I've done the Salomon Wascally Wabbit 50 miler 5 times now, only missing it twice since its inception, and for one reason or another I've had some of my best races there. It's typically my first ultra of the season, and lately for me it has come right after completing my annual spring tune up marathon, either, Boston or Fredericton. This distance (50 miles) seems to be a sweet spot for me as it's long enough that I consciously slow down to a maintainable pace, but short enough time-wise that I feel like I can push reasonably hard for the duration.
The course this year was held in Wentworth on a network of snowmobile/atv trails. It was held here for the first time last year, and the location was so well received by the runners, Jodi decided to keep it there. Compared to past Wascally courses, this one did have some similarities. It was a looped course, albeit larger than in the early years, using a 27.5k loop this year. Like in previous years, the course was a mix of fire road, smooth trails and technical trails. The new course however is a little slower to travel than previous editions as it has more elevation change, probably more than double that of the old courses, and it also had a little more mud and water to travel through, but in exchange for the enhanced difficulty, it was a much prettier course with beautiful streams and waterfalls along the way. It had us running under the canopy of mature softwood stands and beautiful hardwood forests. In places some of the old roads were covered in thick ferns and tall grass leaving a small narrow passage of smooth buttery singletrack-like trail on one side of the old road. All-in-all the course was a very enjoyable one to run, although at times, it was easy to get frustrated with the long deep puddles that slowed momentum and messed with the natural running rhythm.
Loop 1 (First 27.5k)
Despite all the distances starting together, I started out the race near the front, not wanting to get caught behind lots of people on technical trails. I knew we had 3k uphill on fire road before getting into the more technical terrain, so I ran up the hill just hard enough to stay ahead of the masses. I was pretty sure I was the first 50 miler, and could see two of the 50k-ers, Matthias and Colin ahead of me a short distance. I assumed everyone else was running 27.5k. I caught up to Colin and we chatted for a while from about 6k all the way to Gerry's cabin at 14.5k. Colin was doing his first trail race and first ultra and was running super well. Our pace was nice and casual and knowing how strong Matthias was in the marathon I told Colin that I fully expected Matthias to be 10-15 minutes faster than the pace we were currently going. But I also had predicted that if we continued at this pace we'd catch Matthias late into loop 2. This was really just a hunch based on what I'd seen on the course so far, the mud, the steep hills, I just didn't believe road running legs would hold up to this abuse for 55k but I've been wrong many times before. Sorry Matthias and Colin, if you're reading this, no disrespect was meant by this. As we left Gerry's we came up against the beast of a hill, which was so steep it forced a hike. I attacked the hill hiking with intention and caught up to several people here. I also dropped Colin at this point. I really figured he'd catch back up once we hit the flat section or the road. The next 7-9k section was a pretty waterlogged ATV trail, mostly downhill. I was still running all the modest hills. I assessed each hill as it came and asked myself if I thought I could run it on loop 3 and if my answer was yes I ran it, if it was no, I walked it. I must have felt cocky, er I mean confidant, because I didn't walk much on loop 1. I figured 2:45 to 3 hours per lap would be plenty fast for this course so when I hit the gravel road (~22.5k) I looked at my watch and saw ~2:14 elapsed. I estimated the last 5k of the loop would be less than 25 minutes so I knew I was a bit fast, but I felt really good so I didn't worry about it. The last 3k overlaps the first 3k of the loop so as I went past Krista at the 3k turn. At this point I started looking for Matthias as I wanted to see how far he was ahead. I was doing this because for some reason I had made an arbitrary silly goal for the day to be leading both the 55k and the 82.5k race by the end of the second loop (55k). This was purely for my ego, but it also gave me someone to chase, like a real wabbit :) As I got closer to the start/finish, I still didn't see Matthias so I was wondering what was going on. Although I thought it was unlikely that he covered 6k more than I had, the thought did cross my mind. That would have put him past the 3k turn at the beginning of loop 2, making it very unlikely that I'd catch him. Then, about 400m before getting to the aid station I see him starting his second loop. I closed out this loop solidly at 2:38. As I refilled my water and gels I chatted a few minutes with Jodi and told him I'd definitely catch Matthias this loop. He wasn't convinced. Matthias had finished that loop 10 minutes ahead of me and used that time to rest up a bit. The way I saw it, Matthias ran about what I predicted for the first loop, but instead of staying ahead he squandered his lead by staying in the aid station. Jodi then says to me: "There's no way he'll let you pass him". I smiled and said: "you'll see" and left with a big grin on my face. Had I not felt as good as I did I would not have made this claim openly, but I had a feeling this was gonna be a good day. My legs felt loose and relaxed and I had been fueling and hydrating very well. I had a feeling things were gonna go well.
