Jul 262012

by Ryan Triffitt – a race/crew/pacer report –

The Vermont 100

To be clear, there is no possible way I can adequately sum up the weekend at the Vermont 100. I had never crewed, paced or even attended a 100-mile event, and I came away truly believing that ultrarunning is a team sport. Watching the runners, crews and pacers work together for a common goal was inspiring. It was even more inspiring to see my Trail Monster Running teammates and crews come together for some amazing results. It has also never been clearer to me that ultrarunning is about adapting, and I learned that the same is true for the crews. But, I’m getting ahead of myself… (WARNING: This may be longer than my race reports, if you can imagine that.)

My role for the weekend was to lead Zak’s crew for his second attempt at completing the Vermont 100. Last year, he dropped at mile 93, unable to walk, so he was looking for redemption. Additionally, I was also slated as back-up pacer, if necessary. I met Zak and his wife, Lenka, in Portland for the ride to Vermont. We stopped in Scarborough adding to the caravan Jeremy and his crew: his girlfriend, Alison; Mindy and his pacer, David. Following an uneventful drive, we arrived at Silver Hill Meadow, the start/finish/hub of the Vermont 100, which is conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, for weigh-in and medical check.

Silver Hill Meadow

Lunch at a greasy spoon after and on to Zak’s friend’s house to meet the rest of the crew: Zak’s friend Kevin, who would be pacing him either 30 or 19 miles, Kevin’s girlfriend, Christsonthy and Zak’s sister Sarah. Yes, that’s a large crew. I knew that it was going to be pretty cozy in the little yellow engine that could for an entire day, so I was pleased to see from the get-go that we would all get along really well. Following an amazing dinner courtesy of Alison and Lenka, we went over last minute details and hit bed (or tent, in my case) around 9:00pm in advance of our 2:00am wake up call.

Monster Fuel!

Getting up at 2:00am is terrible. Luckily, my body didn’t realize it was up for the day until a couple hours later, and by then, I was 32 oz of coffee deep and there was no going back. We followed the parade of headlights and dust along the Vermont country roads to the start and prepared to send the Trail Monster boys on their way. We had 5 guys tackling the 100—Zak, Ian, Jeremy, Joe and George—and each was ready to kill it.

Ian, Zak and Jeremy just before the start.

At 4:00am, headlamps aglow, they were off into the darkness along with 300+ other runners. We didn’t have to leave Silver Hill Meadow until around 6:00am, so the ladies took the opportunity to grab a quick snooze while Kevin and I hung out in the tent, watched the horses start and talked about beer. (Along with the 100 mile and 100km runs, the Vermont 100 also features 3 horse rides of different lengths.) The first handler-allowed aid station is Pretty House at mile 22.5, but this year, due to the effects of Hurricane Irene, the runners also took a detour through Woodstock at mile 13. We saw this as an opportunity to not only provide moral support for the Trail Monsters but also grab “second” breakfast for the crew. Starting my third cup of coffee at 6:30am meant I was even more fun than usual! We saw all 5 guys in Woodstock, looking comfortable and easy, including Ian skipping. Fueled by gas station breakfast sandwiches, we jetted north to Pretty House.

High fives.


Just George.

Following a very minor navigational blunder and correction from a French-Canadian volunteer (“Dees not da waaay.”), we arrived at Pretty House with plenty of time to set up Zak’s personal aid station. It also gave me time to catch up with some friends from the running world, including Scott who was crewing his wife, Debbie, to a third place finish and Nick and Sarah who were crewing the eventual men’s winner, Brian, and women’s second place finisher, Amy. (And, yes, I just crew name dropped.) As crew, your heart rate at aid stations goes from flatline to about 329 as soon as your runner arrives. Thankfully, Zak kept things pretty simple for us, and we’d discussed our roles beforehand. Kevin and I would meet him before the aid station. I would take his pack and restock it: refill the hydration bladder with water plus a Nuun tablet or two, fill one pocket with 3 gels, fill the other pocket with 2 shot blocks and keep the s-cap pocket loaded. Meanwhile, Kevin would bring him to the table, get him eating and bring him to the crew. There, the ladies would wait on him hand and foot. Not a bad deal, really. And, this is exactly how it went at Pretty House. We had him out in a minute or two, and he was off down the road. He looked exactly as he should. His only complaint was that he felt tight and not warmed up—a good sign with nearly 80 miles to go. I couldn’t wait to see him again at the next stop—Stage Road, mile 30.5.

It would take Zak about 90 minutes to Stage Road, but by car, it was only a 20-minute drive. There is no sense getting to the aid station too early because you’re just taking a (very-limited) parking space and  you’re in the way. We chilled for a bit at the Teago Country Store, the halfway point, between the aid stations, and I finished my third large mug of coffee for the day. So, fully caffeinated, we drove to Stage Road and set up Zak’s station in the shade. Ian and Jeremy, once again, rolled in together and were out in a flash. By this time, Ian’s parents had joined the fray as his crew, giving Emma some much needed support. And, of course, Alison had every little thing Jeremy could ever need. Only two or three minutes later, Zak arrived looking much more comfortable than one should after running 50k. We fueled him up, and Kevin and I walked him down the road away from the aid station.

“OK, now that we’re away from everyone, you can tell us how you really feel,” I said. Unless things were dire, I knew that Zak would put up a good front for Lenka and Sarah, but my job was to strip away the bullshit to make certain he had everything he needed. He said he was feeling great and running relaxed. He couldn’t believe Jeremy and Ian were only a couple minutes ahead. His only complaint was a “wonky” knee, but Kevin and I told him it was probably just some weirdness from the taper working itself out and that he would forget about it after a couple more miles. He agreed, and we sent him into the woods.

Leaving Stage Rd. (Chip Tilden photo.)

The next handler-accessible aid station wasn’t for another 17 miles, Camp 10 Bear at mile 47.6. It would take Zak nearly 3.5 to get there, so we stopped at the Teago Store again and hatched a new plan. We decided to head to Lincoln Covered Bridge at mile 39.6. We figured we could see the boys run through, and it would be a nice spot to have lunch. Plus, we’d still have plenty of time to get to Camp 10 Bear. It was a flawless plan.

We arrived at Lincoln Covered Bridge, parked on the opposite side from the aid station and dove into the piles and piles of food Lenka had brought for us. It was awesome. I’ve never eaten a bigger lunch at  11:00 in the morning. So, with bellies full we strolled up to the bridge to offer encouragement to the runners coming through.

Clydesdale Division.

Just before noon, Jeremy and Ian rolled through the bridge and knowing Zak left Stage Road only minutes behind them, the countdown was on. I figured he’d probably be about 15 minutes behind them. Fifteen minutes came and went—no Zak. A half hour went by—no Zak. I was standing alone inside the covered bridge to stay out of the sun, and Lenka walked up to me noticeably concerned.

“Zak could finish two hours behind Jeremy and still have an awesome race. He’s fine.”

I barely believed this lie, but I think she bought it. I knew something was up. Best case scenario was that he had stopped a couple times with stomach…err…pooping issues that he had mentioned to me at the start. And, I tried not to think about the worst case scenarios as Joe rolled past looking great 45 minutes after Jeremy and Ian. Once an hour had passed I walked to the other side of the bridge to give me a view down the road in the direction from which the runners were coming. Soon after, I saw Zak. I walked to the other end of the bridge to let the crew know he was coming. As soon as I saw him shuffle onto the bridge, I knew his day was done. His head was down, and he barely looked at me. Lenka walked with him the 100 meters to the aid station, while Kevin and I hung back. Not knowing exactly what was wrong, I said, “Let’s let Lenka make him feel better, then we can swoop in with the tough love.” Kevin was thinking the same thing, so we walked to the aid station where Zak was icing his left knee.

Since I’m having trouble recounting this part of the day, let’s just say that I let Zak make his own decision to drop. I walked with him for about 200 yards out of the aid station before he let the reality of what was happening to him set in. He couldn’t put any weight on his left leg and continuing would have been foolish at best. I wanted to take his number and run for him, but all I could do was give him a hug and cry with him. It was so unfair. He was fit enough to run an amazing race. A sub-24 hour buckle was practically a given. He was on his way early. After dropping at mile 93 of this race last year, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to him again. I still don’t understand it. I went to back to the aid station and said “316 is a drop.” It was the worst thing I think I’ve ever said.

We piled the crew and Zak into the car and drove in silence to Camp 10 Bear. I know that another aid station or anywhere near the race was the last place Zak wanted to be, but his parents were there volunteering (because they’re awesome!), and we had to deliver the news. We also dropped Zak’s sister off here since her parents were also watching her dog. We got out of there as fast as we could so Kevin and Christsonthy could drive Zak back to the house to shower, eat and try to feel human again. The day was just beginning for me.

