Vermont in the fall is a truly spectacular place and time to be a trail-runner, especially when weather conditions are perfect.
I’ve certainly been blessed with ideal conditions during my two trips to the Vermont 50 – for the 50-mile race in 2015 and the 50K race this year on Sunday, Sept. 25. Not every year of the Vermont 50 is flawless – in fact, I’ve been told by many that it is notorious for challenging weather, be it extreme heat like in 2014, or heavy rain the year prior. In 2015, however, the course was dry, the skies were sunny, and temperatures ranged from 32 degrees at the start to the upper 60s by late afternoon. This year was even more fabulous, with temperatures ranging from the upper 30s to upper 50s, dry ground, and sunny skies that allowed the fall foliage to explode in color all around us.
As a guy who grew up in Kansas – a place known for its picturesque fall colors – Vermont makes me feel like I’m back in the heartland this time of year, except, of course, for the mountains.
The slogan of the Vermont 50 is “Live the Experience.” Indeed, it is quite the experience to be had.
That said, I hadn’t planned on running this year’s race. My girlfriend and I were going to crew for a good friend who was running the 50-miler. We would like to enter the lottery to run the CCC next year in Europe, however, and I realized two months ago that I still needed three more points to qualify for the lottery. The Vermont 50K was the closest option I had and, since we’d already planned on being at the event, it just made sense to run it.
In order to “Live the Experience,” however, I had to tap into my nearly five years of experience running ultras to get me through this one. Since completing my first 100K – the Worlds End 100K in Pennsylvania – in May, my mileage had plummeted. In fact, my longest run since the 100K had been around 14 1/2 miles. I’ve run numerous 50Ks and other ultras on low-mileage preparation, but never quite this low. Fortunately, I’ve become pretty good at being able to manage races on low mileage preparation, and that carried me through on Sunday.
I focused on hydration early and made a point of eating at every aid station. That way I never fell behind on fluids or calories. I also laid back in the pack and stuck to my commitment to take it easy for the first 20 miles and then evaluate how my legs were doing. Most of the 50K course overlaps with the 50-mile course, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. That made it much easier to be responsible.
My legs cooperated better than expected. I coasted through the first few hours and arrived at the half-marathon point in about 2:23, perhaps a couple minutes ahead of where I thought I’d be. My legs continued to respond during the next seven miles, and I finished the first 20 miles a few seconds shy of four hours.
I needed a few brief hiking breaks during the next few miles, but my legs continued to do what I asked of them and I plugged ahead for a few more miles. It was around mile 26 1/2 that my hamstrings started to revolt, and I knew my luck was starting to run out. I’d made it much farther than anticipated before things started to turn ugly. I took a few minutes to hike before running the last few tenths of a mile into the final aid station. From there, the last substantial climb – around 450 feet of gain – was ahead of me. I spent most of the next two miles hiking, with a few brief spurts of running mixed in.
Finally, at mile 29 1/2, I saw what I’d been waiting for – a sign proclaiming only two miles remained until the finish. Suddenly, the calories from the Coke and ginger ale that I’d slammed at the final aid station started to kick in. The finish line was close, and my legs found new life. I charged up the quick inclines and trotted along the flats and downhills during the next mile, logging my first sub-10-minute mile since mile 21. Then came the “one mile to go” sign, followed by 350 feet of descent back and forth down a ski slope to the finish line. I saw three runners scattered ahead and took off after them, my pace dropping to an 8-minute mile, then 7-minute, then 6:20 pace for the last few strides into the finisher’s chute and across the line.
Going into the race, I thought I could finish around 6:20-6:30 if I managed the race intelligently, my legs cooperated, and we had good weather. I crossed the finish line in 6:20:26, good for 65th place out of 217 finishers.
I certainly didn’t put in the appropriate preparation to run this race, but I am thankful that I was able to tap into my experience – learning from past mistakes and successes – to ultimately get the most out of this year’s Vermont 50 and reach my 15th ultramarathon finish line.
I’m not sure what my racing schedule has in store for me through the end of the year. Now that I have enough points to enter the CCC lottery, however, I am ready to put in the necessary work to get ready to take on that course if Alex’s and my names get drawn and we are given the opportunity to race in the Alps in 2017.