by Eric Eagan
Manitou’s Revenge might the hardest 50 (technically it is 54) mile race in the United States. In 50 miles runners climb over 15,000 feet of hand over foot, rocky, root covered, wet mountains. The Catskill mountains of New York, not known for towering peaks but more for the soul crushing technicality is where this race calls home.
You have 24 hours to cover the 54 miles. Most of that time will be spent self sufficient, as setting up aid stations in a remote wilderness like this is almost impossible. Only the best of the best and the most mentally tough finish this race, even top end of “average” runners will be finish in the dark on the most challenging section of the course. From the race website; ”This is an extreme event and only those who are highly qualified and/or completely deranged should attempt it”
2010 came around and Ben was obese, out of shape, hungry all of the time. His family has a history of heart disease, and growing up he watched folks pass away from poor eating habits and unhealthy lifestyle and now he was stuck in the same rut.
Ben had his eye opener moment one day in 2010. He had just climbed a flight of stairs, he was winded and he thought to himself; “I have a great job, a beautiful family, I am so busy with all these great things but I won’t be here to enjoy it if something doesn’t change”
It’s hard to imagine that less than 5 years later he is attempting to cover “Devils Path” which BackPacker magazine calls possibly the most difficult hike in the lower 48 states. He was doing so after dark, in the pouring rain after having been stranded at an aid station for well over an hour with a drop bag mix up.
Consider that he was also taking on the Devil 38 miles in to his race.
The changes started with his wife, Lisa. “She had just had our 2nd child and she decided to get back in shape. She started running, started martial arts and before I knew it she was back in shape. I figured that was as good a place as any to start, I give her so much credit for our change!”
Climbing up Plateau Mountain on the Devil’s Path, Ben knew his race was likely over. The hour plus wait for his drop bag at the previous aid station, the rain, the dark, and the overall effort of moving on such difficult terrain for such a long time (19 hours) all started to stack up against him.
As a child Ben grew up outside, Mountain biking, hiking, running, playing. He lost all of that and then found it again with his wife, Lisa. He spent countless hours reclaiming his youth, playing in the woods, hiking with his kids, climbing the most challenging peaks he could find. Among all of this Ben realized he would need DNF at the next aid station.
He was simply out of time and out of energy to continue. The circumstances, the weather, the mountains were too much.
In a wonderful show of who he is and how far he has come, he is not considering his DNF a failure though. This is a lesson we can all, as endurance athletes, take from Ben.
5 years ago, if you had told him he would be an accomplished ultra runner, co- founder of a trail running company, and now tackling the most difficult race in the country and loving every minute of it, he would have laughed and told you that you were out of your mind.
He accomplished these feats the same way he become unhealthy – One step at a time. The world of ultrarunning is filed with these stories. Stories of folks overcoming odds, beating genetics, making changes.
Ben leads a group for #TrailsRoc on Wednesday mornings. They meet at 6am and run by the light of a headlamp year round in Rochester, NY. He has been sharing and giving advice to runners going on 3 years now and he knows as he descends off of Plateau into the Silver Hollow Notch aid station that they are thinking of him, even in the early hours of morning. He is more surprised however to come across one of his fellow runners as a surprise aid station volunteer. This as Ben tells it is what the sport is really all about.
Not the glory at the finish line, not the agony of the DNF as he climbed hand over hand through Manitou’s Revenge. It’s the community. This community refuses to allow a DNF to define a runner. Ben’s success and comeback story refuse to allow a DNF to be considered a failure.
The story, as they say, isn’t over yet. While fully admitting that at times he felt overwhelmed and even had some respectful fear of the course, Ben is already locked in for the race next year. To continue in the slow progression towards finding himself. “I used to be obese and out of shape, Now I just ran 19 hours in a Monsoon, in the mountains. It makes me wonder what else am I capable of and I can’t wait to find out”