Standing in a torrential downpour and shivering, literally holding my stomach to keep from throwing up, only 12.5 miles into a 64-mile race and knowing the next several miles were up a continuous hill, I was questioning everything about this race. I questioned if I was capable of continuing, if this wasn’t too big for me, if there was any shame in dropping out at what was essentially the first real aid station.
And then I did what I said I was going to do: I started walking. And I ended up finishing the race. I wasn’t as fast or as strong as I wanted to be, but I accomplished my biggest goal of the year. And it was probably the hardest thing I ever did – physically and mentally – in my life.
There will be plenty of mentions of them in this far-too-long race report for sure, but I can’t get any further into this without noting how amazing and vital the team of people who were there to support me were in this race. Pina crewed me, Steven paced me for 20 miles, and Jaime paced me the last 5 at the darkest, hardest point in the race. I don’t want to say I couldn’t have done it without them, but I can definitely say I finished this race because of them.
This is not a race report so much as a novella. I recommend reading in chapters. No one is going to get through all of this, I know. Maybe skim it?
Twisted Branch is a relatively new race, begun in 2015 as a point-to-point race with just one option, the 100k (really 64ish miles), and a seemingly generous 20-hour cutoff. The race director wanted to feature the Finger Lakes Trail, which spans hundreds of miles. This particular race starts at Ontario Country Park in Naples, NY, and runs to Hammondsport Beach.
The race has a reputation as a highly technical, considerably challenging race. There is more than 10,000 feet of elevation change, but the race director says some of the rare flat parts can be the most challenging of the day. In a pre-race discussion, he described the trail as a “primitive footpath,” not a “hiking trail.” This means that many sections are rough, rocky, narrow, overgrown, and often barely visible.
I never thought about running this course in the first few years. I saw those who did as elite runners, far beyond my class. But I was slowly increasing my mileage and trying new things, and when I saw several people who I ran with finish the event last year, I thought that – maybe – I could take this beast on.
So really, this has been a full year in the planning. I challenged myself last August and signed up when registration opened on Black Friday. I began training in the snow and ice of December. I scheduled a 50-mile race in May and two other ultras in between. From the day I registered, everything that I did running-related was for this race.
The beauty of this inspiration is that it forced me to expand outside my comfort zone. I had to train with new people, and I became good friends with Jaime over many long, cold runs (often followed by a visit to a nearby brewery). I accepted Steven’s offer to pace me, even though I had just met him and it made me uncomfortable in my typical introverted way. I spent way more money than I can imagine on gear to get me there. And when my leg pain made running difficult in the early summer, I began seeing a chiropractor to try new adjustments and stretches.
None of it was easy. While my mileage was over 50 per week in the spring, it was down to barely over 40 leading up to this race. My legs were better but tired and sore, and blisters were derailing several long runs. Most of all, my ever-present anxiety was causing me to rethink everything about this decision.
Still, I had come this far. I was going to attempt the race. Sometimes, finishing this race was all I could think of. I wanted to attempt something so far outside my comfort zone that even I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to push myself physically, sure, but I wanted to push myself mentally.
The Day Before
On the registration site, the race director notes that – with the 20-hour cutoff – “you will finish.” That’s certainly not true for everyone; you have to be capable of pushing yourself for 64 miles. And you have to be willing to start at 4 in the morning.
That means camping the night before at Ontario County Park. There’s my first major source of anxiety. I haven’t camped in years, and I had little actual gear, so I took advantage of their tent rental. Mine was dubbed Homer Simpson, which amused me to no end. (And, I might add, it was far better than Richard Simmons, my neighboring tent.)
I am a creature of routine, though, especially when it comes to difficult things. For my other races, I sleep in my own bed or stay nearby at a hotel or B&B so that I can get a decent night’s sleep, rise early, drink coffee, eat my oatmeal, and get the digestion business moving. In May, I was in bed by 8 pm so that I could get up at 3 am to satisfy my routine and get to the starting line before 5. Camping does not allow adherence to this routine.
After the pre-race talk, I went to my tent to get as comfortable as I could. The nearby voices were loud until at least 11 pm. And as people settled down, the weather picked up. For hours, wind would violently shake the tent. Rain would pelt it relentlessly. The air went from stifling to frigid. At 1:30, I finally gave up pretense and got out to use the bathroom. Upon return, I think I finally got to sleep until my neighbors woke me up at 2:30. It was not a good night.
Nerves were my nemesis for the two weeks leading up to this race. Lack of sleep, lack of my comfortable routine, and nerves were my nemesis that morning. My stomach churned as I packed up my gear and got my pack and poles ready by 3:30. I managed to eat a few bites of my breakfast and drink half of my caffeinated drink, and I gobbled antacids to try to quell my riotous gut.
Heading toward the lighted archway, I felt an inevitable sense of dread. Usually before a race I feel excitement and nerves. This was the first time I felt defeated before I began. I was uncomfortably tired and dealing with nausea. And as I looked around at the other runners milling about at the start, I honestly doubted that I belonged here.
I had a plan for this race. I would be in and out of the aid stations quickly, only changing to a clean shirt or socks if absolutely needed due to weather concerns. I would eat a gel every hour and keep drinking Tailwind. I wanted to get to Urbana (the last aid station) before it got fully dark, and I planned to finish in 18 hours at the most. I’d power-hike all the uphills and run all the downhills and keep moving forward no matter what. It’s good to have a plan, right? You know what they say about plans…
The last few long runs before this race – including my failed ultra attempt at the Candlelight 12-Hour race – featured nausea. I didn’t know why; I was doing nothing new with digestion. I put it down to not preparing adequately the days before. I stopped my runs short. I never had an upset stomach on race day, I figured.
My friend Pina had graciously volunteered to crew me for this race. I never had a crew before. I barely knew what to tell her that I would need for a long, long day of running over 60+ miles. But she was adamant that she wanted to help me, so I gave her a pre-packed bag of last-resort items I might need and figured I’d see her at the aid stations accessible to crew. The first one was 12 miles in, and it would be light by then. My goal before the start, then, was to make it 12 miles.
I felt a hand on my arm and blared my headlamp into her eyes. She wasn’t supposed to be at the start. Why get up so early and drive to the start just to see a bunch of dark forms head out into the trail? But she gave me a hug, and I got a moment of relief in seeing a familiar face excited for me to go.
The start itself was anti-climactic. A simple “Ready, set, go,” and we were heading down the trail. Too late to back out now.
I’ll take things aid station-by-aid station from here. It makes this long, but it will help me look back on the sections. And, frankly, that’s how I survived the race: just focusing on getting to the next aid station.
OCP to Naples Creek
I had run this section of the park a few times. It’s the cleanest, most well-traveled trail that we would be on all day. And it had one of the biggest downhill sections, one that was surprisingly runnable.
I found myself in the middle of the pack, comfortably following a few sprightly runners as we shone our headlamps down to try to spot every shady root and rock. My legs felt good despite the lack of sleep. My stomach churned. I ignored it.
I bought trekking poles just for this race, and in the weeks prior, I researched how to use them for trail running. I practiced several times to feel comfortable with them. They seemed very helpful on long uphill sections, allowing me to keep upright so that I could breathe better, and taking some of the effort on my upper body rather than all on my lower.
But I started the race with my poles on by back. I knew they’d be in the way in the initial press of people. It was dark and crowded, and I didn’t want to hinder another runner or myself. And I knew that even the first big hill was easy enough on fresh legs.
As we spread out, I came to the long uphill section where I had planned to unfold the poles and begin their use. I stepped to the side of the trail and fiddled with the mechanism, cursing under my breath as it scraped my finger. Blood ran down my hand, washed away in the increasing rain. Great, I thought, as I pressed my finger against my wet shirt and juggled the poles. One more thing to worry about.
The rain was increasing, and the visibility grew worse. A thick mist was visible in the headlamp glow, obscuring the ground except for what was right in front of me. I couldn’t see any further ahead. Each step became precarious with little warning. I heard muffled swears as people stumbled.
There was an aid station six miles in, but it was a few volunteers holding pitchers of water or Tailwind and asking for our bib numbers to track us online. We were all shouting them at once. They were good sports. I moved on.
There’s about 1.5 miles of road in this section of the route, and I hit it surprisingly quickly. Time passes quicker in the dark. The road stretches uphill, and at this point I was beginning to struggle physically. I slowed and was passed by several people. The rainfall was increasing in strength.
At last, you cross the road and enter the nature conservatory, which I was dreading. I hadn’t enjoyed this section the previous times I ran it, and I knew there was a big hill. The mist and rain made it hard to see, and I felt like I was trudging through thick mud. It wasn’t muddy at this point really, but it soon would be.
The subsequent downhill was getting precarious and slick. I had a crew of people behind me including Andrew, who I drove down with the previous day. He was talking to me. I couldn’t respond. I just had to keep running and watching every step. When the trail bottomed out and headed up again, he and the others passed me. I was feeling worse.
Finally, we came out to the road in Naples for a small segment to the first full aid station. It was a torrential downpour at this point, and I was moving at barely a trot.
Coming in to the aid station, I was greeted by Pina with a dry towel that felt heavenly. While she was filling my bottles with more Tailwind, I stood in the pounding rain, one hand on my stomach as if holding everything in. I began to shiver in the cold rain. Several other volunteers looked at me with concern. Pina asked what she could do, and I had no idea. I stood there, afraid if I lost everything inside me I’d have no strength to continue.
Several other runners were coming in and heading out quickly. Josh headed up the trail, and I knew he was intending to do more hiking than running, having just set a speed record for hiking the Adirondacks’ 46er peaks.
I told myself to get moving. If my grand plan was going to be derailed, I would hold myself to that one component: keep moving. Worst-case scenario was that I would walk on until I missed a cutoff at an aid station and be pulled. Best case, I’d feel better.
I knew there was a long, 2.5-mile uphill coming. I had power hiked it a few weeks before with Andrew. I dreaded it. But I was keeping up with Josh, and we were commiserating over our discomfort. When we hit the hill, he left me behind. He was a strong hiker, and I was not strong.
Naples Creek to The Sneaker
Goose Adventure Racing holds a trail race every April at High Tor State Park called Muddy Sneaker. I always felt the name was purposefully chosen to draw attention to the threat of mud and away from the fact that it is nearly all hills. It’s 12+ miles of long uphills and long downhills, and though I love that race, it’s very challenging.
Now we got to do much of that course in the pouring rain, already 12 miles into a 64-mile day. I wished I didn’t know what to expect. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
In the preview run I did with Andrew, we hiked up 2.5 miles and to a beautiful area at the top. I was looking forward to that area, but the course took us on an off-shoot just 3/4 of the way up. We hit the Muddy Sneaker course earlier than I expected, all to wrap through some mud and water crossings and through the fields in order to hit the long, arduous climb known as the Demoralizer.
I was powering along with my poles, and I was passed by several more people I knew, including Mort, one of the founders of Goose Adventure. A little part of me hoped he was enjoying Muddy Sneaker in the rain, since he directed the race in April and didn’t run it. Now he could see how painful those hills were, I thought. Petty, Jeff.
The aid station was at the top of High Tor, where Muddy Sneaker starts and finishes. It might as well have been 100 miles away up Everest. I threw up a bit.
One foot in front of the other. At least that part of my plan was working. I wasn’t moving quickly, and I was weak and wet and nauseous and tired. I knew I could power-hike hills. I was confident in my ability to keep my head down and keep moving. No hill goes on forever. I was fully expecting long, arduous climbs. Here, at least, mental preparation saved me.
Coming in to the aid station, there were signs telling us we were almost there. There was a bell to ring to let them know we were close. At last I came out off the trail and stopped by the tables, swaying a little. The rain had mostly stopped, but it was cloudy, and things were gray.
Pina was helping me refill my bottles and asking me if I had eaten. Nope. Nothing was going to stay down today. She looked concerned.
Chris O’Brien was hovering around, asking me questions about food. He was one of those whose accomplishment in this race and others encouraged me to try it. He dropped from the race once before due to being unable to eat.
Chris convinced me to try these homemade protein balls. They had pumpkin and chocolate chips and were delicious. I knew they were homemade by the volunteers at this aid station, yet I looked for them at every aid station the rest of the day. Chris told me to walk out of the aid station and drink lots of water to aid in digestion. He may have said other things. I was solely in the mindset of one foot in front of the other. I also didn’t want to lose those delicious pumpkin/chocolate balls I had just eaten.
The Sneaker to Italy Valley
It always seemed to me that the start/finish of Muddy Sneaker was as high up as we could get, but I was wrong. Leaving this aid station, we would hit the road heading up. Todd and Josh passed me. I couldn’t use my poles on the road. The very air was thick and gray.
Here I thought about “up” – not the movie, just the direction. After the long climb into The Sneaker, going up at this point just seemed cruel. That was the theme for the day, I thought: up. The downhill sections were mostly quick and non-memorable. The uphills were ground into my brain. My ears were popping at various points from the elevation and pressure changes. From this point on, everything about Twisted Branch was “up”. (Until, anyway, everything would later become “mud.”)
Somewhere along this uphill road section, though, I started hiking quicker. I passed Josh, and I passed Todd. I got to a point where I began to jog. Something had changed, and I wasn’t sure when or how. But I had energy again. I was moving, and just in time. The road section ended, and we were back on the trail, and I was actually running.
I don’t remember much about this section. I remember feeling a childlike sense of glee, though, as I ran along the trails. Sure enough, we were high enough that much of the way from here to Italy Valley was flat or down. I think I clocked my fasted non-road mile in this section.
Regardless, I came out of the woods into the Italy Valley aid station with a smile on my face, and the relief on Pina’s face was apparent. It is quite likely she didn’t expect to see me at all. If I was going to fail, it would be somewhere in this section. But, instead, I got energy, and I ran, and I felt pretty good.
The sky was clearing up a bit, and though it would drizzle off and on for much of the rest of the day, the real rain was past us. I sat down to change my socks to dry ones and tape up a blister on my thumb from my poles. I searched the aid station for protein balls and settled on a chunk of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I instantly knew I would not be able to keep down. So I settled for ginger ale.
“Gatorade,” I told Pina, at this aid station or the last one. For some reason, I must have asked her for Gatorade at at least three different aid stations, not understanding why she kept questioning me while I drank the ginger ale. I meant ginger ale, but it came out as Gatorade. Who knew what was going on in my head at this point?
On my way out of Italy Valley, I passed two men who looked as uncomfortable as I felt leaving The Sneaker. I was moving pretty good. I felt sunshine on my face and thought about how nice this cooler weather was for a mid-August trail race. I had desperately feared the heat and humidity. The rain hadn’t been that bad, I thought. Remember: the theme for the day would soon be “mud.”
Italy Valley to The Lab
Every “valley” aid station meant a drop down in and a long hill out. The hill leaving Italy Valley seemed to go on forever. It wasn’t nearly the worst of the hills or the longest. But all that energy and motivation was draining from me. One foot in front of the other. I could power up these hills. No hill lasts forever. These are important things to remember.
Somehow, Todd and Mort got ahead of me. I blame the head-down thing. When I came out of the trails to a dirt/gravel road and saw a sign that we had .7 miles of hard surface to go, they were side-by-side far ahead of me. I began to jog.
I passed them and talked a bit, then kept going, feeling empowered that I was capable of passing people by now. Finally, I was able to start consuming gels to get some much-needed energy. It felt good to be moving faster than a snail’s pace uphill. By the time I entered the trail again, I was far ahead of them.
This section was the longest between aid stations at 6.7 miles, but I don’t remember much of it other than feeling good about passing people along the road. And here’s where the mud became more noticeable. After the next aid station, it would be mud and more mud, but the trails were still mostly runnable here.
I remember hearing that this aid station was named for a nearby building that looked like a meth lab. There were two signs directing us along overgrown roads, and they looked like they were directing us to a destination in a horror movie. So imagine my surprise when I came out of the fields to a beautiful, open area along a pond, with stretches of green grass.
It was downright pretty. A child was fishing. There was the smell of cooking pierogis. Magical.
While Pina refilled my Tailwind, I topped off my bladder of water for the first and only time, and I browsed the aid station for protein balls. I asked for Gatorade again, and she wanted to know what flavor. They didn’t have Gatorade at these aid stations; she was going to stop at a store somewhere to get some for me. That’s how awesome Pina was.
At least this time I finally realized what I was doing and told her that Gatorade was to from hereon in be code for ginger ale. They didn’t have any cups, unfortunately. Another runner let me borrow his. We are all suffering together; what’s a few germs between trail friends?
I took a few pierogis, and they were dry and plain and delicious. Then I was out. I wanted to stay ahead of Mort for some reason. I had to have some kind of goal at this point, I guess. I knew I was toward the back of the pack. I was starting to worry about cutoffs, as nearly each station had a point where you would be pulled from the course if you didn’t arrive in time. I wasn’t too close to that time yet, but I didn’t want to stress about it.
There would be no crew at the next aid station. There was 6.3 miles to The Patch and 4.2 to Bud Valley. This was to be some of the flattest and hardest 10 miles of the day.
The Lab to The Patch
Up to this point, the trail was pretty well defined, with sections of road connecting it. The race directors had learned from previous years and marked the 64 or so miles with literally thousands of flags. If anything, it was overmarked. Without a doubt, this was the best-marked trail race I ever ran.
A few thoughts about the marking: They used a 3-2-1 system of flags. When you had to turn, there were three flags clustered on the side to which you turned (for example, three flags on the right meant turn right). After turning, there were two flags right away to confirm you were going the right way. And a little ways ahead, there was one flag to mean keep going. Every so often, there would be another flag to assure you you’re on course. If you got lost, it was because you had your head down and wasn’t paying attention. Other than one weird, conflicting sign later on, this race was perfectly marked.
In addition to the marking, I’ll just mention my gratitude for the works of the volunteers who put those flags up a day or so before the race. It had rained enough that the wooden bridges were terribly slick. So they brought roofing tiles and nailed them in for traction to several sections of rough, tricky wood bridge. That is going above and beyond in my book.
The reason I bring all this up here is because at this point the term used the evening before – “primitive footpath” – got new meaning. The trail became rocks and runoff. The torrential rains had left some sections greasy slick and others filled with calf-thick pits of mud and water that threatened to suck your shoes off your feet. The hills were steep and rough, and mud made them slick enough that I often had to plant my poles and set my feet sideways just to get one step up.
It was muddy before, but here is where I felt like muddy got new meaning. Every runnable stretch became un-runnable due to thick, dense mud or thin, slick, ice-like mud. I tried to hurry where I could. Then, for the first time all day, I fell.
There were these big, smelly, body-sized puddles of mud along this stretch, and I remember as I fell forward thinking this one was almost exactly big enough to be my grave. I fell chest first into the mud, which sounds like a forgiving surface on which to fall, but it was not pleasant at all. I splayed out, and my tired legs spasmed, and I lay there for a moment thinking that I could get up.
I was a dripping, soggy mess. But I took a quick inventory, determined that everything was ok, and I used my wet poles to pull myself to my feet. There was not a dry, clean spot on my body at this point. My chest-mounted bottles were coated in mud so that I didn’t dare to drink from them. I had a buff that was damp from sweat, and I tried to at least wipe off my face and hands.
I felt dejected. I felt disgusting. I felt like I couldn’t take another step without slipping and sliding. What I didn’t feel at that point was the worst impact from my fall.
Over the next hour or so, my chest would start to hurt, and my breathing became strained when I took a deep breath. I think the fall jammed one water bottle into the side of my chest, bruising a rib or the surrounding muscle. As I write this, three days later, it still hurts to take deep breaths or twist in one direction. I can put up with the pain now, but deep breathing is actually pretty important to running!
They didn’t have any paper towels at The Patch, but they had toilet paper. It fell apart into little pieces as I tried to slough the mud off me and my water bottles. I drank ginger ale and looked around at the other shell-shocked faces of runners coming in nearly as muddy as I was. Before I left, one volunteer offered me a clean washcloth that was soaking in ice water. This, my friends, was one of the best feelings of the entire day. I left that poor, innocent washcloth a muddy, dirty, horrifying mess in the poor volunteer’s hands. But I felt a little better.
Somewhere in here, we hit 50k. You’d think being halfway done would be encouraging, but I felt dejected. More than 8 hours in, and I was only halfway there, and the running was getting harder!
The Patch to Bud Valley
Just get to Bud Valley. That was my new mantra. At Bud Valley, we would be more than 40 miles into the race, and here we could pick up our first pacer. Runners who chose to use pacers could use one person for the full remaining 26 miles or two people – one for the first 20 and one for the final six. I had Steven waiting for me at Bud Valley, and I just wanted to get there.
Like the trail to The Patch, this 4ish mile section was rough and rocky and muddy. I fell in with two Pennsylvania runners who were a part of a bigger PA group doing this race together. They had all run the same 50-miler (Glacier Ridge Trail Ultra) that I ran in May. And most of them were around me for most of the day, occasionally in front, occasionally in back. It seemed like I spent a good portion of the day with these two runners in particular, though.
There were sections here where the trail dipped down to cross running water and then climbed up at an unnatural angle that was barely maneuverable in good conditions let alone these muddy ones. Sometimes, we had to stand and wait while one runner worked on hands and feet to drag himself up a hill. If you got to close, you risked having the runner come down on top of you. This was a hard 4ish miles.
I fell again here, this time sideways in an inglorious butt-first slump into another suspiciously body-shaped puddle. A little part of me imagined coming into the Bud Valley aid station more mud than man, terrifying the onlookers with the appearance of some creature lurking out of the swamp. Running these crazy ultras does weird things to your mind.
I kept expecting the trail to level out and drop. After all, this was Bud Valley. All the other valleys meant a downhill leading in, but this trail just kept going up. “Up” and “mud”. I still don’t believe Bud Valley was in a valley at all. I think it was an ironically named campground on a hill.
But I broke out of the trail on to a road leading into the campground and got passed by Mort, who I didn’t know was anywhere near me. He was flying! I passed the two PA runners and took off after him, determined not to be beat. And we were almost to the aid station when he gave in with an audible “Yeaaaggghhh” and slowed to a tired walk. This was to be the last time all day I was ahead of Mort. Little victories.
But, man, Bud Valley was a welcome respite. The local TrailsRoc group was volunteering at this one, and I knew practically everyone who was there. Pina was helping me find my drop bag so I could change into clean clothes, and Steven was there, practically bouncing in eagerness to get moving after a long day of volunteering and waiting for me to arrive.
I was trying to rig my watch to a portable charger wrapped in a buff around my wrist. I wanted to keep track of the run and the miles to the next aid station. I was getting a bit nervous about cutoffs. Steven and I would work on this for much of the next stretch of trail, finally getting something that worked. It was a silly thing to worry about, but I was very grateful for the help.
With clean clothes (for the most part) on and some delectable pieces of cheese quesadilla in me, we finally headed out, swapping places back and forth with several other runners who were each rejuvenated by the company of their pacer.
Steven had so much energy he was practically bouncing along the trail. I felt deep sadness over holding him back to a light jog/power-walk pace, but he never complained. In fact, he was a cheerleader and coach and distractor all in one.
I didn’t know Steven well when he offered to pace me, but I’ve since had the chance to run and talk with him several times, and I am so glad we got the chance to do this race together. He’s a strong, fast runner who is happy to run with the slowest in a group, encouraging that person on and chatting away. I couldn’t have asked for a better pacer for this stretch of the race.
Bud Valley to Glen Brook
This sections will get shorter, I promise.
Steven and I fell into a cluster of other runners who we would be around for almost the rest of the race. It amazed me that I was always so close to these same people. At Many on the Genny (race report), I was alone for 13+ miles. Here, I was always either in front of or behind the same four or six people. We just couldn’t ditch each other.
Steven was a good sport. He kept pointing out, “This is a good runnable section,” and he never complained when I kept power hiking. When we did finally get up to a slow ramble, the dense mud would bring me to a screeching, squelching stop. Always mud. This was a never-ending slog of mud.
At one point, I realized that I could use the momentum of slight downhills to my advantage. It was hard to convince my legs to keep moving faster than a fast walk, but the gentle down section could be just enough to turn into a run, and I could keep it up at least until the next hill or mud section. This would work the rest of the way.
These 6.4 miles passed pretty quickly. The trail would remain true to the notion of a “primitive footpath,” and mud was everywhere. But having someone to run with and talk with was a welcome distraction.
Glen Brook to Lake David
There would be no crew here or until Urbana. Steven and I were on our own.
Glen Brook doesn’t stick out in my memory. I think I ate something here. I do know the sign said the next aid station was 4.2 miles away. The official website (I’m looking at it now) says 4.4. Steven thought he remembered reading something over 5. Somehow, Steven was right.
This was the only real frustrating section in terms of marking. We came out to a road crossing, and there was a bright orange sign that said “Twisted Branch – New for August 2018” and pointed left up the road. Immediately behind it was a permanent brown sign that simply said “Twisted Branch” and pointed right. The three flags for a turn were on the right. We stopped a moment in confusion, then followed the flags to the right.
On the other side of the road was one of the steepest hills of the entire course. It wasn’t too muddy, but every step was a struggle. I was halfway up it, head down, one foot in front of the other, when I looked at my watch and, in what may have been a sorry excuse to take a break, stopped to ask about the aid station. We were well over 4.2 miles in, and I worried that we were supposed to turn left, hit the aid station, then come back to this section.
Another runner who I would flip-flop with all day was just ahead of us, struggling up the hill, and he sat down while we discussed this. Steven, still a ball of energy, raced up the rest of the hill to see if he could see the stop, then ran back down it to ask the runners who were a ways behind us, then came back to us, telling us to keep going. Poor guy, he ran that steep, long hill at least three times.
If I would have remembered that we were coming into Lake David, I wouldn’t have worried as much. There certainly wasn’t a lake up the road. When we finally broke out of the woods into the clear, it was obvious that the aid station was ahead (5ish miles from Glen Brook). We ran halfway around the lake to the aid station manned by running friends of The Blue Foundation.
I think this was the prettiest part of the course for me all day. There were blue skies (appropriately), and the lake was still and gorgeous. The grass was green. There were familiar faces at the aid station asking what they could do to help. Unfortunately, I was ever too late to get in pictures, as the photographer must have kept moving on to the next point just ahead of me. But all the other pictures of runners coming in here were awesome.
Fortunately, there was a drop bag at this station. I wanted to change my socks again and put a bandage on a heel blister that had been keeping me from running (excuses, excuses…). But my shoes were so caked in mud, I could barely get them off, and I couldn’t get them back on. Michael, one of the Blue Foundation founders, was a saint, dealing with the mud to get them loosened enough. And then he was the devil, telling us all to get running or we might miss the cut-offs. I just wanted more of the delicious warm quesadilla, but we had to go.
Lake David to Mitchellsville
This 5-mile stretch passed in a flurry of anxiety and stress. All of us got the message that time limits were a real concern. I think we ran more in this period than I had in ages. Amazing how the stress of not finishing can energize you 50 miles into a race.
We found ourselves in front of a few of the Pennsylvania runners, who were talking quite loudly and shouting ahead to a local runner who they had met earlier. This started to drive me crazy, so when the trail permitted, Steven and I took off. I think we actually ran a couple of miles at this point. This section was fairly flat, and even the mud wasn’t too terrible.
The sound of cheering told us the Mitchellsville aid station was close. We came out of the woods to a field that stretched way ahead of us to a road crossing and the aid station. Bless those volunteers’ hearts – they cheered the runners all the way in. That was a long time to cheer.
Mike was working this aid station, and I had been wondering about him all race. His winter hill repeat sessions were instrumental in helping me get ready, and I had run with him several times last year. But I hadn’t heard from him in quite a while and wondered if he was in attendance. It was nice to see him there, encouraging us in.
Plus, he offered me beer. It was only a few sips, but they were glorious.
Just 2 miles to Urbana, he told us, and it was a net downhill. That seemed encouraging, but I was tired. Tired to the point that I stumbled into another runner and almost trod on her poles. Plus, it was getting dark now, especially when we got back into the woods. These were not an easy 2 miles.
Mitchellsville to Urbana
I bet this is a beautiful section of trails. We could hear the roar of rushing water nearby and the buzz of nighttime insects. There were a lot of pine needles and gentle slopes. Apparently, we were also running right alongside a gorge with a dramatic dropoff. I’m glad I couldn’t see that danger.
With our headlamps on again, it was tricky to run. Too many roots and the ever-present slick mud meant that even the flat areas were treacherous. I heard a clamor behind me and looked back to see Steven stumbling.
So we took this section fairly easy. Soon enough, we were out on the road heading into Urbana, the last aid station of the race and my meet-up with Jaime.
Much of this year’s training runs were spent with Jaime, who was training for her own ridiculous races. I knew I wanted her to pace me for this one, but she wasn’t sure her own race schedule would permit it. So Steven was sort of a backup, and when she said she could be there, I was lucky enough to have them both.
And they both are incredibly strong runners. I worried that a simple 6 miles was nothing for her, and maybe I should have run with her for the 20. But I decided I needed her most then, at the end of the race, in the dark, up the last hills. Plus, this gave me the chance to finish the race with her.
Because at this point, we knew we would finish. I took some warm chicken broth and another cup of ginger ale, and then we were off.
Urbana to Finish
Five or six miles left. Sounds easy. But this is one of the hardest sections of the entire race. With over 1,000 feet elevation gain and descent, you go up and down Mt. Washington. People had told me the down could be as challenging as the up.
While Steven’s energetic cheerleading was exactly what I needed in his stretch, Jaime’s take-charge determination was perfect for this last segment. She knew the cutoffs and had studied the map, and her goal was clearly to get me to the finish at all costs.
We headed up the hill. Up and up and up, around countless switchbacks. At this point, I think I was used to the ups. I knew I could keep moving. But knowing we were so close to the finish, I just wanted to be done.
Poor Jaime had to listen to me whine for most of this stretch. How could there be more mud? How were we still going uphill? My feet were so sore. My ribs hurt to breathe. She took it all in stride and kept me moving.
We passed at least three other runners in this stretch, which felt empowering. One guy bemoaned not using a pacer, and we said he could run with us. As we hit a short stretch of road and took off running it, he was lost far behind us.
Turning back into the trail from the road, we were in for a treat. Laura had marked the trail with lights – small, battery-powered ones hanging in the trees and bigger balloons with a disco-style strobe inside. It was, to use Jaime’s phrase, “fucking magical.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if these lights were the rest of the way?” I asked her. There was three miles to go, so surely the lights were just a mid-segment pick-me-up.
Nope. The rest of the way, these lights would pop up around a curve, just one or two twinkling in the branches here or there or a cluster at other points. Must have been a tremendous amount of work to put them up and take them down, but it was so cool!
We were going downhill now. Super-tight switchbacks made the downhills challenging, but the mud made it even worse. Jaime went down one mud hill on her back, as I leaped to a rock to avoid doing the same. We literally slid down several hills, unable to find even a bit of traction. Again, the poles were (almost literally) lifesavers.
At the end, Jaime made me promise, we would run to the finish. I said I’d do my best. I don’t know if I had any running left in me. But no, she said we would run all out. I’d try.
And then there was the drop-off to the road. Ridiculously steep, I imagined tumbling down on tired legs and cracking my skull open just meters from the finish. But I made it down and crossed the road, and lights lined the path we would take through the field and across the bridge and to the famous Twisted Branch wooden arch that marked the finish.
I did run. I felt like I ran as fast as I could. It wasn’t fast, for sure, but I finished that race with everything I had left, coming through to the cheering volunteers and other racers at the finish. It was an amazing feeling.
All I wanted was to sit and drink beer. And there, Pina and Steven had set me out a chair and a beer. Finally taking off my shoes and socks and sitting was one of the most glorious feelings ever.
I was giddy, feeling almost drunk I think. Your body does weird things to you after running for 19 hours. I wasn’t remotely tired, but I was positively gushing to everyone who would listen about how amazing it felt to finish this race and how thankful I was to all the people who helped me. I don’t care if it was embarrassing; it was all true.
This race was so well-marked, it amazed me. The volunteers were wonderful. They, too, were out there from very early in the morning until late at night and got little more than a “thanks.” They made pierogis and protein balls and quesadillas and offered cold washcloths and helped de-crust muddy shoes. I can’t thank these people enough.
This is a beautiful area for a race with gorgeous summertime views from the top of the oh-so-many hills. I didn’t appreciate it enough. The weather was part of that, and so was my head-down-feet-moving mentality. For me, finishing the race was priority 1. Next time, I want to appreciate the scenery.
My race wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t pretty. I lost so much time in the first few hours when I was sick and weak that I never did have a chance to make it up. But I finished within the 20-hour cutoff, and finishing something like this is all that matters.
The Twisted Branch website is quite clear: The Bristol Hills Branch trail is hard. It was. Even in good conditions, those hills and rough trails would be extremely challenging. But I heard from several others who had run the race before that the wet and mud made this year the worst conditions for sure. At least we didn’t have the heat as well.
I’m so proud of myself for pushing through when things got difficult. It amazes me that I was able to keep going, both physically and mentally. Without a doubt, this was the hardest thing I ever did.
Right now, I’m not thinking ahead to the next challenge. Maybe I’ll do another long ultra of this distance or more. Maybe not. I think I’d be ok if this was my longest, hardest race. The months of training take a toll.
Most of all, I’m so grateful to those who supported me. The volunteers were awesome. Shea provided sage advice and tips from her own race last year. Chris got me through my stomach issues. Steven made the time pass so quickly and was endlessly patient and encouraging. Jaime drove me to the finish; I can’t think of anyone better to finish that race with. And Pina was the best crewperson I could have asked for. I don’t think I can repay her for dealing with a stinky, muddy, whiny runner from 4am to midnight and always being patient and positive.
I’m not used to people doing things for me. (Running, after all, is a mostly solitary endeavor, and many of us are introverts at heart.) But knowing that those three people did all of this for nothing – no medal, no swag – just to help me finish is amazing.
That feeling makes the accomplishment of this race even more meaningful, and it will stick with me forever.
All photos with the Twisted Branch logo courtesy of Goat Factory Media.