Monday, August 10, 2009

2009 Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run - My Quest For a Buckle

Me and Steve at the start with some new friends

My preparation for the 2009 Vermont 100 Endurance Run would be different than that of the 2008 race on many levels. In 2008 my good friend Jeff Holloway, who would crew for me, and I went there with the sole purpose of just finishing, or rather surviving the race. Neither of us had any idea on how to really properly prepare for the various things that would come up during a 100 mile race, a trial by fire so to speak. I trained as well as time would allow and also learned about various training methods from members of the Ultra List but the experience would be the greatest teacher. I survived the run and Jeff survived the crewing process which resulted in a 29 hour 23 minute finish, and I was initially happy with that. In keeping with the saying, “you are better than you think you are and you can be better than you think you can be” I wanted to be better than I was in 2008. In fact, what I really wanted was to go sub 24 hours and get the coveted pewter buckle; crazy talk for someone living in New Jersey with no real hills to play with and well, Vermont has hills or rather The Green Mountains.. But I remembered another saying, “if you can dream it, you can do it.” So I began preparing for the 2009 race right after I recovered from 2008.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2009. I'm not going to bore you with my training program, just what I changed to hopefully get me below 24 hours.
For 2008, I averaged 50-65 miles a week and emphasized tempo runs and of course the long run. For 2009 I upped the mileage to 60-85 miles a week and completed more races in the 50K to 100K distance. I think a key was increasing the hill workouts, because Vermont has hills! So, I ran the Ocean City/Longport Bridge as often as I could, sometimes running back and forth over the bridges for my long runs. Needless to say, they are in no way comparable to what is in Vermont, but it was better than doing no hills. When you live in southern New Jersey, it's either bridges or my treadmill.
The next step would be finding someone to crew for me due to Jeff Holloway being unable to do so again. Another good friend, Steve Antczak, enthusiastically volunteered to give up four days of his life to help me hopefully accomplish what I had thought some time ago impossible. He would also come to find out that CREW stands for, "cranky runner, endless waiting." Steve is very analytical and immediately began making notes on just about everything. We went over and over what I would need at various aid stations and decided that I would not be using any drop bags. In 2008, I had a bunch of drop bags and Jeff would retrieve a bag get my things together when I arrived at the aid station, again a learning experience. This year, Steve would have everything prepared in advance. Anyway, fast forward to the day before the race.
We got to the race site early Friday and set up camp. The goal was to get everything done and try to relax, which I have a hard time doing on a regular day let alone the day before a race. I registered and went through the mandatory weigh in and blood pressure check. My weight at weigh in was 159, 1 pound less than 2008. Weight Loss during the race of 6% means that you must stop for a more thorough evaluation and re hydration. A 7% loss mean elimination! I am always on top of my hydration so hopefully I would not
have any issues on race day. We then walked back to the camp area and on the way ran into Annette Bednosky. Annette not only runs ultra's she wins them too, including the 2005 Western States 100 Miler, the premier 100 miler in the country. She even took the time to take a picture with us and put up with a few questions, thanks Annette! Annette is as tough as they come and although she has been hampered by an injury, she still finished in 21:11 and was 4th female! Congratulations Annette! So it was back to the camp to try and relax but we really just went over everything again and again. I guess that's when you realize that you have OCD. The waiting game had now begun.
Later we went back to the "race headquarters" where we had the runners and crew meeting which was followed by the pasta party. After the meeting I finally met my pacer, Greg Roelants. Greg lives in NY City but has family in the area so he decided to pace someone at this years Vermont 100 and I was matched with him by the race organizers. Greg has run a few marathons but during our email communications he told me he hadn't really done any trail races and had never paced anyone before. I have never been paced during a race before so it would be an adventure for the both of us. I didn't let on to Greg but I was a bit nervous about being paced and I can imagine he was a bit apprehensive himself. After a talk on our race strategy Greg was off to his fathers house and I told him I would see him sometime later tomorrow, if all went well around 7PM.
It was now back to the camp for the rest of the night. Sam Rosenberg and Campbell Ringel arrived at the camp site followed a short time later by John Dennis. Sam and Campbell would be crewing for Sam's brother, Dan Rosenberg, and John would be his pacer. Dan, John and I are members of a fairly new running club called The Animal Camp," or TAC for short. The Animal Camp was founded by Josh "The Animal" Dennis, hence the names origin. Members of The Animal Camp are just a bunch of guys that like to get together for very long and brutal runs. The clubs motto after all is, "If it doesn't hurt, sign us up for something that will," and "Go hard or go home." The only one missing was Dan, who was stuck at work and would eventually arrive at midnight, a mere four hours before for the 4AM start. The sleepless night was highlighted by heavy rain which made it's way into our tent and by someones car alarm that went off just after midnight and took forever to be turned off. Anyway, at 3AM I was up and getting ready for what I hoped would be the race of my life.
Mile 0 to 15
It was finally race time and I found myself standing at the start wondering if I had set my sites too high but at the sound of the gun, uh well the race director yelled go, I just said to myself to just go for it! We were all off into the darkness for what I hoped would be less than 24 hours of relentless forward motion. The dirt road descended for what seemed like a half a mile before going up and then back down again before we turned right onto single track trail. This trail proved quite muddy and I nearly had my shoes sucked off by the thick mud. It wasn't too long before we emerged onto what I've been told is "hard packed clay roads." In the first few miles you have some early trail up then down leading to an extended climb up Densmore Hill Rd. The gravel/hard packed clay roads continue to Taftsville (at 15+ mi.) except for a paved chunk coming down to cross the Taftsville Covered Bridge. After passing through the aid station a mile 15 I glanced at my watch and knew I was ahead of last years pace but wouldn't know for sure how much until I saw Steve at the mile 21.1 aid station.
Mile 15 to 21.1

