About the Race
The Wakely Dam Ultra is a (roughly) 33 mile running race along a very remote section of the Northville Placid Trail from the Wakely Dam to Piseco lake. There are no crossroads or aid stations. The event is self-supported, so runners are expected to carry all needed food and equipment, and either carry water or fill up at streams or lakes along the way. The trail is reasonably straight and narrow, with a variety of different technical terrain including hills, rocks, roots, and mud, but is generally runnable. Here is a picture of the runners before starting:
Before the Race
Last year I barely managed to squeeze in enough runs to survive the race, constantly recovering from aches and pains, and overcoming mental obstacles to make the impossible possible. Learning how to stay fueled and hydrated for a 7+ hour run was a giant leap into new territory for me. Luckily I had lots of encouragement from two friends, B and H who had also signed up and were going through all the same things I was.
This year has been very different, things have gone incredibly well despite pushing dangerously hard. I started with a relatively easy early-season marathon while pacing B and worked my way up to the Boston Marathon which ended well, but not without significant suffering along the way. All the while I had Wakely sitting at the top of my priority list. I knew there would be really tough competition at Wakely this year, and because I was feeling strong, I felt an intense determination to become part of that competition. By the time the Lake Placid Marathon came around, I had gotten aggressive with my running. For the first time I abandoned all the running safety rules like tapering, recovering, etc. I ran hard during the week leading up to the marathon, ran a good race, then ran hard afterwards. H got me running a 30 mile run along the Robert Frost Trail a week later. Then a week after that, on a 17-hour day hike over 9 or so high peaks on the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. With lots of tough races and training runs in between including several pre-work Tongue Mountain loops and Moreau 15k runs. As a final preparation for Wakely, B and I ran a 26-mile run around the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, at the last minute tossing in Pharaoh Mountain for good measure.
Then of course, 6 days before Wakely came the Boilermaker. Having grown up in the area, the Boilermaker is the biggest holiday of the year in my family. In order to be sensible and save my strength for Wakely, I chose to not run at 100% effort, and kept it down to more like 99.9%.
By Wednesday after the Boilermaker, my leg muscles were terribly tight showing no signs of loosening up. With only 3 days to go before my most important race of the season, I needed to dive into the accelerated recovery program. That could only mean one thing: a 15k loop around Moreau Lake State Park, which I have completed 10 times or more this season. I was in a bad mental and physical state for this run, and tweaked my ankle and nearly broke my pinkie toe taking two of the nastiest falls of the year. Halfway through the run I wanted to cry and be safe in my car but had no choice to keep moving. From this point until the start of the Wakely Dam race I carried with me the sickening belief that this sequence of runs meant I was never going to be able to run 33 miles on Saturday.
I always experience major race anxiety and phantom pains before a race I care about. And this was the worst. Laying awake in my tent the night before Wakely, I reached a very low point where I gave up all hope of doing well, that my ankle would never survive even a few miles. I was miserable. But part of me knows it’s all just nerves.
We woke up super early to catch the 4:30am bus from Piseco Lake to the Wakely Dam. The drive takes well over an hour, during which time I wolfed down a big breakfast of cold oatmeal with raisins, nuts, and of course Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
The morning of the race, I was mentally exhausted, it had been an extremely busy couple of weeks. Physically I felt great. Mentally I was a wreck. Knowing that I was in no state of mind to stick to any kind of racing plan I didn’t try to make one. I knew this race could only go one way: run way too fast at the beginning and fall apart, with no hope in the world of holding it together for 33 miles. I was just too excited to go about it any other way, to suggest otherwise would be kidding myself.
At the start of the race, I ran off ahead with N and another runner behind me and A leading the way. We chatted and ran comfortably until A stopped in the woods for a rest room break 6 miles in, leaving me in the lead. I immediately came across an intersection. I blazed straight through, glancing at the sign, misreading it horribly. We descended into an area of lean-to’s with no familiar blue markers in sight. Trails shot off in 4 different directions. We probed down each trail, quickly determining that none of them was the right way. Finally N suggested we head back to the intersection. We did, and rejoined the steady stream of runners making the correct turn.
At this point I abandoned what little sensibility I had started with. I took off determined to quickly catch up to the lead pack. First I came upon B, who was chatting with J at the time. Boy was B surprised to see me. They informed me that H and several runners were not far ahead, so I ran by to catch them. I ran hard and eventually regained my spot in the lead. I repeatedly got spooked that I was going the wrong way and reversed my direction until a fellow runner assured me I was on the right track.
I crossed a wooden footbridge where a DEC officer was standing. I gave him a wave and a smile, asked him how it’s going. His response, looking at the sandals on my feet was a disapproving, “Interesting choice of footwear”. Then I think he put a hex on me because no sooner had I left his site when I disappeared down another wrong trail. The false trail was very convincing until it hit a stream where it completely disappeared. Must have been a water-fetching trail. I stood there stammering for a while but eventually turned tail to find the real trail again. Along the way I could hear fellow runners in the distance leading the way without me.
