2018 SRT Race Director’s Report

The fifth edition of the SRT Run took place September 14-15, 2018 with over 200 registered participants from 14 states and one from Brazil.  The weather was beautiful: clear and sunny.  But recent rains had left the trail wet, and a few runners struggled with blisters.  Finishing rates were consistent with the last few years, with around 50% of the 50- and 70-mile runners completing the course, while nearly 100% of the 30-mile and 1/2 marathon runners made it to the finish.  It was exciting to see new female and male course records set in the 1/2 marathon and a new female record for the 50-mile division.

The SRT Run has a minimalist format, meaning there are no aid stations (we don’t provide food or water) and no supplemental course markings.  While we provide paper and electronic maps to help runners navigate the course, inevitably some people make wrong turns, and this is by design part of the challenge of the event.  We thank New Jersey Search and Rescue and Sam’s Point Search and Rescue for supporting the SRT Run.  This year, there were four rescues of runners who became disoriented or needed assistance exiting the course, but rest assured everyone ended up safe and sound.

Organizers created this event to celebrate a magical trail that crosses the entire length of the Shawangunk Mountains, or the “Gunks” as they’re called, an area identified by the Nature Conservancy as “one of Earth’s last great places.”  By promoting awareness of the SRT, we hope to build support for further conservation.


The 70-mile race covers the entire length of the Shawangunk Ridge Trail, which makes for a long and daunting but beautiful course.  The trail starts in the High Point State Park outside Port Jervis, New Jersey, at a junction with the Appalachian Trail and immediately passes under the shadow of a monument tower that can be seen from the Catskills sixty miles away.  It proceeds through rolling forests, passes alongside the Bashakill wetlands, and rises onto glacially-scoured rocks on the crest of the ridge before dropping into quiet forests in the northern section of the Mohonk Preserve.  The trail ends in the town of Rosendale, New York, with participants running across a railway trestle 140 feet above the Rondout Creek .  The word “dramatic” does not do justice.

Over the last five years, conditions at the start have never been quite the same, such is the variability of High Point’s weather.  After glorious sunsets and rainbows in prior years, today the start was shrouded in fog, and as the runners were making their final preparations, the monument tower was barely visible.

70-mile start.  Tom Bushey Photography

This year we had two starts to the 70-mile division.  The first wave started at exactly 6:30 PM with 17 runners, and the second wave of 3 runners departed at exactly 8:00 PM (the second wave was designed for faster runners desiring to minimize time spent held up at Checkpoint #3).

For the race director and a small team of night marshals, Friday night was quiet.  With New Jersey Search and Rescue on call, we were prepared for problems, but no-one got lost or dropped out.  In fact, the first 70-mile runner wouldn’t drop until Saturday morning.  The problem was blistered feet due to a last-minute decision to go with shoes instead of sandals.  The trails were pretty wet this year, and blistered feet would claim at least two other 70-milers.

All told, of the 20 starters, 11 reached the finish, for a 55% finishing rate, an improvement from 35% in 2017.

Andrew Wilkens of Olympia, Washington came in first with a time of 18:13:43, just two minutes behind Tim Ela’s record-setting run of the year before.  Ben Leese of Brooklyn came in second place, followed by Ben Parker of Harding, New Jersey.  Also of note, Raymond Russell of New York City completed his third successful 70-mile finish.

Andrew Wilkens, 70-mile male winner with parents

I’m inspired by all the athletes who lined up alongside me at the start of the 70-mile race.  Just to be on that starting line took courage and everyone showed true grit to push through the challenges offered up on the SRT this year.  From shoes that never dried, to miles of slipping on wet rocks and roots, this course made sure nothing came easy.  Regardless of whether they finished or not, those who even dared to start the 70-mile division should be proud of what was accomplished.

— Andrew Wilkens, winner 70-mile male division

srt pic 12
Raymond Russell, 3-time 70-mile finisher.  Steve Aaron Photography

Jaime Peca of Rochester, New York won the female division in a time of 24:27:08.  The female record of 23:15 still belongs to Melanie Mueller, who this year volunteered as a course marshal at Checkpoint #6.  Of special note, Jaime’s coach, Dick Vincent, race director and creator of the Escarpment Trail Run (now in its 43rd year), attended the event to cheer her on.  (We welcome spectators at the event, but they are not allowed to provide any aid beyond moral support, or they risk disqualifying their runners.)

srt pic 19
Female 70-mile winner, Jaime Peca


SRT Co-director Todd Jennings gave the starting command for the 50-mile division at  precisely 6:00 AM, and twenty runners headed out into the darkness.  Twelve would make it to the finish line, for a 60% finishing rate.

50-milers starting out.  Tom Bushey Photography

Late morning I received a call from one of the 50-milers who’d become disoriented.  Sam’s Point Search and Rescue got on the phone, pinpointed the individual’s location (the runner had gotten turned around and was heading the wrong way), and drove off to retrieve them.

The female 50-mile winner was Jennifer Donohue of Saranac, New York in 13:55:05, who set a new course record, beating Gabriela Stephens’ time of 15:19 set in 2016 by over an hour.  Three other female runners broke the 2016 record, including Jami Landry, Noelle Timmons, and Jamie Newberry.  The male 50-mile winner was Nathaniel Brown of New York in 13:17:09.

50-mile winner Jennifer Donohue
50-mile winner Nathaniel Brown


30-mile runners started in four waves at the Sam’s Point Visitor Center.  Because runners in all divisions have until midnight, the 30-milers enjoy a generous 15-hour time limit, and fifty-three of the sixty starters reached the finish for a success rate of 88%.

The first place male finisher was Jake Stookey of Clifton Park, New York, who finished in 5:42:50, an improvement of more than an hour from his 5th place finish in 2017.  Jake also earned a special barefoot pin for his finishers medal by running in sandals, a distinction that reflects the minimalist spirit of the event.  Emma Raub of Brooklyn won the female division in 7:13:15.

30-mile winner Jake Stookey.  Tom Bushey Photography
30-mile winner Emma Raub


1/2 marathon runners face the same challenges as other participants, but because all events end at midnight, these runners have more than thirteen hours to complete the course.  This may be the most generous 1/2 marathon time limit in the world, and it makes racing the Shawangunk Ridge Trail accessible to athletes with a wide range of abilities, some of whom walked the whole distance, while others flew.  The finishing rate was over 94%.

First place male was Daichi Inoue of New York City who set a new course record of 1:56:37, improving on Shawn Bubany’s record-setting run of 2:08 the year before.  Also breaking last year’s record were 30-mile record-holder Henry Pratt, who came in second place, and Shawn himself who broke his own record by 4 minutes and came in third place.  Daichi won the race in 2016, but didn’t finish in 2017 due to taking a wrong turn on the course.  Toni Schwartz of Salt Lake City won the female division in 2:38:33, breaking Sierra Jech’s record from the year before by 2 minutes.

Long Path Co-chair Kevin McGuinness presenting first place 1/2 marathon prize to Daichi Inoue
Long Path Co-chair Kevin McGuinness presenting first place prize to 1/2 marathon winner Toni Schwarz

Among the 1/2 marathoners, I’d like to recognize Cindy Wagner, who is a NY-NJ Trail Conference volunteer who maintains a section of the Shawangunk Ridge Trail in the southern Gunks.  Cindy does impeccable work on a tough section of the trail in the southern Gunks with a lot of scrub oak.  I’d also like to recognize Patty Lee Parmalee, who is a a four-time finisher of the race and holds the distinction of being the oldest participant at 78 years.  Patty is an inspiration to all of us youngsters who hope to keep moving even as we get older.

Photos:  Steve Aaron Photography


The Shawangunk Ridge Trail is the creation of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a not-for-profit organization with 2,000 volunteers who maintain 2,100 miles of trails in the Hudson Valley.  I’d like to thank all of the volunteers who work on the Long Path and Shawangunk Ridge Trail under the leadership of Long Path Co-Chairman Kevin McGuinness and West Hudson program coordinator Sona Mason, who also helped us manage the finish line, and additionally recognize Trail Conference cartographer Jeremy Apgar who created the special cellphone map that runners use to navigate the unmarked race course.  We were honored to have Kevin present the first-place prizes to the division winners this year.

