by Michael Arnstein
The Vermont 100 Mile, My Breakthrough Win!
This is a LONG report. It's an unofficial chapter/draft in my forthcoming book that I plan on publishing in late 2012.
This is a 45min+ read…
The Vermont 100 Race Report July 2011 Oh wow, I’ve been waiting a long long time to write this race report! It’s only been 36 hours since I won the Vermont 100, but I’ve been waiting for the moment to write about a 100 mile breakthrough performance for a lot longer!
A lot of thoughts and emotions go through my mind when I ponder how I want to document and share my race experience. In a hundred mile race through the mountains you go through so many feelings and thoughts, it’s a lifetime of experiences all wrapped into a day (or longer!). I want to document my experience accurately, which means at various times I’ll be writing as if I was in a 100 mile emotional rollercoaster. You experience so much in this extreme sport of 100 mile mountain racing, it’s not for the light at heart!
The 2011 Vermont 100 was going to be the 7th time I stepped on the starting line of a hundred mile trail race. I keep coming back to challenge myself at the monster distance because I’ve felt like I failed at each previous attempt. I’ve learned a lot in the previous 6 attempts at running a hundred miles, yet I feel like I still am brand new in the sport. Usually when you do something a few times you become a little more relaxed, a bit more confident, more mature at the undertaking. Experience goes a long long way in trying to run a hundred miles successfully, so starting the VT100 I towed the line with more confidence, more willingness to take risks for bigger rewards.
I consider myself an athlete, I want to perform at a level that matches my commitment to the training that I’ve done for the race. For 2+ years I’ve been running an average of 100 miles a week, during peak training weeks I hit 160 – 200+ miles per week. I put in tremendous commitment to strengthening my body and mind to perform at my best. I’ve experimented, refined and honed various components to try and reach my peak performance. Many factors go into my training outside of just running (yet you need to run a lot!). A major component to my training is my fruitarian diet. My diet is extreme in most people’s view – but I like extreme results, I eat first and foremost for performance, and I’ve achieved all of my running goals up to this point on a fruitarian diet. Other critical components to my success are getting enough rest and sleep, keeping home/family/business life balance, and maintaining low mental stress.
Ultra running has trained and sharpened my mental abilities as much as my physical body. My wife often mentions to me that ‘you’ve changed a lot’. She says it in a good way at times, and also in a bad way. My perspective and practice on just about everything I do is ‘ultra’ style these days.
There are so many examples of how I’ve changed that I can’t decide which is the best example to write about. A simple example might be running errands on a weekend afternoon, from the moment I step into my car I go into what I now call ‘ultra vision’, where all outside distractions are muted, paused, pushed to the side instantly. I squint my eyes and perform calculations in my mind faster than I ever did in the past. I am thinking like an ultra runner, someone who has developed a level of extreme mental power. It’s almost scary sometimes, because I can’t seem to turn off this new level of concentration. My ultra diet and ultra running is a serious combo.
When you run, run, run, run, and then run yet again and again and again, year after year… you are forced to adapt mentally as much as the physical. I’ve read lots of stories about people who have had traumatic brain injuries, where they lost mental and physical abilities completely after their injury. Yet eventual remarkable or impossible physical and mental abilities are regained through deep neurological brain adaptations. I believe we have the abilities to effectively re-wire ourselves, new neuron connectors, new behaviors, new realities of existence that we never were able to grasp previously. I really think differently these days. Deeply complex brain communications have changed within me. I do things better, much better. I continue to train for the ultra distances not so much for the races themselves, but more for what the lifestyle provides me each and every day.
My training for the Vermont 100 has been sound. I’ve focused well on the macro principles of my training and feel like I’m in good shape. The one issue that haunts me is that my body fat composition isn’t as optimal as in the previous few years. Body fat composition in my opinion is always going to be the biggest limiting factor in performance. Even if I have the best performance my body can deliver in Vermont, it will still won’t be as good as it could be because I’m 4-5lbs heavier than I should be at my peak fitness levels. My diet hasn’t changed, but I’ve been running 20-30 miles less per week less than last year and eating about the same. I think after almost 4 years of eating nothing but raw fruits and vegetables my metabolism is getting more efficient.
Seeking peak performance is an endless analysis of every detail, being neurotic is a good thing when you want to achieve your greatest human potential. I’m proud of my ‘crazy’ thinking most of the time. (Yet it can be exhausting to be me…)
Three weeks before the Vermont 100 I ran the Western States 100. Or maybe I should say I ran/walked the Western States 100. The race went lousy for me (21 hours 40 minutes). I still haven’t finished writing the race report because I feel lackadaisical about trying to figure out why the race went so poorly. Sometimes having an acute problem in your training or in a race is settling feeling. A sudden injury is easier to accept as why you failed. Yet when you aren’t injured, when your training is going well, your nutrition is sound and you still don’t perform well, it can drive me crazy. The Western States 100 and most of my other 100 mile race experiences have been non-acute poor performance issues. It makes for a frustrating challenge to find ways to improve!
Immediately after the Western States 100 I continued with regular training. A lot of people tell me I train too much, that I don’t rest enough. But I have ALWAYS achieved my best performances in my running when I took almost no taper. In fact, in the harder I train leading up to a big race the better I seemed to perform. When I ran my 1:10 half marathon PR, I ran 160 miles in the 6 days before the race. When I ran my 2:28 marathon PR, I ran 150 miles the week before the race (which included a 100km race at 7:15 mile pace and a 12 mile hard tempo run). When I ran 5:50 at the JFK 50 mile I had put in 6 weeks of back to back big mile and racing each weekend.
So for the Vermont 100 I decided that I was going to roll the dice, train hard as hell going into the event. I ran 140 miles the week after the Western States 100. I put in 160 miles the week after and then the weekend before Vermont I put in a 75.2 mile long run at 8:23 average pace. 3 days before Vermont I put in a 15 mile run with the last 5 miles at 5:40 pace and felt really powerful.
I drove up to Vermont with serious fire in my belly. I was going to push well past reasonable goals based on my previous poor performance 100 mile races. I accepted the risks of starting out at a pace that was ‘too fast’. I didn’t care, I was going to go for it, hard from the start. Physical suffering didn’t scare me as much anymore, the risk for some glory seemed worth it.
People only measure you by your results. If I came up big with a great time and a win, everyone would say I was a genius. And if I came up short (again) or worse (a dnf), everyone would say I was an idiot. I wasn’t running for anyone’s measurements on me anymore – I run for the purity of running to challenge myself. Period. This was about Mike vs. Mike.
My wife and kids don’t come to my ultra races, running 100 miles can get ugly, it’s not a spectator sport, especially for kids. Yet it’s nice to have supportive friends and a crew out on the course. I normally try to pull together some good buddies to help me out, even though there can be some pressure to put on a good show for them. For this race I didn’t have a support crew or pacer who could accompany me for the late stages of the race. I was going ‘commando’ in this 100 mile race. No family, no crew, no spectators, no pacers, just me and my water bottle… Sometimes when I’m deep into my long run I think of the movie Castaway, where Tom Hank’s best friend is his volley ball ‘Wilson’. My water bottle is Wilson in this race… Yea, you get pretty wacked out on these runs folks. I love it!
My Ultra Family: 100 mile races are a family reunion for all us crazies. Some family members don’t make it to each 100 you go to, but you always seem to reconnect and find some of them. All the crazies together for a few days is super fun, we all love the buzz in the air, the comfort of being with others that experience life like few do. The Vermont 100 is even more special because the race is close to my home town of New York City, so I see a lot more of my ultra family friends, and most of the runners camp out together in a large grassy meadow at the start / finish area of the race. Watching all the runners drive up to the camping field and set up their tents is almost more fun than the race. We help each other set up tents, carry bags, talk about training, races, catch up on smiles and hugs, it’s such a wonderful supportive breed of people – ultra runners are special, I love them.
Race Time! It’s 3:15am the song ‘Born to Run’ wakes me up in my tent. Ugh, this is the worst part of these 100 mile races. I am Not a morning person. I usually don’t get up until 9-10am each morning when I’m back home in my regular training routine. I make it a point to stay in bed as long as possible so I can get all the sleep I require. My body clock doesn’t go well with 4AM starts! I stay in my tent as long as I can, the starting line is literally 100 meters away from where I’m camping out. I try to squeeze out every extra 10 seconds of sleep that I can before I embark on a serious journey through the endless rolling hills of central Vermont.
At 3:40AM my training buddy and fellow racer Mike Oliva yells out to me from the tent next door. ‘You Ready To Dooo This!?’ Under my breath I say ‘uh, uh, oh man this is gonna suck’, then I call out to him with the best fake excited voice I can muster, ‘Hell Yea! Let’s Rock and Roll, yahoooo, 100 miles here we come!’ He hoots and hollers back with some more comments and I sit up and try to get the sleep out of my eyes.
The night before I put out my race day outfit. Running is simple, you don’t need much. I put on my shorts, socks and then my shoes. I double tie my shoe laces. I’m ready to go. Oh, wait, I forgot to put on my gaiters! Grrrr, I gotta take my shoes off and then back on again (gaiters are an outer sock type garment that covers the area of the top of your shoe up over your sock and lower leg so that dirt and rocks don’t get inside your shoes. Running on all dirt roads and trails can be very aggravating when you need to continuously take off your shoes to take out a loose rock or accumulated dirt. Gaiters keep these things out and I really appreciate them).
I grab my $2. LED flashlight and head across the field where a crowd of white lights assemble and bob around like fireflies in the night as all the runners get ready to run off into the middle of the night. “Rocky” music is playing, people are buzzing, the energy is simply electric. Ok, now I’m up, really up, and I realize that these special moments do not come around often.
I check in with the race officials, they mark down that I’m ‘starting’ the race and wish me good luck. Camera flashes are going off everywhere. Everyone is hugging, wishing each other good luck. Words of confidence and praise are heard everywhere. This is a modern day ‘sending off to war’ moment. We are all about to step onto a battlefield, each of us boards a ship in waters unknown. Each and every person standing on the starting line has my utmost respect and admiration, I am in my element. I feel more at home with these hearty souls than with the greatest spiritual teachers and leaders the world has ever known. We are all seekers of a far greater purity in life. We are a group that has lost satisfaction in average pursuits of everyday life. We are ultra runners who experience life as few others do. This is ultra life, and another chapter is about to be written.
My good running friends Mike Oliva and Mike Halovatch are next to me, we’re about to head off into the night. I get down on one knee and take 5 seconds to let a flash of emotions and thoughts cross through my mind. I validate the hard training I did to get to this moment in my life, I say a simple prayer where I ask the powers that be to keep me safe, that I may reach my goal and be appreciative and positive no matter what. As I take this moment for myself, a friend yells out to me “Mike, Are you going to Go For It??” He was asking me if I was going to roll the dice, was Michael Arnstein going to try and put up a performance, a show, something to entertain…..
I get up off my knee, I raise up my head, chin up, I call back in a lower voice, but with very firm sincerity and power, “YES. Yes, I’m going for it.” I hear back ‘Oh, Man, Oh Yea, Yea, Yea, Awesome!’
The countdown starts and 600-800 people assembled in the middle of the night, in the middle of a cow pasture field, next to the side of a dirt road start to count down in unison together, 8, 7, 6, (louder) 5,4,3 (louder),2, ONE! And we’re off!
