Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Manitou's Revenge 54 Miler

"When you have two rocks for every dirt, you are in the Catskills." — old saying

Scouting the course with Alex the weekend before the race

A Brief History of the Catskills

  • 375 Million BC: The shattered remnants of the ancient Central Pangaean Mountain Range fuse together and are lifted up by tectonic forces, forming a massive plateau over present day New York.
  • 1 Million BC: Ice sheets repeatedly carve this plateau into a series of mountains with impossibly steep slopes. The eastern boundary of these mountains forms a dramatic wall, which drops 2,000 feet to the valley below. The Algonquins will later name this formation "The Wall of Manitou" after a great spirit that is said to inhabit the mountains.
  • 2017 AD: One hundred men and women attempt to traverse these inhospitable mountains on foot, and Manitou has his revenge.

The Course

The brainchild of New England ultrarunner Charlie Gadol, Manitou's Revenge is a 54.3 mile point-to-point course across some of the most difficult terrain the Catskills have to offer. The course begins innocently enough with three miles of flat pavement and ends with another 1.5 mile stretch of pavement. In between is over 14,000 feet of relentless climbing and descending on jagged rocks, slick roots, and shoe sucking mud. Portions of the course are nearly vertical, requiring the use of all four limbs.

Manitou's Revenge Course Map

Manitou climbs five of the Catskill high peaks (Blackhead, Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, and Plateau) and traverses nearly eight miles of the infamous Devil's Path, named by early settlers who believed only the devil himself could scale its precipitous cliffs.

Without a doubt, this course is one of the most difficult 50 milers in the country and perhaps the world.

Manitou's Revenge Elevation Profile

Start to Dutcher's Notch (Miles 0-10.3)

The morning of the race dawned and I found myself standing in the parking lot of CD Lane Park waiting to be called to the starting line. The weather was mild for June with overcast skies and temperatures in the mid-60's, but I was already starting to sweat in what felt like 110% humidity.

To prevent the narrow trails from getting too clogged with runners, we started in waves of 15 based on seeding. I was placed in wave 5 of 8 and started at 5:22am, 20 minutes after the elite runners. I was hoping to finish in the top 20, so my seeding ensured that I would have plenty of other racers to chase through the woods. Better to be the hunter than the hunted.

The early road miles were a good warm up, and I killed time by making conversation with the other runners in my wave. Knowing that I could be on the course for up to 24 hours, I tried to maintain a conservative pace. There was a lot of race left to run.

Three miles in, we made an abrupt left onto the Black Dome Range Trail and began our first climb of the day: 600 feet up in about a mile. I was immediately thankful for my waterproof socks, as we crossed several creeks and trudged uphill through a waterlogged trail. The past several days had seen a few thunderstorms pass through, and the lingering humidity ensured that none of the water evaporated from the trails.

View from the Escarpment Trail the week before the race.

After a mile of hands-on-knees hiking, we reached the Escarpment Trail and had a few miles of fun semi-technical single track along a ridge. The day was foggy, and the ridge offered none of the panoramic views that I had seen while marking the course the prior weekend. Fortunately, navigating through the pointed rocks in the trail required most of my attention anyway.

Around mile six, we began climbing the first and highest High Peak of the day: Blackhead. One mile and a thousand vertical feet of rock scrambling separated us from the summit. I made quick work of the climb, occasionally using both hands and feet to pull myself up the steep slope while trying to keep my heart rate in check.

Marking Blackhead with RD Charlie Gadol before the race

I caught up to Mountain Peak Fitness athletes Julian Vicente and Elizabeth Azze near the summit, and we exchanged a few words of encouragement before I left to bomb down the descent. As is their annual tradition, they would run the entire race together, finishing just after dark.

The descent to Dutcher's Notch was slick from the humidity, but my legs were still fresh and I was able to make good time coming into the aid station. I arrived to find my wife and crew chief Alex Thorpe waiting for me with fresh water bottles and a Coke. She had hiked almost 2 miles with 1,400 feet of climbing to get there, and she still had the energy to cheer wildly as I emerged from the woods. What a wife!

2:16 elapsed, 28th place of 97 starters

Dutcher's Notch to N/S Lake (Miles 10.3-17.5)

From Dutcher's Notch, we began our ascent of Stoppel Point. The climb consisted of three pitches of 200-300 feet each, the last of which was marked by the wreckage of a Piper PA-28 plane that crashed in 1983 just feet from the trail. The young pilot, John T. Grace, was killed in the accident, one of dozens of air traffic fatalities in the Catskills over the last few decades. These mountains are unforgiving.

The wreckage of John T. Grace's' Piper PA-28 on Stoppel Point

From there, the course descended 1,400 feet over the next four miles, skirting the edges of several cliffs. I recalled a story that Charlie told me about the Escarpment Trail race a few years back. A runner was lost in thought and ran right off the side of these cliffs. Miraculously, he had landed in some trees and survived with only minor injuries. Determined not to be that guy who flung himself off a cliff, I kept my eyes on the trail in front of me. The dense clouds that had settled over the valley obscured the view anyway.

View from one of the overlooks on the Escarpment Trail from the week prior. It's a long way down.

Sixteen miles in, we pulled into the aid station at North/South Lake Campground. Once again, Alex was there waiting for me with two bottles in her hand and a smile on her face. She had made it with only seconds to spare. I swapped out bottles, inhaled a few slices of watermelon, and was on my way.

Om nom nom
Photo by Alex

3:53 elapsed, 28th place

N/S Lake to Palenville (Miles 17.5-21.5)

I had been running with a small group until this point, but I left the aid station before them and ended up running almost the entire next section solo. A quick 250 climb took me up to a ridge above the lake, and then a four mile long runnable descent brought me to Palenville, the low point on the course. For the first time in a few hours, I was able to open up my stride and I managed a few sub-9:00 miles en route to the aid station. I emerged from the fog at the bottom of the hill to once again find my wife waiting for me.

4:39 elapsed, 25th place

Palenville to Platte Clove (Miles 21.5-31.5)

I knew the next section had some tricky turns, so I was happy to leave the aid station with Mendy Gallo, who lived a few towns over and knew the course well. I had met Mendy the previous Sunday at Rock and Snow, an outdoor sporting goods retailer in New Paltz where I'd had to make an emergency stop after realizing I left my trail running shoes at home 2 hours away. The shoes she recommended ended up being perfect for the technical Catskill trails, and I ended up wearing them for Manitou's Revenge after a single training run.

The first half mile from the aid station had us hopping over a barrier to find a hidden gravel road, and then making an abrupt right turn onto a fire road. Mendy navigated us both expertly through this section, and we began the long ascent of Kaaterskill High Peak. The course directions called this "the worst climb of the day," and Charlie had even recommended that I use trekking poles for this particular section. I had wondered to myself what could be so bad about this ascent. At 1,700 feet, it was the longest sustained climb, but it didn't appear to be as steep as many of the other climbs based on the elevation profile.

On race day, I found out exactly what Charlie meant. That 1,700 feet of climbing is over the span of only two miles of deeply rutted fire road, and the grade is relentlessly steep. It also starts just as the day is beginning to heat up. A few minutes into the climb, my calves were already screaming, and I wished I had taken Charlie's advice and brought trekking poles. Live and learn, I guess. After 40 minutes of climbing, Mendy and I knew each other's entire life stories, so it was time for us to part ways. She would end up dropping out later on with injury concerns, but I have no doubt she'll come back to finish what she started.

As the trail leveled off, I took off running on the rocky single track, sweat now pouring off me. I was getting uncomfortably hot, and the climb had been demoralizing. As luck would have it, the trail crossed several streams in this section, and I took every opportunity to lie down in the cool water. I splashed water in my face and washed the grit and grime off my legs. It was wonderful. Each 30 second stop added a little more pep to my step. After a few miles of this, I arrived at the final pitch of the High Peak ascent which rose 900 feet in just over a mile. Knowing that I had a long runnable downhill to look forward to, I powered ahead.

