Jaime Peca’s 70-mile SRT Race Report

Guest post by Jaime Peca, female winner in the 2018 70-mile SRT division, with a time of 24:27:08

Back story:
About two years ago I was trolling through ultrasign up and stumbled upon a race called SRT. It had multiple distances and looked like an extremely beautiful course. I had been going through a lot of difficulties and low points in my life and I was looking for something that would really test my inner strength and determination. Looking at this event, a 70 mile fully unsupported race that was pretty close seem to fit the bill. I started working on building up my miles in the couple of years as well as continuing to deal with a lot of difficulties in my personal life.

2018 had continued to bring many highs and lows. I seemed to start the year off in my training on a high note and that continued through the spring to summer where my training seem to take a dip. The summer heat and humidity caused my miles a week to drop extremely low but I tried to counter that with extra cross training. Let’s skip ahead now to the week before the race.

The week leading up to the race was extremely busy. I had to try to juggle work, my daughter and her just starting school, maintaining some sort of training, and my stress. I decided to head out to the Catskills a couple of days before the race so I could try to get out to the course and view a little of it before the race so I would not go in completely blind. The first day I explored by myself and hit sections that I would be in during the night time, the second day I went out exploring with my friend Dick who was also so kind to let me stay with him and also keep updates going online and meeting me at later check points to try and keep my spirits up. We not only hiked for a few miles of the course but also went and checked out the in and outs of the future checkpoints and potential road crossings which proved to be an enormous help during the race.

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The day of the race:
The start of the race wasn’t until 6:30 PM on Friday so I had a lot of the day to finish packing and unpacking and then repacking again. Checking all of my headlamps and flashlights multiple times, making sure I had battery packs, charging cables, extra batteries. Checking my water filter and counting how many calories that I was able to carry on me. My nerves started to go away and to be honest, I think I just started to feel numb. There was no backing out of this, I was terrified beyond belief that I would fail and have to drop out and feel as though I am not strong enough for not just the race but for all of my hard times. This race represented more than just a race and the difficult challenge of 70 miles unsupported, it was so much more than that to me. Dick brought me to the finish line where I was going to take the bus with some other runners to the start around 4 PM. I met some really amazing people before hand and was able to talk with a few more on the bus ride. Everyone I met was so wonderful and nice! The funny thing to think about though was none of us seemed or acted all too nervous. I think maybe it’s knew what will be, will be.

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The race:
20 crazy people were participating in the 70, 5 of us were females. Like all great trail races the start of the race was extremely laid-back. We all hung around listened to the prerace final words make sure that we had the proper phone numbers in our phones in case we get lost or hurt, took a group picture, and off to the trailhead. Ken the RD counted down and said go. We all paused for a minute nobody seem to really want to go just yet but slowly we all turned to the blue markers on the trees and off we went. We only had about 30 or 40 minutes of daylight so we are all trying to make the most of It. I started running and a very conservative pace and made it to a long wooden Walkbridge over a Marsh. I heard somebody behind me and started chatting with him, his name was Ryan. Ryan and I maintained a good pace together and after it got dark we decided that we would try to stick together to make the nighttime more comfortable. We had a great time and the miles just seem to fly by. We made it to checkpoint 1 (mile 17) in what felt like a blink. We left the checkpoint and started down the road, we went to make a turn and saw another guy standing at the turn and seemed a little confused on where to go. We talked with him briefly and then our two person running crew turned into a three person running crew. His name was Tom and he meshed so well with us. The three of us kept moving along taking turns taking the lead and we were able to navigate extremely well. I ran into some complications with my water filter sometime between check 1 and check 2. The filter kept detaching from my hose and I kept losing a lot of water. Both Ryan and Tom would stop and wait with me as I fumbled to get it reconnected and we kept going. We made it through check 2 ( mile 27) with again little to no problems. The three of us kept moving along and to be honest the majority of the night portion was all a quick hike, there was very little running, no one wanted to risk injury so early in the race. We kept checking to make sure that we were in good standings to make the time cut off‘s for each of the checkpoints and on to check 3 and 4 we went. There is not much that I can say about the race from the start until now. It was in the middle of the night, we couldn’t really see much of anything and with all of us together it made the night less intimidating. As for creatures the worst that WE SAW was a couple of deer and a bunny that hopped by. We were all extremely relieved that that was the worst. After checkpoint 4 The real climbing started. We were in Wurtsboro and it was still dark when we went back into the trail. We were at about mile 40 at this point and the Trail was barely big enough for one person and the terrain was filled with rocks and roots and all kinds of things to trip over. Most all of the significant and difficult climbing was going to be set between miles 40 and 54. We kept going and made it up to the Rosa gap fire tower. I’m not quite sure what mile that was out but I do remember that we made it to the top at sunrise and were able to stand at the summit watching the sun come up. It was the best feeling to know that we are finally going to be able to take off our lights and also know that we were over half the way through the race. We kept moving and start to get into some very difficult terrain. The infamous Gunk rocks. We were all very excited to be able to start running again now that it was light out but the rocks made it so difficult to get a rhythm, there wasn’t much room to step around them and my feet kept on getting caught in between them and pinching at my ankles. We were all getting pretty tired. We passed by the start for the 30 milers and found open areas that were perfectly runnable, but none of us seem to have the energy or motivation to run so we just kept on hiking up. It was also around this time when all three of us started to unravel a bit. We all made it to around mile 50 and that is around the time when Tom started to have a lot of problems with his foot. He sat down and took off his shoe to try to figure out what was causing so much pain and he said to me and Ryan to keep going and he will catch up with us. Ryan and I continued on in a moderate hike for a couple of miles and in those miles we found the section of the race that I have been looking forward to! We finally were able to start going up rock scramble’s! The fun of being able to climb up and down all the rocks helped to take my mind off of everything else that was bothering me. When we made it to the top we stopped and took a look around, in every direction was the most beautiful view of the mountains and valleys! Everything was green and lush and beautiful! And then it hit me, this was Sam’s point. The area that is known to have the “million dollar view“! And they are not joking, the beauty of that area was surreal, it looks like a painting! After taking in the sights for a minute Ryan and I kept going. We decided to stop at a nearby lake to pick up some water. The sun and the humidity was beating down on us and we wanted to make sure that we had enough water seeing that we are not sure when the next water source would be. After we picked up the water Ryan needed to rearrange his pack a little bit and said to me to keep going and that he will catch up, he knew that if I stopped for too long that I would not be able to start again. I thanked him for understanding and I kept moving. I made sure to go as slower pace so he can catch up to me but I unfortunately did not see him again.

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Tom Bushey Photography
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Steve Aaron Photography

