Pittsfield Peaks Ultra Challenge
Pittsfield, VT – 54 Miles
It was a quarter to three in the morning and lightning lit up the sky like it was the Fourth of July. So much for getting any sleep, laying in my new NEMO Mio tent, having shoved two people inside, attempting to stop sweating in the humid air. Thunder crashes and the rain pounds down out of the sky. The flood gates have opened and my mind is still fixed on one thing.. the race. I lay awake between intermittent spurts of sleep and laying in the dark. I hear the thunder continue in the distance, it ebbs and flows. It gets closer and closer.. then another storm. Thats what this stuff is about isn’t it? Weathering the storm? So is life I suppose… and I’ve been weathering lately for sure. Trying to hold my umbrella upright, looking ahead to try and see the future…
I run to the general store to grab some breakfast which consisted of one Strawberry Pop-Tart and a bottle of orange juice. I get my bib number on and start running for the farm. Once there, it’s still raining buckets. The runners are all huddled under an overhang next to the barn trying to stay dry. I just don’t give a crap. I know I’m going to be wet and stay wet all day, so why avoid the inevitable. Andy Weinberg pointed out that I had showed up.. and that on Wednesday I had spent 6 hours out on the course, marking the 20 mile Blood Root section. Just then, while the crowd gave me a nice round of applause to thank me… I started thinking how awful this is going to be. Just 3 days prior to this 54 mile race, I had run 20 of the toughest miles anywhere. I’m going to have to drag my ass across these mountains if I’m lucky.. so lets just do it.
I get over to the starting area and shake hands with a few more friends I haven’t seen in awhile. It’s like a family reunion and I miss my relatives a lot. I get in for a picture with Phil Rosenstein and Cherie Yanek and then Andy yells for us to go. I try running up the first hill but I know better, I ease off rather quickly and let those who don’t know better.. take off. The rain continues to pour out of the sky while thunder rumbles gently across the hills. We enter the woods and work our way up the first bushwhack section. It’s muddy and slick and the runners have all ready bottle necked. I wait patiently for my turn to climb, I’m in no rush. My mind is still thinking about the plan for the day. The previous 3 years that I’ve run this race, I’ve run with someone else. This is the first time I’m alone and not tied to anyone for training purposes. People keep asking me if I’m ready for Western States and the answer I don’t know. I guess now is the day to find out.. now is the day to let my legs do the talking… I put my head down and continue to focus and remain driven.
The first 8 miles of the course are a roller coaster of ups and downs, mostly on jeep roads and dirt roads. Some of the roads in Pittsfield have been paved over the last year, driveways I think, which surprised me a bit but helped me accelerate for a few yards before getting back out onto the mushy mud. I settle into a race pace with a runner whose name I do not know or remember. He wore yellow mostly and we talked about Barkley, this race and other races. Another runner joined us.. it was his first 50 and we talked about Pompei and the brothels they found buried under centuries of ash. As we wound our way around the Contest trail, the clouds were beginning to lift and the rain was letting up slowly. I was enjoying the conversation as we ran into an aid station where Bill Stillson was hanging out with water on the back of his truck. I filled up quickly and then took off and as I continued to run down Liberty Hill I felt a surge of energy in my legs and a calmness about my mind. I was experiencing flow early, I smiled as I knew… today was going to be the day.
As we made it up to Colton Camp I saw Courtney Desena’s Dad, checked in and just kept going. The first BIG climb of the race is here and word was that it’s changed a bit this year because people cut the course last year. The climb is at about a 80 degree angle for a few hundred feet. Hands and knees almost in getting to the top, clawing at the mud was a guarantee as your feet slid from under you. At the top.. we went higher then year before and into the woods. Yes.. it was a bushwhack and it was here that I put some distance on the runners behind me.. and cut up some time on those in front. Back out on the trail I let gravity take me. My legs flew wildly about and mud sprayed up behind me. As I passed folks going up, while I ran down, I stayed focused and said hi to those I saw in a flash. I was rockin’ it.. and lovin’ it.
