for 2 loops of the 10 mile loop.  I was already partly confused.


    As the gun(?) went off, I started out quickly as per my usual M.O. to distance myself from the main pack and crush souls.  One guy REALLY took off though, and I decided it would be a bad idea to chase him down so early on.  I ran for a mile or so in 2nd place as the first place guy disappeared around some turns and hills and quickly I realized I was off course and lost already!  I turned around and saw 2 women and a man about 50 yards behind me, taking a turn I had missed, so I doubled back to join them.  I caught up and decided I should run with them for the 10k loop to be safe and I could speed up on the 10 mile loop later to make up time.  For some reason I thought I remembered Rick saying the 10 mile loop was easier to follow (it was not, as it would later turn out).


    As I ran with these three, I kept thinking, We’re going too slowly! But I knew if I passed them I’d get lost again and would just lose more time. I’m not good at watching for trail markers, as it turns out.  Plus, I tend to go out too fast, so I decided it would pay-off later in the race when I’m less burned-out from holding back early on.  So I settled in and ran with them dropping from a planned 7:30 pace to an 8:30 pace. 


    The course was hard.  That’s actually an understatement.

    There were lots of turns, mud, logs to jump over, frozen or melted streams, lots of large, ankle-turning rocks and it was not long before the girl in front of me went down hard.  She popped right back up and said she was fine and continued to run.  I was close to falling in the same spot too.  The trail is completely covered in rocks the size of a fist or larger.  I kept watching where the two in front of me would twist their ankles so I could avoid those spots, only to run over whatever log or rock they did, and twist my own ankle.  It was getting painful very quickly, bit was fun and I was having a good time.  For a little while we lost the guy with us, apparently he had fallen down, but soon caught up.  He was fine.  Along the route we passed several small groups of hikers, most of which had off-leash dogs that would chased us, but they all seemed friendly.


    The course is down and up little rolling hills, with lots of turns and what seems to me must be dried up, rocky old river beds.  It’s hard to watch for the trail markers to know when to turn because you also have to keep an eye on the ground for the constant rocks.  Nature wants you to sprain your ankle here.  There seldom was any even-footing.  There were also a number of washed out spots and frozen water that was not really that frozen when stepped on.  Around mile four I soaked my right foot.  It was cold, wet and squishy.  I guess this is what trail running is all about though.  


    The four of us kept together and before I knew it we were rounding the end of the 10k loop –which was actually only a bit over 5 miles.  The two girls sped up and I realized at that point they were probably doing the “10k” and not the marathon.  They finished and I started onto the 10 mile course with the other guy I’d been running along with. I had no idea how far back the other marathoners were, but they were nowhere in sight since we started.


    At the start of the10 mile loop I was becoming more comfortable reading the trail markers and not relying on someone to follow.  I did feel the pressure of another person relying on me to make the right turns though.  I also realized I neglected to stop before this loop to get some water at the aid station.  Oops.  Next time I will carry my own bottle.


    On we went, turning and winding down the single track trail.  We stopped a few times at various forks in the road where the signage was weak; few times we had to double back to get onto the correct route.  Our course was marked with white squares on occasional trees.  At one point we took a wrong turn based on a marker on a fallen tree --with the tree down across the trail, it looked like the sign said to turn right, which we did.  After a minute of not seeing any correct trail signs (we were now on the purpled trail, apparently), we went back and I found the fallen tree and pointed out that if the tree had been standing, the marker would actually be indicating to go left.  We laughed, headed left and were back on the correct (white marked) trail. 


    A few miles into the ten mile loop, when bounding down a steep decline after climbing what felt like a mountain, I found myself flying through the air, Superman style, only to land on my belly, arms stretched out in front, sliding.  I was a little bruised up and shaken, but my many layers of clothing kept it from being as bad as it could have been. But I now had a bloody knee and elbow, and the palm of my right had was a bit raw.  I also had a lot of twigs and leaves down my pants, which was uncomfortable.  I spent the next mile running and trying to pull them out.  The guy running with me said he had one more fall up on me so far.  I guess he’d fallen a few times already.  Around a corner and into a brief clearing we found the un-manned aid station.  Lots of gallon jugs of water. We stopped briefly to drown our thirst, and were again off.


