Well, that was one hell of an adventure. This past weekend’s Manitou’s Revenge Ultramarathon more than lived up to its brutal reputation, and I had an absolute blast. This was easily the most fun I’ve ever had in a race due to the beautiful setting, the amazing racers and volunteers, and the sheer ridiculousness of the course and the conditions. It was also probably the worst time I’ve ever had in a race due to circumstances out of my control that, ultimately, ended up costing me the chance to finish – exiting the race at mile 44, scratching my head on what had become a pretty bizarre situation.
To say I was intimidated by Manitou’s going into the race would be an understatement. 54 miles of super technical mountain “running” with 17,000’ of climb (and possibly 18,000’ of descent) over more than a dozen mountains should give anyone pause. As far as I’m aware, this is the only 50 miler on the planet that has earned a coveted 4 point rating from UTMB’s qualifying system. Enough said. My head space was a jumble going into this one as the reality of what I was about to bite off set in (course profile above).
I drove down to the Catskills the day before the race, setup camp at Devil’s Tombstone, and popped down to the beautiful little mountain town of Phoenicia for packet pickup (image above). It was still early in the afternoon, so I headed over to North South Lake for a brief mosey on the Escarpment Trail to shakeout my legs and clear my head. Which was exactly what I needed, the views instantly reminding me of why I do all this (below image of NS Lake from Sunset Rock). I hit the sack pretty early given the 2:30am alarm and slept well falling asleep to the sounds of owls up in the mountains.
I woke up early, had some food and coffee, geared up, and headed down the road to catch the 3:30am bus to the start line. Made some new friends, connected with some facebook friends, and enjoyed chatting with folks from, literally, all around the world as we waited for our wave starts gunning off every five minutes starting at 5:00am. It was cold at the start (in the high 40’s) with a beautiful sunrise, and it seemed everyone was happy that the day’s high temps wouldn’t climb out of the 70’s. I certainly was. Also, there were storms forecast for later in the day; something that would make the race interesting for everyone but the winners.
My wave gunned off at 5:15am, and we settled in down the back road from the Maplecrest, NY recreation area. After an easy 5k of rolling pavement transitioning into dirt, we made a turn onto the trail and started the first climb of the day up to Acra Point. An easy ascent, topping out on the ridge before hitting the first sizable climb of the race up Blackhead. It’s a testament to the difficulty of this race that Blackhead – which gains 1,000’ in under a mile, requiring hands-on climbing – is merely considered an “easy” warm-up climb for the rest of the race. I made the top of Blackhead around the 2ish hour mark and began the long descent down into the Dutcher’s Notch Aid Station. Checked in, said hello, grabbed some fruit and then headed out for the long, but not-too-steep climb up to Stopple Point. Saw the plane wreck (image below) and knew I was near the top. Another 4ish miles of descent brought me into the North South Lake Aid Station in 4:45, right on target at a very comfortable pace. I checked in, restocked on water, grabbed some eats, said hello to the great volunteers from Mountain Peak Fitness and headed out for the long descent into the Palenville Aid Station on fairly runnable trails, making it there at just over 6 the hour mark, right on target.
At some point I inquired how many people were still behind me. Not many. 6 or 7. I wouldn’t see any of them until later, but it speaks to the toughness of this race that there really aren’t any of your typical back-of-packers on this course. Certainly, the entry process is designed to weed out anyone who shouldn’t be out there (it’s the only race I’ve entered that asked me to list my mountaineering experience), but even the “slow” folks are individuals who have completed races like MMT100, Hardrock 100, and Grindstone. This is an elite field.
I was shooting to take the front portion of the race into Palenville at a comfortable, but steady 15-17ish minute/mile average pace. I figured that would leave something in the tank for the back half of the race, which I knew would be infinitely harder than the front half. Which is really saying something, because when you run the infamous Escarpment Trail (image above of one of the flat, easy parts just before North South Lake) as the warm-up? Well, that’s just crazinesss. This course is absolutely unforgiving, rocky, rooty, steep, unpredictable, and gets exponentially harder the further you go.
And now, we bring you, “things you can do, but shouldn’t do, when mountain running with poles”:*
1.) Don’t do a snot rocket when moving, because if the tip of your pole hits a rock you could get punched in the face with the handle of the pole, resulting in a bloody lip.
2.) If you’re making switchback turns, don’t straddle the pole as a shortcut because it could catch on a rock or a root and hit you in the balls. Hard.
