Sunday morning of April 21st marked the end of a long and painful week for everyone in the running community, everyone who has a heart. Driving through the pine tree-lined road into the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation (an hour north of New York City), me and my friends found ourselves about to participate in an adventurous 10K trail race filled with obstacles—including water crossings, rocks, tree roots and a 45-degree incline known as “the wall”. The Leatherman’s Loop sounded like perfect therapy. We parked in a large meadow and saw a heart flag raised high at the finish area of the course. The countryside was beautiful, it was peaceful here, it was safe. I viewed the 27th annual Leatherman’s as an ironic meaning – the 27th mile of the Boston Marathon. The 27th mile is normally a celebration of achievement, this was more of a somber run to honor those who weren’t so lucky in Boston 6 days prior.
The legend of the Leatherman dates back to 1860; a mysterious figure of the upstate New York and Connecticut area. An outcast man of sorts, he trekked over the countryside by day and sought shelter and food in various towns by night. The route later became known as the Leatherman’s Circuit. He travelled year round in…well…a loop. Farmers were said to have known when he was coming and to have gotten him a meal ready and a bed to rest on. The 10K race is a celebration of him but also a celebration of people, of runners, of the human spirit to keep moving forward arguably. We dropped off our food supply in honor of the Leatherman (at the Leatherman’s foundation; rice and beans were requested). A great food bank initiative that normally collects over 1,000lbs of food each year at the race.
Approximately 1,300 runners lined up underneath, what appeared to be sailors flags with an assortment of colors in the meadow. Roaring speeches were made by Tony Godino, the founder and Danny Martin, who invited runners to dedicate the day to the Boston tragedy. Lastly, Theo Harris sang Amazing Grace. The last verse sung by everyone together, just as the Boston tribute T-shirt states “Stand as One”. That we did, and then we ran.
Not particularly ready, I reacted to others who began sprinting across the heavy grass towards a teepee. A bell had been rung (quite possibly the quietest bell I’ve ever heard or not as the case maybe). I didn’t know the course but I did know if you wanted to place well, you had to get to the front early. We had about a third of a mile to sort ourselves out before we entered the trailhead. It felt very cross-country like. My pace hit 5:45 as my lungs and quads pierced, still aching from the marathon effort of Monday. My pre-race blood glucose of 160 would need some exterior fuel soon if I kept this up!
Deanna Culbreath, a fellow Brooks IDer ran by my side (she was undertaking her third loop) and gave me a briefing on the course. “The first three miles are the hardest. When you hit the wall, your halfway and it’s easy after that”. “OK, thanks”. I didn’t know what the wall was at the time, but it sounded like I would need some energy to get over it!
Into the trailhead the masses went, crossing some early teaser mud baths. Some kids ran past me, nudging me accidentally in their own excitement to get ahead, breathing heavily. “Slow down” I told one of them. Nothing. Middle age wisdom is lost on youth I guess! I didn’t know my place, I assumed top 50 but it was tough to call and tough to know how my body would hold up so soon after the marathon so actually didn’t care as much as usual.
Soon, the trail narrowed to single track. I passed people on my left and right, wherever I could, if I could. I would also get taken over as we were still sorting ourselves out. We followed small pink flag markers as we wound our way up and down steep sections of the woods.
At mile two, we approached our first stream crossing. Not since Leadville had I got the chance to do this. I was behind two others as we jumped into knee-deep ice-cold water. As they walked across, I tried to run. I clambered up on the rocks of the far side ahead of them, only to find I couldn’t get a grip on the wet rocks to exit. I slipped and braced my body for a rush of cold water but then felt two hands under my arms lift me onto dry land. I thanked my competition and ran on. That’s trail running for you. My shoes were heavy from the water and my pace slowed while I dried off. A second stream soon after but no such drama on this occasion. It was deeper than the first one but not chest high as I was told it had been in previous years.
We were now running the ‘mud flats’ section. Think walking in ankle-deep mud where you all of a sudden lose a shoe. This was that environment. Some runners tried to avoid the mud but then realized the brambles lining the trail got them instead. I knew my quadruple knots on my Brooks Grits were going to hold up Ok. I went the direct route!
The sound of distant bagpipes was then joined with the view of an open field. I looked up and saw several runners bunched together climbing what must have been ‘the wall’. Relieved that it wasn’t a brick one with ropes and army guys shouting, I ran towards it and then slowed to a grinding halt to walk it steadily. A guy behind me screamed (I’m not sure why) and made it a point to beat me to the top. He obviously didn’t read my JFK 50 write-up referring to Ellie Greenwood’s hill technique. Within a few feet of the top, I ran ahead of a very short of breath fellow runner. He won the wall climb, I’ll give him that.
I reminded myself what Deanna had said. 3 miles to go, easy trail running now. I saw two guys ahead, caught them and made a gap on them quickly. I didn’t want them hanging onto my shoulder. I ran alone, free, single track on a ridge line, it was incredible. I then caught up to a group of five spread out loosely. The lead guy was in red. He was my target by the end. I reeled them in but more gradually than before, these guys were much closer to my pace. The first two were going backwards, they were done, the middle guy pressed forward up a long gradual climb and I happily let him waste energy as I sat behind him to the top of the ascent and the last two were soon behind me too. I was winding down S-bends on soft pine needles through a section called ‘Deer Hollow” on single track having a blast, feeling great. My place? Who knew, who cared. It never crossed my mind.
A sharp right by a stream meant I knew it was close to the end. Pre-race, I had run over to the final and most famous stream so knew I was about to cross this. Another couple of runners were ahead as we ran by the river bed. My goal shifted again; beat those two. A rapid descent into a field followed.
I heard the roars of the crowd gathering around the stream crossing. Lots of cheers and groans, maybe someone ahead had fallen into a deep spot? All I cared about was taking one more place. I crossed the stream, divided into three sections of water almost and almost landed on his heals as we grabbed the grass ridges to elevate back onto dry land.
The crowd lined both sides of the bank up to the meadow as to where we had started. It felt like a mini-version of a mountain stage bike race where the crowd gets too close because of pure enjoyment of the event.
I ran hard, music playing to my right. It sounded fun, I didn’t even see them but heard later they were dressed as the three amigos! The one runner remained, whoever else was ahead had finished. I was almost satisfied to pull up and call it a day but something inside me pushed me. Maybe it was the anger inside me from the Boston bombings? It definitely wasn’t anything negative towards the target runner. Maybe it was just the thrill of how good I felt six days post-marathon? Maybe both. Regardless, I kicked the last 100 yards and didn’t let up to make sure it was no fight.
Rob Cummings, the race director had to almost physically slow me down to say I had finished. He tore off my bib tag to place me and usher me down the roped shoot. I walked under the heart flag thinking of Boston once more. I felt good, I felt happy. That emotion has been very difficult to feel all week.
I ran back to the stream crossing and cheered on my friends. We re-grouped, put on dry clothes and….ran some more! Did you really expect a 10K to be enough?! After some more miles, my blood glucose sat at a perfect 100. Good job too, Tiffany won a pie at the awards for winning her age group in her first trail race! Life is good, thanks for helping the healing Mr. Leatherman. The 27th mile in the books.