Alone:
From about miles 52 and on I was by myself. I had lost my two friends that I made. This is about the time of the race when my low points started to outweigh my high points. The sun was so hot and the humidity was so heavy that I kept guzzling the water that I had. My memory of these miles ahead are very fuzzy But luckily this is also around the time that Dick was at the checkpoints. I guess looking back at things, everything happens for a reason. I was able to stay with Tom and Ryan for what would’ve been an extremely difficult and scary part of the race for me, the night portion. And then I had my friend Dick to give me encouragement so soon after I found myself alone. I should also state that every time I hit a check point I would message Dick and he would post on Facebook where I was and how I was doing. When I got to check point 5 I was at a very low point. The checkpoint was supposed to be at mile 54 and I didn’t get to it until mile 56. For 2 miles I kept on questioning every turn that I made, was i lost? Was I off course? I started to really get into my head. I stumbled into the checkpoint and ask them if I got off course or if by chance the miles for the checkpoints were off. The two men sitting there said that the check points were off and that I did not get lost and that by this one being 2 miles longer that the next checkpoint would be in 3 miles instead of 6 miles. I wasn’t quite sure if I was happy or upset. I tried my best to thank them as much as I could but I was in a lot of pain at this point. I grabbed my phone to send the message of where I was and when I turned it on I found that he had sent me a message asking where I was and how I was doing. I sent him a quick message back telling him that I was having a very difficult time and I was all alone and the pain was really setting in. Little did I know that Dick was just a mile and a half away from me. After sending the message I put my phone away and kept going I was now headed towards the last steep climb of the race. Looking on the elevation chart it looks like it was going to be difficult, but nothing prepared me For how truly difficult it was. About 800 to 900 feet of smooth rock to get up in the course of about a mile. My breathing became very bad at this point and I was having a hard time thinking. I’m not quite sure how my legs kept moving forward, I think I was on auto pilot by this point. I passed a few people going up the rocks but I’m not sure what distance they were in. I made it to the top, but what goes up must go back down. It was around this time that I saw somebody in the distance coming towards me, it was Dick! I was so happy to see him even though I may not have actually shown that to him. My throat felt like it was closing and my breathing was down to a whistle. He gave me encouragement and let me know that the next checkpoint was just about a mile and a half down the path. I think I started to cry at this point. The thought of a mile and a half to the next checkpoint, not the finish, the next checkpoint. I still had so much more race to go and I was feeling as though I was running on fumes. From now to the finish I honestly don’t remember much. I remember trying to do my best to do a run/walk pace. I remember being terrified that another female in the 70 miles was right on my tail and that I would lose first place. I remember realizing at this point that my goal time of 21 or 22 hours was completely out the window. These last 12 miles of the race ended up being the epitome me of why I first signed up for this race. I was challenged in ways that I had never before been challenged. The difficulties and pain that I felt in the past couple years seemed to mirror what I was going through and feeling now. I kept moving. Around this point I became a very audible runner, I was trying to remind myself of my mantras While throwing out endless swearwords for every time I tripped and rolled my ankles because I was becoming sloppy. Like I mentioned, this is not a section of the race that showed any sort of gracefulness for me. I cringe at the thought of what other runners saw me as. I made it to checkpoint 6. How on earth did a mile and a half feel like an eternity? I have come so far and all I wanted to do was to stop. I was checked in to the checkpoint and without even thinking just kept making my way to the trail. I waved to Dick very quickly and on I went. This next section to the finish was supposed to be flagged, there were some flags but not very many. I was extremely disoriented and very confused. They were numerous times when I saw the flag markings going in a direction and the flags just stopped and it was implied to continue to follow the color that you were on. I found myself playing leapfrog with four other runners, three of them were in the 30 mile and one of them was a man in a 70 mile. They seem to keep on getting turned around also and confused on where to go and I would pull out my phone and pointing the direction to go in but it made me to keep on starting and stopping to either let them pass me or for me to pass them. I started to get very fatigued with the constant starting and stopping and having to re-look at the map. I was overly emotional at this point and found myself falling and crying. At that point one of the girls came over and asked me if I was ok. I felt broken, I felt like I was failing myself for being in this much pain and being this emotional, I was overcome in a way that I could not even put words. I stopped crying and just said no, I am not OK and I need to find the finish and I need to keep running. Enter Chris, I swear she was an angel sent to me at this point. I got up from the ground and she ran with me. She did not realize that I was running the 70 mile race and she stayed with me. I expressed to her that I was confused, according to the map it looked as though we are supposed to be out of the woods by now and into the city headed towards the final bridge to the finish. The last 2 miles seem to go by so quickly with her. We didn’t talk that much but just to have somebody with me was so nice. In a blink, we found ourselves at a road crossing. When we got to it right on the other side of the street was a bridge, not just any bridge.. the bridge to the finish!!! I was in utter disbelief and I stopped running and look to her and I said this can’t be right, this brings us to the finish line! She just smiled and we kept going. I looked up and I saw dick on the bridge running towards us and I heard him cheering And saying that the finish line is 2 minuets away. 2 minuets!!! Not 2 miles! Minutes!!! None of this seemed real anymore. How did this happen? How did I make it through those miles that felt like an eternity? As soon as we passed by him I looked at Chris and I said that I have to run now and run fast. I took off and Ran as fast as I could possibly go. After the bridge there’s only about a 1/10 of a mile, I saw a giant banner that said finish. I was practically tripping over my feet at this point and I remember asking them if this was the real finish or if I had to cross the street to the other tent. The truth is I just wanted to stop my watch and fall to the ground but I didn’t want to do that too early. They said it was the actual finished and as I got to them I had stop on my watch, limped to the other side of the tent, and just fell to ground. Chris came over to see me and I tried my best to express to her how much I appreciate it her and what she did for me by just asking if I was OK and running with me. I was given some water and I found my way back to my feet to get to the other tent.

