Ah the Vermont 50, where to start. Saturday was classic pre-race routine. Pick up my race packet at noon, head over to Long Trail for a few drinks, then over to Harpoon for a few more. Then pick up a pair of meatball subs to share with my old man at our campsite. It’s a tradition that started 10 years ago and hopefully will continue for many more.
John, Sarah, Steve, Pete, Pete’s girlfriend/wife? and Gillian joined Leah my father and me around the fire and we shared our running tales. Talks of how the trails are going to be, think they’ll be bad? Will this be another 03? Hard telling at this point, the clouds had started to move in but after baking in the sun and drinking some of my favorite beers all day. I couldn’t have been happier to be out here. The wind started to pick up around midnight, and the rain started somewhere around 130, and when it rained, man did it come down. Hindsight being what it is, I should have purchased a larger tarp to go over the bed of the truck as Leah and I awoke at 430am to wet bottoms and tops to our sleeping bags. I caulked it up to typical pre-vt50 craziness, I told her it could have been worse, at least it was warm. One of the years I woke up with a heavy frost on my pillow.
With the standard pre-race meeting out of the way all we could do was watch the bikers zip out into the darkness and wait for our turn. As we were instructed to walk forward to the starting line Rik and I decided we were WAY to far forward in the pack and we milled our way quickly towards the back third as per usual. With a Ready, GO, we were off down the road and due to the change in the start; it was literally down the road. In the past there’d been the short climb at the start to spread the pack, this year, it was fast. And we knew we were going fast because we NEVER see the lead runner at the 2nd turn of the course. NEVER!
We settle into a grove and start running with a fella from New Jersey. Seems to be a veteran at these things, not much of a talker, but the small talk helped the miles melt away. At the first hill a young woman named Kim matches our pace. I soon learn this is her first 50 miler; she’s up from Atlanta with her “fast friend” who just last weekend had put in 140 miles in a 24 hour race. DEAR GOD! I exclaim I must be running WAY to fast if I’m keeping up with you guys. She laughs, but there was certainly a hint of truth there.
Rik and I cruise through the woods, and reminisce about how 2 years ago that woman had broken her hip in this location. What a way to start a race. With Kim and her friend long gone we match another runners pace and tag along. This too, is her first attempt at a 50 miler. Danielle from Montreal, Rik puts on his fatherly shoes and talks about how he got me into this and how you just need to “run aid station to aid station, it’s as simple as that.” And that she’ll be fine at the pace she’s going. I grin knowing that those little tips are what will keep you going when you go through the lows. How strange those words would ring true as the day unfolded.
I came into the School house a bit ahead of Rik and rebuilt a bit, wolfed down a boost, smiled for the camera and pushed on. Sara asked me if the trails were really as bad as 03, because I guess people were already bitching about it. I laughed and told her isn’t not even close. Rik and I have a strange relationship at these things. We run together, kind of, but there are stretches where one of us will get far out ahead of the other and this apparently was my turn to pull him along. I ran the next few miles alone, through the “fern gully” single track trails. I was has happy as could be, slipping and sliding, but enjoying the woods non-the-less. The long road stretch into Garvin always makes or breaks my day. I know I SHOULD be running aid to aid, but I’ve done this race long enough to know that if I can get into Garvin (approx 22 miles) feeling good, I’m gold.
My knee is starting to nag me from the early downhill pounding of the road. I take some Advil and slow my pace to where Rik catches me. We pass a handful of bikers that obviously have dropped and have just decided to ride back to the start. We see Nate as well who’s coming off an amazing finish two weeks prior at Pisgah but a nagging hip took him out of the game today. It’s odd, that one would drop, and then run/ride back to the start. Why not just keep going?? Then again, I’ve dropped 3 times at this race. Some day’s it’s just not in the cards.
A familiar face catches up to Rik and me on the climb up Garvin. Nick Palazzo, with two rookies in tow. He reminds us that this is the highest point on the course. Rik wisecracks, “So this must be where I get my runners high then eh?” To which the appropriate comment of “depends on what pills you’ve been taking.” The course over Garvin had changed quite a bit but I enjoyed the new single track they had added to the backside. I was feeling fine. Rik on the other hand, was fading, and fading fast. I catch up to another fella who I dubbed “peg leg guy” and if you were there and saw this guy. You’d know exactly who I’m talking about. Apparently he either cramped up, or had pulled something miles prior but was still moving forward, albeit more like a pirate.
It’s at this point on the course where you come out into this field with a grand fire place and a beautiful view overlooking blood hill and the rest of the course. I synched up my jacket and sat down in the chair (breaking rule 1 and the quote on my shirt) but I had gotten far enough ahead of Rik that I was a bit worried. Rik catches up about 7 minutes later and we settle in with a biker, whose bike broke at mile 12 and decided to run as far as he could without it. IN biking shoes (for those who’ve never worn clip-in bike shoes, they generally have the padding/flexibility of a ski boot). We commend him for his determination. It’s kind of inspiring, seeing that he's still out here when at this point I’d counted at least 30 bikers that had already dropped out. He keeps up with us for a bit, but his shoes have him fall behind in the next run able road stretch. Rik and I jogged together into the next aid station half way up the next climb. The veteran staffed station (the same crew that has been here or at Garvin for as long as I could remember). I get in and out as fast as I could and holler dad to get moving over my shoulder as I marched up the trail. 15 minutes go by, then 20 I, stop for a bit. Still no signs of Rik, I’d been walking stretches where I’d normally run in hopes that he’d catch up to me. Nothing. Now ordinarily I just run this race, without a care in the world, but the two rookie ladies that had come past me in the last stretch were talking about cut offs, if they’d make the next station. And it got me thinking, and a bit worried. After missing the cut off at MMT earlier in the year, you’d think it’d be something I’d keep on my radar. I look at my watch. I start doing math. If you are counting that’d be 3 ultra no-nos in a matter of miles.
We roll into Smoke Rise with 30 minutes to spare. “ONLY 30 MINUTES!” I exclaimed. I knew we were going slowly, but I’d never been this close to the cut off at only 28 miles. I ask about Dugdales and she tells me we’ve got an hour and 20 minutes to go 4.2 miles. Piece of cake I think, I plow down ¾ of a can of coke and stuff salty potatoes in my mouth and walk on, again, calling back to Rik. He’s already in a death march. It’s too early to be death marching. Not good. I call back words of encouragement but find myself putting a lot of distance between us. I sat on a rock and broke down the time/distance what we needed to cover.
"If it's going to be close, go ahead."
I can't leave him. I hope it's just a low and he'll put out of it in this next stretch. Perhaps the coke he had will kick in and he’ll bounce back. We get to the top of the muddy horse trail into Dugdale’s and Rik tells me that he's going to drop, and he'll see me next week. I feel a pit in my stomach knowing that not only am I now going to be on my own, that I won't even be able to share the finish with him. He gives me a hug and yells out "Now go...Go my son!!"
So I turn, and start to run, fighting back tears and know that it's going to be me verses the clock for the next 20 miles. I look at my watch; try to remember how much trail I still have in front of me, I look at my watch again. I’m running hard, sliding and smashing into the deep parts of the mud, which I had been avoiding prior. There was no longer time to fool around. This truly was, turning into a race from aid station to aid station. I pass 5 runners and 3 bikers before I get into Dugdale’s.
I quickly fill my water; get a thing of coke, stuff potatoes and gummy bears into my pockets. The aid station is filled with people I see Leah and give her the scoop on Rik. She’s ready to have me change my shoes as I asked, but there was no time. I got into Dugdales with 12 minutes to spare. I quickly grab a kiss and stuff another boost and two ice teas into my pockets and run off towards Blood Hill.
I catch the rookie and Penny on the next climb. I ask her how her foot is doing. She ran Pisgah with us a few weeks prior, with what I overheard, was a broken foot. Now she’s out here again. I tell her she’s crazy, but that’s just what makes us ultra-runners I suppose. We chat and I tell them how the next stretch over blood is my favorite of the course. It’s the winding single track. Which generally I enjoy. Today however I know I’ve got 45 minutes to go 3 miles. Sure 15 minute miles seems like a breeze, but 32 miles and 8 hours into a muddy wet course with heavy shoes and with the single track feeling like I was running on a slip and slide. I thought I was sunk. I quickly left penny and the other woman in the dust on the switchbacks. I catch John’s friend Gilly on the climb into Fallon’s. She wonders if we’ve made the cut off. I look at my watch. Did we make it? Did we not? I wasn’t sure
The volunteers were packing up the station. They take my number down. I ask, "Did we make it?"“OH YEAH YOU MADE IT”
I look at the cut off time hanging on the table, we had made it by 5 minutes.
After getting some warm soup I run off as fast as I could, passing 3 other runners who were still eating. I've got an hour and change to get 5 miles. This is going to be tough. My knee is throbbing still from the pavement from earlier. I yell out like I always do "16 miles to the LOOOOOVVVVE shack" as the trail turns and climbs next to the tin roofed shed. I see no one ahead or behind me for the next 4 miles. I wonder where everyone had gone. If the runners behind me had bailed because they knew they weren’t going to make it. I run, I run more than I ever had in this stretch. Wincing in pain, but knowing it HAD to be done. This couldn’t, no this wouldn’t be the year where a Robert wouldn’t finish either of the VT races. The trail pops out onto the road that Goodman’s is on and I looking at my watch and let out a sigh of relief. I knew I had made the cut off. I run anyway, setting goals of run to this tree and you can walk to the next pole. Then upon getting to the tree yelling at myself, "common, you can go to the pole instead!"
