Boulder, Bozeman or Bend have nothing on the 845 in terms of outdoor folks doing badassery types of challenges.
We could all go somewhere else to do something special, but why not start in our own back yard? Why not get to know what fence you need to learn to hop over, what tree you need to climb, what rock you need to shimmy up, what lake to swim across, or what summit to ascend on your mountain bike not once but 58 times in one day?
David Barra is one of these people who never ceases to amaze and inspire. He’s elegant, clever, kind, skilled, and one hell of an endurance athlete. Coming from Brooklyn, Barra was originally drawn to the area by access to world-class rock climbing and bouldering right off the hairpin turn of Route 44/55.
It’s a common thread among the outrageously talented multi-sport and multi-season athletes roaming around these parts to set FKT’s (Fastest Known Times). FKTs can be for swimming the entire length of the Hudson River, running unsupported ultramarathons along the ridgeline, or trying to ride up and down the steepest hill you can find as many times as your body and the daylight will allow.
Here’s the thing about Barra. He’s not doing any of the things he does, like swimming the English Channel or around the island of Manhattan, or the 120 miles from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the Verrazano Bridge as part of the 8 Bridges open-water event he founded, directed, and participated in for years. He does all of what he does quietly, without fanfare or social-media posts.
It’s who he is and how he chooses to live. He’s not one for clicking off the years like a parade of cheesy Hallmark cards and wax candles melting onto a cake.
“I hate birthdays,” he said, sitting outside The Bakery in downtown New Paltz. “That’s not how I want my life to be defined.”
From water to dry land
After 20 years of hardcore masters swimming, logging in ten to 14 hours a week at the SUNY New Paltz pool or some body of open water from the Hudson River to Catalina Island, Alcatraz or the English Channel, Barra had participated in many tough, fun, tribal-like birthday swim sets to mark the years. His athletic challenges were made celebratory by the camaraderie of the other swimmers in Speedos spending their special day in a chlorinated pool with their buddies — getting their heart rate far greater than whatever age they’d just turned.
With the pandemic restricting access to pool time, Barra began finally to say yes to the friends who’d for years been asking him to go for a bike ride. “It’s not that I didn’t bike. I raced bikes all the time when I was in Brooklyn,” he explained. “I was in a racing club, and it was my only form of transportation.”
When the mountain biking craze hit almost 30 years ago, Barra bought one and spent time looping around the trails at the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park. The swim life pulled at him like an undertow, taking him to beautiful places with wonderful people.
But he was not doing all the things he moved here to do. “I love the mountains. I love the trails. I love being outside and seeing all of the incredible views we have here, and wildlife.”
Barra admits that he felt a bit shamed when his cycling friends snickered at his 30-year-old bike. “I eventually bought a new one,” he said. “They were making fun of me,” he laughed. “And, to add insult to injury, my body wasn’t handling the old hardtail the way it used to.”
No one makes fun of Barra for long. Whatever he sets his mind to, he goes all in for, full tilt, foot on the throttle, no time for making excuses.
“I don’t know how triathletes do it,” he said. “I make fun of them all the time, but really I pay great homage to them because I couldn’t imagine biking for this amount of time, and then running later in the day, and then get a swim in or a bike to run. I can only give my full attention to one thing at a time.”
He began biking, going on rides with friends and then turning up that dial, doing more gravel bike events, even some road cycling challenges, commuting to and from his home in Alligerville to Kerhonkson, where he has a marble fabrication and installation business. He hit the local mountain-bike trails as often and as much as he could.
This monster isn’t fictional
Which brings us to Godzilla. If you don’t know it, just think about the name. It’s massive, it’s steep, it’s gnarly, and there are times when you feel like you’re trying to scale a monster’s back. It’s that hill at a four-way carriage road intersection at the preserve, among Undercliff/Overcliff, Laurel Ledge and Oakwood Drive. Though it’s called Old Minnewaska Drive, locals know it only as Godzilla. It gains 300 feet in about seven-tenths of a mile, a 1.4-mile round trip up and back down.
When Barra’s birthday came rolling around, he began to think of a bike challenge that might help him usher in this new trip around the sun. In the catacombs of his brain, he thought it might be fun to try to go up and down Godzilla 58 times in one day. Why not?
“My constraints were time and weather,” he explained. “It was February, there was an oddly warm day predicted, no snow, so I kind of put it together a few days before.”
This is the crazy thing about living in the 845. An outdoor enthusiast myself, I’m out on this foggy February day on a long run, no one on the trails. Coming around a corner, I see a duffle bag and a handwritten cardboard sign saying, “Do not disturb, Godzilla repeats in progress.” A black Sharpie marker has drawn a stick figure on a bike half-way up a bumpy hill.
“It has great access,” reported Barra. “I could put my fuel and water down at the bridge, and people could ride out and meet me if they wanted to. I had about eleven hours of light to get it done.”
How’d it go, David? Hard as hell, he said. He hit his first “demoralizing low on hill repeat number three.” He realized his calculations were off. “I had thought it would take me eight minutes each loop but I quickly realized that even on fresh legs it would take me nine and a half. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when you multiply it by 58?”
He had visits from Dr. Mike Halstead, who rode about ten repeats with him, and then Alex Sherwood, voice of the Survival of the Shawangunk Triathlon, who did 13 hills alongside his friend. Cali Kircher, Chris Sullivan and Scott Markle then helped to bring him home those last few hills.
“I was really hurting at repeat number 50,” he said. “My vision was getting blurry, my neck was locked up, but Scott texted me and said he was on his way. That helped. Each person brought their own energy, which was great.”
What did he enjoy most about the grueling experience? “Seeing that view of the ridge change with the light all day,” Barra replied. “I saw the sunrise from that vista, and the sunset and every hour in between.”
He admitted that part of these endurance adventures were masochistic. “Life has a lot of suffering, and this allows you to control the suffering and that takes the power out of it.” He had ridden 70 miles and climbed almost 18,000 feet in one day, finishing it off sharing a beer with his buddy Bill Metzger. “He made sure to come when I was all done,” said Barra with a smile.
If you didn’t happen to be at this particular crossroads in the middle of the 8,000-acre preserve on an oddly warm February day, then it’s likely you never heard about this challenge. That’s how Barra and his friends are. They’re not posting their exploits on social media. There’s no camera crew or go-pro. It’s just the rider and Godzilla having a day of it.
While he does have further bike-packing escapades on the horizon, Barra was happy to take part in the Shawangunk Grit at the preserve in November. He’s also gearing up for the local Cabin Challenge Full Monty that will take road cyclists 101 miles from New Paltz to the Catskills and back. Though other biking adventures around the globe have piqued Barra’s interest, for now he’s commuting to work and back, riding with friends on the weekends, and hitting the trails any chance he gets.
Sometimes the micro-adventures live right in our own back yard. You just have to imagine them, design them, and then go out and do them.