The Kettletown 50k

The Kettletown 50k

Up, down, and round-around….

I was struggling to keep moving up a near vertical slope studded with rocks.  My heart hammering. My legs complaining. My breathing ragged.

I’d already fallen down 3 times my Hokas catching on the rocks.  The vertical was way worse than I expected.  On a scale of 1-10 I’d give it an 8+.  Over 1,000 feet of gain in every 10K loop.  Single path through granite rock piles.  Hand over hand climbs in places.

I thought to myself, “I’m not even 20K into this race, there’s no way I’ll make 50K.”

I made a deal.  You know those deals you make.  I’d finish 30K.  I knew I could tough out another 10K even if my body failed.  If things were awful at 30K I’d pack up and head home.  I hadn’t trained for the race.  I had no real goal.  No dog in the fight, so to speak.  The stakes were very low.

Except that are the stakes ever that low in a race?

I hadn’t trained for a trail race.  Or a 50K.  I trained hard and ran Boston in April. Since then I had run the Groton 10K twice in one day, and run a few longish trail runs. But no specific training for THIS.

My biggest fear was that my legs would go.  I didn’t have the requisite volume on my legs and I figured if something was going to go it would be the legs.  Technical trails use a different set of muscles and fascia then road marathons.  I was thinking about how hard I had cramped  in the final mile at Wapack last year – and that, while just as technical and vertical as this race was only 30K.

I was bored.  That’s how I got into this.  I had originally planned to climb some of the local mountains as a nice summer cross training alternative. My training plan was to keep my running casual and on the trails the rest of the time.  My spring training cycle was outsized on the stress and time requirement and I was looking for an easy summer to rekindle the romance.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that the snow doesn’t leave the mountains in New England until the end of June.  I started thinking what I needed to forestall the inevitable pivot into a month of sloth was a reasonable goal of some sort.

It dawned on me that a nice long trail race would be just the thing.  And, hey while we’re at it, I’ve never run a 50K.  And, I don’t have a Connecticut marathon on my 50 states list!  (It’s this kind of reasoning on my part that leads to adventures both good and bad.)

My light, pernicious fingers danced across the keyboard turning whimsy into reality.  Lo and behold here was this trail 50K in only 2 ish hours down the highway from me!  Fate danced its naughty dance and I was locked.

I did notice that the course profile looked a little dicey, but, hey, how hard could it be?

My engine was good.  I had 18 months + of solid aerobic base.  That wouldn’t be a problem.  No, if something was going to go it would be the legs.

I figured I’d just take it easy and hike enough of it to finish.  The course was a convenient 10K loop.  Actually, a 10K 2-loop figure eight.  With the first side like 4k and the second half like 6K.  This meant that you pass the starting area 10 times in the 50K.  I wouldn’t have to worry about carrying too much stuff and I could position a drop bag and a cooler.

Very low risk.

And since misery and foolishness love company I asked Teresa if she wanted to ride shotgun and try one of the shorter distances.  She readily assented. She’s a gamer that girl.

We got up around 5ish for the drive down.  I wore my Hokas, my Brooks baggy shorts with the liner and a bright orange tech shirt from the Wapack trail race – to make it easier to find the body.

I pre-mixed one bottle of Ucan to pre-load some nutrition before the race on top pf my morning oatmeal and coffee.  I wasn’t planning to use any Ucan during the race.  I had another strategy.

I knew I would need fuel of some sort.  I also knew I’d be going slow enough that I could eat almost anything.  I also knew I didn’t want to load up on any industrial, sugary nastiness like gels or sports drink.

This might be a challenge in a long race where you have to consider portability into the equation, but here, in this race with the convenient stopping point only 6K distance at most, I could set up a barbeque if I wanted.

Barbeque is not a good distance fuel.  Neither is clam chowder.  But Green smoothies are.  I would mix up a few bottles of green smoothie and stick them in the cooler.  That way I could load 12 ounces r so up every 10k.  That would be a couple hundred calories of good, natural energy. Plus it would support recovery.

Get some of that natural goodness into my gullet.

I packed a bag with extra hats, shirts, socks and anything else I could think of.  I made some incredible green smoothies and put them into 24 oz water bottles in my cooler.

They said they would have water on the course, so I brought a single bottle that I could re-fill.  They also said that they would have Endurolytes on the course, so I didn’t need to carry those either.

I told Teresa the over-under on falling down was 2.  I was way off.  I ended up faceplanting 5 times, once quite badly on my rib cage.

We found our way to the state park in plenty of time.  It was right off 84 outside of Hartford. We went and picked up our stuff and chatted up the race director.

The weather had called for sunny and 70’s, but it was overcast and spitting rain when we got there.  Not bad. Great running weather.  Nice and cool.  I dropped my bag and cooler in the transition area reserved for the ultra-runners.

Looking at the signup sheet there were less than 20 souls signed up to go the distance.  There were four in my age group.  High likelihood of finishing in the top 3!

