Written by USATF liaison Lin Gentling. Photos by Lin Gentling.
A more perfect day to run the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon trails around the 6000 acre Hudson Highlands State Park would be hard to find. Saturday, April 30, dawned perfectly clear and crisp at 37 degrees with calm winds as over 300 runners lined up at the start. Temperatures increased to no more than 60 degrees while maintaining perfect conditions and only slight breezes. The race served as the first selection race for the 2022 USATF Mountain and Trail Running Team scheduled to compete at the World Championships in Thailand from November 4 to 6.
Springtime in eastern New York was making its vibrant return and the greening of the forest and the blooming of the crocus, daffodils, spring beauty, and forsythia surrounded the runners. The course itself was difficult as attested to by many of the front runners. According to the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon course description, it, “covers jeep trails, single-track, historic estate paths, and winding single-track both open and technical. It’s signature climb, Breakneck Ridge, is steep, gnarly, exposed, and absolutely beautiful.” As difficult as it was to avert one’s eyes from the technical trail underfoot to appreciate the panoramic view over the Hudson River Valley during the race, the vistas were certainly worthy of a glance if not a quick pause during the run.
To say this was a difficult course is an understatement. Combining speed and technical trail expertise tested the runners’ focus and fitness. Continuing with the course description, “There are technical and steep pitches including the signature Breakneck Point that at points require climbing and tolerance of exposure, technical stretches of footing, and significant elevation gain and loss.”
Interestingly, in 1849, Breakneck Point got its name when local farmers chased a mischievous bull off the cliff resulting in a broken neck. Given what was experienced on Saturday’s course, it is easy to acknowledge this could happen and not just to bovines. Yet despite this, the runners were rewarded with spectacular views of the Hudson River from mountain vistas.
To follow the race required a fair amount of climbing and waiting at the vistas for the runners, then steep descents to the next point, hoping to reach the next point prior to the front runners.
Max King, 42, Bend, Oregon, returned to familiar territory. Although this was his first Breakneck Point race, he spent his undergraduate years studying at nearby Cornell in Ithaca, NY. King is an excellent trail runner and his record speaks to his accomplishments with many impressive first place finishes and national team, ultra, mountain, cross country, trail and road performances, including his 2014 IAU 100K world championship title and the 2011 World Mountain Running Championship title.
King also won USATF national championships in the trail half marathon, trail marathon and 50 km as well as many well-known trail races including the Way Too Cool 50K, JFK 50 Mile, Ultra Race of Champions (UROC), Chuckanut 50K and Ice Age Trail 50 Mile. So it was no surprise to see King leading the race at 11.7 miles high on the mountain. He had a decent lead of 3 minutes over second place, Matt Lipsey, 32, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and about 7 minutes over the trio including Eric LiPuma, David Hedges, 24, Ithaca, NY Cornell graduate student, (winner in 2020 and “course record holder” of 4:35:40) and Lee Berube, 31, Syracuse, NY.
King came through the 18-mile aid station still in the lead with Hedges in second, but something happened in the ensuing miles. Hedges, coached by King’s 2013 US Mountain Running Teammate Alex Nichols, and a winner at 2021 UROC 100K and 2021 North Face Challenge 125K, is a strong climber and gained on King, eventually catching him on the last climb. But it was that dreaded last ½ mile where King came back, passing Hedges, and took the win by 6 seconds. King finished in course record time of 4:11:54 to Hedges’ 4:12:00.
King stated he had wanted to run this race for a long time and that today he was glad it was a selection race for the 2022 USATF Mountain and Trail Running Team. While route finding in a trail race can be difficult at best, King took the time to put the route on his watch so that any area with potential confusion was easily overcome by looking at his watch. “This was the only way I found my way. At one place the trail markers had been removed for about 2 miles (race director Ian Golden replaced these markings once it became known).” King ran alone until the last two miles when he was caught and passed by Hedges. “At the point, I ran like hell knowing the first place finisher was an automatic selection to the US team.”
Hedges was happy with his effort. “The race went amazing, I had a blast. I felt great on the climbs and that was the strongest part of my run. I put in so much work and I was happy to see it all come together. I was in good shape and know how to run on this terrain. In the end, I had no more gears left and Max did.”
Third position went to Canadian, Elliot Cardin, 29, Cowanswille, Quebec, with a finishing time of 4:47:10. “I jumped in the race to see where I was with my training. I knew the competition would be very good, but this course was more than I thought it would be. It was very technical and lots of climbing.”
On the ladies’ side, the race was much more predictable as positions did not change during the race. Taking the race out in front was Michelle Merlis, 33, Albany, NY. She won the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon in 2021, and has had success over several years with the 30K Escarpment Trail Run. Her major goal outside of winning the event and qualifying for the national team was to not get lost. Over the last 2 months, Merlis had prepared by running on the course frequently and getting to know its nuances. “Knowing he course really helped.”
She also praised the race director, Ian Golden. “Ian really knows how to put on the most Beastcoast races. It is such an honor to run them and to see so many friends along the course. The race was hard, but I went for it and got it.” Merlis’s first place finish was 5:26:53, second best all time women’s performance at the Breakneck Point Trail Marathon.
Finishing the marathon second in 5:48:16, was Kristina Randrup, 23, Berkeley, CA/Seattle, WA. This was a sort of celebration as Randrup will finish up grad school in one week. Winner of American River 50 Mile and Skyline 50K Endurance Run both in 2021, she commented that this race was all about “embracing absurdity.” She commented that the race was not what she expected. “It was less runnable, much slower, and more rocky,” than she anticipated. “It was so different than what I normally do. I just wanted to go out there and have fun and feel good on the climbs. Breakneck Ridge was the fun I was hoping for.”
Nora Jodrey, 25, Bethesda, MD, took the third position in 5:54:40. This was Jodrey’s first Breakneck Point Trail Marathon. “It met all my expectations, it was just fun, even when tough, still fun. I trained on the Appalachian Trail, so was ready. I will definitely do this again.”
At the end of the day people milled, around discussing various parts of the course, but the overwhelming discussion was the element of fun runners had on the course. This was no easy accomplishment and runners basked in their achievements with most vowing to return and take in the rite of spring in the Hudson Valley.
[Author’s note: A special thanks to race director Ian Golden of Red Newt Racing, and his army of incredible volunteers. I am not sure that folks recognize the amount of time and effort that goes on behind the scenes to ensure the best experience for all involved from the first runner to the last runner across the finish line. How one guy can be in multiple places at the same time is magic, but Ian makes it happen. Months and months of planning go into one day of traversing the trails of the Hudson Highlands State Park. And then suddenly it is finished and the planning begins for the next year. Thank you Ian for creating yet another unforgettable, breathtaking, and memorable experience that will be long remembered by all.]
Complete Breakneck Point Trail Marathon results can be found on UltraSignup.
Even more race photos are available on Google Drive.