The Inaugural Twisted Branch 100k Trail Race
August 29, 2015
Race Report – Rob Feissner
Edges. Borders. Boundaries. We are fascinated by them and drawn to them. They are often the most interesting places to explore. Who doesn’t enjoy the transition of field to forest, or the thrill of escaping the woods at the tree line of a mountain climb? We love sitting on the beach where the land borders the sea, testing our nerve in the surf. We are exhilarated as a plane takes to the air, but grow quickly bored by the flight only to re-awake as we approach the ground. Boundaries provide us with something new and exciting to see, something that takes us beyond our experience. Having never run farther than 33 miles, my motivation for registering for the Twisted Branch 100k ultramarathon was crystal clear. It was a tantalizing and distant boundary, and I needed to see what was on the other side.
Some borders are very hard to cross, like in my case, the starting line. In typical Feissner fashion, I started walking from the campsite at Ontario County Park with Dan Ostrander and Margaret at 4:40 for a 5:00 AM start. As we walked up the road, I tried to grab a quick drink from the hose of my running pack. Nothing came out. Huh, it was a brand new bladder, so there was clearly a simple explanation; perhaps the quick-release connector was loose? When we got to the check-in table, I said hi to Shana (volunteer extraordinaire, crew, and support), and fiddled with the pack. Nothing worked. I had a little temper tantrum and asked (ok, maybe told) Shana to give it to Mort to fix, and to make sure it made it to the first Aid Station at Clement Road or I was going to have to run without water. I worried that the race was going to be over before it started. As all this was happening, Scott Magee was giving the pre-race talk and starting the race. I stopped to give Shana a kiss, passed a person in a cow suit, and started running. My first 100k was underway, and I was in last place already.
The first three miles of the course felt familiar for some reason and I was happy to be able to make up some time. I quickly caught up to Sean Storie and Dan Lopata and was excited to spend some time with them. There is some serious ultra-experience in that pair, and I wanted to try to channel as much as I could. Pacing is not my strongest attribute in races, and I made it my number one goal to start out easy and hopefully make it to the 50k point feeling well enough to re-evaluate my plan. I credit a great deal of my eventual success to those first 3-6 miles with Sean and Dan. I would hit a flat stretch and think “Hey, I can really pick it up here! Sean isn’t running faster. I should not run faster now.” This happened many times heading to and through Aid Station 1, where I found Shana recording times… with a full and working bladder for my empty backpack. The day was looking up.
The descent into Naples was fun, uneventful, and full of nearly audible utterings of “I should not run faster now.” I was feeling great after 12.5 miles and lingered for only 3-4 minutes while grabbing a few bites of food and a Munk Pack for the road. I headed out to one of the biggest climbs on the course, the climb up through Hi tor. We were entering Muddy Sneaker territory, and I felt like I was coming home. The climb was tough, but not the killer I thought it would be. I power-hiked the climb up to the jeep road and managed to pass a few runners on the way. The way to the Brink Hill AS was the Sneaker course in reverse, so I put my brain on autopilot, but still managed to miss the left turn to where the Sneaker’s AS #1/#3 is located in the spring. I discovered this fact when I saw four runners running towards me (what a sinking feeling that is), luckily I only had to back-track a few meters, whereas my new running partners had faced a longer detour. Nonetheless, I was happy to have some company in Jeff Green and Laura Rekkerth. Both wrote fantastic reports of their race. Click on their names to read them now… they are better than this one.
It is crazy how much faster a run can seem to be with company. Jeff, Laura, and I chatted, but we weren’t carrying on an in-depth conversation. Even so, Aid Station 3 at Brink Hill came and went in a flash. There was activity, there were runners in sight both ahead and behind, and I settled into a philosophy that I had been formulating after my last few adventure races; If you don’t need something during a transition or at Aid Station, don’t linger just because it is comfortable. Aid station time is still race time, but it is not moving time. Unless I really needed something, I was going to grab and go for the rest of the race.
The next section was a quick 4.4 mile section that was predominantly downhill, but it was a rough and chewed-up downhill. On this section I caught up to Chris O’Brien, who I was hoping to get a chance to run with. He was chatting with an out-of-town runner named Ambyr about the Rochester racing community. Clear through to the Italy Valley aid station, we regaled Ambyr with the awesomeness that is the Rochester Trail Scene, Goose, #TrailsROC, The Ascend Collective, and even a little podcast called “Running Inside Out”. We ran into the Italy Valley AS at mile 22.6 together and grabbed some fluids and food. Mike Welden, crew chief for Chris, Jeff, Matt, and Laura, was a welcome sight to see because he is always supportive and encouraging. As Mike tended to his runners, I slipped off onto the next section.
