First things first: the Ossian Mountain Run does not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. Maybe this is a good thing: the low-key and intimate nature of the event is almost unheard of these days. Comprised of a 4 mile loop that runners can do once or twice, Ossian is a fun romp on the ski hills at Swain Ski Resort in southern New York. With 1200 feet of climb per loop, runners completing the loop twice will end up with 4800 feet of elevation change over 8 miles.
Laura told me about the race months before I signed up, and regaled me with the story of a sloppy mudfest that required her to slip, slide, and crawl her way up and down the steep slopes at Swain. It sounded a lot like the Out of Bounds trail race of yore, and to have the chance to run a race similar to that was not one I was about to pass up.
I signed up and prayed for rain. I wanted an experience like Laura had had the year before. I wanted to get dirty, wet, and filthy. It sounds inappropriate, because it really really is. Being covered in mud, absolutely plastered, is a sensual and nostalgic experience for me. There’s something so primal and animalistic about it that I can’t resist. That, or I’m just a fucking weirdo.
To my immense joy, it started raining the night before the race. It was raining throughout the night. It was raining when I woke up. It was raining as Laura and I drove to Chris’ house. It was raining as Chris, Laura, and I drove to the race. It was raining as we pulled into the parking lot. It was raining as we pinned race bibs to our shirts. And it was raining when Andy Frank said ‘Go!’
We were off! Welden started making tracks immediately. I saw him running up the right side of the pack, which is incredible since I had seen him in the back of the pack on the left moments earlier. Laura and Chris were flanking me on either side, and we had a gaggle of runners in front of us. We were supposed to string out on a short flat section before the first climb, but everyone stayed bunched in a pack. Regardless, there was not much traffic entering the singletrack, and people were able to move relatively freely back and forth in the line.
My goal going into the race was to split even or negative on the two loops and just have a solid, controlled race effort. I knew a big part of achieving that goal would be to take the first loop conservatively, almost frustratingly so. Like most of my race goals, this went pretty much out the window as soon as I started, and I attacked the hill with a mindless fervor. This soon brought me up past Laura, Chris, and Robin, all very strong (and very smart!) runners.
Climbing the hill was a delightful exercise in mud stomping. The trail had become slick in the rain, and there were already a few steep sections that required the use of hands to keep from sliding back down to the bottom. At a mile into the race, my hands were already unfit for touching my eyes, which was pretty convenient since one of my contact lenses was hanging halfway off my cornea.
At the peak of the ski hill, the trail became a favorable mix of runnable downhill and ultrafast singletrack. I was able to open up on these sections, and soon found myself alone, caught between packs. I figured I was somewhere just outside of the top five at that point, so I kept the pace up, hoping to catch some of the leaders. The thought of the other runners behind me was equally motivating, as they are all in great shape and sure to be right on my heels.
Suddenly it occurred to me that these thoughts, while they seemed natural, were very unfamiliar to me. I’m not used to feeling like I need to catch people or worry about anyone catching me. I’ve never had a sharp competitive edge, even when I used to race in high school. Ossian made me feel competitive, probably because it made me feel fast.
I thought about this more as I descended sharply towards the bottom of the hill, and realized that I wasn’t concerned so much with competing as a way to beat other people, but more so as a way to be confident in my own fitness. I can be fast, I thought. I can be successful. I can prove that Twisted Branch was a fluke, a bad day. I shook my head at that thought. That’s dumb, I don’t need to prove that.
But it’d be nice.
I put my head down and decided to move as fast as I could through the rest of the course. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, the course brings you right back up to the top. My legs were toast after the descent, and each step felt like I was running through two feet of standing water. That would have made a great joke if the rain had been biblical enough to flood the course with two feet of standing water, but unfortunately all it could muster was a bunch of puddles.
The second ascent of the first loop started on a rocky line running through a grassy ski slope. Not too enthused about either footing option, I started to walk up the hill. Immediately, like a god damn professional, Mertsock poked his head up from over the crest. With a camera. Busted! We had time for some quick banter before I headed back into the woods.
From here the course climbs very sharply back up to the top of the hill. I walked most of this ascent, using hands when necessary, sometimes needing to mantle up over particularly slippery slopes. When it seemed that one line of trees was ending, the course would cut across the open ski slope to another line of trees and continue pushing towards the sky. Though the climb was steeper and less forgiving, the top arrived much faster, for which I was grateful.
After another section of flat singletrack on top of the hill, the course turned and dropped off the Earth, heading back down to the finish line. Steep descents by themselves make me uncomfortable, but this one, unsurprisingly, was coated in a slick layer of mud. From the beginning, I knew it was going to be a rough descent: I slid probably fifteen feet over just a few steps.
I carefully picked my way down the mountainside, avoiding open mud and sticking to more consolidated material near rocks and roots (desperate is the trail runner who willfully gravitates towards rocks and roots!). A few scary moments saw me sliding towards trees or off the side of the trail, but for the most part I was baby enough to keep steady. I fell once or twice. Eventually I could see the bottom of the hill, and it wasn’t long before I found myself there, getting a high five from Valone and passing through the line to start loop number two.
As I headed off to start the second loop, I heard cheers from behind me. Someone else was finishing their first loop as well. That’s when I remembered that I had pushed hard on the first loop against some of the best race closers in the area. Like a frightened turkey, I waddled as fast as I could up the hill, feeling the hot breath of the wolves behind me.
I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t even seen any of the front pack yet. I had thought that at least one of them would have gone out too hard and crashed, or even have been visible on the long stretch past the line. I couldn’t do anything but keep moving as hard as I could. I gritted my teeth and kept climbing.
The trail had now been covered by every runner at least once, and had become even more slippery than the first time up. I tried to leap and bound up the nasty sections, certain that my momentum would carry me up the slope. What I got for my trouble instead was a fun, yet unhelpful, slide back down to the bottom. I avoided all wet bridges, knowing that they were gateways to certain doom. Sometimes I was able to pick out footholds created by those who had slid before me and use those to gain sure footing.
I didn’t feel very strong reaching the top of the hill the second time, but I opened up my stride on the runnable sections and maintained a hard pace through the middle miles of the second loop. Thoughts of competition, which had started right around here four miles ago, were replaced instead with an undeniable delight. I suddenly couldn’t care who was ahead or who was behind. I was tearing through the woods, leaping over logs and ducking under trees, swift and sure in my blind ecstasy. I felt completely at home on the trails and within myself, a feeling I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
There’s something there worth exploring, I think. Many runners (especially recently) have experienced things like burnout or a diminution of passion. This can be spurred on by things like repeatedly not performing up to expectations, or becoming stuck in a boring routine, or getting injured. Being able to continuously kindle that fire for what you love to do is important, else the flame dies out. How to do this is a profoundly individual question, and I think very few people know how. I couldn’t really tell you what it was about Ossian that got my heart racing and slapped a huge dumb grin on my face, but the flame I have for trails exploded in a fiery cataclysm, threatening to swallow my soul in blissful heat.
I feel like I could write an entire dissertation on that, but the race isn’t even over yet, so let’s get back to that. I was careening down the race course, giving no thought to my well-being or safety, interested only in indulging my love for conquering the outside. I leapt back and forth between trees and bike ramps, only able to think two or three steps ahead. I flew down the first downhill of the second loop, reaching the bottom before I knew what was happening.
Thankfully(?), the second uphill of the second loop brought me back to where I was supposed to be mentally. I reined it in on this climb, running what I thought I could run, but leaving some in the tank for the final stretch. Going back up this hill proved to be tricky, as it too had become significantly more muddy and slippery the second time around. I crawled up many of the steeper sections with my hands and feet, digging in with my shoes and hands as deep as I could. Many times I would come to a complete standstill on an incline, clenching every muscle to try and keep myself from sliding back down to the bottom.
Cresting the hill for the final time, I pumped my legs over the muddy dirt road and grassy field, trying as hard as I could to get back into the woods, where I was free to let loose again. I tore through the woods, laughing like a maniac at every misstep or collision, which had become numerous at this point. It was not long before I was descending again, bombing down the hill with reckless abandon. I often found myself out of control, flying off the course into trees and fighting to keep my balance as I rode the mudslides down the mountainside. I may have been beating the shit out of myself, but I was having the time of my life!
I burst out of the trees whooping and hollering as if the entire redcoated British army was on my tail. Valone screamed at me from the bottom of the hill. We shared another high five as I rounded the bend and sprinted for the line. The finish line was a thing of simple beauty, an invisible boundary capped on either side by an orange cone. I ran between the cones and stopped uncertainly. Was I done? Does this mean I stop? I guess I’m just not used to crossing finish lines (zing!).
I yelled a lot about how much fun I had, to Andy Frank, to the other people standing around, and to the mountain. I saw Welden, and we congratulated one another. Not long after I came in, Chris and Laura each came streaking down the hill and into the finish. It was exhilarating watching them run to the finish. High fives, congratulations, smiles. We stood unconcernedly in the rain, chatting excitedly about the race and conditions. Fun. The most fun.
30 runners finished the race this year, the second running. This is twice as many people as finished the year before. Mike had won, to no one’s great surprise. I had come in second, to my great surprise. Turns out that lead pack didn’t really exist after all. Chris took fourth, and Laura fifth, with fantastic efforts in the wake of Twisted Branch.
Ossian was another great example of how special the running community in Rochester is. Mikes Valone and Mertsock were both signed up for the race, but decided not to run. They still showed up to cheer on their friends. Andy Frank put on a spectacular race, unperturbed by rainy conditions. Racers smiled through the dampness, laughed through the mud. It seemed like everyone had a grin on their face as they finished.
The Ossian Mountain Run feels like the best-kept secret in Rochester trail running, which is amazing since it is a TrailsROC Trail Runner of the Year race and attended by some of what I consider the most familiar names in the community. This event is a true gem, and fills the gap left by Out of Bounds a few years ago. I look forward to running it in the future, and encourage others to as well – though they should be warned that I’ll be praying for rain!