“No, oh no, I can’t be done yet!”

Okay.

Twisted Branch.

Okay. Here we go.

The Twisted Branch 100K runs from Ontario County Park to Hammondsport, New York, covering over 60 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail through 3 different counties. The course contains around twenty thousand feet of elevation change. The trail is a seamless blend of packed dirt, loose stone, soft pine needles, back road, and corn field. It looked challenging on paper, but paper never tells the whole story. I do, though, because I never shut up. What follows is just one account of the inaugural Twisted Branch 100K. If you want to read others, check out:

Laura Rekkerth’s Twisted Branch experience. She ran incredibly well, dealing with issues that would have sidelined most people. Her retelling, as always, rides the line perfectly between heartfelt detail and succinctness.

Matt Bertrand’s story. Matt had two busted knees going into the race, and wasn’t sure whether he would even be able to race. Well, he did, and he does a great job detailing his excruciating pain while staying alarmingly positive through it all.

Chris O’Brien’s lyrical deposition. Before Twisted Branch, Chris had never run a 100K. Or a 50 miler. Or a 50K. Despite a lack of experience, he attacked the race with as much panache and vivacity as a baby turtle racing for the sea.

Mike Mertsock’s race report. Usually a soft-spoken individual, Mike goes through his experience in great detail. It is clear he has a very vivid memory of his day, and it strengthens his recap of a brilliantly executed race.

Rob Feissner’s amazing tale of perseverance. Easily the most unpredictable prospect at Twisted Branch, Rob ran a race that defies reality. His retelling of the race offers valuable insight into how he pulled off such a feat.

Dan Lopata’s wistful recollection. Dan compares his Twisted Branch experience to the days of yore, when ultras were actually hard and no one wore shirts because races didn’t give them to people. His wealth of experience makes for a valuable perspective.

Amy Lopata’s angle comes not from within the race but without. From sweeping to spectating, she got to experience the race from a variety of different angles. The effect ultras have on those not racing is profound, and too often goes unsung.

Jason Vidmar’s collection of thoughts as a pacer and “ultra-loiterer” are as vibrant and full of life as the man himself. His recollection of the day covers a wide scope and has something for everybody, and is a delight to read.

The Ascend Collective’s photo gallery may not be a bunch of words on a page, but isn’t that better somehow? Look through their gallery of stunning photographs to see how the race develops from the start to the finish.

I signed up for Twisted Branch in early December. I didn’t think about whether or not it was a good or even attainable goal. I thought mostly about how awesome it was going to be, as a point to point ultra almost completely on trails. I remember talking about the race on Facebook with my good friend Peter, and it was my conversation with him that convinced me to sign up. I recently went back to find that exchange. This is, line for line, the transcript of that critical dialogue.

December 5th, 11:11 AM

Jeff: the 100K goes from Ontario County Park to Keuka Lake

Jeff: aw sheeeeeeeeeet

Jeff: I really wanna sign up, bt [sic] I’m terrified

Jeff: I’M DOING IT

Jeff: PETER

Jeff: I’M REALLY GONNA DO IT

Jeff: DON’T TRY AND STOP ME

Jeff: it’s done

Jeff: fuck

Jeff: I thought I would be less scared now

Jeff: it didn’t work

Jeff: look at this monologue

Jeff: you can really see my character develop

Jeff: Peter!

Jeff: that’s the power of a monologue

Jeff: don’t you forget it

Jeff: thanks for listening ❤

December 5th, 2:48 PM

Peter: Anytime Jeff, anytime ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ 😛

From that moment, Twisted Branch alighted in my brain and stayed there, perched like a vulture, casting a shadow over every run, every race, every conversation, every beer, and every slice of pizza. If I had a nickel for every time I talked about the race with somebody, I’d probably have enough nickels to build a life-size statue of Scott Magee. If I had a nickel for every time I thought about the race, I could probably line the entire course with them. If I had a nickel for every time I ate a slice of pizza, I could probably buy another pizza.

nickelmath

From very early on, it was clear that Twisted Branch was going to be a special event. A large portion of the entrants were friends of mine from the Rochester area, many of whom were new to the distance. For every friend who was signed up, it seemed like there were two more who would be helping out or attending the race. This was a chance to test my limits on a beautiful trail while surrounded by some of my closest friends and the most amazing people I’ve ever known. How could it get any better?

