Running the fine line between torture and bliss. I bet you didn’t think there was a fine line between the two, but when you oscillate between them repeatedly over a 23 hour period you begin to realize how close they are. You can be running along feeling great and the next minute your knees are buckling and you’re gagging on a S!Cap, your eyes begin to water and you start to concoct scenarios that will allow you to end this misery and get you into a comfy bed ASAP. Or you may be seconds away from ripping off your race number and turning it in to the next volunteer you see, but the sight of your family and crew, who have sacrificed an entire weekend to support you in pursuit of your goal, cheering for you and anxious to do anything you ask them to except let you quit reminds you that you can do this and you will ROCK!
Friday July 18th Emma and I met my parents, who would be crewing for me, loaded up all our gear in one car and headed out together for Silver Hill Meadow in Vermont for the 20th annual Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run. After a 3.5 hour drive and a stop for lunch we arrived at the camping field, set up our tents and went to check in. I registered, weighed in at 167 pounds and then went back to the Trail Monster camp to relax with the rest of the runners and crew members.
After a delicious meal we attempted to get to bed early but with the anticipation of tomorrow’s ambitious undertaking and the snoring of nearby campers sleep was a long time coming. At 2:45 am my alarm went off and I moved quickly to get dressed, heat up some coffee and eat breakfast. At 3:45 we made the short walk to the start line and huddled together as a light rain fell. My family and I exchanged hugs and kisses as if they might not see me for a few weeks and I found a place in the crowd at the start line.
Start to Pretty House 21.1 miles – 3:47
Like in most races the pre-race nerves melted away as soon as we started running. It took a few miles for the crowd of nearly 300 runners to thin out and I got to see a lot of people I know while we all tried to settle into an appropriate pace. There had been some discussion before the start about trying to get in as many miles as possible before the heat of the day, but I tried to be sensible about running a smart pace that wouldn’t burn me out. Based on my geekish pace chart, that I decided not to carry with me but instead leave with my crew, I knew that I wanted to be doing about an 11 minute pace for the first 20 miles. But between the crowd, the dark, and the excitement of what I was undertaking I had no idea what kind of pace I was running.
The course started out on a narrow dirt road, the type that would make up 70% of this race, then turned onto a rugged jeep road for about a mile and then back to the familiar hard packed dirt. Pretty easy running really, even in the pre-dawn darkness, but I knew that big hills were lurking out there somewhere.
I eventually settled into a comfortable rhythm with Rich Collins who later went on to finish third in the 100 km race. At the Dunham Hill aid station (11.5 miles) we caught up to Ron Farkash who should have been a bit further ahead of me but had been held back by something intestinal. Much to my surprise we spotted Jamie, Stephen and Chuck not too far ahead and Ron urged me to join him as he made up for a little lost time by catching up to our friends ahead. I decided it was far too early in the day to get sucked into that game so I hung back at my own pace while Ron took off and joined the merriment ahead.
At the Taftsville covered bridge (15 miles) there was a big group of GAC spectators (also crew and pacers for their own club members) who gave me a big cheer as I ran past. These folks are ultra veterans who know how much it means to see a friendly face and receive some support in a long race and they were great throughout the day. Just after the Taftsville Bridge aid station (15.3 miles) I did catch up to Jamie, Stephen and Chuck and we ran together for almost 5 miles until we reached the first handler aid station, Pretty House (21.1 miles). I was psyched to see Emma and my parents and they seemed to be even more excited to see me as they jumped into action to help me out and get me on my way. I decided to change my shoes and socks here, partly because I wanted to let those faster guys get away from me so I didn’t make the mistake of continuing at a pace I couldn’t maintain. My crew informed me that I was on pace for a 21:30 finish and I knew that was faster than I was capable of in the hot humid conditions we were expecting today. Feeling refreshed I headed out alone just as the day was starting to warm up.
