Running with the horses is really cool and I’m sure a lot more safe than something like riding with lions or tigers or bears, though I also “ran with” a bear briefly but more on that later. The horses were magnificent animals and were inspiring to behold. I was somewhere between mile12 and 15 when the lead horses passed me and I was immediately taken aback by their sheer athleticism; taught hides stretched over rippling muscle, their proud heads held high as they trotted along the country roads. By the way, I looked it up and I believe trot is the technical term because it refers to a two beat gait that can actually be pretty fast and it is sometimes referred to as a jog, which fits with the ultra-distance game and when the horses came up behind you it sounded just like the cadence of a large runner, I immagined a lot like me.
The next thought that struck me was that I was racing in a 100 mile race too and that I have successfully completed eight (now 9) 100 mile runs and that must mean that I am somehow, in my human capacity, on par with these amazing creatures. Of course me being me my third thought in the context of the rolling, green, mist covered hills of an early Vermont morning was “Hey, this must have been like in medieval England when the Lords and Ladies in their finery rode by all the peasants who were slogging their way through the muck to purchase their pork bellies and gruel at market“ and with that last thought I chuckled and continued to slog my way to the next aid station where I, perhaps, could get some pork bellies and gruel.
I should hasten to add that the riders were not at all snobby nor was anyone I met who was associated with them. In fact, they reminded me a lot of ultrarunners. The lead riders were focused and intent on racing while those in the middle of the pack were friendly and chatty and seemed more intent on enjoying a great day on the trails without dawdling too much. In fact, one of the riders I spoke with said she used to ride competitively doing something I’ve never heard of. Anyway, when she stopped riding competitively she started riding trails and loved it and just decided she wanted to spend more and more time out on the trails. A woman after my own heart; that is the story of an ultrarunner.
The riders also had aid stations along the course and crews that followed them though I gathered that some riders did not have crews. At at least some of the aid stations they had “Vet checks” where a veterinarian was located who would give the horse a good once over to make sure they were still fit to continue much like the docs in ultrarunning have weigh-ins at various aid stations and check runners to see if they are ok. I jokingly asked one of the women directing riders into an aid station if I could enter and she said “sure, come on in” and I told her I was hoping to get a vet check to which she replied “Well, you’ll have to get an anal temperature taken” so I decided to pass and continued on down the course.
Apart from the horses there were apparently also bears on the course, black bears. At about mile 32 just after the Stage Road aid station there is a section where you turn up a relatively steep trail and head into the woods. As I turned up that hill a woman was standing still as I passed her and then I saw a baby bear running down the hill toward us. I stopped too and as the bear ducked into the woods we both retreated a bit. She told me that she had also seen the mother bear and that it was on the other side of the trail in the bushes. I squinted into the woods to see if I could see where the mama bear was because of course all I could think about was “great, now I am going to get caught between a mother bear and her cub.
A few other runners piled up behind us and a brief discussion ensured about getting mauled by a bear. As that discussion was taking place I had the morbid thought, “You don’t have to be the fastest you just have to not be the slowest” and with that I forged up the trail trusting in the timidity of black bears and the hoped for validity of doggerel.
By mile 35 I was no longer being entertained by animals and I really started thinking about how much of the Vermont race can be run. In fact, I thought it was relentlessly runnable. I am more used to mountainous runs and technical trails and it seems that whenever I have run on flatter or smoother courses heat was a significant factor. In either case you tend to spend more time either hiking or running at slower speeds coupled with walk breaks. That wasn’t the case at Vermont. The course is almost 100% non-technical. In fact much of it is smooth dirt road with a little pavement thrown in and while there are some long grinding climbs there is still really nothing that can’t at least be hiked at a pretty brisk pace.
I started wishing for some really steep hills or gnarly trails but they didn’t come and I just ran and ran. I actually had the thought, “This is crazy, who runs this much” and I actually started to get that sickening feeling you sometimes get while watching a horrific news story. I did my best just to put it out of my mind and run on because the objective evidence was that I still could run, because I was running, and the terrain was, of course, very runnable.At least at one point during that section I got a brief respite when I came across three youg girls, probably around 11 years old, who were sitting in lawn chairs on the street corner watching as runners went by. As I passed one of them timidly called out, "Hey, do you like Justin Bieber?" I immediatly turned around, jogged up to them, threw my hads in the air and exclaimed, "I LOVE Justin Bieber!" This response seemed to please then as they giggled and I heard one say as I jogged away, "You're cool." I'm actually only vaguely aware of who Justin Bieber is but I was pretty sure that he is someone young girls would like so I decided to provide them with the satisfying responce as opposed to the honest one.
By the time I hit the Camp 10 Bear aid station the first time through at mile 47 I was grateful to have an excuse to sit down and rest a bit. I think all I did at that point was grab some extra food for the trail and I picked up my small pack to carry the extra supplies and a long sleeve shirt and headlamp just in case something happened to slow me down before I made it back to Camp 10 Bear again at mile 70. The only thing that really happened between stops at Camp 10 Bear is that I discovered the hardest section of the Vermont trail 100.
I had read things about people being surprised by how steep some of the climbs were or how much harder the course was than they expected, well, that pretty much all happens between mile 47 and 70 though I suppose when you reach the latter third of the race when you are faced with tough road or trail you really no longer care.
I came running into Camp 10 Bear at mile 70 with the sun still high in the sky, I was feeling good and my pacer, whom I was picking up at that time, said I was a hour ahead of schedule. Before heading out on the final leg of the run I changed shoes, socks and put on a new shirt. I also noticed that my drop bag was clipped to Misty’s drop bag, a sure sign she had already been through. The 100K runners start five hours after the 100 mile runners but they skip the first 38 miles of the course and run a six mile route from the same start to Lillian’s the manned aid station just before 10 Bear and then proceed along the rest of the same course as the 100 milers do. I was really proud of her for making such good progress. I didn’t know exactly when I would catch up with her but I figured it would occur at some point and the later it was the better I knew she was doing.
Leaving 10 Bear I started getting more acquainted with my pacer. It turns out he was a family physician who operates a practice in rural New Hampshire. I’ve always thought it would be a good idea to have a physician as a pacer and he was a top notch pacer, friendly, interesting and also really interested in mental health and 100 milers, both of which I’m more than willing to talk about at length. We ran and talked and before I knew it we were at the Spirit of 76 aid station and there was still just barely some daylight in the sky. I had heard earlier that if you can make it to the Spirit of 76 at mile 77.4 while there is still daylight then you have a sub-24 hour buckle in the bag unless something really goes wrong.
Just after Sprit of 76 there is a wooded section of single track and the one thing that is surprising about Vermont is just how much darker it can be in the woods whether you are on trail or road. There were even times before mile 70 when I was under dense tree cover and I thought for certain that the sun was just about to go down but then I’d hit a clearing and it would still be bright and sunny. That, of course, did not happen after spirit of 76. We descended into the darkness of the forest and didn’t see the light of day until the following morning after my race was long over.
Shortly after emerging from the woods we hit another long section of nice runnable dirt road and I started wondering how I was going to ask my pacer to leave me and stay with Misty through the night. For some reason this was an aspect of the race that neither Misty nor I really gave much thought. We had talked about her running through the night and how best to accomplish that but the fact of me passing her in the dark leaving her alone out on the trail while I had the company of a pacer had not crossed our minds. Well, the thought crossed my mind plenty at various points of the day and it was unbearable.
I had resolved to do one of two things. I would leave my pacer with Misty and continue on my own or if he didn’t want to do that I would sacrifice my shot at a sub-24 and stay with her myself. I really wanted a sub-24 finish and now that it looked like it was in the bag I wanted it even more but things like that are inconsequential in the face of my need to stand by my wife.
No sooner did I ask my question then we saw a runner immediately ahead and it was Misty. This cut short my time to explain to him my feelings on the situation, apologize to him for my not thinking this through before enlisting his help and to let him know that he would help me directly and immeasurable by providing me with the peace of mind that my wife would not be alone in the dark. Much to my relief Bob didn’t need any of that and simply said, “I agree.” Maybe I'm over protective and maybe I should let it go but it's not something I was really prepared for and running through the woods at night whith hardly anyone around is a very different thing than being on a packed Ironman course at night even if you are one ot the latter finishers, there just isn't a comparison. Even Javelina Jundred or Rocky Raccoon is very different because those are loops and even at the very back of the pack you are still around other people some of the time, at least until the next day. In a point to point race you can be alone for hours.
Despite the late hour the nigt had one more odd experience awaiting me. I have told this story to a few people and they tell me I must have been hallucinating from fatigue. To the best of my knowledge I’ve only done this once before and that was at the end of the Lean Horse 100, my first 100, when I swear I saw a Native American man dressed in a war bonnet and traditional garb and beating a drum. However, in that case there were several other people around to disconfirm my experience. In this situation I was the only person there to see it and it sure as hell seemed real to me and mentally I felt pretty clear.
Somewhere around mile 90 I was running alone along a dirt road and there were a couple houses of on side and a field on the other. The side with the houses had a steep embankment that dropped down to the road. As I was running along suddenly two boys who appeared to be maybe 13 years old leapt out of the weeds yelling and waving toy light sabers. Since they were essentially leaping down an embankment it was neither well-coordinated nor terrifying. I simply stared at them as they stumbled around trying at the same time to look threatening and not to whack each other with the light sabers or trip and fall over each other. I also saw a third boy crouched in the weeds but he remained completely still though I don’t know why exactly because he was completely illuminated by my head lamp. As I continued on un-phased the two boys who had leapt out at me started yelling “penis, penis.” It didn’t seem like they were yelling at me or calling me a penis it seemed more like they just had a desire to make noise and for some reason known only to them the only noun that came to mind was penis.
So yeah, Vermont was packed with memories, I mean really packed. It reminded me of the book Born to Run in so many ways but mostly in the books portrayal of the ultrarunning community as being filled with off-beat characters, unusual experiences and unbeatable camaraderie.
I got my sub-24, I’ve completed the second 100 miler in the Grand Slam and I’ve never loved this sport more. I may go back to Vermont one day but at least for now I have other fish to fry. Next up in the Grand Slam is the fabled Race Across the Sky, Leadville.