I almost got into some random person’s car in White River Junction, VT. A couple of times. It’s because I didn’t really know what my host John, the director of pacers for the Vermont 100 race, looked like. But on the third try to get into a stranger’s car, John finally spotted me, looking like a foreigner in the strange land of Vermont.
We spent that day engaged in typical pre-race activities, such as getting his son’s broken wrist recast and playing with John’s nine kids (!) in their epic backyard treehouse. There was also a typical pre-race pasta dinner involved that was frightening. You’d have more luck avoiding bulls in Pamplona than you would coming between the mob of hungry runners and the buffet table full of large bowls of food before a race.
Meeting my runner
I had been in contact with John about my runner, a 63 year old Korean man who spoke limited English and ran in over 80 races a year with distances of marathon length of greater. He was stout and fit and immediately the model of the kind of fitness I want to be in at that age.
Originally, I was hoping to pace for 8 or 15 miles, distances I felt comfortable doing in my daily runs. In his first e-mail to me, John convinced me that I could pace for 30 miles, which I wanted to believe enough to believe a total stranger. However, my runner had some alternate plans of 38 miles of pacing, which he shared with me the day before we met. Again I wanted to believe I could do this, but I felt like I was on the delicate balance of my own personal ambitions and doing a duty as a pacer was at risk here.
Now my Korean is about enough to allow me to order in a restaurant and find my way around a grocery store (yes, all food related), so my conversations with my runner were sure to be interesting. We had been communicating via e-mail through his children. Without their assistance in person, however, our dinner was punctuated by long periods of silence. Whenever this happens, I often wonder what goes through the other person’s mind. Anyway, we worked out enough details to know that I agreed to pick him up at mile 62 aid station called Margaritaville. He likes the pacer to run in front of him. I wondered if he liked to see the backs of the shoes, which sometimes I watch when I’m running behind others.
Jared and Matisse
After the dinner, I met with John’s other house guests, Jared and his wife Matisse. Jared was running the 100 km race with a 2 pm start time. It was his first race of that distance, and he had a lot of nervous energy before the start. Jared, Matisse, and I ended up playing with John’s awesome kids as they took us into their wooded backyard playground.
The start time of the race was 4 am for the 100 milers, and while I wasn’t up for the start, I managed to wake up at 6 am with excited energy for the long day ahead. Unfortunately for me, my running start was not clear and could range anywhere from 4 pm to 8 pm. The house was still for almost an hour, and slowly people were appearing out of rooms. Jared, Matisse, and I did our very small parts in chopping food for the omelette. Side note: Vermont maple syrup on fresh blueberry pancackes is delicious.
Donna Lee took some of the kids and the three of us to Sugarbush Farms, a local maple syrup and cheese farm that counted for us as our token Vermont tourism. Vermont, in case it’s not abundantly clear, is a beautiful state. I think it’s my favorite in New England so far, since I’ve now seen so much of it on foot in one whirlwind trip.
Jared finally needed to get back and get prepared for his race, so he, Matisse, and I went out to the start/finish line and got prepared for his 2 pm start. Jared was running in his first 100 km distance, and he would end up finishing in a blistering sub-17 hour time and win second place. They shared the experience, as Matisse paced him for the last 10 miles of the 62 mile course.
I wished them well as I went out to the Ten Bear aid station with John, where we would see waves of runners come through in their first pass at mile 47 before they looped around back to Ten Bear for the second time at mile 70. Seeing my runner at 47 was going to be a good way to gauge his progress and anticipate his arrival at Margaritaville, where I was going to meet him.
Meeting my runner on the course
The huge party at Ten Bear was electrifying; with horses and runners coming through, volunteers and crews cheered on and helped fill bottles and direct foot traffic. The sun had burned up the morning clouds and was relentless on the exposed portions of the course. My runner came through the aid station in a heap, and he was immediately flagged down by the medical staff, who were examining him for signs of heat exhaustion and malnutrition. He had been experiencing stomach issues for an unknown period of time, and they brought him over to the medical tent and made him rest on the cot, as he had trouble taking in fluids. He ended up trying to expel the contents of his stomach for relief, a process that would continue to varying degrees of success for the next 15 miles. As I tried to perform rough translations between the medical staff and my runner in broken Korean, the doctors tried to get him to stay in the tent for a longer period of time, while valuing his health and the risk of his finishing time. While this is clearly a reasonable trade off, the doctors have a delicate task in balancing the reasonable health needs of a group of people who are deliberately pushing their bodies to extremes in order to achieve their goals. Tensions run high when you tell an athlete that he must continue on your schedule and not his own, and this probably made one of the medical staff a bit emotional, as he began to raise his voice at me about the threat of disqualification for not following medical advice. In a bout of frustration, I turned to him and explained angrily that I had just met my runner yesterday and am doing my best to translate, but it was not my race and ultimately not my responsibility. The rest of the medical staff came to my defense by telling me that they appreciated my limited efforts in helping to relay these messages (how do you say “disqualify” and “DNF” in Korean?).
