I hate mud. That was the mantra that carried me through my last 13 miles of the Vermont 50 race this weekend. Actually, that’s the G rated, family friendly version of the actual thing that I was chanting throughout the end of the race, which starred the Mud.
My trip to Vermont started a few weeks ago, realistically, after a 30.5 mile training run that included hills, trails, and 6 hours of relentless downpour. Part of the reason for that run was to gauge my preparedness for the VT50, and it was unclear what the metric for success would look like, exactly. The day after that run, I felt great, and went to go play a pickup game of ultimate frisbee, which resulted in a freak foot injury that cost me about 5 days of running over a critical time, in the second to last week before Vermont. As soon as I could, I went out and never felt better running.
The VT50 would be my first race in over 10 years. The last one was a 5K fun run called the Twilite Fun Run, put on by some local radio station in Houston, TX. All I really recall from that race was trying to keep up with some 12-year-old kid for 3 miles. In the past approximately year and a half of steady running, I’ve been surrounded by fast and less fast racers who love to go out there and pound the pavement or trails in search of fun, PRs, and once in awhile a woman’s phone number. I’ve shied away from nearly all of these races, coming closest to running the BAA Half Marathon last year while I was feeling strong but increasing volume too quickly, which resulted in injuries that forced me to sell my bib number at the last moment.
While I do enjoy going fast in the rare, inspired moments when that occurs in my life (generally involving chasing motorized vehicles), training to run fast is singularly unappealing to me. It takes a lot of work and dedication to go fast. It sounds too much like “training.” I can generally trick myself into believing that all of my hill and trail runs and such are simply so much fun that there really is no pain involved, even when there is. Speed work also seems to increase my incidence of injury, but that’s probably something that can be controlled somewhat.
And if I ever do enter any shorter races, they will all likely be trail races that I’d run just to go check out a new trail. The only road race that’s appealing to me is the 7.6 mile Mt Washington Auto Road, which climbs 4,650 ft. By comparison, the VT50 climbs 8,900 ft over 50 miles and is considered a pretty hilly 50 miler. As they say for Mt Washington, there’s just one hill.
My VT50 weekend began in Wakefield, MA, where delicious muffins awaited me at the Gingerbread Construction Company. They have come very close to achieving the ultimate Muffin-related goal of the muffin top. I met Tammy and her husband there en route to our final destination near Mt Ascutney Resort in VT, the starting line of the race. From the commuter rail stop, the walk around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield was beautiful and peppered with runners and walkers enjoying the perfect fall day.
We made the drive up to Ascutney in mild disbelief at the ominous weather forecast for race day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and temperatures were holding at around 65 F. Through every means possible, we checked on any updates to the weather throughout the day as I prepared my makeshift drop bag to try and avert any unforeseen problems the next day. I picked up a dry bag and put in an extra pair of trail shoes, some socks, a shirt, another light jacket, and some Body Glide, in anticipation of possible needs. Of the three drop bag locations, I decided to place mine at mile 37, which I was confident enough to get to relatively unscathed, barring any acute injuries. Surely the contents of the drop bag were not going to change my success until then; after all, I couldn’t pack better training or a more efficient taper.
Knowing that aid stations could be easily two hours apart, I carried with me a waist pack that held two water bottles, a light jacket, gloves, a flash light and headlamp with extra batteries, a minimal medical kit, my ID and insurance card, and my waterproof camera. The pack must have weighed in at the 7 pound range, but I’ve trained with more weight and was not going to sacrifice preparedness or at the very least the confidence in the illusion thereof. Thankfully the pack was not part of the story over the course and went mostly unnoticed.
At the check-in, I figured I’d find out what exactly the start time was for the 50 mile runners. In this race, there were several mountain bike categories, the 50 mile run, and the 50 km run all going on, with staggered start times and a mass of confusion. My initial information was a 5:30 am pre-race meeting and a 6:40 am start time for the 50 mile runners. When I received my bib number, the volunteer told me 5:45 pre-race meeting and 6:35 am start time. The official information sheet also said 5:45 am meeting but had a slightly different start time. So I went to the source, the race director Mike Silverman, who confirmed a 5:30 meeting and a 6:40 start time. Apparently the volunteers were telling several of the runners the wrong information that turned out to be completely inconsequential at the end of the day.
