My first goal for this race was to beat my time of 8:02 from the last time I ran it, in 2009. This was in no way based on my training or how I actually felt I could run on the day, sort of a default goal to try and do better than before. To prove that I’m stronger now than I was then. On the drive down to the race with Emma, Zak and Jeremy we discussed our race plans, and I admitted that my goal was very ambitious, and that I had no idea if I was capable of making it. My time in 2009 was my fastest time for a 50 miler by a long shot, and more than 2 hours better than my time from this race in 2007 (10:10:13) which was my first 50. I realized, only as we were on our way to the race, that the most likely factor contributing to the success of my race in 2009 was that that race was my one big goal for the year. Everything else I did was about preparing for that 50 miler, my training was very specific, and it paid off. This year my goal was a 100 miler, and I expected my fitness from all the training that went into the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness and Virgil Crest 100 to carry me through the Stone Cat 50 miler. In theory that makes a lot of sense, the biggest unknown was whether or not 6 weeks was enough time for me to recover from a 32.5 hour 100 mile finish, get in a little training and then taper for Stone Cat.
With just about every race I do, no matter the distance, I struggle with setting off too fast. More often than not, if it’s a race I’ve done before, I’m trying to beat my previous time, or if I haven’t done the race I’ve set myself an ambitious goal. My typical strategy for this type of goal is to go out hard, if I want to run a fast time then I have to run fast, and why not start that way from the beginning? In a long race I expect to slow down, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think “normal” people like me can expect to run even splits in an ultra. The question is: what is an acceptable amount of slowing versus an excessive amount?
In my opinion, my 2009 race was a good example of an appropriate amount of slow-down. When I saw my time at the end of my first lap I knew I couldn’t maintain that speed for the next three laps, so I intentionally slowed down for lap 2, then laps 3 and 4 were each a few minutes slower. But I never hit the wall or crashed. My 2011 race was a good example of how not to run an ultra, or any race for that matter, with a completely inappropriate amount of slow-down.
My “training” leading up to Stone Cat didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped, and in hindsight I should have set myself a more realistic goal based on how I was feeling, rather than how I raced two years ago. Following Virgil Crest I took 5 days off from running, took it easy for the next week and then tried to get in a few decent training runs. Less than three weeks after VC I attempted a 20 miler at Pineland, but stopped at 17 because I didn’t have much energy and didn’t see the point of pushing it. I immediately followed that up with 10 and 7 mile runs on the next two days, and a few days later got in in a 20 miler at Bradbury. While my weekly mileage seemed low for 50 miler training I didn’t feel great and I should have seen that as an indication that my body was still trying to recover from the 100 miler. With a two week taper I felt pretty good going into Stone Cat, but I definitely had a lot of uncertainty about what I was capable of. Ultimately I decided that if I wanted to break 8 hours at this race I would have to go out “fast” (compared to 100 miler pace) and try to hang on.
Trail Monster Running had a large contingent of runners representing the group at this year’s race, with 12 of us toeing the line. Most of our runners spent the night at a local hotel but Emma and I drove down that morning with Zak and pacer-Jeremy for the 6:15AM start. The three other times I ran this race it was before the tweakage to daylight saving time so it always started at sunrise, but this year we started in the dark and needed headlamps for nearly the first hour. This definitely changed things a bit, partly in terms of navigation but also being able to get a sense of my position relative to other runners and for overall pacing. Despite having a fair amount of experience running at night I always find it hard to judge pace in the dark. My only other experience racing in the dark is in the context of a 100 miler, and todays pace was significantly faster than that.
The 50 miler is 4 times around a 12.5 mile loop, with two aid stations out on the course and one at the start/finish area where runners also leave drop bags. After much deliberation, and based on previous years experience with this race, I decided to carry my Nathan HPL #020 pack, loaded to the gills with a 2 liter bladder of Nuun, 7 gels, 3 Honey Stinger Wafers, S!Caps and a small bag of trail mix. This sounds like a lot, but my plan was to go as long as possible without stopping at the aid stations or making use of my drop bag. I know that, especially in a 100, I can spend far too much time at aid stations, so I hoped that I could improve my race time by reducing the amount of time that I wasn’t actually running. Since I know a lot of the folks in the GAC who work the aid stations there is a definite risk of spending too much time socializing or doing shots.
I set off at the start pretty fast, worried about getting stuck on the dark single-track trail behind too many people, although most of the first mile was double-track this turned out to be a non-issue. When we did hit the single-track I recognized Amy Lane’s voice behind me talking to another woman, it took me a few minutes to figure out that it was Aliza Lapierre. I was pretty sure I didn’t belong in front of these two talented runners. Amy’s previous times at Stone Cat were similar to my goal, but she’s been having a good year and I didn’t know what she was capable of. Aliza holds the course record of 7:19*, and also has the course record at Pineland of 6:48! I shouldn’t even be breathing the same air as her. The three of us went through the first aid station at 4.2 miles, Al Cat’s Lounge, without even slowing down and shortly after that I let the two of them pass. I asked them what their plans were for the day, to try and figure out if there was any point in me trying to hang on to their pace. I knew this was sort of a silly question, most people tend to be so modest with their goals and abilities that you never know if you’re going to get a realistic answer. They responded with something in the 7:30 to 7:45 range, which I was pretty sure was a bit too far under 8 hours for me, but knowing that they are very consistent runners, and I was going to be slowing down over the course of the race I decided I would probably be OK hanging with them for the first lap.
At the next aid station, Fast Freddie’s Café at 7.5 miles, Aliza and I cruised through again and Amy dropped back just a bit but stayed within ear shot for a while. With about two miles left in the first lap Aliza seemed to pick up the pace a bit and I knew I shouldn’t try to stay with her. It’s also possible, in fact highly likely even, that she remained consistent and I started to slow down. Either way, the result was that I was on my own, and that’s how it stayed for the rest of the race. 39.5 miles is a long time to be running alone, and I hoped that one of the other Trail Monsters would catch up to me and keep me company.
I knew that I would be out longer than the battery life of my Garmin so I didn’t bother with it today, instead relying on my lap times to judge my pace. This was a bit risky because it’s very limited feedback, and doesn’t really give much of an opportunity (only three chances) to make changes to my plan/pace as I go. I could have worked out my pacing based on the aid station mileage but I really didn’t want to be bothered with that, I much prefer to run based on how I feel, which I realize contradicts my overall race goal. Whatever. I crossed the line at the end of the first lap in 1:46:30. This was only a little bit faster than my first lap when I ran the race in 2009, so I thought that I was in good shape. With all that was in my pack there was no need for me to stop at the aid station so I just took off my headlamp and tossed it to Jeremy as I passed by. I had thought I might shed a layer here but it was still pretty cold out, probably only in the upper 30’s. Despite running fairly quickly I was finding it hard to keep warm, my hands were pretty cold and my legs were definitely aware of the cold air. Although my energy level was pretty good my legs felt a bit stiff and inefficient. I usually perform well in cooler temperatures but for some reason I was struggling a bit today. Not that I felt bad, but in hindsight I wonder if the fact that I was struggling to keep warm was an indication that my body wasn’t functioning optimally.
