Sunday, July 24, 2016

Vermont 100 - 2016

The Vermont 100 is one of the older 100 milers in the United States, and is the second leg of the so-called grand slam of ultra running.  The other races include Western States, Leadville and Wastach.  All four races take place in few short months, from June through September, and recovery between races is a real challenge.  

Grand Slam Runners
at the start of the Vermont 100

This year, Erin and Kim both got into Western States -- by far the hardest of the four in which to gain entry -- and they both decided to try the grand slam.   Kim, who had cancer and chemotherapy last year, bravely got on the starting line at Western States, but timed out at Devil's Thumb, about half way through.  That didn't stop her from getting on the starting line again in Vermont, and this time she finished.  

Erin finished Western States in 29:57, the last finisher before the cut-off, despite making a wrong turn late in the race.  She then had just three weeks to recover from that 100 mile effort before the start of Vermont. She finished Vermont as well, more than two hours faster than she had run at Western States and less than half an hour off her best time ever.

Erin and Kim
after the pre-race meeting

The course winds its way through rural Vermont, mostly on country roads.  The race organizers no longer publish the course map, apparently because much of the course is on private land, and they do not want to encourage people to run the course on their own, without permission of the various owners.  

Hard packed dirt roads
Most of the course is like this
There are no mountains to contend with, just rolling hills, and it is tempting to think that the course is a fast one.   I suspect it could be relatively fast, if the weather cooperated.  But that is a big if.  The weather can be hot and humid, or it can rain and leave the course a slippery, muddy slog, at least in places.  Finding the perfect day may be difficult.  This year started off near perfect, but it did not end that way.

The race is well-organized.  The course is clearly marked, and I did not hear of any runners going the wrong way.  The aid stations are well-stocked and staffed, and they are close together, never more than five miles apart with the sole exception of the first aid station at Mile 7.

There's also a horse race, starting just after the runners and covering much of the same course.   The two races coexist without any meaningful conflict.

Runners share the course with horses

My first stop of the day was the Stage Road aid station, at Mile 30.  Both Kim and Erin looked good, although Erin was sore and tired from Western States, and sat down for a bit, something she ordinarily wouldn't do so early in a race.  But she ran strong and felt progressively better as the day went on.
Kim at Stage Road
Mile 30

Horses at Stage Road
Mile 30

After Stage Road, I had a few hours to myself to explore rural Vermont.  It would be easy to get lost in places, and there is little cell phone coverage, but I managed to find my way around well enough, and spent much of the afternoon in Woodstock.

No, the concert was in Woodstock, NY
(I didn't realize that until later)

Kristen drove up from her home in Southern New Hampshire, and met us at Mile 47, at Camp 10 Bear aid station, to help crew and to pace Kim.   Kristen is an experienced ultra runner, and it was a pleasure hanging out with her for the afternoon and evening.

Kristen, Kim and Erin
Mile 47: Camp 10 Bear

Erin, Kim and Kristen
Leaving Camp 10 Bear

Both Erin and Kim were looking good when they came into Mile 58.5, at the Margaritaville aid station.  There managed to eat some real food as well.  Yes, there were margaritas available, although they keep them in the back of the tent and I think they are really only for the crews, not the runners. 

Margaritaville aid station
Mile 58.5

Kim at Mile 58.5
I think that's a quesadilla

Erin at Mile 58.5 Margaritaville
Veggie burger in hand

Sporting my Vermont 100 hat
margarita in hand
Margaritaville, Mile 58.5

The race comes back through the Camp 10 Bear aid station around Mile 70.  It was nearly 10pm when Erin came in, still running well and feeling better than she had at Mile 30.    I started my pacing leg at that point.  No more pictures from here on, of course, as it was dark and I was running.

The weather was near perfect at the start, clear and just a tad warmer than optimal for an ultra.  The weather report said that it would be dry all day, and it was -- until just past midnight, when a large thunderstorm hit.  At first, we thought it would pass, but it didn't.  

It was pouring rain on and off for the last 30 miles of the race.  But Erin did a great job.  Every time it started raining, she seemed to pick up the pace.  And she kept aid station stops to a minimum, so as not to get too cold.  Erin had a jacket, but I was in just a technical shirt and shorts.  Fortunately, however, it was just warm enough that it wasn't a problem.

