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RR: Fells Trail Race 50k/40mi 3/29/08

1510 Views 13 Replies 7 Participants Last post by  RunLongVT
This weekend's Fells Trail race in/near Winchester, MA was a blast. This was a very low-key, no-frills event. No T-shirts, no finisher's awards, not even bib numbers. That suited me fine. The <a href="" target="_blank">website</a> said that because of permitting issues, this would be a stealth race, with even the single start/finish aid station being undercover, tucked in the back of the Race Director's Honda Element, rather than spread out in full view. The race was limited to 25 runners, and 23 showed on race morning. A last minute adjustment to the 7-7:30am start window was made, bumping things back a half hour because of some nasty weather the night before. The area got rain and considerable snow a bit further north, so with temps in the low 20s overnight, there was some ice on the course. I say start "window" because racers were free to start at any time when they were ready, with the RD taking down the time when you started off. Most people got going around 8. At the start, the RD, Bogie D., said, "Aw, no one's going to run 5 laps today. That would be like 10 hours. No way." I think he thought the conditions just wouldn't allow it. I chuckled in my head. I, like an idiot, react to that kind of statement like Marty McFly reacts to "chicken." I was determined to show him wrong. I had been mentally prepping for this race for a week, getting ready for the time alone and the pain, and there was little that was going to stop me from finishing, even if it did take 10 hours (I was hoping for more like 8, though). I pinned my paper number in a baggie that Bogie had given me to my hip (no one else wore theirs) and set off.<br><br><b>The Fells Skyline Trail:</b><br>
The course was a "lollypop" loop of the Fells park which straddles Interstate 95 about ten miles north of downtown Boston. There was a half-mile run in from the parking lot, then racers could choose to run the 6.9 mile loop clock- or counterclock-wise, then back out to the lot for 7.9 miles per lap. There was a self-check-in system in place, where runners wrote their times on a sheet as they made the turn at the end of each lap. This system actually was fairly confusing. The spreadsheet had a column for "Start time" then "end time 2nd lap", "end time 3d lap", etc. There was no column for your first lap time, though. Most folks wrote in the first column the piece of information that was most present in their minds, their split for the lap, when they first came in. As a result, the sheet was totally incomprehensible for people hoping to learn how the competition was doing. Some people were writing in "1:48" meaning it took 1 hour, 48 minutes to run that lap, others were writing in "9:47" meaning the lap was finished at that time, meaningless unless you knew their start time, and others were writing in their total elapsed time as of that point "3:21" etc. It was a mess. (Check out picture 89 on the photo album linked to on the race page). I got there and I wasnt sure whether I should second guess the labeling of the columns or follow the instructions and just forget my first lap split. After the race, it occurred to me that this may have been a deliberate effort to make the sheet incomprehensible so that unscrupulous runners would not be tempted to fudge their times so as to edge ahead of other runners. But, suffice to say, it was confusing at best, and definitely frustrating. What do I write and how the heck am I doing in this race?? But I digress.<br><br>
The trail was very technical, hilly, and demanded your full attention at all times. Trail shoes were a necessity because there were more stones and roots to kick and step on that I have seen anywhere. These were not the TV-sized granite chunks of the Whites or PA, but rather sharp, embedded shards of the underlying shattered bedrock, similar to other Boston locales such as the Blue Hills. This made for very laborious running, a true test of your ability to cross rough terrain. To put this in perspective, I ran two 50k races last year on moderate courses in just under 5 hours. My 50k split here was just under 7 hours, due in part to a bit of difficulty I describe below, but nothing I didn't also experience in those 50ks. The red, rocky, dusty soil and windswept pines on the hilltops reminded me just a bit of pictures I have seen of Western States. Fancy that. There were many small dips and climbs, and even some scrambling sections where use of hands was necessary (or scooting on your butt if you were coming down). The RD thought there was 800 feet gained and lost each lap ("But it feels like more"<img alt="wink.gif" src="">, but some racers reported 1150 on their GPS units. I ran all my laps clockwise so as to get familiar with the course and learn landmarks to gauge my progress from, but it seems most people ran counter-clockwise. With the exception of one spot cutting through a field and a few moments run on access roads, the course was primarily single-track, following the white-blazed Skyline Trail loop around the park. Passing would have been an "excuse-me, on your left" maneuver if I had come across anyone else during the race. I passed one runner within the first mile, was passed by two speed-deamon 50k-ers on my fourth lap, and saw no one else running my direction for the rest of the race. Other than that, I saw everyone twice, passing the other direction, each lap, and ran the remainder of the race with my thoughts, the sound of my breathing, and the occasional dog-walker.<br><br><b>My Race:</b><br>
I had a pretty good run. I've been experimenting with my nutrition in my last few races and went for bathe-myself-in-calories route this weekend. I can eat like a horse and on Friday night, ate like an Italian horse (Stalion?), consuming an entire box of spaghetti with a little butter and salt and pepper. Please, please, hold your applause. No, I don't always do this, but no, it wasn't difficult, either. Put something in front of me and I will put it away. I was carbo loaded and ready to go.<br><br>
