By Linda Wack
I was ambivalent about running my first 100. I’m not like the rest of you crazy people who start ultrarunning and immediately plan their first 100. I was content with my baby runs, and although I was semi-curious about the distance I just didn’t have the 100 bug. And I figured it was probably better to wait until I really wanted to finish before signing up. Then one day I read about David Horton’s response to why he ran the PCT….big paraphrase here….because he was getting older and had to do it now while he still could. Now I read this right after my 50th birthday and thought “uh, oh, maybe I should reconsider this 100 business before things start to fall apart”! My knees don’t always love to run ultras, after all. And I didn’t want to regret later not taking the opportunity to run. I set my sights on Umstead, but a bad ankle limited my training so I didn’t sign up. Rather than continuing to analyze it to death, I just filled out the Vermont 100 application and mailed it in.
Training was a mix of runnable trails, and long road runs to prepare myself for the hard dirt roads of Vermont. I trained for the H’s: heat, humidity, hills and hard surfaces. My last long run on the roads around Catoctin was the perfect training run, as was enduring the heat and open road at Highland Sky 40M. And certainly the courageous and fascinating runs by my VHTRC friends out at Western States in a particularly grueling year provided all the inspiration I needed. An added bonus to heading to Vermont was the VHTRC contingent that would again be present, which always means a good time.
There is a nice buzz of excitement at the starting area as we get ready for the 4am start. I am no longer nervous, just eager to get this adventure underway. It’s in the low 60s, with fairly high humidity, but pleasant in the darkness. Then the race is underway, and I’m careful not to go out fast. It’s a little muddy already, but I try to keep my feet reasonably dry. I pass the time talking to people from all over the country, though the frequency with which I find they are GAC’ers convinces me that Gilly has a plan for world domination that starts with infiltrating ultras on a major scale.
The early miles are enjoyable, passing scenic covered bridges, houses with gorgeous gardens, and interesting stonewalls. These miles are punctuated with the sound of hoofs behind me, and though my mind strays hopefully to the opening scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is just the riders who are also completing 100 miles on many of the same trails. They are unfailingly friendly and encouraging, and it is fun to have them out on the course.
It gets warmer as the sun moves higher in the sky, but so far the cloud cover keeps the temperature out of the ‘scorching’ category, as it had been during the previous day’s race briefing. I ask for ice at every aid station, and put some under my hat and some in my bottles of Sustained Energy and water. Tom Corris is here as Crew Extraordinaire, to make sure I’m fed and stocked up for the next leg of the journey.
I continue on at a comfortable pace, keeping in mind the advice I’ve heard from many to take it easy on the downhills in order to preserve my quads for running after mile 70. Around mile 30 I see that two runners have found an accessible spot to straddle the creek and catch the flow of water from some rocks, so I get in line to do the same. Later, as it heats up some more, I see another runner sitting in the creek in another good spot, and as he leaves I take his place. The cool creek water feels wonderful, and I lean back to get my head wet, forgetting that my sunglasses are on my head. They are quickly carried away, a sacrifice to the creek god, but it is worth it to cool off. I keep my shoes on because they are already wet and muddy, and I never have foot problems <insert ominous foreshadowing music here>. I am wearing road shoes as recommended by all the VT100 veterans, and they feel fine although the open mesh on top is letting in all the mud and grit.
Camp 10 Bear at Mile 44 is a bustle of activity, as people come here again at mile 68. I feel great running into this aid station, even better than I felt at the start. I am not setting any speed records, but I am enjoying this race a lot. Tom is here, tending to Gary who is suffering from stomach distress. Tom asks if I want to change my shoes, and I decide that since my feet feel fine I will wait until mile 68. It was a big mistake not to at least change socks and re-lube my feet here, though I am glad that I didn’t change shoes because a few miles later we encounter the worst shoe-sucking mud on the course.
Agony Hill awaits, and not only is it steep, but it is very muddy and torn up. This has been a frequent occurrence on the trails along this course, a vestige of May/June rainfall that was twice the normal level, and a hard rain earlier in the week. The roads are nice and dry, but the trails tend to be muddy and wet. I see Gary up ahead, but resist the urge to push too hard in this section, although it would be hard to speed up when your foot keeps sinking into mud and muck above ankle-level. Some people try to find dry terrain by bushwhacking way off the side of the trail, but are only moderately successful. Soon the skies open up and we get a brief hard rain, to further soak the shoes. I catch up with Gary and we pass a few miles together, but my feet are sending warning signals already. We hit Tracerbrook, mile 55, in 13 hours. They told us in the race briefing that doubling your time here was a good way to predict finish time. Just before Margaritaville I stop and take off my shoes, and see the developing blister and other hot spots. I repair the damage with woefully inadequate blister bandaids, and try to clean off my feet, all while being attacked by swarms of insects that are out in force after the rain.
My feet begin the steady downhill slide at this point, though I push myself to run most of the way to get to Camp 10 Bear at mile 68 before dark. I arrive a pale shadow of the runner who had left so happily 24 miles before. My legs feel fine, but my feet are suffering big time. The podiatrist pops the various blisters (at least 7) and I lube up and change shoes and socks. Putting my shoes back on and getting up and back on the road is a memory I’d rather forget. The blisters are down, but my feet are rubbed raw and my running gait is slow and painful. It is dark now, and my stomach starts to feel bad, most likely because of the pain in my feet, as my stomach is often affected when something hurts. This is where Tom stops crewing, and starts pacing. I slow down considerably as my stomach rebels, and Tom doesn’t get more than monosyllables out of me for the long stretch to the mile 76 aid station. It seems like hundreds of runners are passing me by, many complaining about their feet, but all moving better than I am. I had been pretty good about keeping hydrated and fueled through this point, but SE and gels just aren’t appealing anymore, and I subsist on ginger chews and a few crackers at an aid station. I carefully stamp out all dispiriting thoughts about how far I have to go, and concentrate on getting from one aid station to the next.
Finally at mile 76 I managed to get some soup down, and start to feel a little better. There are a number of familiar faces here, so I just stay and eat some more until I am ready for the next stretch. My feet are still killing me, but I have conquered the stomach demons and we set off in the dark. A couple of kids are outside offering Popsicles to the passing runners, a welcome gesture. I walk all of the trail sections, and many of the road sections as well until the sun comes up. Maybe ‘walk’ isn’t the right word, perhaps ‘shuffle’ is a better description. The last 10 miles seem endless, with one big climb after another. I am steadily making forward progress, but each time I calculate the pace, it is clear that it is going to take me longer to get to the finish than I expected, so I figure two hours to the finish on several occasions, rather depressing because it makes the finish line seem like it is moving away as I approach. I run a bit off and on, but at a turtle-pace. My legs feel OK, but I had saved my quads for naught, because without feet transplants, I can’t run anyway. But at long last we hear the sweet sound of the finish line, and soon run across it heading straight for the chairs on the other side. 28 and a half hours, and I’m done. I ease my shoes off, but am not yet ready to face taking off my socks.
Trashed feet were the order of the day, and I’m impressed by those who managed to run great times regardless. I stagger over to get my sandals, and as I pull off my socks, the blisters are indeed epic. The size and proliferation are shocking, but I could not bring myself to join the queue at the medical tent to subject myself to further torture at the hands of the foot doc. I would not look at my feet until home again late that night.
This is the answer to the question I’ve gotten repeatedly since I crossed the finish line. Oh, you know the question.
While I’m not yet ready to call it ‘fun’, it was memorable in so many ways. I love to run trails in various gorgeous parts of the country, and this was a new area for me. I learned about gutting it out under difficult circumstances, about counting on my friends to help when I need it, and that sometimes it is best not to think too much, but just keep putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that the finish line will come eventually (I didn’t promise that this report would be profound!). Despite the badly-blistered feet, I never entertained thoughts of quitting. I did not cross the finish line full of eagerness to do it again, but some of you tell me that this is not unusual. And for now I am enjoying easy runs and not obsessing over anything related to 100s!