As with my first marathon and 50K (the Bluff), my first 50 miler felt like something that happened to me, rather than something I actively chose. I’ve never had real aspirations to go further than 50K. Yet when Bimblers proposed the appealing Highland Sky 40-miler early this season I decided to run it in spite of the bonus mileage. When I missed a turn at Highland Sky, that 40 miles became almost 45. And, suddenly, it seemed like I was too close to that 50 mile mark NOT to attempt a 50-miler at least once.
For reasons that no longer make sense to me (heavy training in the heat of July and August??!!) September seemed like a good time for a 50, so I narrowed it down to Vermont or Virgil Crest. I had gotten a taste of Vermont from pacing CA Kid at the 100 in July. The unknown territory of Virgil Crest, which even El Toro and Forrest called “wicked tough,” was both more intriguing to me and more intimidating. In the end, my sense of adventure trumped my fear of attempting a “difficult” first 50. Unfortunately, it also led to more than the usual pre-race paranoia’s, especially when my peak training period was interrupted by illness, unexplained fatigue, and a mild ankle sprain during Wapack.
I feel fortunate to have been surrounded by such an extraordinary community of Bimblers, who could always be counted on for encouragement, amusement, perspective, training advice, and even medical consultation (thanks, Allstate!). I took you with me on solo runs, as Forrest’s voice in my head wouldn’t let me “count” a Giant repeat that didn’t go “all the way to the river!” I even broke down and did a few Giant repeats, trying out everyone’s preferred formula for good measure (fast up, easy down; walk up, fast down), though I never managed more than three.
During a final flurry of pre-race emails, Jasper reminded me that Virgil had been Dante’s guide through the Inferno, with the eventual result of his arrival in Paradise. This seemed encouraging…sort of. Once I realized that the Virgil Crest 50 had nine aid stations corresponding to the nine circles of hell, this association stuck. As I encountered the various challenges the race threw at me, I entertained myself by trying to imagine what personal “sins” would have warranted each stage’s particular punishments. I made little progress with this assessment (probably my failings aren’t an apt explanation for the torture of the Crest) but I hoped that I, like Dante, would survive my tour unscathed–and maybe even a little stronger for the wear.
Vestibule of Hell: Anxious Anticipation
Whisperer and I drove to New York the afternoon before the race. The quaint and shockingly cheap ($51 dollars) Three Bear Inn in Marathon, NY was our home for the night. Attached to a historic restaurant and tap room that had been at the site since 1799, the restaurant featured $1 local beers, a respectable salad bar, and hot buffet housed in an alcove with three taxidermied bears (Whisperer didn’t even notice them, she was so focused on the homemade potato salad!) Our pink semi-circular booth was likewise surrounded by bear knick-knacks and ursine snow globes. After enjoying pasta amidst the bear ambience, we drove to the pre-race briefing at the Virgil fire department. How fitting.
During the check-in process, a volunteer took my mugshot as I held up my bib number. I didn’t see the point at the time, but later I appreciated being able to use the pictures to check how some of my companions along the way had fared. Volunteers also handed out the finisher award mugs, although Ian, the race director, soon informed us gleefully that about 35% of us would DNF (as it turned out, this number would be over 50% for the 100 milers this year). Ian, who I think would have enjoyed a career in stand-up comedy, couldn’t resist giggling when describing the course, especially the extreme steepness of the signature “alpine loop,” which was clearly his wicked and beloved brainchild. So, there would be two 4.2 mile hill-repeat workouts on ski slopes plopped in the middle of 40 miles of the already heavily undulating Finger Lakes trail. Excellent. Among the new awards Ian announced was a long, carved wooden walking stick for the entrant slowest to complete the alpine loop. I looked over at Whisperer and she just shook her head in disbelief. None of this helped with my growing fear as a first-time 50 miler!
First Circle: Pre-dawn start (0-4.4 miles)
After a night of very little sleep, the 4:15 am wake-up came as a rude and disorienting shock. In my groggy stupor, I found it difficult to manage getting dressed, much less to contemplate running 50 miles. Somehow, Whisperer managed to get me caffeinated and into the car, and we arrived at the start with a half hour to spare. It was a pleasantly crisp morning free from the rain that had been forecast. The starting gate banner declared “not for sissies” and the path was lined with fiery torches (but a nearby sign offered a more hopeful sentiment: “The task ahead is never greater than the strength within.” ) A guy near me sported hot pink patterned tights, a bright-lime jersey, and fluorescent hokas. This was my first experience of a pre-dawn start, and I found it (momentarily) exciting and invigorating to be a part of the long line of headlamps making a hushed circle around the lake, then disappearing into the dark wood. But soon the groggy stupor proved more powerful than the adrenaline of the start. I felt clumsy and not alert enough to focus on my footing in the darkness, even though the going wasn’t difficult. I tried to enjoy the new experience of watching the woods gradually lighten (I usually experience the opposite fade of sunset) and worked on not being psyched out by how sluggish I felt.
