May 192012

Peaks 50 Mile Race Report:                                         

By David Bidler (aka ‘Gator)

Writing this report on the Peaks 50 Mile Ultra-Marathon has been almost as challenging as running it. The experience that I shared with my teammates in the mountains of VT was nothing short of epic and the task of capturing it in a way that does it justice seems as tall as the trails along the Blood Root Loop and as hard as the final miles. All that I can do is approach it the same way that I approached the race itself: I’m going to break it down piece by piece and give it hell.

Disclaimer: Reading this report in its entirety is a feat of endurance unto itself and I would make the following recommendations to avoid a race report DNF. Build your reading base to the point in which you are digesting whole novels in single sittings.  Read War and Peace in its entirety two weeks before you plan to attempt this. Taper the week before by avoiding all printed word……now READ!

Training: I registered for Peaks following two back-to-back training cycles, the first for the Mount Desert Island Marathon in October and the second for the GAC 50k in early January.  Following GAC I forced myself to scale back the miles significantly for the month of January and head into a three month training period where I would make the following changes to my training plan: The first was to eliminate junk miles. Up until this point I was running 6 days a week with a mix of recovery runs sprinkled into a mix of race specific speed work, hill workouts, and long runs. The plan for Peaks was to focus on quality over quantity, avoid burnout and overtraining, and arrive at the starting line feeling strong, rested, and ready to run 50 miles up a mountain. The second change was to begin incorporating Crossfit, a core strength and conditioning with an emphasis on functional movements, constant variance, and short duration, high intensity workouts. Crossfit works to build increased general physical preparedness and because the description of the Peaks course couldn’t be more general “scenic but very demanding” “rugged trail” I wanted to be damn sure that I was physically prepared.

From February to May I performed innumerable burpees, jumped on boxes, climbed ropes, and lifted heavy things. On alternate days I ran the most rugged trails that I could find (when my knee allowed) and focused on time on my feet on the flatlands when it didn’t. On weekends I ran long amassing a handful of 20-25 mile runs, one 32 mile run (my longest to date and the result of me going off course at the 1 More Mile for Sunshine Challenge, and an average weekly mileage of between 40-50 miles. This worked out well for me and the only concern that weighed on my mind the week before the race was how good I felt-wasn’t used to this directly prior to race day and was anxious to see if the reduced running volume and heightened emphasis on cross training would help me or hurt me on race day. That and my left knee which I’d twisted on one of my early long runs and had caused some serious worry right up until race start. The training plan would either work out or it wouldn’t. The knee would hold up or it would give out. And, the answers to these questions were waiting for me in the mountains of Pittsfield. VT. On the evening of Friday, May 11th I headed south to find them…

Packed for Peaks…

“It never always gets worse”-Ultra-running legend David Horton

“I could be dying, and the next minute…I’m flying”-Badwater 135 competitor Nick Palazzo


These two quotes have pulled me through some rough “trail moments” over the years. When the body is racked with pain and the mind is skillfully reducing your goals by the mile quitting the race can seem perfectly justified. But at some unidentified point-it could be a minute or it could be a mile-things will almost always turn around.  The legs will get a little lighter, the slow walk will evolve into a painful hobble, then grow into a something that resembles running. And not knowing when exactly this moments will come we grit our teeth, hang tough, and relentlessly press forward until it does. This race redefined tough moments for me, both those that I experienced and those that I witnessed others overcome with indomitable will and an unbreakable spirit.

Pre-Race: My friend Jordan had offered to provide crew support and potentially pace me for the last ten miles of the race. As we packed the car on Friday evening and began the drive to Vermont I reflected on the sacrifice’s that friends and family have made to support me in this effort and the endless encouragement from all of my Trail Monster Running teammates in the days, weeks, and months before and a sense of gratitude overshadowed the pre-race anxiety that I’d expected to hit at any moment. We pulled into Pittsfield at close to 10p and settled into a little motel much like I’d envisioned my “pre-ultra” accommodations to look like. Frill-less to the max, the unmistakable “hotel smell “hanging heavy in the dampened hallways, and a small and dingy lobby where I convinced the manager to lend me his toaster for my pre-race bagel. We settled into our room, went over logistics for the last time, and turned off the lights at around 11 for a solid 5 hours of pre-race slumber.  I awoke minutes before the alarm was set to go off and began the pre-race ritual. Toasted bagel with almond butter and bananas and the darkest of dark roasts in the French press, showered, dressed, and out the door. By 4:45 we were en route to Amee Farm and the starting line that I’d envisioned countless times  along the rocky, root strewn, road to race day.