Now the term "relentless forward motion" came to mind as I continued on the roads which were inter mixed with single track trail. There is nothing flat about this course, your either going up or going down, seemed like nothing in between. Nothing really exciting to report here other than I felt good and seemed to be holding a steady pace just under 11 minutes a mile. I needed to average 14 minutes and 23 seconds a mile to break 24 hours, so it was good sign but a long, long way to go still. I finally rolled into the Pretty House Aid Station at mile 21.1 where I met Steve for the first time since the start. He told me I was about 45 minutes ahead of last years pace, so far so good. After re-stocking my supplies it was off again, the course was now going to get interesting with some real serious climbs coming up.

Mile 21.1 to 30.1

After the Pretty House handler station at 21.1, it's paved, then gravel, then jeep roads up that continue to climb before you emerge out of the woods and into a meadow that they call "The Sound-of-Music Hill" which is at about 27 miles. The view up there is fantastic and is at one of the highest points of the course (1,946'). You then run across meadows, down trails and more meadows to Wild Apple Rd. (700' elev. loss) and a long easy downgrade gravel road to the Stage Rd. handler station at 30.1. During the descent I again realized that I still can't run down hills properly. Most of the time I am out of control and trashing my thighs in a breaking motion. At the aid station I met Steve who helped me with a quick shoe removal so I could get some debris out of my shoes. I had to really pack some food away due to not having crew access until mile 47, that is a long 17 miles if you forget something. Anyway, it was off again and one of my most dreaded climbs was a mere half mile away.

