Not sure how to begin to describe the roller coaster of an experience the 2014 NipMuck Trail Marathon was for me. The end result was a fast time and a memorable event. But am I happy about it? Was there too much pre-race nervousness, too much in-race pain, and too many post-race questions?
Planning to do this race was a no brainer after last year's surprising 2nd place finish. The race went outrageously well for me at a distance I didn't have confidence in. The weather was terrible, and it was highly probable this year the weather would be better. I've been faster in all repeat trail races this year as well. Plus the experience of knowing the trail would be to my benefit. Muddy was also running the race, so I knew that I would most likely have someone to race with, pushing the pace throughout, rather than running all alone. I didn't have a fixed time goal. I knew I should be a few minutes faster this year. Could I knock off eight minutes to get to 3:30?
I felt like I prepared well for the race. I knew my fueling strategy, acclimated to my new shoes (the 1 ounce lighter Nike Terra Kiger 2.0's), and tapered appropriately. Mentally, I was more nervous than I've been for recent races. Last year, I had low expectations, but this year I was expecting a lot out of myself. I was anxious all week. I couldn't wait to get the race over with.
My bag was packed for my 5AM wake up and I even managed to sleep okay. I wolfed down my normal pre-long run D&D meal and then carpooled with Seth and Muddy to Ashford, CT. We arrived about an hour early. Most of the hour before the start was spent in Seth's car fidgeting. It was cold - about 45 degrees. Finally I headed out for two short jogs, just to loosen everything up. Things felt good, and I was now focused on having a great day in the woods. With 10 minutes to go, I wandered down to the pre-race meeting still wearing a long sleeve jacket and hat. Just before the start, I stripped down to just my WTAC singlet (I debated keeping the hat). I lined up front, noticing a shirtless Sam Jurek. I was pretty sure he would win, but you never know with these things. Time to go....
Race photo of the start
I was very deliberate on the road climb up to the trail, but I found myself up front. I then entered the woods, and I got to be the trail "finder" in the lead. The blue blazes are numerous, and good thing. The trail (like last year) was hidden under a coating of wet leaves. Sometimes roots and rocks would peek through exposing themselves. Most times you just found them after stepping awkwardly on them. Sam latched onto me after a minute or two, but kindly let me lead. I knew this was probably just his early race strategy, unless the pace was too slow. I didn't mind leading, since I was dictating the pace I wanted to go, and I could keep tabs on everyone else. After a few minutes of silence, he began chatting with me. The conversation (about running) was fun, and helped pass the time on the early miles. Occasionally on turns I would notice Muddy lurking just a few paces behind us, finally joining us just as we reached the 6.2 mile turnaround.
Race photo from early on: me focused, Jurek eating, Muddy's shoes lurking
I didn't take any aid and just turned around and headed back north. I noted my time was two minutes faster than last year. That seemed perfect. Muddy had now joined the conversation and the three of us talked as we made the long climb back up, passing runners coming in the opposite direction. I made sure to take my first GU at about an hour, and sipped water from my small handheld, even though I wasn't thirsty. The trail already seemed to be drying out. I remained the leader of our group throughout the return to start/finish area. Sometimes Sam would get right up on me, and I wondered if he was going to make a move. I figured he would be content to stay with us for a while based on our time, and his comment about working together for 3 sub 3:30 finishes.
I took my second GU right before the next aid station at the start/finish area. I quickly had my handheld refilled with water while I gulped down a small cup of Gatorade. I then was off, noting the time was 1:31. This was five minutes ahead of last year and it took me 2:02 to complete the northern out and back then. Clearly, 3:30 was in play! I was momentarily excited, but then Sam took the lead on the trail.
For the next few minutes, I tried to stick with Sam with Muddy in tow. It was clear the pace was quickening, and finally I accepted that it was time to bid him adieu. I verbalized this to Muddy, and I was happy that he seemed content to stick with me at a slower pace. I was already noting signs of fatigue in my feet and lower core. These are my problem areas on longer technical runs. Sometimes they pop up and sometimes they don't. I was not happy that they did today. This was going to be a struggle!
