Saturday, October 7, 2017

Vermont 100 2017

Editor's Note: Initially, I had no plans to write a race report for this race. It felt too personal to share. Or, maybe the wound was still raw. Also, I don't how to write this post without sounding too self-aggrandizing. Yes, I suffered and fought through it, but I don't think that's too different from any other stories that day. Or, any other story from any other ultramarathon, for that matter. And, maybe I didn't want to have another one of "those" stories. It was special to me, but I can't presume that it would be for anyone else. Whatever the reason, I knew that writing the race report had the potential to be as painful as the race itself. So, I hesitated. Ultimately, I decided to start tapping the keys because I wanted to have a complete and honest account of my first 100 mile race. It's impossible to enter an ultra without some level of selfishness and narcissism, and a blog post is the natural extension of those. But, then, even after drafting this report, it's taken me weeks to post it. I still wasn't sure that I wanted it out in the world. But, maybe it should be. Maybe it's the closure that I need. So, sorry, dear reader, but this is for me. You've been warned.

“Perfect conditions, it never exists. There’s always a problem. Mountains not in perfect conditions or something and you need to adapt from that. If things can kill you, it’s important to stop or turn around. If not, you can keep going, you know.”
- Kilian Jornet

With any race report, it's tough to know where to begin, but I'm going to begin at the end. Regardless of the outcome, I have so many people to thank. I believe I have thanked all of you by now and in person, either directly or indirectly. To all of you, thank you.

The race doesn't begin when the gun goes off. I'd trained for a solid 6 months. Really more, through the accumulated mileage build up and additional "research." Plus, this was my sixth consecutive year attending the race, so I'd been thinking about toeing the line for a lot longer than just a few months. I felt ready. But, it did feel strange driving to the race as a runner rather than a crew member. I know how to crew the Vermont 100, but do I know how to run it? Once we arrived in Woodstock and met my parents, it had sunk in that I would be running 100 miles the next day. Or, rather, I was comfortable in the role of runner. In fact, I was very comfortable. I wasn't nervous at all. I knew I was in the right place.

Along with my experiences at the race and my extensive preparation, a big factor in my relaxed state was the team behind me. I was backed by an absolute rock star crew. Danielle was the crew chief with Mindy as the voice of reason and John as the pack mule. We all traveled together, and Zak, my pacer, was set to arrive the following day. Between them, I had more than a dozen 100-mile finishes full of wisdom to draw on, and people that I felt knew me really well. And, I knew they'd do whatever it would take to help get me to the finish. I had no reason to be nervous. Plus, knowing that my parents would be at the spectator viewing points along the way meant that I had even extra support out there. I was feeling very lucky to have so many in my corner.

Pre-race frivolities
After the what has now become the traditional pre-race dinner with the Trail Monster Running crew that is on the scene to staff the Lincoln Covered Bridge aid station at mile 39, I was able to get at least a little bit of sleep before the 2:15am wake up call. The biggest surprise of all was that I wasn't nervous. I expected that it would arrive race morning, but it didn't. We had to wait in traffic getting to the start. Runners were jumping out of cars and rushing to the tent left and right. Not me. I knew I'd get there. No nerves. I checked in and took a seat at the back of the tent. I took a couple deep breaths and realized why I wasn't nervous: I was right where I belonged. I was in the right place. A brief moment of panic, since we couldn't find my parents, but soon all the pre-race hugs were done, and I was on the starting line--well, many, many rows back from it. I took a couple deep breaths, and off we went.

The calm before the storm.
It was great to jog down the hill. I've watched the race proceed down that same hill for the previous five years, and it was a relief to be a part of that crowd. I was way back in the pack jogging comfortably and feeling thankful to even be able to start this adventure. Injuries have been a constant companion in the past, so even feeling healthy enough to start was exciting--even with more than 1,200 miles and 95,000+ feet of climbing done in the past 6 months. In that first mile, I was full of confidence and ready to enjoy the rest of the day. I was also able to share this first mile with Chad, but, of course, he had to pull to the side to poop. But, I was confident that I'd see him shortly.

As the course turned off the familiar-to-me hardpacked dirt road onto a jeep road/trail, I was immediately taken aback by how muddy and slippery the conditions had become. I know that it had been a wet Spring and they'd seen some rain in the days leading up to the race, but I didn't expect all this squish. Plus, the light mist/high humidity was limiting the visibility in my headlamp. In my pre-race research, I'd seen that many people wore road shoes, which was my choice as well. I was seriously questioning that decision. Soon, my watch alerted me that I'd completed the second mile: 13 minutes?!?!?! What?!?!? My plan was to go out easy, but that was too slow.

