I’ve had a great introduction to the ultramarathon world over the last 7-months, having tackled distances that I’ve wanted to for years, but was never sure it would come to pass. I’ve had the fortune of running the Avalon 50-Miler, the Bel Monte 50-Mile Endurance Run, Racing the Planet’s 250km 7-day Stage Race across the deserts of Jordan and just last week, the Vermont 100-Miler.
My coach and I viewed this as a transition year as I worked on building my base to compete in longer distances. I unexpectedly met with much greater success than I had anticipated (11th at Avalon, 6th at Bel Monte, 11th at RTP before the last stage when illness struck and finally, 10th at the Vermont 100).
In the weeks leading up to the Vermont 100, particularly as my taper kicked in, my main focus was on recovery and weight loss. I had approximately 5-6 lbs to lose over the last 2 1/2 -3 weeks to hit my race weight of 151 (prior to carbo-load). Concentrated weight loss is never the most fun period of my training cycle as every portion of food is planned and measured to fit into a specific calorie and macro profile. Fortunately, it’s a bit easier when I know I have 3 weeks of splurging and weight gain starting immediately after the race.
I slept better than usual in the days leading up to it. I wasn’t feeling the nerves or excitement that I sometimes get that interferes with my sleep. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that in 3 days, 2 days, 1 day, I was going to run 100 miles.
Earlier in the week, I had a call with my coach to review my race strategy and estimated finishing time. As usual, my pacing was dictated by heart rate (HR) rather than speed. For the first 25-miles, I was supposed to average a HR of 148 (with a maximum/minimum above or below that of 7-8 beats at any specific time). For the next 25 miles, I was to bump that up to 151-152…for the next 25, up to 155-156 and then go for the highest I could get for the last 25. And as far as estimated finish time, it was supposed to be a sub-17 hour if things all went according to plan…a time I had a hard time wrapping my head around particularly given my peak training mileage of only 60 miles in a week in the 9 weeks prior to the race/since Jordan.
The race started at 4am, and I set my alarm for 1am to consume my pre-race breakfast of a big jar of apple sauce, a banana, a scoop of whey protein and 24 oz of sports drink. Despite going to bed early, I only managed about 60-90 minutes of sleep.
In terms of gear, I was running in Salomon S-Lab 5 shoes, Salomon S-Lab gaiters, Injinji Outdoor Trail socks, Pearl Izumi Infinity shorts, a MadAthlete.com branded Pearl Izumi shirt, a Nathan HPL # 20 Race Vest, a Petzl Tikka XP headlamp and when it got light, Julbo Dust sunglasses with photochromic lenses.
The weather forecast was great….lows in the mid-50s and highs in the lower 80s with comfortable humidity. Given the very hot summer we have had in the northeast, this was more than I could have wished for.
The Vermont course is a near constant up and down with 14000-15000 feet of elevation gain. Approximately 67% of the course is on very good gravel roads, 27% on single-track and jeep roads through woods or meadows (generally non-technical, but occasionally wet and muddy despite the lack of rain) and the rest on roads. There was a bit more road this year due to a course change (mandated by a bridge washout) that had us running through downtown Woodstock.
At 4am, 306 runners took off in the night with headlamps bobbing up and down a hard-packed gravel road. Even in a race this long, most runners went out way to fast….probably because they got caught up in the excitement, didn’t have a defined race plan and/or tried to take advantage of the cooler weather. To give you some perspective, I was running in 40-45th place through 20 miles at my subscribed HR while approx. running a 9:30/mile pace. If I was able to maintain my pace, based on past years, I would have expected to place in the top 2-3 runners (5th place was my goal)…yet there I was in 40-45th place, a fifth of the way through. I have enough experience to know that most of these people will come crashing back to earth, but it was still a little frustrating…mainly, because I prefer to run with few if any people around and there were many. On the positive side, I really enjoy taking advantage of people’s pacing errors and knocking them off one by one.
It was probably around mile 20 that I started to chip away at the number of runners ahead of me….sometimes a lone runner, other times a group of three or four. I didn’t alter my pacing/HR strategy and purposefully try to pass…it just happened in the course of following my race strategy. By mile 40, I was in 15-16th place. However, that is when “the plan” started to unravel.
I fully expected to be able to follow my HR plan for at least the first 70 miles…before needing to dig down. At Mile 40, though, on a course with good, runnable terrain, it was a big, big surprise when I was already struggling to maintain a 149-150 HR. It didn’t bode well. In my two 50-milers, I had averaged a 153 HR and only three weeks before the race, I averaged a 155 HR on a 8+ hour run/hike on steep, technical terrain in the White Mountains of NH…and yet, here I was at mile 40 struggling to keep a 149 HR and unable to take advantage of the downhills because my quads were already abused. I started having some weird knee pain over a few mile stretch….my right IT band was tightening….these things started making me a little nervous (both went away soon thereafter). My only guess is that my legs were still not fully recovered from that 30-mile Pemi Loop run/hike.
Camp Bear at mile 47 is the first big aid station, and I was struggling as I approached. I was still in 16th, but 3-4 people I had previously passed where now on my tail. This was the first medical weight check and I came in only 1 lbs less than starting weight. I met my crew (my dad), resupplied with food, drink, sunscreen, etc. and went on my way.
The sun was out and temps were now in the lows 80s. The course fortunately had an ample amount of shade, but even in the sun, it still felt pretty comfortable. I started to rebound a bit in the 50s (as far as feeling okay and running downhills), but my HR was plummeting quickly. I was now in the 130s and often low 130s…over 20 beats/minute less than I should have been able to do. Single-track downhills were still challenging on the quads, but I was able to run pretty quickly on the gravel roads on flat or downhill sections…running an 8:30 pace at times. On uphills, I ran the large majority of them, but not quickly and even though breathing heavily, still couldn’t get my pulse up past the 137/138 range. Despite this, I still managed to pass a few people prior to hitting Camp Bear again at 70.4 and was frequently back and forth with the eventual winning woman, Kathleen Cusick.
Weight check again….2 lbs down overall (weight was even at Mile 89). I searched for my crew but he was nowhere to be found. This was going to be my first change of shoes and socks and of course, a resupply of food and fuel. The Race Staff made an announcement on the loud speaker, but to no avail. It was during this exchange with one of the race managers (and manager of the volunteer pacers) that I was offered a pacer…a prospect I had never seriously considered. I train and primarily race alone so the idea of a random pacer was foreign and risky to me. The pacer’s runner has dropped out earlier in the race, and the pacer really wanted to run. He was a 7-time Vermont runner and I had a mile to run with him and decide if I wanted to drop him or not. So after grapping some fig newtons, a banana and salt tablets, I said yes and Andy Novis and I were off.
It was a very fortuitous chain of events that ultimately proved very helpful in securing my 10th place finish. Coincidentally, Andy lives about a mile from me and that got us off on the right foot quickly. We chatted quite a lot…again not something I am used to. For the first 10-15 miles maybe, I believe I predominantly dictated the pace…running to the side or in front of Andy depending on the terrain. We were able to move pretty quickly on the good downhills and I continued to run up most of the uphills. My dad managed to make it to the next handler location (one he wasn’t planning on) so I did get resupplied around mile 77 and changed shoes (Salomon Ultra 3Ds) and socks.
With his course knowledge, Andy gave me really good details of what was coming up…e.g. left turn and hill in ½ mile, good runnable terrain for the next two miles, etc. Eventually, I asked Andy to lead in the hopes of dragging me along a bit faster, and it seemed to work pretty well. Even after 90+miles and on legs that were damaged since mile 40, I was still able to clock of 8:30 or sub-9 miles on many downhill sections – energy levels did fluctuate. My feet were holding up splendidly- no blisters or particular pain. The only thing preventing me from running uphills was mental and here again, a pacer probably came in handy.
In terms of place, I hadn’t really focused on it much since mile 47 after things had broken down. Again, I couldn’t get my HR anywhere close to what I had planned and was concentrating mainly on just getting through this as quickly as I could. I figured I was somewhere in the 15th place range…Andy thought I was 11th or 12th. There was a really long stretch, maybe 15 or more miles where we didn’t see another person. Finally, in a typical, beautiful Vermont meadow, we saw a runner perhaps 5 minutes ahead. It didn’t spark the usual competitive predator /prey mindset, but we eventually caught and passed that runner…it was Kathleen Cusick again. Light faded, we turned on our headlamps and pressed on.
As we got a couple miles from the finish, Andy asked if I was excited…in my head, I was anxious to finish, but wasn’t particularly excited - probably more consumed with just pressing on. Andy was looking back frequently, checking to see if we were being caught. He was more concerned with place than I was. Finally, we saw the 1 mile to go sign….then then ½ mile and finally a string of milk jugs with green lightsticks guiding us in for the last ¼ mile. There, more than anywhere, Andy pressed me to push the pace and I was able to respond. The finish line approached, Andy took my hand and raised it as we crossed the line in 18:38. I checked the board and it appeared I finished in 14th place. It wasn’t until they called my name in the award ceremony the next day that I knew that I had come in 10th – Andy told me right before that he thought I had after reviewing the board more closely (they apparently commingled with 100K racers when I saw that 14th place).
It didn’t go according to plan. My overall HR average was a 140 (11-12 beats less than predicted) and my time was far off the initial projection…but I was very happy with how I ran the race and the end result. I had to dip into my mental well significantly earlier than projected and found the strength to keep moving up and down hills until the end. I have now done the distance. Even at 38, I know I have years left of improvement (3-4 supposedly) as I further work on my base/mileage….so don’t see any reason why I can’t cut my time down by hours and be more competitive with the leaders.
I am enjoying my hiatus from training and a strict diet, but I will be looking forward to getting back into it. I will enter my second ultra training cycle with high expectations on improvement and performance. My goal race for this cycle is the Avalon 50 in mid-January.
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