Monday, November 7, 2016

What a Ride: Ghost Train 2016 Race Report

It is hard to imagine a race day playing out better than it did for Ghost Train. I signed up for Ghost Train (GT) in August with plans to run 45 miles (the trail is a 7.5 mile out and back so runners can choose any variation of 15 miles). However, during the Vermont 50 weekend I learned that the Vermont 100, which I plan to run in 2017, requires a 50 miler qualifier. After swapping a few emails with Amy Rusiecki, the VT 100 Race Director, I bumped my mileage up to 60. I didn’t give much thought to this until about a week later when it dawned on me that I was going to run 60 miles!

I had a strong VT 50k run and my legs felt decent the last few miles and the week following. So although only 32 (the course had a 1-mile bonus!) I was hoping to bank on a nearly flat and runnable GT trail to allow me to essentially double my mileage. Mind over matter, tight?
I got in a few road long runs after VT 50 and also cranked up my weekday mileage. This combined with 2-days a week of physical therapy for my ankle had me feeling pretty optimistic going into GT.
I lined up four amazing sighted guides, rested the week before, and set my three goals. A) sub 12-hour (picked rather arbitrarily but it sounded cool). B) under 15 hours for VT 100 qualifier C) get to 60

My only small concern leading into GT was my guides. I had run with two of my guides before but neither of them had guided on trails. And Amy Rusiecki stepped up big time to guide me but she had never guided before. Thankfully, all three are super strong runners and very quick learners.

Jeff Dusek and I arrived at Camp Tevya in Brookline, NH around 8:15AM for the 9:00AM start. Jeff and I have done a few shorter runs together and he has a ton of guiding experience through Achilles Internal Boston. Unfortunately, I kind of forgot to get a bagel and coffee on the way up so two bananas were my only pre-race food. We tucked my bag under a tent someone had kindly put up, hit the porta-potty (always a nice physical & mental relief), and were lined up with plenty of time.

Numerous trail runners told me that GT is incredibly runnable. It is mostly an old rail trail, with a roughly ¼ to 1/3 mile of single track that was technical and also represented the only true climb. There was also a section of old rail ties sticking out to keep you honest.

My goal was to run all four “loops” in just under three hours. We lined up closer to the back than front to help keep me in check. Unfortunately, this resulted in a very crowded trail for the first mile or so. Jeff and I ran tethered side-by-side and he did a great job navigating the terrain and a ton of people in front of us. About ¾ mile in we found a few seems, passed a couple of runners, and shortly things opened up a bit. I was planning to keep the pace around 9:30 to 10 min miles. The first two miles were closer to 11 due to the crowd but that was OK.

The first few miles were flat and except for a few small driveway and road crossings very runnable. I was starting to get excited about being able to keep up a good pace. We blew by the mid-point aid station and came into what I think is the most beautiful section of the trail. The forest was perfect-big trees, pine needle covered footing, with just a few roots and rocks. So quiet out there.

Of course the first runner who knew me actual knew my daughter Lucy! We shared a few miles with Paula, who volunteered at the TARC Blue Hills 12k and Lucy hung out with her at the registration table. Paula looked strong the entire day.

The first loop was a chance to check out the terrain so we were keeping the pace manageable. We came across a hanging skeleton which pointed us sharp right and we began to hit the first and only real climb. This was nothing compared to VT 50 and the terrain was not too technical. We power hiked up, ran a small flat section at the top, then slowly walked a pretty technical section coming down. Overall I think this was 1/3 to ½ a mile. We began to run again and I knew were pretty close to the turnaround.

We shared a few miles with Davina who was also running the 60 miles plus two more to get a 100k. I really enjoyed chatting with her and it was nice to say hello to her throughout the day.

