To be honest, after I had finished the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon in 2016, I felt a bit cocky about this snaking 26.3 mile, very technical trail race through Letchworth State Park in Upstate New York. To me, that finish in 90+ degree heat was a point of pride. It took all of 6 hours and 45 minutes to reach those colorful banners marking the finish line, but Lady Sehgahunda did not break me that day. That wasn’t the end of the story. In the midst of my my 2017 – 2018 Winter training cycle, I heard the Lady calling me back for another swing, and, of course, it didn’t take much for me to succumb to her siren call.
I would have a friend with me for this adventure, Carl, who had traveled to my Fairport home by train and bus from his home in Barrie, Ontario, arriving in the afternoon on the preceding Friday of this Saturday race. Carl maintains two inspiring blogs, one on his running adventures called theoldfellowgoesrunning and one that is spiritual, called My Sunday Blog. Carl is a writer whose plain spoken style conveys keen observations about racing, respect for the environment, and his Christian faith. Carl is also the only person whom I know who is actually employed as a creative writer, as writing about ways to preserve the environment and conserve natural resources is part of his job responsibilities for his forward-thinking company. “Creative Writer” is literally on his name badge! I’ve enjoyed Carl’s blogs greatly over the last couple of years; indeed, I note in his writing a gentleness of spirit, a rare sincerity, strength of character, and a gratefulness; in short, he’s got great heart. Needless to say, I was pleased when he got Sehgahunda on his calendar, and I was happy to have him as my running partner for the day.
Wake Up! It’s Race Day!
I had set the alarm for 5 AM, but I awoke at exactly 4:50 AM. A hot shower and cup of strong black coffee got me rolling for the day. The Better Half prepared a great breakfast with eggs and toast, and then Carl and I enjoyed the 57 mile drive across New York countryside to Letchworth State Park, known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Smatterings of rain hit the windshield on the way down, and we both knew this would mean a wet trail. Thankfully, it did not look to be especially hot today, and for that Carl and I were pleased.
Race planners provide the option of parking at the finish line located at the Parade Grounds at the southern end of the park. From there, athletes can board yellow school busses to transport up to the start line, located at the Mt. Morris dam (see map).
For some reason, Carl and I were operating under the assumption that busses ran until 7:30 AM, so, when we arrived at 7:10 AM we took our time at the car checking our gear and stretching out. Little did we know that the last bus pulled out at 7:15 AM and by the time we figured this out, we had about one minute to jump aboard! This last bus was “standing room only”, but we didn’t care because we made it. Those minutes before an epic race are both electric and very focusing for the athlete. From the cranial vault, through the gray tissue of the cortex and down through core of the gut and out to the tips of the digits, all systems say, “Ready.” We’ve got one thing to do today, and we are on it!
Time to Rock and Roll!
Because we were on the last bus of the morning, when we arrived at the start line, the women left almost right away on their 8 AM start. Men would take off 15 minutes later. While waiting, Carl and I bumped into a good friend and a terrific runner, Ted, who is a LIFE Runner team mate. Ted had the presence of mind to invite Carl and I to bow our heads and say a brief payer of thanksgiving and safe keeping. Then, we were off! Ted disappeared quickly out near the front. Carl and I established about a 9:30 – 10:00 pace in the middle of the pack.
Running the Course
Sehgahunda is a highly technical course that undulates through the western edge of Letchworth State Park. This main path is complemented by a series of 8 spurs, each perhaps a half to a full mile or more in length. These spurs take the runner up to the aid stations and, after refreshment, loop back down to the main path. On this morning, because of recent soaking rains, each of these spurs contained long patches of shoe-deep, blackish mud that consumed the width of the trail. The mud required mental concentration as one had to make a deliberate decision with nearly every step where to land mud-soaked feet. For the same reason, the mud necessitated a disrupted, ill-patterned gait, and one had to be very deliberate in pulling his or her foot out of the mud with each landing. At times it was a bit like the “high-stepping” of a marching band when they come out onto the field at half time. Of course, feet were thoroughly wet.
I have never had a blister from running before, but the friction caused by the sloppy, wet mud gave me my first one at about mile 14. It was about the size of a dime and positioned on the outside of my right big toe. The pain from this was so great that I briefly questioned my ability to carry on. How can a little blister cause this much pain?! I powered through it, and, thankfully, the pain completely disappeared within a half hour. I didn’t think about it again until at home recuperating that evening.
Carl and I tried not to dawdle at the aid stations; indeed, we were in and out of each of them in under 10 minutes, even late in the race. We ate peanut butter sandwich quarters, watermelon, cookies, and gels. Out on the trail, Carl and I greeted runners, and we all had words of encouragement for one another. I took the lead, so, at first, I could not tell why Carl was occasionally dropping well behind me only to catch up again a short while later. As we progressed, I discovered that he was stopping to take pictures and then pouring on the coal in order to catch up with me. Impressive!
There are dozens of creek beds with shallow, narrow streams and still pools of water that required negotiation. These “gully crossings”, in tandem with elevation pitches and intermittent left-right switchbacks, took their toll physically and mentally. Sections of relatively level “straight shots” were welcome reprieves as the miles began to mount. Indeed, running down these sections of straight, level trail, usually about a half mile in length, was a bit like resting before the next technical phase of the route.
At about mile 18, we came upon a fellow runner who was broadcasting pop music from a speaker secured at about shoulder level from her backpack. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the trail as I got closer and closer to the source of this music, especially as the speakers, mounted to her back, were directed to whoever is behind her on the trail. In a 5K, listening to somebody’s choice of music is probably no problem because one is just going to go “all out” and shortly cross the finish line. But, for this 26.3 mile technical trail race, I found it unhelpful. With relief, I got out in front of her, and the din of those speakers fell literally into the background.
Starting at about mile 22, the race course rolls up to what appears to be an old logging road and, for the first time of the day, runners were not dodging and weaving roots, swerving in and out of switchbacks or traversing creek beds. This final stretch is a long two-lane dirt road. Carl waved me on at the last aid station, as I had a chance to establish a new PR on this course. During those final miles I found myself alone, fatigued, experiencing pain in the depths of my skeleton, and approaching exhaustion. I never considered stopping, but I did have brief reminders of what it must be like to be hopeless. I talked to myself as though I were talking to a desperate neighbor: “Come on, just put your head down and keep going. Don’t stop.”
I crossed that finish line in 6:14:08, 13th out of 24 in my age group. Carl came in at 6:20:07. After crossing the line, he and I sat down against trees at the edge of a great post-race party and allowed our bodies to relax. We did it! I had managed to run the entire the 26.3 miles, except for a couple of short sections with intense elevation.
Considering the strain, pain, cost, time, and effort required, what is it about racing that is so enjoyable? Is it the anticipation weeks prior to the start? The training? The race day morning? The race itself? Crossing the finish line? The post-race party? Well, “yes” to all of these, as they are all factors. But, I think it’s the friends whom we meet along the way that share the experience that makes this sport such a rich endeavor. Once back in Fairport that evening, the Better Half and I took Carl to our favorite Chinese restaurant, the Yellow Elephant, for a celebratory dinner. I proudly wore my race “medal”, which really isn’t a medal, but, rather, a cool arrowhead on a beaded cord.
The food tasted terrific, our middle-aged bodies were already well into recovery mode, and Carl and I had experienced a great adventure. And our conversation that evening? Well, you guessed it: our next start lines. Best wishes to all of you during this beautiful Summer running season!