Running|Code

About software development and trail running.

Twisted Branch 100 km Trail Race

This is a very long story. But I don’t really know how to condense it. You probably want to skim the first couple of sections and then skip to the end.

Update: several friends with whom I shared the day have offered their perspectives on the race: Chris, Dan, Jason, Jeff, Laura, Matt, Rob. Every one of them showed incredible strength and spirit as they fought challenges that I can barely imagine, or executed an amazing race performance (actually they all did both).

On August 29, 2015, myself and a bunch of friends had the privilege of running (or crewing/pacing/volunteering/photographing) the inaugural Twisted Branch 100K trail race, a point-to-point ultramarathon on the rugged trails of the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York.

My story is similar to many others: I signed up January 1 and trained all year for this race. My first 100K, and fourth ultra. My first ultra was less than a year ago. This was the goal race. A lot was on the line on race day, but everything leading up to it was just as important. To quote a pre-race Facebook post:

Before I’ve even reached the starting line, Twisted Branch has had a profound impact on my life: I’ve met new people and developed friendships, tested my limits, found new capabilities of endurance and speed and strength, discovered an amazing trail system, and on and on. While I didn’t have a coach or formal training groups or plans, there are so many of you who have pushed, taught, encouraged, supported me over the months. Tomorrow is a big day, but regardless of how it plays out, every day leading up to this has been pretty great thanks to you. I’ll see you at the starting line/aid station/finish line/behind the camera/in the crew car.

Many of the races leading up to this were training for Twisted Branch. I trained far more, and harder, this year than any previous year. Training was almost exclusively on trails in July and August, and I spent hours honing power hiking and technical running skills. Peak training was a 70-mile week with multiple 20+ mile race course preview runs. A lot of us went into the race with injuries or having just recovered from them (I had just finished recovering from a bruised rib, the result of a hard fall down a hill). Through simple attrition, the race was taking its toll even before we reached the starting line. But that fall forced me to have a proper taper period, and on race day I felt strong.

My goals for the race were pretty simple: enjoy the trails, spend the day with friends, push a little harder than previous races and find out what I was made of, and get to the finish line.

Start to aid station 1 (Cutler), ~6 miles: a quiet start to a big day

5 AM, at the starting line, the sense of anticipation was palpable. But the sense of community was there too. I’ve made many new friends as a consequence of training for this race, and we were all there together. And new bonds were formed, if only for the day, as ultrarunners from out of state introduced themselves. Competition against each other was not on our minds; we knew we were all in this together, and that we were part of something special.

The race began with little ceremony, under the moon on a hilltop, the starting line an archway of lights. Soon we were carefully threading through singletrack (not too technical but a good warm-up for what was to come, especially with the darkness factor), and then down the first big descent.

The forest was dark except for the procession of headlamps and reflective gear. There’s a beaver pond at the bottom of the hill—a peaceful wilderness sight by day—but it was still too dark to catch any glimpse of it, just an unsettling void off to the side of the trail. The only sounds were the crunch of feet on loose stone and the quiet, uncertain chatter of racers nervous about the upcoming challenge. The woods were otherwise completely silent during these initial miles; we wouldn’t even hear from the birds for some time.

So far, the first half hour felt like a rather solo effort, focused on the trail as we all sorted ourselves out in the dark. But when we found ourselves in a meadow in the first valley, in the first light of dawn, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of friends: Chris, Jeff, Josh, Laura, and Matt. It was time to tackle the first climb, and we stuck together, building confidence as we power hiked 400 ft of hill shoulder to shoulder.

Ron (one of the Ascend Collective photographers documenting the day) was camped out at the overlook, waiting for what promised to be a spectacular sunrise backdrop. As expected, we passed the overlook before the sun was up, while discussing whether we were going out too fast. The consensus was no, we were banking miles in cool weather on the “easy” part of the course. Back down into the valley, and I started to feel out my downhill strategy for the day. The extra momentum as we descended switchbacks on the dark north side of the hill led to a couple of my few missed turns; thankfully there were several of us navigating together to catch the mistakes immediately.

Sunrise over the Bristol hills. The trail would pass through these hills, all the way to the horizon. Photo by The Ascend Collective.

AS 1 to 2 (Naples Creek), ~6.5 mi/12.5 total: making some choices

Soon we were at the first aid station. I was pleased to see that the “no crew access” aid stations were better stocked than I anticipated, and operated by several volunteers. I hadn’t quite finished a single 18 oz bottle: a sign that I would get behind on hydration, but the cool and humid weather convinced me that there was no problem. A quick Tailwind refill (another logistical perk of this race was Tailwind at every aid station) and a couple bites of food and I was off to rejoin the group.

We were on roads for the next 1.7 miles, one of the few road sections in the race. Our group spread out a little, but we maintained pairs or triples as we traded places a bit, some of us stretching out legs on the gentle road slopes, taking in the views of the now-risen sun over country fields, and sharing lame runner jokes. The day was going well, we were in pretty good spirits, and clearly still “warming up”. But small decisions made early on can dramatically alter one’s experience in an ultra, and I was about to make a seemingly inconsequential choice that would set the tone for the rest of the day.

As we came down a little drop toward the end of the road segment, I decided to pull ahead a little, leaning with gravity to pick up some speed. We had a bit of flat easy trail ahead, I was feeling good and the weather was still cool, and I wanted to pick up some time and get some mental momentum going into the next climb. As I left the rest of our running group behind, I figured I would see them throughout the day and probably finish in the middle of that pack. I would never have guessed that this decision would shift my race into a largely solo effort, and that I would be facing the ultrarunning demons on my own terms.

The next four miles were a blur of climbing and rolling technical trail, as I found myself working harder in a pack of unfamiliar racers. I hiked West Hill hard then traded places with some runners as we exercised our respective strengths and weaknesses on the varying terrain. Coming into this race, I wanted to push a little and test some limits, having finished every previous ultra with some gas in the tank and wondering how much harder I could have worked. This section is where I started to follow that intention, and I would spend much of the race chasing these limits.

The sun started to show its strength through the sparse canopy on the east side of the hill as we dropped 1000 ft into Naples. This was one of the largest single descents, and actually one of the easiest with somewhat soft trails on relatively decent footing and fresh legs, though the switchbacks and oddly terraced terrain contributed to what would be an overall punishing run for most of us. A steady stream of us crossed town and rolled into the Naples Creek aid station.

AS 2 to 3 (Brink Hill), ~5.7 mi/18.2 total: alone in the woods

I tried to be quick at the aid station, filling bottles, stocking up on food, and cleaning off some orange paint that was mysteriously all over my hand. This was the first aid station with crew access, and Valerie and others were there to give us a boost (Valerie’s efforts were extraordinary all day). I caught what would be my last glimpse of Laura and the others as I took off back into the woods. Up ahead was High Tor, the biggest single climb of the race: 1112 ft over 1.6 miles.

The climb went pretty smoothly; I hadn’t seen the lower portion in a couple of years, and it was easier than I remembered. The upper portion can be a big mental challenge, as it goes on and on with a lot of false hope of summiting; having climbed this section (and some of the earlier hills too) last winter made this feel a little easier. I got to the top feeling pretty strong and had a bit of easy forest road to shake it off. But this section was far from over, waiting ahead was 3.5 miles of very technical trail with a few hundred feet of climbing that goes unnoticed while scrambling through rough footing. But the surface isn’t the only thing distracting from the climb: High Tor is a very special area with beautiful scenery, and this part of the trail traverses lush carpeted forest overlooking Conklin Gully (the gully leads to a 120 ft waterfall, just out of sight of this race course).

Conklin Gully. Photo by The Ascend Collective.

All this added up to a long time alone in the forest, noticing some real fatigue for the first time as the big hill and now the steady technical climb took their toll. This slow-going remote trail usually offers a lot of opportunity for thinking, but today I just focused on reaching the upcoming aid station and keeping a rhythm as best as possible. Eventually, I ducked out of the woods onto a back road and the Brink Hill aid station (no crew access).

AS 3 to 4 (Italy Valley), ~4.4 mi/22.6 total: crashing down the hill

After Brink Hill is about a mile of paved and dirt roads, and a few hundred feet of additional climb. A handful of us were in sight of each other again, and most of us took the climb pretty slowly. The easy road running was over; this was a slog, as would be all the remaining roads. This road caps off 640 ft of nearly uninterrupted climbing when combined with the trail before the aid station—a detail that went unnoticed in preview runs—finishing a 6.3 mile section with over 1750 ft of climbing. The race had officially become hard.

We finally got a break from the climbing and were rewarded with some incredible views to the west and southeast. Mike (the other Ascend photographer) was at one of these overlooks capturing one of the iconic scenes of the race. The break was soon over, though. After entering the woods, the course returned to increasingly technical singletrack, and then increasingly steep downhill work.

The Italy Valley overlook. Photo by The Ascend Collective.

Thankfully, some of the massive amounts of fallen trees and torn trails were cleaned up, the many turns were well marked, and having previewed this recently I was sufficiently familiar with the trail to just focus on moving forward. It was a tough descent though, 850 ft down in just over a mile, on loose shale and washouts (we would become intimately acquainted with rocks and ruts in this race), switchbacks, and unrelenting steepness (much of it 30% average grade); it required intense focus to go down this smoothly. Finally the woods ejected us into a steamy valley meadow just outside of Italy Valley aid station.

AS 4 to 5 (Italy Turnpike), ~6.7 mi/29.3 total: breaking down

We were glad to see our crews (in addition to Valerie, it was nice to see Jason and Mike). While filling bottles, I took a couple of extra minutes here to regroup and get focused. The first 1/3 of the race was finished and felt pretty good; the next 18 miles would get me to Bud Valley, a major aid station and pacer pickup point for some of the runners. I knew this section could be a bit of a grind on its own, let alone in the middle of an ultra. We were sent on our way to the next climb (a theme of this race: most aid stations are in deep valleys).

Italy Hill presents a long, steady ascent, and you can see uncommonly far as the trail is straight and follows a consistent moderate grade (675 ft over 1.7 mi). The leaders ran this hill, but the rest of us were resigned to hiking. The scope of the race was starting to sink in as I walked up the hill alone. With easy footing and a light effort, the mind had plenty of time to wander and dwell on things. Valerie was keeping track of the other runners I knew, and the latest news indicated I would be alone for a long time. Most of my friends were somehow behind me. Daven, the eventual winner, already had a one hour lead; of course I had no intention of being anywhere near him, but an hour felt like an enormous gap this far into the race. I had hoped to finish somewhere in the neighborhood of Dan, but he had a decent and steadily growing lead. Right now, he seemed as unreachable as the guy I spotted way up the hill ahead of me.

After the climb, it was back to work in Italy Hill State Forest, through rolling mud (about as dry as you could ask for though), grass, and rocks. The air was close and felt hotter than expected on top of the hill. After a lot of work, much of it alone, I started the final climb out of the woods, transitioning from a (very) washed out track to paved road. Then, everything fell apart.

I’m still not certain what exactly broke me down, some combination of factors for sure, but I didn’t see it coming and haven’t yet puzzled out all the details. Italy Hill was barely the longest (so far) segment between aid stations, but it felt much longer. I was suddenly very hot and fatigued, off balance mentally, and discouraged after being passed by some rather fresh looking runners (including Wookie and Jeremy: racers from Baltimore whom I would get to know during the race). Jeff’s parents were on the trail taking photos, and their cheers provided a much needed boost but the effect was only temporary. I tried to eat a Picky bar, but I was suddenly rather dehydrated and couldn’t chew it. And then I stopped, on pavement and exposed to the sun, to reboot a frozen GPS device. The plan was to take advantage of two miles of downhill road leading up to Italy Turnpike aid station. I put in the work, but it hurt and felt deathly slow in the heat.

AS 5 to 6 (Patch Road), ~6.3 mi/35.6 total: a long recovery

Italy Turnpike was all orange, an unofficial #TrailsRoc aid station full of experienced runners. This was fortunate placement: the race had got serious and the heat was taking its toll on all of us, and this crew knew how to take care of us. I spent a long time at this aid station trying to cool off, rehydrate, and get positive. I was introduced to the wonders of pickle juice. Crew and volunteers corralled me into the shade as I staggered around the tables. After the race Valerie informed me that I was a complete mess at this aid station.

After more than 15 minutes at the aid station, I ventured back out to the trail and got back to work. Hydration and staying cool was now the primary focus. I saw Ron taking photos again. Each time he saw me and asked how I was doing, the answer grew less positive. It was pretty bleak this time.

Feeling uneasy after Italy Turnpike. Photo by The Ascend Collective.

I spent the next hour gradually recovering, finding my strength again and passing a few people. But there was only so much recovery possible 30 miles into an ultra. I was clearly not 100% lucid, as I was briefly convinced we had already passed the next aid station after less than two miles, and then thought it was less than a mile away, but there were still several miles ago.

We wound through fields (including a direct line across a full-grown corn field), forests, gullies, stream crossings, another hot road, dry stream beds rattling with large loose stone, thickets and washed out jeep roads, and again I was thankful to have previewed most of the course. Otherwise the aid station confusion and the rugged trail would have made for a long mental challenge. As it was, I could barely remember the sequence of landmarks through here, but eventually Patch Road aid station appeared.

AS 6 to 7 (Bud Valley), ~4.2 mi/39.8 total: new problems

Patch Road had a campground atmosphere, with rustic seating in a forest clearing and guitars twanging on the porch. Wanting to keep the positive feeling going, I was careful to avoid the urge to linger, and stayed only long enough to cool off a bit and refuel. Back to the trail, and the rolling hills gave way to some short but steep climbs and descents. The next aid station was not far away, but the trail continued to wear on us.

We ran on a whole lot of rocky, washed out stream beds and abandoned roads. Photo by The Ascend Collective.

Coming down a steep hill about halfway through this stretch, I suddenly felt some pain around the knee cap, like a classic runner’s knee. This came out of nowhere: I had felt fine all day and hadn’t had any knee problems in years. Descents were painful, flats and climbs were fine. Keeping moving, I attempted various tactics for the downhills. They all hurt the same though, so I resigned to just running down the hills and getting it over with sooner.

Bud Valley aid station had a big crowd, with a well stocked aid station, crews, and pacers waiting to join their runners. Since I had problems chewing a food bar again, I took some time to thoroughly cool off and drink a lot of water while Valerie fetched some naproxen. Somehow I spent over 15 minutes at this aid station before leaving with a mix of concern for the knee and optimism from the crowd.

AS 7 to 8 (Glenbrook Road), ~6.4 mi/46.2 total: finding strength

The exit from Bud Valley is a washed out climb that gradually turns to smooth, increasingly sunny dirt roads. Now fully aware of the heat and hydration challenges, I was careful to stay in the shade when possible, and paid more attention to effort levels and water intake. I knew that the upcoming six miles would present a lot of very runnable sections—great opportunities to make up time—and only one steep descent, so the knee should get a break. I started pushing a little harder.

Several unexpected developments improved spirits even more. At the end of the dirt road, a landowner had put out a water jug and a hose and was cheering us on. The steep descent, a maze of normally hard-to-follow switchbacks, was flagged well, and the soft surface minimized knee pain. In the valley, the trail follows the edge of some fertile bottom-lands and was recently overgrown with chest-high stinging nettles, but some volunteers had cut back all the nettles. I started catching up and passing some now-familiar runners, exchanging comments such as “there you are” and briefly discussing how we were doing. Otherwise strangers, we were developing some real bonds and concern for each other on the trail.

Feeling strong and confident, I pulled ahead through a gently climbing meadow and into open woods, putting together a good power hike up the steep hill into Urbana State Forest (430 ft over 0.7 mi), fending off some new runners who had appeared behind me. I had been looking forward to the next 2.3 miles—relatively level and perfectly runnable trails through scenic open woods—and picked up the pace as much as I could, working progressively harder, getting close to a 10 minute pace on the way to Glenbrook aid station.

AS 8 to 9 (End of Bristol Hills trail): ~8 mi/54.2 total: lost and found

I blew into Glenbrook aid station, glad to see my crew and some familiar faces running the aid station, and they immediately got to business filling bottles and fetching ice. The day was cooling off and I finally felt in control of hydration. I was feeling very strong and happy with the recent miles, and shocked to hear that I was getting close to catching Dan. This was a whole new race.

These good vibes came at a crucial moment: the next aid station was eight miles away and this section the only part of the course that I hadn’t previewed. Regardless of preview runs, I figured miles 46 to 54 had a high chance of stretching on forever, similar to the 30s of a 50-mile race. It was time to get serious with the mental games to stay in control.

