Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(How the Hell Did I Wind Up as the) Anchor Man

After a tag from Michael "Wood Frog" Keene, Valliant begins the final 19.8 miles of the Vermont 50-mile relay from Dugdale's aid station.

I was supposed to run the middle section. Until some re-routing switched leg distances, and the final leg went from 16 miles to nearly 20. I had logged the most miles, I tend to run like a madman on the downhills, which were most plentiful on the last leg, and so I ended up running the anchor leg of this beast.

If you want to boost your runner's ego (at least at first), run the final leg of a relay, where most of the runners are running the full 50 miles themselves and already have 30 miles of brutal hills on their legs. It's a bit unfair. And as your passing runners on the trail, and they are out of breath, shaking their heads at your fresh legs and spring in your step, and congratulating you on doing such a great job, you can only reply, "Nah, I'm just running the relay...you've gone A LOT farther than I have."

One of the great things about trail running though, is everyone is out there for themselves, and to be out there, and they still cheer you on with a smile and words of encouragement.

My leg of the Vermont 50 was the most challenging, most scenic, and most fun terrain I have run on. From rolling hard-packed dirt roads, to tree-lined climbs, to roller-coaster downhills, and switchbacks, I was a kid running in the woods and playing in the mud. I never got bugs in my teeth, but did smile pretty much the whole way.

I ran most of the way by myself, encountering many frustrated mountain bikers, pushing their bikes up hills and moving to let unencumbered runners climb past. And the aforementioned full 50-milers, working their way forward toward the finish. In ultras and long trail runs, aid stations are always an oasis/smorgasbord, with good eats and encouragement. Along the VT 50 trail, there is also a porch/deck party going on, with rabid mountain folk cheering runners and bikers, offering water (and beer to some) and judging form. I rated a "9.4" giving a good pace up the switchback, and loud cheers and laughter for an MC Hamma-like spin on the trail right in front of the deck (even funnier since the spin almost aimed me off the trail and into the foliage!)

As we were waiting for Katherine Binder to get to Skunk Hollow to set Keene in motion, I took a picture of a guy whose whole demeanor and impressive beard caught my attention.

The easy-ambling, long striding bearded mountain runner. As it turned out, 25 or so miles later, we ran in sight of each other for a good stretch of the last several miles of the course.

Running on through the woods, through streams, and up hills, I took in the scene, trying to be an actual part of the surroundings--to breathe it all in, even while beginning to tire. I kept a good pace up, even slowly running uphill roads and climbs most were walking. I started to have a bit of cat-and-mouse going with a guy who Keene's wife Carita and I pointed out earlier in the race--the archetypal bearded mountain runner. Watching him run (generally away from me), made my running feel both easier and more clumsy. Everyone has seen those runners who seem to run effortlessly along the trails (sort of like Landy) without putting out energy.

After running up a long dirt road, I caught up to him on some winding singletrack and downhill sections. After trailing him for a bit, he said, "Just tell me if you want to pass." He was running a pace that felt good, so I hung back and traded a couple comments. He then pointed out a row of tapped maple trees, with a system of clear rubber tubing connecting each tap and dripping to a common barrel. "See that? That's American ingenuity for you." Funny thing, I wouldn't have noticed it at all, or thought about what it was if he hadn't pointed it out. Now it's one of the sharper memories from the run.

My feet felt light and downhill legs felt fresh, so I asked to pass and scooted by. I'd see him again later.

A problem I tend to have during longer distance trail runs, is that I have too much fun. I run and enjoy the course, and don't pay enough attention to nutrition or hydration. I was carrying a hand-held water bottle, which I started with with NUUN, and added a tablet here or there at an aid station with water. I ate three Honey Stinger gels during the run, and a half of a banana. But I had no S-Caps (hadn't been using them during the last parts of my training runs), didn't take in enough calories for a body that isn't acclimated to running hills, and went for too long without drinking enough, just having fun running.

I passed through three aid stations during my leg, and walked in to the last one, which meant 4.5 miles to the finish, starting to fade fast. As I walked up to the table, I saw Kate Porter, the product designer at Ibex, who told Keene about the race, and ultimately got us up there. Kate was also running the relay and had started her team's final leg 10 minutes before Keene arrived. I had closed a 10-minute gap in about 15 miles. We chatted a bit and I set out ahead, feeling a familiar, unwelcome twinge in the legs and queasy running stomach.

I kept moving across fields and down singletrack, and in about a mile or so, my calves started cramping. Occasionally I was able to talk them down and visualize oxygen and blood flowing freely through them (please!), but they would come back to me, and I'd come to a tough uphill, where having to walk actually helped me out.

Then came the mud. Two sections of shoe-losing, ankle-deep suction mud, which created 10 pound shoes coming out of every sink hole. When we hit the second, longer section of mud-hopping, I joked with another runner that I had just manged to run my shoes clean. We slipped and high stepped through the section.

With probably two miles to go, Kate caught back up to me and asked how I was doing. "Ehhh, alright, except for the wicked calf cramps!" She asked if I wanted her to stick around, but I told her I'd get through it fine and to run her race.

As we came across a field and into a last wooded stretch, race volunteers had decorated the woods with plastic skeletons and signs like "Have you ever asked why you are doing this?" Which was shortly answered by another, "Because you can!" The next sign to come across was a hand-written sign that said "1 Mile to go!"

I couldn't get my calves to let go, but could make them run brief sections, then hop-step to others. The course finishes by zig-zagging you up a mountain, slowly, through the woods, only to send you down a ski run at the Mt. Ascutney Ski Resort (that's what it's there for after all!). With a sign that said "1/2 mile to go!" we had started the sidelong descent.

It was then that the bearded mountain runner re-appeared. I hadn't seen him since the last aid station, but he came quickly by me and said, "Way to go, man. You're almost there...seriously!" (since you can hear spectators at road races telling you the same thing with 6 miles to go).

Words of encouragement, the proximity of the finish line, and downhill gravity threw me down the grassy slope, passing more cautious runners as we got to the chute and in the winding chute as well. I spotted Keene and Carita cheering, then saw Robin further down, slapped her a high five and said hey to Rob and Katherine, with a half smile, half grimace, as my calves were completely bolt knotted and each pounding step hurt like hell.

Pain is irrelevant, and even enjoyable, when (and only when, perhaps) crossing the finish line. They had hay bails at the bottom of the chute to stop any overzealous mountain bikers who came screaming down the mountain, and I was thankful I didn't need the bails myself. I hobbled out of the chute, and was congratulated and knighted with a medal by race volunteers. I grabbed two more for Mike and Katherine and waited with the volunteers for the rest of the RUR crew to cruise down.

Our finishing time was just over 9 hours, which was good enough for 3rd overall relay team out of 13 teams. Full results and splits can be found here. Of that, Katherine was roughly 2:22 for the first leg, Keene 3 hours for the second, with me at 3:38 or so for the last section, and I told Robin between 3 and 4 hours. I moved well enough before cramping to still pull that off.

The next couple hours were spent reminiscing the various legs and wonders of the course, the folks we encountered, ducking under tents to dodge spot downpours, enjoying Harpoon I.P.A., a cookout, live band, and more laid back and happy people, kids, and dogs than we could count.

So our RUR relay Vermont adventure is in the books, but still fresh on the brain and in the legs. Finishing a race of any distance, I don't generally want to think about running. But within a couple hours, I knew I'd love to come back and try some or all of it again. Awesome volunteers, organization, course, and a high energy, highly effective race director. I highly recommend making a trip to Vermont next September, whether for a relay (smart), 50K (teetering on the brink), or 50 miler (cashews). Who knows, next year, maybe we'll have two Rise Up teams!

Robin is thinking, "Uumm...yeah, he is sweaty, muddy, and kind of stinks...do I have to get that close to him?" ;)


stephen bardsley said...

Mike, As you would say, stellar write up! my most sincerest of congratulations! Not only on this race, but on your vision and motivation and execution of creating RUR, and acually getting it done. Also congratulations on being able to juggle your job, beautiful wife and girls, and all the endurance training. You are very lucky to have Keene as well. I am very envious of you, as the training and running fades from my life. I told Ron Bowman a few times, and now i will tell you for the first time, some of your greatest accomplishments in running may have nothing to do with finish lines! You are an inpiration, as a runner, family man, and a friend! later, Bards

joel said...

Maybe I can run a leg on RUR team 2 next year. And I can get Liz to the Mountains of Vermont finally.

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