August 7, 2016

Vermont 100 Race Report: My First 100 Miler

Our run at Vermont 100 started as a party yes. Party yes = something you say at a party because agreeing is what's fun to do at parties. In our case, someone sitting on a front porch swing surrounded by their craziest running friends, said, "Hey, let's all run Vermont 100 next year!" And everyone  responds with a party yes, heartily agreeing with head nods and smiles all around, but as soon as they all walk back to their cars, those same head-nodders from the front porch know that that is not a real-life yes and will almost certainly not happen. Except when it does.

We took that loosely-intentioned party yes to saving the registration date on our calendars to actually typing in our credit card numbers on registration day to actually training for the race through the scorching Alabama summer to actually running 100 miles in Vermont. So if you too are a party-yes person, beware. This could be your future. Depending on who your friends are.

Registration: Register quickly! I actually didn't know that this race sold out with any significant speed because I was just doing this as a thing with my friends without realizing that this was one of the oldest 100-mile races and part of the Grand Slam, making it sought after for those and many other reasons. We all registered together, and then I turned around and the race was sold out. We had another Birmingham friend get in off of the wait list not long before race day, and she was not high on the list. So if you are training anyway, get on that wait list because you never know.

Travel: We drove from Alabama, which we loved because we could bring tons of supplies, coolers, sleeping bags, and mats. Plus we got to see the nation's capital, the Statue of Liberty, and get stuck in NYC rush hour traffic on the way up. And fart and snore (both me) in a car together for three days (two days up and one loooooong day back).

Downside of driving from far away: locking up your hip flexors from sitting too long, locking up your intestines because that is just what happens when you travel, not getting the best rest because of late nights of driving, and not having your first-choice food options.

Upside of driving: ability to adjust your schedule without a new ticket, ability to focus on hydration since there is plenty of time to remind yourself to drink in 20+ hours of car riding, time to talk and give any last-minute race reminders to your crew (can't remember if we did this, but it sounds cool). And honestly, the best part was getting all of my race junk in one spot three days before the race so that I could not stress about that for at least a few days before the race. Because I will wait until the last minute to do things if that is an option.

Once we got there, our friend who lives locally took us on a whirlwind tour of the area, visiting Gile Mountain with an awesome/terrifying-for-me-because-I-am-afraid-of-heights-and-it-felt-wobbly fire tower, Quechee Gorge where you can cool off and float a little in the current, and King Arther Flour's Vermont campus to refuel and buy maple syrup to take home to your family. Not a restful pre-race day, but the hikes were totally worth it because VERMONT!

"Resting" the day before the race at Quechee Gorge. Photo: Brian

The tower at Gile Mountain. Photo: Brian

I was clinging to the rails all the way up. Pretty terrified of this tower but eventually made it to the top. Photo: Brian

Packet pickup:
 We took our sweet precious time getting over to packet pick-up, and actually arrived a couple of minutes late. They were luckily still open, and it was easy to pick up our bib, race shirt, pacer bib, and rearview mirror tag for our crew car. We jumped immediately into the pre-race meeting, which was pretty standard, recognizing folks who raised funds for Vermont Adaptive, making 100-mile first timers stand up, having Grand Slammers stand up, and telling us to not poop in people's yards. The most significant race info they shared was that they would not be weighing you during the race, which we had been worried about all day trying not to hydrate too much to avoid going in too heavy. The medical team seemed less scary in person than the online vibe. We wish we had known that before because we would have fueled better that day. But the best, best part of the meeting was when a mom and her child who uses Vermont Adaptive got up to share what this race and the fundraising efforts mean to them. I cried, because it was powerful and because, honestly, I just wanted to cry (because of happiness and nervousness and all the emotions at once) the whole time anyway so it was a good excuse to get some of that out.

