Last Updated on June 1, 2015 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
I never let the nerves get to me.
For the first time in my athletic career, I didn’t have a minor (or major) freak-out thinking about what I was going to attempt, who my competition would be, what my finishing time should be…none of it. A few times in the hours leading up to the race, (Infinitus 48 hour ultra, and my first attempt at 100 miles) I told friends and acquaintances that I was “excited and nervous”, but I think that was just habit, my go-to pre race statement. The truth is, not once before the race started did I actually wrap my mind around the fact that I was attempting to run 100 miles…. because there was no possible way I could wrap my mind around the feat of running 100 miles.
This was unknown territory.
(Brace yourself, a long race calls for a long post. I realize most of you won’t actually read the whole thing, and the post is likely going to take forever to load anyway with all of the pictures, but I needed to write this one for my own sake.)
The Endurance Society is a collection of some of the most amazing, and some of my most favorite, people on earth. It’s not simply another racing organization, but a group spearheaded by two insane (I mean that as a compliment) race directors who not only truly want to see you succeed, but they want to push you to your absolute limits, making you work harder than you ever have before, to earn that finish. THEY know you are capable of so much more than YOU think you are capable of, and they are going to force you to test your limits. Also, their idea of “easy” and “hard” when it comes to running is on a completely different scale than 98% of the rest of the population. Despite knowing this, knowing the types of races Andy Weinberg and Jack Cary produce, and the fact that they described the course as “extremely rugged”, I still showed up to the start of the Infinitus 48 hour race absolutely and blissfully unaware of what I was about to face.
It was for the best.
A figure 8 loop, the top consisting of 10 miles , followed by a 16 mile “lollipop” loop through a gnarly bog, across a stream, up a mountain, across a ridge, back down again, returning through the stream and gnarly bog. GPS recorded elevation change was at a total of 8,200 feet per figure 8. At the center of the figure 8 was race headquarters, Blueberry Hill Inn & Ski Center, in Goshen, Vermont.
The goal of this race was to repeat this figure 8 loop as many times as possible in 48 hours. Pre race conversations with runners of the 888K division (yes, there were 10 brave souls out there trying to cover 551 miles in 10 days) gave us the insight into the fact that the top loop (10 mile) was quickly nicknamed “happy” while the bottom loop (16 mile) was referred to as “sad”. Everyone was thrilled to cover that 10 mile loop, despite the steep 1.5 mile climb; everyone dreaded heading out to the second half.
Friday morning, 6:30 am.
Though we had spent the night out in a field in our tent with everyone else, I waited until Friday morning to officially check in. Andy asked me what my strategy was, and I told him my only plan was to keep going until I couldn’t go any further. It was a lofty goal of course, but I couldn’t think of any other strategy to come up with. This was all new to me, and as you may remember from previous posts, a race I had not trained for. The only addendum to that plan was to eat, and eat often, and keep my feet happy. Whatever else happened was yet to be seen.
Friday morning, 8:08 am. After spending the morning with some amazing friends, we were given some pre race instructions and the starting gun was fired. After spending the night before analyzing loop finishing times of everyone else, Geoff and I came up with the magic number of 3 hours as a goal time for the first 10 miles. In retrospect, I’m not sure exactly why we decided on 3 hours, but we did. I knew I never wanted to enter the anaerobic phase if possible, and I wanted to keep my breathing nice and easy for as long as possible.
I was initially told by a few that not much of the course was runnable, but I found most of the 10 mile loop actually was. So when the first flat / downhill appeared, we ran. Slowly, but purposefully. I remembered much of this course from Frigus, the snowshoe race we had competed in on much of this same course back in February. It looked much prettier not covered in snow. Really quickly we separated ourselves between the front runners (ahead of us) and everyone else behind us. Granted, there were only 40 ish people in this specific race (plus others in the 888K & 72 hour option on the same course), but it was really nice to be out there alone, just Geoff and I. Part of what I was most looking forward to in this race was one last chance to soak up the green (and were they ever green) Vermont mountains and wilderness, no interruptions. And for 95% of the course, that is exactly what I got.
