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Lessons from a Hard Teacher: Vermont 100 Race Report

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lessons afterward.”

~Vernon Law

My Vermont 100 experience was a hard test. I’m trying to decide whether I passed or failed.

When I grade my students’ work, I assess it based on what I want them to learn and how well their work demonstrates that they’ve learned those lessons.

In the case of racing, these “lessons” come in various forms, and one way to assess a race is to think about the goals I set for the race. For Vermont 100, I had my usual tiered set of goals: A) “super secret” goal, B) “good” goal, and C) “just finish” goal.

If I evaluate the day based on my A & B goals, then there is only one assessment to make: I failed, by a lot. Yes, I finished – but I missed my “big” goals. By hours.

This race stomped and kicked my ego into submission. My pride was squeezed into a tiny pellet that I swallowed somewhere around mile 75. It is now lodged in some dark hole in my psyche – afraid to come out for fear of being reminded of how epically off the mark I was in setting expectations for racing the Vermont 100 – how epically arrogant I was about the challenges this race presents.

After a magical first 100 miler at Javelina Jundred, which lulled me into a false sense of my ability, this race was a serious reminder that I am but a wee babe when it comes to the ways of 100 mile running. I knew the race would be hard – it’s 100 miles! But, I underestimated the difficulty of this course, and as a consequence, showed up unprepared – both mentally and physically – to achieve my big goals.

That’s a hard lesson to learn–honestly, to re-learn–and to admit here publicly. And it’s part of the reason it has taken me 4 weeks to work through this race report, which is turning into something of a mea culpa for fucking up one of my key races of the year.

Yet, I finished the race–trudging, shuffling and at times limping through heat, hills, mud, rain, fatigue, and pain. There are many lessons in that kind of gritty finish. That has to be worth something, right?

When everything goes well, I don’t always learn that much. There’s no need to interrogate the day: it worked out.

But, when things go off the rails, I reflect significantly more, digging for kernels that will help me avoid those pitfalls in the future. Despite the challenges, there were great moments within the Vermont 100 – just not as it relates to my A and B goals. If I let those go (aarrrgghhh, so hard…), I can evaluate the day through a different lens.

From left: Eric, our crew/pacer, John my husband and I goofing off the day before the race.

From left: Eric, our crew/pacer, John my husband and I goofing off the day before the race.

Being Miserable is a Choice

Despite a performance that stunk up the joint, the 2016 Vermont 100 was one of the most fun races I’ve done. Why? My husband John and I ran, shuffled, walked and dirt napped our way through the entire 100 miles together. Yes, we ran the whole 100 miles together, and no, we didn’t fight once.

Moments before the start of the race.

Moments before the start of the race.

It’s an experience I will never forget. I have many memory bubbles from the day, and even weeks after the race, when I think about some of the things that happened, I just giggle.

The race itself was pretty unremarkable for the first 50 miles or so. We ran. We felt decent. It was hot, but it was July, duh. There were hills–um, it’s Vermont. Double duh.

IMG_5043

Before things got interesting, atop what is referred to as the Sound of Music hill. I managed to sing a few bars as I climbed to the top.

Around 50 miles or so, things did start to get a little interesting. When running 100 miles, “interesting” tends to mean there are issues brewing, and you better think about what’s causing them and take steps IMMEDIATELY to keep those issues from brewing into a big old pot of crap (literally and figuratively).

Both John and I started getting signs that maybe not all was okay in our systems. In John’s case, his stomach was getting increasingly cranky. In my case, I had deep fatigue setting in, and was yawning uncontrollably. That 2 a.m. wake up call was showing its effects.

Normally, I would just grab a caffeine gel, and be done with the fatigue. Caffeine = magic. Everyone knows that!

I reached into my pack around mile 53ish, and dug around for my ICSH (“in case shit happens”) gel. It was not there. I failed to put my “emergency” caffeinated gel in my pack.

Was this my first freaking race ever?! 

My caffeinated gels were in this awesome toolbox, turned fuel-holder.

