“OK Andy, you have five miles left, be sure to savor it!”
These were my wife Shelly’s last words of encouragement as I left Polly’s, the final aid station at this year’s Vermont 100. I had been leading the race for nearly 80 miles. I was tired, aching, and absolutely full of a feeling I had never had before. I was going to cross the line first in a 100-mile trail race!
As has been described in these and other pages previously, I have a bit of a track record finishing just short of first place in 100 milers. In fact, my good friend and fellow runner Garett Graubins wrote a piece in the November, 2005 Trail Runner on exactly that theme. He ruthlessly titled the piece, “The Bridesmaid.” In the article Garett provided painful detail on the string of 2nd place finishes I had during 2004 and 2005. Needless to say, I had to admit the article and the subsequent attention gave me a bit of a complex. I was left contemplating the inevitable question:
Could I actually win one of these things?
I had run the Vermont 100 back in 2002 and 2003 and I knew it was a “runner’s course.” Even with the course changes this year I knew it would be fast. I also knew that there were some hungry guys in the field and I didn’t know for sure what I had in my legs.
I started out as I often do running gently and getting a sense of the day. An hour into the run a small group of runners had split ahead of the pack and we enjoyed the sunrise and the camaraderie. In that leading group were some talented and experienced 100-mile runners. Among them were Todd Walker, Jack Pilla, Glen Redpath and Jim Kerby. All these guys were capable of fast times and they all seemed a bit frisky. I tried to stick to my pre-race plan and just worked to run my race. As Shelly had nudged me to do the night before, “Run assertively, not aggressively.” It was a subtle distinction but an important one.
Having run Western States the month before I was truly inspired by Hal Koerner’s run and was thinking about that in the early miles of Vermont. Largely overlooked in the pre-race hype always surrounding Western States, Hal simply went out and ran off the front right from the start. It was one of the most impressive runs I have seen at Western States and given the course adjustments over the past two years, is worthy of consideration among the best. By the time I got to Michigan Bluff and learned that Hal had come through on record pace I knew the race was, at that point, for second place.
On the downhill heading toward the Taftsville Bridge at Mile 15 I thought about Hal’s run from the front and wondered:
Could I go off the front? Could I do that today?
Turning down to Taftsville on a short paved section I chatted briefly with my good friend Jim Kerby and could tell he was focused. I also could feel some spring in my legs and decided to stretch things out a bit on the one-mile downhill to the covered bridge.
With the exception of the few yards that Shelly walked with me over the next 13 hours, I ran the remaining 85 miles alone.
I was now in completely new territory. My head swirled in the ether of the unknown. After making a career out of hunting people down I was now the hunted.
“Run your race.” “Think of Hal.” “Be smart.” The self-talk was deafening. For the first time ever in a 100 miler I actually felt lonely.
By the 21 mile Aid Station I had a five minute lead, by mile 30 it was ten minutes and by 47 it was seventeen. I made a deal with myself to not look back.
“If you run your race there’s no reason to look back.” Again, haunted, or perhaps, inspired, by Hal, I changed the refrain, “You know Hal didn’t look back!” I put my head down and ran.
Shelly, meanwhile, was also in uncharted territory having to deal with, for the first time, a new animal, the “front runner.” Having become accustomed to my come-from-behind-strategy she never really had to think about the runners behind me only those ahead.
What was she to do?
Well, as we all attempt to do when we are thrust into the unknown, she improvised, basically waiting as long as she could at the aid stations after I'd gone through and then estimating how long it would take her to race to the next check point to meet me. It was fun but a totally new and somewhat disconcerting experience for both of us.
I did have the requisite “bad patch” around Mile 75 and coming into the Westwinds Aid Station at Mile 77 I was beginning to doubt the front-running strategy and lose a bit of faith in my legs. Was I succumbing to the “Bridesmaid Syndrome” once again? I thought perhaps I was but Shelly clearly had a different idea. Seemingly paying no attention to my mental state as I stumbled into the aid station muttering, “I’m tired.”
Shelly said simply, “That’s OK, drink this.” It was a painfully salty concoction of cold chicken broth with which I was all too familiar at this stage in a race. I knew better than to reject it. As I swallowed hard, I asked,
“What’s the gap.” There was a pause, a little longer than usual.
“20 minutes. Everybody looks strong, especially Jim.” I knew what that meant. It was basically code for “get out of here now!”
I took off. About 20 minutes later the salt kicked in, I downed two gels and I felt like myself again. I don’t think much time was gained after that.
Looking back now, the race itself didn't feel that different than others except that I had no one in front of me to pass. So, after about 85 miles, I decided to race the clock, and the demons of the bridesmaid. With a sub-16 hour goal I thought I'd be motivated and knowing the guys behind were chasing hard kept me focused.
In the end I did savor those last five miles and felt exhilarated and complete as I emerged from the woods a winner. The truth is, I don't know if I can ever go "off the front" again but I now know what it feels like. I also know that I can finally put the bridesmaid to bed.