Running out of Colton’s I put my head down and let the rain fall a little more. There was one more downpour before it finally let up. Out on the road heading into Upper Michigan I felt great and continued to run as far in as I could. I’d never really run up this road before but today I was.. and was getting worried. I kept telling myself not to get burned out, but I wasn’t running at a blistering pace. I was in one fixed gear, an easy pace, just letting the miles click by, breathing calmly and smoothly. I ran into Upper Michigan where Sarah helped me make a quick transition in and out. Refilled my bottles, asked her to find some zip lock bags for my return and headed out further up the road.
I ran up Upper Michigan even further, no runners coming my way, by about 5 or so minutes into this loop usually, the lead runners come blazing by. But today, it took me 2 miles to finally see Brian come out of the woods. Was I really that close to the lead 14 miles in? Just a mere 2 miles back?
I pushed my way up into the Hayes Brook woods, up and up and up we climbed, yet for some reason I still wasn’t walking. I ran as much as I could. I was laying it all out there and not holding back. We weaved in and out of the woods up high, in mud, through mud around mud.. I kept running. I topped out and then began running downhill again. I’ve always been a great downhill runner, it’s my strength and I’m capitalizing on it today. As I got half way back down I saw a runner ahead of me.. and then I passed him. I kept pouring it on, emptying back out onto the road and heading back to the aid station. I saw all the runners still coming up the hill, many friends cheering me on and giving me a hand for a high five. I was stoked, focused and on a mission.. thoughts of easing off were all ready turning towards HANG ON.
The initial hills up along Caryl Brook are mellow and gentle. I saw a runner ahead of me. I had passed him coming out of Hayes Brook and he retook his lead at the aid station. As we climbed Caryl Brook, I watched him closely, when he ran I ran, when he walked.. I ran a little more then started hiking. The best part of this section was being able to run some of the hills, and proving to myself that I can still climb with a mission. After reaching the guard rail at the top of the Brook, I saw him ahead on the road and about a mile later, I found myself running side by side with him, talking about the race. Side by side we took the hard left back into the woods off of the road and entered the aid station that was in the clearing. This station is usually just a water jug out in an open field. Today, it’s Blood Root Aid. I stopped and grabbed some food. I refilled my bottles and got ready for the climb. It’s mile 24, the next 3 miles are all up hill and the next aid station is 7 miles away. I’ve done this many times now.. I know what I need to do.. I stay focused.
The climb up Blood Root is steeper then steep. It starts kind of mellow but the further in you get, the more you climb, the harder it gets. The grade goes from a 35 degree angle all the way to an 85 degree angle. The grasses are high, the mud is getting deeper. The higher we climb, the foggier it gets. We’re in the clouds now, getting soaked. We catch another runner named Paul. The runner I had caught earlier takes off ahead while I hang back with Paul from New York. The climb is quiet, no one talks really. It’s head down and get to work. Your legs burn, you gasp for air, you are drenched with sweat. Around every turn you stop, rear your head back and see you still have a ways to go. It’s evil, it’s torture. Is this heaven? Or is this hell?
We top out on Blood Root where I sit down and empty out my shoes. I clear out hard packed mud, grass, seeds, etc.. put them on and we start the quad crushed of a run down hill. Each step hurts. You can’t stop. You just have to hold on and let the mountain take you back down to zero. All that climbing for nothing. Just to go up and over. It’s frustrating yet, torture. It’s amazing training, it’s wild, it’s fun, it’s Peaks. As we reach the near bottom of the mountain, the mud gets deep as Paul and I leap huge puddles of deep dark mud. We take our hard left and the trail mellows out. I take a minute to walk, drink and eat. Paul follows closely, we keep talking about Recreation Therapy, New Yorkers we know, other races. And at one point, 29 miles into the race, Paul admits that after 10 years of ultra-running, this is the hardest one he’s done. Harder then Jay, harder then the masochist.. and then… I pull ahead.. and I leave him.
