The Escarpment Trail Run

"The Boston Marathon of trail races" finishes at North Lake

by Amby Burfoot

Amby Burfoot is the executive editor of Runner's World Magazine, and 1968 winner of the Boston Marathon.

The literate runner, even the veteran of many years experience, does not enter the Escarpment Trail Run without pause. And perhaps fear. Race founder/director Dick Vincent takes care of that.

Most entry blanks read like pamphlets from the Chamber of Commerce. The race director sees you as a potential customer, and needs your dollars to cover expenses and stroke his ego. That's why all courses are "scenic and fast," and torturous hills are inevitably described as "gently rolling." Most race directors are part P.T. Barnum and fulltime practitioners of poetic license.

Not Vincent. His ETR entry blank sounds more like Stephen King. "There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist, and the extremely steep downhills add a high degree of unwelcome danger," he writes. "The following medical complications have and could occur: broken bones, ligament-cartilage-tendon sprains and tears, dislocations, cuts and bruises (requiring stitches), hypothermia, hyperthermia, multiple bee stings, poison ivy, concussions, dehydration, and occasional divorce. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you're not careful, you could fall to your death."

Despite such warnings, and a course to back them up, the ETR ranks among the best-known and most popular trail races in the U.S. The 29th annual running took place on Sunday, July 31, starting in Windham, and ending 18.5 miles later at North Lake. The race attracted nearly 200 adventurous runners, including Vincent himself. The Palenville resident has run the ETR every year.

For me, it was my introductory Escarpment Run. I found myself hooked by the ETR's combination of fame and infamy. It is widely known as "the Boston Marathon of the trail runs," due to its long history and word-of-mouth notoriety.

From the start, it was clear that this race would be a big pain in the neck. Since every inch of the trail is rocky, root-y, or both, the runner must crane his neck and eyes downward for 3, 4, 5 or more hours. I finished with sorely distressed legs but a much worse knot in my neck. Several other runners mentioned the lovely Catskills views they enjoyed en route, but I never saw any. I was too scared to look up.

We hit 5 peaks in all, with Blackhead being the toughest by far. I was prepared, from Vincent's entry blank, for several moments of hand-over-hand clambering. But it had never occurred to me that this could go on for 15 sweaty, gasping minutes.

Or that the downhills would be even worse. About halfway through the race, Vincent scampered past on a steep down slope. "I think I'm about half human and half mountain goat," he explained later. Me? I guess I must be all elephant. At least that's the way I felt on the downhills-slow, heavy, awkward, and lumbering.

I couldn't help but wonder how the first Escarpment runners must have felt, not knowing what to expect, or what lay around the next bend. The first year, not even Vincent knew. "I started the race because I was drawn to the mystical, adventurous remoteness of the trail," he says. "There are places, just a hundred feet off the trail, that no one has ever stood on, even today. And it may be that no one ever will. But truth be told, before the first year, I had never run the entire trail."

The best part of the race was the volunteers and the other runners. I don't know how the volunteers reached the several points where they handed out water, bananas, fig newtons and oreo cookies. But they hiked up to the Escarpment somehow, and they were the loudest, biggest-smiling, most helpful volunteers I have ever encountered in a race.

My fellow runners were likewise the friendliest, most humble, and funniest I have met. I think the mellowness of the trails brings that out, plus the futility of taking oneself seriously on the overpowering ETR course. When I heard runners catching me on the downhills, I would move aside for them. "Thanks. Really appreciate that," they'd say.

"Good luck. You're looking strong."

"Not for long. You'll probably catch me on the next uphill."

At one point, I heard a runner behind me, and asked if he wanted to pass. "No, I don't think I'll be doing much passing," he said. "In fact, I'm expecting the trees to start passing me soon."

An hour or two later, I knew exactly how he felt. Even though the last several miles of the course are mostly downhill or flat, I could no longer run. My legs were too tired to lift. If I had made an attempt at striding out, I would surely have tripped on something, and fallen hard. As it was, I fell once, though I was lucky enough to land on a small patch of grass and moss.

When I entered the ETR in June, I had thought I might finish in 4 hours. Then I learned more about the course, and amended my goal to 4:30. Then I learned still more, and readjusted to 5 hours. But 5 hours came and went, and I was still stumbling along without any sight of North Lake.

Finally I spotted my wife on the course with the video camera she had brought (I'm going to have to destroy that film!). This was a good sign that I was getting very close to the finish. "Was the whole course this rocky?" she asked in disbelief as I zigzagged past her.

"Much worse," I replied. And I was telling the truth.

Moments later I ran out of the trees and across the finish line at a North Lake picnic area. My time was 5 hours and 22 minutes, and I had placed 133rd out of 167 finishers. Not a sterling performance by any means. In fact, it was the lowest I have ever finished, percentage-wise, in a race.

But that didn't bother me for long. There was a bench to sit on, watermelon and cookies to be consumed, and other late finishers to cheer for. Besides, in finishing the ETR, I had joined the select few, and this was a club I was proud to belong to. A few days later, after the soreness had mostly seeped out of my legs and neck, I was even thinking of coming back again next year.

--Amby Burfoot

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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