Mile 30.1 to 47

It was nice to have quite a few spectators and handlers at this aid station cheering you on. It gave me a nice lift, something I was about to need. After going down a short section of dirt road we made a left on a paved section before turning right onto a grassy trail and began climbing. Although I've been told it's only a half mile long, it seemed to go on way longer than that. It was a very steep, wet grassy trail that went up and up. It was the first time during this race that I was breathing very hard, kinda sucking wind. I was trying to push the pace up the hill because I didn't want to lose too much time and have my mile pace go up. The trail finally leveled out and turned onto a forested single track that went behind the Suicide Six Ski Area. To me it looked like I was running through Sherwood Forrest, one of the many reasons I like trail running. After crossing Rte. 12 I continued on some gravel roads, dirt roads and trail sections down to a paved 1/3 mile section on Rte. 4 and then came to the Lincoln Covered Bridge aid station at mile 39.2. This aid station is preceded by, you guessed it, a really cool covered bridge. After gouging myself on watermelon I continued on, knowing that a real big hill was in my future. This was one hill I was really dreading, I knew it was coming I just wasn't sure when. As I was digesting my watermelon, I found it. It is one of the toughest hills on the course and it takes you 2.5 miles up, and up and up Fletcher Hill Rd., I had to enlist the jog, albeit very slowly, for 100 steps and power walk 100 steps. I was beginning to lose time due to my garmin telling me that I was approaching 12 minute mile pace. I continued this until it leveled out and again began descending. It was during this descent that Dan Rosenberg came up behind me yelling, "Animal Camp!" I was like yo, where did you come from, you passed me at about a mile into the race. He went on to explain that he missed a turn a ways back and figured he put on an extra 4 miles, ouch! We then continued down to Lillians aid station at mile 43.5 where it was again snack time. Dan had too make a pit stop but told me to continue on, so I did knowing that he would catch me in the not to distant future. My right heel had been acting up for some time now, OK, for about the last two months I had been battling plantar faciitus and it was affecting my stride. So onward I ran. I was now on the longest section of paved road, exactly one mile of paved moderate uphill, then back onto some climbing single track/horse trails. This is when Dan caught me again. We ran together through the Jenne Farm aid station at mile 45.6 It was then up some, then a sweeping down and up and soon a nice downhill stretch into Camp Ten Bear (the first time) at mile 47.2. This was the first aid station where you had to get weighed in. I was very confident in my hydration and weighed in at 159, my starting race weight. I met Steve there and he told me I was well ahead of last years time but wouldn't really let me know just how far I was ahead because he didn't want me to get complacent I guess. Steve had fresh bottles ready and sent me on my way trying to keep my aid station time to a minimum. One of the great things about the Vermont 100 is the aid stations, there is one every 2-5 miles, which can be good and bad. You hang out too long at the aid stations though and you can easily add hours to your time.

Mile 47.2 to 57

Out of Camp 10 Bear there's a half mile hump that connects you to a 22 mile-long loop, which means that you eventually come back to Camp 10 Bear again at mile 70. Dan headed out just before I did, I gave him a wave knowing that I would probably not see him again until the finish due to the fact that he was running very well. The course consisted of some road, then meandering trail and then Agony Hill, another hill that I had been dreading. It is long, lumpy, rooty and rocky steady uphill grind to the halfway point. It is one of those unrunnable, lung searing kind of hills that makes you wonder what are you doing to yourself. I had made it to the halfway point in 10 hours and 30 minutes so I knew I was under the 24 hour pace but, I had 50 more miles to go, and the second 50 is harder than the first. After grinding out Agony Hill you then on gravel again to Pinky's aid station at mile 51. It was now time for more dirt rolling roads for 2 miles of easy upgrade to Birminghams aid station at 54.1. You then cross a big field into the woods and snowmobile trails, up and down and out onto gravel for a nice 2 mile downhill section that takes you to the Tracer Brook aid station at mile 57. It was during this section that my pace passed the 12 minute per mile barrier and I wasn't happy. I had vowed to myself that I would keep it under 12 minute miles until I got to Tracer Brook. So I used the next 2 miles of downhill to bring it from a 12:03 pace to a 11:55 pace which made me feel a little better as I ran into Tracer Brook at mile 57.

