By Matthew Imberman
Race: Manitou’s Revenge
Where: Catskills, New York
When: June 17, 2017
This is the description from the Race Director:
“THIS IS NOT LIKE ANY OTHER ULTRA YOU’VE RUN BEFORE!
This is a grueling, gnarly, nasty course with approximately 15,000 ft. 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 miler. That’s why we are allowing 24 hrs. to complete this monster. Because of its remote and difficult nature, there will of necessity be a limited number of aid stations, 8 or 9, and runners should be prepared to spend up to 3 or 4 hrs between aid stations. You will have to be reasonably self-sufficient. To make matters worse, the course gets progressively more difficult as you go along! And to top it all off, the average runner will have to tackle this hardest terrain in the dark.”
Back story: I don’t know exactly why I ended up choosing Manitou’s as my goal race for spring/summer ultra season, but whatever it was, I’m thankful for it. There are race formats (5k, 10k, 26.2, etc.) that create and sustain meaningful product and process goals: breaking three hours in the marathon, or going sub 24 hours in a 100 miler, I imagine. Then there are races that because of their historical importance, the challenging nature of their terrain, their location the weather, or a combination thereof–become a life’s work, with rewards that come not just from achieving a specific time, but from starting and (hopefully) finishing the journey. Manitou’s Revenge is one of these races.
This was my second time running and finishing the course. I ran it in 2015 in just over 18 hours, recovering from a hip flexor injury, and on the edge of being overtrained from a long marathon to ultra season, with lots of work pressure to boot. I don’t add this in to apologize for my less-than-stellar result: 1) just finishing Manitou’s within cutoffs is something to be proud of and 2) Everyone who trains for this race a little or a lot probably has their own “niggle” that they could use to handicap themselves. It’s more to remind myself that you can’t expect results that you don’t plan for. This time around I had fewer miles on my legs, and fewer days out on the trail; however, I had a clearer idea of the course, I had arguably trained more specifically and somewhat more intelligent given how I had to be creative with my training to make it fit around family and work. I thought if I had the best day ever, the weather was great, and everything went perfectly I could finish ~16 hours. Given that the weather was far less from perfect I’m thrilled with my results; however, there are some things I could have done in-race to scrape away at least 30 mins, but I’ll get to that. Anyways…
Training for Manitou’s was extremely non-linear, which is to be expected given the whole circus of two kids and two jobs. Throw in planning a move that happened two days after the race and it gives an idea of the creativity with which I’ve had to approach training: running mostly to and/or from work, long runs on a Sunday night, taking off a few Fridays to get some trail time in. This sport is a labor of love, so none of this seems like a sacrifice to me. This season I relished every run I got, and constantly felt appreciative of being able to get a run in, and, at times, anxious that I wasn’t getting enough mileage in.
Plans for the race only jelled in the final week. I was hoping to stay closer to the start and sleeping in until at least 4 am for the 5 am start; however, a lot of that hinged on my friend, Brennan’s plan, as he was trying to decide between pacing me for the last half of the race, or running the full length himself. He decided to run the race and with everything going on I had neglected to line up any alternative crew to help with logistics for the point-to-point format of the course, so I decided to make peace with staying close to the finish and waking up at 2:15, so we could get to the buses that left at 3:30 to transport us to the start.
Brennan and I left the city midday on Friday and got up to Phoenicia at around 2, had some lunch, and went to our motel in Big Indian to get our start kit, drop bags, and finish bags ready. I had packed a week out from the race because I knew there would be too much going on week off to not be a total spaz. I had some PB&J on the way up so I wasn’t really hungry for lunch. We got settled at the Starlite Motel in Big Indian, which was actually pretty awesome, and headed into Phoenicia to pick up our packets. We had dinner at Brio’s (chicken fajitas, latkes, and beers) and the headed back to finalize our bags for the big day.
