Pisgah Mountain 50k
I ran the Pisgah Mountain 23k in 2015 as one of my first trail races and it was also my longest race at the time. It kicked my butt! Not a very technical course but a lot hillier than my legs were ready for back then. I swore off ever running that race again, but after my husband ran the 50k the next year, I knew I had to come back and experience the full course. The Pisgah Mountain 50k takes place in the Pisgah State Forest of Chesterfield, NH, about 15 minutes from Brattleboro, VT. The starting line is between a fire station and school, and the whole race has a "townie" feel to it. Very low-key, cheap registration fee, and day of registration available. Even with the no-frills atmosphere, the race seems to attract some speedy New England trail runners who have dropped some pretty impressive 50k times over the years (including my coach, Scott Traer and ultramarathon legend Nikki Kimball). The 50k has somewhere around 4,300 feet of elevation gain, so I figured it would be a perfect training run for my hilly 50-miler in November.
After guiding and pacing at Vermont 100 in July, I took a couple weeks off from running so I could recover and refocus before training for my second 50-miler. Two weeks into running again I sprained my ankle. Not terribly (whatever that means) but enough that I couldn't run for a few days and then had to take it easy for few weeks after that. So before Pisgah, I only had a couple weeks of hard training and I honestly wasn't even sure if I should be running 30 miles. I had been avoiding trails because the uneven surfaces hurt my ankle so the idea of running that long on hilly trails was scary. I managed to get in one 20-mile training run on paved roads at Waschusett Mountain State Park with 4,000 feet of gain including some hard effort miles and I felt pretty good after, so that was my green light to go ahead with running Pisgah. With no taper, a recovering sprained ankle, and tired legs from my hard effort at Waschusett and a track workout the week of the race, I knew it was going to be a tough day but I was really excited to run.
My husband and a friend, who were both running the 50k as well, and I drove up to the race the morning of. At 6am it was already warm with humidity somewhere between 90-100%. The race didn't start until 8:45am and it was suppose to get even warmer as the day progressed. I wasn't too worried about the heat because I trained in the hot afternoons all Summer, but I certainly wasn't looking forward to it. As I approached the starting line, I did a quick scan of the other runners. Since the 23k and 50k have the same start time, you had to look for the little mark on the bib that said the distance they were running so I was that person squinting and leaning over to look at which race everyone was running. I knew there were a lot of fast male runners there and it would be fun to see how that played out, but I didn't really know much about the other women, although I was told beforehand that there was at least one other women who was a really strong runner. I wasn't there necessarily there to race but the idea of coming in at least top 3 was nice.
The race starts off with a couple of miles of roads with a little bit of an uphill before entering the woods, and then the 50k and 23k course splits. I think everyone runs those first couple of miles fast and I was no different. My plan was to start at the front of the pack, then slow down after the split, and see who'd pass me. I'm more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to races. Even though I wasn't suppose to be giving this race an all out effort, it's still nice to know what place I'm in, and if I was feeling good in the later miles, I was going to push hard to the finish. The first few miles in the woods were very runnable and slightly downhill, so it was tough to slow down to a more conservative pace. There was a pack of male runners right behind me and as soon as I slowed down, they one by one passed me.. one of them returning a Skratch Labs packet I had dropped when reaching into my pack (thank you whoever you are!). Once they all passed me, I had the trails all to myself and could really focusing on keeping it easy. I had expected to be passed by at least one female and when I wasn't, I felt a little uneasy that I was leading so early in the race. When I hit the first aid station and they yelled "first female!", I wanted to say.. "SHHHH!". The first 10 miles felt really easy. Mostly soft pine needle trails, with some rocky sections, some smaller hills, and bridges here and there. My heart rate was kind of high but I didn't feel like I was running hard at all, so I blamed it on the heat and just tried to stay hydrated the best I could. I knew from talking to my husband and looking at the course elevation profile that the big climbs were in the second half of the course (much like Mountain Masochist 50 miler which is the race I'm training for) so I knew I had to save my energy for later in the course. I ran through the second manned aidstation (there are 4 manned aidstations, one that you pass through twice, as well as 3 water drops throughout the course). This time when they cheered "first female!", I heard someone yell "yeah Samantha!". I said to the volunteer "who was that??" and looked around but didn't see anyone I know. Immediately after that aidstation there was big hill and halfway up was my friend, Chris Knighton, the friend I had driven up with and who was one of the men at the beginning who took off ahead of me. We chatted for a bit, then I continued on.
