Thursday, December 22, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Hellgate 100K

My Three Hellgates

Number 1: The race I wanted to run, aiming for 13 hours.
Number 2: A P.R. at least (14 hours), once #1 went out the window.
Number 3: A race to finish before I gave in and DNF'd.

I had high hopes for Hellgate this year.  I've been running pretty well, the weather looked to be warmer than usual, no snow on the course...  my dad was going to come crew for me again...  what could go wrong?  Two years ago I finished in 14 hours, so given how I've been running, I figured I could do 13 this year.  My 100K PR is under 10 hours, but that's on the road, and Hellgate is... different.  A midnight start, so you get a good 7 hours of running at night.  Plenty of elevation change, mainly in the form of long, multi-mile climbs.  Plus, it's several miles longer than 100K.  Is it 66.6 miles?  Perhaps.

Start to AS 2 (@8 miles)

I napped a little in the afternoon and at least rested a bit before the start (Sean being in no mood to actually sleep for some reason).  At the start, I was surprised by how warm it was.  I got out of the car wearing a jacket over my warmest running shirt, mittens, and a heavy hat that I can fold down to cover my ears and neck.  After all, even if it was warmer there, we'd be running up into the mountains...  But once I checked in, I went back and revised.  Lighter shirt, lighter gloves... I kept the hat just in case.  As we started off through the woods, I figured I had made the right decision.  I warmed up quickly, and unzipped the jacket.  I wouldn't have wanted any more.

I fell in behind the front pack, which was surprisingly large -- maybe 12 or 15 people.  I didn't think I needed to be going any faster, and I didn't think that many people finished under 13 hours.  There was no clear leader -- different people dashed ahead here or there.  I found myself ahead of some of the people I'm usually behind, but it didn't feel like I needed to slow down, either.  So far, so good.  The first leg is all nice trails.  It starts wide enough for the mob, and eventually narrows as you close in on and parallel the road.  A little up and down, but very runnable.

There was some water on the ground, but nothing too extreme.  The usual stream crossing before actually coming out to the road and the first aid station (and it's a big stream -- wet feet are unavoidable, and I splashed my legs too).  I went right on by the station as I didn't need any aid in the first hour.  This was the start of the second leg, which has its ups and downs.  Figuratively, that is -- the actual course is just a four-mile climb up a mountain road.  The up is the down, I suppose you could say.  Anyway, there are two neat aspects of it.  First, with the full moon, we ran the whole thing without lights, which was fun.  And second, as the road switchbacks up the mountain, you can see a long string of lights playing out behind you.  That was actually a little better in previous years -- this time I think so many people near me were running without lights that the stream of headlamps was a little more broken up.

I ended up running with Keith Knipling as we finished the leg.  He had finished just ahead of me at Grindstone, and I hoped to finish this one in his vicinity too.  We chatted as we climbed, though he depressingly seemed pretty confident that everyone ahead of us was going to stay well ahead of us.  I broke it off at the end by turning my lights on.  My dad was waiting for me at the aid station at the top, and he had mentioned several times how he'd be looking for my lights as I came in to a station.  Keith went right on through as I pulled over by Heather and my dad.  He had my fresh hydration pack ready, but I wanted to switch to a cooler hat, so I put down my old pack and rooted through my crew bag for the hat.  I got it, mounted up with the new pack, and headed out.  I had made great time so far, a few minutes ahead of my previous 14 hour pace, at a time in the race where it was pretty hard to make up time.

AS2 to AS4 (@24 miles)

We immediately headed sharply down on another nice trail.  Someone was just ahead, and I pulled even on the downhill and we exchanged small talk.  After a while, I checked my watch, and finding it was time, reached for a gel.  And though I didn't quite recognize it at the moment, this was the end of Hellgate #1.

There was nothing there.  I checked the other pockets, in case my dad had just put it in a weird place.  Nothing.  I felt the weight of the water compartment.  Light.  The trash pocket.  Full.  There was no way around it -- somehow, I had left the station with my empty pack instead of my full one.  Aargh!  Double-aargh!

OK, it would be OK.  I checked my cheat sheet.  75 minutes to the next aid station.  I just had to hold out and I could eat there.  It was going to be 3 hours and 20 minutes before I saw my dad again and could properly resupply.  I had fumbled the refill for the longest gap between crew stations on the entire course.  Lovely.  But I just had to make it an hour on the water on me, and then load up on food, and hope for the best.  I was going to be short on calories for the next 75 minutes, so I couldn't try to make a move here, but I could try to hang with the runners around me, and coast down the hill to the next station.  I figured it was better for this to happen early in the race -- I should still have energy in my legs, and it should be able to carry me until I could catch up on the nutrition again.

I would eventually discover I was wrong on all counts.

First, the trail turned uphill.  Despite my plan, I passed some folks as they slowed to a walk and I jogged more of the lighter inclines.  I came up behind Keith again, which was nice, as he had at least a bit of a head start out of the station.  Also I could force myself to slow down -- I had no need to pass him.  After a little bit of climbing, the trail turned down again.  Just as we were coming out of the woods, one of the runners ahead of me went down spectacularly -- fortunately, on the last bit of dirt before the hard road.  I waited for her to get up and we headed out to the road, beginning to climb.

It didn't take long at all for me to recognize this road.  We first ran down it, and then ran, jogged, walked, or crawled back up it, during the Terrapin Mountain 50K.  I asked Keith to be sure.  "Are we heading toward Camping Gap?"  Yes.  Lovely.  It was at least a 3 mile climb, ranging from uncomfortably steep to steeper still.  At least we could turn our lights off and enjoy the moonlight again.

Halfway up, and really worrying about the nutrition situation, I asked the runners around me if anyone had some gels they could spare.  Keith cheerfully handed over a pack of four gel blocks.  I don't normally care for blocks, particularly on cold nights like this where they had turned solid.  But in this case, it was gold.  I fell back a bit and stuffed two in my mouth, waiting a while for them to warm up enough to chew.  When I caught up a bit later I asked if he wanted the other two back, and he said I could have them.  Double thanks!  I saved them for the next leg, the longer of the two before I'd see my dad again.

I started recognizing more turns, and shortly we pulled into Camping Gap.  Huzzah!  I headed straight for the table and surveyed the offerings.  No gels, and I didn't really want candy, but I began throwing down peanut butter-covered crackers.  I also took about 7 banana chunks to go, stuffing my pockets full of them.  Everyone I had been running with was long gone, and I was still grazing.  Energy drink.  Water for my pack.  More crackers.  Eventually I pulled myself away.

Next up was the Promise Land section.  I remembered ups and downs on a wide, grassy road along the side of a mountain.  Then ups and downs near the famous falls.  Then a climb to the aid station.  When I thought about it, I remembered leaving the aid station and passing a gate, and then heading immediately down for quite a while -- this is the part that had been snowy before.

To my horror, we left Camping Gap by heading up the road.  The road we take up to the mountain top at Terrapin.  Better than leaving up the ridiculously steep trail, granted, but where was the downhill?  I thought there must have been a mistake.  I knew I had seen a course marker at the side of the road shortly after leaving the station.  It looked like a steep drop-off full of woods at the side of the road, there, but what if there had been a trail?  I paused and looked back, but there were no runners in sight in any direction.  Could I have missed a turn?  Surely not a gate and a wide grassy road...  I faced up the hill again and headed on, still nervous and confused.  But I eventually saw another streamer.  I was on track.  But still going up, still confused about this section.

Eventually, I came to the gate, and the course headed back down again, on the grassy road.  I have no idea where the Terrapin course turned off to summit the mountain.  Oh, well.

I didn't feel like I was making great progress on the grassy section -- I hiked a lot of the uphills.  I ran well enough on the downhills and at least jogged the flats, but it was rolling, and there were plenty of short uphill bits.  I couldn't summon the energy to run them.  I was eating banana when I would have eaten gel, and hoping for the best, at least hoping not to lose a lot of ground, but with the way this was going, I wasn't optimistic.

However, I did eventually see the light of a runner ahead of me, as the mountain curved back on itself.  That gave me something to aim for!  It was a slow process, but I closed in over the remainder of the grassy section.  As we headed into the woods, the visibility wasn't as good, but when I saw the light, it was closer.  Of course, we hit the uphill part first, and I was hiking again, unlikely to be making up ground.  I thought I must be really losing time now, as I thought I remembered running more of the uphills in 2009.  Still, there was that light ahead, and no one passing me...

Finally, the trail turned down again.  It was easy to let gravity pull me faster down the hill.  Sure, it was rocky, but that was something I could manage.  I steadily ate away at the gap, and just as we emerged from the woods, I saw it was Keith I had caught up with.  I had to rest my legs before attacking the final climb on the road, though, and I slowed to a walk as we turned up.  Keith glanced back as he jogged up the hill, and that was the last I saw of him.

It only took moments to determine that I wouldn't be running this one.  My legs were utterly shot.  I could fool myself with the assist of the downhill, but there was nothing left.  I walked on.  Eventually, people started to pass me, jogging up to the Headforemost Mountain aid station.  I'd had no problems in previous years, but walking up this time, even in the better weather, I started getting cold.  I had used the last of the bananas and Keith's gel blocks long ago, and all that was left was the long, cold walk.

Finally, I started passing cars.  A spectator called out that it leveled out and there was half a mile to the station.  The climb behind, I managed a shuffle perhaps, but not much more.  It wasn't that far before I saw a table ahead, they checked me into the station, and I found my dad.  He had realized what happened, and immediately asked.  I just said "let's get to the car."  He said "It's way uphill!"  I said "Let's just get there."  We went.  I was cold, hungry, and had legs that weren't going to make it one more mile, let alone another 2/3 of the race.

We got in the car and fired up the heat, and I rooted through the other pack and started slurping down gels.  My legs just ached.  I was intimately familiar with this, having had a major bonk run a few weeks before Hellgate.  (I hadn't eaten enough for a normal day, much less for the 24 miles I was aiming for, and my legs ended up in just this exact condition after maybe 17 miles.  Here at the race I had made it perhaps 22 before it hit me, and another couple up to the station.)  I wasn't sure whether I could recover.

I remembered feeling a lot better after a couple hours in the car at 24 Hours at the Fair, but that was just cold and sore feet.  I wondered whether the cutoff for this station would roll around with me still sitting here in the car, waiting on my legs.  I probably would have quit right there, except I didn't want my dad, as the crew, to think it was his fault that I gave up.  (Of course it wouldn't have been -- I was the one who put on the wrong pack!)

Even with the walk up the hill, I had arrived at 4:18, 20 minutes ahead of my 14-hour pace.  I decided that if at all possible, I would try to leave by 5.  It wasn't looking good at 4:40.  But as it got closer to 5, my legs finally started feeling better.  The ache had subsided.  'Calories at last!' they seemed to say.  I had at least another gel, and then turned to the matter of my attire.  With the legs under control, the biggest danger was the cold (another thing I remembered from 24 Hours at the Fair).  I had to be able to get out and get moving before I was disabled by shivering.  I put on everything I had taken off before -- my warmest shirt, another long sleeve shirt for good measure, and my jacket.  My warmest hat and mittens.  I ensured I had extra gels -- my dad had said he must have dropped some, but there were still plenty to load into the pack.

Right around 5, I headed back out.  I asked my dad to wait 10 minutes before leaving, just to make sure I didn't end up doubling back in the cold.  Shortly I found the dropped gels in the middle of the road, and added them to my stash.  They went to check me into the station again and I had to tell them they had already gotten me, before I went back to the crewmobile.  I picked up to a jog as we headed out of the station, with strange runners around me.

AS 4 to AS 6 (@38 miles)

The trail out of here was a nice downhill, which I jogged.  I actually wasn't sure I wanted that just now -- I'd be warmer on a good climb -- but I took it.  And, of course, we did get to a climb, on another pleasant trail.  I jogged it to keep warm, and passed several people in the process.  I felt like I was making decent progress on this leg, especially under the circumstances.  It was clear I wasn't going to make 13 hours with a 40 minute layover, and in fact I was now 20 minutes behind my 14 hour time.  But if things went well, I could hope to catch up to that, and perhaps at least score a PR by coming in just under 14.

Suddenly, I saw lights in the distance!  I know you sort of circle down to this aid station before you arrive, but it didn't seem that far and I was moving pretty well!  I pushed it a little down the pleasant trails, catching up to another runner ahead as we finally pulled into the station.  I had just made up 15 minutes!  But my dad wasn't there.  The volunteers topped off my water, and I asked them to tell my dad that I had gone on (assuming he asked or identified himself or something).  Fortunately, this time, I had plenty of spare gels.  I headed out.

The next leg was one of the less pleasant ones.  It's a long climb up a road, to the very top.  When the road ends, you head back down, on a mix of trail and road.  And then when you think you're done, there's another long climb up a road.  Lots of climbing, lots of road.  Ugh.

I tried to keep jogging on the road, channeling myself between stations 1 and 2.  I wasn't as fast, but I did keep moving, and passed people.  I just caught up to someone near the top, and we chatted a bit, though I pulled away on the downhill.  That mixed downhill went well enough, though I didn't look forward to the climb.  On the up side, the sun came up!  That was good for a little boost.  On the other hand, the guy sitting at the bottom said it was a mile and a half up the hill to the station (I even thought I remembered 1.9 from the crew directions -- in other words, not close).  There were a lot of crew cars passing in both directions, though I could never actually see parking or station signs ahead.  I worried about my dad, wondering what I'd do if he wasn't at this next one -- somehow borrow a phone and find some signal and call Erin to have her call him?  (I didn't remember his number off the top of my head.)

Then my dad pulled up next to me, honking and cheering.  He apologized for missing me at the last station, and I think I just said "Don't worry -- just go get to this one!"  I had this vision of it being just around the next turn, though in reality it was probably a slow mile or more.  Eventually, I got there.  I assured him I had had plenty of spare gels, and he assured me he had put more spares in the next pack.  Having warmed up quite a bit since the layover, I left my mittens and hat and jacket (along with my lights) and picked up lighter gloves.  As I left, I was within minutes of my 14-hour pace -- I had picked up 20 minutes over the last two legs!

AS 6 to AS 8 (@52 miles)

But leaving that station, things got ugly again.  At first I thought I was walking just to revive my legs after standing around at the station.  Then I jogged a bit, as it was relatively flat, and they only felt worse.  What the?!?  First I had to walk.  Then I had to sit.  I found a log.  It felt just like before.  Apparently, I should not have pushed to catch up to the 14 hour pace.  I ate, drank, and rested.  I wasn't going to be able to sit here for 40 minutes -- even with the sun up it was way too cold.  And this was a very long section.  I had to decide quickly whether to turn back or press on for what might turn into 3 hours.

I didn't at all fancy turning back when my dad would be long gone.  But I could sit any more either.  I began to walk, at least making some progress, and I ate as often as I thought I could.  Perhaps a bit too much.  People jogged on by, but I just had to keep walking until my legs recovered.  Again.  And this was the end of Hellgate #2.

Had it happened 15 minutes earlier, surely I would have quit at Little Cove Mountain, the previous station.  But now I was stuck.  I had to make it another 8 miles before I could quit.  I'm afraid I spent some time dwelling on that.  It had frankly amazed me that I could make it past the first crash.  I wasn't sure I had a second one in me.  If I were to finish, it would not be the finish of a physical race, it would be the finish of a mental race: pushing through 40+ miles after my goals went out the window.

Eventually, I moved on and thought about the race report I had read describing this section.  You go through a section where the rocks just hide under a thick layer of leaves (oh how well I remembered that), then switchback down to a stream crossing, and then come out to a road a bit before the next aid station.

A couple weird things happened.  There were no leaves in the leaves-over-rocks section!  We ran down a long kinda rocky trail, but it was totally clear.  I thought wow, there are going to be some fast times this year.  Warm weather and somehow the leaves are MIA.  Must have been washed away by the rain in the previous week.  We hit the switchbacks sooner than I expected, and I took them carefully as I fell there last year.  Then the stream crossing, not huge, but plenty to get your feet wet.  Thankfully my shoes drain quickly!  Despite being sidelined earlier, I was suddenly making fantastic time on this section.

But no road.  After the stream crossing, it headed way up again.  I could vaguely hear cars in the distance, or I told myself I did, but there was no road in sight.  If we hit it soon, I'd really have a good time on this section.  We didn't.  Instead, we hit the real leaves-over-rocks section.  I still think they weren't as deep this year -- more shin than knee -- but it was plenty to hide the rocks, just as I remembered.  I took it slow, as I was no longer really racing this one.  Someone ahead pressed it faster and slowly pulled away, and I let him go.

At long last, we switchbacked again, down to another stream crossing -- this one twice as big.  I guess this is the "deja vu" section.  It had taken much longer by now, 20 minutes slower than before, but at least the road crossing came quickly, and then a climb on a nice trail up to the station.

I rushed across the parking area to meet my dad, swapping packs and getting underway again.  I had momentarily forgotten about my planned DNF, since at least I had been able to get moving again.  And the Drs. Horton and Zealand were there -- I'm not sure I would have been able to walk up to both of them and declare a DNF anyway.  It wasn't the race I had been looking for, but surely I could press on for the remaining three legs?  I left the station ahead of the guy who had passed me earlier, so at least there was that.

The next section was made up of a big climb up to an eternal zigzag in and out of the creases of a mountain.  Followed by another climb, of course.  I hiked the climb, and jogged the rest as best I could.  A couple folks passed, though I mainly kept up with them.  It was definitely better than last year, where this whole section was a major low point for me.  Of course, there was another steep climb out of nowhere in the middle of the zigzags.  Should've known.  But I was doing well keeping up the jogging.  Well, until the final climb.  Some of those just ahead jogged it, and I didn't bother.  Thankfully it wasn't that long.

When I got to the top, it was the station stationed just under what seemed like a stone bridge for a railroad crossing.  Not that there would really be one of those on top of a mountain, but whatever.  Better yet, the whole family was there!  Mom and dad plus Erin and the kids!  Apparently, Sean and Caelan had been having a ball digging in the dirt in the lee of a giant boulder.  Heather was there, and reported that Chris was about 10 minutes behind, and I almost stopped and waited.  Except I was sure he'd be running faster, so I'd either slow him down or immediately lose him.

I swapped packs and headed for the exit.  Erin and my parents were all talking in their own little world, and Sean was following me out.  I called "Hey, someone get Sean!" and no one heard, except a volunteer who didn't seem to know what to do.  So I sat down in the trail and waited for Sean, and we had a nice hug when he arrived.  By then, Erin noticed and headed over to claim him.  Meanwhile, the volunteer helped me back to my feet.

AS8 to Finish (@66 miles)

Out of this station, there's a long, awkward downhill, on a road that's been decimated by erosion.  You spend so much time crossing back and forth to find clear ground that it seems twice as far.  But it is solidly downhill.  I made what time I could -- not as fast as I can normally take downhills, but for now, it would do.  And toward the end, I did catch sight of another runner.  I was pretty sure no one left the aid station while I was there, so this was solid progress.

From the road, the course turned uphill on a trail, and then continued up and down, in and out of the mountain, across many small wet spots, and so on.  I seemed to make decent enough time, passing the occasional runner.  After a while, the character of the woods changed, and it seemed to me like the aid station was drawing close.  Somehow I had fumbled my cheat sheet, either writing it or reading it, and I thought this section wasn't that long (when in fact it's nearly 8 miles).  So it seemed reasonable to be "getting there".  But even though we ran downhill perpendicular to the mountain like I remembered, it didn't lead to the little corridor of trees right before the last aid station.  And then we did it again, and it still wasn't the station.

I passed Joe Dudak, who had hurt himself out there and like me, wasn't having the race he hoped for.  We talked a bit, and I probably misled him a little as to how close the aid was.  I talked to another runner shortly afterward, who said it was still a ways away.  Surely not!  It had been a while for a short section...  But it was still a good 20 minutes before we hit that corridor.  And just then, Chris, Jared, and his wife blasted down the hill to pass me.  Wow!  "You're not doing badly, they're running way ahead!" she called out as they all disappeared around the next turn.  Nice.

We all got to the station at pretty much the same time, and I swapped packs and headed out first.  One last section.  It's a 3-mile climb, then a 3-mile descent, leveling out for perhaps the last half mile.  I thought I was doing at least a decent hike, but it didn't take long for Chris and Jared to blow by.  They were talking about my great hiking technique as they left me in the dust.  What's up with that?

But a mile or two later, I caught up again.  I called out for them to speed up, because what were they doing letting me catch up?  But as it happens, we hit the top together.  They had much better downhill legs, however, gaining four minutes on me in the last few miles.  I just tried not to be passed.  I figured my odds were good since no one else had passed me on the previous section, so hopefully everyone (other than Chris and Jared) was in similar shape at this point.  And in fact, I made it, unpassed, for a finish time of 14:20 and change.


While that was a very respectable finish, as Hellgate goes, it wasn't what I had hoped for.  Under the circumstances, I was happy to call it a day, and claim my second Beast and the coveted Hellgate finisher's shirt.  Had I kept up with Keith, I would have made it under 13, but with everything that happened, it was not the day for that.  In fact, it was a pretty harsh reminder that my race really hangs on nutrition, with little room for error.

But once again, even with all that happened, I really enjoyed the race.  If you ran it during the day, all those roads in the first half would probably be a drag.  But run by moonlight, while the rest of the world sleeps, with the trail of lights out there with you...  Going up a mountain and seeing the light of the next aid station a million miles above, only to realize it's actually just moonlight flickering through the trees...  Looking forward to a tough climb because it's just the thing to warm you up...  Beautiful trails by day and by night...  It's a mighty hard race to resist.

As for the 13 hours, I still think it could happen -- I could have easily been more than 20 minutes ahead at Headforemost (1/3 of the way), and with another 15 minutes on the next section, and even 10 on the penultimate leg after everything that went wrong...  Well, it wouldn't take much more than that.  I'm sure I'll be back.  :)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Runner's Guide to the Grindstone 100

Full of rocks, lots of hills,
Run at night, lots of spills,
There's no one else to blame for this tableau,
But you should see the wreckage of my toe...

It's nice enough to start out from the camp,
With warmer clothes and wearing your best lamp
Around the lake in sunshine toward the glade,
Then leave the grass where Karl and Neal both strayed

They're back in front before you see the crowd,
You pass to cheers and move on fast and proud
Without a doubt this is the runner's high
(hold on for it may be in short supply!)

Down dirt road, through the trees,
Pass the tents, what a tease...
Don't forget what this implies
(out and back, no surprise)

These first two miles will also be the last,
And so far they're nice paths that you have passed
At two miles in you think "a piece of cake!"
Just after that you'll do the double take:

The coming trails are nice but full of rocks
(no wonder mountain bikes all come with shocks)
So watch your footing in the fading light,
And have some fun before the coming night

Then down the gravel road -- but catch the right,
An easy one to miss while you're in flight
But even if you make it you're confused,
The next left needs more streamers than they used

Hey that's alright -- a few delays won't hurt,
It's early, not yet dark, and you're alert,
Just cross the stream and run on through the shade
Falls Hollow past the tracks brings welcome aid

Take a drink, hit the roads,
Dirt, but up, pace implodes,
Then a trail, as night falls,
Through the trees, wooden halls,

It's when you hit the road the long walk starts,
The gravel is too steep to run most parts,
But still it's peaceful, not yet a travail,
No lights -- just let the moonlight bathe the trail

You pass the turn-off, climb on through the night,
It feels a triumph just to stay upright,
But then the lights are coming back at you,
The top is near, the punch is close, push through

Find the fence, stamp and turn,
Passed the path, now return,
Back on down, "just ahead",
Call to those that you have led

And now you get your payback for that climb --
A long descent; can't help but make great time
Or so you think until you see the path
It goes from pleasant trail to stony wrath

At first there's just enough to make you dance
Don't let the night lull you in to a trace
But then the rocks begin to get more serious
Think down is fast?  Then clearly you're delirious.

In time it levels out; this hill's a wrap
Relax; you've hit the aid at Dry Branch Gap
From here it's up again and down still more,
then see your crew for some esprit de corps

The climb is not so bad compared to some,
You'll make the ridge before you might succumb
To dread of plodding to the bitter end
Instead just coast a while and then descend

The rocks here aren't as bad as just before,
Until you bottom out, then what's in store?
Weave back and forth across the slippery stream,
Then nice flat trail goes by just like a dream

Hear cars ahead -- the station must be nigh!
Now cross 250; it was all a lie
You've got another climb before you're there
Back down and get your feet wet then prepare

Dowells Draft, in a flash,
Grab your crew, dump your trash,
Water bottle filled up quick,
Snacks to go, that's the trick,

Go hit the trails again while feeling strong,
That aid's a boost; for now you can't go wrong
But if I made you guess what's next ahead
You'd know -- a great big climb -- it goes unsaid

Just power up the hill and to the peak,
These climbs are where you test your great physique
You've honed your mind your will is also strong,
That's great 'cause at the top you'll find you're wrong

It dips again for maybe fifty feet,
Then up, your break complete, oh what a treat!
I'd say "a great ridge run" to tell you more,
But last guy heard that line, well he just swore

Eventually you'll hit the dirt road down,
Perhaps as speedy as the Triple Crown
So Lookout Mountain station, here we come!
(superb aid stations are the rule of thumb)

Grab some grub, from the grill,
Five to go, all downhill,
So they say, and the map,
But if it's true I'll eat my cap

Now here you are -- you're climbing once again
(I'll hold the map, you stab it with the pen)
At first a gentle rise that you may run,
But rocky trail and tight brush steal the fun

At least in time it turns down from the ridge
Through several stages: rocks and woods and bridge
The first steep dives are prone to swaths of stone
It's treacherous; stability unknown

Next up you wander through the darkened wood,
They could have used more streamers (strike that, should)
But what's another minute here or there?
This long downhill should leave you time to spare!

