I rarely remember my dreams. When I do, it is a jumbled collection of vagaries. Channel surfing on hallucinogens. Fragments of blurry montages spliced together at odd angles. Often there is no transition from scene to scene. Nine days ago, I lived through one such dream, at the Vermont 50 mile ultra-marathon.
But first, a brief recap of how we got here.
How Did I Get Roped Into This?
Earlier this year, my buddy Doug was talking up the VT50 to anyone that would listen. After BQ’ing at Smuttynose, our mutual running friend Luau agreed to sign up for this 50 mile behemoth. I also tentatively committed. As Doug mentions in his recap saga - I thought “hey they have a 50k option too, right?”
Over the spring and first part of summer, I was still running everyday, as part of my 200 consecutive days of running streak that ran from November until May. I stopped the streak and rested one day before I ran a 50k at Pineland After the 50k distance, I thought the 50 mile distance in Vermont was a reasonable goal, and started training for the longer distance.
Peaking Too Early and the Terrible Tendons
July saw me putting up huge mileage. I was excited about ultra training and was feeling fantastic. I logged nearly 250 miles in July alone. It wasn’t too long after this that I noticed my Achilles and posterior-tibial tendon on my right foot really starting to complain on nearly every run. I had made a cardinal mistake and was now paying the price for it. Overuse. I limited the mileage during the week. In the first week of August, I had a monster 32 mile training run. Feet complained the whole way. I was really starting to worry about Vermont. Over the next two months, my mileage fell off. I probably averaged around 35 miles per week. I made sure to get at least a 20 miler in on the weekends, but my mid-week runs dropped significantly. I was constantly battling with ankle and tendon soreness and pain. Constantly worried that I’d get a DNS (did not start) on September 25th.
But as time wore on, my feet started to feel better with the diminished training. As September 25th approached, my feet felt better than they had in weeks. That is to say, they ached about as much as they normally did during training. As the taper wound to a close, I felt as strong as I could about the 50-miler, given the last couple of months of training.
We got up to Claremont, NH late Saturday afternoon. We stayed at the Common Man Inn, which I highly recommend. Renovated old mill building had a ton of charm. Our room, aside from being quite spacious, had a view of the nearby Sugar river - falls cascading outside the window were a soothing sound.
We made our way over to Ascutney Mountain Resort for packet pickup and drop-bag drop-off. My drop-bag strategy was to include some nutrition (gel blocks, honey stinger waffles, some GU) in each bag, and shoes in the 32-mile bag. There were drop-bag aid stations at 12, 32, and 47 miles. After packet pickup, we ran into the rest of our Twitter/Dailymile crowd, all running in the morning - Doug, Luau, Jeremy D., Jeremy B, Sarah S and their respective crew members. We exchanged greetings and a few words and then parted ways.
After a nice dinner, I pinned my number on my shirt, laid everything out for the morning, and tried to get some rest. Pre-race briefing was scheduled for 5:15am, and the four o’clock hour would come quickly.
Sunday Sunday Sunday!
We awoke early and made our way over to Ascutney in the dark. Port-a-potty by headlamp. The grass was soaked and all of us prepared for a long, muddy day. We found our group, chatted and snapped a few pre-race pics.
L-R:Me, Jeremy B, Sarah, Doug, Luau, Jeremy D
The race started about 10 minutes late, around 6:35. The start of this course was advertised as a few downhill and flat miles. Not so this year. We started climbing just about a mile in, where we greeted with a sign on the side of the road that read “Vermont is not flat!”. This continued until the first aid station, where our first real off-road climb awaited us.
The first climb did not disappoint, and was a perfect encapsulation of what would await us all morning and afternoon - steep climbs through deep, slippery mud. There were something like 800 mountain bikers that left before the runners. They made to sure to leave the course in pristine condition.
The next 8-9 miles were a series of relentless little ups and downs, culminating in muddy descent into what was dubbed the “mud pit” - just before the first aid station where our handlers had access to us. Here’s a photo from just beyond the mud pit.
During this stretch of the race my tendons really started barking. I was having to favor my right foot a bit and just trying to push forward. This had happened on virtually every training run, and usually sorted itself out, or became tolerable as the run progressed. Also during this time, our merry band of six began to thin out. The two Jeremy’s, Doug and Luau pulled ahead, with Sarah and myself trailing behind. At one point, Doug waited at the top of a climb to chat with us for a few minutes, but eventually rejoined the lead group.