Race morning: When your race starts at 4 a.m., you can almost guarantee yourself no sleep. I started to go to bed around 8:30, and realized that even with that, I could only potentially get five hours of sleep. FIVE HOURS! That was if I actually slept, which I am not convinced I did. It felt like I was awake all night, except for the one dream I had that my brother (my pacer for the last 12 miles of the race) jumped out of a plane, and I screamed, whhhhhhyyyyy? Super slow-mo. Then he released a parachute, and I was so relieved that he would live. But then to dream taunt me, he threw my son out into the open air. Why was he carrying my son that whole time, and why would he throw him out to die? All questions a dream cannot answer. My son had a parachute too, but it of course malfunctioned, leaving him with some broken bones that I heard crunch in my mind. But I woke up before I could see them up close. Dreams, why do you make me so nervous?!

Pre-race sky. Photo: Brian

So after sleeping all of five seconds, I was up and getting dressed. My crew had maybe lain down an hour the night before, but they earned a little hangout time before the stress of race day. I am not convinced that I worked harder than them on race day.

Pre-race prep at the car. Photo: Brian

We got to the race with lots of time to spare, unlike at packet pickup, so we threw open our trunk and car doors and cranked up the party music for a pre-race dance warm-up. I'm sure we annoyed a lot of people, but maybe at the same time we made some people feel happier. Balance in all things. And we ended the warm-up party by everyone bringing their hands in for a rousing Roll Tide yell. I don't even like football and couldn't give a flying cockatoo about that university, BUT if you're not in Alabama, Alabama traditions, like saying "roll tide" for "hi" just make sense and give you a feeling of at-home-ness away from home. And for anyone who thought we were too dancy and wasting energy before the race, A. dancing is never a waste and B. all five of our runners finished the race, so now we count everything we did as scripture, to be followed from henceforth.

And for future reference: Good Day by Greg Street is the best pre-race song of the earth. I still haven't gotten that song out of my head.
Pre-race jam with our team. This photo is exactly why we had a great race day! Photo: Brian

Pre-race start line scene. Photo: Brian

Start line. Photo: Brian

The course: Going into this race, you know that there will be tons of unpaved roads, around 70%. What I didn't know is that their unpaved roads are a little different from Alabama unpaved roads. First, they are not as pitted and uneven as most unpaved roads I have bumped along in AL, and second, their unpaved roads are hard! As in, hard like asphalt. Why? I learned later that they oil the dirt roads in Vermont, which may lend to their increased hardness. What does this mean for runners? If you are used to running on soft dirt roads, you should train on more asphalt roads for this race. That is the only thing I wish I had done more of in training. Because I was not used to running on surfaces as hard as their dirt roads, my feet started aching earlier than I hoped during the race.

The course winds through private property. Photo: Brian

With so much of the course cutting through private property, the race director doesn't put out a detailed map of the course before the race to respect the property owners' privacy. For me personally, knowing there was not a ton of single-track trail on the course, I was worried that I might get bored with the roads during the race. Because of that (and because I am a fan of surprises), I left as much of the course a mystery as I could, and the fact that there was not an official course map helped. I didn't look at pictures, didn't read blog posts, didn't picture it in my mind. 

As you can see in the elevation profile, it's up and down and up and down and up and down. And that's it. I can remember approximately three flat spots from the whole race. But if you look up from the trail/road, which is easy to do here because it is not super technical, you are in for a treat. Farm house after quaint farm house. Cows, goats, horses, barns, wildflowers, the greenest trees, covered bridges, water babbling beside the trail, stacked rock walls, berries ready to be picked. All of that repeated in a quaint sequence that blended into a full day and night.

All of our AL runners in the first quarter of the race. Thank you to the random bikers who took this pic.

My favorite spot of the race was at mile 30, the Barkley Meadow, overlooking the surrounding trees and hills.

Taking it upside down, because why not? 

And even though we weren't deep in the woods for much of the race, we saw our share of wildlife. Let's list: horses (of course, they were racing with us), cows and other farm animals, snakes (but I heard that there are no venomous snakes in the area, so I was not afraid), a salamander, a mole, a fox (that I spotted in the night with my headlamp -- the glowing eyes were scarier before I realized they were from an adorable little fox), and a mystery animal that I thought was following us in the woods at night. One of my running partners had the idea to sing a song to scare the mystery animal away, but the only song I could think of was the Star Spangled Banner. That animal probably left because it was offended when we didn't even come close to hitting the high notes. But, success, because we were not attacked by any animals in the night.

