Tuesday, June 1, 2010

McNaughton 200

If you’re in the mood to attempt a 200-mile race, I suggest three things: a good crew, lots of socks and some body glide. You can figure everything else out along the way.

I, for reasons I can’t fully explain, attempted the McNaughton 200-miler in Pittsfield, Vermont. This race is put on by Andy Weinberg, the guy who used to put on the McNaughton Park trail races in Illinois then packed up the family and moved to scenic Vermont. I made it 120 miles before calling it quits. I’m proud of every one of those 120 miles.

The course was billed, initially, as a hilly mountain course with approx 1,000 feet of elevation gain per 10-mile loop. When I first signed up I figured 1,000 feet per loop isn’t all that bad over 10 miles. A couple of days before the race Andy got a course profile up and changed the elevation gain to ~2,700 per loop. The profile looked nasty:

Trust me, it gets steeper (up and down) each loop.

I began my trip by meeting my pacer, Greg Burger, in Boston on Wednesday. We grabbed a rental car and picked up some last-minute items from REI and Target - mostly food for the run. We weren’t sure what kind of support we’d have on Thursday and Friday nights. So, we took extra stuff with us just to be safe - some of which I ended up returning once we got back to Boston after the race...you know, things like folding chairs and bottles of Pedialyte.

We got up somewhat early on Thursday morning, ate, and headed north to Vermont. The drive was relatively quick and took us through some scenic New Hampshire and Vermont countryside. I loved seeing some of the historic cities I’d only ever read about go by on the highway: Salem, Concord, etc. It was my first time in Vermont or New Hampshire and I was loving it.

We arrived in Pittsfield around noon and headed straight for the General Store. Pittsfield isn’t as much a town as it is more a bunch of buildings that line the state highway. It was nice tho, it was really what I pictured Vermont to be like. Lots of old houses and barns overlooking farms and valleys. The General Store was a real treat. They had everything you needed there - pizza, sub sandwiches, all kinds of groceries and local produce. They also had a breakfast challenge: eat 6 eggs, 6 pieces of bacon, 6 pancakes and 2 orders of hash browns in 30 minutes and you get it for free. I seriously considered taking them up on it later in the week but never got a chance.

Right when we pulled into the General Store another car pulled up with two people who just looked like runners. They started to get out and I asked them if they were there for the race. They looked at me oddly and said yeah. It ended up being Phil Rosenstein and Iliana Dimitrova, both of whom we all got to know very well over the next few days and both of whom were simply fantastic people. The four of us ended up eating lunch at the store together which was great because we got to hear Phil regal us with stories about almost every 100 in the country - he’s done most all of them.

We left the General Store and went looking for packet pickup, which didn’t officially start until 4 but we figured we’d find some others there waiting. We were right. There were a few runners mulling around along with some of the folks associated with the race. Andy wasn’t there yet, but the wife of another of the organizers was there. She helped me get the box of supplies I had shipped myself (I didn’t want to pay to carry the stuff on the airplane) which included my tent, sleeping bag, and most of my clothes. I know, it was a risk if my stuff got lost, but it was way easier than lugging it up there myself.

Initially we thought we’d be able to camp at the start/finish. Unfortunately, some cranky neighbor was not a fan of our little race and got the authorities involved to find out if Andy had a permit to allow people to camp on the land. Turns out, he didn’t, so we were going to have to find a new place to camp. The only other option was at the mile 5 aid station (well, it was more like mile 4.3...I’ll get to the mileage later) which was almost on top of the mountain we were running up and down.

So, up we went to almost the top of the mountain to scout out campsites and to try to get some rest. Phil had a giant tarp - I’m talking like half of a tennis court - that he let me and some other folks put our tents up on. This would help keep them dry...something that we needed later in the race. Space was a bit limited up at the top, so we all kind of cramped into the flat spots where we could.

After getting my tent setup I wanted some rest. Greg relaxed in the car while I laid down in the tent and tried to get some sleep. I didn’t have much luck - I read a bit and closed my eyes, but never got to sleep. I was back up within an hour, ready to head down to the race start.

Before the race started I had some time to explore the barn that would serve as the start/finish area. It was huge and gorgeous. There was lots of space on its three floors, along with restrooms and showers available for runners. The only downside was that it wasn’t heated which would have been fantabulious come Friday and Saturday night. I also got a chance to chat with some of the other runners, some of the other crew, as well as some of the staff that lived and worked at the farm. These were younger guys doing work on the farm for room and board. They ended up being an essential part of the race - helping with the aid stations and providing entertainment by burning random things during the run.