Erin came in just before 7:30 a.m., under 27:30.  Kim was just over an hour later.  Now, they are both headed to the next leg of the grand slam: Leadville!  

After the race, I went to visit my friends Stan and Heidi in Cape Cod.  They live on what amounts to a small farm.  This has nothing to do with running, but I'm going to post a few pictures anyway:

Gang of Geese


(a great runner: maybe one day I'll talk her into running an ultra)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

West Highland Way 2016

I wish I could adequately describe how I felt running the West Highland Way this past June.  The physical exertion of running 95 miles, and the sleep deprivation that goes with it, are only part of the experience.  So is the beautiful and austere course.  Even the midges play their beastly role.  

But most important is the feeling of community with crew, volunteers and other runners, all of whom step outside their ordinary lives for a little while to focus on one goal - getting from Milngavie to Fort William.  It is such a special experience, an emotional high that I have never experienced anywhere else.  I feel privileged to have started the race twice.

The Course

Course Profile

My two experiences at West Highland Way could not have been more different, and each one helped me appreciate the other.  Last year, it was raining much of the day.  I made several tactical mistakes, including going off course around mile 51 and running an extra six miles or so, not paying sufficient attention to nutrition, and failing to have the right gear for the cold, wet weather.  I ended up dropping out at 88 miles, at Lundavra, with hypothermia.  This year, the weather was perfect and my race went smoothly.

As strange as it sounds, I would not change one thing about what happened last time.  It was an incredible experience.  That is not to say I would ever want to repeat it.  That's often how life is: an experience is perfect the first time, but trying to repeat it would never work.  It is like going back to school after you've graduated. 

Pre-Race Instructions
12:30 a.m.

So much for the emotional stuff.  Here's the race report:  

I followed a very simply nutrition plan, taking one Gu every half hour.  That alone provides 200 calories per hour.  Add in a bit of Tailwind in the hydration pack, and some ginger beer and Coke at check points, and that was plenty of energy to get me to Fort William.   I had no problems eating, and generally felt good the entire 95 miles.  

Once again, I had an excellent crew: Rhona, Jemma and Patrick. Rhona was my crew chief, and she made sure that everything went smoothly.  Among other things, she provided me with an old mobile phone so that I could call the crew 15 minutes before each check point, a detail I would have ignored but which provided helpful.  

The Start

The race started at 1:00 a.m., in perfect weather, clear and cool. The course begins gently, rolling through the countryside on a mixture of fire roads, single tracks and small country roads.  The sky began to get light shortly after 3:00 a.m.   I took my headlamp off around 4:00 a.m., and only put it on again at the very end of the race.

The first 19 miles of the course are relatively flat and fast.  Even the climb up Conic hill is not too difficult that early in the race, although the run down from Conic toward Loch Lomond is a bit technical for a klutz like me.  I lost a few places at that stage, but felt great coming into Balmaha check point at 19 miles.

The midges came out in full force shortly after Balmaha, and plagued us for about 15 miles. Fortunately, I had used midge spray before the race, and one of the volunteers at Inversaid check point resprayed me.  And, I was running in a long sleeve shirt and gloves for the first 41 miles.  I survived with just a few bites on the ankles. 

Midge Hell

After Balmaha, the course continues along the East side of Loch Lomond for another 22 miles.  The trail becomes more technical, particularly a stretch of about four miles starting after Inversnaid.   

Last year, that technical section knocked me back significantly.  I lost about 20 places in the race, and even so it took a huge amount of energy.  It was difficult year, too, and there were times when I had to walk, and even use my hands.  But even so, there is no comparison with last year.  I lost just a couple of places and felt fine when I left Loch Lomond and headed towards the Beinglas check point at 41 miles.

Leaving Loch Lomond

Beinglas Check Point

My only minor hiccups came in the ten mile stretch after the Beinglas check point.  It was still cool, and I decided that I could get to Auchtertyre with just one water bottle, and no hydration pack.  I also left on my black long-sleeve Lycra shirt.  But the weather warmed up to about to about 70 degrees, and by the time I got to Beinglas I was a bit warm and slightly dehydrated.  I weighed in at about 4kg less than my pre-race weight.  

I also managed to bang the top of my head when passing through the tunnel under the train tracks at around mile 45, despite the fact that there is a very clear warning sign.  The tiny cut on my scalp bled a fair bit, and looked far worse than it felt.  Another running gave me some toilet paper to clean up the mess, and alerted the medical station at Auchtertyre check point to be on the look out for me.

