Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Vermont 100 Endurance Run Race Report

Running long and happy in Vermont:
My experience at the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run

It’s 3:00 AM and the alarm just went off. Unfortunately it wasn’t necessary as the race director had already taken care of the wake up call for everyone – “Chariots of Fire” was being looped on the PA system. I thought it might be a nightmare but no such luck.

Just a couple hours earlier I lay in my tent staring up through the ceiling at the Milky Way marveling at how perfect a night I was witnessing and hoping the day to come would be as fantastic. Running through my mind as I watched for a shooting star to wish upon was my race plan. Had I accounted for every possibility? Was my nutrition plan right for me? Did I choose the right clothing? So many questions that did not need second guessing in the middle of the night before the biggest race of my life. I was about to run my first 100-mile ultramarathon and I knew what had to be done.

The 19th Annual Vermont 100-mile Endurance Run was held on July 21-22, 2007 and it was my first attempt at the distance. I had trained well and my average weekly mileage of 65-75 miles seemed to be just right. I had routinely run back-to-back long runs on multiple weekends consisting of a 3-4 hour run on Saturday and a 4-5 hour run on Sunday. I had also trained up to my longest run of 8 hours covering almost 45 miles a few weeks before the race. Given everything I read on training for 100s, my training seemed to be spot on. However, this didn’t give me much comfort. My longest training run or race before toeing the start line at the Vermont 100 was 50 miles. There were another 50 miles I would have to cover during the race that would have to be run on faith.

We arrived in Vermont at Noon the day before the race and drove straight over to Woodstock, just north of the race site. My wife, Kelly, and kids, Riley and Quinn, parked and stepped into a charming little spot in the center of town. This quaint town was a perfect introduction to Vermont and set the tone for the rest of the weekend. The beauty of the town did little to settle the butterflies that seemed to be congregating inside me which made lunch tough. My nervousness built as I looked around and easily picked out the few other souls that looked to be ultra distance runners. Nevertheless, I got my lunch down and fed the kids, and then we moved out of town to the race check-in at Silver Hill Meadow.

The 30-minute drive to the race site was awe-inspiring. The setting could be no less perfect. We passed centuries old farmhouses and stately manors, complete with horse stables and cow barns. Also on the road were groups of horses and their riders – most likely competitors in the next day's horse race that follows the same course as the run. The majority of the trip from Woodstock followed some of the very same roads I would run the following day.

There was a buzz around the check-in tents as we drove up. Horses and runners mingled as if they were fellow competitors, although I would guess most of the runners had never thought we would find ourselves running alongside these marvelous animal-athletes. Check-in was a simple process where I was given my simple manila envelope (no fancy race bag) and performance t-shirt emblazoned with an excellent race logo.

Next stop was the medical check-in. Each 100-miler requires medical check-ups before and during the race given the dangerous nature of running such distances and times. Base medical information such as weight and blood pressure are collected before the race to use as a base line for comparison during the race. I deferred having my weight checked at this point deciding to wait until I changed into my race clothes and allowing my body to work through my lunch. The medical staff did take my blood pressure. The result was 150/80. That is not a typo. 150/80. I am a 110/70 guy with a resting heart rate in the neighborhood of 40 bpm. I became nervous, sure the doctor sitting in front of me was going to sideline me right then and there. All he said was, “First timer?” He then assured me I was not the first fit person to come through check-in with ridiculously high results. I am also sure I was not the last.

We then headed over to our tent site to set up our living quarters for the next couple days. Already present at the site were my buddies Jamie Anderson and James Demer, also virgins at this distance. We had done a number of training runs together and their presence put me at ease. That peace of mind was short lived as still ahead of me lay the unpacking of the car and setting up our camping accommodations. For those of you who have ever camped with kids, you know how much gear is required. We chose a nice sight that happened to sit on the opposite side of the campground on the edge of a nice wood but which required me to schlep an uncounted number of loads about 200 yards; the last thing I wanted to do the day before the race.

While battling with the tent my pacers, Renie Allen and Brian Manson, appeared along with Brian's family. Their arrival coincided with the start of the mandatory race meeting. It was here that the race director and staff downloaded everything we would need to know to get from the start to finish, including an explanation of the new course (changed due to the discovery that the prior course had been measured short). We were guaranteed that if we finished the race, we would have to travel at least 100 miles. We then headed over to the on-site pre-race dinner. My hat is off to the race director and staff as they put on a most excellent pre-race dinner. Topping it off was the free beer that was advertised by a boy no older than 12-13 years old wearing a cardboard sign reading “Beer”. Unfortunately, beer wasn't part of my pre-race plan but my buddy Brian drank one for me. Dinner was absolutely perfect and contained what one would expect from any pre-race meal: spaghetti in abundance, veggie and meat lasagna, fantastic salads, and dessert choices too many to name. My daughter tried all the sweets and assured me I should have done the same.