Near the top of the climb, the trail leveled out again and it became tricky to navigate the mud and standing water that filled the trail. Once again, I was thankful to be wearing waterproof socks, which meant that I didn't have to expend too much energy trying to avoid muddy sections. I spotted a woman ahead of me who turned out to be Debbie Livingston, an elite runner who had won Grindstone in 2011 and was planning to run Hardrock this year. What a badass!

We chatted for the next mile or so until the trail began to descend steeply. Until that exact moment, I had always thought of myself as a good technical downhill runner. Descents are where I typically pass other runners in a race. My ability to descend quickly and efficiently is both a strength and also a source of pride. Debbie made me completely re-think my abilities. She dropped me as if I was standing still. I was amazed.

After a few miles of running by myself and trying to piece the remnants of my ego back together, I reached the 50K aid station. It had been nearly 2.5 hours since North/South Lake, so I took some time to refuel before leaving.

After leaving Platte Clove aid station
Photo by Alex

7:02 elapsed, 18th place

Platte Clove to Mink Hollow (Miles 31.5-38.5)

"The Devil's Path is a lot like climbing Blackhead, except there are four of them." — Charlie Gadol
This next section was the crux of the course. These seven miles would separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This was the start of the Devil's Path.

I had scouted this section with Alex the week before the race (wearing my fancy new shoes, as you may remember), and I found it both fun and horrifying. Our seven mile trek that day had taken us over four and a half hours. It was a lot of fun, but those were hard earned miles, one of which took us almost an hour to cover. I was nervous about "running" that section after 50K of rocky trails had already tenderized my legs.

Around this section, I caught back up to Debbie and also ran into Alex Papadopoulos, the race director of the Tammany 10. Having run HURT 100 multiple times, he is no stranger to technical trails, and I was sure he would enjoy the upcoming carnage. I offered some advice based on my limited experience with the trail:

"It's really really ridiculously technical," I said.

"As technical as the Escarpment trail?" he asked.

"Much worse," I cautioned.

The climb up Indian Head started mildly with only 400 feet of ascent in the first mile. I was even able to run some short sections. However, this did not last long. As we climbed, the trail grew steeper, and the rocks grew larger. The first sections of real rock scrambling began as I hoisted myself over car sized boulders on all fours.

Alex playing on the rocks during our scouting mission

My mile pace dropped into the 20's, which is slower than a moderate walking pace on flat ground. However, a strange thing happened. I realized I had a big dopey smile on my face. This was fun! Maybe it was Stockholm's Syndrome, or maybe Alex had spiked my water, but I was really enjoying myself. After an hour of climbing, I finally reached the first summit. I had gone three miles.

The descent was equally steep and treacherous, dropping 400 feet in 0.3 miles over giant slick rocks. Clearly I would not gain any time back on the downhills in the Devil's Path section. The ensuing 400 foot climb up Twin Mountain was my favorite stretch of the entire race since it included a few low grade bouldering problems using roots as hand holds.

Alex climbing a V1 problem on the Devil's Path

After a short runnable traverse, I headed back down the other side of the mountain. The 800 foot 0.6 mile descent from Twin was painful, as my toes kept slamming into the front of my shoes. Somehow, I was still having fun though. I passed a number of day hikers in this section, as well as a handful of other runners. One runner inadvertently paid me a great compliment as I squeezed past him.

"Are you a relay runner or just cruising?"

"Just cruising," I responded, my ego starting to mount a comeback.

I reached the bottom of the descent and immediately set to work on the climb up Sugarloaf. The clouds were still too dense to get a descent view, but I had recent memories to draw upon for inspiration.

View from the Devil's Path during course recon

The mile long climb up Sugarloaf ascended 1,000 feet and took me 33 minutes. Believe me when I say that my pace was not indicative of my effort level. That was rough. After another short summit traverse, I had a mile long 1,200 foot descent. Once again, my toes slammed into the front of my shoes with each step. The old spirit Manitou must have been cackling in delight.

