Friday, March 21, 2014

Grinding Away

I signed up for the TARC Spring Thaw in early January with the hopes that, come mid-March, the weather would be warmer, the snow would be melted and there would be plenty of lovely dirt trails to run on. Wrong. Wrong. And WRONG! The stark race-day reality was a cold slap in the face courtesy of a brisk 20 degree day (with 15 mile per hour winds) deep snow pack and almost no dirt to speak of. Oh, well. I suppose 6 hours of slipping around on snow and ice must be worth something!

Anyway, with lowered expectations and a slightly heavy heart, I geared up for the barely 20 minute drive over to the Wood Middle School on the edge of the Harold R. Rafton Reservation in Andover, MA for this 6hr event. The race venue is a little known spit of land in the northwest quadrant of the Route 93 / 495 intersection. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never know it was there. The course is a 2.5 mile loop within the reservation with a ½ mile out-and-back to the school – making for 3.5 miles total. And the idea for the race was to run as many of these 3.5 mile loops as possible before the 6 hours was up. Anything completed after the 6 hour mark would not be counted.

Initially, when considering the 6 hour time frame, I had aspirations of running 10 loops for a total of 35.5 miles. To accomplish this feat I’d need to average 35 minutes for each loop, or 10 minutes per mile. If that didn’t work out, I could fall back to 39 minutes per loop, or 11 minutes a mile to get 9 loops in.  To make things more complicated, there was also a last loop option (if you didn’t have time for the full 3.5) to run to the 1 mile mark and back for a 2 mile adder. Quite a bit to contemplate, pre-race. For my final race plan, I eventually settled on running the first loop easy, see where that put me time wise, and then adjust my goals accordingly.

The race started exactly 3 minutes before 9:00am, and not a moment too soon, as 83 nearly frozen participants shuffled down the driveway towards the trailhead. Through the narrow trail entrance, there were 4 guys up front, a 5 man “chase” pack (which I was a part of) and then everybody else.  The ½ mile out-and-back portion featured a trench of thin single track, aggressive trees, two stream crossings, a gigantic mud pit, steep off-camber ice, a slippery bridge and a very large (but less-than-fully-frozen) puddle. And, if we were lucky, we’d get to run it 20 times (10 in each direction) with two-way traffic, no less!

The 2.5 mile loop portion was a bit less tricky and featured the only dirt on the course - three 50 foot, sun-exposed, power line crossings for a total of 150 feet of dirty goodness. To offset the “joy of dirt”, there were plenty of ice patches, slippery climbs, stone wall crossings, beach-like corn snow and not one, but two, types of post-holing.  The 2-inch deep ankle-busting kind and the 12-inch deep shin-gashing variety. 10 laps of this course was going to be very interesting indeed!

Lap 1 was a mostly comfortable (although my achilles would probably disagree) 34:48. I zipped across the timing mat at the school and back out into the woods for Lap 2.  During this lap I was running in a single-file pack with 5 other guys. And we’d occasionally chat (as ultra runners who are loafing at a pedestrian 10 minute pace do) to kill the time. Sometimes talking with the other runners can be good and sometimes it can be downright terrifying!

One runner (Blaine) who I had met before, had two sub-4 hour 50k’s to his credit, one
runner was a 2:40 marathoner, one had just completed his second Leadville 100 in under 19 hours, one had paced a friend for the final 50 miles of Badwater, and the last of the group had beaten me at Bear Brook – by almost 45 minutes! And up ahead, in the lead group of four, was last year’s Spring Thaw winner, a sub-7:30 50 mile guy and two guys who had beaten me at the Fat Ass 50k in January by 35 and 20 minutes respectively. Quite a heady group to be hanging with!

Up until this point, I’ve maintained that the next ultra I “race” would be my first. Meaning, my goals for these races have all been inward facing. Not worrying about the things (or people) I can’t control and just focusing on how far, and how fast, I can push myself. And, if I can be happy with that, I can certainly live with whatever place I finish in! So, as I started to feel a bit over my head talent-wise, I just told myself to relax and run comfortably. Hold on to these guys if you can, let them go if you have to and, whatever you do, don’t blow up and crash out in under 8 laps. That would be seriously dumb!

Lap 2 was run in an equally easy 35:03 and I headed back out for Lap 3. During this lap I started to notice that the shallow post-holes were getting ground up a bit and what I was losing in speed (due to the softening) I was gaining in safety. At this point, that was a trade-off I could definitely live with. This lap also included my first of 4 pee breaks. I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of managing all the things I needed to in order to keep me moving forward: Hydration, Electrolytes, Calories, and Sweat/Chafee/Blister Management.

I finished Lap 3 in 35:27 and hit the aid station for the first of three times on the day. I grabbed some Gatorade, another stroopwafle, a gel and some shot blocks before heading back out for Lap 4. The 1:42 pit stop took me a little more time than I wanted to. Mostly because I decided to change shirts. But, partly because I had a difficult time opening the cap to my Gatorade bottle while wearing sweaty gloves. Mental note for next time: Remove gloves before attempting to open plastic bottle top.

Laps 4, 5 and 6 were fairly unremarkable. I finished them in 35:24, 36:40 and 36:30 respectively and all while still feeling pretty good. Another pit stop, this time for some salted potatoes, a couple  PB&J squares, a bottle of flatted (but full sugar) Pepsi and I was off again. Without a shirt change, I was in and out of the aid station - this time in just 1:34. By this point, the group I had been running with earlier in the day had been whittled down to just me and the Leadville guy. The 2:40 marathoner was a couple minutes ahead of us and Blaine, Bear Brook and Badwater had fallen off the pace.

By now, I could really feel the deterioration of the course. The ice seemed icier, the trees seemed angrier, the corn snow seemed beachier and the hills seemed steepier. But, I kept at it - grinding away at the snow and the miles until I was on my own. It’s been said that “familiarity breeds contempt” (and after 7 laps I was more than familiar) but I think that, in this case, “familiarity bred comfort”.  Sure, the super-repetitive snow, ice, rocks, mud, hills and trees were becoming a burden. But they were my burden and mine alone. I owned them and they knew it!

Lap 7 was done in 37:38 and the 38:10 on Lap 8 was my slowest of the day. I purposely ran a little easier on this lap because I wanted to make sure I had enough left in the tank to complete 9 full laps. After Lap 8 I took a 1 minute stop at the aid station for some water, more salted potatoes and a Nutella square before heading back out on the trail. By this point, I had been running for five solid hours and still had one hour yet to go. It was then that I realized that if I could run the next loop at around 38 minutes, I just might have enough time to complete the 2 mile out-and back adder at the end - for a total of 34 miles.

It's kind of funny when you think about it: Run slower and you’re done for the day, or run faster, and your reward will be two more miles! Anyway, I cranked the last full loop as best I could manage and came back to the start/finish in a tidy 37:53. I now had a little more than 24 minutes to run the final 2 miles – a comfy 12 minutes per mile! I tossed off my bottle holder and barreled back down the trail. I hit the 1-mile turn around in 10:17 and cruised the return trip in 11:11 for a 5:56:40 finish. The final results can be found HERE.

In just under 6 hours, I had completed 9 ½ laps for a total of 34 miles and at a pace of just under 10 ½ minutes per mile. Despite the softening of the trail over the course of the day I never really slowed down all that much (only 3 minutes separated my slowest loop from my fastest) and I never really felt like I was going to bonk, or cramp up. It was my longest run of the year and I felt strong the whole way. All things considered, not bad a bad day at the ultra office.

The icing on the cake was when found out that I had finished in 3rd place overall! I was

shocked. I had absolutely no idea. I thought, at best, I had managed to climb up to 5th place. But, apparently 3 of the 4 early leaders stopped running before the 6 hours was up, so I gained a couple spots by grinding it out to the end. Third place nabbed me a podium finish and a cool home-made trophy designed by Artist / Race Director – Emily Trespas. The trophy was a ceramic stump and it instantly reminded me of the stump from the book the "Giving Tree" after the tree had given everything she had. Seems appropriate somehow.

One final note: The volunteers at this event were amazing! From the race director who gave each runner a hand printed, signed and numbered lithograph of the Yeti TARC mascot, to the Yeti himself who was out in the woods giving high fives to the runners, to the aid station volunteers who attended to our every needs, to the guys at the mid-loop campfire making smores and hot dogs, and finally to the course marshals standing out in the woods freezing their butts off for 6 hours just so we wouldn’t get lost. There’s no doubt about it, trail running and trail runners are the absolute best!

Next Up: TARC Spring Classic 50k on April 26


  1. Nice job out there, Mike! Impressively even splits and great miles on a rough course. Fun to see you out there. See you in April!

    1. Thanks Danielle. It was a very good day. Now, I'm looking forward to finally running on some dirt!

  2. Nice Job Michael! I didn't realize it was on a 3.5 mile loop. Not only does that take endurance physically but some serious mental fortitude as well! Congrats!

  3. Yeah, it's lucky for me that I'm not that smart. Speaking of which, when I got home I realized that half of the screws on my trail shoes had fallen off. No wonder I was slipping around so much!. Of course, it's not the first time I've had a couple screws loose ...and probably not the last!

  4. Well done, Michael! You make a 6hr trail ultra on snow and ice sound fun. Congratulations on the podium finish!

    1. Thanks! It WAS fun. I wouldn't do it otherwise. :)