The Catskill Mountain 100K Road Relay is an event that I have participated in many times in the past. It is 100 kilometers of road that features some of the most beautiful views in the Catskill Mountain region, and each year I look forward to running two legs of the course with my friends and teammates. It’s never been about winning anything in the form of an award – if we happened to win a category medal in any given year, it was just gravy to me, and my team members share that feeling. The idea of the CMRR, as it occurs to my own sensibilities, is to commit to spending a beautiful day in the mountains, and to make team spirit and camaraderie the focus, not competition. Most everyone I know who has participated in this fantastic event would echo these sentiments.
After last year’s event, I remember thinking to myself “wouldn’t it be cool to field a team where each team member lines up at the start of Leg 1 and proceeds to run the entire course?” When I shared that thought with a few people, the general response was that it sounded crazy, and I admit, it seemed well beyond my own ability and level of training at the time. But as the next 6 months passed, and I found myself incorporating longer and longer runs into my running regimen, I realized that it wasn’t as far-fetched as I’d first believed. I’d crossed into the land of ultrarunning in January when I ran around the perimeter of Manhattan with a friend, a 32-mile jaunt that comprised about 5 and a half hours of putting one foot relentlessly in front of the other. I then took on a 50K in early May at the North Face Endurance Challenge – over 6 hours of racing on the trails of Harriman State Park – and in June, reprised the run around Manhattan (now branding the run as “Run Around Manhattan,” or R.A.M. for short).
Over the course of the late Spring I began to discussing the idea in earnest with my friend Micah Hoernig, a regular CMRR teammate of mine. Micah, too, had contemplated a solo run on the 100K course, and so we agreed that we would talk with race directors George Shurter and Bob Harris about our intentions, and then line up together at the race start in Phoenicia on August 14th.
Along our ‘journey’ to the starting line, Micah and I made acquaintance with a New York City runner named Michael Samuels, and in chatting up the idea with him, found that he was as game (or perhaps even more so) to take on the challenge as we were. And so it was that the planning began for the three of us to make this really happen!
As race day approached, I got hit with a major curveball, having to vacate my apartment and stay in a local hotel due to a hazardous vapor condition in the building. So the evening before the event, I was in the Hampton Inn in Harriman with my two boys, my girlfriend Catherine, and Michael (Cath and Michael had made plans to come up from NYC and stay with me, so were forced to stay at the hotel as well). We made the best we could of the situation, and Michael and I made our plans to get at least a few hours of shuteye before having to head up to the Catskills. We turned in at 8:30pm, and set our alarm for 11:30. As far as I can recall, it’s the first time in my life that I ever went to bed at night and set my alarm to get up later in the same calendar day. It was weird, and it made for some confusion with both of us as we were setting the alarms.
Micah showed up to pick us up at 12:15am, and by the time we had packed the car, stopped at a local gas station for coffee and got on our way, it was after 12:30. As we set out on the highway, it was raining, but by the time we reached the Sullivan County line the rain had fortunately stopped. Because we would be starting our run so early (3:00am), we would essentially be self-supporting. Our plan was to start by heading to the 70K mark on the course in Grahamsville. We would drop water and Gatorade here, and then drive the course backwards, doing the same at each of the 10K exchange points. In the dark this could have been a little tricky, but Micah and I knew the course well, so we were able to pick out all the locations without too much trouble. If everything went according to Hoyle, Catherine would drive up later, meet us at about the 80K mark, and support us for the final 20K or so.
One strange side story of the day occurred during the drive up to Grahamsville. As we passed through the towns of South Fallsburg and Fallsburg, we noticed that the lights were on in an inordinate number of houses. We also saw lights on in some of the synagogues that dotted this area (due to the high population of Orthodox Jews during this time of year). Michael saw two men wearing yarmulkes and dressed all in white and black hitchhiking, and mind you, this was at about 1:30 in the morning! Further along, we saw more Jewish men, and women, walking around outside their well-lit summer dwellings. And when we arrived in Woodbourne, I saw something I never thought I would see in my life. Hordes of Orthodox Jewish men and women teeming in the streets and on the sidewalks, crossing in front of moving traffic, forming a huge crowd outside the local nightclub in town – Dougie’s – and in and out of just about every storefront on the main street. Virtually all of the stores which were open, by the way. We were all three agape at the unexpected 1:30am mob scene in this quiet Catskill town!