    A few more miles along the 10 mile course and I was alone.  I had dropped the guy behind me and had not seen him since the water station.   By now the temperature was climbing and the frozen trail had been tread upon enough to become muddy in spots.  Around a tight turn I slipped and found myself ass-first into a small stream.  Luckily I managed to keep my one dry foot still dry, but I realized the wet one was getting a blister.  Soon I came across the other manned water station, stopped and poured a cup and was off.  I think there was food, but I had my own GUs.


    Eventually I came out of the trees to the original starting/ending point, which marked the end of the 10 mile loop and time to start the final 10 mile loop. My watch read somewhere around 16.5 miles meaning the 10 mile loop was closer to 11 miles, since the 10k loop was really only about 5 miles, not 6.2.  Somehow that math worked.  


    I stopped at my bag to remove my shoes and put Band-Aids on the hot spots that were becoming blisters, and put on dry socks.  I said hi to Gwen and my mother-in-law; Gwen gave me some Tylenol and some water and I re-stocked my GU. She told me she had a great 10 miles and the course was much harder than she expected, to which I agreed.  I told her I thought I was in second place and was still feeling great!  Then I was off.  Rick yelled after me that if I kept it up I’d be sub four hours.  I was feeling good and thought it should be no problem. 


    Almost immediately I was lost again.  Or, rather, thought I was lost.  I saw some runners coming in MY direction and I asked them if I was going the wrong way.  They said they didn’t know.  I was reluctant to turn around though, since I had been paying VERY close attention to the markers and was certain I was on course so we went our separate ways.  I soon started to recognize things from the first time around this loop.  I knew I was still on track.  Don’t know where they were going but they’d realize it soon when they were back at the start so I wasn’t too worried.


    Just a little after mile 19 (about 3 miles into the second loop), lost in thought and enjoying the moment, I found myself running along nice long stretch of road.  I could finally open up the pace a bit and really stretch my legs.  No more rocks to run over, no more sharp turns to navigate.  This was a nice change.  I ran hard for about 5 minutes until, suddenly, I snapped out of it and into the chilling realization I had not seen a white trail marker, or ANY trail markers, in a long while and definitely did not come this way the last time around the loop.  I decided I’d run another minute further down the gravel road, thinking there’d be one soon, but there wasn’t. 

    I stopped dead in my tracks. 

    I was now around 20 miles into the race and definitely off course.  I turned around and sprinted back for 5 or 6 minutes until I came to the white-marked trail, but now I didn’t know which way to go; both sides of the trees had white square markers.  This would keep you on the trail if you were coming or going, but did not tell you which way you came from.  I was very turned around.

    I stopped, completely devastated. 

    I had been doing so well!

    I was in second place! 


    Now I was lost. 

    I was crushed. 

    I yelled out some expletives to no one.  I started to panic.

    I wanted to sit down. 

    I suddenly became aware that I was very tired.  My cuts and blisters hurt and I was really thirsty.  I had no water.  No idea where the next water stop was, but I knew it was a few miles off.  A thought occurred to me: my Garmin watch has a map!  I don’t know how to use it, but I did come across it once when I first got it, 3 years ago!  I tried to go into map mode, the Garmin died.  I started it back up; map mode; die.  Clearly this was not going to happen.  I’d been having random problems with the watch turning off lately, or just dying when fully charged and I know from recent reviews they seem to have a 2-3 year life span.  But I had never experience any problems during a race, until now.


    After a few minutes of dread and defeat, looking left and right and wondering what to do, and not seeing anyone else on the trail, I decided I’d just go left and hope for the best.  I thought, if I run into anyone coming in my direction, I’d just turn around.  I was out there to have fun anyway, so it didn’t really matter what place I was in or what my time was.  After another mile I saw a family of hikers coming down a hill in my direction.  I asked if they’d seen anyone run by recently and, in fact, they had.  A group of four guys ran by just a few minutes ago.  I knew I was back on track.  Relief washed over me in an awesome way.  


