The rumors, it turns out, were true.
Everything I’d heard about the Moosalamoo Ultra Run – the challenging early climb up Moosalamoo Mountain; the seemingly constant uphill grade after that; the slick and twisted tree roots; the stinging nettles; the shoe-sucking mud – all of it was precisely as advertised by folks naïve enough to do it once and masochistic enough to tackle the course multiple times.
Less of a trail run, more of a mountain hike and bog slog, this was 36 miles of beautiful cruelty in the heart of the lush Green Mountains of Vermont.
What an introduction to ultrarunning in the Northeast.
Moosalamoo is the brainchild of race director John Izzo. An accomplished ultrarunner with three Vermont 100-Mile and five Vermont 50-Mile finishes to his credit, Izzo is no stranger to grueling races, which I can only assume helped inspire his rugged creation in remote Goshen, VT.
Prior to Moosalamoo, I’d completed 10 ultramarathons in five other states (Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Arkansas, Texas) plus Canada (Whistler, British Columbia), and also completed a three-day stage race in Tennessee, and I’d never encountered a course quite like this.
The course started out easy enough, suckering runners in with 2.1 miles along a rolling gravel road, followed by a half-mile down an access road. Those miles clicked by easy enough, but I wasn’t fooled. I was holding back and conserving my energy. I’d heard the stories of previous years, so I was pretty sure I knew what lurked right around the corner.
The nastiness set in quickly once we reached the Mt. Moosalamoo Trailhead.
A 2 1/2-mile stretch of technical single-track littered with and abundance of lichen-covered rocks, twisted tree roots, and nettles wound its way up the 1,000-foot ascent to the top of Moosalamoo Mountain where the reward was a panoramic view of Lake Dunmore while standing along the edge of a cliff. That was followed by a steep and speedy two-mile, 1600-foot descent to the first aid station.
From there, it was three more miles of constant uphill, including a steep 600-foot march immediately after departing the aid station.
One of the more loathed portions of the course in previous years, the rolling hills of the out-and-back section from Mile 10.1 to Mile 14.1, actually was one of the most runnable parts for me. There were numerous shoe-sucking mud holes that brought me to a standstill (I lost a shoe on the outbound portion), as well as occasional patches of nettles, but it wass mostly easy running. In fact, my legs recovered during this section from the early climbing and I picked up the pace for a while. After passing back through the aid station, however, the fatigue from the early climbing returned to my legs and my calves began to cramp. I spent most of the next three miles – all gradual uphill – hiking to fend off the cramps, before coasting two miles downhill to the 19-mile aid station.
Truth be told, my legs were done at this point. I was well hydrated and did a decent job of taking in calories – mostly cups of Coke, chips and pretzels at the aid stations, and Honey Stinger chews – but the constant climbing was more than my legs were trained for. Izzo’s detailed race instructions suggested that this would be a good spot to bail – “If you are toast at this point you may head back 1.25 miles on Ripton Road and return to the Inn (start/finish).” I didn’t come to Vermont to quit, though, and I was mentally prepared for a long day.
On with the show.
The next seven miles would have been a real gift if my legs hadn’t been so beat. Smooth dirt, switchbacks and quick climbs and descents composed most of this span through the Chandler Ridge Trail.
After hitting the unmanned aid station at mile 27.5, it was uphill until the final mile of the course. The climb began on the Leicester Hollow Trail. Had it come earlier in the race, Leicester Hollow would’ve been the easiest running on the course for me, despite its constant uphill grade. Instead, I was reduced to a steady power hike.
I looked at my Garmin as I neared Mile 32, and at that point I realized I could squeeze in a sub-9-hour finish if I could get my legs to kick into gear and let me push through the final four miles. It’s little goals like that serve as motivation late in ultras.
Those ambitions were dashed promptly, however, when the course bailed into the brush through a seemingly endless stretch of boggy, ankle-deep mud and eroding treefall. I sensed that Izzo must have designed this part of the course to ensure nobody would finish strong. My left shoe got sucked off twice during this stretch, and numerous branches stabbed into the toe-box of my shoes while lifting my feet, each time jerking my leg backward and causing my calf muscles to cramp.
After slogging uphill through what seemed more like a drainage area than trail, I stepped back onto the gravel road and headed a few tenths of a mile uphill to the final aid station. From there, it was three tenths of a mile more on the gravel road, and then back onto the trail for the final two miles to the finish. Most of this section consisted of rolling hills interspersed with muddy pools that broke up my running rhythm as I tried to finish strong. Finally, the course leveled out a half-mile from the finish and I was able to open up my stride. A clearing in the woods emerged as I rounded the final turn in the mountains and began gliding downhill. The roof of the Blueberry Hill Inn came into view, followed by the open field where cars were parked and tents were set up. The 225-foot descent went quickly as I let momentum carry me down the hill, back onto the gravel, across the road and down the finish chute.
The first 2 1/2 miles of the race had come easily, as did the final half-mile. The 33 miles in between, however, were a tremendous test of my legs and mind. I was relieved to be done.
I’m really curious to see how I would have run with sufficient training. We’ve had such a wet spring and summer in Kansas City that most of the local trails have been closed, relegating most training mileage onto pavement. That, in effect, led to far less mileage than would have been desirable. It also meant far less vertical training on hilly trail systems such as the Wyandotte County Lake Scout Trails. That would have helped tremendously.
Even so, the muddy, boggy sections are what took the biggest toll. It’s impossible to go fast on that terrain without risking injury, and the suction effect of the mud sapped the strength from my undertrained legs pretty quickly.
Regardless of pace, I really enjoyed the family-style atmosphere of this event. Izzo’s family and a few friends run the aid stations and organize the post-race feast. Their presence definitely is felt, and their positive attitudes made a challenging day much more enjoyable.
Also, since I was going slower than planned, I took time to look around and really appreciate my surroundings – and my surroundings were absolutely gorgeous. This was my first time in Vermont, and it’s a truly beautiful place. It reminded me a bit of Chattanooga, Tennessee, but different in its own right.
Moosalamoo was an eye-opening introduction to trail running in Vermont, and that’s a good thing. It showed me that I have a lot of work to do before returning to the Green Mountain State in late September to run the Vermont 50.
Place: 20th place/42 official finishers