Thursday, July 30, 2009

Living Large in Lemster

The strangest thing about spending the week after the Vermont 100 in a slapdash house called The Painted Bear in Lemster, NH was this: Here I had just completed my first 100, a monumental event in the life of any relatively new ultrarunner, and there was nobody (outside of Brian and the kids) I could tell.

No Internet connection, no cell phone coverage, and even the land line at the house permitted only local calls. I felt like I was swirling in a time warp; a 21 Century consciousness stuck in 1972.

Telling stories gives them life. Not telling created this aura of unreality that persisted through the week. Yes, my legs were sore. Yes, my foot swelled to the size of a small cantaloupe. Yes, my toenails were falling off in my socks. Yes, I could not sleep despite bone-gnawing exhaustion. But none of these physical symptoms added up. I had finally, after a year of nursing that monkey on my back, finished 100 miles, and I could not quite believe it was true.

Nevertheless, there was still a week to be lived through with three energetic kids and a trooper of a husband who had packed the car and shepherded the family all by himself up to New Hampshire while I was tiptoeing through the tulips in Vermont.

The first couple of days were tough. My stiff-legged hobble was slow and Frankensteinesque. To get across the living room, cluttered as it was with games and puzzles and PlayMobil horses, was to negotiate an obstacle course of mammoth dimension. Sidestepping was out of the question. The horses and games suffered any number of full frontal assaults. I left carnage in my wake.

Ben asked me to sit down on the floor help him with his Puzzle of the United States. The unfortunate child was force to watch in horror for a full five minutes while I lowered myself piecemeal to the floor and then propped my throbbing foot on the fading foam sofa.

Sitting anywhere felt like a permanent condition. The smallest request for a sandwich from a hungry child long past lunch would lead to a long staring contest with the kitchen (perhaps I could cast a spell and make a sandwich from my chair?) followed by a moaning and lumbering like you would not believe. It's a wonder the poor dears didn't starve!

We went into Sunapee for ice cream. The 50 yards from car to serving window may as well have been another 100 miles. I can only wonder what the good citizens of Sunapee must have thought as I made my stiff and meandering way across the parking lot. Surely she cannot be this far into her cups so early in the day!? And driving all those children!

By Tuesday, I was approaching normal ambulation, though I still could not get my foot in a shoe. (Are crocs shoes?) We drove up to the Montshire Museum of Science near Hanover, NH. (If you have kids between the ages of 3 and 10 and you find yourself within 100 miles of this place, GO. It's amazing.)

The kids bounced like ping pong balls from exhibit to exhibit: "Look, Mom! Come here, Mom! FASTER, Mom!" It was all hands-on and it was all fun. (Not to mention educational, but at this point I was beyond caring). I tried to bribe them to sit down: "Come on over here and sit with me and have a NICE SNACK!" But nothing doing. Up two flights, down two flights, outside to the water exhibits, in and out of the gift shop, back up, back down. Wowza! Where do these kids get the energy?

Wednesday we climbed Mt. Kearsage. It's a mile scramble up the rocks and then (God help my achy-breaky quads) a mile BACK DOWN. Going up was fun. One of our parenting goals (making the most of Brian's mountaineering genes) is to raise our children to be fearless, and my-oh-my we seem to be succeeding. They climbed every rock, jumped off or slid down, and climbed again.

My heart was in my mouth, but I was powerless to stop them. It took every ounce of energy I had to keep to the given trail. Chasing down errant climbers was going to have to be a task for another day.

The top of the mountain was lunar.

It was socked in. The lovely view was lost in fog, but the clouds and the mist were magical. I sat. And sat and sat and sat. While the kids hopped on Pop. Brian was in hog heaven.

The descent was slippery and slow. Brian (the fastest downhiller I know) was jumping out of his skin. I basically sat on my ass and slid while the kids binged and boinged around me. We were like a lithium atom moving down the mountain.

Our last two days were rainy. Here I was finally able to move around like a regular biped, and we were mostly stuck inside. I walked up and down the hill outside the house a few times (mile up, mile down) to get the blood flowing to my legs. We canoed at the lake (something I could do!) between showers, went into Keene to do laundry and found a fabulous used bookstore, and ate more ice cream than should be humanly possible.

Late one rainy afternoon we went to Sunapee State Park and had the place to ourselves. It was 65 degrees and shrieking and splashing, we all swam in the lake. Extreme family vacationing! The cold water was heaven on my broken body.

On the way home we went 2/3 of the way up Mt. Monadnock. My legs were feeling fine and I flew up the trail. Sort of. The kids once again scrambled and gambolled up the wet rocks, picking wild blueberries all the way. Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk.

We made it to Monta Rosa, just before the exposed trail to the summit and called it a day.

And now I'm home and finally telling people that I ran 100 miles. Delayed gratification, it turns out, is very sweet. It's real. I did it! Let me tell you about my long day in Vermont......

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Long Day in VT

Running (or doing anything) for twenty eight and a half hours is really quite long. I mean I knew running 100 miles was going to take a long time. Obviously. But standing at the starting line at 4:00 last Saturday morning, I did not fully grasp that each of those hours would be composed of minutes and even seconds which must be lived through and fully experienced in order to compile the whole, LONG, epic adventure.

Sure I understood that I would be running all day, running all night, probably even running well into the next morning. I knew on some level that I would experience highs and lows. That I would have moments of thinking, "I can run forever!" and lower moments thinking, "If Brian and the kids show up at the next aid station, I'm getting in the van!"

I guess I thought that all of this would kind of pass in a blur. That hours and hours would slip by without my quite noticing. That I would (or could) somehow run 100 miles in a trance.

Not so.

Though even now, only a week removed from the whole experience, that delusion has settled itself once again into my brain. (Yes, by all means, sign me up again next year!)

While running the VT 100 (July 18 and 19, 2009), I noticed every minute passing. And within each minute was the (sometimes hopeful, sometimes dire) knowledge that I still had a long, long way to go. Even passing this sign, my heart fell. Another WHOLE mile. Oh, dear.

The key to finishing 100 miles, at least at my snail-ish pace, is to embrace small goals. You must break the whole thing down into do-able sections, running from aid station to aid station without letting the enormity of the larger task overwhelm you. I was just barely able to do this. But I think I learned this lesson well. Next time I'll know. (Right?)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let us begin at the beginning.

I rode up to Vermont Friday morning with my running partner, Susan, and her family. To appease her six-year-old daughter through the endless traffic jams on 91 North, Susan played that Smashing Pumpkins song Bullet with Butterfly Wings ("Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage!") at top volume. Over and over.

Oh, how that song would haunt me over the next two days! All of the twisted permutations I came up with though the long, surreal night (Despite all my pain I am still just a cat in the rain, etc) merged into one endless loop to become my VT 100 Rock Anthem.

We arrived just in time for the pre-race meeting in the big tent at Silver Hill Meadow. Susan left after the meeting to join her family and extended family in a rented house in Brownsville. For the record, they did invite me to stay with them, but I chose to camp at Silver Hill by myself. I thought I would need some alone time before the race. (Which, it turns out, I got a little too much of).

I set up my tent and got all of my stuff organized just before a light drizzle started to fall. I walked down to the pre-race dinner, and then wandered lonely as a cloud with my plate full of couscous and pasta salad looking for a familiar face to sit with. I ended up sharing a lovely meal with Sherpa John and Adam, two young guys I recognized from Pittsfield Peaks, both of whom ended up buckling (running under 24 hours) the next day. Rock on, guys!

Sherpa John noticed the RUN MOM bracelet Nell had made for me.

Talking about it almost brought me to tears. I missed my family. (They would be joining me Sunday morning on the way to our week's vacation in Lemster, NH. There is no Internet service in Lemster. That's why this report is so late!).

After dinner I walked back up the hill and stopped to talk to Nipmuck Dave for a bit while he taped his feet.

And then the skies opened up, forcing everyone into their tents.

This gave me lots of alone time to think and think and think. I tried to read, but there was no distracting me from the task at hand. I looked through my camera at pictures of the kids taken during our Williamsburg vacation last month. "I miss you guys," I told the smiling faces. Tears.

Puddles of water forming under my feet brought me back to earth. Oh, no! I stuck my head out and re-staked the tent fly. This stopped the flow of water, but the damage had been done. I spent the rest of the night huddled on the dry island of my sleeping pad under the down jacket I had mistakenly packed thinking it was a sleeping bag.

A car alarm went off at 12:30. It was a long night.

Chariots of Fire blasting up the meadow woke us up at 3:00 in the morning. I quickly used the bathroom ahead of the lines, and as I walked back to my tent Will Danecki (Nipmuck Dave's pacer) handed me a cup of hot cocoa and some kind words of encouragement. That was just what I needed right then.

Here are a few shots at the start.

Susan and me, all nerves.

And here I am with Nate (finished in 20 hours, Rocket Man) Sanel, sharing a much needed giggle over an ear bud incident a couple of years ago.

Susan and I started together and stayed together for the entire race. That was our plan and we stuck to it. After both DNFing last year, we wanted to ensure a finish this year. We did not care how long it took. Damn it, we were going to finish.

So we started extremely conservatively (ie, we were dead last for the first 15 miles). Neither Susan nor I were feeling much into the race during the first hours. We made it to the first aid station at 7 miles with only 5 minutes to spare. I think we were still last (or very close to last) at Pretty House, the first crew-accessible aid station at Mile 20. We missed our kids. We were bummed about not finishing last year. We were just not feeling the love.

At the very least, we both felt similarly down. It was a weird meeting of the mind (or the hormones, or whatever).

But as the day progressed, our spirits lifted. Seeing Susan's family (or some representative portion of her family) at each aid station helped tremendously. I will always be grateful to all of them for the vital role they played in getting us through that race. I felt like an honorary Hall-Lessard for the day.

I think the race turned around for me once I crested this hill. Dubbed Sound of Music Hill, it is a lovely spot high in the Vermont Hills with a tremendous view for miles in every direction. Once I got up here (quite a climb, I might add) I started to feel like I was going to make it. Even though it was still pretty early in the race, and even though I continued to complain about this and that, I sort of knew from this point on that we would make it.

At some point after this hill, Susan and I picked up Paige and the three of us ran together for about 20 miles. It was fun to meet Paige after reading her blog for so long. She was excellent company on the trail.

(Susan and Paige running through a covered bridge.)

Coming into Camp 10 Bear the first time marks a big milestone in the race. The mileage is almost half over. You can breathe a sigh of relief. It's a bit like heading for home (assuming home is still more than 50 miles away).

This is not to say that I was not thinking: "If Brian and the kids show up here, I'm getting in the van." But I'm not sure I really meant it. I was starting to feel the love.

My stomach, up to this point, had been cooperating pretty well. My stomach is always my biggest worry in these long races. But I have learned over the years that for me, less is more. I ate very little during the race and for the most part, this worked. I had a piece of potato dipped in salt at each aid station, and I sucked on little pieces of Cliff Bloks when I felt my energy flagging in between. I switched between S Caps and Nuun tablets for electrolytes. And that was it. I often felt hungry, but the feeling of hunger is, to my mind, infinitely preferable to deep-seated nausea.

As I ran along I fantasized about food. I gave quite a bit of thought to big, juicy cheeseburgers. I thought about dark beer. About salmon. Even birthday cake, always a favorite of mine.

After Camp 10 Bear, the course makes a 30-mile loop and returns. I love this loop. I have fond memories of this loop from last year. Lost of big hills on country farm roads and trails. Susan and I met up with a runner named Kira and ran much of the loop with her. Kira was a riot. She had just returned from pacing duties at Badwater a week before, so she regaled us with stories from the desert (including a certain famous ultrarunner's proclivities to exposing himself to all and sundry through his white, white running tights).

At the Margaritaville aid station they were grilling up cheeseburgers. What the hell, I thought to myself. Go with what you are craving. I took one bite from a tiny quarter of a tiny cheeseburger and, man, did it taste good. Heaven. Nirvana. I could have sat down right there and scarfed cheeseburgers all night long.

But I restrained myself and let it go at one bite. I think that was my last solid food of the race.

Darkness hit us before we got back to 10 Bear and our good flashlights. This was somewhat unexpected, as I had reached 10 Bear last year with more than an hour of light left in the sky. (But then again, I was going too fast last year. I got pulled out at 10-Bear. Remember?).

So the slow pace was paying off. Except that Susan and I had only one good flashlight between us. I had kept my flashlight from the morning in my pack all day, just in case. Susan had a little flashlight in her vest, but it was quickly loosing its juice.

This was a bit scary. We were running downhill on a muddy stretch of trail side by side, sharing one beam of light. We probably went on like this for an hour, though it felt like an eternity. I cannot tell you how happy we were to come upon the tikki torches back at Camp 10 Bear.

