The Escarpment Trail, the Ultimate Test
By Paul Fetscher
Originally printed in Today's Jogger Magazine, Summer 1977. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Paul Fetscher is a veteran of over 250 marathons and ultras. He is the founder of the Earth Day Marathon and was the 1977 winner (2:21:49). He was the 1978 US National Champion for 50 kilometers (31.1 miles) and has a 50k personal best of 3:01:02. This article was written after the first running of the Escarpment Trail in 1977. Paul is still running today and works and lives on Long Island. He has been deemed a "Cool Guy" by the Spirits of the Catskill Mountains.
Twenty-two hearty souls toed the line off route 23 in Windham, New York, for what was billed as an 18.5 mile trail run through the Catskill Mountains. Six and a half hours later the last of the hearty souls stumbled home just as bruised and battered as everyone else. It was time for True Confessions and it was admitted that only three of the adventurers actually had prior knowledge of what they would be in for.... the other nineteen were there out of sheer ignorance.
The race director had given fair warning of what was in store, but who believed him when he said, "This is the most rugged, challenging race in the Northeast. 18.5 miles of trails, over 5 mountain peaks, through the forests of the Catskill State park, in New York State. The race starts on Route 23, just east of Windham in the parking lot for the Escarpment Trail, and goes south over trails ending at North Lake Campsite in Haines Falls. Trail footing is outrageous at times and runners must expect to do some climbing at times. The trial is state maintained and well marked with trail markers (blue markers) along the entire route. Water is hard to come by on the trail and although we will have some hikers on the trail with water, it may be a good idea to rig up some canteen or water bottle that you may carry with you.
"This race is not for everyone. It is a very difficult course and is not recommended for runners trying a distance of 18 miles for the first time. It is a most rewarding run as the scenery is magnificent with ledges 1000 feet high overlooking the Hudson Valley, the Catskill Mountains, the Berkshire Mountains, and the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. There is no danger of falling off cliffs as trails are not on the edge of the ledges. The race is a great run and although very tiring, it should be considered in difficulty no more than a marathon effort. Your pace will be slow so the most tiring part will be staying on your feet for 4 hours or so......
"Remember, many people are just going to run it and not worry about racing it. The run is truly an experience you will not soon forget. Come along and earn your Rocky Mountain Goat Status."
After hearing the warnings of how tough it was, I was sure he wasn't talking to me. All the talk about the outrageous footing and the climbing in spots was probably just put in there to keep out the Sunday morning fun runners.... the kind of guy who has been hitting a few summer road races and had delusions of one day running the Boston Marathon. After all, the described terrain certainly would not permit the omnipresent pick up bus to perform the mop-up operation of offering stragglers a lift to the finish line. So, if anyone were to start, they'd better be able to finish.
All warnings were for the mediocre runner; I was quite sure he wasn't talking to me. I've been on some tough runs before. I've spent hours taking leisurely runs through the trails of the back hills in New York City's Van Cortland Park. These hills are tough enough that they've been used quite a number of times for National Championships in Cross Country.
I was ready for the trails!
I have run through the Arizona Desert for 8 miles then gone 2 more miles straight up the face of a mountain which was covered with nothing more than exfoliated rock. After running 10 miles back, the finishing temperature was over 100 degrees.
I was ready for the trails!
I have run 12 miles through the Nevada Desert in 110 degree heat, just following the undulating contour of the terrain and being careful to stay away from the shady rocks where the rattle snakes like to while away their days.
I was ready for the trails!
I have run 30 miles through lonely mountain roads of the stately Berkshires of Massachusetts.
I was ready for the trails!
During the recent East Coast heat wave, one week's training included 90 miles run at 90 degrees or hotter.
I was ready for the trails! I was ready for the heat! I was ready to race!..... Or so I thought.
Dick Vincent, a slender, good looking, well tanned figure, was the diabolical motivating force behind what was out to happen. As race director, he was to thank or to blame for the entire event. Looking at the healthy 25 year old who has been racing for five years, you'd never guess that he was once a three pack a day cigarette smoker. As a local real estate broker, he knew this area as well as anyone and the Catskills had always held a certain fascination.
The directions he gave were simple. Nailed to the tree was a 3" metal disc, looking like the top of a Campbell's soup can, painted blue with the white letters TRAIL MARKER. "Just follow these and you'll wind up at North Lake." Restless with anticipation, the contestants crouched forward and at the shouted "GO", were off and running through one foot high grass and into the trees 100 yards away.
Bob Enwright, a junior college student from Rockland County, a bedroom suburb of New York City, shot to the lead. I followed in seconds as Bob scrambled away. His blue shirt and Howdy Doody red hair both flopped in time with the canteen he had strapped over his shoulder. It was comfortable with a temperature in the high 70's. It was bound to drop as we got into the mountains so the initial thought was that lugging the canteen was just dead weight on a day we probably wouldn't need to drink anyway.
After only a minute or two of running in the tall grass, rocks peppered our way. The footing suddenly required concentration. Each and every step required conscious thought as to where you would place your feet. The first hill wasn't much problem. It was more or less typical of what we expected. It was a rise of about 20 feet. Pump those arms, lift those knees, and up to the next level. another fifty yards and another hill. Steeper. Longer. Rockier than the first. This was getting to be an effort already. A quick glance at my watch showed we had been running for only five minutes. Since I've run 18 miles in less that an hour and 45 minutes, the additional time required, considering this terrain, shouldn't put us over three hours for the total distance. That would be a pace of 10 minutes a mile. That shouldn't be any problem at all. Why spend it all in the first few minutes and suffer for the next 2 1/2 hours? Walking a couple of steps now would be sure to pay off later. After all, it's not where you are at the one-mile mark that counts, it's where you are at the finish. I gladly relinquished second place and slid back to fifth.
OUCH! More rocks. Sharp, angular, unforgiving ones.
"Hey Dick! Is this footing typical?" I shouted, figuring he wouldn't be too far behind but not having the courage to take my eyes off the ground to look to make sure.
"No. It gets worse as we start climbing Blackhead Mountain."
"Come on, Dick, get serious. How far is the footing this rocky?"
"Oh, only about 18 more miles." Maybe he was serious.
The first trail intersection, we made our right turn and started to tear down the hill. The trail widened to about five feet and was hard packed soil with few rocks. It was a strong slope but could be run comfortably. We went cruising off at somewhere less than 5 1/2 minutes per mile. The footing was good and the running was fast. Compared to the portion we had run this was too good to be true. It was!
Someone yelled something but it wasn't clear. Bill Lawder, a capable marathoner from Titusville, New Jersey, stopped and waited for me and asked if I had yelled, "Wrong trail!" Assuring him that I hadn't, we continued downhill confident in the knowledge that what we hadn't heard couldn't hurt us. Somehow, the presence of mind struck me to check a trail marker. YELLOW!
Resigning ourselves to the fact that this fast half mile now had to be paid for in spades, off we went uphill. Dick Vincent was already on his way downhill to retrieve the five dumb leaders by the time we had figured it out.
Back on the right trail, it wasn't too hard to pick up a runner ahead. Wondering just how much we had lost I asked, "How many ahead of us?"
Well, since there were fewer people than that after we had accounted for the lost leaders, we did reckon that we had quite a bit of catching up to do, but confident in the fact that we had an awful lot of ground to do it in.
This trail went only one way..... UP. Your hands started helping wherever they could. Trees were the friends to help us up the slopes that were an awful lot more walking than running. The places were coming back as we scrambled for the lost lead.
The first mountain was Windham High Peak with her summit at 3524', a climb of over 2000 feet from the starting point. That was but the first of five distinct mountains. Once over Elm Ridge you could actually do some running. As the competitive juices flowed, we had to run. The lead pack which had inverted itself had now closed up and the five of us pitter-pattered from rock to rock in the hopes of holding off the runner behind him who had gone out a bit faster and was now attempting to reclaim a lower place. With an hour behind us, and with our hands dirty from grasping tree trunks, we snaked our way along the trail.