After dinner my crew and I headed back to our tents and discussed the next day's race plan. In my typical fashion I left all the planning to the very end. Even though I had months to prepare, here I was the night before my longest race ever sitting with my crew trying to figure out what I would need and when. I was filling Ziploc bags with salt pills and electrolyte drink powder when I should have been in bed. At any rate it was great to spend time with my crew. I also took this time to pass out the L.L.Bean Fitness Fleece jackets I had embroidered with “VT 100 Crew” to each of my crew members (as an employee of this company, I have to plug them), along with a pair of Injinji socks (an unbelievable “toe” sock). This was a small token for what my buddies were to do for me over 100 miles the next day. We all then retired to our respective tent for an expected restless night of sleep. I was not disappointed.

Here I was shortly after 3:00 AM trying to ignore the “Chariots of Fire” wake up call (truly, my only complaint, albeit shallow, of the whole event), donning the clothes and shoes that would carry me hopefully 100 miles, but all I could think about was how absolutely perfect the morning was. The Milky Way was boastful on that Vermont morning as were all the constellations I had not taken the time to notice in years. I knew then that mentally I was ready for this day. The fact that I could step back from what I was about to do and take notice of the beauty around me meant the day was going to be good! Vermont is truly a feast for the eyes and had bestowed on me a beautiful day with perfect weather and all I had to do was run 100 miles through this bucolic setting. Piece of cake.

Despite the ungodly start time of 4:00 AM, Kelly was a saint and accompanied me to the race check-in. The area around the starting line was electric; it was like a big party. All other race starts I have been at always seem to be dominated by a hushed nervousness with everyone deep in thought of what they were about to do. Standing in Silver Hill Meadow that morning, surrounded by runners about to race a 100-mile course that ascended and descended over 15,000 feet, there seemed to be nothing but giddiness and excitement. Even standing in the porta-potty line was great as I was the recipient of much appreciated advice from veterans on how to handle numerous issues I might encounter during the day.

I was lucky enough to run into one of my Maine running buddies, James Demer, while Kelly and I wandered around the start area. Missing was Jamie Anderson, but I had confirmed he was out of his tent and had checked in. As James and I moseyed over to the start, the race director gave us a “get ready to go” command and shortly afterward I was surprised by the starters gun. (At the JFK 50-miler I was still one half mile from the start when the race started.) I gave Kelly a quick kiss and I headed off into the darkness of the Vermont morning with James, very thankful I had run into him.

It is after the gun goes off that you are hit with the overwhelming understanding and awe of what is ahead of you. It all becomes real. At mile 1 the thought that I still had 99 more of those to go hit me. It was at this point that I realized how much of a benefit it was to be running alongside James. The conversation we were having while running in the tunnel of light our headlamps were casting saved us both from sinking into despair. James and I carried on at a reasonable pace, somewhere around 10:00/mile, which while it doesn't seem fast would put us at the finish line in a brisk sub-18:00 hours. The thought here was that this pace was conversational and would put us in no worse a spot in the later miles of the race than a 12:00-13:00 pace. The pain would be equal so we might as well try to get as close to the finish as we could while we still felt good. There are different schools of thought on “banking” time, with the general consensus being it is a bad thing to do. However, I had decided before the race that this is would be in my game plan and in the end I think it served me well.

At around mile 5 James stopped for a biological break and I had no choice but to continue on with my race plan. After a couple minutes of running in the early AM darkness alone I regretted my decision to leave James behind. It was lonely, so I sought out another soul amongst all the bouncing headlamps with whom to share the trail. I found a buddy in a 100-mile veteran with whom I shared the distinction of having lived in the Washington, D.C. Area. We ran and shared stories of the D.C. area and made the mistake of missing a turn. This was quickly corrected and we separated shortly afterwards, as our walk/run race strategies were different.

After running with a number of other runners over the next few miles, I heard a familiar voice as James rejoined our group around mile 10. This was a most welcome occurrence. As we cruised over the beautiful farm roads of southern Vermont, our group now numbered somewhere around six runners. The sun had risen and the day was shaping up to be absolutely gorgeous. It was at about this time that I also caught up with my D.C. buddy I met earlier. I noticed an Army Ranger tab tattooed on the back of his calf, which surprised me. The irony did not escape me that here was a guy who had been a highly trained member of our Armed Forces and he almost allowed me to get lost! I summoned my courage and shared this observation with him, and he laughed and replied that his Ranger days were obviously well in the past.

