After a run of races this summer that didn’t go quite as planned, the SRT 70 was my last chance at getting everything right and finally running up to what I believe my fitness is. This is a bad race for that though. I knew going in this was never a race of the best or fastest runner, this was a race of survival. I saw many strong runners in previous results drop out or finish far from their “potential”. But everyone thinks that they are the grittiest. toughest survivor out there so I came in ready to grind.
At high point New Jersey there was a light drizzle and a beautiful rainbow across the sky. Also the water fountain didn’t work, don’t they know what we’re about to do? After convincing everyone to get out from under the dry awning we took some pictures and began to walk toward the start. After about a quarter mile walk, none of which counted toward our race distance, we arrived at the junction of the Appalachian trail and the shawagunk ridge trail. My buddy Bill had a scary looking slip about 2 feet from the start point and I looked around to make sure nobody noticed. We got a sandal runner image to uphold here.
After some inspirational words from the race directors the “gun” went off. Nobody really moved and we tried to shuffle up the rocky hill that we just hiked down. Last years winner Zack is out in front and I stick to him. The 2015 winner Jason is behind me and I think Bill was right there too. Soon it is just me a few steps behind Zack and no one in sight behind us. I probably ran about 2 feet behind him for about 20-25 minutes before we hit a short double track section and I pulled up next to him and we started to chat. He knew the trail very well and sort of pointed before every turn that I totally would have known without him.
Next thing I know Zack is gone and my watch makes the first of many infamous beeps that I was off course from the race provided gpx track. I frantically look around not sure how to act in this situation I eventually tracked back about 12 feet and saw the sharp turn I had missed. It felt like I had spent an eternity here but the gps file makes it look like about 20 seconds.
Now that my only missed turn was out of the way I push the pace trying to catch Zack. I hit a patch of really rocky terrain try to bomb down the hill which turns into more of an awkward walk until my watch beeps again. Nothing near me looks anything like a trail and by luck I see a headlamp up the hill running by and head towards it. It just keeps getting further away but eventually I meet up with the trail again and see it is Jason. I pass him over some technical down hill and hit a road section where I think I can see Zack ahead so I push the pace a bit and catch him over the trail section about a half mile later
Zack says he is glad to see me again and was worried he would have to run alone all night. I was glad to have a guide again and would never make a wrong turn again. The sunset is incredible and we have a pretty uneventful few miles following that. Both of us keep looking back and cannot see any headlamps coming. We hit a road section and can finally run without watching our own feet and can actually see the other person. “Woah you’re running this in sandals!” We chat a bit about running and things and hit a road hill up route 6. Zack slows to a hike and so do I. About 5 seconds later he is 50 feet ahead of me. I take a mental note, he can out hike me. Embarrassed at how much of a gap he has made in less than a minute I jog up the hill while hes not looking.
We get back on the trail from lakeside drive. Zack realizes we have made a wrong turn and I state that my watch says we’re on track. The phone app shows the other trail but we are pretty far into this trail and it looks a little longer so we carry on figuring maybe we just lost a minute or so on our lead. We meet back up with the trail and carry on.
After maybe 20 seconds back on the trail we go a little bit off course and my watch beeps. I’ve got the hang of this now and turned right around to head back. Looking back there are all of a sudden about 5 or 6 headlamps right behind us. Its a bit demoralizing that our entire lead is gone just like that but Bill is in that group(along with Marcin, Mark and a couple others I’m not sure about). Jason is not with us so we figure he leapfrogged us. We connect with the railroad tracks and Zack stops for a water refill. I don’t need a water refill so I go on to try and catch Jason.
I’m pretty sure I see Jason’s headlamp in the distance and start booking it over this newly flat and runnable section. I am going about 8:15 pace but I have a hunters fury and got to catch him. The “headlamp” turns into a train that barrels by me and as I look back toward it I see that the headlamps behind me are growing distant so I keep moving since I’m feeling good. Soon my watch beeps off course but I ignore it since it looks like I am still on course on the map. Soon though, I realize my mistake and turn back toward the headlamps behind, running at a bit slower of a pace in shame.
I make it back to the turn off just as the rest of the group arrives and this time I just hang out with the group for a while with my ego a little bruised. I get to run with Bill a bit which I wasn’t sure if I would get a chance this race. Me and Bill miss a couple turns together and a 20 foot tall tree snaps as I try to use it to break my fall.
When my ego heals a little I make it back to the front of the pack and me and Zack wonder whether Jason is ahead somewhere. I say “there’s only one way to find out”. We start to pull away from the other group on a nice but somewhat rocky carriage road. Zack is slowly pulling away and I cannot keep up.
My inability to keep up with Zack this early in the race is disheartening but I keep ahead with the headlamp lights of those behind me staying just at the edge of sight. After passing through checkpoint 1 and almost going down the wrong I try to pick up a little speed downhill on the road. Naturally I miss the turn to the gobblers knob trail but don’t waste too much time. This climb hits me like a rock after so much easy running the last few miles and those distant headlamps are now right behind me. It is Bill and Mark.
This section is pretty tricky to navigate but Mark knows some of the tricky turns and helps us navigate I nerd out to them about the beautiful Aminata Muscaria mushrooms we pass (talking about mushrooms to people who don’t care about mushrooms is my go to for rough spots). As we hit the swampy Bashakill trails I have given up on winning the race and am in a real rough spot. Bill claims I said as much out loud but I swore I had a good poker face. Bill Is now running away from me, heartless to my struggle, just like he does in every training run we do together.
We cross the 50 mile starting point and I am relieved to be on familiar trail. I stop, contemplating that we have to do the entire 50 mile race that crushed me a year ago, also contemplating whether I should use what is probably the only porta potty. Instead of crying or pooping, I decide its time to push ahead, no matter how bad I feel. This next section is probably the easiest portion of the trail and I cannot afford to lose time here.
I pull away from Bill and Mark until I can barely see their headlamps behind me. My water has been empty for probably an hour and I’ve passed countless dry stream-beds and musty stagnant streams. I fill up from the lake and dump a few iodine tablets in my hydration bladder. I can drink it in half an hour when I should be in town running down the road.
Running through the mean streets of worstboro at midnight I drink my first sip of newly purified water. It’s a bit sandy but tastes great otherwise. I haven’t seen Bill or Mark’s headlamps on any long straight-aways so I have made some progress but I’m not feeling great doing it. I walked the hill up to checkpoint 2 and the volunteers told me Zack had caught Jason and they were 8 minutes ahead.
This information gives me some life, which almost immediately comes crashing down as the trail starts climbing.
I can’t separate much of this section in my head. I’m struggling but moving. I’m in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and there is no sign of anyone else anywhere. The sky is dark and the stars are beautiful. There’s really not much else to say here I was somewhere stuck between suffering and existential bliss.
In my head I have been calculating out when I’ll arrive at rt 52. I’m having a hard time figuring how I’ll get there before 5am. At least 3 times I shut off my headlamp, sat down, put my head down and put my arms around my knees. Sat there in the night wondering if I could regain something in order to continue. Each time I would stare up at the stars and shortly see a headlamp coming down the trail from behind. Time to go.
There were some ups to be had in this section, and that was the final downs to route 52. The drop starts with a very steep and technical trail winding down the mountain. I was surprisingly able to bound down this like nothing. The trail then meets a smooth carriage road which I was able hold a fast pace. It was 3:30 and there was something like 3 miles to go. 4am was possible and I was going to push and take every second of that break I can. I pulled into Checkpoint 3 at 3:54 am, I would get over an hour break.
As I walk into checkpoint 3 I see race director Ken and Zack and Jason sitting up against the railing on the side of the road welcoming me. I decide Its best not to say anything about how bad I’m doing right now. Once I’ve told everyone how bad I’m doing I sit down pull out some mashed potato burritos and plug my watch into an external battery. This curb was extremely uncomfortable and it was clear actual sleep was not an option. I find out that Zack and Jason arrived 20 minutes before me and they seem to be doing pretty well.
About 10 minutes after I arrived another headlamp appears but it is not Mark or Bill. It is Marcin, who leapfrogged Bill and Mark at some point over the last tough section. The guy is a machine. Mark comes through a bit later and then Bill comes in earning a solid 20 minute break. Time has flown by and I don’t feel ready to start this next climb but before I know it it’s 5am and time to go.
[Race director’s comment: under the event permit with Minnewaska State Park Preserve, we can’t allow runners into the park until 5:00 AM, therefore we hold up early arrivers at check point #3 until that time. For the race, the runner’s net time is counted, i.e., excluding the time spent waiting at checkpoint #3. However, for the purpose of measuring a fastest known time, this waiting time cannot be excluded.]
We all get up, stiff, achy and not ready to run. No one even attempts to jog across the street or the flat trail. It is sort of a relief that this next section contains one of the biggest climbs of the race because it doesn’t feel possible to do anything but power hike right now. Zack and Jason are in the back of the pack with me and I figure I’ll stick with the experience. All of a sudden Marcin seems to fly up the hill and there are 2 headlamps up ahead separating from the rest of us. The 10 minute lead I have on Marcin doesn’t feel very safe and I ask someone who the other person up ahead is. They tell me It’s Zack. Well I better at least keep them in range.
I realize I actually feel pretty good. The climbing comes easy and the flat portions in-between I run comfortably. It feels like I haven’t run a single step today. Maybe this race isn’t over, there is just a 50k(31 miles) remaining and I can run that. I formulate a bit of a strategy. I figure I will take this hill easy to save my legs, then push fast once I hit the top at the 30 mile start. This plan goes out the window almost immediately. I feel good now and I’ve caught up to Zack and push past.
I did this section last year during the daytime and what a difference it makes. The trail just makes nonsensical turn after nonsensical turn. Every time I look back and can’t see Zack’s headlamp anymore I find my self off in the woods with no trail to follow as Zack catches up to help me back on the trail. Even when I see the aqua trail blazes I just don’t believe them. I just came up that hill why would the trail take a 180 degree turn and go back down that hill. And every time I’m back with Zack he is doing that mega fast hiking thing like earlier. I decide no more hiking. If I’m going to beat him I have to make him chase me. I’m a little bummed as I have really enjoyed the time I’ve spent running with him but it is a race and that 20 minute buffer isn’t something I can pull out of nowhere.
After reaching the top of the climb I am pulling away and can only see his headlamp behind me. It is just before sunrise and I can see well enough so I turn off my headlamp, with some off hope that him not seeing me will be some kind of advantage. When I look down at the gps track on my watch I see some odd anomalies and now think I just missed a turn off so I turn my headlamp right back on and stare out into the woods until I jog back to Zack for reassurance that I didn’t miss a turn. Seriously, I have been pretty hopeless without him.
I get my confidence back again and run away up the hill, again turning my headlamp off, though this time it is pretty bright out. I follow the dirt road for a bit and make the trail turnoff. The most incredible sunrise comes up and saturates the entire cliff-side with orange and red hues. The trail is surrounded by waist height, reddish tinted bushes that seem to glow with the extra color.
This single track is pretty rocky and technical but my legs can handle it and I am keeping a consistent pace between 10 and 12 minutes per mile. I think about my buddy Jake who will be running through this section in the 30 mile race in about 3 hours and I figure he can run it in under 5 hours (If you haven’t read his race report stop reading this and head here http://jstookey.com/node/244 ) so I would have to do it in under 8 hours to beat him. This matches up with my pace but it also puts me around 18 or so hours, far under course record.
Screw it lets go.
As I’m cruising along oozing with confidence something jumps out from in front of me. It’s a porcupine and it is haulin’ ass from me but running right down the middle of the trail. I’ve never seen one run like this before but he is still running a bit slower than I am trying to run right now. I keep trying to bound off rocks to propel myself past him but never have the space. The trail is narrow and he is big and spiky. I try to convince him I’m not trying to eat him but it doesn’t work. It wont just move off the trail or even just stop and let me jump over it. I know this paragraph is getting long but this seriously went on for a long time. Finally it dove off the side of the trail and I was alone again.
With that excitement out of the way I just kept chugging along. This section of the trail is beautiful. I misread the rock slab sections a couple of times and went off trail, always expecting someone to pop up from behind. The gps off course beep is pretty routine and even though it is heart-wrenching each time it probably only costs me a few seconds now that I have the hang of it.
We must have just gone around the cave part last year because I didn’t remember it at all but that’s where the trail went so that’s where I went. There are some really technical downhills here that remind me of tuckerman ravine or other runs I did during training. When I’m going slow I feel like everyone else is going to go slow there and when I am going fast I feel like no one else will go as fast. It is a great feeling but it doesn’t stop me from looking behind me every couple of minutes.
I finally hit the steep trail, practically rock climb, up to castle point. My upper quads painfully seize up every time I try to step up with my knee above my waist. I have to contort my body is odd ways just to make each step but when I hit the top I know I have a nice comfortable downhill for the next few miles.
Extremely eventful in natural beauty, the next miles were mostly uneventful in race terms. I fill up my water at rainbow falls(my last fill of the race) which is not the pathetic dripping rock it was last year but a wonderful cascade that pelted me in the face as much as it filled my hydration bladder. I maintained a good pace over the following technical down-hill miles and cruised through checkpoint 4.
The next section contains a long gradual climb which I am able to run up at a good pace. Running down the ridge-line on the cliff-side I am definitely feeling the miles now but keep moving along. I am out of water and have lost my iodine tablets but I have run further without water before. After crossing two consecutive bridges I remember this section from last year. A steep climb awaits and it crushes my entire soul right away. I now know there will be no more free miles. I greet a hiker here, he is the first person I’ve seen in 4 hours. I make it through and am still able to run but I know what awaits now.
There is no one at checkpoint 5 so I move along. I need to walk a lot of the gradual carriage road climbs heading through here.
I am able to push myself into jogging some of the uphill here but it is difficult. After reaching the top and heading downhill, I notice every foot of elevation gain that I conviniently forgot about in this section.
While shuffling along down hill I turn around to see another runner close in fast. I am relieved to see that it is a half marathon runner. It is Daichi Inuoe, he says something to me which I think is “are you fast?” with a gesture that I thought invited me to run with him. I say “not that fast” but he is already out of sight. I brace for the incoming horde of half marathon runners but it takes a really long time for the second runner to come by. The top four have eventually passed me and inspired me to push a little. I asked one of them If they had seen any other 70 milers. Ok, I asked all of them. But they told me they hadn’t seen any. That was a good sign, I was going to need that buffer.
I stumbled up the climb before checkpoint 6 and the volunteer waved me over. They asked if I needed water and I lied and said no. I asked how far back second place is and they told me “no there are four runners ahead of you”. I explained I was in the 70 mile race but they had no intel. The 5th half marathon runner probably caught me about two miles from where the first did. I wished I still had that speed in me. They were coming by frequently now though, along with a fair amount of hikers. I was walking everything but downhill and grunting and probably scaring nearby children. After being completely alone for so long it was a little bizarre to have so much company now.
Lots of walking and pain. Not much else to say, On the technical downhill sections I was actually able to pass back some of the half marathon runners that had passed me pathetically walking on the mostly flat sections before. But nothing here was consistent enough to get a rhythm. When I got comfortable shuffling downhill a short uphill would appear that I just couldn’t push through. I tried using some sticks as poles for a while but It didn’t help much.
For some reason I asked a half marathon runner if he had seen any other 70 milers. I could’t think of any possible way he could have if the others hadn’t. But he said yes. He described what sounded like Marcin. This was too confusing for my already fried brain but I could only imagine that he would catch me soon. Where were Zack and Jason? Did he just not see notice them? I had about a mile left so I shut it all out and kept going
I later found out that an entire group of half marathon runners went the wrong way towards New Jersey and Marcin was there to inform them that they did not want to go that way.
When I hit the carriage road and saw there was half a mile to go I got back to running hard. I looked at my time. I missed out on sub 18 hours, but it was just under 18:10, I could break 18:15. I needed a goal to push through the pain here. I ran across the final bridge at maximum speed, scaring hikers and runners alike with my screams of pain.
Finally crossed the line with an official time of 18:11
After finishing I just kept checking my watch and glancing at the finish line. I still felt like Zack or Jason were going to pop up. Finally I was filled in and found out that I was about an hour ahead of Marcin, Jason had just reached checkpoint 6 and Zack had dropped out. Marcin came in about an hour after me. Jason, Mark and Bill all finished over the next few hours. Jake came in a bit over the time I predicted earlier(I’ll put the link in here again if you missed it)
It was quite a journey, but if you managed to make it through this long rambling read then you might have the endurance to give it a shot. Seriously its a sweet tomahawk.
Thank you Ken, Todd and all other volunteers who made the race possible and immensely enjoyable/painful.