Most nights before a big race, I can’t sleep a wink. Somehow I was able to put the daunting task of running 50 miles out of my mind long enough to let my body relax against the soft, cozy sheets and drift to sleep. 4:30am came early, but it seemed that something inside knew it was time to wake up before the alarm did. The morning routine has been ingrained at this point, and thanks to my nervous nature, everything was laid out the night before.
After failing to take in more than a bite of toast, I braved the chilly Vermont morning air and hop in the car to head to Mt. Ascutney where a battle awaits. We (myself, my mom and Judd, my soon-to-be pacer) milled around and chatted with few friends. As the starting time approached, I shed layers and stretched out. With nothing more than a Justin’s almond butter packet and a Honey Stinger gel in my North Face shorts pocket, I toed the line just behind the front-runners. The nerves I’d been able to put aside the night before began making their way into my head and a smile crept across my face. Finally I was here.
As we head out of the mountain and a front runner emerges, I think about all the training that went into the day and how I wouldn’t sacrifice it all for a chance to lead the race. Patience would be my friend on this very long day. I settled into a big group leading the train of runners headed through a series of dirt road hills, foggy fields, and single-track trails with damp trees overhanging the path.
Before long, six of us emerged from the masses and we chatted comfortably, appreciating the opportunity to share this wonderful experience. As the miles disappeared behind us, I tried not to get caught up in running someone else’s race and even stopped for a few minutes at an aid station to change my shoes and gather my gear for the day. The Salomon X-Series (soon to be the Salomon Sonic) shoes handled the roads wonderfully but I needed the New Balance 910v2s (write-up HERE) to tackle some of the trickier terrain I’d face later on.
A few moments later I was hooting and hollering down the trail and out of sight. It would be 18 miles before I’d meet with Judd and my mom again to restock supplies. In the meanwhile, I had to just enjoy the day. It was a couple miles of dirt roads before I caught up with Jeff, a longhaired, environmental science student from Pennsylvania wearing some well-worn Altra Lone Peak 2.0s. We fed off each other’s positive vibes until catching back up to the pack. The group continued to smile and enjoy a beautiful day as we ventured onto some technical sections.
“This is AWESOME,” Jeff proclaimed, “I don’t get to run with other people much.” It was still early morning so the fog had just starting to rise. The crisp air still filled our lungs and all we heard was the crunching of leaves beneath our shoes.
We approached an aid station at mile 17.5 as a group of six and all stopped to take our time refilling bottles. One of the volunteers exclaimed “Hey! You’re the first runners!” We were all a little stunned because we had seen one individual go hard from the start and disappear into the distance. On the following climb I had to make sure to not get too excited. As 3 guys pulled away from the group, the rest of us let them go. Not yet halfway, I need to be patient a bit longer. It seemed this was a mutual feeling.
In a long race there are points in which you’ll feel like everything was a mistake. The next set of miles passed very slowly. Around mile 22 I first had the forceful urge to start walking. My quads had hurt and I wasn’t interested in any of the food at the aid table. The mental darkness was overwhelming and panic set in. The persistent calf cramping through mile 24 threatened my campaign. Especially after a Superman dive on the trail, the body felt pretty beat up. Only a couple things kept me going out there: words of encouragement while trading spots with my new buddy Jeff and the taste of delicious Mountain Dew. It was a challenging couple of miles, but slowly I found myself crawling back to life with the help from some Gu Roctane electrolyte tablets and Honey Stinger vanilla gels.
It took a surprising amount of strength to get back to running, but the thought of seeing my crew in a few miles was enticing. They were nearly as excited to see me as I was to see them! Judd was waiting with my bag of goodies in hand. I had anticipated changing some of my gear but didn’t want to waste the time. I reapplied Body Glide, slammed some soda, stashed a couple more Gu gels in my pack, and was off. In and out like a racecar pit crew. I barreled back onto the trails with all the excitement and positive vibes in the world.
I trudged onward, mostly alone, and tried to maintain a run as best I could. The miles slowly ticked off as the sun began to play a factor, along with the large number hills. I tried to forget the pain and mental struggle as a couple runners made their way past me. Patience was the virtue that got me through the middle section of the day. The further along the course I get, the more the memory of it comes back. I popped out onto a familiar road and looked down beyond a shaded section to a gathering of people a quarter mile away. The Mile 40 aid station! This must be it! Sure enough, Judd was halfway down the road waiting for me, jumping with excitement. He ran ahead to refill my Salomon bottles and I caught up shortly after to grab some more soda and to pet our friend’s puppy. Both were necessary morale boosters.
As we set off through the next field, Judd now by my side, he couldn’t get me to stop talking. I told him about how I was feeling, silly stories from the race and how much I missed running with him. He realized pretty quickly that the New Balance Vazee Pace (write-up HERE) shoes he’d chosen were wonderful for the road running he was used to, but were not the best technical trail shoe. It all balanced out though because I was hurting pretty bad.
The trouble with knowing every inch of the rest of the course is that you know how long it will take to get there. Mile 47 seemed to take forever to arrive. Once it finally did, we got to see our friends once more before the final push. “Just 3 more miles. Come on!!” I shouted between cups of Mountain Dew. Judd seemed caught off guard, but not worried. He’s heard me say crazier things. By this point, my burnt legs force us to do walk-run intervals leaving the aid.
Knowing that the final 2 miles are on smooth trail, and mostly downhill, I test my legs and try to lengthen my stride. Though my quads have been in a lot of pain all day, they don’t seem too bothered at the moment. With 1.5 miles to go and a short downhill ahead, I turn on the jets that were apparently hiding underneath my shoes the whole time and take off down the trail. There was nothing to lose from here on out. With all the strength I possessed, the numb legs beneath me carried my body into a sprint through the mile down a winding trail, into a roped-off chute and under the finishing arch. On the other side of the finish line I promptly hobbled to a stop, clutched my knees and looked down at my watch in sheer joy.
I was exhausted, dirty and beat up, but not broken. The long hours of preparation and training all paid off when it came time. I couldn’t be happier with my performance at this wonderful event. Each year the race directors and volunteers do an incredible job, which is the reason I have and will continue to go back to the Vermont 50 each year. It’s a great course for your first 50k, 50 miler, or to be part of a relay. There is no place quite like Vermont.