At mile 15 we passed through the first of the covered bridges on the course and we were passed by the first group of horses. This was the first of many encounters with the horses, the last coming at mile 98. Horses aren't new to the 100-mile endurance run; they are in fact the reason we run this distance. It is my understanding that the Vermont 100 is one of the last of the 100 milers that still have runners and horses competing together, despite this being the origin of the 100-mile race distance. It is a shame because they are true athletes and majestic to behold as they come trotting by you. This is just one more reason why the Vermont 100 is such a special race.

Shortly before the first handler station at mile 21 I encountered my first issue of the day. James and I were trucking along pretty well when I stopped to take care of “business”. When I was ready to head out my first step came up lame as my groin muscle tightened up and would not allow a full extension of my leg. This had happened to me a number of times during training but never quite this bad. Here I was with 80 miles to go with a dysfunctional groin muscle. I stopped and stretched for a couple minutes and luckily the problem seemed to work its way out. Problem averted and I did not notice it the rest of the day. This was just one of the many things a runner can encounter when running a 100 miler. The best advice I have for dealing with these unwelcome issues is to just take them as they come, listen to your body, and work your way through them. Every issue that I faced that day went as fast as it came. This was an amazing lesson to learn, and one that I am sure will come in handy in future races.

After getting through this first hiccup, I headed towards the first big milestone of the race. Pretty House Station at mile 21 was the first stop where handlers and runners could meet on the course. Seeing Renie and Brian was such a treat, and mentally refreshing. The first 21 miles was the longest section without handler support; each successive handler station would be closer and this was a huge mental victory. Just the thought of seeing your crew is a huge pick-me-up, which is why it is critical in these races to have your friends and family support you while out on the course. It was at this point I dropped my hydration pack and opted for a handheld bottle and was able to choke down some food. Brian had a pot of coffee brewing in the bed of his truck that was tough to run away from, but James and I headed back out on the trail java free. That would have to wait until I really needed it.

The next handler station was 10 miles away and these were probably the 10 easiest and uneventful miles of the day. The sun was still low in the sky, which added a nice color to the hills. It was during this stretch that James and I came upon one of many friendly Vermonters we would meet that day. After a fairly excruciating climb, we spotted an elderly woman standing out in her yard just looking happy to be alive. As we had been enjoying the scenery through which we had passed, we took time to say hello and thank her for allowing us to run through her front yard. She was so grateful that we had taken the chance to say hi and she thanked us, saying that all the runners that had come before us had not spoken for lack of breath. Well, I guess James and I were doing something right since we could still talk. This was the motivation I needed to keep on my race plan knowing that if the runners ahead of me were cresting the hills exhausted I would definitely be seeing them later in the day!

Stage Road station at mile 30 came quickly and I met Brian and Renie to undertake the routine I would carry on all day; run in stoically and smile for the cameras, take care of my nutrition needs, apply sunscreen, rub my legs with muscle relief cream, and just take a moment to regroup. The next handler station was Camp 10 Bear, and at 17 miles away was the next to longest distance between handler stations. An important feature of Camp 10 Bear, at mile 47.2, was that it was the first medical checkpoint of the race. It was critical at this stage to make sure I was hydrating properly and eating enough as a drop in weight of just 5% would sideline me until I regained it, and a loss of 7% would have me DNF'd and likely in a hospital. Given my proclivity to eating, I didn't anticipate this to be an issue.

A few minutes after setting out for Camp 10 Bear the course took a vertical turn for the worse. One minute we were heading down this nice country lane and the next we were scaling Vermont's answer to Mount Everest. Despite the rising sun and altitude gain, we still marveled at Vermont's beauty. Around every bend in the road and at the peak of every hill were awesome sights to behold and reminders to give thanks that we were here. If we weren't gawking at majestic valleys highlighted by the most perfect light the sun could provide then it was the classical New England architecture with a special whimsical Vermont touch that kept us entertained. There was never a dull moment.

The excitement and bliss we were running with was shattered somewhat when at somewhere halfway between the last handler station and Camp 10 Bear James decided he had to slow down and let his body take care of some GI issues he was facing. This was indeed the saddest point in the day as James had been the perfect compatriot to run alongside that morning. I had shared some of the best 40 miles of my running career running beside James that morning and now I was alone.