The weather: Perfect! Low-80s for the high, not too humid (again, coming from Alabama here), more shade than I expected, and lots of gentle breezes. Trails were dry from the perfect weather the week leading into the race. But then the night came, and with the night came the rain. At first it was a gentle sprinkle that felt refreshing and woke me up a little. I said at least ten times that this was "sooooo perfect" and "magical" with the little brush of rain. Um, so the magic went away when the bottom dropped out. For seven hours, it rained and rained and rained. And lightning flashed and flashed and flashed. I am so thankful that this was at the end of the race. I'm not sure my feet would have survived the swelling from being soaked through again and again. This made the last few miles of the course VERY muddy, like lose-a-shoe muddy, because we were finally on trails instead of the hard-packed dirt.

Going into the second sunrise of the race, finally getting a small break from the rain. 

Supplies: Here's a look at what I had in my bin for race day. I decided not to use drop bags because my crew was coming around to each meeting point. 

The main things I could not have lived without: 

*Extra socks.
*Foot repair items -- mine ended up splitting on the bottom, between my first two toes, which has never happened to me before this race!
*Changes of hats.
*Changes of clothes -- packed in a large ziplock bag so that I could put my wet clothes in it when I was done with them. 

Things to add to the kit or that I wish I brought: 

*Hand sanitizer (because gross, everything just gets gross).
*Extra toe socks because of the intense blistering. Had plenty of standard socks, just wanted toe socks.
*Extra hydration pack to have a dry one.
*More food variety. Most aid stations had the exact same foods (grilled cheese, soup, chips, etc.). Basically they had exactly what they listed on their site, but we get spoiled with the baller aid stations around here, rolling sushi in the middle of the night. Ok, not really, but they will crank out an omelet or a BLT or a veggie burger. 
*More matching clothes. I was so sad when we left Margaritaville in our new clothes, and I realized that we didn't look like a team anymore. Next time, multiple matching outfits are a must!

Fresh clothes, headed out of Margaritaville, Mile 58.

My race: My goal from the beginning of even the idea of this race was just to finish. Oh, and to finish under the 30-hour cutoff. Oh, and to have fun. Oh, and to not die. Spoiler alert: I met all the goals!

Basically, I cannot say enough good things about my team. Or about all of the teams who came out to help support our Alabama runners. Even though I had the awesomest Boo Crew (Michael -- team lead, Ki -- feet fixer, Jeremy -- pacer 1, Jimmy -- pacer 2), every single person who joined our overall Alabama crew made this experience almost magical for me. Seeing everyone working together, busting their buns to help all the runners, and having a blast even though they were exhausted is something I will never forget, and I'll always be grateful to them. For real, like right now typing this weeks later, I am tearing up. Because you realize that these people are your friends before the race, but during those 100 miles, there are 1,000 ways they help you over and over. They tape your splitting and blistering feet. They tug tight toe socks onto your wet and swollen toes, and everyone knows putting on toe socks, even on dry feet, is harder than climbing Mt. Everest ... while holding your breath. They drive approximately a bazillion miles to follow you around the course (and that doesn't include the 2,400 miles some of them drove to Vermont and back). They skip about three nights of sleep. They pretend to not notice how bad you smell. They don't make fun of you when you cry for no reason. Basically I could never repay them for the all they did to help me. There is just something really cool about knowing that there are people in the world still willing to give something of themselves that they know can never be repaid. And having even one friend like that is something special, but having an army of friends like that is life-changing. Honestly, I think finishing 100 miles was second in awesomeness to witnessing the incredible humanity out on the course.

The scene our team brought to the aid stations. 

