Nothing beats The Ridge

As far as soreness is concerned, this race compares favorably. It is now a full three days since I ran 17.5 miles up and over four mountains – twice – on Sunday. Today, going down stairs is quite tough and my quads are sore and achy.  I’ve been hitting the bottle (Aleve) quite regularly, though I’m not sure it does any good.

Full disclosure: I spent most of Monday moving boxes and furniture from my apartment into the the house my wife and I just bought. But I was sore when I woke up, before I even picked up the U-Haul, so I doubt my legs are any worse off today. My arms and back? That’s a different story.

Either way, Sunday represented my first race (and only the second of 2012) since my late-May marathon in Bennington. I have been running quite a bit this summer – even been to the track 2-3 times a month – and have been wondering, “What am I training for?”

Well, on the web I found a posting for a race called the Wapack Trail Race. I’d never heard of it, but decided to check it out online. The description said it involved running from New Ipswich, NH to Ashburnham, MA and back. The trail takes you over four mountains and includes 4,200 feet of elevation change.

Sounded tough, but it couldn’t be any worse than The Ridge, I reasoned.

When it comes to trail races, I will always compare my experiences to the Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run in Bozeman, Mont., which traverses the spine of a mountain range (The Bridgers). It’s 20 miles long – and it’s still the most excruciating race I’ve ever done.

And I “ran” it three times.

The Wapack is an out-and-back race (they also hold a 50-miler there in May) and I showed Sunday up just 15 minutes prior (got a little lost using mapquest) to pin on my bib number, knowing I didn’t really need to warm up since there was quite a bit of uphill “running” at the beginning.

The Ridge is a point-to-point race that begins at 7 a.m. and requires participants to rise at about 5 to hopefully hitch a ride (which includes about 7 miles on a gnarly, rocky and twisty dirt road) to the start. No warm-up is required for this race either: the first two miles are uphill to the first peak, which can take up to 40 minutes to complete. Again, that’s just the first two miles.

The Wapack does indeed start uphill, but gradually, and there’s a little down at the very beginning, just to get the blood flowing. It’s not a punch in the face like the start of The Ridge, but eventually, you’re huffing up hill. And doing a little walking.

The views along the Wapack are few and far between. That’s because there are lots of trees. Occasionally, during a clearing, you can look out and see for miles. There are lakes and leaves everywhere. At one point, about three miles in, I was near the top of a mountain and saw a sign that said “Outlook” and figured I was going to wrong way. “Outlook” usually also means you’re near a cliff or drop-off. I passed the sign anyway – someone right behind me did, too.

We were off-course, but it was nice to take in the view. As we headed back to try and find the trail, five other runners were approaching. I put my arms up as if to say “this isn’t right.” Soon, though, we were all back on the trail.

As for The Ridge, the views are stunning, since there are hardly any trees for the first 15 miles. That’s Montana for you; wide open spaces. That’s why it’s called Big Sky Country; you can see the sky for hundreds of miles in any direction. The thing with The Ridge is, you can’t enjoy the view. If you take your eye off the ground for a second, you’ll be tumbling over a rock. And since there are steep drop-offs on either side (thus the name The Ridge), there’s the risk of a major fall (i.e. death).

Oh, and The Ridge includes 6,000 feet of elevation gain and, the real killer, 9,000 feet of loss.

Back at the Wapack … once we found our way back on the trail, someone said, “now, the fun part,” as we started heading down. We twisted from one way to another, and there were lots of rocks. Not my favorite terrain. Yes, it was downhill, but I’m not great at descentions that are rocky. In fact, when it comes to trail races, I have a hard time picking something I excel at. I’m not a great uphill runner, I’m not a great downhill runner, and I’m certainly not anywhere near good at technical terrain. So what am I good at? Taking it slow and steady.

So I tiptoed my way down the Wapack trail, i.e. the “fun” part. It was a loooong downhill. My first thought was: this is not going to be “fun” going up.

There was a reward at the end of all that down: a fire road. A nice, wide, rockless (for the most part) and rootless dirt road. You could actually run here. After this stretch, there was plenty of downhill. But, that led to the turnaround – and right back up.

Well before hitting that final downhill, we went up for a bit. That’s when the leaders came running down – I mean flying down. They had no fear of the rocky, rooty downhill terrain. I guess that’s what makes a good technical runner: no fear. I’d rather go slower than break a wrist.

The Ridge also has a nice runnable spot. It’s after you come down from the first peak en route to the next one. It’s a little windy (wind as in watch), but you can really move there. Problem is, you go so fast that it’s not long before you’re headed uphill again. This is where there are large rocks that are more properly described as boulders. There’s none of that at Wapack, though there are lots of sections where rock is prevalent. But the rock surface is so long, it is easily handled. At The Ridge, there’s lots of small rocks and scree.

I took a count at Wapack. Falls: none. Near-falls: too many to count.

Fortunately, I didn’t fall. There seemed to be very few. At The Ridge, if you don’t come down the final stretch without numerous scrapes – or a broken wrist or ankle – you aren’t trying hard enough.

I enjoyed the out-and-back aspect of Wapack. Like usual, I was running by myself for long stretches. This is nothing new; I’m not speedy enough to be up with the elites, but fast enough to be ahead of the middle of the pack. The turnaround section allowed for some connection with other humans. We got a chance to say “way to go” to the runners coming the other way, or to just chat with those who were loading up at the aid station.

This camaraderie only lasted about 10 minutes, but it was nice to break up the monotony of all the walking we were doing. Yup, we were going back uphill. After we went up, I tiptoed back down to the fire road section where I knew I could do some actual running. And then the big hill hit.

After a brief rain shower, it started to get hot as I went up those hills. But eventually, I hit the top and actually passed two runners over the final two miles. I thought I could finish in under 3:30, but the slightly uphill finish proved difficult. Even the finish line was on an incline, the exact opposite of The Ridge, which has five miles of downhill at the end.

After crossing the line at Wapack in 3:35 in 28th place, I was beat. (The winning time was an impressive 2:41). I was happy to see plenty of Powerade and water – and a picnic table bench to sit on. My quads ached bad, but just sitting down was a relief. I didn’t snag any pizza until I guzzled 3 or 4 bottles of water/ade.

There were also plenty of cookies, brownies, pretzels, M&M’s (peanut flavor!) and other goodies to help refuel.

The Ridge’s post-race spread, however, can’t be beat. It’s held at 6 p.m., well after the race and allows everyone the chance to share in the glory after a long day on the mountain.

Both races were tough, but The Ridge is an absolute killer and will always be the measuring stick when it comes to mountain trail races. The Wapack, still, was enjoyable. I was glad I tackled it, despite my sore legs.

Speaking of The Ridge, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mike Wolfe nearly ran that thing in under three hours. For years, Scott Creel had the mark of 3:06, but Mike totally nailed it this past August. Some day the three-hour mark will fall. So impressive … I had trouble finishing in under 4:40.

I’m looking forward to getting out for a run later this week. A nice, easy, flat run. I think I’ll skip the track this week.


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