After leaving James I passed a number of other runners who really didn't seem to be looking for any running buddies, so I ran alone for a few miles. Funny enough, of the 100 miles I ran that day, the three or so miles I ran during this stretch was the only time I traveled solo. Coming into this race I was sure that a field of just under 200 would get quite stretched out over the course pretty quickly. I have run marathons that had four to five times more participants and run at least half the course without any interaction with other runners. Ultrarunners just seem to be more chatty and social, probably due to the long time we spend on a course and the conversational pace most of are forced to carry. Perhaps also we are not in that much of a rush to get to where we are going but would rather enjoy the journey.

After this short, lonely distance I came up on a runner that was ready for a buddy. We started talking and all of a sudden he asked if I was Stephen Wells. Of course I answered affirmatively. Needless to say I was a little taken aback and asked him the obvious question of how he knew my name. I was shocked by his answer. Dan and I had first met briefly during the first few miles of the 2004 Maine Marathon and we became instant buddies. It turned out that the two of us, while young and fit guys, had undergone chemotherapy treatment for cancer. How amazing that we were both once again running together, at the biggest race of our lives, and he remembered my name. What a small and fantastic world we inhabit. Reuniting with Dan was extremely uplifting and motivating and came at exactly the right point in the race. We ran a few more miles together before letting our race plans dictate our pace, forcing us to separate. I did see him the next day and he finished under his goal of 24 hours, earning him a silver buckle.

Entering Camp 10 Bear at mile 47.2 was a momentous occasion. It was here that I got to see Riley for the first time that day, and to reunite with Kelly. (Quinn was napping in the car, no doubt as a result of one of his epic chow fests.) I grabbed a kiss from my girls and then refueled, lathered on more sunscreen, donned a visor, and headed over to the first weigh-in of the day. Every veteran runner I spoke with up to this point spoke fearfully of the dreaded weigh-in. If you had done something wrong with your nutrition (retaining too little or too much) and your weight was outside the accepted ranges (anything greater than 5% loss or even a little gain) the medical staff can make you sit until you bring your weight back in check or worse, they can pull you from the race. If the medical staff deemed you to be unfit to continue, there was no room for debate. You were benched. So it was with these thoughts coursing through my mind that I stepped up to the plate. At check-in the day before I weighed 160 lbs. After 47.2 miles I weighed 161. Okay, everything seemed to be working, maybe even a little too good. The doctor asked if I had been voiding my stomach and bladder during the race, which I had. So off I went. As I left the aid station I was thinking that I might be the only person that could gain weight while running 100 miles.

I ran the next few miles with a runner who at this point had taken a very negative view of things. He seemed to be consumed with the notion that everyone else was running the race all wrong. "Why is that person trying to run up this hill when we are walking and he is gaining no distance on us?" "Look, now he's walking. He should have done that a long time ago." For me, it is critical in races that take a lot of mental stamina to surround yourself with only positive thinkers and to think only positive thoughts yourself. Why complain when there are so many beautiful things to comment on and you are able to compete alongside hundreds of other people who share your same passion and zeal for life. You have to keep away from dark thoughts. Otherwise an already hard event can become unbearable. Once we entered some single track where running side-by-side was difficult I wished him well and pulled away. Later that night as I crossed the finish line, he came up and congratulated me. Unfortunately he was unable to continue past mile 62 when his hamstrings froze up and left him immobile. I'm not sure the positive thinking would have got him through that issue, but it most certainly would not have hurt him.

Fortunately, up ahead there were plenty of others looking for company. At the halfway mark of the race I met up with Charlie. Charlie was a Godsend because I saw in him someone that I could go the distance with. He was positive, lived in Vermont and knew the course intimately as he had trained on it, had competed in Ironmans so I knew he was tough, and had a wicked good sense of humor. I think I was a Godsend for him as well because he had been suffering through some hamstring issues and needed someone to motivate him. I answered his call simply by chatting with him to take his mind off the discomfort. It seemed to work as he was moving quite well shortly after we started talking. He was a walking guidebook of the racecourse. I almost felt like I was cheating as he narrated what the course was going to throw at us around each corner.

One of the most memorable aid stations was Tracer Brook at mile 57. As I came running into the station I was greeted by my most enthusiastic fan, my daughter Riley, who came bounding out into the middle of the road to give me a hug. This greeting did me better than a hot bath and beer. I now know that when in dire need of motivation, a beaming smile from a loved one will carry you many miles. I ran the next few steps with Riley (who at two and a half years old was probably the youngest crew member on the course that day) to the food table where I grabbed a banana and proceeded with Riley to the rest of the crew. I will never forget Riley telling all the spectators around us “That’s my daddy” over and over. That was the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me during a race. I cannot even describe the feeling of pride that overwhelmed me. I would put money down that the leader of the race didn't feel as proud as I did at that point when he won the race! At the same time she was doing this she had stolen and eaten my banana, which I didn’t realize until a hundred yards up the road. The banana was a small price to pay for a priceless mental boost and eternal memory.

