Oct 12, 2009

Race Report: VT 50K part 2

If you haven't already, please read part 1 here first, for this post is a continuation of that.

After a 1 mile period of running with the 50-mile mountain bikers and super-fast 50K runners, the 50K course once again splits off briefly before rejoining the 50-mile course. It was at this point I started to feel a bit fatigued on the uphills. It turns out that the aggressive powerwalking I did early on in the race was a bit too much for my modest level of fitness, and I started bonking on these hills. I ended up letting Frank get ahead of me on a very beautiful section of singletrack which meandered and switchbacked through the mist in the relatively open forest. I remember thinking that this is the reason to come up and run in New England, because, even on a mediocre day weather-wise, Vermont offers up its own unique beauty and it's really special to be a part of it. I stopped to shoot a short panorama video in this section, and you can find it in the only non-shaky part of the youtube video that goes along with part one of this report.

As nice as that interlude was, however, I was still in the midst of a pretty dramatic bonk, and I was glad at this point to take a hundred brief rests to step aside from the trail and let the numerous mountain bikers pass. To make matters worse, I forgot to check the distance from the last aid station to the next and it seemed it would never come. Finally, the drama of my bonk peaked at a steep uphill at mile 16 or so where I'd have to take numerous breaks to rest, until I crested it and saw that glorious aid station in an open field. I must have spent ten minutes there, sitting and eating a ton of trail mix and just trying to take in as much energy as I could.

There were four miles to the next aid station, and once I did finally get up, I walked a downhill and soon started feeling ok again. Problem was, I ate too much before and my stomach was giving me problems! This was a frustrating part of the race for me, but it actually rather typical in my experience - I'm just a slow learner, I guess.

Once we got to the next aid station, the second-to-last, I tried to "relieve myself" to calm my stomach but was unable to, so ate a little bit (they had grilled cheeses there and it was wonderful!) and went on my way. Before going, however, I overheard someone say something about "lots of gnarly single-track mud to the next aid," and let me tell you - he wasn't kidding. This was where my experience of Vermont went from just another typical long run for me to something "stupid." And, as I said in the previous post, that's the only way I can describe it.

The mud was overwhelming. At Damn Wakely Dam this year, the mud was pretty bad- at points i sunk nearly to my knee. But there, traction was never really a problem. The people who maintain those trails do an incredible job at putting boards and logs over the sections where forward progress would be difficult due to traction. Those boards and logs were slippery to be sure, but at least you could traverse them without too much trouble. In Vermont, the trails, many private and without boards, were literally impossible to run, and walking was difficult. The trails were destroyed and, while I'm by no means an expert on these things, it seemed to me like the damage was such that they were permanently widened due to this event alone. Hundreds of mountain bikers, who's bikes were so gunked up with mud that many were inoperable, were hiking along side us ultrarunners, pushing their bikes. All of that traffic made it a mess that was very frustrating to hike on, and as I said, running was almost impossible.

I finally got to the last aid station with three miles to go and took a seat. The volunteers, who were obviously dealing with frustrations of their own, didn't see me there as I sat for 5 minutes just drinking and eating. I finally asked someone where the water was because I had an empty reservoir in my pack and they pointed me at the correct jug. I hobbled over there, refilled it, and went on my way.

I should have quit.

The last 3 miles of the course was much worse than the previous 6. It's hard to describe. Take the description of that paragraph and multiply it by ten to get an idea of what the 3 miles were like. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that it was bad enough that I pretty much lost it out there, and it unfortunately colored my experience of the entire race, even though the first 22 miles were relatively pleasant.

When I finally got on the solid footing of the grass ski slopes, I walked all the way back in even though the trail was now runnable, and my only reason for this is I was literally angry at the trail, as if the trail was something worth being angry at. But that's where I honestly was. I finished a rather unpleasant experience and the finish itself didn't make it any better.

Which brings me to the lesson I learned that day:
if a race sucks, DNFing can be a more pleasant than finishing.
I finished, and even now wish I hadn't. It's kind of an ironic statement because I can't tell you how many times I've read about people either regretting their DNFs, or justifying them by saying they don't regret them. I've been there myself, and I know exactly what writing that kind of report is like. However, it turns out that finishing when it wasn't so much a physical challenge, but rather just something to finish, isn't very rewarding when the experience itself isn't pleasant.

After the race, I grabbed something to eat and dried off by the fireplace at Ascutney, hanging with a group of 50K finishers and 50M'ers who missed cutoffs. Those of us who finished were able to ease the disappointment of those who didn't with our stories of the last nine miles. The bottom line for pretty much all of us was, "it just wasn't worth it."

Perhaps on a better year Vermont is an amazing race that isn't to be missed. Some people certainly seem to love it tremendously. But when I come back from nearly every race with a positive story to tell, I'm afraid to say I'm 0 for 2 with Vermont and not all that interested in going back a third time. The first time, I saw a "no-love-for-the-back-of-the-pack" attitude that reminded me so much of several NYRRC races that I won't go back to, and in the second time, I saw that when a race mixes runners with something else, in this case MTBers, it can work out in ideal situations but if anything goes wrong the problem gets intensified by the mixture. Mixing runners with others on the same course just doesn't seem to be a good idea to me. Perhaps I'll expand on this thought in a future post.

Anyway, my official finish time is 8:38, but my actual finish time is almost 10 hours - over 3 hours off my 50K PR. The reason for the discrepancy is they don't have me as having started with the 50-mile runners. I made sure they knew before the race and also emailed the RD directly afterwords to make sure he was aware of the mistake, but it hasn't been changed. Whatever.

Most of my friends finished the 50-miler between 11 and 12 hours. It was a long day for everyone. After the race, Tony and I got cleaned up and drove back home. Since there wasn't much food left for them at the finish line, we stopped after an hour of driving in brattoboro and had huge dinners before continuing through Mass and Connecticut before arriving in white plains sometime after midnight, and finally suffern about 1am.

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