Playing Plinko at Escarpment

By Steve Darrow, 2002

It is July 28, 2002, and it is a very special day. You see, July 28 is the last Sunday in July, and if you count yourself to be among the most certifiable, mud-loving, thrill-seeking stoneheads of the East, you know what this day means. You have probably been waiting for it for quite some time, perhaps even as long as a year (or more)! It is, after all, the day of the Escarpment Trail Run.

The Escarpment race is famous for its history, its beauty, and its difficulty. The Eastern Escarpment Trail, located in the heart of the Catskills, covers some 30 kilometers of rugged mountain terrain, challenging those who tread it with extremely uneven footing, abrupt elevation changes requiring presence of mind and the use of both hands and feet, and no road crossings for the entirety of its nearly 19-mile length. Top runners will average around nine minutes per mile; mid-pack finishers, around fifteen. In return for enduring this hardship, these bold souls are offered exceptional beauty, solitude, the sounds and smells of the forest, and several breathtaking views.

It is difficult to describe the culture of Escarpment. Escarpment is a truly regional race, regularly drawing competitors from throughout the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada even though no awards are given: just finishing is reward enough. Since the first Escarpment Trail Run in 1977, its magical allure has drawn those who have endured its challenges to return again and again, despite painful bee stings, spills, and even broken bones. It is the stuff of legends, and indeed, if you hang around this crowd long enough, you're bound to hear one or two.

Standing there in the gravel roadside pull-off this Sunday morning, I watch as the buses pull in, carrying their certifiable cargo to the starting line for their yearly field trip. Thirteen states and one Canadian province are represented today. We all gather around as attendance is called for safety reasons and recognition is given to those who, upon completing the race, will qualify for 100-mile (6 races), 200-mile (11 races), or 300-mile (17 races) race shirts. Then we clamor across the road to the trailhead, anxiously listen for the start signal, and grit our teeth in frustration as 200 runners try to sort themselves out onto a one-person-wide trail. We hit the first hill almost immediately.

Forty minutes later, I am still wondering where the top of the hill is. The crowd has thinned considerably, but I am thinking that I have expended about 9 miles of my precious energy reserve in the first 3 miles, or in other words, Way Too Much. How would I survive the full eighteen point six?

The course is not all like that of course: some parts are worse. There is, for example, the climb to the summit of Blackhead Mountain, where you have to be careful not to put your hand where the racer in front of you is stepping, and no matter what, don't look behind you (i.e., down)! Or the ensuing descent, so consistently steep that racers commonly collide with tree after tree on purpose to slow themselves down, like in some strange version of human Plinko. Sometimes you feel like it's a struggle just to make forward progress. Other times you feel like you are in that enlightened Zen stateat one with the forestuntil you trip and fall flat on your face.

If you want to know more, you'll have to ask me. Every racer inevitably finishes with a story, most too long to be told properly in such a short space. But even if it could be, words simply cannot do this race justice: Escarpment must be experienced to be understood.

Escarpment is not for everyone. But if you find yourself constantly seeking more challenging runs, if you often run alone on rugged, backcountry terrain that stretches the definition of a trail, if you question your sanity, or if reading this has stirred something within you (besides bewilderment), perhaps it is time for you to join the fellowship of the Escarpment Trail Run. See you there?

-- This article was originally published by the Finger Lakes Runners Club.

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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