Introduction to 100 milers: pacing the VT100

awe·some ˈôsəm/ adjective

extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.

A few weeks ago, I had the awesome honor of pacing ultra-marathon runner and internet winning flow chart designing dude Chris as he ran his second 100 miler, the Vermont 100. Chris had emailed me early in the summer and asked if I would pace him. I checked my calendar and immediately said yes. It wasn’t until the next day when I took a look at the course, notably, the elevation profile. The entire course is 14,000-15,000 ft of elevation gain and loss, which meant I needed to train on hills starting yesterday. I found whatever hills I could in Manhattan and ran as many repeats as my legs could handle. Thanks to my training, I’m now intimately familiar with the graffiti along the Williamsburg Bridge, and can tell you all about the intricacies of the Harlem Hills.

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Ready to pace, with a little help from my friends.

The race day (or more accurately, race night) plan was to run the last 30 miles together, with nearly all of those coming after sunset. I made half a dozen PBJ sandwiches, threw some gatorade and Vitamin Water into the car, grabbed a whole pack full of Honey Stinger bars and chews, made sure I had my foot-saving Topo socks (seriously, those things are genius), put on my We Can bracelet (a little extra motivation and inspiration never hurts)and Sparkly Soul headband, and made sure to wear my NYCRUNS Brooklyn Marathon hat and I was on my way to Vermont. I arrived at the mile 50/70 aid station on Saturday afternoon not knowing what to expect. I’ve run almost 30 marathons and three 50 milers, but the scene here was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: socks and shirts changed, water bottles topped off, blisters popped, salt and sugar consumed at impressive rates, and grilled cheese sandwiches disappearing faster than they could be made. Shortly after I arrived, Chris came through mile 50, looking like he only ran a 5km. His wife Surjeet (aka crew chief), Becky (fellow crewer and navigator extraordinaire), and I met up with him again around mile 60, and he still seemed in very good spirits. Then, we drove back to the mile 70 aid station, where it was my turn to start running. I filled up my water bladder, put on my pack and headlamp, said a few prayers to the running gods, and off we went.

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Mile 70. “So we’re doing this? This is happening?” Photo courtesy of chief crewer and wife. She has a way with capturing the moment.
           The next segment of the course was tough – according to another runner it was a 10% grade straight UP for 2 miles. It took us 3 hours to go 12 miles. The marathoner in me was appalled. Darkness came quickly, and the intensity of the run reached new levels of “holy crap is this actually happening?” with each passing hour. It was unlike any run I’ve had – in 30 miles we probably saw less than 10 cars, and nearly all of them were associated with the race. We crossed grassy fields, where the only things visible in the heavy darkness were the bobbing lights from other headlamps. On trails, flickering lights from nearby runners were enough to make me question my sanity, and (re)evaluate my mental fatigue – was that a person or the reflective eyes of an animal? (This was usually followed up with, “Seriously, though, where the hell are we?”) In the fog, runners up ahead cast a silhouette that could have been used to advertise a horror movie (a bunch of exhausted, disoriented people running through the woods at night. No cell service. No idea where they are. Oh god…) It was truly surreal. When passing each other, runners gave a grunt or a nod. Some tried to tell jokes, some couldn’t muster the energy to look up. At mile 89, we met up with Surjeet and Becky, when shortly after saying our goodbyes and watching Chris expertly pack grilled cheese squares into his pockets, we felt the first drops of rain. At 1am, with 10 miles to go, the skies opened up. Lightning lit up the landscape and for a split second, I could finally see my surroundings. Rolling fields, farmhouses in the distance, trails winding through the forest. This must be pretty. during the day.
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Spirit of 76 Aid Station. Photo courtesy of chief crewer and wife, Surjeet.
           We saw his crew again at mile 95 (or was it 94? Or 96?) and it was time to get this thing done. After all, it was 2:30am and Chris had been running for over 22 hours. I was SO impressed at how well he kept it all together – I’ve heard stories of people losing their shit (literally and figuratively) and going crazy and forgetting the last time they peed or who the president was, but he did none of that (or if he did, he did a hell of a job hiding it)! After leaving the mile 95ish aid station, the terrain started to get pretty bad thanks to the rain – we almost lost our shoes in the mud and at some points it felt like we were ice skating because it was so slippery. After passing a small plain white sign that unceremoniously announced that there was 1 mile to go, Chris took off, finishing under his goal in 23 hours, 26 minutes and 35 seconds just before 3:30am. To say I was amazed would have been an understatement. 100 miles. On foot. Less than 24 hours. Unreal.
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Mile 94.9. Chris is clearly jazzed about having his picture taken. Photo courtesy of chief crewer/wife.

We all hung out for about an hour in the food/medical tent and watched as people came in – some walking casually, others hobbling, some barely standing upright, but all dripping wet, freezing, looking utterly exhausted. One guy walked in, soaking wet, wearing only spandex shorts and a running belt, laid face down in the middle of the tent, and promptly fell asleep. His ankles were still flexed. Someone put a blanket over him and he didn’t even move. Someone else checked to make sure he was breathing. (He was.)

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Finish line!
          When the storm finally eased up, we headed out, them to their tent, I to my car. I couldn’t quiet my head down enough to nap in the car, I was still buzzing from the run. At 5:30am, I started driving, I couldn’t wait to get home to shower and SLEEP. I’m so glad I went and am so thankful/grateful/honored Chris asked me to pace. It was a fantastic (learning) experience, and probably the most important lesson is that I’m not ready for a 100 mile race. Someday, but just not yet.

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