Finding out/Getting In (to what???)
I was notified by email early last week by race co-director Kristina Folcik that I had been moved from the Bear Brook Trail Marathon waitlist to the list of registered entrants. I was a late entry, having been unaware of the race until some advertising came out after the Loon Mountain Race from RD Chris Dunn. Looking at Bear Brook results from prior years, I saw that my CMS teammate Chris Mahoney had won both of the previous editions, but (with a 2-month old daughter and some nagging injuries) he was not signed up this year (according to Ross Krause’s RunReg.com).
I didn’t see any names I recognized from the New England road racing circuit among the registered runners, but when I stopped into NE Running Co a couple of days before the race to stock up on snacks (Stinger waffles and chews and several flavors of GU Chomps and some citrus Nuun), Eric Narcisi told me that his Whirlaway teammate Brandon Newbould would be running. Instantly, I knew that I would no longer be able to cruise to victory like I had imagined (and which was inaccurate, anyway) and I knew that Brandon would now be the likely favorite.
Help a brother out, Scott?
Having run a few times with Scott McGrath in the past couple weeks, I had gotten some insight into Brandon’s training and racing strategies. On an almost fifteen-mile trail run through Andover on Wednesday of last week, Scott filled me in on what he knew of Brandon’s preparation and race habits. He would certainly have more mileage and long runs than me coming in, and would be likely to make one or more decisive moves during the course of the race. He was also likely to train through and not taper, according to Scott. Conservative estimates had Brandon at 100-120 miles per week, whereas I had been running 80-90 for the past 6 weeks or so. I also had a long run of 16 miles for 2014, which (for the un-informed reader) is well shy of a marathon.
A brief aside
On our run last Wednesday, I tagged along behind Scott through some beautiful wooded areas in Andover, MA (Ward Reservation, etc.), wearing my water bottle for the first time. It was pretty annoying the way it bounced around on the small of my back for almost two hours, but I knew I would need to bring it with me for Saturday’s “cupless” race. I took one pretty good fall heading into Boston Hill, which was also good practice for Saturday.
Scott also turned me on to Strava on Wednesday, so Thursday I took a crack at three 2-mile segments near Gordon. I ended up running about six miles at 5:40-5:55 pace, which I considered marathon-ish effort, even though I knew the pace would be somewhat slower come Saturday.
Friday, I ran just under 4 miles in the morning and just under 5 in the afternoon.
Saturday, I got up at 3:15 am, which is pretty early for me, had a bagel and coffee in the dark and was on the road a few minutes before 4.
The foreshadowing/predictive/prophetical longer drive than anticipated
It was a good thing, too, because the driving directions I had only got me about 10 minutes away from the start and not quite to the start. Fortunately, I had a newfound friend in fellow marathoner, Illinoisan Jay Marshall, who had driven up from the Cape that morning, and the two of us crept along Deerfield Rd. together until we came to the (quite obvious) start/finish area.
After parking in the bumpiest, yet most charming race lot I’ve ever visited, I spoke with Loon race director Chris Dunn, who was organizing the attendant half-marathon at Bear Brook. I also bumped into Brandon and we re-introduced ourselves/caught up a bit. Then I headed back to the car to make a few decisions -
What to carry/what to wear
I had purchased two fluid/snack-carrying accessories in the week leading up to the race, having never had occasion before for such equipment. I had a Nathan single-bottle holder, which I ran with on Wednesday (and wasn’t absolutely in love with) as well as a smaller, hand-held mini-bottle (made by Nathan, too) that my wife Heather picked up for me when I whined to her about how sore my back was from wearing the belt.
I opted for both, with the larger bottle spiked with citrus Nuun, and the hand-held filled with pure water.
I also crammed as many Stinger waffles and chews, plus some Gu chomps into the pockets of both. I had already removed everything from original wrappers and had gone with Ziploc snack bags. I was taking the Leave No Trace policy seriously, and hoped I would be able to effectively grab what I needed without being too clumsy about it.
Another familiar face
As I took care of potential chafing concerns, I spotted Coach Karen Giroux strolling to the start area and ran over to say hi. Karen and I worked together at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High school as assistant cross-country coaches under Steve Sawyer. Karen has also run quite a few very long races and so I was curious to see how she was approaching Bear Brook. I also hoped she would be pleased to see that I was trying my luck at something I know she loves – aka, running all day.
After talking to Karen, I decided to ditch the handheld because it didn’t seem like I would be able to access the pouch on my back very well with a bottle in one hand. I dropped it in the car, put on my (well, Kevin Tilton’s) inov-8 X-Talon 212’s, and headed to the start.
I’m laughing; I get jokes.