As I headed out on my second lap I got to see a lot of Trail Monsters and other familiar faces coming in as they finished their first lap. Amy wasn’t too far behind me, then Emma, Blaine and Zak, all looking good. I didn’t want to let myself slow down but I hoped that at least one of them would catch up. It never happened, at least not on this lap. I was alone, and without any conversation I didn’t have much to think about except for the trail. Hills that I hadn’t noticed the first time around were making themselves known, and I was surprised by how technical some sections were. It’s amazing how the company of another person can distract you from the trail. I still managed to run the entire second lap without the need for walking or even stopping at the aid stations. So far it seemed that my nutrition/hydration strategy was working well, I was saving a lot of time by not stopping at aid stations and I don’t think the extra weight was a significant burden. My total time at the end of the second lap was 3:40, giving me a lap time of 1:54. Eight minutes slower than my first lap, almost 40 seconds per mile. Not so good, but it looked like I still had a good chance of breaking 8 hours even if I continued to slow down over the second half of the race.
After 25 miles I was finally ready for an aid station break, and I needed to take a few minutes to refill my pack, and adjust my clothing now that it was warming up a bit. With help from Jeremy and Jamie I got my bladder swapped out, emptied some trash, stripped of my long sleeve shirt and put on some Moeben sleeves, then switched my knit hat for a baseball cap. Probably less than a 2 minute stop, which I was happy with. My feet were holding up well, although each lap they got soaked when we ran through a 100 yard section of flooded trail with 12” deep icy water. It took a few miles for my feet to warm up after each time I went through but thanks in part to the Hydropel I applied before the race (thanks Emma) I didn’t have any issues with hot spots or blisters.
I took off on the third lap running pretty fast, I felt good about how the race had gone so far and was confident I’d be able to break 8 hours. That changed a mile into the loop when I turned onto single-track and started to go up hill. All of a sudden my energy was gone and it seemed like an enormous struggle to get up this little hill. For the first time in the race I felt the need to walk. I never expected to run every step of the entire race, but I also didn’t expect to feel this crappy just over half way through. Coming down the other side of the hill I felt fine, but when I got to the next up it was the same story, no energy and I was forced to a walk.
As much as I wanted to stop at Al Cat’s Lounge there really wasn’t any need since I had a full pack of food and drink, so I pretended to feel good and ran past. By the time I got to Fast Freddie’s Café at about 32.5 miles I was feeling pretty low and stopped long enough to grab a few pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough to eat and that was contributing to my lack of energy? This was how I felt when I attempted a 20 miler at Pineland a few weeks before with Jeremy. Could it be that I wasn’t recovered from Virgil Crest?
Not long after leaving the aid station I bumped into Jamie who was on his way out to meet Kate. He turned and ran with me for a little while and we chatted. It was a great distraction from the many lonely miles I had been running, but soon enough he turned back to meet up with Kate and I was on my own again.
At the end of the third lap it was time to check my watch again and see the bad news I knew was coming. 5:53, which works out to a 2:13 lap. Damn, I was seriously slowing down. Thankfully there was a big group of Trail Monsters there to lift my spirits and help me get ready for my last lap. Val and Rick helped change the bladder in my pack and Four brought me a big plate of food from the aid station. As I headed out for the final time I felt much better and started thinking I still had a chance of breaking 8 hours. A 2 hour lap wasn’t out of the question was it? Yeah, it was. What a stupid idea. When I hit that hill on the single-track I was walking again, even slower than before. I felt pretty bad. Nothing in particular was hurting, I just felt like I had no energy.
I decided to stop at Al Cat’s on my last time through, just long enough to grab a few pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. I realized there was definitely more to the way I was feeling than a little refueling could take care of. I felt like I was eating and drinking well enough throughout the race, but that doesn’t matter if your body isn’t willing to accept being pushed that hard. By the time I reached Fast Freddie’s my quads started cramping which slowed me down even more. I decided not to stop at the aid station, I had enough in my pack to get me through the last 5 miles, even if it took me a really long time. It did take a long time. I was getting passed a lot on this last lap, and every time I tried to hang on for as long as I could, but I couldn’t keep up with anyone.
When I finally entered the field for the last time and approached the finish I was grateful to be done. My time was respectable but I wasn’t at all happy with how I got it. I finished in 8:17 which meant my last lap was 2:23. That’s 37 minutes slower than my first lap. I knew I was going to slow down, but that’s just embarrassing.
I don’t regret setting off fast, although maybe I should. In hindsight it’s obvious that I didn’t have it in me to hang on to that pace for very long, and I can’t help but wonder if I would have had a better race if I had started out more conservatively. I knew my goal of breaking 8 hours was very ambitious, and I probably should have come up with a more realistic goal based on how I was feeling going into the race. If my goal had been to break 8:30 I would have been very happy with an 8:17, but only if I ran it more consistently. 8:17 is still a good time for me, but I feel like at this stage in my running I should be able to run smarter races and not make this kind of vast miscalculation in my abilities.
The biggest difference between this race and the year I ran 8:02 is that this year I was balancing recovery and training in the 6 weeks leading up to it, and I definitely didn’t get that balance right.
(photos taken by various friends and reused without their permission :)
*Aliza went on to set a new course record of 7:06.
Trail Monster Running
Visit the official TRAIL MONSTER RUNNING website for information on upcoming group runs, local trails, trail races and more, including the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival and the Bradbury Mountain trail Running Series.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
“Everyone out here is hurting right now. At this point it’s all about who’s best at managing the pain.”
In the week leading up to the Virgil Crest 100 it rained pretty much every day, on top of ground that was reportedly still saturated from Hurricane Irene a few weeks prior. With this in mind Emma and I made the last minute decision to stay in a hotel the night before the race instead of camping. I’d camped at both of my previous 100 miler attempts, a shitty nights sleep and being “in touch with nature” always seemed like part of the event. But since we didn’t have a crew and we were pretty far from home we decided that a warm, dry bed after the long drive to get there was a good idea.
After an 8+ hour drive we arrived in Virgil, NY around 3:30 on Friday afternoon and found the local fire station where we picked up our numbers and schwag, a long sleeve tech shirt and handmade mug. Good stuff. The finishers buckles were on display, but I warned Emma not to jinx it by getting too close. I had handled the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness buckle before the run and ended up with a DNF so I wasn’t about to make that mistake again. We got checked into our hotel, then returned to the fire station to leave our drop bags and enjoy the pasta dinner. The pre-race meeting was underwhelming, no information that wasn’t already on the website, or found elsewhere by our obsessive research and planning process, so we left early and got back to our hotel before 8:30.
We had a good night’s sleep but the only problem with staying in a hotel a half hour from the start is that I worried about all the things that could go wrong during that relatively short drive to get there. There is something very comforting about sleeping in a tent only a few hundred yards from the start line, you know you’re going to make it on time. The good thing about the drive is that it allowed Emma to play DJ so we could rock out to the Beastie Boys, “because you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop.” Finding the start at Hope Lake Park was easy, even in the dark at 5:00AM. We were thankful that the relatively late start of 6:00 allowed us plenty of time. It was cool and rainy, but surprisingly, and annoyingly humid. One of the reasons I had picked this race was because I thought that late September would provide the cooler and less humid temperatures that I prefer. Oh well, it’s not like I hadn’t done most of my training in high humidity.
The race course is a double out-and-back on a 25 mile stretch of trail, primarily consisting of the Finger Lakes Trail, with a little something else thrown in at the beginning and then a sinister double up and down on the Greek Peak ski trails in the middle. 89% single-track, 7% gravel road and only 4% asphalt. Those are my kind of proportions. Although the race website throws out the number of “roughly 20,000 feet” of elevation gain, they also publish elevation details for each section between aid stations, and when you add those numbers up it comes out at 23,410 feet of gain and equal loss. Either way, that’s a lot of hills and way more than anything else I’ve ever attempted. The Vermont 100, the only other 100 I’ve completed, has a measly 14,000’ of elevation gain, and the 100 Mile Wilderness, which I did not finish, has about the same amount.
We made the final pre-race check in, then caught up with fellow Trail Monster George, and found a few other familiar faces (Nick, Ryan and Kristina) to chat with and calm the nerves. It wasn’t long before we all filtered out into the rainy morning, turned on our headlamps and lined up facing an uncertain darkness ahead. With the sputtering blow of a ram’s horn the crowd moved forward between rows of burning tiki torches. After about 100 yards of grass we picked up a narrow paved path that meandered through the grounds of Hope Lake Park and our group of 150 runners stretched out into a single file line of little bobbing lights.
Hope Lake Park to Gravel Pit: 4.4 miles, 990’ gain, 575’ loss.
It was hard to believe that Emma and I were once again setting off together on a 100 mile adventure, just 7 weeks after our last attempt. A year ago at this time we weren’t even able to think about running ultras, a half marathon was our fall racing goal. The plan Emma and I had agreed to was that we’d stick together for the first two aid stations, to 9.7 miles. Then we’d hit the serious hilly section of the race where we both thought I’d be faster, so it would make sense for us to each do our own thing. In the week before the race Emma was having serious foot pain, bad enough to make her and her chiropractor think she might have a stress fracture. And then there were the knee problems that have been plaguing her for the past three years and were the reason she pulled out of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Less than a mile into the run I had already started to doubt our plan, wouldn’t it be much more enjoyable to just run the whole thing together?
I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself so I just enjoyed where we were at the moment. It didn’t take long for the sky to begin to lighten, but under the heavy tree canopy we needed to keep our headlamps on. Emma and I caught up with Kristina who was running the 50 miler and we stuck together for the first few miles, and went back and forth with a few other friendly folks. It became immediately clear that it was pointless to try to keep our feet dry, the ground was just too wet, not to mention that it was raining. The trail was mostly double-track in the early miles which was good for allowing us all to settle into our appropriate pace. The first aid station seemed to come pretty quickly so we just grabbed a quick drink and moved through without really stopping. We were less than an hour in and my breakfast was still churning over in my stomach, no need to refuel yet, but I did remind myself to eat early and often.
Gravel Pit to Lift House 5: 5.3 miles (9.7 total), 730’ gain, 1320’ loss.
After the mostly uphill first stretch this next section felt pretty fast, and now that the sun was up (although still behind clouds) we were able to pick the pace up a bit. The terrain soon turned more technical with genuine single track, roots, mud, tight turns and numerous gullies that crossed the trail. Apparently the downhill running helped move my breakfast along and I felt the need for a bio-break, which I hated to do while we had such a good pace going and were amongst such a good group of runners. Emma and I both pulled off the trail but each found our own private spots.
Shortly after our pit stop we came out to the only section of paved road on the course, a mile long downhill with what we could only imagine were great views beyond the clouds and fog. This brought us in to the next aid station, Lift House 5, that we would see 8 times during the course of the run. Emma filled up her bladder while I searched for our drop bag. We left our headlamps here, not because we needed them on the previous stretch but this is where we thought we’d want to pick them up before it got dark on our way back through. Not having a crew required a little additional planning but this was what we wanted, to do it all ourselves.
photo courtesy of Nick Tooker
Lift House 5 to Lift House 5: 4.2 miles (13.9 total), 1450’ gain, 1450’ loss.
By the time we started the climb up the Greek Peak ski slopes on the east side of Virgil Mountain I had already decided I would stick with Emma through our first pass of the “Alpine Loop”. She’s always been better at pacing herself than I am and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. The trails up the mountain were a combination of access roads, steep ski slopes and insanely steep single-track. Some runners got out trekking poles, and others found branches to help out on the climb. We just went for the classic hands-on-knees approach. The only good thing about the steep hills is that they shed water pretty quickly so this was one of the driest parts of the course, and by now the rain had stopped.
After about a 600’ climb (with a stretch at 21% grade) we dropped back down, then faced another 600’+ climb to what most of us thought was the highest point. A 50 miler who had run the race last year warned us to hold off on the celebrations because there was one final climb before we were really on our way down. Once we did finally hit the high point of the loop we had a drop of about 800’ in 1.5 miles to get back to the aid station at the bottom of the mountain. This section of the course reminded me a bit of the Loon Mountain and Mt Cranmore races, except in this race we didn’t dare go all out on the downhills since we knew we had to run it 4 times, with many miles in between.
Once back at the Lift house 5 aid station (you hit it at the beginning and end of the Alpine Loop) I refilled the bladder in my Nathan pack, we both grabbed some food and an Ensure to drink on the next stretch.
Lift House 5 to Rock Pile: 6.1 miles (20 total), 1570’ gain, 1120’ loss.
I knew there was a climb coming up but failed to look at any of the information I had with me defining how much of climb. Turns out it’s actually the biggest climb of the whole race, going back up Virgil Mountain, this time all the way to the summit. At least it was a little more gradual, but then it was also more muddy. Oh well, no one does 100 mile trail races because they’re easy.
After summitting Virgil Mt we had one of the most runnable and enjoyable stretches of the race, a very gradual downhill over the next few miles on tight single track. We did pop out onto a dirt road for about a half mile where we caught up to and passed a few runners, then back into the woods for more muddy single track. In places it was hard to tell the difference between the trail and one of the many streams that crossed it, but Emma and I never really had any trouble finding our way. There was a short and easy climb up to the Rock Pile aid station where Emma filled her bladder again, we grabbed some goodies from our drop bags and food from the tables and got moving as quickly as we could.
Rock Pile to Daisy Hollow Rd: 5.1 miles (25.1 total), 1250’ gain, 1250’ loss.
Shortly after leaving the aid station we started to hear the famous dog barking. He lives at the bottom of a valley and gets a bit agitated with runners going by. It was going to be a long day for him too. After a very enjoyable downhill run we passed the dog’s house and began another climb on fairly technical terrain. There were actually ropes coming down the hill in a few places to help pull yourself up with. Once we reached the top of this short but steep climb there was another fairly flat and easily runnable stretch. The terrain was technical in spots, plenty of mud and quite a few logs across the trail to step over (mtn bike control).
A few miles before the turnaround at the next aid station we started seeing the lead runners coming back towards us. The first place woman in the 100 miler was 3rd overall, Acidotic Racing’s Ryan was in 5th, and Kristina was in 2nd or 3rd in the 50. When we saw Nick, who had passed us on the Alpine Loop, he told us we were about 1 minute from the aid station. I had counted about sixteen 100 milers ahead of us but there were a lot of people at the aid station when we arrived and keeping track of who was ahead became much less important than just looking after our own needs and getting moving again. I filled my bladder, but we didn’t have a drop bag here so we made this stop a quick one.
Daisy Hollow Rd to Rock Pile: 5.1 miles (30.2 total), 1250’ gain, 1250’ loss.
Hitting the turnaround was a major milestone. ¼ of the way done, we were having fun and feeling good. Despite having made an elaborate pace chart with various predicted finishing times based on our arrival at each aid station I didn’t feel compelled to look at it. I was content running with Emma at whatever pace felt right for the terrain we were on. By now we had decided that we’d stick together for the rest of the race, no matter what happened. Sharing this experience together was much more important than trying to beat a specific time or another runner.
Our way back to the Rock Pile was slower than on the way out, in part due to having to negotiate the trail with all the runners coming at us. The other factor was an increase in pee breaks, which I mention because both of us seem to have some issues balancing fluid and electrolyte intake in the right proportions. Since we were both soaked from the morning rain it was hard to tell how much we were sweating and neither of us were taking S!Caps (although we were carrying them), instead relying on the Nuun we were drinking, GU and various salty foods to get our electrolytes.
Shortly before reaching the Rock Pile we bumped into George who was coming down the hill towards us, with his usual big smile. We stopped to chat for a minute, I mentioned my suffering feet and George told me he had blister treatment stuff in one of his drop bags that I was welcome to use. By now I had wet feet for almost 7 hours and was ready for some dry socks so we planned to make this a somewhat longer stop. We both filled our bladders with help from Nick’s crew, changed our socks, Emma applied more band aids to her heels, and we grabbed some food from the aid station. What a difference a change of socks can make. I could feel some hot spots developing on my feet, but the dry socks seemed to make them feel a lot better.
Rock Pile to Lift House 5: 6.1 miles (36.3 total), 1120’ gain, 1570’ loss.
The biggest heartbreak of the race came less than 10 minutes after leaving the Rock Pile aid station: a 20’ wide stream crossing. Normally I wouldn’t mind a stream crossing, but I had just changed my socks. What a waste. I don’t know why I hadn’t remembered that this was coming up. With freshly soaked shoes and socks the hot spots on my feet continued to flare up and I was pretty sure blisters were forming. I was looking forward to changing my shoes but didn’t want to do it too soon since I only had one spare pair. I had 3 more pairs of socks to get me through the rest of the race but I knew I needed to be smarter about when I changed them.
By the time we got back to Lift House 5 I was ready for the change, the big descent from the top of Virgil Mt to the aid station really messed up my feet and I needed to assess the damage. Much to my surprise I couldn’t find any significant blisters amongst the white wrinkled mess that was my feet. With a little more help from Nick’s crew we took care of things as quickly as possible, I put on another pair of dry socks and switched to my Roclite 295’s. If I’d had another pair of X-Talon 212’s I probably would have put them on, but at this point anything dry was a treat. Emma took a few minutes to apply BioFreeze to her foot and knee, and we both applied muscle rub to our quads in preparation for our second trip around the Alpine Loop. Emma had told me before we started not to ask her about any of her aches and pains during run, that topic of conversation was off limits. Although she hadn’t mentioned that anything was bothering her I suspected that she was attempting to treat pain rather than prevent it.
Lift House 5 to Lift House 5: 4.2 miles (40.5 total), 1450’ gain, 1450’ loss.
We set off up the hill with the “Orange Shirt Guy” with whom we had been leap-frogging all morning. We were moving slightly faster than him but he was much quicker in and out of the aid stations. We soon decided it was time for another bio-break and he moved ahead, but it wouldn’t be the last time we saw him. Our pace was definitely slower this time around the loop, mostly due to the way we ran down the hills. With the way Emma’s knee and my feet were feeling the downhills were definitely the most uncomfortable and we were unable to take advantage of the potential for faster miles here. Our climbing was still pretty strong and we focused on having fun and the things that weren’t hurting. Generally speaking we were in good shape and everything was going well. By now the clouds had started to break up and we were rewarded with some great views from the ski slopes.
Back at Lift House 5 again I needed to reassess my feet. I looked for George’s drop bag but couldn’t find anything for treating blisters, and as it turned out there wasn’t much that needed to be done to my feet. They looked and felt pretty bad but there weren’t actually any blisters that needed to be drained. We grabbed our headlamps here, even though darkness was still a few hours away we knew we’d need them before we returned to this spot. The aid station crew was getting the hot food going and we enjoyed a few perogies before heading back out. By now the aid station volunteers were starting to recognize the runners, and the race director was making the rounds as well so it was great to get support from them. We were recognized as the married-couple-running-together and we definitely got a boost every time we came through an aid station.
Lift House 5 to Gravel Pit: 5.3 miles (45.8 total), 1320’ gain, 730’ loss.
Now we got to “run” the paved section in the opposite direction, this time up hill. We were mostly walking it. Back into the woods we settled into a comfortable running pace and were able to cruise along pretty well, but there seemed to be a lot more mud than on the way out, clearly the result of all the people that had churned things up throughout the course of the day. As we approached the Gravel Pit aid station we started to see the lead runners coming out for their second half of the race, this was a fun part of the double-out-and-back format. When we arrived at the Gravel Pit we were looking for more Ensure but for some reason didn’t have any in our drop bags. A cup of warm tortellini hit the spot though and after a quick chat with the #4 runner and his pacer about Pineland we were on our way to finish up the first half of the race.
Gravel Pit to Hope Lake Park: 4.4 miles (50.2 total), 575’ gain, 990’ loss.
There was a nice long downhill stretch coming out of the aid station, but thankfully not too steep so we were able to run it well. In fact, we ran very well all the back to Hope Lake Park, fueled by the excitement of almost being half way done with the race. The sun was getting low and I was glad that we’d get the first half done before dark, but I was also looking forward to running through the night, the change of scenery – or lack thereof – would help make the double out-and-back seem less repetitive.
On the paved path just before we reached the half way mark we once again caught up to “Orange Shirt Guy” and we finally introduced ourselves. We also met up with two young kids, presumably children of the aid station volunteers, who were very excited about running us in to the aid station. We didn’t have a drop bag at this aid station so we attempted to make it a quick stop, but the reality was that after 12+ hours of running all our stops were taking a while. It was dinner time so we mowed down a few spicy hummus wraps, drank some Mt Dew and chatted to the volunteers and few 50 milers who had just finished.
When one of the volunteers asked what we thought of the course I responded “It’s a course so nice you have to run it twice!” With that we headed out into the sunset for the second half of our 100 mile adventure.
Hope Lake Park to Gravel Pit: 4.4 miles (54.6 total), 990’ gain, 575’ loss.
A huge sense of relief came over me now that we were more than half way through the race, even though we still had a very long way to go it all seemed manageable. Of course we were beginning to get tired, and we had a few aches and pains but the finish seemed like it was within reach. Over the next 45 miles that feeling faded substantially.
Shortly after leaving Hope Lake Park we turned on our headlamps, we were each carrying one on our head and one around the waist. The bellylamp, as I like to call it, is great for illuminating the ground immediately in front while the headlamp works for spotting further up the trail. The climb back up to the Gravel Pit was slowed by the slick mud that reduced the efficiency of every step. Tortellini was still on the menu when we returned to the Gravel Pit so we each grabbed another cup and ate while we accessed our drop bags. We took the dry socks from our drop bags with us, and decided to save them for a time when we really needed them. Emma was still in a t-shirt at this point but I had switched to a long sleeve top. I also had a hat and gloves, which weren’t needed while we were running but standing around at the aid stations got chilly pretty quick.
Gravel Pit to Lift House 5: 5.3 miles (59.9 total), 730’ gain, 1320’ loss.
About 20 minutes after leaving the aid station we bumped into George who was not looking happy. It turned out that one of the aid station volunteers had sent him the wrong way and he ended up running a few extra miles. Major bummer. This made Emma and I even more glad that we had each other as we went later into the night. The next few miles of technical, muddy terrain were a lot of fun even though we were starting to slow down a lot. Slowing was to be expected given the distance we had already covered and the fact that it was now dark, but the fact that we were having fun and still enjoying each others company was a treat.
Back at Lift House 5 for the fifth time, and about to set off on our third trip around the Alpine Loop we took an especially long break to get ourselves ready. We both changed our shorts, 15 hours in the same pair of wet shorts is long enough. I also decided it was finally time to take care of my feet so I sat next to the fire and borrowed some blister treatment supplies from another runner. I drained 3 or 4 blisters, but put the same wet socks back on. This was one of the times when I wished we had a crew, we must have spent well over 20 minutes here. Oh well, I had long since given up worrying about how long this was going to take us. We had to do what we had to do to get it done.
Lift House 5 to Lift House 5: 4.2 miles (64.1 total), 1450’ gain, 1450’ loss.
