Run approximately nine miles on rock and root covered trails over four mountains, each one nearly 2,000 feet high, scramble up and down grades as steep as 40%, stop, turn around and repeat. That, in a nutshell, is the Wapack Trail Race. Oh, did I mention 4200 feet of calf cramping elevation gain and the same amount of quad busting elevation loss? Why would anyone want to subject themselves to this torture on a beautiful Sunday morning? I pondered this and many other unanswerable questions as I plodded my way from New Hampshire to Massachusetts and back again.
Wapack Race Elevation ProfileI had no idea what I was getting myself into making the 90 minute drive to New Ipswich, New Hampshire for the start of the race. I read and heard that the Wapack trail was difficult, but I really didn’t expect it to be ridiculous. Crossing the MA/NH border along RT 119 offered a clue of what was to come. Level road on the MA side turned into a three mile stretch of roller coaster hills once I crossed into NH, all the while gaining in elevation. I had to downshift on the steeper hills to maintain momentum. Hmm, this can’t be good.
Excellent Topo map of the course: HERE
Excellent Topo map of the course: HERE
I arrived at the Windblown XC Ski area surprised to see many cars already in the parking lot. I guess I’m not the only fool, I mean adventurer. I quickly got my race number and went back to my truck to get my gear together. Although there were two aid stations on the course I wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. I didn’t want to eat or drink anything in the race that I hadn’t already tried on my training runs. I estimated it would take about 4 hours to complete the race. Being out on the course this length of time would require a lot of calories and fluids. I decided to use my Camelbak hydration pack instead of my usual two bottle waist pack. The Camelbak could hold 70 oz of water vs. 40 oz in the two water bottles. I also stuffed 4 GU gel packets, 2 packages of shot bloks, a small baggie of pretzels and 4 electrolyte capsules into the side pouches of the Camelbak. I think that should do it!
The race was about to start so I hurried down to the starting line. I met my friend Eric who was already waiting there. The RD explained what to expect on the course, where the aid stations were located etc. He indicated the course had very little supplemental markings and that we would have to follow the yellow triangles blazed on the trees and rocks. I wanted to run the race with Eric if I could. He ran here in 2006 and I thought it wise to run with someone with knowledge of the course. No need to be taking any unexpected detours.
This race started like most other trail races I have run before, uphill! Why is that? Is a flat start too much to ask for? I mean, I’m getting older and I need some time to loosen up. And I’m not about to run a warm-up knowing I have four hours of running ahead of me. Anyway, off we went. I immediately settled in near the back of the pack. I wanted to run the first half very conservatively. If I still felt ok at the turn around point, I would try to pick up the pace. That was my plan for the day. A simple but great plan I thought to myself. Unfortunately, Wapack had its own plan for me on this unforgettable day.
On the first long climb I saw a runner leaning against a tree trying to stretch out a tight calf muscle. I immediately recognized him from his backwards facing ball cap. It was “Sherpa” John. John is a talented, young ultra-runner from New Hampshire. He’s been the youngest finisher in several major 50 and 100 mile races, the Vermont 50, the Grand Teton 100 (WY) and the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (VA) just to name a few. John is also a gifted writer whose ultra-running blog, “Sherpa John”, offers advice, insight and inspiration to runners of all abilities. I introduced myself to John. We shook hands and exchanged greetings but we didn’t linger. We had a race to run so off we went together, up the side of Barrett Mountain.
Up, down and over Barrett Mountain I went, following Eric and a long line of runners along the narrow, single track trail. Even though I was feeling fine at this time I was already thinking about all the uphill running. I am a very bad climber and I knew all the elevation gains and steep inclines would eventually wear me down and slow my pace to glacial speed. I didn’t dwell on the negative for long though. Eric was a great trail guide and he would point out great views and vistas when we got to any high points on the course. He also had a remarkable recollection of the course considering he only ran it once before and it was two years ago. I found this knowledge to be very helpful.
God's Country(More Wapack Trail photos courtesy of UltraSteveP: HERE)
The next two miles over New Ipswich and Pratt Mountains were very similar to the first two. More single track, more rocks and roots, more ups and downs and more great views. When we got to the top of Pratt we came upon a small group of runners that appeared to be lost. Three or four women were standing around and shouting (how typical) to a male runner coming up the mountain from a different trail. He had run down the trail then decided it was the wrong way and turned back. They were definitely lost! Eric and I stopped to talk to them. Three of the women were from Arlington, MA and running the race together for the first time. Ana, wearing her Garmin GPS, told us we were at four miles and 57 minutes. Holy crap, 14 minute pace!! I didn’t need to know that. Did I ask you for a progress report? I’m just kidding. Ana was very sweet and she had a wonderful accent. I was clueless where to go but Eric got all of us going in the right direction very quickly.
We descended the mountain on a very steep trail complete with loose rocks and a few downed limbs. The footing was pretty bad making running nearly impossible. A careful walk down the mountain was the best I could manage. These long, treacherous downhills added a lot of minutes to my finishing time. In most races I can make up time on the down hill sections. At Wapack there was little advantage in running down hill. After this long descent the terrain leveled out and we made our way to the first aid station at 5 miles. Once again Ana announced the time. “One hour and 12 minutes”. That meant it took us 15 minutes to run the last mile and most of it was down hill! See what I mean. We all lingered a little too long at the aid station. Every one of us enjoyed a fresh home-made cookie and a cold drink of water or Gatorade.
