Sunrise was just beginning to reveal itself as we headed northbound on Route 3 toward New Hampshire on Saturday morning, Nov. 5, bound for the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in New Boston to run the Hamsterwheel. I had an unusual race morning feeling, something I’ve never experienced in my 10+ years of running trail ultramarathons: high hopes and no expectations.
I had good reason to feel that way. Nothing went according to plan in preparation for this race … not that there was a real plan to follow. I began the year itching to run a 100-miler, but never really settled on one. Virgil Crest in New York captured my interest, but it was the same weekend as my dad’s 80th birthday back in Kansas. Another was the Hawk 100, put on by my old trail club in Lawrence, Kansas, but it was the same weekend. Midstate Massive here in New England tempted me, too, but I dragged my feet too long to properly prepare to make a worthwhile effort on that brutal course. Then there was Mountaineer Rumble in South Carolina, but the idea of flying to a race when airlines have been canceling flights left and right left me disheartened to put my hopes in the hands of an unreliable airline.
All of that is to say, the Hamsterwheel was the last drivable option of the year where I could take a crack at that goal. I signed up for the 30-hour race with the hopes of going the full time and/or running 100 miles. Just a 90-minute drive from home, getting there wouldn’t be a problem. Plus, the four-mile out-and-back course would make a lot of the race-day logistics simple.
I never created a real plan to prepare for this race, which isn’t unusual for me as I haven’t had a scripted training plan for any ultras since 2013. I mostly have a rough idea in mind of what I think I need to try to accomplish each week while listening to my body to make sure I stay healthy. I followed that approach pretty well in July and August and established a pretty solid base.
The first bump in the road came in early August when a training race I planned to run, the East End 30K, was canceled. No worries, I figured. I signed up for the Joe English Twilight Challenge 6-hour race in early October to get another training day in a race environment while also getting some practice running at night. That race ultimately happened, but I wasn’t there. A woman – clearly sick with covid – sat across the aisle from us on our flight back from my dad’s birthday in mid-September. Unmasked, she hacked for much of the three-hour flight and rarely attempted to cover her mouth. Our masks could only do so much when sitting two feet from her in a confined space for that long. A few days later, both Alex and I were symptomatic and then tested positive for covid. We were both sick for about two weeks before testing negative, but lingering coughs kept us home for a third week and from running Joe English. Those three weeks were supposed to be my biggest block of training for Hamsterwheel with two 50-plus-mile weeks anticipated.
Coming off of covid and lost time, I tried to squeeze in a mini-ramp so I would at least have a chance to go for a while at Hamsterwheel. I ran 14 miles while taking photos of the wave starts at Midstate Massive while covering that race for MassUltra. A week later, I took a similar approach and ran 17 1/2 miles while covering Ghost Train. That effort matched my best bare-minimum ramps before winging a 50K race. I knew it was insufficient preparation for a 30-hour race and big mileage dreams. That was the reality of the situation.
Still, it was up to me to see the Hamsterwheel as an opportunity. What that opportunity looked like was uncertain during the drive on race morning, but I felt confident I’d figure it out as the day unfolded.
The good race day vibes began as soon as we arrived. We connected with Laura Ricci for setting up our base camps in the same area. Also there were fellow Trail Animals Annette Florczak and Durgesh Mankekar, along with Emily Kisicki, giving us a cheerful crew to share a camp right by the start/finish. Durgesh and Emily were in the 6-hour race, as was Alex, while Laura, Annette and I were all signed up for the 30-hour with varying goals for the weekend.
I planned to take the loops pretty easy, throwing in some walk breaks to keep myself honest on pace. I also planned to stop to eat something at the end of every loop – real food, not gels or chews – to keep my energy level up and my stomach happy for as long as possible. The short breaks to walk or eat proved successful for my pace and nutrition, but also for managing the heat on an unseasonably warm day that climbed into the mid-70s.
In terms of pacing strategy, I thought completing seven laps (28 miles) within the first six hours would mean I was having a pretty good day. I ultimately was right on target with that approach. Alex and I walked the eighth loop as a snack break for me and a cooldown for her as she closed out the 6-hour. After that, I was back to a run/walk mix for the next few hours. My feet began to really hurt around the seventh or eighth hour. The Salomon Sense Rides apparently aren’t meant to be an ultra-long-distance shoe, especially on this hard of a surface. My calves and Achilles were also getting a little cranky, though using the rolling stick got them back on track on multiple occasions and allowed me to continue.
