It was Dark:Thirty. I was somewhere climbing up the Mt. Moosalamoo Trail in Vermont, about 45-ish miles into The Endurance Society’s Infinitus 88k-ish race.
Before I started this climb, the nice chap at the aid station informed me, “Just 2.5 miles to the summit of Mt. Moosalmoo!”
He was so cheery. I was so dirty.
He said that as if those 2.5 miles were regular old road miles, and not Endurance Society FUBARed trail miles. I knew better. I knew those 2.5 miles, while sounding so short and swift, would be long and tortuous.
As I climbed this, amidst rocks and roots and mud pools that went up to my ears, it was time to forget any big goals I had for myself. It was time to forget about beast mode.
I had officially entered survival mode.
I had been out there way way way longer than any “normal” race of this distance. All of the stories (warnings?) I had heard about Endurance Society events were ringing so very very true.
These races are hard. So. Fucking. No. Asterisk. For. The. U. I. Don’t. Care. If. You. Pardon. My. French. Hard.
As I hiked in the dark wilderness, I found myself singing a paraphrased version the Talking Heads,
“And you may find yourself, climbing a craggy mountainside, and you may find yourself, sinking in an unavoidable mudpool, and you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?”
Good question. Let’s rewind a bit to answer that one.
How did I get to Infinitus?
So, when I was a little girl…
Okay, maybe not that far, but truthfully how I got here/there/everywhere probably does have a good bit to do with that overweight little girl who didn’t mind getting dirty, and was always something of a pig pen.
But, this blog post can only go so long, so I’ll fast forward.
In 2013, John did a 55-ish mile race, called Peak Ultra. He finished first overall male, and second overall (chicked by the totally awesome Larissa Dannis). At that time, he said it was the hardest race he had ever done (click for his race report), and that “peaked” my interest. For John to say something was the “hardest ever” was saying a lot.
So, of course, I wanted to play, too.
In 2013, however, I was deep in the middle of my Kona qualification drama, which involved saying “No” to pretty much anything that I wanted to do if it didn’t directly involve improving my chances of qualifying.
So, I made a mental note of that race and put it on “my list”.
Since then, the race has morphed into to The Endurance Society’s Infinitus race, which features a series of different maniacal events:
- 888k – yes, that is three 8’s (for the metric-disadvantaged, such as myself, that’s in the 552ish mile range)
- 72 hour & 48 hour (as far as you can get in those time periods)
- 88k race (55ish miles)
- Marathon (more like 27 miles and change)
- 8k (who knows?)
You know you want to sign up for one. Click here to do it.
I signed up for the 88k, which featured at least part of the original route that John had done back in 2013. The official description for the course says that it features five significant climbs, one going up the infamous Bloodroot Mountain, which according to my Garmin has an average 16% grade for 1.25 miles. So, you know, no biggie.
All of these races begin and end at the Blueberry Hill Inn, in Goshen VT. The races, with the exception of the 88k, work off two main loops: 1) 7.2 miles, featuring Mt. Romance, and 2) 19.9 miles featuring Mt. Moosalamoo.
These loop distances are dependent somewhat on what trail directions you read, hence varying mile estimates. It’s part of the adventure, I say!
The 888k, 72- and 48-hour, and marathon racers complete these two loops until they get to their projected distance or time.
The 88k race starts off with a separate 29 mile loop, before circling back to Blueberry Hill Inn to complete the 7.2 mile and 19.9 mile loops.
While this all adds up to about 56 miles, I managed to run about 60 miles, due to missing 4 turns, each of which were VERY WELL marked. This is 100% operator error here. Let’s just say that I don’t have a future as an orienteer.
Sounds fine, right? Well, what happens over the course of these loops makes you begin to question your ability and your sanity.
Not my best effort
This race was something of a disaster for me. We can’t always be 100% on race day, and in this case, I was not.
