Jul 21, 2009

Race Report: Damn Wakely Dam 32.6 Mile

The Competitors of Wakely 2009

The short version:
Finished 32.6 miles in 10:52. It kicked my ass due to terrible chaffing. Chaffing notwithstanding, I finished comfortably and had a good time.

The long version:
To me, the main appeal of the Damn Wakely Dam ultra is the fact that it is a very serious & difficult event and yet it has a laid back vibe with genuinely good people who love running, trails, and the wilderness. When considering adding this race to their calendar, the smart runner will solemnly contemplate the situation they're considering to really understand the risk & difficulty of this race. As Joe Hackett writes in the News Enterprise:
In recent years, numerous trail running events have sprouted up targeting the growing community of folks who enjoy taking a faster pace through the wilderness. These events have taken trail running to a whole, new level.

The grandaddy (sic) of them all is the Damn Wakley (sic) Dam Ultra Marathon, scheduled annually for mid-July. The popular race fills up every year with returnees and open slots are only available, "if someone dies," according to organizers.

The event, now entering it's ninth year of competition, is an extreme trail run through an uninterrupted, 32.6 mile section of the Northville Placid Trail between Piseco Lake and Wakley (sic) Dam in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area.

With no cross roads, no aid stations and no assistance provided by support crews; the Damn Wakley (sic) Dam is "not your average run" according to race organizers who caution participants that "there are no DNF's (do not finish) when you are running the Dam...unless you get carried out!" (source: denpubs.com)
32.6 uninterrupted trail miles with no cross roads. There aren't many places in the northeast more remote than this course.

(6-minute "flyover" video of the course)

the entire course, in a useful context:

(stretch that line out and see which cities you can run between. sick!!)

So after leaving work on a Friday afternoon I kissed my wife and son goodbye and made the drive up to the Adirondacks. After 3 hours of driving or so, I cruised through the little town of Indian Lake, the last bit of civilization I'd see. Shortly thereafter, I drove the 7-mile paved rural road to its end, then went "off the map" on a dirt road that didn't display on my car's GPS for probably 8-10 miles. I finally arrived at a campground, and beyond the rows of campers was Wakely Dam. Opposite the dam were the race organizers. I drove over the dam, met RD Jim, checked in, and was told I'd be allowed to park and sleep at the campsite, as they had some extra room. I was going to sleep in the car anyway, so I was grateful to stay on-site. It was about 9PM, just getting dark, so I laid out a sleeping bag and pad in the back of the odyssey and passed out surprisingly quick.

The odyssey+sleeping pad combo makes for a very good camping option. I slept like a log, only barely aware of the torrential downpours that started and ended in the middle of the night. The alarm fired at oh-my-god:its-earlyAM and I got dressed, put my stuff together and walked in the early morning darkness towards the notorious school bus which was parked opposite the dam. I sat in the very back and tried to get some sleep without success while we traveled an hour+ to the tiny town of Piseco NY, where we got out, and milled around, preparing and chatting for a while. Someone was shooting video:

That's my buddy RJ with the bird.

RDJim gave a short speech before the race (can you guess what this year's theme was?) and we made the short walk to the trail register. On time to the minute, we started.

The first mile

As you can see from the above video, the first part of the course follows a well-beaten very runnable dirt path without a lot of elevation change. That, however, wouldn't last, and before long we were dealing with lots of rolling hills, a few moderately respectable climbs, and lots of technical terrain. Oh, and mud. Remember the torrential downpours that I heard in my sleep in the back of the van? This was the evidence of it, and was my first experience with true calf-deep shoe-sucking mud. A lot of it was in bogs taking up no more than 20 feet of trail, and wherever extended sections existed there were super-slippery-but-not-muddy log bridges - so it wasn't too bad, but it was a new experience for me. I really enjoyed it, once I got used to the possibility of sinking a foot or more on any muddy step.

I did not bring my camera, but I wish I did. This course is amazing. It is really friggin' remote and I truly felt a sense of isolation in a way that I've never experienced. Those of us in the back of the pack really felt this isolation. I spent almost the entire time completely alone. I passed two runners in the first 5 miles, and one of the runners passed me back at about mile 10. the sweeps probably passed me around mile 15. Other than that, I saw 7 hikers in 3 groups, and one park ranger - in every case, "hi" was pretty much all that was said, and that was my human contact the entire day.

