Over the past two years, it has become clear to me that New England is the epicenter of trail running in the United States. This tiny region of the country boasts the greatest number of trail races and the best talent you can find anywhere. Many of the top trail racers in the country call this area home. When the snow finally clears in April, the trail racing season begins. The Xterra Merrimack River (pronounced “Rivah”) trail race in Andover, MA signals the beginning of that season. This challenging 10 mile race features scenery second to none, hills to challenge the toughest quads, water, and MUD. Just as the Japanese have a distinct 5th flavor known as “umami“, New England has a distinct 5th season – MUD Season. It’s impossible to run in New England in April without getting wet and muddy.
Dave Dunham was kind enough to let me stay at his place in Bradford, MA, so that I wouldn’t have a 3 hour drive in the morning. Kevin Tilton from North Conway, NH was also staying at the house. They both turn in quite early (unlike myself, who refuses to adopt east coast time), so I found myself in bed by 10pm. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of heavy rain on the roof of the house. I’m not a big fan of getting wet while running, so my mind began to spin yarns about the perils that would await in the morning – April showers steal Tim’s powers. The rain continued till early morning making the course very soggy and boggy. In one spot, the river had even overflown it’s banks, making for a treacherous 20 foot knee deep water crossing.
At the gun, Kevin Tilton jumped right out in front and never let go of his lead. Kevin has been one of the top mountain and trail racers in the country for the last few years, and looks to turn in some very impressive performances this year. I wasn’t sure how much endurance I’d have in a 10 mile race with steep climbs, so I settled into 6th place at the start. The 5:20 pace felt good, so I put it in cruise control for the first 3 relatively flat miles. At the beginning of the 4th mile the hills began. After rocketing down the first of the steep downhills we came full speed upon a wooden plank bridge that was leaning to the right. This would have been difficult to negotiate in dry conditions, but the rain had turned the thin film of moss and algae that coated the bridge into greased lightning. The first step I took on the bridge had my feet flying out from under me. I was horizontal in the air before i crashed down hard on my knees on the bridge, then bounced backward into the rocky stream 3 feet below. The intense pain filled me with rage as I scrambled out of the brook and back onto the trail. My knees began to lock up almost immediately from the pounding they had just taken. I didn’t think I could finish the race in this condition, I could barely move my legs. A runner quickly caught me and overtook me. As he passed he said, “That must have hurt. Don’t give up, keep going”. I did my best to chase after him, but my legs were not cooperating anymore. I stumbled up the next hill as best I could, my knees were beginning to free up, but the pain was not subsiding. We came to another steep rocky downhill (my forté) and I let loose. It probably wasn’t the smartest choice, but I seldom make those choices. Within 30 seconds of the decline, I passed the runner that had passed me after the fall. As I went by he exclaimed, “Wow! Way to get back in there!”. I was not giving up on this one. My anger fueled me for the next two miles as we climbed several quad thrashing 30 to 40 percent slopes.
When I had reached the 5 mile turnaround point, I was relaxed and finding my rhythm again. I had made some good distance on the runners behind me and I was beginning to make ground on Ben Nephew (3rd place finisher) in front of me. Back over the hills we went. I charged up and down each one with reckless abandon. I still wasn’t sure if I had 10 miles of race endurance in me, so I wanted to make up as much ground as I could on the hills before the relatively flat and fast last 3 miles. At long last I found myself descending the last of the steep downhills, it would be relatively easy from this point on. Well, that was until I tripped on a root at the bottom of the downhill and flew shoulder first into a large pine tree. I bounced off and careened face first down the slope. The thumb pad of my right had took the force of my weight as i came down hard on a rock. My knees were again smashed by roots and rocks. Something sharp pierced the soft flesh on my right side. I scrambled up onto my feet with pure adrenaline, the pain was shooting all over my body. I tried to run, but so many things were beginning to lock up and swell that I couldn’t make a running stride. A runner flew by me and asked if I was alright. I wasn’t sure if I was. Trying to match his pace was an exercise in futility and he quickly disappeared. Shortly thereafter, Dan Verrington (one of the best masters racers in the country) passed me like a rocket, I couldn’t keep his pace either. I was watching my race fall apart and there was nothing I could do.
With two miles remaining, another runner passed me, the same gentleman that had passed me after the first fall. I had loosened up a bit and tried to go with him. I still couldn’t get a full stride, but I managed to pick up the pace. My last two miles were under six minutes each, but the three runners that had passed were easily outpacing me. I crossed the finish line in 7th place. Although I did not achieve the result that I had hoped for, my time was quite good, and the competition was as good as it gets. I am in much better shape than I had expected. The seven week break from running this winter, hasn’t set me back as far as I thought it might. Things are looking up. Let the healing begin.
Here is the Merrimack River Trail Race Video: