Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Ragged 3-Day Adventure

I have been eyeing the Ragged Mountain Stage Race for many years.  This race is the last legacy of the many ways that Chad Denning touched the New England trail/ultra scene, he started the race and it's first edition was only a few weeks before his untimely passing.  I've also been vacationing in the Sunapee region since as long as I can remember - I spent my childhood birthdays up at Lake Sunapee with my family.  Lastly, stage races are just so much close to 'running camp for big kids' as you can get!  However, my August schedule always tended to fill up with large goal races, so the Ragged Mountain Stage Race would just keep getting pushed back one more year.  Finally, my schedule aligned and Brian and I decided this was the year.

(Course Map)

So, what is the Ragged Mountain Stage Race?  It's billed as a 3-day, 75 mile stage race around the Lake Sunapee area.  Runners follow the Sunapee Ragged Kearsarge Greenway (SRKG) which is an established trail through this region.  It means that I would spend 3 days following the SRKG signs.  The trail goes over three major climbs, Mount Sunapee, Ragged Mountain, and Mount Kearsarge, and passes through trails, dirt roads, and pavement to complete the circuit.

As soon as I signed up, I saw that Leslie O'Dell was also registered.  She's a super strong runner who I greatly respect, and my heart sank just a bit.  I was planning to do this race as a fun adventure, and wasn't looking forward to a 3-day slug-fest with Leslie (that's assuming I could even keep up with her!).  I was secretly hoping that she was taking this as an adventure also and would be willing to share some miles with many as I could get her to share.

(Sunapee Ragged Kearsarge Greenway trail marking)

Because my family vacations on Lake Sunapee every year, they were again there before the race.  I got to spend the day before the race chasing my nephew around the New England Craft Fair at Mount Sunapee, having him show me the best 'rock climbing' hike up Mount Kearsarge, and giving my niece piggy back rides around the camp.  It was great to see my family, but not what most would consider 'tapering' before a long 3-day experience.

Day 1 - Ragged Mountain to Kearsarge Middle School, 23ish miles

Day 1 started off cooler, with a heavy fog in the air.  You could feel the nervous energy as everyone locked their car for the next 3 days and hauled their giant bags to the race truck for transport.  As the minutes ticked down to the start, the RD stood on the starting line and everyone stood back and continued the nervous chatter.  Finally, Leslie, Brian, myself, and a few other folks wandered towards the starting line...Leslie kidded around and dropped into a 3-point sprinter stance on the line.  And before we knew it, we were off!

(Sad and lonely starting line, with Brian, Leslie and myself)

Immediately, Brian easily floated away ahead of the crowd.  Leslie and I fell into stride together ahead of the rest of the runners, and started chatting as others dropped away.  About half a mile in another runner, Sam, joined Leslie and I. The three of us cruised through the first few road miles together and started the climb up Ragged Mountain.  We shared stories as we power hiked up the peak, enjoying the trail but bummed that it was so foggy that the views weren't visible.  At some point in the climb, we passed a sign that said 'Day 3 & 50k left, Day 1 right' indicating that we would do this same climb on Day 3.  I chuckled, thinking of the 'Mile 70 left, Mile 97 straight' sign at Massanutten and experienced the same thoughts of 'I can't wait to see this sign again!' that I do at MMT. 

(Typical beautiful single track trails)

Between the stories and the trail gossip, Sam, Leslie and I reached the peak of Ragged Mountain quickly.  The three of us were enjoying the company (and, let's face it, the trails) as we passed the miles.  The fun downhill off Ragged Mountain turned into some easy rolling ATV trails in the middle section of the day.  We had one section where we got a bit confused about the trail, but always agreed that the advantage of having 3 sets of eyes was keeping us on course - our goal for the day was 'no bonus miles'. 

(The trio of Sam, Leslie and myself sharing miles)
The climb up Kearsarge was quicker than we thought - again, likely the amazing company had a large part in that.  But, we power hiked/ran the paved road to the trail and then enjoyed a relaxed hike to the top.  We saw a few folks headed down the mountain who cheered us on - and we began to wonder if Brian was bragging to others (of course he wasn't, but it was funny to think that he would be chatting up all the hikers!).  As we reached a rocky outcrops, I saw a tower ahead that I recognized as the top of the mountain from my hike with my nephew the previous day.  Could we be there already?!?  All day long, I kept thinking that once we reached the top of Kearsarge, it's just an easy 8-mile cruise down to the finish - so it was hard to believe that we had finished the day's climbing already.

