Friday, May 20, 2016

Peak Ultra 200 Miler

200 miles. 40,000 feet of elevation gain. The Green Mountains of Vermont.

I can't say with certainty what drew me to the 200 mile distance. The challenge of the unknown perhaps? The prospect of testing myself against something unimaginable? My lifelong quest to find my limits? My boyish propensity for doing everything in the scale of "Epic"? I don't know, but I signed up anyway.

I signed up for the race before I really looked into it much. Which is just as well since information about the course is elusive at best. The race web site tells you that the course is 20 loops of 10 miles, that the course is different each year, that the course tends to be "Moosey."

So I secured at crew, and trained. The crew part was easy, Alexis and Kevin basically said that I wasn't going without them. They love to see me suffer, they're that kind of friends, and the chance to witness suffering of this magnitude was too much to pass up. The training part was uncertain at best. How do you train for a 200 mile race? Run, a lot. I put in more miles than I ever have for any event, which for me isn't saying a lot, but I put in almost two full months of 80 mile weeks. And ran a handful of 50K training runs.

During the taper weeks I exchanged a few emails with the RD and found out that the time cut off for the 200 was going to be different this year. Stricter. I thought that was interesting since no one even finished in 2015, and on top of that the new cut off was a little vague.

The new time cut? The race starts on Thursday morning at 7 am, I had until 7 pm on Saturday, or whenever the last 50 miler runner entered their last loop to begin my final (20th) loop of the course. The 50 miler, which started at 7 am on Saturday, gives it's runners 12 hours to run the first 40 miles of their race, and the 200 mile runners 60 hours to run 190 miles. Confused yet? Basically all I had to do was maintain a pace faster than the 50 mile runners were expected to for four times as long. Simple enough.


When we arrived in Vermont on Wednesday night before the race, we couldn't find anyone who knew anything about the event. We found the venue, but it was a ghost town. We asked half of the population of Pittsfield VT, the quiet little mountain town that hosts the race, but neither of them seemed to know what we were talking about either. So we went and set up camp where the emails had instructed us, and hoped for the best.

It was a cold morning when we awoke, 35 degrees and clear skies. We drove down the mountain to check in and all seven of the registered entrants were there and ready to go. It was obvious that I had come from the farthest point south, as I stood there shivering in my three layers, stocking cap, and gloves next to these New Englanders in there short sleeves.

Pete Coleman, the Race Director, checked us in and hung our bib numbers on the wall in the bunk house. He said that it was an intimate event and we would be going by our names not our numbers. The bunk house was the aid station, sleep station, and check in between every loop. Later, he explained, there would be a water-stop at the top of the mountain, but not until the sissy 100 mile runners started on the following day. Evidently by signing up for such a challenge as this, we had stated something about our fortitude, whether accurate or not, that implied that we didn't need any support out there on this measly little ten mile loop.

We lined up, reminiscent of a firing squad, all awkward and somber, and took a few pictures like soldiers preparing to leave for the unknown. Not sure which of us would make it back, but fairly certain that it wouldn't be all of us. Pete told us to relax and have fun, and sent us off into our first loop without ceremony.

The Loop

Armed with the knowledge that the course is different every year, and that the few race reports I had found estimated that the loop contained between 1200' and 1600' of elevation gain, we set out as a group to conquer the first climb. We trotted out of the gravel parking lot and into the woods, and no sooner had the Farm disappeared behind us then the ground rose up in front of us forming one of the steepest hills I've ever traversed as part of a race. (Alexis ran a loop with me later, and her watch said that we gained almost 500 feet of elevation in two-tenths of a mile.)

We hiked with our hands on our knees and joked about how bad this was going to feel at mile 150, but the truth was that it was bad the very first time. The grade fluctuated as we climbed, and the group spread out. By the time we had covered the first mile I had lost sight of half of the field of runners, and I would never see most of them again. Eryk ran ahead of us whenever the trail wasn't intolerably steep. I hiked ever step of the climb, and was able to stay within talking distance of Ryan.

The climb lasted for about three miles, but the last mile was completely bushwhacking. We hiked from streamer to streamer, through waist-high thorns and ankle deep mud. Over fallen trees and through shoe-swallowing bogs. By the end of the weekend we had created a trail where there was none before. (Also in this section there was several sightings of Moose droppings, a novelty to a southerner.)

When we finally stopped climbing the trail dried up and gave way to well worn mountain bike trails. This section, The Labyrinth, was a winding maze of trails that corkscrewed around itself several times, while weaving in and out of dense pockets of old cedars and pines. Ryan pulled away from me here, only to come running straight back at me a quarter mile later running the wrong direction. After that we stuck together until we made it to the Cabin at the Top of the Mountain, wandering off trail just once more and having to backtrack to find our missed turn.

