On Saturday I finished up a flurry of 4 tough trail races (totaling about 95 miles and 19,000 feet of elevation gain) in 5 weeks!
The Wapack and Back Trail race takes place on the Wapack Trail which spans from Ashburnham, MA to Greenfield, NH. The trail summits 6 small mountains including Watatic, Pratt, New Ipswich, Barrett, Temple and Pack Monadnock. For more info on some awesome running and hiking, check out the Friends of the Wapack Website. Also check out the post I wrote a few weeks back about a training run on the course. There are two distance options for the race. The 21.5 Miler (which I ran), runs the entire length of the Wapack Trail from north to south and yields about 5,500 feet of elevation gain (according to my trusty Garmin Fenix altimeter). There is also a 50 mile option which covers the entire Wapack Trail twice! (Thus the “and Back” part of Wapack and Back!)
50 Mile Runners start at 5am in the dark on the southern end of the trail, run to the northern terminus, turn around and come back to the southern terminus and then, wait for it….. head back out again for another 7 mile out and back! The stats for a 50 mile finisher include summiting 14 significant climbs for about 12,ooo feet of total elevation gain on some of the gnarliest, rockiest, rootiest and hilliest trail racing that New England has to offer. 50 mile runners who can not make the cutoff, or are just too cooked to head out for the last 7 miles, get a 43 Mile finisher time on Ultrasignup as long as they complete the full out and back of the Wapack. The race is RD’d by Norm Sheppard who does a fantastic job of putting on what feels to me like an old school trail race in it’s truest form.
I drove up to the race with my buddy Jeff Hattem. Jeff and I had trained on the course together a few weeks before the race. A training run that I really enjoyed, but Jeff wasn’t overly enthusiastic about afterwards. He had struggled with the technical descending on the training run, and was feeling pretty nervous about the race. Adding in the rainy conditions on race day only amplified his nerves. The forecast basically called for rain and drizzle all day long with the possibility of a few scattered thunderstorms. Not exactly ideal for a long day on roots and rocks, but I actually love running in the rain, so I wasn’t disappointed at all. I would just need to keep under control and avoid slipping and sliding as much as possible.
Arriving at the race site to pick up my bib, I was happily surprised to find that runners received technical race shirts with a super-cool front and back design!
After dropping off our cars at the southern terminus of the trail, which would later serve as the finish line, the other 21.5 Mile runners and I were taken by bus up to the starting line at the New Hampshire end of the Wapack. When I say starting line, I mean that the busses pulled over to the side of the road and dumped us at the trail head! No banners, no logos, no sports drink PR girls. Just Norm standing at the top of a small rise with a few tidbits of information for us, and then we were off!
The trail starts with a climb (shocker!). I wished Jeff good luck and started climbing.
Within the first 10 minutes or so of the race, the first 50 milers started passing us coming in the opposite direction. I knew a handful of runners who were attempting the 50, and was looking forward to shouting out some encouragement. The first one to come through was Scott Patnode, who was looking strong and happy. I gave him a high five and rattled off some bad joke about him being slow as he passed by. Not long afterwards came Debbie Livingston who, though we are not really friends or anything, is always on my radar because she runs just about every single race! Debbie would go on to win the women’s 50 mile race. Making more of an impact on me than who I was seeing, was who I was NOT seeing. First and foremost, I had expected Josh Katzman to be the first 50 Miler I saw. When he wasn’t, I assumed he had decided, for whatever reason, not to race this year. A few other middle-of-the-pack friends were absent as well. I think the rain kept a lot of people away from the infamously rugged and technical course.
I don’t know how other bloggers manage to remember every rise, every descent, every turn and seemingly every rock on a race course. Do they take notes? Are they dictating into some fancy little machine? For the life of me, I can’t figure that one out! What I can tell you is that the race course is pretty much an unrelenting 21 miles of this kind of stuff….
Not long into the race, I was surprised to realize that my legs were feeling fine and that fatigue from the last month of racing wasn’t going to impact me too much. Of course that didn’t mean that I would be speedy, but I could at least let my fitness dictate my performance. Unlike at 7 Sisters, there was no traffic or bottlenecking. There were only about 100 or so runners on the course, so I was free to let my fitness be my limiting factor.