(Fun trails and fog - the story of the first two days)
As we took a moment on top of Kearsarge to appreciate the view (I pointed out Ragged Mountain, and Mount Sunapee which we would be running the next day), another runner cruised by us.  We immediately started after him - I invited him to join our little group...but he quickly pulled away from us.  I asked Leslie and Sam if they cared that we had just lost a place in the race - and while we were all competitive folks who don't like to be passed, we realized that it was a long race and quickly relaxed into our pace.  Frankly, Leslie and I were still tied for the female win, and Sam was still on the podium for men.

(The view from the top of Sunapee, had it not been foggy)
The last few miles of Day 1 were the worst of an otherwise beautiful day.  There were sections of fun single track through boggy woods, jumping over stone walls and roots along the way.  But, the mile of uneven clear-cut really killed our spirit.  I was thankful to have company to chatter with as we walked along (because walking was the most efficient way to get through this), and grateful that the sun was behind clouds so at least we weren't baking on this trail. 

(Enjoying some carriage trails with Leslie and Sam)

We all had it in our heads that Day 1 was 25 miles long, so even as Sam started to fade a bit after 22 miles, Leslie and I did our best to adjust to our pace so we could continue on together.  We were surprised when we found the school/finish line less than a mile later, and called Sam to catch up so we could cross the finish line together.  We finished together (Sam, Leslie and I), 3rd overall (first female for Leslie and I), in 5:00.

Brian and I hung out for a bit, and then headed out to see my parents at the camp.  We enjoyed an afternoon of relaxing on Lake Sunapee, with a bit of canoeing, and then dinner with my parents.

Day 2 - Kearsarge Middle School to Sunapee Middle School, 26ish miles

Sam, Leslie and I fell into stride with each other quickly on Day 2.  We pushed the first few miles a bit, so that our pack was established, then enjoyed the company!  The first half of Day 2 is a lot of dirt road and ATV trails, so we appreciated the quick miles knowing that we had a slow hike ahead of us.  I was amazed that we still had things to talk about after 5 hours of gabbing the previous day, but we chatted along the dirt back roads of southern NH. 

(Having some fun on the trails!)
At the halfway point, the aid station was in the center of Newbury.  I was pleased to find my parents out there cheering us along, and happy that we could take a moment or two at the aid station so I could say hello and give them a high five (I was way to gross to give them a hug!). 

(Brian at the top of Sunapee - we had a similarly foggy view)
Right after the aid station, the climb up Sunapee began.  It was a relatively steep 3.5 mile hike, so we wrapped our heads around the fact that we would be hiking for the next hour, and enjoyed the upward trek.  About a mile from the top we were greeted by a beautiful ended up being Sam's wife (Abby) and dog (Tucker) joining us.  Our three-some became a four-some plus dog, as we crested over Sunapee in total fog.  The downhill on the back side of the mountain was a beautiful winding single track that we happily ran down.  Towards the bottom, Sam was lagging behind Leslie and I but quickly caught up on the flats.  As we reached the trailhead, Abby said goodbye, and Sam told Leslie and I to go ahead - he needed to settle into his own pace for a bit.

(Sam and Tucker, myself, Leslie, and Abby - a super fun group to run with!)

Leslie and I cruised the downhill road miles, enjoying ticking off a few quick miles before turning off the road again and into Harding Hill.  The Harding Hill trails were a crazy twisty turny mess of beautiful mountain bike trails - the type where you swear you are running around on the same trail after trail (hey kids, Big Ben!)...but they were super fun trails to hang out on!

Leaving Harding Hill, we knew we only had a few more miles to go.  I was a bit bummed when we came upon about a mile of forest bog trail, much like the trails at Pisgah State Park (NH) - which are fun to run on but where it's really hard to get a rhythm on.  But, the bog lead us out to roadway, and before we knew it Leslie and I saw the 'Six03' sign that indicated where the race trail differed from the SRKG trail to lead us to the day's end.  Leslie and I followed the Six03 sign, as well as the SRKG markings, and somehow found ourselves in Sunapee Harbor.  Without hesitating to figure out what went wrong, I asked someone at the local ice cream shop where the Sunapee Middle School was.  Ugghh, we had blown by a turn by about a half mile, and somehow ended up on trail again (and in the opposite direction as the race).  I was bummed, but also happy to be nearly done, as we ran downhill through the harbor and towards the Middle School and our finish line.  Ultimately, Leslie and I finished 2nd overall on the day (behind Brian) in 5:17, but with about a mile of bonus mileage in our legs.

My energy had run a bit low towards the end of the day, so I was pleased to be done for the day.  Brian and I set up camp and relaxed at the Sunapee Middle School as other runners trickled in throughout the afternoon. 