Messing with my feet actually made them feel worse. The ups weren’t too bad but the steep descents on the ski slopes were killing me. I knew Emma was in pain but she wasn’t talking about it so I kept my discomfort to myself and just tried to focus on getting through this section. Emma pointed out the clear night sky, and the stars helped to provide a much needed distraction. I really was a perfect night to be out on a mountain.
Lift House 5 to Rock Pile: 6.1 miles (70.2 total), 1570’ gain, 1120’ loss.
It was around midnight as we made our way up the long climb to the summit of Vigil Mountain, fatigue was starting to set in but our spirits were still high. Despite the painful issues we were both having we spoke of them very infrequently. We caught up to and passed another runner on the way up, while he was treating his own blister. He then got us back while we were taking another bio-break. We leap-frogged with him several more times over the remaining miles, but never actually ran with or even spoke to him since he was wearing headphones.
At the Rock Pile aid station I had lentil soup and Emma ate chicken noodle. All the aid stations had a great selection of food, and the hot stuff was very much appreciated at night. I changed my socks again here, since we went through that 20’ long stream crossing shortly before reaching the aid station. I was finally starting to remember the layout of the course.
Rock Pile to Daisy Hollow Rd: 5.1 miles (75.3 total), 1250’ gain, 1250’ loss.
Much to our surprise the famous dog was still barking as we descended into the valley, although he was clearly getting weary from a full day at it. He wasn’t the only one, tiredness was really starting to set in and we were seriously slowing down. When we arrived at the turnaround at Daisy Hollow Rd it felt like another major milestone, and I wanted to celebrate by taking a nap by the fire. I had perhaps gotten to the point of not caring enough about time, had I been on my own I surely would have given in. I did sit down but Emma wouldn’t let me sleep.
Daisy Hollow Rd to Rock Pile: 5.1 miles (80.4 total), 1250’ gain, 1250’ loss.
Once we started moving again I was glad we hadn’t stopped for any longer. With every step we knew that we were covering this ground for the last time. Running became less and less common as the mud was at it’s best and our coordination was at it’s worst. There were numerous downed trees along this stretch, which were barely noticable 20 hours early but now destroyed any sense of rhythm we had each time we had to step over. Just as we’d get the momentum back up we’d have to slow back down to step over another log.
On the way down into the valley of the barking dog we passed George again. The smile was still missing from his face, you know it’s a tough course when George isn’t smiling. We said goodbye to the barking dog and headed up the hill to the Rock Pile as the sun was rising. This time we were greeted with grilled cheese sandwiches at the aid station. Perfect.
Rock Pile to Lift House 5: 6.1 miles (86.5 total), 1120’ gain, 1570’ loss.
Emma started to point out to me that my running pace was at times equivalent to her walking pace but far less efficient. I appreciated the advice but was annoyed that I couldn’t get myself to move quicker. Our conversation became focused on survival. We had every reason to believe that we would finish this race, but in our delicate, exhausted, aching state we feared that pushing too hard could lead to a disaster that would prevent one of us from finishing. Downhills were killing both of us in different ways, and we knew there were a few big ones coming up. Not to mention a few big climbs that would continue to drain what little energy we had left in us.
When we reached Lift House 5 for the seventh time, before starting our fourth and final time around the Alpine Loop we took another long break while I tended to my feet. I drained some new blisters, redrained some old ones, and changed into dry socks for the last time. I also made sure that we both ate and drank plenty. At this point it was too easy to forget about fueling up, but the reality was that we still had anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to go before we finished and it was time for breakfast.
Lift House 5 to Lift House 5: 4.2 miles (90.7 total), 1450’ gain, 1450’ loss.
For the last time around the Alpine Loop we pretty much walked the entire thing, especially the downs. The ups were exhausting and the downs were excruciating. We tried to stay positive and encourage each other, but we both feared that something could go terribly wrong and end the race for us. At least the views were nice. The sun was out and it was warming up. In fact, it was starting to get hot on the exposed ski slopes and it was only 9 in the morning. Near the top of the ski mountain we started to see the 50k runners coming towards us, they started at 8AM on Sunday. It was strange to see people moving so fast and effortlessly, everyone else we had come across looked like a zombie.
The final steep descent to the aid station just about killed us, I think it would have been less painful and a lot quicker if I had curled up into a ball and just rolled down the hill. We eventually got into Lift House 5 for the last time and we were grateful to be done with the Alpine Loop. I put my wet t-shirt back on since it was getting pretty hot, and we made sure everything was packed back into our drop bag.
Lift House 5 to Gravel Pit: 5.3 miles (96.0 total), 1320’ gain, 730’ loss.
I wanted to run out from the aid station since it was an easy stretch of dirt road, but it took a long time to build the momentum up to what could be considered a running pace, and it was a lot more painful than I thought it would be. The hard surface of the road was not good for my tenderized feet. Soon enough we reached the long climb on Carson Road and it was like a death march going up. Mid way up the hill there was a guy with a camera and he asked “do you think you could kick in the run for the camera?” I responded with “only if you give me a dollar for every mile I’ve run so far, and that’s more than 90.” He was there for the 50k runners and didn’t realize that we’d been at it for close to 30 hours at this point.
Near the top of the hill we heard a buzzing coming from the nearby bushes, bees apparently, but even a few stings couldn’t get Emma running again until we’d crested the hill. Back in the woods we wanted desperately to run consistently, but every little dip in the trail, mud hole, downed tree and rocky or rooty section forced us to a walking pace. This section was so much fun the first few times through but was now taking forever, with the mud factor made worse by all the 50k runners who had recently come though with their fast moving blender-like feet that chopped up the ground and made a big soupy mess.
This stretch was definitely the lowest point of the race for both of us. We wanted so desperately to be done, we’d had enough of “enjoying the experience” and just wanted to get off the trail. I knew we could finish, but being relatively close doesn’t actually make it any easier to get there. Every time I thought “the next aid station is right around the corner” it wasn’t. There was another little hill, or more trail that didn’t look like anything we had run before. I started to think that maybe we’d gone off course because nothing looked familiar, but periodically a 50k runner would come up from behind and give us some encouragement, and helped to let us know that we were on the right track.
As we eventually neared the Gravel Pit aid station we started to recognize where we were and a huge sense of relief came over us. In an instant we went from thinking “this nightmare will never end” to “we’re going to get this done”. This was our last aid station of the race and we were all business as we prepped for the final stretch. By now the temperature was into the 80’s so we made sure we had enough fluid to get through the last few miles, but we emptied anything extra from our packs. Emma changed into a fresh Trail Monster singlet and donned her saltire buff.
Gravel Pit to Hope Lake Park: 4.4 miles (100.4 total), 575’ gain, 990’ loss.
Before now Emma was unwilling to accept that a finish was guaranteed, but once we left the final aid station the realization that we were definitely going to complete this 100 mile run almost overwhelmed us. Fueled by our excitement we broke into a run and when we looked at each other we both had tears in our eyes. We hit the muddy sections head-on and negotiated the trail with a speed that didn’t belong at this late stage of the run. The pain wasn’t gone it became insignificant, the pride and joy of our accomplishment together displaced the discomfort.
When we emerged from the woods onto the paved path that leads circuitously to the finish we could see the end, and hear the volunteers cheering. George’s wife Ann was there and her voice carried across the lake. After nearly 32 and a half hours we put on our best impression of a sprint and crossed the line holding hands. It wasn’t my plan to run the entire race with Emma, but the further we got the more I valued her company and by the end it was clear that I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without her.