And, there you have my first rookie mistake. Two miles into the race, and I was already thinking about my overall pace. Now, stepping back from it, my mistakes weren't simple rookie mistakes, but they were rookie mistakes caused by veteran experience. I have no idea if that makes any sense. Or, if I'm just rationalizing. But, I feel like I knew too much. I knew that I wanted to average between 11:00-11:25 per mile to mile 21.3--the first crew station, Pretty House. How did I know this? Well, if you know me and you know about my experience crewing the Vermont 100, you know about Ian's famous pace charts. Once upon a time, when Ian was less than engaged by his job, he devised these amazing pace charts for Vermont, which I have since tweaked and adjusted based on various runners' experiences at the race. They're great. And, as a result, I knew the time I wanted to hit based on my conservative projection of a 23-hour finish. I figured that 23-hour pace early in the race would set me up nicely for a sub-24 hour finish or possibly something closer to 21 hours. But, 2 miles into the race, I was already worried that 24 hours was slipping away. I took a breath and realized that I was being ridiculous. "There's still a long way to go. You'll get that time back." Terrible thinking because what this means subliminally is that I was thinking about making it up on the downhills. More on that in bit.

Either because of or in addition to my thoughts on pace, I felt like garbage. I just felt off. It was a very similar feeling that I had during the start of Stone Cat last November...but worse. Maybe I just don't do well with dark starts. Maybe I was worried about my pace. Maybe I was worried about my shoe choice. Maybe I was worried because I stopped to pee around mile 3. Maybe I was just worried. Was I finally nervous? Whatever the case, I just buckled down and hoped that the sunrise would turn things around. It didn't. The ups were work. The downs were uncomfortable. I was ready to call it a day around mile 6...a 12+ minute mile. I was not having fun. Everything was bad. I felt like I was working much harder than I should be. People were chatting all around me. I hated each and every one of them for enjoying themselves. Sunrise didn't help. Nothing helped. When I met my crew at Pretty House, I called it "the worst 8-mile run of my life."

The 8-mile point was significant in that it wasn't. But, suddenly, I felt better. No explanation for the switch, but I was finally happy to be running. Shortly after the mysterious change, I caught up to a fellow-Mainer, Corey. We ran together (more or less) for the next 22 miles, and it was good times. I really enjoyed our miles together, but more rookie mistakes. Corey has run the race the last couple years, and in some really solid times. In the back of mind--or maybe in the front--I still felt like I was slipping behind where I should be time wise, but knowing Corey's past finishes, I figured he knew what he was doing. Another rookie mistake: "100 miles is a long way to run someone else's race."

We both filled our water at the 11-mile aid station and headed off down the hill to the Taftsville Bridge. Or, rather, we ran. Let's go to the splits! 9:11, 9:34, 8:48, 9:04, 9:03. I wasn't paying any attention to the individual miles, but I was very tuned into the "average overall pace" reading on my watch. And, I was getting right back to where I wanted to be based on the pace charts. As we crossed the bridge, my parents were there all smiles and high fives. Pace back where I wanted, all dirt road, running buddy, family support, feeling good--100 miles is awesome! Now, this is turning into the day that I had envisioned. But, in hindsight, it's clear that I am an idiot. From all my time sitting at Pretty House as crew, I've developed a theory that the first 21 miles are the crux of the race and the section in which so many runners ruin their races. Even with all my "experience," unbeknownst to me, I was doing exactly what I was most afraid of. I didn't see it.

Taftsville Bridge with Corey. WHEEEEEEEE!!!!
Shortly after the bridge, the road pitches upward and essentially climbs for 6 miles up to Pretty House. Time for some easy hiking. Man, this is fun! Due to a short pee break, I was separated from Corey, and soon after the course turned onto another jeep road/trail section alone. I took it easy, but in my mind I was surprised by the roughness, the wetness, and the steep grade of this section. On the flip side, there was a surprising downhill section, which was also more of a trail than I had expected. Obviously, I've run plenty of trails, but in my mind I had always pictured Vermont as a road race. I was really questioning my shoe choice as I slipped and tip-toed.

I soon hit a dirt road that went straight uphill, which is more of what I had expected. But, I will say this: many of the grades were much steeper than I expected. The best part of this section was another moment with my parents. I had given them directions to the spectator points, and I could tell that they were enjoying their own event within the event. I chatted with them for a couple seconds. It was all smiles, and I was on my way.

