I stood on the starting line as a light rain continued to fall. A cold breeze was flowing through the valley of Brownesville, VT. I wasn’t sure how many runners had lined up behind me, all I did know was that it was cold, soggy and I knew this run was about to be epic. Or was it? By now.. I’ve had more than my fair share of running in foul weather. Hell, I even consider myself a pro at it. Of the 5 Ultra’s I’d run this year all ready, it had rained…. POURED at 4 of them. That coupled with my three years at McNaughton Park in Illinois and mud quickly becomes my game. I bent down and started rubbing some of the roads gravel on my legs. I’m wearing my running tights for the first time this season, the water from the muck seeps through and now I feel ready. Nate, Gilly and I continue to joke. We applaud Mike Silverman and his efforts and before we know it, we get the command to “GO!”
I head off down the only paved section of the course. Not even a mile in and we’re turning onto the first of never ending gravel roads. Except this time, of all the times I’ve run in Vermont, the road is not hard as stone. Its soft, mooshy, and the bikes have all ready worn ruts into the surface. I couldn’t wait to see the trails. Runners passed me on the left and right as I smiled. Before the first hill there must have been over 100 runners ahead of me. I told Gilly to look ahead and survey the scene. I explained that only one third of those in front of us would be finishing this race today. She seemed surprised, I was just stating a fact. You could tell who the new comers to the sport are… they run the fastest and as we hit the first hill… they keep running while us veterans stop for a little walk. A biker came riding at us from ahead, “Hey! You’re going the wrong way!” I’m surprised I didn’t turn to stone right there with the scathing look he gave me as he cruised by. Gilly told me she wanted to stick with me as long as she could, I smiled as I knew that that the time where she’d split off from me was now.. that first hill. I was a hiker before I was a runner, and about 5 minutes of climbing later I’d look behind and realized I’d lost sight of my friend.
I ran right past the first aid station and headed into the woods. The race wasn’t even close to beginning, but that wave of runners that had sped off ahead on the roads now came to damn near a screeching halt. Was the “mud poisonous? What the heck is going on?” I thought as I watched the crowd crawl slowly up the first trailed hill. I chose my route wisely and boogied up the hill as fast as I could, passing 8 or so runners right away. At the top of the hill is the first of many mud puddles to come. I laughed as a few runners stopped and tried to tip toe their way around the puddle, avoiding the mud at all costs. “Are you kidding me?! This is just the beginning of a very muddy day. Get it over with!” I was irritated that some of my fellow runners chose to avoid the mud… why avoid the inevitable? I stepped to the edge and ran right on through. Mud and water sprayed up my legs and even splashed into my face a bit. I was all ready soaked, I showed up prepared for this… I knew this was going to be my day.
I ran with a few new-comers (to ultras) and tried my best to give them a heads up preview of the course. I gave them what brief tips I had about fueling and patience. I felt they’d do just fine, smiling and laughing as we ran through the various pastures and mud pits. We caught the first of the bikes around the same time as I normally do in the race, watching as they were all ready choosing to walk their contraptions up the hills as best they could. I can’t imagine it being easy to push a 20 pound bike up a mud slicked hill as your feet gave out underneath you. “Great day to take your bike for a walk eh?!” I said with excitement and a little sarcasm, I got a laugh… I knew this would change. The field was starting to thin out as we ran into aid station #2. As we arrive I looked at the sides of the trail.. in disgust. Cups lined both sides of the trail heading out of the aid station. There was so many of them it looked like snowbanks with a trail down the middle. The same way leaves are piled up on the sides of a paved road from the cars cruising on by. I was in shock… and it was obvious it was the bikers leaving this litter and I wondered… how much time do you save by not throwing your cup away?
I stopped for some fruit and then continued on my way to Skunk Hollow. Mats Roing was just ahead of me, I knew I’d catch him, I just had no idea when. Mats passed me earlier on the road, then I got him on the trail.. he passed me again later… I caught him on the way to the hollow. Mats is an amazing individual. He holds the record for hiking NH’s 4,000 Foot Mountains, unsupported without the use of a car (yes… all on foot from peak to peak) the fastest. He even brought some of his hiking friends to the race for crew. And then there is Drew… Drew is Vermont’s #1 Trail Angel. He has been to many of my races before, cheering me on offering support… though most times he offers aggravation. I knew if I let Mats beat me, Drew would never let it down. SO… there it was.. I had someone to stay in front of.