We still were making good time, at least compared to my race last year. We crossed a dirt road in 18 minutes (took 20 minutes last time) and then reached the Iron Mine aid station (didn't stop) in 27 minutes (now three minutes ahead of 2013 pace). The last few miles out to the Boston Hollow turnaround were now upon us. I knew this section was hilly, but I may have over estimated it, as it didn't seem that bad to me this year. That was the only good part. My feet were aching and I hated the down hills and the rock garden valleys. At least I had Muddy there to commiserate with. Complaining was now my distraction technique. I got a bit impatient anticipating the Boston Hollow staircase to the aid station. We crossed paths with Sam who stated that he was two minutes up on us. Right before the stairs I fumbled my GU (#4) and had to stop to pick it up off the ground. Muddy went ahead of me, and I sort of panicked. Luckily the stairs are slippery and awkward, so there was no place for him to surge.
At the aid station I refilled my handheld and sucked down another small Gatorade (or 2?). I noted the time was 2:31 - seven minutes quicker than 2013. It took exactly an hour to get here from the start area. That was two minutes faster than last year, however the split from Iron Mine (34 minutes versus 32) was slower. We were clearly slowing down. I figured that I could survive the final seven miles, and minimally better my PR of 3:38. I wasn't optimistic about a sub hour finish that would get me to 3:30. Maybe there would be a second wind somewhere?
I resumed my position in front of Muddy as we struggled our way out of Boston Hollow. It felt so slow. And then we began seeing the runners behind us, including Seth in fourth. I estimated we were only 4 minutes ahead of him, and clearly he was having a great race and ahead of last year's effort. I was very worried about being caught by him. More runners went by, all seemingly looking strong, fit, and fast. More commiseration with Muddy. Were we doomed? The only positives were that I was still running and Muddy wasn't surging by me.
The return to Iron Mine was a real running low for me. There was no second wind. Just increased leg pain. It was taking way too long to reach the aid station. I was still with Muddy, but I was really worried about being able to finish the race running. But surely if I walked Seth and others would pass me. I trudged along with a bad attitude. Even passing Becky and Crutch didn't give me a mental boost (even though they both had fantastic positive attitudes). Finally I knew the aid station was near and I ate my last GU (#5). I really wanted to make a quick stop for the mental break from my misery. Muddy kept going. Damn. I sucked down two small cups of Coke, shook out my legs, and resumed running. This leg took 32 minutes which really wasn't that bad at all. At 3:13, I still had a decent PR going. The end seemed to be in sight.
Race photo nearing the finish
I made my way on the 1 mile (?) road portion. I could see Muddy ahead of me, and I thought briefly that there was a chance he would either slow down or I would make headway on the long climb. This didn't happen. I fought off urges to quit running on this hill, but it was a grind. After a short trail section I crossed the final dirt road and noted that it only took 10 minutes. Only 20 or 21 left! I tried not to anticipate the finish too much. My body had long ago failed me, but at least my energy was good. I told myself to just keep running (not at all fast) to the last climb and then I can walk it. I peered back on long stretches to look for Seth. I surprisingly kept passing people still on their way out on the course. It wasn't easy, but I was making progress. I then reached the final climb and was able to continue running. At the rock scramble at the summit, I stopped to stretch my legs to make the last two minutes more enjoyable. Instantly my hamstring began seizing up, and I quickly resumed running before disaster struck. I ran faster, concluding with a mad careless sprint down the final hill to the finish line, crossing in 3:34:43.
I was so relieved to be done. My legs were now even tighter and screaming at me. I shuffled around congratulating Muddy (3:31) and Sam (3:26), and made my way up to Seth's car to change, seeing him finish up in 4th (3:41). Good day for team WTAC! After throwing on clean clothes and many layers, I was able to make my way back to the finish area for some veggie soup and Coke. I then found a spot in the sun, sheltered from the wind, and relaxed and ate. No bonk this year. We then made our way back to RI. My feet and lower core were so tight and painful. I spent the afternoon and evening massaging, applying heat, etc. It was the most suffering I felt after a race ever.
A few days later my body is now fine. I took Monday and Tuesday off from running (like last year), but still stayed active. The pain went away on Monday, and the tightness just about completed disappeared by Wednesday. I have mixed feelings about how my race played out. Did I go out too fast? I don't really think so. If I ran slower early on, I might have felt better at the end, but netted the same time. I'm feeling better and better about my result. 3:34 for 26.4 miles of technical trails and about 2,500' of elevation gain is something to be proud of.