“When I get off of this mountain, you know where I want to go?”
It was in September of 1985. I had started doing Ultras earlier that year. Ralph was the motivation behind my venturing past the marathon distance. As I recall, we were running back to New Jersey, crossing the George Washington Bridge when he stopped. It was a clear cool night. There was a moon hanging over Manhattan and there were stars over New Jersey.
Ralph stepped over to the railing, looked down at the Hudson River. He had grown strangle quiet and I was starting to get a bit nervous. You have to understand our relationship.
In March of 1982 I was running along Abbott Boulevard in Fort Lee. It was evening and one of the first nights that hinted at spring. I had moved to New Jersey two years earlier and had yet to meet a fellow runner there. I was running well and racing a lot. Most of the people I saw along Abbott Boulevard were just out for a bit of fitness or weight loss. And, since spring had yet to arrive, there were few out on the roads.
I was moving along comfortably when I notice a runner ahead of me. I wondered about the runner, but kept my pace up and soon was right behind him. I could tell from his stride he was not out to loose weight or get some fitness. He had a strong stride. It was clear he had covered a lot of miles and there was a lot of speed in his legs.
“I bet on one horse to win and Bessie bet on another to show.”
I braced myself. Coming up behind a runner was a risk in the 1980s. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the times. It seemed that runners were a lot more competitive back then. Pulling up on another runner’s shoulder often triggered a challenge.
I was guilty of that behavior myself back then. A favorite game was to be running around the Reservoir in Central Park, doing mile repeats. The goal was to do four to five under six minutes each. Frequently as I hit the quarter mile mark I would pull up on the shoulder of a runner. Just as frequently he was a younger runner. Well, at least younger than I was back then.
The Reservoir is a cinder track that circles what was once the water supply for New York City. Now, it’s an oasis for birds and memories of the movie “Marathon Man.” The cinders make it difficult to surprise a runner you are passing.
So, here I am moving along at sub six minute pace and this runner glances over his left shoulder. The look was clearly part surprise and part assessment. Surprised someone was catching him and assessment in preparation of a response to being passed. But, I usually didn’t pass. I’d back off my pace just enough to stay right on his shoulder, maybe half a stride back.
A second look would come. It was clearly “Hey, I thought you were passing me!” and a slight grin would flash cross his face. The grin was a sign. The bait was taken. I’d look directly at him, a long deliberate look, and ask “How are you?” Without waiting for a response, I’d follow that question up with “How far are you going tonight?” The hook was set. He was mine!
The response would come and I’d ask another question. All the while I was ever so slightly picking up the pace.
Friends that ran with me regularly would always marvel at how quiet my breathing was. In the middle of a sub 18 minute 5 Km they couldn’t hear my breathing, or my feet.
So, he’s taken the bait, I’ve set the hook and I’m gradually increasing the pace – reeling him in so to speak. We pass the half mile mark. I’m back down to six flat for the mile. His responses are one syllable and more spit out than spoken. He’s not looking at me as I ask yet another question and continue my look at him, awaiting his answer. You know that feeling, you’ve red lined and your field of vision has narrowed down to the patch of ground one stride ahead of you.
You can tell when talking gets just short of impossible. I don’t know how to describe that look, but if you’ve ever been there, you know it intimately. There it is, I see it in his eyes, hear it in his breathing. That’s my cue. “Have a good run.” And I accelerate away.
I know, it was cruel. But, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
So, I’m just about on Ralph’s shoulder back on Abbott Boulevard that March evening in 1982. I’m not in a competitive mode. Maybe it’s the way Ralph is running – there’s a lot more speed there and many more miles. This is a challenge I don’t think I’ll win. I’m not a good looser.
So, I pull up even with Ralph and say hello. I am very careful about my pace, I don’t pull ahead and I don’t fall back. I match Ralph, stride for stride. We’re running north on Abbott Boulevard. He greets me and we both look at each other. It’s not the look of long lost friends. It’s more the look of – “hey, you can run! Did I find a running partner?”
Well, that we both did. A running partner and a best friend.
