The Catskill Mountain 100k is exactly what it sounds like: a 100k through the Catskill Mountains. The relay attracts a small but diverse array of relay teams from around the state each year, as well some intrepid ultramarathoners who run the relentlessly hilly course in its entirety.
Most of the relay teams are comprised of 5 runners, with each runner running two 10k legs apiece, but there is also a “superteams” division of teams comprised of 6-10 runners. The Dashing Whippets sent three teams to the relay: one men’s relay team and two women’s relay teams (“The DWRT Women” and the “Mountain Whippets”). Overall, the club had an outstanding showing, with the men’s team winning the overall relay title and the women’s teams sweeping the top two spots in the women’s division. The following blog post is a recap of the men’s relay race.
In order to ensure that every participant finished within a couple hours of each other, the starts were staggered at different hours. The ultrarunners started first, at 4:00AM, followed by normal relay teams and “superteams” based on projected overall time. We were in the last group of relay teams (i.e: the fastest projected teams), so our scheduled start time was 7:30 AM.
We left our rental house around 7:00 and arrived at the start line about 20 minutes before our scheduled 7:30AM start, and just in time to see Anne Barry (from NBR) of the Mountain Whippets (one of the two Whippets women’s teams) finish her first leg. It was cool in the morning, with temperatures in the mid 60s. This would later prove to be an aberration, as the temperatures steadily rose throughout the day to a high in the low 90s.
As we waited for the start, we sized up the competition. Our main competitors would be a 5-person team of New York Harriers and a superteam comprised of Japanese runners called “Rising Sun.” I did not know any of the Harriers personally, but I recognized a couple of them from past races, so I had a sense of what we were up against. Based on the Harriers I recognized, I knew we would be in a neck-and-neck battle with them all day. Plus, we really wanted to avenge our recent 6-second loss to them at this year’s NYRR Team Championships. None of us knew anything about Rising Sun, but we were not as concerned about them since they were competing in the separate superteam division. Still, one of our goals was to win the relay outright in addition to beating the Harriers and winning our division, so we definitely keyed in on Rising Sun as well.
Leg 1 Name: “Woodland Valley”
Leg 1 Runner: Daniil Blinov
Leg 1 started promptly at 7:30AM. It is a textbook an out-and-back leg: 5k uphill going out and 5k downhill coming back. Daniil waged a back and forth battle with Rising Sun’s first runner, as the two of them traded the lead multiple times during the first 5 miles, with the Harriers trailing shortly behind. Daniil closed very strongly in the final mile and was finally able to open up a small gap on the relentless Rising Sun runner. He was the first runner across the line in leg 1 in an impressive 39:35 and handed off to Scott with a slight lead over Rising Sun and the New York Harriers. All three teams were within 1 minute of each other after the first leg.
Leg 2 Name: “Highway Star”
Leg 2 Runner: Scott Batten
Like every other leg, Leg 2 had its fair share of hills, but the real challenge of this leg is to not get lost. There are 5 turns early on as the course winds through the town of Phoenicia, and missing any one of them would have cost us valuable time. Fortunately, we had the directionally savvy Scott Batten on our team. He stayed on course and ran a very solid 42:12 10k leg to keep us in contention with the Harriers and Rising Sun. He handed off to “honorary Whippet” Chris Green for the uphill leg 3. We were in third place at the exchange, but we were well within striking distance and still ahead of our projected pace.
The bad news was the freak accident that happened in the interim. Our rental house was located on the leg 2 route, so the rest of us drove ahead to make a pit stop there while Scott was running. As Jeremy was leaving the house, he slipped and fell on an uneven stone pathway, landing hard on his hip and scraping his knee. He was clearly in pain post-fall but assured us that he could still run his assigned legs. Fortunately, he was not scheduled to run until leg 5, so he had some time to ice the sore areas and recover.
Leg 3 Name: “Meet the Big Indian”
Leg 3 Runner: Chris Green
Leg 3 is a net uphill and the first leg where the mountainous terrain became a serious factor. Adding to the challenge was the fact it was about 20 degrees warmer at this point than it was at the start. Chris Green, Jeremy’s stepbrother, ended up being the perfect runner for the job. Chris has the most impressive running resume of anyone on the team by far. He ran Division I cross-country at Harvard and owns a 1:08 half-marathon PR. However, he runs much more casually these days, so his performance was a bit of a wildcard.
Chris quickly dispelled any doubts about his running ability as he reclaimed the lead for our team within the first 2 miles of his leg. He absolutely crushed the tough third leg in 38:06, opening up a 3+ minute gap on the second-place Harriers and an even bigger gap on Rising Sun (third place) as he handed off to me for leg 4.