Mile 57 to 70

Steve was waiting at Tracer Brook with fresh bottles and other supplies. He also helped me with an equipment "upgrade" which consisted of plugging in a battery pack to my garmin watch to enable it to continue working up to 31 hours. My Garmin 305 currently lasts about 14 hours so the battery pack should get me to the finish. It looked a little strange and I was asked by a few runners what the heck was on my arm, but hey, it works. So now it was onward, and unfortunately for most of the next 9 miles, upward. The first 3.1 mile stretch is affectionately called the "5K straight up" and it is. This is the point last year where I mainly walked up the hill with the aim of just finishing, this year I had to attack it a bit. So for the next 3 plus miles I ran for one minute and power walked for 30 seconds. It seemed to go by fairly quickly and I crested the hill and arrived at the Prospect Hill aid station which is unmanned. I added a little water to my bottle and continued on. I was really looking forward to the section knowing that the 5k hill would be behind me. The road was rolling hills yet I didn't remember the really big one that you could see in the distance. It didn't help that I was also now going through a "down" moment. These are the times in ultras where you feel like someone unplugged your energy and you sort of feel like your running in a fog. I believe it is due to your body trying to convert food and liquids into energy due to your bodies glycogen levels having been depleted. It is a constant battle during ultras as your body also tries to convert fat stores to energy. Any, I battled the big hill and started to pick it up and a somewhat level stretch when I heard, "go AJ go!" That was "Crew Master" Steve, (pictured at the right),
yelling encouragement after running out to meet me before the Margaritaville Aid station at mile 62.1. Steve was doing an awesome job of having supplies ready so I would be in and out of the aid stations as quickly as possible and this time was no different. Margaritaville Aid station has a party like atmosphere and can suck you in to staying longer than you should; heck they even offer you margarita's while your there. Steve got my supplies and basically escorted me out and on my way to the next aid station and kept my time to a couple of minutes as opposed to the 40 minutes that I hung out last year. I was ahead of schedule but still in a bit of a down mood and lacking energy. So I ran for a few minutes and walked for a minute. I seemed like a long 3 miles of a steady upgrade to the Brown School House Aid station at mile 65. After a quick refill of my bottle I then proceeded on my way to the Camp 10 Bear Aid station at mile 70 but it would be a 5 mile run through mostly single track trail to get there. I had been looking forward to this section due to knowing that the single track trail would have about 3.5 miles of a slight downgrade that I hoped I would be able to pick it up to make up for the lost time due to the previous hills. As soon as I hit the trail I did pick it up and continued this for a good three miles. During this portion of the course last year I was running in dense fog and in the dark. This year I was able to take in the scenery and also see the rocks that I was tripping over. My spirits were picking up and I again began believing that I could break the 24 hour mark. About a mile or so from the aid station I heard a runner coming up from behind so I slowed and greeted him. It can be a bit lonely out on the trail sometimes so I looked forward to chatting with someone. The runner turned out to be Sherpa John Lacroix . I have "chatted" with SJ several times on the Ultra List but had never met him before. We talked about the race and I let on about my doubts for finishing below my goal of 24 hours. As always, SJ was upbeat and said I was way ahead of schedule and to try and make it to make it to make it to the West Winds Aid station a mile 77 before dark. It has been said that if you make it there before dark your chances of finishing under 24 hours are real good. We parted ways at Camp 10 Bear Aid station at mile 70. SJ would go on to finish his 3rd consecutive sub 24 hour Vermont 100!

Mile 70.1 to 88.6

At the aid station I met Steve and Greg. Steve was ready with my headlamp and fresh bottles and Greg said he was ready to do some pacing. After getting weighed again (still 159) off we went, 30 miles to go and just over 9 hours to beat the 24 hour mark. Last year all I remembered from this point to the finish was darkness and loneliness. Now I had light for at least another hour and a half and Greg to keep me company and push me to the promised land. Just out of Ten Bear, there's a half mile of level trail then one mile up a fairly steep climb that is called Heartbreak Hill whick makes the "Heart Break Hill" at the Boston Marathon look tiny. This climb consisted of a bumpy, rooty wet jeep road. A mile of easy grade gravel road followed and then up and down on 2 miles of really nice single track trail. Greg was great as a pacer right from the start. I had no idea what a pacer was supposed to do and I assume that Greg didn't either. He ran in front of me and continually warned me of trail hazards and even kicked debris out of the way. He also pushed me a bit and provided constant encouragement. We were moving at a decent clip, much faster than I would have if running alone. We came into the Seabrook Aid Station at 74.7 in good shape and with plenty of daylight left. It now onto the West Winds Aid station at mile 77 and hopefully we would arrive there with daylight to spare. We had some gravel road to deal with and then some toe crushing up and downs on single track trail. I would have really liked this section if it wasn't for the fact that my energy levels were draining once again. In the distance you could hear music and voices from the aid station so we picked it up a little and came out of the woods and back onto the gravel road. Now it was a steep climb up the road to West Winds which you could see at the top. Steve met us at the bottom of the hill and ran up to the aid station with us. We got into the aid station as the sun was
going down which really gave me confidence that the my 24 hour goal was within reach. We met up with Dan's crew, Sam and Campbell, who were very enthusiatically displaying The Animal Camp banner and giving high fives as we left the aid station. Greg and I then ran across a field and then back into the woods for a mile and a half of up and down single track trail.

