January 19th, 2020
2001 Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run
Saturday July 21st, 2001
UltraTails - 2001 Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run
Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run – Saturday, July 21-22, 2001 – South Woodstock, Vermont
In revolutionary times Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” fought to keep control of Vermont from falling into the hands of New York / British land speculators. Their methods of intimidation, threats and actual violence successfully kept the region an independent republic until under it’s own terms Vermont joined the United States as the nation’s 14th member. Vermonters remain independent. Prime example… Bernie Sanders, the U.S. House of Representative sole independent.
Ahh, but this is not a political nor history lesson, this is…
UltraTails: Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run – July 21/22, 2001
At the pre-race meeting race director Priscilla Sherman-Tucker stood on the back of a flat-bed truck and spoke to those gathered of typical last minute stuff and then answered typical last minute questions. Some 100 yards away, downhill to the low point of “Smoke Rise Farm” were two swimming holes and a dirt road that led off into the forest. There, a banner with silhouettes of a runner and a horseback rider marked the start of the race. It was a relaxed, cloudless late afternoon. We would be starting 10 hours hence. My biggest concern was the announcement of a crotchety dog that lurked near the 50-mile mark. Would he defend his land treating encroaching runners as the Green Mountain Boys treated the British?
Like most ultra’s the wake-up call came far before dawn and by 3am I was driving back from our hotel to the Farm. My veteran crew, Michelle and Peter were going to catch up with me there to take in the race start. I checked in at the barn, grabbed the biggest bagel and made my way down to the start line. A keyboardist complete with tuxedo and candelabra was playing variations of Chariots of Fire while fireworks lit the sky over the two swimming holes. It was 3:55am. To my surprise I was first to the starting banner so I assumed the mid-center spot directly under it. The field assembled. As I finished my bagel Priscilla led the countdown from 10 and we were off into the forest following the beams of our flashlights and headlamps.
Michelle and I had run the first 2 miles of the course the day before to become familiar with the footing. It was easy going on the dirt roads but a bit uneven and rutty on the single-track trails and somewhat difficult under flashlight. My best ultra-friend, Michael Davenport came up from behind and we exchanged pleasantries. We have a bit of friendly rivalry as we run many of the same races. He, along with the usual suspects of Kettle Moraine, WI recommended this one to me. We made it through the first two aid stations together as bullfrogs wound down their nocturnal croaking and the bluish-green mountain landscapes emerged. At that second station Michael got away as I was looking over the selections for maximum caloric intake. The day was so young and full of promise.
The course that Vermont follows is generally fast and sometimes curious. 75% is dirt road and 25% is forest trails –but- occasionally those trails seem to cross the backyards of private residences. What are the logistics in getting permission for this? Around 8 miles a sign read, “Porta-potty Zone next 1 mile… No peeing on side of the road”. I didn’t test to see if it was a trap. At 12 miles we crossed the Ottauquechee River using the Taftsville Covered Bridge. How accommodating and how very Vermont. Should Western States consider a covered bridge at the Rucky Chucky river crossing? It’s good for me to be preoccupied with these abstract distractions early in a 100 miler.
I came to the 18-mile mark in 3:14 and was looking forward to seeing Michelle and Peter. This was the first station that allowed crew access –but- I was a little early, and they were a little late. They’d gone back to the hotel for some more zzz’s after the start. About half-mile after leaving that station the trail parallels the driving road and there they were, yelling “Go Billy” and promising to meet me at the next crew access. I smiled, gave them the “thumbs up” and followed the trail up a hill and into the woods.
It was near 21.5 miles that I met “Lynn from Oakland”. Standing at the side of the road, she had just given back a can of “ensure” that she drank at 18 miles. “It has 240 calories and my crew member, John recommended it.” I asked if there was anything I could do but she was okay then, so we ran together. She had successfully run Comrades Marathon, South Africa in June (54 miles) and this was her first attempt at 100 miles. As we were crashing down some of the steeper trail sections the horsemen (actually most were horsewomen) began catching us. Eight -or- nine of them in 3 separate packs. We yielded to the trailside and traded words of encouragement as they thundered past.
At 9am we pulled into aid station #9 of 35. Michelle and Peter were there shooting video and cheering on all 2 legged & 4 legged participants. This was the first race medical checkpoint. “Check me out!” I exclaimed weighing in at 150, 2 lbs heavier than registered. The kindly Vermont volunteer pointed out “You have a long way to go to make Clydesdale division!”. Michelle and Peter provided me sunscreen, sunglasses and my lucky “Chicago” racing singlet. The only problems I had to report were foot blisters and a bruised/broken big toenail from the steep down hills. These are minor inconveniences at 27.7 miles so off I went with half a turkey sandwich and full bottle of “Succeed”.
After recent bad luck, this year’s weather was something the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run had been dreaming of. Dry, high temperatures in the mid-80’s, mostly sunny, downright comfortable under the protective canopy of the deep forest. There is 14,000 -or- 15,000 feet of ascending and just as much descending before arriving back at the finish. Area elevations range from 600 -to- 3200 feet. Bright yellow plastic plates with black magic-marker drawn arrows nailed to trees mark the entire course. 35 aid stations ranging in distances of 1.5 –to- 5.5 miles assisted us from start to finish.
I pulled into station 16, mile 44.2 knowing my best miles were still to come. At 149 lbs my weight was still up as well as my spirits. Michelle and Peter were enjoying the day. They reported that Michael Davenport had passed through 15 minutes earlier and looked good as well. I left the station with 2 boiled/chilled half potatoes crusted in salt. Someone yelled that I was in 52nd place. All seemed right in Vermont. What could possibly go wrong?
Heading uphill just after 49 miles the trail seemed suspiciously thick and overgrown. Suddenly 3 guys came running down asking if I was sure we were on track. One guy from Michigan was running this race for the 9th time and had never gotten lost. We debated for a minute and went a quarter mile up another fork in the trail but that didn’t have any markings either. Retracing our steps back down, 5 more runners came up to us. It was like a bad Blair Witch Project w/o the annoying yelling for “Josh”. Finally we all headed back down and about 4 minutes later found the trail. Turns out that the racecourse made a slight right turn going up a hill while the wrong, wider trail went straight. There was one yellow plate high in a tree marking the turn. Easy to miss. Especially if you’re not on a horse. Lots of us did. For me it was 15 minutes wasted with at least 1 extra mile covered.
I got to see Michelle and Peter again at 54.9 miles and told them of the mishap. They noticed that some runners I had been leading were now in front of me. Oh, well… at least I never encountered that wild country dog. Michelle provided vaseline for my feet blisters and a change of socks. It was 2:30pm and with half a hamburger in hand I hit the road passing a sign that read “Uphill next 4 miles”. We were back on dirt roads and I could see everyone ahead was power walking this long hill. I forced down the last bite of the burger and figured I’d jog uphill awhile and see how it felt. That got me going and I wound up gaining good momentum. The 5.4 mile stretch before station 24 I paced in 9:20 per mile. Slow if you’re at your local track meet… fast as you come into the 68.2 mile aid station. There I weighed in at 149 lbs, still in good shape. This was important because here runners could pick up a pacer. With the 2 pacers I had lined up, I considered this my advantage over most of the field!
Peter Block looked resplendent in his aviator sunglasses, “Illinois Track” t-shirt, baggy blue shorts and off-white cap. We’ve both been members in good standing of the “Riis Park Striders – Chicago” since the mid 80’s –and- have run, downhill skied and cross country skied many miles/races together. The plan was for Peter to help pace over the next 15.2 miles, which I figured we’d cover in about 3:15. We set off just past 5pm… a beautiful time of day in the Vermont countryside. The horse race, which has mandatory rest brakes, once again ran by us. There were 5 horses left – all within seconds of each other! “Miss Connecticut” and her trusty steed was our favorite as she was the friendliest. The day was cooling down and other than the horses, we were moving faster than anyone we saw. At the 72.8 mile aid station we caught up and ran awhile with Michael Davenport. He was moving well and sure to get a PR. Peter was pressing the pace and we were passing at least one runner every mile. This was beyond my expectations! In the distance we could see the clear-cut trails of a ski area. At one lazy, long downhill section we actually ran down the horses as they were trotting along out in front. Miss Connecticut cheered wildly for us. Across the perimeter of a farm then back into the forest trail for a mile & half brought us to station 29 and the 83.4 mile mark. It was the final medical check and I tipped the scale at 149 lbs; still one pound over my check in weight. Peter paced us through his section in 2:52! I cleaned & greased up my blisters and changed socks for the final time. Michelle estimated my place to be in the top 25 – maybe even top 20, then handed me the flashlight and scooted me out with a “Go Billy”.
Leaving the 83.4 mile station at 8pm darkness was enveloping the trails, as the final remnants of sunlight could no longer penetrate the forest. It was like a magical Murkwood… but had modern day glow sticks marking the way. Around 86 miles I met “Zach” who was being paced by “Zeke” as we ran a small section of paved road. They complimented my pace and asked how old I was. I knew immediately reason for the question and answered, “I have to finish before midnight as a 40 y/o… else I’ll finish at 41”. Turns out that Zach was leading the 20-29 division and in the waning light wondered if I was in his age group. Relieved, they rooted me on. Just after that the course climbed a long, sometimes difficult hill. I pushed up it so hard that I totally missed the unmanned aid station at 88.6 miles. With a completely drained bottle I came into station 31, 90 miles in full darkness at 9:15pm. It was Michelle’s turn to pace so we fitted our headlamps and pointed them down the road. We waved goodbye to Peter knowing we’d see him soon at the finish.
Michelle is in terrific shape. She’s been getting in good mileage and weekly track w/o’s. It’s paid off as she’s placed well in the 5K, 8K and 10K road races that she’s run this summer. Around 93 miles we saw our old friend Miss Connecticut still riding and smiling. Somehow her horse got spooked by the beam of one of our headlamps and reared up, backing me off the road almost down into the ditch. That was too close. We continued at Michelle’s pace and were picking off more runners, some who were determined but reduced to shuffling. I was feeling the effects of the day and around 95 miles first Zach & Zeke, then another runner passed us. These were the only times I was passed since going off the trail at 49 miles. I didn’t like it. Michelle wouldn’t accept it… not on her guard. We came to station 34 at 96.1 miles, I gave them my bib number and asked which way to go. The friendly station volunteer pointed, “down to the barn for replenishments” -but- we avoided that as though they were handing out bags of horse dropping samples. “Which way back to the trail”, I tried again. He pointed the other way, beyond us, “Back up to the highway, then right”. “Thank you”, barely got out by the time our backs were to him and we were off for the final push. Our tactic worked. Approaching this last of fabulous Vermont aid stations we decided to move right through, not stopping for goodies. We got back ahead of those that had recently passed us as well as one more runner.
Back on single-track trail we pushed up a half-mile hill as the lights of those that were in pursuit grew dimmer behind. A thin, sliver of a moon and all the skies’ stars offered no illumination assistance as we raced across a darkened meadow. Just before entering the woods we caught one more runner. She asked if we knew how far the finish was. I guessed, “A mile and a half… but I’ve not run this race before”. She thanked us and we all wished each other well. I was surprised at how difficult the trail became… rocky, rooty, uneven and sharply downhill. We were balancing risk with reward as we pressed forth at this reckless pace chasing the hypnotic glow of our headlamps. Michelle took a sudden spill but landed softly and was up as quick as she went down. We sensed lights catching up from behind. Impossible… we’re moving way too fast. Just as I finished that thought we both recognized the pounding of horse hooves and were happy to make way for this midnight rider. We had to be close -but- couldn’t sense the finish line -and- green glow sticks kept budding at one hundred yard intervals in front of us. What happened next hasn’t happened to me since the Ice Age Trail 50 in 1996. I went down. I didn’t mind the awkward, downhill fall so much… it was the hard knee-on-a-root-first landing I could have done without. Michelle helped me up and I scrambled to locate my headlamp. I just held it in my hand and screamed “Find my water bottle, I’m going on!!”. She found it and immediately made up all 3 of the steps I put on her. Amazingly this happened within a quarter mile of the finish. Minutes later we saw the end of the woods, dim red runway lights and… almost caught one more runner before the finish line!
About 25 folks were there… race officials, runners and their crews and friends & families, etc. Peter was there and snapped off action photos. I glanced at my watch. After pressing “Split” 30 something times for the past 19+ hours, I had been so looking forward to pressing the “Stop” button this one time. It read 19 hours, 8 minutes, 13.20 seconds. I was completely spent but never felt happier at the end of a race. Michelle had paced through the challenging last 10 miles in 1:56. When a friendly Vermont volunteer offered up a seat I wanted to hug him but didn’t have the balance. We watched some of the folks we’d just met out on the trail finish for some fifteen minutes then went into the barn for warmth and a tasty local brew. Within an hour of finishing Michelle, Peter and I headed back the 22 miles to the hotel. In the van Michelle presented me with a birthday bag stuffed with Vermont deck of cards, syrup, frig magnet and pancake mix. What a picture postcard perfect day in Vermont!
At noon on Sunday the post race brunch featured picnic style barbequed chicken and fixings down at the barn of Smoke Rise Farm. Participants were announced and marched up (umm, limped up) to receive awards based upon the hour they finished in. Pictures were taken among the applause. The last runner who beat the 30 hour limit was given an extra award for “Enjoying the Vermont scenery the most”. My surprise was yet to come. When they called up the 19-hour finishers they presented me with a special award as the fasted runner who didn’t break into the overall -nor- age group awards. I’ll cherish my special “Vermont 100” denim shirt always!
I came to Vermont in great running shape with the goal of breaking 22 hours -or- finishing around 20 hours if the planets were aligned. My finishing time and place (13th) pleasantly shocked me. Thanks again Michelle & Peter. What a fast, beautiful, friendly totally Vermont race! You can visit their website at: www.vermont100.com
Although these changes have come, long may you run. - Bill
...copyright 2001, Bill Thom
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