Tour d'Escarpment 2004
By Ben Nephew
I have been running the Escarpment since 2000, and after surviving my first year on the course, I've been trying to break Matt Cull's course record of 2:45:46, set in 1995. In 2001 I was reasonably close, finishing in 2:48:00, but I wasn't able to run under 2:50 in 2002 or 2003. Last year, I emailed the race director, Dick Vincent, and asked for all of Matt's splits from his record run. I kept close to his splits for over half the race, but faded badly in the last few miles to finish in 2:52:39.
In addition to yet another attempt on the course record, I was also trying to break the record for the most consecutive wins. This record is owned by Rich Fargo, who won the race four times from 1988-1991, in addition to his four other wins over a span of 12 years! While we were boarding the bus to take us to the start, I was somewhat surprised to see Mike Slinsky. Mike is a national caliber road racer and marathoner, and I believe he qualified for the 1996 and 2000 Olympic marathon trials. Just a week prior to this year's race, he beat me by over a minute at the Stowe 8 miler. While this was a road race, he has also beaten me at Pfaltz Point 10 mile trail race, and I was impressed by his trail running on the few technical spots early on in the race. Although I knew Escarpment is a much more technical trail, Mike certainly had the physiology to make me worry. As I am a big fan of Lance Armstrong, who always finishes his three-week rides in France while we are running the Escarpment Trail, I will describe my run this year in stages.
Stage 1: Windham Peak
It is always interesting to see how the race starts. Sometimes everyone just lets me go, and other years people hang with me or pass me while ascending Windham. This year, everyone dropped back with the notable exception of Mr. Slinsky. He had said that fellow runners had advised him to take the first hour of the race easy, and then see how he felt. By fifteen minutes into the race, he was right on my shoulder. I asked him if he wanted the lead, and he said, "Not yet." That's pretty much the reply I had expected, and since I usually try to run the race steady from start to finish, I was worried what would happen after an hour. To my surprise, it soon became quiet behind me as we came to a more rugged section of trail. I was alone as we got to the 3500' summit at about 31:45 and was confident that I would put a good deal of distance between us on the descent. There are others who can run downhill more swiftly, but I do alright.
Stage 2: Burnt Knob and Acra Point
It was tough to negotiate the downhill off Windham, as some of the trail was overgrown. I wanted to take advantage off my downhill ability, but I didn't want to take a hard fall. I went down hard on this section last year, and it took me a while to shake it off. Although the area had received a lot of rain in the week prior to the race, the trail was pretty dry. I tried to listen for Mike or perhaps one of the better downhill runners in the race, such as Peter Keeney, but all was quiet. I began to relax and enjoy the trail. It was great day for running, low 60's and very dry, and I just focused on being as efficient as possible and staying upright. Those who run hard prior to Blackhead will pay for it.
Stage 3: Alpe De Blackhead
I knew Mike would be tough on uphills where it is more brute strength than trail running ability, so I thought he might catch me on this climb. It's really more of hike for much of it. Someone that finished several minutes behind me one year told me he ran all the way up of Blackhead. I laughed inside and smiled at him. This year, all the hill training for the New England Mountain series and Mt. Washington paid off. I was able to recover from the ultra steep sections quicker and run on the moderately steep sections. I got to the top at about 1:29. Although I didn't remember the splits needed to run the course record, this time seemed fast for some reason. My legs still felt good at the top, so I was pleased whether it was a good time or not. In prior years, the last big climb after Blackhead had killed me, and I was hoping to address that this year.
Stage 4: Down to Dutcher's Notch
The only way I can describe the descent from Blackhead is to try to illustrate a small section of the trail. You are running down a 20% grade on a tight singletrack to a hard right turn on wet, loose stone and dirt. You cannot see around this turn at all due to the dense pines. You have a lot of momentum, probably too much. When you get to the turn, you see a 6-8 ft ledge with a 30% slope covered with more wet, loose stone and dirt at the bottom. You say a prayer (or an expletive), grab at a stunted pine tree, throw your feet at something and hope your shoes find some sort of traction. Breathe, and repeat several dozen more times until you get to Dutcher's Notch. The worst section of trail goes straight down a wet, talus-covered slope without any trees to slow you down or save you if you lose your balance. The downhill is so unrelenting that you are actually breathing hard due to the beating your quads take.