After a few minutes we were running again. The next two miles were on a dirt fire road. The running here was easier than the past four miles of single track. Notice I said “easier” not “easy”. The road was a mine field of rocks of all sizes and shapes. Erosion had cut deep gouges into the road. On top of that, it was all uphill. Luckily, it wasn’t steep but a long, gradual climb instead. Eric and I picked up the pace on this fire road section. It actually felt good to run a little faster than we had for the past 5 miles. I was able to open up my stride and loosen up a bit. We put some distance between us and our new found female friends from Arlington. Alas, all good things must come to an end and so too did our fire road. Looming ahead of us was Mt. Watatic.
We were climbing to the top of Mt. Watatic when Ana caught Eric and me. I welcomed her back and told her I knew we would be seeing her again. She said she was slow on the flats but good on the hills. Then she made her most shocking statement. “I really thought this race would be harder than this”. Say what? Did I hear you correctly? Eric and I looked at one another and grinned. To her credit, Ana was VERY good on the hills. I think she was just staying with us because she didn’t want to get lost again and Eric knew the course. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Going down Watatic to the half way point was difficult. It was very long and very steep. Even worse was knowing that once you finally made it to the bottom you would have to turn around and come back up!
At the bottom of Watatic we ran a short distance to the aid station located at the turn around point. I checked my watch for the first time. Two hours and two minutes. I was on pace for a 4 hour finish IF I could maintain this pace on the return trip. A helpful volunteer offered to refill my hydration pack while I took a bathroom break in the bushes. Soon Ana’s two friends and Sherpa John and his friend were at the station too. I checked my watch. It was now at two hours and five minutes. Again we had stayed too long at the aid station. Was it because we really didn’t want to go back the way we came? Soon enough we refueled and began our journey back to the finish line nearly 9 miles away.
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Heading up the side of Mt. Watatic it was obvious I was in trouble. I immediately started falling behind Eric and Ana. Ana was moving extremely fast and it wasn’t long before she was out of sight. I didn’t see her again until after the race. Eric pulled away slowly but he was close enough when I crested the mountain to catch up again. We both caught up to another one of the Arlington women whose name escapes me now. The three of us stuck together for the next few miles. Strength in numbers.
Back again on the long dirt fire road the running became easier. The long, gradual downhill offered a little respite for weary legs. We stopped at the aid station for a drink and a little rest. Five miles to the finish. I purposely avoided looking at my watch. As we snacked at the station Sherpa John and his friend arrived. John is running the Vermont 50 in September and he was trying to convince me to run. I told him I was not ready for that distance so he said. “Just run the 50K then”. JUST the 50K! I’m wondering how the heck I am going to run the next 5 miles!
John and his running mate left the aid station with Eric and me soon to follow. We were now faced with the long and extremely steep (as in 40% incline) ascent to the top of Pratt Mountain. This is where I totally lost it. I did my best to maintain pace with Eric but he was much stronger than me. He was soon out of sight. I took several short breaks on the way up. In the meantime I was getting passed by several runners that were good climber. I lost six places on this hill alone. Not that I cared at this point. I just wanted to be done with this damn thing. My only concern now was not making a wrong turn and getting lost. That would be very demoralizing at this point in the race. Eventually I made it to the top of Pratt. I was thinking, just one more mountain Dan, just one more.
Through the trees I got a glimpse of Eric up ahead. I tried to keep an eye on him and the trail at the same time. I didn’t want to lose sight of him but I didn’t want to take a tumble either. I worked my way back to Eric once again and also caught up to a runner named Kevin. I met Kevin at two races I ran earlier this year. He was having a major problem with cramping in his quads. The three of us worked together over the final three miles. We kept thinking the finish was over the next hill. Wishful thinking on our part. There were several more hills to climb and descend before we made it to an opening in the woods. There was the dirt road that would take up back to Windblown. We’re almost there!
Once Eric hit the road he was off like a cannon shot pulling away from me and Kevin. I picked up my pace a little as well with Kevin right behind me. It wasn’t long before I came to a top of a long downhill with the finish line in sight. I couldn’t run very fast because my quads were sore and my hamstrings tight as the strings on a violin. So there I was taking baby steps to the finish line. I looked at the official clock as I crossed the line, 4:24:04. That is the longest time I have ever run. Yeah baby, a new PR! Hey, I’m trying to be positive. I don’t want to think about the 14:50 per mile pace I ran.
This race was difficult for me. Would I do it again knowing what I know now? I don’t think I would. But I AM happy that I did it. I learned a few things about myself that I wouldn’t have on an easy run. I learned that even though I’m older and slower than I once was, I still have the inner strength and determination to accomplish what I set out to do. I can remain positive when the going gets tough and things are looking grim. Most important, learned that trail runners are a special group of people, friendly, encouraging, helpful with a camaraderie not found in other sports.
Yes, I may not be the hare I once was, but a tortoise can finish the race too. To all you Mr. and Ms. Slowskies out there, keep on plodding along. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.