TARC Fells Winter Ultraaaugh

Longer races are harder for me to keep straight in my head (maybe something to do with the blood getting shunted to my legs and away from my brain?) but here’s my recap.

I had this race on my bucket list since I moved back to New England from Atlanta in 2016. It’s a wonderfully low-frills event hosted by the Trail Animals Running Club at the Middlesex Fells Reservation; Race entry fee is like $20 plus a food item for the potluck style aid station. The course description on Ultrasignup touts it as “a nightmarish course of rocks and roots with a bit of elevation thrown in”.

Now, you might say to yourself “pshh this is Greater Boston…how gnarly can it be?”

This gnarly. This is how gnarly it can be.

Actually, that section is not so bad, considering the roots and rocks there aren’t hidden under slick leaves. Also, this race is held in December…in New England…there is always the very REAL possibility that everything could be under a sheet of ice or a foot of snow or soaking wet and muddy on top of all that technical stuff. After all, it had already snowed a couple times in November, and Thanksgiving Day set record low temps in the single digits. Oh yeah and that “bit of elevation”? Well, the highest point on the course is MAYBE 200′ above sea level (after climbing up Wright Tower??) Yet over 40 miles you gain (and lose!) almost 7,000′. Let that simmer for a sec…

So anyway, I signed up. I had volunteered at the TARC Fall Classic and decided I liked these crazy masochists. I like how low key and low pressure the whole atmosphere is. I dig how the races start off with a Yeti howl. I also love how with this loop course, you can choose which direction you want to go. It allows for some more strategic planning.

I love thinking about strategy for a race. I stopped by the trail once over the summer to do a recon loop on my way home from Logan airport, and was pleasantly surprised by the difficulty. I had heard that most people go clockwise on the trail since it is better marked, but I also heard that going CCW would allow me to see steeper climbs and more gradual descents. This bit of info is only useful if you happen to know what your strengths are. Lucky for me I figured that out with a season of running mountain races. I had the loose plan of starting CCW…until the RD’s safety briefing where he basically said that CLOCKWISE is well marked. If you decide to take a right at the start of the loop….good luck. (Or was that a “you’re fucked”? 🤔)

There was another lady next to me at the start line that said “oh hey, you’re in it for the long haul too” pointing to my green bib. I didn’t recognize her, but I smiled and said good luck. I had no idea she would lead the race for almost 4 of the 5 loops! Or that she was also hunting the course record!

Patrick Caron, David Sinclair, this unknown lady, and a few other guys shot out of the start. I had planned on hanging back to tag along with any brave or knowledgeable or maybe just plain stupid folks who also decided to navigate CCW. No need to rush the first few miles when I’d be out here for 40. I knew the stats. I knew the splits of the fastest women’s times. I knew it would be smart to hold back a little since the course would likely pulverize legs by the fifth loop. I also knew that I was very lucky to have great weather and course conditions, and I shouldn’t do anything stupid to jeopardize my chances of a course record.

First loop went well! Glad I had a small pack to run with. They pointed out some tricky spots where it was easy to lose the trail. The pace felt irritatingly slow so I have no idea how we came through in anything under 1:20. I was in and out of the aid station, just refilling my handheld and grabbing 2 more Honeystinger gels.

The second loop? Fuck. My second loop was alone. I added on about 10 minutes and almost close to a mile. “Why the F@&$ did I go this way?!” Oh well. I made the attempt to burn each turn into my brain once I figured them out. Finished lap 2 in just over 2:40. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep this pace? Maybe I can get under 7 hours? Then I forced myself to stop and think about what I was doing. I had to be more careful and avoid going off course. 2 more gels, some chews, and tailwind. Then headed out on loop 3.

