....I did it again. I ran another 50 miler this past weekend. And man am I paying for it.
Last month I ran the Vermont 50 and was very pleased with the course and my results. I was hoping to get in one last Ultra run before I head off to the frozen tundra this Thanksgiving. After looking over my options for a late October race, I really didn't have that many choices.
I stumbled across the peakraces website and found out about this "tough" endurance run up in Pittsfield, VT appropriately named the "Funeral Run". It features a 50 miler, 100 miler, and yes...even a 200 miler. (now that is insane). When I signed up to run it, there were only 8 other people signed up so I wasn't even sure it was still going to happen.
I got an email from the director "Sherpa John" letting me know that indeed the race was on, and to expect cool temps. So it was official.
On saturday morning, I again headed up to Vermont by way of another 7 hour drive. I booked a room at the Killington Motel. Incidentally this was the same motel I stayed in while passing through on my thru-hike. The folks there gave me a discounted rate, so I was glad they had a room.
Races started from Amee Farm in Pittsfield VT. People had a small campsite set up with a roaring bonfire going all weekend long for the ultra-runners. I stopped in and picked up my packet, and met some of the other runners (including Andy and Sherpa John: The race directors). It was at this point that they warned me about the 12 hour cutoff. They told me that the course had over 16,000 feet of elevation gain. Let me say that again.....16 THOUSAND FEET of elevation gain......and that the 50 mile split times for the 100 milers was about 16 hours. Yikes. This would mean that it would be VERY difficult to finish in the 12 hour time limit. For those of you wondering just how much elevation gain that is....well it's equivalent to climbing Mt. Katahdin four times in a row. The course was a 12.5 mile loop (repeated 4 times), with some insane climbs. They told me that there was an alternative 50 mile route, but that it was mostly road running. I opted for the trail course, and simply told them that if I only get in three laps...no big deal.
Not knowing how they were dealing with the daylight savings time, I showed up to start at 5:00 am. I figured I'd better be early than late. I started running at 5:16 am after getting a morning route description.
The Race Part 1 (Getting Lost):
I was specifically told three things from Sherpa John the race director right before I started. He said, "follow the cones out of here", "when you get to the bridge at the bottom of the hill, turn right", "and follow the yellow pie plates and pink ribbons". Of course it was very dark at this point, and all I had was a measly headlamp. Pumped up and excited I headed away from the aid station and said "Mark me down as starting". It was 5:16 and about 25 degrees F. Before I even got on the course I made my first wrong turn. I headed into the adjacent field thinking it was the course. The cones were slightly confusing. Here I was 2 minutes into the race, and I wasn't even on the course yet. DOH! I trotted back to the start and feeling stupid was shown where the course went down the hill, and not into the field.
ok...so now I was off. (losing only 2 minutes). I headed down the hill and caught a glimpse of my first yellow pie plate with a nice black arrow on it pointing in the course direction. I made my way over a small wooden bridge that ran over a creek and thought, "crap...is this the bridge he was talking about?" The course ended up going right regardless, so I figured it must be. I got a little further and there was a three way intersection in an open field area. I saw a pie plate with an arrow plainly pointing to the right. I turned and headed down the dirt/jeep road. After about 10 minutes of running, I popped out into an open field with no markings of anywhere. I realized I hadn't seen any pie plates or pink ribbons since the last intersection and....very frustrated....assumed I screwed up again. I raced back to the first intersection to where the last pie plate was. It was then that I realized that it was clipped to a branch that had bent over due to the frost that had built up on it. Because of this, it was pointing in the wrong direction. Once I lifted it up, I realized the course actually went straight up and to the left. DOOOOH! It was now 5:40 and I was now basically starting. It was also beginning to get a little light out at this point too, so pink ribbon were starting to jump out at me. I went up ahead, turned a corner, and sure enough there it was....a big honkin' bridge crossing the river. I knew immediately this was the bridge that Sherpa was talking about. I crossed over it and saw the yellow plate indicating a right turn. I sighed a big sigh of relief and decided to not let the last 25 wasted minutes get to me.
The Race Part 2 (First Half of Loop 1):
The course was a 12.5 mile loop that I was supposed to repeat 4 times. All I knew about it was that it each loop had 4000 ft of elevation gain, and that it summited two peaks. (with lots of unnecessary ups and downs). At mile 6, there was supposed to be an aid station, and then at the end of each loop, I was supposed to check in at the start before doing the next loop. At the end of the loop (approx mile 12), the trail actually comes in at the bridge crossing, so finishing a loop requires running the 1/2 mile back to the start from the bridge. The first mile had some moderate climbs by way of about 10 switchbacks. It wasn't too bad. I power hiked the ups and was jogging at a good clip along the flats and downs. At about mile 2, the trail pops out into a huge field. the course goes around the perimeter of the field for about a half mile and re-enters the woods on the other side. Mile 2 to 3 had some flat sections as well as some moderate climbs. It was from about Mile 3 to Mile 4 that had me running/hiking about 1000 feet straight up. It was a long, tough climb. The trail finally pops out on the top of the unofficially named "Joe's Hill". From here the course twists and winds around the summit for another mile or so. This section was probably my favorite part of the whole course. The trail snaked through a pine forest...it was quite breathtaking. It was here that I met my first runner. A woman named Jennifer who had come down from Ontario Canada to run the 50. She actually started at about 2:00 am just to make sure she would finish on time. She was 4.5 miles into her second loop. I was clipping along pretty quick trying to make up for time I lost at the beginning so I went ahead of her. Mile 5 to 6 was pretty much flat and ended with about 15 steep downhill switchbacks. Around Mile 6, the trail popped out onto a gravel road and turned left up the road. A few hundred feet up the road, I saw the aid station tent appear and was relieved that I was still on the course and that some food was about to hit my belly. I walked up and talked with the volunteers for a while and filled up on a sandwich, a soda, and some other snacks. I popped a salt pill, and headed out.
The Race Part 3 (2nd Half of Loop 1)
The first mile or so out of the aid station wasn't too bad. The trail gradually climbed by way of several switchbacks, eventually heading back to the summit of "Joe's Hill". The climbs were so slight, that I didn't need to walk them and held to a slow jog. Somewhere around mile 8, the trail topped out right near the pine forest that I had run through earlier at mile 4. From this point the trail descended down the front of the mountain for over a mile or so. This was a great section to run at a good clip and make up some time. Somewhere around mile 9, the I was greeted by a nice climb of about 600-700 feet. It was steep, but relatively short (maybe 1/2 mile tops). Following this climb, the trail snaked through the woods staying mostly level, with a few small climbs and descents. Somewhere around mile 10 though, the trail took an extremely steep 500 foot drop. It was so steep and slippery in some spots, that I had to stop and walk, or risk falling on my ass. Immediately upon reaching the bottom of this descent, the trail turns right back around and climbs for almost a mile. This was by far the toughest mile on the trail. It seemed that the hill would never end. Every time you came to a corner and thought, "oh thank god, it's over", you saw another climb ahead. At mile 11 or so, the trail finally leveled out, and then quickly dropped down the side of the mountain about 800-1000 feet until it finally bottomed out at a forest service road. For about a half mile, the trail followed the FS road, and turned down one final hill back to the starting bridge. I crossed over it and headed the final 1/2 mile back to the start with my first "loop" in hand. I checked my time and was at about 3 hrs 5 minutes. I figured that this wasn't too bad considering I lost about 25 minutes at the beginning. I also ran way too hard though throughout the first lap trying to make up time. I was wearing a heart monitor watch (Polar RS100) and it had warned me several times on the first loop that my heart rate was too high. I figured that if I slowed it down a little for the next three laps, I should be able to do them each in about 3 hrs. I made the last little climb up to the starting aid station and checked in officially with a time of 3hrs 9 minutes. I grabbed a bunch of food, ditched my winter hat in favor of a headsweats cap, and spent a few minutes talking with Sherpa John. It was nice to take a break. That last climb at mile 10 had really kicked my ass. I felt much better about the upcoming loop, since I'd now survived it once, and knew what to expect. I said my goodbyes, and heading out for my 2nd loop.
The Race Part 4 (Loops 2, 3 and 4)
The second loop started off much better than the first. I kept a strong pace through the first several miles until the big climb up to Joe's Hill. It was here that I realized I was catching up to another runner. I stayed behind him for the next few miles, and finally caught him at the aid station. He introduced himself as Austin, and told me that he was also on his 2nd loop of the 50 miler (his first 50!), and had started about 30 minutes before me earlier in the morning. Also at the aid station, was Randy....a 100 miler. He was in his 8 and final loop of the 100 mile endurance run and was utterly wrecked. He literally had run 93.5 miles, and had only 6.5 miles to go. Crazy! I headed out with them both from the aid station, but eventually built a big lead on them. The 2nd loop finished up without incident and I eventually made my way to the start aid station with 25 miles under my belt now. I checked in, ate a ton of food, and gooped up my feet with some Sportslick. The steep hills were starting to give me hot spots on the bottoms of my feet. I considered also changing my socks, but decided to go one more loop with the current pair. I had finished the 2nd loop in about 2 hrs 50 minutes, so I was literally right at 6 hours. I said my goodbyes yet again, and started loop 3. The next 12.5 miles went along very quickly. Of all the loops, this was probably the best in terms of overall satisfaction. I was feeling really good at this point, it was early afteroon...so the sun was shining (but still cool), and the air had that fall smell to it. I also didn't see a single other runner until mile 11.5 when I came out at the Forest Service road and saw a 100 miler named Ri. Turns out that Ri was finishing his last loop of his 100 miler (literally 1 mile to go) and was actually going to win $10,000 because of it. Apparently, Peak Races (the sponsor of the ultras) had put on 6 races throughout the year with a purse challenge. The rule was simple: Any runner who completes all 6 races, with the most points (based on finishes) wins. Ri was the only guy who actually ran all 6, so he won by default! Now that's funny. He had 3 pacers running with him, and there were people waiting along the trail for the entire last mile to cheer him on. It was pretty exciting. I passed him and made it back to the start for the 3rd time. After loading up on fluids and food, I changed my socks out and said my goodbyes one last time to the crew. Just as I was about to leave, Ri came strolling in to a bunch of crazy cheering people. It was great. 100 miles! What an accomplishment. I shook his hand, yelled over to Sherpa that I was starting my last lap and headed out with an overall time right at 9 hrs. I had 3 hrs to finish my last lap to make my goal of 12 hrs. (and technically the official cutoff). I made sure to grab my headlamp, just in case it started to get dark on my last loop. The first half of the last loop went by extremely fast.Just before reaching the aid station, I actually caught up to Jennifer again, who was also in her last lap. Apparently, I had actually lapped her. When I got the aid station, we thanked the volunteers for all their time and support, and I had one last PB&J sandwich. I wished Jennifer good luck and told her I was determined to finish in 12 hours and I was still on pace to do it....if, I busted ass the last 6 miles. I flew through last part of the last loop and made it to the forest service road at about 5:00. Because of the daylight savings change, it was starting to get dark. I had 16 minutes to make it to the finish to break 12 hrs. I decided to muster up what I could, and turned on what little juice I had left.
I raced down the forest road at a good clip, determined to break 12 hours, and to not use my headlamp. I made the last downhill turn to the bridge and checked my watch one last time. It said 5:08....I had 8 minutes to finish. My watch was beeping like crazy telling me that my heart rate was too high....I didn't care.
I flew through the last half mile, and popped out at the bottom of the last hill at about 5:12. I tore up it yelling like a giddy school kid....and collapsed next to the fire, letting out a big howl. I realized that I was in such a hurry the last 1/2 mile, that I never used my headlamp, and basically ran in the dark. After catching my breath I asked Andy....so did I break 12 hrs? He responded,
"Sorry man, you just missed it...........no I'm kidding, you're time was 11:56"
What a great run I thought. Perfect weather, great aid stations, and good people. I waited by the bonfire for the last two runners (Jennifer and Austin) to finish up. I met another couple from Canada who also ran the 50 but who finished up about an hour earlier. Apparently I passed them after my first lap at the starting aid station when they were finishing lap 2.
They told me about how they all drove down together and made it into a road trip adventure as well. I was offered some food and also told where there were heated bathrooms if I wanted to clean up and change....which I did immediately!
Within the next 40 minutes or so, both Jennifer, and Austin finished up to all of us hootin' and hollerin'. It was a grand finish to a great weekend. I got in my car with a plan to drive as far as I could until I got tired and ended up driving all the way home. For finishing the race, instead of an award or belt buckle, they gave us giant hickory hammers with the inscription "Peak Finisher" burned into the side. I thought it was unique...as well as pretty darn hardcore. Thanks Sherpa John for a great race, and a great weekend. I hope to see you at a lot of Peak Races next year!
The next day, I took a picture of my Brooks running shoes just to show how destroyed they got from the whole experience. (see below)