Round and round they go. When they’ll stop, nobody knows.
I have been fortunate to be involved with quite a few races over the last several years. Some as a volunteer. Some as a runner. Some as a photographer. Sometimes I’ve been involved in more than one way at a given race. My good friends were putting on a race to help support our local youth running club, SOAR. I wanted to be involved in the event and support them in their efforts.
The race was called The Monster Brant Hill Challenge put on by Rebellion Running. It was held at Newtown Battlefield State Park in Upstate, NY. The race format was a timed loop course event. The runners would have 3 hours to complete as many laps as they could or wanted to. I had only ever participated in one timed loop course event before and I enjoyed it more than I expected. I had never photographed an event held in this format before.
I started off photographing some impressive younger youth athletes that took on the one hour youth course.
I was very intrigued as to how this format would lend itself to photography. My normal process is to scout out what I think will be the best location on the course to take photographs and stake out a position there and photograph every runner as they pass me by. The format of this race lends itself to so many different possibilities that it threw me of my game a little bit.
One thing I did differently was set up a GoPro at the aid station taking time lapse photos every second to record the runners as they made their nutrition choices. The cameras recorded over 14,000 images which I have not even begun to go through yet, but it ought to be interesting. Also, it is highly advisable to turn off the camera after the event so you don’t have thousands of empty frames to look at and delete. And you should pick up said GoPro so the race crew don’t have to bring it back to you after the event. There are always new wrinkles and things to learn from.
I began the event by photographing the runners as they took off down the trail at the start of the event. Then I moved around to the other end of the loop and went up the trail a little ways from where the loop ends so I could photograph runners completing their first lap. Then I moved back to where the end of the loop was and the aid station was set up to photograph runners as they made the turn to continue for another loop or stop for some aid.
I decided to make my way around the loop in reverse so that the runners would be approaching me as I walked up the trail. I stopped and photographed each runner from wherever along the trail I encountered them. This was really cool to be able to feature a large portion of the course in photographs. It also allowed for runners to be featured in different ways as they were covering different terrain on the course. They were able to get photographs on flatter faster sections where they felt better as well as on the tougher sections. I really enjoyed the variety of different photographic opportunities that were made available by being able to move throughout the course without missing any runners.
As I made my way around the course I stopped in a few key spots to photograph all the runners as they came through. These key locations were on the climbing section of the course. I know runners really hate having their picture taken during the tough climbs on a course but as a photographer I always feel like they make for some of the best photographs because they really show the blood, sweat, and tears that the runners are putting into running the race. You can really see the runners working and see the determination etched on their faces as they climb. Also, going out on the course more gave me a better appreciation for the conditions on the trail that the runners were dealing with.
I think this having so many opportunities for photos during one race also allowed the athletes to have more fun with their race photos at this event.
Photographing this type of event also freed me up to be more creative and take chances with some photography. I really strive to get a quality photograph of every runner at a race so I don’t like to do things that might cause that not to happen. But on the loop course I knew I had already seen all the runners multiple times and I was confident that I had good photographs of everyone. I used my smaller camera with a wider angle of view on the trails to photograph the runners on the trails as they passed by me. The goal of the photographs was to pan with the runners and shoot at a slower shutter speed than normal to create a sense of motion as the runners move. This sense of motion can be generated in the background as I pan the camera with them and in the runner’s body’s as their arms pump and legs strike the ground and push off. This series of photographs will have a more artistic feel to them. They most likely will not have a crisp image of the runners in many of them.
Now I have really come to like this race format as both a runner and a photographer. I am looking forward to photographing another event like this and sparking some even more creative ideas.
This year I decided I wanted to shift my focus a little bit when it came to my running. I still set myself big goals to accomplish in my running, but instead of focusing on max effort I wanted to focus on enjoying the time I spend running more. For me this means taking the time to appreciate nature and more specifically taking the time to create more photography and media around my experiences in nature. This change of focus really benefited me as I struggled through some of my training and through Worlds End 50k. I found myself able to focus on the creative side of what I do and the real reason I love running, which is to put myself more in touch with the physical world and more in touch with nature.
After last year’s race it was abundantly clear that Worlds End State Park is just a supremely beautiful place to spend a day. There is just an abundance of gorgeous natural beauty here. Last year I felt that I failed to capture enough of it and this year I really wanted to capture more of it on camera. The best way to experience and see as much of this park as possible at one time is clearly to run the race. It would take days or weeks to appropriately explore this park slowly on foot, and maybe that is a project for another day. There are very few parts of the Worlds end 50K race course that is not exquisite in one way or another. Even with all of the mud it gave the park a gritty prehistoric feel.