I awoke by the second circle. Upon reaching the first aid station at 4.4 miles, I handed the headlamp off to Whisperer then plunged into a lovely, serpentine section of trail bordering a creek bed and punctuated by a series of gullies. This gently rolling section was so fun that I lost sight of the distance ahead and started running a nine-something pace. My communion with the woods was interrupted when the runner ahead of me shrieked in pain and I felt myself being stung repeatedly. Flashbacks to a certain Miller’s pond run Allstate may remember! I detached one of the attackers from my armwarmer, but decided not to survey the damage. For a time, the sharp and lingering pain of the bites distracted me from my rising fear of the upcoming “alpine loop.”
Third Circle: “Running” up ski slopes (9.7-13.9 miles)
Need I say more? What a bad concept–except for the amazing views it afforded of the countryside’s rolling hills, which were already well on their way toward peak fall color. Forrest had warned me that these 4 miles could take an hour and a half, so I settled in for some extended hiking (although a couple women around me were somehow running a fair bit; one of them ended up 5th overall in the 100 miler). In addition to the grassy, mowed ski slopes, this section featured a wildly steep wooded incline (double length this year) on what I suppose was a rutted ATV trail, though I can’t imagine anything other than a snowmobile or maybe the Mt. Washington train making it up that thing. Some people were using hiking poles, and I might have used my hands, if it hadn’t been for all the mud. The ferns bordering the path provided just enough traction to avoid that indignity. I chatted cheerfully with one of the many Canadian runners all the way up, until he informed me at the top that he “ne parle pas Anglais!” The downhill was a long freefall on another messy ATV-like trail. All in all, it was tough but survivable (I clocked in at about 1:08). The scariest part may have been the ever-present knowledge I would be doing it all over again 30 miles later.
Fourth Circle: Blister Scare (13.9-20 miles)
After departing the ski slopes, with a sigh of relief, I fell in with a veteran Virgil Crest runner (and college lacrosse coach) who informed me that she didn’t get the hype about the alpine loop, as THIS section had the longest hill of the course. (Fabulous!!) We commiserated about how neither her sports psychology Masters nor my Masters of Social Work helped us much to master our own athletic and personal challenges. It was amusing to hear that the take-away message of her year-long graduate program was simply to elicit her athletes’ opinions. (I wonder if the graduate student interns I train end up feeling the same way!) Eventually, she pulled ahead, but I worked my way steadily through the rolling hills remembering one of the key points from my training: a power hike up Sleeping Giant is only 3 minutes slower than a run (or possibly faster if you are Mr Bimble). That was the good news. The bad was that my right groin/hip flexor started feeling tweaky and I developed a hot spot on my braced ankle. I knew I was getting close to the aid station when I crossed a road and began sharing the long uphill trail with a succession of dedicated crew members toting signs and awkward paraphernalia for their runners. After some deliberation (and memories of that Montara Mountain mega-blister), I decided to stop and attend to the ankle (even though, as one of the aid station signs noted, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”) It felt like it took an eternity to sit on my butt, unbury my ankle, and apply the anti-chafing potion, but it gave me a chance to take in some encouragement from Whisperer and participate in a photo shoot. (One of Whisperer’s crew buddies grabbed her camera and snapped some shots of her in action).
Fifth Circle: Downpour (20-25.1 miles)
It was a good call to stop, and this section became (relatively) easier as I experimented with mindful running, focusing alternatively on the colors, the sounds, or the sensation of the pleasantly cool air on my skin. Everywhere I looked there were bright M & M colors: fields of yellow-green ferns, mushrooms in all hues, a pumpkin-colored salamander, and vivid, newly fallen leaves in red, yellow, orange, and green. As I neared the turn-around point at aid station five, I got a new focus for meditation: the heavens (??) unleashed the rain that had held off for five hours in a massive, drenching downpour that soon turned the trails into muddy rivulets. I was moving fast enough to stay warm, but I felt sorry for the pitiful-looking crew members who were huddled together in a small tent straddling all the runners’ drop bags. After the race, I learned that I had scared the Hell out Whisperer by declaring “there’s no way I’m going to be able to do all that over again.” As I took off into the rain, she was left with hours to worry about what might be going wrong with me (which was basically nothing, except a dark night of the soul!) She developed a grim determination to somehow “get me through” this mother, because she figured I’d feel compelled to run another 50 if i didn’t finish this one.
Sixth Circle: Ipod Nightmare (25.1-30.2 miles)
As is my habit in long races, I saved my ipod to use as a pick-me-up in the second half of the run. Whisperer had pressed it on me earlier, in case I was desperate during the alpine loop, but I had held off in accordance with my plan, and was now eagerly anticipating some energetic tunes. But as my chilly fingers fumbled for a running playlist, I realized with growing horror that the rain was disabling my touchscreen. When I finally accessed some unknown music, I decided I’d better leave well enough alone or risk being without sound altogether. In retrospect, that might have been preferable, as I was treated to a painfully uncurated collection of songs beginning with the letter “A.” There were a lot of depressing, dirge-like spirituals which I assume Whisperer had downloaded to use in a class (several took on the invigorating themes of domestic violence and abortion). “Abracadabra” was probably a high point. Eventually I was able to develop an attitude of curious amusement regarding what would new gem would pop up next (ABBA? Johnny Cash? Janet Jackson?) New on my to-do list: pruning out the itunes.