On Friday, I drove down to Ontario County Park with Laura and Mort. It was a beautiful evening, and gradually more and more ultra participants rolled into the park. The evening passed with quiet conversation, leisurely frisbee, and a soothing campfire. To my great surprise, I remained calm throughout the day. It was basically a 180 from how I felt before Finger Lakes 50s. I was panicky and afraid before that race. Before this one, I was calm and content. Maybe it was complacency.

That night, I slept out underneath the stars for the first time in years. It was a beautiful night, and a nearly-full moon hung bright in the sky. I slept well, and woke before my alarm the following morning. I was ready to go in a matter of minutes, which was good because I had two hours to kill before the race started.

Twisted Branch started with a simple ready set go from Scott. The pulsing mass of headlamps before him immediately condensed in response, then gradually strung itself back out as we set off on the course. Light conversation bubbled up through the stream of runners, punctuated by uneasy laughter. We had traveled about half a mile when I decided to step back and reflect on my race day plan, a brilliant and infallible strategic masterstroke certain to go down in history as one of the greatest races ever run.

plan1 plan2d plan3 plan4

Oh yeah, I didn’t have one. It was probably fine though. I mean really, what was the worst that could happen? With that thought, my mind was instantly filled with horrific visions of my maimed and devastated body, lying broken at the bottom of a ravine, being picked apart by ravenous woodchucks. I freaked out.

Blinded by terror, I pounded the course for about a mile, running up hills and passing people much intelligenter than me (Okay, that was supposed to be a funny joke about how intelligenter isn’t a word, but it turns out it is! So…joke’s on me?). I didn’t stop until I realized the people in front of me were Dan and Kendra, two people I expected to finish LONG (read: hours) before me. Seeing them snapped me back to reality, and I realized that I had almost gotten myself into a lot of trouble.

Once I had regained ambiguous control over my mental faculties, I tried to replace myself further back in the pack where I belonged. Luckily, it didn’t take Welden’s team of superstars long to catch me, and we started our first climb of the day together as a group. We reached the overlook relatively quickly, and made our descent into the first aid station. I had to stop there to fill my soft flask, which I had neglected to fill before the race started, but everyone else blew through it with hardly a passing glance.

The next six miles or so passed relatively quickly. The sun had come up, and I was able to run more comfortably. The solid group of runners that ran from Camp Cutler with me became fluid, with people flowing in and out of different groups. Some reached forward on the course, feeling strong, and others hung back, reserving their strength for the miles ahead. I stuck close to Laura, knowing she would run a strong and even race. Eventually we reached Naples. Just outside of the trail, I could hear my parents cheering runners on. I love being able to hear them from a ways out, encouraging everyone who goes by. Their passion is inspiring.

tb20k

The aid station at Naples was filled with great friends and good food, which would have been great excuses to stay there the rest of the day. Someone filled my water for me, which was really kind, and I scanned the table of food. What lay before me was an incredible assortment of salty, greasy snacks, with so many options I was at first paralyzed with indecision. And then…

Time slowed down as my eyes fell upon one of the silver tins. The hubbub of the aid station dimmed to a dull buzz. My stupor lasted only a fraction of a second, but from my perspective, civilizations rose and fell, the oceans boiled and vanished, the sun fell from the sky and ignited the Earth in holy conflagration. A blood-spattered Matthew McConaughey stood above it all, shaking with uncontrollable laughter, up to the very moment he was engulfed by the flames. In the exact second that the ground beneath my feet buckled and split, threatening to swallow me whole, I awoke from my reverie. I blinked, then reached into the tin and grabbed a corner of grilled cheese.

gc1 gc2 gc3 gc3.5gc4

I chowed down happily, also grabbing a bacon crust and a PB&J before heading back out. I wasn’t in a huge rush, thanks in large part to the friends and food, but also in part to what lay ahead. The next twenty miles contained two of the largest climbs and the lion’s share of the elevation change on the course. Despite these reservations, it wasn’t long before Laura and I set off again. The noise from the aid station faded into the distance, and we were back in the woods.

The trail before us remained benign for a suspiciously long time. My heart rate would spike every time we came up to a corner, certain that around it we would find The Hill. The tension became so intense that I was starting to get jittery. I began yapping excitedly, battering Laura with wave after wave of inane bullshit. By the time we actually started climbing, I felt a wave of relief rather than dismay. It was already turning into a weird day.

Hills are so boring to write about, so I’ll skip it. It sucked and I eventually got to the top, wow, shocker! Over the top lay the Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area, and some nice runnable sections. As Laura and I moved through the park, I realized the day was already starting to take its toll. Laura was experiencing cramping in her legs, and I was starting to feel ill. Despite these setbacks, we kept moving, with the hope that these things would pass.

tb40k

The middle miles of the race passed by in a blur. Laura and I would have good stretches of running, followed by good stretches of walking. Matt and Chris floated in and out of proximity, but were never further than a few minutes ahead or behind. My parents popped up in the woods several times, out of nowhere and without warning, but always at just the right time.

tb60k

As the miles went by, I could feel my stomach starting to get heavy. The sweet acid taste of Tailwind stuck in the back of my throat, making me nauseous. I started taking longer at aid stations. Too long. I would sit, eat, chat, unconcerned. After a while of this, I started worrying about making the cutoffs, as every lazy runner should. I would urge Laura on, but she refused to leave without me. I’m glad she stayed, but felt guilty for holding her up.

laura1

laura2

Bud Valley couldn’t have come soon enough. My stomach had been tied into a tight knot by this point, and I had run out of water. Mikes Valone and Welden brought us in  to the aid station with encouraging words. It was good to see them. I hit the aid station as hard as I could, drinking a couple cups of water and trying to eat, but I was really feeling it now. I sat in a chair and tried to will my stomach into cooperation. Didn’t really work. I sat on the ground. That didn’t work either.

Laura was standing around, waiting for me. Mike was trying to get her moving, but she wasn’t going to leave without me. I was surprised and touched that she still wasn’t willing to leave me behind, even after forty miles. I couldn’t ask for a better friend, and I really didn’t want to let her down. She gestured for me to get up and keep going.

So I got up and kept going. Laura, Welden, Bray, and I left the aid station at a walk. Just walking was causing my stomach to do backflips, and I began complaining to myself like a wimp. This isn’t going to work, you aren’t going to make it, you’re too weak, you should – I rolled to the side of the trail and puked up a couple gallons of Tailwind, water, and stomach acid – keep moving, let’s do this, you are gonna make it, you dumb bastard. Feeling much better, I caught up to the others, but it soon became clear I wasn’t going to be able to keep up for much longer. Refusing to hold them up any more than I already had, I fell back and let them get going. As they ran off towards the woods, I wondered briefly if I had just let go of my only chance to finish the race.

I recognized the next section of trail from one of the preview runs we had done. The trail twisted back and forth, crossing small streams and rolling ever so gently. I ran for a while, enjoying the stillness of the trail. My mind was as quiet as the woods around me, and I reveled in that complacent peace. With my brain on autopilot, the miles began to slide by again. All of a sudden, I hit a fork. To the left lay the trail, and to the right was a small wooden deck with a bench. Without thinking, I pulled off to the right and sat on the bench, and that was it. I was done.

I sat there for a few minutes, then lay down on the deck with my feet up on the bench. I didn’t cry, I didn’t complain, I just lay there and stared up at the sky. I could hear runners passing by. They would ask if I was alright, and I would say yeah. Just following the script. I didn’t really know if I was alright. I just knew that this was the end of my day. I waited for the sun to go down and make today tomorrow.

And then, several minutes later, just as easily and inexplicably as I had sat down, I got up and started running again. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t tell my body to do it, it just happened. I’m glad I did get moving again, but looking back on that lack of control is a little unnerving. Maybe one day my body will just decide to run itself off a cliff? Or maybe vote for Kanye West for president? Scary stuff.

Not long after that, I saw my parents again. I chatted with them briefly, but pushed on, all too aware of the time that had been ticking away. I came in to the Glenbrooke aid station with four hours and 13-ish miles until the cutoff at Urbana at mile 59. It was going to be a long stretch without an aid station, almost eight miles. I took some time to study the course profile, making sure I knew what was coming. I was feeling ragged and beaten down, and I still couldn’t eat, but I hadn’t yet crossed the finish line, so I wasn’t done. I left the aid station and headed back into the trees.

tb80k

I ran and walked consistently for what seemed like forever. One hour went by. Then another. I had hoped that I would be at the aid station after two hours, but I realized that would require a blistering fast pace of fifteen minutes per mile. I most certainly wasn’t doing that. I was able to keep myself moving, which was good, and already an improvement over my FL50s experience, but the aid station was still nowhere in sight. A third hour was quickly coming to a close. After that, I’d only have an hour to do the remaining five miles into Urbana. I wasn’t going to make it.

I saw my dad soon after this point. He asked how I was doing. I said I wasn’t going to make it. He mumbled an apologetic affirmative. I said that it was really disappointing. Then, like Jason Bourne in a room filled with a hundred nameless 9-to-5 police officers, a switch flipped in my brain and I went into kill mode. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish this run, not when I could still move my legs.

anger1 anger2 anger3

In my stubborn rage, I found a reservoir of energy deep down and let loose. I must have dropped a nine minute mile (nah, no way it was that fast!) coming into the aid station at mile 54. I ripped through the aid station, knowing now that time was of the essence. I had about 75 minutes to reach Urbana, which was about five miles away, and five miles from the finish. It was beginning to get dark, but I could do this, for sure. As long as I was running, I was putting time in the bank.

Afire with righteous fury, I covered the next few miles quickly. The energy that had been granted to me continued to hold steady, and I wondered if perhaps it had been granted to me through some dark covenant my subconscious self had made with the devil. Wherever it came from, I was glad to have it.

devil1 devil2 devil3 devil4 devil5

I had been running for about forty-five minutes, and feeling good. The trail had been an engaging mix of bridges, soft dirt, and cruise-capable downhills. That’s probably what made the next hill so difficult. Appearing abruptly through the trees, this dusty incline climbed sharply, and extended straight ahead for what seemed like forever. I ran as much as I could, but soon found myself walking. Satan must have watered down my fuel, that treacherous snake! I walked as much as I could, but soon found myself sitting. Bad, I thought to myself. You can’t sit down if you want to finish, you lazy idiot. I responded to this most recent wave of self-loathing by puking on the side of the trail. As always, this did wonders for my self-esteem, so I continued, newly inspired, to trudge up the loose rocks scattered haphazardly on the hill.

I reached the top eventually. It was completely dark now, and getting chilly. I suppose I wasn’t generating as much heat as I had been at the start of the day. I stumbled drunkenly over the acme of this veritable mountain, in truth one of the shortest climbs on the course, and began down the other side. I had spent far too long tackling that hill, and now I was out of energy with fifteen minutes and multiple miles until the cutoff. I sat down again, stared at my ankles. I turned off the headlamp. This was now the darkest point of the race for me. I couldn’t see anything.

(laugh track)

I sat there for a while. I puked again. I continued to sit. I woke up. Must have passed out. Puked some more, because why not. I sat for a little longer. I got up. Started walking. This was all I could do. I looked at my watch. 9:32. Seventeen minutes past cutoff. Okay. I felt nothing. I had lost everything that made me who I was: my personality, my hopes and fears and dreams. I was a husk, a profound nobody, shuffling down the trail.

After a number of minutes, I saw a couple headlamps coming up the trail, back the other way. They called out to me, and I responded. I probably told them my name, against all odds. It was my dad and Ben. They had walked up the trail probably two miles looking for me. The thought of this now brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye, but 57-mile blank slate Jeff was incapable of emoting. We walked down the trail together, with the two of them making sure I didn’t fall into a ravine or get eaten by woodchucks.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it out to Urbana. The smattering of folks still there were as encouraging and welcoming as the people at the first aid station, which is amazing considering it was after ten at night, and I was an hour past the cutoff. I clicked off the headlamp. I hugged my parents. That was it. It was over for me; however, I soon came to find out that it was not over for many others.

tb100k

I saw Scott at Urbana. Seeing him standing there was like getting a huge dose of perspective all at once. It punched me in the brain and brought me back to reality, restoring everything I had lost on the death march into town. I thanked him as best I could, but the feelings I wanted to convey were not connecting with the words I could say. My thoughts turned immediately to the others with whom I had shared my day. When did they finish? How are they feeling? I didn’t linger at Urbana, but instead drove straight over to the finish line, hoping to see them there and hear about their triumphs.

