The Vermont One Hundred Mile Endurance Run is an ultramathon, a foot race through the hills and mountains of rural Vermont. The course is comprised of 70 miles of dirt roads, 27 miles of trails, and 3 miles of pavement. While the footing is mostly good, competitors must contend with 14,000 feet of elevation gain, heat, humidity, horse flies, and sheer distance. Most of the hills in Vermont are not very tall, but the terrain is rolling and several of the inclines are steep and sustained for miles on end. Very little of the course is on flat ground, one is almost always going up or down hill. Runners are allowed 30 hours to complete the race, and a special award is given to those who finish in under 24 hours. In 2009, 259 people started, 173 made it to the finish line, and 87 made it in under 24 hours.
Of the few dozen such races in the United States, the Vermont 100 is the only one that still includes a horse race on the same course at the same time. This is a tradition that goes back to the seminal 100 mile race, the Western States 100. In the early 70s Gordon Ansleigh was to compete in a 100 mile horse race in California. When his horse came up lame before the race, he ran the course on foot instead, and crossed the finish line in under 24 hours, planting the seeds for the modern ultramarathon. The award for finishing the Vermont 100 in under 24 hours is a belt buckle, a carryover from the sport's early roots.
A LITTLE ABOUT ME:
I'm a 27 year old mechanical engineer from New Hampshire. I'm 5' 8" tall and I weigh 160 pounds. I'm married and I have a mortgage. Though I have a small-time sponsorship from Brooks, I'm not a professional athlete by any stretch of the imagination. I have a life outside of running, and I think I look like a regular guy. I'm not tall and lanky and I don't have a six-pack.
Last year I served as a pacer for a friend who was running the Vermont 100. I kept him company and looked after him for the last 30 miles of the race as he struggled through the night to finish in just under 24 hours. Inspired by the determination he showed, and his joy on finishing, I resolved that I would run the race next year.
I ran a few 50 mile races in 2008, and took November and December off from running in order to rest and give a few nagging injuries time to heal. I wanted a clean slate to start my training on the new year. I gradually began to build my weekly mileage back up and competed in a series of three 50 mile races in a span of 5 weeks to prove to myself that I had the endurance I would need for 100 miles. I tried to focus on running smooth, consistent races, with good fueling, and strong finishes. Included in my training was a lot of hiking and running in the White Mountains to give my legs the strength they'd need for long climbs and descents. Despite all this, I went into the race not knowing what to expect. Would I have what it takes? Would weather and injuries conspire against me?
I caught a ride up to Vermont with my good friend John. He's an experienced ultrarunner with a sponsorship from Long Trail Beer. We stopped at the brewery for lunch, where we picked up two cases of beer and lunch in the pub. The brewmaster was a super nice guy and even picked up our tab.
After arriving at the start-finish area we set up camp and went through a short medical check-in. A volunteer weighed me, took my blood pressure and asked a few medical history questions. A runner's weight is checked at several different point during the race to guard against severe dehydration and to monitor for possible kidney malfunction. Lose 5% of your body weight and you'll be held at the aid station while you re-hydrate. Lose 7% and you'll be pulled from the race. Similarly, if you gain too much weight, your body is assumed to be retaining water and you'll be removed.
I got a few fitful hours of sleep, interrupted by a car alarm, before crawling out of my tent in the dark and gathering with the others at the start line. The mood was energetic as people milled around while Chariots of Fire was played on the PA system. At 4:00 AM the starting gun went off and we all headed into the night, trying not to think about how much lay ahead. We jogged down a dirt road in a mob and soon were soon turned off on to a muddy Jeep track. It had rained all night and there was still some drizzle coming down, so the road was a slick greasy mess. Some people you could tell were not used to mud, as soon as a foot slipped in a direction they weren't expecting, they'd slow to a crawl and I would have to pass them by going into the bushes.
John and I stuck together for moral support for much of the first half of the race. We jogged down hills and power walked the ups, conserving our energy as best we could. The sky slowly lightened and the field began to spread out a bit, giving us a little more breathing room. We wound our way through dirt roads and small villages in the middle of nowhere. I remember an old man came out to sit on his porch and watch us all go by. We waved to him and he clapped for us.
