A WILD AND SCENIC ULTRA CHALLENGE
I really enjoyed the Ultra Challenge in 2021 and missed out last year. So, when the courses were posted, I couldn’t help but start thinking about what order to do them. It would be my first time on most of the courses, and as in 2021, I chose not to physically scout any of the locations in advance. It’s more of an adventure that way. Lime Hollow and Ellis Hollow websites indicated their trails were open dawn to dusk. I planned to account for that so as not to cause problems if there were nearby houses with barking dogs that I’d disturb. I already had a pretty full ultra calendar, but when Many on the Genny was pushed to July 22, June opened up really well for a Challenge attempt.
I went through several iterations on the order of courses. I wanted to maximize seeing the “new” courses in daylight, while still being efficient with the drive times. Since I’d be coming from Syracuse, I was biased towards starting with the eastern courses and finally settled on Sweet 1600 at Dryden HS, Dryden Lake Lollipop, Lime Hollow, Ludlowville Loop, Cornell Scenic Circuit, Ellis Hollow Creek Crossings, Six Mile Creek, Blueberry Patch, Black Diamond Trail, and Lakefront Loops 5K. Since Dryden Lake was a lollipop course, I could start in the dark to arrive at the loop around the lake at early dawn, and then repeat the return leg in daylight. This order also knocks off the two longest courses in the morning.
Using Google Maps, I estimated the total driving time from Dryden HS to Lakefront Loops at Cass Park as 3 hours. For my slow and steady ultra approach, I conservatively estimated running time and other overhead between runs at 18 hours. This gave me a total time of 21 hours. (Full disclosure, slow is the only option I have anyway!)
I was flexible on the date but if I ran June 10, it would work nicely for another ultra adventure a few weeks later. When the Canadian smoke arrived, I kept checking the forecast and AQI levels. Fortunately, it cleared up in time, though I checked again early Saturday morning before heading to Dryden. Everything looked good. Let’s GO!
Sweet 1600 (1 mi / 1 mi)
Rolling into Dryden from the north a little after 3 AM Saturday morning with Tom Petty on the radio, I turn west onto Rt 38, looking for Dryden HS. I hope the place will be dark so I can sneak in, run my 1600, and be gone undetected. Hah! The parking lot is bathed in a million lumens! Please, no one show up asking why I’m here. Explaining the FLRC Ultra Challenge at this hour could be met with some skepticism. Anyway, if you leave the lights on, Lions, then expect guests!
I think the inclusion of the Sweet 1600 in the FLRC Challenge is a brilliant idea for the interesting worldwide opportunities, but it’s not really my thing. After a test of manual timing with Webscorer, I step from the car into 48 degrees and a foggy dampness. I stroll up the slope to the track, where without stretching and no warmup, I complete four laps on a track for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.
Dryden Lake Lollipop (13.1 mi / 14.1 mi)
My favorite 2023 Challenge course experience! So much wildlife!
Exiting the car at the trailhead in Freeville, I am simultaneously relaxed and excited! I’ve driven through Freeville and Dryden countless times on the way to and from other trail adventures, always bypassing this one. I am happily anticipating the unknown trail ahead!
The air is still 48 degrees and damp, so I don a long sleeve overshirt. I strap on my running pack, which I will wear on all remaining courses. I will not change out of my road shoes until Ellis Hollow. Clouds drift by the quarter moon. It is nearly 4 AM with early dawn not even an hour away - I grab a headlamp anyway.
Thankfully, my wish for the initial paved section to be short is granted. I run without the artificial light for a while. The trail surface is soft and smooth with foggy-wet short grass underfoot, the path sufficiently visible. A rooster crows at 4 AM and the slightly sour scent of silage at a nearby farm is in the air. Soon after, it’s something else – not that wretched nauseating scent of fresh spray but still strong. I switch on the headlamp now, and fortunately, there is nothing further to report.