I keep my pace in mind. Just running in one speed and one speed only.. constant. I march around every turn. I power hike the hills, I jump the mud, run through the puddles and slice through the tall grasses. I motor down hills, I’m still in the zone. My legs are yet to get tired and I’m in absolute awe at my current condition. How has this happened to me? I feel like a well oiled machine, it’s the perfect day, that perfect race. Everything is clicking, I’m still in flow, I’m experiencing my true potential. I run into Chittenden aid right behind that runner I had caught earlier. He runs out while I stop for food. I’m starving. This aid station was the best of the race. These kids from Green Mountain College were doing a hell of a job. In seconds I had a turkey and cheese sandwich in one hand and a coke in the other. I ate and drank. Enjoyed watermelon and talked to them about one of their professors I knew. I turn around and Paul was walking into the aid station. I looked into the guys eyes, they had that glazed over stare. He’s tired, hungry an quiet. I smile.. I love seeing it… it’s that time in a race where one is discovering who they are.. he’s stripped himself clean.
As I run out of Chittenden a few folks were playing frisbee with a dog. I looked at the guy sitting on the back of the car and said, “lets go!” He gave me this puzzled look.. “Where?” To upper michigan, come on.. come with me. He was crewing for Deanna Stoppler but he and his friends offered me some encouragement. I appreciated their sentiments though I highly disagree. (They know). I head off down the trail, chasing down that runner from before.. always chasing him. I ran the entire way down the road, something I’ve never done before. I cannot believe I’ve been able to pick it up out of the aid station like that. My break there was some 10 minutes long. My only long break of the day. Back in the woods the sun has come out and it’s getting hot. It’s humid and the temp rises into the 80’s rather quickly. I round the corner, see the reservoir in the distance and start to climb steeply back up to the Long Trail. I cross over and start pounding down the hills again, back up and over one last climb, then the next 2 miles are all down hill to the River. As I approach the river I see him again, damn it! I’m caught the guy again.. I see him in my sights, hit the road, take the left.. and he’s gone. The guy can move on the flats.. but the hills I’ve got. Thankfully I know what’s coming up on the course and I hold back. I step off the course and into the river where I wash off my legs, my shoes and soak my hat to cool off. I’m over heating. I’ve made it through Blood Root with my fastest split of the route ever and feeling GREAT.
Back at the Upper Michigan aid station I stop and change my shoes and socks. I look up and a kid has quit the race. He’s run 38 miles, looks defeated and says his foot hurts. I tell him to stay in and come with me. Bill tells the kid to come along for the ride.. he’s done. I stand up with a full waist pack, fueled and ready to run. I head off down the road and pat the kid on the back as he gets into his car, “See you next year” and I hope I do. I pick up the pace a bit and continue to chase down that guy I’ve been chasing all damn day. Sarah drives up behind me in the car and drives beside me a bit telling me some good stories from the aid stations. We laugh and then she takes off. I put my head down… and get serious.
On lower michigan road the sun is roasting everything now. It’s like running in a brick oven. I get up to Hayden’s and just run past the water jug and attack that hill. Its another steep climb that Jason put switchbacks into. Yet, those switchbacks don’t help. They just taunt you. I feel something in my shoe, so near the top I stop and take care of it.. it’s nothing, and I’m puzzled. I get up and try my best to run fast downhill without getting in the deep mud up here. I want to keep my feet as dry as possible. I get back on the road down low and kick right back into a run, the next climb, up and over, and as I start to head down to the driveway, I see a runner I hadn’t seen before. I catch him on the pavement and we talk. His quads are shot. He can’t run downhill or up, he’s done, tired… I look at him, put my hand on his back and say, “John, just keep going. You can do this. You’ve got all day. One step at a time.” He tells me he has no hills to run in Boston. I told him about the Blue Hills.. for him to contact me.. and we’ll go. No rocks left on this course.. just running.
