In contrast to the trend for races to get bigger, the Ellenville Mountain Festival is a simpler take on trail racing, a minimalistic format with no aid or extra marking. Considering it was the week after Escarpment (race report), I wasn’t sure about racing until my recovery seemed to be going well and my MPF RNR teammate Iain Ridgway decided to run. I suggested we try to run together given the lack of course markings, and to be somewhat social as well. For these long races, there really is no reason to start racing before the last few miles.
In addition to running with my teammate, another major incentive was the route of the marathon, which involved a double crossing of the Shawangunk Ridge with 6k of climb and included a few miles in the Sam’s Point Preserve, which has some of the best running trails in the galaxy. Most of the course was new to me, and I was eager to explore the area. The hot forecast was not ideal, but I knew Iain would run a sensible pace.
After deciding on what we were going to pack, we were off up the first 1500’ climb over 3.5 miles. The first mile was runnable carriage road, which then degraded into rocky terrain that required some focus. At around the second mile, we were joined and then passed by Philip Whitten, who had just run 3:20 at Escarpment for 6th place. The pace picked up, but it was still relatively moderate. In terms of general trail marathon pace, it was slow, but we had a good deal of climbing ahead over unknown terrain and it was going to get well into the 80’s by the last 1-2 hours of the race.
Just as the eroded section of carriage road was getting old, it transitioned into a smooth grassy path leading to the first turn at around 5.7 miles. To our surprise, this turn was clearly marked. This was probably because the start of the trail was almost completely covered by bushes, and the trail sign was a good 30 feet down the trail. Never seen that before. The descent to the first water source at Stony Kill was moderately technical with some blow downs, but we made good time. Philip didn’t need water, and put a minute on Iain and me as we filled our bottles in the stream.
Soon after starting the climb back up to the ridge, Iain took a nasty fall which left him limping badly. It looked like his day was done, which was depressing, and he told me to go on. I went ahead and caught back up with Philip about a mile later. To my surprise, Iain came charging up shortly after, saying that he had just hit a nerve in the fall. The next few miles down and around Lake Awosting were easy running on some superb trails, especially through Spruce Glen.
Once we started the long downhill to the second checkpoint, Philip started to stretch his legs and pull away. While it was easy to run fast on the winding carriage road down, I was worried about the 1400’ climb back up this same path after the checkpoint. In many sections, the grade was a little too steep to run hard. Philip pulled a few seconds ahead, but then we seemed to maintain the gap.
In addition to the surprise of the trail marking earlier, they ended up having water at the checkpoint, which was great considering all the little streams on the way down seemed to be dried up. As soon as Iain and I started back up the hill, we began to pull away from Philip, who noted that uphills were not his favorite. By this time the sun was getting quite oppressive, and being able to find shade on the climb was essential. Since we still had 11, or maybe 13 miles left to run, we tried to keep the effort on the climb manageable.
Once we got back to Awosting, we took a left onto singletrack that was new to me. I had been looking forward to the trails at Sam’s Point, but this section of the course was a surprise extension of those trails. Winding, undulating singletrack on exposed granite ledges through dwarf pines; it was amazing. Unfortunately, our legs were already tired from the previous 19 miles and increasing heat, so it wasn’t as much fun as it would have been if we had been fresh. The trail markings were somewhat faint, and with all the twisting and turning it was great having both of us there to stay on course. We basically took turns blowing turns.
This section of the course has virtually no water other than Mud Pond, and we almost failed to stop as we kept searching for a good spot to fill up. We ended up charging through some extremely dense shrubs to get to the pond right before the trail left the water for good. The next three miles up to Sam’s Point required quite a bit of effort for a very gradual hill. What the elevation profile does not show is an infinite number of tight turns, small ledges and boulders that suck the life out of your legs. The actual footing was excellent, with dry rock offering all the traction you could want, but maintaining momentum was extremely difficult. The views were spectacular, though, and easily took my mind off of the effort and oven-like heat. The dwarf pines were not providing much shade, even for me. Iain got so thirsty he took water from a puddle that reminded me of the one I fell in at Cayuga (video of the fall). He is a brave man, even with a filter on his bottle!
We were relieved to get to High Point and begin the long descent to finish. I realized at this point that the course was going to be a rather long marathon, which I had suspected beforehand and was another reason for the conservative early pace. The carriage road leading back to the final downhill was not as steep as I had hoped. It felt rather flat at times, and turned into technical singletrack towards the end. Over the last few miles, we were definitely wondering if Philip would come tearing down the hill. About a mile from the finish, we were almost devoured by a 10 foot timber rattlesnake waiting for us in the middle of the trail. It tried to bite us, but our cat-like reflexes saved the day, accompanied by a girlish squeal from Iain. Similar to Escarpment, the heat seemed to take a toll on the field, and we were able to run into finish together after 28.5 miles in 4:32 without pressure from the third place runner, Ben Lloyd.
It was a great course with a great mix of runnable and challenging trails, although my preference would be to run it in the opposite direction to be less fatigued for the miles from High Point to Awosting. I was glad Iain encouraged me to do the race, and we both had fun catching up with a number of other MPF RNR teammates after the race, in the shade. Thanks to the RD’s Todd Jennings and Ken Posner for designing a great loop that hits an incredible array of trail highlights in the area, from the nicest carriage roads on the planet to rugged singletrack with views that will stop you in your tracks.