Saturday, April 23, 2016, I was running with friends in the Sam’s Point section of Minnewaska State Park, descending from High Point toward the Verkeerderkill Falls, when we spotted a distant plume of smoke. We paused and watched as the smoke billowed up from a small patch of ground and then caught the wind, blowing away to the south, then shifting back towards us. Was the trail blocked? We couldn’t tell, but thought it best to turn back.
Two days later, what had started as a pin-prick was now threatening 2,000 acres, and Rock The Ridge race director Todd Jennings and I were forced to consider an emergency re-route of the course — with only five days until the start. The problem wasn’t that the flames would threaten the runners, but rather that Minnewaska State Park was closed while the staff worked around the clock with 300 firefighters, rangers, and volunteers to contain the blaze. Hosting a race at the same time didn’t seem possible. But with two days to go, we got word that Minnewaska had approved us to proceed with the original course, even if the park was still closed. And then it rained, and the fire went out. Todd and I salute the staff for protecting thousands of acres of beautiful land and managing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It’s an incredibly important job, and there’s nothing easy about it.
Todd is the event director for Rock The Ridge, and the event reflects his passion and care, as well as the contributions of the staff, rangers, and volunteers of the event host Mohonk Preserve. I’m one of the organizers, too, but my main job is to run the race so that we have a first-hand understanding of the participant experience. I’ve run in each of the last three years, and in 2015, my race went extremely well. I recall the winding carriage roads, trees bursting into bloom, expansive views across the Hudson Valley, warm spring sunshine — all streaming past me in a long blur, and while the last few miles were painful, I finished just 90 minutes behind three-time winner Ben Nephew — as close to the front as I’ve ever been in my racing career.
But that was 2015. Over the last year, my race performance had been inconsistent, and this year I wasn’t sure what to expect. The day before the race, I stopped to pick up two kegs of beer from Newburgh Brewing Company for delivery to the finish line. Next I caught up with Mohonk Preserve rangers Andrew Bajardi and Elizabeth Elliott and together we marked the southern half of the course, laughing and joking in high spirits as we placed signs at intersections and poured flour arrows to keep runners on track. Then it was time for the pre-race dinner, where I listened to ultramarathon legend Trishul Cherns deliver some sage advise to the participants, many of whom were first-time 50-milers: “If you encounter a rough spot, keep moving, it will pass….just don’t quit!” If you don’t know Trishul, his experience comprises 232 ultramarathons totaling 41,000 miles of racing and includes the Sri Chimnoy 3,100-mile Self Transcendence Race, which he’s finished three times.
With a 6:00 AM start the next morning, I turned in early. But around midnight I woke up feeling queasy and bloated with a dull pain spreading across my abdomen — I hadn’t suffered indigestion like this since running Badwater in 2012 (then I had drunk a large quantity of pickle juice hoping to prevent heat cramps). Now rummaging around in the dark for my Badwater kit, I found a bottle marked “acid relief” and swallowed a pill. This helped a little, and I slept intermittently for a few hours. At 4:30 AM I forced down a few strips of bacon and a cup of espresso and drove out to the start to see what would happen.
Light was just breaking as 400 runners gathered around the Testimonial Gateway, the stone tower that marks the start and finish of the race. Kingston native Lisa Zucker Glick sang a lovely rendition of America the Beautiful, and then we were off. Still feeling bloated and uncomfortable, I moved out slowly, figuring it would be sensible to pick up the pace later on. At a loop in the course, I saw Ben Nephew flying past, dueling it out with challenger Iain Ridgway for the lead position.
The first few miles passed slowly but uneventfully. By mile 15, my stomach was feeling a little better, although my energy level was still low, but even so it was hard not to appreciate the beautiful scenery and pleasant spring morning. Heading up the long carriage road to Skytop Tower, I caught up with Terence Gerchberg, executive director of the New York office of Back on My Feet, a not-for-profit organization that recruits members at homeless and residential facilities and gets them into a regular running program. Members who stick with the running qualify for educational support, job training programs, employment referrals, and housing resources.
Terence and I ran together for a little bit, and then we saw his colleague Rachael Sparks, program director in Back on My Feet’s New York office, come flying down the trail, hair streaming in the breeze, all smiles. After a quick high-five she was gone, on her way we would learn later to winning the female division.
I told Terence he would like the views at Skytop and then left him behind as he ventured up the steps of the Albert Smiley memorial tower to take in a 360-degree vista of the Mohonk Mountain House, the Catskill Mountains, the Hudson River, and several surrounding states. Albert Smiley set aside land that would eventually form much of the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park, and it’s thanks to his generosity and vision that these lands remain preserved today.
Coming back down from Skytop I picked up the pace ever so slightly and then proceeded along the carriage road toward Minnewaska. The miles passed slowly. Ben Nephew and Iain Ridgway flew past me in the opposite direction, having already circled through Minnewaska and now heading for the finish, still locked in a duel for the lead. I shouted encouragement, but I don’t think they heard me, and they were gone in a flash, dry leaves swirling in their wake.
It was time to begin the long climb to Castle Point, when Donna Graham-Finan overtook me from behind. Tall and lanky, Donna’s an experienced hiker and trail runner for whom Rock The Ridge would be the first race after a long period sidelined with injuries. In passing, she congratulated me on completing the Boston Marathon two weeks earlier and then listened patiently as I complained about my disappointing time at that race. Even with my stomach now feeling better, maybe I was still in a bit of a funk, as Donna threw me a quizzical glance and then rounded a turn in the trail and left me behind. I tried to catch up, but except for a final glimpse of her yellow jacket flickering in the distance, I never saw her again. She went on to win 2nd female.
