It was just after finishing the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon (pronounced Say-ga-hunda) held in Letchworth State Park, New York. I was stretching out my muscles when a very fit lady in her late twenties walked by, smiled, and said “That Was An Intense Race”. This same lady went by me with a couple of kilometers to go in the race. After over 6 hours of running up and down hills and gulley’s, the course had flattened out to the finish. On this flat stretch the lady had found some reserve to pick up the pace to power to the finish. As she went by me I called out “You’re doing great”, and she replied “Great job yourself”. The words “You’re doing great”, “Great job” or variables of it were given to me all day, and at the same time I was giving them out to others. It was a tough course, but there was such a positive encouraging vibe to be found out there.
As the “Grand Canyon of the East“, Letchworth State Park was determined by a popular vote in the 2015 USA Today Readers Choice Awards to be “The Best State Park in the United States“. And on November 4th, 2014, Men’s Health Magazine published an article “4 Epic Races to Run Before You Die“. It mentioned that “There are 1,400 trail races to choose from in the United States. Put these 4 at the top of your list”. And at the very top of that list of 4 epic races was the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon, held in Letchworth State Park. Men’s Health described it as “Breathtaking scenery and lung-busting mountain terrain make this 26.3-miler, which follows a section of the Finger Lakes Trail, a must-run for the superfit”. The Sehgahunda Website mentions that “Sehgahunda is a highly technical trail (ultra)marathon clocking in at just over the traditional marathon distance-26.3 miles”. It also mentions “It may just be one of the hardest trail marathons in the east”. Many of the trails that make up this race are the very trails used by the Seneca Indians to access the Genesee River, which bisects this valley, giving rise to its nickname “The Grand Canyon of the East.” The website mentions there are “Over 100 gullies to descend and climb, lots of rocks, roots, ruts, leaves, and gullies to maneuver over, under, and around, and short climbs, long climbs, very few flats”. All this has to be completed within an 8 hour cutoff.
So how did I end up at the starting line of one of the most epic trail races in the United States, held in the best State park in the same country? It is quite an amazing story. It all came about from an invite from a man named Daniel, who is a blog and twitter follower way back in October last year. Daniel ran this same race course 2 years ago. I have never met him in person before, but he is very much an internet friend. Daniel mentioned all I had to do was register for Sehgahunda, show up and everything else would be taken care of. It was a really amazing offer. Daniel writes a blog which I follow called “Straight Line“, which is one of the most humorous and upbeat blog reads out there. One of my favourite recent post is his “Running Goals for 2018“.
Even with such an amazing offer I was still hesitant. My Pick Your Poison ultra would be only 3 weeks before Sehgahunda. Would my almost 60 year old body be recovered enough to handle Sehgahunda? Daniel and I did share a lot in common. We both were in our 50’s, we both shared a Christian faith and we both had running styles which could be described as “extreme”, which included a love of winter running. Yeah, we could almost be twins. But then the concerns once again come, “Would I be slowing down Daniel”? I am not a fast runner. And there was the concern of how much inconvenience would I be to the family. And they also get to see me AFTER the race when I am all sore and achy. Would I be a miserable guest?
It took me over a week to eventually register for this event after Daniel’s extremely generous invite, and I just snuck in. A day later the 300 openings to this popular epic race had sold out. That was five and a half months before race day, which is incredible. This was indeed going to be an adventure. To add to the adventure, in the middle of March, I got my tickets down to Rochester, bus travel for going down, and train travel for coming home.
Eventually Friday May 18th had arrived early with a 4:00 am wakeup to make my 1st connection that would eventually take me to Rochester, New York. On arrival I was given a wonderful tour of Rochester and area from Daniel. Spring in Rochester, New York is at least 2 weeks ahead of me up here in Canada, and it was so glorious. And all my concerns of being a guest in Daniel’s home? I was so comfortable there, and our families share so much in common. Their home is furnished with roadside and garage sale treasure finds, just like ours. They drink their coffee black, just like myself. They have 4 children, with one living far away from home, just like ourselves. They eat healthy, recycle and care for the environment, just like ourselves. And the door is like a revolving door, just like we have. So much activity, with school, jobs and functions for everyone, it seemed so similar to our home. One son was going to a prom on Friday evening and working other times at a vet office. Another son was busy at a lilac festival, and the youngest went off to a boy scout adventure. This 12 year old young man has his own You Tube channel called The Plaid Mongoose, which does old technology reviews. I grew up with many of these products and find these reviews so fascinating. This review is the Kensington System Saver for vintage Macintosh computers.
It is quite ironic, I was trying to make last minute arrangements with Daniel, and our own modern computer technology had failed. We lost our internet for a few days. I gave Daniel a phone call the night before I was to leave and his last words were, “Bring rain gear, you are going to need it”. The rain was going to make an already challenging course that much tougher. I had that gut feeling this was going to be very muddy. Because many parts of the trail are on remote areas, a minimum 16 ounces of water are required on each runner at all times. The rain lasted for two hours into the race, but things stayed greasy for much longer.
