Monday, September 7, 2009

Wow-pack! A Trail Race Report

Awesome and humbling.

Those are the two words which first came to mind after I finished my first long trail race, the Wapack Trail Race, from New Ipswich, NH to Ashburnham, MA . . . and back. The race involves climbing and descending four small mountains, reaching a turnaround, and then doing it all again. Anyone wishing to behold the stunning views from Mounts Barrett, New Ipswich, Pratt and Watatic must earn his or her way. If trail races were college courses, I skipped the 100 and 200 level courses and went straight for the advanced graduate seminar. A potentially ill-conceived decision that nonetheless turned out well.

So . . . drum roll, please . . . I ran the 17.5-mile 2009 Wapack Trail Race in 3:33 (officially) and 3:28 (on my watch - more on that later). I came in 30th out of about 90 runners, and - most importantly - I did not get hurt. All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable initiation into the sport of distance trail racing.


I woke up just ahead of my alarm, which I'd set for 5:45 am, and went into my usual pre-long race breakfast and prep routine. 2 cups strong French Roast; 2 bowls of Honey-Nut Cheerios; one Greek-style yogurt; one banana; a few glasses of water. Then I mixed my drinks: Accelerade for before the race; Gatorade during. I got dressed, checked and re-checked my gear, watch, sunglasses, etc. The one possible miscalculation on my part was that I wore only a thin long-sleeved tech shirt over my sleeveless RaceReady shirt (bright yellow, so that I would be easily visible if I ended up strewn in a heap on the side of the trail). When I left the house a few minutes after 7:00 am, the car thermometer read 48 degrees. That number would drop to 44 before slowly creeping back up during the drive, but I had not packed gloves or a headband for my ears. I trusted that I'd be fine once I got moving, and that the day's forecast would hold true.

I found the start area with little trouble, though there was the usual minor hitch with the MapQuest directions (which missed one critical turn). A few miles from the race start, I pulled over to let a car pass me and when I saw the vanity plate (a reference to mountain climbing), I knew it was going to the same place. I arrived at about 8:15 to a pretty full parking lot, and milled about with others in the chilly morning air. I took my turn in the outhouse line, picked up my bib and the nice running hat they provided and found my running club mate Chris, with whom I'd planned to run in the early going, until one of us decided to forge ahead or fall back.

In the small parking area, I ran into a notable area ultrarunner, known as Sherpa John, and said hey. He was wearing flame-patterned arm sleeves and matching trail gaiters. I wondered whether I'd regret not having that gear (always thinking about gear, I know). John, Chris and I chatted I shivered slightly in the shade. As the start time neared, I stripped off my long-sleeve shirt, donned the race hat, got my two hand-held bottles all set and joined the others at the start area. I listened closely to the pre-start instructions, in particular the warnings regarding how to avoid getting lost. I wasn't sure I understood what the Race Director said about which forks to take when, and where the trail was most confusing, but I knew that was part of the whole "trail race" experience.


The race starts up what - comparatively speaking - is a relatively manageable dirt fire road, before breaking right and formally entering the Wapack Trail itself. I wanted to start "easy", like a training run, and settle into the rhythm and feeling of the race. I also wanted desperately NOT to burn out too early. As much as I had heard about the difficulty of this course, I was being conservative, perhaps to a fault. Chris simply couldn't start so slow, and left me in the dust by the middle of the first tough climb.

With Chris quickly leaving my sights, I basically let myself fall into the second or third "group" of runners ( I use quotes because we thinned out pretty quickly) and did what the experienced runners did. When they walked, I walked. When they started running again, I did the same. I had no designs on being a hero, no concern for my time, and cared only minimally about my place (I'd hoped to finish in the top half).

The first climb was not runnable, turning into a hard vertical scramble. I has toggled my screen to display my heart rate, and it was surprising to see that my HR reached its highest level during the parts of the race where I was NOT running. As I saw the display reach the mid- to high-170's, I realized that it would have been fatal for me to push any harder at this point.

We were blessed with a spectacular day, cool and crisp with the sun providing a sharp light that enhances the beauty and clarity of an already breathtaking landscape. As we crested Mount Barrett, I looked over and saw a spectacular panoramic view. When I stumbled and almost fell flat on my face, I realized that this was not really a sightseeing expedition, and I needed to maintain focus if I was going to get out of this race in one piece.

