It is very surreal to think that as I write this I am only a couple days removed from running the last mile of my second 100-mile endurance run. As I struggled through those last few miles I did not believe I would ever attain comfort again, much less this soon. It is very easy to see how we so easily become complacent in our comfort, especially given how easily it is obtained. I think this is the reason most of us accept the challenge and put ourselves through the struggle that is the 100-mile run distance. We seek out anything that challenges us; something to get us closer to that primeval will to survive that our early ancestors lived with everyday.
This was my first 100-miler since hitting the 5-year cancer free mark and receiving the declaration that I am a cancer "survivor". I believe my experience with cancer gives me a distinct and decided advantage over those who have not had to go through the ordeal of treating the disease. While I could never quantify the mental toughness and appreciation for life I took away from the chemo ward, it is an enormous driver in my life and is in my mind every step of the way from start to finish line. So there is the source of my motivation. Now on to the race!
Into the Vermont woods we ran and within the first mile I began sweating. The humidity was ridiculous and was visible in the air, reducing the range of our headlamps noticeably. Jamie and I stuck together and shortly began picking up other runners to form a makeshift club. My Trail Monster buddy, Chuck Hazzard, signed up first, followed by Ron Farkash from Massachusetts, with whom I ran the beginning of last year's race, and rounding out our happy group was Rawfood Frank, a raw vegan chef from Connecticut. We were a motley crew, all offering something different and valuable. Frank quickly made himself indispensable as he quickly began to dole out the most obscure nutritional advice imaginable. For example, who but a select few would know that the "chia" in chia pets is an incredibly nutritious food source? Apparently, as I learned from Frank, it was used by Aztec warriors on their long conquests. I started wondering why we all weren't chewing on the stuff. I for one am going to pull out that chia pet I have had on my closet shelf and bring it to work to begin growing some health. I also learned about the best order in which to eat things (no peanut butter before watermelon to aid digestion) and countless other valuable things as I ran with Frank for over 40 miles.
Just shy of mile 40 we ran through the Lincoln Covered Bridge, the second of the day. These are spectacular structures and running through them gives one a great view of their construction, not to mention a moment of shelter from the sun. As we came to the aid station that follows, our group was back down to just Jamie, Frank, and me and stayed small the rest of the day. Conversation had settled down as we were all contemplating what the rest of the day was going to bring, especially how hot it might get. I for one was harboring some very dark thoughts of how I might feel if the actual weather came close to the prediction of the day before.
It was also at this point that I started to ache a little. The outside of my quads were "pinging" a bit with every footfall and a couple toes started hurting. On top of this I started to get a little bored. Despair hit a bit here as I realized I was hurting and losing focus with not even half the race complete. This was the beginning of the first low point of the day; the first of many. Last year I was lucky in that my first of only one low hit at mile 70, so these early lows were new for me. I have read many times about the physical and emotional roller coaster suffered through long distance events and my knowledge of this made me comfortable that this was normal and before I knew it I would soon enough be running on cloud nine again. This was lesson two of the day: you will hit some extreme lows but there is a 99.9% chance you will pull out of it as quickly as you entered it, the trick is just lasting until that happens.
Camp 10 Bear appears on the course like an oasis in a desert. We rolled in just before 1 PM and the crowds were thick and I got to see my family for the first time of the day. Runners also greet this stop with a little dread as it is the first medical stop where weights are taken and the doctors perform their "psychoanalysis" of all the participants. As I pulled in with Jamie, we were greeted by my daughter, Riley, wielding twizzlers and a big hug. As my stomach was a little on the edge the best I could do was nibble off an end despite her assurance that they were really good. I quickly checked in with Brian, said hi to Kelly, and moved on to weigh in.
Camp 10 Bear doubles as both the medical aid station at mile 47.2 and mile 70.1. The miles between these two are the hardest of the day, by my estimation. For some reason I feel quite lonely when I do this loop in the southwest part of the course. This is probably because it comes in the middle of the course, so you are tired from the miles you have done and worried about the miles to come, which for most of us are the miles we never covered in training (as training runs rarely, if ever, exceed 50 miles). This loop also comes in the heat of the day. I suspect it was because of this heat that my stomach was still quite unsettled and a bit bloated. I was uninterested in food and was still voiding my stomach too often. Salvation came in the form of a nice volunteer who looked at me at the mile 54.1 Birminghams aid station and said "you've gotta eat something." I heeded her advice, downed my first ever "on-the-run" turkey and cheese sandwich, wagering I had nothing to lose, and headed out with Jamie. I walked for about a quarter mile on a flat stretch through a field, simply to avoid choking on my sandwich. It wasn't too long afterwards that I started feeling better and my energy levels seemed to rise. This was lesson number three of the day: you gotta eat, even if your stomach is screaming no. Without food you are useless.