I don't know if it's the isolation that causes this, perhaps it's just the Adirondacks - but the course is beautiful in a way that I'm unfamiliar with in my experience. The forest is pretty typical of northeast, but when I came out into a vista (usually over a lake), it was always breathtaking. There's certainly nothing like it in Harriman or Waywayanda and probably not in the Catskills, either. I've found myself thinking about it a lot in the past few weeks since the race.

Anyway, back to the event.

I didn't bring much in the way of nutrition. No "real" food whatsoever, but rather a strange hodgepodge of sportbeans, clif blocks, a packet of perpetuem, and a few gels. most of this stuff was left over from various things I had in the past, perhaps shwag from previous races, and I saw Wakely as an opportunity to clean out my gear drawer a bit. There was no opportunity to eat before the race, so the first few miles was on an empty stomach. For hydration, I had a 100-oz camelback and iodine. I felt tired at times but never really bonked. I did have some caffeine - A large black Starbucks coffee bought the day before at a thruway rest area, which sat in the car overnight. I slammed it first thing in the AM.

There are two things I left in the car (on purpose) which I wish I brought with me: DEET and bodyglide. I'll get to that in a minute.

Around mile 15, I needed to refill my 100-oz camelback, so at a deep stream crossing I stood on a submerged boulder so I was in 6 inches of running water, and filled the reservoir. This also had the benefit of cleaning some of the mud off my shoes, which I had tried to do every few miles in the first half of the course. I dropped in 7 iodine tablets and went 45 minutes before drinking. The iodine taste didn't bother me too much, but I added the perpetuem anyway (the vitamin c in it neutralizes the iodine's taste and effectiveness) because I was starting to get a little tired and wanted to stay on top of my meager nutrition, such as it was.

At mile 18, I was struck with the problem that probably took 90 minutes off my total time: chaffing. Apparently, I missed a couple of spots while applying bodyglide that morning and the chaffing was starting with a vengeance. It was killer. I was able to avoid the pain by walking and whenever I tried to get into a stride the rubbing would become unbearable within a quarter mile. It's a shame because, in the conventional wisdom of ultrarunning I made sure to walk every uphill no matter how insignificant and had plenty of energy left over for the second half of the race, which is easier. A little body glide would have fixed things, but, like I said, I left it in the car.

The only other problem I really had were the bugs, which were numerous and biting like crazy. I spent a lot of time slapping my skin killing bugs. I had brought DEET with me, applied a lot before getting on the bus, but left it in the car. Big mistake.

Elevation profile

The best part of this course is in the first 20 miles, and the next 5 miles is nice too. But for me, the last 7 was pretty much "when is this thing going to end?" The chaffing between my legs was extremely painful. To make matters worse, I ran out of water and didn't see a decent source for several miles before refilling - at a culvert around mile 29. It ran under the old overgrown woods road that makes up miles 27-31. I did add a bunch of iodine but due to extreme thirst only waited 5 minutes before drinking. After trudging along this road for another mile or two, I quite suddenly came upon the dirt road that is the last mile of the course. It went by quickly, and I was able to return to a slow run for about the last half mile through the campground and over the dam to the finish.

Looking at the numbers, Wakely actually doesn't seem like a terribly difficult race by ultrarunning standards. At less than 2 miles longer than a 50K and only about 3500' of climbing, one might be deceived into thinking it's one of the easier trail races out there - but they'd be wrong. I'm not sure why it's such a hard race. The trail is technical, but not super-technical. It's not super-hilly either - 3500' really isn't that much when spread out over 32 miles. It *is* super-remote, but that isn't a reason for it to be slow. Yes you do have to draw and purify your own water, but you're not stopping at aid stations either. Yet my time of 10:52 is more than 4 hours slower than my 50K PR, and it can't be attributed to a bad day by me. It turns out that in most of the races I do, from 5Ks to 50miles, I finish in a little more than double the winner's time, and Wakely was no different - the winner finished in 4:59, and I finished in 10:52.

So for whatever reason, Wakely is a deceptively difficult course and, because rescue is a difficult proposition, not something to be taken lightly. I'm normally eager to encourage people to try their first marathon, 50K or even 50-miler, but I'd not recommend this race to someone unless they really know what they're doing. Yet I'll be back, because it's these qualities that make it unique and so enjoyable.

The finisher's award is not a medal but a postcard, which I proudly display among my other finisher's awards. it may just be my favorite: