The Escarpment Trail Run: Reasons To Remember
1) The camaraderie. Most Escarpment Trail Runners are repeat masochists, some on their 5th consecutive year, others on their 20th; all of them welcome new-comers to their exclusive club. I was taken on the trails by a veteran runner, given solid advice about trail shoes when I was forced to switch pairs five days before the race, and even received a personal good luck message from the race organizer the morning before the run. Out on the course, runners generally moved over when requested, and dispensed equal encouragement throughout. Such was the shared good will, it was occasionally possible to forget that this was a race.
2) The weather. Torrential rains the night before ensured that the sloping rocks were slippery as a snake steeped in slime. Factor in the humidity that hung menacingly over the trail with the brutality of a dictatorship, and runners paced themselves accordingly. Even Ben Nephew, in winning the race for the 7th consecutive time, ran ten minutes slower than last year. I quickly realized that a four hour goal was out of the question, and concentrated instead on conserving energy for, ooh, the last three hours of the run.
3) The views. They’re some of the greatest in New York. Unfortunately you don’t get time to take them in. Nor should you: you need to be looking at your next step, every step.
4) The Aid stations. Dozens of unpaid volunteers – one for every three runners – hiked up to various summits or intersections in the early dawn, laden with water, Gatorade, first aid kits and a variety of snacks that ranged from orange and banana slices to Fig Newtons, Power Gels, Marathon Energy Bars and, at the last station when presumably some people had completely run out of steam, cups full of fresh trail mix. (Trail mix? I’ve just got the joke!) I never suffered dehydration or hunger. And that Honey-stick Goo on top of North Point (nectar!) was just what I needed to get through the last hour.
5) The (lack of) blood and bruises. After the big fall just a week prior to the race, from which my bloodied knee is still stinging and my forehead only just healed, I exercised complete caution on the big day. Not that I had much of a choice: every time I picked up speed, I started lasing my balance. Ultimately, despite slipping and sliding, I stayed on my feet throughout. That of itself was a victory.
6) The uphill climbs. The long path up to Windham High Point (Mountain #1) comes when legs are fresh. Those up to Burnt Knob (#2) and Acra Point (#3) are negligible after the descent from Windham. The 1200 foot climb up Blackhead Mountain (#4), however, right at the halfway point, is so steep it morphs into straight-forward old-fashioned rock climbing. It’s quite invigorating – and, of course, exhausting. And no sooner is it over – and you’ve barely noticed your descent the other side – that you find yourself climbing another 1200 feet up to Stoppel Point (#5). This one is just steady enough in some places to jog, and just steep enough in others to provide a torturous uphill walk. There are three such plateaus, three such climbs. And each of those climbs feels like the point that you should turn back – if you weren’t closer to the finish than to the start.
7) The so-called home stretch. It’s only 4.2 miles from Stoppel Point, and the sight of North-South Lake 1200 feet below confirms that it’s a descent. So why is so much of it uphill? And why is almost all of it either hefty four-foot drops down rock faces, sloping boulders, arched rocks you have to duck through, protruding tree trunks – or a combination of all the above? Why does this race get increasingly harder as it gets longer? Why did I agree to this?
8) The benefit of training. Taking on the whole course over a period of many weekends paid off in spades. I knew to pace myself on the first 3.5 miles up Windham; to run fast on the only two flat miles of the entire course; to never put my foot on a green-coated or glistening rock if I had any other options; to conserve energy all the way up to and including Blackhead; that there were three runs up Stoppell and three climbs; that the last few miles were the most dangerous; and that the finish sneaked up without warning. That this knowledge took 20 minutes or more off my time was proven afterwards, in talking to a First-timer who is a faster marathoner but had finished that much slower than me on this course. He said he had held back throughout because he “had no idea what to expect.” It’s that kind of course.
9) The Asics Trabukos. After my two disasters with the Merrel Continuums, each pair losing a heel during training, I was forced to make a last-minute switch. I opted for Asics Trabukos, as they’re similar to the Asics 2010 Gels I use for road running. Despite my genuine fear at wearing them in on the hardest run of my life, they met the challenge: No falls, no twists, not even a blister. Asics are my rock. And the Morrel name is mud. (And slime.)
10) The tree trunk from hell. Coming off Newman’s Ledge with barely a mile to go, I realized I had some energy left in my legs. My mental health felt good too. I now had nothing to lose by picking up pace and charging for home… Nothing to lose but my footing of course. My right foot tripped over a protruding tree trunk and in trying to avoid falling, I stretched out my left leg and pulled the calf muscle so tight I’m surprised they didn’t hear my scream at the finish line. I resigned myself to hobbling home, but after a couple of hundred yards, the pain eased and I thought, ‘Sod it, I didn’t come this far to be seen walking home.’. I picked up speed again. Half an hour and an ice pack later, the pain was forgotten. The danger of running faster than your brain can process the movements on this course was not.
11) The finish. At various time during the run, I’d found myself just ahead of (and occasionally behind) a 27-year old Canadian, who was an experienced endurance runner, but an Escarpment virgin. Having trained on the course, I was able to share some friendly advice, for which he seemed grateful. He dropped way behind me on the last few miles but, probably because of that protruding tree trunk and my enforced short hobble, caught me on the final stretch. “You’re not going to try and overtake me, are you?” I called back to him when I realized who it was. He hesitated. “You go first,” he responded, a little ambivalently for my liking. Sure enough, I suddenly felt his breath on my neck. A little pissed off at his competitiveness, I moved to the center of the narrow trail, and picked up to a sprint, calf muscle be damned. I felt him nudge me, he was so close, and he tried to weave past me as we emerged at opening for the finish line, but somehow, I must have accidentally extended an elbow; either way, he found his path blocked. Posie’s photo at the finish shows me silhouetting him: only when you really look closely can you see that he’s precisely one step behind. The sprint added an unexpected edge of adrenalin to an exhausting four and a half hours. And yes, we did exchange a sportsman’s hug immediately afterwards.
12) The finish time. 4 hours, 29 minutes. That’s 1 hr, 29 minutes behind the first placed runner, and 1 hour, 37 minutes ahead of the last-placed. Placing 59th out of 168 finishers puts me just in the top one-third. Given the caliber of runners on this course and their experience from previous winners, I’ll take that as a success. Hell, I’ll take it as my greatest sporting achievement ever.
13) The family. As I came towards the clearing in the woods, I could distinctly see Campbell on my right, up ahead of the finish line. His positioning may have even helped stop the Canadian from sneaking round me. I was able to call his name and then run almost directly into my wife, my baby and my mother. Yes, my mother is over for a brief vacation, and though she never got to see me run a NYC Marathon, I hope she feels she caught the (next) best thing. Certainly, in New York, it would have taken almost an hour to hook up with the family. Here they were able to prop me right up. Literally. For after that final sprint, I was indeed close to collapse.
14) The reward. Entirely emotional and personal, the sense of accomplishment was all I needed to take home with me. That and a $10 baseball cap. Oh, and my race number, complete with tag-line ‘Mountain Goats Only.’
15) The post-race slap-up meal. My body was too tight to warm to the bagels, pasta, fruit and chips that awaited at the finish line. But later that day, after a cool-down swim in the lake, lots of anecdotal chats with other runners, a bath full of Epsom Salts and some stretching, we hit the Windhaven for dinner. Home-made chips and salsa, vegetable fajitas and an ooey-gooey pie. Oh, and a pint or two of Saranac Pale Ale. Beer never tasted so good.