As it turned out, Ralph was a significantly better runner than I was and would ever become. He was strong – like a bull and he was fast. For someone that ran ultras as often as others ran 10 Ks, Ralph could run five miles faster than most runners – not most ultra runners, most runners period. He was honestly fast.
We didn’t talk or see each other for about a month. Then we hooked up for a run one weekend. We’d run most weekends. Starting in either Fort Lee, where I lived, or in the next town – Cliffside Park where Ralph lived. Many times we’d head north along the Palisades Park road – River Road to the cyclists. It’s a road that hugs the Palisades above the western bank of Hudson River.
We would also run back from Manhattan to New Jersey after work. And we would talk. It’s amazing how much two grown men could say while running. Ralph would tell me a story. 10 miles later he’d tell me the same story! I loved it.
Even though we raced at different paces, we seemed to train at the same pace. You’d only hear one set of foot steps as we approached. Our strides were in perfect synchronization. We’d never get competitive and we always seemed to need to take a pee break at the same time!
That evening we’re running across the George Washington Bridge back to New Jersey. Ralph is standing at the railing and I’m nervous. What’s going on? Ralph got unusually quiet. Looks down at the river for a long time and then turns and starts to run again. I join him. After what seemed like half an hour, I ask him if he’s okay.
It was really only a few strides when I asked him. He turns to me and says he’s afraid of running across bridges. “So why did you stop and look down?”
An old friend that I ran with a lot in the 1990s was afraid of running across bridges. I remember once we were running across the 59th Street Bridge, from Manhattan to Queens. She stopped dead in her tracks! She was frozen in place. She couldn’t move. There was a look of fear on her face. We had been running on the grating and she couldn’t continue. I had to walk her back to Manhattan, holding her hand the entire way.
Ralph was different. He was afraid of being on the bridge, so he looked down to control his fear. Talk about putting your head in the loin’s mouth!
I don’t know how the conversation changed from fear of bridges to running ultras. But, Ralph was a master story teller. It was easy for him. The next thing I remember, he’s telling me I should run an ultra. And, he knew exactly which one I should do as my first ultra! The man was just looking out for my running, especially ultra running well being!
“She told me just to come on by, if there was anything she could do.”
It’s now September 1985. I’m about mid way up Overlook Mountain. I’m standing in a dirt parking lot, nervously shifting around. I can’t say I’m stretching – I never stretch. I am tying my shoe laces and putting on and taking off the same shirt. Nervous energy? I can’t decide if I should wear the shirt or not. Finally, I decide to just run in my singlet.
Overlook Mountain is in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It’s just outside the town of Woodstock. Yes, that Woodstock. But, the concert was actually in Bethel, not Woodstock. It is the home of Bearsville Records and the Bearsville Bar and Grill. When you get to the top of Overlook Mountain, climb the fire tower and look around you can just barely see it. It’s not very impressive to look at, but all sorts of things happened there.
“Up on Cripple Creek she sends me. If I spring a leak she mends me. I don’t have to speak she defends me.”
Dick Vincent calls us over and explains the rules to us. Ralph is standing with us, but seems totally disinterested. He looks very much like he could use a very large cup of coffee. And I’m like a ball of rubber bands or one of the “super balls” that bounces off the floor and seems to gain energy. I see Dick’s mouth moving, but the words just don’t make any sense.
All I could make out was “up the hill.” Fortunately, no one joke that there was just one hill. “Fire Tower.” “Clip Board.” “Sign your name.”
I grab a water bottle and get enough water in my mouth to keep my tongue from becoming permanently stuck to the roof of my mouth. Everyone is walking over to the road. The road that heads up Overlook Mountain.
I follow them. I’ve lost sight of Ralph. “GO!” That must have been Dick telling us to start the race! Everyone around me is running up the road – and the hill – Overlook Mountain.
Dick, in his usual humorous manner, named this adventure the “Overlook Overload.” The race is simple. Run up Overlook Mountain, sign the clip board at the base of the Fire Tower – climbing up to the top is optional (but there is no extra credit) and run back down.
