BALDWINSVILLE, NY – Mother Nature obviously saved her best and brightest sunshine of this entire April for the Earth Day Half Marathon in Baldwinsville. A bold sunrise of blazing red and gold - sunbeams stretching their arms joyously - melted into a cloudless azure sky, and the rolling Adirondack foothills and meadows were bathed in a light that might have been painted by a Renaissance master.
Hearts were equally buoyant as an endless caravan runners made their way across the state to the northwest outskirts of Syracuse and the verdant farmlands that endlessly stretch across New York’s central and western expenses.
GPS can be spotty in this region, and with the rather homespun directions of “look for the greenhouse at the corner of Vann Road and Rte. 370,” you can, of course, get lost. We did and had to stop and ask a cow which farm we were running.
It was Emmi Farms, to be exact, a broad expanse of variegated fields just inland from the lake, and in the radiant sunshine it was as warm and welcoming a trail’s end as a runner could wish for.
Can I paraphrase that old Paul McCartney and Wings song?
---Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,
Down to Emmi Farms,
where I wanna lay low.
Whoa life, high life, go, let’s go,
Take me down to Emmi Farms,
Everybody tag along
Take me down to Emmi Farms!---
And everyone did go to Emmi Farms, or so it seemed: cars, trucks, and buses filled with runners - 500 strong or more - came to shake off the rust of a long winter and celebrate Earth Day. Winters are fantastically long and cruel along I-90, so now that the veil of winter has finally lifted runners joyously welcomed the opportunity to run in shorts or capris.
“I’ve been waiting all winter to wear this,” said one lady in a rainbow-colored running tutu, and she was one of many dressed in the Earth Day theme. Indeed, Swirly bandanas, tie-dyed shirts, hats that said “hippie runner” abounded. We’ve always said that the road/trail running is the Grateful Dead concert of sporting events. Everyone is dressed colorfully, and Earth Day, along with Thanksgiving and Christmas, reinforces that thought. There were even some runners with little branches of fir trees attached to their hats like antennae, and the event organizers even gave out little tree saplings as prizes.
Yet, even more like a Dead concert, everyone is supportive of one another, good cheer and smiles are everywhere, and of course we leave nothing behind us but footprints and warm memories. Running is a siblinghood, a remarkably tolerant and inclusive one.
Best of all it was 13.1 miles in the bucolic splendor of the state’s breadbasket. Miles 2-12 form a rectangle which runners traverse like a NASCAR track – keep turning left. Miles one and 13 take you out and back to and from the rest of the course.
I don’t know who said this race was flat and easy, but give him a thumb in the eye for all of us. It is most certainly not flat. While you could push yourself the entire way, there were some difficult moments, especially between miles 4-10. The toughest part was something I call Awcomon Hill. You’re somewhere past mile eight when a long steep climb appears in front of you. You steel yourself for it, struggle mightily, finally ascend its summit - ready to celebrate - and then turn sharply left to behold another hill, the one you couldn’t see before you made the turn, one that’s even steeper. That’s when you shout, “Aw, come on!”
“That was a lot harder than they said!” agreed one local runner. “And they get tougher as the race goes on,” he concluded while everyone around him nodded.
But once you’re past Awcomon Hill, the worst is behind you, and the course flattens out. The last ¾ of a mile you can see the giant finishing line rainbow off in the distance, so your final push is easier since the end is clearly in sight.
All in all it was a delightful day, a pretty course, and a fair challenge. For runners who want a frame of reference on the course’s degree of difficulty, Boonville’s Woodsman’s run is still the hardest course we run all year, but this was not far off. For national runners, you won’t find it mild, but it’s no Sleepy Hollow, (which is a roller-coaster the whole way, especially at the end). It will be interesting to compare Baldwinsville to Pittsburgh in two weeks, which is also renowned for being remarkably hilly, although some of the course has been changed and smoothed out for the 2017 iteration.
“You run this course all the time, and you’ll have no problems running anywhere else,” said one racer, whose name we didn’t catch, but who summed up the day perfectly. “And you’ll get a tan and great nature hike at the same time.”
VITAL STATS (all ratings out of seven)
Length: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Size: Around 500, but it can fit more. There are countless fields in which to park.
Difficulty for that length: 4.5 - 5 out of 7 – Though hilly, it was far from indomitable, and while not a PR course, it’s a great springboard for the season’s destination races and for the more celebrated events on the calendar such as the Boilermaker.
Natural Setting: 4 out of 7 – It’s mostly farmland with some charming neighborhoods sprinkled in intermittently. [Author’s Note: Don’t let the low score fool you: 6s and 7s are saved for National Parks and seaside venues. In the joyous weather we had today, the pastoral, idyllic beauty of the route was delightful, especially to runners who spent the last five months wearing four layers.]
Weather: 4.5 - 5 out of 7 – Today was absolutely perfect – 6-7 out of 7 - but you always have to be careful along I-90. It’s been known to blizzard on Mother’s Day, and we’ve even seen snow on June 3 once. In 2015, for example, there was still snow on the ground. Moreover, the region has set four different misery records in the last three winters. (And they were four BIGGIES: coldest month in recorded history, most days in negative temperatures, coldest day in recorded history, and worst single snowfall in recorded history.)
They’ve been keeping these records for 158 years. If global warming exists, it’s missing I-90.
But it can also be glorious, as it was Sunday.
Value: 6 out of 7 - At a mere $55 it’s easily the best bargain of all the races run between Rochester and Albany and between Watertown and Binghamton. The race shirts feel like a second skin, and the spinning world medal that also spells out “13.1” is a supercool showpiece.
After Party: 4 out of 7 – You’re in the middle of nowhere, so if beer isn’t your libation of choice, you have to drive back to town for a post-race drink. The lack of bar-hopping does has its compensations as the BBQ truck made a killing post-race. There was also a cute expo in the greenhouse reminiscent of “Shakedown Street” – the parking lot scene at a jam band music festival.
Fun: 5 out of 7 – The whole was much greater than the sum of its parts.
THE GOLF SCENE
Syracuse, unfortunately, is almost dry socket when it comes to public golf. There are plenty of courses to play, but none of them are architecturally strong at all.
Radisson Greens is probably the best choice, reasonably priced with interesting variety and rolling terrain, wide enough to play the game, with interesting enough green contours to keep your short game sharp. Everything else is a full step down. Drumlins West is mundane and always presents itself in a somewhat shaggy condition. Erie Village is a textbook example of penal architecture. You have to walk down those fairways single file. The same is true of Foxfire. And Marcellus Golf Club, (formerly Links at Sunset Ridge), was clearly done by an amateur’s hand. There is no concept of design principles – it looks like something that could have been doodled on a bar napkin.
As for the Turning Stone courses, as most people have found out – some by reading carefully and others, sadly through their wallet – the Turning Stone courses are overrated, overpriced, and under-designed.
The best bet for Syracuse denizens is to pile in to the car and take a road trip to one of four places:
a) Leatherstocking Golf Club and the Otesaga Hotel – this Devereux Emmet masterpiece still has 15 of his original holes from the 1910s. Nestled gorgeously between the lake called Glimmerglass and the broad-shouldered, tree-cloaked hills, there is a reason why the Otesaga is one of the great resorts in America and why the golf cogniscenti return to this sleepy Americana town year after year for pilgrimage
b) Binghamton for either (or both) Links at Hiawatha Landing, a Silva/Mungeum links design along the Susquehanna River, or Conklin Players Club, and dazzling mountainside course designed by the course owners who still live on the property in their glass pyramid home off the 9th tee;
c) Greystone Golf Club in Rochester – another links course under new management as of last year; and
d) Crestwood Golf Club in Utica – the restoration of Crestwood has made national golf news. The course was almost in the NLE file (No Longer Exists), but it’s restoration and renovation gave the club a second life, one which they are making the most of. At $30 on weekends it’s a steal.[Author's Note: We start a series on Syracuse private golf later this season.]