Race day, and I slept okay, although waking up before my 4:15AM alarm. I made the solo trek up to Ashburnham, Massachusetts, the southern terminus of the Wapack Trail, and where registration was set up. I arrived even earlier than I planned and was one of the first to pick up my bib. I hung out in my car, not nervous at all, just listening to music and prepping for the race. I did a short warm up (out-and-back) on the end of the trail, just to get a feel for it. It was rather technical. I didn't know anybody there, and the conversations I heard were mostly about ultra races people were planning for the future. I was focused on this race. The one curveball the weather threw was that it was way colder at the start than forecasted. That was actually a good thing, and the predicted heat later in the day seemed like it should hold off longer. It was in the 40's and scheduled to reach the low 80's. I didn't want to wear a shirt, but being so chilly, and facing a 40 minute bus ride elbow to elbow with a stranger, it seemed like I had to wear something. I asked the race director if clothes could be dropped at the start and would be brought back to the finish, but it seemed complicated and a long wait after I was done. I slapped on one of my now dingy WTAC singlets, a running hat (to keep the sun off my eyes on the open ledges rather than wear sunglasses), trusty running shorts and socks, and my newly broken in trail shoes - Inov8 Trailroc 245's - they provide more traction, protection, but extra weight than my usual Nike Terra Kiger's. I had a 16oz. handheld with water (I hate carrying them, but I was worried about the heat as the race went on), and 5 GU's in my pockets. I hopped on the bus and sat up front next to a very pleasant guy from Vermont. We had a good chat until we reached the starting area. I shook out the legs and chatted with a couple of local RI trail racing ladies. It was then game time.
Before I forget, let's talk about goals. I wanted to win this race period. I wasn't sure what time goal to shoot for. I had run 3:34 at Nipmuck last year, so I thought that sub 3:45 could be possible. Getting into the 3:30's would be fantastic, but Sam Jurek won last year at Wapack in 3:38 (and was sub 3:30 at Nipmuck the same year). I wanted to see if I could beat a mountain goat (Ryan) on his home turf. I wanted to prove to myself that I could run well in this type of race.
The race director nonchalantly told us to go, and we were off. The first couple hundred of meters are on a paved road, before truly starting the Wapack Trail. I shot to the front with Ryan close behind. He was very friendly right away, helping me find the trail entrance. I tried to keep my excited breathe under control and also my pace. I knew the trail climbed right away up North Pack Monadnock. This would be the longest climb of the day, gaining over 950' in 1.3 miles. The trail rose gradually at first and I was leading Ryan by a few steps. Eventually, the steep rock climbs emerged, and I was surprised to feel very alone. I had definitely created quite some space. Maybe Ryan was just taking it easy today? I tried to just focus on my own running. Don't overdo it, hike if I need breaks. I reached the summit - Strava segment info here (looks like I had 45 second lead on Ryan) and began the long descent. It was very steep in places with many large jagged rocks to navigate. I did my best to keep up a peppy pace, but was discouraged when I noticed Ryan in view behind me as I reached the bottom. Luckily, it was now time to climb South Pack. I again pulled away out of sight. This was another tough one, but not as long. I reached the top, and tried my best to descend as fast as possible. Again, it was steep and very rocky in places. At many points you feel like you are on the edge of a cliff, yet still trying to run down on rocks. Frankly it felt dangerous, but I felt like I was being chased down. I knew the descent was taking too long and once again Ryan was in view at the bottom. There was an aid station here, but I plowed right through. I hadn't really touched my water (still cool out) and I hadn't even been running for an hour yet. I just wanted to stay ahead of Ryan.
I crossed a road and began an open double track trail up Temple Mountain. It was runnable, which I did for the most part. I believe I passed the 50 Miler leader here. Ryan was again out of sight. I took a GU at the one hour mark. I reached the first summit (apparently there are a few on this mountain). Again looking back on the Strava data, I put on 27 seconds over Ryan on this 410' climb. Then the running got real good. I felt like I was on a ridge, with a few small up and downs. The footing was decent, I was sometimes in the shade, and I felt fast. I figured this was catering to my strength as a trail runner and I was banking a lot of time. It was rather lonely, and looked rather "bear-y" in places, but still I was feeling very good. I felt like I was going to win. Eventually, the terrain began dropping more steadily - not as bad as the Packs - and again I made sure to do my best descending. I then reached a paved road and a water drop. I briefly stopped to open a gallon and pour it into my handheld. I had been running for an hour and 34 minutes at this point. According to this Strava segment of the entire Temple Mountain, I had put on 47 seconds over Ryan, however, he had descended Temple 25 seconds faster than me.
I didn't realize he wasn't too far back until I began running again after the quick water stop. I didn't know which way to go and I couldn't find any markings. I panicked. Left or right on the road? No trail straight ahead. I wish I had paid more attention to the course beforehand! I went left, and then back tracked. Luckily, there was a house nearby and a woman outside in her garden. She directed left down the road. Phew! But, look who is coming out of the woods - Ryan!!
