Strap in, this is a long one.
One of the primary reasons for this site is to help others gain some insight on races that will help in their preparation. I did a ton of research for the VT50 but still felt like there is a lot of very useful information to pass along. On top of that, there's plenty to talk about from the racing perspective and being my first race over 13.1 miles, there was a lot of unknown.
The packet pickup was the day before the race which affected where we (Hilary, Squall, and I) decided to stay. We could have stayed 45 minutes out at Hilary's parent's house but adding the 45 minutes each way just for the registration sounded like wasted time. Fortunately we had friends who lived right in Brownsville, 1.9 miles from the start (read the travel/rego day post). We thought camping would be a good idea, but as it turned out camping is a bad idea if you want a good night's sleep. Every critter in a two mile radius was audible. First it was dogs barking, then a pack of coyotes, then an owl, and finally a cow moo'ing into the early morning. Camping always sounds like a great idea but I've found I rarely sleep well outside. Squall was also moving from Hilary's tent to my tent and snoring in my face. Get a bed, you might not be able to sleep off the nerves but at least you'll have a fighting chance.
I got up at 5am after a restless night. We had eggs and coffee at the house and left for the mountain at 5:20. Cars were backed up entering the access road but things moved along quite well. We were a little late for the 5:30 mandatory briefing but that got started a little late too. The only important info was to follow the pink signs with the black arrow if you were doing the 50 mile course. We walked back to the car and I started getting dressed, something I probably should have done back at the house. It took a little longer to get ready than I allowed for - body gliding, cleaning out the shoes/socks, getting my HR monitor and watch going, picking out my nutrition to bring with me and what to give to Hilary, brushing my teeth, more body glide, fixing my socks, last drinks of water, and last bathroom break. I made it to the start at 6:29 with a minute to spare. I gave Hilary my coat and shuffled up to the front of the pack. 6:30 we were gone.
A lead pack was formed almost instantly. I was in 12th place or so just after the first mile before any sort of climbing begins. My first mile was 7:18, too fast in hindsight but with the cool weather and adrenaline, it's really hard to pace. As we turned on to Coon Club Road (~2 miles), we passed our first biker. There were only a few stragglers before the first aid station. Coon Club Road continued to roll but mostly climb until it turned to Hunt Road and then we reached the first aid station. The lead pack was now nine runners and they were about 45 seconds ahead as they turned left up to the first off-road climb. I opted to run with an empty water bottle and fill it at the aid station which was a good idea but I dropped the water bottle just before it topped off and had to start over again. My hands were clearly still cold from the sub 40 degree start - most aid stations have volunteers with pitchers pouring either Gatorade or water which is a quick fill up but using the water cooler spout was pretty slow.
I need to rewind for a second a give a little attention to how perfect the running weather and conditions were for this race. It was cool at the start but with arm warmers and a hat I was completely comfortable although gloves would have been a nice addition. There was a cool fog layer at the lower elevations that gave an extra Vermont'ness to the already beautiful landscape. I had a gopro ready at the start but it had a dead battery (too cold?) which was a shame because there were a ton of amazing photo opportunities early on. In hindsight, I should have brought my phone and handed off to Hilary at Skunk Hollow.
On the uphill section after the first aid station the mountain bikers started to pile up, walking their bikes up the ATV / Snowmobile trail which was about two miles of up / down / up before turning on to Weeden Hill Road. One thing I wish someone prepared me for was the treasure hunt of free gear that bikers would lose throughout the race. Lights, tools, nutrition, water bottles... Some great finds out there that are worth the extra second to pick up and drop off with your support crew. The Weeden Hill descent was fast, too fast. A 6:30 mile was completely unnecessary at this point in the race. You definitely don't feel the effects of quad-pounding within the first 15 miles but you 100% will soon after. The next aid station (8.1 miles) was partway up a hill (paved) just after the descent. I took a piece of banana to supplement my steady supply of gels (every 20-30 minutes). I caught a 50 miler just up from this station and kept pushing the pace. The next aid station was four miles away and mostly non-technical trail. During this stretch I had three sub-8 miles which again, were too fast but I wanted to be at the next aid station (Skunk Hollow) by 8am. When I came into mile 12, I saw Hilary but rashly opted to push through because the aid station was packed and off the trail a little. That must have been a little disappointing to wait all that time just to see me for 15 seconds. I really should have stopped for 15 seconds to say hi but clearly I was in race mode early on. I had 10oz of water to get me to the next aid station which worried me but the conditions were still so cool that I kept my arm warmers and hat.