In normal long distance racing, a good tactic was to maintain "contact" by staying as close as possible to the man in front of you. In these mountains, a 10 yard spread was more appropriate to see where the man in front of you placed his feet. A football player who trains his reactions for foot placement runs tippy toed toe through an array of auto tires. At least he has an idea of where the next tire is for more than half a second before he gets to it. We wished we had the same advantage.
Burnt Knob, the second peak, showed us even more uphill. Our thighs begged for downhill. We spent a lot of time climbing. Isaac Newton figured out a long time ago that what goes up must come down. An important corollary to that law is that what runs uphill will also be afforded the opportunity of running downhill. On the other side of Burnt Knob, there it was, the downhill.
All at once!!!!
Peripheral vision was a big help here. While you were looking for someplace to put your feet, you also had to figure out which tree you could grab next. The slopes were so steep, it was necessary to traverse them the way a beginning skier "attacks" his first hill. There's no snow to fall in and no thermal underwear for padding. It'd only be flesh and bone against rock, bramble, and trees.
Dick Vincent went bounding by. Clearly the advantage was to the man with experience in the mountains. That desire for speed in descent just had to be tempered with your desire to have all available parts of your body arrive at the bottom at the same time and preferably, still connected together.
Roots, not the kind made famous by Alex Haley, but rather the kind buried in four inches of pine needles, gave us something else to play with. So far at least we had been able to see which rocks we chose to pummel ourselves with. Now we had no idea which ground cover would support us and which would not. It is at least some consolation to discover that falling into pine needles really wasn't all that bad.
A runner from Long Island had called during the previous week to find out just how bad the footing was. When he heard that in some places it could be as bad as taking 15 minutes to cover a mile he decided to stay home.
Acra Point, with its 3100' summit followed immediately by a notch dropping several hundred feet, put you in position to start up Blackhead Mountain, just shy of 4,000 feet. Foot placement became non-existent. This was a flat-out hand over hand climb. Fifteen minutes a mile? No way! I was scrambling, going for time, grabbing, grasping, and I was lucky if I was moving at one foot per second.
There I was with one hand on a tree, one hand on a rock ledge, one foot in a rock crack, and the other foot dangling freely since the last rock I had chose hadn't chosen to hold me, when it hit me. There I was, like a Werner Erhard pupil taking the EST training when it all coalesces and I want to shout out,
"I've got it!"
This isn't a race. More than any other athletic contest I've ever been in, this is an event, an experience, a joy to behold. No, it isn't a contest....... anymore. Not in the sense of participant vs. participant. And suddenly time doesn't matter. Not in the sense that every last second counts. No, this is the joy of just being here. NOW!
Suddenly, primal man emerges. It is man versus mountain in this lovely setting. Not for a minute would I dare compare myself to a highly skilled and trained mountain climber with all his tools and tricks. No, this is just me in a pair of nylon shoes, nylon shirts and shorts, in nature's finest.
Somehow, the timelessness strikes, the age of these mountains. How thousands of years of weathering have yielded a smooth, gentle roll to this land. Sunlight barely penetrates the trees and strikes taffeta patterns on the rocks and leaves below. The urgency of our Type A behavior sluffs away as time barely seems to matter. Yes, I want to feel agile. Yes, I want to scramble and scamper. Each uphill, relentless uphill, yields but another slope, and other section of trail. A natural high. An enjoyment. A physical, emotional, psychological and topographical high. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" has nothing to do with smoking part of the front lawn. It is a feeling of togetherness, man with the mountain, a feeling, a realization, an actualization of man as a healthy animal.
Barry Hopkins took a break and sat on a flat rock looking down at me and called out,
"Hi Paul, Enjoying it?"
Barry's strong eyes and full beard put him right at home in this setting as well he should be. He's an instructor in wilderness courses and will take his students into the mountains for a week at a stretch. He is also an artist. He'll grab a pad and go hiking for a few days and return with a trove of treasures. His older brothers were high school runners and started him early. At the age of 31, he is proud possessor of 20 years of running memories. The joy he has found running he has shared with others by developing the Onteora Road Runners Club with over 200 members. Barry would be an excellent guide for the remainder of the trek. Able to tell of what was coming up next was sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative.
"Once we get to this peak, there are tall brambles."
Trail, this wasn't a path, a walkway or anything more than a dent in the underbrush.... a hint of a trail. There was no way any vehicle could navigate this terrain. You can have your motorcycles, trail bikes, and all terrain vehicles. Leave them in the parking lot because the only means of navigation here was by foot..... two or four.
A crack between two rocks held a torn off sneaker. You were tempted to turn it around and look just to make sure there wasn't a foot torn off with it.
Every uphill, every downhill, you learned a little more technique and finesse. Rocks, roots, cracks, and crevasses. If James Earl Ray knew what I'm learning now, he'd be a free man today.
Are the rocks and roots getting higher or are my legs just getting heavier? Down again and roll down a slope. Giggle with the joy of a small child who has rolled down a hill and rises unhurt to run again.
Jon Powell has been dubbed "Mountain Man". He spends as much time hiking through these mountains as anyone. A powerfully built 23-year-old, hoping for a full beard to take form. He is hiking up from the spur to the spring as Barry and I are heading down.
"How's the water?"
"Good luck! If we catch you, we catch you."
Looking for the spring, I envisioned what you see on Perrier commercials. I have seen mountain streams flowing before. I know what to look for, or so I thought as I walked right past it. Springs are supposed to run, not drip. Aren't they? A trickle filled a pool nine inches in diameter. With a series of contortions usually reserved for kissing the Blarney Stone, it was down on all fours, submerging your lips and drinking Mother Earth's quenching fluid. Cold - Pure - Delicious!
A mile further on and suddenly the country opened up to us. A ten-yard clearing where you could see forever. The Hudson River appeared as but a stream from this lofty perch, struck back by beauty. Barry came by.
"Come-on, the views are better later."
The next thing we saw was Jon taking a break on a steep uphill. He joined us as did Mike Kelly, a 26-year-old sporting goods dealer, and Bubby Kittle, a tall, slender 23-year-old experienced road runner who we came upon while he was sitting on a rock and soaking up the panorama.
The descent was a joy in sharing among the five of us, wise-cracks and observations regarding the run. Although the race is scheduled to be an annual event, we all tended to think of it as a "once in a lifetime" experience. Having water on the trail would have helped. We all volunteered to be out on the course next year, handing out water--anything but attack this as a race.
Another vista presented itself. There was the Hudson River Valley in H-O Scale. And in view for the first time, was our destination -- North Lake. Like Jack descending the beanstalk, down and down we go over giant fashioned steps. Put your hands on the ledge, jump down four feet to continue on the trail. Run twenty yards and do it again, and again.
There were signs of civilization....litter. For the first time the end was within our grasp. Some weekend walkers stood aghast as five sweaty, dirty, lean and mean bodies slithered down the final yards. five, now close friends, held hands and crossed the line together, and in true zombie fashion, continued straight-away to the lake, slightly more than four and one-half hours after starting.
The earlier finishers were strewn around a clearing, guzzling beer and soda; cold beer, now as refreshing as the mountain spring was an hour and a half ago.
We waited for the others but without much apprehension. "Not to worry, Joe Keller's out there." Joe's over 60 and a retired New York City firefighter. He started his running career in 1939. In his earlier days he had climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro but felt that today was a harder effort. His well developed homing instinct brought him to nature's golden brew. What was the best beer he's ever had? It's a tossup between this one and one at 15,000 feet at Mt. Kilamanjaro. As he finished today, he brought the last three finishers with him. Six and a half hours after the start, everyone was together again, safe and sound and only slightly scraped.
The coals were fired and burgers and fresh country corn went to their final fate. We had learned. We had learned the mountains and we had learned a bit more about ourselves and we're that much richer for the experience.
Dick Vincent sat back against a tree and was surrounded by lengthening shadows. "You know, man, they shouldn't send people to shrinks. They should just have them run these mountains."
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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