The rest of the way out was marked by ups and downs of varying degrees of difficulty. Perhaps the toughest challenge was mastering the divided-attention task of being mindful of one's footing while also staying on the path marked by small yellow triangles emblazoned on trees and rocks. Those little triangles were my lifeline, and I felt comforted each time I noticed one, especially when there'd seem to be an apparently unmarked stretch.

At around Mile 5, there was an aid station, on another dirt fire road. I refilled my bottles and forged on, glad to be able to run - however slowly - for a good long stretch. The volunteers were nice, but no-nonsense, marking bib numbers and wishing us well.

During much of the first half, I would run with a couple of people, then either pull ahead or fall behind. It was nice to chat briefly, but we were all working hard and trying to stay upright. There was also a fair amount of polite jockeying for position, along with gracious step-asides so that someone could pass on the narrowest parts of the trail. I became especially wary of running behind someone on the steepest downhills, worried that a slip could result in more than just a single casualty. One woman who was near me said it was her goal to run the entire distance, regardless of how slow that had to be. I wished her luck with that.

Somewhere around Mile 6.5-7, I saw the leaders heading back. They were flying, their feet barely seeming to touch the ground as the deftly maneuvered through the rocky, rooty, rugged terrain. Numbers 1 and 2 were only about 10 seconds apart. After cresting Mount Watatic, we navigated the toughest downhill of all, and that's where I first lost the trail. There were runners and hikers around, and I could see the trail a good ways below me, but I'd missed a switchback somewhere and had to take a straight vertical descent to get back to the trail. This produced my only full-blown wipeout of the day, as my feet merely went out from under me just a few steps from rejoining the trail. I landed on my left hand, with my bottle cushioning the impact, Gatorade spraying everywhere. Another runner was passing at that moment, and he seemed to snicker a bit, but I popped up and got right back on the trail and kept running. That resulted in the only blood spilled for me on this day, with a nice scrape on the middle knuckle of my left hand.

When I reached the turnaround, my watch read about 1:39, about 5 minutes faster than I had expected to get there. In an odd lapse of preparation, I failed to turn off the "auto-pause" feature on my watch, so I lost a little time at each aid station and during some of the slowest technical ascents. It was a tad disconcerting to be working hard to scramble up the side of a mountain, only to have your watch tell you that you're moving so slow, your forward progress is not even registering.

I thanked the gracious volunteers and worked my way back from whence I came.

THE SECOND HALF (aka, "Negative split? That's a good one")

As I embarked upon the return trip, I still had lovely dreams of a negative split, and I will continue to nourish those dreams if and when I return to this race, as it was not to be this year. Once I saw that the first return mile took me close to 16 minutes, I realized that I just needed to focus on maintaining my forward progress, staying on the trail and not getting hurt.

The ascents on the return were incredibly difficult, though I was buoyed a bit when I saw other runners still on their way "out". We all encouraged one another, and I did pass a couple of groups of day hikers with wonderfully exuberant kids who cheered us on.

I got back to the Mile 5 aid station, and asked if I might have a chance to catch the leaders. One volunteer remarked dryly, "They probably just finished." I replied - smiling - that that was a bit harsh to hear, and he said that the lead woman was only a few minutes ahead. I noted that I've lost many races to many women, and was not motivated by knowing that a talented female runner was ahead of me. They told me that I was somewhere in the top third to top half, so that wasn't too bad. I refilled my bottles and soldiered on.

Returning along the fire road was a blessing, and it allowed me to run an 8:30 mile. At this point, I was getting tired, and while I definitely had enough reserves to run more/harder than I did at times, I was getting worried that my fatiguing legs would betray me, and go out from under me at a moment's notice. I fell into a groove with a few different men at this point, mostly older, and chatted briefly. I lost the trail a few times, but never for more than a couple hundred yards.

The worst part of the return was probably the ascent of Mount New Ipswich, with its phantom peak that just about sucked my soul out when I realized that I was not at the top. The mountain tops in this area are all marked by large jagged slabs of granite, resulting in more of a bounding motion than a smooth running cadence. The little yellow triangles also got tougher to spot as I grew wearier.

