Vermont 50k Recap: Running my First Ultramarathon (Part1)
When we run, we will ourselves to be the best we can be. That is all that matters. Our tribe expects nothing less.
Sometime in early 2011 I decided to do something fun for my 30th birthday: run a 30k. Tis lead to the aptly named Jonathan Ayers 30th Birthday 30k. But I also decided to run 30miles by the end of my 30th year. And so, this past weekend I completed my first ultramarathon, the Vermont 50k. I have decided to divide my thoughts (is that possible?) into two posts, utilizing this one for the race recap.
The forecast was for on-and-off rain with temperatures in the 50s. It was a bit misty at the start, and actually didn’t feel that cold…until the rain really began to come down later in the race. And then didn’t stop for most of the 30 miles. Everything I had on was soaked, and I was frigid and chattering after I finished even though it was probably closer to being in the 60s by then. If the rain had let up it would have been the perfect temperature to run.
The website stated that the course was 2/3 trail and then a mixture of primarily dirt roads (with a few paved sections). Of the trail sections if felt like the majority were single track (or nearly so) with the rest a mixture of snowmobile and ATV trail sections.
There were actually three races going on simultaneously (at least once the 50k started): there was a 50 mile run, a 50 mile mountain bike, and a 50k run. Now, under normal conditions (i.e., no rain) the footing and trail conditions would have made for a truly great run…as it was, once the 50kers met up with the mountain bikers the single track sections became very very trecherous (more on that later).
When I first saw the elevation profile for the course it looked rather daunting…however the highest point is just below 1700′. So while the total vertical is about 5600′ it is spread out over 31 miles there; this allows you to recover and hike a bit, plus none of the climbs are too difficult or painful (as opposed to those at Jay Peak 25k or the Monster Half Marathon).
The Race (by Aid Station)
***Please note that my memory of the race course is a bit foggy. I was focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not necessarily the terrain each foot was on, so do not take my description of the course as correct.***
My crew and I (consisting of my wife and my parents) stayed about 35 minutes away, so we rose early to get to pre-race meeting at 7:30. The race kicked off at 8 am and it felt like a blur as I ran down the Ascutney Mountain resort entrance road and looked out over the hillsides that I would have to traverse. I was a beautiful morning (rain aside) with fog flowing over the tops of the hills and rolling down into the river valleys.
Start to Aid Station (AS) 1 – Coon Club (mile 4.2) (Here is a video of the start.)
This was a real blur. I think I was in a daze realizing that I was actually doing it: I was running my first ultra! After leaving the paved roads you head onto dirt roads that go for over 2 miles. This section was a lot of climbing, some of the most of the day (as you can see from the profile). But I was actually surprised when I came upon the first aid station. I had been chomping on some dates, but I made sure to down a GU for good measure.
Aid Station (AS) 1 to Aid Station (AS) 2 – Ralph’s (mile 7.5)
Again, I don’t rememebr much of this part. I know that the course headed onto trails for a while, but I couldn’t tell you much about this part. I do have a clear recollection of realizing that I was running my first ultra…this wasn’t a short jaunt, but a long-ass race so I had been watch my pace and utilize the 25-25 walk-run technique (which I did throughout the day). As I rolled into AS2 I decided to have my first hummus wrap, which tasted amazing after all the sweets I have been eating…
AS2 to AS3 – Margaritaville (mile 10.5)
…rolling out of AS2 a guy asked me, “Is that a burrito?” Laughing I replied, “Man I wish. No, it’s a hummus wrap.” “Oh wow that sounds good.” Up until this point the 50k course was separate from the others. But shortly after leaving AS2 we hooked up with the 50 miler runners and the mountain bikers. They came in from the right as we took a left around a sharp turn, and it was pretty cool to see these muddy ghosts gliding past us. I got to chat a lot with a few other runners and it made this section a lot of fun. Then, off in the distance, I heard it…it sounded like a Jimmy Buffet island oasis. That as AS3, aka Margaritaville. And aside from the lack of teekee torches and drinks with small umprellas it was a neat little oasis in from the race. I do wish that I could have partaken in the spread of food there, because they had tons and tons of delicious homemade treats. Sadly, I was positive that they were not vegan so filled up my bladder and stuck with some gatorade, Oreos, and an orange.
