Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Thanks for your post, SPC. Had I known about your pledge, I would have at least gone another 8 miles.

This was supposed to be a happy, triumphant post about my first 100 miler, how anything is possible with perseverence…. Blah blah blah. Instead? Another DNF (Did Not Finish), the worst thing that can happen to an ultrarunner, far worse than DFL (Dead F* Last).

I really psyched myself up for this one. Like for many other addicts, uh, I mean Marathon Maniacs, after quadzilla, 2 x 50k PRs in 1 weekend, 50 miler, 100km, mountain 50ks in ankle-deep mud with >8000ft vertical…. the next high has to be higher. The 100 miler. It would be my 101st official race of marathon distance or longer, and earn 8 Maniac stars (for 28 races in 183 days).

That said, I worked hard to find the “easiest” 100 miler. You might say, “there’s no such thing as an easy 100 miler” and you would be right, but after being swept in 2x 50ks from being too slow, I had to be realistic. I wasn’t ever going to be an Olympic athlete or a supermodel, and I was not going to be able to finish most 100 mile trail runs in under the time limit. I polled my colleagues. Some said Lean Horse in SD, but that is the week of the TransRockies Run which I had already committed to. Some said Javelina Jundred, but that’s in November and with my klutz-factor I need all the daylight hours I can, humidity be damned. There’s one in Kansas, but…. It’s Kansas. Barry (a seasoned ultra-MM I met at Quadzilla) said definitely do Vermont. Why, they have rest stops every 3-4 miles, can you believe it?!

I learned later it is one of the 4 races in the “grand slam of ultramarathons”, the original ultras in the U.S. But compared to Leadville, Western States, and Wasatch, it does seem “easier”. Not at altitude, though the nearly 15,000 ft of climbing puts it in the ballpark of the first 2 (Wasatch has >26,000 ft at altitude, and with a 36 hour time limit is often considered one of the most difficult ones, one year nobody finished!). No creek crossings, less than 30% single track, and nothing considered “technical”. They will even find you a pacer if you apply early enough (I didn’t). 90+ degree temps and 45% dropout rate last year? That’s not unusual for these kinds of things. If it’s not tough, it’s not worth doing. There were several runners doing the whole Slam, some even doing Badwater (a 135 mile race in Death Valley mid-July) the week before Vermont, just to add more challenge to the Slam (Western States in late June, Leadville in mid-August, Wasatch in mid-September).

I thought maybe telling everyone I know my plans to run it would make it more likely to come true, but it just made me feel the pressure. I hadn’t done much vertical training since moving to Spokane, and my last 50 miler was 2 months prior. After 14 hours of travelling and 3 times zone shifts, arrived at the Bed & Breakfast in Windsor, VT near midnight. B&B's are awesome.

I slept my first solid 7 hours in a week, then set about packing my drop bags. There was a lot to think about- forecast said low temp of 60, high of 87 degrees, and muggy. I knew I was going to wear a shoulder pack with essentials, 2 headlamps (the race starts at 4 AM), salt capsules, advil, eyedrops, body glide minis, mini-sunblock, a couple Gu’s, extra socks, camera, and 2 hand-held water bottles. I packed 4 drop bags (figured miles 30, 47, 70, and 88 were good choices), each with 2 shirts (tank top and tee), some with shorts and 2 sports bras, extra socks and body glide, granola bars/ rice krispy treats/ pop tarts, and a couple Gu’s, my trail shoes, hydration pack, and spare headlamp batteries for mile 70.1 (in case I needed my hands free for the last 30 miles of trail in the dark, while carrying a headlamp), some tape.

Set off for the mandatory prerace meeting, weigh-in, and prerace pasta dinner. Happened to sit down across from a guy named Robert, who is 59 and happened to be another MM and from, of all places, Spokane. He was a veteran of several 100 milers and former national 50 mile trail champ for his age group who drove up from D.C. after work, then slept in his truck at the campsite, and was planning to drive back to D.C. after the race. Tried to get some last-minute pointers. One pearl I left with, Ensure shakes are a great drop bag item. The Windsor Price Chopper was all out of Ensure, guess all the ultrarunners got there before me.

They weigh you before and twice during the race. They stop you for 30 minutes and force you to hydrate if you lose 5%, and pull you if you lose 7% of your body weight, or gain too much weight (a sign of hyponatremia). My BP was a little high, 144/92. “A little nervous, are we?” said the lady checking my BP. Understatement. That night I could not sleep. I tossed and turned and was up the ENTIRE night. I later found out this was the norm. I overheard another runner telling his friend, “I may have lost consciousness briefly once or twice last night”, which is how it was for me. I remember looking at the clock, seeing 12:30 and thinking, crap, I have to get up at 2 AM to be at the race by 3 AM…..

They went over the basic rules of the road. No iPods or music of any kind, check. There will be horses on the paths and they are large so don’t act crazy, check. Accepting a ride for any reason will get you D/Q’d (there go my hitchhiking plans). Then there was a long section for the pacers. In ultras, runners are allowed to have volunteers run with them at the end. Pacers are usually friends and fellow ultra-runners who help the runner keep moving when they are otherwise stupid from fatigue and hunger and all they want to do is sit down (if you sit too long, your body will not let you get back up), give them the shirt off their back when it’s cold, the hat off their head if it’s hot, and prevent them from getting lost in the dark when it’s easy to miss trail markers on trees. Basically the message was, don’t whine and be your runner’s bitch because it’s their race- if they don’t want a chatty cathy then stop talking. If they want you to slap you around and call you profanities, you do it. You wait in the cold and dark in the middle of the forest for hours, for the privilege of running the last 30 miles in the dark, and all for no credit, just the joy of running.

That’s in addition to the crew, which are usually a team of your family and friends who drive from rest stop to rest stop to take care of you quick like a pit stop team at the Indy500. They hand you your dry clothes, fill your water bottle when your hands are numb, tell you how awesome you look when actually you look like dogmeat. The friendly volunteers at the bigger rest stops (every 10 miles or so) are amazing and help a lot too, but I can imagine the mental advantage of seeing familiar faces.

I had no crew or pacer, but I hoped to latch on to someone going my speed and follow them. Of course some runners like to be “in the zone” and don’t like a lot of chitchat, but I met a lot of amazing, friendly people early on. I ran a bit with Joe, who is 62 and running his 7th VT100 in a row, or something like that. We got to talking about our work, and I mentioned neurology. He recounted a story of how he had 2 seizures after one of his 100 mile races and had to be on dilantin for awhile. The guy next to him Walt is 52 and running his 3rd 100, having run 25.5 hours last year he was trying to go sub-24. In the 100 mile, elite runners go sub-20. Really good runners go sub-24 (and get a belt buckle), but the race cut-ff is 30 hours. I was aiming for 29. 5. Walt said there will be a time in the race for everyone where they will feel absolutely shitty. It may last for hours, it may happen more than once, but eventually, for unknown reasons, it will pass. You just have to keep going.

Eventually I ran into Mary who is 45 and from Virginia and has 3 kids, oldest is 17! I’m trying to picture my parents running a 100 miler when I was in high school, but I’m the one in denial since actually we are about the same age. This was her 3rd VT100 in a row, previously she ran 28, then 27 hours. Apparently last year it was over 90 degrees and even more humid, and there was a 45% drop rate. We ran miles 5-45 together, and I learned a lot. Found out bandanas are priceless to hold ice on the neck and shield the sun. She forced me to down salt caps every hour and food when I was queasy. She gave me her ponytail holder so I could cinch my backpack to not chafe my back, and stopped to point out landmarks and take photos of me at the highest point in the race, known as “Sound of Music Hill” (do I look like Julie Andrews?). She didn’t even seem too upset that I got us lost a couple times due to chatting so much and missing turns. But she was in much better form and I lost her for good before the halfway mark; I learned later she broke 27 hours- strong work!

I also ran for a bit with Shannon, who is 50, has kids in their 20's, and one of those crazy people who ran Badwater last week (though stopped at 91 miles), Western States 3 weeks ago, and is doing the rest of the Grand Slam this year. She looked so effortless and smooth on the trail, and seemed to zoom along even when walking. You could tell she was in another league from the rest of us crazies. She carries a pin so she can puncture any blisters that come up during the race. She said VT100 is not easy because it’s “too runnable”. This is means people think because it’s not technical they can run more than they should, then insidiously trash their quads on the downhills.
She thought Javelina is much easier, but hard in a different way- it’s a loop course so it’s too easy to quit when you’re tired. Especially since they give you credit if you drop at 100k, even giving you a belt buckle. Here you only get the coveted belt buckle if you break 24h. VT100 has a 100k, but you only get credit if that’s what you signed up for. If you sign up for 100 m and quit at 99, it’s a DNF.

I knew I was in trouble when I lost Mary. I had reached mile 47 at 11-1/2 hours but was no longer chatty and had not peed yet, not a good sign. My feet weren’t hurting then, so I didn’t change my socks, another rookie mistake. I could not face yet another granola bar or turkey sandwich, yet my stomach was growling and I couldn’t get the calories down fast enough. Stopped too long to change my shirt and now my quads, the victims of too little hill training and the “too runnable” downhills, were talking to me. It was now 4 pm and 87 degrees, and the next section was forest trail.

Had a major déjà-vu to Mont Ventoux while in the forest. I was going so slow in the muddy single track sections that mosquitoes and biting flies seemed to latch on to me. They have a particularly annoying high pitched buzz and I could swear one was living in my right ear. I started swearing at it, “(#$*%& fly!) but I guess biting flies don’t speak French. I bopped myself on the head several times with my water bottle trying to swat them. A steady stream of runners passed me for the next couple of hours, and I’m sure they thought I was hallucinating.

I finally got to a clearing, only to enter blazing sunlight. Maybe the shade and flies weren’t so bad. Then my heels started itching. When I finally stopped to change my socks, I realized my feet had swollen up and the socks were cutting off my circulation, my entire Achilles and heels were like 2nd degree burns from chafing, and there were what looked like 1000 ant bites but were probably heat rash. Broke rule #1, pay attention to the feet. And never double knot your shoes, to allow for swelling. Sat and washed the feet, put some glide on the heels, changed socks, took advil- but could still barely walk after because in the 10 minutes I stopped to do this, the quads froze up. I hobbled at a 3 mph pace but realized at mile 54 that although I could still make the cutoff at the 70 mile aid station, the chance that I would finish 30 more miles in the dark in under 30 hours going 3 mph was nil. Still I struggled with the mental math for another hour. The sun was starting to set. I would get to mile 70 2 hours later than planned.

Then I started crying. I’m pretty good at feeling sorry for myself, plus there was nobody around but my friend the biting fly. How many times had I quit, and I was quitting again. Either perseverance not was enough (i.e. need talent), in which case I may as well give up now, or even worse, I was overconfident (undertrained on hills) and not mentally tough enough (quitting just because of some minor foot troubles-not even a broken bone or kidney failure). Running was something I could do because it didn’t matter how good you were if you stuck with it, but I couldn’t even do that.

I made it to the Margaritaville rest stop at mile 62 and told them I was dropping. Wish I had a photo of that-what an oasis- Jimmy Buffet was playing, and aid station workers asked if I wanted a margarita or a corona and a burger while we waited for the van to the Camp Ten Bear (rest stop at mile 47 and 70), the center of the cloverleaf of the course. On the way we got a flat tire so we walked a little. Normally when I stop my head clears and I start thinking, well it’s not so bad, I can run some more, but not today. I needed help getting out of the van, my legs were so stiff. We waited a half hour or so at Camp Ten Bear for the shuttle back to the start. I saw Walt lying on a cot, and called his name- I couldn’t tell if he was dropping or napping, but I later learned he eventually dropped. In the van I got talking to one guy who finished last year but got dehydrated this year. Also met Gary from Wheaton, who had successfully completed Wasatch in September but couldn’t finish today. He showed me an iphone photo of his feet after Wasatch. I noticed that most ultrarunners keep a photo of their nasty feet on their iphones. Here is what my feet looked like a day later.

It took like an hour to get back to the start, by then I had to be lifted out of the van, and as I drove back to the B&B, passed many runners who were all walking the hills in the dark, many looked bowlegged and limping. As much as I look forward to the postrace shower, I dreaded what was going to burn and was so tired I wished I could sleep in my own filth.

The next day I went back to the start to pick up my now nuclear drop bags. There was a BBQ awards ceremony going on, each individual finisher was announced. There were 217 finishers out of 303 starters. The winner finished in 15:26, which means he finished before I dropped, and first woman in 18:09. I was looking for Mary to thank her; she made it under 27 hours- but I guess she had gone. Shannon and Joe both finished. I was envious of the guy who finished in 29:45, the Lanterne Rouge!

I was pretty down for about 12 hours. I considered quitting running, then realized I had already signed up for half a dozen runs, including 1 in Bend in just 3 weeks, 2 in Europe as well as the Javelina Jundred. I strolled around Windsor eating my postrace ice cream and started thinking. Robert, who finished in 22:58, told me at the finish line he was already thinking of coming back next year.

When I realized that this is what I have to do, I immediately felt better. Registration opens in November and I will be there. This is my sickness.


  1. Finished 6 Redhooks this weekend... Glad to hear you are motivated to register in Nov. Hey, I think 62 miles is pretty damn far. Wal-Mart is about 4 miles from my house. Next time you're here, we can jog there and I'll buy you any belt buckle you want...

  2. 24 down, just bought another 24. Will work on it this weekend!