BROWNSVILLE, VT – A maze of smooth, dirt singletrack wound through the northern hardwood forest with sugar maple and birch trees in the early stages of their fall transformation. It was a recipe for sensory overload, and my mind was in a state of absolute bliss – save for the distraction of searing pain in my quads and the occasional annoyance of a stumbled-upon rock or tree root.
“Just keep running for as long as you can,” I told myself. “Run until your legs won’t go anymore, and then you can hike it in. Until then, just keep running.”
Standing at the starting line of the Vermont 50 nine hours earlier, I had no idea what to expect of the day. I wasn’t appropriately trained, I had two bum ankles, and the 12-hour time limit with strict cutoffs along the way gave me plenty of cause for concern. Then there was the 8,900 feet of vertical gain to deal with, plus the punishing downhills that naturally come along with all of that climbing. I planned to run and hike until the cutoffs caught up to me. Then, my race would be done, and I was ok with that.
But there I was at Mile 44, just six miles from the finish line. My legs were still churning at a steady trot, and I was on pace for a personal-best time.
This didn’t make any sense.
Actually, it made perfect sense.
My last 50-mile race ended with a trip to the emergency room. In hindsight, it was appropriate given the way I’d mistreated my body during the 2013 racing season.
I overscheduled events that year and created a race calendar that I took way too seriously. I overthought my training schedule, treated each event as though it was an “A Race,” and didn’t allow myself much time for recovery.
Ultramarathons in Texas and Kansas and three-day stage races in Arkansas and Tennessee took a collective toll. Then I paced at the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado two weeks before heading to Whistler, British Columbia, for the appropriately named Meet Your Maker 50 on Sept. 1, 2013. By the time I arrived at the starting line, my brain was burned out and my system was run down due to months of fatigue.
I finished the race, but the aftermath was inevitable.
After my release from the hospital in Vancouver, I returned to the United States knowing that I needed to get my body right. I needed to give it some long-overdue rest. More than that, though, I needed to get my mind right. I was running for the wrong reasons, thinking too much about things that didn’t matter, and putting unnecessary pressure on myself.
I’d gotten away from what I loved most about trail running: the simple pleasure of being outside, out in the woods, trotting down the trail while forgetting about the trivialities of the day.
I needed to check out for a while.
A HEALTHY HIATUS
Hitting the reset button on my brain has been a two-year process, but it has been fulfilling in more ways than I could have imagined.
I’ve volunteered at quite a few races, helped build and repair trails, and done a bit of writing. I’ve barely raced, and none of it has been serious.
I’ve winged it at a few ultramarathons – Rock Bridge Revenge 50K (2014), the Night Hawk 50K (2015) and the Moosalamoo 36-Mile Ultra (2015) – as well as the Rockin’ K Trail Marathon (2014), and I’ve sprinkled in a few 5Ks and 10Ks just for fun. I haven’t developed a single training schedule during the two years since the Meet Your Maker 50, and I haven’t much cared how I did at the races that I’ve done. I’ve gone to starting lines with no plan, and haven’t been afraid to DNF. I truly have focused on just having fun, enjoying the trails and the camaraderie with my fellow runners, and trying to make the best of each day.
That said, I’ve run as much – if not more – during the past two years as I did prior to the Meet Your Maker 50; I’ve simply taken my brain out of the equation. There has been no plan. I run if I feel like it; if I don’t, I don’t; as long as it makes me happy.
The past two years have brought me back to my roots with trail running, and it has been refreshing. My mind is clear, my motivation is back, and I’m finally ready to actually train again – this time with my priorities straight.
CHECKING BACK IN
I planned to develop a short-term training schedule for the Vermont 50 after signing up for the race back in May. No such schedule ever came to fruition, however, as more pressing life matters took precedence including a job search, traveling, and a move to the Boston area. As a result, I headed to the starting line Sunday with just three runs of 20 miles or more total this year (a 21-miler in July, as well as the Night Hawk and Moosalamoo races).
Undertrained, and with a pair of gimpy ankles from a lingering sprain (left ankle) and a recent nasty twist (right ankle), I went to the starting line with no plan, no expectations, and felt no pressure. I was going to enjoy my time on the trails until I missed a cutoff and got pulled. I didn’t expect to finish, and that was strangely exciting.
My mind was completely at ease.
The temperature was in the upper 30s as the race began, so the chill in the air put some extra spring in my legs for the early miles. I set out at a relaxed pace and coasted through the first mile of gradual downhill, using it as a warmup before beginning to climb. Most of the first 18 miles of the course were a mixture of dirt and gravel roads, with some sections of singletrack sprinkled in. It was a nice variety of terrain, and it afforded ample opportunity to look around and enjoy the scenery at sunrise without face-planting. The roads made for quick hiking on the uphill sections as well as swift descents. I took full advantage of those design benefits, hiking with purpose and blazing down the hills with no worry about stumbling.
I rolled through the second aid station (Mile 8.1) with a 32-minute cushion on the cutoff, and by Mile 18 I was 75 minutes ahead of being pulled. I’d been running for more than three hours and barely noticed. I’d spent most of that time gawking at the gorgeous Vermont scenery – the fog rising from the valleys, the sunrise peeking through the trees, and the leaves of the sugar maples beginning to change colors.
The trail wound through multiple maple syrup farms, easily identifiable by the dozens of trees being tapped with blue plastic tubing that carries syrup to a collection space. It was my first time seeing a maple syrup farm, and it was fascinating to see where my favorite oatmeal topping originates. Occasionally, the trail popped of the woods and through large clearings, opening up to panoramic scenes of the surrounding forest-covered mountains. These were hard-earned views that few people – save for the runners in the race and the property owners sharing their land for just this day – would ever experience.
What a treat.
The temperature rose into the 60s by the time I reached Greenall’s Aid Station at Mile 31.3. I was 90 minutes ahead of the cutoff and in excellent shape to finish. The biggest climbs were behind me, and my legs felt surprisingly sturdy for having just knocked out a 6:10 50K. I hydrated well with my two handheld bottles – Gatorade in the left and water in the right – and I snacked on half a turkey and Swiss sandwich and some chips and pretzels at each aid station, so my stomach was in good shape, too.
Given my lack of training and minimal long mileage days this year, I expected my legs to crash at any moment. It had been a remarkable race so far, but I assumed the final 19 miles would be a long hike to the finish line.
Instead, my finest race day as a trail runner was unfolding.
I wasn’t overthinking anything. I was just running; just savoring; just – to quote the event’s slogan – “living the experience.”
My legs began to tighten up shortly after departing the aid station, and my instinct was to take a hiking break. I dismissed that option, however, recognizing that the gradual climbs and descents and winding switchbacks were a favorable opportunity to run if my legs would allow it. This race had gone beyond my wildest expectations so far, so why not push a little bit more and see what happens?
“Just keep running,” I told myself. “Just keep running.”
I forced my legs into a slow but steady trot, keeping my breathing and heart rate in check, and took hiking breaks only for the steepest climbs. Each time my legs grew weary and wanted to walk, a timely downhill appeared and allowed me to continue running. Soon, I shuffled down a shade-covered dirt road into the Mile 40 aid station, 8:09 expired – well ahead of my personal-best time for 40 miles (8:28 at the 2013 Free State 40).
My undertrained legs kept chugging along, and they still had more to give. The seven-mile stretch between aid stations at Mile 40 and Mile 47 consisted mostly of rolling singletrack through the woods, twisting and turning around trees and rocks. There were lots of quick ups and downs, usually requiring only three or four strides. This was the stuff that always shut me down late in races when fatigue was at its worst, but this time was different. The miles had passed so easily, so joyfully, up to this point. Now it was time to suffer, and I was mentally prepared to push through it. I’d done enough races, endured enough late-race discomfort, so I knew the pain in my ravaged quads and wasted calves was only temporary. Besides, I expected this stuff to hit much earlier in the race; for it to hold off until the final 10 miles was a gift.
“Accept the low points, and move on,” as Geoff Roes once said.
And so I did, pushing my legs to continue running through the winding singletrack and then out onto the road that led to the aid station at Mile 47. Brian Nephew, a fellow runner from Connecticut, credited me with pulling him along through a few miles of that section. As we departed the final aid station and headed for the finish line, however, it was Brian’s turn to do the pulling. My legs begged to walk, but Brian told me to stay with him. I did the best I could, hiking the uphills hard, shuffling along the flatter sections and opening my stride on the downhills. Brian eventually pulled away, but I kept plodding along, forcing my legs to run.
“Just keep running,” I told myself. “The finish line is getting close.”
I finally saw a sign proclaiming there were only 2 miles to the finish, then 1.5 miles, then 1 mile, then … BAM. My toe caught a rock, and I sprawled through the air and crashed to the ground on my right hip and shoulder. I cursed myself, dusted myself off, and started running again. The final mile was downhill all the way. Grassy switchbacks provided an enticing view of the finish line that inspired me to go faster. My right hamstring wailed and my quads howled as I took the final strides downhill and into the finish chute.
It was a 50-mile personal record by 96 minutes; the best race of my life.
In the minutes following the race, I couldn’t grasp what had just happened. I wasn’t properly trained; I had two cranky ankles; I had no real plan for the race; and I hadn’t expected to even finish.
Reflecting during the drive home and in the days that followed, however, what happened became much more clear. Sure, near-perfect race conditions had plenty to do with it, and the course layout was favorable for fast times, but this was about more than that.
The Vermont 50 was validation of the past two years. It was about racing with a clear mind, valuing the opportunity and the environment, and running for the right reasons. It all made sense.
I needed to check out for a while, and Sunday was the right time to check back in.