Posts Tagged ‘hurricane irene’

*Note: This post got a little long.  Please read it anyway!  And the very amazing Willy Syndram has also shared his race report in the post right before this (which will display below or by clicking the back button above my article.  It’s a wonderful race report and I hope you all check it out! 

Top of the Mountain

My three laps at the Peak Races McNaughton Ultramarathon was really the tale of 3 mountains.  I mean, all of the laps covered the same 10 miles up and down “Tom’s Mountain” and its two unnamed Green Mountain neighbors, but the conditions were so vastly different each time I ascended, that the course seemed alien and new each go round.

Jeff, Jared and I before the race start.

I was out in the hamlet of Pittsfield, Vermont last week as part of my friend Jared Busen’s 200 mile ultramarathon race crew.  The crew was in charge of managing hydration, nutrition and gear as Jared took on this epic course for 20 laps.  He had won the 2011 McNaughton 150 mile race, so we all went in to this with a lot of confidence and Jared’s first-hand knowledge of the course.  It was too bad that everything we thought we knew about the course had changed.

Between the 2011 race and now, Hurricane Irene had ravaged the area.  Wrecked houses, downed trees and washed out hills had made the 2011 course totally impassible. Even the bridge that runners crossed last year had been destroyed.  The change in course was completely unexpected, and for the runners, it would prove to be an almost impossible to adapt to situation.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you about my laps.

Lap 1

To Cross the River

Since I was on the “Day Crew” for Jared, I had mostly planned on running my laps at night.  One ten mile lap a day was the plan.  The 200 mile runners gathered in cold rain near the main aid station at around 6pm and Race Director Andy Weinberg gave a short pre-race briefing.  Someone literally spray painted a pink line on the gravel drive way, twelve 200 mile runners gathered behind it, someone said go, and they jogged off as the rain really started to come down.  10 minutes later, I stood at the “start line” by myself and hollered up at Jeff to ask him to give me a “Ready, Set, Go.” Then I was off.

I started along the road to the bridge with a smile on my face. It was maybe 45 degrees and raining at race time, but I have never liked running in hot weather, so I wasn’t that worried about it.  About half a mile down the road, I encountered the first obstacle: the makeshift bridge across the river.  The I-Beam bridge was almost comic in its patchwork design, but turned out to be sturdier than I expected, and I must say I was flushed with confidence and a general feeling of bad-assery by making it across the bridge unscathed.  Did you know that just running in rain gives you extra awesome points? It’s true.

Anyhow, this is where the course turned steeply up hill and got really muddy.  I basically expected both of those things though, so I steadily hiked the hills and ran the flats up to the top of the mountain.  I passed an orange bucket then saw a clearing and a cabin and was there.  I was there really fast actually.  1 hour and 27 minutes.  I was there so fast, in fact, that I did not think this cabin was the aid station.  I was told that there were 2 cabins (there were 2 cabins… I would later find out that one was a few hundred yards off the course and not where I could see it) so I actually just went right by this one.  That was a bit of a mistake.

Top of the mountain at twilight.

My warmer clothes and a refill of water would have been waiting for me at this cabin, but I really thought this wasn’t the aid station.  I was just there too fast for this to be 4.8 miles in to the course (which is where Andy had *just* said the aid station was) so I snapped a pic of the view in the fading evening light and went on my merry way.

I hit the section known as the Labyrinth at dusk.  Many-a-runner has been turned around in this forbidding stand of close-knit pine trees.  It felt like entering a fairytale in the Black Forest of Germany.  In retrospect, I am glad I still had shreds of light at this point, because I could still make out the pink ribbons marking the course and I made my way through the stand of trees with no problem.   In fact, I really enjoyed it, and coming out the other side of the Labyrinth made me feel intrepid and bold.

The forbidding Labyrinth section.

That’s the last time I felt good on this lap.