I had been looking forward to the 6.7 mile section to the Italy Turnpike station since the start of the race. On the Thursday before the race, Shana and my sons, Collin and Logan, volunteered to mark this section. They took pictures of a lean-to, some awesome single track trail, and a gorgeous stream crossing. Knowing I would be seeing these in the next section put some energy in my stride. The course elevation profile shows the climb in this section to be one of the bigger ones on the course, but I don’t remember it being that difficult. I think this is where I settled into a determined rhythm of relentless forward progress. I hit the marathon point without knowing it because I had set my watch to only show me elapsed time, current pace, and average pace. I didn’t want to know my mileage for fear of getting overwhelmed.
A full crew from #TrailsROC was waiting at the Italy Turnpike aid station, #5, at mile 29.3. It was getting hot at this point, so I was happy to change my sweaty and dirty socks after the descent, toss some moleskin on some developing hot spots, and grab a handful of ice. I also found a praying mantis on my shoulder which someone told me was good luck, so I took that as a good omen and took off again. Some cows told me where to turn off of the road and back onto the trail.
The 6.3 to the Patch Road aid station was, on paper, one of the least hilly sections of trail. In reality, it was also one of the most challenging. Fatigue was starting to become real, and the terrain was technical. I started a game of leap-frog with Ambyr that would last until the finish. She would catch up with me and we would run for 10 minutes together, then find a burst of speed and take off. I would catch up an hour later and do the same. I finally landed at the cabin on Patch Road and had my pack filled with water. Shana was there to take a picture or two and she lifted my spirits. One more solo section left before I would pick up my pacer, Katie Mertz. I was excited to have someone else look for course markings for a while.
I can honestly say that I don’t remember the 4.2 miles to the Bud Valley Campground. I had passed, without knowing exactly when, the edge of my distance running experience. Every footfall pushed me further towards a new edge… a 50 miler, a double marathon, a 100k. All I had to do was keep moving to a new goal. It was about half way through this section that I looked at my watch and realized I had been running for eight and a half hours. Surprisingly, that fact relaxed me, rather than stressed me, because I knew was over half-way done. Hour 8 of an adventure race is often still considered “early in the race”, so I was mentally far away from any “dark places” or demons. Over the past four years, I have raced in numerous races over 24-hours long. I think the mental training of those long efforts was a huge factor in my positive outlook for the duration of the Twisted Branch.
Who doesn’t get excited seeing Michael Valone coming into the finish at a race? In this case, I got to see him at the bottom of the road leading to Aid Station 7, the Bud Valley Campground, cheering and yelling as if he was running himself. It was a welcome sight to see a familiar face after a long and lonely 4.2 miles. Mike Welden and Mike Ryan were there also, telling me that I looked good, which I really felt was a charitable lie. They also told me that Katie Mertz was waiting for me and that they had made her nervous by telling her that I was going to make her run fast. I jogged up the road to reassure her that she was in for a long, long, hike peppered with some jogging. I was a hair under 40 miles at this point and I was still confident I would finish, but I was taking more time to walk as every mile passed. Having a pacer at all was not something I had planned on for Twisted Branch. I had settled into the assumption that I would tackle the beast alone, relying on only drop bags and the aid stations for support. This was my mindset until early packet pickup at Medved the Wednesday before the race when Katie asked if I wanted her to pace me. I was surprised that anyone would so easily volunteer to spend a Saturday doing what could easily become a hard, miserable, and thankless job of pushing a runner through nearly a marathon distance on trails. I had no idea whether I would be tolerable after 40 miles, let alone 63. I was also worried about being held accountable for finishing! If I went alone, then I would only be letting myself down if I dropped… every other person that was added to my support team was one more person that I would disappoint if I failed. I knew Katie was more than capable, and I couldn’t see any real downsides, so I agreed. We would be a team, and it was probably the best race decision I would make.
Aid station 7 was the longest aid station stop of my race at just under 10 minutes. I was finally getting sick of the race food I had brought with me, and I needed something real. I had a few slices of orange and watermelon, a pair of quesadillas, and tried a PB&J sandwich. I also grabbed a few more Munk Packs which I have grown to love as race food. Katie and I had 6.4 miles to the next aid station, and it was finally time to talk about what Katie was likely to expect. We ran out of the aid station, me running left and continuing on the road and Katie turning right onto the marked trail. See? Having a pacer was working out even before the aid station was out of sight.
