Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Escarpment Trail Run

For me, the Escarpment Trail Run is almost the perfect race: a point to point run on 100% rocky, technical single track with zero road crossings, across a rugged mountain range with big climbs and bigger views. It's no surprise, then, that this is a race that has alternately fascinated, intimidated, and motivated me ever since I began trail running.

Early morning view of North Mountain from the finish at North Lake

From years of reading and hearing about the race, the run itself and all the traditions and quirks surrounding it had taken on an almost legendary status in my mind, so it was exciting and surreal to actually participate in it: filling in my IQ score on the race application; opening the letter informing me that "do to a stroke of bad luck, your entry into the Escarpment Trail Run has been accepted;" riding the school bus from North Lake to the start; listening to founder and director Dick Vincent's pre-race instructions/comedy routine; applauding the runners going for their 100-mile shirts; seeing 10 (make that 11) time winner Ben Nephew at the starting line; and finally taking off into the woods with 200 other runners to face 30 km of beautiful and demanding trail.

Before I recount my race, here's a quick description of the course. It follows the Escarpment Trail from north to south along the Wall of Manitou, a series of peaks that makes up the sheer eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains. The trail begins with a big but gradual climb to Windham Peak, gaining 1,700 ft. in 3.4 mi. Next comes 4.6 mi. of rolling downhill, punctuated by short climbs to Burnt Knob and Acra Point, to the base of Blackhead. From there, it's a brutally steep climb of 1,100 ft. in only 0.9 mi. to Blackhead's summit, followed by a long downhill to Dutcher's North, dropping 1,400 ft. in 2.8 mi. The last major ascent, to Stoppel Point, is broken into three steep climbs separated by relatively flat sections, for a total gain of almost 1,000 ft. in 2.2 mi. Finally, there's 4.6 miles of downhill to the finish at North Lake.

I was extremely determined to avoid going out too hard, so even though the long climb up Windham was almost entirely runnable, I forced myself to walk all the steep sections. This resulted in me getting passed often early in the climb, but by plugging away at a steady pace, I was able to overtake many people higher up and reach the summit feeling very fresh. Still wanting to conserve energy, I took it fairly easy on the descent, which was a good choice because thick grass hung over the rocky trail in many places, making this the most treacherous portion of the entire course.

Other than the initial steep drop from Windham and minor climbs to Burnt Knob and Acra Point, most of the trail to the base of Blackhead was actually quite runnable. Even on the flat sections, though, the trail was relentlessly rocky, requiring constant concentration on foot placement for the entire race. Any lapse in focus, even for a few moments, would result in me bashing a rock with my toe and stumbling forward. I even fell twice, though luckily neither was too serious.

I enjoyed running on this fairly easy section but didn't open it up too much because I knew what was ahead: Blackhead. I passed through the aid station at the base of the climb and switched into power hiking mode. This served me well for about the first half of the ascent, which was certainly steep but not outrageous. Soon, though, I came to a point where I looked up briefly from the trail and saw an absolute wall of broken rock ledges and gnarled tree roots towering over me for hundreds of feet. So... this was it.

I refocused on the few feet of trail directly in front of me and slowly progressed upwards, one ledge at a time, using as tiny steps as possible. I've never worked so hard to move so slowly, but eventually the deciduous forest transitioned to red spruce and balsam fir, the slope eased up, and I emerged into the sunlight of a rock ledge with aid station workers shouting encouragement. I was on top of Blackhead and still had some life in me.

The descent from Blackhead offered similar terrain as the ascent, only in reverse. This made for some very tricky and technical running, but I took my time, picking the best lines down the steep ledges. After rapidly descending about 500 ft., the trail leveled out to allow some comfortable running. I passed a volunteer who said I was running in 23rd place, and this news gave me a shot of motivation. A top 20 finish was one of my outside goals, and I was feeling confident that I could run strong the rest of the race and maybe pass a few people. I made the final plunge down to Dutcher's Notch, passing one runner at the aid station. Two more to go!

Now came the final climb, the 3-stage push up to Stoppel Point. This was the time to cash in on the energy I had saved by running conservatively early in the race. I felt good power hiking up the first two steep sections. The pain came on the third section, put I pushed through knowing that this was the last climb of the race. I passed the wrecked airplane just off the trail, and soon I was cruising across the flat summit with nothing but downhill between me and the finish.

The climbing was over, but the difficulty wasn't, as the trail remained as rocky and technical as ever, and all that abuse to my legs started to take its toll. My pace had slowed considerably by the time I came to North Point, a rock ledge with spectacular views across the Hudson Valley and down to North Lake, the finish, which seemed almost close enough to touch. I allowed myself a few moments to take in the view, then dropped off the ledge and back into the woods- only to find I was off the trail. Unable to lift either leg high enough to step back up without cramping, I awkwardly belly flopped up onto the ledge, clambered to my feet, spotted a trail marker, and resumed my run.

After a few moments, I passed another runner coming in the opposite direction. We exchanged puzzled looks and a few confused words but both continued on, confident we were going the right way. Soon doubt started to creep in, and then I saw more runners coming towards me. I dropped an F-bomb, turned around, and powered by the biggest adrenaline rush of my life, bombed down the hill like a mad man. I quickly blew past the runner who had just passed me, letting him know "you were right."

Dick Vincent told us to follow these markers. That I did, but not always in the right direction.

Soon the rush tapered off, the pain returned, and I realized I had just spent most of my remaining energy. The rest of the race was a grind, dropping down ledge after ledge on beaten legs, dealing with tricky trail junctions, and passing lots of day hikers from North Lake. Finally I emerged from the woods into the finishing area, and a volunteer called out my time of 3:57:21, comfortably below my goal of four hours, though just outside the top 20.

Relaxing at the finish line and in the refreshing waters of North Lake, I relived the race and swapped trail running stories with my fellow runners, enjoying the instant camaraderie created by sharing such an amazing experience. The Escarpment Trail Run is really a unique and special race, due as much to its dedicated community of runners and volunteers as to the mountains and trail. I am very grateful to the volunteers who hauled food and drinks on their backs for hours to give me and the other runners the opportunity to run unencumbered through these incredible mountains. This race lived up to all my lofty expectations, and I have a strong feeling I'll be back.


  1. nice write up, how were the finger lakes 50's trails? I'm looking to do the 50 miler next year.

  2. Great report, it was fun to relive the race from last weekend - thanks!

  3. This was a nice read, Andrew. :) The next time you run it it will be a different yet equally-fulfilling experience. Hope to meet you in person the next time.

    Oh, and those last couple of miles down from North Mountain? They never get easier. ;p