Anyway, after dropping all of our fluid supplies on the course, we reached Phoenicia at almost exactly 3:00am. From the very moment we got out of our car at Bridge Street, several drunk drivers tore through the area. I’m sure they must have wondered what the hell we were doing out there at this hour if not knocking back a few cold ones, and to be sure, we took pause as we watched them tear past us, car windows rolled down and hollering something that we couldn’t make out, or even cared to. The last thing we wanted to worry about was having to contend with drunk drivers, which was about as antithetical to what we were about to do that you could possibly get.
After we had our gear on (carrying food supplies in backpacks and our initial fluid needs in handhelds), Michael took a couple of pictures of team “1-to-10 (but not back again!).” I had fashioned our team name after an old Curious George book). At 3:13am, we began the slow trot out Woodland Valley Road that comprises almost the entirety of the first 10K. It felt odd to finally be running after the weeks of pre-planning that had gone into this, and as we ran, the first order of business was to be mindful of pacing. Micah and Michael wore headlamps so we could see where the heck we were going (there are no streetlamps on these remote roads), and as we made the slow climb to the turnaround point, I remember saying to them that one of our goals for the day – since we had lots of time on our hands – was to discuss the fine points of how we could save our country from its economic woes. Actually, with what we were partaking in with this run, saving the economy seemed like the easier of the two challenges. ;p
We completed the first 10K without much ado, and I remarked with a smile something to the effect of “only 9 more to go!”, as if that would be no problem. Ah, how quickly those words would be forgotten!
Back at the car now, we refilled our handhelds and set out on Leg 2, which would be one of the two legs that traverse state highway 28. I had opined that if we had 5 or 6 cars pass us during the Rte 28 stretch at this hour, it would be a lot. But to my surprise, no less than a dozen cars passed us during this 8-mile portion of the CMRR. Among the cars was one filled with runner ladies from the Sullivan Striders club, on their way to Phoenicia for their assigned 6:00am start time. Ten minutes later another car honked as it passed us, and although I couldn’t identify the car in the dark, I knew it must have been another relay runner. And about 2 miles before we made the turn onto County Rte 47 at Big Indian, a blue truck stopped on the other side of the road, and out popped a friend from the Orange Runners Club, crossing the road to say hello, shake our hands, and wish us luck. At this point it was safe to say that we were feeling the love. <3
As we rounded the corner onto Rte 47 at 6:04am, we saw the proprietor of Morris’s Market inside in partial darkness, unbinding his daily newspapers and getting ready to open. We had been hoping to make the store a “mini-stop” along the way, but Micah had learned the day before that the store didn’t open until 7:00am, making it inaccessible to us due to our early start time. When we reached the end of the 3rd 10K, we took a bit of a longer stop. We had stashed our water in a large nook in a tree, about 4 feet high, and to no one’s surprise, it was still there. After all, who the heck would drive by and steal it at 6:00 in the morning in this very remote part of the Catskills?
We drank up, refilled our handhelds again, took a bathroom break, and got on our way. With each stop, we had been leaving our surplus water and Gatorade behind with the idea that other teams might be able to use it later on. In fact, we had gone so far as to leave a note in Micah’s car (to be turned in to the race director) telling the other teams that they were not only welcome to it, but that if they could “clean up our mess” we would be much obliged. After all, there was no way for us to carry anything, and no place to throw these things out.
