Songs become stuck in my head pretty easily, so when I’m preparing for a race I usually try to get a few good ones lodged in there by listening to the same playlist on Spotify over and over again. For the 2017 VT 50K, I made a playlist that I named Ultra Trail du Musique, which included ‘Wilderness Song’ (Dan Bern), ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ (Gram Parsons), and, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ (If you don’t know who sang this then you should Google it, and then come back here. You’ll be a better person when you do.).
Anyway, I thought those three songs would be an excellent addition to ‘My Back Pages’ (Dylan), which is always somehow in my head while running.
Despite the sound-work I put in, the only song I sang for 31 miles was ‘Fast and Slow‘ by the Laurie Berkner Band, who are children’s band, but they’re actually pretty great.
The song is, on its surface, about a turtle and a rabbit. The second verse is my favorite, in which the turtle responds to the rabbit, who has just proclaimed his love for speed. Here it is:
I don’t want to go fast I go slow
That’s the way that I move
I’m a turtle you know
Join me as I crawl by
We can breathe, we can sigh
We can laugh, we can cry
We can talk about why
We don’t want to go fast
We go slow
I have heard ‘Fast and Slow’ almost 40 million times since May 16 of 2016, and it’s growing on me because I think I relate to the turtle (a topic for another day). Besides, it’s a great song for running ultras on a 90-degree day. Go slow. Laugh. Cry.
With Berkner in my brain, I set off into the Vermont countryside. The course features many hard-packed dirt roads, which feel fine at the beginning and awful at the end. I started slowly. The day was young and the air was cool, but I knew this was the best I would feel until I finished, and the heat was just a few hours away.
To say I was under-trained would be to vastly overestimate my fitness. After a Summer of many injuries, I ended up training for about 3 weeks, which included 3 Saturday long runs of 15, 20, and 15 miles, each followed by a Sunday run of 10, 10, and 5 miles. I also ran three hill sprint workouts during those three weeks. My original goal was to finish, but once the forecast showed a high of over 90F, my goal changed to “don’t die of heat stroke.” The morning of the race, I asked Steph if she would meet me at Greenall’s aid station, around mile 13, because I thought the heat would have gotten the best of me by then, and that would be a convenient place to drop out because of the easy car access.
There were three aid stations before Greenall’s. One at 4 miles, one at 7 miles, and one at 11 miles. You’re probably thinking “wow, those are some densely packed aid stations bro,” and you’d be right. That dense-packing is probably the only reason I didn’t drop out at Greenall’s. I sipped my water constantly, and at each aid station I topped off my pack, had half of a banana, and filled a plastic ziplock bag with ice to stick under my hat (I always carry a few ziplock bags with me at races.). The aid stations were close enough that I never ran out of water, and my ice completely melted only twice–between Greenall’s and Fallon’s, and between Stone’s and Johnson’s–so I still felt pretty strong and fresh by the time I met Steph at mile 13. She was as surprised as I was. Onward. Slowly.
The temperature made a bit of a breakthrough around Fallon’s (mile 19), which you may be able to see in this incredibly grainy picture.
I still felt good though, and despite wasting some time by accidentally going slightly off course, my ice stayed frozen until Stone’s at mile 23. After that, the temperature was generally 90 or higher, although we dipped into the woods for a bit, which brought things down to refreshing 87 degrees. The other thing to contend with were the hard-packed dirt roads I mentioned earlier, which were merciless between miles 23 and 29. I’m not a great downhill runner, and these roads were mostly downhill at the end. They were not gentle on my quads.
Steph met me again at Johnson’s aid station (mile 29), just to say hi, and I was quite a bit weaker compared to when she saw me at Greenall’s. Still, I was only a 2 or 3 miles away from a Heady Topper (You never really know how far you’re running in a trail 50K; some are 30, some are 33, but nobody really cares.). After Johnson’s, the course winds up and through a wide open field of pure, unfiltered sun-heat, then dips into the shade for bit of forest running before spitting you onto an open, heat-drenched meadow on the lower part of Ascutney, which descends sharply and windingly to the finish. This is also a mountain bike race, so you’ve gotta watch your back here, because those guys go fast downhill, and they’re pretty stoked about finishing.
After a few cramps on the way down, I ran into the chute, carried Edie across the finish line, and then sat on the ground for a while as a few more people finished. Luckily, our hotel was a short walk away, because I was ready for some air conditioning and an HT.
In 2014, this race was my first 50K. That year I finished in 6:20. The 2017 version took me 7:50. Despite the extra 1:30, I think this was the best race I’ve ever executed, because execution was the reason I finished. It certainly wasn’t my fitness, which alone has powered me through most of my previous races, typically leaving me to climb out of some mental or physical (lookin’ at you Whiteface Skyrace) pit at some point. So this race taught me a valuable lesson that I hope to apply to a couple of 50-milers next year, and maybe also to life in general: it’s smart to be smart.