This turned out to be an unexpectedly exciting weekend. Yes, the race was definitely challenging, but it turns out the weather added an extra facet to the adventure. Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast with a vengeance. While New Hampshire and southern New England escaped the brunt of the storm (unlike New York and New Jersey), we did experience high winds and drenching downpours. Coastal areas of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts were flooded and many lost power. Fortunately, the storm hit New Hampshire AFTER the race. Unfortunately, the impact of the storm on air travel was tremendous, even for airports outside the primary storm area, and my flights home were canceled until Wednesday. But I managed to make it home without too many problems and I am very thankful to be back in cool but sunny Florida.
It was very inexpensive to enter this ultra; entering online at UltraSignup.com cost just under $40. This is also the only ultra in New Hampshire and, since this is held on trails in the small towns of Milford and Brookline in the southern part of the state, there are no major elevations to deal with (the mountains are all in the northern half of the state). The course consisted of a 7.5 mile out and back along the Brookline-Milford rail trail, beginning at the Department of Public Works in Milford and stretching out across wooded trails across several lightly traveled roads, with an asphalt portion at the turn-around at a camp and lake. There were 2 full aid stations, one at the start and one at the turn-around, and both of these had a complete range of sweet and salty snacks, sandwiches, and soups as well as various drinks. GU is one of the sponsors so if you were a fan of those products, you could really indulge. There was also a smaller aid station at about the 3.5 mile mark; this station had drinks and a smaller collection of snacks.
Runners and walkers could do as many of the out and backs as desired. Each complete loop totaled 15 miles and a number of runners were aiming for 100+ miles during the 30 hours allowed for the race. I was fairly sure I could do certainly 30 miles on Saturday and possibly 45, depending on trail conditions, weather, and how soon the sun went down. My plan was to complete at least 30 miles and then return on Sunday to do another 15. A separate 15 mile option was available on Sunday, and I did toy with the idea of treating each day as a separate and distinct race but decided instead to stick with my original plan of finishing the race as one ultra.
I had left Florida on Friday to fly to Manchester, NH. Before I left, my husband’s parting words to me were “keep an eye on this storm, it might be trouble.” After landing in Manchester around 4 pm, I rented a car and drove to Sheraton Four Points at the airport, my home away from home for the next 5 nights. Luckily, it was a fairly decent hotel in an area with several restaurants, a grocery store, and a Dunkin Donuts all within easy walking distance. Of course, I got lost while trying to find the hotel, even though it was only 3.5 miles from the airport, and had to call the hotel for directions (this was despite having a car with the Hertz GPS system – ‘NeverLost’ – HUH!) . After settling in, I ate my usual pre-race meal and put my things together for the race. Since this was an ultra, I had packed 2 suitcases full of lots of extra but necessary stuff: drop bag, flashlights and headlamp, warm hat, sweatshirt, vaseline, extra food, 2 pairs of trail shoes, etc. I set my alarm for 4 am but I was up earlier and was dressed and ready well before daylight.
The race didn’t start until 9 am on Saturday. Rather than just pace back and forth in my room, I decided to drive to Milford, about 25 minutes away, and just wait there. I figured that would give me a chance to get an idea of what the trail was like, meet some of the other participants, and just hang out. And of course I had to find the Department of Public Works (DPW), another challenge for me, especially in the dark. After driving around town for 10 minutes, I did managed to find the the right place and pulled in and parked. I signed in, received a small goodie bag with coupons for local businesses and some Halloween candy, and my bib. Except for the banquet of food and the large number of dedicated volunteers, this race was a relatively informal affair, more of a ‘fat-ass’ no-frills event. No chips, no tee shirts, no medals at the end – just the sheer enjoyment of running/walking/falling on the trails in the woods. Volunteers kept track of runners by noting their numbers at the start, finish, and turn-around. Everything was very loose, easy-going, and relaxed; runners and volunteers were astoundingly friendly and helpful. Of course, the latter tends to be true of ultras in general and trail races in particular, so no surprise there really.
