(published with permission of the author)
My SRT Race Report 2016 (Rocks and things)
by Joey “is this a delusion” Rollins
So, it’s the summer of 2015 and my running buddy, Malin Barton, says to me “Check out this race Joey, I think it would be fun”. I now know when Marlin Barton say’s “This will be fun”, what she really means is “This will probably kill us”.
My first 50 miler was a “Malin Barton” race. We ran in the OSS/CIA in June of 2015, a 50 miler just outside of Camp Pendleton in Triangle, VA. The OSS/CIA course is held secret until the day of the race, so the runners don’t know what the course will be. This is a night race. The night of the race for us consisted of ninety degree, ninety-five percent humidity in June of Virginia in a lightning engorged thunderstorm. We finished number twenty-eight and twenty-nine out of sixty-seven starters; the last two under cutoff.
SRT (Shawangunk Ridge Trail) Run/Hike will be this year’s adventure. I know this will be skirting the edges of my abilities, but isn’t that why I do these races? This is a 72 mile twenty-nine and a half hour cutoff (they add a detour at the last minute which ups the distance by two miles and reduces the cutoff time by two and a half hours, due to park closure times) event.
The SRT is from High Point New Jersey, the highest point in the state north along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail. Part of it is on the Appalachian Trail, and you can see the Catskills clearly running parallel, a view like few I’ve ever seen.
We drive from Clayton, NC by way of Scranton PA to bypass tolls and come at the SRT from the west, letting us peruse the length of the course along Highway 84 and Route 209 off to our right. The view is breathtaking. About 12:45 pm in the afternoon we see the highpoint monolith marking the beginning of the race, but not the beginning of our adventure. We drive the seventy-five miles north to where we will cross the finish line (hopefully) at Rosendale NY and are greeted by many friendly faces of adventurers brave enough to come out for this race. Sixteen brave souls all from the local area – except for myself and Malin – two crazy foreigners.
The race director arrives and we sign in. We get our pre-pre-race briefing where they talk about how due to lack of rain, most of the water sources we are counting on are dry, so we’ll need to be extra careful and refill at any available sources we can find during the race. Did I forget to mention that this race is totally self-sustained? Meaning everything you will possibly need for your 72 mile multi-day run will have to be carried with you on your back. No drop bags, no aid stations, no nothing and when I say nothing, I mean you will be in the wilderness – except for rocks (we’ll discuss rocks in a bit).
We talk to the race director and mention we practice a lot at Umstead down near Raleigh NC. He misunderstands, and assumes that we have RUN the Umstead 100, and immediately tells us, “Don’t worry, this isn’t too much harder than Umstead”. Of course I have never run the Umstead 100, what I mean is I have run at Umstead Park. Up to this point my farthest race is several 50 milers. When he tells us that this course is on par with Umstead my vision gets blurry, and my knees become semi-soft chocolate in the sun. I have yet to take one step but I know I am in terrible trouble.
We enter the school bus taking us to our starting point one and a half hours south. Everyone is double-checking bags, making inventory checks and getting mentally ready for the task laid ahead of us. We talk with Anna, a wonderful Swedish girl, who tells us of her adventure the previous year and Filipe who ran the 50k previously and was going to try the 72. We arrive at Highpoint Park and disembark the bus.
It’s the highest point in New Jersey and the crisp wind is whipping about us. I start to second guess my clothing choices and I’m worrying I might not have brought enough cold weather gear. If I’m cold, it’s going to be a long twenty-nine hour event, especially if it rains. The Race director gives us our pre-race briefing, and I don’t think I hear one word, all I can hear is the blood pulsing in my ears. We take our group photo and we are off.
We hit the main trail and man it’s rocky. It’s about an hour before sunset and really nice weather. We are heading down the trail and of course almost immediately miss a turn. Well to be totally honest, I miss a turn and Malin is just following me. We have run about twelve minutes past the turn and realize the tree markers are not the right color. I pull out the interactive map and it doesn’t match what it should, it’s off and skewed to the side of the trail line. I check the compass and we’re heading south instead of north. Turns out I didn’t have “allow location” on the app. Not a good start, we’ve lost almost twenty minutes right out of the gate.
We head back and pick up the blue tree blazes for the SRT and carry on. The first ten miles are very rocky. Rocks of every size litter the trail, real ankle busters. We hit the first bit down about mile ten and we’re in the dark, we break out the headlamps and continue following the trail. We’ve never been here before, so we’re paying close attention, but it’s hard because you have to look down so much; darkness and rocky trail make for slow going. We finally hit the bottom of the first big 500 foot decline and we’re hoping to make up some time. Rocks are going to become the bane of our existence. Square rocks, round rocks, big rocks, small rocks; you name it there’s that type of rock littering the path. Any chance we have of trying to make up some time is burst by the tremendous array and assortment of rubble, slab, bedrock, boulder, cobblestone, crag, crust, lodge, mass, mineral, ore, pebble, promontory, quarry, reef, shelf, slag- every word for rock you can imagine, you could find on the path our feet were traversing. We know there is a section that parallels the train tracks, so we’ll see when we get there if we can make up some time.