Weather for race day was all over the place: 70 and sunny to 85 and thunderstorms. After 3+ rainy hours my first year, I decided to play it safe and plan for rain which never arrived but would have been most welcome. The entire day was incredibly humid and I kept wishing for rain. It had been insanely hot earlier in the week, and then rainy followed by humidity, which meant the very rocky course was made even slicker. And then the mud. But I digress.
Here’s what I ended up using or packing for the race:
Peanut Butter on wheat bread
2 scoops of Ucan in 10 oz of water, 1 hour before start
Salomon Half-zip t-shirt
Salomon Exo short tight
Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin3 5 Set Pack (2015 model)
Naked Running band waist pack
Raidlight 600ml soft-flasks with straws x2, filled with water
Hydrapak 24 oz. soft flask, empty
Scott Kinablu SuperTrac shoes
Injinji trail mini-crew socks (changed at Platte Clove—too thick)
Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles
2 bag of pro-bar chews (1 with caffeine)
1 bag of honey stinger grapefruit chews
Black Diamond Storm headlight (2017 version) plus 4 extra AAA batteries
2Toms anti-chafe stick (applied, not carried)
Med kit: SCaps x 7, Pepto x 2, Tums x 5, tincture of benzene, mole skin pre-cut, safety pin, anti-septic gel, tiny lighter (in hindsight probably not needed)
Drop bag for Platte clove (31.5):
La Sportiva Helios SR shoes
Injinji Original mini-crew socks
Inov-8 shorts (not used: Salomon’s were awesome)
Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 3 Belt Set
3 bags of honey stinger chews (1 w/caffeine)
Black Diamond spot headlamp (not used; leant to a runner who forgot to pick up his lamp at platte clove)
Hydrapak 2L bladder
Arcteryx packable rain jacket (not used)
Some kind of IPA from Other half courtesy of Brennan that I couldn’t finish
A bagel and cream cheese plus a bag of combos because I forgot to get food from the post-race buffet because I wanted to let Clara know I wasn’t dying somewhere along the Devil’s Path.
I was in Wave 5 which meant I had an extra 25 minutes to wait in the musty men’s room hoping, in vain, to be able to crap. As opposed to my first Manitou’s, I managed to make it a ways into the race before the lack of bathroom magic caught up with me. Like with most of my ultra-distance races above 50k, though, the lack of said bathroom magic caught up to me later in the race.
My start group was pretty somber and we trudged through the first few miles on the road in eery silence. It was a mixture of all the ultra types ones come to expect: the over-eager bro who wants to talk about all the races they’ve run and their training, the quiet mice happy to trudge along unnoticed, the grizzled vets doling out (unasked for) advice about the course, life, etc.. I was probably all of these at various points during the race, but at the start I was just trying to wake the fuck up.
We hit the left turn for the Black Dome trail and the gradual climb towards the Escarpment Trail. I felt kinda sleepy but my legs were finally waking up. During the first stretch, everything felt fine except that I felt like I was slipping and sliding all over the place. This was worrisome as I had worn my Scotts in a rainy 7+ hour day in Hudson Highlands and felt very confident. The trouble was that the rocks had developed a slippery coating thanks to the humidity during the week. I fell like 3 times in the first 20 miles, including one really splashy fall that ripped open my right forearm, leaving me dripping blood through the end of the race. I’m not ever going to be confused with Killian on the trails; however, I’m generally pretty nimble so it was disconcerting, to say the least. I was running with a really nice biologist from Vermont named Palmer, and she actually said at one point she wished she could buy me new shoes. So…yeah. This, however, is why we plan ahead. I knew I had shoes at Platte Clove that had served me well at the same point in Manitou’s in 2015 (note to self: just start in the La Sportiva Helios SR—they’re perfect for this course), so I decided to not stress and just focus on getting to through the first 50k without falling too much. It meant I was a little more hesitant than I normally would have been, but at least this was the easiest part of the course.