We hit a few road crossings here including one that had steps going down and back up and one that was a pretty steep down. Very short but something to be mindful of as the day continues on.
We then came upon the infamous “culvert” which we ran through (it passed under a road). There were a few big steps into and out of the culvert then you could run the 100 feet or so. There was always a nice echo so I got to practice my famous beat-boxing skills!
Somewhere around mile 13 the 100-mile leaders passed us on their return trip. Man, they were blazing fast!

A few short sections of trails and we came across a very narrow (maybe two feet wide) asphalt dam/path that had water on both sides. All I could think about was falling into this at some point. I stumbled onto the path, walked behind Jeff while holding onto his shoulder, and we were across!
The Culvert
The Narrow Bridge

This led into the turn-around station so it was nice to see a bunch of folks. I needed to catch up on fuel so I grabbed a few cheese sandwich squares while Jeff re-filled his hand held. I had a 2-liter Nathan pack filled with Tailwind so I was set on hydration. Overall this was a quick stop and we headed back on the loop.

We continued to make good time on the way back and had a better sense of which spots to push it on. We stopped at the mid aid station looking for coffee but no luck so we kept on running. A mile or two after that I started to get really tired and I could feel a low point setting in. The fact that I was about 11-12 miles in was alarming. We slowed the pace a bit for the pesky rail ties and Jeff did a great job calling them out.
Jeff & I (back to photo) on the first loop.

However, this section seemed to drag on forever and I kept wondering when we would get back to the start. We passed a random orange cone so I knew we were getting closer. Finally, we came upon the lake, hit the pavement, and ran into the start area. We ran through the timing tent, called out our number, and were instructed to continue on for a couple of hundred yards, run under a small covered bridge, do a 180 around another orange cone, and ran back to the start/tent where my stuff was.
We finished the first loop in 2:37 so we were right on pace. Jeff filled my pack while I greeted and updated my next guide Kim McCraken. I left out the part about me feeling so shitty.

Kim and I took off for our second loop and eased into light conversation. I met Kim through the Coastal Athletic Association in which Kim guided me for the Ragnar Reach the Beach run. We logged 34+ road miles together so I felt pretty comfortable running with Kim. We ran the first two miles much quicker than the first loop so this combined with the chatter was a nice distraction. I was planning to skip the mid aid station but I needed caffeine so we stopped for a quick cup of joe. The aid station volunteers rocked all day/night long.

We walked a few hundred feet while I drank the coffee and within a few minutes I was feeling better. I was trying to take in a Clif bar or gu every 45-60 minutes to compliment the Tailwind.
We hit the small climb, cruised along the flat section, had fun in the culvert, then arrived at the turnaround. I grabbed a handful of food, a cup of steaming hot broth, which I ingested while we walked cautiously back over the concrete dam.

Other than it starting to rain, the return trip was uneventful and very disciplined. We fell into a nice rhythm and held a steady pace the entire way.

A few miles out Amy R. was there ready for her “sighted guide training!” I was now running behind Kim so Amy ran alongside Kim to get a sense of what she was calling out and when.
Kim, Amy, Lucy and I coming in after loop 2. 30 miles down. 

As we came into Camp Tevya my wife Jill and Lucy were there cheering us on. Lucy jogged with us for a hundred or so feet while I gave her and Kim instructions on what gear to pull out. As Amy and I passed the timing tent I saw Randy and Tracy Pierce on the side cheering us on. What a wonderful surprise and pick me up. We circled back around to my drop bag and I was a wee bit manic. I needed dry socks and shirts as well as a complete fuel overhaul. For the only time during the race, I sat down to change while simultaneously getting updates from Lucy about her morning soccer game and chatting with Randy and Tracy.

We completed two laps in 5 hours and 32 minutes so we were right on pace. Which was good because this pit stop was going to eat up a few minutes.

I filled my pockets with Gus and bars, a baked potato, and PB and banana wrap. I was still a little cold from the rain so we grabbed a cup of broth on the way out. The aid station worker was kind enough to cut up my potato so I could soak it in the broth. Seriously, these folks rock!

