By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
Last summer, when some eccentric buddies announced their plan for a 50 kilometer trail run, I offered to be the designated driver. I imagined that the experience would bring me comic relief in the strange world of ultra-marathon trail running.
The 50K course consisted of two 25K loops through the Finger Lakes National Forest. Since I had been running well, I thought I could run one 25K loop, instead of waiting around for 7 hours. To prepare for the trails, we trained on the Highland Forest trail and the Erie Canal Towpath.
Race day started with a comedy of errors. Despite a bad alarm clock, a wrong highway exit and an empty gas tank, we arrived at the Start Line with 5 minutes to spare. There was no time to warm up, but who needs a warm-up before a 50K run?
The disclaimer on the race entry listed sprained ankles, broken bones, cuts, bruises, insect bites, lacerations, collisions with animals and heat stroke as real possibilities. It reminded runners to close the gates when they entered or left cow pastures. Finally, it urged runners not to litter the trail, and to bury any human waste and bodies.
At 6:30am, the race director recited the disclaimer and warnings, then blew the start whistle. Sixty-two sleepy shadows moved in unison. The field sorted itself in the first few minutes on the roads. When we entered the woods, the trail narrowed to a few inches. We moved in single file, walking at times, heads down, watching for roots and rocks.
We came out of the woods into waist-high pastures. The glorious sunrise awakened us and the fresh country air filled our lungs. Cows greeted us with a friendly moo call. We settled into a slow efficient shuffle that would carry us for hours. Small talk between neighbors replaced the early silence.
There were four aid stations on the course, offering drinks and food. I drank two cups at every stop, and ate a handful. The course took us through hardwood and pine forests, a dark ravine with its own monster, a mountain top overlooking miles of beautiful scenery, and more pastures and perplexed cows. The trail was dry and firm in places, wet with ankle-deep mud in others.
I finished the 25K loop in just under three hours with a sprained ankle, a few insect bites, and mud up to my waist. The warm sunshine and the smell of chicken barbecue persuaded a few runners to stop running and to start socializing. Some fifty runners embarked on a second loop. The winner finished 50K in just under 4 hours. A dozen runners went onto a third loop to complete 50 miles. Spouses relaxed in the sun, awaiting their partners, in the hope of a PR and the promise of a good dinner.
The race party gave me more insight into the loneliness and loveliness of endurance trail runners. The 62 strangers that met in the morning had become family by noon. These were peaceful people, unhurried, and literally down to earth. They were a stark contrast to the vibrancy and energy of the colorful multitude of road runners in big city races.
The attitude of these endurance runners was one of cooperation and collaboration. Runners took turns leading on narrow portions of the trail. The leader looked for trail markers, alerted the pack to dangers, and pointed distractions. On this run, the competition came from within each of us, the will to carry our bodies over the distance.
My first trail run gave me a beautiful introduction to endurance running. I left the forest with sore muscles, fond memories, and a certificate to prove it. I had discovered a new world of running, in which runners commune with nature to reach a higher state of being.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the trails and hills of Pompey. He may return to the Finger Lakes Fifties for the people and the food, but he has no desire to run either fifty. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.