My caffeinated gels were in this awesome toolbox, turned fuel-holder.

All the small details matter, and despite my copious checklists, my caffeinated gels were safely tucked away in our nutrition case, which was with our crew. We were about 60-75 minutes away from our next handler stop, where my glorious packets of caffeinated goodness lay in wait for me.

Caffeine. Caffeine. Caffeine. In between bouts of yawning, I repeated the word in my head as if the mere mention of the substance would imbue some magical properties. (It didn’t.)

Despite the fact that we were not in top form, neither of us dwelled on our issues. And, I’m pretty proud that we didn’t turn into whiny namby-pambies.

We acknowledged that we had some issues. We assessed what we needed. Ultimately, we sucked it up, buttercup. We kept on moving. We chatted with other racers. We joked. We took in the views (goodness knows, we were moving slow enough to do so).

IMG_5070Finally, we came into the Margaritaville aid station (mile 58), and our crew and pacer Eric was waiting for us with a smile.

“How’s your happiness factor?” Eric asked.

“I’m a 10! A 10 all day long!” I replied. (This Happiness Factor bit is something John and I saw on one of Epic Bill Bradley’s videos years ago. It has stuck with us.)

Boosting my happiness factor even more were the beautiful squares of grilled cheese, in plentiful supply at Margaritaville. I ate two squares. I felt happy. I ate a caffeinated gel. I felt happier.

We took a bit of a break at this station, as John wanted to change his shoes. I think that made him feel happier, too.

We had 12 miles until we picked up Eric as a pacer, and as the miles ticked by we commented several times that we couldn’t wait for Eric to join us. Poor dude had a lot of work to do with us.

We were feeling the pain of a course that either went up or down – not a significant flat section to be found. John dry heaved, while the heat and humidity constricted my breathing. Wheeze-wheeze goes the lungs, so puff-puff went the inhaler.

We spent a good bit of this portion–miles 58-69- in silence – but not a sullen silence. It was the kind of silence that comes when there is work that must be done. We kept moving.

The lesson here is that no matter what is happening during a race, we have the choice to be miserable about it – or not. This time, we chose not.

I’m Just Taking a Dirt Nap

When we came into mile 69, we were excited to join up with Eric–and his antics did not disappoint.

My bib number was 69, and this was quite the entertaining joke all day long. As we came into the aid stations, a volunteer would note our bib numbers, and my number almost always brought out at least a smirk from the person writing it down. I may have encouraged this a bit: “69 – party number!”

Well, as we were leaving the mile 69 aid station (Camp 10 Bear), Eric played a bit with the volunteer taking my bib number, “69 baby!”

The volunteer laughed, and made a face indicating he understood the allusion.

Eric replied, “What? I was talking about the mile number. What were you thinking? Oh, I see! Get your head out of the gutter, dirty birdy.”

Mile 69, baby!

Mile 69, baby! Eric, me and John – about to finish the last 31 miles.

And, that’s how it went for the next 31 miles: we laughed, we joked, we talked in various accents, we sang songs with extremely bastardized lyrics (“Everybody poop in their pants” sung to the tune of “Safety Dance”). And, there were the Q&A games.

From the second we took off, Eric immediately began playing mind-distraction games with us – the kind he used to placate his kids when they were young and needed distracting.

Yup – at mile 70, ultrarunners are big, stinky, pee-soaked babies.

  • “Ketchup or mustard?”
  • “If you could go anywhere, where would you go?”
  • “Favorite food?”
  • “Lions or tigers?”
  • “Would you rather be cold or hot?”
  • “Beach or mountains?”
  • “What’s your favorite non-running or non-triathlon sport?”
  • “What’s your favorite activity for each month of the year?”

There seemed to be NO END to the types of questions Eric asked us. In those late hours of the race, Eric seemed to be the most impressive conversationalist I had ever met. The questions were simple enough that I didn’t have to work too hard to think about them, but engaging enough that I was able to stay focused on moving, rather than the creeping pain all over my body. Holy hell, did my body hurt!