(*I may or may not have done any of these things. I’m pleading the 5th.)
Herein ends this segment of “things you can do, but shouldn’t do when mountain running with poles.”
I felt good heading out of Palenville, making the easy road crossing over the river, and looking for the next turn up KHP (Kaaterskill High Peak), which, while not a technical climb, is the fourth most prominent peak in the Catskills, making for a nice little 2,500’ grind up from Palenville. Which broke me. I was good for the first 1,000’ feet or so as it was basically steep access road, very reminiscent of some of the steeper Hi-Tor climbs back home. But it kept going. And going. And I had forgotten to fuel. And… boom. Stopped. Regrouped. Kept plodding. Noticed some hikers easily keeping pace. Starting pushing harder and refueling. As I hit the plateau in the middle of the climb the refueling kicked in and a few stops at ice cold river crossings (image below from the top of the falls, plunging over 100’ into the valley below) helped me refresh and get moving back on pace. I made the final push through the unbelievable amount of mud and roots, speed hiking at an easy 4mph clip headed down into the 50k mark at Platte Clove on target in 9:48 – feeling really good, ready to grab my drop bag, restock, and head out for the back portion of the race trying to book as much daylight time as possible before the forecast rain and thunderstorms rolled in.
Except that when I arrived at Platte Clove Aid Station my drop bag wasn’t there. The labeled bag I had personally handed to the race director early that morning and watched him put it in his car with all the others… was nowhere to be found. Nowhere. How could that even happen in a race this well organized?!? Really?!? Talk about a sucker punch. I was speechless.
I was running on my own with no crew or pacer, so every single thing I needed for the back 23 miles of the race (which are waaaaay harder than the front 31) was in that bag. Carefully planned out, calculated, and packed ahead of time. Headlamp, backup headlamp, backup batteries (all required items in order to even leave this aid station), all my nutrition for the next 10+ hours, rain gear, dry socks… Totally missing in action. I thought for sure there had been some mistake, that my drop bag had been misplaced under a chair or a tarp, but the volunteers turned the place upside down trying to help me out. Nope. The thing had vanished. I was livid.
I tried really hard to keep the words in my head from coming out of my mouth, but I could tell the volunteers were picking up on my frustration. Clearly, I was pissed. I tried to retain some semblance of politeness (and I was told afterward that I did, in fact, manage that), but… I was beyond angry. How could I possibly not be? I hadn’t worked that hard to get to this point in the race, set up right where I wanted to be, and then have to throw in the towel because some bonehead didn’t compare the bag # with the race checklist.
The storm blew in. Misting rain quickly turned into a downpour. I watched as all the racers I’d been ahead of checked through the aid station one by one and went on their way. I stood there, totally helpless as calls were made. No cell phone reception. This is the Catskills, after all. Volunteers drove out to nearby houses multiple times to use landlines and try to send texts from where a cell signal could be received. I did manage to get a call out to the race director. Voicemail was full. Nothing.
The volunteers, to their credit, went all out. Let me borrow jackets to keep warm in the rain, made sure I refueled while I was waiting. I didn’t sit down, which I think helped keep my legs feeling fresh – did some yoga to loosen up and just kept pacing until I got an answer. I definitely knew two things: 1.) I wasn’t dropping there unless I was absolutely forced to; 2.) I’m asking for a refund. Finally, after over an hour, word came through that my drop bag had been located. It had been picked up and taken to the finish line prematurely. Problem is, the finish was a 45 minute drive away. One way. There was no way they could get it to me before the sweeps arrived and the aid station closed down.
And, right on cue, the sweeps arrived. They heard what had happened, and – confirming that I was indeed crazy enough to continue given the circumstances – pulled extra gear from their packs – headlamps, rain shell, extra nutrition – and offered it without hesitation. They also informed the volunteer in no uncertain terms that my drop bag had better be waiting for me at the next Aid Station – regardless of who had to hike how long through what to get it there. And off I went.
I left Platte Clove in dead last, having lost an hour and thirteen minutes as a result of this whole fiasco. I arrived 9:48 into the race. I left 11:01 into the race, technically already behind cutoff. I’ll never know for sure, but the whole clusterfuck may have cost me a finish. It was, at the very least, a major factor.
