Coming Home: Vermont 100M
I’ve been waiting a long time to run the Vermont 100. This is true in a narrow sense: I registered in late 2019 but rolled my entry over twice due to Covid cancellations in 2020 and 2021. But I also grew up in Vermont, and have wanted to do this race since I started running ultras a decade ago. It would be a good opportunity to do a race while visiting my mom, who still lives in Brattleboro, and to see an unfamiliar corner of my home state on foot. So, after two years of waiting, I was glad to hear the race would resume this year.
Vermont is a venerable race by ultra standards: over thirty years old, and one of five potential legs of the Grand Slam. It’s also unusual in that most of the course is on dirt roads rather than trails. These are not the fire roads most Californian runners know, but rather the hard-packed dirt roads Vermonters still live along and use to get around. (It’s a rural state.) Most of the off-road sections are on private land, and the race director, Amy Rusiecki, is clearly at pains to maintain the local landowners’ goodwill. Among other things, this means there is no course map or GPX that would enable runners to explore the course beforehand. In that spirit, I also won’t post my GPS track, but it’s probably fine to reveal that the course starts and finishes in a large meadow on Silver Hill Road in West Windsor and traverses an area bounded by Windsor in the east, Cavendish in the southwest, and Pomfret in the north. There’s a short stretch of road — maybe a quarter-mile — that you run twice, in opposite directions, but otherwise the course has no backtracking or repetition.
The course has a modest 17,000′ of elevation gain, and while there are a few sustained climbs, it’s mostly rolling. A few hills are steep or technical enough to mandate hiking, but on the whole, it’s very runnable. That’s both a blessing and a curse: while runnable courses are fast, all that running is hard on the legs.
One other interesting feature of Vermont is that it’s also a horse race. The horses run the same course as the runners but start an hour behind. The fastest runners never see the horses, but most will be passed by at least some equestrians during the race. During the pre-race briefing, Amy mentioned that runners in the 18 to 22 hour range — where I expected to be — would interact with horses through most of the race.
I flew in on July 5, as I wanted to spend some time in Brattleboro before the race. I spent the next ten days doing short, easy runs from my mom’s place, swimming in the nearby West River, getting to know mom’s new cat Lola, and otherwise just relaxing. The time passed quickly, but I felt well rested by the time the race arrived.
Megan arrived on July 14: she’d agreed to crew a few aid stations and pace me the last 30 miles. The plan was straightforward: I’d head up to Silver Hill on Friday (July 15) to check in and hopefully sleep a few hours at a nearby Airbnb. Megan and mom would follow on Saturday and would meet me at the Camp 10 Bear aid station (mile 47), Margaritaville (mile 59), and Camp 10 Bear again (mile 70). Megan would pace me from there, while mom would head back to the Airbnb. Hopefully I’d finish in time to sleep a bit afterwards and catch the post-race breakfast on Sunday.
I arrived at Silver Hill meadow on Friday afternoon. It was quite a scene, with two large tents — one for check-in business and one for meals — and a large area where runners could camp. I picked up my bib and swag, left my pacer’s bib and crew vehicle tag in a “Will Call” box, and grabbed some pre-race dinner to go. This race, for those who care about such things, is very vegan-friendly. This is true of both the aid stations and the meals, where the two vegan options — sweet potato salad and quinoa salad — were both outstanding (with a little additional salt and pepper). I headed to my Airbnb, which was only a few miles away as the crow flies, but about a 30-minute drive on windy dirt roads.
