It Doesn’t Get Easier (But It Still Counts as Fun!)
This Sunday July 25th, I completed the Escarpment Trail Run for the fourth time (in five years), and given that I finished five minutes ahead of my previous best, to clock in at 4,20:34, placing 46th out of a field of 187 finishers, I should feel completely satisfied. And believe me, I am.
Yet however many times I take on this race, it doesn’t seem to get any easier! Every year, having already completed the 3.4 mile, 1800 ft climb up Windham High Peak, the scrambling descent and then shorter climb up to Acra Point, the longer descent down its far side and then the brutal, 1100 foot climb up Blackhead Mountain in only 0.9 miles, I’m greeted with the daunting realization that I’m barely half way through the race. And once we bottom back out from Blackhead at Dutcher’s Notch and set off on the walk, jog, climb, walk, climb, walk, climb, jog ascent to Stoppel Point, I typically find that, for all my training on this very course, for all that I’ve been feeling perfectly fit and energized during the previous two and three quarter hours, I’m all of a sudden absolutely, 100%, totally and completely knackered.
Make no bones about it: that 2.3 mile hike up Stoppel is painful in the extreme, close to 40-minutes of truly teeth-gritting endurance given the pounding the quads have taken in all the previous steep ascents. And even upon reaching the top – I know I’m almost there when I pass the plane wreckage on my left (and I’m not joking; even the planes give up on this course!) – and partake of the refreshments at the Aid Station, and look at the hand-painted sign stating there’s only 4.4 miles left to go on this 18.7 mile racing hike, 4.4 miles that are, mathematically at least, all downhill, there’s still the knowledge that what’s left is some of the most “technical” trail of the entire course, an almost endless series of scrambles and jumps down steep rocks, with a serious uphill detour to North Point just to test the spirit, and a couple of cliff edges at which I could easily fall a thousand feet or more if I were capable of still running fast enough not to see them in time.
But though this year, as every other year, the final 55 minutes from the top of Stoppel seemed truly endless (and I couldn’t seem to shave a single minute off that last leg; everything I gained on this year’s race I gained in the first half), I’ve learned from the past that I can dig deep and pull off a sprint for the last half mile or so (or as best as I can approximate a sprint when dealing with tree roots for trail, boulders, rocks, cliff edges and steep downhill scrambles), the last hundred yards made all the more enjoyable this year by the fact that I could see my little Noel waiting eagerly for me at the finish line. As ever, I was completely beaten up by the whole process, and especially that late sprint, but after 15 minutes soaking my legs in North Lake, my lips turning blue in the process due to the comparatively cold mountain air, I felt pretty damn good. To my surprise, I could still walk. I could talk. I could eat. Today my legs barely hurt. The experience must be paying off. Though I can’t seem to get close enough to the 4 hr benchmark that seems to separate the men from the super men (and even more super women), I seem to be doing alright by myself.
I’ve got to give some credit to my new trail shoes. After switching to the Vibram Five Fingers around this time last year, I was determined never to run the Escarpment again in my big bulky, high-heeled Asics Trabucos. Having been recommended the Inov-8 brand by many an expert trail runner, I bought a pair of that company’s F-Lite 230s a few months back. Deceptively light and reassuringly (for this newly minimalist runner) flat, they have a patented substance on the soles that enables them to grip the wet rock, of which the Escarpment has more than its fair share. They’re a lot lighter and less protective than most people would like to run in, but for the first year ever, I didn’t slip, slide, tumble or fall. Not once. Nine-time race winner, Ben Nephew, who typically completes this course just under three hours, also wears Inov-8s, albeit a bigger and tougher pair. The British-based company, whose shoes cost no more than my old Asics, seem to be the best in the field.
I’ve also got to thank the weather. As regular readers may recall, two years ago we ran inside a thunderstorm, with lightning hitting the ground all around us, and the torrential rains turning much of the trail into a flowing stream of mud. (We’re still counting our blessings that no one was killed.) Last year, the long wet summer meant that the course was a mud fest from start to finish, leading to some comparatively slow times. This year, we got lucky; Saturday had been a brutally hot one, but by mid-Sunday morning, up at 3-4000 feet in the mountains, with the morning humidity having dried off, we were in good shape, in temperatures lingering in the low-mid 70s Fareheit. Due to this summer’s heatwave, the ground was drier than usual – though all things here are relative, given that there were still plenty slick rocks to slip and slide and tumble over, that I saw one runner sitting with a bad gash on his leg only a mile into the race, know of two veterans who pulled out at one of the intersections, and heard of at least one person being taken to hospital! But overall, I was surprised by how much the weather seemed to help me out, in terms of how little I needed to eat; that I didn’t have to guzzle water every couple of minutes; with my recovery time at the finish.
It may, in fact, have been the favorable weather that got me a 5-minute boost in my time, just as I know that the cool temperatures helped me out so much at the Boston Marathon this year. But as any sports fan will tell you, you make your own luck and you take it when you get the chance. Perhaps it’s not the weather; maybe I’ve just gotten used to this course, to long-distance running. And if I want to go faster, I know I’ll need to run even longer. After all, the 260-270 minutes I spend on the Escarpment the last Sunday of each July are the longest time I undertake on a single run each year, whereas many of the people ahead of me are experienced ultra runners, capable of 50 and 100-milers, of 24-hour stints without stopping. For them, the Escarpment is, if not exactly a stroll in the park, certainly not quite the test of endurance and stamina it seems to be for me. As for me, it’s the pinnacle (all too literally!) of my physical capabilities right now, and as such, the highlight of each year’s running calendar, the one date I write in stone – and tree root, boulder, gravel and mud.
In other words, sign me up for next year.