Monday, June 8, 2009

Up and Up at Pittsfield Peaks

Damn, I wish I had my camera. This was such a lovely race.

Actually, I did have my camera. I packed it and brought it up to VT. But when I went to take a picture of Brian working on some esoteric physics project in our tent the night before the race, the lens would not open. Someone broke my camera!

I'm not naming any names here, but I have my suspicions.

A whole bunch of pictures stored in the camera look vaguely like this......

I think the finger points on one direction. I can't prove anything. I'm just saying....

Anyway. In the days leading up to the race, reading thorough some of the finish times from last year's Pittsfield Peaks race, I was a bit nervous (read: terrified). And our scenic driving route up to the race, cutting through the middle of Vermont, did nothing to quell my fears. The big hills rolled on and on in an unrelenting undulation of steep, dark greenery. Yikes!

Brian and I arrived at the general store in Pittsfield to get our numbers and shirts just before nightfall. I was too stunned by the drive to say much to anyone. I chatted briefly with Nate (we always recognize each other: I was the helpful volunteer at Lake Waramaug a couple of years ago who duck taped Nate's earbud into his ear), then Brian and I went off to set up our tent in the small tent city perched on top of the septic system of Amee Farm (picture a lush hillock with a pipe sticking out the top dotted with tents). Ahh, ultra runners.....

A few babies cried in the night, but I am well past my days of lactation so I slept pretty well.

The race began precisely at 6. Race director Andy Weinberg told us to go, and like lemmings to the slaughter, off we went.

Brian did get this one picture of the start with our good Cannon just before the battery died. I am not actually in the picture because I started way in the back, but Nikki Kimball (eventual women's winner) is, and that's even better.

The course went immediately uphill and did not let up all day. I didn't even try to run that first mile. No sense in it. There was WAY more climbing to come. This course goes up a total of 14,670 feet. That is the same elevation gain for the whole of the VT 100 concertina-d down into 53 long miles. Woo, boy!

I settled in with a bunch of sweet guys for the first 20 miles or so. There was Donny from western NY and Chip the cardiologist from Brooklyn (I stayed with him rather deliberately!). And I very much enjoyed sharing the trail with the father/son team, Rik and Josh Robert. Rik regaled me with tales from his life as an EMT in Northern Vermont and his son egged him on. They were a delightful pair. I do hope that my kids and I will be such friends when everybody grows up. Talking with Rik gave me a chance to bring up one of my favorite books, Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup. It's a wonderful book about a Unitarian chaplain assigned to work search and rescue with the Main Game Wardens.

The course to this point had been unrelentingly up and down. After Mile 18 there was a horrendous half-mile climb up a wicked steep hill and then back down again. I saw Nate and Sherpa John barreling down as I was starting up. That was the last time I saw either of them. The woman working the aid station at the bottom of the hill loved my running skirt. She said that in her three years of working this race she had never seen a running skirt. Evidently I am on the cutting edge of fashion in this one very specific, very small sub-culture of women. (There were 8 of us who finished the race this year).

After another big climb and descent we circled back to our drop bags and started out into the Blood Root section of the course.

I had been hearing about this section all morning. All the talk was of huge, exposed climbs and bears. Sherpa John had marked this section and let everyone know that the bear scat and the mud were abundant. I ran a bit with a guy named Joe, one of the founders of the race. He is a bit of an endurance freak, having biked across the country and run 300 miles in one shot last year. He told me that if I finished this race, woke up Sunday morning feeling fine and then popped off a 20 then I'd be ready for a 300.

(Flash forward 24 hours: I am lumbering down the stairs on all fours, and every time I sit down it feels like a permanent condition. Bang out 20? Yuh, right!?)

All this time my stomach was feeling great. I was carrying Rolaids and every time I felt a twinge of nausea I'd pop a couple. I ate a Clif Blok and 2 peanut butter crackers every hour and alternately sipped water from my Wink pack and Nuun from my bottle. All was well in Digest-o-ville.

I left Joe behind when he stopped to soak in the stream and started up Bloodroot Mountain all on my own. Yes, I saw bear scat. Yes, I was utterly freaked out and alone. Yes, I was tormented by black flies (or something) and stinging nettles. Oh, the joy of it all! I think I climbed for two hours. Up and up and up. The downhill was not much of a relief. It was steep and boggy and overgrown. Every time I got a good trot going, I would hit a lengthy patch of ankle- and sometimes knee-deep mud. Time went by, but I barely noticed it. I was in the zone, baby!

I circled back to my drop bag at Mile 37 and tried really hard to remember everything. By this time in the race my brain was practically useless. It took me a ridiculously long time to get my flashlight, more Rolaids, crackers, iPod and jacket into my pack. It was here that I got the news: Vikki Kimball had finished in just over 9 hours. Ihad to sit down when I heard that, because here I was with 15 miles to go, 10.5 hours into the race. The friendly volunteers were beginning to accuse me of stalling. Eventually I grabbed a few sips of juicy Coca Cola and started on my way.

