NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - There’s always been something appealing to me about running a marathon. It’s a concept almost synonymous in my mind with the idea of accomplishment, and I’ve always been one to enjoy working toward a far-off goal. I could certainly imagine the satisfaction in training for something and then going out and getting that thing done, the delicious taste of hard work and dedication finally paying off. Plus, in recent years, fitness has become a priority to me, and wouldn’t it be exciting to see how far I could push my body by running 26.2 miles? Attaching the element of challenge to my workouts could give them a truer sense of purpose.
It was almost enough to convince me. Just one race, and I’d never had to do it again, but I’d still be able to call myself a “marathon runner” for the rest of my life.
There was just one problem, and that was my overwhelming hatred of running.
I’m not sure if everyone who runs a marathon actually likes running. Some of them, in fact, probably hate it just as much as I do, and to those people, I say congratulations on your insane amount of willpower that blows mine out of the water. I don’t even enjoy running 1 mile. Each step is boring and tedious, and during every single one of those steps, my mind is consumed by a constant desire to stop. I’ve tried to let it grow on me. It hasn’t. I wasn’t going to run a marathon, not even once.
Hiking a marathon, however, was a different story.
My love of hiking only came about when I moved to New York City, which at first may sound ironic but makes sense when you think about it. All of the concrete and commotion and constant crowds have a way of driving New Yorkers toward nature, and on weekend mornings, I found myself alongside other city residents as we boarded trains from the chaotic Grand Central Terminal to greener and quieter destinations.
On my first hike, I didn’t even realize that trail maps were a thing. By the end of summer, I had the Hudson Highlands trail map permanently ingrained in my mind. I started to seek out other locations but was largely limited by my lack of a driver’s license. My desire for higher peaks and fresh viewpoints brought me to Discover Outdoors, an adventure company that led guided day trips from the city to trails in surrounding areas. It was thanks to Discover Outdoors that the idea of a hiking marathon first entered my mind.
If you Google “hiking marathon,” you’ll find a lot of results about adding hiking to your marathon training. But you’ll also find several marathons that take place on hiking trails.
One of those marathons is the Devil’s Path, a trail in the Catskills that ascends seven mountains, six of them above 3,500 feet, and was named as one of the 12 toughest trails in the country by Backpacker Magazine in 2017. The climbs and descents are steep, totaling more than 14,000 feet in elevation gain and loss; while some parts are easily jogged, several sections are definitely not, including some better described as climbing or scrambling than hiking.
Early settlers coined the name of the trail in reference to peaks so jagged the devil must have designed them as his own private retreat. The terrain is full of rocks and roots that are continuously unforgiving to the feet. But there are stunning and rewarding viewpoints at the top of those difficult climbs.
The entirety of the Devil’s Path is often completed as a weekend trip, spread out over a more manageable two or three days. Some choose only to complete the Eastern Devil’s Path. But for those seeking a serious challenge, a single-day traverse is the way to go.
In the week leading up to my attempt, my preparation centered primarily around sleep. With Discover Outdoors, I’d be departing the city at 3:45 a.m. on the day of the marathon, and I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to complete the hike well-rested, much less in a sleep-deprived state. To make the departure time stress-free, I’d have to leave my apartment around 3 a.m., which meant a 2:30 a.m. alarm. I decided upon an 8 a.m. bedtime and spent the week prior trying to train my body to go to sleep over a full hour earlier.
I went on a moderately difficult 12-mile hike the Sunday before and then scheduled only light workouts in the days ahead of the Devil’s Path. I stocked up on granola bars and candy at REI, buying whatever fun treats I wanted to keep myself motivated during the hike. I debated which pair of shoes to wear, changing my mind every few hours - and purchasing blister-specific Band-Aids just in case.
At 3 a.m. on a Saturday, I got in a cab heading to the Upper West Side meeting point, passing bars full of people for whom Friday night had not yet ended.
As one might imagine, most of the ride to the Catskills was near-silent as we all snuck in some extra sleep. But as we pulled into the parking lot and gathered outside of the van, there was a sense of excitement, mixed with anticipation and nerves. Our three guides went over the route with us while we stood at the trailhead. The hike would have two strict cutoff points, one at 1:30 p.m. at 13.15 miles and the second at 4 p.m. at 17.45 miles. If we missed either, we would not be allowed to continue.
It was clear that everyone wanted to complete the full route, but the guides tried to set reasonable expectations that we wouldn’t all make it to the finish line.“We’re all here for the sense of accomplishment, not the views,” I overheard one hiker say, causing me to feel a little silly about the mirrorless camera weighing down my backpack. These mountains are often hiked as individual Discover Outdoors trips, so it was accomplishment enough that we were attempting the entire route.
With that, we were off.
By starting at the eastern end of the path, the hardest portion of the hike is tackled first. Indian Head feels like a reasonable enough challenge, but fresh out of the van and fueled by ambition, it’s manageable, with each viewpoint providing an additional burst of energy. At those viewpoints, I couldn’t resist the urge to stop for a few pictures, but I made sure to follow any breaks with short spurts of jogging to make up for the time lost to the photo ops.
The next two mountains,Twin and Sugarloaf, became a blur of trees, rocks, and views. The descent of Sugarloaf was particularly brutal, a steep decline that seemed to never end. One of the guides waited for me at the bottom with a bag of snacks and a warning that climbing Plateau would be difficult, though its flat top would be a nice reward once I made it there.
It was on the way up Plateau that I began talking to myself. The conversation went something like this, on repeat: “The less you stop, the quicker you’ll make it to the top. You have to keep going. What’s the point in stopping? Eventually, you’d have to start again. Get it over with. Keep going.”
So I kept going, and when I thought I needed to stop, I just went faster. I passed a man headed down the mountain, and I asked him how much longer I had to climb to get to the top.
“You’re actually right there,” the man said, “and I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”
The top of Plateau was as flat as promised, though it was also muddier and buggier than Indian Head, Twin, or Sugarloaf had been. I jogged most of it. At the final viewpoint, I took a wrong turn and ended up wandering around for a few minutes before asking another fellow hiker where the red trail was.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” he said. We ended up finding it together, and the conversation that we had traveling down Plateau was much more pleasant and lighthearted than that one I had with myself going up.
At the bottom of Plateau is Route 214, the only road you’ll need to cross on the Devil’s Path. It was also our lunch pick-up spot and the first checkpoint. I had to be there by 1:30 p.m.; I arrived at 12:20 p.m., grabbed my lunch, and continued on.
Following the mental and physical challenges of Plateau, Hunter Mountain was a walk in the park, both literally and in the more figurative sense that it felt especially easy. Rather than a steep incline, switchbacks let me relax where needed and jog whenever I let my paranoia about the second cutoff point get into my head. The way down was gentle and slow, ultimately leading to Diamond Notch Falls, which I reached over an hour and a half before the 4 p.m. cutoff.
I was tempted to take off my boots and wade into the water, but I knew that if I took off my boots, there was no way I’d want to put them back on, so I headed toward Westkill, finally able to relax about the time. For most of the ascent, I carried my camera in my hand and allowed myself copious photo breaks, taking my time to enjoy the surrounding greenery and the near-empty trails. I paused for a while at the final viewpoint, then continued to the true summit of Westkill and St. Anne’s Peak, neither of which offered any sweeping views.
It seemed as though I was nearing the end when I came upon a sign that informed me I still had 1.5 miles to go. At this point, I was very much done with hiking, entirely out of water, and dreaming extensively of ice cream. Even though 1.5 miles was nothing compared to what I had just done, I felt exhausted at the sight of the sign. So I started to run, and I didn’t stop until I saw the parking lot and heard the guides cheering me on and ringing a cowbell.
If you’re interested in tackling a hiking marathon, due to your love of nature, your hatred of running, or some combination of the two, the Devil’s Path makes for a compelling option. It’s as challenging as it is beautiful, and the length of the path from end-to-end is almost perfect. While it’s slightly shorter than 26.2 miles if you never deviate from the trail, there are plenty of slightly-off-trail views to check out that will boost your mileage count to marathon-length bragging rights (plus the possibility of briefly getting lost like I did - my Fitbit read over 27 miles at the finish).
The best way to conquer the path is through a group like Discover Outdoors, which provided the early morning and late night transportation, snacks and water refills along the way, and three knowledgeable guides looking out for our safety. If you end up going with friends, it’s best to have two cars, one to drive to the beginning and the other to park at the end. Beyond that, you could make arrangements with a local cab company or hike right back the way you came, if one marathon simply isn’t enough for you.
At the end of it all, you’re sure to walk away with not just a sense of accomplishment for your achievements that day but perhaps also the comfort of knowing that there’s a little voice in your head to help you keep going whenever things get tough.