The nervous energy from the preceding weeks of exercised restraint (read: taper) were dissipating from simply being present at the site. I witnessed the Vermont fall foliage for the first time and reveled in the non-industrial beauty of it all. Tammy, her husband, and I walked the end of the course at the suggestion of one of the race officials, giving the okay. While there would be no pre-running the course, having that little bit of beta couldn’t hurt since we had the entire afternoon at our leisure.
By late Saturday evening, the air had chilled to remind us of the New England fall, and winds picked up in the inevitable changing of the weather guards. It looked like, for what seemed to be the first time ever, a dead-on accurate prediction of rain for the coming day. Even though it was my own weird cell phone alarm that awoke me at 4 am on Sunday, the tapping of rain on the window was more successful at getting my attention. Even then I knew it was going to be a longer day than the 12 hour cutoff time for the race would suggest.
The forecast had changed dramatically from just a few days before; while we had been expecting light rain and temperatures in the high 50s and low 60s, the latest information on Saturday had 1-2 inches of rain, constant throughout the day, with highs in mid-50s and a low of 40. These conditions called for warmer clothing and possibly layers.
Upon arrival to the starting line, we were met with a 5:30 am traffic jam of half-asleep runners and bikers who were being crammed at least three cars deep into a formerly-dirt parking lot. In a perfect world, cars could be organized by projected finishing time: if you’re faster or more likely to DNF, you park last, and if you were slower but probably finishing or staying for the BBQ, then you park first. Bikers and 50K runners, please hold ….
We made our way inside slowly and checked in with the race officials. I took a single bite into a complimentary stone bagel before realizing how bad of an idea that would be. I was already thinking about the GCC muffins I had left behind. The faster we got out onto this course, the better, and it appeared they were running a bit late on the staggered starts for the mountain bike categories, which was no surprise in the constant drizzle that had been descending upon the site, slowing everything down on the back roads of Vermont.
As they finally corralled us into the blocks, several of us hung back from the wide starting line to allow elites and other fast people unimpeded access to a fast start. We set off once, or so we thought, until the pack slowed down again — we had only been led to the real starting line. While we lined up again at the start, I looked around and realized that these were my people. Most of the runners in my regular running groups in Boston find a 50 mile run absolutely stupid. Yet most of the folks here couldn’t think of anything they’d rather be doing than this. And they’re all here for what was sure to be a miserable race. Misery loves to race, apparently.
For take two, this one was official as we were guided onto some paved roads that led onto the course. I quickly fell to near the back of the back, holding steadily at 10:30 pace, determined to run my own race almost regardless of the consequences. It would be endlessly interesting to me to dissect my performance based on the poorly controlled dozens of variables being changed simultaneously to gauge where things went wrong and what things were just right. In the laboratory of a single event, with the N=1 of my own body, every action was new data just begging to be overly analyzed to try and help understand how the events of the day would unfold.
I’ve often noticed that on long runs, I don’t hit my rhythm for about an hour. This means that, for a shorter race, I’d need plenty of warm up time in order to feel like my breathing and my movement were optimally efficient. In a race like this, a cold start was fine because I could easily spend the first hour finding my groove with no worries whatsoever. This is exactly how I proceeded, and slowly I began picking off other runners one at a time.
My hill strategy differs from the tried and true ultra maxim of “hike the hills.” I love hills, and it would be kind of a disservice to me to hike all of the hills, despite what it might do to performance. The hills are the stuff of fun, as far as I’m concerned. If I’m not running hills, I’m not really running. So I created a hybrid strategy that was really my entire strategy all along: move as fast as possible at every moment possible, respecting the total distance of the race. This means that I hiked hard up the hardest, longest hills, but if they’d break for even 50 meters, I would move back into a run for whatever I could. I attacked the base of every hill and the crest of every hill. I relaxed on the downhills. If there is no other measure of success, mine would be that I ran my race.
The number of people I caught going uphill was surprising. Several people commented on the hill running strategy, surprised to see a back-of-the-pack runner working hard on the hills. I suspect at least a few of them thought it was foolish, but I don’t mind.
