Friday, December 13, 2013

Sunup to Sundown

TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile Race Report
Stoneham, MA (December 7, 2013)

A week after enjoying my first 50K at Pisgah back in September, I enthusiastically signed up for the 40-mile option at this year’s TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Fells Winter Ultra races. The event, self-described as "a nightmarish course of rocks and roots," takes place in early December at the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham, MA, primarily using the rugged Skyline Trail around the reservoirs there. You can choose from two options, a 32-mile race and a 40-mile race. All runners do four 8-mile loops, and the 40-mile racers do a fifth. The elevation profile shows the course constantly rising and falling, which might seem odd for a course so close to Boston. The profile is entirely accurate.

Here’s a current course map.

At first I only made the waitlist, and to be honest I breathed a sigh of relief about that (it takes a lot of time to train for an ultra, and I’m a busy guy with a lot of really important time-wasting to do). Getting waitlisted is essentially a license to relax; getting in means its real. Anyway, as if to mock the relief I felt, I got unwaitlisted the very next day.

My preparation probably lacked enough intensity and I’m sure I could have used a few extra back-to-back long runs, but in general it went quite well considering all the extra challenges life's thrown my way recently. I basically trained for a marathon and counted on my years of trail and distance running experience to get me through. At the very least, I went into it feeling confident that I’d make it if: a.) I went slow enough, and b.) my ever-present nemesis—too-tight hamstrings—didn’t pop up along the way and demand "seizure time" (boy do I hate seizure time).

Naturally, I didn’t sleep much the night before. Just before 3AM, I roused my groggy girlfriend, Jen. Soon we were driving east in the dark for a few hours along the snowy Mass Pike, with me trying my best to stay positive and not think of all the ways the weather could make things go wrong. We arrived at the small parking lot where the start was around 6:15, and magically found a spot right near the food table. I got my number, chatted with some familiar faces, prepped my gear bag, and tended to all sorts of last minute clothing checks. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, the sky was fully overcast, and a light breeze began to pick up. 7AM arrived before I knew it, and the shivering pack of compression sock clad, hydration vest sporting, and soon-to-be-lost-a-lot racers headed out for some trail running.

Loop 1: Away We Go

Having absolutely no idea how to pace myself for eight unmarked miles on a trail I’d never been on before, I opted to start near the back of the pack. This was probably the right call, but it quickly became apparent that I’d want to hop ahead of at least a few people on the first climb to avoid feeling frustrated. After that initial shuffling of the deck, there was very little passing for the rest of the race.

A light snow cover made the woods all white and covered some of the smaller rocks, but in general it didn’t make much of a difference. My ASICS DS-Trainers held traction as surprisingly well as they always do, and aside from a few clumsy stumbles I never slipped or fell. I wore a new pair of running tights, a long-sleeve shirt, and some cheap cotton gloves, along with a lightweight shell (that I took off 2 laps later).

Like most of the pack, I ran the loop clockwise, believing it was better to tackle the tougher climbs first. This may have been a wise choice for another reason too; the trail network is very dense at the Fells and it’s really easy to miss turns. I’m generally a pretty decent trail-finder, but all bets are off in a race. At any rate, I was happy to be behind a train of people who knew the way.

The trail relentlessly roller-coastered over countless rocky hills. Once, it climbed straight up a steep ledge, requiring hands-on effort, but usually it was less technical than that. In between the rocky knolls, it frequently followed short, flat, straight stretches where it was possible to open up my stride and really run for a moment. Following tried-and-true advice, I walked every uphill and ran/jogged all downhills and flats. Around halfway through, a climb tops out at a vista on Pine Hill where there’s a sweeping view south to the skyline of Boston.

The halfway aid station, which is really closer to two-thirds of the way around, was staffed by an extremely enthusiastic and helpful group of volunteers. They cheered as runners approached them, offered to fill my water bottle, and provided just the right amount of conversation without being too chatty. Seriously, I wanna give some kind of Awesomeness Award to those guys.

The remaining three miles or so are a little bit easier. There’s still a considerable amount of elevation change to reckon with, but the hills aren’t as high or even nearly as rugged. I ran near a group most of the way, though the order changed a lot as people occasionally took wrong turns and briefly got off track. It’s particularly easy to miss the correct route the first time you go around the west end of North Reservoir.

The first transition (T1) took a little bit of time. I probably talked to volunteers too much, but I was well ahead of my goal pace so I didn’t mind the loss.

Total loop 1 time, including T1 = 1:34 (11:45 pace)

Loop 2: Getting in the Groove

I slowed down some during the second loop, mostly on purpose. I still felt good, but wanted to make sure I’d have enough in the tank later on. Though it would have been nice to change directions for variety, it seemed self-evident that continuing to run clockwise would greatly reduce my chances of wasting valuable time getting lost.

While certain landmarks and junctions started to look familiar, the landscape looked a lot different this time around as the snow melted and new surfaces were exposed. The sun began to poke out from behind the clouds. The dog walkers were also starting to come out. There were many, many dogs romping around out there (all very well-behaved and welcome sights, I’m happy to say). There was also a man-sized yeti wandering through the woods at one point (really).

Ben Kimball at the 2013 TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile
Somewhere around mile 14 
(photo courtesy of Douglyss Giuliana)

I started the loop solo, but ended up running a lot of it with veteran runner Jim Roche, who was doing the 32-miler as a training run at a pace just slightly faster than what I was doing. I kept up with him for about six miles, but hung back slightly after the halfway aid station. Partly I wanted to play it safe with pacing this early on, and partly something wasn't quite right with my body in the latter part of this lap.

Does anyone actually want to hear about the uncomfortable sensation I started to feel deep down in my core? The one that eventually became incredibly urgent and forced me to bushwhack off the trail a ways and lose at least 5 minutes? No? Good. We'll leave it at that then. Except maybe to note that I proudly practice proper emergency-in-the-woods ethics (dig hole, bury, etc.). And that I felt a lot better afterwards. Oh, and also that I’m quite thankful for the existence of, you know, um, leaves. Sigh...

Total loop 2 time, including pit stop and T2 = 1:45 (13:08 pace)

Loop 3: When Slow Food Isn't Better

Jen came with me on the third loop. Not as a pacer, specifically (I’m not sure I care that much for the concept of having a pacer), but just for company, and to enjoy a nice challenging 8-mile trail run of her own. It was really nice to have her along.

I slowed some on this lap. Partly it was due to a distinct overall decrease in energy, and partly it was simple fatigue, but at least a few minutes were due to waiting for my soup to cool at the aid station. To be clear, this was NOT the fault of the volunteers; it just meant that as an ultra newbie I hadn’t learned the art of quickly cooling a cup of scalding hot chicken noodle soup by cutting it with a splash of water. Whatever the reason, I clocked a significantly slower lap time.

My shoes and socks had gotten pretty wet from all the melting snow, and I changed them back at transition. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the time, but quickly realized that the comfort of dry feet was a simple luxury I could smile about and be thankful for the entire rest of the race.

Total loop 3 time, including T3 = 2:00 (15:00 pace)

Loop 4: Second Wind

The notion of not making the cutoff time before the final lap tugged at the back of my mind. I knew I’d be fine if I kept up a similar pace, but I wasn’t sure what my tightly-tuned Achilles had in mind and I’d only ever run longer than marathon distance once before. I felt good after the food, though, and managed to keep the blue shell of one of the superhuman race leaders (who were heading out for their fifth loop now) in distant sight most of the way up the first hill.

In my head, I found myself singing Peter Gabriel’s “Growing Up” a lot. If you don’t know this later song of his from 2002, treat yourself; it’s an underrated gem with a great pulsing beat. “My goals like to travel…”

To my surprise, I did considerably better than on the previous loop. I felt more energized and less draggy, and the miles ticked by without incident. The southern section did seem to take longer than before, especially some of the climbs just before the aid station, but I think that was just a mental delusion.

My body was holding up well. I’d fully lubed my feet up in the morning and didn’t feel any hot spots. Food from the aid stations (soup, potatoes, PB&J sandwiches, cookies, more cookies, etc.) was staying down. And the clothes I had on seemed like the right amount; I was sweating some, as usual, but not as profusely as I do in warmer weather. I felt like I picked up the pace some, and indeed arrived back at transition about 10 minutes quicker than on the previous lap.

TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Mile
finishing lap 4
(photo by Jen Garrett)

Total loop 4 time, including T4 = 1:52 (14:00 pace)

Loop 5: The “Last” Loop

Feeling a surge of energy from the relief of knowing that I was well ahead of the cutoff time for the last lap, I ran out the lollipop stick one more time. Part of me wanted to try running the loop the other way for variety, but I was wary of taking a wrong turn so late in the game. So I took the left again and started back up the familiar hill one more time.

Everything on this loop was last, including me (almost). That’s the last time I cross this particular rise, the last time I see that view, the last time I need to make that turn, and hopefully my last pee break. And finally, the last time I approach the loud cheers of the halfway aid station (did I mention I love those guys?). I ran several of these miles with Meghan and Tara from my local trail running club (yeah 413!), but pulled ahead again not long after the aid station.

Jen had run out to meet me somewhere around mile 38, and I saw her sitting at the top of a rise just past a soft, pine-needle-covered stretch. We trudged the final two miles in together. I wasn’t much for conversation at that point and I certainly couldn’t focus much on anything more than each footstep, but it was nice to have some company again. We reached the finish right at sunset.

After literally running from sunup to sundown, eating 6 chocolate Vi Fuel gels, taking 8 Endurolyte capsules, eating an inhumane number of chocolate chip cookies, and spending every conscious second paying acute attention to the uneven ground beneath my feet, it felt so good to simply stop. Though I did have one more cookie, just for good measure.

Total loop 5 time = 1:54 (14:15 pace)


My total time was 9 hours and 21 minutes (14:15 average pace), and I placed 12th out of 13 finishers for the 40-mile race. I’m perfectly happy with that, for several reasons. This was my longest run ever over 31 miles (and only my second ultra); there were quite a few DNFs for the 40; and my 32 mile split would have had me place in the top third of that race. But mostly I’m just finding satisfaction in knowing that it’s possible, that I too can do it. And naturally, as you might expect, now that I know I can run 40 miles…


  1. Nice work at the 40 mile distance and great writeup! Are you going to run the Wapack 50 this spring?

    1. Hmmn, good question! I guess it is time to start figuring out when that first 50 is gonna be, and where. And Wapack is a lot of fun...

      also considering Waramaug, TARC 50, or Pinelands as options. Or maybe even Rock the Ridge in NY. Oh the possibilities...

    2. Sounds like some good choices. Good luck on the training and approaching your next challenge.