The 6pm start came quickly. I started the race in tights and a long sleeve technical shirt. It was around 60 at race start but the temps were forecast to drop into the mid-40’s within the next few hours. Greg wanted to get a lap in during daylight but he knew he couldn’t start running with me until mile 50. So, he asked Andy if he could start 30 minutes behind everyone so he could get a look at the course in the daylight. Andy told him not to worry about it and to just start with us. That tells you the kind of guy Andy is, very laid back.

The start wasn’t much. Andy told us we were tough for even giving the 200-mile race a shot, a description I’m always sheepish about accepting. Everyone there cheered for us and lots of hugging and hand shaking was had by all.

And, At that, we were off, with 72 hours to finish 200 miles. Lots of uncharted territory ahead of most of us runners.

The course starts off gently with a 1/2 mile trek out to a river. There’s 3 short and STEEP declines on this 1/2 mile stretch. Declines I knew I’d hate on the way back in each loop. This was, by far, the flattest part of the course. The grass in this section was nice and soft and a dream to run on.

We headed over the river on a “bridge” I was sheepish to walk across, and I’d certainly never ever drive a car across. We made a quick right turn and started climbing. Oh, the climbing.

Now, when I looked at the course profile I knew there’d be some climbing involved, but I imagined nothing like what we had in front of us. If you assume there’s 2,700 feet of elevation gain per loop, and it’s all to be had in 4.5 miles of each loop, you’re looking at a 11% uphill grade for the first half of the course. It felt steeper. I’ve ran up Pike’s Peak a couple of times and I think the first half of this course was steeper than that trek (albeit with more atmosphere).

The first half mile or so in the woods was pure uphill. It was somewhat manageable until we hit the stairs, which was funny, because there were no stairs there, but the grade was the same a a standard set of stairs. This was one of those hills that you almost had to grab onto roots to pull yourself up. Going up it I couldn’t help but wonder what it’d look like in the rain (I’d find out later). It was about 100 yards long and I bet the grade was at least 30%. It wore you down both physically and mentally.

After that we got a slow half mile or so descent back to the level of the river. Clearly, this became annoying since we had just climbed up from the river. Yes, I did get bitter at the course during the race. There were some muddy spots along this stretch, but nothing too terrible. Looking at the course profile I see we hit the bottom of this downhill at mile 2.

Our descent ended and we began the long, slow slog to the top of the mountain. This was the beginning of what would be an essentially 4 mile nonstop climb. We began with some switchbacks that went on for-freaking-ever. Some of these were runnable, others, not so much. Surprisingly, I can’t tell you how many switchbacks there were, I never bothered to count. I think I was so disoriented on each loop that I failed to pay attention to some of the details like that.

After a mile or so of those switchbacks we hit the escalator. The best way to describe the escalator is to imagine a 10’ wide dirt road, in the woods, covered in grass and gravel, from which you can see the end from the beginning - a half a mile away. It was intense. Every lap all I did was put my head down and walk it. I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, no looking up or down. I managed to get through it everytime without getting too discouraged.

After the escalator, more switchbacks. Yay! They just kept going. By this point we were near the 4 mile point. Now, if you look at the course profile, you’ll see a quick ascent from about 1,500’ to 1,800’ at mile 4. I don’t think this ascent was that sharp, it was much more gradual. If it did it would have been the steepest part of the course, and I’m sure I would have remembered it.

Shortly after this we plodded out of the woods and hit the road going up to the “halfway” aid station. Andy claimed it was at mile 5 but there was no way this was right. It had to be mile 4.3 or so. (Later in the race one of the pacers marked the 5 mile point of the course and it was about 3/4 of a mile past the aid station.) On my first loop I took the time to take off my innov8 socks which were rubbing the back of my heel funny. I changed into a basic pair of athletic socks and kept moving.

After the aid station we were in for more climbing. Another mile and a half to the top of the mountain. It was mostly switchbacks at first. Slow moving. Switchbacks. Ugh.

Near the top we hit this section of forest called the labyrinth. The name was fitting. The sun was still up on the first loop but we had to use our flashlights to see where we were going since the trees blocked most of the light. It was a nightmare in there. The course weaved back and forth and you had to quickly look for the markings while looking back down for tree roots and rocks grabbing at your ankles or throwing themselves onto your toes. It sucked. I rarely hate any part of a course, but I hated the labyrinth. I dreaded it worse than the stairs or the escalator every loop. To be fair, others loved it. I dunno, it just didn’t appeal to me.

