Race Report: The 2018 Escarpment Trail Run by Aaron Stredny
The Escarpment Trail Run, though not a marathon or ultra distance is a multi-mountain race of complicated length and scrupulous strategy. It is short enough at 17’ish miles that you feel you should be able to push your legs and lungs hard the whole way. However, beware, if you push too hard on the long climbs or precipitous descents you may suffer the burly wrath of Manitou via a trembling series of muscle seizures more commonly referred to in the field as “Not-Now- Son-of-a-#$@!%^%$#*$#!” This for me usually happens somewhere on or after the Stoppel Point climb and is determined by my, to date, poor decision making tactics in the jagged miles before. It is a race rich in history and for a beast coast trail runner, an absolute bucket list event.
This 42nd Annual Escarpment Trail Run would be my third time lining up against Manitou. Race morning arrived clear in the craggy, weathered Catskill Mountains of upstate NY with keen anticipation, big smiles, hugs and high-fives all around the bustling start area as a large contingent of the MPF/RNR fam was in attendance. After chatting with a few familiar and surprise faces I said hello to the RD and had a short but decisive conversation which led to a last minute, surprise move for me into the much coveted Wave #1. Not to be dramatic, but since my first Escarpment, I’ve daydreamed in training of starting amongst Wave 1.
Though a little unsure seeing the caliber of competitors this year, this was the wave I wanted to race from, feeling that to run with the best would bring out mine. I like the simple concept of trail racing, you just show up and go to work. It is a welcome respite from the more burdened work week, the regimented training sessions and of course a chance to see how those specific suffer bouts are panning out. It is straightforward, your individual effort today will be the apex of what you can do.
8:58 am. Wave #1. A wily aggregate of speedy road runners and burly mountain specialists each with their respective strengths was called across the road to the rock-strewn singletrack funnel where Dick said we had only a few moments but in fine fashion Matt Lipsey was able to fit in a lightning quick bear joke, unfortunately resulting in absolute crickets. Dick took pity on the joker and his audience and abruptly counted down 5,4,3,2,1, GO! And sent us off to do our own individual combat with Manitou.
After running 3:14 last year, I had memorized 4 splits for the day to try and meet or beat: Windham in 37:00, Blackhead 1:42, Stoppel Point 2:34 and the Finish Line at North-South Lake 3:09). Although, it’s funny the only one I remembered during the battle was Blackhead, you’re simply too busy the whole effort trying to be fast, efficient, eat, drink and not fall on your face to remember any minutiae.
Climbing somewhere around 10th or 11th place on the first ascent up Windham High Peak it all felt terribly hard compared to how I trained but after reaching the summit in 37:00 flat, I quickly refocused on bombing down the bumpy but very runnable backside heading towards Burnt Knob and Acra Point. I was feeling much better now being warmed up, taking downhill switchbacks like a sidewinder and shifting into striped gazelle on the flatter singletrack sections. The effort felt great and sustainable and I celebrated by cramming a delicious (shut up, just tell yourself it’s delicious) gel into my calorie burning furnace, Mmmmm.
Mountainous Racing Tip: The timing between gels in a craggy endurance race is usually strict, and for good reason. However, actually ripping open and consuming the gel is dictated by the current terrain which may move the intake point up to 10 mins in either direction. If, for example the downhill is a total Jamaican bombtrack, this would be an instance you might wait a few and eat the gel or gummy when you’re on more manageable terrain so you can bobsled the fast stuff and save time. Additionally, I personally put calories in my water bottle and try to consume a gel about every 30-45 minutes, blowing through most aid stations, stopping only for water refills as I carry all the nutrition I need for the ~3.2 hrs of Escarpment; 6 gels.
After passing 2 people on the way to Acra point, I’m now running near my top-end behind 2 others (Evan and Blue Shorts Ben... his last name starts Nils... and gets more Swedish from there). We are rolling on a rocky singletrack and dodging pitfalls when all of a sudden I hear cheering and we emerge, jumping down over large rocks into the AS at the Base of Blackhead where, Blue Shorts Ben, stops for aid while I charge straight through knowing I can fill water in less than a mile on the summit. Minutes slowly pass and as I quickly switch between a lactate- building jog and a burning power hike, Ben re-passes me but I can see we are now trailing 3 new racers just ahead, with Ben Nephew at the front. This immediately gives me pause to question my overall pace and where I’m at in regard to my splits.
I glance at my watch knowing my climb time for Blackhead, I’m currently only a minute and half ahead of split, I’m ok. The climb is long and steep (see video from MPF’s ever-present Joe Azze below) and part of my strategy is to take’er easy on the big climbs in order to save for the final dash from Stoppel to the finish, typically my weakest section, so I try to relax. The summit of Blackhead finally arrives and the volunteers are beyond wonderful, quickly pouring water and offering goodies and shot blocks on paper plates. I am truly thankful to the these remarkable and stupendous humans for their stoke and strength in providing this essential mountain oasis and tell them so just when I see Blue Shorts Ben pommel horse off the the edge of a boulder and into the Level 4 Mario Bros pinball descent off Blackhead. Gotta go. Queue dance music!
