The 2017 Battle of Escarpment by Ben Nephew
To put this into perspective, we need a flashback to last years 18.6 mile Escarpment Trail Run, which I didn’t even write a race report for due to moving into our new house. Going into the 2016 race, I knew I was in for a rough ride as Matt Lipsey and Jan Wellford were running. Jan had dismantled Brian Rusiecki and I at Manitou’s Revenge, and Matt had several course records in PA at races very similar to Escarpment.
At the start, Matt settled in behind me for the first half mile, then shifted gears and blew by me. He already had 2 minutes on me at the top of Windham. I struggled between Windham and Blackhead, and Jan reeled me in with strong downhill and technical running. We were 4 minutes behind Matt at the top of Blackhead as he continued to hammer the climbs. I was hanging on to Jan for dear life, and aggressive downhill running allowed us to erase Matt’s lead by the start of the Stoppel climb. Jan was right behind him, and I was 40 seconds back.
We could not match Matt’s ascent to Stoppel Point, but I was able to get within 10 seconds of Jan. Matt had a 3 minute lead. Jan flew down the last 4 miles to the finish despite the course being under water. Despite my best efforts, Jan was not to be caught, and I was assuming I would earn my first 3rd place finish in my 17 races. Then, a mile from the finish, I came tearing around a corner to find Matt struggling. I went by quickly and was suddenly finished in 2nd, 40 seconds behind Jan’s strong run, with Matt 30 seconds behind me. In addition to the three of us, Shaun Donegan was only 40 seconds behind Matt, making the gap from 1st to 4th less than 2 minutes.
For 2017, Matt and Shaun were back, with Matt having just beat me by 16 minutes at Whiteface (Whiteface race report) with a world class performance. Jacob Loverich, another PA trail hitman who had won Escarpment in 2012 and placed 2nd in 2015 (both times under 3 hours) was also racing. After Whiteface I knew that I had to improve my climbing if I wanted to have any hope of beating Matt at Escarpment. In addition to outdoor hill repeats, I also did 4 workouts on an Arc trainer at work, set on a 20% incline. I started at 1090 calories for an hour workout (the mileage is too depressing to track) and progressed to 1220 calories by the last workout, which is a 5 minute improvement over an equivalent distance. These workouts ended up producing a pool of sweat that measured about 4 cubic feet.
On race day, Matt told me I could take it out, then immediately blew past and shot off into the woods. It was one of the most perfect weather days we have ever had at Escarpment (50’s and dry), and I was surprised to see that my first mile split was not that much faster than last year when it rained all day long and was more humid. At the same time, Matt was not all that far ahead. I kept the effort as intense as possible without risking an implosion, which is the real challenge of Escarpment. It is possible to race the entire distance at a high intensity if the training is there and your body cooperates in all respects on race day. If you are wrong about your pace, though, the last 30-60 minutes will be ugly.
I managed to reach the summit of Windham in about 34 minutes, which was 40 seconds faster than last year. I had been hoping for 33 minutes, which I think was Matt’s split. For those familiar with Strava, 34 minutes requires an average grade adjusted pace of 6:30, and then you have to keep racing hard for another 2.5 hours. My legs felt good on the descent from Windham, which I knew I had to push after losing Matt on the climb. My efforts paid off, and as I passed through the aid station at the base of Blackhead, they told me Matt was only 9 seconds ahead. I told them I was entirely aware of this, as I could see him up the trail! The bad news was that Jacob was only 25 seconds behind me. He closed the gap quickly, but I hung onto his heels as we scaled the upper ledges on all fours and he was only 5 seconds ahead at the summit. Matt had put 1:30 on me over the 1 mile climb.
Once again, after pounding some Coke (thanks, Mike!), Jacob and I were tearing down from the summit as we had done in years past. On one particularly rooty section, Jacob tripped and went down hard; probably an 8.0 on the Richter scale. I checked to see that he was OK, then took off after Matt. I was able to catch him right at Dutcher’s Notch, the start of the three tiered never-ending climb to Stoppel Point. It was painful to know what was surely going to happen next, Matt was going to pull away on the climb, and there was nothing I could do about it. I could not afford to let him get a massive lead, making the climb an intensely stressful effort. My split for the ascent was under 26 minutes, which was good, and the only thing left to do was to start running really hard, as if I had not been running hard for 2.5 hours already. After the hardening at Whiteface, my quads were prepared for the steeper downhill inclines and ledges, but everything comes at a cost.
With 2 miles left to run, I came around a corner, blew through a turn on a switchback, and there was Matt. He gave me a dirty look for missing the switchback, and then got up on his toes and bounded down the trail with his 10ft stride. I kept him in sight for as long as I could, but he was steadily pulling away on the flats and minor inclines. I had no knee lift, my legs were shot; I was exhausted. My only chance to gain on him was the ledges, so I took as many chances descending those as my legs would allow. There were too many close calls to count, but my Orocs kept my face off the rocks.
It wasn’t enough, and Matt took the win by 45 seconds in 2:56. I climbed well, but Matt was too strong. His cumulative time on the uphills was 3:30 faster than mine, but his 35 minute run down to the finish was just as essential to his victory. It was great to see my MPF RNR teammate, Jayson Kolb, run through a couple of dozen runners to get 5th place in 3:09, and a very excited Mike Suidy PR at 43 years and post-knee surgery. Congratulations to all the finishers that got to experience Escarpment in pristine conditions. Thanks to Mike and the other volunteers for clearing the course and lugging up all that water and Coke to the aid stations! Another successful Escarpment from Dick Vincent.
Despite the outstanding weather, there were no other runners under 3 hours. Since 2001, with a field of 250 runners each year, there have been only 10 people that have broken 3 hours. For comparison, in that same period of time, there have been 14 finishers of Barkley.