Mile 20. More WHEEEEEEE!!!!
I knew that I had about a mile and a half to Pretty House, and I was looking forward to seeing my crew. Soon, I recognized the road from my run at Runamuck in April. Spirits were high. With a only a few minutes to Pretty House, I took a gel: 1,200 calories since the start--exactly what I planned. Spirits were higher. I could see the crowd at Pretty House and looked at my watch: 3:52--exactly what I planned. Spirits couldn't be higher. Despite the first 8 miles and my lingering shoe questions, I was feeling great about the rest of the day.

I was stoked to meet the crew, but the stop was really odd. All of the mechanics were fine, as I dropped what I didn't need and picked up what I needed, but the energy was off. I yelled at John for taking a picture. All I remember hearing from Danielle and Mindy was "Time to get out of here!" I felt really rushed. I wanted to share my high spirits with them, but they were more interested in getting me going. In our pre-race meetings, I had instilled the crew motto of "Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast." The stop felt smooth, but harried. It wasn't what I was hoping for. Recounting the stop with Danielle after the race, she said that I was the one who was in a rush, not listening, and being unfocused. It was really interesting to hear her perspective and realize that this may have been another example of me not heeding my won advice. Another rookie mistake.

As I jogged away, I brushed it off. I planned to address it with them in 9 miles at Stage Road. We had a lot more great crew stops to come for the day--that was just a minor hiccup. Crewing is hard work, and the first stop is always exciting. I just wanted to remind them to slow down. I was planning to be out there for nearly 24 hours, and I could handle a few extra moments with them. (Foreshadowing!)

The next stretch of the race was by far my favorite. Corey and I shared more miles. I had a brief chat with John Geesler--en route to his 25th Vermont finish. The weather was good. The views were beautiful. Running 100 miles is all rainbows and candy! That being said, I was still very aware of my footwear choice and the difficulty of the terrain. The latter sounds stupid, but it was more than I expected in terms of both technical terrain and steepness of the hills. In my mind, "Vermont is a road race." The difficulty never got me down, but it was on my mind.

As Corey and I ran the final mile into Stage Road, he glanced at his watch. "Wow. We're running 7:45 pace!" It certainly didn't feel that fast. And, my only thought was "That's cool because I'm on the overall pace that I want. My watch says so. I'm having fun." Clearly, I am an idiot.

All smiles at 50k.

Arriving at Stage Road was awesome. Just a great crew stop. I mentioned that I wanted to move through this crew stop more slowly, and the crew agreed. My calories were on point, and everything was feeling good. It was a 9:35am, which is 22-hour pace--a bit faster than planned, but right where I thought I'd be. Vest and waist belt loaded up. Shirt and hat change. Ice bandana filled. High fives and smiles to all the other crews as I made my way through the aid station. Down the road I went feeling fantastic and turned right onto the trail and out of sight. This was the last enjoyable moment that I would have for many, many hours.

The general consensus seems to be "That hill after Stage Road sucks." I can't disagree. I don't really know what happened, but by the time I reached the top of the climb, my legs were shot. I tried to run a flat section, and my legs didn't respond. Nothing. Jello. It's not a huge climb, but it took everything out of me. Every ultra has its highs and lows, so I just kept plugging hoping that it would pass and my energy would return. I kept my calories on a regular schedule, until, suddenly I couldn't. As I started down the descent, my stomach knotted up. Painfully. Painful to the point that I could feel it pulling on my hip flexors, and it hurt to try to stretch out and run. So, there I was 33 miles into the race with no legs and a stomach that was restricting the amount of movement that I could even get out of them. The section was really runnable, too, which only added to my frustration. But, then again, why is there so much trail out here?

A number of people passed me--which wasn't hard to do--and many offered words of encouragement, including the woman who offered my a ginger chew and Joe from the Biddeford crew who chatted with me for a few minutes. His words were super-encouraging, but I could tell by the look on his face he thought I was done. I  thought so, too. As the miles clicked by, the worthlessness and stinging in my legs was nearly forgotten thanks to the severe abdominal cramping. I could barely walk upright, much less run, I was so cramped. I was done.

At mile 38, I saw my parents again. I felt so horrible for feeling so horrible. They came out to support my run, and I could barely move at all. I choked back tears, as I told them my plans to just take a break at the next aid station. I remember repeating to them, "It's not going well." "It's not going well."