Auchtertyre Check Point
It did not take long for the medic to decide that I was fine. Auchtertyre, about 50 miles into the race, is also where pacers are allowed.  

This year, however, the rules provided that anyone on pace to run under 21 hours cannot have a support runner.  When I arrived I was slightly faster than 21 hour pace, so I waited a couple of minutes so that Rhona could join me for the next section to Glencoe.  In the meantime, I drank lots of water, ginger beer and Coke, and gained back some of the water-weight I had lost.

From Auchtertyre to Fort Williams, the race went smoothly.  Rhona, Jemma and Patrick all took turns pacing and keeping me company. There were times I was frustrated that I was too tired to run on slightly technical downhills sections, but there was never a moment when I was objectively in any trouble.

Subconsciously, however, there was a part of me that thought that something would go wrong, and that I would not finish.  When we got to Lundavra, at mile 88, where I dropped out last year, I started to realize how anxious I had been, but also started realizing that I was in great shape and would actually finish.  I ran through the Lundavra check point without stopping, forcing Rhona and Jemma to run to catch up, and felt great the rest of the way to Fort William.  
It was barely dark when I finished at 11:39 p.m.  Wullie and Davie, who were on my crew last year, where at there, as was Alison.  I was so excited to see them I actually cried; I cannot remember the last time that I was that happy.

Our Team at the Award Giving
Rhona, Me, Jemma, Patrick

I owe thanks to many people.  In somewhat chronological order: Colin, Wullie and Davie crewed me last year, and taught me many lessons I was able to put to good use this year.  Ryan gave me the simple nutrition plan, which even I can follow, and which worked so well.  Marshall, Gwen and Kelley were my main training partners for the first five months of 2016, and helped me get into great shape.  Rhona, Jemma and Patrick crewed and paced this year.  I could not have done it without them.  And finally, Alison, who has been such a good friend for all these years.


Friday, April 22, 2016


       The 42 mile run across the Grand Canyon is an ultra running classic.  The route goes down the South Rim, across the Canyon, up the North Rim -- then back.  Rim to Rim to Rim.  I've had the pleasure of running it three times now, but somehow managed not to post about it, so here goes.

         The Grand Canyon is one of those places you have to see in person to appreciate.  It does not matter how many pictures or GoPro videos you've seen, the first time you stand on the Rim is still completely different and special.  
View from the South Rim
     It only makes sense to run R2R2R in the Spring or Fall. Temperatures in Winter and Summer are too extreme.  But even in the Spring or Fall, the weather is usually a challenge, mostly because the temperature varies so much throughout the day. The South Rim sits at about 6,800 feet elevation, and the North Rim is just over 8,000 feet.  The Colorado River, at the base of the Canyon, is just 2,400 feet.  Early morning on the South Rim can easily be 50 degrees colder than midday on the Canyon floor.   And so it was for us.

      It was snowing as we drove into the Park on Friday afternoon, April 15, 2016.  I had never camped in the snow before, and did not have the right gear.  It was cold that night, and I did not get much sleep, but it really wasn't that bad.  Thank you, Panthea, for helping put up my tent!

The Camp Ground
First Night
       The run takes the better part of the day, so it is wise to start at sunrise, in order to give yourself the best chance of finishing before dark.  Our intention was to do just that, but we didn't actually get to the South Rim until 6:30 am, nearly an hour after sunrise.  There were a total of perhaps 20 other runners who ran R2R2R that day, and we were apparently the last ones to start.  Most started at 5:30 am, but at least two guys, who were mostly walking, started at 2:30.

     It was about 32 degrees out when we set out.  We were dressed accordingly.

On the South Rim, 6:30am
Gwen, Panthea, me, Stephen, Kelley and Marshal

        The South Kaibab Trail drops sharply into the Canyon.   At times the trail is runnable, at other times it turns into roughly hewn stairs created with logs and/or rocks.  In fact, along the entire course, there are rocks and log in the trail itself, designed to keep rain water from washing the trail away.  Jumping over those water barriers is easy enough early in the day, but gets harder as the miles go on.

Descending the South Rim

Kelley and Me
Descending the South Rim

Stephen and his Goodr sunglasses
South Rim Descent

        The South Kaibab Trail descends over 4,000 feet in about six miles before reaching a tunnel that leads to the bridge over the Colorado River.  It was much warmer when we reached the bottom, even though it was still early.

