On Saint Patrick’s Day, I established the very first Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the combined Crescent Trail + Seneca Trail systems. A 100k+ trail run. The concept of running these two connected trail systems as a 100k has been floating around between a few of us for a couple years now, Ron being the first I can remember to conjur the idea. Lucky for me, no one has been stupid enough to try it yet. So, it seemed like a good way to start my 2016 racing season. The 66.1 mile double traverse (roughly 5,600′ of climb and 5600′ of descent) of both trail systems took me 20:38:23 of elapsed time (19:02:07 moving time) to complete. Solo and self-supported.
When I hit the trail early on Thursday, I had no clue I was in for such a long day. I’d banked on 16 hours, tops. I now have a much deeper respect for how badly (and how quickly) mud can destroy the human body. It’s been said that mud can be as tough as vertical climb, but without any of the glory. I’m apt to agree.
Going into 2016, I’d been looking for a March barometer for where I stood in preparation for my major races this year. Both from a physical standpoint and from a psychological one. I have an intimidating race schedule in front of me with Manitou’s Revenge Mountain Ultra in June (54 miles, Catskill Mountains, NY), Twisted Branch 100k in August (Finger Lakes Region, NY), and all of it culminating in my first hundo at Cloudsplitter 100 in October (Appalachian Mountains, KY). All three are tough events and in order to successfully see them through, I knew I had to start the year off strong. Seeing if I could comfortably run a 100k all alone in less than ideal conditions seemed like a good test of where I was at both physically and, more importantly, mentally. In fact, I didn’t spread the word about this one ahead of time, because I wanted it to be truly done all alone.
Why all alone? I am growing increasingly cognizant that the toughest part of the hardest ultras is the mental aspect and not the physical. Self-supported solos simply force you to learn about your own psychology in ways that nothing else can. The physical can be trained for relatively easily. Just show up and do the hard preparatory work ahead of time. Come race day, you either put in the proper work or you didn’t. But becoming comfortable in your own head, in the dark, in bad weather, when you’re in the middle of nowhere all alone and totally exhausted, is a level of competency that many endurance athletes are scared to face. And yet, to be truly prepared for the hardest ultras (a number of which I hope to tackle in the next 5-10 years of my life)? One simply has to be comfortable in that head space. Hence, last week’s run.
I hit the trail (parking in the plaza where the Seneca crosses Turk Hill Rd.) by headlamp at 4:20am on Thursday morning, alone and in the dark heading South on the Seneca Trail. Temps were in the low 40’s with clear skies. Being that it was late winter in Upstate NY, I knew that it would be muddy, but wasn’t sure how bad it would be. It was pretty bad. With the rain we’ve been getting, plus recent snow melt, it ended up being super mucky for well over half the day. The 13ish miles out to Boughton Park at the South end of the Seneca were fairly uneventful. Just dark and muddy as I made my way by headlamp through the trail system. Plus, the 2 liter water bladder in my running vest had a slow, but steady leak. I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t quite figure it out in the dark despite stopping (while lost in Ganondagan, having taken a wrong turn) to dismantle my pack by headlamp. So, by the time I hit the turn I was in a real mental funk, tired of the mud, tired of the dark, soaked from the shoulders down, running low on water, cold, and pissed off.
I’ve learned by now that the dark places are going to come no matter what. Somewhere between hours 3-5 of any ultra I’m going to be in a bad place. Almost without fail. And now I know to just ignore it. Tell my body and brain to shut up and push on through. The funk always goes away. And it did. Sunrise came. I warmed up. My hydration pack stopped leaking around the 30 ounce mark (so, at least it could hold that much). And after hour 5, I didn’t hit another emotional low that was that low for the remainder of the run.
From the turn at Boughton Park, I made my way back North on the Seneca Trail, hoping to make it back to the car by mid-morning, restock, and head on out on the Crescent Trail system. It was slow going with the mud, but the daylight helped, the temps started climbing – I was finally able to stash my shell in my pack – and run in shorts and a t-shirt. Which, after this winter, was a great feeling!
(Above: Boughton Park sunrise. Below: Seneca Trail boardwalks)
I reached the car a bit behind pace, but knew by that point that the planned timetables for the day were likely out the window and that, if I really wanted this, I’d simply have to stick it out for as long as it took. And that, likely, that would be a long time.
