Friday, May 3, 2013

Traprock 50K

On a frigid February night I found myself in a friends home talking ultra-running. Jordan and I had known each other in a previous life and had shared many experiences together but it wasn't until we both moved away from Portland and then subsequently moved back that we became running partners. 3 mile runs through the neighborhood to catch-up with one another turned into 3 and 4 hour trail runs every Saturday morning. He paced me at my first 50 miler, I watched him cross the line of his first 50k, and now here we were on a cold, cold night, thinking of spring and of bare trails and of our next ultra-adventure.

We had gathered at his place to watch Unbreakable (again) and scope out spring and summer races. Ian had mentioned the Wapack and Back 50 to me several weeks before and it seemed like a truly appealing race, an out-and-back on the Wapack trail in MA that two of our most bad-ass team members Val and Mindy had already set their sights on.

With registration still weeks away from opening we put Wapack on our calendar and began training. I began looking for 50k races in late April in the hopes of finding something tough, hilly, and generally mean about thirty days from Wapack. And this is where I found the Traprock 50k.

From the race website:

Consisting entirely of rolling forest roads or single track that can be extremely rocky, the course will provide a true test of the runner’s fitness and mental stamina. You should only consider entering this race if you are confident you have sufficient running experience such as having completed a recent road or trail marathon

Traprock training
Training was going well and I transitioned from an average of roughly 15 miles per week in the winter to the first 20 mile runs of the season pretty seamlessly. Then, on a long run in surprisingly deep snow which had drifted onto the trail I hurt my ankle-bad. The next several weeks were spent hobbling around on crutches, swinging kettle bells and rowing on the Concept 2, and hoping that I could heal up in time for Wapack.
Most of my training runs consisted of running the Knight Woods trail at Bradbury Mountain, a 1 mile loop with a small hill in the middle. I would run this 10, then 12, then 15 times in order to get as many trail miles in as I could while not straying too far from the car in case the ankle gave out.

Until 3 weeks before the race I considered dropping down the 17k distance at Traprock due to the setback from the injury and the subsequent lack of training. Then, after a long run on a rainy Tuesday morning I texted Jordan to say "50k at Traprock is on". I felt like we had made a commitment to one another and with my ankle in good shape I saw no reason to back out of our biggest training run for Wapack and Back.

We arrived in CT on the evening before the race and got a good night of rest before a beautiful day of running.

Ian ready to rip it up

TM Ultra Team
With no real time goal in mind and a sense of gratitude that I could even run the thing post-injury I embarked on one of the most relaxed and enjoyable trail runs of my life. The first 10.5 mile loop offered many pleasant surprises, most notable being the relatively runnable terrain in a race that I'd expected to be more of a hands-on-knee's affair. The few climbs that this course offered were undoubtedly difficult and the steepest of them, the stairway to heaven was one of the meanest things I'd ever encountered in a race.  But, on this day it didn't feel all that mean and I actually enjoyed ascending this set of stone steps on all three trips occasions. Half-way through the second lap I saw Jordan coming around a lollipop loop less than a 1/4 mile behind me. He looked strong and as I gave him a high five it occurred to me that within a few minutes we might be racing one another. I'm sure that this thought had passed through both of our minds as our training runs found us pretty evenly matched. We'd run into this interesting pattern of him charging out hard at the beginning of our runs and leaving me in the dust, me catching up about 10 miles into the run, and him and I leapfrogging each other as we take turns at feeling good and feeling bad. In our training we always made a plan to meet back at the car at a specified time which allowed us to run at our own pace, break away on our own path, or race each other when the spirit moved us-all of which occurred on these memorable Saturday morning runs. Now with Jordan pulling up next to me at the halfway point of the race I wondered how the next 15 miles were going to go down. We ran neck and neck at a relaxed pace and talked about our favorite parts of the trail and how good we were feeling. For some reason the competitive drive that I expected to kick in for both of us-as it had during so many runs where one of us begins to push the pace and the other drops, keeps up, or pushes harder and charges past- just didn't happen. There came a time when I stopped to stretch for a bit and Jordan ran on. I wondered if I would see him again and felt nothing but glad that he was having such a good run. I caught up to him on a stretch of road a few miles from the start/finish and we completed the second loop together, At this point I wondered if we would end up naturally falling into the same pace for the third and final loop and, with no desire to hard charge and race my friend for the next two hours, if we would possibly cruise into the finish line together.

The rest of the team, Ian, Joe, Ben, and Nate where having a great day on the trails and I saw them periodically as they came cruising down the backs of trails that I was just beginning to climb. With a 3 loop course and several lollipop sections I could see that they were all doing really well and tearing up the Traprock. I ended up a getting a bit ahead of Jordan on some of the climbs and found myself suddenly feeling better than I ever had at mile 23-24 of a 50k. I ran evenly and easily and found myself suddenly alone on a gorgeous stretch of singletrack that was just glowing in the midday sun. As I was enjoying the solitude of the trails I noticed the faint sound of breathing and the crunch of footsteps behind me. I turned to see Jordan coming fast and hard. Suddenly we were neck and neck and pushing the pace. We pulled into an aid station together and took exactly 5 seconds to down a drink and race back out onto the trail. Next aid station same thing-in and out and after each other again. Yet, even with us running neck and neck it didn't feel like we were racing each other. It felt like we were running a race together and was one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences that I've ever shared with a friend on the trails. I could still see either of us taking the lead at this point and the possibility of a duel finish was still on my mind as well.

I'd held back a bit on the second loop in the hopes of a strong finish and as we arrived at the middle of the last loop I felt a surge of strength and began to push hard. I ran the climbs that I'd hiked on the previous two loops and soon found myself alone on the trails again. I kept the pace up for the next mile or two and just as I was about to slow it down and do some late stage ultra-shuffling I noticed a dude in a bright red shirt a few hundred yards ahead. With another runner in striking distance I amped it up again and soon found myself running alongside him and his friend. We ran together until we reached the final aid-station at which I gulped down some ginger-ale and tried to race back out onto the long stretch of road. One of the runners held back while me and the other started a ridiculously slow late stage ultra battle for the books. He was just beginning to pull away from me when the ginger ale settled in my stomach and I felt ready and able to run. I was able to pass him and as I rounded a bend in the road I saw a group of 5 or 6 runners just a few hundred feet away. I raced harder than I ever had at this stage of a long race and was fortunate enough to catch up to, and pass, one after another. Most were supportive and encouraging except for one guy who shot me a snarky ass "How'd you get here?" We'd seen each other many times over the course the day, each time with him in the lead and descending a trail that I was just beginning to climb. I explained to him that I had run there and passed him on the last stretch of road before heading back into the trails.

The last climb and subsequent descent to the finish found me alone and pushing as hard as I could to stay that way. I crossed the line totally wiped by this late stage ultra-duel and pretty close to puking. This was the perfect end to an excellent Wapack training run and to a race that was as memorable for its mellowness as it was for a sudden slugfest in the last few miles and a unique racing experience shared between friends. Jordan finished shortly after and we hung out with the rest of the team for a bit. The Trail Monster flag flew high in the post-ultra haze of burger smoke, sore muscles, and smiling faces and I'm looking forward to hanging it up again at the Wapack and Back 50 in less than two weeks.

Ultra's make Nate happy