The blessing in disguise of being unable to move at the pace that I wanted to is that I was able to/ forced to spend more time creating photography. I was able to create more photography and I was probably able to create more good photography because I was moving at a slower pace. Trying to get good quality scenic photographs in the dimly lit canopy of the forest can be tricky especially if one is on the move.
If you are someone who truly appreciates nature in all of its forms then this park has everything you could imagine. Just the simple trails leading into the forest is beautiful in its own right. You are quickly immersed in the wildness of the park. There are rocks and boulders that feature prominently in the landscape of different areas of the park. There are scenic overlooks where you can look out across the valley, typically to get to those you are traversing a steep climb that is featuring many of these afore mentioned rocks and boulders. Some of those sections are so strewn with boulders that there really is no trail and you are simply scrambling over rocks the best you can. As you descend from the high points and overlooks you delve deep into the valley that are carved out by streams that course through the forest like veins caring its life blood. There are many sections of trails where you are crossing streams or running alongside streams. These scenic areas where the water and rocks and forest combine are really what I live for as a photographer and a nature lover. These streams move through the woods following the landscape, charting its own course and creating waterfalls of various sizes. I could stand and photograph these streams through the forest and these waterfalls for hours without end, and someday I may come back and do just that. They are simply captivating.
One of the most prominent features of Worlds End State Park is the Loyalsock Creek running right down the heart of the park and carving out the valley over millennia. It is called a creek but in my estimation it is more like a small river to me. It was one of the features I wanted to make sure I took some time to soak in and photograph while I had time. We went down to the day use area the day before the race and relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. I went down by the Loyalsock Creek walked around and took some photographs. Then after the race I went down and literally soaked in the creak.
Different regions of the park have their own distinct feel that is created by that nature of the landscape that surrounds you. Being able to participate in this race the past two years has really made a lasting impression on me. I didn’t even know that this gem of a location existed only one and a half hours from where I live. I did not know what I was missing out on. Now I feel compelled to plan for a time when I can come down and visit this area and give it the proper attention it deserves and capture its beauty in full. It would be great to take my time and explore each area of the park that has its own unique feel and capture that in photographs.
Recently I participated in the Sehgahunda trail event at Letchworth State Park in upstate NY. This is the third time I have participated in this event. The first time I participated in the event I was part of a relay team. The next year my friends and I all decided we would run the trail marathon. This year my best friends and I ran together as part of a relay team. We were all at the event with our extended running family from the SOAR running club, a youth running club in upstate NY. There were teams of youth running the relay together, teams of adults and youth running together, and solo runners running the full marathon.
My original plan for this event was to run almost the complete marathon. I wanted to run with my friends as they ran each of their legs and shoot photos and video of them running. Then I would also complete my leg to finish out the relay and create photography and video footage of my leg as well. After suffering a setback in my training during my last race I had been forced to take time off to rest and let my leg recover. I knew I would no longer be able to execute my plan as I had previously wanted. I would not be able to run the majority of a trail marathon right now. After some time off I tested my leg out on some local trails and after a recovery day I felt well enough that I thought I would be able to run the 9 mile leg of the relay. I wasn’t sure how fast I would be but I was pretty confident that I could get it done.
We all met up at the start line and watched our friends set off on this adventure. IT is fun to have so many friends to cheer for. I would be running the second leg so we headed out for the check point where I would meet our first runner and then set off down the trails. I was as ready as I was going to be. Our first runner met up with me and passed the relay bib to me. I put it on and headed down the trails. Getting from the check points down to the main trails through the woods is one of the most challenging aspects of this event. The trails leading to the checkpoints are nothing like the trails leading through the woods. I really enjoy the sections of trails that run through the woods. They are challenging but mostly runable. Even in less than desirable conditions one can run most of the course when down in the woods. I managed to move down the trails at a moderate pace. I tried to take it a bit easier descending and ascending the many ravines that comprise the main feature of these trails that make it so interesting and beautiful.
You run down the trails for a while and then you dip into a steep ravine and pop right back out on the other side. This occurs over and over again along the course. Then there are many sections where you run down a relatively smooth section of trail and you can just look out over a gorge section nearby. These trails are nice and scenic if you love the woods. I really enjoy the 9 mile leg of the relay. I think it is the best section of the course.