Out on Tweed River Drive I’ve got that runner in front of me again and John behind me. I look ahead, I look behind. I get up onto Dove Drive and ask Sarah when the last runner, before the one in front of me had gone through, she say’s “3 minutes.” Up at Upper Michigan they told me I was in the top 10.. I wanted that bad.. I quickly refilled water, Saw Joe’s Cousin Anthony and gave him a pounded fist. Then reentered the woods to the mind (bleep) that is Joe’s and Fuster’s. Different every year, always a surprise. It was time to go. They take us out onto Noodles Revenge, a series of what seems like a thousand never ending switch backs. You weave left and right for a long time and in the end, you’ve only climbed about 20 feet of the hill. It screws with you.. if you let it. I don’t.. I keep running because I can see two runners above me and the one below me.
I make it to the Upper Tweed Aid station where Borden helps me refill my bottles. It’s hotter then hell here and I’m cooked. My legs feel great, I’ve got some gas but my mind is starting to get tired. Borden tells me the two runners ahead of me look strong. I wince into the sun, stand there and think for a moment then simply thank him for his help and head off up the trail. I know this course now.. I guess it’s going to be the same as it was in May from here on in. I know what time of day it is, I’ve got a PR.. but by how much? I know I can run it in from here in an hour.. thats the goal. I put my head back down.. and just start running.
I zig and zag some more then enter the labyrinth. I hear and see no one until I pop out of the other end. I see a runner in a black shirt and with glasses in front. I saw him on the earlier switchbacks.. but where is that other guy? I head up and over Joe’s not stopping to see the view. I’ve seen it before.. time to play pacman. I have something in my shoe.. I opt to forget it. I continue to run and head over to Fusters. The switch backs are long now. Long sweeping sections to run. I slowly start to catch up to that runner. I don’t care if I catch both of them, I just wanted one. I didn’t want anyone to pass me. After 20 minutes, I finally get within reach. I come up behind the runner and stay on his heels. When he runs I run, when he walks I walk and then I find myself gauging how much he has left in the tank. In about 5 minutes I’ve determined I can walk faster and run faster right now. He’s tired and plodding along.. I’ve go plenty of gas in these legs. I ease off and wait for my moment.
Finally.. the course hits a hard right out onto some double track and I make my move. I run past the runner and he says “Good finish.” I tell him it was tough to catch him but appreciate his work. We run down the hill and I ask him if he’s run here before. It’d been a few years, but I told him of that one last climb. He hates hearing this.. and starts to walk. I continue to run, head around one more turn and start barrel assing down one last hill. Just then I realize.. there is no last climb. They’ve taken it out.. the race is over and I have a mile to go. Just then I see Andy Hawley. He’s hootin and hollerin as he always does. Illiana is pacing a 10 miler up ahead, they’re all yelling and cheering. I stay focused and hit the bottom of the hill. The course goes over the bridge but I run straight into the Tweed River. I run through waist deep water to the other side, run out and walk a bit before Illiana kicks me in the butt on last time. I run some more.. and more.. and I run it in. Through the final section of rollers… and I see that final hill. I holler one last time and Sarah hears me, she starts yelling, I put my head down and take that final hill.. I run it.. every damn step of it. I want to throw up, I’ve left it all out there on the course… I’m done.
I cross the finish line in 11 hours and 22 minutes. 1 Hours and 5 minutes faster then my previous course best. I end up in 8th place, top 10 in only the second time of my running career with what some would consider to be one of my finest performances. I look up and take my medal, Jason Hayden shakes my hand and pats me on the back. I look up and the “faster crowd” is still there and clapping for me. I’m humbled and thankful for their support, “I never thought I’d finish in a time where I’d see ALL of you still here!” It as a great feeling. Finally letting the wind out of my sails, my back and legs cramp up. I’d done it.. exactly what I had come out there to do. I finished, sub 12.. and while not sub 11.. pretty damn close, with a course PR.. and a whole lotta steam heading into the Slam.