I had been waiting so long for this weekend to come. I decided last spring that this year I would go for what I’ve been dreaming of doing for years, and I signed up to run 50 miles at the Vermont 50. I made a plan, stuck to it almost completely, got to know some awesome runners along the way, and through all the hours of training kept visualizing how amazing the race would be.
It turned out to be a perfect weekend for racing. Perfect weather, dry for the last two weeks and sunny and 60s for most of the race. Alon and I came up a day early to relax at the Ascutney resort and got some relaxing Vermont-ing in (canoeing down the beautiful Connecticut River, eating some nice American food, seeing pretty leaves) and some much needed sleep before the race.
I couldn’t sleep much the night before. I kept waking up and looking at my phone to see how much longer it would be until my 4:30am alarm would go off. Pre-race meeting was at 5:30am. I spent the time in the cold tent getting my gear together, caffeinating with my infamous happy juice (=caffeinated crystal light), getting more and more excited, and looking for my buddy Ben that was also doing the 50 miler. I was excited to finally spot him in the crowd of ~1400 athletes.
I had heard some horror stories about the race, focusing mostly on the mud and the hills. Since it was pretty dry this year, I knew the mud shouldn’t be an issue. But more than once I heard the course described as consisting of “either uphills that hurt, downhills that hurt, or switchbacks that hurt.” When I heard the course involved ~8,000 ft. elevation gain, I started doubting myself and that my mostly flat training along the Charles was going to get me through this. But when I got to the race and as talked I talked to Ben and his friend Tim about our upcoming adventure all my nervousness went away and I was just so excited to start. I went into it without any doubt at all that I would finish, and determined to keep a positive attitude, smiling from start to finish. I was confident that I prepared well and was ready to put my whole summer of training to the test.
After the bikers were off the runners stepped to the starting line, with the road ahead covered in a layer of thick fog. The race started off for a couple miles on slightly downhill roads, which I ran most of the time with Ben, and which we covered pretty quickly. Even on the first stretches of roads we got hints of the hills to come. But I went in mentally prepared for these and just focused on keeping my heart rate down and going steady up the hills, doing a mix of power walking and gentle running to conserve my energy for when I would need it later on. After maybe 3.5 miles in we passed the first aid station and went onto the trails for the first time. Finally, the beautiful Vermont trails I had been dreaming of!
I tried to be extremely consistent with my nutrition plan, which I had perfected during all the long runs in training: gel every 45 minutes, salt tablet every hour, sticking to plain water rather than gatorade, and downing whatever solid foods I could handle at the aid stations, mostly boiled potatoes with salt. It took a lot of experimenting, but I finally found a combination that works for me. Previous races (Bear Brook Trail Marathon, TARC 50k) where I downed a lot of gatorade throughout the race always resulted in stomach problems that really slowed me down. But here for the first time ever nothing really bothered me the whole time.
After a bit on the trails I let Ben go ahead as I took a pit stop. I was sad to separate from him and Tim, but I was also a bit worried I’d go faster than I should trying to keep up with them, so it was probably better to back off and go my slightly slower pace. I kept going steady to the next aid station where I refilled and chatted with other runners (I don’t know his name, but the guy that kept calling me “Pinky” since I was wearing all pink, kept running into me over and over again. I would pass him every uphill, and he’d go flying by every downhill). After a couple miles on trails we came out to same fast downhill road sections which I took advantage of before a lot of climbing ahead.
After the aid station at mile 12, the course makes a long climb up with very few breaks all the way up to mile ~18, the highest point of the course. It was at the start of this climb that I ran into Cynthia (I think that was her name?). I was sure she was another 50 mile female runner, so when she passed me I hung on. A couple miles later she divulged that she was a relay runner! So I wasn’t really competing against her :). We ran together for I think several hours, talking here and there. It was great to have a buddy for such a long time. She was about my pace on the scary downhills, which was nice, since on most of the steep downhills other crazy runners and mountain bikers would fly past as I tried to survive without falling on my face.
At mile 18 we got to an aid station at the highest point of the course. It was very welcome after a long 6 miles of climbing, especially since I had run out of water and food several miles ago (I completely zoned out at the previous aid station, where I had planned to pick up my drop bag and restock my gels and water…but I just ran through it without stopping not realizing what aid station it was). I restocked and was off to the descent ahead. After a couple miles of descending it was time for another climb up to the halfway point. Around mile 25, we came out to a beautiful grassy view where we could see a mountain in the distance. Cynthia said to me “that’s where we’re heading!”. It was Mt. Ascutney, where the race would finish. At 25 miles it looked so far away! But I was still feeling really strong and positive. Right before we popped back into the woods, a guy sitting on picnic table at the top held up 3 fingers to me. Did that mean I was in third place?? Holy crap. I thought it might since I hadn’t seen any other females in a long time, but I tried not to think about it. I wanted to keep the race fun, my goal was to finish and I didn’t have any specific agenda. I thought I might have a chance of placing well but I didn’t want to think about that during the race, which might make me go too fast too early and burn out later. So I kept chugging along at a chill pace but in the back of my mind I was on the lookout for other female runners that I might need to hold off.
A little after the next aid station I decided I could go a little faster and went past Cynthia and moved past a lot of guys that were walking the hills. Most people were walking all the hills at this point, but I was feeling strong and felt like I could make up a lot of time against other runners on the uphills where I felt strong. Still feeling pretty great.
The trail got a little windy, with lots of switchbacks, so my pace got quite a bit slower as there was a lot of “traffic” between bikers and runners trying to share narrow trails. That’s one thing I didn’t really like about the race, sharing the course with mountain bikers. So many times I was in a good rhythm but had to go completely off the trail to let a bunch of bikers pass going downhill. Only to again go out of my way to pass them back on the uphill sections. I support the bikers, but I wish there was a way to avoid this yoyo-ing the entire race.
At around mile 30, unexpectedly I came up to the major aid station, where relay runners exchange and where we could access our drop bags. I was surprised, since this aid station was supposed to be at mile 32 but my watch only said 29.5 miles. But it was a nice surprise, as the miles were getting longer around this point. I restocked my gels, downed some mountain dew and potatoes, and was off. It was really tempting to waste a lot of time chatting and resting at aid stations, which I did during the 50k I ran. So my goal was to spend as little time as possible, 30s-1min, each time, which I think I mostly accomplished.
I noticed after mile 30 that runners around me were starting to get grumpy. I continued to pass people, giving words of encouragement each time I ran into someone, but I got fewer and fewer responses. I got a lot more looks of despair than I saw just a couple miles earlier. But I continued to stay positive and tried to be friendly. If they wanted to be grumpy that’s their problem.
Eventually after chugging along, I came to another aid station. Again, I was really confused about mileage. My watch said only 33 miles, which I thought seemed low, the last couple miles seemed to take a long time, even though I was still feeling pretty good. But the sign at the aid station said 37.2 miles! I verified this with one of the volunteers. Maybe my watch went crazy, or maybe the course is short (which I was told by many people that the course is accurate and certified to be 50 miles) but either way, whoohoo! I thought I had 17 to go, but I only had 13 to go! And the next aid station is where we could join pacers, I would get to see Alon! And then it would be less than 10 miles to go, the home stretch! I left smiling ear to ear. 13 miles to go and feeling good, I can totally do this!
I was really energized for the next stretch. A lot of it was another long uphill on a wide dirt road. These parts were my favorite. I felt strong on the uphills, and the dirt roads tended to be very pretty and not technical at all, compared to the more technical parts that I was pretty wimpy and slow on. I could see runners ahead of me and picked them off one by one, always keeping my eye on the next runner and pulling them in. I didn’t really know mileage at this point, given the discrepancy between my watch and the aid station mile markers, so I tried not to look at my watch and to just focus on passing people. Since very early in the race I couldn’t remember being passed by anyone, just passing other people, and I was pretty happy about this, since my usual (not deliberate) strategy is to start fast and die out at the end, which I was determined not to do. I looked at my watch and saw a little over 6 hours. I told myself, before I get to 7 hours, I’ll meet up with Alon. And after that it’ll just be a fun last 10 miles home.
At about 6:40, I could see the aid station far down the road. I thought I could make out Alon in the distance. Again I started smiling. Time for the home stretch! I smiled and hugged him, so happy to see him after my ~41 mile journey so far. After refilling some water we were off! One aid station to go until the final final stretch!
Soon after I met Alon I began to feel pretty tired for the first time. I started thinking about how far and how long I’d been running, and it kind of started to scare me. 7 hours, 41 miles straight of running? That started to sound like a really really long time. We came up on some uphills, Alon was encouraging me to power up them but I could only muster a slow run uphill at this point. But on the flats and downhills I was still going strong (where strong here means ~9-10 minutes/mile). All the while I was still passing people, never getting passed myself. Alon was shouting out words of encouragement the whole way, which was really helpful. Still, the stretch between this and the next aid station felt the longest in the race. I wasn’t sure anymore how far it was until the station, or what my exact mileage was, or how far to the finish. So I just kept running, trying to enjoy the scenery, and staying mentally strong.
After what seemed like forever, we finally came out to a road, where there were policeman blocking the road and a line of people on the side of the road cheering. “You’ve made it, you’re almost there!” We must be close. Up ahead I could see the aid station, at the top of another intimidating uphill. I powered up the hill to some water and food, the last stop we’d make til the finish. I asked how much longer. Just over 3 miles! Whoo, that’s nothing! I didn’t waste any more time and we took off for the last bit.
Soon we got to a sign “3 miles to go!” Soon after, “2.5 miles to go!”, then “2 miles to go!” Oh my god, I’m going to finish. And I’m going to finish still running strong, with a smile on my face, and hopefully in a pretty good place!. Soon after 1 mile to go, we popped out to the grassy slopes of Ascutney. We could see the finish down below. The high at this point has been described by other Vermont-50ers as being “on top of the world” as you stand overlooking the finish. I could start to hear the music and cheering people. There it is! All downhill from here! The last mile switch-backed down the side of the mountain, with the finishing chute constantly in view. 0.5 miles to go! ¼ mile to go! I picked it up, giving whatever I could of a “finishing kick”. I “sprinted” to the finish, crossing the line side by side with Alon, after 8 hours and 51 minutes of running happiness. It was so fulfilling to cross that line, to accomplish what I had been dreaming about doing for so long.
After the race I soon ran into Ben, we hugged, exchanged stories, and relaxed. Within minutes of finishing the familiar post-marathon stiffness came on rapidly, and I soon found it quite a difficult task to get up off the grass over to the food tent. Still, I felt better than after any road marathon I’ve done, and finished not devastated as usual, but exhilarated and hungry to plan future adventures.
I heard the announcement for awards, and was pretty sure I placed, so I hobbled back over the finish area. I was a bit disappointed when they announced the top 3 females and I wasn’t included. The 3rd place female was announced as having a time of 8:53, which was slower than my time of 8:51. So I’m still pretty convinced this was an error and I got third, which seemed confirmed when the results were posted online today, so I emailed the race director about it and am waiting to hear back. Later they announced the age group awards, and I got first in 20-29, so I still got to come home with some happy Vermont maple syrup :).
I’m still riding on the runner’s high today, amazed at everything that happened yesterday. Thank you to everyone that sent words of encouragement before, during, and after the race, I was really touched by all the messages! I can’t wait til the next adventure and hope I can convince many of you to join me!
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