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Running and Winning a Trail Marathon

Lake James State Park

A personal account of racing and winning the North Face’s Endurance Challenge Marathon at Mt. Wachusett, Massachusetts on June 8th, 2019.

The Start

The gun goes off and I quickly mingle in with the front runners to position myself before the narrow singletracks ahead. Right from start, the climbing began as we started our way up the mountain and into the woods. Trying to avoid my burst of adrenaline getting the best of me, I tried my best to keep to a conservative pace. The mountainous ascent continued as we passed the sign that read, “Mile 2”, my legs were beginning to feel the burning effects that the ascent was inflicting. The doubtful questions started popping up much earlier than I expected. “Did I start easy enough? Am I already digging myself into a hole this early? I don’t think I can hold this pace for the whole race…”

I tried my best to push these growing thoughts to the side and focus on the simple meditative task of breathing. “Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Exhale…”

Sticking still with the lead group, we covered trails, gravel roads, and some technical rock sections on the way up to the first summit of Mt. Wachusett. I entered the aid station with the front pack making a bee-line to the water coolers. I filled up my bottles, grabbed some electrolyte fuel, and was now ready for the next round of trails that would loop us back up to this very same summit fuel oasis. The day was getting warmer by the minute so I stuck religiously to hydrating every so often.

Second time heading up to the summit aid station around mile 9.

Round Two

As we made our way back down the mountain, the lead group split due to several of the front runners passing straight through the summit aid station. I wasn’t too concerned about their lead, especially this early in the race. “After all, only 19 miles to go,” I thought, wishing I avoided doing that math. A couple of minutes later, the chase group and I reeled back in the leaders and we were back to the original pack of 5. The second leg-burning 30 min ascent up Mt. Wachusett took its toll and our strong lead group was reduced down to only 3 as we entered the summit aid station for the second time

Like shoppers at a Black Friday sale, we frantically stuffed gels, food, and filled water bottles into our running vests, and made our way to the next section towards Leominster Park. I got a glimpse of our elapsed distance on a nearby sign, “Mile 9”… “17 miles to go”, I wish I hadn’t brought this info to mind, but I had more pressing matters to focus on, the upcoming technical, rocky descent down the mountain.

Descending & Navigating

Descending, in a way, is like playing a high-speed game of chess, trying to place your feet on the right moves to prevent the dreaded rocky wipeout…checkmate… I’m not a great descender (or chess player) and decided to play the slow game. The technical descent strung out our meager group of three, to the point that I, being in the middle, managed to accrue a significant gap between me and now the single leader up ahead. I was convinced the leader was part mountain goat for the way he speedily navigated the treacherous terrain, while I fumbled my way down in quick, unorganized footsteps. I was out of my element but I needed to focus on not wiping out.

Pink ribbons tied to branches served as our guiding north star through the network of trails we navigated during the race. Regularly, at a fork on the trail, I would second-guess myself, only to be relieved at the sight of the neon-colored marker up ahead. Several times, I came across bewildered lost runners, trying to re-orient themselves in the labyrinth of trails. I tried my best to give them directions on a mountain I only first started running on hours ago. “I hope this doesn't happen to me,” I thought, keeping my focus on both the dangling pink ribbons and the jagged rocks that made every footstep a calculated, careful decision.

Finally, the descent started to level out and the leader was nowhere in sight. I glanced behind and didn’t see the third member of our initial group we started the descent with. At this point, I was solo for the last mile of descending and wanted to avoid tackling this next section by myself, so I cranked my tired legs into high gear in pursuit of the lone leader. My efforts eventually paid off and I could finally spot the bright hat of the leader up ahead. My confidence grew, and over the rolling, rocky singletracks, the gap slowly dwindled down till finally, I reached the leader with around 12 miles still to go.

The High’s and Low’s

The two of us continued on our way to Leominster Park. Looking back, I was so glad to have someone to run with at this point in the race. I was going through a mental low-point and doubtful thoughts consistently pestered me. During one of our short spurts of conversation between labored breaths, my fellow lead runner mentioned that he ran this race last year and disclosed some of the obstacles ahead. To no surprise, it was going to be tough, but having a better idea of what lay ahead helped the storm of doubts in my mind.

