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Bimbler’s Bluff 50k (or 52k, but who’s counting?)

25 Oct


(photo credit: Cindy Bourassa)

Well I certainly picked a doozy for my last big trail race of the year. Bimbler’s Bluff 50k(ish) in Guilford, CT is billed as “an off road foot race through several inter-connected woodland preserves in southern Connecticut. Consisting entirely of rolling forest roads or single track that can be extremely rocky, the course will provide a true test of the runner’s fitness and mental stamina.” It did NOT disappoint. I was feeling pretty confident in the days leading up to the race, but this course smacked me into reality.


Laura and I arrived at the venue just as the early starters were leaving the line. I almost wished I were one of them, getting an extra hour to do this reputedly tough course. But hey – how hard could it be? Some hills, some rocks, some more hills, some more rocks…bring it on. Grabbing our packets, which consisted of a bib, a car sticker (NICE!!!), and an epic race shirt, we headed back to the car to wait for our 8am start time. We high-fived fellow Striders and Trailmixers and shared well wishes with many other runners with whom we would soon be sharing an amazing journey. I love how small-town our trail running community is – everyone seemingly knows everyone and it feels like you can’t walk ten steps without hearing someone call your name and wish you good luck.


After a few pre-race announcements, the race director sent us off with a circuit around the football field, under the banner, and up the trail. The trail quickly turns to single-track and would get seriously bottlenecked without the lap around the field. I settled into a good pace, at the back of the mid-pack, and felt ready for the task at hand. After a couple of miles of gentle rolling trail with decent footing, the course crosses the road at our first checkpoint. We re-entered the woods and the next few miles are rolling single and double track with a nice stretch of gravel road. Here I fell in with another runner (Laura #2). We struck up a conversation and the trail seemed to just float on by. Up ahead of us I could see two runners that I knew, and we just kept them in sight as we motored along. At about mile 6 there was a sharp right-hand turn off the double track. All of a sudden, Laura and I were alone. I feared that the two runners ahead of us had missed the turn (which ended up being accurate). Since we were worried about the difficult trail ahead, we didn’t try to look for them and just kept pressing forward.


(photo credit: Colleen Singer)

A little while later we came upon a group of runners and fell in with them. We climbed the false summit just prior to the Bluff Head climb and dropped down to the mile 11 aid station. These were tough miles, making our way around rocks, navigating tricky footing, and climbing steep ascents and descents. Little did we know that the fun was just beginning. After loading up on goodies and fluids at the aid station, we began the REAL climb – a 20 to 40 degree incline that goes straight up to Bluff Head. I remarked to Laura that Mt Greylock is similar to this – for the whole first 3 miles. I kept that in my head as we climbed – at least this one was only about a half mile. Breathing heavily at the top, we stopped briefly to take in the view, not realizing that this WAS the Bluff, and then pressed on. When we figured out that that was the top, Laura went back and snapped a quick few photos and then quickly caught back up with me.


(photo credit: Laura LaRiviere)

The next few miles were on trails littered with baseball sized rocks covered in a carpet of leaves. Treacherous running for someone who has just climbed up what felt like the equivalent of Mt Everest. We did a LOT of walking through this section. It was frustrating, as we didn’t want to spend so much time not running, but we weren’t willing to risk injury in this remote section of trail. Running when we could and walking when we had to, we navigated this super-technical section as quickly as we dared. The trail turned to easier footing and a lot of downhill, so we made up a bit of time and even caught up to my friend David. We three ran the next few miles together, and soon we popped out on a dirt road by the horse farm that we could see from the top of the Bluff. It had taken us a couple of hours to get somewhere that would have taken 5 minutes as the crow flies. But since I hadn’t packed my parachute, the trail had to do.


(photo credit: Jennifer Bryant)

Crossing through more woods, we eventually came out on the pavement about a quarter mile from the mile 16 aid station. Oh my god, did it feel good to stretch out my legs!! I managed an 8:30 pace for that short quarter mile, but it did wonders for my psyche and my body. Again loading up on goodies and fluids, we were about to set off for the next section when David stopped and started stretching out a leg. I offered him some salt tabs, which he took, and we left the aid station at a walk. We crossed what should be a bog (but dry because of the drought) on some boardwalks and then the trail quickly turned steep again. Ugh, another nasty climb. Time to grit the teeth and just get it done.


