One if by Land, Two if By Sea

I’ve despised Albany ever since I first visited in 2000. My brother was going to check out SUNY Albany, and I was along for the ride, as well as my beloved Goofy doll who went everywhere with me (even though I was the ripe age of 13). After showering in our hotel, I came out of the bathroom to see Goofy hanging with his ears clipped to a pants hanger. Horrified, I whined to my mom, “Look at what Josh did!” But the thing is, Josh didn’t do it. My mom did. And that is where it all began.

Fast forward a decade later, and my brother turned himself into the king of Albany. Well, at least the king of the local running community. He created a running club, and eventually an event production company that puts on races. While I admired the empire he was building, I still hated visiting. He never put the heat on, the toilet didn’t seem to be secured to the floor, and his home reminded me of a Lego house that had rooms randomly placed next to each other.  

Things started to shift last year when I voluntarily joined my mom last year on a visit to the state capital. My brother’s company was producing a sprint triathlon on Saturday and a trail running festival on Sunday, where I’d be running a half marathon (my first on the trails!). The experience was great – I got to enjoy new scenery and push myself with back-to-back events.

This year, for the first time, I found myself saying, “I want to go to Albany” in order to participate in those races again, but without a mode of transportation. At the Staten Island sprint tri a few weeks ago, I bumped into a familiar face, Chris, who I had met in 2015 while waiting for the ferry for this very same race. It was our third encounter, and he introduced me to his friend Kristina, who had become a triathlon buddy of his traveling to races together. Perfect, I thought! I shared with them the opportunity to travel to Albany for a sprint tri and trail half and they were in!

Three weeks later, I was waiting in the UES for my pick-up, ready to embark on a weekend with strangers. I find weekend getaways exhausting in itself, so I was a bit nervous that would be exacerbated traveling with two people I barely know. They had promised me a few weeks earlier they weren’t murderers, so at least I didn’t have that to worry about.

Once out of Manhattan, the drive north was smooth and scenic, and included a nap after I got nauseous. We arrived around 8:30pm, stopped at a quick to-go place where I ate an aptly named meal “Marathon,” and then drove a half mile to my brother’s. He had recently moved into a new home that he had previously been renting and had since renovated – complete with a beautiful kitchen and completely exposed shelves as well as a new bathroom with a shower stall that doubles as a kitty prison.
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I awoke early on Saturday morning without my alarm. It was brisk, so I kept warm with comfy pants over my tri onesie. The course was a bit complicated as the start/finish were miles apart and there were two different transition areas (where you switch your gear between the swim/bike/run portions of the race). We figured it out, put on our swim caps, and made our way to the lake for the start. I nearly fell in as I lowered myself from the dock into the water and quickly found myself in last place for my wave. After feeling panicked during the Staten Island tri weeks earlier, I made sure to keep myself feeling calm and attempted to free style more as opposed to relying on my weak doggy paddle. I was feeling good, although slightly discouraged when the water rippled around me as the lead from the wave 3 minutes behind mine swam by me. Running from the dock to the transition area, I wiped my feet, squeezed my feet into my shoes, and made my way onto my bike. Along the hilly course, I tried to figure out which was the hill so daunting that last year I had to walk my bike up it. I couldn’t figure it out. Along the way, I passed Chris, who would typically be way faster than me but was experiencing a sad squeaky noise coming from his bike. Shortly after, he would realize he had filled his tires with too much air, and go on to pass me. As the run approached, I knew it was my time to shine. One by one I passed the competition and stayed strong on the hills. As good as I felt, I didn’t finish great – I was just over 3 minutes slower than the year before. But hey, I still managed to finish 2nd in my age group… out of two.

 

After the race, we made our way back to Josh’s house to shower and then had a relaxing afternoon checking out the Latin American Festival happening nearby. We broke down our race from earlier (Chris and Kristina had finished 20 seconds apart) and prepared for the next day’s adventure – a trail half marathon. An experience we’re not too used to being city folk.
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Up again early, we made our way to the start of the trail running festival, where runners could choose from a 5k, 10k, 13.1mi, 26.2mi, or 50k. As the gun went off, I knew to stay conservative as many of those around me wouldn’t be on the course as long. But there is something tricky to consider when trail racing. It is often a goal to run negative splits – where you start off slower, save your energy, and speed up as the race goes on. It’s not easy to do, but it can really pay off. But for trail races, you don’t run as fast as you can on the road. There are obstacles to consider such as uneven terrain, roots, mud, and steep up and down hills. I decided to take advantage of the easy terrain and speed up when I could, and be patient when it got more technical.

In the end, after many ankle turns (but no falls!) and getting slightly lost on the course, I finished 7 minutes earlier than the year before. It’s not that I’m faster now, but rather that I was better able to run the trails. It leaves me wondering — what does it mean to be a skilled trail runner? Isn’t it always easier to run on the roads? What is it like to actually race a trail race? You read about those “special” people taking on ultras in the woods, but doesn’t that sometimes become more of a hiking experience than a true running race?

Despite my speedier time than last year when I placed third overall, I didn’t place this year. After the race, Chris, Kristina, and I made our way smelly and dirty into our minivan rental for our nearly traffickless drive home. After being dropped in Astoria, I mounted my bike to head toward the G stop in Long Island City… but my chain had become undone. With not much skill, I fixed the chain, hands left full in grease and went on my way. A successful athletic Albany weekend with strangers it was!  

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