I have a confession to make. A lot of the time, at least recently, I don’t love running. I have not been “loving the process”. I haven’t been thrilled with my races. Most training runs feel like a slog. While a bit demoralizing, I think it’s to be expected to be honest. In 2016 and 2017 I accomplished more than I had ever really expected as a runner. Two 100 mile races, half marathon PR, 5K PR, a Boston qualifier. It was just success followed by success followed by success. Everything had such tremendous payoff it felt incredibly rewarding. Now, it feels like I am just going through the motions. Seven Sisters was a bright spot of running with friends and craziness that was genuinely exciting. I’m still anxiously awaiting The Bear, since 100 milers are so challenging and unique, but TARC Spring, Wachusett, and to some extent Escarpment felt like a grind. There were moments during Escarpment I thought “I fucking love running”, but a lot of that race was punishing and challenging. The mentality was taking a toll, but on Saturday, all I could think was “I really fucking love running!”
Sure, the TARC Summer classic was still 31 miles. And 31 miles is a long way. And whenever you go a long way there are some low points. The point is that every low quickly left and was replaced by gratifying highs. The race, the community, and my performance all culminated in a great day. I’m hoping that I can take this rekindled energy and train hard going into the Bear.
A large part of what made the day work was treating the race as a training run. Normally, I think this is a bullshit excuse to wipe away a sub-optimal performance, but I had 40 miles on my legs from the week leading up to it, had run 24.5 miles on my long run the previous Sunday, and hadn’t done anything to really treat it as an A or even B race. So while I undoubtedly spent parts of loop 1 doing mathematical gymnastics to estimate a finish time, I quickly let any thoughts of performance and position slip away. I was going to run 31 miles and I’d either be in first place, last place, or somewhere in between. What’s funny is that I had tried to do the same thing at this race two years earlier and failed miserably. So, after three years of ultrarunning, I can safely say I know how to use a race as a training run.
Like two years ago, I think the TARC Summer classic is one of the most enjoyable courses I have run! It has a mix of everything: single track, fire road, hills, techy sections. A 10 mile loop is just long enough to stay fresh but short enough to seem manageable. What’s also amazing is that I can summarize the race in three sentences.
On my first loop, I settled in to running by feel and enjoying the day, and after about 5 miles everything clicked and it was smooth sailing.
I fell right before the start on the second loop, but it got me fired up to run faster than the first loop!
On the last loop, I fell again and felt a bit sorry for myself, so it went a bit slower but I still finished in 5:34 (in 2015 I ran a 6:39)!!!
Boom, easiest race recap ever! Honestly, it is difficult to write a report about a race I have already run. Especially when the goal was supposed to be the same. This year though, I was able to have a spectacular time. I feel reinvigorated for the final 6 weeks leading up to the Bear 100! Can’t wait to see how it goes.
Ultra runners are fueled by testing their limits. Nothing about the sport is easy or even sane, but the pursuit of pushing our bodies to their absolute limits drives us forward. As we attempt new races, run different trails, and ramp up our training, our limits stretch further and further. We get new benchmarks to evaluate ourselves. PRs and previous times become our foundation as a runner. Your Ultrasignup results page grows and becomes a public record of your race days, good and bad. This quest to push beyond one’s limits can become a bit all-consuming, at least for me, as new races pop up or instagram photos of faraway trails fill social media. Past successes become fuel for attempting the next insane event. But as we reach for the next distance or race with double the elevation gain, it can become difficult to measure if we are actually still improving. That’s why pacing Mike at Manitou’s Revenge was so fun for me. The race wasn’t about the next great event (although I am not sure you can top what Manitou’s got to offer), but rather a return to prove oneself against one of the most brutal events out there.
To be transparent, I had never met Mike before Manitou’s. We “met” over twitter as I saw him cast the net for pacers at this year’s event. I took the bait and said why not, I’ll pace a stranger for several hours of running. We chatted over email and social media, but right away it was clear that Mike had ambitions for this year’s event. He had finished Manitou’s in 2016, being the last finisher in around 23.5 hours. He was coming back for revenge. Or at least I deemed it to be revenge. Coming in as a pacer, it was perfect. Mike’s goal would give me clear direction for the day and getting Mike to his finish.
I was picking Mike up at the 5th aid station of the race, Platte Cove. The drive up to the aid station was a perfect introduction to what the day would hold. Dense fog and a winding road greeted me and Colleen in the Catskills. Conditions were wet and the course would be slick. We got settled and waited for Mike to roll in.
Meeting Mike at the aid station was a lot like how I imagine online dating would work, but if one of the participants had just run 30 miles and had 24 miles to run. Mike wasn’t exactly on time, and came rolling in looking a tad disheveled. It quickly turned into crew/pacing duties as I grabbed his drop bag and worked to get any food and gear he needed. Compared to the runners just prior to him, Mike was in and out of the aid station. He was a bit behind on time, but in good spirits and raced the first 30 miles extremely smart. That made my job much easier.
Mike meeting Colleen and me at Platte Cove
Now, Manitou’s doesn’t cut you any breaks. The first 30 miles suck (so I hear). The last 24 miles also suck (so I know). It’s a 54 miler that runs like a hundred. So, leaving the aid station, I knew we had 7.5 miles to the Mink Hollow aid station, but the volunteers at Platte Cove assured me the next 7.5 run more like 12. Having now completed it, I’d say that’s accurate. This next session is when the course hops on the Devil’s Path, which happens to be very aptly named. The “trail” takes no prisoners, consisting of unrelenting climbs requiring you to use your hands and descents that range from sketchy to I-should’ve-written-my-will before-offering-to-pace-this-race. In all seriousness, some of the down climbing sections were more serious than going up.
Over the 7.5 miles, there are three peaks – Indian Head, Twin, and Sugarloaf. With no section really allowing for sustained running, Mike and I chipped away the course over the slick rocks and gnarly elevation profile. During this section, we’d pick up Paul, who would manage to snap 2 trekking poles on the Devil’s path, and Jodi. We ran into Jodi right before Mink Hollow who was convinced she was going to drop. The course was treacherous and no ultra was worth killing yourself, so it seemed like the logical decision. Mike and Paul assured her that the worst was over and right there and then we formed a pack that would stick together for the remaining 16.5 miles.
At Mink Hollow, the crew recomposed themselves and geared up for the crushing climb up Plateau. Mike was 30 minutes ahead of where we was this time last year. “Perfect,” I thought, “we are gonna get him a PR at this rate”. The last climb on the Devil’s Path is another ass-kicker of steep, sketchy climbing. Once we topped out, the trail smooths before a turn down of the peak following a side trail. By this time, it was dark. While it was still a few minutes until sunset, the dense canopy and fog made running without a headlamp a no-go. The four of us did our best to navigate the admittedly smoother trail, but thick fog and slick rocks made running uncomfortable. I was hoping to start putting the pressure on the group at this point, but part of being a good pacer is knowing your place. We were moving incredibly strong and steady, so we ran smooth sections and walked quickly through the rest to Silver Hollow Notch.
