As co-director of Rock The Ridge it’s a great thrill for me to see the participants moving through the mountains and especially the expressions on their faces when they reach the finish. Even more remarkable is their good work raising funds for the Mohonk Preserve (New York’s largest not-for-profit nature preserve and host for the event), the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the NY-NJ Trail Conference, and other causes. With close to $250,000 raised in 2017 alone, the event is now approaching a cumulative five-year total of one million dollars, an outcome which brings a mix of joy and astonishment to the organizers.
As co-director it is also my job to run in the event, so that organizers have a clear understanding of the participant experience. In past years, this has been great fun, for example, in 2015 when I won the master’s division and set a personal record. But as one gets a little older, fifty miles gets a little tougher, and in 2016 my time was quite a bit slower.
As I stepped up to the starting line this year, the only goal was to finish. This would be my first ultramarathon since Rock The Ridge the year before, thanks to a long series of injuries. Two weeks before the race, I was feeling good, but then with one week to go the posterior tibialis tendon (which runs underneath the ankle on the inner side of the foot) flared up once again.
But even if my strategy was to take it easy, there might still be ways to make this an interesting and challenging event. I could run the fifty miles without taking any calories, and I’d see how far I could get without drinking.
At 6:00 AM it was just past first light, and a crowd of some 400 participants and supporters was milling around the start. I told my friend Dan Reiser that this would be my 77th ultramarathon and then pointing to my bib joked that whoever had issued me #78 was off by one. Dan laughed: he was wearing bib #77. A moment later, a trio of young ladies from New Paltz High School began singing the National Anthem a cappella in as lovely a rendition as I can recall, and then race director Todd Jennings gave the signal to start.
The first few steps took us through the Testimonial Gateway arch and out along a dirt road beneath a long row of pin oaks. The runners and walkers weaved around each other and sidestepped puddles left by heavy rains the day before until the road began to rise into the mountains and the pack spread out. I slowed to a walk to spare my sore tendon extra aggravation from the grade. Hiking alongside me was a group of friends including Trishul Cherns, an ultramarathon master who’s completed well over 200 races including some as long as 3,000 miles. Last year Trishul gave a talk at the pre-race dinner and after dispensing much practical advice he shared the secret of his incredible record, which is to “run with joy in your heart.”
Up ahead I glimpsed my wife Sue digging in with poles as she strode upwards. Sue was tackling the first 10-mile leg as part of a relay team which also included my daughter Emeline, son Philip and their friend Charlotte. Up ahead Sue reached the crest of the hill and began running down the far side.
The early morning woods were green with newly unfolded leaves and blanketed in mist. Robins chattered, ovenbirds cried out, the song of a wood thrush echoed among the trees, and a barred owl hooted once. Five miles flashed by and then ten miles brought me to the first aid station, where abundant food and drink was spread out on a table, which I made a point to ignore. On the way out I got a friendly pat on the back from Norman Goluskin, a Mohonk Preserve director who ran the 50 miles in 2014 at age 75 in a respectable sub-13 hour time. Norman still holds the distinction of being the oldest participant to have completed the course.
The trail wound along the side of the ridge and through a forest of hemlock, oak, pine, and birch, and the ground was dotted with catkins and strings of small flowers that had fallen from the trees. I pondered Trishul’s advice to run with joy, and it reminded me of the exhilaration John Muir felt exploring the Sierra Mountains. In his journal he recounted the sights and feelings of a spectacular summer day and the “wild excitement and excess of strength” he felt as he ran back to camp; the journal entry ends with the comment, “and so ends a day that will never end.” Racing often feels so fleeting and transient, and this focus is so often on getting through the next mile, but maybe it’s better to think of the event as a permanent experience with lasting impact.
As I moved along the trail, ovenbirds continued to cry out from deep in the forest canopy, and then a pileated woodpecker flashed by cackling and shrieking. The carriage road turned uphill once again and began the ascent to Skytop Tower. Walking along I noticed a floppy piece of brown lichen lying on the ground, looking as if it had launched itself from the cliffs above and tried to fly away. A few steps later I fell in with my friend Paul Dlug. I pointed out the smooth rock tripe and common toadskin lichens that covered the rocks and wondered aloud about what must be decades-long battles among these slow-growing creatures for the choicest spots with the best light and moisture. Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “lichenist fats where others starve. His provender never fails,” meaning that if you learn to study these strange little vegetative creatures, you will never lack for beauty and mystery.
Arriving at the top, we found Skytop Tower totally socked in by fog, and we didn’t tarry. But a little while later my friend Steve Aaron happened by just as the clouds were parting and took the photograph shown below, which is one of the most beautiful images of the Northern Shawangunks I’ve ever seen. He later explained that lucky timing is one of the photographer’s most important tricks.
Now the trail led down from Skytop toward Minnewaska State Park. The mist lifted momentarily and a range of green mountains appeared through a break in the trees. 13th-century Zen Master Dogen’s wrote that “mountains’ walking is just like human walking.” If you don’t grasp how mountains flow and evolve, he suggested, then perhaps you don’t understand that living creatures arise from the same interactions of matter and energy that shape the ridges. If you don’t understand your own practice of walking, go study life in the mountains, Dogen admonished. You may eventually figure out that “because green mountains walk, they are permanent,” and therefore, presumably, so are we.
On the way to the Lyons Road aid station, a large porcupine waddled across the trail, and then a few moments later Dylan Armajani flashed by, all smiles, on his way to winning the race in 7 hours and 15 minutes. I gave him a thumbs up, and then I was rolling into the aid station at mile 24 and thinking ahead to how nice it would be to reach the half-way point. So far I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, and the sore tendon was behaving, although there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t act up at any moment and end the run.
Awosting Falls was thundering like I’ve never seen before: a huge torrent pouring over the clifftop and hurtling into the basin; the wind caught droplets and whipped them across the trail and one stung me in the cheek. I walked up the steep hill behind the falls and then jogged slowly on the long gradual uphill toward Castle Point. Now the wind was gusting out of the north, chilling me. In the distance the Catskill Mountains hid under a murky layer, and in the intervening valley a dull sheen reflected off the Rondout Reservoir, which looked unfamiliar in this light, as if this was the first time I’d ever seen it.
Somewhere past the thirty-mile marker, I spotted a figure off in the distance shuffling along, head down but purposeful. Thoreau wrote in his journal that he could recognize neighbors from a long distance away in the dark just by their walk or carriage, even when no details of their figures were visible: “We have a very intimate knowledge of one another; we see through thick and thin; spirit meets spirit.” The figure ahead could be none other than the indomitable Ron Sussman. Last year Ron and I joined forces at this point in the race, both of us struggling and frustrated, but we ran together quietly for the next few miles buoyed by the companionship. And here we were again at exactly the same point, and this year we were even slower. But we’ve learned that struggle and frustration are part of life, and there’s nothing to do but keep moving.
A little later I encountered Mike Embler, who was grappling with stomach issues, a common affliction for ultra-runners. Mike ended up walking the last ten miles, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and as this year’s top fundraiser (by a wide margin) Mike has earned enormous credit in the eyes of anyone who cares about preserving our natural wilderness.
In any case, with nothing inside it, my stomach was fine, and I kept moving along, trying to match the flowers and catkins on the trail to the trees along the side, when a flash of scarlet caught my eye. Last September Thoreau’s essay on fall foliage had inspired me to search for the first red maples to turn color. “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,” Thoreau had written, and now this spring I’d opened my eyes and discovered that these trees turn brilliant red in the spring, too, thanks to their bright red buds, flowers, and seeds.
The aid station at mile 37 came and went, and now I was a little thirsty, and the posterior tibialis was feeling a little irritated: the pain was not intense, just enough to keep me on edge. Suddenly here were Philip, Emeline, and Charlotte hiking along together, and it was time for quick hugs.
At mile 40, I turned on my GPS watch, which would help me track distance and thus break the last ten miles into manageable increments. My stomach growled, and an image came to mind of the chili, corn bread, and beer waiting at the finish.
I was feeling more than a little thirsty when the last aid station at mile 42 came into view – but why stop now, with the end almost in sight? A mile later the trail crossed a beautiful creek rushing down over dark stones, and I wanted to stop and scoop up the cold fresh water in my hands.
I was really slowing down. The remaining seven miles might well be a permanent part of life, but first I’d have to cover the next quarter-mile. It started to rain, and the drops were shockingly cold — thirst was forgotten as I fumbled for the rain jacket in my pack.
At mile 45 I turned up for the final hill and slowed to a walk. On the way down the path was littered with rocks that threatened to torque my ankle and tweak the sore tendon; I proceeded conservatively. With one half mile to go, the finish was finally in sight, and throwing caution to the wind I ran harder and passed four other runners, completing the race in the leisurely time of 11:20 or so.
After 50 miles without food or water, I helped myself to several servings of chili and cornbread prepared by Main Street Bistro and a few cups of beer provided by Hudson Ale Works. Then I hung out at the finish line, helping out where needed and also greeting the runners as they streamed in throughout the evening.
Just after dark in pouring rain, Emeline came charging across the finish, and right behind her were Philip and Charlotte. Sue had finished her leg earlier and significantly improved her time over the prior year.
A little before 2:00 AM Cathy Troisi age 71 arrived at the finish line in a time of 19 hours and 19 minutes.
Our last finisher was Lisa Yuen who crossed just after 3:00 AM in a time of 20 hours 56 minutes.
And so ended a race that will never end.