Back in 2006 I ran a bunch of marathons and one ultra, the Vermont 50 Mile Endurance Run. The experience completely changed my perception of what I was capable of. Sure, I finished at the back of the pack, and sure, a lot of my friends run much tougher, longer races, but I was proud of the accomplishment none the less. A few months before I ran this race I was smoking a pack a day and selling fish in a crappy South Carolina town. You never know how close you are to the adventure of a lifetime!
2006 VT 50 Race Report:
It’s 4:00am. I’m warm inside my sleeping bag but I can tell the air outside is freezing. I hear my friend Jamie’s cell phone alarm ring from his tent. It plays The Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner. I jump out of my tent just as I hear Jamie yell “Let’s get it on!” from his. While the rest of the campers are snug in their RV’s resting up for a big day of whatever it is people do at roadside campgrounds, we’re preparing for the longest run of our lives… so far.
As we drive to the base of Ascutney Mountain all I can think to say, over and over, is “Dude, were going to run 50 miles today.” To which Jamie replies “I know. We’re crazy.” I’m not sure if it’s nerves or lack of sleep that keep my conversation so restricted. Maybe my brain is too busy wrestling with the idea of what I’m about to do – second guessing its own sanity – to be bothered with formulating sentences.
Upon arrival we go through the standard race check in procedures: pin on your number, stand in line for the port-a-pottie, drink coffee, eat a bagel, get back in line for the port-a-pottie, wonder what you got yourself into, get back in line for the port-a-pottie etc. This is the first time I’ve prepared for a race while it was still dark. Something about it definitely adds to the excitement of the whole thing. It also adds to the intimidation factor. Everyone around me seems a little more hardcore in the darkness. I can’t help but feel like I’m way out of my league.
Eventually the sun peaks over the horizon and the runners take to the starting line. I find my place in the middle of the pack and the spectators (all eight of them) find theirs on a grassy slope nearby. I survey the misfit pack of ex-druggies, exercise addicts, crazy musicians, Thelma and Louises, and shirtless, bearded, over sixties. Not exactly the same crowd you see at your local 5k fun run.
We’re off. Oh s*@t. What am I getting myself into?
A few minutes after the start, a long haired intense looking runner pulls up alongside me.
“Are you Chris?” He asks.
“Yeah.” I say, more than a little startled. Until now I was an anonymous beginner in a crowd of seasoned ultra runners. How the hell does this guy know me?
“You must be Jamie.” My new buddy says to Jamie, who is running beside me.
Holy crap? How did he know that?
“I’m John Holt.” The up ’til now stranger informs us.
Ahh, myspace. It’s a whole new world now. This was John Holt of John Holt & Generous Thief fame. We’re myspace buddies.
Catching up with John is nice, but also a little scary. He is much more established in the sport of ultra running than me, so I have no business keeping pace with him. I know if I try to keep up I’ll never make the distance. It gets even scarier about three miles into the run when John informs us we are running at “suicide pace”. Yikes. Still, I’m having too much fun chatting with the myspace crew to drop back just yet.
I lose track of John and Jamie shortly after the four mile aid station. By now I’ve come to my senses and decide to run my own race. I’ll see them at the finish line… if I make it.
Miles five through ten are pretty uneventful. Walk the steep up hills, run everything else. Somewhere around mile ten I start getting tired. More tired than I’ve ever been at the ten mile mark of a standard marathon. This is very unnerving considering the distance I still have ahead. At the mile 12 aid station I’m still feeling bad. This is where the battle between mind and body begin. A battle that’s probably going to last all day.
This is also the beginning of the longest stretch between aid stations. From miles 12 to 20 there is no support. I ran a marathon in New York last month that was on a nice, level, paved trail around a lake with water and food stations every mile. Now I’m running alone in the woods on muddy single track with 8 miles to go before my next opportunity to fill my water bottles, and 38 miles to go before the finish line. The furthest I’ve ever run in my life is 26.2 miles. My legs are already killing me. What the hell have I gotten myself into?
For several miles I try to convince myself I’m not going to call it a day at the next aid station. I’m having all I can do to keep the negative thoughts at bay.
I’m tired and sore and nowhere near the halfway point.
I’m not a real athlete.
I’ll never make it.
Luckily for me, during the arduous trek from 12 to 20 I meet up with Anthony and Ira, my new best friends for the day. I’m still feeling miserable, but I don’t want to show it. Before long Ira’s the one feeling crappy and I switch to the role of motivator. This takes my mind off of my own suffering and helps pull me through to the 20 mile aid station. For the next few miles we take turns convincing each other we’re almost there, until eventually we’re telling the truth.
One really cool thing about this race; the aid stations sneak up on you. There are no mile markers or obvious landmarks to tell you where you are on the course. You just keep running, hoping you’re close to the next turkey sandwich and warm cup of Coca Cola until all of a sudden, there it is around the corner.
During one seemingly endless climb on a section of single track Anthony asks if either of us smell smoke. I’m thinking for sure Anthony is experiencing olfactory hallucinations, and even make a few jokes about it. A minute later I can smell the smoke too… and is that Jimmy Buffets voice I hear? Great, not even 20 miles in and we’re wigging out. Not good.
Turns out we haven’t lost our marbles yet. The smoke and music are coming from the 20 mile aid station up ahead. We made it! Not only does this station have some of the best food on the course, it’s staffed by the local chapter of the Jimmy Buffet Fan Club. Parrothead or not, Cheeseburger In Paradise sounds mighty good after three and a half hours of listening to your feet slap the ground.
