A collection of race reports and other writings of and about ultrarunning, trail running, and other running related topics with a strong focus on the East Coast. The "Beast Coast" has a strong trail running community and some amazing events; this blog aims to showcase some of that.
“Your movement, your effort is a pinnacle of what you can do”
-- Joe Grant
The Twisted Branch 100k is a 64ish mile trail race that makes use of the extensive Finger Lakes Trail system to provide a point to point course from Naples, NY to Hammondsport, NY. The course offers just a small sample of the Finger Lakes Trail system as the trail network in its entirety covers over 950 miles of trail. The trail system is managed by the Finger Lakes Trail Conference (FLTC) and maintained primarily by volunteers. With that in mind, I want to begin this race report with a huge thank you to the FLTC and all of the volunteers who have given their time to build and maintain these trails for me and so many others like myself to enjoy. Your work is truly very much appreciated.
Having never hiked or ran any of the Finger Lakes Trails before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I tried doing a little research before by searching for images and videos of the trails and reading a few race reports from previous years of the TB100k. All the images and videos I could find made the trail look pretty runnable. Nothing I found made it look anywhere near as challenging as the Worlds End 100k course which is the only other 100k I had previously run so I was using that as my basis for comparison. Comparing the course records for the two races (10:14 for TB100k and 11:37 for WE 100K) seemed to support my conclusion that Twisted Branch should be a faster 100k than Worlds End. The race reports I read made me question this conclusion as they often described the trails as rugged and tough. Several of the reports told accounts of chasing cut offs and missing cut offs. In talking with others who had run the course, I often heard it described as tricky, which perplexed me a bit as a course description. I decided to cautiously rely more heavily on the hard numbers of the course records and trail photos as evidence that TB 100k would be a less challenging course than WE and that as long as I a have a good day I would be able to finish the course faster than WE.
Camping Area at the Start.
I began checking weather forecasts about a week out as I do for every race and found that most forecasts were predicting rain for nearly the entire weekend. As race day got closer, the forecasts changed a bit and were only predicting rain over night before the race and during the AM hours of race day. I planned accordingly and packed my drop bag with dry socks and a dry pair of shoes and labeled it for “The Lab” aid station which would be just before the halfway point and hopefully after the rain had stopped. With a plan in place which could not possibly fail, I was ready for race day.
There was a light drizzle of rain as we set up our tent at the camping area near the starting line, but not a full on rain as I thought we might be in for. The registration area was a bit more crowded than most ultras I’ve run. It was also one of the few that I’ve been to that have vendor tables. Altra, Darn Tough Socks, and couple others were there. After picking up my swag bag, having my pre race photo taken, and chatting with the Altra rep for a bit, it was time for the mandatory pre race meeting where the Race Director, Scott Magee, went over race information and safety precautions. Shortly after the remaining daylight began fading quickly so I helped get the kids ready for bed and than put myself to bed in hopes of getting some good sleep before the early 4 AM race start.
Camping Area at the Start
My alarm went off and woke me from a dead sleep, from dreams that I can’t remember. This is a good thing. That means that I slept well. I went through my standard race morning prep: lube (I tried using Squirrel’s Nut Butter for the first time as I got a sample at registration) the feet and areas that chafe, take two Imodium pills, eat two peanut butter sandwiches, and try to poop. With my race morning ritual complete, I headed to the starting area and finished the final check in. I ran into one running buddy at the starting area who was pacing for someone at the race, but otherwise I didn’t see many of the other familiar faces I’ve come to expect at PA trail races. We chatted a bit about the course and how neither of us had much of any kind of idea of what to expect. After a few minutes, the RD began a final pre race announcement and the race was on.
