“Somewhere around the year 1730, in a small pine barrens settlement, there lived an immigrant Englishwoman Debra Leeds. She was poor and her life was hard as she had to take care of her husband and 12 children. When she found out that she was pregnant with her 13th child she exclaimed “I hope it be a Devil!”… She got her wish and gave birth to a child with wings, hooves and horns. She hid him in the attic and took care of him, but when she died, the creature flew off into the desolate pine barrens, where it still dwells, even to this day.”
– The Legend of The Jersey Devil
The Batona Trail is a ~53-mile long point to point trail that runs mostly through the pinelands of Wharton State Forest in South New Jersey. Although the area is sometimes called Pine Barrens, it is anything but barren. The place is home to a varied lush vegetation that make the woods light up in gregarious rich color come late October. There are many large and small lakes, cranberry marshes, ponds, streams and a few rivers navigable on kayaks or boats. You can find a typical assortment of birds and animals common to the East Coast forests and some that are only found here. The NJ Pine Barrens actually happen to be the largest wooded territory on the Atlantic seaboard between Boston and Richmond. To protect many unique features of this land, in 1978 it was designated a National Reserve.
The woods are crisscrossed by innumerable dirt roads that let visitors explore the area with ease. These same paths have become a point of contention due to soil erosion caused by ever increasing motor bike, ATV and off-road truck traffic. There are currently plans to limit motorized traffic in the park, though they have met with opposition and the issue will take some time to decide.
Some of these dirt roads, as well as a lot of singletrack, make up the Batona (which stands for Back to Nature) trail. I first found out about this trail from Angie, who organizes the excellent low key Batona 50 running event. It had not occurred to me right away that I’d want to run the entire length of the trail, but, at some point, I thought that it would be fun not just to run it point to point, but actually out-and-back. And then, this summer, this idea turned from a random thought into a decision to make the Batona out-and-back my first 100 miler.
There are as many ways to enjoy the trails as there are trails themselves, but, for me personally, a 100 mile trail run seemed like a rite of passage into the realm of true ultras. Two fat zeros following a 1, there’s something non-negotiable about this mileage. Throw in some mountains into the mix and you have one of those rare kinds of accomplishments that stand on their own and require no explanations. So I still have ways to go to reach that goal, and I’m trying to get there incrementally. My goal for Batona was to stay up on my feet for 24 hours or however long it would take me to cover those 100 some miles. Once I knew that I could do that, I’d be more comfortable tackling a 100 miler with significant elevation. So Batona was really a training run. My target run is 2016 Bighorn 100. My name is on the registrants list in fat bold letters.
By means of prep work for Batona I ran a random assortment of 50Ks through the summer and fall, finished my first 100K, broke my hands on a trail run which forced me to take an unexpected taper in the middle of training, ran an ill-advised (self-inflicted) strenuous sky run while recovering from the 100K and called it good enough. This is no way to train for a serious 100 with elevation and I will not follow the same regiment when my training for Bighorn starts next spring.
I set the date for the Batona run on Halloween, October 31. I would start at 3PM, get some miles in before it gets dark, run through the night and finish before the second sunset. Since it was Halloween and we’re talking the creepiest place in NJ, I invited my trail running peeps to come to the Pine Barrens and try to spot the Jersey Devil and maybe pace me a few miles in the process. I had the help of the mobile support unit manned by Angie and Paul from the minute I got to the starting trailhead to the moment I finally saw it again some 27 hours later.
I ran the first 30 miles on my own, seeing my crew every 10 miles or so. From the 16 hours that it took me to finish my 100K earlier in August, I knew what food would work for me and so I ate Paul’s crispy bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches like they were going out of style. I carried Tailwind in my bladder and drank mostly Coke at the aid stations. Around the turnaround (mile ~ 53) grilled cheese somehow became un-appealing and I turned to an assortment of canned chicken soups (and more bacon). I also ate a little over half a dozen fried eggs, also on the second part of the run. I had to take one salt-cap with 20 miles to go. That’s what worked for me, it kept my feet moving and my mind positive and I’m only dwelling on the food because it was the absolute second most important part to me being able to finish this run.
The first most important part was The Crew and Pacers. I cannot overstate how important it became for me to have someone on the trail with me beginning at mile 35 or so. Some aches and pains started to set in around that time and, had I been on my own, the temptation to walk for long stretches would have made any reasonable finish time impossible. But between miles 32 and 44 I had Gene, and then for some 10 miles Angela and Heather (aka Bumble Bee) ran along; then, a few short miles later which I did on my own, Angie paced me for another 12 miles, then Paul for 5, then Matt for 21 (with Tiffany joining for the last 9 miles of that stretch) and then Paul again for 10. Finally, with 1.5 miles to go, Angie went out to meet up with me from the trailhead and we ran it in like bats out hell for I was very much ready to get this thing over with.
I very much credit my running to everyone who spent the time on the trail with me that weekend. My GPS recorded the run as 103.2 miles long which I covered in 27 hours and 2 minutes. There were roughly 1,800 feet of elevation gain; the elevation profile recording is rather noisy so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this number; i can tell you it was flat. The mapping feature of the my Sunto Ambit 2 failed for some reason after 51.15 miles with about a mile or so to go to the northern trailhead at Ong’s hat. I kept charging the GPS at every stop so that I could record the entire run, so I am not sure why this failure happened. Regardless, the GPS continued recording the pace and distance afterwards, to the end of the run. A previous GPS recording of the Batona trail put the total one way distance at 53 miles. I suspect the total out-and-back is closer to 106 miles.
THE ESSENCE OF TRAIL RUNNING
There are so many instances where our success is predicated on the subjective and shifting concepts of what is important and expedient. So, what I love about trails is the absolute lack of that conceit and vanity. A trail is as long and technical on a Monday as it is on a Tuesday, unless it snows or rains, but again, there’s no artifice in the physicality of the trail – it always presents itself exactly as it is. If you trip on a trail, it is not because the trail tripped you, the trail never has a beef with you or anyone; even when I get hurt on a trail, I can’t get mad at the trail. The trail is equally challenging to you or anyone else, whatever your limitations may be; the trail is an equalizer – everyone has to put in the same training to conquer it. The trail does not listen to pleas, nor plays favorites, you either run it or not. This sort of primitive egalitarianism appeal to me and that is one of the reasons why I run trails.
Because there’s no fooling the trail, you don’t have to put on a face to run it. You come at it as you are. So often we have to assume a particular role in our lives to ensure material success that we lose the knowledge of our real selves. The trail, in a way, lets you have that again. The only thing that matters is how much you want to run that trail.
What is true of trails in general is probably more so of longer trails. The contrast between artificial and real is more pronounced and the completion of a longer trail yields greater emotional rewards. That is my neophyte take from training for and running a single 100 miler, I wonder what I’ll think some time down the road 🙂
Along Batona Trail we spotted some deer, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, quail, egret, turkeys and some hikers. We did not see the Jersey Devil. The real devil that I expected to see was one who would tell me to quit for any number of reasons a devil may come up with to rationalize stopping a run that your training and support has fully enabled you to complete. So when Matt asked me if I could see the finish line with 20 miles to go, and when Paul asked me if I saw it with 10 miles to go, my answer in both cases was “no”, I just could not relax and imagine the finish before I had put in the actual work to get to that trailhead. So at the end, the real devil never showed up either; there were some scary moments involving cramps and nausea, but a few sips of tailwind and a salt-cap kept me plodding along.
By the way, let me pat myself on the back and mention that, to my knowledge, this is the only attempt at completing the Batona trail out-and-back in one go. Which means I get the FKT. (My friend Mike Daiugeaun holds the lightning-fast FKT for the point to point 53 mile Batona run at 7:18:24 on a brisk January day a couple of years ago). Considering the relative snail pace at which I ran the out-and-back, the FKT should not stand long, but then again, who knew that the longest trail in the largest forest between Boston and Richmond would be un-challenged by an ultrarunner for so long 🙂