Let’s set the record straight here for a second before I get into my story of the 2015 Finger Lakes 50 mile. I am a super manly dude, cut from one solid brick of pure testosterone, baked in an oven at muscles degrees, and sprinkled with a light dusting of tough, yet gentle, awesome. You know Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast? Yeah, that guy is like a less manly version of me. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I can tell you all about how I whined and complained my way through my first 50 miler.
Finger Lakes 50s takes place in the Finger Lakes National Forest, kind of in between Trumansburg and Watkins Glen. It’s absolutely beautiful down there, and one of the few places in New York that I feel I haven’t seen enough of. The race course is a flat, gentle 16.5 mile loop of mostly singletrack through pine forests, secluded ponds, and cow pastures. People run 1-3 loops over the course of the day depending on how much they hate themselves. I had signed up because the race fell at a convenient time for me in my training schedule, and seemed to be a good first fifty mile course.
I drove down to the race a couple days early, since I was coming from New Hampshire for some reason and there was free camping at the starting line. The day before the race, I hiked around Taughannock Falls with Laura, who had driven down from Rochester to hang out for the day. It was really nice to break up the monotony of solo travel and have someone to hike and rap with for a while. I think it definitely put me in a good place, and made the next phase of FL50s much more bearable.
Phase 2 of the race involved flipping the fuck out in the only way I know how: lots and lots of internal screaming while shambling around like one of those aliens that possesses a human body but doesn’t really know how it works. “Thanks!” my mouth said, when the volunteers handed me my packet. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” my brain screamed. I sat in my tent for a long time, going over my plan for the next morning over and over again, setting stuff out and putting it away and setting it out again. After a while of doing that, I got up and walked the last half mile of the course, a “baby loop” that comes at the end of the third loop.
I think walking that little grassy trail helped a little bit. It was a quiet night, and getting away from the hubbub at the tents calmed me down. When I finished the loop and returned to camp, I saw Mark and Emily, who had come down to do the 50K. I sat and chatted with them for a little while, then excused myself to go to bed around 8:30. I crawled into my sleeping bag, brain spinning, stomach turning. I told myself I’d feel way better in the morning.
I felt way worse in the morning. My uneasy stomach had developed into straight-up nausea, and my brain’s nervous shriek had escalated into an impressive opera macabre. I choked down a Clif bar and a bottle of UCAN and sat staring straight ahead, contemplating – okay, you know what, you get it. I was freaking out. Let’s fast forward a bit.
A quick blast from an airhorn started the race. Still riding the high from seeing Mike, Laura, and Mort at the starting line, I trotted confidently down the road before ducking into the woods and kicking my day off for real. I quickly settled into a pace that felt easy and comfortable, which invariably meant I was running way too fast. My nerves had dissipated, and I was free to focus on conserving my energy for the late miles of the race.
Very quickly, the course became muddy. I had talked to Steve, the race director, and his wife Nancy a couple nights prior about the course conditions. They were very outspoken about the mud and muck, and touted it as the muddiest year they had ever seen. I was pretty psyched to hear this. Having been raised on slop through my early running years, there’s nothing I love more than a good slog. Mentally, I was ready for a day of serious mud.
Unfortunately, the course didn’t contain serious mud. It contained all of the mud in New York State. I am convinced that Steve and his small army of volunteers actually drove around the state, picked up mud, drove it back to the forest, and transplanted it on to the course. That’s the only reasonable way to explain the miles upon miles of shoe-sucking, leg-squeezing, soul-stripping mud that blanketed the course. I’m pretty sure I gained weight by the end just from all the dirt I accumulated. Once the course started getting muddy, it didn’t relent. For several miles at a time, the other racers and I slipped, slid, and squished our way forward.
