Back in December of 2017 I decided to sign up for my first Ultra Marathon after only previously ever running a local 5K as an “organized race”. This was the TARC (www.trailanimals.com) Winter Ultra at the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Massachusetts. This race was 32 miles of rugged, knee crunching terrain and 6000-ish feet of elevation gain. I felt strong at this race and I finished with a time I was proud of. After this I was hooked and I knew I’d be doing more. It was a lot of fun with a healthy dose of suffering too!
After that race I decided to push myself harder both physically and mentally. With another baby entering our family (Baby Boy #3!) I decided that registering for another race would be a way of committing to my fitness goals. If I had a big race hanging over my head I wouldn’t get lazy or complacent during the early weeks of caring for a newborn baby on top of my other 2 kids and responsiblities. I would have to continue to train hard and sacrifice a lot if I wanted to succeed. I knew this would be a juggling act but I needed a goal to reach for.
The TARC Wapack and Back Trail Race – May 12th
This is a popular race that pulls a wide variety of entrants out of the woodwork in the New England Ultra community. Due to its popularity the registration usually sells out within days and a wait-list begins. The appeal of TARC events for me is that they’re generally pretty cheap and minimalistic. They achieve these low prices for registration by operating a fairly low key event. No fancy awards or swag, T-Shirts aren’t free, and the events are entirely volunteer run.
The Wapack Trail Race takes place on the Wapack Trail that stretches 21.5 Miles from Ashburnham, MA to Peterborough, NH. The Wapack Trail climbs over several mountains including Mount Watatic, Temple Mountain, Pack Monadnock, and North Pack Monadnock.
The Wapack and Back Trail Race comes in three flavors:
21.5 Miler – Starts at the Northern Terminus (North Pack Monadnock) of the Wapack Trail and runs to the southern end at Mount Watatic. A total of 21.5 Miles and 5100 feet of elevation gain.
43 Miler – The actual “Wapack and Back” course is 43 miles and starts at the Southern Terminus (Mount Watatic), runs to the Northern end (North Pack Monadnock), it then turns around and runs back to the beginning. A Total of 43 Miles / 10,200 Feet of Elevation Gain.
50 Miler – The 50 Mile version of the race is the exact same course as the 43 mile. However, to get to 50 miles when you reach the finish line at mile 43 you need to turn around ONCE MORE and run back over Mount Watatic’s Summit… twice. A Total of 50 Miles / 11,400 Feet of Elevation!
Aid Stations – Aid Stations are set up along the course at the Start/Finish, Binney Hill, Windblown XC Ski Area, Miller State Park and Mountain Rd (Northern Terminus). They vary between 3.5 and 7 miles apart.
I decided to go big. I signed up for the 50 Mile version of the race… and almost immediately regretted it! I went as far as to email the race director to drop but never ended up following through with it. I didn’t know how I’d ever run this far but I was committed. My wife started to get sick of me saying “How am I going to do this?!”
My Training Plan… or Lack Of
When I signed up for this race my wife was pregnant with our third child. Pierce was born in March. The first month of his life had a huge impact on my fitness level. The obvious reality of it was that I simply didn’t have the kind of time I thought I would to dedicate to my running and training. I was eating garbage and not feeling as fit as I should this close to race day. As my wife recovered from giving birth more time for running started to present itself.
I managed to maintain basic sustaining miles on trails during the early days of Pierce’s life while on paternity leave. This was clearly not enough for my body to prepare for the daunting task of running 50 consecutive miles over mountainous terrain! However, due to lack of sleep and taking care of my other two kids and still healing wife it was all I could manage. As April rolled around I had finally dialed up my running to 20-30 mile weeks with plenty of elevation on trails. I was finally back in the swing of things… a little late to the game! 3 weeks prior to race day I pulled through a 40 mile week and was finally starting to feel like finishing this race could still be a reality.