(Entering Skunk Hollow)
Once we arrived at Skunk Hollow I saw a line of about 20 to 25 bikes waiting to use a hose to rinse the mud from their bikes. So much mud was there that tires refused to spin, gears refused to switch, brakes refused to work. I’d all ready seen 2 bikes wipe out, and I’ve seen more fish tails than I’d ever be able to handle myself. I handed my stuff off to Steve (who was my VT100 Pacer) and Sarah who had agreed to serve as my crew. I went up to the porta potty line and waited…. and waited.. and waited. There was only one… I asked the relay runner and the biker in front of me if they minded if I cut them to just grab Toilet paper to go. The biker looked at me and said, “are you serious?” “Hells yeah I’m serious… this is a race ya know! And I don’t have time to wait for you to pinch a loaf. This has all ready taken much too long.” The door opened, I jumped in, grabbed a hand-full of TP and went to find my crew. Sarah handed me my waist pack while Steve filled the bottles. He loaded me up and I took off down the trail in chase of Mats… with a handful of TP in my grips.
As we made our way up the next section of roads I looked desperately for a place to go. On one side of the road was a steep hill UP and on the other a ridiculously steep downhill. I was on a mountain… I needed to go. The first flat place I came too I ran into the woods with my moist ball of paper, took my bio break, then got back out on the road. Between my waiting at the Hollow and my journey into the woods here, I had a lot of ground to make up. Some 30 runners had past me an I’d lost about 10 minutes. I knew i had a lot of ground to catch up on… but patience here is the key. This course is a never ending roller coaster. For every uphill there is a downhill and for every downhill.. there is another downhill. It’s relentless, I knew I had to keep my cool and start playing pac-man a bit early.
I took my time on the roads as I pushed ahead. I walked the uphills and ran what flat sections I could. I barreled down the downhills and felt super comfy on the trails and this is where I knew I’d do best to make up some time. As we continued to push through the course, I started to see more bikers… and more bikers…and more bikers… I’d never seen so many bikes in my 4 years running this event. I cannot say as though I was shocked. And then came Garvin Hill. I passed a street sign that said Garvin Hill Road, we took a slight turn and started climbing. I smiled, it was back. This part of the race was missing last year, and it’s where those who can hack it are separated from those who will struggle. I ran into Eric Ferland and ran with him and his cousin for a ways. We had just talked about where Nate was and I said, he’s probably way ahead by now. And then, Eric points up the hill.. and there he is. “Nate!” Nate Sanel has become quite an amazing runner. Through much hard work, determination and fire.. he has become one of the better runners of our area. And here he was walking… and SMILING brightly. The course was a mess, the rain continued to pour down from the heavens, and Nate was having a blast. “I’m dropping at the next station, I have no gas in my legs today.” I knew Nate had been battling a flu and as expected, it was affecting his race. But regardless.. he was having a blast. Nate’s friendship, encouragement and enthusiasm re-ignited some flame deep down in me. He wished me luck.. and now I felt like I was running for both of us… Bikers continued to pour down from ahead, they were retreating. I felt like I was in a civil war re-enactment. Where those who were wounded and tired were retreating while countless others continue to pour into the battle. And this was one battle where more were coming back then were heading into battle. It was quite the sight. Bikers covered from head to toe in brown-grayish mud, hobbling off the course, headed for home and their families. This was indeed epic… and I was still moving forward.
I got to the top of Garvin Hill and had some soda and food. I heard a runner getting yelled at by an aid station volunteer. I guess the runner had found a mushroom he liked along the way and took it from the earth running with it. When he got to Garvin Hill he asked if they had some kind of bag that he could carry it in. They scolded him for taking the mushroom stating that it wasn’t his.. it belonged to the property owner. I thought this was a bit excessive, and so did the runner. He left the mushroom with them and took off. I was a bit disappointed so far, this was the 3rd aid station of the 5 I’d been to today where the volunteers were abrupt and grumpy. Maybe it was the weather? I don’t know… but it was unlike anything I had ever experienced at this race before.
On my way down off of Garvin HIll I saw Drew. He told me Mats was just in front of me.. I continued to run patiently, not pushing it, confident that my experience would work in my favor.. and then, around a corner, there he was. I had caught Mats one last time, and he’d never pass me during the race again. He looked tired as he shuffled his feet along the course. Drew told me he skipped the last handler station, never got food or anything.. I wondered how much better he’d do if he only fueled himself properly. I pushed on and came out down on the sluiceway. A new aid station was here and I asked how long to the next Handler Station. “4 Miles.” I knew this was much too short, so I refilled my bottles knowing it was more like 8. 4 to the next aid station? yes… Handler station? No. I refilled my bottles and tried to push myself up the slippery, mud soaked trail that runs parallel to a stream that was running full. The rain continued to pour down and I was getting cold. I looked ahead and realized I had finally caught every that had passed me during my downtime at Skunk Hollow and in the woods. I eased off the throttle and just tried to reel in Dugdale’s.
The trails were getting a bit muddier the further in I got. I knew a lot of the bikes had quit.. the rain was making it tougher to perform. I was starting to get really tired, winded, exhausted even. Every step was a fight. I get as good a foot placement as I could get and then my foot would slide out from under me. “I’m used to this though” I keep telling myself as I was winning the mental game for sure. As I made it into Dugdales I found my crew. They refilled my pack, Sarah gave me a kiss, and I was out as quick as I was in. This was the best change of the day. But man was I bothered. I knew everyone on Mats crew and only one of them said hello. Mats is such an amazing individual that I thought his friendly example would have resonated through those that helped him. Unfortunately, it didn’t.. and I learned the true character of some of those I thought I knew previously. I was bummed… yet continued on.
I was in a very low spot at Dugdales. I was tired, cranky yet not complaining. Just running. The rain and muck was what it was. I signed up for this, I paid my money… I was loving it. This was one of those days where if you LOVE what you do… you’ll finish and if you’re on the fence.. you’re going to fall off. I very much accept the weather as a big part of the course. More so than the rocks, the roots, the overall terrain. Weather is everything, it can make or break you as much as anything else. I continued to bound down the trail only now.. I rarely saw anyone.
After leaving Dugdales, the course became a very lonely place. I saw more bikers than runners. Bikers were pushing or carrying their bikes. The mud had only gotten worse, so bad that the only choice was to carry the bike on your shoulder. I admired their resolve and their determination to continue. I told one biker, I could never do what you do and he replied with the same. I headed into the woods off the roads once more, and onto the winding single track. Things were tight now, tight turns, tight trails, tight muscles. Staying up right was becoming a bigger task then the running itself. I passed a few more runners just before “Party House” and then I’d rarely see another runner for many more miles.
I was tired and drained, but I had grabbed one of those 5 hour energy shots at the last station from Sarah. I decided to drink it and let its effects help me. About 10 minutes after guzzling the turbo power, it was working. I felt awake, alive.. rested… I was ready, I was moving fluidly. I was running with such energy and gumption that it was as if the trails were dry. At one point I bent down and scooped up a handfull of mud only to wipe it down my face. I felt bad for those bikers. They were filthy and yet my face was clean. Now we were equals.. and I was only growing sillier. The mud was still getting worse, so bad that it was a comic routine. Words could no longer describe it… only laughter would suffice. I pushed on… I climbed hills, I ran roads, I resolved to catch more runners… but I never saw many and the ones I did see… were catching me. Was I alone out here? I was in last? How many EXACTLY had indeed dropped? I felt lost and alone. The only people I saw were bikers.. who had stopped talking long before, who had stopped laughing.. who only trudged forward in stubborn misery.
I continued to drag myself through the mud, getting more and more tired with every step. That 5 hour energy shot is my only saving grace at this point as the hills are starting to catch up to me. Everything is catching up with me. As I come out of the woods and back onto roads, I plod along in the soft gravel. The rain gets heavier still and the chill is really setting in. My legs cramp from the combination of cold and wet. No amount of salt can help me as I dunk potatoes into piles of salt at aid stations and down my very last S-Cap. It’s no use, I’m starting to crumble. “Just hang on.. little further” I tell myself, knowing full well that the most technical section of the course lies ahead as well as the final 3 miles.
I ask a few bikers if they had seen any runners lately.. “yeah, there is a girl right behind you and she’s smiling.” I turn around to see a smiling runner in all blue. Her tan skin is saturated and sparkly, she looks fresh and having fun. We run together into Goodmans, she is great on the road yet explains her dismay in the mud. At the aid station I grab some PB&J, suck down some more gel, eat some fruit and head out. All of a sudden the trails are crowded once again. The 50K runners are slowly slopping their way to their own finish, the bikers that are left are tired, weary and having trouble seeing through all the mud in their eyes. We all leap frog back and forth until I finally push ahead through the mud. The mud is now soupier, slicker and deeper. I never thought it could get worse yet it does. Only one other course has mud worse than this and that is in Illinois.. this doesn’t even hold a candle to McNaughton.. but it’s close. I forge ahead passing runners and bikers a like, I’m still alive though cramping. I’m yearning for that finish line.
At one point a runner comes up behind me, he has a pacer. “A pacer in a 50 miler?! You cheat!” “No.. I came prepared.” This of course is debateable but as he passes, I feel like I’ve been cheated. He gets pushed on by by his pacer… cracking the whip up the remaining hills leaving the rest of us in the dust. Steve had brought his running gear, he was ready to go if needed… and I thought about it. I wanted company, I’d been alone long enough, I’ve struggled long enough.. and then I remembered… The JOURNEY. This is about the journey. I straightened up, turned my legs more and continued to struggle ahead… as I reach Johnsons, I run into the aid station soaked, cold, muddy.. so tired from running that I cannot even run up the driveway I sawnter up with my hands on my hips. I get into the station and Sarah snaps away with the camera, “I need help Sarah.. not pictures.” She puts the camera down and flies into action. I suck down 2 gels, refill my bottles and walk up the hill into the fields… 3 miles to go.. how bad can it be?
(The Mud Face)
And then I remember quickly that the last 3 miles is rarely ever the same design, yet the sign always says 3 miles to go… will it really be 3 miles this year? Or will it be more like 4 or 5 like last. No matter, the rain is still comign down in buckets, the sun is setting, its getting dark in the woods.. I’m tired… I catch a few bikers whom were walking, one carrying his bike.. “Is this the way to the Republican Convention?!” I know I spoke loud enough yet I got no answer… “Oh you guys must be Republican mud slingers huh?” Still no response. I start to pass them. There were 3 bikers. 2 shot me a skowl while the last one simply looked up and smiled. “Thats right.. thats what I wanted to see.. a smile. Its a great day to be alive, doing something others cannot or will not. This is great, its amazing!” I took off for home.. it was time.
The trail got even worse as if it was even possible. My shoes are covered in thick mud that is slowly seeping inside. My gaitors, once red lycra are now unrecognizable. Mud covers my legs, has splashed up my back and front and continues to dribble down my cheeks. I’m a wreck yet the journey remains. I catch some more bikes, they catch me. A few runners pass me by, 50Kers and Relay runners. I’ve no idea what place I am in, how I am doing against the field or time wise.. I’m just running. The trail winds in around trees before heading for the Ascutney Mountain Trails. The trails on the mountain are all of a foot wide. One bad step or slip and you’ll slide easily down into a ravine some 10 feet down. Precariously I make my way, allowing bikes to slip through if need be, and then I am caught by one last runner… Dan.
I met Dan at last Years Wapack race, he is a regular reader here. I welcome his company. He cracks jokes, encourages me and all around lifts my spirits. I thought I was out of gas yet now I try my best to run stretches with Dan, trying to keep pace. He encourages me to follow him and I try my best. When I see him getting too far ahead, I call for him and ask him a question, or offer a joke… he stops and waits. He doesn’t have to, I feel bad yet he waits. He never touched me though I know he was placing his hand on my bag… he was carrying me to the end. We ran together those final stretches across the ski slopes, we see the chute and Dan says, “You finish before me John, I’m just a relay runner.. you earned every step of this.” I don’t know what to say. I argue with him and try to get him to run in.. he won’t go. So I take us in, and we run together.
(Into The Finish)
As I reach the finish line, I unclip my fuel belt and drop it to the side. I run as fast as the soggy land will allow me and as I near that finish line, I drop to the side of ym leg and slide on in with the biggest smile that I’ve had in months. Life is good once again, as I finish another Vermont 50 Miler. I stand up and my hamstrings immediately cramp. I walk into the final chute and get my medal. I cover it in mud and place it around my neck and immediately drift into thought. 50 Miles of Mud… Point A to Point B… left right repeat… for the last 5 years that I’ve been running.. it’s always been about the journey. And no matter what has been thrown in front of me, today I proved once more that I can weather the storm.
(Sliding into a 4th Finish at the VT50)
Steve Writes: “You know, the more I think about it, the more I am impressed with your ability, dedication and tenacity! You ran 50 miles in completely SH*T conditions, didn’t ever question that you would run/finish, didn’t complain, and just kept going!!” Response: “It was an interesting day in Vermont for sure. I felt rather complacent the entire time over there. Business as usual I guess, just showing up to go for a run. I of course wanted to break 10 hours again, and somewhere I’ll have to find 14 minutes in the mud. No doubt in my mind that if that course was dry, I may have broke 9 hours. Regardless, it was fun, as is anytime we are given the excuse to roll in the mud like children. I think seeing the skowls on so many faces helped me push it and keep going. Because I knew from the moment I stood on the line in a light rain, that I was going to finish…running in shit seems to be my bag. ; )”
Sunday, September 27, 2009
50 Mile Run
66% Finishers Rate
Sherpa John Lacroix
45th Place out of 121 Finishers
10 Hours 14 Minutes 44 Seconds
6th out of 16th in Age Group (M0-29)