Finally, after 7 miles and almost three hours on the Devil's Path, I reached the Mink Hollow aid station. I had averaged 23 minutes per mile since Platte Clove at my "cruising" pace. Alex was excited to see me and informed me that I was on track for a 14 hour finish if I could keep up my pace. I quickly refueled and set out on the last climb of Devil's Path.

9:46 elapsed, 18th place

Mink Hollow to Silver Hollow (Miles 38.5-43.5)

The climb up Plateau Mountain is the steepest on the Manitou course, rising 1,200 feet in only 0.8 miles. Unsurprisingly, this climb coincided with my slowest mile split of the day. Brace yourself for this: 36 minutes. And I'm proud of that 36 minute mile split. I worked hard for it.

I reached the top of Plateau still feeling good (all things considered) and still enjoying the race, and I was delighted to find that the summit was runnable. After a half mile of running, the course took a hard left turn and exited the Devil's Path for good. Now following the Long Path, the course plummeted 1,400 feet downhill over the next few miles. Somewhere in this section, I starting running with Hyun Chang Chung, who I had shared some miles with at Breakneck Point a few months earlier. We would end up spending most of the rest of the race together, keeping each company and working together on navigation.

We chatted during the steep descent to Silver Hollow, where Alex was waiting with more water and Coke. She had once again hiked up a steep trail to meet me in the middle of nowhere.

Running into Silver Hollow with Chang and another runner
Photo by Alex

11:10 elapsed, 17th place

Silver Hollow to Willow (Miles 43.5-48.5)

"If you're feeling good, don't worry. It will pass soon." — old saying among ultrarunners
We were finally off the Devil's Path, but we weren't home free. We still had a 500 foot climb up Silver Hollow Notch Mountain, a 1,000 foot climb up Tremper Mountain, and two very long descents before we were done.

So close, and yet so far
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

The first climb was uneventful, and I kept careful track of our elevation with my altimeter, so I knew exactly how much longer we needed to keep ascending. My energy levels were starting to fade, and I was working hard to stay with Chang on the climb. The 1,500 foot descent was more technical than I expected, and I made things worse for myself by misreading the elevation profile I was carrying and underestimating the decent by 500 feet. Oh well.

At the bottom of the descent, we reached Warner Creek, a knee deep crossing through cool flowing water. We both took a few minutes to lay down and cool our core temperatures a few degrees before starting the next climb. I could have stayed in the Creek for a few more hours, but thankfully Chang suggested that we leave and finish the race.

We started climbing and my core temperature immediately skyrocketed again. Thankfully there were a few streams coming down the mountain, and I was able to splash more water in my face a few times along the way. I knew this was the last climb of the day, so I tried to push hard. However, my legs did not want to cooperate.

I knew I would be close to a 14 hour finish, but I was losing hope that sub-14 was possible. With each slow uphill mile, I could feel my goal slowly slipping away. The first mile from the river took 21 minutes, and the next took 19. I wondered if I should just relax and enjoy the last few miles of the run.

Then I reconsidered. I'd had fun relaxing finishes at a few races this year. It was time to crank up the intensity. I didn't have another real race for a month, and I could afford to do some damage if I needed to. I pushed hard and felt my heart start to race. My breathing grew ragged.

A burning tiki torch appeared on the side of the trail. I hoped that it was a sign of the last aid station and not just a hallucination. A few minutes later, I was relieved to find myself in the final aid station of Manitou's Revenge, where I hastily chugged some water and continued on my way.

12:54 elapsed, 14th place

Willow to Finish (Miles 48.5-54.3)

"Let’s get flying... this ain’t no sob story" — Nick Hollon, Barkley finisher
I had just over an hour to cover the last five miles if I wanted to go sub-14. It was possible, but it was going to hurt. I was prepared to completely bury myself to make it happen. Unfortunately, I still had 300 more feet of climbing before the final descent, and my uphill pace was flagging.

Once again, I pushed myself hard, but I could not find the energy to run uphill any more. I told myself that I could walk the last few tenths of a mile to the summit of Tremper Mountain, but then I had to bomb the final downhill to the finish.