I felt generally fine through the Escarpment trail, which in itself is no picnic. I used my poles more than I thought I would have, and after a few times of taking them out and them stowing them in the naked band, I decided to just run with them in my hand which was the right decision. At some point around Blackhead Peak, the high point on the course, I passed Amy Hanlon who reminded me not to let her beat me (words that would play out in my head later on) and then also Brennen, who was in the wave ahead of me. He had mentioned at the start that he was going to drop at Platte Clove (~31M). Manitou’s is definitely a race where you have to be fully committed mentally, even if you’re afraid of what you’re committed to, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him say he was planning on dropping at North/South Lake). I felt for him, as I know what it’s like to DNF, and I also know first-hand how hard the course is. Given that he was flirting all season with not running the race, I think he made the right decision and I’m sure it wasn’t easy. God knows he’s run plenty of tough races and if it was time to call it quits, that was the right call.
I made it to North/South Lake mostly running with Palmer and Adam Moody, who I’d later learn was the same guy Brennan had camped out next to for Twisted Branch 100k. The descent down from Stopple was unmemorable but I felt more confident with my footing than earlier in the race. At north south I showed off my dripping arm wound for Joe Azze who was taking pictures for MPF (must have seen him like 4 times on the course) waved off medical help, ate some watermelon, stuffed my empty zip lock with potato chips, downed some Coke, and left Palmer behind, picking up a guy named Scott, also from VT, who would eventually finish 30 minutes ahead of me (I think).
I ran the long downhill to Palenville pretty well, eventually catching and passing Adam on the final descent that must be an out-of-service jeep road. It was rock-hopping at its finest, but I enjoyed it for the most part and rolled into Pallenville pretty focused: fill up the empty 24 oz. bottle for the 10M stretch without any aid, down Coke, pack zip lock with potato chips and Swedish fish as I was down to a few gels, and get moving while stuffing my face.
I headed out with two full 600ml bottles and the spare 24 oz. in the rear, plus some extra food. The road section was uneventful but I burned 5 mins spacing out and then having to consult my map about location, all for no reason as it was clearly flagged and I had followed the turns. I hit the sketchy back yard section and was either caught or caught up with Adam (probably the former) and headed uphill with my poles at the ready. I was kinda zoned out and didn’t catch the right turn past off the street onto the long path, and ended up heading up a jeep road for about 1/2 mile with Adam (sorry!) until I realized we were off course and we backtracked and headed onto the long path for the long climb up to KHP. The climb was worlds better than two years ago, when I had to grab downed limbs off the trailside to aid my shitty ascent after having snapped a trekking pole over my head on a nasty fall in the escarpment section. The poles were definitely helpful in taking some strain off my legs, and the work in the gym this season meant my upper body was ready to pick up the extra load. Still, I think a goal this summer is to practice climbing sans poles, as I think that’s going to be part of how I get better at Manitous. Back to the story…
The climb up was fine, but as we approached the flat part before KHP shoulder, that’s when the course got muddy. At some points it was shoe-sucking mud that left my kicks nicely coated in red-clay mud. At other points it was just slickly mud that made for anxious foot placement. All-in-all not exactly what you want after a long grind uphill, but thems the breaks. I forgot how pace-killing the descent down to Platte Clove is in comparison to the one to Palenville. I would hit stretches where I was running reasonably well, and then all of a sudden be tip-toeing around streams, mud, rock slabs, and other obstacles. Not as runnable as I remembered, but fun nonetheless.
I rolled into Platte Clove at ~31M with a clear idea of what I needed to do, but maybe an unrealistic idea of when I might finish. I knew from the first 10 miles of the race that I was going to switch into my La Sportivas; however, it’s never as fast to swap shoes as you think it’s going to, so from now on I’m just wearing the Helios SRs for everything. This year I’ve used them for a pretty tunable 50k and the hardest part of Manitou’s and they’ve been great. I also took the time to change shirts as my first one was totally soaked, and swapped out my naked waist band for my Salomon waist pack as with all the sweating it started to bounce around a lot. I grabbed 7 Huma gels (3 caffeine and 4 regular) and the remaining three bags of honey stinger chews, plus filled up my zip lock with potato chips, pretzels, and some m&ms. I also grabbed my bladder for the long stretch in the Devil’s Path, and uncharacteristically filled up one of my bottles with Gatorade. While I may not have been able to crap in the morning, this was one of those days where my body was happy with whatever I ate (which makes sense as I only grabbed stuff that instantly felt appealing). I also drank some pickle juice and a PB&J wrap and then headed off for the gradual climb up to to the Devil’s Path, and Indian Head.
I had been leap-frogging with a few groups of runners leading up to this section that I would see throughout the rest of the race: Adam, Tommy, Bob, and a few others whose names escape me. We fell into a loosely formed group for a decent stretch of the Devil’s Path, which definitely helped. In looking back at my splits from 2015, I ran the first 50k only like 10-15 minutes faster this year than I did in 2015; however, I ran the Devil’s Path about 45-50 minutes faster than in 2015, and part of that is from not having to go it alone this time. It’s a humbling and amazing stretch of trail and this time around I felt much more comfortable; although, the humidity was definitely getting to me. There’s very little runnable terrain at all during this 7-mile stretch, but in retrospect, there were times I would have benefitted from running even the short stretches that permitted it, as you can save enough small moments of time to add up to a decent accumulation of minutes. In fact, that’s the story of Manitou’s: you’re not going to shave a ton of time off any one section. Improvement in this race comes from not wasting any time (in aid stations or otherwise) and from running every stretch of trail where the terrain allows for it. During the Devil’s Path you are hiking so much that you get lulled into the belief that you won’t run. It’s hard to motivate yourself to run little patches of trail knowing that after 50 feet you’re just going to have to hike up, climb up/down, or butt-scoot down a rock face again; however, that’s what I need to do.
My trekking poles were both a gift and a curse during this section: more helpful on the non-scrambling sections of climbing than I would have thought, but a bit of a nuisance on some of the downhills and downright treacherous on any of the scrambling or butt-scooting sections. In looking at the faster race finishers it seems like one thing I need to do is just spend more time on technical ascents practicing hiking and running without poles. In general, ascending has never been my strength, so I’m making this summer’s trail focus ditching the cheating sticks. But I digress…
I took one decent spill on the Devil’s Path and managed to land with a point slab of rock directly between my ass-cheeks. Honestly, I have no words. It was just an amazing bit of shitty luck. My new-found running friends thought it funny enough, and who can blame them: it’s not every day someone loses their virginity to a rock. At this point Adam had moved ahead and I was running more with Tommy and his crew. I was definitely drinking enough–maybe too much–as I seemed to need to piss every 45 minutes.
I hit Mink Hollow after like 11 and a half hours of running (about 45 mins faster than in 2015) happy to see some familiar faces, including Lisa who was killing it running the aid station. I think I saw Mendy there, and Adam’s wife Jennie. I grabbed some Swedish fish, some more Gatorade (no Coke as they didn’t have any…rats!) and some more potato chips and maybe some more pickle juice and headed for the last climb on the Devil’s Path, up Plateau. In my mind and in reading up on this stretch, it seemed like it wasn’t as bad as the previous stretch I had just completed. Somehow, that wasn’t actually the case and I suffered a little on the climb and then again on the descent, but it could also have been that at this point I felt the need to heed the call of nature, so wasn’t eating as much, and thus flagged on energy. I spent part of the climb up and a descent down Plateau running with a guy and his pacer. I can see how a pacer in this section helps, as you’ve gone through the hardest part and you’re pretty beat up, but with the right encouragement you can start to establish a decent pace again. I hung with them, staying even or behind on the climb and then leapfrogging ahead on the descents until eventually the call of nature was loud enough that I veered off trail to dig a cat hole and TCB. Maybe TMI, but squatting after 12 hours of really technical trail running isn’t exactly easy on your legs. So yeah, lost more time here, but it was much better than the alternative. I was far enough off trail so as not to be noticed, but positioned in a way where I could see who was catching up to me. Eventually I’d regain the positions and time later in the race, picking up the last one on the final 3 miles descending down Tremper.
