As race director for the SRT Run/Hike, I’m interested in encouraging participation in the event and seeing more people experience the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), which is one of my favorite trails in New York. To be fair, the full 70-mile division isn’t for everyone: not only does it require significant endurance to cover such a long distance, but also you’ve got to be mindful about navigation, nutrition, and hydration, since we don’t provide aid stations or course markings. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But the half-marathon division should be accessible to a lot of people, and with a start-time of 10:30 AM and the final cut-off at midnight, you have 13.5 hours to complete the course, which requires moving at barely a 1 MPH average pace. To demonstrate just how generous this time limit is, I chose a beautiful fall day recently to see if I could complete the 1/2 marathon course within the time limit, without food, water,* or even shoes.
As a novice barefooter, I knew the going would be slow, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day than experiencing the sights, sounds, and textures of New York’s most magical trail.
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.
The 2nd edition of the SRT Run/Hike took place along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT) in New York’s Hudson Valley commencing Friday, September 18 at 6:35 PM and ending Saturday September 19, 2015 at 11:30 PM. The event attracted participants from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and California. 82 racers started out in four divisions ranging from 20 to 74 miles, ready to experience the beauty, ruggedness, and diversity of the Shawangunk Mountains. 73 made it to the finish line for an overall completion rate of 89%. A new record of 22 hours 2 minutes was set for the full 74-mile SRT. There were no reported injuries.
For the organizers, the event started many months ago. For 2015 we changed the format, increasing the number of divisions from three to four and holding them all on the same day. We also moved the last five miles of the course off paved roads and onto an unmaintained trail in the Mohonk Preserve. We spent the months leading up to the event obtaining six different permits, developing detailed safety plans, recruiting volunteers, and hoping people would sign up for an event that provides adventure but not support.
Last weekend, I thru-ran the 74-mile Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), establishing a new fastest known time (FKT) of 24 hours and 8 minutes. The previous FKT was 29 hours, which I ran in May 2014. Both of these FKTs are “unsupported,” meaning no aid from other persons or caching of supplies.
Thru-running the SRT is a special experience. The trail crosses a magical wilderness, and covering the distance all at once combines many impressions and feelings into a powerful appreciation for the land. By way of background, the distinctive white quartzite conglomerate which forms the Shawangunks eroded from the Taconic Mountains some 500 million years ago. 250 million years later, during the birth of the Appalachian Mountains, great plates of this conglomerate were tilted and uplifted, until the Shawangunks reared high above the Hudson Valley, dominating the landscape with rows of gleaming white cliffs, from which the vistas exceed 100 miles in some places.
That these mountains have been largely preserved from commercial development is no accident, but reflects the leadership of many people and organizations, including the Open Space Institute, which has acquired thousands of acres in the Gunks for parks and preserves, and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and its volunteers, who conceived of the SRT and maintain it and miles of other trails.
On Friday, July 3, 2015, my wife Sue kindly dropped me off at High Point State Park in New Jersey. It was a sparkling clear day. The plains of the Hudson Valley spread out to the east, while in the west the town of Port Jervis nestled in the confluence of the Neversink and Delaware Rivers. To the north, the Shawangunk Mountains reared like a series of breaking waves. My objective lay just beyond the last crest, some 74 miles distant.
Our dog Odie barked with excitement as I said goodbye and Sue wished me good luck. The southern terminus of the SRT was a quarter-mile walk away, at a junction with the granddaddy of american hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail. Just a few days earlier, ultra-running legend Scott Jurek had passed by here on a quest to set a new FKT for the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. My journey would be much shorter, my challenge, considerably less daunting.
My kit consisted of 1 liter of water, with a filter to resupply from streams, 3/4 pound of home-made pemmican, 3 dark chocolate bars, phone, lights, batteries, and an extra shirt. The pack weighed about 8 lbs. I carried trekking poles for the hills and wore lightweight minimalist trail running shoes (INOV-8 TrailRoc-235s). And perched proudly on my head was an embroidered Trail Conference baseball cap.
The time was 12:02. I noted this with pen and paper, at the same time pressing start buttons on GPS watch, satellite personal locator beacon, and smart phone map app.
For the first few miles, the rolling hills and southern hardwood forests of High Point State Park passed in a blur. It was a beautiful early summer day, pleasantly warm in the sun and cool in the woods. The trail meandered from narrow footpaths onto old logging roads and then darted back into the forest depths. I startled a bear, who bolted through the underbrush, disappearing in a flash of black fur.
After descending a steep slope, the SRT passed onto paved roads for a mile or two, at one point crossing beneath I-84. Above me, the holiday traffic had ground to a halt — the contrast between my freedom and the motionless vehicles seemed surreal.
Then it was up a hill, and I suddenly recognized Hathorn Rd. as a turn, but saw no blazes. Upon closer inspection, there were blazes painted on a telephone pole, but someone had nailed a sign on top of them. There was another blaze on a stop sign, but it was covered by ivy. Trail Conference volunteers do a magnificent job maintaining 2,100 miles of trails including the SRT, but they can’t be everywhere.
The SRT reentered the woods through a patch of mud, and shoes and socks were quickly soaked. The path turned to soft dirt then crossed a talus field of conglomerate boulders, forcing me to hop tentatively from rock to rock.
At mile 10, the trail paralleled an active railroad line, and then it jumped back into the woods, where I startled a second bear. A few miles later, I stopped by a rushing stream to filter fresh water. I drank as much as I could, hoping to minimize the number of stops.
And then it was back along the railroad line for another mile before the trail diverged onto an abandoned railbed. When I first ran down this trail in 2013, the chunky gravel had poked through the thin soles of my minimalist shoes, forcing me to detour into the woods to escape the painful pounding. But now, with more miles under foot, including some barefoot running, my feet didn’t seem to mind, at least not as much.
Experience and training pay off, and I was feeling good! Steady, strong, positive, now I was trotting purposefully under tall power lines, taking in the sun, the wind, the cries of of raptors wheeling in the air above, and even better, glancing at my watch, I saw mile 16 had clicked by in 4 hours, certainly a modest pace, but projecting out to the finish, this implied a sub-20 hour time — and a massive improvement over last year’s 29-hour run. Of course, the terrain would become significantly more difficult ahead, I knew this well. Nonetheless, a sub-20 hour time was the kind of wild goal that could help me push the pace while the course was still runnable, and I shifted into a more aggressive mindset.
Just past route 211, the SRT swings up to the top of a small hill called Gobblers Knob. In the past I had cursed the Trail Conference for this gratuitous climb, but this time I flew through the forest.
Bashakill is southern New York’s largest wetlands, a vast expanse of reeds filling a narrow valley; the trail hugs the shore, just inches above the waterline. I flushed mysterious-looking ducks who splashed away honking loudly, stepped over a turtle burrowing in the dirt, surprised a fawn which leaped away snorting. There was water on the trail, and my feet got wet, then dried out, then got wet again. Then I splashed into a section that was knee-deep. Looking up, I could see fully the next mile was under water, and I fumed about the delay as I slogged slowly forward. The trail emerged back onto dry land, and I finally escaped from the wetlands only to venture through an underpass beneath route 17 which was flooded a foot deep.
My water bottles were dry again. The town of Wurtsboro lay just ahead, and the idea of stopping in a bar occurred to me, but after careful deliberation, this strategy seemed questionable, although tempting. Reluctantly, I paused to filter some of the water that was once again streaming ankle-deep across the path.
The road through Wurtsboro allowed me to make up some time; police station, art studio, car repair, post office, motorcycle dealer flashed by, and soon I was climbing Wurtsboro Ridge and now for the first time encountering the difficult conglomerate jumble characteristic of the Gunks. I climbed up a rocky trail, then stepped carefully across slabs of conglomerate slanted at angles that could send your feet flying out from under you, and finally stopped for the first food of the day at mile 30, where I rested on a rock, watching the sun slip below the horizon.
The trail dipped into a deep valley, dark in the gathering dusk, then rose back up to the ridge, then it fell once again into the forest, and then it leaped across Ferguson Road and mounted the ridge once again. I was moving through the area of a recent fire, where the scrub oak had been burned away, allowing an aggressive colony of fern to claim temporary dominance. But other young plants were jostling for room and light; they appeared to be new shoots of blueberry, and I recalled that itinerant berry pickers used to set fires to improve the crop. Some of the pitch pine trees had been burnt from top to bottom and appeared lifeless crisps, but they had not given up the ghost: green shoots were emerging from charred branches and trunks.
My first break for food had consisted of a few handfuls of pemmican and a bar of dark chocolate, probably 1,000 calories of fat and not much else, and as much as I favor a high-fat diet, that was a lot take in at once. I felt a little queasy for the next few miles, and my pace slowed. A hint of smoke hung in the air. On the top of the ridge, a campfire was burning, the first sign of other people on the trail since the start, while way out to the west, fireworks dotted the horizon. I passed a trail marker and couldn’t find the next turn in the path. I circled around on the slope, fighting through burnt brush, and reemerged onto the trail covered in ash.
And then once again, the SRT dropped steeply off the ridgeline, taking me onto an abandoned road that the locals call “Old Plank.” Dance music drifted up, but deep in the forest, I couldn’t tell from where — I ran slowly along, enjoying the beat, remembered my goals, and sped up the pace, dodging the rocks and gravel that littered the washed-out surface and hopping over streams that had channeled through the road and were pouring into the depths below.
Old Plank reached route 52, and the SRT crossed this busy road and plunged into the woods on the far side, following South Gully up almost 2,000 feet to Sam’s Point Preserve. It’s the biggest climb along the SRT, but South Gully didn’t faze me now. Plenty of hill training over the last year had paid off, including running repeats on South Gully itself, as I had done with friends last fall.
From Sam’s Point, the lights of small towns and hamlets sparkled from the dark plains below. A rocky trail led to Verkeerderkill Falls, and once again I was teetering across sharply pointed blocks of conglomerate. Back in April, the snowmelt had flooded this trail, it had been a veritable stream, and now it was wet from recent rains, and soon enough, shoes were soaked. Up ahead the waterfall roared in the darkness, and I paused to filter more water before hopping across the channel, mindful of the 140-foot drop just a few feet somewhere to the right.
I moved past two sky lakes in quick succession. A layer of clouds had blocked the moon, and Mud Pond was not visible. Wooden boards took me across a marsh, sagging with each step. Then I scrambled up a small cliff, saw once again the lights spread out in the valley below, and passed by Lake Awosting in the darkness. The SRT descended through a field of boulders, worked its way through a squeeze behind an enormous block that had fractured and fallen onto its side, scrambled back up the cliff to Castle Point. Then it slipped down into a fold between parallel ridgelines, passing underneath Rainbow Falls. Water spattered down. Dawn broke. It was grey and drizzling. I was starting to struggle. The slanted rock faces threatened to send me flying, tangles of roots tired my feet, there were more boulders to clamber across. My breath was labored, energy was dropping, knees were aching. Even the slightest uphill slowed me to a walk, and scrambling up through clefts in the cliffs sent heart rate soaring.
I looked up from a vantage point: the rocky face of High Peters Kill beckoned in the distance, yet it seemed so far away. I felt drowsy. In 2014, I had stopped right here and laid down on a rock and closed my eyes for just a few minutes. Now my watch revealed a slowing pace. 20 hours was forgotten, 24 hours seemed unlikely.
Digging in with both poles at once, I levered myself forward, dragged my body to the top, made it to High Peters Kill, and surveyed the small bowl in the rocks with grim satisfaction, then tottered downhill past a luxurious growth of blueberries into the Mohonk Preserve, conscious that the remaining mileage was diminishing one step at a time.
Undivided Lot Trail clings to the side of the mountain high above the Coxing Kill, huge slopes looming across the valley, the Catskill Mountains floating somewhere off in the clouds. The path picked its way along the side of the mountain. I placed each foot carefully. But then the trail opened up, and I was running. The local covey of ravens took note, and its members called back and forth in loud, theatrical voices that reverberated among the trees. The path ended on another series of wooden planks through a marshy patch. Rain was falling steadily.
My breathing felt shallow and labored. I took deeper breaths, and this helped. My energy was low. I ate another square of chocolate, and this helped. My legs were no longer steady, but if I picked up my feet, I could still run, slowly, at least on the flats and downhills, and on the uphills I dug in with the poles and hauled.
From Crag Trail in the Mohonk Preserve, the SRT officially turns right onto Northeast Trail, but I turned left instead, taking a variant route designed to avoid paved roads (this will eventually become the official route). I passed the famous scramble up Bonticou Crag, and took instead a shorter climb to the top of this narrow ridge, glancing around at misty views of the surrounding hills and then quickly back at my feet. From the crag, a soft dirt road plummeted into a swamp with hemlocks and a rushing stream. The mud soaked through my shoes one last time, and then the trail followed a long spur down through lands recently acquired by the Mohonk Preserve, until it dropped me onto the rail trail. I ran across an enormous railroad trestle, 140 feet above the Rondout Creek, making sure not to look down.
I pushed the stop button on my watch and looked at my phone, estimating it would be at least 2:00 PM. But to my surprise, the time read 12:10 PM.
The SRT is an important trail, and it deserves an Olympic-caliber FKT. For now, 24:08 will have to do, but one day, a truly talented athlete, someone like Scott Jurek perhaps, will run the SRT in well under 20 hours. That might happen as soon as September, when we’ll hold a race along the SRT.
For me, it had been an amazing twenty-four hours, with several goals accomplished. An improved time. A reconnaissance of conditions to report to the Trail Conference. A training run to prepare for future endeavors. A new appreciation for a magical wilderness.
I wandered back across the trestle and found a little tavern in the town of Rosendale. An hour later, Sue and Odie arrived and very kindly brought me home.
Rock The Ridge is a 50-mile race with a 24-hour time limit, which makes it possible for a wide range of people to participate, from elite trail runners to walkers and hikers.
No matter who you are, there’s something special about covering 50 miles, especially when you’re running in the Shawangunk mountains.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some of the participants’ experiences in their own words:
I enlisted a group of family and friends to do the 2014 relay division with me, and it was an amazing experience. As soon as I finished, I was ready to sign up for 2015. As I thought about it, I told myself that I might as well do the whole thing and thought, “to hell with it! I’m doing 50 miles!”
I was so excited at the start that I ended up going too fast on the first leg, which was a big mistake, and I definitely paid for it around mile 22. That was where I hit the wall, and questioned whether or not I could finish.
I came into the Lyons Road aid station pretty exhausted, and was considering stopping. Then I saw my friends and all the volunteers. I decided to take a 15 minute break and ate some food, including a baked potato, which I am convinced saved my life!
About a mile out, I started up the “big hill,” and that’s when something amazing happened – I started feeling great and pushed through the mental and physical wall. Once I reached the top, I had a revelation – I was going to finish this damn thing! My months of training and hard work were going to pay off.
I never dreamed that I would do something like this.
Walt Disney was a dreamer and visionary who had that “can do” spirit. It was only fitting that I wore my Mickey Mouse t-shirt during the race. Mickey Mouse is a state of mind. It’s about staying positive in the face of challenge, keeping your eye on the goal, and pushing through when the going gets tough and not giving up. And that was Rock the Ridge for me.
In 2012 I was diagnosed with a swallowing disorder called Achalasia. Over the last few years I have had many failed procedures to “fix” it. In January I was feeling VERY depressed after the last attempt and cried for three days straight, and then decided to “throw” my life into something positive, and that happen to be running Rock the Ridge.
Just driving in, I was amazed with the beauty of the area. Any doubts I had that I could do this were shot down. I knew I could run there, so serene and peaceful. Along my run I met some great people…together we were a great team!
I learned…DON’T EVER DOUBT YOURSELF
I do not let this disease control my life…I control my life. I can do what I put my mind and heart into, no matter how impossible the challenge sounds to others.
The Mohonk Preserve and its many programs are treasures to the Hudson Valley and New York. Beyond the personal benefits I receive from having the Preserve in my back yard, I valued the opportunity this race gave to raise funds to help those who might never have the opportunity to experience the beauty of the outdoors.
Rock the Ridge was an amazing personal experience. Although not without its difficulty, I found that I could continue to run for over 8 hours and actually have some fun in the process!
You will not find anywhere such a combination of enthusiastic volunteers, beautiful setting, supportive fellow runners, and outstanding race organizers….all for a fantastic cause.
Why did I sign up? To test my limits. To prove to myself that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. To conquer what seems an impossibility.
What happened? I felt empowered! I treasured the spectacular views and the awesome friends I was surrounded by. And toward the end, I learned that fighting for something is hard, really hard, but the end result is SO worth it.
What did this mean? EVERYTHING! I can do absolutely anything I set my heart and mind to!
Mike and Lisa Kristofik
I dialed up my daughter, asked if she wanted to join me. No hesitation whatsoever. “Sure,” she said, “if you carry the food!” Seems she was waiting for the invite, and was ready.
We trained through the autumn,trying to cover the Mohonk trails in 10 mile segments..
Winter forced us out onto local roads, where we logged a 20-22 miler each weekend.
Spring found us saying “forget the miles, let’s run/walk for 6 hours or so.”
Then it was May 2 and we followed our plan…run/walk the first half…survive /tough out the second half. Our plan worked pretty well…mile 42 thru 50 found us with pretty sore feet (no blisters, just sore)
At mile 26.2 we celebrated my daughter’s first marathon, at mile fifty, her first ultra. She had never ran more than a half marathon in an event or more than 22 as a training run..
Insanity is a prerequisite it seems, or is it?
We limped our way in quite slowly, under headlight power, to the finish. Great volunteers, great rest stops, great weather….a great experience.
