by Josh Merlis
On Saturday, October 26, 2019, Pete Rowell and I awoke in a recently renovated hotel in Elmsford, NY and quickly headed towards Pleasantville (yes, a real town name) beneath the dark pre-dawn sky. Some 21 hours earlier, we were at Thacher Park with the exhausting but always enjoyable task of marking the course for the Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon and Squirrelly Six Mile. As it’s a trail race, there’s no “lazy” way to mark it (no sitting in the back of a truck dropping cones, as an example); and so we got the time honored enjoyment of running the course - with the addition of being adorned with backpacks full of flags, marking tape, and other helpful supplies. In short, it’s basically like doing 500 repeats of running for a few dozen meters and then doing a lunge to place a flag in the ground. There is also the occasional backtrack for items falling out of the backpack due to the strange contortions one may find oneself in along the way. Over the 15 years of the event, the time to mark the course has thankfully dropped from nearly 9 hours to about 3 and a half - benefited surely by a few out and back sections and improved carrying methods (along with no longer having to rake the course, which was a courtesy we offered in year 1).
Our beloved Halloween-themed event came into existence in 2005. The idea for the event came in late summer 2004, as the Albany Running Exchange was wrapping up its inaugural Summer Trail Run Series (STRS). The goal was to create a capstone event for the STRS; a culminating race to celebrate our trail running efforts over the previous 15 weeks. Our original location denied our permit for a late August event, so through pure happenstance, we were essentially told that late October would be best, and so it was. Ironically, ultimately that location didn’t work out, so with a few weeks to spare before the scheduled 9 a.m. debut of the event, we moved the race to Thacher State Park, and 9:30 a.m. The 30 minute push-back was due to fear of not all of our participants getting the word (communication was much different in 2005). Just in case, we spotted someone at the original location to notify any runners who went there instead. 14 years later, we still start the event at 9:30 a.m. (And, since you’re wondering, only one person went to the wrong location - but did make it on time to Thacher.)
Chicken or the egg? When the debut year was essentially forced to October 30, it seemed only logical to make it Halloween themed. But, and it’s strange to think, that wasn’t the original intention. Nonetheless, armed with some Halloween decorations from a friend’s family, and a variety of other seasonal accoutrements, we immediately began the tradition of trying to mesh a spooky-walk/haunted hayride experience with a running race.
The event consistently draws several hundred runners, typically hailing from more than ten states. It’s quite a treat for us to get out-of-towners to our cherished club event, one that engages creativity more than anything else we do.
Members of the Albany Running Exchange volunteer with such tasks as creating the finisher medals and overall awards (plush gorilla and squirrel ‘trophies’), literally baking the age group cookies (yes, shaped like squirrels and gorillas), fully managing our BBQ and pot-luck, and creating graves for just about all of the pre-registered runners, and much more.
Yes - and we have no idea if any other event does this - we create graveyards around the course with the names of our racers. Perhaps not the best idea for runner retention (dead runners don’t come back… ha ha?), but it always makes for a (morbidly) amusing moment when someone poses for a picture next to their own. It's definitely entertaining to see the smile on someone’s face when they feel the satisfaction of finding their eponymous grave.
The event is well-known for its emphasis on getting participants and volunteers in costume. In fact, a few years ago, Runners World recognized our event as the “Best Costume Trail Race in America.” We have no idea if there are any others, but either way, it sure was swell to have them mention our event.
A few years after its first running, I randomly ended up at a house on Russell Road in Albany, where a man was selling an eclectic variety of items. Included were boxes upon boxes of Halloween decorations. Apparently he used to throw massive Halloween parties, but for a reason as outré as how he got into that in the first place, it was now time to end the parties and sell it all off. Armed with David Newman’s help and a then new (to us) AREEP box truck, we made him an offer for all of it, and he said yes. Just like that, with one sale, his Halloween decorations were loaded up into our vehicle and off we went, back to my house to unload them into my overflowing garage of AREEP race equipment and related items.
The decorations add an extra element to the setup of this event, which far exceeds anything else we do. For this race, we place hundreds of items by hand all over the main event staging area and other parts of the course, items that are generally not found outside, and especially not in adverse weather conditions. It’s a laborious process, but we are fortunate to have a dedicated cadre of Albany Running Exchange volunteers who take on the Herculean task of putting all of the items out and picking them back up.
To that end, and a recurrent theme in all that we do, it’s sometimes mind boggling to consider the effort that goes into a single day - more accurately, just a few hours - for items that generally don’t move at all. And so it was a beautiful day, that 26th of October 2019, when Pete and I wrapped up Tina’s 5K downstate and left beneath a beautiful sky with sidewalks full of children doing the neighborhood’s annual Saturday Trick-or-Treat. We enjoyed the traffic-free ride up the bucolic Taconic Parkway before returning to Thacher Park to continue with setup for the event, along with our decorations team of Emily Chromczak, Charlie Dietrich, and Melanie Welch.
