Thursday, December 4, 2008

Middlesex Fells Trail Ultra - Race Report

I made my first attempt at the 50K distance (actually 32 miles) at the Fells Trail Race this past weekend. The race was held in the Middlesex Fells Reservation just north of Boston. The race course is an 8 mile loop that circumnavigates the park along the Skyline trail and includes lots of single track, many hills and running along rocky outcroppings. Runners had the option of completing 3 to 5 loops for a total of 24 to 40 miles. I was confident I could finish 4 loops but I had no illusions about running it fast.

Packing for race day was almost as challenging as training for it. The unpredictability of the weather this time of year can cause a lot of variables. I didn't want to need something and not have it so I ended up packing a wide variety of items. I packed two long and short sleeve shirts, two pairs of running shorts and socks, arm warmers, an extra pair of shoes, two hats, two pairs of gloves, numerous gels, bars and on and on it went. After spending so much time with packing I decided to skip taping up my injured ankle. It had been feeling pretty good the past week anyway so I didn't feel it would be necessary.

I arrived at the starting area around 7 AM for the eight o'clock race. A few other runners were already there but were still waiting in their cars. It was a cold and clear morning and no one seemed to be in a hurry to stand around the parking lot in the cold air. After 15 minutes or so a steady stream of cars began to pull into the parking lot. Once Bogie (the Race Director) arrived people began to leave their cars and mill around his Honda Element. Bogie posted the names of the 28 runners entered in the ultra race and we picked up our race numbers from the back of his Honda.

Ultra Runners Roster
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)

My race number.
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)
Kevin’s race number.
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)

He explained that we could run the 8 mile loop in any direction. Furthermore, we could change directions during the race running one loop clockwise and then the next counterclockwise and vice versa. Runners were instructed to record their finishing time when completing a loop before heading out for their next loop. This is seemed to generate a lot of confusion among runners. Some recorded their split times; others recorded their accumulated time while still a third group recorded the time of day. This made it difficult if not impossible to determine what place you were in during the race. To complicate matters even further some runners decided to start early leaving between 7:30 AM and 7:50 AM. I, along with most runners left at the eight o'clock start time.

Loop One Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

We all started together from the parking lot on a double track trail. Kevin and I decided to run together for as long as possible but we got split up right from the start. I'm not sure if it was his youthful enthusiasm or pre-race jitters that caused him to start out so quickly but I soon dropped well off his pace. After a 1/2 mile there were markers on the trail indicating right and left hand turns. This is where the group split up, some going left up a steep climb and others turning right onto flatter terrain. I could see Kevin waiting for me at the split in the trail. I knew from previous training runs here that starting in a counterclockwise direction would give us easier running in the first 3 miles. Kevin and I decided to go in this direction since it would give us a little time to warm up from the early morning chill before we hit the bigger hills later on.

The pack heads out for 1st loop.
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)

With so few runners in the race, and seemingly half running in opposite directions, it wasn't long before there was plenty of running room on the trails. There was a woman running behind me talking to another runner. She was telling him how she lives in Arlington and trains on the Skyline trail often. She also wondered how the elevation gain during this race would relate to that of the Wapack trail race that she ran this summer. I immediately made the connection that this was Carlene who I met during the Wapack race this year. We talked for a while and both agreed that today's run SHOULD be a little easier than Wapack.

Skyline Trail Elevation Profile
Elevation gain = 4,291 feet

10 miles up, 10 miles down and 5 miles of flat running.

This was the 6th time I’ve run on the Skyline trail this year. Each time I run here I notice something new and different. What caught my eye in the cold clear air this time was how the frost was clinging to the blades of grass and fallen leaves on the sides of the trail. It gave the earth a silver sheen as it reflected the light of the slowing rising sun. The frost reminded me of granules of sugar sprinkled on a freshly baked cookie. And I wasn’t even hungry yet!

Kevin and I soon got into a good groove following on the heels of Carlene and two other female runners. After following them for a couple of miles I introduced myself to the other women. Their names were Kat and Tamela. I learned both of them are seasoned ultra runners, triathletes, adventure racers, and more. You name it, seems like they've done it. Carlene, Kat and Tamela were setting a faster pace than Kevin and I had planned to run but we were both feeling pretty good and decided to see how long we could hang with them. Following someone is a lot easier than trying to pick up trail markers on your own especially with someone that knows the trail as well as Carlene.

Carlene leading the way.
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)

After some easy running we hit the steeper hills and rocky outcrops at the southern end of the Fells. Here on the hills there was some separation in the group of five but we consolidated again at the top of the climbs. None of us took any time to take in the awesome view from Wright’s tower or any of the other high points. We all seemed to have one thing on our minds today. Cover as much distance as we could in as little time as possible. We continued to maintain a good pace throughout the rest of the eight miles despite the more challenging terrain. Back at the parking lot we recorded our times on the race sheet.

Loop One Time Sheet
(Courtesy of RD Bogie)

Loop One Transition Time: 6 minutes 33 seconds - Loop Two Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

The transition between loop one and two was spent refilling my Camelbak hydration pack, restocking my gels and downing an S-cap. I also put on a hat with a visor. The sun was very low in the sky on the first loop and it was constantly shining in my eyes. This made it difficult locating obstacles on the trail and I ran much of the first half of the loop using my hand as a visor. Kat and Tamela’s triathalon and ultra experience showed here and they were ready to head out for loop two before Kevin and I were. They were gracious enough to wait for us and we were on the trail again in six minutes. I was hoping to spend no more than 10 minutes in each transition so I was pleased with six. Kat also said six minutes wasn’t bad so then I felt really good about it. Carlene must have just recorded her loop time and ran back out because I never saw her during the transition.

As we ran the ½ mile to the split I asked Kevin, Kat and Tamela if they wanted to try running this loop in a clockwise direction. Then after running a loop in each direction we could decide which way would be best (aka easier) for the 3rd and 4th loops. Everyone agreed to give it a try so we turned left and began to climb. This first hill was fairly steep and there were large rocks forming steps to make the initial ascent a little easier. I was feeling very strong and took the lead here.

I picked up the pace a little as the climb leveled off. I soon heard Kat yelling at me. She said I was running faster than we did on the first loop and needed to slow down. I knew she was right. If I had any chance of running 50K on this rugged trail I would have to run conservatively in the early miles. I relinquished the lead position back to Kat since she and Tamela had been setting a comfortable, steady pace in the first loop.

After climbing and descending a few rocky hills we crossed a narrow gravel trail. I immediately thought we must have gone off trail because I did not remember crossing this gravel trail on the first loop. Kat was sure we had, so we continued going forward. Soon nothing looked familiar and we all realized we were lost. We backtracked until we found the Skyline trail again. Our little detour added another 3 minutes to our lap time.

Somewhere around 2 – 2 ½ hours into the race I began to feel some pain in my right ankle. This is the same ankle I sprained two weeks earlier during a training run on the Skyline trail. The initial pain was very slight but it worsened as I continued running the second loop. I was still able to maintain pace and stay with K, T and K but each step was getting more painful. The early morning laziness that contributed to my decision not to tape the ankle would haunt me for the rest of the race.

The fact that we changed directions on the second loop also helped me to complete it. We got the hard running out of the way early. The last 3 miles were generally flatter and not nearly as rocky. There were even some sections of trail that was covered in a thick layer of pine needles. This helped to cushion my feet and made running a little less painful. Still, I was happy to see the double track trail that lead us back to the parking lot.

Loop Two Transition Time: 14 minutes 37 seconds - Loop Three Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

I really started feeling the pain in my ankle once we stopped running. The entire side of my foot was throbbing and I could not put my full weight on it. My heel and arch was also sore possibly from compensating and trying not the land on the outside edge of my foot. I did my best to put it out of my mind and prepared myself for loop number 3.

We had been running for nearly 3 ½ hours so I decided to switch my drink from Succeed Ultra to Succeed Amino. During long periods of exercise the body requires some protein and will cannibalize muscle to get it if you do not supplement with it. This muscle breakdown inhibits performance is will slow you down in the long run. I was still looking at another 3 ½ to 4 hours of running if my ankle held up so this was a good time to make the change. I was thinking about taping my ankle at this point but I knew that was at least a 10 minute task if I wanted to do it right. I really didn’t want to ask the group to wait around for me while I taped so I decided not to do it. Instead, I loaded up with more gels and swallowed another S-cap before leaving my car to meet up with Kat and Tamela again.

