Monday, June 30, 2014

Sometimes It's Good to Wear Shoes

Race Deets:
Location: Windham, NY to Phoenicia, NY
Results: Nathan - 13th (14:05:56)
Of Note: First ultra in the mountains with the really squiggly elevation charts (see below)

The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know. --Probably Albert Einstein

Sometime back in the beginning of the year, after my brother Phillip bought me bus tickets to visit him in Brooklyn, I decided to mix vacation with hill training and began looking for a nice hilly race near New York. What started as an attempt to make up for Columbus’s woefully inadequate elevation variation in one race, ended with me fully reframing my understanding of ultramarathon races.

Study up. This will come in handy later.

I arrived at the startline at 5:03am, and I was greeted with a You must be Nathan, not because they knew who I was, but due to my being the last in the wave to check in. Luckily, I was starting in the second of about 6 waves at 5:05am. Perhaps I was bleary-eyed with excitement at having barely missed my start, but the atmosphere was absolutely amazing. The first wave had just gone off as I arrived and everyone else seemed to know each other and the trails and seemed to love hanging out with both. I had not yet realized my complete ignorance of the hours of grueling trails ahead of us when one or two other runners in my wave nonchalantly asked, You’re running in those? I looked down to my still-happy toe-shoed feet, Yeah, I always run in FiveFingers. They laughed, You must not know these trails then. I admitted I didn’t, but the reality hadn’t set in. I had trained on some graveled trails in Columbus, which is not too fun in a light pair of FiveFingers Sprints, but I imagined Manitou’s trails as incredibly hilly yet unquestionably runnable--nothing I couldn’t handle.

Before my mind was to be blown by the Catskill Mountains, the gun (aka race director Charlie Gadol saying Go) went off and we headed down a quiet country road for 3 miles before turning into the woods. On the road, I chatted with some other runners, John Johnson and I talked about our previous races and he told me about PA races. I geeked out slightly when I realized Denis Mikhaylov, 2013 Manitou’s Revenge and Escarpment Trail winner, and John "Lakewood" Fegyveresi, who completed the Barkley Marathons on his first attempt back in 2012, were running in the same wave as me. I recalled that at the startline Charlie Gadol had mentioned the incredibly deep field at this year’s Manitou’s Revenge. I was the lowly kindergartener jogging side-by-side with the preeminent scholars of trail running.

The death march commenceth

The Escarpment Trail would be our path up to about mile 20 in the race. Awestruck by the all-encompassingness of the forest at dawn, I barely managed to keep Denis in sight. After about half an hour he was invisible through the twisting trail, but that was enough time for me to acclimate to simultaneously following the small blue disks marking the trail and watching my foot placement as the trail became increasingly stone-strewn. The night before, when my parents asked when I was expecting to finish, I told them I thought 13 or 14 hours was a reasonable expectation. When I hit the first incline up to Acra Point (4 miles and about an hour into the race), I realized 13 or 14 hours was ambitious.

The beauty of starting a race pre-dawn is that by, say, 8am, the race is already 3 hours old. Up to about 9am I kept convincing myself I could be just waking up, in another world. This wasn’t too much wishful thinking. One moment I would be ensconced in the cool dark of the thick forest and without warning the trail would round a corner and the trees would open up, affording me and other runners views of the surrounding mountains and lower-lying land. This was the first race I actually stopped to take in the beauty. As other runners said at these points, It’s worth a stop. It was initially exciting to measure my progress up the first mountain, Blackhead, but this sense of accomplishment began to slip with each passing mountain. At 3940’, Blackhead Mountain is the highest point along the course, so naturally, I told myself jokingly, The rest is downhill. The next 47 miles were anything but that.

Thanks to Joe Azze for braving the course and photographing!

Soon after Blackhead, Jonathan Cornibe and John Kurisky came flying past me. I wanted to go with them, but I remembered my first ultra, the 2012 Fools 50K, in which I let people go and stuck to the pace my body naturally chose for me. That strategy helped me tackle a then-unknown distance, and I figured that would be the smartest running decision I could make for the utter unknown ahead of me.

The first large aid station (there were two smaller ones earlier, one of which required the volunteers to hike everything, including gallons upon gallons of water about 2 miles into the woods to meet us) was at North-South Lake, about 17.5 miles into the race. The volunteers were incredible, quickly checking each bib number to find the runners’ names so that they could give a personalized welcome as we entered the station. It took me 3 hours and 21 minutes to reach this point. Wow, the finish line came quicker than I thought! I joked that my time must be a Manitou’s record by at least 9 hours. The amount of cheering they gave us at this very first checkpoint was equal to that at any finish line I’ve crossed. The volunteer who was taking down our numbers and times asked if I was Hungarian. For those in the know, “Szabados” is a dead giveaway, though I have a less direct route than she does via my great-grandfather. It was a relief to take my mind off the throbbing pain in my feet and have a normal, albeit brief conversation with someone to take me out of my own head.

