Welcome to the Wakely Dam Ultra!
Runners who enter the Northville-Placid trailhead on Haskell Road know there are only two ways to get to the finish at Wakely Dam. Either you get there under your own power on your own two feet, or you take an expensive ride in a Search and Rescue helicopter. You see, there are no aid stations with helpful volunteers filling your water bottle and handing you snacks. There are no crossroads to be used as bailout points for the weary runner. There are no pretty pink ribbons marking your way so you don't get lost. Understand this, there are no DNF's at the Wakely Dam Ultra because the only thing between you and the finish line are 32.6 miles of unrelenting wilderness.
Only one way out.
If you like flat, don't come here.
Race day was hot and humid. Not my kind of weather but at least the high for the day was "only" 90 degrees. It was close to 100 on the drive to the Adirondacks the day before. As I stood at the back of the pack waiting for the race to begin, one thing was clearly evident to me. My CamelBak was way too heavy! With three liters of Heed in the bladder, two 24 oz water bottles in the side pockets, several gels, PB&J crackers and two Cliff bars stowed for fuel, a medical kit, a blister kit, a space blanket and several other assorted items I thought indispensable (but were not), my pack weighed well over 20 pounds. What the hell was I thinking?
The few, the brave, the crazy Wakely runners! (photo credit: Rob Jacob)
The first mile at Wakely is flat single-track and those who were actually racing this thing were quickly out of sight. In fact, nearly all the 60 other runners were gone faster than a sailor's cash on shore leave. No worries here. Kevin and I weren't planning on racing for different reasons. He was coming off a fast 30 miles of pacing at the VT 100 for a 21 hour finisher and I was just plain out of shape, running about 60 total miles in the past five weeks. We were just out for a long run in the woods......a bit longer than expected.
The next eighth miles or so involved a series of climbs taking us ever higher in elevation. None of the climbs were extremely long or steep but there were plenty of them. There were also many, many blowdowns on the course making it difficult to get into a good running rhythm. This would be the theme for the day, constant changes in elevation and tree hopping with very little flat running until the final 4.5 miles of the race. Kev and I decided early on to walk most of the uphills because that's what Bill H. would have wanted us to do. We missed you Bill! And did I mention the bugs? They were as unrelenting as the hills of the NPT. The deer flies were so bad Keven stopped and put on his mosquito net about two miles into the race. The boy got gear.
If only all the blowdowns were this small. (photo credit: Rob Jacob)
At mile five we saw one of the Wakely runners standing in the trail. She asked if we were running in the race to which we responded in the affirmative. She told us she was thinking about going back to the start. She said she was fine physically but her head just wasn't into it. Kevin and I went through the pros and cons of turning back vs. continuing forward and even welcomed her to join us if she wished. In the end she decided to turn around while she was still close enough to the start. Wakely Dam had claimed it's first casualty.
I can't fault the woman for returning. If you're having second thoughts about this race at five miles it's best to go back. It doesn't get any easier the next 28. Also, I can see how a woman running alone on the NPT could get wigged-out. It's very isolated. Hell, there were a few areas during the race where I would have felt a bit uneasy had I been alone. I guess I'm not as tough as I look. Or am I?
WFF? This is one of the places that freaked me out. (photo credit Kevin Z)
Reaching the Jessup River at seven miles I decided to fill one of my water bottles and treat it with iodine. While I was filling up, the two course sweeps that left 1/2 hour after the race started arrived at the river. I can't remember their names but they were cool and we joked around while they filled their bottles too. The water level was low enough so we could rock hop across without getting our feet wet. We weren't so lucky at some of the larger rivers later in the race. Some of the bridges were washed out so wading across was the only option. Soon the sweeps were out of sight and Kevin and I were on our own again.
The water wasn't always this low. (photo credit: Rob Jacob)
More climbing and more blowdowns to maneuver over, under and around and soon (OK, not really soon, more like eventually) we were running along the edge of Spruce Lake. It was here where I heard a loon call out to me. It said, " You people are carrying heavy packs in 90 degree weather and running 33 miles over rocks, roots, trees, mud and water, all the while getting eaten alive by deer flies and they call ME a loon?" OK, Mr. Loon, I get your point. After passing the second lean-to it was time to eat. Kev gets cranky when he goes 30 minutes without food. The man can eat!
Spruce Lake. (photo credit: Kevin Z)
We don't take these "races" too seriously.
I don't remember much about the miles between Spruce Lake and the West Canada Lakes. I do remember stepping off the foot bridge across the bog and sinking ankle deep in mud, nearly losing my shoe. There was a nice cooling breeze when we entered the clearing near the lake and I wanted to stop here to enjoy the beauty of this place. Unfortunately, there was this business of completing a race before darkness so it was time to move on. I felt great when we entered the old caretakers clearing on West Lake which meant we had reached the half way point. My sense of relief was short-lived.
Cool breeze and beautiful views. (photo credit: Rob Jacob)
Bug man gets his groove on. (photo credit: Kevin Z)
"Where did the trail go?"
Leaving the caretakers clearing the trail was re-routed due to beaver activity, or was it because of spring storms? I'm old and can't remember. Anyway, the narrow trail was twisting and turning and badly overgrown. Our pace slowed to a crawl. Well, our pace was already at a crawl but it became a slower crawl when we entered this section. This re-route went on for about a mile (at least it felt that way to me) before the trail opened up again and running became a little easier.
Around mile 20 the course starts to lose elevation. There's still plenty of climbing to be done the the descents are longer and the running gets somewhat easier over the next 10 miles. Kevin and I didn't talk all that much during this time. I think the constant ups and downs and climbing over blowdowns had finally worn us down. We alternated pace setting duties with Kevin leading when we wanted to move faster and me taking over when we needed to slow down and rest a while. I'm good at slow.
This was the deepest and widest water crossing. (photo credit: Kevin Z) With 4.5 miles to the finish the trail dumps onto a grassy dirt road. Kevin got his fourth wind here and really picked up the pace. I had a difficult time staying close and would lose sight of him every time the trail would bend or turn. This was good motivation for me so I continued to run hard to keep Kev from escaping. The grassy road connected to a wide Vermont-like dirt road and Kevin said we were only one mile from the finish line. I think he told a white lie in order to light a fire under my butt because that road felt way longer that one mile to me.
Kevin could have easily dropped me here but he stayed with me so we could cross the finish line together. Kev would run a few steps ahead, turn back and yell at to me get a move on. Oh, and also to ask me to consider running the Vermont 100 next year. Yeah, I'll have to get back to you on that one Kevin. When I looked back at my splits I saw the last two miles of the race were my fastest! I was either dogging it for 31 miles or I have an incredible finishing kick! Thanks KZ for getting these old bones to Wakely Dam.
I saw the finish line about the same time I heard the cheers of encouragement from Co-Race Directors extraordinaire, Kim and Doug who did an excellent job in their first year as Wakely RDs. I sure ten year RD Jim H. feels his race was left in good hands. I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment (and immense fatigue) when I crossed the finish line at Wakely Dam. This race was more difficult than I thought it would be, and more amazing.
The Wakely Dam is what ultra running is all about. Self-reliance, difficult terrain, hard effort, raw nature and personal victories. Wakely Dam Ultra is unrelenting.
Note to readers: Most of you know I like to take numerous quantities of pictures when I'm on these adventures. This time I stowed my camera in my backpack where it was difficult to reach so I didn't get any photos. My bad. KZ was the cameraman on this adventure run and contributed to this post with his fine photographs. Also thanks to Rob Jacob, a multi-time Wakely finisher. I "borrowed" some of your pics.