"... Perhaps the genius of ultra-running is its supreme lack of
utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers
to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame,
frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and
philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life
than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively.
And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They
understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit
will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing
distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being --
a call that asks who they are ..." ~David Blaikie
Saturday, September 23, 2006
I woke up this morning, still feeling sick, but I had a new feeling with it his day. I’ve been sick with severe diarrhea and stomach pains for the last 2 weeks and limped through it with a cold. My only hope is that today I can hyper hydrate properly and keep fluids going during the race tomorrow and not fall into renal failure. This is my biggest and only concern. But the weirdness I feel this morning is for a different reason.
In April, my grandfather passed away from Cancer. Last night, I finally dreamt about him for the first time since. He was sitting in a wheelchair as my Uncle Steve, Moe’s brother, (Who passed away 1 week ago) stood with him. My grandfather never came to one of my races, but this morning I felt like, yes he had. In my dream he sat street side of a long race waving an American flag with a smile. I cannot express to you in words the feeling this dream gave me, but we’ll say my confidence is up. I am humbled and I am ready to go. Today would have been his 86th Birthday, which makes this race EXTRA special to me and the mental game will be pressed.
Unfortunately, one of falls signature events in New England is coming in from the west. A HUGE storm system that has plagued other parts of our nation is about to sock it to us. Rain, severe thunderstorms and nasty winds are forecast to effect tomorrows race. While some worry, I’m excited. FIFTY (50) MILES. As if that isn’t challenging enough, Mother nature will suck the life out of every man and woman that steps foot on tomorrows course. Dirt and gravel roads will turn to a soaking mess and the stress put on each runners legs will increase with the sloppiness of mud on the trails uneven slopes.
Sarah and I drove to Woodstock, VT where we found Drew watching the local high school football game. His son (hozzy) used to play on the team and he is very much still a faithful fan. As soon as the game ended we headed down to Ascutney Mountain Ski Resort to pick up my race packet. As we drove into Brownsville, I was excited to see the many signs welcoming runners and bikers to the event. I also got a little nervous as a lump formed in my throat. All I could think about was, “What the HELL am I doing here??” We found a place to park and headed inside to check in. As we entered the Cunningham building, it was easy to find where runners checked in. The line for Mountain Bikers was LONG… I would eb the only one in line for runners. I gave my name and got my bib number and freebies. A shirt, nice ibex wool hat, some elecrolyte capsules and a ticket to the BBQ at events end. We wondered around for a bit, enjoying the band and taking in the sights and sounds of pre-race jitters. I looked over and noticed Charles Dona (VFTT – Youngblood). His girlfriend Melanie who I have hiked with before, was taking part in the 50 Mile Mountain Bike Race. She won 24 Hours at Great Glen in the spring and we all convinced her to move from Sport Veteran to Expert Class for tomorrow’s race. After we introduced them to Drew we all enjoyed some great conversation before heading for Drews.
When we got to Pittsfield we were welcomed warmly to Camp Drewski by Drew’s wife Judy. Judy made us a wonderful Spaghetti and meatball dinner complete with New England Apple Pie. The leaves outside are chaging and they fall as the rain picks up again. After dinner I did the dishes and thanked Judy for her hospitality, Sarah cracked jokes about me being so homely, and we relaxed around the TV with College Football before bed. I’m anxious to get this thing over with now.. but first I need some sleep. At 8:30pm we all hit the hay and I dream once more of the day to come.
Sunday, September 24, 2006 – RACE DAY
At 3 Am I woke up, WIDE awake. I simply could not sleep anymore and was excited to get going. After a quick shower and some breakfast, we all got in the cars and headed for Ascutney. It was still very much dark out when we reached the resort and we parked in the same lot that many competitors camped out in last night. I got my gear together, clothes, lubed up, waterbottles filled and was ready to go. I went to the check in table and checked in for the race. I waited in the now short (short lived) line at the porta potties and started prepping for a LONG day. I’m very nervous but I know I have a job to do. Though the task at hand is rather large, I am confident that I will at least finish. But the MAIN goal of the day is to finish the race… not in just the 12 Hour time limit.. but in Under 11 Hours. Finishing the race in under 11 would qualify me for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. The WS100 is the countries “Super Bowl” of Ultra Running and qualifying for it is a HUGE deal. And for those who read my blog, you know it is a dream of mine to go.
The stage was set, the goals are clear, Sub 11.. Max 12. I began my stretching as the Bikes lined up and started by Class. The 1st group left at 6:15 and every other group left in 5 minute incriments after that. We lined up on the starting line at 6:32 AM. It was easy to see that us runners are a different group. Unlike the bikers who looked as if they were a hoard of fierce competitors, us runners milled around the starting line, joking and having a good time. It was very lax and this helped me to be of sound mind. 6:37 AM… GO!
My greatest adventure yet.. had just begun. The Vermont 50 MILE Endurance RUN
Its hard to sit here now and type a trip report for every waking mile of this race. There are some miles I rememeber, yet to type about it would be too repiticious. The course wound itself through Vermonts rural countryside. We ran through pastures, up and downs hills, through farms, across babbling brooks, on gravel and dirt roads, etc. I hope to do my best to depict for you some of the moments that stick out in my head and some thoughts I remember having during this event of great endurance.
After running down 3 or 4 miles of gravel road, we finally entered the woods for a short time, before re-emerging on road and into checkpoint 1. There I heard a cowbell and a loud “Lets go Sherpa John!” It was Andy all ready out there cheering us on. We had run the first 4.3 Miles in a meer 47 minutes. Not too fast or too slow of a time but still a testanment to the hills we had all ready encountered. The entire 50 Mile course had an elevation gain of 9,600’ and we would feel EVERY push more and more the further along we went. I had hooked up with Joe Desena, Drew’s neighbor who was also running in the race, and the man who I was supposed to pace at the VT 100. Joe is an experienced tri-athlete and adventure racer and has also run in the worlds TOUGHEST ultra marathon, the Badwater 135 Mile Run. I figured I was in good hands if I could stay with him.
After a quick pit stop and some cookie consumption, I refilled my water bottles and we continued on down the road and onto the trails for quite a long stretch. From here the trail follows along very hilly terrain on ATV and Snowmobile trails for almost the entirety of our run. And for the most part we were follwing single track left behind by the 650 mountain bikers that took off before us. 2 Hours and 17 Minutes into the run we reached mile 12.5, Skunk Hollow, 21 minutes ahead of schedule. We are a quarter done.
At Garvin Hill, Mile 20.6, the checkpoint crew prided themselves on being parrot heads. As Jimmy Buffet played in the background I told them how I could go for a cheeseburger in paradise. Before I knew it I was handed a cookie that looked like a cheeseburger. 2 thin mints inbetween two nilla wafers with cocnut around the outside painted green to resemble lettuce, plus and unidentifiable yellow substance in the middle to resemble cheese. I scarfed it down as if it were the last cookie on earth.
At Cady Brook we reached the halfway mark and were in some serious need of water. The checkpoint was situated next to a beaver pond and we swore that is where the water for the checkpoint came from. It REAKED of sulfur and even tasted like it. For the next 6.2 miles I would hardly drink at all. Sporadicly my body would sing between highs and lows and I was beginning to question my endurance. Could I really make it all 50 miles? The bad water is setting us back but we continue to push on. The hills are getting steeper and longer it seems. My quads are starting to burn and I’m tired of going UP. But I must push on.
When we got to Smoke Rise, Mile 31.9, I ran up to a horse trough and used it to clean out my water bottles. As I scooped water in, swished it around and dumped it out, a checkpoint worker said, “uhhhh, I’m pretty sure the horses drink outta that.” ANYTHING was better than the sulfur water we just dealt with and I could have drank from the trough no problem. They refilled my bottles and off I went. No time was wasted at checkpoints at all. As we left here and continued on up yet another hill, we heard a rumble of thunder, then another, then… we were in the middle of a thunderstorm. It rained buckets on us for the next 30 minutes as we pushed on up the rain slicked gravel roads. We began to pass mountain bikers who had a rough time maintaining traction in the mud. When we entered the woods, soaking wet, the trails were a muddy mess. There was only one way to run now and it was to run on the leaves on the shoulder of the trail and hope to not slip and fall. Things were a mess and the mud was tiring our legs.
Mile 35, Dugdales, we saw Sarah and Drew again as we emerged from the woods a muddy and rain soaked mess. I got some ramen noodle soup to suck down for sodium and warmth. Sarah helped me at least change socks. We stayed in this checkpoint a bit too long. After we left, I had to keep stopping to get rocks out of my shoes… I need new gators in a bad way. Now that the rain has stopped, the sky was turning sunny and blue. The colors of the folliage are glowing brightly and as the wind picks up it now starts to rain leaves. I had just also set a new personal record for 50K distance of 6 hours 36 Minutes.
Joe was all but pulling me now. All I wanted to do was walk. We walked MORE uphills and as things flatened out or went downhill all I wanted to do was walk some more. I’m getting very tired and my quads are killing me. Joe would turn around and say, “ready?” and without time enough for an answer, we would start running again. We hit a section of switchbacks and it was rather steep. The mud was ankle deep and very slick and it took all we had to stay upright without falling downslope into the woods. We passed more bikes who looked to be in rough shape and all but calling it quits. They were pushing their bikes because they couldn’t ride the mud. Many of the bikers had all ready finished. We lent whatever encouragement we could.
Mile 41, Goodmans, as we exited the woods and onto another gravel road, I’m in rough shape. My quads are ripping from the bone and I’m running only by leaning forward and letting gravity take me. I thought the checkpoint was Mile 43, and when Sarah said 41, I was mad. I was in a low and quite angry and snapped at her. Ahh yes… the cranky runner. She forgave me and ran a bit with me. After running 1 tenth of a mile with me she says,”damn, that hurt my legs.” I told her to multiply it by 1 billion and we’d have a talk about pain later. I’m in a state now I have never experienced before, I’ve run 6 miles MORE than I had ever run before and yet.. this race is about to change dramatically.
As we left the checkpoint we re-entered the woods and all of a sudden I came out of the low. I felt like a million bucks and the end was near. Though my quads still hurt, I put the pain behind me and carried on. Everydown hill and flat section was run. Every up-hill was walked and even some of those were run. Something we like to call “Relentless Forward Progression” was now taking over. There was no more “If I finish…” it was when. We ran down the trail which crossed many gravel roads before we finally emerged to run downhill on one. After a left and a right we ran through a landowners farm land. Then past another farm where Drew was waiting at the edge of the woods. As he ran into the woods to get ahead, he slogged through a mud hole and asked how we were. “Andy, I’m in a lot of pain..but I feel great.” I set a fast pace out of the woods and took a rest to walk a bit on the next road. Across the river I see the next checkpoint and I yelled to Sarah to get me some Gatorade and e-caps. We round the corner, cross the bridge and we’re at the final checkpoint, Mile 47. Three Miles to go.
From the final checkpoint the last 3 miles are some of the toughest on the course. We hike up Mount Ascutney for 2 miles, run across the mountains slope for a half mile and then run a half mile down the ski slopes to the finish. One look at my watch and I was getting a bit choked up and emotional. Joe was done running for the day and led for a time. But I was anxious to finish. I took the lead and pushed up the last BIG hill. I was in the zone and on a mission. I thanked Joe for hanging back with me. I think he could have finished an hour ahead of me but he insists otherwise. I thought of many things through this section. Though I was focused, my mind wandered.
Its been a year and a half since my first painful ultra. The 2005 Wakely Dam ultra where I hobbled across the finish. From a failed attempt at the Fitch 46 to a failed attempt at running the Kancamagus Highway. To redemption by coming in 3rd in Pittsburgh this year to running the a second try and completion of the kanc this past Labor Day. Much can be said about those who fail, but much more is said for those who are resilient. Its been a long road to this day and I’ve learned so much more about the person inside me.
We cross the first slope and cross out onto the second. The trail turns to head down hill. We hear music and cheering and see the finish. I well up inside and begin to cry. I’ve just run 50 Miles… FIFTY Miles… a distant that even as I write this now, I cannot fully comprehend. Despite my aching quads and throbbing feet I run down the slope as fast as I can. I smile and thank god for the strength. I wish my grandfather a happy birthday, run over the final rise and see my Crew… and more.
Standing on the finish line was Sarah, Drew ringing his cowbell, my personal trainer Corrin who made a surprise trip with her friend despite moving to philly and my best friend Sam and his mom. I was so happy to see everyone. I smiled, pumped my fist and ran across the finish line. I thanked Joe one more time, looked at my watch and trealized the impossible… I did it!
I ran 50 Miles in 10 hours and 32 Minutes. 17 Minutes faster than my planned pace and good enough to qualify me for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. My name will now be entered into a lottery where I hope to be chosen. I am beyond happy and life is certainly good.
Next Race.. THIS Saturday 9/30... The NH Marathon, 26.2 Miles... seems like a jog now.
(Note: I came in 4th out of 9 runners in my age group which is 0-29 years of age. It’s a real challenge to run in the minority group of ultra-runners but am excited for the days when I am in the “PRIME” group. Much practice to be had! 67th out of 130 Runners overall)
"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit." - George Sheehan
"Far away, there in the sunshine, are my highest aspirations. I may
not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in
them, and try to follow where they may lead."
- Louisa May Alcott