September 6, 2010
My friend Brennen Wysong had presented today’s run to me as what he termed “a noble challenge.” He is an accomplished ultra-runner who I had met years ago in the early miles of the 2005 Escarpment Trail Run. After I told Brennen about my plans to run all the trails of Harriman State Park, he suggested running the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail (SBM) end to end. A quick check of the map showed that this trail traversed virtually the entire length of the park from north to south. It looked gargantuan compared to any of the runs that I had done to date, and upon searching out this trail on the NY/NJ Trail Conference website, I learned that it comprised a grand total of 23.5 miles. As I thought about it, I realized that this was exactly 1/10th of all of the park’s trail miles, and the prospect of knocking off such a big chunk of the project in one fell swoop was very appealing. 🙂
And so it was that I announced my plans to my friends, hoping to solicit a few crazies into running it with me. The run was to take place on Labor Day, and based on some feedback that Brennen had given me, I made two decisions:
1) Run it in the southerly direction. I had wanted to run north to avoid having the sun in my face in the afternoon, but Brennen said that it would probably be better to get the bigger climbs out of the way early so as to avoid having to run them in the latter stages on very tired legs.
2) Start very early. My guess was that it would take 6 to 6.5 hours. Brennen explained that it would be more like 7 to 7.5 hours. He turned out to be dead on, so I was quite happy that we’d scheduled a 6:30am start.
After some back and forth email with my running friends, it became that I would run the entire trail with my friend Todd Van Sickle. I had done some semi-long trail runs with Todd before (2.5 to 3 hours), and we were good running partners, so I knew this would be a great day for both of us. And joining us at approximately the midpoint would be my friends Gary Arne and Joe Falcon. Gary had run trails before, and is a strong distance runner (he’s run about 15 marathons), but he wasn’t ready to commit to the entire 23.5 miles at this point. My friend Joe, on the other hand, had never run a mountain trail before, so the 12 miles or so that he would run with me would be an experience-and-a-half for him!
I set out at a little after 5:00am (with my sweetheart Catherine) to go and meet Todd. The plan was to park his car at the finish in Suffern (Catherine and I had scouted out the parking place yesterday), drive to the midpoint to place our drop bags, and then go up to the start at Bear Mountain. We arrived at the Bear Mountain Inn a little before 6:30am. Some gnarly dude with a sleeping bag in his hand approached us and asked if we knew where to buy a trail map. I mean, really!! So I pulled out my map, showed him where he could pick up a trail that went up the mountain, and then turned and focused back on our business. Catherine took a nice picture of Todd and I with Bear Mountain as the backdrop, wished us a great run, and drove off to do her own workout in the park; a 50-mile bike ride and a one hour swim in Lake Tiorati.
And so, Todd and I began our search for the start of the trail. A review of the map indicated that the SBM trail was common with the Appalachian Trail for the first 1/4 mile or so. Finally finding the trailhead for the AT, we started up the mountain. And this is where our trouble began. We never saw a yellow trail marker for the SBM, and kept going unwittingly up and up the mountain. By the time we reached a fire road and had another look at the map, we realized that we must have gone way too far, and after a brief discussion, decided to start back down to find out where we had gone astray. To my embarrassment, we came to find out that the SBM trail actually began all the way back at the bottom of the mountain, and in fact, shared no common ground with the AT. Forty minutes of time and toil had been dedicated to this boondoggle, for which I was responsible. Rats!!
But anyway, it felt good to finally be on the trail and on our way. 🙂 The very first thing we did was climb, and this would be only the first of many. Traveling across the south face of Bear Mountain, Todd and I swiftly hit the first of what would be just three road crossings in today’s adventure. After reaching the other side of Seven Lakes Drive, we descended for the next half mile, and reached the crossing of the 1777W Trail and the Doodletown Bridle Path. The Doodletown story is an interesting one. It was a small hamlet nestled here in the northern part of the park, only sparsely populated until World War I, after which it grew from 75 inhabitants to almost 300 by 1945. But by 1962, the park had bought virtually all of the homes there, relegating Doodletown to a ghost town, and sealing its story in the annals of history.
Moving past Doodletown, we began our climb up West Mountain. This was our second major climb, and as it turned out, our most difficult one of the day. About eight hundred feet we ascended over a mere 3/4 of a mile, and the terrain was especially rocky as well. Needless to say, most of this section was traversed by walking, and we were delighted to finally reach the top and regather ourselves. After having done that, we had opportunity to enjoy a nice run across the top of the ridge, with our first scenic viewpoints! The first vista provided a wonderful view of the Hudson River, signs of civilization in Rockland County, and also (and to our surprise) a startling view of the New York City skyline some 45 miles away! Todd and I were doing some picture taking, and since he was the one posing against the backdrop and I was taking the picture, I was the first to see the cityscape from atop this rocky crag. After snapping a pic, I said to him “OK, now turn around to your left.” He was duly impressed with this view. 🙂 We traded places, he snapping a pic of me this time, and then we packed up and got moving again.
We went down though a valley, up a ridge, down the other side, and then over a small rise called Horn Hill before finally reaching the junction of the 1779 Trail. From there in the middle of a very dry swamp (this has been a very dry summer, for sure), we would proceed to make a pair of climbs – first, over a rise called The Pines, and then up to the top of Pingyp Mountain. The summit of Pingyp had some spectacular views of the Palisades Parkway below us, and knowing that our route would take us across the Palisades very soon, I knew that the descent would be a fairly steep one. That turned out to be a major understatement. In fact, the slope was so steep in places that if you weren’t very careful, you could probably fall to your death! Todd was ahead of me, and at one point he turned around and said “Do we need rope to get down this?!” It was comically dangerous, and my nerves were on high alert as we continued down this nasty mountain face.
Upon reaching the bottom (and with a big sigh of relief), we crossed the Parkway and did our best to follow the trail markings that were on the guardrails alongside the road. Finally ducking back into the woods, we began the last major climb before reaching the halfway point. This time, it was a long, sustained two-part climb up Pound Swamp Mountain and Irish Mountain. Seven hundred and fifty feet we would scale over the next mile or so, and knowing that we still had a long day ahead of us, we quickly reverted to “walk mode.” As we made our ascent up Pound Swamp, I pulled out my phone and texted my friend Gary, letting him know that we were perhaps 30-40 mins away from the meet point on Gate Hill Rd. He replied letting me know that he was on his way. It would be nice to see he and Joe upon our arrival at their cars. But with a bit more work still to do, Todd and I forged ahead.
On the trail map, I had seen an interesting landmark at the top of Irish Mountain called the Irish Potato. Presuming that it was some kind of potato-shaped rock, I put Todd on the lookout for it. And as we neared the top of the mountain, we spied many large rocks that we thought might be the potato. But upon arriving at a very large stone sitting alone in the middle of the woods, there was no mistake that we had finally reached the famed monolith. 😉
Taking a moment to get a pic of this oddity on the trail, Todd and I anxiously and gratefully made our way down the final slope to the halfway point, and within minutes, we had emerged from the woods onto Gate Hill Rd to see Gary and Joe both pulling into the parking area. Talk about timing!
So for the first half of the run, including the boondoggle up Bear Mountain at the beginning, Todd and I had been out there for 3 hours and 49 minutes. A lot of ground covered, for sure, but still such a long way to go!