A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Vermont 100 - Winning the Endless Battles and Finishing Well

Two races into this Grand Slam of Ultrarunning adventure, and I can safely say that this has been quite a ride! Both Western States and Vermont races have definitely been eventful; I finished both races under extreme conditions and am still alive and in the running for Grand Slam recognition.

To be honest, I wasn't very motivated to do this race, right up until the day before. It could have been because I just did an exhausting run 3 weeks ago at Western States and was not ready to undergo another ordeal like this. Or it could be because I did this race twice, including last year. I didn't originally enter into Vermont this year because I wanted to race in other races, but when my name got pulled for the Western States lottery, then I entered as part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Or it could be a combination of both.

In any case, I was a bit worried about the lack of enthusiasm that I had here.

Pre-Race

Traveling to Vermont has always been fun. I love to stop at the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham to take a look at the little doodads there. Sure, it's a tourist trap, but it's great to look around anyway. And of course, I had to take advantage of the grass-fed beef burgers there and their sweet potato fries. Yum! I figure I would have a large lunch instead of a large dinner so that I know that the food I ate had time to "clear my system" before the start of the race.

Registration and the meeting went nicely. They told us Grand Slammers to stand up and we got a hearty recognition from the crowd. I knew so many people over there that I had to flit between the NYC Ultra group, the Raritan Valley Road Runners Group, and the Grand Slammers group.

Here I am with the talented NYC ultra contingent. I'm the one with the lifeguard style hat in the back.

At pre-race dinner with Claudia Osmar, Otto Lam, and Paul Arroyo

The Grand Slammers Group needs no explanation. There were 28 of us entering Vermont to try to continue our quest, so it was a sizeable crowd. The New York crowd consisted of some very noted people, including Cherie Yanek, which I had the pleasure of talking to during the race, Reiko Cyr (in a pacing role), who finished seconds behind me at Western States, and Jackie Choi, who is bouncing back from a tough Western States race. The Raritan Valley Road Runners were in full force also! Mike Dixon, Jason Kolb, Elaine Acosta, along with me, were the 4 official RVRR runners doing the race.

After registration and pre-race festivities were done, I pitched my tent and immediately prepared for sleep.

And that is when the thunderstorms came.

Around 9PM, the winds whipped up, and the rain fell in sheets. Even though my tent was covered with a tarp, the water managed to leak into my tent a bit, and I was continually trying to sop up the wetness with a towel.

At around 11PM, the storms finally died down. With me scheduled to wake up at 2:30PM, that didn't leave much time for sleep.

Still, I woke up on time at 2:30AM, had no problems getting lubed and taped up and got my running clothes on without a hitch. I got over to the registration tent a little after 3AM and signed into the race. I started to feel a little motivation at this point, but it's just to really get this race over with so that I can move on to Leadville. And yes, I was still worried about this attitude because 100 milers are not races you can simply "shrug off". And the whole Grand Slam thing is riding on me finishing this race.

Here is me with some of the Slammers right before the race start. From left to right, Me, Ryan Lund, Andre Blumberg, Dennis Ahern, Terry Sentinella, Traci Falbo, Iris Priebe, and Jonathan Shark


From Start to Pretty House (22.5 miles)

4AM finally came, and off we went! I felt pretty strong right off the bat, and I started to go at a pretty fast pace. The first 2 miles of the course I remembered was a bit tricky. It was still dark and we had to navigate a couple of rocky trails that this year had a bit of mud to them. Vermont has been rained on a lot before the race and that would definitely factor into my race in a very big way.

After getting onto the dirt roads, I started talking to a guy named Dave and we talked a lot about ultras, triathlons, and other things that came up. While I was talking, I also noted that Iris Priebe, a fellow Slammer, was running either ahead or behind us at the same time. We played a bit of leapfrog right up through Woodstock untilthe Taftsville Covered Bridge Aid Station, when I stopped for a little bit to get some food in me. We were going at a scalding pace too, which is not really what I wanted. But I felt too good, and never really want to hold back if I feel that I'm not struggling with the pace.

I got to Pretty House with a pretty good time, 2:36, good for 90th place.


From Pretty House (22.5 miles) to Camp 10 Bear (47.0 miles)

The road from Pretty House is a bit downhill until we get to the U-turn Aid Station, and then it's pretty much up, up, up until we get to the top of the Sound of Music Hill. Getting up and over the mountain felt OK, but I started to feel the humidity of the day as the sun climbed ever so higher in the sky. At this point I wasn't with anyone in particular; I was just alone with my thoughts, and my video cam to take in the views. And they are spectacular. I'll be posting the videos after I clean them up.