I pushed through the remainder of the Platte Clove Preserve, making good time as the rain came down harder, and harder, and harder. I’d run Devil’s Path twice before and it’s tough in perfect conditions (google “toughest most dangerous hikes in the world.” Devil’s Path will be on the list). Toss in high winds, driving rain, dropping temps, and waning daylight and it becomes a bit more challenging. Scary as shit, actually. Easily one of the more frightening things I’ve ever done. (Right up there with scrambling down off the summit ridge of Katahdin in a lightening storm.) Clearly, I’m not an especially risk averse person, but… I really wouldn’t recommend doing Devil’s Path in these conditions. The climb up Indian Head helped remind me just how tricky these ascents and descents were (see above image from the Platte Clove Aid Station – stolen from Dick Vincent – you can do the math). Hand over fist. Up. And up. And up. There were no sweeping views of the mountains around me. Just wind, rain, and fog. I wish I’d taken pictures, but… it was raining hard enough that I thought better of it not wanting to destroy my phone. Plus, I was trying to make the Mink Hollow Aid Station before a cutoff that I was, technically, already behind of. I managed to bank 30 minutes through Devil’s Path making it from Platte Clove Preserve to Mink Hollow in 4.5 hours. It was dicey. Downright terrifying in places. The rocks, roots, mud… everything was slick and this is a trail where you simply cannot afford to fall. Implementing a “measure twice, cut once” philosophy, I tried to make it through as quickly as caution would allow. Made it through Indian Head, up and down Twin, and up and down Sugarloaf (always a bear), only taking a few minor falls. The sweeps kept a good pace and caught up with me coming down off of Sugarloaf and I actually welcomed the company. Great guys, and great conversation helped pass the time on a pretty ludicrous descent into Mink Hollow. Made good time and only needed the headlamp for the last ten minutes or so before hitting the Mink Hollow Aid Station.
My drop bag was, indeed, waiting for me at Mink Hollow. Checked in, restocked everything, returned the borrowed gear (except for the shell, which the sweeps graciously allowed me to hang on to for however long I needed it) while I grabbed my own gear, repacked and headed on out ready to hammer out the last 15 miles. Which… I thought at the time would take me roughly 7 hours and I’d still be able to finish under the 24 hour cutoff. I felt good leaving Mink Hollow.
And then Plateau destroyed me. I didn’t realize until part way up that I hadn’t been fueling/hydrating properly having been so focused on the hand and foot work necessary to traverse Devils safely. It’s hard to eat and drink when your hands are occupied trying not to fall off a mountain. And, as dumb as it sounds, you don’t want to stop to eat/drink because, well, it’s a race.
As I climbed, in the dark, headlamp piercing the blowing rain and fog trying to locate trail markers above me, I was falling apart. Heartbeat was spiking. Core temp noticeably dropping. My memory of Plateau as being “not as bad as the other peaks on Devil’s” was clearly wrong.
A thousand feet into the climb up the side of Plateau Mountain (w/ 500′ more to go) balled up by the side of the trail in the dark alone in the middle of a storm dry heaving and trying not to pass out as my core temperature dropped, it occurred to me that I might want to spend some time weighing the pros and cons of pulling out of the race regardless of the whole drop bag fiasco thing costing me significant time. Exposure in the mountains can have dire consequences, and I was not in a good place. Not that I’d have the option of dropping out in the near future. Down climbing super steep/technical terrain in the pouring rain back to an aid station that was most likely packed up and gone wasn’t an option. I knew if I hit the top I’d have 4 miles of flat/downhill to the next checkpoint. It took me something like 2.5 hours to cover those four miles of mud, roots, and rocks in the fog and driving rain. I tried to refuel, and slowly felt it kicking in, hoping I’d be ok by Silver Hollow Notch to swap out some warmer clothes, and successfully regroup like I’d done earlier in the race. And knowing the sweeps were behind me was a good margin of safety; I could see their headlamps behind me.
But I was flagging. I knew, objectively in the back of my mind, that the right call was to safely get to the aid station and be done even though I didn’t want to be. This race isn’t going anywhere. I can come back. I was freezing; I’ve done enough sub-zero winter running to know the early signs of hypothermia and how hard it is to reverse it when you’re away from civilization. Mountain running requires a high level of self-sufficiency, it’s not like there was an EMT crew around the corner if something went wrong. I’d be looking at hours in a dire situation (at best). I also had two more big climbs (and descents) and a river crossing ahead of me. And I was behind the cutoff pace. True, that part wasn’t my fault, but… it was the reality I was faced with and my health wasn’t worth the gamble. My family is more important.
So, as we hit the Silver Hollow Notch Aid Station just under 19 hours into the race (17:45 in adjusted time), I pulled the plug. It was definitely the right call. But it still irks me. Did the delay cost me the race? Who knows? I think that it did. It certainly reduced my odds considerably. Without the delay I would have banked more time on dry trail, and would have topped Plateau in daylight – which had been my goal. I’m fairly certain I could have slogged it out from there, but I’ll never know. It was such a major blow to be dealt that deep into a big race where mental game is everything. I’m certainly proud of myself for sticking it out when most folks would have just thrown in the towel. But it pushed me to dead last when, in fact, I hadn’t been. I made good time through Devil’s Path, even in the rain, and would have had a :90 cushion from the sweeps if the whole fiasco hadn’t happened. That’s an extra 2-3 miles, which is almost exactly the margin I was behind 24 hour pace by the time I exited. It’s frustrating.
I do know that I’ll be back out there next year and will knock this thing out.
As the sweeps proceeded onward and the volunteers tore down the aid station and we hiked down to the cars, the thunder and lightening rolled in making things even crazier. It rained so hard that my waterproof headlamp filled with water and the lens looks like an aquarium (although… it still works). My emergency lighter – double wrapped in two plastic ziplocs – bit the dust.
We made it back into town. Back to the finish. Changed into dryer clothes, grabbed some food, hung out for a bit, headed back to camp. It was raining so hard I didn’t even bother getting out of the car. Just went to sleep in my seat. Woke up when the rain died down and crawled into my dry tent and warm down mummy bag. Woke up late Sunday morning, the sun had come out. I cleaned up, ate (food below; I don’t skimp on eating even when camping), packed up, hit the road home.
I ran for 19 hours on Saturday. I’ve never done that before (previous longest was 12). So that’s really cool. Opens up all sorts of possibilities. There are two bruises on my forehead, I’m not sure why. I vaguely remember smacking my head off a tree climbing up Plateau in the dark. I must have hit harder than I thought.
My body feels remarkably good sitting here 48 hours after. I’m certainly tired. Definitely beat. But, my legs never felt spent during the race. I have a few aches, pains, and sore spots, but I’m not stiff, and I went for a 3+ mile walk today. It didn’t suck. Ready to get moving again and go have fun racing Escarpment in July.
All in all? An amazing experience. And, despite the frustrations, I did have a blast. Loved it. Can’t wait to come back and knock it out. Congratulations to everyone who finished this year! Brian Rusiecki and Sheryl Wheeler killed it for the win (in absurdly fast times), and anyone who stuck it out through the storm is to be heartily commended!
Should you sign up? Depends what floats your boat. If you like hard races, mountains, and are comfortably self-sufficient in remote settings? You can’t beat Manitou’s Revenge. Despite my experience, I really was impressed with the overall organization and attention to detail of this race. Can’t say enough good things about it. The course speaks for itself. You aren’t going to find a harder 50 miler anywhere apart from Barkley’s fun run. This race is a beast and then some.
– NS Lake, 16 miles: 4:45
– Palenville, 21 miles: 6:06
– Platte Clove, 31 miles: arrived 9:48
– Platte Clove, 31 miles: didn’t get to leave until 11:01
– Mink Hollow, 39 miles: 15:36 (14:23, adjusted)
– Silver Notch Hollow, 44 miles (just under +/-30k’), 18:58 (17:45, adjusted), DNF
GEAR: Altra Lone Peak 2.0, UD Hydration Vest with 70ounce bladder, Easton ATR-70 Poles, Princeton Tec EOS Headlamp, Garmin Forerunner 310XT
UPDATE: In follow-up to what happened, the race director reached out, apologized profusely, is issuing me a refund, and already has me entered for 2016’s race. I said it was a well-run event. I also found out that he personally hiked my drop bag up to Mink Hollow, in the rain, meaning he had to miss the winners coming through. Stand-up guy. Thank you, Charlie!
I’ve also been featured in two running media outlets as a result of my Manitou’s experience. Pretty cool!
RUNNING INSIDE OUT PODCAST: Episode 4 – A Pretty Dicey Situation (available on iTunes)
ULTRARUNNING MAGAZINE: Meet Ben Murphy – a 2015 Participant in Manitou’s Revenge (available in the July 2015 issue, as well as online)
Unless otherwise noted, all images Copyright Ben Murphy, 2015, All Rights Reserved.