Loop 2 (27.5k - 55k)
I left the aid station after a couple of minutes and began the 3k road climb up to the turn. and I could feel the sun getting hotter. I was thinking long and hard about whether I should be walking this hill. Since I still believed I could run most of it on loop 3, I sucked it up and kept running. I reached the turn, feeling a bit gassed from the long hill, but knew I'd get a break once I got into the muddy descent. This next kilometer was probably one of the slowest of the whole loop as it was a very rough and extremely muddy four wheeler trail. Around the 5k mark I heard splashing ahead and when I looked up I recognized Matthias. To be honest I was very surprized as I really didn't think I'd see him till after Gerry's cabin. I got behind him and we exchanged names since we hadn't officially met yet, and chatted as we ran the next 10k together. I knew who he was, even though I'd never met him, but he probably didn't know me. Matthias had run the Fredericton Marathon last year and he was near the front of the race chasing down my training partner Ryan, so ever since then I've known his name. During this stretch I was pushing the pace a bit as I was feeling great. It may have been a bit faster than Matthias had been running but he was still running quite well. Around 13.5k into the loop there's a big downhill leading to Gerry's cabin. I lead us down the hill and we stopped to get a drink and a snack from Tanya and Brennon at Gerry's cabin. I hiked out of there with intent, and by the time I reached the top I couldn't see Matthias but figured he wasn't all that far back. This was my chance to create a bit of a lead and see if he's got anything left in the tank. I took off running and didn't look back. I hit the gravel road (~50k / 22.5k into loop 2) and looked at my watch. Just under 5 hours. This was perfect, as I should be back to the start/finish by 5:25 elapsed, keeping my average lap time under 2:45. I still felt great as I cruised up and down the first set of rolling hills on this road. With 3k left in this loop, I felt so good I was maintaining 4:10-4:15min/km going down to the finish area. I accomplished my first goal of leading the race to 55k, now I still had to complete one more loop without falling apart. A tall order to fill for sure, and I had no one to chase this time. Jodi said: "Good job". I smiled back and drank about a liter of cold powerade, refilled my vest with water and more gels and grabbed my head lamp. I was probably only stopped for 3-4 minutes, but I didn't want to wait around too long. Jodi later told me he bet against me getting back before Matthias. (Jodi: I hope you didn't lose a lot of money! :))
Loop 3 (55k to 82.5k)
I was now all alone, and knew I would be alone for the whole loop. I was starting to feel the miles and was starting to wonder if I'd gone out too hard earlier in the race. I was staring up the 3k hill cursing my weakened legs, while walking the few steeper bits. As I got close to the 3k turn, I saw Matthias coming down the hill. We high fived each other and encouraged each other to finish strong. Not too long after passing Matthias, I crossed another runner who was running well. This would turn out to be 2nd place runner Mike Gfeller. I figured he must have run smart and was making time on Matthias. As I took the turn at the 3k, I knew I likely wouldn't see anyone till Gerry's cabin, so I just tried to break up the last loop into small segments and focused on each little section. My arches were hurting at this point so I stopped to loosen my laces. That made the world of difference, instant relief. Shortly into the muddy section, I caught up to one of the sweeper mountain bikers, Andrew, and passed him quite easily through this section. A few kms later he went ripping by me on a nice smooth decent. After a large brook crossing the trail meandered up the hill for a few kms and I caught back up to Andrew and passed him for some reason. Andrew was my new Wabbit :). He passed me back in the next kilometer and I chased him again. Andrew stopped before we got to Gerry's cabin, but that little cat and mouse game had helped take my mind of how tired I was. This section was also noticeably more uphill than I remembered from the previous to laps. As I got down to the cabin I checked my watch, just a hair over 7 hours into the race. This also meant I was about 95 minutes to the cabin from the start of the loop, which was only a few minutes slower than I had done it in the first two loops. I thought that was pretty good. I grabbed a few Powergels (black current flavor) and drank some coke before bidding farewell to Tanya and Brennon for the last time. I began hiking up the hill and had noticeably less pep in my legs this time around. (Jodi, if you're reading this, I ran the whole damn thing just like I said I would; I wish) I got to the top and it took me a few seconds to get my legs rolling again, but they did cooperate, and away I went, counting down the next 8k of trail before I would come out on the gravel road. I decided to try one of these fancy black current powergels at this point. As I squirted the first half into my mouth, I nearly gagged and threw up. These were the second worst gels I've ever had, and I've had a lot of gels in my career. In fact that was my 13th gel of the day. It was extremely sweet, and also had a bit of a fizzy/tangy thing going on that I really didn't enjoy. It must of had a good dose of caffeine though cause I started feeling a boost shortly after taking it (I later checked and they had 50mg of caffeine!!, oh and for reference, the worst gel I ever had was a Vega vegan chocolate gel). I wasn't moving effortlessly anymore but I was still running. During this stretch the side of my left knee really started to hurt. I figured it was just all the mud and off camber steps, but if it got worse I'd have to walk it in, and I wasn't looking forward to that. I knew the puddles and streams by heart at this point and knew which ones were deep and where the little side paths were. I was getting noticeably more clumsy getting around the puddles so I was mostly just going right through the middle of each one. I looked at my watch and as it got close to 8 hours I figured I'd be at the gravel road. And finally, just a bit past the 8 hour mark I got on the road and picked up the pace knowing I only had 5k to close this thing out. My left knee was still bugging me, but I was quite sure this pain would subside once I got cruising on the nice smooth gravel road. I wasn't breaking any land speed records on this 5k, but I did manage some pretty good km splits running 4:44, 4:20 and 4:14 kms to finish up the last downhill stretch. My knee pain did in fact go away. I rolled in right around 8:25 elapsed time and in first place. My strava calculated loop splits at 2:38, 2:42 and 2:57 (and obviously there was 8-9 mins of aid station time on top of that).
This was another great race that couldn't have played out much better. Thanks Jodi and Karine for organizing these crazy races and thanks to the volunteers out on the course: Tanya + Brennon, Krista, Andrew, Colin, Jodi's dad Dwight and Eta?, and all the others that helped make this the awesome race it was.