The Catskill Mountains have a special place in my memory, imagination, and heart. I grew up not far away, in a small town outside of Albany, NY, and during my years at Bard College, the Catskills were the backdrop of a picturesque campus on the Hudson River. From the garden at Blithewood–Bard’s most beautiful spot–you could look across the river and see the northern peaks popping up from the horizon. In 2013, for my bachelor party, I talked a bunch of old friends from home, college, and graduate school to hike up Slide Mountain with me. Yuriko and I returned the next couple summers, in August, meeting up with friends of ours from Ithaca, to explore trails by day and listen to classical music at the Bard Music Festival by night.
View of Catskills from Blithewood Garden, Bard College
As I started getting into trail running in 2014, I was curious if there were any races in the Catskills. Google quickly pointed me to the Escarpment Trail Run–a point-to-point 30k race, organized by Dick Vincent, with big climbs and extremely technical terrain. The total elevation for the course is around 5,000 feet, including a steep ascent up Blackhead Mountain (1,000+ feet in less than a mile). The website brags about how dangerous the course is:
Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest’s natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, 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. Bees!!! In 1987, we ran into lots of them. If you are allergic to bee stings, you MUST run with your own medication.
So basically, forget about a PR: finishing alive–without any life-threatening injuries–should be considered a success.
The race also has a nice “old-school” feel to it. It dates back to 1977; there is no swag, no awards. It has the subtitle “For Mountain Goats Only.” This year was the first time they had online registration. Prior to 2017, you had to mail the race director a self-addressed stamped envelope, which would eventually come back to you with an application. Then you mailed that back with your check.
I’d had my eye on this race for a few years, but this year was the first time that my courage and my schedule aligned such that I could do it. Since my mother still lives near Albany, I was able to crash at her apartment the night before the race–no need for a hotel. I left her place around 6am and arrived at the North / South Lake Campground at 7 ($10 fee to park there). This is where the race ends, and you can take a bus from here to the start, which is at a trailhead parking lot on Route 23 in Windham, NY.
On the bus ride up, I was talking to a runner from Rochester (Natalie Thompson), and turns out, she also teaches at a community college. What are the odds the runner who randomly sits next to you on the bus has the same job as you? Turns out, she’s also a hell of a runner. She finished in 3:46 (3rd female).
After arriving at the start and getting my bib, I started looking around for Michael Ranck, the only other runner there that I sort of knew. (He’s a member of my local running club, the Pagoda Pacers, and although his name was familiar, I wasn’t exactly sure if we had ever met.) I spotted him by his bib a few minutes before the start, and he told me some great stories of serious injuries he’d acquired at past Escarpments, including slicing up his hand on a rock and having to stop for stitches on his way home once. This was his 28th ESCARPMENT TRAIL RUN! And he crushed it: 4:33. He’s more than a couple decades older than me, but that didn’t stop him from being a few minutes faster. Damn. I hope I can still do shit like that in 25 years!
I was surprised to see that there is chip-timing and waves for this event, but that’s apparently a recently new development. The state park administration wanted to space out the runners, so they put in place a “15 runners every 5 minutes” regulation. This actually did a great job of avoiding typical early-race congestion, which might otherwise be annoying. The ENTIRE race is single-track, which is awesome, but without the waves, I imagine the beginning could have been jammed up.
Never having run the race before, the director must have used my qualifying time (last year’s Philly marathon) or maybe just some random guesswork to put me in Wave 5. I didn’t belong there. As soon as we were off, all the other runners in the wave except one took off, trotting up to Windham Peak. (The first 3.5 miles gradually climb up 1,800 feet to the first peak.) I never saw them again. The other “slow” runner in my wave was even more misplaced than me, and I pulled away from her quickly. There I was–one mile in and completely alone.
But don’t be sad: it wasn’t long before the fellas from Wave 6 started to pass me.
After the slow, 3.5 mile ascent, there is an aid station at the top of Windham High Peak. (This must be the hardest race to volunteer for–all the water, gatorade, and food is hiked up to the aid stations. And there are a TON of them: seven!! That’s about twice as many as at the Laurel Highlands 50k, which was 12 miles longer.)
