Monday, September 5, 2016

On Monsters and Devils

The Monster 


You really can't find a better marathon for $35. No fancy swag, shiny medals, or chip timing. Just 4,000 feet of gain over singletrack and some park roads with some good people and good food at the finish. Welcome to The Monster Marathon.

The original Monster course was a double out-and-back on the Finger Lakes Trail at Kennedy State Forest in Virgil. For logistical reasons, including some trail rerouting and the closing of Gatherings Restaurant and Event Center where the race was staged, the race was relocated in 2015 to Robert Treman State Park in Ithaca. Despite the new location, the original race format remains the same - a double out-and-back, (or single out-and-back for the accompanying half marathon), low entry fees, and handicap start times. These attributes are what gives the Finger Lakes Runners Club's only marathon a unique flavor, setting The Monster apart from most other trail races.

With the age and gender-graded start times, runners start off in waves. Older athletes start earlier and the ladies go before the men. Some sort of mathematical formula is used to calculate each runner's head start over the "open field," with start times calculated down to the minute. This creates competition between older and younger runners. Final standings are
based on the order in which runners finish, regardless of how early they start, and there are no age-group awards. I was starting with the open men's field at 8:00 a.m. sharp, with all the rest of the guys under age 36. As a result, I soon found myself trying play catch-up with a handful of women old enough to be my mother.

My goal for the day was to run the marathon hard and place as high as I could. The double out-and-back format makes it easy to tell who's in front of you and by how far. I set out pretty fast in order to avoid the inevitable conga line when runners hit the singletrack after a mile of service roads. One guy from my wave pulled on ahead and eventually escaped my sight altogether. In the meantime, I began picking off runners from the earlier waves one or two at a time. Racing like this in a longer distance event brought a level of excitement I don't often feel at ultra and trail races.

After completing the first half in just under two hours, I was something like fifth place in the men's race, with a few more ladies still up ahead. Immediately after beginning loop number two the mid-August heat began to take its toll. I began to slow down and wished I had grabbed some Tailwind from my bag at the 13 mile turnaround. There were tons of hikers and tourists on the Gorge Trail by this time, and weaving around the masses made my job even trickier. Most of them were encouraging and saying "Great job!" and the like, so the energy boost I got from them more than made up for the extra sidestepping. (Thank you, day hikers!)

The dirt roads were easy enough to run, but as I turned onto the hilly singletrack around mile 17, I could feel The Monster slowly crushing me. The beast bore its razor sharp teeth, its claws beginning to tear me apart in the hopes that I would collapse in a messy heap alongside the trail, like a piece of summer roadkill that couldn't take the heat but still refused to leave the kitchen.

I began to walk. A lot. I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, hoping to stave off any runner intent on leaving me in the dust. Somehow, the only people I came across were runners on their inbound loop - either half marathoners, or marathoners behind me still on their first loop. As I trudged up the Red Pine Trail to the final turnaround at mile 20, two guys came jogging down the service road, only five minutes or so ahead of me. I made short work of the aid station and hustled over the final 10K to try to catch them both. I was able to catch one guy at the final aid station, but the other was long gone. I finished in 4:25, a PR for the trail marathon and good for fifth place male, sixth overall.

I later learned of a few notable things that went down at the 2016 Monster. The guy that finished second in the marathon had biked 50 miles from Binghamton to the park the day before, camped out at the park, and then planned to bike back to Binghamton after the race. The half marathon winner had just moved to the area, and had learned the course a week earlier. And the biggest news was that a couple got engaged sometime during the race.

The low-key atmosphere and less competitive nature of The Monster are what continue to draw me back to the event. Although I prefer the remoteness of the original course over the state park trails, I do plan to return to this race many more times.

The Devil

The next morning, I awoke feeling pretty good and the soreness was surprisingly minimal. I decided, from the comfort of my bed, to double it up for the weekend by returning to Treman State Park to run Lucifer's Crossing, a 6.66 mile jaunt around the park that goes up the scenic Gorge Trail and down the Finger Lakes Trail on the creek's south side. I knew I wouldn't be bringing anything close to my A-game, but Lucifer's is a Red Newt production and I've yet to run a Red Newt event that was anything less than stellar. So I returned to the park, forked over some cash, shook out the legs, and lined up under Ian's "Giddyup" starting banner.

The Gorge Trail climb in the race's first half was a huge struggle. My legs felt like bricks as I tried to ascend the trail's many stair cases past Lucifer Falls, the race's namesake. It felt a lot like starting out on loop number two at Cayuga Trails, only tougher. The second half was a whole different story, though. All the pain and heaviness had dissipated and I felt great opening things up on the singletrack descent. I ran the entire second half with Jim Devona, a guy I knew from the Triple Cities Runners Club in Binghamton, and we paced each other to a faster finish while catching up on old times.

After the race, I ran into a bunch of people I knew who'd run Twisted Branch the day before and came down to Treman to spectate or to lend a hand as a volunteer. I also came across a handful of others who had run both Lucifer's and The Monster. I later learned that the winner of Lucifer's Crossing is the same guy that won The Monster Half Marathon a day earlier, and that he's also my new neighbor who'd just moved to Ithaca from Chicago.

The post race meal was amazing - a make-your-own burrito bar catered by Gorgers Taco Shack, a tiny dive in the Ithaca Commons that happens to be my and Hayley's go-to place for a cheap takeout dinner. As finishers trickled in, runners gorged themselves on Gorgers while light rain slowly and steadily pitter-pattered on the pavilion roof above.

Post Script

For several months, I had originally planned to run the Twisted Branch 100K as a tune-up race for the Oil Creek 100 in October. I waited on registering for the race, and in the meantime, my sister-in-law planned a birthday party for my four year old niece the same day. Despite really wanted to "get twisted" out in the woods near Hammondsport, I opted for the family time instead. This meant running The Monster and then driving to Manlius with Hayley in the afternoon for the party. One look from that kiddo's face and it was totally worth it!

Special thanks to long time Monster RDs Karen and Tim Ingall for all their hard work in putting the race together. Thank you Ian Golden for putting on the fun, low-key event that is Lucifer's Crossing. And of course, thank you to the volunteers at both races.

Monster Results

Lucifer's Crossing Results

The start of Lucifer's Crossing. PC: Nona Swanson Bauer

Up the Gorge Trail at Lucifer's. PC: Nona Swanson Bauer

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