I reached the fire tower with 13:20 elapsed on my watch. How far was it from the tower to the finish? I thought it might be four miles, but I wasn't sure. Could I run four miles on trail in 40 minutes? I wasn't even sure if I could run a single 10:00 mile, let alone four in a row. I had to try though.

I took a second to collect myself, took a deep breath, and then hurled my body downhill as fast as my legs would carry me. My breathing grew frantic as my heart rate soared. I was darting through rocks and logs that littered the trail, unsure of whether I had the coordination to stay upright at this speed. After an eternity, my watch beeped and I saw 8:28 for that mile. That was a good start, but I needed more.

I passed several hikers from behind. I never had to say "on your left" or "excuse me" because my huffing and puffing announced my presence from hundreds of feet away. My watch beeped again, but I couldn't look at it without risking a face plant. I hoped it was displaying another fast split.

I passed a woman who was hiking uphill toward me.

"How far to the road?" I asked.

"Oh, about fifteen minutes," she responded.

I wasn't sure what that meant. Did it take her fifteen minutes to hike up from there? Would it take me fifteen more minutes of frantic sprinting on tired legs? This was too much for my brain to process, so I just focused on running hard.

A few minutes later I heard cars. The road must be close! Once on the road, I knew I would only have 1.3 miles of easy running to the finish line. The trail rounded a corner and I was sure this was it. Unfortunately, all I saw was more trail. I continued to push hard, but my adrenaline rush was starting to subside. I stole a glance at my watch and saw that I had less than 20 minutes left to break 14 hours. This was going to be close.

Finally, with 13:42 on my watch, I hit the road. For the first time, I allowed myself to think that I was going to break 14 hours. However, I still would not allow myself to slow down. I was still breathing hard, and 1.3 miles had never felt so long before. Every time I rounded a bend, I expected to see the finish line.

At long last it came into view. The spectators and other runners cheered as I came through, crossing the finish line in 13:53:55. I had covered the last four miles in 36 minutes and ran the 6th fastest split from Willow to the finish.

Trying hard to smile as I finished
(Note: I started the race with 20:00 elapsed)
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Final time 13:53:55, 14th place


It took a few minutes for me to recover enough to express any thoughts other than "Ow!!" Thankfully, Jay Lemos quickly brought me a beer, which perked me up immediately.

"Don't puke. Don't puke. Don't puke."
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

My recovery was not as bad as I expected, and I was able to hike and run in the San Juan Mountains with Alex only a week later.

Starting to feel better with my wife and a recovery beverage.
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Thinking back on this event after a few weeks, I consider it one of the best race performances in my short running career. Starting around the middle of the pack, I slowly but surely moved up through the field of runners, even passing a few of people from the first wave before the finish. I was told to consider Platte Clove (mi 31.5) the half way point in the course due to the difficulty of the terrain in the second half. By that metric, I ran a negative split (7:02 first half, 6:51 second half) and I finished with some of my fastest miles of the day.

Manitou's Revenge is one of the hardest events I have ever participated in, ranking near the Barkley Fall Classic and the Presidential Traverse in the critical suffering-per-mile metric. I averaged 15:21 per mile, and I was ecstatic with that pace given the fact that I ran multiple miles slower than 30 minutes.

Manitou is also the most fun race I've ever done, and it appeared to be tailor made to match my strengths as a runner. It had bouldering sections that brought me back to my old rock climbing days. It had many technical yet runnable descents where I could put my quads to good use. And it got progressively harder the further as the race progressed, which tested my ability to run an evenly paced race.

I would be remiss if I didn't thank a number of people who made this race possible. First and foremost, Alex was a stellar one-woman crew. I think this was her first time crewing me solo, which meant that she was totally responsible for navigating to the aid stations, prepping my food and water, and hiking in with all the gear I needed. She ended up hiking 6 miles with 2,200 feet of elevation gain and loss, not to mention driving dozens of miles on rural mountain roads with no GPS reception. She's a rock star. Thank you Alex!!

I also have to thank Charlie Gadol for being crazy enough to organize an ultramarathon in the Catskills, particularly one that uses 8 miles of the Devil's Path. I hope this race continues for many years, and I intend to be there for all of them.

"Charlie, what the heck was that!?"
Photo by Katherine Hawkins

Lastly, a big thank you to the aid station and start/finish line volunteers who poured water, offered encouragement, and dealt with stinky cranky runners all day.

Gear and Training

I used some new gear for this race which worked spectacularly. I don't think there's anything I would do differently:
  • Shoes: Altra King MT
    The King MT's have a Vibram sole which is perfect for gripping rocks and roots, and the thin mesh upper drains much better than previous Altras I've used. They also appear to be much more durable than the Altra Lone Peak or Olympus models and showed no signs of wear after 54 miles of hard usage. The Velcro straps look a little funny, but they keep the laces secured nicely.
  • Pack: Ultimate Direction SJ 2.0
    My trusty old race vest. I bought this a few years back and it has served me well ever since. With a few exceptions (the rear pockets are not accessible while running and the inflexible nylon chest straps are not terribly comfortable), this pack is perfect for long runs. It holds two 500ml bottles and/or a 2L bladder and has plenty of room for jackets, food, micro-spikes, or other gear in the back pockets. The 3.0 has some minor updates but seems to be pretty similar.
  • Shirt: Tesla Cool Dry compression shirt
    It's cheap, it wicks moisture, and it prevents armpit chafing. What more could you ask for in a shirt? I have three of these, and I wear them exclusively for races.
  • Shorts: Salomon Trail Runner Short
    By law, every trail runner must own at least one piece of Salomon gear. I found these shorts on sale at REI a few years back, and have been very pleased with their performance. The material is lightweight and the rear pocket is large enough to hold a few gels, which makes these useful for shorter road races as well. The liner mesh is pretty comfortable but I use underwear or compression shorts underneath anyway.
  • Underwear: Saxx Quest 2.0 boxer
    This brand is geared specifically toward men and claims to reduce chafing in sensitive areas. I'm happy to report that they worked as advertised. They might be a little pricey, but it's worth it for a little extra protection during long runs.
  • Liner socks: Injinji Trail Midweight
    Yes, these are the weird toe socks that you've probably seen people wearing. They feel strange at first, but they prevent me from getting blisters between my toes. For wet or humid races, they are worth their weight in gold. For colder races, I recommend using Injinji's wool socks.
  • Waterproof socks: Showers Pass Waterproof Crosspoint WP
    I was skeptical that waterproof socks would work during a run. But after using them for a very wet and muddy 50 miler in February and finishing with immaculately clean feet, I am hooked. Not only do they keep out water, they also shield your feet from dirt and grit that would otherwise lead to blisters. Since discovering them, I have not had a single foot issue in a race. These were a total game changer for me.
  • Nutrition: Tailwind (Naked + Green Tea, 200 cal/hr)
    My tried and true nutrition. Liquid calories seem to be the only thing that doesn't upset my stomach during a race. A 200 calorie pack mixed with 500ml of water provides all the fluids, calories, and electrolytes you need for about an hour of running. I have run entire 50 milers fueled only by Tailwind, and the taste is mild enough that I don't mind it after 10+ hours. At Manitou's Revenge, I supplemented with Coke and watermelon because, let's face it, those are both delicious.

My training leading up to the race focused almost exclusively on elevation gain and loss. A typical workout consisted of 3 hours of hill repeats on a 0.5 mile 500 foot hill, with a focus on maintaining even exertion on the uphills and downhills. My mileage and elevation gain for the three weeks preceding the race were:
  • 5/22-5/28: 72.6 mi, 12,189 ft
  • 5/29-6/04: 53.8 mi, 15,148 ft
  • 6/05-6/11: 41.9 mi,   9.970 ft
The summer league ultimate frisbee season just started up, so I've also been mixing in 2-3 hours a week of ultimate as my "cross training." I don't know if it helps my running at all, but it's fun.

Next Up

Look for a trip report of our adventure in the San Juan Mountains exploring the Hardrock 100 course, coming soon!

Then I'm running the Vermont 100 on 7/15 and shooting for sub-20 hours as my stretch time goal. Wish me luck!