Dec 27, 2007 1:41 AM
This weekend's 33 mile race up in Jay, VT was, although not the farthest I've ever run, my longest duration run ever, and definitely the most tiring race I've ever done. The winner managed a blistering 10 minute per mile pace, running the course in about 5 and a half hours. I finished 50th out of 250 or so finishers, in 7 hours 9 minutes. Here's the story.
First of all, I don't even know what to call this filthy, soaking wet, ankle-twisting, strength-sapping doozy of a race. Originally, I think it was called the Jay Mountain Marathon, then it became a three-day festival including a kayak race and a mountain bike race, and it was the Jay Challenge. This year there was only the running/hiking/slogging/slipping/falling/dripping race, and while one of the organizer's several websites calls it the Ultimate XC Challenge, my race number said "The Ultimate XC Marathon" and my t-shirt said, I believe "Ultimate XC Series Marathon."
Whatever you call it, just don't call it easy.
This race tested me more than any run I have ever been on. The course profile and, even more importantly, the trail/stream/mudbog/swamp surface make this an extraordinarily challenging run. Now, usually, you look at the elevation profile on a race course map and you know pretty much what you're in for. The primary elevation gain and loss highlights are evident and you know that these features will define your race experience, as well as the strategy you may employ. The profile for this race showed a gradual gain for the first 10k or so, then a huge bell curve representing the climb and descent from Jay peak, then a more or less smooth, somewhat rolling terrain for the last two thirds of the race. This, however, was only part of the story.
This race is conducted on a labyrinth of interconnected snowmobile, ski, and freshly cut almost-bushwhack connections between the ski and snowmobile trails. In places where there were no trails, the course diverted the runners into a stream and wound around, over slime- and moss-covered rocks, through pools and around waterfalls until a convenient passage out was discovered. It's mindboggling how the race director ever pieced the course together.
The part of the race experience that could not be captured on any elevation profile, or even really explained by the RD's enthusiastic warnings and course description, is how utterly exhausting it is to run these super-technical fresh cut trail sections, and of course, through the rocky streams. "Technical" doesn't even really capture it- that word just brings to mind a rocky trail where you have to watch your step. Perhaps "gnarlywoods" or "timberbog" is a better term. There was mud. There were downed trees. There were branches and logs and rocks and slopes so steep you had to use the fixed ropes to help you pull yourself up, or slide, one hand scraping through topsoil and leaves behind you, to try to maintain a controlled decent. This was truly an authentic, backwoods trail-running adventure, a sapping, full-body experience. The RD's suggestion was to take your slowest marathon time and double it to predict your finishing time for this race. 3:32 is the slowest marathon I've run this year, so that turned out to be pretty darn accurate in my case.
After running about five miles of this kind of terrain, mostly in a line of anxious runners waiting for the person in front to clear the mudhole or whatnot, we finally got to the first drop-bag aid station, dry shoes, and the base of Jay. It is worth noting that runners should relax and enjoy the slow pace of the opening portion of the race, because you will want to save all the energy you can for the middle third. That line of people you are waiting in is not killing your time; it's saving your legs. Once you've reached it, it's a long power-hike to the top of Jay. I laughed as it occurred to me that few races have a hill so large that you wonder if you are walking too fast, and ought to conserve your strength or let your heartrate down. The course takes a couple of zig-zags up some impressively steep ski trails, passes by the summit house where family and hikers pour out of gondola cars, and then the pounding decent begins.
The descent down the formidably steep slopes of Jay was the second major element defining the experience of this race, far more so than the ascent. Once your legs had been warmed up by the the gnarly, shin-deep mud, stream clamboring, and mossy log hurdles that preceded the mountain, this descent hammered your quads into throbbing, cramping, quivering mush, ready to be destroyed by the equally difficult miles that follow. It was so steep that there was no option to let gravity take control and relaxed as you streetched it out and zoomed down the hill. This would have been a sure recipe for a tumble that would have rolled you over rocks and brambles, likely carrying you a hundred yards before you had any hope of stopping. Unfortunately, you had to be heavily on the brakes the whole time, trying to control your speed and resist the pull of gravity. I often found myself running in a sort of side-step, feet landing laterally on the slope with one hip leading the way, then switching to the other direction to give that leg a brake. This was steep steep steep, and by the time the course left the ski trails and ducked into yet another fresh-cut woods scramble at the bottom, I knew this race was no joke.
From the bottom of Jay, it was more of the same scrambling, scraping splashing slogging miles to the next aid, but now on quivering legs. The course would pop out onto some back roads, granting a brief respite, only to slam you through another stream section, worse than those that had come before. All this on trashed quads from the mountain. After a while, I started to look forward to the streams, as the cool water was refreshing on my sore legs.
In the second half, the race changes character a bit, transitioning out of the murky woods to sun-scorched fields and swamps. There is a "half-marathon" option which runs the toughest 18 miles or so of the course, and the full version basically tacks on fifteen more miles of relatively more typical trail. There is a rope-assisted river crossing at mile 26 and a climb out of a thirty-foot deep sand-pit around mile 30, but other than that, it was much more what "normal" trail races serve up. There were many glimpses of Jay Peak from afar in latter portions of the race, and the mountain, only a few miles from the start, looked impossibly far away most of the time. I was just trying to keep moving forward at this point, hanging on to my 13 or 14 minute per mile pace as best I could beneath the midday sun. I found walking to be unusually uncomfortable and not in the least restful, and preferred to continue my plodding, steady run whenever I could possibly do so. I figured I was not even walking as fast as I normally could, and my slow run was still faster than my slow walk, and felt better, so best to keep moving.
I felt slow, but happy in the later sections, and made sure to keep up with my food intake, just trying to make my way from station to station. Approaching what I fingured was the 30 mile mark, an hour after leaving the 26 mile station, I was shocked to be told I had five miles left, when I thought there would only be three. I couldnt believe I was running thirty minutes per mile, but just assumed that the folks at the previous station had their milage wrong. I had been thinking that breaking seven hours was looking possible, but saw now that even getting there under eight might be a struggle if things started to really go down hill. I redoubled my efforts to stay on pace and keep eating at this point, keeping a Clif bar in my hand and biting off quarters of the bar every fifteen minutes. I broke the time I figured I had remaining down into portions and just worked my way through each unit. I doused my head under the pipe from a 300-gallon tank that had been put out in a field for the runners, and the cool shower was refreshing, even though I was still thoroughly soaked from the stream running and later, the swim through the river.
But, before I knew it, and long before I expected it, thinking I had forty-five minutes (and two Clif bites) left to go, I heard music playing, cheers, and popped out of the woods onto a manicured lawn behind one of Jay's little hotels. Next thing I knew, to my complete surprise, I was turning around the snow fencing into the fifty yard slope leading steeply down to the gigantic inflatable start/finish arch and race festivities. Knowing I was done almost, but not quite, took the agony out of the pounding descent to the line. My 7:09 finish, however, was a happy bonus, as I had resigned myself to being out on the course until at least 7:50 or 8:00. I gratefully winced my way through the corral, accepted my medal, and found my way to the post-race cheeseburger line. After eating, I definitely felt better, and really enjoyed cleaning my filthy, muddy self up at the outdoor showers that had been set up. Some of my gear wasn't so lucky, though, as I ended up tossing a pair of old shoes I had been saving for the race, and a pair of socks that were so thoroughly penetrated with reeking swamp mud I just didn't think it would be worth the effort to clean them. But, as fate would have it, I heard my name over a loudspeaker shortly thereafter during the raffle, and took home a new pair of Ininju toe-socks and a go-lite bottle and handstrap/pocket for my luck. I was a happy and happily exhausted man when the forecasted thunderstorm finally arrived and with a clap of thunder the sky opened up and a torrential downpour sent everyone scurrying for the event tents, and in my case, my car.
So, all in all, a unique, particularly challenging race. Some specialized training and mountain-running prep definitely recommended. Race course and marking were fantastic, with little chance of a wrong turn or getting lost. The RD, helpfully, set up a bulletin board website set up for race participants to organize themselves for rides to remote Jay, VT, as well as to share housing, training, and strategy information. I'm sure that was invaluable to many people. The post-race food was good, but limited, as I didn't see any other food options for people who weren't into cheeseburgers. And the massage folks charging $1 per minute at the end? That struck me as incredibly lame. I'm definitely particularly sore in the quads today, two days later, much more so than typically after a marathon or 50k, but I know that I can survive the toughest course Jay can put together and I'm pumped to test myself over the 50 mile distance in September at the Vermont 50, confident that I can take whatever Brownsville can dish out.
[http://This message has been edited by RunLongVT (edited Jul-30-2007).|http://This message has been edited by RunLongVT (edited Jul-30-2007).]