As part of the online registration process, 38 runners made voluntary donations to the Trail Conference totaling $1,185.  Thank you, runners.

For race organizers, safety is the first priority, and we would not hold an unsupported event on an unmarked course without search and rescue capabilities.  Thank you to New Jersey Search and Rescue lieutenant Bill Winterbottom and Sam’s Point Search and Rescue team members John Schumaci, Jerry Gardner, Tom Atwell, Dan Kelly, Andrew Stoll, John Barton, and Jim Spoor.  SPSAR was busy on Saturday, not only rescuing the 50-miler who got turned around, but also arranging vehicular evacuation for two runners in Minnewaska who fell behind the cut-off, and picking up another runner who was wandering on the roads at night.

In order to deploy search and rescue teams, should that become necessary, we operate a series of six checkpoints overseen by Safety Officer Kathleen Rifkin and staffed by volunteer course marshals.  Thank you, Dave Castner, Kal Ghosh, Don Cohen, Chris Regan, Kevin Bukowski, Sue Eby, Judy O’Neill, David Miller (a New York-New Jersey Trail Conference volunteer who works on the SRT), Charlie Gadol, Evelyn Heinbach, Derek Doran, Rich D’Ambrosio, Melanie Mueller (70-mile female record-holder and NYNJTC volunteer, too), Vlad Diaz, Lisa Zucker Glick, and Jim Porter.  New for 2018 was a sweep team who covered the last twenty miles of the course while shadowing the back of the pack and maintaining radio communications with the RD and SAR teams:  Thank you Tom DeSimone, Amy Hanlon, and April DeFrancesco.

Thank you to Kathy Mahady, Stacy Cameron, Yvonne Nedbal, and Dan Hart for helping with parking, check-in, scoring, and picking up runners from the check points.

Thank you to staff at all the agencies which permitted the event, including NJ DEP, NY DEC, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, Mohonk Preserve, the town of Rosendale, and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, as well as private landowners who allow the race to cross over their property.

Thank you to Tom Bushey and Steve Aaron for taking photos that captured the spirit of the event.

First place finisher tomahawks crafted by Larry Cly of the Navajo tribe.  Radios furnished by Goosetown Communications.  Beer provided by Six Point Brewery, Brooklyn.

Registration is now open for the sixth edition of the SRT Run on September 13-14, 2019.  To sign up please visit: https://ultrasignup.com/register.aspx?did=60633.


Crossing the Rosendale Trestle on the way to the finish line.  Credit:  Suzy Allman

2018 SRT Race Director’s Report

Tramping along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail

In years gone by, I’d think nothing of thru-running the entire 70-mile Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), most recently in 2015, when it took me around 24 hours.  This year, however, still recovering from a sore ankle tendon, it would have to be a slower execution, and accordingly I drew up plans to thru-hike 40 miles of the trail over a two-day period.  This is the stretch of trail I’m responsible for as a volunteer supervisor with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, where I work with a crew of twelve other volunteers to keep the trail marked and passable.  This hike would be an opportunity to inspect conditions and see what work was needed.

The exotic beauty of the Shawangunk mountains never fails to amaze  me — the gritty white conglomerate and dreamy pine barrens so different from other New York landscapes.  Each trip brings fresh discoveries, and familiar sights are revealed in new ways.  Here are some photos and observations.  I hope they inspire you to come experience the trail for yourself….

(The Shawangunk Ridge trail connects the Appalachian Trail in High Point State Park, New Jersey, with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Rosendale, New York.  For thirty miles, the SRT is co-aligned with the Long Path, New York’s signature long distance trail.)

Continue reading “Tramping along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail”

Tramping along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail

Tim Ela’s 2017 SRT Race Report

Tim was the 2017 first place male finisher in the 70-mile division.  He set a new course record of 18:11, and this is also the new unsupported fastest known time for the Shawangunk Ridge Trail of 19:17 hours (the FKT does not net out the waiting time at check point #3, as explained below).

