Sep 29, 2008

VT 50 race report

Vermont 50 bib added to my "wall of shame", finishes less than a marathon, and ultramarathon DNFs

This is going to be one of those race reports where I write out a bunch of disconnected concepts and then try to string them together in some sort of cohesive narrative. It's not going to be easy.

Let me first give the obligatory-and-necessary kudos to the race organization and race director. Everyone was very nice, and I can only imagine how difficult it is to organize this kind of race. Despite its history, Vermont 50 really is a mountain bike race first and a runner's race second. The mountain bike division has 5 times the competitors, and it fills up in 15 minutes when registration opens. I can see why, it would be an awesome race to do on a bike. The challenge of organizing such a complex event must be mind-boggling.

Unfortunately, probably because of the mountain bikers that would have to pass us, there is no early start available for 50-mile runners. The mountain bikers all leave in half-a-dozen waves before the runners even start. Perhaps a few of the faster runners will catch a few of the slower mountain bikers, but that is about the limit of what happens - and it's a good thing. With all that single-track, it would be a dangerous mess to have too many bikers and runners on the same trails at the same time. Especially in the conditions we had this weekend.

leading up to the event
Let me state up front, for those of you who don't read this blog, that I didn't expect to finish this event. My experience at the Grand Teton 50 was very enlightening - and I knew immediately that I'm way too slow to meet the aggressive cutoffs in Vermont. As a result, I started treating this race like a long training run, with aid and support. I wanted to get as far as I could without timing out, to make the run as beneficial as possible. I figured there was a remote possibility that I could finish, but I wasn't by any means counting on it.

For a couple of weeks, my plan had actually changed. I was going to drop to the 50K so I'd have a chance at finishing. Then, for some reason, while lying in bed awake one night, it occurred to me that I'd rather start the 50 miler and take a DNF, than start the 50K and finish.

Perhaps this quote, which I read several months earlier on an email discussion list, had something to do with that decision:
"i applaud you for the effort to reach your limits. i dont find aspirations to mediocrity inspiring. it really bugs me when people are coached, coaxed, and encouraged to settle for less than their capabilities." (GC aka LL)
Since I didn't expect to run 50 miles, I didn't adjust my training for it. That meant I didn't bother to taper. Last weekend I ran over 20 miles in central park with Rizzo, and even had a hard speed session during the week. So when I toed the line at Vermont, my legs were a little tight and had those minor bits of pain that is normal during hard training weeks. I've started many training runs feeling like this, but I don't recall ever starting a long race - it was a new experience.

rain and mud
Estimates vary depending on exact location, but in the days prior to the race somewhere between 1 inch and 6 inches of rain fell on the course. And on the day of the race, a tropical cyclone was within striking distance, all it would have taken was a slight course change to hit us. Needless to say, Sunday was supposed to be an unbearable shoe-sucking mud fest. I know at least two mountain bikers that decided to "hand in their man card" and bailed for the mud. No runner that I personally knew decided to bail because of this, but everyone involved definitely would have preferred a more solid trail. For my part, my mind had gone to the pooper - I was not looking forward to driving 300 miles, each way, schlepping my wife and son, just to DNF a race. If it was not for friends of mine who were attending the race, I would definitely have bailed and run long locally.

However, on the drive up, my spirits had changed. The foliage, which is barely starting here in the suburbs of NYC, was almost peaking in Vermont, especially at higher elevations. While driving, in a complete mind-lapse, I actually thought about how cool it would be to go for a hike right now - then I realized the whole reason for coming up here in the first place. We arrived at the race at 5pm, I grabbed my stuff, didn't see anyone I knew, and figured I'd just attempt to go to bed early. My pre-race meal was a beer and cheeseburger from some brewpub in Lebanon, NH - and we (tried to) go to sleep at 8pm right across the river in White River Junction, VT. Our hotel was 20-30 minutes from the race start.

I woke up at 3:30am and wasn't able to fall back asleep before my alarm went off at 4:15. I got dressed, packed everyone up, and was on the way to the race a few minutes before 5. We got there in time for the 5:30 race meeting, which actually started closer to 5:45. I ran into two TGR friends who both finished in around 10 hours at this point, but didn't see anyone else I knew the whole race. I took it really easy, watched the first couple of waves of mountain bikers take off in the twilight, and waited.

When the 50 milers were called to the starting line, I kissed my wife and son goodbye and walking down a 10-foot steep incline from our vantage point. I slipped on the wet grass and fell. Helluva way to start the race. My right quad felt a little pain.. great, I just pulled it. I did the one-legged flamingo quad stretch for the couple of minutes to try to work the pain out, and thankfully, it went away and never came back.

I lined up in the very back of the pack.

the start
6:40am, came, and immediately everyone took off. There was one straggler, a much older gentleman, and I tried to make small talk in the first quarter-mile. He didn't seem interested in talking, and tailed off. I was in second-to-last place, because an enormous group of people left me in the dust. By two miles into the race, I never saw anyone again, including the guy behind me. I think he either missed an early cutoff or had an early start for the 50k (which started at 8am).

My plan was to run the first half like a marathon, and survive the second half. I repeated this several times in the two weeks prior to the race, without ever thinking it through - What did run it like a marathon mean? In my mind, I was thinking I'd run the first half hard.. like a marathon - but the prolem is I've never run fast in a marathon in my life! Marathons are long enough that I go as slow as possible and save my energy! Run the first half like a marathon? WTF? it's pretty funny to me in retrospect.

Thankfully, I remembered that I'm a slow marathon runner, too - right away when I started running. My marathon PR is at about a 13:30 average pace, and I was cruising along at 11:30. In every other race I've ever done - ever - I've not been the slowest person in the race. There was always somebody - actually several people - behind me. In this race, however, everyone ran faster than me. I was literally alone in the back. It bothered me. In the first mile I knew I could easily keep up with at least someone in front of me, but I kept reminding myself that patience will pay off.

And so I ran alone.

And After a long and easy stretch for the first 2.5 miles, you turn left and start the first climb. about 2 miles of it are on typical vermont dirt roads, and I powerwalked it strong. After the first aid station, we turned onto our first bit of single-track and it gets pretty steep for a stretch. This was the first time I felt really tired, but thankfully it wasn't too steep for too long and soon flattened out at the edge of a meadow/farm with an early morning mist over the grass and the brightly-colored fall trees painting the background. It was incredible.

Now, I had just climbed 700 vertical feet in about two miles and the next mile I dropped .. and then regained 200. My average pace for the whole race had slowed to slower than 14:00 and I wasn't very happy about it. Soon, however, I came out onto a dirt road and a long downhill section where I dropped 500' in about 2 miles.. and increased my average pace to almost 13:00. It wouldn't last, however, and as soon as I bottomed out, I started up the next climb.

The next aid station was uneventful - it was on the side of a dirt road not long after the climb started, and I ate some turkey sandwiches and drank some heed. Left ten minutes ahead of the cutoff. It was a short distance to the next aid.

unexpected pain
At this point I started hurting. I wasn't tired, I wasn't achy - the problem was my shoes. My size 14 trail shoes were not long enough for my 15-narrow feet, and both of my big toes were taking a beating. The pain slowed me a lot.. and the steep trails didn't help. Going uphill was usually ok unless it got really steep (and it did at times), but going downhill, where I can pick up some time lost on uphills, was killing me! I couldn't do it quickly, and lost a ton of time as a result.

By the time I got to the next aid station I was in agony. Thankfully, it had handler access, and my wife was there waiting for me. I came in and went straight to the car and changed into my street running shoes, which were size 15. The pain I went through when I put those shoes on were intense, and my grimace served to worry my wife. After I confessed that I had been hoping to miss this cutoff (that's how bad the pain was), she tried to persuade me to go ahead and quit - but I was hearing none of that. After GTR, and the regrets I have there, I basically swore that it would take nothing short of a nuclear holocaust to have me quit a race voluntarily.

Believe me, you don't want to dwell on the "what ifs", even if you truly think there was no way at the time. the "what ifs" are worse than the pain and desire to quit.

However, changing shoes and making sure I got enough calories in me took time and I probably spent at least ten minutes in that aid station in a race where I was chasing cutoffs anyway. I had told my wife not to bother going to the next handler access point, I probably wouldn't make it before getting pulled.

steve's final 7 miles
The next part of the race is a very long and beautiful gradual uphill dirt road that goes by several farms and thus had open views of the countryside. This is the best time of year to drink those views, and I really really enjoyed this part of the race, even though it was a long lonely uphill powerwalk. You can't not enjoy it. It was incredible. And my feet were feeling 100% better, almost all the pain had gone. I was strong and having a good time. I soon returned to the singletrack and had been going at a respectable pace when I heard a radio and saw a biker above me on a switchback. Turns out he was the sweeper.

"I hear you're planning on dropping at the next aid station."
"No - I'd keep going if you'll let me, but I don't think I can make it in time."
"They'll cut you out of the race if you miss the cutoff"
"That's what I was talking about."

He didn't ride alongside of me, he usually rode ahead and let me catch up before continuing. We didn't talk much at all.. but it was nice.. I wasn't out there by myself any more. My spirits were raised even higher. Unfortunately, I was already way behind the cutoff pace, and the course would determine whether I'd be able to speed up or not.

There were a couple of miles of rolling hills where I actually ran enough to make some progress, but then we hit a road - and a 1.5 mile long section with about 400 feet of climbing to it, which became steep at the end when it turned onto a snowmobile trail. There was a short but steep downhill section after that, and then what felt to me like the steepest uphill of the course, where I climbed 200' in just over a quarter mile. It hurt. and slowed me down a lot.

the end of the line for steve
I eventually topped out and came onto a road, looked at my watch and saw that I already missed the cutoff with a half-mile to go. I knew it would happen, so I wasn't despondent or anything, but I would have liked to have made it to the marathon.

Here comes the sweep riding back down the road to me.

"I'm not going to make it, am I?"
"No, you've been removed from the race. I'll see if I can get someone to give you a ride to the aid, unless you get there first."
"It's only a half mile or so, right?"
"Tell them I'll be there in a minute. I want to run this."

He didn't say anything and rode off. Nobody came and after a couple of rolling hills I arrived at the station, just as the course cleaners did, about 12 minutes after the cutoff. There were two other runners who had timed out there (I wasn't as far back as I thought) and while I didn't talk to one, the other was clearly disappointed. It's safe to say that of the three, I was the least bothered by the cutoff, as I hammered down three bananas, lots of grapes, and heed, too.

color commentary
Now, at mile 20 when I was pulled from the race, I had climbed about 4000'. I felt good. In fact, I felt much better than I did at mile 14 at Grand Teton, after about the same amount of climbing. At GT, I ended up going 36 miles. In Vermont, I am pretty sure that I could have gone the whole 50 if not for the cutoffs. But that is neither here nor there. Cutoffs are a way of life, and that's the way it is.

There is a very simple solution to avoid being cutoff at this race: lose weight. Every time I do one of these races, and it doesn't matter if it's 5K or 50miles, I am reminded of how fat I am, and how slow I am as a result of the fat. And let me tell all you skinny people, I think I speak for fat people everywhere when I say it sucks. It's a really horrible feeling to be left behind by all the other runners who can finish faster and with less effort than you. And it's all the worse when you can't finish at all because of the fat. It's a motivating factor, that's for sure, but it's also something that'll just sit in your mind and eat away at your brain if you let it.

truck ride back
A race official gave two of us a ride back. The conversation was interesting, and I was trying to be light-hearted as I could, and did manage to make it feel a little less like a funeral in there. We picked up a couple more people who dropped at another aid station, and I volunteered to sit in the bed of the truck, which allowed me to stretch my legs out and avoid tightening up so much. It was a fun ride.

I ate some BBQ food and hung out at the finish line and watched people finish. There were no 50 milers finishing yet that I knew of, but a ton of mountain bikers and 50k runners were coming through. This is where I felt the sting of not finishing - I really wanted to come through that finish line. It would have been nice.

as of now, I ran 20 miles on two consecutive weekends. in two weeks is chicago.. but i won't be racing it. i'll be pacing a friend who's even slower than me. i'm tempted to go 20 miles next weekend cuz it'll be cool to say i went that far four weekends in a row.. but i'll probably just take it easy. we'll see. btw 3 weeks ago i ran 17 miles. 4 weeks ago i took off, but 5 weeks ago i went 36 miles. this is a pretty good streak..

I remember 24 months ago doing my first 6 mile run. It nearly killed me, and I was sore for a couple of days. I also remember my first 15 mile run, and describing it as "the most difficult thing I have ever done." These long runs that used to knock me out for a week are now routine for me, and I am actually finding them easy if I go slow enough. The DNFs are tough to take - and being fat sucks - but the progress I've made outweighs any DNF a million times over. I am capable of doing a 20 mile hike over very hilly terrain in less than half a day and then not have it kill me.. that's pretty friggin cool.

Here's the motionbased log:


  1. Oh Steve!

    Your report really hit home with me, as I dnf'ed there last year. Even if you were not "fat" those cut offs for mid to back of the pack runners are very tight. I *just* made the 20 mile cut off last year, that was a shock, when i got there and realized how close i was. You did well. You have a lot of good races and finishes in your future. The "what ifs" are very hard to accept, and to a point i never truly get past them.

  2. Steve -

    That is some write up. I did the bike event and we sure do know you runners are tough! Best wishes on your next extreme adventure.

    By the way, are the cut off times posted anywhere online? I've never seen them.

    - Mike

  3. the cut off times are posted on the list of aid stations (when the aid station closes)

  4. Thanks Meredith! What-ifs ... ugh, they've been with me ever since GTR and i hate them.. thankfully, I don't have any what-ifs regarding Vermont - I had a strategy, I stuck to that strategy, gave it my best effort, and didn't quit.

    Mike, thanks for the comment. Regarding your question, what meredith said. (: