Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cast-a-Shadow 6-Hour

It is a crisp, clear morning on the second of February. In a rural Pennsylvania town, a large crowd gathers around a nervous rodent, anxiously awaiting the critter's claim. A claim that may or may not clash with opinions of the country's top scientists. Confined to his tiny cell throughout most of the proceedings, the rodent is released from imprisonment by his caretakers—an elite group simply known as The Inner Circle. For the 131st time, the age-defying Punxsutawney Phil is placed atop a stump on Gobbler's Knob. It may be the truth, or it may be "alternative facts" drawn up to serve the self-interests of The Inner Circle—no man can say with certainty what the groundhog sees or does not see, and some may dispute how much of a shadow must reach his line of sight—that leads to an official decree across the land. To the rejoice of some, the dismay of most, and in contradiction to many a meteorologist, it is officially declared that winter will extend an additional six weeks.

So why the hell am I telling you this?!!

The Cast-a-Shadow 6-Hour Snowshoe Race has a few quirky rules, making it unique from a traditional timed race. The course is a 2.5-mile loop around Black Creek Park, located just west of Rochester, NY, in the town of Chili. The loop is pretty flat, with only 100 feet of gain. Like all timed races, the objective is straight forward—cover as many miles as possible within the allotted time. The low-key event is put on by Goose Adventure Racing, a race production business and adventure racing team based out of Rochester. The Goose guys can be heard on episode 41 of the Running Inside Out Podcast, where they discuss, among other things, their disdain for roads. In fact, Goose AR's website happens to be RoadsArePoison.com.

Two days before the race, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his cage and was declared by The Inner Circle to have seen his shadow, resulting in a longer winter. This meant the Cast-a-Shadow race was extended as well. The race rules state that partially completed loops do not count towards a runner's mileage, but any loop started before the clock hits six hours will count in the standings. Conversely, if the little rodent failed to see his shadow—resulting in an early spring—the race would be "shorter," and only loops finished before 6:00 would count. In other words, finish a loop in 6:00:01 and you're SOL—no whining allowed.

I bought a pair of snowshoes back in early December as a way to manage some cross-training and spend time on the trails while my Achilles tendon healed up. I was looking at running the Cast-a-Shadow 6-Hour, provided I could get myself in snowshoe shape by early February. Otherwise I'd sign up for the FLRC's Super Frosty Loomis Snowshoe 10k, held on the same day as CAS. As race day drew nearer, I found myself lacking in snowshoe mileage due to low levels of snowfall in the Ithaca area. I only managed a few decent snowshoe training runs, the longest being about two-and-a-half hours. As luck would have it, the trails at Black Creek Park were low on snow as well. Two days before race day—Groundhog Day—it was announced that CAS would be a trail run. Although I was hoping to make my snowshoe race debut, I was relieved I could stick to my main discipline and not beat my body up while trying to manage a marathon on the shoes. (Hammond Hill had plenty of snow, and the Frosty Loomis remained a snowshoe race.)

The timed loop format was new to me, as was the 1:00 p.m. start time. My original goal was to complete at least a marathon—that is, 11 loops of 2.5 miles each—on snowshoes. I wasn't too sure how well my body would hold up after four months of pretty low training mileage. I'd managed a string of four consecutive 50-mile weeks throughout January, trying to build a solid base without any major fitness gains. Once it was announced CAS was a trail race, I decided 13 loops for 50k seemed pretty reasonable, but I wasn't going to destroy myself getting there. I'd get as far as I'd get.

After some deliberation, I decided to go with the Lone Peak 2.0s on my feet. Yeah, they're old, but they haven't seen a ton of miles and the traction was still solid on the trails' hard-packed snow.

Frosty start. PC: Eric Eagan
The six-hour event consists of a solo division and a three-person relay team division. Both races start at the same time, and with such a short loop it was hard to tell my place in the standings. Shortly after the start I picked out a guy in front of me, vowing to keep him in sight as long as the pace felt pretty relaxed. I was surprised to learn after the second loop that this was the leader for the solo division, which meant I was in second place by only a few seconds. It was also a stark reminder I'd probably started out too fast. Oops. Time to back off.

From the race headquarters at Sunnyside Lodge, the course follows a wide trail briefly through the woods before popping out along side an open field dusted in a uniform layer of fresh snow. The absence of tree cover allows for a nasty, biting headwind to make things a little less fun. The open section is short lived, however, and soon runners are back amongst the trees. In most sections, the trail is 10-15 feet wide, making it easy to pass and avoid congestion. One little section of narrow singletrack makes passing tricky and forces runners to be patient. The final stretch runs along the bank of Black Creek, before taking a hard right back toward the timing tent adjacent to the lodge. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Around the fourth loop—after gnawing a frozen Honey Stinger Waffle proved to be more trouble than it was worth—I realized I'd have to slow down to actually have a decent race. It was here that the leader slipped out of sight and I caught up with Cole Crosby. The winner last year, Cole was working at the race as a rep for Nathan Sports this time, and decided to get some training miles in while "banditing" the course. We ran my fifth loop together and he kept me going as I could feel my energy starting to wane.
Chasing Cole. PC: Eric Eagan

I finished my eighth loop and hit 20 miles a few minutes past the three hour mark. My pace had dropped from 21-23 minutes per loop to nearly 30 minutes on loop 8. I took a quick break here—the halfway point—to sit a minute and mix up some Green Tea Buzz Tailwind in my handheld. The sugar and caffeine combo woke me up and kept me moving for the next four to five loops. Before I knew it, I hit the marathon distance in about 4:10 and 50k in something like 5:07. After the headlamp came on around 5:30 p.m., I felt like I was cruising, despite running at a slower pace than I'd started with.

I hustled on loop 14 to finish before the clock read 6:00, and along the way I was lapped by the leader for the second time. As I neared the timing tent, I could hear the RDs egging people on, telling them they'd better get moving so they could earn the pleasure of running one more loop. A few runners looked less than thrilled for the opportunity. I passed through and called out "I'm starting my cool-down lap!" In half an hour I was back, having officially finished 37.5 miles in 6:25, good enough for second place. (Men's full results with lap splits.)

