It’s our favorite time of year when it begins to feel like winter...and it felt like that today in Harriman State Park, NY! Winter begins next Thursday, December 21st and ends March 19th, 2018. This is a great time of year to head out for a hike!
"When I downloaded my GPS data from Catstail this year, the first “top result” listed was 400 meters in 71 seconds, my second best 400 on Strava. That was how we started the race. I don’t wear my watch for everything, but Catstail is a technical trail marathon with 7k of climb that takes 4.5 hours. Yes, the first 400m is downhill on a road, but that still doesn’t really make 4:44 pace a good idea. To put this in perspective, my mile PR is 4:34. This was a new level of “Coming in hot.”
This was going to my bad weather backup loop when I ran the Swan Song (report), and that might have been the wiser choice on that day in hindsight. After recovering from the Swan Song, for the most part, I decided to head to Grafton, Maine to run this 36 mile loop that I heard great things about from Ryan Welts and Adam Wilcox (their report from 2014), who held the FKT at 9:29:30. They had not been expecting 13k of climb, which is more than any other single day FKT venture other than the Swan Song and the Hut Traverse. I had been on Old Speck with Ryan at the beginning of the Mahoosuc Traverse, and was looking forward to some similarly exposed alpine ridge terrain on the Grafton Loop. The weather was a bit warm in Westborough the weekend I headed up to Maine, but my hope was that things would be more reasonable 4 hours north.
The drive up went quickly, and it was definitely a bit cooler up there. This is a rural area with primitive trails to say the least, the loop has only been around for a few years. Other than the rather massive loop, there are not many trails up there, which is nice in terms of navigation. I strapped my Orocs on and got on the trail as quickly as possible in hopes of avoiding as much of the heat as possible. The first climb was a blast, with soft runnable trails buried in pine needles to start, leading to alpine slabs and ledges. As I peeked over my shoulder to check out the early morning views towards the top, I stopped dead in my tracks. I’m not one to hang out to take in the views during FKT attempts, but this was not an option; just incredible light and low flying clouds drifting through the Notch under the peaks on the other side of the loop with distant views to the Mahoosuc and Presidential ranges. It was hard to imagine this not being a good day.
The singletrack coming off of Puzzle was more of the same awesome trail, but I held back to save my legs for the later hours. 8-10 hours is a far different challenge from 5-6 hours and I wanted to be in at least decent shape for the second half of the loop. Long Mountain, next in line, was a gradual climb through open woods. I was surprised the trail was as clear as it was given how little traffic it sees. At the bottom of the descent from Long, you run next to a beautiful stream with several cascades for about a half mile, and I filled up my bottles here prior to the 4.5 mile grind up East Baldpate Mountain. I was looking forward to the views after the show on Puzzle, so I got a little aggressive on the climb which was probably not a great idea.
At this point, the loop intersects with the Appalachian Trail, and East Baldpate is a short hike from route 26 so I ran into my first humans of the day on the summit. Ryan had mentioned that the slabs coming off of East Baldpate were steep, and that would be accurate. The grade was quite insulting to the quads, and the legs in general. Great preparation for the 2500’ climb up Old Speck. It was also starting to warm up, and I was hitting my bottles pretty regularly. That descent goes on and on, and while I was ahead of FKT pace at the Old Speck trailhead, it was only by about 15 minutes and I was already feeling the effort after three big climbs and descents.
Starting the climb up Old Speck after 4 hours of mountain running differed greatly from climbing Speck at the start of the Mahoosuc Traverse. It was depressing to think about how the paces compared, but I knew trying to push too hard then would lead to disaster later on. I actually felt better as the climb progressed, probably due to recovering from the long and violent descent from the Baldpates. As I passed some seriously beat looking through hikers with 2000 mile stares, I realized that things could be much, much worse. I wasn’t as slow as I had feared to the summit, which was an encouraging surprise.
I was 23 miles in and only had one more major climb, so I started to increase the pace and try to shave more time off the FKT. Ryan had great things to say about the descent from Speck, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking at first. They may have done some trail relocation near the top because that section of the trail was peppered with 6 inch high stumps, reminding me of unpleasant sections of the Manitou’s Revenge course. Things improved as I descended, and I was soon rolling along a pristine ribbon of pine needles that wound its way down the mountain. As with many of the miles on the route, while it was quite runnable, these miles were still technical and twisty singletrack that was challenging to run quickly.
My legs felt ready to push the last big climb up Sunday River Whitecap, and I attacked the lower section of the climb. Then the upper section attacked me. I was too stubborn to walk, but calling my progress a run was debatable over the last half mile. The increasing heat was not helping. That climb exists in some sort of Twilight Zone time warp where it goes on and on like a treadmill as the peak recedes from you; Ryan was entirely right on that one. My legs were wobbly by the summit, and I appreciated the gradual grade of the initial descent after taking in the 360 degree views of Maine and New Hampshire. The loop sure does look impressive from that angle, and I was glad to be done with the climbing, or so I thought.