It was chilly at the start and it was clear that the weather report of mid 20s overnight was accurate. I started off with a thin fleece earband on my head and my very well-travelled mittens on my hands. I love these mittens. They are blue wool, I knit them myself, and they have run countless winter miles wihth me over the last two years, not to mention the Boston Marathon during the storm last year, the Pittsfield Snowshoe Marathon, and Hellgate, in addition to other races. I warmed up quickly though, and put the earband on my wrist for the remainder of the race. The mittens would come on or off depending on whether I was on the top of a hill and getting the wind or not, but stayed with my person for the whole race. The loop run clockwise starts with a good solid hill, a walker to be sure, and quickly reaches the namesake viewpoints where a stunning vista of the Boston skyline is visible. If you have ever come into Boston from points north on 93, the park is exactly where you first get that great view of the city near exit 34 or 35. That stone tower that looms over the highway is on the course, at about the 10 or 11 o'clock position on the loop from a south-facing perspective (starting the loop at 6 o'clock).<br><br>
I was a bit too pumped up for the first lap and, despite a few route-finding snafus (the Skyline trail crosses and interweaves with three or four other trails) ran a blazing sub-1:30 lap the first time around. I think if I was going out there for one lap, I couldn't have run a whole lot faster than that. This was dumb. It was some tough trail and the constant left-right dodging of rocks was exhausting. I was fresh though, and locked into a relaxed run on the smooth portions. This is not appropriate ultra-pace, though, so this time was disproportionately fast, although not killer. I wasn't sprinting, and I was walking all the significant ups (most of them left you no choice) but just using more energy than necessary on the brief flat moments or downhills where you could let it out a bit. No worries, though. I got back to my car, guzzled two generic Ensure drinks (700 calories, baby!), gobbled a few chocolate covered peanuts, refilled my water, recorded my time, and was out again. I was totally self-supported during this race, having brought with me exactly what I wanted and not knowing what would be at the single aid station. It was actually fairly well stocked, I learned later, with cookies, fruit, soda and water, and a whole slew of pizza in the later laps. There was a nice little med kit in there too, which even included a full roll of duct tape.<br><br>
Mentally I was breaking the race into three parts; the opening laps (1&2) in which I had to hold back, the middle of the race (3&4) during which I had to stay steady, and the last lap in which I wanted to let out everything I had left. The first two laps went by uneventfully. There was a glaze of ice on a few of the rocks in the scrambling sections, but nothing that couldn't be avoided and it was gone by the second lap. I was still feeling quite good by the end of the second lap, and having let up my pace a bit in the later sections, realizing that I was going to turn in another excessively fast lap, came in in about 1:35.<br><br>
That distinctive creeping pain began shortly into lap three. I've always wondered exactly what this is about. Is it your muscles searching for more glycogen, when none remains? Is it a symptom of dehydration or perhaps over-hydration? This slowed me more than the usual bit because the trail was so technical. I find that when this grip of whatever it is starts to squeeze on my legs, I lose the ability to make fine balancing movements. Sections of rock that could be danced through become sections that must be walked. Agility is gone. What should be downhill runouts become choppy, painful shuffles. Running hard downhill is not an option. There's just something that stiffens, kills the strength in the legs and shortchanges the stride. It's not an unbearable pain by any means, just like being handicapped by an unseen fist, squeezing down on the motor. I was chewing Shot Bloks, a cross between Gummy Bears and Gu, every fifteen minutes or so, but blood sugar didn't seem to be particularly low or really the problem. My head was swimming just a little bit so I decided that it must be a bit too much water, not enough salt. It was cold and I was draining my one bottle once per lap, so maybe that was a bit too much.<br><br>
I took some salt and kept on the Bloks, and after about ten miles of medocrity(miles 18-28 or so), started feeling much better. This, somehow, is also part of the routine. Is this the body switching to relying on blood sugar again, rather than what's in the muscles? Was I right about the salt and starting to get my balances right again? I think this is probably it- I've heard of people describing hyponatremia as being "water drunk" and the woozy head was not unlike two beers on an empty stomach. I'm filing that away for next time. In any case, lap three was physically and psychologically the most difficult. I kept trying to stay positive and think how great it was that I was passing the halfway point, that I was into the second portion of the race, but suffice to say I was working hard for the money. This lap did not come easy. 1:52 for the lap. Part of the difficulty was the knowledge that I had two more to go. When you're in a crappy spot, the distance that remains can seem intimidating, even unthinkable. But, by the middle of lap four, things were improving. I was still passing runners going the other way in the wrong spot on the course, so I knew I had slowed quite a bit, but suddenly the grip was loosening, slipping away, and I was "really running" again.<br><br>