When I arrived at the finish line, I wandered around aimlessly, looking for anyone who could tell me about their day. I couldn’t recognize faces in the dark, but my eyes eventually found Huckle’s white hat. Thankfully, Huckle was the one wearing it, so I sat and chatted with him. Danielle came over and gave me a hug. Josh and I commiserated with one another, resolving to come back and finish the course another time.

After a few minutes, people began shouting that Laura was coming through the finish. I started, since I was sure she had finished already. I watched her headlamp cross under the arch marking the finish. Felt like I should have been at the line to bring her in. She came over, walking tenderly on what were almost certainly busted legs. She wrapped me up in a big hug, and we sat and talked. Not long after, Matt came through, followed closely by Chris. Both were exhausted, but elated.

Hugs and congratulations were exchanged, food was eaten. Shortly, a group of runners departed from the finish line to end their night at Mike’s house on the lake. There, the talking and eating and drinking continued until well into the night. I drifted in and out of consciousness, surrounded by friends and food, stuffed with several bowls worth of chili and several bottles worth of alcoholic fruit beverage.

And so came to a close the inaugural Twisted Branch 100K. And also, you might think, a merciful end to this report? Hahaha, I don’t think so! Buckle up, because like a runner leaving Urbana, you’re in for a long and arduous finish!

I didn’t finish Twisted Branch. For the first time in my long and storied life, I got a big old DNF. I don’t want to harp on too much about this, since people seem to get anxious and fidgety when talking about it, but I will say that had I DNFed any other race on any other day, it would have hit me a lot harder than it did. The unending support of friends and family leading up to, during, and after the race was so immense, so powerful, so consistent, that not finishing didn’t even feel like a failure. It was just one of the many possible outcomes of starting Twisted Branch. Next time I run it, there will be a different outcome, assuredly, but if I get to experience it with people like Laura, Matt, Chris, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Dan, Dan, Dan(ielle), Josh, Kendra, Huckle, Jason, Dave, Rob, Shana, Valerie, Ben, Daven, my mom and dad, and Scott, and everyone else who was out there, it will feel exactly the same as it did this year. By which I mean it will feel like one of the best days of my life.

I am always grateful for the hard work that goes into putting on events like this. Race directors give up hours, days of their lives to share their passion with others, through blood, sweat, and tears. Volunteers give up their days to help those in the race, often passing up the opportunity to participate themselves. Families and friends of runners come and support their loved ones, spending hours and hours in all sorts of conditions. There is no higher calling, and there is no greater honor for me to share in their revelry.

At the end of the day, one man made this event happen. Scott Magee worked tirelessly for years to establish the Twisted Branch 100K, and his efforts, after exceeding all expectations, nuked those expectations from Alpha Centauri just to be safe. The work he put in and the sacrifices he made were monumental, but the result was legendary. Twisted Branch stands as a testament to the strength of Scott’s will and purpose, and that is why it was, and will continue to be, such a fantastic event.

I was lucky enough to see the vast majority of the course before the race. One section of trail had been completely covered by huge trees that had been blown over. There were probably seven or eight large tree trunks, each several feet in diameter. There was no chance that they would be cleared out by race day. With that knowledge, I had a funny little cartoon planned for this report once the race was over, poking a little fun at Scott, as if the trees were there by his design.

trees1 trees2 trees3 trees4

But I didn’t get to use that cartoon. I didn’t get to use it because Scott cleared the trees by race day. That quarter mile of trail that took fifteen to twenty minutes to traverse early in the summer was spotless on race day. This is just one example of many illustrating Scott’s dedication to this event. I didn’t think that it could be done, but Scott got it done. Many people didn’t believe Twisted Branch would work, but Scott made it work, one way or another.

alttrees1 alttrees2 alttrees3 alttrees4

I don’t really have anything else to say, but ending with a shitty cartoon seems a little passe. I guess I’ll just finish up by saying that Twisted Branch is the longest, hardest race I’ve ever done, and I’ve never felt prouder of myself or anyone else for finishing or whatever I did. If you are looking for a well-run event to test your strength and force of will, look no further.
I had fun.

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3 thoughts on ““No, oh no, I can’t be done yet!”

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