Note: Ben Leese won the 70-mile division of the 2019 SRT Run with a new course record of 16:28:16, eclipsing the prior record by almost two hours. More info on the race at www.srtrun.com
Ben’s 2018 SRT race report here
Shawangunk Ridge 70 miler
Last year was my first attempt at the SRT and my first attempt at running anything longer than a marathon. After missing my goals at a succession of road races over the preceding couple of years I was thrilled to achieve my main objective of grinding out a finish. But the experience was brutal. The distance was of course a big part of that, but I’d made a number of rookie errors as well and as soon as the chafing had healed and the toenails had regrown I began to think about ways to improve in 2019.
My training this year was sporadic and unstructured but I’d managed a few weeks in the 80-100 range in the immediate run-up to the race. I’m honestly not sure how one is supposed to appropriately train for the physical side of an ultra but, if there is a way, I almost certainly don’t have the time. So I focused on getting a few 20 milers in, sometimes on consecutive days, staying healthy and getting my head in the right spot.
One thing I could control and plan for meticulously was my kit. I felt I’d done pretty well last year as a first-timer but there were some notable failures. So, for anyone who cares, this was my 2019 packing list and (borderline obsessive) thought processes:
Clothing (all treated with Permethryn – I recently got “tick bombed” with seed ticks on a key training run out on Long Island and was not taking any chances).
- Shoes – Nike Wildhorses. Last year I’d gone in some Salomons which I liked a lot but they’re built on quite a sculpted last and that, plus the soaking course, gave me a lot of blisters. The Nikes feel a little lighter and are a lot less supportive, but they have a nice big toe box and would prove much more comfortable over the distance, for me at least.
- Salomon race vest with 2 500ml soft flasks (full to start) and 1 1.5l bladder (empty to start).
- Socks – I started in one pair of wool running socks and carried a spare pair and a heavy set of Mohair anti-blister socks in my pack. These were bagged in a Ziploc so they’d be dry if I needed them.
- Ankle gaiters – last year bits of leaf mold and dirt had got between my ankle and sock and had worn a bloody band round each leg by the end of the race – these seemed an easy solution.
- Arm and calf sleeves – I’m skeptical of any performance benefits from these but they were a flexible way to adjust for the temperature and, soaked in Permethryn, gave me even more tick coverage.
- Amazon basics tank – I wanted shoulders wide enough to overlap my race vest, arm holes loose enough to avoid chafing and a slim fit – this was the only place I could find all three.
- One large Ziploc of mashed sweet potatoes with maple syrup for checkpoint 3.
- One large Ziploc of smashed potato chips (hat tip to Andrew Wilkens from last year).
- 2 cheese and jelly sandwiches (only one eaten).
- A “meal bar”.
- 3 gels (2 Maurtens, 1 Gu).
- 1 pack of gel blocks.
- 3 Maurtens sachets (only 1 used).
- 2 tubes of Nuun.
- 1 bottle of Iodine pills.
Electronics (one Ziploc)
- Watch – Garmin Fenix 5X – I can’t imagine tackling this course without a watch that is capable of displaying the route. They’re an investment for sure but once you get this one calibrated navigating is very easy – as you flick your wrist up to take a look, the screen lights automatically and you can see exactly where you are relative to the course. It even beeps at you if you if you start to deviate.
- Headtorch – The second most important bit of kit. Last year I’d almost been undone by taking an underpowered unit (and no spare batteries) that gave up on me during the climb up to Sam’s Point. This year I swung hard the other way with a Princeton Tec Extreme. The flood setting was perfect for the woods and had a regulated burn time of 17 hours which was more than plenty. It also had a 550 lumens spot which felt like a floodlight and which I used occasionally when the route got sketchy. The cost is that the unit takes 8 AA batteries but as the battery case is in its own separate canister you can put them in your vest and run the cable to your head – in that sense it’s more comfortable than more lighter and less powerful set-ups.
- Power bank – I upgraded from last year’s tiny versions to a reasonably chunky model that would charge things a bit quicker. Taped over the ports in case it rained.
- Charging cables for my watch and phone.
- Bluetooth headphones for the last few miles.
- Phone – With the route on my watch I could leave this off for emergencies but I planned to switch it on for the last few miles for music and to use the Strava Beacon feature so my family could track me in to the finish.
Care (one Ziploc)
- Eye drops – I was starting this race with Conjunctivitis (a regular occurrence with two small boys) and would need to stay on top of treating that.
- Spare contact lenses.
- 3 small cardboard wraps of squirrels nut butter.
- Emergency foil blanket.
All of that planning made it particularly galling when I left my phone in the cab from Port Jervis train station. I realized my mistake with perhaps 45 minutes to go before the 8pm start and was not sure I would be allowed to start without it. Fortunately Kevan, one of my fellow 8pmers, remembered the name of the cab company and co-RD Todd Jennings was able to reach them and have the driver come back. Incredibly, he arrived around 7:45 – 5 minutes before we began our hike down from High Point to the start of the SRT.
The night was cool with none of last year’s humidity. I wasn’t carrying any extra clothing so was itching to get moving. As soon as RD Ken Posner gave us the green light I started running and quickly moved away from Kevan and the only other 8pmer, Justin Kouzy. Justin had announced that he’d start by walking for a bit and Kevan also started cautiously so I didn’t expect to have any company unless and until I started running through the 6:30 starters. The first few miles are a fun descent through the woods and into NY state. Last year was foggy and wet and I’d heard Jason Cousins descending behind me for several miles, this year was cool and dry and I was completely alone.
I’d made it a goal this year to run more smoothly, to try and observe that hoary trail running maxim of not fighting the trail. I was sincere but apparently the trail wanted to fight me. My first big stumble happened maybe 3 miles in but, at the cost of a lot of energy, I caught myself and stayed upright. 3 miles later I was not so lucky and went down hard, banging my right knee cap on a rock and tearing up my right hand. I took a couple of minutes to assess whether I’d done any real damage and resumed running with the jury out – it was tweaked but wasn’t an impediment yet.
I emerged onto Greenville Turnpike, took the opportunity to turn off my torch and headed up the road before bumping into Ken at the left turn back into the woods. This is a fun part of the course as it’s really well marked with reflective blazes that twinkle in torchlight. It’s also flattish so I ran quickly, feeling great. Until I fell again, my lazy right leg catching a root with my right hip taking most of the impact this time.
On to the road and under 84 I started the climb up to Huckleberry Ridge State Forest. Last year I’d already caught a 6:30pmer by this point but I couldn’t see anyone yet. I did have a close brush with a doulie on route 6 – I was running on the left and so saw him coming from a way out, and he should have seen me with my torch, but he took almost all of the shoulder as he hugged a right-hand bend and I had to squeeze up against the barrier to avoid him. Just before reentering the forest a large brown dog streaked out of one of the houses yapping and snarling, I jumped out of my skin, shouting and spinning to face him at the same time. He wasn’t actually that aggressive but the abrupt movement tweaked my right abductor and this actually felt quite serious. Hiking and climbing were fine but running at any sort of speed on the flat was quite painful.
Despite falling twice more I navigated through Huckleberry quite smoothly and began tabbing along the railway and subsequent smooth parts of the course at a decent clip towards mile 17 and Checkpoint 1. I saw a late night train and 5 or 6 of the 6:30pmers in this span and while I don’t believe the first couple ended up finishing everyone was moving well and in good spirits. I’d heard 18 runners had started before me so I figured I had 12 to catch.
After Checkpoint 1 is the steep climb up Gobbler’s Knob. As I did last year I planned to hike this and eat a sandwich for good measure. Despite the cool temperatures I’d started to feel quite dehydrated and finished the liter of fluid I’d stated with at the base of the climb. The way back down was uneventful (navigating was so much smoother than last year), and after passing a few more runners I took the right onto Bashakill feeling great. I finally refilled my soft flasks at a spring near the start of the wetlands and, after trading places a couple of times with the 11th runner I’d seen, began to move away from him along its banks. As was the case last year, this is a very frustrating part of the course to me. It’s flat and easy on paper but so rocky and rooty that you can’t run fast. It follows the side of a beautiful lake but aside from one or two spots there’s no easy way to access the water and refuel. I fell twice more for 6 times and counting.
