Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reality Check - Middlesex Fells Trail Race Report

Yesterday was the 3rd running of the Fells Trail Races. This unique race offered by Race Director Bogie D allows runners to race 4 distances of their choosing. The 8 mile race which covers one loop of the Middlesex Fells Skyline trail is the first race of the Eastern New England Trail Race Series. The Ultra race is for those looking for a bigger challenge. This race gives runners the option of running 3 – 5 loops of the Skyline for a total of 24 – 40 miles. What makes this race unique is that runners are allowed to run the race loop in whatever direction they want.

I ran this race last fall for the first time. I was in good shape then, having just run the Stone Cat Ale marathon 3 weeks prior. I felt very strong during that race but an ankle injury forced me to drop out earlier than expected. I knew I was going into the race this time under trained but not concerned. I was just intending to use it as a long training run with a bunch of strangers and a few friends. It would also serve as a test of my current fitness level.

I had a difficult time sleeping the night before the race. Nasal congestion and a sore throat from a cold kept me awake the good part of the night. At O-dark-thirty (4:30 AM) I decided to get out of bed. I put on a pot of coffee and made some French toast for breakfast. I had already prepared all my gear for the race the night before so there was no need to rush. After breakfast, I changed and began the tedious process of taping both feet and my right ankle. Taping the arches is really not a big deal but I have a tough time trying to tape my ankle on my own. After several tries, taping, removing the tape and taping again, I finally got right. At the start of the race I met a Physical Therapist who noticed my tape job. She then showed me hers. Where I had used several feet of tape to hold my ankle in place, she used two short strips to accomplish the same thing! I’ll have to give it a try next time.

I arrived an hour before race start and I was happy I did. The number of race entrants had doubled from last year and parking in the small lot was tight. Kevin was already there and going through his gear. We exchanged greetings and he introduced me to the PT mentioned above. A short time later, Emily arrived with my new pair of camouflage print Gator-Bait Gaiters. These gaiters are a great addition to my gear box. I used my tiger print ones during the race and didn’t get any trail debris in my shoes during my 5+ hour run. Good stuff!

Race is about to begin. (Photo Credit: BogieD)

When we lined up for the start of the race I realized I forgot to put on my gloves. Just then, the starting horn blew and everyone was on the move, except me. I ran back to my car to get my gloves. By the time I got back to the starting line I was far behind the pack. I started out faster than I want to but I was trying to at least latch on to the back of the pack. The pace was much quicker than I expected for a race of this distance. I was moving quickly but barely making progress in catching up with the other racers.

I guess I wasn't the last to start after all! (Photo Credit: BogieD)

About 2 miles into the course I finally met up with Kevin. I wasn’t feeling very good at this point, my breathing was labored. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the fast pace causing the problem but it felt good to see a familiar face. Kevin and I have run the Skyline trail several times now and we work well together, keeping each other on trial. We ran while discussing our strategies for the day. Kevin just turned 33 and was considering running 33 miles to celebrate his B-day. He called me today to confirm he finished the 4 loops. Awesome run Kevin! I, on the other hand, was only planning to run half as far. I told Kevin I would consider doing a 3rd loop if I was feeling pretty good after 16 miles. After a long climb we reached Wright’s tower. We both were in need of a pee break so we stopped here briefly. It was a good sign that our pre-race hydration was not neglected.

