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Reflections of a Babe in the Woods

By Kirstin Walcott
See also: Kirstin's Photos on Flickr

Photo of Kirstin
Kirstin is happy when she picks up her shirt at check in. That will change!

Disclaimer. This is not a comprehensive report about the Vermont 100 trail or the beautiful course or the wonderful volunteers who made it all possible. This is a report on my first 100-miler experience. It is sappy, cliché-ridden, self-involved and full of too many details. It does not even attempt to thank everyone who deserves my eternal gratitude: Kris Swanson, who crewed and emotionally supported me; Kerry Owens, who enticed me into the world of Ultra Running when all her other friends went to great lengths such as getting married and populating the earth in order to escape this cult; my baby brother David, who scheduled his shotgun wedding for the same weekend as the Catoctin 50K, thereby forcing me to run Vermont or fall hopelessly out of shape; the entire VHTRC; and last but not least, Quatro "Strike While the Iron is Hot" Hubbard, who is usually somehow associated with any trail adventure gone horribly wrong, and this was no exception.

The appeal of running ultras for me is the opportunity to learn about myself, my limits, my physical abilities, and my mental strengths. Each ultra, and each successively longer distance is a bit of a marvel - discovering that the human body can do what is demanded of it - a physical victory. Often, my worst ultras - the most challenging ones where I gut it out despite all kinds of problems - are even more rewarding because they are mental triumphs.

I fully expected this experience to be a veritable Holy Grail of Ultra Running, which would impart knowledge and insight into trail running, my strengths and myself.

The Vermont 100 - my first 100 - was not what I expected.

I did not make it 100 miles. I stopped at mile 69. Or, I tried. My wonderful friend and crew Kris Swanson, and Bob Gaylord, whose running buddy Stan Spence wisely faked his own death to get out of running another 10 hours with him, would not let me. It was not my strength of will that got me there. In fact, it was my weakness. I simply was not strong enough to resist Kris’s gentle but firm insistence that I did want to go on, and the indomitable force that is Bob.

It did not feel like a triumph to me. It felt like a failure. I didn’t care about finishing. I didn’t want to finish. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t sick, or out of energy, or delirious, or having any truly major problems. I had just been hurting a long time and I wanted it to stop.

Photo: Kirstin drinking beer
Kirstin engages in carbo loading before the race.

Some Background. I first met Bob and Stan at the Bull Run Run 50 Miler this past April when I caught up to them about three miles from the finish. The three of us ran together awhile, and then Bob decided to make me his project and sprinted me into the finish in 11:45. I thought it was so nice of him. During the Vermont 100, I had run with Bob and Stan for a couple of brief stretches, but I’d been taking more time at aid stations changing socks and shoes and lubing up my feet really well so they kept getting ahead of me. Stan had been having a long down spell, but they had agreed to run together the entire race, and Bob was confident that Stan would recover.

I caught up to Stan just before Margaritaville, at around 60 miles. I did not see Bob. Stan was done - he had not been able to eat for many hours. He told me Bob would be waiting for me at Camp 10 Bear to run the last 50K and through the night.

I saw Kris, Bob’s wife Donna and Stan’s wife Helen just around the corner from the Margaritaville aid station, which was supposedly the party aid station. However, when I arrived, it was dead. No other runners were there and the aid station workers did not offer me a margarita or a cheeseburger. It was a bit of a letdown. The VHTRC aid station volunteers have spoiled me. Or, more likely, I was just having my own down spell.

Epic Self-pity. The top of my right foot had been hurting since mile 16. The podiatrist cleared me to keep running on it at mile 44, and I was still running strong then. Now, my energy was flagging and it was getting dark. Usually I enjoy running after dark, but the trail was wet and muddy and footing was terrible. My feet were hurting even more now and the going was excruciatingly slow, because I also needed to be looking around with the flashlight to make sure I didn’t miss any markings. There would be an occasional glowstick, then nothing for a long time but plates. At this stage, it was hard to focus, and I would catch myself forgetting to look. The thought of missing a turn was panic inducing. Slower and slower, a few of us plodded along. At this point I let myself fall apart mentally, focused on my pain, and stopped taking care of my nutrition needs. One of the guys went ahead, the other and I talked and hobbled together awhile, and he was going so slow I eventually hobbled away from him. Soon there was a turn onto the road, which was marked, and then soon after, a trail going into the woods. There were no markers, though. I walked up the road a little, but still nothing. I became despondent with confusion. Not wanting to go any extra distance, I was paralyzed with indecision. I walked a little way on the road, stopping frequently to listen for other runners. I wanted to sit down right in the road. I was afraid I would sit forever if I did. Finally, I saw a light in the distance. Fred, the person I had been plodding with the last few miles, was coming. I waited. He was still talking as if he would finish. By now, I could not fathom going on. I just wanted to get to Camp 10 Bear and stop. Even that seemed like it was too far. I began to think through how I would tell Kris I was dropping. I would apologize for her not getting to crew me all night. We could crew Linda, Gary, Keith, Bob, and the rest of the VHTRCers. It wouldn’t be so bad. I would be ok with dropping. If I had had a good first 70 miles like Laurel, I could do 100, maybe. I knew I had had an ideal race at Laurel, but I did not realize the chasm between ideal and tough would be so wide. I worried that Bob’s race would be screwed up because I was taking so long, that he would be going on alone all night, and that he would have been an hour or more ahead by now.

