I thought I might be done with winning Escarpment. I had lost the past two years, was approaching 40, and the competition certainly wasn’t getting any easier. For this year, I was in the UK the week before the race to attend a conference and I ran the Snowdon mountain race (Ben's Race Report from Snowdon) the weekend prior to Escarpment. On the positive side of things, I had started to get back to doing more short, mountain specific workouts in preparation for Snowdon as well as Escarpment. My progression to ultras over the last decade was not ideal for shorter and faster trail races. I have always realized that there was going to be one last win, but I’m not sure I was ready for it to be the 2011 race. At the same time, losing reaffirmed by affection for the course, as I never thought about not running just because I couldn’t win. While Snowdon was not a strong race for me, a couple weeks before that I ran a 1:04:31 at the Blue Hills Skyline race, which is only about 90 second off my best time on that course. As I lined up on the start, I figured that going for my 12th win was worth a shot.
As our small sub-group took off with the new wave start, the lights went out. I’ve run in many severe thunderstorms, but I have never seen it get so dark so quickly. As the rain dropped in sheets, we joked about forgetting our headlamps. It is likely that we all slowed down a little, it was that dark. My race plan was basically the same as every year, try to find the hardest pace I might be able to sustain for 3 hours, and hang on. No one let me get away at the start, and it was soon clear that it was a very strong field. Soaked shoes did not help on the climb up Windham, and I tried to keep the pressure on all the way to the summit without resorting to racing at such an early stage. I wasn’t entirely aware of what was going on behind me as we reached the summit, but it was obvious that I had plenty of company.
The reality was that we had a group of 5 guys within a span of 10 seconds, me, Dave Vona, Jaime Julia, Jeremy Drowne, and Chris Chromczak. That has never happened in my 15 years at Escarpment. In addition, Ian Golden and Ryan Welts were not too far behind. Dave has several top 3 finishes at Escarpment, and I’ve spent some quality time chasing him in various years. Jaime is a very strong road runner with an excess of both leg speed and climbing ability, and he also has the physique of a Greek god, which is concerning. Jeremy and Ian, they used to destroy me in XC in high school and college, respectively. Based on a strong first half in last year’s race, I was most worried about Jaime, and that was warranted.
With the downpour at the start and the wet course, I decided to try and take advantage of my Orocs that I was wearing, and really push the downhill off of Windham. Nothing compares to the grip of a shoe with tungsten carbide dobs on wet terrain. I knew Jaime was wearing Trailrocs, and does not have as much trail experience as I do, so it seemed like a logical plan. Even if it wasn’t the smartest plan, hammering that downhill was a blast. Despite the slick conditions, I was carrying excessive speed into and out of the turns. I managed to separate from Jaime quickly, and I gained confidence as the miles passed and I couldn’t hear or see anyone behind.
That confidence dissolved exactly one minute after I reached the aid station at the base of Blackhead Mountain and heard cheering for Jaime. Despite my downhill effort, he was still right there, and my legs were not exactly feeling great after the hard descent. The steep rock scramble climb up Blackhead is also a relative strength for me, but Jaime is also a very good climber, and pushing it too hard on Blackhead often results in a death march up the long final climb to Stoppel Point. I basically maintained my one minute lead to the summit of Blackhead and immediately threw myself down the other side, hoping to extend my advantage before we got to the more runnable climb up Stoppel.
My legs still felt good enough to handle the steep incline. I took some risks off the ledges, and the Orocs saved me a few times from my own stupidity or unexpected slippery sections. The start of the Stoppel climb came quickly, along with the realization that there is a cost for hard downhill running. I was doing OK on the gradual uphills, but my legs were struggling on the steep sections. I couldn’t hear any cheering for Jaime, so I started to relax a little. My ascent of Stoppel was far from my best, and I was relieved to get to the top and begin the final four mile push to the finish.
Those last miles are my favorite of the course, and I still enjoyed them in spite of my rapidly deteriorating legs. There is always a certain level of paranoia when leading towards the end of a long trail race, but I prefer that paranoia to the frustration of chasing and realization of losing. As I approached the finish, I became more concerned with breaking 3 hours, as I’ve never run over 3, even in my losses. I crossed the line in 2:58:13 with a sense of relief and satisfaction. It was great to have Aiden and Gavin there, as they don’t often see me win. I haven’t appreciated an Escarpment win that much since I broke the course record ten years ago. Dave Vona had a strong second half to finish in 3:06, and Jaime, Ian, and Ryan all finished between 3:09 and 3:11.
I always enjoy catching up with all the other racers, many who I only see at Escarpment. I smiled when Rich Fargo, a 7-time winner, was telling me how much more enjoyable the race is when you aren’t trying to win. He is right, and I know that time will come for me, but I don’t want to rush it.
For more videos, photos and race reports from the Escarpment Trail Run, including Ben Nephew's climb up Blackhead Mountain during the 2013 race, click here.