Fall foliage aside, September in Vermont is arguably my favorite time of year. For the fifth consecutive year I returned to the small town of Brownsville to adventure on some classic, beautiful New England trails and dirt roads. 50 miles worth of them!
September was a crazy month full of travel and a packed work schedule. With only 5 weeks since the hard effort at the Waldo 100k, it would be a miracle to come to race day in Vermont well rested and relaxed. But with all the joy that this event brings, the starting line felt like home. Seeing old friends and acknowledging old friendly rivalries brought forward a big smile. Last year’s 2nd place finish left me hungry for that elusive victory and a summer of training in Oregon set it all up nicely for a big day. Provided that the humidity stayed at bay.
The morning began as they often do in fall, a slight bite to the air with a mild breeze. The starting area was a buzz with nervous energy but there were only two races I could focus on, my own as well as a professional Hoka/Patagonia runner named Brian Rusiecki. Brian passed me near mile 35 last year and went on to take the win. This was my day for redemption on this seasoned athlete. Unlike last year, I toed the line with confidence knowing that this year I would be the one to beat. Brian and I made eye contact, gave a little head nod and we all headed out towards the trails in the foggy morning.
As the Vermont climbs started, there seemed to be a natural separation in effort between myself, close competitors and the rest of the field. Staying light and smooth through the beginning of the race is always a goal, so I stuck with a Nathan handheld and two Honey Stinger gels that would get me to the mile 13 aid/crew station. An excited first-timer, Kanoa, went with me as we pushed the pace a little, gapping the field and getting out of the aid before the next group rolled in. The goal was to be out of aid stations before Brian rolled into them.
Having only experienced the 50k distance, Kanoa held it under control while I ate some more Gu gels and charged up Galvin’s Hill, the longest climb of the day, to mile 20. The day was forecasted to be hot, and Kanoa is a smart guy. I say this because he ran with an effort that he thought he could maintain all day and executed just that, exactly as an ultra should be run. He was rewarded with an insane 3rd place finish! But onward up the hill! If I could get out of that aid at the top before he got into it, there was no doubt that I’d put a solid gap on him. Playing off a similar race plan as this year’s Waldo, miles 18 to 30 were a hard effort and mama would be waiting there with ice and a Salomon hydration pack.
The Salomon S-Lab Ultra 5 pack has been my go-to since getting it in May. The materials, fit and capacity are unrivaled in the pack game. The ability to stuff 10 or more gels plus over 30oz of water with little to no bounce is just unreal. The thin materials will hold ice down tight against the back and allow it to meld to help keep the body cool, especially on a day that felt already warm and my mom said it was “only 74 degrees.” Humidity is a real drag, since that was only 10am.
Miles 30 to 40 have historically been my low point during races, and at the Vermont 50 it is a series of rolling hills that all look the same. It drags on the mind. Not to mention there were flashes of prior races, remembering exactly where other runners had flown past. The fact that Brian would come up from behind any moment was accepted and I nearly waited for getting to watch his Hoka Cliftons trot off ahead once again. Kanoa was no doubt racing well, but I didn’t fear his abilities like I did Brian’s relentlessness. So I took a few swigs of some PBR at the top of a hill, shrugged and trudged forward as Mother Nature dialed up the heat.
Coming into the mile 40 aid station was a little bit of a surprise. I’m STILL in the lead? How? A little frantic and anxious, my mom and I had a quick exchange. It went a little something like this…
Mom: Hey! What’s going on? You okay? What do you need?
Colton: Water refill to the line. The rest of the Gu’s. I’m okay, little twinges but intact. It’s WARM.
Mom: Yeah, good. It was a 10 minute gap at Greenall’s (mile 30).
Colton: 10 minutes?! Who was it?
Mom: *calmly* You know who it was.
Colton: Yeaahh.. that’s not enough. It’s probably less now. I need to go.
Mom: Okay, you need more ice?
Me: No, I have some in my back—Hey Ma.
Me: You remember that Duke Wasteney thing?
Mom: Uh, yeah.
Me: NOT. TODAY. *almost getting choked up* That’s not happening today.
Mom: Nope! Go get it. See you in 10!
Me: Thanks, ma.
Admittedly, I’m a very emotionally driven runner. Even typing this and rereading our conversation gets my blood pumping and wells up my eyes with excitement. Leaving that aid I was nearly in tears feeling a range of emotions derived from passion and the effort put into each race. Song lyrics get the adrenaline pumping, my own terribly singing probably scaring off the competition from coming anywhere close.
I couldn’t go more than a half-mile without looking over my shoulder the whole way home. Every sound behind me MUST have been Brian inching in, making a late move. A handful of 50k runners pulled me along with their pace as the cramping began to be a bother. One of which was a Beverly local! Shoutout to Nathan Landis for helping make that finish line feel just a little bit closer! Just TRY to run. That’s all that could happen. The final climb up a winding trail called Hayride through Mile Long Field was the most slow-going progress imaginable, as I looked down through the field every switchback. It felt like over 1600 switchbacks, but actually probably only 24 times weaving back and forth. But the finish line was so close that after dipping into the woods, no amount of cramping would rob me of this moment. Until the final downhill.
The final section of the course is fairly exposed and the couple times I looked back allowed me to realize that there was no chaser, no pursuer as expected. I was alone descending the final hill! But the heat and miles put a hurt on my legs. A sudden, sharp cramp painfully locked up my left hamstring, calf, ankle and arch. Having to balance on a downhill on one leg, that caused my right oblique, glute and hamstring to lock in a similarly agonizing cramp. There I stood motionless and nearly lost balance 100 yards from the finish line in such pain that caused me to wail out. A hush fell over the crowd. Even the announcer paused and called for the medical staff. The ATV with medics charged the hill towards me and my buddy Jeff, standing 15 feet away, hollers “Dude, just roll! Just roll!” His brother shrugs as if to say “Well, that could work.” All I could think was, “Nobody touch me! I need to get to the finish line on my own power. Nobody come near me!” While frantically trying to move, I keep peeking back up the hill just waiting for Brian to come bombing down and steal this from me. A woman leans over the fence to get my attention and shouts, “You have a 10 minute lead! Relax! Take your time!” A WHAT?! Everything relaxed as the words from Brian’s wife Amy, as it turns out, echoed between my ears.
Suddenly there was nearly no stress on the locked muscles and the tension began to melt away. At best it would be called a trot, but I hobbled into the finish line overcome with emotion and blown away. First place at the Vermont 50. Even after a trip to the medical tent and nearly passing out on the massage table, this year still seems too good to be true. Yet here we are with a result that was 5 years in the making. Oh, Vermont 50, you wonderful beast. Perhaps we will meet again on September 30th, 2018.