Right around 6am the first of the horses began to catch us. They're started an hour later than the runners avoid congestion on the early part of the course. We'd hear them them clippety-clopping along behind us and we'd move to the side to let them pass. There's a mutual respect between the runners and riders for the abilities of one another, and we exchanged greetings and encouragement. I've never been much of a horse-person, but I could appreciate how beautiful some of these animals were. They had huge muscles visible underneath their skin and looked to be supported by ankles that are smaller than mine. The way then trotted by made them seem effortless.
After about 15 miles we crossed Vermont Route 4 in Taftsville and went through a long covered bridge over a quiet, smooth river. We ran along it's banks and things were peaceful until we encountered the Breather. There's a lot of strange people who run ultras, but this guy stood out a bit. He ran with his arms flailing wildly to his sides and would exhale rapidly and forcefully through his nose. He sounded like a steam engine running at full tilt and we could hear him from several hundred feet away. We'd repeatedly speed up or slow down and put him out of earshot, only to hear him coming up behind us an hour later. This got annoying pretty quickly, but I eventually lost track of him around mile 25 and didn't hear him for the rest of the race.
There are something like 30 aid stations at Vermont, with 9 of them being handler stations. At handler stations, a runner may have a crew waiting for him to assist with any needs and provide a quick resupply and moral support. I met my crew, my father and wife, for the first time at mile 21, at the Pretty House aid station. The course had been wet from the rain and dew, but things were starting to clear up, so I decided to do a shoe change. While my father refilled my water bottles and my wife replenished my supply of gels and drink mix, I quickly threw off my wet shoes and put on a dry pair with fresh socks along with some Vaseline to repel water. My feet were in good shape and I wanted to keep them that way. My crew advised me that we were roughly 4:15 into the race and ahead of schedule. Within minutes John and I were back on our feet and moving again. I grabbed a banana and a handful chips to eat on the move, though I had to carry them until we got to a hill were I could eat them while I walked.
John and I roll into Pretty House with Eric:
After the Pretty House aid station the course runs through a long series of trails. Most of them were not very difficult as far as trail running goes and I was able to maintain a steady pace. We wound up and down through mowed pathways cut through fields and climbed a long incline on the Sound of Music Hill. This hill has a field on the top and a 360 degree view of the Vermont countryside which is supposed to be breathtaking. Today, however, it was mostly overcast and we could only catch glimpses of the surrounding farmland though gaps in the clouds. Luckily for us, it had stopped raining. One of my biggest fears was that the weather forecast would be true and we'd get rain all day. At one point there was sign marking 26.2 miles, the marathon mark; I was 5:05 in by my watch.
Heading out of Stage Rd.:
I was feeling good up to this point but began to have some troubles. My left shoe felt really tight on the top of my foot and it seemed be radiating pins and needles up my shin. My right IT band was acting up and I began to have difficulty running downhill on uneven ground, especially where the horses had churned things up a little bit. I carefully hobbled down and continued on my way to the next handler station, Stage Rd at mile 30, where I was careful to conceal any signs of a limp, though I did ask to take some ibuprofen with me. My pain was not at all bad, but I was worried it could develop into something worse and the last thing I needed was to externalize any doubts. I'm normally hesitant to take any medication during a race, especially one this long, since my kidneys would already be working hard to filter out the products of muscle breakdown, but I made an exception. On the long climb up the old Suicide Six ski area I took the meds and my leg began to feel better. I also loosened my shoe a bit, which eliminated the foot and shin pain, though my foot did slide around in my shoe a little. Then, I began to bonk.
Bonking was something I'd encountered many times in my 50 mile races, so I was able to recognize the signs early. My mind was cloudy, my energy level was low, and I was feeling discouraged, having physical troubles only a third of the way through the race. I now think that even though I ate lots of solid food at Stage Road, my blood sugar may have been low because I hadn't eaten a gel recently and the solid food was still digesting. I took out a Gu packet, which I normally eat roughly every 45 minutes, and within a mile was feeling much better. John said it was as quick as he'd seen me ever bounce back from a low spot. For anyone considering an ultra, this is a critical thing to be aware of. Low spots are inevitable, you simply need to recognize them and make a plan to recover, all while never stopping your forward progress.
Our next aid station was Camp 10 Bears at mile 47, and our first medical check. The sun had come out and I began to sweat profusely. It was only in the 70s, but the humidity was very high. Worried about weight loss from sweat, I took a few S-cap electrolyte tablets like I normally do throughout an ultra, and guzzled as much water as I could. We came into the aid station to cheers from everyone, and I stepped onto the medical scale while my crew took care of refilling my waist pack. How much weight would I have lost, I wondered? I turned out to be up 6 pounds from the start, which drew some concern from the medical volunteers. I was alert and feeling great though, so they let me continue on with some cautions.