This year I switched back to trail shoes after running in Nike Skylons the past two years. I liked the Skylons, but I was more confident with a heavily studded outer sole this year. The only fall I took was a headfirst dive onto a soft bed of pine needles.
Stage 6: Alpe de Stoppel Point.
While Stoppel is not the steepest or tallest climb on the course, it is the most difficult for many due to its location. I hit the start of the uphill at about 1:50. The climb is composed of three sections. I felt strong on the first two sections, but struggled on the last and steepest section. I thought I heard cheering for the second place runner about 2:00 minutes behind me at Dutcher's Notch. I figured it was Mike, and I tried to get to the final downhill section as soon as possible. I was very happy to see the plane wreckage near the top of Stoppel point. As I passed through the aid station to yet another loud cheer from all the workers, my watch read 2:13. I wasn't sure, but this seemed like a good time. All I could due now was put the hammer down all the way to finish and make it as difficult as possible for anyone to catch me.
Stage 7: Final descent
This is the section where I faded last year. I was concerned that the same thing would happen this year, as I had not gotten in many long runs prior to the race. My legs were still in good shape coming down off Stoppel, so I began to think I might I might have a good time going. I flew into North Point, threw some water on my head, and hopped down a 6' rock ledge. Unfortunately, my wedding band came off my sweaty finger, and I had to stop to retrieve it. The closer I got to finish, the more I realized I was having a good day. There would be no fading. Although I felt relatively strong, the last two miles are quite challenging, with several 20-40' ledges that you have to descend in repeated 3-5 foot drops. After running for over 2:20, my legs almost buckled a few times. These last miles are also the most difficult to navigate, and I overshot more turns than I usually do. This was extremely aggravating. Someone told me I had a good time going with 2:30 on my watch, and I thought to myself that only people who know the race say things like that. I guessed I would be close to the course record, and knew I would regret it if I just missed it. At 2:42 I thought I would just miss it, and I swore loudly as I passed some rangers. I couldn't go any faster. At 2:44 I realized I was about 400 meters from the finish and that the record was mine. I was incredibly excited and started to yell as I sprinted out of the woods. I stopped my watch at 2:45:20 and immediately tried to get confirmation that I had actually broken the course record. I was pretty sure I had it, but I needed to hear it from someone else. After a while, someone finally found the printed course record of 2:45:46 on the application, and I was relieved. To my surprise, I ended up winning by about 10 minutes. I immediately called my wife, Steph, to give her the good news. She was responsible for my introduction to the Escarpment trail, and she was very excited for me.
Not many runners even know about the Escarpment. It isn't any sort of championship, and they don't give any awards. In spite of this, people come back year after year to run this race. For me, it is by far my favorite trail and favorite race. I am the kind of runner who values fast times more than wins, and I told Dick Vincent that I'd rather have one win and the course record than five consecutive wins. There is a winner every year, but course records at Escarpment are much harder to obtain. Not only do you need to be fit enough to go for it, the trail needs to be in a condition where it will allow you to run a record time. Since 1982, the course record has been broken only three times prior to this year. Coincidentally, Rich Fargo set his only course record during his fifth win. As I soaked my aching legs in North Lake at the finish, I felt completely satisfied. I would have to call it the happiest day of my running life. Just before we started the race I was debating how Mike Slinsky would do on the trail with Peter Keeney, and he advised me to just have a good time. That I did, I had a great time; I had the best time ever!
Entry in the Escarpment Trail Run, held every July near Palenville, New York, requires certain qualifications. To learn more, visit the Escarpment Trail Run home page.
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