The next couple miles were an assortment of beautiful winding singletracks, with the sudden hurdle of a 50-foot rock ascent that could almost be considered rock climbing. Luckily, my mood and legs were getting a second wind and I was building back my mental confidence. We made our way down a very steep hill (realizing I have to run up this on the return) and entered the aid station before the Leominster Park loop. In a similar, primitive fashion, I grabbed and stuffed food into my running vest. An energetic guy with a booming Australian accent marked some numbers down on his clipboard and applauded us on our pace, “You guys are ahead of schedule!” he exclaimed. We were both too busy shoveling salted potatoes, oranges, and gels into our mouths to fully acknowledge his statement. Resupplied for the trails ahead, we started on our journey around Leominster Park.

Trial by Fire

It was around mid-day at this point, and the heat was fully present on the gravel roads we made our way down. I was keeping stride for stride with the other runner, as we slowly baked with the lack of tree coverage. Soon, the other runner surged ahead to create a gap between us, but this move was slowly countered and I closed the gap. These surges happened several more times each putting me closer and closer to my red-zone. I didn’t know how much more of these I could handle. We hit the 17-mile marker and there was nothing I wanted to do more but lay down and catch my breath…

The next aid station was a huge saving grace. I was running low on water and needed a re-supply. Once we arrived, one of the volunteers, concerningly looked me in the eyes and said “4 miles till the next station!” as if a warning that she wasn’t sure I had enough fuel to last me. Heeding her words, I took a couple of extra swigs of water and left the station.

Building a Lead

At this point, I left the aid station solo and was assuming the other guy would catch up soon. I looked back and saw I had a 50m lead from the other runner. I kept my pace and looked back after another couple of minutes. My lead was increasing! He was now back to around 150m. “Woah… I might actually win this…”, I started thinking.

The steamy, dusty gravel roads finally switched back to the wooded single tracks and the much-appreciated shade. Around mile 19, I was able to get into a good rhythm, and the trails were becoming a soft blur of green and yellow hues just like watching scenery out of a window on a long car ride.

Getting back into a rhythm after the wipeout.

Continuing down a fairly flat rocky section my right foot caught an embarrassingly small rock on the trail and I slammed into the rocky ground. I paused, catching my breath after the wind got knocked out of me, and took a quick triage. Hands and knees scraped up, and a little banged up, but nothing feels serious. All I could think about was keeping my lead in the race.

I stood up and took a couple of hobbled strides. “Not great, but I can still run,” I thought. And after a couple of minutes of awkward hobbling, my limbs loosened up and I got back up to speed and my normal stride.

I made it to the next aid station looking a little beat up. A couple of volunteers ask If I wanted some bandages, but I didn’t have time. I was in the lead and not going to give any more time back than I needed to.

I left the station and quickly looked around for the trail, I couldn’t find it. In a bit of a frantic, I yelled out to the volunteers at the station “Where’s the trail?!” Several startled volunteers pointed right ahead of me towards numerous pink flags and a large, very obvious, arrow sign. Embarrassed, I ran down the trail and away from the scene I just made.

At this point, I’ve been leading for some time now and no clue of the gap that I have been trying my best to keep. Leading a race is a scary position. You’re constantly thinking about how far behind the next person is and if they are going to just swoop out of nowhere and take the lead. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

The Finish

The miles back to Mt. Wachusett were definitely a blur. At this point, even the smallest of uphill would send a massive burn to my already burned-out legs. Mile 24, I started fantasizing about the ability to stop and lay down in the soft grass at the finish. Mile 25, I got to the final ascent up Mt. Watchusetts and took a quick final glance back down the mountain. There was no one in sight.

I made my descent down the mountain and crossed the line. It was a pretty surreal feeling having won this race. After I finished, I just laid in the grass with a mix of exhaustion and joy. It was quite a crazy event and one that I will never forget. After the race, I would have told you that I would never do something like that again. However, time does a funny thing where you start to forget the pain during the race and highlight more of the awesome experiences you had — pushing your limits out there on the trails and the joy of accomplishing a task that you spent months of hard training for.

Thanks for reading! 👋

I’m an Artist & Designer working in Durham, NC. Feel free to reach out and say hi! 👋

Find me on Strava & IG @ryan.hatton

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