Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Vermont 50

September 28th, 2008

The familiar faces at the start of the VT50 always make me smile. This year was different though. I was to start without my father for the first time in 9 years. This also made the second time we weren’t able to sleep on site. We spent the soggy night before on the other side of the mountain at Running Bear Campground. Not a bad little spot, if it wasn’t right on the backside of 91 it would have been perfect.

As we chat at the start with our “ultra family” lots of questions are asked of Rik. He explains that he’s passing the torch, he’s done with this and he’s going to get a truck, a hibachi and just grill at the VT100 next year while I run it. I tell him calmly that he’s got at least 2 more years before he can do that. I’ve told him that we need to buckle together before he can retire, AND THEN he’s got to pace me for a buckle year before he’s off the hook. Then the subject turns to Loni who will be attempting her first 50k scheduled to leave two hours after I depart.

The morning is warm and soggy from the storm the night before. The fog is slowly lifting as the sun is coming up. The waves of bikers are disappearing into the darkness. I give loni a good luck kiss and make my way to the starting line with Izzo. “You turned her into an ultra girl.” I smiled about that, “yes I did” I responded proudly. We parted ways early, John is a strong runner and the first 4 miles of this run is on pavement/hard packed dirt so I knew we wouldn’t be together long.

At the first hill I walk along side a man that I know I’ve seen before. I tell him about “the gong house” as my father and I have come to name it because of the wooden structure in the field. He says he’s done this race for many a year, and he’s also done the VT100 several times as well. Turns out he’s the runner my father and I took over for at an aid station earlier this year at Wapack. I stop to take a photo of the cast iron moose that’s next to someone’s driveway. He laughs and says as many times as he’s gone past it, he’d never noticed. We jog the last section into the first aid station (Coon club) together. I wish him good luck because I need to use the restroom. The Triple bag beer along with the blackened spicey chicken wrap that I had consumed the day before at Long trail were not settling well.

I quickly get things set and get out of the aid station, grabbing a bunch of food and telling people that are walking down the hill to jog and eat in a few seconds when we get to the hill on the trail. No sooner then I’m stuffing my second salty potato down do I hear people yelling and running BACK towards me. I think someone must be injured, after all, this is the stretch where the woman broke her hip last year on her bike. Luckily there was no serious injury, but unluckily it would appear that there was yet another hornet’s nest we would be treated to run through. I did what I’ve done so far this year, find a handful of people and run quickly between them. Again, I managed to go unscathed. The running gods have really been on my side this year, 3rd nest run through, and 3rd pass un-stung.

I run through the next phase of trials pretty happy, running along many familiar faces. Talking about how this day is going to turn into a fantastic finish. One of the guys that seemed to match my pace well is a fellow named Noah. We run the next 6 miles together exchanging the lead depending on the terrain. Turns out, this is Noah’s first attempt at not only the VT50, but any 50 miler. His goal is to do Leadville 100 miler in 09. The fall colors in the next few miles are fantastic. I get a little ahead and then Noah does the same, we push (or pull depending on your perspective) into the Skunk Hollow aid station. This is the first handler station so there is a lot of hustle and bustle. I, once again, need to make a stop in the port-a-potty and lose track of Noah for what I assume will be the rest of the race. There are a TON of racers sitting down, talking with family. I grab some fresh fruit and haul out of the station yelling thanks to the volunteers. I know I’ve wasted precious time and there is a long hill ahead that I can stuff my face on.

The scenery in the following mile or two is what VT is known for. Stone wall and maple tree lined dirt roads. The tree branches give you a beautiful natural photo frame to countryside behind. This is the segment that at last year’s 50 Rik and I had a couple from Ohio believing that the lines between the maple trees were full of CO2 that Vermonters pump into the trees to get them to change colors. At the top of the hill we turn back into the woods and descend into a narrow path that I’ve come to know as “fern gully.” It’s a fantastic ½ mle of single track that is lined with 2-3’ high fern plants that brush against your legs. You feel so alive, almost like a deer bounding through the underbrush. Shortly thereafter Noah caught up to me, it seemed that I had actually gotten ahead of him at the last aid. We shared the next few miles leading up to the new Rollercoaster Aid station (To replace Garvin Hill). I was WAY ahead of schedule, checking at my watch from time to time. I’d gone 20 miles in only 4 hours, I think this is a personal best for me. I’d always recalled being at Garvin later in the day. I knew that my 18-28 mile wall would hit soon so at the next hill I wished him luck and that perhaps I’d see him again as he disappeared with the GAC trio.

