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, http://www.trishalexsage.com

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!