The distance between Mink Hollow and Silver Hollow Notch is much longer than I remembered it to be. At this point I was mentally feeling a bit checked out and frustrated by my pit-stop in the woods, so I put my headphones in one ear and hunted for music on my Shuffle until Jay Z’s “Dirt of Your Shoulder” came on, and cranked it on repeat until I hit the Silver Hollow Notch aid station at around 43 miles. It was my favorite AS in 2015 and was again this time. They had cheese wrapped in salami, fruit, and Coca Cola with ice! Deliciously cold ice. They were kind enough to not only fill up one of my bottles with Coke, but throw ice in as well. I’m definitely doing a bottle of Coke from now on. I get why Ben Nephew uses it instead of water. Who cares if my teeth will probably fall out: that shit is amazing. I even sat in the chair for a few minutes while they filled up my bottles, luxuriating in the Euro vibe and sucking down cold pop.
With a newfound appreciated for refrigeration, I headed back out into the woods, for the short ascent up Edgewood Mt. and the descent down to Warner Brook. The climb felt like nothing after the Devil’s Path, and the descent is decently runnable. I didn’t move as quickly as I think I could have during this section, but I was also pretty spent from the previous 44 miles of humid fuckery. When I finally got to Willow Brook (which was pretty well overflowing by this point) I took a moment to plunge in, renewing my sprits and waking up my dog-tired legs before the climb up Tremper. Last year I had done the climb and ascent of Tremper in driving rain and in the dark. I was happy to hit the climb mostly in daylight this time, although I again got fooled by some of the false switchbacks and took a little too much time looking for blazes. The volunteers and RD do as good a job flagging a course like this as you can (definitely a good number of confidence flags for the stretch from Silver Hollow to the finish) but it’s not a race for people who need to know they’re on the right trail every 10 feet. I’m not exactly the best navigator, but still I made it through OK, and doing this in daylight gave me a much better appreciation for this stretch of trail, and I think I’ll remember it much better or next time (and there will be a next time!) It’s another climb that feels pretty easy in comparison to everything else you’ve been through already.
I ended up getting caught by a guy named Morcin, and we agreed to run together to the Willow aid station, but I mentioned that if my legs felt good by the top of Tremper, I would push on the descent. It was getting dark by this point so I pulled out my headlamp, however, with the humidity we were now running in fog, so wearing the headlamp on my head made it almost harder to see. I decided to just carrie it in my hand, which worked reasonably well but was a bit annoying, Morcin hadn’t pulled out his headlight yet even though it was pretty dark, and I had started to regain some energy so pushed a bit on the climb up to Willow. I was surprised he still hadn’t pulled out his lamp as we neared the AS and I asked what was up and he explained that his headlamp didn’t seem to be working. I had grabbed my spare at Platte Clove in case I had a rough time on the Devil’s Path and wanted to use it in my hand or around my waste for depth perception. Willow was easy to spot with its tikka torches. I grabbed some broth and a little more coke and then took of with Morcin again. We split up for a bit as I stowed my poles and had to retie my shoe, but I caught him a bit later. I also passed Adam during this section, who I was sure was going to beat me as he was moving so constantly during the race. He’s a great guy and I hope to run with him again.
The descent down Tremper was much like I remembered it from 2015, minus the driving rain. I caught about 5-6 runners during this stretch, and it felt good to let my legs open up on the still rocky but decently runnable terrain. I felt like I was flying but was probably running like 10 minute miles. Still, after a long day I’ll take that. Even for someone who loves downhill running, I’ll say that a 3 mile descent after 50 miles feels kinda cruel. Still, I loved this part of the race as you can smell the barn at this point. I continued to push it until I hit the last aid station, grabbed my vest, said hello to the french-speaking pace I had run with during the Devil’s Path and let him know his runner was on the way. I was glad to hit the road, and passed one more runner on the way to the finish.
