In my fledgling trail ultramarathon experience (which now counts a whopping two), the best analogy I can give for these events is they are a lot like a rock opera. There are peaks, valleys, swells, tumbles, tears, and occasional transcendence. And like any good rock opera, cue Bohemian Rhapsody and Tommy, my Many on the Genny race and this review will be told in three parts: the build-up, the battle, and the aftermath. Trying to capture every epic aspect of the 2019 Many on the Genny 40-mile Trail Ultramarathon in a single review is like trying to trim down a 9-minute opus to a three-minute and forty-five second radio edit, so I won’t even try. Signal rolling thunder drum intro:
A late June trail ultramarathon does not fit comfortably in the schedule of a teacher and track coach with two children under six and a wife who works full-time. It fits so uncomfortably that I didn’t tell my wife what I was out there training for lest she put the kibosh on the whole grand undertaking before it really got off the ground…sorry again honey. So the ability to take on traditional “ultra” training loads like four-plus hour trail runs or back-to-back long runs that eat up an entire weekend was out. The best I could hope for was to replicate my traditional marathon training as closely as possible, which given the horrendous spring we faced in Upstate NY, amounted to not very closely at all. With my weekly volume hovering in the mid to low 60 mile per week range, I turned to intensity rather than mileage to prepare for this unknown distance and challenge. As an additional wrinkle, I was simultaneously trying to prepare for some shorter road races I have on the horizon. Workouts like 5 x mile at rep pace, 2 x 3 mile tempos, and 16 mile marathon pace runs were my staples. I figured if I could run 20 miles fast, I might be able to manage 40 miles considerably slower. At least that was the logic that kept me entered into this adventure.
This would be the point in our rock spectacle when a screeching guitar wail signals something epic, and potentially violent, about to ensue. As Mother Nature would have it, it was both. She pummeled Letchworth State Park with a deluge (the word used by local meteorologists with no concern for the anxiety of trail runners) in the days just prior to the race. Race Directors Eric and Sheila Eagan quite literally moved heaven, Earth, and the racecourse in the final moments before the starting gun to keep the race on and avoid sending runners down a set of trails under eight feet of water. The changes resulted in a few more road miles in the early stages of the race. Prior to the race, one of my biggest concerns was footwear choice. As racers mingled in the parking lot start zone, I was comforted that my anxiety was shared. “What are you going with?” became an echo as everyone second and third-guessed their gear choices and sought some source of confidence. Ultimately, I chose to start the race in my “trailiest” trail shoes (remember I am a reformed road runner who still runs most trail races in road flats), the Adidas Terrex Speed LD. But as the early road miles mounted, the questions began. One of many questions to come.
From the gun a group of five of the known elites separated from the field, including four of the eventual top-five finishers. Learning from my first ultra experience, where I faltered greatly after the standard 26.2 distance and was overtaken for the overall win with half a mile to go, I had committed to running at a manageable effort regardless of the race situation. I watched as the lead horses quickly faded from view and settled in with trail veterans Mike Welden and Garrett Blondell. As both are well traveled in the trail and ultra world, our casual conversation in the early miles settled my nerves for the long day ahead as we made our way without incident through the first aid station as the morning broke to a beautiful early summer day.
With fast road miles behind us, Mike and I were joined by eventual female champion Ellie Pell as we made our way toward the second aid station and into the trails towards the crossing of the Genesee River. This portion of the course offers some of the most stunning views of the “Grand Canyon of the East” and despite the terrible weather leading in to the race, race day was picture perfect, as evidenced by the outstanding photos captured by Ron Heerkens of Goat Factory Media.
Having never eaten anything other than my go-to Accel-Gels during a race, the aid stations became an adventure themselves as I experienced what some refer to as Ultra-cravings. Each aid station was not only stocked with tremendous supplies, but with even more tremendous volunteers who sprang into action like Nascar pit-crews as we approached, refilling water bottles, offering food, and assisting in any way possible. Orange slices, ginger ale, and a clean set of hands to fill my water bottles were to become my best friends.
The trails on the first half of the course were in surprisingly good shape, and most offered sure footing and only the sporadic puddle or mud patch. In my pre-race research, several former runners all reported the same sentiment about the course, “the first half draws you in, the second half beats you up.” With this in mind, and running with two Many on the Genny veterans, Ellie, Mike and I made our way comfortably toward aid station three and the crossing at Lower Falls.
The third aid station provided the opportunity to grab clean and dry items from our drop bags. As is my custom when racing, I was wearing my 2XU compression socks, so I decided against taking the time to change these assuming they would be wet and dirty within the next half mile anyway. Quickly changing my shirt and reloading my pack with gels and GU Electrolyte tablets, grabbing a couple orange slices, we set off from the excitement of the aid station and the support accessible first half of the course toward the far more remote second half.