By Silver Hollow, we were close to 45 minutes ahead of Mike’s arrival last year! The runners took time here to take in a substantial amount of calories. Manitou’s starts absurdly early if you factor in the bus ride from the finish up to Windham. At this point, everyone was pushing close to 24 hours awake, so just staying positive at this point is a huge success. As we focused for the remaining miles, the biggest moth I’ve ever seen tried to fly away with one of the aid station volunteers before landing on the pop-up tent. Thoroughly disturbed by the thing, I gently urged the runners to get going so I’d be able to avoid getting hit by it. We got moving up the climb from Silver Hollow, which tops out before running a slightly off-camber downhill to a creek. We made really good time down this stretch, and we all enjoyed the cold water on our feet in the humidity. Mike took a minute to douse himself in cold water before we started the final climb of the course.
The climb up to the Willow aid station is pretty damn rough. I’d say if it were 30 miles earlier on the course, it’d be runnable. But after 48 or so miles, it is unrelenting. We marched up the slope, appreciating that finally the trail makers used switch backs but still annoyed with the trail’s persistence. In the final half mile of the climb, Jodi pulled ahead to take a bit more time at the aid station while Paul, Mike, and I took our time to not overexert. Finally, we reached Willow towards the top of the hill! The aid station was stocked with hot food and plenty of snacks, which was super impressive considering it was a 2 mile hike in to the aid station. The volunteers were super friendly and joked with Mike about his later appearance a year prior. At this point, we were an hour and half ahead of Mike’s previous time and energy levels were much higher.
The crew took off from willow for the final 500 feet of climbing to the fire tower. The fog got really thick here and I really struggled as a pacer keeping the group on course. I did my best to keep a bit ahead to identify the next blaze and keep the crew moving along. Suddenly, there was a huge fire tower right next to us! The climbing was done! All downhill from here! But of course, Manitou would not let us off easily. 3 miles of downhill covered in football sized rocks that teetered, rolled, and rocked as we tread down them. We kept a strong hiking pace down, not risking a busted bone or face on the slick and unstable rocks. The group decided to finish together, and having spent 6 or so hours together at this point it seemed fitting. We finally bottomed out and made our way down the last mile of road.
In the final mile, we all expressed our gratitude of having such great company for so long. Mike thanked me for pacing him on a whim and I told him not to mention it, for I had a blast and there isn’t too much better than sharing some trail miles with good company. Finishing and reflecting on the day, I’m left wondering how I am as a pacer. I got Mike to the finish and 2 runners tagged along. But did I push hard enough? Did I say the right things? Had I been too cutting with some of my jokes and jabs? Even though I have my self-doubts, the experience to me speaks more about each own’s limits. Mike PRed on the course by 2 hours. A demonstrable improvement from last year. He pushed hard and dug deep. Viewing as an outsider, he encapsulated one of the things I love so much about ultra running: the need to push our limits.
B and Q. Two letters that I really never thought I would put next to a race result. But after Sunday, my 3:01:21 marathon PR is a certified, authentic BQ. It wasn’t the sub-3 that I was hoping for, and pretty far off from the 2:55 I was dreaming of, but it should be good enough to get me to Hopkinton in 2018. After 2 years dedicated to ultras, a few speedy shorter distance races in 2016 got this goal stuck in my head. Honestly, it seemed unreachable. Maybe I just got lucky in 2016, was it really worth it to get my eyes set on an unreachable target? Back in 2013 when I started running seriously, I never thought I’d hit this goal. Thankfully, I’m stubborn and once the idea of it got into my head, it was going to happen. I made it loud andclear.
As my mom apparently tells everybody (thanks Harry), I was never a runner. I didn’t run in high school. I picked up running in college because I was getting chubby. I picked up distance running because I’m pretty sure Colleen has her Masters in peer pressure. And finally I picked up ultras because I wanted to show myself how far I’ve come. But something about the BQ is the perfect mix all of these drivers. I haven’t stopped thinking about crossing that finish line since Sunday.
As for the race, like all longer events, the race really started the day before. I have a trend of avoiding the sensible thing to do of taking it easy the day before a big race. Without much forethought, I signed up for a company recruiting event that had me up early and on my feet all day. So much for relaxing. Thankfully I got out of a dinner afterwards and was able to get home at a reasonable hour. Colleen and I got to bed early and did our best to sleep.
Race morning was uneventful, thankfully! We got all set up with our bibs, got situated, and waited for the gun to go off. My buddy Seth offered to come down and act as a pacer / windshield so we chatted about goals and race strategy. After our warm up we parted ways before he’d hop in at mile 10 or so. I hopped into the start corral and apologized roughly 3801 times squeezing through people to the line. I ran into Lynton and once more set my goal in stone for a BQ. Then, promptly at 10 the gun went off.
Like most distance races, mile 1-15 or so were really nothing special. Of course, I went out a little fast – but how can you not! It’s all so exciting. I did my best to settle down quickly after the first mile clicked by in 6:30 or so. I exchanged some words with other marathoners on the course who had similar goals, but pretty quickly I was to myself. The difficult thing about a race like Hyannis is that it’s a loop course with hundreds of runners all running different events at the exact same time. Marathoners run 2 loops, the half run 1, and the relay is broken up into nonsensical portions. I had relay runners wheezing and pounding the pavement yo-yoing past me. There were half runners running comfortable races. And then there was me and what seemed like 2 other marathoners. My usual race tactics of holding onto a runner just out of reach were gone. I’d have to rely on my own smart racing to get me to the finish.
Since mental anxiety was creeping in quickly, I was really happy to see Scott and Kate out on the course at mile 3 or so. Nothing like having a cheering squad! A little burst of adrenaline got me going as we made our way towards the shore. While the weather said it was going to be windy, I didn’t really anticipate a steady stream of air head-on along the coast. Miles 4-8 were completely in a headwind. I don’t know how powerful it was or how much extra effort it really caused, but mentally it was excruciating. At one point, I blurted to my pack of runners “ugh this wind!” to no response. Come on, is it not okay to complain a bit? When we finally turned away from the wind, I physically felt fine, but another mental hurdle was added to my race. Miles 9-10 were effortless and picking up Seth was another amazing boost!
Seth and I rolled along chatting about the day and making small talk. I complained about the race’s plastic cups and how they forced me to either splash myself with water or slow down to drink. I chatted a bit about how I was anticipating the rest of the race to go. Looking back though, this was another area I could have executed better. I know that Seth got me to the finish line with the BQ, but I should have communicated that towards the end, he should have just pulled my ass along. I was going to be in no shape to pace myself in the last few miles. But that was ages away, and I felt great so far, so why spoil it?
The halfway point came and went, and Seth and I were pretty much on our own. There were two runners about 100 yards ahead of us and no one behind us as far as I could tell. The course was open to traffic the entire day, and now without a swarm of runners clogging the streets, cars seemed a little more impatient with me choosing the optimal line. At mile 17 we reentered the wind tunnel. I’d dip behind Seth occasionally for a reprieve from the wind, but since it was just the two of us the wind was still exhausting. Just before mile 20, someone exclaimed how just around the corner the wind would end. It didn’t. In all honestly it was probably only a quarter mile more of intense wind, but that additional mental battle took a piece out of me.
My legs started to feel heavy, a bonk was setting in. Another area of improvement: nutrition. In every other race, 45 minutes between gels was always perfect. But I think at this effort I should have bumped it up to every 30. I let my goal pace drift a bit away from me. Still, I had time in the bank, so I was too worried about the BQ at this point. As the minutes ticked by, and my pace continued to slow I grew concerned. I started to focus on how poorly I was feeling and how much running still remained. Of course I knew the race starts at mile 20, but I wanted to at least give the final 10K a strong effort! It wasn’t happening though, and now it was just a battle to hold on. I took one or two walk breaks through water stops (to level out my heart rate and drink from the stupid plastic cups) and kept my pace as high as I could. Seth was good with setting realistic expectations in my head, but like I said I probably should have just had him pull me. Oh well.
