Friday, July 1, 2016

Nec Plus Ultra: Manitou's Revenge 2016

[Update, 9/5/16: Ultrarunning Magazine opted to publish a shorter version of this blog post on their website as a race report for Manitou's. At the magazine's request, I shorted and edited this post to meet their space constraints. My submission didn't appear in Ultrarunning Magazine's print edition, but was published on their website.]

Manitou's Revenge can be accurately described as a series of firsts. Time and time again I would routinely find myself out of my comfort zone. But with a high number of uncertainties comes an overwhelming sense of adventure that can make the entire experience worthwhile. The path to self discovery is out there, but the challenge is knowing which way to turn. Where will the wilderness trail take me? What, if anything, lies beyond?


"Get your affairs in order..." Thanks for the reminder, Charlie.

The 54 mile trail run begins in Windham, New York, and goes up and over ten mountains en route to the finish in downtown Phoenicia. Five of those are Catskill High Peaks - wilderness mountains over 3,500 feet. Runners follow the Escarpment
Trail and the Long Path, then traverse four of the high peaks in succession on the notorious Devil's Path. The race website describes the course as follows:

This is a grueling, gnarly, nasty course with approximately 15,000 feet of climbing, much of it rocky and precipitous. To be sure, there are some runnable sections, but you will more often find yourself hiking uphill or down, sometimes hand over hand. Expect this course to take you much longer than your average 50 mile.
Course profile. (Click to enlarge.)
I knew I hadn't fully recovered from the Cayuga Trails 50 a mere two weeks earlier. At Cayuga I ran hard, but missed my goal time by a lot due to a horrendous first half. (CT50 race report.) Still, I was determined to give Manitou's Revenge my best shot. In April I managed 7:00 flat at Breakneck Point - 9,000+ feet of climbing crammed into a marathon, with an equal amount of descent - without killing myself in the effort. That performance gave me some much needed confidence going into Manitou's. 

I drove down to Phoenicia knowing I'd be going off the grid for the weekend. Rather, I was not entirely off, but more toward the lateral border. With no cell service or Wi-Fi in the town or its surrounding area, I was further off the grid than most Americans would ever be in this day and age. It wouldn't have felt so strange except that I made the three hour drive to the northern Catskills alone. In short, it meant I had no way in maintaining contact with my wife. Thinking about this all weekend kind of put me at unease. It was the first time since we met, over six years ago, that she wasn't at least a phone call or text message away. I did find some solace in meeting up with some Ithaca friends, Adam and Jeney, for a pre-race beer.

To take it a step further, I was staying two nights in a tent at Woodland Valley Campground, a DEC camp site five miles from the finish line. Again, no big deal, except that I was camping alone without a familiar face anywhere on site, and no way to get in touch with anyone if a tornado claimed my tent or a bear ate my wallet and car keys.

"Roughing it" at the Woodland Valley DEC campsite.

After a few restless hours of attempted shut-eye, I awoke for good at 2:30 a.m. to the sound and fury of my alarm. I drove into town, left my car in the booming metropolis of downtown Phoenicia and hopped on the bus to the start. Due to the nature of the point-to-point course and relative remoteness of the trails, the race director provided a school bus ride to the start at CD Lane Park in Windham. After an hour of bumping and jarring through a bunch of winding backroads in the dark, we arrived at the start and had a little time until the first wave was sent off. 

While shivering in the predawn breeze, I realized I had a bar or two of spotty cell service, so I called Hayley and left a voicemail to let her know I survived the night and would soon be heading into the wild. I double checked the contents of my pack, since I'd being carrying a bunch of stuff I don't normally take during a race - a Catskill Park trail map, a cue sheet and elevation profile chart of the race course, a Life Straw, tons of extra gels and nut butter packets, S-Caps, my car key, a USB charger for my Suunto, etc. Why only an ounce of prevention when you can pack a few kilos? Before I knew it, wave five was called to the line for the 5:20 a.m. start and 15 or so of us trotted down the road.

I crammed more stuff in that pack than I thought was possible.

C.D. Lane Lake, near the starting line.

We got to the first trail after three miles of asphalt. "That's the Strawberry Shake 5k down, only Cayuga Trails left to go," I thought to myself. Upon leaving the road I began the first big climb of the day, up and into the Windham Blackhead Range Wilderness.

Nec plus ultra. The well known Latin phrase describes my mindset throughout much of the race. According to Plato, the Pillars of Hercules towering over the entrance to the Straight of Gibralter bore a warning to sailors to go no further. The ancient Greeks believed the continent of Atlantis lay somewhere past the famed pillars, in the realm of the unknown.¹ The translation: "Beyond lies nothing." I had no idea what the day would have in store but was eager to find out.


As a result of the wave start, I found myself alone for the next several miles, occasionally passing a runner or two. At 3,000 feet the air felt crisp and cool and the silence was welcoming. "Wow, what a relaxing morning in the woods. I don't see what all the hype was about." The calming siren song of the trail began luring me into a false sense of complacency. 

