If you die on the course and you weigh less than 100 pounds we will hike your body out after we have finished drinking the beer.
The palpable impression that is left by the sheer beauty and grueling terrain that makes up this race is matched only by kind, open, and welcoming camaraderie of the runners, volunteers, rangers, and sponsors. RD’s Jan Wellford and Vinny McClelland do an amazing job——I feel like I can’t wait to see them every year.
One of my coworkers asked me why I wanted to run this race. Covering 11.5 miles, ranging over 2 mountains with close to 6000 ft of elevation change, and running through a waist deep bog, to say that you want to do this garners incredulous and confused stares. I can’t remember how I found The Great Adirondack Trail Race and I’m not entirely sure what it is about this race (actually two races, the 11.5m and the 3.5m, which we have run twice) that pulls at me so strongly. At least, I wasn’t entirely sure until this year, when I was finally able to run the long race……
We met my parents and started walking towards The Mountaineer, which is the finish for the race. As we walked along Rt. 73 my mom said, “Isn’t that your bus leaving up there?” Sure enough, the first yellow school bus was just pulling out of the parking lot to bring runners to the start. Oh well, I said, there will be another one. This other one turned out to be “the fast bus”——the one with the “elite” runners (just how elite I didn’t find out until later). After a 20 minute wait my bus showed up, I hugged mom, dad, and Katie (gave Arlo a scratch) and hopped on the bus.
Arriving at the start I signed my waiver, got my number sharpied on my arm (55) and stood in line. I soon realized that the runners I was chatting with were fast…really fast (50kers, 50milers, and, apparently, a handful of actual Olympians) so I slinked away, closer to the head of the line, and, finally, was let go. The trail was soft underfoot, gradually climbing and twisting uphill. It took me about a mile to get my breathing right, finding the right rhythm with which to inhale and exhale. Most of this early part of the course was runnable, but I had a plan——start slow, go slower——and I kept my pace in check, knowing that I would need the energy for the downhills at the end.
I often tell people that I run trails for the experience of being in nature, for the solitude coupled with being connected to something greater than yourself. I want to be surrounded by power and majesty and expanse. And there are many times during a race when I want to stop and take all this in——I want to experience “the now” that is filling my mind at that very moment.
But during this early section leading up to Owl’s Head Lookout, I knew that if I didn’t keep my momentum it could turn out to be a very long day. So through the increasing amount of mud I continued to run.
Meanwhile, back at the finish…
Mud. Water. Rocks. Mud. Water. Logs. Mud. Water……this repetition characterized the entire run. The only uncertainty being how deep the mud and water would be. The trail would dip and surge up, at this point always requiring me to weigh dancing around a short section of watery/mud or just plow through. I had long stopped being dry, so for the most part I would just run through any mud or water that I saw. This did pose a challenge, as I soon found out when I hit the beaver dam section at mile 5.7. We had been told the water was much lower this year, as the dam had blown out from the rain, though it was still up to my knees. I encountered another runner and we tip-toed over logs and rocks and……then found ourselves thigh deep in water. Which was cold. Really cold. The both of us waded through and, exiting, I pickup my pace having regained some energy (from the cold water or lack of running I don’t know).
During this middle section, before and after the dam, I was passed by many of the elites. I can now say (in retrospect) that it was pretty amazing to run alongside such local, national, and international talent. Watching runner after runner take the uphills with such ease was humbling and inspiring. The staggered-start formula makes this sort of thing possible (along with riding the wrong bus) but it may never happen again, so I am very thankful for the chance to have done it.
I knew the bog was coming. I just didn’t know it was a, you know……a bog. I came on it suddenly. Or better yet, the boggy smell came on me. Log to log, Rock to rock, deep spot to deep spot I waded through——eyeing the brightness of the green moss and trying to stay away from the really deep muddy sections. But it’s a bog for pete’s sake! There aint no going around it! I caught up and waded past another runner only to hear her shout over my shoulder, “I think I’m stuck.” Her husband was up ahead of me and yelled that he was coming back. However I was closer, so I hopped back in the muck and we wormed her out of the thigh deep mud (being sure she had both shoes). I have to say, it was lots of fun. I mean: when do you get to actually run through a bog!?
Exiting and heading up the trail, my energy again renewed, I began the climb up to summit of Hopkins Mountain. I grabbed a walking stick to assist with the steeper uphills (I would hang on to it until after the descent off of Spread Eagle). The trail began to rise steeper and steeper as we got towards the summit and then……the entire Adirondacks opened up around me. I read that you could see 22 peaks from up there and I have no doubt. This was one of the only times I truly fought with myself to stop and take in the amazingness of what I get to do. But I had to push on. Volunteers had some water for us (sherpaing it in must have been really tough, so thank you thank you!). I quick little head scratch for the black lab that accompanied them, and I was directed back into the woods towards Spread Eagle…
……and then I immediately almost fell off the trail. Luckily I caught myself on a tree branch. That could have been bad. The trail descended sharply downwards, only to climb steeply up again as we headed to the summit of Spread Eagle. Again, the view was incredible atop the bald section at the summit. This section of the course——from the top of Hopkins (mile 7.7) till the dirt round descending from Spread Eagle——was far and away my most favorite. The views were crazy amazing; the climbs were grueling; but the downhill sections……I’m in love. My quads burned, my ankles throbbed, but I just barreled on, hopping over logs, swinging around the trees that lined the switchbacks, and mud skiing down the steeper sections. I didn’t bring a watch, but with the trees whipping by my face I’d love to know my pace on the downhill.
At the bottom of the last steep section descending Spread Eagle I caught up with a runner (Sarah) and we chatted for a bit as we ran the dirt section. Turns out she had run the Vermont 50 a few years back, which made for some good conversation. It was nice to talk to someone for longer than a few brief words while passing each other. As my quads were feeling like they were still in good shape I ditched my stick, told Sarah “Good Luck” and pushed off down the road. I felt really good here, surprisingly, and I maintained a good clip down to the short section of paved road that the turned onto the final section of train. Coming out of the woods I weaved left and then right onto the bridge across the Ausable River. My dad sat cheering me along the bridge and as I crossed and turned right along Rt. 73 I saw my mom, Katie and Arlo waiting for me.
I crossed the finish line in 2:35:32, beat up and muddy but with a smile on my face. Again again, surprisingly, I felt really good. My legs were thrashed, but my spirit and my endurance remained. Grabbing a drink I headed down to the river to soak my tired and waterlogged legs. (I think the river was less wet than what I had just run through.) The water. was. cold. But it felt great. It had been a good day.
After I changed into some dry clothes we headed over to the post-race food (and free beer 🙂 ) but which, to my surprise, did not involve any veggie burgers! What a bummer! No matter——I am so thankful that my family was there to share this experience with me. And, I can unequivocally say that I will be back next year to push things a bit more (though I hope that they have the grilling situation worked out).
So, remember how I said that I ran with some Olympians? So it turns out that the Male Winner (Lowell Bailey) and the Female Winner (Susan Dunklee), not to mention Annelies Cook (who took the women’s second place) are all on the US Biathlon team……yup, that is Bailey and Dunklee pictured below. And Bailey won bronze at Sochi in case you were wondering. So how cool is that!?