Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Palmers Pond FatAss 50k

As part of my buildup toward the Massanutten 100, I signed up for the Palmers Pond FatAss 50k out in Almond, New York. Colin Bailey and Michael Valone decided to resurrect this gem, continuing with the no-fee, no-frills, no whining mentality of a true fatass trail run. (Just google "fat ass" if you don't know the term.) In fact, 2019 was only the second year of the event, following the inaugural 2016 run and a two-year hiatus. Registration was free on UltraSignup, but due to permitting, there were a limited number of spots and it "sold out" quickly back in January. The only fee of any sort was to bring something to share at the course's sole aid station.

The course comprises two different loops that are each run three times. The West Loop measured about 5.1 miles on my watch and was somewhat more forgiving terrain, while the East Loop measured 5.4 miles and had more mud, more hills, and a half-mile bushwhack section. The race HQ slash aid station sat roadside in the middle of the forest, where we'd pass through following each loop and have access to our gear in our cars, if needed.

The DEC trails around Palmer's Pond State Forest are all ATV- and snowmobile- friendly—in other words, wide, smooth, and not all that steep. This is a stark contrast to all the singletrack DEC trails I'm used to running around the Ithaca area.

The real challenge here was the mud. The trails would make for some fast 50k times when dry, but early April's heavy rains turned the race into a 32-mile mud run. What I thought was a likely PR was instead one of the toughest and slowest 50k races
I've ever done. There were sections so wet and slick that it was difficult to walk and remain upright—nevermind trying to run at any reasonable pace. Anytime I reached a dry section I'd switch gears and up the pace before having to downshift back to a low gear to maintain traction. The early morning frost left some of the mud crunchy with moderately stable footing, but even these areas became mushy after repeated tramplings and a rise in the air temperature.

This race format is a bit different in that there is a "choose your own adventure" aspect for the later miles. The route is set up so that you run the six loops on the following order: 1) East-counter-clockwise, 2) West-clockwise, 3) East-CW, 4) West-CCW. For loops 5 and 6, you can choose which one to run first and do them each in whichever direction you want.

Colin and Michael set us off on Loop 1 and we began by careening downhill trough in a squishy mudslide right out of a Crocodile Mile™ TV commercial. I ran this loop with Scott Parr, Mike Welden, and Mike's friend Charlie. We cruised along as the lead pack and mostly BS'ed around while trying not to permanently lose a shoe or two in the ├╝ber mucky sections. We finished the loop together, then the other three took off while I took a bathroom break and tossed my Red Newt baselayer in the car. At 8 a.m. I was already overheating; it would be short sleeves and arm warmers from here on out.
Cruising through Loop 1. PC: ?

I thought I heard a few more runners pass me during the three-minute break, but I wasn't really sure. I set off on Loop 2 alone and soon reached the "off-trail trail" Colin had warned us about at the pre-race briefing. The actual trail was closed by forest management, but an off-trail reroute was marked by yellow DEC disks and that was the path we were instructed to take. The bushwhack was more or less an OCR hike, but you had to be vigilant about spotting each proceeding yellow disk or you'd end up lost. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that every three to four steps you'd have to hop a two-foot diameter log, dance around or through thorns and briars, or shove waist-high branches aside just to inch forward. Looking for the course markers while also watching your step was slow and time consuming, to say the least. The forest flora did its best to rob my tibiae of their precious epidermis one square millimeter at a time. After running the East Loop for the third time my lower extremities looked as if I'd just completed a loop at Barkley.

Upon finishing Loop 2 and popping out of the woods near the aid station, I was greeted with shouts of "Hey, here comes the leader!" Huh? Mike, Scott, Charlie, and maybe a few others, were all in front of me. I never saw or passed any of them during Loop 2. Michael informed me that the lead pack went off course, got lost somewhere near the bushwhack, and added an extra mile or more. "Okay, then it's only a matter of time until they catch me—probably by the end of Loop 4." Mike and Scott are strong runners, and I wasn't moving particularly fast in the mud or trying to kill myself to win. If not for my break at the end of Loop 1, I maybe would have gotten lost with them.

Loops 3 and 4 proceeded with little fanfare. They weren't all that different running the opposite direction as Loops 1 and 2, except that the soft mud was more churned up and the hard-packed, frozen mud was mostly melted. As expected, Scott caught me at the end of Loop 4. I refueled, and then announced my intention to get the hardest part of the course out of the way by running the East Loop clockwise for Loop 5 and save the relatively easy counter-clockwise West for last. I think Scott misheard me; instead of us running together he took off counter-clockwise on the East Loop.

The first few miles of Loop 5 were spent stumbling through the bushwhack and paying close attention to those bright yellow disks pinned to the tree trunks. Needless to say, it was a relief to get the bushwhack over with for good. Mid-loop, I passed Scott going the opposite direction and gauged that he was at least a half-mile ahead of me distance-wise, but still had the bushwhack in front of him. I slogged through the remainder of the loop to find out I was now in second place. I was told Heather Horth had started Loop 6 five minutes before me, but she had saved the longer, shiggier East Loop for last. My immediate reaction: "Expletive. I've been running alone for so long, now I have to race."

I decided to run the remaining West Loop counter-clockwise, which made my Loop 6 identical to Loop 1. I had thought all this out in advance and figured I'd get the hillier part over with sooner. Slogging through the final five miles of muddy misery, I tried my hardest to focus and avoid giving into temptation when I really wanted to just walk it in. It was only after I sprinted through the parking lot and rang the finishers' bell that I learned I was the first one to finish, in 6:34. A mere two to three minutes later, Kim Wrate came in for second place, followed in another two minutes by Heather. (Results.)

Ringing the finish line bell (with my face censored out?)... 

...and a reinactment for posterity. PC: Michael Valone.
Palmer's Pond was a lot more difficult than I (and most of the other runners) was expecting, given the mud-infested and severely soggified terrain. But hey, that just extended the length of some quality trail time and gave me more race minutes for each dime I shelled out for registration ($0.00 USD). Despite some modest finisher awards, Colin and Michael maintained the spirit of the fatass with a free, no-frills race, including homemade cloth race bibs and a pot luck aid station.

My Saucony Peregrine 7s, post-Palmer's

Swag—a magical unicorn bag with beer flight glasses, a homemade medal
for 1st place, and a cloth and marker race bib. 

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