Atop Acra Point the course turns onto the famed Escarpment Trail. The climb up to Blackhead Mountain and the long descent to Dutcher's Notch was not that technical, and neither was the next ascent up to Stoppel Point. I hung around the Dutchers Notch aid station just long enough to learn that Tailwind wouldn't be provided until Palenville, 11 miles away. I thanked the volunteers who'd hiked two miles carrying the aid station supplies and began the climb up to Stoppel Point.

The next mountain has an interesting bit of history with it. At 3,430 feet, Stoppel Point is home to the wreckage of a Piper PA-28 aircraft. In 1983, the small plane was traveling from Poughkeepsie to Watertown when it crashed on the mountain, killing the pilot.² The wreckage has not been moved to this day and can be found along side the Escarpment Trail, near the mountain's summit.

The wrecked Piper PA-28 at Stoppel Point.
Overlooking North/South Lake. There's an aid station down there somewhere.


"You look a little flush. Sit down and get some salt." The volunteer at North/South Lake wasn't asking - he was ordering. Strange, considering I felt okay and a brief spell of overwhelming fatigue had already passed an hour earlier. At mile 17.5, North/South Lake was the first major aid station of the day and the first with crew access. Fresh fruit, Oreos, PBJ - the brunch buffet looked inviting but I wanted to get out quickly. Determined not to let a sodium deficit ruin my day, I went to town on the salt potatoes and S-Caps and then set out, feeling neither better nor worse.

The next few miles I ran alongside Gerrit, a fellow Ithacan who was running Manitou for the fourth consecutive time and knew the course like the back of his hand. We chatted and moved at a pretty conservative pace along the gradual downhill section toward Palenville and the mile 21 aid station. When Gerrit stopped for a minute, I pulled on ahead and he said he'd catch up shortly. Big mistake.

A scenic overlook somewhere on the descent from Stoppel Point.
I soon found myself all alone questioning whether or not I was still on the course. I was still following the blue blazed DEC trail markers like I had been all day. Suddenly another runner came walking towards me and I knew that meant bad news. I learned that this poor bastard had continued a few miles ahead, down the side of the mountain, before realizing his mistake. He'd been lost for an hour and a half and added six miles to his race. Nope, this definitely wasn't the right way. Nec plus ultra.

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. If only I'd waited the 30 seconds for Gerrit. We began to backtrack and ran into three more runners coming our way. After studying maps and GPS data for what seemed like forever, the consensus was to backtrack to the next turn and figure things out. Sure enough, the T intersection was clearly marked with bright orange ribbons for the race. None of us paid enough attention and turned right instead of left, following the blue DEC markers instead of the race course ribbons. I wasted about 45 minutes and added two and a half miles, effectively extending my time in the wilderness and getting more bang for my buck. Gerrit was long gone by now and I wouldn't see him again all day. Getting significantly lost was another first for me at Manitou's Revenge. 

The wrong turn did award me this view from Poet's Ledge.

The long, gradual descent into Palenville left my spirits in the dumps. How could I have been so careless and wasted so much time? Things immediately turned around, though, at the mile 21.5 aid station. The abundance of Tailwind and the energy and helpfulness of volunteers Jim Porter and Lisa Glick got me back on my proverbial feet. Jim and Lisa seem to be at every ultra I run, and always know exactly what to say and do to get me moving again.

I followed the orange ribbons down a few roads and began a steep two mile climb up Kaaterskill High Peak, just as the sun neared its apex and the heat began to take its toll. Pulling out my phone and noticing a bar or two, I committed another trail faux pas and called Hayley to let her know I was still alive and well. She was initially alarmed that maybe I got injured and dropped out, but I assured her all was well. The brief call was a welcome distraction from the draining ascent up the exposed section of trail.

After a long ten mile stretch between aid stations, in which I drank from a stream using my Life Straw (another first), I made my way down into the Platte Clove aid station at mile 31.5. Although nearly 60% of the distance was now behind me, I knew that in terms of time I wasn't even halfway done. Platte Clove was the only aid station that allowed drop bags, and leaving with a headlamp and batteries was mandatory even though it was 2:30 in the afternoon. I took my time here, guzzled a ton of Tailwind, ate some salt potatoes and fruit, changed socks, and removed from my pack the stuff I didn't need. "Beware the chair" is a common saying in ultramarathoning, but I felt like the ten minute break was necessary to prepare myself mentally for Devil's Path. I left feeling recharged, ready to tackle to gnarliest part of the course.


"If you're going through Hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill

Devil's Path is no joke. The steepest parts involve one rock scramble after another, while the flatter terrain is so technical that running is nearly impossible for us mortals. With 50k of the race already behind us, it's a safe bet that most runners are already destroyed by the start of this section. I sensed the devil waiting in the bushes, looking to claim another victim with a sprained ankle or the loss of will to continue. On the way up to Twin Mountain, the second of four consecutive high peaks, I felt completely deflated, as if a little piece of something inside me died. So it goes. I later told RD Charlie "I lost a piece of my soul somewhere on Devil's Path."

A few examples of the "rocky and precipitous" terrain.

