Dug out of the Archives for my friends who want to run next year…
The Vermont 50 Mile Ultra-Marathon – Chris’ Race Report
The race report (from Hell)
Like the race itself – this is going to be a long one…
I’ve been putting off writing this race report for a couple not so good reasons. First is the typical post event ennui that overcomes me post-haste post-race. It’s a bit like postpartum depression, an aimless funk that is 5% physical and 95% mental.
It’s different each time. I remember after a few of my ‘big’ marathons I was high for a week before the inevitable turpitude set in. It’s worse when you ‘crater’ at an event, although sometimes failing horribly creates a spark of purpose fueled by anger – like the one that caused me to qualify for Boston. (It’s funny how sometimes failure is more inspirational than success.)
I also thought a little emotional distance (time) might not be a bad thing. Writing a race report before the neurons have stopped firing can sometimes result in a mish-mash of emotional stew that is unreadable.
The second big reason I’ve been ruing putting pinky to pixel is that I’ve got stakeholders who really care about me and want to see it! I feel like I owe those friends who have supported me through this campaign and in some odd psychotic way that really makes writing the race report feel like work!
Enough whining! On with the show! I must act today before the very events of the day slip into the murky fog of memory. I fig to thee oh funk! Get up and keep moving forward. It’s what we do. It’s our life metaphor, and handily enough the mantra for the ultra – CFM – continuous forward movement. Or as the poet Bon Scott put it “Ride on…”
“Running is the classical road to self-consciousness, self-awareness and self reliance. Independence is the outstanding characteristic of the runner. He learns the harsh reality of his physical and mental limitations when he runs. He learns personal commitment, sacrifice and determination are his only means to betterment. Runners only get promoted through self-conquest.” – Noel Carroll
The net result was a great race. I didn’t crash at all. I loved it and had a blast. I did well. I think the official results were:
Class/Bib/Overall … Time/Pace (my watch said 9:04)
11 921 33 CHRISTOPHER 45 LITTLETON MA 9:05:28 10:54
Looks like I was 33rd out of 162 finishers with ~16 DNF and ~20 Did not shows. That’s not bad, is it? Notice the results only had my first name? That’s because I’m so famous; like Elvis…
I’ve been asked how I trained to run an ultra- marathon. The truth is I’ve trained my whole life for that race. In microcosm I set myself up with a 16 week program, similar to any marathon plan. The difference was the very long long-runs and less speed work. I found spending lots of time in the woods very comfortable and comforting. All-in-all it was easy. Once you get past a certain point it doesn’t get any worse.
I ran all 6 mountain races in the mountain goat series over the summer of ’07 and learned all about running up and down mountains. I trained well for a February Marathon this spring that I DNF’ed at – it just didn’t feel right. Then I ran a qualifier at Boston. At the same time I trained hard power walking at 13% stiff treadmill inclines for the Mount Washington Road Race where I turned in a respectful effort on that one hill in July.
It all ran together in a mishmash of miles and effort. I finished off my ultra program with a good showing at the difficult mountainous Wapack Trail race and a 36 mile training run, then a three week gradual taper. I was more than ready. I was so well trained and healthy that the race itself started to seem a non-event. (Until it started raining!)
In the end, I think my training was more than enough for the event. I could have taken significant time off of my finish with more long tempo work on long shallow up hills and long shallow down hills – but that’s a mere refinement. I had plenty in the tank and was healthy as a horse on race day. I probably could have pushed harder in the early miles – but that’s all Monday morning quarterbacking.
You never know how these things are going to turn out until you’re in them up to your neck. That’s what I love about endurance events. It’s like being thrown in to the ocean. You figure out how to swim or you sink. It really simplifies life. It refines things to that awesome razor edge of animal choice. Just you against you. Mano a mano.
It wasn’t the 16 weeks of (casual) training that made this race easy. I owe much of the ease to the countering maturity of 20 odd marathons and a handful of mountain races. When I stepped up to the start of this behemoth of a distance race it was with the steadying hand of experience on my shoulder.
The week leading up to the race was off the chart stress-wise (as they often are leading up to big races). That stress, whether real or imagined was propagated and amplified by my fearful anticipation of running farther than I ever had imagined I could, would or should. My old truck was diagnosed as close to death and I had to rent a car for the drive up to Ascutney. It started raining on Wednesday and two tropical storms veered out of the Caribbean towards New England. Prognosis was lots of mud. Stress was rampant. Like all red blooded males I suppressed it.
