Kopacs at NY Marathon finish line
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Lynne in NYC

Kopac's Corner

Gan Bare! The 30th Escarpment Trail Run

by Bob Kopac

 [Trailrunner Magazine e-zine posted this article online about the 2006 Escarpment Trail run.]

 “Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.


July 30, 2006 was the 30th running of the 30K Escarpment Trail Run. To be truthful, “trail run” is a figure of speech, for the course is notorious for being anything but a trail. Yes, there are portions that seem like a gambol through the woods; for example, the first mile of the race and the bucolic section by the crashed airplane. However, the finishers often do not remember these gentle paths through trees and ferns. Instead, they remember the rocky portions of the “trail” that exact a toll of sweat, blood, and suffering.

Lynne and I had invited co-worker Makiyo Suzuki, an assignee from Japan, to accompany us to the race to cheer on several of our friends. From the finish line, we hiked the course backwards past Artist’s Rock to the scenic overview of Newman’s Ledge. That one mile was a sampler of the difficulties of the trail. At one particular section, we had to climb up a hundred-foot hill strewn with rocks and boulders. When we finally reached Newman’s Ledge, we were profusely sweating from the heat and humidity. The runners coming towards us from the other direction would be sweating even more after traveling over 17 miles.Eric Gross

Benjamin Nephew of Mansfield, MA was the first to pass our location. He appeared quite strong and in control. He also was not wearing a shirt. I wondered if he had discarded his shirt along the course, or if he had the temerity to run shirtless from the start. I had talked with veteran Escarpment runners who had regaled me with stories of the scrapes and cuts from rocks and of the body piercing from tree branches that occur during the race. Benjamin had no visible scars on his upper body. However, he wore reddish-orange shorts that would have hidden any blood that he might have shed.

A couple of minutes later the second runner, Andrew Baird of Portland, ME, came by. We then had a long wait until more runners started arriving at Newman’s Ledge. At this place on the course the trail goes to the right, then cuts sharply back to the left, creating a pie wedge of open space that drops down vertically some 30 feet to a ledge below. The width of the wedge expands outward from 1 inch to several feet across.  Several smiling runners leapt over the gap, some stumbling backwards a little bit after clearing the chasm. Perhaps it was because I was taking photographs, and the runners were showing off. Or, perhaps it was inherent to their nature; after all, they were running the Escarpment Trail Run.

Trail supervisor Cal Johnson came by and stopped to chat with us. He told us the story of Steve Ozer who, during the 1996 Escarpment Trail Run, jumped over the gap but did not quite make the other side. Instead, Steve fell down the wedge. Cal said, “So the guy was running down here, and he fell in that hole. There was a ski club from Albany nearby; a bunch of them had advanced first aid. One woman had taken rappelling courses, so they tied clothes together and lowered her down into that hole there onto that ledge. She wiped his head off; he had superficial head wounds which bled like crazy. They waited for the rescue squad to get there and pull him on up out of there.”

Landing on his back, Steve had 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 runner’s cost for the evacuation was $5,000. However, Steve continues to run the Escarpment Trail Run and finished this year in 6:05:34. Race director Dick Vincent told me that Steve is the founder and sole member of the Escarpment Trail Cliff Diving Association.

As I continued to watch in alarm as runner after tired runner leapt over the chasm, Cal pointed out a bird circling below us, halfway down the Escarpment cliff. I had written an article about the 1998 Escarpment Trail Run entitled “High Above the Hawks – The Escarpment Trail Run” (see http://www.mhrrc.org/kopac.html and search for “Hawk”). This was no hawk, however; Cal identified this particular fowl as a turkey buzzard. Perhaps it was waiting patiently for the next wayward runner.

As it got later into the race, we started to hear tired and disoriented runners who had veered off the course and were thrashing through the woods. Makiyo hiked in further and acted as a traffic cop, directing the runners down towards our position and encouraging them with shouts of “Gan bare!” (“Be strong and persevere!”)

Several runners conversed with me as they passed by, probably because I was one of the few spectators on the course. One female runner cried, “This is crazy! It goes on forever!” First-time participant Connie Seigh came by and lamented, “I’m trashed!” Earlier, Conni Grace had been all smiles when I told her she was the 3rd female. For other runners passing our position, it was difficult to determine if they were smiling or grimacingPhil Sylvester.

First-timer Phil Sylvester came by, and he definitely was not smiling. He exclaimed, “These runners are nuts! I am going to sue my high school because they graduated me, yet it is obvious I must be stupid because I wanted to run this race!” Phil had qualified by running the Sybil Luddington 50K in a time of 5:33. Phil finished the 30K Escarpment Trail Run in 5:33, the exact same amount of time. He later said Sybil was much easier.

