Last year was my first time running the TARC Fells Winter Ultra, and I was one of the lucky few to experience the race in all it’s glory. After running for over 7 hours in a chilly December rain on the decidedly treacherous, rocky ledges of the Skyline Trail, I’m not sure why I decided to come back again this year. I suppose it’s partly because there aren’t many races around here in the winter so I like to take advantage of the few we have, but also it’s because I love TARC races, which are more of a party than a race and are guaranteed to be a good time, even when the weather is miserable.
Some of the party snacks Photo by Douglyss Giuliana
As it happens, this year’s race featured absolutely perfect weather, and we couldn’t have been a happier bunch of trail runners. The temps started in the high 30’s at 7:00 a.m. and promised to top out at 50 by mid-afternoon. Lots of people were wearing shorts, but for me it wasn’t quite warm enough for that!
The race course consists of an 8-mile loop repeated either 4 or 5 times, depending on which distance you enter. You also have the choice of running the loop either clockwise or counter-clockwise or whatever combination of the two you’d like. Last year I chose counter-clockwise and stuck with it all 4 laps. This year I did my first 3 laps in that direction and then decided to switch it up for my last lap and run clockwise. I didn’t think the terrain was any easier or harder to deal with going clockwise, but I did find that for some reason it was much easier to stay on course. The trail is marked with white blazes and at times is very difficult to follow. When I was running counter-clockwise, I had to slow my pace and constantly focus on looking for blazes, and I still managed to go off-course multiple times both years. When I ran clockwise, it seemed easier to spot the junctions and easily see which way the trail went without slowing down or stopping.
My first lap felt great, and I had lots of energy from the two cups of coffee I drank on the drive down. For the first half of the loop I had lots of people to follow, so navigating the course wasn’t an issue, and I focused on passing slower runners as we scrambled up and down the rocky ledges. This section of the course is the most difficult with lots of steep ups and downs and lots of pretty technical terrain–perfect for mountain goats like myself. By the time I came into the mid-way aid station for the first time, people had spread out, and I found myself alone for the first time. I stopped to grab some potato chips and then pressed on. Unfortunately, I missed a trail junction a short ways out but quickly realized my mistake and backtracked to the Skyline Trail. I had several moments of panic when I re-joined the trail and found myself behind a group of runners that I had passed quite a ways back. I was afraid that I had somehow looped back to an earlier section of the trail, but it turned out that they just weren’t as far behind me as I expected. The second half of the loop is easy to follow and much more runable, and I finished up my first loop without any further incident.
Coming into the mid-way aid station for the first time. Photo by Jeff LeBlanc
My first split was 1:29, and after a brief stop at the aid station to drop off my gloves and ear warmer and grab a quick treat, I was on my way out for lap #2. I ran the first half of the second lap behind a girl that seemed about my speed and was helping me push the pace. When we got to the mid-way aid station, she ran right through, and without a second’s hesitation I followed, unwilling to let her go. Unfortunately, shortly after that she appeared to run out of steam, and I had to leave her behind. I didn’t run with anyone else for the rest of the race. :/ I finished my second lap in 1:35 and was really happy that so far I was staying consistent with my pace.
Just after climbing a rocky ledge with my pacesetter. Photo by Douglass Giuliana
I took a couple of minutes after finishing my second lap to refill my hydration pack and graze at the aid station. My main source of fuel during races is always the sports drink Heed, but TARC races always offer an incredible variety of tasty treats, and I love to eat a little pick-me-up every time I go through. At this race I mostly enjoyed fresh raspberries and blueberries, chocolate-covered almonds and the ever-popular “Yeti Balls”.
I set out on my 3rd lap with no one in sight ahead or behind me. I still felt pretty good, but because I was alone I had a lot of trouble staying on the right trail, and I had to go a lot slower to keep one eye on the ground and one eye on the blazes. It was mentally exhausting. By the time I got to the mid-way station my legs were feeling tired, too. The second half of the loop went a lot better, but when I finally made it back to the beginning it had taken me 1:46 for my 3rd loop. I slowed my pace by about 10 minutes on that one, I think mostly due to navigating by myself, but also my legs were noticeably less than fresh. I decided to change my shoes from Altras to Hokas because in my fatigued state I was tripping and slipping all over the place, and I thought the sturdier Hokas might help.
Third loop — Photo by Douglyss Giuliana
For my first three laps I had been sticking to the counter-clockwise direction because I was familiar with the trail going that direction, and I thought the quasi-familiarity made it easier to follow. As I started my 4th lap, I decided on a whim to run in the opposite direction. I needed a boost, and I figured it’d be fun to try something new, plus I’d get to see Jaime as she finished up her 3rd lap and that gave me something to look forward to.
I felt better as I started out–the change of shoes helped and since the easier terrain was at the beginning of the loop from this direction I was able to cruise along at a decent pace. I had a good couple of miles, and then my left IT band started sending me threatening messages, and I knew I was in for trouble. I pushed through, trying to maintain normal form and pace, but that soon became impossible. I limped into the mid-way station and begged for Tylenol. They didn’t have any, so I stretched a little and carried on. By this point it felt like my leg was being torn off with every step, but I hobbled my way up and down all those ledges one final time in a dreadfully slow fashion. When I came down the rock staircase at the end of the loop and saw the flat stretch that leads to the finish, I said out loud, “Oh, thank goodness!” and kicked myself into a lop-sided sprint for the last half mile.
I had been on pace to finish in 6:30, but in my reduced state I was happy with my time of 6:51. It was still half an hour faster than my time from last year, and it was good enough for 18th place overall and 3rd female. I think it’s safe to say that this race is going to be a yearly tradition from now on, so I guess it’s a good thing that there’s still room for improvement.