Pretty House to Stage Road 30.1 miles – 1:45 9 miles
I have to say that I don’t have many significant memories of this part of the race, apologies to anyone I may have run with through here. I do remember cresting a hill after the U-Turn aid station (25.1 miles), coming out of the woods and passing two runners when I looked up to see the most incredible view of the Vermont hills before me. I actually stopped, turned around and made sure that the guys behind me took the time to appreciate the view. And then I booked it down the hill to keep in front.
What I remember most is that about ¼ mile from the next handler aid station Jason Patch from GAC met me on the road with walkie talkie in hand and relayed my needs to my crew so they would have exactly what I needed ready and waiting for me when I arrived. Brilliant!
Although it wasn’t even 10am the heat and humidity were starting to get to me and my clothes were completely soaked with sweat. Thanks to GAC my crew had a change of clothes ready for me, they switched out my hydration pack, applied some sunscreen, and with a few homemade molasses sugar cookies in hand I took off feeling great.
Stage Road to Camp 10 Bear 47.2 miles – 3:38 17.1 miles
Unfortunately that good feeling only lasted 94 seconds, then I hit this wall of a hill that just wouldn’t quit. With the sun beating down on my back and the heat and humidity radiating off the damp grassy hillside I was getting double roasted. My stomach started to sour and I ended up tossing the last half of my mother’s cookie into the woods for fear that if I kept eating I might really toss my cookies. I could see Chuck up ahead of me on the hill and I thought we might be able to help each other get through this tough section but this was not the place to try to catch up to someone.
Being the longest stretch of the race between handler access aid stations I knew this was going to be mentally tough, but I wasn’t prepared for just how tough it turned out to be. I didn’t eat anything for the rest of this 17 mile stretch and I had the hardest time just choking down my gels and electrolyte tablets every hour. On several occasions I had to work really hard to keep myself from vomiting. I needed every bit of nutrition I could get and I wasn’t about to give up anything that I had worked so hard to get down. I ran at various times with Chuck and a couple other guys but every time we hit an aid station or a major hill the sequence got all mixed up. Everyone was feeling down and none of us were any good at helping the others out of it.
Many times I questioned why I was doing this, I wasn’t enjoying it and I was convinced it was only going to get worse. With 64 more miles to go how could the situation possibly improve? The only thing that kept me going was the desire not to let my family down, they were devoting a 3-day weekend to helping me do this and I couldn’t quit so early, what would we do for the rest of the weekend? How could I face Emma and my parents in the aftermath of such a massive wuss-out? Then I started to think about ways that I could get pulled from the race so I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of making the decision for myself. The next handler aid station was also a medical check point, so maybe if I look really bad they’ll pull from the race and end this misery for me!
But this part wasn’t all bad, there were ups and downs. The scenery was beautiful, and even though my mother told me during the week before the race that there are easier ways to enjoy the Vermont countryside than in the context of running 100 miles, the views from the tops of the hills definitely seem a little sweeter when you’ve gotten there under your own power. I also met a few nice folks along the way that helped to provide a distraction from the brutal conditions, like Andy from Florida who could deal with the heat but wasn’t lucky enough to have many hills to train on. There is definitely something about sharing this kind of experience with other people that creates a bond that people who don’t go through it can’t quite understand, or maybe I just can’t explain it.
Eventually I hit the Jenny Farm aid station (45.6 miles) and I knew I was getting close to Camp 10 Bear where I would finally see my crew again and they would make everything right. 1.6 miles of downhill running and I really started to cruise along despite the mid-day heat. As I made the final descent to the aid station Emma was there to run me in. I think I can do this after all.
When I stepped on the scale at Camp 10 Bear my heart dropped as the medical staff asked me to read my weight. 160. I had lost 7 pounds in the 9 hours I had been running. This was bad. Is this what I get for wishing I could get pulled from the race? I didn’t mean it! I’m feeling better! They told me to sit down and drink until I put on a few pounds. I drank as much as I could and tried to eat but solid food made me feel like I was going to be sick. Vomiting at a medical check point is a sure way to removed from the race and I really didn’t want that to happen so I stuck to liquids. After about 25 minutes I weighed in again, 162 and I looked a lot better so the medical staff let me continue. I felt good leaving the aid station but once again it didn’t last very long.