Wright's Tower

Descending the long hill from Wright’s tower we caught up to Michelle. The three of us made our way down to the base of the hill and continued running together for a mile or two. Michelle had planned to run the full 40 miles but she told me she was also not feeling 100% today. She was reevaluating her goal for the day and would run for as long as she could. I just met Michelle this year and I am very impressed with her sheer determination. She hasn’t gotten in much training this year but still managed to kick my butt through 24 miles. Wait till Northern Nipmuck trailgrrl! ;-)
I started feeling better about half way thought the 1st loop. The second half of the course, in the direction I was running, is easier than the first so I picked up the pace and finished the strong. My split was 1:36 which was 9 minutes faster than it should have been if I was going to try for a 3rd loop. Michelle and Kevin came in about 4-5 minutes later.
The temperature had been rising all morning so I changed out of the wet, long-sleeve shirt I was wearing and into a nice, dry short-sleeved one. I stuffed two more packets of GU into my pockets and added a little more Succeed to my Camelbak. I tried to keep my transitions from dragging on for too long but before I realized it, 9 minutes had already passed. Time was wasting away, I had to get moving.
I turned to head back out on the course and Streph was standing there. I never saw him before the start and assumed he was far ahead of me. We went back out on the course to run our second loop together. Streph was wearing a heart rate monitor and was trying to keep his heart rate below a certain threshold. This worked out well for me as Streph’s threshold rate seemed to be right around the level that I felt comfortable running. We were holding a good steady pace, keeping Streph’s Garmin from beeping a warning signal except on a few occasions. I lead for most of the 8 miles with Streph preventing me from taking a few wrong turns along the way. Streph and I had a good, long conversation about many topics during this loop.

The clouds broke and the sun was shining brightly. (57 degrees and high humidity) I was feeling warm and drinking more fluid than usual for this time of year. My Camelbak ran dry but luckily I was able to refill it with water placed by Bogie on the course near South Border Road, below the water tower. We walked up the hill to the water tower and then began running again. I was hungry now and the GU didn’t have enough calories to maintain my energy level. Streph offered me his peanut butter and banana sandwich but I figured we were getting close to the end of the loop and I would just hold on to the finish. I was beginning to tire quickly and thought I would call it a day after this loop. We finished up strong on the flat trail leading back to the parking lot. My split for loop #2 was a more reasonable 1:46.
I was feeling hungry and tired after 16 miles. My body was telling me “enough already” but my mind was trying to convince me to go for another. I decided to rest a bit and eat some solid food. I devoured a PB&J sandwich in 4 bites, ate half a boiled potato with salt and nibbled on an Odwalla bar until most of it was gone. I took and S-Cap to replace lost sodium and drank about 8 oz of Succeed Amino. This took about 16-18 minutes and by then I was thinking I could push my way through a third loop. Unfortunately, Streph had already departed and no one else was heading out on the trail at that time. I would have to do this alone.

Elevation Profile - Can you say hills?
I felt good for the first two miles but then my leg just completely gave up. I walked all the uphills except for the smallest ones and ran the flats and downhills. I kept telling myself that this is good ultra training. Your mind must remain strong when your body is weak and craving rest. The ability to push yourself though total exhaustion is a key requirement for completing an ultra marathon. This run was also a reality check for me. I have so much more work to do if I expect to have a chance of finishing a 50 mile event this year. Fortunately, I have plenty of time to prepare myself.
Quitting was not an option. I struggled and suffered through the final miles but I did finish. That is all I expected from myself. (Split for loop #3 was 2:06, Ugh!). It was good to see Streph waiting for me with a big smile on his face. I was as done as an overcooked turkey! The thought of going back out on the course never entered my mind. Instead, I enjoyed some pizza and coke, and traded war stories with my fellow crazies!
Next up, Northern Nipmuck….


  1. Great report!!! I love the pic of the elevation on the course...I stopped at 24m ..big baby that I am : ) my tummy was on a roll..literally... so I took the easy way out and ate some crackers and took off...I am looking forward to NN though : ) it should be a piece of cake compared to the fells ; )

    ps you were COOKIN on that first loop!!!

  2. Congrats, Dan. Three loops is awesome! Nice job pushing toward the end of the 3rd loop!
    You are going to kick butt at Nipmuck! Ana

  3. Wow Dan, And to think I was complaining about my measly 17 miles on Sunday ......and not even trail miles!!

    Great job....shows some valuable mental toughness....I need to learn from you.

  4. The MS Fells is a rugged place to run. I am in awe of all of your loops! The elevation info is cool, too, and I would love to see your newly learned ankle taping method...also the PF taping (knock on wood--old elm tree) that I won't need it.
    I wanted to take some pix at Sheeps Fold of you all out there but lost track of time eating that pizza pie. SO glad you like the Gaiters, too! Let me know hw the camouflage ones make you feel.

  5. Michelle - I don't think you took the easy way out. There is no easy way out when you are talking the Skyline trail. You did great. I would have quit after 8 if my tummy was talking to me!


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