Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Vermont 100 Experience - a novel

Yes, another race report.  I was never a fan of race reports until I read as many as I could find on the Vermont 100 prior to attempting to make a dream become a reality.  I will try and be as detailed as possible as the reports I read were invaluable to my preparation and visualization of the course.  I will spare you the personal story and relevance if it is only the race details that you are after - if so, skip to paragraph 11 - however you are going to get an earful of background or emotion whereever you go in this report :)

The race was extra special for me because not only was it my first 100 mile race, but it has been a goal I have been gradually progressing towards for the past 3 years.  It started with running a few trails and progressed into some fifty mile races and finally my dream goal this past weekend running the Vermont 100 Endurance Run.

Being from Atlantic Canada, there is not exactly a huge ultra running subculture.  Quite scarce to say the least. Having said that, the group of runners I have had the privilege of running with there are some of the most passionate runners in the world.  The vast majority of trail running that I am aware of in region revolves around The Nova Scotia Trail Running Series directed by Jodi Isenor and Karine Comeau - two fantastic individuals that have a turned trail running into an epidemic in the area.  I also can't leave out their good friend Shawn McCardle who hosts the world class Brookvale Ultra Trail Marathon each summer in Prince Edward Island.  The trio is growing the sport in leaps and bounds in our part of the world and without them I would not have attempted such an endeavor or even had the means or knowledge on how to approach it.

My original plan for the year was to apply to Western States hoping to get in - falling back on running the Canadian Death Race as a stepping stone in the event my name wasn't drawn.  Then Jodi and Karine were leading a group of runners to the Vermont 100 after having a great experience there the previous year.  This made more sense than my plan since it didn't involve altitude, crossing a 4 hour time zone and I could run with a group who had already experienced the Vermont course.

Plans quickly changed as Jodi and Karine opted out since they were going to do the Trans Alps run in Europe in September and wanted to be fresh for it and not risk injury - makes perfect sense.  Several months later I noticed Jodi's name was still on the list.  Since I am always picking his brain when I can for tips and training advice I asked him if he secretly planned on still making a run at it.  He assured me that no he wasn't but he had hoped someone would have approached him about pacing....

!@#$#$% are you kidding me - I had won the lottery!  I ensured him that if he wanted to go, I would be beyond ecstatic to have him pace me! Instant game changer!  Jodi has ultra running, orienteering, adventure racing, endurance kayak racing, etc, etc experience coming out his ears and he is going to be my pacer!  Whoohoo!  It worked out great since Karine his ultra wife - with tons and tons of the same experience would come along as well and pace a friend of hers whom attempted the course but fell short last year.  Other huge plus, my wife Andrea was coming along now to crew for me.  First it was just me, now I had a crew of 3 and the best pacer I could have conjured up in a 'create your own pacer' game.

The drive down went pretty quick for 10 hours as we ended up following a couple more runners from Nova Scotia Canada. Jodi had us all pumped up from his Killian Classik trip stories and pics and had burned some Salomon, UTMB music, as well as Unbreakable tunes.   We stopped on the way into town at the Harpoon Brewery - huge highlight for me, great tunes, fantastic beer and awesome restaurant!  Kind of bitter sweet however since I wanted to weigh in at registration as light as possible - so I opted out of the several beer I wanted to try and the wonderful veggies (onion rings) Mark Campbell had been offering around the table :)

We checked into the Ascutney Mountain Resort at the foot of a beautiful ski hill that I immediately wanted to climb.  I showed some restraint but of course Jodi, Karine and Kevin (Mark Campbell's pacer) climbed it the next morning after registration.

