Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR)

Today's post is brought to you by Vaseline™: For the love of all that is holey, don't leave home without it!

[Warning to sensitive readers: In case it wasn't clear from that sentence, this report contains way to much information about butt chafing. Ultrarunning is gross, and I'm not here to sugarcoat that fact. You have been warned.]

Blue skies and thick thighs
PC: David White

The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, or SCAR for short, is the delightfully melodramatic name given to the 72 mile section of the Appalachian Trail that traverses Great Smoky Mountain National Park. One of the highest  and most remote routes on the east coast, SCAR boasts a formidable 18,000 feet of climbing and descending, tags multiple 6,000' summits, and has just a single road crossing near the half way point, which forces most runners to carry 10+ hours worth of supplies at all times.

I've had this route on my bucket list ever since vacationing in the Smokies in 2015, so when my Michigander-turned-Tennessean friend David White invited me to run it with him, I jumped at the opportunity.

After 13 hours of driving over the course of two days, I found myself at Fontana Dam, which is the southern terminus of the route. I stuffed a duffel bag of clothes and a pair of trekking poles into the trunk of David's little Ford Fusion, and then stuffed myself into the back seat alongside our soon-to-be pacer Sammi Stoklosa and a mountain of clothes, food, and running accessories. Up front were David, our soon-to-be crew Cofer, and another (slightly smaller) mountain of running gear. Thus began our cozy two hour drive to Davenport Gap, which would be our starting line the next morning.

Left to right: myself, Sami, and Cofer discussing either Greek philosophy or dick jokes over dinner. I can't remember which.
PC: David White

We checked into a little thru-hiker cabin a few minutes from the starting line and immediately set to work doing all of the essential pre-race preparations: eating pizza, drinking beer, sipping whiskey, drinking a little more beer, and fussing with our mountains of gear.

After a rock solid three hours of sleep, our alarms went off at 4:00am. With a planned 5:00am start time and a 15 minute drive, that was just enough time for me to visit the porta potty and wolf down the gourmet breakfast that I had picked up at a gas station on the drive down: a pack of strawberry Pop Tarts and a can of Starbucks cold brew coffee. Treat yo self!

Miles 0-20: Sunrise and smooth sailing


David's artsy shot of our starting line.
PC: David White

At precisely 5:01am (close enough!), we left Davenport Gap and began the long climb up to the 5,000'+ ridge where we would spend the rest of the day. David took the lead and, using trekking poles for the first time ever, charged forward at a solid pace. It was a lovely 59 degrees outside, but the humidity ensured that we were drenched in sweat within the first mile. The narrow trail was lined with fresh mountain laurel blooms and crisscrossed with even fresher spider webs, which David reluctantly deconstructed as he hiked.

A few miles in, the sun peaked out and we were treated to an orange sky over the blue haze of the mountains. Life was good!

Sunrise over the Smokies

Around the two hour mark, we passed our first of many (we thought) water sources of the day. David filtered a bottle, but I still had a liter and a half left and didn't bother to stop. If you were watching a movie about our adventure there would be an ominous organ chord played over this moment, but since that's not possible to do in a blog post I'll just inform you that we had, in fact, just passed the last available water for the next seven hours.

But that was for future David and Ryan to worry about. In the present, we were riding high on good weather, good views, and good company. As the trail climbed steadily higher, verdant rhododendron tunnels gave way to mossy old growth boreal forests.

The Smokies at 3,000 feet vs. 6,000 feet

We took dozens of pictures between the two of us but generally kept chugging forward at a steady pace, keeping our rough goal of 24 hours in the back of our minds. 24 hours is the finishing time that most runners shoot for on this route, and on paper it seems pretty easy. Just three miles an hour - barely a fast walk.

I don't remember where we were at this point in the journey, but I distinctly recall hearing David say "that's not a good sign" as he crouched over a dry creek bed. We had apparently reached one of the more "reliable" water sources in the first half of our journey and it was nothing more than a damp patch of dirt. As most of the Smokies are classified as temperate rainforest, it had not occurred to us that water sources could dry up during the spring, but in retrospect this might have been worth checking.

Miles 20-40: How is a rainforest this dry?!

It was now mid-morning and the sun was climbing in the sky. Traversing ridgeline at the same altitude as Boulder, CO, we had the benefit of cooler temperatures, but with 17% less oxygen in the air we noted that climbing uphill was noticeably harder than usual. Upon writing this paragraph, I also just remembered that running at altitude requires greater water intake than running at sea level. Live and learn.

View from the ridge
PC: David White

After hours of rationing water, we were down to one last 500ml bottle between the two of us, and a couple hours of exposed ridge line still separated us from our loyal crew. David sent a text (hooray for cell reception on ridges!) letting them know that our situation was desperate and that we needed water asap. They responded that they could run out and meet us a few miles from the road crossing at Newfound Gap. With the promise of reinforcements on their way, we slowly sipped the last few milliliters of water and did our best to keep moving forward. We weren't going to die of dehydration, but if things got much worse we would have to make the difficult choice to drop out and protect our bodies.

As the water dried up, so too did our conversation, which to that point had been pretty lively. As ultrarunners are wont to do, we slipped into silent death march mode. Tried to conserved energy. Tried not to complain about how hot and uncomfortable we both were, as if acknowledging those facts would make them more real. It was just as well, since my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth from dehydration. I vaguely remember offering to sell my soul in exchange for some cold water to splash on my salt encrusted face.

This desiccated corpse of a tree seems representative of our current state at this point in the story

Somewhere around Charlies Bunion, Cofer came bounding into view with a handheld bottle. We gulped it down voraciously. A few minutes later David's friend Lea appeared with two more full bottles. Those were also gone in seconds. We thanked them profusely and then sent David ahead to get more. We would need at least a few more liters to properly unfuck ourselves.

A few minutes later, we arrived at Icewater Spring, which is aptly named. Good lord that water was cold and rejuvenating. We each chugged a bottle and then filled up several more for the road. I splashed a few handfuls of water in my face, the salt stinging my eyes as it ran off. I'm pretty sure I owe someone my soul now, and honestly it was worth it.

With renewed spirits and some great conversation from our pacers, we made quick work of the remaining miles to Newfound Gap. David and I staggered into the tourist-choked parking lot feeling much better, but still in need of some calories before continuing our run. The human body needs water to process food, so seven hours between water sources meant seven hours of insufficient calorie consumption. Sammi was waiting for us a the car with a buffet of food options.

"I got cold soggy noods!" she said while gesturing to a Nalgene bottle of chilled ramen noodles.

"Yes, send noods!" I responded. David similarly indulged.

Thus began a whirlwind 15 minute pit stop during which I may have eaten the biggest meal of my life. I inhaled the entire serving of noodles in two bites, unhinging my jaw like an anaconda eating a capybara made of pasta. I devoured two slices of cold pesto pizza left over from the night before. Cookies? Sure. Pickles? Why not? I chased this all down with a few big gulps from the Kentucky mule that I had prepared the night before. Cofer put a cold beer in my hand, and just as I took the first sip someone offered me a shot of whiskey. This was happy hour and a five course meal at NASCAR pit stop speed.

Left to right: Cofer, David, me, Sammi, and Lea at Newfound Gap
PC: David Cofer

"Ready to go?" said David, who was suddenly wearing a different outfit. Somehow he had found the time to change his clothes while I was eating my body weight in junk food.

"But..." I said as I gestured widely at all the uneaten food that was still out, and then realized that 15 minutes had passed in the blink of an eye.

Beer still in hand, I waddled lazily after him and back into the woods. Much to the delight of my stomach, which indeed felt like I had just eaten a capybara, we immediately started to climb and I was able to digest the thousands of calories that I had just inflicted upon myself. The trail was rocky and frequently off camber in this section, but we were still relatively fresh after "only" 31 miles of running in ten hours.

After just two miles, we again saw our crew at a little parking lot in Indian Gap. I wasn't hungry, but I stuffed another cookie in my mouth for good measure. This stop was very brief, and from here we just had a "quick" 8 mile traverse to the summit of Clingman's Dome, where we would see our crew for the third and last time until the finish.

But as I would go on to learn about the Smokies, nothing is ever quick. Sure, there is no all-fours rock scrambling like the Catskills or the Adirondacks; there are no 1,000 foot per mile slogs like the San Juans; no knee deep river crossings. No, instead the SCAR is death by a thousand cuts. Each section is pretty rocky and pretty steep. And if, through a series of poor choices, you're pretty dehydrated to top it all off, you might find yourself suffering without really knowing what hit you.

All that is to say that the wheels started to fall off in the eight miles between Indian Gap and Clingman's Dome.

Somewhere on the slog to Clingman's

We weren't particularly sore or tired. We were no longer dehydrated or calorie depleted. But the trail was just rocky enough and we were just tired enough that we started to lose motivation.

We summitted Mount Collins, one of the numerous 6,000 footers on the route, and on my elevation profile it looked like we had a leisurely three mile traverse to gain the remaining 500 feet to the summit of Clingman's Dome. And from there, the trail went primarily downhill for the remainder of our journey. Despite our struggles, things were starting to look promising!

Then, much to my surprise, we started to descend.

The thing about relying on a low resolution elevation profile is that it smooths out a lot of little climbs and descents. So instead of our leisurely 500 foot climb in three miles, we instead had a 500 foot descent in the first mile followed by a 1,000 foot climb over the next two. Needless to say, that was bad for morale. Our crew texted asking how far out we were, and I responded that we were at "mile thirty-fuck-point-fuck," which they thankfully thought was funny.

At long last, we summitted Clingman's Dome, where we spent another 15 minutes trying to put the shattered pieces of ourselves back together. As luck would have it, we ran into Hunter Leninger, who had just set the fastest known time on the 288 mile Benton McKaye Trail. This put our adorable little 70 mile adventure into perspective, and after a few minutes of self reflection we were back on the trail.

Miles 40-60: Angry starfish and the giardia flavored water

Fourteen hours had elapsed since we had started our journey. We now had 10 hours to cover the remaining 31 miles, which were primarily downhill. Despite our struggles earlier in the day, this seemed doable. Adding to our optimism was the company of Sammi, who would join us for the rest of the journey.

Sammi leading the charge

Our enthusiasm somewhat restored, we began our assault on the southern half of SCAR. Between Sammi the science teacher, David the nurse, and myself the research scientist, our conversation naturally drifted to extremely nerdy topics. Perfect! I can talk anyone's ear off about electrons and photons and the perils of grad school, and will gladly do so when the opportunity presents itself.

Despite the welcome distraction, I became increasingly aware of a sense of discomfort below the equator. The accumulated salt from 14 hours of sweat had resulted in a burning ring of fire, to borrow a phrase from Johnny Cash. I went to grab a lubricating wipe from my pack and realized with horror that I had used them up and hadn't restocked at our last supply point. This was going to be a long 31 miles.

With the boldness that only comes from many hours of running, I loudly informed my two companions that my butt was in the process of sanding itself apart. David confirmed that he was dealing with the same issue. Sammi, who teaches teenagers, was unperturbed by this news.

Quick sidebar: Why the hell are the Jim Walmsleys of the world sponsored by running lubricant companies? You know for a fact that his skinny little thighs have never once touched each other during a run. Want to prove that your lube works? Sponsor a thick legged runner, you cowards!

Thank you for listening to my Ted Talk.

Last little bit of daylight

We crested Siler's Bald just as the last few rays of sun disappeared from the sky. The narrow ridge was dotted with stunted trees and offered a nearly panoramic view. We were about to run through the darkness for the next nine hours. This is what ultrarunning was truly about!

As if on cue, the terrain grew rockier. Our pace slowed and the conversation became less enthusiastic. Sammi was using this run as mental preparation for her first 100 miler, and she was about to get a front row seat to a full fledged death march.

We reached Derrick Knob Shelter, where a very helpful Ridge Runner (Appalachian Trail steward) directed us down a steep side trail to a wonderfully cold flowing spring. Once David and Sammi had filtered their water, I sent them back up while I crafted a makeshift wet wipe from a paper towel and ice cold spring water, and attempted to do some damage control. My apologies to the confused woodland creatures watching this bizarre human bathing ritual. This offered a few minutes of relief, but I would be back in chafe city within a mile. Worth a try.

Filtering water at Derrick Knob Shelter
PC: Sammi Stoklosa

We trotted on through rolling terrain. Our elevation profile insisted that we were gradually descending, but it certainly didn't feel like it.

At some point in the middle of the night we heard a crashing sound just to the right of the trail. We had spooked some kind of large creature. Or at least it sounded large. Then again, a squirrel sounds large when you're running in the dark. The amount of bear scat on the trail was enough evidence that we should proceed with caution though. We yelled and sang loudly to scare off the animal, but as luck would have it, it kept running away in the direction we were traveling. A half dozen times over the course of a mile we heard the same crashing sound just out of sight. These are the times when you really appreciate running with other people.

With cooler temperatures, I was able to stay on top of my hydration and nutrition. My legs felt strong, and the altitude no longer seemed to affect me as much. However, there was nothing I could do about the horrific chafing that I was experiencing. I experimented with different running forms, even attempting a hands-on-buttcheeks approach which worked for a few steps at a time (and presumably looked really cool too). I would periodically fall back from David and Sammi while I attempted all of this and then hobble-run to try to catch up. I once again offered to sell my soul for a little bit of Vaseline.

"You still back there, Ryan?" I would hear from David.

"Yeah, just working through some things," was my honest response.

About 15 miles from the finish, we reached our last spring. We decided to fill all of our water bottles since we anticipated these miles going rather slowly. As David lifted his water bladder out of his pack, a small container tumbled to his feet. Vaseline! David had forgotten it was in there. For the second time in 24 hours, I owed someone a soul. Thankfully I bought a 12-pack of souls the last time I was at Costco.

We slathered our naughty bits with reckless abandon, while Sammi politely turned away and pretended not to be entirely grossed out. Like I said, ultrarunning is disgusting. I make no apologies for that fact.

Miles 60-71: The anticlimactic finish and aftermath

Onward, and upward. Then downward. Then upward again (it was still rolling terrain). I vaguely remember summiting something called Devil's Tater Patch and being annoyed that there was not a single goddamn potato to be found. What kind of clownshow tater patches do you cultivate, North Carolina!?

The sun came up and the 24 hour mark came and went. No matter. We just wanted to get to the finish. Time was a meaningless human construct, and our human forms were just a vibrating mass of particles cooperating for an infinitesimal moment in the grand scale of the universe. Wow, did someone slip LSD into my water bottle or was the sleep deprivation really getting to me that much?

After way too many surprise invisible-on-the-elevation-profile climbs, we reached Shuckstack (or as I had been calling it in my head, Fuck Shit Stack). We climbed up to the fire tower and then just had a few downhill miles to the finish, and -

Wait a minute - where did the trail go?

We were standing at the base of the fire tower and there didn't seem to be any way forward. I pulled up my map and realized that we weren't supposed to climb up to the tower at all. Our only missed turn of the day, and it came four miles from the end. At least we didn't go very far.

Our self pity didn't last much longer, as we ran into Cofer and Lea just below the summit. They perked us up with stories while Cofer blasted classic rock from his phone. David asked Lea to run ahead and grab some drinks for us. A few minutes later she bounded back up the trail with a ginger ale in one hand and a beer in the other. David grabbed the ginger ale, which left me to suffer through an ice cold IPA. We all have to make sacrifices sometimes.

We reached the parking lot after 27 hours and 18 minutes of nearly continuous movement through the mountains. As I left the trail, Cofer informed me that I needed to touch the trail sign. I complied by heaving both trekking poles at it and flipping the double bird to the entire mountain range. Then I regained my composure and we posed for a nice finish line picture.

Done!
PC: David Cofer

We flatly refused to run the extra mile across Fontana Dam, as some people choose to do, so our crew loaded our sweaty corpses into a car and shuttled us over to the bathrooms.

I took one of the most satisfying showers of my life, then spent a few minutes reflecting on the adventure with David. Or, I should say we attempted to reflect on the adventure, but we mostly sat slack jawed with thousand yard stares on our faces. I wondered aloud if it were possible to chafe a butthole completely off and whether I would need some kind of transplant. Ultrarunning is a silly sport.

I slept in the back of my Subaru for a few hours, then woke up at 3pm with an insatiable craving for breakfast food. As I was in the south, there was an easy solution: Waffle House! A short drive later, I was sitting in front of the most beautiful view of the entire weekend.

Three sunny side eggs, triple hashbrowns smothered and covered, side of bacon.
I ate every single bite.

Now with the benefit of four weeks of hindsight, I can say that I got everything I wanted out of this trip. I got to explore some new mountains for the first time since the pandemic shut everything down, I spent time with a good friend, I made a few new friends, and I scratched that long adventure itch that haunts all ultrarunners. Aside from a random Achilles twinge that has lingered around since then, my legs held up well and my nutrition plan (summarized as eating everything in sight) worked to perfection.

A week later, I received a small package from David. Inside was the coolest buckle I've ever gotten from a run, featuring a vintage map of the Smoky Mountains. I don't usually condone belt buckles for sub-100 mile runs, but this was so cool that I immediately made an exception. As I type this report, I am proudly wearing it.

Buckles: For 100 mile races and 71 mile runs that feel like 100 mile races

This concludes my Smoky Mountains adventure. I have now done a handful of long runs in the South, and the mountains down there never disappoint. I can't wait to go back!

Next up: Manutou's Revenge 54 miler.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Everesting Attempt on Mount Beacon

Incoming message from Jay Lemos:

"Yo"

"Wanna do a really really stupid 100/24hr in January?"


Night view from the Mount Beacon observation deck

A quick history lesson for y'all's asses

From 1902 to 1978 the Mount Beacon Incline Railway transported hundreds of thousands of tourists to an observation deck 1,000 feet above the Hudson River. With sweeping views of the Hudson Highlands, Mount Beacon became one of the most popular peaks in the region. Although the trackway and lower station were destroyed by a fire in 1983, the ruins of the powerhouse at the top are still standing, and more importantly, the observation deck still offers some of the finest views in the area.

The incline railway in its heyday
via hvmag.com

The trail to the wheelhouse doesn't quite match the railway's ludicrous 65% grade, but it packs a nice round 1,000 feet of climbing into 1.0 mile (okay, it's more like 1,030 feet and 1.02 miles, but who's counting?). Jay's plan was beautiful in its simplicity: climb to the old powerhouse and descend as many times as possible in 24 hours.

Wait, didn't I just run a 100 miler two weeks ago?

Despite knowing about this event months in advance, I still scheduled my solo Hillier Than Thou 100 just two weeks before it. To put it mildly, I was coming into this crazy adventure in less than ideal condition. I didn't want to be sidelined for more than a few days afterwards, so my goals would need to reflect these limitations.

As I often do, I devised a tiered set of goals, with the most important at the bottom and the most ambitious at the top:
  • A Goal: 30,000 feet of climbing
  • B Goal: Climb the height of Everest (29,029 feet)
  • C Goal: Finish with energy left in the tank
  • D Goal: Don't get hurt
Assuming my legs could withstand a second 24 hour event in the span of 18 days, these goals all seemed reasonably achievable. Twice in 2020 I had climbed 20,000 feet in under 13 hours for the Springathlon virtual races [1, 2], so I had almost twice the time to do 1.5x the gain. On paper it was doable. But to quote Mike Tyson, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

The Great Beacon 24hr Everest 100 Challenge™

(yes that's the official name of the event)

Told ya.

At 10:15am on the chilly morning of January 15, four runners started up the Mount Beacon trail: Jay, Mike DiBlasi, Steve Lange, and myself. If you peruse those Ultrasignup pages, you'll find that the other three guys are significantly faster than I am. So when they all started running up the trail, I stayed back and enjoyed a leisurely hiking pace. I decided I wasn't going to run a single step uphill.

Let's take a second to describe the course. There's only one mile of trail, but when you do it dozens of times you learn all the intricacies of it.
  • The Approach: A crushed gravel path from the parking lot to the ruins of the lower station. By far the easiest section of the trail.
  • The Stairs: About 100 steel steps. Really easy footing, but steeper than they look.
  • The Switchbacks: The longest section. Washed out doubletrack that's littered with loose rocks. Hikers like to walk 3 or 4 across through here.
  • The Jumble: The rocks get larger and the trail narrows as you get higher. This is the point where you cross into real technical terrain.
  • The Ledges: A series of short but steep rock ledges. In the winter these are covered in ice, which is either a lot of fun or a harrowing experience depending on what kind of person you are.
  • The Loop: Just before the wheelhouse, you make a right to the viewing platform, then scramble up a rock formation and circle back to the main trail.
That was way too much information for a mile, but now you know what we spent 24 hours on.

So anyway, the three speedsters did their speedster thing and left me in the dust while I sauntered forward with seemingly no sense of urgency. Steve was planning to be out for 8 hours, while the other two were in it for the long haul.

The approach was nice and easy. Two state park employees were spreading fresh gravel on the path, but it was easy to work around them. The stairs and switchbacks were uneventful. But the jumble and the ledges were covered in a layer of wet ice, and I struggled to maintain my footing. I regretted not bringing any kind of traction devices. Was I really going to be able to navigate this section safely for 24 hours?

Just past the ledges, I spotted the pack of speedsters heading back down. They weren't going too much faster than me, but I've made the mistake of trying to keep up with those guys before and I knew it wouldn't be pretty after 24 hours. I made it to the viewing deck after 28 minutes, celebrated by peeing in the bushes, and then headed back down the slick descent. Loop one was complete in 41 minutes.

Foggy view from the summit later in the day

Back at the bottom, Steve stopped to change into some fancy shoes with carbide spikes (he was much better prepared for winter conditions than the rest of us), so I caught up to him. He graciously stayed with me for the next few loops and we chatted about upcoming race season plans. He was using this as a training run for an Everesting attempt on skis later in the season (which was successful!).

Selfie game on point

With a 1,000 foot ascent every 42-45 minutes, we racked up elevation gain quickly. The icy sections softened in the heat of the day and our legs got used to the unstable footing. My Hoka Speedgoats also performed admirably on the slick rocks. I'm becoming more and more impressed by them every time I use them.

After a few laps together, Steve took off to run with the speed demons again, and I was once again on my own. You would think that running that same mile section of trail would get old quickly, but (1) the footing was challenging enough that it demanded my full attention most of the time and (2) I was a able to distract myself with various food-based rewards every few laps. With the slow pace and the chilly weather, my seemingly bizarre combination of iced coffee, California rolls, and Kalamata olives all went down easily. Shout out to Cole Crosby for introducing me to the last two items as race fuel. These supplemented my baseline fuel of a Spring gel each hour (Speednut for the win).

Sushi + running is a much better combination than you would expect

I hit the one-third mark (10,000') right around sunset with seven hours elapsed, which meant I was an hour ahead of even splits for my A goal. Perfect! I was almost immediately rewarded for this milestone as my good friend and mountain aficionado Mike Siudy showed up with two fresh hot pizzas and some hazy IPAs. You have to love a sport where this stuff counts as race fuel! I downed half a beer and grabbed two slices of pepperoni pizza to go, resisting the urge to kiss Mike on the mouth as I left since, you know, social distancing.

I hiked very happily to the summit while I ate, and on the way down I passed the now-foursome of Jay, Steve, and the Mikes just behind me. The sun had fully set and we were entering the crux of this endeavor: 14 hours of darkness. Thankfully, Jay would go on to lap me shortly after this, and he, Siudy, and I would sync up for a loop together.

Just a normal Friday night for the three of us

Beyond the summit, Jay went on ahead and Mike stayed with me for a few loops. It was the first time we had seen each other since my failed Manitou's 100 attempt the previous June, so we had a lot to catch up on. Mike is never short on words, so our laps together passed quickly. I made sure to have my one and only wipeout of the day right in front of him as my way of saying thanks for his company. While descending through the jumble, my left foot slid out in front of me and my right leg stayed in place as I collapsed into a clumsy half split. To Mike it looked like I had just wrecked my knee, but thankfully my sturdy legs survived intact.

After five or six total laps, his biggest outing in a few months, Mike had to get home. Somewhere around here, Steve also called it a day after setting a personal record with 13,000'+ of vertical gain. Now the three of us were alone on the mountain all moving at different paces.

It was time to try something that I had never done before: listen to music while running. Yeah, I know, most people have done that before but for whatever reason it has never appealed to me. On the roads I need to be able to hear cars coming, and on the trails I want to know if hikers or other runners are approaching. Running a 1 mile section of trail with two other runners seemed like the perfect time to finally try this. I popped in some earbuds and started blasting my playlist of 90's alternative rock. And wow, yeah, I get why people do this now.

A light rain started falling and the temperature dropped. I bundled up a little more and pulled out the big guns: Hamilton. With a two and a half hour runtime, the Hamilton soundtrack had gotten me through some long car trips before, so why not a long section of wet trail? I sang along loudly. I rapped the entire Lafayette part of Guns and Ships perfectly, though with great difficulty. Mike and Jay probably thought I was a lunatic.

But there was a fatal flaw in my plan: the orphanage (if you've listened to Hamilton, you know what I'm talking about). I was already feeling a little emotionally raw from the exertion, and this song made tears well up in my eyes.

"The ooooorphanaaaage...." I whimpered softly.

Suddenly Jay was saying something to me as he passed. I pulled out an earbud.

"What was that?" I asked.

"I said, you're the hardest dude on this mountain."

"Erm..." I paused and composed myself. "Thanks Jay."

The view overnight looked like this except instead of a panoramic vista it was impenetrable fog in every direction

I hit 20,000' of gain with 15 hours elapsed. My pace had slowed in the dark, but that still left 9 more hours to climb the remaining 10,000'. Very doable as long as I took care of my nutrition and clothing.

The good news was that around 4:00am it stopped spitting rain. The bad news was that around 4:05 it started absolutely pissing rain. The temperature was 36 degrees. We still had six hours left on the mountain. We wouldn't want Everesting to be easy, now would we?

I put on my survival suit: two long sleeve shirts, a down puffy jacket, a rain shell, and waterproof mittens. I also changed into a fresh pair of shorts because my dumb ass didn't think it would be cold enough to run in pants. I was now wearing almost every article of clothing I had brought. If this didn't work then I was out of options. I scarfed down a few slices of pizza and some donuts for good measure and started hiking back up the trail, which now resembled a flowing river.

I shivered violently for the first few minutes as my heart rate started coming back up. It's amazing how quickly your body temperature can plummet in this weather. A simple change of clothes can end your whole race if you're not efficient. The only solution is to put your head down, get moving, and let your body warm itself back up. By the time I reached the summit, I was warm enough to take off my hood. Crisis averted!

The survival suit worked to perfection over the next few hours, and I was able to zip/unzip layers as needed to regulate my body temperature. After hours of pitch black and driving rain, the sky finally started to lighten. Alex called as she was driving to work, which perked me up immensely! With only a few laps left, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and my legs were still feeling good. I was going to finish this thing!

I figured out that I only had to do one loop per hour to hit 30,000 feet, and I did not intend to work any harder than that. I took my sweet time with the last few loops, pausing at the summit to admire the nonexistent view and to soak in the absurdity of what we had decided to do with our weekend. Ultrarunning is a silly sport, and god damn do I love it!

I hit 30,000' with half an hour left and 59.6 miles on my watch, and I decided to go back out and find Jay and Mike to hike it in together. I wanted to make sure there was enough of a buffer on my vertical gain that some Strava rounding error wouldn't cheat me out of 30,000', plus 60 miles was a much nicer rounder number than 59. Also if I waited at the finish, I would have been tempted to break into the victory beers that I was saving for the guys. It all just made sense.

We reached the parking lot together after 23:54:38 elapsed on Mount Beacon. Jay had lapped me twice for 32,000'+ (almost a "Hardrock"), while I just barely eclipsed my 30k goal, and Mike set a huge PR with 20-something-thousand feet of gain after working through some quadricep issues over night.

I'm not sure whether this was the dumbest thing we've ever done, and that fact speaks volumes about our decision making.

Big thanks to Jay and Mike for setting such an audacious goal and peer pressuring me into joining them. Not that I require much pressure, mind you. I'm sure we'll have many more crazy adventures together over the years, but this one will always be memorable.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Hillier Than Thou 100: A Welcome Home Party

I know... I know... I said I wouldn't run another road 100 any time soon. But I couldn't let a failed Manitou's Revenge 100 be my last adventure of the year could I?

After recovering from Manitou's, I struggled to find the motivation to keep training during a sweltering summer and fall with no races. Complicating things further, in October Alex and I bought a beautiful little house near our old home towns. It's a wonderful place, and I'm thrilled with our decision, but it meant that my free time was suddenly occupied by Lowes runs instead of training runs. After successfully avoiding most adult responsibilities until well into my 30's, I was now consumed by them. Yuck.

As the holidays rolled around, I pondered how to squeeze one last adventure into the truly bizarre year that was our 2020. Then I thought back to a bike race that my friend Tim had told me about a few years prior. It was a burly century ride (100 miles) around Warren, Hunterdon, and Morris Counties called Hillier Than Thou, which went out of its way to find the toughest paved climbs and descents in the region.

A quick glance at the course map revealed that it made a giant loop around our new home town while passing by some notable landmarks from our childhood (more on those later). Access to aid would be plentiful. Bail out options were simple. And I wouldn't have to contend with potentially snowy trails. With Alex and myself both off work between Christmas and New Year's Day, a plan was hatched.

103 miles with 13,000 feet of gain

Jogging Down Memory Lane (Miles 0-22)

We arrived at the Point Mountain trail head at 7pm on a Tuesday night. I chose a night time start because my goal was to jog this bitch in a "leisurely" 22 hours. Starting just after sunset would get all of that pesky sullen night running out of the way while I was still fresh as a daisy. That was the plan, anyway.

I find myself making this gesture a lot at the start of races, and I think it sums up my motivations pretty well.

After a few pictures and some fussing around with my headlamp and reflective vest, I jogged off into the night.

Half a mile into my run, I passed by Mansfield Elementary School, which I attended from 2nd to 6th grade. Out of sight behind it was the quarter mile gravel track where we had our daily "Walk Jog Run," a 15-minute period before lunch during which we ran as many laps as possible. We were only required to do 3, but I always liked to push hard and see if I could run 6, 7, or on very rare occasions, 8 laps. Little did I know that over 20 years later, I would spend my free time running the equivalent of 400+ laps at a time.