Bridge over the Colorado River
       About a mile past the Colorado River, eight miles from the South Rim, lies Phantom Ranch, the only semblance of civilization in the Canyon.  Registered guest arrive by mule, and spend the night.  They can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.  Runners and hikers can always get water and use the clean bathrooms.  At times, they will sell lemonade or soft drinks to non-guests, but do not count on it.  Kelley was able to buy a lemonade this time.

       After the Phantom Ranch, the trail winds into a narrow canyon and begins to climb, slowly at first, but then more and more steeply.

In the Canyon
      I took it very easy down the South Rim, and as far as Phantom Ranch, in the early morning cold.  When the trail and the temperature began to rise, I began to run with a bit more purpose.   

In the Canyon
      There are several water faucets along the course after Phantom Ranch, at Cottonwood camp grounds, Manzanita, on the climb up the North Rim and finally on the North Rim itself.  But these faucets sometimes need to be turned off, lest the pipers freeze and burst.  Before we left, I called the Park Ranger's office, and asked which faucets would be on.  The Ranger said that all the faucets North of Phantom Ranch we be off for another month.  No big deal. The trail follows a stream, and I took along water purification tablets.

        But the water was on at both Cottonwood and Manzanita. That's the third time in a row the Ranger has said faucets would be off, but in fact some or all were on.  I suspect that the Rangers don't want people to feel too confident.   Similarly, there are few signs giving distances between locations, presumably because this could be misleading given the terrain. Yes, it may be just five miles to the top of the South Rim, for example, but it is a very steep five miles. In any event, there was plenty of unexpected water along the route, and no need for purification tablets.

       The climb up the North Rim starts in earnest after Manzanita. The North Rim is over 1,000 feet higher than the South, yet the climb is less severe.  There is a good deal of runnable ground, not to mention some amazing views.

Climbing the North Rim

Climbing the North Rim

       I ran with Stephen for the first nine miles, then slowly moved ahead.  About half way up the North Rim, I caught up to Gwen. Marshall and Kelley were ahead of me the whole day.  I only saw them once, while I was finishing my climb of the North Rim and they were descending.

Climbing the North Rim

Near the North Rim
      The North Rim was cold and snowy.  I asked a group of runners from Nebraska to take my picture in front of the sign, and then quickly turned around and headed back down the North Kaibab Trail towards the South Rim.

North Rim
         I ran reasonably well down the North Rim, but by the time I reached Manzanita, about 28 miles into the run, I was feeling a bit tired of running downhill, and I wasn't much looking forward to the gentle downhill run across the Canyon floor.  To make matters more complicated, the nozzle on my hydration pack was giving me trouble.  Gwen caught back up to me at Cottonwood on the way back, as I was trying to get the nozzle to cooperate.     

In the Canyon, heading back to the South Rim
      I began feeling better after stopping at Phantom Ranch on the way back.  At that point, I knew that the running was over for the day, and that the only thing remaining to do was to hike the South Rim.  

Bridge over the Colorado River
Afternoon, looking towards the South Rim

      I felt strong on the final climb up the South Rim, and caught up to Gwen again about a third of the way up.  We worked together the final four miles to finish in 12:15, a respectable time. We made it to the top at 6:45pm, well before sunset and did not need to use our headlamps. Kelley finished in 11:15, and Marshall was somewhere in between us. 

      Stephen, by far the least experienced of the five of us who attempted R2R2R that day, finished his second ultra ever in a very respectable 16 hours.  He was alone most of the day, and hiked much of the South Rim in the dark.  Well done, Stephen.

      Running across the Grand Canyon in a single day is, in many senses, an extreme thing to do.  But I am lucky enough to be in good enough health to take it on.  More importantly, I have a great group of friends who are supportive, capable, experienced and calm.  As a result, running R2R2R seemed like no big deal.  But I know that it is, and I am grateful for being able to do it at all.

      My first experience at R2R2R, several years ago, was very different.  It was my first ultra and, despite being in excellent condition and having plenty of running experience, I did not know what to expect.  As it turned out, I did just fine, but one of the other runners in our group was not.  He "bonked" badly, and I had to half-carry him up the South Rim in the dark.  But that's another story, for another time.

    Finally, a few more pictures, just because I can: