As I walked away from the packet pick-up station at the TARC Winter Fells Race, I was kind of surprised that I only had a race bib and four safety pins. No t-shirt, sticker, gloves or any other kind of schwag that one might typically get at a race. But then I remembered that I only shelled out a little over twenty bucks for this race. Besides this wasn't a race I wanted to do to collect any prized trophy. This was a race I wanted to do to get myself back into shape after a great summer of travel, and to prove to myself how much I loved running.
During our travels this summer I did manage to get in a couple of runs a week and although I ran in some amazing places, I was in anything less than ultra shape when we returned in mid-August. Back home I slowly started to get into shape while trying to find a race to motivate me. Although a long way off the TARC seemed like the perfect race to keep me motivated throughout the fall.
I was just about to sign up for the race in mid September when I started to feel awful. I was throwing up on runs less than a couple miles in, spending way too much time sitting on porcelain and having absolutely no energy on other days. I didn't even want to eat some days, and when I did I felt even worse than I did before a meal. Finally I saw my doctor and he almost immediately diagnosed me with ghiardhia. I was thrilled. Really I was. I knew this stomach bourn virus could be easily treated and to know something was actually wrong with me was such a relief. How I got this, I haven't a clue. Probably somewhere along the trip a bug got into my system through something I drank. We never had to take water from any sources other than taps, so I can't blame any store bought purification system. I am puzzled why no one else in the family brought home this little bug in their bellies but I am glad that I am the only one who had to suffer.
After taking pills for a week, I was feeling soooo much better and starting to run without discomfort. So one night I sat down at the computer and signed up for the TARC. One problem. The race was already full. I was on a waitlist. Son of a snickerdoodle. I had two choices; sit around and put on weight for the winter cold or train like I was already in the race. I chose the latter.
When I was standing in the line to get my race number a girl in front of me turns to some guy and says that she isn't on the list. He says not to worry that she is running instead of another person and to take her number. I'm wondering why the hell was I on a waitlist for a month. At least I was off the waitlist and just about ready to run my first race since late May.
I was really happy to be there, standing in a parking lot just off an off-ramp from Route 93 west of Boston. Not because I felt in shape and ready to take on thirty two miles but I made it there in one piece that morning. I left the house just before four sipping on coffee and eating left over chocolate chips pancakes. Some guy passes me just before the toll booth in South Portland and he is swerving a little. I figure he is looking for change. He continues to swerve on the on-ramp and also when we are on the highway. I keep my distance behind him as we are travelling just above 70. When he slows down into the sixties I move to pass him. Only he speeds up, so I let him move ahead. Just before the Biddeford exit I see skidmarks, then some wreckage in the center median and a tractor trailer and another vehicle pulled off to the right with flashers on. I must have missed whatever happened by mere minutes and am now determined to get swerving early morning drunk guy away from me. He has slowed down and I can move ahead and get him out of sight. I need to use the rest area in Kennebunk and when I pull in here he comes in right behind me. There are hardly any cars, and I don't want to be alone standing at the stalls with this guy so I just drive on.
It took me about two hours to get to the starting area of the race, and there was more than an hour before the race so I tried to catch a few z's in my warm car. It was the strangest starting area ever for a trail race. Literally just off a major highway and nothing more than a parking lot. The sun was shedding a little light on a few familiar faces that made this feel that there really was going to be a race that morning.
I stayed warm waiting for the start with other Trail Monster runners; George, Ryan, John and Sarah while John and Danielle set up shop to support all of us. The sun was breaking out enough that no headlamps would be required and although I was wrapped up in a blanket, I had on shorts as temps were supposed to reach into the fifties.
Without much fanfare the race started and I was glad to be in a pack of like minded individuals. Not so sure about really like minded as I was near the George the Jedi, a man of extraordinary mental toughness and Ryan, who seemed to be questioning his own sanity as well as ability to run this course. I knew I should be ahead of George through the race but I thought Ryan and I should be close to the end.
The interesting part about this race is it's set-up. You can do thirty two or forty miles for starters, I choosing the former. It's an eight mile lolli-pop, meaning you go out straight and then the trail loops around to the stem, the tightly wrapped paper, and follow that back to the starting area. You do that four or five times hopefully. The really cool part is you can choose which direction you want to run. Clockwise or counter. You don't need to do all your loops in one direction either. Just do enough loops to do your distance and you're good.