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Post race:
I found my way across the street and Dick was there and had all of the drinks that I had rambled off during the race that I wanted waiting for me, lifesaving act. I was finally able to sit down and Relax. I looked up and saw a girl that I rode the bus with at the finish line and she gave me a big smile and said congratulations and she had to drop around mile 54. I asked about the other racers And was informed that at that time I was the first female to finish and to their information three of the other four females were already known to have dropped out. I was awarded a beautiful authentic Navajo tomahawk for my first place finish. I asked about the two guys that I had spent so much time with. I was informed that ryan was still out there. Dick and I waited for him to finish. A little while later Ryan crossed the finish and we congratulated each other and I thanked him for the endless hours spent together out there.

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Final thoughts:
SRT proved to be the most difficult race that I could ever imagine. It brought me to epic highs and low’s that I never even knew I could get to. I am so extremely happy and proud to have participated and finished this event! I ended up being the 2nd female to ever officially finish this race and the only female this year to finish it.

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THANK YOU:
To my friends and family that cheered me on, encouraged me, supported me, and talked me off ledges of pre race fear. Especially to Sarah Strossman, Jeff Marsh, Lorna, Sami, Erica, Mort, Danielle Snyder, and Dick Vincent.

Lorna Who continuously has my back and was there for me to watch over my pups while I was gone and help me out of the car when I got home and greeted me with gauze, pizza and wings, and cider.

Dick Vincent Who gave me the best hospitality and letting me stay with him before and after the race. Who took me out hiking, reviewing the map and of course, endless encouragement before, during, and after the race. Also being able to laugh with me at my unfortunate chafing.

Ryan and Tom Who spent many miles with me on the trail and without their knowledge gave me the courage to keep going.

Chris Who was my angel sent to me for my last couple of miles when I didn’t think I could get any lower, just stayed with me to the finish.

The RD Ken p, Todd, the volunteers, and everyone who helped to make this event happen. The memories and lessons I am taking from this event are priceless and will last forever with me.

Thank you all!!!

Jaime Peca

You are battle-tested tough — Dick Vincent

Jaime Peca’s 70-mile SRT Race Report

Ben Leese’s 70-mile SRT Race Report

By guest author, Ben Leese, who completed the 70-mile SRT race on September 14-15, 2018, coming in second place in a time of 19:15:48.

After many months of procrastination and joking off my impulsive entry into the SRT 70 miler as a midlife crisis (“cheaper than a motorbike am I right?!”), raceday finally rolled around.  With no injury to hide behind and with a pre-booked afternoon off work I found myself waking up on Friday on a disconcerting autopilot – am I really going to try and do this?

To make a tough day tougher I chose to start my odyssey at Penn Station and very nearly derailed myself by settling in on an LIRR train rather than a train West to New Jersey.  Realizing my mistake as the doors shut I escaped by the skin of my teeth and finally took the correct local to the (appropriately named) town of  Suffern.  From there a long lyft ride with a techno loving local took me to High Point State Park in New Jersey.  I had to wonder what my driver thought I was doing.  We pulled into the deserted park at 5:30 or so, after season and after hours, with no-one else in sight and with the scenery shrouded in dense mist.  Where was I going? How would I get back?  He didn’t ask, so we parted ways at Lake Marcia and I hiked the last 2 miles along the road to the starting point, startling a big beaver on the way.

