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Last Saturday, November 3rd, I joined 72 other brave souls in cold, wet, snowy, windy weather (yeah, that photo above is very misleading) for the Rochester Orienteering Club’s annual Mendon Trails Race at beautiful Mendon Ponds Park just south of Rochester, NY. Over 25% of those folks would drop out over the next few hours of trail running. Cold weather (didn’t get out of the 30’s all day + wind and regular intervals of snow) and challenging terrain seemed to be the rule of the day.

…but, then again, this is Upstate NY trail running in November. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The Rochester Orienteering Club’s annual trail race offers participants a 5k, 10k, 20k, or 50k option on a challenging (and hilly with 1,100 feet of climbing per lap) 10k loop of trail down at beautiful Mendon Ponds Park in Upstate, NY. And, at around $20 (depending on your distance), you can’t possibly beat the entry fee!

Those of us who opted for the 50k version gunned off at 8am, :90 ahead of the others. That meant we’d all be into our second loop before the more sane runners gunned off. This was my second ultra (my first being almost exactly one year ago) and – surprisingly to most people – only my fifth trail run up over the 30k mark. I continue to be amazed by ultra and by what the human body is capable of if only the mind will let it.

I am not a hot-weather, road runner type of guy. I’m not fast, but I can go long, and love inclement conditions, so Saturday’s weather on challenging trails was definitely my cup of tea! And, although not speedy, I hit [just barely] my goal of a sub-15 minute mile pace with a finish of 32.07 miles and 5,500’ of climbing (11,000’ elevation change) in 7:57. Which placed me dead last. Yup. A testament to the pace being pushed on Saturday (actually, a course record of 3:52 was set!). And a testament to the course and conditions – there were 20 DNF’s on Saturday.

I loved the solitude of this race. It was a race, but… there weren’t very many people around. I was alone the vast majority of the time – which I absolutely thrive on. I love solitude out in woods, it’s very peaceful and spiritual for me… got plenty of that on Saturday!

My strategy – as I’ve learned through painful trial and error – was to take it easy and begin the race with the end pace in mind. I was looking to finish the day at under a 15 min/mile pace, which may seem slow, but for trail ultras that’s a respectable benchmark as far as I’m concerned. And… over 2:30/mile faster than my ultra pace a year ago, so I’m cool with that sort of improvement.

Laps 1 and 2 flew by. I really can’t differentiate the two in my head. I completed lap one in 1:08 and lap two in 1:24, so kept the pace fairly brisk for the course and conditions.

Before lap 3 I switched out of my Columbia OmniHeat longsleeve tech top for a simple micro-fleece-lined shell (Champion C9 – cheap as dirt ($30 at Target), tough as nails). I love my OmniHeat, but with the temperature dropping and the wind/snow/rain picking up, it wasn’t quite cutting it.

The first few miles of Lap 3 sucked. I was hurting – more mentally than physically. My brain was really at a low point by then. There was never a place on Saturday that I wanted to throw in the towel, but round about mile 15 was a low place mentally… which I expected it to be because that’s usually a low mental point for me in long trail runs. And than, again – just like I expected – I got a second wind round about mile 20 and… just kept cranking through the loops from there. My last three laps settled into a (literally, give or take less than a minute difference) 1:48 / lap pace and the rest of the race pretty much flew by from there. (You can view the Race Results / Splits by clicking here…)

As the day wore on there was more and more solitude out there. It got cloudier. Colder. Snowier. But I loved the peacefulness of it all. I also experienced “some new ultra things” that made me realize that I’m steadily getting better at this and understanding my body more and more each time I head out. The first thing was being able to recognize the difference between physical energy drain and mental energy drain – and being able to successfully refuel each of those things separately and effectively. The second thing was the experience of my body core trying to pull blood circulation out of my hands as it got colder out and my body tried to stay warm. I’d literally be running along and my fingertips and hands would start feeling numb – not from the cold, but from the blood circulation in my extremities slowing as my body tried to triage blood to its core for warmth. A strange sensation to be sure, but certainly one that’s important to be familiar with in cold-weather ultra pursuits (which I have  A LOT more of coming up), given that there’s a very fine line between that sensation and the early onset of hypothermia.

My favorite parts of the race were the inclement conditions, interacting with the other members of our amazing trail running community, the beautiful scenery, the wildlife (saw several good-sized buck running through the woods), giving high-fives to the cheering boy scout troops out for hikes on the trail that day, and the awesome volunteers. And the warm soup, beer, and hot fire in the lodge afterwards certainly didn’t hurt either!

Lastly, a very special thank you to the TrailsROC crew + friends who all came out during various parts of the day to wish all the racers well and to be there to cheer on and support at the loop each time! I never cease to be amazed by this crazy group of people who… well, we all met less than a year ago… and there aren’t many people who’d come out to cheer runners on for 8 hours in the freezing cold on a Saturday. My ultra-brain seriously can’t recall everyone who was at the pit stop throughout the day, but you know who you were, and I do know that I can never thank y’all enough for the “how’s it going?”, “awesome job!”, “what do you need and what can I get you?” at every single loop! The Rochester/Finger Lakes region seriously has one of the best running communities anywhere. THANK YOU!

So… what’s next? That’s another post… coming soon!

Featured Image by: Viktor Nagornyy, Flickr, Used Under Creative Commons License

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