After scarfing a couple PBJ’s, filling up the water bottles and downing some Tylenol we bid adieu to our Hawaiian shirt clad hosts and head out.
30 miles to go.
Within minutes something very strange starts to happen. My legs start feeling good. Real good. I don’t know if it’s the Tylenol or the PBJ, but I’ll take it! The next 6 miles fly by and before we know it we’re at the marathon mark. I am now moving into uncharted territory. I can’t believe how good I’m feeling. I feel like the first 26 miles were just a warm up and now I’m ready to start running. Miles 26 through 33 cruise by like Christmas morning when you’re seven. Anthony, Ira and I pass the time laughing, talking about religion, politics, hot chicks and everything in between. We might as well be out for a morning jog before work. Aside from some disgusting skunk water at one of the aid stations (try running 3 miles with nothing but putrid, rotten egg tasting water to drink) and a downpour at around the 30 mile mark, this section of the course is a breeze.
There’s a strange phenomenon in running that probably has a name, although I have no idea what it is. Your brain seems to plan accordingly for the distance you are going to run. If you set out to do 10 miles, 10 miles is all you will be able to do, even if you’ve run 20 many times before. Running another 10 after would seem unbearable. If you set out to run 26, you’ll be exhausted by the end and another 26 would sound ridiculous.
When we hit the 33 mile mark, Anthony points out that we only have 17 miles to go. On any other of the 10,000 or so days since I’ve been on the planet, that would have sounded like a death sentence. 17 more miles? You’ve got to be kidding me! For some reason, today is different. As far as I’m concerned the race is in the bag. 17 more miles? Shoot, we might as well be done already. I can’t help myself. I pick up the pace and take off ahead of my new buddies.
For about 4 miles I feel invincible. I smile a goofy endorphin induced smile and let my legs carry me effortlessly through the woods for the next 40 minutes. And then everything changes. I hit another wall. And this time I don’t break through it. From mile 37 on the race turns into a death march. I struggle constantly to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Every patch of moss on the ground looks like a great place to take a nap. I worry ceaselessly about making the cut off times at each aid station. I fight the idea that quitting now would be ok. I’ve already run further than I ever dreamt possible; that’s enough of an accomplishment isn’t it? I can quit now and not feel like a loser, right?
After loading up on Mountain Dew, pretzels and GU at the mile 42 aid station I take note of the mileage to the next stop. 5.57 miles. Two hours ago 5.57 miles sounded like a cakewalk, now it seems like an impossible distance. How can I possibly keep tricking my legs to carry me for another 5.57 miles? I’m not sure what’s keeping me from giving up right now. I could throw the towel in, have a bowl of soup and catch a ride to the finish line for a beer. Instead I convince myself to take one step down the trail, then another, followed by another. Eventually I’ve taken enough steps to carry me halfway to the next aid station. I can stop thinking about turning back now.
I’m running in a trance now. The outside world is gone. Nothing exists but pain, my feet and the ground. I trudge along in this state for what seems at once like seconds and an eternity. My sense of time has long ago abandoned me. I’m still worried about making the cutoff, but I have no way to tell if I’m on track. Take another step, and another, and another…
My concentration is broken by a distant voice. Is someone yelling at me to turn around? I look up from the ground and realize that in my daze, I have run several hundred yards off course. I turn around, manage a wave in the direction of the farmhouse where I assume the voice came from, and head back to my missed turn, cursing the uphill that just moments ago, heading down, was a welcome respite.
I arrive at the final aid station and find Anthony and Ira waiting for me there (They had long ago caught up and then passed me). The feeling of camaraderie that comes over me when I see them and realize they waited to make sure I finished the race washes away all the misery from the previous 14 miles. We take off together and cheer each other on, reminding each other that there’s only three miles to go and we’re going to make it.
Two miles to go.
We really are going to make it.
I pull ahead of my friends somewhere during the last mile. As much as I appreciate their company, something is telling me I need to be alone when I finish this. I want it all for myself.
With about a half mile to go the trail opens up and I find myself standing two thirds of the way up Ascutney Mountain. A beautiful sunset serves as a backdrop for the sleepy town of Brownsville, complete with the silhouette of a church steeple. I want to stop and soak up the scenery but think better of it and take off down the mountain toward the long awaited finish line. As I zig zag my way down the ski trail I fight back the tears I can feel welling up inside me. I’m actually doing this! I can’t believe it. The finish line is now in view. I feel the hair on my arms stand up as the cheers of the few remaining spectators grow louder. I’m on the home stretch. I see John Holt waving his arms and yelling “Great race Chris!” I see Jamie clapping and cheering wildly. I cross the line. Someone puts a finishers medal around my neck and I start to tear up.
13 and one half minutes under my goal time.
As I hobble my way to the car I try to bask in the glow of accomplishment but the glow isn’t there. I’m happy I made it through the race and even a little proud, but I feel more like a spectator than an athlete, like I just managed to hang on for twelve hours rather than competing. Maybe it’s because the crowd is gone, the post race BBQ has dwindled down to cold couscous and soggy chicken wings, the beer tent is packed away and the few remaining runners chatting in groups by their cars don’t look as sore as me. Maybe I’m just exhausted.
Maybe I’m supposed to feel this way. Maybe this is what will keep me striving to do better. Maybe what I’m chasing is a dangling carrot and I’m just going to have to keep chasing it. So I’m not a world class athlete yet. I’m at least 50 miles closer, right?