I refueled at the car, being sure to not rush things and make sure that I had everything I needed for the remaining 40 miles. I had one drop bag hidden in the woods 15 miles away (where the Crescent crosses Turk Hill Rd), but I wouldn’t be back at the car for a long, long time. I even had a checklist that I made myself go through multiple times just to be sure I had everything. This is another aspect of self-supported solos that I really love. The fact that you have to constantly attend to the tasks that would normally be performed by multiple people. Hydrating enough? Have enough calories packed? Dry socks? Vaseline in the appropriate places? Has the forecast changed? Do I have appropriate gear for middle-of-the-night temps? Headlamp? Extra batteries? The list goes on and on and on and on and it never stops. You’re constantly doing mental rounds making sure everything checks out. It becomes an annoyance at times, but it’s also a fun challenge to conquer and it can make the time fly by out on the trail.
I left for the remainder of the Seneca + connector to the Crescent Trail to begin the rest of my day. I’d picked up one running pole for this next portion of the journey and had also duct taped the hell out of where I thought the leak was in my hydration pack. But… a quarter mile down the trail, soaked again from the shoulders down, I just laughed and resigned myself to winging it on hydration. Which, I realize, is stupid when one still has 40 miles left to run. But, the entire point of this was to be tough. To learn. To force me to constantly adjust, readjust, and persevere. I had enough water to get me to Bushnell’s Basin and I could refill at a gas station there if I needed to. I knew my pack could hold 30oz without leaking; I also had two bottles and a gallon of water waiting for me at my drop bag, so… I was fairly confident I could figure something out.
The hilly trails out to Bushnell’s Basin were fairly uneventful. Beautiful sunny weather with temps in the 50’s, and dry, rolling singletrack were a blissful equation. I didn’t exactly fly through that section, but I made the turn in Bushnell’s in comfortable time. As I approached the Southern terminus of the Crescent, some guy was staring at me from his motorcycle. Weird. Took me a minute to realize it was Ron (who I had been sending txt updateds to throughout the day as a safety margin), who surprised me and stopped by just to check in, say hello, make sure I was doing all right. And to inform me that the Crescent Trail no longer ends at that point as it has for years, but now keeps going South along the Erie Canal. Ron had no idea how much further it went.
Ron, “I have good news and I have bad news.”
Ron, “The good news is you’re looking strong. Great job! The bad news is… the trail keeps going. Doesn’t end here any more. (Points to new sign.)”
Me, “Well, shit. How much further?”
Ron, “No idea.”
Me, “You’ve got to be kidding me…”
Ron, “You turning here, or you gonna keep going?”
Me, “Well, I came to run the whole damn thing, so… gonna see how far this new section goes!”
Turns out it was only about a third of a mile further to the Perinton/Pittsford line. Thankfully. Phew!!
I hit the turn and headed back North, wrapping my brain around now having to run the entire Crescent the 18 miles from South end to North end. And then, however long that took, I’d still have another half marathon in the dark (and likely in the rain) to get back to the start. Bring it on.
Over the next two hours of mostly dry trails (what a wonderful thing!!) I made it over to Turk Hill Rd. where I had a drop bag hidden in the woods. Thankfully, it was still there, undisturbed. I drank a whole bottle of Vitamin Water, filled that empty with 20 ounces of water and stashed it in my pack along with some warmer gear I knew I’d need later on. Refilled my water bladder up to 30 ounces. Grabbed a 12 ounce bottle of Coke, and my second pole, and off I went!
With a marathon remaining, the thrashing my feet had taken from mud all morning was catching up with me and my ankles were done for the day. The tendons were stiff as all get out, the bottoms of my feet hurt more than I knew they could, and both of my achilles were pissed off. I loosened my shoes and that helped a bit, but the pain was still keeping me from moving fast. What I wouldn’t have given for a pair of Hokas right then. The trade off, of course, is that I faced a lot more mud in the remaining miles (which the Salomon’s traction handles really well and the Hokas don’t). Ouch. So, I resigned myself to a brisk hike and from there to the end tried to keep every split under 20 minute miles. Depressingly slow. My legs felt good enough to run no problem, but I simply could not will myself past the foot pain required to maintain anything more than sporadic running. Speed hiking, however, meant less foot pounding and represented a tolerable level of pain. So, I proceeded accordingly.
From there I kept pressing on, and on, and on. Reaching the Northern Terminus of the Crescent Trail just after sunset. This did not sit well with the resident whose back yard the trail goes through. I made it through his yard one way by headlamp… but not the other way, as his guard dogs came tearing out after me. So, I was forced to make a detour around the block to get back onto the trail.
