On May 16th, 2020 at 8:20 am…
I set out on a 70 mile long journey across one of New Jersey’s longest single foot trails to set a FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the trail and to remember and honor the lives lost due to Covid-19. This would be a run that would change my life.
This run was 2 months in the making as the grip of Covid-19 put a dramatic pause on life as we once knew it. I originally planned on running this in April but the week leading into the run, NJ closed all state and county parks. This would have to wait. At the time, I instead ran a 50 miler, around a path in a corporate plaza close to home to raise money to fuel the effort against the virus. As parks in New Jersey were set to re-open on May 2nd, I knew that my Towpath run would get to become a reality.
Please read my two prior posts that go into detail about my journey throughout the few months leading up to this run as well as a more detailed back-story.
This run was in support of Covid-19 relief for NJ with my run supporting the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.
Along with that, this run was also for me a way to give thanks and show appreciation for our local natural outdoor recreation resources we often take for granted. In this time of Covid, more and more people have sought out our natural areas to simply get out of the house and to feel alive in such a difficult time of confinement. The Delaware-Raritan Canal is a true gem in Central NJ as it provides outdoor recreation that is easily accessible and offers a wide variety of multi-use activities. Couple the accessibility of the trail with its vast history as being a local thoroughfare ( a superhighway of transport of goods) that has remained very much preserved, it makes this place pretty special.
I ran this trail as it has been my home, a trail that I grew up just a 1/4 mile from and have run its many sections hundreds if not thousands of times.
New Jersey is a great state full of natural beauty. What makes the state so unique is that as the densest state in the country, it blends both the natural world of open spaces and parks with industry and the suburban and urban lives we currently live as Americans.
This is what we normally think NJ is. An urban landscape between New York City and Philadelphia.
Photo by citiespeak.org
But New Jersey is more like this:
Photo by Lovesphotoalbum.com
D&R Canal Towpath FKT:
Towpath-The Start in Milford, NJ-Mile 1-16
Accompanied by my superstar crew: my father and my wife, Ashlee, I set out at 8:20am. Ashlee was in charge of the social media, filming and navigation for the day as she was also providing a well-documented Instagram Takeover for one of my sponsors: 361 degrees USA. My Father would be in charge of the fuel: hydration and food portion of the run. They would see me every 4-10 miles to make sure I was moving well and was being taken care of. It was such a big boost to see them at each aid stop throughout the run.
As the run started out, it was a beautiful morning right around 58 degrees and overcast. As I set out on the run, there was not a person in sight for the first 12 miles. This section is incredible as you start up on a ledge that overlooks the Raritan River. As you start to gradually descend, you soon become surrounded by bluffs on either side of you. There is a time where you have to pinch yourself: “Am I in New Jersey???”. The early miles were amazing. The weather felt great, and I was clicking along fast miles. I tried to slow down as much as I could but kept my miles from 6:50-7:10. Little did I know that I would drop 200 feet in the first 20 miles.
This section takes you through many very cute and artsy towns all along the river with Pennsylvania just across on the other side. It is a peaceful section and was a great way to get the run started. I crossed through Frenchtown, and then onward to Bulls Island Recreation area near the 14 mile mark. I was feeling strong and loving the time out on the trail. This section of the trail is a nice grey crushed gravel surface that is great for long distance running as it cushions your foot falls nicely. My hydration and nutrition was going well: 1- 20 ounce bottle of tailwind and 1 bottle of water every hour and a half along with 1-2 Boom gels in that time period. I have worked on becoming more fat-adapted starting last year and it has translated to being stronger and more-efficient throughout the full length of an ultramarathon. The fuel I take allows me to get little boosts throughout the run without fully depending on carbohydrates the way that I used to. By feeding my hunger more with fatty and savory foods, my body gets the same boost as when I would eat a gel without the stomach and physical strain I get towards the end of a race. As I headed past Bull’s Island, I started to see more and more people out on the trail causing me to run less on the trail and more on the grassy side as bikers and walkers would come by. I ran this effort with my buff, pulling it up anytime I passed anyone near the trail.
The next big section was through Stockton then to Lambertville/New Hope taking me to the 20 mile mark. This is a very historic section going through old mills, some of the quaint downtown sections and islands out on the river. It is one of my favorite parts.