Sarah and I entered the first handler station just as the other four left, feeling pretty good. Grabbed some nutrition, refilled water. Ditched the phone. It was way too humid and even though it was in a plastic bag, it was getting wet. Ditched my belt pack too. It was mainly carrying the phone. I moved the endurolytes to my pocket and lost the extra weight.
The next section was about 8 miles of steady climb up to Garvin Hill, the highest point on the course. Sarah and I stuck together and walked the steeper uphills - like everyone else. Up long country roads and over picturesque farmland with gorgeous views. A perfect little slice of country living, complete with old red barns. In the woods surrounded by maple syrup lines. Climbing. climbing, climbing, for what seemed an eternity.
Eventually our hard-work ascending paid off at the top of Garvin hill. You could see for miles, and I was a little bummed I had ditched my phone at the first handler station (it was caked with sweat and stuff) - as these were some of the best views this course had to offer. I was feeling some hot spots on my feet, so I slathered on some Vaseline. Had a few snacks and chatted with the volunteers. At this point, I believe we were still making great time - about an hour ahead of the cutoff time.
Going into the race, I felt that the 12-hour time limit for this difficult course was a bit aggressive. As a comparison, the 50-miler at Pineland Farms has ½ the elevation gain and a 13-hour cutoff time. It became a recurring theme for us - reach an aid station and ask what time they closed, desperately trying to gauge how far we were ahead of the cutoffs.
After mile 20, we went back down the hill on some switch backs. As I had been favoring my right leg and the tendons earlier, I noticed now that my left knee was very unhappy. The downhills were not fun. I was having to alternate between trying to go down a little sideways and just gritting my teeth and letting go on the hills. Did I mention the hills were also caked with mud? Made for an interesting few miles.
The knee pain came and went, and at times I found myself flying down hills, leaving Sarah a little bit behind. During one such period, I recall feeling euphoric. I was moving on single track through the woods, alone, full of energy. In hindsight, I was probably moving way too fast. But no matter, I felt alive and surprisingly good for having been running for 5-6 hours.
At one point, I came out of the single-track and on to some road. There was another guy here, sort of staggering. I slowed up and walked next to him. He was having some major cramping and was feeling a bit sluggish and disoriented. I shared some endurolytes with him and walked for a bit. After a few minutes, I turned and saw Sarah coming out of the woods on to the road. We continued on to the Margaritaville aid station.
After leaving the aid station, we had 4-5 miles (I don’t really recall accurately) until we hit our next handler station at Dugdales. During this section we walked a lot, and ran via landmark. Sarah and I took turns picking out things like trees, streams, telephone poles, etc. “Let’s run until the second big tree”. “Let’s walk at that brook.” The hills just seemed to get harder.
Eventually we reached Dugdales at around the 32 mile mark and saw our crew. Our crews were fantastic! They had some chairs setup for us and all our stuff spread out. I got my socks changed, some duct tape applied to my right pinky toe, which was starting to blister. I ate some fruit and drank a bunch of water. Sarah and I made our way over to the aid table, where they were yet again out of potatoes. This was unfortunately the case at nearly every aid station. The mountain bikers and faster runners consumed every last potato. I ended up learning to love the salty banana.
Leaving our handlers
We left the 32 mile station and started hiking uphill again. The next 5 miles or so seemed to go on forever. There were just a ridiculous amount of winding single-track switch backs. At times we questioned whether or not we had already covered a particular section. I believe it was during this section that Sarah thought she saw a deer on the track ahead of us. I had to let her know it was just a fern.
Each aid station, we asked about the cutoff time. Each aid station, we were creeping dangerously closer to the cutoff time. We’d encounter other runners, and ask them. None of them seemed concerned, so we figured we were doing alright. As we got up over 36-37 miles I was starting to get pretty fatigued, especially on the uphills. There was a stretch where Sarah pulled ahead and was moving with another woman up the hills as I was kind of struggling. At one point on a particularly steep section of hill, I remember going to take a step and feeling as if I would topple over backwards down the entire slope. I was dragging. Eventually we got some downhill and I was able to make up some time and came out on the road behind Sarah leading up to the 40 mile aid station.
We reached the station with precious little time to spare. Again, no potatoes. I grabbed a handful of chips and a piece of orange. Sarah had already started walking. A guy at the station said we had 7 miles to cover in just under 90 minutes. I did some quick math. That was something in the 12-13 minute mile range. Faster than what we’d averaged that day by at least 1:30. I mumbled something to Sarah about it being impossible. She kept pushing forward.
Around this time I also really started to hit a wall physically. Or, maybe it was just mental. Whatever the cause, by the time we were a mile (?) away from the aid station, I urged Sarah to go on without me. I really didn’t think it was going to happen for me. I told her to send one of my brothers when she reached the next aid station. I admired her tenacity, as I was convinced it was not going to be possible for her to beat the cutoff either.
The next 40-45 minutes were a dark funk. Ultra events seem to feature this kind of cycle. You feel good, you feel great, you feel defeated, you feel like you can’t go on and just want to take a nap, then you feel good, etc, etc. In fact, both Sarah and I had experienced this at various points during the race. We agreed to keep each other out of the dark spaces. And it worked pretty well. But she had gone off ahead, and I was trudging through the woods on switch back and up and down the muddy single track alone. And it started to get to me.
I was drained. Felt like I had no energy. I realized I needed to keep running, but it was a non-starter. I’d begin to run, and after about a tenth of a mile I’d “wake up” and realize that I was walking. I’d just stop. Mentally, I wanted to run, but seemingly couldn’t. After all, this was mostly downhill, but my legs were feeling otherwise. My tendons were barking a bit and my knee was acting up again. I started getting down about the whole experience. I was convinced I was not going to make the 47 mile aid station cutoff time of 5:45. That was an almost certainty at this point. But I started to wonder whether or not I’d even make it to see my brothers. The woods started to consume me.
At times I felt like I was stumbling forward. I began to hear things, or at least imagine hearing them. Footfalls around me. I’d pause and listen. No one around. I’d hear voices. Kids laughing, chatter of what sounded like an aid station. I’d stop and listen. Nothing. I ate everything I had left in my pockets and drank a bunch of my water. I kept trudging forward over single track. Small wooden bridges and mud pits. Hills.
After some amount of time, the sweeper caught me on his bike. I told him I realized I wasn’t going to make it, but was going to run it out to 47. He sort of agreed and said “well, you have a lot of ground to cover still...” - That kind of sealed the deal. But I kept on moving forward. I really wanted nothing more than to sit down on a stone and rest, or lie down in the mud and pass out.
The single-track receded and I made my way into a clearing. I figured I had about 25 minutes and somewhere around 2-3 miles to go. I thought for a second - “if I run as hard as I can, I might pull off a miracle”. I talked myself up. Somehow, it actually worked. I took off and ran for about ½ mile at what I thought was a pretty quick pace. My Garmin reported somewhere between 10-11 minute miles and I was dismayed. Slowed to a walk. Caught my breath, ran some more. Walked again.
As I came out onto some farmland, there was an owner sitting on her porch. Amazingly, another guy came out of the woods behind me. As he approached I said “there’s no way man - we’ve got over two miles to go and about 9 minutes to do it”. He said “bullshit, I run these trails all the time and its not that far”. This energized me. He took off, and so did I, winding through the single track and back out onto the road. I looked at my watch however, and realized it was a lost cause. We were already at the cutoff time.
Soon I saw my brothers. I said “it ain’t happening”. They nodded in understanding. We walked and jogged the remainder of the way, probably about another 1-1.5 miles. The sweeper van approached and told me to get in. I refused and told them I was running it out to 47, where my ride awaited. We walk/jogged the final bit to where our wives were all waiting. I was about 20 minutes too late. I said goodbye to my brothers and their wives, changed my clothes, and Jenni drove us back to the finish line. I hobbled down to the finish area with a few minutes to spare.
Moments later, Sarah came into view and came bounding down the final slopes to the screaming chorus of all of us cheering. Somehow, someway, she had made that last aid station cutoff. I have no idea how, but she did it. She collapsed to the ground. Doug made his way over with her medal. As he held her hand, she managed a few words through her tears and labored breathing. “I had to leave Adam.” I made my way over to the edge of the fence and extended my hand to her and told her not to apologize. Not necessary. Jenni snapped this picture and it really captures the emotion of that moment.
