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.


  1. Excellent post and thanks for the mention. I'll share of FB too.

    BTW, I may do the 23K at Pisgah. Are you shooting the Pinnacle Ultra in October?


    1. I gotta change a setting somewhere so I see when comments are posted; totally missed this! Hope Pisgah and Pinnacle went well for you, man!

      The Pisgah 50K was the highlight of my racing year, hands down. So glad to have had a really positive first ultra experience. And as for Pinnacle, well... I tried. I shot at a local 10K here in MA in the morning, then headed north. Arrived in Newport and hiked out to catch runners between 1PM and 3PM, but as you probably know well, it rained a LOT during that window! Managed to squeak out a few good shots, but it wasn't my finest effort. Maybe next time... Anyway, hope it went really well for you!