Sunday, May 01, 2016

Rock the Ridge

I’ve always loved this video of runners at the Western States 100-Mile and other mountain ultramarathons. I may never do the ones shown, but I am inspired to run in beautiful and challenging places.

Debbie and I at check-in
And I have. It’s been my good fortune to have had the opportunity to experience running in some wonderful locations, some of which are even close to home. Mohonk Preserve and adjoining Minnewaska State Park in New York, home to Rock the Ridge, would prove to be second to none in terms of spectacular beauty and overall challenge. This video shows it off well.

My friend Linda Rafalski first called my attention to the race when she told me that her son Doug had signed up for Rock the Ridge and asked if I’d be running it too. I provided my usual response to nearly all questions these days: “Huh? What’s that?” But I did look into it and quickly became fascinated.

Fast forward through months of training and anticipation to race day. Doug, who came up from Philadelphia, had an entourage of family and friends to support him, and I had wife Debbie. Debbie would spend the day with the Rafalski clan, and that would make things easier, especially if Doug and I would be running fairly close to one another.

RTR Trail Map

Back to the challenge. Here are some actual excerpts, that I am absolutely not making up, from the course description:

  • By the time you’ve finally caught your breath from the climb up Lenape Lane, you’ll meet with another one – this time up and over Guyot Hill … the route steers toward (and then past) the remarkable Bonticou Crag, a rock formation that is perhaps the most noted in the Preserve, and a veritable treat for the eyes.
  • As you leave Spring Farm, you will climb yet again, first somewhat steeply, and then more gradually. … you’re now heading south toward the lands of the Mohonk Mountain House, where you’ll ascend to the Skytop Tower, the highest point in the first half of the course, and arguably the most scenic viewpoint of anywhere along the Shawangunk Ridge.
  • As you stop to experience the beauty of the most scenic waterfall in the ‘Gunks, take a few deep breaths, as it is time to begin the most difficult climb of the entire Rock The Ridge course. From the base of the falls you will climb over 400 feet in less than one mile to the shoreline of Lake Minnewaska. Just smile and remind yourself how much you love hills.
  • And with that climb accomplished, suffice it to say that the best is yet to come, as you will spend the next four miles ascending another 500 vertical feet to Castle Point. Along the way, you will drink in another brief view of Lake Minnewaska before gradually seeing more and more of the eye-popping views of the Palmaghatt Ravine, Gertrude’s Nose, Hamilton Point, and the Lower Hudson Valley 30 miles in the distance.

None of that, the challenging climbs or the scenic beauty, was exaggerated. The entire event was very much as advertised.

Gatehouse before the start  Greg Rafalski photo

The start from the historic Gatehouse was great, as was the initial tree-lines lane. Soon the climb began. After a couple uphill miles, I began to walk the steeper sections, trying to conserve energy, as Doug ran up ahead. I knew he’d trained hard, but I didn’t know whether running hard up these initial hills would take too much out of himAnd even though I was slowing, I wasn’t so sure about my own ability to continue with this much vertacality.

The start  Greg Rafalski photo

I continued up the “carriage roads”, which are surfaced with crushed stone and are narrow for roads but wide for trails. They’re fairly soft and not technical, so they make a really great running surface. And the weather could not have been better: it was partly to mostly cloudy and seasonably cool for late April.

I saw Doug at the first aid station, but then I lingered, trying to fortify myself for more climbing. I eventually made it up to Skytop tower. Although I’d been admiring the great views all the way up, this was simply spectacular. I could see nearly the entire ridgeline, and also Mohonk Lake, the famous Mohonk Mountain House, and Minnewaska State Park in the distance. Someone later told me that several different states could also be viewed from here.

There were some gentle downhill sections before the course leveled out a bit. A little past half-way I entered Minnewaska State park, where I’d be running for the next 13 or so miles before returning to Mohonk Preserve. I looked at my watch, and determined that I was averaging a bit over ten minutes per mile.

Awosting Falls  Greg Rafalski photo

After famous Awosting Falls, there was more serious climbing. I saw Debbie and the Rafalski crew at about mile 27. That was a sight for very sore eyes. They would stay here to see us after we looped around Minnewaska and were heading back. Debbie told me that Doug looked great. I, by implication, I said, looked like crap! This thing is uphill the whole way, was all I could say.

Just after some aid  Debbie Horvath photo

There was more climbing yet to be done. This entire ascent, begun around the 22-mile mark, continued past mile 30, where I reached Castle Point. Like the Skytop Tower climb, this one was also beautiful the entire way up, but the panoramic scenery at the top was about as spectacular. And at about 2,600 feet above sea level, this was the highest point on the course. It occurred to me that I would now descend about 2,300 feet in these final 19 miles. Except, that is, for one more smaller ascent at mile 45 and the uphill final mile. No worries, thought I. The tough part is done.

Doug at Castle Point  Greg Rafalski photo

My pace improved a great deal, now that I was back back down and around this nine-mile loop. I saw Doug ahead of me for a couple miles, and we wound up at the 36-mile aid station at about the same time. There we were able to see, and get assistance from, our joint crew, for the second and final time. Debbie informed me that I looked better now.

The great scenery continued as I returned into Mohonk and ran along the rock climbing area. As I reached mile 40, my Garmin watch informed me that the battery was low. It died completely in a couple miles. Doug and I were now running together for the first time since the early miles. I was my usual talkative self, even talking about being talkative. Doug indicated that he preferred silence, so I shut up.

The ascent at mile 45 was tougher than expected. I slowed, and then walked, and watched as Doug floated away. That was okay, I thought; I would recover and pick it back up again, as I’d done time and again during this run. Those final five mostly downhill miles would be a piece of cake.

I did pick it back up, and I felt great doing it. I grew stronger and stronger and finished with a super sprint. I was thrilled with the relatively fast overall time. After the run, I was only a little sore.

Absolutely nothing that was said in those previous four sentences is remotely true. After Doug pulled away, I struggled mightily to get up that big hill at mile 45. It seemed to take forever. I was so sore and beat up that I was incapable of running smoothly again when the course did begin to take me back down. I wound up doing a painful ultramarathon shuffle for virtually all of those final five miles. It was indeed wonderful to finish, and especially to see Debbie and everyone else – Debbie even ran a little with me as I came in. But that time – 9:02 – was painfully slow. Doug (who done really great for a first ultra!) and Paul, a guy I’d run with most of the way, finished at about 8:39, a time I would have been very happy with. What a difference a strong finish makes!
The Finish!    Debbie Horvath photo

Now my Achilles Tendonitis is as bad as it’s ever been, and I think that may have been a major factor in my poor final miles, as it contributed to the shuffling. I can only hope that this latest AT setback won’t hang around too very long.

Overall, Rock the Ridge was a fantastic experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was every bit worth the effort to run in this beautiful and challenging place.

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