In many ways, The Escarpment Trail Run is the Boston Marathon of trail running. It’s equal parts history and tradition (this year marked the 38th running of the event). It’s fairly exclusive (you have to qualify to get in). It’s venerable (the course is infamously brutal and the list of folks who have completed it includes many legends of the trail). Yet, despite its pedigree, it’s an incredibly low key and unassuming event. Few folks outside of the trail running community know it exists. You won’t see it on ESPN. Registration is still done by postal mail. There are no age group categories, prizes, race bling, shirts or swag bags. Hell, the race only recently started using Facebook. The infamous “for mountain goats only” race squeezes 6 mountain summits and 10,000’+ of elevation change into 18 miles (yes, you did read that correctly). It’s steep. It’s very technical (roots and rocks significantly outnumber dirt). The scenery (including numerous sweeping views of the entire Hudson Valley) is absolutely breathtaking, but don’t mistake this race for normal trail running. It is pure mountain running, which is an entirely different beast. And it’s addictive, which is why everyone from top pros to accomplished unknowns toe the line out in the Catskill Mountains of New York the last Sunday of each July with a common love for the mountains, trails, adventure, and fun (although some might call it torture) with the goal of finishing it all in under 6 hours. For comparison, most hiking guides recommend this as a three day trek.
The race is run on the first 30k (18.6 miles) of the Escarpment Trail, one of the older trail systems in the United States and part of the lengthier Long Trail system. According to the race site, “The trail is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term. It is extremely rocky and a runner must expect to navigate over boulders, downed trees, gullies and hidden roots the entire distance. There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist to scale a rise, conversely, extremely steep downhill sections add not only challenge to the course, but also a high degree of unwelcome danger. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you’re not careful you could fall to your death.” And this is the intro statement welcoming you to the web page. None of it is exaggeration. There are no road crossings, so there are no bailout points (DNF is not an option). Aid stations are provided, but all the aid is hiked in by extremely-dedicated volunteers who climb for hours with 100’s of pounds of water and refreshments to set up their aid stations at the tops of mountains and the bottoms of deep valleys. Oh, and mind the bears.
Naturally, I’ve been wanting to tackle this race since I first learned about it, and was fortunate enough to score a spot in this year’s event. Escarpment is fairly hard to get into. Not because it’s in any way elitist, but it’s a somewhat complicated process that’s kept deliberately vague. You have to have a qualifying time in order to enter (attainable for most seasoned runners), an effort to ensure that only those relatively capable of not dying on the course make it in, and then there are the multiple rounds of paper applications and self-addressed stamped envelopes one has to endure before finding out if you made one of the coveted 200 slots or not. The race fills up quickly and only those who are swift to the post office make it in in time. This is the polar opposite of todays’ race registrations run through massive online sites and it’s part of the allure of the race. (Image: “For Mountain Goats Only”)
Hailing from the Rochester, NY region (Fairport, to be exact), I drove down the afternoon before the race, stopped by the social gathering at race director Dick Vincent’s house upon arrival, and then went out to check out the park and to set up my tent before sorting my running gear and turning in for the night. I feel like the Catskills are often overlooked, which is unfortunate because they are truly an incredibly beautiful region. These are the mountains of Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, and Woodstock. Treacherous terrain disguised amongst a backdrop of breathtaking waterfalls and beautiful green mountains with quaint historic villages tucked in between. It’s easy to get off the beaten path very quickly around here and cell phone service is spotty at best.
I rose early race morning, geared up, disassembled camp, packed the car and headed out to the race finish at North/South Lake State Park where I’d catch the bus to the race start. I arrived fairly early and enjoyed the beautiful sunrise over the lake against the mountains… as well as the ominous storm clouds blowing in. Severe thunderstorms were in the forecast, and since Escarpment is run hell or high water, it promised to be an interesting day for those of us out in the mountains.
It was sprinkling and rumbling a bit as we arrived in school buses to the race start and hung out for the gun time. I met up with fellow Rochester TrailsROC! runner Jamie Hobbs and it was good to compare pre-race notes as well catch up with other runners in the tight-knit trail community and make new friends from around the country. After Dick made some announcements, the skies burst and a deluge of rain came down complete with thunder, lightning, and winds just in time for the first wave of runners to start (click for MPF’s video of the stormy start). (A new change this year was that runners were organized into groups of 15 starting every 5 minutes in order to spread out trail impact and avoid bottlenecks. There was much heated debate around this change leading up to the race, but it seems to have been a very positive development and helped make the race more enjoyable for everyone.)
