Friday, October 19, 2018

Les Trois Croix - Barkley Fall Classic 2018

"It doesn't get any easier; you just get faster" Greg LeMond

You also don't look any prettier.
Photo by Misty Wong

I'm going to be honest with you guys. I was not in a good place after Fat Dog 120 was canceled in August. I had put months of hard training into that race, and I arrived on the west coast feeling the fittest I've ever been. Flying home without a buckle was demoralizing. I felt like I had wasted all of those long weekends that I spent logging tens of thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

I needed a win. And by that, I mean that I needed to get my ass kicked in a race.

That's where the Barkley Fall Classic comes into this story.


I have written extensively about the history behind the Barkley Fall Classic, so I won't go into much detail here. Suffice it to say that the BFC is one of the hardest 50K's in the country, combining a stout 11,000+ feet of climbing and descending with extended sections of bushwhacking and a bit of navigation through the backcountry trails of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. The winning times have varied from 7.5 hours to 9.5 hours over the years, and the top male and female receive a guaranteed entry into the Barkley Marathons.

I had run this race in 2015 and 2016, back before the Barkley Marathons was catapulted to worldwide fame by a documentary. When I tried to sign up for this year's race, I quickly learned that this little known 50K had grown up. The massive wave of people simultaneously attempting to register crashed UltraSignup for several hours in the middle of the night. But when the dust settled, I was in!

The Wednesday before the race, I got a text from my buddy Mike Siudy asking if he could drive down to Tennessee with me. He had just gotten off the wait list 11 months after signing up! Three days later, we found ourselves standing at the starting line of the Barkley Fall Classic, ready to tackle a beast of a race.

It Begins... (Start to Salvation Road)

At precisely 7am, Laz lit a cigarette and we were off.

Lazarus Lake is the conductor in a symphony of pain
Photo by Kristopher Cargile

About a week before the race, I had written a snarky condescending post titled How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe), in which I recommended training hard and starting the race at an easy pace. So naturally, I showed up to the starting line in questionable shape and I hauled ass for the first 1.5 miles to get around the teeming crowd of runners.

So uhh... do as I say, not as I do.

By the time we hit the narrow singletrack of Bird Mountain Trail, I found myself in about 50th place which seemed perfect. I was quickly passed on the first climb by Mike and Giuseppe Cavallo (with whom I had shared some miles at Manitou's Revenge) as well as a half dozen other runners. 60th place was fine too.

I plodded onward, allowing my heart rate to settle a bit after the frantic start. The first several hours of BFC are all on well established trails, and it's almost impossible to get lost. I say almost impossible because I had to correct several runners who inexplicably started to follow unmarked game trails or dry creek beds during these early miles. But then, who am I to judge other runners for poor navigation.

♫ Makin' my way uphill / Walkin' fast, trees pass / And I'm Rat Jaw bound
Photo by Misty Wong
Lyrics by Vanessa Carlton, sort of

The first few climbs and descents were uneventful. As usual, I got passed or maintained my position on the climbs and then passed other runners on the descents. I reached the first aid station in just over two hours, which was about 10 minutes faster than in 2016.

The aid station volunteers were football players from Coalfield High School, and they proudly informed me that they had won their game the previous night. In fact, I found out later, they had crushed their local rivals by a score of 49-0! Despite their victory, they were extremely humble and supportive of the runners. Most of their questions and statements were followed by the word "sir."

"Can I fill your water bottles, sir?"

"You're doing a great job, sir!"

I felt like a celebrity getting that kind of treatment, aside from the fact that I smelled and looked like some kind of drowned woodland rodent.

Anyway, back to the race. The new section of the course on Fork Mountain was covered in mud and standing water, but was otherwise pretty runnable. On the long descent down to Rt. 116 the trail became more exposed, and the heat and humidity started kicking in. I absolutely hate running in the heat, and the forecasts had called for a heat index of 98 degrees during the afternoon. I took the next few miles pretty easy to keep my core temperature down, and then I immediately doused myself in creek water when I reached the Salvation Road aid station.

Not me, but you get the idea
Photo by Mary Bogart

Beat the Rat (Salvation Road to Decision Point)

Now four hours and 15ish miles in, we were about to begin the crux of the race: the powerlines. The next five miles would take over two hours and include more than 4,000 feet of elevation change through briers, brambles, and brush (oh my!).

This was what I came for.

First up was Testicle Spectacle, a mile-long 800+ foot climb with multiple pitches, making it impossible to see the top from the bottom. The course followed rough jeep tracks briefly before crossing several dry creek beds and then ascending so steeply that I had to dig my hands into the dirt to pull myself up. I passed a handful of other runners in this section, one of whom was hunched over vomiting.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah," he responded between heaves. "What's the name of this climb? I want to remember where I started puking."

Forty minutes later I reached the summit and was surprised to find a birthday party in full swing.

You never know what you'll find on the trails of Frozen Head

"Thanks for coming to my birthday party!" cheered a woman wearing beads and a party hat.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world!" I responded. The crowd seemed pleased.

That feeling when you get to stop climbing

Having gained a bunch of elevation over the past forty minutes, it was time to give it all back. The descent was down another steep slope known lovingly as Meth Lab Hill. As in previous years, there were clear butt slide marks down the steepest sections where other runners had abandoned all hope of staying on their feet. I managed to keep my footing by turning sideways and surfing down. Sadly I don't have any pictures of this. I'm sure I looked very cool.

I arrived at the bottom of the hill still feeling fresh, but much hotter than I would have preferred. I found a muddy creek and splashed water on my face and neck. If I turn out to have an e coli infection later on, I want it known that this creek was the culprit.

Having cooled off sufficiently in dirty Meth Lab Hill water, it was time to face the rarest of obstacles in the Barkley Fall Classic: a mile of running on flat pavement. How bizarre! I trotted along at a conservative pace, keenly aware of how quickly my core temperature was increasing despite being soaked in water.

A short while later, I arrived at the entrance of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Race volunteers directed me through the prison yard and up to the rear wall where James Early Ray had escaped decades before. Standing guard at the top of the wall was none other than Jared Campbell, the legendary ultrarunner, adventurer, and only three-time Barkley Marathons finisher.

Typical Saturday. Thrash around through briers and escape from prison. The usual.
Photo by Larry Perry

Before I left for Tennessee, Alex had told me in no uncertain terms to take a selfie with Jared. I'm not one to disappoint my wife, so I scurried over as fast as my legs could carry me and snapped a picture.


Jared directed me and another runner toward the prison tunnel. The other runner, who shall not be named here, was very dismissive. He informed Jared that he had run this race before and didn't need directions. Naturally he wandered off course during the next climb and I didn't see him again until after the end of the race. The lesson: when Jared Campbell gives you advice on navigating Frozen Head, you listen to him! (I would end up talking to this runner later on, and he's a good guy. Hey other runner, if you're reading this, please take this in the good nature it is intended.)


The prison tunnel was a welcome break from the midday sun, but it was short lived. At the end of the tunnel, we began the hardest mile of the race: a 1,700 foot ascent of Rat Jaw.

