by John Dodds
Two days after finishing the Vermont 100, I was standing next to the orthopedic surgeon as we looked at the x-rays of my right shin. "Nothing broken and no stress fractures," he said. That was good news. But I'm getting ahead of the story here.
Why Vermont? The Mountain Masochist last October was my first ultra. A week later I got tendinitis in my left foot courtesy of a new pair of road shoes and that was the end of my running for a while. A couple weeks later I attended the Columbia Metric Marathon that my brother-in-law was running. I was asked to ride in the sweep truck to pick up traffic cones. After that race, I recognized some runners in the parking lot from Mountain Masochist and during our conversation, the subject of running a hundred came up. What's a good one I asked? Vermont seemed to be the consensus. The seed was planted.
I tried running in December but shortly after that the tendinitis flared up again. Finally, I was able to start and continue running again in February. Over the next several months I did two marathons, a 50K, a 50-miler, Laurel Highlands 70-miler, several long VHTRC trail runs, my own training runs, and was a pacer at MMT100. Deb Reno, whom I had met briefly at Mountain Masochist, was my email mentor through this period, she having completed Vermont last year in the brutal heat and was training for MMT100; I was her crew (along with Ollie Holt from New Hampshire) and pacer there in May. If she tells you that I can ask some pretty incredibly stupid questions, don't believe her.
Everything I had done since February was all done with one goal: running--and finishing--the Vermont 100. I don't think I've prepared for anything for so long. (When I started running 3 years ago, I ran my first marathon 9 weeks later.) The months turned into weeks that turned into days and finally it was time to go. When the time came, it was hard to believe I was actually on my way.
The Drive. Faced with a 9-10 hour drive to Woodstock, VT, my first priority was selecting some music for the journey. A quick trip to the Arlington Public Library yielded CDs from George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the Traveling Wilburys, Queen, and The Who (Tommy). [Maybe the county could have used some of my tax money on updating their CD collection rather than splurging on a new jail.] Oh, and let's not forget Little Richard. Have you ever listened to 18 of his songs at once? When a song played, I would ask myself, "Didn't I just hear this one?" But you sure can't beat his lyrics. My favorite:
Had a gal named Lucinda
We called her the Great Pretenda
And when she talked
She said, "Bama lama bama lu."
Contrast those lyrics with the nonsensical lyrics of the songs kids listen to today. Anyway, with such stimulating music, that 10-hour trip actually felt like, well, a 10-hour trip.
Smoke Rise Farm. The race starts and ends on a horse farm. Since camping was allowed there, that is where I would pitch my tent. I arrived on Thursday so I would have all day Friday to relax. Thursday night was rather peaceful as there were about 6 campers. I picked out a nice spot on high ground with a nice view of the surrounding mountains. But mainly I chose this spot because it was close to the porta-johns. I bought this tent (ostensibly for 4 persons) several weeks ago. It was one of those that the box said can be set up in 90 seconds. It took me 45 minutes in my basement to set it up. My first priority upon arriving at the farm was to make friends with the campers already there. To break the ice, I unashamedly used this tack: "I have a tent that's supposed to be set up in 90 seconds but it takes me 45 minutes. Rather than embarrass myself to your amusement for the next 45 minutes, could you give me a hand setting this thing up?" I used this approach successfully before at Big Meadows campground on one of the VHTRC training runs. Not only do I get help with my tent, but I usually get invited to dinner as well. But this time I had to refuse because it is part of my pre-race ritual to have pasta the second night before a race.
I headed off to Skunk Hollow Tavern suggested by Priscilla Tucker, the race director. As I was finishing my dinner (penne pasta with spinach and pine nuts), Eric Ivey and his wife Michelle came in. I stayed while they ate their dinner. Eric also chose the pasta. Michelle asked if he liked it, and he said yes. Which prompted her next question: "How come you don't like it when I make spinach?" I wanted to interject that I didn't eat spinach until I was 35 years old (Eric is about 28), but I thought I'd let Eric dig out of this one by himself.
Friday. Friday was an important day because it is the day you get weighed. During the race you are weighed four times, and if you lose 7 percent of your weight, you are removed from the race. The idea is to weigh light on Friday. And here's how you do it: eat only half your dinner on Thursday night, drink and eat nothing on Friday morning, go to the bathroom, and wear what you plan to wear on race day (except I wore lighter running shoes and no underwear -- every gram helps!). I weighed 148. After that, you can then start to eat. [During the race I weighed 151 every time I was weighed except at the finish -- I weighed 154. If the race were any longer, I'd have to go on a weight control program.]
