The Vermont 100 Mile Run
July 21-21, 2001
By John Prohira
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first,
Nature is incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine
Things well envelop'd. . .
- Walt Whitman
The poem above captures some of what was going on between my ears late Saturday afternoon. Once again caught in this incomprehensible net of my own making. Why? Then slowly, ever so slowly my view of the undertaking cleared and began to make more sense. It was the third Saturday in July, year 2001, so this must be the 13th annual Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run. And of course volunteer Betsy Hurley, or Betsy Bear as friends more fondly call her would be in attendance. I met Betsy in 1997 but I doubt that she would remember me. I didn't have the chance to see her this year at pre race festivities nor while on the course. That was my loss. But I did so enjoy reading about her in the Woodstock, Vermont newspaper the day after. Betsy worked the 44-mile aid station and medical check at Camp Ten Bear again this year, setting an example for those of us choosing to travel the distance on foot. How I missed her I just don't know. While assisting and inspiring the Vermont runners Betsy promotes Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (VASS). Last March this 20-year-old became the first wheelchair athlete to ski in alpine competition at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska. Betsy was born with spina bifida, which disables the nerves controlling the lower portion of her body. At the age of 13 she began alpine skiing at Suicide Six in South Pomfret, Vermont. Then five years ago she sampled the VASS program then based at the Ascutney Mountain Resort in Brownsville. After a few lessons there the young lady blossomed. At summer camp she learned to ride horses and paddle a kayak. Now she saddles up a horse for weekly rides near her home and is a freshman at the Community College of Vermont. She obviously likes being active. "I got more independence and it's given me more strength," she says. "It's been fun but there are days when it's hard but with encouragement you keep trying, you keep going." And this was the gospel Ms. Hurley preached to runners July 21st. Our race director observed that the 100-mile runners and the VASS athletes are very much alike. Both are challenging their limits and enjoying a sport that allows them to reach personnel potentials and provides a sense of belonging and connection to the world around them. Betsy Bear is a woman who can go a long way!
I've shared with you tales of running in Vermont before. Here I go again. This year 259 people began the race atop a piece of the Green Mountains at 4AM, all planning on running and walking a long way. After the allotted time of 30 hours, 174 men and women had finished. 2/3 of the starters completed the task at hand, that's about right for a trail ultramarathon. This is a beautiful course that's either up or down but seemingly never flat. It's rumored that those running climbed well over 14,000 ft up and the same down over the 100-mile distance. Our race began where it ends, as it always has at Smoke Rise Horse Farm under a big star filled sky and to the accompaniment of a tuxedoed pianist playing his instrument on the porch of the farm owner's main house. This year the horses had returned to run with us and that's always an interesting sight to see. Horse and rider are given 24 hours to finish the same course as the runners, but rest times for these beautiful, strong animals are dictated and strictly enforced. Not so for the human competitors, it's assumed that they will know when to rest, eat and quit if need be.
I traveled this year with my wife Lisa and our daughters. I think they enjoyed the trip. They bonded and did touristy things while I ran up and down, in and out of the woods as the day turned from morning towards night and morn again. It was great to have someone pampering me after the fact. One reason I like this course so much is that it was here that I ran my first 100-mile event four years ago. This is a course of contrasts and not only in terms of elevation changes. Many multi-million dollar homes and properties line the course; with lots of horses in their surrounding fields. There are just as many working dairy, beef and sheep farms nestled amongst the rolling hills with all their associated equipment and baled hay overfilling the metal roofed barns. The working and middle class abodes I ran next to somehow reassured me, maybe I could live here one day but then I wondered just how land rich these locals were and how much these two bedroom homes on a couple of acres went for. This is after all an upscale tourist playground. We ran through and over three covered bridges and through many open meadows. I wish I knew the history of the covered bridge. Why the roofs? Maybe because they are made for the most part of wood. The Vermont 100 is called a trail run but much of the course is on dirt road. This is not a technical course and is very, very runable. The runable aspect of the terrain is what proved to be my undoing. Many others shined on because of it.
I have been blessed this year with good health and my long runs have gone well. I began this adventure strong, capable, confident and familiar with the course. My plan was to come home with a buckle as reward for finishing the distance in under 24 hours. I made a rookie mistake, did something I should have known better than do and paid the consequences. I ran in a new and untested model of shoe for me and then tied them up too high and too tight. Not being lapped again by the sun would require a mildly aggressive approach, meaning blasting as fast as possible down all the hills, that's what I did. The uphills were without question for me impossible to run. A fast, forced march would suffice there. I spent a couple of hours with one 20 year old man child marveling at his perseverance, something I'm just not used to seeing in one so young. Other parts of the race were in the company of others approaching 70 years of age. Wow! Talk about contrasts. I digress here. While running down the downs I began to notice some discomfort in the tendon of my left foot, where the leg meets the foot, where flexing occurs when walking or running. OK, no big deal. When running like this discomfort is to be expected and accepted. By the time I had reached 52 miles the foot began to feel stiff and it hurt. I sat down and evaluated the situation, took the shoe and sock off then put both back on real fast. It seems that I had bruised or traumatized the area with the tight shoe on the hard downhills. It had begun to swell and looked pretty ugly. The nurse at the 60-mile mark thought it nothing that bad but asked, "doesn't it hurt?" Well it did, but not all the time. I promised myself that I would ask the physician's assistant working the 68-mile aid station/medical evaluation stop what he thought about it. I promised myself that I would stop if he suggested that I do so, if there was a chance that permanent damage was being done. The good doctor took one look, told me not to take the shoe off and that he knew exactly what was wrong without looking further. He felt my leg and told me that some edema had set in as my body's response to the trauma and that he would not pull me from the race based on those symptoms. That choice was up to me. He assured me that it would hurt and that it would swell up later but told me to go on if I wanted to. And at that moment I wanted nothing more than to do just that.