Let's set the stage. Most runners reach Rat Jaw during the hottest part of the day. Unlike the other power line cuts, Rat Jaw has no discernible path. The lead runners have to force their way through thickets of head-high briars, and subsequent runners can (sometimes) follow the faint trail that's left behind. Rat Jaw is also significantly longer and steeper than the prior powerline cuts. Oh and it's also exposed to the sun for its entire length. In short, it's a slog.

Spot the runner in the brier patch
Photo by Misty Wong

As you might expect, this was where the race really started to take a toll on the field of runners. One by one I passed people sitting or hunched over on the side of the "trail." More than once, I started leading a group of runners through the briers only to turn around and find that they had stopped when they found a small patch of shade. I knew if I rested, I would never be able to convince myself to get going again. Onward and upward, or some stupid shit like that.

As I remembered from previous years, the climb was endless. Time stood still on that mountain. I heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears as my head threatened to explode from the heat and exertion. I began to wonder if I had died and was sentenced to an eternity of climbing in this sun scorched hellscape. After weeks (months? years?) of climbing, the fire tower came into view.

By the time I reached the top, my legs were covered in fresh blood, and the rest of me was covered in sweat, dirt, and debris. It had taken 62 minutes to cover the previous mile. Photographer Misty Wong snapped a picture of me smiling like an idiot, but she informed me that she wanted pictures of crying devastated runners, hence the picture at the top of the post.

Counting how many gallons of blood I spilled on the course
Photo by Misty Wong

The view from the fire tower was nice, but I didn't stick around any longer than necessary. I passed Giuseppe on the way down from the tower and wished him well.

You can see why they chose to build a prison in this wilderness
Photo by Sword Performance

It was time to get back on real trails and - get this! - run for a little while. The four mile descent to the decision point was pretty tame by east coast standards, but I couldn't muster anything more than a jog. Although my legs felt fine, the heat had sapped my energy. Fifty minutes later, I arrived at the decision point.

One Last Climb (Decision Point to Finish)

I stuffed some food and pickle juice in my mouth, refilled my bottles, and marched over to Laz for the final bib punch.

"Are you continuing on, or dropping down to the marathon?" he inquired.

"Laz," I responded, looking him straight in the eye, "I didn't come here to run no stinkin' marathon!"

The volunteers cheered, and I ran onward to finish the final nine mile loop: Chimney Tops. Now on it's own, the Chimney Tops loop is not particularly difficult. However, after 7.5 hours of running in the heat and humidity, this final mountain is a killer. Maybe it's the fact that there are multiple false summits along the way. Maybe it's the fact that the trails get progressively steeper the higher you go. Maybe it's the fact that there was a nest of angry hornets that decided to attack my quads half way up (yeah, that shit really happened).

Regardless of the reasoning, this climb destroyed me. In the two hours it took to reach the Spicewood Aid station, I went from a strong motivated runner to a shambling mess.

Thankfully the weather started to cool down at this point. After gulping down a bottle of water at the aid station, I realized that I had a shot at breaking 10 hours and setting a personal best for this race. I had to do the final 3.5 miles in 45 minutes. Beating my previous time (10:11) on poor training and in worse weather would be a huge accomplishment, so I left the aid station on a mission.

The 2.5 miles back to the decision point were entirely downhill, and I ran every single step. I passed through the aid station with 9:47 elapsed and couldn't remember how far it was to the finish. A mile? A mile and a half? I pictured myself crossing the finish line with 10:00:01 on the clock and decided that was unacceptable.

It was time to run myself into the ground once again.

Ragged breathing. The taste of blood in my mouth. Tunnel vision. The heat. Good lord, the heat. I've gotten used to all the side effects of pushing this hard at the end of a race, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I stole a quick glance at my phone. Seven minutes left. Was that good or bad? How far to the finish line?

Head down. Keep pushing. Keep breathing. Ignore the way that people are staring at you. Ignore the fact that the sun is literally baking you and every natural instinct is telling you to stop.

Six minutes left. Was that really only a minute of running?

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Try to choke out a feeble "thanks" to the people clapping. Instead just snort at them like a bulldog with asthma.

Five minutes left. Holy shit, there's the finish line!

Try to compose yourself. There might be a photographer, and you can't use the picture if you're crying and/or soiling yourself.

Finally, after 9:56:19, I was done running! A 15 minute improvement on my previous time.

Post Race

Mike came over to congratulate me, but I made a bee-line for my cooler and doused my head in ice water. He had finished 20 minutes earlier and had overcome his own issues on the final climb, finishing 11th overall after running in the top ten for most of the day. Badass!

As for myself, I was 24th of the 400+ starters, and I was only an hour behind the winner. Not bad for a guy who didn't train and hates running in the heat.

Giuseppe came in a little while later, and the three of us posed for a picture showing how we felt about the course.
Dear Frozen Head, you're number one!

I received my third Croix de Barque and proudly added it to my collection when I got home. Then I threw them all in a drawer because I never know what to do with race hardware.

Les Troix Croix

Up Next

Three weeks later I would get well and truly destroyed by the Grindstone 100 in my worst hundred mile race ever. Stay tuned for a report.

Friday, September 7, 2018

How to Survive the Barkley Fall Classic (maybe)

Some Intro Stuff

What follows is a list of advice for anyone who is considering running the Barkley Fall Classic. Heeding this advice will not guarantee that you finish. But it might make your DNF less painful. Before we start, here are some answers to questions you might have.

What is the Barkley Fall Classic?

BFC is a "50K" which follows many of the same trails as the Barkley Marathons. It covers about 35 miles of rugged terrain in Frozen Head State Park and includes somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 feet of climbing. Portions of the course follow power line cuts through briers and thorns.

Yikes! Why would I want to do that?

Possibly because there's something wrong with you. If so, read on. If not, the rest of this post will probably not interest you.

Who the hell are you to give advice?

I'm not an expert in ultrarunning. I'm not the toughest runner, nor the fastest, nor the best technical runner. What I am is a guy with average athletic ability who has finished some difficult races, including this one, due to careful training and preparation. Here's my race report from 2016.

Now that that's all settled, let's get to the good stuff.


1. Start now!

(Actually if you're running the 2018 race, start a long time ago)

BFC is really. Freaking. Hard. You will need to train.

But dude, I'm like, really tough.

BFC is not a Tough Mudder (nothing against Tough Mudders - I've done lots of them). You cannot get by on just "toughness" or "grit" or whatever people call it when they neglect their training and then suffer through a race. Unless you have superhuman athletic abilities, you cannot wing it and expect to finish under the cutoff. Want to show everyone how tough you are? Good! Go outside and run 4-6 days a week. Starting now. Build your aerobic base over the summer and then do more specific work outs closer to the race.

But it'll be funny when I tell everyone how little I trained!

Maybe. But keep in mind that you're occupying a spot that could have gone to someone else. Someone who perhaps would have trained harder. Honor that privilege and do you best to finish.