There was also a sign that we did 26.2 miles near the top of the mountain. I found that I covered the marathon distance in 4:43, still a very fast time.

The descent down from the mountain was a bit steep, and I tried to be careful with my quads at this point. I didn't want to torch those muscles after screwing them up at Western States. At Stage Road Aid station, I finally remembered to drop my headlamp in the drop bag there (I forgot to do that at Pretty House), and went on.

The course from Stage Road to Camp 10 Bear is a series of ups and downs, some of them severe, that can take a toll on legs if one isn't careful. The trails are also quite muddy, and I almost had my shoes taken off a couple of times by going into shin-deep mud. Even the riders of the horses were have a tough time on the muddy trails, trying to steer the horses clear of these hazards. This, and the very uncomfortable day started to slow me down considerably. I also slightly twisted my ankle near Vondell Reservoir and scraped up my knee in the process. I was OK though.

The blood sacrifice to the trail gods done, I finally made my way toward Camp 10 Bear at mile 47. My official time was 9:21, still under the 20 hour pace.

Making may way into Camp 10 Bear, video cam running. Took some fabulous videos until Margaritaville, when I exchanged the cam for a headlamp.


Camp 10 Bear #1 (47 miles) to Camp 10 Bear #2 (70 miles)

After getting weighed in (weight at 182, no change), I quickly left the aid station to prepare for the climb up Agony Hill. I was feeling less than 100%, but I girded myself for this nasty club as I made my way toward it.

I hit the hill about 1.5 miles out from Camp 10 Bear and started to trudge up it. My common position for a climb like this? Head down. I really don't want to see the entire hill, as scary as it is, so when I encounter a hill like this, I tend to just look at the ground before me and take it one step at a time. And it works because before I know it, I'm usually up the hill without any problems.

And it worked here too. I got up the hill, passed a couple of people in the process, and started to run immediately when I got to the top. I got to Pinky's (51.4 miles) in pretty good shape. I also met up with Cherie Yanek at this point, who was having a pretty good race.

We leapfrogged over each other for a good distance of the race until Tracer Brook, when we decided to go up the hill together on the way to the Seven Sees Aid Station. We talked for a good bit as we climbed the hill, until the rain started to come down. It was light at first, so I welcomed it, but as we finally arrived at the Seven Sees Aid Station, the skies opened up and got us good! It was a cold, drenching rain; we took cover under the tents at the Aid Station until it started to clear up. That was fine with me; it gave me more time to take in more food and drink before we went off again.

And sure enough, the rain relented, the sun came back out, and we were running again. At the top of the hill, I told Cherie to go ahead because I wasn't quite sure about my downhill legs at this point and didn't want to force the issue. So she went ahead of me and I started to plod my way down the hill towards Margaritaville at mile 62.

Between Seven Sees and Margaritaville, the course was loaded with biting flies, just another unpleasant factor in the heavy rains that hit the area before the race. I must have killed at least 10 flies during the stretch. It's frustrating to have killed one only to have another two latch onto you looking for blood.

At Margaritaville, my Injinji socks were getting a tad uncomfortable as my feet were getting a bit swollen, so I changed to Smartwool socks. I also placed my video cam into the drop bag here and picked up the first of my two headlamps. I still had a good amount of daylight left, so I dropped it into my pouch just in case I needed it later.

After Margaritaville, we climbed up a bit of a hill, then took a sharp right turn to begin the major descent downward to Camp 10 Bear for the 2nd time. The hill was a blessing as I was just not feeling well at this point. I knew it was going to be a major battle for the rest of the race, so I just stood focused on the moment and keep my running form from falling apart.

I also caught up with Cherie again before 10 Bear and she had some blister issues also. I think she went to get them taken care of at 10 Bear since that was the last I saw of her until after the race.

At Camp 10 Bear (mile 70) I got weighed in again and saw that my weight was down to 175 pounds. It was well within the limits, but I was concerned. I knew that I needed to eat and drink more often so that I'll be OK when I get weighed in at Bills for the last time.

After the weigh in, I had a grilled cheese sandwich, some soda, picked up my primary headlamp from the drop bag, and started off on what I think is the toughest stretch of the course.

From Camp 10 Bear #2 (Mile 70) to Bills (Mile 89)

This stretch is where things got really serious. Climbing Heartbreak Hill is tough, but when it is just inundated with shoe-sucking mud, it was a totally evil climb. I saw Otto Lam as he passed me climbing this beast of a hill. When we were finally able to hit the dirt road, Otto was a considerable distance ahead of me.

The dirt road still climbed for a bit as the sun started to set in the sky. I was glad that I was still going to get through this section during the day because this section is damned evilly difficult at night. The single track there is quite muddy and presents some steep ups and downs there that will make the quads scream for mercy. I just barely held my patience in this section; I was almost at wits end here begging for this section to end.

