Ben Nephew, 2014 Manitou’s Revenge 54 Mile Ultra, Race Report

To really understand this race you have to know the trails, or at least get a good description of the course.  If you can’t experience the trails in person, I think photos or video do a better job than any sort of written description, at least as far as my writing skills are concerned.  Luckily, we have great pics and video from the race thanks to Joe.  I’ll try and provide an overview, but you really need to see the visuals.

Mantiou’s Revenge is a 54 mile point to point trail race with 17k of climbing over some of the roughest terrain on the planet.  While it has a bit of everything, roads, runnable carriage roads, fast singletrack, most of it is highly technical singletrack.  The Escarpment Trail Run is considered to be the hardest long trail race in the Northeast, and that is just the warm-up for Manitou.  In the second half of the race, you have about 9 miles of the Devil’s Path, a 22 mile trail that is one of the hardest day hikes in the US.  There are extended sections of twisted roots, loose scree, boulder fields (approaching vertical in both directions), mud, and ledge after ledge after ledge.  Some of the individual climbs on the route could put you on your knees, and there 7 over the 54 miles.  Similarly, you could ruin your quads on 7-8 different downhills, and the 2.5 mile downhill at the end is probably the worst.  It is by far the hardest race I have ever done.

In addition to the course itself, Manitou’s was a special event this year due to the field.  In addition to Denis Mikhaylov and Ryan Welts, who finished 1-2 last year, the men’s field was practically a FKT convention with Jan Wellford (former FKT’s for the Great Range, Pemi Loop, and Presidential Traverse), Adam Wilcox (former FKT for the Pemi), and Josh Burns (FKT for the Devil’s Path).  In addition to his win at Manitou’s in 2013, Denis also won Escarpment in a very quick 2:51.  Ryan has set FKT’s for the Pemi and the Presidential Traverse, as well as the Franconia Ridge loop.  Then we had Brian Rusiecki, who has probably won more 50’s than anyone in the US in the last 5 years, and Cole Crosby, who owns a 5:47 50 mile PR.

While my training had been going well since the Cayuga 50 (race report), the day prior to the race was not exactly ideal.  We had to load some heavy furniture into a UHAUL to bring to Steph’s family in New Paltz, and then Aiden decided to hide the key to the truck.  The end result was some late night unloading and a total of 1:45 of sleep.  I wasn’t going to bother, but Steph thought I should at least get a little sleep, and it was a good idea.  I really don’t need much sleep but that is a bit less than ideal even for me.  I was just glad I got up in time and made it to bus by 3:30am to head to the start!

It was pleasantly cold at the start and I settled into a pack of 10-12 as our first wave started up the three mile road section to the Black Dome trail. 

Things seemed to pick up once we hit the trail, but I may have still been half asleep.  Ryan and Adam were leading the charge, and the pace certainly felt fast enough for what I knew was coming.  The climb up to the Escarpment was easier than I expected, and it was great to be back on the Escarpment at a relaxed pace.  The 1k climb up Blackhead Mountain was still steep, but at least I wasn’t hyperventilating as is often the case during the Escarpment trail race.  Denis has been running late, and we finally saw him as he bounded over and through us on the steep descent off Blackhead.  He was out sight quickly, and although the pace of our group seemed to increase after he passed, I never considering going after him at that point.

The climb up Stoppel point seemed to consolidate the lead pack, other than Denis, and we were all together for the few miles downhill to North Lake.  It was just nice running with other humans for once, and we got a good laugh out of Brian doing a Kilian jump and some heavy petting of the foliage as he glided down one of the more scenic sections of the trail.  I ended up in the lead towards the end due to the difficult navigation, and several of us came into North Lake at about 2:55 elapsed time, including Brian, Jan, Adam, and Cole.

The leaders on the section of the Escarpment trail just before you arrive at the North Lake Aid Station, mile 17.

It seemed like a few people flew out of the aid station ahead of me, and I took off to make sure I knew what was going on.  I soon saw Denis, who seemed to be struggling already.  Jan was just ahead of him, and I moved past thinking Brian was still ahead.  After a few minutes, I realized Brian was climbing up behind me, and we settled into the lead on the carriage road downhill to mile 21.5.  After plenty of technical singletrack on the Escarpment, it was nice to stretch the legs over the next three miles.  Brian was complaining about the pace a little, but we both knew it was tame compared to the downhill sprinting that went on during the first half of the Cayuga Trails 50m.  

Once we started on the enormous climb up Kaaterskill High Peak (about 3k in total), Brian wanted to take advantage of his climbing strengths, and I got to witness them while hanging on 30 seconds back.  I debated backing off, but the pace was sustainable most of the time, but the conversation was definitely lagging during some of the climb.  We were running a good percentage of the time, and while I prefer singletrack, there is something nice about a carriage road with a consistent grade where you can settle in to a rhythm.  I tried to keep Brian in check by telling him how tough the Devil’s Path was going to be.

BrianHow bad is it? 
Ben “It’s rough, straight up and down, just nasty.”

As soon as we topped out on Kaaterskill, we were treated by one mud bog after the next, linked with extended sections of gnarly roots.  I just kept wondering who cut that trail and what they were thinking.  The drainage was non-existent.   This section was pretty frustrating, and we backed off the pace to save the effort for later on, because there didn’t seem to be much point in fighting the mud and roots.  We finally got to the runnable downhill into Platte Clove AS, which was still rough by most people’s standards.  Compared to what was coming, it was a paved road.  

We didn’t waste much time at the aid station, Brian tried to get some athletic tape for his right shoe that was blowing out, and we were soon motoring up towards Indian Head Mountain on the Devil’s Path.  The tape stayed on for about 5 minutes.  It didn’t take much longer for Brian to realize what we were in for, as he looked straight up a rock wall.

Is that the trail?
"That’s a trail marker up there…on that tree.”

Brian & Ben on the early goings of Devils Path, climbing Indian Head Mountain.

I honestly had forgotten how intense Devil’s Path was; I think I tend to remember the more scenic sections of FKT runs in general.  We both seemed to be moving well on the climb, and were soon headed down into Jimmy Dolan Notch.  Brian was a little slower on the descent, which I’m sure was not helped by his shoes. “I think I’m getting too old for this.”

I was more confident in my Inov-8 Orocs, which had more grip than I needed, and enough protection and cushioning to push the downhills.  It seemed too early to force the pace at this point and we were still together as we climbed up Twin.  We were at the East peak soon enough, and picked up the pace between the peaks before another ridiculously steep descent.  To be clear how steep, they are 20-30% grades with vertical ledges of 10-30’ that need to be down climbed.  We reached Pecoy Notch, said hello to some hikers and started up Sugarloaf.

Its funny how after a few of those climbs at 12% grades; the average slope at Mount Washington, are remembered as almost flat!  By the time we marched up Sugarloaf Mt, we had not seen any other runners for about 20 miles.  We managed to get turned around at the top and ran back down a ways to see Jan with his poles, and I was glad he was not farther down the mountain!  We quickly turned back around as Brian pushed the pace back to the summit.  The descent from Sugarloaf was the roughest of the day, with Brian running so well and with few technical downhills left, I figured I should pass Brian and get a lead before the climb up Plateau.  His shoe was really starting to fall apart now, so he was being conservative with so many miles left to run.  

This descent involved many big drops, and all the impacts seemed to turn my stomach by the time I reached Mink Hollow.  Jan had made good time coming down; passing Brian was not far back as I left the aid station.  With my stomach still not right, my climbing pace suffering, and I went from feeling good to feeling awful incredibly quickly.  I was suddenly hot, the sweat was pouring off me, and my legs felt weak and uncoordinated.  I backed off as little as possible and hoped things would turn around quickly.  Then before long, I heard…Tick-Tick, Tick-Tick, Tick-Tick. There was Jan, powering up Plateau with his trekking poles.  Brian was not far behind.  They both passed me not too far from the top, and took off down the summit ridge to the turn onto the Long Path.  

I chased as hard as I dared with my legs still not right and barely kept Brian in sight until the turn.  I was getting worried that we had missed the turn based on how long we ran down the ridge.  While I started to feel better on the ridge, the following technical downhill on the Long Path was not great for my stomach, and Brian pulled away.  While this section is not that steep, it is a new trail with consistently technical footing and about 10,000 turns per mile.  The thing is all over the place.  By the time I got to the aid station at 43.5, I almost dropped.  I didn’t doubt I could finish the race, it was just that Steph and I had dinner reservations in New Paltz to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary at 8pm, and I didn’t have time to crawl in.  

I decided to start up Edgewood Mountain, and my body seemed to like that much better.  I was running much of the climb and things seemed to finally be turning around.  I was careful not to force anything too quickly with 10 miles left, but my pace slowly picked up.  I even felt good enough to run the downhill off Edgewood relatively hard, and that is when I caught back up with Brian.  I could tell he was struggling with his shoe, and hoped that it wouldn’t get bad enough where there was major injury risk.  I had no idea where Jan was, but I was just happy to be able to enjoy the course again.  These miles of the course are still a bit new and rough in sections, but it is a nice piece of wilderness and the trail will be great with some more traffic and a bit of work in spots.  

Brian's shoe at the finish

The day was getting warm, and the cold water of Warner Brook was refreshing before the long climb up to Tremper.  I was expecting an aid station at 48.5, but it never came.  I looked at my bottle, which didn’t have much left in it, and started to wonder if someone had moved the ribbons.  I’ve seen this happen before, and someone had been tearing ribbons down over the last few miles.  At this point in the day after 10 hours and thousands of feet of climbing, I couldn’t afford to be off course wandering around a large wilderness area.  Two and a half miles of paranoia later, I saw someone about a half mile out from the last aid station on the top of Tremper Mountain.  (They had to move the aid station from last year because of a Bear problem)

The final treat of the course is a leg and foot destroying descent down Tremper.  I was thinking that this would be a nicely groomed access road, but that would be the descent from the fire tower in Woodstock.  I was so very wrong.  That descent was pure physical and mental torture, where you had to pick every single foot placement for 2.5 miles at a 14% grade, and few options were good.  Loose, plate sized rocks everywhere all the way down the mountain.  The last 1.5 miles on the road were warm and painful, and I’ve never been so happy to see a finish in an ultra.

The Home Stretch

In terms of the racing, it was impressive as a whole.  Jan ran a phenomenal race to finish in 10:50, and didn’t seem to have any low points all day long.  I doubt there were many who could say that.  The next three of us, me, Brian, and Ryan were all within a half hour of Jan.  Considering these things are not linear, I think that would be similar to the top 4 at JFK finishing in a 5-10 minute span.  I don’t know how Brian finished with his shoe so destroyed, and Ryan ran 50 minutes faster than last year, only a minute behind Brian.  I’m not the type that is a big fan of just finishing anything, but for this course, everyone that finished was a winner.  Seriously.  That was insane.

Thanks to Charlie and all the volunteers (course markers and aid station workers) who made the race possible, what a tremendous opportunity for us all to be able to race on those trails.  The MPF crew out there were awesome!  Thanks to my wife of 13 years and a few days, who agreed to a late dinner reservation!  I’m looking at the map of the Northeast Catskills, which covers a huge area, and we went from the top of the map to the bottom, in a day.  The mountains and ridges of the Wall of Manitou and the Devil’s Path can be seen for miles from every direction, and while those views have always been something I value greatly due to my experience on the Escarpment trail, I can now point at an entire horizon of mountains that I ran in about 11 hours.  Many runners have come before us without having access to anything close to this and I hope this is the start of similar events in the region.  I’m grateful for all three of my races this spring, Rock the Ridge, Cayuga Trails, and Manitou; not a bad time to be an ultrarunner in New York!  

I think that moderation is needed in ultrarunning in order to find my personal balance, and Manitou doesn’t exactly fit my definition of moderation in any respect, but it is an outstanding exception.  We spent the next day at Split Rock in the Mohonk Preserve, followed by dinner at the Gunk Haus.  After dinner, Gavin and his cousin Milo went out to play in the orchard next the restaurant, and I realized that is what I was doing the day before, just a somewhat more adult version, or maybe not...