My Friend, Royce
The course starts out on trail just wide enough to run two abreast, but the trail quickly narrows to single track. Starting out the day cautiously, I didn’t want to push too hard to get ahead early and ended up in a bit of a conga line somewhere in the middle of the pack. My initial impression of the trails were that they are somewhat technical with a good deal of exposed roots that were slick due to the wet conditions, but they were completely runnable in my opinion. I began questioning early on if I was taking it too easy to start as the conga line was hiking many of the short and not too steep climbs that I thought were runnable. For better or worse, I reigned in my ego and only passed any other runners when another runner near me decided to make a pass. This meant I was not alone at all until the I reached the first aid station (Cutler) at 6 miles. I ate a gel and shoved one in my vest for later and continued on. Shortly after the first AS, the course hopped onto the first paved road portion of the course. At this point runners began to spread out a bit which I was thankful for because it was feeling a bit congested to me on the tight single track having a runner immediately in front of and behind me for the first six miles.
It's all business at the aid stations.
After about a half mile of road we were back on the trails. I was with a group of about four other runners, two of whom were the lead females who spent the next stretch of trail trading the lead with one another. It was at about this time that the sky really opened up and the rain started to fall. The sun was just starting to rise, but it was still awfully dark on the trails with the stormy skies and shadows from the forest blocking the majority of the light. The miles began to pass quickly and quietly with this group in the rain until somewhere shortly after aid station 3 that I found myself running all alone on a paved road. It was here at about the 17 mile mark that I clicked off some faster road miles with what felt like minimal effort that I started thinking about race strategy. I looked at the race the way a wise ultrarunner that I met and ran with for a good part of the course this year and last at Worlds End. He broke the 100k distance in roughly 20 mile sections and tackled them individually. He explained it as having a plan for each section. For me this meant taking the first third of the race easy. At this point in the day I felt I had achieved that and my legs were still feeling good. I figured the next 20ish miles I would push the pace a bit and then the last 20 I would try to maintain and see what’s left at the end.
While the Rain Was Falling
Employing this strategy, I ran the 10 miles or so at what felt like a harder effort. At that point I reached aid station 5, “The Lab”, where my dry shoes and socks were waiting. While changing and thinking about how great my feet would feel after being soggy for the last three hours or so, a volunteer reminded me that they would likely get soaked again. Not what I wanted to hear, but true nonetheless. I headed out from the aid station enjoying my dry feet for the moment. It was probably only a matter of one to two miles before a road crossing that had a small river running along the side of it that was uncrossable without going ankle deep. Shortly after that the course rounded the edge of a corn field where my feet sank just short of ankle deep in the soaked ground. The dry clean socks were glorious while they lasted.
After the Rain... You Live Again!! (You know you just sang that Nelson song)
Even with wet feet, I was still feeling good for the next 13 miles or so to aid station 7, “Bud Valley”. I passed a few runners in that stretch which is always a bit of a mental boost. Even more of a mental boost was that my wife and kids were waiting at this aid station to support me. I spent a little more time than normal at this aid just to get a hug from the wife and kids, but moved out trying to pick up the pace a bit as my wife informed me that the last runner had just left the aid station a few minutes earlier. The second half of a longer distance race is the part that I find most enjoyable. Yes, it will likely be far more painful than the first half, but if you start your race with the middle of the packers and race conservatively until the second half you begin to see the carnage the distance inflicts on the runners that went out too hard. Even if you’re hurting a bit, when you pass another runner at the 37 mile mark who still has about a marathon distance to go and looks half dead already, it makes your situation seem far more manageable. It motivates me to push to catch the next runner who went out too hard and blew up 20 miles from the finish. It’s not the right strategy for every runner and to each their own, but for me running a smart first half and trying to close the second half strong has worked out pretty well.
The Finish Arch
I felt like I was chasing this runner who had “just left” AS 7 forever. One aid station and about 10 miles later I finally caught sight of him. He was climbing the last big gain before aid station 9, “Lake David”, at about mile 50. He was climbing strong and at this point my quads were starting to feel the wear of all of the small and short climbs throughout the middle section of the course. I was motivated to catch him though as I hadn’t seen any other runners since AS 5. After the climb the course drops you out into a clearing around a large lake with the aid station on the opposite side of the lake. I circled the lake chasing him and trying to look like I wasn’t tired after just redlining it on that climb. He got into the aid just before me and barely even stopped. Although I didn’t pass through as quickly as this guy I was chasing, there were a couple other runners (or a runner and pacer, not sure) in the aid station as we passed through which helped keep me from feeling too bad about watching this guy I’ve been chasing down for the last two hours breezing through the aid station.