Those of us who were gunning in later waves futilely hunkered under trees in the torrential downpour, thunder and lightning. Some of us had brought jackets (in a stroke of uncharacteristic foresight I had managed to do so), others sported trash bags worn poncho style. Not that it mattered much. We’d all be soaked to the skin out on the course in not too long, but most of us hoped to avoid starting the race with hypothermia, soaked to the skin standing around in the cool, early morning temps.
After a quick last pit stop I threw on my final gear and toed the line for my wave’s start, and we were off! I’d run the first 1700’ climb up to Windham High Peak several times this winter (course elevation profile, above, from InstinctRunning.com), so I was familiar with that section, and I’d also spent time running some of the steeper terrain through the nearby Devil’s Path last year, so I felt prepared for the race even though I hadn’t run the actual course. I’d studied the course description well and had time goals for each section to keep me on pace. The weather was the wild card and, as I summited the first peak and began descending, it became immediately clear that the downpour had made the terrain even more challenging than usual. Slick clay soil, slick tree roots, and even slicker rocks meant that each downhill was dodgy at best and it definitely slowed the pace considerably for everyone including the pros up front (although Ben Nephew still managed to push the winning pace to a sub-3 hour finish for his 12th win against a very strong field). That said, the wave starts seemed to have minimized the damage as the trail was much less chewed up than I’d expected given the conditions.
After the first peak, you descend/climb/descend two more peaks (Acra Point and Burnt Knob) before hitting the foot of Blackhead Mountain, the fourth peak of the race and one of the highest in the Catskills. With an ascent of 1100’ in under a mile, everyone’s pace slows as you scramble hand over fist up roots and rocks. The views back below us were gorgeous as the clouds were starting to clear out and one could see the valley far below. The sun was coming out at this point and the jump in temperatures meant that the forest was like a sauna from all the moisture and muscle cramps became a fun reoccurring component of the race as the temps topped 80 degrees and humid. Probably one of my favorite parts of the race was nearing the summit of Blackhead climbing up absurdly steep trail and hearing music and someone shouting, “Come on up! You’re doing great! We’ve got everything you need – water, Gatorade, snacks, dancers!” They weren’t joking. A veritable party made for one of the best aid stations of the race up on a mountain in horrendous weather in the middle of nowhere. Which left a huge smile on my face as I started the 1400’ descent into Dutcher’s Notch. (Image: A small taste of the 1100′ scramble up Blackhead at mile 8 of the race.)
I’d been making fairly good time, conditions considered, only about :15 behind my goal pace when I started descending from Blackhead. Unfortunately, the conditions came into play half way down into Dutcher’s Notch when I took a hard spill sliding off a ledge and rammed my leg into some rocks hard enough to pull and cramp up my right groin muscles so badly that I couldn’t put any weight on my foot without severe pain. Granted, tripping and cramping in a long trail race is nothing unusual, but this was especially excruciating. I took a deep breath, and managed to slowly get going again and just taking things conservatively for a bit which seemed to do the trick as the knot had mostly worked itself out by the time I arrived at the Dutcher’s Notch aid station. Refueled, chatted with the super volunteers and also learned that my GPS watch was totally off and I was, in fact, a mile further along than I thought I was, which is always nice to hear going into a two mile climb. Thanks to Jamie I knew that this last ascent had three distinct segments and so I just pushed through and when I spotted the plane wreck in the woods I knew I was nearing the summit. I lost a fair amount of time off my goal time through this section, but was feeling solid again by the top, so after refueling at the aid station (loved the Billy Joel and the flag-lined trail, guys!!) I felt ok knowing I “only” had a 4.2 mile descent over rocky terrain to make it to the end. I hit my goal pace again on the final descent, enjoying the sweeping views of the valley as the trail scrambles through cliff sections with amazing overlooks, and made it over the finish line with a decent time, all things considered, and no permanent injuries. After that I hopped in cold North Lake, changed into some fresh clothes and enjoyed the finish line grub and brew while exchanging war stories with other runners.
I loved this race. It was everything I’d thought it would be. Super hard. Super fun. Great people. Amazing terrain and scenery. I had an absolute blast and am already looking forward to coming back next year. Escarpment is as treacherous as it is addictive, which is why for nearly 4 decades, folks keep coming back for more. And they should. In a day and age of online registration to expensive destination events with all the bells and whistles, this race is an absolute gem of simplicity. The brutal course and great camaraderie of the runners provides all the charm you could ever need in an event. If you’re up for the challenge, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
LINK: ESCARPMENT TRAIL RUN
All Photographs Copyright Ben Murphy, 2014. All Rights Reserved. Use without Permission is Forbidden.