Amy and I took off running side-by-side on the pavement and wide dirt path. I had swapped a number of emails with Amy regarding the VT 100 and met her at the VT 50 start line but we really didn’t know each other all that well. We had 15 miles to change that. We settled in to a solid pace and I immediately felt comfortable with Amy’s guiding. She was spot on with the step up calls and left/rights. I was at the mile 32-33 mark so I was trying to conserve as much energy as possible so my feet were getting a little extra lazy than normal.

We came upon a long straight-away with a small bridge and volunteers were out lining the trail with jack-o-lanterns.

We entered the rail tie section which I had begun to dread. Amy stepped up her calls and notified me of upcoming ties. However, my legs were still dragging so the next thing I knew I was face down in the dirt with a runner coming the other way asking if I was OK. I hoped up, brushed off my hands, and kept going. The thing with guiding is that the sighted guide is only responsible for letting me know what is coming up, which Amy did. It is my job to respond and actually pick my feet up. So this fall was on me.

We plugged along chatting about other races and Amy’s work. Amy is a ridiculously accomplished runner and coach so it was great to pick her brain about running.

After the mid aid station, we both agreed that the second half was so much more enjoyable than the first half. There are so many landmarks/smaller sections (the climb/technical area, culvert, smooth fast section) that makes that section click by.

The rain was still coming down a bit so the climb was a bit muddier and therefore trickier than before. We passed this section and were on our way to the turnaround.
At some point we shared a few miles with Matt who like Amy was from Western Mass. Matt was gunning for the 100 and looking strong. So strong that I busted out my regular “hey, so you want to give me a piggy back” joke.

At the turn-around I looked at my knee and was surprised that my knee and leg were covered in blood. It looked like just a few scrapes so nothing to worry about.

We were cruising on the return trip and right on pace for another solid and consistent loop. The trail picked up some more mud in a few sections but not enough to slow us down.

My watch battery ran out during loop two so Amy was incredibly patient with my numerous pace/time requests. I grabbed more coffee at the mid aid station and kept moving forward. By this time, I was starting to feel incredibly surprised on just how strong I felt. I was working hard to keep on pace but not to the point where I was breathing heavy and using a lot of extra energy. I kept reminding myself that there was plenty of miles to go.

I took another spill on the rail ties (again, my fault and not Amy’s) and landed in a nice mud puddle. A little mud in your mouth will not hurt youJ

Around this point Amy started to coach/encourage me in addition to guiding which was perfect timing. I trusted her pace and just vowed to stay behind her. A few miles out, as the sun was setting, I yet again asked her what the pace was. She laughed and said “Do you really want to know?” Well, now I do. We were at 9:15 minute pace for that mile. I felt good so we kept at it.

We arrived back at the start at 5:34pm which was right where I needed to be. When you factor in three start aid stations/gear swaps each loop was exactly 3 hours. I had a small cushion form my first loop so for the first time I thought I could finish under 12 hours. Jill did a great job making sure I grabbed my stuff as quickly as possible and got back out there.

Michelle Becker, my fourth and final guide, and I started the fourth loop at 5:50pm. We had 3 hours 10 minutes to run 15 miles. Totally doable.

I had my headlamp on and Michelle was decked out in her reflective gear. I slid behind her and we took off. I felt fine energy wise but could kind of feel that the first few miles were a bit slower than previous. I think I was getting complacent and not pushing. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t trip over the rail ties or other roots. 

All of the jack-0-lanters were lit up which made for a majestic sight. The rail trail scenery is a beautiful mix of water, deep forest, and pine needle trails.
Photo Credit to another runner. 

Shortly before the climb Michelle called out that is was “smooth sailing” for as far as she could see (not very far seeing she had a headlamp on) so we pushed the pace. I caught a second (third?) wind and we really pushed that section to help bank time for the climb. I was tired and slower than normal going up but I kept moving forward. We passed a number of runners going the opposite way and the 100s were looking strong.

I made a commitment to not ask Michelle about the pace and just go off of feel for the final loop. I am not that good on this so I think I may have run a bit slower than previous loops. I was also 50+ miles in so there is that.

We came upon a few volunteers near the culvert who had a radio playing dance music. I broke out a very slow “running man” for a little dance party action. I may have done a few loud woo-hoos running through the culvert, too.

I needed something warm and ginger ale at the turn-around but wanted it to be quick. An aid station volunteer said it was exactly 7:30 which confirmed the slower pace. I was too tired to do the math but knew I had 90 minutes to run 7.5 miles. I can do that.
We walked over the narrow dam bridge for the last time (unless I go for another loop…) and we saw Matt again. He was looking strong and in good spirits. He wanted to run with us so the three of us took off together.

I was in full blown manic mode and told Michelle to go as fast as she thought was safe. I did not want to barely miss my 12-hour goal and felt like I could hang on for 7 miles. We cruised to the hill, slogged up that shitty section. I was moving slow and a runner came up behind us and joked that he too was benefiting from Michelle’s guide calls. It turns out that he ran the VT 50 miler and passed me right before the finish (yup, he finished before I did my 50k). He looked good and I’m sure he got his hundo.

We hit the sweet, smooth section and went for it. We were passing runners (most of whom were running the 100 so huge props to them) and I was doing all I could do to keep my headlamp on Michelle’s back guide bib. My narrow field of vision allows me to see a very small tunnel but in the dark I have no sight at all. I was so nervous that I wasn’t moving over enough when passing runners and I was going to run into and hurt another runner. It was kind of like the Days of Thunder scene when Tom Cruise has to just drive on through the crash scene in hopes of not hitting another car. Thankfully, I have complete trust in Michelle and we crushed it.

I needed a small sip of ginger ale so we flew into the mid aid station, quickly filled a cup, and I slow jogged while drinking it. Then we were back at it.

My legs were still feeling strong but I knew the rail tie section was coming. I asked Michelle to slow down a bit but go faster than the out trip. I whispered my first “Let’s Go Robidoux” and high stepped it like I was in high school football high-step rope. We made it through, were mesmerized by the long stretch of jack-o-lanterns, and the countdown truly began. The miles clicked by as I continued to ask Michelle if we passed the orange cone. Finally, we passed it and now every 15 feet or so I asked her where the camp cottages were.

We were laying it down now (my last mile was 8:46 which is the fastest mile of loops 1,2, & 4-I don’t have loop 3 data-and likely my fastest all day.
We hit the pavement, heard people starting to cheer, blew past the timing tent, did the small little loop, and back to the timing tent to say I was 60 and done! I couldn’t hear the time so Michelle went over to ask a second time.
Michelle & I. 60 miles & done!!!

11 hours and 53 minutes!!! We did it with very little time to spare.
There are so many things I am proud of from this race:
·         My guides were incredible. They drove all the way there, guided and at times paced me, helped me get in and out of aid stations quickly.
·         I ran incredibly consistent loops. When you factor in the start aid stations, every loop was within a 10-12 range.
·         I was not exhausted which I think is a testament to my pace, fueling, and training.

I was surprised to learn a few days afterward that I placed fifth overall on the fourth male for the 6-0-mile race!

As always, TARC put on a first class race. Thanks to Steve Latour, the RD, for your support from day one and all of the pre, during, and past race volunteers. Simply amazing people. Biug thanks to Jill and Lucy for schlepping to yet another race (partially in the rain) and cheering me as well as helping with aid stations etc.

Bring on the Vermont 100! So ready to dive into the training (hills, hills, hills) in preparation for my first hundred.

See you on the streets or in the woods!

·         Topo Athletic Runventures trail shoes for all 60 miles!
·         NATHAN Pack
·         Clif energy gu & Tailwind

Post-race beer: Bissell Brothers Reciprocal

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