I have run across the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset and seen San Francisco on its hills, all shimmering and golden, but I think a more delightful place to run is Huguenot Drive, outside New Paltz, N.Y. The air, sweet and wet with hemlock and moss, is as good as on the Golden Gate, the footing is gentler, crushed shale, not concrete, and the view more in keeping with a runner's needs, his fantasies, his free associations. As one tops the last hill at New Paltz, near the end of a 6.2-mile run, off to the southwest one sees a vision seemingly wrought of delirium, a structure both vast and bizarre, of countless turrets, towers, balconies and chimneys, rising beside a lake of limpid green. It is easy to forget momentarily that the hotel, for that is what it is, goes by the name of Mohonk Mountain House, that you spent the night in one of its 300 rooms and that you are a participant in one of its newer traditions, a Runners Rally Weekend.
Mohonk Mountain House is in the craggy Shawangunk Mountains, 90 miles north of New York City, and is about that many years from it, too. Built in the second half of the 19th century, it has changed little since.
The thing to do at Mohonk at night is sleep. The thing to do in the daytime is hike, climb rocks, watch birds, marvel at the beauty of the Shawangunks or take photographs. There are special weekends set aside for each of those activities, and there are the Runners Rally Weekends, too, one in April and one around Halloween.
The most recent Runners Rally included three days of advice and instruction on training and diet. There were carriage roads—no fear of being hit by a car here—for casual running and for the races of 2.5, 6.2 and 13.1 miles that were scheduled for Sunday. Most of the 125 in attendance, from all walks (what else?) of life, were still in the plodding stages. A Manhattan space-sales rep named Rhea Stein said, "I can go a mile and a half without stopping, but I hope to double that here." Stu Dember, a New Jersey lawyer, said, "I hope to meet other novice runners and to share their tribulations and their pains." He met other runners, all right, but all they shared was laughter. There was no pressure to perform, and no pain.
Judith Trotsky, a Manhattan free-lance writer, came to Mohonk with a right-ankle injury, which had cost her $200 in podiatry bills. But the pain didn't last. On Friday she showed her ankle to Joe Donovan, a physical therapy expert on the rally staff. He put together a makeshift orthotic device from foam rubber and adhesive tape, and Trotsky ran pain-free for the first time since September.
Meanwhile, speakers came and went. Topics included the running boom, the problems of sedentary living and distance running for women. The runners learned stretching exercises and aerobic dancing and refueled periodically on plates mounded high with plain, nutritious Mohonk food. Some of them carbohydrate-loaded in preparation for Sunday's races, for many their first ever. Dr. George Sheehan. the philosopher king of running, appeared to have loaded up on Bartlett's—quotations not pears. As Saturday night's speaker, he managed to quote, among others. Twain, Edison, Plato, Nietzsche, Omar Khayyàm, Thoreau, Joe Louis and Yeats. He also replied to a man concerned about the possible carcinogenic qualities of nitrosamines in beer by saying, "Nitrosamines? If they slowed me in the marathon, I'd be concerned. I select my diet with a stopwatch." And he told his less-than-Olympic-quality audience, "If you're in bad enough shape, you could improve 100%." All in all, Sheehan did what he was hired to do. He made people think and he made them laugh. He also made them stop worrying about Sunday. For a while.
That night the ancient hotel seemed to creak even more than usual. Rhea the rep slept no better than the other runners. Her race would be only 2½ miles long, but the first half of it would be a steady, steep climb up Eagle Cliff Road. On Sunday morning she pitty-patted along, 80 feet above Lake Mohonk and finished last, in 31:15. But at the finish she heard people cheering her—not for finishing last, but for finishing at all.
Stu the lawyer heard cheers, too; he won the 2½-miler in 18:22. The weekend had been a 35th-birthday gift from his girl friend Eileen, and his cheers came from her. "I don't believe it!" she yelled over and over.
All the races started simultaneously in front of the hotel. But the longer-distance runners veered off Eagle Cliff Road and onto a succession of others. They went from corniches with long views to deep-woods trails that skirted great jumbles of boulders and finally to the top of Huguenot Drive, with the old hotel looming up, as if in a dream.
Every runner was a hero in some way. There was 33-year-old Gerald Kelly, who ran 6.2 miles in a winning 36:42, and Robert Raymond, 59, who had quadruple bypass surgery less than three years ago and did it in 1:05:20. And there was Margaret Draeger, a Muncy, Pa. gynecologist entered in her first race, the half marathon. She was in last place for more than 12 miles, but then, smiling but determined, she passed someone. "I wish I had pushed a little harder," she said later, but she was still smiling, just like everybody else at the Runners Rally Weekend.