I heard a "Good job, Pam" coming from the darkness and turned to find Steve Pero smiling in the night. He was a sight for sore eyes. He was still waiting for the runner he was planning to pace for the last 30 miles.

But where was our pacer?? The plan was that Susan's dad, Gary, would pace us for 7 miles, then Susan's husband, Steve, for 11, then back to Gary for another 7, and finally Steve for the last 4. We could not find any of them. While we re-filled our water I could hear race volunteers yelling into the darkness, "Gary?! Gary Hall?!"

At last we found him a little bit down the road. All was well. We were off again with headlamps and good flashlights.

The night was long, but I remember it now as a blur. We ran on muddy trails. We ran on dirt roads. And then eventually we ran not at all, but walked. By this point in the race it felt like someone was driving a railroad spike into my shin on every downstep. As much as I wanted to run the downhills, it was much too painful. So, for the last 20 miles or so, we basically walked.

Long into the night, Susan said she was seeing things. It looked to her like our pacer, Steve at this point, was riding a wakeboard. We couldn't tell if the runners ahead of us were running backward or forward. Things appeared at the side of the road that, on closer inspection, were not really there. A horse. An old woman selling vegetables. Another horse. A cat. No wait, the cat was really there.

Weird night. And it just went on and on.

Our pacers were wonderful. They talked when we needed talking. They were silent when we needed silence. They were quietly encouraging. But really, it was enough just that they were there. Beacons in the night leading us down the long, dark roads.

Thanks, Gary. Thanks, Steve. You guys rock!

When the sun rose Sunday morning it was like there was finally, truly a light at the end of the tunnel. We left the aid station at Mile 88 absolutely knowing that we would finish, gimpy leg and all.

The last twelve miles came and went. We talked. We didn't. We walked and walked. Every now and then we ran (I wish I could have run more here, but it was not to be).

And then, as we ran through the last stretch of trail and we could hear the finish line, there in the woods my little family appeared!

Damn it was good to see them! Their smiling faces and hopping bodies got the tears streaming down my face. It felt like the real finish line. We had a happy reunion about two hundred yards from the actual finish, and then the kids ran me in.

It was a very sweet way to end an incredibly long day. And there at the finish line, yelling his head off, was Mike Hall, who had finished hours before and was still cheering in the runners. Thanks, Mike. Great to see you at the end of day!

Next post: My recovery week in Lempster, NH!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ants in my Taper Pants

Nervous time! We leave for VT in two days, race starts in three. Yikes!

This is the one and only thing I dislike about ultra-running: the last couple of days leading up to a big, scary race. For some reason the anxiety has hit me particularly hard this week. I woke up two nights ago night a little freaked about running through the dark of night by myself. And last night I barely slept at all. This isn't good. These are the nights I need to be getting good sleeps. Alas.

I think it's because I have not yet run 100 miles. I know enough from my failed attempt last year to know that it's going to be tough. But I don't know how tough. Those last thirty miles are where the true race begins. The last 30 miles are unknown territory.

All in all I am very much looking forward to getting out and running. I know that once I get started everything will be fine. I just have to get there.

Meanwhile, there is so much packing to do. We are staying up in New Hampshire for a family vacation the week after the race, so in addition to all of my drop bags and race stuff, I need to pack a week of clothing, toys and food for a family of five. And packing really ain't my thing.

Sometimes I have to wonder why I put myself through it. Why all this craziness? Ah, yes. It's because I love ultra races. I love the whole scene: the people, the trails, the aid stations, the long runs, the camaraderie, the post-race chatter. All of it.

And I'll be smack in the midst of it in just a couple of days. And it will be great!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Looking forward to a long day

A week and a half out, all thoughts turn to VT. This will be my second attempt at the 100 mile distance, perhaps my first finish. Perhaps not. But I do have good reason to think that my chances this year are a bit better than last.

Last year I got pulled out at Mile 70, and with good reason. I tried to run too fast and blew up. More specifically, my stomach blew up. I was too focused on finishing (perhaps even finishing in under 24 hours!). This year I am focused on the journey. It's going to be a long day on the dirt roads and trails and I plan to make the most of it. At the very least, last year's experience taught me that speed is useless (at least for me) and the slower I go the better my chance to finish. I really have taken that lesson to heart (and stomach and leg).

This year Susan and I will walk ten minutes out of every hour right from the start. We will walk each and every incline regardless of steepness. As they say, we will start slow then taper off. They give you 30 hours to finish this beast, and if it takes all 30, well then so be it.

Susan's parents are going to crew for her; her dad and husband will alternate as her pacers. I am going crew-less this year (though Susan's parents will of course cheer for both of us). As of now, I don't have a pacer. I think this is the way to go for me. I hate to think of people out there waiting. It makes me subconsciously (and sometimes very deliberately) try to go too fast. I will use drop bags and lumber from aid station to aid station in my own good time. I can see where a pacer could be welcome company during the nighttime hours, but solitude has its rewards as well. Too bad I can't bring Eddie.

Brian and the kids will be at the finish line to pick me up. We are staying at a lake house across the border in NH during the week following the race. I can only imagine how wonderful it will be to see all the little faces that Sunday morning.

My hamstring is well on the mend. It no longer hurts when I run and I have started a few slight strengthening exercises so it doesn't knit back together in a funky way. I am even stretching the darn thing. Who has time for this!?

Next week will be all about tapering and drop bags. What to put in, what to leave out? This stuff makes me nuts. I don't have a good system and I leave it all to the last minute. Perhaps this year I will reform. Perhaps not.

I just can't wait to get started!

On the news front, I see that the Pittsfield Death Race made the NYT. (Check out the accompanying video!) These are some of the same people who put on the Pittsfield Peaks Race, among others. The story focuses on Joe, a guy I ran with at Pittsfield. I think I called him an endurance freak. Sounds like I wasn't far off the mark!

Thursday, July 2, 2009


I set off last Friday with an aching hamstring for a family visit to my parents' retirement Shangri La on the fourth hole in Williamsburg, VA.

As you can see, my parents are gothic and unpredictable. My dad's gardening hat has flaps. When the flaps are down you know that trouble ain't far. His flaps are down here. And he is holding a pitchfork. When these people say No Running you know they mean business.

So I didn't run for a week and half. Excepting pregnancy, this may be an all-time record.

But we did manage to pack in quite a bit of activity. (Because, really, my parents are delightful and we had a fun visit).

Brian and the boys, who are too young and wacky too fully appreciate all of the historic splendor of Colonial Williamsburg, spent lots of time climbing trees and running through the maze behind the Governor's Palace.

Nell and I explored the town. Nell especially enjoyed going into the shops and chatting with the shopkeepers. Unlike me, she has quite an eye for detail. She spent long minutes fingering each and every trinket and knick-knack while I jumped from foot to foot by the front door, doing my absolute best to be patient.

She came out of one store and caught me illegally sitting on the steps. Sign?? What sign?? I'm INJURED, for heaven sakes. Anyone can see THAT!

Ben was instrumental in returning a wandering cock to its rightful owner, so his trip to the colonial capitol was not complete waste of a ticket.

And, of course, everyone loves a parade.

I went to college at William and Mary which is right across the street from all of this and, being the person I was then, young and totally irresponsible, I never took advantage of anything colonial. I could have gotten in free with my student ID. Never darkened the door of a colonial house or shop. Never, never. What was I thinking? The whole place is so interesting!

We hit the beach at Yorktown one day under darkening clouds. We stayed through the rain. No crowds and lots of giggles.

Jamestown was a big hit with the entire family. There was a Powatan Indian Village and an English Settler's Village as well as a few ships to make the voyage to and from Mother England.

And through it all I did not run. Not one step. But I did swim in the hotel pool with a noodle knotted between my legs for a pull buoy. And I walked and walked with food and water for 5 people strapped to my back every day. And, man, by the end of the week I was tired. We all were.

We tempted fate by attempting to stop in Washington, DC on the way home. The kids did not want to be there. They wanted to go home. And who could blame them? I hated museums as a kid, too. But we did manage to take in the Air and Space Museum, the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden and the Museum of American Hisory (Julia Child's kitchen!!) before everyone melted down completely.

Here I an utilizing my hydration pack at the American History Museum. I gave the kids pulls off it all day, much like a nursing mother pig to her young sucklings.

And as a grand finale, we saw an IMAX movie in 3D about the sun. The kids loved that. Almost made it worth the trip.

And when we got home I begged and whined my way in to see the best PT around here, Bill Burns. He gave me the okay to run again. Tally ho! Huzzah! VT 100, here I come!