As we awaited the final leg of our teams race to start our members were also keeping tabs on the progress of the other teams. WE learned that one of the other teams had failed to make the cutoff time to continue on in the race, meaning their other runners would not be able to run. My kind hearted friend decided without a second thought that she would give up he spot on our relay team and allow the other youth runner who was not going to be able to run to take her place and run the final leg of the relay for our team. So we started with a slightly different team than we finished with, but it was still a fun adventure.
Let’s talk about these trails. One could say that there was some mud this year. Let’s just say there were some footing issues. There was significantly more mud than I had seen in my past experiences. Our friends who have run the race 5 and 6 times have said this was by far the worse mud they have ever seen. Sehgahunda seems to have a reputation for significant levels of mud on the trails leading up to the checkpoints and aid stations that are up out of the woods. This year was no different, but it seemed significantly worse. It wasn’t even like running through mud it was like thick brown soup or pudding. There was no footing to be had. Especially on the way down back into the woods from the aid stations it was so much of a run as a semi controlled constant falling down the trail without ever fully hitting the ground. You just slid along in the mud going wherever the mud took you. I found it better to just ty to go with the flow rather than try to direct myself down a specific course in the mud. It was just not happening. Even on the trails that ran through the woods mud was a significant issue. There was mud and standing puddles of water even on those trails, which I had not experienced in the past. This made the race even more complex and challenging. I am very glad that I did not decide to run the full marathon this year, which I had been contemplating when registration started.
I was recently in the Ithaca area getting some trail running in. Post run I went to Buttermilk falls to relax and do some writing. Then I decided what better way to cap off the days trip than to hike down into the gorge and photograph one of my favorite natural places. My knees did not enjoy this post run decision, but I took my time and enjoyed myself and captured some nice images. Enjoy.
When I first started running I never thought I would be doing the things I have done. They were not things thst I wanted to do. Some of the things I’ve done I didn’t even know were things people do when I first started running. Like trail running; that’s a thing? Running a trail marathon; people really do that?
As I began to run more I met more people. I made amazing friends. I learned more about running and the amazing things that runners really do. I learned about what the human body is capable of. More importantly I began to learn whst my body was capable of. I began to push myself farther and farther, literally. First a 5k, then a 10k, then a half marathon, several half marathons. I began to trail run more and more and conqured those same distances on the trails and thn pushed farther to 25k trail runs. Looking for that next challenge. Looking for that next beautiful trail I could experience. Wondering where tht next trail would take me.
Last year I was invited to participate in the event that really set all this in motion. My friend invited me to particiapte in an event with her and a couple other firends. We would run the Sehgahund Trail Marathon relay together. Once again, this was a thing that I didn’t realize even existed at the time. This was sucha fun event for me. It doesn’t get much better than spending time out on the trails with your friends working as a team. I don’t know if my fiend will think if this event with as much appreciation for the path it has sent us down as I do, but for me it was a formative event that has helped lead me to where I am now.
After building up by running loner distances last year culminatiung with a chalenging 25k I returned to the idea of Sehgahunda. We had all begun running more and more trails and I thought what if we all trained together and ran the full solo Sehgahunda Trail Marathon together. I almost couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth, and I don’t think my friends could either at first. A marathoin was never something I had thougtht about wanting to do. But now that the idea had formed in my head I just couldn’t shake it.
I spent all winter training and continued into spring. As the day of the race approached I began to feel nervous and anxious. I really has no idea what to expect. I just had to hope my training had me prepared for this. My wife was going to be at the race crewing and cheering me on at the aide stations and check points. Even though I really had no idea how this race would go for me I told her that I felt like if everything went well and I felt good I thought I could be done in six hours.
My friends and I spent the week leading up to the race watching the weather forecast for race day. The two conditions we were hoping not to have for the race was for it to not be too hot and for it not to be too wet. If it was wet we knew the trails leading to the aide stations/check points would be muddy disasters. We were fortunate enough to not have heat, which for me is the worst possible condition. However, we had plenty of rain leading up to the race including rain the night before the race and it actively rained during most of the race itself.
