Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rim to Rim at the Inaugural Many On The Genny

I’m not sure when exactly it was that #TrailsRoc cofounder Eric Eagan said "Hey, why isn’t there a race that circumnavigates Letchworth, like a rim-to-rim race around the Grand Canyon of the East?" When I first caught wind of the race last fall, I was beyond psyched. After a rambling adventure run around the park two years ago, I had a vague notion to organize a fat-ass run that circles the gorge and covers all of the most scenic park trails. The fat-ass idea never made it any further than thinking "Yeah, it would be cool to see the whole park in one day."

Many On The Genny is a point-to-point trail race that starts at the Mt Morris Dam Visitor Center on the northwest side of Letchworth. The course follows several different trails and a little of the park road southwest down to Lower Falls, crossing the Genesee on the only footbridge within the park. The aid station just before the bridge marks the halfway point of the course. After crossing the bridge, runners take some side trails and a dirt road to reach the Finger Lakes Trail Letchworth Branch, then follow the FLT northeast to the Visitor Center opposite the gorge from where they started. The start and finish are about a quarter-mile apart as the crow flies, separated by the Genesee River and a 500-foot-deep canyon. The quickest way to travel from the start to the finish is to
leave and then reenter the park over five miles of paved roads.

Three weeks after Cayuga Trails and I was feeling about 80 percent recovered. This was my first go at the 40-mile distance and my right hip had been achy for the past week, so I really didn't know what to expect timewise. I'd signed up mostly to try out a new race in a really cool place.

I ran the Tanglefoot Trail Run 20k a week before just for fun, and the heat and difficult terrain took a toll on my body. It was after Tanglefoot when my hip started hurting, so I took it easy for the rest of the week leading up to MOTG. I also had a scare when I wiped out and hyperplantarflexed my ankle with most of my weight behind it, resulting in 24 hours of painful walking until the injury resolved itself. I felt like I was treading thin ice for a week until I reached the starting line. After a restless night of camping in the rain, I made it to the start actually feeling pretty good about what the day had in store.

Once Eric tuned us loose, Rich Heffron and Scotie Jacobs took off in the front, as expected. I settled into a (very distant) chase pack with Ellie Pell and Katie O’Regan, and the three of us ran together for awhile. I knew I wouldn't be keeping up with Ellie, and just focused on maintaining a casual pace while running by feel. The three of us briefly went off course down a hill and quickly realized the mistake, but not before getting passed by Jamie Hobbs and another guy.

Around mile 8, the course takes a steep dive toward the river down a treacherous, muddy slope. The heavy overnight rain left some of the trails in rough shape, but reentering the woods at the bottom was an otherworldly experience. It was like we’d left New York and stepped into a rain forest, surrounded by towering, bright green plant life dripping with residual rainwater, devoid of other man-made elements save the singletrack trail. We soon crossed a creek directly in front of a 40-foot waterfall, where photographer Ron Heerkens was stationed for some sweet scenic shots. And here I was, trying to stuff a Honey Stinger Waffle in my mouth while Ron was firing away behind the lens.

Crossing the falls soon led to a monstrous and muddy climb out of the gorge, followed by two miles of paved park road. I caught up to Jamie and we stuck together as the two lead women pulled ahead. The exposed trail through soggy grass forced us to either slow down or pay for it later. We talked for awhile and he painted a picture of the Massanutten Mountain 100 course, which I’m interested in pursuing next year. He also told me that the guy up ahead in third was a road marathoner who’d never run an ultra. With no one else in sight behind us, I began thinking it could turn into a race for final spot on the men's podium.

Arriving at AS2, mile 15. PC: Barry Cherney
Ellie and Katie pulled way ahead and out of sight on the two-mile park road section. I reached Aid Station #2 at mile 15 with Jamie and then left alone to run along the Gorge Trail.

***

The Letchworth Gorge Trail snakes along the top of the northwest side of the Genesee River Gorge, with spectacular views of the river 500 feet below. Running all alone along this rim in the early morning sunlight proved to be quite thrilling. I gazed across the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon of the East to the southeast wall of the gorge, where I’d be running in the opposite direction a few hours later.

The land that today is Letchworth State Park was home to the Seneca natives until the late 18th century. The Seneca called the area around the gorge Sehgahunda, which translates to "the vale of the three falls." This refers to what are now called Upper, Middle, and Lower Fallsthe three largest and most often viewed falls within the park. The three easily accessible falls draw tourist from all over the northeast. The park is so popular that it was voted the top state park in the country in a 2015 USA Today readers' poll. 

In 1859, William Pryor Letchworth purchased a small portion of land in what is today part of the park. He gradually purchased more and more of the surrounding land over the next several years in an effort to curb developmentparticularly the construction of a hydroelectric dam over the river. Meanwhile, he oversaw the the construction of his new home, the Glen Iris Estate, on a cliff overlooking Middle Falls, as well as a network of trails and small roads around the canyon. Letchworth then turned over all of his land, totalling about 1,000 acres, to the State of New York, thus protecting it from commercial development. All of this land, and many more surrounding acres, later became what is today Letchworth State Park. Mr. Letchworth's house still stands, and is now open to the public as the Glen Iris Inn. 

As with Buttermilk Falls, Robert Treman, and many other New York state parks, most of the trails, bridges, and cabins at Letchworth were built and maintained by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Great Depression. This included the Gorge Trail and its dozens of overlooksthe most scenic part of the MOTG course. ¹ The trails and their viewpoints make it so easy to get lost in the moment, thinking about the history and the landscape as the river carved the canyon over many thousands of years. 

And just like that, I found myself lost in the woods without a trail marker in sight.

***

It was unclear exactly where I missed a turn on the Gorge Trail, but somewhere deep in the woods I veered left onto an unmarked herd path, away from the MOTG flagging and permanent Gorge Trail blazes. I was surprised to spot Katie up ahead, also looking around for the trail markings. After some discussion, we agreed that we’d definitely taken a wrong turn. I realized where we were, as Hayley and I had gotten lost while hiking in this same area a year ago, and figured out how to get back on course. We wasted 10-15 minutes and added at least half a mile by not paying close enough attention.

PC: Anita Cornell
Katie and I ran together to the Lower Falls Aid Station, which is the halfway point on the course, and reached the pavilion in 3:22 elapsed. No one had passed us during our detour, and I was feeling really good at that point, aside from the frustration with missing that turn. I was still in fourth place in the men's race, but had no idea how far I was behind third place.

Upon leaving the aid station, we descended a series of slippery stone stairs toward Lower Falls. Had we continued straight, we would have run right through a rainbow arcing out of the gorge at the base of the large waterfall. Instead, the the race course crosses the Mighty Genesee on the only bridge within the park boundary, and ascends to the Finger Lakes Trail and into, what was for me, unknown territory.

A few miles later, the singletrack comes to a dirt road and the we turn left to follow the road up a steep hill. I began walking the hill, a few dozen meters behind Katie, until we realized we’d missed let another turn! Jeff Green, who was spectating the race, was walking down the road from his car and confirmed that we’d missed a left turn back onto the FLT. Damn. Another 10 minutes down the drain.

By now the frustration was really getting to my head, and my body was feeling the cumulative effect of all the miles I’d piled up. What’s worse, I still had another 17 miles on the toughest part of the course.

The Letchworth Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail snakes along the river’s southwest side for 25 miles, covering the park from end to end. Although separate from the 560-mile main Finger Lakes Trail that runs east to west across New York State, the Letchworth Branch is still maintained and regulated by the non-profit Finger Lakes Trail Conference. In fact, the conference’s headquarters are located at the end of the branch trail, near the race’s finish line at the Mt Morris Dam. The Letchworth Branch contributes to Upstate New York’s extensive trail network, connecting to the main FLT at the park’s southern end, and to the 60-mile Genesee Valley Greenway rail trail to the north. The Segahunda Marathon follows this trail end-to-end, but in the direction opposite of Many On The Genny.

The FLT at Letchworth is unforgiving when you’ve already run a marathon on the day. The overall elevation change isn’t much, but you’re constantly running up and down little embankments as the trail dips into and out of dozens of small tributaries. It’s extremely hard to get a good rhythm going when every few minutes you descend a muddy, 20-foot slope, cross a stream, and haul your broken body up 20 feet on the other side. The constant change in cadence and pace became maddening. Add to it the distance between aid stationseven miles from AS3 to AS4, and 8.6 miles from AS4 to AS5and you’ve got yourself a very difficult back half of a race. Eric and Sheila explicitly stated that "there is no hand holding" at Many On The Genny and that runners must be, for the most part, self sufficient. We'd been forewarned, but that didn't make things any easier.

At AS4, I learned I’d been passed by four or five guys when I missed the last left turn. I was already hurting, bad, and the volunteers poured salt in the wound by being honest when I asked about my position. In retrospect, ignorance would have been bliss. At least in this case.

The long section to the fifth aid station seemed to drag on way too long. Lots of walking, running out of water, confusion over how many miles to go, an infinite number of stream crossings, getting passed by some more people. Finally, after an eternity and a half, I the sweet dulcet tones of Joey Tempest struck my tympanic membranes like music to my ears.
We're leaving together, but still it's farewell
And maybe we'll come back to earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We're leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same again?
It's the final countdown
The final countdown!
An audible hallucination? Nope, it was the party at AS5, better known as The Final Countdown Aid Station. I grabbed a bunch of food, water, and ice, and confirmed with the volunteers that the song blaring over the speakersEurope’s 1986 hit single The Final Countdownwas indeed playing on repeat the entire day. The crew really knew how to make the aid station live up to its name! Refreshed and invigorated, I took off down the last five miles on the most runnable trail I’d been on in hours. The next stop would be the dam.

The Mt Morris dam sits on the Genesee River Gorge near the northern end of Letchworth. Construction of the dam began in 1948, and four years and $25 million later the Army Corp of Engineers completed the work. It was designed to prevent large scale flooding further downstream, as floods had previously caused severe damage to the area after period of rapid snowmelt and heavy rainfall. The dam holds the distinction of being the largest concrete dam east of the Mississippi River, and houses a popular visitors’ center that is part of Letchworth. ²


The Mt Morris Dam
By time I was just looking forward to being done. I kept peering through the trailside trees towards the canyon in vain, hoping to catch a glimpse of that damn dam marking the finish line. "And maybe we'll come back to earth. Who can tell?" The damn dam Visitor Center was my ultimate destination after 40 miles, three wrong turns, and eight hours running run-to-rim around the canyon. I finished Many On The Genny in 8:03. It was my first 40-mile race, and I was just glad to have gutted it out.

Regarding the missed turns, I only blame myself for wasting 20 to 25 minutes and adding an extra two miles. This was only the second race where I've gone significantly off course, and serves as a reminder to remain more vigilant while following markings.

Many thanks to Eric and Sheila Egan for opting to create this racebasically a full-time job in itself. The race courseparticularly the first halfoffers some of the best views of any ultra in New York. It’s definitely worth checking this one again next year. Congrats to Rich, Scotie, and Ellie for running strong all day and finishing at the top. Results.






¹ http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/history.html

² http://www.lrb.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Mount-Morris-Dam/Project-History/