This race starts bright and early at 5AM. I was on the road by 3:30AM to start my commute to Ashburnham, MA. The weather forecast for the day was less than ideal but not terrible. Temperatures in the 40’s and rain rolling in during the late morning hours. I packed a little excessive due to the rain. Here’s what I had with me:
- Patagonia R1 Tee
- REI Running Shorts
- Outdoor Research Performance Trucker Hat
- InjiInji 2.0 Toe Socks
- Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Shoes
- Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket
- Outdoor Research PL100 Liner Gloves
- Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest
- 2x Ultimate Direction 500ml Flasks
- Black Diamond Revolt Headlamp
- Spare Phone/Watch Charger
- Garmin Fenix 3HR Watch
- Small Bluetooth Headphones
- Body Glide
- Ben’s Backwoods Bug Spray
- Baby Wipes
- Ibuprofen and Decongestant Pills
- 3x Tailwind Packs
- 2x Energy Gel’s
- 2x Stinger Waffles
- 4x Healthy Warrior Chia Bars
- Taos Mountain Coconut Bar
Miles 1-10 – Feeling Strong Out Of The Gate!
I arrived at the Mount Watatic trailhead and parked in the row of cars illuminated by headlamp on the side of the road. Runners began making their way towards the yellow gate that marks the “start” of the race. Race Directors Chris and Jesse gave a short speech about the aid stations and what to do in the event of a drop… and with that. The anti-climactic start of the race began with a simple “Ok… Go!”.
We were off! Immediately groups started to form within the pack. Some slowed their pace during the first ascent of Mount Watatic to save their strength while others like myself tried to bank some miles. When my legs are fresh, I’m a better hiker than a runner and the climbs tend to be easier. I chose to power up the first inclines in order to take advantage. As we approached the apex of the first climb a junction in the trail appeared and the “follow the leader” effect prevailed. About 20 runners took a wrong turn! This brought us to Mount Watatic’s Summit (which we were supposed to run right by). Fortunately for us our mistake brought us to a pretty beautiful outlook on the summit during the golden hour of the sunrise!
After some confusion and a quick chat among ourselves we found ourselves back on the trail and motored on. I felt strong over Watatic and was having a great time socializing with the runners around me.
Miles 10-16 – The Thinning Herd
Eventually we came across the first established Aid Station located at mile 9 in the Windblown XC Ski Area . We were greeted by the friendly volunteers who offered food and water or Tailwind supplement. I opted to skip this aid station as I still had plenty of water and snacks in my vest. Most of the people I was running with and talking to decided to stop here so I moved on solo. The Wapack Trail eventually pops out of the woods and onto a paved road for about a mile. This was a nice break from the technical terrain I had been running all morning. The clouds had started to move in by now but no rain yet! I really enjoyed the trail that carves through Pratt and New Ipswich Mountains. Super flowy and runnable!
Miles 16-21.5 – The Steep Stuff
In what seemed like a blink I pulled around the bend and saw another Aid Station tent! This was Miller State Park and would mark the beginning of the “hard part”. I stopped here to compose myself after the 16 mile effort to get this point I was starting to feel my legs getting a little heavy. I grabbed a Banana, some peanut butter and jelly squares, and a Tailwind refill. After departing the aid station and crossing a road I looked up to a very steep, very tall climb that led to the Pack Monadnock Ridge. This climb slowed my pace to a crawl and had my huffing and puffing.
This trend continued on for the next 5.5 miles. Steep, slick granite slab covered climbs and rocky, technical, knee crushing downhills. All I could keep thinking about was how I wanted to get back over this before the rain rolled in and turned it all into a slip and slide!
Miles 21.5-30 – The Turning Point
After one final downhill segment wooden signs for the trail head parking lot came into view along with another Aid Station Tent. This would mark the “Northern Terminus” of the Wapack trail. Now all I needed to do was to turn around and run the whole thing again… easy right? I hung around at the aid station probably longer than I should have. I needed a break before attacking the hills of North Pack and Pack Monadnock again. The friendly aid station volunteers supplied me with delicious avocado and bacon wraps that REALLY hit the spot. After a few minutes and with a little help of the Aid Station crew’s pep talk I started back up the trail I had just come down. This is about when my stomach started to give me problems. I think I ate too much at the last aid station. My stomach was gurgling and felt like I ate a block of concrete. I decided to walk for a bit to try to let this subside. While I was walking a couple of runners passed me… This definitely didn’t help my confidence level.