It was now dark and the headlamps were on. We then emerged back onto the gravel road where we would remain for the next 10 miles. It was just good old fashioned relentless forward motion at this point. I was on auto pilot just following Gregs lead. It was obvious to me now that with out a pacer, it would have been extremely tough to continue on at this pace, although we (I) was slowing, we were still moving forward and keeping ahead of the clock. We first came upon Goodmans Aid station at mile 81 and then the Cow Shed Aid station at 83.6. I really wanted to get to Dr. Bills Aid station at 88.6. To me this would be the aid station that would tell me where I stood as far as time goes. So onward we plodded, Greg continuing to push and with me loosing energy and my thighs starting to feel a pain and stiffness that I have never felt before. We were running with other runners when we began climbing a very steep long hill that I didn't remember from last year. It was the last hill before we would get to Dr. Bills and the last weigh in. Upward we moved, mostly hiking at this point and after what seemed like an eternity we crested the hill and began going down the other side. The only problem was is that I couldn't run down the hill due to my thighs suddenly being trashed, so I hobbled with thoughts in my head that my race was falling apart. We finally reached the driveway that would lead us to the aid station. Greg was concerned about my condition and told me to act like nothing was wrong with me. This last medical check point has held up runners in the past for "further evaluation." I didn't need this at this point due to feeling like I was losing time due to my sore thighs. Steve met us on the drive way and ran the half mile with us to the aid station. After a quick weigh in and a couple of questions from the doctor, it was out to try and close the race out. A little less than 12 miles to go and about 4 hours to do it; a piece of cake or would it be?

