Sunday, September 22, 2013

30th Annual Mt. Holyoke Summit Run 5K

The storm clouds passed just in time for the start of the 30th Annual Summit Run 5K race up the auto road on Mt. Holyoke in Hadley, MA. This classic hill climb event, put on by my awesome local running group, the Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, is like a mini version of the famous Mt. Washington road race. Most of the course is shaded beneath roadside trees, but I found a spot about a hundred feet before the finish where an expansive view out to the Connecticut River opened up behind the runners. The full photo gallery can be seen here at Northeast Race Photo, and here's some sample shots:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hancock Shaker Village 50-Mile Ultra and Marathon

It was a long day of shooting, and often a full half-hour or so would pass between runners, but I really enjoyed taking photos at this year's Hancock Shaker Village 50-Mile Ultra and Marathon. Both races take place along the Taconic Range out in Pittsfield State Forest (far western MA), following a challenging route consisting of rugged trails and roads. Pretty much every runner I saw looked amazingly strong and had a great attitude, and the volunteers were excellently enthusiastic and helpful. This is definitely a hard run, either as an ultra or as a trail marathon, but it's also wonderfully true to the spirit of trail running. It's tough, simple, and fun, and clearly has a positive vibe about it. Here's a sampling of shots from the day (the full photo gallery can be seen here at Northeast Race Photo):



Monday, September 16, 2013

Finally Pisgah (a.k.a. my first ultra)

No major trail running magazine or blog will print a "My First Ultra" piece anymore, because those stories have been done to death and are deemed uninteresting to readers. I understand that. Regardless, any virgin ultra runner has a first time; this here's mine.

I'd been looking forward to running the Pisgah Mountain 50K trail race at Pisgah State Park in southwest NH for quite some time. It had been on my mind ever since I felt like I could keep going after finishing last year's 23K race there. Despite having 11 marathons and dozens of mid-distance trail races in my athlinks results list, I'd never run an ultra before, or even really wanted to. I used to think that my body's natural finish line was around 20 miles. But over the past year I've come to understand that it's not quite the same thing as a marathon only longer, and the bug really bit me. I read countless blog posts about training for your first 50K, and the Pisgah race in particular.

The training went well, with a handful of tough trail races (Wapack, etc.) and lots of pummeling runs in the Holyoke Range and at Mt. Tom, DAR State Forest, and North Sugarloaf Mtn. The taper week went off without a hitch. I slept well two and three nights beforehand, and terribly the night before (3 hours at most Saturday night). On race morning, I ate a simple breakfast of a bagel, banana, and coffee, took a hot shower to loosen up, lubed my feet up with Body Glide, and sipped at water and Gatorade. The scale said I weighed 171 lbs., ten pounds lighter than a year before. Around 7AM, Jen and I climbed in the car and headed north.

We arrived in Chesterfield at 8AM with plenty of time to pick up my number, say hey to friends, and pay that all-important last minute visit to the bathroom. The weather was ideal: temps starting out in the 50's, with blissfully low humidity and partly cloudy skies. My kinda day.

A swirling flock of runners gathered near the starting line, some eagerly warming up and others just joking around. I briefly met fellow 413 runner Mark Staples, who would go on to finish in a terrific time despite late-race cramps and GI issues. I also met prolific Pisgah blogger and all-around well-liked, fun runner guy Josh Robert, as well as Leah and Loni, two of his fellow Team Robert friends. I lined up with Sean Snow, a friend I knew from my years in Concord. Sean is an extremely accomplished Ironman athlete and triathlon coach, and he'd raced the Lake Placid Ironman just 6 weeks earlier so he was plenty fit, but he'd only recently discovered his love for trails and this was going to be his first ultra.

The race director informed us that the recent heavy rains in the area (it had dumped 3 inches in a few hours two days before) had wiped out the already atrociously-maintained road on the east side of the park, and as a result there would be no water at the 4.8-mile mark (see a coarse race map here). This meant that the first water stop would be 8 miles in. It also meant that the mile-12 aid station would be moved to the mile-13.5 station, effectively resulting in the loss of a second water station. This may seem unimportant, but in my head it kind of wreaked havoc with my carefully crafted hydration plan of carrying just one handheld bottle for the race. Now, no matter what I did, I would probably be slightly dehydrated by mile 8 unless I carried a second bottle, which I really didn't want to do since I like to switch arms every mile and always have one hand free. It ended up not mattering that much; I saw guys who took water at stations only who still did just fine.