We had fortuitously decided to bring two cars to Silver Hill Meadow in case we needed to split up the crew for supplies. But, as it turned out, it allowed me to jump right back into the fray and lend a hand to Jeremy and Ian’s crews. Beyond that, it allowed me to crew Joe, who in typical Joe fashion was running solo. I felt bad leaving Zak, as I was there for him, but as an ultrarunner, I knew he understood that I had to get out there and help our Trail Monster teammates any way that I could. I’m not certain everyone else did, but I knew Zak did. If the roles were reversed, I would have sent him out there, too. So, at 3:30pm, I was at Margaritaville, mile 62.5, awaiting the arrivals of Jeremy and Ian.

Not to be overly dramatic, especially in the face of Zak’s situation, but I had a really tough time making the shift from lead crew man to menial task crew gimp. I didn’t know Jeremy or Ian’s plans or gear. I didn’t know their expected times. I just knew that I was a pair of hands. I even had to check with the timers at Margaritaville to see if they had come through yet. I was a bit lost. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know if I’d just be in the way. Not long after I arrived, Alison, Mindy and David appeared, and not a moment too soon. Jeremy came into the aid station before they were really set up. He’d just run 100k in 12 hours flat and was looking amazing.

Jeremy at Margaritaville. Time to eat!

I helped out where I could and after some food and a sock change, he was gone. As he was rolling out, Emma, Bob and Ann arrived for Ian, and he also arrived just as they were setting up. Ian plopped into a chair about 10 minutes after Jeremy did the same, and I’ve never seen anyone so excited to eat pickles.

Where dem pickles at?!?!?!

I offered my water bottle to wash his dusty feet. Emma popped a couple blisters. He changed his shoes and socks, and he was gone. It was really impressive to see both of these guys’ attitudes at this point. No whining, no complaining. Just focus. They were polite to their crews, which is hard to do and many runners are not. In those brief moments, I gained even more respect than I already had for these guys, and I knew they were both on their ways to amazing days. I was still sad that Zak wasn’t out there with them, and I hated delivering that news to them. But, the race must go on, and, suddenly, I was back in it.

The runners pass through Camp 10 Bear twice, and mile 70.5 was the next stop for our guys. Camp 10 Bear is ridiculous. It’s far too small an area to accomodate all the runners and crews. For one weekend, it’s the most ridiculous place on earth. The runners come through here twice, but each time they approach from a different angle. (I think.) It’s wildly confusing. After arriving early enough to watch enough befuddled runners come down the hill to the medical check in, I decided that even though it would be more fun to hang with the crews, I would go a ways up the hill to catch the guys as they were coming in, take their bottles and run them right to the scale. The crews could get everything ready, and I could get them to the right place. Seriously, this place is a madhouse.

Camp 10 Bear

The good part about Camp 10 Bear is that it is the point at which the runners pick up their pacers for the final 30 miles. Having a pacer is a huge psychological boost for the runner. In fact, the race organizers actually connect runners who don’t have pacers with volunteer pacers, if the runner would like one. And, while I ripped on Camp 10 Bear in the previous paragraph, the Vermont 100 is an astounding organizational achievement. The race director, Julia, and her team do a fantastic job. The problem with Camp 10 Bear is really geography. They do the best they can in an extremely limited space.

Jeremy arrived looking relaxed and feeling not that bad, you know, for running 70 miles. I could tell he was ready to pick up David for the mental boost. I got him to the scale. His weight was dead on—78 pounds. 😉 Then, we loaded him up with fuel, and he and David took off moments later. One down. More to go.

Ian arrived looking better than he had at Margaritaville and raised his hands in celebration as I met him on the hill.

Welcome to Camp 10 Bear!

I grabbed his bottles and pointed him to the scale. He’d actually gained weight, a cause for celebration—every little boost counts. His parents, who are a stellar crew—seriously, they should crew for hire—got him everything he needed, all of which came out of the Husky, think of a giant fishing tackle box on wheels, complete with multiple, segmented compartments, stocked with everything an ultrarunner could need. Emma was dressed and ready to pace, and off they went to an ovation prompted by the Camp 10 Bear master of ceremonies complete with a microphone who was part air traffic controller, part carnival barker, part safety monitor. “Look out for the cars!” (Personally, I would have been yelling at the cars, “Look out for the runners!” Dear people driving to Camp 10 Bear: this race is for runners. It’s not a mall parking lot. Slow down and yield to the runners. While bringing Ian to the crew, I had to walk centimeters away from a bumper in order to get the car with Massachusetts plates to stop. Obnoxious.)

While driving from Margaritaville to Camp 10 Bear, I had made the decision to wait for Joe at Camp 10 Bear. Joe has a tendency to fly solo. (Understatement of the year.) He had neither a crew or pacer for the race. In addition, he wasn’t exactly fresh. Joe just completed the Western States 100 last month. Barely a month away from his last buckle, he was looking for another sub-24 hour finish. Joe is one tough dude. He hadn’t asked for any help, but I was available. I hiked back up the hill to my car to wait for him.

I should point out that by now it was about 6:00pm. I was polishing off my first Red Bull of the day. I was finishing my third BLT, courtesy of Zak’s parents. I was also head first into the giant cooler Lenka had packed. I’d asked them to let me keep the food, since I knew I’d be wandering around for a while. I didn’t know how long exactly, but that bounty really saved me. While waiting for Jeremy and Ian, I tore through a entire quart bag of raw veggies—something I wouldn’t have been smart enough to pack for myself. Lenka had the crew set up, and I was extremely thankful to be well fed.

I hadn’t seen Joe since Lincoln Covered Bridge—30 miles earlier—so I wasn’t certain how long it would take him to arrive. I was sitting on the cooler next to car devouring a BLT when I saw Joe coming my way only about 30 minutes after Ian had left. I tossed half my sandwich on the driver’s seat and jumped up to run him to the scale.

“Hey, Joe! Zak dropped. I’m your new crew.”
I had no idea how he would react. This is the same guy that completed Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness solo, using only 5 gallon buckets he’d placed the day before as crew. He declined a pacer (or even a ride to the airport) for Western States. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. However, without hesitation, he held out his hand and said, “Great. Take this. Fill it with ice, then water.”

I was lead crew once again! I ran him to the scale and took his bottle to a volunteer at the aid station. I ran back to Joe to take him to his drop bag. He was downing an Ensure, when I asked him if he’d like company for the final 11 miles. His response was exactly what I expected: he was noncommittal because I could tell that he didn’t want to inconvenience me.

“I was planning to run with Zak, so I’m ready if you need me.”
“Sure, that’d be great.”

It was never completely established between Kevin and myself whether or not I would be pacing. Kevin was to pick up Zak at Camp 10 Bear, and hopefully take him 30 miles to the finish. But, since Kevin’s life had been unrealistically busy of late, he hadn’t been able to train as much as he would have liked. If he was faltering, I was prepared to jump in. So, now I was definitely pacing. But, before that, I needed to get to Spirit of 76 to meet Joe with his lights. I had crew duties again!

Navigating from aid station to aid station at the Vermont 100 is difficult. It’s not impossible, but it’s tricky. Kevin had done a terrific job of reading the directions to me early, and all went smoothly. Now, I was on my own. With the logistics of shuttling people around after Zak dropped, I’d seen a little more of the course, so I was becoming more familiar with the roads, but navigating the Vermont 100 solo is hilarious. It was me, the direction sheet, the Vermont gazetteer and Smashing Pumpkins—cranked. So much for the quiet countryside.

With my second Red Bull in hand, I was thrilled to arrive at Spirit of 76 before Jeremy and Ian. I really wanted to keep helping them, even just by offering encouragement, as long as I could. My presence was fairly inconsequential as their crews and pacers had it covered, but I was there as an extra set of hands and for a snarky comment or two. I barely remember Jeremy’s stop, as he and David were in and out. Of course, Jeremy put down 4,000 calories in that time. He basically ate his way through 100 miles. As he left, I knew his buckle was in the bag as he was right around 21-hour pace and looking incredibly strong. Plus, I knew David would push him if need be.

Jeremy and David leaving the Spirit of 76.

Ian arrived about 30 minutes later in fantastic spirits. It was clear that picking up Emma had done wonders for him. They’re an amazing team, and while his quads were shot, I knew he was also going to buckle. His mom applied a generous amount of muscle rub to his legs, Emma popped a blister, he changed his shirt and off they went. It was a bit of a tiptoe out of the aid station due to his feet and quads, but it was done with a smile and positivity. I couldn’t have been more impressed with my teammates.

Pit stop and the HUSKY!

The crews packed up and headed for the next stop, while I waited for Joe. Compared to Alison’s wagon and the Parlins’ Husky, I felt a bit silly waiting for Joe with nothing but his drop bag from Camp 10 Bear. All it contained was a long sleeve shirt, a small ziplock bag with a couple gels and a Clif bar and his hydration pack stuffed only with his lights and a lightweight jacket. Let’s call this approach minimalist. While staring down the hill cheering for each runner that trudged into the Spirit of 76, I found myself standing near a runner seated in a chair, his pacer and his crew—his mother and wife/sister/friend (not sure which). While slowly sipping his soup, he looked at his pacer and said, “I think I’m gonna call it.” He looked fine. A bit tired, but he should after completing 77.4 miles. Each member of his team cajoled him to press on, and when they were done I looked at him and said, “I don’t know you, but there’s a buckle waiting for you, so get your ass out of that chair.” A few moments later he was on his way. I’d see him a number of hours later at the finish, hobbling with a smile on his face. He’d finished in under 24 hours, and I told him I was really glad he got his ass out of that chair. He said he was to. Sometimes, you have to be reminded that you believe.

