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!


  1. Pam: Congrats! Congrats! Congrats! I'm so happy for you. Think you're nuts, but very proud that you did it this time. Terrific blog. Miss you ... Elissa

  2. Great report, Pam! I was getting a little teary-eyed there towards the end :-) I'm so glad to have met you, and Susan, and thanks for letting me hang with you ladies for so long (those were the toughest miles of the day for me and I'm so grateful to have had you ladies there!)! Congratulations!!!!!!

  3. WAY TO GO PAM! Glad I could be there to witness your finish - I'm psyched for you. Great race report and way to tough it out. See you on the trails...what's up next?

  4. Thanks for sharing your story Pam and congratulations for finishing 100 miles. What a great accomplishment.

  5. Congratulations Pam! I loved, loved, the report.
    Enjoy the recovery!

  6. Thanks so much, everyone. It was touch and go there for a while (yes, Paige, what was it about that 40-mile barrier? -- toughest miles for me as well), but I am absolutely thrilled I finished.

    Mike: VT 50, Stone Cat, Pisgah this fall. I'm waffling on Grindstone....

  7. I'm a little late to the party - computer fast this weekend - but nevertheless celebrate your accomplishment! I never doubted you would finish this one. Fantastic.

  8. Way to go Pam!! We are soooooo proud of you! I was sniffling a bit at the end, especially seeing the pics of you and the kids - I've said it before, and I'll say it again, you are one tough broad! Awesome... Karen, John & the kids..

  9. I have to admit that I could not wait for the report. I had to look up the race times because I wanted to know the outcome. I am thrilled for you Pam. What an achievement!!!

  10. I KNEW u could do it Pam!! Congrats! You are an inspiration
    ..a fellow CT native :-)

  11. Fantastic! I've been checking and checking waiting for this blog update. I was so excited to see it today.
    Congratulations to you, your fellow runners, your pacers and your family!

  12. Wow Pam! I simply cannot wrap my head around 100 miles yet. Apparently a lot of living takes place in these 100 mile ultras..maybe like weeks of living squeezed into a couple days? Congratulations on the finish--it's an achievement to be proud of for sure.

  13. Pam, congratulations! Tell Sue congrats to her also. Let me know when you are ready to hit the trails again. Hopefully I will be ready myself. How were the legs feeling during your vacation? Takes a bit to get the soreness to disappear. Way to go.

  14. Had tears in my eyes reading how you crossed the finish line - you are a real runner!



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