After Wednesday's run with Double J, his wife Kristen mentioned that Jim was turning down his spot at Saturday's Bear Brook Trail Marathon. I had this race on the calendar earlier in the year but had long forgotten about it. I didn't want to commit to a big race like this in the event I was too banged from mountain running. Wednesday's run indicated that I was recovering well and the thought of a trail race was appealing.
I slipped into Jim's spot and was now locked in. I opted for a short track workout on Thursday and some easy miles on Friday. I knew that if my body held up and raced smart I could do well. The 50k distance is extremely challenging because it's on the short-end of the Ultra class meaning on a runnable course like Bear Brook with relatively little elevation gain it's geared towards road runners and not climbers (I'd say fall somewhere in the middle: strong on technical terrain with a little bit of road speed). This course had just a few miles of technical terrain - trails that would be difficult or impossible to mountain bike. The rest was smooth single track, dirt roads, and snowmobile trails. It's no surprise that past winners are also quick roadies.
2016 Course Stats: 32'ish Miles (29.5 Garmin) | 3,300'K vertical gain
Ultra Signup Description: This is a fun race that will take you on some of the best trails the park has to offer! Plan on coming up and over Catamount Hill twice! The half marathon will have on unmanned aid station and two fully stocked and staffed aid station where the marathon runners will have 6 aid stations to keep you smiling, hydrated and fueled all day! While the half marathon takes you along some beautiful rolling terrain the full marathon will offer more hills, more miles and more adventure!
The morning started with a 3:15am wake up and I was on the road at 3:30. It was an uneventful rainy drive down to Allenstown, NH. I pulled in to the State Park shortly after 5am, handled my registration, and then got my race gear ready. For a race this long I opted for a waist water bottle belt since I wanted to be hands free. I also wore some Hoka trail shoes although I wish I had something a little more low profile for this course - this pair doesn't drain well when they get waterlogged. I also was heavy on the lube. It was going to be wet and chafing was going to be an issue.
As with most races there are really only a handful of runners who have a chance at winning the race. I knew Chris Mahoney (a 3-time winner) was entered and also the favorite. The only other name I recognized on the start list was Michael Pulli who is a strong runner with a fair amount of ultra experience (I met him at my first half marathon in 2014). So that left a few other unknowns in the field to contend with.
The race started at 6am. I somehow found myself leading the pack of 60+ runners up the first climb over Catamount Hill. I didn't mind setting the pace but was definitely concerned about going out too hard. I settled into an easy pace making sure my breathing was relaxed. Although this climb was minor, I knew that we had to climb back over it at the end of the race which would definitely be a challenge on tired legs.
On the other side of the hill I had a small gap on the field. I spooked a white-tailed deer up on the bank of the brook and paused to appreciate the beauty of the park. Another climb and descent then we were on even terrain. The pack caught back up and a guy in a white singlet passed me headed into the first aid station. I filled up my empty water bottle and continued straight but the course actually doubled back. Luckily the Tom Hooper yelled for me and I backtracked and was now in 5th place 4 miles in.
I caught back up to Chris, Michael, and Peter Gillis(?), with the white singlet guy about 45 seconds up on us. I settled back in to a comfortable pace. The early miles are enjoyable when your legs are fresh and you're not pushing the pace. The next aid station was around 7.5 miles. At this point I was sitting comfortably in 4th, Peter was right behind me and Chris and Michael were running together about 30 - 50s in front of me. Shortly after the aid station, somewhere around mile 9 or 10, the white singlet guy dropped and was walking back along the course after wrenching his ankle.
Peter had now dropped off and I was only catching short glimpses of Chris and Michael. The trail meandered around a few ponds and marshes leading into Hall Mountain. I knew that I would be able to make some time up on the climbs and we were still not even halfway into the race. I had to remind myself to be patient and embrace the onset of fatigue I was starting to feel in my legs. Chris and Michael were now a minute plus ahead of me going into the climb. It's only 0.7 to the first peak, on relatively mild grade (8% avg). I continued to run relaxed but made an effort to close the gap with the leaders. The climb quickly passed and after a short dip climbed again. I was able to see Michael again in his bright hunter orange shirt. Chris had gapped him on the climb and put another minute on me as well.