The next 5 miles seemed to last forever, many of the runners i had passed earlier came ripping past me. The trail seemed a little familiar, but not entirely since this was the segment that they had to re-route. In no time I came to the familiar long grueling climb. This had been the location of two separate aid stations in past years, this time, it was just me and the woods. I was feeling mildly in the dumps, I hadn’t seen anyone in some time, and the runners I had seen pasted me as a rapid rate. My mind wandered to Loni and I wondered how her day was going in the woods. I wondered if she was thinking of me or if she was battling her own demons. I thought about a lot of things. How I had dropped out at this aid station 7 years ago due to my hip, and how I’d dropped at Dugdale’s the following two years because of my knee. Today was different though, I wasn’t feeling bad physically due to joints or anything today. I caught up to John the teacher who I had spoken with two week ago at Pisgah. He seemed like he was in rough shape. He said he had a cold and wasn’t feeling well. I told him at Pisgah I caught him in 2 miles, today it took me over 20 so he couldn’t be feeling too bad. I wished him well and plodded on up the hill. In my daydreaming state a guy caught up to me and we started to chat. He was from New Jersey and he said his ankles had started to bother him so he was going slower then he was hoping for. I told him he was doing fine and I was right, because before the next turn he was out of site.

Shortly thereafter this young woman wearing a pink skirt and a pink top, who I obviously dubbed “pretty in pink,” caught up to me and we started chatting. She told me she was from Brookline New York and was up here with her friend who she’d left behind at the last aid station. I guess she was having a hard time. I asked her if her friend was peeing or was taking salt. Then laughed and made the comment saying this would probably be the only time that it’s appropriate to ask a woman if she is peeing and not get slapped. Needless to say pretty in pink was on a mission now that she had left her friend. She darted off down the trail saying how she was too close to the cut off and that I should pick it up if I wanted to make it. I could only laugh as I bid her farewell. My internal clock knew that I was well within my means so early in the race. I assure her that Smoke Rise/Margaritaville is just up the hill and that’s the last I saw of her on the day.

I come into Smoke rise with my spirits high. I ask the person that’s recording numbers what time 1168 has come through. He assures me it was well over an hour and a half ago. I’m pleased, that means loni’s having a great day. I joke with the volenteers running the station as it’s my favorite aid station of either Vermont races and get a cup of chicken soup and off I go up the road.

As I march along up the hill I run along side a woman that’s not in good spirits. She’s mad about how hard this has been. She complains about a biker that’s stopping to take photos with land owners who are out cheering us on. “hurry up!” she mutters under her breath. I tell her that perhaps he just wants to enjoy the experience, it’s not just about his finishing time. She reluctantly agrees with me and changes the subject. She tells me that she’s “torn up this course” when she’s biked it, that she’s an ironwoman but this is her first attempt at a 50 miler and it it’s making her mad how she’s not been able to defeat it quite so easily. She explains that she’s having some knee pain and I offer her my extra cho-pat that I always run with. She says “what if I never see you again?” I tell her not to worry about it and that if it helps her along it’s worth the 20 bucks. I guess that’s what she needed because my joints were starting to hurt so I walked a bit and she quickly disappeared down the hill.

Just before I get into Dugdale’s another young woman catches me. She talks about how she’s dehydrated. I joking ask if her name is Krista, and if she’s here with a girl wearing an entirely pink outfit. She’s taken aback about how much I know about her, which I suppose she should be given the circumstances. It cracks me up now thinking about it.

I get into Dugdale’s aid station, mile 30.2. I ask again about loni, but she’s come through so far before me that it’s on prior sheets that have already been filed away. I’m thankful and make my way to my drop bag. New socks, shoes, red bull, and fruit cups await me.

I march out of Dugdale’s with high spirits, I catch up with Krista on the next hill and we chat a bit about her hydration and preparation on the day. She points out her “sausage fingers” and I explain to her that she should be taking more salt. She’s confident that she’s ok so I leave the subject alone. We meet up with a father daughter pair of runners. This is their first attempt at a 50 miler together. Last year they were here running the 50k together. It makes me well up inside a bit because I think of my father’s and my first 50 here 9 years ago. The next section of trail is my personal favorite, 3 miles of narrow single track switchbacks. Every year I ponder how the bikers get through here without crashing. Krista and I chat while exchanging leads. “It’s nice having you out here, it’s like you know what’s ahead on every turn.” She goes on to tell me she’s a school teacher and she doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to walk around class for the next week. Never mind explain to the students WHY should would have ran 50 miles for fun. She’s in good spirits and is off in no time.

I actually catch up to 3 bikers. I’m treated to 2 crashes and eventually pull ahead of the 3. On the last little climb into Falloon’s there is this goose statue that’s about 20’ up on a cut off tree. This year the footing of said goose is still up there, but the statue is missing. I’m bummed. I wonder what Vermonter ended up shooting it off of there. I mention it to the Maine woman I had been running with for a mile or two and she looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. Then I point at the wing that’s sticking up out of the mud in the stream before. Oh well, perhaps next year it’ll be back up on top of the tree in all of it’s glory. I still have no idea how it got there or who would have put it there and how.

I get into Falloon’s and see several of the runners that blasted past me in my lull 10 miles prior. Also I’ve caught 6 bikers now. I’m in good spirits but a volunteer asked me if I was dropping. Then Krista and the New Jersey guy ask me if I’m dropping. I look at all of them like they have 3 heads and say “jesus guys, do I really look that bad?!!”

I get a handful of food and I’m off down the trail. Just after Falloon’s is a little wooden shed like thing that I’ve come to know as the Love Shack. As the song says

“If you see a faded sign by the side of the road that says
15 miles to the... Love Shack! Love Shack yeah”

It’s a little tin roofed shack about 15 miles from the end of the VT50. I feel bad for Krista and the guy from New Jersey who are treated with me singing those two lines like I have for the last 5 years as I pass this spot. Krista gets her second wind and takes off and I run the next few miles with the guy from New Jersey. He seems like a good guy. For some reason I feel like I’ve run with him before. I start to get into my second lull, but the sun is starting to break through the overcast sky’s that have kept the heat down all day. Luckily for me, this section is also on the VT100 route, in other words, horse troffs! I think I startled the poor new jersey guy when I dunked my now overheating head and bandana into the first troff I found. We chat a bit about racing and he said he read a lot of Sherpa John’s work. I tell him that he and I have shared a few miles together many a time, that he’s a really good guy, and that he should shake his hand if he see’s him a the finish.

Goodman’s is just around the corner. NJ and I part ways and I run down the trail with the woman from Maine again. With 10 miles to go and fresh fruit in my belly I feel invincible. I pass another biker on a downhill and blast through the mud. I pass a group of bikers on the next hill, only to have them blast back past me on the next down. We leapfrog for the next 5 miles. The Maine woman comes screaming back past me in a short switchback section and jokingly yells, “You should have had that soda back at Goodman’s.” She’s right, I’m coming off my 10 mile to-go high and I’m starting to hurt. Does this ever end? I’ve forgotten how long the last stretch of trail this is. The long steep snowmobile trail, this is familiar! “Tell everybody I’m on my way….” I start singing the Phil Collins song that Loni’s adopted as her ultra-theme song. I sing it as long as I can remember the lyrics. I’m flying down this hill now. I’m running for the first time since the first 4 miles. Muscles burning, feet throbbing, but I continue my singing “reluctantly croutched at the starting line….” I’m singing ‘Cake –He’s going the distance’ as I pass the maine woman again. I yell over my shoulder, “Guess the soda wore off didn’t it?”

I catch up to an older guy through the next field. He’s got no pack, no water, and he’s bairely shuffling along. I slow down and ask him if he’s ok and if he needs anything. Now if you’ve run ultra’s, you can see the look in someone’s eyes. The look of “why the hell am I here? I should just stop.” Needless to say when I offered him advil and water he quickly accepted and proceeded to drink the last half of my water. At first I was a tad peeved that he finished it all, but I figured he must have needed it more then I did so I wished him well and continued down the trail. The next stretch is where you leave the woods and run through a gracious landowner’s yard. Sure, probably nothing out of the ordinary on most days, but at this point you know you are going to finish the race. The sun has come out, you get a perfect picturesque shot of Mount Askutney. I take a moment to stop and snap a photo.

Back into the woods and start moving at a good clip. I catch a hint of movement up ahead through the pine. Excellent, a couple of more runners that I can real in! I catch them both as we get onto the dirt road that leads you down to Johnson’s. “You can see Johnsons from here!” I proclaim and run off down the road. The sun from the previous field fades quickly and the sky’s open up. I’m talking cats and dogs downpour. I look up at the clouds and smile, the rainwater washes the crystallized salt from my face.

