Oh, Connecticut in autumn is ridiculously beautiful. If you get the chance, come be a “leaf peeper” in New England, the locals love it when you drive very slow on major roadways and suddenly pull on to the shoulder without signaling and throw your doors open to take pictures of the leaves! Yes, that’s all sarcasm there. Except for the first sentence, CT is rad in autumn.
Seriously though- I just spent ten years living in California and basically experienced 1.5 seasons every year; ten-and-a-half months of spring followed by a week of heat and then three weeks of rain. It’s great for running and general outdoors awesomeness, but c’mon- you know you love the splashes of mustard yellow, fiery vermilion and psychedelic salmon in the trees. That’s why people run The Bear 100, to see the aspens, right?
So what can I say about this race? First, it’s got a low key, old school vibe. It’s on some really technical trails covered in fallen leaves. It’s also got some very runnable single track and wide jeep roads. Throw in a few thousand feet of climbing (I came up with 3,176 feet per Strava) and you’ve got yourself a nice “fall classic” here in the Connecticut woods. Add the Connecticut area USATF Trail Ultra Championship to that list and the front of the field is fast, fast, fast!
So the race starts and finishes at an elementary school and after receiving some basic instructions from the RD, Mr. Bimble himself, we’re off for a quick lap around the perimeter of the soccer field. This is a pretty good idea that spreads out the runners before the road crossing and then funneling us on to a single track through the woods. Temps were perfect, in the low-to-mid 40s, gentle wind, partly sunny.
I locked into a conga line at around 8-to-9 minute pace with the front of the mid-packers, sort of where I always want to be (and where I always sort of end up anyway). I wanted to follow two basic rules; for the first half of the race- don’t be an idiot. For the second half- don’t be a wimp.
I talked to a couple guys before the race and they were like, “you know this race is a bit long, maybe almost 2 miles long…” I thought, “okay, no worries, I’ll just add 20 minutes to my goal time” and figured I’d just be a little more patient on going for it for like an extra mile. Yep, wait until mile 16-ish to start trying anything dumb.
Pretty uneventful through the early miles, there was an aid station about 3 miles in that I opted to skip, I had only taken maybe one sip of my water. I knew the next one was about 7 miles away and thought that I’d be fine for the next hour. I had a few gels on me and planned to re-stock myself at the aid station and just fill up on water and go.
About a mile before the next aid station I’d take my first wrong turn, we had to basically traverse this “rock” then wrap back around it and sort of snake our way down through this crack- it’s kind of hard to explain. All I know is that when I came to the bottom of it I went straight for about 30 seconds before my spidey senses started tingling big time- not only was I off course, I wasn’t even on a trail. I was just kind of meandering through the woods. There were a lot of times where you could easily lose the trail because a) it was completely covered by leaves and b) the flagging was orange, as was the majority of the leaves. Orange flags in an orange forest, go figure.
That being said this was a hard course to mark and was marked very well. After I got myself righted there was a nice little stretch of single-track, then a section of rock-hopping, a little more single-track, more rocks, then a road crossing then the aid station.
“Hi!” I exclaimed. “How we doing?” The aid station folks were really nice, offering cookies, PB&Js, Coke… but… no gels. “Hey, where are the gels?”
“Oh, we don’t have any…” I literally thought they were joking, and waited for the punchline. “Oh, you guys are serious…”
“Yep, sorry… I might have some in the car…”
“No, that’s okay, I’ll just… figure something else out… Umm…” My mind went frantic for a second as I scanned the table.
No gels? In an ultra? Where am I? Is this for real? Okay, settle down, think. THINK.
Coke. Lots of Coke. I filled my handheld with half Coke and half water. I slammed three small cups of Coke in quick succession, knowing that four ounces of Coke was about 50 calories. I took the knife that was in the jar of jelly, grabbed a chocolate chip cookie, slathered that in grape jelly and said thank you and was out.
Okay, I had one gel on me after taking one about 45 minutes in, I’ll do Coke until the next aid station in 6 miles, grab like 3-4 gels and stick to my original plan. They gotta have gels at the next aid, no big deal.
Luckily the biggest climb of the race was right here staring me in the face to get my head back into the game. This was a massive grunt up the “bluff” to the most stunning views of the valley underneath. I stopped a few times on the cliff side just to take the view in, and it was pretty awesome.
So I locked into a nice even pace here with an accomplished trail runner named Debbie from the Shenipsit Striders, we would spend the next 5-6 miles chatting away, which was great because this section was really technical- mostly leaf-covered rocks until a jeep road that led to a bridge over a creek crossing and then back on to mellow single track. I let her lead since she had run this race a bunch and she just hammered the downs like a billy goat, basically showing me where to put my feet. Thanks Debbie!
