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!