[I realized I never completed and shared the story from my first Ultra Challenge effort on July 5th. I wrote about 75% of this the day after finishing, got busy with life, and forgot. I’ll write (and post!) another one in the next few days for the August 9th run while it’s still fresh in my mind.]
Just like last year, the decision to start the run at night was last minute. This way if I had to be home at 2:30 p.m. to watch the kids for two hours I wouldn’t have to drive home, go back out in the late afternoon, and possibly contend with thunderstorms in the evening. I could just focus on running one course and then the next without any detours or distractions.
I also vowed not to repeat a few major mistakes from my 2022 Ultra Challenge:
Do not attempt to run the longest trail course in the dark, even if it’s one of the first courses you do.
Make sure to have a functioning Lightning cable in the car to charge your iPhone so you don’t have to knock on the race director’s door after running 50 miles and beg for a spare one because you rely on RunGo for the final course.
Getting Lime Hollow done in daylight was imperative. I’m not over familiar with Lime Hollow Nature Preserve’s convoluted network of short, twisty trails. There are plenty of opportunities to take wrong turns, especially in the dark. I also wasn’t sure if I’d get busted by the cops or a ranger if someone spotted my car in the lot at some ungodly hour. The course is a 30-minute drive from home, so it made sense to do it either first or last to cut down on time spent driving while on the clock. Dryden Lake is close by and I wanted to do that one at night to avoid 13.1 miles of blazing sun, so the lollipop was second. The all-asphalt Ludlowville Loop looked like an easy 11-mile night run as long as I had RunGo going, and easy access to the Dryden High track made it an obvious venue for the Sweet 1600, even at night.
The middle courses were a toss-up. I thought it would be fun to run the Scenic Circuit at night with no headlamp needed under Cornell’s ample street lights. From there it was all geographical: Ellis Hollow, Six Mile Creek, then across town to Cass. I chose to run the Lakefront Loop before Black Diamond so I could get it out of the way while the sun was lower in the sky. The BDT is longer but at least it’s mostly under the trees. Blueberry Patch, being the furthest from Ithaca, was last so the drive back wouldn’t count toward my elapsed time. I was hesitant about running the only technical course on tired legs during the hottest part of the run, but figured my past experience with summer ultras would make it bearable.
I scanned the first sign at 7:56 p.m. knowing I’d have more than enough time to get off the trail before sundown. The short course didn’t require much stuff, but I wore my small Orange Mud pack to carry my phone for Webscorer and RunGo and added a 20 oz. bottle in the back for good measure. I think I have the route memorized but sought company from RunGo Rachel — that’s her name now, don’t argue! — to avoid any early mile snafus. I spotted 4 or 5 rabbits on the field trails and a few deer in the woods. Thankfully I finished well before dark so I didn’t have to see those creepy gnome/troll statues leering at me from the shadows. I finished drenched in sweat and promptly tore off my shoes socks and shirt so I could dry off during the drive to Dryden. 4.5 miles, 44:31.
Dryden Lake Lollipop
I pulled into the old railroad depot a little before 9:00, donned a dry wardrobe and my Nathan bladder pack, and immediately set off in a trot. My goal was to follow Damian’s strategy of trying to average a 10-minute pace for every course except for Blueberry Patch.
For some reason the main roads through town were teeming with traffic. Good thing I wasn’t in any big hurry waiting to cross. After 4 miles a nice bogside breeze greeted me with gusto, making for a pleasant middle third of the run. The stars shined brightly in the country sky along Lake Road, making the solitude that much more pleasing. Shortly after turning back onto the Dryden Lake Rail Trail I realized my headlamp had been set on low the whole time. I switched it to high and it magically became easier to run a 10-minute pace with no extra effort. 13.1 miles, 2:17:04.
Next up was Ludlowville, but with a quick stop at the Lansing High School track to run in a circle four times. On the way over I stopped to grab an extra bag of ice for my cooler and downed a cliff bar and some Mountain Dew along the way.
I pulled into the empty high school lot just before midnight and I’ll admit I was nervous about drawing attention and having nosy neighbors call the cops. I quickly turned off the car and its headlights and made my way downhill to the track. The moon was bright enough to leave my headlamp off and it was warm enough to go shirtless. I was kind of tempted to channel my inner Chili Pepper and run the mile completely naked but was still worried about getting busted. I mean, good luck explaining it to the Lansing PD and avoiding a long stint in Arkam Asylum. I ran the four laps and moved on, and even picked up a few points in the Challenge standings by bettering my pedestrian mile time. 1 mile, 8:57.
I’d only run this route once before, in daylight, so having RunGo Rachel boss me around was a must. I drank about 10 more ounces of Mountain Dew on the drive over, hoping to keep my energy level up enough to avoid sleepiness without getting too amped too early. The ploy worked and I was able to run the whole loop minus the steeper climbs up Brooks Hill and Gulf Road.
Walnut Ridge Dairy Farm was rockin’ all night. I got heckled by a bunch of insomniac cows and it looked like people were working the graveyard shift in the big barn. The farm stench was almost unbearable and reminded me why I haven’t been too motivated to run that loop since my first time. A mile or two later I remembered what I’d been missing with a smooth downhill cruise. I ran hard up the last little hill through town to ensure I’d break two hours and rewarded myself with more sucrose in the form of Gatorade and watermelon. 11 miles, 1:57:13.
Cornell Scenic Circuit
The driving time from Ludlowville to the Newman Arboretum was long enough for rigor mortis set in, forcing me to walk the first three minutes to loosen my lower limbs. This had become routine in my three previous Ultra Challenge runs and I haven’t yet figured out a way to prevent it. Warming up with a walk-to-jog before scanning each sign is pointless. Nothing to do but deal with the Frankenstein monster walk to start each run.
After the initial walk I was still energized enough to run the whole course, only taking walk breaks on each of the three staircases. My mind buzzed elsewhere, not with sleepy thoughts, but with normal long run thoughts — I forget what, exactly. They always seem genius in the moment, like solving some mathematical equation that both ends world hunger and identifies DB Cooper, until I realize after the run how stupid my ideas are, if I remember them at all.
I don’t recall much else of this run other than expecting a slow grind up Tower Road but finding myself in a flow state instead. I think I picked up the pace intentionally to break one hour. 5.2 miles, 59:18.
Ellis Hollow Creek Crossings
This one is so short I didn’t carry anything but my phone inside a waist belt. It was more a hike than a run; I didn’t want to trip or go off course so I just took my time. It was enjoyable to have the preserve all to myself at 4:00 a.m. I opted not to take a detour into Adam’s backyard pond and risk DNF’ing in a jail cell. 2.2 miles, 32:08.
Six Mile Creek
I started down the Rec Way with a headlamp on but only needed it for about 10 minutes. I actually felt more comfortable running over rocks and uphill on the gorge’s singletrack than on the Rec Way itself. By this time the reprieve from repetitive footfalls was a blessing. I got the little out-and-back to Coddington out of the way first to shorten the final straightaway coming down from Burns, but the last 2 miles still felt like an eternity. 6.5 miles, 1:20:34.
Lakefront Loop 5k
7 down, 3 to go. I went for Lakefront next because it wasn’t shaded, so I could finish with the sun lower in the sky. Tons of people were on the Waterfront Trail running, walking, or biking, at 7:00 a.m. on a random Thursday. This run was like a slow moving blur — I can’t remember much else about it. 3.1 miles, 32:38.
Black Diamond Park to Park
I donned my big Nathan pack and started at a trot while calling to say good morning to Hayley and the kids before she took them off to daycare. They were both super excited that I was doing the Runners Club Challenge. At 3 years old, the boys love to talk about FLRC and Red Newt Racing, and they sort of know about the Challenge because they always ask about the lawn sign in our front yard.
I told myself no walk breaks until the turnaround and somehow made good on that promise. The return was mostly an 11-minute-per mile shuffle with a few brief walking breaks thrown in. I carried way too much water and gels, expecting to take closer to 2 hours. After scanning the sign I immediately began mentally preparing myself for the dreaded finale at the Finger Lakes National Forest. 8.3 miles, 1:36:48.
The day was shaping up to be a hot one, but at least the trails were guaranteed to be drier than usual. After the 30-minute drive and gear prep, it was almost 10:00 when I scanned the final sign. The first mile went well enough, but then I started to overheat while also battling mental fatigue for the first time in this, ultra effort. The Interloken and Gorge Trails are both technical enough that I walked a lot, worn down by 55 cumulative miles in my legs since the previous night. I was so burnt out by 3 miles I took a wrong turn on the Interloken and had to double back, then did the same at mile 6 when I turned the wrong way on Burnt Hill Road. All this with RunGo Rachel giving verbal orders. I just couldn’t concentrate enough to pay attention! I finally managed to dissociate myself from the discomfort by visualizing myself receiving an Ultra Challenge sign at the FLRC picnic. That worked for the final 2 miles. I ran it in hard for the final 0.1 once I reached Picnic Area Road. 8.5 miles, 2:10:55.
Elapsed time was 16:11:55 and cumulative running time 12:20:06. The cumulative time was an Ultra Challenge PR (in 4 finishes) by only 38 seconds. Had I known it would be so close I might have mustered extra motivation to move faster on Blueberry Patch.
The stage race style of this event and all the various ways to approach it are why I keep doing the Ultra Challenge. The course order, weather, time of day, and in-between-courses strategy make for a different experience each time. (Not to mention the new set of Challenge courses each year.) Thank you to Adam for setting it up and keeping it going, and to everyone who followed along in real-time via the leaderboard and/or FLRC forum.
I’d really love to see more people attempt the FLRC Ultra Challenge! 24 hours is a generous time limit and many people are capable of doing more than they might think. If anyone who reads this is considering it, drop me a line and I can offer specific advice and possibly serve as crew and/or pacer.