Book Review: RUNNING THE LONG PATH by KENNETH A. POSNER
Author sets out to run, in a record nine days, the 350-mile Long Path trail, which just about connects New York City to Albany.
“The story of what ordinary people can accomplish with a little determination and a lot of grit.”
I bought this book when the author gave a local talk about the adventure that inspired it. How could I not? I’m a fellow trail runner, well-versed in the section of the Long Path that winds through the Catskills (including down my local Mount Tremper), fascinated if not obsessed by ultra running, and as a writer with one memoir behind me, always happy to support a noble publishing venture. (Running The Long Path has the feel of a self-published book, though it carries the imprint of SUNY Albany.)
Certainly, Ken Posner has credentials to merit not just telling, but writing his story: in his day job as “chief of strategic planning and investor relations at Capital Bank Financial Corp” he’s penned at least one previous book, and he’s clearly a smart and dedicated enough person to put words in the right order. Sure enough, Running The Long Path gets off to a good start. Posner details his introduction to trail- and then ultra-running, offers an idea of how it morphed into a love affair, and how that in turn lit a desire to break the record for covering the Long Path – which stood, in the summer of 2013 when he attempted it, at twelve days and five hours.
“What made it so alluring as a challenge,” he writes, “was that I could neither declare it as feasible nor reject it as impossible.” Deciding he will go for it regardless, Posner scores barely a week off work, which means covering the 350 miles in just nine days – or forty miles a day. To aid his speed, he opts to travel light – packing a Satellite GPS messenger, a climb-in poncho sleeping bag, some spare underwear, a first-aid kid – and leave “drop bags” at several locations where the trail intersects the roadways.
In setting out his stall, Posner seeks to widen his gaze beyond the narrow path ahead of him. He weaves in quotes by Theodore Roosevelt and pal, Catskills naturalist John Burroughs, a few more by Walt Whitman, sums up his belief system as being one of “green exercise,” throws in words of wisdom from several admirable ultra runners, and, having duly enticed us, sets off to follow the aqua blazes north from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.
But Posner’s adventure soon turns into a slog. Despite being a sub three-hour marathoner, he finds that in the woods, and especially on the mountains, he has to walk as much as he can run. And when he does pick up speed, that only makes it harder to keep track of the blazes that are attached to the trees at eye level; trail runners, for fear of falling, tripping, slipping and sliding, are forever looking at their feet instead. Rather than move relentlessly onwards, Posner spends much of his time doubling back on himself. Frequently, he becomes lost, at one point resorting to his GPS satellite to check his whereabouts with a friend at a computer desk in the middle of the night.
More than anything, Posner suffers from hunger. He has estimated that he will need at least 5,000 calories a day, but strangely for a risk-adverse financial planner, figures to get it from a few dehydrated meals in his backpack and drop-bags, making up the difference via pizza and beer at the various towns and villages he’ll cross en route. Unsurprisingly, restaurant hours rarely coincide with his, and he finds himself instead going miles without sustenance, compensating by gorging on mass-produced chocolates, sodas, and cheap beer at all-night gas stations. In detailing his every food stop, he never stops to wonder why he didn’t just throw dozens of energy bars and gels into his various bags: they are light, cheap, packed with the essential calories, proteins, carbs, vitamins and aminos for an ultra adventure, most of the brands are perfectly healthy with it, and a number of them even taste great. Posner’s actual exercise might be green; his fueling most certainly is not.
Sadly, as goes his journey, so goes his writing; it soon becomes a marathon ordeal for the reader to persist with each repetitive chapter. Even the valiant journalistic asides – about the history of the Long Path, the geology of the mountains, the stories behind the local towns and notable characters who have populated them – start to feel routine. It’s the kind of unforced error that a more skilled writer would surely have switched out for the absurdity and humor that never lies far below the surface in any crazy undertaking.
The closer Posner gets to his goal, the further it recedes into the distance. His daily pace slows down. His feet blister up. His stomach keeps calling for the calories he isn’t carrying, and he calls his wife via satellite phone to drive up and bring urgent supplies at an impending intersection. But we the reader never doubt him; besides, the book cover makes it perfectly clear that he achieved his goal. Sure enough, spurred on in part by an impending business trip he can’t weasel out of, he covers 50 miles in a 25-hour blitz on his last day (and night), running the final seventeen miles in what feels to him like one long sprint. We’re as relieved as he is that it’s all over.
Almost. For weeks and months that follow, Posner finds himself involuntarily dreaming of the Long Path. He brings his family upstate for a victory meal at a restaurant that had helped him out in time of need, and to visit the cemetery of an abandoned, short-lived model community called Letchworth Village – just one of many “decayed” features of a Long Path landscape that offers more than a glimpse into the region’s past. Turning to the future, he brings his son up to help the Trail Conference build that new part of the Long Path that now wends uphill from my local village of Phoenicia for nine miles to join the Cornell-Wittenburg-Slide Mountain trail, finally cutting out five miles of road that were a hardship for all Long Path completists. At the talk I witnessed, Posner was erudite, informative, and clearly passionate about the public trails. It’s perhaps just indicative of the ordeal he undertook that so much of the grind works its way onto his pages.
“This wasn’t a case of a growling stomach, a craving for sweets, a dip in energy, or any of the normal signs of hunger. This was my body in panic mode, as if the spirit of self-preservation had just awakened from a deep sleep, discovered what I’d done, and slammed a red button marked ‘emergency stop.’”
PRICE: $19.95 (paperback)
PUBLISHER: Excelsior Editions