Manitou’s Revenge 2017 "Respect" by Ben Nephew
It is 36 miles into the race, and I’m trying to aggressively down climb a slick 20 ft. cliff as Andy disappears around the corner. What am I doing?
Looking back at that moment and the race as whole, I am just happy I made it to the start and finish lines. It has been a rough year due to a severe capture the flag induced injury in December of 2016. I have been fortunate to be relatively healthy for a number of years, but a slip in the snow while trying to crush Gavin and his cousin Miles really did me in. My entire left hip was sore for weeks, walking and sleeping were uncomfortable, and I had to take significant time off at a few different periods as I struggled to get back to 100%. Health and fitness are too often taken for granted until they are taken away.
I was forced to be increasingly patient. In exchange, my body once again bailed me out and I was finally able to start running again. I could not have asked for much more with 2nd and a 5:12 at Breakneck, as Adam Russell was strong as an ox. This was a problem, as he was running Manitou. I would have liked for Cayuga to have gone better, and the tightness in my hips during the last half was concerning given that Manitou would be another 3 hours on much rougher terrain.
My direct background for Manitou's Revenge was the blazing fast 2014 race, where Jan Wellford caught Brian Rusiecki and me, and stormed to a 10:50 course record that has not been threatened since. I’ve also had some good runs on the Escarpment trail that covers the early miles of Manitou’s, and it took me several attempts to get the FKT for the Devil’s Path back from Josh Burns, so I’ve always been attracted and felt a strong connection to the race. This connection to the physical trail is highly correlated to the people who organize and run the race. Anyone who completes the 54 miles of the route is tough as nails, and that is my kind of person. I wasn’t able to make the race since 2014, and I was definitely looking forward to finally giving it another shot.
However, even without the hip injury, the Manitou’s course flat-out frightens me. It is long, hard, dangerous, punishing, and relentless. The race may not eat its young, but it severely abuses them. I don’t consider dropping out of races very often, but I was very close to pulling out of the 2014 race as I was crawling up Plateau Mountain. While I’m competitive, I was happy just to finish, and that was certainly the primary objective for 2017. Given how uniquely insane the terrain is, it is difficult to adequately respect the course, and that is something one must do just to survive to the finish line. In addition the course, the competition was very strong this year, as Jan was back, Adam was in great form, Jason Kolb had almost run me down at Cayuga, and Andy Vermilyea, who has been second at Grindstone and Vermont 100’s, was racing.
The lead up to start was complicated by the weather. I was initially planning on running without spiked shoes to give my feet a break, but when I checked out the course the day before, the rocks were incredibly slick. Mike Siudy saved the day with some tools, and I was able to create a compromise by removing a couple of spikes from a pair of developmental Inov-8 Orocs I was testing. I would have gone with a pair of current Oroc 280’s, but I left them at home. The decision to go with spikes was solidified when I considered the potentially fragile state of my hip. Besides the course conditions, the temperature was not bad, but the humidity on race day was around 101%.
We started up the road to the trailhead at a very similar pace as 2014, and although the pace started to get intense when we entered the woods, it settled down quickly. My legs felt great after a long taper following Cayuga, and I was cautiously optimistic. Adam was running strong and tucked in behind him for the early miles. I had my 2014 splits on my bottles to compare and we hit Dutcher's Notch about 2 minutes slower this year. With the slicker course and increased humidity this was not a surprise. The climb up Stoppel felt controlled and I took the lead down to North South Lake Aid Station to make the navigation a little easier on everyone.
We arrived at the aid station in about 3:01, which was 3-4 minutes slower than the 2014 split. I continued to lead, with Andy and Adam right behind. After a smaller climb, the next few miles are faster running down to Palenville, and it was nice to stretch the legs. Brian and I had been cruising, probably a bit too quick, in 2014, and we were about 6 minutes slower to the aid station at 21.5 miles despite a couple of 7 minute miles that dropped 500-600 ft. Adam and Andy were very quick to head out, and I had some ground to make up by the time I started the short stretch of road leading to Kaaterskill Peak. I had gotten new bottles for the race, and one was not opening very easily, so thanks to Ben Drew at North South for helping me with that!