As I mentioned above I had read so many race reports when it came time to register, I felt like I had already  been to Silver Hill Meadow.  It was surreal and my emotions started to fire as we pulled in early.  Jodi had the Unbreakable tunes kicking again which made it even more emotional...almost cried getting out of our Honda space Oddyssey.  Sorry Karine, you can't have it ;)

I opted out of breakfast all together since I was worried about losing too much weight on the course and getting sat or pulled completely.  I weighed in light (for me) at 190.8.  Things were going well.  I really savored the registration and hung around for a bit checking out the finish and start.  Cool to see the horses as well. I walked the last 100 feet or so of the trail leading to the finish - visualizing me actually coming down it at night hoping to see the pink neon in the dark under 24 hours.  Yes, a very long shot for me but one I had hoped would be the icing on the cake if I could finish.  When I say a long shot, I needed a perfect day for this to happen.  Deep down, I thought if I could get to Jodi with enough time to give me a shot at it, he had the experience, drive, fitness, will, determination and personality to get me there.

The pre-race dinner and briefing came quick and it was becoming more real by the minute that I was here to finally execute on 7 months of training.  The meal was fantastic and I was planning to eat as much as possible after weighing in light.  I think my plate weighed 3-4 pounds.  Meatballs, spaghetti, alfredo macaroni, salad, pulled pork sandwich...yum!

After a viewing of Unbreakable, it was off to bed to try and sleep.  I managed only 3 hours, but now it was go time!  We landed the Oddyssey at the start line and what a beautiful morning...crisp and cool! Weather was supposed to be cooler than most years so that was a good sign.  I may have adjusted my equipment a time or two :)  then the countdown was on and over and we were off down the the first hill.

I was focused and did not want to talk early on and I dislike running in packs so I was happy when we thinned out.  I had a brief scare early on rolling my ankle on the first trail in the dark.  My $20 dollar Engergizer bunny headlamp was not so good :)  After the pack thinned it was beautiful to see the surroundings of the Vermont country side as the light started to peek and the morning mist began to clear.  I was lucky enough to get my morning paper work out of the way early at this point - very happy to do so.  Also discovered a little earlier in the pack that you should turn out your headlamp when you step aside to pee :)  whoops, that form of etiquette goes out the window real quick later in the race ;)

Seemed to take a while to get to the first unmanned aid station - had I known it would be this far I probably would have brought along an extra bottle.  Turned out the first station was almost empty.  Enough to carry on and it was early so no harm done.

I had Jodi's splits from the previous year as our benchmark to gauge the day since he had buckled under 23 hours.  However, Jodi is a very accomplished runner and this was my first 100 miler and only my 4 ultra - having done the 50 mile distance 3 times.  In my head, I decided on trying to run 5 miles an hour roughly evaluating at each aid station if I was too fast or slow.  So I tried to average between 12-13 minute miles as long as I could figuring worst case scenario I manage this pace till I burn out and walk it in from there.

The second unmanned station came quicker than the first and I tried to get some Coke as well as fill up my waist bottle with Gatorade.  At some point, on the way into town the first horses passed us - that was cool and a little weird.  It was a very nice surprise to see my wife Andrea, Jodi and Karine among others in town on our way towards the first manned aid station. I only expected to see them at the first handler station - it gave me a quite a lift.

At the first manned station - Taftsville Bridge, I tried to grab what I had decided upon to eat well before getting there - potatoe chips and get out as fast as I could walking while eating.  This would be the trend all day.  All stations where a blur.  The outstanding volunteers always offered to fill bottles so you could pick over the buffet as they filled up.

Really happy to see my wife and friends at the first handler station.  They had what felt like as large a setup as most of the aid stations for me.  I was really glad to see them and hear them cheering my name prior to getting to the station.

In my head I was running little races from aid station to aid station as 24 hours and 100 miles was just too much to fathom for me for the day.  So it is a huge boost to finish each little race and know you are that much closer to finishing and maintaining your pace for another portion of the day.

I believe it was at this point in the day that I started to want to talk to other racers to make the time pass a bit quicker and forget about the pounding my legs were taking.  Some crazy runners out there, folks that had finished Badwater after 40 hours in the heat on Wednesday were there to run Vermont as part of the Grand Slam...nuts!

NOTE:  If this is your first 100 miler.  Everyone who has done this race or others of even greater elevation gains and descents will tell you there are many ups and downs and they are quite long.  You take note and train for ups and downs but rest is way, way, way, way, way more hillier than you will anticipate.  Also, the pre-race briefing will say - "We don't have any mountains, but we have lots of hills...".  Where I come from the entire race is in the mountains.  Long, long, long ups and long, long, long downs.  Okay, I could beat that horse all day and probably will some more later:)

The next part of the race to note is the sound of music hill.  I had heard and read so much about how beautiful this section was and it turned out to be my favorite...well second favorite part of the race.  The sound of music hill has a fantastic view of the surrounding "hills" also known as mountains :)  You also run through and descend the hill in beautiful meadows.  And oh yes, this is where I noticed my quads where beginning to take a pounding already - about 1/4 of the way through.  Yep. Right on schedule Jodi :)

I tried to eat chips and pop at most aid stations and planned to drink Gatorade as long as I could.  Also, I had gels when I could get them down (I hate gels) or honey stinger waffles when I couldn't bear to open the gels.  So far so good, I was eating and drinking well and maintaining my 12 - 13 minute mile pace.  It would begin to slip away on the climbs and I would reel it back in on the descents.

There are not many hills where I live so I had done many long hours hiking uphill on my treadmill's highest grade watching movies late at night to train my body for the uphill hikes.  I thought this might be my downfall since it wasn't really hiking hills. However, throughout the day (the last 20 miles, last 10 in particular were a big exception as you will see) I found I was passing lots of runners on the hills and not getting passed much on the hills.  Jodi's advice rang true in my head all day - walk uphill with a purpose!

The next handler station was Stage Road.  Here I was secretly frustrated as I felt I had been moving good and maintaining a pretty consistent pace.  I was actually worried I was hiking the hills too quickly and it may haunt me later. I remembered asking Jodi how my pace was...too fast?  or too slow?  My memory is clouded of course but I was under the impression he thought I was not going to get it done for the buckle.  This made me make a stupid decision that was going to hurt or pay off later.  I was going to reel back in my time before I saw them again at Camp 10 Bear to ensure I have a shot at the buckle.

The middle of the day was very hot and my crew would have a buff filled with ice to put around my neck. It was a life saver.  It kept my core temperature down.  I would also douse my head with cold water each time I saw them as well as take a bottle full of ice, or ice water, or full of ice with water or 3 quarters ice and no water or 3 quarters ice with water - apparently I was getting specific at points :)  Sorry guys!

Having said that the first thing I did was run out of the handler station and go off course missing the first turn.  Luckily Catherine, the runner Karine was pacing called out to me before I got too far and saved me alot of back tracking.
Thanks Catherine!  All I can remember about this next section of course was that there were 2 of the longest climbs I have ever had to deal with.  They seemed to go on forever and ever.  The two I am referring to were obscene and there were at least a couple more that were awful.  With the elevation gain and loss being almost equal for the course I was wondering when we were gonna start going down.  I do recall alot of nice downhill, some steep prior to getting to 10 Bear.

On the descent into Ten Bear I got a nice surprise.  I seen an adult and kid on the road well before the aid station.  I thought cool someone is going to get a nice surprise when they see their family or friends there.  Then I heard "Blair?"  "Is it Blair?" I thought who knows me out here other than my crew and several other runners from Atlantic Canada - no spectators.  Then I remembered that Greg Jones, another runner who had gotten injured prior to the start of Vermont decided to come to the race and volunteer along with his son Ty.  What a great surprise and awesome burst of wind in the sails!  Thanks Greg and Ty!

This was the first weigh in so I downed the remainder of my bottles and crossed my fingers.  Only down a pound.  Sweet!  I figured the weigh in might be my downfall - good to go.  My crew was all over me and I was all over them.  They were surprised to see me so soon and were super excited which got me super excited.  I quickly realized however that this was only halfway and I had a boat load of work to do.

All went well to the next handler station at Tracer Brook.  I recall some very nasty climbs coming out of this aid station as well. But for some reason I may have mixed up leaving Tracer Brook with Stage Road in my head - not sure why, maybe it was here that had the nasty climbs I mentioned out of Stage Road....hmmm not sure why.

Next stop for the handler stations was Marguaritaville.  Funny, one of my favorite things I read about the course was this aid station.  Corona, Marguaritas, cheeseburgers on a 100 mile course - awesome!  I talked about how I had to have a beer and cheeseburger just to say I did.  I didn't even see the aid station.  I met my handlers on the road beside, they checked in my bib and I continued on.  I remember being particularly spent at this point which probably means those climbs I mentioned earlier were out of Tracer Brook and not Stage Road.  I remember my crew looking at me differently at this station.  I recall them asking how I was doing or feeling.

Next stop was the second trip to 10 Bear where Jodi would join me to run and I was still averaging under 13 minute miles on the day so far.  This meant I was on track for my buckle if I could keep it going.

I remember a ton of downhill to get to 10 Bear the second time and I recall not having peed in a very long time and the last time I had peed it was brown.  This was worrisome as I had to weigh in again.  I started taking in as much fluid as I could descending into Camp 10 Bear.  I was so happy to see Andrea, Jodi and Karine it was ridiculous.  And Jodi was geared and ready to go.  I recall kissing Andrea here. It was always such a boost to see Andrea I can't believe I was going to do this alone in my original plan.  I essentially was running to Andrea each aid station.  Jodi would later use this as well and say '2 miles to Andrea' late in the race between the later stations.

So here we were at 70 miles - this was where I wanted to be.  I believe I left Jodi almost 9 hours to get me to the finish for a buckle. I also knew this wasn't much time as last year it took Mark Campbell who was ahead of me this day and is a much stronger runner with tons and tons of experience in endurance events almost 8.5 hours to do it last year.  We had time but would need all of it.

I left the aid station with loads of energy.  Jodi was like a caged animal let loose.  I have never met or heard of anyone that loves running as much as Jodi.  For him to watch an event of this magnitude that he had run the previous year - to say he was raring to go was an understatement.  Karine was the same waiting for her runner.  They love it!  For me, I think this was a false summit.  I was affraid this might happen.  I had worked so hard to get to my pacer and give us a chance at a buckle it almost felt like the end - but 30 miles to go is a big distance.

I can't recall if I managed to get to the next handler station - The Spirit of 76 without fading hard but I honestly can't recall much of that section.  I do remember seeing Andrea at this aid station and wanting to quit.  Yep.  I wanted to hug her and call it a day.  I have never quit anything in my life and I have never dropped out of a race.  I assumed the easiest thing I would do all day is keep plugging till they pulled me due to weight issues or missing a cutoff.  When I saw Andrea at this aid station I am just about positive I would have packed it in if I had any other pacer in the world. Jodi kept me moving without lingering long enough to contemplate it at all.

I think it was leaving this aid station that I began to feel dizzy, heady, woozy, eyes popping out of my head.  I normally can survive on very little sleep and sometimes next to none.  I believed I would get tired by not sleepy.  This was new territory for me.  I wasn't sure what was going on or what to do.  I recall Jodi telling me how sleepy he got last year but much further along in the dark. It wasn't even dark yet.  I was in trouble.  He told me this year he was bringing caffeine tablets and chocolate covered espresso beans - I had said I probably wouldn't take any.  At this point, I was going to fall over so I thought I had better give in and asked him for one.

We had some downhill so that and the caffeine woke me up.  The daylight was fading now as we hit some trails, I got my cheapo headlamp on.  My vision seemed to be fading but Jodi continued on without one long after I switched on mine.  He is part animal.  He was pointing out rocks and roots that I couldn't see with my headlamp on.

It was a struggle to get to Bills, the next handler station where we got weighed again.  I recall being pretty out of it going in.  I mentioned to Jodi that they will see how messed up my eyes are even if I weigh in good and might pull me.  He assured me I would wake up upon seeing Andrea and the aid station.  Good thing, I almost asked him to slap me as hard as he could across the face to make me look awake - not a word of a lie.

I had been drinking well all day but had not eaten very much in the past 5 plus hours I think.  I must have been drinking alot.  I was still peeing this late in the game - a good sign.  I weighed in good again somehow, still only a pound down.  The weigher gave me a long hard look prior to letting me loose on the buffet I never touched.  I think he even watched me stagger around for a bit.

I remember the look on Andrea's face when she seen 'that look' in my eyes.  I wanted to stay again - but far worse now.  I am not sure what I said to her, but I walked away quickly before I got emotional.  I remember hearing her say "I love you" as I staggered away down the trail in the dark.  I was toast physically and emotionally.  Those were the exact words I needed to hear and when I needed to hear them most.  She saves the day again with one sentence.  I asked Jodi if she had any questions for him - he said no.  I figured she might have asked him if I could still do it.

At this point, there isn't much else I recall as far as aid stations other than wanting to get to Andrea at mile 96 again.  As we passed aid stations, Jodi would ask me what I wanted (ice water) and continue on.  He would fill my bottles and catch up to me.  No risk of my taking a chair or quitting if I didn't go into any.  He is a smart dude.

I think it was at this point where we came upon Mark Campbell who was very ill.  He had been dry heaving for a while (both ends I think) and laying in the grass before we seen him walking along with his pacer.  He badly needed some lube and a new stomach.  I gave him some ice water and we couldn't do much to help so we moved along.

Somewhere along this stretch (I think) a very weird thing happened.  We came upon what we thought was a runner sleeping.  Jodi went over to see if they were alright, clapped his hands and this kid jumped up yelling with a plastic sword.  Another kid emerged from the woods and threw something plastic towards me and ran off the other way.  Jodi went to the woods and took their flash light. As we continued on he threw it in the ditch.  One of the kids snuck back up behind us to ask for his flashlight.  Jodi told him it was in the ditch way back from where he came.  I recall it differently, but I was a mess :)

I said to Jodi now that I wasn't sure if I could climb the hills anymore.  I was so slow going up them.  They hurt my back like you would not believe.  I would bend down to relieve my back only to stand up to an awful headrush of dizziness.  He kept me going.  He told me to not look up at the glowsticks marking the course anymore.  Watch his feet.  Problem was the feet were lulling me to sleep literally.  To look up at the hills killed me.  All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and go to sleep at the foot of the hill.  I no longer cared about a finish or a buckle.  All I wanted was a cot.  I remember thinking I would sleep till we left on Monday.  I was taking caffeine pills almost hourly.  Luckily we had a fair bit of downhill.  The runs would wake me up.

I remember a beautiful meadow at some point that looked cool because we ran about a half mile along and around it with the stars and mountains in the skyline.  I was effed up but still managed to take in some of the beauty of the country side.

Jodi is an amazing person to have kept me moving and awake.  He had humour when I needed humour.  He had optimism when I needed it.  He had stories when I needed them.  He had advice when I needed it.  He was serious when he had to be and used fear when he had to.  He used exactly what I needed when I needed it.  He also would not and did not want me to settle for just enough.  I told him that if we could walk in for 23:59 and knew we could get there I would be willing to do that.  He would have no part of it and I am so glad he did not let me settle.

He got me to Andrea at mile 96 but she wasn't there.  She had gotten lost.  I was worried but not my usual frantic self as I didn't have the energy.  I was just hoping she would make the finish - she has lots of experience supporting my races and usually goes to plan B which is head to the finish if you miss your mark.

I still wasn't sure I would get there with only 4 miles to go.  I thought if I fell I would not get up or would be badly hurt cause I would be too tired to catch myself.  I was going step by step by step.  Running would wake me up - hills were excrutiating and put me to sleep at the same time.  The sight of them made me ill and want to quit.  They are much worse at night since you can see the glowsticks light the entire length if they were straight and the glowsticks were quite high in the trees making them look much higher and longer.

INTERJECTION: People forget how tough being a pacer is because they are not running the whole race.  They need to have the fitness to run a very tough 30 mile course on zero sleep.  And in Jodi's case, crewing all day as well.  Taking care of a runner who is completely spent.  They need to remember to take care of themselves.  He had a copy of the course profile.  He had to calculate mileages on the fly.  He took my orders prior to aid stations so I could keep moving. He would fill my bottles and bring me a bite of food to watch me taste and throw away.  He would have to catch up to me while I had kept moving.  He kept me from spending time in aid stations.  He answered all my dumb how many hills left, how many miles to Andrea?  He kept me moving so well that I can say I believe I ran just about every step of that last 30 miles that was not uphill.  There was only one point that I stopped running on a runnable section and I could hear the concern in his voice as he stopped to come get me and say quietly, come on you have worked and sacrificed too hard for this, you have to keep moving.  With any other pacer I DNF'd without question!  I am glad he has his own buckle cause I considered cutting mine in half - whoops we're not there yet - forget I said that:)

Here we were moving over the last few miles of the course.  I remembered Jodi telling me that last year the finish line was there but not drawing him in.  The same thing was happening to me.  All I wanted was a cot.  At this point, we were looking for the unmanned aid station at 98 miles. I was very frustrated because we thought we should be at it and it just wouldn't appear.  We finally found it and this was it - 2 miles to go.  Another hill.  It was steep and we got off lucky since this year due to a route change we didn't need to go all the way up.

We hit the 1 mile to go sign.  I wasn't even excited.  We came upon the half mile sign on the hill.  I didn't care, I wanted to see the turn off the hill markers.  We finally hit it.  Less than half a mile, we could hear the finish.  I think it was here I took a moment to thank Jodi from the bottom of my heart and assure him, I was done way back with anybody else.

If you recall 10 million words ago, the sound of music hill was my second favourite part of the course.  Well at this point there were 4 liter water bottles filled with water and glowsticks lighting the rest of the course, it was the surreal.  I had read about this and couldn't wait to see it.  It was really, really cool.  As we descended and crossed the finish I forgot to look at the pink neon finish line sign.  I had visualized seeing the finish in the dark under 24 hours for so long and I had forgot to look at it.  I never did see it in the dark - but the volunteer who put the medal around my neck told me I would be getting a nice buckle to go with it later that day :)  I hugged Andrea and Jodi and went to lay down.  I will spare you the aftermath.  It wasn't the most pleasant.

I cannot thank Andrea enough for taking care of me the next 24 hours plus after the race.  I was in bad shape.  She must think we are all insane.  She is still taking care of me as I have a nasty issue in my right shin that bugged me for the last 60 miles. She deserves a medal as well not only for crewing, taking care of me post race, but also for putting up with 7 months of training...thank you!  I am not very capable yet, but was it all worth it....yep.

Hats off to the other runners from Atlantic Canada.  You all did fantastic!  Nat and Bernie - just another day at the office for you guys :)  Tim, well done, hope you had a good experience.  Mark Campbell, there is no way to comprehend your ability to rise from the dead - truly remarkable.  Kevin you deserve an award too for conjuring the dead :)  Steve and Chad, you are two of the toughest dudes I know - I cannot imagine running with that kind of pain as far as you did. I was fortunate enough to have a perfect day, you will have yours too.

A very special thank you as well to Karine whose words of wisdom always stick with me and for crewing and cheering all day when she could have been sleeping waiting to pace for her runner at mile 70.

Thanks as well to my mom and dad for taking care of my beautiful kids Avery and Ellie while I ran.  I would not have been able to run without my mind at ease that they were happy, safe and healthy.

I spoke in length throughout my ramblings already, but without Jodi, there was zero percent chance of my finishing at all.  And I have a buckle, that tells you the great deal of my respect and admiration I have for you.  Can't thank you enough!

I feel very blessed to have made a dream a reality rather than a regret.