The race directors describe the TARC Fells Trail Ultra as “a nightmarish course of rocks and roots with a bit of elevation thrown in”. When I registered for the race, I was sure that this was an exaggeration–how hard could a trail in the middle of the Boston suburbs be? I soon found out, about .25 miles into the race to be exact, that it was every bit as nightmarish as they said. The trail was extremely technical, was downright treacherous in the wet weather, and since I rarely had the luxury of taking my eyes off my feet, it was also terribly difficult to follow the course. And even though there weren’t any significant climbs, the constant ups and downs on steep, rocky ledges took their toll.
I signed up for the 32-mile race, which would require 4 laps of the 8-mile Skyline Trail loop. We all had the choice of running the loop in either direction, but I chose to go clockwise on all 4 laps because that way I would have more steep uphills and gradual downhills, which play to my strengths.
The weather was fairly pleasant at the start with mild temps and misty air, but there was the looming threat of rain. I started the race at the back of the pack because I was finishing up my race preparations as we were called to line up. As a result, I spent the first couple of miles carefully watching for opportunities to pass slower runners on the narrow singletrack trail. Then, just like that, I was alone with no one in sight ahead or behind me, and my mental focus slipped. I spent the majority of my first lap worrying about falling on the slippery rocks, worrying about getting off course, worrying about how slow my pace was and just generally not enjoying myself. The trail was much more difficult than I was expecting, and it was totally psyching me out.
* All photos by Douglyss Giuliana
I came to the halfway aid station and was briefly cheered to see that I wasn’t the last human on earth after all, then I headed back out into the woods alone again. After that the trail got a bit easier, and eventually I came to a flat, wide trail and really got into a good running rhythm. I was going along nicely, thinking about how great it was to finally be able to really run, when I suddenly realized that it had been a long time since I’d looked for a trail marker. I started looking, and those white blazes that were supposed to mark the trees every 30 yards were nowhere to be seen. Somehow my nightmares had come true–I was lost.
I started back-tracking and soon ran into more people who had made the same mistake, which made me feel a little better about myself. When we finally found the point where we had missed the turn, I figured that I had just added over a mile to my race. This could have been devastating, but it was more of a realization that I was not the only one out there having a tough time. Other people were getting lost and slipping on the rocks, too. I told myself that this race was not about finishing fast, but about surviving long enough to finish. That change in focus shifted my mood, and I was able to relax and feel more comfortable.
Going into lap 2 I was feeling much more confident now that I was semi-familiar with the trail, and I also was happy to have the company of a runner going a similar pace. We leap-frogged a lot throughout the rest of the race, and it was good to have a buddy as well as a motivation to push my pace. I missed a turn early on this time around, but quickly realized that I was off course and didn’t lose any significant time.
I enjoyed the fact that I sort of knew what to expect from the course now. I knew that the first 4 miles were pretty treacherous–lots of ups and downs on steep, slippery ledges–but that the second half of the loop had less ledge, some flat double-track and long, gradual downhills. I knew that the aid station was actually closer to two-thirds of the way around the loop, not halfway. I knew that there were too many big puddles and streams to bother trying to keep my shoes dry. I knew that I had to watch for that tricky turn near the reservoir, and I knew that from there to the end it was easy running.
I made a quick stop at the aid station to re-fill my hydration pack and decided to leave my gloves with my drop bag since I had carried them for two laps without needing them. Unfortunately, it started raining steadily soon after I started my third lap, and soon my jacket was drenched and clinging to my bare arms. I had been comfortable and happy with my clothing choices up until that point, but suddenly I was freezing and my arms and hands were going numb. I wished I had kept my gloves! I drank some hot broth at the halfway station, but that didn’t do anything to warm me up, and I knew I needed to keep running or I’d get even colder. Then I remembered that I had stashed my arm warmers in my pack after taking them off earlier in the race. It took me a few minutes with my numb hands and wet arms to get them on, but it was worth it because I immediately warmed back up and was comfortable again.
Other than that minor hiccup, this lap went really well–I wasn’t getting tired, I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t sick of running, and I think it’s because my nutrition intake was spot on. I was using my own mixture of Heed and Perpetuem as my primary calorie source and just supplementing with a tasty treat at each aid station. I was also experimenting with some of Hammer’s supplements to help keep me going strong and steady. I had never used them before in a race, but I think they worked like a charm! In case you’re interested, these are my secret weapons: Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurance Aminos and Tissue Rejuvenator.
As I set out on my last lap I had a pretty good notion that I was either in the lead or close to it for the women’s race. As always, this fueled my competitive spirit and made me push hard for that last 8 miles. I celebrated every time I went through a particularly nasty section by telling myself, “That’s the last time I’ll have to do that!”
I crossed paths with Peter near the end of my lap because he had chosen to do the last lap of his 40-miler counter-clockwise. It was nice to see him, but he wanted to stop and chat, and I was in conquer-and-destroy mode. I yelled out something about trying to win the race and told him I’d see him at the finish!
I ran the last couple of miles pretty hard, knowing that I was almost done and the terrain was easy. I finished in 7 hours and 20 minutes, and was happy to discover that I was 10th overall finisher and the 1st woman!
This is the first time that I’ve actually won a race–I’ve tied for first, and I’ve come in second or third many times, but I’ve never had that top spot all to myself, so that feels pretty satisfying. I had a great race, and after getting out of the funk I was in during the first lap, I really enjoyed myself. It was a challenging race for sure, but that just makes crossing the finish line that much sweeter!