TARC Fells Winter Ultra 40-Miler

 Photo taken by Tracita Verdespan

 Photo taken by Tracita Verdespan

After a stressful and exhausting day of work the day before, I actually slept the best I ever have the night before a race. I woke up the next morning (at 3:30am) feeling excited and with the mindset that I was just heading out for another long run on my favorite trail on a Saturday morning, but this time I wasn't going to be alone and so many familiar faces would be there. The race started at 7am, but I got there a little before 6am because I was so excited to see everyone. It wasn't until I pinned my bib to my shorts that I started to get really anxious and nervous, but that quickly went away after some encouraging words from others. My husband was the race director this year, his first time ever directing a race, and it was really cool seeing him take charge. At 7:00am on the dot, the race started. I did my studying (or stalking as my friend, Skott, would say) before the race, so I knew who the front females for the 40-miler would be. I knew that I had no hope of being top 3, which was only disappointing because the Yeti prizes that a volunteer and fellow runner made for the top 3 finishers were so damn cute, but at the same time, knowing that there were such strong females running took the pressure off of me. All I needed to focus on was pacing myself and finishing strong. Prior to this year's race, only two females had finished the 40-mile distance and the DNF (did not finish) rate for both the 32-mile and 40-mile distances is very high so just finishing this race is a huge accomplishment.

The TARC Fells Winter Ultra takes place at the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham, MA, just 10 minutes or so from Boston. The trail that the course is on is called the Skyline Trail. From the trail's highest point, Wright's Tower, you can see a skyline view of the city. The trail is about a 7.4 mile loop consisting of mostly single-track. It is extremely technical, with a lot of rocky sections and roots, and not a lot of "runnable" parts. The course is a lollipop shape in which you do an out-and-back from the start/finish line to the trailhead. Each loop is about 8 miles total, with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Since the highest point is only about 200 feet, the course's elevation chart looks like a chainsaw blade with constant ups and downs. When you reach the trail from the start, you have the choice of either going clockwise or counter-clockwise. Last year when I ran the TARC Fells Winter Ultra 32-Miler, I ran the entire race clockwise. In preparation for this year's race, I went for a training run in the other direction and found it to be easier and faster. In the TARC (Trail Animal Running Club) community, this is a very debatable topic, but for myself some of the steep rocky climbs going clockwise are easier to descend going counter-clockwise. Confusing, huh?

Because this is such a difficult course and I have zero experience running longer than 32-miles, pacing was so important. My coach, Scott Traer, really enforced the idea of keeping the first two loops at a super easy pace. During the first loop, instead of going with my natural instinct to chase runners ahead of me, I held myself back and really focused on my breathing. Anytime I felt my heart rate increase or like I was breathing heavy, I slowed down, which sometimes meant I was power-hiking hills that normally I would be running. I had my Garmin watch on, but I didn't look at my pace until the very end of the first loop and I was surprised to see how slow I had been moving. The first loop took me 1 hour and 29 minutes. Which is a lot slower than I'm used to running this loop, however is was the perfect pace for this long of a race. My friend, Skott, was crewing me, which only really required helping me dump my pre-made water bottles of Tailwind (the only nutrition I took in during the race) into my handheld and giving some words of encouragement, but the help was much needed and appreciated, and just knowing that he was there for me was awesome. I actually felt bad that first time at the start/finish because I was in and out so fast, and barely got to say hi! 

Photo taken by David Metsky.. me chatting away. 

Photo taken by David Metsky.. me chatting away. 

The second loop I ran with a couple of runners who were doing the 32-miler and were moving at about the same pace. We struck up a conversation and come to find out, one of them was a guide for Kyle Robidoux, who I had also guided at a trail race before. We didn't chat a lot, it was mostly me running slightly ahead of them, and them chatting behind me which made it feel like I was listening to a podcast about two complete strangers as I ran, which was perfectly distracting at the time. The lead females were running the course in the opposite direction, so it was cool to see them run by and where they passed me on the course, I knew that they weren't that far ahead of me, which was also encouraging. I kept the pace slow, and easy and finished the second loop in 1:32:34. Skott helped me grab another bottle of tailwind, and I headed back out.

The third loop is where the nauseous slowly started to creep in. I tried my best to ignore it and just keep drinking my highly concentrated Tailwind concoction. There was someone pretty close behind me but it wasn't until running past the halfway aid station (which I never stopped at during the entire race) that the voice behind me said "Thank you so much for pacing me, I owe you a cheeseburger after this!". The voice explained to me that he was running the 32-miler as his first ultramarathon and had been following other runners who kept getting lost, and that I was running at a perfect pace for him and seemed to know the course well. I denied his cheeseburger offer, but welcomed him to tag along with me for as long as he liked. The rest of that loop went by so quickly as it didn't even feel like I was at a race anymore. Now I had someone to chat with and a nice distraction from my tiring legs and my shaky stomach. I finished that third loop even faster than the second, although I spent a couple extra minutes at the start/finish. I tried drinking some ginger ale to see if I could get rid of some that nauseous, but after a couple swigs, I quickly regretted that decision. The ginger ale made my stomach angrier. I saw a couple more familiar faces at the start/finish, gave a couple hugs, and headed back out. I was relieved when my new friend asked if he could tag along for another loop, my fourth loop, but his last. After 4 and 1/2 hours of running, the company was welcome.

