The Finger Lakes 50: Ten Reasons to Love My FIrst Ultra

1) It was time. And place. Several of my running buddies in the Catskills have been at me to run an ultra for years now. I’ve always been put off by the cost – not just in travel and hotels, but in training time, and perhaps in bodily damage too. But this winter, on my long Saturday morning runs, someone – I believe I should credit Jim Porter – tipped me off to the Finger Lakes 50. A choice of distance (50k or 50 miles), an easy journey (less than four hours away), a low entry fee compounded by the no-cost on-site camping, all compelled me to look into it. Figuring that the event takes place four weeks before my local annual endurance test, the Escarpment Run (which, despite being less than 30k, qualifies as an ultra according to some online race measurements), and knowing that just about everyone who finishes ahead of me at the Escarpment is an Ultra runner, presumably thanks to the stamina that comes from those extra miles and hours, I figured it was finally time. You can’t rush these things, you know.

2) Low (repetitive) stress. Unlike major marathons, Ultra Runs have a limited field – the Finger Lakes 50 topped out at 250 runners for three different courses, and the lack of crowds equaled an evident lack of stress. And unlike major marathons, they are typically run in the fields as well – and the trails, and a bit of a road, and a bit of this and a bit of that. You may be running more miles than a marathon, but you’re not pounding the pavement for 26.2 relentless, injury-inducing miles.

3) Slow pace. Alright, so the winner of the Finger Lakes 50k – actually, it’s a 53k – did it in 4:20, a phenomenal sub-eight minute pace, and the winner of the 50-miler did so at an equally astounding nine-minute a mile pace. But the majority of ultra runners take on these kind of distances precisely because it allows them to take their time. All but the top eight runners in the 50k ran slower than a ten-minute mile. (I was closer to 12 minutes.) When you decide to take it slower, it becomes that much more fun – more like an all-day walk (okay, a run) in the park than a three-four hour endurance test on the streets.

4) A camp setting. No, nobody was in drag. But every runner pitched tent the night (or two nights) before the race, at the Potomac Group Campground in the heart of the Finger Lakes National Forest. Many of them brought partners, several brought kids, some (despite the request not to do so) brought dogs. (I had intended to bring the family until the older son’s own summer camp plans sent me off on my own.) Volunteers helped haul your gear in from the main road, and though the Friday night was a feed/fend-for-yourself occasion, everyone seemed to happy to share around the camp fire – be it stories, nerves, or encouragement.

5) The wake-up call. With a 6:30am start time for the 50k and 50 mile runners (a non-ultra 25k, one-time loop set off later), we were woken at 5am by the sound of cowbells. Fortunately, the camp had quieted down by 10pm the previous night, allowing some of us who don’t normally see that time of day unless we’re suffering from insomnia to insist that we’d had the best part of a good night’s sleep and avail ourselves of the free coffee that was all brewed up – and, like us hopefully, ready to go.

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6) The Aid Stations. A race is only as good as its aid stations and the volunteers who attend them, and the Finger Lakes 50 has been running long enough that they not only have the matter in hand, they’ve even given the stations names like South Beach and the Library. For the 2012 race, the stations were extremely important: it was a hot, hot, HOT day (temps in the 90s by mid-afternoon) and for all that the forest provided cover, and the early start helped some of us avoid the worst of it, the occasional jaunt uphill or on open road and field proved quickly draining. So for that reason, it was important that there was not just water at the Aid Stations, but Heed; not just pretzels, but watermelon; not just bananas, but PBJ sandwiches. Other than the Heed, I can’t say too much of the food was truly healthy – it always amazes me how many runners live off corn chips, M&Ms, and high-fructose-dosed fizzy drinks – but between what I had in my pockets and found at the tables, there was more than enough good stuff to get me through.

