McNaughton in Vermont
May 8-9, 2010
Pre-RaceI got a ride up to the race venue from my friend Gilly Barbato. Gilly started running Ultra's last year around this time and I encouraged her to come to Pittsfield this weekend to help pace Jim Lampman who was running in the 200 miler. As we arrived in Pittsfield, we were welcomed by a friendly set of crews all ready on site helping their runners who had started earlier races. The 200 milers had started on Thursday and the 150 milers had started today. I myself have toed the starting line of a 150 mile race twice, and in November of 2008 I was the race director for the 200 miler here. I knew the kind of struggle these folks were about to endure... or did I?
Gilly and I immediately fell into the volunteer roles we agreed to participate in before we even came up. Gilly and I began checking runners in as they completed their loops and offering any kind of support we could. When Laura Bleakly showed up, she jumped in as well. We were quite the little team, content and happy to help our fellow runners, knowing full well that in a few hours, we'd be out there with them. Struggling, suffering, hoping that someone will care for us as we've cared for them. At one point, a runner came in needing Imodium. The race didn't have any, so I drove to the store and bought him a bottle of Imodium and then drove it up to the 5 mile aid station. He got it.. used it.. but it didn't help. After 60 miles of running, 40 of which was done with the runs, I got word that he quit.
After 60 miles of running, Jim Lampman came into the start/finish and needed some company early. Gilly suited up and left to help keep Jim company and hopefully light a spark in his engine. From what his father told me, it worked and they stuck together through the entire night.
The course is a 10 mile loop that traverses and ascends Joe's and Fusters Hills in Pittsfield, VT. Both of these hills are notorious, end of the run, places during the June 54 miler. My memory cannot help but bring me back to the pain I've experienced many times here before. But I knew this loop was different. Instead of those long, never-ending, surprise climbs... the climbs this weekend would be short yet cumbersome.
Each loop, at 2,400' of climb, would be sure to test me the way I needed to be for the rest of the season. I knew what to expect but I didn't. I'm not here to be a hero, I'm here to figure it all out. To shake out the cob webs, to get ready for the Grand Slam. To see what I need in the next month and a half heading into what is sure to be the hardest most trying four months of my life. I've done a loop at Barkley, that was fun, but this race, this time in Pittsfield is to give myself a quiz. A pre-test before the final exam and nothing more.
I woke up Saturday Morning at the Hawley Residence around 5:30am. The alarm had gone off a few times, I wasn't really a ray of sunshine or exactly motivated to get myself to the starting line quickly. I gathered my things and got ready to run, stepped outside into the damp cold morning air. The rain is falling lightly, from what I hear it poured over night. How appropriate. All three years I travelled to Illinois to run a race called McNaughton, it rained and snowed and was cold. Why would this version of McNaughton be any different? I made the walk down Route 100 to the race venue where runners had all ready started lining up at the starting line. I went to my tent and got my last minute things together, ready to run in the light rain. I heard the pre-race meeting going on, I've heard Andy a million times, I knew what he was saying so I kept getting ready.
When it was time to start, I headed over to the starting line and stood there. It was funny to me that some 30 runners were lined up to the side of the start/finish line. Only about 5 or 6 of us stood on the actual course. As I continued to look around I saw runners standing with arms crossed, shivering, trying to stay warm. I met "The other" John Lacroix from Burlington, VT; cracked a few jokes and got ready to roll. The countdown began and the race was on.
As I made my way along the course I quickly realized how surprisingly easy it was for a Peaks Race. We wound our way down to the Tweed River, crossed Fusters Bridge and began switch backing our way across to Joe's and Riverside Farm. The first and steepest climb on the course is known as The Stairs, all ready a slippery and sloppy mess of a hill that could not be run given these conditions. After reaching Riverside, climb #2 is known as The Escalator. A short but steep climb that ascends briefly to the next switch back section. Aside from these two hills, I ran almost the entire way up to the 4.5 Mile Aid station and when I reached it, I was shocked I had ran that far at all and all up hill. I stopped in to see my team mates from The Animal Camp anxiously awaiting Johnny to come flying in. Johnny was up to around 130 miles by now and still well in charge of first place.
From Tweed River Rd, the course winds its way up the side of South Hill before they take us back through what is known as The Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a section of the course where the trail winds tightly through a thick thick section of spruce trees. Trees so thick that even during the middle of the brightest of days, it's dark in here. After the Labyrinth, we climb to the top of Joe's where in fair weather you can glance off across the Long Trail, see the Camel's Hump and other peaks one could waste plenty of time trying to name.
On top of Joe's there is a small cabin with water jugs on a table outside. I head down off the top of the hill and begin a long sweeping decline that traverses from one mountain (Joe's) to the next (Fuster's). Switchbacks continue to be numerous as I cross many small streams. The light rain has only been picking up since the beginning of the race. With 33 starting the 100, 12 still on the course from the 200 and 150 and who knows how any 30 milers, I find myself surprisingly alone. As I wind my way down Fusters, I hear Andy Hawley screaming through the woods to "Get the lead out!" I smile at seeing him out there with his backpack, under an umbrella. I cross the bridge and head back to the barn to end Loop one.
As I head back out for loop 2 the rain is only getting worse. It has picked up in intensity and I'm now completely soaked. I feel my tech-wick shirts dripping wet with water, and I'm cold. I haven't worn my rain gear yet, was hoping to not need it. So much for being hopeful. As I cross back into the woods I see Andy again. As I wind my way around, he takes all of the short cuts, hemmin and hawin at all the runners as they go by, trying to light a fire under their asses. He makes me laugh, I miss Andy.. used to hike all the time. Now.. I go months without seeing him because I'm too busy and broke.
As any course would, as the rain continues to fall and you throw a hundred plodding feet on top of it, things are not getting slick. Those who don't know how to run in the mud, have slipped and slid all over the place, washing the dirt off the course and making it worse. Having the ability to find the stable ground, gravel, or rock helps and I like to think I do this well. Yet, it's getting to a point where it's almost no good. After finishing up loop 2, I take a break to finally put my rain gear on and put on some warm dry clothes. I feel much better after this, and head back out.
On Loop three I meet up with Mike Siltman, running the 200, and run a bit slowly with him for a bit. I asked him how he was doing, Mike had run 150 Miles all ready, "I just saw an Anklesaurus!" Mike was out of his mind, hallucinating for awhile now, yet still, miraculously moving forward. Word on the street was that Johnny Dennis had dropped at mile 165 after having blood in his urine and not being able to breath. Phil Rosenstein dropped at 100 as fluid began to fill his lungs and Ryan Dexter... Ryan I had just seen and he was still trying to get it done. I'm amazed by my running companions, they inspire, they motivate.. they are machines.
Up at the upper station I stopped for some fruit and food. I'm starving yet I've been eating just fine. Sucking down Gels when I should, though behind on S! Caps. I've been moving great thus far. "One Speed" I keep telling myself and one speed is what I have. I let people pass me if they want, I feel myself being so focused during this run. Really just slowing down, running one pace, and grinding the miles out. Thinking about life, what I need to work on in running and in life itself.. I'm such a work in progress yet I'm thankful for my running family and friends. Andy was up at the upper station cheering me on before heading home to dry out. Nothing but smiles from the two of us.
The Sun Comes Out
Sometime during the fourth loop the rain had stopped falling. The warm winds began to brush across the hills and the birds were singing. As I headed in at the end of 4, I was amazed at how many runners were still out and about, smiling brightly, sharing the gift of happiness with one another. it was obvious that everyone had accepted their challenges today, good weather or bad, and nothing was going to get under their skin. I took off my rain gear with the idea of drying out on Loop 5. As I headed back out to the mountain, the sun shone brightly and dry out is exactly what I did.
Yet, an hour as I wound my way into the aid station up high, I heard a rumble in the sky. As I looked to the west I saw a dark wall of clouds heading for us. I picked up the pace knowing that I'd soon be soaked once again, hoping, just hoping I could make it back to the start/finish area to get some cover before it hits. The rumbles grow more frequent and louder. As I read the top of Joe's I need a bio break. I stop and relieve myself while I watch lightning bolts jut from the clouds and strike the ground. The clouds are dark dark dark and the lightning purple. I leave the top of Joe's, rushing to get lower over on Fusters. But somewhere along the way, the storm caught me.
Lightning flashed all around. The rain came down in buckets, I was instantly soaked and now miserable. The wind picked up and howled out of the west at 35-45 mph. The trees swayed at first and then just bent over. The rain drops got bigger, more frequent. The lightning closer and then ::FLASH BANG!:: Lightning struck so close that my ears were now ringing and my nerves were shot. I continued to run and pick up the pace. "One speed" was now out the window.. I was running as fast for 50 miles as I could. The trails were now raging torrents of water. Streams even and where the water did not flow, it sat in huge puddles and murky mud holes.
Fifteen Minutes after the storm hit and after too many close calls with Lightning I was soaked and very unhappy, unsettled even. I had lost my wits, unsure of if I wanted to continue and thinking about my goals. At 12 hours and 30 some minutes, I was 50 miles into the race. My ears ringing so loudly I am unable to hear. People asking me what I needed at the Farm, I had no clue. I bent down and rested my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath after having to run so quickly off the mountain to get off of up high during an electrical storm.
Back at the farm I slowly started to change my clothes. The wind blowing in from the Northwest was now chilly. I put my fleece tights on, changed my top again, gloves and a winter hat. I went to my aid tent and it was filled with water. I was starving. I sat down and ate baked beans, hot soup and a cheese burger. I cleaned my feet with a hose, I changed my socks. Then as I looked back outside, the sun was gone once again, the sky now dark and it was raining steadily once more.
Drew Haas is a fellow runner who had decided after 50 miles to head out for more. As it started to rain again, and 5 minutes after he had left, Drew walked back into the barn and said, "I'm done." I couldn't help but think the same. My mellow goal for the race was to run 60 miles. To just come out here and figure out what I need in the next 6 weeks heading into Western States and the Slam. To not be stupid, to stay healthy, to just treat it like a training run, finish only if I could and it was feasible. Now.. I was standing there in the barn, one shoe on and one shoe off thinking about quitting myself.
Josh Dennis came down and grabbed me, he wrapped me in a sleeping bag and dragged me to his truck while I continued to shiver. Despite being in warm dry clothes, I was cold and miserable. My feet are battered, I had kicked a rock somewhere and my right big toe throbbed, I was going to be losing my first toenail of the season all ready. Josh threw the heat on high inside the truck and pretty soon I was dying. I wanted to be anywhere but in here, yet he began to speak. Everything he said I could not dispute. Every single step I took out on those trails today and tonight was one more step closer to the prize, The Grand Slam. Every step was one more ounce of pain I'd never feel again later in the year. It's all training, it's all preparation. Before I knew it, I was leaving Josh's truck and he was strapping my waist pack around me. He began barking like a dog, The call of the Animal Camp, he shook my hand, smacked me in the butt and I was once again running down that trail.
One More Loop
The final loop was the loneliest of the day. I see and hear no one either ahead or behind me. I'd run 98% of the race so far alone, why is now any different? It's dark, the forest moves in the night.. and it's still raining. It didn't take long for me to be soaked once again. The trails are worse then they have been all day, and only getting worse. As the temperature drops, the rocks under the surface squeeze the water up and out of the ground and it continues to flow continuously down the mountain. The mud is soupy now, slick, slippery. There is no more running out here. My first two laps on the course were two laps of two hours a piece. My fifth lap was close to 3 hours. Now, with the course a mess, the rain falling, the mist and humidity settling in along the hillside, I'm at a snails pace.
Up at the upper aid station, the fire that was once high and hot was now low and mere coals. The crews have gone to bed, it's lonely and desolate. I feel like it's taken me forever to get here. I wanted company yet no one was around to run. John Holt, who offered to help me had left for home to get dry. Thoughts of quitting were back in my head and screaming loud. I was suffering a bit now. The top of my foot kills from slipping in the mud, my knees ache from the punishing steep downhills. As I reach the top of Joe's, it's dark and foggy. The wind has shifted again and the air continues to get colder and sink. I've been here before... I know what's coming and I've started to think logically about if I want to deal with it or not.
After 60 miles, and 18 hours 36 minutes of movement, I made one of the smartest choices I've ever made in my ultra-running career. I came to Pittsfield, VT and accomplished exactly what I wanted to in doing some re con in preparation for the rest of the summer. I don't doubt that I can finish this race, I know I can, I've done harder things in worse weather. However, given the fact that I have a 6 day backpacking trip in two weeks, a 54 miler in 3 weeks and then The Western States 100 in 6 weeks... the decision to drop out of the race was rather easy. My feet are blistered, shriveled, macerated and hurt. I've suffered some, not enough, but some. I made it my 60 miles and I'd had enough. I drop from the race, shower up and roll into my sleeping bag. As I lay my head down to rest, I heard the wind shift to coming out of the North at 45 mph with higher gusts and the rain turned into blinding snow. Rumors from the course state that runners could barely see where to go in the white-out. The decision to stop when I had, was never more appropriate and mature a decision.
From Runner to Crew
Of the 33 who officially started the 100 miler, only 5 finished. One of those finishers ended up being Laura Bleakly from Bedford, NH. Laura tore her achilles from the bone in 2008 after running and being pulled from the Vermont 100. After reconstructive surgery, pins and sutures, she was back in action. After 33 hours of running, Laura finished first female. I did everything I could to help her finish which included acting as crew and going as far as washing her feet and donating some of my socks. And then there was Mike Siltman. After watching Ryan Dexter finish in 61 hours, and knowing that 12 other runners had dropped out, Mike was the last man and second man standing in the 200 miler. I helped crew for him, talking him out of dropping and watched him run to the finish only to drop to his knees and kiss the finish line. 70 hours it took him and I handed him a Long Trail Ale.
From crewing to running and volunteering, I'd simply loved being at the races this weekend. I learned that it's so much more then just crossing that finish line for me. It's about these people being my friends and some my family. I'll do anything to continue to see runners succeed and realize their own human potential, I'll do the same to see a race succeed and continue on.
And now.. the training continues for that Sub-24 at Western States!