2. Volume

My rule of thumb is to at least match your race distance and elevation in a week, preferably for 3-4 weeks in a row. This means 30-40 miles with 10,000' of elevation gain every week for a month.

But I don't have the time for that!

Take a look at this picture:

Hell has a name, and that name (other than hell) is Rat Jaw
Photo by Carolynn Nauta

That nastiness is known as Rat Jaw. It is the signature climb of BFC. Do you think Rat Jaw cares whether you have the time to train for it or not? Go out and run!

3. Hike Up, Run Down

BFC is mostly run on established trails, so it's not necessary to train by running through thorn bushes. However, you need to practice moving on the type of climbs and descents that you'll find on the course.

Find the steepest hill around, and do hill repeats on it until you accumulate a few thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. This should take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Focus on maintaining an efficient uphill hiking pace and a fast downhill running pace. Pay attention to how your quads feel on the downhills at the end of the day. If a 3,000 foot workout kills you, think about how 12,000 feet will feel on race day.

But there are no big hills near me.

John Kelly finished 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons by training on an 0.05 mile, 95 foot tall hill near his house. He had to run up and down that hill 10 times to get one mile and 950 feet of climbing.

This is what toughness looks like.
From John's blog

Surely you can find a way to get some elevation gain in your training runs.

4. Nutrition

If you are successful at BFC, you will spend somewhere between 8 and 13 hours on the course. You will also spend several hours at a time between aid stations. You will need to eat and drink, both in large quantities. Use your long training runs as an opportunity to figure out what works for you. Everyone is different, so experiment with different combinations of gels, powders, and real food. Oh and bear in mind that Laz banned gel packets from the race, so you might need to invest in a gel flask if that's your fuel of choice.

Race Day

1. What to Wear

Both times that I ran the BFC, the weather was hot. In 2016 it was in the mid-80's and humid. You will probably be tempted to wear long sleeves to protect yourself from briers, but I recommend shorts and short sleeves to stay cool. Calf sleeves are a good idea, however. And a good pair of gardening gloves will help you claw your way up the power line cuts.

You know what hurts worse than a few scratches? DNFing.

2. Start Easy

The first mile of the course is on a flat section of road. You will be tempted to go out at your 5K pace to bank time. This is invariably a bad idea. Instead of banking time, try to bank energy. Take your time, talk to people, and - as a race director once told me - choose which butt you want to follow on the long climb ahead.

Incidentally, starting easier is better for everyone around you, because then other runners won't have to pass you on a narrow singletrack trail when you inevitably slow down.

3. Find an "All Day" Pace

The first climb is pretty steep. Unfortunately, every climb after it is even steeper. If you are breathing hard in the first 15 minutes, you are going way too damn fast! Find a pace where you can comfortably talk to the people around you, and then ask them what the hell you go yourself into. Remember that you have 10+ hours of running ahead of you, so pace yourself accordingly.

Hiking up these switchbacks will be some of your fastest miles of the day.
Photo by David White

4. Run the Downhills

And I mean really run them. If you are hitting the brakes on these downhills, you will absolutely murder your quads before the end of the race. Those of you who are familiar with east coast trails will find that the terrain at BFC is surprisingly runnable. To finish the BFC, you will have to run Every. Single. Step of these downhills. There's even a short downhill section on the climb up Rat Jaw. Run that shit.

Doesn't this contradict your last point?

You'd think so, but no. The whole reason you trained to run downhill is so that you could do it quickly and efficiently on race day. You did train, didn't you?

5. Follow the Map

You were given a map and compass for a reason. While the course is marked, there are typically a few tricky sections. In 2016, some local kids removed an arrow. The runner in front of me missed the turn, but I checked the map and got us both back on course. A minute spent checking the map could save you ten minutes of running.

On a related note, follow the power lines on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab. There will be game trails through the woods on either side of you. You will be tempted to follow them because they are less steep and/or less brier infested. These are not part of the course, and you are cheating if you follow them.

6. Don't Neglect Your Nutrition

Aid stations at BFC are few and far between. Refill your bladder/bottles at every opportunity, and make sure you have enough calories to get to the next aid station. BFC miles take a lot longer than "normal" miles, so plan accordingly.

7. Remember to Get Your Bib Punched

At each aid station, a volunteer will punch your race bib with a hole puncher. Do not forget this. If you finish without one of your bib punches, you are DQ'ed. In 2016 a runner had to do Testicle Spectacle twice because he forgot the bib punch at the bottom. As fun as that hill is, I wouldn't want to do it twice.

7. Keep Track of Your Time

There are cutoffs at each of the aid stations. You should know how close you are to these cutoffs. Don't be the guy/gal who misses the cutoff at the final aid station by ten seconds. Laz will not allow you to continue, even if you have a really good excuse.

8. Don't Quit

The BFC is one of the hardest endurance events on the east coast. You might get to a point where you're not having fun, or you feel like you'll be out on the course forever. Keep going. The satisfaction of finishing will more than make up for the temporary discomfort you feel.

9. Have Fun!

BFC is a unique event, and the trails at Frozen Head have a ton of history behind them. Enjoy your day thrashing around in the briers. It might not seem like fun at the time, but the stories will stick with you forever.

It's not every day you get to do something like this.
Photo by Mary Hosbrough


Can I bring my GPS?

Nope! Strictly forbidden, and Laz keeps an eye on Strava to see if anyone posts their GPS tracks. He has banned several people over the past few years. This also means no Strava or other tracking apps on your phone. If you think you found a clever loophole in this rule, you are cheating.

Can I train at Frozen Head?

Yes, but only on the designated trails. The power line cuts are reserved for BFC and the Barkley Marathons. Running them outside of these events could jeopardize the future of the races. Laz has also banned people for posting photos and GPS tracks from their off trail training runs.

On a more life-altering level, the land owners in the area are wary of people trespassing, and you do not want to end up at the business end of a shotgun in rural Tennessee.

Can I bring trekking poles?

Yes, but you will not be allowed to access them until the mile 26 aid station. They wouldn't do you much good on Rat Jaw, Testicle, and Meth Lab anyway.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Adventure Report: Swan Song Loop

"What if you took all of the climbing of Manitou's Revenge and condensed it down to half the mileage?" asked no one ever.

Nevertheless, the Swan Song Loop exists, and it is utterly ridiculous.