I passed one more runner before emerging on the road near Wurstboro where I took a moment to tend to my eyes then switched off my torch for a couple of miles. Navigating was going so well I even cut the corner towards Sullivan Street (thanks Zack!). I power hiked up towards checkpoint 2 and saw Ken at the corner. “Do you know where you’re going?” he said, “Sure do!” I replied, “just going to fill up at this stream up the road”, silence. The steam, like so many others I’d mentally mapped from last year, was dry. I’d been out of water for several miles and this was a big knock to my psyche. Where was I going to fill up? Why didn’t I fill my bladder at Bashakill? I was angry with myself and couldn’t remember another water source to Verkeerderkill Falls at mile 45 or so. Back into the woods.
The first few miles after Checkpoint 2 are nice (if slanted) singletrack through the woods. The space created by the trail had allowed a moss to grow along the path and at time it felt like running on a treacherous, rocky green carpet. It was magical right up until my torch inexplicably went out and I was instantly unmoored in the inky vanta-blackness. Had this persisted it would have been the end of my race and necessitated the most embarrassing rescue imaginable but thankfully, after a good shake it came back on. Not exactly confidence inspiring.
Every now and then I started to hear voices or catch glimpses of the torches of perhaps two runners ahead of me. The terrain was so rough and the trail so winding here that they’d sometimes appear above or below or behind me. Or maybe I was just getting loopy. What was clear is that they were moving well – if I paused for any amount of time it would be 20 minutes or more before I started to re-make contact. We eventually came together at the Roosa Gap fire tower. Last year the sky had been clear and spectacular here but this time it remained overcast with clouds so there was nothing to inspire us as we trotted up and down the hilly singletrack towards Checkpoint 3. I thought there were still 3 or 4 6:30pmers ahead of us and I didn’t figure out until I arrived at the Checkpoint first that my recent companions, Patrick and Mark, had been the front of the race.
The problem with arriving first was that I was now clearly in the lead – by 90 minutes unless Kevan or Justin had sped up dramatically. This would have made it very awkward to drop out which I’d spent much of the last 10 miles thinking hard about. I was so parched I had headaches and my right leg felt like the heavy bag in a boxing gym. I didn’t really want to keep going. None of Ken, Patrick or Mark were particularly interested in my feeling sorry for myself however so I quickly got to the routine I’d planned for this enforced rest – which ended up being just over an hour – before Minnewaska opened at 5am. Shoes and socks off. Plug in watch. Eat sweet potatoes and chips. Suck the last few drops of liquid from your soft flasks. Doze for 20 minutes. Wake up and try not to think about how cold you are or how stiff your hip is. Decide on socks for the second half. Stash gaiters. Saddle up. Get going.
From Checkpoint 3 at mile 40 the course follows a steep gulley up towards Sam’s Point. On paper it’s scary but I don’t mind it. You’re almost certainly going to hike rather than run it so it’s not completely shattering and, after the wait, it’s nice to get back to work without focusing on speed. I’d thought about going a few miles with Patrick and Mark but we gradually separated and I reached the top alone. I’d found a couple of muddy streams to scrape some water from and, as long as my stomach held together (I’d given up on the iodine pills), I knew I was good to Verkeerderkill Falls. I didn’t get a repeat of last year’s spectacular sunrise but, as I followed the main path across Sam’s Point the sky gradually got lighter and lighter until it was finally time to put my torch away and shed the arm warmers. As I turned right onto the singletrack across Sam’s Point proper a huge porcupine lurched in front of me and, clearly scared, lumbered down the path. I remember reading that something very similar had happened to Tim Ela when he set the course record in 2017 – was this an omen?
The Minnewaska trails were as beautiful as always but, in stark contrast to last year, I was able to trot and even run a lot of them. I had virtually no blisters, no chafing and enough strength left to stay in control on even some mildly technical sections. It was almost…fun!
A big advantage to coming back to the course was that I knew many of the nastier surprises the back half had in store. I remember last year thinking it was basically downhill after 40 miles and having my heart broken repeatedly by rock scrambles and climbs that seemed carefully placed to break my will. This time I emerged onto the carriage trail at one point with my internal dialogue already running “don’t get excited, you know you have to leave this in a minute and climb Castle Point, yep, there it is…” With all my experience of two ultras it seems to me that successfully managing your emotions as the physical demands of the course strip away their natural regulators is a key to success. That’s the thing I did best as compared to last year when I started falling into a hole of self-pity around mile 45 and didn’t reemerge until the finish.
My good spirits continued through the dwarf pines and across the unique rock plains of Minnewaska and down towards Checkpoint 4 – the descent where Andrew had dropped me for the final time last year. I’d seen no-one since the Sam’s Point climb, including on any of the long look-backs in Sam’s Point or across from Castle Point. I figured I must now be close to 2 hours ahead of Patrick and Mark and that they were the closest competition. I was running well on the downhills, hiking strongly on the uphills and technical sections… surely, this year I had the win stitched up? Having avoided the thought for a while I began to mull the course record whenever the math got easy. My watch says I have 18 miles to go, if it takes my 20 minutes a mile that’s 6 hours, and my elapsed time is 11 hours and change so…wow. At the start of the day I’d thought it might be cool to be the first person under 18 hours; I had a chance here to break 17! I experimented with miles – I hiked one tough one just to see how long it would take – 18 minutes. I ran where I could during the next one – 12 minutes. This was going to happen!
Determined to keep things under control I hiked the long slow climb after Checkpoint 4 up the Old New Paltz Wawarsing Turnpike. I looked back before turning left towards Peter’s Kill, still no-one in sight. It looked like I was going to have a full 5 hours to enjoy this experience on my own.
Until, just a mile later, someone came streaking past me. He was number 718 which sounded familiar, but it wasn’t Kevan – could it be Justin? He’d been wearing a windbreaker at the start so I wasn’t sure but that didn’t make sense – who would hike off the start line only to turn up running like a mountain goat 12 hours later at mile 55? Patrick and Mark had mentioned running with someone who’d disappeared in the wrong direction at one point – could this be him? I’m very ashamed to admit my mind went to a dark place pretty quickly and I wondered if something funny was going on – if it wasn’t Justin and it was one of the 6:30pmers I know I hadn’t seen him before which means he must have been off course at some point…could he have left and jumped back on? I tried to keep up while these negative thoughts rattled round my head but while I could just about match his stride I knew this attempt would end in one of two ways – I’d blow up or I’d take a serious fall. I just didn’t have the strength or confidence left to attack the trail as he was doing, so I let him go.
I was suddenly very tired and I had a hard time working out the permutations (c.f. we all had out names written on our numbers which would have been an easy answer had I thought to look). If this was Justin he could have run through Checkpoint 3 shortly after we left. There was no way of knowing how far back he was then, or how much ground he’d made up over the previous 15 miles, but he must be at least my hour plus rest behind, on paper. I think. 15 miles to go means he needs to go 4 minutes a mile faster than me to make this close but that’s clearly his goal – he’d asked me if there was anyone in front when he passed. In a road race 4 minutes a mile is an ocean but I knew that in a race like this, at the speed he was going, it could just be a loss of concentration. If I ran 13 minute miles he’d have a hard time catching me. If I stumbled through one or two in 30 minutes though (as had happened last year), I would end up losing.
Ultimately there was nothing I could do but focus on my race and moving as smoothly as I could – run what I could, hike what I needed to. Fill a water bottle at Rainbow Falls because it’ll cost you a minute but not doing so might cost you 20. Call my wife at 60 because otherwise she’ll kill me. Dig out my headphones at 65 because that was the plan and the music might just give me a lift. Ultimately I was just pleased to get my head back under control and to run the final few miles strongly; last year I completed an ultra but this year I feel comfortable saying I competed in one.
It was enough. Justin slowed a little, I think, and ended up *only* breaking the previous course record by 70 minutes. I’d hung on to a slim win and to set a new (and I suspect short-lived), mark of 16:28.
Many, many thanks to Ken, Todd, the various search and rescue teams and all of the other volunteers who make this race possible. Thanks also to OSI and all of the other organizations who work to preserve wild areas for us to enjoy. And finally thanks to my wife who had the foresight to book an airbnb with a hot tub and who a few hours later lifted me, one leg at a time, into it.