I believe there is a lot of value in attempting things that seem impossible. As I was packing up my bag and saying good-bye to the friends I’d met over the weekend at the Under Armour Mountain Series at Killington in Vermont, the final 10K finishers were coming down the mountain towards the finish chute.
Everyone milling around the finish area stopped what they were doing and started making their way towards the finish chute barricades, clapping and cheering for these two final finishers. It’s fun to be out there running, but it is just as fun to cheer your heart out for someone who is about to cross the finish line of an incredibly challenging race. They crossed, arms raised over their heads with huge smiles on their faces.
Standing at the base of Killington Mountain, the climb seems a little impossible. And if you were to look at the elevation charts for each of the races from the 50K to the 5K, there’s a small part of you that would think “I can’t do this.” But the great thing about running is all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
For me this weekend was all about effort. I wanted to give each step my best effort. I had no idea what the field would be like in terms of competition, I’ve been racing against some fast and talented runners in the USATF Mountain Series and wondered if I’d see any familiar faces.
There were only 40 or so of us who toed the line for the Vertical Challenge on Saturday afternoon. As we were getting ready to go out 50K, half marathon and marathon finishers were coming in and the finish area had that post race party vibe. It’s kind of hard to know you’re headed out for a special kind of pain when everyone else is cracking open beers and kicking back.
My strategy for the Vertical Challenge was to run everything that seemed runable, power hike the steep stuff and keep my heart rate at that threshold level.
Getting in the zone.
I got off the line comfortably and the first .42 if the 1.25 mile course were really runable. At that point I was the 5th person and 1st female. There was one other woman who had shot out at the start, but slowed as the course steepened. I didn’t really want this race to be about what place I came in, so I put those thoughts aside and focused in on my effort and pushing as hard as I could at a level that felt sustainable.
At the half-mile point the course steepened and I transitioned to power hiking. I put my head down and started to grind out each step, pushing off my knees with my hands. My lungs were burning and I was working at max effort, occasionally the grade decreased as we came across drainage paths along the mountain I’d try to run a few strides and then get back to the grind of power hiking.
I glanced at my watch to check how much further we had to go, it was helpful in gauging my effort. As the summit lodge came into view the course crossed over a few service roads, and then made an abrupt right hand turn at the mile mark down one of the service roads.
At that point I transitioned back to the run and knew that the finish line was close by, I could hear the cheers and the announcer. I broke into a run and heard another runner coming up behind me. I dug as deep as I could, but as the finish came into view he had more to give an out-kicked me at the end.
I crossed the line in 23:08, just 3 1/2 minutes behind the lead male, 1st female and the 6th finisher overall. According to my SUUNTO I ran 1.18 miles and gained 1404 in elevation.
They had water and food at the top and I soaked in the views of the Green Mountains while we waited for the final finishers to come in. They did a quick awards ceremony after the final finisher came across and then we all took the gondola down the mountain.
I stayed just a mile from the race start and could see the mountain from my balcony. I scrounged together a half-decent pre-race breakfast of a mini-bagle with butter (I forgot my peanut butter…it was so sad), Larabar and two cups of single-serve motel coffee (yuck). Not my usual pre-race breakfast, but it did the trick.
I haven’t yet worn a hydration pack for a mountain race, all the races are 10K or less in distance and have multiple aid stations. I didn’t plan to take my hydration pack this time either. But when I got to the race start and started asking around about aid I was informed that there was going to be one (reduced from the original two) aid stations on the course. I hemmed and hawed about my decision: I didn’t want to wear the pack and the sky was overcast, but I didn’t want to get caught needing water and have my effort suffer because of it. Ultimately, I decided that it was better to have it and not use it than leave it behind and be left wondering if it would have helped me run a better race. And I’m so glad that’s the way I went. I sipped my water early and even though I didn’t feel like I needed water prior to the aid station, the course really heated up in the last two miles and I found myself sucking down water. If I hadn’t had my pack my performance would definitely have nose-dived.
Going into the race I wanted to stay open, being open and letting go of expectations served me well in my last race and I wanted to do the same here. Standing in the starting corral I looked over the group, it was about twice the size of the group that ran the vertical challenge the day before.
No one was stepping up to the line, but I did. I felt pretty confident that I could win, but I didn’t want that to be the focus of my race. At the start I kept repeating “stay open, focus on your effort.”
We got off the line and there was a solid group of people through the half mile mark, then the course turned uphill and got steep.
At that point the pack started to filter out and I found myself about 6 or 7 people back from the lead male as the first female, although there were several girls right behind me. Through the one mile mark the course climbed steadily on services roads and all of it was runable. I felt good about my pace and effort and any challenges that lay ahead.
By the first mile mark there was just one other person around me and as we turned off the service road and into the single track in the woods I left him. At that point the climbing got steep and there were a few switchbacks, I glanced back behind me and I was alone. When it got hard I focused on being grateful: I get to be out here. This is a privilege. I’m so grateful that I’m here and not pounding the pavement on city streets.