I have a congenital heart defect called a bicuspid aortic valve. The valve has always had a mild amount of leakage. Three years ago. I was informed that my valve had led to a slight aneurysm and the valve now has a mild amount of narrowing (stenosis). I spent a year feeling scared and depressed. I finally dealt with my condition during a solo swim on a cloudy day in Lake Awosting. I decided to do everything I could to fight this disease I have been born with and prevent or delay the day when I will need surgery both through diet and exercise.
I truly feel at home when I’m exercising in the woods surrounded by nature.
The course was special, passing some places I’ve really enjoyed in the past like Sky Top, Castle Point, and Lake Awosting. I also enjoyed seeing some new places like Awosting Falls and seeing climbers above on the Trapps.
I battled leg cramps and knee pain twice, and I could no longer run after about mile 38. I’m proudest that I stretched out and managed to run the last 5 miles to the finish. I was also pleased to experience a faster recovery from this race than after my first marathon.
My doc says the aneurysm in my ascending aorta has stabilized. He told me to come back in a year instead of every 6 months. I am lucky because many others with my condition have faced serious side effects and/ or surgery at a much younger age than me, because I have no symptoms, and I have no restrictions on endurance events.
Reaching my goals has helped me to be happier, healthier, and have more confidence in other areas of my life.
I’m turning 50 next month and it seemed only natural to walk a “50 @ 50.” I signed up for Rock The Ridge to challenge myself…
My experience was really good. It was a hard thing to accomplish because of the distance, and the biggest discomfort I had was due to blisters (the blisters were more annoying than anything else).
This event made me realize how strong I actually am
After walking 50 miles, my perspective of what’s difficult has changed. This event marked a milestone for me mentally and physically. There was never a question in my mind if I was going to complete the course: I was concerned about the condition I would be in when I crossed the finish line.
I fared pretty well, and now I know “what I’m made of.”
Turns out, I’m pretty hardy!
Rock the Ridge means a lot to me. This is the event where I actually completed a 50 mile Ultra run. The fact that it’s held on the Shawungunk Ridge only makes it that much more special by being surrounded by the stunning contours of this special place.
This year’s event was one of those special days where everything goes your way. I truly felt like a part of the community, having team members, family, friends and other local runners all at the start. I barely had time for any anxiety to creep in. I set out to better my time from last year (while having a great experience).
Crossing that finish line was an incredible experience that I don’t expect to ever forget.
I beat last year’s time by an hour and forty minutes and came in under ten hours.
I half heard something on the radio about “Rock the Ridge” while I was driving. When I got home I checked it out. It seemed like something I might be able to complete; on the other hand it was not something I was sure I could do. I liked that uncertainty. So I started to train, adding more and more time onto the treadmill each week and setting the incline to as high as it went.
My goal was to fully walk it, at about 3MPH, but mostly just to finish within the time allowed. I completed it a bit slower (19:15 instead of my goal of 17:00 hours), but I did finish. As best I can tell I was nearly the oldest person to do the full 50 Miles (I am 64)
The most meaningful thing to me was my coming to understand that while I wanted to quit, often, I never “had” to quit. I always asked myself if I really had to stop and I never did – I only needed to keep putting one foot in front of the next (and not trip).
I plan to remember that distinction between “have to” and “would like to” when I feel like quitting at something.
Rock The Ridge was something I felt drawn to do since I heard about it the first year. It took me several years to get up the nerve to actually do it. ( I am turning 60 in a few weeks so this year was like now or never.)
I had a great time during the event the event interacting with the other participants and the volunteers. I hike every Wednesday with the Bob Babb Wednesday walkers and some of the people from that group were volunteering at Spring Farm. It was great to see them and get some encouragement from them.
I tried to anticipate problems that I might encounter along the way, but two things that I didn’t foresee were getting blisters on top of my toes, and having no appetite at all which made it difficult to keep up my energy. I started fading fast around mile 25.
Even though I didn’t complete the entire 50 miles I have a sense of accomplishment for going for 35 miles. Some of my friends want me to be a poster child for baby boomer fitness. I am hoping to participate next year as part of a relay team.
I signed up because I was at a time in my life when I needed to go on a journey.
I went into myself and came out 11 some odd hours later a different person. I needed a little metamorphosis and sometimes pushing myself like that is what brings it about. Prior to this the farthest I had gone was 30 miles. This opened a lot of personal doors for me.
During the event…amid IT band agony, smiling faces, boiled potatoes, and incredible views, I realized why I love to run, I got over a horrendous breakup, and decided the direction I want to go with my career…better than any therapist!
What it means to me? It means I can do anything I set my mind too
Three years ago I smoked a pack a day and could barely run a half mile. Now, I can say I completed an Ultra. It changed everything.