Finally we get to the section that parallels the train tracks, and realize it doesn’t parallel the tracks, it is the tracks. More rocks- railroad rocks. I’m stumbling on these damn things, kicking and tripping and oh, hey look that’s an Acela Commuter train barreling at us at 12 am at night in the middle of nowhere. Dust and sand are now covering my body. Do you know that dust and sand are really just small rocks? I really hate rocks.
Malin breaks out her trekking poles, her IT band is flaring up but she’s a trooper, she’s just going put the pedal to the metal and powerwalk this bad boy. I immediately want to throw a railroad rock at her. She can trek faster than I can run on these damn rocks. Man I really hate rocks. Somewhere along the way one of these rocks has decided to bash the bottom of my foot. Like I didn’t already know they were there. They were going to leave a present so I couldn’t forget.
In the midst of this, the moon comes out in full. It’s a gentle breeze, almost as bright as I’ve ever seen the night. The stars are shining and it is really a perfect night for a run. I start to get into the rhythm of the pace with Malin leading me in our power walk, when we realize we’ve missed our turn. CRAP! At least this time she was in the lead. The gorgeous moon shone so bright as to shadow the sign to re-enter the trail. Hell, rocks are rocks, we’re not doubling back so we keep at it until we can find a spot to cross onto the trail. There goes another 15 minutes….
Anna sees us and yell’s where the trail is and we cross over. She travels with us for a few miles but she’s hell bent on finishing this thing after missing the cutoff at waypoint #4 the previous year (Looking back, I now know this is what they call foreshadowing). She was under time, but they pulled her from the race for her safety as a solo runner. She pulls ahead of us.
We are about 50% down on water stores and decide to find a stream or pond. It’s been a very dry summer, and most of the streambeds and ponds are bone dry. Not anything I would want to try and filter. Hawthorne Lake is the first body of water but it’s more like Hawthorne green slime; that’s a pass. We get to a beautiful wetlands called Bashakill (seriously, that’s really its name) and we find a delicious cool, stream coming down from the mountain feeding it. We fill up with the most delicious water I’ve ever drank. Somewhere we passed Anna who had stopped to fill up too. We travel a few more miles with her and she pulls ahead again.
The rocks, which by now I have realized are not going to go away, induce a dull throb slowly wearing away at my foot and now my ankle is starting to talk to me about this abuse. We pass the point where the 50 milers will start a little later in the morning. I am wishing with all my being that I was one of those souls, smart enough to sleep in and start a sane race that finishes in one day. My foot and ankle are telling me my race day should be over, but I have invested too much time and effort into getting ready for this race to give up until I can’t take any more steps forward. Besides, I can’t wuss out on Malin. She’s been injured for several months and is by far the stronger of us two mentally. I am going to stick this out, at least to checkpoint #4.
The infamous checkpoint #4. The race up to checkpoint #3 has been hard, but not insane hard. They save all the “batshit crazy, you don’t know what tough is” parts for between checkpoint #3 and checkpoint #4. I will always look back on this section as my personal walk through perdition. I toy with the idea of packing it in at waypoint #3, but I really don’t want to leave Malin in the lurch. More importantly, I want to beat my personal long distance of 51 miles, even if it is the hardest damn 50 miles on this planet. I ask the volunteer at checkpoint #3 about how far it was to the next waypoint (Don’t ever ask a volunteer for information – don’t get me wrong, volunteers are wonderful Godsends to us running travelers- they don’t know shit about distances or other information I care about at 8:30 am in the morning after running for 14 hours) and was told “oh, about 10 miles”. I think she was trying to do some weird kind of kilometer to mile conversion or something because that was the longest 10 miles I’ve ever seen.
We head out of checkpoint #3 and make the right turn across the road. It starts up a 1700 foot incline over the next 3 miles or so. I had scoped out the elevation map for the race (25,745 feet according to alltrails) and I am pretty prepared for the climbs. I had hung out at Uwharrie National Park doing twenty milers getting ready, so the climb actually isn’t bad. Except for the damn rocks. These rocks are relentless. I toy with the idea of inventing some kind of laser device so I could destroy every rock on the face of the earth, not for the benefit of mankind so much as the pleasure of destroying every last one of them. Ankle roll number 513 and now every step is me trying not to bend my toes, so as to cause excruciating jolts of pain up my foot. This is going to be a long stretch of miles.
The sun is coming up. With it, a fresh vigor and excitement. I look out at the vast beauty that is the SRT and see outcropping after outcropping of these stone crags, all of which I have to traverse to get to the next checkpoint. So beautiful, yet so daunting. You see, you can’t just quit in this race, as there is nowhere to stop at. You are in the middle of the park, unless you want Search and Rescue to come get you and then you better have fallen off a cliff. Funny we should mention that… the next trail blaze leads us to the side of a stone wall. I look left, and I look right and I realize the next marker is at the top of the 15 foot rock face. I shit you not, now I have to actually climb this rock face. Malin’s face turns white and I ask her “are you okay?” Malin replies, “I forgot to tell you, I’m afraid of heights”. Okay, so this is going to be interesting….
