Just can't say no.
The Ragged 50k and Stage Race was one of last summer's standout events. It wasn't an A race for me but one that I had been interested in since hearing about it back when it was the Emerald Necklace. While I didn't have it in me to do the full stage race, the 50k was perfect since I was in 50k shape from a lot of the hiking / trail running I'd done last summer.
This year was different. With Ragged being just three weeks after the VT100 there was a lot of doubt whether I should run or volunteer. Recovery from Vermont was progressing well enough that I thought I could race and I had a couple predictions: My legs could be "hardened" from VT making my pace a little slower but more consistent (hopefully little to no walking and/or cramps this year) or I would just fall apart and DNF or limp it in. Turns out the result was somewhere down the middle - same effort as last year, similar cramping issues, slower pace.
A rundown of the week leading into the 50k:
Monday: Hiking out of Crag Camp - 3.3 miles with a heavy pack.
Tuesday: 5.4 Miles - Jim Wellinghurst 5k. Fourth year doing this local race down the road. None of the regular fast guys showed up but I still wanted to test the legs on the first downhill mile. Last year I did it in 5:07 and this year I was able to get 5:11. The rest of the race was ok, made a turn too early and gave up some time / momentum. My slowest time but good effort.
Wednesday: Hike up Mount Willard (3.4 miles) and bike ride (1hr / 21mi). Felt pretty good on the bike and had one of my fastest times on my neighborhood loop.
Thursday: Off. Letting the legs recovery.
Friday: Off. Still letting the legs recovery.
Saturday: 2 miles. Quick little shakeout with Hilary before heading down to Sunapee.
Back to Ragged. Hilary and I dropped at car at the finish on Saturday afternoon, this let us sleep in until 6am on Sunday and make the short mile drive over to the start at 6:30am. As with most ultras I didn't sleep well which always plagues me on race day. The field of 170 races lined up for the 7am start - there were a lot of fast runners this year since it was a national championship for USATF 50k mountain. The winners would get a spot on the US team and head to Portugal this fall, plus there was over $4k in prize money. There was a lot of talent from all disciplines and I had my money on the nordic skiers - David Sinclair & Simi Hamilton - to take out the men's field. Noticeably missing from the start was last year's winner, Patrick Carron who opted to go for and crush the Pemi Loop FKT. There were also several local guys looking for a top finish as well.
As predicted, the race went out fast. The lead pack quickly formed and had 15 or so guys in it. Not far behind was a second pack of another 15 runners and included the front women. I was even further back probably somewhere in the 40s when everything settled out over those first few miles of rolling hills. Note that this section is "fast" but certainly not "flat" - probably close to 2k of vert. I didn't look at my splits from last year because I wanted to run off effort and not get hung up on time. It was considerably cooler than last year but it was also WET. My nutrition plan was to carry 7 gels, some electrolyte pills, and drink tailwind at the aid stations plus some food as needed. I had a 24oz bottle on a waist belt. I only mention this because I find it's interesting at this race where aid stations are 5 to 8 miles apart and some runners go minimal one 16oz soft flask while others will have a liter plus on them. I knew there would be streams to fill up on but wasn't sure with the dry weather so I was conservative with the water.
Within those first miles Jim Boule, Hunter Cote, and I formed our own little pack and the pace felt good, even a little fast. I looked ahead as the pack I ran with last year floated away. It was too early to worry about them, but losing contact can really change the dynamics of the race. My legs didn't feel great but I knew once we got off the roads I'd feel better. There wasn't much notable through the fist 11 miles other than my legs were heavy. We hit the aid station and I refilled my bottle before heading into the first section of real trail. Slick roots, blow downs, and the first climbing greeted us as we worked our way up to the Royal Arch. We passed a few runner who definitely were not comfortable in this terrain. It is some of the most beautiful scenery I've raced in - deep green sections of ferns, forest, and moss lining a mix of trails, some buffed out flat while others technical with gnarled roots and rocks. I thought we moved well but still reserved. We picked up one more guy and had a pack of four of us through miles 15 - 19.
Miles 16 to 19 is a long descent to the aid station. We started seeing our fist carnage of the day, no doubt those who pushed a bit too hard on the road section (all men by the way, women clearly know how to hold back). I was also starting to get cramps in my calves. Too early for cramps I thought and kept the mantra "hunt the carnage, don't be the carnage" on repeat.