I hear the creek on my right and see moonlit fields through breaks in the trees and at road crossings. I stop in the middle of Main St. in Dryden. Silence from a sleeping village. I continue south on the Jim Schug. Fresh needle growth at the end of the evergreens lining the trail is transformed into a beautifully distinct snow-like glaze by my headlamp. Very, very cool! Just after some maintenance buildings, a pair of green glowing alien eyes stare me down from the right. It’s a deer and he does not move until I am arm’s length away! I continue on, cross South St., and before knowing the trail veers to the right on the other side, I run straight up a gravel driveway to a house. Oopsy!
It is still cool but humid and I am sweating some. Dawn is yawning awake. The intermittent bird song has grown into a cacophonous chorus of ten thousand voices after I pass a large pond on my right. There are more wetlands on my left. I run smiling.
I pass Keith Lane to begin the loop around Dryden Lake. I cross a bridge, and soon after hear a loud squawk. From my right a giant pterodactyl takes off and soars low overhead. No, wait! It is a beautiful great blue heron. Sorry, I often get them confused. Not much later, a mallard couple are alert to my presence. Since the big pond, I have seen the remnants of egg shells where turtle eggs have been dug out, presumably eaten by raccoons and other critters. Such sites are more numerous near Dryden Lake. I see no turtles on the trail. Did enough survive this year to maintain the natural equilibrium, I wonder.
It is a tranquil blue-gray morning of mist rising over Dryden Lake. I take in the view and try to steady my hand for some pictures in the low light. I do not want to hurry by.
The road section is not far after and has a beautiful vista over Dryden Lake, some scenic countryside, and these curious fellas…
I descend to the trail to retrace my path to the car. Along the way, a raccoon scurries across the trail in front of me – does he have a bellyful of turtle eggs? Another great blue heron takes off from my right, then, a while later, one takes off from my left when I am really close.
A large beaver swims on the surface of the big pond. He is well offshore but still disturbed when I take a few steps in his direction and submerges before I can take his picture.
Two things are in abundance as I run inbound. First, are the rabbits. As soon as I pass one group darting off the trail, more appear in the distance. Second, is the flavorful fragrance of the wild phlox. These purple and white wildflowers line so much of the trail. I saw them earlier in the morning but did not detect their fragrance. Perhaps the damp foggy air suppressed or absorbed it then. They are now a sensory feast!
I return to the car very happy. What an awesome trail to start the day!
Lime Hollow (4.5 mi / 18.6 mi)
My second favorite 2023 Challenge course experience! Such a beautiful gem!
Driving to Lime Hollow, I have breakfast: half a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter and honey, and most of a Mountain Dew. I pull into Lime Hollow for the first time ever, after driving by so many times in the past. The drive is short but long enough that I have a chill. The temperature still hovers below 50 degrees and it is a bit humid. I grab my printed map for backup and start RunGo to lead me through this labyrinth. It is almost 7 AM and I have the trails to myself.
I start out on the Trail for All and then a short stretch on the Kroot Art Trail, where I am glad it is day – nighttime silhouettes of some art pieces might have spooked me! I run along, enjoying the fields and the pretty woods, turning as RunGo directs… then a sudden loud rustle to my right! A bird flies from the near brush. Ten feet beyond, something rushes towards me through the underbrush! It is moving fast and hard to distinguish. I run back down the trail several yards. Still, it rockets toward me! I run farther and still it charges Aha! It is one PO’d grouse with its feathers ruffled. I change tactics and run toward it, waving my arms, and yelling, “OOGA-LOOGA-LOOGA-BOO!”, like a maniac. The ruffed grouse immediately turns and flees for cover in the brush. I call it a draw. (I think this was on the Lookout Connector just before the High Vista Trail.)
I continue on through some beautiful woods before turning for Jack’s Way (and his dragon). RunGo cues allow me to just wander along the beautiful trails without stopping to figure out the turns on my map. Just after the pavilion, I trip and fall – hard enough to stay down a few seconds. Fortunately, the worst damage is a mangled right pinky finger. I am on my feet again and soon at the bog, where I pause to “bask in the brilliance of the bog”. I take some beautifully brilliant photos of the brilliant bog and bask a while longer.
Eventually, I continue on through more pretty woods and along the Lehigh Valley trail. I stop for a moment to enjoy the old-timey Lime Hollow Band before picking up the trail back to the car.
It is a gem of a course!
Ludlowville Loop (11 mi / 29.6 mi)
My third favorite 2023 Challenge course experience! Scenic country road running!
I leave Lime Hollow under a light sprinkle of rain. It ends after I pass through McLean. This is my first time to Ludlowville. As I head into the parking lot, two Challengers in the park are scanning the sign to begin their runs. I step out of the car and still feel good. Neither my legs nor my back are complaining yet but I know this will change over the next 11 miles of road. It is a beautiful morning to run! I walk over to view the falls on Salmon Creek (very interesting with the overhanging ledges!) and then begin.
I do not know what to expect starting upstream, but discover the creek valley is broad and the road nearly flat with a few small ascents for the early miles. I am running slow but steady and pass the other two Challengers along this scenic stretch of Salmon Creek. The creek winds shallow and lazy, there are wildflowers in places, I hear a woodpecker, and later an owl.
Brooks Hill Road comes sooner than I expect. Even before then, the gray morning clouds have lightened and thinned. I heat up from the effort of the hill climb. Once on top, I am running again and soaking up some sun and the expansive country vista along Holden Road.
Hardie Farm and Walnut Ridge Dairy at the next turn are very impressive! I suspect they farm the fields I have seen for a while now.
I am at the halfway point of the loop and after continuing past Walnut Ridge, the road descends. Fortunately, it is unpaved here and my legs are thankful for that. The road has been taking its toll for a while now – hips, groin muscles, quads, and hamstrings are equally unhappy on both sides. I run the narrow gravel strip off the edge of the road when possible. Five miles of road feels worse than forty miles of trail. Surprisingly, my right knee with the torn meniscus feels fine with only a compression sleeve over it.
The bottom of the descent crosses a beautiful creek and I don’t mind the climb up the other side. Gulf Road offers a nice view into the ravine carved by this creek. At Conlon Road, I turn and begin another long ridgetop stretch of scenic country vistas on this beautiful day. A mile later I am quickly passed by a fellow gray-haired Challenger in a Cayuga Trails 50 race shirt. He is running fast and smooth!
I reach Brickyard Road and despite the downhill grade, take it slowly. The legs really hurt at this point and I walk the steeper descent after the high school. It has been a pleasure to do this route but I am happy to finish. I grab a cold Mountain Dew and slice of watermelon from the cooler to go with some Wavy Lays potato chips for the drive to Cornell.
Cornell Scenic Circuit (5.2 mi / 34.8 mi)
The two longest courses are behind me, it is not yet noon, and after Cornell, no more pavement until the Lakefront Loops… imaginary fist bumps for that! My elation takes a hit when I try to exit the car after the 25 minute drive to the arboretum. My leg muscles hurt and resist my intention to move! I start with a walk, which evolves to a hobbled shuffle by the wildflower garden. The stair climb to Judd Falls Road finally loosens them up and I can run again!
There are numerous people on the Cornell campus – not unexpected at mid-day but it is also a big alumni weekend. It is definitely warm now and I look forward to the Cornell circuit. After crossing the bridge at Beebe Lake, I climb the stairs and pop out at… an observatory! From here to the suspension bridge is all new to me.
I am using RunGo again so that I don’t miss a turn… except I do! On the trail to Palmer Woods, the audio cues me to follow the trail along the edge of the field. Soon there is a junction where a slight left curve through the field turns out to be the correct route but I stay right along the edge of the grassy area (field?), pass a disc golf basket, and return to the road. This does not seem right, so I check the RunGo map – I am off course. I did not receive a RunGo audio cue at the junction. I believe RunGo is a little behind or ahead of my actual position at times, which I notice later at Ellis Hollow and Six Mile Creek. It is not an issue, except that I will curse it on those courses when told, “You are at the top of the climb”, while I am actually at the base looking up. Within Palmer Woods, at the top of the descent, there is another fork in the trail. I start to the right. Naturally, this is incorrect. After checking the map, I backtrack and go left. At the bottom, I discover either way ends at the same spot to cross the road.