It was around seven in the morning, about three miles from the start, when we hit our first cow pasture. There were a few of these gated communities on the course, and we were under strict instructions to ensure that the gates were always closed behind us. This I totally understood. The last thing we wanted was for a bunch of bovines to start banditing the race and drink all of our water and HEED. Coming to the first pasture, I was leading a line of folks. As I got up to the gate, I realized I didn’t know how the lock mechanism worked. Suddenly very conscious of the runners behind me, I fumbled with the gate for a few seconds before I finally figured it out. Overcome with guilt for costing those around me precious seconds on their fifty mile time, I put my head down and ran in penitent silence past the most judgmental cows I had ever seen.
The first loop progressed pretty smoothly after that. I did my best to reserve my strength, move efficiently through the mud, and not worry too much about the miles to come. I stopped to pee on Mark Smith Road, and didn’t worry about all the folks passing me. I laughed as I splashed through the mud, caught in a naive fantasy where miles of deep mud couldn’t possibly have any ill portent. I stopped to pee on the South Beach loop, on what I soon realized was the two-way section. I hung around at aid stations, letting the seconds tick by as I calmly sipped down water. I stopped to pee before dropping into the gorge. I saw Mike and Laura out on the course somewhere around here, and was overjoyed to see them. I stopped to pee relatively early on the Backbone trail. I hopped my way through the driest sections of the final cow pasture, ignoring the moos of perturbed cows. I stopped to pee on the final uphill of the course, before dumping back out towards the road and the finish of the first loop. I think that fifth pee stop finally emptied me of all the water in my entire body, which is good, since it was really just more weight for me to carry around.
I finished my first loop at the Living Room feeling pretty good. My legs knew I had been running for a few hours, but they were ready for it. I chatted with Mort a little bit while I ransacked the aid station. I was surprised to see people dropping out of the race after only one loop. I checked my watch. It wasn’t even ten o’ clock yet. In retrospect, I should have taken that as a sign that the course was in rough shape and was only going to get worse. I didn’t know any better, so I slurped down some Twizzlers and continued on my way.
Starting my second loop, I was feeling confident, but the reality of the endeavor was starting to set in. I was still moving alright through the mud, but my legs were starting to feel heavy. I began to recognize portions of the course from the first loop, and the length of the track slowly began to dawn on me. The dread and horror of the third loop, which I would only reach after running as far as I ever had before, slowly coalesced in my brain. It was like Christmas last year, when I found out Santa Claus isn’t real.
Luckily, it wasn’t long after this point that I saw my parents for the first time. They had had quite an adventure by that point, which is deserving of its own story, but rounding the corner and seeing my dad standing in the middle of the trail was a huge boost for me. I stopped and talked with my dad briefly, then ran up the trail a little ways and talked with my mom before heading back out. From that point on, they operated in their usual fashion as the greatest support I could ever ask for, popping up everywhere on the course, always being there to offer words of encouragement and direction.
By the time the second loop came around, the already muddy course had been destroyed. The stampede of 50K and 50 mile runners had been followed an hour later by another hundred or so 25K racers. The mud, which was already super deep and slick, was now even deeper and slicker. Stable footing was a distant dream, and my knees and ankles, tragically underworked up to that point, were finally starting to earn their keep.
All in all, the second loop wasn’t too bad. I managed to conserve my energy, my feet weren’t killing me, and I wasn’t experiencing any fueling crashes. Mike Mertsock caught me with about six miles left in the second loop, and we ran together for a few miles. We’ve never had too much of a chance to get to know each other, so this was the perfect opportunity. The second loop finished up at 33 miles, and I ran through the line for the third with a lot of confidence and bravado. I stopped at the aid station and scarfed down a bunch of food and water, talking and laughing with all the people who had come down to support me. Mike, Mort, and Laura were all there, as well as my parents. Seeing them there was very uplifting, and made it way easier to start my third loop. With the loving words of friends and family ringing in my ears, I left the aid station with a smile on my face.
That smile was gone pretty much as soon as I turned the corner. I was alone again, seven hours into one of the toughest efforts of my life. I had many hours left with many miles to cover. I suddenly felt very tired. Turns out putting on a brave face and pretending you have a lot of faith in yourself isn’t the same thing as being a super awesome adventure man. And I thought finding out about the Easter Bunny was tough. Totally ruined Easter this year.
