Kathleen Cusick

Twisted Branch 2023: Summer camp for adults!

The course map

I was fortunate to get to run the Twisted Branch 100K in Naples, located in the Finger Lakes region of western New York, on August 19, 2023. I had run this race several years ago, and fell in love with the trail and, really, the entire event in general. The race has a great vibe: laid-back, positive, well-organized, all with a beautiful yet challenging trail. That year (2016), we all slept at the finish the night before and rode a bus at 0-Dark Early AM on the back roads to the start. This year there was free camping at the start, for which we had to catch a “shuttle” the night before, leaving our vehicles at the finish. “Shuttle”: I had visions of a large, white, air-conditioned van. As we milled around the finish area Friday night, the “shuttles” arrived – yup, two big yellow school buses!

So we all hauled our bags of gear onto the buses and started our journey on the back roads. I was very concerned about setting up my tent. I love to sleep in my Jeep – one of the requirements when I bought it was being able to stretch out fully in the back. I bought the cheapest tent I could find on Thursday night, and practiced putting it up in the store – and taking it down. That was my big concern. Anyone who is with me on race morning (or any morning) knows I am S-L-O-WWWW. We would have to have all our gear packed up and stowed on a truck prior to race start (4 AM!!).

Pre-race briefing

When we arrived at race start the wind and rain started to pick up. Everyone scurried to set up their tents. I set up my tent. However. .. . there was a small building near race headquarters. I was so concerned about not getting my tent down in time, I asked RD Scott Magee if I could sleep on the floor of The Lodge. “I’m not gonna say no” was his answer. Perfect! Ok, so we had the pre-race meeting at 7:45, and were done by 8, whereupon those of us who had not booked an Air B-n-B retired to tent city or the floor. I should mention that there were some vendors – we got free Darn Tough socks, and this race fuel I had never heard of called Glukos. OMG! If Apple Pie moonshine is Christmas in your mouth, then Watermelon Lime Glukos is .. I don’t know, the 4th of July?


Saturday morning dawned windy but no rain. I had thrown an old Houdini in my pack and needed it! Scott told us the first section would be technical downhill in the dark. I laugh at his use of “technical” – there was another portion of the course which was also described as “technical” or maybe “very technical” – and with this, I issue an open invitation to Scott and the rest of race management to come join us in the Massanuttens for the MMT100 or The Ring or any of the Fatasses.

The trail dumped out to a road for a few miles, which was perfect timing to see the sky lighting up in an array of color. I was concerned at the start as to how far I would make it before breathing became an issue. Since my bout with long COVID, it’s always a crapshoot as to what my lungs and legs will do. I had both my inhalers with me, and I was prepared to walk it in if necessary.

4 AM starters on the trail

Because while the entire course is beautiful - mainly smooth trails under big trees with soft pine needles and great climbs with rewarding views, an occasional open road or corn field - there was one section I was bound and determined to get to. When I did this race the other year, a woman at the mile 54 aid station told me, “You are now going to run on the prettiest 3 miles of trail you have ever seen” – and she was right! I have thought about this section of trail many times since that year. Big trees, soft trail, gorgeous gorge… .

Kathleen Cusick on the trail

But I get ahead of myself. To help you get to this section, there are ample aid stations along the way, all with well-organized volunteers. I went off-course somewhere in the 30s(?), completely my own fault, as the course is well-marked (disclaimer, I have gone off course during multiple Rings and RR, where the one rule is “Stay on Orange”). The trail quickly became overgrown. As I turned around, under the trees, my sunglasses flew off. I stopped, couldn’t find them. Took off my pack and shook like a dog. No glasses. Took off my shirt and shook. No glasses. Crawled in the weeds. No glasses. I was getting panicked. Where were they??!! Finally, I found them hanging in a tree several feet off the trail. OK, got the glasses and promptly stowed them in my pack. I also got stung in lower left calf at some point – wow, that hurt. My left foot started to get numb some time later, I wondered if it was the toxin from the stinger.

I pulled into the one aid station, maybe mile 46? and there was a pacer there, no shirt on, spouting out some of the funniest stuff I ever heard. I laughed, and told the ladies, “I’ll have what he’s smoking.” As a side note, the aid stations were great, having both “ultra fuel” aka Skratch supplies, and real food like chips, pretzels, candy, fruit… and PBJs made with this rice. I appreciate all of it and thank race management for trying to be more health-conscious, but nothing beat PBJs on white bread (John Anderson, can I get an Amen!). I have personally volunteered to make a supply next year.

Truly a fun trail!

Along I went. I planned out a digital PCR experiment for single cell transcript analysis for a potential student. I thought random thoughts. I turned on my music and sang along. I was on another smooth, gorgeous section of trail by myself. Sunlight was streaming through the trees, John Fogerty was singing “Centerfield” – and the tears came. I thought of my dad. I miss you, Dad. I miss you so much. My dad loved baseball. When I think of New York, I often think of Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. We went there several times. I will never get to go there again with him, never go to what seemed like the greatest candy shop in the world. It was this time last year that his short, dynamic battle with cancer started. Witnessing his battle, I have learned to appreciate the simplest things – being able to get out of bed in the morning on my own, getting to feel my feet moving along the ground, etc. As I cried, I thought of lines from Jim Valvano’s speech at the ESPYs: “If you can laugh, think, and cry, that’s a full day. That’s a hell of a day.” (If you are not familiar with his speech, google it, or I can recite it verbatim for you [or can you view it on YouTube here].)

The sun sets over the finishing stretch of the course

I finally made it to that 3-mile stretch of trail, and it was as pretty as I remembered. The sunlight streaming through the big trees and with the pine needles on the trail, reddish in color, it baths the hole section in a soft red glow. I kept looking for the unicorns and fairies but did not see them. The trail comes out to some vineyards, which could be a temptation to some (not mentioning any names, Lori Turner Wetzel), and then the final aid station before the last climb and descent. The finish is a downhill to the lake. As I made the final descent, I reflected on my day. The trail was beautiful. I could breathe (expect for two sections). I laughed, I thought, and I cried. Thank you, Scott, and the Twisted Branch team for letting me have a hell of a day on the Twisted Branch trail.

The finish line

Final note: The finish line is a wonderful party on the lake – local craft beer, food, there is one outdoor shower head. I highly suggest this as a Blue Train destination for next year. Cute main streets, wineries, did I mention a smooth trail? Several runners stayed at Air B-n-Bs near the start – let’s try for that, unless we want to shuttle the night before, for which I have already decided I am going to lead a rendition of “99 bottles of beer” and see how far we make it.

With love and gratitude, Kathleen