Over the last year or so, I have become more and more interested in taking on longer, more challenging runs. After reading the book “Born to Run” by Christoper McDougall, I was fascinated by the world of the elite ultrarunners – they are a very quirky and adventurous bunch who find ways to push their bodies to physical extremes. As I wanted to learn more about ultramarathon racing, I stumbled across the podcast entitled “Running Stupid”. This podcast, published every few weeks by a 40-something, self proclaimed “back of the pack” (that’s the nice way of saying “slow”), overweight, but joyously funny ultrarunner named “Coach Ken” regularly describes the challenges, successes and failures of an average Joe runner, and provides a window on the world of the more elite runners from his perspective. In short, reading this book, and listening to these podcasts had me hooked – I had to try an ultramarathon.
There was a problem with this dream, this check box on my bucket list – running long races requires a LOT of training, my life is pretty busy, and I knew from past experiences that my body would almost always break down if I attempted to train for long or ultralong events. Over the last year, however, I discovered that I could do, and enjoy regular road marathons with far less training than is usually prescribed, as long as I got in one very long run (at least two hours) every week, and as a result was successful in two marathons in the last year. Could this same regimen work for an ultramarathon? Could I finish? Could I feel good enough that I actually enjoy the race? Ultramarathons typically range from 50 km road races (about 31 miles) to 100 miles on road or trails, or even more. I knew I had better look for one on the short side, for obvious reasons.
A few months ago, I noticed an announcement for the “Moosalamoo Ultra” a 36-mile race to be held on the trail network of the Moosalamoo region on August 18. This seemed like a great one to try – readers of this blog will know that I am quite familiar with the trails here, and it had the added convenience of being close to home. In fact, looking at the race course, I had previously run almost all of the trails on the course at some point or another, and I described the course as “four or five great runs – all in one day!” The race was being organized by John Izzo, a Salisbury resident and avid local runner, with the Blueberry Hill Inn as its base of operations and start/finish area.
So, I lined up at 8 am on Saturday with about 100 other runners, about half of whom were doing the still very challenging 14 mile version of the race. Usually, in this blog, I go into a fair amount of detail on the route, but this particularly elaborate course pretty much defies a detailed description. I am going to include a few Google Earth projections as I usually do, and also make a link to the course map. John clearly put a lot of thought into putting together a great piece of running which covered pretty much every corner of the Moosalamoo region, with some very challenging climbs (the first loop up and over Mt Moosalamoo), and out and back section in the first half of the race, so that runners could have a feel for where they stood in the pack, some very muddy sections (yes, there is plenty of mud out there, even in this dry summer), and some particularly drop dead gorgeous sections of trail (the Chandler Ridge/Leicester Hollow loop comes to mind). The course was also well supported with volunteers, many of whom were John’s family, at aid stations throughout the course.
In any case, as a first time ultrarunner, I brought the following with me on the course:
The race itself seemed to have 3 distinct phases – the first third, including the run up and down Moosalamoo had the most challenging terrain, and I had other competitors in sight nearly the whole way, since the short race (14 mile) and long race (36+ mile) runners were all together. This part went by pretty quickly. Curiously, one of the few sections of trail that I had never been on before here was the “dimple” between the two summits of Moosalamoo, and this was the only time I got off course – I probably wasted about a half mile and 5 minutes getting my bearings back here. I also saw two gentlemen hiking carrying what looked to be 100 pound bags of sand without the benefits of a backpack. At first I was mystified, but then I recognized one of the two as someone training for another local ultra-endurance test – the even more masochistic “Death Race”. Although this event has already taken place earlier this summer – perhaps they were training for next year already?
The second third had what was probably the gentlest terrain in the race, and it was here that I met and ran with a few far more experienced ultramarathoners who kept me company, and answered my stupid questions. We ran together for a few hours, and they did a very good job of mixing in running and walking so that we could maintain appropriate pacing for finishing. Thanks Josh and Grant from NH! I also knew that in the “long run” I would not be able to keep pace with these two experienced ultrarunners who were 25 years my junior.
The last third of the race ended up being, not surprisingly, the hardest part. As well it should – prior to this race, I had never run longer than 4 and half hours, and I went into the last dozen miles already on my feet for over 6 hours. I also bonked for a while due to dehydration, and the technical running on the Chandler Ridge also sucked a lot of the remaining life from my legs. Curiously, at around 4:30 in the afternoon when I was coming up Leicester Hollow – I had one final surprise burst of energy, and was able to muster some real running for about a half hour here. I am not sure where this came from, but maybe my loved ones were thinking of me and sending some positive vibes my way right then! However, other than this too brief reprieve, the last 12 miles were walked – I tried in vain to get my legs to turn over quickly enough to muster a slow jog across the finish line, but they couldn’t respond. With one mile to go, even my GPS and camera were rebelling. My watch proclaimed that it was “Low on Batteries”, and when I went to take a picture of this “No kidding” moment, my camera had a hard time opening its iris! Nonetheless, I did finish, and I wasn’t in dead last place (although closer to last than first!)
What did I take from this race? First of all – my modest training regimen is enough for a road marathon, but it really isn’t sufficient for a trail ultra. I did finish, but I need to put more miles into my legs in training to keep a longer race like this fully enjoyable. No surprise there!
I would also like to thank John Izzo and his extended family (as well as other volunteers) for the great job they did putting together this new race. I would also like to thank Tony and the crew at Blueberry Hill for use of their facilities as a base of operation and start/ finish line. I think the rest of my blogged runs this summer will be much shorter…..
Finally, my GPS measured the course slightly longer than advertised, at 37.5 miles (although about a half mile was spent off course) or about 60 km. I agree with the estimation of about 3000 vertical feet of climbing and descent.