It’s been a few weeks but the lingering effects from the events of October 4, 2014 are still felt. Maybe not so much in the legs anymore but the mind quite poignantly brings back some painful memories when you least expect it. The Bretton Woods Fell Race didn’t go as planned, and perhaps that is fitting because I didn’t really have a plan. It fully occupies my mind yet I don’t seem to want to talk about it. I can see myself burying it deep, and then finally spilling the grisly details years later, as if it was ripped from a tired Hollywood script:
Paul Kirsch: “Good morning Eric, thanks for making the trip out here.”
Eric: “Good to see you Paul! It’s been quite a while.”
Paul: “So what do you think of this year’s Mountain Goat shirt?”
Eric: “Cut to the chase Paul. We both know you didn’t call me out here just to talk about t-shirts.”
Paul: “Checkpoint E.”
Eric: “The hell it is! I swore I would never speak of that. Never again.”
Paul: “It’s been ten years.”
Eric: “That’s not long enough.” [turns to leave]
Paul: “There’s someone out there still.”
Paul: “He last checked in at D, never made it to F.”
Eric: “How long has he been out there for?”
Paul: “Nearly two hours how.”
Eric: “So what? You still drop the worst race, right?”
Paul: “He didn’t race Ascutney.”
Eric: “Dear God. His place is in the series standings is shot to shit now.”
Paul: “You’ve been here before. Help us get this person back on course.”
Eric: “I need a drink.”
Paul: “It’s 11 am.”
Eric: “Do you want to know what happened or not?”
[Paul pours out a glass of scotch, Eric takes a belt of it, hand visibly shaking the whole time.]
Eric: [in a grave voice] “So…you want to know about Checkpoint E, do you?”
There were no real surprises in this one; this fell race has been on the calendar all year. No course markings, choose your own shortcut, or in some cases, your own demise. Fells yeah!
Well it turns out that the course offered some guidance after all. The first half, going through checkpoints A, B and C was clearly marked. But, you could still choose to find your own way so long as you made it to all checkpoints. Those blessed with a strong sense of direction or who had good knowledge of the mountain had the advantage here.
After the start command was given we all took off for the top. The course went right, apparently snaking it’s way up to Checkpoint A in a serpentine fashion. A good deal of the field, including most front runners and myself, hit the mountain head on and charged up the ski slope. This was a short cut that was easy to see.
After hitting a couple of ‘false peaks’ that were nothing more than a plateau offering a brief respite from the searing pain of the climb, we finally hit Checkpoint A. I was in 7th place at the time and feeling good about my chances. I had even successfully taken a ‘shortcut’!
Checkpoint B was to the left of A and also situated near the top. I knew the marked course would get me there but it wouldn’t be a straight shot. There had to be a little trail somewhere that took us directly to it. My directional difficulties are pretty well documented (thanks a lot, internet) so people should know not to follow me. In fact there was a brief discussion over Facebook in the days leading up to the race where Kim Nedeau, Josh Fields and I were all looking for someone to follow and pretty much all agreeing that nobody should follow us. If there was a theme for the race I’d have to say it would be say goodbye don’t follow. But Kim still followed me as I took a little bushwhacking side trip to find that shortcut. Even Leslie Beckwith apparently tagged along so now I had the burden of leading the top women in the race. I say burden because I knew that despite all advanced warnings I’d probably get blamed for getting them lost. Fells yeah!
I’m still convinced that the trail was a shortcut in terms of distance but the going was so slow that it didn’t matter. Although there was one guy that started out with us that blasted through it like some sort of ghost mountain goat. He must’ve been hovering above the ground because I kept sinking with just about every step.
Finally back out on the main trail, I threw a quick look to the left to see who was coming before heading over to my right. There was a whole crowd of people coming, people that I had a bigger lead on, all closing in. Some shortcut! Included in that group was my brother Mike, who I’ve been chasing in the standings since I missed Ascutney. I didn’t care though; it was fun! I still liked my chances.
Still running with Kim and still chasing some people that somehow got ahead of us during the ill-conceived shortcut, we followed the marked course and got to Checkpoint B with no problem. Now we could just follow the markings down the mountain to the start/finish area to get to Checkpoint C, but where’s the fun in that? Seeing that it was a ski area, I figured that most trails would take us fairly directly to where we needed to go. But there still had to be a shortcut.
Coming up on the left there was a big, wide trail that looked promising. The name caught my attention: Sly Fox. Really? You Sly Fox! How can this not be the most awesome shortcut? Without hesitation, I veered off course and went full throttle. Fells yeah!
Have I mentioned this was a ski area? Sly Fox must be a tricky slope. Although relatively short, it was steep. Think running down Upper Walking Boss-steep. It was the kind of slope that would tear the skin off your ass and/or face if you weren’t careful; one bad step and you’re sliding down on one of those. But it was taking me in a more direct way to Checkpoint C and it was living up to its name, so I gritted my teeth and kept pressing.
My quads felt the sweet relief rush over them when I came out onto the main trail. Looking to my right I could see just about every runner that was in sight before, and now they were all behind me. Fells yeah! I have no idea what place I was in, but I was feeling confident that top ten was a strong possibility. I ran through Checkpoint C singing the praises of the Sly Fox, more than likely confusing most people who heard anything I said, and turned my focus to Checkpoint D…all the way back up the damn mountain.
There was nothing really exciting about the journey to Checkpoint D. It was all uphill. I found it relatively easily just by going up and the right of the start/finish. The way I chose wasn’t the best because I legit had to climb up over the last part. Along the way I ran into two individuals who had walked up the slope together, with one of them (Benny) deciding to pick up the pace a little bit and tagged along with me as I passed.
And this is where it all went wrong. I knew we had to cut back towards the middle and then down a slope. I led the way on a trail that traversed the top and thought I’d just pop out and charge down a slope. I had a course map and knew trail/slope names that should get me to where I need to be. Only thing is, it’s marked more skiing than hiking/running so I never ended up seeing any helpful markings.
We charged down the slope only to find…nothing. I was feeling good and confident after hitting that last summit but that quickly was replaced by some type of fear and panic. It’s a strange feeling, being lost and also being able to see where you parked your car at the base of the mountain. What we didn’t know at the time was that we overshot the slope and came out much closer to Checkpoint F than we should’ve. We were still too high and too far over to the other side. It took us a while to figure that out.
What happened over the next 25 minutes or so was the stuff of nightmares. We didn’t even hear or see other runners come near us! That’s how far off course we were. There’s not much that can compare to the heartbreaking realization that you might need to go up the mountain just to see if you can find the checkpoint, even though your tired legs are screaming in protest. Oh, it’s not up? Then it must be down! Up, down, up, down, up, down…go until the legs give out. It’s not over here? Okay, let’s hike through this tree line over to the next slope. Oy.
I had a map with me but it did no good. Teaming up with Benny did no good either. We kept second guessing each other into bad decisions. Ultimately we found it, but I’m convinced that each of us would’ve arrived there sooner had we been alone. Oxygen debt does funny things to your navigational skills.
It could be that my mind just fabricated something pleasant to make me feel better about it, but I finally figured out where we needed to be and we got there. It’s possible Benny remembers it differently, or that he had already figured it out to, but the important thing is we got there. I was a little curious as to what the GPS map of this part of the race would look like. Well, curious and terrified.
I was so overcome with joyous emotion when we finally passed through that marker. It was strange being so happy yet so also still so filled with frustration and rage. Now we had to run back up the mountain to get to F but since I had spent the last 20 minutes or so doing intervals up and down the slope my legs wanted nothing to do with it. Finding F wasn’t much of an ordeal. We were with other runners now and had a little more help. It was interesting seeing runners run up to F while we were running down through it.
There was a bigger path that took you to the finish in a round about way or you could shoot down the slopes. I had no interest in any extra steps so I opted for the slopes. Darrin Rees and I were going stride for stride down here, and at one point it hit me: here we are, in a race and on our way to the finish, but I could care less who out kicked who here. My quads screamed with every landing and the footing was downright dangerous (not so much because of the terrain but more because of my fatigue).
As we got closer to the finish, we met up with the main trail and from our right my old friend Benny came flying by. Shit. Darrin and I picked up the pace a bit but that was it. There were three of us charging towards the line and I had nothing. This was a moment for redemption, something to leave a better taste in my mouth, but all I got was more defeat.
I crossed the line but my mind was still racing trying to figure out just how things went so terribly wrong. I knew I was probably going to snap if anybody asked me ‘what went wrong’; I had no control over anything. Unfortunately my wife was that unfortunate person to ask, and I angrily retorted “What do you think? I got lost?” and then collapsed on the ground. She handed me a water bottle like the caring, nurturing person that she is and I tossed it. I mean I really tossed it. In my mind I lazily tossing it by my side, but having no control meant that the bottle ended up going 50 feet. ‘I’ll get it later,’ I thought. ‘Time for a nap now,’ and I dropped my head onto the turf.
Jim Johnson won it in 1:19:26, and Leslie Beckwith got the women’s title in 1:31. I figured to be in the 1:25-1:30 range, but instead of basking in the triumph of a top 10 finish, I’ll always wonder what could’ve been, what could’ve happened had I not run circles around Checkpoint E for a half hour.
While others ran races that totaled anywhere from 8.1 to 9ish miles, I got in a cool 10.2 miles and was out there for nearly two hours. Will I give it another shot next year? Will I still attempt shortcuts? Will I do a little more course research? Fells yeah!
#BrettonWoods #FellRace: how far did you run? According to the website, it’s approx. 9.5 mi with 3,500 ft of elevation gain. Some got in less, some got in more. Choose your own adventure…but choose wisely! #trailrunning #runitfast #running #runners #mountaingoats #runnershoutouts #levelrenner #levellegion #instarunners #aR