“How’s 1168? A long time ago? Doesn’t matter, she’s made it, I burning minutes. “

I grab another handful of fruit, I’m catching more people and my spirits are through the roof. Sadly, this year due to landowner issues we lost the Garvin Hill Aid station, in turn to make up said mileage, they changed the last 3.1 miles on the course to 4.6. This extra mile and a half of unfamiliar terrain threw me off. Luckily I was treated to another downpour turning the once dirt single-track into a greasy slip and slide. I pass the same group of bikers yet again. “I’ll buy you a beer if you push this to the top,” One of them pleas. “no deal flanders!” I yell over my shoulder and dash up the hill. The slipping and sliding to the other runners must have been a huge problem. For me, playing boot hockey and ice fishing with my father growing up, I’m not exactly sure why , but it felt natural. Over the next ¼ of a mile I had passed 5 more runners. We come out of the slippery singletrack and back across a field. I see a familiar outfit on the runner ahead. “KRISTA I’m back from the dead!” She laughs, her pacer looks at me like I’m nuts, poor guy. I snicker on the next climb and wonder if he knew what he had signed up for when he said he’d come pace the last 10 miles with her. Back on the old course, excellent! But sadly no, another turn towards an unfamiliar direction, I pass another 4 runners, wishing them best of luck while passing.

Two more turns and another familiar face, I call out “LEADVILLE NOAH! I never thought I’d see you again!” He turns and laughs and says the same thing. The trail leaves the woods and goes down this dear path between tiny birch saplings. I’d be a nice little trail but it had that kind of mud that is like wet concrete and it’s about a foot deep. I thank goodness I laced up my shoes tight or they would have easily been removed. Noah calls ahead once we get past the mud, “Josh, where are we going?” “I wish I had a clue man, I wish I had a clue” I respond while taking my last 3 salt tablets. We walk up the road for awhile and my shins start to give me that familiar twinge. I’m pissed, this is the same feeling that made me drop at the 100. I still haven’t solved my issue, I HAVE to fix this before next July. We cross another field and rejoin the old finish again. I wonder if this time we’ll actually stay on it. No sooner did we reach the treeline the 3rd downpour hits. It’s serious, but very cool at the same time. The rain driving down upon the leaves above make that magical music that people record and put on meditation cd’s. I’m at peace with the race and the running gods; I laugh and look skywards and go, “common that’s all you’ve got?”

Noah and I chat a bit about how we’re feeling, how the race has been. The trail is slick so we slip and slide our way down to the waterfall and the stone bridge. I stop to take a photo, then notice this creepy witch figurine 3 feet away from me. I point it out to Noah who hadn’t noticed it at first either. Funny what you see when you slow down. I feel strong still, Noah must be feeding off of my high spirits because we catch 3 or 4 more runners before we get to the first 1 mile to the end sign. A bit later there is another sign “You are all winner’s!” it states, I laugh and make wise crack to Noah, promptly a 3’ section of a birch branch falls 10 feet away. Hmm, the running gods not pleased about that comment.

I spent the next ½ a mile slipping, sliding and laughing about how absurd doing these things are. I’m trying to balance my endorphins of knowing the finish is near and the lingering feeling of cramps that are making my thighs twitch. Last couple of turns, Noah smells the finish line and says to me, “Want to finish together or let gravity do it’s thing?” I tell him to run like the wind, you only finish you first 50 once. I see Steve running back up the hill towards me, I tell him he better turn around or I’m going to finish way ahead of him. He turns and run through she shoot with me. 11:30:2 said the clock. I bend over and grasp my thighs from the finishing sprint. I get my finishing medal from the volunteers and shake Noah’s hand, never knowing if we’ll meet again. Loni is there, with her medal in hand, she completed her race a few hours prior. I well up with pride, probably shed a few tears. Rik had moved his truck and had missed the finish but I got a hug when he returned. Before leaving the race we got to see the father daughter team finish their first 50 miler together, Rik and I congratulate them together. Again I welled up with tears when I think about he and I finishing many a races together. I’m so blessed to be able to share my passion for ultra running with my father and my girlfriend not only in spirit, but also on the trails. I already look forward to September 29th next year where I’ll be starting number 10!

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