Trails to Redemption by John Pinder

Legs and lungs burning, heart rate at maximum – and running is impossible. We are scaling the half-mile wall of boulders leading to Breakneck Point. A jagged cliff to the right presents magnificent vertical views and comparative dangers. I observe how far we might fall before rolling into the Hudson River below. Now focusing on hand and foot placement instead, I keep my dizzy eyes down to avoid catastrophe. This event was destined to be tough when the race director signaled us into the woods with an actual bullhorn.

After a five-year hiatus from endurance racing, I seek redemption in the least probable of places – the Breakneck Point half-marathon. This rugged 14.3-mile course offers cumulative elevation gains of over 4,200 feet and some of the steepest ascents and descents of any trail race in the country. For me, however, this race is a perfect fit. A new course of such unique characteristics means a personal best is in order regardless of pace. The initial goal is to finish in one piece.

RD Ian Golden marking the course up the Breakneck Ridge climb.

RD Ian Golden marking the course up the Breakneck Ridge climb.

Older, wiser and slower – I start trudging up the hills with my spouse and our two friends. The lead runners are long since gone, but as people start passing me I get that feeling of agitation a once competitive runner appreciates. I say goodbye to our group and start a more hurried excursion. An affinity for trail racing is born.

All the little things I missed for so long resurface from underneath years of self-doubt and decline– but I am strong! Leapfrogging the same few people for hours over boulders, roots and mud becomes some of the most fun I experience in years – the exhilaration, exertion and exhaustion alike.

“Look at that view!”

After almost killing ourselves on the steepest section of the course, three of us pause to soak up the panorama overlooking the Hudson River and surrounding Highlands. I guzzle Gatorade from my hydration pack as the feeling returns to my legs.

“Now keep looking at that view so I can beat you to the finish.”

The person ahead of me jokes as we both attempt to teach our legs how to run again after the punishing ascent. A race continues into the high trees.

From the nervous banter at the starting line to the heartfelt conversations at the finish, I thrive on the collective energy. I thrive on the natural terrain and mud on my shoes. I thrive on the fresh air and sweat on my clothes. I never come close to breaking records or winning awards, but I finish that race with a vengeance and a new personal best for 14.3 miles of technical trails.

“This is who I was talking about!”

As I cross the finish line, I am greeted with an enthusiastic fist-bump and welcoming celebration from the runners ahead. We exchange stories of triumph and conquest from our epic morning of trail running.

“You were killing me on those climbs.”

Breathing down this person's neck during the hike up Bull Hill, I never did pass. The runner I ended up passing on the descent has a different take on things.

“I could hear you coming a mile away!”

I almost ran him over before crashing like a freight train into some bushes earlier in the race. Perhaps he let me pass to avoid being trampled to death. All is forgiven at the post-race party, though. I think the kegs of beer help with that one.

The whole experience brings a smile to my face, despite a desperate need for Advil. Feeling the cumulative affects of age and exertion, I leave the millennials at the beer kegs and take a nap on a bench by the lake.

As I get older, some personal best performances might remain distant memories. However, that just means I am due for a different battleground and not for surrender. Regardless of age, a unique trail race offers redemption to those brave enough to cross the starting line. At the finish, the elation is immeasurable.

The Breakneck Point half-marathon might be one of the most insane options out there, but it comes highly recommended by this once competitive runner now on the trail to personal redemption. Of course, I owe it all to my amazing wife who signed me up for the restorative adventure in the first place. Some people buy their spouse flowers to show appreciation. I plan to return the favor with an application to another trail race instead. I might be sleeping on the couch tonight, regardless –my quads can’t make it up the stairs right now.

Enjoying the early miles at the 2nd race of the Salomon NY Trail Series, the Water Gap 50k.

Enjoying the early miles at the 2nd race of the Salomon NY Trail Series, the Water Gap 50k.

John Pinder is a freelance writer and health educator living in upstate New York. He teaches emotionally troubled youth at a residential facility in Rhinebeck and is known for his successes as a musician and singer-songwriter. Visit his social media pages here: and