(published with permission of the author)
By Alan Davidson
It was around 6pm on Friday, September 16th when a bunch of SRT 70-Mile participants hopped off a yellow school bus to meet the remaining SRT 70-Mile participants at High Point State Park in New Jersey. Like a school bus of children on their first day of school, we were excited and nervous (and most of us had to pee). After a quick race briefing from the Race Directors, we were off to the starting line at the SRT’s southern terminus. We snapped a starting line photo and the RDs let us loose on our journey to Rosendale, a 72 mile trek along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail.
When the race started, the sun was still our main light source. We moved swiftly through the dusk hours and for the first few hours, I was able to maintain a steady pace. By mile 9, the full moon had shown its face to us but our headlamps were our main source of light as we traveled through the darkness. Trail running through the night with the full moon peeking at us through the treeline was a pleasurable experience. But soon enough, that pleasurable feeling faded away. My stomach churned and my body slowed. Feeling this weak so early in the race simply wasn’t in my race plan. I tried to adapt but my stomach wasn’t following orders. Things turned sour by 9:30pm.
I couldn’t resist what my stomach wanted me to do so I released my insides a few feet off the trail (to be polite to other runners of course). For the next few hours I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down. Dehydration was lurking, waiting to ambush me in the night. Since the SRT is a self-supported race and the course was rather dry, anxiety set in as I imagined the worst scenarios. With less calories in me, my strides shortened and my body fatigued. I hiked flat sections that I had planned to run and since I wasn’t moving too fast, the cold air began to conquer me. This was the beginning of a long, challenging night on the SRT.
I passed Checkpoint 1 (17 miles) in low spirits and entered Gobbler’s Knob Forest for an uphill battle that I still had the energy to enjoy. I spent most of the next eight hours of the night alone on the SRT, a challenge in and of itself. The thought of catching up to the front of the pack seemed impossible so I thought about stopping and waiting for the batch of runners behind me. But I wanted to be all by myself so I kept moving across the land.
A pity party was playing in my head when one of the RDs (Ken Posner) pulled up in his minivan near the entrance to the Basha Kill Wildlife Area . I divulged my stomach troubles. Ken, a disciple of the SRT, responded by telling me that he’s been there before and then told me that the human body can burn fat for energy for many hours and many miles. He was implying that food wasn’t really all that necessary for the journey to Rosendale. Of course, this was comforting but I remember thinking that it would have been even more comforting to be curled up in the fetal position in the back row of his warm, tempting-to-get-into car, sleeping off my stomach issues and waking up in the morning with a new day ahead of me. So his comments resonated with me for just a few moments but then I returned to my pity party. Ken drove off to his next destination and I continued hobbling miserably along the Basha Kill.
Over the next few miles, Ken’s statement about the strength of the human body floated around in my head. Could my body survive 72 grueling miles along the SRT without being able to feed its muscles from an external energy source? Could I still survive the next 18-24 hours with my stomach troubles? A whole set of questions presented themselves and they changed my goals for the day. I started to perceive the night less as a failure of my racing plan, and more as an opportunity to test the strength of my body and to understand if there was truth in Ken’s statement. I was about to find out a lot about my body and my resilience.
I made my way through the Basha Kill Wildlife Area without noticing any wildlife. When I hit the road in Wurtsboro, I had a burst of energy that I used to run along the residential roads that lead to Checkpoint 2 (27 miles). I thought of what I had already been through while all these people were sleeping comfortably in their homes. I came across some Wurtsboro residents ending their nightly escapades on the streets. I thought it would be a funny story to join them for a nightcap but I decided against it and I shuffled toward Checkpoint 2.
I saw Ken once again sitting comfortably in his minivan. He asked how I was feeling. Without a filter, I told him that I hadn’t vomited since I last saw him so I guess that meant I was doing better than before. He was about to leave to Rosendale to drop off a 70-miler that dropped earlier in the night. For a moment, I wondered if I should join her. Ken mentioned that the next ride back to Rosendale would be hours later. I don’t know if he was just alerting me to the reality of my situation or if he was trying to test my will by tempting me into the backseat. But the tempting siren calls from the backseat no longer pierced my ears. The only way I was getting back to Rosendale was on my feet or with the Search and Rescue team that would have to find me along the trail.
