Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wapack and Back 2012 Race Report

May 12, 2012
Ashburnham, MA
Wapack Trail

photo courtesy of  Mena Schmid

Course records, A Proposal and Some Closure

Competition. It brings out the best in all of us. When I looked at the ultrasignup.com listings for this years race I knew it was going to be a good one. If you took a peek at my odds report (80 views as of today...holy crap!!), you'd know that some of the areas top runners were in attendance. Josh Katzman, Ryan Welts and Adam Wilcox all had a shot at not only winning the race, but also obtaining the course record.  Newcomers to the 50 mile distance, Eric Ahern and Thomas (Ben) Thompson, proved with their finishes in the top 5 that they are ready to make a splash in the New England ultra running scene and Kristina Folcik, with possibly the best performance of the day, smashed the women's course record by 49 minutes (Donna Utakis had the previous record of 11:39 in 2008).

Norm Sheppard, the Wapack and Back Trail Race RD of the past 3 years, again put on a top notch race. His volunteers, his attention to detail and his awesome post race spread makes this race a place you want to return to year after year. On second thought, this course is so damn tough, I don't know why anyone would want to come back year after year. Shad Hansen, whom I've never met, has three consecutive starts and three consecutive finishes in the 50 miler. Impressive. Very impressive.

Norm had a few words concerning course markings, aid-station placement and some instructions concerning a trail closure due to logging prior to our start. He counted down and off we went up the flanks of Mt. Watatic. During this initial climb, I ran with the lead pack of Josh, Ryan, Adam, Ben and Eric. Josh and Ryan took the early lead and hit the summit region first, with the rest of us in chase mode on the ensuing downhill to Binney Pond. I realized at this point in the race that these guys were way out of my league and that I needed to slow down and run my own race. For the next 42 miles or so, I ran solo.

photo courtesy of Mena Schmid

On the downhill to Binney Pond, I ran conservatively, trying not to crush my quads so early in the day. I hit the 3.5 mile aid station, the dirt road, then the bog bridges. I knew from previous years and many training runs that a serious uphill climb was ahead. Pratt Mountain was closing in and some serious fueling needed to happen. My game plan from the start was to keep up on my nutrition, water and salt and I think I was on-top of all three most of the day. Nearing the top of the third peak of the day (New Ipswich Mtn.) I thought I heard the "swishy" pants of Daniel Larson. I never did see if it was him, but knew all day that he was close behind.

Some ridge running with spectacular views along with some soft pine needle covered trail made the section between New Ipswich Mtn, Barrett Mtn and Windblown Ski Area very relaxing. The one long downhill to Windblown, however, would have to be navigated in the uphill direction on the way back and I knew I would probably be in a world of hurt by then. I hit the aid station, refilled my Nathan bladder, ate some potatoes and salt and found out I was only 11 minutes back of the lead group.

So off I went, knowing that many racers were right on my heels, I decided to push the pace a bit. I knew the next section before Burton Peak was mostly downhill and very runnable. I ran hard through the marshy area, across Nashua Road, then to the trail head leading up Burton. From here, the trail goes up at a good pitch and I power hiked for a good while. I figured its early and I've got plenty to go, so I put the hands to the quads and just pounded up Burton and Temple. More awesome views (a camera would have been nice), especially of Monadnock to the west during this section.

photo courtesy of  Mena Schmid
It's funny how much you remember from previous years. I trained 8-10 times on the Wapack prior to my first visit in 2010 (had plenty of time on my hands I guess), then went into 2011 and this again this year cold turkey-style. I still, however, remembered virtually all the little twists and turns, the muddle puddles, which rocks to avoid and which side-trails to avoid. I knew that a long descent down to Miller State Park was close and that I should try to make up some time.

When I hit the aid station, the volunteers told me they were late and didn't get the first groups' numbers, but that Adam Wilcox left only 10 minutes prior to my arrival. This gave me some confidence, knowing that Adam is top notch and that I'm right on his heels. I fueled up quickly with water and the salt/potato mixture (which I used all day in fact) and hit the rocky section of South Pack Manadnock. I knew this section requires time and patience though. One misstep and your day (season) could be over. I realized my hiking skills have diminished during this section. I was moving but not as gracefully as I used to. Back in the day, my wife and I exclusively hiked and I felt this really helped me on the mountainous ultras. Now, I've only been running and haven't been able to get mountain-like runs or hikes in at all. Something to think about I guess.

Once I hit the top of South Pack, I knew I was getting closer to the turn-around on Mountain Road. A descent of South, then up North Pack and then back to the parking lot (sounds easy doesn't it....). I was slowly picking my way through some of the more technical trail on the Wapack when I ran into Ryan Welts. He was hiking back up South and didn't look good. An injury to his quad would end his day, but he seemed in good spirits as he had some great news waiting for someone back at the Watatic parking lot. On I plodded down South and the up North Pack now knowing that I had moved into fifth place.

photo courtesy of  Doug Weise

Around this time, I knew I'd be running into the 21 milers and was excited to see how my new running partner was doing. I met Jesse Veinotte about a month ago and we've gotten together a couples times every week since. He looked strong, possibly in the top 15 when I saw him and ended up taking the win by running a smart, well-planned out race. He mentioned that he passed the first, second and third place runners within the last four miles, running out many of the hills in the process. Nice work Jesse!!!!

I also got a chance coming off North Pack's summit to find out where I stood with the leaders. When Josh and Adam passed me I checked the time and realized I was about 30 minutes back of them after hitting the turn-around. I was about 20 minutes back of Eric and only 8 minutes back of Thomas. I knew with a quick transition at the aid station,  I could possibly put the jets and on hopefully catch Thomas. The plan was working perfectly until I hit the top of North Pack. I saw the big cairn, a trail that led nowhere to my left, the cliff trail marked with blue triangles to my right but no Wapack Trail. I nervously panicked and went left (twice...) and found dead ends. After 10 minutes, I finally found the Wapack. Dismayed and disgusted that I couldn't find my way, lost a bunch of time, and knew that others were closing in on me, I hurried off North Pack and vigorously power-hiked up South Pack.