K, T and I were waiting at the trailhead for Kevin. He was still behind his Outback going through his gear. The sun was behind a cloud and the wind was picking up so we started getting cold standing around. K and T wanted to leave so I went to check on Kevin. He was just finishing up his soup and needed a few more minutes. Not wanting to hold up K and T any longer I ran back to them and told them to go on without us.

Tamela and Kat finishing 3rd loop.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

I waited for Kevin, getting colder by the minute and trying to ignore the building pain in my foot and ankle. He finished refueling in a few minutes and we began loop three. I was still feeling confident about my chances of finishing four loops even with the ankle problem. We decided to run this loop in the same direction as the last. This way we would get the hard running out of the way first and have an easier 3 miles at the end.

The first 3 miles of loops three went by quickly as Kevin and I maintained a 13 minute mile pace over the steep, rocky hills. I think Kevin was started to tire as he was getting tripped up a lot on the rocks and roots. By the 4th mile he began to fall behind me as I continued to push though the pain. Then we really started slowing down, running over a 16 minute mile pace on miles 4-6. I was taking a lot of walking breaks because the pain had spread though my entire foot.

Kevin and I were talking and we both agreed 32 miles was not going to happen for us today. He was tired and my foot was throbbing. It would be foolish for us to continue on past the 3rd loop. I suggested we finish the 3rd loop and then go back out and run long enough to get 26 miles and at least finish with the marathon distance. Kevin agreed and that became our new goal.

The decision to go 26 miles instead of 32 must have had an uplifting effect on both of us. We picked up the pace once again. That, along with the flatter terrain in the final 3 miles helped us to maintain a 12 minute pace the rest of the way. When we finally made it back to the parking lot for the third time, two of Kevin’s friends Kate and Brian were there to cheer us on. Kevin went over to the RD’s car to record our time and to mark us as “Done”. It was a relief knowing the official part of our race was over.

Kevin finishing 3rd loop.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

Me finishing 3rd loop.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

Kevin thrilled to finish!
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

It’s official!
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

That’s right Dan, you're DONE!
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

We didn’t spend much time in the parking lot before we left to run the 1 mile out-and-back that would give us 26 miles for the day. We didn’t run the race course but chose to stay on the double track that left the parking lot.

Me and Kevin heading out for our last 2 miles.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

We were running, well I was limping, along the double track when we came upon huge puddle, more like a lake. The trail was flooded for at least 50 yards. The right thing to do would be to plow through it but I was not up for any more challenges. Kevin and I said “screw it” and turned around. We ran back to the parking lot where all the fun began nearly six hours earlier! The puddle, and our desire to stay dry, kept us from getting our marathon finished but we still ran 25.2 miles on a difficult course. We would have to be content with that.

The torture is over.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

Real nice Kevin.
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

The man likes to eat!
(Courtesy of Brian Soudant)

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed about dropping out early. I wanted my first ultra to be a successful one. On a positive note, I felt much better during the Fells race than I did 3 weeks prior at the Stone Cat Marathon. My legs were still feeling fresh after finishing 25 miles. This has never happened to me before. Perhaps I’ve stumbled upon (no pun intended) the right combination of pace, hydration and caloric intake for this distance. On the other hand, maybe I just got lucky. See, I just can’t seem to shake the pessimist in me!

Beaten, but not broken…….


  1. Dan,

    Sounds like a tough race. Congrats on your 50K attempt....I am attempting my first 50K in the spring and get all fired up when i read others blogs...

    I hope to finish my first one but do understand that NDF is very common in ultras. I have never had one yet but also my longest race is only a marathon and my logest trail race is a 25K I will be in no mans land when that day comes...I am excited yet apprehensive at the same time. Am I foolish at my age to want to run an ultra? I think my wife feels I am crazy...I might be!

    Good on your next ultra, perhaps we will cross paths one day running.

  2. Hey Dan, Very nice race report! I say - succesful first attempt to an ultra! Good luck with the 50K coming up! Ana

  3. Very nice report, Dan. I'm glad wisdom was the better part of valor, as I would hate to have seen you do extended damage to your ankle. I'm intrigued by your switching of drinks and would like to address that with you further.


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