The motto of the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon is “Respect the Lady”, as in “respect the intensity of the Sehganunda trail” – 26.2 miles of winding path through beautiful Letchworth State Park, the 2015 Reader’s Choice #1 state park in America. The path traverses hill after hill separated by dozens of gullies and creeks, requiring careful negotiation of feet and, occasionally, hands. There are rocks and tree roots throughout the course, ready to ruin a runner’s day. And, though it was dry yesterday, there was mud. With 90+ degree heat starting at about mid-race, this race required serious discretion. It was hot like a Ben Franklin stove.
The day started out beautiful – calm, and, well, cool. My team mate, Ron, picked me up at 5:40 AM for the 60 mile drive to Letchworth from my home in Fairport. Ron is a Sehgahunda veteran – and his advice throughout my training cycle has been key. His advice bordered on admonition: “always respect the trail”, as in “this is different than your other running efforts, so think carefully about how your going to do this”. Timely, as, up to that point, I had not given the challenge much thought at all. This is just leisure, right?
We arrived at the staging area at the Parade Grounds at the extreme southern end of the approximately 17-mile long park. A plaque announces that, during the Civil War, these grounds were a training camp for Union soldiers. We boarded one of three yellow school busses, and, as we lumbered North, we watched beautiful hot air balloons just launching for the day over the canyon. We were feeling great! Little did I know that, once I was off that bus, I was going to get schooled by Lady Sehgahunda.
We made our way to the northern end of the park – to the Mt. Morris Dam Entrance, and, minutes later we were off! First the women….15 minutes later, us men. Spirits were high! Light-hearted conversation, good-natured jokes, comments about the gorgeous views of the canyon off our right shoulders filled the air. It wasn’t hot yet, and our legs were fresh, so this stage of the race was leisure. “I can do this all day!” This lasted for about 10 miles.
The aid stations along the race course are off the main trail and require traversing side trails – first UP, UP, UP to the stations and, after hydration and nutrition, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN back to the main trail. These friendly oases became so welcome, a runner might feel the urge to cry from sheer emotion upon arrival…..water, Gatorade, watermelon, orange slices, ice, PBJ sandwich quarters, chips, and packaged nutrition items were available. The people running each station were kind, hardworking and helpful, without exception.
I began to feel the pain at mile 14. It was a kind of jolting burn around my right knee, especially when running downhill. This is a new challenge for me. I rarely experience pain of any type when I run – even during the Marine Corps Marathon. I had to decide what to do with this, especially as the heat came on in all it’s glory. Thank God most of the trail is covered with a canopy of leafy branches! At first, I adjusted my run pace – not a “death shuffle” – that’ll come later – but a deliberately slow pace – like I’m a tank or, perhaps, more fittingly, a lawn tractor – “slow and steady, slow and steady, come on, keep going….”
I got dizzy twice. Once at an aid station, while drinking water, I realized I was woozy….Things were spinning a bit…Funny how the male mind works: my first thought was, “I hope nobody sees me dizzy – don’t want them to think I’m a (lightweight)!” – I rested, ate, hydrated and ran back out….A second time, at about mile 22, I came to the base of a big hill. I tipped my head up to survey the path to the summit, and, as I looked up everything began to spin – a slow spin, like turning a canoe in a calm, quiet pond. I drank about 10 ounces of Gatorade, centered myself – and up the hill I went.
The death shuffle began at about mile 18. Lady Sehgahunda gave me an opportunity to see the outside range of my endurance; this is, after all, an endurance sport, right? I alternated between running and fast-paced walking for a few miles – walking all of the downhill segments in particular because of the pain, until I got to the final 3 miles or so. Here began a beautiful, relatively flat road, perhaps an old logging trail. Here, I managed to fire up a slow, slow run toward the finish line at about an 11’30” mile pace. Still some walking, now because I needed to catch my breath here and there; but, I was inspired by the sound of the crowd in the distance. At about 1 mile out I ran pretty hard all the way to a kind, celebratory crowd and the finish line. I made it! It took me 6 hours, 38 minutes and 34 seconds, and I placed 15th out of 31 in my age group.
As I crossed the finish line, my college son, Joseph, was there with a high-five, ready to lend his Old Man a hand. He’s spending the summer doing an Environmental Science internship at Rensselaer, and I’m glad he made the drive across the NY thru-way. I immediately became about as tight as a sheet of plywood from the waist down.
As I sat stretched out on the Letchworth grass, Joseph told me that his car needs new springs to pass state inspection, an extra $250. I don’t care; in fact that’s fine! I’m even happy about that! Hey, after all, I just finished Sehgahunda! A veggie burger and ice-cold Fat Tire beer tasted divine. And, today, about 19 hours later? The pain is gone – just tight, and, well, now I’m wondering: can I talk Ron into doing an ultra with me?