That refrain was all I had in my mind as I sadly crossed the Lincoln Covered Bridge and reluctantly made my way to the aid station. The Trail Monster aid station. Our aid station. I didn't want my friends to see me in the state I was in. The plan was to arrive smiling and dishing out sweaty high fives. It was supposed to be one of the high points of the entire race. I've never felt so low in an ultra. Never. Even during my legendary half hour on a milk crate at Pisgah, I've never felt this low physically and mentally. My race was done.

The first person I saw at the aid station was Linda. The same Linda who was registered for this race and tragically broke her pelvis while training. The same Linda that I convinced to volunteer at the aid station. I was supposed to be thrilled to see her. And all my other teammates. I didn't want to see anyone. I gave Linda a hug...or rather she held me up. Then, I slunk to the back of the aid station, sat in a chair, and cried. This was not supposed to happen. Everything that I had planned for this race...for years...was wrong. Shoe choice. Pacing. Nutrition. All of it. All wrong. This was not the Vermont I had imagined.

During my time in the chair, I had so many people offer me help. But, all I could see was the steady stream of runners grab what they needed from the table and move on up the road. I sat. And, sat. Chad came through at one point, and I'll never forget the look of disbelief and horror on his face when he saw me. I told him that I'd catch up, but I didn't believe it either. Special shout out to Billy for getting me chips and reminding me that I was ready for this race and could overcome. Billy just ran his first 100 mile race. He hurt his knee, but he finished. Suddenly, through my haze of pain and pity, I had an inkling that I didn't want to let Billy down. Moments later, divine intervention appeared: Amy, the race director. I have a ton of respect for Amy as a runner and a race director. Of course, I started our exchange by flipping her off, when she chastised me for sitting in a chair. But, Amy knew just what to say. She'd been in that chair before. And, I knew she was right. I needed to keep moving. I half-heartedly entered a pact with her that I'd see her at the finish. I don't think I believed it, but I got up and left the aid station.

Amy's peptalk at Lincoln Covered Bridge
I shuffled up the road trying not to cry again. How did I get here? This was not the Vermont that I envisioned. But, it was about to get worse. The climb after the aid station has quite a reputation. I'd run it as an easy run last year, so I knew what was coming. Miles 40 and 41 took me a combined total of 57 minutes. If you include my time sitting at the aid station, miles 39-41 took 93 minutes. My stomach was in a knot, and I had zero energy. I was barely moving forward. With all that time, I at least had a chance to compose my "epic failure in Vermont" Facebook post. So many people passed me--some I knew, some I didn't--but most of them offered me encouragement or help--legitimate, "we're concerned for your well-being, you might not make it" kind of help. I was dead man walking. At Stage Road, mile 31, I was in 101st place. By the time I reached Lilian's, mile 43, I was in 206th. Twelve miles in 4 hours with more than 100 people passing me. I couldn't wait to get to my crew at mile 47, so I could drop. This is not the Vermont I had imagined.

Thankfully, about a mile before Lilian's my stomach started to feel a bit better. Not in a oh-good-I-can-run way, but in a at-least-I'm-suffering-less way. I was way behind on calories now, but I was able to squeeze in a gel or two. I was still shuffling, but there was at least a glimmer of hope. On the road just before Lilian's, Kyle and his guide, Samantha, passed me chatting happily with another runner. I wanted to crawl into a hole as I didn't want to really talk to anyone that I knew. Thankfully, I must have looked so bad, no one noticed it was me. Or, they were having too much fun. I decided to try to catch up--misery loves company. I should mention that Kyle is blind. Yup. If he can have a good attitude at not only running 100 miles, but also life, then I can certainly hang on for a bit longer. We all chatted a bit as we came to the aid station. Kyle asked me how I was doing, and I believe I responded, "Garbage." His response was super positive and encouraging. He's blind. My tummy hurt...

At the aid station, I ate a ton of potato chips, and took some for the road. Mmmmm...chips good! Maybe I won't suffer all the way to my drop at Camp Ten Bear. I also took a popsicle with me. I was running...err...jogging a bit here, and not feeling nearly as terrible as I had previously. TMI, forthcoming: I had let out a few farts in the last mile or so, and with each one, my stomach felt a lot better. My stomach pain wasn't traditional ultrarunning nausea--it was gas. I'm not certain why or how I hadn't figured this out. I just didn't expect it. No wonder the ginger ale at Lincoln Covered Bridge actually made me feel worse. It was too late now, though. I was about 1,500 calories behind schedule and my legs were still garbage. The goal was to just get to Camp Ten Bear to end things.