I continued to climb through mossy wooded trails, it was quiet and ruggedly beautiful. At the two mile mark there was a group of race photographers right before the course turned downhill.
I pounded down the grassy slope and then careened back into the woods, dodging trees, rocks and roots as the trail wound down the mountain. Sometime I think about weird things while I’m running, like I couldn’t get over how black the soil was at the top of the mountain. And I realized why Vermont is so green and known for it’s fertile farms, the soil is amazing! My mind wandered then it was back to focusing on effort and remembering to breath.
I have this thing where when I run downhill I sometimes hold my breath for a few moments and wind up with really bad cramping. I realized this the last time I ran Gunstock and so on downhills I’ve been trying to focus on remembering to breath.
I broke out of the woods, passed another camera crew and let out a big “whoohooo!” I was having so much fun and the vista of the Green Mountains at that point was breath-taking.
On the downhill, I found my mind wandering to the fact that I was winning: I might get another trophy! Maybe I’ll get to stand on those podiums? Gah, Sarah! Stop thinking about place! Stay grateful. Stay focused on your effort, don’t let your effort waiver.
Right before the halfway point, I rubbed my eye to try to clear my contact which had become fuzzy (all while running 6:40 pace down the mountain). The path smoothed out and I rubbed my eye again, still not luck. A third time and my contact flipped out of my eye onto my cheek. I came to a screeching halt. Save the contact!!! I grabbed it and put it back in as best I could rubbed my eye a couple of times and kept running. I passed the aid station, but didn’t stop (I had my hydration pack thank you very much;)
But my contact was swimming around my eye! I’d put it in inside out! It was so uncomfortable. I kept running, following the course down through the lower parking lot of the resort and through an access tunnel towards the trails on the other side. As I approached the tunnel a course marshall on an ATV said, “First woman, four min back from lead male.”
Whaaat? Really, only 4 minutes? I mean I knew I was first, but I didn’t think I was that close to the lead male.
I came out of the tunnel and the course tracked over another parking lot, it was hot. I tried to maintain a good pace, but I felt my energy dipping and my contact was still swimming in my eye. My watch blipped 4 miles. Two more to go. Stay steady.
Back into the woods, I glanced back over the parking lot. I saw no one and decided to stop and fix my contact. I took it out and tried to get it back in correctly, it took three tries and by that time a guy who must have been hidden by the bluff. came up on me and passed me.
I successfully got my contact in and realized I’d never taken my GU, it was time and probably the cause of my slump in energy; I’d walked some really runable stuff when I existed the parking lot and gone back into the woods. I took the GU and within a few minutes immediately felt a boost in energy and got back to running. I was just behind the guy who’d passed me.
At this point I was glancing to my watch frequently, looking at the total distance. I knew that we had two hills in the last miles and I’d just come up one when I exited the parking lot. When was the other coming? At the five-mile mark I thought maybe I’d already tackled the second hill? I could hear the finish line off in the distance, perhaps the last bit of the course wasn’t as hilly as I thought.
The course came out of the woods and rejoined service roads, it wound downhill a bit then took a turn. Oh shit! There at the 5.5 mile mark was a wall, akin to Upper Walking Boss, but not quite so brutal. It looked to be about a 1/4 mile in length and steep AF. Ok. I thought. Here we go. Do your thing. Find your rhythm. I started grinding out the power hiking routine that I’d relied on during the Vertical Challenge: hands on knees, pushing off with each step.
The grassy incline was unrelenting, equal parts hot and difficult. I crested the top and the course took and immediate right turn onto a service road. I picked up the pace as much as my toasted legs could and was just seconds behind the guy who had passed me. You can catch him, I told myself. He’s slow on the climbs.
The course jogged up a small hill then started down a hill that all the 5K runners were coming up. He picked up the pace on the downhill. The finish was in sight. I tried to let things fly and not hold back on the downhill. We’d long passed the 6.2 mile mark at this point (according to my watch). Then one more slight up hill, before the course turned towards the finish chute and the finish line. I gave everything I had into the finish, I didn’t have a chance of catching the guy ahead of me, but I gave my best effort and crossed the line first female and 7th overall.
It turns out I was a bit further back from the lead male than the course marshall had indicated, either that or he went total beast mode on that hill. I was 15 min back from the first male and 12 minutes ahead of the next female finisher.
Looking back on the race I feel like I stayed open and really gave my best effort, when things got tough or I got distracted I stayed grateful and had a steady and strong race because of it…and yes, I did get to stand on the podium (first time ever!).
Pace: 11:12 min/mi
Elevation Gain: 1820 ft
Slowest Pace: 38:19 min/mi (beginning of the “wall” @ mile 5.5)
Fastest Pace: 4:57 min/mi (coming into the finish)
I’d race these races again in a heart beat and I can’t wait to go back next year. It was tough, it seemed impossible, but I’m glad I made the effort and gave it my best.
What impossible things have you tackled? Have you ever run in the Green Mountains in Vermont?
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