Once I reached the trail, the correct direction was obvious. A hanging tree limb led me astray. Now I was back to spastically chasing down the lead group. It took a while but eventually I caught up to a group of 4 runners including H. I wanted to stay with them for a bit, but as soon as they said J and another runner were not far ahead I panicked and took them up on their offer to let me scoot ahead. I was looking forward to running with the lead runners for a while. However, J and the other leader were crouched at a stream filling up on water when I caught up to them. The second runner was shocked saying, “you got lost AGAIN!?!”. I wasn’t going to stop and wait, so I continued on solo.
Not a thought crossed my mind about anything but running like a freak into the blue yonder until the halfway point. With 16.5 miles to go I assessed my situation. I have been running full steam ahead for the first half. J, my most worrisome competitor can’t be far behind, and he’s been running a conservative pace with the intention of running very strong during the second half, picking off runners who, lacking discipline, went out too fast at the beginning. That would be me. If I ever see J again, he will speed past me smiling from ear to ear, making easy work of crossing the finish line first. My only hope is to keep my berzerker pace going and don’t ever give in to temptations of any kind. Never stop. Any kind of stopping quickly turns to fixing things that weren’t broken a minute ago, which leads to more fussing, and eventually it’s hard to get the engine started again. Particularly as exhausted as I feel. I need to continue to put distance between us with every possible footstep and just pray not to bonk too badly.
My simple hydration strategy for the Wakely resulted from very recent experimental discoveries about myself and not overhydrating. After running Boston, I had a feeling there was something wrong with my old hydration strategy. I had drank loads of water all day the day before the race. I pounded a tall glass of water several hours before the race. All this hydro loading felt wrong somehow, like maybe it would throw my electrolytes into an imbalance instead of storing up hydration like it was supposed to do. I started searching the internet for information on how to properly hydrate, and came across Waterlogged, a 600-page bible debunking the Gatorade research and marketing that has pushed us to drink way more water than we need for a race. On our 7-hour training run at Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, I drank sparingly, I don’t think I drank more than a liter and a half, and rehydrating afterwards went more easily than usual. This could have been partially attributed to the fact that it wasn’t super hot and that I am conditioned, but the fact remains that drinking sparingly was surprisingly pleasant. So for Wakely, I put 2.5 liters of lightly salted water in my Camelback, and had no plans to refill. The result was that I never stopped to pee or refill. I finished the race with more than a liter in the reservoir. I will admit that I was unable to comfortably eat a Clif bar because my mouth was too parched. I would have consumed more water had I realized I had so much to spare. However I didn’t feel any hydration issues at all apart from that, and rehydrated very easily after the race.
So I continued my ridiculous pace, and at this point forward it felt clear I was desperately carrying out a doomed mission. But, I reasoned, my choices are to give up before I’ve given it my best shot, or keep going. And without ever stopping at any point in the race for any reason, momentum carried me along. My legs got really sloppy, it felt like a Kamikaze run over rocks and mud. The sandals depend heavily on the foot gripping the sandal. A few times I got a case of mudfoot which means my foot is sliding all over the place, cramming my toes into the toe strap and my heel into the heel strap, threatening to break me, my sandal, and making it really difficult to run fast. Persevere, and eventually it will dry off or a much-needed foot washing station will appear.
At one point the trail creeped to the left of a really horrible disease-filled swamp. I didn’t see the trail and leaped and stumbled into the waist-deep nasty water, green slime splashing all over me and my food. I was concerned that by eating goo packets or putting the Camelback pull tube in my mouth I would catch something unspeakable. On another occasion my momentum stumbled my upper body into the forest, ending with a dive between the trees like I was sliding into home plate.
The first half of the race is largely uphill, but it feels great on fresh legs. This is followed by a few miles of descending. After that is a section of four miles or so that look flat on an elevation map but for some reason are devastatingly brutal. I believe everybody slows down dramatically during this section, and I’m not sure why. Mentally its the low point of the race where all seems hopeless. It culminates in a final climb after which it crests and is wonderfully downhill from there. Except for a few tough sections, the trail gradually gets better and better with each passing mile. Despite feeling exhausted, exhilaration builds as the smooth, soft, and wide downhills just keep coming. I’m not bonking, I’m running! Just try and catch me now! A major stream crossing lets you know the end is coming. If you made it this far, there’s no stopping now.
The night before we had explored the last mile or so of the race. It includes a turn I *never* would have made, I was really happy to know before-hand what was coming. The last section of trail was a deep grassy swamp which meant slow going. After that it opens up Piseco air strip, finishing with a long run through a grassy field with Race Director D leading runners to the finish on a bicycle. It felt great to see the finish line in the distance, and to be able to look back and not see the Goliath who had been chasing me this whole time. This meant I could run at a sane pace to the finish.
J crossed the finish line just 3 minutes later. Both of us had beaten the previous course record. For me this was the culmination of an absurd amount of obsessed running: 30 mile bonk runs, all out races from marathons to 5k’s, I still can’t believe it’s over.