Monday, December 25, 2017

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's 2017 Journal

And now for something a bit different...

Local ultrarunner Stewart Dutfield was kind enough to share the diary he's been keeping for 2017 and I thought it would be fun to include it here. His journal is based on the diary of fellow Brit Alan Bennett and is a cool glimpse into the thoughts of a dedicated runner who enjoys experiencing the world around him. Hopefully Stewart will keep us updated with some semi-regular posts in 2018.


Trail markers at the terminus of the Long Path imply that it continues northward...
13 January. Old Stage Road, above Altamont in Albany County, is currently the northern terminus of New York's Long Path; Ken Posner's recent book describes his 350-mile journey that ended here with a wry twist. On a clear, cold Friday evening 18 of us arrived at the trailhead for a the first full moon adventure of the year. People had traveled for hours, from Connecticut and Westchester, to walk five miles in the dark and watch moonrise over the Hudson Valley. After Dick had fallen hard on ice fifty yards in, we encountered good footing except on the dirt roads (back country ice skating, anyone?). The trail climbed hardly at all, but the view from High Point took in all of Albany and beyond. The informal trail along the cliff edge led, at one point with the rising moon directly ahead, to another high overlook at Hang Glider Point. As we took snapshots of people doing headstands, a bright light emerged from the woods: a fat-tire cyclist, no doubt as surprised to see us as we were to see her. 
16 January. I ski conservatively, focused on avoiding injury with limited technique and simple equipment ill-suited to "packed powder" and "corn snow"—euphemisms for concrete with ice balls on top. Trying to keep up with Clayton, I was knocked down hard by a youngster skiing fast who "didn't expect me to turn". I was angry, and my shoulder hurt; little wonder I don't ski often. 
28 January. From miles all around Albany you can see the Corning Tower, the most priapic feature of Nelson Rockefeller's Empire State Plaza. On the 44th floor, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy held its 25th anniversary celebration. To the south west, the view encompassed several of its 15 preserves. Beyond, the sun set behind the Northern Catskills: Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and all the summits of the Escarpment Trail between Windham and North Lake. 

Empire State Plaza from the Keleher Preserve
29 January. Ron Hill ended his running streak, which started when I was nine years old. In the following few years he held three world records, ran the second-ever sub-2:10 marathon, and in 1970 broke the Boston marathon record by more than three minutes—he had been expecting the five miles after the top of Heartbreak Hill to be all descent, but "it looked undulating to me". Ron's example and his two-volume autobiography "The Long Hard Road", an unremitting catalog of many years' training, races and breakdowns, have inspired countless runners to get out of the door. Many do so every day without a break, as Ron did for more than 52 years. 
17 February. To work by snowshoe down the rail trail, carrying the snowshoes for the final two miles on city streets. On the gradual but strenuous climb homeward under the Thruway and past Normanskill Falls, the snow glowed slightly orange from the scattered city lights. The moon was not yet up, but Venus shone brightly ahead. I have never needed a light here except to be seen by, and on this night there was no-one to see me except a furtive snowmobiler, who had less furtively left tracks all around the houses on a nearby street. I wonder how the neighbors felt about that. 

19 February. Snowshoe races take place at the whim of the weather. Smaller now than in its heyday in the Albany Pine Bush (where Vladimir Nabokov would collect butterflies among the sand dunes), Brave the Blizzard takes place at Tawasentha Park, in what some locals believe to be Hiawatha country. Today's snow was deep and soft, with a thaw in progress that would extinguish our tracks within a couple of days. We slapped and slithered around the woods in the warm sunshine, a world away from Gitche Gumee. 
24 February. Two books arrived in today's mail: Geoff Nicholson's "Walking In Ruins" and a biography of Edward Payson Weston, who in 1910 walked across the US in 77 days, fifty years after having walked from Boston to Washington in ten days in settlement of a bet on Abraham Lincoln's election. Weston's longevity in multi-day pedestrianism may never be matched, though I hope to be completing ultramarathons over as long a timespan. Having started a few years younger than Weston, perhaps I have a chance. Anyone who has ascended the trail from KTD monastery above Woodstock knows the ruin of the Overlook Mountain House, and among the many delights of the North Lake area are the remains of roads, railways, and huge hotels. Thus goes the glory of luxury resorts and golf courses.
The only remnant of the Catskill Mountain House

4 March. Not long after dawn, I set off from Woodstock village wrapped against the cold wind. There was just enough time to complete nine road miles and join Doug's training run for two more loops plus a bonus climb back to KTD monastery. Doug and I walked the uphills and put the world to rights. I completed more than 30 miles, and perhaps 10,000 feet of elevation change, with no more sustenance that morning than two granola bars and a few pints of Darjeeling tea. A depletion run might precede carbohydrate loading, but I immediately resumed a normal diet. It surely can't hurt to become accustomed in training to low glycogen, which inevitably occurs in an ultramarathon with many miles still to run. 

29 March. Two years from today, the UK will leave the European Union. 
Friday's football, punted, arched high over the weekend. 
The radio played Vera Lynn as Nissan Oxfords paraded in the High Street. 
Supermarkets ran Saturday specials on small bananas, shut on Sunday. 
Lawns were clipped, all fences and gates made good. Everyone was nice to everyone nice. 
The Lord's servants, dismissed, filled the pubs to right a world once more pint-sized. 
And on April 1st the ball fell back to earth. 

The Helderberg Escarpment
9 April. Thacher Park offers many miles of trails, all on top of the limestone Helderberg Escarpment. I've found only one major uphill, south from the main overlook (where parking is limited to one hour but doesn't cost $6), crossing Beaver Dam Road to an out-and-back trail that once continued as the Long Path. The land is now closed at the top of the hill, and the landowner seems unresponsive to written requests for occasional access. On the way back, I stumbled and tweaked an upper hamstring, impairing my running for a couple of weeks. A physical therapist had told me not long before that aging leaves muscles more liable to injury, but I continue to avoid preventative stretching. Perhaps when truly unable to run I will stretch in earnest, but meanwhile I live with the guilt. 

7 May. The Double Up training run climbs both sides of Kaaterskill Clove. First, it follows the Harding Road to the site of the once-huge Hotel Kaaterskill and continues to Boulder Rock, where splendidly-clad visitors once posed and aspired, perhaps, to a romantic ideal. Cole, Church and Gifford all painted the sublime from hereabouts, despite the nearby tanning and clearcutting. Earlier in the spring, Joe brought me to the ruined water tower for the Catskill Mountain House; a pile of curved planks and steel bands that once formed a huge wooden barrel, this is all that's left above ground from these grand mountain hotels. On my way up the second climb, to the more remote but still romantically named Poet's Ledge, I began to reflect that ruins are less interesting than traces: the old paths, roads and rail beds that we follow while somehow aware of the ghosts of those who were here before, when it all looked so different. 

Puddingstone Hall was once an attraction of the Catskill Mountain House

28 May. Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River are several feet above their usual level, and the Long Sault Dam is holding back water from further flooding parts of Quebec already under water. Owners of waterfront property worry about their docks and boathouses, and the river rats of the Thousand Islands wonder when the excess will drain from the system and the season's recreational boating and Seaway shipping return to normal. The river has inundated sections of trail in the Minna Anthony Common nature center, and a dock that protrudes into the narrows between Wellesley and Murray is barely visible to approaching boats. Feathers, beads and pottery shards decorate the tree beneath which Vivekananda sat, on his visit to Thousand Island Park in 1893, and seem to echo a feeling that not all is as usual. 
Drowned docks in the 1000 Islands
3 June. The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy manages preserves on and below the Helderberg escarpment, and on National Trails Day I set out to run between several of them. I followed markings for the Long Path (several miles beyond its official terminus) around Wolf Creek Falls and, with a detour to the Winn preserve, on roads and trails until a couple of miles beyond Thacher Park. Munching trail mix & sipping water from a backpack, I ran the roads between each preserve and trail loops in Keleher and Bennett Hill. At Holt preserve a recent entry in the sign-in book described the trails as very soggy, so 2 after 11 hours on my feet I elected to simply follow the old Copeland Hill Road to meet the car that would drive me the 45 minutes back to the start.

25 June. Overlook Mountain in Woodstock offers a classic training ground for mountain ultramarathons: 2,500 feet of ascent in five miles, repeated several times in one day. I park at the KTD monastery, half way up, and start on the dirt road to the summit where the view from the top of the fire tower includes most of the Catskill high peaks, as well as Mohonk, the Hudson Highlands, and Mt Greylock. The Devil's Path seemed close enough to touch, but morning haze obscured the southern Green Mountains in Vermont. Side trips through mountain laurel on forest trails offered some variety, as did the very steep climb to California Quarry where I was able to imagine myself on the forest roads below Auburn just as the morning's last Western States finishers would be making their way up from No Hands Bridge. 

1 July. Having completed Nicholas Crane's epic "The Making of the British Landscape" I revisited its 1955 forebear, W. G. Hoskins' "The Making of the English Landscape". He imagines a supposed primeval landscape "...seated beside a wide, flooding estuary as the light thickens on a winter evening, dissolving all the irrelevant human details of the scene, leaving nothing but the shining water, the sky, and the darkening hills, and the immemorial sound of curlews whistling over the mud and fading river-beaches... We are seeing the natural world through the eyes of men who died three or four thousand years ago, and for a moment or two we succeed in entering the minds of the dead." In a beautiful end to the book, he describes how the view from his window came to be; imagining of people from the past also happens in places affected by humans, whose ghosts one can sense in the evidence of what they lived amidst, whether pristine or man-made. 

An exposed island campsite overlooking 40 Acre Patch
5 July. Early in the afternoon I set off by kayak to Canada for Indian takeout. Two hours later, while reporting to Canadian customs, it occurred that I could paddle the contraband jalfrezi to the obligatory US border checkin across a broad expanse of water known as Forty Acre Patch. To the west, a sloop sailed in the distance with the Wolfe Island wind farm as background. People, it seems, are seldom persuaded by arguments for and against wind turbines, but simply rationalize what they already prefer. One argument against is that turbines are ugly; perhaps I enjoyed too many Dutch seascapes in my youth, but this view seemed beautiful to me. 

19 July. The Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike trail runs from Quay Street in downtown Albany to the erstwhile manufacturing town of Cohoes, where it joins an old rail bed towards Schenectady and turns westward towards Buffalo. From the volunteer organization that advocates for the trail, Jean had obtained a trail map gratis; she and I rode down from our local rail trail and then 35 miles or so to the town of Rotterdam. On our right we passed Erie Canal lock 8 on the Mohawk River, with the old ditch of the Erie canal inland to our left. Then we climbed away toward home. On a small road between a lower portion on one map and an upper portion on another, we confronted an array of signs as the road turned to gravel: Private, Posted, Road Closed. On close reading, the road appeared unmaintained and closed to automotive traffic, but the signs on private property strained to suggest that they applied to the road as well. We carried on: what looks like a right of way deserves to be followed just in case, and we needed to be home by mid-afternoon. At the top of the steep climb a sign for Rotterdam appeared amidst nothing but farms and fields, and we cruised down for the last couple of hours' cycling on familiar roads. 

4 August. Friends brought me to the Watts Cemetery Chapel, built beneath the old Hog's Back in Surrey by villagers of Compton under the guidance of Mary Fraser Tytler. Married in 1886 to a much older and established artist, she seems to have made her own way in social reform and in engaging people who were not established artists in creative work. I wonder whether, when they married, the august George Frederic Watts was prepared for such subversion.

Watts Cemetery Chapel
photo: Alison Acred
Watts Cemetery Chapel interior
photo: Alison Acred

5 August. Having left Farnham early in the morning, I trotted along the dry and sandy path past the Watts Gallery with another 28 hours before I would reach Ashford in Kent. Afternoon rainstorms made the going slick enough to make staying upright a challenge, let alone moving forward. The North Downs Way 3 repeatedly—and exhaustingly—climbs to the top of the chalk ridge, and then drops back to the Pilgrims Way below. I later read Burton Raffel's modern English translation of The Canterbury Tales in a fruitless search for any reference to mud or sore feet along my route, but Chaucer's party appear to have travelled considerably to the north of the old pilgrims' track from Winchester to Canterbury.
7 August. After lunch at the marvellous (if quirky) India Club, an afternoon with dear and long-established friends continued with a visits to the Temple Church—where barons confronted King John prior to Magna Carta—and the Tate Modern's Giacometti exhibit. I know little about sculpture but have always liked the look of those etiolated figures; the show made a persuasive case that this was less consciously-adopted style than emotional response to the human damage of the first half of the 20th century. Beneath the Hungerford Bridge, Feliks Topolski's Memoir of that century is now a bar, with the proceeds to maintain some of the paintings a few arches away. Whenever friends planned to visit London I've told them to see Topolski's Century, but they seldom found it open; I hope that the new arrangement will both preserve this marvellous and quirky work and make it easier to visit. 9 August. Back from a visit to my godfather, I set off from the India Club for a long walk in the rain around the City of London: ghosts of the Roman city at St. Bride's church and Watling Street, covered arcades at Liverpool Street and Leadenhall Market, and the site of my godfather's office furnishing business in Lime St. He moved out in 1973, since when the site has been redeveloped twice. Last stop was the Cockpit (pub, not theatre) behind Ludgate Hill, where I narrowly avoided drinking too much fine Guinness while chatting with an Irish bus driver. 1 September. I ran along the Thames towpath from Oxford to Nuneham Courtenay—appearing much as in the young Turner's view of 1787—and returned by way of the Iffley Road track, which I could not trot around because the university football and rugby teams were running miles. I had crossed, without noticing its design, the Mathematical Bridge at Iffley Lock; I hope to return and see it as more than simply a means to cross a small body of water.
2 September. Feeling greater urgency now than when I had the opportunity every day as a teenager, I visited the Ashmolean for the first time. I was pleased to recognize a few paintings from having recently read the catalogue of a ten-years-ago Belgian exhibit of British art: Holman Hunt's London Bridge..., Sickert's Ennui, and a lovely Constable cloud study (are they not all lovely, their supposedly analytical origin notwithstanding?). I didn't see the El Greco on long-term loan from New College, where it once lived in the antechapel with the memorial to four Germans that has always felt profoundly moving— perhaps as a counter to the despair that I imagine among those who had been part of World War I: 

3 September. I had arranged for dinner at the India Club with yet more well-established friends (we're at an age when "old" is the wrong word). Entertaining a Master of Wine, I was unsure whether the bar would be up to pre-dinner drinks, but need not have worried. With an hour to spare, I nipped into the National Gallery for the first time in decades. Big Constables and Turners (Flatford Mill, The Hay Wain, The Fighting Temeraire), once staples from old British biscuit tins, now live on a single wall. Visible all at once, with the benefit of age and one's back to the Gainsborough, is a collection of images that transcend nationalism and cliché. No doubt there remain some who celebrate in Temeraire the glorious days of Nelson rather than meditate upon the perpetual passing of the old, but my preference has always been the apprehension of the new in Rain, Steam and Speed. Though the location is the Thames at Maidenhead, I have always imagined it further north amidst the muck and brass of the Industrial Revolution: perhaps at Ribblehead, instead.

17 September. En route for Montreal, the Adirondacks or Great Escape Fun Park, the Northway passes a sign for Moreau Lake State Park. The hills come as a surprise, since no hint of them appears until one is 4 beside the lake. As the Hudson River makes its way southward, these hills turn it north again toward Glens Falls. The visitor feels disoriented; it took a close look at the map to work out that the 15K trail race climbs from the south and takes a broadly clockwise loop, with no sign of either the highway or the river. Early in the ascent we encountered bees, and then pain of a different kind on the "Staircase of Death" which sharply climbs several hundred feet with no hint of a helpful stair. Once on top, the course calls for constant transitions between short uphills and downhills, rocks, roots, and sharp winds in the trail; unlike mountain bikes, trail runners can use an infinite number of gears—continuously variable transmission. Avoiding last year's navigational errors, I basked briefly in the glow of having run considerably faster until the results showed an improvement of only one minute.

2 October. Who thinks and prays for the dead yet to come? As we agonize over victims and their families from one incident in Las Vegas, we evade what might be done to prevent carnage elsewhere and in the future. Policy and legislation that attain positive social outcomes are just so 1990s. When people say "Thoughts and Prayers", what are they thinking? 
  • 1. There, now I feel better. Wonder what's on twitter. 
  • 2. We stand for these soldiers who fell in defense of American freedom, and honor their contribution to USA being #1. 
  • 3. Had it been a rap festival the guy would be alive and out on bail by now. 
  • 4. If all the attendees had been armed they would have been quite safe. 
  • 5. How do I avoid doing something that will affect my 2018 election campaign? 
  • 6. We hope all this goes quiet before our next SEC 10-K filing. 
  • 7. Buy! Buy! 
  • 8. I'm not sure this really happened, anyway. 

28 October. Twice a year, the Albany Running Exchange encourages both runners and volunteers to adopt fancy dress for a race in the woods. Almost everyone dressed up for the Hairy Gorilla half marathon in Thacher Park, I somewhat modestly in mismatched socks, ancient but still dazzling Eric Clifton tights, and duck-themed T shirt. Perhaps one day I shall obtain two pairs of otherwise identical running shoes in contrasting colors and then run in mismatched footwear. Approaching the finish after only six miles, I asked directions of a zombie brandishing a (running) chainsaw before retracing my steps to where I had ignored people yelling "turn left". I was pleased to be the first old male to finish, though a woman my age was eight minutes faster. 
4 November. The many trails in Willowdale State Forest, on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, have numbered intersections but are otherwise scarcely blazed or signposted. The Stone Cat race takes four 12.5 mile loops, brightly marked for the occasion with ribbon. What had seemed largely flat at first felt increasingly hilly as I unsuccessfully tried to balance an even pace with conserving energy—and while eating ever messier handfuls of pumpkin pie on the run. Over the course of the day, features of the trail became familiar, and on passing the "This trail courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Moose" sign for the last time I was piling on whatever was left in reserve. Courses that cover the same ground more than once miss the sense of journey and adventure that I prefer, but despite poor pacing I was pleased not to have struggled, at the start of each new loop, with the senselessness of it all.

Fall view from the Escarpment Trail
1 December. The habit of an occasional winter hike under the full moon erupted once more, with eight of us numbering off at the Long Path trailhead in Windham. The moon rose behind clouds on a calm night with very little snow or ice. The trail off Blackhead looked a little like the entrance to Narnia, and when the sky cleared it was almost bright enough to hike without a light. We danced on North Point, with a view over North/South Lake and miles of the Hudson valley. In 1993, two of our party completed the 20 miles in five hours; older now, if not wiser, we took more than twice as long.