I didn't realize the trail followed a pave road at any point on the course. Rookie mistake. I motored down this road, still in a panic. I was frustrated that I lost 30+ seconds to confusion. I was frustrated that clearly Ryan was not going away. Not knowing it, my pace was dropping down to low 6's then high 5's. At the end of the road I could see the trail continued straight on an old double track. I made the quick decision to drop my shirt and hat here, thinking that I could theoretically drive back to this spot later to pick them up. I was now hot and drenched in sweat. I threw them off and looked back to see that Ryan was again dropping back. My frustration continued for the next mile or so. The double track was tricky (dark woods, deep wet tire ruts, and tempting side trails). I was having trouble following the blazes, and momentarily stopped a few times to stay on course. I knew Ryan knew where he was going. The trail was a long gradual climb as well. Running-wise, my body was still feeling very good. I may have had another GU somewhere here.
I reached a road, probably looked confused to a cop directing traffic who pointed the direction I needed to go AND told me which side of the road to run on. I passed a sign for Windblown Ski Area. Soon I reached an aid station. It was about 2 hours in. I stopped and they refilled my handheld with water. I drank two small cups of Coke and grabbed a couple pieces of watermelon for the road. I didn't see Ryan behind me (the aid station was in an open area) when I moved on. I was feeling good again. The volunteers at the aid station perked up my confidence. I felt like my nutrition was under control. I wasn't too hot anymore now that I was shirtless and letting my body do its cooling thing. I didn't fel like Ryan was running me down anymore and again I thought that I was going to win.
Things changed again on Barrett Mountain. There was a long double track climb leading out of Windblown up this mountain. I resorted to hiking much sooner than on the others. I happened to glance back before I left an open area and entered deep woods and much to my surprise I saw Ryan again. This time he was gaining on me on a climb. I knew this wasn't a good sign. I had heard the southern half of the race is much easier and less hillier, and I hoped there was still hope for me. I pushed ahead and ran more. I finished this 500' climb 6 seconds slower than Ryan. Barrett Mountain becomes New Ipswitch Mountain, with open ledges at the summit. The short climb introduced a new issue - calf cramps. I could feel my calves wanting to cramp up if I pushed too hard or took too large of steps. This was a new experience for me. I've only had calf cramps when bodyboarding in cold water. Usually, my feet are my undoing in a long trail race, but they were fine. At the summit I passed by Ben Kimball taking photos. Here are a couple of links - where's Waldo? face of pain.
I was slowing down now. The terrain wasn't that difficult at all, but I couldn't climb like I wanted because of cramping, and descending wasn't going that well anymore either. I made my way down Pratt Mountain and on easy footing near Binney Pond, Ryan finally passed me. This was after 17 miles of leading. We chatted briefly, he told me I was killing it all day out there, and that 2 hours to Windblown was really fast. He then gradually pulled away. Besides feeling lousy about losing the lead, I was thirsty and hot. I finished my water bottle and hoped that the final aid station was just around the corner. I eventually reached it and stopped. The volunteers were awesome. It was probably obvious that I was struggling a bit. I asked for cold water to be poured over my head and down my back which they did. I had Gatorade and Coke and grabbed a big piece of watermelon for the road. There was about 3.5 miles left - up and over Mount Watatic. They told me it was very runnable. I so wished my legs were in better shape. I grudgingly left the aid station and wandered off.
The final stretch was tough. The northern ascent was gradual but in the sun. It was on a smooth double track that I could have really hammered home, but instead I did my best to just keep running, albeit slowly, with some hiking on the ups. I resolved in my mind that there was no catching Ryan. I was now focused on finishing time. After leaving the aid station, I checked my watch and realized that I was just over 3 hours in. I still was going to post a fantastic time, maybe even flirt with 3:30!! My plan was to stave off calf cramps on the ups and then push the descent as best I could (final mile). Again, this was not to be, as after summiting, my calves now felt like they were going to lock up going downhill. It was frustrating to have energy at the end, but not be physically able to use it. I passed a ton of hikers on the downhill. Some encouraged me on, some ignored me, some got in my way. Finally, I recognized where I was (from the warm up) and hobbled to the finish in 3:34:24.
Finishing up. Photo by Jesse Veinotte
I was really pumped. I didn't get the win, but I surpassed my expectations with time. If fact, this was the third fastest all time on the course after Ryan's 3:24 today and David Herr's 3:22. Ryan and I chatted quite a bit and had beers (I had them in a cooler for a family party I had to drive to following the race). His wife soon finished (3rd overall and new course record in 3:57). I lingered a bit more eating and drinking more Coke. Then it was time to head off.
Thank you to first time race director Jesse Veinotte and his wife for a well run event. I had a blast, proved a lot to myself, and can't wait to race again next year, this time finishing the last few miles off strong.