All things with purpose

I’m thrilled to say that I finished Vermont 100 in 105th place overall (14th woman) in a time of 23:15:15! The experience has left me simultaneously amped up and exhausted, unable to find words but unable to stop talking.  It was such a wild ride.

The Friday before VT100 my teammates and I headed up to Silver Hill Farm in Windsor, VT to set up camp.  SIX03 had eleven 100milers, three 100kers, and a huge group of crew members and volunteers with us.  We set up our own little tent city in the field and spend the drizzly, cold day eating and chatting nervously about the race the next morning. Around 11:30am I checked in to the race and received my bib (142) and did a pre-race medical check and weigh in.  At 4:30pm we had the pre-race meeting where we learned about the course, medical concerns that would get us pulled off the course, and the new athletes with disabilities (AWD) racing division. The whole time I was remembering the year before’s race when I was crewing and still couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I’d be running 100miles less than 12 hrs later. After dinner I had a short meeting with my crew to familiarize them with what I wanted on the course and to ask final questions and by 8:30pm I was in my tent trying to sleep, but I couldn’t. I was looking at my watch at 11:45pm and terrified that I wasn’t going to sleep at all. I think I probably fell asleep a bit after midnight and woke up at 3:15am for our 4am start.

 

Race morning still seems like a blur.  I remember getting to the start and giving some of my SIX03 friends a hug at the start line and then the race went off pretty unceremoniously. There was a countdown but there was so much chatter around me that I didn’t really hear it and before I knew it we were shuffling down the road.  The first couple miles of the race are on some trails that were pretty wet and muddy.  It’s dark and crowded and this year the humidity was making things feel jungle-like. I was very overwhelmed by the race until the sun came up. I felt hot, sweaty, disoriented, and a bit nauseous for the first couple miles.  Luckily I came up to my friend Charlie pretty quickly and we ran together off and on until the sun came up. Shortly after that, we caught up to Tom and the three of us ran together until the first or second aid station. At that point, we saw Alex coming out of a port-o-potty and caught up to him pretty much right after that.  From about miles 11-14 we all ran together taking short walk breaks along the way, but the majority of those miles were a long steady downhill until we reached the lowest point on the course, the Taftsville covered bridge.  After this, the course rises for the next 5-6miles up dirt roads. Alex took off after saying he had a pretty aggressive time goal and the rest of us did most of the climbing together for the next couple miles.  I waited up for Tom and Charlie at some of the mid-course aid stations since I was still very ahead of schedule for the race pace I was aiming for and we all arrived to Pretty House (mile 21, our first crewed aid station) together just after 8am.  I had planned on being there at 8:41am given the pacing charts projected times, but the race just doesn’t lend itself to that slow of a pace with the long downhills and relatively road-heavy mileage leading up to the first aid station.  My crew hadn’t gotten to Pretty House when I arrived. I went to the bathroom and ended up grabbing some food from Tom’s crew and was about to head out when I saw them. I was able to quickly grab sunscreen and some of my own food and left with Tom.  Charlie caught up to us shortly afterward.

Tom, Charlie, and I ran together for another 3-4 miles downhill, then the course starts to take some sharp uphills from 25-28. I started to realize that uphill hiking/speedwalking was going to be my strength on the course so I pulled away at this point.  I chatted with a few runners as we headed up the hills. One guy I had seen pass out the year before at mile 47. He looked strong this year and I hope he finished – I never caught his name. I ran into an “ultra friend”, Dane, just before the climb to the highest point in the course at U-Turn aid station. Last year he broke 24hrs for the first time and I took care of him a bit when he finished since he had locked his keys in the car. I’ve seen him at just about every other ultra I’ve been in since! I felt strong as I climbed up the Sound of Music hills to the high point of the course around mile 28-29.

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Ben Kimball Photograpy (Sound of Music)

After hitting Sound of Music you descend pretty sharply down into the 2nd crewed aid station, Stage Road.  I arrived and met my crew and quickly switched out my trash for new food and ate a bit of veggie sushi because we had been running for close to 6hours at this point. I put on sunscreen, bug spray, some glide, and had a bladder for my pack filled with ice and put against my back and headed out again. As I was heading out I saw Tom and Charlie arrive to the station. I wished them well, but after that I didn’t see them again on the course.  From Stage Road until the next crewed station is 17 miles. It’s a long time to be without crew during the heat of the day. There was a lot of downhill throughout this section and some open paved roads. It was hot but I was staying hydrated and fueled and keeping as relaxed as possible. At mile 40 you hit the second lowest point on the course, Lincoln Covered Bridge.  It was just before the bridge and its aid station that I caught up to my friend Jess who was wearing antenna and a grass skirt – she always races in costume. We stopped and had popsicles – they were amazing! – and then continued on our way up another long road uphill.  I started to pull away from Jess at this point because of my strong uphill speed walk.  It was strange to hear her say “In case I don’t see you for the rest of the race, good luck!”, but that’s how these things go. When you break away from some people you don’t see them again on course, while there are others who you can never seem to get away from on the course.  I didn’t end up seeing Jess again on the course.

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Coming into Pretty House (Photo Credit: Camie Poplawski)

The course has a few ups and downs after the large climb at mile 40 and then hits a steep downhill into Camp 10 Bear at mile 47. Coming into that aid station I had flashbacks to crewing Alex last year.  Again it was hot, but I had my crew fill my bladder with ice and I took a few more bites of veggie sushi.  Mostly at that station I was hoping to just keep going.  I was 3 miles off my distance PR and still feeling fresh.  I asked where my teammates were around me and got a sense that we were all spaced out about 20-40mins apart which was pretty exciting that late in the race. Here I changed from my Topo MT-2s to my Topo UltraFlys – my feet were killing me.

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Arriving at Camp 10 Bear (mile 47) – Photo Credit Kevin Sheedy

Things get real after Camp 10 Bear the first time.  The climbs between there and the next aid station four miles away, Pinky’s, were absolutely brutal.  They were mostly steep, rocky trails.  They weren’t that technical, but there was very little “easy” terrain through that section and my pace slowed considerably. I remember thinking to myself that this is where the race all of a sudden got real.  I hit my distance PR at this point, but I still had hours until I reached the point where I was going to have been on my feet for the longest time ever.  At Birmingham’s (mile 55 or so), people started to drop like flies. I saw a lot of vomit on the roads and trails. People started to look rough at aid stations and were starting to sit and hang out much more frequently. I was still feeling good, but I knew that at this point there were very few guarantees on how long that was going to last.

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Leaving Camp 10 Bear the first time (Photo Chris Clapp)

A steep downhill runs from 56-57, and then you climb one of the biggest and steepest climbs into Margaritaville at mile 59.  At this point it was very hot, and I was starting to see why this aid station sees some of the highest dropout rates.  At this point many first time racers have hit distance PRs, it’s in the heat of the day, and the miles between these crewed aid stations are some of the toughest there are on the course. If you haven’t been smart up to this point, it’s a recipe for disaster.  Luckily I arrived to Margaritaville feeling pretty good. I didn’t dwell on any negatives and tried to make sure I was ready for the next push toward when we’d return to Camp 10 Bear and pick up our pacers.  My crew gave me some broth, I put on a shirt, got more ice, and grabbed some watermelon. I was starting to not like the foods I had brought with me at this point in the race, but I forced myself to eat some things and take lots of Spring Energy gels with me.

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Broth at Margaritaville (Photo credit Camie Poplawski)

The miles start to feel long after Margaritaville. The 3-4 miles between aid stations start to seem like they’ll never pass. I looked down at my watch and I’d see only a mile had passed since the last time I looked and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t gotten further. These miles aren’t particularly hard – I honestly don’t really remember them that well at all – but the race definitely started to take its toll here. I had remembered that last year Alex was doing well and on a fairly quick pace at Margaritaville and things went south stomach-wise for him between there and Camp 10 Bear the second time.  I also knew that Tom had dropped out at Margaritaville in 2016 after having a bad reaction to some medication he took for a bee sting.  It was also in these miles from Margaritaville to Camp 10 Bear the second time that Jess had stopped being able to really run and had to hike it in the year before.  These were the thoughts going through my mind. My goal was to try to save my feet, legs, and stomach by relaxing as much as I could and surviving these miles.  I think these negative thoughts and memories played a part in what was to come.