A mile later, the first real climb of the day began. Hoffman Road was the site of my family's old house, where I lived from 7th grade through the end of college. At only 900 feet, it had always seemed like a towering behemoth of a mountain, especially when I was driving my ratty 97 Kia Sephia down it in the snow with a learner's permit (RIP neighbors' mailboxes). I had also spent hours on end thrashing through the woods on that mountain in search of wild raspberries during the summer, which would turn out to be excellent preparation for races like the Barkley Fall Classic many years later. I gave our old house a little wave as I passed by.

I took the descent cautiously, trying to ease my woefully undertrained quads into the effort that they were about to undertake. I made a left onto Jackson Valley Road, following the route that I took to high school each morning, usually running late. After a few miles of rolling hills through cornfields, I arrived at Warren Hills High School. I remembered the time I ran to marching band practice from home on a summer day because I couldn't get a ride. My sheet music was soaked through with sweat by the time I arrived, but I had felt like the biggest badass in the world. The total distance I'd covered that day was four miles.

Chowing down on fresh gingerbread at WHRHS.
Sexy.

Alex, my mom, and Alex's mom Julie were all waiting for me with snacks and other supplies. Tim, who you'll recall was the inspiration for this run, came out to pace me for the next couple of climbs since he lived down the road (and at this point it was still a normal time for a human being to go out running). Together we climbed Mine Hill Road into the town of Oxford. Sixteen years prior, I had driven to Oxford in snow storm to kiss a pretty girl from study hall. That pretty girl's name was Alex, and these days I get to kiss her pretty regularly. I like to think that young Ryan would be very proud of adult Ryan.

We made a hard left and climbed back out of Oxford on Jonestown Road, passing by the entrance of Oxford Lake where I have spent countless summer days over the years. Another quick climb and descent brought us careening down Harmony-Brass Castle Road, a road which that old Kia Sephia was always struggled to climb when I visited my best friend John in high school. Thankfully having a cool car was not a prerequisite for dating 18-year-old Alex back then. Neither was having a functional car, as I would later learn (RIP Kia Sephia).

I turned off into Meadowbreeze Park and Tim continued on straight to head back to his car. I found myself passing by the peewee football fields where my friends and I played ultimate frisbee after school. Somewhere I still have the old cotton t-shirts we designed with the creative-as-heck name of our league: Ultimate Frisbee League. I would go on to play ultimate for five years in college and grad school, and I credit those multi-day frisbee tournaments for seasoning my legs for ultramarathons. Sure, climbing a hill at mile 80 is tough, but try playing defense with a hangover and blown quads from five games the previous day.

A short but steep climb up Coleman Hill Road gave way to an equally steep descent down Halfway House Road, which despite the name has some gorgeous old stone houses (and a mailbox shaped like a deer that scared the holy hell out of me). This brought me down to Route 57 and the aid station at Villa Roller Rink, where all the cool kids used to have their birthday parties. Come to think of it, I never had a birthday party there for some reason.

Moving on...

After a mile on Rt. 57 I turned up onto Millbrook Road, where Alex and I looked at a few houses earlier in the year. It's a pretty little wooded road and we were disappointed that we couldn't afford the 250-year-old farmhouse that we toured. But more pertinent to this story, Millbrook Road was the longest climb on the course, rising almost 1,000 feet over four miles. Yes, it turns out that NJ actually has a few 1,000 foot climbs.

I settled into an easy jogging pace and enjoyed the moonlit scenery as I slowly reached the high point on the course: Montana Mountain at a whopping 1,223 feet (humor me, okay?). I was greeted by sprawling cornfields at the top, and they offered little resistance to the swirling winter wind. It was downright chilly, but I distracted myself by turning off my headlamp and running by the unobstructed light of the full moon directly overhead.

The Steepening (Miles 22-59)

Now at almost midnight, I was joined by Alex for the perhaps most difficult five mile section of the course. She greeted me enthusiastically through multiple layers of hoods and buffs, and we took off on the descent down Castner's Road. We plummeted downhill for several miles, losing every bit of the elevation that I had spent the last hour gaining. Then after a mile of flat running on Rt. 519, we began the steepest climb of the day: Fiddler's Elbow.

Compared to the trails that I regularly train on, a 528' climb in 0.76 miles isn't particularly heinous, but it should give you an appreciation for the determination of early east coast settlers. Those crazy bastards were willing to build a road on just about any damn hill they pleased. And apparently they didn't care much for switchbacks. Having run this section on a recon mission a few days earlier, I was beyond grateful to have Alex's company. Mostly just so I could say to someone "Can you believe how steep this friggin' hill is?!"

Hiking selfie from Fiddler's Elbow

70 minutes after Alex had joined me, we were back at her car and it was time for her to get some warm dry clothes on. After a final kiss (see, I told you I get to smooch her up all the time!), it was time to run some easy miles for the first time in a few hours. The descent into Harmony was four straight downhill miles at a moderate grade, which felt amazing after some of the quad busting descents from earlier. I made good time on this section, keeping to a conservative 10:30/mi.

The descent ended all too quickly as I found myself at the base of Wester Road, which is deceptively steep at 463' in just 0.83mi. I hiked the entire thing and then continued hiking up Fox Farm Road to the west entrance of Merrill Creek Reservoir, where a much warmer Alex was waiting for me. It was chilly near the water so I moved along quickly. After some rolling hills and a leisurely descent, I once again found my crew on the side of Rt. 57, this time at a gas station. The buzzing neon lights overhead were a bit jarring after running through the wilderness for so long, but I was thankful to be off the mountain and out of the wind.

The next section would have been unremarkable if not for a flock of snow geese that had settled in a nearby field. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these birds, they are solid white except for black patches at the tips of their wings, and in the winter they migrate to parts of the US in flocks numbering in the thousands. So even though it was pitch black out side, I could tell I was near a flock because of the sheer volume of honking. The experience sounded something like this:

"HONKA HONKA HONKA HONK--"

*a house briefly blocking the noise*

"--AHONKA HONKA HONKA HONK--"

And so on for about a mile. Don't let anyone tell you that NJ doesn't have wildlife.

Anyway, I made quick work of the climb and descent of Mountainview Road, which the name suggests, has absolutely no views if you're running on it at 4am. This led to a two mile stretch on Asbury-Bloomsbury Road, which is part of my daily commute home from work. Home field advantage, baby! Incidentally, I find a lot of the the road names in this region to be pretty unimaginative. They typically just tell you which two towns are being connected, which I guess was useful in the days before Google Maps. "Heya Jimbob, how do I get to Bloomsbury?" "Well, yer in Asbury right now, so you might could take Asbury-Bloomsbury Road down a ways. When you git to the end of it, then I reckon you'll be in Bloomsbury." I'm not sure why these hypothetical past New Jerseyans speak like Old West prospectors in my imagination.

But I digress.

After passing through Asbury, I reached my crew at the base of Iron Bridge Road. I first "discovered" this monster of a hill on a training run with Andrew and Scott, whom you'll meet later on. Scott had specifically requested a flat recovery run, so we took a detour from our usual hilly route down some local roads at Andrew's suggestion. We turned a corner and before we knew it we were half way up a 500 foot climb. Scott has never quite forgiven us since that day. Now at mile 47 and feeling every one of those miles, I knew that I would need a little extra courage to conquer this hill. With a toast to my fearless crew, I downed a mini bottle of fireball.

It's 5 o'clock (a.m.) somewhere!
(Alex came up with that joke first, but I'm gonna steal it.)