Then hit the giant bridge and wonder why?
I guess to skip the stream they would reply
But really on this trail it's ludicrous
A crutch to make it easy seems amiss

Anyway, some good news is forthcoming,
Car sounds and a generator humming
You hit the road North River Gap in sight,
The crackling blaze steals chill out of the night

Now refresh, find your crew,
Hit the scale, try the stew,
Take a second just to graze,
Ultrarunning: great buffets!

It's good to pack it down for what's up next
It's harder still than anyone expects
Titanic climb ahead, forget your pace,
Four thousand feet -- the longest of the race

At least the glow-lit trail is sorta nice
You cross a little bridge not once not twice
But often and a cameraman is there
You'll be forever 'membered in mid-air

Much better thus than lying by the trail
(for shortly that's the state that may prevail)
You think I jest but I can't overstate
The climb's so great you can't keep walking straight

In any case it's level then it's steep
Then steeper still until you want to weep
Then easier to tempt you to a jog,
then steep again until it's just a slog

Six miles of this with barely a reprieve,
It's really tougher than you can conceive
In fairness though the trail is very nice
Enjoy it for you've surely paid the price

At last you'll peek out from the darkened trees
To see a sight that just can't help but please
You're at the top!  The moment here is glorious!
All done with that you've made it up victorious!

Now don't you let a thing beneath your skin
Cruise down to distant aid and show your grin
They'll tell you you're the first to not complain
So tell them to break out the French champagne

Well maybe they'll just toast with Gatorade,
With Grindstone lemons you've made lemonade!

Little Bald, at long last,
Please enjoy the fine repast,
We'll be here, when you're back,
With a drink, and a snack

The worst climb done, now cruise around the peak,
Though if they say "all down" don't let them speak
Right out is down and fast if you've got guts
Just watch out for the water in the ruts

But then a bit uphill to Reddish Knob
Along the same dirt road, the climb's the job
And at the tents the climb is not yet done
Make for the summit, one more stretch of fun

Back to the aid and through, down road to crew
With gravity assist you speed on through
And one last bit to halfway turnaround
Not quite as fast though, climbing broken ground

Now the question passed down through the ages:
One-oh-two (to add up all the stages)
So why not move the aid in just a mile?
I guess a hundred would be out of style.

"Gratuitous!" might run right through your mind,
From crew to Gnashing Knob as they designed
Arrive in dark?  You're fast they'll give a cheer!
If not don't worry cut-offs still aren't near

Turnaround, halfway through,
Right back down, see your crew,
Pacer waits, raring now
Those behind -- see ya, ciao!

So now to climb the road to Reddish Knob,
And jog what parts you can to beat the mob
It levels on the bridge -- you're almost there,
The tent is just ahead; pull in with flair

From here its downhill and your legs are fast,
The question of the day is: will it last?
Not far to station's thrill but now uphill,
Still on that muddy road -- don't take a spill!

The climb to Little Bald will be the test --
So will you crash or run like man possessed?
For some go down in flames or stagger home,
While others make good time 'cross rocks and loam

In any case you'll raid the table's aid,
so grab some eggs or burgers, they're all made!
Next up -- the biggest downhill on the course
(too bad you can't descend it on a horse!)

If quads can take the slope it augurs well,
If not just take it slow and don't rebel
For at the nadir waits North River Gap,
The biggest party on this race's map

Cross a bridge, two and three,
Downhill done, soon you'll see,
Crew attends, check your weight,
Table calls, take a plate

Some calories to see you through the hill
Now move on out, get going, that's the drill
The start's a gentle stroll cross wooded slope,
By daylight streamers clear -- keep up your lope

But soon it angles up -- you know it's due
And rocks confound the trail, knock you askew
It's just the charm of Grindstone, climb on through
How much of this is left?  Well, let's review...

Now three big climbs remain, including this
And three more big descents to the abyss
The climbs will steal your speed and make you plead
The downs will crush your quads but don't concede

You needn't make great time to finish well
Be steady and consistent -- you'll excel
Now back to present trail, turn up your hike,
Beware false summits, each chunk looks alike

At last the rocky brush denotes the peak,
If you're not dazed and spinning, good technique!
Next Lookout Mountain waits, cruise down and see
You'll find refreshment there I guarantee

Take a break, rest your legs,
Have some Nuun but wish for kegs
Still more climb, grab some fruit,
Up the road, munch en route

This nice dirt road goes on for quite a while
However it's uphill and you won't smile
But still, Lookout was halfway up or more
Stay steady, on the move, you know the score

From top to see your crew at Dowells Draft
Just run on down the ridge -- this is your craft!
If energy is low this won't feel great,
In fact it's true -- you might hallucinate

Or if your quads are trashed and downhills ache,
Relentless Forward Progress takes the cake
So hydrate well and chew a Gu or two,
Some calories might change your point of view

If all goes well you'll keep your race on track,
If not, find crew and aid for this setback
The miles will pass unnoticed by your feet,
Keep heading to your friends and stop and eat

Dowells Draft, next buffet,
Want to sit, want to stay,
Twenty left to run today,
Far to drive, old cliche

At least the next leg starts with potpourri,
A gravel road, steep dip, and then the sea
Okay, perhaps a minor creek to cross,
But one step wrong and it will be your loss

In any case then up a bit and back,
And cross the road before the cars attack
Next up the trail's a dream; then back to stream
Though up and down the banks can make you scream

Just one more trench or two and then you're clear,
But if your brain still works you know what's near
A giant climb is coming -- what's to say?
before its done you'll wish you're far away

But grit your teeth and hike it with some pace,
And with some luck you'll pick up one more place
So now then at long last you reach the crest,
The climb is done, you've passed the acid test

It levels out, now why as flat as this?
A little downhill wouldn't go amiss...
Be careful what you ask -- you might receive
The downhill might not be a great reprieve

The steep and rocky parts can pound and jar
With little bumps to climb, though not too far
It's Dry Branch Gap that calls you to progress
Just as you curse the course for its excess

See your crew, every stop
In between each high hill top
Eat and drink, push ahead
Fourteen more, then a bed

Now this time there's no messing just the climb
A couple thousand feet up one last time
Don't let it beat you down from head to toe,
You crush that hill, now that would be a show!

The rocks that lurk midway will be the test,
If you can coast through those we'll be impressed
Don't stub or fall, you'd find a world of hurt
Though difficult you've got to stay alert

When rocks spread out and inclines ease that's good
The road is at the exit from the wood
The long tough hike has passed but that's the last
If you can't make it now I'd be aghast

Of course the gravel road is plenty steep,
You can't run down -- it's more a jarring creep
A mile or two then back to single track
Though past top ten it's typically pitch black

This trail's one of the highlights of the race,
The end in reach, few rocks, a downhill pace
It brings you to dirt road down to the aid --
The station at Falls Hollow promenade

Crew awaits, one last stop,
Gatorade and soda pop,
Fill 'er up, quick stop mode,
Don't lose time, hit the road

Then straightaway you'll need to cross the tracks,
(this course just never helps you to relax)
Whatever, next a couple messy miles,
Of rocky trails and gravel roads and trials

You might recall it all from Friday's start,
Or maybe long forgotten since that part
In any case the Boy Scouts cheer you in,
(until their bedtime when the snores begin)

But once you hit their camp the end is near,
A mile or two, no further, have no fear
There's still some up and down on these dirt tracks,
Until One Mile To Go hits like an axe

You see that sign and start to lose control,
Just hold it 'til you reach the totem pole
Through camp and wood, round lake and cross the grass,
Down road, past cars, cross field, come in with class

Your victory at hand you cross the line
High-fives from Clark and photos to enshrine
Your moment as you conquered Grindstone's best,
So hug the pole to chest and then you rest

Some food, a chair, a shower, take your time
Just getting off your feet will feel sublime
And when you count your toenails once again,
I guarantee you won't get up to ten

Now we don't know what ultras you've in store
(though hiking up those hills you swore no more)
But I would be the first to smell a rat,
If many races were as hard as that

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run

How long would this smile last?
Question of the day: would Vermont cap off my hot streak of races, or end it?  I had great runs at 3 Days at the Fair and the Equinox, leading up to Vermont.  But my training for the last few months has been dramatically different...  next to no midweek miles, unless you count 2-3 here or there with Sean in the jogger or bike trailer while 3-year-old Caelan rode his bike -- an irregular "workout" at best.  I did start CrossFit at the end of April, which seemed to be the counterbalance, but I didn't know if I would keep going strong, or if the lack of miles would catch up to me.  It sure made me nervous to hear Chris and Chris talking about 100 mile weeks, 200 mile 15 days, and so on...

I felt great at the pre-race meeting, and it was nice to see a lot of familiar faces ahead of the race.  My weight seemed the same as ever at the medical check, though someone said I looked like I had lost weight.  Maybe redistributed, a little.  I didn't stick around for the dinner, though, not being a big pasta fan -- the Pizza Chef over in Woodstock works just fine for my pre-race meal.

"I swear this race is easier than Grindstone"
I still felt great when I got there to check in during the wee hours of Saturday morning.  At the time, I saw no reason why I couldn't make my most optimistic goal.  I figured if I could do 17 hours on a flat course, I'd aim for 18 here, which should also put me in the top 10.  Never mind there was likely to be much more serious heat and humidity, in addition to the hills.  This is what comes from tapering, I tell you.  All that energy you usually spend in training and working out, suddenly it's just sitting there making you cocky.  But it was nice to see all the BCRR folks a little just before the race, get some group pictures, and so on.  I jogged out of the tent for a quick potty break, and I guess that was my "warm-up".  I mean, it's not like a short race where you feel like you'll burst out of the gate and pull a muscle if you haven't warmed up in detail.  Here we'd all be taking it slow and warming up as we went.

Soon enough it was time to head over to the big banner, there was a quick countdown from 30 seconds, and we were off.  The first miles passed easily, if a bit too quickly.  I recognized many of the sections, though I missed others I recalled (like last year where we made a left turn and another runner immediately pulled over to stretch his leg.  Or the spot where I used a log to retie my shoe.  Never saw that log -- or that turn -- this year).  In the first half mile I was just behind the lead pack of 12 or so runners.  But they were going too fast, and first another pack of 5 passed, then another.  I felt like I could have slowed down even a little more, but I wasn't confident enough that I could keep up my target pace into the second half of the race, and it seemed like a little time in the bank might not be a bad thing.

Both ready to go!
But the time flew by until we hit the first aid station, just over an hour in, where I topped off my pack.  It was an unmanned station -- just a table with a bunch of water and Heed jugs off to the side of the road.  One of the first-time runners later told me he never would have seen it if I hadn't stopped.  My plan was to try to fill up every hour or thereabouts.  In cold, dry weather, my pack can easily go two hours.  But if I get at all behind on my hydration on hot, humid days, I can blow through it in 40 minutes.  Guess which a July ultra on the East coast would be?  So my plan was to fill up every hour and not get behind.

Of course, I was probably drinking a little too much for the cool 4 AM start -- judging by the number of pee breaks, anyway.  Still, it felt a little humid, though it was supposed to dry off later in the day.  I guess we'd see.  In any case, I had to lament when I was paused at the table refiling my pack with water, or paused at the side of the trail unloading the same, and some other runner went cruising on by.  But I told myself it was early yet, and it didn't much matter who was on a sub-17 hour pace now.  And we tended to leapfrog as others also pulled off to the side of the road for one reason or another.

Ocean's, um, 6?
I chatted with a guy named Julian, who turned out to be from sort of close to Philly, running his first 100.  I though to myself he was crazy for going out this fast on his first 100, but he said he'd run several 50 milers including sub-8 finishes, and was going slower than that pace, so he felt fine.  I wished him well and hoped he wouldn't crash during the second half of the race.  We sped down to and across the Taftsville covered bridge together, and along the flat road next to the river.  We had both agreed that we didn't feel like strictly scheduled walk breaks were a necessity, but I was starting to think it might not be a bad idea to take one, as I was going along at a somewhat faster pace than I really needed to.  (This, in fact, turned out to be my fastest leg of the whole race, between the 11.5 and 15.3 mile aid stations.)

Thankfully that 15.3 mile aid station came around quickly, and we both stopped to refill.  Mine took longer, as it was a big pack not just a handheld, and I also paused to throw down some orange and watermelon slices.  One of my big concerns from 3 Days at the Fair was the way I hit the wall at 92 miles.  My pace took like a 6min/mi hit right there, and I figured it was due to running out of energy -- that is, not eating enough along the way.  I really couldn't take more gels, so I wanted to eat a bit at aid stations on top of the gels.  But I didn't think I could take dry or solid food, so I went with fruit.  This was the first opportunity (the earlier stations being liquid only), and I took it.  The volunteers encouraged me to take some for the road, but I didn't want to -- there was no trash bag in sight down the trail, and I didn't fancy carrying rinds another few miles.  (Seriously, other races put trash bags 50 yards down the trail from each aid station -- that would have been great.  Also, at all the unmanned aid station, the trash bag was high up a tree, several yards off the road.  It would have been nice to have one right there where the runners are!)  Anyway, I thanked the volunteers and departed (uphill, naturally), well behind Julian.  I wouldn't see him again for probably 30 miles.  The next two sections were hilly and slow, as if to punish me for my speedy leg.

There's nothing the crew can't handle!
Meanwhile, a few issues cropped up before we hit the mile 20 aid station.  First, the top of my right foot was getting a little sore.  I couldn't tell if I had tied my shoe too tight (I felt like the left was looser and it didn't hurt at all), or if it was just from the camber of the dirt roads, or what.  Needed to monitor that one.  Second, I tweaked some muscle along the inside of my thigh (so much for no warm-up needed).  It seemed to hurt a little on uphills.  It wasn't bad now, and I forecast two possible outcomes.  1) It could hurt more and more until it disabled me, or 2) it could utterly fade into the background compared to the rest of the pain about to come my way.  I hoped for the latter, and resolved to ignore it until and unless it presented a greater problem.  (The truth was somewhere in between -- it annoyed me all day long, but never enough to really be a problem.)  And third, all that pent-up taper energy was spent.  I no longer felt like I was guaranteed my best result.  Now I was going to have to work for it.

In this state, I hit Pretty House (the first crew station) at 20 miles.  I knew I was going to need a slightly longer stop at either 20 or 30 miles to apply sunscreen, get a hat, ditch my headlamp, and so on.  After debating it for a while coming into the station, I decided to get it over with.  So I quickly swapped my dad for a fresh pack, but then stood around for a couple minutes taking care of the rest, and probably nabbing an orange slice or two.  It wasn't the quickest stop ever, but it wasn't bad.  I headed out thinking it was great to have my dad there to do the pack swaps.  He had asked how I was doing and I think I allowed as how my pre-race energy had burned off, but I still felt fine.  On the way out, I passed my own private cheering squadron.  OK, maybe it was just the parents, friends, spouses, and crews for the other BCRR runners, but when they screamed for me it sure felt grand!  Then I took a drink.  Ugh.  Apparently I should have applied the sunscreen to my neck before donning the pack.  The bite valve tasted of it.  Nasty.

How cool is it that my parents come to these?
Still, I was looking forward to the next unmanned aid station -- "U-turn" at 25.1 miles.  (Though really, it's more of a right!)  Leaving Pretty House, I quickly came to a road section I remembered, and there was a runner in an orange shirt just within sight ahead of me.  There was some uphill I didn't take too hard, and then shortly after that I saw signs for a left turn off the road.  But the orange shirt was way on down the road.  Had he been in front of me all the way from the aid station?  (That is, was he in the race?)  I pulled in a breath to call out, unlikely as he might have been to hear, and in that moment he rounded a turn out of view.  As I headed off the road, I wondered if we'd be close enough to parallel that he could just jump back over, but it didn't seem to be the case.

In any case, I enjoyed the pleasant (and flattish) run through the woods, and turned my thoughts to U-turn.  I recalled hitting it around 4 hours last year, and thinking how crazy fast that was.  This year, 4 hours was still a few minutes ahead of where I needed to be, but I would be perfectly content with it.  On the other hand, the flat part had ended, and there seemed to be a lot of uphill to the U-turn.  Still, I hit it just about the same time, and pulled over to top off my pack (not wanting to risk going all the way from 20 to 30 on one load of water).  One guy shot by while I was at the table, and I heard two more runners coming up close just as I was leaving.  The watch said 4:02 as I left.  Good enough.  I didn't expect to keep the 4-hour-per-25-miles pace even though 50 miles, but I didn't want to fall off it as far as I had last year, either.  Especially from here to Camp Ten Bear at 47 miles.

Happy couple
Somewhere around Sound of Music Hill (perhaps 27, 28 miles?), the problems had started last year.  Then after Stage Rd (30 miles), it got much worse.  By Lincoln Covered Bridge (39.2), I was trudging.  The last mile into Ten Bear was horrible (15 minute pace, and that's largely downhill!).  I really, I mean really, wanted to do better.

So sure, there was a lot of walking up to Sound of Music Hill.  I mean, the whole point of it is that it's a grassy knoll from which you can look around and admire the stellar views in every direction.  So of course you have to go up to get there.  I passed the time talking to runners around me.  One woman said she was from Vermont, and it was ironic that I seemed to know the course better (if only a little -- I mistook the first "false summit" for the hill).  But the good thing was, we had downhill coming on the other side, and even while walking up the hill, even while I could see a more die-hard runner jogging ahead, I felt good.  I jogged one of the flatter sections, leaving the woman behind, but only temporarily -- she passed me back on the final ascent.  I paused briefly to look around, and then followed her down the far side.  We had some minor horse delays -- there were a few ahead of us taking the downhill gingerly -- but it was super-steep with treacherous footing in the deep grass, and I didn't mind taking it easy until it got a little more reasonable.

He gets around
I did pretty well in the final couple miles before the 30-mile crew station at Stage Rd., then pulled into the aid station to see my dad again.  He had my other pack ready for another quick change, though I paused to dig out my full hat rather than just the visor.  I figured we were heading into the hot part of the day, and I wanted full head cover so I could fill it with ice at the aid stations.  Though the heat wasn't bothering me yet, I remembered icing my hat all day long last year, starting quite early, and I wanted to be ready.  The cheering squad was smaller here, though they said everyone was doing well, not too far behind.  Nice!  I headed out.  Again, it wasn't a super-fast stop, and I worried that I was hurting myself by not cutting down on the stops more ruthlessly, but if I missed the calories from the fruit or the hat or anything else, I might well pay for it in spades later.  I'd have to let my result be my guide.

I headed out for some alone time -- the next crew station wasn't until Camp Ten Bear (another 17 miles).  Looking at the race plan I had stashed in my pack, I was still a few minutes ahead of schedule, but I had to hold to 10 minute miles for the next 3 hours in order to stay on target.  Right out of the aid station, I knew this was going to be a challenge.  We crossed a little wooden footbridge that I will always remember from the first year I ran Vermont -- because I got there right along with a pile of horses, and we jockeyed for position all the way to the top.  The top of what?  The top of the giant climb right after the bridge.  This time I headed up alone.

Future ultrarunner
Now 30 miles isn't so far into the race that jogging a hill should be out of the question.  But not this one.  You're walking in grass with the occasional mud bog, mostly under tree cover but often right on out in the sun.  You'd think you could dodge over to avoid the bad spots, except the grass and brush is at least waist-high off to the side of the trail.  Every once in a while it sort of levels out for a moment, except then the trail turns to revel the next phase of the climb.  A guy came up on me as we were getting to perhaps the top third, and asked if I had run this before.  "Yes, twice," I got out between huffing up the hill.  "Well," I amended, "not this part.  This part I've never run."  He agreed, and went on to say that he didn't run any of the hills, it just wasn't worth it.  Then shortly, he proceeded to leave me in the dust.  His walk must have been 50% faster than mine, and it didn't look like he was working any harder.  What am I missing?

At long last the trail leveled out, and eventually even headed down again.  I picked it up when I felt like I could, and held my own on the downhill parts.  I was thinking there needed to be some solid run in my future to get that average pace back down!  Fortunately the leg was long enough that I did OK by the next aid station.  But there was more uphill waiting there.  I was blissfully alone on this climb, and it was great.  Because last year, I remember trudging up while people passed left and right.  I mean, I had been relatively out in front just the same through 25 miles, but by this point, I was talking to people as they went by, trying to keep up and failing, and generally having a lousy time of it.  This year, nobody catching up.  Yes!

I hit the top and shortly came up to the "Vondell Reservoir" unmanned aid station, another landmark I remembered.  This year, there was a pickup truck parked across the way, and someone called out "Heed on the left, Water on the right!"  Thanks, but the truth was, the only thing I wanted to do was dump some trash.  The volunteers in the truck left down the same one-truck-width lane that I did, and politely waited for a chance to pass even though it meant a while at runner pace.

I could have used a river crossing!
Better yet, this section seemed all downhill, and I crushed it!  I felt like I had little wings on my feet.  Someone gave me directions as I came to another town, and I followed them across the Lincoln Covered Bridge to the aid station of the same name.  This was another major milestone.  First of all, I had asked for ice for the hat last year and been denied (it's only for drinks, they said), which frustrated me -- and this year, I didn't even feel like I needed it!  I took some fruit and a cup of water, thanked the volunteers, and departed quickly.  Second, this was the part of my death march where Chris had blown by, and there seemed little danger of that after the segment I had just posted.  Finally, I distinctly recalled trudging up even the slightest incline out of this station, and this year I largely kept to a jog.  All good.  I had added serious time to my buffer in that last segment, and if I could run evenly for the next 8 miles, I was golden.

Well, surprise, surprise, there was a huge climb in store, and I gave up that newfound time as quickly as I had logged it.  I had never even realized it was coming!  Oh, well, that's why I was worried about my average pace.  I commented to someone at the top that I thought the climb would never end, and she said it was the longest on the course.  It sure seemed so at the time, though looking at some elevation charts I'm not really sure it's true.  I guess everyone just has the one that sticks in their mind.

I made good time back down, stopping at the aid station just before the most memorable road segment, and managing to tank down some fruit and thank the volunteers before heading out again, still ahead of everyone I had just passed on the downhill.  Yes!  Now this section starts out running on the side of the most major road we use in the race -- and it's the one the crews drive on to the big Camp Ten Bear station.  It seems like every year Erin passes me here driving to the station, though how she manages the timing on that I have no clue.  One of the great mysteries of crewdom, I suppose.  In any case, the road has a long slow incline, and much of it is exposed to the hot, hot sun.  This year was no exception.  I saw a couple horses and a runner ahead, though the horses quickly disappeared.  Then I heard honking, and once again, it was Erin and the kids passing on their way to Ten Bear!  I'd have liked to say I could beat them to the station, but the truth was, there were miles left yet.  I went back to following the runner ahead, noting where he turned off the road, and making for the spot myself.  This part I remembered too -- you pass a major horse aid station just after leaving the road, and then you're treated to a grassy climb that leads to an up-and-down-but-more-up kind of trail section, before popping out to another road and the last unmanned aid station before Ten Bear.

The grass wasn't as steep as I remembered, but I walked it anyway, taking a gel and S-cap and all.  I had wanted to keep my momentum up in the road (and get out of the sun!), so I was a little overdue, and it seemed a fine time to get back on track.  The trail was a little shorter and easier than I recalled, and no one was catching up.  In fact, I popped out to see another runner ahead, stopping at the aid station.  I leaned over in that direction to look for the official distance to Ten Bear, but couldn't make out the fine print on the station's sign.  The other guy asked if I wanted a cup of Coke, and I was tempted to call back "Get out of there!  It's only a mile to Ten Bear!"  But I didn't want to spoil his Coke.  I just waved and headed on, finding the uphill a lot more palatable than last year since I knew it just led to a big downhill into the station.

Coming into Ten Bear
That other runner caught up, and hey, it was Julian!  We chatted briefly, but then I pushed it down the steep part of the downhill, and he seemed to fall back slightly.  Probably just enough to see me whoop and raise my arms in victory as I saw parked cars, meaning I had made it 47 miles, not just meeting my aggressive race plan, but slightly ahead!  So long as the medical check didn't take too long, I was golden!  We ran into the station together, and the volunteers ushered me to a scale.  I stripped off my hat and pack as I arrived, handing them to a waiting volunteer.  They asked my starting weight (I assume just to see if I was conscious enough to recall it, since they had a big chart of all the runners and weights right there), and it turned out I was right on -- maybe up a pound if anything.  Erin and my dad were right behind them, so I got a fresh pack and turned to go.  The guy holding my old pack asked "water or Heed?" and I said "nothing, I got a whole new pack right here!"  He seemed flabbergasted.

I took two steps toward my victorious departure, and then heard Erin calling desperately from behind.  I turned to look, and she was vigorously gesturing down toward Caelan, who was watching me go.  I waved and called out "love you all!" and headed out.  I felt a little bad that I hadn't had more time for Caelan and Sean, but at all costs I wanted to avoid the 10-minute layover and sitting on the grass and all that this station seemed to require of me last year.  I hit my watch and I was leaving at 7:48, with the med check, still ahead of my long-shot 7:52.  Wow.

Granted, I walked the hill out of Ten Bear.  I saw a guy ahead of me running it with his crew, until they turned back well up toward the top.  I remembered some favorable terrain ahead before the next big climb, and figured I'd use my energy there, not here on this hill.  Indeed, I passed that guy a couple miles down the road.  Then the flat part ran out.

The climb to the "50.3 mile" marker was brutal, as I recalled.  (And why, you may ask, is there a special course marker for 50.3 miles?  You wouldn't be getting a sensible answer from me!)  Then it was a long and undulating trip to Tracer Brook, the next crew station.  I passed Pinky's, where last year I had seen some other runners crashed in chairs in the heat.  I might have hoped for more of the same, but apparently those in front of me were content to stay in front of me for now.  I did perhaps take some ice for my hat at one of these stations -- I know I did it once this year.  I also recall coming on a large familiar metal bucket, fed by a hose, with a sign reading "fresh water for horses and humans".  Well, if you looked into the bucket, as a human, you wouldn't be very tempted to drink.  But while the hose was firmly attached to the bucket, it had enough play that if you leaned over, you could drench your head in cool water quite satisfyingly.  I must have really raved about it, because another runner who was just past turned back to do the same.  Now I really can't recall where on the course that was, so I just have to offer up my thanks to some random farmer somewhere in the fine state of Vermont.  It was great!

Shortly after halfway, I came across James, a runner I know from other races.  We are of pretty similar speeds -- enough so that he mentioned using my splits from last year in planning his race.  (I didn't get the opportunity until the pre-race meeting to tell him how crappy the middle miles were for me!)  He said "Hey, you're more than an hour ahead of last year!"  Which of course meant he was, too.  But he looked to be in a spot of trouble.  He said his IT band was hurting, and he was considering changing shoes to see if that helped.  I couldn't offer any thoughts on that, having never changed shoes mid-race myself.  But we talked a bit before I felt ready to press on ahead, so I wished him well.  It sounded like he was keeping close behind, for the moment.

Hydrating at Tracer Brook
The next crew station at Tracer Brook (57 miles) was another quick pack change, though I think I at least took the time to ruffle Caelan's hair.  I felt better having not utterly ignored him like at Ten Bear!  The bad news was, I was now five minutes behind my goal time.  But I wasn't super worried.  I knew there had been a big climb in there, and also this was just short of where my goal pace slowed down.  In reality I was probably on a more even decline rather than the strict cutover from faster to slower in my plan.  So I figured I'd catch up again sooner or later.  Well, I hoped, anyway.

So I left Tracer Brook, and it didn't take long to determine that I was unlikely to make up ground here.  A strong runner I had passed at the aid station passed me right back.  It was only five miles to the next crew station at Margaritaville, and the first three were up, up, up.  I asked a runner nearby whether he knew what the course was like to Margaritaville.  I had a vague memory of "up, then down", which I hoped to confirm.  He just said "more of the same, I guess."  It turned out he hadn't run the race before.  And really, what does that mean?  More of the trail same was a lot different than more of the road same.  And was it long climb same or rolling same?  In retrospect, the course does have a lot of "dirt road with a canopy of trees on either side", but at the time, I grumbled to myself.  Well, it turns out it went straight on up, until it momentarily leveled out, and there was an unmanned aid station.  I hoped that designated the top.  It did -- we turned down down down to Margaritaville.  But there had still been more up, and I was now ten minutes behind.

I finally got a look at it this year!
No matter.  I took the time to look around a little at Margaritaville, the 100K mark.  I remembered last year, having no memory whatsoever of what Margaritaville actually looked like, despite the outstanding name.  This time I saw streamers and banners with bright alcohol-looking logos, and it all looked rather like a lively pub.  I was only a little tempted to ask for an actual margarita.  If it had been a bad day, maybe, but I was hoping to make up some time into Ten Bear, so I passed on it.  I did get in the quick pack switch, and then it was off again.  No more fruit this time -- my stomach had started giving me a little trouble, off and on, and I knew that was a potential disaster -- so I cut back to just gels and water.  Hopefully the extra fruit early on would be enough to keep me going past 92 miles.

On the up side, I knew there was a long downhill coming, where I made up a lot of ground last year.  I remember passing people who said things like "wow, what a recovery!"  Of course, it didn't start out that way.  Inevitably, it was somewhat uphill first.  My plan showed 4 miles to an intermediate station, and I was pretty surprised to hit it in only a half hour!  But the sign on it said it had only been three miles.  So either I went crazy fast or just plain darn fast, but either way, it was well faster than my plan at that point.  Nice.  Also, as it turns out, this was the highest point on the course.  And then we hit the downhill.  It was just as fast as I remembered.  Again, I passed people, though perhaps not as many.  It felt pretty good.  I walked a bit when we came off the trail onto pavement, just to rest my legs.  And then carried on down the paved part of the downhill.  When it finally leveled off I thought we must be pretty close to Camp Ten Bear, and I looked for the left that led back to the aid station.

An intersection... but not the one.  Another...  not it.  Where was it?!?  Finally I saw it -- easy to recognize because it was the one part of the course you actually run twice, so there are signs in both directions.  I made the turn toward the station, right next to a horse.  Someone called out from behind, "go straight!"  The rider next to me yelled at me "wrong way!"  I took a moment to look back, but I knew that was BS.  I shook my head and carried on.  There was a little back and forth and then eventually the rider apologized (for trying to add 23 miles to my race!).  Give me a break.

Heading for the scales, hat in hand...
I walked up the last hill, greeting all the runners heading out of Ten Bear for the first time.  In nearly 12 hours, I had gone 70 miles, and they were just past 47.  I was still more than an hour ahead of last year's time, though it seemed like I hadn't done that last downhill quite as fast.  I'd have to make up for it by not loafing on the grass at the station.

Everyone cheered me down the hill and over to the scales.  I offloaded the pack and hat and climbed on -- 4-5 pounds up.  The doctors were totally OK with this, but it concerned me.  I had been taking a lot of salt and drinking a lot, and not suffering as much from the heat.  I resolved to cut back a bit.  Erin said there were pacers available, but I really didn't feel like I needed one, and wasn't ready to deal with it if I ended up with one that didn't help.  She also said they thought there had only been seven 100-milers through before me.  Wow.  But, 30 miles was a lot of race left, and I had no idea how accurate that figure was anyway -- my mental math put me at more like 15.  I was pretty darn happy if I was actually in the top 10, so I figured I'd try not to get passed, but didn't want to make more specific plans at this point.

Leaving... without the hat
With that, I grabbed my new pack and headed out.  11:54, back ahead of my scheduled 12:01.  Yes!  "Hat!  Your hat!"  I looked back.  Half the station seemed to be waving at me.  Erin had it, and I started up as she started down.  Then someone, perhaps a waiting pacer, grabbed it from her and ran it down to me.  Thanks!  I turned back and headed out again.  I was ready for another gel but I rememebered that the huge climb didn't start right away...  I had made that mistake before.  So I carried on maybe a quarter mile into the woods, passing a 100K runner, and made it to the real climb.  It was everything I remembered, only not quite so bad.  How's that?  Maybe I was just on a high from that top 10 remark.

Meanwhile, I quit the s-caps, until I could actually feel muscles tightening.  Usually I get a warning in my neck before I really get leg cramps, so I figured I'd look out for that.  I cut back on the water a bit too.  I hoped to have my weight back to where it started by the time I got to the medical check at Bill's.  On the up side, I continued to pee regularly, so I was going to lose a little that way, and I sure wasn't burdened by a lack of sweat, so I should lose some that way too.  I hoped it would all sort out.  Physically I didn't feel that great, but I was ready to push for a decent 30 miles and see what I could do.

Coming into West Winds
The two legs into the 77-mile crew station at West Winds were slower than I would have liked, but what can you do?  There was a lot of climbing.  We'd climb a long way on trail, hit a nice level road that would promptly turn uphill, cross a nice level field, onto a trail that turned uphill, you get the idea.  Somewhere in that last 30 we made the right I recognized onto a narrow path up a grassy slope, but I couldn't remember what came next!  Still, it all made me very glad to be fast -- two years ago I ran all these sections in the dark, and they were so much easier in the daytime!

I was sort of looking forward to the temperature dropping, and it took its sweet time.  I hit West Winds a little before 5:30, and while I had lost all the buffer I had built at Ten Bear, that was pretty much to be expected.  The question was how I could do from here.  I said hi to everyone and got my new pack, heading down the steep, grassy hill onto another trail section.  I wasn't feeling the love for the trails, this year.  I did OK on them, and they relieved all the oddball pains probably caused by the cambered dirt roads, but they just seemed slower and more uphill than the roads.

Aid at West Winds
Still, overall, I had a pretty good time from West Winds to Bills.  I continued to pass people, if at a slower rate.  I'd first see a pair of runners in the distance, and think "Aha!  I've got you now!"  I mean, if they were going to stay in front of me, I'd never see them at all, right?  Inevitably, the pacer noticed me too, and they picked up the pace, often enough to disappear again.  But inevitably, I caught up again.  One I came up on again just as his pacer took his bottle and dashed ahead to an unmanned aid station.  The one disadvantage I had going pacer-less -- no one to run ahead and fill bottles for me!  But the runner ended up at the table too, and I passed while they were there.  The advantage of a large hydration pack, I guess.

I remember last year, running on a road with heavy traffic, which later turned out to be crew vehicles heading to Bill's.  This year, I kept looking for that, but there was never a road I recognized, or with so much traffic.  Hopefully because I was ahead of it, but who can say?  At one point I came blazing down a hill to an aid station, to see a runner and his pacer leaving it just ahead.  They turned the corner just down the road, and then the pacer popped back out in a mad dash for the aid station.  A volunteer shouted "What, what did you forget?"  The pacer made it 80% of the way back to the station, then turned around and headed out again.  Ha!  I knew what that was.  That was him checking whether I had a red (100K) or black (100M) bib.  If you saw a pair of runners then you could pretty much count on it being a 100-miler and pacer.  But an individual could be in either race...

Leaving West Winds
I still had to stop at the station, but I knew that was another guy I'd be catching.  If he was that concerned, he wasn't going to stay ahead for 15 or 20 miles.  In fact, I was taking all the downhills faster, so while he held me off for a while on the climbs, I caught up on a descent.  We chatted briefly, and I noted that I saw him checking out my bib color back there at the station.  "Yup."  "Thought so.  Well, good luck to you!"  I headed on.

It was still a long run to Bill's, and I kept thinking I must be at the turn where I'd see the big field on my right, with cars parked, and the big red barn in the distance.  It never was that turn.  I jumped with joy when I finally saw the cars, though the barn didn't look red at all.  Well, I'd still take it.  I came in just the slightest bit ahead of schedule.  How about that?  88.6 miles and right on.  I ditched the pack and hat and jumped on the scale.  They asked what I started at.  I told them.  They fiddled with the scale -- a balance kind, like at the doctor's.  I was clearly right at my start weight, but the volunteer on the scale jiggled the smallest weight back and forth in half-pound increments for so long I almost screamed.  Close enough, damn it!  In reality, it was probably 10 seconds, not nearly enough to matter.  Sometimes you look back and wonder where your head was.

Last weigh-in
My dad had a headlamp ready, but I wanted both of them, causing another small delay while he fetched my crew bag.  I had considered throwing on a long sleeve shirt, but it didn't seem that cool and I didn't want to stay any longer.  So I took the light, left the hat (on purpose this time), and headed on out.

In retrospect, this was the high point of my race.  According to the post-race splits, I was in 6th, the best of all my stops.  I was feeling great (mentally, anyway), I had just hit my targets, it was still daylight, who could ask for more?  The next 7 miles to Polly's did not go as well.  There were two practically equal sections of 3.5 miles, which I needed to hit under 40 minutes each in order to leave myself an hour for the last 4.5 miles.  (You wouldn't think an hour was needed, but there were a lot of hills and my previous best was 1:08!)  But it seemed to be largely uphill, and it took 45 minutes to make it to the midway aid station.  Plus I was passed, by my friend super-fast-walker-guy.  We had just crossed a huge field in the waning sun, and I heard some hooting behind me.  I didn't look back (why bother?), but pressed on as best I could.  He passed with his pacer on an uphill shortly thereafter, and seemed stronger on the downhills too.  Catching him seemed pretty unlikely.  I also had some chilly moments, when I was walking a hill and a breeze hit.  I wondered whether it was a mistake to skip the warmer shirt, but that at least did not last.

Feeling good at Bill's!
The second half to Polly's was pretty much the same.  Largely uphill, and as it went on I was passed by a woman and her pacer -- seemed like the same woman I had talked to at Sound of Music Hill, way back when, though I couldn't be sure.  I kept closer to them, but I was going about as well as I could, and never managed to actually close any distance.  Apparently I was keeping her nervous, because we had donned our headlamps, and I could see her pacer's turn back to check on me approximately every 35 seconds for the rest of the race.  Note to pacer: if you shut off the light before looking back, you'd see my light, and I'd never know you were there.

Anyway, I hit Polly's at 17:15.  A fantastic time, but 15 minutes behind my best case.  I didn't see cutting 23 minutes off my time for these 4.5 miles, so an 18-hour finish wasn't going to happen.  Still, if all the reports had been right, I was still in the top 10.  So my new goal was to keep everyone behind me, behind me.  It took a half hour to make it to the final aid station, but I couldn't remember the mileage, and hadn't seen it posted.  Did I have a mile to go?  Two?  In fact it was 2.3 to go, which was more than I had figured.  So I spent a lot of time wondering where that "1 mile to go" sign was!

With 11 miles to go!
I also kept hearing voices behind me, and whenever I looked, I saw a light in the distance (and the visibility wasn't that far).  This part was almost all trail, and uphill.  I pushed as hard as I could to stay ahead, jogging every hill except for the very steepest parts.  The voices were still there, pressing me to stay ahead.  This seemed much different than previous years, but I was a lot more motivated.  Someone passed, but thankfully it was horses.  Finally I hit the mile-to-go sign, just as I passed another runner (though not a 100-miler).  I pressed on down the trail for that eternal last mile, finally hitting the glowing milk jugs in perhaps the last quarter mile.  They carried me up to the torches, and I crossed the glowing finish line in 18:13:58, for a massive PR, and my first top 10 in an actual competitive ultra.  Yes!

My parents and Erin and the kids were all there to celebrate my finish, though it was a short lived party as suddenly everyone yelled "out of the way!  Horses coming!" and a pair of horses crossed the line.  ("Some of them go *really* fast!" someone noted, once we were safely off to the side.)  My excellent crew had a chair ready and waiting, so I hung out at the finish line for a few minutes, before meandering back to the most welcome cots in the medical tent.  This is something I wish every 100 miler would copy -- a warm tent full of cots and blankets, close to the food -- there's no better way to finish, if you ask me!

Happy finishers
Unfortunately it didn't take very long for the leg pain to kick in, and I wasn't able to entirely avoid the usual shivering spell, though it didn't seem as bad this year (at least in part due to the heat pack that the medical team produced!).  I was able to eat and drink a little, and was just starting to feel a little more human when Chris strolled in and settled down on the cot next to me, having handily beat his 20-hour goal.  He didn't even lay down, just sat on the side of the cot and chatted.  How does he do that?!?  James also came through, though I don't even think he stopped for a cot.  Seriously?  I had been laying there moaning and begging for a leg transplant!  (Medical team diagnosis: "Hey, you brought that one on yourself, buddy!")

Top 10
Still, it felt great.  From 19:41 to 18:13, and a top 10 to boot.  For the first time I got called up right at the beginning of the awards ceremony, and got to stand up there for the little photo shoot before they handed out the rest of the awards, from 30-hour finishers on down.  (Though I almost missed it!  They started the awards early and we rolled in as the second-place finisher was being called!)

So, at the end of the day, I guess there is something to this CrossFit!  Despite the lower training mileage, it seems to be working for me.  Next up, Grindstone!  We'll see if it does the same for the real gnarly climbs!  :)

Guess who digs the lunch?
In closing, thanks to my dad for excellent crewing -- he was there at every station with a fresh pack ready.  It was great to see my mom and Erin and the kids out on the course too!  Plus the BCRR retinue at the early stations.  Those friendly faces mean a lot.  And thanks to all the volunteers, always ready with some fresh fruit, cups of water, jugs to top of my pack between crew stations, or cots at the finish line.  Couldn't do it without you all!