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The Longest Day/The Greatest Run


How far would you go to run?

I asked that question in early April after missing the first race of my Running Club’s Grand Prix: I had chickened out of a 100-mile round trip drive for a 7.2 mile run, not least because of the early Sunday morning start the very day after the clocks had gone forward.

But that was then, when I was still in ski mode and not yet driven (or driving) to run all over the Catskills. And to be honest, I still hate early morning weekend races, which seem to defeat the whole purpose of having a space in the week to kick back, open a bottle of wine at night and, even if crying babies don’t let you sleep on, at least get to lie in.

Yet that’s been a major beauty of moving up to these parts. My local Runners Club organizes all manner of activity during the week (when I’m more abstentious and alert), and much of it in the evening (when I am more energetic; I’ve never been a great morning person). Two weeks ago, for example, I took part in a brief Tueday evening race up a mountain: actually, I arrived late from the 30-mile drive, and ran the race solo, clocking my own time on the honor system, after which we walked together down the slippery slope and congregated at the race organizer’s house for beers. And last Tuesday, I was able to log another hour and half of trail running when an ad-hoc group went out around Onteora Lake, and our leader managed to get lost and double the distance. (Back in the car park, the leader then immediately cracked open a bottle of Belhaven as others opened their own chosens bottles; seems like many of these local veterans have admirably trained their bodies to rehdyrate with beer!)

The view from the racetrack at Campbell’s future school. The old guy up front ran a 6:30 mile.

And then last Friday evening, I took part in the fourth of the Club’s Grand Prix events, the Onteora Mile held at the pristine race track belonging to Campbell’s future Middle and High School. Though the heated conditions were not conducive to PRs, it was nonetheless a blast: in all my years of running, I’ve never actually competed on a track, let alone in a seeded group separated by speed. This mile consisted of four laps alongside just six other people, most of whom I now know by name, and I thoroughly enjoyed what was for me the novel sensation of hearing the bell ring at the third lap and deciding to kick. (I ran in a sub-six minute group, and we all came in under that target.)

My legs were shattered for the weekend, but my spirits were high. And there was therefore no way I was going to miss the Summer Solstice Run down at Lake Winnewaska State Park on Wednesday evening, June 21, a slightly shorter version of the After The Leaves race I detailed last November. The foliage is not in multi-colored hue in June, and the 8.7 mile course (inaccurately billed as a 9.3 mile/15k) cuts out the staggeringly beautiful run around Lake Awosting, but still, if any race on earth is worth a 100-mile round trip drive in the middle of the week, surely this is it. The ongoing view of Lake Winnewaska over the first four miles is almost enough to make you forget that you’re running uphill that whole time. Well, almost…

The view from the start line: Lake Minnwaska shimmering in the Summer Solstice sun.

Like I say, I’ve gotten to know some regulars at the races here – an achievement in itself, given that I barely exchanged a word with any of the many thousands I ran alongside in NYC. (It was something about the runners in New York, too many of whom seemed like stereotypical Upper East Side/West Side types. The people I’ve gotten to know up here are different: they’re all insane, for a start – and I mean that in the nicest possible way.) One man in particular has become something of a friendly competitor; ten years my elder, he beat me in both of April’s races in Kingston, when I was still coming out of ski season. I had him by five seconds on the Onteora Mile and, feeling good when we were given a 5k countdown on the Solstice Run, offered a friendly goodbye, picked up pace, and finished some 30 seconds ahead.

He had no problem with that. Every sportsman has days when they feel like staying in bed – like on the first race of our Grand Prix, when I did just that – and days when they can’t wait to compete, as per Wedneday night. Turned out I was still 39th in a pack that could not have numbered much more than 100, but then I’ve quickly learned that while the fields are smaller up here, they are that much more competitive. The winner clocked these near nine miles of hills and rocks in an almost unfathomable 49 minutes.

The view from the finish line, with free bagels and bananas, but no Belhaven.

I stuck around to chat, stretch out, munch on fruit and bagels and guzzle liters of liquid (no Belhaven after this run!), and only set off home as the sun finally dipped over the mountains on its way to longer nights and shorter days. A couple of miles along the road, like dozens of other cars, I paused at a perfectly placed look-out to enjoy a stunning sunset, the kind that makes you glad to feel alive; I enclose pictures though digital cameras fail to do nature justice. How far would you go to run? When it’s a mid-summer dream like this one, then to the end of the earth.

The view from the Shawangunk Mountains as the sun dips after its longest showing of the year. Though summer only just seems to have started, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, every day for the next six months will be shorter than the one before.

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