North Country Trail Run - Marathon 2019

Once again I find myself unable to say enough about the great experience I had with the North Country Trail Run. This year was a trio of wonderful things that came together for my family and I. Of course the race itself was so well put on once more with an even enhanced experience from my first go-round in 2015. Then came the personal side of camping with the family and my 5-month old daughter's first chance to camp. Last but not least was the run itself which surprisingly turned out to be a PR for me. I'm still a bit in awe at how it all turned out.


Our family stayed at Twin Oaks Campground again this year and they continue to be a nice friendly operation giving us a good home for one evening. We arrived around 4pm Friday night and setup our camp. I got a campfire going and the kids were able to cook hot dogs and brats over the fire. I drove over to Big M to get my race packet which was full of all sorts of goodies again this year. Highlights included an orange running hat, a hoodie, a normal t-shirt, a running t-shirt, a mug, and a 26.2 North Country sticker. They do really go all out on this. We had a nice family evening relaxing around the campfire and enjoying watching our 5-month old take it all in.


Watching the weather leading up to the race I was excited to see the forecast showing a dip into the 40s overnight. This made for a cold first night for the baby, but aside from cold fingers she did well. My wife and I, along with the baby in tow, left our campsite at 6:20am to head over to the race start. I was in wave 2 for the marathon and wasn't starting until 7:25am and so I didn't want to arrive too early and stand around in the cold. We arrived just after 6:40am (there was a detour along the highway this year because of a bridge under construction). My wife dropped me off and headed back to camp.

In my pack I had along 4 GU gels, a small bag of goldfish crackers, a light rain jacket, my running earphones, endurolytes, and some advil. I was treating this race as a prep run for my upcoming Run Rabbit Run 50-miler. I wanted to carry a similar kit today to feel it all out. That was the primary reason for carrying the rain jacket. I was going light on my food carry fully anticipating using the aid stations which were placed roughly every 3 miles (another impressive aspect of this race). With this being more of a training run than a goal race I was not planning to do anything impressive today. My initial thoughts were to target a 5:30 finish which would have been almost 35 minutes slower than my 2015 time. When I did a 31-mile training run two weeks prior my timing on that had me adjust today's expectation to 5:15 thinking that was more than reasonable without overdoing it.


In 2015 I bonked hard around miles 18-19. In hindsight I can see I went out way too fast the first 7-8 miles and probably could have taken in more calories as well. That also happened to be my first ever trail marathon and so I was a bit of a beginner. With 4 years experience and learning I felt quite well prepared today to run a strong race and keep things under control.

The course begin and end were slightly changed this year from 2015. I think they began these changes before this year. In 2015 we ran an initial loop to start and then hit the big loop. At finish we repeated that initial loop before the finish line. I thought that was very regrettable to not have a clean finish. They've since fixed that. Now in the midst of that opening loop you hit a doubletrack forest road and grab about a mile and a half distance on it before completing the small loop and heading for the big loop. This ensures that at completion of the big loop you hit the finish area and you're done. This was soo much better.


As straight forward as that beginning was setup to be, apparently they still had problems when the ultrarunners went that direction. Our race start was delayed about 10 minutes as the race director was on his radio trying to help a handful of runners who went off course. Once we started I went out and was loving the cool 45 degree air. I almost needed my light gloves. Its been a long summer of training in the heat and humidity and I've had a handful of real grind-them-out long runs in 70s and 80s with high humidity and sun.

The first loop was tight singletrack leading to the doubletrack forest road. The road had a slight uphill incline and lots of sand forcing runners to move around looking for the firm spots. The turnaround was at an aid station which we would hit later on during the big loop. We backtracked the road and then back into the small loop which led us back to the start/finish area. We then headed into the big loop passing our first aid station at mile 3, just past the start area.


