My cell phone alarm went off at 4AM on the dot and simultaneously the lights to the pool house and sauna turned on. Drew let us stay at his house in Pittsfield, VT and feeling bad about rolling into town to use his home as a base statin, Sarah, Marla and myself opted to take up quarters in the pool house sleeping on the floor and marla in the sauna. Marla is an extraordinary ultra-runner from Champlain, IL who I had convinced to fly out here to test herself on some "real" hills, unlike the ones they claimed to have at McNaughton Park in Pekin, IL. It was there that Marla was the 1st place female in the 50 Miler and its in Illinois she trains with other Ultra greats such as Tracy Thomas and Cristie Crawford.
The weekend before this race, Marla ran 38 miles at night in Michigain at Kettle Moraine. Still tired and unprepared for what lie ahead of her, she woke up to retrieve her pre-race coffee. While I showered, ate coffee cakes and banana's we headed to the start at Aimee Farm to observe the start of the Death Division Race.
12 signed up for the death division and only 7 showed up on race day. Some obviously knew it may not be a good idea to come and some knew it wasn't a good idea but came anyway. One competitor showed up thinking he was going to run a 10 mile trail trail run harder than most. Little did he know he would weave his way through 19 stations each with a specific task. They started by either hauling buckets loaded with dirt and huge chunks of stone, or carrying tree's to saw into 7 pieces.. one becoming their race bib, and splittling the rest into quarters. It was obvious these folks were going to have a long day... and so were we.
After final pre-race prep, the racers all dawned kilts and gathered round for a pre-race photo. Some 37 runners were toeing the starting line, many not knowing what lie ahead. I marked 15 of the most rugged miles on the course the weekend before... knew what was ahead of us there and honestly couldn't fathom having to do it 18 Miles into the race or running 16 miles more after it. I thought I was pre-pared but standing at the starting line with Marla in the crisp muggy Vermont Morning air, with the fog rising from the valley to slowly crawl over these peaks as the sun shone its pink spectacle.. I knew I may NOT be ready for this challenge.
As a member of the race committee we set out with a few simple goals. 1.) Try to make the death race so difficult that almost no one will finish. 2.) Create a race that is tougher than the Jay Challenge 3.) Create a race that is the toughest 50 miler in the country. I'm not sure at this time if we succeeded in #1 or 3 but many racers who have complete the Jay Challenge recalled over breakfast this morning that the Jay Challenge is now and forever a "cake walk."
I shook Leigh Schmidt's hand, David Goggins, and many many others... Gary Bennington, Roly Berard, Laura Bleakley, on and on... wished them luck. I was elated in the feeling of how tight this racing community is. We d not stand on the starting line sizing each other up... we laugh, we make sure we're all OK and we unite as one. Today.. we're all in this together... and off we were on one long amazing adventure. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The first part of the run took us up and around various parts of the contest trail on the North end of the course, winding back down towards the start and then up to the summit area of Mount Wilcox. The fog lifted but the drizzle started and soon a very light rain fell. We passed a few aid stations, some just water out of an SUV on the road and some at Deer Camps. The foggy morning and the light patter of rain on the leaves made for a very surreal running experience in these bug infested woods. We came upon a home on Wilcox where we had to run around their pond before heading back towards the 1st MAIN aid station. But here at this house was an added game. If we so chose we could stop and take a sht at either Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush with a .22. If you it the picture you'd get it later. And as llama's nibbled on trees and grass, we shot the rifles. Marla hit her photo dead on and I missed entirely... opting to walk up and draw a red circle around W's face before leaving the station and heading for Drop Area #1.
At the first Drop Station we refilled and took a recount of ourselves before heading out on th Hayes Brook Loop. We ran up the road and took a hard right onto a mountain biking trail. We wound our way uo the hill and crested out in what appeared to be a nasty mud bit, we headed around a bend and enjoyed a long long long downhill run back out onto the road and to the Drop Station fo the 2nd Time. All along the way, at various spots we'd hear the roving aid station... Mtn Drew. Equipped with an ATV with cooler strapped on the back. Drew offered aid to many of the race participants and when the needed it most... avoiding many dangerous situations.
