Let me start by saying the Pine Barrens are an incredible place. Growing up in New Jersey, I have only been to the Pine Barrens as a young kid on a few school trips. I never really had a full-grasp or real understanding of what this region really was all about.
From my brief time in the region, I have been blown away with its tranquility, rugged nature , and diverse yet homogenous terrain. It is a place not for the faint of heart. At 1.1 million acres, the Pine Barrens stretches a full 1/4 length of the whole state of New Jersey. As more of a mythological place, steeped in spooky and erie tales of horror stories such as the Jersey Devil, and a hidden Bermuda triangle where people enter and never return; the Pine Barrens feels more like some type of ficticious realm, not the actual place you get to see in the South of New Jersey.
Don’t get me wrong, the Pinelands (as locals might say) is pretty darn spooky but in a cool way. The more time I have spent there, the more that I have become captivated by the wild nature of the land. To sum up the Pine Barrens in one nice statement, it is a vast pine forest as far as the eye can see and as far as the imagination can go. It is as wild as it is tame, beautiful as it is ugly, harsh as it is soft, and barren as it is plentiful. What we experience in the Pine Barrens is something raw and striped down yet a Wawa convivence store might be only a couple miles away, or even 50 miles away. The dichotomy of extreme opposites that coexist is what the Pine Barrens are all about. And that to me is really what makes New Jersey and the Pine Barrens perfect opposites that match perfectly. New Jersey is seen as the densest state in terms of people per square mile. It is a state that is an amalgamation of strip malls, busy roads and highways, residential areas, pockets of woods, farms, and just about everything else in-between.
In arguably one of the busiest and most industrialized/suburbanized states in the country, down South is a forest 1.1 million acres wide and where in the hustle and bustle of New Jersey traffic, you can unplug completely from everything and feel as if you are somewhere hundreds of miles away from civilization.
Now that you got a nice synopsis of the scene, how about the run. So I was chosen to represent the USA in the IAU 6 Hour Solidarity Run. This designation was my first at being chosen to represent the USA in a sanctioned ultra running National team event. Of course with the Coronavirus, I was hoping for a Fall that would have granted me travel to the Netherlands for the World 100k Championships or Jordan for the World 50k Championships which both events as well as qualifying events ended up being thrown out and canceled. It sucked but this opportunity would be my Netherlands/Jordan and I would be ALL IN! Myself along with 12 athletes: 6 Men and 6 Women would be representing the USA as 144 athletes representing 34 countries from around the world would join in on this run.
I chose the Pine Barrens as with the help from my Rockstar wife, it just felt cool and with tons of gently rolling dirt and paved roads, with little to really NO crowds of people and bike/car traffic, this would be the place to run fast. With three weeks of race-specific training under me, it was time to GO FOR IT!
From Hurricane Laura, the weather forecast was not looking good. We figured it would rain but what we ended up with was far from what we expected. It was an overcast and muggy morning but donned in all of my USA gear, I was ready to go give my best effort. I was shooting for a 50 mile PR: something under 5:41 an hoping I could run in the 5:30’s. My feelings of 6:36 per mile pace was what I felt was an excellent goal pace and in training felt right what I could do.
By 8:34am, I was off. With my new 361 Pacer St shoes with the propulsion plate, the shoe really gave me a nice pop in my step. I quickly started averaging 6:20 miles and as I hit the dirt road section, I kept that pace. Everything felt smooth and relaxed and nothing was bothering me. It was very humid, but I have been in those type of conditions before. I pushed on. It was by the back-side of the 11 mile loop where I started to notice little burns and pricks on my next and arms. I looked back and soon was engulfed in a swarm of nasty bugs, which turned out to be vicious horse flies. Each bite, I felt the burn as if a lit match was being thrusted into my skin. I picked up my pace to try and drop the swarm but that did nothing.
I called my wife to get me more bug spray as I knew that if I had to endure 4 more laps of this that I would not survive from the onslaught of bugs. As I weaved my way through the pine forest over the bogs and into the main road, the weather started to turn. First it was a few rain drops but by the main road about a mile from the Camp parking lot, the heavens opened up with a vengeance. I was running in the middle of a tropical storm and the rain came down with the force and ferocity of a raging waterfall. I tried calling Ashlee to let her know I was going to change my route as I headed to the camp. I saw my father there, refueled and headed back out. It it wasn’t the bugs, it was the non-relenting rain. I hit the dirt road and the small trail section to only find myself in waist deep water. I guess that was not going to be the right way to go. I turned back. I then decided to run out and backs on the main paved road hoping that this would lend itself to better footing.
By mile 25, I had kept up a nice average pace ahead of my target of 5:30 for 50 miles. It was at this point though that I hit my mental wall. Physically, I was strong and facing the conditions just fine. It was my mental side that felt completely defeated knowing I was just half-way. I started to slow to 7 minute miles then closer to 8 minute miles and then came the walking. I felt completely spent. I made it back to the car at the main camp and took some time to refuel and have a little pitty party.
I knew that I could not just quit. The US team depended on me and all of those rooting on, I knew that I had to just push through and at least see this thing out. My goal of 50+ miles in 6 hours now went out the window. The next 6 miles felt like an eternity as I made it to 50k. I know had a new goal. Could I make it to 40 miles? I had 1 hour and 45 minutes to do it. I slowly carried on this side road as my father shared some miles with me. I was now crawling at 10 minute mile pace.
It was a mile or two down the way when something clicked. I soon went from running 10 minutes now down to 9, then 8 then back to 7:20. I had a burst of energy and was newly motivated. This is the beauty of an ultra is that you can always find ways to keep pushing even after you feel you are at your limit.
Did I mention that after the 2 hours of torrential rain stopped, the bugs came back out! I just felt like I couldn’t win. I had made it to 40 miles, then walked the last two to come right near 42 miles for the event. It was far from my best showing, but thanks to you out there, you helped give me the motivation to keep pushing on.
My crew was incredible and really helped make sure I was able to get through this. Thank you Ashlee and to my Father.
Team USA did a great job and many of our athletes also endured their own personal obstacles in their own runs.
The IAU Solidarity run was one of the biggest events of the entire year. It brought us together in such challenging times from all over the world to share in the common passion of ultrarunning. It was such an honor to represent the US and I look forward to the opportunity to doing this some more in the future.
When we arrived home, my back was stiff as a board and sore from all of the bites. We counted 68 bites on me. The lesson, Is be careful out in those Pine Barrens, otherwise, those bugs will get you!
I learned a ton of lessons: some days- Mother Nature wins but given the circumstances, I never gave up. I kept plugging away even after I felt fully mentally and physically drained. That’s the resiliency I have been working on cultivating and harnessing in my running career. If you can be strong through all conditions and persevere, you can do anything.