Everything is dark, Every light this side of the town, And suddenly it all went down

A group of what would eventually be 17 6:30pm leavers had already formed but even though the weather continued to look grim I resolved to stick it out until the alternate 8pm start.  I had no idea how I’d go on a race of this distance but on the off chance I went well I wanted to be around the faster runners so I could pace myself appropriately.  After a quick race briefing the 6:30s trotted down the hill to the southern terminus of the SRT and I was left pretty much alone.  For a while it looked as though I’d be the only late start but eventually Hugh Macmullan and Jason Berry (the latter a former winner of the race), joined.  After a bit more shivering and a bit of banter we began our own walk to the start.  By this point the mist was soupy and night had fallen so we would start with our headtorches on.  This was my main equipment fail of the run as the torch I’d bought, which seemed plenty powerful in Paragon Sports, was notably weak when compared to some of the others people had.  On a night like this it just flash filled the mist, so I was left with the same murky view of the woods but seemingly through a sheet of bright white cheesecloth.  Not great.

Eventually we were given the all clear and never having run at night, or on these trails, or for this distance before, I tucked in carefully behind Jason and tried to follow his line and pace.  Only kidding.  I decided on a whim we were going too slowly dropped them both within a quarter mile and committed to the longest run of my life alone.  Oof.  Descending down through the woods was a surreal experience but I was fresh enough to avoid falling and within a couple of miles I’d dropped far enough to escape the fog.  The woods were incredibly loud with bugs, frogs and the occasional larger crash of a deer (I hoped).  Even though my sense of place was reduced to the small cone of light into which I kept advancing, the concentration required to stay upright on the slippery and rocky trail kept my mind blank and didn’t get nervous.  A couple of times I did imagine myself looking down from above however – a tiny pin-prick of light making halting progress through a carpet of ink black forest.  Why did I put myself in this situation?

So far navigating was going very well.  My wife had bought me a new Garmin for my birthday and after a couple of weeks of fiddling with it I had the course map loaded and could monitor my relative location on the go very easily.  I also discovered to my delight that many of the small tree markings that denote the trail were reflective and even my tinker toy headlamp was enough to set them twinkling from 50-100 yards away.  Not everyone was having such an easy time however and I caught my first 6:30am’er after about 6.5 miles at the junction with Old Mountain Road.  It was going to be a long night for her.

After a short section on the road to pass under I-84 I headed right into Huckleberry Ridge State Forest.  This was one of a few sections that I’d previewed on Memorial Day through it didn’t stop me making several wrong turns on my way to the trail head.  It’s a muddy, confusing section of trail but I did a better job navigating this time than I had in the middle of the day several months before.  The course this year (at least relatively, according to those who’ve run it before), was incredibly waterlogged.  It meant there were streams everywhere and drinking was never an issue but, on the flipside, most rocks on the trail were slick and treacherous with a layer of moss and algae that might as well have been dish soap.  Worse, it was impossible to keep your feet dry.  My shoes drained well but I had thick woolen socks on and once I’d slipped into a stream the first time my feet would not be dry again until Saturday night – 24 hours away.  I saw another runner on the way out of the forest, moved past her gradually and then, as I did every time I passed a runner throughout the night, proceeded to lose the trail multiple times while she shook their head and chuckled at me.  Losing the trail in upstate forests is no joke.  At best you have to scramble back through dense leaf mold, fording streams and climbing up or under fallen branches and trees.  It happened so often I developed a pretty good system: my watch was zoomed in closely and the GPS arrow jerked about randomly when I stood still making it hard to fix direction.  The trick was to pick a random straight line and go 30 or 40 yards regardless.  That was enough to frame my divergence from the course and allowed me to plan a route back.  After a couple of minutes I almost always found the slightly darker, marginally smoother smudge through the vegetation that was the trail and was on my way.

After an hour or so Huckleberry dumped us down on the Metro North train track for half a mile.  I was hoping to freak out some late night commuters but didn’t see a train and after yet another navigational mistake headed up a short scramble onto the Jeep trail.  I passed Anna the race ambassador striding smoothly with her poles, she said I looked strong, I promptly went the wrong way and cursed my way back through the woods to reappear just in front of her.  I ended up running somewhere between 73 and 77 miles for this 70 mile course, this is why.

I hadn’t appreciated this from the course but after a bit more runnable singletrack through the woods, the course followed a relatively smooth trail for several miles to Otisville.  I have big feet and am not particularly coordinated.  The issue for me with trying to stride out on *mostly* smooth trails is that they’re still trails and still studded with rocks.  Every few yards I’d roll an ankle inwards or outwards or, worse, go to toe off to find a rock under my sole that painfully compressed the tendons on the top of my foot.  None of these strains and sprains were individually bad enough to stop me moving but the cumulative pain got quite severe and I taught the woods of Graham Mountain State Forest some new words.

With 17 miles done, a man blocked the path ahead, silhouetted by two truck headlights cutting the mist from behind him.  I was either about to be murdered or I’d made it to Checkpoint 1.

Here comes Midnight, with the big moon in it’s jaws

Alive and with a few encouraging words ringing in my ears I emerged onto 211, crossed the junction and jogged down the road scanning the steep wooded bank on my right for the entrance to the trail.  I’d done this segment on Memorial Day as well and knew I was looking for…there, a single plank of wood over the ditch, through a hedge and I was on my way up into Gobbler’s Knob State Forest.  This is a steep, steep climb with multiple switchbacks so I opted to power hike and get some food in.  What does one eat at 1am during an ultra?  In my case it was a cheese and marmalade sandwich.  Delicious.  Shortly after reaching the top I caught and slowly passed three more athletes, made a few more wrong turns but then did a decent job of descending down to Indian Orchard Road past another group of 3 runners who seemed to be having fun.  From Indian Road I knew we ran several flat miles along the Western shore of Bashakill, a huge marshy wetland and habitat for an amazing variety of bird life.  I wouldn’t see any birds tonight and I fervently hoped I wouldn’t see the snake I met here on my last visit either.  Before I could stretch my legs however I had to gas up.  To date I’d been running on the two ½ liter soft flasks on the front of my vest.  For the first time I forced myself to take off my vest and use one of the flasks to fill the big, so far unused, 1 ½ liter bladder I had on my back.  Into that I dumped the contents of a bag I’d made at home containing 2 sachets of Maurtens, 2 Nuun tabs and 3 Iodine tablets.  The soft flasks themselves got filled and supplemented with Iodine and Nuun and I set off a few minutes later with 2.5 liters of fluid which should, in 30 minutes or so, be safe to drink.  Bashkakill wasn’t as much fun as I remembered.  It was flat but the ground was sodden and when it wasn’t soaking my feet it was only because the path was raised out of the water by decades of tree roots that made it unrunnable.

Finally saying goodbye to Baskakill, I had a brief road run through Wurstboro which had real street lights and gave my aching forehead a brief break from the pressure of my headlamp.  On the way out of town the road curved up steeply and I was back to hiking and eating cheese and Marmalade sandwiches.  After a few hundred yards I found Checkpoint 2 and after a bit of searching and another waterbottle fill (I would go on to drink 25-30 liters over the race), I was back into the woods, climbing hard through Wurstboro Ridge State Forest and eating.  As long as the race had already been, to date there had been no particular “pay off.”  I’d never run this far before, which was cool, and it was 3am and I didn’t feel physically or mentally tired which was fascinating, but any rewards so far were very internal and would have been hard to explain to someone else.  That changed as I emerged at the top of the climb and began to traverse the ridge spanning Roosa Gap State Forest and Shawangunk Ridge State Forest.  The fog and cloud cover had disappeared from broad swathes of the sky and the stars were shining with a brilliance you can forget about in NYC.  The vegetation was varied but frequently fell to waist high shrubs which after the claustrophobia of the woods was incredibly liberating.  The trail was still rocky but began to feel very “Gunks like” – frequently spilling you onto large stone plateaus which you have to navigate by tuning yourself into the location of cairns, fallen branches and paint tabs before finding the exit.  For the first time the path also began to involve real climbing, frequently dead ending into 6 to 10 foot rock faces.  Alex Honnold would not be troubled but they were strength sapping after 30+ miles.  My pace fell dramatically over this section but it was entirely due to the terrain and I still felt great as I finally descended the several miles down towards 52 and ran the flat into Checkpoint 3.  40 miles.  Over half way.

Some background.  Immediately after checkpoint 3 you begin the biggest climb of the course into Minnewaska State Park.  The park doesn’t open until 5am and in years past the lead-runners departing at 6:30pm had arrived as early as 3:30am and been held for up to 90 minutes.  Times were recorded net of the wait but the 8pm start was introduced this year to minimize the forced wait for faster runners.  I arrived at 4:40am to find only Zack Price (former winner and friend of a good friend) and Andrew Wilkens sprawled on the ground.  Zack had arrived about 20 minutes before me and Andrew an hour before.  The math was tough in my befuddled state but I figured that meant I was in the lead by about 30 minutes.

I was proud of a couple of things about my race but almost nailing my equipment and nutrition was a big one.  As soon as I sat down and pulled out a jiffy bag containing a lipstick sized power bank and micro usb cable – 20 minutes later my watch was almost fully charged.  While that was happening I started plowing through a big bag of trail mix with extra M&Ms and chilli and lime jerky pieces.  At some point I was going to have to shift to sugar but I was putting it off as long as I could.  The last thing I tried to do for myself was change socks as I could feel blisters forming on the balls of both feet.  Unfortunately my spares had been drenched by my clumsy refueling at Bashakill – I could only hope the change of fabric would help.

I’m so tired of traveling alone, won’t you ride with me?

Jonesing for some company, increasingly irritated by my inadequate headtorch, nervous about the climb to come but starting to think about a win, my plan for the next 15 miles or so wrote itself – stay with the others.  When we were finally released at 5 it was quickly apparent that would mean Andrew as Zack began to fall away.  The climb was very steep, rising 1,600 broken, wooded feet in a mile or so.  Andrew set a tough pace – stomping up the slopes and breaking into a trot whenever the ground leveled off.  I tried to lead occasionally but kept losing the trail at which point Andrew would move back into the front and I would meekly follow.  It was a weird dynamic, we were chatting (and I could tell immediately he was great company), but we were still racing and if I twisted an ankle or let a small gap open up he’d stretch it out immediately and force me to chase back.  I began to feel like a bit of a bludger but as we neared the top I started to discern the tops of the trees against the sky and knew that dawn was coming.

When I imagined getting to this point of the race in the weeks prior I imagined exhorting myself to continue for the prospect of finally seeing the sun come up over Minnewaska.  The experience would end up far exceeding my wildest expectations.  After a mile or two hiking up broad, open carriage roads we turned to traverse the mountain side of Sam’s Point to the west of Lake Maratanza and across the famed pitch pine fields – a globally unique ecosystem of beautiful calf-height pine bushes that earn this area it’s tagline as one of the Earth’s Last Great Places.  The dawn felt as though the mountains had been waiting to ambush us.  As soon as we turned the entire Gunks flooded with light from west to east like a paint-with-water book across which someone had spilled a full beaker.  The sky exploded red and orange, the hills and ridgelines bloomed dark green and between them dense mist glowed softly, obscuring the roads and towns below and any indication that Andrew and I weren’t the only two people on earth.  It was one of the most incredible moments of my running life.  Later in the race, at a decidedly lower ebb, I was hiking next to an Italian entrant in the half marathon.  We were trading stories from the race but when I tried to describe this scene to her I burst into tears.  Clearly my emotion regulator packed it in at some point after my legs but it was that kind of view.

With our bodies full of endorphins we ran briskly down the white slash of rocky singletrack across Sam’s Point.  The rutted path required a lot of concentration and we passed several miles in a trance.  Eventually the euphoria subsided, or perhaps the path got rougher still, and we fell into a pattern of run / walking.  My sodden feet were in a rough state.  The lateral push and pull of jumping from rock to rock had wrenched an ever larger area of skin loose under the ball of each foot and I could feel blisters a couple of inches across forming on each side.  I wasn’t exhausted yet, but as I slowed to counter the pain in my feet I stiffened quickly.  Suddenly though, to my great surprise, Andrew announced he was going to walk for a bit and I was on my own.

Hobbled, sore and alone again, the next couple of miles were nevertheless some of my favorite on the course (in part, I admit, because I was savoring thoughts of a Tomahawk).  It was a gorgeous clear day, and the trail wound through the iconic Minnewaska ridges revealing spectacular rock formations and views at every turn.  The price was endless steep scrambles and rock climbs but every single one was worth it.  Each mile was taking well over 20 minutes but I settled on repeating a mantra of “you’re so lucky to be here” and it never felt untrue.

I’m an old man now, I can’t do nothing, Young folks don’t pay me no mind

After a few miles on my own I knelt to refill my bladder again and with a loud “what’s up slowpoke!” Andrew reappeared, refueled and recharged on the trail behind me.  We walked for a while, he announced he was going to run for a bit and I immediately knew that was the last time I’d see him.

And from there it got ugly.

I was somewhere around 15 miles from the finish, further than I thought I’d get but too close to the finish to drop.  I was walking, slowly, and what would be a 100 minute run around Brooklyn could take me 7 hours in my current state.  I didn’t know what to do.  This was my first ultra and I told my wife before I started that I saw no alternative between breaking the course record and dropping.  I wasn’t being arrogant, I just couldn’t fathom being out and in motion for 20 hours.  And yet here I was.  I’d given up on iodining my water as I was drinking faster than the pills would dissolve.  I was still parched though as the sun was now beating down strongly.  Every time I drank sweat poured out of me immediately, pooled in my shorts and stung in a hundred sore and chaffed spots.  My ankles were swollen and, without ankle gaiters (another get for next time), a line of grit and grime under the lips of my socks had worn a bloody band round each foot.   I’d been eating gels regularly for a few hours, my breath stank and my teeth felt carpeted.  I’d stuffed the empty sachets in my vest where the last dregs had squeezed out, soaked through the webbing and created a thick tacky trap for leaf mold and dead bugs on my inner arms.  Slower and slower, stiffer and stiffer.  I switched my mantra to the title of a book about ultras I’d meant to read and hadn’t: “Relentless Forward Progress”.

I’d try not to look at my watch, hike for a half hour, climb a couple of rock faces, pick my way down through a steep crop of bushes, ford a stream, look down and have covered 0.2 miles – it was demoralizing.  A book I had managed to read – “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson – had a lot of background to the science behind smiling in competition so every half hour or so I’d drag the corners of my mouth up into a rictus.  It didn’t help.  The monotony started to be broken by a steady stream of cheerful 30 mile and half marathon runners passing me but eventually even they became a trickle and I was left traipsing after 3 guys from Queens and the aforementioned Italian.  10 miles into their race they were having a great time, taking photos, cracking jokes, I felt as though I was in a different world.

The end never seemed to come any closer except that, incrementally and imperceptibly, it did.  5 became 4.9 became 4.8 became 4 became 3.9…became 7.9 when I finally reconciled myself to how much extra I’d run and broke my own heart, became 7, became 6 and so on.  And on.  The final quarter mile was across the spectacular Wallkill bridge in Rosendale and for the second time on the course I very nearly lost it.  Composing myself I finally turned off the trail, thanked everyone, shook a few hands, had a beer, lay down in the grass and promptly fell asleep.

Many thanks to Ken, Todd and all the volunteers who put on this great race.  Their passion for the Gunks and its trails is clear and infectious and in this event they have the best possible way to share that passion.

Ben Leese’s 70-mile SRT Race Report