Renowned for its scenic views, forested trails and cavernous gorges enjoyed by hikers, backpackers and pedestrians alike, the Finger Lakes region has a lot to offer its residents and visitors. The Finger Lakes Runners Club Challenge, operated by its titular club, makes use of this regional beauty, taking participants on a 10-course tour of the area from April 15 to Aug. 13.
The FLRC Challenge tasks runners with the goal of completing 10 courses scattered across the Finger Lakes region, ranging in length and terrain. The courses — which stretch through locales such as the Finger Lakes National Forest, the Lime Hollow Nature Center and Cornell University — vary in distances from one mile to 13.1 miles, totaling 63.4 miles for those who complete the challenge by its final day, Aug. 13.
Beginning in 2021 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted standard in-person races, the FLRC Challenge was originally intended to fill the 5k-sized hole in the Ithaca running community. Adam Engst ’89, the FLRC president and FLRC Challenge creator, sought to use virtual technology to bring the community back to running. Like many pandemic-born ideas, however, the FLRC challenge stuck around and has reoccurred yearly since its inception.
In line with his goal, Engst populates the FLRC forum with boards dedicated to each of the 10 courses, allowing participants to discuss the challenges and organize group runs. Each week, Engst uploads a challenge update, shouting out challenge finishers and notable moments.
“[The forum is] really meant to bring people together, and with running as an excuse. One of the things that I’ve found is that [people getting together] is happening less these days. COVID was a problem, but it’s so easy to do everything online,” Engst said. “You just get sucked in [and] it does bad stuff to mental health — It certainly doesn’t do anything for your physical health. So, if you can use the online aspects to support the in-person aspects, it’s just a huge win.”
Liz Hartman, who has completed all three iterations of the FLRC Challenge, said that the challenge’s varying course selection is what keeps her coming back year after year. Although Hartman prefers road running, the challenge has forced her to engage more with trails.
“One thing that I really like about it is that it provides an incentive to try out different courses in the area that I wouldn’t have necessarily otherwise run,” Hartman said. “The first time I did the challenge, it got me out on trails [and] I am glad that I’ve expanded my trail experience.”
For those who do not find the original challenge difficult enough, Engst offers the “FLRC 100k Ultra Challenge,” an accelerated version of its source material. In order to complete the Ultra Challenge, runners must run all ten courses within 24 hours. In recognition of this great achievement, Ultra Challenge finishers receive not only the FLRC Challenge medal, but also a personalized sign resembling the markers used to chart the courses.
Over the FLRC Challenge’s first three years, the Ultra Challenge has been completed only 22 times by just 13 different people.
FLRC Vice President of Trails Pete Kresock, who has completed the Ultra Challenge four times — twice in 2021, once last year and once again during this year’s challenge — said the reason why he initially joined the FLRC and stuck with it is because of its supportive community.
“I found the Ithaca running community very welcoming. When I first arrived here, … I fit right in,” Kresock said. “It felt like I knew a lot of these people my whole life within months after meeting them.”
While Kresock and Hartman are highly experienced runners, not everyone in the challenge is. Engst and other FLRC runners encourage this diversity through the challenge’s motto “Cover the Ground,” a slogan plastered on the backs of the FLRC Challenge’s t-shirts. Organizers said it doesn’t matter how fast you run, so long as runners complete all ten courses.
The FLRC Challenge includes a wide range of participants with varying abilities, including a seven-year-old introduced to the challenge by his mother and a few runners in their 70s. Banyan Love, a 17-year-old high school student, is one of the challenge’s youngest competitors. Love wishes more people around his age took part in the challenge, which provides both accessibility and motivation via the challenge’s leaderboard.
“[Engst] did a really, really good job of making something that really anyone could do, whether you’re an experienced runner or just starting out because the distances go from a very short distance to a very long distance, and you can easily progress up through it,” Love said. “For young people in general, I would say sometimes it can be hard finding inspiration to do stuff … [and] motivation to go out there every day. I’d say [the FLRC Challenge is] a good way to [stay motivated] because there’s a leaderboard, [which] you can get kind of competitive with.”
The personal challenge has allowed younger children, like seven-year-old Simon Woods, and people with physical limitations, such as one participant with complications from a stroke, to participate by amending the challenge’s completion standards to fit their capabilities. Due to the FLRC’s commitment to inclusion, participants can negotiate with Engst to reform the challenge goal into something more realistic for them — though Engst is sure to keep the “challenge” distinction apt.
“If anyone writes to me and says … ‘I want to sign up for this but I can’t do X, Y, or Z because of this reason, or here’s how I would like to set [my goal].’ Okay, good enough,” Engst said. “It’s not just like agreeing with them actually, you know. I’m trying to make sure this is a challenge. Last year, we had a particularly difficult 13-mile course and people were whining about it nicely … I was like, ‘If it was easy it wouldn’t be a challenge! I’m not trying to make it easy for you.’”
And indeed a challenge it is. In the FLRC Challenge’s first iteration, out of the 193 people registered, only 87 finished. In 2022, of the 160 who registered, 111 finished, for an average completion rate of 57 percent over two years — a statistic that does not account for those who registered, but did not begin the challenge at all.
Aside from completing all of the challenge courses or conquering the 100k Ultra Challenge, Engst offers other accolades for especially dedicated runners. One such measure is the “most points” calculation, which awards runners up to 100 points for each of the 10 courses, depending on where their best time places them among other runners. Additionally, prizes are doled out to the runner with the highest total mileage, and the ten runners with the most “community stars” — a point earned each time an FLRC competitor runs with a fellow participant. A litany of other prize categories are celebrated, providing the opportunity for runners of all skill levels to reign victorious.
Standings are tracked by a sprawling online leaderboard that automatically populates with new data. The site details the leaders for each category along with a plethora of statistics and detailed profiles for each individual participant.
“I came up with this idea of a leaderboard that would have lots of different ways to compete,” Engst said. “In the running world, … the fastest people just win everything. And the fastest people train more so they can often run more, so they can win the most amount, [and] so it just ends up really focusing on a bunch of people — just the really, really talented people. So, I wanted to come up with ways that would split that up.”
Beginning just over two years ago, the Finger Lakes Runners Club Challenge is still in its infancy. Even still, Love and others said they are excited to see what direction the running event will take next.
“[The challenge] is one of the best ways to get out there and go run and have fun with running,” Love said. “I really can’t wait to see it evolve over time in Ithaca as more people get into it.”
Christopher Walker is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. A version of this story was originally published in the Ithaca Times.