Somewhere in the next few miles I dropped Laura and David and was running alone. I just kept plugging forward. The technical trail and steep climbs were taking their toll, but I was determined to finish in under 8 hours. I passed other runners, and other runners passed me. We exchanged a few words of encouragement to each other and kept plodding along. More rocks, a few more small hills, and then more rocks. I knew that eventually we’d be back on the trail home, and that section included the few miles of gravel road and a few miles of double-track. I kept dreaming of that section as I was getting very leg-weary and was beginning to fear a fall. Soon I passed a pond and a fellow runner assured me that the next aid station was just around the pond. Thank goodness he was right, because I had been seriously lacking in taking care of myself and desperately needed food.


Rolling into the mile 22 aid station was like striding up to a buffet. It was loaded with all the possible goodies a trail runner could want, and the volunteers stepped up their game by offering us homemade chicken soup. I can’t even begin to tell you how good that tasted!!! I chugged down a cup of orange soda, a cup of water, and then a cup of soup and grabbed some cookies and a half a banana for the road. The volunteers told us that it was a good eight miles till the final aid station, so I made sure I had plenty of water and stuffed a couple of bags of M&Ms in my pack. I headed back out on the final section, which included the much-needed double track and gravel road.


(photo credit: Colleen Singer)

The eight miles to the next aid station seemed to take forever. I flew down the gravel road, the double track, and the easier footing single-track. The technical parts of the trail were really beginning to trip me up, literally. I prayed that I would get to the finish line without falling. Twice in this section I saved a fellow runner from missing a turn, and was glad he was within shouting distance as it would have been soul-crushing to get lost at this stage of the game. I also came upon a couple of runners who had been lost several times and were almost out of water. This section really took its toll on everyone. Tired and ready for the torture to be over, we commiserated for a few minutes before they headed off down the trail at a much quicker pace than I could sustain at that point.


Finally the mile 30 aid station came into view. I got my bottles filled, had some soda and cookies, and texted my husband that I had 2.5 miles left to go and that I was wrecked. That was an understatement. I was also worried about Laura #1, as I had no idea where she was or whether she would finish the race under the time limit. Turns out she had dropped at mile 17, after seeing that second heinous climb. I felt bad. No one likes to drop out of a race, but considering how she’d been feeling I think she made a smart decision.


I think this was the lowest point in the race for me. I had been running alone for most of 10 miles. I was getting very tired, I was dehydrated and way under on my nutrition, and I knew I still had 2.5 miles of rolling terrain left to get through. All I could think about was moving forward, and I had been very reluctant to stop and get food out of my pack. I was now paying the price for that foolish decision. This last section saw a few tears, a few tantrums (thank god I was alone) and a lot of bad, bad words. Every time I thought I was done and the finish line was just around the corner, I was wrong. I don’t think two and a half miles had ever felt so far in my life. Finally, after what seemed like hours since I left the last aid station, I started to hear the finish line. As I began the final descent, I thanked the universe for getting me to the end safely and I couldn’t wait to see my husband. I hadn’t looked at my watch in a while because I knew I wasn’t going to get my goal of 8 hours, so I was surprised when I rounded the last corner and saw 8:16 on the clock. Not bad considering I’d been ready to call at a cab from that last aid station.


(photo credit: Rat Race Timing)

Overall, it had been a pretty spectacular day. The weather was gorgeous; the woods smelled like pine and fallen leaves, and I’d had wonderful company for most of the race. And the pint glass and beanie I got at the finish line were a sweet addition to my pile of swag. To all the volunteers who were out there for 10+ hours taking care of us and feeding us amazing goodies, to race director Jerry Turk who arranged a challenging trail for us to negotiate, and to Laura, David, and all the other runners I shared the trail with, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. A special thanks to Deb Livingston for her wisdom and coaching this past year – you made this an epic season!!!  And as always, I couldn’t have done this without the never-ending support and love I get from my amazing husband Joe. Its been a great year, and it was fun to end the season with the toughest of races!!!


