Oh man, that was some race. A bit of background first. I had graduated the year before and while I was still running with High Noon some, I wasn’t on campus every day and thus wasn’t really training. In fact, a week before the race, I’d biked from Poughkeepsie back to Ithaca with a friend, so most of my exercise was on the bike. But I was 22, so whatever. I don’t really know why John Saylor recruited me for that leg—maybe the team competition was different then, given that he and Aaron were already running it.
And more background. Aaron Pempel was probably a senior in high school, or at most a freshman in college then—he was a few years younger than I was, and I was pretty sure he was faster than I was. I’m not sure if this was the first trail race I ever ran, but it was probably close if not. I’d run a lot of cross country, but had never had to do trail navigation in a big way before. And since I’d been off biking, I’d never previewed the trail.
So the leg starts and Aaron goes out like a bat of hell. I was able to hold onto him for a while, but this is a real problem for me because my strategy was to follow him the entire way, assuming that he knew the trail. To this day, I don’t know if that was true, but at some point, it starts raining. I’m desperately trying to keep Aaron in sight, which is becoming harder and harder because I’m wearing glasses, and they have drops on the outside and fog on the inside. I’m tearing through the trails as fast as I can go, getting ripped up by briars and brambles the entire time since I can’t be careful.
Then, all of a sudden, I almost run into Aaron, who has essentially stopped. He hit the wall, and just started walking. Now I’m in the lead, and have almost no clue about where to go. Luckily, we’re fairly far along at this point, and I follow the obvious trail until it pops out on a road, where I see that there’s a checkpoint. I run down to the checkpoint and ask where I get back on the trail, and am told that I just have to continue up the road for another half-mile or so, and then the trail is clearly marked on my right. I do that… and can’t any hint of a trail. Just nothing. So I’m jogging around trying to find it when I look back down the road and see Truck coming toward me.
“Perfect,” I think, and settle in to wait for him. He catches me a bit later and I explain my predicament and tuck in behind him. We ran together for a while after that, since there was no way I’d have been able to find my way, but at some point, it becomes clear that it’s just a long downhill into the finish at the Tioga County Line, so I blast the downhill for the 30-second win. Might not have been the nicest thing to do, but I’m blaming it on being 22.
My legs looked like hamburger, and I could barely walk the next day. It wasn’t the farthest I’d ever raced at that point (the Ithaca Marathon half-marathon relay was), but it was close. Good times!