I knew that shortly after Lilian's I was going to see my parents, and at least I could tell them in person that I was going to drop. It was better than them receiving a text in the middle of the night. Then, my most indelible memory from the entire race: I looked up the road, and in the distance, I could see my parents sitting on the side of the road in their uncomfortable little folding chairs waiting for me. I saw them before they saw me. They were patiently waiting. I can't imagine their anxiety. When they realized I was coming, they both stood up. I decided in that moment that I was going to finish. I couldn't let them down. It was that simple. No matter what, I was going to finish. I didn't have any idea how, but I was getting it done. I had to. I will never, ever forget seeing them sitting in those chairs. That was the moment.

I don't remember much of our exchange, but unlike the phony pact I made with Amy at Lincoln Covered Bridge, I told them that I would see them at the finish. I meant it. As I left them, I heard my dad yell to me, and I raised a fist. A few strides later, he yelled again, and this time both arms went up. I was definitely going to finish.

The remaining miles to Camp Ten Bear, mile 47, were decent. I actually started passing some people back, and by the time I arrived, I was in good spirits. I had no idea where I was time-wise, and I didn't care. I just knew that I needed Tums. Zak had arrived and had come a fair way up the hill to meet me. I was pumped to see him. The crew had filled him in on my condition, so he seemed shocked that I was smiling. I told him, "This is getting done. It might be slow as shit, but this is happening."

I took some time at Camp Ten Bear to change my socks and discuss nutrition options. I was hopeful that Tailwind would help, so I left with one bottle full and another bag to refill along the way to Magaritaville, the next crew stop at 58.5. I ate more chips, and asked the crew to fill my vest pockets with them. Gels were out. (Yes, I ate gels for 12 hours at Wapack in May and felt great. I had brought 14,000 calories worth of them to Vermont. Ultrarunning is dumb.) John was incredulous at the thought of smashing chips into the little pockets in my vest, but I can honestly say that Pringle dust at mile 50 of a race is pretty awesome. Tums were also on the menu along with a number for the road. My gut was better, but I still felt less than ideal. As I left the crew, I told Danielle to tell my parents that I was going to finish, and that I wasn't going to let anyone down. I meant it. Carolyn, who was in charge of the chaos of Camp Ten Bear, took the time to walk with me out of the aid station. I wish I could've carried her Yoda-style for all the positive energy she poured into me. It was a huge boost to hear it from someone who just gets it. She knows the game, and her insight was invaluable.

With that, the section after Camp Ten Bear just sucks. I actually feel like I managed through it OK, but it wasn't a lot of fun. I wasn't really down because I knew I'd get through, but I wasn't exactly up either. The climb just before 50 miles is awful, and the top part was a muddy, rutted out mess. I thought this was a road race. Stupid road shoes.

At Pinky's just past mile 50, I ate a ton of chips because I knew I needed the calories and tried ginger ale again. The latter was a huge mistake as the carbonation knotted up my gut again. More Tums, please! I don't even really want to talk about the section between there and Birmingham's. I thought this was a road race?!?!?! Not to mention that the overzealous aid station folks put up "you're almost here" signs about a half mile before the aid station. I sat down for a couple minutes at Birmingham's, mile 54, to rest my legs, refill my Tailwind, and eat some turkey and cheese. Then, more suckage. I thought this was a road race?!?!? I now know why I had to adjust the time on the pace charts for this section. I thought it was because of the huge climb to Magaritaville. Honestly, that climb wasn't that bad.

Another crew stop, and more sandwiches. I took too much time here, but I was a wreck emotionally. I was feeling unworthy of all the people who were there physically helping me and of all the people who had checked in on me from afar. The litany of texts Danielle was getting was really too much for me. I was having a terrible race--not the Vermont that I had imagined--yet so many people were still in my corner. I felt unworthy of it all. They say that 100 miles strips you raw. Well, I was stripped. 

Not the posture of people who are having a good day.
Leaving Magaritaville was hard. I cried for about a half mile down the road. Eventually, I pulled it together when the reality of the time of day hit me. I had left after 6:00pm, and had more than 10 miles to get to Camp Ten Bear #2 at mile 69. If things went bad...or more could be a long trek--potentially in the dark. I did not take my headlamp because in my original plan, darkness wouldn't be an issue until after Camp Ten Bear #2. Danielle had even asked me if I wanted it. Apparently, math was bad for everyone at this point.

Luckily, this section was a good one, and I moved decently. Or, it least I felt like I moved decently. In retrospect, that feeling was skewed by the fact that I was taking a long time to regroup in the aid stations, so I'd immediately start passing people who were minutes behind me and overall moving more slowly. That being said, when I realized that it might be dark before I reached Camp Ten Bear, I began to worry about cutoffs. With the realization that I was far behind my goal time, I also realized that I had no idea how far behind. So, I just kept grinding along. And, really, grinding was all I could do here. My stomach was doing much better, and I was grabbing sandwiches and chips at all the aid stations. I also took a gel or two in this stretch, in hopes of avoiding an even deeper caloric hole.

One memorable moment from this section was catching back up to Kyle on a jeep road section. He was one of many that had passed me while I was in the chair at Magaritaville. (He had done the same at Camp Ten Bear #1.) I took a few moments to run behind him and his guide and listen to the exchange. It was impressive. The guide stays about two strides in front of him calling out the changes in the terrain and the various obstacles. "Rocks. Pick your feet up." "Tree branch." "Puddle. Do you want to go through or around?" He would either act accordingly or respond. For 100 miles. The mental focus is unbelievable. Dude is tough. I caught up and announced myself. Of course, he asked if I was feeling better. I replied that I was, wished him well, and rolled along. I was still consistently passing people and was surprised to arrive back at the out and back to Camp Ten Bear. I was going to make it in the daylight.

With friends like these...
I had two goals when I arrived at Camp Ten Bear: Change my shoes and eat. I knew that calories were necessary. But, I also knew that some more trail sections lay ahead, and I wanted my trail shoes. Plus, they have a wider toe box, and my toes needed the space. The little toe on my left foot was no longer a toe. It was a blister. The fourth toe on my right foot was being mashed between the two on either side. (I would realize a couple days later, when I could move properly and analyze the situation, that along with a huge blister on the end, the nail on that toe was cutting into the toes on either side. I ended up with a deep cut on each toe. No wonder I barked at John when he tried to clean them off.) When my socks came off, my feet were a lot wetter than I had thought. At this point, Carolyn was back to check on me, and she took over. (After seeing a pic of her feet after the Superior 100, I would take any foot advice she had to offer.) "Get me diaper rash cream and a plastic bag." And moments later she was slathering, nay drowning, my feet in the stuff. The entire crew was standing there dumbfounded. I was eating pizza. Socks on over the goop. Shoes on. My feet were awesome the rest of the race. Thanks again, Carolyn.

I was in good spirits here and optimistic for the miles ahead not only because my stomach was feeling better but also because I would have Zak at my side for the rest of the way. I'd never had a pacer before, and I was lucky enough to have a great friend who both knows me and the race really well. That being said, cutoffs were on my mind. I was far enough behind in my time goals that I didn't have any idea where I was. The concept of time goals--and in some ways time itself--had gone out the window long along. I was just moving forward, but I had no idea at what rate or pace. So, when I asked the crew about the cutoffs, they were as baffled by my question as I was with their answer. I was on 26:30 pace. Really??!?!? I had assumed that I was closer to 29:30 pace. Awesome. If cutoffs weren't an issue, I could just keep grinding, and I'd get there. I never doubted my ability or will to finish, and now I knew that I wouldn't get pulled against my will. Perfect. Zak and I left, and I was full of optimism.

Less than a mile up the trail that optimism would fully fade.

The climb after Camp Ten Bear is notorious, so I knew it would be rough. On a flat stretch before the climb, I was running, and Zak said, "No need to be a hero here because we're going to be hiking soon." But, I kept running. I felt good. Well, about as good as I felt in hours. But, then I got hit by a brutal one-two punch: The climb and darkness. It was 9:00pm, and the sun was gone. Suddenly, I was moving as slowly as I had back at mile 40. My stomach was better, but my energy was gone. The caloric hole was just too deep. By, 10:00pm, I was falling asleep on my feet. All I wanted to do was lie down. If Zak wasn't with me, I would have. All I wanted was a nice soft spot alongside the trail to curl up and cover myself with leaves. I kept imagining how amazing that would feel. How great it would feel to lie down. Zak would later report to the crew, "That was sooooooo slow." It was. Maybe slower. Interestingly, in my mind, I knew I would come out of it. I knew that it would pass. I knew that I was going to get to the finish. That being said, Zak would also later report that I was somewhat incoherent. My mental state was strong, but I wasn't able to translate that out through my body. Ultrarunning is fun. Zak was awesome through here: pushing but not pushing too much. He told me that all of this was "normal" and that he'd been there before. He told me to take a caffeinated gel. I did. In fact, I did whatever he said. I was robotically reacting and obeying because I both knew that he was right but also because it was much easier to let him make the decisions for me.

Eventually, the caffeine started to work, and my body started to realize that there were literally miles to go before I sleep. By the time we reached the Seabrook aid station at mile 74, I was alive again. More grilled cheese...because Zak said so. We soon crossed Morgan Hill Road--a milestone I'd been looking forward to since I'd crossed it so many times while crewing. "Well, that was anticlimactic," I said, and set my sights on getting to Spirit of '76. As we approached the aid station, I knew that we needed to do a full reboot. I was feeling better still, but I knew that I needed to eat. Zak agreed with me that we'd take whatever time was necessary to make certain that I was completely good to go for the next stretch.

Seventy-six quesadillas at Spirit of '76.
Spirit of '76 was awesome. In my plans, I'd set a goal of getting there before dark, but I was no less thrilled to arrive there at 11:30pm. (For those of you scoring at home: yes, it took an hour and forty minutes to go 7 miles. "That was sooooooo slow.") Having good friends, Nick and Jeff, at this aid station was a huge boost, and these guys were awesome delivering me plate after plate of quesadillas and a ton of positive energy. My crew was perfect once again with everything I needed, and at this point, that included a can of "Jedi Juice," aka Starbucks Double Espresso Shot. As I ate and drank, I could feel life slowly returning to my pale corpse. Sure, I spent 20 minutes in a chair here, but they were well-spent minutes. I needed that time to recharge physically and emotionally. I really can't say enough about the people around me here. I was feeling so lucky to have such amazing support. The high here more than balanced out the lows from just a few miles prior. We left here in roughly 220th place at 11:50pm, which is almost 28-hour pace. I didn't know any of those numbers at the time, but I knew that I was ready to run.

With the new delicacy, "pocket quesadillas," in my shorts, Zak and I left the aid station. I told him that I was feeling much better, and that taking that time was definitely the right call. I told him that I was ready to run. And that's what we did. Zak would run a couple strides in front of me, and I would just follow. (He did get a touch too excited at one point and get a bit too far ahead. I had to reel him in, and say, "I'm feeling good, but not that good.") We got into a really good rhythm. We'd run for a bit, then break. "Good push." I'd just grunt. Other times, he'd suggest that we take a break from running, but I'd want to keep running. "Another good push." Even on the uphills, I was now hiking with purpose. "Good push." We went on like this the rest of the night.

Just before mile 83, the course comes within a quarter mile of the finish. I had no interest in getting there quite yet. I knew I was going to make it the whole way around. Soon after, we arrived at the Cowshed aid station and PIEROGIS! The pierogis were soooooo delicious. I should have taken more with me because pocket pierogis are even more delicious. I left here in about 204th place.

I lagged a bit in the last mile or so getting to Bill's at mile 88, and I bargained with Zak for another break. He agreed, but it wasn't going to be as long as the break at Spirit of '76. I was OK with that. Of course, I think a bit of a lag is allowed with more than 85 miles on my legs. The crew had another can of Jedi Juice. And, the mix of Tailwind, pocket delicacies, and gels was working well. I wished that I'd had more calories in me earlier, but I was running more on emotion than fuel at this point. 

Once out of the chair, I glanced at my watch. It was 3:10am. If you'd told me before the race that I would be leaving Bill's at 3:10am, I would have been extremely disappointed. But, in the moment, I was excited. I said to Zak, "We have an outside chance of getting under 26 hours." He told me not get ahead of myself, but I felt it was important for him to know what I was thinking. I wanted to see what I could do, and it was the first time in hours that I had a goal besides just not dying and continuing to move forward. It was mile 88, and I was ready to push. Ready to run.

