First off, I want to say thank you to the race directors and all the volunteers who spent many hours out on the trails making sure the runners had everything they could possibly need. I also want to give a big thank you to my girlfriend, Charlotte, and one of my best friend’s, Victoria, both of whom crewed me for this race. I couldn’t have done it without them.
As far as this race goes, this was my 3rd Ultra ever. Going into this race I had been putting in consistent 50-mile weeks, which is at least double the amount I had been running for my last Ultra. Obviously, the mileage should have been a little higher, and there should have been a few longer runs, but I was confident in my abilities and believed I could finish.
Fast forward to race morning and my alarm goes off bright and early at 5 AM. The forecast for the race was cold, with temperatures in the high 20s to start, and only warming up to about 38 by the end of the race. As a result, I had packed a few different clothing options with me so I could add and subtract layers depending on the weather and how I was feeling. The previous day I had visited a local running store in Lexington, MA and picked up a much-needed pair of winter running gloves, which made a world of difference come race time. At 5:50 AM we set off for the race which was located in Stoneham, MA. We arrived at the Middlesex Fells Reservation around 6:15 AM and I quickly went to pick up my number before getting back to the car to prep my crew. Soon enough it was time to make my way to the start line, where I recognized one of the people running, John Fegyveresi, one of only 14 or so people to ever finish the Barkley Marathons, a 130 Mile brutal trail race in Tennessee! As I was at the starting line, I tried to think back to the only time I had run on the course before, a slow four mile run with some friends back in September of 2016. I remember the course being pretty brutal, but it was even worse than I had imagined.
|Pre-Race! Credit: David Metsky, TARC|
At 7am sharp, the race began. My pacing strategy was “conservative”, but “conservative” is just a relative term in ultras. It is highly likely that you will slow down, sometimes by minutes each mile, so it’s all about focusing on your perceived effort. The TARC Winter Fells takes place on the Skyline Trail of the Middlesex Fells Reservation. The 32 Mile Race featured 4 laps of the trail, while the 40 Mile features an additional lap. Runners complete about a .25 Mile out-and-back at the start and end of each lap. The race director describes the course as ‘A nightmarish course of rocks and roots with a bit of elevation thrown in”, and somehow that description does not even do it justice. The nice thing about the Skyline trail is that since it is a loop the race director allows runners to go either CW or CCW around the trail, and since the people ahead of me had all chosen CW to start, I wasn’t about to go off by myself the other way. Since there were 32 Mile runners going a little bit faster than me it was nice to have people with me and ahead of me for directions, as I sure needed guidance that first lap. I settled into a nice group of about four to five runners to start and we carried along on the technical terrain. I finally got myself a Garmin, the Fenix 3 HR, so I could actually know my splits from now on rather than being in the dark on it.
|Lap 2, Credit: David Metsky, TARC|
I hit the first Mile in 9:59, which sort of shocked me considering my heart rate was already in the 160s. The thing about the Skyline trail, however, is that it is highly advisable to walk or power hike up some of the larger and steeper inclines if you want to have any chance at all of the finishing the event. As we carried on the first loop, the trail only got worse. There are actually some spectacularly steep rock faces that you have to climb up on your hands and knees to continue on the trail, something I have never had to do before in a race. It’s usually not a good sign when it feels a little difficult to run an 11:27 Mile 3, but that is the nature of the skyline trail. As I figured out during this first lap, going CW means that you get a majority of the largest hills and all the rock faces out of the way in the first 3.5 Miles of the loop, with the remainder of the loop being “less technical”, although I’m not really sure that is the right way to put it! As we began the second half of the loop our group had splintered to three people, one of whom was named Sylvain, who I had a great chat during this loop with about what else but, you guessed it, running. As hard as a tried it was incredibly difficult to settle into a rhythm as there really are no flat and totally runnable areas, save for a few sections. Even the downhills on the course are just as brutal and require you to be incredibly careful to avoid falling, which I’ll get too later. About a mile and a half before the end of the loop, things finally open up and become slightly more runnable, with the only stretch where you can really open up your stride lasting maybe 0.4 of a mile. Sylvain and I had gone from low 11s to high 7-minute pace for at least part of this section. Finally, we popped out of the loop portion of the trail and headed back on the 0.25-mile flat stretch to the fueling station. We crossed the end of loop one side by side.
Loop One: 1:20:47, (10:05 Pace), 6th Place.
|Lap 2, Credit: David Metsky, TARC|
At the aid station, I was able to see Charlotte and Victoria and refuel my supplies. For the race, I had decided to drink Nuun’s Electrolyte and Carbohydrate replace, since I couldn’t find tailwind, and consume mostly solid food, like cookies and chips. I only spent maybe 2 minutes refueling, but Sylvain was long gone before then, I wouldn’t see him again until the finish. I started off the second lap with another runner doing the 40 Mile who had come in about a minute after I had on the first loop. We quickly passed the first few miles talking about running, vacations, college, and Asheville, NC. About ten miles into the race we almost missed a turn and I had to turn fast, placing my foot hard on an especially pointy rock. Examining it the next morning, there is definitely a sizable bruise. Eventually, we parted ways going up one of the rock faces and I was on my own. I had paid attention to where I was going on the first lap, so I knew I had a solid understanding of the course. However, there was one turn on the back half of the course that did not clearly indicate which way to go, and as a result, I paused there for about 45 seconds to let the people I could hear behind me catch up. There were two runners, with one of them being a lively 23-year-old named Matthew, whom I shared a few miles with. We were about 13 Miles into the 40 Mile race when he just yells “Today is a great day to be alive!”, and I loved it. We split up when I stopped at the mid-race aid station to grab some food, but I stayed within eyeshot of them for the remainder of the lap. I was still feeling great when I came to the aid station at the end of lap two.
Loop Two: 1:23:32 (10:26 Pace), 5th Place. Total Time: 2:44:19, (10:16 Pace)
|Lap 3, Credit: David Metsky, TARC|
I began loop three alone, but feeling strong, having no idea how bad I would feel in just a few miles. I crested the now familiar steep hills and knew exactly which sections I needed to take a little slower, or just walk entirely. I had another runner, who was entered in the 32 Mile, just a little bit in front of me, and we had been trading passing each other for most of the second lap and third lap thus far. Right around Mile 19, I was going down a steep hill, and another runner was going up, making the footing were technical. I misplaced by foot, slipped, and crashed hard, with my face going right into a rock. I was very fortunate that only my cheek hit the rock because there could have been many worse outcomes there. I was now bleeding from my face and had also landed hard on my hip and both my knees. I had to sit on the side of the trail for several minutes while I waited for my left knee to stop shaking enough to begin running again. At this point, I seriously considered turning around and dropping out, but instead, I took it a little more slow and gingerly. About three miles left in the loop I was caught again by Matthew and another runner, whom I had assumed were ahead of me, but they had actually just stayed at the aid station a little longer. Again, we ran within eyeshot of one another for most of the rest of the loop. As I began the last stretch to the aid station I felt tired and in pain. This was definitely my low point of the race.
|Skyline Trail Blazes! Credit: David Metsky, TARC|
Loop Three: 1:33:00 (11:36 Pace), 5th Place. Total Time: 4:17:19, (10:43 Pace)
I’m sure my crew was shocked to see me with my bloody face coming into the aid station. I took extra time to get some food and water, and to clean off my cut. I told my crew I wasn’t entirely confident I had two loops left in me, but I was going out for my fourth. I left again, alone, and began to trudge my way up the first half hills. My pace had slipped considerably from the first lap, but still not outrageous. However, I will say that I had never in my life expected to “run” a 14:20-minute mile (Mile 27) and have my heart rate be in the 170s. The rest of this lap was slow going, although I did begin to feel better than the previous lap. I took a few more falls over the rest of the lap, which I had just begun to accept as an inevitable occurrence. Again, I stopped at the mid-race aid station to refuel my water bottle and stuff my jacket with potato chips. For the rest of the lap, I focused on catching up to the 32 Mile Runner who had practically been only a minute ahead of me for the past 24 Miles. I passed him shortly before the end of the loop, wishing that I too had only signed up for the 32 Mile.
Loop Four: 1:40:00 (12:30 Pace), 5th Place. Total Time: 5:57:19, (11:09 Pace)
|After the Fall. Credit: Chris Wristen of Mass Ultra|
Loop Five: 1:32:44 (11:34 Pace), 4th Place. Total Time: 7:30:03, (11:16 Pace)
After the race, I talked to both Sylvain and Matthew for a little bit, who came in 2nd and 3rd, respectively. I had made up about 6-7 minutes on each of them on the last lap, although I had run out of trail to try and catch either of them! Charlotte, Victoria, and I did not stay much longer since I was in significant pain, and freezing now that I had stopped running. Overall, I had a spectacular time at this race. The race directors and volunteers have truly put on something special. I hope that next year, and in the future, I can tackle the “Fells” once again.
|Finish! Credit: Charlotte Hayes|