Charlie and I continued on together through the Margaritaville (mile 62) and Brown School House aid stations at miles 62 and 65, respectively. Margaritaville is considered the most "famous" of Vermont's aid stations, largely because it is one big party run by the Vermont Parrot Heads who will make margaritas for any runner needing one. It was here that I witnessed a volunteer, at the request of a delirious runner, throw water on that runner and slap him while repeating to him “Thou shall not quit.” The next aid station was the Brown School House aid station, named for the charming but dilapidated schoolhouse that happened to be brown. I found humor in the Grateful Dead theme here when I noticed the first brownies of the day…they did look yummy and tempting but I rethought the fun they might contain and focused once more on making it to the finish. I did take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the hippies, which I believe had consequences for me at mile 70. More on that later.

Beyond the deadheads the course became very flat and runable. So keeping with my race plan of power walking the hills and running the flats and downs, we ran. But given the elevation gain of 15,000 feet over the course, you have to run at every opportunity if you want to have any chance of getting near a 20 hour finish (my “A” goal). As equally important is to learn how to power walk. This must be incorporated into your long, training runs to make them effective. It is just as easy to waste energy walking poorly as it is to try and charge up every hill. Maintaining a long, sustained run effort after a 60-plus mile day is difficult. The one thing that kept motivating Charlie and I to maintain our run was the fact that the next major stop was once more Camp 10 Bear at mile 70.2. This was not only the sight of the second medical check but also where we picked up our pacers, those angels we had been daydreaming about since the last time we were at Camp 10 Bear the first time over 20 miles ago.

A couple miles shy of Camp 10 Bear, after having maintained a solid run for almost an hour, my stomach started acting up. It wasn’t a profound shift in the unbelievable feeling of well being I had carried all day but a very subtle one. By the time we reached our pacers at Mile 70.2 my stomach was really nauseous. After over 13 hours of running this was only the second issue I had to deal with since my groin cramp 50 miles prior. Yet, while I was worried as I stepped on the scale to be weighed, I was still amazed at how well things were going. And then my weight was read by the doctor and compared to my previous measurements, and a look of concern passed over the doc’s face. My weight of 164 lbs. was four pounds over my original weight. The initial thought was that I must be in the early stages of some sort of my kidney problem or I wasn’t taking in enough salt and was retaining water. I disagreed with the prognosis and made the case that this couldn’t be since I had been continuously voiding my bladder and stomach. I also felt fine in every other way and was not delirious. He decided I was okay and let me on my way. Now with Renie pacing me. Thirty miles to go to my tent and lovely L.L.Bean cot!

The first quarter mile with Renie was easy, flat farm road, which was a great introduction to Vermont running for Renie. Then the course went vertical, up the steepest, nastiest single track of the day. My initial thought, despite how tired my legs and feet were, was one of concern for Renie. I felt horrible getting my friend into this. My concern was unfounded, as Renie could not control her excitement, almost to the point of annoying my extremely sensitive nature at that point in the race. However, this was great because it wrenched me from my fleeting thoughts of despair and put me back in the place I needed to be, which was in a state of wonder at what I was doing and how lucky I was to just be running with a friend in a remarkable place. The stomach felt bad but I was moving.

The miles passed pretty slowly to the next aid station where I was to meet Brian. Renie and I kept swapping positions with Charlie and his pacer and sometimes we ran as a foursome. Finally at mile 77 we rolled into the “Spirit of ‘76” aid station. It was named this because it fell at mile 76 on the old course that was found to be a couple miles shy of 100. The current course corrected this shortfall but the aid station’s name stayed. The volunteers at this station were professionals at treating all runner maladies and recommended I sip hot chicken broth, an excellent source of everything when running ultras. This did settle my stomach enough for Brian and I to head off into the waning light of the day feeling happy again.