The seven miles from Platte Clove to Mink Hollow took almost four hours. For those of you counting, that's 34:17 per mile. The descent down to the Mink Hollow aid station seemed to take forever; I could hear peoples' voices for half an hour before I finally arrived. Fortunately, things would sort of turn around after Mink Hollow. I left around the same time as two other runners, Ben and Amy, and we stuck together and kept each other company for the next few hours. I learned that Amy was one of only a few runners attempting to keep a perfect attendance streak alive - finishing every edition of Manitou's Revenge, this being the fourth. (Gerrit, who was far ahead by now, was another one going for the quadfecta.)

Upon reaching the top of Plateau Mountain, the course takes a hard left to leave Devil's Path once and for all. What ensued seemed like nothing short of a miracle. Immediately - and I mean immediately - after turning off the path, things became much less technical. Gone were the rocks, roots, and ruts we'd been nimbly dancing around for the previous four hours. Gone were the vertical rock scrambles and jagged descents littered with Kevin McCallister style booby traps. The trail was now a nice, smooth, runnable downhill, much like the Ithaca singletrack I'm used to. We had gone through Hell and come out straight into Heaven, beat up and burned but still standing. The three of us picked up the pace, thankful for the chance to stretch out our legs on the smoother surface.

A couple of views from Devil's Path.

Ben, Amy, and I reached Silver Hollow Notch at mile 43.5 just as the sun was setting. Soon after, Amy dropped back while Ben and I stuck together for the rest of the race. We agreed it would be safer, and probably faster, to hang together once it was dark enough to need headlamps. My mindset shifted to "all business." This left me unfazed after almost falling face first into Warner Creek while stepping across on slippery rocks I could barely see.

With the sunlight completely gone, we began the final climb of the day, up a series of switchbacks to the Tremper Mountain fire tower. Sensing the end was near, I began to feel invincible on the power hike up Tremper. From far below, I could see the bright lights of the final aid station near the summit. I set into a steady rhythm of climbing with Ben close behind. We somehow passed about a dozen runners on the way up.

Ascending higher and higher, the light of the Willow aid station was not getting any closer. I could still clearly see it through the trees. After a half hour of ascending the light looked smaller if anything. I began to get frustrated and lose all sense of time and distance. The only objective was to reach that light, but the trail was leading away from it. Nec plus ultra. Clearly there were woodland nymphs or forest elves playing some sick joke on us unsuspecting runners. "Sorry guys, I've read enough Tolkien to know how those tricks work."

Finally we came into a clearing, and wouldn't you know it? The dim torch lights and bulbs at Willow were right in front of us. I was confused as ever, but said nothing about it as we made a hasty exit. The aid station volunteer told us we had only 500 more feet of ascent over two miles, then a gradual downhill to the final flat mile on paved road.

It was eerie to pass by the Tremper Mountain fire tower in the dark - a huge looming spectre illuminated only by moonlight, 200 feet of solid steel, casting a vigilant eye over the surrounding valleys and mountainsides. The fire tower marked the last uphill of the day, and we made our way painfully down the three miles of logging road. On the way down it dawned on me that what I thought was the light at Willow was in fact the moon itself, peeking gingerly through the trees a thousand feet above.

Beginning another grueling ascent. PC: Mountain Peak Fitness.
I felt an overwhelming rush of electricity as we hit County Road 40. The finish was a mere mile away, with nothing but flat asphalt between it and us. Ben was hurting and unable to run much, but it seemed inappropriate to pull ahead and finish alone when we'd been pacing each other for the previous five hours. We rounded the final turn at last to find the LED lights of the timing clock staring us in the face as the seconds ticked away lackadaisically. Charlie, a few volunteers, and some runners and crew made up a small welcoming committee for us late night marauders. Ben and I finished at the same time, shortly before midnight, in 18:26. Further down Main Street, Phoenicia looked like a ghost town while the rest of the village slept soundly, oblivious to the din of the runners' celebratory applause.


Finishing Manitou's Revenge, with all its trial and tribulations, leaves me feeling elated even as I write this ten days later. It really is the most brutal course I've ever thrown myself into, and in my mind, to come out the other side is a huge accomplishment. It's true then, that throughout entire trek there was always something lying beyond. Although I did not discover the Lost Continent of Atlantis in the wilderness, I did discover a level of perseverance I wasn't sure I had, and that's just as monumental. So what lies beyond mile 54? We'll just have to wait and see.  

Thank you to race director Charlie Gadol for organizing this monster, and to everyone who volunteered their time to get us through safely. An extra thank you to the volunteers who hiked supplies into the aid stations and stayed out in the wilderness well past their bedtimes. Congrats to everyone who finished the race or even attempted to. Manitou - we will meet again some day and I'll have my revenge on that wrong turn.

Related links and media coverage:

Full results with splits

Facebook Photo Gallery from Mountain Peak Fitness 

Manitou's Revenge is covered (briefly) in iRunFar's This Week In Running (scroll down toward the bottom.)

Amy's race report

My friend Mike's race report

Mountain Peak Fitness' video of the men's winner:

1. I first heard the phrase on a blog post and looked to Wikipedia for some clarification.

2. Per Catskill Finding information on the history of the plane wreck was difficult. 

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