Watchung Marathon in retrospect

I took a challenge from my good friend Tan to train for a Marathon in the woods in the winter of 2014. The race took place in Watchung Reservation in north New Jersey, a short drive from Manhattan and we were determined tackle this challenge with our training schedule planned out 3 months in advance to prepare for the race in the beginning of 2014.

It was not my first marathon, nor would it be my last, yet it has proven to be the most challenging physical activity that I have ever undertaken until today. Now that I’m about to run another marathon in another country in another continent, I just want to reflect my thoughts on this race and the memories I had running it.

We did not have the best preparations for the race. While we knew it would be on rugged trails, we spent most of our training for it on the smooth asphalt of Manhattan, naively expecting that it would be slightly similar. It would have been indeed quite similar had the Providence of Mother Nature been on our side. Unfortunately, it was the opposite. Unprepared for the unexpected inclement weather, both of us were thrown into a mental crisis as soon as we set foot on the ground right before the race.

The race was on a Sunday, but earlier that week, there had been a huge snowstorm that lasted for 2 days and stopped just 2 days before. Being my overly confident and ignorant self, I wasn’t concerned a bit. I’d been so used to running races in Central Parks, where crews would clear out the snow for runners, and presumed that the same thing would happen with Watchung. Not until we arrived there did I realize that Watchung was no Central Park. It was indeed a forest with thickets, ravines and trails for hikers to explore and on which the race would take place. Very little snow clearance was done, and race organizers tried their best to mark the trail for runners. Worse was that at some part of the trail, the snow froze into some icy and slippery form, presenting invisible traps that can twist one’s ankle or throw one off balance. The path was treacherous.

Our gears for the race were normal running shoes and we were quite shock to find out everyone else was wearing water-resistant running boot. To prepare for hydration, I brought my Camel-pak pack with a plastic tube with about 2 litters of water. That hydration pack soon became useless as the water quickly froze inside the plastic tube, preventing any flow of fluid, making the pack a deadweight to carry. The temperature was 13 degree Fahrenheit. The other veteran runners, not surprisingly, were just minimally equipped with just the right gears for the race — water resistant snow boot, something to cover their ears and some even had goggles. How handicapped were we to start.

The 26.2 mile route was comprised of 4 loops around a trail in the reservation and a small loop outside at the parking lot. The reservation was beautiful even during the coldest weather. It was like a winter wonderland with frozen streams of water, a picturesque tranquil lake along the trail, and a perfect blue sky. As we started entering the woods, we soon found out that the snow were very deep and started to get into our feet. Soon, we were running in soaked socks just 5km into the race. Our pace were largely compromised by the slippery surface and the friction of snow. The more we ran, the surface became more and more hazardous as many other runners trampled upon the snow, creating puddles of icy water, taking a toll on our physical and mental reserve.

After the first lap, I became so dejected and started to get cramped. It was as though I had run 30km instead of merely 10km, the thought of quitting vigorously circled in my head. We got back to our car and unloaded the deadweight that we no longer needed, took our socks out and tried to squeeze out as much water as possible. We decided to try the lap the second time hoping that with less weight, our journey would have been more bearable.

Entering the reservation again for the second loop somehow felt like entering terra incognita as we knew the surface and the condition of the course were changing. We remained out of rhythm and were getting more and more exhausted. Just as we desperately in need of a miracle, something spectacular happened. A group of runners were running past us as we were half running and walking, leading the group was a female runner, young, energetic and just like that, she floated through the snowy surface. Her movements were impeccable, effortless and it seemed like she was gliding through the surface. I never saw her face, just her back with her hair glittering under the sunlight. She was like an angel appearing to save our day as she and her group immediately gave a jolt of energy to our despondent spirit. She was our Beacon of Hope, giving us an ember of belief that might have been extinguished otherwise. What I saw in her was the rhythm as she was not merely running, but dancing in the snowy trail. If this fair lady could do this, we were convinced we could, too. With our efforts, we tried to keep a distance not to let her out of sight. At first it was difficult to catch up with her but we managed as we tried to mimic her smooth movements. Gradually but surely, we found our own rhythm of running on the snowy surface, making it more and more natural as we slowly advanced forward, moving our minds away from the worry of tripping and falling to the enjoyment of the winter scenery.

Before we knew it, we passed our Beacon of Hope as we kept moving forward to our next loop in the reservation. We took some bathroom and water break and was intentionally slowing ourselves down, hoping that the lady would catch up with us somehow. To my chagrin, she never did and we would never know why. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad about not being able to see her again, and how she looked like would remain a mystery forever. What could have happened to her, I asked my self. Maybe she was just doing the half-marathon distance, or maybe she got exhausted and dropped out, or maybe she was indeed sent from heaven just to give us a little encouragement during our most testing time. Now we were on our own, we had to rely on each other to carry on our mission. We move slowly, try to keep a running posture instead of walking.

The rest of the race happened relatively smoothly although towards the end I had a small injury. It was the most physical and exhausting marathon I ever did as I finished just below the 7 hour mark and Tan a few minutes after.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” We were lucky that we did not fail to finish the race. After the race, we were filled with jubilation and gratification. It was one of the most memorable memories I ever had.

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