The park was packed. People were everywhere. It was a gorgeous fall day. A perfect day for a race. The day was besmirched by our knowledge that the golden rays of that day were destined to be replaced the next day by endless precipitation guaranteed by all of the weather websites we could find. Funny how I sometimes find myself checking weather websites as though I’m looking for a second opinion - an opinion that is more favorable to our desires. This is human nature at its finest. Unaccepting of reality or, a bit more charitably stated, fearing disappointment.
Any time we are setting up for an event at a public place that has people unaware of our purpose, bystanders generally feel compelled to ask us what’s going on. While surely we enjoy the opportunity to spread the word about our events and hopefully recruit more people to running and racing, sometimes it feels like we’re never going to actually get set up due to the repetitiveness of satiating their curiosity. And that final Saturday of October was no different, but this time with their unnecessarily lugubrious, “It’s too bad it’s going to rain tomorrow.” Apparently they check the same websites.
The real heroes of any and every race are its volunteers. They make it happen. And they are its energy. Their enthusiasm, their dedication, and their joie-de-vivre power the experience for all who interact with them as race participants. And no one spends more time at a race than they do. Arriving before all the racers, and leaving after them, it’s a long day, and that’s before taking into account where some of them must go, and the conditions they’ll be in.
Some parts of the course require volunteers to hike/run/bike several miles to access their locations, and on this day, some of those spots were literally in overflowing puddles and trails that had turned to rivers. Many of them, in costume, spent hours standing in shoe-sucking mud, to both ensure that our racers went the right way and also to put smiles on their faces as they did.
At 6:10 a.m. on Sunday, October 27, John Kinnicutt, Pete, and I met at the AREEP warehouse. With 2 trucks already at the park, the three of us carpooled to the park so that they both could both drive a truck home after the race. We commented on the weather - not in the small talk sense, but in the realistic, how in the heck are we going to pull this off sense. We use many electronic devices out in the open, along with other pieces of equipment that are not intended to get wet. How can we best protect them? What extra steps will we need to take? How much extra time will this add that would not be a concern on a dry day? Are our fingers going to be able to handle twisting knobs and other parts of setup with wet, cold hands? What other curveballs might be thrown our way? And in what fashion are we going to pack, transport, and dry all of these items after the event?
Some six years earlier, a young woman named Michelle won the costume contest at this event. She was new to the Albany area and it was the first time we met. In December 2018, we were married on a beautiful winter day in the Adirondacks at a place we love, but Thacher is our favorite. For this year’s race, she made matching cactus costumes for us, but unfortunately cold driving rain was not optimal for their full effect. Armed with the experience of how miserable working a race in poor conditions can be if not dressed appropriately, I suited up like I was going skiing, with waterproof boots, pants, and 2 jackets. Still, at times it was bone-chilling cold, being pelted by the rain while setting up in the light from my headlamp. (Side note: We did enter the costume contest but lost to a scarecrow.)
Upon arriving, we quickly jumped into action, unloading items and quickly scurrying with them to the pavilion, which, while covered, did little to prevent the sideways rain from at least gently misting on everything. Maureen Cox, who is truly a wonder woman and deserves to be profiled for her endless contributions to the Capital District running scene, was also there about that time, getting the fire going before the sun rose, and preparing for what was to come: 7 hours of being dedicated to pulling off our 15th Annual Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon and Squirrelly Six Mile.
23 people signed up on race day, joining over 250 others who had already registered and showed up. They knew it was going to be “bad out.” They knew the course was going to be a sloppy mess. And yet they came. We were amazed at how many still showed up; surely we’d love to see everyone, but still, these conditions are not everyone’s “cup of tea.” But by and large, a large number came out, and they were in for a real treat.
It was memorable. I’ve gone on many trail runs where parts of the course are wet, and, at first, I try to avoid puddles, trying to avoid getting my shoes “wet” (well, soaked). It’s a funny dance sometimes; that fear of being uncomfortable. And yet, once it happens, that wrong step, that unexpected wet spot or whatever it may be, there’s an immediate acceptance. It’s almost a reflexive relaxation; kind of like when you’re taking a cold shower and you consciously turn off the shivering, and just take it. It’s being mentally strong, and confronting the discomfort. In those moments we become stronger. Plus 1 to you! For effort, for success. With 30 minutes to spare before the start, seeing hundreds of runners gathered, I was overcome with an unexpected giddiness. This was real. This was happening, and our runners were going to love it!
As they gathered on the starting line, John and I took turns on the microphone enticing them with the genuine reality of what lay before them: running a race unlike any other, unlike even this race. Never before had the race been held in these conditions. Trail races are quite rare in our area to begin with, especially ones that have you running past graves with your own name on them as you jump over the bones of skeletons we sprinkle on the course. And here was your chance to do it in a nearly blinding fog through the forest. Does it get any better than this? Let your inner child roar, channel the excitement of those standing at your sides, and make a memory.
And beneath the pelting rains of Sunday, October 27, 2019, the horn sounded, sending nearly 300 runners into the mist within which memories were made.