If you stray off the beaten path, you might encounter a wall of Hobble-bush (viburnum lantanoides). Where the branches touch the ground, they send down roots and grow new stems. Soon there is a thicket eager to hobble the unwary hiker — hence the plant’s popular name. Continue reading “Hobbling Through the Woods”
The first weekend in May was warm, dry, and breezy. Driving home Sunday afternoon, we saw smoke rising in the valley. Later we learned that a homeowner burning rubbish had accidentally ignited a small fire. Volunteer firefighters and state forest rangers bulldozed lanes through the woods to contain the blaze. But the flames lept over the firebreaks and fanned by dry winds spread rapidly across the ridge. Before it was finally extinguished, the fire had engulfed 2,000 acres in the heart of the Shawangunk Mountains. Continue reading “Fire on the Ridge”
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance
— Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
As someone who loves to explore forest trails, I nonetheless spend a fair amount of time at the local track. I’m always trying to run a little bit faster, and I love to make progress.
One of my favorite track workouts is called the Yasso 800. It consists of ten 800-meter (or 1/2 mile) intervals, with 400-meter (1/4 mile) jogs for recovery in between. The name was coined by Runners World editor Amby Burfoot in an 1994 article after he heard his colleague Bart Yasso claim that the drill would predict his marathon time. It’s simple, Bart explained: the average time for the 800-meter intervals in minutes and seconds would predict his marathon time in hours and minutes. For example, an average interval time of 2 minutes 50 seconds would correspond to a marathon finishing time of 2 hours and 50 minutes. The relationship could be thrown off by heat, wind, or hills, but the intervals had proven a reliable indicator, at least in Bart’s own experience.
Rock The Ridge is a 50-mile race with a 24-hour time limit, which makes it possible for a wide range of people to participate, from elite trail runners to walkers and hikers.
No matter who you are, there’s something special about covering 50 miles, especially when you’re running in the Shawangunk mountains.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some of the participants’ experiences in their own words:
I enlisted a group of family and friends to do the 2014 relay division with me, and it was an amazing experience. As soon as I finished, I was ready to sign up for 2015. As I thought about it, I told myself that I might as well do the whole thing and thought, “to hell with it! I’m doing 50 miles!”
I was so excited at the start that I ended up going too fast on the first leg, which was a big mistake, and I definitely paid for it around mile 22. That was where I hit the wall, and questioned whether or not I could finish.
I came into the Lyons Road aid station pretty exhausted, and was considering stopping. Then I saw my friends and all the volunteers. I decided to take a 15 minute break and ate some food, including a baked potato, which I am convinced saved my life!
About a mile out, I started up the “big hill,” and that’s when something amazing happened – I started feeling great and pushed through the mental and physical wall. Once I reached the top, I had a revelation – I was going to finish this damn thing! My months of training and hard work were going to pay off.
I never dreamed that I would do something like this.
Walt Disney was a dreamer and visionary who had that “can do” spirit. It was only fitting that I wore my Mickey Mouse t-shirt during the race. Mickey Mouse is a state of mind. It’s about staying positive in the face of challenge, keeping your eye on the goal, and pushing through when the going gets tough and not giving up. And that was Rock the Ridge for me.
I learned…DON’T EVER DOUBT YOURSELF
What did this mean? EVERYTHING! I can do absolutely anything I set my heart and mind to!
Mike and Lisa Kristofik
At mile 26.2 we celebrated my daughter’s first marathon, at mile fifty, her first ultra. She had never ran more than a half marathon in an event or more than 22 as a training run..
Insanity is a prerequisite it seems, or is it?
I have a congenital heart defect called a bicuspid aortic valve. The valve has always had a mild amount of leakage. Three years ago. I was informed that my valve had led to a slight aneurysm and the valve now has a mild amount of narrowing (stenosis). I spent a year feeling scared and depressed. I finally dealt with my condition during a solo swim on a cloudy day in Lake Awosting. I decided to do everything I could to fight this disease I have been born with and prevent or delay the day when I will need surgery both through diet and exercise.