Hitting the North end of the Crescent was both a feeling of success and of despair. I’d finally covered both trail systems in a day! But I also had a 4+ hour slog ahead of me to get back to the car and complete the double-traverse. At this point, in the mud, in the dark, with the wind picking up and the temperature dropping (it dropped from the 50’s down into the 30’s) – snow/sleet coming at me sideways as the weather systems changed – I began the part of the journey I had come for. The hard part. The unknown. The part that’s way out beyond what I know I have in me. The part where failure becomes a very palatable option. In other words, the most valuable part. It is for these moments that I do this. Alone. In the dark. Exhausted. To find out what I’m made of. It is these moments that precious few members of the human race get to experience. And so, I cherish these moments of being out of my depth, and yet finding peace in that space, and somehow discovering that I can continue on.
I knew I’d finish after midnight. It was barely 9pm. I kept going. I was cold. I moved faster. My headlamp batteries died. I swapped out some spares. My hands were cold. I sucked it up. Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. Every mile a small victory. More mud? Keep moving. Calf deep water? Keep moving. Snow? Keep moving. Eat, drink, don’t sleep, keep moving. When I describe these moments to others, the best way I can think of how I get through them is that I disassociate the different parts of my mind from each other. There’s the whiny part of my brain that says, “this is so stupid, why the hell are we doing this?” And I allow that part of my consciousness to simply step off stage and go chill out for awhile. I don’t keep it in the loop or tell it what I’m doing. I’ll fill it in later. At the same time, the part of me that gets shit done, my instinct – my drive – my spirit, takes over. And just does. Head down. Shut up. Go. And then there’s a portion of my brain that just manages. Systems checks. Logistics. Fluid? Still have to pee? Good. Calories? Check. Frostbite? Nope. On pace? Yes. Blisters? No. Pain levels? Acceptable. And so on and so forth. Over and over and over again until the damn thing gets done.
The furthest I’ve run before this adventure was 50 miles. So, as I ticked off a double marathon, 100k, etc. – milestones were achieved and the mental energy replenished from that was very welcome. I made it back up through Thayer Hill and the Indian Hill Trails – past Turk Hill Rd. – onto the last sections of the Crescent Trail, closer and closer to the end. Until, all of sudden, I was there. Just like that. At the parking lot. At the intersection. Tagged the traffic light pole I’d started from, and… done. I was now the first. There will never be another. What a feeling.
Ron and Jeff came out to see me finish. At almost 1am in the morning. (Chris O’Brien too, but I couldn’t get there fast enough before he had to jet). Good peeps. Can’t tell you how much it meant to have unanticipated friendly faces cheering for me at the finish. Unreal.
The aftermath has been pretty good. I destroyed a pair of shoes. My feet ached for days afterwards. My achilles are still swollen (icing a couple times/day is doing the trick). But nothing is injured. My legs feel as good as they could possibly feel after a 100k. Lots of massage and foam rolling has helped them bounce back. I’ve been out hiking a couple miles each day after work and I’ll be good to go in a few more weeks once the general fatigue wears off. This was to be a barometer for the upcoming year, and I’m very pleased with where I’m at!
A special thank you to my truly incredible wife and four kids for tolerating (and even encouraging) my obsession with mountain/ultra/trail running. I love you each immensely. I like to think that in some way this all helps keeps me sane and helps me become a better person.
An additional thank you to my frequent partner in crime Ron Heerkens, Jr. for being my “on call” in case anything was to go wrong while out there. The knowledge that you would be available to help extract me from self-induced stupidity should something go wrong was of great comfort to my wife, I can assure you. You are a true friend. Thank you.
The concept of linking these two wonderful trail systems together into a single day of running has been batted around for several years now. Since I already held the first known times for solo, double-traverses of the Crescent Trail (November 2011, my first ultra) and the Seneca Trail (August 2012) systems, the idea of tackling this project has appealed to me for quite some time. I’m very proud to have been the first to knock out this 100k.
Days later, I thought I’d feel like I’d beaten these trails. But, I don’t feel victorious. I only feel like, for a brief period of time, I was allowed to be part of them. To have been allowed the rare experience of existing in harmony with them. I feel like I’ve been entrusted with this accomplishment more than having won it. If that makes any sense. I hope it does. It’s hard to explain. As I went back the next day to retrieve my drop bag from the woods, I found myself just standing there alone in the woods in the rain for quite awhile. Just taking it in. And involuntarily whispering “thank you.”
If my run inspired you somehow and you feel like giving back, please consider a donation to the Crescent Trail Association, or to Victor Hiking Trails, the two organizations who maintain these wonderful trail systems.