With a fire in my belly and cinnamon on my breath, I hunkered down and hiked up all 500 feet of Iron Bridge Road. My pit stop had lasted long enough that my fingers were going numb, so I put a little extra effort into it to get my blood flowing again. I was rewarded for my efforts with a few more easy downhill miles, but my quads let me know with each step that they were unhappy with the way I was treating them.

An unremarkable climb and descent brought me to Hot Rod's Hot Dogs on Rt. 31. It was 6:30am and my buddy Scott was waiting to get in his morning run with me. Just days before, Scott had also agreed to run an eggnog mile with me and Tim, which proves that he's the kind of friend who will gladly jump off a bridge with you if you ask him nicely enough. Thanks for enabling all my crazy ideas, Scott!

Two hot dudes at Hot Rod's Hot Dogs.
...I'm very sorry I wrote that.

With my new pacer in tow, I hobbled away from Hot Rod's. My legs were now well and truly rebelling, which is not something I wanted to admit to myself with 50 miles left in this run. I knew I was going to finish, but boy did that finish line seem far away at this moment. I really should have done a training run. Maybe two training runs. Live and learn, kids.

Thankfully Scott is good company, and he was extraordinarily patient as I found increasingly inane reasons to stop running. First I wanted to check a map, which is not a terrible reason. Then I had to adjust my pack. Then my gloves. Then my gloves again. You know what, fuck it, let's go ahead and adjust those gloves one more time just for good measure.

I was clearly stalling.

Despite my best efforts, we made reasonably good time through this five mile section until we hit Scott's turnaround point at the intersection of the Columbia Trail and Hoffman's Crossing. Here we found my loyal crew sound asleep in their cars. I tapped on the window of our SUV and a bleary-eyed Alex sat up and took a second to come back online. She was apologetic, but I was happy to have another excuse to stop running.

Take your time. No, seriously.

Mama Always Said Weird is as Weird Does (Miles 59-76)

The sun was up and I was alone with my thoughts again. Time for my two favorite pastimes: weird intrusive thoughts and existential dread!

The dread part was first. Despite the common wisdom that sunrise will breathe new life into a weary ultrarunner, I had now been awake for 24 hours and I was starting to feel the repercussions. I found myself doing long blinks and then opening my eyes to find that I was walking down the middle of the road. What the hell was I doing with my life? I could have been inside eating Christmas leftovers between naps. (This is all pretty standard ultrarunner internal monologue.)

My spirits were lifted, if not a bit unnerved, by a woman who drove by and shouted:

"This is God's country!"

I paused for a moment. Was she reprimanding me for that pee break I took a few minutes earlier? Or for snot rocketing during a pandemic? Or for picking my wedgie? Wow, ultrarunning is extraordinarily disgusting.

"It's so beautiful out here. I love driving through this area. Truly God's country." she elaborated.

Ah, so that was meant as a positive comment.

"Yes," I concurred, "it's a great area to run." (I was clearly walking, but that was a nice thought, wasn't it?)

She drove away, but that brief interaction had started to change my mindset a little bit. I reminded myself to look around and enjoy the views of pastures and the sound of the songbirds. God's country. Maybe Cthulu's country too. Either way, very scenic.

My spirits were further lifted when I got to the next aid station and Alex was blasting Guns and Ships from Hamilton. We've both grown quite proficient at doing Lafayette's legendary double-time rap, and that's exactly what we did, loudly, in the middle of sleepy little Mountainville at 9am on a Wednesday morning. Rise and shine, everyone! We're taking this horse by the reins!

Slowly but surely, the clouds were starting to part, both metaphorically and literally. Running in actual sunshine was lovely, and I picked up the pace accordingly. I turned onto Bissel Road, which I've passed many times before. The name Bissel always sounded like something out of Snoop Dogg's vocabulary, except if he were German. So to commemorate this turn, I shouted loudly and to no one in particular, "Ja, for shissel mein Bissel!" Minutes later, I passed a donkey standing in a field and greeted it with a merry "Hee Haaaww!"

Life was good.

Life got even better when Alex appeared at the next aid stop with a hot coffee and an everything bagel. Gentlemen, find yourself a woman who knows how to procure an everything bagel at a moment's notice. This was heavenly, and I allowed myself to walk the entire next mile while savoring a hot breakfast.

Bagel + coffee = happy runner

Incidentally, that mile was along Hill and Dale Road, which is just adorable.

Okay, enough breakfast. Let's get back to work.

My head was in a good space, but my legs were no more cooperative than before. I was barely able to hold a 13:00/mi pace on downhills, and the uphill miles were certainly no better. But I'm no stranger to walking in the latter half of a race and I was prepared to muscle through it.

Fatigue Loves Company (Miles 76-103)

My mom and her friend Beth were able to jump in for this next section, and it was looking like I might have company for the rest of the run! The two of them have been doing long distance virtual races since the pandemic started and have logged hundreds of miles in pursuit of those goals. So in a way I was also pacing their virtual race. You're welcome, ladies.

We hobbled down Cold Springs Road together, enjoying the scenery and the moderate grade. A few turns later we found the corresponding 500' climb up Hollow Brook Road, and we all got to commiserate about how steep these roads were. Never underestimate the power of having someone to complain to.

Back at the top Beth called it a day and my mom decided to stick around for another descent and climb. After a quick sock change (my first of the day at mile 81), we made our way down the shoulder of Rt. 512. At around 15:00/mi, my downhill pace was starting to be almost indistinguishable from my uphill pace. Once again I would like to emphasize that I really should have trained for this. We turned onto Black River Road and had a leisurely mile alongside the Lamington River. Then it was time for - you guessed it - another steep climb!

Walking and talking with my mom

My mom is never at a loss for words, which was fantastic because I needed someone to distract me from the rebellion that my body was staging. I could occasionally convince my legs to run for a few minutes at a time, but my feeble little steps meant that I was running at a walking pace. The perk of me being the only competitor was that no one passed me here. So that's something. Silver linings and whatnot.

We reached the top of the climb and my mom's pacing duties were done after almost 14 miles and 3.5 hours. Thanks mom!

We were now 14 more miles from the finish line and Andrew was waiting to take me the rest of the way. We started with a few downhill miles, and I probably got his hopes up by cobbling together some 13 minute miles. This wouldn't last long.

Last pacer of the day!

We were in Long Valley and needed to get back to Mansfield where I had started the previous day. As you might expect from the theme of this route, there is a long mountain chain that separates these two towns. The most common route between them is Schooley's Mountain Road, which is infamous for being one of the most dangerous roads in the state. But slightly southwest from there is a lesser known and similarly steep route called Middle Valley Road. At about 500 feet in a mile, it's not the steepest climb on the course, but the fact that it's at mile 94 makes it exponentially harder than the ones before it.

We absolutely crawled up this hill, netting my first 20+ minute mile split since Iron Bridge Road. But we eventually crested the summit and had a couple flat miles to regroup for the descent down Stephensburg Road, a detour thrown in purely to add elevation gain to an already hilly route. My quads were shredded. I probably could have walked faster than the pitiful 16:00/mi trot that I managed for the this descent. Andrew was a good sport thankfully.

At the bottom of the hill, we were finally left with the last climb and descent of the route. Just 400 vertical feet separated me from the Mount Lebanon ridge, and from there a 400 foot descent to the finish. The sun had set and I was once again running through the dark. So much for getting all the night running out of the way early!

Mercifully, the entire climb was done in the span of a mile. My watch beeped and displayed 99 miles elapsed. I considered doing just one more mile and then calling it quits. After all, I was free to define this adventure any way I wished, and 100 miles was a nice round number. But there were still four miles left to complete the full loop, and momma didn't raise no quitter!

