Come on try a little
Nothing is forever
There's got to be something better than in the middle
Me and Cinderella
Put it all together
We can drive it home with one headlight - Jakob Dylan and Wallflowers
For the fifth time in as many years I found myself in the Vermont mountains in mid July. I had left Rochester, New York before noon on Thursday and that evening was setting up my tent in a pasture on a hill behind Smoke Rise Farms. Before race's start at 4AM on Saturday there would be 40 or more tents strewn over the grassy hillside. The proprietors of this beautiful horse farm are Dinah and Steve Rojek who for some wonderful reason have a soft spot when it comes to ultrarunners and riders. The horse race was offered again this year; riders and steed had the choice of the 50 or 100-mile venue. I am always moved observing the bond between these magnificent animals and their riders. It appears to be stern yet gentle relationship they have towards one another. Awards are given to the first horse and rider teams across the finish line. There is also recognition for the horse finishing in best condition. It was interesting to note that they were not necessarily the same animal. But it was obvious that these beautiful animals had all been well cared for before, during and after their journey. Choices were simpler for the runners, 100 miles, on dirt and paved road, some on trail. Either up or down, seldom flat. Altimeter watches recorded near 15,000 foot of climb with equal amount of descent, which for many of us comprised a good days work.
I enjoyed the camping experience and the opportunity to visit with other runners before the event. It had been quite hot and humid in western New York in the days leading up to this adventure. Driving to Vermont on Thursday the midday sizzle waited just outside my air-conditioned van. I wondered if weather would complicate the weekend. But that night it rained bringing some reprieve from the high humidity. A passing thunderstorm on Friday night brought more relief and clear star-filled skies in its wake. Standing near the start on Saturday, listening to a tuxedoed man playing the piano on the main house's porch and watching fireworks in an adjacent field, I had premonitions of things to come. I thought, "It's all good."
271 runners stood on the road next to bewildered horses in the Farm's fields, waiting for the magic word - "Go"! We spilled down the dirt road, like syrup from an opened side-ended jug, slowly gathering momentum, the pack that was us eventually thinned out as we ran into summer's dawn. 190 would cross the finish line back here 100 miles later. For me this is a powerful thing to see and feel and be a part of. I like to surround myself with people trying. I love to be near others taking a chance. Maybe we would finish, maybe not. If we knew beforehand what would be the point? These are my heroes. They are real, not images on a screen or on paper. I can touch them. For the next day this was my world and they were a big part of it. And it was all good.
After the first dark miles dawn revealed dirt road and the opportunity to stretch out and run. My undoing last year was going out too early and fast on the down hills. Lessons are presented and eventually learned. This year I held back and ran no faster than 5-6 miles per hour on the flats and downs. I marched up all the hills with determination. I've gotten better at walking, covering up to 40 miles per week that way in training. It's all time on my feet and has helped add some maturity to my legs and it has improved my ultrarunning. I can get over hills easily walking as fast as 3-½ mph. This relentless forward motion adds up.
The sights and sounds of this course are an assault on the senses. Working dairy and horse farms offered contrasting aromas of freshly cut hay and then what becomes of it once through the animal's digestive tract. While in wooded areas the clean smell of the previous night's rain could be detected. The roads we traveled often followed or crossed meandering brooks and streams; I find the babble of moving water over stone soothing. And although the temperatures would flirt with 90 degrees during midday humidity was never a factor. Summer sun flooded my world and lifted my spirits. As hot as it felt at times in the pastures and on open road gentle breezes followed us all day. Every size and style of house was represented along our way. I saw a chateau that would not have been out of place on a French mountainside. Stone, stucco, log and metals structures appeared in the fields, on the hillside and along the roads. We ran over and through a couple of covered bridges, these structures and the metal roofs on houses are two architecture fingerprints of this region. It was all good and everything seemed to please me. The views from on top of the mountain were spectacular, I don't know deep into Vermont I could see from there but I was certain that off in the distance it was the White Mountains of New Hampshire I was looking at. Maple trees were tethered together, tapped and connected to plastic piping ready to collect the springtime sap, the maple syrup precursor. Horses, all manner of cow and this year llama grazed in the fields. In one pasture a large black bull stood chewing hay and watching us. This fella must have weighed more than 1000 lbs. Behind me I overheard a runner talking to his companion about the big farm stud and saying, "I think I can take him!" Ah ultrarunners - even their innocent bravado is big!
Those living near the peak of their game surrounded me. Those willing to "try a little." People ready to take a chance, men and women not satisfied with being in the middle and I'm not referring to where they might find themselves in the final race standings. Near the back and in the middle of the pack is where I fell in love with ultrarunning. I'm referring to the middle that Bob Dylan's son does in the verse I opened this story with. That middle is a life of mediocrity, filled with the mundane, a paved easier and softer way. In many ways these heroes of mine, these 271 men and women were literally laying it on the line and testifying about their lifestyle.
I've gotten to know so many of those who run these things. This year I was blessed with two new acquaintances, Valerie from the west coast and Peter from Cape Cod. Valerie was a 100-mile virgin, chasing and achieving her goal of a sub-24 hour finish. We kept one another company for much of the morning, part of the afternoon, and evening and next early morning. Her enthusiasm was contagious. She was a charming audience as I rambled on telling off-color stories and bad lawyer jokes I'd taken from the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club's humor page. Laughter can be an anesthetic and distraction from the aches, pains and discomfort that often accompanies the 100-mile run. Valerie attained at first attempt what took me over 4 years of ultrarunning to accomplish. It was a beautiful thing to witness and be a small part of.
Peter, a veteran ultraman had brought those closest to him to the race. I met his lady friend Linda, his running companion Karen and his "little buddy" 12-year old Jimbo the night before. This young man would run parts of the course with Peter. I'd communicated with Peter via email over the past year, we have much in common. It was great to finally be able to put a face to person who I'd been writing to. I enjoyed talking to him about life other than that involving running. He shared with me on a couple of levels, shared his friends. Pete's chums waited for him at many aid stations and they called to me as I approached. It got so I looked forward to their presence and encouragement. Peter is a trail runner who has been capable of sub-20 hour finishes on this and other courses. He's been there. But 2002 has been a tough year for him if one gauges success on whether one crosses a race finish line or not. I've come to understand that there is a price to be paid for everything. I don't recall who I quote here or if I do it correctly but it goes something like, "God said take what you will, but pay for it." Sometimes the cost is beyond our ability to pay. Peter didn't have ample currency on Sunday morning and dropped. This courageous man accepted fate that day and as I write this is in Colorado prepping for the Leadville 100. I call him courageous not because he'll try again so soon after the DNF in the Vermont mountains. Courage has nothing to do with a single act of bravery. Courage is how one lives one life, not one specific incident. Just as mortal sin is a life style, not one startling transgression. That describes my friend Peter who lives life well. I wish him the best, knowing that he'll enjoy the big mountains out West.
This run in Vermont was such a positive and rewarding experience for me. It was the most evenly paced 100 I've ever run, the first 51.7 miles in 11 hours, the last 48.3 in 12 ½. I saw parts of this course I've never seen before, areas in past years shrouded in darkness. In previous runs here it's been near twilight coming out of Camp Ten Bear at 68 miles, this year I left the Camp at 7PM. Everything "clicked for me." I kept hydrated and attended to my salt needs, drank Ensure when I could and grazed on the foods offered at the aid stations. I filled my hat with ice whenever possible and was never more than mildly annoyed by horseflies and other flying pests. I did wind down as a function of the distance but slowed in a controlled and measured fashion. I had faith. During the race when asked how I was doing my reply was, "Pretty good, I haven't done anything stupid yet." And it continued on like that, nothing stupid, all good. When I'd begin to hit a low point something would bring me back. Like seeing Charley Crissman blasting by at mile 66 on an uphill. He had overslept on Saturday and started his race 1-½ hours late. He worked his way from last place up to being the 49th finisher. He looked like a running machine when he passed me at 6PM.
It was comfortable running through the night under the waxing moon. As mentioned earlier the company was superb. The shadows cast by the moonlight were accepted and appreciated for what they were, not hallucinations as in other years. This was the first time I'd come over the last two hills in the dark but I remembered and recognized the lay of the land, which helped a lot. The last 3.9 miles took me an hour and 13 minutes but it was sweet. It was all good. It was surreal coming off the last hill and seeing the glowsticks marking the trail through the woods and back to Smoke Rise. The flashing red lights on the last 100 yards reminded me of a landing strip. With the open barn door and finish in sight a runner came flying out of the woods behind me. It was evident that he had much more left in his legs than I. It was Greg Loomis, who is doing the Grand Slam this summer. He had run conservatively all day and now instead of passing grabbed me by the hand and said, "Let's move, there's two horses behind us we can beat". And we crossed the line together before them. I wondered how someone as young as the 28-year-old Loomis becomes such a gentlemen. I certainly wasn't at that age and still may not be.
It's all good. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At 3:30 Sunday morning I knew then that, "everywhere is right here and all time is right now and I like everyone else existed in the person I was at the moment, the person in front of me." I was comforted by that thought. I was living the moment and was aware of it. Was this an endorphin inspired revelation? Probably. My grander thoughts may come only in the midst of glycogen depletion, I don't care. Do others looking at what we do see what I see? I believe that Peter's loved ones recognized our joyful play in the woods and on the roads. I think that Valerie's husband who was her pacer late in her race recognized the value in what she was doing. This stuff completes me, while out there I find openness to new ideas and different ways of looking at the world. I'm less rigid, less certain that I know it all. My running is an attempt to restore a childlike way at looking at life. This is not such a bad thing for a middle-aged man todo. Some of this stuff stays with me after I step off the trail. It's all very good.
As my run progressed it became more and more apparent that I would finally break 24 hours here. I smiled remembering a Vermont 100 a couple years ago and a lesson about the relative value of rewards and awards. I'd come to Woodstock that year with my friend Greg Stoutenberg. Greg had a fantastic first 100-mile run finishing well under the 24-hour buckle time barrier. He had earned the prized recognition given to those running 100 miles in less than a day. I'd hoped to break that boundary that year but it didn't happen. It had rained much of the day and all night and I finished around 8AM, wet, cold and tired. Greg and his family met me in the barn after my finish. He had had enough time to return to our hotel and clean up. I was ready for a shower and bed and decided to skip the awards ceremony. I asked them to pick up my finisher's award for me. That evening there was a knock on my hotel room's door, Greg's son stood there beaming and holding my handsome sub-30 hour finisher's award. He exclaimed, "Look Mr. Prohira! Isn't this great! Isn't this the neatest award ever! I think this wooden plaque is the coolest! You are so lucky! All my Daddy got was this little belt buckle!" Kids! Is it any wonder we love ‘em so. Yes I was lucky, then and again this year.
Our awards ceremony was preceded by lunch of BBQ chicken, hamburgers and hots and completed with summer salads, drinks and Ben and Jerry's ice cream bars. While waiting for the food to cook I sat in the shade and visited with a fellow who was in a wheel chair. I was initially attracted to him because he was smoking a pipe. I'm an ex-smoker and although second hand smoke bothers me I like the smell of a pipe. We talked about stuff and I asked him why he used the chair. He told me he had broken his back years ago. Then he told me that one of his favorite things in life was skiing which he did at every opportunity. Our conversation was interrupted when he was called away. Later at the award's ceremony I smiled as he approached the microphone and told us his story. This man, Dave Millard had been a helicopter pilot shot down over Vietnam in 1972. As a young man the ability to walk was taken from him. He spoke of the gratitude he had towards those teaching him to embrace outdoor activities in spite of his handicap. He spoke of learning how to hone his skiing skills with the help of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (VASS) the organization that benefits from all proceeds obtained from the 100-mile run. Here was an example of a man embracing life on life's terms. A shining example and another hero I could see and touch. Would or could I be as strong as Dave Millard under like circumstances? Maybe. I hope so. His take home message on not giving up is one I'll not soon forget.
The end of July will bring to a close my first five years ultrarunning. What a strange, interesting and rewarding journey it's been. I've learned a thing or two about running and a few things about myself. This year I earned one of those little belt buckles that young Stoutenberg spoke of. Before we left the Farm on Sunday afternoon the top ten finishers were called forward as a group. It was cool seeing all of them together. Finishing times ranging from 14 to 17 hours, first place to tenth. Ten men finishing before I'd started my 70th mile. I'm was in awe but not as much as I had been when Richard Busa was called forward to receive his finisher's recognition. Richard is 72 years young and still running strong. That gave me pause and then hope. Is it possible that I have another 25 years of trail running left in me? I'd like to think so. But if not I will try to remember that all I have is right now and I should revel in it. What I do know is that nothing lasts forever. I was shown once again while in the hills of Vermont that there certainly is something better than in the middle.
Old habits being hard to break I'll close with a couple of quotations.
"Living the good life is frequently dull and flat and commonplace. Our greatest problem is to make it fiery and creative, one of spiritual struggle." - Nikolai Berdyaeu
"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." - Thoreau
"90% of ultrarunning is 100% mental" - Unknown
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