John and I roll into Camp Ten Bears for the first time:
After Camp 10 Bears is a 23 mile loop with several aid stations along the way. We struggled up a steep eroded ATV trail and through a recently logged area. Old foundations and stone walls littered the area and I occupied myself by thinking about who might have lived there in the past. Some people sped up, others slowed down, and I found myself alone. I had left John behind at the last aid station as he was having trouble keeping up. We've agreed to stick together during a race as long as it's mutually beneficial, but there's no hard feelings if either one of us wants to pick up the pace.
Several sections of the course here were clearly on private land. We ran trails past "no trespassing" signs that frequently emerged behind someone's house and ran down their driveway. The race maintains good relations with over 140 private landowners in order to have special permission to be able to knit together a continuous 100 mile course with only a mile or two of repeated ground.
I arrived at Tracer Brook aid station feeling well, though my father had learned about my weight gain. He was concerned, as he had a right to be, and tried to get me to sit down and take a break. I was still feeling fine, so I refused, and pushed on through after a quick resupply. After Tracer Brook comes one of the longest uphill sections on the course on the aptly named Agony Hill Road. I steadily walked up and up for miles on the hill that seemed like it would never end. It was the hot part of the day and I was grateful when I passed by a farmhouse with a garden hose left out by the road. I sprayed myself down and felt the accumulated salt grains rinse off my face. Feeling like a new man, I continued onwards, somewhere passing the 54 mile mark, my previous distance record.
At the Margaritaville station, at mile 60 something-or-other, I ran in looking and feeling strong. Margaritaville is an easy place to get stuck as they have music, burgers, tequila, and festive volunteers, but I was in a hurry. My crew was enthusiastic to see me and helped maintain my good mood. There had been some pre-blister pain coming from my feet and figured it was time to change socks, though I kept the same shoes. I left on a good note, but I was really beginning to feel the fatigue. Running took more sustained concentration and my IT band issues were starting to come back. I took two more ibuprofen. On the longer flats and downhills I could find a rhythm to zone out on, jogging slowly and steadily, but the shorter sections interrupted by short uphills made things hard to do consistently.
Starting to look and feel tired:
I arrived back in camp 10 Bears at mile 70 where I was weighed again. It was about 7pm and we still had plenty of daylight left; I knew I was well ahead of a 24 hour schedule. I had reduced my salt intake and deliberately cut back on my fluids, hoping to get closer to my starting weight, but I still came in at 165.5 pounds. Still up, but not dangerously so, I grabbed my headlamp and my pacer, Keith, and off we went. Keith is good friend I know from the climbing world, who's also a talented marathoner and triathlete. He has his own interest in doing the Vermont 100 some day, and being a pacer is one of the best ways to preview the race.
Keith's company helped greatly and our conversation kept my spirits up. I ran more than I would have alone and he kept me from missing a few turns. Though I wasn't feeling too bad mentally, I'm often the last to know. We ran by some beautiful farm houses on a hill with views through pastures to the sun setting in the West. A group of brown cows was out in a field and they followed us on their side of the fence as we went by.
A long downhill trail section followed by winding dirt roads got us to West Winds aid station at mile 77. I've frequently been told that getting to West Winds before sundown puts you in a good position for a 24 hour finish. We got there with time to spare and I had two cups of the chicken soup this station is famous for. It's probably the cheapest powdered soup mix in the grocery store, but it tasted like heaven to me. I swilled the soup down a little too fast and it nearly came back up.
Double fistin' it:
My feet were getting sore by this point, especially on the ball of my right foot. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to change socks and shoes again at West Winds, but I didn't. This part of the course involves long stretches of dirt road running, which I began to struggle to take advantage of. Normally I walk the hills and run the flats and the downs, but my legs were starting to be uncooperative. Keith was a godsend and kept encouraging me to run. My foot got worse and I altered my foot falls a little to lessen some of the pain. It felt a blister was developing where my toes join my foot, but there was little I thought I could do about it other than just suck it up. Darkness fell, hours passed, and a long long uphill grind led us into Bill's Barn at mile 88.6 at 11PM or so.
At Bill's there's another weigh-in, and I was still at 165.5. Still up almost 6 pounds, but holding steady. I knew that Bill's was an easy place to get stuck at, as the medical volunteers are really on the look out for any signs of disorientation or injury this late in the race. I made sure to be cheerful with them and steadily stood on the scale with no wobbling or stumbling. We got what we needed and exited the aid station as quickly as possible.
I knew that the next station where I'd see my crew was at mile 95.5 but it seemed to take forever to get there. The worst section was on Blood Hill Road, yet another steep never-ending hill. In the dark, the edges of my vision swam a little bit in the light of my headlamp and flashlight. As we ran past trees, the shadows would shift suddenly and the motion in my peripheral vision would startle me. I kept thinking there was an animal darting through the woods next to us, though I had no severe hallucinations like some people report. I did almost fall asleep a few times. One time, I was running with my head down, just looking at Keith's heels, when I closed my eyes for a second and felt my grip on my flashlight start to loosen. I quickly snapped back awake but it happened more than once.
We largely stayed in a cluster of people, leap-frogging each other. By this point I could only run for a few minutes at a time before giving in and taking a walking break. My quads were shot, my IT band flaring, and my foot screamed at me every time it hit the ground. I grew clumsy and dropped my flashlight. My legs were so stiff that I had a hard time reaching it to pick it up again. Polly's aid station finally came and my crew was slapping me on the back, they knew I had it in the bag. We'd come though the hardest part, and though our pace was slowing we still had a large time buffer on 24 hours.
I had thought before the race that I could probably run the last 4.5 miles on adrenaline alone. This wasn't true, I had to fight for every step. I could feel my blister getting huge, like a small water balloon in my shoe. My running could scarcely be called that; I'd pick my foot up an inch off the ground, swing it forward, and fall onto it. I hobbled down hills with my back arched forward and my arms flailing around to balance the weird gate I was able to manage. My uphill walk, once long powerful strides, were short and weak.
Finally, we passed the one mile to go sign. I got a little more energy and I tried to run faster but was only able to get short bursts of speed out. I swear that was the longest mile I have ever run. Just when I though we should see the finish at any time, we found my wife waiting on the side of the trail...at the .5 mile to go sign. I didn't recognize her until she spoke to me. She ran ahead to tell people I was coming, but shortly after she left I got my final wind. I could hear people cheering at the finish, the pain faded, and broke into a real run. Keith and I flew past my wife. My breathing came in ragged gasps, and then there it was. I got a little choked up, thinking about everything I'd put behind me, but I just ran harder.
Keith cried out my number to the officials at the finish and people clapped and cheered me in. And then it was over. They told me my time: 22 hours, 40 minutes, and some-odd seconds. I tried not to cry as I hugged my crew and my pacer. It was over, and we finally did it. A dream I've had for several years now was a reality. I didn't really know what to say.
I managed to hobble over to the medical tent for some food and to get my shoes off. Strangely, all my energy was gone. I'd just run 100 miles, but the next few hundred feet were a chore. After taking a seat, we took a look at my feet. The blister on the ball of my foot was larger than most cell-phones. It extended up between my big and index toes. I made my way over to a cot, intending to stay just long enough to have my feet looked at. A medical volunteer covered me in a blanket while a podiatrist lanced my mega-blister and bandaged me up. As soon as he was done I began to shiver and cramp, and was glad for the blanket. I lay there for another hour, semi-sleeping, until John came in, with his own sub-24 finish. Eventually I managed to get out of the cot with some help and hobbled very slowly to my tent. It took me 20 minutes to go 200 yards.
The buckle and race shirt:
I'm thankful to all who helped me with the greatest athletic achievement of my life. My wife for supporting me when I had doubts. My father for crewing me and for his enthusiasm. John for guidance, friendship, and trusted advice. Keith for sacrificing his weekend to make the drive to Vermont to wait for hours on end and then doing an impeccable pacing job. And all the other friends who've believed in me, suffered with me, and helped in a myriad of other ways. I couldn't have done it without all of you.
If anyone's still reading this far, there's one last point I'd like to make. I am no one special. My natural talents are limited and running 100 miles makes me no superman. This was a dream I had that took years to realize and it's the product of millions of small steps. The biggest thing that the Vermont 100 taught me is that you really can do anything you want to.
Never give up and take it one step at a time.