I decided to go counter and was a little bummed when Ryan went the other direction, as I thought it would be fun to listen to some of his rumblings. But I was still surrounded by a number of runners so I wouldn't have to amuse myself just yet. We all slowed to hiking paces in order to get up some of the steep hills yet no one was busting past anyone when we weren't going up. I was already very surprised just how rough of a course this was knowing that about eight lanes of smooth highway was so close to us. Here there was nothing but small boulders and roots preventing me from setting any steady pace.
Being in a pack of runners, there were a couple of times we all came to a standstill and then someone behind us yelling to us we were off the trail. I was following people more than blazes and fortunately these couple forrays were less yards off the trail than a personal foul in football. We were treated to a view of the Boston skyline as we came to a tower about three miles into the race. I'd rather have a view of some mountains but was really impressed that I could be part of this wilderness adventure so close a major metropolitan area.
Soon after, runners were coming at us from the other direction. I was amazed how fast they were moving. They were already more than a mile ahead of us and with more than twenty eight miles to go, I had no desire to try and reel them in. Ryan was soon one of those runners, and I figured he had more than a half mile lead on me.
The trail continued to challenge me and as our pack came into the only aid station on the course I did take in a small drink. Although I knew I couldn't be fast I realized how important it would be for me to keep taking in liquids and calories in order not to crash. If I did crash on this course it would be brutal trying to finish all four laps.
The group I was around stuck mostly together but I was starting to feel a little faster. So I moved past the leader of the group, a young woman who had been keeping us on the right trail. She was wearing a shirt that promoted being a vegan that had pictures of cows, chickens and pigs. I thanked her for her navigation skills and then said, "I don't mean to offend you, but your shirt is making me hungry." She got a laugh at my warped sense of humor and said I would be wishing I was a vegan by the third lap.
There was actually a small stretch of trail winding through some large pine trees where I could open it up a little. I sang out the Wonder Woman song as I weaved through the trees channeling my inner amazon woman self wondering if any of the millenials behind me had any idea what I was talking about.
As I came near the starting area/aid station at the end of my first lap, Ryan was just on his way out and looking in good spirits. I made a quick stop with John and Danielle checking in on me. I didn't want Danielle's husband, Ryan get too far ahead of me. The weather was starting to warm so I left behind my gloves to start my second lap.
For the second lap, I decided to go clockwise. There wasn't really any strategy involved. The explorer side of me kicked in a little. Just going that direction to experience something a little different. I soon caught up with a guy who had a Hardrock 100 shirt on. I asked him if he kissed the Rock, meaning that he had finished one of the hardest one hundred mile races in the country. He told me that he had, and I asked to shake his hand as I stepped past him. His name is Jeff and hails from Falmouth, Mass. We spent much of that lap going back and forth. It was real nice to talk with someone plodding our way through the woods.
I found the climbs easier going clockwise but was still not able to build up any speed. Too many turns, too many rocks and pointless ups and downs (PUDs). Another hinderance was the sun pointing directly in my eyes, making it harder to follow the trail. It was not hard to miss some of the real fast runners coming at me, as some crossing my path at the aid station now only three miles from the start area going clockwise. Even though my watch was running indicating that I was on a decent pace, it was real hard to decipher just how well I was doing against the field. If only I could catch Ryan, I would know that I was performing well.
Coming back to the tower and overlooking Boston I was hoping to make some good time back to the start area. With most of the toughest climbs behind me I figured this would be the case. The problem was that none of the downhills allowed me to open up my pace. Some of the downs were just about as slow as coming up them, as I didn't want to take a header onto the rocks. This was feeling ridiculous. Just as I was descending the final down before hitting the intersection leading to the starting area I finally caught up with Ryan. Unfortunately, he was on his way up starting his third lap. Damn, what had gotten into him?
Happy to be done with two laps in about three and a half hours, I had John refill my bladder bag while I hit the aid station. A little coke, some potatoes and laughs with John had me ready for another lap.
Realizing that going clockwise was no faster, maybe even a little slower, I chose to go counter for the third lap. I had some regrets going this way while immediately making a big climb. I felt faster going up this time not surrounded by many other runners. I kept feeling stronger, not faster, just stronger. I set my sights on one runner in front of me, and he did a good job keeping ahead of me until we approached the tower. We chatted a little and he told me this was his first ultra. I told him he made a good choice as the weather was really cooperating. The sun was still directly in my eyes until we got to the tower, much to my chagrin. But how could I really gripe about the sun being out on a race that was billed as a winter run and the temps were somewhere in the fifties.
Besides crossing paths with other runners coming from the opposite direction, I now had to navigate past many people just out for a walk on a beautiful day. Many of them with dogs, and many of the dogs were golden retrievers. There were even a few mountain bikers out.
