Monday, September 29, 2008

Race Report: Vermont 50 2008


Bikers continued to line up on the access road to Ascutney Mountain Ski Resort, being called by class, and darting off into the darkness in large groups. As my buddy Pete lined his bike up in the Novice class, I gave Sarah some last minute instruction before walking down onto the pavement as well. I was looking at the starting line differently today. The last month has played out like an eternity. Questions asked.. answers given. A month ago this very weekend I had a hard time finishing a 17.5 mile race in New Hampshire Monadnock Region. Gasping for air, I leaned against trees searching for something.. anything. On that day I thought about folding my hand and taking my first DNF. Instead, I shuffled forward as I always do and saw myself to the finish line. When I went to the doctors and heard words like blood deficiency, cardia arrest and surgical proceedures.. it scared me. I nervously moved forward with my physical struggle.. my mental battle forever rages on. But on this day, this day beneath the clouds, under a canopy of color, mingling with friends.. I looked up at the word START stretched across the street and I knew today could hold something special. What? I did not know.. but I was determined to find out. You never know when its going to be your last race..

I stood on the starting line joking and chatting with Nate Sanel, Adam Wilcox, Leigh Schmidt, Jack Pilla, Todd Walker and Pat Hamel. Part of what I love about this sport is that over-all feeling of equality. Equality amongst men where we stand at the threshold of battle and find the time to joke, smile and enjoy each others company. Everyone wished each other well on the journey we were about to take. I glanced one last time at the word start as a precision based mental focus overcame my mind. Was this how today would be run? A mental race, where I truly race against myself, fueling an inner fire to succeed, to live, to strive, to survive... to prove? GO! We were off.

Nate, Adam and I hung together on the paved section before heading down the first dirt road. Nate quickly pulled away from us and it was just Adam and I not long after. Adam asked, "Where did Nate go?" I turned to look at Adam, smiled and told him we might see him again if he's going out that fast. I heard Zeke Zucker pull up behind us and I rather enjoy Zeke's pace early in a race. So we hung back with Zeke and his group and plodded along. But there was something different about this group.. a voice. I heard a female voice and as I turned my head there she was. Ultrarunning and New England Peak-bagging Legend Sue Johnston. "Hello John... you know you're getting a LOT better!" I was stunned. Sue and I share a rough history of mis-representation, rumors and jabs. And here we were, on this day running through the country roads of Vermont, having a civil and lovely conversation. I congratulated her on some of her latest adventures and we struck up conversation as we made our way up the first hill.

As the race wore on and we past our first aid station, Adam and I shared a conversation about life. Adam and I have been friends for a few years now and earlier this year I told him he could run this race in sub 10. He took the challenge and ran beside me for much of the day. I enjoyed his company immensely as we ran along. We came to a rather large mud puddle and we opted to dodge around it given the early nature of the race in an attempt to stay somewhat dry. We ran into the bushes around the puddle and as we came out the otherside... I noticed a cut on my knee and a stinging sensation on my legs. GREAT! Stinging Nettle! We ran in awkward positions as we itched and scratched until we found a puddle on the side of the trail. We stopped and washed our legs off to kill the sting before moving forward. As we ran into the first Handler Station I found Sarah. I ran over to her and she had all of my stuff sitting around a chair. I picked through my gear for what I wanted and set her off to fill my bottle with water. I looked up and saw Sue... "Adam! Lets go!" We were off. As we made our way out of Skunk Hollow I looked at Adam and told him, "I don;t know if I can do it... but I'd like to finish ahead of Sue."

The next section of the course is a long continuous up-hill which runs us along an immaculate rock wall bordering area hay fields. At the top of the hill is the sugaring shack and shed filled with fire-wood to fuel the operation. The past 2 years I've run this race, I felt terrible on this hill and walked... today Adam and I ran most of it and in recognizing I was doing so.. the gears in my head began to turn. I had three goals for this race. 1. is always to finish. 2.) Was Sub 10:06 which would be a course PR. And the Other was sub 9:47 which would have been a 50 mile PR. Goal 1 never changes. Goal 2 is something I think I have a good shot at achieving.. 3 is a far fetched goal where I typically set the bar too high. As we ran up this hill... Goal 1 was well within my sights.

As Adam and I climbed another hill around 20 miles we spotted Nate. Nate slowed down, walked backwards and waited for us. We did some of our usual jawing back and forth (yes I know I start it Nate). At one point Adam and Nate were behind me running together and I had a flashback to this years Vermont 100, "Gee guys... this is a familiar sight. You two behind me." I think Nate was getting pissed. I'm not used to seeing him without his glasses. He didn't look 100% to me and I thought about not giving him shit anymore until he fired back... "When I pass you later I'm not going to let you forget it. I'm going to give you so much shit! I'm going to burry you!" Nate then tried to slow me down as I was indeed running uphill and at a faster pace than I normally do... and then it happened... I said it. "Ya know guys... just once I want to leave it all out here. I want to run fast, get tired, hang on for dear life and crash into the finish line a total mental and physical mess." The replies echoed through my soul, "Then do it. Go for it!" The gears turned a little more as Adam and I moved ahead of Nate.

