Thursday, June 11, 2009

RR: 2009 Pittsfield Peaks Ultra Challenge

"They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness." ~Louise Erdrich

I once again stumbled out of my tent to face another starting line in the world of ultra-running. And as I stood tall, sorta, and brushed myself clean I peered through the dim morning light to see that the sun had not yet risen and a thick layer of fog had settled comfortably into the valley town of Pittsfield Vermont. I'm dressed yet unorganized, but for a change I'm excited to run and retreating back into my tent is the last of my thoughts. I LOVE mountain races. My years as a hiker before becoming a runner serve me well on courses like this and I take great pleasure in the overall effort needed to cross the finish line. Today would be no different. I glanced around some more to see runners slowly showing up and readying themselves for the run. Many are smiling and raring to go. I like this... because I take great pride in helping this race be successful, in any small insignificant part that I play.

After the morning pre-race meeting, the large group of runners that had gathered on this damp, dark yet stunning Vermont morning, crossed the street to toe the starting line right on the first hill. This course is unrelenting with its hills. We start you with one, you finish with one and it never seems to end in between. What was funny about this morning however, was that no body wanted to get close to the starting line. The crowd of runners started some 3 feet behind where the line actually was. Before you know it, Andy Weinberg asked me to step to the line... and so I did. And then... Nikki Kimball. So there I was, one damn June morning in Vermont, shoulder to shoulder with Nikki Kimball herself; both of us smiling, both of us giving each other subtle elbows... it was quite a moment for me as I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Nikki.

The horn goes off and the crowd slowly melts into the hillside. Run? Right... 90% of the field simply walks from the start and takes on the first of many hills. We wind our way into the woods and those of us who have been here before are surprised by a short bushwhack section they have us do. From the get go of the race, our group from last year was once again running together. Myself with Adam Wilcox, Nate Sanel and Jeff Waldron. Only this time it's different where as Adam has spent the year working towards running in his first ever Vermont 100. We were our usual obnoxious selves and I actually, for a change, wondered and cared if we were offending anyone as we bounded down the trail. As we made our way through the forest, we began to turn slightly left and uphill again, and the sky began to brighten. "Get your camera's out boys... here comes the first view of the day!" We made our way out into the Contest Trail meadow, which had fallen victim to a control burn at some point in time. On the lower ends of the field, the fog dragged its weary self over the millions of sticks that jutted up from the earth and it soaked the grasses with dew. The sun's rays are getting brighter now as it continues to rise up from its nightly slumber. We take a sharp left and climb ever higher until finally we are above the clouds. We all walk slowly and look back in awe at the view laid out before us. We can see the morning fog/undercast nestled now quietly into the valley below while the high peaks of Pittsfield rise above. A southern look affords us a view of Killington Ski area and other peaks of interest. On a hill directly across the tiny valley, I see a shiny object. I know that it is the cabin on top of Joe's... and we're a long way from there. The group of us settle in and enjoy inspirational moments of faster running downhill as we make our way out of this magical pasture.

A few miles down the road we come to Colton Camp where The Borden's have settled up for the morning. Usually these folks volunteer for us on the top of Bloodroot (I think) but this year they're hanging out down low. At Colton Camp we do a half mile out and a half mile back up a ridiculously steep climb which slows every runner to a crawl on the way up and a death defying quad busting sprint on the way down. I like this out and back because it gives you the opportunity to see where you are in the race in terms of standings, it was pretty obvious that I was a bit further back then I cared to be. But there was no reason to give way to haste, I stayed comfortable in my own race and ran at a pace that I could enjoy for the day. On the way down and out of Colton Camp, Nate had taken off and Adam asked if I thought we'd see him again, "If not out here, for sure at the end." Nate has been having an amazing year and training very hard to perform well in these races. I knew that he was going to well today and there was no sense in chasing him down, good for him! Jeff, Adam and I continued to run together for the stretch out off of Liberty Hill and up the dirt roads to the Upper Michigan aid station. Once in the station, Adam and I spent a little too much time futzing around and Jeff had taken off without us... we'd never see him again. I wasn't feeling so good and had been having a hard time keeping my fluids in place. So a timely break was needed to re-assess my situation.