This predominantly single track course is so breathtaking beautiful I knew I needed to take pictures. The challenge was to get some pictures and try to keep up with, and not slow down my running partner Daniel. Sometimes by the time I got a picture taken, and sealing the camera back in a zip-lock bag to protect it from the dampness up to 4 runners would go by. It would then take me as much as 5 minutes to try and catch up to and find a safe spot to overtake those runners again and work my way back to my running partner.
Having Daniel there was a blessing, otherwise I would have been taking WAY too many pictures. Every gully, every little waterfall, every stream crossing and every mud bog seemed worthy of a picture. In the end, I tried to capture just a bit of everything of the course. The breathtaking beauty gave strength through those extremely physically and mentally challenging technical and muddy sections.
My lowest part of the race ended up being the mud coming up into checkpoint number 3 (at the 25 kilometer or 15.4 mile mark). And then something amazing happened when I reached the checkpoint. The mud felt like it was never ending. It was heavy. It was deep. It was relentless. Every step the footing was dangerous, and could so easily wrench an ankle or knee. It sapped the strength from me. You could feel the suction from the mud as it tried to pull my shoes off my feet with each step. It was uphill, and I was so exhausted. One step at a time I kept forging forward until I rounded a bend and was met by a thunderous cheering of what seemed like a couple hundred spectators who had gathered at the checkpoint. I was in tears. There was food here to replenish my energy stores. I topped up my hydration pack. But the biggest thing I got from that aid station checkpoint was the mental boost from those spectators (who are only allowed at the checkpoints). This course was not going to beat me.
Feeling renewed many spectators had their hands outstretched to “high-five” me as I headed back on the course. These checkpoints are an “out and back” from the main interior trail to a road access for supplies. For me it meant I had to slog through the same mud of the “out and back” being ever so careful not to twist an ankle or knee or lose a shoe.
The main trail had some mud but nothing like the “out and backs”. The other challenges are the rocks, the roots and the constant ups and downs of the gullies. The stream crossings require special attention. They can be steep, and the flat smooth shale rocks are very slippery. Concentration on these trail courses (particularly on a course I have never run before) is so important. It is so easy to have a fall and they can happen so quickly. I still consider myself a novice trail and ultra runner and I am still learning so much. From past leg cramping issues I now carry salt electrolyte tablets right on me. At around the 30 kilometer mark I was able to give a couple of salt electrolyte tablets to a runner in immense pain who had serious leg cramps. My hope that he got those tablets in enough time to make it to the next aid station before the muscles eventually seize up. It made my day when that same runner found me after the race thanking me profusely and saying “It saved his race”. I know from my experiences of ultrarunning any runner would do the same for me.
Due to a week of recovery from my Pick Your Poison 50k race 3 weeks earlier and a tooth that was pulled a week before Sehgahunda, I had only managed two short runs right smack in the middle of those 3 weeks. I had run longer trail courses than this one, but this Sehgahunda seemed one of my more technical. The course was beating me up and had taken its toll on me. I was feeling peaked. The final stretch was said to be much flatter after the last checkpoint and Daniel seemed much fresher than I was. I no longer had a concern of not finishing, as I was well ahead of the cutoff times. I told him to go on ahead. I did not want to hold him back. Daniel ran this course two years before, and he wanted to beat his previous time.
Those final 3 or so miles was indeed gentler. As I watched Daniel pick up his pace and distance himself from me, I looked around and took in those new vivid greens of the deep forest around me. I love the beauty of spring so much. I listened to the enchanting songs of the birds. I thought of the Seneca Indians who travelled these same trails for centuries before. It would have such a different world without automobiles, and computers and homes with central heating and air conditioning. Untouched, unaltered raw nature. I have so much awe and respect for our native ancestors. It was a beautiful “wind down” from such an intense day.
Daniel was long out of sight, and other runners (including the lady who talked to me after the finish) had picked up the pace and were going by me. Noting my gentler pace on such a flat non technical section of trail so near the finish line, a couple of the runners asked out of genuine concern if I was okay. On that final stretch of one of 4 Most Epic Trail Races to Run Before You Die in The Best State Park in the United States, with a heart overflowing with gratefulness my reply to them was “I Could Not Be Better….Thank You So Much For Asking”. 🙂
A big Thank You so much to Daniel from the blog Straight Line, and his dear wife Maria for hosting me. Thank you driving me to and from Sehgahunda. This race definitely lived up to it’s status. It was epic and the course pulled me through such a pendulum of different emotions. I can actually now say I have run “One of the 4 most epic races to run before I die”. We are already talking about another race destination, maybe in Canada, maybe in the US, or maybe in another country different altogether.
I always love running these races mostly for the experiences. But if interested, here are the stats. Came in at 143rd place. The age group placements, you will find me in the 50-59 male chart. Also, here if interested are my readings from my Suunto Movescount.
As I come across them I will add other race recaps of Sehgahunda 2018 here.
- The Daily News: An excellent article written by Jessica Dillon of Batavia News titled, “Mud, Blood, Guts and Glory at Letchworth’s Sehgahunda”.
- Relatively Random: This race recap on Sehgahunda is tremendously captured by Craig Deats in a post titled Dancing with Lady Sehgahunda. This was Craig’s 1st marathon (and trail marathon) and he tore up the course finishing well ahead of Daniel and myself. Craig captured the pain and glory of Sehgahunda so accurately, it brought me right back on that course. A great write-up Craig.