Wapack and Back

For the past two weeks what’s been occupying every free thought in some way or another has been the Wapack and Back 50miler hosted by TARC. I stayed up until midnight back in February to sign up for one of the 30 slots in this race because it’s supposed to be one of the hardest 50 milers you can find. There is over 10,000 ft of elevation gain and 10,000 ft of elevation loss over the 50mile course, with much of it coming in steep grades over tough terrain. As of 2016, the top ten fastest women’s times ever posted on the 10-year-old course were between just under 11hrs and just over 13hrs. My logic was that I ran VT50, which has just under 9,000 feet of gain, in 9hr44mins while having 10 miles of terrible stomach issues, I should be able to do well. Maybe I’d even have a chance of breaking 13hrs to get on the list of the 10 fastest finishes. How much could a thousand feet of gain and some rocks slow me down? I laugh about my logic now.

Here’s why:

  1. I’m not the strongest runner on technical terrain. I’m super-cautious and I slow down to a walk if there’s a chance there are loose rocks or slippery roots under my feet.  I love running trails, but I’m not all that fast on them and, for the most part, I don’t really desire to be.
  2. I hate running steep downhills. I groan and grumble even when I see a steep downhill on a paved road. I especially hate running on technical downhills. My legs just aren’t strong enough to take the pounding. I feel unsure of my footing and my quads put on the brakes which strains my knees so I brake even more and then the whole eccentric muscle contraction cycle takes over and my quads are entirely trashed within a couple miles.
  3. This would only be my third ultra. As of less than a year ago, I had never run longer than a marathon.

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The reality of the race started to hit about last weekend and I started to have my doubts.  I convinced my friend Alex we had to go to Pawtuckaway State Park and run 16miles on technical trails and do a lot of elevation gain.  I needed to have a good run on some technical terrain to feel like I even had a chance of finishing the race.  Luckily, it was probably my strongest showing on terrain like that since I started making the transition to mostly trail running last year.  I was able to keep Alex, who is a strong runner on technical trails and downhills, mostly within a couple hundred meters on the most technical sections of the trail. I’m sure I was working harder than he was on the run, but it was the first time he wasn’t minutes ahead of me. It could have also been because he was in the middle of his biggest mileage week ever. Hey, I’ll take it!  He seemed to notice my increased strength on this type of terrain, so that was a promising feeling going into race week.

On Friday, I drove out to Windblown Ski Area to stay in a tiny house/cabin on the property the night before the race. When I pulled up, I realized I used to cross country ski there all the time in high school. It brought back a ton of really fun and happy memories.  The Wapack Trail runs right through the property, so it was a great find for the night before the race.  I stayed alone and ate 3/4 of a large spinach pizza, read a couple chapters from “The Inner Runner” by Jason Karp, watched a beautiful sunset, and went to bed pretty early for my 3:20am alarm. It was like Walden, with pizza and spandex.

Wapack and Back starts at 5am from Watatic State Park in Ashburnham, MA. It was still dark, so everyone had their headlamps on.  I placed my drop bags containing my fuel and some extra dry clothes on the tarps headed to Windblown at miles 9/34 and the north end of the trail at mile 21.5 – the turn around.  Without much fanfare, the race got off to a start right on time. We passed through a gate to get on to the trail, and I thought to myself “I won’t be seeing this gate again for awhile.” Sure enough, I wouldn’t see it again for almost 12hrs – and I wouldn’t be finished with the race.

As we wound our way up some technical, steep uphill I could see the sun rising through clearings in the trees.  The trail markers could be a bit tricky to find (yellow triangle blazes on trees and rocks) in the dim light. I like uphills, so I worked pretty hard on the early climbs knowing that I would slow to a near walk on technical downhills. Within about 4 miles I had settled into 3rd place woman and it was clear there was going to be no catching the women in front of me.

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This is a fairly “runnable” section of the course, believe it or not.

As we were approaching Windblown (probably 7 or so miles into the race) there were about 5-6 of us all clumped together as we navigated the jeep roads and cross country ski paths in the area. I would catch and pass the group on the uphills and they would pass me or catch up on the downhills.  At Windblown (mile 9) the trail crosses the street – something I didn’t know – so while I had put a good minute or so on the group, I had to wait for them to catch up again so I could figure out where to go. The aid station was across the street and up a way in an off-road parking area. I never thought to look for the blazes going up the highway!   I arrived at the aid station with a couple other people, but tried to take off pretty quickly and make up a bit of the time I spent standing around looking for the trail.

The next section of the trail is very runnable with some less-technical downhill and even a bit of road to get back onto the trail. It was great to get moving for a bit through that section before the next major climb at mile 12 to go up Burton and over to Temple Mountain. At this point, I was basically alone and would be for almost the rest of the race. From mile 12-16, there were some technical trails but nothing too crazy or steep so I still felt like I was moving. My hiking was strong and I was running good stretches of trail at a time.

Then, the craziness hit. Wapack and Back is gets its reputation because of miles 16.5-21.5! There was an aid station at Miller State Park where there was a port-o-potty (yay!) and a really encouraging crew of volunteers waiting. I chatted a bit with the volunteers, grabbed some ginger ale and headed out across the street to the trail. I almost stopped dead in my tracks. Facing me was a huge rock pile. It was the trail.  This was when I realized Wapack was no joke. Pictures can’t do it justice, but here are some photos from the race.

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I don’t know what is just ahead of me yet. (Photo J. Bigl)
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Up! (Photo J. Bigl)
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Down (Photo J. Bigl)

While there are some beautiful forested sections of the trail after the rock pile, I barely remember them because all I was focusing on was that I heard the downhill coming off of Pack Monadnock down to the turn around point was going to be rough. I also knew I was likely to start seeing the 21.5 mile racers who start at the north end of the trail at 9am. My friends Tony and John would be out there and I was excited to get a chance to see familiar faces after almost 4.5hrs of running mostly alone. I saw them briefly when I had about 3.5 miles until the turn around. I said to Tony “This so so freaking technical”, and he said “Just wait!”.  I actually found running to the turn around point not quite as bad as the previous miles, but I knew with my race I was going to have to do everything again, this time in the opposite direction.  At mile 21.5, I grabbed a slice of pizza I had packed in my drop bag, some more ginger ale, a MunkPack (so good!), and headed out again.

I knew I had a long climb coming right out of the turn around (700+ feet in 1 mile), and it was going to be a long, slow slog of technical trail and rock scrambles to make it back to the aid station at Miller State Park, but it was a goal I kept in mind the whole way. The climbs weren’t bothering me, but the downhills had started to take their toll. My lower quads and knees were screaming with every step whether it was running or walking. Going down the huge rock face wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I slammed my left shin against a rock really hard and felt the throbbing from that for a couple miles. I stopped and chatted with the guys at the Miller State Park aid station for a bit and said I was so happy to have that section over with. It was then that I confessed I hated downhill and technical running and I wasn’t really sure I had any business being out there.  They laughed, but reminded me the worst was behind me at that point.

The next thing I knew, I was nearing Windblown again. I had miscalculated in my dumb, tired runner brain the distance, so when I got to the aid station at 34 miles (for some reason I thought it was going to be 36), I was thrilled. I grabbed another piece of pizza from my other drop bag, but realized about a half mile from the aid station I had forgotten my MunkPacks I was planning on bringing with me. I had some emergency GUs with me, so I knew I’d be OK to get to the next aid station, but I really wanted my oatmeal.

Most people hate the climb coming up out of Windblown to Barrett Mountain, but I had no problem with it since it was just grass and not very technical. I felt strong and happy, but I knew my pace had suffered so much during the technical sections from 16.5 – 26.5miles that a 13hr finish time was out of reach, but I was still hoping to salvage something close to 13.5hrs.  I met up with another runner who was suffering from very sore knees and said he was dropping to the 43 miler. I passed him on the way up, then got lost at a section of clear cut trees at the top of the climb and couldn’t find the trail to go down.  He called out to me a couple times as he was heading down so I could bushwhack my way through to get to the trail. I never saw him again. I think I motivated him a bit to get going again for the rest of the race! I hobbled down the hills and was passed by one woman who was going to go on to win the 43 miler. She could still run downhills and I was so jealous. I finally hit the runnable jeep roads by Binney Pond again.  I loved this section even more on the way back. It felt so good to move at a reasonable pace again. I had to take a few more walking breaks than I was taking on the way out, but everything felt fairly controlled and manageable.

I got to the aid station that was 3.5miles out from the start/finish area. If you’re doing the 43miler, this is really just 3.5 miles from the finish line. If you are in the 50mile race, you have to go back to the finish and then head out again to hit that aid station again, and then come back to finish line to get the full mileage.  I got to the Binney Road aid station at 3:45pm, meaning I had 1hr 15mins to get back to the starting line to reach the cutoff time to be allowed to continue on to the 50mile race. When I checked in there, they asked if I was going to “finish-finish” (a term I heard from other runners along the way who were in the 50 miler), and I said I would if I made the cutoff.  As I ran off from the aid station, another woman caught up to me who was running the 43 miler was just arriving at the aid station. The volunteers called out to me “We better see you soon!” and I called out “I hope so!”  Thinking back, I can’t believe I was telling them I was hoping to have to run another 10 miles at that point. I’m glad my brain had basically shut off and could only focus on finishing 50 miles.

There is a reasonable, but not very technical climb coming up into Watatic from this direction. Somewhere during this hill I saw the women’s winner of the 50 miler coming back to hit the Binney Road aid station again.  She was looking strong and determined and leading a pack of guys. They were essentially 6.5 miles ahead of me at that point. She was on pace to run just over 11hrs for the race — the second fastest time ever posted at the race for women. Completely badass.  I saw the rest of the field on my way back into the start/finish area and congratulated them.  I saw a lot of them as I was hobbling down the steep side of Watatic and they were climbing it. Again, I was asked “Are you going to finish-finish?” and I said yes. Again, I have no idea why I was readily agreeing to run another 7 miles on such shot legs.

