This is the first post that I started writing, then deleted, then started again and deleted again. Why? That is because this is a hard story to tell since it could be perceived as a story of failure. However I realize that this is a story about making the right decision and there is a lot of value in sharing that with you. This is the story about setting out to finish the 2019 Vermont 100 only to come home with a Did Not Finish (DNF) instead of a belt buckle.
The Vermont 100 Miler is one the oldest and best-known 100 mile ultra marathons in the United States. The course is 70 miles of Vermont dirt roads with 30 miles of trails and all the quaint New England beauty that you can handle. It all happens 1.5 hours from my front door. This made it a very enticing spot for me to seek my first 100-miler buckle after a few years of 50ks, 50 miles and a 100k.
I was in the elevator heading down to my company Christmas party when I checked my phone and saw an email that I had gotten into the Vermont 100. I was instantly overtaken by a wave of life changing excitement. That past summer I had completed the Never Summer 100K but did I have what it takes to run 100 miles? I was determined to find out.
Running 100 miles is a crazy but exciting distance. The idea of going for it became reasonable to me after years of mountaineering endurance slogs, ultra marathons and putting in consistently high mileage every week. I was at a point where it seemed like the next big challenge. So I met with my running coach to map out a plan between where I was and race day. That spreadsheet became my path to the 100-miler belt buckle; or so I thought.
Throughout the winter and into the spring I put the work in through back-to-back long runs, strength training, 50-mile tune up races and even a Pemi Loop. My body responded amazingly well and I was starting to think 100 miles was doable as long as I wanted it bad enough and I wanted it pretty bad.
As race day approached I agonized over every gear choice, my shoe strategy and I began caching snickers bars, sour patch kids and other tasty treats that would fuel me through this 24 hours adventure. I must have spent hours deliberating whether I wanted a shoe with 5 mm drop or an 8 mm drop; I ended up going with both. The anticipation was building but I felt like everything was falling into place until it wasn’t.
Two weeks from race day I had one more 20 mile run left before my taper started. Runs of this distance had become almost normal at this point so I was not at all worried about it. This was a simple out and back run on dirt roads that looked a lot like the Vermont 100 course. I suddenly felt a twinge of pain in my right Achilles tendon as I turned around at mile 10. It came from nowhere and I figured it was a small tweak that would work itself out except that it didn’t. The sharp but light pain stood with me all the way to the car.
I told myself that this was no big deal and that I could stretch, mobilize or strengthen the pain out. By the time I got home the pain had increased, my foot had stiffened and I limped into the house. Surely this wasn’t as bad as it seemed; denial had set in. After months of hard work I refused to let myself think that one small tweak would cost me my goal on crossing the 100-mile finish line.
Over the next two weeks I rested, mobilized and even did some small runs without pain. However the pain kept lingering in my head as I headed to the Vermont 100 start line with my crew. Even as I picked up my bib something in my head stopped believing that I would actually finish this race. I told myself that this was just the pre-race nervousness that I always felt.
Race day started nice and early with a 4 a.m. start and a forecast that called for 96 + degree temperatures. The brutality of the weather forecast almost had me forgetting about my injury. Even though I did not feel optimistic it did feel exciting to stand at the start line of a 100-mile ultra.
As the race started I went through my mental checklist of what gear I had, when I should eat, my pace and how my body was feeling. I started at my head and worked down to my feet only to realize that that tweak in my Achilles was acting up already. I was only one mile into the day but I told myself that it would surely work itself out soon. As the miles clicked by I was doing everything I needed to do but that pain was always there not getting worse and not getting better.
The pain was so distracting that I did not even think about how brutal the temperature was becoming. I saw my crew at mile 21 and let them know what was happening. They helped mobilize it, provided me with some bacon and did everything they could. I would see them in 10 miles so I decided to keep going in hopes that this pain would go away.
It never went away. With every step the pain was there and it was consuming all of my thoughts to the point where it was all I was thinking about. I was not in the moment and I was not enjoying the experience I had worked so hard to get to. I spent the last few miles before the next aid trying to come up with a reason to tell my crew about why I needed to drop. I even texted my wife and running coach that I was dropping out as I made my way to the aid station.
At mile 31 I found my supportive and encouraging crew. I let them know that the pain was not getting better and that I needed to drop. They did everything they could to help address the problem but nothing worked and we all agreed that dropping made the most sense; especially since I would not see them for another 19 miles if I kept going.
I unpinned my bib, held it in my hands for a few minutes and then walked over to an aid station volunteer to turn it in. I was out of the Vermont 100 at mile 31. Somehow I felt emotionless about this choice. As we made our way to the car I donated most of my food to other crews since I no longer had a use for 16 Snickers bars, 3 liters of coke and a tote full of other sugary and salty deliciousness. On the way out of town I bought my crew lunch and thanked for them for being so awesome.
Once I unpinned my bib I never had a second of regret, I never wondered what would happen if I kept going and I was content with my decision. I have no way to know what would have had happened if I continued. Perhaps the pain would have gotten no worse or perhaps it could have gotten a lot worse and morphed into a serious injury with a year long running hiatus. However I do know that 100 milers demand 100% and I did not have 100% to give on that day. That is how I know I made the right choice.
Once I got home I took two weeks to rest and then I slowly started running again. To my surprise the pain was gone and it has not reemerged since. Within two months I was running at a higher intensity and speed than ever before. Would this be true if I pushed on in the VT 100? I will never know and I am more than ok with that. The most important thing to me is that I am able to continue enjoying the sport that I love.
I am as proud of this DNF as I am of any race that I have ever finished. Ultras are really a series of decisions and in this case I made the most logical decision even if it was not the most glorious one.