Coming off South Pack and down to the Miller Aid Station could have been timed as PR for me. I pushed the limits (and my health insurance coverage) to the max by flying down the wet slick rock and muddy root infested trail. I hit the bottom only to find out that too many runners had passed through and nobody was really sure what time the 50 milers ahead of me went through. Oh well, just had to keep moving and remain positive. Up to this point, my body was holding up real well and I had no issues whatsoever. Actually, I felt strong the entire day, not really getting into a lull like in previous ultras I've run.

photo courtesy of Rick Blanchette

A quick power-hike back up Temple had me passing many of the slower 21-milers This gave me some incentive to see them in the distance then pick them off one by one.  Everyone, including people out on their day-hikes, were all very courteous. They would step aside and let me pass. We'd exchange "good lucks" and both move one step closer to the finish. During this section I really pushed it on both the climbs and the downhills. Much of this section is runnable all the way back to Windblown and after reaching the summits of Temple and Burton, there is a  really long descent down to Nashua Road. I ran this like I had zero miles on my feet and it felt super encouraging that I felt this way with almost 30 miles of tough trail running underfoot.

Upon reaching the Windblown aid station, I quickly asked the volunteers how far ahead the guy with "the bushy hair and pink socks was". They said he just left a minute ago and if I transitioned through quickly, I could catch him on the hill. I knew the "hill" they were talking about and had dreaded it since I had run down it many hours ago. This is a re-route that was created about two years ago. During my training sessions in 2010, I had remembered the original trail and it seemed much more of a gradual up/down hill than the one that was created. Just want to thank the kind soul that created this new section and maybe alert him to something called a switchback for next time!!!

The "hill" really took a lot out of me. I hit the top, conversed with few of the 21 milers on how "cruel" that hill was, and slowly began to work my way over to New Ipswich Mtn and then down to the pond. My body still felt good but my mind was faltering. In fact, after spending a good 8 hours alone (up to this point), I had thought about a lot. Running has taken its toll on me. It consumes me sometimes. Ok, maybe all the time. I spend the early hours of the work week running in the woods, work all day at school, then landscape till the wee hours of the night. If I get home early enough, I can read to my little girl and put her to bed. Some nights this works out, and sometimes I do not get to see her. That crushes me.

So when I came down the side of Watatic, took the left onto the carriage road, there she was in my mother's arms. "Daddy Up". That's all it took for me to end my day. Was I spent? For sure. Did I have enough to continue? No doubt. I had no desire to go on though. All I wanted to do was hold my little girl.

From that point it took me a good while to actually tap out of the race. I do not like giving up and not finish what I started. At that moment, however, I felt the choice I needed and wanted to make, was to stay with my family. Maybe all the miles and stresses I put on my body made me a bit sappy (I cried for a mile at least on the AT while running the 100 Mile Wilderness) but everything happens for a reason. We (my two sisters, my niece and nephew, mom, wife and daughter) all spent a good two hours just relaxing, cheering the runners on as they finished and enjoying the nice weather.

We also anxiously awaited Kristina Folcik's arrival upon her course record run. Ryan had told me after his injury out on the trail that he intended to propose to her after she finished. I let my family in on the secret and we were all excited to see the big moment. Everything went as planned and we couldn't be happier for the newly engaged.

photo courtesy of George Carmichael

All in all, a great day out on the Wapack Trail. Josh Katzman owns the new course record with a time of 9:03 and Adam Wilcox was right behind him at 9:20. Both were well under the old CR set by Bret Sarnquist of 9:57 in 2008. Although I dropped from the big race, I still had a 14 minute improvement over last year's 43 mile finish time. As always, my Tecnica Diablos took the punishment and abuse of the mighty Wapack and left my feet with ZERO blisters. These shoes are simply unstoppable.

What happens now you ask? Not sure. I've got my first graduate course starting in a week. My second child due in 3 weeks and just enough time to cut the lawn once and awhile.  The Wapack 50 was my first ever ultra back in 2010 and I'll have many fond memories of it. Will I ever come back? Not sure. Will I compete in ultras anymore? Not sure. Running, and ultra running in particular, has kept me sane over the past two years and I'm not sure if I want to give it up. Will I have the ability to train like I train now? Probably not.

The Vermont 100 is paid for in full and housing is secured, but who knows what kind of training I can get in over the next few months. For now, to wake up in the morning, to put on my shoes and to go for a run in the woods is all I've got planned. And for once, I'm fine with that.

Full results can be found here.


  1. Very nice Justin

  2. Padraig - Thanks so much and congrats to you on your finish!

    1. Damn and there's me trying to stay anonymous. Thanks and best of luck with the new arrival

  3. Great report, Justin! Wish I stuck around to see your finish.

    1. Thanks Jesse and congrats on your first place finish!!! Those early AM runs must be paying off!!!

    2. Thanks, they must be doing something.

  4. Always good to see you Justin and good work out there. Great meeting the family, and I think you've got the right mindset and eye on the things that are really important in life. Afterall, my boys don't care that I can run 50 or 100 miles (although we usually get ice cream after, so they may care!). They care more about me being there to watch them "be on fire" during soccer, or to find "roley-poley" bugs in our new backyard! You'll get 'er done in VT and then get to sit around for a couple weeks after that!

  5. You hit the nail on the head Josh. Thanks.

    PS. We're 3 for 3 on weekend ice cream trips. Looking to make it four out of the last four this weekend!!!