Monday, October 3, 2016

Vermont 50 race report: Fun in the Woods

I love trail running. I completely adore being outdoors, running through the woods, the sounds of nature, cooler temps, and opportunity to meet other runners. I also get very frustrated with trail running because unlike road running, my lack of sight directly impacts my ability to run some terrain. So I decided to run the Vermont 50 shortly after I ran the TARC 100k last October. I was looking for a somewhat runnable course and numerous trail runners recommended VT 50, including one of my eventual sighted guides.

In July I rolled my ankle pretty good while trail running on the Oregon coast and ended up spraining two ligaments in my left ankle. I took three weeks off from running, focused on PT and strengthening my ankles, and downgraded to the 50k. I knew the VT 50 was hilly with about 5,600 feet of elevation so I focused a ton of training on steep hills and multiple hill repeats. Thankfully, I have some super supportive guides who not only helped with transportation out to Blue Hills but also trudged up numerous hill repeats with me.

The weekend before VT 50 I participated in Ragnar Reach theBeach with an ultra-team and logged approximately 34 miles. I ran a bit harder than I had planned but had so much fun running with my teammates. So much for a taper. I ran four miles the week leading up to VT 50 in an attempt to give my body a chance to bounce back and to rest my ankle.

After a long Friday night at my house hosting six of my daughter’s friends for a slumber party (they woke up at 4:30AM!), we arrived in Vermont late afternoon Saturday. My guide Steve was kind enough to host us and a number of other runners and bikers. His house is about ¼ mile from the start/finish. We hit packet pick up, got to meet Mike Silverman the amazing race director and chat with some folks from Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports. Proceeds from VT 50 benefit Vermont Adaptive, where I skied with sighted guides for the first time, so I was super stoked to see and support them. We had a nice potluck dinner at Steve’s house, met a ton of new friends, and called it a night around 9:00PM. Jill and I slept in a tent while Lucy scored a bunk bed inside.

My alarm went off at 6:03AM (wasn’t really sleeping) and I casually got dressed and ate my pre-race meal (two bananas with Vermont Peanut Butter and a bar) . We lined up a few minutes before 8:00AM and it was so nice to see/meet a number of Trail Animal Running club (TARC) runners. I also got to meet Amy Rusiecki, who is the Vermont 100 RD and an incredibly accomplished runner (congrats on your 2nd place finish!).

Dane Leblanc, Kyle, & Steve Collopy. Nothing but smiles pre-race! 

Steve was my lead guide with Dane running behind us. The first 1.5 miles were on paved road so it was nice to stretch out and warm up a bit. I cannot predict race pace on trails but my goals were 1) to finish under 9 hours 2) not come in last (much respect for all finishers) 3) and try not to further damage my ankle. My plan was to run the dirt roads hard, power-hike the climbs, hold a 11-12 min pace on the runnable trail sections, and keep as strong a walking pace as possible on the technical sections including single track.

Close to 1.5 miles in we hit the first big climb and joined all the other runners in power hiking up it. The temps were in the low 40s so it was a nice way to warm up and get the blood flowing. We transitioned onto a wide ATV/snowmobile trail and began to run the subtle incline and downhill. Steve was like clockwork on the guiding and having Dane behind letting me know when I got through the technical stuff was very helpful.

I was running with my NATHAN Sports 2L pack so we blew through the first aid station just under the 4-mile mark. My legs were fresh and my ankle felt stable and dare I say strong (thank you Scanlon PT). We switched between a few trails and dirt roads for the next couple of miles with some elevation mixed in to keep us honest.

At around mile six or seven a huge pack of runners passed me on the first technical section. Having to stand on the side of the trail while they passed really pissed me off and at times I let the “damn my eyesight” negative thoughts creep into my head. Thankfully, we popped back onto a dirt road and I could see the group a few hundred yards in front of me. My ego and emotions got the best of me and I really wanted to catch them as well as bank some much needed time. Dane and I took off and hammered a low 8:00 min pace and we caught up to and passed the group. I’m not going to lie-that felt good. I also know that some folks may have questioned my “going out too fast” pace but I knew that sooner or later I would have some walking breaks due to the technical terrain. We rolled into the Margaretville aid station at mile 11 (same crew that works the VT 100 station) feeling good and right on pace. Dane re-filled his bottles as I slowly walked down the 50-mile road and not the 50k (oops-thank you volunteer for turning me back around!).

Steve, Dane and I left M’Ville and headed up a dirt trail that cut through a farm. I should note that many of the trails are open just for the race as they cut through privately owned land. Big thanks to all the landowners for providing access to your gorgeous trails/front/back yards.
Only 2.5 miles to the next aid station where Jill and Lucy were with fuel and smiles which kept me moving.

We now shared the trails with the mtb so my guide out back was responsible for alerting us of any oncoming biker and letting us and the biker know which way to pass. This was somewhat easy on the wider trails but tough on the single track. Steve, who has participated in all the race disciplines incl running and biking, was acutely aware of how to manage these situations and set a great tone for the rest of the race.

Around mile 12 we (not really me!) noticed that we were off course. We followed a biker and/or runner or two and a few more followed behind us. As my guides and others were trying to figure things out I kindly helped out by saying “What, are all of you blind!” Apparently a few of the other riders/runners looked at me, saw my Team With a Vision “BLIND” bib, and didn’t really know how to respondJ We back-tracked only a cpl hundred yards, found the nice arrow pointing us in the right direction, and carried on. Up a very steep climb!

Dane, Kyle, and Steve coming into Greenall's. 

We came screaming downhill on this sweet grassy field section into Greenall’s aid station. I was on cloud nine because of my pace and so excited to see Jill cheering us on, Lucy standing there with my drop bag, and a ton of spectators, including Tommy from VT Adaptive, cheering everyone on. Jill and Lucy, my crew and asst crew chief respectively, filled my pack while I hit the porta-potty. I grabbed more Clif bars, Gus and chomps, a baked potato w/ salt (I was taking a Salt Stick every hour), swapped out my guide Ray for Steve, gave Lucy a big hug, and headed out.

We came into Greenall’s at about 10:30AM which I was thrilled about. This is just over an 11 min mile (total race was just over 16!). I ran the last three miles of the course two weeks ago with Steve so I knew they were technical and slow. But I was feeling it and knew that 9 hours was doable.

Man, was I in for an awakening which is the case with most trail runs. I set my expectations very low for this race not knowing all of the terrain but the first 13.4 miles had me feeling optimistic. We came across some very technical sections almost immediately into the woods and I quickly switched into walking/power-hiking mode. Mile 16 was my first 20 minute mile. I kept hoping for things to open up a bit with either dbl track or dirt roads but it was mainly technical single track. My pace moved into the low 20s as Dane, who was now leading, and Ray did a marvelous job guiding me. My lead guides essentially call out every single step especially on the technical stuff (big root up, turn left, rock on your left, turn right, root and step down 6 inches, on and on). When you add in the tight mtb trails and constant switchbacks these technical sections are so tough, esp mentally. The guides are so focused and constantly talking and communicating which is simply amazing. I often feel that guiding on trails is as tough as me running them.

Overall, I stayed positive but my mood and energy level took a small dip. I knew that there were some very runnable sections right before Johnson’s aid station around mile 27 and every step forward got me closer to these sections. I rolled my ankle somewhere in this section for the first time but after a few steps (and angry curse words) it felt pretty good and surprisingly strong. Yes!!!
I knew that the last four trails were going to be tough so I told Dane and Ray that I really wanted to push the pace on any and all runnable sections. Ray took this to heart and kept a great pace on some gravelly-type downhills and smoother dirt sections. Ray is a former Vermont 50 AG placer so I was in good hands throughout these sections.

We also shared a mile or two with some badass 50k and 50 milers. I chatted with two people (I think they are a couple) from Salem, MA who I highly encouraged to check out the new Notch Brewing brewery in their n’hood (I joked that I had session beer in my pack!). It was also nice to meet Liv Gauthier during this section-congrats on your finish!!!

We cruised through another aid station and Dane was eager to run in this next section. The scenery was breathtaking as it was new growth trees mixed in with pine-needle laden trails. I get so excited and have a ton of fun on the trails that I can actually run on. I took a small fall somewhere around here while running, popped up laughing, and kept going. I was so happy that I fell while actually running and not just walking. Everyone falls on the trails so I was excited to share this badge of honor with everyone else (and it is no fault of my guides when I fall). Like I tell my daughter when skiing-if you don’t fall then you are not pushing hard enough.
We ran through some rolling farmland and meadows and came onto what I knew was the last dirt road before Johnson’s. I was ready to go and with Dane and Ray both guiding we hit it hard and held a strong pace for a mile or two.

We popped onto Rt 44 for a couple of hundred yards, passed the aid station parking lot and a big crowd of spectators (thank you for being out there) and power-hiked up the long, steep dirt driveway to the aid station. Jill and Lucy were there ready to get me fueled up and on my way. It was exactly 3:00PM and Dane was confident we had sub-9 hours in the bag.

Walking up the steep driveway into Johnson's aid station. 

We headed out of Johnson’s with Dane leading and Ray behind. Due to the re-routed course, Johnson’s was 4 miles and not the usual 2-3 from the finish. We started out in a beautiful meadow running slightly uphill on matted grass. Dane, who rips off 100-mile races every month or so, was in full pacer mode in addition to guiding. His subtle “ready to run” kept me moving. We ducked into the woods and I was mentally prepared to walk and somewhat physically ready, too. But Dane and Ray kept me moving at a slow run (w/ some shuffling mixed in)) whenever possible.

Dane, Kyle & Ray about 3 miles out!

We began to climb up a rocky trail head when I hear “Let’s go Robidoux, get running!” To my pleasant surprise my guide Steve had rode his bike up to cheer us and other participants on. That was a nice pick me up. After endless mtn switchbacks (I completely Gronk blocked a nice tree in this section-guiding in such tight trails is not fool-proof esp when I was getting tired and lazily cut a few corners). I could also hear the finish line music for the first time but knew we still had some work to do.

Finally, Ray called out the 2-miles to go sign so we were almost there. More runners and bikers were passing us so I was getting anxious about my goal of not coming in DFL (dead fucking last). We hit this small rolling hilly section in which we passed a few mtb on the uphill only to have them pass us on the downhill, crossed the first Mt. Ascutney ski trail, back into the woods, then the 1-mile to go sign magically appeared.

Only one more wooded section (of course over a big rock surface) then a few downhill switchbacks on another ski trail and super off-camber trail. Dane, who ran the entire race with me as an official registrant, was determined to get us there as quickly as possible.

We plowed toward the finish on grass and a bit of gravel. There were a number of quick down then ups on the grass entering into the finishing chute and it was super loud. I couldn’t hear Dane’s guiding calls so I was holding on hoping not to tumble in front of everyone. I saw Jill and I think I heard the Salem folks yell “Salem is cheering for you.” Lucy joined me a hundred yards out so it was special to cross another finish line with her.

Finishing the Vermont 50!

WE DID IT! Finished in 8 hours 20 minutes and felt pretty good. My nutrition was on point and all of those hill repeats, esp the downhills, left my quads feeling pretty good (not the case post-race but it is a good sore). Steve, Dane, and Ray rocked it as guides. Their generous support allowed me to participate in this race and achieve my goals. Thank you.

Sincere thanks to RD Mike Silverman. I emailed him months prior to signing up letting him know I wanted to run with guides and he was so supportive throughout the entire process. RD’s that create such a supportive and inclusive race are special people.

I loved running in my Topo Athletic Runventures. They held up on the technical sections and climbs and are light enough to hammer the flats and downhills. And thanks to the wide toebox I still have all of my toenails!

Aid Station and Race Volunteers: amazing group of people! The course was well marked and every volunteer had a smile and was willing to help out.

Vermont Adaptive crew: thanks for ALL of your pre, during, and post-race support. I loved seeing everyone this weekend and am so happy that you are part of the VT 50 family. I can’t wait to ski with you all this winter!

Jill & Lucy: thanks for supporting all of my running-training runs, incessant talk about goals etc., driving me to VT to practice, driving back up for race day (on Lucy’s birthday), and for being the best cheerleaders ever. I love sharing this experience with you two.

We did it! The best crew & team of sighted guides a runner can ask for.

I achieved all three of my goals. Additionally, this was the first trail race that I truly felt that I “ran.” Sure, everyone has to walk during an ultra but there was enough runnable terrain (and not just on the dirt roads) that I felt engaged and happy the entire time. I cannot wait for my next race!

See you in the woods.


Post Race Beer: Lagunitas Stoopid from Dane and Switchback (appropriately named!) Marzen. 

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