I’m not tired at all anymore. I’m in ‘ultra vision’ mode. I’m not sitting in my car trying to figure out how to accomplish many errands at one time in a few hours. I’m doing what I’ve trained to do over the last 20+ years of running. I’m putting 20+ years of experience to the test, trying for that PhD again.
I start my mantras of positive reinforcement. I say to myself over and over, ‘steady, steady, steady, easy, easy, easy, relax, relax, relax, let the race come to you Mike, focus, breathe,..’ As the psychological positive reinforcement plays over and over in my head, other parts of my brain that have been rewired over the years of training have me concentrating on the dark road ahead. Headlamps light up sections, yet hidden rocks and holes could quickly end my race, and I focus on that intensely.
I think about my running form, I am trying to be as efficient as possible, I lower my arms, I swing them with less energy and focus on gravity to help rock them in motion rather than use my precious muscle energy. I adjust my waste pack, I check my watch 8 times in 40 seconds just to make sure that it’s working properly. I scan the runners around me, I try to make out who is running too fast with me less than a mile into this 100 mile race. I continue on with the endless checklist in my head. Much of it is seemingly meaningless in the big picture, yet running 100 miles well is literally one step at a time in concentration.
None of the 6 other runners in this lead group are talking yet. I know they’re all doing the same checklist as I am. We are all individuals, but there are alarming similarities among us. It’s comforting and inspiring to be with such warriors. I imagine us all running off to war together, as if we’re racing to fight off an invasion coming directly towards us. As if we’re protecting the home land, we are in battle, ready to risk it all. Yet there is no war or battle outside of ourselves, on a quest to test our limits, to experience ultra-life.
We’re running fast. I know we’re running way too fast. Yet today for some reason I really don’t care. I finished the Vermont 100 last year, this year it was a performance challenge. I trained hard and I wasn’t backing down from putting in all my chips on one bet. After 3-4 miles 4 of the other runners in the lead pack come to their senses and drop off the pace. They are wiser, they have more to lose than me in my mind, they want to finish, they don’t want to suffer or risk too much today.
I press on, often pushing the pace in front. The road rolls up and down, my GPS watch shows some ¼ mile downhill pace splits in the 6:15 per/mile range, we’re hitting full mile splits in the low 7:00 minute range. We all understand that this is a suicide pace. No one can maintain a pace like this for even 50 miles in the hills of Vermont, yet none of us want to miss a step of the action breaking the trail up in front.
About 7 miles into the run we all decide to slow it down a bit. We start to talk. I know I’m running with an accomplished Major, a General in the sport of ultra running. Leigh Schmitt is with me stride for stride. He’s got deep power, I completely feel and witness the depth of his abilities, I’m intimidated and know that I am treading on someone who is proven beyond any doubt that he can match whatever I put out. Leigh has won Vermont, he owns the course record, he’s crushed the best runners in the sport year after year, a true veteran. He’s got the PhD that I’m seeking. I eventually start to loosen up and try to open up conversation. There’s another guy who’s running with us that I’ve never heard of before. He’s from Seattle where many great ultra trail runners seem to grow. He and Leigh talk quite a bit and I listen in like a bird on the side of a fence. I flap my wings and legs at times at them as they converse, they let me break into the conversations at times, but I still feel like an outsider.
I’m still an outsider in the world of 100 mile ultra races. I’ve been mentioned before in the ultra world press magazines/websites a few times as ‘someone to watch’ because I have some impressive marathon times and one very fast 50 mile performance at the JFK 50 in 2009 where I almost broke the course record, but then lost the race in the final mile to come in 2nd place by 45 seconds. That race was one of the highlights of my running career, an intense bitter sweet experience that I will cherish forever. The people that know me well in the world of running have always been watching and waiting for me to have my moment, when I am having an ‘ON’ day, when Mike Arnstein comes out of nowhere. I have been waiting for that performance in a hundred miler, that ‘ON’ day, and I want it, I want it.
The sky starts to change over from darkness to light. Soon I put away my small LED flashlight and the three of us continue on together at an unsustainable pace. I continue to calculate time as we run along. We drift away from a 12 hour pace to a 13 hour pace, still way too fast, but who’s counting… we’re all seemingly running like we’re in a 50mile or 100km race.
I start to get into the conversation more. I tell them an entertaining story about my 75 mile long run the weekend before, that I aptly named ‘My Handcuff Run’ (more about this experience in my forthcoming book that I’ve been working on). They enjoy my story and I feel like I’m part of the mother ship now, like I’ve validated my worthiness to run with them. We carry on together as a team of sorts. Ten miles, Fifteen miles, twenty miles, the pace is comfortable yet too fast, we all seem to be having a good day and we roll along.
At 25 miles I start to feel the first effects of fatigue in my knees. I normally don’t have joint pains until very late in a 100 mile run. This was another odd experience that I didn’t expect so early in the race. My mind is a little cloudy now. The temperature is warming up quickly, Leigh and the guy from Seattle drift about 10 feet ahead of me. I stop to go to the bathroom quickly. Now they’re 45 seconds away and I am drifting out at sea, in a life boat all alone, seeing the mother ship sail away slowly and knowing that I can’t paddle fast enough to catch them responsibly. I say to myself, ‘Ugh, well this is what I signed up for… 100 mile races have lots of ups and downs’….
A few weeks ago I watched a video online about Geoff Roes. Geoff is probably the best American 100 mile trail runner to ever exist. He’s won all 8 of his 100 mile races, setting course records in every one of them too. He’s undefeated, seemingly winning with ease each time. He’s an anomaly, I almost don’t believe his abilities and success rate. Yet in this video he focuses on the fact that he’s “never” experienced a 100 mile race where he didn’t have low points, points where he “felt really crappy”. He goes on to explain that he believes the reason he’s had so much success in the ultra distance is because of “how I deal with those low points, because I know they are going to happen, and I know they are going to go away if I deal with them well’. His words hit me, they hit me deep.
