“There are only two options regarding commitment; you’re either in or you’re out.” ~ Pat Riley
This was the second year for me at the VT100k. This year’s race was held on July 15-16, 2017. I had been counting down the days since registration back in January and everything I did was focused on my goal race. I had cleaned up my diet, followed my training plan, and put together my stellar crew. Everything was in place and ready. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men…..
We arrived in Vermont on Friday afternoon and went right to our rental to meet my pacer Dean. He had driven in from Quebec and we all wanted a bit of time to unpack, unwind, and chill for a little while before heading off to the race venue for packet pickup and dinner. Once we had all my gear set up and packed the way I wanted it, we hopped in the car and headed to Silver Hill.
Thanks to Mother Nature and her delivery of a very wet spring and summer in Vermont, Silver Hill meadow was, well, a bit soggy. The race committee had to do some rearranging to get all the horse trailers, campers, and crew members cars parked without being swallowed up by all the mud. Since I was running late (there’s a big surprise) and we were stuck in a long line of cars all trying to get into one tiny field, so Dean and I hopped out of the car and walked down to the tent area while Joe got the car parked.
It didn’t take long to start seeing familiar faces. We met up with Laura, Eric and Caitlin and we all headed over to get our bibs. On the way I ran into Kim, Krista, and Astrid and saw a bunch of my Strider peeps. Steve LaBranche was running the second leg of his Grand Slam adventure, so I wished him well (while secretly thinking he was nuts).
After bib pickup and a perfunctory medical check, we all grabbed seats under the tent for the runner meeting. I knew Hal Koerner was at the race and I practically gave myself whiplash trying to find him for the whole hour we were at the meeting. No such luck. When the meeting ended we remembered that we had to get dinner tickets for my crew so we went over to the merchandise area only to be told the dinner was sold out. Well ok then. Off we went in search of dinner, and we ended up at a fantastic restaurant by Quechee Gorge. Bellies full, we headed back to our rental to chill out and try to get some sleep. I was full of excitement but slept really well.
Arriving back at Silver Hill at 8am on Saturday, I thought about what it meant for me to be there. Such a historic race. Such amazing athletes. Did I really belong here? Would I finish? Yes, I’d completed the race last year but nothing in the ultra world is ever guaranteed. Some days the race goes flawless. Some days, well, it doesn’t. Which would it be today?
Amy (VT100’s esteemed race director) sent us up the road at 9:01am. I had a plan in place to finish in under 15 hours, thus giving me a qualifying time to enter the 100 mile race next year. I had all my splits calculated and had a list of times that I had to arrive at each aid station in order to stay under that time. I remembered that the front half of the race is the easiest for me because it included most of the dirt roads. With this in mind, I tried to bank some time and arrived at Lillian’s aid station 15 minutes ahead of time. I quickly filled my water bottles and split, keeping to my plan of not spending much time at the aid stations.
Up the road a bit, we entered the woods for the first time. I heard a voice behind me say, “nice job, keep up the good work!” and I immediately knew who it was. As the runner passed me I replied, “hey, I know you!! Get after it, Hal!!” I had just gotten a verbal high-five from my idol. Did you know that ultra runners have groupies?
I came into Camp Ten Bear for the first time at 11am, again 15 minutes ahead of time. Sweet, I’m keeping that nice little cushion, I thought. I switched out my water bottles, grabbed some food, got a nice cool down from the sponge bucket, and headed up the hill out of the aid station. I would not see my crew again until Margaritaville, which was at the end of a two-mile uphill climb.
Before that, however, I had to deal with two adversaries: Havoc Hill, and Agony Hill. Yep, they are both as bad as they sound. Agony Hill starts will a steep dirt road and ends with a rugged trail – both sections about ¾ of a mile long. Myself and three other runners spend the road section walking 10 steps facing forward and then 10 steps facing backwards. As I did last year, I thought to myself “I can’t imagine the 100 milers doing this after 55 miles.”, because it was all I could do to get it done after running 15. With Agony Hill finally behind me I could focus on getting up to the 20-mile aid station and my crew.
So far, everything seemed to be going well. My feet felt good, my body was holding up, I was following my nutrition and hydration plan, and I wasn’t hanging around the aid stations. Somewhere just before the climb to Margaritaville my GPS had a seizure, and now I had no idea where I was for mileage. I would have to just judge it by aid stations now (I would eventually end up with 75 miles on my watch, with a couple of 29-second miles LOL). Needless to say, the climb seemed to go on forever, especially now that I didn’t know the passing miles. When I finally arrived, I found that I was now down to a 5-minute cushion on my time. Oh well. Maybe I could make some time back up on the way back to Camp Ten Bear, since most of it would be downhill. I again switched out my water bottles, grabbed some food, kissed my husband, and fired off back down the road again.
Unfortunately there was no time to be made up for me. Most of the double track trail that led back to Camp Ten Bear was muddy and rocky. I was starting to feel fatigued so I had to be careful on the uneven footing. I knew the course well enough that I had a good handle on where I was – and that elusive 15 hour pace was slipping more and more. When I finally made the left-hand turn to head back to CTB I knew I was way behind and made the decision there that I would just do the best I could with the rest of the day, figuring I could at least get close to 16 hours.
I came into CTB now 10 minutes behind my pace and told my crew of my new plan. It was here that I made a crucial mistake. I chose to switch my socks because my feet were wet from dumping water on myself and from sweating. I had started the day with my usual Injinji socks, but I knew that to get another pair of those onto wet feet would take an act of Congress, so instead I chose a different pair. This decision would soon come back to bite me and cause the second half of my race to be a real test of my guts and pain tolerance.
Luckily CTB was where I could pick up my pacer, Dean. I knew he would keep me focused, and I was looking forward to some constant company. I had spent most of the first 30 miles running alone. So off we headed to what should have been the last gnarly climb of the day – Heartbreak Hill. However, difficulty level is definitely tied to fatigue and so this would not, in fact, be the last gnarly climb for me.
The backside of Heartbreak Hill is a long, meandering, usually buffed out downhill single-track trail section. This year, for whatever reason, the horses had really chopped this section up. I was not able to put my feet in the middle and had to have my feet up on the sides of the now hollowed-out, rocky trail. This, in combination with the socks that I think didn’t stay in place as well as the Injinjis, started a rapid downward spiral of burgeoning blisters.
By the time we got to Spirit of 76 aid station I was really hurting. I decided to change my shoes, hoping that would help alleviate the problem. Why, at this stage, I didn’t have the medical team address my blisters I have no idea. I chalk it up to being stubborn and stupid and wanting to just keep moving forward. So after a shoe change, a shirt change (I was soaked and getting cold as the sun was going down) and bottle change, Dean and I set off again, but my heart really wasn’t in it anymore.
We arrived at Bill’s (mile 51) at a time that would still give me around a 16-hour finish. However, I was now dealing with PF in both feet, an angry Achilles, and blisters on both feet – as well as a very battered soul. I felt so incredibly beat up. Several times on the last section I had tried to run and couldn’t – my feet were that painful. I knew that the last 11 miles were almost all trail, except for two steep uphill road sections. I had no desire to finish this race, but I couldn’t imagine dropping out at this point. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be in this pain anymore. Both my husband and Dean told me that I could get through this section in just a couple of hours, so I followed Dean back out of the aid station and onto the trail.
The trail sections were unbelievably painful. Every uneven step sent searing pain through the blistered areas. I prayed for a road section. Then, the road section caused the PF to flair and my feet screamed. I couldn’t do anything but shuffle, and even then I had to stop every few hundred meters and roll my feet to the sides to take the pressure off the bottoms. I cried. I swore. I yelled. I just wanted the pain to stop. We reached a section of mud and I just crumbled. I could do nothing but hang onto Dean’s arm, trudge forward, and scream with every step. I had resolved in my mind that I might actually drop at the 59-mile aid station.
When we arrived there, I was barely walking. I shuffled over to the table and asked the volunteer to fill my bottles. She said “ok” and took them out of my hands. Somewhere in the back of my foggy brain, I recognized the voice but couldn’t dredge up the energy to put it together. Then the other volunteer spoke and I said, “oh!! I know you guys!!” Crystal and Jesse. I had met them at Jay Peak a couple of years ago. Since then, they have completed numerous ridiculous races such as the Georgia Death Race and the Infinitus 100 miler. Crap, I couldn’t quit now. I whined that my feet were just mangled, hoping for just a tiny bit of sympathy. What I got was Crystal giving me back my full bottles, Jesse turning me towards the road and pointing towards it saying, “get back out there and finish this thing!!” I was so reluctant to leave that aid station. I knew that was my last viable chance to drop. After this, I was in it no matter what. No cell service, no more manned aid stations, and it was after midnight so I wouldn’t be knocking on anyone’s door. It was only 3 miles to the finish, but it could have been a hundred for as bad as I felt. I really didn’t want to go. But Crystal, Jesse, and Dean wouldn’t let me give up.
Those last three miles are kind of a blur. I know I was whining. I know I was crying. I know I was swearing and screaming. I’m mortified of my behavior, but I was just in so much pain. When we finally got to the finish line, I broke down completely. I can still remember Amy’s face, the look of concern she had, as she held me up and handed me off to Joe. Nothing else mattered except getting to the medical tent, getting my shoes off, and getting off my feet. I was so upset that I couldn’t revel in finishing 62 miles. I couldn’t celebrate the fact that I had finished in 17 hours and 13 minutes (a 40 minute course PR for me). All I could do was cry. I hadn’t even come close to my goal time – neither of them. I was devastated.
I managed to get a few hours of sleep before going back to the awards ceremony the next day. We didn’t stick around, though. I grabbed my ceremonial horseshoe and headed back to the rental. I was just so shattered. I’ve never been in a low for 11 miles before, and I didn’t know how to handle it. After napping and eating for most of the day, the fog finally cleared and I thought about the enormity of running for 62 miles. It didn’t matter the time on the clock or the mental state I had been in at the end. I had finished my 2nd 100k, and that was quite an accomplishment. I had also cycled my first 100k in late June, so I had hit that goal – to cycle and run a 100k within 4 weeks of each other. That’s pretty badass, and I’m glad I finally realized it.
I’m still planning on running Ghost Train 100 in October. If I finish it within the 30-hour cutoff, I will get my qualifying time for the VT100. However, I think I’m going to do the 100k again. I really want that 15-hour finish time, and, well, the 100k course and I have some unfinished business to attend to.
As usual I need to give a big shout out to my husband Joe for his unwavering support and for being the best crew chief ever; to my pacer, Dean, for putting up with a stupid amount of whining, tears, and temper tantrums for that last 11 miles; to Crystal and Jesse for getting me back on the course when it would have been so easy for me to quit; to Amy, for her continual encouragement in my quest for that elusive qualifier; and of course to Debbie, for getting me to Vermont to begin with – twice.