Rocks and Rolls

By Stefani Jackenthal, 2003

An intrepid triathlete wages an uphill battle with the rugged terrain of the Catskills.

AT PRECISELY 9 a.m., someone yelled, "Go!". Like elephants charging a peanut factory, 182 pairs of feet funneled across the narrow wooden bridge and scattered up the first of many steep ascents. Civilization would not be seen for hours. It was just like every third Sunday in July for the last quarter of a century. This was the 26th annual 30K (18.6-mile) Escarpment Trail Run race. "No award. No fancy categories." In fact, the only thing race director Dick Vincent did give out (besides a terrific spread of bagels and fruit at the end) is the "broken bones" pin to the finisher with the best injury. Busted bones aren't necessary-bruises, scrapes, and gashes will do.

Billed as "for mountain goats only," the rocky, ankle-biting course in New York's Catskills has nearly 10,000 vertical feet of elevation change, slippery rocks, hidden roots, extremely steep downhills, and narrow cliffs. And racers can't get enough. Each year the coveted 200 slots sell out months in advance, with runners coming from as far away as Michigan, Iowa, and Canada. This year I was one of them.

Why would I want to do something so tormenting? I'd like to say that it's all my friend Eric's fault. He'd been fired up for the Run since last summer. And because his wife was now pregnant, I, by default, became his adventure partner. In May, we got so lost in an orienteering race that little kids and senior citizens were passing us. Two weeks later, in a three-person adventure race, I royally rolled my ankle and looked for the next three weeks as if I was wearing a violet sock. As I signed the Escarpment race application, which clearly stated, "You are responsible for your own medical costs, including the cost incurred if an evacuation is necessary," I was filled with both dread and excitement.

When Sunday arrived, Eric picked me up in front of my Manhattan apartment at the ungodly hour of 4:45 a.m. Three hours later, with the mercury already pushing 90 degrees and the humidity hovering at 100 percent, we loaded onto the yellow school bus that took us to the starting line in the town of Windham. For the next 45 minutes, I nervously nibbled a Power Bar while seasoned veterans lent advice and spun tales about past races. "Did you hear about the swarm of bees in 1987?" "Don't leave it all on the first hill." "Just remember at the top of Blackhead, you're only halfway there." Unlike other races, there is no sag wagon or bailout point. Once you start, the only way to reach the finish is by foot-or rescue chopper.

As I stood fidgeting anxiously with my Camelbak hydration system at the start line, amongst the crowd of sinewy runners, Eric shook his head, saying, "What did we get ourselves into?" Exactly what I was thinking. We exchanged sympathetic, sweaty high-fives and were off. One hundred and eighty-two competitors squeezed through the tight bridge, no wider than a swimming-pool lane. Casual chatting evaporated, and heavy breathing filled the bloated mountain air as the rock-peppered trail turned upward.

I dodged and weaved through the school of struggling Lycra-clad racers. I lost Eric. The frantic pace settled into a tempo trot for some, a power walk for others. I silently repeated my mantra: "An object in motion stays in motion." My head hung heavy, while I constantly scanned for safe footing.

The pack broke up and six fit, lean guys tapped their way up the rock-strewn path. Among them was Peter Allen, a 42-yearold sculptor from New Jersey. Four years earlier the seasoned veteran placed second, finishing in a scorching 3:01. "This year was the first time I crashed hard," Allen told me a few days after the race. Midway on a steep descent he mistakenly put his foot down where there was nothing but three feet of air. After freefalling past several trees, he stopped abruptly by sliding headfirst into a rocky ledge, but not before slicing open his shin on a jutting rock. "I was going to just ignore the episode and remember to brag about it later," he explained. "But it required leaving immediately after the race for ten stitches." (He had finished in fifth place.)

While Allen aimed to crack three hours, I was keen to break four. Finishing sans serious injury was my primary goal. I tagged along with a group moving at a brisk but manageable pace. My arms pumped like pistons as we snaked up the sheer ridgeline. Sweat stung my eyes.

The path narrowed and we followed the blue trail markers to the top of the first arduous climb. The guys skipped across the slick rocks as I followed anxiously. My head swam from focusing on every step. I tentatively stepped over the slippery softball-sized rocks and prayed for flatness, every once in a while remembering to breathe. Just when I was getting into the groove, my toe caught a "hidden" root and I launched forward. My arms shot out and barely saved my face from smashing into a pointed shard of rock. I hit the ground hard. "You OK?" a bearded man casually asked as he scurried past me. I wearily nodded my head yes, snapped to my feet, and staggered after him. Once I stopped shaking, I took inventory of my injuries. A purple knob appeared on my left kneecap, my palms were scraped raw, and my nails looked as if I had been digging for night crawlers. To make matters worse, it started raining, making the footing slick.

We hit the first major downhill and that was when I said adieu to my new best friends. As a competitive triathlete, I had the fitness to hang with the boys on the 40-minute ascent, but like Spiderman, they plummeted down gnarly, narrow, clifflined trails and launched off lofty ledges. My Spidey senses warned me to obey my inner weeniness. I sucked up my ego and cherry-picked through the reckless rock garden, flopping onto my bum at sketchy points and scootching over rock ledges.

I was alone for the first time that morning. An hour into the race, I finally noticed the lovely damp pine smell, melodic chirping birds, and rain tapping on the tree canopies overhead. Wet spruce branches tickled my bare arms with their rain-soaked pointy pods. It was magical.

But the moment was fleeting. I was soon numb to the spitting rain. The cool, wet boulders soothed my scraped hands as I clawed my way hand-over-fist up the muddy rock face. Progress was slow and scary. At the top, orange ribbon lined the route to a crew of cheering volunteers at the rest stop. They had schlepped hundreds of gallons of water, Gatorade, and goodies up the mountainside.

I sloshed down some water, munched a handful of mini-pretzels and the tastiest M&Ms ever, then started down the wicked steep descent that had claimed Peter Allen. Sitting back on my heels, I slalomed between trees to cut speed. I fluttered my arms and desperately grabbed twigs and boulders for balance, longing for the forgotten gloves I had left at home.

Some time later, without warning, the scree-strewn trail spilled onto a grassy field and I tumbled across the finish line. My watch beamed a teasing 4:00:10. I thought of five places I could have saved ten seconds, but it didn't matter-bruised, scraped, and exhausted, I was exhilarated. As Vincent said, "Sore ribs, skinned hands, and all that jazz is reason to rejoice."

I sipped an icy-cold Coke and eased slowly toward the mound of mouthwatering melon piled high next to the overflowing bowl of bagels and containers of cream cheese covering the folding table. My legs felt as wobbly as a sailor stepping on land after a month at sea. I dropped onto the grass with a relieved sigh and traded war stories with fellow racers, all the while watching for Eric. A half-hour later, looking as frazzled as I felt, he flopped across the finish line. We embraced in victory and relief. My stiff body ached all over, and I knew that the next day my insides would feel as shaken as a dry martini. But right then I felt as happily buzzed as if I had just finished one.

-- STEFANI JACKENTHAL resides in Manhattan. Her next challenge is an urban-adventure romp through New York City.

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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