I had worked hard early in the race to get into Camp Ten Bear for the second time before dark, something I've never done in three previous years. I left the station at 8PM climbing up Solzhenitsyn Hill while it was still light. This is one interesting piece of the course I'd never really seen before, now I know why I huffed and puffed so in years previous. This is a tough and rugged ½ mile or so up 700 feet mostly on rocky washout gully. I mentioned in my race review last year that this is where the Russian novelist lived for much of his exile before the breakup of the USSR, small world, somehow that knowledge pleased me.
The day overall had been enjoyable. It was hot, particularly on the short unshaded sections of highways we traveled and in the open meadows, the high grasses there seem to retain the heat. I ate and drank copious amounts of fluids, taking electrolytes in gram quantities on the hour. I picked and ate wild raspberries during the day, comparing favorite recipes and ice cream combinations with fellow travelers. But as the 24-hour goal became less and less attainable my mood would oscillate, usually in tandem with my foot distress. It wasn't the tendon that hurt so much as the tightened skin surrounding it. I was beginning to think that now I wanted nothing more in the world than to quit. Whitman had written that the earth never tires, and it seemed that way. But I did. The hills just went silently on and on. It was hard not to grow discouraged for the downhills hurt more than the ups. The ups began to fatigue me; the downs just made me cringe with anticipated pain. At one low point during these wee hours of Sunday morning I experimented with making deals with my Higher Power. You know if only God would take the pain and fatigue away I would do or give something back to Him in return. I know better than to think it works that way. Besides, I don't have anything to trade that God needs or doesn't already have. But I've been told that praying is the act of talking to God and that meditating is listening to Him. So instead I tried a little of that, talking and listening while lying in a meadow watching a meteor show.
Maybe I slept. I don't know how long I lay there somewhat out of it but the shrieks and hoots of owls brought me back. I came back refreshed. What had seemed completely incomprehensible minutes before now seemed obvious. Things had indeed well envelop'd. Obviously I could turn off the pain and discomfort at any aid station by just sitting down and declaring my desire to stop. The kind folks in those stations would still applaud and tell me all was well, wrap me in blankets, give me warm drinks and take me back to the farm. As easy as that. But sometimes it just isn't that easy. It was like Betsy would say in the following day's newspaper article about getting some encouragement and continuing, keeping on trying. If I were to be completely honest with myself I knew that I really wanted to step across that finish line, not be brought back there in a truck. If I was to be completely honest I knew that I had enough time to do it in even if I ambled along through the night at 2 ½ miles per hour. If I were to be completely honest with myself, honest with Mrs. Prohira's boy Johnny, at times not the sharpest crayon in the box, my foot pain would not kill or hobble me. I had put enough time in the bank earlier in the day and was not fighting cutoffs. It was time to move. OK.
And it was more than OK. It was just fine. It was cooler through the night and as I wrote earlier the sky seemed so very big, now bigger than ever and so very full of stars, some of them seeming to flash and fall. It's at times like this that life seems so very big and good and that's some of what I get from this type of effort. Bullfrogs serenaded wherever water lay and horses and cows milled about in the fields, sometimes coming to fences and property's edge to see who was walking through their night. I spoke to them in the silliest of ways, like a child, not caring who should hear. I was finished with taking this race too seriously. Second dawn didn't bring resurrection but did allow me to see and often recognize those passing me on their way back to the farm. I wished them well and good luck in recognizing the magic they might find after race's end. All asked how I fared and wished they could help but knew that there really wasn't anything they could do. What ultrarunners do late in their races they often have to do alone, with encouragement perhaps, with the support of others but alone. Somehow a part of but still alone.
28 hours and ten minutes after my start I sat down at Smoke Rise. I had hoped to get there before my family because I did not want them to see me wobble in or worry over the condition of my leg and foot. But they were there, my eldest daughter Elizabeth documenting the finish with our camera (can't wait to see that photo!). My youngest, Katy next to her, Lisa thankfully inside and out of sight attempting to find out where on the course I might be. And all was well. They were reassured that nothing permanently bad had happened to their husband or father. I realize that it took a while for that to sink in with them. This is still so very foreign and incomprehensible to them. They collected the pieces that was me and we returned to the luxury of our hotel, a warm shower and bed. I went back into the real world with those I loved most after 28-hours spent chasing the sort of spiritual food that the ultramarathon offers. Now four days later I still have a bit of the glow about me that that spiritual meal provides, I wish I could keep it. Maybe some will stay with me. I hope so. I think that is part of the reason I write about it. This is an attempt to keep it close.
This October I would be honored if I were allowed to introduce you to Betsy Hurley at the VASS 50 miler. I'll take that opportunity to reintroduce myself to her. When trying to decide on names during Lisa's first pregnancy we settled on Elizabeth should that child be a girl. One reason was because of the large number of potential nicknames we could use, Betsy being just one. Well Elizabeth has always been Elizabeth, not Betsy, Beth or Libby to us. Maybe that's another connection I feel to this young lady from Vermont. She's Betsy and that makes me smile. I told my wife on our trip home that I would have to think long and hard about the redeeming aspects of this year's 100 miles in Vermont. Just what I would share about the journey I didn't know then. It was the article about Betsy's accomplishments and strengths that brought my weekend in the woods together showing me the substance and allowing me to see the divine things that I believe Walt Whitman wrote of.
With sentimental regards, a slightly sore leg and a couple of closing quotations (my favorite is from Banjo).
"Pain is a given - suffering is optional". - Unknown
"The reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow." - William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
"Ride boldly and never fear the spills." - A.B. "Banjo" Paterson
"With encouragement you keep trying, you keep going." - Betsy (Bear) Hurley
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