At the 19 mile aid station I refilled my bottle but note that I also filled in a stream once on that stretch. I was much more thirsty than I thought I'd be given that it was cool for a midsummer day and cloudy with periods of rain. I also had some watermelon and was back on the trail. Coming out of this aid station there's 600 feet of climbing in the next mile - a wake up call that the suffering has only just begun. We lost Jim around mile 21 when he pulled off to deal with a foot blister. Hunter and I rolled on and we were both starting to feel beat down. He seemed like he was dealing with some cramps too but still was super strong and we traded off pacing duty. The climb up Bog Mountain seemed to go better this year. Hunter and I continued to grind and picked off four more runners struggling up the climb. Unfortunately the views were limited to 20 feet since we were blanketed in clouds.
The descent off Bog was horrible. The combination of calf cramps and slick rocks slowed me considerably. It felt like I was tip-toeing over terrain I usually run aggressively. My mindset at that point was, not worth it, make it down in one piece. That we did, but cramps kicked in hard and what is normally a speedy section right after I spent recovering my crampy legs. There was just one section separating us from our last manned aid station and also the least traveled / maintained section of trail. Here was passed three more runners and made sure to keep moving in some weird terrain that's difficult to describe. It's slightly sidehill in sections, cresting through raspberry briars, with lots of rocks and uneven terrain. Basically there's zero flow like you find in other sections of trail on this course. From there you hit dirt road and it's a straight shot to the aid station.
At the aid station I got tailwind and nabbed the last gel from the table. I was out of fuel so thankfully this would get me to the finish. The next section is mostly rolling logging roads / trails. It's only a couple miles long and if you have legs left, you can really cruise. Unfortunately I did not have legs but I wasn't walking or stopping to deal with cramps. I lost Hunter here which was a bummer, could have used his company for the next section. The logging / jeep road sends you out on a mile long dirt road. This stretch is a good gauge of how you're doing. Last year I ran somewhere around 8 minute pace, this year I struggled for 9 minute pace. After running "fast" for a couple miles of non-technical road, when I redirected to the final climb of the race, my adductors (groin) cramped up and I had to stop. A guy I caught on the logging roads passed me back while I did some problem solving. I chewed an electrolyte capsule to try and fix the cramp situation. It seemed to work because I was shuffling up New Canada Road in no time. I was gassed and kept wanting to walk but it's not steep enough to justify walking. I thought if I could just get to the climb up Ragged I would reward myself with hiking.
I took that last gel, grabbed some water and was onto the final climb. It was nice that there was no one in the rear view but disappointing that I wasn't catching anyone either. The climb starts out very runnable before hitting a few steeper sections later on. More mind games of 30 seconds on and 30 seconds of walking, still no one in sight. It's a punishing 2 mile climb with 1k vert through very technical terrain when you reach the upper section to cap off a very hard effort. I'm sure some of the flatlanders were confused that this is even called a trail. Finally, someone came into view and it was Brandon Baker. I was psyched to see him but wasn't feeling very competitive at that point. It seemed like he was dealing with cramps too and we were both hobbling along. At the summit when we started to descend, my calves knotted up and just wouldn't relaxed. Brandon shuffled on out of sight while I stopped for a minute to let the legs relax. The next 1.5 miles were spent sliding and hobbling down the mountain, even with the finish in view I could barely get the legs to relax.
I crossed the finish line and ducked under six hours. Needless to say I was happy to put that race to bed. The Next order of business was to find my drop bag and get out of my gross kit. Once that was handled I got a little bit of race recap from the front of the pack. It was great to hear that some locals crushed, some who had yet to run an ultra. David Sinclair really put on a clinic, 4:17, an impossible time in these conditions. He said he cruised from 16 miles to the final climb before really pushing it. Brandon Newbould had a great performance landing in fourth. Derrick Hamel also had a good debut and has so much potential in ultras so hopefully he does a few more. Also shoutout to the ladies who had a very strong showing with five in the top 20.
Big thanks to Six03 Endurance for hosting such a great event. The whole atmosphere start to finish is incredible. It's a beautiful course that requires a broad skillset to nail and even though it's a few miles long, those miles are really what make the race. I highly recommend this event if you're looking to get into New England Ultras.
Where to go from here? My time / place was way too slow to justify that sort of suffering, a good lesson learned in the whole recovery experiment. Clearly I have a long way to go to dial in these longer races but thankfully I have a few years of data and experience to really start planning future ultras. Working on training is a fun part of the puzzle and clearly the nordic guys have it figured out. More on my plans next week as I lick my wounds and start planning out 2019 goals.