Sleeping before this race was always going to be a challenge. The race starts at 4:00am; we were required to check in (again) no later than 3:45; my Airbnb was a half-hour drive from the start, and I’d have to walk 5-10 minutes after parking. I planned to leave the Airbnb by 3:00am, and since I don’t wake up quickly, I set my alarm for 1:45 — about an hour later than I usually go to sleep. If previous experience was any guide, I’d probably wake up before then, so the best-case scenario was maybe two hours of sleep. Surprisingly, I felt pretty relaxed about this. I’d slept well the whole previous week, so I figured I’d be ok whatever happened the night before. And the start was so early that I figured sleep deprivation was par for the course. After my experience at Bighorn, I swore off edible marijuana the night before races, but I did smoke a lot to make myself sleepy, sitting in the back yard watching the fireflies and the stars. I ended up sleeping about two hours, which proved to be fine. In fact, I was amazed how much better I felt than I had at Bighorn: apparently it helps to not be drowning in THC (smoke leaves your system a lot faster than edibles). It also helped that Megan made me a playlist for the race. I couldn’t listen to it during the race, as headphones were not allowed, but it got me going beforehand, especially Metallica’s Master of Puppets (the list had a Stranger Things theme).
I made it to the start without incident, and at 4:00am we were off. The early miles passed in a blur: it was dark, and the first few miles were on a trail through the woods, so I mostly watched the ground to avoid tripping. I also watched my pace. After Bighorn, I decided I needed to run more intentionally: there’s nothing wrong with running by feel, but there’s something to be said for having a target pace. I aimed to maintain 11:00-minute miles for as long as possible, which translates into a finish time of 18:20. I didn’t think that was realistic, but I did think an 11-minute pace was gentle enough that I would slow gradually rather than catastrophically later on. Realistically, my “A” goal was 12-minute miles overall, which would get me to the finish in 20 hours.
The first five miles were mostly downhill, so I was under target pace. That seemed fine given the downhill, and in any case I didn’t wholly trust my watch. My GPS didn’t lock on until mile 4, and my watch typically overestimates distance (and pace) until the GPS locks on. By that time, it had gotten light, so I got my first views of the course. By now we’d exited the forest trail and were running on dirt road. Nothing particularly noteworthy here, but it was a nice morning, and I was glad to see the sun rise.
I noticed early on that this race was more social than most. The wide dirt road made it possible for multiple runners to run abreast, and I chatted with several people over the next few miles, including a fellow Californian from Thousand Oaks. I found, as is usually the case, that my pace was more variable than most: I’d fall behind others on the uphills and then fly by them on the downhills. Some of those downhills were pretty long and steep, and I wondered if I was killing my quads by taking them too fast. But so far, everything felt fine.
At some point the dirt road became paved, and we entered the town of Taftsville. We turned right onto Route 4, then immediately left through a covered bridge over the Ottauquechee River. After another left turn, we continued along the river for about a mile before heading uphill again. Not long afterwards, maybe 20 miles in, I was passed by the first horses.
Since I had a crew, I used only one drop bag, at the Pretty House aid station (mile 21). I reached Pretty House at 7:55, averaging 11:04 per mile. That matched my watch pretty closely, so it seemed my watch was accurate so far. I grabbed the contents of my drop bag — two smoothie flasks and an apple turnover — and hastened on my way. The road leaving Pretty House was, well, pretty, with nice views of the surrounding hills. I ate the apple turnover on my way out and decided it was a good call: the pastry was a little dry, but the apple filling was perfect.
I reached the Stage Road aid station (mile 30.5) at 9:50, averaging 11:28 per mile. My watch was off by now, saying I’d gone 31.1 miles at an average pace of 11:15 per mile. A 0.6 mile discrepancy over 30 miles didn’t seem too bad, considering my GPS didn’t lock on until mile 4. Hopefully it wouldn’t get worse. I quickly refilled my flasks with Gatorade and moved on.
Leaving Stage Road, the course went up a steep trail through the woods. Here I passed a rider — Keri (I think?) from Philadelphia and her horse Boy — that I’d see off and on for the rest of the race. She’d done this race multiple times and was clearly a fan. She mentioned that the number of entrants was down this year due to the high cost of travel, which explained why there were only 264 runners at the start instead of the usual 450 or so. I pulled ahead of them on the uphill, but they quickly passed me again once the trail leveled out. That sums up the human-versus-horse dynamic: we move better up hills and on technical trails, but the horses beat us on the runnable flats.