I run through Cayuga Heights, marveling at the older homes and a swath of large rhododendrons in peak purplish bloom. There is a large group exiting the suspension bridge over Fall Creek when I get there, and another group at the far end. I walk the bridge and pause in the middle for some pictures and to watch the turkey buzzard soaring above the gorge on the north side. I will not repeat the words I had with RunGo after it tells me to run up the stairs on the other side.
The paths and sidewalks of Cornell are busy with people but it is not a problem… I just run them over… NO, of course not. They move aside for the smelly, deranged looking man running at them! I enjoy the campus sights and reach Tower Road.
Why did the ultrarunner cross the road?
A double dose of CDB (Cornell Dairy Bar) Bavarian Raspberry Fudge and Beebe Black Raspberry mid-course costs me 10-12 minutes in line but it is so worth it! My only regret is I didn’t get one for each hand. I walk until I finish it, then walk a bit more until the greenhouses. It is very warm now and I am over halfway through the Ultra Challenge at 1 PM!
Ellis Hollow Creek Crossings (2.2 mi / 37 mi)
Though it is a short drive to Ellis Hollow Nature Preserve, I chug another Mountain Dew, and my legs hurt again as I get out of the car. Here, I remove my road shoes and grimy socks, apply more Vaseline to my feet, and don fresh socks and my roomier, well-worn trail shoes. I can feel my toes smiling!
It is my first time to these trails and I am intrigued by the numerous creek crossings in the description. I start up RunGo, walk until I pass the kiosk, and then enjoy over two miles of beautiful shaded forest trails. The creek crossings are low on water, and some nearly dry. Early on, I hear some kids playing and splashing in water they have found. I remember days like that! I encounter a small brown snake basking on the rocks in a dry stream bed. I enjoy the ups and downs, especially the bigger climbs and descents on the red trail. These are very nice trails and this feels like a recovery run after the pavement!
Six Mile Creek (6.5 mi / 43.5 mi)
I drive the back roads over to South Hill Rec Way, consuming more chips, watermelon, and Mountain Dew en route. My legs exit the car with mostly just the normal soreness and fatigue of nearly 40 miles today. I start up RunGo to make sure I follow the single-track trails correctly. That becomes a good decision as there are many trail junctions.
I follow the Rec Way to the turn for the woods. It is warmer now but the woods are shaded. I feel the miles but I am settled into my slow but steady ultra pace. Many of the cascades are dry, but not all of them.
The trail is certainly dry. Much of the way I am able to look down the slope towards Six Mile Creek. It sounds like there is a swimming hole there somewhere. Today’s route does not ever descend to the creek and I cannot decide whether or not I am disappointed by that. I stop to take a picture of a millipede. He is not the first I have seen today but he might be the last.
I return to the rail trail and continue along to the next trail loop. I am surprised by a red newt! I have not seen one in such dry trail conditions before. I take his picture and watch him a bit before moving on.
Soon after, in a small open part of the trail, I see a two foot long brown and gold snake moving away from the trail. Perhaps he felt my thundering footsteps and decided it best to get out of the way!
As I reach the rail trail again, a group of young hikers is heading onto the trail. I do not tell them about the snake. I now finish out the course on the rail trail. Both earlier and now on the rail trail and rec way, I am never out of sight of others, young and old, walking along. Nice!
Blueberry Patch (8.5 mi / 52 mi)
I finish a Mountain Dew, more chips, and a brownie on the drive to the start. It is 5 PM when I start out on Picnic Area Road. I know most of this route well from several Finger Lakes 50s, but it has been two years since I’ve been here. I carry a printed map just in case.
“Don’t Let the Cows Out!” – slogan of the Finger Lakes 50s. Once on Burnt Hill trail, I am immediately reminded of that by a line of cows heading in the opposite direction of me on the other side of the fence (except for the most stupid cow that decides to turn and follow in my direction). I shall not forget to securely close every gate the trail passes through.
I cross a road and stay on the Burnt Hill trail. I am running a good pace for me at this point. The trail courses have been good to me and my legs mainly feel the fatigue of the prior miles. Most other aches have faded away. I run past a couple of ponds and hit Burnt Hill Road. Just after returning to the Interloken trail, I stop to admire the next pond. I have photos of this pond from every Finger Lakes 50 I’ve run, but I stop and take another.
I walk past the pond and see two turtles on the trail. Other turtles and frogs at the shoreline dive back into the water as I pass.
I continue into the woods and start running again. I finally find three short muddy stretches to run through on these uncharacteristically dry trails. Fortunately, I get to run through them again on the return.
Just past there I see my second red newt of the day and my first one ever in Finger Lakes NF. I take his picture and run on. Soon, after turning onto the Finger Lakes Trail, I see another one. He is more active than the others, perhaps because I nearly squashed him under foot, and he is the most photogenic of all.
I follow the FLT to South Slope Trail to Burnt Hill road. After a short left on the road, I look for the continuation of the South Slope trail on the other side. Tall weeds next to the road obscure the trail entry, which is to the right of the small pond.
I enjoy a relaxing late day run back to the car. The view west is a bit hazy as I cross through the final cow field, but the field is a sea of yellow buttercups. Once at the car, I eat my last slice of watermelon and grab a cold water from the cooler for the next drive. Sunset is still an hour away. The remaining two courses are smooth and fairly flat, and I have 8 hours to cover just over 11 miles. All is good!
Black Diamond Park to Park (8.3 mi / 60.3 mi)
In 2021, the out and back from the Ithaca end of the Black Diamond trail was my final course of the Ultra Challenge. I finished a little before midnight. Though I didn’t see much along that section of the trail then, I still decided I would cover the other end of the trail for this Challenge.
As I pull into the parking lot at the north end, though, I see a sign, “WARNING, the trails close at dark”. I sit in my car a moment to assess the situation. Perhaps it is just a suggestion. Clearly, it makes sense for the gorge trailheads there, but Black Diamond, really? I also conclude “dark” is ambiguous. Astronomical twilight doesn’t end until 11 PM (I checked) and I’ll be back before then. That would be the most favorable scientific standard for when “dark” begins. Good enough for me!
I start at 8 PM. I run along slowly, over a couple impressive bridges and past a nice creek cascading under a bridge. There are a couple of nice open views across fields and I see deer grazing. Dusk has dropped on the trail when I turn around. I now see Venus shining in the western sky. I start to “run” but realize I can walk the subtle return grade just as fast – so I do. I see a raccoon messing around just off the trail. I’m over halfway back before I turn on my headlamp. A bright light in the distance approaches fast. It is a single fat-bike rider zipping along – rush hour on the trail tonight! The return trip is only 11 minutes longer than the outbound trip. I’ll take it.
Lakefront Loops 5K (3.1 mi / 63.4 mi)
I pull into Cass Park and use the RunGo map to find the start sign. I decide to walk the course, following RunGo cues. It is cooler and I grab a sweatshirt. There is not enough light to see the osprey nest, so I imagine it being like others I have seen. I see and hear at least one party boat in the marina, but otherwise, it is a peaceful and quiet finish to the Ultra Challenge.
It has been an awesome adventure!
My total time was 20:13:42 and my running time was 16:12:13, which is four hour difference. During my planning, the total estimate of driving time from Dryden HS to Cass Park was 3 hours. The running time includes my ice cream break and most of the photo time. The extra hour was mostly spent on additional photos and time at my tailgate aid station.
I think my fluid consumption was good, except for the larger than normal quantity of caffeinated soda. Hey! A cold Mountain Dew hits the spot every time. My other calorie consumption was far less than normal: 1/2 a bagel, 2 brownies, 1 Snickers bar, 1 Skratch Labs chews, 4 GU gels, 6 SiS gels, a quart-sized bag of potato chips, a quarter watermelon, and 1 ice cream. I had plenty of calories with me but just forgot to consume them. I think this contributed to the little bonk I had near the end.
If there was any lingering Canadian smoke in the air, I felt no effects from it. Happily, I found absolutely NO litter on any of the trails!