We walk-shuffled along Mount Lebanon Road in silence. In the distance I spotted headlights. Was this an impromptu crew stop? Had Alex driven out to pace me? Nope, some friends of Alex's had heard about my run and came out to cheer me on in a 20 degree night. How cool is that?

At long last, we made the final turn onto Point Mountain Road. Alex had run up to meet us there, and she informed me that there were two miles left to run. I told her that I wanted that it to be much less than two miles and that I was very disappointed in her for telling me otherwise. She was unmoved by my pleas.

I debated whether to hammer this last descent, as I so often do, but decided that my legs had already suffered enough. Plus there was black ice all over the road and the thought of slipping and faceplanting this close to the finish was not appealing. So we jogged along and I attempted to tell them both, in between gasps for air, how thankful I was for their support.

As the finish came into view, I gave a final burst of speed (read: 9:00/mi), and hugged the Point Mountain sign after 23 hours and 39 minutes.

Adventure accomplished.

Chilling with a victory beer

Thanks!

It never ceases to amaze me how lucky I am to have family and friends who support these strange challenges that I design for myself. Alex and my mom followed me through the entire loop, spending 24 hours straight driving, running, and sleeping in 15 minute increments in the back of their cars. And because they're responsible adults during a global pandemic, they did this all in separate cars. I love and appreciate you both more than I can express. Alex's mom Julie also tagged along for the first and last few hours of the adventure, which was fun for me and great company for the main crew.

Tim, Scott, Beth, and Andrew provided valuable company and navigational help during crucial moments of the run. I had anticipated doing this entire run solo because I couldn't imagine convincing other people to come run in the dark and freezing cold. Thank you all for your support!

Final stats:
23:39:01
102.89 miles
13,070 feet of elevation

Unofficially my 11th 100+ mile race.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Adventure Report: Manitou's Revenge 100

Relentless. 

That's the one word that comes to mind when I think of the Manitou's Revenge 100 route.

Absolutely. Soul crushingly. Relentless.

That's how I would elaborate on that thought.

Let's back up a second for historical reasons. This adventure was painfully long, so it deserves a race report that is equally so.

I'm sorry in advance.

Making a new friend on Windham High Peak

The History of the Manitou's Revenge 100

The Manitou's Revenge 54 mile race is widely considered one of the toughest endurance events on the east coast. Known for its heart pounding climbs, quad burning descents, and hours between aid stations, it is a challenge only attempted by the hardiest of mountain athletes.

But before Manitou's Revenge was a 54 mile event, it was proposed as a 100 miler by the twisted mind of Charlie Gadol. It wasn't until he described the course to local runners that he was convinced to shorten it to its present day length to avoid killing his entrants.

Ever since hearing the origin story of this race, the idea of running the original 100 mile route has haunted me. But the thought of running past the finish line and missing the post race festivities on race day never sat right with me. With the official race canceled for 2020 due to Coronavirus, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally try my luck.

Manitou's Revenge 100 course map

With the help of my Catskill guru Mike Siudy, I put together a route based on the original course. The concept we settled on was simple and elegant: run the full length of the Long Path through Catskill Park, from the northern border to the southern border (or "blue line to blue line," as Mike puts it).

When we totaled up the numbers for the course, there was no question that it was a burly route: 93  miles, 25,000 feet of climbing, and nine high peaks (summits 3,500' or higher). And naturally it would include some classic Catskill terrain, notably most of the Escarpment Trail, eight miles of the Devil's Path, and the entire Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide traverse.

Manitou's 100 elevation profile with water sources and summits labeled.
Splits shown here were based on a ~26 hour finish.

Shortly before the day of my run, I found out that a local runner named Tom DeHaan had run a similar route, which he called Wings of Manitou. His route covered all of the high peaks but left off the first mile and the last twelve miles of the Long Path. His time of 29:48 provided a good benchmark, and I hoped to cover his mileage plus the extra sections in less time. After some back of the napkin math, I decided that 25 hours might even be possible in good conditions.

Two Dopes on a Slope (Start to Mile 24)

I asked a handful of  my craziest friends to join me for this adventure, but only Devang Patel was stupid brave enough to accept the invitation. So off we went into the darkness at 4am on a humid Saturday in June. With social distancing in mind, we each had one person crewing for us. In my case, it was my infinitely patient wife Alex, and in Devang's case it was the legendary Grand Slammer Otto Lam. Alex and Otto would spend the weekend driving to strategic locations and often hiking up overgrown mountain trails to find us on the course.

"Ryan, do you have any idea what we're in for?"
"No sir, do you?"

The first few miles were totally new to me, and we took them very slowly in the dark. We summitted our first high peak - Windham - just as the sun was starting to peak out. We paused for a few pictures at the summit, sharing the view with Rocky the wonder pup pictured above. Not understanding social distancing, Rocky spent most of our two minutes together gnawing on my hands and elbows. I guess I was already working up a good salty sweat.

The weather was a mild 50ish degrees, but the forecast called for alternating periods of stifling humidity and thunderstorms. We did our best not to think about the conditions that awaited us, but inevitably the conversation drifted back to the weather whenever a new set of clouds drifted overhead. We knew we could be in for rough conditions if the rockiest sections of the course were wet.

About two hours in, we merged with mile 4 of the original Manitou's course, meaning that the additional mileage and elevation had added about an hour to our route. That was fine with me, but I had neglected to add that time onto the pace sheet that I gave our crew. Sorry about that, guys!

I've always been thankful that the climb up Blackhead comes early in Manitou's. With 1,071' of rocky climbing packed into just 0.81 miles of trail, it is one of the most difficult sections of the entire course. But doing it at mile nine meant that we got to enjoy the all-four-limbs scrambling like a couple of kids playing on a jungle gym.

Devang's view for most of the day.
I apologize profusely for the beer farts.

We reached our crew for the first time at Dutcher's Notch, running an hour behind our goal splits thanks to me being bad at math, but otherwise feeling good and moving well.

We cruised up Stoppel Point and had an easy meandering descent to North Point, where I lost the trail for a moment on the rocky slabs and Devang got us back on track. I'm pretty sure I make the same mistake every time I run Manitou's and I'm always lucky enough to have another runner correct me.

As we passed over Newman's Ledge I told Devang the story of the Escarpment trail runner who absentmindedly ran straight off a ledge and landed in the bushes 50 feet below. He thankfully survived but became a cautionary tale for future Catskill runners. The inaugural member of the Escarpment diving team.

"I mean, I wouldn't even want to fall off one of these little ledges," I added as we descended toward North-South Lake. "You wouldn't die, but you could definitely *oof*!"

I had fallen off a ledge.

Thankfully it was a short ledge with dirt at the bottom, so I only bruised my ego. The timing could not have been more perfect though.

Anyway, we made it to North-South Lake in one piece, having covered the Escarpment Trail Race route in 5:16 (incidentally we would have placed 164th if it had been race day). We then had a short climb to South Mountain and a long runnable descent to Palenville. It was on this descent that the rain first started, just a drizzle at first but then a steady downpour.

Chasing Devang into Palenville

The Hard Part (Miles 24-56)

The thing about the Manitou's Revenge 54 course is that each section gets progressively harder. The Escarpment Trail is just a warm up for the long wet climb up Kaaterskill High Peak, which itself is just an easy hike compared the the Devil's Path. Now with an additional 40 miles tacked onto the end, we knew we had to not just survive this section but to make it to the end intact enough to tackle the sections beyond.

The rain proved to be a mixed blessing since it provided some much needed relief from the usual heat on the climb up Kaaterskill. We made steady work of the ascent, trying to motivate each other despite the increasingly muddy trails. The Snowmobile Trail that skirts the summit was, as usual, a sloppy mess. Even in the best of weather that trail has been known to steal the shoes right off a runner's feet.

