As co-director of Rock The Ridge it’s a great thrill for me to see the participants moving through the mountains and especially the expressions on their faces when they reach the finish. Even more remarkable is their good work raising funds for the Mohonk Preserve (New York’s largest not-for-profit nature preserve and host for the event), the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the NY-NJ Trail Conference, and other causes. With close to $250,000 raised in 2017 alone, the event is now approaching a cumulative five-year total of one million dollars, an outcome which brings a mix of joy and astonishment to the organizers.
As co-director it is also my job to run in the event, so that organizers have a clear understanding of the participant experience. In past years, this has been great fun, for example, in 2015 when I won the master’s division and set a personal record. But as one gets a little older, fifty miles gets a little tougher, and in 2016 my time was quite a bit slower.
As I stepped up to the starting line this year, the only goal was to finish. This would be my first ultramarathon since Rock The Ridge the year before, thanks to a long series of injuries. Two weeks before the race, I was feeling good, but then with one week to go the posterior tibialis tendon (which runs underneath the ankle on the inner side of the foot) flared up once again.
But even if my strategy was to take it easy, there might still be ways to make this an interesting and challenging event. I could run the fifty miles without taking any calories, and I’d see how far I could get without drinking.
It was around 6pm on Friday, September 16th when a bunch of SRT 70-Mile participants hopped off a yellow school bus to meet the remaining SRT 70-Mile participants at High Point State Park in New Jersey. Like a school bus of children on their first day of school, we were excited and nervous (and most of us had to pee). After a quick race briefing from the Race Directors, we were off to the starting line at the SRT’s southern terminus. We snapped a starting line photo and the RDs let us loose on our journey to Rosendale, a 72 mile trek along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail.
The shuttle bus from Rosendale (where the race finishes) bumped across a narrow bridge to a small parking lot, illuminated by a single light. The 8 of us (that was it!) trotted out into the misty darkness. The race director gave us waterproof maps and our race numbers and a few navigational tips before the 6 AM start.
So, it’s the summer of 2015 and my running buddy, Malin Barton, says to me “Check out this race Joey, I think it would be fun”. I now know when Marlin Barton say’s “This will be fun”, what she really means is “This will probably kill us”.
The third edition of the SRT Run/Hike took place September 16-17, 2016 with 102 starters across all divisions, up from 82 the year before. A remarkable 92% of starters successfully completed the course this year — a surprising statistic for a minimalist format event which provides little or no aid or course markings. Excluding the dauntingly difficult 70-mile division, the success rate for the other divisions was almost 97%. Besides the inevitable scrapes and bruises, there were no injuries during the event, and no-one got lost. The runners deserve credit for showing up prepared to navigate on their own and manage their hydration and nutritional needs — exactly the spirit of mindfulness and self-reliance we sought to promote in creating this event. And perhaps it’s the case that the magical beauty of the Shawangunk Mountains imparts extra energy to those who move through the wilderness…
On the drive up to the Catskills, the rising sun was hidden behind a wall of murky fog, but its rays reached out from behind and scattered across the sky, brushing the undersides of clouds with the color and texture of beaten copper.
My mission this morning was to take on the Devil’s Path, one of the most notorious hiking trails in the country — and not just once, but twice. This meant a total distance of 48 miles and something like 28,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. The purpose was to whip myself into shape for an upcoming solo run in the Catskills, as well as experience the Devil’s Path in its entirety, something I had never done before.
Saturday, April 23, 2016, I was running with friends in the Sam’s Point section of Minnewaska State Park, descending from High Point toward the Verkeerderkill Falls, when we spotted a distant plume of smoke. We paused and watched as the smoke billowed up from a small patch of ground and then caught the wind, blowing away to the south, then shifting back towards us. Was the trail blocked? We couldn’t tell, but thought it best to turn back.
Two days later, what had started as a pin-prick was now threatening 2,000 acres, and Rock The Ridge race director Todd Jennings and I were forced to consider an emergency re-route of the course — with only five days until the start. The problem wasn’t that the flames would threaten the runners, but rather that Minnewaska State Park was closed while the staff worked around the clock with 300 firefighters, rangers, and volunteers to contain the blaze. Hosting a race at the same time didn’t seem possible. But with two days to go, we got word that Minnewaska had approved us to proceed with the original course, even if the park was still closed. And then it rained, and the fire went out. Todd and I salute the staff for protecting thousands of acres of beautiful land and managing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It’s an incredibly important job, and there’s nothing easy about it.