I felt for the first time in a long time that nervous energy of fear and trepidation that you get before a big race. A big adventure. Something you know is going to hurt badly and test your physical and mental infrastructure. Your subconscious screams at you that only a fool would willingly walk into the maw of pain and struggle that waits. Your big brain assures you it’s alright.
The truth is you don’t know what’s going to happen when you start something like this. That’s what makes it cool. That’s what makes it worth doing. There’s a chance that you could end up shivering in a ditch, played out and beaten. In our jaded modern world of laptops and airplanes that is the grisly stuff of reality that makes you feel alive. The result is a nice mélange of nervous anticipation and dread.
My wife Yvonne came with me. She usually doesn’t pay much attention to my long distance running addiction. She lives with it like any other stoic bride of addiction. I think she felt that this Ultra-thing was something she needed to tag along with to protect her investment. I told her I’d really appreciate her help because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to drive home comfortably.
I focused on trying to get 8 hours of sleep from Wednesday onwards.
I didn’t start any detailed race planning until the day before. It’s my habit not to worry about the details. Friday night I made one last large batch of chocolate energy balls. I collected a pile of Hammer gels (thanks Anthony) I made sure all my running stuff was clean and dry.
I looked at the forecast and puzzled over what to bring. How does one plan for a 10 hour trail race in a rain storm. Umbrella? Snorkel? I decided to un-retire two old pairs of trail shoes, package them with fresh sox, a change of clothes and a dry hat to be positioned at the drop stations along the course. Hermetically sealed in plastic bags of course in case of downpours.
Yvonne and I checked into our hotel in Springfield VT. The hotel was full of those mountain bikers who dominate the scene at this race. I made a point of being friendly and commenting loudly to my wife how glad I was not to have to carry a bike for 50 miles in the mud!
On the way to the Ascutney Ski lodge to check in we drove by the Ascutney camping area. I can’t imagine how much it must have sucked to have to sleep in a tent on the ground in the rain the night before a 50 mile race.
We checked in, dropped my drop-bags and wandered over to old-friend Dan’s condo, helpfully positioned right by the start/finish lines. It was a nice night with some well done past and pesto. Dan and Tom (college chums from 26 years ago) had their bikes all cleaned up and ready for the assault. They are VT 50 veterans having biked 5 previous races. In anticipation of mud, Dan had rebuilt his bike to a single speed. They are hard core and obsessive with their sport like I am with mine. We respect each other for that.
My wife and I were tuckered out. Back to the hotel in the rental PT Cruiser. We each chose one of the double beds – Rob and Laura Petri like – and off to sleep.
I got up at 4:30. Made some coffee, ate a banana and a power bar, and put on the clothes and shoes I had laid out carefully the night before. Adrenaline was starting to pump. I was excited. This was something new. Something challenging. Something of the perfect audacious adventure that I love. I wanted to get to it. This was off the map.
The 5:30 check in meeting at the start was in the dark. It was overcast and a tropical 64 degrees. Lots of runners and bikers were milling around. I got some more coffee. I love coffee. I took care of the necessaries and chatted up some folks. I was impressed with the relatively large number of women running the race. I was also cheered to see some other ‘husky’ fellows besides myself. While initially during my training my weight had plummeted to 180 pounds, with judicious over eating I had managed to get it back up to 190. Alas, no Clydesdale division.
It was not like the beginning of a big marathon. No one was really nervous or overly weird. Everyone was laid back and the tone was easy. Most were smiling, like they were about to go on a canoe ride with friends. There was none of the gritted-teeth awkwardness of the mega-road race scene. More like a Ben & Jerry’s revival.
Without much official fanfare, but a bunch of hooting and hollering, we were off. Everyone settled into a conversational pace. I soon fell in with race denizen Zeke who is an ultra-institution of sorts. He in turn attracted a number of other near-famous Ultra-runners.
It was like Sunday morning after church at the general store. They talked about old times, what others were up to, what their current projects were, almost everything except the race. A couple newbies chimed in and Zeke handed out sage advice.
The first 4.5 miles were dirt road. It felt more like a 10k than a 50 miler. I was running comfortably but worried that this was a good 2 minutes per mile faster than my goal pace. Was that ok? Then an aid station. Then into the woods and up the first mountain.
