Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Better Late than Never? A Vermont 100 Race Report

To say that I fell behind on updating the blog would be an understatement. It turns out that there are many other things to do than blog. But, at long last, I’m going to provide some race reports…better late than never, right?

The Vermont 100 was my third 100 miler. My training for Vermont went pretty well: I mostly ignored my still-present high hamstring pull (despite the best efforts of my friends at Balanced to convince me to do otherwise) and got in a good number – at least, by my standards, of miles. It helped that I didn’t teach during the Spring 2011 semester; that I have a husband who was willing to take a lot of early-morning kids’ duty; and that several other Trailheads also were running Vermont. By April, I was consistently doing 80 miles per week, more than I’ve ever trained; and I logged 101 miles during my final high mileage week. (I probably should have worried about how exhausted I was at the end of a week of 100 miles – and I was hoping to run 100 miles in less than a day?).

What I didn’t do was pay much attention to information about the Vermont course. I did eventually look at data from previous races in order to calculate some splits, but I didn’t pay much attention to the course description. Specifically, I didn’t think about how the runnable nature of the course – lots of wide trail or fire road, and lots of rolling hills – might tempt me to go out to fast, and then leave me beaten up in the later part of the race. Sure, I couldn’t do anything to change the course, but it might have been a good idea to think a bit more about how to run on that sort of terrain, since my first two hundreds were quite different from Vermont.

Vermont was the first 100 that my little girls would attend, and I was really excited to have them on hand. We made a family road trip to Vermont, stopping a couple times along the way before ending up with friends who live about 45 minutes from the race site. Our friends were incredibly generous, going above and beyond the usual hospitality by taking care of the girls during a big part of the race so that my husband could pace me for the last portion of it.

On Friday afternoon, we headed for the race briefing, where we met up with the other Chapel Hill/Carrboro folks who were running the race. There were five of us running, part of the (alleged) retirement tour for Ringo. He had done his first 100 at Vermont, and the 2011 Vermont race would be his 20th 100 mile finish (with no DNFs). His wife and all three of their daughters were on hand for the event, as were various other spouses, Trailheads and friends. We had a wonderful dinner at a house not far from the race start, and then all tucked in for an early morning start.

I was anxious to get going, and happy when the 4am start arrived. My hope was to run between 20 and 21 hours – ambitious, but it seemed within reach given the terrain (not as tough as my first two 100s) and given my fitness. Things started out reasonably well, and I was happy to run the first 15 or so miles with Icarus, another of the Trailheads. We had pulled away from our other friends, but I felt good and didn’t worry too much about it. As the sun came up, we were treated to some lovely views of rolling hills and farmland, as well as to a run through a nice covered bridge (since washed away). I wore my La Sportiva Quantums for the race, and they were just right: enough cushioning for the short road sections and the many fire road sections, but also enough grip and stability for the more technical single track sections. I had done lots of training miles in the Quantums, and I really liked their feel and their fit (and, as a woman who really doesn't wear pink in her non-running life, I sort of like the black and hot pink).

Our race crew greeted me at Mile 21, and I was happy to see familiar faces. I pointed out that I was already starting to feel some twinges in my quads, and Ringo’s wife retorted that I always had issues with my quads (or, put differently, “suck it up.”). I saw our crew again at Mile 33; this time, it included my husband and my little girls, which was a very nice treat. And then, at Mile 47, we met up again, at the Camp 10 Bear aid station. By this stage, it was starting to get quite hot, and although I had been moving well (just under 10 hours to this point), I also was starting to feel the effects of the first half of the race. The race volunteers claimed that I was down quite a bit on weight, and this surprised me; it later turned out that their scale had been off (and was fixed by the time I hit 10 Bear at Mile 70). At the aid station, my two year old asked if I was still running; my four year old noticed that I was halfway through an orange popsicle (see photo below), and she happily took it off my hands.

My favorite moment of the race may have come as I left the aid station, when my four year old (wearing her Vermont 100 shirt, of course) ran out of the aid station with me. Priceless.

Speaking of running companions, Vermont is unique in that a horse race happens simultaneously. The horses have all sorts of rules about recovery and rest periods, which means that horses and the runners do a fair bit of leapfrogging on the course. It took a bit of getting used to being passed by riders on horseback, but they were generally very friendly and very encouraging. I couldn’t imagine staying in the saddle for that long, and most riders couldn’t imagine running for so long. So at least we had that in common.

The climb out of Camp 10 Bear, and the long loop that eventually returns there, is supposed to be one of the toughest parts of the Vermont course, because there are some big climbs that come in the heat of the day, and not much shade. I did a fair bit of walking in this section, but also had some good chunks of running. By mile 60, my legs were definitely starting to feel the effects of the day (and of running hard early). And I also had started to feel what I assumed was a big blister on the end of one of my toes. As I got closer and closer to Mile 70 (again, Camp 10 Bear), my right foot hurt more and more. By the time I was within a mile or so of the aid station, I was fairly unhappy, and I had resolved that I would take off my shoe and see what could be done. Sure, it’s wimpy to be felled by a blister, but whatever this was hurt like mad. But, hey, I had done 70 miles in 14 hours, and if I could just move semi-decently for the remaining 30 miles, I could hit my goal time (and get my first sub-24 finish, too).