We were being funneled between a residential neighborhood on the left and some horse stables on the right, about a mile out from the aid station somewhere around mile 16. I was all out of water and Coke and took that gel, so I decided to start hammering a bit to get to that aid quicker.
I came up on a runner I had met a few weeks ago at Trader Joe’s (he saw my Bighorn 100 shirt and we got to talking about ultras) named Mark so we ran together for a few minutes, then I took off.
Okay, another aid station, let’s get some gels and water and get moving!
Guess what? No gels. Don’t panic. Drink a lot of Coke, again. Grab some salty potatoes, a lot of salty potatoes, throw them in a to-go Ziploc bag, get some Coke in your bottle with some water and get going.
Okay, there are no gels at this race. That’s unexpected but out of my control, so I better just let it go and keep using my alternate fuel source, which is working pretty well right now. Watered-down Coke. I was trying to think of their slogan but I don’t have a TV so I had the old ones going, like “Coke: the next generation” and “Coke: you got the right one, baby”. Maybe those are diet Coke slogans from the 80s, I have no idea. All I know is that I feel really good so I whipped out the iPod for some tasty tunes and really started to hammer.
And I go off course again. Dammit, dude- pay attention! This is the second time you lost the trail, so I back track and proceed to return to the conga line that I had left back at the aid station. Okay, recollect, be patient. Settle down. Just work your way up this climb.
I grind a few more miles and now I go, just really start to hammer. The tunes are cranking, the Coke is working, I’m feeling good. I know the aid station is somewhere around mile 23-ish, so my plan is to really work hard, get there, take care of myself and then just let it rip to the finish…
…and I go off course again, three minutes of following these weird tiny pink flags that were left over from a previous race or possibly a mountain bike event, because after about 90 seconds I realize I’m on a mountain bike course (I think the banked turns and a jump gave it away).
DUDE, PAY ATTENTION!
I get back to where I went off, of course it’s marked excellently with multiple flags and ribbons- I just freaking flaked on it. New England trails present you with a very important choice- look up at the wonderful fall foliage and search for flags or look down so you don’t break the shit out of your ankles. It’s an interesting conundrum over here, maybe I’ll eventually learn to do both. Luckily I kept my nerve and knew that I was only about a mile, maybe mile-and-a-half out from the aid. Just relax, because it’s going to start hurting once you leave that aid station.
So I pass another runner, he must’ve got me while I was wandering in the woods a minute, and we cruise down into the aid. There’s all these cool signs cheering runners on from the local clubs and whatnot, pretty inspiring. If I come back next year I’ll make myself a sign saying “stop going off course bro” or “bring your own gels”, you know- something like that.
So of course I (weakly) ask for gels, they say no (kinda already knew the answer), I eat some salty potatoes, slam some Coke, Mountain Dew and Gatorade, fill my handheld up with half Coke half water and as I’m about to leave I see the dude I got to the aid right after me take off. Then, best moment of the race for me: a trail angel gave me a package of Clif Blocks. “You’re my new best friend!” I said as I tore off down the trail. The kindness of strangers, y’all.
Okay, now I’m in hunt mode. I pass that guy back maybe a half mile out from the aid, then a few miles down the trail I caught another guy that had been running with the first woman, he was wearing a “2016 Oil Creek 100” shirt and I thought, “damn, this guy is a beast” because that race was like two weeks before this. There’s no way I could run a 50k 15 days after a 100-miler.
Then I caught another guy that was cramping really bad right around mile 27. I offered salt, but he was pretty miserable. Then off the jeep road back on to sweet single track, this is really where it’s time to start digging deep.
Passed another runner sitting on a rock here in the woods, I think he was experiencing a full-on bonk right about now. I’ve been there, bro. Then I come up on the last aid station, I just did Coke at this point, half a bottle, no water. Just put my head down and hammered. Hopefully I can catch a few more guys in the last two miles- so of course I’m looking up a lot more than I should because to go off course at the end of the race would be disastrous, I roll my ankle on a root.
Then like three minutes later I catch a toe and go flying. I’m hoping the end is nigh because I’m obviously having a tough time keeping my shit together. Then I see a guy off the side of the trail cheering me on, he looked familiar- he’s the guy from the first aid station that was going to get me a gel from his car (I should’ve let him). He says, “man, you passed a lot of runners!” I asked if there were any more guys ahead, he said no but first woman is like a minute up on me.
I thought, welp, I won’t catch her because she was running really strong all day. That and before I knew it I was hitting the road crossing and was back at the school and crossing the finish line.
If you’re looking for a low-key, old school ultra distance event in New England right smack in the middle of leaf peeping season, then the Bimbler’s Bluff 50k is your jam.