(Finish festivities at VT50 - as Brian cruises in)
The Vermont 50 has become an annual tradition for us. Brian's had great success at this race (winning in 2009, 2010 and 2012). I've had successes (winning the 50 miler in 2012 and winning the 50k in 2010 and 2011, and what I consider my 'break through race' at the 50 miler in 2008), and challenges (dropping in 2009), and have run both the 50 miler and 50k races over the years. In 2012, in our first ultra after getting married, Brian and I both won the 50 miler in our first race as 'the Rusieckis', which was a very special day for us. This year we were excited to spend another day running through the fall foliage in Vermont, passing miles with fellow runners who have become friends over the years, cruising around on the sweet single track, and sharing the trails with mountain bikers who are as passionate about their sport as I am about running.
Brian and I returned this year as 'reigning champions', but knew that given the stacked start list we would be unlikely to defend our titles. I didn't care, I was focused on trying to break 8 hours, which was a goal I set for myself back before my 2009 race - I got closest last year when I finished in 8:18. Brian just wanted to run a strong race and see how it went.
(Hanging out pre-race with Aliza)
Leaving Skunk Hollow is several miles of uphill on a dirt road - likely the worst thing for me when I'm struggling. My friend Greg caught up to me, and we worked together to get through the dirt road section. I kept focusing on getting up Garvin Hill, which was our next aid station. During my first VT50, I remember that the view from Garvin Hill was incredible - it's the highest point on the course, and with the fall foliage, you just see hill after hill and mile after mile of leaves turning red and yellow and orange. I haven't seen the view since - in 2008 it was foggy and wet, 2009 was rainy, in 2010 and 2011 I ran the 50k (which doesn't go up Garvin Hill) and 2012 it was raining again. I was starting to wonder if there really was an amazing view, or if I had just imagined it in my 'oh my gosh, I'm running my first 50 miler, isn't everything beautiful' crazy mind. As I crested Garvin Hill this year, I confirmed that this was an incredible view and one worth working for - the early morning fog had mostly burned out or settled in the valleys, so there was white clouds with these vibrant hill tops sticking out above. It helped to turn my spirits around.
(Sharing early miles with fellow runners and bikers)
Running mostly on trails after mile 17, I was much happier and able to take stock of my capabilities. Folks weren't really passing me anymore, and while I wasn't able to run the uphills strong, I felt great opening up my stride on the downhills and flats - so I focused on doing what I could and managing the best race I possible. Looking at my watch, I felt that a sub-8 hour finish was still within my reach, I just didn't have much room for error.
After the Cady Brook aid station (mile 23), the trail runs parallel to a river through the woods for a mile or two at a slight uphill (but runnable) grade. During my first 50 miler, I remember walking this entire stretch and afterwards feeling like I had wasted time there. The following year, I focused on being able to run up that stretch - knowing it would save me a ton of time and set the tone for the second half of the race - and I didn't even walk when a runner near me told me I was going to burn out by the end of the race if I ran that whole stretch. I thought about those memories as I easily ran up the now seemingly gentle grade - it's amazing how far I've come as a runner over the years, and great to remember the challenges that are so much easier now. After this stretch was the last long dirt road section, so I just tried to stay focused and loose as I ran up the road, past Margaritaville, past my friend Kelly (who gave me a hug as I ran by), and closer and closer to the trails. I knew once I hit the trail that I would be at the Greenall's aid station (mile 32) in no time where there would be crews to cheer me on and that it was basically all trail from there.
(By mile 30, I was finally loving the day!)
Around mile 40, I was cruising a downhill and telling a fellow runner how I have a 'bet' with one of my training buddies Meghan about today's race. Pineland Farms this year was her first ultra, so we challenged each other - last to the finish line owes the other a beer! At Pineland, I had a 2 hour head start, and 19 more miles to run. I think I beat her to the finish line by about 30 minutes. At Vermont, we decided to have a similar challenge - and to make it tougher, I had to run 19 more miles but only had 85 minutes extra to do it! I figured I'd never see Meghan out there - but sure enough, just as I was telling a fellow runner about our wager, I came upon Meghan. While she might not have gotten as good a time as she got at Pinelands, she was having a blast and in great spirits. I didn't hang with her more than a few strides - I knew I have very little cushion (if any) on my 8-hour goal.
(Brian cruised the entire way)
Just past Meghan, there was a small uphill climb, and we came upon Linda's aid station (mile 41), where my pacer, Sara, was waiting, eager to run with me. This aid station had moved from last year - and quickly I saw why, in the location of last year's aid station was a beautiful wedding tent on one side of the trail and the ceremony set up on the other side - overlooking a beautiful view of Mt. Ascutney. Sara and I enjoyed that view, and many more as we wove through the trails and fields in Vermont, creeping closer and closer to Ascutney as it hung in our foreground - it was wonderful to have the company of a fellow runner, and even better to have a runner who is contemplating her first ultramarathon. Seeing how much fun Sara was having on the trails and with this community of people, I know that she'd love ultras and really do well - hopefully she'll be competing in the Vermont 50 next year!
As I picked up Sara, I noted that I was about 20 minutes ahead of my 2012 time (with an 8:18 finish), so as long as I didn't slow down (and as long as the course was similar length from here to the finish, which is always a gamble), I should be just under 8 hours at the finish. Sara and I passed droves of 50k runners (maybe even a few hurting 50 mile runners, who knows) and worked our way through the rocky single track towards the last aid station as I focused on keeping a strong pace. Once we got to Johnson's (advertised as mile 48), the last aid station, I checked my watch to see how much time I had to reach the finish and was please to see I had 35 minutes to cover the remaining 2.5 "advertised" miles. I asked the aid station volunteers to confirm the remaining mileage, and got answers between 3 and 3.5 miles - which was a bit unsettling and confusing. Either way, I would have to keep the accelerator pressed to reach my goal. As Sara and I worked our way up Ascutney towards the finish, the aid station volunteer's story was confirmed - we passed the '3 miles to go' sign. I glanced at my watch to see I had about 31 minutes.
(With my pacer, Sara, closing in on the finish)
I focused on trying to run as much of the uphill as we climbed Ascutney, and kept glancing at my watch as the minutes ticked off. We passed the '2.5 mile to go', and I about 26 minutes. '2 miles to go', about 21 minutes. I ran with determination up the last few climbs, and by '1.5 mile to go', I had about 16 minutes. Finally, the trail turned down. With 1 mile to go I had 12 minutes. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, my friend Brad, who was doing the mountain bike race, passed me and told me there was a woman right on my tale. Sara glanced back and confirmed, but couldn't tell what race she was in. Either way, I hadn't recently passed a female, so this runner appeared behind me quickly and made me nervous - was this the woman I had seen through the trees at mile 35? Was this the 3rd 50 mile female? Had she been stalking me all day just waiting for the last mile to pounce? If someone passes me with miles to go, then I accept it and continue to run my own race - but I would be frustrated if someone passed me within the last 1/2 mile of the 50 mile race! I drew every last ounce of energy I had, with Sara encouraging me and telling me that she was in 'full stride' to keep up, and I hammered as best I could on tired legs. I crossed the finish line in 7:55:52 - estatic to have achieved my sub-8 hour goal. As a bonus, I finished 2nd female and 16th overall out of about 290 runners. My 'female stalker' finished a minute back, but turned out to be a relay runner!
(Women's podium at VT50)
(Men's podium at VT50)
The best prize of the day was a hug from Zeke - who is my favorite volunteer at the Vermont races and has become a great friend and supporter - my ideal Vermont 50 experience was complete after that.
(Sharing a hug with Zeke!)