When you schedule a trail race in mid-April in Western New York, you have to be prepared for any sort of crazy weather. When you call it Muddy Sneaker, it seems like you’re begging for bad weather.
The 20k Muddy Sneaker is sort of the unofficial race season kick-off race. Taking place at Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in Naples, this crazy race is all about hills. Naming it Muddy Sneaker is, I think, a sly way to overlook those hills. But look at that elevation profile. Look at it!
Last year was my first time running this 18-year race, and I went in to it with hurt legs and in the middle of marathon training. It was hot, and I suffered, finally lumbering over the finish line at about 2:20. This year, it was warm and sunny, with more mud but no bad patches. My legs felt better, but I’m again in the middle of marathon training, and it was my breathing and my mental status that had me most worried this year. I ran with some friendly folks and talked to people and enjoyed the weather and the views and felt far better. And I still lumbered over the finish line at about 2:20. So much for improvement.
You start and end this race up hill. Goose Adventure Racing drives a car ahead of the 200 or so (the race is capped at 200, only about 175 finished this year) racers up the hill at the start, and you power over the top and into single track trails. A trail runner I strongly respect was ahead of me for a while, and I subsequently passed and was passed by two or three of the same friendly people for the first few miles of trails. It was pleasurable, a little sloppy, but good trail running.
Then you hit the logging roads. These unpaved roads are the true challenge of Muddy Sneaker. First you go up and up and up, and I would run the gentle inclines and walk the steeper ones. Then you go down and down and down, too long to truly bomb through with abandon. I felt like I went quick down the hills, but I’d get passed on each one.
The hill at the end (again, look at that elevation profile!) is nicknamed The Demoralizer. Last year, I read race reports and knew it was coming. You come down into the valley and cross a fast-running (but shallow) stream, and then you head up and up through the woods. This section is brutal, a painful slog of roots and long reaches but beautiful gorge views. At last you turn out of the woods, leaving this lengthy demoralizing stretch behind, and… come out on the never-ending logging road.
The lines of people ahead of you look like a death march. Most are walking, a few trudging ahead at just over a walk. Unlike the inclines before, there are no gentle slopes to guilt you into walking. It’s steep and about a mile long, and my legs were dead.
Last year, I ran this stretch with another runner who would motivate me to pick up the pace here and there. This year, I felt no such motivation, and I was happy just to keep up a steady walking pace. The trail runner who was ahead of me early ran past me, and I was surprised to realize I passed him at some point. He finished a minute ahead of me. Another runner was complaining loudly behind me, but she found some energy to run ahead and finished 10 or 12 seconds ahead. I kept plodding, willing my heavy legs and pounding heart to keep going.
I was prepared for this hill this year, and I cursed it far less. But I wasn’t happy on this stretch. I think knowing it was coming only made me appreciate the rest of the 11+ miles before it all the more. Last year, my legs hurt badly, and I cast my eyes at the sides of the path for a helpful walking stick. This year, I mostly kept my head down and kept moving. You round a curve, and the finish is ahead, up a long grassy hill. It’s not close, but inevitably the sight of a finish line brings with it a burst of energy.
I had just been passed by another guy who looked like he used the last of his reserves and was ready to quit. I started to run again, and he looked back. I imagined he was wondering if he could run on again to stay ahead; he couldn’t. I passed him and kept going, running through the finish and greeting the race director with the traditional high five he gives to every single runner at this race every year.
I felt so much better this year than last year. My legs were sore, but an expected kind of sore. The only real problem was with my feet. I may have worn the wrong socks, as they bunched up under my foot and around my ankles when they got wet. Or it may be the new trail shoes. But when I slumped to my car (again – up hill) to change and get the camp chair and beer, I peeled off my socks and had terrible blisters on my heels. Running this week will be excruciating, I’m sure.
After the race, folks sit around in the barely mowed grass and talk and drink. I knew at least half of the runners by name or at least by face, and everyone hung out for a while to relax and enjoy the dwindling sunshine. The rain, which all week had been predicted to start just after race start time, held off until well after the finish, giving us time to drink and socialize before heading home.
Muddy Sneaker is, without a doubt, a hard 20k race. Even with good conditions, the hills take everything you have. Two days later, my legs still burn (and my heels are raw). But while last year was an exercise in suffering, this year was enjoyable. I appreciated the people I sporadically ran with, the gorgeous sun, the tremendous views, and – secretly – the pleasure I took in knowing that first timers had yet to face the Demoralizer. That, I think, is half the fun of Muddy Sneaker.
Good start to the race season! I think, even as my legs and feet recover, my mental situation is much better condition!