This is where we caught our first bikers. They had a head start on us and theoretically were faster, but we had the novices on the steep up hills. We could move much faster than some poor sole pushing a bike. These were the end-of-the-pack bikers. After sharing the course with bikers I’ve become curious with this sport. I think I’m going to have to try it out. It looks like fun.
The trails were great. Mostly soft cushiony single track or ATV trails. The mud was negligible in the first2/3 off the race. The few hundred bikes that preceded us made some deep ruts and there were some soft bits but the bad stuff was easily avoidable. The up hills on the mountains were quite steep, but not technical. The down hills were also quite steep and also not technical. Very run-able.
This is where my mountain experience came into play. The Ultra racing mantra is “walk the up hills and run the down hills.” Make no doubt about it. I was racing. What started out as a ‘just finish’ was now a race. I was in my comfort zone. I was pushing, not 100%, but sustainable effort, not a casual stroll.
When we say ‘walk’ we don’t mean just walking, like you would walk the dog. We mean power walking. Not that silly guy in the track suit with the hand weights who swaggers around your neighborhood. Mountain power walking is learned art form and consists of a long sliding stride with a toe-off and hand swing. I can power walk up a 13% mountain at 3-4 miles per hour without maxing my heart rate. It’s a science. This saves your running legs and keeps you racing.
When we say run the down hills we means race the down hills. It is very important not to fight gravity. Stay light and have a rapid turnover. Try to ‘fly’ without hitting the ground too much or braking. On the extremely steep slopes you can do a shuffle slide skip to surf across the ground while still maintaining frequent contact points – lots of little brakes instead of digging in your heels. All this is done to preserve the quads.
Why do you care? If you don’t know how to walk the up hills and run the down hills the VT 50 will be a miserable race for you. It’s got 9,000 feet of elevation gain and another 9,000 on the way back down. Failure to manage this will kill you – especially the end of the race when the muscles in your thighs will have degenerated to the point where they don’t work anymore. That’s the secret of this course and most of the mountains I’ve run.
The first 18 miles went by in a blur. Somewhere around 18 miles I felt my body switch off of free glycogen and onto the reserves. It was a momentary energy trough that barely registered. My training has been such that my body now loves to run on the reserve tank. This is also where I passed Ted. He is so much faster than I, it’s a shame his insides were acting up and didn’t let him continue on this day.
I was running with some 20 year-old from the Connecticut Maritime Academy who decided to run the ultra on a whim. His longest run in training was a 10k. I don’t know if he finished. I didn’t see him after the 18.8 Mile aid station. I met and chatted up a number of people in these miles as everyone was chipper and the field was still closely bunched. At one point I paused to snap a photo with my mini spy camera and was passed by 8 runners and a bike. It was a scenic view!
I remember that young woman on the bike. She was hanging with us through these early sections. She’d pass us on the downs and we’d pass her on the ups. The last time I passed her she made a point of asking me how we would interact next time she passed me. At the time I thought that was a moot point – turns out I was right. That was the last time I saw her.
The lack of mud meant that I didn’t need my mile 18.8 dry-clothes-care-package. I really didn’t pause much at the aid stations, except to fill my two 20 ounce bottles. I was treating it more like a triathlon transition zone than an aid station. Some of the folks hung around at these stations, like it was a picnic, not a race.
The day continued to be overcast and muggy, but there was no rain. The mud was not an issue in the first 40 miles of the race. The overall dryness of the summer had soaked up the 4 days of rain. Every once in a whole we’d emerge into a high mountain field with a stunning vista. The leaves had just started to change. They had not fallen, even with the rain, that is good because they did not obscure the course footing.
The course was so well marked. You’d have to be an idiot to get lost. I could see other competitors for the first 40 miles and never felt I didn’t know where I was. The herd of bikers in front of us left a well beaten path to follow. It was easy.
The bikers were extremely friendly. They gladly let us pass and were kind on the down hills when they re-passed us. In the end the up hills were a curse for them. Although they may have re-passed me on the down hills, none of the bikers I passed beat me to the finish line in the end. The last 10 miles were just too hard for them.
At the 25 mile aid station I again decided to stay with my current shoes and clothes. I did put on a fresh hat. I ate a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. I used the porta-potty for a pee – that’s a good sign. Surprisingly enough, even though I had to pull into the woods in almost all my training runs and was resigned to it in the race, something about the race environment produced a digestive miracle and I had no pit-stops. Isn’t it ironic how runners are like new parents examining and worrying over bowel movements?
I had great momentum through the 25 mile mark and was positively euphoric from 25 miles on. There were some downhill switch back sections where I was flying and laughing out loud with the joy of running. I got some of the others to sing the theme from Rawhide with me a few times for fun. Then I tried the “Hi Ho” song from Snow white. When I was finally alone I was singing a few broken choruses from Chariot by Gavin DeGraw “Oh chariot your golden waves are walking down upon this face…” No it’s not weird to talk and sing to yourself in a 9 hour race. I was running in the zone.
30 though 40 were great miles with lots of downhill and I passed many runners. I wouldn’t pass them like in a 10k where you see them and gun for them. I would simply hold my cadence and they would come to me slowly as they walked more than ran, and then, after trading places a few times they would slip away like the outgoing tide. I was passed by that famous Ultra guy, John something, who said he was planning to run across New Hampshire later in the year.
When I passed the bikers I tried to call back over my shoulder to warn them about bad sections. More than once I shouted a warning only to hear a scream and a curse and the sound of body on mud.
After the mile 35.6 aid station it started to feel a little like work. I was getting tired but still running strong. I was just getting weary from so much time on my feet in the woods. My legs and joints were fine. I had a little sharp strobe going on in my left quad that had been troubling me during training. The irony was that it only hurt on the easy bits. The shallow down hills that are usually my strength caused it to flap a little uncomfortably.
I determined to ignore it. I had gone into the race knowing that at my age and my weight something was bound to start hurting. I had pre-visualized myself ignoring it and moving on. It was a pain – but a predetermined non-issue.
The runners started to thin out and I passed some who were obviously cooked. I kept going. It was starting to be a race. The scenery might have been pretty, but I was heads down grinding out the miles. The 36 mile aid station seemed to take a long time to come. I looked at my watch and determined that if I held this pace I could do 8:30. Another runner told me it got harder up ahead. I wondered where to spend my remaining energy?
Everything was holding together well as I entered into the unknown territory, beyond my 36 mile long training run. All lights were still green. No flashing warning lights. My head was clear. I was doing pace math and reading my watch without puzzlement.
This clarity was due to having trained well, yes, but also due to having fueled well. I was sticking to a schedule that had me taking some nutrition every 30 minutes. In the first 30 miles I alternated Hammer Gels and Energy Balls (homemade treats made from organic peanut butter, squished banana, and various forms of chocolate). In addition I was taking an Endurolyte electrolyte tablet (read “salt pill”) every 20 minutes.
I sweat; sometimes in excess of 40 ounces an hour. This means I lose a tone of salt and I need to replace it.
The day before the race I decided my slant pack pocket was too small to hold all the stuff I needed to carry. I decided to bring along the spy camera and of course my Sony digital reorder for all those graphic audio race moments. To fit all this stuff in I requisitioned a camera case from my wife (without telling her) and attached it to the belt of my slant pack. This gave me a place to put the electronics.
My slant pack is one of those two bottle setups that sits on the back of the hips. I’ve got hips. In this race, because the aid stations were so plentiful, I only took two bottles. One I carried in my left hand, as I have been doing for years, and the other I holstered on my right hip. This setup is comfortable for me. Some of the runners in the race went with no bottle at all because of the preponderance of aid. I sweat too much for that.
Before the race they were giving away these big pill bottles with a quick-flip top to hold your Endurolytes. I took one and added this to my camera case. It was good, except that the hard plastic and all the jostling caused at least one capsule to break. I know this because when I tipped the bottle back to ‘drink’ a capsule I got a mouthful of salt powder. But it actually tasted pretty good. I guess I got a little extra powder or got an empty capsule at some point, but it evened out. It was way better than having to fish them out of a wet baggie.
The real fun started after the 40 mile mark. The aid stations seemed to start coming very slowly. I was definitely losing energy and ready to see the finish. I was still passing people every now and then with my strong walk-run cadence. I was relentless.
