As I shuffled along about half way through the second loop of the Finger Lakes 50s course, my left groin cramping every few steps, my stomach unwilling to accept food, and my energy sapped by the heat and humidity, I imagined how I would describe my experience to family and friends. One sentence seemed like it would capture it well: "It was so hard."
Waiting at the starting line, I wasn't thinking about how hard the race would be. I was just excited, after many months of training, to start my first ultra. Finally the cowbells rang out and I charged with the rest of the field down Potomac Road and into the woods, happy to be running.
The Finger Lakes 50s course is a 16.5 mi loop in Finger Lakes National Forest on the high ridge separating Cayuga and Seneca Lakes (the 50k, which I was running, consists of two loops). The loop runs through forests and meadows on top of the ridge, occasionally dropping down one of the many gorges created by streams that flow down to the lakes. The most famous and unique features, of course, are the cows that make their home in several of the fields and the gates keeping them in, which runners must open and close along the way.
|Map of Finger Lakes Fifties course (may not be 100% accurate)|
I felt very fresh and ran at a fairly fast pace along the Burnt Hill Trail and through the first field, which was bathed in golden light by the rising sun shining through the morning haze. Next the trail swung onto dirt Mark Smith Road, where I found myself at the front of a handful of runners for the long descent to the first aid station.
Here we took a sharp right and climbed back up the ridge on the Gorge Trail. This was one of my favorite sections of the course- a rocky, rooted singletrack trail through deep shade on the edge of a narrow ravine. I ran the climb except for a couple short, steep sections, exchanging positions with a couple runners along the way.
Back on top of the ridge, we passed by a couple ponds and the second aid station, then began my favorite part of the entire race, dropping down the south end of the ridge on the Interloken and Finger Lakes Trails. This was a long roller coaster descent on singletrack trails with a perfect pitch for fast downhill running, and I bombed down with local runner Scott J. and Colorado law student Zach on my tail, knowing they must be having as much fun as me.
At the bottom of the hill I changed gears and the three of us made the gradual climb on trails and dirt roads back to the second aid station, near the halfway point of the loop. From there, the trail ran north along the ridge on the Interloken Trail to the second open field, which provided vast views to the west across Seneca Lake (though the lake itself, tucked in its steep glacial valley, wasn't visible). At this point, I was alone and tried to settle into a steady pace.
After passing the third aid station, the trail made another detour off the ridge, dropping down and back up the Ravine Trail. This section was very nice, similar to the Gorge Trail, and a welcome change from the flat, ridge-top running. Next came a short segment of paved road and a left turn onto the Backbone Trail- easily my least favorite part of the course.
This horse trail was perfectly straight, mostly flat, exposed to the sun, and frequently interrupted by unavoidable patches of thick, heavy mud. As I hate running with wet feet, I tried overly hard to avoid the mud, and Zach from Colorado caught me again. He decided to run with me for a while, and the opportunity to chat with someone made this long section go by somewhat more quickly. We ran together through the last aid station, through another field, and finally back onto real singletrack on the Interloken Trail.
Excited to be back on a nice trail in the woods and close to the end of the first loop, I maintained a good pace through this section, which included some very large roots, long wooden boardwalks, and several more ponds. I even spotted a turtle sunny itself next to the trail, and I made sure to keep my eye out for more, not wanting to stomp on any wildlife.
We finally cruised into the Potomac Campsite and the end of the first loop in 2:23. My conservative goal was to finish in 5:30, but in the back of my mind I thought I had a slight chance at 5:00. Now, halfway through, I was well under even that more ambitious pace and feeling pretty good. I quickly grabbed some gels and my mp3 player from my drop bag and headed back out, determined to keep a strong pace that would get me a sub 5 hour finish.
This illusion lasted several miles into the second loop. I took it relatively easy on the downhill on Mark Smith Road, not wanting to trash my quads. I managed the climb up the Gorge Trail fairly well, though I did a lot more walking than the first time around. This is also when I started having trouble taking in food- it took me at least 15 minutes to force down a single GU. At the top of the hill, the first hints of cramping started in my left groin, and I was forced to drastically slow my pace. Several runners passed me, and I began reevaluating my goals. Sub 5 hours was out of the question- I now just wanted a respectable finish.
My low point occurred at the bottom of the hill that had been such a blast to run on the first loop. I stopped at a bridge to stretch my right quad, but before I had brought my foot all the way up, bam! - huge cramp. Everything was feeling horrible at this point, the weather was getting really hot, I was low on fluids because I stupidly forgot to refill my bottle at the last aid station, and I started to doubt my ability to make it past the upcoming hill and remaining 10 miles of the course in anything but a pathetic, miserable walk.
This being my first ultra, I had never found myself in this position, but I thought of the story of ultra hero Geoff Roes in last year's Western States 100. He had hit a real low point midway through that race but had the mental strength to slow down, regroup, and recover, and ended up smoking the last portion of the race en route to a course record. Maybe my low point was also temporary, and I would start feeling better. I resolved to keep moving as best I could and keep hoping that I could turn things around.
I plugged away up the hill, through an aid station, and along the ridge on the Interloken Trail, though the cramping continued and I still felt generally lousy. A runner whose name I didn't catch caught me soon after the second field and passed me on the Ravine Trail, but I at least I had found a pace- somewhere between a jog and a slow run- that I could manage. At the beginning of the Backbone Trail, I pulled even with the runner again, and we ran together and chatted for a while.
Suddenly, at the top of a little rise, I found that I could pick up my pace considerably, and I burst ahead. Maybe now things were turning around! I kept this up for several minutes, but the cramping started to come back, and I slowed down again on the long, hot slog the rest of the way up the Backbone Trail. I was caught coming into the last aid station, but the knowledge that I was almost through the exposed sections and near the finish lifted my spirits a bit. I downed some soda and started power hiking up the last field, telling myself that I would run strong once back in the woods.
This final section went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. My pace was jointly limited by general fatigue and pain and my ability to move my legs without my left groin cramping, but it was at least a steady run. I passed many 25k runners as I chugged through the woods, past the ponds, and into the campground, reaching the finish in 5:23:17, utterly worn out and mentally dazed.
I had wondered how I would feel upon finishing my first ultra, but there was no rush of euphoria or even relief. I was in pretty bad shape- not running felt only slightly better than running, and neither food nor drink held any appeal for me. Feelings of satisfaction and pride eventually came but had to wait for my body to start feeling okay (this required taking a nap).
It is rewarding to be able to say to myself "I ran an ultra," but as a reason for running, this sense of accomplishment takes a back seat to the pure enjoyment of actually being out on the trails. Though what I felt during the last couple hours of this race couldn't be described as "enjoyment" in the typical sense, running 50 km gave me a chance to challenge myself in a way I've never experienced, and I'm proud of the way I handled it.