Introduction: It’s 9 days since I finished Vermont 100 and writing a bit about it can help to reach a sense of closure about an event long in the making and then successfully but abruptly over. It’s tiresome beyond belief to recap every detail and yet insufficient to (nit)-pick a theme… but more than any other distance, the 100-mile trail race is palpably a collection of evolving stories. You feel it in your own life, I’m a husband, a father, again-a-student, and I’m here in a field in Vermont about to do this thing, nestled between the contexts of everything that has come before and only hazily aware of what will be tomorrow or forever after. You feel it in those you meet before, during, and after. And you feel it in the race itself; the weather, the course, those who put it on, and those who volunteer. It’s a bundle of one-day stories bound close and tight by common cause and passion but unlike shorter, more breathlessly intense events, people share the trail for many hours and, more often than not, share their stories. Not all the stories begin or end happily but in the following micro-non-fictions I hope to convey some of the stories I lived, observed, and heard:
One: Thursday night set camp on a grass field at the top of a gentle, pastoral valley; one of four island tents in a sea of grass. Below us are the trailers and tents and portable paddocks of the riders and horses. I learn the hard way that nylon straps that gently inform the horses where to stay are, in fact, strung through with current-bearing wires. Andrew learns that horses eat grass, and now he eats grass, Yum!
Two: The race director, general of a small army of friends and volunteers, who makes the logistical nightmare function, periodically nurses a one-year-old while instructing others and checking lists. Last year, not all the lists were quite checked… and a spectacular 3:30 am fireworks display took both the participants and local rural residents (and especially their farm animals) by surprise, inflaming tensions and threatening the existence of the race.
Three: Years of running have given me an uncannily precise (and perhaps unhealthy) sense for time and distance. The night before the race I wake in the tent with Andrew nestled in the crook of my left arm, Marie beyond, the light breeze alternates the air between three-person stuffy and middle of the night fresh. I wonder the time, ‘it feels like 1 is’ I think, and push the button on my watch. The light illuminates 12:59:59 turning over to 1:00:00 and then 1:00:01. I smirk go back to sleep for another 90 minutes.
Four: With 5 minutes until the start of the race there are at least 50 people waiting to use the port-a-potties… I see one friend and hug her; I chat with a woman who I met yesterday, friendly and kind, the mother of 6 kids from 3 to 15, one of so many runners attempting their first hundred. I end up standing next to John Gessler who I know not-at-all, but for the fact that this is his 21st year running the race; I shake his hand and with his luck as if he needs it.
Five: There are many many mistakes you can make in a 100-mile race and there are truism thrown around a-plenty. “It’s better to show up undertrained than injured” “Ya start slow and then slow down” “100 miles is an eating and drinking contest.” But my favorite (did I invent it?) is “100 miles is a good-decision contest”. Perhaps it encapsulates and subsumes the other sage advice, but I like it because it emphasizes the cognitive and self-knowledge aspects of the sport and the distance. Can you, through practice, experience, self-understanding, and focus make, say 500 good decisions while only making a handful of bad ones? Having made the rare mistake or plot twist, can you limit it to a 5-minute mistake? Can you, in the excitement of the morning, the heat of the day, or the mental fog of the night, relentlessly see the whole board and make the right choices? And can you see beyond the flickering, at times cowardly wants of the now-self? Can you honor the promises of your past self and anticipate what the future you will-have-wanted you to do?
Five-A: I start with the least ever training for such an event but healthy, humble, with knowledge of the course and with experience on my side. The fear of the challenge, of the future discomfort, is balanced, paired, by a creeping pride and determination to run a relentlessly smart race. This sounds joyless, but it’s in fact the opposite because, to soak in every view, to meet a dozen wonderful people and have two dozen good conversations, to laugh, to say ‘thank you’ to every volunteer, is to lighten and freshen the mind when it, the mind, is truly the thing that tires and fails if nothing but focus and pain are present. To run smart is to run light and joyful for as long as possible. And, as it turns out, smart and joyful usually leads to pretty good results.
Six: In the mid-and-late-morning, I run with a woman near my age that obviously has, evidenced by her mask of concentration and some indescribable quality, run a huge number of lifetime miles. I ask if this is her first Vermont? She says, no, her 6th, and that she’d done a few others here and there around the country, and then she follows with “And I’ve never gotten one right.” It’s an extreme version of a not-uncommon theme: people struggle and fail and seem, haunted, by it. I ask “what goes wrong?” And she replies “Something different every time.” She would finish the race, but 5 hours behind me. One acquaintance is back for redemption after two DNFs and finishes! One well-known runner surprises the people he’s talking to the day before the race by confessing “I haven’t finished this race the last three times I’ve tried… I’ve gotta break the jinx.” He finished, but there are nearly as many demons as ambitions out there, and you can feel their weight.
Seven: At mile 26 there is a huge grassy hill that you climb (and climb and climb) that has staggering 270-degree views of hundreds of square miles of gorgeous, green, hilly central Vermont. It’s been dubbed “Sound of Music” Hill and with good reason. As I near the top, a guy catches up to me and after matching strides he says, “Ya know what? Two years ago we met at this exact and climbed the hill together.” We laugh and end up running much of the next 25 miles together.
Eight: I run, on and off, with a group of about 8 runners for much of the middle of the race. Some chat, some doggedly silent, conversations ebb and flow. We climb and descend differently, use aid stations differently but there are camaraderie and a sense of pack. A very attractive young blond woman in bun-huggers and high socks gets more than her share of conversational attention. It turns out that she and her male companion were from Costa Rica and were on their HONEYMOON! “Actually we planned the race first and getting a married second”. She was American but moved down there after college and fell in love with both the country and her husband. Sadly, despite them looking good at mile 50 I could find no record of them finishing…
Nine: There is exactly one short section of trail that is repeated in 100 miles; the very beginning of a 23-mile loop from mile 46-69. In this section, you can have little moments of empathy, of time-travel. If you time it right you can see the leader finishing the loop as you’re just starting it… but more wrenching, more genuflect-and-cross-inducing is finishing the loop and seeing those heading out, knowing that if things go well for them, they will spend nearly 8 hours longer on the course than you… knowing that what they’re doing is, in a very real sense, harder than what you’re doing…
Nine-A: I expected to get to mile 46 (A major checkpoint) between 1 pm and 2 pm, 1 pm was my boundary for having “gone out too fast”, 1:30 being expected, and 2 pm being “it’s going to be a long day.” As I jog into the aid station I look at my watch… 12:59:55…6…7…8…9… 1:00:00. I smirk, weigh-in, eat and keep going… how do my body and mind keep doing that?
Ten: Eventually you just don’t feel great. And that scares some people new to the sport. How can I feel like THIS halfway through and still finish? What scares us is that feeling blah and tired and sore and slow will lead precipitously, exponentially to horribleness, to total disaster. What experience shows and what you must have faith in, is that, if managed properly, one’s decline is in fact logarithmic. Yes, you are uncomfortable, but it’s tolerable and getting worse very very slowly, so slowly in fact that you could reach the finish line and continue well beyond if your life depended on it. This understanding of the progress of future pain and discomfort is what is underestimated by some and overestimated by most.
Eleven: The night comes. And the world becomes a bouncing, illuminated area ahead of you. And you put one foot in front of the other and run when you can and put coke and sports drink and GU’s and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in your face and chew and swallow even if you don’t feel like it anymore. You just relentlessly put fuel in the tank and chemicals in the brain and just keep going. Horses trot past you. Cars periodically blind you. You rarely pass people running. You pass them in aid stations or vice versa. You set conservative goals so that you always meet them and often gain energy from surpassing them. You do the math. You focus on the next 100 feet. You smell the barn metaphorically. You smell and step in horse shit literally. You round a corner, top a hill and see the lights of a middle-of-the-night aid station; well-caffeinated volunteers generously help you and cheer you but sadly they become a blur. Many of the blurs had Québécois accents this year… which was super awesome.
Eleven-A: Too much stimulus; disorientation. At about 9:15 pm, in the dark for a bit, I pass John Gessler and wish him well as we run down a dirt road with cars passing, headed-god-knows-where. Moments later, Marie, in our Subaru, appears out of no-where (Andrew asleep in the car seat) and we kiss two or three times through the open driver’s window. She wishes me luck and drives on, but I hear Andrew wake up and start wailing. I block it out and keep going because, “What am I going to do?!” Moments later I look to my left and see that, THIS is the infamous point in the race where (83 miles in) you can literally see your tent and the finish line, before heading out for several more hours. I smirk and run on. But immediately after, I turn to see the coming aid station with dozens of lights and swirling emergency lights, at least two ambulances. Someone on a loudspeaker, or just yelling is telling cars to get the hell out of the way. I walk in and get two shots of coke and an EMT is asking the crowd “Does anyone know her last name? When she was born? She’s non-responsive, does anyone know her family?” I walk out and the voices continue but fade, the forest still lit in pulses by the turning emergency lights. I head out into the darkness again, for the only time in the race, off my game and unfocused. Too much, in too short a span for too tired of a mind. I lean against a tree, stretch, and recombobulate.
Twelve: Once you finish a 100-mile race, you stop. And having noticed that you stopped, your brain and body start to call in all the favors you’ve asked of them. A billion internal minions start the process of accessing and fixing all the damage and deprivation you’ve endured. The next few hours can range from uncomfortable to truly, deeply painful, generally worse than what the actual race feels like. There is aching, swelling, sometimes shivering, always chaffing. But if things have gone well, if you haven’t over-extended yourself, the next few hours and the next day are only humorously stiff and exhausted. In an episode of the Walking Dead, shambolic runners hobble and limp about a green field in Central Vermont, stopping to chat, to exchange stories, and to express condolences to those who took on the enormous challenge of such a race, but for whom things went sideways. A race that exorcises one set of demons gives birth to more.
Thirteen: There’s no one story, there’s no one right or correct way to have the experience. There’s faster and slower. There’s finished and didn’t finish but that doesn’t scratch the surface of the thousand or so stories that overlap and evolve on those few days around a grassy field in Vermont. Regardless if you’re coming from a place of lightness or ambition, if it’s the first adventure to such lengths or a 20th, all the stories touched at 4 am and someone said ‘Go’ and they wove together and blended and eventually unraveled and everyone went home, each with a new chapter written and more to come.