Thursday, August 11, 2011

Running with the Devil - July 2011

“The more sweat on the training field, the less blood on the battlefield"

This past weekend NJ Trail Series hosted Running with the Devil on the slopes of the Mountain Creek Ski Resort. The name for the race is fairly obvious because it takes place in the heat of July and it is a 3 mile loop course that offers very little protection from the sun. The race is held on a mountain comprised entirely of black diamonds and whether you are crawling up or flying down a trail, it still feels like you are exercising in an inferno. Each loop has 1100 feet of ascent, followed by 1100 feet of screaming downhills. You have the pleasure of selecting a 3, 6 or 12 hour race. Being that this was my first time, I went for the 12-hour.

This is a true elevation profile of 1 loop. But I had to photoshop in the other 9 because the Garmin 310 had a recent firmware update that automatically erases your run if you don't manually select 'reset'. It was definitely more useful when it automatically saved it!

Some basics:
  • July 23, 2011 in Vernon, New Jersey held at the Mountain Creek Ski Resort
  • 1,100 feet of vertical for the 1.5 mile ascent
  • 1,100 feet of vertical for the 1.5 mile descent
  • Light technical terrain
  • 3, 6 or 12-hour race
  • 6AM start for the 12-hour
  • 9AM start for the 3 and 6-hour races
  • Well stocked Aid Station in the Kink bar at the base. Shaded, some fans and bathrooms
  • One unmanned water Aid Station near the summit
  • 12 hour
    • 35 Participants
    • 1st place male: Jason Friedman with 50.1 Miles
    • 1st place female: Jennifer Brunet with 41.8 Miles
  • 6 hour 
    • 22 Participants
    • 1st place male: Kelvin Marshall with 27.9 Miles
    • 1st place female: Elaine Acosta with 22.2 Miles
  • 3 hour 
    • 70 Participants
    • 1st place male: Mike Dixon with 15.5 Miles
    • 1st place female: Zsuzsanna Carlson with 12.9 Miles

The day before the race the National Weather Service issued an “excessive heat warning” for all of northeast New Jersey and New York. Technically, this warning means that the heat and humidity causes temperatures to feel like they are at least 105 degrees. It cooled off a little by race day and reported that it felt like it was 101.

The 3 mile loop starts from within the Kink Bar at the mountain’s base. Here we met for a quick race briefing before the 6AM start where we received a serious warning about monitoring your body temperature. There was an EMT was on site and we were warned we would be pulled if our condition deteriorated. This was followed by the other important reminder that we were there to have fun!

Loop 1
Clothing & Gear: I doused myself with SPF 50 spray-on sunblock, shorts, hat and carried one 20 oz. handheld. I was wearing Inov-8 roclite 295’s, Drymax Lite Trail Running Socks and sunglasses Partly Cloudy. Feels like 101. Humidity 59%

It’s 6AM and myself and 34 other runners begin our first loop. We ignore the chairlift overhead because for now we aren’t thinking about how wonderful even the slowest of chairlifts can be. Most of us are hurrying up the mountain entirely too fast for a 12 hour race and we know it. But hey, it’s the first loop so we still do it.

The start of the first hill. I was debating adding this one because it appears so flat

Even though that first climb is easy we were still leaning into the hill. That first climb is followed by a short traverse on a covered downhill and at the bottom is a downed tree which we were leaping over. We rounded the corner that first time which is when we first met our adversary… Kamikaze.
The Approach to Kamikaze
photo by

Kamikaze is an aptly named run because it provides snowboarders and skiers with reckless speed as they bomb down its steep face in the winter. However we are not going down. We have a vertical height of 500ft to climb and the hill is completely exposed to the sun. There is no choice. There is no out. You have to go up. It didn’t take much time before desperation set in and my mind started working on a solution. I remembered a talk with my friend about the method he uses to hunt uphill and how walking switchback up the mountainside is a lot easier on the quads. I employed some variation of this and angled a little to the left, then a little to the right. This changed up the muscle groups but only slightly. I tried many paths up that slope throughout the day and what I determined was that the faster I was off the face of Kamikaza, the faster I felt better. Even standing on Kamikaze’s side to catch my breath put a strain on the legs!

photo by

At the top of Kamikaze is a covered fire road that leads to a longer descent than the first. However as I reach the bottom of this trail we pop out in front of another climb! This upper section was easier than the middle third, thankfully, and I finally reached the summit where there is an unmanned station with hundreds of gallons of water waiting in the shade.

I began my descent and found that the top part was the best place to practice screaming downhills.

 photo by Hillcrest Photo

Screaming downhills is a way to describe the speed that you can pick up on a steep downhill. The term sometimes makes it into ultrarunning blogs and I think it was adapted from another meaning: “making a power dive in a fighter aircraft”. Running with the Devil turned out to be a great race and training because I practiced screaming downhills all day and refined my method based on what I had read. The hills were steep, repetitive and difficult so this was a great place to test the way to run them.

Below is a description of a screaming downhill but here are a few essentials:
1. Let gravity do the work. 
2. Never brake. 
3. Don’t trip.

Lean forward away from the mountain. Put your chin forward and your chest will follow. Feel the gravity pull and use it to your advantage. Take many fast, short strides and your legs will keep you upright while gravity moves you forward. Be careful though because you will pick up speed! Remember to step smartly and keep your arms wide for balance. This type of running is hard on the legs but it is better than the alternative of leaning back towards the mountain. Leaning back forces your quads to act as a break which will tear them apart. Another reason to refine the technique is because I have read how most runners share similar speeds when climbing, but there is a large spread on how fast they can take the downhills. Stay very focused when you run this way because while you are taking many little steps you must maneuver your feet between every rock, divot and other tripping hazard. If you do not keep yourself upright it will be a learning experience and you probably won't let yourself make that mistake again!

Needless so say, the downhills for Running with the Devil were very tough on the legs.

Some memories from Laps 3-9
  • When I was ending Lap 3 at 9AM I was a little shocked so see 100, 3 and 6-hour runners at the start. I was excited and proud to see so many come out to this race understanding how brutal the conditions may be. I only started running a few years ago and it really was inspiring to see this many participate.
  • We were lucky during the first 4 hours because it had been partly cloudy as predicted. But on the fifth loop the sun came out in full force and the mountainside became one large pan of stir-fried runner.
  • At some point during the race I found I had gotten into a rhythm. Climb up the mountain, come flying down and go to the bar to refuel. While I was at the bar (which was covered in food) I would forget about the last loop, load up the water bottle entirely with ice and as much fresh water as it could fit, eat a few things and then head back out. It was always on that first climb back up that I would remember just how tough the uphill and the down would be!
  • I met quite a few people on this race and saw some old faces which is a special thing for ultrarunning. The climb up led to some good talks about races. And then when talking wasn't possible it was just nice to have company to simply push through it. 
  • Around noon, I was convinced the snow guns lining the side of Kamikaze were brand new and were installed only last week as a form of torture. On one loop I saw a runner crouching on the open hillside hiding in a little 4ft x 4ft shadow beneath one of the snow guns. I couldn't figure out if this was helping him or if he was still getting cooked from all sides and hadn’t realized it.
  • I have one other thing that I tried for this race that worked well. I went to a deli Friday night and ordered a roast beef sub with veggies. I cut it up into fourth’s and brought it along in a cooler. Starting around 10 or 11AM I got into the habit of finishing a loop, grabbing a cup of Mountain Dew and sitting down for 10 minutes while I slowly ate part of my sub. I think it worked because I did not suffer from any stomach distress over the entire day. Also this gave my legs a much needed break. I think it takes a few races with some really tough stomach problems before most runners are ready to try to eat real food. I am now a big fan and recommend trying to make the transition. I still use simple sugars during an ultra but only during a low point.
 photo by Hillcrest Photo

Loop 10
The sun came and went throughout the day but for my last loop it was on its full setting with no cloud cover. I had been accelerating from shadow to shadow on the downhills just to keep my sun exposure to a minimum. For the entire day, good friends from Boston had been waiting for me at home and I realized that forcing out one or two more loops was only going to make me feel that much worse when we went out later that night. I finally called it a day with 10 complete loops and one 1/2 mile loop for 31.5 miles, 22,000 ft of elevation change in 9.5 hours. That was a great workout and put me in 12th place. As I sat in the Kink bar putting on my flip flops I heard from another runner mention that there was now a bear chilling out near the trail. I bet he was watching for the moment Jason Friedman tired. But of course he never did and he busted out 50 miles with over 35,000ft of elevation. Good luck at Leadville JF you are going to crush it!

Post Race
I am pretty happy with my performance at my first Running with the Devil. During Massanutten in May I had had a shin injury that flared up in the last few miles and after the race it pretty much took me out of my regular training for a full month. I had been icing constantly, taking NSAIDs and even had an MRI and nothing helped. But the body does amazing things and it wasn’t until after running on the steep hills at Running with the Devil that I noticed I was now injury free!

Of course this was a hard race but it was a lot of fun. I will end with race report with my post on the NJ Trail Series Facebook Event site. My legs are shredded and I lost my two big toenails. It was totally worth it.

Drinking from my new water bottle in an awesome, polka dotted RWTD technical shirt

Race Website


  1. Excellent Mark...I enjoyed reading it. Great representation of the race and how you performed.

  2. Mmmm pan of stir fried runner. Awesome blog Mark! Can't wait for more

  3. Great run, Mark, and in such hot and humid conditions. I am still marveling at the concept of a race that begins in a bar. How does that work?