AS3 to AS4 – Greenall’s (mile 12.9)
The 50 milers and the mountain bikes left us at AS3; and it was back to more trails, which I loved. There were some ascents here, but there were also some amazing sloping sections through both open forests and thick, dense tree lines—this section was truly an awesome run. At some point the 50 milers and the mountain bikers joined us again, but I don’t remember where. (They might actually have arrived at AS4 from a different direction.) Eventually I could hear the crowds in the distance as I approached the first handler-access aid station. As I trudged out of the forest it was like running into a parking lot in the middle of nowhere: cars everywhere; people cheering and ringing cow bells. I forced myself to make a decent pace past the crowds, and then I saw it: my wife and parents with giant signs yelling and cheering. It was one of the best sights I have seen—I cannot put into words the kind of energy that shot through me. Though I wasn’t feeling overly tired, seeing them and getting to stop and chat made the past 12.9 miles seem like a breeze.
I have to mention the signs, because they were totally awesome.
I changed my shirt and ditched my winter hat in favor of a brimmed one, and just my spare Buff for an ear warmer (something that I have found works great). I considered changing my socks, but they didn’t seem wet and the thought of sitting down and then trying to get back up was quite unappealing. I grabbed another hummus wrap for later, inhaled a GU (I think that was all that I ate), kissed and thanked my crew, and then I was off.
AS4 to AS5 – Fallon’s (mile 18.3)
This was the longest section so far (5.9 miles or so), which made things a bit more difficult not having the stopping point of an aid station all that close. More mixtures of trail and dirt road; we also crossed a few paved roads, but then it was back into the woods. Had some good conversations with runners, especially about being vegan. Everyone I talked to was really discursive and interested in the topic (some were even trying to be vegan but clinging to the cheese…always the cheese with its absorbent amount of casein). It was also during this section (starting right when I got to AS4) that the rains really starting coming down. It had been a heavier sprinkle, but now it was a true hard rain and everything was soaked. Eh, what’cha gonna do but try to smile and gut it out. I came into AS5 and tried to eat another hummus wrap—I think I managed half of it. I also had more gatorade, a bit of pbj, and some of my ProBar.
AS5 to AS6 – Goodman’s (mile 21.7 or 22.1, not sure)
Now that it was really raining the single-track terrain was getting sloppy and the footing precarious. There were never any collisions between runners and mountain bikers—all of them were friendly and vocal when they passed—but sharing the trail became a game of leap frog: we would over take them on the ascents, since they would most likely have to dismount; then they would over take us on the straight-aways and the downhills. You got real good at listening for the “squeak-squeak” of a biker hitting his or her brakes, look over your shoulder, and then hop off the trail to let them pass. At certain points the trail opened up through backyards and fields of the various landowners who allowed us to us their land; this also let the bikers move around us more easily.
Online, the aid station mileage for AS6 is listed as 22.1; at the actual aid station the mileage was listed as 21.7. Either way, I was still feeling pretty good, and I feel that I had made decent time: it took my about 4 1/2 hours to get there (roughly a 12:34 pace). [I figured this out by looking back at my phone: I had been texting my Mom to let her know where I was, and my last text, before the phone died, was around 12:30pm.] I ate a bit more at AS6: some boiled potatoes (wish I had had more!), chips, the rest of my hummus wrap, gatorade, and a few orange slices. I had started to lose track of how many more aid stations there were, but a volunteer told me there was only one, which meant I was in for the longest stretch yet…
AS6 to AS7 – Johnson’s (mile 28.2)
I knew there would be some hard, dark places that I would have to run through, and it was this section of the race that really kicked me in the ass. Most of the climbing was done (aside from the final stretch), but it proved to be the solitude; the sloppy, muddy footing; and the descents that slowed me down. My legs had started to ache in between AS5 and AS6—mostly my hip flexors and my knees, but especially my ankles. All of the running and descending in mud meant that I had to constantly be stabilizing myself, and I was really starting to hurt. I was able to get into a conga-line with a bunch of other runners, which allowed me to take my mind off the pain and listen to their conversations: we all ran, hiked, and walked in sync, and though my head wanted me to speed up my legs were very glad that I took it slow.
The worst part of the entire race was a series of muddy switch-backs through open fields and single-track trails in the woods. My footing was constantly uneven (one foot higher than the other); it was impossible to take turns well; and my legs were starting to throb with pain. But despite hiking and walking some of the incline I forced myself to run when I could: if running and walking hurt the same, at least running would get things over quicker.
Coming towards AS7 you actually have to take a sharp right to get to the aid station because it is on the other side of a stream; so you almost double back on yourself to get there. It was there that I saw my Mom. I knew one of my three crew members would be there to cheer me, and it was a relief to get some encouragement. I walked the small hill to AS7, chugged 3 glasses of gatorade, ate some pretzels, filled my bladder with a bit of water, and then, knowing that there was only 2.8 miles to go, charged out of there like a bat out of hell…I was going to finish this strong, Coyote Bushido style with my fastest 5k of the race!
AS7 to Finish (2.8 miles) (Here is a video of the finish.)
The profile made this section look monsterous, but the worst part, again, were the trail conditions (aiding to my sore and tired legs): sharp switchbacks and mud greeted me as I ascended the cross country trails up hill. There were two great things about this section: (1) the trail was beautiful. Some of the most gorgeous scenery all day; I ran next to a few gorges (maybe the same one, not sure) and then by a waterfall. Wish I could go back and take some photos. (2) There were signs counting down the distance: “2 miles to go!” “Can you taste the beer?”, “1 mile to go!”, etc. When I got to the one mile marker the trail had opened up onto a series of switchbacks down the skies slopes. You could see the finish, hear the cheers, smell the food, but the mud, the mud, the freakin mud! Just let me finish already! I am proud of myself for really pushing this last 2.8 mile section; I am sure that it was my fastest 5k of the race. As I headed down the last set of rolling hills a guy shouted, “Your done! Your done!” Hells yeah I am! And then I saw Katie and my Parents right next to the finish line. Relief and happiness and proudness (not a word, I know) are how I can describe it: I finished.
My final time was
6 hours 49 minutes 11 seconds (that’s a 13:12 pace); I finished 77 out of 153 runners 6 hours 36 minutes 17 second (that’s a 12:47 pace); I finished 76 out of 153 runners, just about right in the middle*. Though my legs were sore and raw I was surprised at how well I could walk. I grabbed a plate of food (awesome, awesome spread! If nothing else run for the food) and then a $2.50 (!!!) Harpoon IPA. Beer has never tasted so good. The one sucky thing was that the showers were all cold water, which meant washing from the waist down and then hopping into the sauna to try and warm up before the 2 hour drive home.
*[When I finished the race my mom said the time was about 2:30pm, so I thought Awesome, that’s like a 6 1/2 hour finish. However, the initial results that were put up online only listed my pace, which was a 13:12. Hmmm, strange but oh well. When I went back to check out another runner’s time the actual times were up, and looky looky I actual ran what I had initially thought! I know its not that much of a difference, but seeing a “12” instead of a “13 makes me feel even better about my finish.]
I will save any deep thoughts for another post. What I can say is that the day was a lot of fun. It was really hard work, and it hurt a lot at points, but I don’t regret any of it and I am happy that I challenged myself to run it. I cannot thank my wife, Katie, and my Parents for their willingness to drive all over Windsor County, stand in the cold rain, and make signs. They say they didn’t do anything, but they really did. Having a crew to be there for you, no matter how big or how small, can make all the difference at those low spots. Knowing that they will be there at the end to greet and hug you is so uplifting.
*One of the things I have always heard about the ultra-running community is how friendly and welcoming they are, and all the runners and bikers at the Vermont 50 certainly lived up to these expectations. I cannot write about all of the great conversations and interactions I had throughout the run (with both runners and volunteers), but suffice to say all of them made running 31 miles much, much more bearable. Thank you everyone at the Vermont 50 and thank you landowners for allowing us to track all over the place for fun.*