Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
— John Muir
Ultramarathons or “ultras” (defined as any running race that is longer than a standard 26.22-mile marathon) have skyrocketed in popularity over the past two decades. There are now people who not only run, but race distances of 30, 50 and even 100 miles at a clip. There are no limits, it seems, to what human beings are capable of doing when they put their minds to it. Like all amazing feats, it often takes a certain type of person, a certain type of place along with a specific type of culture to make these experiences achievable. I can think of no better environment to pose such a challenge than right here in New Paltz, where hundreds of miles of antique carriage roads and trails unveil some of the most stunning natural features of the Shawangunk Ridge, from conglomerate cliff faces to raging waterfalls, pitch-pine barrens and swollen sky lakes.
The 8,000-acre Mohonk Preserve and neighboring 26,000-acre Minnewaska State Park Preserve are already home to world-class rock climbing routes; a grueling duathlon (bike/run), the American Zofingen; the infamous triathlon, Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS); a plethora of challenging running races from 5Ks to half-marathons; and, more recently, the 50-mile ultramarathon known as Rock The Ridge – or more simply, RTR.
This event, now in its seventh year, is unique in its design as an ultramarathon that can appeal to competitive runners as well as recreational runners and function as a community event and fundraiser all at the same time. Rock The Ridge was established by a Mohonk Preserve board member and local runner, Norman Goluskin, a national age group champion in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances and a former board member of the New York City Road Runners. “I knew there was a substantial running community in this area and was looking for something different than a 5K or 10K race that could also act as a fundraiser to support the mission of Mohonk Preserve,” Goluskin said. Inspired by the “Kennedy Challenge,” issued by president John F. Kennedy to the US Marines to hike 50 miles in 20 hours, Goluskin helped launch the 50-mile race on May 4, 2013 in conjunction with the Preserve’s 50th anniversary.
While elite athletes can certainly challenge themselves to race the entire 50 miles, the cutoff time of 18 hours allows people to run/walk the course, or even have relays where they can each do a leg of the journey. “The first year, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be the only person with my foot on the starting line,” said Goluskin. But this is New Paltz, and people love a challenge. Goluskin was joined by 224 other participants who not only rocked the ridge, but also helped to raise $100,000 for the Preserve. Since that first year, the race has grown exponentially to host more than 575 participants last year and raise over a $1.8 million for the Preserve’s mission of conservation science, land protection, stewardship and environmental education.
“The most unique aspect is definitely the generous time limit,” said local ultrarunner and last year’s winner of Rock The Ridge, Jason Friedman, “which caters to first-time ultrarunners and serves as an ideal introduction to the sport.” Both a competitive ultrarunner and host of The Pain Cave, a podcast all about ultrarunning, Friedman said that in his estimation, the most difficult parts of the course are also among the most beautiful. Maybe the beauty serves as a bit of a balm or salve to soften the pounding that the body must endure for 50 miles.
He mentioned the climb from Lyons Road, around mile 24 outbound, to the highest point of the race, Castle Point at mile 30, as that elusive combination of luscious and laborious at the same time. “It’s a pretty long climb — mostly not very steep, but with very little interruption — and it comes at a point in the race where you’ve been going for quite some time (so you’re starting to feel the strain a bit), but you’re still a long way from the finish (so you don’t really have the psychological boost of feeling like you’re getting close to the end). But that stretch also has the best views on the course, including Awosting Falls and the beautiful vistas over Gertrude’s Nose and Lake Awosting.”
Asked what the greatest assets of the race are, Friedman said, “the trails, for sure, and the scenery. It’s the perfect setting for an ultramarathon.” He also cited the “passionate RDs” (race directors), Jon Stern and Mark Eisenhandler, who “have tons of experience in staging a world-class event. They are new to the ultrarunning scene, but they’ve been instrumental in growing the race and improving the race experience over the past two years since they’ve been in charge.”
According to Stern, who has been directing Nordic skiing races, running and triathlon events for the past 20 years (including the SOS), “The real trick is to create an event where the challenges either go unnoticed by the participants — or, better still, become a feature of the race that leads to a true sense of accomplishment.” Those challenges include creating a safety net over 50 miles of trails, most of which are exposed to the elements and include close to 5,000 feet of elevation gain. “The weather in early May can also be extremely variable, so preparations include planning for everything from ice baths to portable heaters.”
Stern noted that just the job of marking the course over this long of a distance, knowing that it will be traversed in the dark by at least a third of the participants, can take three people and two full days. There are also ten aid stations to be assembled, many in remote locations, that will be stocked well enough to provide basic medical and nutritional support for hundreds of athletes. That part of the operation takes weeks. And then there is the army of cellphones and two-way radios and a base station for volunteers to communicate with each other over the entire distance of the terrain and the 24 hours of the race.
“The only way any of this is possible is through the efforts of 150 people, most of whom are volunteers. It all starts though, with the tremendously dedicated Preserve staff, many of whom work well beyond their normal hours to make this happen. The volunteers too are uniformly enthusiastic and caring, staffing their stations from as early as 4 a.m. race morning until the last participant finishes — which in the past has been as late as 3 a.m. the next day! While all this may sound formidable, and at times it certainly is, the team the Preserve has assembled is second to none, turning a daunting task into a labor of love for all involved.”
This year’s race is slated for May 2, beginning at 6 a.m. The roster is already half-full, and entry requires a registration fee and fundraising for the Preserve. To learn more about the race, how to participate, donate, volunteer or all of the above go to www.mohonkpreserve.org/rock-the-ridge.
Although it’s a long way off and Friedman has many miles to race and many races to run, he said that at this point he is planning on running the Rock The Ridge again in 2020. Asked about any possible front-runners, he said that he hasn’t seen the registration list, so it’s too early to know who might be a contender. “Obviously, if Ben Nephew and/or Etan Levavi are planning on returning, they have to be among the favorites.”
For a small town, New Paltz is home to many ultrarunners and now its own ultramarathon. As the race gains traction, it begins to inspire runners at all levels, ages and stages to lace up their shoes and hit these beautiful trails. Goluskin himself has participated in every Rock The Ridge since its inception on relay teams, and in 2014 ran the entire 50-mile course.