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Rock’em-Sock’em Bloomfield Ultramarathon

Photograph by Tony Bonanno

Recap of Traprock 50K, Penwood State Park, Bloomfield, CT, April 14, 2012

Chris Jaworski (3rd AG) … 6:49:07

A trail race right here in Bloomfield, the heart of ERC country? Sign me up! Oh? What? Bloomfield, Connecticut? Just north of Hartford? Alrighty then. My day would involve about five hours of driving … and almost seven hours of running!

I had read favorable reviews of this race in its first two years and decided to give it a shot this time. Running its hilly and technical single-track and double-track would be good training for a May race on similar terrain, and finishing it would mean I’d be checking off the last of the three “ultra” trail races that take place in Connecticut. The other two are the 26.4-mile NipMuck Marathon and the Bimbler’s Bluff 50K. One thing these races and my head have in common is rocks.

Stairway to Heaven. Photographs by Chip Tilden (chiptilden.tumblr.com), except as noted.

According to Wikipedia, “traprock is a form of igneous rock that … tends to appear in orderly structures resembling piles of blocks, … inspiring the term ‘trap,’ which comes from a Scandinavian word meaning ‘steps’ or ‘stairs.’ … Traprock is the primary constituent of many ridges and other rock outcrops in the Hudson River Valley, such as the Palisades, and [in] southern New England.”

The Traprock course, which used the Metacomet Trail, had a multitude of rocks. They came in all shapes and sizes and degrees of jaggedness and “rollability.” They were packed together in some sections, and jutted up randomly elsewhere. In spots, the trail took an abrupt step down or up, over rock formations that looked how gibberish sounds. Among the other notable sections were a tall, steep hillside of rocks called the Stairway to Heaven; a 1.5-mile stretch of warped and broken asphalt; and areas carpeted with coarse, sharp-edged gravel.

Added to these rocky challenges were gnarly roots, don’t-dare-fall descents, and almost 7000 feet of up.
 
In the 50K race, which was scheduled to start at 8:30, runners went three times around a loop of “approximately 10.5-11 miles.” Runners in the accompanying 17K race were to head out an hour later and circle the course once.
 

* * *

Wayne Pacileo & Cherie Yanek.

"Hey, Scott Martin!"

Before the race, it was great catching up with ultrarunner friends Chip, Scott, and Cherie, and meeting Wayne (Cherie’s beau) and Bastiaan (another New Jersey runner). A Brit told us he’d be running Boston two days later. Everyone was in good spirits!

At the relaxed prerace briefing, which stretched to 8:45, race directors Steve Nelson and Kevin Hutt welcomed us, and told us that attendance had increased to 200 runners, from 50 in the first Traprock. They described the entire course and added that it was so well marked that, if we got lost, we should just take up road running!

Finally, a moment of silence, and a tribute of music, for ultrarunner Micah True, a.k.a. Caballo Blanco, the White Horse. True, race director for Mexico’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, became an inspirational figure after being featured in the book Born to Run in 2009. He died in late March of this year, while running solo in Gila National Forest in New Mexico. As I listened to strains of Vivaldi from a cello, I thought about True and his place in the ultra community … and then of our friend Doug Williams, another runner who left us too soon, and his place in the Essex community. Each of us runners, supported by a community, can find his or her place and can excel, and the community in turn is richer for its members’ participation and accomplishments. How fortunate it is that running brings us together, and that our lives become intertwined so.

I’ll try to run a good race for Doug.

Cellist & RDs Steve Nelson & Kevin Hutt.

Conditions were perfect. A chill on arrival but, within minutes, comfort in short sleeves. An occasional cool breeze that would be welcome as the temperatures rose, from around 50 at the start to the upper 60s in the afternoon. Low humidity, dropping from 50% to 20% during the race. No mud, a plus on a course like this. Clear skies, bright sunshine, shade under the trees.

Aid stations were set up no more than 4 miles apart, so I decided to run with a 20-ounce bottle and refill along the way. As each station was stocked with standard ultra fare, but no gels, I’d carry a few of those too, plus electrolyte capsules, and then replenish from my drop bag at the start/finish.

* * *

Lap 1. We were off! Some small number of yards on pavement—then up! Steeply up the trail! This hill was runnable, but the crowding on its technical single-track meant most of us had to hike it. After reaching the top, the runner next to me said hello. It was Jim. Hey! I’d met Jim at the prerace dinner for the Vermont 50 Mile in September. Now here we were, comparing notes about that race, and talking about other things, while running the Metacomet. Soon, though, I realized the pace was too fast and, letting Jim go, took it down a notch.

50K to go!

A bit later—I don’t recall if it was before or after scaling the Stairway to Heaven—I began feeling I was laboring too much for so early on, and I questioned whether two more laps were doable. I let that thought go, and let the imperative to scan the ground take over. I’d bashed my knee and scraped my arm in a hard fall at South Mountain Reservation a week earlier and was wondering how the knee would hold up here. I did not want to fall and hit it again, either. Best be ultra careful. I watched my step, and the next, and the next and, while doing that, forgot about being tired, about the miles and hours ahead. There were other diversions, too … the scenic valley views from the top of the ridge … the smiles and assistance from the volunteers at the mile 3 aid station … greeting other runners on the out-and-back lollipop loop at the northernmost end of the course … more aid … precarious cliffside running … the mile 7 aid station … the long, gradual uphill run on the paved road and then, after reaching its apex, the long run on the gradual downhill that followed … the sharp right back onto the trail … the final 1.5 miles, retracing the first 1.5 miles … and then the careful, meticulous run down the steep, technical single-track that started it all. After crossing the finish line to get my chip read and split recorded (2:00:15), I made a U-turn, hit the aid station for a refill and a slice of fruit, and headed back out to do it all over again.

Up and at 'em!

Lap 2. During the middle lap, I went through some motivational swings. On the down side, I was starting to feel the first 10-11 miles. My hike up the Stairway to Heaven was just a bit less jaunty this time! On the up side, I now had my own mental map of the course—knew where to go, how long each section was, what to expect when, and, most important, which areas to look forward to for relief. Familiarity began pulling me along. That there was so much variety packed into the course—something different was never too far ahead—was another motivator. I also perked up when I saw Bastiaan … Wayne … Cherie … Scott … Chip … coming from the opposite direction on the lollipop loop. As this lap went on, though … ow, ow, ow! Despite my efforts to pick my foot plants and to “glide” over rocks and gravel, I began to feel every little point and edge through the bottoms of my shoes. After a while, the soles of my feet became swollen and tender, and every now and again they’d start burning—a trail-running sensation I hadn’t experienced before. Doubts about being able to do the third lap were bubbling up. I’d forgotten to leave a thicker soled pair of shoes in my drop bag. Would another pair of socks help? This is what I was wondering while coming down off the trail and into the finish line for the second time. This lap (2:21:22) had taken me 21 minutes longer than the first. No surprise there.

Lap 3. After making the U-turn, I grabbed my drop bag and sat down. I wasn’t sure about continuing, but I was taking my shoes off, pulling a pair of socks on over the ones I was wearing, and lacing up again. I changed to a dry shirt, too. A volunteer asked if I were going out for a third lap. A yes came out of someone’s mouth (mine, I think). I pinned my bib on the new shirt, got up, and stopped at the aid station for a bottle refill and a slice of watermelon. As I turned to leave, RD Steve encouraged me to “go tear up the trail.” I said I would, and with that began picking my way back up that hill … running. However, I had one more good slowdown in me, and it would not be denied. I began tiring … may as well have been going up the Down Escalator to Heaven this time around … and may have begun competing with another runner to see who could walk slower. Then something neat happened. A third runner came up from behind. She was, um, running. I decided to hitch my wagon to hers, and pretty soon was reinvigorated. Farther on, children approached in twos and threes. Each said, “Great job,” and a couple of the boys gave us high-fives. These little cheerleaders had hiked the short distance from the “mile 3” aid station. We were mighty impressed with them, and what a nice pick-me-up they provided.

At the lollipop turnaround, with about 6 miles left and with my feet still suffering—the extra socks were not helping—I really began to find my legs. Energy had come out of nowhere, and I wanted to run with it. When I asked to pass, the lead wagon said go for it, and I did. I was then running all the sections I had walked during lap 2, and was catching sight of and passing one runner after another, probably a dozen all told. No one passed me, not even whoever was hot on my heels coming down that last hill the final time. I kept my eyes glued to the trail until I bounced out onto the pavement, and then sprinted alone to the finish. My lap 3 time was 2:27:30, which includes the minutes I’d spent adding socks and changing shirts. It strikes me as funny that, though my splits for the last two laps were nearly equal, I felt so much better and faster on lap 3. Feelings can be deceiving, but oh what a great feeling that had been!

* * *

After crossing the line the final time, I kept going. I walked a few steps to a table to claim my finisher’s pint glass, printed with Traprock’s logo, and slogan, Ridges, Rocks, Roots, and Running. Then I stepped over to the grill and the tables laden with food and drink. I had a burger, drank a Pepsi for the caffeine for the drive home, chatted with fellow finishers, and welcomed others in.

Sixty-nine runners started and finished the 17K race. Of the 115 runners who started the 50K, 27 (23%) did not finish. Of the 88 who finished, I placed 48th. Too bad I didn’t win an award—some runners received a plaque with a chunk of traprock on it.

Chip Tilden. Photograph by David Merkt.

Aside from having those foot issues, I thoroughly enjoyed the day and this well-organized, well-run event. Carpoolers got the choice parking spots, close to the start/finish. (I was not one of those people, but I think the arrangement was a good one.) The prerace briefing felt like a family gathering. The course was challenging, scenic, interesting, and very well marked. The volunteers were helpful and cheerful and supportive. The aid stations kept me well fueled. RD Kevin’s emceeing—his quips and fictional biographical factoids for incoming finishers—had me in stitches. And, finally, for a $50 entry fee I received a small goody bag and a nice tech shirt. The race directors said that the money left after expenses will be donated to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which maintains the trails there.

* * *

Results: http://aratrace.com/traprock-50k-2012/

Photos: http://tinyurl.com/76c3tzf

2010 video tour of trail, including Stairway to Heaven: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBoABbsyx2s

2011 video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDyU0F1MIOE

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