A mile or so down the road (this little section was on dirt road) I decided to give my iPod a try. I popped in a Julia Sweeny monologue. Again, this took way, WAY longer than it should have. My fingers would not work properly and I could not get the ear buds to stay in my ears (hello, Nate?). In my difficulty, I may or may not have missed a small piece of the course. Fifteen or so minutes later I caught up to another woman and she mentioned a loop through the woods. WHAT? I had been on road this whole time. I turned around and ran back for 10 minutes, trying to figure it out. I saw another guy running down the road who told me there was no loop through the woods. Weird. So I turned around again, losing maybe 20 minutes in the process.

After this brief bit of relatively flat road running (NIRVANA ITSELF), the course turned up again and into the woods. Up and down and up and down. And then it hit a maze. Switchbacks and trail crossings and more switchbacks until my poor head was a-swimmin. And my poor belly gave out. The Rolaids no longer spelled relief. I was sick.

And on top of it all, I was obsessed that I was going to be disqualified for missing some small, possibly imaginery, section of the course. All of this work for nothing! It took me 10 miles to come up with this brilliant plan: I would get to the finish line, not cross, tell Andy that I think I owed him 5 or 10 more minutes of running, turn around, run 5 or 10 minutes, then finish. I AM A GENIUS!

About this time, I saw Donny again, a guy I ran with at the start of the race. I (rather desperately) asked him if he had run through a wooded section after the last aid station. Donny is such a nice man. He took the time to listen to my delerious ravings, told me very gently that he did not remember if he ran through the woods or not, and let me know that he thought my plan was unnecessary. Just finish, he said. Nobody cares about 5 minutes. And then he left me in the dust.

Nobody cares? This was a novel thought.

And then I hit the last two hills and forgot all about my troubles. The penultimate hill was bad. Steep. I almost threw up. And I thought it was the last one.

And then I rounded a corner and came face to face with the last hill. Reader, I wanted to cry. It wsa the steepest thing I have ever seen. And it went on and on. Trudge, trudge, stop. Trudge, trudge, stop. Half way up I put my hands on my knees and looked up. "You have to get up there," I told myself, "You have to!"

Man, it was like the last stages of giving birth. You have been in labor all day. You have been pushing. You are exhausted. And there is absolutely no turning back. It hurst like hell, but you have to get that baby out. You have to!

That's all I could think about as I went up that last hill.

As I crested the hill and started down, there was Brian coming up to find me! What a sight for sore eyes he was. A little less than a mile, he told me. He could not believe I was still running. He had done the 10-mile course earlier in the day and he barely made it up the hill I had just climbed. Turns out Brian had quite a few adventures while I was running. He rescued a baby bird, he found some guy's car keys in the grass after an extensive search, and he won the men's division of the 10 mile race (a woman beat him!).

Brian ran that last mile with me in his crocs. I gave him my addled pitch about running an extra 10 minutes when I got to the finish line (which, by the way, sounded impossible to me now). He echoed Donny's sentiments. "At this stage of the game, nobody's gonna care."

I got to the finish line and started yelling, "Andy! Andy! I think I have to run another five, ten minutes. I think I missed a small section in the woods after Upper Michegan Road!"

He handed me my finisher's award (an awesome spike!), grabbed me by the arm, looked me in my two crazed eyes and said quite firmly, "No. You didn't."

Ah, relief. I didn't. Nobody cares.

"What did you think of that course, huh?" he asked me.

And this sweet little mother of three looked up at him and said, "Andy, that was a FUCKED UP COURSE!"

He could not have been more pleased.

The results arrived in my email this morning. 13:39. I finished toward the late-middle of the pack. I was fifth of eight women, first over 40 (by over an hour, so my possible 5, 10-minute lapse did not matter).

What a great race. Highly recommended. I'll be back next year.


  1. Congrats Pam! That was one helluva butt kicker for sure. Enjoyed your RR and really enjoyed meeting you. See you on the trails!

  2. And this is supposed to convince me to try something longer than 26.2? Holy cow.

  3. Mike! You rocked the course. Can't wait to see Paige in those peppers! How is there? Hope to share some miles and some beers at the VT 100.

    Helen, It really is fun. Wonderful people, great days.

  4. Now, when Mike called to tell me all the gory details, in my mind I had already marked this one off my list. However, after reading your RR I kinda want to give it a that just crazy?! Haha GREAT report, Pam, and congrats on finishing that SOB of a race!!!

  5. Oh, Paige, put it back on your list!

  6. Thanks for sharing, Pam! Glad you enjoyed it all! I'm linking to your post for those who want to learn more about it. My husband ran the 50K and also found it thrilling.

  7. Sheryl,

    I hear tell that they might have child care next year during the race. You and your husband can run together!

  8. You are truly amazing, Pam. Great job finishing the race (first in your age class no less) and thank you for sharing your experience. (Too bad about the camera ;)


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