Monday, July 26, 2010

Escarpment 30K Trail Run - 2010 Race Report

Escarpment Trail Run 30K – 2010 Race Report: This was my first time running the Escarpment Trail race. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Reading some of the reports online, the most common adjective used to describe the course is “brutal.” With about 10,000 feet of elevation gain over 30K, that sounded about right.

So I figured, since I was a rookie, I would try to take it easy – walk all the ascents, and try to make some time on the descents and flats. Next year I can try for a faster time.

Fortunately the weather was cooperative. Low 80s and a nice breeze once you get up on the ridge. Not bad given that the day before it had been 93 with high humidity.

The first big climb comes almost right away – up to the top of Windham Peak. The first thing I noticed was the rockiness of the trail. Rocks rocks everywhere! This continued practically the entire way. So, if you’re going to run this one, get some practice running with high knees over obstacle strewn trails.

Midway up Windham, I heard one woman breathlessly ask her friends “are all of the hills this like this?” I think they were afraid to tell her that Windham is the easiest one. Mental note: always research a course before you run it! (Here's a good link for this course).

Once we made it up to the top, there was an amazing cool breeze. You could hear the whole line of runners exclaiming “ahh!” An escarpment is what I would call a ridge, a relatively narrow piece of land connecting several mountain peaks. This one rises up abruptly from the Hudson River, forming the easternmost edge of the Catskill Mountains. The views are spectacular—they continue the entire way—you can see hundreds of miles. Hiking here in the fall or early spring, when the leaves are down would be especially beautiful.

The aid stations here are a feat. Since the course crosses no roads, hikers have to backpack in all of the aid. Dick Vincent, the race director, said there were 75 volunteers supplying the aid stations on the course. Because it has to be hiked in, water is rationed. Some aid stations enforced this more than others. Most runners carry only a single bottle, which is probably enough for most people. Since I tend to drink a lot, this was tough for me. I carried a 1.5 L backpack, which I nearly drained before the first aid station, then kept topping it off with whatever the volunteers could give me. Some aid stations had food while others didn’t. Next time, I’ll carry some of my own to supplement. The volunteers here are amazing, wonderful, and dedicated to the race. I can’t say enough in praise of their efforts.

The next section, down Windham then over Burnt Knob and Acra Point, is not especially difficult. The major problem here, again, is the rocks, which makes it hard to run with any speed, even on the relatively flat sections. In throwing and catching sports, coaches talk about training eye-hand coordination—this kind of running requires eye-foot coordination. Dancing over a rock strewn path and not falling doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. For this reason most of the race I was running (or hiking) well below my aerobic threshold. My brain simply couldn’t translate the incoming visual information into safe foot placements fast enough to run well over the rocks. I apparently need to do some agility training to make me faster over this kind of terrain.

I chatted with a guy here who told me “this is my first trail race ever.” I thought “gosh that’s stupid,” but said “wow!” Then he added, seemingly to show how tough he was, that he had raced a half marathon the day before. Now that I was sure he was stupid, I stopped for a bathroom break and let him go ahead. “I wonder if I’ll catch him again,” I thought.

By far the hardest part of the course is the ascent up Blackhead. It’s hard effort-wise, but it’s not dangerous. I was scared by the reports I had read that said it involved “rock climbing.” But, while I used my hands several times to help pull myself up, there is no actual rock climbing involved. By this I mean that, if you fall on the trail here, you will fall no more than three feet. You will not be clinging to a cliff side where falling would mean falling to your death. (In general, the entire trail struck me as very safe. I am afraid of heights, and at no point was I scared of falling off the mountain).

I passed about six runners on the way up Blackhead. Although I’m generally slow over trails, I have good cardiovascular strength, and so could maintain a solid power hike all the way to the top. I'm also glad I've been training step-ups, and box jumps, since the climbs here use a lot of these types of movements.

Blackhead is about the halfway point. I was dismayed that I made it here in 3:20, but the volunteers helpfully told me that, although it is halfway distance-wise is it more than halfway time-wise. In other words, the first half of the course is harder than the second half. This turned out to be true, since I finished in six hours almost exactly.

After Blackhead, you descend into Dutcher’s Notch, the saddle between Blackhead and Stoppel Point.

The Blackhead descent is steep. Since I’m a lousy downhill runner, I walked a lot of this portion too. Part of my problem is fear of falling on the rocks. Part of it is lack of practice running downhills. Several of the runners I passed on the way up Blackhead passed me in turn on the way down.

Stoppel is easier than Blackhead because it is broken in to three smaller ascents punctuated by runnable flats where I was able to make up some time.

I reached the landmark plane wreckage on top of Stoppel sooner than I expected. A small plane crashed into the mountain years ago, and the wreck sits right next to the trail. You come up on it quickly as you ascend and come around a corner. It’s creepy – the plane almost made it over the mountain – maybe another 50 or 100 feet up and he would have cleared the trees. Apparently, a lot of planes have crashed into the escarpment since it rises so suddenly from the Hudson Valley.

From this point, it is more or less flat and downhill. What slowed me up the most here is that some of the downhills involve jumping several feet down over boulders (or crawling backwards or scooting down on your butt). Some practice jumping down off rocks three to six feet high will save you a lot of time on this course. Other than that I let loose. I had a lot of energy left at the end of the race and, except for a few steep places, pretty much ran the last 4 miles.

About two miles from the end I caught up to the guy who was doing his “first trail race ever.” Although the course was flat here and very runnable, he was walking. As I ran by I asked him if he was having fun. He replied, “Fun? Uhh…” He looked pretty beat. “Well hang in there,” I said, “you’re almost done.”

Two miles to go, and I was flying. I felt great and had a ton of energy left. Looking at my watch I could see I had a shot at breaking six hours, which is the cutoff for qualifying for next year’s race, so I made that my goal.

Less than a mile from the campground, I started seeing dayhikers, and knew I was close. I also saw a bear den – a two foot circular hole dug into the soil of the rocky hillside. The trail passed only 20 feet from it. The ranger at the park had told us bears had been coming down nightly to raid campsites, and that this week the DEC had shot a mother with cubs. Too bad people can’t keep their food locked up properly.

I finished the 30K in 6:00:32. This, for me, is about an average trail 50K time. I think this is a good estimate for a first Escarpment run; if you take it easy, you will finish in about the same as an average 50k trail race.

I’m positive I could do it faster. All the warnings I’d heard made me run it slow and easy. If I push the pace a little, and do some specific training for running over rocks and steep descents (including jumping down), I could likely shave almost an hour off that time.

I had a great time at an amazing and beautiful race, and I didn’t fall once. I’m going to try to make it back next year if I possibly can.


  1. Way to go! My friends and I have talked about possibly doing this one at some point in time. Nice report, too.

  2. Great recap and congrats on your finish! Hope to see you again next year:)

  3. Good job finishing the race. That was my first time out there as well. Those rocks... those constant, constant rocks... the Escarpment Trail doesn't seem like it would been an easy backpacking trail either.

    There is one thing you said that mirrored almost *exactly* what I experienced, too: "My brain simply couldn't translate the incoming visual information into safe foot placements fast enough to run well over the rocks." Not sure how I made it out without a massive spill, but hooray for that.

    Good luck next year -- perhaps see you and others out there as well.

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