Joe arrived like clockwork at 8:00pm—exactly when I expected him. He looked strong and had closed the gap on Ian. I was certain he was going to catch him. He was talking about sub-22 or better as I slipped his pack on him. He was soon going to need those lights. We walked to the aid station table, and he ate a few items, including a hot cup of ramen noodles. It was an efficient and great stop, and I sent him off down the trail with our spirits high. He was running so well. I couldn’t wait to start pacing him in 11 miles, as I knew he was going to kill it. Then again, a lot can happen in 100 miles.

The sun begins to set over the Vermont 100.

The one trick about pacing Joe was the logistics involving my car. Sure, I could drive around and crew, but I would need to leave it someplace while pacing. I had spoken with Zak before they left, and he had decided to come out and cheer on the guys. It showed a lot of heart and class for him to do this, since I knew that the last place he wanted to be was anywhere near the Vermont 100 course. But, he knew that he’d be able to give the guys a boost by coming out. I really admire him for doing that. It also helped me a great deal because it meant that someone could drive my car back to the finish from Bill’s—the aid station at which I would start pacing Joe. Even ultracrews need to be flexible, but this was a decent plan. However, as I was driving away from Spirit of 76 (and decent cell coverage) and past the road to Silver Hill Meadow, I thought of a better plan. Zak & crew could meet me at Silver Hill Meadow and drive me to Bill’s. This way, they wouldn’t have to return to Silver Hill Meadow just to shuttle my car, and my car with all my clothes would be waiting for me at the finish. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where they were in transit as they had hoped to be at Bill’s by 9:00pm. And, without good/any cell coverage, I couldn’t relay my genius plan. So, I kept driving towards Bill’s until I had coverage, which was 10+ minutes past Silver Hill Meadow. When I finally connected with them, they were headed down the highway, so they could meet me at Silver Hill Meadow. Off I went back the way I came at a rapid pace with more Pumpkins. I quickly had to shift from crew mode to pacer mode, which also meant a change of clothes—my first since 30 hours prior. They arrived moments after I did, so I had to hustle. And, amazingly, I remembered everything that Joe and I would need.

It was dark as we made our way to Bill’s, mile 88.6. Now, the roles were reversed with Kevin driving and me navigating. Despite the directions making the navigation sound tricky, we made it to Bill’s without issue. Although, I’m not certain I could have done it that smoothly solo. Upon arriving, I moved quickly down to the barn that houses the aid station, but before I got there I came upon Alison and Mindy. We had just missed Jeremy and David. I was too slow changing at Silver Hill Meadow, and I felt really awful that Zak had hobbled down the hill with ice wrapped around his knee and missed him. He could still see him at Polly’s at mile 95.9, which they did end up doing. They were able to see Ian and Emma come in, however, so the trip wasn’t a total bust.

Bill’s is a crazy, crazy place. The aid station is actually inside a barn. Runners come down the road, down a small incline, onto the scale for a med check, over to the picnic tables for sustenance and back out again. It seems simple enough, but then you realize that these people have just run more than 88 miles. It’s a place full of skinny zombies, thousand yard stares, headlamp blindness and shivering crews. Thankfully, everyone is moving slowly enough that people don’t crash into each other too hard. Although, while I was there, one runner vomited, passed out and hit his head on the concrete floor of the barn. I’ll never forget that sound. Ultrarunning is fun.

Ian and Emma arrived shortly after 10:00, once again with spirits high. Ian was in a terrific mood, even though his quads were not. I snapped off his light and waist pack, so he could hop on the scale. His weight was fine, and he plopped down at a picnic table. His mom applied more muscle rub to his ailing quads while I resnapped his waist pack on. Needless to say, that position put me a little too close to the muscle rub, and if my third Red Bull hadn’t woken me up that full assault on my nostrils certainly did. After a few minutes, they were off. He had a buckle to get, and Emma was going to push him to the finish.

It was time to wait for Joe, and Ian’s father, Bob, was nice enough to hang out with me for a while. Based on how he looked at Spirit of 76, I was surprised that he hadn’t come in ahead of Ian, and I was more surprised when at 10:45, he still hadn’t appeared. Bob had to get up the road so as not to miss Ian at Polly’s, so I thanked him for waiting with me and keeping me company. It was a little unsettling being left alone with the zombies. 11:00pm. No Joe. 11:15pm. No Joe. Then finally, I recognized the headlamp that was bobbing down the road. He’d made it.