We arrived at the farm just as Andy and crew were setting up the registration tables. The morning was chilly, a fog hung heavy in the air, and the week of rain rose pungently from the dark and muddy ground. I scanned the crowd for my Trail Monster Running teammates and found Zak who had just arrived as well. He looked strong and ready to rumble as did Chuck, Ian, Val, Mindy, and Jeremy who soon showed up on the scene. I was proud to line up with these bad-asses  all decked out in our team colors and prepared to take on the meanest mountains that Vermont had to offer.

The Team


The pre-race directions were a blur. I packed away all the essential information regarding course marking and aid stations while mentally focusing on that moment when it all begins….when the pack begins to move… when the experience that you’ve visualized, poured over, trained for, and found yourself consumed by for so long  begins to come alive right before your eyes.

The First Loop:

5,….and it begins. The race started with a series of mild climbs that most people were power hiking. I understand the logic of super-conservative starts during ultra’s but the distance that you can put between yourself and the field in these early stages is extremely difficult for anyone to close later on. Building as large a gap between the majority of competitors as I could while my legs were fresh seemed like the best way to go.

The first section of the race was an overwhelmingly gorgeous loop covering the golden fields and secret backwoods trails of the Green Mountain.  I had been nursing, rehabbing, and generally stressing out over the knee-injury that I’d sustained early in my training and these early miles would serve as my first indication of how it would hold up  to the distance of the day. (I had already resolved to finish this race regardless and was prepared to walk the 50 miles if that was what it took ….but I came to run and wanted as hoped to hell that this wouldn’t be the case.)

The second steepest climb of the race was located at mile 7, and it didn’t disappoint. This was going to be the real deal, and in truth I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I had mentally prepared for a course that was beyond tough and was prepared to get what I came for.

Following the back country beauty of the past several miles I found myself running alone along a winding road past quaint little farmhouses and modest homes that seemed perfectly at place in the hills of a small New England town.  I had resolved to leave the GPS off for this race because a) the battery can’t go the distance that I can (I always tell people that you’re officially bad-ass when you’re outrunning fully charged batteries-mostly as a joke but …hey, it’s true) and b) I didn’t want to focus on time, splits, and pace and instead wanted to approach this as a day out in the mountains using the aid stations to mark my progress along the way. So, when I realized that I was approaching mile 12 instead of mile 9 like I had thought it was a nice surprise. There would be many surprises to come over the next 13 and a half hours and very few of them could be called nice-so I appreciated this one to the fullest.

Seeing Jordan and the crew at the ABBA aid station was reassuring as I knew that this small red tent with dozens of drop bags piled nearby and tunes blaring out of the open windows of a parked car would take on a vastly different shape throughout the day. And we all would.  As each of us engages in our pre-race routine there comes a moment when we glance into the mirror and realize that the course of the day would drastically alter the image that it holds. The freshly washed race-gear would be caked in mud, snot, and most likely blood. The confident yet anxious eyes would be hardened into a stare of determination. And the unforeseen and unforeseeable carnage that would be inflicted on our bodies would stand clear in the light of the following day…. it was good to see the aid station in place at mile 12 because this shit would matter at mile 37!


The next section of the course was a 6 mile out and back that would find us back at the aid station before beginning the 20 mile Blood Root loop. It was on this section that I got my second, and next to last, “nice” surprise of the day. I was power hiking a steep section of trail when I noticed a woman in a bright green tank top, rainbow gators, and a big pair of HOKA’s doing the same in my ever present race rearview (I wasn’t racing this one competitively-just don’t pass me!). We were clearly taking the same approach on this section, walking even the milder climbs and running the flatlands easy and enjoyably for what may be the last time before the killer hills of Blood Root took our legs out and removed the word “easy “from the day’s vocabulary.

Having spent the past few hours running solo I slowed down a bit to see if this was someone I’d be down to run with or someone that I’d need to run away from (you meet some interesting  people at these things and there’s nothing worse than an evenly matched but all-out crazy “ultra-friend” that you can’t seem to shake). Turns out that Larisa, a highly skilled runner who was preparing for her third VT 100, offered some excellent trail company over the next 4 miles of the race. We had a lot in common including our love for bushwhacking and a shared interest in Ancestral health and Paleolithic nutrition, (we had the most passionate discourse about sweet potatoes …ever. The miles flew by (literally, she’s really fast) and we ended up back at the aid station packing our bags for the descent to Blood Root Loop. I was in and out of the station before her, eager to see for myself what this notoriously brutal trail was all about.

Armed with melon and ready to take on the Blood Root Loop!

Armed with melon and ready to take on the Blood Root Loop!

Blood Root: The start of Blood Root was similar to being thrown into a Lions Den-not a bad looking place if it weren’t for the lion that would assuredly pop out at some point and tear you to shreds. I couldn’t remember at what point the climb was supposed to begin and as I tried to extract this information from the pre-race instructions that I’d received this morning I heard a rustling on the trail behind me. It was the Hoka’s and their very fast owner Larissa cruising down the trail. As much as I enjoyed Larisa’s company I had looked at the Blood Root experience as one that would test my deepest limits as a runner and I prefer to suffer alone. Besides, she was running at such a strong pace that I couldn’t have held onto her for long before falling back with the energy that I’d conserved for the final miles long since spent. (She ended up crushing the course in 11 hours for a 2nd place women’s finish). I dropped back and she was soon out of sight.

Shortly before reaching the start of the climb I felt an unfamiliar twinge in the side of my knee-suddenly it bit down on a nerve and into the inner meat of my left leg in a full blown cramp. I stretched my leg until it passed and mentally readied myself for what would assuredly be the toughest hill that I’ve ever faced off against. It was not as sharp a climb as I’d envisioned but it seemed to stretch on endlessly and with each passing minute a new group of muscles gave out and began to shake in spasms of intense pain. I had never experienced cramps this severe and about halfway up the climb I found myself unable to bend my legs, first one then the other, and had no choice but to stop, wait for the cramping to stop, and begin to push myself to the top of the hill. When I saw the trail leveling off I half expected this to be a plateau and to find myself at the base of yet another hill. But it wasn’t. I had arrived at the highest point of the course and the approximate halfway point  and was able to smile through the pain as I sat down to stretch the best that I could and begin the second phase of the increasingly difficult journey.

The trail leading back to the base of Blood Root is as steep a decline as you can imagine. I would have loved to bomb down this but the spasms in my legs slowed me to an awkward hobble. I remembered Larisa describing the second half of this loop as a beautiful stretch of mountain bike trails and, yet, I remembered Andy describing them as “a war zone”. I knew that I was in for either one extreme or the other, but most likely or a combination of the two.

Super cramps, thirsty dog, and the Nuun tab that saved my life:  You head into these things knowing that there’s going to be a low point. One that stands out above all other challenging moments and calls on you to dig deeper than deep and pull out all of the tools in the mental shed to turn it around and continue the relentless push towards the finish. Mine came at mile 28 when shortly after regaining my stride and reducing what I had assumed to be electrolyte induced cramping with a couple of Nuun tablets that I’d added to my water. I’d never used Nuun before opting to go the natural route with coconut water. I inquired about them at the Maine Running Company and Seth, who I’ve gotten to know a bit through my many trips into the store, offered me his nearly full pack of coconut flavored tablets to try out for the race. I really appreciated this gesture and now, at the mid-way point of my first 50 miler they were literally saving my race. I thought about this as I began to get my legs back and sink into the comparatively comfortable groove of the flat and lush green section of trails that I found myself suddenly blessed by. Then it happened….all this thinking of Nuun and electrolytes, and water got me thirsty and when I went to take a pull from the hose of my Camelback I got nothing but air in return. I tried again-nothing. The pack was bone dry. I had traded in my heavy old MULE pack with the 100 oz bladder for a 70 oz alternative and thought that I had more than enough fluid to last me until mile 31 where Jordan would be waiting with lunch and a coconut water. It turns out that I was pretty far off the mark. I began to get nervous considering the likelihood of the cramping returning and the affect that this would have on my pace and ability to get to Jordan before the increasingly present sunshine and whatever elements of a “war zone” the rest of the loop presented got to me.

Deep in thought and considering my almost empty pack I tripped on a root and slammed into the ground face first. I landed in such a way that my left calf muscle was pulled into hyperextension and the intense pain of a Super Cramp gripped my whole body and left me yelling out while grabbing the throbbing muscle and pounding on it to stop. Each yell that escaped my mouth was louder than the last-partly because the pain continued to grow to an unbearable crescendo and partly because in the back of my mind I secretly hoped that Jordan was somehow near enough to hear me and would come running in with my brown bag full of food and cold, sweet, coconut water. No dice.