At each aid station today I was grabbing a glass of cold gatorade and some watermelon. I would also grab chips at some and Gu when they were offering it. I felt like my nutrition today was really hitting well. I was targeting eating about every 3 miles which today basically turned out to be every aid station. I would eat the Gu's for many of my times eating. I had also carrying a pack of Clif shot bloks from the start and that became my mile 3 "meal". I only drank water from my pack today and didn't use any Tailwind powder. I've struggled with it some this summer as the taste in the humid, hot weather, especially when the liquid itself warms, hasn't always worked for me.

Much of the course remained familiar to me. I remember the beautiful singletrack on the slope sides along the southeast portion of the course. I remember the grunt of a climb for about a half mile through what feels like a chute in the forest. I was working to keep my pace around 11 minute miles and early on I was doing some low to-mid 10's not feeling overworked. I also had turned off the auto-lap on my Garmin watch and instead sought to start new laps at each aid station. This is mostly a mental exercise that I've contemplated for my Ultra coming up. I don't want every mile buzzing me and keeping me thinking about the distance. I also don't want to be fretting a changing pace from mile to mile. This would give a more consistent look at pace as drawn out over the 3-4 miles between each aid station. I really liked how it went today.


The middle portion of the race continued to move along almost better than planned. I wasn't pushing too hard, yet I was also passing people and keeping the pace I wanted. I was eating and drinking well and my body feeling good. I watched as the temps climbed into the 50s and headed towards 60 by just over the halfway point. I had a brief fall around mile 8 but luckily into wasn't into anything that hurt me. Had to knock a little dirt off and pickup my pride for a moment and then I was okay. I was primarily shooting to walk all of the major uphills today and keep strong pace on the downhills.

The last six miles are really the test of this race. The trail winds back and forth and up and down in the heart of the hills at Big M. Its really hard to keep track of where you are in there. From 2015 I remember several big hills and I remember walking almost all of it as my legs had cramped up badly. This year I was feeling really good and really excelled. I was prepared in my race day plans to see paces dip into the 12s, maybe even 13s in the last miles just to finish out the race. I didn't want it to turn into a walkfest, but I also wasn't going to overdo anything.


My slowest segment of the race was the long stretch from roughly mile 21 to 24. But my pace was only 12:36 (and in reality faster given the distance the GPS missed). I did walk the hills mostly but I was able to keep good pace otherwise. Today I really felt the added bonus of being in a race and not pushing the miles on my own. I've already done a 22-mile and two 24-mile training runs this summer and all of the miles solo. There isn't much to keep you pushing in the latter miles, especially when the weather was warm. Today there was this sense of competition in me, coupled with the body feeling pretty good, that kept me moving strong and even pushing hard at times. There were people that would pass me and I'd want to run them down and get them back. Its one of those fun parts of a race.


I was so pleased that the last 2+ miles of the race I ran well and felt well. I just didn't want to walk and other than a big hill or two I moved well. I finished the last 2 miles with under an 11-minute pace. And after the out-and-back at the final hill lookout, I was probably nearing sub-9 pace down the dirt road. I was pumped and feeling so good when I saw that I would set a PR and this added to my speedy finish down the home stretch. It was the best feeling I'd had while running in over a year. This also provided me with one of those moments where I could really say "I'm back" and full of confidence. I'm now 10 months removed from a hernia surgery that had me off running 6 weeks and basically put me back to square one with running. I started training again in January 2019 building myself back up. All the while I never fully had confidence that I was nearing my peak again. I'd had a decent race or two along the way but all slower than previous years. Today seemed to be that cherry on top moment in which I feel like I could do anything again. It makes this perhaps the perfect precursor to my 50-miler in September. Hard telling yet what will happen then but I think I will at least be able to go into it with confidence that I've done what I can to prepare and be ready.

The 1.7 LB finisher's medal.  You can eat dinner off of this thing!



Stats:
Time: 4:44:27 (a PR for Trail Marathons)
Place: 39th of 211 finishers
Age Group (35-39): 4th of 14



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