Pre-race Goal Setting & Strategy
The Vermont 100 aka the VT100, was probably my first real race since school XC days that I approached it without any fixed goals. No time splits, average pace stuff and no finish time predictions. I did have one clear goal however; to run as fast as possible from start to finish ‘feeling good’. But that was it, nothing more. A new approach to running a very long way.
My former runner brain told me to be obsessed with breaking 20 hours. I knew the course would potentially allow for this with a great race but I respected and trusted my coach to guide me into a new way of setting running goals. By running on feel, my ability would do the talking for me. Perhaps I would break 20 anyway or maybe it would be 22 or the flip of that, 18? By not obsessing over numbers, I no longer would be able to feel like I was ahead or behind during the race (goodbye anxiety and stress). Just look at what Kilian produced at Hardrock the week prior. He ran ‘easy’ for 70 miles and then took off for the last 30 because he felt so good. He even dropped his more than capable pacer (Rickey Gates) because he began moving so fast. But alas, I am not Kilian, nobody is, but I and we can learn from the best and their style of running.
The day prior to traveling up to Vermont, I listened to my trusty source of trail running tips and humor from Trail Runner Nation. It was ironically fitting that the topic of conversation was Vermont and how to race on feel with guests Jimmy Dean Freeman – attempting the six original 100-milers in 13 weeks(!!) and my coach, Ian. For those intrigued, here’s a link to the podcast to what I’m talking about by running on feel;
Listening to this was like getting a last-minute pep talk. Just in case, I wanted to say screw it, this approach sounds so vague, listening to this reassured me, this was how to do it. The detailed OCD sub-20 hour plan I had scribbled on my elevation profile chart weeks earlier was handed over to my crew on the 5-hour drive north Friday morning. Luckily for me, I had never re-read it to memorize any of it. It was now just a very basic guide to where I would possibly be for my crew of Tiffany, Francis and Rui (both paced me at Leadville in 2012) at each major aid station. Typical of them, they didn’t blink an eyelid to my very new approach which speaks so highly of who they are. They respected my strategy even though it would make it harder for them to track me down. Tip 1 for new 100 mile runners – get awesome crew!
Like Jimmy did recently at Western States three weeks prior, I couldn’t quite tear myself away from all my race data and planned to wear my heart rate (HR) monitor for the first 20 to 30 miles to guide me, capping my efforts at 150 bpm up the early climbs. And of course I would have my Garmin Fenix to keep track of all the data, yet I set my screen to only show elapsed time and my HR information.
July 19th – Race Day
Waking up at 2:15am Saturday morning felt anything like it. I had managed four hours of shut-eye and I was now ready to get going, my adrenaline was in full force. First things first though; a blood test. I was perfectly steady in the mid-100’s and I went to the kitchen to consume a couple of bowls of Honey Nut Cheerio’s, a yogurt, granola bar and a banana. Feeding the body calories now seemed to be the best move knowing a few hours later on in the day, I would not be craving real food so enthusiastically.
In the dark fields of Silver Hill Meadow, 300 runners set off down a wide dirt road at 4am. As I had been warned, some runners leapt out in front at marathon pace. My extent of course knowledge was limited to knowing what sections were up or down and the names of aid stations only because I was carrying a laminated course elevation chart in my shirt pocket. I was basically out there just following yellow plates with black arrows or the guy ahead of me hoping he or she was paying attention. After a mile or so of road, the route turned sharp right onto a trail with some rocks and mud (that I was surprised to see on the course) and we began the first climb of what would be many. The course was renowned for being a relentless series of hills in humid conditions. Nothing too long or too steep but it would equate to 14,000 feet of ascent by the time we had covered the distance. This was great prep for Tahoe 200 (40,000 feet) and was a big factor why I was here. We all lucked out on the humidity factor though. This was not to be a hot race compared to years past. On one hand, I looked back and was annoyed I had put in all those runs in Central Park with four layers on for what?! But on the other, I was relieved. 100 miles is hard enough without having to drown in sweat all day and worry about body temperature.
After an hour and change, the headlamp came off. The sun hadn’t quite risen but the openness of the land plus the non-technical terrain allowed me to be free of my Petzl Nao’s mega bulb. That headlamp is serious business people, highly recommended! At 5 miles, a hike up Densmore Hill was the first time to test out my strategic patience. Being able to resist the run and hike up gradients seems to be all part of the game at Vermont. This early on, everything feels great, my goal was to feel great all day long. Lots of folks around me pushed on while I went to power hike mode. My HR hovered at 151 and I knew I was now at my limit.