There is a steep downhill leading to Camp 10 Bear the second time that then has a bit of a rise right before heading into the aid station. Somewhere along the course – I think near Pinky’s/Birmingham’s – I ended up with the nickname “walk with a purpose.”  It’s something my dad always said to me growing up.  I have a very fast uphill speed walk and everyone noticed it who I was racing with.  I told them I wasn’t running much anymore, so I just had to “walk with a purpose” so I could get to the finish line. As I took the last climb up to Camp 10 Bear, I started to recognize the roads since I had warmed up on them the year before when I was waiting to pick up Alex for my pacing duties. On this uphill I started to mentally repeated, and sometimes repeated out loud, “walk with a purpose” and used it as a mantra throughout the rest of the race.  I came into Camp 10 Bear again while it was still light out and having hit a couple huge milestones: I  was nearing my longest run time-wise, I reached my pacers, and I “only” had a 50k left.

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Camp 10 Bear 2nd time (69.4 miles) – Photo Credit Shana Jackson

I picked up my first pacer, Bethany, and we went off across the road into the most technical climb of the course. I asked my pacers to run directly behind me so I didn’t get pulled into too fast of a pace.  The course takes a two mile steep uphill from Camp 10 Bear and this year it was very rocky since it had washed out quite a bit from the huge amounts of rain VT had seen earlier in the summer.  I climbed well, but when I hit the top, I was in a horrible mood. The fields and houses at the top are gorgeous – I remembered how beautiful they were from last year and they didn’t disappoint this year either, but I could not really appreciate them.  I was tired. I couldn’t have conversation with Bethany. I had switched back into the shoes I started the race in, but my feet were killing me.  We got back on to some trails to head down a hill to an aid station at 74 miles and I had a full blown temper tantrum. I screamed that my feet hurt. I started repeating over and over again as I sobbed uncontrollably, “These things will pass. These things will pass” and then took off running as hard as I could for about 400m as I heaved and sobbed.  I felt like a toddler having a temper tantrum. Once we got past that section, I started to come around again. I had broth and I could run a bit more of the course.

I had never hit a truly dark moment in a race before, and I think a lot of things came together to make that the place where it was going to happen. I knew that section of the course since I had paced it the year before. I knew I was there almost an hour earlier than Alex had been the year before, so sub-24 was mine to lose. I all of a sudden was acutely aware of how tired and ruined I felt because I was with someone who was so fresh. I also had built up getting to my pacers as this huge milestone in the race (and it definitely was), but it was really hard to have that moment of excitement immediately switch to thinking about how to channel things and hold it together for another 50k.  I have gotten sort of cavalier about distances under 50 miles over this past year – I was at the point where I barely considered 50ks ultras – and I got a nice awakening that 30miles is no joke and I should stop treating it like one, especially after having run 70 miles before it.  So yeah, I hit the dark place. I never considered quitting, but I was really, really angry that my body was starting to fail me.

The sun went down as we went through some pretty trails and a nice uphill to hit Spirit of 76 where I picked up my next pacer, Frank.  I changed into my Altra Paradigms since they were so cushioned and my feet had been killing me. The pace was still good – not quite 22.5hr pace, but not yet at 23hr pace.  Frank and I ran our next 11.5 miles together and I was completely loopy throughout this section. It runs along a lot of the VT50 course, but I didn’t know that at the time.  It was pitch black and I kept on asking Frank if my posture looked ok because I was worried about getting “the leans” – a sign that things are going very south in a race. I also kept on having him do math for me so I could see if sub-23 was still a possibility.  Late into this leg of the race I started to see things.  A runner with some reflective material on his clothing turned into a moonwalking yeti that I was a little scared to catch up to. Another runner’s blinking red light on the back of her headlamp was making me incredibly anxious.  I didn’t wear my prosthetic corneas, so every blink was taking up my whole visual field and I started to get very upset that it seemed like a fireworks display was on the course.  Frank and another runner assured me that everyone on the course was friendly and that I should just keep moving. Walk with a purpose…walk with a purpose…

Coming up to Bill’s (mile 88) there is a long slightly downhill section that can get runners moving again. My friend Tony had warned me about this section from last year since he ran a sub 10min/mi here and kind of blew up at Bill’s.  I told this to Frank as I was running that section and made sure to take some walking breaks along the way, but there was a good stretch where I was running quite quickly and I was getting very excited to be so close to picking up my final pacer – another milestone I had gotten into my mind as I was planning out my race.

At Bill’s I sat down for one last shoe change. I knew there would be some trails at the end of the race, so I got back into my MT-2s.  At Bill’s the exhaustion and confusion from running in the dark so long had gotten to me.  I was a bit of a zombie at the aid station and needed people to do a lot for me – up until that point I had been able to do a lot of things for myself at the crew stops if I had to. At Bill’s I was basically barking orders. I felt bad about it, but I knew that everyone understood.  I picked up Chris, my final pacer, and went off into the night.

A lot of the miles between Bill’s and the finish are on trails and fields. Chris stayed just behind me shining his headlamp up so I could see what was in front of me.  We chatted a bit about the terrain we were coming up to since he had paced a runner through there last year.   Chris pointed out the beautiful bright orange half moon over some fields and it felt like I had another friend along the way with me. Chris kept pointing it out when I was getting a bit negative and it would immediately turn my attention to the beauty of the place and what I was doing.  I didn’t do much running throughout this section, but any time I did Chris would give me a good “yeah!” or “awesome!” and I ran a few steps further. It was some slow going, though.   About 3/4 of a mile from Polly’s (mile 94.9) I knew I was in the home stretch. SIX03 was volunteering at that aid station and I had thought for months that if I could get there that I was going to finish the race. I started running really fast up the road to Polly’s right along three beautiful horses.  The riders were telling me that they hadn’t seen anyone really run in that long and it inspired me to keep running faster until I got there.  I was crying and telling them my team was there and that I was going to finish. I’m sure I sounded absolutely crazy.

After Polly’s there are two miles on road which I ran as best as I could and got in “good miles” (anything sub-15min miles at that point was a good mile) and reminded myself over and over again “This is A race. This is A race.”  Reminding myself of that fact helped me to run a couple extra steps on each stretch I was running.  The last two miles are on trails and the first of those miles was SLOPPY. There was ankle grabbing mud and loose rocks in the trail. Chris slipped a few times because he was shining his light for me and leaving his footing in the dark. I appreciate that more and more when I think back on it now.

The last mile was an uphill climb on trails and then it plunges down some windy downhills to the finish.  I got a final wind and started trucking up the uphill. “This is A race. This is A race.” About a half mile out, I started to really run. I was going sub-10minute miles through the woods and passed probably three groups of runners right through that section. I came up behind three horses in the final 300m or so and tripped a bit and my light flashed strangely into the woods. It spooked the back horse and that in turn spooked the others. They were side stepping and bucking a bit on a very narrow trail. I just stood there staring at them unsure of what to do.  I asked the riders if I could go around them and they said to keep moving. In the last 100m there are luminaries with glow sticks in them lining the trail and you can start to hear the cheering. This is where I lost it and started sobbing uncontrollably from joy. I ran as fast as I could – probably a little reckless at that point – as I rounded the turn to the finish line.  I finished and my crew was there, my friend Alex who had finished an hour ahead of me, and my friends Scott Holly, and Liz were there after pacing other friends in the 100k.  I shook the race director, Amy’s, hand and then gave everyone there a huge hug.  My official time was 23:15:15 – fast enough for a sub-24 buckle which was a huge goal of mine throughout the training cycle.

It was surreal and I’m still trying to process it. I trained hard and smart but I knew that it might not be enough.  I ran Wapack to simulate the pain I’d be in for the hundred and it did a very good job with that, but I still had to run 10 more hours feeling that way. Nothing was a guarantee, but I was lucky enough to have my first 100 be exactly the experience I had hoped for.

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The week before the race, I read John Kelly’s blog about “failing with purpose” and my mantra throughout the course was “walk with purpose”.  I guess this experience has taught me to approach all things with purpose. I rested with purpose throughout the training cycle and luckily never got injured or sick.  I raced with purpose throughout the training cycle which often meant holding back and putting in a good, but not true race effort even when it would have been easy to get caught up in race day excitement.  I planned with purpose – I had pace charts and time goals and contingency plans for if things went wrong.  Was my race perfect? Was my training perfect? Was I fully prepared for what I was going to do? Absolutely not. But, I did it with purpose and drive and I’m so happy to see how it all turned out and what I can do in the future to improve.

Vermont 100 2018, I’m coming for you!  But first, some more resting – with purpose!

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