Ah, sweet revenge. Last year (2012) was my first crack at the infamous Sehgahunda Trail Marathon and it didn’t end well, DNF’ing at mile 20, seriously dehydrated and flirting with heat stroke. So, this year’s plan? Nothing short of revenge.
But first, a bit about Sehgahunda. This is only the 4th year that Yellow Jacket Racing & Fleet Feet Sports Rochester have put on this trail marathon (technically an ultra at 26.34 miles), but it’s already gaining cult status as a beast of a race with folks traveling from other parts of the US and the world (Japan) to run it. And deservedly so. After all, want to make a marathon harder than it already is? Hold it on technical singletetrack trails buried deep in the woods, scrambling down-and-up 100 (yes, literally 100) gullies running along the “grand canyon of the east” gorge at Letchworth State Park and you’ve got a good marathon. Throw in somewhere near 4,000′ of elevation gain, plus the fact that the course gets increasingly technical and steeper the closer you get to the finish line and you’ve got yourself one helluva race!
Now, back to the topic of revenge. My training has been stronger than ever this year, regularly pounding out 40 mile running weeks (and the majority of that on technical trail), so I came into this race game on, realistically hoping to bang it out in sub-5 hours…
And then I sprained my ankle a week before the race while out trail running. Didn’t tear anything (thankfully), but it made that dreaded popping sound, I limp/ran that 2.5 miles back to the car and headed home knowing that I’d have to stay off my ankle and ice it like mad if I had any hope of racing Sehgahunda.
So, headed into this weekend’s race, I wasn’t sure what would happen. My body felt great with all the rest, and I was bouncing off the walls with unspent energy (from not running for a week) that I knew I could channel into the race, but… even so, I figured that my sub-5 hour finish goal wasn’t in the cards. My new goal was simply to finish without doing any permanent damage – ideally in under 6 hours. I had my ankle up and on ice every chance I could get throughout the week leading up to the race, and figured I’d just roll the dice Saturday and see what would happened. After all, what’s the worst case scenario? Ok, don’t answer that. I knew I was gambling Saturday, with the real possibility of ending my season if things went badly.
So, I showed up Saturday, taped up the ankle, popped some ibuprofen, and went for it. The weather on Saturday was perfect. In the 40’s at the start, with the highs for the day barely touching 60 degrees. A little chilly for most people, but absolutely perfect weather in my book. The first half of the race went really well all things considered. Sure, I was running with a hitch in my step, and was on high-alert reading the trail ahead of me so that I wouldn’t trip up my ankle on a root or rock, but I took it easy and sailed through the first few check points right on target and hit the half-way point on pace at 2:27 for the first 13.2 miles.
(Image: Barb B, Fleet Feet Sports)
I stopped and retaped my ankle at the 15.5 mile checkpoint and from there on things felt tolerable until around mile 18, and that’s when my body got mad at me. Not being able to run with my normal “fore-foot” stride, I’d been winging-it with a modified stride/limp/gait/thing that seemed to work, but really took it’s toll on my joints. My right knee was feeling it by the 30k mark and the blisters starting to form under my ankle wrap were screaming by that point, to the extent that my achilles was really in a lot of pain.
What really sucked most is that – other than the injury – I felt awesome. It killed me to be running at maybe 70% capacity when my body felt so good, but I had to hold back so I wouldn’t do any permanent damage. I couldn’t bomb the downhills like I like to (and Sehg has some fun, technical downhills!). I had to shorten my stride the whole race to take some of the impact off my ankle. And I couldn’t be as aggressive on the trail as I would’ve liked because there was no room for error with my ankle. Towards the end my achilles was screaming on the uphills (which get longer, steeper, and more technical – lots and lots of roots and rocks – as Sehg progresses) which eventually had me doing some sort of quasimodo-esque speedhike thing on the uphills. Side-step the left foot uphill, plant it, drag the right up to meet it, shift body weight, repeat. I felt like an idiot and I’m sure the runners behind me got a kick out of it.
But, what could I do? I had to keep reminding myself that compared to last year’s race I was light years ahead on time and pace, and felt night-and-day stronger even with the injury. So, I just made the most of it and sucked it up. It hurt, but I toughed it out. Knowing that the last couple of miles would be on dirt access road helped quite a bit, but I still shed a few tears during the last mile because it hurt that bad. But then coming out of the woods up onto the final hill, through the parade grounds, to the finish line? In under 6 hours (5:58 finish)? Golden. Knowing I’d done that on a sprained ankle? Not gonna lie; felt amazing.
Take-aways? The Finger Lakes Trail (Letchworth extension) = drop dead gorgeous. That trail just doesn’t get old. So incredibly beautiful out there! Kept passing / being passed by Bob Lonsberry out on the trail, but had no idea it was him until after the race. Polite, friendly, always encouraging; awesome guy. The trail running community? Seriously the best. It’s a family of sorts, everyone’s out to have fun, enjoy the trail, and have a good time. Sure, we’re racing, and we take it seriously, but there’s such a healthy vibe to the trail community that I find in very few other places. Can’t ever get enough of it. Me? I shouldn’t toot my own horn, but I’m proud of what I accomplished on Saturday. Knocked it out; there was a 5 at the front of my finishing time; and I’m not permanently injured. That feels tremendous! The winning time? 3:17. Someone knocked a whole 30 minutes off the course record! I have trouble wrapping my brain around that sort of time for a road marathon… for a trail race on that course? Simply unbelievable. My friends? Seeing the finishing times of the folks I train with? Holy smokes, I run with some fast peeps. Congrats to each of you – you killed it out there! And, lastly, but certainly not least – The Volunteers. Y’all are amazing! The volunteers truly play a huge role in making Sehg the race that it is. The encouraging words, the cowbells, the cheers, and being waited on hand-and-foot at every check point? So awesome.
So, what’s next? Well, first I’ve gotta heal up this ankle as well as my knee joint, post-race. They’re not feeling so hot. Lots of ice, yoga, and swimming on tap. Hoping to be up and running for our sub-12 hour bid at The Devil’s Path down in the Catskills at the end of June. And, um… I’d really like there to be a ‘4’ at the beginning of my Sehgahunda PR. So, ya know, I already plan to be back in 2014. Hope to see you there.
Ben, great recap. After dealing with the ankle injury last year while chasing a sub 5, I can empathize. It sucks. That said you did an amazing job pulling it off and finishing the race in one piece. I’m honored to call you among my friends, you have the heart of a lion and the will of a donkey. Rest up, take care of yourself so you be strong end of June!
Thanks for the kind words, Ron… Lion/Donkey, eh? Love it. Joints feeling good – as soon as these blisters heal up I’ll be good to go. Might venture out on the trails for some shorter barefoot miles here and there. We’ll see…