Skunk Hollow to Garvin Hill was textbook Vermont. Mostly all of it was on dirt roads passing through rolling farmland with big red barns and plenty of cows. It went by fairly quickly but this is where some red flags began to surface. Somewhere in this section, just after mile 14, the course turns a sharp right onto Weed Road. I felt a pre-cursor cramp in my left quad. Not a full cramp but just a twinge that lets you know what's in store. Before this I my hip flexors already felt the strained from all the uphill. The downhill pounding early on set my quads up for a miserable back half of the race. During this section though I caught up to another 50 miler, Tim Whiton. I chased him up the next series of hills and talked to him briefly after he pulled off for a bathroom break. The climb to Garvin Hill isn't too bad but still climbs over 1,000 feet. The Garvin Aid station wasn't at the top of the Hill like I thought it might have been, but it was just as we turned off the actual road. I was out of water at this point and we were now above the fog layer and in the sun so I was ready for it. I also grabbed a few Fig Newtons and ate those on the run. Tim was right there with me and I saw he opted for the Oreos. We climbed a few switchbacks up and over Garvin Hill pasture. It was awesome to look down on the fog layer below and run through the maple syrup farm. We descended on more trails and dirt roads leading us down to Cady Brook. At the Cady Brook aid station I took down a few Cokes/Mountain Dew cups and topped off my Gatorade. The climb out of this aid station (mile 22.2) is where you will know if you went out too hard and I quickly found out the answer. YES. The climb out wasn't anything steep but just kept going up and up. There is a downhill section but that's easily overshadowed by the second climbing section before you hit the Margaritaville aid station (26.5 miles) on Reeves Road. Here you meet up with the 50k'ers for the first time. There was some music playing, bikers getting photos in front of the farmland, people getting festive, but I just got my gatorade, some chips, and kept moving. Tim had already put a solid gap on me - five minutes - and I was really starting to feel worked. It's another 4.8 miles to the next aid station where Hilary was waiting for me. I had to laugh a little when I realized at this point I had ran my first marathon distance. Sure I had run/hiked the Pemi Loop but that involved a lot of hiking whereas this was all running up to this point. I focused on that next aid station but just leaving M'ville, I was passed by two 50 milers. I was blown away how strong one of them looked - Eric Wyler. He was walking the uphill then running 8 min/mi pace when it flattened again. I caught the other guy he was with and never saw him again but I also never saw Eric again because he held his pace to a stout second place finish.
The course starts to hit some more singletrack which I completely underestimated going into the race. It's slow, it's demanding, and wears you down. You have to constantly be aware of bikers and move out of the way on the downhills then pass them again on the uphills. A constant yo-yo that in some ways helps divert your attention from your growing fatigue. At mile 30 I was ready to be done. My legs were very tired and my pace was slowly starting to drop. I was no longer able to open it up on downhill sections to make up for the slower uphill pace. I kept drinking and eating into the next aid station.
I was greeted by Hilary's mom who let me know that Hilary was just to the right in front of the aid station. She had some gels laid out for me along with a fresh green singlet to replace my black one. I said hi, told her that I couldn't believe I was at 30 miles and she let me know I was around 10th place. That gave me a little boost as I went over to the aid station table and drank more soda, filled up my bottle, and grabbed a handful of S!Caps. Now, I'm not 100% that the S!Caps really did anything. I still had small battles with cramps although nothing serious, but the cramping I experience was definitely more from lack of fitness than lack of electrolytes. Hilary said that I was "limping" into the aid station, meaning my gait was off. I thought this was interesting because sure I was tired but I didn't think my gait had changed much but clearly it had.
Blood Hill was the next section. Relentless trail full of climbs and switchbacks. Again, this is non-technical but I really started to feel it here and I think this section is the crux of the race. I caught up to another runner on this Hill - Jeff Mogavero - who I "inch wormed" with for the next 15 miles. Every time I caught him, he would pull away. I also had my first fall - causing a full lower body cramp. This is the worst and happened to me several times on the Pemi Loop. Just when you thought the switchbacks were going to end, you'd climb up and down into some more. There was a house blasting music and had kindly placed a cooler near the course offering free beer. I politely declined.
Finally, I got to the next aid station, Fallon's (36.2 miles), in just over five hours. Here I ran into a familiar face, Andrew Thompson who I had met earlier this summer while crewing for Scott Jurek. He quickly pointed out that I had a bloody nipple and told me to duct tape it. I opted for some Vaseline because I knew tape wasn't going to stick. It wasn't a good look, guys - tape your nips!
The next aid station was nearly four miles away but I was fading. The outside of my left calf was intermittently cramping up and any downhill rocked my quads. I did everything I could to keep moving. I caught up to Jeff again and we both passed Jeff Colt, who was in 3rd place through 34 miles when he blew up. This brings me to another learning experience - miles 30+ you never know who is going to have a bad day - get lost, injured, or just slow way down, which makes it so unpredictable how you'll place. I don't remember much from miles 36 through 40. We climbed 1.5 miles of winding trail to get back on dirt roads which continued almost all the way to Stones aid station (40 miles).
At Stones it was a little nerve wracking. This was the second to last aid station, the last being seven miles away - the longest aid station gap of the race at hottest time of day and the most tiring. I took down some more soda and a shot of pickle juice to help with the cramps (didn't do anything except leave a bad taste in my mouth). I grabbed some pretzels and headed out. Here I started to play mental games - only letting myself drink when a mile passed, counting my breaths, and reminding myself how close I was to the finish. This section never let up, more singletrack. There were a few exposed sections in fields but it was never uncomfortably hot. I had taken my singlet off too since I didn't like the bloody nipple look and wrapped it around my waist. I saw Jeff as we weaved through the woods and tried to focus on pulling him in. Meanwhile, I looked back in an open field section not long before the last aid station and Tim Whiton was running hard not far behind me. He ended up passing me and said that he missed a turn and ended up doing an extra couple miles on Rush Meadow Road around Mile 28. He was clearly running angry and lost about 20 minutes. Jeff, Tim, and I all came into the last aid station together and it was nice to finally taste the finish. I told Jeff there was one last climb but he was done. He told me to go chase Tim and he fell back. Tim had already taken off and I never saw him on the climbing section which turned out to be fairly mellow although the last couple miles really dragged. The 2.5, 2, 1.5, and 1 mile signs constantly reminding you how far you had left didn't help either! After the climb it's sidehill trail all the way to the ski slope where you catch views of the finish as you zig-zag your way down. I saw Tim pop out down below but there was no chance of catching him. It was frustrating not being able to run this section fast, instead I hobbled around the turns and tried to run the straight sections.
I looked at my watch, 7:28. I knew I could get sub 7:30 and just pushed hard all the way through the finishing corral. Some kind bikers behind me let me finish alone and I was pleased to hold on for 6th place. I went straight to the refreshments table and put back some watermelon and peanut butter on bread. It didn't take long for my legs to stiffen up and I was restricted to broken shuffle, barely able to get down or off the ground. There was band playing and Hilary and her mom were there to help me out as well. I've never had that sort of muscle soreness before. It was deep and to the core. Hilary's mom had to go but Hilary and I hung around for awards and got some food and talked to Eric Wyler and Tim Whiton. The awards for age groupers kept getting delayed so we asked the RD if we could get our maple syrup and leave which he kindly let us do. I hobbled up the hill to the parking lot, learning how important hip flexors are. We went back to the Brown's and I took a shower while Hilary broke down camp. We said goodbye and headed to Woodstock for a monster dinner at The Worthy Burger. The car ride home absolutely petrified my legs. When we got back home I couldn't lift my right leg and barely made it up the stairs to bed. The morning wasn't much better but within 24 hours I was moving around fine and will probably run again soon!
A few things I learned about this race:
- Find a goal time and try to run an even pace. Ultras are no different than other road races. If you go out too hard you'll pay for it. I think if I had slowed down by 15 minutes on the front end, I could have made up 30 minutes on the back end which would have landed me on the podium. Eric Wyler was a perfect example of running with patience which only comes with experience.
- The singletrack trail demands respect. It's slow and while not technical, it requires some level of agility and wears you down. It's also difficult to maneuver around bikes and other runners. And there's a lot of it (67%).
- Don't be afraid to pick up stuff on the trail. I grabbed some wrappers and other items and dropped them off at the aid station.
- Tape your nipples!
- Get a good aid station routine. For me it was fill up on gatorade (sometimes I could hand this off to a volunteer while I drank from the table). And don't waste time there, get in and get out.
- I never quite rebounded from my lows like I thought I might, instead I went from "low" to "not as low".
- Thank anyone and everyone. The volunteers were awesome and took care of all the racers. I appreciated all of the support throughout the race.
- Nutrition was never an issue. I found it pretty easy to take gels with some regular food from the aid stations. I also had a couple honey stinger waffles which I don't really enjoy on the run but were solid.
- I wore Hoka Cliftons that had around 60 miles on them before the race. They were great for this type of race and my feet look great. I think you could get away with pretty much any shoe on this course - the trails were very soft and forgiving so maybe a little lighter if possible.
- I never felt tired during the race - I spent the previous week waking up at 5am to prepare for the early start and I think it worked well.
- All GPS data is going to fall a little short because of the singletrack. Just keep that in mind when arriving at the aid stations and the mileage on your watch doesn't match up.