Breakfast for me that morning was my leftover pasta dinner. There was supposed to be a shower at the campground, but I didn't find it on Friday. But I hadn't planned on using it anyway. I had never been to Vermont before, nor New Hampshire which was just across the river. I had planned on driving over to Hanover, NH to see Dartmouth College -- and take a shower there. Which is what I did. I also had a turkey sandwich for lunch, another part of my pre-race ritual. [I know showers aren't much to judge a college, but I didn't see why people make such a fuss over Ivy League colleges.]
Upon returning to the farm, I was amazed to see how many tents there now were. When I left, my tent was conspicuously alone on a promontory and now it was completely surrounded by tents and cars. One tent was less than 4 feet away. Obviously, there is no zoning ordinance or general rule-of-thumb for proximity to your neighbor. This is really not a big deal until you try to get to sleep.
The Night Before the Race. Usually, it is difficult to get a full night's sleep before a race. That night it was impossible. Of the 50 or so tents spread over the hillside, the guy in the tent next to me snored. Since I'm a light sleeper, this was not a good mix. I finally got to sleep at 11 only to be awakened at 12:30 am with no chance of getting back to sleep. So I got in the front seat of my car (car window glass is a better sound barrier than tent nylon) and got to sleep just after 1 am. I put my alarm clock on the console and set it for 2:50 am (the race started at 4 am). When it went off at the designated time, I was not exactly in the mood to run a hundred miles.
The Plan: Finish -- by any means. And under 30 hours. Try for less than 24 hours (get a buckle). And just maybe do 21 or 22 which is what someone suggested I might do (based on previous race results). I like to have several goals so I will be satisfied if I meet any one of them. But I needed some kind of plan. From looking at the course map day after day, a plan emerged -- albeit slowly. I imagined the course as being roughly 3 loops (even though it really only has one true loop). The first "loop" goes counterclockwise from the start to the north and then comes back south to beyond the start to the west -- the end of this loop is Camp Ten Bear aid station at mile 44. The next loop is the true loop that goes clockwise generally southwest and comes back to the aid station, this time at 68. The final "loop" is counterclockwise to the east and north back to the start. [I'm guessing at directions; north to me is the top of the map.] Remember--this is a very rough description, but it was a way for me to come up with a plan.
I used Stan Jensen's splits from 1999 (in which the temperature went to 100 degrees) from his website to set some time goals -- he finished in 23+ hours. My plan was to do the first loop in 8-9 hours (arrive at Camp Ten Bear between noon and 1 pm), do the second loop in 5 hours (back at CTB between 5 and 6 pm), and do the third loop in whatever time it took me. Admittedly, this last part of the plan was a little vague.
The race. Ten minutes before race start, it began to rain. So I put on a garbage bag and ran in that for awhile. Once the rain quit (and I thought it wouldn't rain again), I pitched it. Shortly thereafter, the rain really came down. Fortunately, it didn't last too long. It rained several times throughout the day but only briefly.
I had intermediate time goals at 12 and 27 (the first weigh station) to judge how I was doing according to my plan. I was doing ok. At mile 30 my right shin started to tighten. I had never had this happen to me before, and I wasn't exactly sure what it was. The only thing I could think of was it was some kind of tendon problem developing. Soon, it became somewhat uncomfortable to walk uphill (I'm not sure why running uphill was ok) or run downhill (I was already taking it easy on the downhills since I had inflamed cartilage in my knees; but I had that since before the Laurel Highlands 70-Miler the month before and could deal with that). I tried to be positive about the shin problem by saying that at least it wasn't my Achilles tendon. I could imagine tearing an Achilles tendon, but I couldn't imagine tearing a tendon on the front part of my leg. And to preclude the possibility of this problem becoming a show-stopper, I said to my shin: "You just forget it. You're going to the finish if we have to drag you there." If you say this out loud, the shin (or whatever body part you're talking to) hopefully pays better attention.
As I had said before, I wanted to get to Camp Ten Bear (mile 44) between noon and 1 pm; I looked at my watch and it was 12:02. Not bad. Now I was in the second loop. At about mile 63, I noticed my Achilles tendon tightening up in the same leg. Now this was serious -- I didn't want this to become a big problem. I decided I would have to take it easier going uphill. I don't even remember what time I got back to Camp Ten Bear to complete the second loop. I was no longer concerned with my time, but I don't think I was doing too bad compared to my goal (when I get my splits, I'll know for sure). I changed my socks (this was the only time I sat down during the race) and pressed on. Actually, I felt pretty good except for the leg. I was eating and drinking enough and was mentally alert the whole time (or at least I thought I was). I never felt overly tired or nauseous. I never felt like quitting, although a couple times I do remember thinking that I would never run a 100-miler again.
The rain started about midnight as I recall, maybe earlier. In any event, I do recall heading out of the last aid station at mile 96 in a light rain that got worse. Mostly I remember going up and up and up. I'm not a good judge of distances and began to wonder how they could put in a 5-mile hill in the last 4 miles. But I eventually reached the top and came out of the trees and went across an open area and back into the trees and the trail started downhill. The rain was in full force now; fortunately, I was sheltered by the trees. I tried to keep up my pace and thought I could run downhill -- or what could pass for running. When I started running, my leg hurt as it felt like a concrete pillar hitting the ground. I might have made better time if I had just walked. As far as the rain was concerned, I recalled that my mother would refer to this kind of rain as a "frog strangler"; just after I thought that a frog ran across the trail. Really! Foremost in my mind was where the trail was going to come out. I was hoping that it wouldn't come out on a road and I would have a mile (or whatever) back to the farm. Fortunately, the trail came out of the trees right behind the riding arena -- could that be a red neon sign at the finish? It was 1:15 am.
I wish I could say that the night was over for me, but it wasn't--the misery had yet to begin.
Post-race blues. Although I was wet and my leg hurt, I was in pretty good shape. And I was hungry. I had had chicken broth at mile 96 and since that seemed to work well, I decided to have some more at the finish. "Maybe I could put the broth in this cup of Ramen noodles?" she said. I know this is hard to believe, but I haven't had those noodles before but they sounded good. So, I sat there with an Army blanket wrapped around me eating that soup; after about 6 spoonfuls, I got very queasy. I then laid down on one of the cots by the medical people to see if that would help. It didn't.
About an hour after I finished, I decided I would head back to my tent to change into dry clothes. For those of us who finished in the rain, we got cold very quickly when we stopped running. I should have gone back to my tent earlier and changed clothes. I grabbed a garbage bag and put it on as a raincoat (wasn't it just about 22 hours earlier I walked through this same door wearing a garbage bag?). I trudged up the hill shivering in the pouring rain, my flashlight barely lighting the way. I easily recognized my tent -- it was the one with the rainfly blown off. It took me awhile to get it back on and then I got in to survey the damage. Everything was soaked, and there were puddles of water everywhere.
I sat down on a wet sleeping bag for a while trying to figure out just what to do. I was soaking wet, everything around me was soaked, I was cold, I was dirty, my foot was throbbing (even though I had put ice on it at the finish and had taken more ibuprofen), I was wearing a garbage bag, it was pouring outside, I was hungry, and yet I was so queasy I thought I might be on the verge of throwing up. Never -- I mean never -- had I imagined this was how I was going to celebrate my first 100-mile finish. Then I said to myself, "John, you need to do something. You just can't sit here and freeze to death." And then myself said, "Why not?"
Fortunately, I had closed my suitcase. I moved my sleeping bag and dried off my sleeping bag pad with an extra towel. I then changed into dry clothes and laid down on the pad. I was confined to this pad (25" by 77") as it was now the only dry place in the tent. I slept for about an hour and a half and woke up shivering (since I was not in a sleeping bag). I waited for a lull in the rain and got back in my car. I had an extra sleeping bag in the car and covered myself up with that. I was beginning to wonder why I had bought that damn tent in the first place since this was my second night in the car.
I would like to add that even though I was pretty much concentrating on my own comfort that night, I didn't forget for a moment that there were a lot of runners still out on the course in that pouring rain for hours and hours more. I'm still not sure how they did it.
I thought I would feel better by daylight but that wasn't the case either. In the morning I walked down to the riding arena to try to eat something but could only manage to eat a few pieces of French bread. A volunteer offered me a Rolaid which I took. I got somewhat of an appetite back after most people had eaten (the brunch had been delayed by the rain), got their awards and left. After I finished eating, I went back to the tent to pack. Everybody was gone except me and one other person who was going to brave another night. I just threw all my stuff -- still wet -- in my car and headed out.
Home (almost). Having slept only a couple hours in the preceding two nights (with a 100-mile run thrown in for good measure), I was pretty tired even as I got in my car at about 3:00 pm. I knew I wouldn't make it home or even to my parents' house in New Jersey without rest. I stopped at the first rest area in Massachusetts, took my sleeping bag (the dry one) and pillow out and slept under a tree for about 2 hours. How could I sleep with all that interstate traffic racing by when one person's snoring had kept me awake the other night? Sleep deprivation. I made it to my parent's house about 12:30 am, sneaking up the stairs and plopping into bed.
The next morning I got out of bed, fairly well rested, and noticed that my shin, ankle and foot were about the size of New Zealand. I'm not sure why my ankle and foot were so swollen since it was only my shin that hurt. Walking was difficult to say the least. I was so hungry my first thought was just to go downstairs to have breakfast. Then I tried to remember when I had a shower last. Let's see, this was Monday morning. Could it be that my last shower had been at Dartmouth? Seems so. Having spent two nights in a tent/car, run 100-miles, slept in a rest area, driven 7 hours in a car, I thought I should at least be clean for breakfast even if I wasn't capable of normal ambulation.
It is difficult to explain to someone why running a 100 miles is good for you when you're dragging an oversized foot across the floor to the breakfast table. And I didn't really want to go into some perverse ultrarunner's explanation at that time. All I wanted to do was call the orthopedic surgeon in Virginia to see how soon he could see me. He had a new appointments secretary, and this is my side of the conversation: "Have I seen Dr. Romness before? Well, yes. There was the tendinitis in my left foot last November that sidelined me for 3 months, then the piriformis that was just short of unbearable, and then there were the inflamed cartilages in the knees in May." "Yes, walking is quite difficult right now." "Oh, I can see him tomorrow morning at 9? That's great, Pauline. See you then."
My doctor. Is no different from any other orthopedic surgeon. They all have a grip stronger than any Sears Craftsman tool. I'm absolutely convinced that when medical students declare for orthopedics, they are issued hand exercisers, tennis balls and other assorted devices to develop their grips. I knew this exam was going to be painful. I had a bruise which was a six-inch high band going around my leg. But there was one especially red swollen spot on my shin that was obviously the worst place. He would poke around my ankle and foot, but swollen as they were, there was no pain. Then he grabbed my leg and pressed with his thumb on that one spot on my shin, and I was amazed that even though I was on my way to the ceiling, I still had the coordination and reflexes to reach out with both hands and pry his thumb off my shin. "Let's take an x-ray," he said. "Yes, let's do," I replied, thinking let's do anything where he doesn't have to touch me. And that's where we started this story. Reflections: I'm not sure what caused my shin problem. I've run almost exclusively on trails this spring and summer and have worn trail shoes. Maybe the road portions (paved and unpaved) took their toll (even as early as mile 30). I think I would recommend road shoes instead of trail shoes. The reason I wore trail shoes is that I had worn them over longer distances, and I thought my chances of getting blisters were less. That part of the plan worked as I didn't get any blisters. It's been 2 weeks since the race, and my shin is almost back to normal size. I see the doctor again on Tuesday. Maybe I'll start running again after that. After all, I'm signed up for the Pikes Peak marathon on August 20th (I ran it in 1998 and figure it's nice every now and again to run a marathon without oxygen).
Is Vermont a good first 100-miler? To which I would answer at this time: there is no "good" first 100-miler. But if you would like to run a 100-miler for your first time, then Vermont is one to run. It is superbly organized and supported. Someone the other day asked what my goal was now, and I said "I've never run a 5K." I would like to try one of those depending on how far apart the aid stations are.
Finally, it is difficult to explain what it means to have run a hundred miles for the first time as you look back over the months on all the previous races, training runs, injuries, etc., that got you there in the first place. I'm not sure I can capture all those experiences in words. Maybe Lucinda said it best: "Bama lama bama lu."