by Alicia MacLeay
Knowing something is hard and doing something that is hard are not the same thing.
On July 15-16 I ran the Vermont 100, a race I’ve wanted to do for several years. It was hard. It was far. It was painful at times. It was incredible.
Established in 1989, the Vermont 100 is among the four oldest 100-mile races in the country and is part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The course covers 68 miles of rolling dirt roads, 30 miles of trails, and two miles of pavement. It’s considered a fairly runnable 100, but with more than 15,000 feet of elevation gain it’s not flat.
There’s a 30-hour cutoff, although the top runners complete the race in half that. My goal was to finish in less than 30 hours and earn my first 100-miler finisher’s buckle.
At 4 a.m. I lined up in a dark Vermont field with more than 350 other headlamp-wearing runners. In addition to managing acute pre-race anxiety, I hadn’t run a single mile in nearly three weeks due to shin pain.
What had seemed like a minor shin splint had progressed, despite rest. I was convinced I was out of the race the week before when, on a tearful hike, sharp pains shot up my left leg with every step. Thankfully, I’d been cleared to run Vermont by my sports doctor, albeit with caveats and the risk of a stress fracture. While I didn’t know if my leg would hold up or literally crack, I was going to take this chance.
The race started and after a few miles of panic-inducing twinges my shin was forgotten. In the way of ultras and life, things change and you move on.
The field spread out as we left the initial trails for dirt roads. I ran. I walked steeper hills and tried to keep things easy. The sun came up.
Vermont is the only 100 with a simultaneous horse ride. Horses with cheery riders passed me on the dirt roads. I passed some on a steeper trail. After 21 miles I came to the first of eight handler aid stations and saw my crew, husband Dave and coach/friend Brendan Gilpatrick.
Aid stations require a mental shift. You’ve been running along alone, passing or being passed by the occasional runner, and suddenly you enter a hubbub of activity—food, drink, ice, crews, runners, medical checks—and you need to focus, attend to your needs, and move along.
I was extremely grateful to have Dave and Brendan as my crew. When you’re tired and sore, it helps to have people who you trust and who understand you. They systematically made sure I stayed on top of my food and hydration plan. They outfitted me with a full pack and new socks, clothes, and gear as needed. They kept me focused on what was coming up. They did all this and said nice things while kicking me out of each aid station.
I spent much of the first 70 miles running by myself, in my own head, occasionally greeting another runner, volunteer, or spectator. I was often alone, but never lonely. I lost track of time except for the mile I was in and to know whether it was day or night.
I climbed hills up dirt roads and trails and over fields. I heard the song fragment “Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb…” in my head on every hill. There are a lot of hills in Vermont.
The descents became increasingly painfully as my quads tightened and my knees began to ache.
I occasionally noted milestone distances, like farthest run ever, but avoided calculating how far I had to go (ultra math is faulty math). The race distilled down to running and moving forward mile to mile, aid station to aid station, crew to crew, and letting those miles add up.
At one point some guy yelled, “you run like a girl” at me. I called back “thanks!”
When people ask what I like about ultras I say it’s the mental challenge on top of the physical, needing to be flexible and figure out unknown and unexpected challenges as they come. And then unknowns happen, like my quads not being able to run downhill, and, of course, the unknown isn’t what you thought it would be and doesn't come how you expect.
I’d signed up for Vermont because it was hard, because I wanted to do something beyond my comfort zone, and knowing there were no guarantees. That was the appeal. And yet there came a moment in this race, running alone on a dirt road, when I realized that I could do everything possible and still fail. I’d thought I already knew that.
One in four of us who started in that dark field would not finish, despite how much we wanted it or how hard we worked. I’d already seen a few of them, a man hunched over on the side of the road, another vomiting in a field atop a scenic hill. They were OK; I checked. But, I was determined not to become one of them.
So I ran when I could for as long as I could. I walked and power hiked hills. I forced my quads to stretch and my knees to bear each impact downhill. I would do what I could at the time and hope it all added up to 100 miles in less than 30 hours.
I reminded myself that “The best way out is always through,” according to the wise Robert Frost, once poet laureate of Vermont. And I kept going.
I thought about Dave and Brendan waiting for me at the next handler station. And I kept going.
I thought a lot about that buckle waiting at the end. And I kept going.
Eventually it was night, and I ran the first hours by myself following glow sticks in the dark. I heard gunshots. I heard an owl. I met a nice man from Baltimore and we ran together for a while before I moved ahead.
At the mile 69-aid station, I looked up and saw millions of stars in the sky and then the little light of the International Space Station tracking across its own black path.
I set off from that stop with Brendan, who would pace me for the final 30-plus miles. I could not have asked for a better pacer and companion. He patiently stuck with me, reminding me to eat or drink, being positive even as I slowed and grimaced in knee and quad pain with every downhill step. He patiently answered the thousand times I asked, “are we okay?” about cutoff time.
We saw an amazing red moonrise. We talked some. We were quiet a lot. Morning mist settled in the woods. The sun came up and the mist burned off. It was another day. And we were still going forward.
At mile 95 I saw Dave for the last time. I ate a bite of a waffle, put on my Striders shirt, and Brendan and I took off…at a shuffle. “Just” five more miles.
I thought of my 9-year-old daughter, waiting for me at the finish with handmade signs that said, “you can do it.” I didn’t want to let her down. I wanted to be able to tell my 13-year-old son back at home that I’d finished. I wanted to offer them some small glimpse of what I was experiencing.
After winding around in the woods for the longest mile ever, I finally came around a bend and saw my daughter sitting on the side of the trail. Above her was the finish banner and then I was on the other side being greeted by race director Amy Rusiecki. After thinking I wouldn’t make it to the start, it was now over. I’d come through. I nearly cried.
I spent some time lying in the field before being able to stand up without passing out. My left ankle was so swollen Dave had to cut off my calf sleeve. But an hour later, with my daughter acting as a crutch, I managed to stand up and get my buckle at the awards ceremony.
My time of 29:11:52 was slower than I expected, but I was beyond happy to have done it and have earned that buckle. I was touched and grateful for the volunteers, other runners, and especially Dave and Brendan who’d helped make it happen. Having people devote their time to help you reach your goal is an amazing gift.
Now, two months out the race is a bit blurry. I only recently looked at my Garmin data to see what actually happened out there. It says I went a mile. And then I went another mile, 100 times, which feels about right.
The Vermont 100 Endurance Race is a major fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, which provides outdoor recreation opportunities for people with disabilities. This year’s race had its first ever Athletes With Disabilities (AWD) division for visually- and mobility-impaired runners, making Vermont the first trail ultra with such a division. It was impressive!
Pictures above by Brendan Gilpatrick or Dave MacLeay , unless otherwise noted.