More Than A Marathon

On September 26th, our very own Scott Sternthal  competed in the Vermont 50km Run.  Here’s the full account of this amazing feat of human perseverance in his own words.

The Vermont 50k Ultra Run Race Report

Standing on the start line of my first ultra, the 2010 Vermont 50k run on September 26th, I felt surprisingly relaxed. I had never run 50k in training before, let alone race it over what was rumoured to be impossibly hilly terrain. It was a beautifully cool fall morning in Brownsville, Vermont. The leaves boasted incandescent reds and oranges. Mist mingled among us, and all around. The feeling was friendly, each of the runners possibly sensing that, together, we were about to experience something joyous and pure. Conditions were perfect. Although it was a bit humid, we could see our breath in the morning air.

My zen-like state was probably due to the fact that going into this race, I knew that I was in decent shape. I had managed to string together about six weeks of consistent training (after a frustrating season of injuries) with a few long, tough hilly workouts that went well. Running was just feeling easy these days, and despite the magnitude of the challenge that lay ahead, I was ready to roll. My goal was to run my own pace but be able to compete if the opportunity presented itself (It would).

From what I had heard, the course was tough – the 5600 feet of vertical climbing, tight, twisting single track, and slow times of previous races confirmed this. The course record was 3:47, and was set by Dave Mackey in 2008. I don’t think anyone else had ever run under 4:00 and winning times from past races were anywhere from 4:01 to 5:XX. Knowing how fast Mackey runs, the fact that he “only” averaged 4:30 min/km pace to set the record was curious. I guess this really was a hard race. I wondered if any of us would come close to the record today, or even surpass it. On a day this perfect, anything was possible.

When the gun sounded, a tall, lanky chap jumped off the front. Dane Mitchell, a carpenter by trade, had just moved to Stowe, Vermont from his native Alabama. It was his first Vermont 50, but we would all find out soon enough that he was no rookie. Dane and I ran the first two kilometers together (a good part of the first kilometer being uphill) in a sprightly eight minutes. His running style was effortless. He was too calm to be moving this fast so soon. By staying with Dane at this point in the race, I was essentially committing ultra suicide. As we took a sharp right hand turn onto a dirt road that would lead us past a beautiful river and rustic horse farm, I slowed down and Dane Mitchell disappeared into the fog up ahead. Birds sang. A horse stomped a hoof in the mud.

I ran the next 3 km alone, settling back into my comfortable 4:3X pace over rolling terrain. At 7k, the road turn up. Way up.The first brutal climb of the day lasted about 5k at between 5-10% grade. About halfway up, I was joined by Sam Jurek, 23, from Minnesota. Sam had just moved to Boston and was already an enduro-vet, having run numerous ultras, and boasting an elite marathon personal best of 2:32. This year, he placed 5th overall at the 2010 Walt Disney World Marathon. I had swift company. Judging by his relaxed breathing and smooth style, I knew that I would not be able to match his pace going uphill. When the trail descended, however, it seemed that I was able to close the gap just a bit. Interesting. Eventually, I judged Sam’s pace to be a little too rich for my blood, and he slowly pulled away and out of sight.

I was alone again. I had been running for about an hour and was feeling better and better. After the early race jockeying and pace changes, my mind was calm, my body loose, my feet bouncy. I settled into a rhythm, running through scenes from a postcard. I marveled at my surroundings. The Vermont countryside provided layers upon layers of natural beauty. I wasn’t thinking of catching Dane or Sam up ahead, nor was a I concerned about being reeled in by anyone behind me. I was in a moment, a series of moments. I was enjoying the act of running, the pristine clarity of just moving forward. I sipped my hand-help bottle, drank in my surroundings, and felt thankful.

And then almost suddenly, as if I had been woken from a pleasant dream, I looked down at my watch and realised that somehow, I had been running for nearly 2 hours, almost effortlessly. It was if I had been caught in a time warp. Sitting comfortably in 3rd place overall, I felt good about my situation. I was enjoying a surprisingly comfortable run, but I would soon discover that the race was just beginning.