Mile 70 brought lots of familiar faces – my husband had gone to get the girls squared away, but I was greeted by lots of other friends. I weighed in and then asked the medical folks if they might do a quick repair on my foot. And then I made what was probably a big mistake: I sat down. And not just in a chair, but on a cot at the medical area, which was really low to the ground. I waited for the podiatrist, and then I waited a bit more.  I didn’t mind the wait in terms of losing time; it gave me a chance to eat and drink, and to change my shoes (I put on my go-to trail shoes, the La Sportiva Crosslites, just for a change of pace).  I had realized that my problem was that a toenail had been rubbed the wrong way for a long time, and was now sort of floating on the top of my toe, in the center of a massive blister. I’d never had a toenail problem before, and I felt silly to be sitting in the medical area with a blister. In any case, the podiatrist dealt with the blister and bandaged me up. Getting my shoes on was a bit of work (oops, swollen feet).

And then I tried to stand up. And could barely do it. All of the adrenaline that had kept me going for 70 miles seemed to have disappeared; in its place was a lot of lactic acid, and some very angry leg muscles. The transformation was pretty remarkable; I couldn’t imagine going another 100 yards, much less 30 more miles. I took Gilly’s niece out of the aid station with me; she’d never been to an ultra and didn’t know what pacing would entail, but I needed someone to drag me through the woods for a while. I was miserable company – every step was painful, and running was largely out of the question. When we went down hills, my quads screamed with every step…to the point that I even walked downhill some of the time or, when I really wanted to look ridiculous, downhill backwards with a stick. Not my finest running moment. During the 7 mile stretch between aid stations, I managed to get off course a couple times, and to generally whine far too much.

When I arrived at Mile 77, I was really down: it wasn’t just that my legs were killing me, or that it was getting dark and I was exhausted. I was frustrated about my great race turning into a slog, and I felt more tired than I have ever been in my life. Luckily, Mrs. Ringo and crew was there to fix me up. I got to see a couple other Trailheads during this time: I have a very clear memory of sitting in a chair next to Icarus and commiserating. And, to thank Mrs. Ringo for all of her help, I walked about 100 feet out of the aid station with her, and then puked all over her shoes. Another first for me – I’ve never thrown up during, or even after, a race.

For the stretch between miles 77 and 88, I had the fabulous, patient company of another Trailhead, Nova. She and her fiancĂ© were visiting family in the area, and had offered to come out to do some pacing that day. She didn’t realize what she was getting into when she agreed to pace me; I had assumed I’d still be running lots of this section. Instead, I was hobbling, walking backward down the hills, and probably whining quite a bit too. In the meantime, Andy was waiting for me at Mile 88, without much cell phone signal, and wondering what had become of me. He did what any dedicated pacer and spouse would do in such a situation: he went back to the car and went to sleep.

Eventually, we did arrive at Mile 88, and Nova handed off to Andy for more of the same. What a slog it was; what a humbling change from the first 70 miles. I so much wanted to run, or even jog, or even shuffle, but I just couldn’t summon the ability to do it. We did get to see Icarus and his pacer frequently during this time, which was good company and a nice distraction. And, as at all of the aid stations, the race volunteers were great about getting us fed and hydrated and on our way.

Finally, as the dawn began to break, we approached the final miles of the course. Walking it in wasn’t what I wanted, but it was still a relief to reach the finish line (25:11). The Trailheads crew was there – Gumbi had rallied from some early nausea (and from running Western States three weeks before) to run sub-24, and Gilly had run a smart race, finishing well under 24 hours, and looking quite content while wrapped in a big blanket. Icarus and Ringo weren’t far behind me, and we had lots of friends on hand to fetch us whatever we needed. After some napping and a shower at the rental house, we returned for the awards ceremony. I was pretty dazed, but very happy to have my little girls back with me. They went with me to collect my finisher’s plaque (oh, how I had wanted the buckle instead…despite the fact that I tend to mock the whole belt buckle thing), and it was ever so nice to have them with me. 

So, Vermont didn’t go as I had hoped. Someone suggested not long after that I find a nice 70 mile race, as I was pretty tough for that distance. (Yes, that’s the sort of support one gets from the Trailheads). And I need to work on getting more cooperation from those pesky quads of mine. But it was great to be part of Ringo’s Farewell Tour, even if it’s more like a never-ending Rolling Stones farewell tour. And it was lovely to spend the week after Vermont in upstate New York, visiting our dear friends and soaking in the Finger Lakes. (My only complaint: at our rental house on Skaneateles Lake, there were four flights of stairs between the parking space and the lake. Everyone thought it was great fun to laugh as I tried to navigate these stairs. And who can blame them?) 

Next on my list of overdue assignments: a report from Mountain Masochist, in November 2011.