In 2014 Brian had pushed Kaaterskill pretty hard, and I don’t think that worked out for us, so I was happy to see Andy and Adam take conservative approach to the climb. I passed Adam and Andy began to slowly pull away, but the pace was still conservative. Adam attempted to distract Andy by complimenting him on his impressive calves. As Andy and I turned a switchback, I thought I heard Adam call out to us. Andy stated he was telling us he was getting sick, and I noted that it did sound like that. Andy wondered if he should go hold Adam’s head, but I suggested that Adam probably just wanted to be alone. If that had been me, I would have been out of the race, but Adam the ox just kept going.
Kaaterskill had its fair share of mud up top after our wet spring, and it was challenging trying to figure out the best path through some sections. That climbing seemed to never end. One goal was to make it to 31 miles, over Kaaterskill, in good shape, as going into the Devil’s Path requires as much leg strength as possible. At mile 31.5 at Platte Cove we were at 5:36, which means we must have maintained 2014 pace, which was surprising.
The next mile was one of the most intense of the race, as Andy again got out of the aid station with a decent lead and I tried to bridge the gap gradually. The grade adjusted pace for the first mile leading into the Devil’s Path was under 8:00, which meant we probably ran our hardest mile so far 31 miles into the race. It felt hard, and I would have let Andy go if we had not backed off in the next mile. We still made very good time up Indian Head, and Andy began to display his downhill running prowess any time the trail went down. I tried to follow as efficiently as possible, keeping in mind that pushing the downhills can cost you on the climbs if you get overly aggressive. In contrast to the rugged terrain we were battling, we passed serene views from above the clouds and ran by rows of pink mountain laurel.
We avoided getting turned around on Twin, as Brian and I had, and Andy laughed when I told him how we had run right back at Jan, who was happy to see us. The descent from Twin gets increasingly intense, and this is where Andy negotiated the 20ft cliff on the left side as I could not figure out why there did not seem to be an option on the right, which is where I have always gone down. Apparently, like the Hillary Step on Everest, there has been some movement in this area, and a key root is no longer. Andy was suddenly out of sight, and I basically swung down the cliff, praying I could find some good hand and foot holds. The next half mile was a full body experience as I attempted to balance personal safety with regaining contact with Andy. It was too early to be full-on racing, but it was possible he could get a substantial lead that would be difficult to overcome if I lost contact. I was able to gain time of the steepest sections, and regrouped for the grind up Sugarloaf. I had a laugh as he ran us in a circle after getting off trail briefly. Andy started to fall back towards the summit, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the effort or some other reason.
The next aid station at Mink Hollow had been critical in the 2014 race. I had pushed the downhill from Sugarloaf, which is vicious, too hard to take the lead, and my legs were shot for the climb up Plateau. It is also possible I got behind on salt and/or calories, as it is easy to get distracted by the no-fall terrain and forget about fueling. Andy was able to catch up on the descent, and we hit Mink at about 7:40, which was only 2-3 minutes slower than my 2014 split. I made sure to top off on Coke and S caps, and headed up Plateau with caution. The humidity continued to be draining, but my legs were still feeling good. I was steadily pulling away from Andy, but it was not a massive lead.
I was surprised at how quickly I reached the broad summit of Plateau. I imagined it to be more runnable that it is, forgetting about the piles of roots, small momentum killing ledges, and awkward turns. I expected Andy to get catch up quickly, but could not spot him coming down the trail by the time I made the left turn for the long descent down to Silver Hollow at mile 43.5. I was moving well, and just as I thought that I might have made a decisive break, I hear Andy cruising down the trail behind me. He settled in, and I increased the pace slightly due to shame. We hit the Silver Hollow aid station at 8:45, exactly my split from 2014.
For once, I left before Andy, and with only two climbs left, put some serious effort into the ascent of Edgewood Mountain. It is not a massive climb, but at that point in the race it felt like a substantial ascent. I was hitting the Coke and salt hard at this point, which seemed to be working. I had not seen Andy for about a half hour when I passed some hiker who asked if there was a race. Andy was nice enough to inform that yes, there was a race, as he reeled me in. I was definitely developing a complex about my downhill ability, but then realized it was probably due to my PTSD from the Tramper downhill in 2014. The descent is by far the nastiest finish to a 50 miler I have ever experienced. The good news was that it took Andy a while to catch me on the downhill, and it was also nice to have someone to suffer with over the last miles, which are primitive and rough.