Because it was cold (temps were in the 40’s), I was extremely happy to see that the DPW building was open, with real indoor bathrooms, and warmth! So what if the building smelled like motor oil, sweat, and big trucks – it was heated. As I waited for the start of the race, I chatted with several of the volunteers and runners. Soon I saw Cathy Troisi from Albany and Deb Ingram from Florida, along with several other Maniacs and 50 Staters.
At 10 minutes to 9, race director Steve Latour called all runners together and we crossed a little bridge to the trail head. Steve gave some last minute instructions and we all counted 5-4-3-2-1 and we were off. I waited until the runners had passed by and then headed out at a brisk pace. This first section was a neatly-groomed path covered with fallen leaves (prime leaf-peeping season was over). There was a tunnel under the road that was eery to walk through but I was used to those tunnels because of my familiarity with the PeachTree City 50K course. I began to think that this would be a pretty good race and I started to relax – until – whoops – I came upon some humongous rocks and roots that rose up along the path. I had to slow down considerably in order to stay upright. This section continued for about 4 miles and was my least favorite part of the race. There were also a few climbs and descents but these were not too difficult. After this, we left the trail and had to follow route 13 for a bit. There was a breakdown lane and a fairly wide section of flat dirt path that we could use to stay out of traffic and I sped up here. The remaining section to the turn-around was trail but not as rocky or rooty as the beginning section. Part of it was paved (hooray) and that gave me a chance to increase my pace. I went through a little bridge that marked the turn-around point and then retraced my steps back to the start. That first 15 miles took me 3 hours and 56 minutes. At the aid station, I shook out some rocks from my shoes and had a couple of peanut butter quarter sandwiches and some water. I also took off my warm hat and my mittens.
The second 15 miles took me longer, probably because I was tired from watching the ground all the time. Still, the day had warmed up a bit and I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to just relax and enjoy the experience. It was fun to see the other runners and walkers as we went back and forth over the trails and people were very encouraging. I completed this out and back in 4.5 hours. I decided to call it a day and told the volunteers that I would be back on Sunday morning to continue the race. I drove back to the hotel, showered, ate, called home, and then slept.
The next morning I was up early and back at the race around 6:30. My sister and niece were planning to drive up from Massachusetts to do the 15 miler, so I decided to wait until they arrived before I went back out for my last 15 mile stretch. They arrived a little after 7 so we took off around 7:30. Despite my feeling rested and buoyed up, I managed to trip and fall in that rooty section, but I was not hurt (well, my dignity was a bit injured, but everything else was okay). I’m not sure exactly how long this third time around took me but it was probably about 4.5 hours. Total miles completed was 45.
It was amazing to me that many of the runners stayed out on these trails all night long. The woods seemed very dark once the sun went down and would have been treacherous for me to try to navigate in the nighttime. Even though the course was well-marked during the daytime, and there were pumpkins with lights and glow sticks at night, it would have been impossible for me to manage to stay on course (and remain upright). I stand in awe of those tough competitors who did such a great job. This self-proclaimed klutz was constantly amazed as I watched these talented and graceful runners glide over the trail with such ease. If I tried to run or even walk fast over this trail, I would end up in the emergency room for sure. Regardless, I was thankful for the ability to test myself, however slowly, on this course.
I should note that this race had an appropriate Halloween theme and there were lots of ‘scary’ ghosts and goblins pointing the way. You could tell that the race director and volunteers had a lot of fun with this race.
Bottom line – if you want the challenge of a trail race with lots of rocks, roots, and ups and downs, you willl probably enjoy this race. If you don’t mind walking trails in the dark, this race would be a wonderful challenge. I now realize that roots and rocks are definitely not my thing; the idea of navigating this trail in the night was way too daunting for me. From now on I will stick with dirt and pebbles and grass and asphalt and leave the rooty rocky paths to others who are far more fleet of feet.