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


  1. Great job on your first ultra! Being one of those people who had their race "go to die" on the Kilburn Loop (two years ago), it's nice to read a positive experience. Well done.

    1. Sorry for the way late reply, but thanks Jonny, and awesome work yourself both in the 23K and at Nipmuck this year. Your write-ups make for great vicarious experiences.

  2. Mega~congrats Ben on your first Ultra! I wondered how the rest of the race unfolded for you! Great write up!
    See you on the trails again soon!
    Carolyn Shreck

    1. Thanks, Carolyn! How'd the of it go for you?? By the way, sorry the shots I got of you at Pinnacle weren't so hot. As you're well aware... it was a bit wet!

  3. Nice running Ben! Sounds like a great experience - it was my first ultra, too, and definitely made better to have people to run with and good weather. I agree that the last few miles of downhill through freshly-logged mud sucks, but maybe that'll improve in later years. See you at the next race =)

    1. Alex, that was your first ultra?!? you did amazing!!

  4. Ben, congratulations on your first ultra! You ran a smart race. This is the most detailed course description I've ever read. Are you sure you don't live on the course? ;) I wonder if that was my brother, Glenn, that you passed on the Kilburn loop. He was wearing green shorts and he was having a moment of doubt about finishing. (He did). Your comments about the logging are spot on. Congrats again and happy trails!

    1. Thanks, Greg, and great run yourself! As for my uber-detailed description, well... what can I say. I freely admit to being a full-on geography nerd. Also, I wrote an actual trail guide for a loop hike at Pisgah once and did quite a bit of field work there in 2006-2007, so I have a bit of an unfair advantage:

  5. That was definitely me taking a bio break on Kilburn! I remember you and your buddy looked incredible. You ran a very smart race - Congrats! I hope your recovery and training are going well. Great report!

    1. Glenn, sorry it's taken me so long to say so, but I've been meaning to tell you that I'm sorry for not saying anything as we passed. I only saw you at the very last second and was almost a little startled! I think my head was a little fuzzy by that point. By the time my brain processed that you were clearly a racer and it occurred to me to ask if you were OK, we'd already sailed on by. Glad to hear you rallied and finished up strong!

  6. Hi Ben, I think you were the one that commented on my blog post about last year's race. Congratulations on your first ultra, and I'm glad the race went well!!

    1. Leah, you're right! I'd forgotten. Thanks again for your excellent write-up. I can't stress enough how helpful it was to have lots of detailed race reports from previous years to help strategize and mentally envision parts I'd never been on before.

  7. Congratulations on running your first ultra, in a good time too! I ran my first ultra there in 2011, great course. Very good descriptive write-up as well.

    1. Thanks, Jesse! Good to read your TARC 50K write-up this week at Far North. See you at the Winter Fells!