Day 3 - Sunapee Middle School to Ragged Mountain, 35ish miles

(Ok...maybe I'm was a bit punchy by Day 3)
Day 3 dawned and there was an influx of runners who were doing the last day only (which was also the USATF-NE Ultra Championships).  I was excited of the prospect of other runners to share miles with, but jealous of the spring they all appeared to have in their legs. 

As soon as the race started, a pack of runners surged ahead.  Leslie, Sam and I all fell into step together and continued our banter from the previous days.  On the slight uphills, we would slow to a power hike as we enviously watched the fresh-legged 50k runners easily bound up.  Surprisingly, only a few females were ahead of us.  Even more surprisingly, our little trio was content to share miles and just do our own thing even with the infusion of new folks to run with.  Our only other company was Abby and Tucker, who seemed to appear around every corner in the trail and join us for a few minutes to whatever roadway crossing we were nearing.

The first 11 miles or so were all rolling dirt road and passed quickly.  Then, the course turned into the trails and we enjoyed some super fun single track with soft pine needles underfoot and lush ferns lining the trails as we rolled upward.  The downhill on the backside of this was a beautiful cart trail next to a trickling river - it just felt so stereotypical of New England trails!  I ran out of water about a mile before the mile 20 aid station, so I was grateful to come upon the aid and refill my hydration pack.  That was a harsh reminder that the day was heating up and I needed to hydrate!  At that aid station, while Leslie and I had worked out way into 2nd place female, we saw the next 3 females behind us all reach the aid station before we left - the race was still tight!

(Beautiful scenery along the course)
The next section included a significant climb up Knob Peak, so our trio power hiked up and appreciated the fields, views, and stone walls along the way.  The top had wonderful granite slabs and views that went on for days, so we took a moment to take in this incredible view of NH.  On the technical rocky downhill, we started catching a few folks who went out a bit hard, and somehow Leslie and I dropped Sam in the process. 

(The Six03 crew that put the race on were AMAZING!)

At the bottom of the descent was a few miles of exposed dirt road and I started to bake.  I could feel my stomach sloshing and bloating as fluid wasn't being processed, but did my best to hold it together for Leslie.  After we crossed Rt. 4, I saw New Canada Road and knew we just had a few uphill miles on the dirt road before we turned up Ragged Mountain for the last climb.  However, about a half mile into New Canada Road, my stomach was so unhappy that I was walking when Leslie wanted to be running - I told her to go ahead, I was officially slowing her down at this point.  She also knew how close to the finish we were, and said that she simply wasn't finishing without me!  I was incredibly touched by her loyalty in that moment, we had come so far and shared so much together but she was willing to finish a little slower than her ability just to cross the line with me - what a true trail sister!

So, we struggled and power hiked (to the best of my ability) up New Canada Road and ultimately onto Ragged Mountain.  While I did my best to keep my spirits high, I was on the verge of puking and felt like crap.  We commented on how much longer the climb was this time - we didn't remember going over this many vistas or rocky scrambles, we kept thinking 'the sign is just around this corner, right?!?'  At least we got to enjoy the views that were hidden by fog on Day 1.  Finally, after what felt like forever of stumbling forward, we reached the 'Day 3 & 50k left, Day 1 right' sign and as anticipated I was so grateful to turn towards the finish line.  However, my smile was short lived as we realized that the 'trail' that we were following at this point was basically a bushwhack to connect the SRKG trail to the ski slope - so we were stumbling over blueberry bushes, loose terrain, and whatever else was in the way.  Finally, we reached the ski slope and it was all downhill to the finish.  Leslie and I cruised as we could hear the finish line announcer - glad to be done on this long day, and ultimately on our 3-day journey.  We cross the line holding hands, having run 17.5 hours together over 3-days, stride-for-stride the entire way, and tying for 2nd place overall (1st female) in the stage race, and each earning silver medal in the USATF-NE Ultra Championships.

(Leslie and I splitting up our winnings post-race)

And after all that running and all that time on the trails - my parting thought was of the amazing adventure I had out there.  We got to run through some beautiful and quintessential New England trails, a mix of everything that trail running has to offer and what makes trail running so much fun.  Through the stage racing atmosphere, all runners were hanging out every afternoon, eating meals together, brushing our teeth together, and you get to meet an incredible group of people along the way.  However, my fondest memories will be of sharing every stride with Leslie, and almost every stride with Sam - and the friendships that are somehow formed through competition, but especially when you leave thoughts of competition behind and truly experience the journey along the way.

(Beer never tasted so good!)

1 comment:

  1. I'm just now seeing this!! Fun to read almost a year later. It was such a great experience.