I took a lot out of this video clip. It made Geoff more human in my mind. It let me accept the self-doubt in my own mind’s eye, to accept that when my body says ‘NO’ to my mind’s will I have to deal with it better if I want to succeed. So often in my 100 mile races I’ve asked my body to do things it just doesn’t want to cooperate with. I find that my inner spirit, my spark of life has unlimited drive, it doesn’t get tired, need a rest, it is a nuclear reactor within me that drives me endlessly. Yet my human physical body can only give back so much.
When my spirit and my body get into a fight it doesn’t go well, usually everyone gets upset and a big mess entails. I sometimes laugh out loud at the thought of someone being able to see the inner United Nations deliberations going on inside my head during these events. The drama can get pretty heavy, it’s intense!
Geoff goes on to talk about how he focuses on trying to stay positive when the “lows” happen to him; that he pushes himself to maintain a pace that would otherwise be minutes slower per mile rather than going 20 seconds faster per mile when he isn’t having low points. He accepts that the lows are coming and doesn’t let them bring him down or spiral out of control as I’ve let them time and again in my own races.
So now at mile 25 I almost embrace my first low point in my race. I accept that my nutrition, hydration and pacing have all been managed relatively well, I’ve felt comfortable and within myself. I know that I’ve been running too fast for a 100 mile distance but it still feels like jogging compared to my tempo runs. I accept that my body doesn’t want to run at the same speed. I push out negative thoughts in my mind like a super hero would hold up a bully by their jacket and press them up against a brick wall. I push out the negativity with positive mantras through my mind. I’ve learned that a positive attitude, a positive mind-body-connection is as important in 100-mile races as nutrition, hydration, pacing and more.
I see mile 26 on my watch, I’ve just run the marathon distance in 3 hours and 26 minutes. I yell to myself, ‘Mike, Mike, you are doing great, hold it together, let those guys go, let them go Mike, put your head down, focus on your footing, focus, focus, focus’. I continue on with mantras and positive reinforcement. I convince myself that these two guys going on with the suicide pace is a blessing for me. I imagine them pushing each other too hard and both of them falling apart late in the race, giving me a calculated opportunity to reap the rewards of more conservative pacing right now.
Then the negativity in my mind comes back through the side door and says ‘Leigh Schmitt doesn’t fall apart Michael, he might slow down, but he’s not falling apart!’ I yell back at the negativity in myself ‘fuck off’ and I keep running ahead mumbling to myself, looking at the ground like I’m looking for loose change. Oh god these races are intense!!
The lonely miles are here. I’m in no-man’s-land. I’ve run way too fast for the first 25 miles and no one is behind me, and the two mother ship runners in front of me are out of sight. The sun is up, it’s hot, really hot when the sun hits me as I break through the forest clearings. It’s hill after hill after hill. The Vermont 100 is not flat! It’s up or down. It’s pretty country side, it’s a quiet place in America. Old farm houses dot the route, some horses, cows, sometimes a few barking dogs, but it’s mostly dirt jeep roads and forest trails. There aren’t cars on the road, no big towns to pass through, it’s the country, I like it.
Complacency is not tolerated well in 100 mile races, especially when you want to achieve your highest human potential. I am still pushing, I am still maintaining my positive reinforcement not to let the race slip through the cracks in my mind. The lows can seemingly last forever at times. I’m lost in my mind trying to focus on what I learned from Geoff Roes’s video. I’ve had lows in other 100 mile races that lasted for 8 hours. Today I don’t know how long this low might last, yet I’m practicing for my PhD in the sport of Ultra running. I’m not letting this low get me down. I’m proud of myself because I press ahead with new inner patience and hope. I am maturing, this is good.
Then I get a slight reward for my patience. Now I’m in 4th place.
Normally falling back in position in a race is a bad thing. Yet at mile 34 having any company join you is a blessing. It’s Jim Sweeney, another accomplished runner who I’ve read about for years. This is the first time we’ve met, and it’s fun to validate our respect and knowledge of each other while both running well into a seriously long race together. Normally you meet someone at a party, business meeting, or some other standard social meeting situation. Meeting at mile 34 is cool! I think Jim and I were really pumped up to see each other. He’d probably been running alone for longer than me!
We talk for a few miles, and then Jim drifts ahead. He seems to be motivated and a little impatient about the mother ship way up in front of us. I welcome his increased pace, it pushes me to pick up my own effort. I have an imaginary bungee cord around Jim’s waist as we climb up the long slow grades that never seem to end in the Vermont 100. Jim never gets more than a 1/8 of a mile ahead of me, we play tag for another 5 miles as we both seem to work off each other and do the best we can under the circumstances.
It’s hot. It’s getting close to mid race. I tell Jim, ‘I can’t wait until the fifty mile mark, then I’ll feel like I’m almost there’. Jim raises his eyebrows and says ‘Fifty??’ He goes on, ‘I won’t feel like I’m getting close until we get to Ten Bear (mile 70 aid station)’. I say back ‘oh, man that’s way too far ahead for me to think about Ten Bear, in my mind Ten Bear is the finish line right now….’
We all have our quirky ways of breaking the race distance down to manageable ways in our own minds. It’s a huge undertaking to think of running for another TEN hours or more when you’ve already been running for 7 or 8 hours and feel like you really just want to sit down and take a break….