Mount Washington from the summit of Mount Adams

A Brief History Lesson

The Swan Song Loop came into its full existence in 2014, the brainchild of a bold NH hiker named Robert Rives, who himself modeled the loop after a decades old traverse conceived by AMC volunteer Bradford Swan. It is necessary to understand the history of the route to fully appreciate how difficult it is, because it was designed to be just short of impossible.
"Swan's Traverse came into being as a joke ... It originated one night at Madison Hut, in 1953 or 1954. I had been remarking on the way some hikers paid absolutely no attention to the contour lines on the guidebook maps, and to show how serious this oversight could be, I set out to devise a route from Ravine House to Pinkham Notch Camp that was reasonably direct yet would go 'over all the humps,' utilizing notoriously hard trails. Fancy loops, to include especially tough sections of trail, were not indulged in, but two of the hardest headwalls - King Ravine and Great Gulf - were made parts of the route." —Appalachia , 1958
Many years later, Robert would then extend the traverse into a full loop using similar principles. He wrote of his loop:
"I wanted the numbers to be big, the obstacles nauseating, the footing horrifying, the exposure real and tangible.  More than anything, I wanted to leave New England with a lasting idea, a new challenge fit for the next-level mountain athletes of the decade.  I don't count myself among this group, but ambitious ideas and routes can come from anyone of any ability.  All it takes is the audacity to sit down with a map, a pen, a sense of dark humor - and then to slip on a pair of shoes and dive down the rabbit hole." Blog entry, 2014
And my god, are the number ever staggering...
  • 28 miles
  • 15,700' of climbing, and 15,700' of descent
  • Five ravine headwalls
  • Three Presidential summits

The Route

True to the principles of its conception, the Swan Song Loop makes a bee-line from the Appalachia trail head to the summit of Mount Washington, and just so happens to pass over the summit of Mount Adams on the way. Oh and incidentally, it takes the steepest possible route to both summits: the King Ravine Trail and Great Gulf Trail respectively. It then descends to the Pinkham Notch visitor center by way of Boott Spur, which adds an extra 1,000' climb and descent to an already massive 4,000'+ descent.

Swan Song map. Click for more detail.
(North is to the right)

From Pinkham Notch, it then climbs the notoriously difficult Huntington Ravine Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road before barreling down the Wamsutta Trail to the Great Gulf Trail. After that, the only thing left is to ascend Mount Madison via the Madison Gulf headwall - the steepest section of trail in the entire route - and descend back to Appalachia via the Watson Path.

Swan Song Loop elevation profile
Four major climbs descents

Easy peasy, right?

For each climb and descent, I'm going to list the distance and elevation gain of the steepest pitch. Bear in mind that a climb of 1,000' in a mile (20% grade), is considered pretty dang steep by most runners and hikers.

Mount Adams ascent via King Ravine

Steepest section: King's Headwall, 1,287' in 0.51mi, 47% grade

My goal was to do this entire loop in daylight and to finish with plenty of energy left, so I drove up to NH the night before, stayed at an Airbnb 20 minutes from the trail head, and was on the trail by 5:20am. I was still digesting my morning coffee and bagel as I began hiking up the Airline Trail, but I knew that my stomach would have plenty of time to settle down in the hours it took to reach the summit. It was an odd feeling knowing that my initial 20:00/mi hiking pace would be some of my fastest miles of the day, but such is life in the White Mountains.

This is gonna hurt

About three miles in, I reached the King Ravine Trail, which almost immediately splits into the Subway route and the Airline route. The Subway crawls under and through house sized boulders and is much more difficult and time consuming than the Airline. I didn't come here to mess around on any pansy-ass regular hiking trails, so the decision to take the Subway was easy.

Now I'm not the claustrophobic type, but when it's 6:00am and you're squeezing between house sized boulders that are so close together that you are touching rock on all sides, you start to question what you're doing with your life.

Okay, that's a lie. A normal sane person would question what they're doing. My dumb ass was having a great time, and I kept trying to take selfies during the scramble. But none of my photos do justice to how tight these rock crevices were. So here's a picture of pre-school girl going through a section of the King's Subway.

Now picture a full grown human trying to wriggle through here
Photo by Trish Herr,

Shortly after the subway was another spur trail called the Ice Caves Loop, which is a similar scramble/spelunking experience, except the boulders are so big and insulate the ground so well that there are patches of ice and snow under them year round.

Once I emerged from the caves, I found myself at the base of a massive rock scramble leading 2,000' up Mount Adams. This was the King's Headwall.

Looking back from King's Headwall.
The Subway and Ice Caves go through the boulder field that's still in the shadows.

The headwall rose sharply up the side of the mountain, covered in sharp car-sized rocks. As Ben Nephew would say after setting the fastest known time on this loop, "This is a full body workout, with all sorts of moves that have absolutely nothing to do with running." I couldn't have said it better myself. I would soon learn that the Presidential ravine headwalls are more like extended bouldering routes rather than actual hiking trails.

It took just over an hour to cover the single mile that I was on the King Ravine Trail. This would set the tone for the remainder of the day. After a final scramble up the Gulfside Trail, I reached the summit of Mount Adams after more than two hours of continuous climbing. I paused to take in the views and marveled aloud to another hiker about the perfect conditions.

First summit of the day!

Mount Adams descent via Buttress Trail

Steepest section: Star Lake Trail, -961' in 0.83mi, -21% grade

After a rocky descent on the Star Lake Trail, I made a quick detour to the Madison Spring Hut to refill on water, adding half a mile to my total trip. Then it was on to the Buttress Trail, which makes up for a lack of sheer steepness by being completely overgrown and littered with off-camber rocks.  The Buttress Trail is so narrow that it can scarcely be called singletrack. It is halftrack at best, perhaps even zerotrack. This fun combination of difficult factors means that you are constantly feeling out each footstep with the knowledge that a momentary lapse in concentration could mean snapping an ankle miles from civilization.

So, you know, my kind of fun.

Mercifully, this descent was short by Presidential Range standards, and I reached the intersection of the Great Gulf Trail only 50 minutes after leaving the hut.

Mount Washington ascent via Great Gulf

Steepest section: Great Gulf Headwall, 1,625' in 0.76mi, 40% grade

I first remember hearing about the Great Gulf Trail years ago when Alex's Uncle Chris was advising us on a planned Presidential Traverse. He was adamant that we understood the fact that the only good bailout routes were the ones on the west side of the Presidential Range. The trails on the east side were rocky, slow, and dangerous. In particular, he said, the Great Gulf Trail should be avoided because it leads to a vast wilderness and doesn't get close to civilization for miles. It was not until I hiked the Great Gulf Trail that I truly appreciated his advice.

Madison and Adams as seen from the Great Gulf Trail

The blazes on the Great Gulf Trail can generously be described as faded. They can - perhaps more accurately - be described as sparse to nonexistent. And they can be cynically described as goddamned irresponsibly poor.

Let's put it this way: I was following the trail blazes when possible, confirming my location with a trail mapping app that showed my exact position on a topographical map, and I was moving at a snail's pace, and I still managed to lose the trail several times. Normally, I would chalk this up to me being an idiot, but human/mountain goat hybrids Ben Nephew and Adam Wilcox had similar issues during their attempts on the Loop.

Despite my whining, the Great Gulf Trail is a beautiful trail with stunning views of the northern Presidentials. The boulder scramble on the headwall was one of the most fun parts of the day, because whenever I was tired I could turn around and admire the scenery. As with most of the ravine headwalls, the trail also followed a stream almost the entire way up the mountain, meaning I could cool off in the water whenever I started to overheat (I also could have drunk unlimited water had I thought to bring a filter).