Up until now I was feeling really good. I was moving at what felt like a really easy pace, pushing a little on the downhills and flats, but powerhiking most of the climbs. It was definitely getting hotter but I was eating and drinking well, and making sure I was getting enough salt. I tweaked my ankle a couple times on some of the rocky sections, just enough for me to yell out some profanities, but not enough to feel like I was really hurting it. Whenever I did approach a rocky section, I would slow down quite a bit and really focus on footing. Although I love technical trails and would've enjoyed running faster through these sections, I didn't think it was worst potentially re-spraining it.
Around mile 17 is when the course starts climbing up to the peak of Mount Pisgah. Only 1,300 feet but the climb up feels never-ending, especially after a few hours of running. I took my time and just chugged along until I got to the top, and then without taking in much of the view, I started the descent back down. My legs were pretty beat after that climb, and between that and the heat, I was starting to feel beat up all together but shortly after the summit I passed another runner who was in worse shape, which made me feel better (ha). Coming up I knew I had to run the "Kilburn Loop" or as my husband called it before the race "where dreams go to die". I didn't exactly know what that was all about but other runners had said it was tough for them as well. I got to the last manned aidstation which you pass twice (once entering the loop and once leaving) then left the aidstation going the wrong way. Thankfully someone re-directed me towards the sign that clearly said "Kilburn Loop".. dummy. The first mile or so of the loop was amazing. Mostly flat, a nice breeze from a little pond, easy footing. I thought my husband was crazy. And then things quickly changed. It's hard to even remember why this part of the course was so tough. There wasn't any huge climbs or really technical parts, but just enough climbing and rocks to be exhausting, especially with the ankle and time on feet. Running, then powerhiking, then running, then powerhiking. It was hard to get into a groove and miles seemed to take forever. I hadn't looked at the course map and didn't know how long this loop was or how many miles were left after it ended. Out of desperation, I tried to pull my paper map out of pack but it was soaked from sweat and just crumbled apart in my hands. So here I am, not knowing where I was on the course, how many miles were left, running this never-ending loop. Now I see what everyone was talking about.
I somehow made it out there and as soon as I did, I saw Kevin Mullen up ahead, who is always such a pleasure to see on the trails. He was about to enter the loop and we both stopped at the aidstation. I finally got to check a dry map and it read that I was now at mile 25.4 but my watch said 23.3. Up until this point I hadn't looked at my mileage or pace, just my moving time so I could keep track of nutrition. I wasn't concerned about my watch being off, it seems to happen to a lot of runners at this race, but now I was so confused about how many miles were actually left in the race. As I was leaving the aid station, I could hear Kevin say "that's the first female, Samantha LeBlanc!". That made me smile but also made my stomach sink as it hit me that I'm still leading the race and I wasn't even really sure how many miles I actually had left to run and I was falling apart. The rest of the course I had run during the 23k a couple years ago. The course comes out to a parking lot then re-enters the woods. There were people spectating here and I heard someone say "wow she's close". I didn't know if they meant that I was close to the finish or that there was another female runner close behind me, but it put a little pep in my step. During the 23k I followed another runner off course somewhere around this point so I made sure to stay focused this time. I knew that eventually the course would come out to a road and then there was about a mile long climb and right turn, then the finish line, but I couldn't remember how long before then. I was feeling really beat up now and I just kept thinking that at any second I was going to be passed. I was still running the downhills and flats, but powerhiking even the smallest hills and there seemed to be a lot of them. I had plenty of energy but my legs didn't want to move any faster. I was mentally preparing myself to be passed and every acorn that fell from a tree I swore it was the second female. I felt like I was moving so slow that she was sure to catch me soon. Another thing I was really stressing about since around mile 20 was how sore I was starting to feel. Usually I accept it and move on.. I mean, I am running 30 miles. However, this was just a training run and more soreness meant more recovery time and more time taken away from training from MMTR. If I was passed, I would have to choose whether or not it was worth chasing her with exhausted legs to the finish. I was mentally preparing myself for a second place finish, even though I was leading the race a few miles from the finish.
