“There are steep hills, with sharp rocks and plenty of roots and then, when you least expect it, a ledge pops up that you need to jump off. There will be walking.”
— Runner’s World —
Again, I came to the race parking lot with sky water dripping onto my shoulder. Man, what is up with my 2016 races, hope this won’t be a norm for the rest of the year. I signed up this race for a training run, coach said that I needed to train on my pace and more importantly training for my hike.
The race follows the New England National Scenic Trail (NET) in a westerly direction from Route 116 at the Notch in South Amherst to Old Mountain Road in Hadley and then retraces the route back to Route 116. The single-track trail is marked with white, rectangular blazes. 12 miles of technical, single-track trail on an out-and-back course with over 3,500 ft. elevation gain, following the ridge-crest of the Mt Holyoke Range. It’s widely considered the most challenging trail race in the Northeast… and in our humble opinion… it has the most beautiful views.
Be Patient Grasshopper
Since I signed up this race about a week before, so the only open wave was 5, the last wave. I had no idea about the course, and probably this could be my first race in Massachusetts state. I knew that the elevation changes could be much more than TNF Bear Mountain half marathon that I did the last week. But what I didn’t know, until I talked with one of the runner in the am, he said that it would be technical, which was my favorite.
We started probably 15 minutes later than the elites, and the rain was getting heavier. This time, I was using my single bottle Orange Mud vest, so I could use my hand for hiking or climbing, and I didn’t use my rain shell, just stashed it in the pack. I put a about 300-400 calories into my 600 ml bottle, and since the Tailwind would be in the aid station, I could always refilled it.
We started the race straight up to the Bare Mountain loosing rock ascent. Right away, I was huffing puffing from jogging it up. I didn’t really pushing it hard, somehow I had a feeling this race would be a tough one. I think there was a kinda of roots climbing already, before the first mile in. Then I got a small break to the next hill, not steep hike but it didn’t mean that it was a running in the central park. Right after the rolling hills to the Mt. Hitchcock peak, there was a section where I did jumping over a crossing pipe, the course turned to left and went down over a steep rocky terrain along the pipe. There was the bottleneck started where the runners cautiously walked down the trail. As usual, I didn’t have a patient to standing around and wait, so when I saw an opening, I jumped around and passed them from the side. Since the course didn’t get any easier, it kept going up and down, and they were always steep, slippery mud, sleek rock and/or steep rocks. A little by a little I started to catch up with the earlier wave group. Slowly on the uphill and flew down on the downhill. I was having a blast, like a kid in kindergarten playground.
After we crossed the street on the second aid station, the course was going up on a short stairs. And not too long, I think we started to a lot of big boulders and steeper rock. I started to find groups of people with the same pace, it was kind of cool finally I could just follow foot steps, tho they were still too cautious on the technical downhill. There, probably around mile 5, where I met the 1st runner, who was going back to the finish line. Probably only a minute or less, Brian Rusiecki was shadowing him. Then, we ran over a small sleek rock hill where I saw a big white house. Not sure what it was but we had to walk through it, and yeah we were not allowed to run in this section. According to one of the volunteers, it was a look out spot. But unfortunately, it was rainy and foggy day, so we barely see anything more than 300 meters away. After I got back on the trail, I met a local runner that share the same interest on how run over technical trail, I think his name was David. We passed each other and passing the others on the downhill pretty aggressively. It was fun to have a partner in crime on this kind of race, made me feel less guilty. I remember, one of the other runner called him “downhill demon” or something like that.
Then we hit a long rocky downhill between trees and carpets of mud. The gravity took me away and I didn’t against it. At one point i couldn’t stop and went off a few meters away from the course and then had to do a hand break over a tree. Unfortunately the trees has a small stump came out and puncture my palm. My first stigmata I guess.
7 Sisters Has Too Much Siblings
After I checked how bad was my stigmata for a sec, I kept descending fast again. I saw there was a structure in the distance, maybe a mile away, which looked like a factory in the first person shooter game. I thought it would be the aid station and turn around point. Fortunately, I was wrong. I got down through the hill and there were the aid station with line of people on the side cheering. There were tons of runners who were swarming the table, like a horde of ants found a cube of sugar. I did not want to stick in this madness, so I just grabbed 2 pieces of banana cuts, and got back up to the trail immediately. I ate the bananas while I was hiking up. I remembered when I ran down this hill previously, I thought it would be sucked to hike this section, and sadly I was right. It was just long slippery mad, steep sleek rock, and with roots that tried to grab my ankles here and there. Slowly but sure I did my fast hike. The downside of this race was, we had to share the small technical single track with other runners from the other direction. I think one point when I climbed and jumped onto a higher rock, I was that close to step onto a runner head that just popped out from the other side of the rocks. Whoopsy.
After I passed the Mt. Holyoke house and the aid station on the Mountain Road, I was lost in the bliss of trail running. Fast hike, ran the downhill, easy pace on the flat, and repeat. Suddenly I was running through the last aid station that located at the bend of sharp (kind of) right turn. I think, what was next that we were running to the Mt. Hitchock area. It was kind of brutal. It just went up and up and up. And most of them were not easy, my hand was constantly on the hips/knees to assist my pace on the hike.I remembered at one point I doubted myself that I could not keep this pace anymore, or even kept standing. But the training hikes that I did over the winter, started to kick in I guess. I just sucked it up and kept moving, focusing on my hike and breathing rhythm. I thought the 7 Sisters meant 7 hills/peaks, but at this point I had lost my count how many ascent that I did. One of the runner told me that this Bare Mountain would be the last pitch, but I told him I chose not to count on it. After a few more climbs, I could feel my right quads was in the brink of cramping out, and it took me a few seconds longer for me to recover after every climb, but I just forced my legs kept moving, I tried to focus on my form and the pace just came with it naturally.
I started to hear the festivity, though there was no visual sign where was it come from. Then I saw a volunteer directing us to make a sharp left on the downhill, and I started to recognize the area, specially the street that running parallel with the trail. I heard the footsteps approaching me from behind, and my ego started to kicked in. I had not been passed since the starting line, and I would not definitely want to be passed at the end. So I ramp up my pace on this last winding trail, and he/she was still on my background sound. Then we hit the last stretch on the pavement, and I just sprinted it out.
It was a rough fun day. I had not had that much fun on the trail, not sure since when. Even not like this at the Bear Mountain Half last week. My legs were dead jelly, but it was worth it. I might not (able) run as fast as I did at the Bear Mountain, I was trying to safe a little fuel in my tank not until I knew for sure I was close to the finish, but I was really satisfied nevertheless.
At the finish festival, they had a small yet too many food to be picked on. I made too many rounds from fruits, hot chocolate, cookies, pizza (amazingly good), plenty tailwind, donuts, and too many to remember. The local runners were very friendly, I went there by myself, but everyone was swung by and I made a new trail friend there. This race would definitely went in to my cool races bin.