The rain grew more intense and the air cooler as we climbed. I was comfortable while we were moving, but I was starting to get concerned about the risk of hypothermia later on. After topping out, we made quick work of the 1,000' descent and rolled into Platte Clove with a sense of urgency.

I do enjoy running in a rain storm though.
Yes I'm aware that my shirt is totally translucent and my belly is hanging out. Sue me.

I took a few minutes to refuel and put on a rain jacket, but I opted not to change my socks since the next section was guaranteed to soak us anyway. I was back on the trail in less than five minutes, and Devang was shortly behind me.

Now it was time for the infamous Devil's Path section, known as one of the most strenuous sections of trail in the country.

Alex near the top of Indian Head on a recon run

With food in our bellies and some warmer layers on, our spirits were starting to recover. We made the summit of Indian Head in just over an hour. The descent to Jimmy Dolan Notch was treacherously wet, but thankfully the sticky rubber soles of my new Speedgoats worked like a charm.


Two dopes in the mountains

The rain settled a bit and turned into more of a mist as we progressed across Twin and Sugarloaf, but the trails would stay wet for the remainder of the weekend. After a hair raising descent into Mink Hollow (-1,149' in 0.79 mi) we had warmed up enough that we could take off our rain jackets for the ascent of Plateau, which is the mirror opposite climb (+1,112' in 0.79 mi). Normally this is the last uphill scramble of the race and it turns into a heart pounding affair, but today it was time to settle in and conserve some energy. My 43min/mi pace on this section reflects, I will argue, my amazing patience rather than a total lack of climbing ability. Sigh...

Anyway, the top of Plateau offers some decent running for a few minutes before turning sharply downhill toward Warner Creek. We met up with mountain badasses Aaron Stredny and Shamus Nugent who were running the 54 mile course self supported. We spent a talkative few miles together, all of us happy to have more company during a long stretch between aid. We then added a fifth member to our party, whose name I didn't quite catch. Here's a video of him though.


Needless to say this was the highlight of the day for all of us.

We refueled at Silver Hollow Notch and smooched up our crew members (or at least I did; I didn't keep tabs on Devang and Otto), and then it was time for the last two climbs and descents before Phoenicia.

Goons on parade

We all got split up on the climb and descent to Warner Creek, and for the first time all day I found myself alone and able to take the climb up Mount Tremper at my own pace. And with 40 miles left to go, I was in absolutely no rush.

After some uninspiring 25 minute uphill miles, I met Mike Siudy at the summit where he offered an assortment of beverages. Then it was time for some equally uninspiring 15 minute downhill miles in the fog as the sun set and my headlamp batteries died. Not cool, headlamp, not cool.

I survived the descent intact, but I was becoming increasingly aware that my feet were waterlogged after being soaked most of the day. I trotted into Phoenicia at a leisurely pace and arrived at the Parish Hall with 17:39 elapsed. Accounting for the extra hour long climb up Windham High Peak, that's a 16:39 Manitou's Revenge 54 finish, which was just about on our target pace and would have placed us 57th of 113 starters in the 2019 race.

The Even Harder Part (mile 56 until my gruesome death)

Now it was time to reset and get my head on straight for the Wittenberg Cornell Slide traverse. Unfortunately Devang's feet were too shredded to continue on and there would be no crew access for the next 25 miles, so I would have to prepare for a long night alone. A full change of clothing made me feel like a new man, and a beer and half a pizza didn't hurt either. Alex and Mike walked me to the next trail head while I ate, and then I was off on my own.

Portrait of the author blissfully unaware of what he's about to go through

I had run this section of the Long Path in 2019 as part of the Cat's Tail Marathon but that was 1) in the reverse direction, 2) during daylight hours, and 3) on relatively fresh legs. The point I'm trying to make is that I didn't really know what I was in for. What I learned is that this section of trail is surprisingly difficult to follow and doesn't have a single water source for 13 uphill miles. Yeesh. I should have at least had a second beer before I left Phoenicia.

It took almost 4 hours of climbing through wet grass and leaves to reach the open summit of Wittenberg. My feet were soaked through and I was totally out of water. Thankfully I had a beautiful panoramic view to raise my spirits.

The view from Wittenberg might be the best in the Catskills

Ha! Just kidding, it was 2 in the morning and still raining/misting. I couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction.

My pace suffered as I grew increasingly dehydrated along the rocky traverse. In the col before Cornell, I finally gave in and scooped up a puddle of muddy water in my filter. I chugged it down eagerly, trying not to pay attention to how murky the it was. Then I figured that two bottles worth of puddle water wouldn't get me any sicker than one bottle. Down the hatch!

The summit of Cornell came fairly quickly. The summit of Slide did not. I was thankful for a bright headlamp and a good pair of shoes as I clambered through the dark over some of the most difficult on-trail terrain the Catskills has to offer.

Allow me to introduce you to the Cornell Crack. Picture doing this at 3am in the rain by the light of a headlamp.

Five and a half hours after leaving Phoenicia, I reached my first real water source, the spring on the east flank of Slide. I guzzled down bottle after bottle of the freezing cold water. Finally hydrated enough, I was able to take in some food, but my rest break ended abruptly when I realized that my core temperature was plummeting. I scrambled the rest of the way to the summit, stopping for a moment to mentally visualize what the view normally looks like.

Slide Mountain view in better weather

Now at the high point of the course, I could make up some time on the downhills, right? Wrong! My feet were totally shot. 23 hours of mud and water had exacted a ghastly toll. My soles were hamburger meat. I gently tiptoed down the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail, watching my goal finish evaporate into the foggy air. The pain was so bad that I attempted to call Alex and tell her to meet me at the nearest trailhead. I was certain that I wouldn't make another 11 miles to our next aid station. Unfortunately, despite teasing me with a bar of reception, my phone could not connect to make a call or send a text.

The only thing I could keep doing was to move forward. An excruciating four mile descent brought me to the Neversink River, where I refilled my bottles again. I found that my uphill hiking was unaffected by my foot issues, and I made it to the summit of Table as the sun was starting to come out 26 hours into my adventure. A short traverse brought me to the summit of Peekamoose, the ninth and final high peak.

All that was left was a 2,500 foot descent to reach Alex and tap out. I soldiered forward, the skin on my feet threatening to slide off with each step. I envisioned pulling my shoes off at the finish and finding that they had taken all the skin and muscle off with them.

I heard a woman screaming softly in the distance and realized with horror that the sound was coming from my own mouth. I'm glad no one else was around to hear me. Let's just keep this part of the report a secret, shall we?

I counted down the miles until I could stop moving. Each one took an eternity. I would walk for what felt like an hour and look down to realize that 30 seconds had gone by.

Just when I started to come to terms with the fact that I had clearly died and was in purgatory descending this god forsaken mountain forever, I rounded a final bend and saw the parking lot. I gave a feeble call for Alex and she cheered me in through the last few weak strides of my Catskill adventure.

Final time: 27:50:58
Distance: 81 miles
Evelation: 24,022 feet

Postmortem

I announced to Alex that not only was I done for the day, but I never wanted to come back and try this route again. Then I sat down and told her all the things I would do differently when I attempted the route again. So I guess that settles it. If I couldn't even swear off the Manitou's Revenge 100 five minutes after dropping out, I suppose I'll come back again and do it right. I'm not sure when that will be, but you can rest assured that I'll check the weather reports before I start.

Technically, this could be considered an FKT since I replicated Tom DeHaan's route two hours faster (though notably, he was self supported and I had a crew). But I find it much more aesthetic to add on the last 12 miles of the Long Path and run the "blue line to blue line" as Mike originally proposed.