May 102012

by Xar Adelberg – A few weeks before the race:
I’d heard of the twelve-mile Seven Sisters Trail Race through my friends, the Trail Monsters.  It seemed like a good idea, not so much race-wise but conditioning-wise.  I was interested in doing a longish speed-hike without carrying a pack, and in the asskick of the relentless steep hills.  The idea of doing it alone but in a group seemed just right.

I’d read Ian’s fabulous report in awe, and was quite aware that I was probably going to be on the course for longer than the vast majority of other racers.  I decided that not getting injured was the number one goal, even moreso than usual, and was prepared to allocate the majority of my focus to this.

 Feeling well and fueling properly was number two.  Third, was time: Looking at past results, I decided that 4:30 was realistic.  The idea of being on the course for 5 hours did not interest me.  I wondered if there was any possible way to do this in 4 hours, since it was only 12 miles, after all.  Whatever, we’ll say 4:30 and adjust as needed.

The night before the race:
The stupid cold that’d been bugging me all week was finally just about gone!  My fake taper consisted mostly of taking naps…  I’d only run once since Sunday.

I couchsurfed at a place about 40 minutes away from the event, which meant a) sleeping in a bed and b) having my lovely host insist upon feeding me.  The bed, which I nestled into around midnight, was awesome.  I put a hoody between my head and the pillow since the sheets reeked of detergent and, though it was too bright to sleep a lot (supermoon!), I slept some, and was very comfy.

The dinner, which I tried at first to completely avoid, ended up being fine, and we ate next to a woodstove while listening to lovely piano music.  There were tons of veggies – broc, carrot, cauliflower, spinach, tomato, mushroom, avocado.  Pasta.  Some sort of peanut sauce.  Dark choc peanut butter cups.   I’d snacked on some protein stuff (involving tofu) in the afternoon so it all worked out well.

The 72 year old gay guy I surfed with had started an HIV clinic in Zimbabwe several years ago and had just recently returned from 3 months of solo backpacking around Europe.  His house was fantastic – there was a tower (which is about to be rented out), a greenhouse with infrastructure for two ponds, a crazy mirrored and tiled bathroom… very unique and I should have taken some pics.

The morning of the race:
The place wasn’t hard to find, though my GPS was no help.  I stumbled easily onto it; it was not 10 minutes outside of downtown Amherst.  It took me about 45 minutes to get there from Shutesbury, including one stop to pull over and eat breakfast.  I ate mostly about 90 min before the start; usually I try to be done 2 hours before.  I wasn’t super worried since I have done a lot of food-timing experiments in training. Basically nothing matters unless I am trying for significant speed.

Breakfast was 2 slices of sprouted multi -rain bread, one plain and one with flax seeds and peanut butter. Water.  Chia seeds. Can’t recall but I think I ate a banana too.

After getting my number, $35, I returned to my car and shut my eyes, feeling like I didn’t get enough sleep.  All around me, people were engaging in pre-race rituals and calculations — yoga, course description, shoe discussion, who was wearing the jesus sandals, who did what totally barefoot, what are you bringing, what am I wearing, etc.  The myriad, colorful race shirts, shoes, hydration packs, fuel belts, handhelds, compression sleeves, bandanas, waistpacks, and other gear of unknown descent/use were all hella deep.  Each new combination of colors/stuff was like a fringe and tassels to highlight our collective insanity.

I eventually got myself up and headed over to the restroom line, where I chatted a bit with a plucky chica named Helena, who I liked right away.  Everyone around us was talking about this marathon or that calf stretch.  Helena was telling me something funny but I guess I was not awake yet since I don’t recall what it was.  I do remember that I liked her company and that we parted with best wishes to each other for a great race.

The race:
The field of around three hundred runners, mostly males, packed into a tight herd on the side of the road, near the start.  An announcer declared a bunch of things that I couldn’t hear, except, eventually, GO!  I hung back and eyed the immediate vertical slope as the faster people attempted to get going ahead of me.