I’ve been nursing a literal pain in the ass (ischial bursitis) for the past 6 weeks or so. And, while that issue was feeling almost healed up, I managed to create a problem in my right ankle and foot (cranky tibial tendon), because I had likely subconsciously altered my posture due to the PITA problem. Added to these complications, I had a flare up of diverticulitis in the days leading to the race that was keeping me pretty close to the toilet.
I showed up to the race site covered in KT Tape and wearing a diaper. So, you know, it was GAME ON, people.
We’ve had an extraordinarily cool spring. In fact, it had snowed in Vermont about 2 weeks or so prior to the race day. When I saw the picture on Facebook, I thought to myself, “It’s going to be 90 degrees on race day.”
Unfortunately, my prediction was correct. By the time the race started at 8:08 a.m. (a play on the infinity theme – hence all the “8’s”), it was already steamy.
I approached this race as I have in the past, with my PEDS strategy: Pace, Eat, Drink, Smile. I started off super conservatively, as the tales of the difficulty of the race plus the heat had me on alert. I had some goals for the race, but I also wanted to survive.
Spoiler alert: I started off slow, and just got slower. And just when you think that I might be moving as slow as a human can go, I went a little slower still.
The race begins on dirt road for about 1.5 miles, and then enters the Catamount Trail, which is a snowmobile/cross country trail. I imagine in the winter time, it’s an obvious trail. But, in the summer time, it’s overgrown, rocky, muddy, with uneven camber.
My cranky ankle was crankier still on that section. Thankfully, this didn’t last much more than 3 or so miles, and the trail got less technical, and more obvious. Aaaah, happy ankle.
In the beginning, I was running along with a few people, but by the time I got to the Bloodroot Climb (about 8 or 9 miles into the race), I was pretty much alone, and it stayed that way for most of the remainder of the race.
In terms of steepness, Bloodroot lived up to the hype. There were main sections of this climb that were so steep you had to toe in – you couldn’t even fully plant your foot. Thankfully, I found a usable stick that served as a makeshift trekking pole to help me get up this sucker.
Despite the fact that I have trekking poles, I didn’t bring them with me. Because, you know, they would have been useful.
While Bloodroot was steep, it was not terribly technical, which for me was a relief. Again, happy ankle.
After climbing Bloodroot, the course bombs down the backside. What goes up at a steep pitch, also heads back down. I took it relatively easy here, and chose not to go full speed. It seemed a little early in the race to blow up my quads.
While the heat of the day was climbing – along with the terrain – I was feeling okay. I was drinking regularly, taking in calories, and all seemed to be right with my body. For now.
After coming out of the Bloodroot section and heading back toward Blueberry Hill, I learned at the aid station that the first place female was almost two hours ahead of me. Huh. Not likely to be making that up any time soon!
At this point, I didn’t know who that lead female was. If I did, I might have realized that I never stood a chance from the start. It was Sarah Keyes, who has a series of race wins and podium finishes placing her among some of the most elite ultrarunners. So, okay, I wasn’t ever catching her, and she wound up second place overall. Go, girl!!
Despite the hills and the heat, I was feeling pretty good at this point. I was motoring along, at my lil’ diesel pace, eating, drinking and smiling.
Then (cue the scary music), somewhere around mile 27 (by my Garmin), the bottom started to fall out. I was getting clammy (and eventually stopped sweating for a bit – never a good sign), my energy level plummeted (calories, stat!), my ankle was throbbing due to the uneven surfaces on the return trails, and the worst part: that old familiar feeling of my throat closing.
I had flashbacks to Ironman Louisville 2014, when I could barely breathe by the time I finished. Unlike that race, however, I knew what was happening this time.
I didn’t hesitate: I reached into my pack and grabbed my rescue inhaler. Two puffs.
At this point, I was walking – in part to calm my ankle, and also to get in some calories, fluid and air. Eventually, I started to feel a little more life come back in, so I began running again. Running seems a grand word for what I was doing: shuffling. Yes, shuffling is more like it.
Again, my throat threatened to close. Not now. Please. Not. Now.