As the night descended upon us, John started sleep-running a bit. This happened once before at the 2015 Virginia Double. At one point, John was mid-conversation with Eric, and just fell asleep standing up! He started to zig-zag a bit across the dirt roads we were on, so Eric and I would walk on either side of him to keep him straight.

We kept on shuffling along, to keep John’s HR up, which did help to keep him awake. Eric began to sing to us: “Shuffle, shuffle, you’re the one! Shuffle, shuffle, so much fun!”

Naturally, we started to sing along with him, and our first original hit–the “Shuffle Shuffle Song”–was written along those dark country roads in Vermont. (Coming soon to iTunes, no doubt.)

Shuffling into the sunset, somewhere between mile 70 and 76.

At one point, I heard the siren call of nature and told Eric and John I was heading in the woods for a minute. When I returned, I saw only Eric.

“Where’s John?”

It was dark by now, and Eric motioned toward the ground – and there John was, laying in the dirt.

“John – are you okay?”

“I’m good! I’m just taking a dirt nap.” Cheery as could be – as if he wasn’t huddled on the side of the road in the dirt. Up he popped, and we were back on our way.

John and I had agreed before the start of the race that if one of us wasn’t feeling so great, that the other one should press on and not sacrifice his or her day. But what we found over the course of our 100 miles is that our individual finishing times didn’t matter as much as being there for each other, as we each took a turn feeling like crap.

It was a bit like a game of whack-a-mole. John would begin to feel better, but then I wouldn’t. We traded off and on like that for those final 30 miles. And, while we slowed each other down at different points, we emphasized another lesson: Sticking together when someone needs you is more important than individual pursuits.

I don’t think the hard stuff is going to come down for a while. 

Around mile 80 or so, we started to notice flickers of lightning through the tree covered sky. Mind you, the weather forecast had 0% chance of precipitation. Yet another reminder that weather forecasts in the mountains are completely useless. 100% chance of that.

At first the lightning was so far away, we couldn’t even hear the thunder. Then, we started to hear faint rumbles. The rumbles grew louder and the lightning got brighter. Just as we were about 50 yards from Cow Shed, the mile 83 aid station, the skies opened up and dumped on us. We quickly shuffled into the covered aid station.

There were seats, and grilled cheese squares, and cups of coffee. I took advantage of all of these things. I loved this aid station – it was like returning to the womb.

We figured the rain was a passing, random thunderstorm. So, we agreed that we would wait for 15 minutes, and then take off.

After 15 minutes, the rain had NOT stopped, yet, we knew we couldn’t sit there all night–no matter how good that may have sounded. So, off we went into the rainy night. (The rain didn’t stop until maybe the last 30 minutes of our race.)

I was heavily caffeinated thanks to 2 cups of coffee, and John felt rejuvenated as well. We were ready to ROCK! (That’s if you consider “rocking it” to be shuffling into the darkness.)

A short while after we took off, I felt a sharp stab in the right knee cap.

So much for rocking this shit.

Instantly, I realized what had happened. We had sat for 15 minutes, and my hip flexors and quads tightened up – straining the patellofemoral tendon. Said differently: a little case of runner’s knee in the middle of the night, in the mountains, in the rain, at mile 83 of a 100 mile ultra marathon.

The pain was about a 7 on a scale of 10 – which scared me. If it got much worse, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to put any weight on it. We were doing run-walk intervals, but even with those, I started to fall back. The boys kept going, as they didn’t realize what was happening. I started trouble shooting in my head. I stopped for a moment, did some self massage, and began walking again. No luck.

Eventually Eric came back to check on me. “How’s it going!”

“I’m a 10!” I replied. “My knee is bugging me a bit, but it’s a 10. A TOTAL 10.”

We laughed, but Eric realized I was in pretty significant pain. I think the limping gave it away. He went into the treeline and came back with a homemade walking stick.

