If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Clock ‘em

I couldn’t compete in the Escarpment Trail Run this year, my injury not having healed in time to get the training in, but I had so much fun last year (yes, fun!) and have gotten to know so many of the local runners round these parts, that I spent this past Sunday at North South Lake, helping register the finish times.

There are no digital clocks at the end of 30km, six mountain, 10,000-foot-total-elevation trail race through the Catskills, and no electronic tags or computerized mats. A stopwatch brought by road from the start line serves as official time-keeper, and a scratched mark in the earth serves as the official finish line. After the race, though there is plenty food and drink for the malnourished, dehydrated runners, there are no ceremonies held nor medals distributed; there’s not even a lousy souvenir t-shirt. Your bragging rights come from running
the race in the first place.

Ben Nephew, the only competitor to be given a seed, ended a seven-year winning streak to finish behind first-time-runner Nathan Harkins, at right.

In first place for the last seven years was a chap by the name of Ben Nephew, whose dominance of the course had come to seem unassailable. But every streak must come to an end, and first out of the woods to the barbeque area at North Lake last Sunday, around 11:45 am, was a fresh face, in every sense of the word. Nathan Harkins (if I’ve remembered his name correctly, I was only keeping times and numbers) is a 28-year old from Pennsylvania who’d never run the course before, indeed had only run one previous trail race, and yet who came within 1 minute, 20-seconds of Nephew’s course record, completing the up-and-down, rocky, rooty, slippery, slimy course in just 2 hours 46 minutes and 34 seconds. Given that Harkins looked like he’d come just in from a brisk jog, we joked about subjecting him to a doping test (or at least hammering his knees to see if he was bionicle!), but realized we had the real deal on our hands when he later confessed to a Marathon PR of 2 hours, 24 minutes, just two minutes outside of an Olympic Trials spot. I’ve heard that marathoners don’t always do well on the Escarpment, it being a different kind of running, but with Harkins’ phenomenal first run, presumably that adage is now officially put to bed. Ben Nephew finished in second place some 13 minutes later, and if he was disappointed to have given up his crown, then like a proper sportsman, he certainly didn’t show it.

The first woman to cross the finish line

The biggest excitement of the day for those of us at the finish line came a few minutes later when someone came dashing out of the woods announcing that a runner had fallen off a rock face; a couple of volunteer medics went sprinting into the woods and walked back out, bemused, a few minutes later, trailing the runner in question, who had dusted himself off to make it across the line in fifth place! His chest looked badly bruised and we all reckoned he must have cracked a couple of ribs – but without health insurance, he was not going to get an X-Ray to confirm as much, especially as there’s nothing you can do with cracked ribs but rest them.

Yes, these runners are mad. The first 50-something to cross the line, in less than three and a half hours, had an iPod strapped to his arm, having listened to an audiobook through the whole course! Two of my own acquaintances finished under four and a half hours, despite having run a 100-miler in Vermont last weekend (and no, that’s not a typo), while the only person I heard of who retired from the race had a valid excuse, having completed an Ironman Triathlon just seven days ago. My buddy Rich, on his first year, for example, came in at five hours, twelve minutes, a full three minutes ahead of his goal and therefore understandably proud of himself. I would call that a sensible time and, indeed, depending on age and ability, finishing times around the five hour mark can be achieved with a minimum of pain and frustration.

Mike from Detroit carrying one of three growlers full of his home-brewed IPA, which he happily shared at the finish line.

My favorite competitor was Mike from Detroit, who drives the several hundred miles most years with a group of other runners, camps out at North-South Lake, and brings his own home brew to share at the finish line. His IPA was, by his own admission, over-hopped, but there was a muddy, unfiltered, refreshing yet earthy wholesomeness about it that seemed totally in keeping with the spirit of the race. I admire anyone who can come off a five-hour run and head straight for their ‘growler,’ so Mike: cheers!

The race celebrations were tempered by news that the co-founder of the Onteora Running Club, Barry Hopkins, one of 22 runners on 1977’s inaugural Escarpment Trail Run, passed away the same day from a brain tumor. I didn’t know Barry, who was also a painter and teacher and was indeed responsible for marking out the Hudson River School Art Trail, named for the school of painting that was prevalent in these parts in the 19th Century. But a couple of months back, aware of his illness, a group of local runners set off to run that trail, all 27 miles of it, starting out at Frederic Church’s famous estate Olana, crossing the Hudson River via the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, running round Thomas Cole’s former house and ongoing resting place in Catskill, and stopping to take in the scenes of many a famous painting on their lengthy way up – and I do mean up – Route 23A past the Kaaterskill Falls to North-South Lake. Again, I could not join them because of my injury, but I had wanted to do so; it seemed like one of the most beautiful long-distance “training runs” I could imagine. As Hopkins sadly came to learn, running long and hard will unfortunately not prevent you from catching certain life-threatening diseases, but as the runners who completed the Escarpment last Sunday will certainly have discovered, it makes you feel fully alive in the meantime.

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December 2021