Camp 10 Bear to Tracer Brook 57 miles – 2:35 9.8 miles
I was entering the hottest part of the day and humidity seemed to be on the rise. How the hell am I supposed to maintain my weight in these conditions? I just don’t think my body can keep up with the demands of this course and this weather. What kept me going was the thought of jumping in the brook at the next handler aid station. If I can cool off then maybe I’ll be okay, only a few more hours until the sun starts to get lower I the sky and the temperature will drop.
A few miles into this section dark clouds started rolling in and a breeze picked up, I could hear thunder in the distance. Soon the storm hit, quite violently, but it had the effect of lifting my spirits. The cooling rain seemed to wash away all the doubt and negativity and I ran with my face up to the sky to feel the rain. I actually started singing out loud and if I thought it would have moved me along any quicker I would have started skipping. This truly felt like the highlight of my day so far. Just as the rain started to let up a bit I saw Emma up ahead on the dirt road. I waved my arms in the air and I’m sure she could see me smiling from 100 yards away.
No need to jump in the brook now. My parents switched out the bladder in my hydration pack, liberally applied some muscle rub to my quads, I downed some Mountain Dew and grabbed a little to eat at the aid station. Now that I was beyond the halfway point of the race – even though I still had 43 miles to go – I finally truly believed that I would be able to get through it. My crew had seen me through a rough spot, and had stood out in a thunderstorm waiting for my next arrival. They weren’t going to give up on me and I certainly wasn’t going to entertain any more thoughts about anything but finishing this race and making them proud.
Tracer Brook to Margaritaville 62.1 miles – 1:12 5.1 miles
I think I actually started to have fun. I gave up on worrying about what my finishing time might be, I didn’t want to get down about not breaking 24 hours and I decided that I would be happy no matter where I finished.
This stretch contained some excellent hills, like a 3 mile long up. I really didn’t mind the uphill sections too much, although they did send my stomach turning I was able to power walk at a fast pace and catch and pass people going up. Even though the heat and humidity returned after the storm passed I felt so much better and was drinking enough to keep myself feeling strong. It helped that in this bladder I was drinking Succeed Clip2 instead of the Hammer drinks I had been consuming for the first 57 miles and the change in flavor made a big difference.
Margaritaville was an exciting aid station to come into, not because of the Jimmy Buffet theme but because I almost beat my crew there, I was actually ahead of schedule. My dad ran with me for the 100 yards coming into the aid station, Emma and my mom rushed to get some dry shoes and socks on me. Since I only had 2 pair of socks for the race my loyal crew had been drying them on the car heater so they would be ready to go when I needed them, making the car smell like a locker room. My mom had the idea of buying me some yogurt which I scoffed right up, it was the most substantial thing I had been able to eat in hours and I was grateful for her quick thinking. I knew it was a good idea to have a dietetic technician on my crew.
I decided to leave my wet clothes on since I figured the extra weight would help me out when I returned to Camp 10 Bear in 8 miles for another weigh in. Emma told me to keep on top of my fluid intake and reminded me that the next time I saw her she’d be running with me. This was a huge boost, knowing that I’d be picking up my pacer soon meant that I was knocking down the miles and would be getting some devoted company for the rest of the race.
Margaritaville to Camp 10 Bear 70.1 miles – 1:48 8 miles
I ran a good part of this section with a nice guy from Tennessee who was also an Inov-8 fan but like me chose not to wear them for this race, too much hard packed dirt road. The 3 pairs of Brooks Cascadia I was switching out throughout the day seemed to be perfect for these conditions. If I remember correctly there weren’t too many serious climbs in this section, what I do remember is that downhill running started to become painful. Surprisingly my quads were holding up well, partly thanks to good downhill training but also because of the liberal application of muscle rub at each handler aid station. The pain was in my right ankle, it started out like a mild discomfort as if from the tongue of my shoe, but with every downhill section the extension of my right foot caused slightly more pain. Luckily I didn’t dwell on it too much and instead just focused on my drinking to be sure that I could turn in a good weight at Camp 10 Bear.