Shortly before the aid station, I began to feel the wear of all the miles on my body. No aches or pains. Just a general feeling of malaise. I took in some extra calories at the station trying to repair some of the damage and to set me up for a successful final lap. It was a hard final three miles as I was now a few miles past my longest training run.
I was hoping to see Ryan before coming into the starting area but John and Danielle informed me that he was already gone. I was glad to hear that he was still performing well. I told Danielle that Ryan had become my white whale and I Captain Ahab. I just couldn't take him down, damn him. I took a little extra time at the station, more food and more drink and John walked with me a while as I ate a few Oreo cookies. Even eating them the proper way by spinning them apart and eating the cream first. They weren't double stuff but they were especially good.
I walked all the way to the turnoff and began my climb choosing to go counter clockwise again. I again felt strong even after five hours of damn tough trail and decided that I wanted to finish this thing out by giving the best that I could.
Soon I was blasting past a couple walking who gave me a strange look. Then I realized I was off trail and did a quick u-turn. Luckily I hadn't gone very far off and soon caught up to a guy who had previously been behind me. I encountered another group of young people who were all carrying rocks of decent sizes. I asked one guy who appeared to be the leader why carry the rocks and he said because they could. Good answer. I just wished they had been out there earlier in the day to move away more of these unforgiving obstacles.
There was a decent viewpoint of the Boston skyline sometime before the tower and with no one around me, I decided this was a good point to show Boston my backside. A stupid and immature tradition of mine, but one that takes my mind off the race for a moment.
Still crossing paths with other runners, many familiar faces by now, I was especially happy to see George who told me Ryan was just up ahead. Just how far up ahead I had no idea, nor did I really expect to catch him at this point. But I was still motivated to push as much as I could. I also set in my mind that I really wanted to beat seven hours.
Everything seemed to be clicking when I came into the aid station with only three miles to go. I felt much better than the last time I was here. There had been one runner ahead of me that was motivating me to keep on a good pace. I finally caught up with him somewhere around the two mile mark and it felt like our pace was picking up. We exchanged a few pleasantries and a while later a couple walking the opposite direction asked if we were racing. I wasn't sure if he and I were racing against one another or pushing each other to the finish line. I found out he was under thirty years old and running his first ultra. I had a lead on him when I briefly got off trail and he called out to me that we were off as he was following me. We were quickly back on course with him in the lead and less than a mile to go.
I was content to stay behind him as we came to the last stretch. I might have been able to turn on the after burners and take him down but there was nothing to gain by doing so. We were easily going to beat the seven hour mark. I made my way past the gate and checked in at the finishers table congratulating the young man on his strong finish and to welcome him to the ultra club. I was greeted by John and Danielle and even Ryan got out of his chair to welcome me. I told him how proud of him I was and really glad that he was healthy today. George's wife Anne was there with the gang to welcome me as well. John dashed off to get me some goodies while I sat down feeling relief that I had finished my only ultra of the year. And proud of my performance. Ultrasignup predicted that I would finish in just under eight hours and I had done it in 6:50. The predicted finish time scarred me when I signed up, and fearful of what the weather could have been like made me even more nervous but everything came together better than expected.
While sitting back relaxing and laughing a lot with people Anne said that my father and wife had already commented on-line to her post that I had finished. "Damn," I said. "Now that means my wife knows I'm done and that I've got to get home." I was half joking and Anne apologized, but I let her know that it was absolutely fine and was glad that she would share my achievement. But really I did need to be getting home.
The two hour ride home was luckily much less noteworthy than the ride down and I only really tired out on the final twenty minutes. I was looking forward to getting home to shower up and then go to a Bowdoin hockey game with the kids and a friend and his kids. I would have preferred to lie on the couch the rest of the night but at least I was doing something fun with the kids.
It was kind of odd to come back home after an ultra without anything in hand to prove that I had just run thirty two miles. All that I have are the memories and the feelings of having completed a much tougher than expected race in a time that I didn't think I was fully capable of running. Many thanks go out to John and Danielle for their support throughout the day. Another thanks to my white whale Ryan who I hope stays healthy so I can stay motivated to head out on the choppy trails in pursuit. Thanks to my wife who encouraged me to get healthy so that I could run and thus stay more mentally healthy. Thanks to the TARC crew for putting on a race for those who love to run. This was a race to challenge oneself for nothing other than the love of running. It came without ribbons, it came without tags, you know the rest from Dr. Seuss. And in the end, the trail runner himself crossed the finish line.