Tuesday, August 14, 2018

MM1: Many on the Genny 40-miler

Seven months is how long I waited for this race. That depends on how you define the start of the wait I suppose. I had my eye on this race before I even did my first 50k (Oil Creek - 10/14/17), but signed up immediately after Christmas as a gift from my wife. She doesn't understand ultra running, but she understands how much I love it. Christmas until June 23, 2018 is seven months, with no races in between. I haven't decided on how I feel about such a long, singularly focused build-up. It was grueling though.

Race weekend came finally with the promise, not the threat, of rain. Race day forecast: 70 degrees with a 90% chance of thunderstorms. One of my sayings to get me out the door during training is, "there's no guarantee of sunshine on race day." It looked like I was going to experience that for certain.

Race morning: 4:00AM - wake up. Waking up on race morning is never hard. If anything not getting up too early is harder. If that ever stops being the case, it might be time to quit racing and find a new hobby to spend this many hours a week doing. There is no rain! Dark clouds took up the entire sky as soon as it was light enough to see, but no rain. Maybe it will hold off until after the start. Running in it I can deal with. Standing around waiting in the rain to then run in it for 10+ hours I would rather avoid.

I had a one-person crew for this race: my father. For the month prior to the race I told him that I was only asking for him to be at Aid Station (AS) 3, the halfway point, so I could refill my pack with gels, change shoes if needed, and grab my music for the back half of the race. I never train with music, but I had never run further than 31 miles, so everything option was on the table to get me to the finish. Dad refused this option though and said he wanted to go to each AS so he could see the park and fully experience the race. I was not going to complain, so I packed my drop bag and gave it to him, instead of turning it in at check-in. At the end of the day dad made my race go so much smoother and more efficiently because he was there. I kept forgetting that this was his first time at an ultra. He sure picked a great one to experience! He kept saying over and over, "The atmosphere is so great. Everyone is so casual, but the effort level is still intense. I love the way everyone cheers for and helps each other the whole way." That is the best three sentence description of the ultra clan that I have ever heard.

Pre race check-in was a breeze. Show up, stand in a short, quick-moving line and pin on your number. I settled into the start halfway back the pack and stayed there throughout the entire race.

My strategy for this race was to take it easy up to mile 20 and then go by feel for the back half of the race. The two biggest components of my take it easy strategy was my heart rate (145-155) on my Garmin 235 and to meet as many people as I happened to be around during the early miles. The start is an obviously poor time to strike up a conversation, so I ran happily in my own bubble for the first three miles or so. Those conversations were fantastic! I ran my 50k last fall with a friend halfway and then alone, so to be sharing miles with people I'd never met was very new. Thank you Jim Nail, Carrie Albright, Kyle Erickson for being so open to sharing your experience with me during your first twenty miles.

In the end, the best thing that could have happened, did happen. It rained once, very lightly, for a short time, all day. It happened on the back half of the course, right before I got to AS 4. The cloud cover was heavy all day, which kept it cooler than it might have been. Given what could have been I am happy.

The first twenty miles of this race were the most beautiful trails on which I have ever run. Except for a few miles along the road and a few woods sections, the trail hugged the edge of the >300 foot Genesee River Gorge. Over and over during the morning I had to stop to admire the beautiful views. In particular was Wolf Creek Falls and a cliff-side trail section right after the falls. I went back the next day to see them again, they were so amazing.

After the start, section one of the race went to along the road away from the start, took a hairpin turn toward the gorge and turned back to the start before beginning the trip around the gorge. To see and hear everyone at the start again, even this early in the race, felt amazing and gave a boost. I shared the trail along the gorge from the revisited start line with Jim. The trail to AS 1 is very flat, the only significant hill being down to and back out of the Silver Lake Outlet creek crossing. The creek was about two feet deep with no option for staying dry. I powered straight into the water without slowing down and passed about five people in the crossing because of that. If there is no way to avoid getting wet, why slow down? Climbing out of the creek bottom beside a stunning waterfall was one of the many visual treats that the day had in store for us. At the top of the hill, the trail popped out to the road and a mile of squelching along the road brought us to AS 1.

Since the rain had held off so far, I took the gamble to change shoes and socks at AS1. If the sky opened up and my feet got drenched later, there would be no way to dry them out, but I knew they were soaked now, so I went for it. I dried my feet off with a towel, a fresh layer of Desitin (the not-so-secret weapon against blisters), new Injinji socks, and my second pair of Merrell Trail Glove 4s and I was gone, homemade cookie in hand. My brother calls them Energy Discs and I agree.

Section 2 began with a huge descent down into the gorge bottom that felt like stepping into another state or country. Up top it was breezy and cool, while down here it was hot, muggy, and completely still. We were running on trails that were cut through grass and brush that was chest high, if not higher. After a few adventurous miles came the inevitable climb back out of the gorge. This was the perfect time to not push too hard, so I ate and power hiked. Once we were back on top came the longest roadside section of the day, but after the hill, the flat, fast miles were welcome. It was on this road section that I met and talked with Carrie (another PA runner!) with Jim rejoining for a couple miles too. After heading back into the trails I emerged to AS2 very suddenly. I did not stay here long, because I really did not need anything, but they did have bacon! Two pieces to go and back on the trail.

The section from AS2 to AS3 was the pinnacle of the scenery for the day. The entire length of this section had the highest cliffs, the trail was closest to them here, and the only roadside sections were because of how close the road was to the gorge. If there is such a thing as hammering down in an ultra, this is where I did it. I felt strong, it was still early, and the views were as energizing as the Espresso Love GUs I was eating. Outside of the aid stations the only things I ate were this flavor of GUs and Peanut Toffee Buzz Clif Bars. I stayed steady with the GUs every 40 minutes and had two of the Clif Bars. At aid stations I ate salted potatoes starting at AS3.

AS3 was at the bottom of a good size descent along the road and around the parking lot. Much is said about the stairs down to the bridge immediately after AS3, but most of the descending back down to the river was done by the time you got to the aid station. Here I completely restocked my bottles and pack with Gatorade, full bladder of water, GUs, fresh body glide, ate two potatoes and left. Sitting down here felt great, so I didn't want to enjoy it for too long. The 127 stone stairs to the bridge were as slick as advertised, and more crowded with other park visitors, so running down them was not only against race rules, but not practical. The bridge was gorgeous but even more crowded, so after a brief admiring stop, I began the climb out of the other side of the gorge. I did not know it at the time, but the stone bridge was the last exciting view that the course held for the entire second half of the course, until you were so close to the finish line that you could practically smell it.

The second half of the race truly was a monotonous slog with a few high points to break up the time. On the climb up to the cabins along the gravel park road was where I first felt them, hamstring cramps, that grabbed onto both legs simultaneously and never completely let go for the rest of the day. On this climb was the only time that they got so bad that I could not move forward at all for a couple minutes. In one way though, these cramps were a good thing: they forced me to stay completely locked into the current moment, so I could never focus on just how long I had to go. The second half of the race turned into a constant battle of hydration and electrolytes to keep forward progress possible.

The second half of the course on the Finger Lakes Trail was ridiculously easy to navigate. There could have been absolutely no MOTG markers and the Yellow FLT blazes would have been more than adequate. The navigation was the only easy part of this section however. The trail has a pattern here. Climb all the way up along one side of a creek-carved ravine to a point where it was possible to cross, descend to and cross the creek, climb the opposite bank, run all the way down the opposite side of the ravine, at the bottom, turn north to get to the next creek's ravine, and repeat. And repeat. For 18 miles to AS 5.

AS4 was the biggest highlight of the day for me. I pulled into the aid station and my stomach was going south. I had so much gas building up from the water and calories I was taking in to manage the cramps. One of the volunteers saved my race. She said, "Drink a couple of ounces of coke and eat this ginger chew and you will be burping and feeling great in under a mile." She nailed it. I was belching more and happier than a 5th grade boy five minutes out of the aid station. I wrote it up to just one more newbie hoop successfully jumped through.

With the cramps still ongoing I found out that they only affected me while going uphill. So I was still capable and took advantage of running each downhill and flat. On one of the uphill hikes (being generous there) I pulled up behind someone and asked my go-to question "Are you up or are you down?" No one wants to here "how are you doing?" The answer to that is "Terrible. Everything is terrible. I hate this trail. I hate running, and I hate you for asking me." "Are you up or down?" allows for a quick response that lets me know how to enter potentially perilous late-mile interactions. Dan Knopp (I eventually found out) was down at that point of the race. After asking if he would mind sharing some miles, we began a team effort that lasted all the way to AS5, the longest and loneliest stretch of the day. Not long after we were joined by Jeffrey Marsh and thank you guys for getting me through to the end. I don't want to think about what the day would have felt like if you weren't there.

On the final climb up to AS5, I knew that hearing "The Final Countdown" would be the first sign that I was approaching it. The last mile or so, I thought I heard it many times, but when I finally did, it was some of the most beautiful music I ever heard. This aid station was such a positive place. There were people everywhere! It really felt like if you could get here, you were definitely going to get to the end. Pulling out of here I threw on my music for the first time all day, not because I needed it, but I just wanted it. I never run to music in training, so I made the classic mistake with music, I took off like lightning. My next two miles were among the fastest of the entire day. Once the adrenaline wore off I still had three plus miles to the end which were 100% "I just want to be done" miles. I am dimly aware that the scenery of the gorge was back again, but I honestly didn't care. After coming out of the woods and around a parking lot I was crossing the finish line. The longest run of my life so far lasted 9:42:37 and my Garmin said 41.41 miles.

At the finish, my dad asked me, "What is your favorite part?" I said, "Being done, but ask me tomorrow." My answer is, "The people I ran with." The trail running community is amazing. Thank you for sharing the miles with me. And thank you to Eric and Sheila for giving us a time and place to get together.

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