Mile 88.6 to 100

After a short run on the road it was back into the woods for some single track trail. I was able to run again albeit more slowly. After a mile plus of running on the trail we came out into a grassy meadow. While crossing the meadow I began showing signs that I only recognise now as bonking, or at least my brain needed some fuel. While running across the meadow I was catching the freshly cut hay like grass on my feet and I just snapped. I began yelling to Greg that I wanted to burn the grass, to kill it because it was bothering me. Greg looked at me with some concern and then said we didn't have much further to the next aid station and to keep going which I did. After crossing the field we entered onto a gravel road. After a half mile or so we got to Keating's Aid station at mile 92. After a quick stop we headed out with only 8 miles to go, something I would normally do in less than an hour but that wouldn't be happening now. So we continued on back onto single track trail. I was doing more tripping now due to not being able to lift my knees high enough to clear the rocks and roots. I found that I could move easier going up than I could going down, which was very painful. Thoughts of being this close to the finish and my legs suddenly shutting down were now my fear. We eventually made our way back onto the gravel road and got to Polly's Aid station at mile 95.5. We took a little break there to get the "Vermont Black Mud" off my shoes. That stuff must have added a pound or so to each shoe. I then had Steve help me try and stretch out my quads, they seemed to be locked and my knees no longer would bend. Having never experienced anything like this, I didn't know really what to do. So we just left. There were quite a few runners at Polly's that were not in too good of shape either. I know I must have looked like a zombie trying to run as did some of the others. I did suddenly get a little jolt of energy though. The thought of a little over 5 miles to go and about 2 hours to get it done jump started me a bit. So I tried to sprint to the top of a steep but short hill and ran out of gas as I neared the top. Greg and some other runners said to be careful not to wreck yourself now when your this close. Greg was still trying to motivate me to continue running by telling me that I could break 23 hours. I tried as best I could but my legs would not cooperate; my thighs were as stiff as boards again. I did my best to run but it was probably more like a shuffle. Greg then had me run to points down the road where we would then walk for a bit and then run again. This continued until we came to a very long, steep gravel road, a road that I had no memory of from last year. Even Greg wasn't happy with it even saying something to the effect that this was a mean hill to be putting in the last 5 miles of the race. We finally crested the hill and eventually made our way to Sargent's Aid station at mile 97.7. I had 2.3 miles to go to and about an hour an twenty minutes to get there to break the 24 hour mark and get the pewter buckle that I wanted so badly. I even thought for a few moments that I could go under the 23 hour mark if I pushed it a bit. Well, as much as my brain said 2.3 miles is nothing, my legs revolted and I resorted to a walk/run/shuffle. We then unexpectedly entered another trail, another part that I didn't remember. This went up for quite a bit and then gradually back down for a total of about a mile. I found myself tripping over anything that was in the way and actually fell a few times. I must have looked like a real bad drunk, or I guess an extremely exhausted runner nearing the end of a 100 mile race. We finally emerged back onto a gravel road and I recognized the area now; we were a few hundred yards from the entrance to a trail that had the sign, "1 Mile To Go!" stuck in the ground. Shortly thereafter we made a right turn into a field and I told "Greg the 1 mile sign was coming soon, and a minute later we saw it. It was just past 3AM and I had an hour to break the 24 hour mark! I figured if all else failed I could crawl to the finish if I had to, which remained a distinct possibility. We entered a trail that lead to the finish and you could hear in the distance cheering from the group of runners and spectators at the finish. I tried as best I could but power walking was more possible than running. As we came down a small hill I heard "Ajinator!" being yelled; Steve had run about a half mile out to jog it in with us. Soon I saw the lit plastic gallon containers that signaled that it was a quarter of a mile to the finish. I vowed that I would run to the finish and I did, although it may not have looked like running to most. I could see the ultra bright neon finish line through the woods so I jogged it in and crossed the line in a time of 23:25.02 !! After a few pictures were taken I collasped in a chair to watch as others broke the 24 hour barrier.
Each runner celebrated in a different way, some cheered, others slammed their water bottles to the ground like they were spiking a football. I just sat, not quite believing that I had knocked 6 hours off of last years time and it would take a long time to sink in. Long enough for me to go I think into hypothermia and have to take a short but painful walk to the medical tent for some chicken soup and blankets. It took many cups of soup and blankets to control the shivering but eventually it stopped. Oh the price one pays for attaining a goal, the Buckle, pictures to the left.

Needless to say it was a team effort that I could not have done by myself. I have to thank Steve for taking 4 days out of his life to follow me around a 100 mile trail course and deprive himself of sleep and having to deal with a probably very cranky, tired runner. THANK YOU STEVE!! You are hereafter referred to as, "The Crewmaster."

I have to thank Greg for volunteering his time to pace a total stranger to a time that was once thought to be unattainable. Thank you Greg for pushing me to the promised land!

Last but certainly not least, I have to thank my wife and children. They put up with my hobby that takes up a good amount of time and yet they continue to inspire met to push to new heights all of the time.

The 2009 Vermont 100 was an experience that I will remember forever. It made me believe that if you want something bad enough, you can get. Just like I tell the kids I help coach in soccer, "with hard work, even the difficult may become easy." Although not easy by any means, the hard work made what was once impossible a reality.

Pictured to the right is Dan Rosenberg and I after receiving our Vermont 100 Pewter Buckles.

Next up: The Grindstone 100 in October....what is wrong with me : )

Friends, "Run Like An Animal!"



Hungry Mother said...

What a wonderful journal of a fabulous experience. Steve is such a nice guy and great runner, I'm not surprised that he turned out to be just the kind of support guy that you needed.

Al Glenn said...

Great job AJ. Just saw the nutrition thing in the AC Press today (1/20/10) and due to the internet somehow tracked down this blog. Agree with the bridge running to be the only hills. Keep running. Peace. Al Glenn.

UltraBobban said...

Great race report AJ. I really enjoyed reading the latter sections and the struggle to 100. Something to cheer me up on the recovery from a broken leg. I ran an 88 mile this year but am having to postpone my 100s until 2012 as am in plaster for 3 months. Great inspiration to read this though! Happy new year and onwards!