Nipmuck Trail Marathon race report (or: the day I learned how to be a trail runner)

06 Oct

On Oct. 2, 2016, I ran the Nipmuck Trail Marathon put on by the Shenipsit Striders. The Striders have a wacky sense of humor and put a “high fall risk” sticker on the bibs of first time runners of the race. My main mission at this race was to prove this sticker wrong. Unfortunately, the sticker would turn out to be annoyingly accurate.


The race starts at Perry Hill Road in Ashford, CT and consists of two out-and-back sections. The first section goes south 6.2 miles to Rt 44. The race returns to Perry Hill Road and then goes north 7 miles to Boston Hollow before making the final return to the finish line back at Perry Hill. I was told that the first 12.4 miles were technical, while the final 14 miles contained more hills but was more runnable. Ha!! I’d like to talk to whoever considers the second part of that race to be more runnable. I’m pretty sure that the entire course was strewn with more rocks and roots than I’d ever seen on a racecourse (ok, with the exception of the Vegan Power 50k in Pittsfield, MA).


The gun went off at 8:01am and 100+ runners forged ahead to tackle the trail. I started with my friend Colleen and we ran in close proximity for the first few miles. I consider Colleen to be a much stronger runner than me, so I eventually let her blast down the trail while I slowed to a sustainable pace. I passed Nipmuck Dave and he commented on my VT100 tattoo. I told him that I had only done the 100k and was embarrassed to admit that I’d been too wrecked to get out of bed to watch him complete the 100 miler. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to do that in the future. That guy is an unimaginable badass, completing rugged trail races with the assistance of custom-made crutches. I think we should change his name to Badass Dave.


I caught back up with Colleen at the 6.2-mile turn around point. Here was a wonderful aid station stocked with cookies, chips, and Coke. I was stuffing my face when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a voice ask, “Do you remember me?” Turns out it was someone I’d sold trail shoes to, and he was here doing his first marathon. We chatted for a minute and then started back on the return trip. Tony asked if he could hang with me and get a feel for pacing a race like this. Hell, I’m no expert but I’m always happy to have someone share the misery. His brother met us several times at road crossings, cheering us on while making fun of us at the same time. We tore into the halfway point like we were being chased by dogs (oh wait, we were. Ok not really, they were Tony’s brother’s dogs, but the picture looked like the hounds of hell were tailing us).


(photo credit: Dominic Wilson)

The first half of the race was REALLY technical. Lots of rocks, very rooty along the river, and a lot of narrow single track that didn’t make it easy to move off the trail for the oncoming traffic. It’s the nature of trail running, but it makes it near impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. I managed to stay on my feet and keep my wits about me, but I was rapidly tiring and trying not to think about the back half of the race, which was rumored to contain the most elevation change. Tony and I chatted the whole time, and I high-fived all the folks I knew as we passed each other. As we started on the northern section, it became apparent that this was indeed the hilly portion of the race. Yikes.


The first quarter mile of the back half took my breath away. Literally. It was a steep climb, and my heart rate spiked well before we reached the crest. Good lord. I prayed that the rest of the miles weren’t all like this. I knew that there was a mile long road section and I was really looking forward to stretching my legs and getting some good strides in. Unfortunately there was a good two miles between us and that road section. Tony became like a drill sergeant, urging me forward when I faltered and telling me not to listen to my brain as it screamed for me to stop. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a sign in the middle of the woods for free range turkeys. Turns out that was real. I imagined I’d be hearing banjos any second, and that was enough to spur me on.


(photo credit: Dominic Wilson)

We eventually popped out onto the road and were greeted by Tony’s brother. We didn’t chat long as we planned to take advantage of the easier running to make up a little bit of time. It was a nice, long downhill road section to the Iron Mine aid station where my husband was volunteering. I couldn’t wait to see him, as I knew that would lift my spirits. It felt good to really stretch on that downhill section, but I knew I’d pay for it later in smashed quads. We rounded the corner and the aid station came into view, manned by Marc, Jamie, Joe and Jack (a few of the folks who launched my trail running). I love aid stations that are run by ultra runners, as they contain all the heavenly treats: fresh cold fruit, cookies, boiled salted potatoes, and Coke. Tony and I filled up on goodies and charged off down the trail.


(photo credit: Marc Scrivener)

It was about this time that I became an anchor. I urged Tony to drop me and just run his own race, but he refused. Part of my reasoning was that if Tony left me I could slow down, so it wasn’t totally unselfish. I was dying. Yes, I had run a 100k but that had been mostly on dirt roads. I hadn’t run this far on single-track trails before, and it was really depleting me. My goal going into the race had been to finish in six and a half to seven hours. I knew that the technicality of the race would take its toll. Tony, however, had different plans.


The final few hundred yards before the turn around was a steep set of wooden stairs. Awesome. Just what I needed. Wet, mossy wooden stairs + exhausted legs = OMG someone just kill me. I got down the stairs as quickly as I could because at the bottom was another oasis of an aid station. We spend a little bit of time here, fueling, hydrating, recovering, and joking with the volunteers. Overall I still felt pretty good, despite being tired and heavy-legged. Even though I wanted to hang out and rest, we decided that we should just get started on the final leg of the race. I almost wept at the thought of climbing back up that set of wet, slippery stairs. But drill-sergeant Tony was hot on my heels and barking at me to get a move on.


Seven miles. Seven miles and I could stop. But those seven miles were hilly, rocky, slanted trails strewn with dry creek beds and fallen trees. I slowed more and more and Tony got farther and farther ahead of me. Every once in a while he would stop and wait for me to catch up. It was in this section that we caught up to Colleen and passed her. She was doing well, keeping to her plan, and I was happy to see her smiling. Meanwhile, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck but I tried to appear strong as we ran past.


It’s amazing how much pain a person can tolerate when you have a relentless voice calling your name from up the trail. Right about then I hated the trail, I hated running, and most of all I hated Tony. I think I even started to whine. What I needed was a kick in the ass, and Tony delivered. He had put up with my shenanigans for a few miles, and told me that even though my brain told me I couldn’t go any farther, he knew that I could. So with renewed enthusiasm (hahahahahaha) I pushed forward. It was right then that the premonition of the “high fall risk” sticker came to fruition. A toe grabber forced a Superman into the dirt. Well, at least I’d managed to wait till a soft spot in the trail and wounded nothing but my pride.


Just when I thought we’d never get back to the Iron Mine aid station and my wonderful husband, I spotted Jack and Sasha up ahead on the trail. Finally!!! We again stuffed ourselves with the wonderful spread of goodies before tackling the last few miles. We had the one mile of road (which was unfortunately uphill in the return direction) and then 2.5 miles of rugged, steep trail before a quick downhill to the finish. My energy was flagging again, but Tony still refused to leave me. I wonder if he knew in that moment how appreciative I was of his unwavering encouragement.


We powered up the road section and slipped back into the woods. I was repeating the same mantra in my head, similar to Dory but in trail runner fashion (just keep running, just keep running). Back past the free range turkey sign. Up the last seemingly unsurmountable hill. Finally I heard Tony call to me from up the trail. “Come on, Faith. I’m not crossing that finish line until you are by my side!!” With one final push, I dug deep and found the will to keep running. I followed Tony down the hill and under the big yellow “FINISH” banner. Time on the clock: six hours, two minutes, twenty-six seconds. WAY sooner than I expected.


I managed to stop my watch before I staggered into my husband’s arms, completely spent. Tony had coaxed, cajoled, and pushed me to finish a full half hour under my goal time, while finishing his own first marathon. He had refused to let me give anything less than my best, and for that I will be forever grateful. I am still learning how to overcome my own doubts and fears, and this race taught me that I have much more tenacity and perseverance that I ever thought I had. I had run my first TRUE trail marathon and earned my second blue-blaze log “trophy”. My sincere thanks to my husband Joe for once again supporting me in the crazy journey. Thank you also to all the amazing volunteers (Marc, Jamie, Jack, Sean, Tim, Stacey, Jess and the rest of you awesome people) and to race director David Merkt for putting on a great race and taking excellent care of us out there. Happy Trails!!