Just keep moving. It was my motto for this race. Don’t stop. Keep going. Forward motion.There’s a famous quote from ultra runner Dean Karnazes that a few of my friends shared with me before the race as inspiration: Run when you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl if you must. Forward Motion! I never considered crawling truly a viable option in a race until I got to the second half of the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon. There were a few points on some long, steep hills where forward motion seemed impossible and crawling sounded like the only way to keep moving. I didn’t actually crawl, but trust me, it was a completely viable option a few times.
My goal going into this 26.2 miles with some 3,000 feet of climbing was to complete it. I was in it to finish, to hit the time cutoffs and challenge myself on multiple levels. And part of the challenge was staying focused on what was important to me, to not engage in the fear and doubt which would hold me back. Let me walk you through it.
The course at Letchworth State Park primarily follows the Finger Lakes Trail starting from the Mt. Morris Dam and ending at the Parade Grounds in the park. It is divided into eight checkpoints, nine if you count the finish line. So I broke down the marathon into nine segments, including a cheat sheet tucked into my shorts as my ability to do math wanes the longer I run.
The first segment is 6.1 miles and a very pleasant run through the woods. I knew it would get harder so I tried to keep a moderate pace (since it was runable) but not attempt to pound anything out. This was going to be a long day and it was going to get harder. I chatted with a few women who ran with me for a while then took off ahead. The staggered start had the fast men passing me in the third mile and they were the nicest runners on the course, polite when passing and encouraging. I reached the first checkpoint and wanted to top off my Camelbak. I followed the pre-race instructions: Hand your bottles and packs to the volunteers and they will get you whatever you need. Only the volunteer didn’t know how to fill my Camelbak and I spent more time trying to fix it than it would have taken me to fill it myself. It was my only real annoyance of the day.
The next leg is only 2.5 miles but the first encounter with some big hills. And here is where I had my first real mental breakdown. At the second checkpoint, a volunteer gently put her hand on my back and offered me encouragement. It was typical runner speak, but the tone hit me just right. She said I looked strong, and while it was hard, I knew I was doing OK. Off I went for the longest segment of the race — 6.8 miles.
That was a never-ending 6.8 miles. It was long. The terrain was mixed. Parts of it were good to run but others had gullies and hills. The humidity was starting to get to me. This was the key stretch. Checkpoint No.3 had the first time cutoff. According to my Garmin my pace was well within range to make the cutoff, with plenty of time to spare. But my average pace was slipping and on occasion that made me nervous. In this stretch I encountered a woman who was walking and looking extremely unhappy.
“Do you know if we’re at the halfway point yet?” she asked me.
“It just so happens my Garmin just reached 13 miles, so yes, we’re halfway home,” I replied, myself extremely excited at this news.
“I’m discouraged,” she said. “I”m trying to figure out if I can walk 13 miles in four hours to finish. I’m not sure I can do this.”
I tried to think of something positive to say, and am sure I offered something about just moving forward, but she was the most dejected woman I have ever seen in a race. Discouraged? I was sad for her. There was no time to be discouraged. If I missed a cutoff, then I missed a cutoff. But I was going to keep trying. I got to the third checkpoint in plenty of time. The fantastic volunteers took my Camelbak and filled me up. The line at the porta-potty was filled with women doing the relay and they kindly allowed me to go to the front of the line. (Thank you ladies. Thank you.) I had made it 15.5 miles. I knew there were still brutal hills ahead, but I was pretty sure I could make it.
There were a few points in the next few segments where I started to cry. It usually came on a particularly difficult hill or when my foot caught a root and sent me to a near fall. (Actual falls = three.) My instinct was to tear up because the gremlins in my head expect perfection. See, you’re not a trail runner. See, you’re no good at this. But every time I stumbled, I took it as a sign to slow down, walk a moment, take a drink and focus. Every time I started to lose it mentally, I looked around. It was beautiful. The forest was gorgeous and peaceful and I was part of it. Appreciate it. Then I was able to pick back up, shuffle through the trails and walk the hills.
My parents made a surprise visit at Checkpoint No. 4. It was a huge mental and emotional lift. Then it was all about getting to Checkpoint No. 6 where my friends Linda and Rick were volunteering. While the course primarily follows the Finger Lakes Trail, most of the checkpoints are left hand turns onto trailheads which take you to River Road and the water stop. These segments, quite frankly, were some of the most difficult terrain. It was all uphill (Checkpoint 6 was practically at the top of a mountain, though I may or may not have just employed hyperbole) and many of these trailheads were through tall grass with lots of mud and ruts. On the plus side, the checkpoints were out-and-backs, allowing you to see other runners. And the refreshed encouragement of those coming down not only helped my spirits but made me feel part of a larger community. We were all in this together. Total strangers who were now friendly, familiar faces. We were all awesome.
I was welcomed to Checkpont No. 6 by my friends and my parents. I was an hour ahead of the cutoff, so I made sure to get some extra fluids and food. Rick, who has done most of the legs on relays the past two years, described the last 4.4 miles of the course to me. Just a few more hills then plenty of opportunity to shuffle along. Off I went.
At the next two checkpoints, I cruised in, took some Gatorade and said hello to a fellow female runner who would ease it a few seconds behind me. We were checkpoint buddies for the last two stops, then on the last 2.2 miles we became best friends. Angel was also doing this race for the first time. We were both in it to finish. Together, we ran-walked a good portion of the final two miles, then took a fast walk. Hey, we were going to finish, we had plenty of time, so we made the most of it. We ran the very last portion, Angel having a bit more kick left, finishing a few seconds ahead of me. As I approached the finish line, I flashed two big thumbs up. I had just completed the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon. That, to me at least, was pretty bad ass.
Overall race impressions: The course was extremely well marked and the event was very well run. The majority of other runners were extremely helpful, kind and considerate, watching out for each other along the way. (One young man stopped to make sure I was OK during one of my mental breakdowns.) The aid stations were well stocked, even for the back of the packers.
Mission accomplished: I’ve been debating if this race was harder than my Ironman and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was. It was exactly what I expected — tough and grueling. It was a challenge physically and emotionally. But inside I was smiling, because there was beauty in those difficult parts. It was an adventure. It pushed my limits. It was a competition I had with myself, not based in performance but rather around if I could live my life big and on my own terms. By every measure that matters, I achieved my goals.