Escarpment Trail Run
July 27, 2003

 

For those of you who are not familar with this famous trail race, the website sums it up nicely. For the bloody race details, skip the intro ---

The Escarpment Trail is a very rugged hiking trail in the Northern Catskill Mts. in New York State. This single track trail is very remote, crossing no roads, has a total elevation changes of nearly 10,000 feet, and all aid must be backpacked in by volunteers. This is not for your average runner but for the runner who trains 12 months a year, and has spent years building a base and gaining long distance experience. Therefore, qualifying standards are required to insure that all participants have experience with endurance events and have a reasonable chance of completing the course within 6 hours.

THE TRAIL... is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term. It is extremely rocky and a runner must expect to navigate over boulders, downed trees, gullies and hidden roots the entire distance. Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest's natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines (almost stepped on one this year!!!), black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills. There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist to scale a rise, conversely, extremely steep downhill sections add not only challenge to the course, but also a high degree of unwelcome danger. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you're not careful, you could fall to your death. Very few runners go the distance without taking at least one painful spill. Most runners take many. Believe me, you're going to take a flop or two, or more.

Over the past three years, I have been lucky enough to win this wilderness adventure, although the first year was a close shave with a 24 second margin over second place. Two years ago, I managed to get into the same zip code as the course record, which has been around for about 10 years or so. I was only 2:15 off the record, and I had gotten lost twice during the race. Although I own several course records at New England trail races, I have always wanted to break the Escarpment record. The difficult thing during the race is trying to figure out if you are on pace or not. This year, I contacted the race director, Dick Vincent, and asked him for some estimated split times for a 2:45:00, the course record. To give you some perspective, only three people have broken three hours over the past five years. Besides the obvious challenge of the record itself, I have not been able to put in long runs this spring due to my schoolwork, so I wasn't sure how I would hold up after two hours. However, my hill running, both up and down, has been improving, and I hoped that my strengths would hide my weakness.
Although I thought it was going to be worse, the weather was not ideal for record setting. The temperature was comfortable at the start, but it was still quite humid. I started quick but controlled, and soon separated myself from the rest of the field. For the first three mile climb of 1500ft, I was shooting for about 32 minutes. Despite the burning in my quads, I was relatively comfortable and ran a steady pace up to the top of Windham mountain. My watch read 33, and I was glad I wasn't too fast, but it would have been nice to have run a 31 with the same effort. As I descended the other side of the mountain, I was surprised to see how overgrown the trail was. The brush was actually obscuring the trail for long stretches, so you could not really see where you were placing your feet. I was careful and quick on the steep sections, but about 40 minutes into the race on a flat section, I caught my toe and went down hard. Although I was totally numb from the endorphin rush, I grabbed by arm that had taken the brunt of the impact, checked over my legs, and was running within 4 seconds. My hand was bleeding, but it didn't look too serious. While many people fall during trail races, I am usually able to stay upright, so I was annoyed at having wiped out so early in the race.
As I continued through the overgrown brush, I began to run through thorn bushes. The first couple of times, it was pretty painful, but after the 10th bush or so, my legs were somewhat numb. The humidity was adding to my pleasure, as the sweat was rolling off me onto my torn-up quads. The breeze on the ridge was a life-saver, but it was still quite humid, and I was a bit worried about dehydration, considering I usually don't take in any fluid during this race. By 55 minutes, I was back on the course record splits, so I thought my downhill running might give me the course record if I could stay strong on the uphills.
The second climb is Blackhead mountain, which is about 40 degrees over the last half mile. The goal for this climb is to keep moving steadily, and that would be walking, no one runs up Blackhead. My legs still felt strong, but I tried to hold back and save some for the last two hills. I ended up 3 minutes behind pace at the top of Blackhead in 1:33. I took a half cup of gatorade and plunged off the other side. I always forget about some of the 6-10ft drop-offs that follow hard blind turns coming off of Blackhead. Luckily, there are plenty of trees to grab and save you from major head trauma. I focused and tried to gain some of the time I had lost on the acsent, but was 4 minutes behind at the next aid station. I actually thought I was ahead, because I couldn't read the split times on my sweaty forearm anymore, and remembered 1:55 instead of 1:50. I was still feeling strong, but Stoppel mt. was up next.
For the first half of the climb, I ran virtually everything, but my legs begin to tire after the 2 hour mark. Watching the Tour de France always gets me excited for Escarpment, and this year was no exception. I thought of stage 15, when Lance fell, then got up and put the hammer down. I thought about my fall earlier in the race, and told myself to get my %&$ out of the saddle and run up everything in sight. I was mentally strong, but my legs were struggling to follow. It turns out, I managed to gain a minute back by the top of Stoppel, and was only three minutes off the record pace.
As I made the final descent to the finish, the temperature creeped up, and I lost the cooling effect of the wind. The flats felt like uphills, and my footwork began to get sloppy. The last 4 miles of the course are probably the most dangerous, with lots of exposed rock, so I tried to focus on lifting my knees. At the last aid stop, I had lost another two minutes, and almost took a swan dive off a six foot ledge. Luckily, I was able to push off on a tree, and landed on all fours. Considering how tired I was, I wasn't surprised, and welcomed the surge of adrenalin that accompanied my close call with head trauma. The last two miles are filled with ledges that drop 2-6ft, some sections have sets of ledges that descend 20-40 ft. With each one, I gritted my teeth and prayed my exhausted legs would not buckle on the landing. I realized that it wasn't my day for the course record, but still wanted to get a good time. That course never seems to end. I tried to pick it up it the last mile, and almost fell over when I increased my pace. The tank was empty. By the finish I was 7 minutes behind the course record pace, with a 2:52:39.
This race showed me that you can't fake a long run. Although I had done some harder long workouts, I had been missing my trusty hard long run. They say you can't run hard and long, but to run 2:45 at Escarpment, you have to run very hard for very long. I was pleased to have only been about 3 minutes off pace over 2 hours into the race, and knew that I hadn't run the last four miles nearly fast enough. When second place came in 12 minutes after I finished, I started to realize that it hadn't been ideal weather at all.
I was still disappointed when I headed back out the course to run Steph (my wife) in. I was worried about the rising temperature, and her lack of training due to her graduate work. After only 6 women had passed, Steph comes tearing around a corner, running faster than we do on a typical 60 minute training run together. She had already been running for 4 hours. I soon forgot about my race as I struggled to keep up with her. I offered to take her waistpack, but she was too busy running down the field. Within a few minutes, she caught the woman in sixth place, gave her a friendly hip-check, and sprinted ahead. A few minutes, later, she picked off a group of three men within a few meters with her superior technical running. It was funny to watch everyone trip and stumble as they tried to stay with her after she passed. Since I usually don't get the opportunity to do a lot of passing in my races, following Steph over the last 1.5 miles was quite exciting. She ended up passing 6 people and finished in 6th for the women. Considering her recent mileage, she was happy with only being one place behind her 5th place finish of 2001. After a refreshing dip in North Lake, we ate lunch with Steph's family, who were there to pick up the pieces after the race, and started the long voyage back to Foxboro. I spent the night trimming dead flesh from my hand and trying to get the dirt out. Remember all those thorn bushes? They made for an extra special shower as the soap seeped into my lacerated quads.........

For race results, go to escarpmenttrail.com

Ben Nephew
Greater Boston Track Club