Northfield Mountain Trail Race
USATF New England Trail Championships
Saturday May 22, 2010
5.3 miles of mountain trails
Finish: 39:29 (7:26 pace)
30th Place Overall of ~300
7th Place M40-49 of 50
Total Ascent: ~1000 feet
When I decided to try my hand at mountain running, I had been so focused on elevation gain and getting myself trained to handle the climbing associated with it, that I never expected the most fun part, not to mention the most dangerous and challenging, would be the free-falling descents bombing down the mountain! But that’s exactly what it was like and what will bring me back for another go.
Northfield Mountain, site of the race, in central Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border was a two hour drive from home. The race, the first of six in the USATF New England Mountain Series, was also designated the USATF-NE Mountain Trail Championships. This meant that many of the region’s top mountain goats would be there ready to school this road runner looking for a new challenge.
Upon arriving at the Visitor’s Center and registering for the race, it was apparent that this was a hardcore group, not the kind that can be found at a local 5K. The talent was deep – we’re talking guys who are 2:30 marathoners, 30-minute 10Kers, 14-15 minute 5Kers – but no worries for me; this was a take-it-as-it-comes race. I was there for the experience. To call it a “race” was a bit of a joke. I was there to see what trail racing was about and to get in some climbing. I would run hard where I could, to be sure, but I would be tentative where I could not, taking it easy on the technical parts. A single misstep could mean a hundred foot tumble down the mountain. I didn’t need that.
After a warm-up with a few hill climbs and charges on the first half mile of the course, I joined 300 others for the start on a grassy area at the base of a cross-country ski trail. This, I knew, would be the lowest point of a course that climbed 1000 feet to the summit and back down. The only other details I knew about the course were that the trails would be a combination of ski trails, fire roads, hiking trails, and technical single track. How much of each I did not know.
I lined up at the starting line a row from the front. I didn’t see the need to wiggle up any farther because of the nature of the race. With so much climbing so early on, ability would be exposed, placement in the race set immediately. Hills have a way of doing that. And certainly the “hill” before me otherwise known as a mountain, Northfield Mountain to be exact, would ensure it.
The course started on a wide cross-country ski trail with pretty steady footing that weaved over rolling hills through forest with a net climb. I settled in at a comfortable pace and was able to move up in the race on each climb. And with each climb I kept wondering if I were taking them too hard. There was a lot of climbing left, I knew. When I found myself wondering if I perhaps went out too hard was when I realized that I not running comfortably at all – I was running as if a 5 mile road race. I was running smooth and fast but not comfortably.
After a half mile the cross-country ski trail dumped onto a fire road along a strip of power lines. This section was open, out of the woods, but deceiving with the amount of climbing. I was barely a half mile into the race and my heart was already way over redline, jack hammering away in attempts to keep up. I was already sweating, already holding on, and climbing a hundred feet here, down twenty there, one-fifty up, down 10. Too bad, I thought to myself, we didn’t run down this section. That would be fast! I would learn later just how fast that would be, as the course came back this way. But first there was more climbing.
At what seemed the top of this section along the power lines, the course went back into the forest for more uneasy footing with branches and leaves littering the trail. To my surprise, there on the side of the trail was a stake in the ground supporting a big “1” on top. I was so in the moment of the experience that Mile 1 (7:30) felt like it should have been 2 or 3 or even just a half mile. Time wasn’t registering, or maybe I was working so hard to this point that there was no energy to process the thought. I merely clicked my watch at the marker but did not look. I was running at potential. Pace, on a mountain, was meaningless. Maintaining placement was not.
From there the course went from fire road through forest back to open trail and finally onto technical single track that winded and twisted and rose and dipped and rose again, with a net climb of hundreds of feet. By this point there were very little moving positions. I was settled in just behind the top three women. The only passing now was of those walking, having gone out too hard. With my lungs now burning from all the heavy breathing, I feared I might wind up like them, too.
Before the race I had corralled what looked to be a couple experienced at trail running for some newbie questions. They had explained the course, told me that it was actually pretty fast, and taught me to break the course into two sections. It wasn’t a 5.3 mile trail race but rather a 2.8 mile climb plus descent. The hard work is on the ascent. “You can even cook yourself on the way up,” the wife offered, “because when you hit the down, it’s all different.” (The husband finished 5th overall while the wife finished 2nd women. I picked the right people!)
With this in mind, I knew the end was coming. Unfortunately toward the summit was the steepest part of the trails. Although I felt like I was crawling, nobody passed me, and those in front of me seemed to neither pull away nor come close. Feeling like death and barely moving, I had nothing left in my legs. I started wondering if I went out too fast. Still climbing, still not seeing a summit or a glimmer of clearing, the negative chatter in the mind took over. If I could barely survive a thousand foot climb in this race, how could I handle Mt. Washington?
During pre-race instructions, the race director had alerted us to an unmanned water stop at the summit, and that is exactly what I was looking for as the key to know the race was over – or at least the hard part.
When my heart felt as if it couldn’t beat any faster, there, finally, came the water stop. I had planned to blow right by it, but as it came near instinct took over. I stopped, sucked down a cup of water, and got back on. The race was spread pretty thin by now. And as I got back up to speed, it occurred to me that stopping was a bad idea. Now, having let those in front of me gain some distance, I had to pay attention to trail markings, something I hadn’t had to do much of until now.
The summit was anticlimactic. I had been expecting an open expanse overlooking a valley far below, but instead the only marker was that the single track trail was no longer climbing. Since it wasn’t descending just yet either I figured we were at a peak and soon to go down.
Down came quickly.
Over the next few miles the course descended along fire roads and open trails reminiscent of those along the power lines. With massive elevation loss over downs dropping fifty feet, up ten, down one hundred, steeply up 50 and down even more, momentum was building, speeds were escalating, and before long I was bombing down the mountain with a goofy grin on my face. I giggled thinking that I was probably running a three minute mile at that second. Back up slightly and down, down, down again, bombs away! Up, down, down, down hammering away the trail went.
I learned to let gravity suck me down faster and faster, and all I had to do was to keep my feet moving as fast as I could, and as long as the feet kept up with the body, I was good. I learned to eye the trail, trust the ground below, and constantly seek the most solid footing, shifting on the trail as needed. Bombing down in feel fall, with a little rise before the next bomb, I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. I was moving so fast that momentum would carry me half way or more up the next little rise, something I have only experienced on the bike, using momentum to hammer up the next hill before streaming back down the other side. Yet here I was bombing the mountain, using momentum to carry me up and over the next little rise before bombing again. It was dangerously fun.
Mile 4 (24:57 – 8:19 pace) came and with it came a return to the open fire road along the power lines, only this time we were descending it like a bobsled sliding down an icy track.
Covering the last 1.3 miles in 5:23 pace doesn’t do justice to the actual speeds I was running. Although I would take a 5:23 pace in a race any day, 5:23 was over 1.3 with a massive down but yet still many long ups. I went from running three minute miles, or so it seemed, to twenty-three minute miles in the order of seconds. Those sections were so fast that the ups barely registered.
Over the last 1.3 miles I closed the gap on the three ahead of me, passed two others who obviously went out far too hard (passed them as if they were standing still), and bombing back into the forest onto cross-country ski trails and into the finish for 39:29 finish, good for a 7:26 pace over 5.3 miles, 30th place of 300 overall and 7th of 50 in M4049.
1 – 7:30
4 – 24:57 (8:19)
5.3 – 7:01 (5:23)