Guest post by 2021 70-mile SRT female winner and record-setter Katlin Rhodes. Please note Katlin is raising money for suicide prevention — you can find out more at https://supporting.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=2425555
“Last call for runners!” I fumble with my mask and jump on the bus. There’s a buzz of energy and nerves as we’re all driven to the start line of the race in High Point State Park, NJ after dropping our vehicles at the finish line 70+ miles away in Rosendale, NY.
I settle into a seat across from two friendly runners named Jenn and Eric. Both had run the course before and spent the ride swapping stories and offering advice. After signing up for this event, my first ever trail race, I decided it would be much more fun and engaging for the course to be 100% fresh when I ran it. I had resolved not to visit any part of the course pre-race and only studied the map enough to know where my water sources (or lack thereof) would be. This is highly unusual for me as I normally relish the excuse to pour over the topo map of a new area but I was excited about the surprises I would get around each turn.
I had downloaded the course to my GPS watch, as was recommended to me by several experienced runners of this race. “Don’t get lost!” was the primary advice I received – apparently, it was quite common. I double-checked the route I had downloaded to settle my nerves… that is when I realized only the first 10 miles of the route had properly downloaded to my watch. Hmm this should be interesting, good thing I specialize in land navigation.
The bus ride flew by and suddenly we were pulling into a parking lot near a large monument. The RD Ken gave us a briefing, reminding us of the unsupported nature of the race and what I’m sure were important safety consideration but I struggled to focus, my body and mind ached to be on trail. I fiddled with the 46Climbs bandana safety pinned to my running vest. I would be running this race in support of this fundraiser, which raises money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I looked around at the other runners standing there, six women starting! This got me excited as it was the highest female start number in the history of the race. Ken called out two of the women by name, Jenn and Kate, previous winners of the 50 miler and 30 miler respectively. Okay, now I was intimidated. Then he went on to explain that we would be starting at 6:30pm while four men were choosing a late start – apparently if you’re fast enough you could choose to start 1.5 hours after everyone else. Okay, now I was REALLY intimidated. “You’re here to race yourself, you’re here to race the course” I reminded myself. This was my first race after all, I just wanted to finish the thing.
We all walked down to a seemingly random trail junction below the monument and at 6:30pm on the dot they sent us off. I positioned myself towards the back and watched a group of 7-8 runners take off ahead of everyone else including Jenn. I pushed down the temptation to follow and settled into a very gentle trot – “Start slow and end fast” I repeated in my head.
After a few minutes I caught up to Eric from the bus ride and we paced together for a bit. I appreciated his calm demeanor and friendly chatter as it helped me settle into the trail. My body longed to pick up the pace as the sun set in the distance and I pulled away from Eric, I was lucky to be running down the ridge we were on just at the moment of setting and was treated to a gorgeous sight. I’ve always loved night running and enjoyed the peaceful solitude as I cruised through Checkpoint #1 and out the other side, waving to the friendly volunteers. I cruised along solo for quite some time before suddenly another runner appeared… running towards me. Oh this can’t be a good sign. “We’re on the wrong trail!” he told me, exasperated. I checked my phone GPS and he was right, we had taken a wrong turn at the last junction but hadn’t gotten far off track. I laughed and plunged into the woods, I love an excuse for a good bushwhack! He seemed perplexed for a moment but followed me and we were back on the right trail in just a moment. We chatted and paced together for a bit, he was a friendly fellow named Vincent with a lovely accent that seemed Southern to me. “I wonder how far ahead the other runners are” I wondered aloud. That’s when he gave me a quizzical look. “What do you mean, we’re the lead”. I laughed aloud, then realized he was serious. “Wait, this doesn’t make any sense, a saw a group of 7 or 8 runners pull ahead right in the beginning and I never passed them!” He shrugged. There’s no way, I can’t be in the lead, I must be pacing wrong, but I feel so good!
So many thoughts racing through my head. I was quickly snapped back to reality as we moved into a low area and we were forced to splash through water up to our knees. I felt like a kid playing in a mud puddle and grinned from ear to ear, relieved to no longer worry about keeping my feet dry. As we reached a gate just before Checkpoint #2, a light popped into view ahead of us. It was Ken, checking in on the lead runners. How sweet! It seems Vincent was correct about our position in the race… a few uncomfortable road miles (I’ve never been a fan of road running) and we were back in the woods. Stopping to fill our water at a stream, another runner caught up behind us. It was a runner from the 8:00pm wave! Vincent grabbed his gear and took off after him but I repeated a familiar mantra, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” refusing to rush and double checking I had everything before taking off.
Alone again, I relished in the peaceful vibe of the dark woods and the owls hooting around me. It was a warm, clear night and I felt strong as I ascended another ridge. Suddenly a firetower appeared ahead of me, surrounded by the deep black night and the twinkling stars. It was mesmerizing and I took a moment to appreciate the sight and snap a photo. Then it was time to descend to Checkpoint #3, the trail was technical with many loose rocks and I felt an impending ankle roll so I slowed down. ‘Slow is smooth’ I remembered.
Eventually the descent was complete and the trail became a gravel truck trail allowing me to pick up the pace and stretch my legs. I could see a headlamp behind me slowly closing in but still refused to rush, we were only 40 miles in, it wasn’t time to race yet. A young guy with a respectable beard passed by looking strong and we cheered each other on. A short time later I arrived at Checkpoint #3, where I was held with four other guys until 5:00am when Minnewaska State Park opens to runners. It was nice to see Vincent, who I had paced with earlier, had made it here just before me as well. I spent the 45 minutes I had refueling and hydrating, inside an emergency bivy to keep warm with my legs elevated.
At 5:00am on the dot we were all released simultaneously. The climb starts almost immediately upon resuming the race here so I took it slow to allow myself to warm up again properly and stopped for a water refill, allowing the other four to get ahead of me. I had no interest in chasing at this point and I didn’t want to be tempted so I took my time refilling and watched their headlamps go. Back to the climb, I got into a nice rhythm and felt an ease in the ascent. I could see the others ahead, dots of light in the night, keeping them in sight until the dawn blotted them out. Just as I crested Sam’s Point the sun began to rise properly and I was treated to another beautiful sight. I ran towards the rising sun for some time, consumed by the beautiful red disc and enjoying the playground terrain of Minnewaska.
The miles flew by as I bounced along, eventually catching up to Vincent. As much as I was enjoying my solo miles, it was nice to chat with another runner for a bit. Vincent shared that he was having some issues with his toe which had suffered an injury but was determined to finish the race regardless of the pain. I admired his resolve! Then we came upon another runner we had shared Checkpoint #3 with, he was dressed all in black and reminded me of a ninja. He seemed to be in distress and explained his stomach was flipping on him. I offered him some ginger tabs but he declined. Unfortunately, there was nothing more we could do to help him so we wished him luck and took off down the trail. Then all of a sudden Vincent was gone and I was solo again. That’s when I remembered my husband had made me a surprise playlist for my race. I popped my earbuds on and jammed out for a bit, smiling at the songs he chose which included ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer. Through Checkpoint #4 and out the other side, the checkpoints would be much more frequent now the volunteers told me. I began to miss the sounds of the trail so I pulled my ear buds out and settled into the rhythm of my feet.
It was at this point I realized how good my body felt, a quick check in had me realize I was feeling shockingly fresh for having 55+ miles on my legs. ‘When will the pain come?’ I wondered. I had never run more than 50 miles before and assumed it would hurt more than this. I realized if I was feeling this good this late in the game, it was time to let go of the reigns a bit. Shortly after Checkpoint #5 I crossed paths with a large group of runners, this must be the half marathon race! Pacing with fresh runners was really refreshing and it was nice to have their assistance with navigating after many miles tackling it alone with a fuzzy brain. As I approached the final checkpoint, the volunteer behind the table cheered. “You’re a 70 miler!” I smiled wide, “Yes I am!” “You’re the first women to come through!!” her enthusiasm was absolutely contagious and carried me up the next climb. Knowing I had only 6 miles left, I continued to push the pace as much as my body would allow me but was suddenly passed by what I assumed was a 70 miler for some reason (I later learned he was a 30 miler) looking ridiculously fresh. This was a bit demoralizing but I quickly shook it off.
Finally about 5 miles from the finish, the discomfort started to set in on the downhills. ‘Aha, there it is’ I thought but it never materialized into anything more than a dull aches in my joints – I was quite used to this feeling at the end of long days on trail. I dropped off the trail and onto a bike path, knowing this was the final stretch before the finish. I pushed a little harder over the famous Trestle I had heard so much about and then, suddenly it was over! I was at the finish line!
The Race Director, Ken and Assistant Race Director, Todd greeted me warmly and I was informed I had come in second place overall beating the female course record by over 4 hours. What an incredible feeling! Everyone was so friendly and excited for me, I still smile thinking of the comradery I felt that day both on trail and at the finish.
A huge thanks to Ken and Todd, who put their hearts and souls into making this race so special, all of the volunteers who gave their time and energy to make the day happen and to Bill Hoffman who talked me into signing up – I’ll never doubt you again Bill!
If mental health and suicide prevention are important topics to you, please consider donating to 46Climbs for Suicide Prevention at my fundraiser link: https://supporting.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=2425555