So what does the CUT actually stand for? Well it stands for Connecticut Ultra Traverse. The run is not necessarily a real race but more of a communal running challenge where 20 some odd accomplished runners undertake running across the whole state of Connecticut on the New England trail, a rugged and technical hiking trail. It is a run where navigation is key: you follow the blue blazes all across the state–through the woods, up rocks, down a small cave, on lamp posts, and on a few road signs. It is an epic adventure and when RD and creator: Art Byram of CULTRA says it is a “graduate level running event” he is not lying. It is truly one of the hardest runs of its kind in the Eastern part of the US. Sure the elevation gain is on par with other tough ultras at around 16,000-17,000 feet of gain with equal descent and no high altitude climbs (you get up to 1,000 feet at Castle Craig), be warned, the trail in its entirety is very tough. To get a better idea of the course here is what a lot of the course looks like! The course follows all kinds of trails that start with the letter “M” and are cool native american names: like Mattabasset or Metacomet, Mattatuck etc. These trails by themselves are hard but to link all of them is what makes this truly a grand adventure.
To start my year, I was up for the challenge of running the CUT. I felt it was a great way to run across my second state after my New Jersey run, and why not experience all of Connecticut on some of its most iconic trail sections. With my move to Providence, RI in March, I was excited to get the chance to scope out the course and get to experience more of New England trail running. Below is the link that shows the New England trail. The portion the CUT goes on is from the Massachusetts/Connecticut Border down to the ocean in Guilford.
Training was going well for the race. It was on April 17th when I went for a trail run out on the tough 94 mile turn in the course. It was a nice warm spring day. As I jumped onto the blue blazes all was going well. I was moving well through the trails and was excited for the race after seeing a section of the trail. As I was on top of one of the summits, I went to take a selfie and stepped awkwardly on a rock as I was moving downhill. I felt a pop and immediately collapsed. I knew I really messed up my ankle. I immediately started to swell as I hobbled the 5 miles back to my car. This was the start of the real adversity for me leading into this year’s CUT.
I did my best to rest the ankle and felt fine logging miles on the roads. So I did that. I ran the Manchester to Monadnock 55 miler as a tune-up and my ankle held up pretty well but it was not perfect. I felt like my fitness was there and as long as I did not do anything serious to my ankle to re-injure it, I would be just fine.
Then came the CUT run. My ankle has felt much better but I knew it was still weak. I wore a supportive Ankle brace/sleeve that allowed some natural movement but also supported my weakened ankle. I was up for the challenge.
We drove to the start from our hotel in Enfield, CT. It was a short 20 ish minute drive. The start is in the woods by a field off of Rising Corner road. It felt like we were out in the country but still near civilization. That was the beauty of this run. Rugged hard trails, but always near amenities if need be. That is part of the beauty of the Northeast really. We pulled into the parking lot and immediately met the whole crew of runners and race management helping out. I was immediately brought into this awesome community of runners. Jimmy Mac tried to get me to eat a maple bacon doughnut but I was already stuffed from a Mcdonalds breakfast. I met Art in person, his wife, the whole Steep Endurance Crew, saw Amy with MPF/RNR and gave her some encouragement as I knew she would crush this run (and man did she–more on that later). The vibe of this event was awesome! It was like just hanging out with all of my best running friends doing an epic running adventure. I loved it.
After our group photo it was time to walk over to the trail. Alright Cole, what is the game plan man? Well, I came into this just looking to run a relaxed pace I knew I could maintain for 112 miles. I settled into the group. And then at 8am sharp, we headed out. I settled with two runners to start, and the trail was so smooth and nice. I could not help myself. I took to the lead and just started to move along the trail. It was pure New England Single-track. The sun was cresting through the trees on the wooded summits and it was epic. I was so blessed to be doing this. After a crazy 2020 of no racing, no travel, not much trail running for me, this was my true medicine. Being out in nature, moving through this incredible terrain was really something special. I felt great as I ran miles around 9-11 minutes a mile. Fast, but the terrain was fairly runnable so I just went with it. That was my strategy. If the course had a technical section, I would take my time in it. If I could run fast, I would run fast. I felt that if I did my own thing, the result would be really something special. I had 24 hours in my mind, and I was well on my way to that. At the first major aid station, people were shocked I arrived so early. I was fresh and ready for the journey.
I got the hook-up of the GPX of the course interfaced onto google maps. Thank you thank you for sharing this with me. It was so clutch. Though you follow the blue blazes, it is not always so straightforward. By having the map of the course in relation to my actual location was MAJOR! If you run this, you need this, unless you know the trails like the back of your hand. I had my phone out at any tough juncture, or road crossing/road section, and often periodically just to make sure I was going the right way. It really helped me stay the course as a newbie.
I kept on my pace and went through checkpoint 2, then kept onward on this fast pace. It was near mile 14 after a climb by this rock quarry or mining area where I saw a gentleman on the trail and he gave me some encouragement. As I hit a downhill, I stepped on a rock and “WHAM!” I could feel my ankle flex in an awkward way and I immediately fell to the ground. I cursed out and had a hard time even walking. It took me a few moments to start hiking. This was not good. My brace helped me from breaking my foot, but I think I snapped a ligament again. I knew this was the worst case scenario. Why couldn’t this have happened at mile 100 or something? I assessed the situation. I could weight bear on it but I re-injured it for sure. So I slowly was able to get back to pace, but it was not close to my opening miles. It really sucked feeling physically limited from running how I felt I could if this did not happen. I took a moment to regain my composure. I had a lot of time to work through this. I told myself I was going to keep going until it became too much of a danger or liability. So I kept plugging away.
I hit the next few checkpoints still feeling strong. The heat and humidity was rising, but I kept hydrating like a champ and eating plenty of calories. Thanks to Jimmy Mac’s PBJ, that tied me over for awhile. After Talcott Mountain, I made it to the Reservoir. My Dad gave me my re-fill of bottles: which I carried two 18 ounce handhelds and 1-12 ounce staw flask in my pack. I would drink almost all of those every checkpoint which was why I was still sweating and really strong. When its hot people, drink up. I did this and honestly the heat did not really bother me, besides being gross and sweaty the whole time.
It was at Pinnacle rock on a tough ascent and descent of the first big sections of rock gardens around the marathon mark that was a tough section. It was at this point, I started to show signs of my body being affected by my ankle. I had a charley horse on my left calf going down this tough slide rock descent. With my ankle injured, I favored my left side to get me over the rocky ups and downs. I made my first wrong turn as I went straight onto a bike path and ran on that for about a mile. I realized I was wrong and turned back. I lost maybe 15 minutes here. This would not be the first slight navigation miscue.
As I hit the parking lot before going into Ragged, I knew that I had to be careful here. If my left side would take on too much stress, I may not be able to finish. I took about 10 minutes here to cool off and refuel. I ate a lot of fats at the last checkpoint, and my body took a lot of energy to digest the food, so I was a little dazed through this section. After a reset here, I was ready to take on the “crux” of the run. Ragged and Castle Craig were the hardest sections of this whole thing. I was ready. As I went under the highway and onto the trails, when Art said this section was hard to follow, it truly was. It was running on creek beds, and the trail did not make sense at all. I even missed a turn and had to hop a creek to get back onto the trail. I lost maybe 15 minutes here too.
Ragged. Oh Ragged. So I moved fine through here but then I got to the big rock wall. I could see the blaze going up and then it stopped. Do I climb up this thing? I did not want to chance it so I whipped out my phone and walked around trying to navigate. I followed the trail on the map around the rock and no blue blazes. This was not it! I went back to where I was confused. I then decided to crawl up to the top and see. It was sketchy to get up there with an injured ankle. Once on top, I could see the blue blaze on my left point the way. You got to be kidding me. I wasted 30 minutes here trying to way find. I tried to push my pace, but my ankle made it tough. I had another twist here, and felt like one more and I would be done. And Done, meaning, serious injury like needing surgery and having no ability to weight bear. It was scary knowing that I was running a fine line here.
After Ragged I hit a nice road section running over to a farm. I was slower through here than I would like. I wanted to make sure I followed the trail. I hit that aid and kept on the road. Once I made it to the beginning of the Castle Craig section, I had a hard time staying upright on the road. My left side was finally falling a part from supporting my right side. This was a recipe for disaster. At this aid, I knew I was going to drop. I was not going to make it all the way to Guilford. But I wanted to do the 5 mile section to Castle Craig. Its a freaking Castle and the high point of the course. I had about an hour and a half before I would be in pure darkness. Time to race the sun. I missed the trail juncture and waisted like 6 minutes here. Cmon dude! I pushed as hard as I could hike and slightly run. My left hip was hurting, my left calf was fighting charley horses, and my left lower back was aching like crazy. As I hit some of the trap rock sections, I new I was getting close to the castle. I wasted more time trying to see where the trail went next on a high point section. I maneuvered through a narrow shale section that was a little scary for sure. Then the big climb. That climb was long and tough. I pushed to the top, then some more trail and finally as the sky was a beautiful pink and orange hue, I hit Castle Craig. It was epic. There was a haze in the valley below, as the world below felt miles and miles away. Wow. This is why we do these things. To feel big and yet so small. I could had been here forever. It made all of the struggle worth it. Now to get down!
I then wandered up at the top of the Castle trying to find the trail. I could not find blue blazes anywhere. Orange blazes, yes, but no blue. After 10 minutes, I began to panic. I called my Dad and he said to call Art. I called my wife Ashlee, who would be my crew for the night portion and it went to voicemail. I finally pulled a low-hanging tree branch and saw the blue blazes after hovering around this area for another 20 minutes. With handlamp on, I made the descent. It was tough with my ankle and losing that ideal vision of the daylight. I had many close calls through here. I was able to talk with Ashlee and had about a mile more to go before the Dam aid station. Once I hit that pavement, I hauled it in. I saw everyone and laid right down on the pavement. Dr. Pepper in hand. I was calling it. With my left side compromised, and my injured ankle that I twisted hard twice, and a slow and not clean descent down Castle Craig, I was worried I was close to my body failing me completely, being a liability to the great community that is at this race, having to put Art and the Cutting Board in a tough spot to have to extract me from the woods if something went wrong. And so I bowed out gracefully, still on pace for a 25-26ish hour finish.
It is never easy to DNF, but I know this was the right call. Running is supposed to be fun and it can be hard, but when it borders real danger and danger to others, I am not in. I never want anyone to have to risk their safety at the hands of my misfortune. We talked to Art at the next aid and officially hung up my hat. The Shadow Bear got my ankle this year, but not my heart, not my grit, not my survival instinct. It is on hold for another CUT, when I feel my ankle can handle the rigors of this course, and that I can run it the way I know I can.
A full healthy me, and watch out CUT! I am coming for you. 24 hours, yeah, I think it can be done, and I want to go for it!
The finishers like winner: Howie Breinan and Amy Hanlon were super inspiring. As were all of the other runners; from the crews, runners, volunteers. And congrats on the engagement Amy!! This run challenges you and to finish this is really saying something! It is hard like Eastern States for sure!
Why does “C” stand for community? Well I had never met any of these people in person before that day and I instantly felt like I was a part of the family. The community that makes up this run is really something special. How people rally together to take care of one another and help the runners make it to the sea, is what inspires me. I loved the CUT. It is because of all of the CUT community that makes this such an incredible event. To all you other runners out there, if you want challenge, views, new perspectives, a blue blazed Barkley, well this is your run. The Community is the real constant of this great run. They will always be there; willing to fill up your water bottle, feed you maple bacon doughnuts, give you navigation tips, run after you to stop traffic for you to cross the road, spray suntan lotion on you, smile, cry, wipe your sweaty legs with baby wipes, and so much more. That is Community and that is the CUT. I have unfinished business with this beast of a course. When I return, I look forward to sharing those miles with you. Let’s bring a village!
Dang you Shadow Bear–what is that thing anyway? That is a Q for RD, Art Byram.
Welcome to Connecticut, home to the Blue Blazes, and one incredible running community! (Cole gracefully raises a pint of Narragansett Beer to you)–Its a Rhode Island thing I have been told.
Recommended Gear for the CUT:
Hydration packs are great! I ran with the Smaller Nathan Vapor Zach pack and switched to the 12L Vaporkrar later on. Hydration packs allow you to carry all types of food, hydration, and other goodies easily as you never know if something might happen like an ankle sprain and what would normally be 10 minute miles becomes 30 minute miles.
Great socks. It is going to be hot, humid, and the footing beats you to heck. Nice padded socks make a huge difference and switching out a couple of pairs will ensure your feet can move you to the ocean. I use Fits Socks. They have been a supporter of mine since 2012. Their run socks are the right fit, nice light merino, and just keep your foot cool and protected.
Food: I would try to eat solid food on this one. It is a running picnic across Connecticut. The more variety of food you can eat, the better off you will be. I ate hummus, chips, fruit packets, gels, Coke, DR. Pepper, Tailwind, Skratch Labs , Pickles, olives, Swiss Cheese. This effort takes a big toll in terms of calories.
Shoes: With the shoe debate–you need cushion, protection, and tons of grip. Like Tons of Grip. I went off script and wore a Hoka Speedgoat because I needed to make sure I could scale the rock like a cat and protect my ankle. 361 has some great trail shoes for 2022 on the horizon where grip becomes more of a topic. If my ankle was healthy I could get away with the Taroko but it was not worth chancing it on this one. A mis-step on that terrain could be very serious so I relied on that shoe which was great.
Trekking Poles, I think as you navigate at night and later on, they are more important.
A tough mentality to be patient but strong– You need that to do well here.
Good Shorts: Yes Shorts! I wore the Janji AFO Multi Vent Short. It has a whole waistband with pockets. The fabric is light and airy for the heat and humidity of summer. The short even feels cool when you sweat in it so it is a nice feature for beating the heat. The pockets are so clutch to stash all of your essentials on the go. It helps make you hydration pack be lighter which is a nice thing too. Try them out!
A cool hat. Runners need cool hats. I wore my Nathan Trail emoji hat which is my favorite. It is now a collector’s edition.
Thank you to everyone that made this experience for me a special one, even with a DNF. It is a to be continued for me for sure.