The Vermont 50 is in its 17th year. The race has grown from a handful of mountain bikers (it’s also a 50 mile mountain bike race which takes place on the same course) and runners, to over 600 bikers and 500 runners, in both the 50k and 50 mile running races. The race is so popular that the mountain bike race sold out online in 20 minutes! Nuts. The 50k running course swathes through private lands in and around Brownsville Vermont, a stone’s throw from the town of Windsor, VT. Running 50k, even slowly, on a flat road is, compared to most things in life, difficult. Throw in relentless climbing, steep, bone crushing descents over rocks and roots, never ending sections of 180 degree switchbacks through bramble and bush, and everyone wanting to get to the finish line first, running 50k becomes considerably harder.

I arrived at Dugdales aid station at 13 miles and quickly refilled my bottle with Heed sports drink, downed 2 cups of coke, and ate a section of banana. My legs felt fresh, and I was on sub-4 hour pace. I had heard that Sam was about 4 minutes ahead. I knew that if I pressed for the next little while, it may be able to shorten the gap. Meanwhile, I had received a report that Dane Mitchell was obliterating the course, and he was nearly 15 minutes ahead. I wondered if today was the day that Mackey’s record would fall. As my bottle was being filled by one of the hard-working volunteers, I felt my heart thumping in my chest and throat.

After leaving the aid station, a competitive fire re-ignited in my belly. My legs buzzed. We entered into a very technical section of the course, with a few miles of tight, twisting, off-camber trail, going both up and down. The ground was pocky and uneven, and I was happy that I was wearing my Montrail Mountain Masochists instead of lighter training shoes. It was dark in these woods, even though it was only 10 am and sunny. I got down to business and settled into a very quick pace. I felt like I was floating, flying almost, over the steep, rocky terrain. When we exited the woods and came onto a section of road, to my delight, up ahead, I could see Sam in the distance, probably a couple of minutes ahead.

I took a swig from my bottle. A leaf drifted in the breeze overhead. After some pretty quick 4 min/k running on gently rolling dirt road I arrived at Fallon’s aid station at mile18. I quickly refilled my bottle and ate another piece of banana. Sam was 30 seconds ahead. My pressure through the woods and on the road had paid off. We again dove into a section of dusty, technical switch back running through sparsely forested woods. Unlike the darkness of the previous section, beams of yellow light peppered the trail through the canopy of leaves above us. I could see mountain bikers working their way through, and there, the flash of a runners legs. It  was Sam.

It was at around this time, after about 3:20 of running, that the first real signs of fatigue started to creep into my body. I felt myself tightening up. My right ankle started to throb form the downhill running, and I was forced to alter my cadence, especially on the merciless descents. What only an hour ago felt like floating, now felt more like shuffling. The pounding rose up to beyond my legs, into my body and chest and shoulders. The forest floor started to feel like cement. For the next 30 minutes or so II continued to press, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sam around the next corner, but it was not to be. The next report was that he was 4 minutes ahead. I knew that the race for 2nd place was all but over (The race for 1st was over long ago). I settled back into my comfortable pace and tried to stay as smooth as possible up and down the tough sections ahead.

At 43k, my body was starting to suffer the effects of attrition.  I ran over a huge sheet of flat-rock and wondered for a moment what type of rock it was. My stomach was cramping badly. The descents became more gruelling than the climbs. My legs burned. I was thirsty. After another long grassy traverse through a farmers field I looked up at a multicoloured mountain which seemed to be sheltering all of us. The colours blurred together, shimmering and vibrating, distorted by the moisture in the air and the distance.  At the top of a short, cruel road climb, I arrived at Johnson’s aid station at mile 28 and took a couple of minutes to compose myself before the final 3 mile push to the finish. A guy with a friendly smile snapped some photos of me. The final section was a tortuous sun-baked ascent which snaked up and across Ascutney Mountain. Traversing the ski hill almost threw me off balance. I looked back and thought I saw a runner dressed in black approaching. There wasn’t.  And finally, after one last turn, and steep downhill, I stumbled across the finish line, spent.

I finished in 3rd place overall in 4:26. Sam maintained his smooth running and held on to finish in a very impressive 4:14. He apparently had heard reports that I had been closing and had made sure to keep his pace high. Dane Mitchell demolished Dave Mackey’s course record, running a mind-blowing 3:42.

Overall, this run was an unbelievably enjoyable experience, and I look forward to doing it again 2011 – maybe the 50 miler? – without the 4th quarter meltdown.


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