On a clear day, I’m sure that the race yields stunning views, but I would be willing to bet that nobody running this race has ever seen those views! A broken ankle surely awaits anyone who opts not to respect each and every step of this course. (ok, that may be a LITTLE dramatic, but only a little…)
The trend I noticed for most of the race was that I would make up ground on other runners on the climbs, but I would tend to lose ground on the descending. As is usually the case with these long distance events, I ran with and chatted with several other runners along the way including a pair of accomplished road marathoners doing their first trail race, a pair of brothers running together (one in Teva Sandals!), a running store owner, and a guy I met last week at 7 Sisters. As the race progressed, sometimes they would get out ahead of me, sometimes I would get ahead of them, and when we would come together, we would shoot the shit and enjoy the trail. This is one of the things I truly love about trail running. All of the people that I “hung out with” would go on to finish the race.
At about the 16 mile point I came across a guy sitting on the side of the trail. As I passed him he said, “You’re number twenty four.”, and offered me some water. I stopped to talk to him for a second because I didn’t quite understand what he was saying. “You’re in twenty fourth place overall!” he said. “Ughh!” I replied. “I wish you hadn’t told me that!” Now, all of a sudden, it was a race for me! It’s so funny how that works. I’m just chugging along, minding my own business, when out of the blue, something reminds me that maybe I DO care about how I place in the race!
So now the goal became not to lose 24th place.
But wait! There are two guys up there in the distance. Should I try to catch them? That would put me in 22nd place! hmmm, that’s dangerously close to breaking into the top 20! Maybe I should push a little and see what happens…..
and so it goes.
On the positive side, I had run these last 5 miles of the course a few weeks ago, so I knew what to expect in terms of terrain. On the negative side, there was nothing positive to expect about the terrain! A long steady climb over rugged access roads, a rocky field, more rooty and rocky technical climbs, another summit climb, and a treacherous quad burning technical descent to the finish line. That’s all.
Working my way through this last portion of the race, I moved up a few positions past other runners. I quickly passed through the final aid station and headed up through the field leading towards the final climb up Mt. Watatic.
As I started up the climb, who should I see come bounding past like a gazelle in the opposite direction but Josh Katzman! Turns out he was running the 50 miler after all, but he’s just so absurdly fast that he had already made the turnaround at the northern terminus when we started the race! I shouted “good job!” to him. With 46 hellacious miles on his legs at what would turn out to be yet ANOTHER course record pace, he had the audacity to not be out of breath and cheerily call back, “You too man!” …..seriously?
Churning my way up the fire road climb, the inner monologue started up again…. hey! Josh is a 50 miler! That means you’re in 20th place! Hey, I wonder if there are other 50 milers ahead of me… If there are I might be in 19th place.. I better push as hard as I can to the finish just in case….
So trying not to let off the gas, I pushed to the summit of Mt. Watatic, and began the mile long technical descent to the finish. Surprisingly, I felt REALLY good on this final descent. In truth, compared to the backside of some of the other summits, this one wasn’t too bad. My confidence was also helped by the fact that I had run this downhill pretty well a few weeks ago. I managed to pass a few more runners on the way down, and felt great coming down the final access road to the “finish line” at the southern terminus trailhead in Ashburnham.
Upon finishing, I was shocked to find out that I had run about 4 hours and 50 minutes! Having looked at last year’s results, and knowing what I do about how I usually finish in relation to the winner, I had expected about a 6-hour finish time. (with hopes of breaking it of course!)
I was elated!
I collected my very cool finisher’s award, (see pic), and hung out at the finish for a little while to high five some of the other runners I had spent the day with as they came in.
It was also nice to see Mike Saporito at the finish line helping out. I had expected to see him on the course because he was registered for the 50 Miler, but some ankle trouble caused him to make the smart decision to drop. He’s got big plans this year including a couple 100 milers, and knows when to hold em’ and when to fold em’.
Sadly, my buddy Jeff didn’t have a very good day. When I got back to the car, planning to change and head back to the finish line to wait for him, I found him sleeping in the car. He had fallen early in the race and smacked his chin on the ground. Then a couple miles later, he hurt his calf coming down the descent towards the first aid station. He decided to drop out and caught a ride back to the car.
After I changed into some warm dry clothes, we went back to the finish area and cheered on the other runners while enjoying some pretty great chili.
Official results were posted on Ultrasignup last night. I managed to finish 16th out of 54 finishers in the 21.5 mile distance with a time of 4:50:39.
As always, thanks so much to all of the race coordinators and volunteers who did such a fantastic job! I don’t know if the “You’re number twenty four” guy was an official volunteer, but thanks to him too!
I definitely plan on going back to Wapack and Back! The only question is, what distance?
gear used: Inov8 TrailRoc 255 with Orange Superfeet inserts, Garmin Fenix, Nathan HPL #020 pack (which I reviewed), Hammer Gel, Salt Stick tabs