I walked again, and took two more puffs off the rescue inhaler. These extra puffs seemed to do the trick, but by this time, I was feeling the full effects of getting behind on my hydration (despite about 35 ounces of fluid per hour), my calories (a consequence of underestimating the energy expenditure on the climbs in the heat), and my oxygen (asthma blows donkey farts).
My heart rate was stupidly low, but my RPE was high. For those of you wondering: none of these things are good signs.
Then, came the negative thoughts.
- I’m not cut out for this.
- How am I going to run the VT100 in a few weeks? I can’t even handle this race!
- Waaaaahhhhh. My ankle hurts. I can’t breathe. I’m tired. I’m a namby-pamby. (Technically, I didn’t call myself a namby-pamby while racing. I added that now because I was being a namby-pamby.)
- And then the worst one: I’m DNFing when I get back to Blueberry Hill. Fuck this race.
I have never, in all of my racing history, seriously thought about quitting. Sure, I’ve had those fleeting thoughts about how nice it would be to stop. But, I never seriously considered actually stopping before the finish line.
This time, I did. More than just thoughts, I had fantasies about it.
I thought about how nice it would be to sit down. To shower (at this point, I was COVERED in mud).
To. Just. Stop.
I came into Blueberry Hill, and there were a group of spectators cheering on the racers. I felt like a failure. I managed a half-hearted smile. As I came by the timing crew, my friend Jane asked, “How’s it going?”
“Trying to decide if I’m finishing this race.”
Andy, the race director, happened to be right there. “What do you mean?! Of course, you are. Get some food, water, and get going. Let’s go, Diesel!” (John’s name for me from the Florida Double is catching on…)
He was shaming me into continuing. Damn him. I walked over to my drop bag, still uncertain about whether I would continue, and my friend Katie was there.
“How’s it going?”
“I want to quit.”
“What’s going on?” she asked.
I gave her the laundry list, sounding like a whiny little child. I hate who I was in that moment. This race was breaking me, and I’m disappointed in myself and my responses at that moment. The race was hard, and I had some tough challenges – but I made them worse by choosing to respond the way that I did.
She listened to me, said she understood, and then said: “Just do the 7 mile loop, and assess.”
I thought about it. Seven miles seemed reasonable – even if I walked the entire 7 miles. I could do that. Sometimes, you just need a little perspective change, and I’m grateful to Katie for getting that started.
But, I knew I needed to do some foot maintenance before I headed back out. The opening loop for the 88k featured a series of mudpools that were challenging – if not impossible – to skirt. Let’s just say that after a while, I gave up trying to miss them and just plowed through (which did cause me to have to dig out my shoes a few times).
Given this rather unwise decision to be the pig pen that I am, my feet were a hot, swampy-ass mess. I took off my shoes and socks.
They were wrinkled, wet and definitely not in a position to support this body for another 27 miles.
I rooted through my bag for my spare socks. Interestingly, they were not in there. That was a most unwelcome realization.
Two fellow racers who were done for the day noticed my alarm–they also noticed my feet.
“You’ve got to do something about them.”
Ryan, one of the racers, donated a pair of magical socks, that I believe were blessed by unicorns and sprinkled with fairy dust. Yeah, they felt that good. Carey provided me with a tub of Trail Toes (also magical). Katie gave me alcohol wipes to clean and dry my feet.
It’s takes a village, people, it really does.
I can say this: if it weren’t for these three–my ad hoc crew–helping me with my gear, and encouraging me to keep on moving, I very very likely would have quit. I am in debt and appreciative for their support.
Fresh as a trail swamp daisy, I headed out toward the 7.2-mile loop. I was on the other side of the halfway mark of the race, and that’s a good mental place to be. Half of the elephant had been eaten.
I stopped off at the aid table before I began, and promptly fisted handfuls of potato chips and watermelon. It was magical. Just like the socks. Just like the trail toes. This loop was going to be pure magic.
Off I went to the cheers of the Endurance Society crowd gathered at Blueberry Hill. Everyone loves a crazy person.
Once out on the loop, I started to feel good enough that I could attempt a trot, so I did. Then, I felt good enough that I could move from a trot to a jog. So, I did. Then, I was climbing Mt. Romance, and I felt great, so I humped it. Then, I was coming back down the backside of the loop, and I felt awesome: so I was running!
Water, calories, fresh socks. Who knew?
The race directors had placed a series of props along this route that were helpful for some laughs and a lightened mood. Here’s a snippet of some of them:
By the time I finished the 7.2 mile loop, I was feeling significantly better and ready to finish this race. I came back into Blueberry Hill, promptly apologized to everyone I had whined to previously, refreshened my pack, and fisted more chips and watermelon. I was good to go.
I told Andy and Jane, “I’m going to finish this fucker!” and I was off on the 19.9 mile loop – and the Mt. Moosalamoo climb. It’s really a good thing I didn’t know what to expect. Ignorance is bliss, sometimes.
By the time I started this loop it was about 7:00 p.m. I had begun this race at 8:08 a.m. I was 11 hours in, and I still had 20 miles to go. But, I wasn’t daunted by that. I’ve raced longer, and I was feeling good again!
The opening part of the 19.9 mile loop is very runnable. So, I ran, enjoying the last flickers of daylight.
By the time I got to Mt. Moosalamoo, the darkness had fallen. I was back on a more uneven trail, and the ankle began talking to me again. I was reduced to a walk, despite the opening part of the Moosalamoo climb being fairly runnable.
Well, that’s how I got here, finding myself on a long slog up a craggy mountainside.
Even so, my mood was pretty good. I listened to the sounds of crickets, and then as the night wore on – a host of rustles and bustles in the woods. I tried not to think of all of the things it could be, like the bears that people said they had seen throughout the race.
I thought, Well, maybe the bears sleep at night.
Then, I realized, bears probably forage at night, and I probably smelled like a candy bar – covered in spilled tailwind, watermelon, clif bars and Nuun. Mmmm, yummy, human.
Luckily, I had no run-ins with any sort of wildlife much larger than my hand. There were a bunch of mice-looking things (quite likely mice?) that were scuttling to and fro, and those made the bulk of the noise I heard. Thankfully, I was able to ward them off with my walking stick and my farts.
This is not my beautiful self…or is it?
As I climbed (and descended Moosalamoo), I finally realized (accepted? settled into?) that this was a super slow race for me, and any hope I had of winning or coming in top 5 overall was dashed (super secret goals revealed). So, I had to search inside for my reason why: why am I still doing this? Why not just drop at the next aid station? Why keep moving?
I like competition, but when all hope is lost on that front: is anything still driving me?
I realized on that trail that competition is not the main source of my motivation, although I may have been deceived in the past few years into thinking so. Competition is just one of the ways I test myself to see if I can do something that I might not have thought was possible. It is but one of the means to the ends I seek.
As I shuffled through that forest in the middle of the night, I recognized that I was pretty far outside my comfort zone, and I liked it.
I came out to clearing, where the course crosses a reservoir. I turned off my headlamp and looked up at the sky. There were no less than one billion stars, and I was certain that I had never seen a nighttime sky as lovely as that one.
I was outside of my comfort zone – but I was also exactly where I needed (and wanted) to be. The night was lovely, dark and deep, and yes, I did have miles to go before I could sleep. But they were miles that reminded me of how this endurance adventure all started – my first marathon, my first ironman – so many things I did that I never thought were possible – that became possible through hard work, community and belief in the human body and mind.
I wept in that black starry night–and as my tears fell, I felt alive with fear and accomplishment, anxiety and certainty, restlessness and peacefulness. I shuffled along with my walking stick, and I walked right into the middle of my self.
And, I liked that woman. She seemed pretty cool to me.
That’s why I do this shit, people. That moment RIGHT. THERE. I would gladly suffer a million times over to feel that sense of peace again. It doesn’t happen often in this headspace.
This race brought me to a breaking point, but in finding that edge, and reaching beyond it, I became stronger–and softer at the same time. I’m grateful to this race for reminding me why I do this, and what is so painfully beautiful about endurance sport.