Finding My Ultra 4.0 - Xterra Shepaug Race Report

The Xterra Shepaug Trail Race brought me back to my childhood as I found myself smiling and laughing  as I ran through puddles, jumped over down trees, charged and climbed uphills, launched over streams, evaded thorns, danced through mud and occasionally got lost. The Shepaug 25k was easily the most fun I have ever had at a race.

Long Island certainly has trails that can be utilized for mountain biking or running and I'm extremely fortunate to have trail access right out my front door but these trails are lacking.  The topography and environment simply don't provide what I want to run on or through and certainly can't prepare you for real trail running. I had an idea of what Connecticut could offer me and as such I signed up for the Xterra Shepaug 25k Trail Race in Bridgewater, Connecticut.  

I did my best to prepare for this race but found it difficult since there was limited information on the World Wide Web. It didn't take very long however to figure out what I was in store for.

I began my warm up about 20 minutes before the 8 a.m. scheduled start. I really wanted to put in a strong effort at this race as it was one of my last tune ups before Traprock.  The race director quickly went over the course before he calmly voiced, "Go".

The first 5k served as a prologue until we reached the woods.  The initial miles provided a sampling of what we could expect to find for the remaining miles; unpredictable and overgrown farmland, technical single track, water crossings, soft deep mud, patchwork roots, fire road, unused train track beds and bridge crossings.  This was truly a trail race and the exact type of adventure I was looking for.  If Long Island had trails that resembled these I would never run on pavement again.

With in the first mile a group of four of us had taken the lead and separated from the rest of the field. Everyone matched each other step for step as we quickly ticked off the first 5k.  I felt like a little kid as we ran through mud, leaped over water crossings and charged up the hills to conquer the castle. The lead in to the meat of the course was a 1.5 mile downhill run on pavement.  This was an excellent opportunity to shake out the initial pump from adrenaline and size up the competition.  After light conversation I realized that I was running with 2 locals, who both ran in High School/College and another who had prior experience on this course and ultra trail running.  My conclusion, let them set the pace, follow their lead and eventually hold on for dear life.

For roughly the next 5 miles we stayed lock step with no more than 2 stride lengths separating us.  The few occasions I picked my head up I felt compelled to stop and take pictures. The backdrop for this race was stunning.  I haven't found trails on Long Island that come close to mimicking those found in Connecticut.  The circumstances didn't warrant a pit stop for pictures however I certainly would love to return to take in and truly enjoy the surrounding. 

Right before the first and only aid station two from the group surged ahead.  Then there was a brief announcement from the Captain, "Passengers, please return to your seats and buckle your safety belt we are about to experience some turbulence." The race was about to begin.

Within the next two miles I had fallen to 4th but was only 40 yards behind the lead trio. I was hoping to stay within striking distance until we reached the 1.5 mile climb back to the final 5k.  The return trip home was definitely net uphill and much more of an adventure as some terrain had to be climbed and parts of the trail had become beaten up and super muddy.  There came a point around mile 10-11 where nature called and had to be answered.   A ten second pit stop and the lead group was out of sight. It was at this point that my mentality for the race started to change.  

I was able to catch sight of the lead group on the straighter sections so I was still with in reach however I had stopped caring.  I was running alone; bombing down hills, tip-toeing over rocks, dancing through mud, tightrope walking over planks of wood and bouncing on top of suspension bridges.  I was absolutely in the moment. I was running with a huge smile without a care in the world. Namaste.

I exited the woods onto the paved climb feeling alive. As I started the climb my mentality shifted back to racing as I was able to spot the 3rd place runner.  If I could put in a solid effort into town I could try and fight for a podium spot. 

The entrance to the final trail head was a top the climb, which also marked the turnaround for the 10k.  The final 5k retraced the initial 5k which was going to be a lot of fun. Do to the amount of traffic on this section smooth navigation became a challenge.  Sections of the trail had become mud baths, dry rocks used to cross the water sections were now soaked and covered in mud and once dry runnable sections were becoming consumed by the residue falling off of runners.  

Right around mile 13 there was an unmarked fork in the trail with clear tracks leading in both directions.  I opted to make a left and quickly attacked this downhill section in hopes of catching the 3rd runner.  I did my best to stay to the extreme sides of the mud baths which resulted in frequent encounters with thorns.  As strange as it sounds I enjoyed these encounters and laughed when they happened. After about 2-3 minutes I still did not notice any trail markings and decided I'd better back track.  The podium was more than likely out of the question however having more fun wasn't.  

For the final 2 miles I made sure to not avoid any of the obstacles.  I ran through the mud, water and thorns without a care in the world. I crossed the finish line smiling, sweaty, muddy and 5 minutes behind 3rd place.  

This was what running is all about.

Last tune up race is this coming weekend at The Paumonok Relay 70k in which I will be running roughly 50k.


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