The descent is not for the meek and involves break dance moves hitherto unseen outside of vintage 80’s MTV music videos. The hammering quad trauma is only rarely interrupted by short, flattish sections which afford brief rests in concentration. At this point I am super pleased with my last second shoe decision as my Salomon Sense 6 contra grip soles are sticking to absolutely everything and I know I’m moving faster than last year! I had a plan to run this whole descent Cool-Runnings-fast but as the terrain changes to a brief uphill it’s feeling harder to push than I want it to so I back off a tiny bit and let Ben go hoping I’ll reel him and the other Ben in on the next downhill.
This is an important section of the race as a racer with trained legs and mind will be able to stay present and hammer through the runnable flats and downhills in the later stages of the long descent off Blackhead, bummer I’m struggling a bit. It’s strange how emotions and energy pitch and toss during long efforts, and as it happened a few trail minutes later, I suddenly felt a rising surge of energy and immediately recognize and decide to use it absolutely tearing past the Dutcher Notch AS and into the 3-tiered Stoppel Point climb. I am again working hard and have come up right behind the gloved knuckles of Ben Nephew’s working spine. He is out climbing me and I’m content to follow as my legs are thoroughly feeling the burn. After many-many minutes we finally begin nearing the top and I chance an opportunity to quickly bushwhack past Ben on a short flat ignoring the building lactate and focus on a fast efficient cadence past the infamous plane wreck. The Stoppel Point AS party erupts into reality and the rad volunteers fill my water while I try clumsily to retrieve an electrolyte capsule from its nest while jogging away. I of course drop it, pick it up and swallow dirt-and-all wondering what time split I was supposed to remember for this spot.
The threatening foreshadowed leg cramps have arrived! They are the reason I was supposed to remember to take’er easy earlier but I’m bad at that. My leg muscles are becoming exhausted but I keep getting intermittent glimpses of racers ahead so I keep pulsing on the gas pedal, I’m good at that. I really did not want the extra weight so I took less than a half a water bottle at Stoppel only in the case I would need to swallow another emergency electrolyte capsule - which if I had a second to spare I definitely would. I’m slowly, but definitely reeling in the racers in front of me when we suddenly emerge to the last AS of the day atop the sandstone-cropped North Point.
I quickly see one of them is Tim Van Orden, who has descended the wrong spot and yells “which way?!” I know the trail bolting left and respond “this way!” I’m jumping off ledges and descending with renewed vigor now having passed 2 racers and I instantly see 2 more surprisingly close. I’m pressing the pedal to the floor but my legs laugh like ‘ya right bruh.’ I block it out, now I can get them. I glance at my watch mileage, about 1.5 miles to go. I know I have only minutes to make a move. Suddenly, as I’m thinking how long 10 minutes will feel, the guy 5 feet in front of me slips to his knees on a muddy rock slab, I jump the brief opening and pass him, running on cramp flickering legs immediately behind the blue shorts of Ben Nilsestuen, that's it! This is intense racing, I am sure Ben is feeling it as much as me and I’m wondering if I have it when I see him take a slightly more meandering path down the left side of a steep downhill rock jumble, I take my shot and bomb straight down careening a wide left turn into the never-ending singletrack thinking come on, just a little more. Ben is right behind me when all of a sudden I glance up, seeing Elizabeth Azze of Mountain Peak Fitness hiking towards me and moments later emerge to the finish beating Ben by 9 seconds and grabbing 6th place in 3:05:32.
Whew! That last 20 minutes was the most awesome, spirited racing in my short career! What a trail race! What a morning! The east coast trail scene is one of the best and the finish area at Escarpment displays why with family, friends and racers all cheering for every single finisher while gnoshing outstanding homemade goodies and smiling big! The community shows off it’s best attributes at a trail finish line as everyone's pre-race-guard is down as former strangers are energetically sharing experiences in the festive atmosphere as part of a tribe. I can still feel and picture the awesome scene: the hands-on-knees fatigue, the high fives, the radiant smiles. This is my favorite race of the year for many reasons but it wouldn’t exist without the remarkable corps of volunteer efforts at its nucleus, to them and the man with the vision, RD Dick Vincent, I extend my sincere thanks and praise for making this crazy adventure a trying possibility for us all. Finally, a big congrats to all the awesome finishers of this humbling race and of course to the two outstanding winners of the 42nd Escarpment Trail Run: Meira Minard (State College, PA) was the first woman through in 3:36:33 and in a stunner, Lee Berube (Syracuse, NY) broke Ben Nephew’s seemingly olympic course record running a wing-searing 2:42:09. Sick.