FKT on New York's Devil's Path by Ben Nephew!

Date: November 22nd, 2015
Location: North Eastern Catskills of New York
Map: NY-NJ Trail Map 141
Adventure: Devil’s Path, 24 miles of Catskill rocks/roots and 10k of climbing

I consider the Devil’s Path the hardest of the FKT’s I have run in the Northeast. It is incessantly steep and rough, has several spots that are outright dangerous, and there are no easy miles. Just look at the elevation profile, the thing is ridiculous. There are 3 different places where 1000+ foot drops over a mile are immediately followed by a 1000+ foot climb in a mile. There is a reason they end everything with KILL in the Catskills; maybe they should rename it the Devil’s Pathkill, or maybe the Quadkill Traverse.

I first ran this trail and set the FKT in 2010; it was one of my earliest FKT’s. It was a good run, I had been racing well at the time, and I thought my 5:35 was relatively solid. It did last a while, but when Josh Burns went after it in 2014, he knocked almost a half hour off my time, running 5:07. I gave it two hard attempts last fall, but failed to regain the FKT.  I have been wanting to give it another shot this year, but I could not find the time to fit it in between races. Not being able to get back to it drove me a little crazy at times due to the fact that we spend quite a bit of time in New Paltz, NY, and the immense size of the Devil’s Path makes it visible from almost everywhere in the region. You can spot it driving down the NY thruway, anywhere near the Shawangunk Ridge when we are hiking, and 40-50 miles away in New Paltz and Clintondale. It just sits there, high above everything, staring back at me.

Potential days for attempts earlier this fall did not work out, and I had conceded to the fact that the season had closed for a realistic FKT attempt. Last weekend, with the extension of our mild Fall, I got one last chance to get on the trail. As with many of the harder routes, you really need at least decent weather to have any chance of a fast time. With an unsettled forecast and not having been on the trail recently, I contacted a small team of friends for feedback on trail conditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of the following runners had been out in the area recently:  Mike Siudy, Charlie Gadol, Ken Posner, and Dick Vincent. While I was expecting them to suggest that it wasn’t a good day for a fast traverse, they suggested that I go for it, and Dick offered to drive me to the start. The ironic thing is that these mostly solo FKT efforts often end up being associated with social events with friends I rarely spend time with.  Dick and I had another good chat on the drive to the Prediger Road trailhead, and then it was time to go run 25 miles over six mountains with 10k of climb on a trail that eats baby animals and makes small children cry.  As an offering to the almighty God of Manitou, I wore my Manitou’s Revenge race shirt. For safety equipment, I left my wedding ring on, which reminds me that I need to return in one piece.

Knowing that there is no slack in 5:07, I was aggressive right from the start, and was rolling on the first two miles (I am all about banking time). Since you first need to make it to the finish, I backed off a bit on first big climb to the summit of Indian Head. While technical sections in the Adirondacks and White Mountains will often have ladders, cables, or steps bolted into the rock, the Devil’s Path goes all natural with only tree roots to rely on. In some spots, if a particular tree dies, you might need a grappling hook.  

Our split times are below

Josh: 45:36 Summit of Indian Head Mountain
Me: 45:01 

I’ll take that, this doesn’t exactly feel sustainable for 5 hours, but maybe Josh slowed down later on.

I knew that he didn’t slow down all that much; my last attempt consisted of me losing time throughout most of the run, especially on the climbs. I tried to settle into a steady pace up Twin Mountain. By steady pace, I mean a steady effort, as the pace on a trail like this is incredibly erratic. I lost my lead and was even with Josh at the summit of Twin. The most important thing here is that I did not get turned around and head back towards Indian Head, which I have done before, twice….

Josh: 1:03:58 Summit of Twin Mountain
Me: 1:04:01

Losing time already, not good, but I’m still on pace. That Josh Burns sure can climb.

Even though I have done all these crazy descents several times, several sections still stop me in my tracks. It again took me a few seconds to figure out how to get down a 30’ cliff coming off of Twin; there seems to be nowhere to go, and then you see a sequence of narrow ledges cascading down and slowly realize that, yes, that is the trail. There might have been some ice on those ledges, but I don’t want to talk about that. Well, I will say that if you slam Orocs down on thin ice over rock, you may be able to shatter the ice and get grip on the underlying rock. I don’t recommend that technique. After surviving that descent, I was trying to increase my climbing pace up Sugarloaf, so when I checked my split at the summit, the news was not good.

Josh: 1:31:31 Summit of Sugarloaf Mountain
Me: 1:32:54

I lost that much time? Maybe this is not going to happen. Maybe that split time is not correct. I guess I’m going to have to jump down Sugarloaf and see if I can crank it up on the climb to Plateau.