And, with that, my new friend Stickie and I were on our way to the finish line of the Vermont 100.

Heading out of Cowshed was a downhill section that eventually gave way to a long climb. Miraculously, after about 10 minutes of climbing, my flexors and my quad finally loosened back up, and the pain in my knee dissipated. But, I kept Stickie close. I wasn’t going to desert a good friend like that.

Onward we went – into the dark rain. At least it wasn’t hot anymore!

The next aid station was Bill’s, mile 88. So close, and yes so far.

Bill’s was a barn or shed of sorts, and there were cots inside. Eric suggested that John take a power nap for 15 minutes so he could regroup and we could “hammer” the last 12. He was still sleep-walk-running a bit.

He took the nap – and it worked! Back out into the rainy night – technically wee hours of the morning (about 3 a.m.). Again, we were ready to ROCK IT! Yet, at this point of the race, the course moves into some single track trail sections (a majority of this race is on dirt country roads), and since it had been raining for several hours, these trails were turning into muddy slop. There were quite a few sections where it was impossible to avoid the mud, as it sucked at our shoes.

At one point, I was navigating a particularly slippery section, and fell right in it. Eric quickly asked, “Are you okay?” My answer, of course, was: “10!”

The last 12 miles of the race were incredibly slow going – thanks to the mud, feeling like crap, and just general weariness from being up for over 24 hours. How slow going? Well, it took us almost 4 hours to traverse that section, so pretty freaking slow.

What’s My Grade?

Regardless of how slow we were, we finished that race; however, it was hours after my A and B goals. During those (extra) hours, I learned (and re-learned) lessons that, while tough for my pride, are invaluable for my soul, my future experiences, and even the athletes I coach (they just don’t know it yet ;-)).

Among my top lessons:

  • Training must be race specific to hit big goals. Thanks to some lingering issues in my hip and ankle, I was not able to train as much vertical trail as I had planned for myself. It showed on race day.
  • Having the right crew is a huge benefit. John and I are so lucky to have a group of friends who will travel to various locales, stay up all night long, and deal with our silliness. Thanks, Eric!
  • endurance society infinitus

    The white sections are NOT blisters – it’s the start of trenchfoot. (This was taken during infinitus, but it’s also what my feet looked like at the end of VT100).

    Take care of your feet. I’m pretty sure I got a minor case of trench foot during this race. The soles of my feet were SO SORE for days following. (I actually think this happened to me at Infinitus too, and they say once you get it, you are more susceptible to it. So, that’s neat.)

  • My diesel pace and race approach are okay for flatter courses, but I need to move when the terrain is moving in hilly courses. I don’t think I was aggressive enough in the parts I needed to be. I could have been faster (before we went all to hell for various reasons), but I was a little too disciplined. I’ll be re-evaluating this for future ultras.
  • Happiness factor has to be a 10. Stay positive – it’s a choice to be miserable or happy.
  • Listen to the signs your body is giving you. Going into this race, I was getting signs that I was not 100%. Rather than back it down, I slogged on. That was a mistake. I’m taking downtime now to ensure 2017 is more successful than 2016 has been.
  • Make sure you are committed to the goal. My head was not in it to win it. For aggressive goals, you need to be all in, all the time. I wasn’t.
  • Be wary of expectations and comparisons. They are the thief of joy (to loosely paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt). I should be happy about my second 100 mile finish. Instead, I can’t shake this lingering disappointment that I royally messed this one up.

I feel like I passed the test – but just barely with a D+, and if I’m feeling charitable, a C-. This grade isn’t because I didn’t reach my A or B goals, but because I was too complacent going into this race. I made choices that did not set me up for my best day ever. It has reminded me that all the small details matter, all of the time. 

No matter how much I think I’ve already learned, how much I think I’ve already experienced – there is more knowledge to be had, and the successes of our past do not guarantee our success in the future. Success must be earned every single time.  Experience is a tough teacher, but it has to be in order to remind us what needs to be done to achieve our goals.

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