I made it to the start/finish area and saw my friends Tony and John there again. I made the cutoff with about 25 minutes to spare. I ate pretzels, a banana, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some broth (I love broth!), and headed out again, this time with company.  Tony and I had talked a bit about him potentially pacing me for the last 7 miles if I needed it. He said he saw it in my eyes when I came in that I was going to need some company.  I remember coming in and saying “Can someone come with me?” even before I touched the gate.

I cannot thank Tony enough for the next 7 miles that he did not have to run, but did anyway. He PRed his 21.5 mile race, which meant he had blown apart his legs for 4 hours much earlier in the day, had cooled down, and had even gotten changed, but still came back out with me. We did the huge rocky climb to the top of Watatic at a fairly reasonable pace and I continued to have to hobble the downhill off the mountain. There was about 1 mile of runnable jeep road to the Binney Road aid station and I tried to do as much running and fast walking through there as possible. It was the first time I had company for the whole race, so I was talking Tony’s ear off. I was telling him about my plans for a graduation speech I have to give for my students (more on that in another post). When we got to the aid station, I was so excited to see my new friends and thank them for staying out there while I was being stubborn and needing to finish this thing. They were a huge motivating factor in heading back out. At that point I found out I was going to be the last official finisher – I was the last one to make the cutoff at mile 43 who headed back out.  We grabbed more snacks and headed back. This time when I got to that gate it was going to be over. I was pretty ready for that.

My spirits were pretty high, all things considered. I was laughing about how I was going to be so proud of my last place finish. I was running and hiking pretty well on the uphills and flats. The downhills had become nightmarishly slow. My legs weren’t strong enough to run at all on them anymore, so the agony was prolonged as I sidestepped down every single downhill.  I was trying to find lines that had no rocks so I could move a bit easier, but it kept leading me into shrubs or dead ends.  I called it getting stuck in a “wuss corral”. Tony found that pretty amusing.  I gave Tony my phone and told him I wanted him to get pictures of me touching the gate when I finished. We shuffled back down Watatic, and hit the last stretch of flat trail and I started running! The volunteers were great and clapped for me as I came through and touched the gate in 13hrs 44min 20 seconds!

I spent the next 20minutes talking about all that I ate on the run, what I was going to eat after the race, and what I wanted to eat at that moment (#priorities).  Luckily the finisher medals were awesome sugar cookies!

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Mmmm. Morning-after race breakfast!

So, what did I learn from this race?

  1. Don’t try to compare yourself to anyone or a clock when it comes to trail racing.  The courses are so different and the sizes of fields are so varied, there is no real way to make predictions if you haven’t raced a course or against a particular person before.
  2. I have to start doing more strength training. Single-leg squats, barre classes… all the stuff I don’t really like, but I have to do them. My biggest weakness was not feeling steady on my feet going down technical downhills. Some of that is fear of breaking my face, but I wouldn’t be so scared if I felt like my legs were strong enough to take the impact without collapsing under me.
  3. My hiking and running stays in pretty good shape for a long time, even when my quads and knees are shot. This gives me hope for VT100 because none of it is really technical. I kept on saying to Tony any time we hit a technical I needed to walk over “I wish I could just run!”
  4. I can stay positive, even when I’m faced with the the terrain I am most weak on for about 14hrs. I never cried. I never seriously entertained the thought of quitting. I never got all that grumpy. On the way out any time I hit a big downhill I didn’t like, I said to myself, almost as a reflex, “Remember this is an uphill on the way back and you feel strong on uphills”.
  5. It’s amazing to be out there with people who are so much better than you. I don’t often end up at the back of a pack. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even come in in the bottom half of a race before this.  This race attracts serious, experienced ultra racers who seek out tough terrain. I’m not one of them by a long shot. I probably had no business being out there, but I was able to hang and hit the cutoffs. The two other women who went 50 miles have sub-24hr 100 mile finishes under their belts, and have raced over some of the toughest terrain that the East can provide. It was a privilege to finish last if those are the people I was in the race with.
  6. You aren’t doing this alone, even when you’re running for hours by yourself. There are aid station volunteers who are there to keep you motivated, and friends who are there to support you either in-person, on training runs, or through messages. I finally realized how important pacers are. When Tony joined me, all of a sudden it was a different race and I could refocus and get the job done. Having a support system makes this possible.

 

Not to toot my own horn, but I feel like a complete badass.  I have never felt this strong or accomplished in an athletic pursuit. This race is no joke. It gives you every reason to want to pull the plug. I stayed strong, positive, and stubborn as hell. This was the experience I needed to feel ready for VT100. Now, I just have to recover. My sore, scratched up legs will serve as a momento mori.

 

Training recap

May 1-7

Mileage: 50.5 running, 2.6 walking

Time on feet: 8hrs 46min

 

May 8 – 14

Mileage 54.4 running, 3.3 walking

Time on feet: 14hr 4mins

 

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