Running across New Jersey was an experience that has changed my life forever. It was a moment where everything I had been working towards my entire athletic life, culminated at this distinct “Turning Point”.
The Points in the Past:
Growing up, I was that kid that could just never get tired and always had the speed and endurance while playing other sports. It was until the 6th grade mile run in gym class where the teacher, who also was the High School Cross Country Coach suggested I join the Cross-country team. I thought cross-country was navigating with a compass and a map in a field and the first person to make it back was the winner. Of course I know now that what I was describing is called Orienteering. Running in middle-school changed me. It was at that point that I knew I could be a runner and soon fell in love with the sport. My high school coaches Wilfredo Rivera and Adam Nalven (also my middle-school coach) helped cultivate my fitness and really fostered my love for the sport. It was throughout this time where I had the fire burning, as I was always told that I was really good, but not good enough. I was not All-state in Cross-Country or track. I had talent, but had yet to come into my own. I then moved out to Oklahoma and walked-on to the Cross-Country and track teams at the University of Oklahoma. It was here that I learned to be a grinder and being lucky to just be on a Division 1 program made me even hungrier to find my place. I gravitated towards the longer distances: 5k-10k but also wanted to go further. After college, I entered the world of trail/mountain running and marathons. My debut ultra marathon came at the White Rock 50k where I set a course record during that run in 3:53:55. A couple months later, I ran the Oklahoma City marathon and placed 2nd in my debut running 2:36:25. As I moved back East for graduate school, I took on snowshoe running, the US mountain running scene at races such as Loon Mountain, Cranmore, and the famous Mt. Washington Road Race. What I learned was that the longer the distance went, the stronger I could be.
The Idea is Conceived:
Imagine spending a winter’s day browsing on the internet. This time of year is perfect for building out your race calendar. I had big aspirations of running a US 50k and/or 100k time that would qualify me to represent the US at the World Championships in the Fall, a major goal of mine the past 8 years. Being back home in NJ, I wondered, had anyone ever ran across the whole state of NJ? I hit the Google search and did not find much of anything. But what I did find changed me. I saw a documentary called “Running the NJ 184” and let’s just say the rest is history. What I saw was three runners make the trek from the High Point State Park Monument, the highest point in NJ and run all the way down to the Cape May Point Lighthouse, the most southern point in the state. I was captivated by this idea. And so the seed was planted. Then fast-forward to World Snowshoe Running Championships in Japan which was an incredible experience and our teams did very well: Women’s Team Gold and Men we won the Silver. I ran the Caumsett 50k on a whim and ran hard but faltered due to the blustery conditions and finished 5th place. The season was just getting going. Or so we thought. Covid-19 hit and everything shut down. What followed was a year of self-reflection and finding a new way to use my running for good. I ran the whole D&R canal towpath (71 miles) near my home in NJ to set a record and raise funds for NJ Covid relief. This was a new start for me. With work being busier than ever and races canceled, I targeted January 9th ,2021 as my chance to go for this run across NJ. My training for the remainder of the year was all preparation for this long run. If I could be trained to run a fast 100 miler, I felt that would translate well for 200 miles.
*My goal for this run was to average 10-11 minute miles for the first half-putting me around 16-18 hours for 100 miles. My hope would be that I could split another similar split for the second half, with some sleep and hopefully would be around 40 hours.
*I would consume 300-400 calories an hour with a combination of all of my favorite foods- Tailwind, Black Forest Gummy Bears, Avocados, Olives, Pizza, and Boom Gels. This challenge would be to eat lots of food to make sure I stay strong and am not depleted.
*My goal was to nap somewhere past the halfway point through the night stretch of 206 heading to Hammonton. Maybe a 30 minute nap. From there, I was hoping I could nap in 15 minute intervals to get a little boost needed.
- I wore 2 pairs of shoes: The 361 degrees Spire 4 and then would switch to the 361 degrees Fantom. The idea here was to switch shoes halfway to keep my body feeling fresh and also giving myself a mental boost. The Spire is a max cushioned shoe that is great at keeping my body fresh and protected. The Fantom is my favorite 361 degree shoe and is one that I use for fast 50 mile to 100 mile road ultra events. As I would fatigue, my hope was that the Fantom would give me the pep needed to finish strong.
- For pacing, 12 minutes and 30 seconds a mile was the goal pace. Anything faster than that was one split faster to going under 40 hours. If I had to walk, I wanted to walk fast– 15 minute mile pace and under as this would allow recovery but also keep my splits closer to the goal pace.
- Look for inspiration. Running 200 miles takes a lot of mental strength and when you are mentally energized and focused, you can push through the physical pain.
Get to the Point: The Run
Getting this run started was not easy. My training was solid and I felt prepared to push well beyond what I had ever gone before. The furthest I had ever ran was 86 miles at the Pine Creek Challenge 100 miler. I started a fundraiser through Custom Ink to sell some beanies and raise funds for the Road Runners Club of America. As this run across NJ would mostly be a road run, I wanted to support a running organization that went beyond just New Jersey and I loved what they do for kids with the “Kids Run the Nation” Program. I had incredible support from friends, family, and the membership at Roxiticus Golf Club where I worked. I had sold over 50 beanies and raised close to $3,000 dollars.
The week leading up to the run, I created a new Gofundme for those that did not get a beanie but wanted to donate. Little did I know that the NJ media would start to latch on. I did my first initial interviews and then like a snowball rolling down the hill, things became Bigger, and BIGGER as the week went along. Wednesday of that week, we drove the course to make sure we had driving directions and got the course set. Come Friday, the first articles came out. The Nj.com article generated a ton of buzz- so much so that I had sooo many people reaching out. I was not ready for this amount of attention and honestly, I was a nervous wreck. I have to say my Wife, Ashlee, was the real strong constant in all of this and took on so much of the media and attention and outside stresses so that I could just run. The course was set, the tracker set, food and supplies ready; the run was going to happen.
The hotel we stayed at had a lighthouse outside of it and I knew it was a sign. I was going to get myself to that Cape May Lighthouse. I could not sleep the night before. My heart just kept thumping in my chest the whole night. My alarm went off at 1am, and I knew it was go time. With only maybe a few hours of real sleep, I had no idea what would happen. It was a cold night. Temperatures were in the 20’s with windchill up top at the park which made things feel as if they were in the single digits. It was COLD!
When we made it to the park entrance to be greeted by a really nice couple and Tom Eickelberg, who was a buddy of mine from grad school at Suny Cortland. It was awesome to have this support so early in the morning. That helped to get me fired up. The unfortunate part of this whole thing was that we had a security guard that said I could not start right at the monument as the park was closed and if I went through, I would be given a citation for trespassing and even jailed. That was something I wanted to avoid. So I did not get to touch the monument up at High Point to start the run. But I was pretty darn close. With that technicality in play, I did not want this thing to be derailed just because I am .5 miles away from touching a monument. So we started where we could. It was so cold, I could not feel my hands and had lost my phone. I needed the phone as it had my directions and tracking. I was able to find it and rushed to get going. At 1:58am, I was off heading down the peak. With the monument in my rear-view, I worked my way down to Colesville and onto the back-country roads of Northern NJ. The stars in the sky was beautiful, with the moon in the distance. The first 5 miles, I focused on staying relaxed and trying to warm up my hands as even with mitts, did not have much feeling in them yet. To start a 200 mile run is something pretty wild. It is a long way and my first main goal was make it to Princeton and Mercer County Park as both were close to the 100 mile marker and the half-way point. I then get a text from Ashlee. She tells me that there is a group of people ahead that are going to run some miles with me. After feeling my legs tighten from the long downhills, I was nervous that I was pushing too hard. Like clockwork, I started splitting 10-12 minute miles. My goal would be to come into halfway around 16-18 hours hopefully knowing this would give me some time to sleep and rest to average a finish time around 40 hours.
As I followed my turn-by turn directions on my phone, I saw a bunch of lights and car horns up ahead. It was the group my wife was talking about. With a wild roar of cheering and disco ball of light, I was then joined by three runners as we made our way through the darkness. It was amazing sharing those miles- and they even took me out along the Berry road bridge that was out but showed me a way to detour and take a short cut. It was truly a moment that set the tone for the whole run. In doing this, I wanted to inspire others and bring some pride and attention to NJ runners, and in doing so, find a way to unite us responsibly-even at a distance. After about 8 miles with my new friends, I was back to running solo. I felt pumped and excited to do this.
I worked my way now through the farm roads leading to route 206. Just so you know, 206 is a main two lane road on two sides that runs down the length of the state. It can be a busy road at times, but the shoulder of it in many sections can be generous enough to be out of the way of cars. I crossed over the main road, passed the Sussex fairgrounds and jumped onto 206 heading towards Newton. This is the part where it is easy to dwell on what is ahead. I just lived in the moment. I had a long way to go and no business worrying about the future. I had to just be present in the present. And so I pushed along to Newton. Once there, it was a nice major check point to get some more fuel: Tailwind, Black Forest Gummy Bears and some Boom gels. So far, I was taking in my 300-400 calories an hour with a combination of gels, bars, bananas, and Tailwind. After running through the adorable town of Newton, I made my way to the Sussex Branch Trail. During my recon, I did not get to run this section. It looked like a type of rail trail, so I thought I would be good. What I found out as I got into there was that the footing was much harder than expected. It was a hard dirt path that had ice all over it and each step through the 8 mile section was a challenge. Not having the chance to run this section yet, was a new challenge. It was here between 6-7:30 am I hit a bathroom break and then weaved my way through the trail. Once I made it to the end, the directions said for me to turn right. I was on top of a bridge and could not do so. I looked down and saw my Wife as I worked my way down an embankment and bushed-wacked down. We connected and I took some time to re-fuel. I was feeling a little woozy through the Sussex trail section as I could tell the sodium of the Tailwind was bothering my system. With come water now in me, I quickly regained my focus. Dealing with the salt levels in my body would be a challenge I would wrestle with for the whole run.
I continued along 206 some more as the morning sun was coming up. It was going to be a very nice winter day with sunshine at temps near 35 degrees and a slight breeze. The next challenging section was running under Interstate 80 by Netcong. As I whizzed my way through the opposite side of the road, I hit some more big hills leading down along 206 as I now would make my way through Flanders. It was here that I was feeling strong and having a great time. I challenged all the hills really well and was excited to see some of my Roxiticus team as I made it to Chester. I was lucky to run with an awesome guy that was a big engineer and lived in the area. We shared some miles up the hills until just before Chester. It was at Chester that I saw CJ in his truck (He is the Director of Instruction at Roxticus) and as I turned into downtown, I saw Kim and his girlfriend and their dogs: Barkley and Pepper. That gave me a boost as I pushed some fast 7 ish minute miles as I crossed the road and headed towards the gravel roads of Mendham Horse farm country.
This section was one of my top favorites. Just the peace and quiet of the area, being in a nice canopy of trees. It was where I would go after work and just have a moment to myself, as I would log some miles to clear the mind before heading back home. I love the big farms and the mansions that hide out here away from the hustle and bustle of things. It is here where a part of the Patriot’s Path crosses through-which I would love to run the whole thing one day. It was here that I kept a nice solid pace. I was out minding my own when a runner comes my way. He says “Cole” and I respond “Yes?” It turns out it was no other than Ryan Thorpe. I know Ryan from much of the same running circles but never had the real chance to get to spend some time with him. It was awesome to get to get to know one another. We bounced along the trail just talking everything ultra running. For me, it was a major mental boost. We carried along through the farm roads of Bedminster up through Branchburg and then across 202 into Hillsborough. Ryan in my eyes is a real rock-hopper. He is that runner that looks for the gnarliest terrain out there: rocks, roots, steep inclines and descents. It was maybe 17 miles together at a narrow bridge where Ryan headed back. 8 miles prior, I started to feel a little light-headed but did not think anything of it. As I was on the farm roads on my own I looked down at my leg and saw my right ankle to be swelling up like a beach ball. I noticed the cuff of my running tight has compressed the spot right where my compression sleeve met- in turn cutting off the circulation to my right foot. I immediately stopped to open up the zipper and adjust my calf sleeve. As soon as I did this, all of the held blood began to rush to through my body. It was a very surreal feeling. I yelled out to my father and my wife to let them know that this could had been a game-ender to my run if this was not caught. That is what ultras beyond 100 miles are like. Any little slip-up and the run is over. This next section really took it out of me. At almost 80 miles in, the shoulder of the road went away and more and more cars started to be out on the roads. I had to constantly jump off of the road into a ditch and then hop back on. It was until the Sourland Mountain park where my father took his car and stayed behind me with flashers going which allowed me to run on the road without having to maneuver. This was a decision that proved to be critical.
