Vermont was my first 100. I had originally planned to run it in 2015, but chickened out at the last minute, worried that I hadn’t gotten in enough long runs in preparation. Last year, however, I packed on some extra miles during my training and by the time I was boarding my AA flight to the green mountain state I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to “get ‘er done”, as they say.
I wanted to keep my expectations in check – this was my first experience running anything longer than a 50-miler and I told myself I would be happy just to finish. However, I secretly hoped that I could complete it in under 24-hours. Of course, I didn’t DARE say any of that silliness out loud, less a) I call my shot and then miss it or b) more importantly, I jinx something. Ha – the ambition of inexperience!
I’ll admit – as race day approached I started to get a little nervous about the “unknowns”. What would it feel like in the rarified mileage north of fifty? or eighty? What’s it like to run a long stretch of the race in the middle of the night? How would I do on a hilly course (given that I trained exclusively on the pancake-flat roads of north Dallas)? What if I needed to poop?
Like any rookie too green to know any better, I made plenty of bad choices in preparation for the run. I decided to enter the solo division – no crew. I’ve always been un-crewed on all of my ultras – why start now?
I packed a few random drop bags, not expecting to even need them. I prefer traveling light and have rarely run into any serious problems during a race. I even decided to roll out a new fueling strategy – a combination of GU gels and Clif Bloks that I had never even tried. I’m surprised I didn’t decide to lace up a brand new pair of sneakers, straight out of the box. By the time I was in the racer tent in Silver Lake Meadow at 3AM Saturday, nervously nibbling on a bagel and sipping some coffee, I was ready to get it on. Let’s find out what the 100 was all about, I thought.
The run started off normally enough. After shaking off the initial race-start butterflies, I settled in to a comfortable pace and my usual routine of a long, training run – nice and slow, staying conscious of conserving energy, eating and drinking at regular intervals. The course was gorgeous, a never-ending string of spectacular rolling hills and covered bridges.
In time though I could feel the constant climbing up and shuffling down of the hilly course wearing out my legs. During what can only be described as a mile-long, straight-up, vertical ascent after leaving the Stage Road AS at mile 30, I actually had to stop a few times, grab a tree for support and catch my breath to keep from nearly passing out. It was hot, too. On a few long stretches near the end of the day, my handheld water bottle actually ran dry, forcing me to gulp fluids like a dying man at the next aid station. Overall though, my total “mind-body system” still felt pretty good, so I tried to keep smiling, to enjoy the day, and to watch mileage add up.
By the time I hit the halfway mark, I could feel a noticeable shift in my performance…and in my confidence. The constant uphills were destroying my calves and the steep downhill runs were shredding my quads. I could feel my entire legs tightening up, and I found myself walking more than normal, not just on the steeper uphills. Although I hit the 50-mark in less than twelve hours, I could already tell that it was unlikely I would complete the next half at the same pace. Things were starting to hurt. Finishing this monster, I thought to myself, was going to take more grit and determination than I originally expected. At mile 70, I left Camp 10 Bear with fresh socks, a taped-up big toe, a mysterious red welt on my left shin, and the acceptance that I was going to need to dig deep for the final 30 miles. As the last bit of daylight started to gave way to the blackness of an heavily overcast Vermont countryside, I flipped on my headlamp and ran into the thick, dark woods for the final, major push of the race.
Finishing this monster, I thought to myself, was going to take more grit and determination than I originally expected.
Somewhere deep in the forest, exhausted, completely alone, in pitch black darkness, navigating my way down a narrow, winding trail guided by nothing but a string of dim, green chem lights and the tiny illuminated cone of my sorely underpowered headlamp, I realized that a 100-mile run is no joke.And then, around 1AM, it started to pour.
For the last twenty miles I slogged through rain, mud, exhaustion, and freezing cold to get it done. Huge thanks to an incredible crew of volunteers at the rain-soaked, late stage aid stations, especially the person who gave me a plastic poncho when it looked like I was getting hypothermia. Thanks to my trail buddy Robert for keeping me sane when things got really dark out there – both literally and figuratively. When we crossed the finish line at just over 26 hours, I’m not sure if I was expecting there to be more festivity or not (I think that the downpour might have put a damper on things), but I was really happy to have made it all of the way through.
My post-race recovery was tough. That unidentifiable bruise I had on my left shin turned out to be a stress fracture. I guess the upside was that I can say that I ran the back half of the race on a broken leg. The downside was that I could hardly walk/sit/stand/sleep for about a week, which made flying home and getting around work a challenge. I also had some Level 5 chafing between my legs from the wet weather – so it felt like my crotch was on fire in the shower. And, of course, I lost a number of toenails.
I also hadn’t felt this great about running in a very long time. This may come across as simplistic, but digging deep makes you realize that you can actually dig deep. I felt that way a little bit after finishing my first marathon, a little more after finishing a 50, but exponentially more after the 100.
So what did I learn out there?
- First, I need to take the 100-mile distance seriously and have a solid plan. It’s not a great idea just to wing it and hope for the best. I got really lucky on this one, but now I realize that too many things can go wrong over the course of 100 miles. You gotta be ready.
- Second, I’m more motivated to be better runner, both physically and mentally. I’m in pretty good shape now, but I want to turn my body into a fat-burning endurance machine and to become more mindful of everything going on during my runs. No more mindlessly just grinding out the miles. Have a purpose.
- Finally, I should probably start training for the race I’m planning to run. If it’s hilly, I should probably train on hills. Do some trails. Run at night. Put together a challenging training program and then stick to it.
I’m ready to sign up for #2, and I think that it’s going to be the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Houston this February. Between now and then I’ll be trying to internalize the stuff I learned in Vermont – and just become a better ultra-runner. Feel free to follow this blog and see how I do.
And if you’re considering running Vermont as your first 100, I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing experience. Vermont may have been my first, but it definitely won’t be my last!