I truly feel at home when I’m exercising in the woods surrounded by nature.
The course was special, passing some places I’ve really enjoyed in the past like Sky Top, Castle Point, and Lake Awosting. I also enjoyed seeing some new places like Awosting Falls and seeing climbers above on the Trapps.
I battled leg cramps and knee pain twice, and I could no longer run after about mile 38. I’m proudest that I stretched out and managed to run the last 5 miles to the finish. I was also pleased to experience a faster recovery from this race than after my first marathon.
My doc says the aneurysm in my ascending aorta has stabilized. He told me to come back in a year instead of every 6 months. I am lucky because many others with my condition have faced serious side effects and/ or surgery at a much younger age than me, because I have no symptoms, and I have no restrictions on endurance events.
Reaching my goals has helped me to be happier, healthier, and have more confidence in other areas of my life.
I’m turning 50 next month and it seemed only natural to walk a “50 @ 50.” I signed up for Rock The Ridge to challenge myself…
My experience was really good. It was a hard thing to accomplish because of the distance, and the biggest discomfort I had was due to blisters (the blisters were more annoying than anything else).
This event made me realize how strong I actually am
After walking 50 miles, my perspective of what’s difficult has changed. This event marked a milestone for me mentally and physically. There was never a question in my mind if I was going to complete the course: I was concerned about the condition I would be in when I crossed the finish line.
I fared pretty well, and now I know “what I’m made of.”
Turns out, I’m pretty hardy!
Crossing that finish line was an incredible experience that I don’t expect to ever forget.
I half heard something on the radio about “Rock the Ridge” while I was driving. When I got home I checked it out. It seemed like something I might be able to complete; on the other hand it was not something I was sure I could do. I liked that uncertainty. So I started to train, adding more and more time onto the treadmill each week and setting the incline to as high as it went.
My goal was to fully walk it, at about 3MPH, but mostly just to finish within the time allowed. I completed it a bit slower (19:15 instead of my goal of 17:00 hours), but I did finish. As best I can tell I was nearly the oldest person to do the full 50 Miles (I am 64)
The most meaningful thing to me was my coming to understand that while I wanted to quit, often, I never “had” to quit. I always asked myself if I really had to stop and I never did – I only needed to keep putting one foot in front of the next (and not trip).
I plan to remember that distinction between “have to” and “would like to” when I feel like quitting at something.
Rock The Ridge was something I felt drawn to do since I heard about it the first year. It took me several years to get up the nerve to actually do it. ( I am turning 60 in a few weeks so this year was like now or never.)
I had a great time during the event the event interacting with the other participants and the volunteers. I hike every Wednesday with the Bob Babb Wednesday walkers and some of the people from that group were volunteering at Spring Farm. It was great to see them and get some encouragement from them.
I tried to anticipate problems that I might encounter along the way, but two things that I didn’t foresee were getting blisters on top of my toes, and having no appetite at all which made it difficult to keep up my energy. I started fading fast around mile 25.
Even though I didn’t complete the entire 50 miles I have a sense of accomplishment for going for 35 miles. Some of my friends want me to be a poster child for baby boomer fitness. I am hoping to participate next year as part of a relay team.
I signed up because I was at a time in my life when I needed to go on a journey.
I went into myself and came out 11 some odd hours later a different person. I needed a little metamorphosis and sometimes pushing myself like that is what brings it about. Prior to this the farthest I had gone was 30 miles. This opened a lot of personal doors for me.
During the event…amid IT band agony, smiling faces, boiled potatoes, and incredible views, I realized why I love to run, I got over a horrendous breakup, and decided the direction I want to go with my career…better than any therapist!
What it means to me? It means I can do anything I set my mind too
Three years ago I smoked a pack a day and could barely run a half mile. Now, I can say I completed an Ultra. It changed everything.
Nothing is evil which is according to nature
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I leaped out of bed before dawn and by first light was on the highway racing toward the Catskills. The goal was to summit seventeen peaks within 24 hours. This would be a test to determine whether I was ready to challenge an ultra-distance mountain-bagging record in this rugged region of the Hudson Valley. If things went well, I’d be back in a few weeks for a multi-day adventure, this time to officially break the record and set a new one.
What’s interesting about the Catskills is that many of the peaks have no trails. To reach a pathless summit, the runner “bushwhacks” through the woods. This entails following the lay of the land, staying oriented with map, compass, and GPS, and surmounting the obstacles tossed up by the constant flux of nature.
I was eager not only to challenge records, but also to experience the wilderness. I had been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the well-regarded 2nd century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher. Live in harmony with universal nature, he had argued almost two thousand years ago, and you can achieve serenity and tranquility, no matter what obstacles you encounter. And what better strategy for achieving harmony with nature, than to run through mountains and plunge into trackless forest?
The first virtue in a soldier is endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue.— Napoleon Bonaparte
Just a few minutes before the start, eight members of Team Red White & Blue posed for the camera, dressed in red shirts emblazoned with white eagles, smiling shyly in the pre-dawn light. For most of the team, it would be their first attempt at 50 miles — a distance nearly double that of the marathon and sixteen times the 5k. 50 miles is not easy to get your head around, even if you’ve run it before.
I was both a member of the team and one of the organizers of this race, called Rock The Ridge, which takes place in New York’s Hudson Valley. The race had been created to showcase the beauty of the Shawangunk Mountains, raise funds for a nature preserve that safeguards this wilderness, and encourage people to take on an endurance challenge that would be epic yet achievable.
In 2013, the first year of the event, I was putting some extra markings out on the course, just as dusk was falling, when I encountered an older woman hiking up the trail, a determined look on her face.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, surprised and a little curious. Her name was Myriam Bouchard, and she was running the 50 miles of Rock The Ridge to celebrate her 50th birthday. Then she mentioned something else: her son had enlisted in the Army and volunteered for the Special Forces, and she wanted to set an example for him.
I had served in the Army many years ago and experienced my fair share of runs, road marches, and cross-country movements. Indeed the idea for Rock The Ridge came in part from military-style endurance challenges, like the Hong Kong Trailwalker. We had modeled the event specifically after President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 challenge to the US Marines: could they still march 50 miles in 20 hours, as once required by Teddy Roosevelt?
JFK believed that physical and moral strength were linked. In 1960 he had written an article for Sports Illustrated entitled, “The Soft American”.
The knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself. But it is a knowledge which today, in American, we are in danger of forgetting.For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.
He ended the article by warning, “We do not want our children to become a generation of spectators. Rather, we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”
After the Marines successfully responded to the Kennedy Challenge, JFK’s brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy decided that anyone should be able to do this – even if they had no training. He gathered his staff and headed out on a snowy morning wearing a pair of scuffed oxfords. His staff gradually dropped out. At mile 35, Bobby told the last departing aid, “You’re lucky your brother isn’t president of the United States.”
Nonetheless, he finished the 50 miles, in 17 hours and 50 minutes.
The Kennedy Challenge attracted enormous publicity, and soon a fad for 50 mile hikes was sweeping the nation. Life Magazine devoted an entire issue to the phenomenon. Popular musicians wrote songs. The young, the old, even high school kids were on the march.
Unfortunately, the mass enthusiasm for endurance challenges faded with Kennedy’s untimely death.
Every calamity is to be overcome by endurance.— Virgil
In 2013, fifty years after Kennedy’s challenge to the Marines, Myriam Bouchard signed up for Rock The Ridge. She wrote in her blog about the motivation for participating in such a grueling event, referring to her son who had recently enlisted:
In my deep love for him, I felt if I succeeded in this 50-mile endurance race, I could pass along my determination – something to take with him when things got rough during his multiple assessments where he might be tempted to give up. If I finished, I wanted him to remember that once you set your mind on something, it’s possible to reach your goal by sticking to it. That was my hope anyhow: that I’d make it to the end so I could inspire him to move beyond his own limitations, or what he perceived as such.