After stumbling out of the labyrinth we climbed another short hill to the top of the mountain. The view from the top was nice. You could see into the valley we had climbed out of but not much else. Really, by that point, all I wanted to do was get off the mountain. Also near the top were a couple of small ponds, one of which I became intimately familiar with on the next lap, I’ll get to that.

So, if you’re following along you’ve noticed that the climb up was pretty steep. Any clues as to what the downhill would be like? Yeah, really steep. Painfully steep actually. So steep some parts were almost non-runnable.

The first downhill is an intense run down a gravel-like road. It hurt on the first go-around so I knew it’d suck the more miles I put on my feet. It went on forever. The course profile makes it look like a mile-long downhill. I don’t think it was that long, but it was close.

The next 2 miles was essentially a series of rocky switchbacks with some climbing but mostly descending. It got tiring after a while in this section. Again, some of the downhills were steep enough to make them not runnable late in a race when you’ve got lots and lots of miles on your joints.

I think if you knew the course well in this section you could have cut a lot of it. There were some obvious paths that cut down the mountain steeper than we were going so it would have made sense that they would have intersected the course at some point. Most of the markings were good enough through here that you’d have to intentionally cut it, but there were a couple of spots where you could get confused late at night (or during the day if you were super tired) and accidentally cut it.

The mountain extracted one more pound of endurance before letting you back out at the river towards the end of the downhill. We had two very steep uphills, almost as steep as the stairs, before letting us out onto another steep downhill. This one dropping about 400’ in 1/3 of a mile or so. It was a real bruiser.

Finally we stumbled to the riverbed and crossed the bridge for the 1/2 mile relatively-flat trek (except for those three short nasty uphills) back to the start/finish. Whew. Only gotta do that 19 more times! Easy!

That first loop took me 2 hours and 19 minutes (I think) and it would be my quickest loop of the entire race. I ate a bit and headed back out for another loop. No point in mulling around. I planned to run through the night and sleep at some point on Friday night/Saturday morning.

My second loop was uneventful, as far as I can recall, except for when I had to go to the bathroom at the top of the mountain. Remember those three little ponds I mentioned earlier? Yeah, well, I needed to pee about the time I ran by those things. So, for some reason, I figured it’d be fun to pee in one of the ponds. I mean, there’s literally miles of forest around me and I have to go out of my way to pee in a big pool of standing water? This was a very male thing to want to do I guess.

Well, I got near the edge of the pond and started peeing. Next thing I know I’m slipping in and trying to catch myself (with a handheld water bottle) while my other hand was busy holding something else. This didn’t work out to well for my balance. I ended up taking a step forward into the water, thinking it wouldn’t be too deep. Nope. It was super deep. That first step put me in to my knee. Falling that far down made me pull the other leg in to compensate. So, there I am, standing knee-deep in a giant puddle, at night, still peeing, wondering how-the-fuck I got there. I had wet feet the rest of the loop.

Greg met me at the end of the second loop, got me setup for the run that night, and sent me on my way. I ended up running the first half of the third loop with Phil Rosenstein, the guy we had lunch with earlier that day. Phil was having some problems breathing and was back at my pace (which is to say: slow). His light wasn’t working very well and neither was my headlamp. Luckily, my handheld was holding up so we made it through the first half of the loop on just that. Phil is a great guy and I really enjoyed talking to him. He has some amazing ultrarunning accomplishments, including running across the US - the hard way.

I don’t remember much about the fourth or fifth loops. I zoned myself out by listening to physiology lectures and keeping myself moving. I didn’t come across a lot of other runners during the night. I think we all kind of kept the same pace at night, slow and consistent.

I think I finished the 50 around 8 on Friday morning. Greg met me at the start/finish and forced me to eat a pretty good breakfast of, well, I don’t remember, but it was tasty. From this point forward Greg would run every mile of the race with me.

By this point my feet were in decent shape. I was on my second pair of shoes and socks (the first replaced after the peeing incident). What wasn’t in decent shape was the tenderly precious area in between my legs behind my, well, that thing that’s technically called the perineum - I’ll let you look it up. It was hurting. In fact, it was bleeding. Ouch. I attempted to remedy this, for the last time EVER, by applying additional Vaseline to the area. Yeah, bad idea. Very bad idea. Vaseline is useless in this situation. What I should have done, was put body glide on before the race. I bet this cost me a couple of hours in the race just because of the extra walking I did because running was so painful.