Photo: Kirstin running
Kirstin running on the course

With Friends Like These . . . People were coming toward us, looking for their runners. Camp 10 Bear was very near. Suddenly, out of the dark, Kris appeared. She told me Bob was waiting for me, had gotten his feet all fixed up, major surgery, raring to go, sent her out to make sure I hadn’t missed the turn. She asked how I was doing. Not too good, my feet are really hurting. I told her she had to run back and tell him to leave immediately, that I could only manage this very slow pace that would not be fast enough to finish. She said she didn’t think he would do that. I said he had to; I didn’t want to go on. Yes, you do, she said, in that calm, matter-of-fact voice. We have soup up ahead for you, and you are going to feel better after a little of that, and Bob’s going to run with you through the nighttime. Get weighed in, it is just a hundred feet ahead, and I’ll get you soup and tell Bob you’re coming.

I started to cry. I realized they were not going to let me drop, and there was nothing I could do to convince them that I just couldn’t go on. I limped up to the scales. I was sobbing now, tears rolling down my face. I got on the scale and the Weigh-In Guy said, "Oh sweetie, it’s ok! You are doing better than so many other people we’ve seen. You’re going to be fine." (I had gained three pounds. You would cry too if you had gone 69 miles and gained three pounds!) As I stepped off the scale, I saw Bob and even though it was dark, I could see his expression and it was one of great confusion. Later he told me he thought I was crying because I had been DQ’d by the weigh-in people, rather than because he was still there and now I would have to go on.

Kris helped me change socks and shoes again and get my stuff together. My camelbak was hurting my shoulders so I switched to hand bottles, which meant I had to use my headlamp instead of Kerry’s badass Gerber flashlight. Bob was telling me I had 8 minutes before we had to get out of there. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do more than a slow hobble. We left Camp 10 Bear at 12:27 a.m. We had 9 hours and 33 minutes to cover 31.3 miles. We started up yet another long, steep hill, which was also a muddy, slippery, rocky mini-stream we had to pick our way up. Huge moths were dive-bombing my light and their velvety wings brushed against my eyes, forehead, ears, neck, and cheeks. You could hear the hum each pass they made. I wondered how much more ludicrous this thing could possibly become.

Bob. Bob was an irresistible force. He was relentless. He was tough, upbeat, and full of interesting stories and insights, jovial, always ready with a positive, light-hearted comment for everyone we passed. He demanded my maximum effort at all times, yet seemed to know when I really needed to walk or slow down. He never seemed to get frustrated by the fact that he was carrying us both, keeping the pace, pushing, encouraging, demanding, telling me I could walk faster, that my legs had the energy to run, to shift my focus from the pain in my feet to my legs, calculating and recalculating the pace we’d have to keep to finish under the time limit.

That first 15 miles after we left Camp 10 Bear my feet were really in agony, and the going was torturous and slow. We missed a turn somewhere between mile 70 and 75 and lost about 15 minutes. I was bitter that my friends had made me go on, even though that is exactly what they were supposed to do. I was not glad I had been saved the regret of dropping. I was only going to be able to go a little further and then I would be unable to walk or miss a cutoff, and this would all be for nothing anyway, and Bob might not be able to make up the time he wasted coaxing me along. It was not until we were nearing Bill’s at mile 89.2 that I decided I might as well finish this damn thing if I had come this far.

Photo of Bob and Kirstin
Bob and Kirstin near the finish

The last 15 miles, even through the haze that was my state of consciousness and my own pain, I could tell that Bob was the one hurting more. He never let on, of course, and I could only tell from his occasional grunt when we would have to make a small leap across a stream. Yet the entire time he was keeping the pace, steady as a metronome, and I was constantly slowing and falling behind without even realizing it. I really feel that he was running for both of us. I could never have done any of it. It would have been all I could manage to shuffle at a 3 mile per hour pace, scuffing my feet all the way. I would have been timed out even had I been able to resist the urge to stop and sit in the road.

Instead, the last five miles, I found myself coasting almost effortlessly along the trails, even the slight uphills which Bob declared "bumps," passing countless people, joking that Stan had thrown me to the wolves to save himself, sighing with mock resignation each time he’d round a corner and see another person and gleefully whisper we can get them!, pronouncing him and all other repeat hundred-milers insane, insulting him about missing that turn and making me run the Vermont 102 Miler.

Maybe I did stumble upon the Holy Grail of Ultra Running Knowledge.

That no matter how much wisdom, experience, and mental fortitude we acquire from all our self-important runs, it is not always about us and our strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental. Sometimes, it is about our friends and the ultra community, without whom we wouldn't accomplish anything. It wouldn't matter at all without people like them with whom to share our experience and our joy in this insanity we call a hobby.  

Photo Kirstin and Bob at BRR
Kirstin Walcott and Bob Gaylord after finishing Bull Run Run 50 Miler in April 2006

See also: Kirstin's Photos on Flickr

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