Finally, the race started (rather casually, as is often the case at this event). The 23K racers and 50K leaders rocketed out ahead, and for the first time in a long time I started near the back of the pack and didn't give in to any of my instincts to start strong. I knew this course pretty well, and knew what was ahead. Starting fast here gets you nowhere if you're racing at my level.

Sean and I chatted for a bit along the dirt road section of the first few miles. We agreed that it felt hard to run so slow but we both knew it was best. He expressed some nervousness and anxiety about doing a totally new type of race, but there was no doubt in my mind that he would completely rock it. Sean is just that good. We caught up on races and life and the time passed quickly. Soon enough, we reached the end of the drivable road and passed into the park's trail network. At first, you fly downhill on an old dirt road (recently graded and amazingly not eroded at all; this would be by far the best maintained road of the day). It levels out for a minute, and then at mile 2 the 50K course splits from the 23K course, veering hard left into the forest on a singletrack path called the South Woods Trail.

This was where the sloppiness began. The course quickly became one long string of wide puddles and slippery stretches of mud, rocks, and roots. It felt very different from the quick, dry conditions of the previous year. Soon, I pulled over to the side of the trail for the first of many mid-race pee breaks; just one very distinct advantage of trails over roads for small bladder over-hydraters like me. The running was really fun here (and for the whole rest of the race, for that matter). Everyone seemed to be having a great time. The singletrack quietly morphed into the grassy doubletrack of Nash Trail, and near mile 5 we came out onto Old Chesterfield Road, which, as mentioned earlier, was in extremely bad shape due to erosion from ATVs and recent rains. You're only on that road for 30 seconds or so before turning south again onto singletrack.

The Dogwood Swamp Trail starts flat but soon climbs significantly up to a ridge and parallels some adjacent high marshes for a while. I talked for a bit with Carolyn, a woman I'd seen at quite a few of the trail races I'd photographed as Northeast Race Photo this past summer. We talked about a bunch of those races and about ultras in general. A common bit of advice is to never let your heart rate get too high, especially early on, or you'll pay for it dearly later. She mentioned that she felt like she might be running a hair too fast and fell back slightly. I was still feeling pretty good and kept pretty close to my planned pace of 11:30 minute miles. Sean had fallen back around mile 5 but was back with me by mile 6. He was clearly loving the trails and you could almost hear his confidence building exponentially as he spoke. We ran into Fred Ross (the creator of the original Pisgah race) around mile 7; he had run out ahead to take photos of everyone, including his wife Donna who was somewhere in front of me. This section ends with a screaming mile-long descent to the aid station at mile 8. The footing was pretty good, and it was all I could do to keep it in check and not go too fast. We arrived at the aid station in 1:32:40, precisely 20 seconds ahead of my goal pace.

crossing a bridge around mile 7; me in front, Sean just behind me (photo courtesy of Fred Ross)

The climb up from mile 8 is intense, on an eroded section of old paved road that seems ridiculously steep for driving. The group I was with here just settled in to a power hike, as we would do for almost any other uphill we couldn't see the top of. The course levels out for a bit above as it passes to the east of Pisgah Reservoir on a soft-surfaced, old woods road, then veers right onto the singletrack of Chestnut Hill Trail and begins a solid climb for a while.

I was still running and chatting with Sean in this section, and once again the miles seemed to pass surprisingly quickly. We were with two other runners for a good portion here, and somewhere around mile 10 we realized we'd run off trail where recent rains had swept the pine needles downhill in a track that looked just like a worn path. We lost maybe a minute or two re-finding and getting back to the trail (which we found by scanning for pink flagging tape).

We soon descended (a fun little descent) to the dirt parking area at mile 12, where the second lost water stop / aid station would have been. Sean pulled ahead quickly here. As I dropped into the clearing, I saw him round the corner onto Old Chesterfield Road. He decided to run the next uphill stretch, and by the time I reached the next straightaway he was out of sight completely! He eventually finished his race in five and half hours, which is really incredible given how much that means he picked up the pace from there on out.

Once the gradual half-mile climb from mile 12 is done, it levels out and I was able to open up my stride some, which felt great. I encountered a few suspicious bees in a grassy stretch near a wetland, but escaped unstung. After a brief section of the worst-eroded road of the day (which is saying a lot), I arrived at the mile-13.5 aid station and rejoined the route I've known from running the 23K course.

I downed half a banana, grabbed some crackers and fig newtons, chugged a cup of water, and filled my bottle with Gatorade. By now I was 3 minutes off my target pace, and began to sense that, given what I knew lay ahead, I probably wouldn't make my time goal. But I was OK with that, and was determined to just enjoy myself and do whatever I needed to do to not cramp (my ever-lurking nemesis). Which, for a sweat-machine like myself, includes a steady dose of Endurolyte salt tablets. I'd brought ten just to be safe (and by the end of the race, I'd swallowed all of them).

The mostly doubletrack Reservoir Road section between miles 13.5 and 17 starts off with a mile of steady climbing, and continues with a series of descents and rolling undulations. The sloppy conditions continued, with some stretches where it was completely impossible to keep your shoes clean and dry. Though I passed one guy who was slowing down around mile 16, I was alone for most of these miles. As a result, I was able to mentally relax and remember all sorts of training advice, from breathing deep to good posture to quick steps to keeping my heart rate in check. I also thought a lot about the training that got me there, from 413 group runs on Mt. Tom and along the M-M Trail (many thanks to Nate and Dave and Jeff and Kelsey and Mason!), to semi-regular Holyoke Range runs with Jen (so many helpful trips to the Batchelor Street trails), to numerous races and solo ventures.

I lingered a little longer than I wanted to at the mile-17 aid station, filling my bottle and making sure to eat as many snacks as I could stomach, and left about 5 minutes off my pace. At this point I completely abandoned my original plan of breaking 6 hours and transformed it into a more realistic "I'd like to finish somewhere just over 6 hours," not cramp, and enjoy the run.

After the always pleasant half-mile of rolling singletrack trail following that aid station, during which I was running slowly while trying to scarf down the extra fig newtons I'd grabbed, the big ascent of Mt. Pisgah began. My pace downshifted to a power-hike for almost the next entire mile as I climbed, but I felt good and strong and knew at this point that my race was going to go well overall. On I went, over the multiple false summits, down the north ridge, left towards Kilburn, and over the rootiest section of trail on the entire course, until popping out on the dirt road just before the mile-20 aid station, where I arrived 10 minutes late.

Late, because my good friend Jason Lane, who had just run the 23K race (and beaten his time from the previous year by a minute), was waiting there to run the Kilburn Loop with me as part of his 21 miles for the day. Jen was also there, with a heavy bag of extra stuff that she'd carried in for me just in case I needed it (fortunately for me I was feeling great and didn't need anything). I have to interlude for a moment and mention that she had also just run 10 rugged miles of her own, around the Kilburn Loop and up and over the several peaks of Mt. Pisgah. Ima have to start looking over my shoulder soon...

I was feeling good, and just re-filled my bottle and grabbed a bunch of snacks as usual. Jason was in good shape too, but he had been stung by the infamous Pisgah yellowjackets FOUR times during his race (apparently that was a theme of the day, as it sounds like lots of people got stung during both races). I knew that the Kilburn Loop was often either "the place where dreams go to die" or the start of the final push on a successful and satisfying Pisgah ultra, and was so curious as to how it would go for me.

