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Carin’s 50K Race Report

For those of you who know Carin, who trains at the Northampton school of RVTKD, here’s a great account of a race she completed recently in Vermont. If you train at one of our other locations and haven’t met Carin yet, this will help you get to know her.

If you’re a potential student reading this site while looking for a martial arts school in Northampton, Amherst, or Newton, Massachusetts, this is a nice summary of what an average RVTKD student does to warm up for a typical class. Enjoy!


I was awake well before the alarm went off at 4:30 on Sunday morning. As usual, I was too wired to actually sleep. I had started to feel the nervous anticipation of the race days before. I’ll never understand why I get nervous before this race – it’s not as though I’m going there to win, just to finish. Perhaps it’s because I know that this race course – even in the best of conditions – is a punishing challenge. 50 kilometers (31 miles) of wooded trails littered with rocks and tree roots; narrow, switchback-filled singletrack; and lots of steep climbing. All this on a race course shared with more than 700 mountain bikers and 500 other runners.

I take the dogs outside and the air is warmer than I expect – should be a good day to run. But a check of the interwebs a few minutes later reveals that it’s decidedly cooler at Mt. Ascutney and there is a 30{9d204e46156178432139deccc0c784bf83c77baf126b54d56437ee109e4b4738} chance of showers. The conditions are not undesirable enough to send me back to bed, which is perhaps my first mistake of the day. I take a quick shower, eat a small breakfast, and assemble my race gear before heading out. The pre-race meeting is at 7:30am and we need to check in beforehand. Due to injuries, it’s been a few years since Chase and I have actually run the Vermont 50 together. I’m happy for the company and for someone else to do the driving, which means I can sit back and enjoy the ride to the mountain while listening to an appropriate mood-setting techno mix.

We arrive at the mountain in plenty of time and find parking fairly close to the check-in tent. I shed my warm-ups and leave them in the car, which is perhaps the second mistake of the day since it is still more than 30 minutes before the start. At least I decide to add a long sleeve shirt to my racing attire. The temperature is 48 degrees and it is misting. On the walk from the parking lot to the check-in tent my teeth start chattering from the damp cold. Little do I know it’s only going to get worse. The check-in tent offers some protection from the elements and we find a place to sit while waiting for the pre-race meeting to begin and then the countdown to the start. A show of hands at the pre-race meeting reveals that at least 75{9d204e46156178432139deccc0c784bf83c77baf126b54d56437ee109e4b4738} of the runners are here for their first time. They are in for a real treat. The race director shares with us that we’ll be running on trails that cross the private property of 63 different land owners. The races out west are all run on state land, so runners can train on the trails year round. But here, racers are only allowed access to these trails twice each year – in July for the Vermont 100 mile race and today.

Finally, we’re at the starting line and the countdown begins. It’s a pretty low-key start and the race director simply gives us a 10 second warning, a 5 second warning, and then shouts “Go!” The runners move forward tentatively – nobody wants to go out too fast. I run the first 200 yards or so with Chase, but his preferred pace is much faster than mine so I wish him luck and he moves ahead. I won’t see him again until the race is over. The first mile of the course is on paved road, first a little climb, which my cold legs don’t appreciate followed by a descent. I let my legs turnover as fast as is comfortable and break away from a small pack of runners. I’m generally pretty sociable during this race and I take advantage of the opportunity to meet other runners, but the wet, cold conditions have already made me pretty miserable – my nose is running and the congestion in my head has blocked both of my ears with fluid. I’ll spend the rest of the race trying to clear them to no avail. As a result, my breathing feels like it is pounding in my head and my hearing is muffled. Hmmm… I guess this is what happens when you are sick for the week leading up to the race.

We turn the corner onto a dirt road and soon the real climbing begins. I watch as runners far out in front of me try to take the hill and then realize it’s too steep and too long to run up easily. One by one we all slow to a walk. I try to keep up a brisk walking pace to warm up my legs. A few runners join up with me and we exchange a few pleasantries. When we reach the top of the hill we start to run again, but most are tentative on the downhill, holding back. I take full advantage and move ahead, pounding through the downhill, knowing that if I keep this up my quads will be screaming in agony tomorrow morning and a few toenails will have blackened as a result of too much toebang. But I keep going anyway passing another pack of runners. We turn the corner and start another climb. We’re only 20 minutes into the race, but it’s already time to start eating. I pull an energy gel from my pack and rip it open, then squeeze the sweet, sticky substance into my mouth. I suck down some water just as I reach the top of the hill and then pick up the pace for another descent. Soon we’re at the first aid station and a check of my time reveals that I’m averaging better than 11 minutes per mile, but it’s only been 3.7 miles so I know this won’t last. I cruise past the aid station without stopping and follow the trail into the woods. And now the fun begins.

The steep uphill entering the woods is muddy and treacherous to navigate, even walking up this hill is difficult. Another runner – clearly a rookie – asks if this is normal. Uh-huh. We’ve got another 25+ miles of this – welcome to the mud pits of Vermont. I stay to the edge of the trail where the footing is slightly better and mount the hill. Fortunately, this section of the race is mostly a fun, beautiful double-track trail with roller-coaster hills that you can cruise along. I finally find my rhythm and I start to enjoy running despite the less than fabulous conditions. Just before reaching the next aid station I suck down another gel even though I don’t feel hungry. Last time I ran this race I hit the wall before mile 10 due to not eating and I have no interest in repeating that experience. Even with sufficient water the taste of vanilla-flavored gel lingers. Next year I gotta remember to bring multiple flavors. Down a hill and into aid station number two, we’re 7.5 miles in and I’m still under 11 minute miles and starting to feel pretty good. I chat it up with an aid station volunteer and down some Coke. Ugh – energy gel + Coke is a sweetness overload, but I want the caffeine. Only 3 miles until the next aid station so it’s time to move on.

My mood is improving as I make my way along the dirt road that will eventually connect us to the next trail. This section of the race is a series of long grinding uphills with flat sections between, but no downhills to enjoy. It’s one of the more brutal parts of the race despite being on more dirt road than trail. The grade of the hills and the smooth surface is deceiving and despite my veteran status I always forget how tough this section is. Checking my stopwatch, I’m frustrated that my pace has slowed. It’s been more than 30 minutes and I know that the aid station is still some distance away. I pull out a Perfect Fuel bar hoping that another injection of calories will help me to pick up  the pace. The bitter dark chocolate, although a welcome relief from the overly sweet taste of earlier substances, immediately turns to a paste in my mouth and I have to work hard to swallow. This was a poor choice of mid-race fuel, mistake number three. I manage to eat the entire bar by washing it down with a vast quantity of water. I turn the corner onto another road and encounter the first spot in the course where we’ll be joined by mountain bikers. They started several hours earlier and have looped around through trails that climb several additional peaks before meeting up with us here. Their bikes are covered in mud and several riders dismount and begin pushing their bikes up the long, steep hill to the aid station.

Mile 10.5, aid station 3. There is music playing and a crowd of bikers and runners gathered around the aid station table. I see a few bikers dunking their rigs in the nearby pond, attempting to relieve themselves of a few pounds of mud. I push through the crowd, bypass the Coke and go straight for the good stuff – Mountain Dew. Oh my sweet friend, I’m happy to see your neon yellow color and ingest your caffeine laden goodness. The carbonation burns my throat and I want to gag, but I keep drinking anyway. I follow it up with a chaser of Gatorade and scout the table for anything gluten-free that I can eat. No dice. Guess my gels and Perfect Fuel bars will have to do – it’s gonna be a long 20 miles to the finish.

The 50k runners split from the bikers and 50 mile runners at the aid station – we’ll see them again soon enough. Off to the woods and more trails. The rain has picked up and it’s now a slow steady drizzle that will continue for the next several hours. So much for only a 30{9d204e46156178432139deccc0c784bf83c77baf126b54d56437ee109e4b4738} chance of rain. It’s only 2.4 miles to the next aid station. The trail here is the first of the winding singletrack that makes this course loads of fun to run. Since the bikers don’t come this way the trail is still in fairly good shape and that means a chance to run with no interruption. I find myself feeling a sense of calm that comes from running quietly through the woods and I start to relax and enjoy the race. Little do I know that things will soon start to go horribly wrong.

As I near the next aid station I realize that my hands are starting to feel numb – I clench them into fists to get the blood flowing and assume that they are simply a little cold from running in the rain. But they seem to hurt more than they should. I ignore the aching and push up the hill that opens into a meadow and the next aid station. Now that I am out in the open it is obvious that the rain is coming down harder now. This aid station has my dropbag, which is undoubtedly soaked. I search the aid table for Mountain Dew and Gatorade, not that I have any desire to consume either, but I know I should as it’s unlikely I’ve been drinking enough water. I eye the pots of chicken flavored ramen noodles one of the aid station volunteers is cooking up. What I wouldn’t give for something warm to eat right now. But even if I could bring myself to give up my vegetarian ways temporarily, the gluten in the ramen noodles would likely mean stomach cramps severe enough to leave me lying in the woods writhing in pain. I turn away from the aid table and go in search of my dropbag that is somewhere in the rows of bags carefully laid out for the racers. It’s neon yellow color stands out in the sea of bags. I grab it and find a somewhat sheltered spot to crouch down and dig out more energy gels and a pair of socks, still dry in the safety of their Ziplock baggie. I add everything to my pack and toss my dropbag back in the pile. As I stand up, my legs nearly give out underneath me and I feel a bit lightheaded. I regain my balance and stagger back to the trail. Out of the corner of my eye I catch an aid station volunteer watching me, but he doesn’t say anything. There are no medical checkpoints in races this short so there is no one to prevent me from continuing. (Note: A medical check at this stage would have likely indicated that I was suffering from the beginning stages of dehydration despite my efforts to drink enough along the way. The scale confirms later that I lost more than 4{9d204e46156178432139deccc0c784bf83c77baf126b54d56437ee109e4b4738} of my body weight during the race – more than enough for medical personnel to force a runner to stop.)

Back to the woods where we are joined by the bikers. The trail quickly turns from double-track to singletrack with more tight turns and switchbacks that wind us first down the side of a mountain and then back up again. The bikers ride in small packs and as they come upon each runner the runner is forced to step aside and allow the bikers to pass. Fortunately, most of the bikers are courteous and politely ask to pass when it is convenient. Some of the bikers could use a lesson in rider etiquette. I remind several of them that saying please and thank you will help to insure my cooperation. The switchbacks here are tightly configured and the trees are sparse, which allows you to see the racers ahead of you and behind you quite easily. As I’m winding down the mountain I see a line of at least a half dozen bikers making their way down the mountain behind me. Their brakes are squealing as they slow to navigate around each turn, avoiding trees, rocks, and tree roots. I pick up my pace and think to myself, “come and get me, boys!” knowing that it won’t be long before they are jammed up behind me and I’ll need to step aside to allow them to pass. It takes them longer than I expect, but eventually they catch up and I let them ride on by. They are a polite group and seem to be in good spirits despite the fact that riding is quite possibly worse than running today.

I catch up to another runner as I enter the next aid station. We rejoice at the fact that we’ve reached 17.5 miles and have passed the halfway mark. We’ve been running for 4 hours. I consider whether I should put on my dry socks and decide that it’s not worth it. They will be soaking wet within a matter of minutes. Instead, it’s Gatorade, Mountain Dew, and I’m off once again. There’s a bit of a downhill as we enter the woods again and I am starting to feel a little better – never underestimate the power of Mountain Dew! Inevitably there is soon a hill to climb and I take advantage of the opportunity to try to eat again. It’s been more than 2 hours since I’ve eaten and I know I’m pushing my luck. More energy gel followed by lots of water. I’m wonder if I’ll ever get that taste out of my mouth. After several short, steep climbs the trail flattens out and opens into a long double-track section. I recognize this part of the trail. It’s a long slow downhill that’s wide enough for bikers to pass with ease. I settle into a steady pace that takes advantage of the downhill without trashing my quads. It’s one of my favorite parts of the race. On a bike it’s a straight, screaming downhill that allows you to sit back, relax and rest your legs for several minutes. It’s a welcome change from the grinding uphills and technically challenging singletrack. As a runner it’s an opportunity to enjoy a beautiful section of trail without having to dodge bikers. It also provides a much needed a confidence boost before the final push that is yet to come.

The next aid station is a welcome sight as it means there are fewer than 10 miles to go until the finish line – I’m at mile 21.5. My stopwatch reads 5:05 and I overhear an aid station volunteer say to another runner, “you’ll be done in 6 something.” Clearly neither the volunteer nor this runner knows what is yet to come. I predict it will take another 2.5 hours until I reach the finish line. I manage half a cup of Gatorade and a few sips of Mountain Dew. I have no appetite and my mouth feels like it is filled with cotton. I’m feeling pretty bad. Perhaps this is the point at which I should throw in the towel. Chase will likely finish in about 5:30 so by the time the sag wagon ferries me back to the check-in tent, he’ll have come through the finish line and we can go home. I’m definitely feeling more wrecked than I would have imagined. Do I really feel that bad? Or am I just being a wuss? I decide it’s the latter and think “toughen up, cupcake – what’s another 9.5 miles?” I trudge out of the aid station and back into the woods.

It’s 7 miles to the next aid station. Quite possibly the longest 7 miles of my life. The mud is thick and slippery. It’s like trying to run through a bizarre combination of glue and grease. Every step is treacherous. My feet are cramping from constantly working to stabilize my movement as I cross the uneven surface of the trail. The narrow trail winds over rock outcroppings and small streams. Up and down, up and down, there are no flat sections of trail here. The mud hides rocks and tree roots adding to the challenge of finding stable footing. I have to concentrate on where I put each foot, but my brain is fuzzy and I’m having difficulty concentrating. Amazingly I’ve not yet fallen during the race and I don’t particularly want that to change. I try to keep up a slow run thinking that every step I can run puts me one step closer to the finish line. This mental strategy works for a short time, but I can’t convince myself for long. I slow to a walk and hope that after a few minutes I’ll feel recharged and be able to run again.

I finally hit the wall after 6 hours and 12 minutes. My body is demanding a complete stop. Shoulders, quads, hamstrings, calves, and feet are all rebelling against me. I dig deep trying to find another surge of energy that will help me to power through to the end. But I come up empty. My brain isn’t doing a good job of putting together vital pieces of information. The temperature has been dropping throughout the day. It’s now somewhere in the low 40s. The rain has continued and I’m soaked from head to toe, which has made it impossible to get warm. I’ve eaten fewer than 800 calories in the past 6 hours, but expended nearly 3,000. I’ve not been drinking enough water throughout the day. The rookie mistakes are taking their toll. As a result, I’ve used up my glycogen stores, I’m dehydrated, and I’m suffering from mild hypothermia. Basically, I’m screwed. I want to sit down, but I know I won’t be able to stand up again so I keep walking. The only way out of the woods at this point is to walk out. I can drop out at the next aid station. I stumble out of the woods with another mile to go along the road before I reach the next aid station. I can’t believe I’m going to make it within 2.5 miles of the finish and quit. But I can’t imagine continuing. This is my eighth time racing the Vermont 50. It’s been bad before, but never this bad. Am I really going to be forced to take a DNF?

I make my way into the last aid station in a time of 7:02. It’s taken me nearly 2 hours to go 7 miles. I want the pain to stop. I want to quit, but I don’t even know who to tell. An aid station volunteer hands me a cup of Gatorade and I try to drink it. My throat tightens up rejecting my attempts. I dump most of it out on the ground and throw the cup away. My hands still feel cold and I make them into fists again in a half-hearted attempt to warm them up. I look down at them and realize my fingers are swollen to nearly twice their normal size. That can’t be a good sign. I don’t know what to do. So I do the only thing that I know will make the pain end. I start to run. I know the finish line is close. It’s just across the meadow, through the woods, and down the ski slopes. I can make it. I can do this. After about a hundred yards I stop. My legs don’t want to move. I bend over trying to stretch my hamstrings and massage my mud-covered calves. Come on legs!!! Just a little bit further!!! When I stand up all the blood rushes from my head and I am afraid I’m going to faint. Another runner approaches and asks, “are you okay?” I nod my head. And then I try to run again. I hate this meadow. I’ve always hated this meadow. Stupid meadow. I can’t believe this race is breaking me. Not just physically. I’ve been broken down physically numerous times. I can summon up the will to work through the physical pain. But it’s breaking me mentally. I don’t ever want to run an ultra again. I hate you Vermont 50. You lure me back with your promise of trails and fun and aid stations stocked with Mountain Dew. And then you do this to me. I’m done. It’s over. Eight times is enough. Is this really it? Is this going to be the end of ultrarunning for me? How pathetic. No epic race finish?!? No story-worthy injury?!? Just some rainy fall day in New England and a few miles of mud?!?

I’ve crossed the meadow and passed through the last section of woods. I run out onto the ski slope. There is music playing at the finish line and I can hear people cheering as runners and bikers cross the finish. It’s so close. Keep going. Just keep going. One step, another step, I’m almost there. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me! Seriously?!? Here?!? Now?!? This is where they are taking the official race photographs?!? Sorry, but I’m not smiling for the camera. One more turn and then it’s all straight downhill into the finishing chute. Despite the rain, people are lined up along the finish cheering the racers on. I don’t have it in me to sprint to the finish line, so I settle for a slow, steady run. I hear the announcer say my name over the PA and my finish time, 7 hours and 48 minutes. A volunteer hangs a finisher’s medal around my neck. It’s over. I did it.

And, yes, I’ll be back next year. Because I’m not going out without a bang.

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