Miles 30-35 – When the Race Really Began for Me
By Mile 30 I had been texting my wife off and on to keep her in the loop. I’m not really sure why but talking to her made me emotional and had me missing her and my kids. These long races can really play games with your mind! My mental state wasn’t in a good place anymore and my body was starting to feel the impact of the steep terrain and miles. This is about when the rain started to come down. At first it was only a trickle here and there, but eventually it was raining pretty consistently. By now I was basically just hiking the trail with the occasional burst of jogging until my legs made me stop and walk again. I hadn’t seen another runner in what seemed like hours. I was starting to feel alone, occasionally passing by day hikers (all of which who were super supportive!). Eventually my stomach issues subsided. I resorted to only drinking Tailwind and foregoing real food at the aid stations.
Miles 35-43 – Unknown Territory
I had reached unknown territory at mile 35. I’ve never run this far in my life. I didn’t know how my body would react for the final stretch of the race. By Mile 37 I was repeating in my head “only 3 more until 40, only 3 more until 40!” trying to psych myself back up. My feet started to feel the wear and tear. Hot spots were forming and my shoes had completely soaked through from the rain and mud puddles I had been romping through. I kept my steady pace of jogging and walking and continued on. At Mile 40 I reached the last aid station before the start/finish line. I was only 3.5 miles away from where I started at 5AM this morning. I knew the trail over Mount Watatic was fairly easy… but with my worn out legs this last climb would be a struggle!
Finishing at Mile 43 – A Hard Decision
Finally up and over the top of Mount Watatic I rolled through the final downhill segment of the trail. In the distance I could see the bright yellow gate that this race started at over 11 hours ago. The volunteers at the finish line cheered me on and I struggled to run the last final feet of the trail! I crossed the 43 mile finish line that ended the official “Out and Back” of the entire Wapack Trail. Race Director Chris gave me a high five and congratulated me on my accomplishment. That’s when he asked “Are you going back out for the 50 Miler?” If you remember at the beginning of this post… I had signed up for the 50 mile race NOT the 43 miler. I still had 7 more miles to go if I wanted to finish the 50 mile race. I had an internal struggle for a minute. I just couldn’t imagine turning back around and going through that yellow gate again. Climbing up, and over Mount Watatic… again. And then Climbing up and over Mount Watatic…. AGAIN! My body was worn out but more importantly my brain was fried. Just being so close to where I parked my car had an impact on my decision. I stuttered out the words “No, I’m finishing the 43 mile race today”. And that was that… I was a “Wapack and Back” Official Finisher. 43 miles and 10,200 feet of elevation in 11 hours and 20 minutes.
During my 1 hour ride home I couldn’t help but think to myself “What the hell? I feel pretty good. Why didn’t I go back for the 50?” . To be honest, as I write this 3 days have past since the race and I’m still kind of regretting not finishing what I wanted. 50 Miles has been a goal of mine for a while… I wanted to see my watch click from 49.9 to 50 and relish in the glory of accomplishment! When in fact I feel like I copped out and took the easy route. On the other hand 43 Miles and 10,200 feet of elevation is no joke and I’m still recognized as an official finisher of that race. Either way, this was the furthest I’ve ever run in my entire life. I learned a lot about what my body is capable of even with less than ideal training. I learned what kind of mind tricks you need to overcome to push past 40 mile races. This was probably an ambitious race to choose as my first 50 miler. I’m glad I got to finish and I did have an overall awesome experience (despite some suffering). I’ll be back again, and I’ll probably sign up for another 50 in the meantime to prepare for it.