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.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Peak 50 Race Report

Before I get into the details of my own running I have to rant about the organization of the Peak 50 and my perception of the other related events going on this weekend. While I thoroughly enjoyed the entire weekend I spent in Pittsfield, VT it was because I love a challenging race and the company of my Trail Monster team mates, the race management left a lot to be desired. If you don't want to hear me bitching you can skip the blue text.

Jeremy was the first to pull the trigger on signing up for the event when he chose the 100 miler back in November last year, Valerie and Mindy chose the 50, as I later found out because the timing and location were right, not because they actually knew anything about what they were getting themselves (or the rest of us) into. Talk of the event began to circulate around TMR, and although there was very little information available about the race on the event website I went ahead and signed up in December, just after Dave. We were then followed by Chuck and Zak, all going for the 50 miler.

Over the past few years I had heard a few things about the Peak races, mostly that they were out to create the most challenging events around, from a snowshoe marathon to a 500 mile trail race, all in the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont. What initially put me off was that the course sounded contrived in a way that linked up a series of the most rugged natural obstacles within a certain area without much consideration for how they were connected. Elements were created and thrown in for the sake of making the race more difficult, not because they were there naturally. As for the 50 miler I had heard a number of people talking about it at Pineland over the past few years because it was held a week or two later and some people ran both. It appeared that the 50 miler, which had previously been held in early June, was moved to coincide with the 100, 150, 200 and 500 mile races being held in May. It seemed that when this move happened any detailed information specifically pertaining to the 50 mile race and it's history was lost forever. No previous race results, no course description, just a sentence added to the page of the website dedicated to the longer distance races.

The entire race website is an absolute joke. While it has a pretty slick, professional look about it there is very little useful information contained on it. No course description, no mention of aid stations, no information about crew access or drop bags... A map was added to the website about one month before the race. No mention of which course the map was intended to represent, although I was able to determine that it was for the 50 miler. Unfortunately the map represented a course that was run in a previous year, not the course that we would be running, and it didn't include useful things like where the race starts, which direction the course is run or where aid stations might be located. Just a squiggly red line on a blurry topo map. I understand that some races are held on private property where there are limitations on public access and for that reason course maps are not provided, although a description of the course usually is. In these cases the race organizers usually make it clear what the reason is for not providing a map and participants understand and respect that. I also understand that a certain amount of mystique about the challenges of an event can be appealing. No one expects a course map and aid stations every 3 miles at the Barkley, but participants know what they're getting into, and the entry fee is appropriately scaled to the level of organization. As a participant it's hard to plan for an event if you don't know anything about the terrain and what, if any, support is being provided.

Since I wasn't getting any response to my emails to the RD I posted some of my questions about aid stations and crew access on the event's Facebook page where there was some regular activity (mostly posts containing an individual letter as part of some spelling game). Chuck asked if I had a crew, perhaps suggesting that one doesn't need a crew for 50 miles, and my response was something like this:

"I'll have a crew if there is crew access, if not I'll rely on drop bags, if drop bags are not allowed I will use aid stations, if there are no aid stations I will carry everything myself. It's two weeks before the race and I'd just like to know which scenario to plan for."

That's not too much to ask for is it? 

This is what it felt like trying to communicate with the Dude RD (in case you couldn't tell, I'm the pissed off guy with the legs that don't work properly any more):

The most useful information I was able to find about the event came from Sherpa John's race reports from previous years (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). I guess I was lucky to have known that he had done this race before, because his reports were not among the one listing under the "Race Reports" section of the race website. Thanks Sherpa. It was from these that I was able to figure out that there would in fact be aid stations on the course and crew access, or at least there was when the race was held in June. From these detailed reports I was able to put together my own version of a course map:

Color coded to differentiate types of terrain

From what I saw the vast majority of runners in the longer races were exclusively utilizing their own crew for support between laps on a 10 mile loop which made me wonder how anyone could justify the entry fee. I've only done two 100 mile races, and they both cost around $200. At each one I came away with a belt buckle, a long sleeve technical shirt, and I probably consumed $50 worth of food and drinks which was brought out to numerous remote forest locations. The level of organization and coordination that clearly went into making sure that volunteers were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there and that they were capable of looking after the participants needs makes these entry fees seem like a bargain. There was only one aid station at Peak (which we passed three times) that had attentive volunteers, the others were either unmanned or self-service because the volunteers didn't really give a shit. And on the subject of entry fees what's up with the increase in price as the race date approaches? As a race director I know that it's easier to plan an event when you know how many people are coming, so I do what I can to encourage people to sign up early. In my events I will have a $5 or $10 increase in the entry fee a few weeks before race day, but the Peak races increase by over 50% more than a month before the race which I don't understand at all.

Despite my reservations, aggravations and low expectations, I had heard from a few people that the actual execution of the event on race day was pretty decent - not great, but decent - so I went into it with an open mind, a plan for partial self sufficiency and Emma as a dedicated crew. I brought my own 5-gallon bucket of water and all the food and other supplies I'd need to get me through a mountainous 50 mile run.

(end rant)

Emma and I arrived in Pittsfield, VT late Friday afternoon to discover a beautiful little town that had been ground zero for the devastation of Hurricane Irene last fall and was still in a state of rebuilding. While most, but not all, of the towns buildings appeared to be intact it was clear that many of the roads and bridges had been wiped out. In an unfortunate turn of events the hotel we booked, following Mindy's lead, was NOT destroyed in the hurricane. But on the plus side Mindy, Pete, Val and Rick soon arrived and we all got caught up in the excitement of what was to come. After a little poking around the area we discovered that the Original General Store was pretty much our only option for eating. Luckily they had good food, and conveniently this is where we picked up our race numbers, as well as our generic Peak Races shirts applicable to any event these folks put on. Totally lame. We returned to Ramshackle Resort to make the final race preparations and attempted to get to bed early, although none of us were enthusiastic about lying awake between "clean enough" sheets.

Before I knew it my alarm was going off, I jumped out of bed and went outside to brew some coffee on the tailgate of my car. The sun wasn't up yet and I was immediately struck by how cold it was. All week long I had been focused on the ever rising predicted high temperature for the day and hadn't taken much notice of how cold it was going to get overnight. Luckily I had packed a light pair of gloves and my Moeben sleeves, as well as an extra t-shirt I could layer over my singlet. For breakfast I ate a cold bagel and sipped a bottle of Ensure as we made the 5 minute drive from the hotel to the race start at Amee Farm.

The Trail Monster contingent congealed in the frosty field as Dave, Zak, Chuck and Jeremy arrived to join Mindy, Val and I along with all our support crews. We wandered across the road to the race headquarters to hear the pre-race meeting delivered by The Dude... "there's boulders the size of this barn, and it's like Jurassic Park, and there's stuff flying around..." I had been warned that Sherpa John tends to exaggerate the difficulty of an event in his race reports, and I suspected that the Dude was doing the same. Either way, I knew this race was going to have a ton of elevation change due to the mountainous terrain all around us so I planned to go out quite conservatively in hopes of avoiding the kind of massive slow-down I experienced in my last 50 miler. The 50 and 30 milers crossed the road from where the 100 milers were going to be doing 10 mile laps, we were about to set out on a 40 mile cloverleaf of sorts. There were hugs all around and when the Dude shouted GO we started the walk up the first hill into the woods.

I had to fight the urge to start running, but there was certainly no need to waste energy going up this first hill. I also wasn't ready for our group of Trail Monsters to split up just yet, even if we only stayed together for a few more seconds. Zak and I settled in next to each other and when the hill started to level out we started a slow jog. We soon saw Serena Wilcox ahead and increased the pace slightly to catch up with her. Zak had run a good part of the 30 miler with her here last year, and she had blown past me at around mile 46 of the Stone Cat 50 last year. I didn't want to get caught up running someone else race but once we caught up with her we settled back into a comfortable groove and the early miles ticked by as we chatted. We were also having a lot of back and forth with Chuck, he'd fly by us on the steep downhills and we'd catch back up and pass him on the ups. There were a few hills steep enough to warrant walking but overall the terrain seemed pretty easy-going in the first few miles.

The first aid station was supposed to come at 7 miles, just before the first really steep climb of the race. I wasn't wearing my Garmin, but it seemed to be taking a while to get there. Turns out that the aid station was actually closer to 9 miles in and by the time we got there my handheld bottle was getting low so I stopped to refill. No volunteers, just two gatorade buckets on a picnic table. I had decided to go minimal through the first few aid stations and not pick up my hydration pack until mile 18. Given the cool start to the day this strategy seemed to work just fine. Zak kept moving but slowed enough for me to be able to easily catch up.

By now we were starting to see the front runners coming back towards us on the short out-and-back stretch that climbed half way up Wilcox Mountain and then came back down again. A few runners warned us about the "fun" that was coming up and soon enough we began a steep climb up a jeep road. This was the first challenge of the course so far but it didn't last as long as I had expected it to, before I knew it the pink ribbons marking the course lead us off trail to a short stretch of bushwhacking that looped us back downhill onto the same trail we had just run up. Zak and I pulled away from Serena and Chuck on this stretch and we probably picked off a couple other runners in the process. All the long winter training runs and Lunch Break Hill repeats set us up well for dealing with this kind of terrain. On the way back down we passed Dave on his way up and exchanged encouraging words and high fives. In about 1 mile we were back at the unmanned aid station where I topped up my bottle once again. It was starting to warm up now and we had about 4 miles until the next aid station. Shortly after this one we saw Mindy and Val coming down the road towards us and we broke out into the Sanford and Son theme song, a cleansing song borrowed from Randy to push out any unwanted tunes that got stuck in our heads as we ran and it became our anthem:

This stretch actually went by pretty quick since it was mostly on dirt road and downhill, and we soon arrived at the first real aid station and crew checkpoint on Upper Michigan Road. Advertised as 12 miles it was actually much closer to 13, but no big deal. Emma helped me swap handheld bottles, got me an Ensure to drink and got me on my way pretty quick. Zak was without his own crew but got some help from Alison who was in between crew stops for Jeremy, and we were soon back on the road. This aid station, which we would pass a total of three times during the race was the only one that was well staffed with enthusiastic, if somewhat under-prepared, volunteers. Zak had to wait for a PB&J sandwich to be made and I had to wait for someone to find a bag of potato chips in the back of her car, but all-in-all it was a fairly efficient aid station stop.

The next section was a roughly 6 mile lollipop. There was more dirt road running, progressively getting more rugged until we eventually turned off onto double-track trail and then onto pretty gnarly single-track. Part of it reminded me of the 100 mile wilderness, where even though the elevation wasn't extreme the terrain was technical enough that running was almost out of the question in parts. This was a fun loop when we could run, and once we started to make our way back down hill and headed back on the loop we moved along at a pretty good pace. Shortly before hitting the aid station again we crossed paths with Dave, then Mindy & Val and once again broke into a few bars of Sanford and Son.

We returned to the Upper Michigan Road aid station where I had planned to take a slightly longer break in preparation for the Blood Root Loop, 19 miles (or 22 depending who you ask) of the toughest terrain on the course with only two aid stations. I changed my wet and muddy socks here, picked up my hydration pack and had a few sips of Coke before heading back out. The Blood Root Loop started with a short descent almost too steep to run and then made a gradual climb over the next few miles through wet and sloppy snowmobile trails. It was still well before noon but the temperature had been quickly rising and we were starting to feel it. There was another runner with Zak and I but none of us were feeling like talking much. The fun was over and it was time to get down to business.

The 23 mile aid station (24.5 to be exact) seemed a long time coming, and when we got there it was just two gatorade buckets on the ground. I still had plenty of water in my hydration bladder but I made sure to refill it completely, the next stretch ahead featured the biggest climb of the race, over Blood Root Mt at more than 3,000' as well as the "Jurassic Park" section of trail on the other side of the mountain. Not to mention that it was 8 miles to the next "fully stocked" aid station if you believed the RD, which I didn't.

The real climbing started shortly after the aid station and this was where I noticed that Zak really wasn't feeling too well. We took a few minutes to stop off in one of the streams we crossed to wash our faces in the cold water. It felt great but wasn't enough to bring Zak back to life, when we started moving again I gradually pulled away. The trail got progressively steeper the higher it climbed and apparently the idea of switchbacks never occurred to anyone making these trails. I was feeling pretty good and hiked at a decent pace knowing that when I hit the top I'd be half way through the race and that the second half would feature more elevation loss than gain. When I did reach the top and the race course crossed the Long Trail I paused for a moment and wished I had someone to share this with. I had no idea how far back Zak was, 2 minutes, 20 minutes? I was regretting leaving him behind but knew that he was more than capable of getting through this on his own.

Going down the other side of the mountain was just as steep as the way up, almost too steep for me to be able to run well. I had to put on the brakes to keep myself under control which took a lot of energy and I could feel my back muscles and quads getting overworked. I stopped about half way down to enjoy the view, take a bio-break and give myself a rest from the pounding. At the bottom of the hill I was delighted to find a few gallon jugs of water on the ground. We had been told that they might be here, or not if the folks marking the course decided to drink all the water. Luckily I was able to top up my bladder and it was here that the guy who had been running with Zak and I earlier caught up to me.

The next few miles really seemed to drag on. There was a very gradual climb but the ground was completely saturated and nearly every footstep sunk into the mud. In drier conditions this would be a great section for running but today in was a sloppy slog. It wasn't even worth trying to avoid the wettest spots, once my feet were soaked and muddy I actually sought out the deepest water to rinse away some of the mud that accumulated on my shoes and legs. This section is also where I started to notice the bugs for the first time during the race and they got bad pretty quick. They must have decided to sleep in late since it was a cold morning, but now that it was hot out and I was stomping through their breeding ground they made sure to let me know I was on their turf (swamp).

When the trail finally started to dry out and I could run with a little more consistency I started anticipating the next aid station. I know that there was a lot of difficult terrain on this stretch so I was moving pretty slowly but it was definitely taking a long time to reach the aid station that was supposed to be at 31 miles. The guy that had been following me for the last 7 miles finally caught up and we both agreed that this was taking a while. It was now officially hot, even moreso now that we had reached an open dirt road and there was nothing I wanted more than a cold drink. Eventually we saw cars up ahead and knew that we had reached the aid station. The first person I saw was Jordan, Dave's crew, and I wondered what he was doing here. I would later find out that a few hours in to the race the Dude RD learned that the aid station volunteers hadn't showed up, so he found Jordan, gave him some cash, a shopping list and driving directions and asked him to go set up the aid station. Fucking ridiculous.

There were a few volunteers there at the aid station but it was clear that they were pretty clueless about what was going on. I heard one of the other runners ask "What mileage is this?" to which the volunteer responded "I think it's 31, but some woman came by and told us it was 33." I was inclined to believe that it was 33 and I later found that to be correct. I had read in previous race reports that the 50 mile course was actually 53 or 54 miles, so I wondered where that 3-4 miles was built into the course and I guess I found out where a few of those miles were added in.

I refilled my bladder, took two cookies and walked on down the road. I could have run but this race was starting to piss me off so I needed to take a few minutes to get myself together. I was definitely starting to feel all the miles, the hills, the life-sucking mud and the sun beating down. The obvious lack of organization that went into this race was starting to get to me more than it should and the result was that I was getting myself into a pretty low spot mentally. When I started to run again I soon got passed by a man and woman running together, then another guy. This didn't help my mindset. It should have fired me up and inspired me to fight back, but I didn't have it in me. Then we started to climb again. And it just kept getting steeper. And hotter. And the bugs were going nuts on me. My quads were starting to spasm and cramp. They'd quiver for a few seconds and then seize up. I stopped and sat down on the trail, feeling completely exhausted. I really didn't want to move any more, but I still had somewhere between 15 and  20 miles left to go. Who knew how much exactly? Probably no one, including the Dude RD.

It was at least helpful to know that my other TMR team mates were out here running too, it was the thought  of them that made me realize I wasn't truly alone. Once my heart rate dropped back down I got up and continued to climb, and it didn't take long for the trail to level out and then start what would be a long runnable downhill stretch back to the Upper Michigan Road aid station. The downhill running, while somewhat painful at this point, was at least able to help rebuild my confidence in my ability to get through this race. Once I got to the aid station I'd see Emma and she would make everything right again. After that I'd have a 3 mile stretch of dirt road before the final 10 mile loop that I'd be running with her. I realized that facing the uncertain challenges of the race by myself was my weakness. I had done well in the early miles when I was with Zak, but ever since leaving him I had felt like I was in a slow downward spiral mentally and physically. Suffering with others often doesn't feel like suffering at all, but alone it can be too hard to pull yourself out

Eventually the trail bottomed out along a river and soon I was seeing evidence of the aid station ahead: a balloon tired to a tree, a cardboard cut-out of a flamingo, then parrots. Then as the trail took a sharp turn and started a steep climb I knew for sure I was in the final stretch back to the aid station. As soon as I crested the hill I saw Rick and Pete there cheering me on, I broke back into a run for the last 50 yards coming into the aid station and I already started feeling better. The Blood Root Loop was done.

A later look at the GPS data from several other runners showed that this aid station was much closer to 41 miles that the 37 advertised. No wonder it took so frigging long to get there.

I sat down and changed my socks and shoes while Emma prepped my pack for the final stretch. The aid station volunteers were still full of energy and were great about offering up whatever help they could. I really didn't need any more than what Emma was doing for me though. While I was having muscle rub applied to my screaming quads Zak came rolling into the aid station looking pretty good. I got up and went to see how he was doing, I believe his exact words were: "I haven't puked that much since college. Eyes bulging!" Now I really regretted leaving him behind. Had I known he was only a few minutes back it surely would have been worth waiting for him so we could have suffered through Blood Root together.

I was ready to go so I said goodbye to Zak, then headed off down the road with my handheld bottle. I'd see Emma again in 3 miles where she would be waiting for me with my full hydration pack, ready to run me through the last 10 miles. My pace was pretty good along the road and I picked off a runner who had come in and out of the aid station while I was there changing my shoes. I was feeling good and ready to go hard to the finish. When I rolled into Amee Farm at 40 miles (43.5 really) Emma was there waiting with Alison who was expecting Jeremy to come in from his 4th lap any time now. I had heard that the last 10 miles was entirely single-track and some of the best terrain on the whole course. Despite having a fair amount of elevation change I was expecting it to be more runnable than the previous 40 miles. However, when I realized that I had covered my 40+ miles faster than Jeremy had done his I began to worry. Even though he was doing 100 miles Jeremy is significantly faster than me, so on this "easier" terrain he should have been further along by now. It wasn't because he wasn't running well, he was. The reason is because that 10 mile loop was different from previous years, much harder, but it took me a little while to really appreciate this.

Things started out innocently enough, Emma and I cruised along a little downhill stretch, then over a temporary 60' bridge set up across the Tweed River and uphill along some mellow switchbacks. It was great to have her company and to get caught up on some of the other events of the day from her perspective. But then the switchbacks ended and the trail went straight up, and just kept going. Even though it was getting late in the afternoon it was still hot and I was feeling waves of something like heat exhaustion coming over me. The muscle spasms in my quads had stopped but I was keenly aware of an elevated core temperature, I had stopped sweating and my breathing while hiking was labored to the point I felt like I was suffocating. On several occasions during this climb I had to stop to catch my breath or even sit down until my heart rate dropped and I could breath normally again. So much for going hard in the last 10 miles.

The 10 mile loop

When we reached the top we stopped briefly at a small cabin that was a self-service aid station, reported to be 3.5 miles into the loop (more like 2.5), but I had plenty of water left in my pack so we moved on gingerly. There were a few little ups and downs, some of them quite steep so it was hard to get into a rhythm. Anything steep enough to require walking seemed to push me over the edge into a wave of exhaustion that forced me to a standstill on more than one occasion. There was nothing I wanted more than to run in to the finish, but we were still up at a high elevation and I just couldn't get myself moving at a consistent pace. Emma kept me going, when I no longer cared about doing this for myself I just kept moving because I didn't want to let her down.

After making our way through a labyrinth of single-track we started a series of long gradual switchbacks that descended the mountain and I finally found a slow running groove that I felt like I could sustain, as long as there weren't any more climbs. I knew we must be getting close, but my sense of distance wasn't working correctly, not to mention that at this point I had no idea what kind of craziness the course might throw at me. Eventually I could hear the road, then see the Tweed River through the trees and I knew we must be getting close. But the switchbacks went on forever. At one point I heard a way-too-cheery voice from behind and looked back to see Nick Tooker coming up on us, and pretty quick. I moved over to let him pass but tried my best to keep with him as long as I could. No luck, he was moving too well and I could feel myself overheating with the additional effort I was putting in. Not knowing how much more trail there was I was reluctant to keep up this push so I slowed back down and let him go. We were running out of room for switchbacks between the mountain and the river and I wondered how we were going to get back upstream to the crossing when all of a sudden the trail made a sharp turn and the course marking lead us into the river bed, through a field of boulders and then back to the riverbank for a long stretch of bushwhacking. There were places where there was evidence of the route previous runners had taken, but nothing that could be considered a trail. It became very frustrating knowing that we must be close to the finish but unable, in my current state at least, to run because of the stupid terrain.

Then, off in the distance I could see the makeshift bridge across the river and a huge sense of relief came over me. For the first time in this race I knew what was coming up. I'd been out here for more than 12 hours of never knowing what I was going to find around the next corner or over the next hill, until now. As soon as we crossed that bridge I'd be able to run it in for the last half mile, and then I could stop. Emma cheered me on and I moved as fast as I could, which probably wasn't fast at all, but it felt so good.

As soon as I crossed the line I hugged Emma and then looked for the nearest object to prop myself up against. A boulder would do, and it was just about the most comforting rock to ever have embraced me. I may be skewed by the freshness in my mind of how much this race hurt, but I think I felt worse than after any other race I've ever done. 

time: 12:20:08
distance: 53.5 miles?
pace: 13:50
elevation: (RunningAHEAD) 12,250' gain, 12,280' loss
place: ?
results: ?

weather: low 30's to high 70's, sunny

conditions: everything imaginable (except ice and snow)

gear: Inov-8 Roclite 295, socks, compression shorts, over-shorts w/ pockets, singlet (t-shirt, sleeves & gloves removed), hat, handheld bottle or Nathan HPL #020

After resting on the rock and being tended to by Emma, Alison, Rick and Pete I eventually stood up to see Zak coming into the finish, then Jeremy right behind finishing his fifth lap of the 10 mile loop. Hard to believe he was only half way done with his journey. Jeremy's cousin Jeff was there to join him for a lap and he was soon back out there with a smile on his face. I don't know how he does it.

Over the next 17 hours I got cleaned up, ate, and watched the rest of the Trail Monster team come through the finish line with impressive displays of grit, determination and inspiration. Zak and Valerie both battled stomach issues and made strong comebacks. Mindy and Dave couldn't have picked a tougher race for their debut 50 miler, but that's just how they roll. After crewing for me all day, then running me in for the last 10 miles Emma took a 7 hour break and then joined Jeremy for some of his toughest miles, 70-90 through the late night hours and into the new day. The next morning the team was there to support Jeremy as he continued to knock out one lap after another. And when Emma was done and Jeremy still had one lap left to go Pete jumped in without thinking twice to keep the team strong to the end. I'm truly honored to be part of such an amazing group of runners.