The toughest thing for me at this point was to be alone. I touched briefly on the power of friends in my tale of the Great Range traverse, and I think I understand it a little better now. Being by yourself at the point of exhaustion, at the point where you want to stop, that’s where you hit your dark moments, when you face your demons. Being attacked your primal soul, unfettered by social pretense and self-imposed inhibition, that’s scary stuff. Your brain knows exactly how to hurt you, exactly what to say to get under your skin and make you stop doing whatever you’re doing to endanger it.
This whole idea wouldn’t even be half as bad if the thing responsible for making me feel this way wasn’t my own mind. Through a period of five or six miles, I wrestled with deep-seated insecurities, bad memories (some stretching back to first grade – seriously?), and thoughts of certain failure. Consistently at the front of my mind were the people who had come to support me: Mike, Laura, Mort, my parents. My emotions boomeranged back and forth, one minute despairing that I would disappoint my friends and family, the next overcome with gratitude that they had bothered to come in the first place.
All of this turmoil eventually built to a head, and the next time I saw my mom and dad, I totally lost it. When I saw them waving and shouting from a quarter mile out, out there in the middle of nowhere, spending their entire day watching me run, I couldn’t take it. I completely broke down and started sobbing. I was just so happy to see them. It’s pretty clear your parents love you when they meet you at mile 40 of probably the dumbest thing you’ve ever done and tell you you’re doing a good job. I don’t know how I even got parents that awesome.
Anyway, seeing them gave me a huge rush of confidence, and beat back my fatigue-induced melancholy. I kept moving, aware that my pace had slowed considerably. It wasn’t up to me, of course: my legs were trashed and not responding too well to my brain’s demands. It was interesting, though, to experience running to the tune of my body rather than my mind. I was surprised to find myself running up all the hills I had walked on the first couple laps. Instead of galloping through the mud, I picked my way across it meticulously. My legs, which had been fully functional the first several hours, now were useless jelly! What a fun exercise in opposites!
As I sloughed my way through the back half of the final loop, I started to get irrationally and inexplicably panicky. All of a sudden, I would feel my heart rate spike. My face would get hot, and my breathing went anaerobic. The first time it happened, it took me several minutes to slow down my breathing and get my shaking hands under control. This happened on and off for the rest of the race, and by the time I finished, I had gotten pretty good at calming myself down. To be fair, I had gotten a lot of practice trying to calm myself down last week when I found out the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real.
Eventually, I made it to the final aid station on the course, and I knew the end was nigh. I trudged up the final climb, turned the corner, and headed for home. Running the last couple miles felt pretty good, so my body must have been feeding me some seriously heavy doses of serotonin or maybe something more sinister. Whatever the case, I grew more and more excited with each landmark I passed. When I hit the baby loop, I was grinning ear to ear. I cruised through that last half mile and crossed the finish line, almost eleven and a half hours after I started.
And boy, was I glad to be done. My legs were achy, and my ankles and knees felt pretty beat up. I was totally covered in mud from the knees down, and only partially covered from the knees up. I dug my shoes out of their mud brick prisons using a hammer and chisel. Finally, I was able to survey the damage to my feet. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that bad. My shoes had eaten through the heel of my sock and then through the heel of my heel, and a couple toenails were loose, but there were no serious consequences. Maybe if those toenails come off, I can put them under my pillow for the Toenail Fairy.
I really had a lot of fun at Finger Lakes 50s. It was a beautiful learning experience on a beautiful course during a beautiful day in a beautiful area. The race was put on by a beautiful race director who works tirelessly to make the event great (shit no, I meant beautiful), and was backed by beautiful volunteers. I was joined at the race by beautiful friends, old and new, and my beautiful parents, who have somehow come to terms with the fact that their son is an extraordinary idiot.
On a dry day, this is a 50 mile PR course. On every other day, it’s still fun to run. I would definitely recommend this race as a first time 50 mile, thanks to the warm and welcoming atmosphere, the fantastic aid and support offered throughout the course, and the forgiving nature of the trail.