Advice for running the Wakely Dam Ultra

Wakely Dam Ultra course

A section of the Wakely Dam Ultra course. Photo from Breakheart Trail Running.

This Saturday, in one of the most remote sections of the Adirondacks, a group of trail runners will race approximately 55 kilometers, from the Wakely Dam to the Piseco Airport. There will be no aid stations. There will be no pacers. There will be no dropping out and catching a ride to the finish. And, as race organizers warn runners who are considering signing up, there are only three ways out once you start on this point-to-point journey: complete the course, return to the starting line, or emergency evacuation.

If you are signed up for the Wakely Dam Ultra or another unsupported trail race (or if you’re thinking of signing up for one), you may be wondering how to prepare and pack for such an adventure. You’re not alone. Fortunately, Chad Denning agreed to answer a couple of questions about what to pack and what to expect when running the Wakely Dam Ultra. Denning won the Wakely Dam Ultra in 2011 and he’s also a highly experienced adventure racer and current member of the Untamed New England adventure racing team.

First, the most obvious question, what did you do for water? Did you carry a pack?

No. I had a really small racing vest [one without a hydration pack]. My secret was that I was going to be ultra-light. I know what I need and what I don’t and I didn’t bring anything extra. For water, I only had a water bottle, because I planned to refill in streams all the way through.

Did you treat the water?

I did. I used KlearWater. It’s chlorine dioxide drops that treat the water. You only have to wait 15 minutes. So while I was running, I dipped my bottle in streams, treated it, and waited 15 minutes to drink it. That was the difference between me and everybody else. I was running in a big group for a while, then when we got to the first bridge where the water was flowing, I was totally out of water. I dipped and kept running. I looked back and everyone else was pulling out bladders and treating everything. I literally ran away from them and never saw them again after that. I don’t think I was ever that far in front of them. I just kind of slowly, progressively, kept going. I think a lot of those people were using iodine tablets, which takes 30 minutes at a minimum.

It seems like you would need two bottles if you are using iodine.

Right. As I was planning, I noted where areas were to refill. There was one lake where you should not grab water. You’ll notice because it has a beaver dam right on it. So, obviously you don’t want to dip in that one. There are a bunch of shelters on this trail, the Northville-Placid Trail, and there are a bunch of shelters where you can camp. Those shelters have good areas for water. There are also bridges over streams where you can reach down. You don’t disturb the water. You don’t do anything. And it’s really moving right there. But definitely treat the water. I never got sick.

People talk a lot about the blowdowns in race reports. Were there a lot when you did it? How big were they?

There were quite a few. It was just stuff you just jump over. It was nothing that really got my attention. To me, it was nothing different than you would see around here. In the Upper Valley, where I live, there’s blowdowns everywhere. You just jump over them. They’re like hurdles.

Did you bring anything other than water and your vest?

In my vest I had salt tablets, ibuprofen, a couple of blister packs, and a nice supply of GUs. I also carried a little foil emergency blanket. I always carry one of those because it’s beautiful if you have anything happen and you’re stuck on the trail. That was it.

You ran it in 5:06, so you must have been running pretty much all of it. Is the course pretty runnable?

It is. There was nothing in this race where I actually thought, wow, that’s the biggest uphill I’ve ever seen.

The total elevation gain doesn’t seem to be that much, but the median times the last couple of years were around 8 hours.

You know what it is? I think it’s because you don’t get the touches. In most ultras now, you get touches. Every five miles, there’s an aid station, people cheering you on. There’s aid. There’s water. But at Wakely, you don’t get the touches. So after 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles, if you’re not used to doing those distances by yourself, it will totally weigh on you. There’s no motivation until you see somebody else come up behind you. And as you know, with this race, there’s not really that many people. They can only allow something like 70 people. So you’re not going to get this continuous motion of people coming up saying, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. There’s no cheering on the course. There’s moose. There’s ducks. There’s beavers. And there’s flies.

So just how bad were the bugs?

They were bad. Maybe the worst bugs that I’ve ever seen in a race. And I’ve been in some pretty good ones. In adventuring racing, it was worse on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But, I will say, they are pretty bad at Wakely. And it’s deerflies. It’s absolutely deerflies.

Did you use deerfly patches? How did they work?

The strips work great, but also really go for DEET. Not Off or Skintastic or, hey, I’m going to put that non-corrosive stuff. That’s wasting time. These things eat DEET for breakfast, but it’s the only thing that will make them fall.

How technical is the trail? Is it like running on the Appalachian Trail? Lots of rocks and roots? Or easier than that?

It’s so easier than that. It’s not technical. It’s a soft trail. It’s rooty, but not rocky. It’s soft. At the end, there was a canal path that runs the last eight miles right on the river.

You went south to north, right? It now goes the other way.

Right, so the beginning of that is going to be so fast because it’s even going downhill. The canal path is slightly uphill from south to north. You’re going to be going downhill for the first six to eight miles. The footing is great. On the canal path, it’s all pine needles. It’s like running on a bed of feathers.

When someone says “technical” I picture Seven Sisters.

That’s ferocious—Seven Sisters, Wapack, and Appalachian Trail. Wakely isn’t like that.

And you stay with the blue markers the whole way?

Stay blue the whole time. It was super-easy to follow. Follow the blue dots all the way. But, there’s nobody to direct you. If you get to an intersection and you are unsure, and you really are unsure, the best thing you can do is wait for the next person behind you. Honestly, the directors do a great job. The folks that own the property through there—it’s public lands or something—are so supportive of the race being there. They are ready if there’s an emergency. There’s a couple of guys stationed in the shelters. So as we came through there was a dude with a clipboard checking off people. And he was the ranger and he was radioing. So, even though they tell you that it’s complete solitary and there’s nobody out there, there’s two rangers. Honestly, if there is an emergency out there, they’d heli you out. There’s lots of places to land a helicopter.

So, it was fun?

Absolutely. Honestly, I can’t wait to do that race again, other than the bugs. That’s the only drawback. And I don’t even want to harp on it because I want people to go experience it. If you prepare yourself for the bugs, you’ll be fine. Wear a hat and make sure that you soak your hat in some kind of DEET product. And don’t go shirtless.