Ben Nephew's The Wapack 18 Mile Trail Race in NH & MA, Race Report

It was hard to believe it had been 6 years since I had last raced at the Wapack trail race.  It wasn’t a race I had done every year, but it was certainly one of my regular events.  Apparently I am getting quite old, as my history there predates the intarweb.  Unless I am imagining past races, I think I have won the race twice in the past, and I’ve been second at least twice (behind Dave Herr, confirmed by the intarweb).  I remember breaking the CR years ago, which was a big deal to me as the former CR holder was Dave Dunham, who was actually at the halfway point of the race on a run during the race. 

2009 Photo by Emily Trespas

2009 Photo by Emily Trespas

In terms of difficulty, the Wapack course is second only to 7 Sisters  in difficulty for New England trail races, and what it lacks in technical challenge it makes up for with extra miles.  The fact that there are some very runnable miles seems to make it harder, as you really have to be ready to run fast on everything if you want to do well.  The first half of the 9 mile trail that you run out and back on is hilly and technical.  The first climb is more gradual with the trail re-route, but it is still a tough grind.  By the time you get to Binney Pond just past halfway to the turnaround, you have already done a good bit of climbing with some pounding descents.  At this point, you need to start hammering the gradual climb to the summit of Watatic Mountain.  Once your legs are dead from that climb, you plunge down a very technical descent to the turn-around, after which that technical descent turns into the hardest climb of the day.  You then hammer back down to Binney, where you are greeted by the second hardest climb of the day, plenty of off camber rocky sections, and a couple more climbs.  The finish involves a long and fast single track downhill, followed by a soul-destroying mostly uphill final mile on ski trails.  

Having said all that, the course can be somewhat fast in dry and cool conditions.  It was neither dry nor cool this past weekend.  It was so humid that I’m not sure if I was suffocating or drowning on the climbs.  After a nice warm-up with Kevin Tilton, the race was off and I settled into a comfortable pace that put me in the lead.  I led Kevin, Dave Herr, and Scott Traer through the first mile and up the first half of the climb up Barrett.  At that point, the sweat was already pouring off my head, and I knew it was going to be a long day.  Kevin took over at the front, and Scott followed after him.  We then settled into a pattern where they would pull a few seconds ahead on the hills, and I would then close the gap on the downhills.  I could have run the downs faster, but there was really no point at that stage of the race.  The rocks were also very slick, and the Wapack trail has several strangely difficult downhills where there are no trees anywhere close to the trail to grab if you slip.

Dave Herr during the 2009 race. Photo by Emily Trespas

Dave Herr during the 2009 race. Photo by Emily Trespas

In addition to the challenge of the heat, I knew it was going to be a long day due to the lead train.  Kevin is one of the top mountain runners in New England and recently put in 94 miles over 5 days in Rocky Mountain National Park, Dave has won Wapack more times than anyone in recorded history and destroys anyone who dares to show up at the Pisgah 50k.  His CR of 3:40 at Pisgah is insane.  Along those lines, Scott beat both Dave and I at the Pineland 50k this year by quite a bit, in conditions that were….underwater.  Leigh Schmitt’s CR at Pineland had withstood several runs by Dave and others, and Scott beat it this spring.  It was an incredible performance given the conditions.
With that kind of competition, I soon found myself in 4th behind Kevin as Dave and Scott cranked their way up Watatic.  I would have rather kept the gap a little smaller, but I know what happens over the last few miles when you push too soon at Wapack, and the heat and humidity wasn’t helping.  I started to feel a bit better on the upper sections of the climb, but then I couldn’t seem to maintain any sort of momentum on the extremely eroded trail off the summit.  Despite feeling like I was losing time, I was about a minute behind at the turn-around.  The problem was there was no Coke.  I thought they usually had Coke, but I hadn’t checked on this prior to the start.  Given the heat and extra effort, I was concerned that Gatorade wasn’t going to be enough for a strong last half.  I didn’t feel great on the climb back of Watatic, and it didn’t help when Garry Harrington asked me if I was OK when he passed!  I knew the three in front of me were going to open it up on the fast section back to Binney Pond, so I just tried to relax and open my stride on the downhills.

To my surprise, I spotted Kevin and Dave off in the distance as we crossed a logged area with about 45 minutes left to race.  Five minutes later, as we started the climb up Pratt Mountain, I had closed to within a few seconds.  As Kevin and Dave ran up the steep sections, I started to power hike.  I tried to motivate myself by thinking of all the time I spend with Aiden, our one-year old, on my back, which I hope provides good strength training.  The problem was that, at that point in the race, it felt like I was actually carrying Aiden.  It took me a while to catch Kevin and Dave, and then Kevin stepped aside to grab a GU right as I passed Dave.  I thought of putting in a surge, which lasted about 10 steps until my head almost exploded due to the heat.  I then focused on trying to hold a steady pace, stay on the trail, and maybe put a little time on Dave on the downhills where I tend to be faster.  As we were climbing New Ipswich Mountain, I had two deer flies biting my back, and I asked Dave to get them.  He was nice enough to do me the favor, but then he replaced the flies with himself.  Dave and I have had some very tough finishing battles, some of which I may have PTSD from, and I was not looking forward to another one.  We’ve already had one close race at Pisgah this year.  It was way too hot for that. 

Ben leading out during the 2005 race! Photo by Ben Burwell 

Ben leading out during the 2005 race! Photo by Ben Burwell 

My only chance of opening up a lead was on the final downhill to the ski trail.   Dave was right with me at the top of Barrett, and I tried to scamper down the hill as fast as possible, like our older son, Gavin.  That was probably the race right there, as I don’t think I put much time into Dave over the last mile, which I ran scared.  I thought it was the race for second, but apparently Scott had taken a wrong turn on the way back after Watatic, and he ended up 4th in 2:54.   My winning time was 2:40:55 with Dave about 35 seconds behind and Kevin in 3rd in 2:52.  With the rough conditions, all the times were slow this year.  The women’s CR holder, Kelsey Allen, ran 16 minutes slower than her time last year.  Click here for full results.  I wore my new Inov-8 Roclite 243’s, which definitely saved me from a few falls and provided confidence on the downhills.  The top three men all had Inov-8’s, with Dave wearing a pair of Roclite 285’s and Kevin in some version of the X-talon 190. 

It was great seeing all the local trail runners who I don’t see often enough since I started racing less and doing more ultras.  It was great spending so much of the run trying to race, instead of waiting to race, which is what I usually do in ultras.  While I try to convince myself that I am fully capable of pushing myself in solo workouts, I probably can’t simulate Dave Herr trying to run me down.  I definitely can’t simulate the inspiration from seeing Nipmuck Dave Raczkowksi ripping down Watatic with crutches, on his way to a 6 hour finish.  That right there is New England trail running.  Thanks to Paul Funch, the RD, and the race staff for all their hard work.

Ben