The race director was there and he immediately presented us with our belt buckles.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Maine 100 Mile Wilderness - Abol Bridge to Monson - August 5-6, 2011
The story of my training and preparation for the 100 Mile Wilderness is an essay in and of itself, suffice to say that I went into this adventure feeling confident, prepared, and looking forward to the time I would spend with Emma, Jeremy, and the nine others taking part. Emma and I were being crewed by our friends Mindy and Pete, we drove up to Abol Bridge together on Thursday afternoon and set up camp that evening. Never having been there before we thought it wise to at least locate the trail head, which turned out to be only about ¼ mile from our campground.
Emma and I woke at 3:30 AM, had a quick breakfast and got suited up for the day with 12 pound packs and headlamps. For food and drink I was carrying with me 3 liters of diluted Nuun, a 16 oz handheld bottle, a bottle of Ensure, 2 GUs, a few S!Caps, 1 Honey Stinger Wafer and a bag of trail mix. My additional gear consisted of a first aid kit, map, compass, toilet paper, digital camera and video camera. I was anxious to get going and the time passed quickly until our group of 12 met at Abol Bridge at 4:45 AM. After introductions I went over a few details for the runners and their crew, and we all walked across the bridge over the Penobscot. In what little light there was at 5:00 AM we could just barely see each other on the road, but the trail was a black tunnel leading into the unknown. I counted down from 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 we stepped off the pavement and into the Wilderness…
0 miles Abol Bridge (588’) START
For some reason I felt like the other runners were holding back waiting for someone to lead the way, so I went to the front and set the pace for the first ¼ mile. Jason Smith (7:16 @ Pineland 50 mile) was right behind me and we chatted for a few minutes, it was obvious he was taking a different approach to this run than me and I knew I didn’t belong out front so I pulled over to get a video shot of everyone running past. I had tried to make it clear to everyone that this was not a race, but everyone is entitled to approach it however they like. I feared for anyone who had a racing mentality going into this. Even though none of us knew the terrain I felt like I had a more realistic expectation than some of the others and knew that going out hard was not a good plan.
3.5 miles Hurd Brook Lean-to (710’)
Roger was telling a story and I had to tell him to keep quiet as we went past the lean-to so as not to disturb the sleeping hikers. I was cognizant not to allow our adventure interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment of the Wilderness. Roger is a very accomplished road marathoner, and will be the first to admit that trail running is not his strength, but in these early miles he was moving well. Emma and Jeremy weren’t far behind, but I found myself moving at Roger's pace rather than theirs so I let him go and settled in with my fellow Trail Monsters.
6.0 miles Rainbow Ledges (1,517’)
Looking at the elevation profile there is apparently a climb up to Rainbow Ledges but it doesn’t stick out in my mind. It was too early in the day and we were feeling too good to take notice of a small, gradual uphill. Emma, Jeremy, Joe and I stopped briefly for a photo, had hoped to catch a view of Katahdin but the air was thick with fog and there was no view to be had. The weather forecast called for maximum humidity in the morning, one of my biggest fears, but at least the temperature was low enough for relative comfort.
7.8 miles Rainbow Lake (east end)
Views of the lake were filtered through the trees and although there could have been views towards Katahdin the fog and cloud cover was still thick enough to prevent us from being distracted. In an attempt to warn Emma about an upcoming hazard Jeremy called out “teeter totter” after stepping on a pivoting bog bridge. Unfortunately in Scotland they don’t use the word “teeter totter” so Emma had no idea what he was talking about and almost wiped out when she hit the log.
11.2 miles Rainbow Spring Campsite
The four of us stopped here to grab a bite to eat and Joe went down to the spring near the lake to refill with water. The terrain along the side of Rainbow Lake was very wet, muddy and rooty and it was very hard to get in any kind of running rhythm. Finally the humidity was starting to break, the temperature was still relatively cool and although I was pretty much wet from head to toe the air at least felt better. I drank an Ensure, it seemed a bit early but I didn’t have a big breakfast and I didn’t want my stomach to forget that it needed to work today too. My eating strategy has become to eat early, and consistently throughout the long run and try to minimize the large, one-off intakes of food.
13.0 miles Rainbow Lake (west end) Side Trail
During this first section there were several opportunities to divert from the trail and take in scenic views but we were focused on keeping our heads down, sticking to the trail and trying to cover as much terrain as efficiently as possible while we all felt good. That’s not to say that we were trying to get miles in the bank, the pace was easy but focused.
15.0 miles Rainbow Stream Lean-to (1,020’)
There was a dramatic river crossing here across a couple of too-thin logs above fast moving water and a rocky riverbed. Emma took off ahead to find a spot for a pee break, Jeremy and I followed shortly thereafter and Joe and Julian weren’t far behind. I assumed that Jeremy and I had surely passed Emma squatting off-trail, so we started walking to allow her to catch up, but all of a sudden we spotted her coming out of the woods about 50 yards ahead. It was lucky we saw her when we did because if we had been a little bit further back she would have assumed we were off in front and ran to catch us, while Jeremy and I would have kept moving slowly to allow her to catch up resulting in us splitting up for the rest of this first leg. Once we regrouped we found ourselves in a stretch that was a bit more consistently runnable which felt good for a change.
17.4 miles Pollywog Stream (682’)
By now we’d settle into as good a rhythm as could be expected. Overall the terrain was technically pretty nuts, although mellow in terms of elevation. We were having fun telling stories and making jokes and I thought “yeah, I can do this all day and night… and into the next day.”
18.8 miles Crescent Pond (west end)
It was along this stretch that I captured what would turn out to be my favorite photo from the whole run. There was a gradual climb of a few hundred feet over the last few miles to the first crew checkpoint, the terrain was becoming less rooty and more rocky, with a high tree canopy and lush ground cover of ferns and moss. Large boulders were scattered across the hillside, glacial erratics topped with toupees of fern. Absorbed in the terrain, time became unimportant, almost irrelevant. I was beginning to realize that moving at a comfortable pace was more important than beating the clock, enjoying the experience was more important that finishing faster than the guys who did this last year.
20.0 miles Pollywog Gorge CHECKPOINT #1
As we approached the first crew stop we could here voices up ahead so we gave a few shouts to let them know we were coming in. When we arrived there were chairs set up with our drop bags in the seats, our gear boxes nearby and the crew, Pete & Mindy, moved quickly to take care of our needs. There wasn’t much room for parking on this stretch of dirt road but luckily it was a very quiet area so we didn’t have to worry about logging trucks going past. While we were getting socks changed and bladders refilled Joe and Julian came along, paused very briefly and moved across the road to continue along the trail. Since both of them were running without crew there was no reason for them to stop here.
Pete told us we were doing good on time, I think it took us about 5 hours to cover the first 20 miles, but I really wasn’t paying attention to time. For the sake of record keeping and planning another attempt I can see the value of keeping track of time in and out of each of the crew stops, but in the moment all that mattered was making sure I was prepared to take on the next section. I drank another Ensure, ate a few mouthfuls of mashed potatoes, restocked my supply of gels, S!Caps and Nuun, took another bag of trail mix, changed into dry socks and shirt, but kept the same wet shoes and shorts on.
21.2 miles Nesuntabunt Mountain (1,520’)
The second leg of our journey started out with a steep climb up Nesuntabunt Mountain, about 550’ in just over 1 mile. The fog was finally clearing, humidity dissipating and the temperature rising, but under the dense tree cover it felt very comfortable. The views from the top were good, but distant cloud cover obscured some of the mountains so we didn’t linger.
23.1 miles Wadleigh Stream Lean-to
After the steep descent from Nesuntabunt the terrain leveled out and became somewhat runnable again. We passed a lot of hikers through this stretch, most of them smelled like section hikers but there were definitely a few through hikers. Most were very friendly, several seemed confused as to why there would be so many people moving so quickly out here and with no camping gear. Several seemed to think we were racing and attempted to tell us how far ahead the next runners were.