The trail was simply gorgeous, alternating from wide snowmobile trail to single track trail, and a few spots of dirt road. Along the trail Andy and Jack had lined the course with various quotes about infinity, pictures of the number 8, and knick knacks in counts of 8. Literally, knick knacks. Like wind up plastic chickens, dollar store baby dolls, and masks stapled to trees. It was both parts hilarious and creepy…and absolutely no surprise coming from those two. I wanted to take pictures of them, but figured I would save it for a later lap when I was tired and moving more slowly. Unfortunately when I was tired and moving more slowly, I didn’t think to take pictures. Thankfully, other people did…
The first climb up what I *think* Andy referred to as Mt. Romance (though that could have been one of the other mountains) was swift and purposeful. It was a long climb, but nothing as grueling as the multiple times I’ve climbed the black diamond faces of ski mountains, the kind of climbs that kick you in the lungs and make you take a pause every 4 steps. Instead this was the kind of climb that was fun on fresh legs, but immediately made me think “this is going to suck the next time I have to climb it.” I had been told earlier by an 888K racer, Will, that at the top of this climb there was a clown hanging from a tree (see aforementioned antics.) After a few false summits, we spotted the clown…
…and from that point we flew.
The majority of this loop consisted of down-hills and flats, all of which I had to remind myself to take it easy. It’s amazing when you fall into the “I could run FOREVER at this pace” zone (otherwise known as Z2), combined with an absolutely perfectly sunny day on a GORGEOUS trail, and you truly do feel like you are flying. I remember at one point Geoff asked my how I was feeling. I replied with something along the lines of “freaking fantastic!”. And I meant it.
Before we knew it, we were on a trail I thought I recognized as the one I belly flopped on snowshoes onto my freshly sewn hernia incision just months before. No sooner did I declare it’s familiarity then we rounded the corner and saw the blue house on the Blueberry Inn property.
Total time for loop 1 was 2:05. A lot faster than we expected, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. I felt amazing. A quick check in on the board, a high five from Andy, and off to our tent to gear up for the next 16 mile loop. At this point, I somehow managed to be the first female to check in from the 48 hour race, but I absolutely refused to let myself think about it. I was NOT there to race anyone but myself.
Aid stations were something that Geoff and I didn’t really discuss. Hell, we didn’t even really know what to pack, so we packed a combination of things we thought we might need, and things we’d heard other experienced ultra runners say we should need. My feet had already gotten wet from the first loop, so I immediately sat down in the chair I brought (a last minute addition that turned out to be a lifesaver), took my socks off, and got to work on my feet.
I know from years of racing experience that feet can make or break your race. I can only imagine that in ultra racing, this is taken to an entirely new level. Anyone can push through blister pain for 13 miles, maybe even 26, but 100? No way. Plus I’ve seen enough trench foot at the Death Race to last a lifetime. I didn’t want to be that girl. So my strategy was this: dry my feet off with a towel, rub in some Anti Monkey Butt powder, spray on Tri Slide, new socks, shoes back on, and go. Geoff didn’t have to change anything, so while I was tending to my feet he filled my hydration pack and helped me shove some more food into my pack. Rumor was that the second loop was a bear (and there were bears out there too), and to quote one of the other racers “you practically need to pack a refrigerator to carry all the food you need out there.”
Six minutes was the entire time spent at our tent, and we were off for loop #2.
The beginning of loop two was everything the other racers had promised: a boggy, muddy, swampy mess. My clean, dry feet lasted an entire 5 minutes before they were soaked again. Thus, when we got to the stream crossing, I just walked through it. As an obstacle course racer, running with wet muddy feet is nothing new to me, but the concern for my feet’s well being still lingered in the back of my head.
Once we hit the only aid station of the 16 miles (rumored to be located at mile 3/13 depending on the direction you were coming or going) the sun had nearly reached full strength overhead. It was HOT, but we both felt great, so we ran.
I thought back to a few aforementioned 888K runners who told me that not much of the course was runnable, I thought for sure they must have been kidding. I felt like we were running forever, though in all actuality and of course in retrospect, it was likely only a handful of miles. Along the way Andy and Jack made sure to utilize absolutely every downed tree they could find, of course, but for the most part the trail was definitely runnable.
Eventually we crossed a bridge over a stream and the footing became far more dangerous, so we started walking. At this point my amazing friend Lisa caught up with us, and stuck with us for a little while. We chatted as the trail took a sharp turn and headed up.
We climbed up a ridgeline that gave us absolutely spectacular views of Lake Dunmore on the left, and eventually Silver Lake on the right. And while the views were amazing, the trail was less than spectacular. Or at least, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world at this point in my journey. The “marathon legs” had started to kick in and I felt a little less sure footed and a lot more clumsy. . It was also mid day and hot out. I was struggling to get the calories and the water in fast enough. Combine all of these factors together, on a trail covered in rocks and root…which were themselves covered in last falls layer of leaves…made for downright terrifying running. After nearly eating it (as in, tripping, breaking some teeth on the trail) more than twice, we decided to do a lot less running and A LOT more walking.
And we suddenly realized why everyone referred to this side as the “sad” side. Geoff ran out of water somewhere near what I might guess as the 11 or 12 mile marker. The course wasn’t marked with mileage markers, and I only wore my GPS for the chrono feature. I figured knowing exact distance would be demotivating at times, and besides, there is no way the battery would last 48 hours. But having the timer allowed me to gauge my nutrition intake. Every 30 minutes, top of the hour and bottom of the hour, I ate something. It worked well for 99% of my race.
After climbing what felt like forever, we finally, and quickly, descended down a series of steep and sharp switchbacks to Silver Lake. Again, the views were stunning.
We finally came out of the woods and crossed a dam, taking a long and steep dirt road that at this point, started to feel never ending. But eventually the twists and turns of the road led us back to the trail I recognized as what would now be referred to as the “lollipop stick”, or the second of out and back where those headed out and those headed in would pass each other.
It was also the point of the earlier mentioned water jugs. The “Aid Stations” at this race were merely an unmanned table with a handful of water jugs. Nothing more, nothing less. One on each loop. Thankfully, there was always plenty of water to be had.
Back into the swamp and bog we went. At this point, my body was starting to scream in a way that it hasn’t since the last marathon I ran. Though I had felt mentally strong for the entire race thus far, I nearly burst into tears when I thought about how much I hurt at that very moment…and how much further I had to go before I would finish.
But as it turns out, there comes a point in ultra running where the hurt doesn’t get much worse.
At least not for a while.
We finished the 16 mile loop in 4.5 hours. This again was significantly shorter than the 6 hours we had estimated the night before, based on other people’s finishing times. Transition #2 (what do you call these in ultra running? Clearly we’re a bunch of failed/former triathletes over here) took significantly more time than before. I immediately ripped my socks and shoes off to let my poor feet dry. “Pickled feet” is what Geoff called them, and the description couldn’t be more accurate. I was dismayed to find a huge tear on my right foot…yet shocked that I didn’t feel it. I realized it was likely blistering/tearing of a previous callous as opposed to fresh skin. Regardless, I didn’t want to exacerbate it, so I went through the routine: dry feet, powder feet, spray feet. But I let them air longer before the new socks went on.
I devoured a slice of pizza and inhaled a cup of Coca Cola. I never drink Coke, but it was all I could think about that day. I remembered my sister once telling me that long distance triathletes often refer to Coke as the “nectar of the Gods” at their later in the race aide stations, and I can absolutely understand why.
Once it was sock and shoe time, I made a quick and rash decision to switch from my Altra Lone Peak 2.0’s (a trail shoe) to my Hoka Clifton’s (a non trail shoe). Not only was it not a trail shoe, but I had previously decided I didn’t really like them. I have no idea what even possessed me to bring them in the first place, but it was probably one of the best decisions I had made all weekend. My toes and the forefoot area of both of my feet were really feeling the impact of 26+ miles of rugged terrain, and all I wanted was something underneath my feet to cushion the impact. The Hokas did just that. And while my forefoot missed the wide, vast, openness of the Altras, the rest of my body was grateful for the Hokas.
One last stop at the aid station for a water refill and some watermelon (the volunteers here were spectacular) and we headed off for the second “happy” (10 mile) loop.
A little encouragement to the legs allowed us to find our running pace again. The first section of “happy” was flat-ish and wide, so running was more than doable. As soon as we got into a good stride, Geoff tripped and fell, hard. He immediately started yelling for me to push on his foot, as his calf muscle instantly cramped with the fall causing his foot to plantar flex (toe pointing like a ballerina)…and stay there. He couldn’t bring his foot back to a neutral position. I tried to help and it took a good hard push from me forcing his foot into a neutral position before the muscle relaxed. I helped pull him up off the ground and immediately handed him my bag of Hammer Endurolytes, encouraging him to take some.
On we went.
The big climb felt much longer the second time around, just as we expected it to. Just a little ways into it, Geoff encouraged me to pick up a walking stick, and he did the same. It was a genius idea. NOW I know why seemingly EVERYONE else had brought trekking poles. Chalk that up to another rookie mistake. Plus, the sticks made it so much easier to navigate the wet, swampy parts of the trail. Having dry feet at this point in the race was better than almost anything else I could imagine…except for maybe some more Coca Cola.
Slowly and steadily we climbed the hill until we finally saw that damn clown marking the summit. Once we reached the top, we carefully and purposefully jogged down the backside. I typically hate the word “jog” in the same way so many people have issue with the word “moist” (I don’t get it , but I digress)…but “jog” is simply all I could think of to describe what I was doing. In fact, the soreness in my legs caused me to hold back so much on some of the steeper downhills, that I found walking was actually faster.
I don’t really have a ton to say about this ten mile loop, other than while it took longer than the first loop (as to be expected), it felt like it was never going to end. We didn’t encounter one single person the entire time we were out there.
Little did I know that was NOTHING compared to what we were about to face.
Miles 26 (ish) to 36 (ish), or the 2nd “happy” loop took us just over 3 hours. This was the time frame we had expected from the start, so we didn’t fret too much, however the fact that we had added an entire HOUR to this leg from the last time was a little concerning. Somehow I was still holding second overall female. It concerned me that maybe we had gone out too fast, or had done something wrong, some other rookie mistake, as over the course of the day only a couple of people had passed us. Where the hell was everyone?
But there was no time to worry about it. It was 6:30 p.m. and we had to head out to the “sad” loop. We knew we’d be finishing this one in the dark, likely well past midnight, so the sooner we got out there, the sooner we could get back.
Another 25 minute transition. I put on a long sleeve tech tee, tied another jacket around my waist, DOUSED myself with bug spray and loaded up on food. In fact, when we finally walked away from our bins and on to the trail, I had a slice of pizza in my mouth, a walking stick in my right hand, and two ziplock bags in my left hand: one with more pizza and one full of chips and pretzels. This was in addition to the chews, fruit puree, and other goodies in my hydration pack. I felt like a little kid headed off to school with my packed lunch, and I realized I probably looked ridiculous. I know nutrition is my Achilles heel in the racing world, and I was NOT heading back out there without calories.
Plus I joked if the bear, moose, or bobcat (all of which had already been seen that day by other racers) came after me, I could just throw food at them and run in the opposite direction. I was only half joking.
The second “sad” loop actually started off really well. We realized our walking pace was so much faster when we didn’t even attempt to run, so we stuck with fast walking. We carefully picked our way around the various boggy parts and mud pits, and even walked a short distance up stream when it came to the water crossing, all in attempts to keep our feet dry. It was absolutely worth the extra effort and time.
About four or five miles into this loop the sun was setting and it was starting to get dark. Most notably, however, the nighttime creatures of the woods were starting to come out. Not much phases me out there, not the hooting owls, not the rustling leaves. But I won’t lie, the thought of my friend Jason and his recent Vermont mountain lion encounter crept into my mind and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I finally resolved myself to the fact that if an incredibly rare mountain lion was going to attack me out there that night, there wasn’t a damn thing in the world I could do to save myself, so there was no sense in stressing about it.
Keep moving forward.
At some point right around the point the headlamps needed to be turned on, I found myself having to pee. Again. I did a damn good job at keeping myself hydrated, with an average pee of once per hour. Too much information? Perhaps, but ask anyone in the long distance racing world (of any sport) and they will tell you urine…and the fact that you are producing it… is a very important topic. Anyway, over the course of the race I had gone from being modest and heading deep in the woods to avoid being seen, to now barely stepping off trail. There was NO ONE anywhere near us anyway, so I didn’t really care. We were on the side of a small ridge so I stepped behind what I thought was a small birch tree. Dropped my shorts to my ankles, squatted down, and braced my weight on the tree.
As it turns out, the “tree” was actually a huge branch somehow propped up to look like a tree rooted into the ground, except it had no roots at all. My body weight caused the branch to immediately topple over, sending my bare assed self, shorts around my ankles, AND the “tree” tumbling backwards down the hill. Thankfully my fall only lasted a few feet, and gave me a much needed laugh.
Miles 36-52 went from fun, to tolerable, to tough, to soul sucking. The aforementioned leaf covered trail was significantly harder to follow in the dark. The trail markers were few and far between, and there were a number of times my stomach would slowly start to sink as I thought we had wandered off course. Landmarks we thought we recognized were actually different than we had remembered on this same loop during the daylight, so numerous times we found ourselves gravely disappointed when we realized we had a lot further to go than we thought we did.
It seemed that loop would never end.
Finally, FINALLY, we reached the dam and the long trek up the dirt road, and the turn into the “lollipop stick” section. And then everything started to fall apart.
My hamstring was screaming at me. I fell into the river while trying to rock hop across. My nutrition and hydration started to tank, fast, as the thought of eating anything was starting to feel completely unappetizing. Before the race, Geoff and I joked that we would have an ultra “safe word”. We could bitch and complain all we wanted, but if someone used the safe word, it meant they were truly done. Geoff called it long before I did, and said he would go out on the “happy” loop ten more times if he had to, but he did NOT want to set foot on the sad loop again.
I was relieved and disappointed. I agreed with him, but was instantly bummed at the idea that we had fallen SO short of our initial 100 mile goal. But this course, it was so much tougher than I had imagined. It was so much harder than ANYONE had imagined it would be. I was proud of how far we had come. But yet…quitting still was something I didn’t want to put on the table just yet. So we decided to sleep for a few hours and revisit the idea in the morning.
We crossed over the last big bridge, and heard a MASSIVE splash. It sounded as if someone had either fallen in the water, or thrown a giant rock in the water. We stopped to listen for any other noise, and heard nothing. I hadn’t seen any headlamps behind us, so I figured the chance that it was a person falling into the water was slim to none. Instead it was most likely a very large animal, so our best option was to keep moving forward and not bother it any further. As it would turn out, the next morning there would be a ton of talk of this mysterious splash, as nearly everyone who crossed that bridge at night had heard it. Some thought it was a giant bullfrog. Others, a really big fish. In my tired state, I pictured a clumsy moose tripping and falling into the stream. One guy thought it was a massive turtle doing belly flops off of a log into the water (to give him credit, he had been racing for 8 days at this point, so I can see how this fun loving, belly flopping turtle might seem plausible?). Turns out the noise was actually a very angry beaver slapping his tail on the water every time someone came near his home. Sorry little guy, we truly didn’t meant to disturb you.
But back to the long, quiet march through the dark. At this point, I was wet, and my blood sugar had tanked. Knowing that we were going to go to bed somehow let me convince myself that I didn’t need to keep eating. I was shivering as the air temperature had dropped significantly, and a walk through a field with tall, wet, grass only added to my discomfort. I was moving forward on autopilot. Every time Geoff asked me if I was drinking, I said yes, even though I wasn’t. That last stretch nearly ate me alive.
And then we were at the ski center. 12:59 am.
As we walked in to check in and record our time, a handful of volunteers were immediately on us, asking us what we needed. They were truly lifesavers, I don’t know who they were, but I want to thank them. Somehow I was still 2nd female in. While I was proud of myself, I knew this was a 48 hour race, and we were only 17 hours in. My standings meant nothing at this point.
We headed to the tent. I stripped off nearly all of my clothes and climbed into the sleeping bag. My body wanted sleep so badly, but my legs started aching and firing on their own. I dazed in and out of very fitful sleep for a few hours, before completely crashing.
I woke up at 6 am and painfully crawled out of the tent. Sleep was FANTASTIC…but was the worst thing for my legs. I was so incredibly sore. The back of my left knee where my hamstring inserts was very swollen. Other than one tiny blister on my toe, my feet were surprisingly fine. I headed up to the barn to catch up with friends and watch the start of Saturday mornings 88K & 8K races. I kept walking everywhere I could, to my car to get my flip flops, to the port-a-potties, back and forth to my tent…hoping to loosen up my legs and hamstring. I had given up on the idea of 100 miles at this point, but wanted to head out for one more 10 mile “happy” loop to finish an even 100K (62 miles). The walking never got easier…nor faster. I figured at the pace I was moving it would likely take me 4-5 hours to finish the ten mile loop (including the climb).
I conferred with Geoff, and after being reminded of the fact that we have to pack up our entire house and move in just a few days time, plus the fact that I’m starting a new job in a week…that maybe, just maybe, showing up to all of those events injured was NOT the best decision in the world.
Plus we covered 52+ miles. Twice as far as any other race I had ever run. And not just any 52 miles, but 52 Andy & Jack miles. Anyone who has run one of their race knows what I’m talking about. (As it would turn out, only 12 of the 38 people that started the 48 hour race would end up reaching 100 miles on this difficult course.)
So I hobbled over to Andy and told him we were done. And that we had an incredible time.
And I meant it.
This has been the longest post I’ve ever written (currently 5,000+ words and still going) and yet NONE of what I’ve written so far seems to begin to capture what I experienced. I suppose this is one of those situations where words will never do the experience justice. I showed up to this race completely oblivious to what I was about to face. I also stupidly showed up untrained and unprepared. Yet my current fitness level (which is nothing to bat an eye at) and mental fortitude took me through 52 brutal, glorious miles. It’s a great feeling to find yourself able to do more than you thought you were capable of. It’s an even cooler feeling to think of what more you might be capable of.
Thank you, Jack Cary and Andy Weinberg, for creating an atmosphere and these insane races that force us out of our comfort zones and make us truly seek what we are made of. Thank you for creating a community of some of the most AMAZING people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. Thank you to those amazing people for being so incredibly motivating and supportive, even when you were suffering as much, or more, than I was.
And most importantly, thank you Geoffrey Hart for always being by my side, making sure I eat, and never once questioning my sanity when I say “hey, guess what I just signed us up for?” I love you more than words can say.
I have been exposed to a whole new world of running and racing, one that feeds my soul and gets my heart racing with excitement in a way I haven’t felt since I first discovered running nearly 10 years ago. I’m not exactly sure what’s next on my racing calendar, but I have a feeling they are only going to get longer from here…
And if you ever get the chance to participate in an Endurance Society event, don’t hesitate and don’t even question…DO IT. You will never regret it.