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One of the time-honored spring fixtures of the trail running scene here in the Great Lakes / Finger Lakes region of upstate, NY is the annual running of the infamous Muddy Sneaker 20k Trail Race down at Hi-Tor Wildlife Management Area in Naples, NY. Beautiful views, LOTS of climbing (over 4300′ elevation change in less than a half-marathon), mud, snow, roots, rocks, and sightings of a 400 pound black bear… safe to say you’re not going to leave disappointed.

This is the 14th year that Goose Adventure Racing / and the folks at MedVed Run/Walk have put on the Muddy Sneaker event, and the race is still a bit of a mystery. It’s on trail that’s out-of-the way. Unless you’ve made a point to drive out to Hi-Tor – a huge, hilly swath of State land at the South end of Canandaigua Lake – than you wouldn’t be familiar with these trails even if you’re from the area; heck, a lot of well-seasoned trail runners in this region haven’t even heard of Hi-Tor. The race website is fairly bare-bones for today’s highly wired world, and there’s no published map for the race. The only way to pre-run the course is to go with someone who knows it and/or snag someone’s GPS data. And the climbing/descents of the course are fairly infamous (especially the last few miles of the course) – even to seasoned ultra runners. The race is also capped at 200 runners… which all sold out in under 24 hours this year. The race definitely makes you work for all 12.4 miles. Especially since the longest, steepest, hardest, most unforgiving climbs are in the last 2 miles of the course. A hallmark, of course, of any top-notch trail race.

And then there’s the weather. It’s Upstate NY in April. At just under 2000′ elevation. So, basically, anything can and will happen. Saturday’s race dawned bright and sunny w/ temps in the mid-30’s. The highs were only projected to hit 40, and the 20-30mph sustained winds added a nice touch as did the bouts of horizontal snow interspersed with stretches of sun. In other words, shorts and long-sleeve-T weather around here.

(Image: One of the many fast, fun, steep descents at Hi-Tor…)
While I’ve heard plenty of good things about Muddy Sneaker, and am familiar with many of the Hi-Tor trails, this is the first time I’ve actually raced it. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been before, and 12 miles is a fairly short distance at this point, so I was looking forward to kicking off the race season on terrain I knew I could push (for me anyway). I’m a fan of cold-weather too, so the race-day conditions were right up my alley.

I had tried to pre-run the actual course, and ended up getting thoroughly lost, but I’ve been on most of the Hi-Tor trails by now both trail running and mountain biking, so I figured I’d be pretty comfortable winging it. That, and having had access to GPS data from last year’s race, I had a comfortable game plan in place for pacing according to the terrain. In any race – but especially in trail races – it’s important to use the terrain to your advantage. And in this race, since the long uphill slogs can kill your overall pace, I wanted to be sure to keep things fairly brisk and steady as well as take advantage of the downhill sections in order to hit my goal pace of sub-12:15/mile. That’s the cut-off qualifying pace for some upcoming trail races and ultras I have on my radar (Escarpment Trail Run for one), so I wanted to see how I’d feel holding that pace comfortably on fairly challenging terrain. It’s not like that’s a blistering pace – I’m under no illusions, I know I’m not that fast yet – but I’m just trying to be the fastest racer that I can be personally this year.

I started the race in the front half of the pack, wanting to push my pace, but not go out too hard. Unfortunately for me I got bottlenecked heading into the singletrack after the hilly dirt road start. I’d wanted to use the first 2 downhillish miles to my advantage before heading into miles 2-7 of mostly uphill climbing. I probably should’ve started out faster, because I spent the first few miles trying to pass folks and pick my pace back up – which wasn’t easy on the fairly muddy, narrow, technical trail. But no biggie, lesson learned.

After the first 3 or 4 miles and a stream crossing (pic at the top, one of several on the course), the singletrack opened up onto fire road and lots of long, uphill climbs. Nothing that hard, just long climbs where you kind of fall into a comfortable rhythm and just keep it going. The next few miles were a mix of this – a half mile or mile up… a half mile or mile down… Personally, not enough singletrack for my taste, but the fact that there was no spring foliage on the trees yet meant that we were treated to wonderful views up the valley to Canandaigua Lake. And it was great chatting with various members of the local trail community as well.

The one wild-card for me this race was the fact that I’d just been in bed sick and vomiting only a few days before that. Some sort of stomach virus (thanks kids!). So, I took it easy last week, scaled backĀ  the running, and was hoping that my body wouldn’t revolt on me during the race. It didn’t. Mile 8 of the race came and went without my body freaking out, so I figured things would end up being ok. Miles 7-10 were a mix of fire road and singletrack, lots of downhills to take advantage of, with the muddy, rocky, dead-leaves-and-running-water-covered trails definitely keeping us on our toes! If there’s one thing that’s telling about Muddy Sneaker, it’s the pace-per-mile data. Any trail that will have you flying downhill at under a 6 minute/mile pace and than struggling to hike uphill at a 40 minute/mile pace is a good trail in my book.

(Image: View of Conklin’s Gully. Don’t fall…)

And that “struggling to hike uphill” thing? That’s the last 2 miles of the race. Muddy Sneaker is notorious for its finish. You hammer through 10 miles of beautiful trails, great views, stream crossings, climbs and descents… and than at the last aid station they say, “you’re almost there! Just go around the corner and catch the trail up…” Up – especially when your legs are shot and your brain is tired – looks practically vertical. To put the last 2 miles of the race into perspective, my pace up through mile 10.5 of this race was 10:15/mile. I finished at a 11:37 pace (still well-under my goal!), so there’s definitely some steeps in the last few miles of the race! The trail climbs quite a ways up the edge of the bluff overlooking Conklin’s Gully (don’t fall… No, really, don’t fall – it’s at least 200′ down to the bottom) before joining up with a mix of fire roads up to the finish line. The race starts uphill and ends uphill as any proper trail race should.

I came in at 2:24 and change for a mid-11:30’s pace which I was very happy with considering it was comfortable and that I’d been pretty sick only a few days before that. It was great, hilly training headed into my next races / adventures, and I had a blast! The organizers are awesome, lots of great swag (never hurts), and amazing volunteers, food, good vibe, and location. Muddy Sneaker has definitely made my list as a “must-do” event for my trail racing calendar!

BTW, the 2013 Muddy Sneaker 20k Race Results can be found here. Course record paces were held again this year despite the muddy conditions, proving once again that we have world-class athletes here in our region.

Image – Creek Crossing – by Ben Murphy, Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved.

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