After more than a year and a half, I was in. The video above was from 2014. I could have been in that video.

The registration invite tries to talk you out of the run.

The registration invite tries to talk you out of the run.

But that summer in 2014 I suffered an ankle injury after Elmo Snively “pushed me” over a stone staircase which prevented me from taking the trip to “the Boston Marathon of Trail Races.” Finally after being injury-free all season, and going through the long application process (SASE to receive the application, then submitting the application with qualifying standards then a super secret online invite), I was again selected to be a participant in the Escarpment Trail Races in the Catskills of New York.

On the website, the Escarpment is “for mountain goats, only.” The Escarpment Trail is a very remote, rugged hiking trail in the Northern Catskill Mountains in New York State.

“THE TRAIL… is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term. It is extremely rocky and a runner must expect to navigate over boulders, downed trees, gullies and hidden roots the entire distance. Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest’s natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills. There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist to scale a rise, conversely, extremely steep downhill sections add not only challenge to the course, but also a high degree of unwelcome danger. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you’re not careful, you could fall to your death. Very few runners go the distance without taking at least one painful spill. Most runners take many. Believe me, you’re going to take a flop or two, or more.” – The Escarpment Trail Run Website

For much of June and July, I trained specifically for the race, doing shorter yet technical runs. One week I would travel up to Rothrock State Forest near State College, PA and run back and forth on the boulders at Shingletown Gap, or run the Rothrock Trail Challenge course both forward and in reverse, or do an out and back up Crownover Trail and the Indian Steps. All of these options had lots of technical climbs and descents that I hoped my legs would get accustomed to the beating.

feelraiderA critical decision was my choice of shoes. I opted to wear a pair of Salomon Fellcross – a knobby tread shoe with little cushion but light and nibble. It was a shoe that I would not wear for a long twenty mile trail run so the Escarpment was at the upper limits for these shoes. It was made for wet muddy short runs.  I hoped its technical abilities would prove to be an asset.

It was late July and race weekend had arrived. After suggesting the idea of renting a cabin for the weekend, Jeff Calvert took the initiative and booked a sweet cabin listed on AirBnB under the shadow of Hunter Mountain. Jeff and Renee Calvert, Joe Eaton with Jenny Rodgers, and Brian Newcomer with Mary Dauberman and Dennis Yonkin and I all chipped in for a trail race weekend vacation.  Jeff, Joe, Jennis, Dennis and Brian would be running the race.  We would find our own means of traveling to NY. I would drive the ninety minutes to Lewisburg, PA then Dennis would drive the remaining 4 hours to the Catskills. Most of us decided to meet at a small pre-race party at the race director’s house outside of Palenville, NY. Dennis and I traveled on down a remote

Party at the Race Directors Patio.

Party at the Race Directors Patio.

dirt road alongside a cliff that I nervously gazed over from the passenger side window. We wondering if we were going down the road – a road to our death. But soon we saw cars with running stickers on the back windows and we knew we were at the right place.  The race director, Dick Vincent, greeted us on the patio. It was a hot, sunny day as we gathered on a patio at the edge of a precipice overlooking the Hudson Valley. It was not only a great opportunity to meet up with my weekend housemates, but I was able to connect with other running friends and meet new ones. I talked to Jacob Loverich from State College, who several years ago won the race. It was one of the few times that Ben Nephew did not won the Escarpment. I was hoping that this would pit a hometown hero back home against the crowning seasoned veteran.

After the party, we headed to the cabin near Hunter Mountain. I thought we were high up on the mountain at the race directors house but I was wrong. First you climb a plateau and then above the plateau are the peaks of the Catskills. The Catskill Escarpment, often referred to locally as just the Escarpment and known as the Catskill Front to geologists, rises very abruptly from the Hudson Valley to summits above 3,000 feet in elevation, including three of the Catskill High Peaks, with almost no foothills. The plateau to the south and west averages 2,000 feet above sea level.

The peaks are also called by some as the Great Wall of Manitou. Manitou is the spiritual and fundamental life force understood by the regional of Native Americans. It is omnipresent and manifests everywhere: organisms, the environment, events, etc. Aashaa monetoo means “good spirit”, otshee monetoo is “bad spirit”. The Great Spirit, Aasha Monetoo, gave the land, when the world was created, to the Natives. The acceptance letter I received urge to honor Aashaa and his presence.

We climbed Route 23A up the gorge called the Kaaterskill to the top of the plateau that was like a high pedestal for the peaks of the Catskills. Above that was the mountains of the Escarpment. As we climbed 23A, the road, with hardly a berm, was lined with tourists walking along the highway. It reminded me of the French alps during Holiday. At the top, we made out way toward Hunter. Except for Tannersville with its brightly painted boutiques and trendy restaurants, it was obvious that the glory days of the Catskills had past. Dozens of hotels, resorts, restaurants and shoppes had aging papered windows coated in dust. For sale signs were faded and yellow. The occasional hotel or resort that was open was kitschy and retro, ghosts echoed about the better days long ago.

The Wall of the Escarpment

The Wall of the Escarpment

Turning off the main road in Hunter and then though a series of turns along the side of Hunter Mountain, we made it to our home for the weekend. This place was the shiiiittt! Hardwood everywhere; a trendy bar with flag stone walls; a meeting room with a hardwood boardroom table that would bring a Greenpeace volunteer shed tears of sorrow; a shower encapsulated in glass and stone; even matching treadmills each with its own flat screen in the fitness room.

That evening, Jeff and Renee prepared the meal – a light but tasty pasta dish with couscous and vegetables – perfect for pre-race. After a beer or two, we retired to our rooms for the night. At some point in the early morning, it had begun to rain. It had been very hot and humid that day and the rains had ushered in a cold front.

Inside the cabin (Top row: Wet bar, rec room, shower; bottom: Calverts preparing a meal, den. exercise room)

Inside the cabin (Top row: Wet bar, rec room, shower; bottom: Calverts preparing a meal, den. exercise room)

Race Morning.

Time to get on the bus

Time to get on the bus

We woke up to a chilly and very gray morning with a light yet misty rain. It had rained most of the night and the temperature dropped significantly from yesterday’s heat and humidity. Running in the cold rain would actually be a welcome relief from the past few days of 90 degree temperatures but it will make the notorious rocks of the Escarpment slippery. From the cabin, we drove to the town of Haines Hills and then to North South Lake – an odd lake – it’s shaped like a dumbbell and its eastern edge coming perilous close to the edge of plateau threatening to drain the lake over the side. The trees along the lake seemed windswept, they all leaned 15 degrees from horizontal over the edge of the water. We drove in several vehicles to the finish where a fleet of buses will take us to the start. I’m not a fan of buses. It reminds me too much of school. For a few years in elementary and intermediate school, I got into a gifted program but the classes were three towns away. That and a new highway under construction between two of the towns required the bus to turn around along its route and then make a 4 mile detour before picking up the route again on the other side. There was also two transfer on three different buses. I would spend almost 4 hours each day on a bus. For today’s adventure, it was about a 35 minute ride to the start and I had to sit “on the hump” over the rear wheels. Above each seat were the names of the kids who where in that seat. My name said “Asa” with it scratched out and replaced with a hand-written “Asia”. Either someone is into 70’s progressive rock or kids are cruel.

Jeff and I at the start.

Jeff and I at the start.

The race is a point to point with the lake being the finish line. The starting area at the beginning of the Escarpment is best described as an “area”. It was a small dirt parking area across the road from the trailhead. No houses, no landmarks, the parking lot was in the most random spot. In the middle of the parking area a small pop-up tent was erected where we checked in and picked up our bibs. New this year, the race will begin in waves. I think there were 14 or 15 waves. The local forest management people wanted to restrict the number of people on the trail at once so they decided that staggering the start would reduce some stress on the trail. (I am not sure about this logic. 200 people is still 200 people regardless when they start.) However, it would prevent congestion at the start from 200 or so runners jockeying for position all at once. The race director organized the heats according to the estimated time each participant posted on the race application – the fastest people in the first heat and so on. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, instead of the slowest people in the final heats, the RD would intersperse the slowest people into the faster heats. That made sense. Having the slowest people start last would make a long day for the race volunteers out on the course. I was assigned in heat 7 along with Jeff.

We would traverse the three High Peaks of the northern end of the Escarpment beginning with Windham High Peak at 3,523 feet, cross Big Hallow and minor peaks of Acra Point and Burnt Knob. The Escarpments then bends to the south with 3,940 foot Blackhead Mountain. Then broken by Dutcher or East Kill Notch is the third major peak, Stoppel Point at 3,420 feet. Lastly Stoppel Point extends south as North Mountain before the descent to North South Lake.

The Escarpment Trail

The Escarpment Trail

Act I: To Windham High Peak 1723 feet climb in 3.36 miles.

At the start ahead of us was Windham High Peak – a 1723 foot climb in 3.36 miles.  Jeff Calvert had ran this race last year. His strategy this time was to relax and then slowly build up toward the finish. Jeff had ran the 70 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra in June and was preparing for Eastern States 100 in August. I think his biggest concern was either overdoing it or getting injured prior to his big 100 miler in several weeks.

Waiting among our heat.

Waiting among our heat.

Waiting at the start, a guy looking more like he would more enjoy doing free weights instead of trail running, said with gym lunk cockiness, “You guys may be fast on the uphills but I’m doing to pass you all on the downhill.” Collectively as a group, everyone sized up guy and his physique and his road shoe Reeboks and we collectively looked away and ignored him.

The horn blows and the race was on. Immediately the heat breaks into two groups – the faster runners and the slower runners. Jeff was running by himself between the two groups. I found myself behind Jeff but running alone yet ahead of the slower pack behind me.  The climb offered a few switchbacks but a lot of pine and a lot, A LOT, REALLY AL LOT of roots. Yet, despite the climb and warnings from other runners who said it was a brutal, it wasn’t in my opinion. I didn’t think it was bad at all. Counting along the way, I passed six runners on the climb up and was passed only by one. Climbing, I noticed how the trees and vegetation would change. Lush deciduous forest transitioned into pines then to thin, wind-stressed trees like I would see on the western side of Blue Knob near home. I realized only then that the three peaks I would climb would be the highest elevation I would have scaled east of the Mississippi River. Nearing the top, the grey skies seemed to open up to crisp and clear conditions. At first I thought the clouds had broke as the morning drew late. Then at the top and glancing briefly from the lookouts and vistas as I ran by, I realized that I was above the clouds.  The valleys below was covered with a thick blanket. Now in the sun, I noticed it got warmer and more humid. I made it to the top in 53 minutes.

At the top of Widman High Peak was the first aid station at 3.6 miles in. There I took in the view for a second and the marvels at the puffy clouds below. Some volunteers trek more than 4 hours, with 50 pounds of supplies to reach their stations. I made sure to tell them my thanks and appreciation.  After refilling a bottle, a 522 foot downhill in 0.5 miles was ahead of me. With the climb behind me, I was feeling great.  I began to descent the other side with two other runners ahead of me. We were flying – an avalanche of frenzied feet pulled only by gravity. A little more than halfway down the mountain, my foot lands on a large sheet of rock slanted down the trail. As soon as my foot touched the rock, my feet slipped from under me and I’m flat on my ass. I land hard on my tailbone. Muscles pulled in my lower back. Weeks before, Mary Kowalski who ran this race many years ago suggested I buy a tailbone protector. I laughed at the time. I wasn’t laughing anymore. Getting up slowly, dazed and rattled, I wasn’t the same. That fall really messed with my head. I had lost it all; my speed; my courage; it had all gone.  The neural pathways that allowed me to run on technical terrain seemed like they short-circuited under the overload. I was a bumbling fool after

Gah! My legs! Slipping!

Gah! My legs! Slipping!

that. I was like one of those cartoon characters slipping on ice or a banana peel – a blur of feet and circular motion trails. It seemed like any flat rock no larger than a small dinner plate would cause me to slip. During the next few miles, I fell over a dozen times before I lost count. I slipped (yet caught myself) on many more occasions. What was more frustrating was that I realized that after weeks of planning and many miles of training, I came to the race with the wrong shoes. The shoe I wore were knobby with little surface area and made of a hard rubber. I didn’t need traction. I needed adhesion. I was doomed!

After the downhill was a flat and runnable section to the base of Blackhead. Still, even on the flats, any rock I would land on meant a slip and lost of a line and rhythm. Even without a climb, the flat section was an agonizing slow 14 minute pace!  Not only were the rocks and terrain giving me insurmountable grief but because the race is only a 30k, it meant I needed to run maintain a fast sprint to do well. I needed to be going “all-out”. Though my training was on technical and hilly runs, they were slow and nowhere near the pace I needed to run. At times I sensed my heart-rate and breathing were taxed more than they should be. I was stressed.

Act II: Bottom of Blackhead to Bottom of Stoppel


(Video from 2013 of the Blackhead climb)

I made it to the aid station at the bottom of Blackhead. Next up was a super steep 1200 foot climb in less than a mile. At the base of the peak, I was joined by Joe Eaton who started a wave behind me. Seeing videos of the climb weeks before (see above), it was no doubt the steepest trail climb I would ever attempted in any race. Many times I was either on all fours or grabbing trees and rocks pulling myself forward. Then, recalling what I saw on the video, I saw several logs with the blue Escarpment trail marker nailed to it and I realized I did not have far to go to the top. In fact, when it was all said and done, the climb was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. It took me under 28 minutes.

Joe Delano, a runner I know from NYC, over some rocks on the trail.

Joe Delano, a runner I know from NYC, over some rocks on the trail.

At the top was another aid station. To be honest, I thought the aid stations were too close together. This affected my calculations for nutrition and hydration. I always try to down at least 20 ounces of water/hydration and at least 200 calories every hour. With many races in the past, it always seemed that it takes me about an hour to go from aid station to aid station, making it easy to know how much I had consumed. With the aid stations so close, it became difficult for me to track how much I had and if I was on a deficit. After the aid station, Joe and I descended the back side of Blackhead, Every time Joe slipped, I was on my ass four times as many. Slowly Joe got further away. For me, every rock is a slip and slide and there were hundreds of these flat rocks. In Pennsylvania it seemed you got your pointy rocks or your billiard ball rocks mostly made of sandstone and quartzite. Here in the Catskills, the rocks are more metamorphic – pressed for tens of millions of years into flat sheets.

Between the peaks were relatively flat sections of trail. However the rocks played havoc with my legs and with my psyche. I don’t think I have ever been more frustrated in a run in my entire life. I was miserable and cursing with every step. The only person who might have had a worse day was the guy I passed would chose to run with sandals. Poor SOB.

John Johnson on the trail. Probably one of the few runnable sections, perhaps?

John Johnson on the trail. Probably one of the few runnable sections, perhaps?

Since I had taken the downhills gingerly, I was pounding my quads. They were killing me. Many years ago, I pulled my left quad and for more than a year it had plagued me after it healed. As I ran, the old injury, the injury I had not felt in more than three years, decided to rear its ugly head like a sleeping giant. What is hell is going on with me?

So keeping score, my mind was shot, I was bruised up, falling and slipping like a drunken sorority sister/fraternity brother on a walk of shame on the slightest rock and at this point the slighted breeze, the ghosts of injuries past appearing at me front door like an old girlfriend holding a child with eyes like mine. What is next? Running along and slipping for the umptmillionth time, I fall forward and land on my knees. My calves immediately cramp. I slowly get up and walk forward as I work out the cramp as I realize my face is caked with salt and my shorts seemed 10 pounds heavier as the are soaked with sweat. I realized I haven’t peed once during the race. Let’s now add dehydration to the list of misery.

Act III: When will the misery end?

One last peak to climb: Stoppel. I am down and out. The only saving grace for me are the climbs since at least I am not slipping or falling on my ass. Somebody told me about the false ridge along my way to the top. Here there were couple people I passed that seemed to be having a worse day than I was having. No one told them about that false ridge. Still, I was passed often by faster runners from the later heats. At this point I stopped counting and caring how many I passed or how many more passed me. As I climbed, I heard the rumbles of a thunderstorm behind me. Years ago, Mary Kowalski had ran this race amid an epic thunderstorm with reports of hundreds of lightning strikes per hour. If there was anything that was pushing me forward, it was that I didn’t want to be caught at the top of the during a lightning storm.

At the top of Stoppel, right along the trail was a crashed Cessna aircraft. Despite the creepiness of having airplane wreckage along the course, the knowledge of whether the crew survived or not never crossed my mind. My selfish concern was only me and if I was going to make it out of this race alive. The downhill was good at first. There were few rocks for me to slip on but that would soon change.

I didn’t have a goal in mind when I started this race but somewhere in the middle, I wanted to finish in 4 hours 30 minutes. Constantly I would flash those digits in my mind.

Another friend, Josh Gavitt, going down a ledge on the trail.

Another friend, Josh Gavitt, going down a ledge on the trail.

Part way down Stoppel was the second to last aid station amid some pines and on a respite of the downhill. The downhill from the top of Stossel to the finish was about 4.1 miles and 1300 feet. Even though the downhills was what was killing me, I figured all I had to do was for gravity to take me downhill and I would be done with this miserable mountain. I can do this under 4 1/2 hours.

Somewhere I saw a YouTube video that there several areas where there were large rock pads, some of them as big as a football field. It seemed like I would get to a pad, run across, then scramble down to the next level. At times I would get to the edge of a rock pad and not know how to get down. Along the edge I asked myself, “Do I go here, jump onto that rock and shimmy down? Do I hopscotch down this crack in the earth?” Sometimes I would stand at the edge of a ledge and it would take me ten seconds or so to figure out how to get down to the next trail marker. This is ridiculous! Finally I made it to the last aid station, again on the edge of one of these large rock tables. “Just leap of this ledge and its only 2.5 miles to the finish at North Point,” said one of the volunteers! Hallelujah! I CAN DO THIS!

Down the edge I go. I get to another pad and I lose the trail. Since there are no trees for the markers, it is easy to lose the trail. In fact, I heard that the first place runner at the time, Jacob Loverich, got lost on one of the pads and Ben Nephew, who knew the trail, was able to pass.

Jeff Calvert not to far from the finish.

Jeff Calvert not to far from the finish.

“Over this way!” said a man about seventy yards to my left, who noticed my confusion as to where the trail led. Getting closer to the finish, I began to see more hikers who chose to enjoy the day on the trails – only to be interrupted by 180 or so crazies. Slowly the woods began to become more full with lush pines. Coming down a steep section, I realized I am running down an eroded wash out. Ahead of me I saw a runner at the bottom. I began to chase the other runner when I realized the color of the blazes had changed from blue to red. A sign read, “North South Lake – 2 miles”.

I yelled to the runner about 50 yards in front of me, “I think we are on the wrong trail. The blazes are now red.”

“But the sign says North South Lake is ahead.”

“Yes but I think this is another trail,” I yelled.

He stopped in his tracks and I began to run back the way we came. As I got to the bottom of the washout, two other trail runners who had also ran down the washout and now towards me stopped when they see me running toward them. “I don’t think this is the way!”  I looked above me up toward the middle washout as a group of four runners started to make their way down the gully. “Do you know which way to go?”

Joe Delano between a rock and a hard place.

Joe Delano between a rock and a hard place.

“To your right,” said a surprising photogenic female runner.

Damnit! I was right. We made a wrong turn. As the group of runners made their way down the wash out, I ran down the other trail (the wrong trail) to the crest of the hill where the other runner was still waiting below and I yelled for him to come back up. I run back to toward the bottom washout at the same time the group of runners including photogenic girl had made it to the bottom. Then as a group we began to run down the correct trail. Ahead there was a short section where I could actually run fast. Euphoria and relief washed over me. That was short-lived. Suddenly the trail reared its ugly head once again. In fact it seemed to be worse.  “This is where I lost it last year,” said the photogenic woman who told me I had taken the wrong trail back at the washout.

“Okay lady,” I sounded like I was channeling Jerry Lewis. I laughed nervously. I was mentally and physically cooked long ago.  Slowly, like everyone else in the group, she slipped away as my inner dialogue screamed and cursed at the terrain which was getting more ludicrous with every turn.  This trail seemed like it wasn’t going to end. 2.5 miles?!  Yeah, right! I wished I could teleport back to the aid station and punch that guy in the face.

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Down the final downhill near the finish. Rocks ahead! So many rocks!

Then came what I hoped would be the final slope to the finish. Clammering over rocks, fumbling, staggering until near the bottom I noticed a photographer and thought about how embarrassing I must have looked. The song of “Yakity Sax” filled my head. Then the trees broke apart and the finish just 30 feet ahead. I probably looked like I was in shock as I crossed the finish line as if I just witnessed my all family and friends get hit by a train – a train that was dropped on them from above. (I would have photographic proof of my expression if it wasn’t for the photographer paying attention more to photogenic girl.)

ETR 2015-Bib 157

I pushed through the finish at 5:02:52 – thirty minutes slower than my estimate! Jeff and Dennis were waiting for me. “Wha-the-hell was that?!” I said, pointing behind me, stuttering and stammering like when Bugs Bunny saw a monster. (Months later I was talking to Mary Dauberman about the finish and she said I was more pissed than freaked out.) Bent over, sitting on a picnic bench, with his head between his hands, Joe was rocking back and forth. He too suffering from Post-Escarpment Stress Syndrome.

 

(Above is a scientific representation of my run.)

There was no way that it was 2.5 miles from the last aid station to the finish! A day later, looking at my GPS, the distance from the last aid station to the finish was indeed 2.5 miles! It took me 40 frickin’ minutes to traverse 2.5 miles! I “ran” a 14 t0 18-minute mile… downhill!

Jeff and Dennis, unlike me, seemed to be delighted satisfied with their runs. They actually enjoyed it. Jeff talked about how pleased he was with his effort yet didn’t take any unnecessary risks that would have jeopardized his running plans for the remainder of the summer. Dennis seemed to be in awe of the terrain he just traversed. John Johnson, another runner that frequents the trail running scene back in Central PA, said how much he loved the course. He also took time to reprimand me on my poor choice in trail shoes. “You need a shoe with a lot of tread surface area,” he said.

Results: John Johnson – 3:28:57. Dennis Yonkin – 3:47:45. Jeff Calvert – 4:20:09. Joe Eaton – 4:55:16.

Soon Jenny make it to the finish. She is a tough runner with a high tolerance for pain and is usually in the top 10 women in most races she enters. She was reduced to a hot mess when she made it to the finish. She told us tales from true grit at times then next minute being reduced in tears and utterly overwhelmed with the challenge of the course.  Though she finished later than me, she started in a much later heat was finished in 4:46:55

Finally Brian came through the finish chute. He mentioned how amazing his journey was. Finishing in 5:49:31 and then asking me my finish time, I think Brian was the only person in our group that realized that I had a very bad day.

Soon after Brian finished, a hard downpour came along and I left the park feeling at least a little bit lucky to have finished before the rain. It would have made the rocks even more slippery. It would be beyond my comprehension.

As we made it back to the cabin and then later that evening had some of the best steaks I have had in a very long  time, courtesy of Brian Newcomer, the shock of the day seemed to wane. I had my share of scrapes and bruises but since I was seriously hurt, even a bad day on the trail is still a good day. At some point that evening, with full bullies and good drink, we all promised to return someday and pay homage to the Manitou and again sacrifice ourselves to the Escarpment.

Dinner post-race back at the cabin.

Dinner post-race back at the cabin.

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