At the river crossing prior to the last tiered grind up Tremper, Andy had the great idea of cooling off in the river. He then led the charge up the lower part of the climb, and it took me a while to regain contact. I passed him with the realization that I needed a considerable lead to survive his downhill onslaught to the finish. There is fine line between hammering an uphill and digging yourself an early grave for anything following the climb, and I was back and forth all over that line all the way up the mountain. I was running every step I possibly could until I could not see straight, recovering for as few steps as possible, and then running some more.
After steadily pulling away on the climb and still having my legs feel OK on the following short flat and downhill section, I was feeling confident I had managed to drop Andy for good. A few seconds after I reached the Willow aid at 48.5, Andy comes around the corner. I almost cried, it didn’t make any sense, it was like he just teleported there. Again, I pulled away on the next 150 ft climb, and again, Andy reeled me back in on the subsequent 200 ft descent. He asked me if he reminded me of an old girlfriend, which made me laugh so hard I almost fell down. He might have been more like the trail running version of Lyme Disease, or just Lyme Disease.
At this point, the situation was that we had been running together for the vast majority of the last 50 miles, 15k ft of climbing, and 10 hours. I had 250 feet over a half mile to forge a lead substantial enough to weather a 2.5 mile downhill that drops 2k. Considering he had caught me in less than half that distance when I had large leads, I was not optimistic. There was nothing left to do but try. Again, I threw myself towards the summit of Tremper, trying to extract every possible inch with each step. Cresting the top, I went into full on panic mode and ran for my life. Apparently I was only about 2 minutes ahead of my 2014 split. After about a mile of descending as if being chased by the devil himself, I glanced behind me and could not spot Andy. Given his teleporting talents, I was still in an extreme state of paranoia and sacrificing my feet and legs for the sake of a very insignificant difference in finish order. I could hear the road, but the descent would not end. I finally thought I might be able to make it to the road in the lead, which would mean I would have to hammer to get out of sight. The roughest section of the downhill is just prior to the road, and my legs almost dropped me as I stumbled down and directly into traffic. I really didn’t care if I got hit by car at that point, at least then I could lay down. Once I started down the road, I almost jumped over the guardrail to try and hide from Andy. The pace on my Garmin was not encouraging, and the tenths could not pass quickly enough.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved to reach a finish line, and this is the standard expression for all Manitou’s Revenge finishers. After 54 miles, Andy was less than two minutes behind, with our times and Jan’s CR being the only times under 11 hours, which I think will become the ultra version of a sub 3 hour run at Escarpment. Andy’s run was really impressive, and we could not have that fast with each other’s help. Despite all my years of racing, it is still hard to precisely match my ability and current fitness with a course on a specific day, and I don’t think I could have run one second faster out there. At the end of the day, we ran respectfully and intelligently aggressive, and forged a friendship at the same time. Adam recovered to hold onto third place, Jason Kolb ran strong for fourth, and Manitou took out Jan with a back strain after a slip early on. On a large map of the Catskill Mountains, the course traverses from the top to the bottom. While driving down the Northway, I can point out the Escarpment course to my boys at a single time. With Manitou, I point to the start area, drive a half hour to Kaaterskill, and then drive another half hour to Tremper, with most of the visible ridgelines along the way being part of the course. As someone who for years had only Escarpment and 7 Sister’s for truly outstanding mountain racing, we are so lucky to have races like Manitou, Breakneck, Whiteface, Catstail, and others.
Many thanks to Charlie and the hordes of volunteers who make Mantou’s Revenge happen with some serious Sherpa action, including the gallons of Coke that kept me going all day. The gaps between aid stations are so long, it gets lonely out there and I look forward to seeing people. I should also mention the incredible MFP RNR team dinner at Brios, most notably the lamb poutine, over homemade thick cut potato chips. Phenomenal. A special thanks to my MPF RNR teammates, who always inspire.
At this point in my competitive running career, I am satisfied with what I've been able to do, but I have wanted to at least take a shot at winning Manitou for the past three years. While I was familiar with the most of the route in 2014 and knew how tough it was, I did not give it the respect it demanded. You don’t really race Manitou’s Revenge, you survive it, and the Dark Lord chooses who gets out first. For those who strive to obtain an advanced degree in Northeastern mountain racing, Manitou is the ultimate final exam, and I think I used all my 20 years of trail racing experience to make it to the finish. Congratulations to all the finishers of the ultra and the relay, and all who were crazy enough to line up at the start! If you can survive that, you can survive pretty much anything. For those that did not make it to the finish this year, Manitou is waiting for your return next year; get ready.
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