“I Don’t Even Drive That Far” Trail Running on the Finger Lakes Trail by Eric Eagan
“I don’t even drive that far” is a joke heard all too often by folks in the running community, but it might be something that is becoming true along the Finger Lakes Trail. There are now a number of races utilizing the Finger Lakes Trail, ranging from just under 7 miles at “Lucifer’s Crossing” in the Ithaca area, to 40 miles at “Many On The Genny” using most of the Letchworth Trail, and all the way up to the 100 kilometer distance along the Bristol Hills Trail during the Twisted Branch Trail Run. Endurance athletes from all over the country are experiencing the Finger Lakes Trail in a unique way.
Scott Magee, the Race Director of “Twisted Branch,” shared a quote from a runner who visited from Rhode Island to run his event. “With such varied terrain over the course, from rocks and roots to pine needles, technical single track to paved roads, muddy bogs to dusty gravel, steep inclines and declines to gentle rolls, it seems that regardless of one’s personal running strength, it is guaranteed that most of the trail WON’T be that!” The trail is as unique as those who are racing on it as they push their limits and discover new places. Runners are recognizing just how much the trail offers them.
One of the criticisms trail runners often face is that they move too fast and never stop to enjoy nature the way hikers do. Michael Valone, 36, an ultra runner from Rochester, N.Y., disagrees, laughing as he says “There is plenty of walking on these days, and even more time stopping and taking photos and sharing with friends. Running just allows me to see more of it in a shorter amount of time.”
Covering a distance as fast as you can is nothing new, but doing so on the Finger Lakes Trail has become pretty popular in the past few years with runners exploring and challenging themselves all over the state utilizing the trail for many different endurance related events.
Races, however, aren’t the only way runners are using the FLT. In the process of preparing for these events, runners are spending hours on the trail putting in the training needed to handle the specific terrain the FLT throws at them. These events are not like road races though, so runners climb hills, cross creeks, and jump over fallen trees to practice. As they move as quickly as they can through the woods, the specifics of trail running come into play. While many runners train mostly on roads, there is no replacement for time on the trail says Chris O’Brien of Rochester. “…the point is there is no other way to simulate the roots, rocks, cadence and camber of a trail race. Plus, it’s fun.”
Time spent on the trail gives an appreciation for all the hard work put into building and maintaining and has turned many trail runners into trail workers. Dave Story, the Trail Steward Coordinator for #TrailsRoc in Rochester, has noticed an increase in runners joining work days on the trails. “I have seen runners who come out to help with a trail project take real pride in creating sustainable trails that will be a part of our community for many years. It’s like a legacy to the sport they love.”
In addition to races and training runs there is a new way that runners are challenging themselves on the FLT called Fastest Known Times, otherwise known as FKTs. That is, by following a specific set of rules runners take on a specific segment of trail whenever they want to try to become the fastest person ever to cover that terrain.
Jamie Hobbs, the current Letchworth Trail Record holder, is in the crowd that has mixed feelings about moving as fast as possible on any given day “The more I think about FKTs and what they are doing to the way we experience the wilderness the less I like them. I did Letchworth because I like the idea of challenging yourself to run hard outside the context of a race and because I like the idea of covering a complete trail end to end. I understand the desire to compare times over these kind of routes, but I’m starting to feel like the competition (on more coveted FKT routes ) is placing too much importance on blasting through these places and not on appreciating and respecting the wilderness and other users.”
Others disagree with Hobbs, often pointing out the FKT attempt is not just one single effort because these athletes have gone out to hike, scout, run, and enjoy that section of trail many times over a long period of time to appreciate the undertaking. Still it comes with the caveat that runners need to find a way to be respectful while enjoying the moment during these attempts.
Hobbs covered the 26 miles of the Letchworth Branch in 4:18:04 (more FKT information can be found at https://trailmethods.com/regional-fkt-zone/)
As runners are utilizing trails more it is important to remember that they come to the woods for many of the same reasons hikers, equestrians, and backpackers do, to find some time with nature. To smell the flowers, and feel the earth beneath their feet. They just tend to do these things a little bit faster than others.
Eric Eagan is an avid runner living in Rochester. When Eric is not running or writing about running, he is directing trail races, hiking the Adirondack mountains, or snowshoeing and fat tire biking the trails and hills of western N.Y.