One advantage of the return to Camp 10 Bear at 70.1 miles is that the last half mile is the same as the first half mile on the way out to Tracer Brook, so I knew when I got to that stretch to really start drinking as much as I could possibly stomach for the weigh in. When I got to the medical check-in area and hopped on the scale I came in at 165. I had put on 3 pounds in the last 23 miles, nice one. The medical staff said I looked a lot better than I did more than 5 hours ago, which is true and I felt a lot better. This had a lot to do with my change in attitude, knowing that I would be running the next (last) 30 miles with Emma really got me excited about the rest of the race. Not getting it over with, just having her there to share the experience. Emma inspired me to start running after we got married 9.5 years ago, she paced me for my first 10k, my first half marathon, and now she was going to help me get through my first 100 miler!
Camp 10 Bear to West Winds 77 miles – 1:58 6.9 miles
It was hard to fight the urge to sprint away with Emma, but soon enough we came to a spectacular hill that removed any hopes of running and proved to be very humbling. Overall the hill pretty much went up for 4 miles and featured some incredibly steep sections on rugged muddy trails. Emma and I had a lot of catching up to do on all that we had each seen while I had been running for the past 15 hours and this provided a pleasant distraction from the hard work at hand.
As we neared the top of this immense climb there was a photographer at the side of the road, he must have sensed the joy we were sharing as he asked if this was our honeymoon. We replied “Yes!” and started running.
The sun was beginning to set and as we approached West Winds aid station volunteers were setting out candles in small paper bags, like little lanterns to illuminate the trail. The aid station itself was decked out in white lights and served as a twinkling beacon at the top of a hill. I was surprised when I arrived to find my parents there waiting for me. We had planned for Camp 10 Bear to be the last handler aid station for them so they could get some sleep before meeting me at the finish line, but they were so engaged in the event that they couldn’t leave it now. I was touched by their commitment and this gave me an even bigger mental boost, just what I needed before heading off into the dark.
Less than a marathon left to go, bring it on!
West Winds to Bill’s 88.6 miles – 2:49 11.6 miles
This section of the course was familiar to me because this is the section (Camp 10 Bear to Bill’s) that I ran last year pacing James. I was amazed at how much of the course I actually remembered. Like the mudfest after West Winds which was even muddier and more festering because of the recent rain and all the horse traffic. Did I mention the horses that participate in 50, 75 and 100 mile races at the same time as us on the same trails? Pretty cool, and after 12 hours you no longer care about trying to dodge the horse shit in the trail, it’s just part of the course.
The only problem with running at night is that I found it hard to judge time, distance and pace. I had plenty of light and had done enough night running over the years and recently in training that I felt comfortable doing it even in technical sections with tired legs. The next two aid stations came along pretty quickly, but there was a five mile stretch just before reaching the next handler station at 88.6 miles which seemed to take forever. You can be sure there were some top notch hills in that stretch. Unfortunately the pain in my ankle had intensified to the point that it inhibited my downhill running and I think I may have been faster walking up than running down. I thought we were getting close to Bill’s when we saw Jamie’s crew drive past us (we later found out they were lost) but it still took a long time and a lot of climbing to reach it.
When we saw the big barn that was Bill’s aid station Emma sprinted ahead to get me some soup and as I approached I passed my dad who was on his way there. I shouted a sarcastic “outta my way!” and ran into the barn and onto the scale for the final weigh-in of the race. Still at 165. I don’t know if it was the excitement of being so close to the finish or all the Mountain Dew and Espresso GU I had consumed but I was hyper and talking up a storm. I was getting stares from the medical staff and many weary runners standing around. Emma moved me through this station with military precision barking orders to my parents and volunteers to make sure I got everything I needed and that not a second was wasted. This was just what I needed because I could have easily spent an hour there socializing before I remembered that I was in a race.
Bill’s to Polly’s 95.5 miles – 1:48 6.9 miles
Coming out of Bill’s we moved along at what felt like a fast pace. The excitement and caffeine temporarily numbed the pain in my ankle and we enjoyed a good stretch of running. Before we knew it, actually we didn’t know for sure but just assumed after a while, we only had single digit miles remaining and this was an incredible feeling. After over 20 hours of running, with a lot of walking thrown in, the finish felt so close. Unfortunately the race course doesn’t get any easier and the big hills keep coming one after another and there is only so much you can do with legs that are this tired. By now I was cruising on a mental high but there just wasn’t enough strength left in me to move along at pace that matched my mental state.
At Keating’s aid station (92 miles) the caffeine buzz finally wore off and the pain in my ankle returned with a vengeance. I was still able to move relatively strongly on the ups but the downhill sections were almost unbearable. Every downhill seemed to be on a rocky trail that sent my feet in all different directions, each step sparking a shooting pain from my ankle up into my calf. I wanted to run so badly, I wanted to make Emma proud but I feared that if I pushed too hard I might do serious damage and the thought of crawling out on my hands and knees for the last 7 miles was certainly not appealing.
By the time we reached Polly’s aid station at 95.5 miles, the last manned aid station, I decided to walk the rest of the race just to be sure that I would finish it. I had come too far to risk blowing it in the last few miles. At that time I didn’t care if I never walked again after this race but I just had to get myself across the finish line.
Although I had been occasionally looking at my watch as we ran the time wasn’t really registering with me and I hadn’t bothered to speculate about my finish time. When we came into Polly’s I got some more soup and a few cookies, 4.5 miles doesn’t sound like a long way to go but now that my stomach was finally feeling better I wanted to be sure to keep plenty of fuel in my tank. One of the volunteers informed me that I was well on my way to breaking 24 hours and earning the coveted belt buckle. Emma and I exchanged a look of pure delight and I said “Lets go get that buckle!”
Polly’s to Finish 100 miles – 1:19 4.5 miles
We left Polly’s walking like we really meant it. I wanted to run but knew it wouldn’t be a good idea, there was no need to push the pace at this point, the buckle was in the bag and I knew it. I limped on the downhills but still maintained a strong power walk on the ups. Emma knew these last few miles from pacing James last year and talked me through each of the hills like they were in her own back yard.
The last aid station came at 97.7 miles and we completely ignored it. There was nothing a little more warm Coke could do for me now. The course kept throwing challenges at us and never got any easier, and I respect it for that, but nothing was going to bring me down now. It was hard for Emma and I to talk through the big beaming smiles we both had. I began to reflect on how badly I had felt earlier in the day, 14 hours earlier when I didn’t think I could keep going. For nearly 8 hours I had been running with Emma and I had maintained a positive attitude throughout that time. I owed so much of this to Emma, without her I never could have picked myself up from the low spots.
With a mile to go I told Emma that I wanted to cross the finish line holding her hand. No, she said, this is your race. We argued for a minute and finally I said “I’m the runner, I make the rules, you’re my pacer and you will cross the line with me!” She agreed and talked me through the details of the trail ahead as we walked. With less than a half mile to go Emma turned to me and said “I don’t know if you want to know this, but there is a runner coming up on us.”
“Let’s run!” I said. I shut out the pain and took off running down the hill with Emma by my side. A moment later we saw the glowing milk jugs that line the trail leading to the finish. I found speed in my legs that certainly didn’t belong there this late in the race, my body was converting mental energy to fuel for my muscles. I gripped Emma’s hand and we crossed the finish line together, 22 hours 54 minutes and 4 seconds after I started. We embraced and kissed under the finish banner, and then went directly to the medical tent.