That fourth loop you could really see the affect of the course on the other runners. A lot of runners had dropped so there weren't as many people out there, and some of the runners who were out there were starting to move a lot slower. Minus the stomach situation, I felt great and tried to share that positivity with other runners as I saw them. I felt like I was slowing down a lot, but my winter ultra running partner at one point said "You're like a metronome, your splits are almost the same as the last loop!". This made me feel really good and the more we talked back and forth, the more excited I was about getting him to the finish line of his first ultra. It also made me think back to this point in the race last year, when I was finishing up my last loop. On my fourth loop last year, I was moving much slower and was in rough shape, barely crawling to the finish line. Now here I was moving much faster and feeling fresh as a daisy. Well, maybe not fresh as daisy, but at least still running strong. However, as we started to approach the start/finish this time, the realization that I was going to be doing the fifth loop alone started to hit. In these types of races, it is really easy to go from feeling on top of the world, to as low as possible, and now I felt like my mood was beginning to crash. I crossed the start/finish after 32 miles in 6 hours and 16 minutes, almost an HOUR faster than last year. I immediately ran over and asked Skott if he wanted to run with me, which I hadn't planned on doing. We were allowed a pacer for the last loop of the 40-miler, but I originally hadn't wanted one. Now that I had company for much of the race, I was worried that being out there alone, that my mind was going to wander to a dark place. Skott wasn't prepared to run so my husband offered to find me someone else, but I just said nevermind and headed out alone. 

As soon as I headed out for the last loop, the stomach cramping started. I looked forward to hills because when I wasn't running, my stomach didn't hurt, but as soon as I started running, I had shooting pain on either sides of my abdomen. I tried "yoga breathing" and rubbing my stomach with my fingers, which has worked in the past, but nothing work this time. About a mile or so into the loop, I passed Kevin Mullen and Christine Feder. Every time I saw them during the race, which was lot because they were running in the opposite direction, they seemed like they were having the time of their lives. I could hear them before I could actually see them! Chris would yell "SAAAMMAAAYY" and it just immediately made me start laughing. Seeing them on that last loop really brightened things up. I was almost done and I wasn't going to let this stomach situation ruin my spirit. Although it was taking me a lot slower to get up some of the climbs, I was still running quite fast downhill and on the "flat-ish" parts. I was so amazed that my legs could still move the way they were. I thought for sure that in this point in the race, I would be walking the entire time, but that was not the case. Although I wasn't drinking much of my Tailwind during this loop, the caffeine from the previous loops mixed with hours and hours of running, was making my mind a little loopy. I was saying "Great job!!" to people who weren't even running the race, and at one point I saw a women with a dog who was wearing a sweatshirt made by one of my favorite vegan clothing brands called "Naketano", so I yelled out to her "Is that a Naketano?!". Seemingly puzzled, she looked at her dog, then to me, and said "No.. it's a pitbull!". At that point I realized maybe I should just stay focused on running and not striking up conversations with strangers. 

Photo taken by Chris Wristen from MassUltra.. Wright's Tower and the Boston Skyline behind me.

Photo taken by Chris Wristen from MassUltra.. Wright's Tower and the Boston Skyline behind me.

The last mile of the race, my stomach was really rumbling and I knew I had to finish soon or else something terrible was going to happen. As I approached the finish line, I was overwhelmed with excited and happiness, but ran right past my husband and friends, straight to the porta-potties. With that over with, now I could celebrate. My watch had an early death after 6 and 1/2 hours, so I was stoked to find out that I finished in 8 hours and 1 minute, 4th female as I was the entire race, and only 22 minutes behind first place! Other than the stomach issues, I couldn't have had a better race. Although chilly for the volunteers and crews, the weather was perfect for running, my legs felt great the entire time, and I never once felt like quitting or went into a negative space. I just kept smiling and reminding myself how lucky I was to be out there that day, just as my coach had told me to do. Staying positive really makes a big difference and my cheeks actually hurt from smiling after. The post-race blues.. and soreness.. are starting to settle in now, but after this weekend I am full of confidence and am feeling really capable of moving forward with next year's goals. 

Thanks to my husband for not only dealing with my craziness leading up to the race, but the race wouldn't have even happened had he not jumped in to direct it this year. He did an amazing job as the director and it could not have gone smoother. The volunteers were awesome, although I denied them every time they tried to make me eat solid food (need to work on that), and thanks to my friends Kyle, Tara and Corinna for showing up just to cheer me on. A HUGE thank you to my friend, Skott Daltonic, who dropped from doing the race himself so that he could spend 8 hours in the freezing cold to crew me, even though he probably saw for a total of 5 minutes the entire race because I was in and out of the start/finish so fast. Crewing for an ultra is a tough job and having that support there made a world of difference. Also, a big thanks to Jason Devarennes, who's name I didn't get until the race results were up, for tagging along a couple loops. As much as you appreciated my pacing, I really enjoyed the company!

Elevation chart for the 40-miler

Elevation chart for the 40-miler

This years splits for the 40-miler:

Loop 1: 1:29:30   Loop 2: 1:32:34   Loop 3: 1:34:07   Loop 4: 1:40:38   Loop 5: 1:45:05   Total Time: 8:01:56

Compared to last year's splits for the 32-miler:

Loop 1: 1:33:10    Loop 2: 1:44:44   Loop 3: 1:54:01    Loop 4: 1:58:39                                 Total Time: 7:10:32

I owe much of this progress to Scott Traer. Although I have only been working with him since July, I have become not only a stronger and faster runner, but he's also given me so much insight and words of wisdom when it comes to racing and mental attitude. Learning how to run fast is one thing, but learning how to run smart and how to push through physical and mental obstacles during a race is another. I have learned a lot and am looking forward to continuing to work with him. 

Samantha Belanger4 Comments