So, again, I had been expecting an aid station around mile 4.8.  My GPS called out mile 4… then 5… then 5.5… and no aid station.  I come to the realization that I had messed up, that the cabin I’d seen (turns out the cabin was at mile 2.8-ish) was the aid station, but I didn’t fill my water or grab my warmer hat and gloves.  Damn.  The temps had dipped into the thirties by now, the light was all but gone, I had been up to my calves in mud several times, and I felt the first wave of worry wash over me. I decided to turn my GPS off at this point to conserve battery on my iPhone.  I actually thought the GPS was losing me on the mountain anyway and that maybe I was a little further into the course than 5.5 miles- because I still thought the aid station was at 4.8.  If the aid station was 4.8 and I’d been jogging for another 45 minutes, I reasoned I was 6 or 7 miles into the 10 mile loop.

I put my two lights on my Iowa cap, took out my handheld flashlight, and started down a long, semi-flat stretch across the mountain.  This area, called “Fusters,” actually ran the whole length of the mountain to the south, then back to the north, then back to the south then back north along the river.  I didn’t really know that at the time though.  When the course turned north the first time, I thought I was basically headed in to camp.  I was “mall walking” more than running because of the dark and the mud, but I thought I was well on my way home.   When the course turned back to the south, I was crushed.

You can see the close switchback at the end where all of this “lost” business happened. Also check out the max gradient and all of that… killer tough!

By this time I guess is the first time I wondered where the hell I was at.  I was still on the course. I was still seeing pink ribbons.  But I felt like I had gone wayyyyy too far.  This was all reasoned off of the placement of the aid station. If 4.8 miles up huge, steep slopes had taken 1 hr and 27 minutes, why was 5.2 miles down hill and on flat grade taking much longer?

I saw the lights of camp come into view through the trees as I headed north the first time, then the sound of the road as I headed all the way south the first time- and I really felt a little panicked.  Why wasn’t I getting closer?  I was freezing cold, muddy and feeling pretty low, and a few super treacherous crossings of waterfalls in the dark had me nervous.

Finally, I heard then saw the river!  I knew camp was north, and here was the river, so- bingo- follow river upstream… find I-Beam, find home.  I would later find out that this section was called the “bushwhack” section, and that calling it a “trail” was giving this ground credit it didn’t deserve.

The section bore no resemblance to a trail.  It was just pink ribbons in trees and you had to pick your way through thorns, over logs, ankle deep in mud to get to the next one.  I was cold, wet, exhausted and it was tough.  Then I came to a creek.

There was one pink ribbon hanging slightly over the little creek but nothing but rocky beach on the other side.  I’d have to wade through water to get to that beach and I didn’t think I’d need to cross a creek to get back (since I hadn’t crossed one to get out) so the ribbon, I reasoned, was just placed a little too far off to the right.  I shined my flashlight in front of me and sort of “up” the hill and soon enough I spotted a pink ribbon in front and up an embankment.  No problem- I’d just scurry up there, hit the trail, and bob’s your uncle: head home.

*wrong answer*

Sure, they’re easy to spot in daylight.

I start along my way, following ribbons… still heading north.  The trail went slightly up hill, but I kept moving and even increased my pace to keep warm.  I followed and followed and the trail … turned back south.  Away from camp…in a general up-hill way.  I was suddenly terrified.  I was lost.  When I crossed a little waterfall that I had seen before and then spotted a night reflector faced the opposite way of where I was walking it became clear: I was going backwards up the trail.

Since you’re all reading this incredibly long blog, I’m going to be honest with you here.  I got so upset thinking about being cold, wet and lost that I nearly threw up.  I got out my iPhone to text camp and say “I’m not dead, I’m just lost,” and of course, no signal.  I checked my compass for a heading- but I didn’t want to leave the trail.  I figured worst case, in a few hours, the 200 milers would lap me and I could follow someone in.  I tried to gain composure, but I felt sick.  I turned around and started hiking downhill again.

And eventually I got back to that damn creek crossing. 

In tears, I decide to wade into the water.  My flashlight bouncing off the metallic rocks had made this creek look much deeper than it was. The apparent depth was actually the primary reason I didn’t cross it the first time. I crossed what turned out to be only ankle deep water and arrived on the rocky beach to survey.  I kept walking north (as I desperately wanted to head towards where I though camp was) and tried not to turn my ankles on the wet, grapefruit-sized rocks when, about a hundred yards down the beach, I spotted a pink ribbon.  The way home, I reasoned.

But I stopped and thought to myself- was I really sure I should be headed North?  I mean, which side of the I-Beam was I on?  How close was it?  Down low on the river, I couldn’t see the lights of camp like I could higher on the mountain. I was pretty sure I was south of where I needed to be- but this crap didn’t look much like trail and the ribbons were much more spread out than they were at the beginning of the course… but at least these were ribbons I hadn’t seen, and at least I was low on the mountain.

Soaking wet and muddy shoes after my first night.

So I hiked through the bushwhack and kept shining my light down on the now rain-swollen raging river to make sure I hadn’t missed the bridge.  Looking at the velocity of the moving water, it wasn’t a stretch that my mind started to wonder if the tiny bridge had been inundated and washed downstream and that maybe it wasn’t even possible to get back tonight.  I occasionally checked my iPhone for signal (no luck) and cursed at every briar that cut through my pants.

Then the river turned a bit, the water’s velocity slowed around this little corner, and my flashlight caught the I-Beam.  All told, I think I went about three “bonus miles” thanks to my miscalculation of going up course.  I could have kissed that makeshift bridge.  I think I floated across it.

In retrospect, the situation wasn’t as dire as I had imagined it at the time.  I never did lose sight of the pink ribbons, so I wasn’t just wandering.  The compounded feeling created by not knowing how far into the course the aid station was, the dark, the rain, the rough terrain,  and the realization that I’d gone the wrong way on the course was just terrifying though.  You know, hikers don’t get hypothermia in freezing cold weather because they dress for it.  They get hypothermia when the day temps are tolerable, then they get wet, and the night dips into the upper thirties and their body heat is lost rapidly.  I think that’s what had me so scared.

My whole first loop plus bonus miles took just shy of 5 hours.  I went home to the vacation house we rented, soaked in a hot bath for a half hour, and finally calmed down enough to sleep.

The Next Day

The next day.

Gosh, I’m writing a whole book here, aren’t I?  Well, when we got to the course the next morning, the sky was blue and the whole situation looked different. I had determined there was zero chance of me going out on the course again, so I’d come to terms with not getting my “ultra” finish.  Jeff and I hiked up the steep ¾ mile climb to the aid station to meet Jared on his lap and soaked up the pretty view.  I had talked to people at the bottom aid station and I wasn’t the only runner who got turned around on that first lap or passed the aid station not knowing that it was, in fact, the aid station.

Jared and Jeff on the mountain top.

I guess Jared was at mile 42.8 when he got to the top of the mountain, and the long, cold, wet night had taken a toll on his morale.  This was a good time for Jeff to step in as his pacer, so he headed off down the mountain with Jared from the aid station.  And I was alone again. That shouldn’t have bothered me in the light, but I still felt kind of sick when I thought about being alone on the mountain.  I hurried down to the car and chided myself for acting silly. I love hikes in the mountains.  No reason to be so anxious.

I found the car fine and went back down to camp.  The laps were taking much longer than expected for all the runners.  Where Jared’s first two laps had been around 2:25, the laps were now stretching into the 4 hour range for everyone.

Some of the signs I made at home.

The whole day Friday, for me, was an exercise in being a cheerleader.   I tried to raise spirits wherever I went, not just for Jared, but also for the other 200 milers and their crews who had all had a long night.  I hung up the posters we had made at home and generally tried to be helpful to anyone who needed a hand.  I hiked up the back way to the top of the mountain a few times to show other crews where to go and to help bring up some gear for a runner named Luis.   It was a good day for me, and I wasn’t even thinking about another lap in the dark.  I was just thinking about getting Jared over the wall he had been fighting.

I did take some of the down time while Jared was on the long part of the lap to hike out to where I’d gotten lost.  Seeing it in the light was a “facepalm” kind of moment- it was so easy to see what had happened and where I went wrong in the light of day.  I took ribbon with me when I went out there and planted about 50 new markers.  No one else was getting lost in that spot, believe you me!

Back Up the Mountain

Section of the “Stairs” part of the trail

Like I said- I had zero intention of another lap.  By the morning on Saturday, it was clear that none of the 200 mile runners could make their goal in the time allowed.  It was time to regroup and make some decisions.   Jared will be writing a race report, so I’ll let him tell you about what happened, but when he left for his 90-100 mile lap, I had a feeling it would be the last one he’d do.   Jeff went out with him on this lap (Jeff’s third lap) and 4 hours later, Brandon, Kristin and I hiked out to meet him.

How freaked out did the mountain have me?  When we hiked out to meet Jared, we got to the point where I had slid on my butt down a muddy hill on my first night, and I simply refused to go any further.  Brandon and Kristin kept going, but I stayed there and snapped some photos with my camera as runners went past.

When Jared, Jeff and the crew made it to where I was, they let me know that 100 miles was indeed the stopping point for Jared.  Even though it was shy of his goal, it was still a monumental achievement in my estimation.  Other runners had already called it quits, and Jared still had the fastest time to 100 miles, so I was impressed.  In no stretch of the imagination is 100 miles on this course a failure.

Me down by the river.

I pussyfooted around camp and used weak excuses to talk myself out of trying a lap in the light of the afternoon.  Instead, I decided to grab some water bottles, a banana and my camera and go off looking for porcupines and birds to photograph.

I was somewhere around the I-Beam bridge when I ran across Melissa Middleton, who was quietly crying and walking up the trail.  Melissa was in the 100 mile race and, since she was upset, I offered to go a little way with her. I put my camera in my backpack and did my best to make her feel better.  She explained that it was her slowest 30 mile time ever, and I could see that she was just as frustrated as all the 200 mile runners.  I told her about how hard they were finding the course, how no one would be finishing that race, and how her fitness for this thing wasn’t the problem at all- it was just that monstrous of a course.   Then we talked about some random things: where we were from, what we did for a living- stuff like that- and pretty soon we were half way up the mountain.  She was feeling better, but I was out of water, so I told her I was going to head back down.

Mark at “Noodles Revenge” trail

She kept moving forward and I headed down and shortly ran into Mark Hellenthal on his 460th mile of the 10 day- 500 mile race. I don’t know what it was about seeing Mark, but I was already so damn far up the mountain, the weather was nice, the course was pretty, and, hell, if Mark had 500 miles in him, I figured I surely had 20.  20 would be respectable for this trip for me.  It’s more than I’ve ever done, I could say I gave my 30 the old college try… so I turned around and headed up behind him.

I was at the top in no time, filled my empty water bottles, snapped some pictures of the cloud-dotted panorama, and proceeded down the mountain.  By this time, all of the things that had seemed so scary the first day in the dark had become completely innocuous.  Many people had added markings to the trail, some of the mudpits of the first day had dried a bit, and the long, flat north and south sections were completely runnable in the daylight.  I scooted along, humming an Okkerville River Song (Down in the Valley) and honestly, the rest of the lap was unremarkable.  I was still a muddy mess at the bottom, but I made it to camp right around 6:30 (in time for dinner!).  I estimate the whole lap took just under 4 hours.  It would have been less if I hadn’t stopped to take pictures all the time!

Sunday Funday

On the trail Sunday.

It may not have seem like much that I did that lap Saturday, but I felt relief about the whole thing more than I could possibly describe.  I woke up Sunday a little sore in the ankles, but otherwise good, and Jeff and I decided to head back over to the course.  Jeff had already completed 30 miles with Jared and he decided that he was going to do 2 laps on Sunday and get his 50 mile finisher medal.   I figured I’d just hike a slow one and complete my 30 miles now that I wasn’t terrified of being out there.

An aside: Jeff was *amazing* on this course.   He did his best to keep Jared moving through the wall, and without much support himself, he quietly took down those 30 miles, plus all the miles earned hiking up the back of the mountain to the aid station. When he finally got a chance to stretch out and do his 2 laps alone, he smoked them.  I think they were around 2:30 each lap.  Granted, it was a drier, better marked course than the 200 guys had to start on, and it was day time, but man- he really, really killed those laps.

Jeff and his race number on day 1.

I texted some people to let them know I was starting and headed back across the I-Beam.  The hike to the top was made easier by a stick I found to use.  The trail actually seemed muddier than Saturday, because the 200, 150, 100, 50, and 30 mile participants had all been through it by this time and had really torn it up in spots.   I had no problems going up at all though, and I saw the orange bucket, the clearing and approached the cabin one last time.

I was sitting down a second eating some E.L. Fudge cookies from the stash at the aid station when Jim Lampman made his way up to join me on the mountaintop.  Jim was in the 200 mile race and was on his 120-130 mile lap.  He knew he wasn’t going to make 150 by 6 pm that night (race end), but he decided that he was going to get in every single mile he could.  I have huge respect for him and the other competitors that kept going in the face of not meeting their initial goals.

Jim and I at the bottom of the trail.

Anyway, I asked Jim if he could use some company, he accepted, and we started off down the hill.  I followed behind Jim and let him set the pace since I was afraid I’d go too fast for him on my fresh legs.   We covered ground pretty efficiently though, and I really enjoyed each section.  Jim talked my ear off- which was interesting- since I’d been the primary talker in my other laps with people.   We chatted and moved forward; I daydreamed a little and soaked up the scenery.  We stopped once for a short break and some food, and Jim dipped his hat in the cold mountain stream and splashed it on to his head a few times to cut the heat of the day.   We jogged some flat spots and made great time- and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the trail with him.

We approached camp and I sprinted the last couple of hundred yards in.  Jeff was sitting there at the finish waiting for me. It meant a lot to me that he was there when I came in.  We both donned our medals and took a few pictures, Jim headed back out for one more lap, and I just stood around and smiled.  My last lap took 3:27- so if you’re paying attention- I did negative splits every lap I covered 🙂

The Conclusion

Thanks for sticking with me 4,000 words, readers.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few people I met on the course and on the crews-

Jim Lampman

Jim Lampman and Jim’s Dad Don(?) :  Amazing spirit and positive attitude from both of these guys.  Good to see such a positive father/son relationship and Jim was funny and upbeat to hike with even though he was over 120 miles into the race when I got to him.

Phil and Willy

Willy Syndram and Phil Sustar:  Willy became the first person ever to complete 500 miles at McNaughton.  I just haven’t got words big enough to describe how amazing this is.  Besides that, he was a heck of a nice guy with an easy going attitude and an affable smile, and I really enjoyed chatting with him after the race.  Phil was Willy’s crew for this race, and he understates what a big deal this is.  Besides being Willy’s go-to guy for everything he needed throughout 500 miles, Phil completed 70 miles himself and was clearly a huge part of Willy’s success.  Phil was also easy to talk to and maybe it was just the Georgia drawl, but I just loved his “aw shucks, t’weren’t nothing” humility about what was clearly an impressive accomplishment.

Jay, Laura and Corey

Laura Paulo, Corey and Jay: Team Canada put in a hell of a performance.  Laura gutted out 130 miles on this course and showed herself to be a crazy good athlete.  She was sweet but tenacious, and deserves especially huge props for coming back for those 3 laps past 100 miles.   Her boyfriend Corey- who had never done more than 40 miles before, and had only recently started running at all, did 100 miles.  Whoa. That’s all I can say.  And Jay- hilarious and adorable Jay had a smile on his face the whole time, supported the whole endeavor and completed 70 miles himself.  Also on Team Canada was Laura’s dad- who was super cool and supportive but whose name I never got.  Sorry, Laura’s dad!

Mark and Deanna at the mountaintop

Mark Hellenthal:  The second man to complete the 500 mile course- Mark is one inspiring guy. I ran into him at least a half dozen times at different spots on the course.  He told me he’d come back from gastric bypass surgery just a few years ago, lost over 350 lbs, and now runs ultras.  He did 500 miles on this course- including one lap where Andy had to drag him through chest-deep water to get him across where the bridge had washed out.  Wow.

Deanna Culbreath:  Did anyone ever look so lovely while taking on one of the toughest courses in the country!?  I couldn’t remember which lap she was on when I saw her at the top of the mountain (turns out it was 30 miles) because she looked like she’d just gotten there for the first time.  Her attitude was confident and optimistic every time I saw her.  Big congratulations to her on all she accomplished.

Andy with a mouth full of the previous night’s pasta dinner.

Andy Weinberg: Race Director Andy Weinberg didn’t disappoint in the design when he promised one of the country’s most difficult races.  The most awesome thing about Andy has to be that he is always high-energy and always believes in every one of his racers.  He is positive and energetic at all times, and he makes you want to go further than you think you can go.

Melissa and Mark

Mellissa Middleton and Mark McCausin:  This pair of Michiganders was so wonderful that, again, I’m missing the appropriate words to describe.  Melissa is gorgeous on the inside as well as the out, and her spirit to overcome the way she was feeling when I found her on the course and to keep going was inspiring.  Besides that, she showed some impressively ferocious protectiveness for her fellow runners- there was an incident in a bar with some locals… too long a story for here.  Suffice it to say, she is not to be messed with.  I didn’t get a ton of time to talk to her boyfriend Mark, but he was in the 150 mile race and was focused and resolute when attacking the course.

Luis on top of the mountain

Luis and his Crew:  Laugh-out-loud funny and always quick with a raunchy quip, Luis (200 mile entrant) and his crew straight cracked me up.  I’ll never forget Mishka and his “sweet and salty nuts” or Luis and his king-of-the-mountain smile.  I’m not 100% sure, but I believe Luis did 100 miles on the course, and that’s no small feat.

Jenny Kroeger: Another 200 mile racer, Jenny and I found a lot of time to talk.  I came across her and her dad having some Miller Lights on the river’s edge near the I-Beam one of the afternoons, and we talked about how she’s found a really good balance between being a 1st grade teacher and an ultramarathon athlete.  She was one of the most relatable people I met- and is probably a big part of the reason that I can imagine getting involved in ultras myself.  Some of the competitors eat, sleep and breathe training, but she struck a uniquely good balance of activity, training and the rest of her life.  I really liked that. (I’m really sorry, but I don’t have a pic of Jenny. If I get one later I’ll add it)

Steve and Jared

Steve, Evelyn and the Animal Crew:  Nice job everyone!  All I saw was forward progress.  You guys were awesome!

Kaz:  Oh Kaz, where are you going, Kaz?!  Lots of miles over hill and dale.  Kaz was a wild card that broke up any hint of monotony.  I liked Kaz.

Kristin and Brandon

Our Crew: Jeff, Brandon, Ed and Kristin:  Damn guys- way to go.  If it was hiking up the back side of the mountain, helping keep Jared supplied, or trying to raise his spirits- each of you did an amazing job.  Jeff- I’m so glad you came and am impressed with your running and your ability to diffuse every tense situation.  You’re a great friend to have and I’m excited to do RAGBRAI with you.  Brandon, Ed and Kristin- each of you kicked substantial ass and worked so hard.  Brandon especially never, ever gave up on the goals of the team and was really constructive.   Kristin- I know you really helped boost Jared’s spirits and I know he was super glad to see you hike out the end of the course when you arrived.  Well done on all counts.  And Ed!  Hiking up that trail in the dark of night?! You’re a rock star and it was a huge help to have you there.

Jared at 100 miles.

And Jared, buddy, you’re all heart.  Tough as nails, an incredibly hard worker, and just…all heart.  Congrats on 100 of the toughest miles I’ve ever seen.

Okay, well, this is 8 pages long so I’ll wrap it up.  I had a ton of fun in Pittsfield, Vermont.  Some scary and triumphant moments, hot and cold weather, up and down the mountain, sad and happy and every emotion in between, this trip was one I’ll always remember.  I did learn that I really like trails for running, and I’m going to seek them out in the future.   As for my future in ultramarathoning, hey, crazier things have happened, and you never know where my Adventure Foot might take me.

30 Miles!

My bling. It says 50 miles bc the Race Director didn’t order the 30s (oops!) but I think with all the other hiking, I came damn close to 50 anyway. 🙂

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