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!