Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Moreau Lake 15K trail race: 09/08/2013

Course map, Moreau Lake 15K Trail Race, 2013.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.
There are trail races, and there are trail races. At the pre-race meeting Sunday morning, organizers from Green Leaf Racing explained that their idea behind the creation of the Moreau Lake 15K Trail Race was to challenge runners from start to finish on hiking trails with plenty of rocks, roots and vertical. The result is the most technical yet runnable trail race in the Capital District, with well over 2,000 vertical feet of climbing. No carriage roads here!

Course preview video (from 2011):

With Moreau Lake State Park practically in my backyard, the race landed at the top of my must-do list this year. Despite that home course advantage, the race kicked my butt, yet at the same time it was one of the funnest races I’ve done in a long time.

Sunrise over Moreau Lake before the race

Just 31 runners lined up at the start (yes, this is something of a niche race). The first half mile or so is deceptively flat and pleasant along the lake shore. Then the route turns sharply uphill for a 700+ vertical foot climb, culminating in the infamous “staircase of death” that leads to the top of the Palmertown Range. Yup, it’s a brutal climb, but the beauty of getting the hardest climb done right away is that the rest of the course seems easy by comparison. Topping out was a joy – I was in 8th position, #7 was just ahead of me, and I could run again! That’s when we made the wrong turn.

Quiet lakeshore in the morning

Staying on course is a big part of a trail race like this, and I consider myself pretty solid in route finding. Nonetheless, runner #7 – Bob – and I faced a split-second decision to go either right or left at a trail junction, and we chose wrong. Both directions had the same orange flagging used to mark the race course. Within a couple of minutes we had dropped some significant elevation, much more than I thought we should have. The trail looked faint and the orange flagging looked a bit faded and old. We made another split-second decision – this time the right one – and retraced our steps back uphill to the junction where we got back on course. I figure the error cost us 7 or 8 minutes.

A little pressure can be a good thing. A wrong turn in a road race is generally a game ender (German Silva’s famous wrong turn in the 1994 NYC Marathon being a notable exception, video here), but in a trail race it can be a recoverable event. I had no idea how many runners had gotten by us, but I was determined to reel them back in, and over the next couple of miles, Bob and I – running more as a team now than as individual competitors – picked off 10 or 11 of them. By the time we got to the mid-course checkpoint, volunteers there told us we were around 8th place, exactly where we were before our navigational lapse.

Maybe it was the satisfaction of passing the other runners and recovering our position, or maybe it was the terrain itself, but I found myself truly enjoying the run. Unlike a road race, where running is essentially a repetitive movement and success comes from pushing your heart, lungs and legs to maximum output, trail running draws on balance and agility (and route-finding) as much as cardiovascular capacity. Of course I took my share of falls, including one particularly spectacular ass-over-teakettle full body roll when my right foot hooked a log.

Another runner crossing the finish line

Eventually we dropped back down off the ridge. Somewhere in the last mile or two Bob pulled away from me, finishing about 2 minutes ahead of my 2:00:06 time (full results here). I was thinking that 2 hours would be a reasonable goal, so I’ll take that.

Looking back across the lake after the race, buoys are for the swim events

Not only does the Moreau Lake 15K offer great terrain and scenery, it’s also a very well organized and supported event. That may be surprising for a race that draws fewer than 3 dozen runners, but it’s staged in conjunction with three competitive swimming events (read a swim race report here). Green Leaf racing provided all the support you’d expect at a much larger race: bibs, chip timing, maps, course flagging, aid stations, t-shirt and post-race fuel. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Next up, the Whiteface Uphill Footrace this weekend…


  1. Great write-up about a terrific event! I participated in the 3K swim, and agree that it was fantastically organized and supported for such a small race. By all accounts, the course for the 15K sounded brutal—congrats on a great time considering the circumstances!

  2. A great account of the race is on the TU Runners Blog here.