Lots of pain… and big ass horses!
Damn those 20 days after Western States came quick! Isn’t it interesting that if you’re waiting for something you’re excited for, time seems to slow to a crawl? Conversely, if you feel you need more time to prepare, recover or just get the dirt out of your shoes, isn’t it weird that time seems to fly by?
Recovery and some intermittent wedding planning filled the three weeks between WS and Vermont. Coming out of states, my left hamstring and calf were acting up. Considering my pace from Foresthill to Auburn, an injury from moving too quickly would be very surprising. Likely, the 23k of descent and blown quads led to overuse of accessory muscles. With three weeks to recover and never having ran an ultra so close together, let alone a 100 miler, I was nervous that Vermont would exacerbate these issues and potentially knock me out of the Grand Slam.
After spending Wed/Thur in North Carolina for work, I took an evening flight to Burlington and arrived sometime around 12:00am. Sleeping in on Friday morning was great but a bit weird, as I can’t remember once in the past three years waking up past 9:00am.
Leaving Burlington around 10:00am on Friday, thankfully I called Alejandra to check-in and tell her my tentative plan of taking a short trip across the border for some poutine. Reminding me that this wasn’t Tijuana circa de 2000, when one could drive down to San Diego and stumble across the border back-and-forth with just a California license, the Canucks likely wouldn’t let this half Mexican in without the proper documentation.
Saving three hours, I decided to head down early to check-in. The trip from Burlington to Silver Hill Farm, the start/finish of the Vermont 100, was something out of a storybook. Both sides of the highway, for over 90 miles, was completely covered in lush forest. My only experience with Vermont before this trip was Super Troopers, so I wasn’t expecting much outside of maple syrup chugging and the “Meow” game, but the state did not disappoint.
After approximately 10-15 miles of backcountry, dirt road driving void of cell reception, you arrive at Silver Hill Farm. One of approximately 40 private properties that the Vermont 100 travels through, Silver Hill Farm is the staging area for not only the 100 mile/100 kilometer foot race, but also a 25/50/100 mile endurance horse ride. Although Western States was created because of Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse going lame during the Tevis Cup 100 mile horse endurance ride, the race directors always decided to separate the foot race from the horse ride.
Not Vermont…There were horses everywhere!
Not being much of an equestrian, after parking and finding a good spot to camp (right next to the rental car), I talked with several of the handlers/riders that would be joining us on the course Saturday. The horse event is very similar to the run, as we nearly follow the same course, albeit a few modifications. These racing horses weigh anywhere from 900-1200lbs, and can lose up to 45lbs throughout a 100 mile race. These stats correlate to humans, as we tend to lose up to 5% or even more throughout a long distance foot race. There are also veterinarian holds throughout an event (5 holds for the 100 mile), which are forced aid stations that require a medical check of the horse, along with some downtime to rehydrate, eat and take in electrolytes. Considering the moving time of these horses and the holds, it’s frequent to see the same horse and rider move pass you along the course several times throughout the day.
Checking into the race, Vermont was the first ultra that I’ve ever had a medical evaluation. Being a heavy sweater and knowing that I drop a ton of water weight throughout an ultra (10-15,000 calories too), I was very nervous when the pre-race packet stated that a 5% body weight loss would result in a “hold” at the aid stations, and a weight loss of 7% would be a disqualification. The packet also stated that we would be initially weighed with our race kit, so I devised a plan. Since I was running solo at Vermont (no crew or pacers) and there would be no gels provided at the aid stations, I’d be forced to carry all my own nutrition. The medical team had no idea what would be in my race kit, so I pulled everything out of my pack and emptied my water bottles. Hoping that the 20 gels, full water bottles, and soaked shirt would add a few pounds during the race, I felt confident that weight loss issues wouldn’t be a variable I’d need to deal with on Saturday.
After the weigh in, there was an interview with an RN. She asked several questions about my ultrarunning experience, medications, allergies and any other issues that would impede my ability to navigate the course. Thankfully I passed. As I was leaving, the medical volunteer stated that Vermont decided to pull mandatory weigh-in’s on the course and they would merely check in with us to determine our relative level of consciousness, instead of using weight as a determining factor of ability to perform. She giggled as she saw me emptying everything and stripping down to weigh in as light as possible. Not her first rodeo either…
With a couple hours to spare before the mandatory race meeting and dinner, I worked on the logistics for Saturday’s race. With no crew and having to carry my own nutrition, I packed up my drop bag and determined that it would be best to leave it at the 47/69 mile aid station. Camp 10 Bear serves as the only aid station runners pass twice, and it worked out great as I could carry enough gels to make it to 47, and then also pick up my portable watch charger to juice up, along with any s-caps or meds if needed. Then, I could drop the charger off at 69, pick up my headlamp and any additional gels to make it to the finish. Not wanting to repeat the uber caffeine ride at WS, I made sure to pack in all uncaffeinated gels.
The race meeting was short and sweet, as I was able to meet Amy Rusieki, the RD and also accomplished ultrarunner. Amy had raced WS in June and we caught up on the course and our experiences that day. Her husband, and course record holder for Vermont Brian, would also be running the 100 on Saturday.
That’s a power couple!
The pre-race meeting was great as I was able to catch up with Sean Bowman, another Slammer that used to live in SLO. We raced HURT and the SB Red Rock 50 mile together, and he and his wife had recently moved out to CO. Met several other Slammers on Friday too. Otto Lam, Chihpiting Phong, Phil Sanderson and Tommy Barlow. We definitely have a fun and diverse crowd tackling the Grand Slam this year, and I could feel the camaraderie begin to grow as we all suffered through WS, and would be putting our bodies through the grinder for another long day in Vermont.
With a 4:00am start and sleeping on fairly uneven ground, I didn’t get a ton of quality sleep. Thankfully, I had banked some great z’s over the past couple days and felt relatively ready to rock on Saturday morning. After a couple cups of fully leaded coffee… damn, caffeine hits you hard if you don’t ever use it, a quick trip to the bano and last minute lubing, we were off.
After asking Amy’s recommendation on Friday, I felt confident not needing a headlamp for the first 1.5hrs of the race. My plan was to relax into a comfortable pace and poach off someone else’s light. With the course being very runnable, especially for the first 70ish miles, I used the Austin Rattler approach of forcing myself to slow down as I literally couldn’t see.
Racing with all my own nutrition, the only stopping I’d need to make at aid stations would be to fill up my water bottles. Being a relatively cool morning for Vermont in July and not being able to feel the humidity too much, I drank to thirst for the early miles and make quick use of the aid stations throughout the day.
Fortunately, my nutrition/hydration plan was dialed in. Unfortunately, my body wasn’t. Starting at approximately mile 15, I could feel my left quad, right calf, hamstring and shin start to tighten up. Trying to run as relaxed and balanced as possible, I continued to perform self checks throughout the day to determine how much the level of pain would rise. Not wanting to cause a long-term injury, I dialed back the pace dramatically and tried to run as gently as possible, using my glutes, hips and core to drive the body.
The Vermont 100 course is tricky tough, as 15,000ft of vertical doesn’t compare to Wasatch’s 28k, HURT’s 25k, Hardrock’s 40ishk, or a multitude of other races with more climbing. Vermont sneaks up on you, as there are relatively, if any, flat sections on the course. Albeit shorter climbs and descents than the abovementioned races, Vermont hits you with consistently steep up’s and down’s throughout the day. Blowing out quads is commonplace at Vermont, as runners feel great early on, and hammer the steep downhills. Like any other race, blowing your load early is an excellent way to feel like hammered poo at mile 80.
Looking at the bright side of entering Vermont with a beat up body, I was forced to slow down a lot on the downhills. Being passed by everyone and their mother on literally every descent, my confidence level for a successful race was waning, but I knew this was the only way I’d be able to survive this damn race. Not knowing how my climbing legs would hold up and considering this is my only strength in ultrarunning, I was preparing for a really… really long day out there.
Somewhere around mile 32, as we were climbing up from the aid station, I heard some heavy panting right behind me. Being passed on the downhills was second nature to me at this point during the race, but I felt relatively strong climbing, so I didn’t expect anyone to move up on me so quickly… and so damn loudly! Already being a bit mushy brained, I turned around to see 1,200 pounds right on my rear. Thankfully, the riders were absolutely awesome and their horses so well behaved, that it was effortless having them pass throughout the day. As nice as they were, no one offered to give me a ride.
Although painful, the miles clicked off and the first 47 to Camp 10 Bear were relatively uneventful. With absolutely no goal in mind other than to complete the course, I could focus on managing my hydration, electrolytes, nutrition and pace without worrying about time. Running by feel versus the clock is what we should all do, but so many times we get swept into worrying about not moving fast enough to hit some arbitrary number.
Slowing the pace dramatically helped keep my heart rate in check and the fat burning engine running strong. Since my legs didn’t have much to give, I didn’t feel at anytime during the race that my HR was spiking or I was breathing too hard to continue at that pace. Coupled with early heat management and consistent hydration, I hit 10 Bear feeling at least aerobically strong, somewhere I assumed in around 30th place. After filling up my pack with a couple handfuls of Gu’s and setting up my watch charger, I was off to tackle the back end of the course.
Pulling up to two runners early on the first climb out of 10 Bear, I met Grace, the 2nd place female. She looked strong but comfortable, and was an incredible climber. We spent the next 10 miles passing other runners and talking about running. She was shooting for a sub 24-hr finish, and by even my mushy-headed calculations, would literally be able to walk it in from where we left each other with time to spare.
Miles 57 to 69 were uneventful, although I felt the early heat management and hydration/nutrition plan was starting to pay dividends. Still unable to move well on the downhills, I was able to run relatively pain-free on the flats and uphills. Since my HR was in check because of the early pacing, I ran the majority of miles on the backend of the race. There were a few steep climbs (coming out of Camp 10 Bear at 69 and after Bill’s somewhere around 91), that required power hiking, but most of the last 50 miles was runnable.
Picking up more Gu’s, my headlamp and a refill on the ice bandana at Camp 10 Bear (69), I headed out to tackle the back third of the race. Somewhere around this time I also popped my first advil, as I knew there would be more steep and runnable descents on the last 30, and no matter how slow I worked the downhills, my shin, calf and hamstring would start to scream. Not being a proponent of painkillers during an ultra, as they can mask and even lead to serious issues, I felt confident in taking low doses over the last several hours of the race. Since I’d taken care of my body throughout the day, I felt confident I could handle low doses of pain meds, and although my pain levels were quite high, they had at least leveled out over the past few hours
Unlike every other ultra and with completion of the Grand Slam at stake, I made a concerted effort not to “race” over the last 20 miles. Not that I was moving fast, but the concern of long-term damage and the inability to fully recover before Leadville far outweighed trying to shave another 30-45 minutes off my time. Not certain if my climbing legs felt good, or if it was just the only time running didn’t hurt throughout the day, but I did enjoy the climbs on the back half of the race, at least compared to downhills or the flats.
The last 30 miles was filled with a lot of pain, a strategic use of advil, consistent climbs and descents, and a great group of volunteers manning fully stocked aid stations. After 19 hours and 29 minute on the course, I was able to finish in 15th place. After catching up with Amy at the finish line for awhile, I hobbled back to the car to change out of my atrociously smelling clothes, and take a dip in the pond.
Fortunately the weather held up for the entirety of the race. Unfortunately, it didn’t for anyone finishing after 20 hours, as a storm rolled through that absolutely destroyed the majority of runners still on the course. I was damn proud of the Slammers, as every one of the 30 starters made it to the finish line in under 30 hours.
Two down… two to go!
What I learned:
– Fairly certain that Canadians think Vermont is part of their country. Everyone on the course seemed to speak French, or I was just delirious from all the pain
– Amy and her team put on a top notch race. The aid stations were frequent and well stocked, and the volunteers were efficient and in great spirits
– Vermont is a sneaky difficult course, with consistent climbs and descents throughout the race
– Going out slow in a 100 mile race, whether by choice or situation, is a very smart move for being able to run well late in the race
– Having a crew really does take a lot of stress off logistics, and is a helpful pick-me-up throughout the course. Definitely missed my rockstar crew at Vermont.