Half way through lap four, I passed a couple with two L.L.Bean-catalogue-quality golden retriever puppies, just walking explosions of fluff with these black eyelashes and pink tongues poking through. "I'm done running," I told them, "I just want to hang out with you guys." Coming into the home stretch of lap 4 I was running better and better. I was still a bit stiff, muscles still tinged with that soreness of a 20-miler on pavement (I ran from Framingham, MA to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, last weekend and it felt just like this), but moving again. Not fast, but definitely not slowing and definitely feeling better. The split was 1:59, the extra minutes attributable mostly I think to the slowness of the first part, rather than an overall slowing from the previous lap. I was coming back, though, and ready to go into the home stretch.<br><br>
Lap 5 was a blast. I had answered nature's call at the beginning of the lap and felt new again. It's hard to tell what portion was due to physiological conditions and how much was just knowing I was running for home. I always feel charged up and new again at the end of a race or long epic run, and I don't underestmate the psychological value of this. I was still drinking my liquid meal replacements so I had tons of calories to burn. My legs felt like I had no more than ten miles on them. Better still, they felt released from that invisible fist, free to swing a full stride and to absorb my footfallls. By now I knew about where the half way point was, where I was 45 minutes from the end of the lap, and the sequence of the last few climbs that told me I was only 6 or 7 minutes from home. It was a pleasure to reel these points in, one after another. The day had been sunny and clear and I felt sun-kissed and maybe a bit chapped on my nose and lips from the wind and my running nose. I passed another runner just at the estimated-half-way point, and felt that I was stronger than he looked. I picked it up a bit, wanting to be darn sure I got in before him. I was running everything now, holding my pace and pushing with all the power I had in my legs up the rocky slopes. It felt good to push against the resistence, like cranking hard during a run after a few miles of warmup. Sure enough, faster than I expected, one after another my benchmarks went by and I was moving through the last bits, water bottle empty and headed for home. Cranking down across the last bridges, meeting the access path and turning for the lot, I ran it in good and strong. I finished feeling great in 1:55, for a total of about 8:55 running time, having sped up modestly from the lap before.<br><br>
I asked the RD how I did and he said that only three of us, he thought, were going for the full five laps. Everyone else had gone home long ago. I was amazed. I had had no idea. A couple people had made it only one or two laps, about ten had done three, six or seven had done four, completing 50k, and he thought maybe three of us remained standing. I had finished second. He said one guy finished about twenty minutes before me, doing his five laps faster than me, and he thought there was still two runners on the course, one going for the five laps. I told him I had seen only one person at the halfway and he looked rather ragged, but should be in in no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Turned out the mystery third runner had already thrown in the towel and gone home, but failed to check the "Done- off the course" box on the sheet. Only the two of us, myself and mr. first place, ran the full 5 laps. He ran steady 1:35's for four laps, then slowed to 2:05 for the last one, finishing some 50 minutes or so ahead of me. My rough patch in the middle had cost me the win. No sweat, though. I had never expected anything like second, let alone so few finishers, and the day really was far more like a personal, solo time-trial than any head-to-head race I have ever run. I ran alone for almost nine hours, after all. I had some cold pizza and headed down to my inlaws' place for a good hot shower.<br><br>
This was a challenging race and a fantastic trail. As a trail runner you could hardly ask for a better genuine off-road experience so close to a major metropolitan area. Hikers, runners, and mountain bikers flock to this area for a reason. I would happily run laps here any day I was in the area. Next year should see a bit more aid, such as water at the big tower, and an even lower entry fee according to the RD- $25 each ended up leaving a surplus. It was defintely not a social adventure, but if you like the personal experience out there, you'll be fine. It's good training for the late goings in a long race at any rate. The weather was beautiful, perfect for running, the rocks gave no quarter to laziness or inattention, and the relatively long laps helped build self-reliance and grit. I'll be back next year.<br><br><b>Postscript:</b><br>
Other than sweating through my usual post-ultra heat flush during dinner after the race, I felt great afterwards. Ever so slightly stiff in the quads and sore on a couple of spots on my feet that didn't quite blister, but little else. By the next afternoon I was ready for a 7.5 mile trail run down in Stoughton near my inlaws' place, completing the two rocky laps of their conservation land in my usual :35 per lap, able to push hard without soreness or acute pain anywhere. Awesome. All systems are go. I'm already looking forward to the next race and very pleased with the progress of my training for this summer's VT100!<br><br>
If you check out the photo album linked to on the website, I am in photos 22, 23, 71, 72, 169, 170-71, and 178-80. Note that there are two numbering systems to the photos. These are the numbers in the little orange boxes, not the "023"-style numbers.
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Nice way to approach the course and BRAVO on prevailing thru five loops! Bogies races are always on the verge….personally I still don’t understand why hold an organized race in a location where you’re not allowed to organize a race in the first place? Hidden aid station? Write down times system? Yet I give him huge props for tackling these events it’s a tuff job RDing, heck I’ll probably be at Bogies next race the MorFun Wapack.
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