By two miles left, I had 15 or so minutes left to hit just above 3 hours. That’s when I gained a bit more faith. Two 7:30 miles left. I could do that. Around mile 25, there was a final water stop I was certain I needed. Given how I was feeling and the stupid plastic cups, I grabbed a cup and walked for a few feet to drink everything. It wasn’t necessary at all, but in the moment I needed it.
In the final mile, before the reality set in that I was going to BQ, I struggled significantly. I was really disappointed on how I executed the final few miles, and slowly realizing a bit of smarter pacing and nutrition could have saved me later on. But as I rounded the last bend before the finish, that melted away. I looked at my watch: 3:01:00. The BQ was real. I awkwardly surged to the finish and crossed the line. Pain quickly transformed into satisfaction. And amazingly, it was caught on tape: Hyannis highlights.
After some congratulations and excitement, I got changed, hobbled back to the finish, and anxiously waited for Colleen. Of course, she made smashing her PR by more than 30 minutes look effortless, stopping a tenth of a mile before the end to ask me “did you do it?!” to which I shouted back “I did!”
I know I already wrote a year in review and set some goals, but my friend over at yogawordnerd put together an awesome race schedule post that got me thinking about my schedule and what I am looking to get out of 2017. As I enter my third year of ultra running, my focus is quickly shifting from simply finishing certain distances and races to wanting to improve my performance. Frankly, it is pretty intimidating. Until the past 3 months or so, I’ve never felt like a “fast kid”. But as I cross more finishes lines and finish more training runs I guess I am just getting faster. It’s weird, because I never set out to improve any sub-ultra PRs, but now I can’t get the notion of beating my past self out of my head. With that, comes the fear of missing goals and putting myself in painful situations. But I think setting these goals in stone will go a long way in helping me achieve them.
I’ve made it pretty clear to just about everybody, but my goal for Hyannis is to run a Boston Qualifier. It is going to hurt like hell. Honestly, I never thought it would be something I could do until I ran the Cambridge Half this November, but with my finish being just under 1:24 at that race, I think it is within reach. I wish my training had been going a bit more consistently up until now, but training in the middle of winter is tough. Let’s hope I can put the pieces together before the end of February because I really don’t want to have to try again.
At Seven Sisters, I just want to run sub 2:30. Last year it was pretty damn slick, so I think if it is dry this year it is definitely happening. This race is really like nothing else I have run in the northeast and cannot recommend it enough!
At the Endurance Challenge, I really want to just give a solid 50-mile performance. They haven’t released detailed course information yet, so I don’t know what exactly I will be shooting for. Really, I just want it to go better than Bear Mountain did. I thought that race was going to be my personal breakout performance where I put all the pieces of the ultra puzzle together, but it just didn’t happen. Let’s hope I can represent NP (and maybe some of the tribe will wander out on the course to give some much needed support).
Millinocket is happening because who doesn’t want to run a free race in Northern Maine?
The Big Question
As for races that I haven’t registered for that I plan on running, I still need to drop a 100 miler on my schedule. It is really coming down to Run Rabbit Run or The Bear. Both races are pretty similar in terms of terrain to Grindstone, so I would really like to take what I learned there and put together a sub-24 hour performance on a gnarly course. My main reason for holding out on registering for one or the other is I am hoping The North Face announces that their ECS Utah race will be on the same weekend as The Bear. It would be much easier to get a crew out to Utah if I had a race they could run to bribe them with. Last year, the races fell on the same weekend so fingers-crossed.
2016 was my year when it comes to racing. Sure, it was a pretty wacky year otherwise. But for my running, it couldn’t have gone any better. With a few days left, I wanted to take a step back, reflect on my accomplishments, and set my sights on 2017. Taking a quick look back at my races:
TARC Hale and Back 6 Hour – 31.5 Miles
TARC Spring Classic Half – 1:43:47
Bear Mountain 50 Miler – 9:58:52
7 Sisters – 2:38:48
Pineland Farms 50 – 7:48:30 PR
Catamount 50k – 4:37:00 PR
Vermont 100 – 21:26:00 PR
Pisgah 50k – 5:50:50
Oktoberfest 5K – 18:40
Grindstone 100 – 27:15:00
Cambridge Half – 1:23:44 PR
Yulefest 5k – 18:13 PR
That’s a lot of races, a lot of PRs, and a whole lot of miles run in between all of that. Looking back, I think it is pretty incredible to crush my PRs in so many distances. When I started 2016, the main goal was just to finish my first 100 miler. At the end of it, I feel stronger than I ever have. I’ve got 2 hundred finishes under my belt, more ultra experience, and confidence to tackle 2017.
Even though things went well, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t pay my dues. My first goal race for the year was Bear Mountain. I was stuck training in California, traveling every week, but still confident I was going to crush the race. On race day, by mile 15 it had crushed me. After having to dig deep just to finish and barely beating my previous 50 miler PR I thought 2016 was going to be miserable. Fast forward to Pineland and a few more weeks of solid training I obliterated my PR and felt unstoppable going into Vermont. Another PR at Catamount in the 50K and then time to take a crack at the 100.
My first 100 miler was quite the experience. It really is the roller coaster that everybody describes it as. I was so thankful to have such an amazing crew out there and experience the rolling hills of Vermont. I beat my time goal of sub-24 hours and came out excited for my next 100. Pretty much immediately after I Vermont I started training for Grindstone. Not taking more time off was probably a mistake. Training for a hundred is extremely draining physically and mentally. Still, I got it done.
Grindstone was hell. Simple as that. I was definitely fit, ready for the hills, and had another amazing crew. But add some constant rain, sloppy trails, and humidity and you can completely derail me. I set out to finish Grindstone to get my Hardrock qualifier. I didn’t drive to Virginia to run 50 miles, or 65 miles, or 80 miles. I was there to do a hundred. So I dug deep and got it done.
After Grindstone, the last 3 months were such a whirlwind. Woahman crushed me (although I definitely was not recovered to run it). At the Cambridge Half, I wanted to run a 1:25 to prove to myself a BQ in 2017 was achievable. I beat that goal by about a minute and fifteen seconds. I ran a PR at Yulefest which was completely unexpected. I hadn’t planned on it, but the consistency of training for the hundred milers plus the mental fortitude really has helped at the shorter distances.
With 2017 just about here, I think it’s worth setting some goals. Number 1 goal is to BQ. I think the fitness is there. I’d like it to happen at Hyannis, but my training has not been the most consistent. I also need to re-qualify for Western States. My current plan is to run either Run Rabbit Run or the Bear. I really love the hundred mile distance, but running more than one a year is more than I can really enjoy. Beyond those two specific goals, I honestly just plan on racing a little bit less. Although I was successful at most of my races, the ones that I wasn’t (Bear Mountain, Pisgah) were extremely defeating. Besides that, it is really exhausting racing like once per month. Finally, just have to stay consistent. 2016 was definitely my breakout running year, so I can’t wait to see what 2017 has to offer.