A few miles later we passed an unmanned aid station — some water jugs and coolers filled with ice — and I decided it was time for the ice bandana Megan had loaned me. This is basically just a bandana with a large pocket: you fill it with ice and tie it around your neck. This supposedly keeps your core temperature down, or at least makes you feel cooler. It seemed like a good idea, as today was supposed to be in the mid-80s, with 75 percent humidity. I scooped ice out of the cooler, filled the bandana, and tied it around my neck. A few seconds later, I desperately wanted to take it off, as the ice was painfully cold. But that was the point, after all, so I gritted my teeth and kept going. My neck soon got comfortably numb.
We ascended a trail through the woods, and I chatted with another runner for the next couple miles. Mostly about running stuff: pacing (he was hoping for sub-24), poles (he’d gotten permission to use them here, after dark), and other races (he liked Leadville but criticized the lack of qualifying requirements). His watch was four miles ahead of mine, so I wasn’t the only one with GPS problems. We laughed every time his watch told him he’d clicked off another 5:30 mile. My own watch was doing weird things, too: the laps were out of sync with the cumulative mileage, so, for example, it would announce my time for mile 37 when the watch said I’d only run 36.5.
As the miles passed, I realized this race inverted my usual preferences. I generally love single-track trail but am not wild about fire roads, much less real roads. Here, the opposite was true. The roads were a scenic mix of picturesque farms, meadows and hills, and dry stone walls crisscrossing the land. In contrast, the occasional trails were unremarkable green tunnels through the woods. I did like the rough grassy paths cut through hilltop meadows, which, being out in the open, offered some of the course’s better views. But these meadows swarmed with hungry mosquitoes and flies, so I didn’t stop to take a lot of pics.
At some aid station — I don’t know which — I stopped to refill my ice bandana and found that it had developed a large hole. When the volunteer poured ice into the pocket, it just spilled out the other end. I tied a knot in that end, which closed the hole but made the now-shortened bandana hard to tie around my neck. After some fumbling, I managed to tie it in a way that seemed secure. For good measure, I also took out my hat and filled it with ice.
All this ice seemed to be doing its job: I felt comfortably cool. The day actually seemed cooler and drier than the forecast, but it’s possible I just felt that way because my head and neck were encased in ice. In any case, I was glad to have it. My only complaint was that my shirt and shorts were soaking wet from melting ice. The liner in my shorts had become useless — it wasn’t holding anything in place — because it had gotten so stretched from being constantly wet. This seemed like a fair price for staying cool, however, so I didn’t give it much thought. I considered changing clothes when I first saw my crew, but decided I’d wait until Megan started pacing me, when I’d hopefully be done with the ice.
I thought about how different this race felt from Bighorn one month ago. Overall, I felt much better: I wasn’t stoned or hung over, and it wasn’t brutally hot. On the other hand, my legs felt a lot more tired. Bighorn involved a lot of hiking, but here I’d been running more or less constantly since 4:00am. I’d be fine for some miles, but I wondered how my legs would feel 80 or 90 miles in. I was pleased to finish Bighorn with legs not screaming in pain, but I didn’t know if that reflected my conditioning or the not-very-runnable course. If nothing else, I’d have the answer to that question by tonight, as this was the most runnable course I’d done since Rio Del Lago.
I was looking forward to seeing Megan and mom at Camp 10 Bear #1 (mile 47). It would be nice to get another set of smoothies, as well as other food I’d left with them. But more importantly, it would be nice to reach the “crewed” portion of my race, with the moral support that entails. I’d get a longer-than-usual break at Camp 10 Bear, after which I’d just have to tough out another 11 miles before seeing them at Margaritaville, followed by another 11 miles to Camp 10 Bear #2 — after which I’d have a pacer. Breaking it down that way, the rest of the race didn’t seem that hard. I just had to reach Camp 10 Bear.
After a rather long stretch on Route 106, we hopped onto a wooded single-track that eventually spit us out onto Jenne Road — the last stretch before Camp 10 Bear. My watch error had clearly grown, as it told me I’d reached the aid station a mile ago. Still, we had to be close. We approached the Jenne Farm, reportedly the most-photographed farm in the world. Having seen half a dozen very similar farms in the last nine hours, I suspected this was less because it’s exceptional than because it’s somehow ideal-typical. Still, it’s a nice farm.
The course was becoming more crowded. We’d now merged with the 100k runners, for whom Camp 10 Bear was the first aid station. From here on out, I’d see more runners than before, but the majority would be in the 100k. Someone next to me asked “Is that a Moab hat?” I replied that no, it was from Canyons 100k. The runner, a young woman named Kris, was someone I’d been going back and forth with for maybe the last 15 miles. We were going about the same pace, so we ran together to Camp 10 Bear. She struck me as unusual in at least two ways: first for being young (ultrarunners skew older), and second for pacing even more conservatively than me (she didn’t catch me until mile 30-something). The combination of being young and pacing conservatively is especially rare — it takes time to learn one’s limits — though probably less so among women than men (women are known to pace themselves better). I later learned that she’s a pretty serious athlete who’s not only doing this year’s Grand Slam but is also a world-champion obstacle racer. In any case, she looked strong almost 50 miles in.
We reached Camp 10 Bear at 1:36, averaging 12:09/mile for the race so far. I was fine with that: it put me close to 20-hour pace, although I doubted I’d run the next 53 miles as fast. By now, my watch was way off, telling me I’d run 50 miles at an 11:34/mile pace. That was kind of disconcerting: the watch had added 0.6 miles in the first 30 miles, and another two in the last 17. Not only was the discrepancy increasing, but it was doing so at an accelerating rate.
I found Megan and mom by the side of the road, along with the other crews. It was a relief to see them, and to sit down. “Can I stop now?” I asked them. I felt ok, but my legs were tired. Megan told me not to worry about that; we can push through such things. I swapped out my flasks while Megan got me some Gatorade packets, GUs, and another apple turnover, and mom prepared an avocado wrap: half an avocado on a sweet-potato tortilla with a lot of salt. I took a big swig of homemade sports drink I’d made from pineapple juice, sugar, salt and ginger. Not bad.
I ate the wrap while Megan and I walked away from the aid station. It was amazing, the best thing I’d eaten all day. I told Megan I liked the course, but “It’s a lot of running.” A spectator overheard me and laughed: of course a 100-mile race involves lots of running? True, but some more than others. I told Megan I’d see her at Margaritaville and continued on.
Shortly after leaving Camp 10 Bear, we hit a long, steep trail through the woods. I’m not sure how long it went on, but it seemed interminable and racked up a lot of elevation gain. This was the most hiking I’d done all day. Somewhere along this stretch, my watch hit mile 52.5, which — after subtracting 2.5 miles — I called the halfway point. My time now was 10:20, so I was still on sub-21 hour pace. I still held out hope for that goal, but a lot would depend on how the course evolved. Like, how long would this hill go on?
We eventually crested the hill and got back onto roads. At some point Keri and Boy caught up with me again, and we chatted a bit until Boy picked up the pace. I tried to get a picture of them, but I had trouble unlocking my phone — as I had all day — because the fingerprint sensor was wet from melting ice. By the time I unlocked it, I just got this:
There was a lot of back-and-forth in this stretch. Kris and a few others passed me; they’d disappear into the distance; I’d catch up with them; they’d disappear again. This went on for miles. But eventually I saw a large meadow on my left and knew I was close to Margaritaville. I’d been here the day before, as my Airbnb was only a quarter-mile from the aid station.
Approaching Margaritaville, I saw Megan and mom on my left. I handed my pack to them and told them what I wanted, then went to use a porta-pottie. I wasn’t desperate to use one, but we’d been instructed not to relieve ourselves on private land, so I figured I’d use it while I could. Returning to the aid station, I got my pack from Megan and another avocado wrap from mom. Megan said they were going to hang out at the Airbnb. I was glad they had that option, which would probably be a welcome break from sitting at aid stations all day.
As I walked off eating my wrap, I was reminded how small the ultrarunning world is. “You’re a long way from home!” a spectating couple said to me. I responded that I grew up in Brattleboro but now lived in California, wondering how they knew where “home” was to me. They said they lived in Reno and had seen me around the circuit. I didn’t recognize them, but I’m guessing they’d seen me at Castle Peak, which is close to Reno. In any case, I found it strangely comforting to bump into someone from “home.”
Kris caught up with me shortly after leaving Margaritaville, and we plodded up the hill. Shortly thereafter, we encountered a group of equestrians. The views here were lovely, so I stopped to take a pic.
We made good time for the next few miles, continuing up South Reading Road and then down Grasshopper Lane. After the previous stretch, which included a lot of uphill, it was nice to be cruising along downhills and flats. We quickly reached the Puckerbrush aid station, where I think Kris stopped and I didn’t. In any case, I didn’t see her again until after the race.
As I ran, I found myself thinking about my light belt: the one indispensable thing in the hands of my crew. I’d meant to get it from Megan at Margaritaville, on the off chance they missed me at Camp 10 Bear #2. Oh well: they’d been to Camp 10 Bear already, so there was no reason anything should go wrong. Nothing I could do about it now, anyway, so I put the thought out of my mind.
After some miles on the road, we turned onto a trail through the woods. I would have been happy for the change except that it felt a lot more humid among the trees, and certainly more buggy. Before long I found myself hoping we’d hit road again soon. At some point I noticed a faint chafing sensation in my groin area, so I reached down to investigate and OWWWWW!!!!!! Wow, that hurt. I’d developed my first-ever case of, um, ball chafing. Before the race, I’d applied vaseline to all the areas I might normally chafe, and those spots were doing fine. But apparently running all day in soaking wet and stretched-out shorts had caused chafing in places I hadn’t thought to treat. Megan later said that ice bandanas have been known to cause chafing problems, but that was wisdom for another day. For now, I wasn’t doing too bad as long as I left that area alone, but the chafing worried me. A lot can happen in 30-something miles.
My legs were now sore enough that running downhill was hard, so I took an ibuprofen. I also took two caffeinated GUs. Caffeine and ibuprofen are a miracle combination that always give me a new lease on life, and they delivered for me now. By the time we hit the road again, I was running comfortably and fast. I reflected on the inconsistencies in our drug-testing regime. Were I someone who got tested, I’d be banned from every race because of the cannabinoids I always use to fall asleep. Yet these drugs are, in my experience, probably performance detractors.* Meanwhile, I’m free to take as much caffeine and ibuprofen as I want, even though these clearly enhance performance. I’m not saying anyone should ban coffee or NSAIDs, but a little more consistency, based on actual performance research, would be nice. As it stands, anti-doping authorities seem to have a dual mission: policing performance enhancement, on the one hand, and enforcing national drug laws, on the other. So you end up with unfortunate cases like Sha’Carri Richardson being suspended for using marijuana after her mother died.
*Except insofar as they help you sleep, but no one bans sleep aids like Ambien. I’ve heard people argue that cannabinoids can reduce pain and inflammation, but ibuprofen they ain’t.
I bombed down a long gentle hill, feeling good. Ahead of me I saw a guy with bib 185 on his back, who I’d run with early in the race but hadn’t seen in many hours. I flew by, and ten minutes later reached Camp 10 Bear. I gave my number to the aid station volunteers and looked for Megan and mom, but couldn’t see them anywhere. Where were they? I circled the aid station but couldn’t find them. This was bad: they had my light belt, and I couldn’t continue without it. I asked the volunteers if crews might set up anywhere else, but they said all crews should be here. Someone suggested that maybe they went to the mile 47 crew location, about 100 yards down the road? I ran to where mom and Megan had been earlier but found no one, and ran back.
I walked around feeling helpless and uttered a couple of F-bombs. A volunteer asked if I was ok, and I explained that I was stuck here without my light. I cursed myself for not grabbing it at Margaritaville: if I had, I’d have continued on my own. As things stood, my only option was to wait and hope they showed up soon. I texted Megan “Where are you???”, but there was no cell service here.
I needed a plan. First, find some lubricant to deal with the chafing. I quickly secured a tube of vaseline and applied that liberally. Next, see if anyone has a spare light lying around. This seemed like a long shot, but I had to try. As I was explaining my predicament to a volunteer, I spied Megan and mom down the road, coming from the area I’d run to ten minutes earlier. I ran to them, visibly agitated. They’d dallied too long at the Airbnb and hadn’t expected me to arrive here this soon: the Margaritaville-to-Camp 10 Bear stretch was faster than Camp 10 Bear-to-Margaritaville. But, whatever: they were here. I grabbed my spare shorts from Megan and ran to the porta-pottie to change while she swapped out my flasks. I changed my shirt quickly, pinned my bib to the new shirt, and we were off.
How much time did I lose? I arrived at Camp 10 Bear at 6:40 and left at 7:00, so I was there 20 minutes. I’d been getting in and out of aid stations quickly all day — and left about five minutes after Megan and mom arrived — so I’d guess the delay cost me around 12 minutes. Not the end of the world, and in any case I was glad just to be moving again. The worst part of the whole episode was not knowing how long I’d have to wait.
We moved quickly at first, as I felt some urgency to make up for lost time. But I soon relaxed, realizing we still had 30 miles to go. We hit a long single-track uphill and hiked, while Megan explained the aid-station mishap and I talked about my race so far. I was glad to be with Megan, and glad it was still light. She’d flown from California just to pace me, so I wanted her to see at least some of the course. I’d hoped to reach this point an hour earlier, but we still had two hours before it got dark.
Reaching a road, we continued uphill and caught up with runner 185, who’d passed me while I was at Camp 10 Bear. I greeted him, saying “Haven’t seen you since this morning!” He responded that I was looking good, and I started to say “You too!” but hesitated because…well, he didn’t. I know what it’s like to break down, and that’s how he looked. Maybe I should have said it anyway, but it felt transparently insincere, so I just wished him a good race and moved on. He ultimately DNF-ed, dropping at mile 88.
Megan and I were making good time, enjoying the evening light. She’s paced me at previous 100Ms, and this was certainly the best experience so far. I’m usually in so much pain by this point that I can’t do much except swear and make guttural noises. Today felt more like a training run; we were running and talking easily. I wondered how long this could go on. Right now I couldn’t imagine feeling awful, but experience told me I would before the end.
We stopped briefly at the Spirit of 76 aid station (mile 76), where a volunteer from Oregon said she recognized Megan from some race. Mt. Hood? Waldo? Bigfoot? Who knows: there are lots of races out there. We continued on and, seeing that the trail went into the woods, finally donned our light belts. There was still some light in the sky, but it was fading fast.
Once the sun set, it was really dark. No streetlights, no moon, nothing but the light from our belts. I turned mine off briefly to admire the sky, which was clear and full of stars, before deciding that running in total darkness wasn’t a great idea. We were still maintaining a good pace, passing lots of runners (mostly 100k), and I occasionally had to remind myself there were still miles to go. I’d taken two more caffeinated GUs a while back, which helped a lot, but I hoped those would be my last. It sounds silly, but I was already thinking about post-race sleep and didn’t want to overdo the caffeine.
The next couple aid stations are jumbled in my mind. We hit one at mile 83.2 — they had a sign announcing this — which, according to the aid station chart, should have been Cow Shed. It probably was, but then I’m not sure what to make of another aid station that was actually in a cow shed. Oh well: it didn’t really matter, since there was nothing to do but keep running. I checked my watch mileage at the 83.2-mile station, and it said 90.3: now seven miles ahead.
The vaseline and new shorts at Camp 10 Bear had helped a lot, but my chafing was getting bad again. We passed an unmanned aid station with a tube of vaseline, so I re-applied. I also drank a lot of Coke, since I’d started to feel sleepy since the sun went down.
I reached Bill’s aid station (mile 88) still feeling good. I really needed solid food at this point — I hadn’t had any since the avocado wrap 30 miles ago — but I didn’t think I could handle anything dry or chewy. Fortunately, they had a big bowl of cooked ramen noodles, which you could mix with either veggie or chicken broth. I gulped down several cups of ramen and veggie broth, which seemed about the best thing I’d ever eaten. I liked the vibe here: it was well-lit and cheery, and someone was playing a guitar. As I refilled my flasks, I regaled a volunteer with my chafing woes. Maybe TMI, but she seemed amused.
Shortly after leaving Bill’s, as we crossed a meadow in the dark, the moon came up, red from the humid air. It was a striking sight, but not one my phone’s auto settings could catch.
After leaving the meadow, we headed up a long, steep hill. And then, everything changed. Up to that point, I’d been feeling good: a little tired from running 90 miles, but nowhere near collapse. Now I suddenly felt really, really bad. My legs were still doing ok, but I was tired and had, almost in an instant, lost the will to keep going. I still can’t explain the sudden change. Maybe sleep deprivation had just kicked in, or the caffeine was wearing off. More caffeine would probably have helped, but I thought we were fairly close to finishing and didn’t want to take more. And I was having other problems: the chafing was getting worse, and the itchy rash that had been flaring up sporadically since Bighorn had returned, irritating my leg. I struggled on to the next aid station.
My watch said I’d run 102.5 miles. Guessing it was 7-8 miles ahead, I thought I had maybe five miles to go. So when a volunteer told me I had another 7.5 miles, it hit me like a gut punch. She qualified her statement, saying their aid station (Keating’s) had been moved some way along the course, but I was now inconsolable. My reaction says a lot about the power of expectations. Objectively, I was still doing pretty well: I typically feel this bad by mile 80 or so. But I’d gotten it into my head that I had only five miles left, so adding 2.5 — a 50 percent increase!! — really threw me. Heading up a single-track hill, I told Megan I couldn’t run any more and trudged slowly along.
My trek through the woods was an orgy of whining and self-pity, but we soon reached a sign saying it was only 0.4 miles to Polly’s, the final aid station. At Polly’s they said we had 5.5 miles to go, and this put some wind back in my sails. I thought the Keating’s volunteer must have been wrong, since it seemed a very short hop from Keating’s to Polly’s. But according to my splits, that hop took me 33 minutes, so it probably was two miles. In any case, I was feeling a bit better now. It probably helped that I’d drunk a ton of Coke at Keating’s, and took another caffeinated GU. But knowing that I was really and truly in the home stretch helped even more.
I was now able to run again, albeit slowly. A few miles from the end, Keri and Boy passed me for the final time. The horses have to stop for medical checks every 20 miles, leading to a lot of back-and-forth. Keri said she’d see us at the finish and vanished up the hill.
Keri had told me earlier that this race has a fast downhill finish. I wasn’t seeing it so far: in fact, we found ourselves climbing a long single-track through the woods. The course was marked with glow sticks, and we could see them high above, letting us know we’d be climbing for a while yet. But eventually we reached the top and began running downhill. A sign told us we had one mile to go, then half a mile. The course was now marked by glow sticks immersed in gallon jugs of water, giving it an eerie Halloween-ish feel. That last half-mile seemed pretty long, and I joked that in ten minutes, we’d see a sign telling us we had a quarter-mile to go. But at last the finish came into view, and we were done, in 22:11.
Amy was at the finish line congratulating each runner as they came in. She gave me my belt buckle and custom shorts, and I thanked her for a great event. I moved past the finish line and hugged Megan, thanking her for helping me through. Those last miles were hard, and while I would have finished on my own, I might well have walked the last 7.5 without Megan pushing me along. But I was even more grateful for her sharing the earlier daylight miles, which made them so much more fun.
We made our way to the tent to get some food. I saw Kris there and stared dumbly: I was a bit disoriented but also wasn’t sure if it was her. (It’s funny how you can run next to someone for miles without ever really seeing their face.) I also couldn’t figure out when she’d passed me, until I realized she must have done so during my hiatus at Camp 10 Bear. In any case, she said she’d had a strong finish. She’d crossed the line 17 minutes ahead of me in 21:54, good enough for 5th place.
We drove back to the Airbnb, which took a while after a couple of missed turns. It was after 3:00am by the time we got back, and by then I’d started to shiver. When your cooling system has been going full blast for hours, sometimes it keeps going, and you get cold. I took a hot shower, which helped temporarily (but was hell on the chafing), but soon returned to shivering uncontrollably. I wrapped myself in warm blankets, which helped, and eventually got to sleep.
Was I happy with my race? Absolutely: this was one of my few goal races for the year, and it went as well as I could have hoped. I was well-trained and well-rested going in; I felt good almost throughout; I handled the heat and fueling well. I missed my “A” goal, but in retrospect 20 hours was unrealistic, and I can’t think of anything that would have gotten me there. Despite starting faster than usual, I maintained my pace reasonably well, moving from 70th place at Pretty House to 43rd at Camp 10 Bear #2 to 27th at the finish (out of 264 starters). The only thing that could have gone better was, obviously, the delay at Camp 10 Bear #2. I’m pretty sure I’d have broken 22 hours without it, both because 12 less minutes would have put me under and because, if I’d been that close, I would have had more motivation to push it at the end. But really, what’s the difference between 21:59 and 22:11? (Short answer: a whopping two places.) I wouldn’t have traded my pacer and crew for those 12 minutes, and every race needs some drama and a good story. I’m even glad I finally felt shitty at the end, as I wouldn’t have missed that peculiar pleasure of pushing through the pain and despair.
I was also happy my legs held up well: it seems I can run a runnable 100M without breaking down. My six long races earlier this year no doubt helped. That said, this race was hard on my legs and feet. They’re always puffy with inflammation after long races, but this time was particularly severe. My feet looked awful three days later, but were back to normal within a week.
As for the race itself: Two thumbs up. I won’t say everyone should do it: if you really hate running, as opposed to scrambling over single-track passes, this race is probably not for you. But even as someone who prefers single-track, I thought it was worth doing. It’s a different kind of race, showcasing not the wilderness but the unique ways Vermonters have tamed it. You wouldn’t want every race to be like this, but since most are not, it’s something new. I was impressed by the race organization: the course was incredibly well-marked (as you’d hope in a race without a map or GPX), and the aid stations were well-staffed and well-stocked for (I think) all dietary tastes. And the race had a great vibe. It’s been running for so long that it’s a local institution, and many locals turn out to support it: kids cheering you on or offering candy, homeowners spraying you with a garden hose.
Some races stay with you long after you’re done. After Bigfoot 73, both Megan and I felt like we were swimming in images for days afterward, still out there in the Mt. St. Helens wilderness. For me, Vermont was like that: days later, I was still mentally there. This is partly because the stress and intensity of long races heighten your emotional experience, making everything more vivid. There’s a reason some former addicts treat ultrarunning as their new drug. But this doesn’t always happen, and it happened here mostly because I love Vermont. I’ve always seen my childhood home as an oasis where time passes slowly, if at all, and if this sounds like nostalgia, it’s also a physical reality. Between 1900 and 2020, California’s population grew more than 2500 percent, from less than 1.5 million to almost 40 million. Over the same timespan, Vermont’s population grew only 87 percent, from 344,000 to 642,000. In an alarmingly short time, I’ve seen California (which I also love) ravaged by drought and wildfires and blighted by badly managed growth. Meanwhile, Vermont feels much the same as it did decades ago, and decades before that, except the general stores now sell kombucha and quinoa salad. Many locals would no doubt disagree, but that’s how it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong: the world needs its Californias. But I find refuge in its Vermonts, and I’m sure I’ll be running here again.