Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Race Recap: 2012 Escarpment Trail Run

Waiting in the rain at the start
This past Sunday I ran my 4th major race, and 6th overall, of the 2012 season: the Escarpment Trail Run. It's a quirky event ... there's no online registration (you apply by postal mail), and no awards for winners. Yet, it has a big reputation in the trail running community. I think that's because, in many ways, this is trail racing at its purest: one trail, through the mountains, no road crossings. Just you, other runners, and some magnificent country traversed via a very challenging route. It's been called the "Boston Marathon of trail runs." Mile for mile, it's one of the toughest trail races in the country.

The race follows the Escarpment Trail for 30k (18.6 miles) through the Catskill Mountains. The Escarpment itself is a steep mountain wall, where the Catskills rise up 2,000 vertical feet from the Hudson Valley far below just to their east. The Escarpment is also known as the Wall of Manitou, and it's a striking feature of the landscape. At times, the trail follows the edge of cliffs overlooking the valley; at other times, it follows ridgelines up and over summits. Seven of them, in fact. From the northern trailhead in Windham, NY to the finish line a North/South Lake in Haines Falls, the route tackles Windham High Peak, Burnt Knob, Acra Point, Blackhead Mountain (the race's highest point at an elevation of 3,940'), Arizona Mountain, Stoppel Point, and North Mountain.

All of those mountains add up to some serious elevation change. In less than 19 miles, the trail logs a very impressive (even intimidating) 10,000 vertical feet of elevation change. It's rugged country in the heart of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Because the trail crosses no roads, aid station volunteers hike/backpack in to trail junctions carrying all the water and supplies. The trail features occasional rock scrambling, steep ascents and descents, ledges, and overall rough going.

And they're off! More than 200 runners funnel onto the Escarpment Trail
Aside from the pure challenge of the race, and the appeal of running through the mountains, this race had added significance for me. I'd never seen the middle section of trail before race day, but both the start and finish had connections to earlier times in my life.

My first job out of college was working as an ecologist for an environmental non-profit in the Albany, New York area, two hours north of New York City. I lived in a nearby suburb. Longing for the mountains, sometimes after work I'd drive south 40 minutes or so to Windham and trail run up the Escarpment Trail toward the summit of Windham High Peak.

Even earlier in my life, from the age of about 11 to about 15, each summer my family would take a week-long camping trip to North/South Lake, the southern terminus of the race. We'd always do a hike up the Escarpment Trail to North Point, a prominent series of open rock ledges below the summit of North Mountain, with sweeping vistas.

Now, in this race, I'd revisit those old haunts.

The only problem was the weather. Major storms swept through on Friday. More heavy rain followed on Saturday. And on race morning Sunday, you guessed it ... more rain. In fact, it would rain steady and hard for 95% of my race. It made for treacherous conditions—mud, standing water, trails flowing like streams, very slick rocks. Staying on your feet and not taking a hard drive would be an important focus of the day. (I almost bit the dust probably a dozen times. Miraculously, the only two times I fell where in the brief sections of trail where the rocks and roots relented ... once I landed in some soft moss, another time in ferns. What luck! Falling anywhere else on the trail would have been very bad news.)

Heading into the race, I had a pair of goals: crack the Top 20, which would equate roughly with the top 10%, and/or finish in 3:30. I felt like both of those goals were reasonable if I ran well. But this was a very tough race. In any given year, the winner might finish in sub-3 hours. The last finishers might take 7 hours. The race director advised those of us running the race for the first time to add one hour to your typical marathon (26.2 miles) time, for a race less than 19 miles! (Incredibly, one guy was running the race to earn his "600 mile" T-shirt, which meant he was gunning for his 33rd finish, and the race was in its 36th year, I think!)

I had two main concerns going into the race: course conditions and my leg fitness.

With the rain, I expected to run slower and cautiously. The one saving grace was that temps in the 60s and the constant rain kept things very comfortable. There was no risk of overheating on this day, which otherwise might be a problem for a race in New York State at the end of July. I revised my target finish time to 4 hours.

It might seem funny to also be worried about my leg fitness, given that I've been running ultras all season, but let me explain. Compared to my last major race, the Finger Lakes Fifties Ultra, the Escarpment Trail Run tackles twice the elevation gain and loss in half as much distance. That's a four-fold increase in the elevation profile of the course. Following the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler at Bear Mountain, I'd tailored my training to focus on running a faster pace over mellower trails, parallel to what I expected at the Finger Lakes Fifties Ultra. But that meant that I hadn't been running the hills much. After recovering from Finger Lakes, I'd only had two weeks or so of running trails with larger elevation changes before it was time for the Escarpment, and I wasn't sure how my legs would handle the shock of jumping back into a mountain race with 10,000' of elevation change. We'd see how that would pan out.

At the finish line 30k (18.6 miles) later
The race began at 8:59am. (Not 9:00am. Remember, I said this was a quirky event!) More than 200 runners packed the trailhead along the side of the highway. I slotted myself in up close to, but not at, the front of the race. I knew that very shortly after setting off, we'd cross a narrow wooden bridge over a stream bed and hit the singletrack trail. It's a major bottleneck, and it comes almost immediately. I didn't want to get stuck behind a mass of bodies. So I went out much harder than I normally might. I was pushing the pace, but I wanted to get established on the trail before dialing back the pace and settling into a rhythm.