The start is at around 620′, and the initial climb up is up 1,014′ Bare Mountain, and this happens within the first half mile over a mix of loose shards of reddish basalt and dirt.  No one around me ran this part.  I was somewhat stuck in traffic but I probably couldn’t have gone much faster anyway.   People were literally gasping already all around me.  Soon, I was too.

After cresting the first hill, there began to be moments of running like 20 steps and then there would be the issue of steepness again.  There was a great deal of being passed, and some passing as well.  I was behind a topless guy at one point, we’ll call him Monkey Man, who was wearing faded yellow swim trunks, a size too small.  As he clambered up the hill, he extolled the virtues of his minimalist shoes.  Each of his footfalls were terribly placed and his legs were quivery and unsteady.  Trying to exist behind him while continuously watching this grotesque terror (not sure that it was necessarily worthy of such harsh words, but at the time it seemed somehow appalling!) and worse, wondering how long before he fell on me, was totally unnerving.  He tripped and slipped and wavered.  I couldn’t stand it and managed to pass him, subtracting the tension but adding the baggage of another goal: must beat Monkey Man, at all costs.

I saw Helena several times in the first mile and a half or so, and we cheered and smiled for each other.  It was helpful to have a buddy in place.  It was overall a fairly quiet crowd save for gasping and grunting.  People did chat some, mostly about recent marathons, upcoming ultras, shoes, and hills.  I remembered in the 2011 Bradbury Bruiser, cruising along on the Island Trail, listing intently to the people ahead of me talking about the splendid views in Franconia Notch and recent Mt. Washington climbs.  Dreamy time…

As the crowd began to spread out, the actual running remained limited.  The power-hiking was extensive.  This was taking forever.  I began to face the sober fact that I may well be out here over five hours.  At one point, Monkey Man came teetering up and passed me.  Grrrr, why, that little….!   Fortunately he was going fast enough to be out of my sight, so I wouldn’t have to be near the lurching mess of Monkey legs.

Down, up, up, up, down, up, etc.  In a couple of spots, I had to let go of my handheld in order to hang on to rocks and climb.  Fortunately there was very little mud; things were quite slippery enough without it.  Temps were in the 60s, partly cloudy and clearing.  There was a nice breeze on each summit, and the shady areas felt great. It wasn’t particularly warm otherwise and I was quite comfy.

I was a little disappointed with the lovely views because I live in Maine and am thus completely spoiled.  There was endless springy greenness and farmlandiness far below, but the landscapes seemed too busy, littered with too many buildings, like a carelessly composed painting.  Something you could never stomach seeing on a postcard.  I didn’t spend much time dwelling on them though since I did Not want to be out here for 5 hours.  It is an interesting area though, and certainly different than what I am used to.

Sadly, the Mt Holyoke summit had been uglified by humans and I ignored it.  The two middle aid stations, which consisted of a couple of guys in four wheelers and a slew of gallon water jugs, came and went; I didn’t stop.  I was running near Purple Shirt girl for a while here; we chatted a bit and I liked her company.  The fast people were starting to fly by us, already headed back to the start/finish, and we marveled at their ability to run stuff this steep without breaking themselves.  I encouraged them as they passed — some looked like they needed it! — and imagined each word I said was one more thing I wouldn’t have to carry any further.  Lightness.

At one point, on a very narrow section with a steep dropoff on the right, I saw two people headed for collision.  A potentially scary moment ended in an impromptu bear hug, and everyone was fine.  Such is the nature of the out-and-back.  There were also a few places where it was easy to get off course if you weren’t paying attention.  Infrequent small white blazes and a handful of spraypaint arrows were the only markings.

After several more summits, who knows how many, the trail went down for a long time.  The intensity of the terrain backed off a bit, and I appreciated being about to run somewhat steadily for more than 30′.  Crazy.  In fact, one thing Purple Shirt and I had just agreed on was how weird it was that the running parts were the easy parts.  When you could run, on this course, that meant you had time to relax and savor it.  Hiking meant the opposite.

I hadn’t looked much at the GPS but I’d basically been going as hard as I could, as hard as I dared.  I kept expecting the headache to descend, but every time it didn’t, I just kept working.  My pulse went nuts on many occasions.  Any time it started reverberating in my skull, drowning out my thoughts and threatening to burst (maybe not, but it felt like it), I tried to slow down.  Yes, to go even slower.  Mind you, I was not even running when this would happen, it was just that steep.  When it was safely under say, ~200, or something, I pushed forward again.

Continuing to dodge fast people, soon several mentioned that we were almost at the turnaround.  The GPS said there was a mile left to go, but I hoped it was wrong; the threat of five hours continued to loom.  I had friends to meet in Portsmouth for supper, and it would be so wrong to be late for supper because of a run I started at 9am!  So wrong.

The turnaround appeared, bless its precious midway soul.  There was total junk there for noshies, stuff like fake oreo cookies and candies and gatorade.  I was glad to have brought along some salty nuts, because who doesn’t love salty nuts?  I refilled my mostly empty Amphipod and got out of there.  I ate a couple of the nuts as I dragged myself up the smooth-ish hill.  They helped to perk me up a bit, but kind of stuck in my throat.  I suppose they are probably not the perfect race food but that was what I had.  And better than the fake oreos etc.  I also had a Luna bar with me but that was kind of a backup snack that I was hoping to not need.

I was shocked and amazed that the GPS had said 2:00 at the midway point.  I re-calibrated to try for 4 hours.  Because not only am I slow, I am also consistently slow.  4:00 would be awesome though, if I could do it…

….IF I could do it.  The midway point was at ~232′, so there would be more climbing on the way back than on the way out.  I wasn’t sure what this was going to mean, but at least I was more than halfway done.  I was still able to enjoy each moment, and I certainly wasn’t suffering, but it was truly tough going.  I thought of the tiger and the strawberry koan several times.  (How sweet it tasted!)
I was near Purple Shirt again for a while which meant more distracting company, a great thing.  Things blended together at this point:  Endless PUDs.  Tons of hiking.  Running a tiny bit when possible.   Using the contours of the terrain to push the gait whenever there was any bit of downward slope at all.  Hearing people slip and fall nearby, waiting to do so myself.
I dug out the Vega gel, that I’d found in my car, and tried some.  It was kind of grainy and had a nasty aftertaste, but it worked fine.  I actually found myself wishing for the vanilla slime of a Powerbar gel.  The one I’d specially purchased for this race had been forgotten it in Maine along with other trivial items, such as shorts and socks…  I gulped down probably 5-6 mouthfuls of it at various intervals.  Seemed to work okay but not great; maybe I should try to down a whole one sometime.
Purple Shirt had passed me at some point, as I knew she would.  I’d also recently passed a guy in agony due to cramped up legs.  He was walking sideways up a hill, groaning.  (He stayed near me for a while — this should indicate what my approximate pace was…)  I wished I could help him and offered my salty nuts, but he did not wish to put my salty nuts in his mouth.  “No thanks, I’ve got candy,” he said, and they proceeded to inform me about how glycogen worked.  He also seemed to be groaning and grumbling a lot, and I felt massive negative junk coming off his vibe.  I struggled like crazy to lose him and did, after a lengthy spell.

I was positively dragging, still occasionally passing and being passed.  I was never alone for more than a couple minutes — someone would pop into view.   I saw a lovely white golden retriever.  Passed a Vegan Athlete shirt woman.  Chatted with a kind fellow who was doing the Pineland 50k.  He said his legs had stopped working.  We hiked together for a little while.

The gel kept me drinking more water than I would have, which was great, though I realized I was nearly out of water before the last aid station.  I nervously hoped they’d have some left by the time I got there.  I did a little math at one point and saw that I had only 3 miles left, and was at about 3:00 hours.  Surely, I thought, I can run(hike)(crawl?) the last 3 miles in an hour.  Surely!

The beautiful sight of the final aid station, with plenty of water left, had me overjoyed, and I refilled and thanked the nearby dudes.  A tiny child rang a cowbell.  I left, trying hard to stay on schedule.

And soon, I was falling behind.  Struggling to put one foot in front of the other, I did the thing where you make yourself “just run to that tree, then you can walk”.  “Run to that rock.”  “Now run to that stump.”  But my pulse kept getting so high that I would end up having to ease back to get it under control.  So I just went steadily forward, climbing, pressing on.

My calves were fatigued to a point where that they couldn’t support my weight on the uphills.  I was landing flat footed.  I knew they’d be sore afterwards, but amazingly, even in the depths of fatigue, nothing really hurt.  Just the slightest twinge in the left hip/upper leg, a known problem area, which was totally insignificant.  I also hadn’t fallen or tripped yet and was waiting for it as my gait disintegrated.  My newly filled Amphipod, which had seemed heavy when it was almost empty, seemed even heavier.  The day was comfortably warm, but I’d gotten slightly chilled a few times.  I couldn’t tell if it was just the feel of fatigue or if there was a genuine cat’s paw.  Overall, other than being trashed and unable to move forward well, I felt… decent.

And then, at the last summit, who did I catch up to, but Monkey Man.  He was still careening dangerously and, though his complexion was dark, he seemed a bit pale.  As I passed him we both said encouraging things to the other, and all was right in the universe.

I carefully, slowly ran the last half mile of downhill, back over the treacherous basalt shambles. In my mind, I was sailing fast since I actually passed quite a few people, including Purple Shirt girl, which I think surprised us both.  In reality, I am sure it was a bounding hobble.  Everyone else seemed to be walking.  I was thrilled that the gentle weather was so merciful, that this last slope wasn’t slippery, and thrilled beyond thrilled to be finishing.

When the hill ended, it was so uneventful that I couldn’t tell if I’d gotten to the finish.  I asked two or three(?) people before someone said, “yes, you finished!”  No one took the tag on my bib and and there were no other indications, except that I’d known it was an out and back.

The GPS said 4:22.   It had taken me eighty minutes to go the last three miles.  Apparently I finished 280th out of 306.  There was only one other Maine person there; I believe he is a training buddy of Mr. Cake.

What’s good about “running” 12 miles (GPS said 10.5 miles) in 4 hours and 22 minutes?
I didn’t get a headache during or after. Nothing hurt, although as I write, it’s four days later and I can still feel it in my quads and calves.  But zero joint pain.  None.  I didn’t fall.  I didn’t even trip.  I didn’t bonk.  I survived a new gel.  No stomach issues.  No cramping.  No chafing.  No blisters.  No hot spots.  I passed a bunch of people in the last half mile.  I could walk afterwards.  Yes, the past few days have involved soreness, lots, and I took Monday and Tuesday off from running.

I am blown away that it took me so long to finish after reaching the midpoint at 2:00, but I spent so much time maxing out my heart rate that I think I truly did all that I could do on that course.  I am left with an honest snapshot of where I’m at, for better, for worse, or for neither.

This was possibly the most physically demanding challenge I have ever experienced in my entire life.

~4 hours and 22 minutes
~10.5 miles according to GPS (or possibly 12 miles according to race website)
~Clearing to sunny, partially shaded course, occasional light breeze, insane endless hills and generally treacherous footing.  Some areas require climbing, using hands.  3700′ elevation gain.
~Brooks Cascadia 6, Smartwool type socks, pants, tee shirt, Amphipod (drank 2+ worth of h20).  Ate several salty cashews/almonds and most of a Vega Raspberry Gel.  Brought and didn

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