Around mile 17 I had a revelation. It came about the same time I nearly bashed the back of my head in on some rocks. I was running down a steep hill covered in leaves and gravel and legit SURFED for a few feet. I think I yelped. Maybe peed my pants for a little. I saw some very bad things in my future. But….I recovered. I found my feet under my body once again. In all of this excitement I nearly paused my watch. My watch! What a fucking idiot! My watch was an invaluable tool for creating maps and tracking! WHY WASN’T I USING IT ON LAP 2?!?! The near perfect first lap showed me exactly where I needed to go to stay on the trail. I felt like a genius. I would have felt even smarter if o could have figured out how to make it stay on the map screen 🙄

Lap 3 went well enough after figuring that hack out. 4:09 to finish 24ish miles. Patrick Caron was just finishing his 50k. More tailwind, the last of my gels (HoneyStinger Gold was amazing in these cold temps. I like the thinner viscosity). Some bananas and I scolded some people for not taking a Ring Pop yet 😂

^ my contribution to the TARC-luck.

Loop 4 and I was in a better mind set. Going CCW, I was headed in the opposite direction of most of the field. It was amazing. I smiled every time I saw someone and cheered people on the whole time.

Around mile 28 people started saying “go get her”. Go get her? Go get who?! Was that lady at the start ahead of me? I was on course record pace! Is she actually running the 32 mile? Will I get the CR but not the win??

I got a little anxious. But there was still a lot of running left. If anyone was ahead of me I figured they would have to fade in the 12ish miles. I did my research on entrants and didn’t recognize anyone that I should worry about. More people passed. I managed to keep my smile. They told me I was crushing. I picked up the pace a little. It was so hard to tell who was leading when you can switch directions!

I saw the lady from the start (Jessie Donavan) climbing up the hill to Wright Tower. “That HAS to be her!”.

I powerhiked up. Stuffed my face as I maneuvered around rocks and roots. Tried to keep her in my sights.

More people were coming down the hill going clockwise as I was climbing. “You’ll get her”

I crested. It sounds stupid but I was tempted to take a picture at the top. “Now the race starts” I had a hunt. It made me nervous but I was confident. She would push me to run faster. To lower the record further.

Somewhere around mile 30, we ran together for a few minutes. She confided that she ran loop 1 CW and then started CCW but kept getting lost. “Maybe I’ll try to follow you for a bit”. Maybe. Maybe I will lose you after these next few tricky turns.

I kept pushing the pace. Trying to get around corners before she saw me. Up and down the hills. Turn the corner onto the flat trail back to the aid station. I high fived the Yeti coming back. “69!” I yelled (that was my bib…it was awesome yelling 69 all day). Finished loop 4 at 5:35. David Sinclair has just finished his 5th loop. Holy poop those guys were fast!

I saw Jessie coming in to finish her 4th loop about 4 minutes later, as I was heading back to the Skyline Trail for my last orbit. I’d look back a couple more times during my last 8 miles, but never saw a sign of her.

By about 6 hours, there weren’t many folks left on the course. 12 people dropped from the 40 miler (only 19 people actually finished) and a lot of the 32 milers were done. Loop 5 was pretty lonely. I wasn’t seeing as many people out on the course. I started moving slower. I wanted to be done. I just wanted to get home to my family. At one point….I wanted to lay down on the stupid rocks and cry myself to sleep. What a low. Nobody saw that. I did realize that quitting wouldn’t get me home any faster though. I also realized I should just keep moving forward. The CR and win weren’t really motivating me at that point though. I just wanted to get back to Skylar and Elvis. My feet hurt from all the stupid rocks. But I kept putting one in front of the other. Up to Wright Tower once more, then just a couple miles to the finish. I finally got to what I called the hopscotch rocks, leading to the turnoff from Skyline back to the Fallon Rd parking lot.

I made that right turn and started smiling again. I could feel 6 minute pace in my legs.

I WAS ALMOST DONE!

Last 1/4 mile felt like flying. I was so excited to go home and eat questionable leftovers from Thanksgiving.

I was greeted by the RD Jeff LeBlanc at the finish. Got a trail blaze (which now gives me PTSD of sorts every time I look at it) and an adorable baby yeti. I tried to thank as many volunteers as I could before heading out, but I was anxious to start the drive home.

My daughter was happy to put baby Yeti in our Christmas tree. She doesn’t know how hard I may have worked for that little guy.

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