I pose this question: If you were to sign up for an inaugural event, what would you expect?
One month back I started looking for a 50 mile race to use as a training run for an upcoming 100 mile race, I scoured over various race calendars and stumbled upon a trail race taking place in Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield, MA called the Hancock Shaker Village 50. The website offered very little information in the way of details, such as a course profile, the type of terrain, would a headlamp be needed, etc. and only 19 entrants were signed up. I thought to myself, no large crowds, no hype, just a small group of people headed out to enjoy a day in woods and I get to support a new race; sounds perfect!
There was no taper for this race, I went into it as a training run to sharpen my mental skills, try out new gear and to get a quality long run in. One of the wonderful things about the sport of trail running is that you get the opportunity to capture the nature that surrounds a town that you would typically just drive through.
After a nice night of camping with my perfect travel companions Joe and Sam, we headed to the Hancock Shaker Village, the site for the 6:00 am start. We found the registration area but were unsure of where the actual start was until about 10 mins before the start. I didn’t want to miss any important details about the course from the Race Director such as what color flagging we were following and what the terrain was like. I assumed it was like typical north east trails, rugged, technical with a lot of climbs. The two things I did know about the course; there was over 6,000 feet of climbing and there was going to be a very confusing section where we would run past the same point doing out and backs 4 times going in different directions. The RD said this area was going to be well marked, so I hoped for the best. At the beginning the mystery of what lied ahead was alluring and quenching my adventurous spirit, that was until later when I felt like I was in vegas playing Russian Roulette.
Running 2 miles around Hancock Village and the farm gave us the opportunity to warm up and get to know each other a little before we headed out to start our adventure. I was very happy I brought my headlamp as it was very dark when we entered into a thick canopied forest. After about ½ a mile our first climb started, how long was it going to be, who knows? I began chatting with a woman who was visiting from Oregon, her very minimal footwear (NB trail minimus or something resembling them) caught my attention besides the fact she was running very strong. We started up the climb together running and hiking at a good pace, her pace was a little too quick for me at this point in the race, I wished her well and let her go. I continued on until a very nice older gentleman came up hiking very fast, he knew the course a bit and said this climb was 800 to 900 feet we stayed together until the downhill came and I was off in my glory feeling mentally fresh excited for the day.
I began to notice flagging was very minimal, maybe I saw 4 yellow flags in 4 miles? I came to my first confusing intersection; do I go right or left? I saw a one flag to the right but a tree was down and there was a pond of mud, to the left was a marking for Taconic Crest Trail, the trail we were supposed to be on for most of the race or is this that out and back section? I decided to go right and about 1 mile or so later I made it to the first aid station. I continued on the trail that resembled a ditch with a lot of debris from a recent storm. Again I came to an intersection footbridge that was covered by a fallen tree I had to stop and really look to see if I should turn or remain straight. I crawled through the tree and saw a marker, yes I was on the trail. I know the sport is mellow and you have to roll with the punches but getting completely lost so early in a race really doesn’t give one much hope for what lies ahead and when you lose hope in an ultra it’s devastating to your mental game.
I continued on making it to the famous intersection where the ground was painted with different numbered arrows, 1-2-3-4, oh boy this is going to be confusing especially when the fatigue of an ultra sets in. I’ve been alone for quite awhile now, I hope I’m on track. Already within the first 8 miles wondering if I am lost every 2 miles or so was very unsettling. The next section is where I started to mentally unwind by this point things became very confusing. I was following the Green Taconic Crest trail when suddenly the markers turned white, I said to myself, “great”, with a couple of other choice words that I will save you from. I continued on always at moderate to slow pace because as some of you know it sucks to find out your lost and you have to backtrack.
I started to think if I would ever make it to the 2nd aid station? I started some deep breathing techniques to calm my mind to allow me to take in the beauty of my surroundings. I was following a single track trail that hugged a beautiful swamp/lake.. I came to a very complicated intersection where they were doing trail rerouting etc, this is where I got off track and saw runners in front of me that I knew I passed and had a good distance on. Very disheartening, we started chatting stating how they each got lost and never even made it to the first aid station. At this point we decided it would be more fun if we stayed together to figure out the course. Now the main goal was not to get lost while making it to the finish line.
Thorns & Ivy:
Woof, we made it to aid station 2, 10 miles or for me 15, we all expressed how we got off track in various areas and hope for the best as we went in search for the next aid station. The next 2 mile section was not trail running it was thorn/poison ivy running, it seemed like it hadn’t been traveled on in some time. As my legs were literally getting ripped apart, I wondered how this was going to feel on the way back, better yet how much poison ivy was I going to have by the end of the week. For the next 15 miles we came across a few intersections that stopped us in our tracks but ultimately we made the right decision.
We made our way back to the confusing section between aid station 5 & 6, where we began to wonder when we were going to see the leaders coming back at us, is everyone lost? finally heading into 6 we saw the lead man looking strong, then 2nd not too far behind, where was the lead woman? We pressed on getting to aid station 6, the turnaround point (26 miles) the lead women was just leaving. We slowly reeled her in, our team went from 3 to 4. We all talked and joked until we got to mile 30. I was still feeling good, met up with Joe and Sam at aid station 7, Joe made a comment like its time to get going, but still unsure of my surroundings I yelled out lets go team and started making my way out of the aid station, the only one who came was Stephanie from CA, she was very strong and nice. This section was very interesting we dodged ATV’s, and motor bikes while trying not to get soaked by the huge mud puddles they were going through.
After 3 miles or so along a downhill section and I said goodbye to Stephanie, grabbed a bit of water at the AS, and ran up the next 2 mile dirt road climb about ½ way up the climb I saw 2 runners coming towards me it happened to be the other 2 from my group, they got off track somewhere along the line. I said good luck turned on my tunes for the first time and jammed to the next aid station. I knew after this AS a steep long climb was waiting for me with open arms, the grade (there was not 1 switch back) of the climb along with terrible footing is what made it so tough. What made this entire course challenging was the terrain, the unmarked trails and very untraveled sections. I made it to the top one footstep at a time, now it was time to run back through the thorn section, with every lashing reopening the wound it originally created, now add more dirt, salt from sweat and you have a recipe for self abuse. I oohed and ahhed my way through back to the next aid station.
AS - 9:
Met Joe for the last time and he was very concerned as was I that I did not get lost again during this section. He showed me a map but who has the concentration at this point to focus. I left with a bit of fear. I tried to concentrate on solely the Taconic crest trail blazes while running with extreme caution not to get off track. I came to a very confusing flagged (not the race markings) section where there were many trails intersecting and hoped I made the right decision. I proceeded straight telling myself I only have 6 more miles to go.
I zoned out into my run when suddenly I looked up and guess what was looking right back at me, the biggest black bear I have seen in awhile, I often see smaller bears on my training runs. I stopped in my tracks as he or she stared at me for a minute then I looked around for cubs, the bear ran off in the opposite direction I was going so I too blazed. I made it to the famous intersection for the last time where I remembered to take white back, 2 miles later I found the last aid station, I was so happy until one of the volunteers said 5 miles to go? I said no way it has to be 3, we went back & forth. Either way it is what it is, I was still feeling good energy wise and decided to kick it in whether it was 3 or 5 miles. I saw another bear but it quickly ran off as did I. I enjoyed my last downhill for the day and ran strong to finish, I can’t believe I found my way!
Thank you so much to the race director, volunteers Joe, Sam and to the wonderful running mates who kept me company on the trail. Ultras are a place where complete strangers get to spend hours in the woods getting to know one another. The RD asked me if he should change the course, my answer is, “no, just have more markers and state in your description that this a tough rugged course and if you are looking for a challenge, this is it!” Yes, I would go back because I love hard courses that challenge all of your abilities, I would like to run it again without being timid about getting lost. By the way I’m looking at the map now and it still doesn’t make much sense to me, LOL...