For six hours!
The trip up is interesting. I didn’t realize I could get altitude sick in the Catskills. There are no peaks over about 2,500 feet in the Catskills. Within 10 minutes my heart is trying to get out of my chest. My lungs have gone beyond burning, I’m certain they have totally stopped functioning.
And Ralph’s up ahead. I could recognize is running stride from a mile away. He’s just moving up Overlook Mountain. And pulling away from me.
I remind myself, he’s done these Ultra things before. This is my first. But, it’s not the first real ultra. Hell, it’s only six hours and it’s only one hill!
Ralph had bigger and better plans in mind for my first ultra.
But, here I was chasing Ralph’s shadow up Overlook Mountain. He wasn’t going to get that far ahead of me. When he got to the top, he’d turn around and start back down. And I’d follow.
“She said I can’t take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk.”
Ralph is trying to convince me that I can and should run ultras. Not an ultra, but ultras – plural. He’s got plans for me, that I don’t even understand. We get to the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge and Ralph says “Philly to Atlantic City!” I don’t say a word in response.
I used to live in south Jersey, across the river from Philly. I’d drive to the Jersey shore to surf, just south of Atlantic City – Ocean City. That was a long way to drive. Ralph wants me to run it?! Sure. A week or two later, Ralph finishes his reasoning. His reasoning why I should run Philly to Atlantic City. Ralph just picked up his train of thought from two weeks earlier as if he had never stopped talking and two weeks hadn’t intervened. Only Ralph could do that.
His reasoning when something like this…I ran Philly to Atlantic City. You are a stronger runner than me. What he based that on eludes me to this day. Oh, there’s this guy that greeted him about mid way through and I need to meet him. He was supremely confident I could do the 100 Km race!
“Now there’s one thing I sure do like to see, that’s when that little love of mine dips her donut in my tea.”
I sign my name to the clip board. The next thing I realize I’m climbing the steps of the Fire Tower. As I reach the top I look around. There it is. Not far away in the morning haze sits a small house, still the original pink. How and why did they name it “Big Pink”?
I’m running down Overlook Mountain. My pace down the mountain sure is faster than it was coming up. I can’t hear Ralph’s response to that comment. No, he wouldn’t joke – well at least not directly and he surely wouldn’t explain the physics of downhill verses uphill running. It would definitely be humorous and just long enough to get me to forget the fact that I had to run back up Overlook Mountain and certainly long enough for me to forget the pain of the last trip up Overlook Mountain.
I don’t remember how many trips up, and down Overlook Mountain I made that day. I do know I climbed the steps to the Fire Tower only once. I a do remember seeing Big Pink. But, I couldn’t think of a single verse from that album!
Here comes Ralph, back up Overlook Mountain. I’m running faster than I ever have – that’s what racing down a mountain will do for you. I reach the bottom and turn around and head back up.
We repeat this dance a few more times. I take a spill on one drip town – a small branch lying in my path grabs my foot and I fly through the air and slide about 50 yards on the dirt road – rolling and sliding. I get up and finish the trip down the mountain. On the next up hill trip I see Ralph again. I catch him and pass him!
Maybe this Philly to Atlantic City 100 Km race thing isn’t such a crazy idea.
“Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me.”
All the way up Overlook Mountain I listen. I listen for footsteps. Ralph’s footsteps! But, I don’t hear them. I sign my name on the clip board and turn around and head back down. I see Ralph on my way down. I have to focus. It’s real easy to get confused – is Ralph behind me? Or is he ahead of me?
I finish my last trip up Overlook Mountain, head back down and stop. There isn’t enough time for another round trip, so I stop. Amazingly, I beat Ralph that day. It would take me six years to beat him again.
I ran Philly to Atlantic City in October. I saw the same man Ralph met, in the middle of south Jersey in the middle of that 100 Km race. He said the same thing to me that Ralph told me he said to him.
I can’t listen to The Band without thinking of Ralph and Overlook Mountain. Six hours, but it was only one hill!
np: Music From Big Pink - The Band
The Band - The Band