Part 2: Stockton to Washington Crossing 26 miles–It is getting HOT!
As I crossed into Stockton, this section takes you out along an old railroad bed as you cross behind the downtown buildings. It is a really fun and reminds me of something from a quaint European town. It was at this point in the run where things started to warm up. Originally, the forecast called for overcast skies and temps near 72 degrees. By this point, the sun had come out we had nothing but blue-bird skies. I made a little wrong turn as I needed to stay right and go across a bridge and headed straight down the hill into a gravel parking lot with people fishing on the dock nearby. I glanced up to the right and could see the main section of the trail up on the other side of me and so I had to turn back and catch the correct portion of the trail. I did not lose that much time here, maybe a half mile in total: a couple of minutes.
I was back on track still running 7 minute to 7:15 miles and the effort felt great. I felt like I could keep this going for a long time. In an ultra, the most important thing is to pace yourself intelligently so that the first 2/3 of the run rides the line of feeling really easy and comfortable with pushing a little. If your legs are really tightening and feeling sore well-before half-way in an ultra, I would recommend easing up on your pace so that you can make sure your effort is consistent throughout the whole distance. There is no worse feeling than going out too fast the first 10 miles of a 70 mile run and then having to really struggle for 60 miles when this could have been avoided early on.
As I hit this stretch, more and more people started heading to the trail and it became more congested than the early miles. I was having to weave a little to pass properly and the direct sunlight in this section was melting my skin. It was leading through New Hope to the Washington Crossing section where I would need some sunblock to save me from burning. My lesson of learning here was that I had no idea how exposed this section was to the sun. Once I reached the Washington Crossing checkpoint, my Father was able to lather me up with sunblock and we switched out bottles so that I could go into the Trenton section (approximately 15 miles) before I would see my family again for aid. I hit the marathon mark around 3 hours and 13 minutes or so which put me right on a goal 50 mile time of 6:20. As the timing of the day was around Noon, the intensity of the sun and the amount of people out on the trail posed a little challenge for me. What would the Trenton section be like?
This was a pivotal point in the run as once I set out past the Newtown mark, I would be running through 15 miles without aid. I had not run the Trenton stretch prior so I was now in uncharted land.
As I headed on the trail, the sun was taking it out of me a little. I started to drink my 40 ounces of fluid at a rapid pace as I made my way through West Trenton. This section of trail was now a tan and sandy trail, similar to the surface in and around Princeton. I loved this section as it was so quiet and peaceful. I saw only a handful of people on the trail during this stretch and it really gave me this serene and immersive experience of moving through nature.
Part 3: Fighting the Heat Through Trenton
It was hot. I started to waver in pace, as I was now hitting some 7:30 miles more often. I knew, I had to just conserve energy, stay as cool as possible and I would be greeted with McDonalds and some nice cool drinks once I hit Lawrenceville. As I worked my way through Trenton, I loved the peacefulness of things. This was by far my favorite section! I passed many flocks of geese as I looked around and saw some really nice quiet neighborhoods of West Trenton. I soon crossed the road by the Trenton Country Club and was delighted to see golfers out enjoying the course. After what felt like about 4 more miles, I then entered the urban portion of the trail through the heart of downtown Trenton as the trail soon became asphalt and then city sidewalk. Like a fish out of water, I went to my phone to make sure I was navigating this section properly. I was running through a rough part of town but what most do not know about Trenton is that looks can be deceiving. I met some of the nicest people who asked where I was running to and when I told them to New Brunswick, that I was running the 70 mile D&R canal in its entirety, they all nearly fell off their porches. I was given praise, applause, cheering, it was pretty awesome.
This urban section was hot and as I looked at the trail, it was behind some condemned houses in front of me where I could not access the trail as it was all chained up with barbed-wire fences. I thought, shoot, this sucks. I did my best to follow the trail and then lost the signs. I continued to follow the river and knew that the Trenton War Memorial was the main checkpoint that I needed to reach. I had missed a left turn to head North and instead followed the path across an intersection heading to the heart of downtown. I stopped and spent about 5 minutes looking at my map to ensure I would get back on track. At this point, I was getting dehydrated. With no shade and just myself and the warm sun out on the blacktop, I was running out of time and had to move swiftly through here. I caught the path by the War Memorial, and then began to jump the fragmented section as the trail went from blacktop, to sidewalk, to hard dirt back to sidewalk again. I waited at an intersection for what felt like another 5 minutes waiting to cross. Soon I kept following the path and the turns until I finally was back on what really felt like the Towpath. I soon started to run parallels with Route 1 and knew I was now on my way to Lawrenceville and my next checkpoint for aid. Like being in the Sahara Desert, I knew time was of the essence and I had to hold on a little more.