At the aid station Marla loaded up with a waste pack I let her borrow so she could carry more gear on what would be the longest stretch of course without reasonable aid, the longest amount of climb, the most bugs, the most mud and the most missery. We were just 18 Miles into the course and all ready feeling a bit tired but enjoying ourselves none the less. Theres no better way t get to know someone than to spend an entire day together with similar goals. Marla wanted to finish in the top 3 female's and I was hoping for top 10 overall. We did our best.
As we left the aid station we knew we sat in 13th and 14th places. We'd done a great job at keeping distance from runners behind us and gaining ground on runners ahead. But what happened next would change the race for not only us.. but MANY runners. As we left the aid station we take a left and head downhill into the area around Thousand Acre Hill. We enter a small field where it appeared many had run right yet the pink ribbon was in a tree to the left. We followed to the ribbon, ran down the logging road and found a 2nd ribbon. We ran under a blow down and came to a stream.. crossed the stream and followed a herd path up hill.
Up and up we went and soon the herd path with footprints we were following was disappearing. I looked down and noticed the human prints turned into moose prints, the brush grew thicker and I knew the inevitable.. we were off course. Marla has a nickname... "Wrong way" and it was now rubbing off on me. We weren't "lost" but I knew my new job was to remain calm, keep Marla Calm and find a trail... ANY trail. We stumbled onto many different logging roads and marched through tons and tons of stinging nettle. When we'd have enough of those we'd head back into the woods. I led us on an epic bushwhack uphill and to the right, uphill and to the right... The woods always getting thicker with pucker bush, hobblebush and nettle. Huge rocks, small streams, moose and deer beds and bear droppings.. we were getting tense and upset.
We started yelling, "Heeeeyyyy!!!" as loud and often as we could. The more we walked the louder we'd yell. Marla knew I was getting more nervous with each yell as I pushed more air out to make myself louder. Our legs were scratched, bloody and torn. Nettle was causing an itch like that of chemical war-fare. We stopped.... for pictures. We sat and laughed a bit and told Marla stories of bushwhacking for fun in New Hampshire... and pretty soon we sumbled out onto the main snowmobile trail.. yelled Hey.. and FINALLY.. someone replied. Two other racers had been lost for 2 hours... we only managed an hour and a half... and they were heading down hill after finding nothing UPhill. I opted to hike up and try to find the Long Trail. It was at the top of this hill that I realized we were far from where I had hoped. My vision of bushwhacking, finding the long trail and running to the aid station on Blood root were gone... we had wasted an hour and a half, walked 2 extra miles through the nastiest woods only to be a half mile off course.
We ran down the snowmobile trail where I heard a howl. I howled back and saw Drew... he was glad to see us and we just as glad to see him. His ATV was parked next to some pink ribbon and we were back on course. I asked where we were and the answer was not good. We were some 5 miles from the top of blood root which means we were only 2 miles from where we left him last. Marla wanted to quit and I was thinking about it as well. How could we possibly finish this race having not only lost 1:30, but having torn our legs to shreds, wasted energy and fuel as well as now having hiked one extra peak?? As stubborn as I am.. I agreed to take it easy for a while as Marla and I started walking. Joe Desena, one of the RD's, was walking uptrail to which I offered some choice criticism... the course had been sabotaged by locale's leading many runners into the wilderness and off course. 2 more hopped out of the woods behind us.. and stories would ring through the course that many many others had been lost as well.
Marla and I continued up the trail towards Blood Root. The courses longest climb to its highest elevation is in front of us. Behind us, another racer named Cory was trying to slow me down to talk to me. I knew he wanted to catch us... we got a good chuckle out of the game we were playing with each other later.. Marla and I took off. Marla, from the plain state of Illinois walked these hills like a woman possessed, stronger than the strongest women hikers I know and with driven purpose. I am beyond impressed with her abilities and forever humbled by her grace.
At the top fo Blood Root was a small aid station. I munched down some nacho chips, 2 brownies and an oatmeal raisin cookie. I put Heed in my gatorade bottle to create a nasty mix and then refilled the other bottle filled with Heed. I wasn't aware of it now, still angry form being lost, but I was setting myself up to be in some sad shape. We descended Blood Root slowly, running some and walking some trying to save our quads from the pounding. At the bottom of the mountain we took a sharp left and our patience paid off as we passed 2 runners.
The backside of the course is rugged and a mess. Miles upon miles of stinging nettle. Every section you knew you could run you couldn't because of mud, ruts, ditches and rock. Forced to hike fast we were getting nowhere fast and running out fo aid again as the sun was finally shining and the forest heating up. Not only were we hungry but so where the bugs. When we stopped for a break, flies would stick to us like (instert analogy here) and mosquitos and blackflies had a feast. We did our best picking our way through this rolle coaster of muck and misery before climbing another hill. I was spent, Marla was putting major distance on me but I could always see her. She motivated me, gave me purpose.. I pushed on to catch her. I was tired and hungry.
We finally came out on logging roads and dirt roads making things easier to run in single track. I was staggering along, shuffling my feet. I knew I was hardly running and walking was even slower. I evaluated my situation and found my problem. Here I was some 28 miles into this race and I haven't eaten much. Half a clif bar, 2 brownies, a cookie, 2 nacho chips and 2 hand full of craisins.. this was NOT the right mixture. That and I kept watering down my electrolyte drinks. We strolled into the 31 Mile aid station.. 2 slovakians who didn't spea english.. 3 sheets to the wind and dancing about. I noticed a guy sitting in a chair with a beer, "You look like a runner," I said. "I am.. but I dropped." "Really? Thats too bad.. where did you drop??" "Here!" It was quite a scene out here in the middle of now where. I at a grilled sausage on some wonder bread, and Marla and I chugged some Urquel Pilsner Czech beer with our "race volunteers" after some more chuckles we noticed the runners we passed and decided to take off.
We ran around the south of the course, back up and over the long trail, up another ridge crest to where we finally found Drew again. He offered me some laughs, us and many racers more aid and Marla, who was finally in a funk, something to eat. We has passed Jeff Cristian who seemed to be cooling off in a stream some time back. We had just run some of the most amazing forest where rocks are lined with moss and the ground cover flows across the forest floor like a green ocean tide. We said goodbye to Drew and headed back for Drop Station #1. When we arrived.. we took stock again.. we were now 38 Miles into the course and only 3 peaks done. How the hell is anyone supposed to finish this nightmare?? ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ We sat in camp chairs and I removed my socks and shoes. Sarah walked over with the vaseline and a rubber glove at which point I smothered my wrinkled and blistered feet with some aid, changed socks, restrapped on the shoes and let Jeff Cristians cute daughter hook my gaiters on. After a much needed re-supply, some smiles and friends... Marla and I were off running down a dirt road. In some pain, tired yet happy to finally be done with the hell of this end of the course. Word was out that even David Goggins got lost and was so for over 3 hours!
We reached Hayden's House and began to climb peak #4, Mount Hedgehog. As we wound our way up this steep terrain, I heard Marla talking up ahead with another woman. I rounded the corner and spotted her... and it was amazing.. she was carrying a huge truck tire up the mountain. It was the only female athlete in the Death Division. What was SICK.. was she was smiling. She was a LONG way from where we left them this morning. I told her she was crazy to which she replied with similar sentiment. I caught up with Marla finally and was feeling much better after having left Coke and Red Bull kick in from the last aid station. We ran out of the wood to where we saw a white care, "Did you see a woman carrying a truck tire?" asked the driver... you don't hear that everyday.
Down this hill, across the street, we run through a covered bridge and onto Riverside Farm. The sun is setting and a BBQ is about to take place. We run into the main area where the RD, Andy Weinberg, announces our entrance to the show. We run to the aid area where I finally ditch my larger hand held bottle and fill my smaller bottle up with some red bull and nothing BUT red bull. I forced myself to finally eat some more and we headed out across the field to get our 2nd to last peak.
As we ran across the field we slowly worked our way up the switch backs behind Riverside Farm that not only serve as part of the VAST Snowmobile Network, but part of this past March's Snowshoe Marathon Course. As we crest the hill we see a few runners coming back down, Laura Bleakley, David Goggins and a guy we passed before we went on our bushwhack. We made it to South Hill Road where we walked briskly to the top. We passed the old town cemetary and made it to the Sable Mountain Aid Station where Kevin had played in a tuxedo all day. Drew, Sarah, Sam and his mom had all met us there. We refilled our red bull stash and headed out on a nasty buchwhack up through some gnarly woods to near Sable Peak. There was a green cone where we had to remember the number on it to report to Kevin at the Station. We even saw a Deer.
After reporting we hurried back onto the road. Marla was starting to get tired and nervous about running in the dark. We had our headlamps and we ran a little and walked a little down the road. We turned onto the snowmobile trail and made our way back to Riverside. The bonfire was blazing, people eating and drinking beer and Laura Bleakley had just finished. She offered us her gels and Ensure and told us of what lie ahead on the last peak. It was night now.. dak, tired, shredded and ready to be done... I was fed a chunk of italian bread. As I munched it down, out of nowhere appears David Goggins... "Sherpa John! WHY ARE YOU HERE BOY!? GET OUT OF HERE! I'M DONE LOOKIN AT YOU!" As I tried to replied, he cut me off and looked as if he was hungry enough to eat me. I wasn't about to argue with a Navy Seal.. so we took off running. As we left.. the awards presentation began... how nice.
We got to the intersection and let our light pierce the darkness. The trail went straight up as the sign read. STRAIGHT UP and not on an actual trail. I led the way.. slowly... we took 10 steps and rested... 10 more and rested.. inching our way up this.. Evilest... and steepest hill of the entire day. The race.. was only getting worse yet it was only getting DONE. Soon the trail pitched so steep that we were actually on our hands and knees climbing to the top. Marla asked, "Do your heels hurt." With a wince I said, "I was trying to forget about them thanks" referring to the monster blisters on my heels that I'd had since after mile 18 when we were lost. They were now the size of half dollars and so tender that tears welled up in my eyes.
We reached the top of Joe's Mountain... South Hill...the LAST dang peak, turned off our headlights, and starred off into the unknown. As the sun set, its golden glow was lightly present.. .enough to leave the black mountain silhouette of peaks we had visited much earlier today. Places we were lost on and places we carried each other through pain, and REAL blood sweat and tears. And as the wind blew across our faces, and cooled off our overheating bodies.. we stood silently and took vigil of what our souls had endured the most.
We found the logging road and headed downhill to the dirt road that led back to Riverside. Halfway down we saw a spot light and heard Drew yelling and clapping as well as Joe's Wife Courtney who so graciously lets us use their property. The dirt road seemed neverending.. but it was so magical. All we heard was our feet, and barred owls in the distance. I turned my headlamp off and ran the road in the dark. I followed the lights from Riverside and the noise from partiers. Emotion took over as we ran onto the grass of the farm heading for home. We picked up the pace and ran side by side.. as team.. just as we had all day. We finished... we finished. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Official results are not up yet but our time was 15 hours and 18 Minutes or there abouts. We ended up running 58 Miles (including the 2 mile bushwhack) and over 14,000' of elevation gain (38,000' of change).
This was by far THE SINGLE TOUGHEST RACE I have ever been in.. and the toughest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Yet... it was some of the best 16 hours I ever spent with a stranger.
Special thanks to Marla, Drew and Judy, Sarah for her help at the aid stations and her pictures, and all the other great runners out there. Thanks to the others in my fellow Race committee.. can't wait for next years race.
About 37 Runners Started... Only 19 finished. The last one coming in at 1AM. First place was Leigh Schmidt with a time of 10:30something.
I asked a few folks who had run the Jay Challenge how they compared the two races to which they replied... "You can't. Pick ANY 31 miles here in PIttsfield and it's Tougher than Hay." Well... I guess we now have THE toughest race in New England.. and perhaps the toughest 50 around.