Just as we started to feel the temperature warming up we were rewarded with a stony beach on Nahmakanta Lake where we stopped for a quick cooling off. The water right at the shore didn’t feel as cool as we had hoped but it felt great to rinse our faces and hands. Emma went in up to her knees and found the deeper water to be very refreshing.
25.7 miles Nahmakanta Lake (south end) (650’)
From the lake we followed Nahmakanta Stream along very level ground that had a few good opportunities for running, with the occasional root cluster or bog bridge thrown in to make sure we didn’t get too carried away.
28.9 miles Nahmakanta Stream Campsite
Shortly after passing the campsite Jeremy and I discovered we were both extremely low on water, and realizing that the next spring was about 4 miles away we decided to get water from the river. I filled my bladder about ¾ full, dropped in 6 iodine tablets and finally got the chance to use the handheld bottle I had been carrying for the first 30 miles. I drank from the handheld for the next half hour until the iodine had done its job, then put the empty bottle back in my pack.
32.6 miles Pemadumcook Lake (southwest shore)
After leaving Nahmakanta Stream we hit a very wet section of trail that was either slippery bog bridges or root infested trail. I hate bog bridges, they look easy, but are more often than not half rotten and slick as shit. Early on we started calling these “wonky logs” because in Scotland they don’t use the term “teeter totter”. Anyway, there were a lot of wonky logs in this section, so many that we had to start abbreviating the term to just “wonk.”
33.2 miles Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to (710’)
By now Emma was dangerously low on water, but just in time to refill at the spring where we found Julian refilling his bladder and Joe looking for the trail. The spring is only a short distance off the trail and is very easy to access, with the freshest water filling a shallow pool before flowing down into Pemadumcook Lake. Joe and Julian took off ahead, Emma, Jeremy and I were just a few minutes behind but in no hurry to catch up.
35.0 miles Sand Beach, Lower Jo-Mary Lake
Just as we could start to notice that the temperature was maxing out for the day we came across the most beautiful, white sandy beach on Lower Jo-Mary Lake. The three of us dropped our packs on the beach and waded into the lake to cool off. We were already soaked from sweat and the wet trails so a little additional water didn’t make things worse and actually did a great job perking us up. Within a few minutes of getting back on the trail we were greeted with another fantastic surprise, Mindy running down the trail towards us! It was wonderful to see her and we were grateful that she hadn’t gone past while we were cooling off in the lake. I’m not sure that I gave her the warmest welcome though, I think my exact words were: “it will be so nice to hear someone else fart.”
Mindy reported it was 5.67 miles back to the road she had come from and Checkpoint #2, which sounded like an incredibly short distance but seemed to take a long time to cover. She also reported that she had seen all the other runners ahead of us in this section, which made it seem like we weren’t that far behind, but we were.
36.7 miles Antlers Campsite (500’)
The trail got a little confusing through here as we couldn’t see any white blazes, but plenty of blue ones on the trails to the lean-to, lake and privy.
38.0 miles Mud Pond (outlet)
There were a couple fun river crossings here, not quite the drama we were hoping for but nice to cool the feet off. Mindy’s company provided a mental boost to all three of us and put us in a good frame of mind to tackle the next section where we knew the terrain would start to get a little more difficult.
40.9 miles Jo-Mary Road CHECKPOINT #2
After being wet for most of the last 11 hours I felt the effects of trench-foot and swamp-ass and couldn’t wait to make a complete wardrobe change. The combination of Hydropel on my feet and the roomy toe box of my Roclite 295’s meant that my forefoot was slipping around inside my shoe with every uneven footfall (which was pretty much every one). I was also starting to get some chafing on my undercarriage from the wet compression shorts and around my waist from pack. Clean, dry clothes never felt so good.
Apart from the dead body on the ground it was a like a little party at Checkpoint #2, everyone was in good spirits with lots of stories to tell. The body belonged to Jason, apparently he wasn’t dead, but had knackered his knee about 10 miles before the checkpoint and had no choice but to destroy it as he struggled to make his was to the checkpoint. Roger was also there and had decided to drop, this kind of terrain was not his cup of tea. The third member of their group, Hogan, had gone on ahead some time before and was hoping to meet their crew for the first time at Checkpoint #3, but Roger had to call the crew back to pick him and Jason up. When Hogan arrived at Checkpoint #3 his crew wasn’t there and he had to rely on other crews for support. This situation is the perfect example of why I said, long before we started, that every runner needs to have their own crew.
Mindy, Pete and Alison (Jeremy’s crew) moved like pros to take care of our needs and get us back on our way as quickly as possible. I ate more mashed potatoes here, a few mini bagel pizzas, and drank a Mt Dew, then refilled my food supplies with the same as before, this time taking 2 bottles of Ensure. I changed into my glasses and also made sure to pack my headlamp, we realized that we were starting to slow down and it was beginning to look unlikely that we would finish the next section before it started to get dark. Joe had already come through before we arrived, Julian was there when we arrived and left right behind us. Even though Julian was attempting to do this unsupported his wife was still there to meet him at the checkpoints in case there was a change of plans. After a quick plank in the middle of Jo-Mary Road Emma, Jeremy and I took off with heavy packs but a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for the section ahead.
44.6 miles Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to (880’)
Somewhere around here I saw my first hallucination of the trip, a little winged frog flew right in front of me across the trail. I was surprised that my mind was playing tricks on me so early on, and quite disappointed that I had not discovered a new species of avian amphibian. Turns out it was just a falling birch leaf.
46.9 miles Crawford Pond (outlet)
The decision to bring our headlamps on this section brought about the realization that we were moving very slowly. We ran every chance that we had, but overall our pace was slower than I had expected. At this point I had no doubt that we would finish, but I was trying to come to terms with the fact that it was going to take much longer than I had anticipated.
49.2 miles Little Boardman Mountain (1,980’)
The stretch of trail between 40 and 57 miles is pretty much all uphill, with Little Boardman Mountain making up the next appreciable climb. The sun was getting low as we climbed and I had hopes of great sunset views from the top but there was too much tree cover to really enjoy the scenery. Coming down off Little Boardman we turned our headlamps on. There was still plenty of light in the sky but under the tree canopy we needed the additional light to see the rocky terrain on the steep descent.
50.5 miles Spring
By now it was officially dark, and we were lucky that Jeremy spotted the little sign mounted above eye level on a tree indicating the side trail leading to the spring. It was about 1/10th mile down a steep trail to the spring with a pitifully weak flow. We were all low on water, having covered almost 10 miles since the last Checkpoint, and it took a while for all three of us to fill our bladders from the trickle. It was also at this point that we realized we had covered more than 50 miles and Emma was now in uncharted territory both in terms of time and distance covered.
52.4 miles East Branch of Pleasant River (ford)
After a short but very steep drop on rocky terrain we hit the East Branch of the Pleasant River and crossed with the aid of rope strung across. Even though we hadn’t covered as much ground before night set in as we had hoped there was a certain sense of adventure that came with the darkness, and the river ford helped amplify the feeling that what we were undertaking was definitely a remarkable expedition.
52.7 miles East Branch Lean-to (1,225’)
Once we passed the lean-to I knew we were getting close to the next checkpoint and we all got excited with the anticipation of seeing our crew again. It was hard to gauge distance in the dark but when I thought there was a chance of being within ear shot of the checkpoint I put on my best Nick Palazzo impression and shouted “WHERE’S MY FUCKING SOUP?” Five seconds later we turned a corner and saw a tent pitched just off the trail. I felt so bad, but in our frame of mind it cracked us up. It was a few minutes longer before we saw glow sticks in the trees ahead and we knew we had arrived.
54.7 miles Logan Brook Road CHECKPOINT #3
BEST. CREW. EVER. Glow sticks, warm ramen noodles, Beastie Boys. Everything I asked for was right there when I needed it. We were lucky to have such a dedicated crew. Pete remembered how much I enjoyed the mini pizza bagels from the previous checkpoint and made sure I got a few more this time.
I refilled my pack with the usual items, changed into a t-shirt with a long sleeve on top and packed another layer in case it got cold over night at the higher elevation coming up. My feet had remained dry over the previous section, but due to the saturation from the first 40 miles they were in a pretty delicate state and I was starting to develop blisters and hot spots. In fact, my whole forefoot felt like a hotspot. I drained two blisters at this checkpoint, greased my toes and changed my socks.
Julian came into Checkpoint #3 a few minutes behind us and decided he’d had enough of the Wilderness. I realized we were actually moving at the same pace as him so I offered for him to join us over the next stretch and promised his wife we wouldn’t leave him, the reality of us “outrunning” anyone at this point was null. Something about traveling back to the US from Africa the day before had left Julian feeling understandably jet-lagged.
With glow sticks attached to our packs we set off on the 2000’ + climb up White Cap Mountain.
56.3 miles Logan Brook Lean-to (2,480’)
I expected the lean-to to come about halfway up the climb and I was actually surprised how quickly we reached it, but was then surprised at how long the second half of the climb took. Much of the climb was made up of large stone steps set into the mountainside which allowed for a fairly regular hiking rhythm, albeit slow. My feet didn’t feel the significant improvement I had hoped for after changing socks and treating the blisters, the hot spots were spreading thruoghout my entire feet and every step burned. It was also during this climb that Emma started feeling a pain in her knee that was significant enough to cast doubt on her ability to finish. She brought this up but I was quick to dismiss it, in hopes that ignoring the problem would make it go away.
57.7 miles White Cap Mountain (3,650’)
Shortly before reaching the summit of White Cap there was a clearing just off the trail with a steep cliff drop-off allowing expansive views to the north. We turned off our headlamps and sat down to enjoy the midnight scenery. I first noticed the Big Dipper, and then tipped my head back and nearly fell over backwards. The starry sky was three-dimensionally enveloping. Rather than a distant black layer dotted with stars there was depth and sense of space in the sky above and for the first time while looking at the sky I felt like we were part of something much bigger. When I brought my eyes back down to the horizon I could see the aurora borealis streaking up into the sky from behind the distant mountains to the north.
A cool breeze reminded us that we’d been stopped long enough for a chill to start setting in and we needed to keep moving. The final push to the summit was all boulders and we were anxious to get back down into tree cover and out of the wind. I was encouraged that the next 10 miles were mostly downhill, but knew that the terrain wouldn’t allow those miles to come quickly enough.
59.4 miles Hay Mountain
Following White Cap there are three smaller peaks on the way down to Gulf Hagas, and it was coming down Hay that the reality of our situation started to sink in. We paused for moment on the trail and I felt compelled to sit and give my burning feet a rest. Emma stretched her aching knee, and Jeremy, who had been battling a headache, sat behind me and was the first to vocalize what was eating away at each of us. There was now a good chance that we wouldn’t finish this. I wanted to reserve judgment until after the sun rose in hopes that the sun would bring new life. Regardless of what decision we ultimately made we still had 9 miles to go to get to our next checkpoint, and that’s a long way when you’re coming down a mountain in the middle of the night after being on your feet for over 20 hours. We sat and thought about the situation, and ended up closing our eyes and sleeping for a few minutes.
Apart from wanting to sleep, and my burning feet the rest of my body actually felt pretty good. The biggest problem I was dealing with was that I had gone into this adventure with the expectation of finishing between 30 and 34 hours, but it was clear that if I was to try and finish that it would take me well over 40 hours, and that was something I hadn’t prepared for. Nor had our crew.
61.0 miles West Peak
The next little up on our way down was steep on both sides and we found ourselves frequently pausing to stretch. Every time I turned back to make sure my quiet partners were still with me my equilibrium was skewed and my head would spin. I continued to call out “blaze” to confirm that we were on the trail and as a way of making sure there was some form of communication happening, even if limited to single syllables.
61.7 miles Sydney Tappan Campsite (2,425’)
After dropping down West Peak we approached a spring a realized we’d need to refill our bladders for the final stretch. By now we all knew that finishing was not an option and getting to Gulf Hagas safely was the priority. The idea of napping next to the spring was brought up, but I really didn’t want to drag this out any longer than necessary. As we filled our bladders from the small, shallow pool of the spring the first rays of daylight were starting to filter through the tree canopy.
62.6 miles Gulf Hagas Mountain
As we started our last climb up Gulf Hagas Mountain we were able to turn off our headlamps, but the daylight didn’t bring with it the second wind I had hoped for. The exhaustion was more mental than physical, the intense focus on the terrain for so many hours left us longing for anything that would allow us to move without having to think about where we placed each foot.
Gulf Hagas Mountain was a cruel little lump of rock with a series of mini summits that all look identical and almost had us convinced that we were running in circles before we finally started to make the descent. When we knew we were finally headed off the mountain we had to take a break, and the three of us removed our packs and laid down right in the middle of the trail for a 10 minute nap. I was rudely awoken by a biting ant, and that was enough to get me up and moving again, if not for myself than at least for our crew who would soon be expecting us at the next checkpoint.
63.5 miles Carl A. Newhall Lean-to (1,860’)
When we passed the lean-to I knew there were only 6 miles left, and it was all a gradual downhill, on terrain that was significantly easier that most of what we had covered in the previous 64 miles. We should have run this section with reckless abandon, but none of us were capable of doing any better than a walk.
67.0 miles Gulf Hagas Cut-off Trail
After the longest 3.5 mile stretch of trail I’ve ever walked we finally saw a sign up ahead indicating the Gulf Hagas Cut-Off Trail. It was critical for us throughout this journey to break it up into manageable sections. 2.5 miles left, lets get this over with. After one of my many pee stops (they were coming every 20 minutes at this point) I attempted to run to catch up with Emma and Jeremy. It wasn’t pretty, but did serve to confirm that I had no right thinking about continuing on.
69.0 miles West Branch of Pleasant River (ford)
At the sight of the Pleasant River we realized we’d pretty much made it to where we were going to end this adventure. We waded into the middle of the knee deep river and sat down with our backs reclined against boulders, cold water washing away the dirt and the doubt. A sense of relief filled each of us and we began to realize the positive aspects of what we had accomplished. Nearly 70 miles on some of the gnarliest terrain Maine has to offer is still something to be proud of, and the time spent with Emma and Jeremy on the trail will stay with me forever.
69.5 miles Gulf Hagas CHECKPOINT #4
After a few minutes in the river two familiar faces appeared on the far river bank. Pete and Alison had walked down from the last checkpoint with emergency supplies on their backs prepared to find us on the trail and carry us out if needed. I felt guilty about letting them wait and worry, but in true selflessness they just wanted to hear the stories of our journey through the night. We chatted away as the five us covered the last half mile up to Katahdin Ironworks road and Checkpoint #4, our finish line.
My dad was there waiting with Mindy, our chairs and gear boxes were laid out with everything ready for us to restock and keep moving. It was a little sad to admit that we weren’t continuing on, but we had many hours to come to terms with this decision and we knew it was the right one. There were hugs, and the smiles that had been missing for the last few miles finally returned.