Summer Hitlist 2: The Annual Escarpment Run
The original Olympian spirit – of amateur sportsmen competing not for monetary gain but to prove themselves the best that they can be – lives on in my favorite competition of the year, the Escarpment Run in my native Catskills. As I have noted before at iJamming!, there are no medals for completing the six-mountain, 30km, 10,000 ft elevation so-called trail race. In fact, there are no awards of any kind. Being granted a place among the other 199 runners is considered perfectly sufficient – and adequately masochistic – payback for having the tenacity to enter in the first place.
I know marathon runners who will not touch the Escarpment. Hell, I know an amazing local triathlete who ran it once and promptly booked himself a Triathlon for the same weekend the following year because he figured it would be easier. And yet I return to this race year after year. For, although I am a relatively adequate and perfectly eager road runner, I am at my happiest on the trails. Trail running, as I have also explained previously at this site, is an entirely different beast from road running: the obstacles underfoot make it harder in many ways, there are risks of injuries you can’t quite imagine on the roads (such as falling off cliff-tops, coming across bears and rattlesnakes, sudden and serious changes of weather, or running out of supplies and energy a long long way from the nearest shops, car, or cell phone tower), but the lack of repetitive stress motion makes it ultimately easier on the body, the slower pace likewise has its benefit, and the sense of being at one with nature produces, for me at least, an inner contentment that I can’t quite match in any other environment.
The Escarpment Run, then, is the peak of my trail running season, and this year, I really put in the training for it. I had run roads and hills all winter in preparation for April’s Boston Marathon. Shortly thereafter, there was the 20 miles of the Art Run in mid-May, several of which are on trail, including the home stretch of the Escarpment course; a brutal 16 miles of local mountains just a week later that left my quads so sore I could barely compete in our annual Woodstock Races 15k two days after that; a slower-paced 15 mile Sunday morning group run up and down two separate mountains; my first Ultra, the Finger Lakes 50k at the end of June, which I undertook for the experience of distance rather than speed; and just two weeks after that, and only two weeks before the Escarpment Run itself, two difficult and different 4000ft peaks (Hunter and Plateau) alongside a local triathlete who typically leaves me for dead on such adventures. When I found myself pacing him up and down our second mountain that day, it was evident that my training was coming good; I was, as they say in our game, ‘on.’
But what for? If trail running is all about peace and zen, why the push? What’s the rush? Well, that’s where the Olympian ethos comes back into it. At my age, I’m probably not ever going to win any races, and I’m unlikely to break any records even amongst those as old as me. But, perhaps because I came late to this sport, I am still getting faster, despite the fact that I will turn 50 in just two years. As such, I have a burning desire, if just a few times a year, to give it absolutely everything I have to see what I’m capable of. The Escarpment, grueling though it is, provides one of those opportunities. And given that my time continues to get faster every time I run it, I continue to chase a specific goal: beating the four-hour mark. Last year, I took a solid eight minutes off my previous PR to finish in 4:12. If I could do the same again, I’d be running 4:04. And if I could shave off yet an additional four minutes on the course, I would achieve what has become a personal life goal. The night before the race, I sat at my computer, looking at my history of splits between the different aid stations (where volunteers kindly hike in with water and food, some of them climbing mountain peaks in the process), failed to figure out where I would make up the time, and wrote some optimistic split times on the back of my hand anyway.
One of the things you learn from living in the Catskills is to pay the weather forecast little heed. The pleasant weekend we had been promised just a day or so earlier had evaporated. It was raining heavily when I got up at 6am. It was raining so damn heavily when I got to the finish line at North-South Lake at 7:30 am (to catch a bus to the start line) that I stayed in my car for five minutes in the vain hope it might taper down a little. It was still raining heavily when our bus got to the start area at East Windham. In fact, it was raining so hard that Race Director Dick Vincent set us off five minutes early. It then continued to rain heavily for the next four hours.
There were advantages to this downpour. First, it kept the air temperatures lower than usual, ensuring that all of us stayed much better hydrated than usual. (After running Boston this year in record high temperatures, and suffering accordingly, I will opt for cool rain any day.) Secondly, by comparison with the race four years back, when a thunder cloud descended upon the race course, bringing life-threatening lightning strikes all around us, this storm was as if a friend.
But rain is never a friend on rocks and boulders that are famously slippery to begin with, and if the uphill portions of the course were rendered slightly easier by the low temperature and welcome water on the face (and arms, and back, and legs), the downhill scrambles were accordingly that much harder. There are, to be sure, experienced trail runners who can dash from rock to rock, and where no such obvious path exists, jump first and figure where to land later… and then there are the rest of us, who can’t quite shake the thought of medical bills for broken bones and the accompanying time off self-employed work and who, while willing to give it their physical all on this race, don’t necessarily intend to sacrifice their body to the Gods in the process.
That said, the only one of my extremely optimistic split times that I couldn’t keep to in the early part of the race was the first, gradual 1800 ft, 3.5 mile climb up Windham High Peak, which I ran two minutes slower than intended (though in the same time as last year). My other split times were more or less as I had hoped. And I felt good throughout. I was running fast. intense training followed seemed to have worked. On one uphill, I even overtook some runners I hadn’t expected to see on the race (including the usual female winner, Sheryl Wheeler) and they didn’t overtake me in turn on the subsequent downhill. I climbed Blackhead – 1100 feet in 0.9 mile, much of it hand over fist – in just 20 minutes, and more to the point, made the brutal climb up to Stoppel Point – a deceptively hard 1000 foot ascent over 2.3 miles, most of it runnable with a couple of steep sections that tend to stall all but the race leaders and where I have typically hit my wall – in 34 minutes, three minutes faster than any other year. I felt duly shagged out at the top of Stoppel, but I was now only three minutes off my intended four hour time. If I could shave those three minutes off what I had optimistically hoped would be a 50-minute run through the last 4.5 miles, I would indeed break the four hour mark.
And then I hit the wall. Sometimes I have found that racing hard up a mountain is worth it given that gravity takes over on the way back down, but sometimes that extra effort proves self-defeating, especially when gravity itself proves somewhat unwilling to play its part. You see, the trail doesn’t particularly let up on the 1.8 miles from Stoppel to the next aid station, North Point, and my legs felt tired and my head a little whoozy as I tried to make up time; at one point a couple of energetic younger runners overtook me, the first to do so in an hour or more, and when I decided to chase after them, I landed on my arse almost instantaneously. Most trail runners will tell of similar stories: it’s when you push yourself just beyond your comfort zone that you lose your footing. That mind-body co-ordination is an amazing thing to behold – but only up to a point.
It was, I’m pleased to say, the only fall I had all day. I’ve even more pleased to note as much given that my new Inov-8 Terrafly shoes, designed for road and trail, had come apart in the couple of weeks before the race, and had had to be glued back together, only for the trail to prove stronger than epoxy and rip a fresh hole right through one of the toes on the last few miles. (They were, we suspect, a bad pair. Inov-8 quickly replaced them. No hard feelings) All the same, when I came in to the final aid station at the top of North Point, a series of big wide boulders that were reminiscent of nothing on this Sunday lunch time so much as an uneven ice rink, I stopped for a couple of minutes to rceover. I took an energy gel, an awful lot of water, stayed around to catch my breath and winced with personal disappointment as up to half a dozen runners passed me by without even pausing for a cup of water, including the aforementioned Sheryl Wheeler. And then I set off again, with that fake re-assurance in my ears that it was “only 2.5 miles” and “it’s all downhill.” Both statements have a germ of truth to them. But it’s not ONLY 2.5 miles (2.7 actually) when you’ve already run or climbed or scrambled 16 of them at full pace, and it’s not ALL downhill when there are whole areas of slippery boulders that involve brief ups and downs, complex descents through 12-foot steep peaks that demand incredibly careful foot placements, and on this day, streams running through the middle of whatever still passed for some sort of gradual gravity-following trail.
I found later that almost every runner (and even the race sweep, my friend Rich Van Kleek, who was effectively power hiking) had the same observation; that those last 2.7 miles were by far the hardest part of the course that day. It was impossible to pick up too much speed without incredible self-confidence and strength and experience. So while my body was now willing, and the energy was there, the fleet of foot-ness was absent. On this last part of the course from Stoppel, and only this last part of the course, was I slower than last year, and then only by two minutes. I stll came through the finish line in 4:07, five minutes faster than my previous best. I also came through the finish line feeling great. The rain had finally stopped, and I was cool enough and well enough hydrated that I wasn’t even particularly thirsty. I was chatting with fellow runners within moments. It had been a day of extreme danger and as a result, almost everyone had run slower than usual. (Ben Nephew, the perennial race winner who had to take second place this year, despite coming in in under three hours, told me had had fallen five times, though his super-limber body did not seem to have the cuts or bruises to demonstrate as much.) I was within the top 40 of 200 runners, and only four men older than me and one woman of any age had finished ahead of me. Given that at some point soon, my body must peak and the ravages of time start slowing me down, this may be the fastest I will ever run the Escarpment. But I don’t desire to believe as much. I already have my eyes set on breaking that four-hour mark next year.
Oh, and that thing about no awards? Well, I fib, just a little. Once you run the 18.6 mile course six times, you get a free shirt commemorating your 100 miles of Escarpment Running. I received mine this year. I treasure it as much as any marathon medal, any of the Age Group Trophies I’ve received these last three years in my runners club. It means that I’ve returned for a beating five times after I should have known better, and that I’ve refused to be beaten. In the race between me and the Escarpment, I’ve won every year. And with that, I could return to watching the almost inhuman achievements of the true Olympians, knowing that in my own little corner of the world, in a race observed no spectators whatsoever, I, too, had strived to be the best that I could be.