2019 Manitou’s Revenge Ultra

One mile down the road, my Garmin Forerunner GPS buzzed and I knew exactly what the alert was for. The question was, do I glance at my watch or ignore the alert? In a split second the decision was made. I looked–and thankfully it said, “+5” indicating my Performance Condition was good. At the start of a 54-mile ultramarathon, that is so much better than seeing a “-5.” “Minus-anything” would have been a soul crushing blow.

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It was only 5:20 A.M.and my  spirits were immediately lifted as I had 53 miles to go in the Manitou’s Revenge Ultra and I hadn’t even hit the first section of trail yet. Manitou’s is seductively beautiful. The ruggedness of the Catskills is only rivaled by the other Northeastern mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, but in a weird way, these New York peaks seem rougher. You only top out around 3,900 feet and rarely get above the treeline (there are a few overlooks), but the combination of hills, rocks, roots, and mud make for a challenging landscape. You might suffer vertigo just looking at the course profile.

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Manitou’s is no ordinary 50-miler. Running that distance is no joke, but on this point-to-point course, with 14,000 feet of elevation gain and 15,000 feet of elevation loss, the level of difficulty is so much greater than the average race of this distance. The terrain is as harsh as it gets, with undulating hills averaging a 15% gradient and peaking out at 60%. The trails are littered with rocks and roots that make even the “flat” sections difficult to run. There are parts of the course that if you average two miles per hour, then you are doing well. I haven’t updated my Toughest Ten in several years but this race is an instant qualifier.

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Yesterday’s weather was spectacular. The temperature in the valleys was in the high-70’s and it was cooler on the summits with a constant breeze. That wind kept the bugs away and offered a lovely cooling effect as the sun was strong given the proximity of this race to the Solstice. The sunset was amazing. I finished just before dark, so I experience all of the “golden hour.”  The race started at 5:00 A.M. and went off in waves at five-minute intervals. The 24-hour cutoff indicates how tough this race is. Double that and you have a similar cutoff ratio as the toughest 100-milers in the world.

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This was a return to Manitou’s for Debbie. She first ran the race in 2017 in preparation for that year’s Hardrock Endurance Run and subsequently the Cascade Crest Endurance Run. It was perfect training for those tough events. The big difference is that the extreme elevation change of Manitou’s is an accumulation of short and steep ups and downs. “Relentless”is the word that comes to mind when you think about the course profile and trail conditions. The wet spring made the usually muddy trails even muddier. Some sections were so awful that you had nowhere to go other than straight through the muck.

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I destroyed my new Altra Lone Peak 4.0’s. I don’t think this generation of Altra’s are built with the same quality as prior, but they still shouldn’t have fallen apart in their first race. I struggled to dial in their fit throughout the race. I tied and retied them no less than 10 times. They just don’t fit like the 3.0’s that I had come to love. I got the same size, but something isn’t right about these shoes. I had a pain on the top of my right foot that wouldn’t go away. Thankfully, the bottom of my feet, despite being soaked all day long, were in great shape.

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Another solid gear choice was my Black Diamond trekking poles. They were as helpful on the steep downhills as they were on the steep uphills. Periodically, I put them away, strapping them to the bottom of my UltrAspire Zygos pack. I did this on some of the steepest and longest downhills that required two hands to grab rocks and scramble safely. Some of the granite strewn ascents and descents were so sheer, that they reminded me of The Knife Edge on Katahdin, but with trees and a bit less exposure. With a slip, you wouldn’t fall 500 feet like in Maine, but you could fall 40, and the consequences would likely be the same.

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My fueling and hydration went well. I drank water from my hydration pack’s bladder, and Tailwind from an additional bottle that I carried in the front of the pack. I ate GoMacro Bars, Clif Bloks, potatoes with salt, pickles, vegan quesadillas, potato chips, vegan chocolate/coconut “bombs,” and veggie broth. I took S Caps to augment my electrolyte intake, and I ingested two Tylenols’ (at mile 30 and mile 40) to take the edge off of my leg pain, which was severe.

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The “+5” on my Garmin wasn’t the only indication that I’m in good shape. I’ve been feeling good all spring. I had a slow build in 2018 following a lot of rest in the first half of the year after my broken leg. Then last fall, I had a strong comeback cyclocross season. I maintained my fitness throughout the winter, started to run again by the end of the year, and have subsequently built some great form in 2019. I’ve had a lot going on at work which has been a mental and physical strain, so I started 2019 by intentionally improving my diet and sleep. This effort to counteract the stress, has kept me on an even keel and has been a benefit for my athletic performance. I’m feeling strong.