7) Friendship. There were several of us up from the Catskills, of which only myself and Lisa Glick, part-timer singer with 60s girl group covers band the Ponytails, were Ultra Virgins. My friends Doug Freese, Stewart Dutfield, and Jim Porter had all been through this sort of thing before; so for the first few miles, I stayed with them; I was determined not to shoot my load, so to speak. (Our local ultra champion Sheryl Wheeler won the women’s race in 2011; I did not try and pace her on this course!) But when push comes to shove, I’m younger and faster, and I gradually sped up – possibly a little too much – on my first 16.5 miles loop. On the second loop, I found myself asked about my new Inov-8 Terrafly shoes in the first mile or two; my inquisitor was 30-year old Joel Cisne, a native of the region who happens to be running the Escarpment for the very first time this month. That gave us plenty to talk about, as did our fondness for barefoot running: Joel ran Boston last year – without any footwear – in 3hrs 09 minutes. Admittedly, 2011 was the fastest Boston on record, but still… That’s hardcore. As we passed though most of the second loop without due concern, the steady conversation certainly playing its part in allowing the time to fly by, I realized I had plenty left in the proverbial tank, and asked Joel if he was willing to push it the last few miles. He was game, and we sped up, sped up and sped up some more, finally sprinting to the finish to come through the line together, in 6hrs, 27 minutes. His companionship certainly made that second loop easier, and I look forward to meeting him once more at the Escarpment – where, to be honest, the course is far too hard (and narrow) to allow for such camaraderie.

8) Choose your distance. One of the attractions of the Finger Lakes 50 is that you don’t have to commit to 50k or 50 miles until you pass through the camp site a second time. On a hot day like June 30, a number of people who’d planned on doing the 50 miles – including my Catskills friends Stewart and Jim, and a young-ish lad from Greenpoint I’d met the night before who was doing his first long distance race entirely – bailed after 50k. Nobody could blame them – and nobody had to worry for them being out on the trails, possibly exhausted or, worse, injured, either.

9) It’s timeless. Yes, that’s a little nod to the Born To Run theory that we are all ultra runners at heart. But more to the point, this was perhaps the only race I’ve ever run without a watch. Figuring that I was doing it largely for the experience, very much so to prep for the Escarpment, and that I had absolutely no benchmarks by which to check my time other than at the half-way mark, I decided to run according to instinct. It worked. I came through the first 16.5 miles in 3hrs, 05 minutes. I must have spent a solid 10-15 minutes at camp there – I even went back to my tent for supplies – which of itself certainly helped me set off on the second loop thoroughly refreshed. I then resisted the temptation to ask Joel for a time-check throughout our second loop. When we came through the finish line, we were on an even 6hrs, 27 mins, which means I ran near enough an even pace throughout. I came 30th out of 100-plus. And I felt great both during and after the race. I should probably take my watch off more often.

10) Post-race cheer. After coming through the finish line and replenishing myself according to custom and instinct – V8, a root beer, a Clif bar, and a clean-off in the pond (there are no showers on site!) – it was time to unfold the deck chair, open a cold one, and join in the growing crowd of finishers loudly applauding… the growing crowd of finishers. This was an endurance test all of its own: those who braved the 50 miles, and there were over 50 of them, were out on the course all hot afternoon, the last of them coming in after 8pm. Their reward: like mine, a necklace medal in the functioning shape of a bottle opener. There was plenty use for it as the evening wore on – the winners got growlers of beer from Watkins Glen micro-brewery Rooster Fish – and given that the majority of us were camping through the Saturday night as well, there was no penalty to pay for knocking back a few. While the beer was provided on a bring-and-share-your-own basis (I provided a growler of Crossroads Outrage, the finest IPA in New York State), the race organizer, Chris Reynolds, laid on an endless post-race cook-out that included veggie (not vegan) burger, veggie (not vegan) beans, baked potatoes, pasta salad, and yes, no shortage of meat for those so inclined. Logic tells me I burned at least 3300 calories more than usual over the day, but I think I may actually have woken up heavier than the day before. And though I was a little heavy of head and legs as well, by lunch-time I was contentedly pitching tent a few miles away, in Sampson State Park, in anticipation of a couple of days on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. But that’s another story… In the meantime, my thanks to Chris Reynolds and her team for a faultless – and stress-free – event. And to my running friends for recommending it. Next year’s Finger Lakes 50 is already marked on my calendar.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. Matt

    14 April, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Nice review. I have run escarpment as well but 2014 will be my first test if a “ultra” at the Finger Lakes 50 and I was glad to see the comparison on your review. Escarpment has to be the best run I have ever raced (not in terms of time) but overall fun and excitement. I look forward to a similar experience at FInger lakes! Again thanks.

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