Escarpment Trail Run founder Dick Vincent is a running legend – Times Union

Escarpment Trail Run founder Dick Vincent is a running legend  Times Union

In 1977, Dick Vincent created one of the first endurance trail races of its kind — the beautiful and treacherous 18.6-mile Escarpment Trail Run in the Catskills. He was compelled to put on a trail race along this burly trail because people said that it couldn’t be done.

Now, having served as the Escarpment Run race director for its 45th year, Vincent, a beloved running coach and pillar in the Hudson Valley and Albany running community, said that he still does it “either out of stupidity or the fact that it has changed my life.”

“I’ve had people get married who have met racing on this course and there are probably people who got divorced because of it, too,” he said.

Vincent himself began running in 1972. One of his early running partners was Barry Hopkins, the founder of the Onteora Runners Club, who lured Vincent into trail running. Before long he heard about the Escarpment Trail, which cuts across the top of the Wall of Manitou in the Northern Catskills, close to his home. He became intrigued with the idea of hosting a race along the trail, though he’d never been on it.

“Every time I brought it up people thought it was far-fetched at best, crazy at worst and that it couldn’t be done, which made me want to do it more,” he said.

Related: Read more about the Escarpment Trail

The Escarpment Trail Race is now one of the oldest trail races on the East Coast. It traverses remote regions with huge vertical ascents and dangerous rock- and root-encrusted descents; would-be entrants are put through a rigorous review to ensure they’re up to the task. The race has stood the test of time not because it’s easy or accessible, but because of the community that has been built around it over nearly a half-century.

“We’ve had the same volunteers working aid stations for years. Some of these places require people to hike eight miles round trip to lug up water and supplies,” said Vincent. “It attracts road marathoners and elite trail racers, and locals who just love these mountains.”

Where the race begins

That first year, Vincent made applications on a mimeograph machine and mailed them out to different running club mailing lists. He was pleasantly surprised and a bit terrified when on that last Sunday in July of 1977, 22 runners showed up and piled into the back of his brother’s rack truck to drive up to East Windham for the start of the race.

Vincent had brought water in an old wineskin; this was long before the advent of hydration vests and water belts. “But I saw the real fast guys ditch their water before the gun went off, so I ditched mine too,” he said — a move he would later regret, as there is no fresh water source along the escarpment.

Dick Vincent with the first wave of 15 runners at this year’s Escarpment Trial Run.

Provided by Michelle Merlis

While there have been a number of advancements for trail runners since 1977, not to mention the kindness of aid stations, back in the 70s trail running was like the Wild West. Vincent said when he came across the finish line in third place that first year, he found the top two finishers, Bob Enwright and Billy Lawder, covered in salt, lying under a tree by the North Lake Picnic area, with muddied legs and pale faces, trying to gather themselves. Anxious to get their feedback on the day, Vincent asked them what they thought of the race. After a long pause, Enwright said, “Someone’s going to get hurt real bad out there today. You might need some reinforcements,” and then went back to lying in the shade.

Luckily, as the other runners started trickling in, some were bruised and bleeding, but none needed serious medical attention. They swapped tales from the trail over a barbecue and a race was born. 

At the time, trail racing had yet to become a fixture in the running world, particularly not races as highly technical and challenging as this. “There was the Dipsea Trail run in California,” Vincent recalled, “the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado and the JFK 50. Maybe one or two other trail races but as far as highly technical mountain races? There were none. Still, I felt compelled to stage the event.”

The following year there were 55 runners, with Vincent pulling out the win, and little by little it took on almost a cultlike following, growing each year until it reached its maximum limit, set by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, of 175 runners plus another 80 to 90 volunteers who work the race all day.

Bonds forged on the trail

While running technology and aid-station culture have evolved over the past 45 years, one thing that has not changed is the 18.6-mile course.

“It’s got everything from hard climbs up Blackhead to views of the Hudson River, pastures and countryside and forests,” said Vincent. “It also has 5,000 feet of vertical gain. It’s a nice meeting ground for trail runners who have that foot speed and marathon runners that have leg speed.”

Vincent himself was a 2:39 marathoner and has run more than 250 marathons and ultramarathons. “I started to slow down a little bit, but I still run, although that’s a debatable term,” he said with a laugh. 

What’s not up for debate is the success he’s had with the Escarpment Run and as a running coach in and around Albany and the Hudson Valley Region. He’s a certified Level 3 USA Track and Field Coach (the highest level offered) as well as a Level 5 International Track and Field Coach (also the most elite level.) He coaches with the Albany Exchange Running Group, has worked as a high school track coach and now individually coaches 25 different athletes. Among them are runners prepping for the NYC Marathon, the Eastern States 100-mile trail race in Pennsylvania and a woman attempting her first ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America.

Vincent also officiated the marriage of this year’s female winner of the Escarpment Run, Michelle Merlis — who also won the Breakneck Ridge Trail Marathon, which helped her qualify to make the USA’s National Trail Running World Championship Team this year — and her husband Josh Merlis, a veteran Escarpment Run racer and the timing system wizard.

“This is what I mean when I say that the Escarpment Run has brought people into my life that have changed it and made it richer,” Vincent said.