Digging a hole and crawling back out
It took me a while to finally get around to writing about my experience running the Vermont 100, but after sharing my story with other runners over the past few months I think I'm finally at a point where I'm able to separate my pain and suffering from the facts and main plot line, so I've decided to share it more widely here on the NSAR blog.
The race was set to start at 4am on Saturday morning, July 16th, 2011, at the Silver Hill Meadow in eastern Vermont. This meadow was the site of all the pre and post race activities and also the racer and volunteer camping. Bernie Doucet and I drove up together from Fredericton, on Thursday afternoon, to give us plenty of time to get to the pre-race check-in activities that were kicking off on Friday morning around 9am. To add to the fun, three friends, Jodi, Mark and Karine as well as their pacers, Shawn, Kevin and Lori were coming down from Halifax to run the 100 mile event. Leaving at noon, Bernie and I drove most of the way on Thursday, taking us approximately 7-8 hours or so, but leaving us with only a short drive for Friday morning. That evening we went down to a local truckstop called "The Fort" in Lebanon, NH. It was a classic american dinner with some of the nicest looking muffins I've ever seen on display in the bakery area. The spaghetti I had was very average but the service was good and the portion sizes were generous. Bernie's Chicken Carbonera or whatever it was, looked pretty soupy so I was glad I ordered the tomato based sauce. We skipped desert and headed back to the hotel. It was now about 10pm, and our strategy of driving this far on Thursday was to keep our pre-event stress nice and low, and so keeping with this trend we decided to pre-pack our drop bags. Bernie messed with what he was gonna wear on race day, while I strategized on optimal drop bag placement and bag content selection. In the end I opted for 2 drop Bags, one at 10 Bear camp(47mi and 70mi), and the other at Bills (88mi) , the last weigh station. Camp 10 Bear made sense because we went by there twice, once after 47 miles, and a second time around the 70 mile mark and it was where people picked up their pacers. I was running without a pacer or a crew, so I stocked both my bags with lots of food and spare clothes and a head lamp in each. I also put a pair of Salomon XT wings in the bag at 10 Bear. I figured if things go well, I'd make it to the 88 mile mark before dark (<17 Hours) and would want to wait to this point before picking up my light, but in case things went wrong I figured it wouldn't hurt to be able to pick a light up at the 70 mile mark. The shoes we're also important, because I was planning on running in my Saucony Kinvara's which are a tad light for this distance. The extra comfort of the XT wings could come in handy after the half way point, or so went my thinking.
When we drove into the Silver Hill Meadow that Friday morning, the view of the hills below was a great preview of what was to come. It was sunny and still cool, but one could tell it was gonna get hot later in the day. The meadow was on a nice long slope, with the designated racer/volunteer camping area marked off at the very top of the hill. Below the camping, was a small man made pond, some temporary horse stables, and then a few large tents to host the banquet dinners and registration stations. We had arrived a bit early and were greeted by a very cheery young lady. We asked her about the registration process and somewhere in there she suggested, or perhaps recommended, we strip down for the weigh-in :) We'd later find out it was Julia Hutchinson, the Race Director. The stations weren't quite ready for us, but we hung around and played the Ginny pig role as the first ones being processed by the registration engine. We tested the two scales that were setup to weigh the racers and found that there was a 2lb difference so we opted for the one that showed the smallest number. We walked back up to the camping area to setup our tents and at that point I realized we were going to have an agonizing post race walk back to the tents; albeit probably not as painful as climbing down the stairs to the showers after the Vermont 50. We puttered around for a while longer and met up with the Halifax crew to hang out for while at their nice cozy resort. For lunch Bernie and I headed down to the Harpoon micro-brewerie where I had a very good black bean burger and a tasty pint of locally brewed beer. Following lunch, Bernie and I decided to hit up a grocery store and stock up on some pre and post race snacks and much needed fluids. We spent the afternoon trying to dodge the heat, lazing around in the shade of the forest near our tents. Bernie caught some sleep while I ate cherries and chips. We once again met up with the Halifax crew at the pre-race briefing and enjoyed an incredibly underated pasta dinner which offered something like 12 varieties of pastas, all kinds of salads, pulled pork and a large variety of desserts. Needless to say, we ate way too much to the point where I was worried that my guts would be all messed up for the race. We then slowly hiked up to our tents and went to bed.
At 3am sharp, "Eye of the Tiger" echoed through the field; I sat up in my sleeping bag, and just looked out of the tent and listened around me. Then came the lyrics: "...Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival..." It was an incredible experience. I've done a lot of long races(mostly adventure races), but the energy in that field was something I've never seen before. People were starting to pop out of their tents making their way through the tent city with their headlamps, many starting to line up at the one and only porta potty near the camping area. I quickly got dressed and ran out to the parking area about 750 meters away knowing no one would be at the porta potty that was placed in that area because of its distance from the camping area. I was right, no line up. Took care of business and a hurried quickly back to my tent to eat breakfast and get suited up for the run. I put on my sugoi piston shorts, a white north face tee that I got from the Wascally Wabbit 50 Miler, my new merino lightweight sox and a new pair of Saucony Kinvara shoes. I wore a home-assembled mini waist belt system, which was basically the small front pouch off a salomon waist pack on a bungee waist band. It allowed me to carry some gels, electrolytes, sunscreen and a bit of anti-chaffing cream but nothing heavy or the thing would bounce around quite a bit. I had one 700ml hand bottle with a small pouch in it, where I stored a few gels. I planned on keeping this in my hand the whole time. I took the time to lube my feet and other important areas, ate my instant oatmeal made with cold water, and then headed to the start line to take some photos with the Halifax crew.
My strategy for this race was to see how far I could push my body(ie,run with the lead pack for as long as I could) knowing that I was very likely to end up walking and possibly even blowing my first race. Sticking to the plan I started with the front pack of about 20 runners and just relaxed and followed. We were running quite quick, but I wasn't working hard, so I just settled in, drank regularly and just tried to mentally wander to my happy place. At first I wasn't very chatty, but once the sun came up I chatted with any runner that was willing to strike up a conversation. My first chat was with a guy named Jayson I believe. Turns out, this particular runner, had run with my Halifax friends a few weeks/months back and had also done some long adventure races and such, so we chatted about those, and I also asked him about his minimalist shoes, which he seemed to enjoy running in. Before I knew it, I came through the first aid station that had handler access. Over the past few miles I noticed that I had forgotten to tape my nipples (big mistake number 1), so I tried to apply tape to my wet body, but that didn't work, so I just sucked it up and kept going thinking that I could just remove my shirt if it got too bad. It started getting hilly and a bit more technical over the next bit and that's where I caught my next chatty runner. He was a young runner out of California, named Stephen. He was looking to break 18 hours I believe and had just run a 6:50 50-miler out in California. His mom lived in New-England so he came out east to visit her and decided he'd also try his hand at the 100 mile distance. At this point we were probably 25 miles in, and he was looking like he was working pretty hard, but to be fair we were running up some big hills. I was moving pretty effortlessly up the hills at this point, so I just kept on going. Shortly after a runner named Jim Sweeney caught up to me. He and I ran together for probably the next 3 miles. He ran Vermont 100 the previous year in under 18 on his first 100 mile attempt and was shooting for a sub-16 I believe. He was from New York, worked in a running store, and he was very passionate about running. He was pushing the pace quite a bit so after a while I wished him luck and let him go ahead. I came through the next Handler-Access aid station at mile 30 and saw some of the Halifax crew's crew. I said hello as she snapped a photo of me stuffing my face and off I went down the short paved section. As soon as we got off the paved road, a very large steep climb really took the wind out of me and zapped my legs. The next 17 miles to Camp 10 Bear had quite a few hills in it and I could feel my quads starting to tighten up quite a bit and my feet were taking a beating down the steep downhill sections. This was in part due to my loosely tied shoes but also because the shoes I chose were a bit underspec'd for the distance. I tightened the laces after a particularly steep downhill through a pasture and just kept plodding forward. The trail dumped us out to a pretty long paved section and a car went by asking me what position I was in. It was likely someones crew looking for a runner. I figured I was about 15th so that's what I said. Shortly after this, I came into Camp 10 Bear, mile 47. It was now 7 hours and 15 minutes into the run, at 11:15 am, and I was still feeling quite good although I knew the hottest part of the day was coming. Turns out I was 6th at this point in the race. I got on the scale, which was a new scale I hadn't seen before, and it weighed me at 172, 6lbs down from the weigh-in weight the day before. I had been drinking and eating quite a bit, so I thought it was a bit strange, but I followed orders and sat for 5-10 minutes to eat and drink. During this wait I didn't really need anything in my drop bag other than a few gels so I grabbed those and moved my drop bag to the 70 mile drop bag area on the other side of the aid station. I decided not to change any clothing items as nothing was nagging me in the last 10 miles. I consumed lots of watermelon, pop and pretzels and such and then headed up the hill out of the aid station. My quads were pretty soar now and running up hills was out of the question, so I walked all hills and ran the flats and downs. About a mile out of the aid station my stomach was not feeling well so I pulled off to the side of the road and emptied my guts. At this point each of the 5-10 heeves took a lot out of me, but after walking it off for a few minutes I felt better, so I just kept going, at a nice slow pace. I was quite scared to fail the next weigh in so I took my time going around this 23 mile loop being careful to drink plenty. Slightly before the 8 hour mark I crossed the half way point of the race, which I thought was pretty good. I took a few salt tabs, drank plenty of water and ate at every aid station I encountered.
Around the 60 mile mark, I was running downhill to an aid station and young gun Stephen from earlier came zipping past me along with another runner I had passed 30 miles earlier. Both made a quick stop at the aid station and continued to run at a good clip up the hill. He said he didn't know what happened but that he felt re-energized. To me, it looked like he had found a new pair of legs. My legs slowly got worse all the way back to 10 Bear, where I was practically reduced to a full time walk, whether I was going up, down or on flats. At 10 Bear, it was now about 4pm and I had 70 miles on the legs. I was weighed on a different scale that looked like the ones we used at registration. This time I weighed in at 178, indicating that I had regained all the weight I had lost. I was dumbfounded, as I had just run 23 miles through the hottest part of the day and after being sick no less. This seemed to indicate to me a problem with the scale they were using at the mile 47 weigh in. I didn't dwell on it, and was happy that I was back in a safe zone. weight-wise. Here I dug through my drop back looking for a gel flask refill and my head lamp. Sunset wasn't till about 8:30pm, but at this point, my personal estimate for the 18 miles to get to Bill's was far more than 4 and a half hours. An aid station volunteer who saw me digging out my headlamp stopped me and said "Are you crazy? You've got lots of time, don't worry about it.". I took her advice, grabbed my gels and hit the road. I started doing the math in my head and was essentially looking at a 50k death march from this point on. I didn't change my shoes or socks, didn't grab any advil and just sucked it up and kept on trucking. I figured if I could get to the next aid station, at roughly mile 75, I basically only had a marathon left and that gave me hope. I was still able to run a bit, but mostly walked from here on out. I was walking at about 4 miles per hour based on my trusty timex and the aid station signs. I figured this pace would still be enough to net myself a buckle so I was happy to finish the race walking. Oddly enough, this is essentially how I thought my strategy would play out, although I was hoping to be able to get a bit further before commencing operation death march. After a few hours of walking my stomach started acting up again. This time it was nature calling and not in a good way. I ducked into the woods and painfully took care of business. My stomach felt a bit better following this episode, but I was having a hard time taking solids in. I essentially lived off flat coke and gummy bears till the end of the race. After about 5 hours of walking I got to Bill's where I had stashed my super bright light. It was now quite dark out, and I made a wrong turn heading into the horse rest area before Bills losing about 10 minutes. Under tree cover it was quite dark, so I was glad to finally get a light. I weighed in at about 172, but this time 6lbs down wasn't a big concern for the staff as it was only about 3-4% of my weight and I only had 12 miles to go. I looked around in the garage and saw Stephen icing his knee on the picnic table. I chatted a few seconds with him and encouraged him to keep moving as he was too close to the end to quit now. I spent less than 3-4 minutes here and left with a runner who picked up his wife as a pacer. My feet at this point were causing me a great deal of pain. The blisters were getting worse by the mile and once again I hadn't grabbed any painkillers out of my drop bag at Bills. I was also wishing I had changed into my XT wings back at mile 70. After walking for 5-10minutes, the runner I left the aid station with asked his wife for the painkillers she was supposed to have grabbed back at the aid station. Turns out she forgot them. He sent her back to the aid station and before too long she came back. I thought to myself, hopefully she has a few extra. When she caught back up it turned out she only had enough for her husband. They continued on at a slow running pace and I continued my slow walk. My head was clear, I wasn't mentally tired, but I really wanted the pain in my feet to stop. I spent the next 3 hours chatting with a few runners and horse back riders that kept trading positions with me. When I got to the sign that indicated I had only 1 mile left I smiled, but alas, my feet and legs would not allow me to jog it in, so I just kept grinding away. As I got close to the finish area I could hear music and I was getting excited to be done. At about 400 meters from the finish line I got a bloody nose, so I stopped to take care of that, as I didn't want to come in all bloody. After 2-3 minutes the bleeding stopped and I walked into the meadow where the finish line was located and was greeted by a great little band and a crowd of people. I couldn't muster any more than a slow walk. I took my finishers medal and went to the medical tent. After 21 Hours and 13 minutes, I had finally reached the end.
Once inside the medical tent, I could see and smell some great food, and although I didn't feel great, I wanted a big plate of spaghetti that I could see the cook prepping for other racers. I asked for, and I received, such said plate of spaghetti, and made quick work of the whole plate. The volunteer suggested I grab a cot and hang out in the tent a bit, so I took her advice. Moments after trying to sit down, my stomach decided to reject the new food. I stumbled to the front of the tent and fertilized the lawn with some chopped spaghetti. At this point I was told to lay down and spend some time in the medical tent, so I got comfy, drank some broth and laid down. The volunteer also brought over the massage therapist and had her start working on my legs, which hurt like hell. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable as I smelt like a homeless person and knew it couldn't be very pleasant for her. While the masseuse was doing her thing, the volunteer proceeded to take my shoes and socks off, which was pretty gross. It was one thing to feel the bubbles on my toes but now I could see them. The smell also probably wasn't great. After 20 minutes of work on the legs I felt a bit better, but knew I was gonna be sore for a few days. I napped for another little while before I decided to make my way up to my tent. I looked around when I got up, but didn't see any familiar faces, so I put the shoes on and slowly walked to my tent. Once there I had a few doritos and water and then passed out. In the morning I woke up, and went to see how everyone else had made out throughout the night. Bernie had come in 4th in the 100k, and Jodi and Mark had finished not long after me, and we were all waiting for Karine to arrive as we heard she was on track to finish and should be there shortly. In the end, the whole crew from atlantic canada finished, with 3 of us taking home buckles. We enjoyed one of the best post race meals I've ever seen and watched the awards banquet. This was a great race and very well hosted and I'd recommend it to anyone who's looking to take the leap into the 100 miler world.