Standing on the Incline Railway tracks near the summit

Reaching the Gulfside Trail near the summit of Washington was a huge mental victory, because it meant that navigation would be much easier for a little while. With the summit in view and dozens of massive rock cairns marking the trail, I was able to relax for the first time in a few hours.

I tagged the summit sign, cutting in front of a huge group of slow-moving tourists in the process. I figured that a runner who was in a rush carried more urgency than a group of people who drove to the top wearing crocs and sandals to mill around aimlessly. Maybe I'm a jerk for doing this, but at least I'm a jerk who didn't waste time standing in line.

Mount Washington summit
No way in hell am I waiting 5 minutes to take a picture with a sign

I took a few minutes inside the visitor center to refill all my water bottles and indulge in a cold bottle of Coke from the cafeteria. I nearly bought a bowl of buffalo chicken soup that smelled absolutely hypnotizing after being in the woods all morning. But I figured that it wouldn't sit well in my stomach on the next descent, and the thought of vomiting buffalo chicken while running was unappealing. Instead, I grabbed a pop tart out of my pack and chowed down while taking pictures from the observation deck.

View from the observation deck. Not a bad place to have lunch.

Mount Washington descent via Tuckerman Ravine

Steepest section: Tuckerman Headwall, -2,313' in 1.56mi, -28% grade
Honorable mention: Boott Spur Link, 735' in 0.31mi, 44% grade

Tuckerman Ravine is famous for being a ski destination well into the spring and summer months. In the winter, snow blows into the "bowl" from the surrounding area, and the snowpack can reach depths of 150' by the end of the season. When Alex and I hiked Mount Washington on July 1, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was still closed due to the risk of avalanches. The point I'm making, is that this is a crazy and dangerous place. Naturally the Swan Song Loop descends this headwall.

Descending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail

This was the first section of trail where I started to see other people, and most were nice enough to yield to me as I "ran" by. Or they were terrified by the sight of a sweaty smelly man flailing wildly as he barreled toward them. Either way, they gave me plenty of space.

I refilled my water from a spigot near the Hermit Lake Shelter, making sure to splash some water on my face and limbs to cool down. From there, I had a short but brutally steep climb up Boott Spur Link before I would continue my descent down to Pinkham Notch.

And what can be said about Boott Spur Link that hasn't already been said about colonoscopies...

They're both a pain in the butt, is what I'm saying

Despite this being the shortest climb in the Swan Song, it packs a punch. The entire climb is less than a third of a mile, but ascends 735 feet, making it one of the steepest sections of the route (44% grade). As with most trails in the Presidentials, it is also littered with jagged unstable boulders. It took over 20 minutes for me to cover this small section of trail, for a whopping 1-hour-and-6 minute-per-mile pace. The good news is that the view was pretty good.

Mount Washington from Boott Spur Link

With that climb behind me, it was back to the descent down to Pinkham Notch, which was a leisurely 2,500 feet in 2.4 miles. These miles were fairly uneventful, and I quickly found myself at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. I refilled my bottles, and headed back up the way I came.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the last potable water source for the next 5+ hours.

Mount Washington ascent via Huntington Ravine

Steepest section: Huntington Headwall, 1,322' in 0.55mi, 45% grade

A quick turn off from the Tuckerman Ravine Trail brought me to the trail head for Huntington Ravine. Right away, I knew that this wasn't going to be like the other trails I had done. At regular intervals, there were warning signs posted to deter hikers from attempting the trail. Naturally these only encouraged me to press onward.

Well I wasn't sure before, but this sign definitely made me want to do it

The meaning of these signs slowly became clear to me when I turned a corner and saw the ravine headwall several miles in the distance. It appeared to be an impenetrable wall of rock with no clear path from the base to the summit. This is the sort of stuff that brings me to the White Mountains!

This is going to be fun
(The headwall trail runs just to the right of the shadow in the middle of the image)

The trail quickly grew more rocky and technical as I approached the base. For the second time that day, I found myself slithering between house sized boulders with patches of snow under them. I heard water running through the rocks far below me, and chilled air breathed up through the gaps like a natural air conditioner. The whole experience was haunting, and I knew that the most intense section of trail was still to come.

When I reached the base of the headwall I finally understood what the fuss was all about. I tried to take a picture that would capture the sheer magnitude of the climb before me, but no static image would do it justice. The video below does a slightly better job, but this is one of those trails that you have to see in person to appreciate. Try to follow the yellow trail blazes as the camera pans up the wall.

The Huntington Ravine Headwall is not a hike. It is an extended, very exposed, poorly marked rock climbing route. The first couple hundred feet of ascent were a slab climb reminiscent of the steepest pitches of Breakneck Ridge in NY. Above that, there were multiple boulder piles where I had to stop and think about where to place my hands and feet. Bear in mind that I have a few years of rock climbing experience and I consider myself pretty confident and sure-footed on exposed terrain.

Looking across the slab near the beginning of the climb
Note the rock climber at the bottom center for scale

A word of advice for anyone who plans to do the Huntington Ravine Trail: there will be times when you find yourself surrounded by impossibly steep terrain with no trail blazes in sight. You will think to yourself, "I must be off trail. It would be irresponsible for the trail to continue in this direction."

Well, the joke's on you, because the Huntington Ravine Trail was built before responsibility was invented! The whole damn thing is an exercise in poor decision making. Incidentally, that's why it is so much fun.

View of Wildcat Mountain and Pinkham Notch from the Huntington Ravine Trail

Anyway, I reached the end of the trail two hours after leaving Pinkham Notch, and had a leisurely saunter along the Alpine Garden Trail to the Mount Washington Auto Road, thus completing the ascent with all limbs still intact.

Mount Washington descent via Wamsutta and Great Gulf

Steepest section: Wamsutta Trail, 1,007' in 0.44mi, -43% grade

The Wamsutta Trail will forever hold a special place in my heart. After a summer spent training on the dark rock- and root-covered Catskill trails, descending the Wamsutta Trail felt like home. It was as if the steepest pitches of the Devil's Path had been supersized. The result was a 2,100' descent in just 1.5 miles of trail, almost half of that coming in just the final half mile.

Looking north from the top of the Wamsutta Trail

My Strava data shows that I maintained a running cadence for almost the entire descent, and yet my pace hovered around 27:00/mi the whole way. The footing was so difficult that each step was minuscule. Each foot placement had to be precise, lest I careen headlong into a tree. Ben Nephew called it "an elevator shaft to hell," but I was having a great time.

After the chaos of the Wamsutta Trail, the Great Gulf Trail felt like running on a paved bike path, and I effortlessly cruised to the intersection with the Madison Gulf Trail.

Mount Madison ascent via Madison Gulf

Steepest section: Madison Gulf Headwall, 415' in 0.10mi, 78% grade

Throughout the descent I had been hoping to reach a campsite or hut with a water spigot so I could refill my bottles. I had left Pinkham Notch with two liters, but with temperatures reaching the 80's in the valley, I only had a few sips left by the time I reached the Madison Gulf Trail junction. My fears were realized as there was no potable water in sight.

Nevertheless I had reached the base of the final climb after 11 hours of hiking. Only Mount Madison separated me from the finish line, and I was determined to get there before sunset.

The first few miles of the trail were tame compared to the carnage that I had experienced in the earlier parts of the day. However, the lack of water meant that I had a hard time eating any food, and the combined hunger and dehydration made my energy levels plummet. The Madison Gulf Trail followed a small stream the entire way up. I stopped frequently to splash the cool water in my face, but I didn't want to risk drinking contaminated water.

Looking south from the Madison Gulf Trail

Finally I gave in. I remembered reading that Giardia took a few days to incubate. Assuming that was true, I would be home well before any symptoms appeared.

I found a mossy section of the stream where the water would be somewhat filtered, and I filled a bottle with the cold clear water. I chugged it quickly and then refilled again just in case I needed more. With some water in my system I was able to eat a couple gels, and almost immediately I felt my energy levels rising.

The shadows from the mountains were growing longer by the minute, and I knew I was running short on daylight. I had packed a headlamp, but as a matter of pride I didn't want to take it out.

With renewed purpose, I set to work on the steepest pitch of the day: the Madison Gulf Headwall. Composed of vertically stacked boulders, the headwall rises 415 feet in just a tenth of a mile. The footing isn't bad at all, but the climb felt relentless, particularly after 13 hours of hiking and running.

The Madison Gulf Headwall - not for the feint of heart

I crested the top of the last headwall and then had a short walk to the Madison Spring Hut, where I had first filled my bottles ten hours earlier. They were just serving dinner, and the delicious smell of hot food almost stopped me in my tracks as I opened the door.

I had been fantasizing about buying a lemonade at the hut for hours, and I filled and gulped down two cups in quick succession before realizing that I was using a cup from the discard pile. The thought barely registered in my tired brain as I threw a wad of cash into the money jar on the counter. I refilled my water bottles for the last time and was back out the door for the final push to the summit of Mount Madison.

Last view of Mount Washington from the summit of Madison

Like the other northern Presidential peaks, the summit of Madison is essentially one big rock pile, and I savored the last bit of scrambling for the day. I reached the summit just in time to see the last rays of sunlight hitting Mount Washington in the distance.

Mount Madison descent via Watson Path and Brookside

Steepest section: Watson Path, 2,001' in 1.17mi, -32% grade

With all of the climbing done for the day, it was time to see if my legs had enough life left in them for a quick final descent. Unfortunately, the Watson Path is not the best place to test tired legs. After millenia of harsh weathering and assault from lichens, the rocks at this elevation are sharp and unforgiving. This means that the soles of shoes and boots stick really well, but it also means that any fall is guaranteed to draw blood.

With the health of my legs in mind, I cautiously tip-toed down the mountain. Eventually, the Watson Path gave way to the friendlier Brookside Trail, though not before I spent ten minutes lost at an unmarked trail intersection that happened to coincide with a stream crossing.

As I lost elevation, the trail grew progressively less rocky and my pace increased. With two miles to go, I saw that I could potentially go under 15 hours for the whole loop. While I hadn't started with any time goals in mind, this seemed like a nice round number. I picked up the pace for the final few minutes and reached the trail head in 14:58:27.

Adventure accomplished.

Thoughts and Future Plans

The Swan Song Loop is - without a doubt - the most challenging route I have ever encountered. While I treated this like a long training run and never pushed myself too hard, I still gave it an honest effort and finished with an average pace well over 30:00/mile. The Loop is far more difficult than Manitou's Revenge, the Barkley Fall Classic, or the Presidential Traverse, which had been my prior benchmarks for "really damn hard terrain."

I'm happy with how well I handled a 15 hour unsupported effort in the mountains, and this gives me a lot of confidence for future races and adventure runs. I'd like to go back and run this route for time, but I would make the following changes:
  • Footwear: I used an old worn out pair of Scott Kinabalu Supertrac shoes thinking that they would still have enough tread for one last adventure. However, this is a route where you need to have absolute confidence in your footing, so I would bring a newer pair next time.
  • Water: I ran out of water on the Madison Gulf Trail and resorted to drinking stream water.  Luckily, I didn't suffer any ill effects afterwards. Since almost every trail on this route follows a stream, it makes a lot of sense to use a water filter. One of the first things I did when I got home was to order a Katadyn BeFree filter, which simply replaces one of the soft flasks in my pack now.
  • Navigation: Despite extensive planning and the use of maps and a GPS app, I still had some navigation issues. Unfortunately, the only way to learn these trails is to run/hike them a few times. So I guess I need to spend more time in the White Mountains!
  • Other Time Sinks: I spent a lot of time taking pictures and talking to people on the trails, which was great for a training run like this. However, I could probably have saved 30 minutes or more simply by not stopping. Thankfully, I now have enough pictures to last a lifetime.
Since Fat Dog 120 was canceled due to wildfires, my next events will be the Barkley Fall Classic 50K and Grindstone 100.

Happy running!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Manitou's Revenge: A year older and a bit dumber

"The trail is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term. It is extremely rocky and a runner must expect to navigate over boulders, downed trees, gullies and hidden roots the entire distance. Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest's natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills. There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist to scale a rise, conversely, extremely steep downhill sections add not only challenge to the course, but also a high degree of unwelcome danger. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you're not careful, you could fall to your death. Very few runners go the distance without taking at least one painful spill. Most runners take many. Believe me, you're going to take a flop or two, or more." — Dick Vincent, RD of the Escarpment Trail Run
This is the official course description of the Escarpment Trail Run, an 18 mile race considered one of the toughest endurance events in the Northeast.

The Escarpment Trail forms the first third of Manitou's Revenge 54 miler. It is widely regarded as the fastest and easiest section of the race. The hardest sections look like this.

Climbing Indian Head Mountain during the 2017 race
Photo by Joe Azze of Mountain Peak Fitness

I often talk about trails as being "runnable" or "not runnable." But there are huge sections of Manitou's Revenge that are not even remotely "walkable." There is a seven mile section of the race that takes the leaders over two hours to cover (17:20/mi pace). Perhaps a better term for these trails would be "climbable" or "hurl-your-body-downhill-and-pray-to-whatever-god-you-believe-in... -able."

Manitou's Revenge is 54 miles of pure WTF.

Manitou's Revenge also happens to be the coolest race on the planet.

Race Day

At 3:00am, my alarm mercifully freed me from one of the most restless nights of sleep in recent memory. Apparently taking a few months off from "A Race" ultras had rekindled my pre-race nerves. Which is a good thing I suppose. No sense in running races if they don't get you excited.

After a quick bagel and coffee, Alex and I set out on the 30 minute drive from the finish line in Phoenicia to the start at C. D. Lane Park in Maplecrest. The weather was cool and the forecasts called for thunderstorms during the day. I had been hoping for sunny weather, but I also seem to perform well in apocalyptic conditions so I wasn't too concerned.