Going Beyond-The Point of No Return
As I worked my way through the back-side of Hillsborough and Montgomery- I started to feel that pull. This was a section I had run countless times. These were my home training grounds. As I hit the climb up by the Montgomery High School, I was joined by Anthony Russo- star runner from the “Running the NJ 184” documentary. He would be sharing some miles with me through Princeton, NJ. And in that stretch, I was able to see my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Glenn which I had not seen since before the pandemic started. I had a moment to talk with them and give them an embrace. I had two other women that joined up as we hit the section through the back-side of Princeton. I was also cheered on by my cousins: Andrew, Emma, Caroline, John and Elizabeth. They were going to then grab me some pizza for when I would make it to Mercer County Park- one of my major stops in the run.
Running with Anthony through this section was awesome. As the sun started to set we had all types of great conversations going as we made our way to the infamous Quaker Bridge Road Overpass. It was a surreal moment running on the roads, I have frequented my whole entire life, knowing that at this moment, I was running them to complete a near 200 mile journey across the state. It was during these moments, that I hit my first “REAL LOW”. I knew I had to just make it to Mercer County park, and I would be greeted by some of my closest friends and family and could be a place where I could do a nice reset near the half-way mark before setting out for the second half. As we hit the D&R canal towpath and then onto Quaker Bridge road, things got real. This section I would classify as the “Kamikaze section” of the run. This was the real section that was not the wisest idea to run through especially when I did at 5:30-6pm. We had to be smart here as there is 3 lanes on either side of speeding cars. But we did have a wide median in the middle that could allow us to maneuver across and then onto the sidewalk by the Quaker Bridge Mall. As we crossed the median onto the sidewalk, I put in a strong surge and kept moving at 7-8 minute mile pace. As I could feel my body really start to feel depleted, I pushed harder. The next section by a Costco had an even smaller bridge. It was here we had my father and my wife drive in front and behind us with the flashers going so that we could cross this bridge. The execution of this was really flawless. Now it was just 2.5 more miles to Mercer County Park.
The “Half-way Point”-Mercer County Park–
As I run into Mercer County Park, it was like a huge party. It was so awesome to see all of the people that came out to cheer and be a part of this experience with me. We even had some news reporters out there. My cousins came through in the clutch with yummy pizza and I stuffed my face and took a nice 20+ minute break. This was a point for me knowing the big hills were in the past and now it would be even more runnable to the finish. It was awesome to see everyone and it really gave me a new boost. As I headed out past Mercer County park, I had a group of runners with the “Uptown Gentlefriends” take me all the way to Bordentown and soon beyond it towards Hammonton. Every step I would be taking now was beyond 100 miles. I was now in that realm of space exploration for myself, my body, and what my limits could be.
It was on this stretch, I was able to get into a nice rhythm and be led to Route 206 in Bordentown, where I would run 33 miles straight on this desolate stretch to the Pine Barrens Town of Hammonton. As I went past the High School and then to the “Block Party” that was the Bordentown Aid station. It was amazing. Turn a bank parking lot into a celebration of running in NJ! I was blown away. It was here I refueled some more and got worked on with my feet and legs as things were really tight. Thank you to Keilynn for taking care of my feet, which I had two blisters on my big toes but they never bothered me. She bandaged me up and man it really made a world of a difference.
This was where I felt like I needed rest. It was around 9pm by this point and I took 1 whole hour as a stop and slept about 30 minutes. It is wild how your body just shuts down in this state of fatigue to rest. As I would close my eyes, it felt as if time asleep felt like an eternity.
The Long Point–206 to Hammonton
It is now 10pm and we head out along the barren 33 mile stretch of Route 206. It is here I make a shoe change to my favorite Fantom from 361 degrees which gives me some pep in my step as I start to hit 9 minute miles. What makes this stretch so profound is that this is normally a busy road, but with running on it throughout the night, it was quiet and kind of spooky even. An urban wasteland segmented by when the next Wawa would be. It was at this point, the wind picked up and the temperature dipped into the high 20’s. Mentally, I knew this would be my biggest challenge to survive the night. I still had crew help from some of the Uptown Gentlefriends and others that came during the stretch. We even had the state police checking on us to make sure we are okay.
Mind you, when you run 200 miles, you body processes food like warp-speed. I felt that after every aid station stop, I had to go “Number 2”. I was ready to freshen up and so came me bouncing around Wawas at 1 in the morning looking to use a bathroom to change my bottoms. All of the 4 I went to told me the restrooms were closed- which maybe they thought I was some smelly deranged runner, that was just running across the whole state of NJ? Who knows. After wasting about 10 minutes per Wawa and about 40 minutes in total trying to use a restroom, I ended up just changing in our car. I put on some Janji Mercury joggers and the silky smooth fabric was exactly what I needed. I continued to slog down the road. The physical and mental fatigue and sleep deprivation was taking over. I started losing depth perception and by around 3am, I took another nap. This one for about 40 minutes.
The Really Tough Point
After getting that 40 minutes of sleep, I felt much better but still my body was exhausted from the lack of sleep the day before and the minimal amount of sleep in that now 26 hour period. My pace had slowed and I had another bathroom stop behind some evergreens. I wrestled with the challenge of the task at hand. I knew though, that I would be better than my circumstances and come out of this on top. I asked for Ashlee to drive back to me with some baby wipes to clean myself up and then, I did it.
I asked for the trekking poles. Yup, I did it. I was not running through any technical trails, rocks, or uphill climbs; just asphalt as dark as the night. I used them to keep my pace around that 12-14 minute mile range and at times I would slip to 15. I thought to myself that if I could keep my “walking pace” to 15 minute miles, that once the sun would come up, I could regain some more fuel and strength to push that pace down. My face was wind-chapped and this to me was my arctic expedition of survival. The click and the clack of my trekking poles was enough to keep me awake and focused. I kept plugging away. 8 miles later, I was met by Patrick who was a part of the Pineland Striders and man was it great to have some company. The only thing was that I was moving slow. He was a fan of the apparel company: Janji which I am too and we talked all about the brand and some of our running adventures. Patrick was also one of those trail angels that kept me moving forward and motivated.
As the sun was prime to come up in about an hour and 30 minutes, the desolate open farmland and road now changed scenery into deep dark pines and cranberry bogs. I was entering the Pine Barrens. For those of you that do not know what the Pine Barrens are, look it up as it is one of the true natural wonders of New Jersey. The short explanation of the Pine Barrens is that it is about 1 Million acres of Pine forests, sandy acidic soil, dirt roads, and cranberry bogs. It is a creepy but also majestic place. And it is VAST!
New Points Ahead: The Dawn of a New Day
As we had almost made it to Hammonton, Patrick challenged me to run as fast as I could across the sections of bog that made the temperature drop 5-10 degrees. I grunted in sheer pain and exhaustion through these stretches, but soon started picking it up until I was running 7-8 minute mile pace again. It was a point to me that shown that after 140 miles of this, I could still keep going fast. I grinded and gritted my teeth as the sun had just started to come up and we had finally made it to Hammonton.
That feeling of personal triumph was incredible. I had pushed myself through a desolate and nasty stretch through a very cold night and made it to the “Gateway of the Pine Barrens”. After a refuel and reuniting with Ashlee, we were off.