Surprise. On the way to (yet) another race, I’ve pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike — desperate for coffee, water, a break from unpredictable traffic (speeds of up to 95 MPH) — and here I find myself, suddenly, in the Walt Whitman Service Area. Whitman being, to some, the greatest artist America has produced. The singer of the open road. The poet of Democracy. I did not know there was a Service Area named for him. After the race I’m planning to visit his gravesite, which lies a few miles distant. First, though, I must complete the Delaware Running Festival Marathon in nearby Wilmington, my 100th event of marathon distance or longer. Which begs the question — what next?
Afterwards, sitting by the fire, sipping Darjeeling tea, listening to a violin sonata, there was a feeling of completion. And a moment of contemplation. Beforehand, though, I wasn’t sure I had the energy. Maybe yesterday took something out of me. I hiked up the mountain behind the house, with 40 pounds on my back, in the middle of a snow storm. (How the tall slender maples whipped back and forth as the wind rolled through!) Maybe it was the thought of snowshoes, which following the storm would certainly be called for. I’m not a fan of the extra clumsy weight and hadn’t touched them in a year. Maybe life is variable, and our energy levels fluctuate for reasons that aren’t apparent. Or maybe this is how it feels as you get older.
In any case, it wasn’t until I was back home and going through the spreadsheet that I realized how many times I’d climbed Peekamoose Mountain in the Catskills, and its Neighbor Table Mountain….
Having climbed the Catskills multiple times over, and having bagged the Adirondacks’ 46 high peaks, I am now slowly making my way through the next regional list — New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers, of which there are 48. Slowly, on account of the 5-6 hour drive to get there — and sometimes longer, as bumps in the road tend to knock the power cord out of my phone, which I notice at those inopportune times when I really need Google Maps. And slowly on account of the rough trails — steep, full of chunky rocks, dotted with mud pits, laced with roots — and my practice of going barefoot. Did I mention acorns?
This is the account of my latest trip — bagging 6 more peaks on a 20-mile trail over three rainy days.
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.
In April 2021, I reached my 7,000th mile of hiking, running, and walking barefoot, accumulated over roughly seven years. Now — five months later — the mileage stands at 8,034. I seem to be picking up the pace. Which supports the thesis that practice makes you stronger (at least until age catches up). The real thesis, though, is that life is better with more nature and less technology.
Note: This is a guest blog post by SRT runner Russ Dresher
Before diving into the race, I want to say thanks to all the volunteers + search and rescue that made this event possible. A special thank you to the unknown volunteers at the mile 59 and 64 aid stations for welcoming me by name as I came in. It made me feel like I was at home or amongst friends. A very special thank you to both Ken and Todd. You guys put on one hell of an event and were very welcoming to an out-of-stater. I hope our paths cross again in the future.
I wasn’t particularly happy with my training leading up to the race. I ran Manitou’s Revenge in late June, took one recovery week and was able to follow that with three solid weeks of training. After that, training was a bit haphazard. My wife and I spent 2 weeks driving cross-country and exploring trails mainly in Wyoming and South Dakota. Not a single purposeful run those weeks. Upon returning home, I caught a cold (thankfully not Covid) and spent 2 weeks recovering. In the end, I had no run greater than 15 miles and not a single week with more than 9,000 ft of elevation gain. Both are a rarity for me.
The morning of the race I spent questioning my food choices, quadruple-checking my gear and generally just stressing. Around 1PM we started the 3.5 hour drive to High Point State Park. Traffic was uneventful, and I was even able to get 1 or 2 thirty-minute naps in. We also stopped in Middletown for a very extravagant dinner at McDonald’s. I figured if I could pound a few cheeseburgers during 100 milers, they would also serve me well prior to a race starting at night.
After dinner, we spotted a dead porcupine on the road. I remarked that the past 2 course record holders saw a porcupine during the race. Ben Leese guessed his run in with a porcupine was an omen. Could this be my omen? My wife, filling me with only the best of thoughts, jokingly proclaimed that maybe it was a bad omen. Maybe a dead porcupine means a big fat DNF? Thanks dear!!!
I got to High Point just as the 6:30PM wave was making their way to the starting line at the SRT/AT junction. Shortly after their start, I met Todd for the first time. He addressed me by name every time after that first meeting, which is just a class act in my book. I also met Ken around this time, but I quickly retreated to my vehicle to get out of the cold wind and wait for my 8PM start.
7:45PM: I meet up with the 3 other runners starting with me, Jacob, Charlie and Roland. The 4 of us follow Ken’s headlamp into the woods while Ken tells us a bit about the course and the permits needed to hold this event. At 8PM, with our headlamps to guide us, we are on our way.
Getting ready to start. Photo credit Niki Dresher (Insta: fallingangel406)
Miles 0 to 17
I set the pace for the 4 of us as we head back to High Point Monument. Less than half a mile in, someone behind me mentions their headlamp just went out. Whoever it was, must have gotten things fixed in working order as the 4 of us passed the monument heading towards the finish some 70 miles away.
I ran much of the course in sections this past year and knew how difficult and confusing some sections of the course can be. So I was a bit nervous that navigating the course at night would slow me down. However, as I led the 4 of us through the first 4 miles of woods, the memories of the course flooded back. I found navigating a breeze for the most part. I only got off-course 2 times the entire race, both times coming in the first 9 miles. Sorry guys!!!
The 4 of us stayed together through the first section of railroad tracks around mile 10. We rarely talked, which is cool with me. I’m an Engineer…so a bit of an introvert…go figure? After we made the tricky right at the trestle, Charlie and Roland dropped back while Jacob and I continued on. It was nice to have company as we passed the creepy hunting cabin in the woods. I remember seeing it in the daylight and being creeped out. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it at night, especially this night after several weeks of watching campy horror movies while getting into the spirit of Halloween. Luckily, no masked serial killers were out and about.
Chit-chatting with Jacob helped pass the miles and time. Before I knew it, we were passing the first of the 6:30 wave runners. Start the mental math. 17 runners started in wave 1, 4 runners in wave 2. There are 3 behind me. I just passed 3. I’m now in 15th place. After a few more runners, we arrive at checkpoint 1, mile 17. I feel like I just ran a 5k.
Miles 17 to 27
A short road section and then the first real climb of the race up to Gobbler’s Knob. Jacob was still sticking to me like glue and before I know it, we are descending. Was that the climb? I remembered it being much worse. Trails are always so different at night. But indeed, we were heading down to Bashakill. I also remember having a tough time navigating this descent during the day. Tonight, however, it was a piece of cake.
At Bashakill, Jacob pulled ahead of me while I got water. I actually didn’t see him leave so I was clueless as to how far ahead he could be. Every once and awhile I would catch a glimpse of a headlamp ahead of me, but it would fade away in seconds time.
About halfway through Bashakill, I encountered the only real flooded section of the entire trail. No way to go around, I was forced to get my feet wet in the sometimes knee-high water. In one said puddle, my headlamp went out. What the @#&! I was only 4 hours and 20 minutes into the race. The battery should have lasted at least 7 hours! And what a terrible place to lose light! So I stumbled in the darkness trying to find dry trail. I try turning my headlamp on again. It goes on, flickers, indicating a dead battery. I fumble around in the darkness. I take off my vest, feel for the zipper, stuff my hand in the pouch and feel for my spare battery. There it is! A few awkward minutes later of trying to replace the battery, I have light once again!
During the remainder of Bashakill I get really nervous. What if the next battery lasts the same time? That means I have an hour in the darkness with no light. There goes my chance of winning, of setting a record. Could a headlamp be my undoing? Was my wife right? Was the dead porcupine a bad omen? To play it safe, I put the headlamp on its lowest setting. Less light means slower running, but better chances of not being in total darkness.
As I hit the streets of Wurtsboro, there are only two 6:30 starters ahead of me….and Jacob. Being even more cautious with my headlamp, I turn it off and run the dark streets. Every now and again I would turn it on to see if there was a hole or something in the road ahead.