Sarah after the race
Congratulations all around for Doug and the two Jeremy’s, who came in just under 11 hours and qualified for the Western States 100 lottery. Luau finished just over 11 hours, and Sarah just under the wire, with 30 seconds to spare.
Afterwards, we went back to the hotel where I had an ice bath and a hot shower. Then some of us made our way out to the Skunk Hollow Tavern, where the owners were great enough to keep the kitchen open for us hungry maniacs. A couple of beers, some pizza, some salad, and some good salmon bisque.
On Sunday, I was okay with how the day ended. I have no doubt I could have continued on for another three miles, had there been a 13-hr cutoff time. I estimated around a 12:35 finishing time. I was disappointed but not upset.
Monday, I went down by the river and went for a very slow walk. I sat by the water and tried to figure out exactly what had happened. When at mile 47, I felt as if I could have gone another three. What happened between 40-45? 32-37? Where did I lose those minutes? After ruminating for a bit I began walking back to the trail head. I tried a slow jog. Leg shaped bags of concrete. Tenth of a mile. Return to reality. Ouch.
The rest of the day, and into Tuesday, I entertained this endless dialogue of what-ifs and second-guessing about Sunday. I should have switched shoes at 32. What if I hadn’t stopped to share endurolytes with that guy? Maybe I stayed too long at stations. Damn them for not having POTATOES! The one thing I trained for specifically! I didn’t eat enough. Did I drink enough? My Garmin was off all day because of the switchbacks - maybe my math was faulty - I had been running for 9 hours. I should have trained more uphill power walking. What the hell happened in 42-44? Did I just space out? Did I hallucinate? Did I just give up?
Did I just give up? Maybe that’s it. I just did not want it bad enough. My goals going into this race were simple. I was nursing an overuse injury and I really just hoped to get through the day without further damage. If I finished, I finished. I knew there was no way that I could break 11 hours on my first attempt. I didn’t have anything to prove. In the days approaching the race, I was more excited about running with friends and going on an adventure than I was about covering the 50 miles in an arbitrary amount of time. I didn’t really have an it to drive me.
I started to grow miserable within this little shell of self doubt and rationalization, until a simple moment smashed me in the face.
One night before bed, I was talking with our daughter. She was acting all goofy and I asked her to stop. She said “but I want to make you laugh and smile”. I told her she made me smile every day and she said “that’s a bucket filler”. The second graders have been learning about kindness.
I asked her to explain. “What’s a bucket filler?” “You know, when you do something nice for someone else. That’s a bucket filler. Or when you go do your races like in Vermont.” … “What do you mean?” …
“Well, you go out with your friends and you do your best and you help each other and it doesn’t really matter who wins because you are all just going to have fun. That’s a bucket filler.”
I thought - I am an idiot. And I nearly cried.
Back at the office, I was sharing the story with one of my biggest supporters. We talked about the cutoff times and how I felt about the day. She said - “you’re forgetting again”.
“Where you came from! You never give yourself enough credit! Think about who you used to be, and what you’ve been able to do, and what you just did last weekend!”
And indeed, she’s right. Thanks Nanci. Need to focus on what I did do and stop obsessing over what didn’t happen. Begin humming Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.
* Vermont is not flat
* Covered 47 miles and felt at the end like I could have done the 50 (without dying). This is a huge confidence booster for any kind of distance 50k or under.
* Aid station tips: get the water bottles open as you approach the station, it’s helpful to have someone rip open gel block / waffle packages for quick access later.
* Salty bananas are actually pretty good
* Forget about the Garmin. The switchbacks make it irrelevant. Should have just kept it on clock display.
* Ultras are freaking awesome, and I want to do more.
It would be wrong if I failed to say thank you to the race organizers and to the landowners that grant access to their property for this event year after year. This is truly a great event. I will be back.
Also thank you so much to my wife Jenni. For both supporting this crazy ultrarunner and crewing for me. You were the best!
There’s much more swirling around in my head about this experience. It’s tough to explain everything. One has to experience it. Go through it. Like life. Just keep moving forward. I was watching this video with the kids leading up to the race. It's good stuff. Onwards: