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Vermont 50 Ultra Run

Recap of Vermont 50 Ultra Run (50.5 M), Brownsville, VT, September 25, 2011

Chris Jaworski … 11:28:32

I’ve skied only twice and never in the Olympics, but there I was, slaloming down Mount Ascutney, with spectators’ cheers in my ears. The cheers were for runners nearing the finish line, below, but were thrilling higher up, too!

I’d dreamt of Vermont since 2008, the year of my first and only other race of such distance, the John F. Kennedy 50-Mile Memorial in Maryland. To run in September in Vermont, perhaps the quintessential autumn state, was a big draw. I’d read about the beauty of the trails, the backroads, the countryside. There was also the challenge of 50 hilly miles. This unique event, now 19 years running, has a solid reputation as well.

Twice I’d skipped Vermont for a different kind of September fun—teaming up with Essex Running Club friends to take on New Hampshire’s Reach the Beach Relay. Early this year, though, I decided I’d finally follow the call of the Green Mountain State.

Training had been so-so, but between mid-July and mid-August I’d managed three runs averaging slightly over 6 hours each—the Great Cranberry Island 50K, the Escarpment 30K, and the Mahlon Mayhem 50K. All good tests of time on feet. The weekend before the race, I did 15 trail miles on Saturday plus 7 road miles on Sunday. The next six days I rested, and it was good.

My misgivings about attempting 50 miles were tempered by knowing I’d completed JFK, by thinking after Mahlon, I knocked those 31 miles out just now … another 20 can’t be that bad, and by telling myself there was no way I’d drive to Vermont and back without getting a finisher’s medal! Still, I’d be covering 50 miles on a course said to be harder than JFK’s. Would my legs be hurting even more on Vermont’s unrelenting hills (total vertical, 8900 feet)? Would I be able to avoid the blurred vision I’d developed during my first shot at the distance?

In late August, Hurricane Irene tore into Vermont and damaged roads connecting to the Brownsville area. Luckily, they were reopened within the short four weeks left before race day. Parts of the course were damaged, too. Volunteers quickly got busy repairing or clearing some of these and routing around the others. Thanks to all their hard work, the race would go on! That was good news not only for those participating in the event but also for local businesses trying to get by after the storm.

Each year, proceeds from VT50 go to Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, an organization that provides sports and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. Runners, and mountain bikers (more on them later), can also raise funds for the cause through a personal VASS Web page generated by Active.com, the company that handles registration for the event.

In the months before this weekend, racers and leaf peepers had picked over the hotel and motel reservations in the area. When I checked, the only places with vacancies were expensive, too far from the race site, or, according to some reviews, dirty and buggy. I’d rather get my bugs outside, so I asked the race director for one of the tent spots he’d offered. Besides being free, they were only a short walk from where all the action would be—packet pickup and expo, prerace spaghetti dinner, start, finish, and postrace barbecue and showers.

Saturday afternoon, I drove to Brownsville (4 hours 40 minutes). Within moments of pulling into the parking area at the base of Ascutney, I ran into friends from New York City and Connecticut. Nice surprise! Then I picked up my bib and shirt and talked with another NYC friend, Yuen Chen. Yuen was volunteering for the weekend. After asking her a bunch of questions about the race, I put together a drop bag containing gels, bloks, and socks and added it to the pile for the mile 30 aid station (there were piles for two other aid stations). Next, I went to the Ascutney resort hotel, where I ate dinner and had fun talking with other runners. Finally, I pitched my tent next to my car, set two alarms for 4:30, and settled in for the night. As I lay waiting for sleep, I heard a drop of water hit the tent, then another, and another. No, not rain … condensation. Oh, boy, race day was going to be humid!

The alarms were unnecessary. Cars and trucks began arriving at 4:10, and there was no going back to sleep. I dressed, got my gear together, ate half a banana and half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and checked in before perking up for the 5:15 briefing.

Approximately 830 mountain bikers and 320 solo runners began the 50-mile race. Thirteen relay teams (36 runners, 2 or 3 per team) were competing, too. The bikers had a staggered start, with a group heading out every 5 minutes, from about 6:00 to 6:30. The runners started at 6:35, or 7 minutes before sunrise. At 7:30, another 200 solo runners began the 50K. All races had a 12-hour limit (50-mile runners had to reach the final aid station within that time). Sunset was at 6:40 pm.

It was time to head over to the start. There I spotted my friends again: Emmy Stocker (we’d first met mid-JFK), Cherie Yanek, and Tony Portero. These VT50 veterans were planning to stick together and run a conservative pace, not race. Emmy was recovering from a marathon the week before and Cherie from a hundred-miler the week before that, and Tony wasn’t trained to race a fifty. So, a very long “fun run” with people who know the course? Immediately I fell in with them … and I’m glad I did.

The rerouting tacked half a mile on to our course. We’d be winding our way through four towns, on trails and dirt roads (67%), gravel roads (30%), and pavement (3%). The trails, almost all of which are part of the Green Mountain Horse Association trail network, are open to race participants only for VT50 (and VT100 in July) and only with the landowners’ permission, which race officials must obtain each year. Respecting the owners’ privacy, the officials implore runners and bikers to stay off these trails before and after race day, they discourage them from posting GPS data on the Internet, and they do not distribute maps. For the race, though, they mark the course so well that even a sonically challenged, blindfolded bat can follow it.

Folks were to follow the signs printed with a red arrow and VT 50 MILE, or the signs with a blue arrow and VT 50 KM (the courses had 26 miles in common). They’d also have to pay attention to W signs, indicating “wrong way” (go the other way!), and X signs, “be careful” (here comes a particularly hazardous hole, ditch, drop-off, or obstruction, or a street motorists may be using).

Eleven aid stations were set up along the 50-mile course, with in-between distances ranging from 4 to 5 miles and the longest being 7 or so. At these stations, volunteers would offer us a slew of items and help fill our bottles and hydration packs. The tables had been stocked with water, Heed sports drink, electrolyte capsules, fruit slices (orange, banana, watermelon), quartered boiled potatoes, halved sandwiches (turkey, cheese, PB&J), salty snacks, sweets, and soda (cola and Mountain Dew for caffeine, ginger ale for upset stomachs), plus some basic first-aid supplies. Runners who wanted gels, we’d been told before the race, would have to provide and carry their own; drop bags could be used for replenishing.

I’d never run so far with another person, let alone a group. Emmy, Cherie, and Tony were great company. I really enjoyed our time together. We swapped stories and joked around, kept one another from dawdling at aid stations, pointed out hazards as well as wonderful sights, checked on one another, shared info and tips, kicked mud (take that, Cherie!), helped another get up from a fall (thanks, Emmy!), and took photos of our merry band, and others, and the scenery. We got to know one another better. At the mile 30 aid station, we rendezvoused with Iliana Dimitrova, another New York City friend, and then we were five. If there is a better way to run, walk, tiptoe, hop, drop, and slip-and-slide 50 miles, I want to know what it is.

The temperature, in the mid-60s at the start, topped 80 around 4 pm. I was comfortable under all the tree shade and clouds. What was bothersome was the humidity, which at its high of 93% thickened the air and made breathing difficult.

The 50-mile course is hilly from start to finish, but very soon after setting out Tony told me the more challenging hills come in the first half. So, it’s better to power-walk the uphills and watch the speed on the downs and flats early on, rather than use up one’s energy and then struggle the rest of the way. Sound advice there. Even at our conservative pace, though, I began fading around 20 miles, perhaps after dealing with 1812-foot Garvin Hill, the highest point in the town of Hartland. It was also there I slipped-fell-slid on a mud-slick downhill, and my right leg acquired a quick-drying coat of mud that would last all the way to the finish.

Rains over the days before the race had left parts of the trail system quite mudtacular. Where deep mud (and water) took up the width of the trail, some runners went straight through, but most tried to avoid it by hiking up and along either side, through underbrush where necessary. Getting muddy and wet, though, was inevitable. By day’s end, my feet would be downright creepy-looking—ghostly white, prune-like, blistered, and swollen.

The upside of those rains is that many parts of the trail were not muddy, just softened up a bit, good for running and easy on the feet.

I didn’t hurt myself in that fall. Still, it seemed to put a period at the end of those 20 miles. I felt as though someone had let my air out. Watching the others begin to pull ahead, I let them go; I didn’t want to slow them down. As soon they were out of sight, however, I began regretting my decision. I didn’t relish the idea of trying to finish on my own, and I wondered whether I could finish or would have to drop. Despite this negative thinking, I kept moving. And I kept looking ahead. My running buddies were nowhere to be seen, even on long straightaways.

I did have company in other runners. In mountain bikers, too, mostly on roads and trails too steep to ride up. Where trails had been gouged by Irene, some of what remained seemed tilted at crazy angles. To push a bike uphill here looked like such hard work, I was thankful I didn’t have a set of wheels of my own. After the race, bikers told me they hadn’t envied us runners, either. The dirt is always muddier on the other side, I suppose!

At the next aid station, something in me zeroed in on Mountain Dew and then … ooooo … hot noodle soup! The caffeine, salty nourishment, and belly warmth began reviving me. I managed 3 more slow miles, 14, 17, and 16 minutes per, before feeling the gentle tug of gravity. And then, ah, I was finally where I wanted to be, running downhill on single-track trail. Heaven! Some of it was steep—other runners were minding their footing—but as I was picking up speed I felt more and more of my energy coming back. An 11-minute mile, and I was a new person.

Nearing mile 28 and the aid station there, I glanced up—and was shocked to see my friends, only 50 yards ahead! I called out, and stepped up the pace until I was side by side with them again.

Apart from a few short slowdowns, I felt good, strong even, the rest of the way. My GPS ran out of power after about 8 hours and 34 miles. Average pace over that distance was 14:24, versus 13:46 over the entire 50.5 miles.

The scenery along the course was sublime. I was always looking forward to what might be around the bend: a valley, a field, a farmhouse, horses in pasture, foliage just starting to turn color, a stone wall framing a vista, a tiny waterfall …

The diversity of terrain kept things interesting as well, and offered legs and lungs the relief that comes with constant change-ups. Tired of this paved or gravel road? Hang tight. We’d be popping back into the woods in a mile. Too much uphill on a single-track trail? Soon we’d move to a wide jeep road and head downward, or begin meandering on all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile trails through grassy fields.

The trails were mostly well maintained, not very rocky or rooty, and, save for the ups, gloriously runnable—a welcome relief from the ankle-biters here in New Jersey, the Stone Garden State.

At the mile 40 aid station, someone recognized my tie-dyed Mahlon Mayhem shirt and called out. It was Jules Moore—a trail/ultra runner I know from back home—moonlighting as a mountain biker! We chatted before I dashed off to keep with the group.

After a bit, I got into a running groove and, with Ascutney beckoning, ached to pick up the pace. Twice I went ahead of the others, and then stopped to take photos, first of the landscape and then of the group as it arrived. With about 5 miles remaining, and the terrain the kind I love, I no longer wanted to contain myself. Tony said go for it, and I was off again. Onward through the woods, and then out under open sky.

Earlier, with many miles completed and fatigue setting in, I had wanted just to be done. Now, arcing across a field bathed in the light of late afternoon, gazing at the soft blue peak looming ahead, aware of the stillness in the air and the near perfect silence and the grass against my skin, I wanted to run and run yet make this moment last forever.

Was there really a need to finish?

My reverie probably popped with the transition to pavement. I got my asphalt legs back on the first street out, turned left, then opened it up on a downhill before a sharp right onto a two-lane. There I stayed right, as asked, and ran the shoulder, passing directly in front of spectators and lapping up their words of encouragement. After another left, I climbed a short road to the final aid station, at mile 47.

I made the cutoff with plenty of time to spare and was home free. I could walk it in if I wanted. What remained were cross-country ski trails winding 2 miles up and then 1 mile down Mount Ascutney. I had to hike at the start but then got running and passing, and letting up only to catch my breath. While I was walking another steep section, a volunteer appeared, and helpfully told me what lay ahead … this one last climb … 1200 yards … rollers. Okay, thanks!

Once I hit the ski slope, the finish line became tantalizing. It was in and out of sight but always within hearing range, and to get to it I had to descend several lazy switchbacks. Back and forth I went. Finally, after rounding one last turn, I locked in to the longest chute I’d ever seen, curving down a grassy hill. It was instantly obvious that one should run as fast as possible here, despite the clear risk of wiping out. And with my arms at my sides, raised and tilting this way and that for balance, I careered down, then at last aimed for the area under the FINISH banner.

Running down a ski slope is an absurdly great thing to do.

Minutes later, I watched Tony and Cherie coming through the chute, racing each other and laughing, and then Emmy finishing too, hot on their heels. Then, big smiles and congratulations all around. It had been a full, fun day in the Vermont countryside with a great group of people!

Vermont took me 56 minutes longer than JFK (10:32:02) but seemed much less an ordeal. Maybe that’s because of the slower pace overall (13:46 vs 12:36) and in the early going. Maybe I was better trained, or not overtrained, and more rested. I know I was smarter about fueling. I had three more years of experience under my belt, too. I am convinced the constantly changing terrain and elevation kept my leg muscles happier much more of the time. At JFK, the middle 26 miles, on a flat surface, had left me wondering what was more painful, running or walking, and very much struggling to finish. JFK was frigid (never above freezing), dry, and blustery; VT50 was warm and humid, and there was little wind. I am thankful I had none of JFK’s blurred vision at Vermont. The scenery at JFK, particularly in those middle miles, lacked variety; Vermont served up a cornucopia of interesting sights. Last but definitely not least, JFK was a solo endeavor, whereas Vermont … Vermont was all about friends and fun and the great outdoors.

Chris Jaworski

Photos of the race.

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Verona Labor Day Classic

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Photo Highlights

Photos on flickr

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