I slightly pass Jim again for the last time and say ‘Tag, you’re it again’. I think it’s about mile 42 and I focus on getting to the next aid station at mile 43, my water bottle is empty and I REALLY want some ice and water to cool me down. It’s warm, about 80-85F depending on the breeze and sun or shade that I run through. I get to the next aid station, fill my bottle very quickly and grab my drop bag to refill my waist pack with calories.
I’ve been eating a lot of dates and traditional ‘energy gels’. I fight with myself about how I deviate from my 100% raw fruit and vegetable diet when I run 100 mile races. Part of me wants to maintain my ‘all natural raw plant based diet’ at all times, no matter what. Another part of me tries convince myself that I shouldn’t be too militant about anything in my life, that I shouldn’t lose out on experiences to a dogmatic mindset about things. It’s tough to be balanced when you’re in a sport that seemingly has no balance. In the end of the argument I conclude that without a ‘crew’ to support me in these races it’s almost impossible to actually have the ‘raw’ nutrition that I want or need throughout the entire race.
I realize that nothing I do in life is perfect, even when that is the goal. I really do only eat raw fruits and vegetables 99.8% of the time in my life. The few calories that I do eat in a 100 mile race or sometimes training for one don’t really mean much in the big picture. I remind myself to focus on getting more sleep or getting out of the NYC smoggy air where I train than getting too hard on myself for having some corn syrup in an energy gel. I still prefer to have watermelon, cantaloupe, medjool dates, bananas and other favorites created by mother nature when they are available at the aid stations or in my drop bags at big aid station check points.
I run off up another long hill and turn around for the first time to see if anyone is behind me. I don’t see anyone. That sucks…well sort of…lonely miles… The good news is that I’m running. I’ve been running all along, and now at mile 45 I’m starting to feel better than I have since mile 25 when things started to fall apart. I am slowly coming out of my low. I keep up with the mantras of positive reinforcement.
I get to the top of the hill and see a female runner up ahead. I know she’s not in the 100 mile race. She must be one of the 100 kilometer runners that started hours after the 100 mile runners did earlier that morning. The 100km runners were running on the same course as the 100 mile runners, just skipping out the first 38 miles or so. They call the 100km race The Fun Run. It was good to have another runner to chase, I was starting to feel better and having the motivation to pick up my pace was welcomed.
I pull up next to this very strong looking runner. She’s running steady, looking dialed in, I ask her her name, she says “Lindsey”. We talk a bit, she tells me this is her first 100km race, that she’s pretty excited about it and feeling good. I go on and on complaining about how tough these ultras are, how they have no mercy, and how I’m trying to pull myself together for the last 20 miles. I sound like a whiner, I’m kinda embarrassed when I realize I should just shut up and suck-it-up.
I want to keep running with Lindsey, she’s got a good steady pace going, yet it seems a little fast for how I’m feeling in the moment. I back off and walk up the hill in front of us, she keeps going.
I chase her down again a ½ mile later, she’s still chugging along and looks like a seasoned veteran. I pick up the conversation with her. I tell her that I’m feeling better, but that I’m really sleepy for some reason, sleepy like I want to take a nap. My legs feel fine but I’m just tired in my head, I know I need some caffeine to brush the tired out of my head.
She pulls out some caffeinated Cliff Shot-Blocks, says “here, these have caffeine in them”. I look at her hand, I see a half-eaten package. I think quickly about the consequences of taking caffeine so early in the race. Caffeine is usually something I won’t touch until I’m really falling asleep, usually reserved for night time running at 2am or late in the race with less than 3 hours to the finish line. Caffeine can give me a serious pick up, but hours later it can bring me down hard.
She pushes me to take them, she says they only have a little caffeine in them, and only half a package left. I take them, and say ‘thanks, that’s very nice of you’.
Then as I’m trying to swallow these chewy sugar balls, I realize I just took aid from a non-aid station individual. ‘Oh, shit, I’m not supposed to take any aid from anyone outside of an aid station location, this is possible DQ (disqualified) offence!’ I wasn’t kidding when I said this, I really got freaked out about it. I asked her not to mention to anyone, that it really wasn’t ok that I took them from her. She says I’m crazy and not to worry about it. I don’t think there was more than 15mgs of caffeine in the 75 calories that I ingested, but it sure did make me feel less sleepy. Maybe it was the placebo effect. About a mile later I moved ahead and lost touch with Lindsey for the rest of the race.
I cruise into an aid station at mile 50+. I’m Back! Feeling like a stealth bomber. Steady legs, steady mind, in the zone! I’m ready to get back in the race. For the last 8-10 miles I kept up a decent pace when being lazy would have been so much more convenient, I’m thinking about Geoff Roes’s video, I’m pushing to hold it together and it’s working. I’m feeling stronger and stronger as the miles go by, experience goes a LONG way in 100 mile races.
I’m trying just about everything through trial and error, but there are ever changing variables that I encounter in these races. I feel like it’s going to take me many years until I really nail a race perfectly. I’m trying to hydrate so I go to the bathroom no more or less than once every 45-60 minutes. If I’m hitting the bathroom more than that I know I’ll be at greater risk of electrolyte problems, mainly low on sodium. I monitor how much I am sweating at the same time, sweating is the same as going to the bathroom in my mind. I focus on my sweat rate and core temperature so I can figure out how much sodium/electrolytes I am losing . I monitor any swelling in my hands, knees or face that indicates too much sodium. Nutritional/electrolyte hemostasis is the largest limiting factor to my performance in a 100 mile run. I’m obsessed with micromanagement monitoring of all systems within. Per hour I’m eating about 400 calories (approx. 80% sugars, 10% protein, 10% fats) drinking about 3 bottles of water (70-85F temps) and 2-3 salt pills, my blood has been stable outside of my low between miles 25-45~.
