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