I was a bit demoralized at this point as the guy I chased for so long was out of sight again leaving the aid station, but I realized I had less than 15 miles until the finish and my legs felt ok still. I knew that if there was any time to push it now was that time. I turned to the words of my 4 and 6 year old boys the night before for encouragement. The younger of the two told me to win the race. I had responded with it being unlikely, but I would do my best. My older boy told me to get in the top five. Having no idea what place I was in at the time, but knowing that I’ve been only gaining places since starting off with the mid-packers I fantasized that a top five finish may be possible. But it would only be possible if I pushed hard for the remainder of the race. I did something I usually don’t do during races and put my headphones in and turned on some music. I immediately felt an increase in energy. I started cranking out some faster miles immediately. Within minutes I passed another runner who had blown up. A few minutes after that I finally caught the guy I had been chasing on a downhill stretch of fire road. I told him that I had found my third wind after turning on some music and he gave me a pat on the back as I passed him. Not too long after that my headphones started crapping out on me. Not wanting to fight with them and get pissed off about it, I just took them off and put them away. From there on I had a new mantra: “honest effort”. I didn’t know what place I was in and I didn’t want to get passed by anyone so at every little incline or climb where I began to think that it would be nice to take a break from running and hike this I told myself to give an honest effort to run it before resorting to hiking. And with that mantra I did not stop running for much.
And now time to recover.
I spent more time at the second to last aid station than I wanted to just because the volunteers there were so cheerful and fun. I was in a bit of a goofy state of mind, but managed to push myself through after a pic (which I would love to see) of me giving a two thumbs up rating for the awesome course. I reached the final aid station, “Urbana”, without any runners catching me which was now my greatest fear. I drank coke and ate a gel which was my standard aid station routine at this point. It was a busy aid station with lots of spectators which was great to motivate me for the last big climb of the race which followed immediately after. After what was probably the steepest and most continual climb of the course I finally became frustrated. It wasn’t the fact that my dry shoes got soaked after only a mile or so. It wasn’t that tough climb just six miles from the finish. It was all of the little climbs between that final big climb and the finish. For the last four miles or so of this race it feels like the trail just messes with you and takes you up and down the same hillside. Maybe it was due to the nearly 13 hours of running previously, but I did not enjoy the last four miles of this course until I exited the trail to see the final road crossing and the finish line on the other side. Maybe that’s just the “tricky” part of this course.
Me Looking Disappointed at My Beat Up Feet
At the finish I got to give a big high five to my son who was perched on the bridge just before the finish line. I finished in 12:56:21 (which was only good enough for 8th place, apologies to my sons), well under my goal time of 14 hours. In retrospect, maybe my goal time wasn’t challenging enough. But when you’re running a course that is completely unfamiliar, it’s easy to misjudge. I am definitely guilty of that with my first crack at Worlds End where I severely underestimated how much the difficulty of the course would slow down my pace. While the Twisted Branch course was definitely not as technical as Worlds End, I’m not saying it is an easy course. There is still nearly as much elevation gain (10,458’ at TB and 12,091’ at WE) according to my Strava data. In my opinion, it was the road sections of the TB course that really improved my overall pace. When you can crank out some sub 9 minute miles on a rolling downhill paved road it’s going to increase that average pace even if there’s only about 5 road miles on the course. I kinda enjoyed the road sections to break up the course a bit also. It felt good to be able to just open it up a little and not worry about footing for a break every once in awhile. Another item that set this race apart from others was the Excel pacing tool provided on the website. This amazing Excel sheet was the most useful pace planning tool I have ever experienced. I may be a bit more impressed by it than most just because I'm a bit of a spreadsheet nerd, but I encourage you to play with it and then tell me it's not cool. On top of all of this, the finish area was awesome with great food (the burritos and broth were amazing) and a local brewery (The Brewery of Broken Dreams) had kegs of an IPA and stout. All in all, I highly recommend checking out Twisted Branch if you’re in the market for a 64ish mile adventure. And this just in, I recently heard that Twisted Branch is now a Western States qualifier race. So if that's your jam, here's another Beast Coast option.
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