Meet ultramarathon hometown champ Jason Friedman

Jason Friedman on Trapps Bridge during the Rock The Ridge competition. (Photo by Maryalice Citera)

New Paltz’s own Jason Friedman, 43, won the sixth annual Rock the Ridge ultramarathon race, which took him and 600 other mountain goats through 50 miles of breathtaking carriage roads and trails that began and finished at the Testimonial Gatehouse.

While the idea of running 50 miles over the course of a year might make some people blanch, Friedman and these hundreds of ultramarathoners ran 50 miles, all in one day. In Friedman’s case, he ran 50 consecutive miles without a nap, a break, a massage nor a real meal, in seven hours and one minute, to be exact.

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“I just had a good day,” said Friedman in his humble unassuming way, as he drank a Diet Coke at the Bakery, likely before or after a double-digit-mile training run. “I love that race, those trails. It’s where I do most of my runs, so I knew I would finish top seven, even if I didn’t have a great day. But to finish first? I wasn’t expecting that.”

Not only does Friedman run approximately 100 miles a week, but he’s also an emergency room physician, a husband, father of two beautiful daughters (Alexa and Dylan) and has a fascinating podcast, The Pain Cave, that he devotes to various issues that pertain to ultramarathons. Topics include nutrition, cross-training, the nervous system, sports medicine and interviews with people who run and win races that are 100 miles or longer – often in more grueling topographical settings like deserts or at high altitude.

“I’ve always run competitively,” explained Friedman, who ran track and cross-country in high school on Long Island and then ran at the NCAA Division 1 level at Cornell University in both track and cross-country. “I was never really that fast. So, the longer I went, the more competitive I became.” While Friedman makes this pronouncement about himself, let me just say that he ran the Rock the Ridge 50-mile race in 8:20-minute miles and his fastest road marathon (26.4 miles) was at a 6:20-minute mile pace. “Slow” here, folks, is all relative. 

While in medical school in Philadelphia and in residency there, Friedman began to run road marathons – ten, to be exact. Of course, he had heard of ultramarathons, but in his mind, they were just “long jogs.” “I never thought of them as being competitive. I just thought they were something you completed,” he said.

This changed when he went to the Western States Endurance Run in California to volunteer at one of the aid stations and saw Scott Jurek, American ultramarathoner and New York Times best-selling author of Eat & Run, win the race. “That changed my view of ultramarathoning,” he said. “These runners were fierce athletes. They were incredible to watch.”

Friedman began to train and soon ran a 50K, and then a 50-miler. Thus far in his post-collegiate career he has run close to 45 ultras (defined by any endurance race over the marathon distance). One of these recently included the badass Leadville 100-mile race in an old mining town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado that tops out at 12,700 feet above sea level. This run is infamous for how challenging it is – not only because of its length, but also because the terrain can be treacherous, the altitude is oxygen-thin and there several hours run with a headlamp on in the middle of the night. But Friedman completed it and received the coveted Leadville finisher belt buckle last year with flying colors.

“My longest one was a 24-hour challenge where I ran 123 miles,” he said, making me think that these athletes, a marathon-length distance must seem the equivalent of a Turkey Trot or “fun run.”

Asked how he handles the inevitable mental and physical troughs that must come with the mind and body having to endure the punishment of 30 or 50 or 100 miles of pounding the trails or carriage roads, Friedman said, “You know it’s going to come, so the real trick is to accept it and know that it will pass. Phil [Vondra, a friend and fellow New Paltz ultramarathoner] is great at that. There is at least one point in every race for me where I think that I’m going to have to quit – that I should just stop and give up ultramarathons.”

Those moments, thus far, always pass. “What I try to do is to embrace it and say to myself, ‘What can help me feel better? Am I getting dehydrated? Do I need to eat something? Should I walk for a bit and just keep moving forward and give my legs a break?’ I try and look at it like a problem that I can solve, and that helps me.”

Even in the Rock the Ridge, Friedman said that there was a point when he thought he would not have enough gas in the tank to win it. “I was running scared that last two or three hours, because I can usually get Etan [Levavi, the winner of the race last year and the runner-up to Friedman in this year’s competition] on the uphills, but he destroys me on the downhills. I was most concerned about that ascent up to Castle Point, because at that stage, we’d been climbing for almost 20 miles. But that section was where I felt the best.”

After Castle Point, the race is, for the most part, on a downhill trajectory. “I kept waiting for him to pass me. I was looking behind my shoulder, and I did not think I would win it until that last stretch to the Gatehouse, when there was only a mile to go.” In a 50-mile, seven-hour race, Levavi and Friedman were so well-matched that they only finished 30 seconds apart!

How does he train? According to Friedman, it’s not a question of if he’s going to run each day; it’s just when and where. “I decided a long time ago that this was a part of my life. I don’t ask myself, ‘Am I going to be able to run today?’ I just find a way to do it. I will drop Alexa off at swim and run for an hour, or I’ll run to Dylan’s soccer game or I’ll run at night.”

He says that he often listens to podcasts or music when he’s running. “I like to listen to podcasts about competitive sports – anything sports-related. It’s like running and talking with someone, only it’s a monologue and not a dialogue,” he says with a laugh. But not when he’s racing. Music? Yes, once he has his bearings and has the lay of the ultra-land.

To mix up his training and keep his body in peak condition, Friedman throws in speed work and hill repeats, as well as higher-intensity runs and longer, lower-intensity runs. He noted that the New Paltz area has a large and supportive network of runners at every level. “We have people here that run sub-2:20 marathons,” he said. “We have all levels of runners, and they’ll all run with each other! That’s part of what makes this area so amazing. Everyone is excited for everyone else to achieve their goal or take on a new challenge. It’s great. And the trails? I mean, that’s why we moved here. They’re incredible, and I love being part of a race that supports the Preserve.”

What he loves about training in the Gunks is the hundreds of miles of carriage roads that he can explore or do repeat runs on. “I have my regular routes that are six miles, nine miles, 12 miles; but then, when I go for a long training run, it’s fun to just go and explore.” Asked what his favorite run in the Gunks is, he hesitated, as if he was being asked which child he liked best. “Hamilton Point Trail at Minnewaska,” he conceded. “And any run that includes Skytop,” he quickly added, “because of those views! This is why we moved here.”

Friedman said that it was “pretty cool” to win the big race along his stomping grounds, in his town, surrounded by friends and family and fellow runners. “I have to hand it to [Rock the Ridge race directors] Mark Eisenhandler and John Stern,” he said. “The race was just managed so well. There was great communication between the runners and the race directors. The aid stations were well-staffed; the finish line was very celebratory. And it was cool to feel like an ambassador to my town and the trails that we love. It was nice to see so many people I knew running the race, and to see so many people get to enjoy what we get to enjoy every day!”

Friedman admits that still being competitive is a driving factor in his training. “Will I always run? Probably,” he mused. “But would I continue to put this much into it if I wasn’t competitive anymore? I don’t think so. That’s part of what motivates me. It’s fun to challenge myself and to be pushed by people I respect, and to be beaten by them!” he said with a grin. The winner is as kind and humble and gracious as they come.

If you’re at all interested in running, ultramarathons, nutrition for athletes, biomechanics or what kind of craft beer the ultrarunners are drinking for fuel, tune into Friedman’s podcast The Pain Cave.

Rock the Ridge Raises $1 million for the Mohonk Preserve

Going into its sixth year, New Paltz’s Rock the Ridge endurance race has helped to raise over $1 million for the 8,700-acre Mohonk Preserve. “We grossed over $300,000 this year,” said Mark Eisenhandler, the assistant race director. “I thought the race went incredibly well. It was sold out, with just over 600 people competing.” He noted that this year they were much more fortunate with the weather. “It was cold and did rain a bit, but after last year [when the race had to be canceled due to cold temperatures and heavy rain and wind], we made sure to prepare for less-than-ideal conditions and be sure that we could keep the race safe and running.”

At the finish line, they created a little village with local food and drink vendors like the Main Street Bistro, Arrowwood Farm and the Kettleborough Cider House. “There was one running club [Prospect Park from Brooklyn] that put up a tent at the finish line,” said Eisenhandler. “They were great. They had a bunch of individual runners and some relay teams in the race, and they cheered everyone on and stayed until the last person crossed at 10 p.m.!”

The race has a 24-hour limit, which essentially makes it feasible for your “average” ultramarathoner to give it a go and keep it open to locals who may want to do a four-person relay team or do a section of the race or complete the entire 50-miles at a non-Jay Friedman type of pace. “From the get-go, it was always the goal to have the race be as accessible as an endurance race can be,” said the assistant race director. “It has carriage roads, which are more manageable, and several aid stations to assist people. We also offer relays and a generous time limit.” This isn’t always the case in ultra-world, where there can be very difficult, technical single-track trails, few-to-no aid stations and sometimes a compass, so that racers have to do a little mountain orienteering in the midst of running upwards of 50 miles.

“We created this little funnel for people to come into the finish line through, and then the racers were able to hang out at the finish area and recap their race with friends and other participants, cheer on people. It was great.”

The top three finishers were Jason Friedman, Etan Levavi and Kirk Theofanides. The top female finisher was Jemma Howlett, followed by Holly Chase and Brooke Drumbore. To get the full results, go to www.racetecresults.com/results.aspx?CId=17063&RId=236&EId=1.

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