I think I end up holding my breath much of the way down Sugarloaf; it is such a difficult and stressful descent. Probably the most dangerous mile in the FKT’s I’ve run. I was glad to get down it in one piece, but then had to immediately climb 1400’ in a mile up Plateau, trying to catch up with Josh. While I didn’t want to completely waste my quads at this point in the run, I also did not want to fall minutes behind and be forced to throw myself down the descents in the second half. The climb up Plateau is a bear and seems to go on forever. Every time you start to get into some sort of rhythm, you run into steep a ledge or technical section. I almost didn’t want to check my split at the top.

Josh: 2:07:18 Summit of Plateau Mountain
Me: 2:06:27

OK, I’m climbing well. All I have to do now is maintain that for another 3 hours, and not maim myself.  This feels like one hour tempo run pace, I guess I’ll recover on the downhills…

After spending much of the Fall trying to get back into decent XC shape, I was hoping that the 2 mile ridge across Plateau was going to be a place where I could gain some time. It is always more runnable in my head, where I imagine 6 minute mile pace on a bed of pine needles. The reality is roots, rocks, more roots, and a couple hundred turns. It is relatively runnable, but that is not saying much in the context of the Devil’s Path. The fact that the drop to Notch Lake is easier than coming down Sugarloaf just means that you are going to hit the ground harder as you are running faster. It is loose, dirty, leaf covered, and I barely made a few of the hairpins as I tried to avoid braking as much as possible. I was hopeful as I looked at my watch at the bottom as I prepared to climb up the shoulder of Hunter.

Josh: 2:38:01 Notch Lake
Me: 2:34:54

Either I am feeling better, or I just ruined my legs for the last half. Only the two biggest climbs left…

I didn’t feel as strong on the climb up Hunter as I had hoped, but I did seem to be moving well and was running inclines that I had walked on my last attempt. The trail on this half of the route seemed to be drier, which helped. While I wanted to increase my lead on this section, I also have a healthy respect for the more difficult ascent up Westkill and needed to save some quad for that.  

Josh: 3:07:28 Shoulder of Hunter Mountain
Me: 3:03:00

That is a decent lead, even if I fade a bit on Westkill.

I passed a number of supportive hikers on my way down to Diamond Notch, which was appreciated after several hours of mostly solitary running. I had a number of close calls, especially around stream crossing, and was looking forward to the safety of uphill travel. Compared to many similar FKT’s, the long climb up Westkill is quite close to the end, and it is also the biggest climb on the route, so the potential for losing time here is considerable. The trail was in good shape, and other than one awkward uphill fall, my legs felt good. The drawn out nature of the Westkill ridge makes Plateau feel short, but at least the trail itself is some of the best running on the route towards the summit, as it winds through the trees over reasonable grades on a thick bed of pine needles. It was enjoyable even while staggering from exhaustion.

Josh: 4:18:24 Summit of Westkill Mountain
Me: 4:09:19

Wait, was Josh’s split 4:08, maybe I copied it wrong??  If not, I should be able to break 5 hours if I keep pushing and don’t wrap myself around a tree.

As can be seen in my splits, I was feeling better throughout the run, and it was great to be able to enjoy the final descent from Westkill. I always think about future attempts and try not to have any regrets about running as hard as I could have, so it wasn’t a relaxed saunter down the hill. By this point, I could not count the number of close calls with major falls; I was pushing the Orocs hard. You don’t absolutely know you are reaching your limit until you hit the deck, and I hit the deck hard with a superman dive on softball sized rocks about a mile from the finish. I could have done without that confirmation.

Josh: 5:07:34 Finish at Spruceton Road
Me: 4:53:44

Finally. Did I stop my watch?

I sat there staring at my watch and hyperventilating for a full minute to make sure I had stopped it, even though I could have figured out where I stopped running from my track. I didn’t turn it off, as I lost a track after a run one time for some reason, and placed it in my car as if I was setting down an infant. My time was as good as I could have hoped for given my split at halfway, with the second half of the route in under 2:20.

It’s interesting to compare this with the Great Range FKT in the Adirondacks, where I also set an FKT of 6:09 in 2010. 42 minutes off of that time would be 5:27, and the current FKT is 5:44. Another good comparison would be with the Presidential traverse, where I’ve run 4:34 on a route that is 5 miles shorter, has less climbing, and a few million fewer trees and roots. While Josh no longer has the FKT, his 5:07 may be the second strongest FKT time in the Northeast, and I felt appreciative of the challenge and fortunate to have been able to run faster.

There are so many great FKT trails to run, it is getting harder to justify returning to routes repeatedly, but I’m glad Josh put that time up there as a target. It served as a lofty goal when I was training for other races, and even if it goes down tomorrow, I kept going back until I made it happen, and that is enough.  Whether you are trying to break 5 hours or hoping to complete the Devil’s Path in a single day, give it a shot, or three. It might work.

Related Links:
Ben climbing Indian Mountain (Devil's Path) with Brian Rusiecki during the 2014 Manitous 54 Mile Revenge.
Manitous Revenge 54 Mile Ultra videos, reports & photos
Everything the Catskills of New York on MPF
Ben Nephew's Athlete Page