Date: 20 August, C.E. 2018
Topic: The time I ran 40 miles for a garbage plate
File under: Race reports
I've resided in Upstate New York my entire life — 35 years, 7 months and 28 days, to be exact — before finally experiencing Rochester's signature dish affectionately known as a garbage plate. I like to run a lot and I like to eat a lot. This is my story.
I ran along the top of the canyon, taking in the view of the Gennessee River several hundred feet below and winding through the damp singletrack. I let the lead pack of four go on ahead and settled into my own rhythm, alone. I briefly considered trying to hang with the leaders' easy pace, but it felt just a little too fast for the opening miles. That pack included women's defending champion Ellie Pell, eventual men's winner Phil Nesbitt, and two guys I didn't recognize. Only 38 miles to the garbage plate remained.
Many on the Genny runs point-to-point around Letchworth State Park, starting at the Mount Morris Dam's north side and finishing directly across the canyon on the dam's south side. This was Eric and Sheila Eagan's second year putting on the event, and once again it was held the same day as a little jaunt in California called Western something. MOTG now carries the official social media hashtag #SeeYaAtTheDam. I had a miserable day at this race in 2017 after getting lost, bonking, and running out of water, and this year I was looking for a little redemption.
The front half of the course is pretty easy going and relatively flat. Some overnight rain left the ground and vegetation damp, but not soaked. There's something profoundly mystical about running through a damp, pristine forest while the sun is still sitting low in the east. A strange sense of calm came over my being, as it usually does in such an environment, and it remained even as a pack of three guys caught up from behind and the small talk began.
One of the best parts of the course is around mile 5.5, where you bomb down a steep slope, cross through the Silver Lake Outlet, and ascend right along side a 30-foot waterfall. Another unique section is just after the High Banks Aid Station at mile 7. Trail 17 — the trails in this park are mostly just numbers — drops down a steep embankment toward the river and into something resembling a rain forest. It's like you're in a whole different world, unlike anyplace else in New York State. You run along the bottom of the canyon, through glistening, bright green foliage and bamboo. To the left is a vast marshland in the base of the river gorge. The marshland sits where the river once did; the river has since receded several hundred yards, leaving its former west bank overgrown with reeds and other plant life. Trail 17 merges onto Trail 15 for a monstrous climb back up to Park Road. Normally these trails are so overgrown they're nearly impassible — I've heard that the park does little to no maintenance because this section isn't too popular among sightseers. Two weeks before the race, Eric, Sheila, and their volunteer crew spent two full days clearing these trails to make them usable for the race.
I ran this stretch with a guy named Mike, who was an ultramarathon debutante. He's a veteran of some of the toughest Spartan OCR races, but had yet to run an ultra and wanted to break 9:00. We ran together at "forever pace" right up to the Tea Tables AS at mile 15.8.
The final 4.5 miles of the first half are my favorite of this race. Soon after you leave Tea Tables, the Gorge Trail winds through the Wolf Creek Picnic Area, where you run alongside a series of cascading falls from the namesake tributary creek. You then follow the Gorge Trail along the rim of the canyon, with tons of overlooks and viewpoints immediately to the left. The Gennessee runs through the canyon 500 feet below, twisting this way and that as it snakes across the park land. The water level was low but the views were nonetheless spectacular. The trail itself is pretty runnable, with a few staircases and rooty spots, but otherwise smooth, hard-packed dirt. There was even a "wrong way" sign at a spot where I went off course last year and added a mile.
I started to slow down a mile and a half from the midway point at the Lower Falls. I'd been trying to remain conscious about keeping the early pace easy, but it might have still been too fast. I was hoping I'd not regret it on the back half. I reached the aid station in 3:08 elapsed — about 14 minutes faster than last year when I went off course. Fortunately the brief stop got me going again and I cruised into the forested east side, full of confidence and visions of garbage plates dancing in my head.
The start of the second half is another fun section to run. You descend a bunch of stone steps and cross the river over a stone footbridge, then make the short and steep climb up the other side. The bridge sits just over the water, surrounded by huge walls of siltstone and sandstone on both sides, and offers a view of a roaring Lower Falls in the distance.
The next stretch is on some relatively easy singletrack and two to three miles of service roads. It can be deceptive, making you think the course's second half will be as easy as the first. Around mile 23 you'll get smacked across the face by reality as the course turns left off a dirt road onto the Finger Lakes Trail's Letchworth Branch. From here you follow the same yellow-blazed trail north, all the way to the dam finish. This trail plows through dozens of streams and tributaries as it turns, twists, and leaves you shouting obscenities in the general direction of whoever built the footpath. You're constantly running up and down these little 30-foot gullies, making it near impossible to get into a good pacing rhythm. The trail is moderately technical but not overly insane. It simply wears you down, mile after mile.
Now that my paced had slowed immensely, the first five miles on the FLT felt like five years. I finally reached Lean-To Some Aid around mile 28 and tried to amp myself up for the penultimate nine-mile section to follow. If the last stretch was five years, this segment was five lifetimes. I slogged along through the forest, up and down, in and out of gullies, like that protagonist in CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." I few guys, whose legs were a little less trashed than my own, passed me here. I leapfrogged with Scott Parr for a few miles and learned he'd gone off course and was running the 42-mile option, just like I did last year. I think he even missed the same turn onto the FLT that cost me some time in 2017, and that I was extra vigilant about this time around.
The predicted thunderstorms held out all day, but the late morning heat continued to wear me down. I began crossing paths with small groups of hikers and none could give me any reliable estimate on the distance to The Final Countdown Aid Station. First it was "only one more mile," then "not too far," then "just over two miles," etc, etc. So when I spotted a sign that read "You are 0.25 miles from Rochester Running Company," I had no faith in the sign maker's audacious claim. It turns out RRC isn't the type to make up little white lies, and a minute later my cochleae were treated to the final aid station's titular 80s rock classic. I fist pumped my way into the tent as John Norum's guitar solo screamed through the boombox speakers. Keeping with the theme, The Final Countdown's volunteers did in fact play the song on repeat for the entire duration of the race. (It could be the fog of war clouding my memory, but I do remember the audio source being an actual boombox. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.) I felt reborn after leaving.
Less that five clicks to the dam and the terrain is flat and forgiving. The FLT runs right along the top of canyon's southeast rim, with a few nice viewpoints if you feel like stopping to look.
With a mile and a half to go I'm sort of savoring the last little bit. I hadn't seen another runner in an hour or two, and then Scott comes flying past yelling that there's another guy right behind him. Bummed at the notion of dropping two positions this close to the dam, I make every effort to hang with Scott but on the smallest of hills he drops me like a cinder block. Now I'm racing to the dam to keep out of sight from the next guy and hating myself for this totally irrational competitive drive.
I make my way through the trees and around the parking lot at a blistering 9:45-ish pace, round the final left turn, and give Eric a requisite high five. The 7:35 finish was nearly 30 minutes faster than my 2017 run. As it turned out, I finished three minutes behind Scott and only a minute and a half ahead of Nate Walker. I enjoyed talking to these guys and many other runners and crew as we sat around stuffing our faces and cheering for the incoming finishers. (Results.)
This at last brings me to the garbage plate.
The deceptively named delicacy is basically some greasy protein source with a potato dish and macaroni dish on the side, topped with onions and near lethal amounts of condiments such as ketchup, mustard, and/or hot sauce. The savory slop is best consumed off a single plate without those little divider sections that prevent everything from running together. Supposedly it originated decades ago at a place called Nick Tahou Hots. In my case, the post-race plate was a couple of veggie burgers without buns and some kind of rice thing, topped with onions, ketchup, and vegan chili, all prepared by Lisa and Michael Valone. I enjoyed every bite wondering how I'd never experienced such garbagy bliss until I'd run 40 miles dam-to-dam.
Eric and Sheila know how to put on a race with an old school vibe, and for that I am grateful. The level of on-course support was ample, but without the overkill of too many aid stations, volunteers, and course markings. Sometimes an overabundance of support kills the vibe, but not here. Registration was caped at (I think) 125, limiting the impact to the trails. The entry fee is very reasonable for what you get in return, and I like that additional swag was available for purchase rather than included with a higher entry fee.
Handshakes and high fives all around to Eric and Sheila and their volunteer crews, including those who gave up a weekend or two to clear some of the heavily overgrown trails on the course's front half. And thank you to the Valones for introducing me to the garbage plate.
|RD Eric and me at the finish.|
Next on the racing agenda is the Cayuga Trails 50, held July 21 on my home turf. Cayuga is the second race in the inaugural Empire State Triad, followed by the Twisted Branch 100k on August 20. My summer plans involve running all three.
|The falls at Wolf Creek. I took these scenery |
shots on a hike the night before the race.
|An overlook midway through the first half.|
|Lower Falls, as seen from the foot bridge.|
|A rock formation just across the bridge.|