Then we got into some very muddy sections. Up to this point you could avoid getting totally wet. Now you had no choice except to toil through 6-inch deep oily slime that covered your shoes. It was still hilly. There were some field sections where we came out into the sun. It was definitely the most challenging 10 miles of the course. Some mud holes you couldn’t run through. You had to walk to keep from losing a shoe.
Right before the 45.5 Aid station I had to walk a little on a flat section, maybe 50 feet. I was tired. I turned it back on and ran into the last aid station. I only filled one bottle. What the hell – less than five miles to go. I was getting angry. I was getting my race face. There were a dozen or so bikers casually lounging at the aid station. That made me mad for some reason. I vaguely remember yelling at them.
“Come on! What are you standing around for? Let’s do this bitch! Come on!”
Game face. I was still running but it was a slug fest. Nothing hurt, but I was tired of running. I got into a woods section and hadn’t seen another competitor for awhile and I hadn’t seen an arrow for awhile. I was still in the tire tracks but I started to wonder if I hadn’t taken a turn off the course into some tributary of the main course. My mind was starting to play tricks on me. I almost turned back. Then I saw a runner far behind and biker passed up ahead somewhere.
There was one long greasy section through some trees and then I knew I was close. After what seemed like a century of running I saw the “one mile to go” sign. Prior to this, starting with a few miles left, someone had decorated the woods with Halloween items, like witches, pumpkins and ghosts. They had pinned papers with inspirational messages to the trees. For the life of me I can’t remember what they said, but I kept trying to bring each one into focus hoping it would say “One Mile to Go”.
I started feeling a little weird. I remember being light headed when I re-entered the dark forest from the bright sunlit field. I wondered whether it was possible to overdose on electrolytes.
Then with ½ mile to go I knew I had it. I pulled out my recorder to capture the moment. I stretched out my stride and left what was left on the mountain in a furious wheeling free fall down the ski slope through the chute.
I was euphoric. It had indeed been a non-event. My wife and friends met me at the finish. They had biked the course in 6 hours and were well into the recreational beverages by the time I pounded across the finish. I got my medal and they led me back to the condo where there was a hose outside. I hosed off my shoes and legs.
I went inside and had a banana and some water. I was happy and spent. I took a long shower in the condo. Amazingly I had no chaffing and no blisters. My feet were pruned and achy from all the time in wet shoes, but nothing bad. Everything was still working, body-wise. I had to sit down in the tub to wash my feet because I didn’t trust myself to bend over. I struggled a bit getting back upright.
I hit the free barbeque on the way out and my wife commenced to drive me home. We stopped and I got a Big Mac Meal. Got to eat. Very hungry. I didn’t sleep in the car. I felt fine when we got home. I could not sleep that night. My legs were glowing like hot coals – it was a fitful night or rolling around.
I went to work the next day but I was useless. My body didn’t feel overly sore but my electrical system was haywire and my brain knew something was wrong. It was like a general physical trauma, akin to shock. I ate many large comfort meals. I slept well.
Day 3, Wednesday, I was still sore but decided to try a 10k in the woods. This was a mistake. I felt joyful for the first ½ mile then it was awful and something hurt badly in my left foot. I gutted out the 10k, but now have not run since. It is Sunday night. I hope to begin running again tomorrow.
I was trained well enough that my major muscle groups were fine. I was a little quad-sore but nothing compared to the ’07 Mount Cranmore race when I couldn’t walk for a week. I was sore in some strange places. My deltoids (shoulders) were sore from swinging my arms. The tops of my ankles were sore. I had no joint pain. My sciatic is acting up due to that tight pyriformis.
In summary, it was a good race and a fine adventure. I’m not sure I have the time to take on ultra-running as a career, but it has been cool to try. It seemed much easier than it should have been. Perhaps that is just my skewed perspective since it came at the end of 18 or so months of non-specific training. I really like the training.
Don’t be afraid to run an ultra. Train for it and respect it, but don’t fear it.
See you out there,
Chris Russell lives and trains in suburban Massachusetts with his family and Border collie Buddy. Chris is the author of “The Mid-Packer’s Lament”, short stories on running, racing, and the human comedy of the mid-pack. Chris writes the Runnerati Blog at www.runnerati.com. Chris’ Podcast, RunRunLive is available on iTunes and at www.runrunlive.com. Chris also writes for CoolRunning.com (Active.com) and is a member of the Squannacook River Runners. ChrisRunner@runrunlive.com