TARC Wapack & Back 21.5 Miler
The TARC Wapack & Back 21.5 Miler was one of my most successfully executed races I've had so far when it comes to pacing, fueling and race strategy, but first lets start leading up to race day..
Since January I've been training for my first 50-miler at Cayuga Trails in June under Scott Traer's coaching (www.runfastah.com). Track sessions, stair climbing, strength training, lots of hill repeats and more miles than I have run before. In fact the week before Wapack, I ran the most miles I've ever run in a week, 71.3 miles with 9,816 feet of vert, including a hilly 26 mile run in Vermont. I've been narrowing in on my nutrition, during runs but also outside of running, recovery, focusing a lot on pacing and really working on having a positive mindset when things get tough. Even with these higher mileage weeks, I've been feeling good and recovering really well. Amongst training, I've had the stress of buying and moving into my first house, as well as studying for and taking my Certified Personal Trainer exam (which I passed!). It's been a crazy couple months, but I think training for Cayuga has kept me sane. Thank goodness for running!
So back to Wapack.. I knew that I didn't have the freshest legs for race day, but I really wanted to do well. This race takes place on the Wapack Trail which is 21.5 miles long starting in Greenfield, NH and ending in Ashburnham, MA. The trail goes over North Pack Monadanock (2,260 feet) and Pack Monadnock (2,288 feet) within the first few miles, and then continues on through Miller State Park and the Wapack Range including Temple Mountain, New Ipswich Mountain, Pratt Mountain and then Mount Watatic (1,831 feet), about 4,800 feet of gain overall. There's a 21.5 mile race in which runners get dropped off at the North end and run to the South, but there's also a 43 mile and 50 mile race that involves an out-and-back on the trail, brutal. It's my favorite type of course, lots of steep ascents and descents, rocky, technical New England trails. Given the time of year, the trail is usually damp and muddy, and this weekend met those expectations. The Wapack Trail is marked with yellow triangle blazes and there's no other course markings on race day, so I was glad to have already run the first 7 miles and last 10 miles of the trail during training. I didn't know what the middle 5 miles would be like but judging by the elevation chart I knew they wouldn't be too bad.
After getting bused over to the Northern Terminus of the Wapack Trail, the race started promptly at 9:00am. I started right at the front of the pack. I say that I wanted to "do well", but deep down I really wanted to win this one. Lately at trail races I've been placing 2nd, 3rd, 4th. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. This race I was feeling really strong and really wanted to crush it. After talking to my coach and running the course, I knew that my fast technical downhill running were going to be my strong points and that if I just played the climbs really safe and saved my energy for the downhills and very few flats, I'd have a good race. There's so much climbing in the first few miles, so it was a little defeating to be moving so slow at the beginning, but I wasn't getting passed by many other runners either so I think everyone was feeling the same. There was one female runner who was on my heels during the climbs at the beginning which made me pick up the pace a bit, but I tried to not let it make me go out too hard and just kept those downhills in mind. The few that did pass me on the climbs, I passed on the downhills and after the first few decends, I was feeling a lot more confident. All the climbing left my calves a little sore, but I knew after the first 6 miles and 2,000 feet that a lot of the hard climbing was done. I flew by the first aid station and really looked forward to getting to the second aid station near the Windblown Ski Resort, as from there I would only have 9 miles left on the part of the course which I felt I knew really well, and included some fast miles before heading up Mount Watatic.
Throughout the first half of the race, there was one runner (wish I got his name!) who I was chatting with. He'd pass me on the climbs and then I'd fly by him on the downhills. It was a nice little game of tag and it was great to have someone else on the trails to talk to, although briefly. He had run the race a few times, so it was perfect to have someone who knew the trail. There was one part of the trail that ends at a road, and then you take a sharp left and run down the road before hitting the trail again. It was not marked well at all and I hit the brakes. My tag partner yelled from behind "turn left and keep going straight at the intersection until you hit the woods", so thankful for that! At that point I hit those miles I hadn't run yet and they consisted of rolling fire roads with some mud and rocks. A lot faster than I had been running which felt great, although I ended up choking on a mini Larabar, then water and getting a stomach cramp, probably from swallowing so much air choking while running fast. (note to self: save the Larabar chewing for the slow climbs). A couple miles later, I hit the Windblown aid station, stopped to refill my water bottles (only aid station I stopped at the whole race). I had no idea where that other female runner was so I blasted out of there as quick as possible with a big smile on my face because I knew exactly what to expect for those last 9 miles.
I ran hard on those rolling cross-country ski trails in order to make up for what I knew would be a tough, slow climb a couple miles later. When that climb came, it seemed to take forever, but I just took my time and refueled. I actually reorganized my vest sticking the trash in the back of my pack and moving my uneaten gels to the front. Thats how long that climb was! Finally I made it to the top and I took off running again until reaching an ankle deep muddy intersection where a lot of the markers got knocked down by fallen trees. I started heading in the wrong direction, stopped, cursed, then turned around and found the right away. So thankful I ran on most of that course already, because I would've been lost there. The next few miles consisted of some more climbing and more downhill but nothing major. I knew there was one very steep long descent coming up, and then after that there would be some fast miles before hitting the Binney Hill aid station, last aid station and 3.5 miles from the finish line. That long descent was awful, super slippery with leaves and I found myself having to grab on to trees to stop myself from falling but once I was at the bottom I breathed a sigh of relief and kicked things into high gear. The next few miles were mostly easy single-track where I could pick up the pace. I told my husband leading up to the race that I thought I could run the race at a 12:30 min/mi pace (about a 4:20 finishing time). I had my watch set so I could see my distance, moving time and overall average pace. At this point in the race my overall average pace was 12:40 min/mi, so I made it my goal to get that down to 12:30 min/mi. About a mile or so later I hit the Binney Hill aid station and something about a) seeing a familiar face (thanks Matt Elam for being there!) and b) knowing that I had one big climb and a downhill to go, sparked something inside of me. I dropped the hammer, immediately passing two runners and knowing that it didn't matter if I pushed myself too hard on the climbs at this point because I only had a little over a 5k to go. There was no storing energy or worrying about pacing or nutrition, it was time to push hard, finish strong, and give whatever I had left of me, leave it all out on the course. I was running like something was lit under my ass, breathing heavy, coughing and spitting. There was some rolling, muddy fire roads before arriving at the Mount Watatic ascend. I pushed up as hard as I could running and then starting power hiking like I never have before. In previous races, especially when I already knew I was going to make my goal time or knew that I was in the lead, I would slow down and take it easy and succumb to my tired legs, but today I was not letting that happen. When I finally made it to the top of Mount Watatic, I yelled "YES!" and one of the runners who I had recently passed was right behind me now and he laughed. Throughout the entire race I told myself, it's really only 20 miles and then a super fun downhill to the finish line, so when I reached the top of Mount Watatic, to me the race was over and now I could just enjoy this steep technical downhill knowing that I was going to reach my time goal (overall pace was at 12:30 on the dot at this point) and finish first female. I ran so hard down Mount Watatic that my feet were slipping under me and I had to occasionally grab on to a tree but I didn't care. I leaped over rocks and roots grinning from ear to ear. I came sort of close to shoving hikers off a wooden bridge seconds from the finish line, but they stepped off moments before I approached (good thing for them!). I crossed the finish line in almost exactly 4:20, first female and 10th overall. So confident and so relieved.
Wapack was not a goal race of mine and I knew I would be running on somewhat tired legs, but after running on those trails, I was feeling somewhat confident about having a solid race there. It ended up being the perfect training run for Cayuga. Cayuga Trails 50 is way less technical and a little less hilly, but it's still going to be a course I need to pace myself well on. I learned from Wapack that being slow on the climbs is totally ok, and all that saved energy can be used for the downhills (which are definitely my strong points) and flats. My nutrition is on point, as long I don't choke on anymore Larabars! I'm feeling really strong heading into Cayuga. It's a really competitive race with a lot of fast runners so I won't be at the front of the pack like I was yesterday, but I'm confident in having a really awesome first 50-mile experience!
Shout out to my husband for instilling confidence I didn't immediately have in running this race, as well as my coach for the pre-race pep talk and the amazing training he has given me thus far. Thanks to Jesse Veinotte for directing this race and ensuring that race day went so smoothly. Thanks to all the volunteers that were so supportive and cheerful although I only stopped at one aid station and practically threw my water bottles at the volunteer to get them filled. TARC aid stations and volunteers are like none other. I will certainly be back next year for the TARC Wapack and Back 50-Miler!