June 24, 2017
Letchworth State Park, New York
By mile fifteen I could feel the blisters starting on my left foot. During mile seventeen I stubbed my right big toe hard on a root and was convinced it was broken. I swore loudly to the trees. I hung my head. Begrudgingly, I began to accept defeat and spent time daydreaming about the car ride home. I knew that at mile 20 my family would meet me at the halfway point and biggest aid station. Well before getting there I decided I would drop–my first DNF- and just go home. I didn’t want to be an ultrarunner anymore.
This was the inaugural year for the Many on the Genny. The race was billed on Ultrasignup.com as an “old school ultra” and “hard” with nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain. The course starts near the dam at the Mt. Morris end of Letchworth State Park. It winds its way along the north side of the gorge for twenty miles, crosses the bridge near the lower falls, and returns twenty miles on the south side of the park. There is plenty of single trail, ridiculously beautiful pine forests, scenic views, many ups and downs, and at least 100 stream crossings. These were the hardest trails I’ve ever run.
For this summer I strung together a series of increasingly difficult ultras and have been using a plan based on Jason Koop’s Training Essentials for Ultrarunning since late winter. My race season began in May with a 12 hour timed event on a rather easy park trail system. By the time I recovered from that race, we went camping for a week, and then it was time to taper for Many on the Genny. After this race, I will have just over two months to complete my training for September’s Barkley Fall Classic.
- A+ Goal = 7.5 hours
- A Goal = 8 hours
- B Goal = 9 hours
- C Goal = 10 hours
We arrived to the park early at 4:45am. We had spent Friday night at my mom’s house (30min drive away) and my lovely wife, Betsy, woke up early with me to see me start the race. Weather was perfect and predicted to be in the low 70s with a little breeze. Everything pointed to this being a good day. As we lined up I tried to find a realistic spot close enough to the front, but behind the front pack. Before I knew it we were off and running.
The beginning of the race was a blur. We went from being packed together to being strung out along wide, winding paths. I got off-course briefly with a large pack of runners, ended up behind some slower folks on a single-trail section, and then lost everyone on a muddy hill. Somewhere in there was the first stream crossing–knee deep just below a beautiful waterfall- quite a bit of slippery mud, and some extra large hills to power-hike up or recklessly bomb down.
It became clear early on that the tiny lugs on my Montrail shoes were not adequate for 4 inches of silty, slippery mud. It also became clear that I wasn’t running as fast as others, but I could power-hike with the best of them.
Somewhere after mile ten my mood changed for the worse. I was already tired, my feet were hurting, and I kept tripping over roots even though I looked right at them. Then I slipped on a wooden step and landed on my ass. The people I had been trailing early on were long gone. The people I had passed were (probably) gaining on me. What a stupid sport I thought. By mile fifteen my body and attitude were getting desperate. By mile 17 I hit my big toe so hard I could feel the warm blood inside my sock. I thought about flagging down a passing car. I considered sitting on a bench and enjoying the scenic overlooks. I decided that I would drop at the mile 20 aid station. There was no point to continuing my misery after that. Twenty miles is a good training run, and we could even drive home that night and sleep in our own bed. My mantra became “we can go home in just a few miles.”
Betsy immediately asked me how it was going. I sat down on a stone wall and told her I was ready to go home. My body hurt, I may have a broken toe, I was putting too much effort into a slow-ass pace, and the hills were already trashing my quads. Twenty more miles was not at all what I wanted to do with the rest of my Saturday. There was cold beer at home and a dog that would be excited to see me no matter what. She asked, “if you quit now are you going to be pissed later?” I didn’t answer and fumbled with my hydration vest instead.
I sat there for twenty minutes. I watched other people come in and go back out. Betsy, Mom, and Ollie hung out with me, and multiple aid station volunteers offered any assistance they could. One woman expressed concern that I was sitting for a long time and may be physically injured. I told her that physically I was fine, but mentally I wasn’t sure about another twenty miles. We laughed, I regrouped, and five minutes later I was back on the course. What’s another 20 miles, right?
All credit goes to my crew here –Betsy, Mom & Ollie- for helping me through that low point. Alone I would have stopped; it felt so good to not run. That was the most comfortable rock wall I have ever sat upon.
Whereas the first half of this race wound back and forth over roads, into and out of the gorge, and around tourists, the back part was beautifully wooded and isolated. There were miles and possibly hours that passed where I saw no one. Mostly single track and a little dirt road, the course repeatedly climbed into pine forests, dipped down for stream crossings, and climbed back up into the next forest. I hiked the uphills, carefully placed my sore toes around the roots, and shuffled everything else. My average pace was between 14 and 15 minute miles with roughly 4000’ in gain on this back section. As one runner complained to me, there was no flow. You couldn’t get into a running groove because you were always going up or down. It made the back twenty feel a lot more like the back thirty. Betsy, Mom, and Ollie met me at both of the aid stations in this stretch. It was good to see them, and I’m glad they took the time to hike the muddy trails in just to spend five minutes with me.
Let’s End This Shit Already
With four miles left I passed a mountain biker who said “two miles left, man.” Dude was completely full of shit, but I really wanted him to be right. Just putting one foot in front of the other, I forced my body to continue the repetitive running motions that had gotten us this far. I knew that this time I actually could stop running at the end. I tried to think about finishing other races and how those last miles felt. I tried to remember the endorphins and good feelings that came along with those finishes. I tried to make my body believe that if we ran just a little faster we could stop sooner. With a mile left I started to see people:
A man leaning on a tree – “Great job! A half mile from here!”
A woman hiking – “You’re so close! It’s just through those trees.”
The woman at the edge of the woods – “It just around the bend; follow the flags and the tree line!”
And then I could hear the finish line.
I could hear the noise makers and the clapping.
I could see the end.
I spotted Ollie, Betsy, and my mom, and I crossed the finish line at 10:02:30.
This was a hard race. The hardest I’ve done. I can’t believe I wanted to quit.
At the finish there were loving family members and cold beer. Oliver ran me in the last 50 feet. I high-fived the RD, got my swag bag, and asked for a lawn chair. It felt fantastic to not run any more. We set up a blanket and chairs a little ways from the finish line, relaxed, and I took my muddy shoes off. I could have sat there all night, cheering for other runners crossing the finish line smiling and happy. The running part of ultras in fun, but my favorite part is the post-party when we nurse wounds, congratulate one another, and hobble to the beer tent with childish grins, contented and stupid with our accomplishments. That’s the moment I wish could be frozen in time and stretched out forever. I think that’s why I like running these things: in those short moments after the race you don’t have to think about careers or saying the right thing or what the neighbors think.
You can just be.
And no one can take that moment away from you.
(All that being said, I was far slower than I planned on. I can do better than I showed in Letchworth. There’s two months to go and still plenty of work to get in this summer before I meet Laz and take on Frozen Head Park.)