I passed Michael on the descent back down to the 4th aid station, now 17 miles into the race. They said we were 2 minutes back on Chris. I took in a little coke, filled my water, grabbed a gel and I was out. The course was free of any significant climb from here until the Catamount meaning I had to start racing knowing that Chris was probably thinking the same thing. For the next 4 miles I picked up the pace trying to reel him back in. I was thinking that if I had any shot at catching him it would be on the last climb since there wasn't anything technical on this section.
To my surprise Chris popped into view on the Hemlock Trail (Mile 21), perhaps the best running section of the race. It's smooth single track that winds through a large clearcut. He was looking back and could obviously see me in my glowing SIX03 singlet. I continued to close the gap until I finally caught him shortly after the 6th aid station (Mile 23?). I passed him shortly after and he kept with me leading into the last aid station (which was also the first aid station, just relocated further east). I was good on water so I got a gel and kept grinding. At this point my leg were starting to go but with the lead I had no choice but to try and put a gap on Chris. He was out of sight shortly heading back into the woods. For a second there I was feeling really good but that quickly faded as my right knee started to lock up a little and my left hip flexor tightened. Luckily the trail was free of trip hazards and allow for sloppy running. My pace slowed a bit and I just focused on making it to the finish. For a brief moment I thought maybe we didn't have to go back over Catamount Hill. Nope, we connected right back with our initial route and met up with the half marathoners. It was a welcomed distraction talking to some of the back of the pack half'ers as we all suffered the same climb back out of the park. I walked for the first time - about 15 steps on the first climb. As long as I could hold 10min/mi pace I was good.
I looked back for the last time and no one was in sight as I crested the last climb of Catamount Hill. On the last ledge before the descent I slid out hard on my right side. Of course I had a fall-free race up to that point. A little blood to show for my effort didn't hurt. I cruised down to the finish, fending off full leg cramps at that point but able to move ok knowing that I only had a quarter mile of dirt road left.
I crossed the finish in 4:08. A phenomenal effort and great race. It means a lot to hang with the likes of Chris Mahoney. I'm sure he wasn't 100% but we pushed each other hard and it was a battle to the finish.
A few key takeaways:
- Respect the descents: If you go hard early you'll be paying for it in the next couple hours. I knew that coming down Hall Mountain fast I would be getting quad cramps at some point near the end of the race, which I did. I was willing to take that risk since it was 50K and not 50 miles. Along with blown quads, it also can attribute to knee issues. I went too hard last year at the VT50 on the descents and paid for it in the last 20 miles.
- Have a race strategy and be disciplined but also flexible: I planned on racing from Mile 20 on but that changed based on the course profile. At Mile 17 I knew I had at least 12 [Garmin] miles left and felt like I could switch from 8:30 pace to 7:30 pace and probably not blow up. If I had early signs of cramping I would have slowed it down. Just like any race, don't go out too hard. It applies to all distances.
- Nutrition: For me it was easy, just take a gel every half hour. I have a normal to strong stomach and can tolerate all types of gels. It gives you something to focus on in your run, just get to the next feeding time. I also like to drink a little soda once I'm past the halfway point and take gatorade or sports drink for additional calories.
- Foot Management: My shoes got soaked. Be mindful of your feet before the race and expect them to get wet (from sweat, streams, rain, whatever). That means be generous with anti-chafe products. That said, I still got a little hotspot under my right fore-arch that had me concerned but never developed into anything. I probably should have put on even more unpetroleum jelly than I did but I was lucky to have happy feet at the end of the race.
- Recovery: Keep moving. It sucks after the race hopping in a car and driving home. Horrible for the legs. I walked around a little after the race before leaving and when I got home I iced my knees, took 800mg of ibuprofen, and elevated the legs. At night I even wrapped my problem knee with a compression wrap. Sunday I got back out on the trails and it took a couple miles to warm up but it really helped flush out my legs. It's Monday now and I'm continuing to ice and massage to maximize recovery.