Saturday morning, I woke up at 3:25 a.m. to the glare of headlights as athletes began arriving for the Peaks Ultra Challenge in Pittsfield, Vermont. The back of our Subaru was my makeshift hotel for the previous night.
I had dropped Maria off in Lake Placid so she could get her training in, and then drove to Pittsfield, VT on Friday afternoon in time for the Saturday morning 6 a.m. race start. The Peaks Ultra Challenge has several races: 500 miles, 200 miles, 100 miles, 50 miles and 30 miles. I was competing in the 50 mile race, which I would find at the end was actually closer to a 55 mile race.
The 50 mile course was comprised of two main sections: a 40 mile loop (which was really almost 45 miles) and a 10 mile loop. The 10 mile loop section was the route for all of the other longer races. Yes, the 500 mile runners did a 10 mile loop 50 times! Only one person finished that 500 mile race.
At 5:45 a.m., the race director Andy held a race briefing, during which he sugar coated the course in his description. I knew it sounded a bit too easy.
I was right.
The race started on time at 6 a.m. I planned for a quicker pace for a few miles to get away from the main group of runners. After a few miles, 3 or 4 of us had broken away from the main field.
This is when I first started to notice it was hot. Uncomfortably hot. It was not even 7 a.m. yet.
The course proved to be a challenge for the first 20 miles but it was manageable. That was until Bloodroute.
Bloodroute is a hill, a climb, a mountain son of a … gun that appears at mile 25. It climbs 1,523 feet in only 2.75 miles. No switchbacks. No breaks.
It was hard.
Every time I thought I was at the top of the mountain, another section of climbing would appear just around the bend.
These guys are crazy adding this climb into this course, I thought. Then, I realized I was the one actually climbing it.
At the bottom of Bloodroute, I was in 2nd place. But as we climbed, I was passed by Larisa, a strong ultrarunner. She made her way past me, moving steadily up the climb.
She looks strong, I thought. I couldn’t respond to her pace. So, I stayed in my own race.
What goes up, also goes down. After climbing for 2.75 miles, we then descended straight down the other side for another 2.75 miles. No switchbacks. Just down. At this point, I caught the last flash of Larisa for the day. She disappeared as she bombed down the other side of Bloodroute.
After the long downhill section, we hit a few road sections and then some trail mud. Not just a little bit of mud, but up-to-your-knees mud that had unpleasantly prickly Vermont underbrush buried within it. It likes to tear up your legs and burn your skin with poison pricks.
In other words, I was having fun.
To intensify the “pleasure,” this area was boggy, swampy, jungle hot. A few mosquitoes may have been swallowed.
As I passed through this section, the second place runner Matt Dore (behind Larissa) was standing in the mud.
I asked, “Are you okay?”
He said, “Yes. I just lost my sneaker in the mud.”
He found it and was putting it on as I passed him. I noticed he only had one handheld water bottle and wondered how he was getting by with so little hydration. I was carrying two handheld water bottles and was worried it wasn’t enough in the ever-increasing heat.
After the mud pits, I came back to an aid station. Finally an aid station! I was low on my hydration as the aid stations were too far apart for just two 16-ounce handheld bottles.
(Side note: If you do this race, I would suggest carrying a back hydration system with a minimum of 50 ounces. 80 ounces would be even better if it is really hot.)
With what is arguably the hardest section of the race course completed, I thought about the last 10 mile loop. I had already seen what the loop times were for the other races, and I figured those 10 miles had to be pretty hard based on the splits.
I made it to the the end of the 40(+5) loop, and was prepared to start the final 10 miles. I asked Andy, the race director, where the next aid station would be. He said there is water at mile 43. I showed him my Garmin, which already had me past mile 43, and just shy of mile 45.
We laughed. “We may be off a little.”
I took the time to fuel up and fill my bottles for this last test of endurance. I had been running for 8.5 hours. I was in second place.
Right before I took off, I ran into an old friend, Gary, from my first ultra race, the VT 50. Gary helped me back then, and he was about to help me again–even more.
Gary was at the race as a volunteer, pacing runners as part of his build up for the Western States Ultra Endurance Run. (Congrats!)
He said, “Go start up the hill and I’ll catch up.”
As I started the final 10 mile loop, which begins with a gnarly straight up climb, the reality of how low I was on hydration became clear, as I had the first indications of a possible meltdown.
The demons were landing on my shoulders. I was trying to eat them, but they were landing in droves.
My internal temperature relief valve was about to blow. At this point, Gary had caught up with me. I said to him, “I think I have to stop the race.”
He said, “Listen, John, your core temperature is very hot. You just need a break. How about you sit for 10-15 minutes. Look at your watch. In 15 minutes, you can reassess how you feel.”
I don’t have much choice, I thought. So, I laid down, feeling dizzy and sick.
As I lay there, I thought to myself, I am going to have to dig deep to hold on to my lead. At that point, I was the first place male.
Within 10 minutes of laying there, I got passed. I slipped back into third place overall, and 2nd place male.
Then, Gary said the color had come back into my face and asked how I was feeling. Surprisingly, I felt good.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We were off and running again.
We moved well up to the top of the mountain and eventually caught the runner who had passed me while I averted my meltdown.
After that point, I sat in every stream that I came across. It felt great to have the cool water bring my core temperature down, and with that my heart rate settled as well.
Then came miles of switchback down and elevators back up and finally, finally the finish line. Without Gary’s help, I’m not sure I would have seen the finish line that day.
I crossed the finish line with a total time of 11:27, as the first place male overall and the second place finisher overall.
The Peaks Ultra slogan is “Go Beyond Your Limits.” It lives up to its mantra.
Some lessons learned:
- On very hot days when you will be running through streams and mud, leave the sunglasses at home. They fog.
- Spandex shorts would be better than loose fitting running shorts. I had some very bad chafing. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire! Some lube in the drop bag would have been a good idea.
- Carry a back hydration system with 32 ounces more than what you think you will need when you are doing a new race on a hot day.
- If Andy says, “It’s a little climb,” he means it’s a freaking mountain.
- I don’t sleep well in my car.
- I missed my race crew (Maria and my parents)