It's 3:55am and I'm standing at the starting line for the Vermont 100. It's a familiar place to me. In 2008 I was lined up at the same place, incredibly full of anticipation for the unknown experience of attempting to cover 100 mile by foot for my first time. Except for 2010, I have been at every start since. Until last year, I had finished every race. My quickest time being 20:29.
Last year was a rough one for me, as far as finishing races go. I ended up DNFing Vt at mile 70. It just seemed like I lacked the desire to get to the finish line. Sure, I had problems (wrecked quads and blisters) but that's par for the course when doing one of these things.
Unfortunately the string of DNF's (Did not Finish) continued for me earlier this year at the Massanutten 100. I got sick on Monday before the race and the cold turned into walking pneumonia by race day. I started, but only got to mile 20 before massive fatigue, coughing fits and a tough time breathing got the best of me. It was particularly disappointing because I trained harder than ever and felt very ready to go.
And now again I find myself full of nervous anticipation. I want to break 20
hours. Badly. But I don't know if my head is strong enough. Will I
fail once again? I tell myself to relax and trust my training. I know that if things go terribly wrong my real goal is to just finish. If things go right hopefully I can get that sub 20 hour finish that has eluded me at this race.
I know that in order to get my goal I have to be quicker through the aid stations. In the years past I have wasted a lot of time there managing blisters, sitting down too long and just being unfocused. This year I have my favorite crew, my wife Amy and my brother Barry. And as an added bonus, my best friend Jeremy is along for the ride. I have given the exact instructions on what I need at each stop. The goal is for me to spend 2 minutes max at each stop.
I have a strategy for everything. But as anybody who has ever done a 100 mile race knows, the best strategy is to be mentally prepared for surprises. You just can't anticipate what you are going to have to deal with for this big of an undertaking. And I have painfully learned that even my experience doing these races doesn't guarantee a finish.
|Amy and I at the start. The calm before the storm.|
The race stared promptly at 4am after a nice surprise fireworks show on a nearby hill. (Yes, I know I just changed from present tense to past tense....) It was a cool way to start the race and I felt great as I ran down the first hill and into the woods for the first time. We had been warned that the trails were much wetter than years past due to the extraordinary amount of rain that Vermont has received this year. Keeping that in mind, I started the race in my Brooks PureGrit II shoes. I had planned on wearing my Altra Torins, but the Brooks offer better traction and drainage. My plan was to see just how wet it was and then change into the Altras if possible.
Although the trails were somewhat wet, they really weren't that bad. I was enjoying the early easy pace, but my stomach felt like it had a big bubble of gas in it for a bunch of miles. I took a couple minute bio break in the woods off the road and felt much better afterwards. As I was running down the hill into Woodstock I saw my old buddy, Sherpa John up ahead. I caught up with him and chatted a bit. He was running great and it was nice to see him. He was wearing a GPS watch and informed me that we were running at a 7:45 pace. I was surprised as I felt so comfortable. I reminded myself to make sure I didn't hammer too early.
|Changing into the awesome Altra Torin shoes|
I reached the first Handler station, Pretty House (mile 22.5) at 7:34am. I spent less than two minutes changing shoes and socks into the Altras, grabbing two new bottles, and an extra gel and 3 Perpetuem solids that I ate as I took off. I also drank a Vespa CV-25. My crew was absolutely fantastic and had everything ready to go. About a half a mile after leaving I realized that I still had my headlight on my head. For about 10 seconds I started to get upset, but then decided that it really was no big deal even though I would have to have it there for another 8 miles. Just as I stopped worrying about it coach Jack came driving by and I yelled at him to stop. He took the light from me and later gave it back to my crew.
|Amy helping me make another super quick aid station stop|
Stage road was the next Handler station, at mile 31.4. I arrived at 9:09am and was out in one minute. In that time I got two new bottles, drank a Vespa, ate 3 Perpetuem Solids and restocked on my gels. I was in great spirits and ready for the 17 mile stretch until I saw my crew again. My shoes were working very well, my feet were great and my fueling strategy was working excellent. The day was not nearly as warm as I had expected and there was a nice cloud cover keeping the sun from being to hot. As far as I was concerned, the conditions were perfect.
