Living the Catskill Dream by Mike Siudy "Catskill 35 Direttissima"
At 5 AM on May 24, 2018, I started speed hiking up the Peekamoose-Table trail. It was the beginning of a journey that would take me nearly 2 ½ days to complete. Along the way I would cover around 140 miles, climb over 38,000 feet of vertical ascent, and reach the summits of all 35 High Peaks in the Catskill Mountains that are over 3500 feet above sea level. I have hiked or run or skied to the summits of these mountains many times (read “The Grid & 420 Summits”) before but never all in one push. A complete mile by mile account of what I did is not of particular interest to me, but what is interesting are the feelings that I had, the realizations that I came to, and the power of friendship and support.
I can’t remember exactly when I became interested in attempting this “Catskill 35 direttissima” but it has been on the front of my mind for the past couple of years. Nearly every time that I have gone hiking or running in the Catskills I have had this route in mind. I previously had rehearsed all but a two-mile bushwhack and the road sections. I could visualize the entire route from start to finish. There were trees and rocks that I had seen so many times that I could anticipate their appearances. My mind was full of information from all those hundreds of miles of reconnaissance, the mistakes I had made in the past, and the later adjustments that made moving along the landscape more efficient.
Early to mid-May is an ideal time to hike in the Catskills. The snow has melted from winter, the temperatures are cool, the plants have not started to grow yet affording clear views, and the gnats and black flies are not out. One problem with the month of May is that it rains a lot. So, while I wanted to do this attempt earlier, the previous two weekends were skipped due to rain and cold temperatures. The last weekend in May would be my final opportunity to give this a shot. Since it was so late in the month, the daytime highs we’re around 80, trees had started to grow leaves, the stinging nettles and prickers were coming up and the bugs were alive and kicking. These were not ideal conditions, but it was the best I was going to get.
I felt really good going through the first 10 peaks and 23 miles alone. The morning was cool and breezy keeping the bugs at bay, but as the day warmed the black flies woke up. I began the steep, thick, trail less ascent up Fir mountain around 1 PM, I put on a head net and sweated profusely to the summit. This was a story for the next four mountains until I dropped down into Seager to see my crew. My wife Tara raced up after work and stopped at Chipotle to get me burritos which I devoured with a tasty beer. This raised my spirits immensely and after 25 minutes or so I set out into the night with my friends Mendy Gallo and Jay Lemos. Mendy dedicated her three days off work this week to support and accompany me on this journey, Jay had driven up Thursday night, took Friday off work to spend many hours and miles with me.
My itinerary had included a two-hour nap at approximately 3 AM after coming down from Halcott mountain. The challenges of navigating up and down, off trail in the dark 20 hours into my day put me about 45 minutes behind schedule. I arrived at the camper, wiped myself down, and crawled into bed. I set an alarm for 5:45 AM. When it rang, I had 1 ½ hours of solid sleep. I wanted no part of waking up, I was tired, cold, and sore. I also knew I was not even halfway through my journey. The urge to go back to sleep was overwhelming, all my momentum from the previous day had vanished. Fortunately, my thoughts quickly went to all the people that were sacrificing for me. If I were to quit now they would have wasted their time. If I asked for their help again I might not get it. Most importantly, in this tiny moment where I did not believe in myself, all of my friends did. I got out of bed, put clothes on, grabbed a bottle of water and started a 4-mile road walk with my friend Phil Vondra who had left his house at 4am to spend some time in the mountains with me. Mendy and Jay were still in the camper when I left. I began to feel a little better chatting with Phil and I livened right up when Mendy brought me a mug of coffee. I realized I could no longer go to sleep until I was done, this was a close call and I might not be so lucky next time.
When you begin a long run you often have a pack filled with water, food, and extra gear. As you eat and drink the pack gets lighter and it gets easier to carry. While this is commonplace I had never considered my mental load to be an issue. It dawned on me that when I began Thursday morning I had a decade + of information in my brain on how to get up and down 35 mountains in great detail. By Friday afternoon I had already done 23 peaks and over 80 miles and I started to feel a mental weight being lifted off of me. I no longer had to worry about those peaks and I could focus on the much smaller task ahead. My short-term memory had slowly been ridding itself of now useless knowledge. This reduction in mental fatigue was improving my physical ability. When Brian Oestrike and Jason Kolb started to pace me around 5:00pm, I felt rejuvenated and we moved well over Hunter Mountain into the night. One of the toughest sections for me was the descent down from Hunter. It drops 1500 feet in about a mile and a half. My legs were tired, I had developed some small blisters on my feet, and the trail is extremely Rocky and rugged.
We arrived at route 214 to a small party. Tara and Mendy were there along with Elizabeth Azze and Julian Vicente who we had seen a few hours ago. They had asked earlier if there was anything I needed or wanted. I said “a milkshake” not thinking that they could get me one. But a minute after I got to the parking area there was a milkshake in my hand. It tasted so delicious! Food and ultramarathoning is an odd combination. You need to eat a lot of calories to keep moving, but often your body does not have urge to eat. Forcing yourself to eat can have undesired consequences. This was the second time the right food had brought me out of a low spot. After refueling, Mendy jumped back in to pace again along with Elizabeth and Jayson on the infamous Devil’s Path. It was slow steady progress through the night, Jayson almost fell off a cliff (really), but we all made it out in one piece.
Eventually the night ended and after a refuel at Platte Clove, Jayson and I were heading up Kaaterskill High Peak. We almost caught sunrise up high on the east ridge, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Coming down KHP brought us to the old snowmobile loop trail. It is hands down the worst trail in the Catskills. Very wet, muddy, overgrown, you name it. It sucks. We reached our crew around 8am where a pretty large group had assembled. I had been alone for the first 15 hours, then with just one or two people for most of the other 35. Suddenly there are a dozen or so friends waiting for me to come in, cheering and offering food, drinks, etc. 5 of them said they were going through to the end with me. Tara had made me some egg, ham, and cheese wraps along with some coffee that always does the trick. Food to the rescue again. The gang embarked on the longest road section of about 6 miles.
It was warm for the 3rd day in a row and each time a gust of wind would blow I’d howl in excitement. I had been stripped down to a very simple existence, with simple needs and pleasures. Eat, walk, drink, run, drink, hike, eat, etc. No contact with the outside world except when I saw my friends. There weren’t even any other people on the trails until Saturday. All I had to do was take care of myself physically, talk to my pacers to sustain my mental well-being, and move forward. The lack of sleep no longer mattered, the painful blisters seemed disassociated from me, and I had a puffy knee that I was ignoring. This was as close to a state of Zen I have ever felt. Nothing really mattered except what was in front of me. I knew that I was going to finish, and in well under the old time record which was one of my goals. I was relaxed and found it much easier to move along.
Along the trail at the Black Dome summit we ran into Joe, Charlie, Amy and Eric and our group grew to 10! I was very excited with only 2 summits to go and the pace picked up a little bit. After going over Blackhead we charged down the decent, in one spot I seemed to run as if I were 2 miles into a race. It felt so good! I had mainly speed hiked for 2 days so whatever muscles I needed to run were still intact. Charlie went out to get his car and the 9 of us continued towards the final summit. My optimism (and fatigue) had me thinking the top was a lot closer than it really was. I was getting a little frustrated as I looked forward to that feeling of relief, and the can of beer that Mendy had carried up for me! The top finally came. I jumped up on the summit boulder in celebration. I cracked the warm beer and winced as I tried to drink it. It wasn’t too pleasant, so I made sure to pass it around ☺.
In 2002, Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer, was in the middle of a 5-year rampage where he set speed records in the Adirondacks, Whites, Rockies, and more, and completed the infamous “Barkley Marathons” in record time. From Sept 11-13, 2002 he hiked the Catskill 35 route in 63 hours, 24 minutes. I had been aware of this mark for many years and his time seemed beatable to me if everything aligned. Ted is from Oregon and hiked it in the fall after a month of prep. After 2 decades of Catskill hiking I have accumulated a wealth of local knowledge and experience to assist me, plus I would have 2.5 extra hours of light each day by going in the spring. As far as I know, this was Cave Dog’s last and longest standing record from that time.
Putting together an attempt like this takes a great deal of prep and organization. I could have tried to do it unsupported like Cory Delavalle and Jan Wellford in 4.5 days, but I don’t like carrying a heavy pack, I wanted to go light. This means that I needed people and supplies for me at every time I crossed a road. A solid support crew is critical for this. My wife Tara has crewed me at many races over the years including 24+ hours sessions through hurricanes, but she could not miss work on Thursday or Friday. Mendy Gallo stepped up in a huge way to run the show when Tara couldn’t be there. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. Not only did she crew me, but she shuttled pacers around to their vehicles, ran/hiked over 40 miles of the route with me, and most importantly, brought me a cold Frappuccino along the trail!!! Tara and Dexter raced up after work Thursday and Friday to love and support me with food, cheers, hugs, and kisses. She spent a ton of time keeping people updated on my progress and managing the growing number of pacers on the trail. She is my biggest fan. Jay, Jayson, and Phil all did huge chunks of mileage with me, keeping me moving and laughing. Brian, Elizabeth, Julian, Pat, Chris, Joe, Amy, Eric, and Charlie all spent quality time with me on the trail and I am forever grateful.
I had put together a rough itinerary for when I thought I would be at certain points along the course. My initial projected finish time was 2:15 pm on Saturday. After initially being up a half hour, I had lost some time on night one due to some navigation errors both on and off trail, Saturday was hot, and Saturday night was very difficult going over the DP with 100+ miles on me. This all put me 1:30 behind schedule heading up Thomas Cole. As the end neared and my pace increased this gap shrunk. I hit the summit of Windham High Peak at 1:35pm. Could I get down 3.6 miles in 40 minutes? I decided to go for it. We began to run. At one of the rocky sections I was jumping over boulders and Jay told me he was recording the descent so that only made me go faster. I think I had dropped everyone except for Jay and Phil and we continued to hammer down the mountain. When I began the direttissima, I signed into the trail register at Peekamoose, and I also planned on signing out at the end. As we approached the last mile of the trail I looked at my watch, 2:13. I asked Phil if he had any more left in him if he could run ahead and get the book out and open, so I could just sign it quick and keep going. When I arrived, there were 4 or 5 hikers there that were likely very confused as I signed out like a tornado and sprinted off to the parking area.
I touched the pavement at 2:16pm, 1 minute off my projected time of 57 hours, 15 minutes. I had made up 1.5 hours in the last 15 miles. I couldn’t believe it. I had done it. After 10+ years of serious hiking, I had broken the old record by 8 hours using the summit to summit standard. My trailhead to trailhead time was still over 6 hours faster. My body had held up with minor blister issues as the only hang up. In an email to Cave Dog, he signed off with “Live the Dream”. I was still alive, and I thought I was dreaming!
Mike sit's down with fellow teammate Jason Friedman of the Pain Cave podcast and talks about his FKT in greater detail. Have a listen!