By Tony Berman
The race day forecast was nothing if not consistent. A week before: isolated thunderstorms. The day before: isolated thunderstorms. The day of the run: you guessed it, isolated thunderstorms.
So why was raining it steadily with leaden skies and no sign of relief at the start?
Steve Borton, Steve Ozer, Tom Gannon and I were sitting in Ozer’s car at the start of the Escarpment Trail Run on July 28. The run, now in its 36th year, is 18.6 miles (30K) of the most rugged trails in the Catskills. As they say, it’s only 30K but it’s the toughest 30K you’ll ever run. It runs up and down three mountains and the race tagline is, “For mountain goats only.” When non-running friends ask me what the run is like I try to show them the web site, where there is a picture of the female division winner … with blood streaming down her lower leg from what must have been a nasty gash. I also explain that my goal is to finish upright. And I cannot explain why I do it. Tom said that it’s because we can, and I think that sums it up.
The rain kept coming. We talked about mud and slippery, wet rocks. Steve B. idly asked what his race strategy should be. Before you could blink, Tommy exclaimed, “Attack! Full bore to the top of Windham and keep going!” Ah, sure, and end up with stitches. Steve O. started getting “trail trepidation” and decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
Finally, the race director, Dick Vincent, called us all to the start. Tom, Steve B. and I stepped from the car into what would turn out to be three more hours of steady rain. It turned parts of the trail to slimy mud, parts to puddles, parts to slippery rocks. At least hydration wouldn’t be a problem.
Despite Tommy’s suggested strategy, we all took it easy. The first mountain, Windham, is mostly a steady climb without too many steeps, but it’s over three miles of climb. We three reached the top together and enjoyed the drinks and snacks hiked in by the amazing volunteers (who get “Beast of Burden” shirts). Then it was time to start the slippery downhill, with the rain still coming down. Somewhere on the way down I slipped, tripped, stumbled and bumbled my way to the ground, finishing in a faceplant. A quick assessment: Not too much damage done, and not much of a choice anyway: the only alternative would be to retrace my steps and I was around mile six already.
Another aid station at the bottom of Windham (God bless them!), then several more up and down miles with a few steeps to reach the foot of Blackhead. From there, it’s a 1,000-foot vertical climb in less than a mile to just under 4,000 feet, the highest point on the run. It is roughly like scrambling directly from Hessian Lake to the top of Perkins Memorial. No heroics here! Amazingly, there is an aid station at the top of Blackhead. One year, the volunteers lugged in music and when I reached the top, “Shattered” by the Stones was blasting. Perfect, I thought, because I certainly was.
I ran comfortably down the back of Blackhead (OK, a few stumbles and “hands down” but no more faceplants) and realized that the rain was stopping. It’s a long downhill, about three miles, to the only place you can exit (and even there it’s a hefty hike out) to the start of the last climb, Stoppel Point, about 1,000 vertical feet stretching over about 3.2 miles. This was the most slippery part of the climb for me, as the uphill trail was less rocky and more muddy than anywhere else – greasy, as a fellow runner said. Up ahead, I saw hikers with poles and not only was I jealous but it took me a really long time to catch them, even though they were, well, hiking and I was supposed to be racing.
From the top of Stoppel it is more than four miles to the finish, most of it downhill. Oh, that’s nice, you think. But this was slippery, rooty and rocky and my body was not cooperating the way it had been three hours ago. It was here when I had to admit that my core strength needed work and I realized that my hands were cramped from grabbing trees and boulders. It seemed like an excellent time to take up walking.
The last aid station is at North Point, “only” 2.7 miles from the finish – with crazy drops, switchbacks and strewn rocks of all sizes. I kept practicing my power hiking, with occasional runs when the terrain cooperated and careful stepping around the six-foot drops. Past places where families were hiking. Getting closer! The adrenaline, and other runners around me, got me running again.
There is never anything quite like any finish line. Here, you hear it well before you see it. Sweet music! I made it, my third finish. Three more and I get a T-Shirt (for running over 100 miles of Escarpment). Tom, who already has his 200-miles shirt, had finished about a half-hour before; Steve, who has his 100-mile shirt, finished a little later. We all finished upright and without too much pain. What more could we ask for?