As I drove through the predawn darkness to the start of Manitou’s Revenge, my thoughts drifted and I wondered, could I win this race?
The idea was patently absurd: when it comes to technical trail running, I’ve historically finished in the middle of the pack. But I’ve been getting faster in recent years, even finishing in 3rd place at a 100-mile race earlier this year. Further, Manitou’s Revenge is not a large event. There would be fewer than 100 starters, and for all I knew, the best trail runners might not show up, or they might trip and fall on the rocky paths and drop out. In which case, victory might go to the tortoise, not the hare.
If you haven’t heard of it, Manitou’s Revenge is a 54-mile ultramarathon in New York’s Catskill Mountains, home to some of the east coast’s most rugged terrain. The course follows a mountainous escarpment overlooking the Hudson Valley, traverses eight peaks for a cumulative gain of approximately 15,000 feet, and includes a portion of the Devil’s Path, which is thought to be one of the most dangerous hiking trails in the country due to the steep rock scrambles.
Regardless of the odds, it wouldn’t be a race if I didn’t try my best. As noted sports psychologist Stan Beecham explains:
The only way to find out how good you can really be is to be willing to give everything you have in an attempt to win. The desire to win is the same as the desire to do your best and only those who are trying to win are trying to do their best. That’s why winning is important. It’s the path to finding your best.
If you don’t expect to win, Dr. Beecham adds, you’ve disqualified yourself before the event even begins. With these thoughts in mind, I was standing around at the start a few minutes before 5:00 AM, laughing and talking with friends, including Joe Delano, Matthew Imberman, Tom Kaplan, and Amy Hanlon, when suddenly it was time for my wave to take off.
We ran together for two or three minutes before it became clear that my pace was more conservative. Soon I was left behind. I could see another person lagging behind the group about a quarter mile in the distance, and then he disappeared around a bend. Mindful of the long day ahead, I stuck to an easy ten-minute pace. After a little bit, there was the sound of footfalls behind me, and then a runner from the next wave passed me by.
This was hardly an auspicious start, especially for someone who had just been fantasizing about winning. But I know enough to run my own race, so I kept my head down and trotted along, taking the time to work out some kinks in my left calf.
After three miles, it was time to turn off the road and head up the trail to Blackhead Mountain, at 3,940 feet, the third tallest peak in the Catskills. I hiked upwards at a quick pace until my heart rate rose to 135 beats per minute, which felt fast enough, what with fifty-plus miles still to go. On the notoriously steep scramble to the summit I passed a couple of runners, and this cheered me a little.
And then it was off along the Escarpment Trail, a rugged footpath that follows the ridge’s spine high above the Hudson valley, with intermittent views of the Hudson River glinting in the morning sun some 2,000 feet below.
The trail was soft dirt in some places, but very rocky in others. Bouncing from rock to rock takes a toll on the body, and accordingly I moved along at a measured pace. After a bit, Amy caught up from behind. “I’ll see you again when you catch me,” she said. Then Tom passed by and said the same thing. Then a few more people passed me, including one young woman who was careening downhill while eating a gel, and then a few more after that. “Some of them are running too fast,” I muttered to myself, feeling cautious about the miles of rough terrain that lay ahead.
The path next followed a series of old logging roads that dropped 2,000 feet into the valley. I shifted into higher gear and immediately tripped, fell, and nearly rolled into a bush. No harm was done, however, and I managed a somewhat quicker pace and was feeling somewhat fast until another runner passed me. On the way through the valley, I waved ‘hello’ to Emil, the proprietor of Fernwood, a local restaurant in the town of Palenville, who was watering his garden. Then it was time to struggle up the merciless 2,000 foot climb to the shoulder of Kaaterskill High Peak. I managed to pass a couple of runners on the climb, and then I passed another runner who had stopped to admire Buttermilk Falls. After that point, the trail was severely eroded, a soupy mix of mud, rocks, and roots, and I contented myself with a purposeful walk.
The miles passed, the scenery changed, the forests shifted from beech and maple to boreal fir-spruce thickets. The hermit thrush sang its haunting song, but otherwise it was quiet.
As I passed 27 miles, the symbolic half-way point, my spirits began to rise, and upon reaching the aid station at Platte Clove, I was cheered to see more friends, including Cal Johnson, who is a volunteer for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference in charge of maintaining both the Escarpment Trail and the Devil’s Path. While these are rugged, rocky trails, they are nonetheless impeccably maintained: the vegetation is trimmed well back from the edges, the drainage keeps the paths from turning into streams when it rains, and there wasn’t a single downed tree blocking the way. I paused to thank Cal for his good work and headed off to the Devil’s Path.
I had forgotten about the steep the climb to the summit of Indian Head, especially the last half-mile, which rises 800 feet. That’s an average grade of 25%, and there are some spots where you have to grasp roots, branches, or handholds in the rock and then hoist yourself straight up. On the top of the mountain, the path leveled off and tunneled through the balsam fir, with occasional vantage points looking south. But the bright morning sun was gone, and now all I could see was blowing mist. And when the wind picked up, water rained down from the trees, and the path was quickly becoming slick.