It was at this moment that I realized, for the first time in any race or run that I was in real danger. The sun was beating down on me, I was nearing dehydration, and the cramping was slowing me down to the point that I couldn’t calculate how long I would have to run in this condition. On top of that I didn’t know exactly how far I was from the aid station or what challenges lie along the trails ahead. Something resembling survival instinct kicked in and I locked my eyes on the trail, cleared the fear and doubt from my mind, and replaced it with this: focus. In a moment of desperation and a fear of a severe electrolyte imbalance resulting in even worse cramps I took out another Nuun tablet, and reluctantly popped it into my very dry mouth. I began to gum the thing until it finally dissolved like a hot fizzling pile of coconut flavored pop-rocks against my swollen tongue. Low point for sure…

It was in this state that I covered the next 30-45 minutes of trail before emerging on a road. A man was standing about 100 yards away and as I approached him his dog began to snarl and bark at me…I was in no mood for this craziness and shot him a look that told him so. But, when he mentioned that I was less than half a mile away from the aid station I couldn’t help but smile with relief. I could taste the cold coconut water and the thick black bean and corn soup that was waiting in my bag. I could see Jordan’s reassuring smile peering out beneath his bushy beard. I could see a turning point in this race when I needed it most and I ran as hard as I could until the big orange water coolers of the mile 31 aid station came into view. I must have looked awfully scary and halfway deranged as I tore open the brown paper bag and collapsed on the grass taking deep gulps of coconut water between bites of a classic pb&j ultra sandwich from the aid station. Over the next five minutes  I ate a can of soup, two sandwiches, a plate of Lays potato chips (my first in over three years) and washed it down with a can of Coke (my first soda since mile 30 of the Watchung Winter Ultra back in 2010.) Then slowly it happened-I…came…back…to…life!

Two people had passed me during my ten minute “lunch-break” and as I thanked Jordan and the volunteers for being there and packed an “emergency apple” in my pack I wondered if I could catch them.  I ran out onto the road feeling surprisingly strong and saw one of them a quarter mile up the road. He was walking and would likely have preferred to keep it that way until he spotted me in his rearview and began shuffling his legs back back and forth in an awkward but undeniably admirable attempt at running and disappeared behind a turn in the road. He was soon out of sight and I had to put him out of mind if I wanted to reach mile 37 feeling strong and ready to rock the last 13 miles. Despite a tougher than tough climb that took me by surprise and induced the super-cramping in full force the next 6 miles went by smoothly. The trails were gorgeous, the finish line was on my mental radar, and I looked forward to the next and final stage of this journey and the solace of reaching the last loop and knowing that I would complete my first 50 mile on either side of sunset in just a few hours. I didn’t remember the descent into the Blood Root Loop being so steep-the climb up and out to the ABBA station was a tough one but the colorful signs and banners posted along the trees by the volunteer crew kept my spirits high as I climbed my way to the final stop before the finish line.


The Final Miles:  Mile 37 included a quick shoe change, and another PB&J washed down with Sprite while Jordan helped me restock my pack. I cruised down the three mile stretch of road feeling strong and eager to see what this 10 mile loop that the longer races were held on was all about. I pulled into Amee Farm and with the encouragement of Andy and Jeremy’s amazing partner Allison I prepared to seal the deal with a ten mile trek to the finish. Jordan and I headed out fast but I explained that I would be taking the 3 mile climb ahead slow and steady and then running hard when I could, power hiking when it proved faster than running, and maintaining forward movement at all costs no matter how slowly that movement took place. The climb to the final aid station at mile 3 was steeper than I anticipated and the huge amount of respect that I had for the efforts of the longer distance racers only continued to grow with each hands on knee push off towards the little hut in the sky. When we reached the station we met a man camped out in a chair and looking to be in rough shape. He explained that he was dropping out of the 100 “if he could just get himself off of this mountain”. I offered up some of my Gu’s which he eagerly accepted and wished him well as I took off down the trail.

Aid station at mile 43

The next few miles passed slowly but with a surprising ease as the sun shone between the thick pines and lit the trails in a late afternoon glow before beginning its slow descent. For some reason I thought that we would have to pass the aid station again and climb down the steep trail that we’d powered up about two hours earlier. But suddenly Rick and Pete appeared in the distance just in time to watch me plow down face first on the trail. They were headed in to find Val and Mindy and I realized that I didn’t have 4 miles to go-I had about 1 and a half.  This news was like a shot of pure adrenaline and I began to run at a pace that I never expected to hit again during this race. I bounded over a field of rocks that lined the riverbank and through a log ridden, bushwhacking, and butt-sliding section of trail that brought the rickety homemade bridge leading back to the farm into sight.

Across the bridge, up the hill, into the fields as the the light of dusk illuminated the pink arrows painted on the ground and the image of the finish line burned in my mind. A quarter mile away from the farm I spotted a runner dressed in black and moving slowly along the trail. I recognized his stride…I had seen it as he pulled into the mile 31 aid station while I sat eating and once again as he disappeared around the corner on that stretch of road so many hours ago. I almost hated to do it but I didn’t have much choice. After all this was a race and I knew that I had it in my legs to pass him…I ran with every ounce of strength that I had and blew past the man in black as I approached the final climb out of the trails and across the finish line.

Finish line at dusk...


Post-race props, a moonlight hike, and the morning after: I waited at the line to congratulate the runner that I’d passed, embraced Jordan with the sweatiest, smelliest, and most appreciative bear hug that I could squeeze out, and scanned the field for my team who I couldn’t wait to see. Within minutes we were all sitting around a camp stove with packed plates of food and trading war stories…and as I saw the shared respect and mutual admiration that was evident in each of our eyes I was nothing short of overwhelmed by the power of this moment. As we set a strong pot of dark coffee on the stove and the sun sunk down over the mountain’s all thoughts turned towards Val and Mindy and Jeremy.

All throughout the day I thought of my teammates out on the course. It would be ridiculous to think that they were “having fun” out there but I truly hoped that each of them was getting the experience that they came for. Though many similarities exist there is something deeply personal that drives every individual to the starting line of an ultra-marathon. Soon four sets of headlamps appeared in the distance and we all rose to greet what we hoped would be the last members of the 50 mile team. The first to come into clear view was Rick and my heart jumped when I saw the bad-ass two some of Scout (Val) and Squirrel (Mindy) come up the hill and cross the line. Hugs, congrats, and big plates of food abound as we celebrated the days success. Just then Jeremy came running across the line after completing his 5th lap…my focus shifted immediately from post-race celebration to mid race support for a member of our team whose efforts in VT have inspired me beyond words and impressed me beyond measure.

I spoke with Andy about camping near the aid station to be close to Jeremy throughout the night and he provided directions for us to park and hike into the trails from a nearby access road. He also mentioned another small cabin near the trailhead that we could use if need be. We packed the car, said our goodbye’s to everyone who would be staying near the farm and supporting Jeremy throughout the night, and headed for the hills. Jordan parked his car next to the trailhead and planned to get a few hours of sleep in the backseat before our 4 am departure.

I packed the stove, some coffee for the morning, and a few essentials and strapped on my headlamp en route to the aid station via the directions that Andy had given me. I hiked up along the steep trail that he had described and turned right at what I assumed to be the juncture that he mentioned. I continued up the trail for 15 minutes but saw none of the markers that would signify me closing in on the station. Soon I found myself a half hour out from the car with no clear idea of where I was going and exhaustion beginning to set in on me. It was close to midnight and with the knowledge that the rest of the team would be there for Jeremy throughout his journey towards a 100 mile finish I reluctantly turned around. Back at the cabin I laid my sleeping bag under the stars, reflected on all that I had experienced that day, and dozed off for a few hours of shut-eye in the dark hills of the Green Mountains.

I awoke two hours later and took Jordan’s car back to the Farm in the hopes of catching up with Jeremy and the rest of the team. It turns out that I had missed him as he headed out for his seventh lap but seeing the TM mobile out in the lot and knowing that others were pacing him out there and would be out in full force until he finished eased my mind. Over the next two hours I experienced several moments of ultra-proportions. I saw runners come into the station with headlamps blaring and suck down a quick cup of soup as I refilled their bottles-then back and out into the dark without a word. I saw runners drop out of the race and others who were bloodied and bruised by recent falls wrestling with themselves about whether to head back onto the course or pack it in. I saw a couple who were tethered together by a harness finish their race, untie the rope that had bound them together for the past day and a half, and hold each other tight, I saw the human spirit stripped bare and standing before me in the iridescent light of headlamps and, headlights, and the eerie glow of the aid station at close to 4 in the morning.

The time to depart approached and with a last mug of coffee poured, two chicken wings and a banana to present as a gift to the sleeping Jordan who I would soon wake for our trip back north, and a final look at the Farm where so many memories were made I pulled out of the lot for the final time.

For me, the race didn’t officially end until later that morning when I saw the following Facebook post from fellow Trail Monster Ryan Triffit:

That. Just. Happened.

Jeremy at the finish line with belt buckle in hand

That was it, the race was over, the team was in, and now…sleep.

Much respect and much love to everyone who participated in the Peaks 50 Miler and to everyone who made this unforgettable experience possible. Looking forward to the next one…


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