Ken pulled away and I watched the easy way to Rosendale drive off into the night. I emptied my Brooks Cascadias of the small pebbles that had befriended my feet and then I mustered up the energy to head back into the woods. At the top of the ridge, I identified a porcupine shaking in a tree above the trail. I took a moment to check out its quills and kept moving forward. For the rest of the night, my mind wandered while my legs kept moving forward. I considered sleeping on a few slabs of rock along the trail but I never did because it was cold and windy along the ridge. I don’t know why it was but it was comforting to think that the sun would be rising in a few hours.
For the next few hours, my mind continued to wander through a series of unrelated thoughts. I thought about how each person that had ever walked this trail added their imprint to the ground and how these footprints kept the trail a trail. I thought about all the time and effort put in by the trail maintenance volunteers to maintain the trails and I made a commitment to join the NY/NJ Trail Conference so I’d be able to give back to the trails that I use so often. And eventually, my mind entered more serious territory. I thought about the people that walked this trail to escape the daily grind of life and to get away from their real problems. I thought about the real problems that life throws at us unexpectedly, problems that little pink bubble-gum flavored chewable medicines don’t fix, problems that don’t ever get better with time. I thought about all the people in Wurtsboro that must have been working night shifts just to make ends meet on a Friday night. And here I was, pitying myself for having the luxury to take off a Friday so I could drive up to the SRT to wander through the woods with a tummy ache while carrying all of my expensive and excessive gear. I remembered that being able to participate in this race was a luxury and that it was a privilege to have stomach troubles along the SRT. And this is how my pity party finally came to an end. The hours continued to pass with more appreciation for this experience, and more appreciation for my life. Whenever I spend enough time on a trail, I remember to appreciate what I have.
As I approached the last few miles before Checkpoint 3, I eventually ran into another critter. But this one was a fellow SRT participant and aptly named. Critter Knutsen had left me in the dust along an earlier stretch of the SRT near Checkpoint 1. I had a flashback to the terrible times I was having when he passed me by but here I was feeling pretty good, catching up to the light shining from his headlamp. We shared our war stories and reached Checkpoint 3 around 6am. This was about later than I planned but I no longer felt unhappy about my failed race plan. I sat down on the pavement of Route 52 and scrubbed the soles of my shoes to protect the Preserve from invasive species. Content with my progress, I remembered a passage from George Sheehan’s writings about life and running. He said, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” I knew the feeling well and let it soak in.
Robert Maurizi and Melanie Mueller came into Checkpoint 3 with a blast of energy. They scrubbed their soles and left, eager to get on with the SRT. I was envious and didn’t really interact with them. Maybe the envy got the best of me. There was no way to know it at the time but both of them would play key roles in my journey to the finish line. Critter went on his way too. I waited a bit longer and as I tied up my shoes, I looked down Route 52 and the sun was starting to rise. I pushed myself off the ground, stood up, and said my farewells to Ken and Sam.
As the sun headed up into the sky, I headed up the South Gully ascent, a 2.5 mile climb of more than a thousand feet. I caught up to Robert and we talked about the past 12 hours. My body was feeling warmed up and it was rewarding when we reached the top of South Gully. Robert and I spent several miles together. We ran along the carriage roads up to High Point, followed the trail back down to the SRT, and soaked up some views along the way. We moved along the Scenic Trail, where the views are spectacular, which must be why they call it the Scenic Trail. The Catskill Mountains appeared in the distance, outlining the skyline north of the park. As a city dweller, the Catskills are always a captivating sight. As we neared Lake Awosting, Robert and I separated. I needed to refill water off course and Robert needed to keep his pace steady. Like many in the trail running community, Robert was generous with his time and his resources. I don’t know what those eight miles would have been like without him so I am grateful for his company.
