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Kopac's Corner

High Above the Hawks - The Escarpment Trail Run

by Bob Kopac

"One must, in one's life, make a choice between boredom and suffering."--Madame de Stael

There is suffering aplenty to be found at the Escarpment Trail Run in the Hudson Valley of New York. It is difficult to comprehend why anyone would endure the pain of this grueling 30K race. Perhaps it is because this race gives you the ultimate "runners high," both in attitude and altitude. However, the race does exact its cost in pain. The five-page entry form attempts to ward off the uninitiated or unprepared runners with several ominous statements.

THE ESCARPMENT TRAIL RUN...mile for mile this is as rugged, as challenging a run as there is. For this reason PLEASE READ THE ENTIRE APPLICATION CAREFULLY!!! If you are still interested, please reconsider.

The opening paragraph of the race form screams out to the erstwhile participant that this is a race for serious runners only. Similar to the totems placed on sacred sites to warn off trespassers, the entry form warns of dire difficulties and prodigious pain that will befall the casual runner.

This is for the seasoned veteran who is looking for something different.

Race coordinators (and race participants) Dick Vincent and Jean Kerr always hold a party for the runners the day before the race. Perhaps this is one last opportunity to dissuade runners from attempting the race. If so, the spectacular view from the Cliffhouse would lure even the non-runner into running in these beautiful mountains. The stunning scenery cloaks the difficult trails. Fortunately, most runners at the party were trail-hardened veterans.

As Tony Scott explained to me at the get-together, "The Escarpment Trail Run is a special race. It seems it becomes easier the more times I run the race. This year, a few weeks before the race, I hiked the last two miles of the trail to help me visualize what will happen during the race."

The following physical complications have/could occur; broken bones, ligament - cartilage - tendon sprains & tears, dislocations, cuts & bruises (requiring stitches), hypothermia, hyperthermia, multiple bee stings, poison ivy, concussions, dehydration, and an occasional divorce.

If a runner becomes lost during the run, he or she only has to look for the steepest part of the mountain--where one can usually find the trail. One of the consequences of the steep downhill sections of the course is that runners must use their hands to brace themselves against trees to slow their free falls. As a result, several competitors have their hands pierced by branches--runner stigmata.

Even a mundane incident can cause major problems. During a previous race, Tony fell and lost his eyeglasses in the underbrush. Without his glasses, he was in a near-panic, since it would be certain death or injury to continue the race without good eyesight. After several minutes of frantic searching, he finally found his glasses and was able to continue. He successfully completed the run with only normal, minor injuries.

With all the potential physical and psychological dangers, what are the rewards? Certainly nothing tangible, for there are no awards or trophies.

An American runner will not run a race unless he or she gets a commemorative T-shirt. At the Escarpment Trail Run, one must run the race several times over many years before receiving a T-shirt. A runner earns a 100-mile T-shirt after running the race 6 times, a 200-mile T-shirt for 11 races, a 300-mile T-shirt for 17 races, and a 400-mile T-shirt for 22 races.

Four runners received their 300-mile T-shirts this year. Race founder Dick Vincent became the first runner to receive a 400-mile T-shirt, having run all 22 Escarpment Trail Runs. Jim Bode has run the race 21 times, including this years race, missing only the inaugural year. He had run the trail that year on his own, as he had not heard of the new event. Surprisingly, the race is not dominated by extreme Generation-Xers, but by 40-to-50 year-olds who have run the race consistently through the years.

If you have any ideas of finding some [water] along the trail, forget about it. Youll be looking for water right up to the moment you die of thirst.

The runners carry up to five water bottles each--at least the smart ones do. There are seven remote water stops along the course. With some volunteers starting as early as 7 AM to reach their remote positions in time, volunteers backpack in all water for each stop. For emergencies, there are cellular phones at each water stop. Dick and Jean position a nurse or EMT at each water stop if there are enough skilled volunteers. This year Dick was ecstatic to learn that a doctor was volunteering, even though the doctor was a pathologist. Perhaps the pathologist could find a cure for the disease of excessive trailrunning.

BANDITS...Those who do not meet the qualifying standards but choose to run anyway will be asked not to show their mug ever again.

For the rarefied cadre of runners, this is the most terrifying proclamation on the running form, worse than the warnings of death or serious injury. Being banished by Dick and Jean from the Escarpment Trail Run is to be exiled from the trailrunning family--the equivalent to being cast into trailrunners hell. The psychological pain suffered by the banished runner would be far greater than the physical pain incurred during the run itself.

Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forests natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills.

Some runners claim they have never seen an animal during the run. The animals are out there, although they tend to hide from 175 runners crashing through the forest. Perhaps the wildlife let the strong pass. There will be time enough to prey on the weak and the wounded. This is evidenced by the crashed plane along the course. Year by year, the plane slowly is being broken apart--some say by the porcupines, and some say by the mountain itself. Just as the mountain breaks down the crashed plane, the mountain breaks down unprepared runners.

THE TRAIL...is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the term.

There are always unexpected obstacles. A couple of years ago, a tornado tore down several trees right before the race, blocking the path in many places. Dick and Jean held the race anyway, of course. Few runners noticed the difference--the course seemed its usual impenetrable self.

Because of the viciousness of the course, Dick and Jean limit the number of entrants to 200 trailrunners. While Dick and Jean believe 200 is too many, they know from experience that due to cancellations and no-shows, the race will average 175 entrants, the optimal number the support staff can handle. The number of participants is quite a jump from the inaugural race field of 10 people.

This is for a runner who trains 12 months a year, who has spent years building a base and gaining long distance experience.

The competitors in this years run were in top physical condition. One wiry runner had a long white beard, the quintessential mountain man--little meat here for the carnivores lurking in the woods. The leg muscles of some runners resembled rawhide, the result of endless miles of often painful training.

One runner had opted for additional pain of a different nature; he had the Boston Marathon logo tattooed on his arm. Some runners asked if he was contemplating tattooing the Escarpment Trail Run on his body. Others said the trail would imprint its own tattoo of wounds upon the runner soon enough.

THIS RUN IS FOR MOUNTAIN GOATS ONLY!!!

The 30K course wends and rends its way over six mountain tops and down several valleys through an obstacle course of boulders, tree roots, and crevices. The elevation at the start of the race is 1780 feet above sea level. Only 3.5 miles into the race is Windham High Peak, elevation 3524 feet. After dropping into a valley, the runners run up and down Burnt Knob (3180 feet) and Acra Point (3100 feet). At 10.2 miles into the course is Blackhead Mountain, the highest point of the race at 3940 feet. Over the next two miles the competitors fall down the mountain to Dutchers Notch, elevation 2200 feet. What goes down must come up on the Escarpment Trail Run, so the runners must struggle uphill the next 2.2 miles to the top of Stoppel Point (3430 feet). Following another downhill, the runners ascend to the top of North Point (3180 feet), mercifully the last peak on the course. It is all downhill from there to the finish line, but as trailrunners know, running downhill is tougher than running uphill.

THIS IS NOT A CARRIAGE TRAIL...it is a treacherous hiking trail.

Although it is a treacherous hiking trail, the runners encountered very few hikers on the course until the last three miles. The unexpected sight of the trailrunners often startled the unsuspecting hikers. One could hear hikers voices echoing down the valleys, warning other hikers farther down the trail with incredulous cries of "Runners coming!"

If youre not careful, you could fall to your death.

At Newmans Ledge, one mile from the finish line, a photographer had set his tripod on the edge of the precipice to photograph each competitor running along the top of the sheer cliffs. The photographer asked each runner if he or she was going to fall off the edge, so he could get a sensational shot of the runners demise. Having a fear of heights, I realized that spot on the trail was extremely dangerous. Or rather, I have a fear of death, and falling from a great height causes death. At that point, each tired racer had to make a right turn on the cliff and head into the woods. If the competitor was not alert and instead proceeded straight, he or she would run off the cliff and drop hundreds of feet to certain death, albeit leaving a sensational photograph for posterity. Indeed, several fatigued runners attempted to make a wrong turn--onto the wrong path into the woods, fortunately, and not off the cliff.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY...You are responsible for your own medical costs, including the costs incurred if an evacuation is necessary.

In 1996, one runner stopped at a water station late in the race, then turned and ran--straight into space. He ran off a cliff and fell approximately 25 to 30 feet, landing on the rocks below. Perhaps it was disorientation or lack of concentration from weariness; nonetheless, it was a dangerous mistake. Landing on his back, he absorbed the shock across the maximum surface area of his body. Miraculously, he suffered only a broken elbow and chipped teeth. Medics carried him off the mountain by stretcher, and a helicopter airlifted him to the hospital. The runners cost for the evacuation was $5,000, a steep price to pay for a sporting adventure.

Artists Rock is a half-mile from the finish line, as the hawk flies. Here is the last major scenic vista, a place where hikers stopped to admire the view and sometimes accidentally interfered with the tired runners. Red-tailed hawks, riding the thermal updrafts caused by the cliffs, majestically spiraled through the skies--below the runners! It was hard to believe, but the runners were high above the hawks. At first I mistook the birds for turkey vultures waiting to prey on exhausted runners faltering on the last downhill before the finish line at North Lake.

Over the last 12 years, Rich Fargo had won the race 8 times including the past two years. Although pre-registered, Rich was a no-show this year. The first person to cross the finish line was Peter John Keeney of Bar Harbor, Maine, in a very competitive time of 2:57:44, 11 minutes and 58 seconds over Matt Culls course record of 2:45:46.

Escarpment Trail veteran Wayne McDaniel placed third in 3:09:59. Although he had never fallen in any of his previous Escarpment Trail Runs, Wayne fell three times this day. The Mid-Hudson road runner had been hoping to break three hours, but while struggling up and down the hills, he realized he would not reach his goal. The following week, Wayne learned the reason he struggled through the race was due to a dislocation of the fifth-lumbar vertebra.

Cassy Bradley-Byrnes, the first female in a field of 22 women entrants and the fourth runner overall, finished in 3:12:02, shattering the womens record by an incredible 17 minutes and 28 seconds. Previously a mountain-bike racer, she recently retired from professional cycling. Now she cross-trains for trailrunning by biking six times a week. Running is not totally foreign to Cassy, though. When she attended Villanova University, she was a sprinter specializing in the 400 meter hurdles. Later, when Cassy tried conventional long-distance running she found it somewhat boring (!). However, once she tried trailrunning, she fell in love with this type of running and has now been trailrunning for three years under the sponsorship of the Haddonfield Running Company.

Having been plagued by a recurring hamstring injury, Cassy ran the Escarpment Run injury-free, the first race in some time where she was at top form. When her husband first read the ominous entry form, he did not want her to run the race. They are building a house in Pennsylvania, and he asked "How will I finish the house if you die?!"

...falling over rocks not found on your normal training routes.

Perhaps Cassy will not tell her husband she fell 9 times during the race. Perhaps she will also not tell her husband about the Escarpment Trail body piercing she experienced when she ran into a tree and a branch penetrated her leg. The members of her running club, the RAT Pack (Reading [PA] Area Trailrunners), said the wound was not gushing enough blood for her to receive the "I was wounded on the Escarpment Trail" button.

Know how sublime a thing it is / To suffer and be strong. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Bill Smith of the Lancaster [PA] Buzzards running club ran this years race with cracked ribs, so every jump and leap made him gasp in pain. When I suggested that running with cracked ribs did not seem prudent, Bill told me of an event in his life that made running with cracked ribs pale in comparison. Two years ago, Bill had breast cancer. I learned from him that one out of every 100 breast cancer patients is male. Twenty-two days after undergoing a mastectomy, he ran a 15K race. To prevent his arm from swinging and pumping excessive blood to the site of the surgery, Bill ran the race with his arm in a sling taped tightly to his body.

Cassy Bradley-Byrne also is overcoming serious medical problems. She has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Because the tumor is close to the area of the brain controlling the pituitary gland, doctors are reluctant to operate. She has to regulate her training, backing off when she receives severe headaches. The tumor also affects her after each race, when vomiting wrenches her body. In spite of her physical challenges, she has won the female division of all the trail runs she ran except for one and is fast becoming a major force in trailrunning.

Yes, there is suffering aplenty to be found at the Escarpment Trail Run, but there is something more: a spirit of competition, a challenge to overcome ones limitations, and the euphoria one feels when finishing the race. What is remembered is not the pain or the treacherous hiking trail but running high above the hawks.

Postscript. Nancy Hobbs, the executive director of the All-American Trail Running Association (AATRA), learned of Cassys record-shattering time from an Escarpment Trail race participant. Nancy contacted Cassy, who accepted Nancys invitation to run in the World Mountain Running Trophy Race on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar.
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