    My spirits were lifted so I picked up the pace.  After a few more miles I came across the un-manned water stop. For sure I was back on track.  Now there was only one gallon jug of water left.  I stopped and had a few gulps and pressed on. 


    I came to the big rocky climb and caught what must have been the guys the hikers mentioned.  We chatted about the difficulty of the course.  I asked which race they were doing and they said they were running the 50k.  We walk/jogged the steep climb together.  I felt really bad for them, they still had to do this 10 mile (complete with giant rocky hill) again and with any luck I’d be done soon and could lie down, put my feet up, drink some more water.  I said my goodbyes and powered along and before I knew it I was once again alone, but paying closer attention to the trail markers.  I made a few minor wrong turns but noticed immediately, no repeats of last time.

    The miles crept on: 23, 24, getting very tired, 25, 26 (usually you can see the end of a marathon at this point!) 27, still no end, 28, and not done.  Then all of a sudden things started to look familiar.


    I saw the final turn into the edge of the woods and could vaguely make out some cars parked in a lot though the trees, signifying the start/end of the race loop.  I was almost done!  I picked up my pace a bit, zig-zagging through the final turns and over the final logs and rocks, and came out of the clearing with the finish line in sight!  I crossed, Gwen ran up to congratulate me, Rick called out my time (4:22).  I sat down.  Gwen gave me some water and some potato chips.  Rick told me I was second place.  I smiled.


    Later, when looking at the race results online, I saw that I missed first place by less than 6 minutes.  Not only that, the whole time I thought I was running in 2nd place, I was actually in first place.  The guy who took off so quickly the start of my race was running the “10k” not the marathon.  Considering I ran more than 2 extra miles I’m confident next year I can come back and win, if I can manage to avoid getting lost.

    HTFU?  Why not!

    USATF Coach

    Empire Tri Club Coach


      Great report! Sounds like quite the adventure!


      I volunteered at the Harbison 50K this weekend. I worked the aid station at mile 15.5, so I got to see the runners/walkers in the middle and at the finish because it was a 2 loop course. WOW. What an amazing bunch of people. Many had bumps and scrapes, or blood running down their legs, arms and faces!! A lot of them said they had gotten a little lost and most of them had fallen multiple times. Sounds like that is the norm for trail runs! I think I'll stick to the aid stations for now, but think you guys that tackle those trails are awesome!!

      On On


        Great job on the write up and I hope you come out for a few more trail runs.  They are all an adventure.

          Awesome report!  

          " to distance myself from the main pack and crush souls"----great


          2nd place!

          Keep going!

          Thanks for posting.  --Jimmy

          Biking Bad

          finnegan begin again

            Dave, As usual a fun read. Always inspires me to run.

            "... the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value..."  Thomas Paine Dec 23, 1776 The Crisis 


            Adversity is the first path to truth. Lord Byron


            "No one plans to fail…..they fail to plan" Skinny Pete

              Great read, thanks for sharing!  I'm always worried about twisting my ankle when I run just a few miles on the trails around here.  I can't imagine doing it for 26.2.

              I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more.



              Future Goals: 5:30 mile • 19:30 5k • 33:30 8k • 42:00 10k • 1:15:00 10-mile • 1:40:00 half-marathon • 1000 miles

                Awesome report. Rick puts on a great race. Congratulations on the 2nd place.

                Speed my steps along your path, according to your will.

                  WOW - you made it sound like so much fun   Big grin  


                  Great Report and you ran a great race........i enjoyed reading your report ....

                  Champions are made when no one is watching

                  Consistently Slow

                    Welcome to trail running! Great report.

                    Run until the trail runs out.

                     SCHEDULE 2016--

                     The pain that hurts the worse is the imagined pain. One of the most difficult arts of racing is learning to ignore the imagined pain and just live with the present pain (which is always bearable.) - Jeff

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