Sulphur Springs Trail Run Preview and Strategy

On Saturday I’m running the Sulphur Springs Trail Run put on by Burlington Runners. The race has distances of 10k, 25k, 50k, 50mi, and 100mi. Awesome. I wanted to do the 50k, but after some sober thinking I decided the 25k was enough- no point killing myself jumping from a 30k road race to a 50k trail race in 2 months.

Based on my hungover MEC 12.5 trail race result (race report here) I figured I could aim for a 5min/km pace at Sulphur Springs. That is about 20sec/km slower than my 30k pace from Around the Bay and would put me in the 2h05min time range. This is the plan, anyway. However, I’m questioning my fitness right now. This might be due to the fact that my long/easy pace on trails is 20-30sec/km slower than it is on roads. For example, the last couple of long runs I did for Around the Bay were in the 5:00-5:15/km range, and these trail runs are closer to 5:30-5:40/km (some Strava data here and here). I’m not used to that pace, even on recovery runs, so it has me feeling a bit low and wondering if I can knock out 5:00-5:10kms on race day with the elevation changes and terrain. I’ve not yet questioned if I can keep a goal pace before a race. Usually I worry about whether I can keep it long enough or if I will blow up, or nutrition issues. So this is the first time I’m headed to a race with shaky confidence.

I’ve also suffered a bit of an injury, some inflammation on the outside, lower bit of my knee, where that big muscle on the front outside of your shin connects to the boney bump just below the knee. It hurts mostly at near-full extension, so I think I can run through it. I’m resting this week, hopefully I can get a short run in before Saturday to test it out. If not, I’m going in hurt and am just going to have t see what happens.

Regardless, my plan is to run balls to the wall on Saturday. I know I can cover the distance at race speeds (2:19 30k at Around the Bay), and I’ve put in some good time on the trails, if  those miles were bit slow.

I’m breaking the route into 4 sections:

Section 1: 5km “Spur”

The route starts with a 5km “spur” that heads down Martin rd. hill-no joke of a hill- and out Headwaters trail a little bit then back. The section on Headwaters is entirely runnable, but the climb back up to the start line that early in the race is a bit of a killer. Also, starting the race on a big downhill might thrash your quads very early on. My strategy here will be a measured effort down the hill, then some good running followed by a steady effort back up the hill. I think. I don’t really have a plan for climbing Martin Rd. the first time. We’ll see what happens.

Section 2:  Start/Finish-Main Loop-Monarch-Sulphur Creek-Main Loop (Km5-12-ish)

Once done with the spur, the 25km route does one lap of the 20km course. We go back down the hill and then take some runnable, rolling terrain along Hilltop trail and Lookout trail before joining the Main Loop in time for what I called in my MEC Race Report The Hermitage Climb and The Peak. I plan to take my first gel on the runnable stretch before the hills, this will be around km 7. I think. These hills are both tough, but there’s room to recover after them. I had to power walk up sections of both of these on the second lap of the MEC 12.5km race, but I know if I keep my head here they are entirely runnable.

After those two climbs there is a very runnable stretch along Monarch Trail that gets tough when it turns onto Sulphur Creek Trail. At this point the trail heads downhill very steeply via a muddy section with a natural spring in the trail and then back up very quickly before taking 3 or 4 tough rollers along Sulphur Creek Trail. The descent from Monarch-Spring Creek is tricky footing, but if you’re willing to get muddy you can stay to the uphill side of the trail and bomb through the creek part. The really difficult part is the steep, nearly straight single track the rest of the way down that is littered with roots and rocks. I’ve taken this section at various speeds during training and am mostly confident on it. If there are no runners in front of me to crash into I’ll just bomb down it- I can take a fall- but if it’s crowded then I’ll go with the flow.

The rolling hills along Sulphur Creek Trail are not easy, and this is where I took a big spill on one of my training runs. Most of the uphills have some mud down the middle of the trail, and ditto for the downhills. Running downhill fast in the slippery mud is tricky, so there’s a tendency to run on the drier, raised sides of the trail. However, these are littered with tree roots, AKA booby traps for runners. Aside from the first climb up to Sulphur Creek Trail I don’t think this bit is too hard, but it’s easy to get caught up here and let your heart rate rise. If I can keep my breathing steady along here I’ll know I’m where I want to be.

Section 3: Main Loop to Headwaters 

After joining the Main Loop again and taking the DVCA Switchbacks we head out back along Headwaters. This is somewhat hilly but you can still fly through here, and there is plenty of time to recover from the switchbacks. From there we take a quick but hilly section along Reforestation and G. Donald Trail and then uphill via Martin Road to re-join Headwaters. Reforestation has a couple singletrack-ish climbs and descents, but you can run it pretty hard if you’ve got quick feet. The real obstacle is that it ends on a pretty good climb back to up to meet G. Donald Trail. The hill is a straight shot so you can see the top and it looks pretty daunting. But I think it looks worse than it is. I’m going to run hard up it, since there’s enough time to recover along the muddy but not-overly-difficult G. Donald Trail. I would characterize this section as ‘tricky’ more than tough.

Reforestation was mostly dry on the weekend, but G. Donald had some nice mud patches. After a slight climb on G. Donald we take a single track downhill to join Old Martin rd. This section is technically difficult, since it’s downhill and narrow. I’ll probably run cautious here. On the weekend there was a tree down across the route here. Maybe the trail marking crew will remove it, maybe not. The tree isn’t big enough to have to use your hands but big enough that you’ll have to jump it or step on top- if I remember correctly. Old Martin rd. is crappy running, it’s clay-like and has been worn down by bikes and runoff, so you’re constantly going left-to-right and in and out of ditches and stuff. Eventually the road gets better, and when it does prepare for a short climb and then a right turn to Headwaters trail.

Somewhere along Martin road before the hill I want to take my 2nd gel, around km 15 -16.

Ya, it's muddy out there. This was after running through a couple creeks that washed a lot of it away.

Ya, it’s muddy out there. This was after running through a couple creeks that washed a lot of it away.

Section 4: Headwaters to Finish

Headwaters on the outward stretch is pretty quick running if you can avoid the roots and mud, but then you hit Three Sisters on The Lollipop section, and this is some of the hardest climbing on the course. It’s a set of hills (there’s more than three though) that has you climbing for probably a mile. Just remember that you’re not done climbing until you come out of the forest to the orchard, but that even then there’s another hill a few hundred meters down the line. I want to take my time here and then make it back by bombing down the hill at a hard effort. The downhill is wide enough that you can let it rip, but watch out for tricky footing on rocks. There’s enough time to recover between that downhill and the final climb up Martin rd that I think I can really push it there and make up some time if the legs are up for it. There is a bit of a hill at the end of Headwaters to re-join Martin rd., but you can scramble up it pretty quickly.

Putting the start/finish line at the top of Martin rd. hill is kind of cruel, as it’s a big, switchback-ing hill that is deceptively large: each time you reach a corner you think you’re nearly there, but it keeps going. I want to take this hill slow at first and the gain speed as I climb. It’s the end of the race so if about halfway up I’m burning and puffing I’m just going to dig into the pain cave and push hard. If you’re suffering, run harder.

Have you run Sulphur Springs before? Do you know those trails? What’s your strategy? Leave any tips or comments below!

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