By Don Kardong
Article about the Escarpment Trail Run, reprinted by permission of Runner's World magazine. Published in August 1995. http://runnersworld.com
In the heart of the Catskill Mountains, where Rip Van Winkle slumbered for 20 years, runners now slip, stumble and swear through 18.6 miles of the Escarpment Trail Run. And then they sign up to do it again next year.
"He rubbed his eyes -- it was a bright sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was wheeling aloft, and breasting the pure mountain breeze." -- from Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving
In my case, it was more of a generally pleasant but fundamentally sticky morning. And those hopping birds and wheeling eagles? Can't say I remember seeing or hearing any.
Perhaps I was overly focused on the task before me (as it turned out, not a bad idea). Even before that task, though, I had an initial, critical goal for the morning: I had to wake up on time. There are a few things that your friends, self-anointed vultures of wit that they are, will never let you forget. And oversleeping in Rip Van Winkle's backyard is clearly one of them.
Bing, I was up. Now I just had those 18.6 miles of carnivorous pathway to manage in the Escarpment Trail Run, an annual race in New York's Catskill Mountains.
"Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country."
They are indeed lovely, these Catskills. For the first Dutch settlers, they must have seemed a kind of divine presence blessing the countryside, or at least an invitation to muse. Even before that, native residents treated the hills with reverence, telling tales of spirits who dwelt there and played tricks on the locals. The most enduring myth is of Manitou, a demon who would terrorize and eat Indian children. After eons of turning tail and running, one of the tribe finally stood his ground, engaged Manitou in battle and defeated the evil spirit in an act of geological consequence.
"When he fell to his death," the modern fabulist says, "he turned to stone and formed the mountain. Those of us who run the trail know that Manitou still rears his ugly head from time to time. And he will claim a couple of us -- not maybe in death, but in body parts -- today."
The fabulist is also the race director. He is Dick Vincent, a gregarious, gnarly 42-year-old who is welcoming a group of about 175 adventurers, including me, to the 18th Escarpment Trail Run.
Vincent originated this event nearly two decades ago, after developing a fascination with trail running. Returning to the area after college in the mid-1970s, he was introduced to the Catskill trails by his friend Barry Hopkins, path-running advocate who also educated Vincent on regional lore. The runs were frequent, and the rocks seemed manageable in small doses, so one summer Vincent turned organizer and began spreading the word about a first-ever race along the Escarpment Trail.
Word spread of the granite challenge, and within a few years, there were as many people begging to get into the race as the course -- and the rangers -- would allow. There's obviously something about adversity that plays music in the hearts of runners.
"We've had sprained ankles," says Vincent, "and sometimes you get a flesh wound that opens up and needs some stitches. We've had broken sternums, we've had broken arms, we've had busted-up knees. Manitou has a lot to do with that, but I would suggest that if any of you have a problem with it, now's a good time to bow out."
No one is likely to do so. They've already read the entry form with its description of boulders, downed trees, gullies, hidden roots, slippery rocks, bees, porcupines and black bears, and they signed up anyway. Many are repeat entrants who have tackled -- and been tackled by -- the 18-mile-long "wall of Manitou" in the past. For their own reasons, they consider the impending 3-, 4-, 5-, or 6-hour journey ahead of them to be a great way to spend a July day.
An escarpment, says the Random House Dictionary, is "a long, precipitous, cliff-like ridge of land, rock, or the like, commonly formed by faulting of the earth's crust."
The dictionary is silent on the question of escarpment vis-à-vis long-distance running.
"They were dressed in quaint outlandish fashion...."
In a road race, entrants wear breezy singlets and shorts. Shoes are light, and the heaviest piece of equipment is a digital watch.
For a 4-hour tromp through the wilderness, though, people come prepared. Those brave enough to battle Manitou are well-provisioned this morning with a variety of accoutrements, most of which, for some reason, begin with the letter B -- backpacks, bottles, bagels, bota bags, bananas, bee-sting medication. And bandages.
"Remember," Vincent warns the crowd, "if you get hurt out there, it could be 4 or 5 hours before we get you out."
Most important among safety considerations, though, is water. The day is not particularly hot or humid, but 10 short minutes of jogging still leaves a runner lathered in sweat. Even in the first Escarpment Trail run in 1977, a year of limited physiological sophistication among runners, the 22 entrants were advised to carry their own water to avoid the dangers of dehydration. The isolation of the course permits only a few points where fluids can be carried in, and even those tend to be sparsely supplied.
Last year, one of the aid-station crews got lost and failed to reach its position on the course, further complicating the supply of liquids. This year, Vincent has made a map showing the point on the trail where this crew is supposed to be, with an arrow and "YOU ARE HERE" clearly marked. He gives a map to each of the runners and asks them to hand it to the crew when they reach that station later in the day. It's a bit of good-natured needling of his volunteers, but it is also a reminder that this trek has its share of pitfalls. It is not unknown for the runners themselves to get lost in the rocky nooks, gullies and crannies of the Catskills.
Most of today's group, though, are veterans of this and other trail events, and they've learned to rely on their own resources. As Vincent sends them (and himself) from the trailhead up the first rise, water bottles, bagels and bandages bounce on hips, insurance against misadventures that might lie ahead.
"...he looked anxiously in the same direction, and perceived a strange figure slowly toiling up the rocks, and bending under the weight of something he carried on his back. He was surprised to see a human being in this lonely and unfrequented place...."
Considering how close the Catskills are to major population centers, visitors to the innards of the park are relatively rare. More than two hundred years after Rip Van Winkle wandered up this way and stumbled into a clan of bowlers, those few hikers we pass on the trail seem startled to encounter a party of runners.
"Yea, there goes the first woman!" shouts the leader of a pack of Girl Scouts headed our way. "All right! Go-o-o-o-o-o!" And they cheer wildly.
Even if they had deigned to bless the rest of us -- members of a contrary gender -- with similar yodels of encouragement, it's doubtful any of us would have had the inclination to lift our eyes from the path to acknowledge the support. This trail is proving to be every bit as tricky as I have been warned, but without any of the smooth sections I have been promised.
Cresting Windham Peak at 3.5 miles, I take a moment to reflect on the previous rock climb from the start at 1,760 feet to the current 3,534. Rocks, that's what shows up in the mind's eye. Slick, ankle-twisting rocks, lurking mid-trail the entire way.
The Catskills have been crumbling for ages, and this first section of trail plows right up the resulting detritus. There are enormous boulders to detour around and smaller, angular juttings of granite that test the nimble-footed. When there are no rocks, there are roots, and when no roots, mud. And when no rocks, roots or mud, then slick leaves and dangling nettles. I'm anxious for one of those clear sections of trail I've heard about.
"He, however, made shift to scramble up its sides, working his toilsome way through thickets of birch, sassafras, and witch-hazel, and sometimes tripped up or entangled by the wild grapevines that twisted their coil or tendrils from tree to tree, and spread a kind of net-work in his path."
I head into the first of several steep downhills. A muddy, gravelly sluice drops into a stand of twisted maples ahead. I plunge into it, bouncing from trunk to trunk on the descent like a pinball in action or, in RIP's honor, a kegler's ball hammering against ninepins. The trees may be here by random act of nature, but the effect is skid-saving and seems purposeful, I reach the bottom untumbled.
"I'm glad you didn't fall down that last section,"says the guy right behind me." I would have had to step all over you.""
I stop for a drink, letting him and the others on my heels go by.
I have noticed that some runners seem to have a knack for these obstacled downhills, a kind of hyper-developed eye-foot coordination. Dick Vincent tries to explain it to me later as a form of anticipation turned automatic.
"I think it's a vision thing," he says helpfully.
"Panting and fatigued, he threw himself, late in the afternoon, on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage, that crowned the brow of a precipice. From an opening between the trees he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland. He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course...."
"Save a little for Blackhead," shouts a ranger, referring to the peak a mile up the trail. It's straight up."
"That's encouraging," grouses a voice behind me.
The ranger isn't kidding. The road to Blackhead turns out to be the steepest section of the trail, a hand-to-branch-to-ledge climb in several places, and a grind throughout. I hear things shouted at the trees that could easily earn a teenager a ticket to the principal's office.
"Son of a birch!" "Sassafras!" Things like that but worse. Clearly, the arboreal splendor and soaring vistas of the Catskills lose their allure after a couple of hours of toil and three or four wrenches of the foot.
From shortly after the 3,940-foot apex, though, and at several subsequent outcroppings, I see views that remind me why we humans don't mind sweating to reach the top of things. The vistas are expansive and peaceful, inviting a couple of pumps of the wings for a takeoff. By this point, too, over halfway through the course, stopping for scenery has a dual purpose: to lift the spirit, yes, but also to rest the body. The steady combination of effort and concentration begs relief.
Fortunately there are sections of the trail after Blackhead that are relatively flat, clear and peaceful, inspiring a meandering daydream or two. These places, though, where the mind relaxes the vise of its concentration, turn out to be the most treacherous of the trek. Like many runners, I tend to stumble and twist an ankle on these allegedly clear sections of trail, when my guard is down.
New axiom: To admire beauty on the Escarpment Trail, stop first.
"On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs...."
What goes up must come down, a rule embodied in the carcass of a small plane resting where it crashed, just off the trail on Stoppel point. I think of air traffic controllers and the constant attention their job must demand. I feel kinship. After more than 3 hours of this, I'm yearning for a coffee break.
There is another peak and a final descent first, though, which turns out in many ways to b the trickiest segment of the day. There is not so much a trail now as an indication of direction, a general premise of path marked with blue plastic tape. It winds around boulders and cascades over rocky ledges requiring a rear-end scoot or two, and it seems a long, long final two miles, as we drop a thousand feet off the cold, dead body of Manitou to the finish.
As I burst from the woods into an open picnic area near North Lake and reach the finish line, I feel, more than anything, relief. I am alive and unbroken.
"He even ventured, when no eye was fixed upon him, to taste the beverage, which he found had much of the flavour of excellent Hollands. He was naturally a thirsty soul, and was soon tempted to repeat the draught. One taste provoked another; and he reiterated his visits to the flagon...."
Not everyone who finishes this race visits the flagon. Some are tending to injuries, others are just resting. But more than a few feel the urge, knowing they've earned their ale.
The list of who's earned it must surely start with the top three finishers -- Rich Fargo, Gary Burdick and Peter Anderson -- who have raced over rock and ruin, up ledge and over embankment, across rooted pathway and down gravel mud-skid, only to have to duke it out over the final, precipitous boulder field. After nearly 3 hours, they finish within 23 seconds of each other, with Fargo outmaneuvering the others for his sixth Escarpment victory. It pays to know the way in these mountains.
Dick Vincent is beaming after his 18th straight survival run. He is also handing out buttons that read: "I was wounded on the Escarpment Trail." To whose who, marked mostly with minor bruises and scrapes, ask if they've earned one of these badges of courage, Vincent says simply, "If you'd feel good wearing it around, then you can have one." I notice no takers.
In the end, then, this has been a pretty safe morning for us rock hounds. But there have been times in the past when the wisdom of escarpment running wavered under scrutiny. Vincent, for example, remembers one year when a runner tore the ligaments of his knee so badly he had to hobble the final miles of the course on a makeshift crutch. Reaching the finish line the man immediately scuttled over to Vincent, who braced himself for a major upbraiding. Instead, the crippled athlete thrust out his hand in gratitude.
"Thank's so much for organizing this race," he gushed, pumping Vincent's hand.
That's just the kind of attitude you'd expect of a trail warrior on the path of Manitou. And, oh, yes -- two years and 18 months of rehabilitation later, he was back for another go.
"As he rose to walk, he found himself stiff in the joints, and wanting in his usual activity."
No kidding. And yearning, too, for a long nap.
-- Reprinted by permission of Runner's World magazine. Published in August 1995.
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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