Continue reading “Tim Ela’s 2017 SRT Race Report”

Tim Ela’s 2017 SRT Race Report

Alan Davidson’s 2016 SRT-70 miler Race Report

(published with permission of the author)

By Alan Davidson

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.

Continue reading “Alan Davidson’s 2016 SRT-70 miler Race Report”

Alan Davidson’s 2016 SRT-70 miler Race Report

Jeffery Hayes’ 2016 SRT 50-mile Race Report

(published with permission of the author)

Shawangunk Ridge Trail 50 mile Race

September 17, 2016

Moonlight on the Bashakill

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.

Continue reading “Jeffery Hayes’ 2016 SRT 50-mile Race Report”

Jeffery Hayes’ 2016 SRT 50-mile Race Report

2016 SRT Race Director’s Report

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…

Continue reading “2016 SRT Race Director’s Report”

2016 SRT Race Director’s Report

More Race Reports from SRT

Here’s a race report from Kevin Russell, one of the 74-mile particpants in the recent SRT race, which takes place along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail.  Kevin’s lively story features field-expedient shoe repair, a porcupine, bushwhacking, and rock scrambles.  Thanks for sharing, Kevin!

Kevin Russell
Kevin Russell (in the front) departing High Point State Park, NJ

Continue reading “More Race Reports from SRT”

More Race Reports from SRT

SRT 2015 — Race Director’s Report

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.

Continue reading “SRT 2015 — Race Director’s Report”

SRT 2015 — Race Director’s Report

Thru-running the Shawangunk Ridge Trail

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.

Memorial Tower, High Point State Park, NJ
View from High Point State Park looking north to Minnewaska and Mohonk Preserve
View from High Point State Park looking north to Minnewaska and Mohonk Preserve
View of Port Jervis from High Point

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.

One of many rushing streams in the southern Gunks

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.

The trail through Bashakill
The trail through Bashakill
The water was knee-deep in some places

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.

Sunset on Wurtsboro Ridge

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.

View east from Verkeerderkill Falls across Hudson Valley. Taken during April 2015

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.

The new trail through the swamp. Photo taken during a Mohonk Preserve hike during May 2015.

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.

srt pic

srt elevation

Thru-running the Shawangunk Ridge Trail

The Day of the Bracken

In a previous post, I described the aftermath of a fire that scorched 2,000 acres in the southern Shawangunk Mountains.  Just two weeks after the blaze, some friends and I ventured into the charred wasteland and discovered young ferns emerging from the blackened soil.  I was fascinated by nature’s response to the fire and eager to return and observe further changes in the environment  — and I was especially curious to see what the ferns would make of their early start.


Five weeks after the first visit, I ascended the ridgeline on the Shawangunk Ridge Trail where it is co-aligned with the Long Path, just north of Ferguson Road.  Volunteers from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference had been quick to put up new blazes, and the trail was as easy to follow as it had been before the fire.

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The trail along this section of the Shawangunk Ridge is marked with Long Path, Shawangunk Ridge Trail, and DEC blazes

Midway up the slope, I had not encountered a single fern, although other plants were now growing in the black soil.  Where were the ferns?

While I pondered this question, I paused to admire the views.  Spread out in the valley below was a small airstrip, and behind it lay the Bashakill, southern New York’s largest wetlands.  Twenty-five miles distant, an almost microscopic needle could be seen rising atop the ridge:  this is the memorial tower in New Jersey’s High Point State Park, where the Shawangunk Ridge Trail meets the Appalachian Trail.

View south from the Shawangunk Ridge across Wurtsboro outskirts and Bashakill

In the foreground, the burnt stems of thousands of scrub oak bushes stood out in black, but the rest of the landscape was green.  It was a warm, sunny day.  A glider spiraled in the distance, and here on the ridge a pleasant breeze was blowing.

View southwest from the Shawangunk ridgeline

I walked another quarter mile and ascended another hundred feet up the ridge, and suddenly there they were: a sea of ferns flanking the path and stretching off in every direction.  With the scrub oak burned to a crisp, sunlight now reached the ground, and the young ferns had unfurled their fronds to absorb the nourishing light.  This was quite a change from before the fire, when the trail tunneled through dense thickets of scrub oak and blueberry, with ferns and other plants limited to the trail’s edge and other breaks in the brush.

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A sea of ferns beneath the blackened scrub oak

But now the ferns were running rampant, a thicket of wild-looking plants, with broad triangular fronds thrusting aggressively in every direction.  Upon close inspection, each frond was composed of multiple leafs, and each leaf had rows of small, weirdly-lobed leaflets.


Ferns once ruled the forests.  During the Carbinoferous period (300-350 million years ago), the forests were dominated by giant fern trees and club moss, a fern relative, which today grows 3 or 4 inches on the forest floor, but back then soared 100 feet in the air.

Carboniferous era forest.  Credit:  Mary Parrish, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Carboniferous era forest. Credit: Mary Parrish, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Like other plants, ferns have vascular systems to transport water and nutrients from roots to leaves.  But unlike flowering plants, ferns reproduce through spores, which lack the protective shells of seeds as well as the nourishment contained in the seed which helps the young plant become established.

Thanks to seeds, flowering plants have significantly outgrown the more primitive ferns, displacing them to marginal environments, like swamps or cliff faces or the dim light underneath the forest canopy.  Firms adapted and survived, but they were no longer dominant.

After intensive research, I identified the fern spreading across the burned mountain as the common bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).  It is an aggressive plant, reproducing not only through spores, but also by spreading vegetatively from underground roots (rhizomes) that can tunnel 10 feet deep.  Given the opportunity, it forms dense thickets, and in some places there are enormous colonies which are thousands of years old.  Bracken is also a wily competitor:  it releases chemicals into the soil that impede the growth of other plants, and its dense foliage prevents smaller plants and seedlings from taking root.  In some parts of the world, it has become a problem.  For example, in Mexico, bracken has expanded considerably over the last fifteen years, exploiting human disturbances such as farming and ranching as well as hurricane blow-down.  In Great Britain, bracken is thought to be a greater menace to biodiversity than foreign invasive species.

Scientists who have studied bracken describe it as a “postfire colonizer” which sprouts profusely from surviving rhizomes.  Following fire, its new growth is more vigorous, and the fern becomes more fertile.  In one study of Arizona pine communities affected by logging and fire, bracken fern grew to cover up to 30 percent of the area.  A study in northeastern hardwood stands found that repeated fires could lead to bracken “domination.”  After two successive wintertime prescribed burns in a Florida forest, the bracken was found to have doubled its biomass.

In the Shawangunks, a variety of ferns lurk in the forest shadows (hay-scented, Christmas, interrupted, and New York ferns are common), but I had never seen a colony of bracken expanding across the side of a mountain.  I wondered whether the bracken would keep growing until it eventually engulfed the entire mountain range.  It would be as if the Shawangunks had returned to the Carboniferous era.

But the bracken’s window to dominate is probably limited.  The scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) is also known for aggressively responding to fire.  Even if a bush is burned to a crisp, new shoots rapidly sprout from the stout taproot, as I could see happening all around me on the mountain.  Indeed, not only is scrub oak an early colonizer of post-fire environments, it depends on frequent burning to flourish, because it cannot tolerate the shade of taller trees.  This section of the Shawangunk Mountains is unique for the dense scrub oak cover, which indicates that it was likely clear cut or burned repeatedly prior to its acquisition by the Open Space Institute and designation as a state forest preserve in the 1980s.

Scrub oak resprouting vigorously after fire destroyed the shrub

For now, the ferns are running rampant, exploiting their day in the sun.  No doubt the rhizomes are tunneling deeper into the soil and expanding the geographic reach of the colony.  The bracken will flourish until the light is once again blocked by scrub oak and perhaps taller trees over time.  Back in the shadows, the colony of ferns will bide its time, infinitely patient, waiting for the next fire, the next chance to expand, another shot at domination.

The bracken is running rampant, for now
The Day of the Bracken