At mile 57 Jamie and I reached the Tracer Brook aid station, so named for a nice little stream that was enjoyed by both horses and my kids during the heat of the day. Quinn was just waking up when I saw him at Camp 10 Bear but rearing to go at Tracer Brook after just exiting the stream. He ran up into my arms and his 25 pounds about toppled my feeble body when I picked him up. I got a quick hug from him and decided carrying him was not an option, so I put him down and headed over to feast. It was also here that I learned lesson number four of the day: don't forget a bandanna on a hot day. Jamie had been filling his bandanna with ice at each stop and tieing it around his neck. This served to cool the blood flowing through the carotid artery, and hence your head and brain. Phil happened to have a handkerchief which was pretty small, but enough for me to use. I promptly tied it on and moved along. As I was leaving, Quinn started crying for me and I felt terrible leaving him. I had a moment of sadness as I knew that turning around wasn't an option. I shouted back some words of encouragement to him and moved out, knowing that was the only thing that would get me home sooner.
Not too far up the road I concocted a motivational story for Jamie. I know Jamie well enough to understand he suffers from an acute case of "bucklemania". That is, when a buckle is at stake at a race, Jamie will do whatever he can to secure that buckle. He would gladly run himself into the ground to make sure he walks away with it at the finish. So on top of Prospect Hill, around mile 60, while Jamie was in a trough and I was on a pedestal, I casually mentioned to him that the Vermont buckle for under-24 hour finishers was a "special, 20th Anniversary edition". I myself partially believed this, but I faltered momentarily when questioned by Jamie and then I decided to stick to my story because I figured it couldn't hurt. Not so surprisingly, this lifted Jamie right out of the black hole he was in and I heard him mutter the mantra, "20th Anniversary edition buckle", aloud for the rest of the time I was with him. He was still talking about it the next morning as we watched the last finishers cross the line, and he never showed any disappoint when he received the same old buckle as last year. They are all special, no matter the size or material.
Around the same time I took advantage of Jamie's "bucklemania", clouds started forming and Jamie and I heard some thunder. It was 3 PM and hot. We were tired and in dire need of a dowsing. After hearing the thunder for about half and hour and watching the skies darken around us, our wish was granted as the clouds emptied just shy of Prospect Hill at mile 60. Funny enough I became quite chilled during this 20 minute deluge. I am sure my body was quite confused, having gone through heat and now cold. Even better was that these cool temperatures carried us into the best aid station of the day, Margaritaville at mile 62.1. Mentally I was at the absolute high of the day. I had become super chatty leading up to this aid station, unbelieving of how well I felt. Brian and Phil, my extraoidinary crew, were there to greet me. Exiting this station I knew that we were only one aid station and 8 miles away from our second stop at Camp 10 Bear, where pacers would join us for our run to the finish line.
The miles leading up to Camp 10 Bear were pretty uneventful and not very scenic. We crossed paths with quite a few horses and also had the pleasure of visiting with the deadheads at the Brown School House aid station. I chose not to partake in the eating of the brownies as I did last year, hoping to aviod the stomach issues that plagued me last year after leaving this station. This part of the course, miles 65 to 70, are very runnable and in fact seem to be downhill. This forced Jamie and I to compromise a bit on our race plan of only walking the uphills as neither of us was in any shape to run a straight five miles . Even with this compromise we still covered this section in a pretty remarkable pace of 11:18/mile, this was the best pace we had held since the five miles between 34 and 39 which included traversing the Lincoln Covered Bridge. A big part of this quicker pace was the magical pull of the pacers. It seems like an entirely new race once you meet your pacer. They inject new blood and energy, and after having run 70 miles this is in great need.
The beginning of the end:
Last year I hit my one low of the day heading up this hill. This year I was luckier in that I was feeling okay, but this hill still hit me pretty hard. Finally we did hit the top and were happy to get to running again. About a mile later I turned around to check on Jamie and realized he wasn't behind us. I decided that he must have pulled over for a bio break, and that this was as good a time as any to go at it alone. This departure was sad in that Jamie I had spent over 14 hours and 71 miles running together, having bonded more than we had over the entire year I have known him. During the rest of the night I was able to check on his progress through his handler, Kate, and it gave me comfort knowing he was still running strong.
Brian and I crossed paths a number of times with Ron Farkash, with whom I ran at the beginning of the race. The only problem with the paths we crossed was that he was usually running the wrong way on the course, having to backtrack from missed turns. If I was him I would have fired my pacer immediately, but this wasn't an option for Ron as his wife was acting in that capacity. Remarkably Ron seemed to take the extra credit running in stride and kept ahead of us until Brian and I passed him soon after the West Winds aid station at mile 77. This aid station, also known as the "Spirit of '76" is right up there with Margaritaville in enthusiasm. The crowds were great, cheering for all the runners as they entered, and there was even an acoustic musician there for some entertainment.
The miles with Brian passed quickly and enjoyably, containing the expected amount of humor that seems to follow Brian like the dirt cloud that follows the Peanuts character Pig Pen. Of note was seeing Ron doubling back two too many times and once more being greeted by the Grimm brother's witch from Hansel and Gretel. There she stood, as she did last year, at the entrance of her gingerbread house with the nicest smile imaginable, tempting us to come rest our weary legs. What are the chances this lady would once again be in the same place as we passed her a year later? We took this an omen (not sure if good or bad) and moved on.
The last miles with Brian were fruitful as we quickly covered some good ground. Brian proved to be the more gentle of my two pacers, softly encouraging me when I did run but never demanding, My wife, Kelly, on the other hand was much tougher, prodding me at every opportunity. By the time I reached her at mile 88.6 the full moon was high in the sky and the hour was getting late, having just eclipsed 10 PM. I still had just over 11 miles to go, and at the pace I was running Kelly estimated we would hit the finish line somewhere near 2 AM. This prophecy left me momentarily dazed, but I soon recovered and set about trying to prove her wrong. It was also at this aid station, named Bill's, that I had my final weigh-in. It appeared that my newfound ultra diet of turkey and cheese sandwiches was serving their purpose. My stomach had kept all I had eaten for a few hours and my weight of 162 was now just a pound shy of my pre-race weight. Down the road I went, wondering how I had regained all that weight during a 100-miler, when I am sure the weigh-in from the day before had been heavy.
Kelly and I did a fair bit of walking over the next few miles. Right out of Bill's we hit a long section of mowed fields that are terribly cambered which drops you into some single track which then deposits you at the foot of a hill that seems to never stop. The 3 miles from Bill's to Keating's at mile 92 were my slowest of the day. I clocked a not so blistering pace of 17:48/mile, probably the slowest I have ever run. I am not sure why these miles were so slow, especially given that I felt okay. Last year I ran a pace of 15:02/mile during this section, 2 minutes and 45 seconds faster. Maybe it was because I was enjoying the company of my wife so much since we never get the opportunity these days to just go for a run in the middle of the night (who does?). The walking did enable us to catch up on the events of Kelly's day with the kids. I learned that everyone had a great swim at Tracer Brook but they did not enjoy the storm as much as the runners did (at least those who received no hail). The storm apparently was not kind to the campground; a tree had landed on our tent and many campers' tents were drenched. Kelly did as much as she could to dry all our buddies' stuff out and to ensure we had dry sleeping quarters for the night. Dry or not, I didn't suspect I would mind but I really appreciated her effort, as did many others.
As we crested what had just seemed like an interminable hill, Keating's aid station greeted us. I took in a little caffeine and some chicken broth, and chatted with the volunteers who assured us there was really only one more hill. Based on this statement and my experience over the next few miles led me to believe they had probably lived in this area their entire lives and no longer notice the hills. Right out of the gate the process of struggling up a hill started all over again. The good thing was that we were near the end and as a veteran of this race, I had first hand knowledge of the glory that awaited me at the finish line.
Despite the full moon, it was still quite dark. The orange tint reduced the impact of the moon's light while the high humidity dampened our headlamps to quite useless lighting devices, leaving visibility of the trail quite low. What ambient light we were getting was hardly worthy of leading us through pockmarked horse trails, whose condition was much worse than last year due to the deluge of rain we got earlier in the day and the night before. After the last manned aid station at mile 95, Polly's, I did some quick math and decided in order to arrive before 2 AM, or 22 hours, I would have to run at least a 20 minute mile pace. At this point in the race I had no idea how easy this was going to be since I had no notion of my pace over the preceding 95 miles. When Kelly first joined me she had predicted a 2 AM start and this just seemed too late. I continued to adjust my time goal as I felt us getting closer and we were maintaining a pretty good ratio of running to walking until a few miles out I decided I would aim for hitting the finish line before 1:30 AM, almost exactly one hour longer than last year. So the race was on.
The trail up the last hill before the finish line is called the Trail of the Bloodhounds and leads to Blood Hill. This trail was a mess and hard to navigate with the lamp on my head so I employed the "fog light" effect and removed the lamp to hold it with my arm extended to the ground. This was extremely effective and did an amazing job of making the traverse safer and quicker. Once we spotted the milk jugs containing the glow sticks on the other side of Blood Hill I knew we were almost home. These jugs have an affect on a person similar to the sight of a stack of presents under a tree on Christmas morning. It almost made me want to break out in song. Descending to the finish line with Kelly was pure joy and we were greeted by my daughter Riley, Thea and Phil, and Brian. The clock read 1:28 AM, and it had taken me 21 hours and 28 minutes to cover 100 miles on foot. Not a bad days work.
After the run I sat with the 100-mile version of the thousand yard stare, unable to focus on much of anything as my body wound down from almost an entire day of running. To go from over twenty-one hours of constant motion to stillness is a very odd sensation, and not an all too unpleasant one. The soreness was all inclusive, running from my neck and upper body to the soles of my feet. At roughly mile 80 I was reminded of a pain I have only experienced in my one other 100-miler, and that is soreness in my pecs and triceps, which hurt from all the bouncing and jostling they suffer through all day. And this was only one of the many weird pains I experienced. I made my way to the food tent, chowed down on some scrumptious spaghetti and meatballs, no doubt leftovers from the pre-race dinner, but to me it tasted like food from a five star establishment. After some eating and sitting, I decided it was time to go clean up and hit the rack. Getting up was not so easy. Even though I had been running non-stop for the entire day, once I sat my game was over. Like the old ultrarunning adage says, "Beware the chair." I eventually made my way to my tent where I was able to clean up and get some rest.
Rest really didn't come all that easy as every move was noticeable. I heard Jamie come in discussing his race (finish: 22:27) with his handler, Kate, but was unable to get up to check on him. The next morning I awoke to Jamie and the others chatting around our campsite, trading war stories. While both Ian and Erik had great runs, finishing in 22:54 and 25:31, respectively, my buddy Chuck had to abandon his race at Camp 10 Bear at mile 47. All in all, this was a pretty good showing for the Trail Monsters on a hot and humid day.
As for the after effects, Sunday and Monday were pretty difficult, but by Tuesday I was ready to run. My measure of this is how well I can ascend and descend stairs. Tuesday morning found me bounding up and down, so I was all set. I am still struggling a bit with an aching right foot (I suspect some type of bone bruise), but my mind is much better off than last year and has even convinced my body that next year we need to do at least two of these 100s. After that, who knows. Anyone up for an adventure race?
The big success story of the day were the lessons learned. I know I need to train to consume more food and liquids. I learned to really manage the ups and downs. Most importantly, and the final lesson of the day is this: no matter the imagined obstacles, be it weather, training shortfalls, or phantom injuries, trust yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is as simple as that.
Our friend Thea has accompanied us to many races, ranging from 10Ks to marathons, but this was her first 100-miler. She remarked how surprised she was at the anti-climax that is a 100-mile finish line. Her only point of comparison really is to a marathon finish line with all its loud and adoring fans. True, at a 100-miler there is no welcoming committee offering immediate congratulations and volunteers catering to the finishers every need while doling out medals and space blankets. Instead you are welcomed by a few fantastic but sleepy time keepers, a few weary spectators who are disappointed you are not the runner they are cheering on, and any family members who were able to stay awake to greet you. The difference is that an ultrarunner's reasons for running are generally much different than runners of other distances. To commit to running 100-miles, your reasons must run very deep into your soul. Ultrarunners do not look for large crowds of seemingly adoring fans. Truly, all we are looking for is the medical tent and food, to be followed shortly by a locally crafted beer.
Vermont, we'll see you next year!