Palmers Pond 50K. aka Palmer’s Creek. aka LOL. aka Kid in a Candy Store.
great vibe at the starting line. something you can’t put a price on. most remote exit off a rural interstate, drive up a dirt road to the top of a hill, find the tents, pickups, and camp fire, that’s the race. by the time i had finished the race, you could still count on your fingers the number of cars that had passed the site. colin the nervous new RD. most people there knew each other, and would all get to know each other better. colin’s directions were thorough and amusing. discussion about who would clear the cobwebs, and whether todd beverly, holder of the #TrailsRoc golden axe, would clean up the trail for us.
was chilly at the start, me being one of the least dressed of the runners: short shorts, tech shirt + wool shirt, light gloves, cap. was ready to run it hard though, knowing full well that a 50-miler practice run (one of my original plans for the day) was off the table because i can’t resist race mode. gear just a handheld bottle, a gel stashed in one pocket, a picky bar in the other pocket. inched toward the front of the crowd.
looked back to say bye to Valerie, and with a word we started (i love these low key trail races where it seems everybody just starts running with no horn or gun or other hoopla). i took off in front with eric, he wasn’t racing but we would share a couple miles on the first lap, with super-trail-dog picasso excitedly showing us the way. i probably owe a lot of energy to starting the race with those two.
pretty much instantly we all realized when Colin said this was the “dry” loop, this was strictly relative to the other loop that we would see in five miles. but it didnt really surprise me, and i actually thought conditions were pretty decent so far, given the terrain and recent weather and time of year. long rolling hills. lots of wildlife.
ok, here’s what i really want to talk about. this place felt alive. alive. no, really, alive. wildlife, wild hills, wild trees, thorny plants defiantly growing in the middle of the trail. you could see and smell and feel the earth waking up from winter: ground softening and drinking fresh water to saturation, running water coming out of nowhere and traveling down and across the trail. some nice stream crossings. pools of clean clear water on and around the trail, full of frogs eggs. moss, spring shoots, colonies of ramps, tunnels of bright green conifers with soft red carpets of needles beneath. skinny whiplike branches of new growth reaching across the trail at eye level, tall old trees making us feel small, soft rotting wood returning to the earth. more sounds and evidence of wildlife than rochester-area trails; i flushed a bunch of grouse and a flock of turkeys. witnessing the awkward wonder of a turkey flying a couple hundred yards straight down the trail. the power and unpredictability of weather, past and present, making itself known: impressive blowdown, trees struck by lightning, uprooted trees forming huge earthen walls, warm sunlight, cold wind, rain, snow, sleet, hail. this land would not be tamed.
at the aid station, Valerie asked, are you bleeding?, but it was just muddy water dripping down my legs: the blood of the earth. on the first lap i tore down dead branches to clear the way for other runners, in exchange young briars tore at my legs; there was balance in everything here.
yes, most of the trail was atv doubletrack, but the earth had its way with even the trail itself, throwing it up long rolling climbs, pitching the path into odd cambers, adding ruts and heaves and brush and limbs and runoff and washouts and mud pits and vernal pools (and veritable lakes), deep shadow and harsh exposure, and forcing us off-trail to bushwhack careening through rough thorny woods with living obstacles thrust into our path at every concievable angle. these were not groomed recreational hiking trails. i had the sense that most of the humans who used these trails came here to hunt, to feed their families directly from the forest. but humans did not and could not own this land.
after the second loop (ten miles in), i took off my gloves and wool shirt because i was warmed up and the forecast called for gently increasing temperatures. two miles later, i was in the middle of a blizzard, visibility down to nothing, bare hands clasped (where footing was good enough that i could do this without dying) under my shirt behind my back to stay warm and running even faster to stay warm. this was where i really started to give in to the call of nature and live in the moment. i just laughed at the situation because what else could one do? crashing blindly downhill with sleet stinging my face, rocks and mud under my feet and brambles whipping my legs, i hollered out loud and the wind laughed with me: i was having an absolute blast. this became the theme of the day: the race would pull out some new unexpected absurdity of a challenge, and i would just laugh and dive in. colin said i was smiling the whole time, “like a kid in a candy store”.
to thrive in this place, to run this race, was to accept the power of nature and let it into your body and mind. to live in the moment and not just survive but honor and enjoy what we were given. and i did find joy, peace, and a sense of belonging in that forest, a sense of being alive, to a depth that i almost never experience. after the first couple of miles, i ran alone for the entire race, but i wasn’t alone–the presence of the forest was so real. it told me stories as i ran, it asked me to listen when i walked, it asked me to see when i stopped, it offered water and demanded blood, its soil mingled with our flesh.
this race stripped us bare of our protective shell of civilized life, left us exposed to nature, our emotions, the strength and the limitations of our bodies. each time i crossed paths with a runner, i feel like we spoke to and understood each other not (just) with words, but in a more direct way, the original language of wild things that is in all of us but lays suppressed by the abstractions of culture.
i would love to visit this same course in every season. i picture snowshoes in the cold deep silence of winter; steamy hot green summer; a gorgeous breezy fall display.
a few other observations from the day:
- myself and some others expected possible PR conditions: atv trails, rolling hills without too much elevation, cool temperatures. by the end of the day, myself and some others had put in our slowest and most diffucult (and well-earned) 50Ks
- one runner ran an “accidental” ultra: he had planned for 11 miles, never previously ran more than 20 miles, but through latent talent and willpower, the good (bad) influence of friends, and a willingness to just walk into the unknown, ended the day with a 50K finish
- really all of the runners were amazing
- that aid station table. a feast. potluck style ultras are great
- i miraculously never fell. but it seems that every race i don’t fall, i do lose my hat. usually, it’s a prickly vine or something that pulls my hat off, this time it was a thorny tree branch, but at least i scored a point for knocking the branch down too.
- race execution went well; aid station visits were relatively quick (though i still have much to learn), nutrition and hydration felt just right, which is something i am trying to work on
- legs were sore and tired the last ten miles (especially when stuck halfway over a log, trying to maneuver legs that don’t want to move), it took a lot of willpower to run with any speed the last five miles, but i had just enough mental/physical energy left to finish with some modicum of strength
- mud is so much harder than hills. eleven minute miles felt like a sprint sometimes. applied the lessons learned from last year’s muddy Finger Lakes 50s: ran the runnable sections hard, and did a water/calorie/recovery check and aid station pre-planning every time i was forced to walk
- having grown up in the southern tier of NY, this land felt like home. colin and I talked about this during the race: it’s hard to explain, every forest and hill has a certain identity and locality, so you can feel in your bones when you’re in the land you came from
- getting to choose the direction and sequence of the last two laps was great. a confidence boost to get the muddy loop done early and in the preferred direction, and to look forward to a “fast” finish on the most runnable end of the “dry” loop
- colin is a most excellent RD and he needs to continue doing this stuff. my award was maple syrup made by his family from trees on their property. finisher medals were hand made by colin right in front of us. very cool. thanks for everything Colin.