Hopped up on Tailwind. PC: Eric Eagan
It was fun catching up with a bunch of Rochester trail runners I've gotten to know over the past few years, many of whom I met at Ithaca trail races. It's easy to get to know people when they show up at all the same races as you. Receiving many a high-five from Mike Valone, and then getting heckled repeatedly by Dan Lopata, were a few of the more memorable moments throughout the race. Goose Adventure Racing put on a pretty sweet event, complete with a very boisterous awards ceremony in the lodge immediately afterward. I look forward to hopefully running some more of their trail races in the near future. Thanks guys!

My mileage total was much better than I'd expected, given the limited amount of training. As it turns out, my body held up really well and I felt pretty good the entire race, all things considered. Cast-a-Shadow is a great example of how building a solid base over a long period of time is key in any endurance activity. The longer the distance, the more important that base fitness becomes.

As I type this, evidence of Punxsutawney Phil's accuracy is abound just outside the window. Much of the Northeast got hit with significant snowfall overnight. Ithaca got about three inches, with a few more inches expected tonight. Six more weeks of winter? As Dr. Emmett L. Brown famously asked, "Since when can the weathermen predict the weather, let alone the future?"

And with that, I predict a snowshoe run in my immediate future.

On the snowy banks of the Black Creek. PC: Eric Eagan

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Lesson in Attitude

[I originally wrote this in January of 2016 as a guest post for another blog, but it ended up never getting published. I've decided to publish it here, during the 2017 running of the BoB. My full race report from the 2016 race is here, along with some New York State history.]  

I never thought running 50 miles would be easy. Ever. But when the course is a pancake flat, double out-and-back towpath, it can't get much easier.

Just past the first turnaround, only 13 miles in, I already felt my strength slipping away. I knew that running out of gas was imminent, but to slow down so early by so much was almost embarrassing. Even the amount of effort it took to avoid slowing to a walk felt unsustainable. A mere three weeks into the new year and I was already about to fail at my number one running goal for 2016. Completely frustrated, I wanted this to be over after it had only just begun.

Let's back up a bit. Over the last several years, I've had the same primary goal for each year regardless of fitness level, training schedule, or race plans. That goal is something I write down every January 1 in the beginning of my training log, and reads as follows:

1. Remember to have fun with running.

People are innately competitive when placed in a demanding situation where they will be judged or scored against others—a timed foot race, for example. However, I wish to continue making running a part of my life for as long as I am enjoying the sport. While competition can motivate one to push harder that he or she would otherwise, sometimes it's best to let that competitive drive take a back seat to the simple act of enjoying the activity for what it is. That means not taking things overly serious or holding a grudge against oneself for failing to achieve a goal.

On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-January I traveled up to Lockport for the Beast of Burden Ultramarathon 50-Miler. I was interested in a new type of challenge—one that involves battling the patented Upstate New York cocktail of snow, ice, and wind for the better part of a day. The 50-mile race is a double out-and-back along the Erie Canal Towpath between Lockport and Middleport, while the accompanying 100-miler is a quadruple out-and-back. In the lead-up to race day I felt pretty confident I'd land a 50-mile PR by a huge margin. As it turned out, the "easiness" of the course left me overconfident, my mind and heart not really in the right place for a stellar performance. Although two months of race-specific training had gone pretty well, I had failed to give The Beast the proper mental focus I'd given to other "A races" in the past. Suffice to say, I simply wasn't prepared.

The burden of The Beast began to weigh me down shortly after the aid station at the 12.5 mile turnaround. I struggled to keep moving over the next several miles as I was passed by runner after runner. It was difficult not to continuously look at my watch and see the minute-per-mile pace rapidly slowing. My goal time was already far beyond reach, and my core temperature was dropping along with my speed. (How could there possibly be a headwind in both directions?!) Everyone else on the course appeared to be moving swiftly, and with ease. I never wanted a race to be over with as badly as I did at the Beast of Burden.

It was during this low point when I encountered Ithaca ultrarunner Chris Reynolds passing by in the opposite direction. We slapped hands and exchanged a few words before going our separate ways. I immediately thought of the other times I'd encountered Chris during a race. Never one to shy away from a trail race, she routinely runs in the back of the pack and always has a kind word and a huge grin on her face. As a serial trail racer, she beats herself up time and time again and smiles and laughs about it the whole way. She consistently does what I was failing to do at that very moment. That is, focusing on the positives and remembering to enjoy my time out there.

As I slowly made my way along the inbound path toward to halfway point, it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. For the previous three hours I'd been concerned with nothing but pacing, forgetting that things don't always go as planned. In this rugged sport, bad days happen but you have to adjust and roll with the punches. I suddenly felt blessed to be out there on a winter's day with 100 other like-minded runners, on a historically significant, 200-year-old canal path.

I'd be lying if I told you the rest of the day was all fun and games, but my mind felt much clearer and my legs much stronger for the remaining 30 or so miles. I continued to guzzle nut butter packets, Tailwind, and gels over the next several hours. Heading west down the 12 mile homestretch I had the pleasure of watching a beautiful sunset over the Erie Canal. Running by headlamp through two inches of snow with a full moon blazing overhead in all its glory made for a unique experience. It's sad to think that without the change in attitude I would not have appreciated all Mother Nature had to offer on that fine January day. Eventually I cruised happily into the finish tent well behind my original goal time, but still a 50-mile PR by over 30 minutes.

I passed Chris two more times along the canal, and last I checked she was still all smiles!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Race Schedule For 2017

With the huge spike in ultrarunning popularity, many races now fill up quickly and one must sometimes commit to events up to a year in advance. Planning race weekends and training blocks eight to twelve months in advance can be a daunting task. Fortunately, Upstate NY and the surrounding regions have a nice variety of events to choose from, with new races popping up every year. We're lucky to no shortage of beautiful and scenic courses. 


Jamaica Pond in Boston, during a New Years Day run.
2016 was a really solid year of running for me, with the race season ending on a very high note at the Oil Creek 100 in early October. The last two months of the year were kind of a setback, as I was slowed by Achilles tendinosis and didn't get to run much in November or December.

Getting back into a good flow in late December took a few weeks, but now I'm starting to build back up and capitalize on the strong base fitness that I had worked toward during Oil Creek training. I don't think I lost a ton of fitness during those two monthscross training and strength training served as damage control. Now I'm looking to gain some strength and speed for the upcoming season. Here's what's on tap for the year.

February 4: Cast-a-Shadow 6-Hour Snowshoe Race

I've yet to run a time-based race, a Rochester-area trail race, or a snowshoe raceso why not check off all three off in a single day? This is contingent on getting a few more solid snowshoe training runs in before then. The course is a two-mile trail loop that's run continuously for six hours, with some weird rule about extra time added if the groundhog sees his shadow.

The day I'm writing this, January 11, I was planning on a long-ish snowshoe training run but everything began to quickly melt when the mercury topped 50 Fahrenheit. My backup plan is to run FLRC's Super Frosty Loomis Snowshoe 10k, held the same day as Cast-a-Shadow. For Cast-a-Shadow, the goal is to run at least marathon distance in the given six hours.

April 1: Springletrack Fat-Ass Trail Marathon (hopefully)

My friend Adam invited me to come down to the Gunks and run this with him like we did in 2015. The course is a scenic tour of the Shawangunk Ridge from the Mohonk Preserve to Ellenville. As a true fat-ass run, there's no scoring system or entry fee, and runners are self-sufficient. Mike Siudy has been organizing these runs for years and really knows how to plot a challenging and beautiful course.

April 9: Skunk Cabbage Classic Half Marathon

This is the Ithaca area's biggest and oldest road race, and I'll be running it for the fifth time overall, and third after I don't have to work the graveyard shift the night before. I don't really have a goal in mind yet, but if I can work on leg turnover enough during the next three months I might go for a PR. Either way, and all-out effort won't be ideal because...

April 15: Breakneck Point Trail Runs 42K

April is when Mother Nature finally breaks free from that winter funk, and for some of us that makes for a busy race schedule. I'm heading back to Breakneck to try to improve on last year's 7:00 effort, now that I know the course and will be in better shape for all the steep and technical climbing.

April 30: Seneca7 Relay

The Seneca7 is a seven person, 77.7-mile road relay that starts and ends in Geneva, NY, and circles Cayuga Lake in a counter-clockwise direction. Hayley and I are on a team with five friends. Each team member runs three legs. This will be my first relay of any kind, and the fact that it's ultra-distance around a lake makes it sound that much more awesome. Plus I haven't been back to Geneva since Hayley and I got married there on the lake front over two years ago.

June 3: Cayuga Trails 50

We have a stellar ultramarathon with national class competition right here in our own town. Once again, the race serves as the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship. This will be my fourth run at Cayuga and third in a row where I try to break 10 hours. Last year didn't go too well, so this year I'll try to remain more focused and dial in the nutrition right from the start.

June 24: Many On The Genny

Letchworth State Park, also known as "The Grand Canyon of the East," is home to this new 40-mile trail race. The course circumnavigates the park down one side of the Genessee River and up the other. I've no goal in mind for this race, but suspect it will feel much easier than Manitou's Revenge did last year only two weeks after Cayuga. Many On The Genny is a first-year race created by #TrailsRoc co-founder Eric Egan. The race sold out quickly and I registered for the waitlist, but it only took about two weeks to get accepted into the starting field.

August 12: Eastern States 100

In only its fourth year, Eastern States has really grown in popularity and sold out in three days. I was considering this last year but the timing didn't work out, but fortunately I got on in for 2017. Aside from Cayuga, this is my other big goal race for the year. It looks like a super challenging course with some nice scenery, and a finish wold give me two tickets in the next Western States lottery.

December 9: Millinocket Marathon

This road marathon in Maine has really taken off over the last year. The marathon and half were created in 2015 to bring extra tourism dollars to Millinocket's struggling economy. Race entry is free, with the promise that every runner will spend money locally on food, lodging, etc., to keep local establishments in business. In 2016, there were over 500 finishers between both distances, and there are now over 1,500 regiustered for the 2017 races. It was Hayley's idea I sign up for this—neither of us has ever been to Maine before. Millinocket is also pretty close to Mt. Katahdin and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

What's next? 

The first half of the year looks pretty loaded. I'm not ready to commit to anything big after Eastern StatesI know that one will take a lot out of me and require plenty of recovery time. Fortunately there's a good number a fall ultras in the area, so hopefully I'll be up do running a few of them. I'd really like to focus on a 50k PR at Water Gap, and/or run the JFK 50, but I doubt it would happen this year. Additionally, I'd like to fit in at least one bigger adventure run, such as the Presidential Range Traverse in New Hampshire or the Cranberry Lake 50 in the Adirondacks.

The off season the best time planning out the year. What races are you running or volunteering at?  Does anyone have advice on Eastern States?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

 Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don't want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

-David Bowie
January 8, 1947 - January 10, 2016.

At the risk of coming off as "all about me," I'll keep it brief. 

It was late August when I managed a huge, positive lifestyle shift in the form of a new job. For two and a half years I'd been commuting from Ithaca to Binghamton and back five days a week, working overnight every third weekend and sometimes getting home at 1:00 a.m. on weekdays. All that time in the car was beginning to take its toll, so I consider myself fortunate to have landed a job as an x-ray tech at Ithaca College's student health center. My schedule there is exclusively Monday to Friday day shift, and the 60 mile commute has been reduced to three miles.

Additionally, I started working as a sales associate at Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Co., the locally owned running specialty store in the Ithaca Commons, around the same time. Both jobs are part-time, with full-time hours between the two. At FLRTC I've had the chance to meet a bunch of Ithaca area runners and learn about some cool new products, particularly running shoes and apparel. It certainly helps having broader knowledge while shopping for running shoes, and it's been enjoyable helping customers find the shoes that are right for them.

One of the "perks" of my new job situation is the freedom to have extra training time for upcoming races. The job change coincided well with my peak training block for Oil Creek, and likely contributed to my performance. Eliminating two hours a day behind a steering wheel may have had something to do with it too.

One other positive, running related, aspect of changing jobs is that my new schedule allows me time to attend the monthly Finger Lakes Runners Club board meetings. With some of my newfound free time, I've been getting more involved with the club as their Social Media Coordinator, viz. professional Facebooker / Twitterer / Instagrammer, and as a member of the newly formed Finger Lakes 50s race directors committee. I am also officially a FLRC board member as of January 2017, meaning that I can vote on club bylaws, referendums, etc., and become a much more active club member. 

In conclusion, the second half of 2016 has seen a huge decrease in stress for me, November election results not withstanding. While volunteering time and energy with a local running club won't exactly save the world during this extreme shift in political climate, it is a start. A start that provides at least a little fuel to kick off the year on an optimistic note. Here's wishing you a happy and healthy 2017!

P.S. Happy 70th birthday to David Robert Jones, better known to the world as David Bowie. Gone but certainly not forgotten.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Look Back at 2016

Another trip around the sun, another 366 days of running full of ups, downs, plateaus, and everything in between. Overall, I had a good year with noticeable improvement in the longer stuff and a few PRs on the road. This entry is a brief recap of each race I ran during the year. So without any further ado, let's dive right in to one of those good ol' Year In Review posts. (Disclaimer: Since this blog is mainly about running, it will remain free of any political rhetoric, social commentary, or pining over our beloved lost celebrities. I actually found it difficult not to mix in any opinions about things unrelated to running.)



January 10: FLRC January Track Meet 5,000m and Winter Chill 5k #1

After ending 2015 with a two second PR in the 5k, I was still in the speedwork spirit come January. With that in mind, I ran my first ever track racethe 5,000mat the Finger Lakes Runners Club's January Indoor Track Meet. I suffered hard through 25 200-meter laps to finish last in my heat in a pretty unremarkable time, at least for me. Deciding I needed some more tempo work that day, and not wishing to resign myself to the indoors, I drove across town to Cass Park for the first of four FLRC Winter Chill 5ks. So I ran my second 5k of the morning in the pouring rain, and managed to finish one second faster than I did on the track.


January 23: Beast of Burden Winter 50

The first of three goal races this year, The Beast turned out to be tougher than I expected. Race day was the coldest day yet in an unusually warm winter, but the bottom line is that I just wasn't fully prepared to tackle my goal time of 8:30. I struggled to a 9:28 finishstill a PR for the distance but far from my potential. However, I did accomplish my goal of running an all-day race in the dead of winter. (Winter Beast full race report.)


January 31: Winter Chill 5k #4

So did I mention that the FLRC's Winter Chill Series consists of a 5k every Sunday in January? I ran this fourth and final series race as a shakeout a week after Beast of Burden and actually felt pretty good, running only 15 seconds slower than Winter Chill #1 when I had fresher legs.


April 10: Skunk Cabbage Classic Half Marathon

One of Ithaca's oldest road races, and only $20, this one was too good to pass up. I managed a pretty solid time on the hilly course, especially considering that I stopped to tear off two-thirds of my clothing around mile four after overheating. (Skunk Cabbage full race report.)


April 16: Breakneck Point Trail Runs 42k

Only a week removed from The Skunk, I headed down to the Hudson Valley for the second running of the Red Newt event. This one was a trail marathon packed with 10,000 of vertical, including a straight up 1,000-foot rock scramble around mile eight, and some sweet views of the Hudson River. I figured the rocky terrain and steep grades would be good prep for Manitou's Revenge in late June. I had no goal time herejust to finish. However, I did buckle down and run hard near the end and was somewhat dismayed to miss a 7:00 finish my only a few seconds. Despite the three hour drive from Ithaca, there were tons of Ithaca runners at Breakneck and it was a great atmosphere all around. (Breakneck full race report.)


June 4: Cayuga Trails 50 / USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship

Cayuga was my second A-race of the year. I narrowly missed a 10 hour finish in 2015, and knew I could do it this time around. Unfortunately that goal was out the window not long after the ram's horn signaled the start. I forgot to take in enough electrolytes early and crashed around mile 15. By the time I recovered, I was so far behind sub-10 pace I decided just to finish, however long it took, and save something Manitou's two weeks later. I managed my second best time at Cayuga in three finishes. (Cayuga Trails full race report.)


June 18: Manitou's Revenge

Two 50-milers two weeks apart was something new for me. So was treacherous a point-to-point run across the Catskill High Peaks region. I definitely felt the the Cayuga miles in my legs pretty early on, but even on a good day this monster would still consist of mostly hiking. After wasting 45 minutes by going off course, I managed to finish in 18:26long after dark and just before midnight. I'm definitely looking forward to giving Manitou's another go a few years from now. (Manitou's full race report.)


July 10: Boilermaker 15k Road Race

Hayley was really exciting for her second run at the Boilermaker and convinced me to sign up too. By now I was recovered from Cayuga and Manitou's, but starting to ramp things back up for Oil Creek in October. I ran the Boilermaker as a tempo workout and managed to nab a 27 second PR for the 15k distance. This was my fourth time running Utica's iconic road race, and has the biggest and most competitive field of any race I've done.


June 17: Forest Frolic Trail Run 15k

Back in 2011, The Frolic was the first trail race I ever ran, and I'll credit it for getting me hooked on off-road running excursions. I've run the low-key 15k every year since, and will continue to do so for as long as possible. My time was sub-optimal, but was my second fastest over six finishes.


August 2: FLRC August Track Meet

I decided on another track meet for some speedwork, although this time it was outdoors on the 400-meter track at Ithaca High School. I had signed up for the 5000m and 1 Mile events, and ran both as workouts. My lack of track aptitude became apparent went I was out-kicked in the final 200 meters by two middle schoolers from the Auburn Pulsars Youth Club. My friend Gerritt, who'd also run the mile and 5000m, convinced to fill an empty spot in his 400m heat. I had no idea how to go about such a short race but went for it anyway. Ultimately Gerritt edged me out in our friendly competition, with a lower combined time among all three events. The track meet was also my lifetime 100th organized race.


August 20: Monster Marathon

Since early spring, I'd been hoping to run the Twisted Branch 100k on August 20, but was unable to because of a family commitment. I instead settled on a shorter, local trail race, with the plan of racing to place as high as possible.The double out-and-back format makes it easy to see who's in front of and behind you, and by how much.

The Monster is unique in how it allows handicaps, ie. earlier start times, based on age and gender, yet the final standings are the order in which runners cross the finish line. My starting time was in the final wave, so that meant I had to make up a lot of time over those in front of me. The morning was soon blazing hot, and all I could think of was the Twisted Branch runners who's skin would be melting off all day long. I ran hard the entire race to finish sixth overall in 4:25. This was a trail marathon PR for me, although I think the course was at least a mile short. (Monster and Lucifer full race report.)


August 21: Lucifer's Crossing

A day after The Monster, I went back to Robert Treman State to run the 6.66 mile Lucifer's Crossing on some of the same trails. I ran as hard as I could without risking injury, and definitely struggled up the Treman Gorge Trail in the first half. The second half was mostly downhill singletrack that I ran with Jim Devona, each of us pacing the other.  In the end I managed a pretty decent time, all things considered, finishing just before a downpour. Red Newt Racing provided a burrito buffet from Gorgers Taco Shack, so it was well worth running the race. (Monster and Lucifer full race report.)

October 8: Oil Creek 100

Finally, the biggest day of the year for me, as far as racing goes. I'd been gearing up all year for my second 100-miler. Everything somehow went perfectly and I ran 22:57good enough for eighth overall and well ahead of my sub-24 hour goal. My stomach, my brain, and the weather all cooperated to avoid any disasters. Inexplicably, I felt great all day and found myself running uphill around mile 90, despite going sans pacer and crew. I'll be studying this race for years to figure out how to replicate the effort. (Oil Creek full race report.)


November 6: 5k Chili Challenge

I felt pretty well recovered from Oil Creek by late October, so Hayley and I both decided to run this 5k for fun. It's basically a cross country course with a turn-around in front of a 215 foot waterfall. I raced hard and felt good, but finished a few seconds slower than 2015. Meanwhile Hayley managed a 5k PR. RD Gary Cremeens always puts on a good event, and the run didn't seem overcrowded despite a huge turnout.


Epilogue:

Immediately after the Chili Challenge, my friends Dan and Steve convinced me to run back down to Ithaca with them via the newly finished Black Diamond Rail Trail. It was 12 miles from Taughannock Falls back to my house. Big mistake. It was toward the end of this run when my right Achilles tendon starting acting up, and the beginning of a long and frustrating month and a half. From then on, I felt a dull ache in that Achilles during every road run, but it was much less pronounced while on trails.

The injury turned out to be mild Achilles tendinosis. I plan to write a future post about the injury and recovery in a future post, so I won't elaborate on it here. In short, the last two month of 2016 were spent cross-training with yoga, spinning classes, and indoor cardio machines. I had been toying with signing up for the Mendon Ponds 50k on November 5, the day before the injury was noticeable, but thankfully I resigned to better judgement and passed on that race. Hayley and I also both planned to run the It's a Wonderful Run 5k in Seneca Falls in early December, but we both opted out due to injuries.

I had the fortune of scoring a decently priced pair of Tubbs Oddysey 25 inch snowshoes from the Old Goat Gear Exchange booth at Cornell University's COE Annual Gear Sale. I'm not a cold weather aficionado by any means, but snowshoeing has given me a reason to look forward to some heavy snowfalls this winter. Some snowshoe runs replaced road runs while my Achilles healed up, and I found I really enjoy being out there on trails that I couldn't run on otherwise due to the snow. I'm hoping to do a snowshoe race sometime in early 2017.

Racing aside, I had some pretty cool adventure-type runs throughout the year. I managed a few longer, point-to-point runs on the Finger Lakes Trail, covering trail sections I'd never been on before. In May, I went down to the Catskills and ran the Slide Mountain Wilderness loop, with an out-and-back to the top of Panther Mountain. I also went down to Oil Creek State Park in early September for back-to-back long runs on the OC100 course, and spent a full day hiking around Letchworth State Park with Hayley.

In November, a bunch of us carpooled up to Rochester for the Trail Running Film Festival. Watching people from all walks of life overcome adversity of one form or another really put things into perspective. Seeing films about incredible feats of human endurance made my Achilles issue pale by comparison, and I realized how incredibly lucky I am to be able to do some of the things I do.

Despite the overuse injury to end the year, I was pleased with the way 2016 turned out in regards to my running performance. With Oil Creek, I closed out the year on a very high note, and that gives me confidence going into 2017 and beyond!

How was your running in 2016? Did you accomplish any big goals or learn by making mistakes? What's on your agenda for 2017? Let me know in the comments below.


N4N (Numbers For Nerds):


Number of Races: 17
Miles Raced: 362.41
Total Miles Run in 2016:  2341.3 (My count, different from Strava's.)
Strava Stats:



Some 2016 photo highlights. Apologies for the wonky formatting, but it's the best I could do with Blogspot's limited capabilities. (All photos my own unless otherwise noted.)

Post-race at Beast of Burden.

Rusty and me slogging through the Breakneck 42k. PC: Joe Azze/Mountain Peak Fitness


Fun run at Taughannock Falls with ultrarunner / one of my favorite writers / certified badass Mishka Shubaly. PC: Mishka Shubaly.



Seen on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh.

Running around Pittsburgh. #NoFilter
Cayuga Inlet crossing at Cayuga Trails 50. PC: Nancy Hobbs/ATRA
Deep in the Cayuga Trails pain cave. PC: Melissa Weiner



One of many big climbs at Manitou's Revenge, and one of my favorite photos. PC: Joe Azze/Mountain Peak Fitness

Plane wreck on Stoppel Point along the Manitou's Revenge course.


Boilermaker expo...

...and Boilermaker Post-race.

Lucifer's Crossing. PC: Nona Swanson Bauer
Middle Falls at Letchworth State Park.


Mile 14 at the Oil Creek 100. PC: David Potts
Oil derrick replica on the Oil Creek course.

Finish line of the 5k Chili Challenge, right before my Achilles started acting up. PC: Dan Elswit

Yassine Diboun introducing the films at the Trail Running Film Festival.

Compilation shot at Robert Treman State Park.

Compilation shot from around the Cornell Campus.

Modelling some Run Local apparel with Vinny at FLRTC.

Fireworks over Boston Common to close out the year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Latergram: A Retrospective Look at the 2016 Breakneck Point Trail Runs

Looking back toward early 2016, I realized I never wrote any kind of a race report about the Breakneck Point Trail Runs back in April. By now, seven months later, my foggy memory will have distorted the experience more than a heavily filtered Instagram post. When registration went for Breakneck 2017 went live a few weeks ago, it was a stark reminder of just how incredible that course is and how enjoyable the marathon was this year. It was by far the "longest" marathon I've done, and the only one that crams 10,000 feet of vertical into 26.2 miles. (There's also a half marathon option.) Rather than write an erroneous race report, I've decided to just post a bunch of the pictures I took from race weekend. Enjoy!

The first few are from a hike the day before, near the east bank of the Hudson River, directly across from Storm King State Park.





In the evening, Adam and I did a short hike up and down Mount Beacon. The marathon would climb the same steep trail around mile 22. The climb is something like 1,000 feet in a mile, and has no cover from the trees. Adam warned me it would crowded with hikers when I arrived here during the race. It was helpful to know ahead of time what lay in store before the finish line.



At the start of the race, the course seemed to ascend gradually as the crowd thinned out over the wider section of trail. Things were only mildly congested when the group I was in reached the lumpy, rocky singletrack.

Just before the 7 a.m. start.
After a half mile of paved road, about eight miles in, the course suddenly turns up a rock scramble. Halfway up the near vertical section I could hear the droning of a bagpipe. Atop the ridge stood a lone bagpiper in a kilt and full Irish regalia, belting out what sounded like funeral music as we nearly killed ourselves reaching the top of the scramble, high above the banks of the Hudson.

I think this was from the rock scramble up Breakneck Ridge, but I'm not sure. 
The scramble.




PC: Mountain Peak Fitness


I spent several miles running with Rusty, another Ithaca guy. PC: Mountain Peak Fitness

The next several shots I took myself, but I can't remember where along the course they came from.




Finishers award - A sugar cookie with an image from the race course. 


Here's a race video from Red Newt Racing:


Friday, October 28, 2016

When Eyes Collide Head-On With Graveyards: A Short Story

His confidence grew as he moved further and further along in his training plan. He felt the years of accumulated base-fitness and six months of race specific training were finally about to pay off. Still, he was wholly aware that his fitness goal was a difficult one. Sure, he'd finished a few ultra-distance trail races before, but the Oil Creek 100 in October would be a true test of endurance and perseverance, and his goal was to simply complete a 100-mile race for the first time.

With a promising weekend weather forecast, Lee Henry made the four hour drive from Upstate New York down to northwest Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek State Park to scout the course. His training plan called for one final long run before tapering for the 100-mile race, and what better way to get in the mileage than by learning the course at the same time? He had recently connected with a local runner through Facebook. Nick, the local, agreed to lead Lee through a 50 kilometer loop of the race course, which would be repeated three times during the 100-miler.

With four hours of driving time all to himself, Lee had plenty of time to catch up on his favorite podcasts. Before he knew it, he was turning into the parking lot adjacent to Titusville Middle School—the staging area of the Oil Creek race. As expected on a Saturday afternoon in September, the middle School parking lot was completely empty of other vehicles. Lee's guide for the day hadn't yet arrived. They planned to meet at 4:00 p.m. so Lee could experience part of the course at night and get some practice running off-road after dark. He had arrived twenty minutes early.

Lee went through his usual pre-run routine—rearranging his pack and removing any unnecessary items, topping off water bottles from the gallon jug on his back seat, and ensuring he'd packed enough calories for six to seven hours on the trail. Then it was some easy drills to loosen the legs after four hours behind the wheel. Lunges, twists, leg kicks, high knees. A few motorists sped past, and Lee felt a little self-conscious doing Richard Simmons style aerobics in the empty parking lot on a blazing hot weekend afternoon.

The minutes ticked by and still no other cars. Lee had previously toyed with the idea of following a rudimentary paper map to run the loop on his own but was afraid of getting lost. He wasn't exactly Magellan when it came to navigation by map, and he'd heard that cell service in the park is spotty at best. "Better to stick with someone who's run the race and knows the course," he thought.

A couple minutes past the hour, a dark green Subaru rolled in and parked a few rows over from Lee. He could tell by the multitude of "OC 100" stickers on the rear bumper that it must be a fellow ultrarunner. Two guys hopped out, and Lee did the same. Lee introduced himself, and learned that the driver was in fact Nick, the guy he'd been in touch with, and Nick's buddy Jared. Both guys looked to be about Lee's age—late twenties to early thirties—and each had the appearance of an experienced and competent trail runner. After some introductory handshakes and banter about gear and weather, the three runners began jogging east down Bank Street toward the bike path that ultimately leads to the trail.

***

By the time the trio hit the Gerard Hiking Trail it was already nearly 4:30. Lee was inexperienced running at night, having only done so a few times on trails he was very familiar with. Nick and Jared had no qualms about being out there after dark. Each had run the park trails by headlamp many times, and insisted there was nothing to worry about. Lee was reassured by the others' confidence, and decided what the hell—it'd be great training for race day.

As the group hit the trailhead and traversed the rocky singletrack, Nick and Jared—both having grown up nearby in Crawford County—regaled Lee with the history of Oil Creek State Park and the land on which the park sits.

Lee learned of the 1860s oil boom on John Benninghoff's farm, and how the lucky landowner struck it rich with black gold when he discovered how to drill into the surrounding hills. Nick told tales of lawlessness among the oil teamsters at Petroleum Centre, where muggings and murders were commonplace.

As the group made its way along the trail, Lee enjoyed the others’ company and their discourse on the park's history. He took note of trail conditions, landmarks, and road crossings, all of which he’d use to pace himself during the race.

Soon it was dark, the night became noticeably cooler, and each runner donned his headlamp. "Better get used to this darkness, kid," Nick ribbed his new friend. "You're gonna being seeing plenty of it on race day."

Despite his nervousness and tired legs, Lee remained in good spirits. "Yep, nothing like some course specific training to get ready for a hundred."

The three passed through Petroleum Centre, where Jared explained how the flat land used to be a town. They then began making their way back toward the car by following the trail along the opposite side of Oil Creek. The race course was essentially a big loop, down one side of the creek and up the other, following the Gerard Hiking Trail almost the entire way. Around 22 miles into the run, Lee stopped to relieve himself behind a trailside tree. "Go on ahead," he told the others. “I'll catch up in a minute."

"Don't you want us to wait around?" asked Nick. "Just in case."

"Nah, I'll be fine," Lee shot back, not wanting to look weak in front on the other guys. "These yellow blazes and reflectors are easy enough to follow.”

Nick and Jared plodded on ahead, albeit slowly. Once his bladder was empty, Lee took a huge swig of water from his bottle and peered up at the stars. He was in a small clearing that provided a perfect view for stargazing. Deep into the park the land was devoid of all light pollution. Alone, Lee flipped off his headlamp and stared infinitely upward, trying to pick out some star patterns. Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion. Ptolemy's ancient constellations brought back a flood of childhood memories—nighttime hikes with his father, visits to their local observatory on chilly autumn evenings. As if by instinct, Lee was able to pick out individual stars, particularly the brighter ones.

"Betelgeuse, Rigel, Polaris," he muttered aloud to himself. "And that bright one across the sky, that's no star, that's Venus." Lee recalled getting fooled by Venus as a child, thinking it was a star whose bright white luminosity outshined all other celestial objects, save the sun and moon.

Lee's mind faded back into the present. He hit the backlight button on his watch to see that he had digressed for nearly fifteen minutes.

"Damn! They'll be wondering where I've been," he thought.

He hit the "on" button on his headlamp. Nothing. He pressed the button again. And again. Still no light but that from the sky. He removed his pack and fumbled around for his iPhone. He located the phone and tapped the main button. The display lit up just long enough to remind him that he forgot to switch to airplane mode. Lee knew the phone well enough to realize that it had been searching for a non-existent cell signal for the past six hours, effectively draining the battery. By turning on the phone's backlight he abruptly finished the job.

"Hey you guys!" Lee shouted into the dark, dense woods. No reply. "Hey, I'm blind as a bat back here!"

Silence.

He did the only thing he could think of, and made his way forward down the trail in the limited moonlight, yelling ahead the whole time in a vain attempt to make contact with the others.

Soon the trail left the clearing and sloped downward, back amongst the pines. With the moonlight all but blocked by the trees, Lee used the dim backlight on his GPS watch to avoid face-planting or taking a tree branch to the eye. He felt his way forward, catching enough glimpses of the reflectors on the tree trunks to awkwardly follow the trail. He looked around and several pairs of glowing eyes stared back, blankly. As Lee knew from the race website, Oil Creek State Park is home to a variety of woodland mammals—benign creatures like deer, chipmunks, and squirrels, but also dangers such as black bears and porcupines. As far as Lee knew, the source of these eerie oculi could be any of the above.

Lee plodded on along the trail, his eyes shifting this way and that, glancing nervously around at the nearly invisible animals. Finally—after what felt like a marathon but was in reality only one or two tenths of a mile—Lee stumbled out of the woods onto a dirt road. His knowledge of the course map was somewhat dubious, but he knew from reading the course description earlier that he was now on Miller Farm Road and needed to swing a left to head downhill.

Lee trotted downhill, but doubted his ability to find the trail with the little bit of moonlight at his disposal. “Nick! Damn you, what’s happening? Where are you?” He again called out to the other runners, but to no avail.

Now what? Lee re-evaluated his options. It was too dark to read his paper map, and he had no phone battery to view his digital one. He was beginning to feel tired and lightheaded, his confidence waning considerably. He walked down the road, then back up, unable to spot the small wooden staircase that led upward to the white-blazed singletrack. He soon lost his sense of direction and could no longer locate the yellow blazed trail from whence he'd just come. Lee's attempt to yell to his friends once again proved futile. His sat down on the dusty road. The afternoon was so hot, he hadn't packed a jacket or even long sleeves, and certainly hadn't prepared to spend a night in the forest. “I’ve got so much left to do with my life,” he muttered in despair. For the first time in his life he thought he might actually die.

 
That was when he saw the headlamp approaching from up the hill. Lee yelled out "Hey Nick! Jared! Down here!" The bearer of the light didn't respond, but drew closer. Lee could then make out the steady clop-clopping of a horse's hooves. To his surprise, he discovered the approaching party was neither Nick nor Jared, but a man leading a horse-drawn wagon.

"Who goes there?" demanded a gruff voice. No doubt the hoarse timbre belonged to the load bearer. The driver halted his beast of burden with a commanding "Woah, girl!" and the vehicle creaked to a halt.

"I say again, who's there?" inquired the driver. The man dismounted from the wagon and held a lantern at shoulder height, trying to make out Lee's figure from the roadside shadows.

Lee got to his feet, stepped forward out of the darkness, and greeted the man. He felt it best to be friendly, in case his shouting in the dark had awoken a nearby Titusville resident. Still, the abrupt and unexpected appearance of the wagon and driver left Lee on edge, especially given his current predicament.

"I'm sorry sir." Lee pleaded his case. "I was separated from my friends, and got lost out here when my headlamp died. I was only trying to find my friends. I—I mean with the shouting, and all."

"Some friends they are indeed, leavin’ ya out alone on a night like t’night." The response left Lee guessing as to whether or not that meant an acceptance of his apology.

As he approached the stranger, Lee he could make out his features by the man's lantern light. In fact, the first thing to strike Lee as odd was that this man wielded a lantern—an antique-looking, gas-powered one at that.

The strange nocturnalist was dressed as if from another era. He bore a bushy, unkempt beard of ashen grey. His suspenders and trousers looked like they'd seen much better days. The shirt and pants were thoroughly stained with dark spots—oil, Lee presumed based on the creeping stench of petroleum—and the man's shoes were so worn that each toebox had a touch of patency. The man's graying hair was as wild as his beard.

Lee squinted beyond the lantern light. As his eyes adjusted, he then took in the sight of the wagon. A single horse was attached by a rope, a harness, and two shafts to a derelict, wooden buckboard of about ten feet in length. The wagon's four wooden wheels looked pretty banged up, but apparently the apparatus was well built and able to house the load within. Side slats made for shallow rails around the cart bed's perimeter. A tattered tarp lay across the area of the bed, concealing whatever load was in transit.

The wind began to howl between the trees. The stranger spoke again, this time in a more mild-mannered tone. "What a terrible night for a curse. That is, to be cursed with the misfortune of gettin’ stranded dry and high, nary a candle in yer possession." The old-time country drawl, coupled with his slightly slurred speech, made "misfortune" sound more like "Ms. Fortune."


Lee was caught off guard by the man's sudden shift in tone, and nearly laughed aloud at the dialect. He approached the driver, no longer afraid of charges that he'd been disturbing the peace. As he neared, Lee caught an unmistakable whiff of stale whiskey on the old man's breath.

"What are you doing out at this hour?" Lee inquired. He decided not to question the man's mode of transportation. After all, with Pennsylvania's population of Mennonites and Amish it was possible this guy was a member of one or the other, from a family or sect that had migrated to the northwest corner of the Keystone State. It was the only explanation Lee could come up with in his mind. He had no wish to offend the stranger.

"This ol’ bag of bones never sleeps. I have a schedule to keep so the boss don't throw me out on my ass. Again. A-and that old wench sez she won't take me back ‘til I bring home some bacon after a day's work, instead of pissing it away downtown. Figured I best keep things movin'."

Lee began to grow uneasy around the old cart driver. His haggard appearance and obvious drunkenness, and the remote proximity from any other humans, were enough to put Lee's fight or flight response on standby. Plus he had no idea where Nick and Jared were, and whether or not they'd encountered this old coot themselves when they crossed the dirt road.

As if sensing Lee's desire to get on with his trek, the old man offered some assistance. "I reckon you outta have a light before ya head back into them woods. I happen to have a spare lantern in my cart there."

"Uh, that's okay, sir. I already set you back enough. My friends are waiting just up ahead. I can catch up to them with what I have."

"Suit yerself, then," came the reply.

With that, the driver hopped back into the wagon seat, grabbed the reins, and gave a sharp yelp. As the horse bolted forward the inebriated rider nearly fell sideways from his seat. The horse set off down the road, towing the wagon downhill toward the Miller Farm bridge where Lee knew the race director would have an aid station placed. As the rickety wooden cart bounced past Lee’s position, the jostling was enough to shake the tarp loose, uncovering the cargo within. Curiosity got the best of Lee. He stared into the wagon bed, attempting to make out its contents in the dim moonlight and the soft glow from the driver's lantern. It appeared to be several lidless boxes, with a large metal canister in each box. In the dark it was difficult to tell for sure.


As he pulled away, the disheveled drunk spoke again. "And hey, whenever you see yer friends again, tell 'em ol' Doc Haggerty sent ya." Lee had but a split second search his memory for where he'd heard than name before. But before he could place the name, a blinding light erupted from the cart bed along with a searing blast of white heat. Lee had but an instant for his recollection to morph into sheer panic before everything went black.

***

"But have you ever seen the woman in white?" Jared whispered to Nick. "Supposedly she hung herself from a nearby tree branch—"

"Hold it," Nick interrupted his friend. "That's a different woman in white. The hanging victim is said to be seen at Petroleum Centre Cemetery, not Miller Farm." The confidence in his voice indicated that Nick knew his local legends well, and to argue about which woman haunted which cemetery would prove useless.

"Okay, fine." Jared shot back. "But you know about the orbs and illuminated tombstones here in this graveyard, right? We outta prop one of our lights next to a grave and see what he thinks about that! He seemed pretty uneasy back there in the dark already."

Nick and Jared stood behind a large oak, just off trail and adjacent to the Miller Farm Cemetery. The two whispered to one another and laughed about how Lee was in for a scare. They'd lurk silently behind the tree, headlamps off, until Lee passed up the hill, then leap out of the shadows and give him the scare of a lifetime. Lighting up an old gravestone in the foggy night would be a nice addition to their little fright fest. They had been waiting awhile, and without discussing it, both wondered if maybe they should forget the prank and backtrack to make sure Lee wasn't actually hurt or lost.

"Let's not be too hard on the guy, or we might scare him out of running the hundred altogether," said Nick. That was when they saw it. A blinding flash of light pierced the woodland and lit up the graveyard like it was high noon, for an instant making the carved epitaphs quite visible. The flash was immediately followed by a thunderous BOOM erupting from the trees. The source couldn't have been more than a quarter mile away, in the direction from which they'd come. The shock shook the ground and rattled the trees, knocking both runners off their feet, while the explosion echoed across the opposite wall of the ravine. The two went sprawling amongst the nineteenth century tombstones that littered the cemetery. Then all was silent. The crisp night air around them began to reek of smoke and ash.

Nick and Jared got back on their feet. Both were severely shaken, but neither was injured.

"What do we do!?" Jared yelled in a panic. "Lee might still be back there somewhere."

"Smell that? The forest is on fire. We need to get some help and quick!" Nick's tone was decisive, and Jared quickly acquiesced. The two grabbed their packs and hightailed it down the trail. Both checked their phones but neither had cell service. Powered by sheer adrenaline, they ran fast enough to break every Strava segment record along the last part of the race course. When they finally made it off the trail, they ran down the road to the nearest house, rang the bell, and persuaded the startled resident to let them call 9-1-1 from her landline.

***


When the fire department, sheriff's deputies, and local search-and-rescue team all arrived, they scoured the Miller Farm region of Oil Creek State Park but found no evidence of any explosions or fires, and no sign of Lee. The next morning they searched the entire park by daylight and again found nothing. When no other witnesses stepped forward, Nick and Jared were charged with disorderly conduct for making a phony emergency call.

Two days after the incident Lee Henry was officially reported missing when he failed to return home.
Meanwhile, his Prius remained parked in the school lot, offering no clues to his whereabouts. He was never heard from again and his body was never found.




The Legend of Doc Haggerty


Reportedly, Doc Haggerty was a nitroglycerin shooter whose job it was to cart around torpedoes and cans of nitro on the land that is now Oil Creek State Park. The torpedoes would be loaded with the nitroglycerin, then lowered into an oil well and detonated so the well would yield more oil. One day in December 1888, Haggerty's load detonated and was destroyed, along with his horse and wagon. There were no eye-witnesses, and no scrap of Haggerty's remains were ever found. At the time, some believed he had faked his death in order to cash in on a life insurance policy. Others believed that he was cremated entirely. Legend has it that on the anniversary of his death—or supposed death—a phantom explosion can be heard around Oil Creek State Park. On a few occasions, people have claimed to see Doc's ghost carting his wagon down a park road.

A few details of the actual legend were altered for the purpose of this story, including the exact location of Doc's demise. His appearance as a drunk is the author's own description
—a possible but not necessarily factual one

This is my first attempt at a fiction story since probably high school, and I hope it turned out well. Let me know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!