Malin, pulls up her big girl pants and scrambles up the face of this rock. Now it’s my turn. I scramble up and look, it’s a gorgeous view, you can see for miles in every direction, you can see the Catskills running parallel and the view is sublime. I look for the next marker and it leads to… yet another stone incline, followed by another, and another as far as I can see. This is going to be a long stretch of rocky miles. I really, really hate rocks.
Along the way we come upon Filipe who has taken a wrong turn along with a group of 50 miler’s and we find him at the top of one of our climbs. We stay together and figure we have about 3 miles or so to the next waypoint. The infamous waypoint #4, the waypoint that no matter how far you run, seems to be out of reach. We will be tricked by waypoint #4 for many hours to come, always thinking we’re just around the corner from it.
Our Trio has to drop down this fifteen foot ledge to the next section- this is the first serious straight down drop section- the kind you would be scared to try on a normal day, not one you’re going to try to do after running nineteen hours straight through the night. Malin is having a little bit of a stress attack. I am like “you can do it Malin” straight up lying to her, as I sure as hell don’t even think I can do it. I am looking all over for another way down but everything else is a hundred feet to the ground. It is literally do or die. Luckily Felipe is a climber and offers to go half way down and help Malin. Thank goodness for that, I jump in place and get Felipe to help me before he can jump the rest of the way down.
Now on the bus ride over, we were told there is a gap under and through a rock section called a “squeeze”. Well I don’t know what a squeeze is in rock climber terms, but to me it’s a rock coffin just big enough to get my butt stuck in. There is no way I am going through that. Luckily, fear causes me to scramble and find a way around, yet again saving what little of my dignity I have left (if I ever had any at all).
Now you think, this would be as bad as it gets, but of course this wouldn’t be as good a story if I didn’t have more. Felipe tells us about this section coming up where you have to walk along the edge of a cliff face, around a corner and then there will be assistants to help us climb up the rock face. We get to this part of the course and begin our mad scramble up the mountainside. About 50 feet off the ground, we have to hug the cliff and traverse around this corner, and when we get there, we’re supposed to have some assistance up. Remember, we’re doing all this with backpacks carrying all our supplies on our backs. Turns out the peeps aren’t there. Here we are, hanging out trying not to look down, and finally we just hump it hand over hand just hoping for the best, on tired legs and injured feet.
Now Felipe thinks this is where they’ll have setup the waypoint #4, but you know of course, that this is just a ploy to frustrate us and dash our hopes. Elusive waypoint #4 in her sadistic humor, will not be overtaken this easily. Nothing but more rock climbs as far as the eye can see. Beautiful, but as far as I am concerned, just more damn rocks.
Rocks, relentless rocks. We pass a 50 miler who is trying to make the cutoff. He asks us what time the waypoint #4 cutoff is and we just laugh maniacally at the mention of waypoint #4. He looks at us in alarm. I think he realized we were delirious at this point. Every time I come to the top of another rock climb, I think I see cars in parking lots. As I get closer I realize I am just seeing more rocks and boulders, which only looked like cars through the brush. The rocks are laughing at us.
Felipe takes off with a 50 mile runner trying to beat the cutoff as well. We travel on. We stop at the Rainbow Falls for water, but it’s only a trickle. We get about half a bottle each. We don’t have any more time to spare.
I tell Malin she needs to hoof it and see if she can make it to the cutoff in time and I will be right behind her. She’s trying to stay with me and I’m holding her back. It takes me a while but I finally get her to go ahead and try and make the cutoff. I can see her lean into it and start off. She gets about seventy-five yards out in front of me and she seems to trip on something and disappear. All I can think of is she’s just fallen off one of those cliffs. Adrenaline pumps me and I run to where I had last seen her. She is down but not off a cliff. She’s taken a fall and has bashed her knees, blood trickling from the gashes, and holds the side of her face which has hit the rocks. She shakes it off in proper Malin fashion and puts the pedal to the metal yet again. I call the race director to let them know I am probably not going to make the cut-off, but Malin is coming in hot.
This is the longest sixty minutes of my life. It seems like this rocky damn trail goes on forever. Finally the race director calls me and makes sure I am okay and he says “when you hear the cars from the highway you’re almost there”. When I hear those cars it is the happiest moment of my life. I know I am over (by 25 minutes) but at this point I have made it the notorious waypoint #4. Sadly, Malin has come in just over the time limit and they can’t let her go on. Anna is there too, she had some stomach issues and pulled herself out of the race this year. Malin takes her cutoff miss well, and me -I’m happy to be alive.
We didn’t finish the race, but we made 60 miles. We have tested the envelope of our abilities, which is truly what we set out to do.
P.S. Felipe made it to the finish! he made it with 29 minutes to spare at the end of 72 miles.