I see the guys from skipix parked in a field and I continue to run, then I yell over to them "thanks for being here, I wasn't going to run this stretch but I didn’t want to be walking in the photo!"
Goodman's is a hustle, two bikers still at the station and the reaper there looking at his watch. I had 14 minutes to the cut off. I quickly restock, ask how far and how much time do I have? I had to get to Johnson’s by 6pm.
The next stretch of trail is always a show, muddy, slippery, new single-track, rocks, switchbacks. I blast away, passing two bikers, and catching 4 more runners. One runner was another father/son pair. The son had just joined in and was pacing him home. He'd never done a 50, and when prompted the question of why, "I have no fucking clue!" The son was having a good time, saying how much fun he was having. I told him to just keep him moving and he’d be fine. Glancing at my watch, at that pace they wouldn't make the cut off. So I pushed ahead again. Catching two more runners. On the next climb I caught the "fast" friend from Atlanta. She told me of her 140 mile 24 hour run the weekend prior and how tough this terrain was. I kind of smiled. I was having a ball. I guess if you are from the south, and haven’t been running on what has been a muddy trailed filled season, this would be quite the shock to your system.
She and I leap frog for a bit before I even leave her in the dust. I pass the father of the father, daughter pair. "She's just ahead, but doing better than me'"
I catch the daughter soon thereafter and tell her that she’s doing great and her dad is right behind her. I then run with a PT from NYC and we discuss the cut off time and how we got into these things. This was her first 50 as well. She'd come over from the dark side of road running and marathons. She senses my urgency to get to Johnsons and takes off. Turning my pattern of simply passing people into a dog race, and now I’ve got a rabbit. She’s fast, REAL FAST, for 45 miles she’s setting an unbelievable pace. I force myself to run across the landscape, through the huge puddle, now finally soaking my feet thru which I’d done a great job keeping dry all day
Leah awaits me at the top of the driveway into Johnsons. I look at my watch. I don't know if I made it
“DID I MAKE IT?”
“How much time?”
The reaper simply held up 3 fingers.
I laugh, yell out YEAH, and do a little dance. I grab more coke and Leah hands me a boost and kisses me,
“GO GO GO GET OUT OF HERE!”
I hike up through the field, seeing bikers and runners just ahead of me on the trail
I look at my watch, huh, if I had 3 minutes there, then that gives me 48 minutes to finish under 12 hours. I start doing the math again. I pass at least 10 more bikers in the next two miles, their components worthless at this point.
I made the turn, I could hear the finish, and I’m running sideways across one of the slopes, slipping several times and catching myself with my hands. I look at my watch. Crap, I missed, it, I had to have missed it. I start hauling ass just in case; I slip and land on the ground so hard it breaks my water belt. I look at it for 5 seconds, stunned at how hard I hit the ground. Do I leave it? I don't have time for this crap.
“DAMN IT!” I yelled while picking up the pieces and tucking them under my arm. I'm too close to miss this because of this stupid pack. I scream down the hill, the new finish line had to backtrack climb a bit that slowed me down just enough to hear the b52s playing love shack on the stereo below. I bellow out...”TINNN ROOOOOFF,” and Leah yelled back from the final turn, “RUSTY!”
I turn the final corner and I run as hard as I’ve ever run at one of these events across the finish line. I wanted to slide in but was afraid of cramping up. Funny after seeing the photos and talking to John he had the same idea and actually did it. I am congratulated with a "great finish" I ask, what was my time what was my time?
“1206”, Loni says from the end of the shoot.
Leah snapped a picture of us at the finish line. I look kind of defeated because I was still under the impression I missed the 12 hour mark. Danielle and a pair of bikers came in before we left the shoot area. I thanked and congratulated her. I wonder how many of the other runners I had passed had missed the cut off at Johnsons.
Leah, as a rookie crew was EXACTLY what I needed. She force fed me everything I needed when I needed them. I found out two days later when the results were posted that I actually DID finish under 12 hours. I had beaten the reaper, he was right behind me. His scythe figuratively cutting off my water belt. I crossed the finish line in a what Rik would have describe as, the ‘last man standing’ with a finishing time 11:59:52.
What a day, what a story, I can’t wait for next September.