I didn't have the fastest final 12 miles of anyone in the race, but we ran. No one passed me. I felt better than how everyone looked. And, it was a good boost with each person that we passed. After the famous field after Bill's and a run-in with the crew on the road (they hysterically didn't recognize us), we were quickly (relatively) to Keating's at mile 91.5. I told Zak that I didn't want to stop. We checked in with the surprised volunteers, who were having trouble fathoming that I didn't want to stop, and rolled on. Soon after, we reach a hill that I didn't recall from my stint pacing Joe in 2012. I said that out loud, but I wasn't deterred. We set to climbing. In fact, we actually had to weave through a large group of runners who were moving much more slowly. Once out of earshot, Zak said to me, "All those people have resigned themselves to walking. That's not you." We had some serious momentum here, and I was even able to push a bit on the following trail section. Once we hit the road, I knew that Polly's, mile 95, was close. Zak stopped to pee before the aid station, and I decided that it'd be fun to make it hard for him to catch up. Of course, he did catch up, but it took a bit. He also decided to push ahead to let the crew know that I was arriving. He only arrived a couple seconds before I did.

The was starting to rise, which was another reminder that I was well off my goal pace. But, that was the new reality, and I was completely comfortable with it. I only wanted one thing here: Red Bull. Danielle had anticipated that and handed it right to me. I chugged and walked. We were off. It was 4:55am.

Zak and I were treated to the most amazing sunrise in this stretch. I jokingly apologized to him for being in that spot at that time to be able see it. A mile or so later, he said, "I don't remember this at all." To which I replied, "That's because it's always dark when you're here, you jerk!" We were having fun. It was such a huge contrast to 9 or 20 hours earlier, and it was very welcomed.

After a moment of quiet, Zak asked me, "Did you ever read AJW's article about grit?" (
Me, "Yup."
"Well, you have have it"
That was the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me. To hear that at mile 98ish meant so much to me. And, this was after I made him trudge through the hills with a corpse for nearly 10 hours. I'm lucky to have such great friends.

A few minutes later, we saw a runner up ahead holding hands with his pacer. I barked an emphatic, "NO!" We laughed. We were still having fun. It was right at this point that we saw the sign that read "one mile to go." We ran.

Part of me didn't want it to end. Or, maybe I couldn't believe that it was over. It didn't seem possible. We reached the lighted milk jugs (no longer lit). "Are those the milk jugs?" Then, I saw the finish line fencing. "Is that the fencing?" It was all so surreal. My pace made it clear that I wanted it to end. I passed someone in the last 50 yards, which I know is a total dick move, but I did care. I believe I sad that same exact sentence out loud to Zak. Then, I "sprinted" up the finish incline, pumped my fists a few times, and it was done. The clock read 25:50, 163rd place. No one passed me in the final 25 miles. Hugs, tears, smiles, and laughs. Damn, that was cool.

Keeping my promise to Amy to see her at the finish.
I had kept my promise to the crew to just keep moving. I had kept my promise to Amy that I would see her at the finish. I had kept my promise to my parents that I would see them at the finish. Most importantly, I kept my promise to myself, which was to believe that I could do it. Normal, regular, unremarkable me had just run 100 miles.

My crew. No way to properly thank them.
If you had you told me pre-race that I was going to run 25:50, I would have been disappointed. If you had you told me that I was going to run 25:50 and be happy about it, I would have told you that you were insane. But, I'm ecstatic with my 25:50. I worked so, so hard for that 25:50. I earned it. I'm so glad that I have the smaller buckle. I think Danielle put it best: "It wasn't the race I wanted, but it was the race I needed." She is wise.

With my parents and my buckle.
In the immediate hours and days following a big event, I spend most of it apologizing to my body. I'm thankful that I was able to complete the race but wonder if it was fair. Should I have asked my body to do that? That fades. And, the desire to run slowly returns. So, while no longer apologetic, I am mindful: the classic battle to avoid too much too soon. Additionally, I have seen many of my friends suffer from a "100-mile hangover". Some minor. Some severe. Me? Weeks out: none. I'm more excited than ever to tackle more challenges and run more ultras.

Finally, the question: Would I do it again? While I was having my existential crisis and apologizing to the knee that I couldn't bend, absolutely not. That faded. I've now attended the Vermont 100 for 6 consecutive years. This year was obviously different. And, I can't wait to run again in 2018. I hope I can bring the same belief. The same stubbornness. The same support. The same joy. See you in Silver Hill.


unstrung said...

Just finished my second read-through. So effing proud of you. Grit is an understatement. No one passing you in the last 25 miles - awesome quantifier and awesome achievement, especially considering where you'd come from. Favorite part for me is you NOT holding hands with your pacer. 😂

Unknown said...

This is one of the best reads I've ever read!

Travis said...

Amazing story. Congratulations on the aventure and the the finish.