On the way to Glen Brook, I told Katie my strategy. I was walking up anything that was significantly “up” and running anything that was rolling or mostly flat. I had long ago abandoned a pace routine of running 5 minutes and walking one, because the trail never cooperated. I asked Katie to keep me honest and push me to run when the trail allowed. I was also starting to feel my calves and ankles getting angry around this point. The downhills were what I began to worry about more than the ups. We also discussed strategy. My goal at this point was simply to avoid getting passed by anyone. I had been passing all day and was feeling good about my pacing. I mentally switched my mantra from “I should not run faster now,” to “I should run faster now.” Katie and I chatted and enjoyed they trail through the Urbana State Forest, and then suddenly we were at the next aid station. It wasn’t the fastest section pace-wise of my race, but having company made it fly by.
Glen Brook was surprisingly busy given how few people we saw on the trail. The short downhill into the aid station gave my knees and calves a workout so I had a quick sit while Katie chatted with the crowd. I noticed Ambyr come in immediately after I sat down, so I cut my break short and told Katie we were going to get back out. I shared how Ambyr and I had been leap-frogging all day and wanted to try to put some time between us. Katie told me that “I won’t let her beat you,” and I was psyched to find that I had a pacer with her own motivations! The trail to Aid station 9 was a huge 8-mile section with one big drop into Mitchellsville Road and matching climb on the other side. On the trail, we would make up some space on Ambyr, only to have her and her pacer show up a mile or two later. We realized that she was hammering the more runnable sections but was slowing down a lot on the hills, whereas we were maintaining a more consistent pace and were pushing the climbs at a faster pace. Knowing that the last 10 miles of the race were all hills, we decided to stick to our current strategy and hope for the best. We reached the climb after the Mitchellsville Road crossing and found the cooler of ice-cold water we were told about at the last aid station. It was fantastic to have a cold drink but the hill ahead of us was a brute. We powered up and were shortly greeted by some easier running around Lake David. Despite my aching legs, I really appreciated the scene and soaked in the view. After the lake, I started to lose focus a little and relied on Katie’s navigation which, despite her own prior warnings, were spot on. Just as I thought Aid station #9 would never show up I hallucinated that I saw Guinness advertisements on some trees. I figured I was about to enter a dark place in my motivation now that the mirages had started.
My fantasies came true. I told Katie miles back that if Aid station #9 didn’t have salt potatoes or soup, I was going to simply run through in hopes there would be a banquet in Urbana. When we dropped into Aid Station #9 at mile 54.2, cleverly named “Pub 54”, we were offered Guinness, shots of whiskey, and gummy bears, among other standard aid station fare. I was flagging at this point and needed a pick-me-up, and having two of my most favorite things in one place was more than I could have hoped for. I inhaled two cups of Guinness and two cubic meters of gummy bears. Sugar rush/crash be Damned, I was in heaven. Ambyr showed up shortly after and we congratulated each other on hitting two new achievements on the last section… our first 50 milers AND our first double marathons. The race could have ended right there and I would have been satisfied. But it wasn’t over, and I had one last frontier to cross, so we took off.
9.5 miles left. I was teetering on a fine line after leaving Pub 54; I was alternately full of energy and excitement because this was almost over and I was going to do it, and I was also really feeling bad on the downhills and was worried about the two major descents in front of us. A little less than half-way through the 5 mile stretch to Urbana, the trail crossed a road and went down a tractor-road in a cornfield. My judgement was questionable at that point, so Katie volunteered to scout ahead to make sure we were on the right path, which we were. The remainder of the trail to Urbana was a mostly gorge-side descent into town, similar to the trails overlooking Conklin Gully in Hi tor (but more runnable). I said out loud how awesome this piece of trail is, and I hope to visit again when my calves and ankles can enjoy it. On race day, however, I just did whatever I could to keep moving. I trotted down straight sections backwards to use different muscles. I sped up to try to run through the pain. I used Katie as a rabbit to keep me moving, and she motivated me with little shouts of “This is runnable,” and “Want to try running this piece?” Eventually, the sound of cars and trucks in town could be heard through the trees. I love being in the woods away from the sounds of civilization, but a noisy muffler was like sweet sweet music to me.
It was still light out when we trotted into the Urbana aid station. Shana was taking splits and was waiting for me. I don’t think I sat down at all, I was so excited to see her and I knew that I was on the home stretch. I finally let the reality of the day settle in… I was definitely going to complete the Twisted Branch 100k. I could walk the entire last 4.5 mile segment and still make the final cutoff. My long day of consciously ignoring my mileage ended one aid station back, and all I had left was the equivalent of a quick run around my neighborhood. Shana’s aid station selfie with me captures how happy I was to be there. I could have stayed there all day, but I had a neighborhood jog to finish, and I really wanted to see what Scott had cooked up for a finish line. I put on my headlamp and ran around a field, was greeted by Jeff Darling, and told to have fun on the hill. Katie and I were off into the twilight for that last neighborhood run.
