• 2023 XTERRA Sugarloaf Trail Marathon

    A tough, beautiful course in my backyard!

Blog Author Photo
Become a Patron! race midpoint on Carrabassett Stream

This year, when XTERRA decided to relocate its trail running world championship to Maine, I was stoked. The race would happen at Sugarloaf, less than an hour from my front door! I signed up for the this race in February, almost as soon as I heard about it. The marathon was going to offer everything I wanted in a trail race: I could wake up in my own bed, run all day, see the pros out on the course, get Rolling Fatties for dinner, and then sleep in my own bed. 

I run in Carrabassett Valley pretty regularly in the summer. I have a couple of favorite long loops on the CRNEMBA trails that I use for training runs or day-long adventures. This year, I stayed away from some of my favorite singletrack out there, at first because the season started so wet that the trails were too susceptible to damage, but later so that I could save them to feel fresh and fun on race day. 

As the race approached and XTERRA released details about the course, there was plenty to smile about and plenty to make me nervous about the challenge. The good news was that the marathoners and half-marathoners share a loop and, even better, the extra mileage for the marathoners uses a route that I have been running regularly for ten years. I was definitely going to have course familiarity on my side.

The shared loop, however, was in unfamiliar terrain for me. The first 10k summits and descends Sugarloaf. I am not an alpine skier, so this part of the course was a lot of navigational work to scout on a training run. The rest of the shared loop winds through the Outdoor Center. I've seen these trails on skis and snowshoes, but I haven't really explored the facility in summer. 

The biggest challenge was going to be the 4-hour cutoff at the 15k checkpoint. Bea Q and I scouted the first 10k in about four hours, which made me nervous. I knew we spent a lot of time on navigation, but could I make up 45-60 minutes to make the cutoff comfortably? Analyzing my data from that run, I was guessing that a flagged course could save me 35ish min and that I was just going to have to take some risks to come up with the rest. I didn't especially want to start too fast on such a burly course, but I'd have time to slow down and recover if I could just make that first 15k. Bea Q, who qualified for the elite field when we ran Pineland earlier in the season, had faith I could do it, but it was hard to relax and trust her judgment. 

Race day I was nervous enough that I forgot to put on sunscreen before the start! I power-hiked up Sugarloaf relying entirely on Tailwind; in fact, I was planning on using primarily (or entirely) liquid nutrition to be able to keep moving while I was fueling. I couldn't rely on stopping at aid stations unless I was moving fast enough to make the cutoff.

By the time I summitted, I knew I was going to have a great day! I was hitting time benchmarks that put the 15k cutoff in easy reach. That let me snack harder, which in turn made the cutoff even more probable--fuel makes you fast! I was descending the hardest pitches, beaming about how well things were going, when the elites from the half marathon (it started an hour after my race) began passing through. Andy Wacker was moving so fast he blew my pigtails back! It was pretty amazing, watching the pros float along on steep scree that I was moving much more conservatively through. 

Around 8k, I had finished descending the steepest alpine and enduro trails and started running in earnest down a cross-cut when I found my wife and running family cheering trailside. I had time to stash my running poles and finally get on some sunscreen while I chatted with them for a moment. Then, off to explore the Outdoor Center.

I am going to make the Outdoor Center trails a much more regular part of my training routine. What fun! As more half=marathoners continued to pass, the race threaded through a flowy combination of nordic and singletrack trails. After a banana at the warming hut aid station, I ran the mile to the welcome center--trails that looked so unfamiliar without snow!--and checked in with my family before continuing on to the marathon loop.

It was just as lovely as I had imagined, spending 20k on familiar trails in fall foliage. Because we separated from the half marathoners, the trails became quiet. I saw a deer on my climb up Crommett's and only spotted other runners and the bikes sweep periodically. The only unanticipated challenge in this section was the mud. It's been an astonishingly wet spring and summer in Maine, and mud holes that usually close by June were still super squishy in October. I'm not prone to blisters, so I didn't do any prep on my feet for this race, but the steep pitches of the first 10k (on wet grass, to make it worse) plus the continuing exposure to mud made my feet unhappy. I started to feel some hot spots get pretty spicy on the descent down Oak Knoll, the last technical section of the day, and the gentle climb on the connector back to the Outdoor Center was a welcome change in pressure on my feet.

It began, however, the last climb of the day. I'd been warned that the return to the Sugarloaf Village was tough, so the poles came back out while I tackled this long final climb. However, it wasn't nearly so steep as the alpine start and I was still moving really well (despite feeling a heel blister pop on Snowbrook), so I was already reeling in other runners when I heard a dog bark. It was Gus, Bea Q's golden retriever, and I know his bark in the woods any day! She and John had circled back after her half-marathon finish--first in her age group--to run with me up the final climb. This was such a perfect ending to my race, sharing it with a trail sister!

After a snack at the finish line and a dip in Carrabassett Stream, I had a lovely outdoor meal at Rolling Faiths before heading home. Exactly the day's adventure I had hoped for!



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