By Eric Eagan
Charlie Sabatini ran his first 100 miler at Leadville. The year before while on vacation he saw a runner coming down from Hope Pass and thought “That looks fun.” The following year he went out to Colorado with a few friends, trained for five weeks and finished the Leadville 100.
Almost 40 years later, as he accepted his award for yet another age group win during the Cardiac Hill Trail Run, 83-year-old Charlie raised his hand, waved and smiled. Then he shuffled back to his cozy spot in the lodge near the fire to applaud other runners for their accomplishments.
Charlie has been running the roads and trails in Rochester, New York where he has lived and worked for over 63 years. He is so in tune with what has gone on around him that he remembers when some of the trees in these woods were just saplings.
One of the pioneers of the local ultra scene, Charlie was part of a group of Rochester runners that ran ultras before most people knew what ultras were. Along with Dave Sek and John Prohira, they spin a story that reminds us that the trails we run on were once lined with young trees, and much younger runners.
I met Dave Sek while on a trail run in Mendon Ponds Park in Mendon, NY. He was with a group of younger runners. Before we started he said, “Don’t worry about me, i’ll just be back here enjoying the view.” We took off, and when we rounded a corner later in the run, there was Dave, smiling and heading off in the direction we were about to go. After years of running these parks, Dave knows them like the back of his hand. A short cut brought him back in contact with the group. Everyone smiled and said “Hi Dave” as they ran by.
Later in the parking lot, Dave cracked open a cold beer, offered me one and mentioned how great it was to be out with the group on such a beautiful evening as we watched the sun set over the pond. Reminiscing about the run and all of the “hellos” he received that day, he said “It feels really nice that people know me. After all these years, they still know who I am. I guess I put my time in and people consider me a source, and I like that.”
Dave has been all over the country to run, but says there is something about the local scene that brings him back. “The environment here is wonderful, the trails are familiar and the community is top notch. I’ve traveled a lot, but I love what we have here in Rochester.” Having been involved for so long in the local scene he has a unique perspective. “It’s changed over the years,” he says. “We didn’t have much to do in the woods, and now we have a group run almost every night of the week; the transformation has been incredible to watch.”
On a spring night at Medved Running and Walking Outfitters, an entire room sat, leaning forward, taking in every word as 62-year-old John Prohira told about running through the night on a high mountain pass in the midst of completing yet another 100 mile trail race. It has been years since Prohira raced an ultra, but his storytelling is sharp and the entire room was hanging on every word during the Medved Trail and Ultra Community Forum.
There is something about the way John recalls names, places, and dates that make his running stories come to life. He tells of the process and of watching the local community grow and when he is done he leaves the room with some advice: “Keep preaching about this sport, about running long, and about the people you do it with. You will never regret it.”
Many people consider Dave, Charlie, and John the driving force behind the introduction of ultras and mountain/trail running to the people of Rochester, NY. Rochester did not always have a vibrant trail running scene. Before any local running stores were here, before free group trail runs were offered by clubs, before anything was organized, runners would meet with a group called The Oven Door Runners.
Charlie remembers specifically the lack of unpaved paths. “There weren’t many trails at all. A few in Mendon, some of the Crescent trail, but certainly most of us just ran roads. When we traveled, we found out how intense trail running was but we were mostly road runners back at home.”
Prohira agrees. “It was with the Oven Door Runners that I first loved to run long. I was trying to kick a smoking habit so my kids wouldn’t pick up on it. The ODR ran mostly on roads but I ran my first ultra in ’97 on trail in Illinois and I loved it. Soon after, more and more Oven Door rebels would split off from the road runners with me and head up the Crescent Trail or on dirt in Powder Mill Park.”
Always looking to push his limits, Prohira has competed in 89 ultras finishing 85 of them including twenty-nine 100 milers, including Western States, Hardrock, and Massanutten Mountain.
Unlike the current local scene, which is offering ultra races almost every other weekend, the guys would have to travel to ultra events because there weren’t any local ones. Prohiras’ second ultra came one month after his first at the ‘Round Canandaigua Lake 40 Mile, directed by Charlie Sabatine. A constantly hilly route around a beautiful lake in Finger Lakes wine region of New York State, the race is now called Can Lakes 50 and has evolved along with the local running scene.
Charlie and John traveled to his next four ultras together in Maryland, Texas, Maryland again, and then Virginia. Eleven months after completing his first ultra he completed his first 100 Mile in Vermont. Sitting together at a local watering hole, Charlie mentions that if you wanted to run long you could do that anywhere, but if you wanted to race long you would have to travel. “It’s nice to see so many more options coming here and to see the trails and events that have developed out of what we started.”
Prohira has many tales of the early days of ultra running and the way runners used to treat them. He tells a story of Bill Hearn, the “Leader of the ODR,” at Bull Run Run 50 mile race. “Bill Hearne turns and sprains his ankle early the race. One of the local onlookers hiking into the course trades his high lace boots for Bill’s trail shoes and my friend Bill, with ankle now supported, completes the remaining 40 miles with slow determination but wearing his big smile.”
Charlie and Dave agree, both commenting on how the intensity of running seemed to be so much higher 30 years ago. “It wasn’t for everyone, it wasn’t as inclusive. I love all the people, but sometimes I miss those old days of pounding out fast miles, just a few of us together.”
Having seen the local ultrarunning efforts change before his eyes, Prohira is excited for everyone who is getting a chance to do what he did, but doing so in Rochester. “It would appear that the local trail and ultrarunning scene is alive and healthy.” He says: “So I applaud the efforts of those who have helped make the wider running community aware of the benefits of running trail and running long.”
Dave spent many of his early running days as a hasher, as he recounts a story during a “hash” in Letchworth State Park. “The guy who set the course one day in Letchworth took us all the way down into the gorge. He put a 50 foot rope out. The problem was we had a 100 foot drop. We made it work, somehow crossed the river, climbed up the other side and were promptly met by rangers who put us right back on our buses and out of the park.”
Over the years Sek made the transition completely off of the roads and onto the trails and kept running longer and longer. He believes feeling more connected with nature, the varying views and the way the trails treat his body has given him the longevity that most runners can only hope for. “When I decided to go to trails for almost all of my runs it was like my body was saying “thank you” to me. After years of pounding and running on hard surfaces I was finally giving back to it. To see others figuring this out the way we did years ago is rewarding.”
Prohira hasn’t run a long race in some time – 2010 as he can best recall. He is, however, constantly reminded of the beauty of the sport because of the people. “There are people I know and have run long with who I might have seen but twice a year over a decade who I feel closer to than others I see daily. That shared experience, struggle and accomplishment binds.” To prove his point he he talks about a visit to Massanutten Mountain in May.
“At MMT I slid up next to old friends I’d not seen in five years and picked up the conversation(s), bragging and fibbing about past deeds where we seemingly left off years ago. I’ll not easily forget these men and women who have helped make my life larger.”
Dave is 73 years old and he plans to keep on running as long as he can and is looking to folks like Charlie who still get out and enjoy the trails and runs well into their 80s. After years of running, Dave points out the friendships and what they have meant to him: “Dozens and dozens of others I have come to know. Some no longer run and a few have died. A few we haven’t seen in a few weeks or months and we ask, “Where have you been? We’ve missed you. You OK?” These friendships and the people we’ve come to know are a part of our community. Some think that all we talk about is running. Not so. We talk about our lives, our families, and the day to day living in this crazy world. My years of running have been the most rewarding years of my life.”
After years away from the sport, Prohira is, as he says, “toying” with the idea of a return. He knows now that the local scene is as strong as it has ever been. He has seen it evolve and grow and become something that supports the sport he helped get off the ground. He thinks maybe, it will be his time to get back out there. The event? “Laz’s A Race for the Ages. After all, I’ll have 62 hours to get done what needs to be done, and there are plenty of friends now to do it with.”
Charlie still directs a few events with his wife Sara and they will soon have completed every section of the 950 mile long Finger Lakes Trail system. He wants people to have the same experiences and meet the same sort of people he has over the years. He has no plans on stopping, saying “Once you make this connection, it’s kind of like forever.” He points out people will say “Oh yeah, you are the runner.” No other activity has that. No one says “Oh yeah you are the card player, or you are the golfer”. That only seems to happen with us runners.
He smiles as he recalls the stories, saying life tends to go just as ultrarunning does “One foot in front of the other, just keep moving, don’t stop moving through the high and the lows. Just take it all in watch the trees grow, and enjoy the ride.”
Eric Eagan is is an avid runner living in Rochester, NY. Eric tells his stories about the Western NY running scene in a unique way while sprinkling in his goals of motivating others to start running, keep running, and love running. When Eric is not running or writing about running, he is directing trail races, hiking the Adirondak Mountains, or snowshoeing and fat biking the trails and hills of Western NY.