As I left North-South Lake aid station, she told me it’s mostly downhill to the Palenville aid station 4 miles away. Almost immediately, I was climbing up again. I think she meant “mostly downhill” in the same sense that the course was downhill after Blackhead. As my mind Bartleby-ed my body with any slight incline in the trail, I allowed myself to walk on the inclines and slow jog/power hike the descents. I took stock: I had been eating and drinking well so far. Carrying 32oz of bottles was definitely the right choice going into this race, even though it wasn’t hot--high 40s at the start and a high in the low 70s by afternoon--and there was no humidity. My feet were splashy but that was unavoidable at this point.

As I took the last descent before Palenville, two guys came careening down behind me. I’m sure they weren’t going much quicker than I was, but each step over the rock-strewn path was slashing and burning my feet. I had rolled my ankle(s) about a mile back when I took a wrong turn off the trail and found myself running into the woods. My mind was focused like Sauron’s eye on Platte Clove, where my family was volunteering and a heftier pair of FiveFingers KMDs awaited me. I told the latter of the two speed demons, Dovid Fein, to Go get ‘em. But he simply said I’m not getting anyone, I’m just running and having fun. (Or something like that.) Cool, I thought, at least I’m not the only one.

A very common view up in the mountains, but the first sighting of a Nathan.

Dovid and I ended up leaving Palenville at about the same time and began running to the next big incline, Kaaterskill High Peak. This was a monster, not because it was the tallest mountain on the course but because it had the greatest uninterrupted climb. We walked up it, lightheartedly griping about the ridiculousness of such a massive, singular incline, while the whole time I was imagining Gollum singing, Up, up, up, up, up the stairs we go! as we were led to our impending doom… Actually this was the most enjoyable part of the race--Dovid’s a cool guy from NY and we joked about making a hill sprint workout on this mountain, and about how fast the leaders must have summitted it. Speaking of summits, holy false summits! Countless times we came to a slight decrease in the incline and Dovid would call out, I think this is it. Only for us to keep climbing a moment later. Ten minutes after a false summit he’d reassess, You know how I said we’ve been climbing for 20 minutes? Well, it’s actually been 30. I needed this banter at this point in the race. I still had 9 or 10 hours left before I met the finish line. It’s possible to negative split the halves of a relatively flat 50K or even 50 miler, but when you are up against mountains like the ones in Manitou’s Revenge, I learned that the halfway point is somewhere near mile 40 (in a 54 mile race)!

Once we got over that gnarly climb, I realized I was out of water, yet we still had about 8 miles before the next aid station at Platte Clove. Before I signed up for this race, I read Denis Mikhaylov’s race report. One excerpt read, After climbing another huge boulder I almost blacked out, and really had to do something about hydration. Then I saw some water slowly dripping from mossy walls of the mountain. Yep, I just stood there letting water drip from rocks on my tongue and getting some from wet moss… I’m not gonna lie, that’s part of what attracted me to the race--the sheer ridiculousness of it. Granted, Denis’s experience was from later on in the course and I was not yet that desperate, but I couldn’t help looking at mossy rock and thinking, Why not. Luckily I didn’t have to resort to such a measure, as we came upon Buttermilk Falls. This small but gorgeous waterfall and stream were a perfectly placed waterstop between Palenville and Platte Clove. Dovid and I stopped to refill and I also splashed some water on my face to wake me up a bit. Two other runners caught up with us here, John Johnson and Travis Twoey (I think). Together we set off toward Platte Clove, but not without stopping at a vista point for a moment to take in the view. Foot-wise, this was the worst part of the course for me. I kept up with Dovid as long as I could, but once we hit a downhill, this guy took off. He told me that in races like this, downhill running is what wins a race. He learned the skill and Sheryl Wheeler is another avid practitioner. It’s downhill runners you have to watch out for--you may beat them on the uphills and the flats, but they can make up incredible chunks of time while you’re cherry-picking your way down a treacherous hill. He was right: on that downhill from KHP to Platte Clove, perhaps 3½ miles, Dovid put one hour and five minutes between us. If for nothing else, I will return to races in this area to learn how to run downhill.

The blue dot means it's trail. The rocks mean it hurts.

The other thing I’m going to remember--and Manitou’s drilled this into my head--always over prepare. Yes, I’m not yet a downhill runner, but also wearing FiveFingers on that course was stupid. Even if I had the energy and ability to keep up with Dovid, the pain in my feet was indescribable. I was reduced to a walk all the way into Platte Clove. I was so happy to see my parents and tell them about this crazy trail. They, as always, are caught between, Why do you do these crazy races?! and Please keep doing these races in beautiful parts of the country! I am more than happy to oblige with the latter! (They recently put in a request for Vermont, in fact…)

No offense to them, at that moment I was probably just as excited to see my KMDs. I sat down to take off the Sprints and found out that I had actually torn through the bottoms--there was a nice flap of rubber cut up by the rocks. What I also found out was that I had a broken and swollen toe and it blistered as well. The problem with FiveFingers is that pinkie toes are basically left out to die--every time I kicked a rock for the last 10 miles, it was the pinkie toe that took the brunt of it. I knew it would be bad, but this looked worse than I had imagined. The doctor came over to buddy tape the toe, but I told her all I had was another pair of toe shoes, so that wouldn’t work. She opted to tape the “toes” of the shoe to at least give me a bit of stability. When John Johnson came into the aid station and saw how ridiculous I was being, he immediately offered me an extra pair of shoes. The non-toed kind. I nearly cried. The doctor, my parents and their encouragement, and John and his extra pair of La Sportiva Helios saved my race. When he then saw that I also only had toe socks, he gave me a pair of his Swiftwicks. I couldn’t offer him enough thanks and his response was essentially, This is just something you do for people. This is another reason I love the small ultramarathons--there is definitely fierce competition, but there is also a strong sense of support for one another. If you can help another runner to reach the finish line, you will.

I left Platte Clove much happier than I thought I would, positively bouncing in my borrowed kicks. I actually ran out of the aid station onto the road in a completely new frame of mind. I was entering the hardest part of the course for which Charlie had warned, YOU MUST HAVE A HEADLAMP WHEN LEAVING PLATTE CLOVE AID STATION. NO EXCEPTIONS! This will seem crazy to you in the middle of the afternoon, but after that point, you are entering the rugged area of the Devil’s Path and Warner Brook Trail, and could be out there well after dark...Even if it is only 2 pm, you don’t know what could happen to you on this course, and having a headlamp could save your life. It was just turning noon when I scampered out of the station, but from my experience thus far, I knew that truly anything could happen. My reassessed goal was to finish in daylight or finish period. Running the relatively easy prequel trail to the Devil’s Path, I felt great. A large part of my new-found positivity was the shoes, but the periodic walking that the FiveFingers had forced me to do kept my legs in relatively good shape up to this point.

I caught up with Sheryl Wheeler and ran with her for a bit. I made sure to pick her brain about downhill running before I moved on ahead. Devil’s Path is aptly named. It consists of three mountains and the most rugged trail I have ever seen. At times, I felt like I wasn’t running trail, but a random, untouched path through the mountains mapped out by someone who simply thought, Eh, let’s go this way, with no other discernable plan or direction other than up. I lost the markers several times and had to backtrack. I realized that 90% of the time when I had the option to climb up or run on a relatively flat section, I just had to climb higher and I would reach the next marker. Up, up, up, up, up the stairs we go!

Look at those beautiful kicks!
Like Ben Nephew said in his race report, if you don’t know the trails, photos may serve you better in understanding the race and course. In an attempt to explain Devil’s Path, I’ll say that it felt like rock climbing without gear. I loved this part of the race the most, actually, because it gave me an excuse to slow down and hike. On a few descents, I tried Sheryl Wheeler’s downhill advice, but as I am still a newb, had to throw myself in front of trees to slow me down when my pace got uncontrollable on the slipping, dangerous rock. Devil’s Path during the day was a treat to slice through late-in-the-race boredom and unfocusedness that came with mental and physical exhaustion. I cannot even imagine how some heroes tackle Devil’s Path at night.

Indian Head, Twin, and Sugarloaf Mountains went a lot quicker than I thought they would. I use “quicker” in a very loose way--the seven miles between Platte Clove and Mink Hollow (the aid station between Sugarloaf and Plateau Mountains) took me three hours. To answer those who asked if I would be running the whole race, let these 25 minutes per mile splits be the answer. By the time I was half way up Plateau Mountain, my mind slipped out of the high and I started getting frustrated at the course. Where the hell is this plateau part?! Well, the mountain eventually leveled off and I started a slow trot. I kept thinking about not wanting to have anything left after the race and that I was just past mile 40, the “halfway point.” I took the trot up to a jog and eventually into a run. The course wound through trees with a soft, needle-strewn trail underfoot. The first forgiving ground of this entire race and the momentary respite from arduous climbs allowed me to pick up my pace to what felt like 6½ or 7 minutes per mile. It was short lived as the plateau is less than a mile in length but a necessary boost in my confidence, If I can throw in a fast mile even this late in the race, maybe I can finish in one piece.

I’m glad I was running alone at this point (though maybe it would have been good to have some company), because my mood was pretty bad. The volunteers at Silver Hollow must have noticed this as I devoured sandwiches, pierogies, potatoes, everything, because one recommended I take a dip in Warner Creek, about halfway to the next aid station. As I made my way over yet another mountain and down the long path to the creek, I pined for a cool swim. When I finally reached it, I took my (well, John’s) socks and shoes off and walked across the shin-deep water. It was clear and cool and glorious. I put everything on the opposite bank and dipped fully under the water. The whole experience was surreal. I sat on the mossy bank with late afternoon sun shining down, cut up by the leaves on the trees, warm and cold at the same time. I was woken from this poetic stupor when I saw Sheryl come down the trail and waltz over the water without getting a drop of water in her shoes. I couldn’t believe it--I had waded across because I knew my exhaustion and clumsiness would throw me in, and I wanted dry shoes for the last 7 or so miles. She was unstoppable.

Again, aware of her prowess on downhills, and knowing there was only one last uphill push for me to make some ground, I power hiked away with as much gusto as I could manage, which is to say, very little. Departing from the reality of the course, I had been imagining that Silver Hollow to the Creek was 2½ miles and it was another 2½ miles to the Mount Temper aid station, the last in the race. From there, I thought I had about six miles to the finish. Turns out it was not five miles from Silver Hollow to Mount Temper, but closer to seven. This simple thing put me in a dark place. It didn’t help that it was physically darkening as the evening light wasn’t easily making its way through the thick forest to the ground. I eventually saw a man walking on the trail towards me, and figured he was a part of Sheryl’s team because who would be out at this remote part of the course at this time? I thought to look tough but said forget it, and asked him how far to the next aid station. It is longer than you would think, about another half hour.

Sure enough, he was right. Half an hour later I was greeted with MIA pumping quietly from the aid station speakers while an inviting camp fire burned in front of the lean-to. These volunteers were so happy it forced me to smile. All I took were a few Skittles and they filled my 12oz bottle with pineapple juice. I wanted to travel light. I started asking, What’s… and immediately one of the volunteers broke down the rest of the course to me, You have three miles of nice wooded trails followed by one and a half of road straight to the finish line in Phoenicia. This was the best news all day (the shoes were heaven, but this was different)! I hightailed it out of there and began the descent back to civilization. I stopped about 30 seconds out of the aid station to take care of some business but when I swear I heard Sheryl coming into the aid station, I said forget it, time to go. I set a goal to get to the road in 30 minutes. I made it down the incredibly rocky trail in less than 27 minutes and the last mile and a half on the road I did in about nine minutes. As I approached the finish, I hurtled a “Caution Runners on Road” sign and collapsed in the grass of the Phoenicia Parish Hall at the finish line.

Caution: Photographers on Road

Dovid, aiming for 15 or so hours, ended up about 36 minutes ahead of me--3 hours and 30 minutes faster than he was last year. It seemed like most people I talked with had even better experiences and times than they did last year, and those who got lost or had some problems this time around were still upbeat and happy to have run these trails.

The volunteers and race director, Charlie Gadol, put on one hell of a race. I stuck around for a few hours to watch others finish. It was a blast, chatting and cheering, limping over to the buffet to refuel, and re-taping my dang toe. When John Johnson finished, I went over to congratulate him and thank him for saving my race. I had laid his Helios out to dry, but he said, Just keep them. It’s official, mountain ultra people are the best.

Mom people are also the best. My parents are an incredible crew.

When I thought of how I would describe the experience to Steve, my roommate, upon returning to the flatland of central Ohio, the only suitable thing that came to mind was, Think about how hard we imagine the Barkley Marathons are. THAT was what Manitou’s Revenge felt like. Looks like we have to reimagine the magnitude of Barkley’s legendary difficulty. But that’s still a long way off.


  1. :) You are a goofball Nathan. Maybe one day I can teach you how to properly use downhills to your advantage. I charge $25 every half hour. We'll be in contact. Keep taping that toe. Love, Coach Eva

    1. Hello Coach Eva, I'll have my people call your people. I need the downhill advantage! BUT your rates are ridiculous! Manitou's itself was only about $4 every half hour :) Thank you!!