First Ultra Recap

Five days ago I ran my first ultramarathon, the TARC Fells Winter Ultra 32-Miler, and it was one of the hardest but yet most amazing things I have done yet. The days leading up to it I felt the most nervous I have ever felt before a big race. The idea of running 6 miles beyond a marathon on a pretty gnarly single-track trail was very scary. Although I had had plenty of practice runs on the course, even a 24-mile training run, I kept telling myself that I was way out of my league and something was bound to go horribly wrong on race day. The idea of DNF'ing ("Did Not Finish" for those new to ultramarathons) my first attempt at an ultra was terrifying, because even though I knew it wouldn't be the end all of my running career, I had trained so hard and would have been heartbroken. Not only did that not happen, but I finished 5th female overall, crushed my goal time, and actually had FUN during my race!

The morning of the race, my husband headed out early to volunteer, and I headed out as last minute as possible since the starting line was close-by, and I knew the more I waited around at the start the more nervous I would be. Pulling up to where the starting location was I was a bundle of nerves. I had been to a few TARC (Trail Animal Running Club) races and other trail races, but I was always either a spectator or running the shorter distance option. This was my first time going to one these races and actually running the longer distance. Its an unsettling, but exciting feeling to know that you are minutes away from spending most of the day running a race. My goal time was 8 hours, which means I was planning on being out in the woods running from 7am-3pm. I thought about this a lot in previous days, checking the clock and thinking, "oh boy, I'll still be running at this time". My first and only marathon was less than two months before that morning and it took me a little under 4 hours. The last 3 miles of that race was so painful, so the idea of running twice as long, time-wise, was nerve-wrecking. I got my drop-bag, which I would see every 8-miles, organized and ready to go, then I stood at the starting line. The race director gave a speech and then sent the runners off. As soon as I starting moving the nerves immediately vanished, and I told myself that I was going to be running for a very long time so I might as well enjoy it! 

The course is at the Middlesex Fells Reservation on the Skyline Trail Loop. It's about 7.2 miles long. The starting line in Stoneham is at the head of a short fire road which the Skyline Trail Crosses and adds almost a 1/2 a mile each way. When you reach the trail during the race, you have the option of going left or right, clockwise or counterclockwise, and then at the end of each loop you run back to the start/finish line before start the next loop. The loop itself is a pretty tough trail. The elevation gain per loop is roughly 1,000ft and the highest point is only about 200ft, but the climbs and descends are steep. It is covered in rocks and roots, and there are not a lot of flat, runnable parts of the course. Also, if you are not familiar with the trail, it is very easy to get lost. The course was not marked for the race, so it was up to you to follow the White Blazes along the trail. I went clockwise all four of my loops simply because that is the way I had run it in training and I knew it very well that way. Also, running the course clockwise allowed you to get the toughest parts of the loop done with first and provided some "easier" miles towards the end. 

Per usual, I started the race a lot faster than I probably should have. The excitement of the race, being passed by faster runners, and tapering which made my legs feel amazing, pushed me to a pace that felt comfortable at the time, but was not manageable for the entire 32-miles. However, I had a lot of fun the first loop. I chatted with some runners who were doing the 40-mile option, and helped out some runners who kept going off course. Eventually other runners were catching on to the fact that "the vegan" (as they kept calling me) knew the course well, so they followed behind. My husband and a good friend of mine were volunteering at an aid station that was located slightly past the halfway point in the direction I ran in. By the time I reached them, I had a group of 6 runners following behind me, which I didn't even realize at the time that there were so many of them, but saw in pictures later. My plan was to not stop at the halfway aid station the first two loops since I had a handheld water bottle with some gels that would be sufficient enough until I got back to the start/finish. After we passed the aid station the first time, some of the group took off, but there was a couple of guys I stayed with for awhile, and it was really nice to have company. The first time I reached the start/finish my total mileage was only 7.8 miles. 7.8 miles may not seem that much shorter than 8 miles, however in this race, it felt like an infinity, and really boosted my mood. I quickly grabbed some more gels, topped off my water, and headed back out. I shared company with the same couple of guys (I unfortunately don't think I ever grabbed their names) and we ran most of the second loop together with other runners joining us off and on. The best part about this race was having familiar faces coming from the opposite direction, so it became more of a social event, than a competitive race. Also, normally the lead runners are so far ahead that you don't even get to see them during the race, but since I was running the opposite way they choose, I got to see them multiple times and that was really cool. The second lap, although a little slower, I still felt amazing. Another friend came to watch at the halfway aid station for the second loop wearing his Strong Hearts Vegan Power sweatshirt (I had on my tech shirt), and that made me feel really proud, and was a great reminder of all the people who couldn't come, that I knew were thinking of me and wanting me to succeed.

Halfway point aid station, 3rd loop after mile 20, still smiling! Photo by my husband, Jeff LeBlanc

Halfway point aid station, 3rd loop after mile 20, still smiling! Photo by my husband, Jeff LeBlanc

The third loop is when the atmosphere started to get more serious. Other runners were a little less social and more serious. The idea that some runners were starting to finish the 32-miler, and I was only halfway done was becoming a reality that was tough to handle. I was also starting to have difficulty taking in anymore nutrition. I couldn't eat anymore gels, so I was forcing myself to eat oreos, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwich pieces. The second half of the third loop (around 21 miles) I was completely alone, and the negative thoughts were starting to roll in. I just wanted to get to the start/finish and be out on my last loop. The anticipation of hitting the 26.2 mile mark was making me nervous again, as if all hell was going to break loose once I hit that point, and I was no longer going to be able to run. I made it back to the start/finish and decided it was time for some music. I threw on some headphones and headed back out. I have a pretty eclectic running playlist downloaded on my phone, but Beyonce immediately came on. It set a spark in me and as I headed out for my last loop, I was drawn out of my negative mood, and into some dancing, singing and smiling (thank you Beyonce!). When I finally hit that 26.2 mile mark on my watch and nothing incredible happened, I was stoked! I said goodbye to everything as I ran by it, since it would be my last loop. And by everything, I mean everything such as a little stump that I used to trip on in training, every steep climb, the Sheepfold parking lot which is paved and really hurt my feet on the last loop, and of course Wright's Tower, which is a tower you run by on the Skyline Trail and has an awesome view of Boston. I actually think I said out loud "Goodbye Boston!". When I got to the halfway aid station the last time, my husband, who must've been having too much fun, asked "what loop are you on?", and I replied "dude, I'm like 3 miles away from finishing!!". I was in pain all over, but I was just so happy that I could not stop smiling those last few miles. Even when I ran down a hill covered in small rocks that really hurt the bottom of my feet, yelling "ouch, ouch, ouch", I was still smiling. When I hit 31 miles, which is a 50k distance, my emotions were hard to control and the tears starting flowing. I wiped them away, thinking that I didn't want anyone who may be at that finish line to see me crying! I turned left away from the loop and sprinted, or at least what felt like sprinting at the time, towards the finish line. After finishing, I felt so indifferent. I didn't know how to feel yet. I had so many outcomes thought up as to how this race would end, but things turned out so differently. Not that I was underplaying the distance that I had ran, or how tough it was, but part of me was thinking "this is it?". I had imagined myself falling and getting hurt, and having to pick myself back up, or being in so much pain I would have to drag myself to the finish, or not even finishing, so to be at the finish line 40 minutes earlier than expected and 5th female (I thought 6th at the time), seemed too crazy to be real. And still does. I feel like a different person now. I am a different person now. I am an ultramarathoner. I have worked so hard and come so far, and to accomplish what I did this past weekend, feels really really good. I can not wait for my next ultra!

Finishing Photo Courtesy of Micah Risk!

Finishing Photo Courtesy of Micah Risk!


Finishing time: 7:10:35                      Finishing Place: 5th Female; 26th overall

Total Elevation: Roughly 4,000ft

Lap1-  1:33:10         Lap2-  3:17:54          Lap3-  5:11:56       Lap4-   7:10:35

Samantha Belanger6 Comments