5:15 am – I step out of the car in the field where all the runners and riders are parking and get the first wet foot of the day. No use fighting it. It’s surprisingly warm and I can tell right away that it will be too warm for the sleeves that I brought, too bad because they look so cool. Somehow in the darkness I spot Carrie and Adam who I’ve met at other races. Lucky to see them actually since runners are outnumbered 3 to 1 by mountain bikers who are going to hit the trails in waves before the runners to make sure there is a consistent distribution of churned up mud on the trails (as well as race numbers, water bottles, Gu packets and fat asses scattered around).
We check in, bump into a few other folks we know like Tom, Meg and George and wait for out turn to line up. As the sun starts to rise we get confirmation that the sky is overcast, no immediate threat of rain but the cloud cover is like a lid holding in all the humidity from the previous two days of rain. For a late September day it’s surprisingly warm and humid, looks like hydration and electrolyte intake will be more of an issue than I had previously thought, but I’m prepared for that.
At 6:42 am we’re off on the only paved section of the race course, but it isn’t long before we turn off onto a dirt road that seems so familiar after having done the 100 miler in these parts just two months ago. The first few miles are all downhill and just seem to fly by. I’m a little concerned that the pace is too fast, but remind myself that I’m shooting for a massive PR at this distance so of course it’s going to feel fast. There is something different about this race, for the first time in an ultra I’m not running just to finish, I want to do well.
We hit the first aid station at 4.2 miles in under 40 minutes and move through with just a quick pause for a drink. A little quick math tells me that we are on target for a sub 8 hour finish at this pace, but that was after 4 easy miles, things are going to change real quick. The course moves onto the first serious trail section here featuring a long uphill climb, single track and mud. Nice.
To my surprise we end up running pretty much all of the uphill, that’s what I get for letting Emma set the pace. Midway through this first climb I get stung by a bee just at the top of my right Achilles but I can’t let that slow me down, the last thing I want to do is hang around to get stung again. The hill keeps going and we keep the pace brisk. When the course turns to more rolling terrain we find ourselves in a back and forth rhythm with several runners who are really opening it up on the downs and taking a more conservative approach to the ups. I hope our strategy works, knowing that the course is mostly up in the first half and mostly down in the second I don’t want to wear my quads out too early in the race. At the Bull Run Run in April my quads were destroyed by 35 miles and every downhill after that was torture.
The Skunk Hollow aid station at 12.3 miles is where we pick up our first drop bags. In an effort to make this stop as quick as possible we move at a frenzied pace which has us running the risk of forgetting something important. Our feet are soaked but we don’t bother to change shoes or socks, they’re just going to get soaked again anyway. Valerie and Ryan are there waiting for their relay runner to come in and they lend a hand refilling my hydration pack. We head off with Emma struggling to get her salt tablets and gels back in her bag, I try to lend a hand but a little bickering ensues. “Sounds like you guys are married” says a voice from behind. The voice belongs to Billy who turns out to be from Poland, Maine who is here attempting his first 50 miler. We run together and chat for a little while until we hit the next big uphill and Emma starts pushing the pace again. For now I’m hanging on but I’m starting to become aware that this is not a pace I can maintain all day.
The next few aid stations are more spread out with 7.1 and 6.5 miles between them which is good in a way because it’s the stops that slow us down. Between 12.3 and 25 miles there is over 2500 feet of elevation gain so we need to keep the momentum going. This is the part when we start to encounter a lot of mountain bikers, the slow ones who aren’t any good at riding up hill and who are pretty lousy at pushing their bikes up hill too. Most are considerate when it comes to passing us back on the downs but there are a few who fly by without warning. “See you on the next uphill fatty!”
I had heard about the highest point in the race, which comes about halfway through and the views are meant to be spectacular. After about 45 minutes of steady climbing I knew we must be getting close and when I spotted a group of worn out mountain bikers lounging on a hillside clearing ahead I knew this was the spot. Thankfully there was enough of a break in the cloud cover for the view to be appreciated, but not so much as to make me say “well that makes it all worthwhile”. So it was eyes back on the trail for the 25 mile rolling descent that would make up the second half of the race.
The downhill running wasn’t bringing the relief I was hoping for, it still felt like work, and it certainly wasn’t all downhill from here. The next big milestone in the race was to reach our second and final drop bag at the 30.2 mile aid station. We finally hit it after about 5 hours and 20 minutes of running and I suggested to Emma that we take our time here to be sure that we didn’t forget anything important. I hadn’t been able to eat much during the run so far and I was worried about my energy fading so I took a drink, ate a little and downed an Ensure. My stomach was pretty annoyed at having to deal with so much all at once and when I started running again it let me know. Emma seemed to be improving as we checked the miles off and it was becoming clear that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her for much longer. At about 32 miles I finally made Emma stop, I kissed her goodbye and told her to run her own race. With a little reluctance and sadness Emma pulled away chasing down Sherpa John who had just passed us. Got get him!
I’m not giving up here, but it’s time I run my own race. I can still get a PR even if I don’t break 9 hours.
The course is approximately a 60/40 split of trail and dirt road, but it’s the trail sections that are the most memorable and inspire the most enduring memories of this race. Unfortunately most of the trail is on private land and access is only allowed during the race so we can’t go back to enjoy it any other time, and these trails are so nice that I would consider driving 3.5 hours to run them again. I guess I’ll just have to do the race again next year. These next few miles featured some of the most beautiful New England single track I’ve seen and I felt truly lucky to be running here.
Over the next 10 miles I bounced back and forth with a handful of bikes and small group of runners. We were all tired and there wasn’t much conversation but we quietly helped move each other along. After a relative low spot I got back into a good groove and maintained a consistent pace thanks to the people around me. My feet were sore, hamstrings very tight and my calf muscles felt like they could seize up with every step but I was too close now to give up. The downhills hurt the most because of the increased impact on my feet and the long extension of my hamstrings, I savored the few remaining climbs for the change of pace.
The last aid station was at 45.4 miles and I seized the opportunity here to break away from the pack I had been running with. Less than 5 miles to go, surely I can do that in under an hour. Just as I tried to put a little extra kick in my step we came into some of the most incredible mud I’ve ever had the pleasure of running through. There was one section of single track that looked like 75 yards of ankle deep chocolate pudding, glorious. Before long I could start to make out features on the mountain ahead that identified it as the ski mountain that would bring us to the finish.
Soon there were signs along the trail with phrases of encouragement that meant I was getting close. 1.5 miles to go… 1 mile… and then I heard Emma shouting “Go Giant!” I saw her up ahead and then looked down the mountain to see the finish area half a mile below. I really put the hammer down and managed to pick off one runner, then another along the way. I could hear footsteps behind me but wasn’t about to lose a place at this point in the race. I remembered how I felt at the beginning, this is not just about finishing today, I want something more. I was disappointed not to have been able to keep up with Emma but I still want to make her proud. The final descent was severely steep but my legs held out long enough to get me across the finish line. Just then it started to rain and I laid back in the grass and let the cool water rinse the mud away.
gIANt - 9:27:06 NEW PR! 42/158 male finishers
Gnarls- 8:54:09 3/41 female finishers, first in age group