Mercifully, after a real cruel downhill, I made it to the road and got to the next aid station (Seabrook; Mile 75.1). I quickly loaded up my bottles and started off again. Before I knew it I was back on some real muddy single-track trails and back at wits end just hoping to get at least some sure footing again.

At this point, blisters now started to form on my feet. Funny, but when I had the Injinji socks on, my feet were well. Now with the Smartwool, the same socks I used at Western States, I start getting blisters. I don't think I'll be using Smartwool for any more 100 milers anymore.

The whole race turned out to be an extreme test of crisis management, trying to keep my wits as I fell and bloodied my knee, trying to keep the black flies from biting me, trying to keep from getting too cold when the rain came down in sheets, trying to keep myself dry and cool from the high humid day, tryng to tolerate the pain from the blisters forming on my feet, trying to keep calm when trying to find some sure footing in an otherwise muddy trail. At any time I was ready to just throw my hands up in the air and cry "Uncle", but I somehow managed to stay at the edge of my cliff and stay calm. It wound up that this extraordinary patience that I exhibited turned out to be the deciding factor in having a decent race this year. I don't know if I want to call it "mental fortitude" or "sheer stupidity", but I miraculously held myself together.

Coming into Bills at Mile 89, I knew that if I can hold together for a bit more, I would go under 24 hours and get that belt buckle. I just needed to be patient just a little longer...

From Bills (Mile 89) to the Finish (Mile 100)

I got to Bills in haggard shape. But I got weighed in and found that my weight went back up again. The eating and drinking actually helped; I just had to keep it up so that I can finish right. I saw David Allara as he was pacing at this point. I did see him before briefly at the Spirit of 76 Aid Station. At this point I was predicting a 22:45 finish and relayed that info to him, and he agreed with that assessment.

After a couple of minutes of chicken broth, I decided to quickly leave Bills. It's very easy to stay there a while, with cots and chairs and all, but it's better to resist the temptation and forge on ahead, getting the last 11 miles over with as quickly as possible. Out of Bills, onto a short single track trail, onto road, then onto a real tough single track section with rocks, mud, and the kitchen sink. Oh, and there was a short brick wall that one had to step up and back down the other side of, which drew a sharp pain from my quads. Again, it was an extreme test of my patience to hold it all together here. I got to Keatings Aid Station (92.4) barely running as everything hurt.

As if the previous stretch was bad, the stretch from Keatings to Pollys (Mile 95.9) was even worse. The whole trail was muddy, and the horses that went before me on this trail churned up the mud to an uneven mess that made the whole thing unrunnable. Worried that I might get injured here, I decided to just walk the section until I got back onto road again.

After what seemed like forever, this stretch finally ended and I was safely at Pollys, ready for the final stretch that would take me mercifully home.

Again, I was quick through the aid station, just asking for water. No more food, no more Gatorade, just a bit of water and some will to finish the race. I forged ahead onto the road. Looking at the watch, I knew I was comfortably sub-24 hours. I also had a shot of going sub-23 hours, so I actually aimed for that goal and pushed hard for it.

The first couple of miles were on the road and I made good time there...

...but the last couple of miles were on very muddy single-track trails. It was going to be close. The mud really tripped me up pretty bad, and that is when my patience was at an end. With exclamations like "What the fuck?", and "Another fucking uphill, really?!!", I think I managed to draw the attention of other runners in a half mile radius. Still, with about 2 minutes before the 23 hour mark I finally came upon the candle-lit bottles that indicated the end of the race. Another short uphill came and went, still had 50 seconds to go. When I came around a small bend and saw yet more trail left, I knew I wasn't going to make the 23 hour mark, so I let up a little.

I got to the finish line 49 seconds after the 23 hour mark (23:00:49), good for a belt buckle, and a good comeback from a tough Western States race. A lot of the RVRR crew was on hand as I crossed the finish line, offering me a chair and congratulating me on my finish. Thanks guys!

All in all, this was definitely a character-building race for me. I had dug deep, really deep, and won the endless battles that enabled me to walk (or is it limp) away from the race with a decent time.

And it's good to know that I have a bit of battle left in me because Leadville is next, and I remember that debacle of my Leadville experience 2 years ago. If I'm to finish Leadville, I know I'm going to need every bit of chutzpah. I'll be definitely talking about Leadville here in the next 4 weeks, so stay tuned.

I live on to fight another day! Onto Leadville, the 3rd leg of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning!


1 comment:

  1. Great post, Pete and I always enjoy reading the painful parts and how you overcame them. Bravo! Now on to Leadville...

    ReplyDelete