And now on to more specifics about race day. First, Sally, Mindy, and I made the decision before the race even started that we would stick together for the first 70 miles until we got pacers. Those two probably regretted that later, as I was going for the world record in false-alarm poop breaks that day. I was also competing for the actually-producing poop breaks award. I can't be sure, but I think I won. That sounds cool, but because one of the main race rules was don't poop in someone's yard, which was surprisingly hard to differentiate from just another random field with a fence, locating places to defecate was higher on the difficulty scale. I would say that I spent at least half of the race focused on finding the next spot to go. Until the night fell, and then it was just a pooping free-for-all. And I would also like to say, thank you, Vermont, for not having the amount of poison ivy that we have to deal with in the South. Otherwise, my lady parts would probably never be the same. Squatting over that many mystery plants in the dark would not turn out well in Alabama. 

Me, Sally, Mindy.

Sticking with those Sally and Mindy was the best decision I could have made, as far as race strategy goes. We took the pace easy from the start. We hiked everything that even remotely resembled a hill, and we easy ran the rest. When someone had to go, we hiked ahead until they did their biz and caught up. It basically ensured that we would not go out too fast, that we would not get bored, and that we would constantly remind each other to eat/drink/use our glutes/and our core.

Sally also orchestrated the Questions game for us on the run. She brought 100 questions cut up into strips and placed in a Ziploc bag to protect them from the elements. Every mile after sunrise, we got to draw a strip and discuss, or sing, or remember something from the past. There were definitely times where I was surviving the mental challenge of the race one strip/question to the next. There was also an hour where we decided to speak only in haikus. Mental exhaustion and haikus either are the greatest or most horrible match. I still am not sure. 

Another thing that gave us a huge mental boost during the race was when our team would hike down the trail a little way and run us into the aid station. It gave us a chance to catch them up on how we were doing, make any specific food requests, or tell them about the latest body part that was falling apart. Plus it just made us so happy to see our friends!

Here's even more proof that our crews were the best on the planet:


For the most part, my body held up. I had a weird twinge in my left glute within the first 15 miles of the race, which was a scary time (too early!) to be experiencing pain. I stopped at a couple of spots to stretch it, and it went away, never to reappear during the race. That was a HUGE relief. It was so mysterious because it never hurt before or after the race. 

My feet took the worst beating for sure. At one point, I was completely convinced that I had a rock in my shoe, so I sat down in a random pasture to get it out but instead realized that the "rock" was the bottom of my foot splitting. This was unfortunately pretty early in the race. I only had one pair of toe socks, so I saved them to put on at mile 58, and I never changed them again, even through the seven hours of rain. Bad things were definitely happening inside of my shoes for those last 42 miles, but I figured that I would survive whatever it was and that continuing to shift things around was worse than just sticking with my best sock/shoe options. 

Definitely I am not used to stopping during a race and taking care of my feet, but I knew that I needed to take care of the problems early on in this race, before they got debilitating. Before the decision to not touch my feet again at mile 58, I changed socks three times with the hopes that shifting and taping and starting again would keep my feet from totally falling apart.

In total, I lost one toenail (just finally ripped the dangly thing off last night, in case you were wondering) because of blistering, but one toenail per 100 miles isn't too bad of a ratio. I've lost more in much shorter races. Not saying that my feet were good. They definitely did some things I've never seen them do before, like the bottom splitting and the full surround of blisters on my big toe. But I think I expected to lose the entire bottom layer of skin from both feet, so my problems were minor compared to that. Or at least less painful to imagine. 

More foot repair. This time, the aid station medical crew helped too.

At mile 70, I picked up Jeremy as my first pacer, and he stuck with me for the next 18 miles. Honestly, things are mentally foggy for me at this point. I was really tired, so much so that I would start to fall asleep while hiking up hills. I was just resting my eyes, I thought, and then would wake myself up when I started to swerve. I can handle one night of no sleep, but we were going on night two of very little sleep, plus a couple of nights of nervous-energy sleep the days leading up to the race. I was so beat, even though I waited to drink caffeine until night (and hadn't had any for a couple of weeks leading up to the race). I skipped drinking my Red Bull, which was probably a mistake, but it just sounded gross. Next time I would force myself to try this. 