I took off alone down the hill (the only really downhill aid station exit), scrambled up the last bit of trail I knew in this area (a nice boost to know the steep climb wouldn’t last long), and followed a short road stretch before entering Pigtail Hollow. The short road section turned into a long one, and I realized I probably missed a turn. Backtracked a bit and found the turn, and ducked back into the woods. These were deep woods, and I was glad to have a built a reserve of strength and positive energy, as this area would definitely have been much harder otherwise.

The horse flies found us somewhere in Urbana forest and were relentlessly circling ever since. I resorted to carrying a stick and swatting at them as they passed, but dropped the stick near the aid stations so I wouldn’t look ridiculous.

Just as things were starting to feel lonely and difficult, I caught up with Wookie (whom I later learned used Twisted Branch as the kickoff to a 45-day trail running adventure) and Jeremy, and hung with them for a while. We had been passing each other all day, and now spent the next couple of miles together, supporting each other through the long remainder of Pigtail Hollow and the descent to the road crossing, passing the time with conversation. As the grade steepened, the knee pain increased, so I passed them and sped down the hill to get it over with quicker.

After the road crossing was the 50-mile mark, a water cache and then a wall of a climb, 350 ft straight up, and I pushed pretty hard. I was ready to finish this race. The ultra math kicked in, counting down the remaining miles and hours with aggressive rounding down. There were still a few unfamiliar miles to the next aid station and the leg pain was spreading, so I could have lost momentum running alone here, but Mike was out taking photos and then I caught sight of another runner and made an effort to really race and try to pass her. This dumped me down into the next aid station a few places up.

AS 9 to 10 (Urbana): ~5 mi/59.2 total: this is an ultra

Aid station 9 was on an abandoned road in the middle of the woods with no crew access, but it was a major milestone: less than ten miles to go, and it marked our completion of the entire Bristol Hills branch of the Finger Lakes Trail system. Even if runners dropped, anyone who made it this far could claim an impressive one-day end-to-end traverse. The volunteers called it “Pub 54” and put out some festive lights and signs, a great idea for those who got here later in the day.

Dan was leaving just as I arrived at the aid station, an unexpected sight, so I hurried to fuel up and get out of there. There was a lot of work to do, but it felt like the beginning of the end. It was time find out what strength I had left. Soon I was climbing with Dan up some tough switchbacks as we discussed the day. After this was a rather steep and rough drop to the next road crossing. I pulled ahead of Dan, gritted my teeth, and finished the downhill as quickly and smoothly as possible over the protests of the leg.

After a road crossing and climb over a gate was Mitchellsville Creek gorge, an exceptionally beautiful area. The trail drops 765 ft over 1.7 miles of soft trails winding through open hemlock forest overlooking the gorge in the evening light. Pushing hard, I managed a sub-10 pace through this; it would have been nicer to find even more speed but it was what I could muster given the leg issue.

These five miles up to the last aid station were a true ultrarunning experience, like I had never had before. I took a fall, somehow the only fall of the day, and landed on soft dirt and pine needles. Getting up required massive effort, not because the fall hurt—it was a very soft landing—but because I wanted to just lay down and sleep. I was so tired, more tired then I’ve ever felt. But after getting up I was amazed that I could still move, and move somewhat quickly. They say you are stronger than you think. I don’t know where it came from, but I found strength here to climb steep hills and run down hills, and do it better than in some short races in the past. The desire to finish was everything, I was focused in every possible way on that goal, fighting the increasing parts of my physiology that wanted to stop the abuse.

AS 10 to the finish, ~5 miles/64ish total: giving it everything

Through a vineyard (a reminder after hours in the woods that we’re in the Finger Lakes) and we were at the last aid station. I downed some cola and grabbed a couple of caffeinated gels for a final energy boost, and quickly addressed a hot spot. I was only there a few minutes, but suddenly the legs were very stiff. The hard work of the last several miles was catching up, and I think my body was trying to make me stop. It was time to face the final climb though, and I shuffled off to the road crossing, shaking off the stiffness and pain.

Coming into Urbana aid station.

Mount Washington loomed ahead. I had previewed this hill and knew that while it was long and steep, it at least was not technical and I had already worked out the navigational mistakes. Into power hiking mode, and up 813 ft of switchbacks over one mile. Stopping was not an option: this last hill would probably break anyone who stopped. Knowing the route allowed me to just go into that mental cave and focus on moving the muscles. I visualized climbing it the previous week on fresh legs and followed that vision as best as possible. Katie had left the aid station a bit ahead of me, and she put in a very strong climb, but with much effort I caught back up somewhere on top of the hill.

Running with someone now, I let my guard down and found that there was nothing left. Every last bit of strength had been used on that climb, but the race was not over. We had 2.5 miles of rough rocky trail weaving up and down the side of the ridge before the final descent. Even though I had seen this trail just a week prior, this section went on forever; I can only imagine what this must have been like for the runners who were unfamiliar with it or had to run it in the dark. I was lucky enough to have some light left, it would be a race to beat the sun to the finish line.

We dragged ourselves along the ridge, trying to encourage and push each other. It was all I could do to keep up with Katie, form was falling apart and it required immense effort to navigate the rocks and roots. She encouraged me to keep up, and I tried to keep us positive by narrating what I remembered of the trail. We hit the road and stumbled along it, a quarter mile downhill, before entering the Triad Trail, the final test.

I told Katie to lead, down into and out of a gully. I had imagined running this last little 100 ft climb (because why not, it was the last climb), but it just did not happen, and she pulled ahead. Finally, there was less than a mile left, switchbacks down the remaining 500 ft of the hill. I was so glad to hear and then see the traffic of the last road crossing, and the crowd at the finish line. I slid down the bank to the road, and as the sun set I was overwhelmed with joy to cross the finish line. After nearly fifteen hours, it was over.

Finished! Photo by The Ascend Collective.

Final thoughts

There are a lot of words up above, but they still fail to really capture the experience. I will be trying to understand that day for a long time. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I worked harder than ever before. It was unforgettable.

Ultrarunning exposes you to challenges that just don’t happen in other types of races. Utter mental and physical exhaustion. The odd feeling of running in the pre-dawn hours. Being completely alone for long periods of time, but at other times, sharing the experience in a very direct way with others. Connecting in a very physical way with the natural world. Searching for the thin line between taking it too easy and the disaster of going too hard. Somehow, through pure force of will, finding the strength to just keep moving and even running when it seems that nothing should be left. Pushing through hours of pain and discomfort. Learning that you can just keep going, and going and going, and not allow your body to shut down until you are finished. How much effort to put into an ultra? More than you think you can is the proper answer in my opinion.

This was a difficult, sometimes brutal course: about 64 miles, nearly all trail, most of it technical with about every surface you could imagine. Up and down all day with 10,000 ft of climb and 11,000 descent, no mountains but a good handful of long hills and steep banks. But we weren’t fighting the trail. We weren’t even competing with each other (most of us, for the most part). We battled our own perception of limits. People often say that about things like running, and I’ve had some idea of what that means in the past, but in this race I really experienced what it was like to transcend your own limits and fears and ego. That is what ultrarunning is really about, I think.

There were some mistakes for sure, and some things I want to improve for next time: primarily I want to figure out the 30 minutes spent at Italy Turnpike and Bud Valley aid stations: was it really necessary? Could it have been avoided? One clear lesson is the importance of cooling one’s core. Otherwise, I’m happier with this than with any previous ultra.

Scott Magee, the race director, devoted years of his life to making this race a reality. He put together a nearly flawless event, and this was the first year of the race and his first ever (!) time as RD. He won over the Finger Lakes Trail Conference and countless landowners, got the local communities excited about the event, and navigated a lot of red tape. He was even out on the trail a week before the race, literally building the last mile of the course so we didn’t have to finish on roads. This is a world class race and I hope it gets the attention it deserves in the coming years.

The volunteers (almost as many volunteers as racers) and aid stations were all excellent. It was great to see a lot of friends and “running family” out there. And of course, a thousand thanks to Valerie, who put up with months of training and ultra talk, and had a very long day crewing us. Her help was critical throughout the day. When I wasn’t feeling great and couldn’t think straight, she was there and knew exactly what to do.

Some technical notes

This post was modified after its initial publication.