The Usual Suspects / Old-Skool
I love Old-Skool races, the races without much swag, without much glamour, without big booming speakers, with maybe some Christmas lights, or Tiki Torches, or just a line drawn in the dirt by dragging your foot across to delineate the start and/or finish of the race. Maybe the finish line is made of wood, or propped up by ladders. These are usually the tell-tale signs of a race that would rather focus on what happens during the event then on attracting people who aren’t really into doing the event and are more into getting their swag and party gear. It’s also usually a tell-tale sign that the event is going to be tough, and not something that you’ll see your coworker in the next cubicle asking his/her drinking buddy to sign up for because it will be fun. The fact is, it will be fun, but probably not for them. The other thing about Old-Skool races is that you see the same faces at them; the usual suspects if you will.
Twisted Branch 100K is a new race that meets the criteria of Old-Skool with the exception that you sign up online via ultrasignup (I only know of 4 events that are still snail mail only events, and few more that have a snail mail option). This race is so Old-Skool that most of the course markings were limited to the already blazed trees of the Bristol Hill Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail, Part of Main Finger Lakes Trail, and also the Triad Trail in Hammondsport. Old-Skool also means 100K really equals 105K, we usually put an “ish” at the end of distances related to these events to keep the griping from the road runners to a minimum. So on August 29th, 2015 at 5:00 AM the usual suspects lined bunched up behind a dirt-drawn line punctuated with a Christmas Tree Light Arch and took off from South Bristol by foot to attempt to make it to Hammondsport beach 105KM away by 11:00 PM.
The usual suspects this year were neat for me. I’ve been running with a number of people who are relatively new to the ultra-trail scene, and they are great people. They embrace the trail, love the beauty of their surroundings, run for the right reasons (IMHO), but they are also young, fit, and fast. I think they only run with me to humor me, and so I can humor them with tales on old when you could show up at a 100 miler the day of the race and register 5 minutes before the start. Now you have to register 6 months out just to have a chance to get on a waiting list. Along with these new usual suspects, I saw some of the old usual suspects that were around back in the day. Christine R. and her husband/crew Joe from Ithaca, Dan K. and Joy V. from Oven Door Runners, and Barbara S. from Dryden who I remember passing me at 2002’s Massanutten Mountain 100 miler freaking out because she said she just saw a rattle snake. We had a nice chat and walked down memory lane prior to the start of this race. All of these people are SERIOUS ULTRA VETS. Spoiler alert… none of us finished!
You see, there was a time that finishing an ultramarathon wasn’t a given. There was a time when the races had terrain and time cutoffs that were stout, and no, you weren’t allowed to go on because of liability and the rules. It seems that lately road marathons have become the new half-marathon, and trail 50Ks have become the new marathon, and 50 milers are for marathoners looking for an extended hike after their 50Ks. Some of these races have cutoffs so lenient that I could walk them and finish. Now, I think there is a place for that, I think it is important to have events that cater both to the competitive and to the individual looking for a supported long run. I also think there need to be events that are true challenges, not for the faint of heart. It’s nice to see that Twisted Branch is one of those to add to my list.
I have two challenges l would like to complete: Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Foot Race and Twisted Branch 100K. In my experience and opinion they are equally as demanding with technical footing at times, steep extended inclines and descents, and demanding cutoffs.
What can I say about my race? I was better trained and more fit for this than I was for MMT100, so I felt confident, but not overly so as I DNF’d MMT100 earlier this year. So I took off at an easy pace with Sean Storie and Rob Feissner. I’d say this kind of freaked me out as I never have run 3 miles with Rob before, but we were all stuck in a conga line on single track so everybody was running pretty much the same pace unless you were up front. When we got to our first road crossing I sent them ahead so I could set up my trekking poles knowing there was a decent climb into Camp Cutler. Unfortunately… or maybe fortunately one of my poles was jammed shut. So after about 5 minutes, and letting almost everyone in the field pass me, RD Scot Magee said he’d take my poles and try to fix them and get them to me later on the course. I didn’t see Scott again until my day was done. So I said “fortunately” because my originally race plan was to stand at the starting line for 5 minutes after the start, let everyone go and then run my own race. This is basically what happened at mile three, which was even better, because when I started catching people, they were spread out enough that I wasn’t fighting a conga line to pass them. I found my own rhythm, my own pace, and the people I train with weren’t around so I couldn’t get caught up in running their race.
This is pretty much how the day went. I was living basically on Tail Wind alone which was working until Bud Valley (Mile 39) where I needed something solid in my stomach, because even though youncan get all your nutrients from liquid Tail Wind, you still get hungry after many hours on the trail. I played cat and mouse with Sean Storie a bit before Bud Valley where he picked up poles and his pacer/wife which put quite a bit of pep in his step. I will admit it was tough going at that aid station as heat, my weight, and my head/thoughts were getting to me, but the mantra “tired is not an injury” was going through my head and after grabbing a grilled cheese sandwich I marched forward.
Ultras, for me, ebb and flow. The Grilled Cheese helped me out of a funk, and at the top of another climb that grilled cheese moved the bowels. Taking a load off, or out if you will, lightened me up and I busted into the next aid station feeling better and ready to move.
Up to this point, I had no idea of how close I was to cutoffs. What I do during long events is I set my Garmin to show me only the total ascent, which because of Garmin’s particulars is usually very wrong on the watch and therefore is a particularly meaningless number. The only reason I bring Garmin is so I can track it and look at the data later. So coming into this 46ish mile aid station I overheard someone saying that it was going to be tough to make the next cutoff. I had kind of suspected I was pushing it, but wasn’t sure. As I was leaving this aid station I said, “I heard it’s unlikely I’ll make the cutoff,” and Michael M. (Aid Station Vollie) said, “I don’t know, you’ve got 4 hours to get there.”
CRAP! Ultra math… it can be so disheartening. I knew the cutoff at Urbana was 12 miles away and I had 4 hours to get there. 3 miles an hour… 20 minute miles… I can run a 20K in 1:45… I’ve got a huge hill to climb and another stupid little hill that seems huge after that…. I’m not going to make it… Shut up and go!
I shut up and went. Got to the water cooler 4 miles later right before that huge climb, and probably spent a good 5 minutes just refilling and drinking and psyching myself up for the climb. I stopped at least 4 times during that climb before I finally forced myself to run the last quarter mile of climb to the big pond at the top. As I was circling the pond I saw an orange shirt out of the corner of my eye. Christine Reynolds had gotten a Cheesburger catered to her at the last aid station and found new life! It was the first I’d seen her all day, and she was coming up to pass me. We chatted, a bit and I let her go… er she dropped me like a used bag of chips.
The wheels were offish at that point, but I slugged it out to the 54 mile aid station where I caught up with Chris again. Shots of tequila haven’t looked that good in over 20 years, but were exactly the threat I needed to see to get me out of there, basically pulling Christine with me. There was talk about how tight the cutoff was, and how I wanted to miss it but also didn’t want to miss it. I was tired, mentally, physically, emotionally. But somehow I kept finding ways to pick up my feet and run on runnable sections. The last descent into Urbana is gorgeous during the day, but we were in the dark, so I had the unfortunate knowledge the others didn’t; knowing that if anyone fell to left, they were going into a gorge. Regardless, I kept running. I finally got to Urbana where Amy/wife/crew was asking me if I was okay. I said I was fine, just tired. I actually felt good… at least good enough to tackle the last 6 miles, so I asked if I was done. I was told I missed the cutoff by a ½ hour. My day was done.
After sitting for a while, absorbing the fact that my day was done, Amy and I decided to not go to the finish (something I would normally do, but I don’t really want to see the finish of this race until I earn it). We decided to head to Mike W’s place where a number of the new usual suspects would be converging, drinking, and crashing. We had just enough time to shower and make guacamole before people started coming back from the finish line. To hear the stories of the finishers, the people who didn’t finish (I wasn’t the only one), the crews, the pacers, the volunteers, and the praise for the RD was amazing. These new usual suspects get it. It’s about the event, it’s about the participants, it’s about the volunteers, the families, the trails, the effort, the pushing of boundaries, the successes, the successes that didn’t see the finish… It’s about the community, and so much more. This is the type of event that builds character, and that strengthens the bonds of community. Running/trailrunning is usually seen as such a solo endeavor, but when it comes to these events, the really challenging events where finishing is far from guaranteed, trailrunning is anything but a solo event.
My deepest gratitude to Scott Magee who’s inaugural event (his first time ever being an RD) was world class. UTMB has designated this course as a 3 point race (they only go up to 4 points and a 100K getting 3 points is unheard of). The Old-Skool usual suspects are already getting their heads around next year’s event and hoping they win a coveted free entry from the pool of DNF’s (the odds aren’t great given the number of DNFs). They get it. This is an ultramarathon, the way ultramarathons were meant to be.
As I continue to move away from organized events (other than sweeping and volunteering) This one stays on my list, because it is the perfect event, designed for people who love to run long, love to challenge themselves, and love nature.