In the ongoing experiment, I tried nearly every combination of food at the aid stations. I had one bottle for water only and one for electrolyte fluids, though the latter was turned into my coca-cola bottle when one aid station was out of Heed. Soon I was using the special ratio of about 4:1 in Heed and cola. The taste from the cola made the Heed more bearable, while the substance in the Heed probably was better for me than just drinking straight carbonated cola. I ate all the novel, interesting foods at the aid stations and was pretty excited to see Oreos on nearly all of the aid station tables. PB&J sandwiches were bolstered with chips, honey, and cheese, and this recipe didn’t go unnoticed by other runners, one of whom commented on this excellent sandwich. I snagged a whole grilled cheese sandwich on the way out of one aid station after taking a direct shot of honey to the shock of one of the volunteers. Since I often eat on the run in “everyday” runs, this was really no different. It was fun to have an assortment of candy and stuff that I don’t normally consume, though. At least one thing I really don’t have an appetite for during events like this is chicken soup. Aside from warmth, there is nothing appealing about this bland, difficult to consume dish. It’s not terribly portable, either, which is a problem when you’re on a schedule.
At one of the highest aid stations, conditions were pretty cold, and a fog had gathered at the peak where we stood, making conditions clammy as well. I made sure to keep moving beyond this despite wanting to spend an extra few seconds of rest. It seemed as if bikers were loitering around aid stations far longer than most runners did. In fact, I don’t really recall ever seeing a biker leave an aid station; I had come and gone while they ate and drank. There is something about aid stations that makes an ultra feel easy — your only goal in life is to get to the next aid station quickly. And all you do to get there is run, following the signs. Few things are so clear in life.
This being my first race, tramping around the private woods of Vermont, I was taking it all in. I was a numbered runner, and hundreds of spectators lined the dirt roads and screamed my name as I passed through, clapping in excitement as I cruised by in a focused blur. Or rather, every once in awhile there would be two people hanging out in front of their homes getting a glimpse of the weirdos running 50 miles through the worst weather in weeks. I suppose many of them were used to the madness, much like we are now accustomed to sending humans into space routinely — this isn’t really a natural thing for us to be doing, but it’s now somewhat commonplace.
I was cruising along by mile 28, in my rhythm, feeling great and moving forward, apparently on my way to around a 10:30:00 finish, which motivated me further to move even faster. I did respect 22 miles to go, however, but I was going to continue moving along by feel, since my legs had been tired finally for a few miles but apparently not troubled by the constant movement. Unfortunately, the rain and course had other plans in store, as the run into Fallon’s aid station at mile 37 was staged on tough, slick singletrack that had been destroyed by the combination of rain, mountain bikes, and runners. Staying on my feet was difficult, and this slowed me down considerably by the time I made it in. But I was feeling confident and felt I could still go sub-11 so long as the worst was behind me.
Even by Goodman’s, though frustrated, I was still hopeful and very happy to see John, the director of pacers whom I met at the VT100, and some of his kids. I lit out into the woods chomping on my warm grilled cheese sandwich and carrying a small thing of M&M’s. As I hopped between slippery, mud-caked rocks, I thought about the trail runner’s mantra, “If you can run it with two steps, take three.” I was determined not to lose my sandwich to the mud and stuffed the sandwich in my mouth while I balanced with the M&Ms in my hand. As I slid in a section of mud, I took my first, inevitable spill of the day and managed to shield the M&Ms from the mud as my hand went down to catch my fall.
While Tammy, her husband, and I had started the day with a secret ballot of predicted falls of each of us, I was actively trying to avoid being right on my 2-4 fall self-prediction. Of course, Tammy’s seven-fall vote of no confidence for me was probably prudent, but the actual tally really came in around, well, 2-4, depending on how you count a fall!
As I downed M&Ms out of a muddy cup, I continued with slightly less confidence down the trail, losing significant amounts of time on my way to the last aid station at the 47 mile marker. The rain kept streaming down, while the tight singletrack was difficult to navigate. Two miles up and down muddy hills took me around 50 minutes on the shortest skis ever. I exclaimed to no one in particular, “I didn’t sign up for an adventure race but a run!” But no one ever said it wouldn’t be an adventure. Constant slips and unsure footing throughout soon got to my nerves, and really the last 9 miles of the course were run on anger. I was slipping into danger of DNF’ing on account of the slippery slopes, and I was not about to let Mud DNF me. As I stumbled out of a particularly harrowing section, I scooped up a handful of mud and kept running through a field as I applied my war paint to my face and painted my shirt with, “MUD SUCKS.” Of course, I ran out of room on my shirt and ended up with “MUD SUC,” throwing the slop down in disgust of not even being able to get that right. I started running harder, hitting 9-10 minute per mile pace after nearly 45 miles of running. When I hit the next section of single track that included the slippery, disgusting mud that once was and someday again will be pristine trail with little memory of my passage and struggle, I ran directly down the channel of the deepest mud, through the mountain bike tracks. My shoes stuck into the calf-deep mud on several occasions, and despite the gaiters whose strap held my shoes firmly onto my feet, my left shoe came off once in the mud and forced me to stop and get my heel fixed back into the shoe before continuing on through the frustratingly slow sections of mud. As I made my way to the last aid station before the final push to the finish, I saw a runner ahead who was walking and did not seem to be in the best straits. She was dressed for the Friday forecast, in “buns” and a tank top, and she was shivering and rubbing her arms. I immediately was reminded of all of the competitors who stopped and checked in on my struggling runner whom I was pacing at the VT100. At my pace I was plenty warm, and so I offered up my gloves that were not being used. She took them gratefully, and I hope they were helpful to her. This was the kind of community of competitors that I wanted to be a part of. I kept running, offering up some encouragement that we were almost home.
I ran through to mile 47 with absolutely no intention of stopping, until I saw the sandwiches and cookies that lined the table. Since when have I turned down free food? After all, I am a hungry graduate student/runner. (If you spend time with me, it’s either working, running, or eating, or some combination of the above.) I knew I did not drink much since the last aid station, as both my bottles were nearly full, and my time was growing ever shorter.
At this, the last aid station, a cyclist whom I had passed on my Run Possessed commented to me, “That was an impressive run — nice job, man.” I tried to grunt politely in reply, with my sights fixed on finishing this race quickly.
This last section would prove to be as tough or perhaps tougher than the preceding 10 miles, however, and it again ruined my plans. I navigated the narrow switchbacks as gingerly as possible, with steep drop offs and slick passage throughout. In certain sections of switchbacks that I was able to run, I passed several more runners who had been leapfrogging me on the slickness. It turns out that I was, by far, the worst mud-runner of the day. My confidence, balance, and perhaps my skis were all worse on this day then nearly every other finisher, evidenced by the large number of competitors who passed me on these sections.
With two miles left, I had no choice but to run every run-able section, irrespective of the grade of ascent or descent. I took some new risks on downhills and almost ate it on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, the run-able trails were few and far between for me on this mile, and when I finally hit the 49 mile marker, even the last vestiges of light from the dreary day were escaping from the sky, and I looked down at my watch at realized that only 19 minutes were left to finish within 12 hours. In 10 miles, I had gone from a projection of 10:30:00 to a risk of not finishing in 12:00:00. What felt unfair was my confidence that my legs felt fresh and capable if it weren’t for navigating the ever-narrowing slick trail.
In a moment of required focus on the task at hand, I ended up passing Tammy and for some confusing reason, her husband, somewhere in that last mile. I figured they were pacing others or something, not even considering that she was still on the course, and I yelled back an obscenity about how I felt about Mud. I promise, I wasn’t cursing at you, Tammy!
Having run the short end of the course before, I knew that at some point during that mile we would have to emerge on the slopes of Mt Ascutney leading down into the finish. However, I had no idea exactly when this would occur, and the escape from the mud crept up on me unexpectedly. I found myself staring down at the 12:00:00 cutoff mark, as I started to hear John’s voice yelling my name. Others whom I did not know joined in the chorus, and in the cacophony, another familiar but unexpected voice was audible. Jared, a runner whom I met and spent some time with at the VT100, was volunteering at the VT50 that day and ran out on the course to pace me home. One of John’s daughters called out to me that I had but 3 minutes to cover approximately 800 meters, which even on fresh legs for me would be a challenge. I’m no speed demon. When Jared caught up with me, he said that I had 1:45 before the cutoff. I kind of laughed to myself, thinking he was lying to me to make me go faster, and irrespective or perhaps because of this, I appreciated his support. As I sprinted down the last few turns, thankful for the ever-so-slight familiarity from the previous day’s reconnaissance, I saw the finish line in sight and clearly saw unfamiliar faces look at me with a strange familiarity, as some of them knew my name and encouraged me to go even faster.
This truly felt like the Boston Marathon finish line, which I have crossed despite not having run in the race. This past April, several friends were running Boston. One of the bandits came across me while I was at my usual spot outside my office near Mile 25, and he was struggling, having run the past 25 miles on very little marathon training. The beers he had consumed on the course were not helping his situation. He asked me to take him home, so I jumped onto the course in my jeans and jacket and ran the last 1.2 miles of the course, pacing him. The crowds were spectacular, tightly lining the entire length of course through to the insanity of the finish line at Copley. I crossed that finish line backward, knowing full well that it wasn’t my finish and that I would only run it really when I was a true finisher.
For this, my first race, I was determined to finish strong, and I sprinted toward the line with surprising traction on the last grassy, wet hill leading into the finish. I crossed the line, yelling out my bib number to the official timing crew, and I continued far past the finish to the haystacks at the end of the runway. I had more left, and I wanted to make that clear. As I continued beyond the finish line, I distinctly heard someone question, “Where is he going?” Someone handed me a finisher’s medal, and I stopped my watch on 11:55:12. Surely my timing was close to accurate, but it was not the official time. I would have to wait on that, realizing only later that the confusion had to deal with the actual start time (6:45) versus the scheduled start (6:40). My official time was slightly less than my calculation, which makes sense considering the actual time I crossed the starting line.
While it wouldn’t become official for at least a few more minutes and probably a few more hours, I had to laugh at the possibility that, in the timing confusion, I had somehow missed the cutoff and ended up DNF’ing. It would have been a fitting end to the frustration of the last 15 miles of the race, but ultimately I’m thankful to have finished just under the cutoff.
On the way out, I managed to lose my finisher’s medal and the hat that had been on my head the entire day. I really liked that hat. Nearly all of my 235 miles in September were run in that hat. And now, to think of the fate of that hat, buried in a pile of forgotten clothes and drop bags in the possession of the race director, hopefully holding on with dear life to the finisher’s medal that I also lost. Each day of my life, I forget my keys or contacts or wallet, etc. etc. when I leave my apartment. Forgetting to bring the medal home was just about perfect. Hey, it was only my second race, after all.
The feeling of bliss that enshrouded me after the VT100 pacing experience was not quite the same here. This was a unique feeling post-race. It was one of disbelief at the struggle and the triumph. The finish felt fully earned and conquered here. As long as I am able, I’ll continue to run — that’s not in question, but I don’t want to run this course in these conditions ever again. Of course, I have to come back to conquer this course in hopefully better weather next year. Here’s to watching the climate closely. Are 365 day forecasts any good? Finishing this race and accomplishing this goal I’ve thought about for so long also has left me with a small void. Where does it end, the pursuit of uncertainties such as these races? I am currently taking some time off from this race to allow my body to recover fully, but I’m already looking for another 50 mile or 63 mile challenge to conquer before moving up to the 100, which I’m not quite ready for. But it’s in my sights.
Finally, I’m thinking about a solemn note that I feel compelled to mention. I feel supremely blessed to be able to pursue running while healthy. One week before Vermont, a 23-year-old colleague and friend fell from a balcony and died, one block from my home in Boston. I did not know him well, but I had the pleasure of working with him, ever so briefly this summer, and because we lived in the same neighborhood, we frequently ran into each other on the trains going to and from work. I’ve always believed in celebrating the life of those who pass on, and yet it’s hard to ignore the possibility of what may have been in his promise for life. Among other things, his death reminded me that life is far too short and not adherent to our own plans, most times. His tragic story was one of the primary motivating factors for my decision to just go for it, despite the nagging feeling that there could always be better preparation, another long run, more assurance or guarantee. One small way in which I feel like I’m exercising his lesson to me is through running long distances, pushing boundaries, and hopefully inspiring others to pursue their craziest dreams in the process as well.