The start/finish area was on a flat bit of ground in a cleft between the two loops next to a pond.  The pond was one of those shallow dirty things created by damming a brook.  Typical state park fare.

The first loop climbed quickly out of the start, and looped around the back of a ridge on old farm roads.  By old farm roads I mean a double path trail in the forest.  Totally enclosed by the trees.

The second loop followed the brook for a ½ mile before heading up around the back of another ridge, more like a small mountain, then coming back down the front to the brook and back.

The finish was across a nice wooden bridge down a wide crushed rock path.  It was a fantastic way to finish.  You could really relax and put some speed on after an hour of rock-hopping in the woods.  Checking my pace on the Garmin, even in my high mileage laps, I was moving right along when I came into that transition area.

They started the 50K, and 30K people first to give us a head start over the 5K, 10K and 20K.  (Teresa opted for the 20K).  Milling around the start, as usual, I was chatting up the ‘crowd’ and met one of my old Daily Mile connections Mike. I did a quick role call and realized there were very few people going 50K.  Probably a full half of the people DNS’ed or dropped to a shorter distance.

We were off.  The course rises right sharply out of the start so my heart rate was screaming as I tried to keep up with the pack.  I found some guys who were dong a reasonable speed and hung with them as best I could.  Of course, none of them were going 50K.

I knew I couldn’t hold that effort level so I did that thing that I do where I keep saying I’m going to slow down, but don’t.  I hooked up with a marathoner from Minnesota who was also hanging off the back of the pack. We talked about Grandma’s.

We got passed by the shorter race leaders about 2K into the first loop.  I was having fun talking to folks and yelling “All Day!” when people passed me.

The trails were a mixture of single path and double path.  Lots of rock gardens and a couple streams to hop over.  The first 4K loop climbed a couple hundred feet as it circled around and over a ridge and then dropped back into the start area.  We blasted through that first loop with no problems but I was working way too hard.

The second loop followed a sort of fisherman’s’ walk.  It was a path along the brook, very rough and eroded and full of roots and trees and rocks.  Then the trail circled up and up around another ridge. On the back side, it slowly climbed for a bit then went insane vertical with rocky switchbacks and rock piles.

This topography was kicking my ass. That slow ramp up to the vertical bits wasn’t steep enough for me to stop running.  When I hit the switch backs and the hard stuff I was already in debt and suffered badly on those first two loops until I figured it out.

At the 10K transition I swapped out my hat for a dry one.  It wasn’t hot but it was oddly humid and I was working too hard.  I told the guy from Minnesota to go ahead because I was going to try to slow down.  I drank my first 12 Oz of smoothie.  Yum.

Then I looked around for the Endurolytes.  They didn’t have the capsules that I’m used to.  They had the fizzy tablets that you throw into your bottle.  I was game and plop, plop, fizz, fizzed a couple into my filled-up water bottle.

This was a bit strange but not debilitating.  The one thing was that as the tablets fizzed it built up pressure in my bottle and it would leak until I either vented it or they stopped fizzing.  It took 10 minutes or so for them to peter out.  This mixture was a bit strong for me, but I was able to refill and dilute it when I crossed the transition area in the middle of the figure 8.

For those first 10 minutes every time I’d go to take a drink my bottle would open like a whale breaching.

They seemed to have worked.  Or maybe it was the smoothies. I never cramped.  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never did.

Then in that second loop was where I was when I made a deal with myself to call it at 30K.

I was also starting to feel some foot issues.  I had committed a distance mistake in the first couple K.  I went to jump one of the streams.  My foot slipped off a wet rock and I ended up dunking my right foot.

The road Hokas don’t drain very well.  I ended up running those verticals with the wet shoe and sock and was starting to feel my right toenail catching.  Classic black toenail mistake.  Coming down those steep verticals at the end of 20K I could feel that toe slipping and sliding and slamming into the front of the toe box.

I knew how this ended if it wasn’t attended to.  But, fortunately I was When I got to the 20K transition I took some time, taped that toenail down and got a dry pair of socks, (and another dry hat for good measure).  I also reapplied lube in some chaffing places on my undercarriage.

I headed out into that 3rd, and, maybe final loop.

But, then things changed.  Going into that 3rd loop I was now all alone in the woods.  Without people around me I could slow down and do more structured hiking.

After 2 loops, I had also learned my lesson on the ‘hard’ side of the course.  Instead of running that shallow approach, I switched to a run-hike cadence to keep from going into debt.  Then when I hit the vertical I wasn’t wasted and could manage it.

Bottom line, I trotted into the 3rd transition feeling great.  I had been out for 3 and ½ hours, but I felt great.  I was 18 rocky miles and 3,000 feet of elevation in and I felt great.  Plus Teresa was there and she had run well and was in a good mood.

Dammit!  Now I had to honor the deal.   I was actually disappointed that I felt so good.  Now I had to go the distance.  I wasn’t going to stop at 40K.  What sense would that make?

What do I mean by I felt great?  My head was clear.  My energy was level.  And my legs were fine.  Like a Sunday jog kind of fine.  I found my rhythm and now it was just a day in the park.  My foot care was excellent and timely.  The dry socks and tape had done the trick.

This vertical bit on the back side was probably 700 feet of elevation gain in 2k.  The trail was single path and technical. In places, it ran right through giant piles of granite chunks.  Someone asked me to describe it later and I said it was like some rock giant took a big rock crap on top of a mountain.

There is something strange when you look at your watch and it says something surreal like 5 hours.  And you think, “Huh, 5 hours.”  And there I was alone in the woods.

It was a beautiful day.  Every once in a while the sun would poke through the tree cover and light up a patch here and there.  I was all alone.  I began to sing out loud to myself.  Mostly Grateful Dead songs.  But, I also ironically sang ‘Going the Distance’, by Cake.

Every once in a while, I’d pass someone hiking or walking their dogs.  I’d say ‘hi’ to the dogs.  I like dogs.  In the last loop I passed an older couple hiking and they said “I thought the race was over?”  I couldn’t argue with them.

I developed some edema in my right hand.  My fingers were swelling up.  I thought it might be my Garmin being on too tight, so I loosened it and that seemed to help.  Edema is a tricky thing because it is a symptom of both not enough salt and too much salt.

When you’re on these technical trails you have to keep your head down and eyes on the trail.  In loop course like this one you start to see the same things each time around.  There was a dead mouse in the trail on the switch backs.  Probably coughed up by some owl.  It became one of my landmarks.

There were these giant centipedes.  More than 2 inches long.  Like something out of Jurassic park that were trucking across the trail as the day warmed.  There was an historic marker which I indulged myself to stop and read on the 4th loop.  Apparently the early settlers had established a charcoal production site here a couple hundred years ago.  Slash and burn.

I got lapped by the 50K leaders coming into the figure 8 transition around 42K into the race.  Two guys flying past me and back out for their last lap.  I still had another loop!

When I came through the 40K transition Teresa was there chatting with the course directors.  Someone asked me incredulously “Are you going out again?” I was confused.  Didn’t I make the cutoff?  Yes I’ve got one more lap.

Teresa asks me How are you feeling?”

I say “Legs are good!”

Then she asks, “How’s your GI?”

I say, “GI is fine. A little rumbly in the tumbly but nothing serious.”

I shouldn’t have tempted the gods.  As soon as I’m out of the transition my oatmeal breakfast hits me like that scene from alien and I have to scamper off trail to find a tree.  I considered going back to the transition, but hell no, I’m not retracing my steps at this point.

I’m a bit sweaty at this point having been on the trail for almost 6 six hours.  There isn’t a good leaf selection, but I’m far into the race to care much.  There is something very ultra about trying to run while picking leaf litter out of your butt crack.

I did fall down 5 times.  Once quite badly.  There was a woman running close to me at the end of the 30K loop.  I had passed here before but I think she repassed me in my long transition at 20K.  I was faster hiking up the hills then she was.  But she was a great downhill technical runner and outdistanced me bouncing down those rock gardens.

Twice, when I pulled up to within sight of her I caught a toe and went down.  It was because I had my head up and was watching her.  The second time I planted sideways on a big rock right into my right side.  I think I bruised a rib.  It still hurt a couple weeks after.

When I passed her the first time she told me she was going 50K.  But then she bailed at 30K.  Everyone bailed at 30K.  The guy from Minnesota DNF’ed.  I ended up coming in 6th out of 7 finishers.  I was 2nd in my age group…out of 2.

The two front runners came in around 5:30.  I trotted across the finish an hour and a half later at 7 hours and 41 seconds.  There was one guy behind me about a ½ hour who made the cutoff and another that didn’t.

It was a long day, but I felt fine.  Right through the end.  I even gave it a bit of a kick in through the finish.

I waded into the pond to see if I could wash some of the sweat and muck off my body.  They warned me that the bacteria count was high.  I did have some raw spots and didn’t want to come down with that flesh eating crud.

Teresa and I toweled off and changed to get as comfortable as possible for the drive home.  My undercarriage was a bit tender from the chaffing, but other than that I was no worse for wear.

The next day, Sunday, I was out doing yardwork and moving around nicely.  No leg soreness at all.  My biceps were sore from carrying the bottle and swinging my arms for 7 hours.  My back and chest was sore from whatever I did to my ribs.

I was still sore Monday and Tuesday and ran again on Wednesday.

I quite enjoyed my peaceful 7-hour hike in the woods in Connecticut.  I set a 50K PR.  And I guess PW at the same time.  I did not find the distance that difficult coming off a hard road marathon cycle.  I think the green smoothie idea was a winner.

I didn’t die.  I got to make some memories with Teresa.  I didn’t have to get on a plane.  I didn’t have to stay in a hotel.  My kind of low-overhead adventure.

Now let’s see how that snow is coming along in Tuckerman’s Ravine.

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