At packet pickup, I learned that I was seeded in Wave 2, which was a nice little ego boost after starting in Wave 5 in 2017. The downside was that I wouldn't be able to pass many people this year.

At 5:10am, we were off. What lay ahead of us was 54.3 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing. But as I mentioned earlier, the numbers don't tell the whole story of how difficult this race is.

Manitou's Revenge Course Map

Manitou's Revenge Elevation Profile

Start to Dutcher's Notch (Miles 0.0 - 10.3)

The first three miles followed a paved road, which allowed the runners to separate a little bit before entering the trail. I started out conservatively and was the 14th of 15 runners in my wave to enter the woods. Right on track!

The trail quickly began to get steeper and I settled into my familiar power hiking rhythm, which I had honed with hundreds of hill repeats over the previous months. Within a few miles, I had passed a handful of people from my wave while maintaining a nice easy effort.

The climb to Acra Point on the first section of the Escarpment Trail was pleasant and easy in the cool early morning weather. A mile of rocky but relatively fast single track then brought us to the base of Blackhead, the first major climb of the day. Rising 1,071 feet in just 0.81 miles, Blackhead offered an early glimpse of the terrain that we would will face on the Devil's Path later in the race.

RD Charlie Gadol climbing Blackhead in 2017

At the base of the climb, I mentioned to the other runners that this was one of my favorite sections of the race. They smiled and nodded politely in response, while silently considering whether I should have my head examined at the next aid station.

We crested the 3940' summit - which despite being the fifth highest peak in the Catskills does not have any views - and began the steep rocky descent to Dutcher's Notch. The rocks were dry and the soles of my shoes stuck nicely as I hopped from boulder to boulder. The dry conditions and unseasonably cool weather made this an ideal day to run fast in these mountains.

I cruised into the first aid station with 2:10 elapsed, feeling strong and eager to get back onto the trail. After a quick bottle swap with Alex I was on my way.

2:10 elapsed, 27th place, 6 min ahead of 2017 pace

Dutcher's Notch to Palenville (Miles 10.3 - 21.5)

Back on the trail, I met up with Joel Noal, who had just run Massanutten 100 the month prior. He explained that his legs had not fully recovered yet, and that he had intermittent issues with vertigo, which affected his balance. I wouldn't recommend Manitou's Revenge to anyone with balance issues, but ultra runners are not known for their excellent decision making.

From the aid station, three short climbs brought us to Stoppel Point at 3,422', the site of John T. Grace's fatal 1983 plane crash. I always feel like I'm walking past a grave stone when I pass the wreckage, so I paused our conversation until the plane was out of sight.

The wreckage of John T. Grace's Piper PA-28 on Stoppel Point
Shortly below the summit was North Mountain Ledge, which offered a sweeping view of North-South Lake and Kaaterskill High Peak, which were our next destinations. It took a little bit of route finding to sniff out the trail blazes that were painted on the bare rock ledge, but eventually we were on our way down off the mountain.

I was running just behind Joel and making idle conversation when, without warning, a rock reached up and grabbed his toe. He took a full Superman dive on the rocky trail, landing awkwardly on one shoulder. I helped him up and tried to assess his condition. He seemed coherent and was not bleeding badly. We were still 2.5 tough miles from the next aid station, so help would not come quickly. Our best bet was to keep moving. I spotted him as he descended the next pitch and noted that he was still moving well, though more cautiously than before. After confirming that he was not concussed and could still run, I went on ahead to notify the aid station that he was coming.

Despite the slow down, I still pulled into North-South Lake well ahead of my 2017 pace (perhaps too far ahead, Alex reminded me).

3:34 elapsed, 21st place, 19 min ahead of 2017 pace

View of the Hudson Valley from the Escarpment Trail on a clear day

After a whirlwind of questions from the volunteers about who the injured runner was (for the life of me, I couldn't remember his name) I was back on the trail for the long descent to Platte Clove. I would later find out that Joel rallied and finished in just over 15 hours. He's a seriously tough dude!

An abrupt left turn shortly after the aid station marked the end of the Escarpment Trail and the "easy" part of the course. From here, things would only get much, much harder.

The 1,700' descent to Platte Clove on the Long Path/Harding Road was covered in loose babyhead rocks, which made the footing treacherous. I maintained a 9:00/mi pace, which was probably too aggressive, but it felt nice to open up my stride for a few minutes.

An eternity of descending later, I found myself in the gravel parking lot that was Palenville aid station, the lowest point on the course at 700' above sea level. Alex reminded me that I was a full minute per mile ahead of my pace from last year, but the pace was feeling effortless so I brushed off her concerns.

4:17 elapsed, 15th place, 22 min ahead of 2017 pace

Palenville to Platte Clove (Miles 21.5 - 31.5)

The course profile calls Kaaterskill High Peak "the worst climb all day," which seems like hyperbole until you actually attempt it. The first 1,780' of climbing are on a relentlessly steep rutted out fire road over just two miles. Last year, I was able to share these miles with the always cheery Mendy Gallo, but this year I was on my own, chasing a group of three runners who were just far enough away that I could hear that they were talking but couldn't participate in their conversation.

View of Kaaterskill High Peak from Sugarloaf Mountain
Photo by Daniel Case

I slowly reeled them in over the course of the climb, feeling very satisfied with myself for catching people on an uphill (typically my weak point in any race). Just as I was patting myself on the back, a blur of legs and spandex whizzed past me like I was standing still.

"Are you a relay runner?" I shouted ahead.

"Wave 6, comin' at ya!" was the response.

Well holy crap! This guy had made up 20 minutes on me in the span of just 23 miles. Clearly this was someone who did not belong in wave 6. This would turn out to be Tristan Baxendale, a speedy NY runner who would go on to finish 7th overall in a phenomenal 12:22.

Anyway, back to the grind. After a short muddy flat section, I found myself at the base of a 900' climb on a rocky trail. This was the final pitch of Kaaterskill. I set to work plodding uphill, now totally isolated from the rest of the field. I reached the summit almost two hours after leaving Palenville and then had a "short" 1,000 foot descent to Platte Clove. Two mile later, I was back at an aid station.

6:35 elapsed, 12th place, 27 min ahead of 2017 pace

Platte Clove to Mink Hollow (Miles 31.5 - 37.5)

Here's a fun fact to give you some insight into how tough the miles are at Manitou's Revenge: Runners are required to carry a headlamp after Platte Clove, even though the first runners pass through at 10:30am and it is only six miles to the next aid station. The field is so spread out by this point that the last runners pass through around 3:00pm, and the trail is so difficult that they don't make it to the next aid station until 8:00pm. Craziness!

Alex climbing up Twin Mountain on the Devil's Path last year

With my headlamp packed and an extra water bottle shoved into my pack, I was off to start the Devil's Path. Known widely as one of the hardest day hikes in the country, the Devil's Path is a 24 mile trail that climbs and descends six Catskill High Peaks in the most direct way possible. The eastern half of the path is considered the hardest part. This is the section that Manitou's Revenge follows for 8 miles.

As luck would have it, the skies opened up just as I left Platte Clove. The rain had a nice cooling effect, but it also meant that I would be running on wet slippery rocks for the entire length of the Devil's Path. And as Mike Siudy would say, "Nothing like running on wet sedimentary stone!"

Just before the first steep climb, I ran into Amy Hanlon, who was sitting under an EZ-Up, making sure runners didn't miss a crucial turn. This is our conversation, word for word:

Amy: It just started raining.

Me: I noticed.

Amy: I'm going to take a picture of you. Try to look cool.

Me: [thumbs up]

Amy: Nope. That's not it.

Portrait of the author not looking cool
Photo by Amy Hanlon

So off I went, not looking cool, but giggling like an idiot. A good way to start a brutal section of trail.

The first climb up Indian Head Mountain includes my favorite section of the entire race, a ten foot scramble up a vertical wall of boulders and roots, pictured at the top of this post. The descent/ascent to Twin Mountain was short and steep, dropping 500' and gaining it all back again in the span of less than a mile. An all-too-short runnable section at the summit of Twin then gave way to a treacherous 800' descent over 0.6 miles.

The descent from Twin was hair raising for a couple of reasons. First, the rocks were getting progressively wetter, which made them more and more slick with each passing moment. I had to choose each step carefully to avoid having my feet slide out from under me. Second, a crucial root was missing on a steep rock slab. This root had served as a vital handhold for many years before finally succumbing to the elements. Its absence meant having to carefully slide my toes into an inch deep pocket in the flat rock face, hoping that my soles would stick to the wet stone, and then carefully downclimbing to the ground.

Descending Sugarloaf in the rain
Photo by Steve Aaron

By the time I reached the bottom of this descent, I couldn't wait to go uphill again! The trail would answer my wishes with a 1,000' scramble up Sugarloaf Mountain in a mile. Of course, this was followed immediately by a 1,150' descent in just 0.8 miles. Are you getting the pattern here?

This final long descent would be the last of this seven mile section, which had taken me 2 hours and 37 minutes to cover, a blazing fast pace of 22:26/mi! Amazingly, this was seven minutes faster than it took me to cover this section the year before, and I was still almost a minute per mile faster than in 2017.

9:12 elapsed, 11th place, 34 min ahead of 2017 pace

Mink Hollow to Silver Hollow (Miles 37.5 - 43.5)

I was close to the end of the Devil's Path, but the Devil would have one last laugh before he was through with me. The final climb was a whopping 1,250' in just 0.9 miles to the summit of Plateau. My pace dropped to 36:03/mi as I staggered my way up the mountain. You would think that a pace this slow meant that I stopped a lot, but this was a continuous hard effort the entire way up. Gotta love the Catskills.

Experienced Catskill hikers will tell you that the Catskills are not a true mountain range, but are actually the remnants of a giant plateau which was dissected by glaciers and the elements over millions of years. Nowhere is this more evident than the flat summit of Plateau Mountain. After a steep climb, the Devil's Path runs almost perfectly flat for two miles along the top of the mountain.

The flat summit of Plateau Mountain

Of course, it would be too nice to allow the runners to follow this flat section of trail for very long, so naturally the Manitou's Revenge course makes a hard left and plummets off the side of the mountain on the Long Path after less than a half mile. The descent is not as steep or rocky as the Devil's Path, but it is overgrown and not well worn, making the footing equally tricky.

Coming in to Silver Hollow. #quaddamn
Photo by Alex

A rolling 1,500' descent brought me to the final crew-accessible aid station, where Alex wished me luck and the aid station volunteers gave me a much needed Dixie cup of beer to boost my spirits.

10:35 elapsed, 11th place, 35 min ahead of 2017 pace

Silver Hollow to Finish (Miles 43.5 - 54.3)

I set off on the 500' climb up Edgewood Mountain, and immediately I could feel that I was working harder than earlier in the race. But the race was almost over, so I ignored my ragged breathing and pushed hard, knowing I only had a few climbs left. The trail was still rocky and overgrown, and my legs were getting clumsy from fatigue. I stumbled over loose rocks repeatedly, each one sending a jolt of pain through my already battered feet.

The 1,500' descent from Edgewood was barely faster than the climb, but I kept my feet moving and plodded onward. I reached Warner Creek, the largest water crossing of the day, and attempted to tip-toe over the slick rocks to reach the opposite bank 50 feet away. My feet slipped and slid with each step, and I finally gave in and stepped fully into the calf deep water, taking some time to splash off my face and wipe the grime off my legs.

Once back on dry land, I found myself staring up at the last climb of the day, a meandering 1,200' ascent of Tremper Mountain. With less than 10 miles left in the race, I pushed hard, feeling my heart beating out of my chest.

I was stopped in my tracks after the first switchback when a pair of black bear cubs went scampering across the trail less than 100 feet in front of me. I scanned the forest looking for mama bear, imagining myself getting mauled to death only a few miles from the finish. Although compared to the agony my legs were in, death didn't seem so bad. After a minute of standing in place waiting for my death, I realized that mama bear wasn't coming for me, so I plodded onward. I didn't know it at the time, but Jim Walmsley had a similar experience in his record-setting Western States run on the same day. We're basically the same person, Jim and I.

Pictured: my imagination

A few slow mile later, I reached the Willow aid station, nearly at the top of the final climb.

12:19 elapsed, 11th place, 35 min ahead of 2017 pace

I quickly refilled a water bottle and grabbed a couple of pickles for the road. In 2017, I had reached  Willow just under 13 hours and raced to the finish in just under 14 hours. This year, I would certainly finish under 14 hours again, but I had no time goals other than to finish. The runner ahead of me was Mike Siudy, who despite his 140 mile FKT the month prior was not likely to blow his 15 minute lead in just six miles. So I decided to jog it in and enjoy the last few miles.

Amazingly, I would lose a full 14 minutes on my 2017 splits in just these last six miles, making Alex think that I was lost in the woods or mauled by a bear (little did she know!). I trotted across the finish line in 13:33:33, which is kind of a nice looking number. So there's a minor victory.

13:33:33 elapsed, 11th place, 21 min ahead of 2017 pace

Last few steps! (My wave started with 5 min elapsed)
Photo by Alex

Thoughts and Future Races

My first words to Alex at the finish line were, "You know, maybe I did go out a little fast."

I went into this race feeling more fit for mountain running than ever before. A four week training block with over 64,000' of climbing, much of which was in the rugged Catskills, gave my legs the strength and resilience to cover the early miles of Manitou's much faster than in 2017. I'm not sure whether my late race struggles were due to nutrition or pacing, but I'm still tweaking both of those.

My main takeaways from this race are
  1. Hill training really, really works for me.
  2. The Catskills are an amazing place where I need to spend more of my time.
Next up for me is the Fat Dog 120, which is now technically the Fat Dog 103 due to a course change caused by wildfires near the start of the race.

But first, look out for an adventure report from the Swan Song Loop, a 28 mile self-supported run that I did in the White Mountains a month after Manitou's Revenge.

Happy running!