As Adam and I moved away from Nate and through the new "Rollercoaster" aid station, I looked back and Sue had caught us. We made small talk as we carried on. I tried my best to keep up with her.. the whole time thinking I was crazy to even try, afraid of burning myself out. Moments later it was just her and I with Adam a bit further back. "Sue... I owe you an apology." For a while now I've wanted to right and wrong and today seemed like the perfect day to do it. We exchanged apologies and cleared the air, making sure we were on the same page about what events transpired to bring us to our more embarrassing moments in dealing with each other. I was relieved and felt a huge weight lifting from my shoulders in knowing that a wrong was righted... and continued on. Adam, Sue and I ran into Smoke Rise together, picking from the aid station table. I started to linger as I sometimes do until I heard, "Come on John!" I looked up and Sue was waving for me to come catch her and continue on together. From foes to friends... we were helping each other.. her more-so helping me. As Sue and I made our way out of Smoke Rise I was feeling great and moving fine... Adam began to trail off and we suddenly lost him.

As Sue and I ran I told her I wanted to PR here today. We had just run the first 26 miles in 4:20. Sue told me, "If you keep up your current pace you can pass a lot of people. Just keep it up.. you're doing great!" I listened to her closely and started to think that I CAN DO THIS. I moved forward with purpose, thinking methodically about how I wanted the rest of this race to play out. A lot of thoughts crossed my mind. The start line.. the finish line. My scare with anemia. My life in general... and then motivation and inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. I had a vision. A pair of eyes started at me from the trail and lured me forward. I was focused.. fixed on a goal.. I ran on. I made my way into Dugdale's where Sarah had my chair waiting for me. I wanted my waist pack but it was up in the car.. she ran to get it. I sat in the chair and changed my shoes as quickly as I could. My Brooks Cascadia's were killing my feet due to their lack of arch support. I threw on my ASR 5's and felt instantly better. Sarah arrived with my pack... I only had one baggy of drink mix... "Where are the extra bags of mix?" They too were in the car. Thankful I got to change my shoes, Adam's dad filled my bottles for me. I needed an energy plan. I drank more of a boost than I normally would, loaded my pack up with gels.. and decided I'd conserve what drink mix I had in the bottle. I was disappointed but still determined. "How you doing John?" ... "I'm on a Mission... it's called 9:47"

I left Dugdale's and turned back to see Sue again. I stopped to answer Nature's call and as I ran back out onto the road we ran together along this section of the course that closely mirror's the final miles of the Vermont 100. Sue continued to encourage and push me to run run run. "You are doing great John... just keep it up." It seemed as though every time I put my head down today in a moment of underlying defeat, Sue Johnston picked me back up. "Come on Sherpa... you've got this." I carried on. As we made our way up the road and turned onto the next section of Single-track... I replayed what I said to Nate earlier in the race, "Ya know guys... just once I want to leave it all out here. I want to run fast, get tired, hang on for dear life and crash into the finish line a total mental and physical mess." Just once I want to leave it all out there... hang on for dear life... total mental mess..... At this point in the race I still feel great and I know full well that my pace thus far was MUCH faster than I had ever run this far into a 50 Miler before. I WAS laying it all out here... I WAS getting to the point of hanging on for dear life... and who knows what the finish line would bring.

As I ran ahead I caught up with Ian and Emma Parlin. Ian was hoping for a sub 9 hour finish but was feeling nauseam. As we made our way along the switchback sections of mile 35ish.. Emma and I seemed to be pushing and pulling each other a long now. I didn't know where Sue had gone.. and I was starting to tire. I heard cheering and applause up ahead but know there are no aid stations near-by. As we rounded the final switches leading up to the house on the hill, the owners were having a porch party cheering all of the competitors on. I ran up the hill clapping for them and thanked them for allowing us to use their land. Then I heard the magic word... BEER! "Where is the beer?!" "Around the corner in a cooler!" Say it aint so. I rounded the next turn and there was a sign with an arrow pointing at a chair resting on the hill with a cooler on top. I walked up to the cooler, openned it and found some Long Trail Blackberry Wheat... HEAVEN! I pulled one out of its plastic coffin, unscrewed the top, raised the bottle in the air and yelled "Cheers!" placed it upon my lips and chugged about 3/4 of the bottle of Beer. I placed the rest on the chair for the next thirsty runner and hurried along. Emma asked me, "Sherpa, did you just down a beer." "Why yes I did.. and it was AMAZING!"

Emma raced ahead with me in hot pursuit... I couldn't chase her long as she quickly disappeared but I carried on in my blistered pace. My legs began to go numb, my knees were starting to get sore, my brain was going a thousand miles a minute. I thought about a lot of things.. I thought about everything. I thought about people important to me. I thought about my life.. I thought about the impossible... which for those who don't know DOES NOT EXIST. And then I thought about what I try to preach to people I meet... Human Potential. Yeah.. that thought of Human Potential, what it is, where it is.. how do I tap into it? I ran up another road section I've always walked at the race before turning onto a long section of trail which leads into Goodman's Aid station at 39 Miles. As I turned onto the trail.. I found my human potential. I tapped into the unknown area of my soul which I discovered on this very day that I had merely glanced upon before. As my eyes locked on the course, I did some math in my head, "If I can only make it to Johnson's by 3:30pm.. I can break 9:47." My eyes fixed on the trail ,I sought motivation from an unsuspecting place. The most gorgeous pair of eyes I've ever seen appeared before me. Was this another hallucination? No.. it was something else. I stared ahead, left right repeat flying down the trail towards Goodman's. I popped out of the woods and onto another rd forging ahead leaving nothing but the mud and leaves in my wake.

I ran into Goodmans and saw Scott Deslongchamps "I'm hoping to break 10" he exclaimed. "You've got it in the bag Scott.. just keep going!" He at his watch and then looked at me. I stood there eating a grilled cheese. My legs shook from shock. My arms quivered. Sweat gushed down my face. I was soaked from head to toe.. feeling good... but I was doing what I wanted to do. Run fast and hang on for dear life. "Sherpa.. you are FLYIN!" Scott yelled... "I'm hangin on Scott... hangin on!" Another female runner offered some encouragement as we both took off down the trail. 40 Miles down... 10 to go.

These last 10 miles of the course are probably the worst. The section between Goodmans(39) and Johnsons (46) are the most technical and muddiest on the course. I continued to pass weary runners one by one as I felt myself beginning to fade. I had refilled my water bottles at Goodmans and was now pumping power-gels into my system at a disgusting rate. I was fighting off exhaustion and my body was begging for forgiveness. The pain in my legs is now screaming with torture.. I'm hanging on as tight as I can and pushing forward. I caught a few bikers and used them as a pacer, much like I had used horses in the Vermont 100. Up and down hills, through streams, across bridges.. over rock and root.. through deep piles of mud that splashed all over every inch of my body as I ran feverishly across the land. Sweat poured down my face and as I wiped it off, tiny shards of salt scraped against my skin. My legs felt like they were starting to cramp.. I downed some S-Caps to ward off the inevitable. I was truly leaving it all out here.. physically and mentally. I hopped off the trail around mile 45 and onto a dirt road. As I lifted my head I saw Mt. Ascutney... I started to lose control of my emotions. I got choked up, tears welled into my eyes and only one managed an escape. I talked myself into hanging on for just a little bit longer... "Just hang on John.. keep it together... we're not there yet." I put my head down and ran across some more fields and onto the next road where I found Emma. She had a good clip going. We crossed the bridged and rounded the turn onto 44. She looked back and saw me.. I was a complete mess. My face was beet red and on fire. My legs burned and screamed. My pace was slowing... but I had found my human potential. "Come on John... You're gonna get your PR... lets go!" She fired me up as I walked into Johnson's aid station. Sarah asked what I needed.. I opted for a few more gels and a refill of my bottles. Some more fruit from the aid table and I was off.


What used to be the final 3 miles of the course from Johnson's was now the final 4.6. And the longest 4.6 miles of my life. I had no idea where I was.. just that I needed to keep moving. I heard a few reports of what time it was along the way and a realization had popped into my head back before mile 35. I COULD potential shatter my VT50 PR.. and my 50 Mile PR and complete what I thought was impossible. Nate told me he wanted to break 9 hours at the Vermont 50 way back at the beginning of August, "Good luck Nate.. I'll never see that." Was my reply. And yet here today underneath the clouds.. under the canopy of color.. with my Human Potential placed brilliantly before me.. I all of a sudden found out what possible is. I pushed up the final miles, placing my hands on my hips and running every uphill that I could. I sucked down Gel after gel in an effort to get as much energy in my system as I could. I drank water and breathed deep. The hills had been saturated with water all day long. Mud covered every inch of the course.. but as I wrote in my blog only days before.. I am the Mud Master.

I was lost in a sea of switchbacks when I heard Emma again.. "Sherpa.. LETS GO!" I was talking to a biker about how the course had changed. I grumbled and continued on. My legs are done. My muscles are tightening with every step. As I ran along, I concentrated on how my body was actually feeling. This was indeed a special moment and I didn't want to forget it. I honed in on my muscles and suddenly I felt it. Every since fiber in my body was working together to achieve what I said was impossible., which from this point on does not exist. I forged ahead along the sides of Mount Ascutney in what has always been one of my favorite races of all time even before today. The leaves fell from the sky as the wind picked up. And I began to sing songs in my head. What is Human Potential? I once wrote, "Well you see, I believe that in every human being lies this untapped potential to achieve great things. Whether those things are physical, subjective or spiritual.. it doesn't matter....I want to be a part of the process where individuals can realize their Human Potential and tap into it... Drink from the waters of your soul and your heart will carry you to places of grandeur. No it won't be easy, it might hurt.. but IT CAN BE DONE. The human body is the most amazing instrument you will EVER own. Why don't you take it out for a spin and learn what your potential REALLY is. You'll be surprised.. I promise. Human Potential is UNLIMITED, so don't be afriad to get in line and take a drink from the waters of life."

Human potential is unlimited and in those final miles, I rode a wave of spirituality that sent my heart into a frenzy. I drank from the waters of life as the waters of my soul spilled from my pours. I ran as hard as I've ever run before, discovering what my own Human Potential is.. practicing what I preach. So many times in sport people tell us what is right and what is wrong. What you HAVE to do to accomplish certain goals. Sometimes its a matter of running fartleks and repeats. Sometimes its being told you need to eat right or you'll never be in shape enough. Sometimes you're told that a 6:31 50K two weeks before the Vermont 50 will never equal a sub 9 in the mountains of Vermont. But its the times when your human potential knows what is best. When that will power fuels your engine and gets your meat turbines turning over. Its the times when your HP politely raises that middle finger into the air for the naysayers to see... that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE and IMPOSSIBLE DOES NOT EXIST. And just as it says on my shirt.. "You say I can't, I'll Show you I can" I soldiered on. I rounded the last turn and across the ski slopes. The grass is muddy and soaked. I bear left and begin to run down the hill, I take a sharp left and look straight ahead at that next sign.... FINISH.

I run as fast as I possibly could. I thanked god for giving me strength, my grandfather for his courage and I thank those who've helped me today.. Sue, Emma and Nate. My legs flew everywhere as I ran down the final stretch.. clapping my hands in sheer excitement. I ran all out across the finish line fearing I would fall.


I crossed the line and stopped. My hamstrings and quads curled up into balls, into the tightest cramps I've ever felt. I couldn't move as tears streaked down my face. I'm drenched with sweat, my body is shaking and quivering. Shock begins to set in. My vision is blurred, I'm dizzy and can only hear one thing amidst the cheering supporters. I heard my own voice... the voice that keeps me going. The voice I listen to rather than an iPod.. the voice that at the finish line on this special day said, "8 Hours and 58 Minutes John... You did it man... You did it! You ran as fast as you could, left nothing out there, came crashing across the line... you are indeed a mess mentally and physically. You discovered your human potential.. its in you man... its in you." I placed my head into my hands, got on my knees.. and cried.

I stood up and was assisted by Eric. Eric usually does the time for the VT100 in a kilt. He picked me up and walked me over to get my medal. We walked into the nearby tent and shared 2 cups of Powerade Endurance drink. We clinked cups as he thanked me.. apparently I motivated him in the final miles to push for the finish. Great job Eric! I found Pete who had finished in a time of something over 6 hours coming in 2nd for his age group in the Novice Class of the Mountain Bike Race. I was so happy to know Pete came out today and discovered his own Human Potential in his first 50 mile Bike Race.

I watched as Nate crossed the line.. he spotted me and pointed at me, "YOU are a friggin mad man... good work man." Thanks Nate. I walked down to the food line and saw Sue Johnston. She congratulated me on my run and then asked.."John.. did you run that fast because I was here? Did you want to beat me?" I looked her dead in the eye and with a smile said, "Absolutely." She smiled and we had a picture together of us in our new found friendship. Thanks to Sue.

And Adam... Adam broke sub 10 hours as well... just as I knew he could. Good Job Adam.

And so I sit here writing this report. Unsure of what REALLY to say. I am still in a state of disbelief. I have no idea how in the world I did that even though I know my potential finally came to light. I've never been this tired.. this sore after a run. I know I left it all out there. I'm extremely satisfied. I'm humbled... and I'm ready to start a new year of adventure in running. You never know when your last race is going to be... so dig in, go for a ride.. and see where your soul will lead you. Over mountains, through the pastures and along the muddy shore. The roads of dirt, pavement hurts.. and it hurts forever more. The sun will shine, the rain will fall.. your heart will carry you through. But as the clock ticks by, and your brain lingers on.. the only thing which fuels you is YOU.

(Standings will come as they are available)
Happy Trails.
SJ