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!