Race Director Ryan Welts’ opening remarks served to simultaneously calm and terrify me as he alluded to the fact that the course was definitely longer than a marathon, but he didn’t really know how much. He also offered a $10 prize for anyone who could take down his Strava segment on the way back. I had my doubts about being able to do that after 3-plus hours of running. I meekly raised my hand when he asked, “Who’s going to be under 4 hours?” and then we were off.
Getting after it
I felt fairly unrelaxed for the first couple miles, unsure of how to approach a race of this magnitude. I found myself leading the way early on, although Scott Traer’s footsteps came closer on each downhill after we ran up and over Catamount Hill (for the first and unfortunately my only time). At the first aid station I grabbed a piece of a PB + J sandwich and continued to run straight through, before being hollered back the way we came. I briefly got behind Scott and we chatted a bit. I learned that Scott would be unlikely to tire in a race this “short” (?!?) - Scott has won the Around the Lake 24-hr. race, (covering an amazing 140 miles!!) and run multiple races of 50k and longer. Figuring that my only chance against Scott would be to run faster than him while I was still fresh, I pulled away over the next few miles, averaging just under 7:00’s for miles 4-8. (If I can trust my GPS?) I was encouraged when I came through ten miles, which I estimated was one-third of the race, in 75 minutes. I knew Chris Mahoney had averaged right around 8’s the two years he won, and I knew if I could stay in the 7:30-8:00/mi. range, I would finish in 3:45-4:00.
Never a dull moment
Even though I was racing, I was struck by the beauty and artistry of this course (huge props to Ryan Welts and Kristina Folcik). We encountered: mountains, boulders, over-grown single- and double-track trails, fire roads, dirt paths, swamps, puddles, meadows, woods of every sort, roots, logs, rocks, flat stretches, straights, curves, rolling hills, sharp descents and ascents – in short, everything you could ask for in a race of this distance to keep it fresh and interesting.
Keeping the tank half-full
Running with the lead, and only an occasional reminding footstep from Scott on the downhills that he was lurking back there, I focused on running steady and remaining fueled. I plowed through two and a half Stinger waffles (150 Cal. Each) and most of my green tea chews before half way. I was trusting in the well-stocked aid stations to sustain me beyond that. Mile 9 passed in 7:50; mile 10 in 7:09; mile 11 in 7:06.
“This is my thing?” (My ignorance shows)
Somewhere between miles 8 and 12, as I ran with a lead, I allowed the thought to enter my mind that “Running ultras might really be what I’m cut out for. After all, here I am, running comfortably, in the lead…” and so on. In (somewhat less ignorant) hindsight, it would have served me better to just enjoy the rhythm of the run and the scenery. A humility check was in the mail, though.
Around 12 miles, we crossed Podunk (yes, Podunk) Rd. and I followed the flags on my right, but immediately began second-guessing my decision, thinking perhaps I should have stayed left to an aid station. I ran for about a half-mile, questioning every step, then turned to go back and check. On the way (about a minute after I turned around), I ran into Brandon and Scott, coming toward me, and they shouted for me to turn and continue with them. We entered a relatively wet stretch of course, and after a mile or so, I let Brandon go by me. My 12th mile was a 7:38.
Falling down (pt. 1)
With Brandon just ahead and Scott now just behind, I struggled to match their pace through the swampy sections. After watching Brandon gracefully skirt by one puddle on a tiny, muddy shoulder lined with small trees, I followed suit. About two steps in, I slipped and went face down in the water. I popped right up and continued, but could tell I was losing some steam.
Bye, guys. (Getting left behind/losing reception/deerflies descending)
Shortly after my lack of co-ordination got the better of me, Scott scooted past and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of him and Brandon completely. Somewhere in here (miles 13-15) the deerflies got bad (as we had been warned), descending on us in my time of weakness. Mile 13 was a 7:58. Mile 14 was 7:35. Mile 15 was a 7:20. Just past 15 and a half miles, after an hour and 56 minutes of running, I lost reception on my watch and wouldn’t regain it.
I don’t like to be a complete slave to my Garmin watch, so I tried to “just run” and not think about how far I had to go or how far I had come, but with the flies and the loss of visible competition, I struggled. I also had run several miles without giving any thought to hydrating or fueling, so when I came into the next aid station (around 16 miles?) I filled my bottle about ¼ full with ginger ale, and the rest water. I grabbed a Vienna finger, said thank you to the life-saving volunteers and trudged on. That ginger ale was like sweet nectar to me, and as I started to settle in, I regularly sipped the bubbly goodness and got into a different mindset about finishing. (I also learned that I am pretty sugar-reliant, which is not necessarily a great thing for someone who wants to run long distances. Note: try to burn fat more efficiently.)
