Sunday Is D-Day

This Sunday July 30, I’ll hopefully get to fulfill the second of my three sporting goals of the year, by competing in the Escarpment Trail Run. That’s the 18.6 miles/30 kilometer race up and down six mountains along the Northeastern ridge of the Catskills. (Runner’s World has referred to it as the Boston Marathon of trail runs.) The total elevation (climb and descent) is some 10,000 feet, and there’s barely but a mile or two of comfortable running on the whole course. The rest of it, as I’ve discovered from training these last couple of months, is either sharp pointed rocks, big sloping boulders, tree roots, mud, slime, streams, or a combination of all the above. That’s when you’re not climbing near-vertical rock faces hand over fist, or picking your way down an equally steep incline.

Forget YouTube. GoogleEarth is my latest addiction. This satellite image shows the Escarpment Trail Run as viewed from the north-east; my trail markings are approximate but clearly show the ridge on which the run takes place. It ends at the campgrounds of North-South Lake on the far left of the map.

To call the course treacherous, I now realize, is to do it a favor. Having tackled different parts of it seven times over the last three months – covering the whole course in the process – I’ve come to seriously respect its dangers. I already wrote about my first time out, when I figured I could run the initial three and a half mile 1800 foot climb up to Windham High Peak and instead found I had to take a break just eight minutes in: I have since learned to walk whole sections of this opening stretch if I want to get up top while still breathing. Then there was the time I slipped and, to avoid smashing my iPod, smashed my fist instead (the very next day, I was asked if I’d secretly joined Fight Club), from which I learned that I needed to keep my mind on the course, my eyes on my feet, and both hands free for falling.

There was the occasion I hiked up two steep miles from a side-entry, alongside a more experienced course runner; although we beat the devastating flood rains by one day, it was wet enough that the rocks were like grease, and near the end of the course, I took a sideways sliding dive and, without an iPod to deter me, broke my fall with my open right palm. I must have torn the muscles on my right hand in the process, because they’re still hurting a solid month later. I’ve also had the joy of climbing – and I mean climbing Blackhead Mountain, which at 4000 feet tall is the 5th highest peak in the Catskills and the point in the race that no one can run even if they still have the legs for it.

The good news about Newman’s Ledge is that it’s near the finish line. The bad news is that it’s only a few feet wide, has a precipitous drop, and it comes at the point that you’re most tired, disoriented and in danger of falling. See more photos of the Escarpment Trail here.

And then there was the recent Friday I took off work to cover four solid hours on the course (the amount of time that, ideally, I’d like to finish in on Sunday). To my great delight, I got almost halfway out in just over two hours. But with the temperatures rising well into the mid-80s by lunchtime, I ran out of liquid on my Fuel Belt, hit the proverbial “wall” at 16 miles/four hours, and had to virtually crawl the last mile down-hill, dizzy, disorientated and talking loudly to myself.

Finally, there was my two-hour run last Sunday, what would have been a casual jaunt compared to prior efforts if only it hadn’t been raining for 24 hours already. Going against all instincts that said, “Don’t do it today, it’s dangerous,” I drove down to North-South Lake, started jogging uphill from the finish line, and slipped badly on a sloping boulder just half a mile in, cutting open my left leg, right elbow and forehead in the process. (It should be said that many of these boulders are green from moss; when they’re also wet from rain it’s like running on sheets of ice; and because they’ve been dumped there by nature over millions of years, they don’t even do you the favor of lying flat on the ground. Put your foot down wrong on one that’s falling away from the hillside and you’ll easily fall away from the hill with it.) After spending a couple of minutes getting my breath back, I had to decide whether to cut my losses and lick my wounds, or soldier on, based on the assumption that I might have to go through the same experience on race day. So I chose the latter, and covered eight miles and two further falls before finally making it back to the “finish line”… where a black bear was waiting for me. Seriously. Only after giving him or her time to move on and getting back to the car did I realize that one heel had completely disappeared from my trail shoes and another one was dangling loose, which certainly gives me an excuse for slipping and sliding so much, even in the rain. Worse though, this was the second pair of the shoes to have suffered this heel problem (and the sixth pair I personally know about in this region alone), and it’s put me in the far-from-ideal position of getting a completely different pair of trail shoes just five days before the run and hoping they’ll be comfortable and resilient on the big day.

Sharp angular stones like this are the norm on the Escarpment Trail. This photo from milanrunning‘s site.

But I’m not complaining. Far from it. I’ve been getting a feeling of achievement during this training period that quite overwhelms any sense of suffering. Most of the tough runs have been alleviated by a couple of ice packs, plenty liquid and some comfort food, while the fact that I can head out on a hot summer’s day and cover 16 miles of steep mountain trails in four hours – and still play football the next day – is a comforting reminder that I’m in better shape now than I ever have been. (Those iJamming! readers who remember me from school or Jamming! Magazine days will know that my idea of exercise back then was running to the bus stop on surprise sight of a number 3, or reluctantly going to the bar when it was widely noted to be my round.)

As has been often pointed out by some of the other runners up here, staying at this level is not nearly as hard as rising to it. I often forget just what an epic event my first Marathon was, and how terribly I trained for it: rather than mere cuts and bruises, I got such a bad case of self-inflicted “runners knee” I nearly had to pull out. I’ve even occasionally forgotten that Sunday’s Escarpment Trail Run is that much harder than a Marathon, a fact best confirmed by the fact that you need an expert recent Marathon finishing time just to be accepted.

Hikers have the luxury of carrying cameras with them. Runners barely get to stop and enjoy the view. This one shows the Hudson River in the distance, and North-South Lake – the finish line! – in front. More photos from this group hike of the Escarpment Trail are here.

Not that many people outside this region’s runners will ever know as much. The Escarpment Trail Run doesn’t have the same aura as a Marathon, which is an internationally-recognized distance and widely shared experience. It doesn’t have the camaraderie of a marathon – only 200 of us are competing on Sunday and we will likely lose each on the trail pretty quickly. And it definitely doesn’t have the audience: the only people cheering us on will be those brave volunteers at the water/aid stations, who hike in as early as 5am to be there for us in our hours of need. I’ve been to the finishing line before when the winners emerge from the trail and so I know not to expect more than a few dozen people (and maybe a black bear?) waiting to cheer when – not if – I cross that line.

The Escarpment Trail Run doesn’t even have the material rewards of a Marathon. There are no medals (not even for the winner), no plaque, no certificate. You even have to buy your own souvenir t-shirt! The only rewards are personal. It’s a competitive course that you take on for the pure self-satisfaction of believing that you can do it. And that’s enough for me.

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