“Hey Ken, I’ve got a pacer for you.” I rarely run with pacers, this was unexpected, and I was nonplussed. Did Charlie think I was tired? Was I farther back in the pack than I realized?
Emmanuel fell in step behind me. He asked was there anything he could do to help. “Nope,” I replied. He fell silent.
We began the climb to the summit of Plateau Mountain, another 1,000 feet at a 25% grade. I glanced at my watch, saw my heart rate was in the 140s, and focused on managing my breathing. Emmanuel trailed behind.
We spotted a key intersection on the top of the mountain and turned downhill into a thick beech forest, while the mist turned to rain, alternating between a fast walk and a slow trot where the wet rocks would allow it. Someone had dropped a power bar wrapper on the ground. I heard Emmanuel stop and then the wrapper crinkling as he put it away in a pocket.
The light was almost gone, and I pulled out a flashlight. Emmanuel scouted ahead to check for course markings. I was surprised that he was still running without a light. Evidently the last glimmer of twilight on wet leaves was enough to guide him.
I slipped on a wet rock but caught myself. “Easy,” Emmanuel called back.
The path turned onto an old logging road that led to Warner Creek. Emmanuel hopped across rocks in the stream. I slipped and plunged into the water.
“Easy,” he called back.
We arrived at the base of Mount Tremper. With only ten miles left in the race, this would be the last uphill.
“You’re doing great,” Emmanuel said, “you’re a hill-climbing Ninja.”
I smiled. Who doesn’t want to be a Ninja?
Looking up, there were lights floating in the mist above us.
“Emmanuel,” I whispered, “let’s catch those runners!”
He picked up the pace, and I followed close behind, until we caught up to a runner who’s headlamp was almost out of batteries. Emmanuel lent him a spare.
Then we caught up to another runner. “How’re you doing?” Emmanuel asked.
“I’m wiped,” the runner replied.
Emmanuel offered him some food.
At this point in an ultramarathon, it’s easy to start wishing it were over, and worse, to become frustrated at the slow pace to the finish. Yet now I didn’t care how long it took, even if I were out all night, I just wanted to move forward purposefully and pass a few more runners.
We came up upon another runner. It was Matt. And even though he’s a good friend and a great guy, I was delighted to leave him behind, and then irritated when he caught back up. I tried to shake him. He tripped on a rock and fell to the ground with a cry but was immediately on his feet again. Then he passed me and disappeared into the night. I looked down at the wet rocky trail and shook my head.
We reached the fire tower on the top of Mt. Tremper and began the 1,600 foot descent.
“Slippery,” Immanuel called out, pointing to a large smooth rock whose surface was slanted at just the perfect angle to send your feet flying out from under you. It was raining heavily now. My clothes were soaked and sticking to my body.
Time passed in a blur.
We reached a paved road on the valley floor, with 1.25 miles to go.
“We could still catch someone!” I shouted — now that the surface was flat and offered perfect traction, I struggled to run — my watch indicated a 9:00 minute pace, which is normally a slow jog, but now I was breathing heavily. Through the dark mists ahead, we saw a faint glow.
“Can you run without light?” Emmanuel asked, clicking his off. I dimmed my light and pointed it downwards, so as not to give warning of our approach.
We passed the runner, and he cheered us on. But I wasn’t taking chances and pushed harder — and for all I knew there might be yet another runner just ahead. We ran the last half-mile at a 7:40 pace, with me huffing and puffing like a steam engine, and Emmanuel cruising along at my side.
Red lights at the finish were in sight.
“It’s all you now,” Emmanuel said.
And then it was over.
“Thank you, Emmanuel, you made a real difference for me.” I reached out and shook his hand.
Then I checked the stats. I did not win. My time was 18:30, placing me 47th out of 80 starters. The male winner Brian Rusiecki finished in 11:51 and the female winner Sheryl Wheeler finished in 13:46. Among my friends, Joe ran an excellent race, finishing in 16:21. I never caught up to Amy or Tom, who both ran well, and Matt beat me by 17 minutes — it was, he declared, the hardest race he had ever run, but that didn’t stop him from flying down the rock-littered road from Tremper Mountain.
I would have liked to have run faster, although my middle-of-the-pack finish was consistent with past experience. Nonetheless, I felt like the race was a victory. To cover 54 miles in the Catskills in one day is to experience the magic of this ancient, rugged land in a very special way, and something I had never done before. And while my speed was unexceptional, I was pleased with my mental and physical performance, including hydration, nutrition, and gear. I put out a good effort, as measured by heartbeat and respiration rates. And I didn’t have a single ache, pain, bruise, or even a blister.
Running with Emmanuel had turned my solitary exercise into a team effort, and his competence and attitude were inspiring. On the way out, I walked up to the race director, Charlie Gadol and thanked him for sending Emmanuel out with me
Charlie replied, “I figured it’s always nice to have someone to talk to.”
I walked back to the car, enduring a final dousing from the rainstorm, and knew I would return to the Catskills and Manitou’s Revenge.
As I drove out through the dark mountains under the pounding rain, my thoughts drifted, and I wondered, what would it take to move up from the middle of the pack, if only by just a few more places?
Winning is not everything, but wanting to win is.
— Vince Lombardi