As we began the arduous 4th leg, I began to give Michael the chapter and verse about what was to come. We were going at a fairly deliberate pace on the flats and downhills (yes, there are a few on this leg, but not many!), and had agreed that we should begin walking all of the uphills in order to properly conserve for later. As we approached the slow curve that leads into Fiddler’s Elbow – the true beginning of the big climb up Winnisook Hill – I warned Michael that it would soon be gut-check time. We very wisely went into walk mode before we even reached the hairpin turn at the Elbow, and didn’t run even one step all the way to the top at Winnisook Lake. As we climbed, I turned around to look backwards, purposely reminding myself what a drag it was to run this hill, and happy not to even have to think about it today. :)
We crested the hill, and Micah called out to fisherman in his boat on the lake, jokingly asking him if he’d caught breakfast yet. It didn’t garner a response from the fisherman, but it was a pleasant diversion, and I was grateful for it. From here, we began the steady, five-mile descent into Frost Valley. We kept the pace fairly slow going into the 40K exchange point, and I remember thinking how good I felt after climbing the worst hill on the course. With a smile on my face, I refilled my water bottle and contemplated the joy of the next 6.2 miles, which are a net 550 feet downhill, and the only part of the CMRR course that I had never previously run. How nice it would be to get a break from the difficulty of these dang hills! I felt like I’d able to save up energy for later, when I would really need it (thinking about the 8th and 9th legs, which are notoriously difficult). But the truth is, about halfway through this, the easiest portion of the entire 100K, the wheels came off for me. :( At the 45K mark, my usually chatty demeanor became one of focused silence. Instead of running out in front of my teammates (and having them periodically tell me that I was going too fast), I fell into formation behind them, partly so as to keep from running too fast, but mainly because I was beginning to suffer.
As we reached the 50K mark, I confessed to Micah that I wasn’t doing well, and was having a hard time imagining the finish line. Just about everything below my waist was beginning to hurt. We’d been running for almost 6 hours exactly, and as I contemplated the 7 more hours (realistically) that we still had left to go, the thought of all of those painful footfalls ahead of me became a huge mental burden. Micah told me to stay calm, and most of all, not to worry too much about how I felt right now. He said that in ultras you can typically have a difficult stretch in the middle, but that as you progress toward the finish, you often get a psychological boost that can manifest itself physically. I listened with genuine intent, and despite my growing agony, decided to wait until the middle of the next 10K segment to evaluate the bigger picture.
The next five miles of the route comprise some of the most picturesque and tranquil scenery on the race course, as the road skirts a beautiful brook that feeds the Neversink Reservoir. At one time in the not-too-distant past, there had been a handmade suspension bridge that crossed this brook, but the bridge was closed a few years ago, and then removed outright, probably due to its ever-dilapidating state. At this point we came upon a middle-aged woman who was walking her dog, and as we approached her at our pedestrian pace, she asked us with a smile how far we were running today. Seeing our gear and surmising that we were probably serious runners, perhaps she expected us to say 10 miles, or maybe even 15 or 20. But when I responded “62 miles” with a half-smile on my own face, the poor woman’s eyes practically popped out of her head! Answering the woman aloud reminded me of the unfathomable distance that we were attempting to run today, but for a moment at least, it lifted my spirits. I thought “yes, that’s right, we’re running 62 miles!” But the moment for me was not long-lived, and I was quickly back into the house of pain that I had entered a mere 6 or 7 miles earlier.
As we negotiated a left-hand curve around the brook’s edge, I started mentally calling out for the bridge I knew that the road crosses just before coming to the “tee” intersection at Claryville Rd. At long last, I had reached the moment of truth, and as our group made the turn and I spied the pretty white church there that I’m so familiar with, I knew it was time. We were nearing the next exchange point, and I was afraid. Afraid to tell them. But I had to. There were an awful lot of things going through my mind, almost all of them fear-based, but one of them was this: What if I push on, and end up doing long-term damage to my ankles, knees, Achilles tendons, or anything else that was screaming at me to stop running? I valued my newfound love of ultrarunning far too much to try and be a hero today. Perhaps stopping was the right decision. But maybe I was just being a baby, a chicken sh*t. It was hard, because there was no way for me to know for sure what the right thing to do was.
But when we could see the exchange point in front of us, I spoke up. “OK guys, it’s time to confess. I don’t think I am going to be able to finish the 100K today. Too many things hurt, and knowing what we still have in front of us, I know that I’m only going to slow you down.” Micah asked me what I would do if I stopped here at 60K. How would I get to the finish? I told them that I would plan to walk it in to the 70K mark, and based on the time of day, even if it took me two hours to do so, I would still get there ahead of Catherine (who would enter the course at that point), and I would flag her down as she passed.
We left the 60K exchange point together, all walking at first, and then Michael and Micah kicked into a jog as I continued walking. In a matter of minutes they had put a quarter mile between them and me, and as I hit the bottom of Wildman Hill, they were out of sight completely. Although I was now demoralized at having lost sight of my friends, I still didn’t have the strength to run. And so I continued to walk….
