The fourth edition of the SRT Run took place September 15-16, 2017 with nearly 200 registered participants across all divisions, up 35% from the year before. The SRT Run has a minimalist format, meaning there are no aid stations (we don’t provide food or water) and no supplemental course markings. As one participant put it, “they don’t coddle the runners.” But the truth is, the runners don’t need a lot of hand-holding. At the start for each division, steely determination was evident in their faces, and then once moving, exhilaration, and when finally at the finish, relief. And maybe there were some points in between where it was necessary to grit the teeth. Results included three new course records, countless personal bests, at least one first-time ultramarathon finish, and remarkably a runner who completed the 30-mile division barefoot — and there were also some disappointments because the weather was hot, the trail is rugged, and the mountains, unyielding.
Organizers created this event to celebrate a magical trail that crosses the entire length of the Shawangunk Mountains, or the “Gunks” as they are called, an area identified by the Nature Conservancy as “one of Earth’s last great places.” By promoting awareness of the SRT, we hope to build support for further conservation.
The 70-mile race is long and daunting. The trail starts in the High Point State Park outside Port Jervis, New Jersey, at a junction with the Appalachian Trail and immediately passes under the shadow of a monument tower that can be seen from the Catskills sixty miles away. It proceeds through rolling forests and alongside the Bashakill wetlands and rises onto glacially-scoured rocks on the crest of the ridge before dropping into quiet forests in the northern section of the Mohonk Preserve. The trail ends in the town of Rosendale, New York just past a restored railway trestle that crosses 140 feet above the Rondout Creek . The word “dramatic” does not do justice to the Shawangunk Ridge Trail. I discovered the SRT in 2014 and fell in love with it, most recently thru-running it in 2015.
A 70-mile race demands focus. In between the laughter and smiles at the start, there were flashes of tenacity and resolve.
Murky clouds had spread across the northern sky, remnants of Hurricane Irma. Race staff issued radios and conferred with volunteer course marshals and search & rescue team members who would support the event during the first night, and then a light sprinkle chased us back into our cars. But a moment later, a rainbow appeared in the east, and the sun began to sink in a flare of red and gold. At 6:31 PM, the 19 runners started out, and now what joy they felt to be moving, at least early on.
Race staff moved a few miles down the road and watched as the runners made the turn into Huckleberry Ridge State Forest. It was fully dark now, but so far, everyone looked strong.
By the time we arrived at checkpoint #1, 17 miles into the race, the first casualties appeared. Stomach distress brought one runner to his knees; he huddled in a chair, weak and shivering, while EMTs from New Jersey Search and Rescue attended to him, and an hour later his wife arrived to take him home (when I talked to him Sunday, he was fully recovered). Stomach distress is surprisingly common in endurance racing. I wonder if people eat and drink too much, but that’s just a guess.
We were still at checkpoint #1 when an upset stomach claimed another runner, and then two dropped due to twisted ankles. Another one dropped at checkpoint #2 with sore knees . Six runners arrived at checkpoint #3 outside of Ellenville and were held until 5:00 AM as is required under our permit with Minnewaska State Park and then released. The day dawned clear, and the sun rose above a blanket of fog, although you wouldn’t have seen it unless you had already reached the top of the ridge. Another runner dropped at checkpoint #3 later on that morning.
The day was surprisingly hot. Standing outside the finish line tents, I felt the sun beating down on my neck and shoulders and thought about the toll that would be exacted on those 70-mile runners still out on the course.
4:30 PM is a hard cut-off at checkpoint #4 Jenny Lane, 52 miles into the race. When the appointed time arrived, we had several participants still out on the course. As per our procedures, we attempted to reach the runners on their cellphones, then deployed a search and rescue team to that area, and then called emergency contact numbers to check that participants hadn’t already left the course. Disconcerting reports began to filter back of one runner who’d become disoriented and was possibly heading backwards. An hour later, however, we received a text message and then talked to the missing runner on the phone. She provided us with a grid coordinate from her phone’s GPS, which search and rescue used to pinpoint her location, and a truck was dispatched to the rescue.
All told, of the 19 starters, only 7 made it to the finish line, for a 35% finish rate, down from 62% the year before. The heat and humidity took their toll, and perhaps moisture on the rocks made them extra treacherous.
Timothy Ela of Clifton Park, New York, came in first and set a new course record of 18 hours and 11 minutes, eclipsing the prior record of 21:05. Tim had run the 50-mile division the year before, coming in 5th place, so he knew what he was getting into, and came into the event full of confidence, having trained on technical trails in Vermont and the Adirondacks. Early on in the race, however, he was in rough shape: “In the Roosa Gap section I was almost completely broken,” he later told us. “At least 3 times I had just turned off my headlamp and sat down with my head down and arms around the knees. Each time after a few minutes I would see a headlamp coming and I had to get up and keep going.” He regained his strength while waiting for the 5:00 AM release at checkpoint #3, and powered through to the end, despite losing his iodine tablets and running the last 20 miles without water.
Marcin Mrowka, a three-time finisher of the 70-mile division, came in 2nd place with a time of 19:09, and in third place was Jason Berry, another three-time finisher who won the race in 2015. There were no female finishers.
SRT Co-director Todd Jennings gave the starting command for the 50-mile division at 6:00 AM, and nine runners headed out into dense predawn mists that hovered over the Bashakill wetlands. Just like the 70-mile division, these runners would suffer a number of casualties from heat, humidity, and rocky terrain, with only three reaching the finish line. The winner was Jan Peter Brajer of Mahopac, New York in 15 hours and 14 minutes. Jan had signed up at the last minute at the urging of his friend Ivan Milan, who completed the 30-mile race. Five minutes after Jan, second place finisher Ryan Baskwell arrived. I was standing at the Jenny Lane checkpoint when Ryan came in with only seven minutes to spare before the cut-off; I gave him the once over and asked some pointed questions — but he seemed fine, and I saw him again at checkpoint #6 motoring along in good spirits.
The third place finisher, Christopher Bertini, gave us some concern. Family members approached race staff at the finish line, and based on his location (which they could see on their phones), he had strayed significantly off course. After a quick phone call, he got back heading in the right direction and made it to the finish a few minutes before 11:30 PM. Based on his experience, we are planning to make some improvements to the cellphone map app that should make it simpler for runners to reach the finish. There were no female finishers in the 50 mile division.
30-mile runners started in two waves at the Sam’s Point Visitor Center. The first wave exited the parking area, reached the Shawangunk Ridge Trail a few steps later, and all headed off in the wrong direction. Everyone started shouting, and the group immediately turned about. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have said anything, but let them figure it out on their own.
Because runners in all divisions have until midnight, the 30-milers enjoy a generous 15-hour time limit, and all but two of the thirty-two starters successfully completed the distance, for a remarkable 94% finish rate. Navigating an unmarked course, carrying food, filtering water — the runners overcame all these challenges. That’s not to say there weren’t some missteps along the way. As Jake Stookey commented in his race report, I am having such a hard time staying on the trail. I can’t find any rhythm or momentum, it’s just constant slaps in the face “wrong way” “wrong way” “wrong way”:
So at 6 miles I pay very careful attention. I come out onto a gravel road, and continue in the path of least resistance, but quickly recognize that I don’t see any trail markers. I stop, look around, and find the right way to go. I victoriously raise my arms, giving myself a huge pat on the back for staying on course. The trail suddenly becomes perfectly runnable. I start cruising at a very fast pace, loving life, loving how easy the trail is. I come to an intersection and quickly notice that neither option is marked. Nor is the trail I’m on. I run up and down each trail a few times just to be sure, and eventually pull out my cell phone which has a map of the trail. Turns out I am *way* off the trail. I turn back, but have a ways to go before I get back on the Shawangunk Ridge Trail. At the time I didn’t know the distance, but my detour had taken me an extra mile. I pass a few runners. I see three runners ahead of me on a carriage road, one lagging behind a little. As I approach the closest runner, he stops and yells to the other two, “the trail is this way”.
— Jake Stookey
The first place male finisher was Henry Pratt of Highland, New York in 5:06. He seemed justifiably proud to have beaten the prior 30-mile course record of 5:18, which he had himself set in 2015. The first place female finisher was Donna Graham-Finan of Goshen, New York in 7:43. Donna describes the Shawangunk Mountains as a “beautiful gem of New York” and the race’s unsupported format as “adding a twist to the event.”
Of special note was an incredible performance by 30-mile runner Su Mittra, who completed the course barefoot. Having myself barefooted certain sections of the trail, I was astonished by Su’s speed over a pathway that is full of gravel and rocks in many places. In his race report, Su acknowledges that his feet began to hurt around half-way through, and that moving through the nighttime forest was disconcerting, but he kept his mind focused on the task in front of him and finished in just over 12 hours.
I’d also like to recognize Roberto Labrador, for whom the 30-mile division was his first ultramarathon — and he chose a particularly tough race to do so (he explained to me that it was a friend’s suggestion to register, but the friend never showed up). Roberto hails from New York City and brought a lot of big city attitude to the event, including a big heart and big smile.
1/2 marathon runners face the same challenges as other participants, but because all events end at midnight, these runners have more than thirteen hours to complete the course. This may be the most generous 1/2 marathon time limit in the world, and it makes racing the Shawangunk Ridge Trail accessible to athletes with a wide range of abilities, some of whom walked the whole distance, while others flew.
The first place female finisher was Sierra Jech of Syracuse, New York, who finished in 2: 40. The first place male finisher was Shawn Bubany of Meredith, New York, who finished in 2:08, tying the course record set by Adam Meier in 2015. Shawn’s race report makes clear that in an unsupported event like this, making quick decisions on your feet and managing hydration are just as important as raw speed, as he managed to beat Daichi Inoue and Tsukasa Kawarai, last year’s first and second place finishers, who both made wrong turns.
Among the 1/2 marathoners, I’d like to recognize Cindy Wagner, Carl Weisbecker, and Patty Lee Parmalee who are all NY-NJ Trail Conference volunteers. Patty is a three-time finisher of the race and holds the distinction of being the oldest participant at 77 years, and this makes her an enormous inspiration to all of us youngsters who hope to keep moving even as we get older. Last year I saw Patty half-way through the course carrying a dainty 4-oz bottle of water and marveled at her minimalist attitude. When I encountered her on the course this year, I didn’t see any bottle.
For race organizers, the event is not quite as demanding as it is for the participants, but race director and co-director do juggle a lot of tasks while going 42 hours without sleep. Our favorite part is hanging out with finishers and hearing their stories. The Shawangunk Ridge Trail is not just a path, it’s a community.
The Shawangunk Ridge Trail was the brainstorm of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a not-for-profit organization whose volunteers maintain 2,100 miles of trails in the greater New York metropolitan area. I’d like to thank all of the volunteers who work on the Long Path and Shawangunk Ridge Trail under the leadership of senior volunteer Andy Garrison and West Hudson program coordinator Sona Mason, who also helped us manage the finish line, and additionally recognize Trail Conference cartographer Jeremy Apgar who created the cellphone map that runners use to navigate the unmarked race course. As part of the online registration process, 33 runners made voluntary donations to the Trail Conference totaling $520. Thank you, runners.
For race organizers, safety is the first priority, and we would not hold an unsupported event on an unmarked course without search and rescue capabilities. These highly-trained volunteers play an important role in the Hudson Valley’s first-responder community; members from both teams had, for example, recently participated in a 4-day search for a missing hiker in the Catskills. Thank you to New Jersey Search and Rescue team members Bill Winterbottom (lieutenant), Jeff Berg (lieutenant), Jim Gazley, and Barry Bassin. Thank you to Sam’s Point Search and Rescue team members John Schumaci, Matt Pozorski, Andrew Stoll, Mark Lewis, Jerry Gardner, Tom Atwell, and Kristian Lewis.
In order to deploy search and rescue teams, should that become necessary, we need to know where the runners are on the course. Thank you to event safety officer Richard D’Ambrosio who had overall responsibility for participant accountability, and for volunteer course marshals who manned a series of six checkpoints: Dave Castner, Karen Verbeke, Alan Davidson, Jake Brown, Steve Mulvihill, Bolivar Reyes Alemany, Bob Harris, Kristen (and Cooper) Pratt, Jesse Goodenough, Ryan Aponte, Evelyn Heinbach, Sue Eby, Judy O’Neill, Magda Misuna, Jordan Bower, Don Cohen (who brought the pop-up tent shown in the picture below), Dane Groszek, Lisa Zucker Glick, and Jim Porter.
Thank you to Kathy Mahady, Barbara Eckhert, and Tyler D’Ambrosio for helping with parking, check-in, and scoring, to Sona Mason for working as finish line manager, to Bolivar Alemany and Alan Davidson who helped out at the finish line after their course marshal shifts were over, and to Geoff Hamilton from the Trail Conference who pulled out his first aid kit to help a runner clean up who’d taken a spill.
Thank you to all the agencies which permitted the event, including NJ DEP, NY DEC, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, Mohonk Preserve, the town of Rosendale, and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust.
Thank you to Tom Bushey and Suzy Allman for taking photo’s that captured the spirit of the event.
First place finisher tomahawks crafted by Larry Cly of the Navajo tribe. Finish line music provided by Spirit of Thunderheart. Radios furnished by Goosetown Communications.
We are tentatively planning the fifth edition of the SRT Race for September 14-15, 2018.