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I prepared for Manitou’s using a similar approach to past ultras. I got in my overall exercise, which is mostly riding with a little running. I try to average 10 hours a week with 80%  of that on a bicycle and 20% on my feet. Much of my riding comes from commuting to work. I did core work to stretch and strengthen my muscles. I did some trail racing including Traprock 50K and Soapstone Mountain 24K. I did a couple of long days in the woods with Debbie. We had one such adventure in Massachusetts in May, and another earlier this month in Vermont. Both trips included long days and lots of vertical ascent. When she put Manitou’s on her 2019 calendar, she suggested I prepare and join her. I’m glad I did.

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Debbie and I started in Wave 3, 10 minutes after Wave 1. Sheryl Wheeler was in our wave. She is a legend in northeast trail running, and did the 2000 Escarpment Trail Run with Debbie. Yesterday, Sheryl and I spent some time together on the first climb of the day and she was reminiscing about her trail running past. She said that the 2000 Escarpment was one of her first trail races and that after that, she was hooked. She said she finished third behind Debbie (Schieffer back then), and Nikki Kimball. Nikki got her start at racing trails in 1999 the same year that Debbie did. They did their first ultra together at the Vermont 50. Sheryl won her first Escarpment in 2003 and has gone on to win the race four more times. In the 2000 race, Ben Nephew won for the first time. He has gone on to win Escarpment 12 more times.

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Both Sheryl and Ben are multiple-time winners of Manitou’s Revenge. Ben won yesterday’s race in 11 hours and 25 minutes. Sheryl was fourth woman. Success at the Escarpment Trail Race can be translated to success at Manitou’s because the Escarpment Trail features prominently, with much of the first 18 miles of Manitou’s on it. The Escarpment Trail Race finishes at North/South Lake, which is Aid Station 3 at Manitou’s. The other trail that contributes to Manitou’s toughness factor is the Devil’s Path. The name says it all. The steepest ups and downs are on this section of the course. AMC’s Best Day Hikes Catskills & Hudson Valley is a good resource. The updated maps show the many trails in Catskills Park.

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Debbie and I didn’t run together, but we saw each other several times. I would get ahead on the climbs and she would close the gap on the descents. She caught up to me several times. We reconnected at some of the aid stations. After the 40-mile mark, I was having serious problems going downhill. I couldn’t sustain a pace and was forced to walk a lot. This cost me 20 spots as I was helplessly passed by a steady stream of runners, including six in the final three miles of trail, which was all downhill on loose rock. I felt really good, but my legs, particularly my quadriceps, were shot. I knew it and accepted it, but it was still demoralizing given my form. This result was predictable as I have suffered the same fate every time I’ve run longer than 50K. My leg muscles just can’t handle the longer distances and the accumulated pounding eventually does me in.

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While I was slowing down, Debbie was suffering a similar fate. She started the race with a sore right heel and Manitou’s rocks took their toll. She ended up favoring her left leg, which resulted in her own quadricep soreness. She too struggled on the descents, which is uncharacteristic for her because running downhill is her strength. I finished 44th in 15 hours and 45 minutes. She was 20 minutes and four spots behind me in 16 hours and 6 minutes. That’s a long time for a 50-miler and only our White Mountain Hut Traverses in 2011 and 2013 took longer for a similar distance. I was hoping she would catch me one the final descent so that we could finish together, but if I stopped, I might never have gotten moving again, so I kept shuffling to the finish in Phoenicia.

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Over the last six years since the founding, Manitou’s Revenge has become a community. Finishers are members of a fraternity. It doesn’t matter how fast you go. Getting to the finish line gives you serious ultra credentials. That stats prove this out. My Garmin Connect data says I took 115,000+ steps, ascended 936 floors, and burned more than 7,000 calories.

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The competitors make the race, but the volunteers make the race happen. Race Director Charlie Gadol is fortunate to have a cadre of dedicated helpers who put a lot of time into the event. Some of them hiked and hauled food, beverages, and supplies to difficult-to-reach aid stations. It was greatly appreciated.

After similar poundings at the Lookout Mountain 50 and Wapack and Back 50, I swore I would never run a mountainous 50 again. I won’t make any more perditions because I actually enjoy the challenge, but I’m pretty sure that one Manitou’s Revenge is enough. Congratulations to all of my fellow finishers. You earned it!

Race Results

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