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Monday, May 14

Wakely Dam Ultra

Ultra running
The following recollection is a synopsis of an ultra-marathon:

Beep, beep, beep,… The alarm indicates that it’s 4:30AM. 
My mind is telling me it’s the middle of day due to my vivid alertness and the excitement of what lies before me this morning. 
I’m lying in a tent next to my brother. 
We drove 4 hours the night before in an attempt to avoid a long drive this morning (July 23, 2011) and to make an effort at catching some shut eye prior to today’s race. 
However, my mind’s inability to quiet itself works to undermine all physical efforts we set forth upon. 

I slip out of my bag, unzip the tent and head for a clear patch of woods to empty my bladder which is urgently alarming me that nature’s ring tone is more painful than it is audible.  My agitated brother would most likely disagree with this audibility statement given my repeated unzipping of the tent and desperate groans and grunts as I barely complete my brief (no pun intended) missions throughout the valuable hours of the night.  *Over-hydrating the night before a race definitely has its draw backs despite its numerous advantages during the race.

On this day we are near Wakely Dam in the southern Adirondacks between Piseco and Indian Lake townships.  The race we have been preparing for, both physically and mentally, is the Wakely Dam Ultra (WDU). 

Ultra is short for Ultra-marathon and is a foot race that consists of running any distance longer than 26.2 miles (aka a marathon).  The WDU is unlike most ultras, it is 32.6 grueling miles which takes place on a section of the Northville-Placid trail between Piseco and Wakely Dam.  What distinguishes this race even further is that during this distance you will not cross one road and are completely unassisted; all runners must carry their own food, water, necessary supplies and perseverance for the duration of the race.  

My goal on race morning was to hold down a consistent pace of 9min/mile (4:54:00 to complete the race).  My average pace for half this distance on trail is about a minute per mile faster.  This, for me, was a progressive goal worth striving for. 

After an early morning snack followed by a relaxing bus ride, we arrived at our destination, the starting line.  The energy before the start of an endurance event is exhilarating.  Camaraderie is more common than competitiveness throughout the ultra community.  These races are more of a test of one’s own abilities and endurance than trying to be well placed in the pack.  

At the start of race I it began to occur to me that the first section of the course was too narrow to pass comfortably.  Luckily, I was able to place myself in 4th from the start. Quickly realizing the 3rd person wasn’t keeping my desired pace, I announced “on your left” and smoothly skirted around him.  I continued in 3rd for the first hour of the race following 1st and 2nd place runners closely as to feed off their energy and pace. 

For the duration of the first 1.5 hours of this race, the first 6-8 of us were closely spaced.  I could hear my brother bantering back and forth with our friend Zach for a bit of this time.  Around the 2 hour mark the 1st place guy stopped to answer nature’s beckoning call.  At this point it was I and one guy hot on my heels…

To give a first-person sense of the course:  The ground is soft, the trees and plants are close with smells reminiscent of a cool summer’s morning.  Vivid awareness of your surroundings is vital to navigating through the woods on this trail.  At any one time you may only be able to see 10-30’ of the trail before it snakes around a curve or pitches up a hill.  A high level of vigilance is needed on the ground 3-6 feet in front of you to avoid any hazardous objects (narrowing of the trail, rocks, roots, puddles, etc) that could end the running day early if improperly navigated. 

…When it comes to uphills I am well equipped to hold a steady clip (thanks to Ithaca’s hills).  During these moments I could feel the gap behind me widening only to be lost during the decent.  We ‘slinkied’ for well over a half hour until the trail suddenly vanished… He attempted to go ahead until I effectively communicated the absence of the trail. 

At this point the 3rd place man was with us as we did some searching.  Apparently the trail took a sharp right and continued on over a foot bridge to the other side of a stream whose parenting lake we were able to look out across.  The 2nd place runner decided to take this opportunity to dip a quick drink from the sparkling waters of this pristine Adirondack lake.

This was the last time I would see any other runner besides Chad (now in 2nd place).  The two of us continued on softly through the woods.  We talked for miles about such topics as running and racing, our background lives, travels, and of course our favorite trails to run (one of them being the Pemi loop, more on that in a future post)…

It is speculated that a persons ambitions to partake in an athletic event is stemmed in our ancestral past which consisted of physical endeavors such as hunting and/or combat between other tribes.  It was in these times that individuals were required to condition their bodies in preparation for such events.

For me, running offers many benefits depending on the day.  Among these would be physical conditioning, meditative relief from stress, adventure, and a truly visceral way to connect with the environment. 

Running is inherently a great way to increase longevity, if performed correctly of course.  Form is a must as it is a very repetitive activity continuously straining certain areas of the body.  This is why I chose to run in my Five Fingers (aka: toes shoes, monkey feet, socially unacceptable footwear, stinky fingers, or a combination of the above). 

These shoes allow me to correct my form almost automatically only requiring minor adjustments throughout.  It is through this activity that one may strengthen tendons, muscles, bones, lose weight, increase cardiovascular strength and, in my case, increase happiness.  It also allows me to challenge myself beyond the run as I'm not relying on purchased goods to totally take away the discomforts of the surface I'm running on.

…Time check – halfway: 2:31:24 (pace: 9:15 min/mile, oye!).  Around two thirds into the race, I quickly stopped to refill my bottle with fresh stream water.  In a matter of 30 seconds I managed to separate myself and my running friend (Chad) an unobtainable and ever increasing distance.  From this point on it was going to be me and my thoughts for the remaining 12 miles with brief interludes by lone hikers and a forest ranger. 

The absolute exhaustion that one feels during an event like this is like nothing else.  Your mind activates every sense to its loudest alarm:

Eyes – While closing in on the final 7 miles, continuous burning becomes status quo from the constant movement in keeping up with my stammering feet and the ever changing trail.

Nose – With fewer than 6 miles to go and a sweltering sun in mid July, ‘heat’ is the only scent in the air.

Ears – The voices that occur in the remaining 5 miles aren’t fellow racers or inquisitive hikers they are internal, as if your mind is trying to keep you company along this lonely stretch.

Taste – Mile 4, texture sensations lose their appeal as I developed numbness for water with ‘chunks’ in it.  Flavor follows suit as my tongue, and its friend, my stomach, convinced me that eating a clif bar was a bit too cloy for the moment.

Feeling – Egregious in its current nature, 3 miles never seemed so far. 

The feeling of putting yourself in circumstances that require you to give something all you have and then continuing to press on beyond that point is beyond words.  The mental, physical, and emotional edge that a person can take themselves to is incredible. 

As the finish line materialized through the convoluting heat waves in the distance I felt a sudden rush of emotions which translated into a lone tear escaping from the left optical region of my face.  Upon finishing all that I was pining for was graciously fulfilled, fresh, clean, chunk FREE, cold water, REAL FOOD, real people with smiling and welcoming faces, and the satisfaction of completing the race in 5:14:39 (pace: 9:39 min/mile).

1)      Chad Denning – 5:06:10
2)      Nick Kirk – 5:14:39
3)      Christopher Bunyan – 5:47:55
12)  Ethan Kirk and Zach Yates – 6:52:36


  1. I love this post. I could almost feel myself running along side of you. The beep, beep was you running along like the roadrunner. Beep, beep.................................

    1. Also, this is a nice birthday present to your mama! :)

    2. Thanks Ma! Glad to have you along for the trip and I look forward to you being along for the trip this weekend ;)

  2. "like" : ) Keep up the good work brosuffs! <3 you boys!