Castle Point marks mile thirty in the race, and from here it’s virtually all flat or downhill to the finish. In past years, I’d felt a surge in energy here, the exhilaration that comes when you realize you’ve passed the toughest point, but today, nothing happened. Even with the gentle slope, I was struggling to grind out a slow jog. Up ahead I caught sight of a figure in black shuffling along head down. Ron Sussman completed the 2015 Rock The Ridge in 9 1/2 hours, an extraordinary performance for a man in his 60s taking on his first-ever ultramarathon . But now he was struggling, just like me. I mentioned Trishul’s comment about rough patches and how sooner or later they pass, and then Ron and I ran together for the next few miles, largely in silence. Running together seemed to help both of us: we fell in step and our rhythm became steadier and a little more fluid. We stayed together until the aid station at mile 37, and then I gave him a high-five and moved on. Ron gutted it out to a slower finish than last year, but what he didn’t achieve in swiftness, he made up for in determination, and this made his performance every bit as impressive as last year. By the way, Ron has been one of the top fundraisers for Rock The Ridge. Thanks to his hard work soliciting donations, the Mohonk Preserve will have more resources to preserve and manage the land and will be able to provide nature education to more inner city youth, which was the special fundraising objective this year.
When I said goodbye to Ron, there were only 13 miles to go, not even a half-marathon, but as far as my legs were feeling, this might as well have been the tail end of a 100-miler. Sustaining a moderate pace was taking a lot of effort. Maybe I hadn’t recovered from Boston two weeks earlier. Maybe running quarter-mile sprints the prior Tuesday wasn’t a smart idea. Maybe I had spent too much time hiking barefoot in the Catskills instead of knocking out tempo runs. Maybe I was just getting old.
Or maybe I would have gone faster if I had eaten something. A year ago, I had come up with the peculiar goal of running 50 miles with zero nutrition (zero calories), that is, eating nothing and drinking only water. The inspiration came from reading 19th century accounts of Native Americans who reportedly covered long distances without food; I thought I too could develop my body’s ability to burn fat for fuel, instead of relying on sugary foods marketed by the sports nutrition-industrial complex. Last year I had made it to mile 37 at Rock The Ridge before taking food, and earlier this year I completed a 43-mile training run without any calories– and felt fine throughout and after. Now that I was approaching mile 40 without having eaten anything, the 50-mile goal was within reach, if I could just stick it out. I wasn’t feeling especially hungry, but I wasn’t feeling fast, so I just plodded along patiently, not really thinking about much, or if I did, I don’t remember what.
Along the way, I passed another friend, Ian Erne, and then he overtook me. As I slogged up the final hill at mile 45, Terence Gerchberg caught up and then sped past, looking fresh as he power-hiked the steepest sections and then smoothly shifted back into a purposeful jog. With four miles to go, I decided to catch Ian and Terence, and as the trail began to drop steeply toward the finish, I sped up until I was running 8-minute miles and then briefly even faster. My form felt good, and my energy level had finally recovered, but it was too little too late. I finished in 9:47, almost 2 and 1/2 hours behind last year.
While my time wasn’t great, my stomach was back in business, and interestingly, I felt better at the end with no calories then I had the year before when I had started consuming sugary sports snacks at mile 37. Consistent with other experiences, I’ve found that sugar often leaves me feeling poorly. A few trips to the food tent, where Main Street Bistro was serving chili, cornbread, salad, and watermelon, and a few cups of Newburgh Brewing Company’s tasty beer got me fully recharged. A little while later, Lisa Zucker Glick came flying across the finish line with a new personal best. Like me, she avoids sugar and processed carbs; on this run, she had fueled herself with sausage and cheese sticks.
I learned that Iain Ridgway had pulled ahead of Ben Nephew, winning the race in just over 6 hours. That was around noon, now it was late afternoon, and Todd Jennings, myself, and Deanna Culbreath, the race operations manager, prepared for the long vigil ahead, as we waited to welcome in the final finishers. A few hours later it was dark. We stood around trying to stay warm, continuously scanning the woods for the headlamps of approaching finishers who were arriving in ones and twos, some striding purposefully and breaking into a jog for the last few yards, others limping or hobbling in, but all smiling triumphantly. Throughout the night, Mohonk Preserve Ranger Roger Ennis was out on the course, keeping a careful eye on the final participants. At around 3:15 AM, Todd and I held out the winner’s tape for the last two finishers, and then Deanna hung their hard-earned finisher’s medals around their necks. Our philosophy at Rock The Ridge is that the last finisher is just as important as the first, because everyone covers the same 50 miles at whatever pace is right for them.
The next morning I checked the website and was delighted to see that participants had raised $148,000 for the Mohonk Preserve and $47,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Over four years, Rock The Ridge has helped raise almost $700,000 for good causes, and we aim to do more.
Suddenly I thought back to ultramarathon legend Trishul Chern’s presentation at the pre-race dinner. After he was done talking, I had asked him, what is the real secret to ultra-running? The real secret, he had replied, is to run with joy in your heart.
See you next year!