Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vermont 100

There’s always another hill in Vermont; never a big hill, sometimes a steep hill, but always another hill.

Having never run the race, I came in with limited expectations and a pretty relaxed attitude. The race would be number two of four in my quest for a ‘Stealth’ Grand Slam, and I came to Vermont primarily focused on getting it done in a steady but perhaps unspectacular fashion. The mantra for the day was ‘jog everything,’ with an eye towards getting to the Rocky Mountains, the venue for the final two races, in one piece and within striking distance of the Sharmanator who held a 36-minute lead over me after round one in California. Based on a few discussions with people that had previously run the course, I was under the impression that it was 100 percent runnable - and perhaps for some on a good day it is - but for me on this day it unfortunately was not. And I tried. Vermont is a tough, grinding course.

From the off – in a field in Vermont in the middle of seemingly nowhere – I settled in and made some introductions. Justin Angle I had never met, but knew to be a strong and experienced ultrarunner; it was good to get to know him a bit through the opening 20 miles of the course. Mike Dixon had just been out on the Front Range in Boulder for a week, with a brief visit to Fort Collins. I told him he’d got it the wrong way around suggesting his time might have been better spent in The Fort, a comment that prompted a comical rebuff from Chad Ricklefs, a long-time resident of The Republic and member of our early lead pack. Perhaps buoyed by my snub of the P.R.B, Chad promptly took off; Mike followed, which left myself, Ian and Justin to speculate on how best to pace this thing. We kept it where we were and watched them float off.

The early going had felt a touch fast and almost immediately I got the sense that my legs were going to need to be babied on this one. I had hoped that three weeks would be adequate recovery from Western States, and I think it was close, but there were definite signals in the first 20 miles from the peg department suggesting that if I wanted them to carry me to the finish then we’d have to be moving at nothing more than a casual jog the whole day, with the ups at the lowest of low gears. As I watched Chad, Mike and then another runner glide off into the distance (sight lines are very long in Vermont) I remained committed to the goal of running everything, albeit slowly.

At mile 15, we made our way through the quaint little town of Woodstock, which was the only settlement of any consequence that we’d pass through the whole day. I passed off my headlamp to Fred Abramovitz – one of my travel companions for the weekend and pacer to his lovely wife Amy Hayes – and learned that I was sitting about three or four minutes behind the lead trio. Justin was in view a few steps up the road, so I was now in fifth with Ian just behind and last year's winner Brian Rusiecki yet to make an appearance but assumed to be within striking distance.

A fourth of the way into our day, there was a little sign stuck into the ground that read ‘26.2 Miles Done, 73.8 To Go.’ As I passed the mischievous marathon marker I took a look at my watch. The digits said 4,000 feet ascended, 4,000 feet descended and 3 hours and 40 minutes elapsed. One hundred miles is a long-ass way to run (I don’t care what Karl has to say on the matter), and it can be a really intimidating undertaking when considered in its entirety, so a common strategy is to break courses down into manageable and less daunting segments.

‘Run aid station to aid station’ is a much recited cliché in 100 mile racing. Today, I wanted to try something different, setting my watch to its accumulated vertical gain/descent screen and giving myself a mental pat on the back for each 1,000 feet climbed, knowing that the course would terminate somewhere in the 15,000 foot range. I find running numbers and doing race-related mental arithmetic to be a good way to pass the miles at times, so this added set of digits was a welcome distraction.

By mile 30, a handler aid station where I would trade bottles with the incomparable Jim Garcia for the second time, I was well and truly into my rhythm for the day. Jason Lantz had caught up to me somewhere around the 20 mile mark, and he was now running a few steps ahead with Justin, while Ian would come into view every now and again on my occasional shoulder checks. The lead trio were a reported nine to 10 minutes ahead, a bold course record pace I thought.