Prior to arriving at the lower falls, Ellie, Mike and I were joined by Syracuse-area Ultra stud Jason Mintz who I had shared many miles with in my first ultra. Jason had missed a turn and added about a mile to his day, which our forthcoming navigational errors were only going to compound as we missed the turn for the bridge across the lower falls and found ourselves running twice through a majestic mist-created rainbow. Though picturesque, it was less than ideal timing to be wandering up and down mud-slicked gorge walls. Rerouted after listening to Ellie, who was correct from the beginning (male chauvinistic directional ineptness at its finest), we crossed the mighty Genesee and made our way along a dirt access road and through campsites where curious onlookers questioned where this quartet of haggard voyagers emerged from and where they were headed. The answer was onto the FLT (Finger Lakes Trail) which winds its way up the eastern side of Letchworth State Park through a never ending series of gullies.
With our first steps onto the FLT yellow trail, our group splintered and I found myself alone out front. Almost on cue, the second half of the course began to beat me up physically and mentally. The FLT is a beautiful, but remote, trail. Over the first half of the race, the miles had passed quickly in conversation and with the support of cheering squadrons who drove from point to point. Now I was alone, twenty-plus miles into the race, facing a trail that followed an interminable pattern: climb, descend, cross a stream, climb, descend, cross a stream, climb.
During one of these patterns approaching Aid Station 4, Mike caught, passed, and disappeared from my view. Alone again, the darkness arrived. With the marathon distance behind me, visions of my previous collapse returned and I cursed myself for the pace of our early road miles, cursed myself for not preparing more thoroughly, and cursed myself for entering such a folly. Climbs that I had previously been running with ease, became power hikes and shuffles. The mental math of distance remaining and hours to go did nothing to salvage my spirits as I continued the climb, descend, cross, climb grind.
Despite my certainty that collapse was imminent, I was managing to keep my pace moving along. I took on an extra gel and ate a couple of my packaged chews, and washed these down with the Tailwind and electrolyte tablets that I had been diligently consuming, and found myself maintaining. While the mud and water grew ever present, I had slowed and even stopped my mental sink.
This is one area among many where a trail ultra differs from a road marathon. On the roads, when the darkness comes, it stays. There is no bridge in the tune of a road marathon, just a final cymbal crash. Out on the trails, you ride the swells and crashes and take comfort that there are likely more of each to come. Though the miles after Aid Station 4 were solitary, dark, and dirty, the raucous anthem of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” cut through the pines as I came in to Aid Station 5 feeling the best I had in hours. At 36 miles in, I knew finishing was a certainty at this point, the only question was in what condition and position.
With a slice of watermelon in my hand, and rejuvenated spirits and legs, I headed out for the final five miles with Mike’s advice from earlier in the race ringing in my head, “Take the miles when you can.” My legs felt like they had run in them, so I let them loose a bit and found they were not as tanked as I thought. The timing couldn’t have been better as this section of the course presents racers with the flattest and most “runnable” terrain since the opening miles. Unfortunately flat and wet do not mix. The most runnable terrain had quickly become a muddy bog with stretched of calf-deep, ankle-sucking muck.
The first curses of the past six-hours were shouted into the void as I ached to run, but continuously found myself wading through swamps of sadness worthy of The Never-Ending Story. Still, I was catching glimpses of a figure ahead, or I was hallucinating. Both of which were possibilities. With just over a mile to go, you exit the trails through a brief parking area, and as I broke into the sunlight for the first time in over three hours, I could see Mike only a few dozen meters ahead.
After roughly six hours and forty minutes, the race for the finish line would come down to a mile “sprint”. Against my wishes, I found Mike had as much gas in the tank as me and we emerged from the woods in a full sprint and dead heat headed toward the finish through the parking lot where we both made our final wrong turn of the race. Crossing the line just ahead of Mike, Race Director Eric Eagan’s ceremonial high-five signaled the timer to stop my watch and me to collapse in a sun-splashed, mud-covered heap.
After six-hours forty-seven minutes and forty-eight seconds, I had finished fifth overall and run approximately nine miles farther than I ever had. With nearly thirty shared miles together, Mike cruised in right behind me and hearty handshakes and hugs were exchanged with the community of racers and supporters who all suffered, survived, and celebrated together. This event, thanks to unbelievable directors and supporters, sums up the joy of trail running and ultra adventures. Life on the roads can be a solitary and burdensome existence (though I still love it). There is of course a reason we refer to it as the “trial of miles, miles of trials.” Yes, life in the trails is often solitary and full of trials. Still, there is an immutable sense that your existence is part of something bigger out there. Perhaps it is the community that drags coolers of supplies deep into remote forests. Perhaps it is the race directors who leave their own flooding turmoil to help you achieve some flight of fancy. Perhaps it is the compatriots with whom you laugh, wander, and wallow. Is it some combination that blends into a magnum opus and crescendos at the height of human experience? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a damn good way to spend a Saturday.