For calories I’d like to have more options to choose from, but I’m racing with no crew/pacer or special aid outside of a few drop bags at 5 aid stations. Drop bags are only as useful if the stuff you put in them is what you actually need when you get to them. Most of the time I’d get to an aid station where I have a drop bag and still have too much in my waist pack from my last drop bag, I’d grab as much as I can carry comfortably and take off. I was packing standard ‘gels’, dates, raw date/nut bars, Scaps (electrolyte pills), oranges and even some ‘raw chocolate’ (all melted, and gross).
I’m cruising. Time flies. I’m really enjoying the woods, Vermont is beautiful. I get to mile 70, Camp Ten Bear aid station is packed, this is the biggest aid station of the race. It’s packed with a crowd, lots of buzz going on. I see Jack Pilla volunteering and helping out as I pull into the aid station. The medical officials tell me to get on the weight scale. They want to check my body weight. Jack asks me what I need, ‘water, ICE. Where’s my drop bag!?’. The day before I was weighed in at the medical registration at 126lbs (with full clothes/shoes on) They want to make sure I’m still close to my original weight. Jack grabs my bottle, ‘do you need anything else?!’. Jack is an ultra running dynamo, he won the Vermont 100 a few years ago at age 52! He’s rock solid, I really admire this guy, he’s got power, I can feel it just standing next to him on the weight scale.
The medics are still trying to balance the scale. Ugh, I lose my cool a bit, I say ‘hey guys listen, I just flew down that hill, I’m in 3rd place and flying, I’m fine, can I get out of here please!?’ Finally, they get the scale balanced, I’m at 128lbs, perfect. They let me go on with my race. Jack tells me I’m making up time on the mother ship, that I look good, that I can catch them. Jack is pumpin’ me up!
At mile 45 the leaders had about 30 minutes on me. At mile 70 I had cut that down to about 15 minutes. I was feeling strong, Jack was getting me hyped up. He jokingly asks me if I want a hot dog, a hamburger or maybe a ham sandwich? Jack smacks some of my too-seriousness off my face, he gets me to relax, lighten up, but still stay focused – he knew I still had a long way to go.
I was feeling really good, yet I thought it was time to hedge some nutritional risks that I’ve faced in the late stages of 100 mile runs. In the last few months I had experimented with deviating from my low fat raw diet when I was running 8 hours or longer. Consuming some overt fats late into a very long run seemed to have a stabilizing effect on me. The only way I can describe how it feels, was akin to putting wet wood on a fire. Some smoke, a slow burn, almost a governor or braking system, a safety from keeping me from going too fast where I might risk muscle breakdown. It also seemed to help ward off hyponatremia in some way, maybe the salt binds to the fat in my blood or something…hell I really don’t know, but I’m trying everything. I tried avocados in the past which worked well in training when I used them alone. But then I had disastrous results when I mixed avocado with dates 3 weeks ago at the Western States 100. My digestion didn’t handle this mixture well at all. I got so bloated and gained 10 lbs. looking like I was 7 months pregnant. Ugh awful, never again! I had been eating a lot of dates and didn’t want to risk eating raw fats. In my experience thus far cooked fats seemed to digest easier if I was going to be mixing them with the raw date sugars I’d been eating for the last 11+ hours. I rolled the dice, I took a ¼ peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Jack gives me a look of surprise, he knows about my fruitarian diet. I kinda look at myself surprised too. I swallowed it like a pill and then hit the road hoping it was gonna work out…
A few miles later I get to the next aid station. The wet wood effect is working well. I don’t feel super jumpy, yet my legs and energy levels are very stable. I’m in the zone but still running with fear that another low point could happen at any moment. I race through the aid station filling up my bottle with ice and water. I grab another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I peel off the jelly side, I scrape the peanut butter side against the bottom of my teeth, I just want that 100 calories of fat, smoke is brewin’, I gotta slow burn in my blood. Steady, steady I press on. I’m running alone down a dusty dirt road, it’s 85F. I’m in the hills of Vermont on a serious self-exploration mission. I am in love with the moment, I remind myself that life doesn’t get much better than this.
I fully realize that I’m having the best race of my 100 mile career. I don’t want to mess it up. I start to move into hunting mode. I’m in a race, the guys up front are pressing me to pull the best out of myself. I’m starting to have full-on meetings with myself in my own head. I imagine the various components of my emotions gathering together at a large oval table inside my head. It’s like there are 6 Generals standing around a war room map on the table. The room is dark with a spot light shining down from above on the table. There are dimly lit monitors on the outside walls around us with lights blinking, secondary systems on auto pilot. We’re all discussing options in carrying out the mission at hand.
My Ego yells out, ‘We’re gonna win, nothing can stop us now!’ My Negativity cuts him off and says, ‘Shut up you idiot, you’ve got almost 30 miles to go, ha, ha, ha you’re gonna be out here all night, good luck!’ My Business mind is racing through scenarios of how to run the most tactical race, saying ‘we are here to place top 3, here’s how to hold position…’ My alter ego, my lunatic character is off singing a camp song ‘O’Susanna’ and trying to pretend that I’m not even running today. My Spiritual and Emotional side is in the corner on both knees, praying and counting spiritual beads or something, crying and begging God to ‘save us all’. My Intellect is ignoring everyone and is trying to figure out what the hell are the best options for fuel and hydration at this moment. Oh man, it can get intense in the late stages of these races. Hundreds are awesome!
I roll into the 75 mile aid station with serious force. I’m yelling up to the aid station volunteers as I approach the tables. ‘Fast! I need to get out of here! I NEED ICE. ICE PLEASE, I need Ice in my water bottle, QUICKLY PLEASE!’
I hand off my bottle a volunteer. I empty the gel wrappers out of my waist pack, I grab 4 pieces of watermelon, I crush them into my mouth, I inhale them instantly, I grab 4 more pieces. “FAST, I gotta Go guys!” Watermelon is flying out of my mouth as fast as it’s going in. It’s my own Rocky scene, its round 10. I look like hell, but my heart is pounding as hard as ever. I can taste the windblown dust running down the sweat on my face and into my mouth. My eyes burn from the salt I’m sweating out of my blood. My shorts are full of smears, snot, salt and peanut butter. I’m speaking with jumbled words, I’m a mess, but inside I feel like I’m on fire!
They hand me back my bottle, I grab another ¼ peanut butter sandwich, they’re serving me well. The fat has me stable, my blood feels locked and loaded. Sugar, salt, some fats, I’m in the zone, these are the moments I live for. I’m loving it.
I’m about to sprint off down the trail into the woods when something suddenly happens that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I hear a voice call out to me, a simple question. Yet the voice goes into me like a cloud, something different went into my ears at that moment. I look up and see an older man on the other side of the aid station table. He’s hunched over a bit, his hair all white, weathered wrinkles on his face hands and fingers, he’s tough but peaceful looking. His voice was soothing, mature, hypnotic in some odd way. He asks me in the most mysterious way, “Are you running One Hundred Kilometers or One Hundred Miles?”
Time pauses for me. My brain goes from processing time at 30 frames per second to 60 frames per second. A wind blows through my entire body. Suddenly I am standing completely vertical, shoulders up, head and chin straight as an eagle. I look at this messenger of a man with eyes of determination like never before. I respond with Exactness, Certainty and power, “I – am – Running – One – Hundred – Miles” I turn my head to the right, then my body runs as if it’s on a pivot. I look ahead with blurred vision of determination, I am gone in an instant up the single track trail through the deep woods of Vermont.
A few moments later I recount my own words. I internalize them, I didn’t respond to this man’s question, I was speaking through all the chaos in my head; I was making laws in Parliament, I was inscribing words on stone tablets. I was in fact Running one hundred miles. I wasn’t jogging, nor had I been jogging at any time for the last 4+ hours, I had been running, running with heart, not letting up or getting lazy, Running. In that moment at the 75 mile aid station I knew that I was going to win the race. I knew it deeply, yet I still had to execute it to reality. I tried not to think about the experience too much, I pushed myself to focus on one step at a time.
I went back into micromanagement details. Hydration, calories, roots and rocks on the trail, stride length, arms, skin chaffing issues, ‘Mike! Watch for those course markers!’ I looked for markers with sharp eyes, I didn’t want to get lost like I had the previous year at this race. I push my pace but not getting out of control. I start with the mantras again, for the next 90 minutes I am repeating positive reinforcement to myself over and over and over again. I keep to a few key phrases; ‘I want to achieve my greatest human potential’, again, again, again, for 15 minutes I say this over and over. Then; ‘Patience, Patience, Patience…’ Then; ‘Relax, Relax, Relax, Breathe, Breathe, Breathe, Relax, Relax Relax’
There is a lot of drama going on, I’ve been here before. I know I’m a little bit psychotic, a little bit unstable. I’m back in the oval meeting room with the Generals of my emotions, we’re at it again; but this time we’re making our final plans for the mission. We’re all trying to agree on a final plan together. We all seem to agree now, we all say ‘go for it’.
I get to the mile 85 aid station. I call out ahead and warn the volunteers that I am in a very big rush, that I am in a RACE. My bottle gets filled with ice, water, I grab melons, some m+m’s, cup of coke for the caffeine – it’s nitro time. Another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I throw away the bread and jelly, I just need the peanut butter. I got an incinerator stomach going, I’m vaporizing calories. I rush out questions, particles flying out of my mouth, ‘How much time do they have on me?’ Someone calls out, “2 minutes on 2nd place, 5 minutes on the leader” I crack a slight 1/4 smile. My hand grasps the inside sleeve of my water bottle. Me and Wilson are about to make history and I know it. I power off down the road like I’m in a half marathon race. ‘Steady, Steady, Relax,…’
I come out into a clearing the road ahead bears off to the right. About a ¼ mile in the distance I can see 2 runners together. I come up behind them seemingly in an instant. I pass quickly. It was the guy from Seattle, he was running in a half-shuffle, still moving; but 90 miles of mountain running was showing its toll on him. I don’t say anything; or maybe I threw out a ‘hang in there’ I really don’t remember, I was in another place in my head.
Mile 90 and the aid station is in sight. It’s an old barn on the side of the dirt road I’ve been running on for the last 5 miles. There are a lot of people standing there. This is the last big aid station in the race. I’m absolutely flying. I know I’m running too fast, but I really really want to get the first place runner in my sights. I know Leigh Schmitt is in first; and I know his abilities. I need to catch him, to figure out what his physical state is like. I need recon on his current physical situation, I say out loud to myself ‘where is he….’
I bomb down the slope to the barn and yell out that I need ‘ICE’, the medic’s order me on the last weight scale to check me out and make sure I’m ‘ok’. I think to myself, ‘if these guys don’t let me get out of here in an instant I don’t know what I’ll do’. 127, perfect! They ask me “how are you doing?” I say something like ‘I’m doing better than ‘ok’, did you see me fly down that road?’ I jump off the scale, I rush into the barn to grab some watermelon and maybe another ¼ peanut butter sandwich.
I’m startled. I see Leigh Schmitt running out of the barn in the other direction, out onto the trail. I audibly say ‘Holy Shit!’ as I realize that I’m right on top of the leader now. I shovel some food into my mouth like an animal, I dump a few glasses of water over my head to wash away the grime and run off after Leigh.
There is an emergency council meeting taking place in my head. Each character is calling out and I hear nothing, I’m bouncing around ideas and emotions in my head like crazy. I say to myself ‘Damn it Mike, you gave away your stealth race tactic, you were supposed to hang-back a ½ mile behind Leigh until 3 miles to go! Now he knows you’re right behind him!’ Quick: ‘what do I do, what do I do, what do I do??’ ‘Pass?’ ‘No, stay back’, ‘No go go go, run with Heart, GO!’ As I try and decide what to do I soon find myself already ahead of Leigh. I made my pass, I made the choice by not making a choice, I had already jumped off the mother ship a long time ago. I was the wind in my own sails, I was taking this all the way or nothing!
Steve Prefontaine’s image crossed my mind. Steve Prefontaine ran with Heart. I like to think, I always want to feel, I always want to be, running with Heart. Prefontaine once said ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift’.
Oh lord! I am on fire now! After pushing those words through my mind I released a flood of adrenaline like none other. The non-technical single track trail before me was a sloping downhill with wide graceful turns. This was Formula-One racing conditions on trails!, Smashing excitement bombing through the pine forests! I looked back slightly. Leigh was right behind me, he looked very strong. I wasn’t intimidated though, I felt as if I was unstoppable. I didn’t want to pass Leigh without showing him the respect he deserves. I said to him (and meant this sincerely), ‘Leigh, I pass with great apprehension, the depth and power of your physical abilities is something that I respect greatly’. I hit the gas pedal like no other time in the race. I was running extremely fast, full stride, flying, absolutely flying. I put in a mile as fast as I could. Adrenaline was pumping very strong. I start to realize that I am literally leading the Vermont 100 at mile 92. I absolutely can’t believe this is happening to me right now, it’s an absolute dream of dreams.
I run out of the forest into a huge open field, it’s all down-hill. The grass is really thick and heavy. It’s impossible to see if there are rocks or big holes in the grass, I pray that my footing stays safe as I crush down-hill. I run up and over another small hill, the thick grass will end soon; then a very steep climb up another dirt road. I push up the hill very very hard. I’d certainly walk this grade at any other time in the race, but this is a different circumstance! I am breathing very heavy, I am sweating like mad, I refuse to turn around and see where Leigh is. I say to myself ‘NO! Do NOT turn around, you are running with Heart! You are running with every bit of what you can muster, you will not let up – GO damn it! Go!’
I run all the way up the long steep hill. I hit a paved road, it goes up and up again. I’m pushing hard as hell. I perk my ears up. I won’t turn around; but I am listening for footsteps behind me. I say to myself, ‘None of this bullshit, GO!’ and I slap my hearing sense out of the Generals War room instantly.
I get to the next aid station, I’m yelling up ahead again, ‘ICE, ICE, FAST, There is a guy right behind me!’ The aid station workers rush like there is an 11 station alarm fire back home in the Bronx, there is a frenzy of activity. “What’s your number?” one volunteer calls out, ‘8!’ ‘How far is the next aid station?’ “2.3 miles, after that it’s the finish line” ‘Good! Ok, Awesome, you guys Rock! Thanks! Tell the next guy behind me I’m 10 minutes in front!’ Off I go.
For the next few miles I go through a lot of emotions and thoughts. I am running as fast as I can, often thinking that I’m running way too fast. I am rolling the dice, I am giving these last 10 miles my all, I want this win, I REALLY want this. I cannot believe that I am leading the race, I cannot believe that I am finally having my breakthrough performance in the 100 mile distance. I know deeply that I have the ability to run a hundred miles very fast; but I’ve had so much self-doubt after so many failed attempts and so many poor performances.
I didn’t trust the situation completely. I thought I might fall through a trap door and suddenly be powerless and crash to the ground like I had experienced before in other races. I wanted to turn around so many times but I refused and refused. I pushed aside any over confidence about a win, there was no celebrating to think about yet. I kept telling myself, ‘I want to achieve my greatest human potential, again, again,’ ‘Relax, Relax, Relax’ Over and over the mantras of positive reinforcement played.
Then it happened.
I was cresting the top of the last hill; there was less than a half mile to the finish line. I turned back for the first time since I passed Leigh. I saw no one, the air was still, the trees were all standing tall for me, everything was perfect. I was at the top of Mt. Everest, this was my moment, I crack open a bit; and my eyes swell up, I exhale with deep emotion. Everyone is screaming with cheer in the Generals war room!
I fully accept that I am about to win the Vermont 100. It IS going to happen. I now fully appreciate the moment, I BELIEVE that it is happening, I AM achieving my greatest human potential.
The last ½ mile is single track soft non-technical trail, a dream to run on. I am in FULL stride, I could run a 400m lap on the track in 64 seconds right now, and I’m doing it! I raise my arms in ecstasy, I am yelling; hoopin’, and hollarin’. I’m running on my toes, pushing my knees high into the sky with each step, I am absolutely going mad crazy! People are cheering at the finish, I fly by a bunch of young kids that have run out onto the trail to see ‘The Winner’, I see a few of their faces, they look at me with amazement. One of these kids is gonna win the Vermont 100 one day just like me! My emotions crack, I’m having one of the greatest moments of my life. I cross the finish line like Joan Benoit in the 1984 Olympic Marathon. I just won my own gold medal. I DID IT! I REALLY DID IT!
I keep running, literally. I run through the finish, and continue on across the cow field another 100 meters when I finally realize that I need to stop running! I’m hoopin and hollarin, people are getting such a show out of me, it’s a big party! It’s Party Time! Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow was that fun! Yahoooo! This is Ultra Life! Dozens and dozens of comments on this write up can be seen here to: http://www.30bananasaday.com/profiles/blogs/the-vermont-100-mile-ultra?xg_source=activity
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