We left Upper MIchigan with Jim Konopack, Mike Hall and a runner in the relay. We headed up the road for the lollipop out and back known as Hayes Brook. As we started climbing back through the woods (a common theme) I told the guys how I hoped it was muddy up ahead. "Why?" they asked. "Because I told Jason Hayden that if it was muddy up here this year... to send us through it instead of around it." I smiled but as I looked around, I didn't get the same reaction. Now don't get me wrong.. my feet have been through the friggin' ringer lately and of all the people who is sick and tired of mud... yours truly takes the cake. BUt part of these races are their sense of adventure. Too many ultra's are run on roads and perfectly pruned trails where runners can skip along like that lady in the Sound of Music did through the flowers. I get tired of the Mary Poppins events... GET DIRTY YOU WHIMPS! Roll in it, bathe in it, smell like it... LOVE IT! It is mother earth and it is the most glorious thing to have dripping from your pores! As we got to the top of the loop I started laughing out loud because sure enough... the course went through the mud. It was easy to get around, and it was quiet up there for a bit while the boys silently told me what they thought under their breath.. but it was fun. ; )

We bounded down and out of Hayes Brook and made our way back to Upper Michigan. ON the way in Adam and I talked about not going with our original plan to carry camelbaks. They are just far too cumbersome and I hate carrying all of that water over the mountain when I only use about half of it in the end anyway. So in the aid station we stopped and better prepared our waist packs to get us through the next 4-5 hours, 20 miles. We headed out of the aid station while a nice volunteer directed us as to which way to go. We smiled, made sure he was telling us the right way (he was) and we bounded off down the hill towards the tweed river. At the bottom of the hill we took a sharp right and began our journey through the Blood Root Loop. It was far down the trail that I started to notice something wasn't right. In looking around, I noticed that there weren't very many flags hnaging up. Nate and I had marked this entire loop just this past Tuesday and I know we had marked it well. We continued on up the trail and the further we went, the further we went without there being a flag. I spotted a few runners up ahead had started coming back, upon seeing us coming, they turned and continued on ahead. It was however evident to me, that someone had once again... for the third year in a row.. sabotaged the course. Im not going to get into the politics on why it happens... but I'll just say that whatever local Pittsfield resident it is that is doing it, needs to really consider getting a better hobby because it reflects more poorly on the town then it does us as race organizers. A local have taken down all of the flagging for about a mile and a half stretch, including pie plates and placed them in a heap back at the upper michigan aid station inside the porta potty!

Adam and I continued to stay together throughout the earlier sections of Blood Root. As we made our way through the most saturated and muddy sections of the course, it was obvious that we were both trying to handle our own personal issues. I was having some stomach issues, and was vurping quite a bit, but was eager to get to "THE CLIMB." Adam and I sauntered into the water only aid station down in the lower field after tackling the first 5 miles of the Loop. As we walked in we came upon two runners huddled around the water jug. One was breathing quite heavily and asked where we go from here. I told him, "UP... 2.5 miles to the top of Blood Root Gap. It's steep, and painful." His reaction was priceless. He winced as he raised his head to the sky almost as if to ask god, "WHY ME?" HE took off his pack and began to fill his water. Adam, myself and Rob Hamel took off out of the station and the three of us enjoyed some wonderful conversation about The White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Rob resides. About 3/4 of the way into the climb, Rob started to trail off and I did my best to get him to hang tough with us. Adam and I are friends from our days hiking the Whites together... We love this kinds crap and we're taking it on with full force. I talk about how some of the best ultra-runners; Johnston, Meltzer, Kimball, Trason... they were all hikers first. BUt its of no use and we leave Rob behind. As we continue to climb, a young kid from Norwich came cruising by like it was nobodies business, "Yes Adam... We WILL see him later." When we crested the top of the hill to our delight at the aid station, the young kid took off and Adam and I took a load off. We refilled our bottles and ate some grub while giving the hearty volunteers a hard time. The longest and highest climb on the course is now behind us.

Just before we were about to leave the aid station, I looked back towards where runners come up to the top of the hill. I saw a small group coming up together and I yelled, "Suck it up buttercup!" They all looked awful, I smiled... I'm sadistic out here I know, but this is living is it not? Adam and I turned and took off down the other wide of the mountain to continue our Green Mountain adventure. At the bottom of the mountain I looked everywhere to find some mud to slop onto my legs and it took a little while to find mud the right consistency to stick it on there. Once I did though, mud became my armor against the event stinging nettle. This stuff is everywhere and about knee high this year. Thankfully, all those nice runners ahead of us (Nate, Jeff... Leigh Schmitt) had beaten it down rather nice for us so I don't think it ever really became an issue for us, Regardless, I was prepared. Adam and I took turns leading for the next 6-8 miles. Like a small duo of ducks, when one of us tired, we'd hang back and rely on the stronger bird to carry us along. We passed a runner on the next short climb, we passed another runner in the muddle of the fields on the hillock, then we passed our buddy Mr. Speedy Norwich not long after. We were making great time and having a good time except.. both of us seemed to be having stomach issues. Adam was on the verge of vomiting for who knows how long and I had been most of the day but doing a good job in holding it back. Adam.. well... hearing him vurp and gag was not serving me well at all as I was growing ever the more queezy.

When we made it into the Chittenden aid station his crew was very quick to help him out and I'm sure he was grateful for their presence. Me? I was missing my crew once again. Adams father is a great great man, always asking me if I am ok as well and checking in to see if I need anything at all. I really appreciated his spirit and dedication not only to his son but to the overall ultra-spirit. It not only speaks volume about himself, but it speaks volumes about his runner. Three cheers to you Mr. Wilcox! Adam and I took off down the road together, determined to get back to Upper Michigan so we can get this monster behind us. We made our way back into the woods, around the reservoir and then steeply climbing back up and over the long trail. The climb is one of the steeper climbs on the course, is a great warm up for what is to come in the last 20 miles of the race, but the real killer here is the fact that the sun is literally beating straight down on your back. Its roasts you while you come to a screeching halt. I was so happy when I got to the top of the climb that I pumped my fists into the air. Adam came up behind me and we took some time to walk it off before we ensued on an all out run again. From here is mostly all down hill back to the Tweed River. We haven;t been talking much.. more vurping.. neither one of us settling our stomachs well. As we begin to make our way downhill, I noticed Adam was taking it easy. I was feeling great and wanted to open it up a little bit. Adam had stopped a few times, bent over and looked as if he was gonna blow.. I decided to move on and let him work out his issues. I saw a runner up ahead so I moved along to see if I could tag along for a bit. It was Michael Hall. Mike looked like a million bucks and said he felt like a million bucks, Good for him! I stayed close with him and talked for a bit about the rest of the course. Once we got down to the river, I pulled away a bit and ducked down into the trees to soak my legs in the river. I do this to wash the mud off my legs but to also spring some life back into my traumatized muscles. As I was standing in the frigid waters, I looked up and saw Mike coming in for a dunk as well. He got in, looked at me and said, "Great idea!"

As I strolled back into Upper Michigan I spotted Adams wife. For whatever reason she was choosing to give me the cold shoulder for most of the race. But i made sure she noticed me as I was telling her Adam wasn't far behind and in need of a cold towel or something on the back of his neck when he came in. She quickly sprung into action, with the dog, while I turned to tend to my feet. I sat down in the parking lot and fumbled through my gear box. WHERE IS MY CREW?! I pulled out all kinds of things and all I wanted to do was change my shoes and socks. What a production! I handed Adam's wife a bandana for soaking in cold water for him. I got the job done with my shoes, refilled my bottles, took what little gels I had left and started to take off down the hill. As I left I went by Adam and told him I'd walk for a bit. I picked up a slow trot and made my way down the road in chase of Michael Hall. Once I caught him I settled back into a run walk routine, and eventually Adam caught up looking fresh and new. The three of us ran the roads together heading for Hayden's and Hedgehog. We knew that the true steepest climb on the course resided there so we were in no hurry. Up the driveway and behind Jason's house, the water jug was full of cold water. We stopped and drank a little, topped our bottles off and then got on the hill. There was no talking.. only hysterical I'm going out of my mind laughing as we made our way up the hill. We climbed by digging our fingers into the soil, trying desperately not to slide back for fear of losing any ground we had gained. It burned, it was hot, it was horrific. But as quick as it appeared before us, it was over. Adam was once again slow on the downhills and I realized he must be having trouble with his toes or something. I took off leaving both Adam and Mike behind for the rest of the race... knowing that I was in 24th place (at most) and wanting to catch more runners.

At the bottom of Hedgehog I ran out onto the main road. I passed Matt Quinlin who was in the relay division and up ahead I finally saw another runner. I settled into a comfortable job and ran past the runner, 23rd... I continued on. Turned and went up and over another hill, down a driveway and crossed Route 100. As I made my way past Riverside Farm I kept looking back to see if anyone was hot on my tail. The runner I had just past was not far behind me and gaining ground on the uphill. I knew what lie ahead, so pushing on the road was a bad idea. I let him do his thing as I did mine. As I got to the water only aid station at Mile 44, I was in need of water... except the jug was empty. I left and entered the woods and immediately started the climb to the top of Joe's. The climb is torture, steep and never ending.. like all the other broken record climbs on this course. But with Joe's, the higher you get the steeper it gets. I was begging for mercy on the way up. The climb this year was a bit different from last. It was brutal. I even stopped twice to give myself a reality check.. the reality being that I really DIDN'T want to puke out here but I just might, right here, right now. At one point I stopped, hands on my knees and my head in between my thighs... "Just puke John... let it out.. LET IT OUT!" No way!... I stand up and shuffle forward. Finally, I top out on the top of Joe's, stop for some deep breathing and take in the view of the entire course we just ran as well as views as far as the eye can see.

I leave the top of Joe's and head off to find the next aid station. From here we wind our way through "The Labyrinth," a twisting turning gnarl of evergreen fur. It's so long now you never know when the hell its gonna end, but its a fun place to run. So much fur, so tight together that the sun doesn't shine here. After that, more tight switchbacks where the turns have banks for the mountain bikers that use this mountain. Back and forth and back and forth... I was running in short sprints yet getting tired of the back and forth. I was actually getting motion sickness form it. I needed to stop... then they stretched us out a bit.. and then finally, down onto the road. I walked up another dirt road and came to the final aid station where Steve Halstead had some items laid out for us. There was a $1000 Boulder. A $100 Boulder. A $150 13' tree and a $20 8x6 piece of wood. As I refilled my bottles and drank a little coke, I went over and tried picking up the $1000 Boulder... "No way in hell. And that $100 boulder is more like a $500 one." I paced, another runner I had caught was there (22nd).... and he was taking the 13' log. Man that looked awkward. I figured, Oh what the hell, I could always use $20. So I picked up the 8x6 and started on my way.

More switchbacks as we went uphill for a little ways. About a half mile into carrying the 8x6 I figured it wasn't even worth the effort where there was runnable section here. Yes... runnable sections of Pittsfield Peaks. It had been forever. So.. I threw my 8x6 down on the trail. Then I looked and saw the other dude with the 13' tree. he asked, "No more stick?!" in a quick foreign tongue. "Nope... F That!" As I started to run I heard a huge thud and crash into the woods. I knew he had given up on his too, and he dropped it into the shrubs. I ran and ran and ran down through the zig zagging network of trails that led us off the sag between Joes and South Hill and over to Fusters Hell. The trail took us down and down and down the mountain and not before long, the course sent us right back up and over the top of Fusters. Then we started running down the otherside. Soon enough we had run so far downhill that I started to hear the river. I started thinking that this wasn;t it.. there HAS TO BE... ONE MORE HILL. And as I came around a corner and looked up. There it was. A yellow plate in the tree with an arrow pointing up. The final climb was STEEEEEEP and when it topped out, and you looked right... you realized then that it hadn't topped out and it keeps going and going. Its evil, its sadistic.. it's.. PERFECT. I loved it.. I laughed and smiled and giggled the entire way up the climb. Loving the fact knowing that I am once again tackling Pittsfield Peaks, third year in a row.. and in remembering the first year of the race understanding deep down that it could ALWAYS be worse.

I ran down the final steep down hill, cross over the tweed on the bridge and made my way up to the Aimee Farm Lot. As I crested out onto the driveway, people started clapping and I made my way around the building and across the finish line. Andy greeted me where shook his hand and received my finishers award. Something had happened to the hammers so I suggested we do railroad spikes... and a railroad spike is exactly what I got. I love these guys, I love this race and I love those hills.

Pretty soon word came down off of the hill that someone had grabbed the 40-50 pound boulder with $100 written on it and they were bringing it in. One of the young volunteers ran off to cheer the guy in. The group of us who had finished, Nate, Jeff, myself, Gilly... we all waited for ADAM WILCOX to come around that corner and boy did he ever. With the boulder raised high above his head, sweat and tears streaming down his face, he carried that boulder the final 5 miles of the race to the finish line where he threw it to the ground and sat upon its rough surface in disgust. This kid is ready to run 100... and he'll get a buckle doing it. Simply outstanding.

Congrats to EVERYONE who finished this past weekend in Pittsfield. My hats off to you for tackling this amazingly tough course. Cheers!

Final Stats
Miles: 54
Elev Gain: 14,000'+
Time: 12:27
Place: 20th