Though I entered the weekend hoping that something special would happen – “special” being undefined – it was clear to me that the “special” outcome would not be 100 miles. I knew I didn’t deserve that distance based on my preparation, and to go for it on this day would risk injury. Still, I remained in a hood head space throughout the day and my nutrition was good, so I knew “something special” was definitely in the cards. I was starting to figure out what that looked like for me. Around mile 44 I identified a goal that felt realistic and meaningful and that excited me: 64 miles.
Sixty-four miles would mean 16 laps and a “heavy” 100K finish, a couple steps shy of 103K to be precise. My legs had only gone farther than that once before (81.7 miles at the 2019 Notchview Ultra 48-hour race when I took two breaks to sleep and hiked every step while recovering from knee issues), and my legs hadn’t given me that many miles in one continuous push since the CCC 101K in 2017.
It was going to hurt to get to that number, but it felt attainable and consequential – a milestone that I could build upon. Lap 13 was agony for my feet, and I ultimately ditched the Sense Rides for an old pair of Brooks Adrenalines to wear during my final few laps. Their extra cushion helped initially, but the damage was done. My spurts of running dwindled during laps 14 and 15, going from a quarter-mile here, quarter-mile there, to brief spurts of a tenth of a mile at most. My pit stops after each loop were taking longer; I was still eating, but definitely sitting too long which made starting the next lap harder. When I finished lap 15, I grabbed a quick snack and headed back out. It was my shortest pause between laps since earlier in the day. My hamstrings were giving me problems and my Achilles were very unhappy. I wanted to just get going and finish this thing.
Strangely, I had a few minutes early in lap 16 where I thought I was feeling a bit better and toyed with the idea of doing one or two more laps. Then the right Achilles started barking at me again and I felt like it was my body warning me that I’d better listen to it – I’d asked a lot of it and it had responded, but it was at its limit. I’d done a 17 1/2-mile long run coming in and my body had given me nearly 50 extra miles on top of that. Don’t be greedy, my body was telling me; be grateful.
And grateful I was. I was grateful to reach the turnaround for that final time, grateful to climb the short hill with about six-tenths of a mile remaining, and grateful to see the glow of base camp as I passed above it before dropping in to the finish. I was grateful to cross the finish line that last time, knowing I could do more if I wanted to but feeling content with what my body gave me.
I was grateful to grab a bowl of mac and cheese, plop down in a chair, and chat with Annette for a while. I was grateful to crawl into my tent and doze off for a bit. I was grateful to wake up in the morning, crawl out of the tent, set up my camp chair and cheer on Laura as she continued onward toward her 120-mile finish, as well as to cheer on Cody Cutler as he passed again and again on his way to 144 miles.
During the drive home, and in the couple days that have followed, I’ve constantly looked back at the weekend and reflected on how it all played out. There were so many small victories worth celebrating. I ate better than I ever have during an ultra. I hydrated well enough on a hot day that I avoided cramping. My stomach was happy throughout the race and I was in a good headspace the entire time. I hit the 50K mark in about 6:47, giving me my first sub-7-hour 50K since 2017. My legs gave me their most miles in one continuous push since 2017, and I finished my third 100K, all of them “heavy” on the mileage.
Ultimately, I came away from it no worse for the wear. I have some extremely tight hip flexors, cranky Achilles tendons and hamstrings, ankles that feel a little jammed, and tender feet, but nothing particularly painful or concerning and nothing that a little rest and recovery won’t cure.
The race also reminded my body of the sort of beating it needs to be prepared to take and withstand if I am ultimately going to achieve the 100-mile distance. That means preparation – time and miles – that my legs and body didn’t get this year, and that I haven’t had since preparing for the Worlds End 100K in 2016 and the CCC 101K in 2017.
I came away from the Hamsterwheel happy, healthy, and optimistic that this will be the springboard I need for the year ahead. Now it’s time to start dreaming and time to start planning for 2023.