“How ya doin’, buddy.”
“Not good. Really bad. My stomach.”

Joe put on a great poker face at the aid station. He was calm and cool on the scale and while talking with the med staff. Knowing his stomach wasn’t great, I didn’t push any food on him, but I did recommend some watermelon and ginger ale. He had both, and shortly before 11:30pm, we walked out of the barn.

Here’s what Joe didn’t know: I had never paced anyone before. I had averaged about 10 miles per week for the last 6 weeks. The last time I ran 11 miles was more than 6 weeks ago, and my right Achilles blew up on that run. I have probably run a total of 30 miles at night in my entire life. In short, I was not the model pacer. All I knew was that I was going to do everything I could to help Joe to the finish. I really just hoped that he wouldn’t drop me.

Once we were out of the light and earshot of Bill’s, Joe said, “We’re going to have to walk for a while.”  It became quite clear very quickly that running really upset his stomach. We did chat a bit, but he was feeling generally horrible. We reached a wide open field with a beautiful look at the starry sky. I shut off my headlamp and took it in, but I don’t think Joe was able to enjoy it. The field sloped downhill and got progressively steeper. Joe was also feeling worse and worse. He was dizzy and at one point, I thought he was going to hit the deck. He stayed upright, and we reached the end of the field to begin the never ending climbing on dirt roads. We climbed 500+ feet in the next mile, and it was nothing but hiking. Slow, slow hiking. A downhill mile ticked by in 17:30, followed by a 20:50 uphill mile. And, it felt like he was slowing. He voiced what I was thinking: at this rate, 24 hours was in doubt.

It took us more than an hour to reach Keating’s at mile 92.4, and Joe hadn’t said much for the last 20 minutes. He was also breathing much heavier than the pace would dictate. Frankly, I was stunned he hadn’t vomited yet. At Keating’s, I mentioned to the volunteers that it would be best if they didn’t mention food. Joe leaned on the tent post sipping a ginger ale while I filled his water bottle. I forced him to take another cup of ginger ale before we left.

“But, then I have to deal with the cup.”
“I carry it. That’s how we deal with it.”

He was reluctant, but off we went. A few strides down the road, he realized he wasn’t carrying his water bottle. Fearful he forgot it, he stopped, but I assured him that I was still carrying it. His hands were full: cup of ginger ale in one, flashlight in the other. He was perplexed. And, then came the exchange that sums up Joe.

“It’s OK. Drink your ginger ale. I’ve got it.”
“No, you’re not supposed to mule at any time.”

There we were alone on a dirt road in the dark, him feeling like complete and utter shit, and he was worried about breaking the rules. Or even the spirit of the rule. I handed him his bottle. He took a final swig of ginger ale, and I swiped the cup from him as he was looking for a place to put it. We moved forward in silence, and I knew at that point that we would get to the finish. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know when. I just knew that he was far too strong to not get there. I was just along for the ride.

We moved along in silence for a while, only broken by me pointing out a turn or to offer a bit of encouragement. He actually apologized at one point for being quiet. I knew that speaking was making him sicker. He said, “I just need to concentrate.” And, focus he did. The glow sticks marking the trail became our goals. He’d see a glow stick, and he’d run to it. Then stop. He’d see another one and run to it. Now, I’m using the word “run” here liberally as he was really barely shuffling. Yet, it was obvious to me that he wasn’t shuffling because of his legs, but because of his stomach. I felt terrible for him because it was unfair that his stomach would betray him, when his legs were still strong with Western States only a few short weeks behind him. Then, suddenly, it happened.

We went through a short section with some high grass and around a gate around mile 94. The trail pitched upward on some doubletrack. We started hiking. Then, he started hiking faster. Then faster and faster. He kept shifting gears, moving better and better until we reached the top. Then, we started running. The trail was a bit technical, but he moved over the roots and rocks with ease. We were now passing people. Something we hadn’t done since Bill’s. I encouraged him as we moved along, and I could feel a real rally coming on. He still wasn’t speaking, but he was moving. That was just fine with me.

We reached the end of the trail and turned left onto an uphill dirt road. He stopped running. I was stunned and deflated. He’d been moving so well, but the roads were killing him. I think that mentally he couldn’t handle any more roads. I didn’t let him know how I was feeling, but as soon as the road flattened I suggested we pick off that next glow stick. He started running. And running well. Something had clearly changed. I knew his stomach was still terrible. I’d glance at him every now and then, and he was green. Really green. He was sick. Sick, but moving forward. His running pace was solid, though, and he even started passing glow sticks without stopping. He wasn’t quite alive, but the buckle was back in play.

The lights of Polly’s at mile 95.9 were a welcome sight. For my part, I was hungry. With Joe being so nauseous, I didn’t want to eat near him. I snuck a couple gels while stopping for pee breaks, but I’d had nothing else in almost two hours of running. You know, running that started at 11:30pm after being awake for 21.5 hours. So, yah, hungry. I downed a whole PBJ, a cup of soup and finally a Honey Stinger waffle, as we headed down the road. At the aid station, I knew the drill: fill his bottle with ice and then water. I pointed to the watermelon and he ate 2 or 3 small pieces. But, really, my job at the aid station was to keep him upright. He was wobbly and unstable, but he once again checked in with composure. After only a few seconds, we were gone. No sense hanging around with 4 miles to go. Plus, some of the Bill’s zombies had made their way to Polly’s, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to have that visual around Joe.

About a hundred yards down the road from Polly’s we missed a turn. Bad pacing on my part. I was following another runner/pacer duo and a car down the road. I wasn’t looking for the yellow paper plates and glow sticks that pointed us to the left. We only went a few extra feet, but it was downhill. We had to climb back up. Big momentum loss. I felt terrible. Luckily, Joe couldn’t speak to cuss me out. It worked out OK, though, because we took the opportunity to stop and change out Joe’s fading headlamp. But, then again, looking back, maybe it was the perfect mistake. Joe took off. It was time to get this sucker done.

I will never forget what I witnessed over the next 4 miles. Joe was a machine. We passed dozens of people. Joe was back from the dead and cranking. He still wasn’t speaking, but he didn’t need to. My role had now changed. First, each time we passed someone, I had to say to them, “Good job!” And, second, I needed to run between Joe and the ditch on the side of the road. Although wobbly, he was running so well, and there was no way I was going to lose him in a ditch now. Mile 97 ticked off. I looked at my Garmin: 10:34! I told Joe the split, and he kept running. Downhill, flat and even uphill. He ran it all. I can’t do justice to his rally in this blog post. It was beyond impressive. I wanted to jump up and down, yell and scream, slap him on the back, high five. I didn’t do any of that. I offered quiet encouragement, but I was exploding inside. I was so happy for him. The buckle was his his. Two sub-24 hour 100 mile finishes in month!

We passed the final, unmanned aid station at mile 98 and turned onto some trail. Joe said, “I remember this.” He was speaking again. Moments later, he was chatting. Then, he was yelling, cursing at the trail, singing the Clash and laughing. It was awesome. We passed the one mile to go sign. We passed the giant congratulations sign. We started passing the “toxic waste” jugs (green glow sticks in the water). Then, we saw the finish line. I dropped back to let Joe cross the line. 22 hours and 14 minutes! He’d done it. I walked up to him and gave him a huge hug. We laughed and cried. Then, in the happiest of voices, we said in unison, “Let’s go to the medical tent!”

Home sweet home.

I won’t go into all the details of our time in the medical tent, but as it would turn out, I wouldn’t head out of there until about 6:15am—four hours later. I will say this: Paula, wherever you are—thank you. She was amazing. She delivered the perfect balance of caring and tough love. I was planning to stay awake just in case Joe needed anything else, but once he fell asleep/passed out around 4:00am, she threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t also get some shuteye. I felt bad about taking a cot from a runner. After all, I’d only run 11 miles, but Paula insisted. I did go to Joe’s tent to get his sleeping bag. (I’d already been there to get his clothes. Finding his tent in the dark, when I’d never laid eyes on it before was an interesting task.) As I half-heartedly laid down on the cot next to Joe’s, Paula came over and wrapped me up and basically told me, “Sleep or else.” I did manage to get about a half hour sleep despite the French-Canadian crew looking over their snoozing runner by drinking beer and talking loudly to a woman who had finished the 100 who was enthralled by her own awesomeness and wasn’t nearly as hot as she thought she was.

Joe woke up about 5:30am, and we wandered over to the food table. Joe was hungry, which as a great sign. As he ate we recounted the events of the previous hours, and his stomach issues came into focus. The soup at Spirit of 76 was the culprit. Joe is a vegetarian, and he and I both mistakenly assumed that the ramen he ate was vegetarian. It was not. The chicken stock combined with the effort of running 77 had ravaged his stomach. He said he started to feel bad less than a mile after the aid station and had considered dropping at Cow Shed at mile 83.4. I felt a little guilty as I’d mentioned that the soup was an option at the aid station. He was back among the living now, and I felt comfortable enough to be released of my pacing duties. I had no idea they would extend well beyond the finish line, but I was glad he was feeling better. He looked like hell propped up in a chair in his hooded jacket with a blanket wrapped around him, but he was alive. Then again, I probably didn’t look much better.

