Northfield Mountain Trail Race
USATF New England Trail Championship
Mountain Series Race #1 of 6
Saturday, May 21, 2011
10.3K (official – no chip)
1300 feet of climbing
45:14 (pace: 7:04)
46th Place Overall of 225
13th Place Age Group M40-49
The day finally came for a few hundred New England area mountain runners. It was the Saturday of the first race in the USATF New England Mountain Series at Northfield Mountain. You could sense the anticipation of the beginning of the series, and really the unofficial beginning of the summer, for the vibe in the air was knowing and friendly, a family reunion of fellow Mountain Goats. It was good to see everyone.
Northfield Mountain Trail Race is fitting for a first race of a long, grueling series. The course is 10.3K, roughly 6.4 miles, and makes an ascent to the mountain summit along gentle fire roads. The race gets difficult, with 1300 feet of total climbing, but the grade is manageable and footing remarkable, especially compared to the races ahead. The fun part for me is always bombing down the mountain at two minute mile pace. Wee. Bomb’s away!
After hugs and handshakes with friends, some who I hadn’t seen since the series wrapped up last year, I warmed up two miles on a fire road seldom traveled. A few climbs later, I was ready and lining up at the start.
Part of what makes these races so much fun is that it is the same great group of people coming out to each race. In addition to being friends, we also learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we even form friendly competitions — a race within a race.
Paul Kirsch is that person for me. A great guy I am honored to call friend, he is far stronger than me on the ups (climbing) while I, ever the road runner, nudge him on the downs. Since mountain races typically start at the base of the mountain, clmib to the summit (his strength), and bomb back down (my strength), we have a friendly joke of guessing when on the way down I will come by him. Some races, with just up, I will never catch him — I will instead watch him pull slowly away. But on this type of race, it is a matter of time before I come hunting.
This is exactly what Paul and I joked about as we took our spots in the starting line. Not long after, the race was started. With the race segmented evenly into a 3.5 mile climb and the rest down, it was only the first part — the climb — I had to worry about.
Climbing is physical. Bombing down the mountain is mental.
Which means the first part is the hard part. And it got hard. Quickly.
By mile 1, with the grade on the clean fire roads even and gentle, my heart rate was already tapped. I was breathing on edge but otherwise holding strong. I had wished that my breathing wasn’t so labored for my perceived pace, but with the difficulty increasing by the step, I didn’t have energy to waste on such thoughts. It was all focus. On breathing… not too deep. And on stride… not too long. Ignore other runners. Run your race.
But I couldn’t ignore three runners, all friends, up ahead still in sight: Paul, Jeff, and Abby. Paul is someone I must keep an eye on for overall series standings. Jeff is someone who can pose as a rabbit. And Abby, if I finish near her, I will run well.
By mile 2 many runners started coming back to me. But not my rabbits. In fact, Jeff slowly pulled away while Abby and Paul held even.
Through mile 3, with the course still ascending on a fire road, Jeff pulled away, far enoguh out of sight, while Paul and Abby gained some distance but were still within reach. During this time I made a pass of two. Race position was mostly settled; there would be little passing, either me of them or others of me. Sustained up hill climbs have a way of quickly settling the pack by ability, so there is very little passing.
Just as it was getting stupid difficult, the short path to the summit finally came into site. This meant that the hard part was soon to be over. I was very excited because I was able to pass another runner and gain back some time on Paul.
To the summit I went, stopped, grabbed water, and promptly headed back out, as the course immediately started its descent. Within a minute I pulled up to and past Paul. I grunted “hey” while he encouraged me to “Go get Chris.” Chris was not far ahead. I could see him.
On a mission, my goal now was first to catch Chris. Bombing down the mountain like a heat seeking missile, I knew right away that Chris would be caught, so then I shifted focus not to who was in front of me but rather of me running as fast as I could.
Flying down the mountain at what felt like two minute mile pace is not easy. Your body is falling as you, the pilot of the missile, move your feet as fast as you can in attempts to keep them under you. If your feet slow down even a touch, down you go. Eat dirt. My legs were flying!
Over the remainder of the course, as I flew, or maybe fell, down the mountain, I passed two more and started reeling in a group of 8. But by then it was too late for more passing. I ran out of room. Finish came in 45:14, good for 46th place overall in a stacked field.
I had forgotten just how fun these mountain races are and how awesome the people are. A family reunion, it was a lot of fun.
There was something else I forgot: how difficult these races are. What’s wild is that they are a magnitude more difficult than, say, your standard 10K road race, but what makes them far more bearable for me is that the focus required to keep motoring and to stay vertical makes the time seem to fly by. Whereas in many 10K road races you have a tendency to stay within your own head, these races thrust you into the moment with pinpoint focus.
Next up Wachusett Mountain!
1 – 6:46
2 – 7:09
3 – 9:18
4 – 8:13
5 – 6:03
5 to 10.3K – 7:43 (time, not pace)