By Jeremy Merritt
In the spring of 2012, when I was struggling through three-mile runs in the mud and snow, the possibility that I would run the Wapack Trail Race—an 18-mile out-and-back course that traverses four mountains each way—seemed unlikely. But my buddy Tyler was training for the race, so I kept running, even as I told him there was no way I’d ever run that far. By the end of the summer, I had changed my tune and was ready to try longer runs, including Wapack. Unfortunately, life got in the way. I moved, started a new job, stopped running for a few weeks, and missed the race. Tyler ran alone. This year I was dead set on running it.
The race has a simple, low-key vibe. It’s only $15 to enter, and there are no course markings (other than the yellow triangles that mark the Wapack Trail, which you follow the entire time). But it’s no joke. The website warns, “You will need to follow using your own powers of observation; if you don’t watch out, you can get lost at a few spots. This is a very tough trail race. Don’t attempt it unless you are in excellent shape.” Okay then.
After a few words from the race director, including a warning to make sure we stocked up on liquids at the last aid station, 5.5 miles from the finish, we were off.
For 14 miles or so, the race was glorious, fun, and (relatively) pain-free. The course is primarily technical singletrack, and there’s a lot of climbing—about 3,700 feet in all. We started fast on a downhill along grassy doubletrack. Over the next mile, we climbed Barrett Mountain, which was steep but not overly technical. I couldn’t run the whole way, so I power-hiked, following cairns to the bald, rocky summit. At least, I thought we were at the summit. False summits became something of a theme of the race. At some point I lost the trail. Thankfully, one of the other two runners I was with found the trail and we were off again. Then we reached another “summit.” Over the next half-mile, we took turns leading each other the wrong way.
Eventually we returned to the trail. What goes up must come down, so next we flew down a very fast, very technical, and very fun hill. Halfway down, I passed a guy singing “Living on a Prayer” at the top of his lungs. Instead of singing, I kept telling myself “You ran Seven Sisters without falling. You’ll make it down this trail.”
When we reached the bottom, the trail leveled off and led to a series of boardwalks and bridges around the edge of Binney Pond. The scenery was gorgeous, but I was zipping along too fast to stop and enjoy it. From the pond, the trail opened up to a steady, manageable doubletrack incline, eventually reaching the first of the two aid stations (5.5 miles into the race). I kept thinking about how fast I would run this section on the way back. Even though my bottle was half full when I reached the aid station, I filled up, unsure what climbs lay between this stop and the next aid station at the turnaround point.
I took off for what I expected to be a huge climb up Watatic, the last of the four mountains. I vaguely remembered the race director mentioning something about not going all the way to the summit and instead bypassing it by going either left or right around mile eight. The climb wasn’t too bad, but I got lost for a bit figuring out the bypass.
When I got back on course, I realized I had one mile to go before the turnaround and that it was going to be a big downhill. I was going down, down, down. Tyler had warned me about the big climb out of the second aid station, and now I knew what he was talking about. The pounding resonated in my quads. I carefully dodged families out for dayhikes. At one point, my heels slipped out from under me and I fell backward. Amazingly, as I fell I watched the reaction of the hikers. They were clearly puzzled by the runners. I recovered, and soon I started to see the leaders making their way back to the finish. I had been expecting them for the last mile or so, and I kept count as they passed. By my count I was in 27th place.
The climb back up Watatic after the aid station was hard, but cheering other runners descending the hill and hearing them cheer for me helped lift me up and over the mountain. I even passed a couple of runners along the way.
I cruised the next couple of miles of downhill to the first aid-station we had passed and remembered the race director’s advice to stock up on liquids for the last 5.5-mile stretch. I asked a volunteer if the next 5.5 miles were harder on the way back. He mentioned something about 500 feet. I didn’t register it at the time, but he meant 500 feet of climbing over a mile after Binney Pond. That turned out to be my slowest mile—18 minutes of climbing what felt, at that point, like straight up.
Just before the climb began, I realized my feet had developed some serious hotspots. I felt like I was going to lose some toenails before this was over. I tripped a few times, which caused some tears to blisters and banged my already damaged nails. That’s when I adopted a mantra: “It’s just gonna hurt.” I repeated it over and over for the last several miles.
The mantra was fitting. Those last miles were very tough. My fast pace on the more runnable sections combined with the sheer exertion on the steeper climbs had tested my fitness and brought me to the point of exhaustion. Not the enlightened, Zen-like exhaustion that allows you to experience the world from a new perspective. No, this was dead-tired exhaustion. I was beat and beat-up. My feet burned. My quads screamed. I actually considered taking a quick nap. I repeated my mantra and pushed on.
After 3 hours and 45 minutes, I crossed the finish line, placing 25th overall. I met my stated goal of breaking four hours, but I failed to achieve my secret goal of breaking 3:30. I had clearly underestimated the course. I won’t make that mistake again next year.
You can find Jeremy Merritt exploring the trails of the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. Complete results for the race can be found here.