I have never really written a race report per se other than the obligatory Facebook post after finishing a big race. I have always loved running ever since my father would take me to the track as a young boy. He had run cross country and track in high school and was quite successful (having run a 4:16 mile his Freshman year in college). He wanted to share his love of running with me. Except for a portion of time in my 20’s, that yearning for the runner’s high has continued to be a big part of my life.
At first it was just running a marathon, then qualifying for Boston (took me 3 tries to do so), then attempting to run sub 3 hours. After several unsuccessful attempts, my marathon times were at a stalemate between 3:08 and 3:15. Having run about 15 marathons and after reading “Born to Run”, ultra running was calling my name. Having run four 50 milers in the last 2 years, running 100 miles seemed like the logical next step. Plus, since the qualifying standards for the Western States lottery have been tightened up this year (2 time loser here), I pretty much had no choice but to become a little more crazy than wife thinks I already am.
I chose Vermont 100 because: a) Living in CT, it’s only a 3 hour drive to the race and b) I LOVE hills and Vermont has a ton of them. Training for the winter in the northeast included lots of cold morning runs in several layers. It was a production each morning to figure out what to wear in the sometimes single digit weather. Because of my work schedule, my training was varied throughout the week, but generally focused on 4-8 miles a day during the week and a long run on either Saturday or Sunday. Generally I ran 35-45 miles per week, but ran a relaxed pace with lots of hills. I did a 50 mile road race (Lake Waramaug) in April as part of the buildup, recovered and then started in with some serious training, averaging 70 miles a week for 6 weeks through early July. I ran on trails or hills as much as possible with the focus on the specificity of the weekend long run. To imitate the Vermont course, a mix of trails and gravel roads with steep climbs and descents worked well to harden up the quads for what was to come. I have my friends Chris L., Eric, Alan, Chris D., Scott, and Chuck to thank for getting up early with me on Sunday mornings to do different portions long runs with me. I built up to a 40 mile, 7 hour long run a month out from the race, culminating an 88 mile week. I knew at the end of this long run that I was ready. I was feeling good and felt I could have run another 10 miles at the same pace comfortably.
In getting my race crew, I first thought of my wife, but she quickly reminded me that travelling around Vermont all day with the dog and son in tow was not her idea of fun. She had crewed me at the Vermont 50 last September and was sick the entire day, but couldn’t imagine going through double the amount in the summer. She suggested a guys weekend with a few friends. I put the word out that I was looking for 2-3 people to help crew and pace me during the race. At Vermont 100 you are allowed to have a pacer for the last 30 miles. I wrote the following with some semblance of sarcasm.
I am looking for 2 people that are very organized and efficient, have good navigational skills, don't get lost in the woods (at night), have a positive attitude, have a great sense of humor, are a good story teller, are able to deal with my cranky ass at mile 85, and generally love being in a race atmosphere all day long! I don't think that's too much to ask is it?! I also would ask that one of the two pace me for the last 30 miles so that I don't trip on my own drool during that uncharted last section of the race. Keep in mind there will be a LOT of walking in that last 30 miles, so the pacer simply needs to be in some semblance of marathon shape. Plus any running at that point will be north of 10:00 minute pace per mile in my opinion.
Chris, Scott, and Eric graciously agreed to make the adventure to Vermont with me. Eric had paced me in the last two years of the Lake Waramaug 50 miler and has a sub 3:00 hour marathon to his credit. Chris has run several marathons, countless Tough Mudder races, and has been a great friend of mine for the last 5 years at least. Scott, who I’ve known for the last few years has run several marathons as well and is training for the JFK 50 mile in November. All 3 are very level-headed and I knew I could count on them.
The plan was to go up early on Friday, get checked in, set up camp (you can camp in a field near the start), get some lunch, and attend the pre-race meeting and pasta dinner. After setting up camp and having some lunch, we returned for some R&R to the camping area. We met Maddy Hribar, her sister Katy and their mom who were having trouble setting up their tent. I learned that Maddy had run Leadville 100 the year before in just over 24 hours. She was going to be among the elite women in the race tomorrow.
We then went to the pre-race meeting and learned all the ins and outs of navigating the course, how important the volunteers were, as well as what the race is benefitting. All of the profits from the race go directly to the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. A woman name Molly came up and spoke about how important that organization is the success and well-being of her autistic daughter. Being the father of an autistic son as well, it really hit home, and I’ll admit I had some tears in my eyes. I actually sought her out after the pre-race meeting to thank her for telling her story in front of everyone.
Now it was time to eat! At the pasta party, we ran sat down at the same table as Tom Green. Tom Green was attempting to finish the “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning” (four 100 mile races: Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch over the course of 13 weeks). Tom was the first person to do it in 1986 and was now attempting to do it again in his early 60’s. He finished Western States less than 3 minutes before the cutoff, would go on to finish Vermont in more than an hour before the cutoff, and Leadville less than 5 minutes from the cutoff. He would go on to run Wasatch, but had to drop mid race with a medical issue.
Back to camp we went to go over final instructions for the race. I’m a little meticulous and OCD with everything that goes on in an ultra. I want to leave nothing to chance. The three guys had a good laugh about all the different gels/shot bloks, and other items that I had brought for the race. https://www.facebook.com/scottcooney/videos/10152520281129484/ My nutrition plan was to take in 200-300 calories an hour as long as I could and drink 30-40 ounces an hour. This would be in the form of gels/shot bloks, fruit, pretzels, potato chips, and whatever else I could stomach. For hydration I would carry a 20 ounce Amphipod hand held and alternate between Tailwind (powder based electrolyte drink with calories) and Nuun (non-calorie, but has electrolytes) as long as could stomach. Both drinks are very light in taste, but I knew at some point I would want to change over to Coke and/or Ginger Ale for liquid calories. I seem to crave Coke especially in latter half of ultra races.
At Vermont and with usually any 100 miler, they keep an eye on your weight. At pre-race check-in you get weighed in along with your blood pressure taken. They weigh you again at 3 different aid stations during the race and if you are 7% or more under your pre-race weight, they pull you. No questions asked!
Night fall came quickly and it was time to get some shut eye. I was surprisingly not terribly nervous the night before and fell asleep fairly easily, but still woke up a few times to make the short trek to the port-a-potty at the camp. I got about 5 hours of sleep as wake up was at 2:45 a.m. with a 4:00 a.m. race start. Cars were starting to stream down the gravel road leading to the start. The rest of my crew awoke around 3:00 a.m. and we were ready to go. I made my final preparations, put on a headlamp, got my water bottle and Ultimate Direction belt with my Shot Bloks, gels, and electrolytes all set. Since the start was virtually a ¼ mile walk from our tent, it was nice to relax and be able to walk down to the start less than 10 minutes before the start. Upon getting to the start it was one last time to the restroom and it was GO time! I lined up about 10 meters behind the front and then the gun went off.
The Vermont 100 race course starts off going downhill on a gravel road so it’s easy to start off fast. Plus the temperature was cool at 55 degrees. I wanted to run almost solely by heart rate (keeping between 130 and 150) in the first half of the race. People were passing me left and right but I felt content with slow easy pace around 10:00 minutes per mile. I started chatting some with Alex McDaniel, whom I had seen the last few years at the Lake Waramaug ultra races. He is an accomplished ultra runner with a couple of good showings at Western States. I picked his brain a bit to find out what kind of time he was looking for. He has run around 20 hours before at Vermont, but said he was looking to go a little above that this year as his training cycle wasn’t as good as previous years.
My goal for Vermont was to finish in under 20 hours. Based on other runners that have run Vermont whom I know that I am on par with for a 50 miler, their times were typically between 19 and 21 hours. I felt as long as ran smart in the first half of the race, I would have a chance to be close to that time. I also wore a pace bracelet that had calculated paces for the major aid stations, plus a projected super goal time (based on a finish of 19 hours) for each one. I continued to click off the early miles, but making sure to stay on top of my nutrition and hydration. Around the first aid station at 7 miles, I started to run some miles with Greg Esbitt (who had finished a few minutes in front of me at Vermont 50 last year), so I knew I wasn’t going too fast. He doesn’t start out too fast, so I tried to keep the pace easy with him. There were was a nice long downhill with a mile just under 8:00, but we did drop probably 500 feet in elevation so I knew it wasn’t too fast. Coming into the Taftsville Bridge aid station in Woodstock, I was pretty much right on schedule at 2 hours and 32 minutes for the first 15 miles. A quick refill of water and a few potato chips and I was on my way.
Coming out of the aid station, I came upon Maddy. We started chatting a little, but it was clear that she was pushing the hills a bit more than I was. I was content to keep my heart rate in check and walk the uphills when needed. A few miles before the Pretty House aid station at 21.1, I shared some miles with Mary Beth Strickler. Mary Beth seemed to be having a great time just clicking the miles off. She was running her 3rd 100 miler and was looking to finish in under 24 hours, but was certainly way ahead of schedule.
After Stage Rd., we turned onto some gnarly, grassy, exposed steep ass trail leading up to Suicide Six Ski Area. The sun was out now so it was starting to warm a bit. I continued to mostly hike this section to keep the effort down as I still had 2/3 of the race to go. I was moving well though as I was passing people as I was hiking. Somewhere in this section, I came upon Jimmy Dean Freeman who was in his second 100 miler in less than a month, having finished Western States in late June.
He and a friend of his, Andy Kumeda were attempting to do all 4 races in the Grand Slam, plus 2 other 100 miles, all within a 13 week stretch (they would both ultimately go onto to finish all 6…Amazing!). I continued to hydrate and refill at all the aid stations and keep up on my nutrition. This was a big focus early in the race as they weigh you at the Camp Ten Bear aid station at 46.7. If you are more than 7% below your weigh in from the day before, they pull you, no questions asked. Nathaniel and I continued to keep the miles nice and smooth and chat about different races that we had run. Nathaniel had run UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) the previous year, so I was all ears when he was telling the story about that race. A few miles before, I came upon and passed Jordan Hanlon, who had run sub-20 hours at Western States the month before. That gave me huge confidence in where I was in the first half of the race. He was also running the Grand Slam!
Coming into Camp Ten Bear at 8:08, I was back on schedule, in fact right on my projected split. I almost missed my crew here as I saw them after I weighed in and left the aid station. I actually weighed in at 2 lbs. over my weigh in from the day before! My quads were starting to hurt a little, but nothing too major, but I knew it would get worse at some point. The next 23 miles are one big loop coming back into Camp Ten Bear at just under 70 miles. Coming out of Ten Bear, we hit another pretty steep trail section. This course was just relentless. I was actually feeling better on the uphills than the downhills as the quads were slowly starting to pain. I was still moving well though as Nathaniel and I passed about 10 runners in the next 15 mile section leading to the Margarita Aid Station at 61.6 in 10:53. I was now 15 minutes AHEAD of schedule. I had started to drink mostly coke or ginger ale at this point with a little bit of water. I had moved ahead of Nathaniel shortly after the aid station, but that would all change as we hit a 4 mile trail section of downhill leading back towards Camp Ten Bear. I had to walk a fair amount in this section and he and a few other runners came flying by. My quads were super sore! Back on the gravel roads as we approached the aid station, I almost missed the left turn to the ½ mile approach into the aid station. There were runners coming out of the aid station for the first time who I almost followed. A fellow runner who was right behind me assured me that we needed to make the left to go towards the aid station. Seeing my crew was great as I needed some more fuel and would pick up my Chris, my first of two pacers for the last 30 miles. I weighed in again and had lost 5 lbs. in the last 4 hours. I clearly had not eaten enough as my stomach was starting to sour a bit and just wasn’t getting enough fluids or nutrition. I took my time at this aid station to try and refuel, hydrate, but was still in and out of there in less than 5 minutes. I was still 10 minutes ahead of schedule though at 12:20 with just over 6 ½ hours to run sub 19 hours and 7 ½ hours to run sub 20 hours. Seems pretty simple right?
Before leaving the aid station, Maddy came cruising by and was on her way. Chris and I walked out of the aid station for a few minutes as I told him I just needed to walk a bit, but would be ready to run in a few minutes. Crossing from the gravel road onto a steep single track trail, the walking would continue for awhile. The next 7 miles were mostly UP, with some pretty dirt road sections through some farms. I was glad to have Chris as I again I almost made another wrong turn. He did a great job of pacing me and making sure I kept up with my fluids. I wasn’t really eating much except for a few sections of shot bloks. Coke with ice was sure tasting great though! To give you an idea of how difficult this section was, it took us an hour and 37 minutes for the 7 miles. As we approached the Spirit of 76 aid station, Maddy’s crew asked if I had seen her. I said no, as I thought she was way in front of me as I didn’t see her after coming out of Camp Ten Bear. She and her pacer must have taken a wrong turn somewhere in that section. I would later learn that she lost 10 minutes in that section.
Again I saw my crew, refueled with Coke and the did a change of shirt. I had put a couple of shirts in my bag for my crew to bring (1 red and 1 green). Being that I was wearing a red shirt, I wanted another red shirt. Scott of course hands me a green one and I say “Where is my RED shirt”?? He starts to run to get it from the car, but I quickly realize that I’m being ridiculous about a shirt color and go with the green one.
I pick up my second pacer, Eric and we are on our way. Eric has a sub 3 hour PR for the marathon, has a very even keel attitude and is easy to chat with. For the next 12 miles, we enjoy a lot of gravel roads, with most of dirt roads with most of it downhill. My quads are very sore, but I figure they’re not going to get much worse so I still continue to run the downhills and walk the uphills. About 2 miles from Bill’s, I stop to pee and see that it is bright yellow. Bill’s aid station at 89 miles, they weigh you in for the last time. If I don’t drink some fluids, I know I will be close to underweight. I drink about 30-40 ounces before coming into the aid station and am excited to see my crew again, but am starting to feel a little delirious. I come into the barn (yes a barn!) for the aid station and have only lost 2 lbs. since the last weigh in…WHEW! I quickly refuel and Eric and I are on our way. I am still 5 minutes ahead of schedule.
Coming out of the aid station, this tall skinny guy comes flying by us before getting onto the next section of trail. It is dark at this point and our headlamps are on, but it is still difficult at times to make out the trail. Eric did a great job of pointing out any roots or rocks in this section.
Coming out of the short trail section, we hit this huge meadow with the last part of downhill. We are flying down this hill…it feels like the fastest I’ve gone the entire day! We pass another runner and pacer (who I would later realize is Ben Pangie from Vermont) who is clearly hurting and walking the downhill. I had met Ben through an Ultra group on the internet. He was also running his first 100 miler. We continue to move well on the downhills (though they hurt like hell) and walk the uphills. Every time we run downhill and make a turn, I was hoping it was another uphill. I just wanted to walk! The hills just keep coming though…not much flat in this section. Some woman comes flying by us about a mile before the next aid station. She is moving very quickly and on a mission. We come into Polly’s aid station at 95.2 at 17:59. I have one hour to run/walk/hike/crawl 5 miles. I would learn that is not so easy at this point. The last 5 miles felt like it was entirely uphill…it mostly was, but I had nothing left at this point. I just wanted to be done. About a mile after the aid station, we start hearing music, not just any music…LOUD rap/hip hop music. My first thought is why the hell are they playing that kind of music at the finish. My second thought is the neighbors must be pissed! Vermont 100 is a course that’s run quite a bit on private land and they’ve had trouble in particular with one land owner near the start/finish. My third thought is that the finish can’t be this close. As we are getting closer to the music, it suddenly starts to die down as we turn away from the sound and onto the steepest, muddiest, mucky trail of the day. Granted it was dark, but I could barely walk up this trail. This mile easily took me close to 20 minutes. Finally making it up the hill, I could run again and the finish was near. As we made our way down the last winding section of single track, it started to hit me that I was going to finish my first 100 miler. While I didn’t make my “super goal” of sub 19 hours, I was pretty close, finishing in 19:08:42, not bad for my first one and good enough for 23rd place out of 231 finishers.