Contrary to what most people write, the trail along the west side of the pond is NOT entirely smooth sailing. There are a lot of puddles to negotiate, and quite a few roots and rocks to dance around. Nevertheless, we zipped along, all the way to the long downhill at the far end, where I picked it up some, knowing that there was plenty of climbing (and thus, walking) to come. We passed one guy in green shorts while he was on a trailside pee break just before the bridge at the bottom. Coming back up the other side, Jason and I caught up on life stuff and it was really great to have a friend there to pass the miles with. And speaking of passing, we soon came upon two women ahead and sped up just enough to pass them, offering friendly "great job" type comments as we went by. Within minutes, just after a REALLY rooty section beneath a stand of beech trees along a steadily ascending slope, we brought two other guys ahead into our sights. Targets acquired...

Those two were harder to catch, and they sped up when we reached them, so we were basically right on their heels for a bit. The four of us flew along at a decent clip for half a mile or so. Finally, I found the energy to accelerate more, and darted by them on a dark, soft stretch beneath some towering pines and hemlocks. It took some energy, but I kept the pace up afterwards to make sure they didn't re-catch us. Before I knew it, Kilburn was over and we were on our way back to the final aid station.

One last bottle topping off, another handful of cookies and pretzels, and off we went up the next big hill. There were two women just ahead, laughing and looking very strong as they went up. Jason continued on with me all the way to the Kilburn Rd parking lot. We passed one of the women along the way, and barely overtook the other just before the parking lot.

Immediately after the parking lot, the trail begins to ascend Davis Hill and it's a lot of power hiking for most of the next mile. I passed a woman just before the top, and shouted "woohoo! Davis Hill, done!" as we went over. I dropped down the rocky bit on the other side without incident, and eventually made it to the series of trail intersections just before Hubbard Hill. Glancing back, I kept seeing the blue shirt of the faster of the two women from the run out along the Kilburn Rd not far behind me. She was a really fast descender, and I figured she'd take me on the other side in another mile or so (she did). I tried to eat one last chocolate Gu here, because everyone says staying fueled is the big secret to success at ultras (i.e., putting back in as many calories as you're burning, which is a lot), but by this point I wasn't very hungry and I think my body was pretty much done with ingesting extra sugar and salt. I didn't feel queasy or anything, but I really just didn't want to eat, and most of it ended up all sticky on my hand (blechh).

[A brief shame note to my former employer, the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development: Pisgah. Seriously? I mean the deplorable state of the eroded roads is one thing. ATV's rip the shit out of them and that boat sailed the day you decided to allow it. And the intense storm events of recent years are hardly unique to Pisgah. However, the recent logging operation on the north side of Hubbard Hill. What the hell? Hey, why not just clearcut anywhere, like, say, right along and on both sides of A MAJOR STATE PARK HIKING TRAIL. The trail there is essentially gone now for about half a mile, and the access road by the gate is all but wrecked. For dog's sake, man, think next time. It won't kill you to strive to be better than that.]

From the gate at the bottom of the Hubbard descent, it's the final push. There's about a mile and a half to go, and most of it is either downhill or flat (though there's one hill there that's just steep enough to feel on the outer edge of runnable by then). I dug deep, ignored the cementy feeling of my quads, smiled, and strode it out. Passed what must have been the famous (to readers of Pisgah blogs, anyway) Hammett house, with the cheering-you-on race leaders kicking back at their post-race barbeque. Passed the house with a different type of partyers just down the road, who nevertheless awesomely cheered me on just as much as the Hammett house had. Looked ahead and bore down. Saw the stop sign at the top. Turned right, and there was the finish chute a few hundred feet away. Forced my legs to surge for one last kick to the line, and done!

I finished in 44th place (out of 93 finishers) at 6:08:38, nine minutes over my goal time, which I am completely happy with given the sloppy conditions of the course. Also, my pace per mile (11:53) was faster than it was 2 weeks ago at the 18-mile Wapack Trail Race. I felt great the whole way, never cramped, had a lot of fun out in the woods, and sincerely just all-around enjoyed the hell out of my first-ever ultramarathon.

me finishing the 2013 Pisgah 50K, with Sean Snow and his daughter Stephanie in the background
(photo courtesy of Fred Ross)

the mighty pleasant view at the finish (photo courtesy of Fred Ross)

full results on coolrunning

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Wapack at Last

I am a trail runner. I have been for decades. But I lived in New Hampshire for twelve years and never once ran the 18-mile Wapack Trail Race. Two days ago, I finally addressed that embarrassing oversight.

Due to a couple of navigational blunders en route (both my bad), we arrived at the the Windblown XC ski area with only 15 minutes left until the start. It was enough, though. I chugged an extra quart of water, smeared Vaseline on my toes, heels, and feet bottoms (and also, you know... the nether regions), filled my water bottle, and packed Gu, Shot-Bloks, and salt tablets into the bottle carrier's zip-pocket. At registration, I grabbed my bib number and pinned it on my shorts. It was already warm and very muggy, so I decided to run shirtless (definitely the right call, as any shirt would have been completely sweat-soaked and chafing by about a mile in). One last nervous pee break, and then the start. I joined the pack of about a hundred restless runners and eagerly awaited the signal to go.

We took off along a grassy doubletrack access road that circles around the lower perimeter of the Windblown property for about a mile. This is the relatively new re-route of the Wapack Trail. I settled in somewhere around 30th place or so, where the pace seemed to be about right for me. At 7 minutes in, we crossed under the powerline and began to ascend the lower slopes of Barrett Mountain. The Wapack Trail soon veers right and becomes singletrack, and the first real climbing begins. We all slowed to a power-hike at this point, and settled in for the long uphill grind. Despite the steepness, the footing was pretty good and I was already looking forward to descending this slope 16 miles later. As we climbed, I chatted for a few minutes with a fellow runner, Patrick Gee of Suffield, CT, about several of the same trail races we've run similar paces at recently. Normally I try to keep conversation to a minimum while racing, as it IS a race rather than a training run and oxygen is the big limiter, but in this case it seemed fine. I really tried to keep my pace in check, knowing that I'd need lots of energy for the return.

At the top, there's a very nice quarter-mile section of flat, soft trail beneath pine trees where you can open up and stretch out your legs some. Then the rolling begins. First down the saddle after Barrett, then up New Ipswich, then down again, then up Stony Top, then down to Pratt. There's a great map of this section of the trail here (this map is almost exactly the course of the race, with the exception of the re-route at the very northern end at Windblown). Much of the course was shaded beneath a woodland tree canopy, but the trail occasionally crossed open rocky outcrops in full sun. Even in the muggy weather the views were still pretty sweet up there. I was surprised we didn't see more hikers taking advantage of it on the holiday weekend.

After Pratt Mtn. there's a big drop down to Binney Pond. For about half a mile, you descend very steeply and try really hard to not take a digger or roll an ankle or trash your quads. I'd been here before back in the spring when I took photos at the Wapack and Back trail races, so I knew what to expect. Then there's another really nice rolling mile or so to the first water station at mile 5.5 along Binney Pond Rd. I had finished off my water bottle by that point and arrived with the cap off so it was quick and easy to just grab the open gallon bottle of gatorade to fill it up. Out of the aid station and off to Watatic.

There's a quarter mile or so through a recent clearcut. I'd been worried that maybe this part would be uneven or muddy, but the footing was good and the running was actually quite easy through there. Another half mile or so of gradual climbing follows, and then it's flat for a bit before the steeper climbing up the north side of Watatic. There are 2 parts to this mountain and I'd forgotten about the first one, Nutting Hill, so I was surprised to be descending and then climbing again before reaching the real summit. It was around here that the lead runner, already on his way back from the halfway turnaround, passed me coming the other way.

From the top of Watatic, the trail veers sharply right and screams very steeply down the well-shaded but severely eroded southwest side. My legs were still feeling good so I just let it rip. A steady beat of returning runners greeted me as they re-climbed the route I was descending. At the turnaround I re-filled my bottle again, grabbed some ginger cookies, and took off to head back. My watch said 1:47. Two minutes off my desired time, but close enough to keep me happy.

Re-climbing Watatic wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. I was still feeling really good, and just powered through it, passing several fellow racers who were beginning to fall behind. One guy had been in front of me for about a mile, and had begun kicking roots and rocks at an alarming rate. I hope he was OK; last I saw of him, he'd tripped and taken one of those near catastrophic staggers that really freaked out the family of hikers who saw it. Dozens of runners were still coming down the slope and, in most cases, short "nice job" and "looking good" comments were exchanged as we passed going opposite directions. I flew through the flattish section after the summit, and saw one or two places where it would have been so easy to have gotten off trail if you weren't paying close attention. Eventually, I passed one more runner at the Binney Pond Road water station; I later realized this was Jeremy Merritt, who was taking a moment to massage his legs (he wrote a great race report of his own that's posted at Far North, a blog I've been enjoying a lot this year) (2018 update: link removed; Far North site has gone defunct).

I'd more or less memorized the details of the climb up Pratt, and dealt with the relentless ascent by mentally dividing it up into bite-sized chunks: just get from here to that switchback, now to the big rock, next to the stone wall, then to the zig-zag, and finally the summit ledges, etc. This worked well and overall I was still feeling good and strong, and allowed myself to imagine that I actually still had a shot at a 3:30(-ish) finish.

Then the quad cramp hit. As I climbed back up New Ipswich Mountain, the inside of my right thigh seized and forced me to slow way, way down, almost to a complete stop. I forced myself to maintain at least some forward motion, and used my left leg to keep climbing while I dragged my right leg along for the ride. A few minutes later the cramp subsided but the warning spasms never really went away.

And that's how the rest of the race went, with me flying along fine until the cramp threatened on a climb and I slowed down. It happened about three more times, the last one on the final ascent of Barrett. I kept waiting to get re-passed by some of the runners I'd passed back around Watatic, but it never happened. The descent of Barrett was as great as I'd imagined. Sheer trail running fun, flying down the singletrack back to Windblown. The last mile of grassy doubletrack did indeed have some uphill to it, and it was very warm, so things slowed down some, but I was never passed the entire second half of the race and came into the finish line at 3:44, which was good for 24th place.

My time was a full fourteen minutes slower than I wanted (almost a minute per mile off my target pace!), but it really was extremely humid and even the race leaders were suffering some, and the course record most definitely did not fall this year. Full results are posted here. At any rate, other than the late-race cramping, I felt pretty great on this run. Over the full 18 miles, I ate three Gu's, half a pack of Cran-Razz Shot-Bloks, 4 salt tablets, and some snacks at the turnaround. I carried one 20-oz bottle and made sure to drink all of it before each water stop (where I would also drink 1-2 cups of fluid in addition to re-filling). Energy-wise, I never bonked, and felt pretty light on my feet the whole way. I came away with no blisters, no falls, no unfortunate trail-finding mishaps, and only 2 moderate root-kick stumbles. Not too bad! Pisgah, you're next...

[I have to note here that while I was out tromping down to Mass and back, Jen ran around Windblown and up Barrett and back, on a tough trail run of her own that totaled about 2 hours. This was her longest run ever.]

After the awesome post-race feast of pizza and cookies and sodas and other things sugary and salty, Jen and I talked for a while with other runners, including Jeremy, who came in right behind me. We also scored some fantastic intel from a guy who was fixing one of Windblown's mowing tractors; we soon drove about ten minutes away to an extremely nice unmarked swimming spot on a pond with an amazingly clear, sandy bottom; it was so refreshing. All around, a mighty fine Sunday.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Mount Greylock Road Race Photos

To a small band of impressively determined runners, Labor Day in western Massachusetts means the annual Mount Greylock Road Race. Participants run uphill for 8 miles from near the northern base of the auto road to 3,491 feet at the summit of the state's tallest mountain. The race is put on by Bob Dion of the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC), and is part of the Northeast Uphill Mountain Series.

Although thunderstorms rolled through the region the night before and later in the day, they held off for the race and the weather was actually pretty great for a little hill climbing. Moderate temps, overcast sky, and only the lightest of breezes (though it was still a bit humid out). I took photos at three locations: just after a brief flat section at mile 1 (all runners), a scenic vista at mile 5 (all runners), and the summit (last 19 runners). The full photo gallery is up at Northeast Race Photo, and here's a brief sampling: