Twisted Branch Trail Run 100k (Race Report)

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?

The Prelude

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.

Pre-Race

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.

Post-Race Thoughts

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.

Candlelight 12-Hour (Race Report)

This year’s race report will be much shorter than last year’s, because my experience was much shorter. Normally, I wouldn’t do a race report when I left the race early. But I’m struggling with this one, and this may be a way to deal with things.

Candlelight, as its name suggests, is a 12-hour race that runs from 7pm to 7am, so most of it is experienced in the dark. It’s a 1-mile loop, sort of figure-eight shaped, with a mix of road and field trails. There’s a single aid station in a barn, a tent row where runners set up their aid stations, and plenty of horses and farm cats to appreciate.

To properly frame this year’s event, I need to look at last year’s. Last year’s race was very humid and muddy, with a light, misting rain for much of the nighttime hours. I struggled mentally around 10:30 but got through it and managed 50 miles over 12 hours. My knee hurt for the last two hours or so, and my gut was off for almost the entire time. But I saw it as a major mental and physical accomplishment.

This year, I didn’t have a distance goal. I just wanted to run for 12 hours and push through the difficult times. I accomplished neither of those things.

Done by 11pm, with 17.5 miles under my belt, I got a decent night’s sleep but little else. Even though one mile/loop counts as a finish and the race allows you to leave whenever you want, I count this one as a personal failure.

This was to be my last big, significant run before my August goal race, and by failing to push through, I’m left feeling unprepared both mentally and physically. My confidence is low, and my frustration is high. But I’m sure of one thing: I won’t be running this particular race again.

Don’t get me wrong: Candlelight is a well-organized event. The volunteers are great, the other runners are awesome and encouraging, the aid station is well stocked and plentiful. I just am not set out for a 1-mile overnight event. It’s not fun to me. The accomplishment last year was fun, but the event was not. This year was far less fun.

It’s hard enough to run a loop course that’s just a fraction over a mile long. For one thing, it’s too easy to stop. (I call that treadmill syndrome.) For another, it’s monotonous. But add to that running in the dark, when no one is talking to each other and you can only see the dimly lit area ahead of you. Then add in miserable weather, and it becomes an exercise in mindless torture.

That’s what it takes, though: being mindless. Last year, right around 10:30, I was struggling mightily. I got a pep talk from a friend and pushed on, and eventually my mind shut off and I was able to continue. This year, at 10:30, I wanted to quit again, and I did.

The biggest problem was my stomach. I hate evening races. No matter how well I eat during the day, my stomach almost always feels off. If it’s a short race, I get through it. But this one, with eight hours to go, it wasn’t going to happen. Every running step felt like my upset stomach was shaking up more and more, and I didn’t want it to explode. So I walked a while, and while that didn’t bother my stomach, it wasn’t accomplishing much.

My feet hurt. The rain had me thoroughly wet and clammy-cold. My stomach was off. So when I sat at base camp and talked to Jaime, we both agreed to be done. I think we enabled each other to give in, when we both planned to run the full 12 hours.

Now I’m left feeling sorry for and upset at myself. I’m stressing over the race in August. I’m having to rethink my week from ultra-recovery to pushing more miles. And I’m tired and frustrated.

So even though I didn’t DNF the event, I consider this year’s Candlelight a big failure. Now I have to figure out how to get past that. I have to find the incentive and motivation to keep going and plan how not to fail at Twisted Branch.

Just not sure how to do that right now…

Many on the Genny 41-Mile Ultra (Race Report)

Down and up. Up and down. For nearly 13 miles, I was running alone in the woods. The trail never really flattens out in these miles. A short flat stretch here and there is broken up by steep drops down to water crossings and steep climbs back out. This is where things got really tough for me, with no one else in sight. But there’s really no other choice than to keep going. Those miles passed very slowly.

Letchworth State Park is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the East. It’s a stunningly beautiful park that runs along both sides of the Genesee River. Two of Rochester’s longtime trail-running organizers and devotees (Eric and Sheila, whose organization is called Trail Methods) organized this ultramarathon as a way of seeing all of the park.

This was the second year of the race. Last year, as Facebook’s memories feature reminded me today, I was in Vermont running the Catamount Ultra 50k (race report here). This year, I planned to run Many as a training run, a means of preserving my endurance base between the 50-miler in May and Twisted Branch 100k in August.

Perhaps it was the “training run” mindset that resulted in noticeably more suffering for this race, my second ultramarathon for the year, than my 50-miler last month. Regardless, this was a long, challenging race. It was also a pretty awesome experience with so many Rochester-area trail runners along the way, and I’m glad I did it despite the struggle!

The day started painfully early. I woke to my alarm at 2:30am so I could keep to my pre-race routine as much as possible. This means an hour at least to eat oatmeal and drink coffee and digest it enough to use the bathroom before making the nearly hour-long drive to Mount Morris. Parking was at the end of the race, which is also where the Sehgahunda trail marathon and Dam Good trail race both start on the western side of the dam. A shuttle bus would take us over to the eastern side for the start.

Things were pretty low-key at the start. The number of participants was capped at 120 runners (although five more spots were opened up for locals who lost out on participating in Eastern States), and there were nearly a dozen people who didn’t make the start. After a few instructions, we started off…heading north. Which is a little odd, since the race takes you south down the west side of the river, across at the Lower Falls area, and back north up the eastern side.

But we headed north on the grass along the road for about a half mile before cutting back onto a trail in the proper direction, hitting the starting area again about a mile in. This turned a reportedly 40-mile race into 41 miles, but it had the benefit of spreading people out before the singletrack, which is always helpful.

I have a habit of starting too fast, even in long races, but the first six to eight miles of this race are so tantalizingly runnable, it’s hard not to! I fell into a group of three other men and one woman, and we were doing 9:30 minute miles for a while. That’s too fast for an ultra pace for me, but there was no one behind us, and it’s more fun running in groups.

I’ve run the east side of the river on the Finger Lakes Trail several times, both with the aforementioned races and during training runs, but this was my first experience on the west side of the park. The goal of the Trail Methods folks was to run as many trails in Letchworth as possible. Unfortunately, this didn’t result in trails all the way around.

We hit the road a few miles in and headed up hill. Racers were encouraged not to run on the road, even the shoulder, so as much as possible I stayed on the grassy area beside. But at several points, there was no grassy strip, and I was cursing my choice of shoes.

Swayed by race reports from last year of the mud, I chose my Speedcross shoes for the start of the race. They have much less padding and much thicker tread than the Saucony Peregrines I had in my drop bag for the mid-point of the race. And the Speedcross always hurt my feet when forced to run on hard surfaces. Like the road, which kept going and going.

All told, there was only about 4 miles of roads broken up in two sections, but all of it seemed uphill. Even the trails in this part seemed uphill. The first aid station came after the first road section, but it seemed far too early, and the morning air was cool enough that I didn’t have to stop. There aren’t a lot of aid stations in this race, but I knew I had enough water to get to the next one.

After this aid station, trails took you to the water crossing. I expected a water crossing, but the race reports from last year didn’t lead me to expect the water near this small waterfall to be so deep! We only crossed a tiny part of the still pool, but the water was halfway up my thighs. And the rocks were wet and slippery. But the water wasn’t too cold, and it was actually kind of fun to wade through the pool and head right back uphill…and then back on to the road again.

All griping about roads aside, the second aid station was a welcome sight. I was doing fine until this point, and I stopped to refill my Tailwind and eat a few oranges. There was only about five miles until the Lower Falls, the mid-point of the race and aid station 3. I figured this would be easy.

But honestly, despite the best views of the river and trails that wrapped around the gorge, this was one of the toughest parts of the race for me. I wonder if my “training run” mindset meant I was not really prepared. Despite being fully healed after my May race and wearing different shoes and socks, my heel blister returned and was giving me fits. I had also taped my big toe, which was still hurt from the May race, and the tape rubbed against the next toe, causing another painful blister. I wasn’t near other runners at this point, and I was getting rather whiny.

The weather didn’t help, to be honest. It was supposed to threaten rain and thunderstorms all day, which is far preferable to the potential heat of a late-June race in New York. But no rain fell by this point, and the air was dense with humidity. My breathing grew strained, far more than I have experienced in a race in some time, and it was a little frightening. Asthma bothers me with the allergens are strong and humidity is thick, and this didn’t make the five-mile stretch any easier.

Finally, we came into the third aid station, which was undoubtedly the biggest. I recognized so many wonderful trail runners volunteering here, and they were without a doubt the most encouraging and supportive group I’ve yet to experience in a race. One person had my drop bag in my hands in a second, and another took my water bottles to refill them while I sat to change and bandage my feet.

I got tape from another volunteer, so I was able to tape over the blister on my second toe. This, plus new socks and the Peregrines, helped my feet quite a bit. The heel blister nagged the entire race, but it wasn’t as bad as my May experience. I took a hit on my inhaler and restocked my pack with more gels.

Reading last year’s race reports, I knew there were two more aid stations in the second 20 miles of the course, and several people had stressed over running out of water. I kept my soft water bottles filled with Tailwind, but I packed a bladder in my drop bag with water, and at the last minute I decided to pull it out and bring it along. I’m glad I did, although I really wish I was better at keeping the air out of it. It sloshed far too much for my liking the rest of the race, but the water was welcome (especially after tasting the Tailwind available at the last aid station…there was something wrong with that water!).

Despite all the friendly faces and encouragement and the chance to get clean and dry socks, shoes, shirt, and hat, I left the Lower Falls aid station in a bad mood. I spent several minutes working on my painful feet, and my legs were sore now. I wanted to run, but I left there in a walk. It was a low point in the race for sure. And as I wound along the gorge, dodging tourists and trying to follow the flags, I had to talk myself into keeping moving.

There were a number of stone stairs here, some down and some up, and several hills with steep drops up or down that hurt my legs even more. Finally, I was at the bridge that crossed the river to the eastern side. This was really the last place where I saw tourists, and it was a pain to get through them. Everyone was walking in groups that spanned the entire area, and I had to call out “excuse me” several times to get through. More slick, uneven stairs up on the other side, and I was definitely ready to be back in the woods.

First, though, there was a gravel road by the camping cottages. These tiny little cottages didn’t look very comfortable to me. They were barely bigger than my bedroom and had just enough space around them for a picnic table and a fire pit. The few people I saw by the cottages were dressed in long pants and sweatshirts, and I was still struggling with the humidity. The route passed by these cottages, then turned up a steep hill to finally hit the Finger Lakes Trail.

And at this point, I was essentially alone for several hours. There was one runner in an orange shirt far ahead of me, and I would see him on occasion, but I traveled 13 miles without anyone in front of or behind me. This is when the running became difficult, too, with countless slopes down and up, so I found a good stick to use for balance and kept it nearly to the end. It became a mental crutch as much as a physical one, I think.

Being alone in the woods is peaceful for sure. I don’t mind it, but time moves awfully slow when you’re alone with your own thoughts. At this point, rain was falling. But it was useless, impotent rain, creating a peaceful pattering against the leaves but seldom letting more than a fat, tepid drop down to hit me as I ran the trail. I didn’t want to be soaked, but I sure wouldn’t mind some moisture to cool off.

In long runs, you have to mentally zone out to some degree. As much as possible, you want to not think about what you’re doing. Because what you are doing is suffering…maybe not a lot, maybe more than you think. But the challenge is to ignore the suffering, or at least recognize it to ensure you can keep going and then push it aside.

I thought about this zone of suffering that those of us in this race were in. After 20+ miles, I was all alone for nearly 13, which means the people ahead of me and behind me were moving at essentially the same pace as I was. When I was walking, they were. When I ran, they must have as well. We were all in this steady state of suffering, far apart from each other but linked by a common pace. It was kind of comforting, to be honest.

But then, you think a lot of weird things when you’re all by yourself in a long race in the woods. I also had the chorus of The Pixies “Dig for Fire” running through my head for so long I was making up words for the rest of the song. I made up my own song to accompany the repetitive sloshing of my water (and now don’t remember a word of them). I carried my stick like a rifle and used it like a pole to vault over downed trees with a kind of exuberance I didn’t even know I had in me. When I kicked every root and rock with my sore big toe, I swore out loud and whined like a child. No one else was around to experience these things. Thankfully.

Aid station 4 was a tough one for the volunteers, as everything had to be carried in and out. The two volunteers refilling my water and offering encouragement were some of the most supportive, and I needed that at this point. I didn’t want to leave…the next aid station was nine miles ahead. One volunteer said the rest was a net downhill. I knew these trails, though, and I knew it wouldn’t get easier for a while yet.

I headed back out with my stick, and at this point I was doing more walking than running. The trail did have longer sections that were runnable, finally, but still plenty of ups and downs. I passed one person at last, and he was walking along with his head down. There are several points where you head straight along running water, then cross it and back straight on the other side, and I looked back to see him breaking off a branch to get his own stick. I hope I gave him the idea and it helped him. He finished well over an hour after me.

I caught up to the runner with the orange shirt at long last. He was with another man, and I joined their conversation for a bit. Time passed quicker. We were told jugs of water were placed halfway between the two aid stations, but in reality they were nearly 90 percent of the way to aid station 5. At the water drop, the two runners stopped to refill, and I kept going. The orange shirt would finish 20 minutes after me, the other runner at least an hour.

The Rochester Running Company sponsors the fifth aid station (and the race this year), and they dub it the Final Countdown station. That song was blasting (and I mean LOUD) on a speaker, so you knew it was coming up for nearly a mile. They really needed more room, as there were more volunteers here than space for runners, but everyone was very supportive and helpful. I got my bottles refilled with the aforementioned foul-tasting Tailwind, and I pressed on.

Somewhere in here, the female runner who was leading our little group at the start passed me. To be honest, I thought she was ahead of me the whole time, seeing as how much time I spent at aid station 3. I tried to keep up for a bit, but she was trucking for the finish, so I let her go. It was her longest race to date, and she looked fresh finishing it up!

Before that aid station, I had passed another runner who was clearly struggling. Hearing we only had 4.5 miles to go, he must have gotten a second wind, because he caught back up to me. These last few miles were the most runnable on this side of the river, and we fell into a pattern of running and walking and chatting. The time went quickly. But we were only a half mile out of the finish when he tripped and went down, curling up into a ball on the group and feebly telling me to go on. I went back and helped him up, made sure he was ok, then took off to the finish.

Finally, I finished, giving the race director a high five. The area at the end was in a small clearing full of people and the smells of delicious food cooking. The sun was out. It felt so good to be done. There were homemade plates, as much beer as we could want from a local brewer, and good people to talk with. I sat for almost two hours, enjoying the beer and recovery and watching more runners finish.

My goal for this race was to finish in 10 hours (there was a 14-hour cutoff), and I accomplished that, running 41 miles in 9:35 for my second ultra of the year. I was barely in the top half of finishers, which seemed good considering how much I struggled in the second half. For a training run, it was highly successful. For a race, I may have been able to be better prepared. But as an experience in the woods with great people, it was tremendous.

I have a lot of thoughts on why I struggled so much. The blisters were very annoying, and the breathing was tough. Mentally, I struggled more for this race. But I may write about that later. I accomplished another long, tough race. And I learn from every experience.

Next up: Candlelight 12-hour, hopefully to be ultra #3 on the year!

 

Frost Town Trail Fest 25k (Race Report)

This was a late addition to my race schedule this year. As a first-year race, I hadn’t heard much about it in the weeks leading up to race day. And, to be honest, the mention of free admission to the associated beer fest was what sold me on entering.

Running an event in its first year can have problems. You don’t know what to expect. And first-time race directors often take a year or two to learn from their mistakes. Fortunately, this race didn’t have the latter issue.

Turns out, the same people who put on the Catamount Ultra 50k I ran in Vermont last year (Ironwood Adventure Works) put on this event thanks to a Rochester area friend who works at Cumming Nature Center. Cumming has a few miles of well-traveled hiking paths, but a significant amount of neighboring land in the Bristol Mountain area was added recently and maintained by The Nature Conservancy, allowing the organizers to plan a longer event.

The 10k race was mostly on the Nature Center trails, while the 25k incorporated those trails in the middle but added on its extra miles on either end. The longer event – actually closer to 14 miles than 15 – was billed as “rugged.” Perhaps there is another word to describe this kind of trail race, but rugged will have to do. (Other words that may apply: Muddy. Hilly. Bushwhack.)

Although run by the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Cumming is nearly an hour outside of Rochester, not far from Bristol Mountain ski resort and Ontario State Park (where a number of other hilly races are run). It’s in the middle of hundreds of miles of dense, wooded land, so it’s easy to see why the organizers felt it would lend itself to longer events. That being said, this is mostly unused land. Other than the few miles at Cumming itself, the rest of it was thick and unbroken. Here and there, very old logging roads broke the forest a bit, but these have long since been reclaimed by nature. Ultimately, it made for a very interesting and rough run!

The weather leading up to Saturday was in the upper 80s, but Saturday morning broke cool – barely over 50 – and cloudy: perfect running weather. The race start was pretty low-key, heading to one side of the road coming into Cumming to get about 2.5 miles of all hills in before coming back to the main area.

Starting a race uphill is never fun. Everyone was struggling as they warmed up, and the conditions made it more difficult. As these trails were not used often, there was numerous holes and divots, and it was all filled with loose branches, rocks, and leaves. But it served to spread out the field quickly, and at least the hills back down were reasonably runnable.

We crossed back into the main part of the park and got to travel some comfortable, soft trail of the 10k route. I fell in behind a few people, running at a pace a little faster than I would have liked, but there was no one behind me, and I didn’t really want to get lost when the trail ended up ahead.

But, sure enough, as the traveled path ended and the 25k route branched off into the new land, I was running on an island, following the blue and orange streamers hung from trees and occasional flags. The route wasn’t poorly marked by any means. It’s just that the lack of any noticeable trail during much of this stretch made picking your way treacherous. Keep looking up to keep from getting lost and you’re bound to roll an ankle or trip over the rocks and branches.

The elevation profile prepared me for a significant down and uphill. The Muddy Sneaker trail race is run not far from Cumming, and it too drops way down before rising up seemingly forever. That one is mostly on logging roads, however. The downhill of this race was rough, bouncing through runoff and whipping branches and nettles. Even the trampling of the runners before me didn’t really help make this any easier.

Then there was the mud. It had rained there the night before, we were told, and mud was in abundance. This was especially evident on the long downhill. The thick divots helped call out that this may have been a logging road at one point and left tufts of higher grass in the middle or sides to avoid some of the mud, but by the end of the race I was coated in mud up to the thighs.

We were informed that the downhill was rough but the uphill much more navigable. And this was true. At long last, I hit the aid station at the bottom and immediately started up the hill on a much easier and clearer trail.

I followed the example of a runner who I caught up to, grabbing a stick and using it as an aid up the hill. With Twisted Branch coming up in a few months, I have been encouraged to start training with poles, especially for the hills. And I used this as an opportunity, keeping my trusty stick with me until the end of the race. It was interesting to practice running flats and gentle uphills with the aid, but it definitely helped me power up the long hill.

In retrospect, the hill didn’t seem so bad. It passed quickly, leveling out at various points before rising again. Another runner passed me at the points where it leveled out, but I stayed within sight of these two for the rest of the race, eventually passing one before the finish.

We hit the 10k route again, and I was feeling good at this point, comfortable on actual trails and passing a few of the more casual 10k runners who started an hour after us. I kept using the stick on the flats and gentle uphills, carrying it on the downhills and using it to help me bounce around the patches of mud.

Then I was out on the long, gentle upslope of beautifully soft, wide trail lined by the most gorgeous tall pine trees. The hill stretched out a long way ahead, and it was tempting to walk and maybe even get my phone out of my pack for a picture. But then tents and people were spotted, so I figured the end was near, and I ran it out to the finish (ditching my trusty stick just before crossing the line).

As rough and difficult the “trail” was for the 25k, it was incredibly fun. I never got lost (just a bit confused at times), and bushwhacking through the middle of the woods made it feel more like an adventure than a normal trail race. My legs were covered in mud and marked with dozens of scratches from the nettles and brush, but I felt good when I finished and definitely could have gone further.

(The organizers hope next year to offer longer options. I suggested two loops for a 50k, but they thought there was enough land they could get rights to run through to do 50k or more without looping. Knowing the area, I’m sure the run could be quite long, remote, and hilly!)

Best of all, the after-race events were stellar. We’re out in the woods, far from everything, but they had a keg of beer made just for the race in a pint glass (instead of finisher medal) as we came through the finish line. And down a trail to a little clearing revealed five or six brewers pouring beer samples, a musician, picnic tables, and a few other vendors. Folks stuck around for several hours, sampling beer and enjoying the music. Surrounded by those tall, glorious pines, it was a gorgeous environment for an afternoon of beer and drinks.

My only complaint was with the food. The organizers promised post-race grub and handed out a “meal ticket” before starting. But the food vendors told us that only got us a small bowl of chili (normally $6), while they were also serving huge pulled-pork and Buffalo-style pulled chicken sandwiches. I didn’t want spicy, bean-filled chili, and I didn’t have my wallet, so I was fortunate to borrow enough for a delicious sandwich. If they just indicated that chili was included but other food could be purchased, I would have been better prepared.

Still, the whole day was enjoyable and in a beautiful, rugged environment. I would definitely run this again next year. Being prepared for the conditions will help for sure. But having organizers with so much experience (and great sponsors supporting the race) made for a very professional first-time event. I hope they keep the beer fest for next year!

Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon 50 Miler (Race Report)

Of all the things that might have prevented me from finishing my first 50-mile ultramarathon, a blister wasn’t one I would have predicted. My pained calves, perhaps, or a breathing issue that had been plaguing me this spring. But not something so pedestrian as a heel blister, surely.

Still, as I plodded up a hill just past mile 30 of the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon 50-Mile Race, already limping to avoid rubbing my heel too much, I felt it tear, a literal ripping sensation that sent waves of pain up my leg. And I stopped in the middle of the trail, tears in my eyes, wondering if this nagging thing – normally no more than an annoyance – would be the thing that did me in.

It seemed so ironic. Going into this race on May 12 at Moraine State Park, just north of Pittsburgh, PA, I had a number of pains and anxieties.

  • My calves have been hurting terribly for the last few weeks, surely from the constant miles I had been putting on them. This pain was so bad that I hobbled the first mile at least of every run, and other areas were hurting from compensating for the pain.
  • My allergies have been terrible, as spring made a late but sudden arrival, and my breathing had been an issue even before allergy season.
  • Mentally, I felt unprepared. Though I was averaging 50-60 miles a week, my long runs weren’t nearly as long as most training plans suggested. The excitement was diminished, and the anxiety was real. I even let in the niggling concept of dropping during the race if the pain was too much.

But I finished. I may have walked more than I would have liked, and I limped awkwardly for miles. Wearing shoes is painful due to the blister that is still infected and aching a week later. But the sense of elation that I felt crossing the finish line at 11 hours, 47 minutes is still with me today. And I can honestly say that the blister may have helped by giving me something to focus on. But more on that later.

Prepared?

Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon is not a large or well-known race (outside of that section of Pennsylvania), but I chose it for a few reasons: I wanted a late-spring 50 miler to keep me training through the winter, and I wanted to travel somewhere within driving distance so I could spend a few days after the race sightseeing, similar to the 50k race I ran last year in Vermont. It came down to this one or the Dirty German in Philadelphia, but since that one was loops and this was an out-and-back, I picked this.

My intention for a spring 50 was to bookend the running season, with Twisted Branch 100k in August closing things out. I signed up for both last fall after being inexplicably ghosted by my former running partners, and I figured committing to these races would convince me to keep pushing and to find new, inspiring fellow runners. A good part of my running experience the last two years was centered around training with my old group, so I wanted to prove to myself I had surpassed that effort and could do this on my own.

As noted, training for this race was hit or miss. Rather than follow a training plan developed by someone else that felt rigid and stressful, as I did the last two years, I wanted to be more relaxed. I started strong in January, building my weekly miles and taking several 15- to 20-mile long runs with Jaime. I ran several intermediate runs with Russ, often on Sunday following a longer Saturday run. And I split some days into morning and evening runs to experience tired legs.

I didn’t, however, get 30+ mile runs in prior to the race. My longest may have been 24. And I didn’t get the weekly miles into the 60s. A few weeks before the race, my legs were protesting. Calves hurt terribly, and other muscles and tendons ached from compensation. I pressed on and make rolling a regular activity, but the pain made me more and more nervous. I even considered dropping down to the 50k, but that seemed silly. If I couldn’t run, a 50k wouldn’t be much easier, and if I felt great, I’d regret not going through with the whole thing.

I only had one run of 50 miles in my history, and that was on a mostly flat and partially paved one-mile loop during a 12-hour race last summer. That gave me some confidence that I could keep moving for 50 miles, especially since I didn’t train much for that event. Still, I had stomach issues during that event and struggled mentally, almost dropping out several times, and the anxiety of dealing with those two things during this race compounded my worry.

The Race

Moraine State Park (and Jennings Park, which connected) is about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh. I watched a couple YouTube videos from people running the 50k and 50 miler last year, and it looked beautiful. All week I obsessed over the weather, which went from high 80s (ugh!) to 60s with ongoing thunder storms (again, ugh). Day of, however, it settled somewhere in between, forecasting mostly cloudy weather and thunder storms in the afternoon.

It was cool, barely at 50 when I got to the park a little after 5 am for a 6 am start. The start was fairly low-key. I hung out toward the back, hoping to pace myself, which always is a struggle for me. As with every race, the anxiety and excitement finally disappears when you start to move, and I felt good hitting the course in the cool early-morning air.

The race includes options for 50 miles, 50k, 30k, and a 50-mile relay, with the 50-milers and relayers starting at 6, 50k at 7, and 30k at 8 to spread people out. It also started on a paved bike path for a mile, which helped spread out the runners nicely before hitting the single track on the Glacier Ridge trail.

The course is sort of Y-shaped. You run 10 miles through Moraine to the main aid station, then cross the road and head left for an about 11-mile out-and-back with a lollipop loop on the end through Jennings. The 50k runners head back to the start, while 50 milers check in at the aid station, cross the road again, and head another way for 20 extra miles on mostly logging roads with a little trail. You get to hit your drop bag at the middle aid station three times, which is reassuring, and that station has the best food for the race.

grtu7

At the start, when we hit the singletrack, I settled into a nice pace and was able to enjoy the park. The sun was up and bright, and the view was amazing. Moraine is such a startlingly beautiful park, with high visibility, wildflowers and other beautiful plants, and crystal-clear ponds and lakes. I wished I had my camera to take pictures, but it was stuffed in my back and out of reach.

I fell in behind one woman and started chatting. We kept up a great conversation and easy pace for most of the first 10 miles. I pulled away from her up a long hill and figured she’d catch me going back down, but it was hours until I saw her again.

At that first stop of the aid station, I was feeling great. Legs felt good, mind was at ease, and pace was right. I felt entirely confident that I would finish this race. I refilled my bottles and took off for the next stretch.

Now the blister started to nag. Here’s the thing – I bought new shoes a while back. They were cheap online, and they were the same brand as I always wore. But I only wore them a few times on trails to wear them in. And a week before this race, I got a blister on my heel with them. It wasn’t bad, and it was mostly healed up, but I had it covered with a bandage and moleskin just in case.

It started hurting on this stretch of the race, but I ignored it. I fell into a little caravan of people. Here and there a few people dropped off until it was me and the man who was leading the group. We chatted about races and pains and the like and had a nice conversation until he stopped to use the bathroom and I kept going. Into the little loop with a very nice, peaceful aid station, and I was off again heading back. There were a lot of people on this stretch, some going around the loop in the wrong way, and I marveled at one 50-mile relay person wearing a cotton t-shirt and what looked like boat shoes with white socks.

Back at the middle aid station at mile 21 or so, I sat to change my socks and re-bandage the heel. A change of shirt and hat felt wonderful, because the temperature was getting warm, but so far we had been in the shade under the trees, so it hadn’t bothered me.

On the next stretch, it was only 50-mile and relay runners, so far fewer people to talk to or run with. Two women doing the relay leg were running together, and I’d pass them up hills, while they’d pass me down. And that’s what this stretch was for 10 miles: long up hills and long downs, over and over again. Just when I thought I got to the inevitable top, it went down and up again.

And we were on open logging roads, long since unused and so full of ruts and horse poop. (As an aside, how come people freak out if a dog leaves a small pile of poop in a park but it’s totally ok to let the horse splatter a massive mound of excrement in the middle of a trail?) These logging roads were totally exposed to the sun, and the temperature had now risen to the low 80s. Those clouds and rain that were promised were nowhere to be seen, and the heat was getting to us. My heel hurt more, and I was falling into the mode of shuffling up hills with my head down and slowly running the downs.

There was only one unmanned water stop halfway out on this stretch, so when the end came into sight with a full aid station, I was relieved. These volunteers were the nicest and most helpful of the bunch (or maybe I just needed them more), and I gratefully refilled my water with ice and Tailwind. This wasn’t the turn-around, however. We had to go a mile and a half further on, up hill and through a field, to a phone book hanging from an exposed pipe, tear out a page, and return with it to prove we did the extra miles. People like the phone book idea; it’s very Barkley Marathons, I suppose. My heel was killing me, and I just wanted to go back.

But onward I trudged, into the woods (at last) and up a long, steep hill. That’s when I felt the blister physically tear, and I stopped in the middle of the trail and nearly cried out in the pain. I never knew a blister could hurt so much, and I didn’t know what to do. Every step rubbed against it, even with the bandage, and the uphills were the worst. So I trudged on, my left foot turned sideways so I could plant it with as little rubbing motion as possible, teeth clenched against the pain.

Those coming back were running down, and a few asked if I was alright. They could see the pain on my face, and I felt so stupid. It was a blister, of all things, not a hamstring tear or something serious. I nodded and tried to smile and kept going. At last, there was the book, and I tore out a page and headed back.

Downhills didn’t hurt quite as much, but I was landing every step with my foot pushed forward, trying to keep it flat but banging my toes forward to relieve pressure on my heel. At this point, my big toe was starting to hurt too, but I compartmentalized that. I passed the two relay women again, and they complimented me on how strong I looked. I hissed out an explanation of the pain I was feeling through clenched teeth, and both looked aghast as I passed them and went back to the aid station.

There, I turned in my page and sat in a camp chair, taking the first aid kit and peeling off my shoe and sock carefully. It didn’t look as bad as I feared, though there was blood. I patched it up and taped the bandage on to keep it from moving and started gobbling up oranges and watermelon. I didn’t want to leave the shade of this aid station. There was 20 more miles to go, and it was in the mid-80s now. I worried I wouldn’t make it.

Back down the road, walking more than running even on the downhills, each step a wince of pain. I kept a few people in sight, marveling that they always seemed to be in front of me, off in the distance, for the entire day. Later, I would pass all of them, but that wouldn’t be for hours.

I fell in with the man who made a YouTube video for the 50-mile race last year. He finished in 10.5 hours, but he was walking slowly now. We chatted a bit, and he kept repeating that this was not his day. He’d finish over an hour behind me but in good spirits!

I had stopped sweating an hour ago, and this had me nervous, but now clouds were coming in. The light breeze that helped with the heat was gone, but the temperature dropped a bit. Humidity took its place, and this was worse. I kept going, jealously wondering where the man off in the distance found two perfect-length sticks to use as poles for the hills, then passing them by where he had left them for fear of lugging the extra weight.

I came back into the main aid station at long last, figuring I was near the back of the pack of 50-milers but certain now to finish, even if I had to crawl or hop the last 10 miles. I changed my socks, shirt, and hat again, and this time I dug my old, beat-up trail shoes from my drop bag. A re-bandaged blister and new shoes (and perhaps a few more Ibuprofen) did the trick. I started back to the start/finish feeling rejuvenated again.

The pain in my heel came and went, sometimes bringing me nearly to a stop but other times receding into just an annoyance. I was running each downhill and powering up the hills. I passed people here and there, some of whom I had seen for hours, and everyone was struggling with the heat, humidity, and conditions. We all agreed the 50k route was challenging but beautiful; the 50-mile route was grueling.

I just wanted to get to the mid-point water stop. All the Tailwind and Huma gels that I had been consuming were leaving my stomach feeling sick and my mouth coated. I started to feel light headed and wondered if it was the blood, the digestion issues, or something else. I ignored it and kept going. At last, the water stop was in sight, and though it was supposed to be an unmanned water stop, a volunteer was there to help fill bottles and pass out non-frozen but still delicious popsicles. I guzzled water and filled one bottle for the last five miles, and as I started back out, the first drops of rain began to fall.

Glorious, glorious rain! It was as if a switch was flipped. The humidity was tempered, and I was cool and comfortable again. The trail grew slick but not unrunnable, and I took off running. The downhills were bombed, and the uphills were overtaken. I passed a few more people who I didn’t even know were ahead. I felt like I was flying, and at one point I looked up into the rain drizzling through the leaves and laughed. These must be 8-minute miles, I figured (closer to 12, it turns out), and I would be back and done in no time! I was so ready to be done.

My watch droned that the battery was low, but I knew I was under 12 hours. That was my goal, and I had to beat it now. At long last, I burst from the singletrack on to the paved trail, groaning at the sign saying it was 1.2 miles remaining to the finish. Still, it was mostly flat, and I was running like the wind! (Here I was managing a 10-minute mile, my fastest mile since the first one nearly 12 hours earlier, but it felt like an all-out spring.) I passed two more runners who laughed at me, and I encouraged them to run to the finish. They would finish more than 15 minutes behind me.

Finally, to the finish, and the handful of people who were still around. I raised my hands in excitement as I finished in 11:47. I took my beautiful glass medal and hobbled into the shelter for a non-sugary drink and collapsed at the picnic table.

Each time a runner was coming in, though, I felt the need to get up and go out to cheer him or her on. I think moving around helped, because I managed to get back to my car for a change of clothes and wonderful beer, and I sat to watch for those I had talked to for so many hours. They dribbled in here and there, and I congratulated each for what we managed to get through. With 25 minutes left before the 14-hour cutoff, I got in the car to head back.

According to the results, I finished 24th overall for the 50-mile race out of 65 people. Not a point in the race did I think I was in the top half. And judging by the number of folks who finished after me before I left, I never imagined I was so close to the front. I’m sure those ahead of me were far ahead of me, but this result was better than I imagined, especially as I was struggling to place my foot without moaning in pain at each unending uphill stretch.

Afterthoughts

The sense of elation I get from finishing a hard race at an ultramarathon distance is like a drug. No wonder people keep signing up for these things. Everyone around me talked about the 50- and 100-mile races they ran, and I finished in the top half. I belonged in that group.

Most of the race, I had a smile on my face. The blister hurt for so much of it, though, and I was amazed at how much it could hurt. It got infected, and it still hurts nearly a week later. I think it’s getting better. I’m eager to run again, but I’m trying to let it heal up. Still, I wonder if having that one particular painful thing to draw my attention took focus away from all the other pains and discomforts. My stomach didn’t bother me much, and neither did my legs. Or if they did, the discomfort paled in comparison to my foot. And knowing it was a blister, which seems so small an annoyance, meant I never really considered not continuing to move forward, step after step.

These parks were absolutely stunning in their beauty. There was a wide mix of terrain, from smooth and fast singletrack to rocky, bounder-strewn, ankle-bending trail. There were plenty of hills, but none so steep or unending that they threatened to beat me. I would love to go back here and run again for fun. The 50k route itself would be a perfect race; the logging roads got relentless and difficult. But a 50-mile race isn’t supposed to be easy, and I was never promised an easy first 50.

The volunteers were wonderful as well. There were only three real manned aid stations with a few other unmanned water drops, and the volunteers were such big helps at all of them. Especially when I needed them most at the end of the long 50-mile-only stretch – those people were patient saints.

Now I know my training was good enough and my legs were strong enough. I kept up the nutrition as best as I had to and stayed hydrated. I had packed my dropbag well and used most of the clothes changes and supplies that I brought. It was a success all around.

Fifty miles in nearly 12 hours is a long day in the woods. It’s fun to get people’s reactions when I say I ran that far. But, more importantly, it’s so gratifying to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing myself through such a long and difficult race and finish at a fast run with a grin on my face.

A few beautiful pictures of the park from race day:

2017 Running in Review

2017 total miles: 1403 (228 increase)
2016 total miles: 1175

Looking back at it now, 2017 was a year to make good on my failures in 2016. Then again, shouldn’t every year be about making good on the previous year’s failures and failing in new and interesting ways?

The year started with difficulty. The first few months of the year were cold and wet. In fact, the whole year felt terribly wet. There wasn’t even much of a summer, with just a few warm days in late spring and early fall. But the wetness…that was the struggle. Every long run in the winter and early spring is lodged in my mind as a slog through mud and calf-deep freezing puddles.

But, I learned a lot in the last year. For one, I learned to run in poorer conditions. The January half marathon had me stocking up on cold-weather clothing. (And, as an aside, the bitter cold hitting us already this winter has me buying more!) The rain meant getting used to mud and slop, which helped me in some of the longer runs. I learned to love hills even a little more.

Mostly, I made good on a few races that challenged me the previous year. Though I wasn’t much faster in the races that I ran multiple times, I suffered less and enjoyed the running experience more. That, in and of itself, is a big accomplishment.

I ran two full marathons this past year: Sehgahunda again, on trails, and Wineglass on roads. I shaved nearly 75 minutes off 2016’s Sehgahunda time, thanks to cooler and wetter weather. And I spent a good portion of the summer running on roads in training for Wineglass, only to see my body fall apart as I hit the wall due to not getting enough calories and energy. Even that, however, didn’t stop me from beating a 4-hour marathon.

I ran a 50k in Vermont that challenged me significantly, both mentally and physical, due to the sloppy conditions and steep elevation gains. And there I learned that I belonged with the other crazy runners out there. That experience motivated me the rest of the year.

I ran my longest stretch – 50+ miles – at the overnight Candlelight Ultra. It proved to me that I could run crazier, longer distances. It also taught me a lot about the mental struggle of keeping moving no matter how difficult it feels.

I started a running group on Monday nights with people in my town. It’s still going, although it hasn’t grown like I hoped. Maybe it will grow in the spring. Still, I made some new friends through it, and it helped me start the week off each week with a few extra miles.

I hurt more this year. Calf strains, tendonitis, knee pain, muscle cramps – all these things bothered me for much of the year and still do, to some extent. I am very lucky that these injuries have not kept me from running. I am well aware that running through them can lead to further injuries that set me back significantly.

I never want to stop learning things about running. The spring was difficult. I felt like I wasn’t learning new things. I was suffering more physically and mentally. But with springtime weather, my spirits improved, and so did my experiences. I learned how I struggle mentally, and I learned to push through those struggling times. I learned to be more optimistic and positive. I learned that when there are two paths to take, always take the one that leads up hill. Hills are my friends.

If I seem optimistic about last year in retrospect, it’s because things always look better with distance. I am well aware of how much I struggled in the last year. I didn’t want to run many times, and some times I didn’t. I didn’t do enough to help myself in some ways, and in others I did much more than I ever had before.

Looking at my running resolutions from last year, I realize I did pretty good. I ran another 50k and both my marathons. I felt better while racing. I improved my attitude (after suffering through the slog of spring at least). I meditated more, improved my nutrition, and ran with different people. Also, I did more hills. A lot of hills.

In short, 2017 was a success and a transition year. At least, that’s how I care to see it at this point. It was a transition from being a newer runner to an established ultra runner. I learned good and bad things about my running self, and I set new plans and goals for 2018 that take me far beyond I ever though I could go.

But plans for 2018 will be summarized in another post. For now, I look back fondly at all the miles – the good ones with friends, the bad ones alone, and the many, many wet and cold ones.

Dirt Cheap Stage Race (Race Report)

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

I’m not a quote person inspired by pithy wordplay laid over scenic images on inspirational posters or memes. But as I sat around the house Friday afternoon, mentally counting down the time until my first of three races for the weekend, I was thinking a lot about suffering.

The temperature was in the teens on Friday, a bitter transition from the late-summer weather of late September and early October. A three-mile trail run is hard enough when you push yourself to go fast despite rocky terrain and steep hills, but compound that with darkness and a thin layer of snow over everything plus air cold enough to hurt your lungs as you gasped for air, and it was certainly a sufferfest.

Why was I leaving the warmth and comfort of my house for a bitterly cold trail run? I could have easily called it off and had a good dinner and binge watched more episodes of Stranger Things. The longer I sat around the house on my day off (in honor of Veteran’s Day), the more appealing it became to choose comfort over discomfort and suffering.

Then again, if I stayed home, I would accomplish nothing. Comfort is transient. By going out, I’d be amongst people, talking and interacting rather than sitting home alone. And all would be suffering, not just me. Then there’s the simple fact that suffering increases strength. It got darker and colder, and I forced myself out the door.

Friday’s 5k was the first of three races in Fleet Feet’s Dirt Cheap Stage Race, all in Mendon Ponds Park. Saturday featured a 5ish-mile race starting at 10 am, and Sunday toured most of the park over 11ish miles at 9 am. Run all three, and you get a coveted hoodie. Some people have run every year and wear their classic hoodies proudly. This is my third year and the first time that running 20ish miles over three days didn’t seem imposing in the least.

In fact, I ran faster last year than this year despite feeling significantly stronger and faster in training runs. Chalk that up to colder weather and trickier footing, I suppose. Perhaps I didn’t push myself hard enough. It isn’t that important; comparing yourself today to what you did in the past is always misleading. I ran all three races and got my hoodie, and today, looking back at the weekend, I’m pleasantly encouraged that my legs feel every bit as good (if not better) than they did on Friday.

A quick recap of the three days:

Friday’s run is a time trial, which means each runner goes off in five-second increments. You race for time, not finish position, and it’s a fun concept. Runners leave in bib number order, so I got to packet pickup particularly early on Thursday to get a low number. I’d much rather stand around after a run when my body is warmed up than wait for several minutes in the cold.

I didn’t feel great on this run. It was hard to see the surfaces buried under leaves and snow, so I felt like I was running tentatively. There are several steep hills in three short miles. And though I wore a headlamp and carried a flashlight (this works for me on night trails), I felt distracted and distant, not really focusing on the ground in front of me.

Only a few people passed me, and as I came to the finish I heard a runner in pursuit, so I sprinted down the hill to finish 45 seconds faster than last year. Not a bad race despite the cold and snow. I was struggling to breathe after the race, though, my lungs fighting the cold, dry air. It was a disconcerting feeling that fortunately didn’t bother me the rest of the weekend.

Saturday’s run always goes through the muddy parts of Mendon. Even last year, when we had an almost historic draught, there was mud in the marshy trails. This year had a historic rainfall, and the mud was thick and not close to being frozen over. It was nearly 25 degrees Saturday morning, and wearing several layers of clothing while fighting the mud made for a bit of a slog. Still, I finished just two minutes slower than the previous year, and I felt good powering up “Cardiac Hill” and the infamous Devil’s Bathtub stair ending. I passed people on both. My hill game is on point this year!

Sunday, the temperature was closer to 30. This day’s course covers most of the park, including all the muddy parts from Saturday plus a few extra muddy miles. It passed quickly for me. I was running by myself for nearly all of it, at one point even wondering if I was still on course when the trail opened up and I could see no one before or after me. I kept going anyway.

I remember suffering more last year, nearly out of energy and on dead legs during the second half of the third day’s run. This year, my legs felt fine. I was most mentally tired than physically. The hills were nothing; I power hiked them all and passed people again, though I was still tentative on the sketchy terrain of the steep downhills. Familiar sections that I remember struggling through last year passed particularly quick. If not for the dense mud that turned cold feet to ice, it would have been a lovely run.

I knew it ended up hill, and I have a great photo of me from last year as I powered up to the finish. This year, they narrowed the uphill finish into a chute, which confused me until I saw a tree down nearly at the top. They wanted to make sure we went over the downed tree, not around. It killed all momentum and made for an awkward uphill clamber to the finish line. But I was done and breathing much smoother and easier than after Saturday’s stair finish.

The best part of last year’s three-day experience was staying after, lingering and talking to people and drinking beer with friends. A few of us shared a beer or two this year as well, but it was far colder (at least 25 degrees each day), and the sun disappeared Sunday, so no one wanted to linger too long. I got my hoodie and felt accomplished.

Only one day of the stage race was faster than last year, although I finished about six spots higher in the overall standings (likely due to less competition in the cold, wet, muddy conditions). And even though I suffered, I felt strong. My legs are far stronger than they were last year, especially evident as I powered up steep hills. I breathed easier, although that’s always a struggle for me. And though the course wasn’t as runnable as in past years, I felt like I was running well and quick when I could.

Better yet, my legs feel good today. In fact, my knee, which has been hurting badly and hampering my running, isn’t bothering me at all today. Last year, I was very tired after three days of racing hard. And this year, I feel comfortable and fresh. It’s a good sign that all the endurance is paying off with strength.

The stage race is a fun event, and I’m glad I left the warmth of the house all three days. Cold-weather running is not nearly as fun to me, and fighting the shoe-sucking mud and soaking wet feet is miserable. But running with other people is always better than sitting home alone. Even though that’s hard to remember beforehand, it makes for far better memories after.

Wineglass Marathon (Race Report)

So that’s what the wall feels like…

This was the first time I hit the wall in a race. I did not enjoy the experience. But I learned from it, so I suppose there’s some value there.

Wineglass was one of two big goal races this year. I wanted to do this race because of its proximity in Western New York and because of its popularity. As a Fall point-to-point race that features a net downhill, the race is famous enough to be featured on many lists of destination races around the country. It sells out every year, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to compare how far I’ve come from my first road marathon last September.

Going in to Wineglass, I felt strong. My training runs were fast, and I was convinced a 3 hour 45 minute finish was not out of the question, crushing my PR (from my only other road marathon) of 4:30. I had some realistic other goals, however. If things didn’t work out as planned, I still wanted to break the 4:00 mark. And then, of course, there’s the ever-present goal of just finishing. Running 26 miles is never easy, after all.

My routine was broken for this race. I stayed in a hotel near Corning, NY, instead of sleeping in my own bed. The hotel’s coffee was mostly gritty grounds and hot water, so I was running on the least amount of caffeine that I can remember. And instead of eating a peanut butter sandwich and going to bed early, I met up with some other runners the night before the race and drank a few beers and ate Pad Thai. None of these things felt like they had an impact on my race; I slept ok, was awake despite next to no caffeine, and my stomach was fine. But it may have been a factor.

Conditioning may have been a factor too. I was trying to train casually, not getting stuck on numbers and relying on my established base. A recent 20-mile training run felt easy and fast, so I thought I was ready. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be fast (for me), and that 3:45 goal was looming large. Nerves became a factor. Who was I trying to impress? Just myself, I guess.

The morning of the race was cold (about 35 degrees F) and featured thick, dense fog. I meandered through traffic to get a parking spot and was on my way to the bus lines, bundled in all the warm clothes that I planned to leave in my drop bag at the starting line. I checked my pocket for the plastic drop bag, and it was gone! Running back the way I came, I found it by the parking garage exit, thankfully. I couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or a bad one, but I made the shuttle in plenty of time.

It’s a 30-minute bus ride to Bath and the starting line, and the fog meant you couldn’t see much of the course you were about to run through in the other direction. At the start, one large tent kept runners warm, and those that didn’t fit clustered in a bus barn that at least kept us out of the wind. I talked with some friends and kept the nerves at bay before finally shucking my warm-weather gear and getting into the crowd. It was a cold 10 or so minutes of listening to the speakers before they finally let us start.

I felt good…like really good. I hung in the cluster of people behind the 3:45 pacer through Bath, and the sun broke through the clouds, warming us up at last. Running in a pace group kind of stinks, as you have to watch every step or risk kicking another runner or being kicked, so eventually, as we left the town, I passed the group and hung out in the relatively open area in front of them.

The sun disappeared again, and it got cold and damp. But I still felt good and was running strong. I caught up to the 3:40 cluster and ran with them for a few miles, finally passing them going up the long (but gentle) incline at mile 6. The race tracking app kept telling me my mile splits over my headphones, and I was averaging about an 8:15 pace. A few miles were just over 8 minute miles.

Perhaps I went out too fast. If I stayed behind the 3:45 pacer, I might have preserved some energy. But on the other hand, you can’t finish ahead of schedule if you don’t push the pace. And I really did feel good!

Tiredness started to set in by the time we got to the halfway point in Campbell, where the half marathon had started a while ago. But you’re supposed to be tired when running, and I wasn’t letting that get me down. I gulped some water, and I was starting to realize that my energy was flagging. I wasn’t taking enough energy back in, and the water or Gatorade wasn’t going to cut it.

Usually when I run long races, I subsist on Tailwind, which has electrolytes and calories. In trail races, I pack some powder to refill my bottles a few times at aid stations, and I did the same thing with stashed water bottles during my training run. But this time, I had just my handheld from the beginning, and it was empty by the midway point.

By mile 15, I was tired. My body was fading, and when I walked through a water station, the 3:40 group passed by. I ran on to mile 17, and I acknowledged I was struggling. Another walk through a water stop had the 3:45 group pass me.

I tried to pick it up again. I didn’t know if I really was nearing that proverbial wall or if I was just tired and letting my brain hold me back. I wanted to push through, to find that internal strength. But such was not to be.

By mile 18, I was spent. My legs were hurting now, and I started to take short walk breaks. By mile 20, my legs were cramping everywhere, and I had to stop to stretch them out. I knew I had little left. It was a few minutes of painful jogging, a minute or so of painful walking, my pace degenerating to 10 or even 11 minutes per mile.

Those last six miles of a marathon are always hard, but when every muscle in your legs are cramping, those miles are excruciating. It’s a shame, too, because running through the town of Painted Post was really beautiful. The sun was warming things up (without it getting too hot), and people were everywhere cheering on the runners. We ran through parks and around quiet neighborhoods, over little bridges, always nearing Corning. I wish I appreciated my surroundings more.

But at that point, I was racing the clock. As we came into Corning, you turn the corner on to Market Street, and you see the Finish several blocks in the distance. My legs were spasming, and I was gritting my teeth in discomfort. One of the volunteers was shouting out that the 4:00 pacer was behind us, and I pushed a little faster. That Finish line didn’t seem to get any closer.

Finally I could see the clock. It was nearing 3:59, and I struggled to move my legs even faster. I wasn’t going to lose out on 4 hours by just seconds! I heard someone shout my name, but my head was down, my jaw was clenched, and I used the last of my energy to cross the finish in 3:59:23, beating my secondary goal of 4 hours and setting a new PR by at least 30 minutes.

The finish line was amazing, cruising down the main street in this quaint New York town with thousands of people cheering you on! Volunteers were quick with space blankets (I wasn’t that cold), water, and food lines with plenty of goodies. There were even plenty of seats, although sitting was a bad idea for me at that point.

Some of my friends came down from Rochester to cheer me on, and my parents were there, and the enthusiasm for being done and setting an under-4 hour time managed to overcome my disappointment in not hitting my primary goal. I keep reminding myself that marathons are hard, and a lot of people were struggling. It wasn’t too hot or too humid, and the course was not hard at all. But I didn’t consume enough calories for sure. Next time, I’ll travel the course ahead of time and stash Tailwind a few places. I think that would have made all the difference.

A few post-race thoughts:

  • Wineglass is run like a well-oiled machine. The volunteers are amazing, everything went off without a hitch, and the swag is pretty great! The medal is made from glass (and it should be, with the Corning Museum of Glass right there!), and you get a nice three-quarter zip, a wine glass (duh!), and a small bottle of champagne with which to celebrate. Sweet!
  • Don’t believe people who tell you this course is all downhill. There are a few uphill sections, especially the long one at mile 6, but they’re all pretty easy. Only once did I actually feel like I was going downhill. Mostly, it felt very flat.
  • I hoped for a more scenic course through rural New York. But the thick fog for the first hour obscured much of the area, and once I started struggling, I wasn’t really paying much attention. That being said, Painted Post was really fun to run through, and every small town you run through had big crowds of people to cheer us on. That made it fun!
  • I’m still fairly new to running. This was only my second road marathon. So it’s good to learn from these experiences. Although I prefer trails, I wouldn’t mind doing a different road marathon each year. The experience is significantly different, and I did have a good time!

Ossian Mountain Run (Race Report)

I wasn’t going to run this race. I ran it the last two years, so I felt nothing new to gain. The ride there is long, and it eats up most of the day. I wasn’t feeling well. Most of all, it’s a hard race.

But then, the fact that it’s hard should not be a reason to skip the race. If anything, it should be a primary reason to run the event. Attempting and accomplishing hard things is part of improving, both mentally and physically.

At least, that’s what I told myself Saturday morning when I headed down to Swain Ski Resort to run up and down the mountain again and again and again and again…

This race is a mere eight miles (there is a four-mile option that is one loop, but most people do the two loops). However, my GPS indicated that I had close to 2,600 feet elevation gain in those eight miles. It’s not just hilly; it’s a ski resort. The hills are actually mountains. It’s a stupid thing to do, and this was my third year doing it.

Two years ago, two friends and I drove to Swain and ran this race in a torrential downpour. We were soaked to the bone, and the trails were muddy, sloppy messes that made traction all but impossible. Some hills required scrambling up on your hands and knees. You would plant your foot on the downhill and slide halfway down. Most of us fell at least once. It was a ridiculous and fun adventure much more so than an actual race. But this is not a race report from two years ago.

Last year was beautiful weather, sunny and warm. I started out fast and felt good. But in the last uphill, with less than two miles to go, I was spent. Physically exhausted and mentally crushed by the endless hill, I had to stop multiple times, and many slower runners passed me. It was frustrating and disillusioning. But this is not a race report from last year.

This Saturday morning dawned chilly, with temperatures close to 50 degrees. Only about 30 people were signed up for the eight miles, with another 10 or so doing the four miles. Three of the 30 people doing eight dropped to four or did not show up at all. It’s a shame so few people run this race every year, but I’m sure the race director expects it. It’s a long drive to the middle of nowhere. And, again, it’s a hard race.

With a low-key “runners go!” we were off, hitting the hill in barely a tenth of a mile. The first up and down sections go through the woods on mountain biking trails, and they’re the best part of the loop. I was stuck behind some younger runners, so I didn’t get out as fast as last year, but I trudged up the hilly sections and ran other pieces until arriving at the top of the mountain. This is the best part, darting through trails along bike jumps and obstacles, leaping roots and rocks, and hitting the rocky downhill fast. I love this part of the race, and it’s nearly worth it for this stretch alone.

But then you come out and run along a short road for a few minutes before turning left and heading straight up the ski hill. It looks more imposing than it is, because you turn into the woods fairly quickly. But the uphill does not end for a mile at least. It’s steep and long, and this is the worst part of the trail for sure. A few stretches near the top of the mountain are fairly runnable inclines, at least during the first loop while there’s feeling in your legs, and then you hit the downhill stretch, which is only runnable in parts. Loose rocks and water runoff ditches make it sketchy, and there are some areas where I go down sideways for fear of falling to my death. You have to leap off a drop-off before wrapping back to the start/finish line and heading out for the second loop.

At this point, I was running with Michael, who had gotten out to a fast start. I always seem to find him, at least during the last several races, and we chatted for a while as we hit the uphill through the biking trails again. Another fast runner, Jamie, was just behind us. I pulled ahead a bit on the uphill, and Michael passed me on the down, and we were clustered together as we came out and headed up the ski hill.

At this point, I was adamant I was not going to crash like last year. I knew I was tired and sore, and my breathing was coming hard. My allergies were bothering me too, which made it harder to breathe. The hill goes on forever, so my goal was to just look down and keep plugging away.

Hands on knees, I bent over and trudged up the hill. I didn’t look back to see how close Michael and Jamie were until I was nearly to the top. When I realized that I couldn’t see them behind me, I got a surge of strength and even found the ability to run some of the inclines at the mountain’s peak.

Mountain running is a weird thing. Even the incredibly fast people who run this and other similar races don’t run up these hills (although they do run parts that my rapid breath only allowed me to walk). You just power hike up the worst of the inclines and then run where you can. I saw a few of them descending the sketchy, steep downhills, and it amazed me to see the lack of concern. Sometimes, they just leaped big stretches without a care. It’s amazing no one ends up hurt.

This race taught me the past two years that going up steep, long hills is hard, but you have to keep going. If you stop, you gain nothing but a bit more air. The hill doesn’t get shorter. Better to press on and get to the top, because all hills end eventually. And then you can catch your breath as you run again. It’s counter-intuitive to think that starting to run the runnable sections allows you to recover from the uphills, but it’s true, and that’s a valuable lesson.

As I hit the downhill, I imagined that every bouncing rock or trail sound was Jamie and Michael hot on my heels. I went as fast as my legs permitted, and I was down and through the finish. Jamie finished barely 30 seconds behind, and Michael was a couple of minutes. For all the distance I gained on them powering up the hill, both nearly caught me on the downhill, and I thought I was running it quickly!

In the end, I finished 18 out of 27 people, nearly 10 minutes faster than last year. It wasn’t a great increase in time despite last year’s difficulty, but I suffered much less and felt more positive about the experience. And that was the real accomplishment! This is a hard race for only eight miles, but I’m glad I did it again, even if my thighs and quads hurt from the endless uphill plodding.

Even if I didn’t learn something new this year, I felt better about myself for getting the previous year’s difficulties behind me and proving that I’m strong. That’s what mattered this year. The weather ended up beautiful, the views from the top were amazing, and the sense of accomplishment was significant. And as likely as I am to say that I won’t run it again, I’ll probably be back to run Ossian again next year.

A Midsummer Night’s Madness (Race Report)

There are so many wonderful singletrack trails through Mendon Ponds Park. All I could think of, while I ran the third loop at the inaugural Midsummer Night’s Madness trail half marathon on Saturday, was that we were probably near those trails.

Local running store puts on a spring race called Medved Madness in the same park, and I have missed it the last two years due to injuries or sickness. The idea of holding a half marathon in late August with a 2 pm scheduled start time (in order, I understand, to encourage people to hang around and socialize into the evening after the run) is a bit sketchy. But I was looking forward to trying a brand new race, and I expected to know many of the other runners.

We were fortunate this year. August in Western New York can be quite warm and dry, but not this year. We barely had a summer at all, and fall came quickly. Temperatures at 2 pm on an August Saturday were in the low 70s, which is perfect for a trail run.

The plan was to run three “loops,” all starting and finishing at the same point. The start would also serve as the only aid station available, but at about 13 miles, no loop was more than 5ish miles, so additional water stops seemed unnecessary. Each loop was plotted by a different Medved representative, and we were warned that one would be muddy, one would be technical (i.e. hilly), while the last would be longer.

The start of the first loop took us through some fields. There are a lot of fields in Mendon Ponds Park, and I hate field running. The ground is uneven, but it’s hard to see where to step. It’s open to the elements. It’s demoralizing. So I breathed a sigh of relief when we entered the woods.

Early in this loop was a four-way option. I was coming straight, but a large group of the race leaders was coming down from my left. “They went the wrong way,” the guy in front of me noted, and they turned ahead of me to go straight. Always follow the leaders, right?

Not this time. We meandered along the lake to the Devil’s Bathtub section of the park, where a long flight of uneven stairs heads up. Those stairs are not easy, but I powered up with the rest of the pack.

“I haven’t seen a flag in a while,” I called to the guy in front of me.

“Yeah, we’re definitely off course.”

We kept running.

“Does that bother anyone else?” I asked.

“They know the trails.”

Well, I know these trails too. I just didn’t know where the intended trails were. The leaders were fast, but I had to keep up. There was no way I was getting lost when I was already off course.

Finally, we hit the orange flags again and merged on the proper trail just as a long stream of runners who did not get lost were passing through. So we were stuck behind slower runners in an especially tricky section that avoids deep mud by running up and down the edges of a ditch. Running got slow, and I forced myself to push hard at every opportunity to pass people.

Finally, we got to the finish of the first loop, just about 5 miles. Looks like we did three-quarters to a mile extra, including the difficult Devil’s Bathtub stairs. Later, I learned that someone in the park (hopefully not another racer) was picking up flags and deposited them in a pile. The leaders who had turned left were actually going the right way. They just didn’t see flags and turned around before they went far enough. Oh well… I wouldn’t have hit 13 miles per my watch without the extra.

The second loop was hilly, and it somehow found steep up and downhills that I had never seen before. At least it was mostly on singletrack in the woods after wrapping around the field at the start. It also extended to a part of the park that I only ran during Fleet Feet’s Stage Race, and it’s nice to run areas that you don’t see very often.

I was thinking that as I tried to pass the woman ahead of me. Somehow, she must have sensed where I moved, because when I went left, she went left, and when I went right, she went right. I don’t think she was deliberately blocking me, but it was frustrating, and I must have been too close. Unable to get a good view of the trail, I tripped on a root and went down hard on my hands and knees. Worse, though, I must have twisted my leg in the fall, because it immediately cramped up.

I hissed in pain and held my leg extended, gripping the twitching calf muscle as a few other runners slowed to ask if I was ok. I muttered that I was and told them to go ahead. Slowly, I was able to stand and plod forward at a walk until finally my leg relaxed enough to keep going. My elbows and knees were sore and bloody, but that cramp would hurt the rest of the race.

Leg two finished, and I headed out on leg three, passing a few people who stopped for water at the aid station. There were only two or three cups poured with water, and several folks were in line to fill their own bottles with liquid. Seemed like a big time sink, so I headed on with what I carried. It was getting warmer, but I knew that the trails would be much cooler.

Too bad we didn’t hit many singletrack trails on loop three. Almost all of the 5.5 miles of this loop were in the fields. Gently rolling hills and tall reeds were all we had, and the people I was running with at this point found it similarly disappointing. Each time we came around a bend and saw the trail mowed through the grass far ahead of us, we grumbled.

It really was pretty and nice and quiet in that part of the park. There’s nothing inherently wrong with running on the grass. It’s even quicker than in the woods, and there were no bad hills. But it wasn’t what we wanted or expected. And the sun beat down on us relentlessly, despite the seasonably cool temperatures.

Worse, my leg was hurting with each uphill. I found myself walking more of these easily runnable sections, as my calf cramped up again and again. Several runners who I respected and measured myself against were close ahead of me, and I’m sure I could have beaten them if I continued my pace from the first two loops. But the leg pain meant they moved ahead.

Finally the finish, and I grumbled to a friend about how I got lost and tripped and dealt with leg cramps and had to run through the fields. But really, it was a pretty race with beautiful temperature. And it wasn’t particularly difficult. I expect I would have had a very good time if I didn’t fall.

The after party was excellent. People sat around in camp chairs and cheered the runners. There was an excellent BBQ dinner to enjoy, and we drank beer in the soft pint cups that were given instead of medals. Most people did stay late into the afternoon, enjoying the company and trading stories of their own races.

That’s the best part of these experiences. So what if it wasn’t all singletrack, right? It was a fun race with good people, and my time wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Would I do it again? Maybe, but only if it wasn’t a hot August day. That last loop through the fields would have been horrible and draining in hotter temperatures. Hopefully a few tweaks to incorporate the wooded trails would remedy that concern.

And hopefully my leg holds up for next week’s race up the mountain at a ski resort…four times!