I headed for my car and my plan was to head back to the house for a nap before returning for the awards ceremony. My tent was still set up on the lawn, so I wouldn’t disturb the rest of the crew who was no doubt snoring comfortably. I plopped down in the front seat and paused to collect myself. I was hungry, so I pounded a Larabar and some watermelon. I started the car and headed in the only direction that seemed appropriate: back into the fray to meet George at Polly’s.

I hadn’t seen George since 24 hours earlier in Woodstock. I wasn’t even certain which side of Polly’s he was on. If he was having a great race, he’d already be gone. If he wasn’t, I’d hopefully be able to give him a boost. Shifting gears once again, I switched from pacer to cheerleader and tore off down the road wishing I had some coffee, knowing that the half hour nap was going to be all the sleep I would get for the weekend. Open windows and Thievery Corporation would have to do.

Arriving at Polly’s was surreal. I’d been there a few hours prior, but I barely recognized it now bathed in early morning light. I parked and went to the volunteers at the aid table to see if George had passed through yet. I was pleased to hear that George had not yet come through, yet at the same time, I hoped that he hadn’t dropped (they didn’t have that information) and that his day was going well. I had until 8:40am to find out as that was the time that the aid station closed, and no runners would be allowed to continue after that point. I grabbed a few vittles from the car and laid down in the grass. The sun rejuvenated me as I waited and watched the back of the pack come through. The cutoff for the Vermont 100 is 30 hours, and each of the people now passing through needed to be aware of that number.

I wasn’t worried about George’s well-being, since Val was pacing him. I can’t think of a better pacer in any capacity. George’s spirit alone could carry him, but with Val on board, I knew he could do anything. Of course, waiting is still tough to do. But, a few minutes before 8:00am, I saw George and Val headed towards the aid station. I walked out to meet them to Val yelling, “DON’T TOUCH HIM!!!” At first, I thought she was kidding, but as I approached, I realized she was dead serious. In fact, George held out his hand to shake mine, and I thought Val was going to kill me. George’s neck was shot. He couldn’t move his head, and he could barely lift his arms. It had been like that for 50 miles. You’d never it know if from his smile, however. Seriously, he’d barely been able to move for 46 miles, but he was all smiles and laughs as he made his way down the road. He’s amazing. He had two hours to finish under the cutoff, and I knew he’d get there. I grabbed Val’s hydration pack and filled it with water as they continued. When I caught back up to them, George chatted me up for so long, I was a good ways down the road from the aid station. I think he wanted me to come the rest of the way with them. I bid them farewell and ran back up to my car as my most important crew duty of the weekend was up next.

I drove back to Silver Hill Meadow and made my way to the finish line. It took me a minute, but I found her just as I knew I would: sitting in her chair facing the finish line. I told Ann, George’s wife, that I had seen George. His neck hurt, but he was moving. He was going to make it under the 30-hour cutoff. I gave her a hug, and felt like the weekend had come full circle. George, holding hands with Val, arrived at the the finish shortly after 9:15am. The race for the Trail Monsters was over.

George and Ann at the finish.

Here are the final numbers:
Jeremy Bonnett – 20:05:07, 34th
gIANt Parlin – 21:03:47, 48th
Joe Wrobleski – 22:14:36, 70th
George Alexion – 29:24:41, 212th
Zak Wieluns – DNF
306 starters / 218 finishers

I snuck away to get some breakfast but returned for the awards and barbecue. A lot of hobbling figures around that tent, but they were hobbling with pride. It was great to see the three guys get there buckles, but it was just as hard to see Zak sit there without his and ice on his knee. I know he’ll be back some year and get that buckle. Personally, I don’t think he needs it to validate his badassery, but I know he feels like he has a score to settle.

For my part, the Vermont 100 was an unforgettable experience. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, even with all the energy, I didn’t come away feeling an overwhelming urge to run 100 miles. Watching everyone go through their races, I know I’m not ready for that challenge both physically and mentally. Not even close. Prior to Lookout Mountain, I put myself on the wait list. I was number 23. I would have certainly gotten in. I’m really glad I couldn’t run. I’m not ready, and I won’t be ready next year. The 100k is intriguing, however…