The long ascent of Windham High Peak went well. I eventually settled into my usual routine: power hike steeper sections, jog the easy uphills. I reached the summit in about 25th place.

The descent off Windham was a long, semi-technical descent, and I made good time here. I tend to run the technical downhills pretty well, and that was true in this race as well. I passed several racers, and by the time I reached the bottom of the major climb to the summit of Blackhead, I was in 21st place, with an eye toward cracking into the top 20.

The ascent of Blackhead is a big one—it's steep and unrelenting. In less than a mile, the route climbs some 1,500 vertical feet. I held my position in the race, continued over the summit, and bombed the descent to Dutcher's Notch, a mountain pass at the base of the next major ascent up Stoppel Point.

I'd decided to keep my race nutrition pretty simple on this day. I carried a single 20-ounce bottle with First Endurance EFS drink (which I topped off with Gatorade from aid stations as I passed through). And I carried a single 4-ounce flask of First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot for extra energy.

Everything was going according to plan ... until I hit the ascent of Stoppel Point.

Team Bronski
By the time I reached the ascent of Stoppel Point, my legs were really feeling the race. The ascent of Stoppel happens in three distinct chunks—three steep climbs separated by brief stretches of runnable trail. I was making steady uphill progress, but my pace had definitely slowed. A number of runners passed me on this uphill, and I slipped back to the high 20s in the standings.

Near the summit of Stoppel Point, I encountered the famous plane wreck. Decades ago a small passenger plane crashed on the mountain, and its ghostly fuselage and wings still sit on the mountain, literally an arm's reach off the side of the trail.

Shortly beyond was the Stoppel Point aid station, 14.4 miles down, 4.2 to go. From there, it's an easy run over the top of North Mountain, and then a long, pounding, rocky descent to North/South Lake. Had there been any views on Sunday, I would've liked to have seen them. But we remained socked in by clouds, and I focused on maintaining my footing.

Fortunately, I maintained a good pace on the descent, and didn't slip back in the standings further. I had hoped to catch and pass some of the runners who had passed me on the ascent of Stoppel, but I couldn't reel them in. Three of them finished four minutes ahead of me.

I popped out of the forest and across the finish line in 4:01:11. (My prediction, remember, was 4 hours. Not bad!) I placed 29th out of 208 finishers. Also not bad.

My legs felt like overcooked gluten-free pasta noodles. They were toast. It was a funny feeling—my legs felt liked they'd been through a war, but overall my body lacked the kind of deep fatigue that comes at the end of a 50-mile ultra. When Marin asked me, "Daddy, was this a short race or a long race?" my response was something along the lines of, "It felt like both."

I chugged a bottle of First Endurance Ultragen for recovery, changed my clothes, and Team Bronski moseyed over to the lake so the girls could take a dip. They get the Spectators of the Year Award for enduring that awful weather. Especially since spectators can only really see runners at the start and finish. It's a lot of waiting around otherwise.

Looking ahead, my next major race is The Big One: the Virgil Crest Ultra. I'll spend this week recovering from the Escarpment, then focus my training on hard runs, with long miles and lots of mountains with hefty elevation change. Virgil Crest is seven weeks away, and I'm going to be ready. Let the countdown begin!



Melissa said...

Way to go, Pete! Congratulations. You're certainly having a good season. Thanks for the "run-down" of the race. Wow, 19 miles with 10,000 vertical feet! That's a lot of climbing. No wonder your legs felt like overcooked GF pasta noodles (perfect description).

Looking forward to text updates on the Virgil Crest Ultra. Keep us posted!


maryfran | frannycakes said...

Wow! You are one incredible athlete!

You are an inspiration to anyone who has followed your story.

Keep up the amazing work!

singletrackmind said...

Enjoyed the write up. I was finisher 28 and remember seeing you around Stoppel. I guess I took the opposite approach as you -- tolerate the congo line and take it very easy up Windham to save my legs, and then steadily pick up the pace and pass people once they had spread out. I'm not sure which is the better approach, but it worked out alright. I was aiming for four hours as well and came in just under. In any case, nice race, great write up, and good luck at Virgil.

Nancy said...

Wow! Congratulations. Great athlete! Very inspirational story being incredible athlete to anyone. Gluten-free foods for athlete is very important. I love reading your blog. Keep up the amazing work!

peterbronski said...

Hi Melissa, Thanks for the congrats! Very much looking forward to Virgil Crest.

Hi MaryFran, Thanks for your kind words!

Hi Singletrackmind, Nice running! Good work. In the past I've taken your approach as well. Lately I've been experimenting with running more up front in the beginning (especially when there's a bottleneck). It has worked for me in some races, not as much in others. Hope you have a great rest of the season. Any races on your calender?

Hi Nancy, Thanks for the congrats!

Cheers, Pete