The view from the cabin was incredible. The Green Mountains of Vermont stretched out in every direction for miles and miles. And from here we began our long decent. Four miles of gradual switch-backing downhill, punctuated with the occasional little uphill or mud hole. The farther we ran down the swampier the trail became. One grueling climb broke up the monotony of the everlasting downhill. As smooth and graceful as the downhill was, the uphill was every bit it's opposite. Straight-up steep and rocky, hands-on-knees hiking. And then more downhill.

The decent ended abruptly with a sharp turn and a nose-dive down-hill to the river, the lowest point on the course. To call this slope a trail is being generous with the name, and it was littered with softball sized rocks that shifted under the leaves and slid with you, causing mini-avalanches every couple of steps. Half way down this drop, which was about a quarter mile long, a fallen tree blocked the path. The only way around was under it, so you slid like a base-runner stealing home to get by it, hoping to recover some semblance of balance on the other side, or tumble the rest of the way down to the river.

After a short jaunt along the river bank the course began to climb up gradually back towards the Farm. This section was the toughest later in the race because you would get close enough to hear activity, only to turn in the other direction and run away again. With about a half mile to go I ran into a streamer blocking the trail, a universal sign to not continue on straight, the catch was it wasn't at an intersection. Finally I noticed a streamer to the right of the trail, in the woods. And then another beyond that. And so we bushwhacked up a hill, about 40 yards, to another trail. And then down a quarter mile of stone steps to the start/finish/bunk house.

The Race

At the end of the first loop I had run for 2 hours and 14 minutes. The temperature had climbed from 35 to about 70, and I felt pretty good. There were two guys running ahead of me, Eryk the local, and Ryan from Philadelphia. I knew that I just needed to get in a good rhythm and stay there, and the loops would start ticking away.

By noon it was mid-80's and I was having trouble eating. I hadn't even run an Ultra yet, and I was hurting. I was way behind on food and hydration. At the end of my third loop things got a little tense with me and Kevin. He was trying to force calories down me, what was he thinking? I told him I that I wanted to eat, but I just couldn't. He was not understanding or comforting, what a jerk. I left carrying food and a lot of extra mental baggage. Half-way through my fourth loop I was doubting my chances. My loops were getting slower and slower, my legs were heavy and my stomach was rebelling. Somewhere in this loop I caught Eryk, god only knows how, and he told me that he was worried about the stiff cut-off and that is why he had went out so hard. We agreed that we needed to finish five loops before we lost the sun, and I hiked away from him.

At the end of the fourth loop I just wanted to sit and eat slowly, but Kevin and Alexis weren't having it. The temperature was starting to come down a little, but I worried that it was too late, damage done. I wasn't ready to quit, but I was far from optimistic about my chances. Then they brought out the chocolate milk, I'm not sure who's idea this was, but it didn't work the way they hoped. I drank a big cup of milk and started to hike away. That's when my stomach rebellion went to full on revolution. I vomited, and hiked a few steps and vomited again, and again. I was afraid that I was close enough to camp that they would hear me, so I hiked fast to escape before Alexis could chase me down and make me eat again to replenish what I just lost.

I started to feel better, you know the old vomit reset button, but I also knew that I truly was running on empty now. When I got up to the Cabin at the top of the mountain I sat down and ate a couple hundred calories. and then commenced to covering that down hill fast enough to beat the dark back to the Farm. I didn't make it, somewhere before the river I had to dig my headlamp out, but it didn't matter. I felt better. The temperature was dropping. I could eat again.

I got back to camp and ate a ton. Switched to my big head lamp, and put my music in at Kevin's urging. It was already so cool that sitting around for more than a few minutes caused me to start shivering. I got up and ran. And each loop felt better than the one before it, and by the time the sun came back up I had run 80 miles.

I set a secret goal at this point, to run the first 100 miles in 30 hours (the Course Record for 100 miles is 27 hours!). I figured that if I couldn't do that then I couldn't run the required 190 in 60 hours. So Friday morning, as the 100 milers took to the course and the rain settled in, I focused on those next 20 miles. It was during these morning loops that I was getting reports of the other runners. Several of the 200 mile runners had already quit, the only girl bailing after her very first loop in which she had gotten terribly lost in the Labyrinth. Eryk had spent almost eight hours out on his seventh loop in the night and was sleeping in the bunkhouse. It was just Ryan and Matt and me left if Eryk didn't come back to life.

I hit my goal, but only with a minute or two to spare. Alexis ran my tenth loop with me, and I felt like we moved pretty good. I didn't tell her about my time goal, but having her out there motivated me to push a little harder. The weather settled in with a steady soaking rain for most of the day. I changed socks a number of times, but it was impossible to keep your feet dry. The course which was swampy in places to begin with was a nightmare in the rain. Long stretches of trail turned to bogs or creeks. Rocks seemed to sprout moss instantly with a little moisture. The downhill became treacherous in places forcing me to walk sections that were runnable a few hours earlier.

By the time the light started to fade the rain cleared out, I headed into my second night with a clear head and a goal: 150 miles by sunrise Saturday. My legs felt good, and I had eaten well all day. The soggy trails and feet were a fair enough trade off for the cooler temperatures. But after my first night time loop I was tired, no exhausted.

I guess it showed on my face, because my slave-drivers actually took pity on me and allowed me to sleep while they prepared some food for me. It was so cold, but all I remember is sitting down and someone throwing a blanket over me. The next thing I know the blanket is yanked off and I'm eating hot mashed potatoes and cheese quesadillas. Without a doubt, this was the best meal I have ever had. In my entire life!

Then I'm up and stumbling up the hill. Kevin yelling at me to put my music in. I run better with it. He was right, at least at night. I've always loved night running, but I was in the zone after that nap and meal. I cranked my music up and knocked out two great loops before day break. It was during this second night that the woods started to come alive with things that weren't real. Sleep deprivation is a powerful drug. Snakes and bears and a green sheep, not to mention the crazy mountain people blending into the landscape. I saw a porcupine a few hours before sunrise, but I'm pretty sure he was real because he moved, albeit slowly, across the trail and made a chittering noise at me. None of my other hallucinations made noises.

150 miles done. I was half way though my 16th loop and now the 50 mile runners have started. I kept telling myself that I just had to out pace the slowest of them.

Pete had my buckle out on the table in the bunk house. A carrot on a stick. Every time I checked in at the end of a loop it was right there, pushing me forward. A little pierce of metal, that stood for so much more. I was the last one going, Ryan and Matt had both given up. Eryk never came back from the night before.

160 miles done and I'm moving better than I have any business moving. Still running the downhills, and hiking well up the inclines. Somewhere out on this 17th loop my left ankle started bothering me. But it didn't matter, I had not come this far to back off now. The downhills started to feel worse and worse. Damn it, I thought, I still have legs to run and I'm being done in by a contrary ankle!

I shuffle along and scrounge up a couple of sticks. I remember at this point that Mike Mitchell was going to lend me some trekking poles for this little adventure. Oh well, too late for that now. So I'm crutching along the downhills, anticipating the ups because they don't hurt.

170 miles done, no time to waste. I know I'm slowing down so I grab food to go and keep moving. This loop was a blur. I just remember that Alexis started with me and I asked her to leave at the Cabin on top of the Mountain. It hurt too much to have company.

180 miles done. I had five hours to finish a ten mile loop to be allowed to start my last loop. Every step, up or down or flat hurt. I was leaning heavy on my sticks and I was not optimistic about the outcome. But they would have to make me quit. There was no way I was not going on, even if it meant an unofficial finish.

190 miles done, 59 hours and 5 minutes. I hadn't seen another runner in 30 miles, and my tired mind had convinced me that there was no one else left running. Had all the 50 mile people been fast and finished? Was Pete going to let me start my last loop? Yes, he said, get your ass back out there!

I turn around to stagger to the bunk house to check in and some guy in a chair looks at me, as ragged as I must look and asks: Do you need some balls? I just stare at him and walk into the bunk house fuming. Alexis follows me in and asks whats wrong. Who is that jack ass who asked me if I wanted some balls? I yell. I just ran 190 miles, who does he think he is? Alexis just laughed at me and said: POLES. He was offering you his poles. And she points at my two pathetic tree branches. These are all I need, I mutter and walk out into the dark.

Once more into the breech. The last loop was as relaxed as it could be. There was no more cut-offs. Kevin and Alexis were both with me. I felt like a tour guide, taking them around an historic site that I was intimately familiar with. Step here. Watch out for that rock. It gets a little boggy around this switchback. The ankle hurt worse with every step but I couldn't care any less. I came to Vermont to run 200 miles, and I did it.

Finishing time: 62 hours 57 minutes 32 seconds. First place out of one finisher, seven starters.

I couldn't have done this without the huge amount of help and support, selflessly given by Alexis and Kevin.

(If you look closely you can see the endless stone steps behind them)

I also want to thank my Sponsor, Pearl Izumi for believing in this mediocre distance runner, and helping me believe in myself.

I have more reflections on this adventure, but I will save them for later. You've been forced to listen to my rambling long enough! 


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