After reading Myriam’s words, I had a sudden vision of military personnel and civilians moving together along the mountainous trails, celebrating the spirit of endurance that is so necessary for all of life’s difficult missions.
A quick internet search led me to Mike Erwin, founder of Team Red White & Blue, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to enhance veterans’ lives through physical and social activities. After meeting Mike, I started running with a Team Red White & Blue group in Central Park on Wednesday evenings. There I met a retired military policeman named Joseph Coureur who carried the US flag during our evening runs.
“Why don’t you carry the flag at Rock The Ridge?” I asked innocently.
An experienced marathoner, Joseph wrote in his blog that “lately my running is less running and more exploring and accomplishing.” I kept asking until the idea of running 50 miles finally hooked him.
And so it came to pass that one fine morning in May 2015, among two hundred other participants, Joseph, myself, and six other members from Team Red White & Blue were standing at the start of Rock The Ridge. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Endurance is nobler than strength, and patience than beauty
— John Ruskin
As soon as the starter’s gun went off, Team Red White & Blue members Nina DiPinto and Julie Daigle joined up with Joseph, and the three of them headed out together. They moved as a team, vigorously hiking the hills, running the flats, taking in the views across the valleys, and braving the afternoon heat. At mile 37, they pulled into one of the aid stations to regroup. Nina was suffering from bronchitis and a sinus infection, and she worried that to keep going would unfairly slow the others and potentially jeopardize them finishing. She made the difficult decision to drop out. Joseph unlaced his shoes for a few minutes and ate some soup and crackers. During the day, his emotions had ranged from denial to suffering to acceptance. Now he and Julie decided it was time to run.
Just after dark, Joseph and Julie crossed the finish, the US flag held high. Joseph sat down heavily, momentarily dizzy. He had never run 50 miles before, and the hills and warm temperatures had taken a toll. Later he explained to me that he perceived himself to have “no choice.” As long as he was carrying the colors, “quitting was not an option.”
Julie was all smiles and sparkling eyes. Evidently indefatigable, she looked like she was ready to take on another 50 miles.
Adam Freed and Phillip McIntire, who had served together with New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment, arrived at the finish line a couple of hours later. They were in high spirits, although they sheepishly admitted they needn’t have carried 30-pound packs. It’s just that as infantrymen, they were used to 50 pounds.of gear or more.
Along the way, they found the blisters agonizing, and Phillip nearly dropped out at mile 43, when he felt himself “completed exhausted physically.and mentally.” But he persevered, thanks in part to Adam’s companionship and another racer who fell in with them and suddenly they found themselves exhilirated to be running on the ridge under the moonlit sky.
They had plenty of experience moving on foot, but had never covered anything near to 50 miles, and certainly not on such varied terrain. This was an enormous accomplishment which Phillip reports has “redefined” his goals.
Bob Harris, an experienced trail runner and former Marine, covered the distance in 9 hours 55 minutes, setting a new personal record, despite coming off a lingering injury. He credits his military training for instilling mental perseverance, flexibility to overcome unexpected setbacks, and commitment to high expectations. Bob ran much of the race with a friend; he felt “a great sense of humbleness” at his friend’s compassion and unselfishness for keeping him company at the expense of his own goals.
Serving on active duty with the Army in Maryland, Jenni Hollenbeck had signed up for Rock The Ridge because she’s passionate about fitness, loves trail running, and was eager to experience the Shawangunk Mountains. One of her goals is to spread awareness for preservation our environment at the Mohonk Preserve and areas all across the U.S. She finished the event in just under 12 hours, a model of steadiness and consistency.
I managed to complete the 50 miles and was pleased with my time, although I’m an old hand at long-distance running. This year’s Rock The Ridge was my 62nd race of marathon distance or longer.
Heroism is endurance for one moment more.— George F. Kennan
For each of us, the race had been a different mix of highs and lows and included lessons in focus, determination, and teamwork that we might be able to apply to important real-world goals. I’d like to think JFK would have approved of our performance.
A few days after the race was over, I re-read Myriam’s blog. Her words reminded me that the real world can pose challenges much tougher than running 50 miles.
Perhaps joining the Special Forces, providing he did make it through the selection process, could be the best thing that happened to him. Perhaps, it could be the worst. I couldn’t fathom losing my son to battle. Every cell of my body, as a mother and pacifist, screamed “No!” The fear of loss was unbearable. So, I’d go work out and I’d cry.
Before Rock The Ridge, Myriam had never run more than 10 miles. She trained intensely for three months and completed the 50 miles in just over 15 hours. She tells me her son has made it through the first level of Special Forces training although he still faces a long road. To make it this far, he must be a determined young man.
I think I know where he gets his spirit.
After racing a cumulative 4,130 miles in marathons and ultramarathons, you’d think my feet would be messed up, but actually they’re quite beautiful, don’t you think?
Just kidding. Those feet belong to my friend Cindy Koch. My feet are almost as beautiful, but I don’t wear high heels.
To the contrary, my wardrobe consists entirely of “zero drop” footwear, meaning shoes where there is zero difference between the height of the sole in front and in back. Zero drop shoes have no heels, they’re flat.
I run in Inov-8 minimalist style road and trail shoes, generally the lightest-weight versions available, over distances ranging from one mile to one-hundred plus.
At work, I wear dress shoes made by Vivobarefoot. They have a thin rubber sole and a large toe box, but no heel or arch. My wife thinks they look odd (I agree) but I haven’t been fired for wearing them.
After throwing away a pair of sandals with arch support and thick cushioned heels, I’ve started walking and running in LUNA Sandals and am enjoying them immensely (no, those aren’t Cindy’s feet).
My shoes are considered “minimalist,” meaning that they offer little in the way of structure, support, or cushion. I started running in minimalist shoes after reading Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run.
Inspired by the book, I conducted a simple experiment — and I recommend it for anyone who’s questioning their current footgear.
Pick a trail that’s not too rocky and run around in your shoes. Then take off your shoes and run barefoot for a couple hundred yards — do you notice any difference? Then put your shoes back on and run — what do you feel now?
When I tried this, the experience was very powerful. Without shoes, I felt like for the first time in my life I understood how to run. Instead of slamming the ground with my heels, I found myself placing the balls of my feet on the ground, paying attention to the texture of the path and the location of gravel and rocks. The sensation of pounding vanished. Instead, my focus shifted to picking up my knees, using legs and feet as levers, and engaging the core.
Then, when I put my shoes back on, the lightbulb went off again. I could no longer feel the ground.
I decided on the spot to go 100% minimalist. If it meant less running while I got used to using different muscles, so be it. And it did take me about two years to fully transition. Along the way I struggled with very sore calves and a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis, and once I strained the achilles tendon and had to take two months off. But that was four years ago. Since then, I haven’t had an injury that took more than a week to heal. And I love the sensation of running naturally.
The problems with heels, at least for some of us, is that by tilting the body forward, they transfer mechanical load from the calves to the shins. As a young man, I suffered from chronic compartment syndrome, a form of severe shin splints, which eventually required surgery. I was running in conventional running shoes at the time with very large cushioned heels (New Balance 990), and these shoes evidently put too much pressure on my shin muscles, which would swell and go numb after about ten minutes of running.
An interesting study found that people with chronic compartment syndrome in their shins can reduce symptoms and avoid surgery by switching to minimalist shoes which encourage striking the ground with the forefoot, rather than the heel. The sample size in this study was small, and there wasn’t a control group, so don’t take it as gospel. But it sure makes sense to me. After I made the switch, my shins were happy, but my calves were quite sore, until they got used to doing their fair share of the work.
That’s my experience. But I’m not going to tell anyone else what kind of shoes to wear, because we’re all different.
Life is an experiment of one.
— George Sheehan
I thought maybe I should warn Cindy about the perils of high heels. But she seems to be doing just fine. Earlier this year she ran in the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile ultramarathon. Here’s a picture of her running in a 24-hour race. All smiles. Nice work, Cindy!