The StartJETC

Being both a small race–and this being the first year of the race–the Joe English Trail Challenge was not chip timed. Instead of using a traditional starting gate, which would have unfairly hurt those starting behind the first wave, the race director (RD) decided to do something a bit unorthodox. The RD had us line up on the field shoulder to shoulder for a track-like start, complete with pistol. As he counted down from ten you could feel the camaraderie as we chuckled about this unusual starting formation. BANG the pistol went off and the race began.

I took an early lead as the field narrowed to an unmaintained dirt road for the first 3-4k of the race. This section of the course is owned and maintained by Freestyle Farm where top-tier horses come with their riders to train. Not unexpectedly, this is also the only section of trail that we would get to see both going out and coming back; and thanks to a lengthy descent heading out, I got to think a lot on the returning ascents.

This was the first race that I was in the lead for any length of time. Leading took a physical toll for obvious reasons, but then it also took an unexpected and surprising mental one too. I hadn’t considered how stressful it could be to ‘lead’ a pack of runners along these paths. One missed turn and you detour the whole race down a wrong direction. Now looking back at it, the markers were quite blatant and easy to follow, but in the moment anything feels possible.

I quickly gave up the lead to a pack of four runners whom could clearly outpace me in the long run, but I kept with them for a while still high on adrenaline. Since this is a shorter race than I’m used to, and I’ve been feeling more competitive recently, I figured to would be fun to see how long I could negotiate a ‘red-line’ pace without blowing apart.

5k – 20k

Once we crossed into the Joe English reservation where we ditched the dirt road for single track, the course got interesting. As the path plummeted at something around a 60% grade, I realized that I might have to give up staying with the leaders. The first drop like that was reckless at the pace we were going. The second, longer drop at the same pace was just stupid. Nevertheless, being pushed from behind by another runner, I kept with the leading pack over these two drops and the next two river crossings (also reckless) before my pride gave in and I stepped aside and slowed my pace down. By the time we got to the 5k point just 23 minutes had passed (and dropped ~700 feet).

These trails are beautiful. Some people over use the term ‘single-track’, but let me make it clear that at the JETC that was not the case. Over the next 10k or so we raced over established but lightly used hiking trails.

Water and mud where constant companions throughout the course but never made much of an impact on the running. All the water crossings were shallow with bountiful rocks to hope upon.  There was one place where there was no choice but to jump into a sizable stream around the 17k mark, but by this time it didn’t make any difference since our shoes were already trashed. Jumping in actually felt pretty good too since the relatively warm 60-70F weather is still novel up here in New England.

Then the race moved on to a section of virgin, uncut single track, which was exciting and novel at first but soon wore out its welcome. So imagine bushwhacking through the NH hills with all the leaves, sticks, and rocks that you would expect in the early spring. That was what about 5k of the trail looked like. Not only did it make running difficult and taxing, owing to the compression of the leaves, but there was the inherent issue of everything looking exactly the same. With each step you could either find a couple inches of mud underfoot or the knee-racking shock of a rock. These were the slowest miles of the race. At least it kept the race interesting.

The End

The final 5k of the race was a loop back to the Freestyle Farm section that we came out on. I was running a pretty conservative pace by this point so that I could finish strong, and I kept thinking about the hill I noted on the way out and how my legs were pretty trashed by now. Oddly enough when I actually got to the hill it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered, it was actually pretty tame. A clear case of becoming desensitized by the numerous, worse hills we tackled while out on the single track of the reservation.

The end of a race is always my favorite, and the JETC was no exception. The surge you feel when tapping into a reserve you didn’t know you had, the finish line within sight, and the cheers and hollers of the spectators—there is nothing quite like it.

The finish-line food was extraordinary and a perfect finale to an excellent race. After refueling with some vegetarian chili topped with cheese, onion and corn bread, I chatted for a couple minutes with fellow runners before heading out. All toll I walked away virtually unscathed with just one good bruise and a couple cuts—the trail was kind to me. Again I am surprised to see just how well prepared the RD was for an inaugural race at this site. Both this and the Cape Cod Trail Race had, from what I could see, a flawless first year. I for one am definitely looking forward to competing here again.