At some point, I assumed I'd just crested Mount Barrett for the last time, and got a little bit of a an extra boost. I started running harder, looking around to see if I could tell how far I was from the finish. I monitored the white chalk X's painted on the trails which we were to avoid and saw another yellow shirt in the distance. A camera-toting race volunteer told me that i was "almost there", with the next turn giving me a straight downhill finish. I saw the guy ahead of me, and started to run harder. I was steadily gaining on him, but I realized I didn't have enough room to catch him, so I eased up and came in about 5 seconds behind him. I put my hands up like you do during your first marathon and was thrilled to be done.

It was then that I looked for Chris, whom I figured finished way ahead of me and then left. Turns out that the unfortunate guy got completely off the trail, and he finally got to the finish more than 30 minutes after I did. He was understandably ticked, and I could see him seething. He said he'd be taking a break from running for a few weeks, in favor of doing some hunting. He seemed ready to kill something right then and there with his bare hands.

I ate some pizza, drank my first real Coke in ages and stretched a little bit. I spoke with a number of other runners, all veterans of ultra runs and trail races, and I enjoyed their company and stories very much. It was a great introduction to trail racing, albeit a pretty harsh one in terms of the difficulty level.


As one online running friend asked, did I have a religious conversion? Not really. I have no desire to scrap road running and focus only on trails and ultras . . . at least not now. I certainly have some marathon goals to continue to chase, but I see myself shooting for a trail ultra next year, hopefully on a more forgiving course. The vibe of trail racing, the low-key nature of the event, the irrelevance of pace, all of those things are very appealing. The scenery and serenity of being in the woods for so long is also a major plus.
Here are a few numbers, just for fun:
  • Slowest mile - 17+ minutes
  • Fastest mile - 8:31
  • Age Group Place - 8th
  • Average Heart Rate - 160
  • Elevation Gain - 5300+ feet
  • Number of Falls - 1
  • Number of Stumbles - 10-ish
  • Fluid Ounces Consumed - 100+ (water & Gatorade)
  • Gels - 3 (1 Accelerade; 2 Gu Roctanes)
  • Cuts - 1
  • Scrapes/abrasions - 6 or so
  • Blisters - 2
  • Sore Muscles - how many are there from the waist down?
  • Times I Thought About Dropping Out - 0 (never even crossed my mind for a second)
Of course, as several runners told me afterwards, it is tough to be a good road and trail runner, since the skills and training are different for each pursuit. I was woefully undertrained for this event, especially for the "power-hiking" parts of the uphills. At this point, my legs are still pretty sore, especially my calves, but not in a debilitating way, and less so than after my 4 road marathons.

Still, if I needed a race to help me feel good about running again (and restore some of my faith in my own abilities), Wapack did the trick. It was a glorious adventure, and an auspicious start to what I hope will be more and longer trail racing in the future. Oh yeah, and I think it was probably a decent overall workout, too.



Dan said...

If Wapack was your first race you sure picked a tough one but still ran a very good time on that trail.

I see you becoming a trail convert in the future!

Happy running


Anonymous said...

Woo, congratulations! I have only gotten lost on a trail race once but I totally sympathize with your friend.

Yep, trail races are a completely different beast from road races, but so much fun in their own right. My first big mountain race I took a camera - I didn't care so much about time and took lots of pictures of the splendid scenery. It sounds like you did darn well for a hard race to pop your cherry on. Congrats!

screaminzab said...

Nice job! They should hand out steel balls and a compass after you finish. Way to stay upright for most of the race. My hat is off to you.

Progman2000 said...

Wow, way to go, nice race report. I ran a 25k trail race a couple of weeks ago (nothing like Wapack, we're talking NJ) and am considering doing the 50k next year. I underestimated the difference to road racing - it definitely inspires a whole new avenue of soreness.

Greg said...

That sounds really tough!!! Fantastic job Ron! I don't know if trail running is for me, but after reading that RR, I thought about doing a trail race...until I read that you fell.. then I said screw it.

The Puerto Rican Kenyan said...

Way to go!! Kudos to you for not only giving a trail race a try, but for doing a very good at it. I'll try it at some point, after I feel like I have accomplished most of my road-racing goals. Congratulations!!

Preston said...


Girl In Motion said...

I'm late to this report but dayum, what a tale! Amazing job ESG, you are a brave, brave man, tough as hell, too. Here's to more crazy running adventures in your near seem to thrive off them.