Yesterday, Debbie and I returned to the Wapack and Back Trail Race for a little fun, pain, and suffering.
I’m pausing to let that line sink in, because for me, it always seems to be a LOT of pain and suffering.
My body isn’t made for this 50 mile mountain trail running thing. With abundant rocks and roots; plus more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain/loss, Wapack packs a punch. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between my body and my brain, because I keep doing these long runs. Thankfully I did Traprock 50K three weeks ago. It prepared my legs for the beating that they took yesterday. Thankfully I did not do 7 Sisters last week because it saved my legs from a beating and soreness, even before yesterday’s race started.
I was supposed to run the 21.5 miler, but when I registered on Ultrasignup back in January, it was already sold out. In a moment of unbridled enthusiasm, I noticed that there were three slots remaining for the 50 miler (Debbie was already registered), so I checked the box and figured it was destiny that I run another official 50 miler. I recall Debbie looking over my shoulder and shaking her head. She said something like, “You never learn.”
The good news is that when you survive races like this, they can be fun. The euphoria achieved while running in a beautiful landscape for long periods of time is only matched by actually getting to the finish line of a beast race like this. On this Mother’s Day weekend, it’s important to show appreciation for Mrs. Schieffer (Debbie’s Mom) for taking the kids on Friday and Saturday so that we could go run Wapack.
We drove up late on Friday after a romantic dinner at Moe’s Southwest Grill in Worcester. We camped at the Watatic Trailhead, and were joined in the parking lot by our friends; Race Directors, Ryan Welts and Kristina Folcik-Welts, Serena Wilcox, and Carolyn Mankiewicz-Shreck. We helped Ryan and Kristina with a little late night race preparation and then we slept.
Runners started arriving at registration between 3:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M. That is the only drawback with sleeping at the start/finish line. We got up at 4:30 A.M. and the 5:00 A.M. start came really fast. I was still scrambling for provisions in the van when Ryan yelled “Go!” I don’t have too many photos from the day because most of my energy went into running. I heard that 48 runners started the 50 miler. 85 or so started the 21.5 miler. They had a later start and were bused to the northern end of the Wapack so that they could run south to the finish. We passed them all on the trail.
The weather wasn’t great, but I have no complaints. It was cool and misty at the start. During the morning, there were periods of steady rain, but by early afternoon, it brightened up. It was still humid, but there were occasionally breaks of sunlight. I’m glad that I started with my arm warmers because I didn’t take them off until the second half of the race. It was chilly on the summits of the larger hills. There are quite a few exposed spots on the Wapack as many of the peaks are devoid of trees, where it’s all rock. Debbie’s first experience at Wapack and Back was last year, though we had previously run the fall Wapack race on the southern nine miles of the course. There are more photos in the 2013 report and you can see images of the difficult terrain. I walked nine miles of the trail in 2013, but the roughest sections are on the northern part of the trail, which I saw for the first time yesterday. It’s time I update my Toughest Ten to include Wapack. I’ve got a few other nominees too.
The 21.5 mile Wapack Trail goes from Greenfield, New Hampshire south to Ashburnham, Massachusetts along the Wapack Range. The start of the race is at the southern terminus. The turnaround is at the northern terminus. The course is marked with yellow triangles painted on trees and rocks. I struggled to find the trail several times and gave up 10 minutes or so with my various wrong turns. To finish the 50 mile option, we had to go back on the trail north over Mt. Watatic to the 3.5 mile aid station, and then return to the finish. This is the cruelest possible format. Last year, I watched runner after runner call it quits when they got to the “finish line” at 43 miles. It takes some serious mind-bending to convince yourself to go back out on the trail that you just ran.
I wanted the coveted bottle of maple syrup that you get for finishing, so not finishing was not an option. Like every other aid station on the course, I went into mile 43 with the mindset that I was going to grab and go. I filled my water bottle, grabbed some Fig Newtons, and bananas. I dropped my headlamp and arm warmers and shot back out on the trail with no lingering. I was tempted to stay and chat, and there was a large crowd bolstered by the 21.5 mile finishers. I saw several people I knew and many offered assistance, but I was focused on going back up the hill and getting the last seven miles done. I was concerned that if there was any hesitation, or even worse, if I sat down, that I wouldn’t go back out for the final seven miles.
Oh, and what a seven miles it was. I had seen Debbie once after the 21.5 mile turnaround and saw her twice in the last seven miles. She looked good and the math that I was doing in my head said that she could catch me. That motivated me to push harder, particularly on the uphills. My finish time was 11:53 and hers was 12:05, so we were close. That last stretch was hellish. The bugs had been out since late morning when the rain stopped, but they were really biting late in the day. My quadriceps were shot and the downhills were killing me. I also had some chaffing in key spots. I was much faster going up and dreaded even the smallest descents. I got it done, but it wasn’t pretty.
I’ve had a rough start to the year with illness and some niggling injuries. It was wise of me to skip 7 Sisters. I’m not in the best shape, but I feel like my mental strength is at a peak. I’m sure that the “positive” stress of family, work, and life is what contributes to my mental fortitude, and I needed all of it yesterday.
Debbie and I knotted our official 50 mile trail race series at 1-1. She bested me at the 2011 Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race where I was hobbled by a badly sprained ankle. Ironically, one of my other badly sprained ankles (same ankle) came on the Wapack Trail in that 18 mile fall race, years ago. She is still battling nutrition issues in these long races and her stomach went sour late in yesterday’s race. Still, it was an improvement and she is mostly recovered from the bronchitis that ended her Traprock race after one lap. Yesterday, she was able to hold off Serena Wilcox, who is working her way back to form. It looked like the men’s winner was Eric Ahern, who finished second to Josh Katzman in 2013.
With a small field, there was ample time for solitude on the trail. However, she and I both had sections with great trail companionship. Debbie ran most of the final 16 miles with Curt Pandiscio. She said that he considered stopping after 43, but he made a deal with himself that if he got to 43 by a certain time, then he would continue. It worked out and he finished 6th, about seven minutes behind me, and five ahead of Debbie. Curt is building up to his first ever crack at the Western States Endurance Run. He was fortunate to get in through the lottery and I’m sure he will honor the race with a fantastic showing. He was flying yesterday.
I spent most of the day alone, but on the return leg, I caught up to Scott Patnode around the 27 mile mark. We stayed together for five miles or so before he pulled away. We saw each other during the last seven miles and traded encouragements. My lowest spot in the race (other than the waning miles) came after he dropped me. I didn’t have any falls, which is a good thing. I wore a new pair of Vasque Mindbenders that I had in “stock.” I took them out on Friday morning and wore them to work to break them in. They were a half-size large, but I’m glad I wore them. It saved my toes, which have been a mess lately. I’ve got a bad case of plantar fasciitis on my left food and I’ll need a layoff from running to heal it, but at this point, I’ll have to wait until winter. My heel was swollen after the race, but it could be worse.
Ryan and Kristina took over the race from Norm Sheppard, who race directed last year. He was one of their volunteers and I saw him several times. All of the other volunteers were helpful and the aid stations were adequately stocked. I carried a single bottle in a waist belt and filled it every chance I got. Now I have to focus on recovery because I’m running the 30th anniversary edition of the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race next Sunday. Debbie is the longtime race director and our house will be transformed into Soapstone race headquarters for the week. One good thing about running Soapstone, is that it is only 14.5 miles!