About 2/3 of the way up Wildman, I decided it was time to try. And so I began a slow trot. It felt good to be running again, even if only at a snail’s pace, and I found I could keep doing it if I gave myself points in the distance to run to before stopping to walk again. After a succession of 4 or 5 of these road signs and telephone poles, I was at and over the top of the hill, and heading down Wildman’s steep backside.
But unfortunately this is where the buck stopped once again. :( Whereas I had been able to run uphill only moments before, going downhill was another story! My feet and ankles screamed with every step, and with a mile and a half long downslope to negotiate, I was forced back into a walk. It was so frustrating!
And so, walk I did, although there were a few times when I unsuccessfully gave running a brief shot. About 2/3 of the way down Wildman Hill, I heard a couple of strong hand claps from behind me followed by a “C’mon, baby!” Upon turning around, I found myself looking at a member of the lead team in the relay, the first one to catch me. This guy must have been running at about a 5:00 per mile clip as I said to him “I don’t know. I’m in my 40th mile, and I don’t know if I have anything left.” He replied “I know. I’m running 20K today. You can do this!” His words were sweet and encouraging, but my legs were simply not listening to him, or to me. He flew past me and was out of sight in mere seconds. I continued to hobble my way down the hill to Fanetti’s Garage, feeling beaten both physically and mentally.
But as I made the left turn toward Grahamsville, the slope leveled off quite a bit, and I decided to give running another shot. To my surprise and delight, I found myself able to maintain a slow run pace for spurts of two to three hundred yards. It was not complete recovery, but it was something, and I was happy. :) The road was lined with American flags hanging from light poles, so I proceeded into Grahamsville in run/walk fashion, using the flags as targets for myself to run to before stopping to walk again. Eventually, I made it into the village, and suddenly heard my name called out from a side yard. I turned my head, and standing there was my friend Roger Hourihan, on the property where he lives, and probably starting to be on the lookout for his fiancé Nancy, who was running with one of the teams behind me. :) Roger gave me a warm smile, and politely asked me if I needed anything. I was now only about a half mile from the 70K mark, and knowing that I had already decided to end my day there, I declined Roger’s kind offer and thanked him.
The final 200 yards into the exchange point were uphill, and again, I was able to run relatively comfortably to the marker. But if I had harbored any ideas about continuing from here, they were quickly squashed by the thought of what was still ahead of me – three of the five most challenging legs on the course, with more downhills, including a HUGE one in leg 10. I looked at my watch – I had run the last 10K in 1:27, and I realized that the finish line was still about 5 hours ahead of me. That was it, the deciding factor. My time to this point was 8 hours and 46 minutes, and I was more concerned about finishing in my goal time than I was about finishing. And that turned out to be my undoing. Could I have gone on and completed my first ever 100K? Most likely. Did I quit? Yes, that’s exactly what I did, and I will take a great lesson from what happened to me out on the CMRR course that day.
I staggered almost mindlessly around the exchange area, and as I did, teams began arriving to see their runners in and to prep their next runners for leg 8. One team was already there when I stopped, and in talking to my friend Drew, I learned that Micah and Michael had only left here 5 minutes ago at the most. Here I was thinking that those guys would blow the doors off me, and in truth, they had probably only beaten me to this spot by 10 or 12 minutes. Drew asked me “Are you still going?” and I confessed to him about my decision to quit at 70K. As more people arrived here and said hello, I was showered with many words of support and praise. Yes, running 43 and a half miles on this course in one shot is a pretty big accomplishment. I take nothing away from myself for having done that. But the fact is, it was 18.6 miles short of my goal, and I was feeling empty.
As I conversed with all the runners at exchange 7 about my escapades on these mountains, a journey that had begun at 3:13am while most of the runners were still in bed, it was with mixed emotions. I was tired, and proud of my physical effort, but I was upset as well. Upset because I had given up mentally, allowing the pain to dictate the finish line for me rather than beating it back in some sort of Zen way and making it all the way to Davis Park via my own two feet.