Leg 4 Name: “Winisook’s Revenge”
Leg 4 Runner: Ryan Hepworth
Leg 4, appropriately named “Winisook’s Revenge,” is the toughest leg of the relay. It has nearly 1300 feet of elevation gain, most of which is in a 1.5 mile stretch up Winisook Hill from mile 4.2 to mile 5.7 at a 10.5 percent grade. By comparison, Central Park’s Harlem Hill, the bane of many NYC runners’ existence, is “only” a 4.4 percent grade for about 1/3rd of a mile. So picture a hill over twice as steep and nearly 5 times as long as Harlem Hill and you’ll get a sense of what we were up against. After a recent team workout, Scott had told me that 47 minutes would be a very solid time for me on this leg and 45 minutes would be unbelievable. Considering that my 10K pace on a “normal” course is right around 6:00 per mile (~37 minutes), an 8-10 minute slowdown was a significant pace adjustment.
After running the slightly uphill first mile in 6:15 and still feeling pretty ok, I began to wonder if Scott was exaggerating the difficulty of this leg. After all, a 45-47 minute 10k is 8-10 minutes slower than my PR. However, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary 10k. In mile 2, the hills started coming, one after another, with little to no “downhill love.” My 4-mile split of 26:57 was about 3 minutes slower than it would be in a typical 10k and I hadn’t even hit Winisook hill yet.
Shortly after the 4-mile mark, I came face-to-face with Winisook hill. I mumbled some expletives in between gasps for breath and my pace slowed to a shuffle as I began the long, arduous ascent. I encountered my teammates, who had parked our truck at mile 4.5, took a brief 10-second break to pour water on my head, and continued the climb. My mile 5 split was 9:30 and it was by far the hardest 9:30 mile I’ve ever run in my life. I looked behind me multiple times, fully expecting to see the Harriers’ leg 4 runner (Scott Bartucca, a 35-minute 10k guy) closing in on me. But he never did.
As I crested Winisook hill, at mile 5.7, my legs finally got a break as I ran down part of the monster hill I had just ascended. I covered the final half-mile at 4:57 pace in what was more of a controlled fall down the mountain than actual running. I crossed the finish in 44:25 and handed off to Jeremy for leg 5. I ran leg 4 faster than the upper limit of my projected time, so I was very happy with the result. More importantly, our lead had increased to 5+ minutes over the Harriers and 10+ minutes over Rising Sun.
Leg 5 Name: “Frost Valley Delight”
Leg 5 Runner: Jeremy Shingleton
Leg 5 is very much the inverse of leg 4: run down Winisook hill in the beginning and on largely flat and downhill roads in the latter miles. As a result, it is probably the fastest leg in the relay, but can still be very challenging with all the downhill running beating up one’s quads. Not to mention, Jeremy had slipped and fallen onto his hip just two hours earlier, so his ability to run pain-free was still in doubt at this point. Undeterred by his freak accident, Jeremy took full advantage of the screaming downhills, setting 4 mile, 5 mile, and 10k PRs en route to a 37:46 split. He also added another minute plus to our lead over the second-place New York Harriers and all but removed Rising Sun from contention. He handed off to Scott for leg 6 and for the first time all day, we felt like we were in control of the race. Even though theHarriers had two of their stronger runners scheduled for legs 6 and 7, we had a 6+ minute buffer to work with.
Leg 6 Name: “Neversink Me, Baby!”
Leg 6 Runner: Scott Batten
After the monstrous uphills of leg 4 and the screaming downhills of leg 5, leg 6’s relatively flat terrain was a welcome respite. However, leg 6 (and legs 7 and 8) were all out in the sun. The lack of shade, coupled with the fatigue of having run a tough 10k mere hours earlier, negated any advantage provided by the flatter terrain. Scott battled through fatigue and blistering heat to run a 44:53 leg, handing off to Daniil with our team still in first place.
Scott’s effort was especially impressive when you consider that he ran this leg on short rest. When assigning the relay legs, we could have allocated them so that each runner got an equal 4 legs worth of rest (ex: runner A does legs 1 and 6, runner B does legs 2 and 7, etc.). However, we chose instead to assign legs based on our perceived strengths relative to the topography of the course. We also wanted to make sure that we gave Daniil (who raced the DWRT 5k all-out the day before) and Chris (our strongest runner) extra rest for their second legs. As a result, our leg assignments left Scott with only 3 legs worth of rest (about 2 hours) between his two legs. Like an MLB pitcher throwing on short rest in the playoffs, Scott came through big time for our team by holding off one of the Harriers’ stronger runners and keeping us in first place going into leg 7.
Leg 7 Name: “For Wildmen Only”
Leg 7 Runner: Daniil Blinov
Leg 7 starts out on a mile 1 gradual uphill, followed by long steep downhill that eventually levels off into mostly flat and downhill final miles. Daniil showed remarkable consistency by running a 40:08 leg, only 33 seconds slower than he ran leg 1 (the smallest discrepancy on our team) despite the much warmer leg 7 temperatures.
However, because the Harriers had two of their better runners run legs 6 and 7, they had closed the gap we had on them from 6+ minutes to 2:50. With less than 1 minute per leg separating the two teams going into the final 30k, it was anybody’s race at this point, especially with a well-rested 35-minute 10k runner due to run the Harriers’ anchor leg.
Leg 8 Name: “Where Eagles Fly”
Leg 8 Runner: Ryan Hepworth
Leg 8 is called “Where Eagles Fly,” but should really be renamed “Where Runners Fry.” The leg is a valley, so the first 5k is mostly downhill and the second 5k is mostly uphill. As far as elevation goes, the leg was not too difficult, but because it was a valley, the heat of the day got trapped between the two hills at either end, essentially creating a giant convection oven.
When Daniil handed off to me in leg 8, I was still exhausted from my first leg because like Scott, I was running on short rest. Furthermore, I had covered that leg 2+ minutes faster than a 35-minute 10k runner, so it was more of an all-out effort that I knew at the time. However, I also knew that if I could just get through this leg, I’d be handing off to a relatively well-rested Chris for leg 9.
Even though it was ridiculously hot and I had tired legs, I threw caution to the wind and ran the first downhill mile in 6:12. Once the course started to level off, I realized that I severely overestimated what I was capable of on this leg. I tried slowing to a 6:30ish pace but even that proved to be too quick. I reached the 5k mark in just under 20 minutes, but the damage had already been done. Once the course started to ascend, I hit a mental and physical wall. My body was searing in the heat and my hamstrings and achilles were still shredded after leg 4. I had to stop to walk several times on some of the uphills just to avoid pulling something. If this 10k had been a standalone race rather than a team relay leg, I certainly would have dropped out. The second 5k of this course took me 23+ minutes and I stumbled across the finish in 43:08. I was so out of it and delirious that immediately after finishing, I sat in another team’s car thinking it was our own truck (fortunately they were totally cool with it!).
I was disappointed in myself for my poor tactics during this leg, but my teammates helped cheer me up and cool me down with a douse of water over the head. My one saving grace was that I had been matched up one of the Harriers’ slower runners on this leg, so I was able to increase our lead from 2:50 to 5 minutes despite the snafu.
Leg 9 Name: “Peeking at Moose”
Leg 9 Runner: Chris Green
Despite being almost entirely in the shade, Leg 9 is one of the more challenging legs, with rolling hills in the early miles and a gradual but long uphill till the finish. Fortunately, we had our strongest runner (Chris) run this leg and he delivered what proved to be the decisive blow. Despite over 500 feet of elevation gain, Chris ran a 39:59 split and increased our lead over the Harriers from ~5 minutes to 10+ minutes. He attacked the hills and left the Harriers in the dust as the rest of us watched in awe from the comfort of our air-conditioned truck.
At one point, after we had pulled over to stretch our legs and give one of the ultrarunners a bottle of water, Chris caught up to our truck, forcing us to cut our break short just to ensure that we’d reach the leg 9 finish before him! Fortunately, we arrived at the finish in time for Chris to hand off to Jeremy for the anchor leg andknew that, barring disaster, we would win the relay title.
Leg 10 Name: “The Ski Slope”
Leg 10 Runner: Jeremy Shingleton
Jeremy is a very good downhill runner and has run this relay before, so he was the ideal choice for the downhill anchor leg. However, he had pushed himself extremely hard in leg 5 and was still feeling some pain from his fall. I wasn’t around to see it but apparently while I was struggling through leg 8, he passed the time waiting for me to finish curled up in the fetal position writhing in pain.
Prior to leg 10, we repeatedly reminded Jeremy that we had a big enough lead where he could run a conservative 45 minute leg and that would be enough for us to win. Forever the competitor, Jeremy refused to back off and set the tone for the entire leg with a 70 second opening 400 meters uphill. That was (strategically) just far enough for the Harriers to see him rapidly disappearing uphill, along with their chances of winning, as they waited for their runner in the leg 10 exchange zone.
Once he crested the opening hill and was out of the Harriers’ view, Jeremy dialed back the breakneck effort and coasted on the steep downhill at a slower but still quick pace for the next couple of miles. After pulling over just past mile 3 to give him some Gatorade, the rest of us drove the truck to the finish to meet him at the finish line.
As he approached the final straightaway, despite being over a mile ahead of his nearest competitor, Jeremy threw down a finishing sprint. He finished his anchor leg in 39:36 and our team finished in first place overall in an aggregate time of 6:49:53. That’s 6:35 pace overall, or an average of just under 41 minutes per 10k leg. Considering the difficulty of the course and the conditions in which we ran, we exceeded our pre-race expectations.
This race was my first experience running a long-distance relay and certainly won’t be my last. I couldn’t ask for a better, more supportive group of teammates. We banded together and beat a very strong New York Harriers team by nearly 10 minutes, a team that has won this relay in past years. While it was very satisfying to avenge our 6-second loss to the Harriers from this year’s Team Championships, the greatest part about our relay was that it was a total team effort. Everyone stepped up and gave 100% effort and (with maybe the exception of my second leg) everyone ran close to or exceeded their projected times.