The early start
Finally, we convinced my runner to stay a bit longer in the tent while his stomach was allowed some time to settle, and they released him conditionally onto the course. He would check in at medical at the next aid station, whereupon a decision would be made about his medical progress. At this point, I sensed that my runner would need help getting through the rest of the course, and with my impatience to get running, I decided to chase after him and start my pacing duties from now, about 15 miles earlier than planned. The challenge was exhiliarting, adding this number of miles, roughly equivalent to my longest run ever, onto a 38 miles that I was already not yet sure of.
The thought went through my mind about the responsibility of pacing. As pacers, we are there for our runners. There are no personal ambitions that should cloud our duties. While I knew that the pacing would be most useful at the end of the course, it was not clear that my runner would be able to make it that far, and so the urgency to pace now was evident. One section at a time would be necessary to see if the finish was even realizable.
I ran after my runner and caught up with him quickly. To move after days of patient (or impatient) waiting was freeing, and I resumed my place in front of him as we trudged up the hilly course.
We covered the few miles until the next aid station slowly but without major incident, and at the aid station, he was looking better than at Ten Bear but not at all good. As he staggered into a chair at the aid station, however, the attempt to empty the contents of his stomach was difficult to watch, since there was not much I could do but bring water, coke, and paper towels.
Go, Tammy, Go!
We left the aid station and made our way along the trail, and he seemed to be momentarily stronger when he was moving than when he was stopped at the aid stations. Soon he fell into a rhythm and was back on pace to finish. At some point we caught up with a very pink runner with “Tammy” written in marker on the front of her shirt. In true marathon style, runners often write their names on their shirts so the crowd can cheer for them by name. Of course, out on the trail course of the VT100, there aren’t a lot of spectators, and therefore very few people to cheer her on. As an annual spectator of the Boston marathon at mile 25, I felt compelled to do my duty and cheer on, “Go, Tammy, Go!” She responded with an enthusiastic, “Whoo-hoo!” We chatted for a moment and then continued on our way. Tammy and my runner would leap frog between aid stations as we moved through the course.
End of the road
At subsequent aid stations, my runner’s stomach condition was not improving, and it came to the point where he was unable to keep even fluids down. A mile from Margaritaville, the sun’s trailing glow finally disappeared over the horizon and left us both under the dim spotlight of my headlamp and flashlight, as I did my best to help illuminate his path as we ambled along. He collapsed into a chair at Margaritaville and felt like his race was over. The inability to keep fluids down had only recently developed, and the time checkpoints were becoming increasingly difficult to meet. And so it seemed that Margaritaville would be the last stop on this race for my runner, who had come 62 miles, fighting nearly every step of the way with the freak stomach illnesses.
Once stopped and still unable to keep fluids down, he started to shiver badly under the cool night air, and we had to get a heat blanket from the emergency medical kit for him while I tried to get information from the radio tent about when a truck could come and pick him up and take him to medical. The truck arrived twenty minutes later, during which time I ate a couple of cheeseburgers, some chips, a banana, and a cookie. I would learn about myself at this race that my stomach is quite capable of handling a lot of food on the run. I drew my line just after honey shots and just before chicken soup.
Since my runner DNF’ed, I was somewhat stranded 8 miles from Ten Bear and without a runner to pace. The only options I had were to get a ride to Ten Bear or run it, so naturally I decided to run to Ten Bear in the cover of darkness and alone along the strange course. It was slightly unnerving only because of the uncertainty with the turns along the route, but I set out and made my way carefully along the course. Within 5 muddy and sloppy miles, I passed only a couple of runners out on the course, and I stopped briefly to talk with them and see how they were doing. Among these runners was Go, Tammy, Go, and I stopped and chatted with her briefly. She had pacing arrangements set at Ten Bear, so I continued on my way to go find a runner at the station.