The approach to the finish wasn’t as surreal as the first time–in the rain, fairly delirious from never having spent that much time moving, and definitely out of calories–but it was special nonetheless. I was very happy to have shaved an hour off my previous year’s time, but also aware of how I could have made that gap even bigger. Still, I was ecstatic to have finished the race for a second time, with most of my body and pride in tact, and feeling pretty decent, all things considered. In any other race I’d feel let down knowing I could have finished faster if I made different choices, or had better weather, or any of the other things we tell ourselves to motivate us to return again and to handicap our own efforts. The real feeling I’m left with is one of accomplishment, as this is as much if not more so an epic adventure than a race.
Brennen was at the finish line and had brought my bag from the car. I sat for a bit and changed and then said goodbye to some friends and headed back to the motel so I could call Clara, have a beer, and eat the only food available: a bagel and cream cheese and a pack of combos–dinner of champions. I slept pretty fitfully but awoke feeling not totally destroyed and well enough to drive us home. I walked in the door a few hours after leaving Phoenicia and was greeted by my older daughter, Frankie, who immediately remarked on the large boo boo on my arm, and then demanded I read her books. Then we moved two days later–arguably harder than the racve.
Things that went well:
-nutrition and hydration felt on point
-as opposed to 2015 when I went in a bit injured, I felt relatively strong on descents
-felt stronger on technical ascents than I have previously and all the repeats at Beacon and Tammany paid off
-Gear: alomon vest remains a workhorse; La Sportiva’s are great, Huma gels are still good, trekking poles were helpful, going with half-tights was key; new Garmin is great
-time spent reviewing race reports ahead of time paid off in terms of setting expectations during the race
-mindset much more focused and calm than two years prior: had strategies in place for how to get through the roughest stretches of trail, deal with the lows, and extend the strong parts. In general just felt much more positive
-I know that between work and family obligations my training would be compromised; still, I felt I trained specifically enough given my time constraints that it translated into a good results, even if I suffered from the weather
-Tammany training is probably the best thing I could have done for Manitou, and next time I need to spend more time there
-Aid station efficiency was pretty good, barring Platte Clove
-Slept reasonably well the night before thanks to doing my meditation. Side note for anyone who uses headspace: do English people’s voices make you mad sleepy now?
-I spent a lot of time running alone but was still able to push myself and focus
Things to improve on:
-find a way to take a crap before the race start: look at food week leading up to race
-do recce on escarpment section as this is more runnable than memory served me and with practice this could be a good way to make up time
-have crew, if only to sleep closer to start and not wake up at 2:15 AM
-Don’t change shoes: start in Helios and plan to finish in them—have a backup pair of helios at Platte Clove just in case
-Try to use AS’s more for food and not have as many gels; take coke in one bottle after Palenville; eat more real food
-Try pushing a bit harder in first 50k—nothing dramatic, but shaving off 20-30 mins here seems possible
-Try not using poles or saving them until Platte Clove to just have less weight on you and one less thing to worry about.
-Get out of Platte Clove faster…this is the one reason to have a crew here. Lost too much time sitting and sorting through shit, even though I didn’t overpack my drop bag and knew what I was going to get.
-Run each and every section of the course–especially on the Devil’s Path–that feels runnable, even if that means having to transition back to hiking quickly.
-Don’t use poles on Devils path as it makes you more hesitant. You know it’s hard but you also know the terrain by now. Use your body more and just get up and down as quickly as you can given the terrain
-Take Tremper harder: it’s shorter than you think and you can bomb the downhill off it
-Don’t second-guess your bearings as much: you’ll know if you’re seriously off course and by now you know the course so stop consulting your phone and just run.
-gear: Scott Kinabalu SuperTracs probably had too aggressive a lug height and pattern for this course and would be better for a soft ground race or something with less wet rock; take running band isn’t as good as the Salomon 3L (although it’s made much better); Injinji Trail socks are too thick and hot and soak up water; Probar chews taste like soap; Poles, while a net benefit, are annoying at times (still more helpful than hurtful).
Things not to do:
-Land ass-first on a rock
-Fall on the Escarpment trail
-Have that much sugar ever again
-Mix Swedish fish and potato chips
-Not eat dinner after a race
-Move the week after a race
FWIW I’ll probably be back next year.