Jeremy definitely got the hardest pacing job with miles 70-88. Not only did he have to pretty much keep a one-sided conversation going for five hours, he started running with me just as the weather turned partly miserable with the heavy rain and definitely dangerous with the lightning. But he just kept talking to me and talking to me and talking to me, and before I knew it, I was at mile 88 meeting my brother Jimmy for my last 12 miles.

When I got to that aid station with 12 miles to go, I full on started bawling. Lots of tears and maybe some full-body convulsions. Jeremy had gotten me through the part I was most scared of: the night, and now I knew that I was actually going to finish. And that my brother, the same brother who used to torture me by pinning me down and spitting in my mouth when I would cry for help and then hang my Cabbage Patch dolls in nooses from the light fixtures, was going to help me through it. We've come a long way since our latch-key-kid days in the '80s. Of course we later in life became friends and allies (when we realized we could get away with so much more if we worked together), but we still have a foundation of torturing each other, which makes for great joke material when you need to laugh. And based on the tears at mile 88, I needed to laugh.

Only 12 miles to go, so easy, right?! Except that the race just kept going and going and going. We finally got off of the roads onto trails, but because of the pouring rain in the night, the trails were thrashed and ready to take a shoe off with every muddy step.

BUT we were still running. So many things can happen over 100 miles, and it's impossible to predict the shape you will be in at the end. I was tired for sure, but my legs actually did not feel horrible. We were able to run to the finish about like we rain at the start, but with the addition of what felt like 200 sharp knives stabbing my toes with every step. But I almost became numb to that pain after a while. Also, taking some Ibuprofen helped. 

The only time I used my watch the entire day was for the final 2.5 miles. My brother was doing a great job at distracting me with games like, Top Five Things Dad Would Say If He Were Here Right Now? That game has never-ending possibilities because you can replace "dad" with any other family member (or famous person, although we didn't make it to that). Even with the distractions, it just felt like we would never ever get there. So I turned on the GPS so that I could see with my eyeballs the numbers ticking upwards. And to my tired, surprised mind, the numbers actually increased as I moved.

And then it happened, just like that I was crossing the finish line with my brother, somewhere around the 28-hour mark. For all of the struggle, it didn't feel real. I hugged our friend Tanya for probably longer than is socially acceptable and cried some more. Then I grabbed my buckle and a picture under the finish arch and hobbled off because my feet hurt so bad, and I just wanted to take a shower and lie down. 

Finish line. Photo: Brain. 

Huge shoutout to our friend and crew member Brian who took the most amazing of the pictures in this post. His photos really capture how special the day was.

And my one regret of the entire race was not waiting for my friends to cross the finish line. If I could do it again, I would have just ignored the foot pain and waited. It seemed urgent to free my feet and help them at the time, but I so wish I could have been there to see my friends' faces as they crossed the finish line and cry some more with them. 

Putting the belt buckle to use.

And what do I say when people ask me, "What was it like to run 100 miles?" Shockingly, it was easier than I thought it would be! I almost hate saying that to anyone because it sounds a little pretentious and a-hole-ish. But it's true. BUT also it only felt easy because of our crew. Maybe in another post I'll review my training, which of course I never felt like was enough, but the friends made each mile go by almost imperceptibly. And even though I was determined to finish, I tried not to ever actually think about the finish line that day (until I turned on my watch for the last 2.5 miles and was like, why will this never end?!). By taking it one snack, one question from the Ziploc bag, one country road, one rock fence, and one poop break at a time, the day just blended together into a series of fortunate events. And now I'm thinking about putting my name in for Western States, because I'm already craving the edge again but also scared of it. The 100 takes you to the very edge of your mind, of pain tolerance, of lack of sleep, of imagination, of hope, of fear -- and you hold there for much longer than you ever thought possible. Actually you hold there until you forget what you were even holding for.

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