View of Blackhead from Windham High Peak
After hydrating, I began to make my way down, and I realized that descending would not be a hell of a lot faster than climbing. Too steep, too rocky. There are many spots where you have to lower yourself down with your arms, unless you are willing to jump off big shelves onto uneven terrain repeatedly. I wasn’t about to kill myself (or my knees) that way.
After the steep descent, the trail is rolling for about 2.5 miles and then relatively runnable from 6.5 to 8.3. There were rocks and roots all over the place, so I couldn’t really fly, but with some decent footwork I could still cruise along (by which I mean, at an 11:30ish pace. Not fast, but for this trail and for me–not bad).
At mile 8.3, I got to the third aid station. After downing some water, I saw a trail to the right, which I thought for a moment was the way, but then a volunteer corrected me. “Nope — you’re going up.” Here, the Escarpment Trail begins a steep, steep climb up to Blackhead Peak: 3,940 feet, the highest point on the course. From the aid station, it was over 1,000 vertical feet up to the top in less than a mile. 23 minutes later, I was at the top, and luckily there was another aid station. How often do you see 2 aid stations less than a mile apart?
Looking West from Blackhead
On the way up, there was a guy right behind me, who I later learned was Alan Lawn from Brooklyn. We were huffing and puffing together until it was time to bump fists at the top. We chatted a bit on the top, and also as we started our descent. I started to pull ahead on the way down and caught up to a couple guys from Jersey who were running a pace I was comfortable with. We stayed together for awhile as the trail descended and then started to climb once again during mile 12.
After Blackhead, these later climbs were not so bad, but my legs were starting to wear down. The weather was pretty damn perfect–mid-60s to start, mid-70s by the afternoon, not too humid, nice breeze. Can’t get better than that in late July. Still, though, with all that climbing and running, 70 begins to feel warm after a few hours. I was getting enough water at the aid stations, but I probably should have taken more salt. The eGels and Gatorade probably weren’t quite enough to replenish my electrolytes. On the final climbs, I felt some twinges in my left calf and then in my right inner thigh, and I was afraid that I might cramp up.
As we made our way up to the final peak (Stoppel Point, 3,400 feet) we saw a famous Escarpment landmark–the ruins of a small aircraft which crashed on the mountain in 1983. Apparently the pilot, John T. Grace, had a revoked student license; he didn’t survive the crash.
The last four miles of the course are mostly downhill. One of the Jersey guys pulled away, but the other one (Tommy Farabaugh) and I stayed together, pretty much, for the rest of the race. Neither of us had much left in the tank. Each time I had to jump down from one boulder to the next (or scramble down backwards), I was just hoping my knees could take it and my muscles wouldn’t cramp.
There were a number of gorgeous lookout points from this portion of trail, as you peak out onto the actual escarpment along the eastern edge of the mountain: some stunning views of the Hudson Valley.
On the way down, many runners passed me and Tommy, including Alan. But then, not far past the 15 mile mark, Tommy and I caught up to Alan, who was in some serious pain. One of his quads had seized up, and he couldn’t bend his leg. I talked with him for a bit, but there wasn’t much I could do to help. We were actually very close to the final aid station, which I didn’t realize until after we parted aways. I alerted the volunteers about Alan and moved along, catching up to Tommy. (Alan was able to grit out the remainder of the race, finishing in 4:42.)
Tommy and I finished the descent, slowly but surely, as we saw more and more day hikers making their way up from the campground. We knew we must be close to the finish, and then all of a sudden it was over. The finish line really sneaks up on you in this one.
There was some pretty good food at the finish: a rice dish, a pasta dish, breads and pastries from a local bakery, bagels, fresh fruit and veggies, and lots of other little snacks. The campground showers and the lake were available for runners to wash the blood and salt away.
Overall, the Escarpment Trail is sublime, in the 18th century meaning of the word: beautiful, terrifying, humbling. I don’t know how many times I turned my ankle on rocks; my feet were sore for at least 48 hours after finishing. If it had been hotter, more humid, or rainy, I probably would have been in serious trouble. But it’s gorgeous up there, and remarkably wild, considering you’re only a couple hours from New York City. I’d definitely do it again.
Actually, it might be even more fun to head up there for a leisurely long training run, so I could take my time and enjoy the views. Anyone interested?
**NOTE: I did not have a phone or camera with me, and so none of these photos are my own. They were all shamelessly pilfered from the blogs and Facebook pages of other runners and hikers.