It was tough. It was way tougher than the Vermont 100, which I already thought was pretty hard. It was tougher than any race I’ve done, regardless of cramping, nutrition issues, or overheating. 27 sleep deprived hours in the rain over 101 miles with 23,200 feet of elevation change forced me to dig incredibly deep and fight an irresistible urge to call it quits. Two days after, my feet still raw and legs achy, I know I made the right choice to push through. But at mile 24, 51, 65, and 87 (and several other points in between) dropping felt like the only option. Grindstone was such a roller coaster. Waves of intense strength and drive would be pushed out by incredible lows filled with pain and self-doubt. Little issues compounded into pain so intense that each step felt like walking on knives. But still, I made it.
Race weekend essentially started the Thursday before the race, where work held up me and my crew from hitting the road. The plan was to drive to Harrisburg, PA and stay the night before heading down to Swoope, VA to set up camp and wait for the race’s first challenge, a 6 PM start. We didn’t get to the hotel until about 2:30 AM on Friday, but sleeping in I still got about 6 hours of sleep which felt adequate.
We got back on the road and made it to the boy scout camp around 1:30 just in time for the race briefing. Confident that I was ready to race, we set up camp and ate some food. The next 4 hours involved me anxiously waiting for the race to start and going over crew instructions. The rain had already started and would not cease entirely until after I would finish Saturday night. Finally, 6 PM rolled around and I took off around the lake and into the camp’s trail system.
Going over crew instructions. Photo Credit – Samantha Alyn Goresh
Prepping the feet, which would become a ritual every 10 miles or so. Photo Credit – Samantha Alyn Goresh
Mile 2? Trying to look unconcerned by the fact it was super humid and I was already damp. Photo Credit – Samantha Alyn Goresh
The first 5 miles were extremely uneventful – as they should be during a hundred miler. People were quiet and I was tense knowing that it was going to be a wet day during which chafing and blisters were all but inevitable. While I anticipated rain, the forecast was constantly changing and unreliable. What was supposed to be an occasional shower changed to a steady storm that would switch between a misting and torrential down pour. I cruised into the first aid station at mile 5.2 and grabbed a PB&J. Like Vermont, the fueling strategy was to eat real food early and often, while drinking Tailwind and taking a Gu every 45 minutes.
Leaving the aid station, we started the first significant climb up to Elliott’s Knob. The climb started with some smooth trail with a gentle grade followed by a steep climb up a gravel road to the summit. I felt ridiculously strong power hiking and passed several other runners. A runner ahead of me called out that we turned right to head to the summit where we would punch our bibs proving we reached the top but as it turns out, they misread the sign and led us about half a mile down the trail we would descend the mountain. I noticed that no runners had followed us and hollered to the two runners who made the wrong turn that we needed to turn around. We recovered the ground quickly and made our way to the summit and punched our bibs, now behind each of the runners I had just passed. Not letting the mess up get to my head, I turned around and started descending. I was expecting the trail down to be extremely technical given the race reports but it was actually pretty manageable. There was a decent amount of loose rock and off-camber trail, but it made for some good running, especially compared to the Blue Hills.
I hit the next aid station, refilled my bottles, and took off the next major climb. Again the hiking felt amazing and I pushed hard up the climb. The descent was extremely smooth and I cruised down to Dowells Draft where I grabbed more tailwind out of my drop bag. The rain had stayed light at this point so I decided to not change my socks which would end up being a pretty big mistake. I hiked out of the aid station eating a banana and grilled cheese. The next climb was extremely gentle and I should have been running, but I started to feel overwhelmingly sleepy. 4 miles of simple terrain around midnight was wearing on me, and I felt the overwhelming urge to sleep wherever I could. I told myself “I’ll sit down at the next aid station and sleep for 15 minutes” or “When I see the crew I sleep in the car for half an hour”. It was extremely demoralizing to feel so tiring so early. I kept saying I just needed to take a little rest, but the idea of dropping crept in. Maybe it just wasn’t my day and a rainy evening start was just not helping.
When I finally crested the hill and started running downhill, I told myself to run hard and just get to the aid station and regroup. Somehow, I got to the Lookout Mountain aid station sooner than I was expecting and my spirits immediately rebounded. The next aid was only about 10K away and it was all downhill. I’d see my crew and I was still under my goal pace of making it to the turn around in 11 hours. As I descended North River Gap, my energy continued to rise. I took out my iPod and listened to a few minutes of a podcast before I heard footsteps behind me. I started to chat with the runner who was keeping pace with me. For the next 5ish miles I was running with Levi, who lived in Virginia and apparently “hated running hundreds” even though it was his second one. We talked about traveling, other runs, what we did for work, and how much we hated the weather and needed dry socks. We hit the small stretch of pavement before the aid station and tried to identify my Subaru and my crew.
As I rolled into the aid station I looked around frantically for my crew, but they were nowhere to be seen. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t meeting up with my crew and regrouped. I ate a lot of food, refilled my bottles and reservoir, and took some perogies to eat on the massive 7 mile, 3000 foot climb ahead. About a half mile into the climb I heard someone shout “Boston!” and looked back to see Levi. I realized I hadn’t introduced myself, which made me feel like quite the jerk. After some actual introductions, we marched up the hill. We continued to exchange stories and pass the time. At this point, the middle of my left foot started to sting. The blister that was forming would go from an minor inconvenience to so painful by mile 85 or so that each step felt impossible. Levi assured me that a switchback would signal the end of the climb, but a switchback never came. He apologized profusely for not knowing the intricacies of the climb, but I couldn’t care less as we reached the summit of the 4th major climb of the race. At that moment, the clouds opened up and it poured. The trail immediately pooled water and the dirt turned to mud. Everything got soaked. I pleaded out loud for the aid station to appear. After what felt like 5 miles, it did. The Little Bald Knob aid station had delicious vegetable soup and a warm fire I avoided for fear I’d never leave. As I prepared to head back out a chill struck me and I quickly pulled out my Houdini and gloves in an effort to get warm. Levi did the same and we took off to Reddish Knob and the turn around.
The first mile out of the aid station I was freezing. Even when we were hiking I swung my arms hard to generate some more heat. Thankfully I warmed up and we continued uphill to the parking lot on top of the mountain. On the way, Levi’s headlamp cut out and I gave him my spare before he could even ask. I knew my headlamp would make it to the turn around and I had plenty of extras with my crew. Levi kept asking if I was sure, but one of the reason’s I love trail running is the community. I wasn’t going to leave him in the dark.
The wind whipped violently on the top of Reddish Knob and the rain persisted. Levi, a few other runners, and I searched everywhere for the punch for our bib but we couldn’t find anything.After 2 minutes we said “fuck it” and ran the two miles or so of paved road to the turn around. I got to the turnaround at exactly 12 hours, an hour later than I expected. I ran into the aid station and someone shouted to me “Woo runners…wait is that Matt?”. It was me. Brian was waiting for me and got Amina and Sam. We switched my socks, my shirt, my jacket, and my headlamp. I ate as much food as I could stomach and mentally regrouped. I wanted to quit. The rain wasn’t going to let up. It was colder than I expected. My feet were deteriorating fast. I was behind schedule. It was not my day. But at the same time, I took off work for this. I sacrificed hours and hours of training. I knew how proud Colleen would be of me if I pushed through. I got up and out of the aid station and started my 15 or so hour march back.
All night I had been looking forward to the sunrise, but when it finally came I was disappointed. The clouds loomed and continued to rain and the sun seemed to do nothing but illuminate the massive puddles and mud that had formed. My spirits remained low when I had expected them to rebound. I thought it would be a quick run from the turnaround to Little Bald Knob given the terrain, but I couldn’t move well. When I finally got there I ate some food and just kept moving. I knew the 7 mile descent to North River was going to be more painful than the way up but I ran it pretty well. I was excited Amina would be joining me for the next 15 miles and just did my best to go from aid station to aid station. When I got to North River, I changed my socks again and surveyed my feet. Fuck did they look bad, and once again contemplated just calling it. My ride was there, it would be easy to leave. But at the same time, I was over 100K done and my legs barely hurt at all. How frustrating though, my legs felt fresh at mile 65 but my feet felt like another 100 yards would be too far. But as would be the theme for the rest of the day, I got out of the aid station and kept marching.
The first mile or so with Amina felt great. Shortly after that though my spirits fell to the lowest point they had all day. I took a break on the trail and fought back tears as my doubt mounted. Determined to make it to the next aid station and only have 50K left (which is insane) I told Amina to lead and pull me up the hill. Like magic, it worked. My feet hurt like hell, but I could run well and hike strong when I was being dragged along. We got to the aid station and rolled out with purpose. There were only three major climbs left and I was determined to get this thing done. The first climb was over the next 2 miles and the final two would be 15 miles I would run with Brian. Amina and I crushed the first climb and charged the 5ish miles downhill to mile 80. I was rallying, ready to go, and ready to push.
I told Brian to get moving quick and that I would need Sam to pace me the final five miles from 96 to the finish, so be ready. Brian and I made quick work of the first two rolling miles before starting the second to last climb. Things quickly turned south. The climb felt endless, and after stopping for a bathroom break I lost all energy. My legs – still fresh. My feet – excruciating. At the top of the climb I sat on a log and closed my eyes for five minutes and fought back sleep. I knew I couldn’t run the descent even though there were only a few steep sections with limited technicality. I was crushed to move as slow down as up. I kept asking Brian how far to the next aid station. I decided I was going to take the time to sit down for 10 minutes, close my eyes, warm up, and regroup. I had him run ahead to let the crew know, thinking I would have about half a mile alone, but as I turned a corner right after Brian left I was at the aid station!
I got into the aid station that had limited food. I had Brian make some coffee as I sat down and closed my eyes. Amina tended to my feet as Sam grabbed food and checked my supplies. 10 minutes later, I kept marching.
Again, dropping was tempting but 13 miles was doable. 13% of the race left. That was it. I told Brian all I wanted to be up the final climb was “steady”. No pace goal, no running, just steady. I lead up the hill and the strategy worked 80% of the way up until the trail turned back to the rocky stuff that wasn’t too bad descending. The rocks jabbed at my feet and made me wince with each step. Even though the hill seemed to have ended, the flat stretch to the gravel road was incredibly painful and the light started to fade. Finally, we hit the incredibly steep gravel road that we walked down to save my quads and my feet. We returned to the smooth trail that the first climb started up and walked more purposefully until we hit several creeks that early could be hopped but with all the rain required slogging through. The wet creeks made my feet even more tender and I stopped for a minute to collect myself. Nothing hurt like this before. Nothing hurt with every step before. 7 miles left, but those 7 might as well have been 70. Walking for another 2 hours was going to take every ounce of strength.
Just about then, Brian and I got passed by two runners and I told Brian “Just run”. He half halfheartedly jogged and I said “No run”. He did, and I followed. I ran well for the first time in 20 miles. He ran and so did I until we hit the Falls Hallow aid station. I yelled to the crew “I’m going to keep going, can you catch up?” Me and a few runners took off the final small hill to tackle the final 5 miles. My legs felt fine and the more I ran the less my feet screamed. My pacer caught up and I said that I would follow, just pull me along. Over five miles, she did. I got to the lake. It was happening. Sam said she, “could hear the smile in my voice,” as I returned to Camp Shenandoah. Sam ran ahead to take some photos, Amina ran me in. Brian cheered. And after 27 hours and 15 minutes and 36 hours of being awake, I crossed the finish and hugged the totem pole. I called Colleen and told her was alive and I finished. And after cleaning up and eating a bit I passed out.
While I didn’t hit my goal of not turning on the headlamp again, I did manage to finish what felt impossible earlier in the day – Photo Credit – Samantha Alyn Goresh
Even after sleeping for 9 hours, I was still pretty damn tired Photo Credit – Samantha Alyn Goresh
Grindstone was a monster, fueled to be even more gargantuan through awful weather. It took every ounce of strength and perseverance to finish. I though of everyone pulling for me, my crewing working to keep me safe and moving, and all the time I put in. I have never felt anything quite like how my feet felt during this race. But I came out the other side, knowing I am a much stronger runner and ready to take on whatever challenges come next.
With the fanfare and elation of Vermont 100 starting to wear off, I am doing my best to mentally shift from my summer goal race to what is coming up this fall. Without a doubt, Grindstone will be much more of a challenge, climbing and descending 23,000+ feet over its 101 miles. For reference, that is like climbing Denali (Mt. McKinley) and an additional 3000 feet from sea level and descending back down. It’s a lot of up and down. Aid stations will be farther apart, crew access will be more limited, and it is likely I will be paced for fewer miles than I was in Vermont. All of these things culminate to a tougher physical and mental challenge. I am actually really excited for the toughness of the race, fully abandoning any time goals and using the race’s 38 hour cutoff as a mental safety net, knowing that even at a slow walk I will be able to finish the race.
Obviously, I do not want to take an entire 38 hours. I want to perform well, enjoy the race, and come out qualified for Hardrock, UTMB, and Western States in 2017. To do so, I am trying to dive into training and make the most of the 2 months until race day. Unlike Vermont, I do not have a set of races leading up to the event to help gradually ramp up the distance. With the amount of climbing at Grdinstone, I haven’t been able to find races I can realistically get to that will simulate what I’m going to encounter in Virginia. Not being able to fall back on the same strategy that worked so well for my first hundred in definitely tough. I have to alter my strategy and step a bit out of my comfort zone, which effectively makes Grindstone feel like it is my first time racing the distance.
56 days until I toe the line, I am trying to focus on a few different things than pure mileage this training block: consistency, elevation, and rest. For consistency, I am going to use the same training plan from Vermont, 6 days a week running with one day off. Instead of an off day, I fully intend to cycle just to get a bit of cardiovascular fitness unless I am feeling especially tired. Elevation is a bit harder to earn than consistency or rest living in the middle of Boston, but Summit Ave is in my backyard, Harvard Stadium is just around the corner, and Blue Hills and the Fells both have plenty of elevation change if you know where to look. I won’t be able to simulate the 3,000+ foot climbs that I will be battling on race day without the use of a treadmill or long drives north, but I will do my best to climb and descend whenever I can. It will be difficult to balance this aspect of training, since going up will slow me down, and being slower means covering less mileage per week. I felt confident with my weekly mileage for Vermont, but this cycle I will have to feel confident mileage + elevation change. Finally, I want to make sure I am resting and recovering adequately every single day. That means improving my diet, sleeping 8+ hours when I can, and knowing when it is not worth running an extra mile for the Strava data when I know I really need to rest. I think listening to my body is going to be more essential than any training regiment or workout I could do.
My first 100 mile is finished. After what feels like endless preparation, race day has come and gone, and it still does not feel real. Even though I ran for over 21 hours, the race feels like a blur. I was probably more stressed about writing this race report than I ever was about running the race itself just because of how hard it is to recall everything. I will do my best to recount what I experienced throughout the day, what the highs and lows were, and what I wish I knew going into the race. But even though it feels like it passed in an instant, the Vermont 100 was easily the most memorable and incredible thing I have ever done. Being able to push my body to such an extreme was a unique experience that so few people ever accomplish that I hope to cherish forever, regardless of how many more of these stupid things I run.
I guess it makes sense to start with the training and taper leading up to the race. With Bear Mountain, I did weekly recaps to keep me honest and give me a tool to reflect on my training progress. Knowing that my first hundred was going to be as much of a mental battle as it was a physical one, I decided to keep my training to myself and not add an additional burden. I modified my 50 mile training plan with a few double days, a 50 mile and 50K race, and generally just tried to increase the time on feet and elevation gain. I had several weeks of 70+ miles but my main focus was avoiding burning out. I was still traveling to California for a majority of my training so just completing all of my workouts was a major accomplishment.
Taper started with 4th of July weekend with some great hikes / trail runs up and down Mount Washington. Admittedly, it was probably a bit too much two weeks out from the race, but I stayed smart and took it very easy in the last 10 or so days of taper. I ran the Vert Sasquatch trail race in the Fells a week before the race which was a fun race just because I don’t remember the last time I ran that fast for that long during a race (and it was only a 2.4 mile race…). After that, I completely ran by feel. I ran what felt comfortable with the only real goal for the week being to run more than 15 miles. On Friday, I took a rest day and before I knew it I was picking up my bib and listening to the pre-race meeting.
For the 24 hours before the gun went off, I think Colleen would have described me as frustratingly unenthused. I wasn’t anxiously waiting for the start, my bib pickup, or pre-race details, or getting to bed at a certain time. I was just going to run 100 miles on Saturday, and that was that. I was intentionally staying calm, doing my best not to over emphasize what I would take at a particular aid station or what splits I needed to hit. The day was going to play out however it did, and I would roll with it. I gave Colleen (my amazing crew chief) and the rest of my crew general instructions like when I anticipated I would be at certain aid stations, how much tailwind to put in my bottle, and when I was going to change shoes. But that was pretty much it. I felt that if I lost myself in the details there was no way I would be able to run 100 miles.
I did manage to get a few hours of sleep Friday night and waking up a 2:15AM was easier than it was for me to wake up at 7AM most days. I had a bagel and some coffee, double checked I had all my gear, and was off to the start. I checked-in about 30 minutes before go-time and waited in line for the bathroom which took roughly 28 minutes. I know nerves has pretty much everyone rushing to the bathroom before a huge race, but I think more than 10 portos could have alleviated that situation immensely. I made it to the start corral with about 10 seconds before the gun went off and I was running into the night.
The pack of runners was so tight for the first 7 or so miles I could have run without a headlamp. I had a really difficult time staying collected and not running faster with the hope of banking some time for later. I knew that it was going to be a lot more miserable to run 60 miles and blow up then it would be to run conservatively for as long as I could so I kept it calm and just enjoyed the quiet running of rural Vermont. I had a few general plans and mantras for the day. The race was only going to be however far it was to the next aid station at any given time, I was going to take a gel every 45 minutes for as long as I could stomach it (until mile 88 essentially), and if I was going to walk I was going to “walk with purpose”.
There is about 20 miles of running until the first crew-accessible aid station. This section was extremely uneventful. Two things struck me most. First, the Vermont 100 is essentially a road race with some trail thrown in to keep you sane or connect you to another dirt road, so I was extremely thankful I ran in road shoes for the first 70 miles. Second, Vermont has way more dirt road than I thought possible. Reading the course description, I really thought that if we were going to be running 70+ miles of dirt road we would be in the middle of nowhere, but in reality there is just a lot of dirt roads off the main highways in Vermont.
I shared a couple of miles with an 11 time Leadville finisher, and as I did with every other 100 mile veteran I ran with, I asked as many questions as I could. Everybody seemed to have their own techniques or strategies, so I don’t think any of the advice really helped. But the conversation really did pass the miles. The Vermont 100 course is incredibly well supported, with aid stations about every 4-5 miles. In the first 20 miles, there were 4 aid stations: 2 unmanned and 2 manned. I made my way quickly through all of them, knowing that by mile 20 I would start taking slightly longer stops to eat more real food and stay focused mentally. We rolled along through the hills and before I knew it we were at the Pretty House aid station at mile 21 right before 8 AM anxious to see my crew.
…Except they weren’t there. I didn’t stress the details but I did say get to the aid stations 30 minutes BEFORE the time on my pace sheet. Quickly, I started to panic. I was planning to change to a tank top here to stay cool, switch to a handheld water bottle to fit ice and more Tailwind, grab more gels but all of that was out the window. But as quickly as things started to seem out of control, I reigned it all back in. I knew my crew didn’t purposefully miss me and if I really needed to stick to my plan that badly I could wait a minute or two. I had enough gels to run the next 10 miles until I would see them next. It wasn’t hot yet, so I was fine in my t-shirt and pack. So, I ate some watermelon, told the volunteers to tell my crew I was on my way, and took off.
Sticking to my plan, I chipped away the miles to the next unmanned aid station at mile 25. I refilled my bottles, and kept moving. I spent a few minutes with someone who had run the race twice before, who advised me to just treat the hills with respect. Between 25 and 30 was pretty damn hilly, so I had no problem respecting the heck out of the hills and hiking hard up and letting gravity do the work on the descents. Bobbing up and down through a few meadows, I hit a long dirt road section that descended to the Stage Road aid station at mile 30 that my crew was cheering for me at!
I whipped off my pack, changed my shirt, applied sunscreen and body glide before eating half a PB&J, taking a gel, and heading back out. Seeing my crew was a huge pick me up, and I really had no hard feelings about not seeing the at mile 21. The next section of the course would be the longest I would go without seeing them for the rest of the race so I made sure I was well stocked and ready to go. Right out of the aid station was a brutal climb that I actually really enjoyed because I was able to pass quite a few people. The day was starting to heat up, but I had ice water in my bottle and ice under my hat to stay nice and cool. Before I knew it, there was another aid station cheering me around a bend! The miles were flying by so quickly and easily that I felt incredible. The training was paying off, I felt smart and strong so far, things were going great and would stay that way if I stayed on top of nutrition and my pace.
Right after the aid station, I ran into a runner from Nicaragua (who told me his name, but, you know, ultra-brain). We ran close to 7 miles together talking about our ultra running experiences, what our goals were for the day, what was hurting at that point, and what it was like in Nicaragua. The conversation was so engaging and welcome that the 1.5 hours or whatever it wound up being felt like nothing. We rolled into the Lincoln Covered Bridge aid station and ate some popsicles and marched our way up what I am pretty sure was the biggest climb of the day. Right after the climb I pulled a bit ahead and hammered a long downhill to Lillian’s aid station where I grabbed some real food and took off as quick as possible. Camp 10 Bear was the next aid station and it was only 4 miles away. I wanted to get there as quickly as possible to see my crew and some familiar TARC faces and be close to halfway done with the race. Right out of Lillian’s was a really long road section that really only stunk because I was getting hot before some fun single track and exposed dirt road before 10 Bear.
As I ran down the road into 10 Bear, I saw my crew around the car when Laura shouted, “Perfect timing! We just pulled up”. They grabbed my gear and ran with me to the aid station. I took a bit more time here to eat a lot of calories (mostly of grilled cheese, bagels, and watermelon) and cool down. A volunteer hit me with a sponge of ice water and I instantly felt reinvigorated. Being at mile 47, I was shocked how well I felt and knew that sub-24 was going to happen, now it was a matter of how far below I could get. I left the aid station and ran to what many described as the worst climb of the race. Honestly, I don’t think it was that bad, but it was pretty steep for a bit of it and in direct sunlight. I was climbing really well still and happier going up than down. I passed someone at this point who told me her mantra for the day that I plan to adopt at my next 100 miler: “Don’t be an idiot for the first 50. Don’t be a wimp for the second 50”. Well, it was time to not be a wimp.
Pretty much right after mile 50 I hit my first major low of the race. Nothing was hurting, my stomach was fine, I had plenty to eat and drink. But just looking at my watch and going “okay, now just do that one more time” felt crazy. 50 miles is really far! 100 miles is stupid far. But I knew I wasn’t going to quit, so I just did my best to grind out the miles until each aid station. I probably lost some time here struggling mentally, but next time I think I know to just push through.
Before I got to the next crew station, I asked another runner if he knew where the aid station was. He told me it was up this hill, but it was a never ending hill. Turns out he knew what he was talking about because 2016 was his 24th time finishing the race! After the never ending hill, I saw my crew again at mile 59, lovingly named Margaritaville. The best part was my friend Matt was now with them! He surprised me by driving up to Vermont from Boston and I instantly snapped out of my funk. I told Colleen and the rest of the crew I was going to take a few minutes at Margaritaville to regroup and make sure I was ready for the rest of the day. When I took off, the hills started right back up and I thought to myself that no one hill is really never ending, but the sheer frequency of the hills was.
Running back from mile 59 to 10 Bear at mile 70 I had some stomach issues that forced me to walk a couple stretches I wanted to be running, but other than that things were good and my stomach thankfully settled at the aid station. I switched my shoes at 10 Bear, ate some food, and took off with a pacer finally. Amina paced me the next 6 miles which included a pretty intense climb out of 10 Bear but rolled pleasantly along single track and dirt road until the Spirit of ’76 aid station. Amina and I chatted about how the day was going and how great I was feeling. This section of the course was easily my favorite with nice views and more trail than I had been getting the rest of the day.
At mile 76 I switched pacers, put my pack back on, and took my headlamp as Laura and I took of for a 12 mile stretch. We had aid stations every 3 to 5 miles so it was easy to break up, but soon after it got dark my spirits tanked. I went from feeling like 100% all day to like I had been hit by a truck. I started to walk more but thankfully was still running and asked Laura to pull me along. I just needed to make it to mile 88 for my next pacer switch. From there, things would feel manageable. We slogged along, constantly passed by cars in both directions which caused my headlamp (which adjusts to ambient light) to distractingly flicker on and off and various brightness levels. I did my best to ignore it and we got closer and closer to Bill’s Barn at mile 88. Right before the aid station the course markings changed from yellow to white and I almost had an instant panic attack that we had gone off course. Thankfully a crew van passed us and reassured that we were on course and right near the aid station, so crisis averted.
At Bill’s, I took my time to take my final gel for the day, pack my bottles with extra caffeinated Tailwind, and at as much real food as I could stomach. At this point, chicken noodle soup was quickly becoming an elixir and I downed a cup at every aid station from Bill’s until the finish. I left Bill’s with Amina pacing me for the next 6.5 miles. I could tell we were both tired as neither of us really chatted much, but one of our headlamps started blinking. I was convinced it was her’s, but we took a minute to examine the situation and it turns out my lamp was about to die. Turns out all of the cars passing in the last section forced the lamp to constantly be adjusting and it zapped the battery. I was so frustrated I wanted to chuck the lamp as deep into the woods as I could and never see it again, but I resisted the urge and took out my wimpy spare. Amina and I ticked off the miles as I asked her every 10 minutes how far we had gone. Finally, we got to Polly’s aid station for my final pacer switch and started the last 5 miles to the finish.
Matt paced me the last 5 miles and was full of energy, spooky stories, and plenty of pep to get me moving quick to the end. I told him I wanted to push and finish as quick as possible and we moved as well as I could until the last 2 miles which pretty much climbed to the finish. At this point I started mildly hallucinating roots were moving like snakes or that tree trunks on the side of the trail were animals, so that was a new experience. With about 3 miles to go, thunder and lightning started to pick up. With a mile and a half left, the skies opened up and drenched us. Those list miles were epic, running through a torrential down pour, the rain drops catching the light of our headlamps. As we pushed on, the normal glow sticks changed to gallon-jugs with glow sticks submerged in them. We passed a sign that read “half a mile to go” and before I knew what was happening I was through the finish line hugging Colleen and chatting with Amy the Race Director about November Project. After 21 hours and 26 minutes, I had run 100 miles.
I wobbled over to the finisher tent and ate the best cheeseburger I have ever eaten, chatting with my crew about the race and the experience. I was eager to get to the hotel to shower and sleep but as soon as I stood up, I started shivering violently and was ushered over to a cot to lay down warm up. It was the strangest sensation because I felt so hot but was shivering harder than I ever had. About 20 minutes later, the feeling subsided and I was back in the car about 24 hours after I had woken up.
It all went so well that after writing this race report I am a bit bummed that I don’t have some epic story to share. I ran 100 miles as well as I could as a novice at the distance. I paced my self better than I ever have, my nutrition was on point, and I kept myself thinking positively for as much as the race as I could. So what’s next? 3 days post race, I am feeling pretty confident about my decision to enter the Grindstone 100 so I am definitely going to be in Virginia in a few months attempting my second 100 miler. I want to thank my crew (Colleen, Laura, Amina, Kristen, Sharon, Tony, and shockingly Matt) one last time, the race director and incredible race committee, and everyone who has supported me in ultra running over the past year and a half one last time. Without a doubt, I am definitely hooked on this distance and cannot wait to see what happens next.
Since Colleen already wrote an amazing blog post detailing our getaway in backcountry Maine, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the trip. This blog primarily deals with recaps, reports, and training logs. I really don’t spend much time looking or writing about why I like ultra running, what drives me to run these insane distances, or the response I get from outsiders. With the Maine trip, taking the racing component out of an ultra-distance gave me time to think of all of these things and how important distance running has become to my well-being.
The first word that comes to mind thinking back to the trip a week later is grateful. I can’t describe how lucky I am to be able to run these long distances through nature or new cities. Without a doubt, I believe the best way to experience a new place is on foot, and being able to move swiftly and efficiently over trails is so gratifying. Usually I ignore how incredible the opportunity to do something like this is, but the Maine trip removed all the pressure of competition. Sure, we ran an ultra, but the primary goal wasn’t to finish first. It was to take in the inherent beauty of the lakes and mountains. We were able to cover everything the Maine Huts & Trails had to offer in one day, making the experience even more overwhelming. Hitting the trails more frequently in California, I find myself learning to appreciate this aspect of trail running more. Sometimes, it’s okay to break up your tempo mile to take in a stunning vista, or snap a picture. Something else I always allude to on the site is how much I love the ultra running community. I think it is a pretty easy catch-all for saying I like hanging out with ultra runners, but there are some aspects that I can’t quiet pinpoint. Everyone on the trip was so incredibly supportive. I wanted to run trailhead to trailhead, so of course everyone said I should. Colleen’s knee hurt, so we all hiked to not cause her significant pain. For some of the group, it would be their longest run ever, so we buddied up so nobody was left alone. Regardless of our goals, experience, or expectations, we all had a group of 7 cheerleaders, encouraging us to achieve incredible things. Even though this was a very inclosed retreat, it was a pretty accurate representation of what I have experienced throughout the ultra running community. Every single person will help you push beyond what you think your limits are.
Finally, part of me just likes the solitude that comes with distance running. This extends beyond just trail running because it is part of the reason I like running marathons as well. Even with crowds cheering, other racers, and numerous distractions, it is impossible not to turn focus inwards. Listen to your body. Assess how you are feeling. One foot in front of another. As I ran the last portion of the trail alone, I was solely focused on my breathing and my footsteps. This trip alone would have been pretty awful, but the ability to just completely disconnect is so important to me. People often ask me what I think about when I run so far, and most of the time the answer is nothing. It borders on a type of active meditation that helps make the other aspects of the sport so appealing.
PR-ing at Pineland Farms by 2 hours was pretty unexpected. Given the course, I definitely expected to set a personal record. I started the day out thinking I was going to crack 9 hours, but I wasn’t tracking splits or stressing about nutrition. I was truly out there to just have a long, long run as preparation for Vermont in a few weeks. But as the day went on, and my mental math started to be a bit easier, sub-8 hours was within sight and I became fixated. The last lap of the course was the most focused I have ever been running a race, and by the end of it all I was so incredibly pleased with my result.
Leading up to the race I had a pretty typical training week. It was a bit lower volume since I was running 50 miles on Sunday, but I had a pretty great interval workout on Wednesday and a few other moderate and recovery runs. By Saturday I had run 28 miles bringing my total mileage up to 78 miles, about where I was targeting. Race weekend, I was completely nonchalant about the race, which is a change for me. Usually for any of my ultras I get anxious the last few days before the race. I stress about my race plan, what I am going to carry with me, what to wear, what the weather is going to be, and every other thing that may impact the race. Since I was really only using the race to get time on my feet, I didn’t really find it worth the effort to stress. I knew going into the race that I would be able to run 50 miles, I just didn’t have any plan for how long it was going to take. Mentally, I was also a bit distracted with Colleen not running the race. 2 weeks before race day, we were both so excited to be heading to Maine to run this race, and then out of nowhere she develops a shin splint and has to sit the race out. Of course, she was still incredibly supportive, but having her have another hiccup in training felt devestating. I definitely felt guilty toeing the start line healthy and have to remember not take my health for granted.
At the start, I got my drop bag ready and just waited for the gun to go off. Pineland Farms has a whole bunch of different races on its course of 15.5 miles through cross country ski trails and farmland. The cross country ski trails are incredibly smooth and runnable with modest climbs and descent, all of which I would describe as runnable. The toughest part of the course are the farmlands that just don’t allow for confident footing. They were all off-camber with tall grass pushed down on it so you couldn’t see any hazards. To bring the race up to 50 miles, there is a short 3.5 mile loop that we ran before hitting the official course.
When we finally started running, I had my usual mix of excitement and hesitation. Of course the first 5 miles of a 50 miler feel great, there is still 90% of the race left. Given how much of the course you could run easily, I knew it was going to be a tough day of being smart with my pacing and avoiding a blow out. On the baby-loop and the first 15.5 mile loop I met a bunch of different people (whose names all escape me). We chatted about what other races we had run or had planned, what our goals were for the day, and silly things like our preferred electrolyte beverage. One guy in particular who was wearing a Vermont 100 hat was great company. We had a great hour or two talking about his race experience at Vermont last year, what I should prepare for, and how the last 30 miles at Vermont are by far the hardest. It felt great getting training for the race running and getting advice from a previous finisher. Since we were both using it as a training race, we decided to walk all but the smallest hills. I knew that I could easily run them all, but it was important to not completely trash our legs and disrupt training the next week. On the second and third loops, I did get carried away and start to run everything but the biggest hills. While this could’ve been a costly mistake, writing this two days later I feel pretty refreshed and ready to get back running, so all good. At the last aid station of the first loop, me and my running body both dug into our drop bags. I knew exactly where my gel was and was quickly in and out which left me without company. About a mile later, my legs started to feel a bit sluggish and my motivation started sinking. Of course without the mental distraction and having run close to 20 miles, I was feeling fatigued. This is when I probably started doing the biggest change I have made from any previous ultras. I started taking in caffeinated gels at specific intervals. Once an hour, in addition to other gels or food, I took a whole caffeinated Gu pack. I have no idea if it was actually having an effect or if it was pure placebo, but my energy levels stayed so incredibly consistent it was unreal. Once I shook off the sluggishness and got into a more competitive mindset, I felt like nothing could stop me. I ran with purpose and when I did take breaks to walk, I made sure to walk quickly. I made a point to reel in anyone I front of me and keep my legs moving. I came into each aid station knowing exactly what I needed and kept well hydrated.
Like I mentioned, Pineland Farms has a ton of different races going on the same courses, which meant there was rarely a time I couldn’t see another runner. Most of the time I didn’t know if someone were running the 50 mile, 50K, or 25K, but it made the race feel a lot less lonely since I almost alway had someone to exhange a word of encouragement to or use as motivation to push up the hills. Towards the end of the second loop, I ran into Rosa who snapped a quick picture. She was a huge energy booster and even though I had 20 miles or so left to run, it didn’t feel that far. I made one last stop at my drop bag, grabbed my final two caffeinated gels, and took off onto the last loop.I am the first to admit I suffer from ultra-brain when I am running. I frequently miss nutrition, forget what I have left to run, or just make bad decision. The thing that is most affected by ultra-brain is my ability to do mental math. On the last loop, I started to wonder if I could run sub-8, but even though I knew my last two splits for a full loop were around 2:30, I couldn’t piece together if I could break that barrier. I reconciled that when I got to the final 15K, I could more easily calculate what I needed to run for the last 9 or so miles. So, I just checked out and watched the kilometer markers along the course tick by. I didn’t care about how much race was left, or how my time was in those miles, I just cared about what I had to work with at 9 miles to go. If my memory serves correctly, I had about 100 minutes from the 15K marker to get to the finish to hit the new goal that came out of nowhere. As soon as I hit that marker, I was determined to run harder than I ever have. I pushed hard on everything, uphill, flat, or downhill. I spent 30 seconds at aid stations if I stopped at all. Each time I got to a significant point (10K remainin, 5K remaining) the goal became more tangible and the running became easier. 7 hours, and 48 minutes later I was across the finish line.
All said and done, I am really starting to feel confident for Vermont. I have a few more solid weeks of training I can use to get some more specific training and elevation change. With this race being such a success, I am even more excited to see what my first 100 will hold.