I pushed the next 4 miles to Carnegie Road as the heat of the day continued to beat on me. At finally hit the checkpoint and looked around or Ashlee and my Father and they were not there. WHERE COULD THEY BE????
Part 4: Rebuilding the Machine- Lawrenceville to Griggstown Miles 40-55
I started to panic as I was fighting off some nasty heat exhaustion and was getting dizzy. I needed support. I grabbed my cell phone and called them…an answer. “Where are you?”, I asked. It turned out after being on the phone for a couple of minutes, that my family was not at Carnegie Road, but one more road up. I then ran on the left side of the trail which soon became over-grown and realized that this would be a dead-end. I turned back and then crossed the bridge on the other side to catch the correct part of the trail. It was a way to add insult to injury. I sprinted on the trail the half mile to the aid. I finally made it and was beat-up. I was over-heating and needed some french fries, water, coca-cola, to get myself back to normal. I spent about 10 minutes here, replenishing everything that I lost as well as trying to cool my burnt skin. I was still averaging around 7:15 mile pace for the entire run and regardless of the heat, I felt strong and that I could maintain that pace for what felt like forever. That was a great sign.
I had found my oasis in the desert and now was like a computer that was rebooted. My legs still had a some cramping I would have to deal with but I was determined and ready to run the section of trail, I know like the back of my hand.
The sections through Lawrenceville and then through Princeton I do not have much of a vivid memory of this section. It was almost a blur. The trail was the most-congested through here, and I ran most of this with my buff over my face the whole time as I zigzagged around the groups of people out on the towpath. Ashlee and my Father gave me aid through a couple of the sections as I gulped down 20 ounces of water every 4 miles. I came by the section of Lake Carnegie and then into Kingston. It was at the road crossing, that I stopped to refuel at 48 miles. I was on pace for a 6:20 50 miler and right at my goal pace to run near or under 9 hours.
It was here that I switched to 2 handhelds to get the fluid I needed. It was now around 2-3pm and the heat of the day was getting tough. I would now take each section as it would come. I was having to take brief walk breaks throughout the sections up to Griggstown and this would continue to the finish. My body was beat up and I needed to do what I could to get myself back.
Part 5 Run For Another: Griggstown to the Finish-Miles 55 to 70
Once I reached Griggstown, I needed to sit and take a longer break. I was 55 miles in…
And feeling pretty gassed. This is the part of our story where our hero has faced big obstacles and is at the lowest point. Like any good film or novel, usually what follows is when our hero realizes something about themselves that allows them to accept who they are and want to be and so they climb out from the ashes and rightfully claim victory.
You are on the edge of your seat right?
Okay, the real-life part of this was not that epic but let’s see how it all plays out and you judge for yourself.
The run goes from fun to one more of getting the goal accomplished. It is at these points, where I dig deep and ask myself why I am doing this, WHY. My running before has been something very personal as the events and goals I were chasing had more benefit for me. This run was different, it was more for others, for the state of New Jersey. I ran this to hopefully show you that we can accomplish so much more, when we place others on our backs and in our hearts.
What do I mean? This run was to set an FKT, but that was not its main purpose or intent. I wanted to do something that could bring us together and inspire others that we can be strong in times of adversity. New Jersey, whether I like it or not, is my home; it is the place where I grew up. The Towpath has been my home trail. With so many lives that had been lost due to Covid-19 in New Jersey (2nd highest next to NY), and with few media outlets talking about how New Jersey was being devastated by this virus, I wanted to bring hope to the state and to my home.
In my hydration pack, I had the names of 70 people of NJ who lost their lives due to Covid-19. Each mile I would think about them and honor their life. As I pushed onward in my quest to Somerset and the Weston Canal Rd section, I had a moment. I was eating olives and cheese as the salty food was something I was craving. As I ate it, I started to tear-up and cry. I was now almost 60 miles in and I knew I was going to finish the trail. I was determined. It is amazing to experience the full journey of that day. I thought about where I started all the way up in Milford, and how I had pushed through heat exhaustion and was starting to feel better after slogging along for 20 miles after the Kingston section at mile 48. I thought about those lives lost and those who were currently fighting for their lives. I was in pain, I was sore and sunburnt and had some chaffing. None of that mattered. I was alive, and healthy and not clinging to life. But other fellow NJ residents were. Knowing the pain that I was experiencing was not even close to what so many others were going through at that moment.
It was my moment of truth. Why do I run? I used to run to prove I was good at it, that I was good at something. I did it to gain respect and to be liked. It was always something to benefit me. This run was different. This run was for my home state, for New Jersey. New Jersey is called “The Garden State”. It is a beautiful place, full of forests, farmland, rolling hills, rivers, and trails. It is also a place full of highways, strip malls, sprawling residential areas. So what makes it unique? It blends both the artificial landscape of industry with the natural landscape as if both mix in harmony. If you take the time to pause and open your eyes, you will see that the things you take for granted actually ARE beautiful.
After that moment, something clicked in me. I started running a minute per mile faster for that next stretch- running low 7 minute miles. My body after 100k felt like new. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in a run before in my life. I pushed through as now the trail turned red and the heat of the day was now subsiding. I could taste the finish. I pushed on through Weston Canal, Somerville, Bound Brook and then to New Brunswick.
I took my time at the checkpoints, getting more fuel and fluids.
I hit my last checkpoint behind Rutgers Prep, and knew I had about 3 more miles to go. I was right around 9 hours at this point and a sub 10 hour was very likely. The end was almost in sight.
Running can be transformational. It is hard but it can teach us a lot about the human spirit.
I had fought through the day and was going to finish and complete this entire trail, a pipedream set when I was just a kid.
As I hit the last mile, I grabbed my phone and called up a great friend to share it with them and to honor a great man dear to him and his mother. It was a very special moment as we crossed onto the final quarter mile peninsula right across from Rutgers University.
I was so lucky to share the last mile with a great friend who had the weekend before lost his Father to Covid-19 complications. It was a moment that I held deep within myself and where I sought to draw strength from. At mile 48, I was on the verge of quitting, but knowing how much this moment would mean and to share in its significance, I knew I had to do it for all of those that came along with me in spirit on this journey. You see, it was not just myself that ran this trail, but 70 amazing souls that lived incredible lives and had great stories of their own. I had a crew of 2 amazing people: my wife and father plus 70 others pushing me to reach the end.
I hit the finish line, where the trail ends into the water. FKTs are not glamourous. You do not have crowds lining the course, no one is cheering for you except for a few kind people in the heart of Trenton and your crew. On this day, no one on the Towpath that I ran by had any idea of what I was doing. You cross the finish with no finishing chute, or tape, no medal or trophy. You finish and its like, well we did it and you walk back to your car and go home.
9 hours 51 minutes and 10 seconds.
This would be the new Supported FKT for the Delaware-Raritan Canal Towpath, 70 miles in length from end to end. When I run on the Towpath now, I feel this sense of holy cow, I ran the whole thing and have the fastest time on it. It is so surreal. But remember, there are 70 names along with mine that deserve the credit as their spirits will forever be tied to that epic journey and how they helped a guy do something pretty cool.
What I experienced on the day has awakened something greater inside of me. A new purpose to why I run. I want to run longer and take on new challenges to see what I am capable of. Before, I have been afraid of really pushing beyond my limits, but not anymore.
In the time of Covid-19, this run will be something that will be etched in my memory and heart forever. Some of you might be wondering, could you run it faster? I think so, but that might be for another day! We have all had our lives change due to Covid-19 and I know for me, I have gained a even greater appreciation for my health, and my families’ health as well as how special being outside in nature can truly be for your soul!
Thank you everyone for your support! In closing:
New Jersey is a great state and a great place to run. I hope that this run inspires you to tackle your own challenge near home, or to open your eyes to the beauty that has been around you all along. The D&R Canal Towpath is truly incredible and I hope you go out there and check it out! Because the trail to me is what is New Jersey really is!
To the best crew ever and my lifeline:
Ashlee and Chuck– I love you both!
To the brands that support me:
361 Degrees USA
Finger Lakes Run Co