Seventh Circle: Survivor Guilt (30.2-36.3)
Around this point, I started seeing a lot of 100 milers coming toward me (they had blue race tags, while we 50-mile sissies had pink tags). I felt intense horror and incredulity, as I imagined the additional challenges that darkness, more potential rain, sleep-deprivation, and tapped-out legs would add to what I was already experiencing. Contemplating how much worse they had it helped me keep my challenges in perspective (literary devices aside, everything was going pretty smoothly), but it made me feel vaguely guilty whenever I saw one of those blue tags. Especially since they were trending uphill during this section, while I had a nice runnable downhill.
Eighth Circle: Running down ski slopes (36.3-40.5)
Need I say more about this Sisyphean endeavor? Well, yes… The rain had stopped by the time I reached the Lifthouse 5 Aid station, so I was able to take advantage of my time hiking to liberate myself from the “A’s” on my Ipod and access a more favorable playlist. The views from the top of the slopes were even more dramatic this time around, as there were brooding remnants of dark clouds backlit by brilliant afternoon sun. The steep section was now a positively treacherous mudslide. I ran in the deep ferns beside the trail and miraculously stayed upright. Given the depleted state of my quads, the descent down the final two ski slopes was a painstaking and painful process. When I got to the bottom, Whisperer told me my time around the loop was only 7 or 8 minutes longer than the prior round. Not too shabby. I downed some fresh fruit (the only thing that still appealed) and a token potato (to keep Whisperer happy) and got on my way. It was a relief to be off the slope, but the volunteer’s cheery assurance that there were “only” 10 miles to go felt less than encouraging. My hip flexor was progressively not flexing. So, I returned to the timeless zone I had inhabited all day, focusing only on my progress toward the next aid station (a cheap trick that seems to work better than it should, since the reward of arrival is only a bit of fruit, some smiles, and the need to start out all over again!)
Circle Nine: Hip flexor gives up the ghost (40.5-45.8)
This section started with a fairly steep, mile-long uphill on a paved road. Whisperer was surprised to see me on the pavement when she drove by on her way to the next aid station (wonderfully, crew were allowed at all stations, and she didn’t miss a single one). I didn’t even try to run up it, as it had become clear that my tweaky right hip flexor muscle had finally given up the ghost. I still had a decent power hike, but running up inclines wasn’t really doable. Downs were ok, and I had a workable shuffle on the flats than reminded me a little of Cal Kid at the end of the Vermont 100. Making my way along a meandering stream, I arrived at the final aid station to find fresh pineapple and watermelon, which made fueling up easier in my fruit bat state.
Final Gate of Hell: Panicky paranoia (45.8-50.2)
Knowing that the last section of the race was only 4.4 miles and almost all downhill, I decided spontaneously to ditch my backpack for a little 10-ounce handheld of water. This seemed like a great idea, for about two minutes. Then I guess the demons in charge had to amp up the mental challenges as the physical ones were starting to wane. I was seized with a weird sense of fear and foreboding. What had previously seemed like a final “easy four” now felt like a window for disaster. “Pride goeth before a fall.” Now they had me. In my growing confidence, I had let my guard down, and I would be punished oh-so-fittingly. I felt intensely vulnerable without my pack. I imagined suddenly bonking or spraining my ankle or taking a wrong turn and being caught alone in the woods for hours in a compromised state without food or drink. It felt like forever, but probably took about 5 minutes to get the panic under control (hello! there are 150 people sharing this course!), then I was back in a steady groove. As I finally exited the wood for the last paved loop around the lake, Whisperer let out an outrageous whoop that carried across the water from the finish line and startled the guys running near me. As I shuffled in toward the finish, I was shocked to see 11:07 on the clock (my optimistic goal had been 12 hours and in my befuddled state, I wasn’t quite sure if I was on an 11- or 12-hour pace).
I powered through the final gate and headed straight for a grassy area. Sitting for only the second time in 11 hours brought involuntary tears of relief and, after a bit, a growing sense of accomplishment at having mastering both the physical and mental challenges of the Crest. However you slice it, 50 miles and 10 thousand feet of elevation gain and loss is a hell of a race. It is rarely wise to trust Mr. Bimble, but in this case it proved to be true that the implausible was possible. As it turned out, I won the Master’s division. But I didn’t need the winner’s cup (which had apparently been given away the night before at the fire station, along with the finisher prizes) to know I’d run a good race. I felt fortunate to have escaped the Inferno with rain but no fire.