I found the turn I had missed during the 23k, which was a big relief, especially since I didn't have a map to use this time. But where was that damn road?? I swear I had run 5 miles since the Kilburn Loop but in reality, it was like 2. It was somewhere around 1:30pm now and the heat was blazing. When I finally hit the road, I was even more paranoid about being passed (fun fact: I was passed by a female during the 23k on the this same road section which turned my 10th place finish into an 11th place finish). I was constantly looking over my shoulder so much so that I thought was going to trip. I ran by a house where some Six03 runners were hanging out after finishing the 23k and they cheered my name. It was the perfect swift kick in the ass I needed to get to the finish. I reached the top of the road climb, turned right, and there it was, then finish line! I sprinted as hard as I could (that last 1.4 miles was at a 8:10 min/mi pace) winning with a time of 5:21:44. Of course the first thought that crossed my mind was "I bet that was the slowest female winning time Pisgah has ever had" because I am the queen of beating myself up, but after hanging out at the finish for awhile and chatting with other runners, it seems as though everyone had had a tough day with the heat. The second female finished in 6:11:45, and the women who I knew was a sturdy trail runner didn't even start the race, although I'm glad I thought she was out there because it kept me moving forward!
Overall, the race went great. I felt really good for the majority of it and had a lot of fun. I spent most of the race alone in the woods, which is most likely how MMTR will be as well since it is a point-to-point race, which is fine because I enjoy the solitude, especially during goal races when I need more focus. The trails were beautiful and peaceful, and if it wasn't for the ankle, I wouldn't have even thought they were the least bit technical. My nutrition was on point, no stomach issues and lots of energy, and I feel like I paced myself pretty well, despite the downward spiral after mile 17. I think a lot of what I felt towards the end was due to a mix of the heat, a hard week of training the week before, and being slightly undertrained, but overall I am happy with the results and am stoked that I was to pull off a win, and also a new 50k PR. I think I did a good job of giving the race a 95% effort versus and all out effort as well, and I say that because I was back to running the next day and feel pretty good a couple days later. The big takeaway from Pisgah Mountain 50k is that I need to start showing up to races with 100% confidence in my abilities, no matter what the circumstances, and leave any negativity at the door. It doesn't matter who is running the race, what their ultrasignup results look like, how much experience they have, etc. I really stressed myself out thinking that I shouldn't have been leading the race and was making a big mistake, when in fact I was right where I belonged. I've been running for less than 5 years, running ultras for less than 1/2 of that, and am still new to running competitively, so I definitely still have a lot to learn, but I am excited for what the future holds. I can't wait for Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50-miler in a few weeks!!
Thank you to all the volunteers who hung around in the heat all day to take care of a bunch of sweaty runners, to the RD Josh Dillingham for putting on such a great event, and to Fred Ross for for all of the pictures and help on race day. Highly recommend this race and can't wait to come back and run it again on hopefully a cooler day, fresh legs and a fully healed ankle! Also shoutout to my coach for always making sure I'm well trained, mentally and physically.. (check us out at www.runfastah.com) and to my husband for finishing his 4th 50k and second finish at Pisgah Mountain Trail Races!!!
-Gu Energy Gels
-Skratch Lab Hydration Packets
-Altra Lone Peaks 3.0
-Ultimate Direction T.O. Racing Vest
-Garmin Fenix 4