By guest author, Ben Leese, who completed the 70-mile SRT race on September 14-15, 2018, coming in second place in a time of 19:15:48.
After many months of procrastination and joking off my impulsive entry into the SRT 70 miler as a midlife crisis (“cheaper than a motorbike am I right?!”), raceday finally rolled around. With no injury to hide behind and with a pre-booked afternoon off work I found myself waking up on Friday on a disconcerting autopilot – am I really going to try and do this?
To make a tough day tougher I chose to start my odyssey at Penn Station and very nearly derailed myself by settling in on an LIRR train rather than a train West to New Jersey. Realizing my mistake as the doors shut I escaped by the skin of my teeth and finally took the correct local to the (appropriately named) town of Suffern. From there a long lyft ride with a techno loving local took me to High Point State Park in New Jersey. I had to wonder what my driver thought I was doing. We pulled into the deserted park at 5:30 or so, after season and after hours, with no-one else in sight and with the scenery shrouded in dense mist. Where was I going? How would I get back? He didn’t ask, so we parted ways at Lake Marcia and I hiked the last 2 miles along the road to the starting point, startling a big beaver on the way.
Everything is dark, Every light this side of the town, And suddenly it all went down
A group of what would eventually be 17 6:30pm leavers had already formed but even though the weather continued to look grim I resolved to stick it out until the alternate 8pm start. I had no idea how I’d go on a race of this distance but on the off chance I went well I wanted to be around the faster runners so I could pace myself appropriately. After a quick race briefing the 6:30s trotted down the hill to the southern terminus of the SRT and I was left pretty much alone. For a while it looked as though I’d be the only late start but eventually Hugh Macmullan and Jason Berry (the latter a former winner of the race), joined. After a bit more shivering and a bit of banter we began our own walk to the start. By this point the mist was soupy and night had fallen so we would start with our headtorches on. This was my main equipment fail of the run as the torch I’d bought, which seemed plenty powerful in Paragon Sports, was notably weak when compared to some of the others people had. On a night like this it just flash filled the mist, so I was left with the same murky view of the woods but seemingly through a sheet of bright white cheesecloth. Not great.
Eventually we were given the all clear and never having run at night, or on these trails, or for this distance before, I tucked in carefully behind Jason and tried to follow his line and pace. Only kidding. I decided on a whim we were going too slowly dropped them both within a quarter mile and committed to the longest run of my life alone. Oof. Descending down through the woods was a surreal experience but I was fresh enough to avoid falling and within a couple of miles I’d dropped far enough to escape the fog. The woods were incredibly loud with bugs, frogs and the occasional larger crash of a deer (I hoped). Even though my sense of place was reduced to the small cone of light into which I kept advancing, the concentration required to stay upright on the slippery and rocky trail kept my mind blank and didn’t get nervous. A couple of times I did imagine myself looking down from above however – a tiny pin-prick of light making halting progress through a carpet of ink black forest. Why did I put myself in this situation?
So far navigating was going very well. My wife had bought me a new Garmin for my birthday and after a couple of weeks of fiddling with it I had the course map loaded and could monitor my relative location on the go very easily. I also discovered to my delight that many of the small tree markings that denote the trail were reflective and even my tinker toy headlamp was enough to set them twinkling from 50-100 yards away. Not everyone was having such an easy time however and I caught my first 6:30am’er after about 6.5 miles at the junction with Old Mountain Road. It was going to be a long night for her.
After a short section on the road to pass under I-84 I headed right into Huckleberry Ridge State Forest. This was one of a few sections that I’d previewed on Memorial Day through it didn’t stop me making several wrong turns on my way to the trail head. It’s a muddy, confusing section of trail but I did a better job navigating this time than I had in the middle of the day several months before. The course this year (at least relatively, according to those who’ve run it before), was incredibly waterlogged. It meant there were streams everywhere and drinking was never an issue but, on the flipside, most rocks on the trail were slick and treacherous with a layer of moss and algae that might as well have been dish soap. Worse, it was impossible to keep your feet dry. My shoes drained well but I had thick woolen socks on and once I’d slipped into a stream the first time my feet would not be dry again until Saturday night – 24 hours away. I saw another runner on the way out of the forest, moved past her gradually and then, as I did every time I passed a runner throughout the night, proceeded to lose the trail multiple times while she shook their head and chuckled at me. Losing the trail in upstate forests is no joke. At best you have to scramble back through dense leaf mold, fording streams and climbing up or under fallen branches and trees. It happened so often I developed a pretty good system: my watch was zoomed in closely and the GPS arrow jerked about randomly when I stood still making it hard to fix direction. The trick was to pick a random straight line and go 30 or 40 yards regardless. That was enough to frame my divergence from the course and allowed me to plan a route back. After a couple of minutes I almost always found the slightly darker, marginally smoother smudge through the vegetation that was the trail and was on my way.
After an hour or so Huckleberry dumped us down on the Metro North train track for half a mile. I was hoping to freak out some late night commuters but didn’t see a train and after yet another navigational mistake headed up a short scramble onto the Jeep trail. I passed Anna the race ambassador striding smoothly with her poles, she said I looked strong, I promptly went the wrong way and cursed my way back through the woods to reappear just in front of her. I ended up running somewhere between 73 and 77 miles for this 70 mile course, this is why.
I hadn’t appreciated this from the course but after a bit more runnable singletrack through the woods, the course followed a relatively smooth trail for several miles to Otisville. I have big feet and am not particularly coordinated. The issue for me with trying to stride out on *mostly* smooth trails is that they’re still trails and still studded with rocks. Every few yards I’d roll an ankle inwards or outwards or, worse, go to toe off to find a rock under my sole that painfully compressed the tendons on the top of my foot. None of these strains and sprains were individually bad enough to stop me moving but the cumulative pain got quite severe and I taught the woods of Graham Mountain State Forest some new words.
With 17 miles done, a man blocked the path ahead, silhouetted by two truck headlights cutting the mist from behind him. I was either about to be murdered or I’d made it to Checkpoint 1.
Here comes Midnight, with the big moon in it’s jaws
Alive and with a few encouraging words ringing in my ears I emerged onto 211, crossed the junction and jogged down the road scanning the steep wooded bank on my right for the entrance to the trail. I’d done this segment on Memorial Day as well and knew I was looking for…there, a single plank of wood over the ditch, through a hedge and I was on my way up into Gobbler’s Knob State Forest. This is a steep, steep climb with multiple switchbacks so I opted to power hike and get some food in. What does one eat at 1am during an ultra? In my case it was a cheese and marmalade sandwich. Delicious. Shortly after reaching the top I caught and slowly passed three more athletes, made a few more wrong turns but then did a decent job of descending down to Indian Orchard Road past another group of 3 runners who seemed to be having fun. From Indian Road I knew we ran several flat miles along the Western shore of Bashakill, a huge marshy wetland and habitat for an amazing variety of bird life. I wouldn’t see any birds tonight and I fervently hoped I wouldn’t see the snake I met here on my last visit either. Before I could stretch my legs however I had to gas up. To date I’d been running on the two ½ liter soft flasks on the front of my vest. For the first time I forced myself to take off my vest and use one of the flasks to fill the big, so far unused, 1 ½ liter bladder I had on my back. Into that I dumped the contents of a bag I’d made at home containing 2 sachets of Maurtens, 2 Nuun tabs and 3 Iodine tablets. The soft flasks themselves got filled and supplemented with Iodine and Nuun and I set off a few minutes later with 2.5 liters of fluid which should, in 30 minutes or so, be safe to drink. Bashkakill wasn’t as much fun as I remembered. It was flat but the ground was sodden and when it wasn’t soaking my feet it was only because the path was raised out of the water by decades of tree roots that made it unrunnable.
Finally saying goodbye to Baskakill, I had a brief road run through Wurstboro which had real street lights and gave my aching forehead a brief break from the pressure of my headlamp. On the way out of town the road curved up steeply and I was back to hiking and eating cheese and Marmalade sandwiches. After a few hundred yards I found Checkpoint 2 and after a bit of searching and another waterbottle fill (I would go on to drink 25-30 liters over the race), I was back into the woods, climbing hard through Wurstboro Ridge State Forest and eating. As long as the race had already been, to date there had been no particular “pay off.” I’d never run this far before, which was cool, and it was 3am and I didn’t feel physically or mentally tired which was fascinating, but any rewards so far were very internal and would have been hard to explain to someone else. That changed as I emerged at the top of the climb and began to traverse the ridge spanning Roosa Gap State Forest and Shawangunk Ridge State Forest. The fog and cloud cover had disappeared from broad swathes of the sky and the stars were shining with a brilliance you can forget about in NYC. The vegetation was varied but frequently fell to waist high shrubs which after the claustrophobia of the woods was incredibly liberating. The trail was still rocky but began to feel very “Gunks like” – frequently spilling you onto large stone plateaus which you have to navigate by tuning yourself into the location of cairns, fallen branches and paint tabs before finding the exit. For the first time the path also began to involve real climbing, frequently dead ending into 6 to 10 foot rock faces. Alex Honnold would not be troubled but they were strength sapping after 30+ miles. My pace fell dramatically over this section but it was entirely due to the terrain and I still felt great as I finally descended the several miles down towards 52 and ran the flat into Checkpoint 3. 40 miles. Over half way.
Some background. Immediately after checkpoint 3 you begin the biggest climb of the course into Minnewaska State Park. The park doesn’t open until 5am and in years past the lead-runners departing at 6:30pm had arrived as early as 3:30am and been held for up to 90 minutes. Times were recorded net of the wait but the 8pm start was introduced this year to minimize the forced wait for faster runners. I arrived at 4:40am to find only Zack Price (former winner and friend of a good friend) and Andrew Wilkens sprawled on the ground. Zack had arrived about 20 minutes before me and Andrew an hour before. The math was tough in my befuddled state but I figured that meant I was in the lead by about 30 minutes.
I was proud of a couple of things about my race but almost nailing my equipment and nutrition was a big one. As soon as I sat down and pulled out a jiffy bag containing a lipstick sized power bank and micro usb cable – 20 minutes later my watch was almost fully charged. While that was happening I started plowing through a big bag of trail mix with extra M&Ms and chilli and lime jerky pieces. At some point I was going to have to shift to sugar but I was putting it off as long as I could. The last thing I tried to do for myself was change socks as I could feel blisters forming on the balls of both feet. Unfortunately my spares had been drenched by my clumsy refueling at Bashakill – I could only hope the change of fabric would help.
I’m so tired of traveling alone, won’t you ride with me?
Jonesing for some company, increasingly irritated by my inadequate headtorch, nervous about the climb to come but starting to think about a win, my plan for the next 15 miles or so wrote itself – stay with the others. When we were finally released at 5 it was quickly apparent that would mean Andrew as Zack began to fall away. The climb was very steep, rising 1,600 broken, wooded feet in a mile or so. Andrew set a tough pace – stomping up the slopes and breaking into a trot whenever the ground leveled off. I tried to lead occasionally but kept losing the trail at which point Andrew would move back into the front and I would meekly follow. It was a weird dynamic, we were chatting (and I could tell immediately he was great company), but we were still racing and if I twisted an ankle or let a small gap open up he’d stretch it out immediately and force me to chase back. I began to feel like a bit of a bludger but as we neared the top I started to discern the tops of the trees against the sky and knew that dawn was coming.
When I imagined getting to this point of the race in the weeks prior I imagined exhorting myself to continue for the prospect of finally seeing the sun come up over Minnewaska. The experience would end up far exceeding my wildest expectations. After a mile or two hiking up broad, open carriage roads we turned to traverse the mountain side of Sam’s Point to the west of Lake Maratanza and across the famed pitch pine fields – a globally unique ecosystem of beautiful calf-height pine bushes that earn this area it’s tagline as one of the Earth’s Last Great Places. The dawn felt as though the mountains had been waiting to ambush us. As soon as we turned the entire Gunks flooded with light from west to east like a paint-with-water book across which someone had spilled a full beaker. The sky exploded red and orange, the hills and ridgelines bloomed dark green and between them dense mist glowed softly, obscuring the roads and towns below and any indication that Andrew and I weren’t the only two people on earth. It was one of the most incredible moments of my running life. Later in the race, at a decidedly lower ebb, I was hiking next to an Italian entrant in the half marathon. We were trading stories from the race but when I tried to describe this scene to her I burst into tears. Clearly my emotion regulator packed it in at some point after my legs but it was that kind of view.
With our bodies full of endorphins we ran briskly down the white slash of rocky singletrack across Sam’s Point. The rutted path required a lot of concentration and we passed several miles in a trance. Eventually the euphoria subsided, or perhaps the path got rougher still, and we fell into a pattern of run / walking. My sodden feet were in a rough state. The lateral push and pull of jumping from rock to rock had wrenched an ever larger area of skin loose under the ball of each foot and I could feel blisters a couple of inches across forming on each side. I wasn’t exhausted yet, but as I slowed to counter the pain in my feet I stiffened quickly. Suddenly though, to my great surprise, Andrew announced he was going to walk for a bit and I was on my own.
Hobbled, sore and alone again, the next couple of miles were nevertheless some of my favorite on the course (in part, I admit, because I was savoring thoughts of a Tomahawk). It was a gorgeous clear day, and the trail wound through the iconic Minnewaska ridges revealing spectacular rock formations and views at every turn. The price was endless steep scrambles and rock climbs but every single one was worth it. Each mile was taking well over 20 minutes but I settled on repeating a mantra of “you’re so lucky to be here” and it never felt untrue.
I’m an old man now, I can’t do nothing, Young folks don’t pay me no mind
After a few miles on my own I knelt to refill my bladder again and with a loud “what’s up slowpoke!” Andrew reappeared, refueled and recharged on the trail behind me. We walked for a while, he announced he was going to run for a bit and I immediately knew that was the last time I’d see him.
And from there it got ugly.
I was somewhere around 15 miles from the finish, further than I thought I’d get but too close to the finish to drop. I was walking, slowly, and what would be a 100 minute run around Brooklyn could take me 7 hours in my current state. I didn’t know what to do. This was my first ultra and I told my wife before I started that I saw no alternative between breaking the course record and dropping. I wasn’t being arrogant, I just couldn’t fathom being out and in motion for 20 hours. And yet here I was. I’d given up on iodining my water as I was drinking faster than the pills would dissolve. I was still parched though as the sun was now beating down strongly. Every time I drank sweat poured out of me immediately, pooled in my shorts and stung in a hundred sore and chaffed spots. My ankles were swollen and, without ankle gaiters (another get for next time), a line of grit and grime under the lips of my socks had worn a bloody band round each foot. I’d been eating gels regularly for a few hours, my breath stank and my teeth felt carpeted. I’d stuffed the empty sachets in my vest where the last dregs had squeezed out, soaked through the webbing and created a thick tacky trap for leaf mold and dead bugs on my inner arms. Slower and slower, stiffer and stiffer. I switched my mantra to the title of a book about ultras I’d meant to read and hadn’t: “Relentless Forward Progress”.
I’d try not to look at my watch, hike for a half hour, climb a couple of rock faces, pick my way down through a steep crop of bushes, ford a stream, look down and have covered 0.2 miles – it was demoralizing. A book I had managed to read – “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson – had a lot of background to the science behind smiling in competition so every half hour or so I’d drag the corners of my mouth up into a rictus. It didn’t help. The monotony started to be broken by a steady stream of cheerful 30 mile and half marathon runners passing me but eventually even they became a trickle and I was left traipsing after 3 guys from Queens and the aforementioned Italian. 10 miles into their race they were having a great time, taking photos, cracking jokes, I felt as though I was in a different world.
The end never seemed to come any closer except that, incrementally and imperceptibly, it did. 5 became 4.9 became 4.8 became 4 became 3.9…became 7.9 when I finally reconciled myself to how much extra I’d run and broke my own heart, became 7, became 6 and so on. And on. The final quarter mile was across the spectacular Wallkill bridge in Rosendale and for the second time on the course I very nearly lost it. Composing myself I finally turned off the trail, thanked everyone, shook a few hands, had a beer, lay down in the grass and promptly fell asleep.
Many thanks to Ken, Todd and all the volunteers who put on this great race. Their passion for the Gunks and its trails is clear and infectious and in this event they have the best possible way to share that passion.