Brian was as equally ecstatic as Renie to finally run. When I started running five years ago, it was Brian who was my original running buddy. I took my first real runs with him and we have been running together ever since, so it was quite special to be on this journey with him. It was critical at this point in the race to have a pacer who was familiar with me because this was when I really needed help. I was still suffering from stomach nausea and was becoming a little sleepy. This is when I pulled my most audacious stunt of the day. I had been running for roughly 16 hours and I could not get my mind off the empty cot that was waiting for me back in my tent. I knew sleep was not an option as I still had many more miles to cover so I did the next best thing; I closed my eyes while running and asked Brian to use voice commands to make sure I didn’t run into a tree. After about five minutes of resting my eyes, I “woke” up feeling remarkably well. Sometimes when you are in a bad place it doesn’t take much to get out.

Despite my stomach issues Brian and I made fantastic time on the trails and were having a great time. Just like the old days back in Yarmouth, Maine, we were simply happy to be running. Our run was made even better as a new buddy, John from Georgia, approached. He was moving at a remarkable pace and I felt a twinge of jealousy as he approached us like we were standing still. He was chatty and we all shared pleasantries, including my stomach issue. In the spirit of sharing, he promptly pulled out the ultrarunner’s secret weapon from his waist pack; the one thing a long distance runner should never leave home without but which I was missing. Tums. He offered up a few of these magic pills and like an angel, moved on ahead as if he was floating. He came and went so quickly, while at the same time dispensing both sage advice and medical help, that Brian and I quipped he must have been an apparition. The story gets stranger. I swapped places with him once more on the course around 11:00 PM as he came out of nowhere, after having apparently been lost on the course. The next morning I checked the race results and he wasn’t listed. Spooky.

The reason Brian is such a great friend is his kindness and willingness to go out of his way to help despite his best judgment. This was evident by the simple fact that he was out in the middle of the night running through the Vermont countryside with me. Brian possesses the one prerequisite of all great crewmembers and that is an unbelievably fantastic humor. Miles 77 to 88 were some of the best miles of the day, excepting the last four and a half I ran with my wife, Kelly. Near the end of Brian’s pacing duty we were making great time when we came upon an old woman. She was standing on the porch of what appeared to my unstable mind to be a gingerbread house from the Grimm fairytale. The nice, old woman kindly invited us in for a drink of ice water. Anything cold sounded nice to me and so I almost fell for this trap. I relayed my gingerbread house thought to Brian and he felt it better to be safe than sorry. Brian then steered me back on course, saving me from the same fate that befell Hansel. A little help refocusing goes a long way in the latter stages of a long run.

The last couple miles before every aid station where I anticipated seeing my handlers were done at an extremely strong pace, and the last couple miles I ran with Brian were no exception. We ended up passing my buddy Charlie for the last time. I spoke with Charlie the next day at the awards ceremony. He fell victim to hamstring cramps and fell off his 20 hour pace and finished in 21 hours, 36 minutes. You just never know what will happen in a 100-mile race. Most of the veterans I ran with during the day seemed to be waiting for the wheels to fall off, and they did for most of them as their finish times indicated.

Brian and I entered Bill’s aid station at mile 88 just before 10:00 PM and were greeted by Renie and Kelly. It was here that I had my final medical check, including a weigh-in. I stepped up to the scales for the final weigh-in with some trepidation that proved unnecessary. I weighed in at 160 lbs., the same as my starting weight. The next day there was some runner chatter about scales sitting on soft, sloped earth that had to have contributed to the assumed incorrect weights. I am not really sure what happened but I felt good and I no longer had to worry about going on a diet after finishing my 100-mile run! After finishing up with the doctor I hit the food table (the Vermont 100 has been described in other race reports as a 100-mile buffet table and now I know why) and for the first time since my stomach issues started at mile 70 I had some solid food. I do credit a lot of my success and general well being during the day to my ability to continuously eat solid food. I followed the advice of “eat early and often”. I may have been a little too successful following this advice, which is what likely contributed to my bout with nausea, but it was better than bonking and I learned a valuable lesson.

More importantly, the last 20 miles of struggling through my stomach issues had found me repeating the mantra, “This too shall pass”. I had not really had to draw on this meditative and strengthening phrase since dealing with chemotherapy treatments almost five years ago. Having a powerful mantra to remind yourself to keep after a goal is priceless when things seem stacked against you and others around you are throwing in the towel.

It was with a renewed sense of vigor, and a handful of Tums just in case, that Renie and I headed off into the night. Twelve miles to go and the end was in sight. I would meet Kelly at the next handler station for her to pace me home. Renie and I flew over the single-track trail we encountered shortly after leaving the aid station. At this point I had been running with my headlamp on for an hour or so. There is something ethereal with running in the dark through the woods with only your own light to guide you. To add to this surreal experience the course was lined with green glow sticks to make sure the runners did not stray from the path. The green glow sticks hanging from the trees created this feeling of running through an enchanted forest. I am not sure if this was a result of the peanut butter sandwich the hippies made me back at the Brown School House or the 18 hours I had been running, but nonetheless, it was fantastic.

So as Renie and I followed the green glow sticks on a cambered single-track trail that switched back and forth down a hill, we came across an elderly gentleman that seemed to be staggering a little. He was running sans pacer so I slowed my scorching pace to check and make sure he was still with us. He replied cheeringly that all was well. I asked once more to make sure and he just laughed, as if to say, “Get a move on you young whippersnapper, I’ve done this before many times”, so I moved on. From Mile 89 to 92, we passed three runners, which was very encouraging. I have always prided myself on and judged a race by how many runners I passed, and on the flip side, how few passed me. In no other race did I find passing others so rewarding as I did the last 10 miles of the Vermont 100. After leaving a little aid station at mile 92 that was set up in a volunteer’s carport, the hills began again. Miles 92 to 95.5 seemed particularly cruel. All I could do was lean into the hills and keep moving one foot in front of the other.

While enjoyable, these were a long three and a half miles. But like everything else during that day, they passed and we made it to the final handler station. Kelly greeted us with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen and her enthusiasm was like high octane. I was feeling better than I had all day as Kelly and I headed off to 100-mile glory. The last four and a half miles were the most enjoyable miles I have run in my short, but distance laden running career. Kelly and I are very different runners with very different expectations of the sport. We run significantly different paces, and she has a hard time taking the running advice I am always itching to give her. She just wants to run. Well at Mile 95.5 we did just that, with no encumbrances. Our kids were tucked away and being watched by Brian’s wife, Amanda, and I was too tired to even consider dispensing advice and my legs could not even begin to maintain a cadence outside Kelly’s comfort zone. So we ran together contentedly, enjoying this rare moment of running together with no other concerns but to keep putting one foot in front of the other while following the green glow sticks through the enchanted forest.

We passed a few runners during the last couple miles, one of which was the elderly gentleman Renie and I had passed earlier; the same one I imagined called me a whippersnapper. Apparently he had come and gone through the last station without me noticing. I chatted with him for a few minutes and learned his name was Dan Brenden and he was an attorney from Phoenix, AZ. He seemed to be doing much better than when I had seen him before in what I thought was a confused state. I was mistaken. I asked him if he had run a 100-mile race before and he replied he had run eight already this year. This was his ninth of the season, only three weeks after getting his silver buckle at Western States. This man was a stud and I felt foolish with having been worried about him earlier in the race. This just goes to show you never know what boastful resumes participants in these ultraendurance events carry. Approach everyone humbly with humility and you will learn much.

Just a couple miles shy of the finish as Kelly and I were passing through a pockmarked trail that seemed to have been rototilled under countless horses’ hooves, we passed a couple horses. All day I had shared the trail with these majestic creatures and here I was at Mile 98 overtaking two of them. I have read about man versus horse races that used to be commonplace in the beginning of the last century, and here I was doing it. While I would not be on the same results page with the horses, it was still pretty cool passing them. After this I ran blissfully, feeling like another 100 miles was completely within my capability. The green glow sticks were becoming more frequent as the course entered into some of the more difficult single track of the entire 100 miles. But I could have been running over hot coals at this point and I would not have noticed them. I was so close to accomplishing the goal I had been training for since deciding to tackle this distance back in November as I completed the JFK 50-miler. I have this wicked sense of humor that forces my mind to start planning my next grand adventure while in the middle of the current one. As much as I was enjoying myself on this 100-mile excursion, I spared myself this cruel trick during this event.

As we crested the top of what we were hoping was the last hill the course would throw at us, the green glow sticks hanging from the trees were replaced with milk jugs filled with water illuminated by a submerged glow stick. The effect was truly surreal. I followed these glowing green orbs until they finally led me to the end of the forest and dropped me at the end of my journey. As I crossed the finish line 20 hours, 27 minutes and 37 seconds after the start, I was in 16th place and felt an amazing sense of achievement, much as we all do when we accomplish a goal that has required a ton of blood, sweat, and tears.


At the finish line to cheer me in were Renie, Brian, Amanda, and most amazingly, my children, Quinn and Riley. I was surprised to see them awake and waiting for me at half past midnight, but their presence was very welcomed. There is no better finish to a race. At each of my other major races, I have carried Riley across the finish line. I knew at the beginning of this race that I would not be able to continue this practice for a couple different reasons: it would be too late for Quinn and Riley to be at the finish and I would probably be too exhausted to carry myself across the line, much less my children. Simply having them at the finish was awesome. Unlike marathons and the Ironman, ultramarathon finish lines are devoid of mass spectators, largely due to the late night finished, small race field, and the gap of time between finishers. But having my family and best friends there to greet me made me feel like a rock star entering a sold out stadium!

What followed was the same as at any race, regardless of distance. I moved on to the food tent and tried to replace my depleted stores. I became quite cold and was forced to wrap up in a blanket and sip on a cup of hot chocolate that was as well received as a bottle of Dom Periogne on graduation night. My buddy Dan, the 100-mile repeat offender many times over, arrived shortly after me and we shared a nice conversation while warming up. (I would learn later that morning that a number of runners had been DNF’d or held by the medical personnel for a while due to hypothermia, even though the nighttime temperatures only reached around the mid-50s.) I had originally planned to wait at the finish line for James and Jamie to arrive but once I sat and had some food, exhaustion overcame me. I made my way back to my tent, had a hot shower courtesy of my Zodi personal shower system (love it!), and found heaven in the way of my cot…and didn’t move a muscle until I heard James and Jamie talking war stories the next morning outside my tent.

As it was only 6 AM when I woke and the cut off time for the race was not until 10 AM, I made my way over to the finish line to watch some finishers come in. While the 24-hour cut off for silver buckle winners had passed with 4 AM, this by no means diminished the unbelievable excitement and emotion that accompanied each finisher. A couple times the celebration at the finish line made me tear up. If you ever need inspiration, go stand at the finish line of a marathon, Ironman, or ultramarathon near the cut off time. Witnessing the very personal struggle against adversity near the cut off time of any race is enough to push anyone to try harder in all aspects of life. After hanging out at the finish line to see the last of the official finishers, my family and crew joined me for the Sunday brunch and awards ceremony. My finish time did earn me my first ultramarathon silver buckle. Since then I have decided to throw my hat in the ring to go after the buckle of all buckles: the Western States 100. If all goes well in the December race lottery, which will choose the approximately 400 lucky souls that get to race in 2008, I will embark on my next 100-miler in the Sierra Nevada next June. Wish me luck.

The Vermont 100 was a beautiful race, from the selfless volunteers to the flawless scenery, and from the buttoned-up race organization to the unparalleled camaraderie of the runners. All these things made this the perfect run. Never once did I despair, as I was totally captivated by the event from mile 1 to 100. For a first 100-miler, I could have chosen none better.

9 comments:

Jamie said...

I hope you know what an outstanding treat it was to wake up, see your report was FINALLY up (hee hee), and soak in every word with a big mug of of french pressed coffee. Very well written, and rekindled my own personal memories of the race. I am still in awe of how fast you ran it. Hopefully we'll both be at the WS100 next year, and you can show the world how us Maine boys do things!

Tom T. said...

Great write-up, Stephen! You really captured the feeling of the event nicely. It almost makes me want to try some ultras........almost.

tc said...

Wow! Great documentation of your awesome adventure. I felt like I was running beside you while reading this. And your comment about being negative is right on point. It can really drag one down. The demons were pretty powerful this past Sunday. It took a lot to fight them off. This said, I can not imagine what it takes to fight off 100 mile demons. I guess I will have to wait to answer that question for myself.

Many kudos to you for such a powerful achievement.

Love2Run said...

What a great story you tell, and it's all true! Almost makes me want to join you and Jamie and the rest of the ultra community for the good times. Nice work!

Karen Manson said...

Stephen-
What an amazing accomplishment! Brian shared your blog with me and I was so touched by your strength and attitude (and will, athleticism...). Very inspiring--though I don't think I will EVER do it! Congratulations!

UltraFlash said...

Thank you all for the much appreciated comments. It was fun to write, especially because this was my first 100 and first ever race report. It is nice to have this documented so my kids can one day understand how instrumental they were in getting me to the finish.

Thanks to the new commenters, tom t. and love2run. It is nice to see comments as it validates the reason I spend the time to post my thoughts. If you would have asked me not so many years ago if I would ever have run a marathon I would have laughed at you. Now I have run a 100 miler. Never count out an ultra!

UltraFlash said...

Thank you Karen for the kind comment. As I said in an earlier reply to others, never count yourself out! Life's no fun without surprises. And also thanks to all my friends and family for reading my diatribe. Hopefully everyone takes a little away from it.

Blaine Moore said...

Nice report, Steve! I love reading detailed race reports; its good to see that you were lucid enough to remember things that happened throughout the entire race!

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