by Pete Kresock
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?
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. Jaw dropping views of surrounding valleys are scattered among the peaks and along the trails’ high ridgelines. Runners follow the Escarpment Trail and the Long Path, then traverse four of the High Peaks in succession on the notorious Devil’s Path.
I drove down to Phoenicia knowing I’d be going off the grid for the weekend. 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. To take it a step further, I was staying two nights in a tent at a DEC camp site five miles from the finish line. Again, no big deal, except that I was camping in a tent alone, with no way to get in touch with family or friends if a tornado claimed my tent or a bear ate my wallet and car keys.
Nec plus ultra. The translation: “Beyond lies nothing.” The well known Latin phrase described my mindset throughout much of the race. According to Plato, the Pillars of Hercules towering over the entrance to the Straight of Gibraltar 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. I had no idea what the day would have in store but was eager to find out.
We got to the first trail after three miles of asphalt. Upon leaving the road I began the first big climb of the day, up and into the Windham Blackhead Range Wilderness. The ascent up Blackhead Mountain and the long descent to the Dutcher’s Notch aid station were not technical by Catskill standards. At Dutcher’s Notch I thanked the volunteers who’d hiked two miles carrying the aid station supplies, and began the climb up to Stoppel Point.
At 3,430 feet, Stoppel Point is home to the wreckage of a Piper PA-28 aircraft. In 1983, the small plane was traveling across New York state when it crashed on the mountain, killing the pilot. The wreckage has not been moved to this day and can be found alongside the Escarpment Trail, near the mountain’s summit.
Six miles past Stoppel Point, 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 enticing but I wanted to get out quickly. Determined not to let a sodium deficit ruin my day, I went to town on some salt potatoes and then made a hasty exit.
I soon found myself all alone questioning whether or not I was still on the course. Another runner trudged around a bend in my direction and I knew that meant bad news. Nope, this definitely wasn’t the right way. Nec plus ultra. With a sinking feeling in my gut we began to backtrack. Sure enough, the T intersection was clearly marked with bright orange ribbons to indicate a left turn where we’d gone right. 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. Sauntering significantly off course was another first for me at Manitou’s Revenge. The long, gradual descent into the Palenville aid station left my spirits in the dumps. As with many ultras though, the volunteers were amazing and knew exactly what to say so I’d get over it and keep on trucking.
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. After a long ten mile stretch between aid stations in which I drank from a stream (another first), I made my way down into the Platte Clove aid station at mile 31.5. Nearly 60 percent of the distance was now behind me, but I knew that in terms of time I was less than half way home. “Beware of the chair” is a common saying in ultrarunning, but I felt like a ten minute break at Platte Clove was necessary to prepare myself mentally for Devil’s Path. I left feeling recharged, ready to tackle the gnarliest part of the course.
“If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” The famous saying, often attributed to Winston Churchill, couldn’t be more applicable to Manitou’s Revenge. 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 Catskill high peaks, I felt completely deflated, as if a little piece of something inside me died. So it goes. I later told race director Charlie “I lost a piece of my soul somewhere on Devil’s Path.”
Traveling seven miles from Platte Clove to Mink Hollow took almost four hours. The descent down to the Mink Hollow aid station seemed to take forever; I could hear the volunteers’ jovial voices for half an hour before I finally arrived. Fortunately, things turned around once again after Mink Hollow. I left at the same time as two other runners, Ben and Amy, and we kept each other company for the next few hours. Amy was one of only a few runners attempting to keep a perfect attendance streak alive by finishing all four editions of Manitou’s Revenge, and I was determined to do all I could to help her succeed.
Upon reaching the top of Plateau Mountain, the course took 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 prancing across over the previous four hours. Gone were the vertical rock scrambles and jagged descents littered with Home Alone-styled booby traps. The trail was now a 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.
We reached another aid station just as the sun was setting. Amy decided to drop 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 after dark.
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. 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. 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.
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 trials 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 the 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.
Deep in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, a growing number of ultrarunners are making the trek from Windham to Phoenicia. Across 54 miles, ten mountain passes, and some of the most treacherous trails anywhere on the east coast, Manitou’s Revenge proved to be a true test of my limits.