As the 6-hour race cutoff time approached, Lynne, Makiyo, and I walked back towards the finish line. I photographed runners as they climbed down rock ledges, and I photographed race director/runner Dick Vincent at the scenic overview of Artist’s Rock. Dick completed his 30th Escarpment Trail Run for a total of 900 kilometers of suffering. When we encountered course sweepers Jeff Vona and Matt McDaniel, we were just about at the finish line.

It is a highly regarded accomplishment to complete the Escarpment Trail run in less than 3 hours. This year’s winner, Benjamin Nephew, finished in a time of exactly 3:00:00. I was told that he had 2:59:59 on his watch, but the course officials resolutely stayed with 3:00:00. It is amazing what one second can mean. Martha Nelson of State College, PA, the first female finisher and 34th overall, had a time of 3:58:30.

After the race, I talked with Everett White, one of the volunteers at the Dutchers Notch water stop. Everett had pulled 5 runners off the course. He said, “Anybody after 4 ½ hours at our point at Dutchers Notch is not going to finish the race in 6 hours, so we pull them. We walked them out [down a service road] and then drove them back to the finish line. I know how they feel as runners, and to have to pull somebody, especially a few runners who were only 6 or 7 minutes over the time frame. But the rules are the rules. If it had been me [who had been pulled] I would have been kicking and screaming. But we had to pull them, so that is what we did.”

Later, at the camping site, Phil Sylvester said, “You told me at Newman’s Ledge there was a mile to go. I don’t know where you got your measuring stick. Later, another person on the trail told me it was a quarter mile to the finish line; I don’t know where they got their mark. It is my opinion everyone on the trail lied to us about the distance. A quarter mile was a mile and a half.” Or so it must have seemed to the tired runners. Cal Johnson earlier had confirmed my guess that it was one mile from Newman’s Ledge to the finish line as the turkey buzzard flies.

Phil said, “I couldn’t see within 2 miles of the start of the race. My eyeglasses steamed up, and I knew it was the humidity. I took them off and hooked them on my belt, and I lost them. There were times on the course I would say, ‘I have been here before!’ The runner next to me said, ‘You lost your eyeglasses, so you are going around in circles. That’s why you think there are 6 lemon squeezes going up and 6 lemon squeezes going down.’ My legs cramped after the second mile, so I had to fight the cramps the whole distance. I didn’t think I would finish, just because of the cramps. I can’t describe the pain. One runner told me as I was running uphill that every second saved running up Windham Mountain [one of 6 mountains on the course] is 2 seconds lost at the finish of the race. If someone is walking up a hill, you follow them because if they are walking, they know something that you don’t. At places, you could not walk down, you had to climb down; that’s how steep it was. I fell again about ¾ of a mile from the finish line, just before all of the drops, so that was challenging. They gave me the ‘I was injured on the Escarpment Trail’ medal. Perhaps it was more psychological, because when I crossed the finish line, I turned a very pale gray and looked like I was going to die! Am I going to do it again? I don’t know. It’s kind of like giving birth. We’ll see how I feel next year.” [Two days later, Phil said he wanted to run next year’s race. Perhaps he should sue his high school.]

We later visited the campsite of Escarpment Trail veteran Wayne McDaniel, who in the past had finished consistently in the top 10. Wayne and Phil discussed race strategy. Wayne said, “I put my hands on my knees and power-walk up the hills. It helps to distribute some of the work to your upper body instead of using all your legs. For something that long, you don’t want to use your legs the entire way.”

Discussing the course conditions caused by the drenching rain the night before the race, Phil said, “The runners in front muddied up the rocks for us. I hit some rocks that I thought would be okay, and I went down. I probably slipped 5 or 6 times. I didn’t twist or roll my ankle once during the whole course. But the last time I slipped and hit my knee real hard, which was right after I passed Newman’s Ledge. I saw one girl go down, and I didn’t think she was going to get up. She did, and she beat me!”

 Wayne replied, “For the back-of-the-pack runners, it is a lot muckier and more slippery because 150 runners have already been through. However, I went down maybe twice today. That’s how it typically is. I’ll almost go down, but save myself. I have seen people fall really badly when I used to be up in the top 10.”

So, why would anyone run such a race, especially after reading “THE ESCARPMENT TRAIL RUN IS FOR MOUNTAIN GOATS ONLY!!!” at the http://escarpmenttrail.com web site? It cannot be for the T-shirt; you must run the race 6 times before you get the 100-mile T-shirt, 11 times for the 200-mile T-shirt, 17 times for the 300-mile T-shirt, and 22 times for the 400-mile T-shirt. Bill Ring, who ran for the 25th time, is working towards his 500-mile T-shirt. So if not for the T-shirt, why do runners enter year after year? Perhaps it is for the adventure, or for the bragging rights, but probably most of all for the camaraderie of this rarified running community and to prove to oneself the ability to gan bare.