My neighborhood is flat. The last 4.5 was not flat. For the past 15 years, Goose Adventure Racing’s Muddy Sneaker had earned the reputation for having the most punishing trail race finish. I’m afraid that the torch must be passed to Scott Magee’s Twisted Branch 100k. I have climbed multiple 14,000’ peaks in the Colorado Rockies. I have not felt as humbled on a climb as I did trying to get up to that damned blinking light on the hill separating me from the beach on Keuka Lake. I knew it was coming, and I knew that Matt Bertrand had calculated the grade to be around 34%. There is a very real possibility that his decimal point was accidentally shifted one place to the left. I entered my own personal version of grumpy perseverance… I put my head down, stopped talking, and stomped up the hill as fast as I could. I bet I looked like a 4-year old that didn’t get the cookie they asked for. Katie told me she thought the ascent was tough, and that made me feel a little better. After countless switchbacks I realized it had gotten very dark, so I switched on the headlamp and was very relieved to see reflective trail markers. I was worried about following the trail in the darkness with a quickly diminishing capability to think clearly. As we climbed up and over the hill I alternated between internally panicking that we were lost and getting reassured when I saw a reflection in the woods.
When the trail started sloping downward I knew we were on the final stretch. My legs also let me know that they were on their final stretch. Every downward step made me wince. I grabbed two fallen branches (Twisted branches?) from the ground, tore off the side twigs, and fashioned walking sticks. They weren’t great, but they did the job. As a last bit of luck at the end of the race, we caught up to a runner as we hit the dirt road on the descent. I was not expecting to see anyone else before the finish, and my competitive nature kicked in. As soon as the course ducked back onto the trail, I opened up and gave it all that I had left in the tanks. I felt like I was throwing down 7 minute miles on the trail. Strava tells me I was doing a blistering 14 minute mile. Even so, it was enough to create a gap that grew until I couldn’t see anyone behind us. Katie and I descended through the switchbacks towards the lake as a giant full moon filled the sky where once there was a hot air balloon. We heard shouts of “runners coming in,” and we ran towards volunteers in glowing vests. We were guided across the street and down through a grassy field to an archway lit with Christmas lights. The last 4.5ish miles took 1 hour and 54 minutes. It was finally over. A baker’s dozen style 100k, in which the Race Director tosses in a free 5K in case some of the purchased kilometers aren’t up to snuff. A trail marathon plus another trail marathon, plus a trail half marathon, one after the other. A crazy distance that, after the fact, seems impossible. And yet it was possible. I finished smiling and got a huge hug from Katie. Mort, my teammate and fellow Goose was timing the finish. He came over and gave me a hug that broke three of my ribs. I saw people that I didn’t see at all on the course because they were killing it on the trail all day; Jamie Hobbs, and Dan Ostrander. As soon as I finished and changed out of sweaty clothes, I started shivering, but found some relief at a roaring campfire. I stuck around to cheer on friends as they finished; Laura Rekkerth, Matt Bertrand, Chris O’Brien, and Sean Storie. I got a massage. I met back up with Shana when she was able to finally abandon her post at Aid Station #9.
85 registered, 78 started, 47 finished. I placed 24th in 16 hours and 25 minutes. I could not be happier with the day. So what did I learn as I ran from field to woods and forest to corn field? As I ran from the hills to the edge of Keuka Lake? As I ran towards, and past, and eventually more than doubled my prior longest run distance? As I pushed my boundaries, moved my edge of experience? I learned that Scott Magee can pull off a World Class Ultramarathon race in the Finger Lakes with no prior directing experience. I learned that the Finger Lakes Trail is a gorgeous and well maintained trail system that I need to explore further. I was reminded how supportive the trail running community in our area is. I was reminded how amazingly patient and supportive my wife, Shana, is to all of the nonsense that is involved in getting ready for a race, and that on top of that support, is excited to volunteer to make sure she can share in the excitement. I learned that I will never again run 100k. I learned that waiting a week to write a race report changes one’s perspective on ultra-distances enough to render the prior sentence meaningless. Scott… get next year’s race on the calendar. I have some training to do.
Gear: Julbo Cargo Sunglasses, Buff headwear, Nathan VaporAir hydration pack, Saucony Peregrine shoes, Smartwool PhD compression calf sleeves, Smartwool PhD ultralight socks (1st half), Darn Tough hiker ¼ (2nd half), The North Face Better Than Naked shorts, Outdoor Research Echo tee.