My girlfriend Catherine eventually made her way to Grahamsville by car, and having received my TXT message about my fate, was looking for me as she drove up the hill to the 70K point. After a brief exchange with her and a few ‘hellos’ to other friends, I hopped behind the wheel of Maxine (yes, my car has a name) and drove off to catch up with my teammates. We passed lots of runners along the next few miles, and as we arrived at the 80K mark, it was a busy place indeed! We had not seen my teammates during this whole leg, but upon our arrival at the exchange point, we immediately saw Micah. Without a lot of preliminary dialogue, he explained to us that he, too, had decided to end his day short of the finish line, and was now ‘done.’ Apparently somewhere along the 8th leg, he and Michael had had a similar conversation to the one I had with them at mile 37. And so, they separated, and as Micah told us, Michael was already well along his way on the next leg. Holy smoke!
We all three got back in the car and proceeded to chase Michael down. As we moved through the mid-part of the leg, we were surprised and amazed that we’d still not caught up to him! This leg was almost all uphill, and he had apparently kicked it into his highest gear. WOW! He probably sensed the finish line now, which no doubt gave him a big psychological boost. It was about the 88K mark that we finally found Michael, and believe it or not, he was still looking pretty strong amid all the pain that he certainly must have been feeling. I hollered some encouragement to him out my open window and asked him if he needed anything. Water was what he called out for, so we pulled over just ahead and popped the trunk to get the water stash out. As we stood there, I told him he had perhaps 11 or 12K to go, and he managed to push a soft smile through the pained expression that was on his face. Yep, the finish line was close, and I think he knew it was his now.
At the 90K exchange point, I briefed Michael on the details of the final 10K. I told him that he had one mile softly uphill, then two miles straight down, and then a relative flat for the final three. He managed the leg with the same power that we saw during the final portion of leg 9, but later confessed to me that the downhill on Peekamoose Mountain was worse than he had imagined it to be, and that he had managed the pain in his quads through frequent use of profanities. Ha! Hey, whatever gets you there, I say!
At the bottom of the hill the excitement began to grow. A couple of other teams were mirroring our support movements as they gave encouragement and final hydration to their own runners. One of those teams was a great group and high school gals (and their chaperones) known as the Nepa Flashes. The girls were a Superteam – comprised of 10 runners – from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA area, and were back for the 2nd time at CMRR. They cheered for Michael as well as for their own runner as we reached three miles to go, then two, and finally about 1.5.
The last time we stopped to support Michael was with a little more than 2K to go, and he had a resolve on his face like none I had ever seen before. “I’m good from here” he said upon my telling him how far away the finish was. And so we sped off, wanting to alert the race directors and the other teams that the solo runner was nearing the finish!! It took him a bit longer to get to the town park than I expected. Maybe it was because of my eagerness to have him finish, or perhaps it was merely because after 99 kilometers the man was finally running out of gas. But he eventually came into view, and as he made the last right-hand turn into the park, made a mad dash to the finish line.
As he reached race director George Shurter, I called out Michael’s time – 12 hours, 19 minutes and 42 seconds. Race founder Brian Cavanagh’s previous solo effort on the course had been 15 hours+, and Michael had simply blown it right out of the water! After what I had been through out there in those first 70K, I was SO impressed with what he had accomplished on this day. Wow…….wow……… and wow!
After a time of excitement and celebration over what Michael had just done, we repaired to the car, got out our towels and clean clothes and showered up, joining the post-race festivities in the pavilion shortly afterward. The awards ceremony was terrific, with lots of great spirit, and many smiles and laughs. At the end of the team awards, George made a special call out about Michael’s effort, giving him a “2011 Catskill Mountain Road Relay – Solo Finisher” plaque for his accomplishment, and bringing the entire group to their feet for a standing ovation! I couldn’t stop smiling. :) What a day this had been….
Looking back on the experience, although I myself did not finish, and neither did Micah, I have no regrets, and see it only as a day of great fun, special camaraderie, unparalleled spirit, great physical challenge, and most of all, unbridled joy. It’s difficult to describe in words what it feels to do what Micah, Michael and I did, putting ourselves up to the unique challenge of essentially supporting ourselves for the majority of an extremely difficult 100K race course. Michael went home with the feather in his cap, but Micah and I took from it the joy of having been there, too, of setting off from Bridge Street in Phoenicia in the dark of night, doing what was in our hearts, and sharing the experience with each other. I can only say that I look forward to a future experience that will even approximate the fun we had on August 14, 2011 in the high peaks of the Catskills.
Micah and Michael – namaste, my friends. ☮