My ‘feeling good’ approach to the race took its first turn south at mile 10 however. Some very abnormal stomach cramps set in and I scrambled to figure out what was going on. After a little internal freak out, I nailed it down to nothing more than nature calling and took a detour into the woods (note; this was not someone’s property line! Last year, a runner pooped in a local’s blueberry bush which as you can imagine, caused quite the stir in town). Of course, this ordeal meant losing some time but the bigger picture was that I immediately felt better. Embarrassingly to admit, this scenario played out another five times throughout the first half of the race! I took the positive spin on this that I was definitely not going out too fast with all of these breaks.
Apart from my bathroom needs, the legs, lungs and mind were all feeling great. “How am I feeling?” was the question I would repeatedly ask myself. This could be to do with anything from drinking, getting calories down, salt pills, blood glucose levels or my effort level. The various topics were the same from mile 1 to mile 100. It was like the wheel of fortune landing on a different number (in my case, topic) each time. Doing so took focus and is why I didn’t care when I read in the pre-race literature that music was banned from the course. To not have any music as a distraction for me over 100 miles would be a first but my assumption of the rule was that running alongside horses was probably deemed a fairly dangerous situation! That’s right, this race was run alongside horses!
Sidenote: For those not in the know, this 100 mile malarkey that I can’t seem to get enough of came about 41 years ago because of a 100 mile horse race gone wrong for a guy called Gordy out in California. His horse went lame so the next year he ran the distance on foot and finished it in just under 24 hours. The next year more runners showed up and that race became known as the Western States 100. I talk about it from time to time!
This was my (and likely many others) first time ever running a race alongside horses. It took some good communication skills from both the rider and runner how to let the four-legged guys go by without any ugly mishaps. When the first horse ran up behind me (their race started an hour or so behind ours), I shifted to the left of the trail slowly and let them by while still running. The guy in front of me took a slightly different approach leaping off the trail and then standing still, looking petrified! Either he was in for a long day of this or I was doing something very wrong and about to find out about it.
To my surprise, I caught back up to one of the handful of horses that passed when descending a somewhat steep stretch and passed them back. “Oh. Think you’re getting away from me do you?!” heckled the rider to me. I assured her my ego was not that big that I thought I was going to beat her horse, I just wasn’t much enjoying standing behind a big horse. These were the only occasions you would (if dare) rarely pass them. The other time would be when they were drinking from their troughs on mandatory 45-minute breaks. While we ate gummy bears, M&M’s and gels, our four-legged friends were more into grains, carrots and apples (I am not a horse expert – a rider kindly filled me in on all this info).
One of the highlights of the day came early descending a long hill to Stage Road aid station. The runner ahead turned as I approached and said “Oh, I thought you were a horse!” In any other scenario, I would have taken being called a horse as highly offensive but this was one of the highest compliments I think you can say to a runner on the Vermont course! All I was doing was letting the grade take me downhill swiftly refusing to break to try to save my quads. It resulted in quite the fast pace, definitely nothing manageable for a long period of time.
At 30 miles in, the legs began to finally get that tingly sensation in them, the kind all ultra runners know. At this point I had caught up to Keila and Karen (running together) and felt a bit more assured when Karen mentioned her legs felt the same way. All three of us ran into Stage Road aid together and saw a bunch of our friends there. It was like Cayuga 50 all other again, so fantastic to see so many friendly faces.
Rui ushered me over to the crew area like I was a plane needing fuel which wasn’t far from the truth. My blood glucose was now 98 and it was time to get some carbs in to push that number back up. My crew had everything ready spread out on a blanket (I heard later kids looked enviously on at the goodies on display).
This was a bit smoother than the first aid station at Pretty Horse ten miles earlier. Tom (Elaine’s fiancé and crew chief) had asked me if I wanted my drop bag. “Drop bag?” (I didn’t have any) I said, “No. Where’s Tiffany?” I then turned to my right to see a very stressed and fast approaching Francis and Rui charging towards me. I got a good chuckle out of it, they didn’t find it so funny as they were about a minute from missing me.
While Tiffany was getting more ice into my bandana and cap, Rui was grabbing me foods and drink that I requested for my pack which left Frankie rubbing Aquaphor on my legs. Bug spray, sunscreen, by whoever was free next and then off again. What may sound like chaos was fairly well controlled, everyone with a job to do. All hands were on deck at aid stations but these interchanges were definitely the highlights of the day for me. Giving them a review of the last X miles, how I felt at that given moment and then normally me making an awful joke about something. This was what it was about, having fun with my friends while doing something crazy because after all, 100 miles is crazy. I’m fully aware.
Through the second and final covered bridge (Lincoln) of the day at mile 40 took me towards the hardest climb yet up to Barr House. I had asked my buddy Tony Carino a week before for course knowledge (he ran a sub-20 in 2013) and he said everything was runnable until 70. I forgot to remind myself that Tony is a monster climber!!! I happily put my head down and hiked the steep pitch up until finally reaching an unmanned table with water and Gatorade – the sign that the climb was over.
By now, I had discarded my heart rate monitor. I was well into my groove so had no need to risk chafing my torso for some almost irrelevant heart rate readings going forward. As the sun was now up, my concern was more on staying cool with ice, hydrating smart and getting calories in constantly. My stomach pains were coming and going but now they were more to do with the running. Luckily, my palette was taking well to Honey Stinger waffles so I went through a good few of those which clocked up 160 calories each time. I knew by keeping some sort of food in my hand as much as possible, it would remind myself to keep grazing. As for now, this food plan was working like clockwork.
I arrived at Camp 10 Bear, mile 47 (the main aid station which doubled as mile 70 where I would pick up my first pacer later) expecting a carnage of people and cars, much like you get at Winfield in Leadville. But this was Vermont and although one of the major four 100 mile races in the States, this was not what I call a big aid station. The welcome and energy from other crews made it great regardless. I hopped on the scales and hoped to see no weight loss from my Friday medical. One pound up in fact. I blame those waffles!
Shy of halfway, all was going well. How did I know? Because I asked myself “How are you feeling?” and all that mattered was my answer to that question time and time again. My crew brought me lunch as we had discussed the importance of real food as much as possible. A toasted bacon and cheese panini sandwich with arugula. Remember tip 1 for new 100 mile runners? Get awesome crew! I took half of the sandwich with me, restocked the bag and rolled on. Tiffany and Rui checked in with me as they were more aware than me that I was moving well and well under the taboo time of sub-20 but I assured them I was running my own race and was feeling good. The sandwich was a challenge however. It took me well over an hour to eat it. My stomach could handle waffles but this was a different story. My body was beginning to fight back, that darn stomach of mine.
At the halfway point according to my GPS ‘during my lunch hour’ I caught up with Otto climbing up to Pinky’s. Otto is quite simply a nut job. He runs more 100’s than I run training runs and is incredibly funny, I just can’t figure out if he means to be funny! He was in shock to see me coming from behind when I welcomed myself. “What are you doing here?!” he said in shock seeing me behind him. Otto is famous in our ultra circle for starting out fast and crawling home, but always making it home. I don’t think he has ever quit any of his many races. My response was simply “What are you doing here?!” He then questioned the situation “Either you are slow today or I am doing something wrong”. We laughed about it and pushed on ahead wishing him luck, not that he needed it. He just needed to pace himself and would be on for 21-22 hours. I knew where I was too now. I was just over 9 hours on the clock and my mind started to drift ahead to a sub-18 goal. This was probably a bit suicidal but I knew I was in that mix, especially if I could get to my pacers feeling OK. I remembered my strategy quickly though going back to the present “How am I feeling?” and continued on up the hill.
At Pinky’s aid, I wasted no time passing a weary looking Kevin Shelton-Smith looking to feast on all the goodies to get out of his low. He had bombed off the front with Brian Rusiecki (the race favorite), something Kevin likes to do. I wasn’t just passing my friends from NYC though, I was clipping off new friends too and having great conversations or small talk with all of them from Megan running solo to Dave who I recognized from Western States last year to high-fiving Jimmy Dean who I had barely met a few hours earlier when we small talked about his podcast. I love the interaction in this sport because the respect for one another is honest and we truly care for each other out there no matter how much we want to beat the other to the line.
A long ascent got me to mile 58 and the Seven Sees aid. It was the last crew meet up before pacers as they would skip Margaritaville because Francis had to get ready to pace me back at Camp 10 Bear. I knew he of all people was sad to miss out on that aid station! As rumors had it, this pace was decked out to the nines and would be my number one place to volunteer at in the future. They turned me down for an ‘adult drink’, not because I didn’t have ID but because I was too early the volunteer told me! 38 miles with a margarita on board might not have made the most sense anyway.