Settling in (16-29)
I knew I had lost touch with the leaders, but wanted to keep an honest pace and give no ground to anyone behind me, and felt like for the most part I did that. I felt strong-ish as we ran through the campground, over-taking kids on their bikes and dads walking to the bathroom to brush their teeth and wash their faces after a night sleeping in tents. I enjoyed my ginger ale and a few chomps and my mind kept drifting to another sugary option that I had seen at aid station 4 – Pepsi! At Aid station 5, it was store-brand cola, but no complaints. I went with a similar 1:3 ratio of soda to water, but didn’t find it as palatable, so I threw a Nuun tablet in to make something that was kind of reminiscent of cough syrup. No mind, I was drinking it.
Falling down (pt. 2)
I spent a lot of time reaching behind me for my bottle and zippered pockets and shuffling bags around to try to find what I was craving. (It was sugar, in case you haven’t gotten that yet.) The whole process became something to occupy my mind as my tired body moved forward. I had found early on in the race that stuffing a partially full bag of snacks (first waffles, later chomps) alongside my bottle kept it from moving around as much, so I developed a routine. (It seemed quite fascinating at the time, so I apologize if it is somewhat less enthralling to the casual reader.) I would remove my bottle to get a drink of something sweet and electrolyte-filled. Invariably, the snack bags would fall to the bottom of the bottle pouch. Then I would reach behind my back with both hands, pulling the bag out with one, and stuffing the bottle in with the other. Once the bottle was in place, and turned just so the handle didn’t hit me in the back, I pushed the half-full bag of snacks in next to the bottle to secure it. The whole process probably didn’t take more than 20 seconds, but that is precious time to be distracted when you are running further than you ever have. During one such procedure, I lifted my right foot a little lower than I needed to, stumbled and went down hard on the dirt. I got my hands out from behind me quick enough to sustain some of the impact, but got to my feet somewhat slower than after my first fall.
Probably my favorite stretch of the course, scenery-wise, was just before the 5th aid station, where we wound through tall grasses and white birches. We had good visibility of what lay ahead. I thought I might be able to spot Brandon or Scott if they were coming back to me, but they weren’t. It was cool because I could see quite a way in front of me, but couldn’t tell which way the trail went because it twisted and turned. I just kind of scanned the horizon, looking for a sign of another runner, but not sure where they might pop up. Certainly not like staring at someone’s back during the middle miles of a road race.
I also distinctly recall acknowledging when I ran past significant time milestones – at 2:28:55 it was the longest run since the Cape Cod Marathon in 2011; at 2:33:03 it was my longest run since Boston ’07. Most notably, at 2:47:35, I surpassed the time I had spent on my feet in my debut marathon (Baystate) in 2000 and it became my longest run ever.
The finish lie
I reached the “final” aid station in 3 hours, 10 minutes and switched back over to ginger ale and water. RD Ryan was there and I found my sense of humor to admit I wouldn’t be attempting any Strava CR’s in the last 4.5 miles. Saying “Thank you” again to everyone who was sustaining me with their support, I headed into the final stretch. I would have gone the wrong way from the aid station, but the volunteers shouted me right and I was on my way. I allotted myself 40 minutes to get to the finish line, and knew I had to go up and over Catamount Hill before the finish, but wasn’t sure when the climb would begin. I celebrated every four minutes run with a sip of my ginger ale “champagne”. When I passed 20 minutes from the aid station, I was surprised that I didn’t recognize the surroundings more than I did, but I chalked it up to the addled mind of a confused runner, and took some solace in that. I passed two women coming toward me, who were running the half-marathon, just after I made my fatal mistake (I think), but when I asked if they had seen two guys ahead of me, they said yes, about a quarter-mile ago. With that thought in my mind, I continued, until at 3:46:57 I arrived back at aid station #6, where Scott Traer raised his hands in mock triumph and said, “Wrong way!”
While Scott and I discussed where we might have gone wrong and race volunteers kindly arranged for a ride out, Brandon finished in 3:37. Second place was just over 4 hours.
Back at the start/finish, Scott and I caught up with Brandon (finally) and I enjoyed a somewhat anti-climactic hot dog and Monkey Fist IPA before heading home.
On the way home, I gave the race recap over the phone to my understanding wife, Heather, and then called Scott McGrath to let him know what had happened. Overall, I felt pretty satisfied with the result, considering there was no finish line crossed, no idea what distance I had covered in the almost 4 hours I had run and no chance my name would show up in the results. As I communicated to Level Renner’s Eric Narcisi in an in-store interview here, I learned something about trail running and ultra-running through my experience and feel like it was undoubtedly worth the trip.
P.S. I did capture a couple Strava segments, so my competitive nature has something to soothe the sting of a DNF.