Race Report: 2015 Cats Tail Trail Marathon by Ben Nephew

I was excited for this event as soon as it was announced early this year based on the terrain it covered. This 26ish mile course with 7k of climbing adds to the ridiculous wealth of outstandingly difficult and scenic races in this region: Escarpment, Manitou’s Revenge, and the Breakneck Trail Marathon.

The Cats Tail Trail Marathon starts with a traverse of the Panther Mountain ridge, includes some of the best miles of the Wittenberg Cornell Slide FKT route, and adds on a fine new section of trail leading back down to Phoenicia. The race route starts with the climb up Panther, traverses Slide (the highest peak in the Catskills), Cornell, and Wittenberg mountains, and then winds its way along a ridge and then down into Phoenicia. To put this race into perspective, this would be the equivalent of a trail marathon over Mount Washington and a couple of the other New Hampshire Presidential peaks, or a marathon up Mount Marcy in the ADK and a couple of peaks on the Great Range. On that note, praise to the person who approved the permit, I nominate you for ranger of the year!

The forecast for the race was looking unsettled during the week, but as race day approached, it improved to where it didn’t seem like there would be much rain at all. This was good, considering the forecast for elevations of 1000’ was in the low 40’s and we would be climbing to over 4100’. Of course it was raining as I was driving to Phoenicia. I was hoping I could force it to stop raining with my mind, and started the race with just my MPF RNR singlet.

Jan Wellford and Silas Carey went to the front and set a solid pace up the 2000’ climb over the first 3 miles up Panther Mountain. I settled in behind with Iain Ridgway, who was dealing with some IT band issues. I felt no need to push the pace, and was not exactly as comfortable as I would have liked to have been at that point. My efforts to control the weather with the power of my mind failed miserably, and it became progressively nastier as we climbed. 

I had been up on this ridge before, but had not realized how exposed it was in strong winds. There are still plenty of trees, but the trail is close enough to the edge that you are constantly getting blasted by the wind, which was blowing 30-40+ mph at times with temps in the 30’s and rain. You can do the math. I waited too long to get my jacket out, and could barely get my fingers to work the zipper. My competitive race probably would have ended right there if I wasn’t able to zip up. As it was, I lost a minute or two to Silas and Jan right when the course started to descend. That was going to make it hard to catch Jan, who is one of the best downhill runners around.

It took a good bit of work to catch both Silas and Jan, with Silas not far behind. Considering he lives in Manhattan, I was impressed with how he was hammering down the technical descent off of Giant’s Ledge. Our pace would not be called casual. We were all together on the carriage road leading over to the trail up Slide. This worked out well, as Jan directed us to go around Winnisook Lake which took us past some amazing cabins on the other side of the lake that the course did not actually cover!

As Jan and I grabbed our supplies, Silas headed up Slide, once again setting a stout climbing pace. I was now even less comfortable as Jan went after him. I was able to maintain contact with the two of them, but it took a serious effort. My legs finally started to feel better towards the summit of Slide Mountain, and I bridged the small gap between us by the time we started the descent.

I had climbed Slide a couple times in the other direction, and that mountain is very different depending on which direction you run the traverse. Instead of scrambling up extensive ledges, we were racing down these ledges in a cold rain. I was behind Silas for a while, who was maintaining what I would call a safe distance behind Jan as he bounced down the ledges. When we approached one particular ridiculously high ledge, Silas stopped to look for a belay anchor and let me by.

Jan had suddenly pulled out of sight, and I went after him. While the rock wasn’t as slick as it can get in the summer months, the traction was far from ideal. I was able to spot Jan after a few minutes of aggressive descending, and was happy that I could back off the pace a little. Just as we seemed to be settling in, Jan stated that he needed to make a pit stop, and wished me luck on the trail. I looked around for Silas, but could not spot him, so I just continued on the rooty ascent towards Cornell.

Knowing that there wasn’t much climbing left in the race, I pushed the climbs up Cornell and Wittenberg. I’m not sure how exactly I negotiated the Cornell crack, but it was probably something you should not try and home. It helped that my legs were finally starting to feel good. This didn’t last long, as descent off of Wittenberg is flat out abusive, with all sorts of off-balance drops. The trail descended for longer than I expected, and I was thrilled to see Elizabeth and the rest of the aid crew at the turn for the last 10 miles over the Cross mountain trail.

Cornell Crack

Cornell Crack

It had finally stopped raining, and it felt good to be somewhat warm and make decent time over more runnable terrain. For a new trail that has only been open for about a year, it was in amazing condition. With some extra markings from the race crew, it was easy to follow and just rolled really well. It seemed like every sharp turn was positioned around a tree perfectly sized to assist runners, and many turns were paired with some amazing stone stair work far from any trailhead. Although the grades were very runnable for the most part, this was still northeastern singletrack, with a wealth of small roots and rocks that could wreak havoc on both feet and ankles. I never have any issues with my ankles, but they were exhausted by all the faster turns over rough terrain and my Orocs took a beating.

Since I had no idea how far behind Silas or Jan were, I was running scared for the entire last half of the race. My only sources of confidence were that I was on the runnable section of the course, rather than a big climb, and my legs had been feeling better throughout the day. I pushed too hard from miles 18-22, and was hurting on the last couple of minor hills. The final downhill was a rollercoaster of switchbacks, and I wanted the trail to go straight down to limit the opportunities for someone to spot me and reel me in. By the time I got down to the road leading to the finish, my quads were quite shot and the end could not come soon enough.

I hung on for the win in 4:31 with Jan at 4:40, Silas in third at 4:56, and Iain in fourth at 5:21. Natalie came charging in for the win in 5:35, and Amy and Karl had strong races on a tough day. It was an impressive performance by the field in general, as 66 of 69 starters finished. Thanks to Charlie Gadol, Mike Siudy, Elizabeth & Joe Azze, and the rest of the race crew and the legion of MPF RNR volunteers for making this a phenomenal first time event, even with the nasty conditions!