At the turn off to the canal, I see a headlamp ahead. Is it Jacob? I catch up to that headlamp on the climb to checkpoint 2, mile 27. It is Jacob. I run aside of him with my headlamp off, conversing as much battery as I can. I explain my situation and he offers me a spare battery. Unfortunately, it is not the right type of battery. Thanks Jacob for the offer!
At the checkpoint, I stop to rid my shoes of all the debris that collected in the puddles of the Bashakill. Jacob continues on. I’m still feeling good at this point, feeling like I ran a half marathon.
Miles 27 to 39
The climb out of Wurstboro to the open ridge is long and full of false summits. I can see Jacob’s headlamp bouncing in the woods above me and 2 beady deer eyes staring at me.
At a little descent, I pass Jacob as he stands off to the side of the trail. He indicates he is alright. I was glad to hear it. I wanted some competition to keep me motivated late at night.
Gaining high ground on the ridge, I was treated to stars and to the lights of civilization below. The rocks were dry making for some easy going. I keep seeing lights from a tower. Roosa Gap tower, my next landmark? I don’t know for sure at the moment but realize later I am already beyond those lights. I guess not.
Getting to Roosa Gap seemed to take forever. It was a bit demoralizing. Finally though, I see it poking through the trees ahead. I see a few headlamps and hear some voices. The 2 front runners! I speed up only to be welcomed to headlamps shining brightly in my face. I lose my night vision, and I hear a few voices yelling at me that I scared them. Same to you!!! After a few uncomfortable moments with this group of what I presume were drinking teenagers, I find my way to the SRT beyond the tower. Phew! Crisis averted!
The rest of the ridge was pretty uneventful. Just a casual night run. At the steep descent off the ridge, I see a headlamp in the distance. Second place must be just ahead! It is at this point I take my one and only fall of the race. My toe caught something and down I went on my right shoulder. No damage done. I get right back up and resume my run down the ridge.
I filter some water at a stream crossing. I can no longer see that second place headlamp ahead of me. It’s at this point I realize I’m on track of getting to checkpoint 3 more than one hour before we can be let go again (the race’s permit requires that no runner enter Minnewaska State Park before 5AM so runners arriving before then are forced to sit and wait with time waiting being deducted from the finishing time but not the FKT time). I check on my headlamp battery and this one is lasting much longer. I decide to slow my pace to reduce the amount of time sitting, getting cold and getting stiff.
About 2 miles out from the checkpoint, I meet up with second place. Katlin is a beast as she moves quickly down the old dirt road! Another mile later, I see first place ahead of me. I slow my pace even more, not wanting to be the first at the checkpoint. At this point, I know I am in first place with an hour and half cushion over Katlin and the unknown runner ahead of me. But how far behind is Jacob?
Checkpoint 3, mile 39
I get to the checkpoint at 4:11AM. I have about 50 minutes to rest. My plan is to stop my watch and then restart it after we are let go. This would help me better track my race time and pace. However, I forget to turn it off until some unknown time. Maybe 5 minutes I presumed.
I use this time to go to the bathroom and reorganize my vest for the remaining miles. I call my wife. I let her know of my headlamp troubles, but that I am feeling good and that my headlamp will last the remainder of the night. I also let her know that I think I could grab not only first place but the course record and the FKT if I could hold a 4 mph pace the remaining 31 miles. I think I could do it.
Jacob arrives at the checkpoint maybe 20 minutes behind me. He seems in good spirits, and I know I am going to have to push to stay ahead of him. The last 10 minutes of waiting I start to get cold and shiver a little. Oddly enough, I did not get stiff.
Miles 39 to 54
The climb out of Ellenville is long, and from my early run in the season I remember it was also tough to follow the blazes. I stopped to filter water on the climb and like before Jacob pulled ahead and was out of sight.
Tonight, the blazes were easy to follow. Nearing the road to Sam’s Point visitor center I see Jacob’s headlamp ahead of me. Power hiking the climb, I catch him just before the road. The two of us now stick together until Sam’s Point proper and the start of an amazing orange sunrise from the ridge. It was truly spectacular.
I pull ahead of Jacob on the ridge and began the long 13 mile stretch of technical terrain to the next checkpoint where I plan to filter more water.
This section was all about maintaining a consistent pace with some minor landmarks studded throughout to make mini-goals. Falls…check. Departure of the SRT from the Long Path…check. Rooty descent to Rainbow Falls…check. Climb up Castle Point…check. Fun carriage run descent…check.
Somewhere around mile 52 I notice my feet were getting hot spots. Not knowing how far Jacob was behind me, and that I did not have much margin of error if I wanted to get the course record I elected not to stop. With each step on the slanted rocks I could feel my feet moving in my shoes, creating some painful steps here and there.
I also notice shortly after this that my knees were starting to hurt. This is a first for me. It must be due to the lack of elevation I was doing in the weeks leading up to the race. Either way, I resolved to maintain a 4 mph pace.
Finally, I arrive at checkpoint 4, mile 54. I see Todd for the first time since the start of the race and he welcomes me by name. My wife is also there taking pictures. I sit on a rock, filter water, take my headlamp off and tighten my shoelaces. I leave after a few minutes and Jacob is nowhere in sight.
Filtering water at checkpoint 4. Photo credit Niki Dresher (Insta: fallingangel406)
Miles 54 to 59
From here on out, the course is all new to me. On a map, the course looks mainly downhill. I’m hoping for some fast and easy miles to close out the race. I was wrong. The terrain remains rocky and rooty. I actually think the ups and downs for the remainder of the race are the steepest of the course. It was definitely not what I wanted, but I was still able to move well.
At the last checkpoint, Todd told me it was 3 miles to the next checkpoint. So at mile 57 I was getting nervous I got off course because I did not see a checkpoint. At mile 58, I was very nervous. At mile 59, I was relieved to see the checkpoint. Yay!!! The volunteers there welcomed me by my first name as I continued on.
Miles 59 to 64
Honestly, at this point of the race I don’t remember much of the course details. I spent most of my time wondering if Jacob would catch me as my pace started to slow. I also started to second guess my ability to get the course record. I now had to average just better than 4 mph, something that seemed impossible.
I also started to wonder when the half marathon runners would catch up to me. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I knew it meant every footstep heard behind me would have me guessing if it was Jacob. Plus, their fresh, fast legs would make me feel like a turtle. I think it was around mile 62 and the last major ascent of the race that this started to happen. A bunch of showoffs traipsing up that climb I tell you 😊
Miles 64 to 70
My feet hurt. My knees hurt. Must ribs hurt from my vest. Why won’t this terrain relent and give me some easy miles! I now need to average about 13 minute miles to get the course record.
I really had no clue what this last section of trail would hold. In my mind, I thought the last 2 miles were on a rail trail. So when I asked one of the half marathoners how long the final stretch of the race on the rail trail was, and was told about 0.6 miles I was feeling quite dejected. That did not give me much time to sprint, to make up time, even if I could sprint by the time I got there.
The last 3 miles of the race were a slog. I repeated my mantra over and over again, “Make the pain worth it.” I ran as hard as I could, which meant about 13 painful minute miles.
And then there it was, the rail trail! I hit my stride and started to do the math. I had about 6 minutes to go those final 0.6 (actually 0.7) miles. But I think I had some extra time due to my error of not stopping my watch at mile 39. Maybe I had this! It didn’t matter though, I couldn’t sprint by this point. The best I could muster was a 10 minute pace.
Crossing the trestle to the finish, I could see my wife ahead. Almost there! I need to finish in the next 2 minutes to break the course record.
She grabs a few pictures then runs ahead of me to wait at the finish line. I make the left turn off the rail trail to the finish and just like that, it is all over.
My watch is reading 16:27. Maybe I did beat the course record of 16:28? It was too close to call. I had no idea how long I actually let my watch run while at mile 39. For now, all I knew is that I won!!!
Nearing the finish. Photo credit Niki Dresher (Insta: fallingangel406)
I fell heavily down on a camp chair too exhausted to enjoy my win. I drink some orange soda and then receive the awesome first place finisher award of a hand-crafted tomahawk. I sit back down, eat some pizza and ask Ken if I got the course record. He isn’t sure yet. He said he needs to do the math and will get back to me.
We stay at the finish for about an hour to see some of the half marathon runners finish and the 30 mile winner. I wanted to stay and see who the second place 70 mile finisher was, but I was getting tired and we had a 3.5 hour drive home.
On the way home, I couldn’t sleep. Everything hurt. I filled my wife in on all the details of the race I could remember at that time. I tried to do the math and figure out if I got the course record, but my mind wouldn’t work. I was super bummed to hear that Jacob dropped out at mile 54 due to stomach issues he was battling for the majority of the race. It was great running with you Jacob. You had a hell of a race even with your stomach issues.
Sometime that night, after sleeping for a bit I awoke feeling somewhat refreshed albeit sore. This time my mind was working and the engineer in me could do math again. Yes, indeed, I got not only the course record but also the FKT which was previously at 17:18. I just didn’t know by how much due to my watch error.
A couple days later when results loaded I was able to see my final numbers. A course time of 16:22, about 5 minutes better the previous course record. An elapsed time of 17:12, about 5 minutes better the previous FKT.
I guess a dead porcupine can be a good omen?
Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/5944424514
Editor’s note: dead porcupines are generally not considered good omens, especially in the Shawangunks, which are home to many of them. Russ would have finished the race even faster if he’d seen a living one
Last year I set out to complete the John Muir Trail (JMT) with a twist. I’d hike it barefoot. Why? Barefoot is simple. Natural. Intense. Every step is an adventure. But the terrain was more difficult than I expected. Out of the JMT’s total distance of 211 miles, I completed 150 miles barefoot, or about 70%.
This year I came back determined to do the whole thing.
The following is an account of what happened, written with three audiences in mind. First, of course, hardcore barefoot hikers looking for a challenge. Second, conventional hikers. Presumably these people do not wear boots to the beach, so therefore I thought they might enjoy going barefoot where the trails are soft and sandy, putting on shoes when rocks appear. Call it a hybrid approach. Third, I had in mind the woman I encountered last year, descending from Donahue Pass (11,066 feet). She said her feet were so sensitive she couldn’t tolerate going barefoot in the bathroom. She won’t try it, but I thought she might be curious what it’s like. Continue reading “170 Miles Barefoot on the John Muir Trail”
As I stepped onto the jet-bridge there was a blast of warmth and a flash of bright light – and then the cool shade of the air-conditioned tunnel. It was a hot summer day in Dallas. My ultimate destination was the mountains of California’s High Sierra, where I’d planned a three-week hike — but right now, the clock was ticking down to the departure of my next connection, and I needed to find the gate. Walk quickly, I told myself. Pay Attention!
Two days earlier, I’d met a college student for coffee. A friend of mine, her mentor, thought she’d benefit from my experience. Over cappuccinos we chatted about a number of things, including the concept of “balance.” The idea that a person could enjoy success at work and participate in other interests. And spend time with friends. And read books. She was young, so family wasn’t in the mix yet. In life there are a lot of and’s, I pointed out. If you want A and B and C, it’s up to you to figure out how. Continue reading “Pondering Clouds, Sparks, and Disney’s “Soul””
On the long drive down (it took nearly three hours) the rain lashed against the windshield of my jeep incessantly. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Hainesport Municipal Park, the rain had paused, the air was still, and the skies were gray and heavy. A moment later, I started running…
Seven years ago I began integrating some barefoot training into my running practice in order to improve my form, thinking this might reduce the risk of injury, as Chris MacDougal suggested in his bestseller Born to Run. Initially this was an experiment. But it has morphed into a journey, and every so often I pause to reflect.
A year and a half ago, I reported on my 5,000th mile of barefoot running, hiking, and walking. Last summer I reached the 6,000th mile somewhere on the John Muir Trail. In March of this year, I passed mile 7,000 and as I write this, I’m at 7,108, having just completed my 6th barefoot race of marathon distance or longer. Along the way, barefoot has gone from experiment, to training technique, to my preferred way to run and hike, and now’s it become a part of my philosophy.
I’ll start by reporting on accomplishments in the eighteen months and 2,000 miles since my last report, and then I’ll share the failures.