Decorating the Walls in the Pain Cave

“Come run Breakneck Point, it’ll be fun!” Those were the words of enticement from a couple of the podium contenders at last year’s inaugural running of this trail marathon in the Hudson Valley. Red Newt Racing posted video from last year’s race, showing Iain Ridgway and Ben Nephew’s epic slug fest across some incredible terrain; earlier last year, Ben had done a well-documented FKT attempt on the course, which also hinted at the spectacular views to be had. It all looked very tempting indeed. So even though I felt vaguely unprepared for this much vert and distance so early in the season, I signed up and prepared to drive four hours south to “get it done.”

“Kiss your quads goodbye!” was the cheery warning from certified #beastcoast manimal, Ryan Welts, when he heard I’d taken the plunge. Well, it’s not like 10,000 feet of elevation would go entirely unnoticed — especially when some of it came at a 60% grade. I’ve never had cramps in both legs at the same time, in quads, hamstrings, calves and feet simultaneously. It makes driving really awkward. Let’s just say you may want to bring a support crew to get you home safe when it’s all over. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

So, About the Race, Then?

I’m one of those guys who always gets caught up in the exuberance of the race atmosphere and inadvertently kicks it up a notch from the start, because, “fuck, yeah!” And then 20 miles later I’m hating on myself for being such an idiot when I run out of steam well before the final climbs and the finish line. Not today. Especially since I had been given enough hints that this was something a little out of the ordinary, I wanted to err on the side of cautious. I set a very conservative goal time of 7:30, based on my tried-and-true White Mountains formula that says any given run will take me at least one-and-a-half times Ben Nephew’s FKT.

My strategy for Breakneck, then, was to — for once — go out really easy, in the hopes of having enough in the tank for an enjoyable — or at least endurable — finish. I planned to run a very conservative race, deliberately holding back, walking all the climbs, recovering on the easy flats. But my plan fell apart almost from the get-go: there are very few “easy flats” on this course — there’s some beautiful runnable stuff, to be sure, but almost the entire course is either exceptionally technical, or steep as hell, so there’s not much room for easy recovery.

And just to be clear: the climbs on this thing are incredible — not just the 60% grade of the notorious Breakneck Ridge, where you’re climbing hand-over-hand for a good 10 minutes, but the other major ascents are as rough as anything you’d find in the Whites. What I really appreciated, though, was that the descents, while technical, were all fairly user friendly: you could pick a line and provided your tired legs could cope, you could hold it and get a flow going.

Conditions were perfect — high 30s at the start, crisp, clear, dry air, dry trails, a slight breeze. The half and full marathoners start together, so you had 300 people crowding each other out for the first couple of miles, then the usual clustering and jostling over the first significant pitches, and before long you were really just running your own race. Crossing 9D and picking up the crazy Breakneck Ridge pitch was a fun milestone, and there was a nice, long, gentle descent on a paved trail that brought us close to the halfway point. I was a little concerned to see that we still had only done a third of the climbing by then — which meant there was at least 6,000 feet more to go.

Still, I thought I’d done a fair job of holding back, and I felt great up until somewhere around mile 18. At that point, I hit the wall square on: got dizzy, field of vision narrowed, was on the verge of cramps, with zero power anywhere in the system. “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend…” Found a good spot to regroup with a Pro Bar for a minute, and channeled Chad Denning to get my shit together. But the door to the pain cave had been kicked wide open, and it was clearly time to go explore. I hooked up with a fellow runner for a bit, and chatting idly got me distracted and back in contention.

After the aid station at mile 21 (where they had dried mangos, for fuck’s sake, the best thing ever!) things got pretty surreal. It’s a relentless slog back up Fishkill Ridge to the Casino Trail all the way back to the top of Breakneck Ridge — but to make things more bizarre, you’re surrounded by day hikers with their slushies and cell phones, puppies and whiny kids, who are looking in equal parts amazement and disgust at the miserable wrecks with race numbers trudging up the slope. (A side note here: the great video from 2015 shows Iain and Ben fighting it out on this climb, but it’s totally deceptive and false advertising, because those fuckers are RUNNING — and there is no way in hell I could even conceive of running that hill at that point in the race. Damn cyborgs.) My quads were on fire, and every step required lots of convincing. I got passed by a couple of the runners I’d been pogo’ing since early in the race, and I couldn’t care less. More power to them — less power left with me.

After a couple of false summits we finally reached the firetower, and then it was a long technical descent all the way to the finish line. I dug deep to find a second wind, then a third, and plowed through those last couple of miles. In my stupid daze I missed the final turn, so came at the finish line all wrong, but zero fucks were given at that point — I was done. 6:48 or something like that was better than I’d thought, but with some better pacing discipline along the way, I think I could have shaved at least 10–15 minutes off that time. But definitely one of the most memorable and thoroughly enjoyable races I’ve ever done — highly recommend it.

Practical notes: my small 1.5l Osprey pack was perfect for the day — it allowed me plenty of water (I skipped most of the aid stations, only refilling twice), and allowed me free hands for the gnarliest climbs. And I was completely thrilled with the La Sportiva Vertical K’s that I’d picked up a couple of weeks ago on an impulse — they are light, comfortable, offer plenty of support and unmatched traction, both for the climbs and the descents. Don’t know how much punishment they’ll hold up to, but they will definitely be my go-to race shoes for the really technical stuff this season (e.g. Manitou’s Revenge).

I’m an Idiot, So I’ll Be Back

Imagine the grotesquely overgrown love child of Wapack and Seven Sisters, with a little Bear Brook thrown in for good measure, and those of you in the North East may have some idea of what’s hiding in the Hudson Valley. Yes, the views are incredible, the race is well organized, with a great vibe, awesome volunteers, and a wonderful crowd of runners. But beware: you’re going to be in way more pain after this one than you would after your average 50K. It’s fun, but only if you’re a masochist at heart — which all ultra runners are, of course.