I stopped at Ten Bear to eat everything they had (the grilled cheese was perfect) and chatted with John and his son James for a little while. The story of his cast is attributable to the epic rope swing. Their house is built at the base of a hill, and their backyard continues up into the hill. It’s a child’s dream backyard: endless, wooded, and complete with a fort, treehouse, and rope swings. James had the brilliant idea of bombing his bike down the hill and jumping for the rope swing, which he managed to catch and swing on, letting go at just the appropriate moment to get some sweet air before landing … on his wrist, unfortunately. Of course, only he managed to capture this on video. The reason it took him six months to get the cast was because he was in the middle of track season (he’s a miler), and he wanted to wait until it was over before complaining about the pain. Spoken like a true miler.
I asked John at Ten Bear when the last runners had passed through, and he told me that I could probably pick off as many runners as I wanted on the way up the hill. The last 30 miles of this course are notoriously the hardest, and that first hill out of the aid station was a brutal, relentless climb. It seemed like a sick joke when you came to the first real plateau to be greeted by a folding lawn chair that boasted the most amazing view of the Vermont night sky, where I stopped and turned off all of my lamps in order to peer into the blackness, spotted with jewels. The feeling was invigorating, as I was reminded at how much more magificient this view was than the Boston equivalent of office window lights shimmering along the downtown skyline. I continued on and soon caught sight of a moving light up ahead of the trail. It was impossible to discern whether or not it was coming toward me or moving away, but I chased it until I came across my first runner on the hill.
Unfortunately, he had a pacer already, and we chatted for a bit as I tried to figure out how much farther up the next runner might be. They told me a runner had recently passed through, so I continued on my quest to find a runner and ran up ahead. The next runner I encountered also had a pacer, however, so I was forced to keep looking. Finally, I met Jerry, who seemed to be a bit sleepy but otherwise in fine form, and I asked him if I could accompany him along his journey. His son was set to pace him in a few miles, but he would welcome the company until then. We talked about his son, baseball, occupations, and ultras, and I had a great time getting to know him for awhile.
At some point on this section, we ended up encountering a runner who seemed to be near the brink of debilitating pain. His pace was slower than a walk (but faster than a crawl), and it turned out that the culprit was massive chaffing, blistering, and exhaustion. Because he was clearly suffering, it seemed prudent to make sure he made all his turns and stayed on the trail. My plan was to get him to the next aid station, where I was almost certain he’d have to drop out. It was by far the longest 3 miles of the entire course, as I tried my best to take his mind far off of each painful step. Numerous runners passed us along this stretch, including all of the ones I had seen on the way to Ten Bear. Finally we made the last climb up to the 77 mile aid station, where he did finally stop, leaving me runnerless once again.
Running with Go, Tammy, Go
By some magical twist of fate, Go, Tammy, Go was also at the aid station, and somehow she had lost her pacer. It turns out that her pacer got dropped on the huge hill out of Ten Bear. While she had a pacer lined up from mile 88 to the finish, these next 11 miles would be lonely and dark ones for her without a pacer. After splitting a grilled cheese sandwich, we exchanged initial pleasantries, including a declaration that I was not and never have been a serial killer in the back woods of Vermont, and continued ahead.
We talked comfortably, as Go, Tammy, Go told me all about her ultra career and her regular career. She recanted stories about her husband as we covered mile after mile through the dark singletrack and smooth Vermont dirt roads. I had to cut off her stories on several occasions to disappear to the side of the trail to — well, you know — and I had to run a bit harder each time to catch back up with her. She told me that to the finish she had to average much less than 20 minute miles, and we were moving at around 12-16 minute miles at that point.
My own pain
My ankles were taking a massive beating at this point, as I had been on my feet for the better part of 11 hours and had not sat down yet. To complicate things, I was instantly regretting my own failure to judiciously apply BodyGlide to all of the places where it may have been prudent. I was fortunate to have stumbled upon some vaseline in the emergency medical kit that, truly, saved me from the fate of the runner I left at 77.
Go, Tammy, Go had no time to spare at the aid stations, so we continued on after doing the mandatory minimum with respect to food and water. She was having some stomach issues as well, though she was able to keep fluids down just fine.
I still made all my stops to gaze at the sky and answer nature’s call, playing catch up each time to tend to my real pacing duties. Together we ran to the edge of the night, as the intense orange glow that precedes the sun peeked out from a house and rejuvenated me completely to keep running, stronger than ever. While we pushed forward, my ankle pain and chaffing issues persisted, and I wondered aloud if it would be okay to leave Go, Tammy, Go at 88 in the capable hands of her other pacer, while my night completed. This was okay with Tammy, but by mile 85 my mind was made up to continue on and help Go, Tammy, Go get to the finish line.
It dawned on me that completing the last 12 miles would for myself help me surpass the 50 mile mark, and this was great motivation to find a way to deal with the pain.
The last Twelve
By mile 88, the sun was fully illuminating the landscape in front of us, and we had managed to stave off any wild animal or human attacks (thankfully). We met up with Dan, and Go, Tammy, Go underwent her mandatory medical checkup. As they continued up on the trail, I spent a few extra minutes at the buffet and polished off another banana and bits of a peanut butter and something sandwich. I had to work hard to catch them ahead of the trail and was still finishing my last bites of the sandwich when I finally caught up.
Because I knew that Go, Tammy, Go was being paced expertly by Dan, I felt free to kind of run at my own pace whenever it allowed. So I pushed the pace for myself and attacked hills and singletrack trails with a renewed verve, pausing only to take the occasional picture. I circled back several times and met back up with our runner, and we continued on together.
Moving through the last 12 miles was difficult. My left ankle in particular was in pain, and the chaffing forced my running gait to change at times. I was thankful that, though my legs were tired, they were not sore, and the rest of me felt absolutely fine. We passed a number of runners along these last 12, however, as Go, Tammy, Go was making excellent time and maintaining the pace she needed to finish by 10 am, under the 30 hour course limit. When we hit the 96th mile, Go, Tammy, Go was still smiling, though she knew that the last four miles were far from easy. A couple of long, steep climbs stood in the way of her and the finish, and yet the finish was looking promising.
A runner I had passed on one of my little excursions informed me that there was just 2 miles left from where we were, and this was excellent news. Two miles, I thought, was less than the distance it takes me to run from my apartment to work. This is a short, easy run. No problem. Unfortunately, his estimate was off as the three of us made our way to an aid station, where we were informed that, from this point, there were 2.5 miles remaining.
The bell mile
Just before the 99 mile mark, someone stood in the middle of our trail with a camera pointed at us, taking Go, Tammy, Go’s picture. This was Tristan, her husband-crew, who had come to join her for the last 1.25 miles of the course. Together, we all passed through the 99 mile marker and ran toward the last bit of singletrack that led to the water jug finish. One mile. I thought, this is the distance from my apartment to the gym, a distance that I can cover at my (albeit slow) top speed of 6 minutes and 33 seconds. It’s just a mile. Of course, there isn’t the Great Wall followed in series by a string of mountains and the defensive seven of a rugby team on my way to the gym, and it certainly felt like that was the situation here. I had absolutely no cause to complain about this, however, in the halo of inspiration seeing Go, Tammy, Go … going. She had completely 99 miles in over 29 hours (but under 30 hours), and we now had exactly 40 minutes to get her across the line for an official finish. Like the final bike ride into Paris during the Tour de France, this was going to be a celebratory mile for Team Tammy.
We hit the endless string of water jugs that marked the last 250 meters of the course. One lap around the track. But Go, Tammy, Go made no sprint finish. She maintained her cool, consistent pace and motored through, until we hit the guy with the bagpipes who signaled our last turn and the arrival of a runner to the awaiting crowd. As we rounded the turn, the finish line was in sight, and Dan and I instinctively dropped back to allow Go, Tammy, Go to bask in the moment of her victory. But in her graciousness, she asked us to cross the line with her, and we did, proudly applauding our runner. Whoo-hoo, indeed!
As I hit the seat of the bus going back to Boston, I fell into a deep sleep. I had been awake for 36 hours, having been on the run for over 17 of them. In that time, I paced people for 53 miles of the course, which is the distance of my first and second marathon, together. What I’d learn later is that, according to my GPS, I had run a distance of 63.3 miles in that time, which means that I completed my first 50 miler, my first two marathons, and my first 100 km distance in my first ultramarathon experience. It was the single greatest running adventure I’ve been fortunate to partake in. Despite my own sense of accomplishment, getting close to the ultrarunning community and having the opportunity to be a part of Go, Tammy, Go’s goals was, truly, the reward. Thanks to her for sharing that experience with me!
I’ll post other race reports as I come across them here! Thanks to all for sharing.