I headed down to Stafford, CT this weekend to run the Soapstone Mountain 14.5m trail race. This would be my longest run all year (actually, it would be my longest run since 2006). It would also be my 3rd weekend in a row doing races over 12m (Seven Sisters, Big Lake and now Soapstone).
I knew little about the course except there was a monster climb early in the race but overall a fairly runnable race (unlike Seven Sisters).
Beautiful weather for a trail race. Sunny with a nice breeze with temps probably in the low 60's. Registration was busy but I wasn't entirely sure how many were doing the long race. There was also a 4 mile 'sampler' trail race that started right after the 14.5m race. Although I didn't see anyone I actually knew (probably not many New Hampshire runners down here in Connecticut), I did see quite a few familiar faces from previous races. I took a spot near the front, trying to size up the various runners and their abilities.
The 1st mile runs along a mostly flat dirt road before turning sharply onto a more 'traditional' hiking trail. From there it starts a slow accent towards Soapstone Mountain (I think). I was in a fairly large pack but we had a good pace going. After crossing our first road the trail makes another sharp right and WHAM, what a view! I near vertical 1/4 to 1/2 mile climb straight up a slope. I wish I had a camera though. What a picture, a stream of runners climbing single file up this monster. I think we could see the entire field in front of us all on the same trail.
Once at the top we ran by the observation tower of Soapstone Mt (again...I think) and then headed down steeply but not as steep as the accent. It was then a roller coaster trail of ups and downs through the woods, but nice enough to run at a fairly decent pace. At the 3.6m mark we came to the first (or was that the second) checkpoint, grabbed some water and continued on. At times the course was hard to follow. We were instructed to follow the White Dot trail unless we saw pink ribbons hanging from the branches. The ribbons were an indication of a change in direction. Although the White Dot trail was generally well marked, there were lots of side trails, openings, etc.. that sometimes got you a little confused as to which way to go. More than once I had to backtrack because I missed a turn (usually marked with the ribbons).
Around the 5 mile point I found myself running with a group of 6-8 runners, including the race director. She was very helpful, letting the rest of us know which way the trail went when it was not so apparent. At one point we came across a pink ribbon, turned and followed the ribbons through the woods. It was a total bushwhack, no trail, just ribbons. Interesting, I thought, nice change of pace. We continued on switchbacking back and forth following the ribbons and eventually hooked back up with the main White Dot trail. I took a Stinger Gold gel (honey, actually), felt an instant energy boost and decided to take the lead in our little chase pack. Then a strange thing happened: I started passing people I either passed previously OR started behind me at the start. I immediately assumed they must of cut the corner and skipped the bushwhack section. It never occurred to me that maybe WE made a mistake, especially since our group had the RD with us. Either we lost or they gained a bunch of time and I was not happy. Runners should NEVER get lost on a course. No excuse. The race course must be clearly marked and never should a mistake gain you an advantage. For the next 8 miles I managed to stay ahead of my group (thankfully) and continued to pick off additional runners...runners for the most part I'd already passed once today.
This course had a little of everything though and was not lacking in the mud department. There was some serious mud in sections and most was hard to avoid. It also followed a mountain stream bed down one section of a mountain. When I say followed, I mean the stream bed WAS the trail, and it wasn't dry. Amazingly I managed to get through it without a slip or fall.
I reached the last checkpoint (mile 11.6) around 1:30 into the race. "2.9 miles to go" yelled the volunteer. I was exhausted by this point and I could feel the blisters forming on my wet feet. The trail turned mostly to a single track by this point. I passed a few more runners and then the trail looped back on itself so you could see the runners coming up the hill as you were going down. I saw the group I ran with earlier...but I couldn't tell if they were catching me.
I think we came up over Soapstone Mountain again, at least it looked familiar. We descended steeply and eventually joined up with a paved road and followed it for a 1/2 mile or so, eventually joining up with a dirt road again. I think we ran on part of this at the beginning of the race. The race then left the dirt road, and followed a single track nearly all the way back to the finish line, crossing a short pasture and then finishing at some out buildings of the riding club (same place we registered at).
FINISH TIME: 2:07:23, 21st overall out of 149 finishers
After finishing and grabbing a bit to eat (nice picnic feast!) I chatted with some fellow runners and the RD (there were two actually). Turns out WE took the wrong trail with the bushwhack side track. The RD figures we probably lost 5-7 minutes with our adventure. Not sure how the RD can get lost on her own course but I don't think it was her fault. Someone clearly marked a trail, using the same color ribbons as the actual course. Thankfully it brought us back to the original trail. I heard some other runners say they went nearly 3 miles off track somewhere out there. I think I also heard the eventual winner was fooled by this bushwhack trail as well. I wasn't really mad about it though. I had a great time. This was an awesome race, a beautiful course and my favorite trail race so far. It was definitely worth the trip down from New Hampshire.