“The Europeans call this ‘fell running.’ This is fell running at its best.”
Thus opens the application for the Escarpment Trail Run, a 30-kilometer jaunt through New York’s Catskill Mountains from Windham High Peak to North Lake. For several years, I’d had this on my to-do list. Something always came up: a family gathering; schoolwork; one year, I had the time but hadn’t met the qualifying standards. This year, everything came together and I got my wish.
After the opening paragraph, there are more than a few sober warnings about the course: It is “…a treacherous hiking trail…The trail is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term.” There are warnings about cliffs and steep downhills. Allegedly there’s a club for people who’ve broken bones while competing.
I’ve hiked more than a few miles in the Catskills and did a training run last year. There were several technical sections, but it seemed runnable.
As I rode on a school bus from North Lake to the start, I listened to some of the chitchat from other runners. One told me that I should expect my finishing time to be the same as it would be for a marathon. I listened to fit, serious runners telling one another that they were shooting for a 5-hour finish. Five hours for 30 k? The fellow sitting next to me filled me in on the terrain following the summit of Blackhead, then casually added, “I severed my ACL here last year.” That definitely got my attention.
After the severed ACL story and the roll call at the start (the better to keep track of those who might get lost), I was plenty psyched out. The start was inauspicious: 175 runners trying to insert themselves into a narrow trail in tall grass, not unlike getting on to a subway train at rush hour.
The first few hundred meters were more walking than running as the group sorted itself out and we got into the woods. After a mile on flat ground, the trail wended its way uphill, and I could move at my own pace.
After nearly an hour, I summited Windham High Peak glancing to the north to check the view. Descending from the summit ridge, I picked up another runner and was pleased to be able to stay with him going downhill. We reeled in two more runners. I pulled away, but was never more than 100 or so meters ahead of them until we reached the base of Blackhead.
Blackhead isn’t as long an ascent as Windham, but it was by far the steepest climb of the day. You could run or walk at a pace for 50 feet, and then you’d have to pull yourself hand over hand up a rock step. Run another 40 feet; repeat. I attacked the rock steps as hard as I could without doing something foolish. The summit was cool and breezy, socked in by low clouds. I gratefully took some water from one of the volunteers who had hauled it up on their backs, and continued. (As an aside, there were, I believe, 7 water stops. No roads cross the Escarpment Trail. Someone carried every gallon on his or her back for several miles. If you go, be sure to thank the volunteers; they work as hard as the racers.)
From Blackhead’s summit, the remainder of the route was uncharted territory for me. I pushed the pace downhill and on the flats to gain a cushion for the descent to the finish. Stoppel Point was the final major climb; never brutally steep, it just seemed to go on and on. The skeleton of a long-ago wrecked single-engine plane is the landmark just below the summit. “Ninety percent downhill!” said one of the volunteers, as I grabbed a drink.
From Stoppel Point, the last 4 miles trend downhill to North Lake. Here is where the trail lived up to its billing as an exaggeration of the term. It was more rock garden than trail.
More than once, I was simply rock hopping from one trail marker to the next. Steep downhill at the end of a trail race is my Waterloo; this one turned my legs into quivering Jello two miles from the finish.
The conclusion? I had one bruised shoulder, two falls and several near misses, and one cut.
(Several people had cuts that required stitches; there was one sprained ankle.) The scenery was definitely worth it. I’ll be back next year.
Thanks to volunteer Bob Ricketson for the photograph.