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!

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