Somewhere in the next few miles I caught up with Amy Rusiecki who was going through a rough patch already. I usually keep to myself and don't do much talking to anybody else during a long race, but Amy said that her hamstring was hurting and she was upset that she already felt bad so early in the day. We had a nice chat and I reminded her that last year she wanted to drop, but stuck it out and got second place. During our talk she seemed to pick up the pace and started to feel better. It's amazing how much our brain is in control of our bodies, regardless of how hard we train or how fit we are. I was able to physically see a change in her demeanor, running and attitude just by having something to take her mind off of her current pain. It was cool. And she went on to finish 3rd woman with a time of 19:53!
|Weighing in at the medical check|
As the miles clicked away I was happy that I never really slipped into any type of low patch. I was starting to chafe a bit, but it was nothing serious (yet....) and I just kept plugging away. It just a hair under 3 hours until I arrived at Camp 10 Bear at mile 47.6. It was 12:10 and I had covered almost half the course in 8 hours and 10 minutes. I was over one hour ahead of my planned time and I felt great. I got checked in by the medical staff, where I weighed 2lbs less than my starting weight. That was a good sign that I was staying properly hydrated. With the usual drill of two new bottles, a Vespa and some new gels I was on my way out for more.
I don't remember much about the next 11.5 miles except that somewhere along the way I got hit with a huge wave of nausea. I thought for sure this would finally be the first time I've thrown up in a race, but nope, it didn't happen. After a few dry heaves I felt better. It was strange and I was grateful to not have to deal with being sick. As I arrived at the Seven Seas station, mile 59.1 I decided that I needed some real food. I ate some brown rice with tofu and avocado and felt much better. My crew got me out in 2 minutes and then made the mad dash to the next handler station, the famous Margaritaville. It was only 3.4 miles away for me to run but it was 17 miles of driving for the crew to get there. When I got into the station they were just pulling in.
|Wet macerated feet|
Here is where I made the decision to take a bit longer than normal and fix some issues. Since my feet had been wet from the trails for hours and hours, they were starting to get macerated. The military calls this condition "swamp foot" and if not addressed it can be extremely painful as the waterlogged creases on the bottom of your feet start to blister. I took my shoes off then rinsed, washed and dried them. I changed the insoles for dry ones and powdered the hell out of my feet to absorb any moisture. I put on a dry pair of Wright Socks and was ready to go. Since the chafe was starting to get pretty bad too (you really don't want more details on where I was chaffing...), I decided to change my shorts as well. After everything was done I had spent 8 minutes, my longest stop of the race.
|Feeling much better after dry socks and new shorts|
I'm convinced that it was one of the smartest moves I made all day. Although I was starting to get pretty tired I felt like a new man with clean dry shorts and shoes. The new shorts didn't eliminate the chaffing, but it did improve it. Sometimes the little things make a huge difference when you are so raw.
The next 8 miles felt great. Mentally I was super excited. Last year this stretch is where everything fell apart for me. This year I was cranking. There are some long downhill stretches and I felt like I was flying. I was trying to preserve my quads, but I also knew that if I wanted to break 20 hours I needed to take advantage of these quicker parts because the last 30 have lots of hills and are slow.
I pulled in to Camp 10 Bear, mile 70.5 in high spirits at 4:41pm and was super psyched to be there so early in the afternoon. I lubed the chaffe, ate some more rice and tofu, drank a Vespa, and got new bottles and gels. I was out in 2 minutes accompanied by Matt Wilson, my pacer for the last 30 miles.
|Matt at Western States this year (Photo Luis Escobar)|
I actually have not used a pacer in over 2 years. And I had no plans on doing so here. In the few days leading up to the race Jack emailed me explaining that Matt was coming up all the way from PA to pace me and that he was a great guy was had just run Western States in a little over 20 hours. Jack said that he would kick my ass to the finish line and get me home in under 20 hours. Frankly I was a little bit reluctant and told Jack, thanks, but no thanks. But it seemed that he wouldn't take no for an answer. It sounded like a recipe for disaster to me. At the same time, I am learning that the Universe answers all requests and provides us with all the resources we need to achieve our wants and needs. It's up to us to choose to recognize those gifts or ignore them. I decided that this must be one of those occasions and gave in to the fact that Matt was going to pace me. As I'll explain, I'm glad I did.
As Matt and I got to know each other a bit better I found him to be very easy to talk to. I was actually a bit intimidated by him because he is such a strong runner. I wanted to be strong and run well even though I was getting tired. I tried my best not to whine too much, but I have to admit I did so a bit. Matt was super good about watching our average pace and keeping me moving in the areas that were flat or downhill. The nice part was that he wasn't sharing with me the actual math, he was just telling me if we were on pace or not. When I did have to hike up the steep hills he was very reassuring by telling me that we were still moving well and on track.
|Tired and confused at mile 77|
We next saw the crew at the Spirit of 76 aid station (mile 77.4) and we actually ran the steep hill that comes into the station. It was still light out and it was only 6:09pm. One of my stretch goals was to make it to Bills Barn, mile 89 in the light, which I've never done before. Now I had about 2 1/2 hours to try to accomplish that, but I was starting to get pretty tired. We were at the station for less than 2 minutes, did the usual bottles, Vespa, etc and headed out.
|70% hardpacked VT roads = sore feet|
My Altra Torin shoes were working great, but the pounding of the hard packed roads was starting to get to me. Matt was wearing Hokas and we talked a bit about shoes. I decided that I would change into my Hokas at Bills for the final stretch once we got there. This thought kept me going as we continued to pound out the miles.
This stretch has lots of very steep hills that are not runnable for me when I'm this tired. I concentrated on power walking at a brisk pace and found that I was starting to catch people. About a mile before Bills, while going up a miserably steep road I passed Bob Ayers from Vt. Bob is a super nice guy and incredibly strong runner. He was gracious and told me that I was doing great and I needed to enjoy the good ones when they happened. Seeing him picked up my spirits a bit. I've never been even close to him at any race. It was a good sign for me that I was moving well.
Shortly after I passed the early woman's leader (who was now in second place ), Traci Falbo. She was struggling a bit. As I went by I said "Welcome to VT, these hills are brutal aren't they?" She was in no mood to talk and gave me a look like she wanted to kill me. I later apologized explaining that I was just trying to keep things light, but she was in no mood to engage with me. I didn't take it personally. When you are doing one of these races and in a bad spot you are incredibly raw.
Shortly after the top of the hill, with Bills in sight, I saw my friend Adam Wilcox for the first time. I didn't realize it was him as the sun was just starting to go down. He was facing a tree with both hands resting on it and had one foot lifted up behind him. His pacer, my other friend Ryan Welts, was removing his sock and shoe to remove what Adam thought was a pebble in his sock. It turns out there was nothing there, but the blisters felt like a pebble and they were trying to fix it. Adam seemed a little surprised to see me and not really that happy about his situation. I could tell he was hurting, but he wouldn't admit it to me. I wished him luck and kept going.
|Bills Barn, mile 89|
I was elated to get into Bills while it was still light out!! It was 8:28pm and I had now run 89 miles in 16 hours 28 minutes. Matt went ahead to tell the crew that I needed my Hokas. As I was approaching the station I saw our car and stopped to see if my Hokas were there. That way they didn't have to run back to the car to get them. I looked in my shoe bag and they weren't there so I assumed they had them with them and headed in.
|Jeremy, keeping everybody entertained.|
When I arrived I weighed in at one pound over starting weight and medical cleared me to keep on. I went over to the crew to discover that they did not have my Hokas. As I took off my socks and washed and prepped my feet Jeremy went on a mad sprinting dash to get the shoes. I lost zero time as he had them back before I had my new socks on. He was breathing hard and said, how the hell do you do that for 100 miles?? I only wish that I could run that fast for 100 miles!!!
On top of the shoe change, I got my usual bottles, Vespa etc. I also did my best to try to fix the chaffing which now was starting to get pretty bad. Amy keeps notes from each station and for here they say "Surprise!, flying!, ready to kick ass". Matt and I headed out excited that only 11 miles stood before me and the finish line.
|Heading out of Bills, with Hokas on feet.|
The next 6 miles to the last handler station, Polly's (mile 95.9) were tough. I was struggling to run even when it was flat and I was walking more than I wanted to. My chaffing was killing me, so much so that I took off my shirt and stuffed it down my shorts to create a barrier between my thighs and my ....never mind.... My makeshift repair did make it a bit better and I was just trying to stay focused and get through the pain. The entire time Matt kept being extremely supportive letting me know that we were way ahead of the 20 hour goal and prodded me to get into a running shuffle as much as possible.
|Trying to eat quickly and get the hell out of the aid station|
I got to Pollys at 10:05pm, 18 hours and 5 minutes into the race. Now I only had 4.1 miles to finish. I remembered this section as pretty slow and tough, but it actually had more flat and downhill than I remembered. For the next two miles I was doing the math and realizing that I had a real possibility to break my all time PR for a 100 mile race of 19:19. When Matt and I came upon the 2 miles to go sign I looked at my watch. It was 10:35pm. If I could do the last two miles in under 25 minutes I could break 19 hours!!
Matt and I had actually run these miles on Friday before weigh in and I knew what they were like in the day. They were hilly, but certainly runable. I looked at Matt and said, "Lets go get a PR!" Matt said "Hell yes, let's do this!" and I took off like a bat out of hell. As I went flying down the trail, through the muddiest part of the course I started passing people. We went by at least 3 runners with their pacers, two of which we actually startled because we were running so fast!
As I went by Adam and Ryan, whom had passed me a bit earlier, they were supportive and gave me words of encouragement. But I know Adam's fierce sense of competitiveness and was running scared, positive that he would come flying back by me. But nobody did. I ran the last two miles in 18 minutes and crossed the finish line in 18 hours and 53 minutes. I was floored when I learned that I had also finished in 9th place. 9th place!!! I never dreamed that I could do that at such a competitive event.
|Crossing the line|
|Matt and I at the fnish|
|It's official - 18:53:56 and 9th place (2nd in age group)|
|Now the pain begins...|
As I sat down in a chair the intense pain in my legs took over and an incredible wave of nausea overtook me as well. I was sure I was going to throw up and even told Amy to move her feet as I was going to lose it. After moaning and groaning a bit, the crew decided that I should go to the medical tent to lay in a cot for a bit. I was shivering uncontrollably. The extent of the chaffing became evident as the adrenaline wore off and the pain set in. But I don't think any amount of pain could overshadow the feeling of accomplishment.
|Special "Top Ten" Buckle|
|Standing with the fast crowd!|
The next day at the awards ceremony I got to stand with the top ten. I was pretty honored to be up there with such runners as Ian Sharman, Brian Rusiecki, Nick Clark, Jason Lantz and of course my good friend Adam Wilcox, whom I knew would be top 10.
It was an incredible day. And I would not have been able to do it without Amy, Barry, Jeremy, Matt and Coach Jack. A million thank you's go out to them and everybody else who has been so supportive of this endeavor. Success is that much sweeter after failure, and I learned that the saying "Never give up" really holds pays off in the end.
Stats for the day:
Shoes - Brooks Pure Grit II - first 22 miles, Altra Torin - 66 miles, Hoka Bondi Speed - last 11 miles.
Socks - Write Sock cool mesh - 2 pairs
Gold Bond Powder - in socks and on feet after cleaning them
Shorts - Brooks
Shirt - Columbia Omni Freeze cooling shirt
Food: Vespa CV-25 - 8 Pouches, Vfuel gels - about 10, Hammer Sustained Energy - 9 bottles (3 scoops per bottle), 9 Perpetuem solids and about a cup of brown rice with avacado and tofu.