I changed my compression shorts and got all the Vaseline out I could. That helped. Luckily, shortly after that, my feet started hurting which helped mask the pain I was feeling ‘down there’ with every step. Ultrarunning is all about balance folks.

At some point on Friday I ate most of a pizza. I also ate a lot of other stuff, ran some more loops, annoyed Greg with my walking, and lots of other things. Most of which I don’t remember. Perhaps my brain is blocking the pain from my feet and my crotch from me now. I dunno. All I know is I managed to get to 90 miles around 7pm on Friday night.

There was a storm-a-brewing by this point in the night. We knew we were going to get rain at some point in the weekend, it was bound to happen. I think Greg and I debated whether to take a break at 90 but eventually decided it would be best to keep going to the mentally important 100-mile mark. So, we did.

I also think mile 90 is where I met Deanna Stoppler and her mom. Deanna lived in the KC area at some point and ran some of the Trail Nerds races while she was here. According to Greg she was pretty fast, which she proved the next day by taking 4th overall in the 30 miler. In talking to her and Greg I knew I wasn’t looking too great. They both commented on my dazed (glassy) look. I needed some sleep.

Erin, my girlfriend, and her friend April were heading up from NYC on Friday night. They had originally planned to take a train to Rutland, VT then Greg would go get them and bring them to Pittsfield. Unfortunately the Amtrak train they were planning on taking was sold out on Friday night, so, they had to resort to renting a car and driving themselves up from the city. I think Erin really enjoyed driving in NYC traffic...no, not really. She wasn’t in by the time we got in at mile 90, another reason we decided to go on out for another loop.

I started that 10th loop out pretty strong. I think I had some coffee and coke at the aid station before going and that got me moving pretty well. I know Greg kept commenting on the strong pace we were keeping. We got to the aid station in about an hour and a half. A good clip considering I was on mile 95. At this point I completely fell apart. Mentally I just checked out. I had been up for 40+ hours. I was d-u-n.

Greg did what any good pacer would do and made me sit down by a fire (it was cold) and started shoving food into my mouth. I wasn’t up to arguing so I just kept eating and sitting - hell, who could complain about that? Greg also had some of the guys at the aid station make me a hot dog. I thought it’d be gross but it turned out to be fantastic. The only bad thing Greg fed me was some Monster energy drink. Ewww! It was disgusting at that point in the race. It almost made me puke.

We took off and I did ok until the top of the mountain. I think it was around there that I started seeing things in the trees and on the trail. I kept it to myself at first. It was usually people I’d see. Trees and bushes turned into spectators lining the trail in my head.

Not too long after that it started getting weird. The rocks on the downhill section became toys. I saw toy trains, toy dolls, just the most random stuff ever. And stuff besides people started popping up on the side of the trail. I saw a mailbox, some piggy banks, more people. Trees and stumps started to move. They became very fluid. I was totally tripping.

If I was ever to appreciate modern art, this was the time. I started reflecting to myself on what designs I was seeing that I might find in a museum. I came to the conclusion that while hallucinating, any modern art must be fascinating.

I also think I kept telling Greg how happy I was he was there and how sorry I was I was walking. I probably sounded like a way-too-friendly drunk constantly apologizing and repeating myself. I was a hoot.

Eventually, we got to the finish. Me in mostly one piece. My brain in several pieces. We walked up the hill to find Erin and April waiting for us. I think I came in around 1 am. My 100 mile time was about 31:30. Longest 100 I’ve ever run. I was bushed.

Being the fantastic pacer he was Greg had told everyone about my hallucinations prior to me walking into the start/finish. I was immediately greeted with “hey, seen any mailboxes lately” or “dude, did you find my piggybank”. Jerks. They all loved it. Me, who had been up for 40-some-odd-hours, was not as amused.

By this point it was definitely time for a nap. We had made arrangements to crash on cots across the road at a bed and breakfast. I hadn’t been there yet but we just assumed we could walk in and pick a cot and sleep. Well, we got there and found every cot was taken. This was a problem. I really needed to sleep.

Luckily April had made friends with the person watching the bed and breakfast that night. He said we were welcome to come to the main floor and crash on the couch up there. That was the most amazing thing I think I’ve ever heard. I swear, I felt like the luckiest guy on Earth because I got to sleep on a couch that night (and I knew Erin would be there too, of course).

So, we all stumbled upstairs. Erin and April helped clean me off a bit with some baby wipes and I laid down to sleep.

I bet I was asleep in 10 seconds. If I dreamed, I don’t recall what I dreamed. My brain was probably too tired to even do that.

Apparently Erin woke me up around 5 the next morning, telling me I had to get going again. I don’t recall this. Somehow I managed to get her to let me sleep a bit longer - until about 7 or 8. At which point I woke up to find it pouring outside. From our vantage point we could see the start/finish and the 100-milers and the 30-milers were fixin‘ to start. I looked at all of them, in the rain, shivering, and just lost all motivation to run.

That was the point where I gave up on the 200-mile distance. Not going back out around 5 or 6 that morning was a death blow to my chances to finish 200 under the cutoff. At the pace I was going I essentially had to keep walking the rest of the time to get a 200-mile finish. Wasn’t gonna happen.

So, we kind of slacked around the bed and breakfast for a little then headed to the start/finish to grab some breakfast. I’m not sure what it was, but it was tasty. It was tasty enough to convince Greg and I to head out for another loop in the rain. It ended up not being as bad as I thought. Kind of like Wyco but with less viscous mud.

We got to the aid station on top of the mountain and as we were walking up one of the volunteers called out “hey, it’s the hot dog dude!”. He totally made that loop for me.

My feet were wet the entire loop and they really started to bother me on the downhill sections. We got back in (in about 3 hours and 30 minutes [I think]) and I asked Phil to take a look at them to tell me what was going on. He was very direct:

Phil (deadpan): Well, I’ve seen this before.
Me (eagerly): What is it?
Phil (deadpan): Well, it looks like trenchfoot.
Me: Trenchfoot? Who gets trenchfoot?
Phil (deadpan): See it a lot in races.
Me: So, what do you need to pop to fix it?
Phil (deadpan): You don’t.
Me (dejected): Hrm.

Essentially the bottom of my feet were falling off. No blister to pop. Just a layer of skin to remove at some point. It hurts.

I put new socks and dry shoes on. We ate a bit more and got ready for the girls to go on the next loop with us. I made Erin and April bring along a poncho because I knew it’d start raining again and I didn’t want them soaked with us walking and it getting cold. I didn’t think they’d be able to keep themselves warm at the pace we were moving if they were soaking wet. (They can thank me later!)

I headed out for my 12th and final loop around 3 or 4pm. The pace was not record-setting. We walked a lot. April was training for a half marathon and really wanted to get some running in, so her and Greg ran some of the sections before the climbs began. The course was muddy and there wasn’t much point in avoiding it, especially when it started to rain about an hour into our loop.

The rain was constant as we went up the mountain and seemed to be getting worse the closer we got to the top. Great. Just what I wanted. Run 11 and 1/2 loops then get nailed by lighting. We hightailed it across the top of the mountain when we got there, crouched a bit - like it would help.

We all managed to make it back to the start/finish in one piece. It was pretty late, if I recall, around 8 or so. I think that loop took us about 3:30, so we must have started it around 5, not 3 or 4. Waiting for us were 2 large pizzas. Yummmmm. I ate 3/4 of one almost immediately. It was fantastic.

Now, in retrospect, I should have gone out for another loop at this point. I actually had a lot of energy. But, something told me to call it a night, which I did. I got a shower, ate some more, and crawled onto my cot (there were free cots now since the 100-milers had started). I was asleep within minutes.

The plan was to do another 30 on Sunday for a total of 150.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

I woke up Sunday morning and my feet were swollen. I felt like I was walking on little beanbags. It was kinda fun actually.

I was clean and sore and didn’t really have the desire to go out for another loop. It was snowing at that point and cold and there was good breakfast to be had at the start/finish. So, we all just kinda hung out there, talking to other folks and watching some of the runners trickle in and out. By that point there were only two 200-milers still out. Ryan and Mike - both of whom would finish.

Shortly after that we packed up and headed South to Boston. April caught a ride with Iliana back to NYC - which just goes to show you what a nice person Iliana is (she was super helpful all throughout the race).

That was that.

I believe only 7 people finished the 100. 2 finished the 200. Not many even finished the 30-miler. It was a tough course and tough conditions.

I don’t really have that “I shoulda kept going” feeling about this race. I’m proud of the 120 miles I put in. I do kind of regret not doing another loop on Sat night, but I’ll get over that.

Greg made some jokes about running it next year. I actually hope he does. It’s fun in a very very masochist-ultrarunner kind of way.

I really owe Greg, Erin and April for helping me out during the run. They made it happen. All the volunteers at the race were great also as were the other runners and the crew.