By John Prohira

I remember hearing the story about the first time John Lennon met Yoko Ono. It was at one of her art exhibits. Her art could be described as a bit different to say the least and one piece shown that day involved climbing a ladder to the ceiling of the room in order to fully appreciate it. Lennon did that and said that he fell in love with Yoko that day because of what he found at the end of his ascent. He found a single word written there - Yes.

Pre dawn activity in front of the building housing Cunningham's Ski Barn was a mix of frenzied enthusiasm and resigned acceptance. It was Sunday morning on September 29th around 6AM before the start of the 9th annual 50 Mile Trail Ride and Run to benefit Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. This event begins and ends at Ascutney Mountain Resort in Brownsville, Vermont, not far from the Connecticut River defining the New Hampshire border. It appeared as if those who planned on traversing the course on bikes couldn't sit still. Many tinkered with their ride, others mounted them and pedaled back and forth and around the parking lot where another 650 of their kind dressed in riding attire and helmets fidgeted. Behind them stood 105 runners, quiescent and relaxed. All in attendance awaited the magic word - GO. That word was directed first towards the mountain bikers who started their race in waves, rankings based upon proven ability, the more capable riders starting first. After all of those on two wheels were out of sight the runners began their journey over back roads and on trails through Vermont's Green Mountains. And I thought and felt, Yes!

Can you tell that I like this stuff? People watching can be fun, I smiled at the antics of the mountain bikers yet had a lot of admiration for them. The intensity they exhibited was fascinating but not quite infectious, we long distance runners are a more reserved lot. But still . . . . Many of those I watched were young, all were obviously fearless, a requirement for riding or flying off the mountain down the rough terrain the course offers. These men and women had answered yes to the question put to them which was, "How about riding through some of New England's ski country on bikes?" Many more had answered in the affirmative than were allowed to backup their reply. The bike race roster had been filled up for months, the waiting list many times larger than the entire field of runners many who had used the opportunity that I took advantage of, waiting to sign up for the race the day before.

This was the 5th time in as many years that I traveled to Vermont to run on the mountain. I like this part of the country and enjoy being around the people living, working and running here. I had stayed with friends on the days leading up to race day, hiking a little and exploring some of the wonder I found in Vermont. The September weather had been mild and the mountainside was still green, the peak color changes and peeping season still a couple of weeks away. But every now and then small blazes of gold, yellow and red seemed to jump from the wooded canopy, like sparks shooting from the emerald and lime colored hillside. This was the backdrop for my 10½ hour journey.

The first 3 miles of the course are gently downhill on gravel roads past sleeping houses with their flower and vegetable gardens still in bloom. There was evidence of a gentle autumn frost on the meadows and in dooryards. The feel of the morning air on my skin was cool and invigorating as we ran into the late September dawn. I found it the perfect day for running, bright and sunny with refreshing breezes atop the high meadows. I felt rested and capable and ready to absorb all that was offered me. Soon after daybreak our climbs began along snowmobile trails through the woods on rolling dirt and pine needle laden paths. The course is a nice mix of trail and dirt road that would suddenly pop us out of the woods past farms and homes topped with metal and slate roofs, a construction feature of cold snow country then over grassy fields and back under tree's shade. The trails brought us to the top of some of the highest hills in the region with amazing views of both Vermont and New Hampshire. At the 30-mile mark, standing in an open field the ski runs down Mount Ascutney back at our finish could be seen. That is always an eye opener! Then it begins to sink in. Can we really run that far? Yes. Is it possible? Yes! A big small word.

I come to this event as much for the power of the camaraderie as for the grandeur of the autumn mountain. Couple the splendor of being surrounded by the New England woods with the company found there and I'm a goner. The sounds of my ultrarunning companions' voices soothe and reassure me. It again convinces of the value in what I do on the trail for hours on end. I realize that I need that. I need them. I know that yes makes sense. So again I shared a beautiful day with folks I've known for a few years and with others who are recent or brand new friends. Many of these people I see but a half a dozen times a year for a few hours at a time yet I feel closer to them than many I see daily. We are connected. We validate one another. Perhaps it's only communal madness, still I enjoy it!

That's how it goes. That is how it went. As runners connected and chasing the same intangible rewards we climbed past maple trees tethered together with plastic piping, trees connected together so as to gather springtime sap, the precursor to Vermont maple syrup. All my senses were offered their fill. There were sights of lazy farm animals grazing and of runners and mountain bikers in the distance slowly moving up hills and then blasting down the other side. And of fog lifting slowly from the valleys below us. I watched the sun move across the sky flooding the world with glory during its passage. Flowers were seen along the way, those nurtured by man and the wild ones, still vibrant, still alive, seeming to say yes to the world themselves. Later in the race there were the sights of bikes being pushed up hills with runners passing them and then reaching the finish line first. Smells of horse manure on trails was detected but no sign of equine during the race, the aroma of freshly cut grass and hay brought a smile to my face and nose. The feel of cool air while in the woods and the warm spots run through while in the open fields felt just right. The taste of aid station reprieve, the drink, fruit and candy offered by the friendliest of workers was what was needed and was appreciated. The sounds of footfall upon dirt trail, and labored breaths while climbing up into the sunlight and the almost hypnotizing babble of brook water flowing over the rocky stream beds. And the music! Yes! What I describe are familiar sensations found while ultrarunning in the woods, what seemed out of place on Sunday but very much appreciated was the sounds of Rock and Roll! Live music was being played at the finish line and that beat wafted across the valley and up the mountainside. I heard it during my last four miles, while making the last climb and descent home. Music moves me and it was more than ample reward for picking up the pace and completing the task undertaken hours ago.

The first to cross the finish line was a mountain biker in a time of 4:15. Leigh Schmitt of Deerfiled, Mass shattered the course record in a time of 6 hours and 53 minutes. Not bad for a course that deems itself the longest 1½ miles you'll ever run - that's the elevation gain over 50 miles, just under 8000 feet. The company was superb and that seems to bring out the best in me and I've begun to appreciate that more. It seems that I had about 45 miles worth of race in my legs on Sunday, maintaining the pace of about 5 mph until then. I did struggle finishing up the prescribed distance. But that finish was swell! It always is. Coming into the final chute, which is a gloriously downhill, I found those finishing their journey hours before waiting and cheering and acknowledging my return. After a quick shower, dinner of BBQ chicken, hotdogs, hamburgers and salad was offered and woofed down. Who was it that said that which does not kill me sure makes me hungry? Some sage philosopher I'm sure. I witnessed the rest of the field come across the line, trying to look into their eyes as they did, knowing what they knew then.

Here's a funny and real example of how misguidedly grandiose I at times believe this ultrarunning and associated result and effort to be. It exemplifies my view that I am indeed a legend in my own mind, even if I finish hours after the race's winner. The last mile of this course presents itself as the runner pops out of the woods above the ski lodge. The first year I did that it kind of frightened me, for way down below me I saw the finish line and those waiting and cheering me in. I ran across the ski slope near some chair lift equipment and thought I'm cool. Look at me! I'm atop Mount Ascutney, on the top of the world! Well this year I climbed Mount Ascutney from the other side of the mountain the day after the race and realized just how delusional I had been. On Monday the finish line appeared so very, very small from the real top of the mountain. I saw where the course came from out of the woods. It was perhaps 800-1000 foot above finish line but only ¼ of the way up the mountain. And I realized how foolish I'd been about the enormity of previous runs here. I laugh at it today and understand that the challenge is indeed in the eye of the beholder but perhaps I needed to believe that I was running from off the top of the world in previous years.

Spending the day with those who said yes to running and riding across the mountain and valley in 12 hours time was pretty cool. More moving than our moving was what that effort represented. All proceeds from this event went to support Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (VASS) who offer sports and recreational opportunities to those with physical disabilities. VASS allows those without full use of legs and arms to say yes to skiing and snow boarding, horseback riding and water sports, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, and camping. They say yes and their world becomes bigger. Me too! Me too! I am not afraid to answer using that word these days. Now there's a tangible reward from the weekend in Vermont.

Such a simple word, three letters long . . . . Yes.

Perhaps you'll consider spending an autumn weekend in Vermont next year and play on the mountain outside of Brownsville. All that is required is saying yes. I'll close as I usually do with a couple of appropriate or inappropriate quotations and the link to my friend Steve Pero's page containing photos of the VASS 50 Mile course.

Happy Trails,

as yes is to if, love is to yes - e.e.cummings


When you want what you've never had, you must do what you've never done - Unknown

Steve Pero's Photos | Vermont 50 Web Site

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