At Lake Awosting, I spotted a slab of rock to relax on and I bit into the first real solid food that I felt good about eating since midnight. I sat by Lake Awosting, letting the beauty of the natural surroundings energize me. I know that sounds somewhat spiritual but whatever it sounds like, it did the trick. I was still skeptical about being able to complete the next 25 miles of the SRT but I stood up with some vigor and decided to see how many steps I would be able to take in the right direction. I knew that if I followed the right trails and kept putting one foot in front of the other, I would eventually make it to Rosendale.
I traveled alone for a while until a hiker informed me about another runner about five minutes ahead of me. Motivated, I let my legs fly along the pine needles that bed the Rainbow Falls trail. For the first time in awhile, I was hitting my strides and feeling part of the trail. I used some 30-Mile SRT participants as pacers for as long as I could keep up with them. I greeted one of them that I had met at a previous trail race and we talked for a bit about our summers. I ran with him until we reached Rainbow Falls, which was honestly more like a drip than a fall. And then, as I looked up toward the ascent just past the Falls, I saw her!
Her is referring to Melanie Mueller, the leading female in the 2016 70-Mile SRT. As the 30-Milers climbed the Rainbow Falls ascent with their fresh legs, Melanie and I slowly pushed and pulled our way up to the top of the climb. We kept each other company and started to talk a little bit. As we neared Checkpoint 4, I was silenced. Water was the only one thing on my mind. At Checkpoint 4, I guzzled down a tub of water to fight off any remaining chance of dehydration. I thanked the Checkpoint host and went on my way.
Between Checkpoint 4 and 5, there were many hikers out on their daily excursions. I wondered if they could look into my face, or see the gait of my walk, to recognize what I had been through. 30-milers continued to pass me but I didn’t mind because we were all on our way to Rosendale. One of them was Ian Erne, a familiar face from recent Long Path Races. We shared some small talk along the trail until I wished him luck as he whizzed by me.
Melanie and I continued to trade places, playing our cat and mouse game until a few miles after Checkpoint 5. Eventually Melanie and I must have both silently and independently decided that sticking together was the right thing to do. So the cat and the mouse became a friendly team that supported each other for the last 10-13 miles of the SRT. We distracted each other with a string of unrelated conversations and together, we suffered through the tough ascents and descents that we faced on our way to Rosendale. We mutually decided to readjust our race day goal to finish the SRT in less than 24 hours.
Ahead of our target pace, we reached Checkpoint 6, located about six miles from the finish line. For the next few miles, we were in a blur as we followed the last batch of SRT blazes. When we finally reached the Rosendale Trestle, people were cheering us on and we decided it was only right to run the last tenth of a mile. When we crossed the finish line at 23:15:00, I thought about George Sheehan’s saying on happiness. I struggled, I endured, and I accomplished. And I was really happy.
I greeted my wife (Jen) with a hug and kiss while introducing her to Melanie as we all gravitated toward the pizza boxes. We sat for a while and talked with other finishers, friends, and volunteers. The sun went down once again and the moon lit up the night. After some hanging out, I felt tired and wanted to rest. Jen had found us an overnight stay at an Airbnb rental in High Falls, a town over from the finish line. We said our goodbyes and we drove toward the rental house.
On the road, Jen broke the news to me that I had one more climb to make. The bedroom was located at the top of a flimsy spiral staircase. I remembered some of the climbs from earlier in the day and attacked the staircase like it was nothing. I appreciated the concept of a railing and found a scenic view of the bed at the top of the ascent. According to Jen, I was still on the trails in my sleep and my legs were moving throughout the night. In the morning, I woke up and I was surprised by the decent feeling in my legs. It made me wonder if I could’ve left some more energy on the course.
A few days later, I am still learning from the SRT. Even though the run didn’t go as I planned, the SRT was a great experience and reminded me of the benefits of failure. In both running and in life, failure is often a better teacher than success. When we fail, we are forced to face the facts and the SRT shoved those facts pretty close to my face. If we want to improve upon ourselves, we extract the knowledge from those facts and apply it to our next adventure.
Thanks to the SRT Race Directors, the volunteers, the sponsors, the participants, and everyone else that made the SRT Run/Hike a reality.
See you next year!