Somewhere not long after the 30 mile aid, we hit a steep, wet and very muddy section of singletrack that put an abrupt end to my plans of running the whole course. As I was grunting my way up the hill, I took a peek back to see if Ian was still on my tail, but was surprised to catch sight of a runner I didn’t recognize. I knew I wasn’t running particularly fast, but quite honestly I figured that the typically light Vermont field would allow me to get away with a slower, yet still podium-worthy run. But now here I was being caught and about to be relegated to seventh with the Sharmantor still on my tail and Brian Rusiecki lurking somewhere not too far behind. I was beginning to feel like I was back at Western States scrapping for a top ten finish. Nonetheless, the game plan remained the same and I resisted the urge to find a faster gear.

The runner catching up to me introduced himself as Josh; I assumed Josh Katzman (correct) as that was an East Coast name I was familiar with. Josh, it seemed, was content to slot into my pace as we spilled off the sloppy trail and transitioned to a short stretch of busy asphalt. Like most participants in the sport, Josh is a competitive but incredibly likeable guy, so it was nice to whittle away a few miles engaged in agreeable conversation. On run-related topics I learned that one of the guys off the front, Mike Dixon, was known by some as the ‘ghost runner’ after disappearing off the front early at the Vermont 50 last year, not to be seen again until the finish line. Would the ghost strike again today? I also learned that Ian, who Josh had previously shared some miles with, was working through some issues.

All good intelligence. "Just keep jogging. Steady as she goes," I reminded myself.

Looking back on the long road section, however, I could see Ian no more than a minute back. I cursed inwardly at the predicament. Here I was chugging along, stuck in low gear, racing to stay in the top 10 while also trying to keep Ian behind me in our separate battle over the four legs of the Grand Slam. Knowing it was still early, I repeated the mantra and jogged on.

At an unmanned aid station at mile 36 by a reservoir on a rough-cut section of trail, Josh and I unexpectedly (to me at least) came across Justin and Jason just leaving. I hadn’t see them in a while, so this buoyed the spirits, as rather than being caught by yet more runners I was apparently starting to close a bit. But then Ian trotted up looking his usual chipper self and putting an immediate damper on my mood.

Not long thereafter, on one of the longer climbs of the day, the chase pack tightened up and the state of play became visible in one frame. Justin was slowing, Jason was pulling ahead a little, while Josh and Ian were gradually dropping off the pace as I maintained my running cadence versus everybody else's hike. Near the top of the hill I caught up to Jason and we began what would be many shared miles running shoulder to shoulder; the two of us now in fourth and fifth. And then not long after that we reeled in one of the early hares – the 'ghost runner' – for a joint share of third.

The jogging was starting to pay dividends.

By Camp 10 Bear, from whence we would hit a 25 mile loop before returning at mile 71, Jason and I were firmly in lockstep and assuming a good mutual pace; he running lower sections of the hills quicker than me before dropping to a hike, me passing him in my granny running gear on the upper sections of the hill and the pair of us reuniting on descents and more gently rolling stuff. This continued for approximately 20 miles, so I had a good opportunity to get to know Jason, an interesting guy from Lancaster, PA (a town I used to drive through to visit my grandmother in Parkersburg, WV when visiting from Michigan). He works as a counselor in the very tough field of addiction recovery; a profession that I can only imagine helps keep the mind from feeling too sorry for itself when engaged in these absurd day-long exercises of self-inflicted pain.

Coming into Camp 10 Bear, the Mile 47 aid station with Jason Lantz. Picture Far North.
Jason is a no-BS kinda guy, and one of the funnier comments he made as we were jogging along related to his thoughts on runners from the West coming out and winning the big Eastern races or - worse - proclaiming that they were going to win them. I sniggered loudly and thought of Chad from Boulder off the front of the field and Ian's pre-race proclamation that he was going to dismantle the course record.

We passed the ’Mile 50.4, 49.6 to go’ sign at approximately 7:20 time elapsed (and 7,300 feet of vertical ascent covered) soon after we had starting passing 100km runners on a nice long section of wooded trail. Our pace picked up appreciably in response to the more engaging surface and before long we were passing streams of runners in the shorter race with a faster-looking runner also ahead. Jason thought it was the second-place runner, Sebastian from Quebec, but I wasn’t so sure. In anticipation, we picked up our pace to somewhere close to over-exuberant and sure enough it was indeed the diminutive and jolly Sebastian – clearly slowing but still in very good spirits.

Now in joint second, I was a little concerned with the increased tempo, eager to drop back into my jogging gear but hesitant to let Jason go. I had a drop bag at the mile 59 aid station with a baggie of the Generation Ucan powder I had experimentally been fueling on for this run. I also picked up a bar and generally fussed a bit, wasting time before heading over to the aid station table. Jason was still there and had seemingly sampled everything on offer, being particularly excited by the pickle juice, suggesting I give it a go. It tasted good, a little ‘pickly’ maybe, but it really helped cut the sweet from the taste buds. I poured a second dixie cup of the vinegary, salty solution and quickly downed it and then just as quickly concluded that sticking at one would have been the smart move.

On leaving the aid station, I took a quick look back and boom, there was the #1 bib diving into the aid station bags. Rusiecki had finally caught up. Bugger. On the big (by Vermont standards) climb out of the aid station, Jason gapped me pretty comfortably and I was for the first time hiking road grades that I had until then stubbornly been running, all the while burping up pickle juice gases.

"Just keep jogging what you can," I reminded myself.

The next aid station along the way was Margaritaville (but no Jimmy Buffet tunes) and again Jason was taking his merry old time, still there when I got in. This time he suggested I take a shot of tequila with him – I had to draw the line there – but apparently it worked as I wouldn’t see him again until the finish line.

Now in third, about to be relegated to fourth, I was stuck in gear but still moving. Brian took forever to pass me, finally doing so on a big climb. I asked about Ian and he told me he was in a world of hurt. I hoped it wasn’t something that would put him out of our little Grand Slam tussle, but at the same time I was hoping that it was the kind of trouble that would erase his 36-minute lead from Western States (just being honest here).

I have to say that I was surprised on the next section of downhill trail at just how quickly Brian came back to me. The descents had started to feel decent for me, as if my quads were locked into their pain zone for the run and wouldn’t deteriorate any further, but I certainly wasn’t slaying it. Brian apparently just didn’t have much to give. With a big descent back into Camp 10 Bear and the 71 mile aid station, I was now two minutes behind Jason, 20 behind Chad and a couple of minutes up on Brian. I wasn't too efficient at the aid station, unsure of what I wanted or needed. Fred was trying to spoon feed me ice cream - he swears by it - but I wanted soda and savory. Meanwhile, I was watching Brian get naked while changing his shorts on easily the most populated spot of the whole course. Brilliant. And then I watched him get out before me, which finally prompted me to get on with things and get out of there with my pacer Jim Garcia  – a previous winner of the race, now 55 and still banging out 2:5x marathons.

We watched as Brian pulled away up the steep section of trail from Camp 10 Bear to what felt like the highest point on the course. My climbing, as it had been all day continued to be pitiful and I could tell that it was as much as Jim could do to keep from dropping to a hike in order to not make my running cadence look completely pathetic. So I dropped to hike instead. Again, I caught up to Brian by the next aid station on the ensuing descent, relishing and really eating up the super soft and relatively buff sections of trail that we were offered.

Not quite sure who was going to win this battle of fatigue, I was surprised to not catch Brian on the next big downhill after the inevitable uphill after the aid. But then I was even more surprised when a 100km runner at around mile 82 told me that I was in third, a few minutes behind second, way off first, but definitely in third. Jim and I speculated on that and figured that Brian had either dropped at the 79 mile aid, and we hadn’t seen him or he’d gotten off course somewhere. Looking back on some of the longer views, we weren’t seeing anybody, so by Bill's aid station (89) I was beginning to feel comfortable in third.

Chad was a reported 20 minutes up on me still – much as he had been for the last 30 to 40 miles – while Jason looked to be cutting into his lead, now 10 minutes ahead of me. I thought back to his earlier comment about East Coast races and runners from the West, and thought there might be a bit of that fueling the charge.

Through more rough-cut fields, over yet another hill, and with over 15,000 feet on the altimeter I was truly ready for this one to be done. Mile 92.5 came slowly but eventually, then we hit another monster hill (yes, still only 300 - 400 feet but so steep). Looking back from the crest, there was still nobody and I knew I had a lock on third, but repeated the mantra and immediately slotted back into the jog. Thinking that the last aid station was at mile 95, I was overjoyed to learn that it was in fact mile 96. Four miles seemed doable, but five miles by my tired reasoning would clearly have been insurmountable.

I took a look at the split sheet and saw that Jason had cut Chad's lead to three minutes, and figured that it was going to be heartbreaker for Chad somewhere in the 98-99 mile zone after having led the race the whole day. And indeed it was, with Jason assuming the lead at mile 98.5; testimony to the power of the  jog.

I hadn't quite been able to stay on pace and ended up losing a full 30 minutes on Jason over those last 30 miles, finishing a hair under 16 hours and feeling pretty destroyed. It had been a hot and humid day that had slowly ground me down. My stomach just about stayed with me the whole day, so I was able to hang on by a thread and get to that glorious finish line for a satisfying third-place finish.

Vermont is old school, but very well done. The aid stations are plentiful and well stocked, the volunteers are fantastic and the scenery is spectacular and typically New England. I found the unique arrowed trail markings to be fantastic and a much superior, if more time consuming, way to mark a course. At no point during the day did I feel unsure of whether or not I was on course - and believe me, aside from the course markers you have absolutely no idea of where you are when running the Vermont 100, other than at the top, middle or bottom of yet another bloody hill.

My first question upon sitting down was about Ian and his fate. I'd heard nothing since Brian's comment hours earlier about him being in rough shape, so I was shocked to hear that he was just four minutes behind me. And then there he was, the chipper Englishman popping out of the woods with a strong late-race rally for a very hard-fought and well-deserved sub-16 hour fourth place finish.

Moving to the Rockies in four weeks, Ian will start with a 33 minute lead; both of us holding significant advantage over Neal Gorman's existing course record (2.5 and 2 hours respectively). But this one ain't done until we hit the Wasatch finish line. Neal was solid at both Leadville and Wasatch, so all it takes is one blow-up for both me and Ian, and Neal's record lives on into 2014.

As a side note, I should also mention that we have a race shaping up in the women's division of the Grand Slam this year as well. It was a tough day for Abby out there in Vermont, but she hung tough for a gritty 22 hour finish. Meanwhile, the on-paper favorite, Traci Falbo, had a very strong second-place showing after what looks to have been a pretty disastrous Western States. The two are now separated by just 45 minutes, with Abby holding the advantage.

One hundred mile racing can be fickle business, so it is all to play for as we move to Leadville.

100 miles, 15,300 feet of up and 15,300 of down, three minutes separating us. On to Leadville. Picture Far North.
We were both pretty much destroyed at the end of the Vermont 100.  Picture Far North.

7 comments:

  1. Dixon was my house guest when he came out. For the record, I did tell him all the cool kids were up in the Fort and encouraged him to camp on your lawn if he had any chance of placing top 5 in VT...

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  2. Those photos summarize the races nicely for me. It's shaping up to be a mini epic for us, but it'd be nice to have one of these races feel pretty good the whole way through.

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    1. No offense here, but most of us only dream we could "slog" painfully along in low gear to a friggin' sub 16-hour finish.

      Awesome job!

      You and Nick rock!

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  3. Great to meet you and congrats on grinding this one out. My day ended early...I've been battling illness and injury and had not put either fully behind me. See you in Leadville in a few weeks!
    -justin

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  4. I chuckled quietly at least 10 times thanks to some of your thoughts and observations. Love the honesty. Good luck at Leadville. May the best Brit win.

    By the way, what exactly is a Stealth slammer? Does it mean you forgot to register in time?

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  5. Jon - a 'stealth slammer' is somebody not officially registered for the Slam but doing the four races anyway. In my case, it is because I had no interest in paying $80 for the finisher's trophy/award that comes with registering (assuming all four get completed). There isn't a no-finisher-award registration option, so I just didn't bother ( I would have been happy to pay a nominal 'administrative fee' for registering and having my time recorded).

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