The trails that take you to the aide stations/check points lead you out of the woods and generally into open fields. The fields were completely saturated with water. It was a mud-fest. There was standing water in areas. The mud was at least ankle deep on most of these trails. You just slipped and slid all over. You couldn’t get any footing. You couldn’t push off because your feet just slid out behind you. As a mid pack runner another problem is that half of the runners are ahead of you so they have all already trampled through this area and degraded the trail a great deal. The traffic out in front on these trails basically created a narrow steep rut of mud to run through. You couldn’t step off to the side because it was so muddy that you slid back down into the trench. Gravity was doing its job. And it got more complicated. Not only did you have to navigate the water hazards and the deep slippery mud these sections were out and backs with two way traffic going down a path that especially due to the mud was basically single track. Trying to continue to move forward without colliding with your fellow runners was not as easy as it might seem. Combine this challenge with the possibility of passing other runners going the same direction as you and it was even more difficult. It basically became more effective to divert so far off the designated path that you were basically out in a field of knee high grass. But even that wasn’t possible most places.
On the way to most of the aide stations/check points you were going up hill. So, you were working against gravity in ground conditions that made it very to push off or use any power or strength to propel oneself forward as the ground just continued to shift under your foot as you pushed against it. The factors combined to result in a lot of walking up through the mud. On the way down from the aide stations/check points you were presented with a different kind of challenge. The mud was obviously still there but instead of going against gravity you were going with gravity down the hill. And instead of the mud preventing you from pushing off of to propel yourself up, now the mud prevented you from planting your feet to slow yourself down and control your descent. It was like mud skiing except there was much less control of direction and footing than with actual skies on snow. You slid and splattered down the hill at the best speed you could manage without completely losing control and either falling or colliding with a fellow runner. I’ve heard running described as controlled falling and this was as close to that as I have ever felt. The fall was barely under control but felt inevitable. However, I managed not to fall on any of those sections.
I thought that the main trails that ran through the woods would remain mostly firm with only a relatively small degree of mud despite the rain. I even advised my friend against running in her trail shoes with more aggressive tread for better grip in the mud because I thought the main trails would not be so bad as to require it and the side trails up to the aide stations would be so muddy that they wouldn’t make a difference. Luckily she was smart enough to ignore me and follow her own instincts. The main trail was much muddier than I had anticipated. I lost a shoe in a mud hole in less than two miles. I saw all the runners ahead of me running around this muddy spot and I thought it made no sense to take the extra steps to avoid it since we were going to get plenty muddy anyway. I ran right through the middle of the mud I went through it just fine. I didn’t slip at all. Unfortunately though one of my shoes did not follow me through those several steps and remained lodged in the mud. Being early in the race I was still moving along at a decent pace and despite my shoes being tied as tightly as I could get them my foot slipped right out and I took several muddy steps with no shoe on one foot. Then I had to retrace my steps and shimmy my foot back into my shoe.
I love the trails that make up the Sehgahunda course. They are almost entirely single track until the last 4 miles. The trails twist and turn and wind their way through the woods at Letchworth State Park. You get to see and enjoy so much gorgeous woodland scenery. You can see out across the gorge created by the Genesee River at times. You run along sloping ravines as you traverse the forest. You you run down into than back up out of countless gullies created by water runoff over the years. I was actually pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t more water in the gullies considering all the rain we had been having and were currently experiencing during the race.
I didn’t really have a plan for the race other than do whatever it takes to finish. I didn’t have a set plan to try to average a certain pace or anything. I started out the race running whatever pace felt comfortable. I wasn’t running hard but I wasn’t holding back either. I felt really good the whole first half of the race.
The race has a fair amount of elevation gain overall but there aren’t really any particularly steep climbs, which is good for me because I am not good at climbing and it always seems to just suck the life right out of my legs for whatever follows. Despite there being no steep elevation gains there are still some really nice long gradual downhill sections where you can pick up some speed and run faster. I was able to use these features to my advantage throughout the first half of the race.
As I approached the first side station/check point, about 6 miles into the race, I caught up to a couple of my female friends who were also running the full marathon. So I was able to chat with some friends out on the trail for a few minutes. At the aide station/check point I got one of my Calorie Bomb Cookies, that I made from the recipe in the No Meat Athlete Cookbook, out of my pack and ate and drank there. I said hi to my wife who was there to cheer me on and crew for me. Then I was back off on the trail.
After getting back down into the woods I eventually caught up to my two friends who I originally hatched this crazy plan with. We were able to talk for a little while out on the trail. We were all in good spirits. I also took some video of them running which I don’t know if they were aware of at the time. I continued to move along in the trails at a pretty good pace for me. I was just casually running down a relatively nondescript section of trail when I apparently failed to pick my size 14 foot up high enough to clear a root or a rock because I went down. I tripped and went straight down flat on my chest and face. Luckily I was able to brace myself somewhat with my outstretched hands like superman. Fortunately I was not hurt and I popped back up and continued to run. One of my fellow runners asked if I was ok and my response was that “I’m a professional faller at this point. I don’t get hurt.”
The large number of participants from our running club, Southern Tier Running Club, included several teams running the relay. The relay teams from our club included some very fast kids. Kids who are much faster than me on my best day. My friends and I had been talking about how long we thought it would be before I was passed by one of our club’s relay teams. Even with a 30 minute headstart it was only a matter of time before they overtook me. I said I would be happy if I stayed ahead of them for 10 miles. I actually did better than I expected. I didn’t get passed by the first member of one of our relay teams until mile 12. He went flying past me like I was standing still.
As I approached the 3rd aide station/check point at mile 15 I was starting to get tired. The plan here was to take the time to change my socks and reapply anti chaffing ointment to my feet because I have had problems with blisters on my past long runs. First I had to scrape the mud off my shoes just so I could get to my shoe laces. Changing my socks felt so good. It was much more noticeable than I had expected and even though I didn’t change my wet and muddy shoes my feet still felt dry and comfortable. I don’t know if that was a byproduct of wearing Darn Tough brand socks or what, but I was happy for it. The second half of the race was a little drier and less muddy so the change in socks was a good decision even though it took a significant amount of time to do. It also helps to keep your feet dry if you keep your shoes on while running which I managed to do during the second half of the race by keeping my weight more on my toes through the muddier areas. I was able to see my wife again and talk and absorb some of her positive vibes and every as she cheered me on and then I was off from the third stop.
The second half of the race was kind of a blur. The aide stations/check points were closer together and I took advantage of that. But the second half of the race felt like much more of a grind. Just trying to keep movingforward. It also seemed to have more elevation gain or at least more sustained segments of elevation gain requiring more walking. One part I do remember was falling once again on a very nondescript section of trail. Not doing anything that really should have lead to me falling. Just failing to pick up my feet. When I got up I saw another pair of runners standing over me and one said that they had just fallen there too. So it must have been booby trapped. At least I wasn’t the only one it took down.
At some point as the day progressed it began to get warmer and more humid down in the forest and when you emerged at aide stations/check points you could feel the cool breeze out in the open and we bantered with the great volunteers regarding their nice weather. I took some ice and put it under my hat and tucked some into the buff I was wearing around my neck to help me stay cool.
As I traversed the trails over the second half of the race what I knew to be my weakness became increasingly apparent. My hips and core muscle were getting tighter and increasingly sore. All the muscles you use to lift your legs and stabilize yourself in you pelvic girdle were screaming at me. I pushed on through the discomfort. I walked when I needed to on inclines and stretched my muscles as best I could at side stations/check points.
When I began the flatter section that was basically old logging road or gravel road or some combination of the two I knew I was getting closer to the end from the preview run I did here with my friends. Only about four miles to go. It was both a relief and a bit of mental torture. I was relieved to know the end was in sight but felt like how can there still be four miles. And those four miles seemed to drag on forever. But despite that the simple knowledge of how close I was to the end and the relative flatness of this section of the course allowed me to run at a reasonable pace and push myself to sustain it.
When I emerged from the woods onto the park road I was almost done. The finish was literally in sight. Just one more hurdle to get over. That last section of road included a not so small hill and it feels especially daunting after 25 miles. Who does that? Who throws one last hill in within the last quarter mile of a trail marathon? I was determined not to walk up that hill. I don’t know how fast or slow I went up that hill but I maintained some version of running all the way up. I am sure it wasn’t pretty.
As I approached the finish I saw my wife there cheering me on. She has been such a huge support for me during all this insane training. It helped push me across the finish just to see her. It was a great feeling to cross that finish and just stop moving for a minute. It’s a great post race vibe at Sehgahunda. Talking to friends who’ve already finished, waiting to cheer friends on through the finish, and cheering on other runners is a great way to finish off the day. Oh yeah, did I mention there is food and beer.
The other aspect of all this aside from the running for me has been trying to document as much as possible as a photographer. Race day was not a good day for photography so I did not take many still photos with my GoPro, but I did shoot several segments of video, which I honestly haven’t even watched yet to see how they came out. I’m hoping I can compile the footage into something bigger at some point. Race photos didn’t turn out great which is a bummer but I did some creative editing to try to make them look as good as possible and they accompany this post. I hope you enjoyed reading this way too long race report.
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