I had definitely taken a cut back on my calorie intake the last 20 miles. My stomach was struggling to accept anything. What drove me forward with momentum was the excitement of getting to run with my pacers soon. Up and over a climb, I ran strong into Camp 10 Bear. At 70 miles, it was the furthest I had ever run solo (Tahoe 200 will have the same rule in effect). Back on the scales for the public weigh-in, I had now lost my one pound from mile 46 and was back to square one. Tiffany offered me the other half of the sandwich from lunch to which I almost vomited just thinking about real food. My stomach was definitely my weakest link. I pretended to myself this wasn’t an issue but I knew it was or would eventually be. With the sun going down, I decided to ditch the hat and neck bandana which had been my ice holders all day long in the sun. But I kept the pack on, kept the same shoes and socks on. I wanted to simulate Tahoe as much as possible.
My only change was a fresh shirt and I was set for Francis to be my companion for the next 7 miles. We had decided as group to flip pacers more than normal. Francis would get a 7 and a 6 mile leg (mostly uphill) and Rui would get a 12 mile stretch and the last 5 (both mostly down) suiting their strengths (Tiffany unfortunately just found out the week prior to the race, she has a serious hip injury so had to work the crew chief full-time shift. I know it was tough for her to be there around all these runners and not get to pace. She is a tough cookie and I’m so happy she could put on a brave face at a very frustrating time for her. She is amazing and I love her so much for everything she does for me.)
First off, we had what I was told was the hardest climb of the day back out of Camp 10 Bear. To be honest, I barely recall it. We talked easily and hiked efficiently. It was an absolute blast to have company and for those that don’t know Francis, his company and endless stories are second to none. With a couple of winding single track downhills thrown in to the section, we moved well. Francis was almost giggling to himself during one stretch because it was so effortless. My watch had long died since mile 60 so I was completely running by feel. He told me we clocked a 7:35 mile at one point. I did not believe him but he insisted it was true.
A fifth and final climb took us over a road and up to the welcoming aid station of Spirit of 76. The volunteer at the top pretended to pull us up with some rope while we demanded to use the ski lift. All stupid stuff but it shows you how much fun we were having out there on Saturday night, now with over 76 miles in my legs.
My buddy Jun was departing the aid station as I approached. We smiled and waved (it took me until the next day to realize he was running solo – no crew, no pacers, the same as Otto – RESPECT!). At every aid station, I really had two crews. Mine and Keila’s (Heidi, Benny and Denie) because she was always a few minutes behind since halfway. It was so great to have a handful of friends always there for me ready to do anything I needed. But no one got Francis’s Aquaphor job!
Rui’s turn and little did I know but this segment would be the hardest yet by a stretch. It was the old duo back together. Rui and me have great memories of bombing down Hope Pass two years ago, maybe too fast in reality and we were out to seek some more great downhills now. For the first five miles everything was working out that way, moving good, power hiking ups, never really walking anything. And then at mile 83 on a flat road, that all changed.
I felt my skin go pale, my head go faint and I started to stumble around with no energy whatsoever. My stomach hurt once again and almost immediatley I was dry heaving onto someone’s lawn (sorry!) with my fingers down my throat. There’s not anything much more painful than being sick I find. Unfortunately, because I had been failing to put solids in well the last 25 miles or so, I was failing to bring anything decent back up. Jimmy passed me by and gave me some encouragement, “suck it up bro” or similar words. It was kind of a blurry low in my race so forgive me for not remembering it exact but I appreciated it. He was right, suck it up. This was really my first low of the race at mile 83. Not bad really!
I gingerly stood up, took a couple of deep breathes and then we continued. Really slowly at first. Rui insisted on me getting in some S-caps and i washed them down with Tailwind (it was the best I could do for calories at this point). Within minutes, I was back to running and we caught up to Jimmy and his pacer Scott. He was in a bit of shock to see me but we joked I was back from the dead! I explained to him while we ran as a group of four my last few hours of running. Amazingly, Jimmy completely nailed what had happened to me because it had happened to him before. By removing my cap and bandana full of ice (at Camp 10 Bear) because I deemed the evening time not necessary to use them anymore, I had begun to overheat. The humidity had very subtly got higher as the sun went down. He had ice-cold water in his bottle and I sprayed the back of my neck and felt the difference. Now I just had to get to Bill’s aid (88) and get the ice back on! We ran together for a couple of miles before I had to back off the pace again. But before I reached Bill’s, I noticed my insulin insert had fallen off my stomach due to the sweat and ice dripping down it all day long.
Our pace went back to a hike and I had to drag my ass to Bill’s having now, my second low point in the span of five miles. Rui put his headlamp on but I stubbornly refused. I had set a new goal to get to Bill’s headlamp free and did that although barely. I knew Rui was concerned but he kept me moving. At Bill’s, I wandered over to the medics at the barn and got on the scales. I was down to 176, a 4 pound loss. “How do you feel?” the medic asked me. It was a great question, one I must have been failing to ask of myself for a few miles now because I felt awful. My grumbled response of “OK. Tired” wasn’t my best ever performance of faking the good life but she understood. I was at mile 88, my weight was steady enough and so they let me go over to my crew to proceed.
I walked over to the crew area set up at a section of grass and decided enough was enough and lay down on it. It was my first time off my feet in 88 miles. I had beaten my previous best of 80 miles at Western States.
My crew grabbed me hot noodle soup that I had been craving for about 7 miles now but was only available for the first time now. As they got my headlamp ready for me and some food into my backpack (just in case I could miraculously eat anything else for the last 12 miles) I checked my glucose which was now higher than planned due to the insert incidence. Perhaps another factor why I had probably had a really rough patch. I made some adjustments with my insulin, had yet another bathroom break and then I was back on the trail with Francis. It had been the longest aid stop by far today.
As soon as we left, my walking very slowly increased and Francis made it a point to tell me. After a half mile or so, we reached the next downhill and just like that, I began to run again. All the way down and then all the way back up to Polly’s aid (95), Francis kept me going strong. It was as if the sickness, the long aid station stop at Bill’s belonged to a different race. That’s the magic of ultra running right there. Those miles seemed so straight forward so soon after a chaotic five-mile stretch.
When we approached Tiffany and Rui for the last hand off, we already knew what we needed to do. Be efficient. Francis announced to them, this was going to be a quick aid stop. Blood test, refill of water and electrolyte drinks and go. It was all business mode again now and I caught Rui off guard by this turn of events.
I looked over at Rui as we left the aid, realizing he was wearing three layers. “What are you wearing Rui?” I asked him puzzled. “Well, you looked pretty bad back there so I put some layers on”. You have to realize that Rui got given the last leg at Leadville too where we army marched 10 miles home between 4am and 8am in the freezing cold. He started to shed layers as it soon became apparent that we were about to kick the last 5 miles apart together pretty efficiently. I asked him where we were for time. I wanted to know if we were over or under the 20 hour goal time. He did the math and knew we had to run 14 minute miles to go under.
Running a gradual descent, this was exciting news. We were both so pumped, we knew it would take a real curve ball now to screw that up. And then, we came to the end of the road, looked left, looked right and couldn’t see anymore of the green glow sticks. We kind of just wandered around looking for them and then Rui told me to wait while he ran back the way we had come. I just stood in the dark and waited for what seemed a very long time……..”Come back!” I ran so hard back up that hill to find him by a huge arrow on the ground and two yellow plates ushering us off the road to the left. “Better make that 13 minute miles I guess?” I said to Rui. We both laughed our heads off and got moving.
We ran everything, yes everything all the way in. He pushed me home taking two more spots up the last big climb along the way. We weaved around single track the last half mile as hard as possible and then turned a last corner to see the red neon ‘finish line’ sign crossing it in 19 hours 37 minutes. A new 100 PR for me by almost 3 hours. Yes, a different course, temperature, terrain, I know all of that. What I was most happy with was to nail sub-20 without having that as my focal point all day long and getting caught up in the numbers. The plan had worked and worked really well. I also just found out this week that I beat a horse! A few dropped out so I won’t count those guys but I beat a horse on my own two feet!
Work in Review and Looking Ahead
I asked myself at mile 99, could I keep running if I had to (thinking ahead to Tahoe 200) and I’m pleased to say with confidence, the answer was most definitely yes. I wanted to finish the race tired but not screaming for medical treatment and I achieved that fine line of effort perfectly. Overall, I was very satisfied with the whole race. Tiffany, Francis and Rui were outstanding. Their support and care for me is impossible to repay but I’ll try my hardest too. I am forever grateful to them.
I know where I made mistakes but I also know where I made good decisions, solved problems and ran smart. I will use all of this information to my advantage in a few weeks time. Excited to go beyond the 100 mile mark and explore a new chapter in my ultra running journey. Thank you all for your love and support. Roll on Tahoe 200!