Well, my 2nd Escarpment Trail Run is in the books. Barely. Had my ass unceremoniously handed to me by the infamous wall of Manitou this weekend. Which… is basically what makes Escarpment the race that it is. With 10k’ of climb/descent over 6 mountains in just 30k, this race will make you work for it even on the best of days. On a bad day you’ll be happy just finishing.
2014 was my first year running Escarpment, and it exceeded every expectation I had (you can read my 2014 Escarpment Trail Run Race Report here). It’s a privilege just to toe the line at this venerable race (2015 marked its 39th running), and I was happy to get in again this year, which wasn’t originally on the calendar, but when Breakneck fell through for me back in the spring, I figured why not? It’s a whole four weeks after Manitou’s Revenge. “Sure! I’ll be totally recovered by then!”
I totally wasn’t recovered. And my body hates the heat (it was at least 85 degrees, humid as all get out, and some downright frightening thunderstorms arrived towards the end). I also forgot that the aid stations frequently run out of a limited water supply (which is backpacked up into the mountains by dedicated volunteers) towards the end of this race… which can make for a fun time if you’re in the last wave.
I vaguely remember flying through Escarpment during Manitou’s last month. Apparently it was 30 degrees cooler then. And I was using poles. And I had water. And… oh yeah, Manitou’s skips the first two climbs of the Escarpment race. This all dawned on me as the wheels totally fell off during the back half of my race on Sunday. But, hey, even a bad day at Escarpment is still a lot of fun. In its own peculiar way.
I drove down to the Catskills the day before the race, popped by RD Dick Vincent‘s house for the pre-race get together (always fun meeting other runners from around the world equally as stupid as oneself, while enjoying the views of the Hudson Valley), and then headed over to North South Lake, having managed to actually snag a campsite this year (they’re hard to come by, booking months in advance). Set up camp, and hiked up to Sunset Rock on the Escarpment to collect my thoughts. This is rapidly becoming my pre-race ritual for the Catskills and … well, picture above. It’s easy to see why. Stayed up there until it started raining and then made my way back down for some dinner and an early night.
Showed up for the bus ride from the finish to the start early Sunday morning. It was humid, with scattered clouds. Nothing ominous on the horizon; not yet, anyway. Chatted with folks on the bus ride over to the start and met up with friends as we all hung out (pre-race image above; first 5k of the race runs up 1750′ to Windham High Peak in the distance) waiting for race announcements and for our respective wave starts (I was in the last wave, so I had awhile to wait). Dick called the group together (image below), made announcements (including the names of those who’ve now completed the remarkable achievement of 100, 200, 300, and 400 miles of racing Escarpment (6x = 100 miles)), and… then the first two waves of elites lined up for the 8:59am start, and they were off!
I had time to kill, so I just hung out, ate a bit, stayed hydrated, until our last wave started around 10:10am. The theory is that the elites start up front, the slower times are seeded through the middle waves, and then some of the faster folks bring up the rear. I was shooting for around a 5 hour(ish) finish, planning to push it comfortably as I was still coming off Manitou’s and also have a 50 miler in three weeks. I made the front half of the race on pace. Took the climb up Windham High Peak faster than I had last year. Was able to comfortably run most all of the terrain from there over Burnt Knob and Acra Point to the base of Blackhead, and even – although I was feeling it – took the climb up Blackhead fairly comfortably, reaching the top around 2:5?. I’d figured keep it under 3 for the front half and then push another 2.5 hrs for the back half. Finish around 5:20ish.
I’d gone through three 20oz bottles of water on the front 9 miles. It was hot out. And super humid from the previous night’s rain storms. Hit the top of Blackhead ready to refill, and… nope. Out of water. Which is known to happen in this race. And you can’t really fault the volunteers who, as it is, get up at 2am to ferry gallons and gallons of water up into the peaks for us runners. Literally hundreds of pounds of water on their backs. This race simply wouldn’t happen without the amazing volunteers! I should have known better being in the last wave that I should have brought more than one bottle to refill. But, I’d overpacked water last year which added a fair amount of weight I didn’t feel like lugging around this time. I had a few ounces left at the top of Blackhead and there were still runners behind me, so I figured I could make do on the long descent down into Dutcher’s Notch. And I was ok. A bit thirsty, but not too bad. Hit Dutcher’s. Same deal, almost out. They might have had 5 oz. to spare and off I went. The heat totally got to me on the climb up Stoppel. I even stopped a few times to cool my face off on cool/wet moss-covered rocks. Which probably looked even more pathetic than it sounds, but it did actually help. The heat was really getting to me and I felt like I was breathing through a straw by that point. Lungs just weren’t working right.
By that point I’d fallen way off pace and was just slogging it out. Stomach cramping from not enough water and system shutting down. It was a balance of “how fast can I push before the heat knocks me out?” Apparently I got the equation right. Finished the last long climb up to Stoppel, and… nope, no water left there either (I ended up having maybe 15 oz over the last 3 hours – I was thankful I’d done some longer training runs without water in the heat – was helpful experience to draw on at that point). Had a sip of Gatorade from a gracious volunteer who took pity on me and then kept going trying to pound out the descent into North Point where… maybe they’d have some water? Pretty sure I dislocated the big toe on my right foot through that portion of the descent. My brain was a bit slow. Tripped over a rock with my left foot and then tried to save my fall… by stubbing my big right toe with all my bodyweight behind it into another rock before hitting the ground hard. Apparently there are rocks on this trail. Who knew? And they definitely conspire against you. Thought for sure I’d broken the toe, but the pain diminished and it seemed to start working again within a 1/4 mile or so. Today it feels like I dropped a cinder block on it. But it’s functional, so… [must be fine?]
Hit North Point, and… they had water!!! But not much left. Grabbed enough ounces to finish the handful of miles down to the finish and kept going. It was thundering a lot louder by that point. And a lot closer. The last hour+ of descending is through exposed cliff bands with, normally, amazing views. The views this time were dark clouds of doom interspersed with some passing glimpses of the Hudson Valley thousands of feet below. As much as I wanted it to rain (and it definitely did!), the thunder was getting close by that point. Careful what you ask for out here.
My pace had totally fallen off by that point and it looked like I wasn’t going to even make the 6 hour mark (under which you automatically qualify for entry the next year). And I didn’t. Every time I tried to run I kept tripping over something and getting wrecked. Serious case of the “F-it’s” by that point. Speed hiked it in to finish in 6:10 (considerably slower than last year), but got there in one piece. It still counts as an official finish. But now I have to run another qualifying time in order to enter again in 2016. Because, obviously, I’ll want to run it again.
Ben Nephew knocked out his 13th win (wow!!), going sub-3 hours on the day, with Kehr Davis bringing in the win for the women. Crazy fast times under fairly good course conditions.
There aren’t many pictures in this report because the views were few and far between (although, here’s one above at North South Lake from the night before the race). We were up above the clouds most of the race, so there weren’t many sweeping views. Nothing that could be captured properly with an iPhone camera on the fly, anyway.
After regrouping, getting some fluids, calories… the storms arrived. Directly on top of us. With at least a dozen runners (plus sweeps + volunteers) still out on the exposed course. The first clap of thunder/lightening strike that arrived got us all under the big finishers tent real fast! Dick asked if anyone still had clean underwear. This kept up for close to an hour. Lightening strikes. Thunder immediately next to and above us. Flashing pulses of electricity popping through the air (that was a new one for me). While a big tent doesn’t sound like a safe place to be, the alternative was hightailing it across an open field to the parking lot… which would have been an even worse idea given that a huge pine tree by the lot was split by lightening (as well as a house further down the road outside of the park).
The last few finishers straggled through the finish line with mixed looks of terror and relief on their faces as we cheered them in. The last guy through quipped something about, “Welp! I didn’t die!!” It was an unnerving storm.
And then the storm blew off, the sun came out, blue skies emerged, and the party was over. I’m starting to like this tight knit family of Escarpment mountain goats. Like any good family they’re a strange bunch. They’re also incredibly caring and driven individuals who it’s an honor to know. Until next year’s race…
(Featured Image: Coming down off the last major descent roughly 1 mile from the finish. Photographer: David Martin)
All Images Copyright Ben Murphy, 2015, unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved. Use without permission is expressly forbidden.