With COVID-19 ending race plans throughout the world, what’s a race-hungry runner supposed to do? Solo races of course! I was looking to run the Big A 50K up in Maine last weekend as a training race, but as you can guess, that race was nixed a while back. While there’s this whole “virtual race” thing going on where you can actually sign up for a race or something, then do it on your own, I figured I’d just take matters into my own hands, and make my own local 50K suited to my training needs. I wanted to run a fairly rocky & technical 50K with about 5000-6000 feet of elevation gain to help prepare me for a longer Appalachian Trail run back home in PA later this year. Fortunately, central Massachusetts has a healthy dose of rocky, technical singletrack, and plenty of gnarly hills and mini mountains that replicate the terrain I’d be getting along the Appalachians in central Pennsylvania. I took to the local trails of Leominster, and set up a route with a 14 mile loop going up and around Mt. Wachusett (a mere 2,005′ mountain), returning to my car as my mid-race aid station, then going on another loop in the Leominster State Forest for the final 17-ish miles. Although the state forest doesn’t have a single long climb like at Wachusett, there’s plenty of rolling hills, with uber-rocky and muddy paths, that aren’t intimidating at first, but they really get you after a few hours out there.
So how did it go? Well, to start things off, Nature decided to have a little fun and send a cold wave in after a few weeks of reaching 60s and even 70s in the afternoons. Getting out my car in Leominster at 6:30 AM, I was greeted by seemingly-innocent flurry snowflakes and less-innocent wind gusts, with a temperature of 33 F (22 with windchill). I thought the season of winter tights and running jackets had past, but I guess not. As I started getting higher up on Wachusett, the snow was sticking more and more, but fortunately, it wasn’t sticking too well on the muddy trails, so it wasn’t really slowing me down. The wind was also picking up too, but my Salomon Bonatti WP jacket kept out the wind and snow without any issues. The real problem was the wet and occasionally icy rocks. I couldn’t do my usual rock-hopping routine near the top of the mountain, especially at the top, where pretty much all soft ground was frozen. The downhill was trecherous, to say the least. I had intentionally chosen the most brutally rocky trails on Wachusett for the race, but this kind of backfired when all the rocks were frozen over or wet. I still had a blast; don’t get me wrong there! I, as well as most of New England, was just caught off-guard by an early May snow storm.
I felt surprisingly good after the Wachusett loop, and after a 6-minute refueling at my car, I was onto my Leominster State Forest loop. I had tried to be all clever and set up my bottles, gels, and trash bin in my trunk almost like a real aid station, but in my haste to remove my pack, refill a bladder, a bottle, switch a GoPro battery, change my jacket for a long sleeve shirt, time added up quickly. I’ve been spoiled by having a well-oiled crew link-up procedure during regular races, where I can get in-and-out under a minute. Anyways, the second loop treated me generally well at the start, with pretty easy terrain for the first 5-6 miles, but once the I hit the hills, I got smoked on those uphills. This was the part where I’m glad this was a solo race, which honestly leaned a bit more towards an “adventure with a sense of urgency” rather than a race. Normally, during a race, I’d have to dig real deep and fight off self-doubt, pain, and negativity when I hit difficult patches like this. However, during this solo adventure, I let myself slow down, power hike (and sometimes even just plain-out hike) more than usual, and just enjoy the time on my feet out there. My nearly-7 hours out in Leominster trails went by way quicker than my 3:55 50K PR at the Chesterfield Gorge Ultras, where my sole focus was speed and placing. For anyone who’s found themselves caught up criticizing their own abilities during a race performance, solo adventures like this can really help out. Spending unrestrained time alone on the trails allows you to think through different mechanisms for coping with painful sections of trail or low points of a race. I won’t deny that my legs were pretty gassed on even the slightest incline for the last 8 miles or so, making this an amazing physical training event, but I gained a lot more mental strength during this than expected.
How did I fuel, and what gear did I use? Let’s start out with the nutrition: 3 Gu Electrolyte tab drinks, water, 2 SaltStick chewable salt tabs, 1 Clif bar, and a whopping 15 energy gels from various brands. That adds up to about 1700 calories. I did 200 cal/hr for the first two hours, 250 cal/hr for the middle two hours, then 300 cal/hr for the rest. I’m glad to say that I’ve been blessed with a strong stomach. I’ve found that I can easily take in 300 cal/hr without any GI problems, and occasionally I’ve even done a bit more. A lot of other runners are not so fortunate and have to pick their calories very wisely to avoid nausea and upset stomach. However, I did learn that I drink A LOT more water than expected. I used my Orange Mud Gear Vest Pro, which can hold two 20 oz bottles up front and a 33 oz bladder in the back. On the first half, I took a 20 oz Gu electrolyte bottle and a full bladder worth of water. Given that it was windy, snowing, and cold, I probably drank just over half of all that. At the halfway refuel, I simply filled back up the bladder and the bottle, neglecting to consider that I would be going slower in the second half, which was also hotter. Needless to say, with about an hour to go in the back half with only 5-10 oz or so of water in the hottest point of the day, I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t bring the bare minimum amount of water necessary.
As I mentioned above, I used the Orange Mud vest, which held just about the right amount for 3-4 hour outings. If I hadn’t been stupid and actually brought the second bottle up front, I’d have been good for 4-5 hours no problem. OM vests store water and gels well, but there’s not much extra room up front to hold bars, GoPros, gloves, etc. Instead, I used the Ultimate Direction Utility Belt to store those larger items, and even my trekking poles. I’m starting to prefer distributing my items over both the waist belt and chest pack. It keeps any one area from getting overpacked and bulky. The last gear note is my shoe choice. I took the Hoka Speedgoat 4’s out for their first ultra distance, after doing two 20+ mile long runs in them. Going up a half-size and wide made a huge difference in preventing blisters, and they didn’t feel constrictive even as my feet began to swell. The cushioning felt equally comfortable and protective throughout the entire run. The bottoms of my feet got a little sore simply from being out there that long, not from being poked by rocks and roots.
So, after all my ramblings, what do I hope you take away from a race report about a solo adventure that wasn’t even a race to begin with? Well, I hope it inspires you to create a fun adventure for yourself right now where you can enjoy some solitude, get some good physical training in, and ultimately learn something from, whether that’s developing mental fortitude, fine-tuning your gear choices, or just getting your head back in a good place during this COVID-19 crisis. Just because races are cancelled doesn’t mean you have to stop training and learning. It just means you have to use a little more creativity to come up with individualized events that address your specific training needs!