Many Mountains To Cross

(This post goes out to my iPod shuffle, which set me off on the below run with ‘The Combine’ by The Jam, ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff and ‘Downpressor Man’ by Sinead O’Connor. Good taste, that machine.)

I entered 2006 with three new personal sporting goals. The first – to ski out west in proper snow – I’ve already achieved. The second I won’t be attempting until October, when I expect to run the Mohawk-Hudson River Marathon again with the hope of finally qualifying for Boston.

The third I am just embarking upon, and it may make the others pale in comparison: I plan to spend a mid-summer Sunday competing in the Escarpment Trail Run.

I wrote about this race a couple of years back, when we drove down to the finishing “line” in the middle of the Catskill woods to support the leading competitors as they emerged from the 30km race. This distance – less than 20 miles – does not sound too daunting for the long distance runner. But it is no ordinary course: starting in East Windham, and finishing down at the North-South Lake Campgrounds, it is run entirely on hiking trails that cover several mountain peaks and a total elevation of 10,000 feet. Or to put it another way: most people entertaining the 18.6 mile hike usually take a tent and rest up for a night halfway through. Those running the Escarpment Trail are expected to do so in under six hours.

And the winner receives… a pat on the back> The unassuming finish line, 2004.

The challenging nature of the Escarpment Run is further clarified by the web site, which warns as follows:

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. Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest’s natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills. 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.”

This worst case scenario has yet to be realized, but clearly the potential for true disaster is there. And though, since moving upstate, I’ve found myself running with a few Escarpment Trail Run veterans, including the race organizer, and come to understand that much of the above paragraph was written to scare off the casual competitor, there is still a fierce stigma attached to this race like no other I’ve attempted.

For example, the fact that I’ve run a sub-4 hour Marathon in the last year guarantees me entry to the Escarpment Trail Run, but appears to win me no favors with the race veterans. “All that a Marathon proves,” I am regularly told, “Is that you have endurance.” (That’s all?) “It doesn’t equip you to run the Escarpment.”

Likewise, hitting the trails with local runners appears to gain no encouragement. A couple of weeks back, spending a Tuesday evening jogging up and around Onteora Lake, I confidently told the run leader of my goal for the summer. “Hmm,” he responded, clearly thinking how best to bring me down to earth. “Let me just put it this way: nothing we run today will be as hard as the easiest part of the Escarpment.”

As any fellow Taurean can verify, such statements are a red rag to… well, a bull. So this past Saturday afternoon, on our very long, slow journey back from Brooklyn, I stopped in at the town of New Paltz which, positioned as it is by the awe-inspiring Shawangunk Mountains with their sheer cliff faces and miles of lakes and trails, hosts not one but two specialty sports stores. I emerged from Peak Performance Sports with my first ever pair of trail shoes and the determination to tackle the race’s opening mountain climb – the 3.55 miles up to Windham High Peak – the following morning.

It helped that I got ten hours sleep Saturday night. (Check the diary for Friday: you’ll see how much I needed it.) It helped too that the weather was more conventionally spring-like for the Catskills: low 60s, patchy sunshine, a light breeze – perfect running conditions. And I felt in great condition as I set off gamely along the dirt track, jogged over the small wooden bridge and began the uphill climb.

Now, I should state clearly that I like going uphill. (It’s the downhill my legs don’t like; I’m weird that way.) So I wasn’t much daunted by the idea of a long slow jog up to Windham High Peak. I may, however, have neglected to remember two pearls of wisdom: 1) Don’t blow your wad at the start of the Escarpment Trail, and 2) There’s no shame in walking the steep uphills. It’s an Endurance Race, after all. Which is why, after what seemed like an eternity of uphill climbing, over mostly tree-trunked trail and the occasional rock (and stream), I decided it was time for a walking break. I checked my watch: I was but eight minutes in. Perhaps all of a kilometer. One-thirtieth of the way. Ashamed (but at least, alone), I picked up my jogging pace again; and then, a few minutes later, again slowed to a walk.

Someday, son, all this will be yours: The view from on top (apparently).

The mountain, clearly, was putting me in my place. And soon enough, I came to respect its superiority. On the steeper inclines, I slowed to a near hike; when the trail occasionally flattened out, I picked up to a jog. I was grateful for my new shoes, which appeared to absorb the shock both of the sharp rocks and the flexing tree roots, and I got a light kick out of the half-cut logs that formed mini-bridges over what would normally be streams but for the fact that this spring is turning into a drought. But by the same token, the two water bottles on my belt appeared to be at least two too few. I felt my heart racing and my head perspiring; this was seriously thirsty work and, just as per the official race days some ten weeks away, there were no volunteers to distribute water and Gatorade every mile.

Nor indeed, was there an ‘every’ mile to mark. And for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t figure what pace I was ‘running’. After about thirty minutes, I started looking for the Peak, but every time I came to a clearing, it simply led up to another turning and another climb. I followed several more of these deceptive twists and turns until I accepted that I would not today reach the Peak – not of the mountain, nor my trail-running fitness. And so, after 44 minutes, I accepted defeat and decided to cut my goal short. I sat down and checked my pulse: 140bpm, right around the rate of hard-core techno, and similar to that which I would expect at the end of a fierce 5-miler. I was approximately 15 miles away from the finishing line. The Escarpment Trail suddenly seemed very very long indeed.

My disappointment at not reaching my first day’s goal was tempered by the run back down – especially when I came to what looked like a vertical drop interrupted by a few conveniently-placed rocks and realized that, somehow, I must have absent-mindedly climbed up it only a few minutes earlier. And as the trail then fell away casually beneath me, I picked up pace, and turned the last mile or so into a proper run; when I encountered the horrified expressions on a middle-aged couple hiking their way up, I knew I was doing something right. I emerged at the foot of the mountain trail some 76 minutes after setting off; a long enough run for any day, let alone my first serious embarkment on the Escarpment.

Back at the car, I finally examined my detailed hiking map. The trail head is 1700 feet above sea level, and Windham High Peak tops out at 3500; even though I hadn’t quite reached the Zenith, I had surely run well over three miles and climbed 1700 feet in under 45 minutes. The endurance now seemed worth the effort.

Why do we do it? That’s the question one always asks in the middle of a painful exercise like this, but I do know the answer. Every time I do something new in life, especially something physical, I get a glow of internal satisfaction that lasts me through the next several days of work. And so, for all that I’ve now learned to respect the Escarpment, I do feel like I’ve successfully chipped away at its first challenge. And the rewards can be magnificent. That evening, when I checked the fridge for bottled left-overs of last week’s birthday party, I saw a beer that called my name: Saranac Mountain Ale. Oh man did it taste good. Here’s to the next training trail run. And a midsummer day’s goal.

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