Sunday, May 3, 2009

"A Little Slice of Trail Running Heaven" - NMC Overlook Trail Race Report

"If you don't wanna get your feet wet, DON'T RUN TRAILS!"
- Sage advice from a TRUE trail animal, Richard Busa

Ask most trail runners, and they will happily provide you with their opinion on favorite and least favorite terrain or obstacles that one might encounter on a given course. Often times the answers to these questions change with season and fitness level. My choice seems to always be quickly connected to a like minded woodland animal, which almost always becomes a bit of a "self image" thing. I'd love to be that nimble mountain goat hopping from rock to rock, but these days with the slower times I go to that place where I feel most at home - the water crossing - the deeper, the better. So lately, as I run, Carrying a little extra on the frame, I picture myself a little like that moose that loves nothing more than to trudge through a river or stream.

At first I looked at the NMC Overlook Trail Race and initially balked because it was out in Fitchburg, but as I found it is definitely a course that should not be missed! A group of about 50 trail runners descended on Saima Park in Fitchburg for the Mid-Morning start under overcast skies. A brief chill gave way to a lukewarm and slightly humid air. It wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than the fare of sunny and hot from the previous weekend.

Probably the best part of the trail racing scene is the people. I rode up to the race with Breakheart Dan, and when we pulled into the park we saw Trail Pixie arrived and in preparation for the forthcoming foray in the forest. Trail Pixie spotted friend Sara, and we all were introduced, and as we chatted, Rich Busa came scampering by, per usual with a GIANT smile on his face. For me anyway, time with my trail friends tends to always wash away the dysfunction of 'normal' life... ugh, perhaps TMI there, but oh well.

(Hanging out before the start - idle only long enough for the bugs to think they have the upper hand!)

The race director called out that it was time to head up the road to the trail head and the start line of the race. Snapped one last picture before 'go time'. Then realized I hadn't evacuated all of the waste materials in the system, and quickly ran up another trail to find a shady spot. On the way back there were others doing their best 'hide behind a tree and TCB or maybe TCP?' pose. Sorry, no photojournalism here! I try to make this PG-13. But it does seem to suggest another reason why trail animal might fit better when describing many of us (at least most of the boys... and some of the girls, too).

The call goes out, and we are off. Thankfully, I was smart and stayed with Dan and Trail Pixie at the beginning. No need to get ahead of myself and spend the last half of the race hunting for magic mushroom power ups at slightly reduced speeds! My basic approach was to run between 63 and 70 minutes, but mostly to enjoy the course and run a smart and strong race. The terrain was constantly undulating and I can't really remember any flat sections. It seemed like you were either flying down a hill or relentlessly plodding upward. The course offered all types of terrain: Soft pine needles, flat rock faces, soft sand with scattered rocks and roots. I found that my skills at descending technical sections is slowly getting better with the experience. Unfortunately, my ascent skills are lacking, and there were a couple of climbs that were across extremely loose, rocky trails, (rocks scattered and roughly the size of softballs), and it was VERY hard to find a clean, direct line up the hill. These sections really slowed me down.

One great element of races is that you can arrive with really no agenda, and get into the thick of the battle and find you are going back and forth with one particular runner. After getting slightly separated from Dan by traffic on the single track, and then stopping to see if I runner who had taken a hard fall behind me needed assistance, I found I was close enough to see Breakheart Dan, but not close enough to make a worthwhile surge to catch up. Instead I seemed to be trading spaces with runner in the photo below:

In those moments when I really wanted to back off the pace I kept my head up and focused on the yellow shirt ahead, and the thought reeling the runner in. Again, I love the good natured competition of the trail race scene. In fact, when I'd pull even with my rival for the day, I'd say hello and try to make a little small talk. Sensing this was not appreciated too much because it was cutting into her cardio, I backed off and just focused on those trail areas where I knew I'd be able to gain ground.

Eventually, I passed and started to find a sort of zen moment. There was a lot of overhanging trees and nifty woodland scenery. I figured I'd hear evidence of runners ahead and/or behind me, but all I could hear were my own footfalls and the wind rustling the newly bloomed foliage. I had no desire to look at my watch or look over my shoulder. It was great, and it was one of those moments where I was truly at peace, and simply glad to be on the trail and away from the problems and pains of life.

A little way up the trail and over a couple of short hills I spotted another runner ahead of me, and he looked like he was not doing too well. As Trail Pixie put it: "It's nothing personal, you are just bait" :-). This put a little bit of a spring in my step, a second pursuit had begun! The ambient woodland noise was amplified by a stream that cut through the stand of trees, signifying the water crossings I was waiting for were coming soon! As I strode down to the bank for the first crossing, I noticed my prey was having a hard time getting out of the brook, but managed to just before I hopped in, darn! The next water crossing was not far off, and this time, prey was right ahead of me. Instead of descending and hopping into the lovely clear water, he stops short on the near bank, NOOOOO!, which meant I had to make a bit of a detour into the drink.

In true heritage of the Highlanders of my family I leaped in with a Kitchen Ceilidh, "Eeeeee-Yeeeewww!" I believe this will be the norm for me whenever I reach a water crossing in the races to follow. Every animal needs a call. :-)

Little did I know the water crossings were on the heels of the finish line... well, right after the final LONG ascent. This is where I started feeling cooked, and my nearly forgotten trail rival in the yellow shirt pushed ahead of me on the long climb. Not to be outdone, I surged as best I could in certain spots, arrived at the top, and scooted to the single track that made a fast descent to the finish line. This was actually where I impressed myself the most, because I knew I didn't have too much of a lead on yellow shirt, and I knew my lack of descending skills might come into play here. I sort of agreed with myself that I might end up broken by a bad fast fall, but I wasn't going to give up my place. Surviving the descent, a backed off just a little when the trail flattened out and I thought I may have another 3/4 of a mile to go. A couple other runners got me on this section, flying by - I suspect they knew how close we were to the end, while I was trying to save my kick (what kick?).

Perhaps based on my bravery to blitz the descent, I managed to cross the line 4 seconds ahead of my impromptu trail rival in the yellow shirt, and significantly ahead of my aquaphobic trail prey. :-)

Breakheart Dan, having finish a couple minutes ahead of me, was waiting at the finish, and Trail Pixie came scampering in not too long after. On our way back to the park where the post race munchies were at, I figure it'd only be right to pose in the brook that we got to cross a couple times earlier up stream!

Competition over, we all gathered and chatted about the race, among other things. Race results were announced and the ever popular, 'if you finished, you get a prize' award system was in effect. Did I mention I love the trail running scene? Trail Pixie picked up a water bottle for her efforts and Dan got some lovely "Fred Brown Lake Winnie" gloves adorned with a Loon! No comments please! Even with my moose-like speed I snagged a pair of NMC running gloves!

This was more of an abstract type of race for me, what can I say - it was sort of a right brain day - but from a technical standpoint it was the best of the three races I have competed in this season, all three of which have been Eastern New England Trail Race Series events. I finished the course in 64:40 which I was happy with, and managed to find a little competition among my usual station in the middle of the pack.

Next up for me is the GAC Mother's Day 6 Hour Run. First, it is for a good cause with the proceeds going toward Breast Cancer research. Second, it provides me with the opportunity and challenge of an Ultra. One gains the title of official finisher by completing 26.2 miles, and where I wanted my first ultra to be something sexy like a 50k, this race affords the opportunity to possibly run my first marathon ever, and perhaps beyond into Ultra land! I have NO delusions about being able to run 50k in 6 hours, it would take nothing short of a Mother's Day Miracle to do so, but the distance seems secondary to the challenge of doing anything for 6 hours. Above all, though, it will be among other trail running and ultra enthusiasts, so it will be great fun for sure!

As the saying loosely goes, the journey of many miles begins with just one step, and this is will certainly be an interesting adventure!

Until next time...


Dan said...

Rob, great report and photos. Next time you'll know when to kick! Like the blog's new look.

pathfinder said...


Great report, great photos and overall sounds like you had a great time. After reading this, I suspect you will smoke me at Pineland. That's Ok though....It will be nice to have a cheering crew when (if) I fall across the finish line.

RunninRob said...

Pathfinder, I wouldn't say that, there is SUCH a disconnect between the shorter races and the long stuff. In the GAC this weekend, and, depending on how absolutely wrecked I am by that race, perhaps PF, I am pretty sure I can make it to that 4 hour/20 mile area, beyond that all bets are off! :-) At least my recent training seems to suggest as much. We'll see!