While there certainly are not any more major climbs, anything uphill feels substantial and drains the life out of you after 12k of climb, 30 miles, and 7.5 hours. I just kept telling myself that the climbs had to be short as I knew the route, even though they sure looked long at times. In addition to being down on climbing power, my legs were struggling with the extended steep descents. You always want and expect to make good time on downhills, and it is frustrating when your legs don’t allow for that due to cumulative abuse. I had to focus and try to avoid major drops, as I might have ended up on all fours due to the state of my quads. There was plenty of nice, rolling sections on the final descent, but sporadic steep inclines and technical sections made it difficult to end up with faster mile splits.
The Grafton loop doesn’t let you open up until you get out of the woods onto some ATV trails, when the markings then get a bit sketchy. There was certainly a decent chance of getting off course here, and I was relieved to reach the road, and then I was confused. The map I had showed the trail going right across the road, and other maps I had seen showed that the trailhead I started at was a couple of tenths down the road to the west. I ended up running back and forth under the hot sun before finally getting back to my car at 8:41:05, but I proposed that the FKT stop at the road at 8:30:42. The road section is not incredibly long, but it is unpleasant. I think I may have set a fluid intake PR at 8 liters over the 8 hours.
This route certainly deserves more attention. It is a rare thing to be able to run this many miles on such pristine, non-eroded trails. I enjoy a regular dose of White Mountain rocks of mass destruction brutality, but it is also nice to be able to cruise along smooth trails drowning in pine needles. Regarding this, whoever designed and cut the Grafton Notch loop did a fine job, and this is obvious from looking at the topographic map, such as the lines up Puzzle and East Baldpate. I do wish the route climbed Slide Mountain, though. The crux of the route is the consecutive climbs and descents of East Baldpate and Old Speck. If you are too aggressive before, or during this section, you have a long way left to suffer and slow. The fact that the trails are very runnable, combined with the length of the run, also makes it a particularly challenging FKT.
This fall has been less about racing per se and more about setting myself up for 2018, when I have three big (for me) races on the calendar, plus hopefully an attempt at the Bob Graham Round (fingers crossed that trip comes together). But racing can be part of training as well. Races are good opportunities to experience stimuli that you might not be getting in your weekly training, either in terms of distance or intensity, and they can be a nice gauge of fitness as you shape your plans and goals moving forward. My experience in September at the Mountain Madness 50k fell into the former category. I travelled to North Carolina two weeks ago for the latter.
My sister and her family have lived in Charlotte for about 12 years now, only about 20 miles from the US National Whitewater Center, which is a really cool facility for aspiring elite kayakers and rafters. Since opening in 2006, the center has grown to include rock climbing, zip lines, high ropes courses, and many miles of mountain biking trails, and they now host all sorts of events and races. The WC 50 in Charlotte, North Carolina, now in its fifth year, is the ultramarathon entry into the Whitewater Race Series, and a race I've wanted to run for some time due to its proximity to family. The dates worked this year for a quick trip down for my nephew's birthday party and an early-morning jaunt in the trails. I expected a low-key day out; I had no idea of the competition, but looking at previous results, I planned on running a relaxed effort near the front and seeing where my fitness level would get me.
We started in the dark, at 6am, on a fairly warm morning--temps were already nearing 70 degrees. The race started out with a short "parade loop" around the whitewater course before heading into the trails for the first of three 10.2-mile loops. I set off at a relaxed but quick tempo and was immediately at the front of a field of about 100. By the time we hopped onto the singletrack about five minutes in, I was out in front with one other runner and it looked like we'd be on our own most of the day. We ran together at a nice pace; the miles were marked with signs tacked to the trees, and we were clicking off splits in the 7:40/mile range on some fairly technical but runnable mountain bike trails. It was a bit tough monitoring our footing with just headlamps, but it was fun running at speed through the darkness, and the early miles passed by quickly. We ran together throughout the first lap. The second half of the loop had a few significant climbs, though we kept up a solid tempo. The mile splits suddenly had jumped up to over 10-12 minutes per mile, but I think this was due to incorrect markings as opposed to any change in our effort or actual pace. (This sense was supported by subsequent laps, when we would again run 7:30-7:40 pace on the early "miles", followed by 10-12 minute "miles" later on.) Regardless, we rolled through the first 11+ mile lap in about 1:39; I grabbed my Orange Mud handheld and ran on through the start/finish aid station, while my companion--a strong local runner named Chase Eckard--took a quick break with his crew before catching back up within the first mile of lap 2.
We kept the effort steady and chatted through the early part of the lap. Chase said, "When do you think Karl will catch us?" I knew that Karl Meltzer, the winningest 100-mile runner of all time, had been in town for the pre-race dinner, promoting Made to Be Broken, a film about his record-breaking run on the Appalachian Trail. I hadn't realized he was racing, although I had considered the possibility. For some reason I had assumed that if he was racing, it would be in the 50-mile, which had started at 5am on a course that incorporated our entire 10-mile loop plus an additional 7 miles on each of three 17-mile loops.
"Oh, is Karl racing?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Chase, "he started off at the back."
I have no idea why--partly because of my pre-race assumption, I guess, and partly because we were leading the race and why would I be leading a race against Karl Meltzer?--Chase's comment simply reinforced my notion that he was in the 50-mile. I wasn't sure if he would run the opening 17 miles of his race in under 2:40 on this course, so by my twisted logic I wasn't clear if we were actually ahead of him or not at this point. "Well," I said, "if we finished our first lap before he did, we might be ok; he might catch us later in this lap. But either way, we'll pass him when he does the extra seven miles on lap two." Chase didn't really have much to say about that, which given that Karl was actually in our race makes perfect sense; in retrospect I must have sounded like a freaking moron.
ANYWAY, we ran together until about the 16-mile mark, when Chase blasted away on a long downhill stretch and I eased off a bit, resisting the urge to really open up this early in the race. Instead I took in some calories, slamming down two GUs in rapid succession (my first calories to that point, I realized, even with the fat adaptation I've got to be a little smarter about that) and settling into a nice solo rhythm. I caught a few glimpses of Chase on some longer stretches, about a minute ahead at a couple of spots, before we started in on the climbing again. I didn't expect to start racing for a few miles yet, but suddenly he appeared in front of me near the 20-mile mark, walking at the top of a long but runnable uphill. We exchanged a few words of encouragement as I made an easy pass. By the time we reached the end of lap 2, a little over a mile later, I already had about two minutes on him, and I was feeling good. Barring disaster, I felt like I had it in the bag.
Disaster is exactly what happened about 25 minutes later. I rolled through the opening miles of the final lap feeling a little tired but generally relaxed and strong. My splits were within shouting distance of my first two laps. I passed the 4-mile mark of lap 3, about 25 miles overall, in 3:52; doing some quick calculations (and taking into account the longer "miles" in the second half of the lap), I was looking at about a 4:55, maybe right around 5 hours if I slowed down a little. I briefly stepped off the trail to fertilize the soil, not realizing I was near one of the myriad switchbacks on the course. Somehow I got turned around and ended up on the wrong end of the switchback. After a couple of minutes of running, I started getting a sinking feeling in my stomach. The trails all looked the same, but some of those turns were looking too familiar...as if I had just run them...and then I came around a corner and arrived back at the one-mile mark.
Well, that was just too much. I sat down on a log by the side of the trail and had myself a little pity party; after a couple of minutes I started walking backwards towards the start, ready to throw in the towel rather than run another nine miles. After a few minutes of that, though, I felt pretty stupid, having travelled all the way down and then not even bothering to finish; I thought about Jim at States last year, sighed, turned around, and trudged back over the same three miles I had just run. I finally cruised into the mid-loop aid station about 40 minutes behind schedule. The volunteers were all very confused--none of the leaders had actually gone past me--but after I explained what happened they were sympathetic, as they had seen Chase and I up front all day. They told me Chase was now running second to Karl, which is how I came to finally realize that Karl had been in the 50K all along; they poured me a shot of bourbon, which at this point I figured what the hell, and sent me on my way.
I actually felt pretty good the rest of the way, and managed to pick off one or two other folks en route to finishing in 5:41, officially 6th but in actuality 5th (looking at the splits, the 5th place runner is credited with a second lap of 1:21--fifteen minutes faster than anyone in the race ran any other lap on the day, and almost 30 minutes faster than either his first or last lap, so there's no way that's legit, but whatever). I felt fine afterwards, and actually wasn't even all that sore the next day, so it confirmed at least a decent level of fitness. And for the first hour or two I didn't even care about what had happened; I basically shrugged afterwards talking to Karl and said "That's trail racing, shit happens." But after a little while the disappointment really set in. I had put over seven minutes on Karl after one lap; on lap two I had given back barely 30 seconds. I had basically tossed away probably my only chance to beat a legend like Karl--and not some outside chance; the race was basically over--by being a fucking idiot.
In retrospect it was the perfect commentary on my ultra season for 2017. I did fine, winning a couple of small races that I fully expected to win; I came into every big race (Rocky Raccoon, Cayuga Trails) in great shape and then had great performances sidetracked by weird shit happening. Only difference was this time I brought the weird shit on myself. A fitting ending to a frustrating year. Fuck.
Twelve weeks to Bandera.
A Local Wilderness First Aid Workshop this weekend from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference still has some availability. Registration closes tomorrow at midnight. "Be prepared for the unexpected".
- Friday • noon to 5 p.m. CPR/AED Training
- Saturday • 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wilderness First Aid Training
- Sunday • 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wilderness First Aid Training
- Combined WFA and CPR AED $235.00
- Wilderness First Aid Course $180.00
- CPR/AED (Adult) course $65.00