Saturday, November 12, 2016

2016 Batona 50 Race Report



The Batona 50 is point to point race with 53.4 mile and 50k options. The course follows the path of The Batona Trail. The trail derives its name similar to but not exactly in the format of an acronym: BAck TO NAture. It makes its way through the NJ Pinelands National Reserve from the north end at Ong’s Hat in Brendan T. Byrne State forest to the southern end at Lake Absegami in Bass River State Forest. Along the way it takes you on a tour through the heart of Wharton State Forest passing Batsto Village and numerous campgrounds.The trail is pretty typical of South Jersey trails in that it is a reflection of the common sandy soils of the coastal plains, resulting in high sand content and sandy trails. The second common feature of trails in Southern NJ and the landscape in general is a lack of elevation change. The Batona Trail shares the nearly total absence of climbs and descents with the rest of the landscape in the region with only 530’ of elevation gain recorded by my Garmin for the entirety of the trail. 
Elevation Profile
The Batona 50 event is organized as a “fat ass” event. Typically, “fat ass” events have no frills, no fee, no aid, no schwag, and no course markings; making them more or less a large group run. However, the organizers of the Batona 50 have gone beyond what I would consider to be the standard definition of a “fat ass” event. While there are no course markings, the trail is pretty well marked already by trail blazes so there really isn’t any need for additional markings. As for frills, there was no schwag for registering or finishers’ medals, but they did offer the option to purchase a
pretty nice looking long sleeve shirt. There was no registration fee, but the organizers did ask that in lieu of the fee that participants consider donating to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance or NJ Conservation Foundation. It was in the aid department where the event really went beyond my expectations from a “fat ass” event. The course had six planned aid stations along the 50+ mile distance, four of which doubled as aid for the 50k distance. A surprise aid station popped up during the event for the 50+ mile distance between aid stations on the second half of the course where they were about 10 miles apart. All of the aid stations were stocked with standard fuel and hydration donated by the runners and the amazing group of volunteers manning them. And heck, they even offered the option of transporting a drop bag to any of the aid stations for you!


This was my last ultra for the year and with it taking place only four weeks after finishing my first 100 miler, I was really questioning how hard I wanted to push myself while running it. I didn’t train much between the two events. I did some easy medium to short recovery runs following the 100 miler, one long (25 mile) training run, and some mid to short runs during a taper leading up to the 50 miler. In total, I ran about 75 miles in the four weeks between the two races. I was really banking on the fitness and endurance from the 100 mile training to carry over and get me through the race, which is a strategy I have never used and did not trust. Additionally, I was trying to comfort myself with the fact that the course was super flat and therefore the 50 miles would seem “easy”. All the while I knew that while one 50 miler may be “easy” relative to another 50 miler, running 50 miles is never “easy” and I knew that at some point during the run I would most likely be hurting and in pain. With these trepidations leading up to the event, I was telling myself that my plan was to go out at comfortable pace and maintain that for the entirety of the run. I stuck to that plan up until the race started.

I stood in the crowd while the race director made some brief announcements. Then with the start of the race imminent, a strange thing happened. All of the other runners towards the front of the crowd started shuffling backwards in small, barely noticeable increments. Without moving, myself and about four other runners were all at the front of the starting line and with that the race began. Three of the other runners that took off first had actually intended to be there. The one immediately in front of me, however, had apparently ended up there inadvertently due to the pre start backwards shuffle and hopped off to the side of the trail to let me pass after maybe 100 yards from the start.

The start of the race was 7 AM so the sun was just starting to rise and it was still a little tough to see the trail and blazes without a headlamp. My plan, or lack thereof, was to run with someone else with a headlamp for the first half hour or so until the headlamp would be completely unnecessary. I was going out at what felt like a pretty comfortable pace for me, but no headlamps were nearby behind me and one was not too far ahead. I figured I’d pick up my pace a bit to catch the pair of runners, one of whom had a headlamp, in front of me. I told myself that even though it was a little faster (around 8:30 miles) than I had intended to go out, it would be less than a half hour until it would be light enough that I would be completely comfortable running without any lighting.

After just a few miles with the two runners, it was daylight and one other runner that had sped up from the starting pack had joined up with us. With a little conversation between the four of us the miles started to click off and we were at the first aid station. We all passed through quickly (less than a minute) and continued on. And just like that, I scrapped my whole plan of taking it easy and decided to see if I could keep pace with these guys who were the lead pack with the exception of the front runner who was running a blazing pace and set a new course record of 7:11:00. As much as I had told myself that this is my last ultra for the year, I haven’t trained enough or recovered long enough from the 100 miler, and I should take it easy and just focus on finishing and enjoying it, I couldn’t convince myself to execute that plan. For me anyway, the attraction of ultras is to truly test yourself and find out what you are capable of. The way I see it, if you aren’t pushing yourself, you won’t find out.


One of the stretches of narrow boards.
Even though I was pushing harder than I had intended and in a bit of pain, I was still enjoying the run. The first couple hours were a bit chilly, mid 30s, but once it warmed up a bit it was perfect running weather. It may have been a bit past the time for peak fall colors as the sassafras and the sweetgum trees had nearly dropped all of their leaves, but many of the oaks still displayed the majority of their leaves ranging from green tinted with yellows to brilliant reds and earthy browns. Though the most stunning colors belonged to the blueberry shrubs that dominate much of the understory of the Pinelands. Running through the seemingly endless sea of fiery red was a reward in itself. Nearly every footfall was cushioned by a bed of oak leaves and pitch pine needles along the sandy trail. While much of the scenery along the Batona trail is consistent, it does offer some variety passing by several lakes and long abandoned cranberry bogs. Additionally, for some stretches it follows forest streams and passes through several low lying swampy areas where the trail weaves its way between the thick stands of Atlantic white cedars on treacherous looking narrow boards.


Between enjoying the scenery and the off and on conversations within our pack, we were a little over
Fall colors.
20 miles into the run before I even realized it or thought about changing my pace. It was around this point that one runner from our group picked up his pace and for the next few miles I could just barely catch a glimpse of his orange jacket in the distance every few minutes. Not long after that another from our pack picked up his pace as well and the one runner remaining with me slowed his pace. I ran alone for a good stretch of the trail after that and maintained just a slightly slower pace (just under 9 minute miles) than I had when running with the group until I started feeling some rumbling in my bowels. After assessing the situation for awhile, it became clear that I was going to have to resolve the issue soon. I didn’t want to waste much time by going too far off trail, but I also did not want to perform a public demonstration of how to wipe your ass with leaf litter and pine needles. My main worry was that I had no clue how far back the next runner was. I waited until the next side trail crossed the course and went just a little way down that trail and hopped off the trail behind some shrubs thinking “this side trail won’t have any traffic”. Well, one of the pre race announcements was to be very mindful and on the lookout for trail blazes because there are many cross trails and fire roads making it easy to go off course without realizing it. I had noticed this during the race as well as how often times along the trail there are braided sections that separate then quickly rejoin to a single trail. It turned out that this “cross trail” that I hopped off of was actually just a braided section of the Batona trail. I realized this shortly after taking care of business and going just a few paces down the trail to find the paths reconnected. Thankfully, there was enough of a gap between me and the next runner that my privacy was not disturbed.

With that catastrophe avoided, I continued on in good spirits. Soon after, I passed the 50k mark and checked my watch to realize I had just run my fastest 50k, bettering it by about 13 minutes. Even though my previous 50k best was on a tougher course (Blues Cruise) with far more elevation change, it was still a bit of a boost for my morale and encouraged me to continue to push as best I could for the remaining 20 miles or so. I was feeling a bit tired by this point so it really did help me out mentally. Although I was telling myself that I didn’t have a target time for this race, I was really hoping to keep it under a 10 minute per mile average. With that pace, I would improve my 50 mile time. I pushed on sustaining around a 9:30 per mile pace until around mile 40 when I caught sight of one of the two runners I had been with earlier that had picked up his pace. It was his first race greater than a 50k distance and it looked like the miles were beginning to take a toll on him. We rolled into the final aid station at about the 43 mile mark together.

I was feeling pretty tired by this point, but the excitement of running a faster time than I had hoped for and knowing that I could be at the finish within a couple hours had me pumped and ready to push on and wrap this thing up. After refilling my bottle and downing some bacon, a banana, and some coke I was ready to move out. I looked over at my running mate to realize that he did not look as excited or as pumped as I was to finish this run. A chair was set up just a few steps from the aid station table and one of the volunteers pointed it out and mentioned it to the guy I had been running with. I felt it was my duty at this point to tell him not to even think about sitting down. I told him to not even look at that chair, it’s only another ten miles until you’ll be back at your car and can sit down there. With that we headed out from the aid station and pushed on.

The next few miles passed quickly with the company and the boost of the caffeine and sugar from the coke. Then we found ourselves on a fire road and there was no sign of the familiar pink blazes we had been following on the trail all day. We turned back following the road until we found a faint pink blaze. Thinking that this confirmed we were still on the trail, we doubled back and continued on the road until it came out to a larger road crossing we had already crossed from the opposite direction not too long before the blazes had quit appearing. We saw the trail nearby where we had
crossed earlier and knew for certain that we had made a wrong turn. We got back on the trail, running a section we had already run, a little frustrated that we had probably just added about an extra one mile loop to the final stretch of the course. We got back to the point where we made the wrong turn and I immediately realized how we had both messed it up. What looked like an arrow pointing left where the trail met the fire road was actually an arrow directing hikers from the opposite direction onto the trail we had just come from. If either of us had looked to the right at that point we would have seen that the trail was clearly blazed in that direction. Clearly both of us were feeling the effects of the miles that we had logged already. Thankfully, that was the only wrong turn we made.

We continued on together until about 5 miles from the finish when my trail companion decided to slow down to take a gel and walk for a bit. I think his stomach was bothering him a bit as he had mentioned that he hoped the coke would help settle it shortly after leaving the last aid station. I’m guessing that he wanted to let the gel settle a little before continuing with the gyrations from the pounding of running. He told me not to wait for him, but I felt kinda bad about continuing on ahead of him so close to the finish when we had run the better part of the entire trail together. However, at that point I could practically smell the finish and was running out of motivation. I just wanted to be done as soon as possible. I just gave him a nod and continued on. My brain was feeling kinda fried at the time and in my mind it was a very encouraging nod that said “Stay strong, keep up the pace and finish strong!”. Looking back, I doubt it conveyed that entire message to him.
Lake Absegami at the south end of the trail.
For the last few miles I tried to run the tank dry, but there wasn’t a whole lot left. I was digging deep in an attempt to eek out one more sub 9 mile, but the closest I could get was a 9:15. I crossed the finish with a time of 8:40:45 which I was pretty impressed by since my time goal that I was saying I
Finished!
didn’t have was 10 hours. I am so thankful that I fell in with the group that I did from the start or else I don’t think I would have pushed myself to the same degree. To me, that really sums up what these ultra events are all about:  the eloquent intermixing of camaraderie and competition that drives everyone to be the best version of themselves.







Scott Snell
November 10, 2016