The insultingly loud alarm on my cell phone screamed into my ear and jolted me awake, then just 1/2 a second later Michelle’s followed in suit. The sky was still cloaked in night and only a couple stars were visible through the cloud cover, but after all, it was only 4 am. We both pulled ourselves upright from our reclining seats and fumbled in the early morning blindness for our headlamps. We had slept in our car to get ready for the race without the hassle of driving and navigating a state that wasn’t ours while entirely sleep-deprived. Rather quickly we managed to change out of yesterday’s clothes and into our race gear, myself sliding on running shorts, shoes, a singlet and my fully loaded camelback while Michelle squeezed into her mountain bike kit and accessories. The teeth were brushed, the coffee made and shared in the parking lot as scores of other racers came filing in, also getting ready out of the backs of their vehicles. Still fully engulfed by the weight of our sleep we picked our way down the grassy ski slope to the race tent where the 5:15 morning meeting was to take place, giving us no new information we didn’t already know. Standing around we surveyed the various runners and bikers, sipped then threw away some terrible coffee, took down some ibuprofen at pre-determined intervals, went to the port-a-potty, went back to the port-a-potty, went back to the port-a-potty again, and generally just waited out the minutes until the first wave of bikers took off the line. The sun was finally turning the dark to a hazy grey with each successive wave.
For those that read my blog posts leading up to this race, you know I was dealing with a very problematic leg “condition” that threatened to end my race as soon as it started, hence the repetitive downing of ibuprofen pre-race. As expected, the chemical concoction entered my bloodstream and I felt nothing walking up to the start area, but my concern was further into the race when the masking effects would begin to wear off. Still, I was just happy to be able to get off the line and give it a go.
Michelle’s wave of bikes, the last of them all, went off 10 minutes before the 50 mile runners stepped to the line. I gave her a kiss and she gave back an excited, but apprehensive look, unaware of what perils might meet us in this foreign land, far from the expansive horizons of our beloved Hoosier state. We were in mountainous regions now and had enough driving the past two days to fully introduce us to the terrain we would attempt to conquer by body and bike.
The line of runners stood a few feet back from under the Start banner like middle schoolers at their first dance. No one wanted to be as brazen and make the first move of confidence before the race started and so we shuffled aimlessly until called forward. A group of us moved up and received some last minute, almost inaudible, instructions from a race director. No one takes run outs at the beginning of 50 miles, so we stood shaking out our legs and arms, some of us dead quite, while others chatted amicably. The course record holder stood to my left and talked it up with other runners, in a tone that seemed less enthused and more obligatory about the race than I expected. I heard him sigh, “Well, here we go again.”
Then with little fanfare, a 5 second countdown was given and we moved off the starting line without much urgency, which considering the distance to be covered and the terrain on which it lay, made perfect sense.
I was out front. I expected this. The first mile was a slightly downhill stretch of pavement that led us into the first hill…well…into the course itself, which just happened to be ONLY hills. To say “the first hill” is to imply that there were maybe 3 or 4 big hills on the course like most runners expect of a “hilly course”. Not in Vermont. A “hilly course” means “a course of hills”. I knew the pace would be slow to start, as it should be, and did my best to run with a complete lack of effort. No matter, my hoosier muscles still pulled me ahead of the first chase pack. There was only one other runner with me who asked if this was my first ultra and if I knew what I was doing with the pace. I told him, yes, it was my first and, no, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just running as slow as I could get, well within my means, without expending the energy it takes to restrict my stride. Still…I was out ahead, but not by much.
Then we hit the hill and started the climb….that would never end. Immediately the road turned off onto a flattened back dirt road that rose drastically, which is what I expected. I put my head down and started picking my way up the hill, not trying to force anything, but just get to the top where I could turn my speed back on and try to make more distance on the group behind me. My heart rate rose with the incline and I kept everything under control as I started passing mountain biker after mountain biker, who were either spinning precariously balanced in a granny gear or leaning forward as they pushed their bike up ahead of them. We swallowed them up one by one and the top of the hill came closer and closer, that is until I realized the “top” of the hill was just a turn onto a road that continued to rise even more with just as much incline. I read a sign placed on the side of the road that said, “Vermont is NOT flat!” I could only think, “Whoever said it was?!”. I put my head back down and continued to pick my way up the top of the hill.
Cresting that first speed sucking obstacle, I expected the course to level out and run along a ridge line or maybe enter into some twisting singletrack, but no, actually what happened was the road turned and shot straight back down to the bottom of the hill on the other side. I learned, rather quickly, that this is what is meant by a “hilly course” in Vermont. There is no recovery at the top of a hill or any sort of meandering downhill, but rather once you get right to the top of the hill, you turn and go right back down. And then when you are at the bottom of the hill, you turn and go right the hell back up!!! Wash, rinse, repeat. Welcome to Vermont. Shit.
Oh well, I pushed on. To my surprise, running down the hills became more problematic than running up the hills. Running up was just a matter of keeping my head down and picking my way through the mountain bikers while making sure I wasn’t maxing my lungs out too much. Running down however, was quite chaotic. Not only do the hills descend as far as they climb, but they do so with the same incredibly steep grade, which would send me careening down a paved or dirt road trying desperately to keep pace with my momentum, while at the same time trying slow myself down into less dangerous territory. If I would have just let myself go with the speed I would have easily lost control of my body and crashed to the ground, without a doubt. What I had to do then was work to keep my balance and ultimately brake the whole way down, pounding my quads into a pile of mashed bananas. This was not going to be good, but hell, I was still in the lead.
Soon enough we entered the woods where the single track was washed away from the recent tropical storm and exposed little rivers of water, stair steps of various sized rocks and a number of other hazards that made difficult climbing that much harder. Fun!! And that’s not mentioning the rosary bead string of mountain bikers stretched out up the same climb, forcing the runners to pick back and forth across the trail to either avoid the slick rocks or the slicker mountain bikes. And don’t think the climbing got any easier in the woods….oh no. The climbs rose just as severe as the roads, the only difference being that when you flew down the other side you had massive sole sucking (soul sucking?) bogs of mud waiting for you at the bottom from all the previous mountain bikers who left no path of travel untouched for you to traverse. It was either step into the ankle deep mud in the middle of the bog or the ankle deep mud on the sides. Take your pick. The slop was so thick in some spots that I saw mountain bikers fly down the hills and then get stopped dead in their tracks within 3 feet of entering the mud pools, only to topple over and unclip just in time before immersing one whole side of their body in the mess. I won’t say I didn’t find it a touch amusing.
By this time, about 5 miles in, I was still running alone and now soaked in sweat from the mid-60’s start temperature coupled with the significant humidity. To be honest, it was taking its toll on my body, but I never paid attention to it as I was so much more concerned with the effects of the hills. I continued sipping from my camelback and taking down Powergels every 30 minutes to keep my pistons firing. Then, of course, it was time to go back up a dirt road hill. I looked up and saw the crest far off in the distance and reverted back to my new strategy…take a quick peek up, look back down and never lift your head until the top of the hill shows itself. It was working well as I wasn’t just passing mountain bikers, but really moving pass them with some velocity. Enough speed to warrant some expressions of genuine shock at the effort. I wasn’t tiring, but did notice my quads talking to me a little more than usual when I got to the top of the climbs. In hindsight, I think they were saying, “Don’t you dare go back down that hill you asshole.” But hey, that’s where the course went. What else was I supposed to do? So I headed back down, listening to the mountain bikers blaze by me with such intense speed and pounding my legs over and over trying to maintain control of my balance.
Then a mile later I was picking my way back up a long stretch of single track that started getting more and more difficult as it continued on. Then without warning I heard something behind me that was not the sound of a chain chattering mountain biker. Another runner! An incredibly svelte runner came up behind me and started pulling off my effort, but I lost momentum behind some mountain bikers and he took the line to my right and moved ahead. I got my line back and jumped right behind him, noticing that he was going completely unsupported. No camelback, no hand helds, not even any gel packets. For a while I was debating whether he was actually part of a super fast relay team, but as it turned out, this was the eventual race winner and new course record holder. I wasn’t done yet though and we both started cresting the hills, crashing through massive mud pits, half-cursing, half-laughing, and illiciting more statements of incomprehension from the mountain bikers as we pushed and pulled each other through the up hill and back down. While climbing though, I noticed he was at much greater ease than I was and knew he was feeling strong, so during the next climb when he started moving away I just let him go. I allowed myself to look back down a long incline I was working up and was surprised to see no one else coming, so just continued to work and work on the course, repeating the same pattern as before. Go up. Go down. Hear the quads talking up. Feel them fighting back on the way down. Surprisingly, despite the continued degeneration of my leg muscles, we hit the Skunk Hollow Tavern aid stop, which was a quick stretch of flat land and I suddenly felt really strong, able to find my stride and pace with ease as the crowds lining the barrier cheered strongly. I was infused with their exuberance and found more drive to fight back up the hills that kept coming at me, and kept wearing me on the way back down.
I was running alone and it was still nothing but hills, and at this point I had NO idea how deep into the course I was. For all I knew I could have gone 10 miles or 13 or 15. I just didn’t know. All I knew was I had a ways to go when I looked at the time elapsed on my watch and I just hoped the course would ease up on my legs at some point. Not to be. Another long, painful climb. This time, about halfway up I heard a familiar noise and looked over to see two runners come up on my side and just slowly move past me up the hill. I continued hard enough to move past the mountain bikers, but these guys looked smooth and continued to get away as the hill rose. I looked back one more quick time and also saw last year’s winner, Brian Rusiecki, coming up the hill as well. It took him a little longer to catch up, but soon enough he did. He wasn’t looking as strong as the other guys, but continued to move away from me with relative ease despite my continuous efforts to keep climbing. Then it was back down again…myself now in 5th place.
We blasted down a hill and I felt my quads go weak with the effort, struggling to find a way to slow my pace down, which I noticed as I moved closer to Rusiecki on that downhill. I was losing breaking power, only putting more strain on my quad and calf muscles.
The course turned into some quick rolling single track that was patterned with more mud bogs and here is where I had my first physical sign that things were about to get ugly. Approaching one of the bogs, I put all my weight onto my leg and leaped into the air to clear the mud completely, but when I stretched my leg out over the messy pit I felt a familiar sensation, like a rubber band stretched to its limit and then dipped in liquid nitrogen. A cramp. I landed on the other side of the mess and felt my calf refuse to contract back to its relaxed state until I stopped putting force on it. I took a few shortened steps until it worked itself out and then continued on, but realized the heat and humidity and effort must be taking more of a toll than I had thought. I took a couple powergels ahead of schedule trying to stave off the cramps, but felt the cramping every time I cleared a bog. I was concerned to say the least.
Continuing through the woods, we then turned up onto more single track and I watched Rusiecki pull away as I started yet another climb. Fortunately, he was still in my sight and I used him to pull myself forward on the trail as the it meandered out of the woods and up a beautiful grassy hillside, switching back a couple times into an aid station that overlooked the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful sight, but I was only concerned with getting some liquid electrolytes in my system from the previous cramping episode. I squeezed in between all the mountain bikers, grabbed the lone cup of Heed off the table, downed it quickly and then bounded out of the station to words of encouragement from the bikers and volunteers working the stop. Then just as I was pulling away from the mass of people behind me I heard one important message shouted my way, “That was mile 19!”
Whoa, awesome. Not only did I know where I was in the distance of 50 miles, I was also further along than I thought. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that I was losing my initial placing, feeling my muscles weaken and now just started feeling cramps. And to add insult to injury, as I moved further down the trail my stomach was filled with nausea like I’ve never felt before during a run. I was sure I was going to puke, but assumed it was just the Heed mixing with the Power gels and continued on until the feeling passed. Still, it wasn’t an encouraging moment.
And here…well….everything continued on the same, except for, surprisingly, getting passed. I don’t know what else to tell you except that everything became a massive blur of uphills, downhills, mud pits, single track and roads. That was it. There were climbs that rose all the same…straight up and non-stop….then went right back down. Each one taking more and more fight out of my quads as I tried to keep from tumbling down the road. I was just amazed that no other runners were in sight behind me and I held to my 5th place position as I continued up the course.
Then after 3 1/2 hours of running I found the final nail for my coffin. I came blasting down one of the single track declines only to feel my legs continuing to cramp and my quads now weakened and actually hurting in deep muscle damage. I was losing all control of my lower body functions. Just then the trail turned and linked up with the 50k course, giving me a little more incentive as I was able to run alongside and pass other runners for a short while. I realized though, there was no way I was going to make 50 miles at the condition I was in and decided I would probably call it a day at the Dugdale’s aid station where my drop bag lay at 30 miles. That was going to have to be it. My muscles were non-operational for the rest of the course. There was one problem, I had no idea how far away that was. I asked some of the runners where Dugdale’s was, but the most informative response I got was “not too far”. Ok, um, how far is not too far on hills like this?
I had no choice, but salvaged what was left of my abilities and continued a run walk up a long road climb to, yes!, an aid station. Dugdales! Wait, nope. This was Margaritaville….a Jimmy Buffet themed aid station, which was a touch of an insult to my injury. I came into the aid station in 5th place, discovered that this lay at the 27 mile marker, just 3 miles away from Dugdale’s. I hadn’t dropped out yet, so I took down some oranges, Heed and banana slices while debating in my head if it was worth it to continue to mile 30. Being the stubborn ass I am, I moved away from the food tables and started a light jog up the hill to mile 30. Then I felt a very familiar sensation…as if I had just completed the Chicago Marathon in ’09, where as soon as I stopped running past the finish line my legs froze up and unleashed their pain into my body. And that’s what happened. My quads were in pain. I couldn’t run on them. That was it. Just the thought of running 3 miles on these muscles was absurd.
I walked over to the race official and told him I was dropping out.
And I didn’t regret it. Yeah, it sucked, but I didn’t regret it. It would have been one thing if I was just tired of running or if I just wasn’t having a good day, but this was something else. This was my body just physically not able to continue on. There was nothing I could do about that but call it a day. So I drug myself over to the “drop out van” and climbed aboard with a 50k runner and a few mountain bikers, discussing our various reasons for throwing in the towel (lack of training, mechanical failure, etc.). I kept up conversation until I felt another familiar feeling wash over me, the terrible need to puke. The shifting van didn’t help my nausea, but we made it back to the start/finish just in time for me to get out of the van and take care of some business. Ah, what a way to end the experience. Man, I’m tired just writing about this.
To summarize the experience…I had a blast and got blasted. Seriously, it was really fun despite everything going very unsmoothly and I’m not completely disappointed in my effort. I just realized I’m NOT built for that terrain. I can run hills and I can run them fast. I can run distance, even on trails, and do it fast. But put massive climb after massive climb then massive descent after massive descent into the mix and I just can’t handle it. My quads are not built to take that kind of pounding. The Hoosier State just doesn’t create legs for that sort of terrain. I’ve had a number of people ask me if I will go back and try again, and to be honest, I don’t think so. It’s not that the experience was terrible, but I just don’t know how I would train for something like that. I could find the one or two huge hills we have in the state and run them over and over and over again for hours, but the practicality of that is absurd as the act itself. So yeah, I learned a lot during this run. I learned that my training has its limits in terms of geography and I’m simply built for a different type of running. It’s not much more than that really.
That, of course, still leaves the ultramarathon door open for me, just on different terrain. For now though, I’m going to take some time to recover (today I didn’t have to use the handicap bar to get off the toilet!!!) and then work my way back up to the fitness I had a month before this race when I felt unstoppable. See you when I get there.