Race Report: The 2015 Escarpment Trail Run by Ben Nephew

After 15 years of running the same race, I thought I had seen it all, but every year at Escarpment is somehow different, and this year was no exception. I came into the race following a solid spring and early summer of successful racing and reasonably consistent training. Based on my climbing during races and workouts, I had hopes of a fast time this year, if the conditions were decent. It was likely I was going to need a fast time, as both Jacob Loverich and Denis Mikhaylove, two past winners, were both racing. While the forecast initially looked promising, it regressed over time to warm and humid. I was still optimistic when things seemed to be drying out at the start in the half hour before the race. Then we got into the trees, and the humidity was still oppressive.

We weren’t even at the mile when Dave Vona and then Vasilis Kariolis went around and took off. Jacob followed soon after, and I started to wonder about my pace. I went through the first mile about 15 seconds faster than last year, and decided that I was going hard enough. It actually felt too hard; maybe it was one of those days. Dave and Jacob were not pulling further away, but I was working so hard with the humidity by two miles I felt like turning back down the mountain to help Dick pack up the truck. By the Windham summit, I was still in fourth, and Vasilis was 75 seconds ahead. I hope my descending is better than my climbing today...

I quickly went by Dave and latched onto Jacob. Before long, the two of us caught Vasilis, who let us by. Considering how quickly we caught him, I was surprised at how close he stayed once we passed him. In addition to Vasilis, Chris Chromczak was right with us as well. I could have passed Jacob, but the pace was not slow at all, and pushing that downhill any more would have been self-destructive. As we started to climb Acra point, Jacob asked if I wanted to pass, and I let him know that I was perfectly uncomfortable with his pace. Vasilis was still climbing well and would draw closer to us on any hill, and he was also running well on the less technical descents.  We slowly pulled away from Chris, but the three of us were right together at the base of Blackhead.

I felt better on the Blackhead climb (video from 2013), but still not great. I could see Jacob for most of the climb, but I lost him towards the top. It is easy to ruin your legs on those steep grades; I knew that I would need to be strong on Stoppel to have any chance of winning. I reached the top 25 seconds behind Jacob, and when I went to grab some Gatorade, they offered me some Coke. 

"Praise to Lord Manitou, it’s an Escarpment miracle!"

I’ve never seen Coke on top of Blackhead, and I’ve never needed it more than right then. I pounded down a cup and took off down the mountain. While I had to take some risks to make up time on Jacob, I could not afford a major fall. It is hard to focus solely on the trail when you are chasing, but I tried to think about nothing other than the 20-30 feet of rocks directly in front of me (you typically can’t see much further than that at any one time). Escarpment is not a trail where you can put it on autopilot all that often, and you can slow down just due to the mental fatigue of trying to navigate through the roots, rocks and ledges without crashing. About halfway down, I could hear and then see Jacob, but he maintained a lead of 10-15 seconds heading down to Dutcher’s Notch.     

Photo by Dana Tompkins

Photo by Dana Tompkins

I need to back up for a moment and give credit to my MPF RNR team for my special preparations for this year’s race. I have a very healthy respect for the difficulty of the Escarpment trail, and I never do a long run the weekend before the race. Well, we had a team weekend at Ryan and Kristina Welts’ Mecca of Mountain Running in NH, and I was thoroughly peer pressured into a rugged 4 hour run on Saturday. This was following a 4.5 hour hike up Chocoura with Aiden on my back on Friday. Aiden is quite the solid unit, and Gavin hikes as fast as most adults, so that wasn’t exactly a rest day. Now, I agreed based on the assumption that it would be a happy group run at a moderate pace. Right. Iain Ridgway started to push the pace on the uphill, but our fearless race directing leader, Ian Golden really threw down the gauntlet, and himself, on the downhills. With his flowing locks, it was as if Jesus was summoning his disciples. 

"Follow me, the spirit will protect you"

You should have seen some of these descents. They were steep, narrow, wet, covered in downed trees, and there were numerous blind corners. If we had taken a major fall, nothing could have saved us. Iain and I took turns trying to keep up with Ian, but it was hopeless. We are both pretty decent downhillers, but Ian was thoroughly feeling the flow, doing the dance. When the trail became slightly less vertical, things settled down for a moment, and then we got to the final 4 mile runnable downhill and Ian took off like a jack rabbit fired out of circus cannon. I think Ian was trying to remind me of how he used to destroy me in XC in college. I was definitely having PTSD flashbacks. At one point, as we were flying down and the trail flattened out and turned to the right, I bounced my water bottle right out of pack. That has only happened once before, on a hard 2 hour FKT run. You are correct, I didn’t have to follow Ian as he ripped down the trail at about 5:00 pace, but my training concern for Escarpment was my lack of faster paced work due to all my recent races that all have had massive amounts of climbing over technical trails. In the years when I’ve lost Escarpment, a lack of speed has seemed to be an issue. Well, I got about 3 miles of high quality speed work in on Saturday!        

Photo by Dana Tompkins

Photo by Dana Tompkins

Heading up the Stoppel Point climb, I seemed to be staying closer to Jacob, but then he started to gradually pull away once again. While I wanted to stick with him, I also needed to save some for the last 4 miles to the finish. Jacob managed to extend his lead to 25 seconds at the summit of Stoppel, his largest of the day. There was nothing left to do but hammer to the finish. Despite my best efforts, I saw no signs of Jacob until shortly after North Point, which is about 2.7 miles from the finish. I heard what sounded like an avalanche of rock, and came around a corner to see Jacob getting up from what must have been a rough fall. He got back up to speed quickly, but I was able to stay a few seconds behind. I thought about trying to pass, but I figured it would be best to wait a little longer.

Part of the ledge that I launched myself off of in the above picture. Photo by MPF's Joe Azze

Part of the ledge that I launched myself off of in the above picture. Photo by MPF's Joe Azze

Shortly after the fall, we were running across a section of exposed rock, and he started to veer slightly to right. At this point on the trail, there are some minor alternate routes, and at first I thought we would just meet back up. When I realized he was turning away from the trail, I called out. I thought he would soon be right behind me, and continued on. With two miles to go, I tried to pick up the pace, running scared the entire time. Every rock I dislodged was Jacob closing in on me. I took some substantial risks on the last few ledges and somehow managed to stay upright to win in a time of 2:57. Jacob finished just under 3:00, and the humidity and slick course took its toll on much of the field. Denis was third in 3:08, Dave was fourth in 3:10, and Vasilis was fifth in 3:19.

With the RD Dick Vincent at the finish! Photo by MPF's Joe Azze 

With the RD Dick Vincent at the finish! Photo by MPF's Joe Azze 

Although my GPS track was somehow lost, my splits were almost identical to last year, with the exception of a minute faster on the split from Stoppel to the finish, which was probably one of my fastest splits for that section. Dick Vincent always says the race is won on the downhill, and I’ve always disagreed with him. It is hard to argue with him this year, even though my subpar climbing allowed me to take advantage of my downhill ability. I only managed third on the king of the hill contest of accumulated climbing time. I guess I should thank my MPF RNR team for my taper/speed work!

The MVP for the race has to go to some folks who probably weren’t even at the race; the volunteers who maintain the route. The trail, from start to finish, was in the best shape I have seen it in many years. When the state cut funding for trail maintenance, there were years when you could not see your feet on lengthy sections of trail. Considering the rocks of the Escarpment, this is frightening and surely led to falls. The work that went into the trail this spring and summer was impressive, the foliage in some sections is intense, and I’m sure everyone appreciated it, whether they realized it or not! Thanks to Dick and the Albany Running Exchange crew for the awesome results, the splits are awesome! More thanks to the all the crews that carry ridiculous amounts of water, Gatorade, and COKE!, up monster climbs, and defend those supplies against vandal bears.