So far this season my running has been almost entirely focused on road running in preparation for several race series. Ideally I’d like to also keep up with trail running and longer distances in between all the shorter distance races. I have a weekend without any races, so I thought I would sneak in a long and difficult trail run.
Among local trail runners, this route is well known for the annual Escarpment Trail Run, an 18.5-mile race over 3 Catskill peaks, 2 of which are taller than 3500 feet.
I eat my usual breakfast of oats, nuts, milk, and Lucky Charms cereal while I drop my bike off at the finish line. I will ride the 17 road miles back to my car at the start when the run is completed.
The trail starts off with 2,000 feet of elevation gain in the first three miles to the top of Windham Mountain. It is pretty smooth sailing. Not as fast as I might have hoped, but I figure I can make up for lost time on the downhill. That is, of, course until I get to the downhill and realize it’s not any faster at all! The trail is very technical, which means stepping on deeply rutted roots and rocks the entire way. Along the way I am amazed to think how fast people run the annual race!
After 9 miles or so, I approach the top of the highest point in the run, the top of Blackhead Peak. The trail is covered in snow and ice. The snow is very close to having completely melted away, so when I take a step, I never know if it’s going to be solid slick ice, mushy and sticky snow, or an unsupported icy structure that will collapse as soon as I make the mistake of trusting it. A few times I slip and slide down the ice, luckily grabbing a tree or rock before I get too out of control. I have microspikes in my pack which could give me some extra traction, but I’m still holding out hope that the ice and snow section will be over with very soon so I make the mistake of keeping them stowed away.
There are rocks and stumps sticking out of the ice that I can hop between on my way up this last stretch to the peak, the steepest section of the trip. I hop from one rock to another. The next hop is a far reach onto a 15-foot log. I leap as far as I can up the slope, landing both feet securely on the log. As soon as I do, the log tells me, “ha ha ha sucker, you thought I was stable but I most certainly am not!”. The entire log immediately careens down the icy flume of trail as smoothly as a fairground ride on a carefully engineered track, with me as its passenger.
With no time for anything but to rely on instinctive reflex, my feet plant firmly on the moving log, aim for a passing circle of rock surrounded by ice, and leap. It’s my lucky day. Both feet land safely balanced on the 6-inch round bit of rock. I am surging with terrified adrenaline as I watch the log make it’s way swiftly down the side of the mountain. The odds seem pretty slim that a log that size could possibly stay pointed straight down the hill, but I’m watching it happen, dumbstruck.
I find my way to the nearest safe zone, and pull my microspikes out of my pack and put them on. It was obviously microspike time as of about 60 seconds ago. Better late than never.
Moments later I am at the top of Blackhead Peak and coming down the other side. Once the elevation drops a bit, I see the last of the trail snow I will see for the rest of the trip and put the microspikes away. Meanwhile, as I approach the third and final major climb up to Stoppel Point, I am completely exhausted. I have nothing left in the tank and I am a long way from being done. I stop and grab a hummus and rice pita from my small pack and walk as I eat. When I am done eating, I continue to walk. And walk. At this point I would love to stop, but know that the best thing is to keep going and going until the trip is completed. I find myself drained of whatever magical force keeps me going through these things. Probably endorphins which act as the body’s pain management system. Without this magic I can acutely feel pains in surprising places. For example the bottoms of my feet feel every bump on the trail through my running shoes as if I were running barefoot.
I make my way down the 4.5-mile final descent. During the last 2 miles I meet many passers-by as I go. I enjoy the conversations but I don’t feel like I quite belong so would be happy to slip through unnoticed like I have for the previous 16 miles. “Are you a trail runner?”. “Did you go all they way to Stoppel Point?” Hikers understandably assume I started where they did and went up and down the local peak. I don’t honestly know where I am or where I’ve been, not by name anyway, and to describe my entire circuit including the bike ride is a bit too much information for trailside chatter. Another couple sees me staring, confused, at a broken pile of signage, now pointing every which way. They ask, “which way did you come from?”, assuming that I’m doing an out-and-back. I say, pointing from whence I came, “from the start of the Escarpment trail”. The man gives me an odd look as his companion giggles nervously. I see blue markers on the trail which I have been following the whole time and tell them I will head that way.
The last few miles are amazingly beautiful with intense terrain and running alongside sheer cliffs. I reach North-South Lake, and find my bike. I stop and eat a little, not sure if I will have the strength to ride 17 more miles. I hop on the bike. The first 3 miles are straight downhill which leaves me shivering and concerned that “what comes down must go up”. Given a few minutes to store up energy, my legs have enough power to pedal up a short hill. Fortunately it is just enough energy to make it up each of the small hills along the way. I stop often to stare mindlessly at my map with people driving slowly by asking, “are you lost?”. Each mile is a cheer-worthy victory, and after 1.5 hours I reach the car, but I am not done yet. Driving home is easy, but I still need to summon the energy to walk into the house, take a shower, go to sushi, and chew and swallow many pieces of food. At this point, this is no simple task. With my last bite of food I heave a great sigh of relief. I can finally lie down and pass out, an urge I have been battling with for the last 6 hours.