Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Many On The Genny

I remember hearing about this race when it was first announced.  It sounded spectacular, all around the gorge in Letchworth Park!  But 40 miles?  That seemed really far.  My longest race so far was a 50k and that was enough for me.  Or so I thought.  While training for my second 50k, I had a very rough run.  I was planning on doing 18-20 miles but felt so beat up after 12 that I actually took the road, instead of trail, back to my car.  I was filled with self doubt.  I began thinking about some of my running friends I had shared the first half of my miles with and hearing about their experiences.  50 miles, 100k, 99 miles, 100 miles.  Races that went on for 24 hours or more.  I'm not sure if it was an attempt to punish myself, or just a "suck it up Buttercup" moment, but I went home, showered, and on that cold October morning, committed to my longest race ever.  I signed up for Many on the Genny. 

Talking about it was easy.  Training for it was challenging.  The race itself?  A beautiful day in the park. 

Leading up to the race, I studied the map, time cutoffs, parking guidelines, and read everything I could to learn what exactly would happen on June 24.  I was familiar with the second half of the course, but had no clue about the first 20 miles, and was intrigued by the numbered trails scattered between a well traveled road and a menacing gorge.  I joined some friends on a preview run a few weeks before the race.  We explored 20 miles of hills, streams, road crossings, and breathtaking views.  My confidence grew and I knew I could do this. 

Race morning.  Up at 4 am to prepare for the day ahead.  Standing around the start line, I remarked how wide awake I felt for it not even being 6 am yet!  So many of my friends were here, either to run, volunteer, organize, or support this day.  Then we were off!  the first two "mystery miles" took us up the road with the sun shining in front of us.  We then turned and entered the woods, where we would spend the majority of the day.I saw the familiar trails from the preview- the same roots, rocks, mud, slopes, climbs, and descents. Mentally, I broke the race up into two parts, the first 20 miles and the second 20 miles.  The miles passed.  I went through the aid stations, with the nicest volunteers a runner could ask for!  They greeted us with a willingness to fill empty bottles, feed us, even cook for us!  At the halfway point, race 1 ended and race 2 began.  Volunteers flocked around the runners, offering to fill our water and bring us food.  One was kind enough to help me re-pin my bib when I changed into a clean shirt.  I love these people and hope I can be like them someday, so selfless and giving!  They really know exactly what a runner needs.  Seeing my friends and the energy at the aid station made me temporarily forget my plan.  I managed to change my shirt, but didn't replenish any of my personal food that I had eaten (there was not that much) and I forgot to switch to the caffeinated Tailwind that I had packed.  I turned to exit and head back out on the trails, but did a 180 after a few steps.  The kind volunteers asked me what was wrong, I said, I forgot my Ipod!  I knew a little music for the last 20 miles might help me through the low spots I was sure to hit.  With that stowed away in my pocket, I was once again, off.

These next few miles were the only part of the course I hadn't previewed.  I was a little worried, but ended up heading out with a friend of mine who is a very experienced ultra-runner.  She talked about struggling to find the way down and across the bridge during her preview, after someone with good intentions accidentally told her to go back up the steps (going up and down those steps more than once?  Unthinkable!)  but with that knowledge, she led me down the correct path, barely glancing at the well-placed flags. As she went ahead of me, I meandered over the next few miles, taking some pictures, thinking about how awful it felt to be running 20+ miles.  There was a short stretch on a gravel road through some cabins that was mentally very difficult.  I glanced at my watch, frustrated at how little distance had passed.  I knew I must continue so I trudged on.  I came to a trailhead that went back into the woods- almost straight up.  I climbed to the top of this peak and met some youths hiking.  They mentioned something about a 40 mile race, to which I replied, "yes, I am at mile 22".  Their jaws dropped and I continued on.  The trail evened out and got quite pretty.  When I finally made it to the true yellow Finger Lakes Trail, a wave of peace swept over me.  I know this trail, I love this trail!  It was like visiting an old friend.  I perked up and knew I would make it to the finish line.  If it took the rest of the day, I was fine with that.  In my trail runner's heart, I was home.
I realized walking the remainder of the miles wasn't a feasible option so I made a deal with myself; I would run any portion that was runnable and hike the rest.  My definition of "runnable" at this point was quite loose.  The smallest bit of mud, roots, rocks, incline, decline, or semi-questionable footing was determined to be "un-runnable".  Despite this inclusive criteria, some of the trail was still runnable.  I knew I wasn't breaking any land-speed records, but it was slightly faster forward progress and I was satisfied with that.  Over the next 18 miles, I went through the criteria before I took a walk break.  Can I run this?  Yes?  Then do it!  No?  Ok, walk.  But as soon as you can run...  I watched my minutes per mile slowly creep down to a pace that more closely reflected a brisk hike instead of a death march. 
Around mile 23, I started dreaming of the next aid station.  Not necessarily because I was running low on supplies, but because I knew my friends would be there.  They would have food, and laughs, and maybe even hugs! The thought of seeing them made me push forward.  My legs were starting to ache.  Nothing crazy, but finding a way to soothe them would sure make the miles easier.  At mile 25, I came to a stream flowing briskly over the shale.  That's right, we did get some rain last night!  This stream looked like a good place to rest my legs.  I found a ledge to sit on and let the cool water work it's magic!  that felt wonderful!  As much as I wanted to lounge there for quite a bit longer, I slowly stood up and pressed on.  I reinstated my runnable/non-runnable rule and made it the rest of the way to the aid station.  It was a true Hawaiian Oasis in the middle of the woods!  Tropical shirts, hula skirts, bright colors and smiles was just what myself I'm sure other runners needed to push on. 
I had reached the goal I had previously set- making it to Aid Station 4 before I turned on my music.  As I slowly walked away from my friends, wishing I could stay, I secured my earbuds and headed out.  The peppy pop songs on this playlist would help keep me going, maybe even make me want to dance!

Not really checking the map at this point, I pushed on, hearing from other runners that it was a long stretch to the last aid station.  I ran what I could, drank some water and ate some of the fuel I had packed.  My body was tired.  In retrospect, proper fueling is going to be my focus for my next long distance adventure.  My legs didn't feel that bad, but the rest of me was exhausted.  I was in that beautiful daze where stumps start looking like woodland creatures and shadows circle around you; wood nymphs and fairies no doubt!  As interesting and distracting as these mild hallucinations were, better fueling seems like a more sustainable method.  Mental note for next time. 

Onward I meandered.  Ticking away the minutes, miles, gullies.  I found a few more streams that were inviting to my tired legs.  At one particularly flowing creek, I met some mountain bikers going in the opposite direction.  I am sure they were warned that these woods would be filled with disoriented runners,so they kindly paused and waited for me to cross.  Much to their surprise, I walked downstream and slowly lowered myself onto the rocks.  Puzzled, they said, "we may splash you", I smiled and replied, "Please do!" 
I think they also crossed paths with a friend of mine doing something similar, so I'm sure they now know that trail runners are also crazy stream sitters and in the future will let us be. 

The miles went on.  The streams turned to mud.  I caught up to some people and was passed by others.  Man, I wish I had that energy right now, good for them!  My watch started giving me the "Low Battery" warning around mile 34.  It had only done this once before and I couldn't remember how long it actually lasted after that.  I was sad that I would lose some of this journey.  Regardless, I would complete it.  I was told the next aid station was less than 5 miles from the finish so I started looking for it.  I crossed a blue offshoot trail that was familiar to me, and thinking it would be a good place to bring down aid, got excited.  Friends, food, maybe even beer ahead!  I turned a corner and there was no one.  I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.  Where were they?  Maybe around the next corner?  It was too silent.  I wondered how much crying would dehydrate a person at this stage in the game.  Down and up the next gully, there was something off the side of the trail.  Giant blue jugs labelled "drop water"  (or something like that, I was pretty out of it at that point).  Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I clumsily figured out how to remove the cap and fill my handheld.  Another runner and I questioned if this was the last aid station; I said it couldn't be, the last aid station is going to be a crazy party, I know those guys and they wouldn't leave early! 
Back to continuous forward motion.  I chanted my mantra to myself,  each step is one closer to the finish line.  You can do this!  Keep moving forward!  Later I thought about how hard it must've been to carry all those containers of water there.  They were heavy and the trail was not easy to navigate.  Next I wondered if that water was really for us, and how trusting we are to drink from strange containers that appeared in the middle of nowhere.  Oh well, it was delicious water! 

My Low Battery indicator blocked much of the data I was interested in from my watch so unfortunately I no longer had that to push me forward.  I made it to the last aid station and saw more of my friends.  High fives, smiles, and bags of ice!  As I entered the aid station and they asked what I wanted, the only thing I could think of was BEER!!!  Someone handed me what I am assuming was their personal beer that was just opened as it was still very full and in a can.  I drank half of it and passed the rest to the next runner coming through who surprisingly (yeah, right?) asked for the same thing.  I headed out of the aid station and noticed something.  While I was alone for much of the middle of the race, I was now near other runners.  We were clustering together as we made the journey of a few more miles to the finish line.  I'm not sure if it was the waxing and waning energy levels, the fact that we had someone to talk to, or maybe just the reassurance that if I collapsed here and now, at least  there would be someone around to call for help.  Whatever the reason, I was not alone those final few miles.  The trail at this point was very familiar and I looked for the landmarks I knew, estimating how much farther it would be, as my watch had finally died.  The path was not that technical but I still managed to find and trip over every tiny root and rock.  Flying through the air and catching yourself at the last moment before you face plant into a tree or the ground has a strange way of simultaneously spiking your adrenaline and sapping all of your energy.  Walked a few more steps until my confidence recovered and the trail became runnable again. 
I exited the trail head and rounded the parking lot to the finish line.  I crossed, received high fives, hugs, tears, and a swag bag.  I sat down, that felt so good!  While one of my friends cooked me a veggie burger, I stretched and took a deep breath. I was done.  I did it!  40 miles, finish time of 10:49! 

I consider myself a very average runner.  I am not fast, nor exceptionally slow.  I am proud to be average.  Running does not come naturally to me and it has never been easy.  There are days I struggle with every step on a 2 mile run.  I wonder why I do this.  What is the point, is it worth it? This moment when I crossed the finish line, I answered that question.  Yes, it is.  It is worth the hours training, the highs and lows, the pain, recovery, struggle.  I did something that just 3 years ago, I would never have imagined I would be strong enough to accomplish.  I finished Many on the Genny. 

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