Thursday, July 25, 2013

2013 Vermont 100 - My Pacing and Crewing Story

Vermont 100
July 19-21
Brownsville, VT

He said he was done at 59.1. Couldn't breathe. Wasn't having fun. Not going to hit the time goal. His race was over.

We all have found ourselves in this position during an ultra. It's how you respond to those low's that makes you stronger.

This is middle of my story however, let's back track a bit to Friday morning...

8:00 AM - Pick up Eric Ahern at the Grafton Commuter Rail Station and head north west to Brownsville, VT.

We were lucky again this year to have outstanding accommodations, thanks to a former co-worker and former teacher, Fran Graves. Fran has built this house from the foundation up and has constantly improved the place since our first stay.

Our mission for the middle hours of the day was a two hour jaunt around Mt. Ascutney. I secretly wanted a summit and Eric was more than happy to join. This run contained some uphill and downhill running mixed with some hiking sections. Beautiful views and fun times.

3:00 PM - With lunch and cold dip in the river behind the house, we made our way over the start to find Sir Speedy himself, Josh Katzman. Josh was to be the man of the hour (weekend!) and we were responsible for his well being. He compiled a stealthy crew of characters to help him in his 100 mile conquest.

The gang comprised of Anthony "GM" Parillo, Mike "Yes I wore my TARC 100 Belt Buckle" McDuffie, Sam Jurek, who ran the 100k, Eric and myself. My weekend would be broken up of sorts. I would help Josh until he passed through Ten Bear the first time, then I would head back to the start/finish to drop my car, and then back to 10 Bear to pick up my runner.

I figured with my running of the TARC100 back in June, I wouldn't be able to run Vermont and never signed up. I did, however, wanted to be part of the fun, and crewing and pacing was my ticket. The VT100 folks hooked me up with William Connell from Astoria, NY and it turns out his goal of sub-20 was my exact goal from last year's VT100.

In speaking with William, I knew it was a great match.

Fast forward a bit. It's 11 PM on Friday night and its down pouring with blasts of lightning, and thunder that is shaking the house. House is the key word. The Katzman crew is under a roof staying dry, while most of the field is, in fact, sleeping "in a field" and most likely getting a bit wet.

3:30 AM Saturday morning - Mike, Anthony, and myself head over to the start finish and see Josh and the other 100 mile runners off. Fireworks fill the morning sky and coffee and bagels fill my tummy. After seeing the 300 plus take their first steps of what would be many on the day, Mike, Anthony and myself headed back to the house for a brief nap (which I remained awake with the thought of Josh running fast, and us being late!!).

5:45 AM - The three of us grab ice, head to the start, and commence our drive out to the Pretty House Aid Station at mile 22. We get there super early, and find a spot right across from the aid table. The front runners come by at blistering paces and most look drenched in sweat, already feeling the effects of the humidity. Josh arrives with Ian Sharman in tote and we quickly swap out bottles and nutrition so he can push on till the next handler station, Stage Road, at mile 30. We hang a bit longer at Pretty House, conversing with Rob Lalus (who is crewing women's champ, Larisa Dannis), but something tells me we need to get moving till the next one. Josh is on a mission, I didn't want to be late!

8:30 AM - Stage Road handler station, mile 30. A few rain drops and cloud cover shrouds the sun. A good thing for all out on the course. Josh flies into the aid station, and again a quick change of bottles and nutrition and he's out. He is looking strong and relaxed, running his race, and comfortably in the top 10. We again chat with Rob a bit, and see our friends Adam Wilcox and Padraig Mullins (who Anthony would later pace) come through Stage Road.

Since we ate breakfast ages ago, a brief stop for brunch at a local shop was in order. These folks were on the ball and had bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches lined up by the dozens, ready for our picking. We shared a nice conversation with some cyclists about riding and running, and how long 100 miles really is.

We arrived at Camp 10 Bear sometime after 9:30 AM and knew we had some time to kill. It was a 16 mile journey for Josh and a mere 35 minute drive for us from Stage Road. We found a prime spot for our portable aid station and set-up camp. And waited. Conversation and many trips to the port-o-potty filled the time. Ryan Welts arrived and we spoke of past and future races, footwear and life. It really makes me realize that in doing these races, we are surrounded by GREAT people. It doesn't matter what pace you run, we can all share the passion and love for the outdoors together.

Liz, Josh's wife, arrives and our crew is now up to full strength. Josh comes flying no more than 20 minutes later, gets weighed and refueled and he is gone. His time at aid has been superb, not spending more than two minutes at each of the aids so far. He still looks to be running strong and now among the top 5.

This was my time of departure from the Katzman crew. I would be heading back to the start/finish to drop my vehicle and to find William and his girlfriend and handler extraordinaire, Hanley. After a brief wait for the shuttle service, I was changed, geared up and ready to head back to 10 Bear. Cell service was spotty, so I just mingled around and attempted to spot Hanley, who'd I met briefly Friday night and with barely open eyes on Saturday morning.

I walked towards the incoming runners, down the dirt lane and eventually bumped into her. She had informed me that William had just gone through, albeit slightly over his initial time goal, but looked to be moving well. Hanley and William had come up to VT with another friend from NYC running his first 100 miler. Quin Gordon was expected to be about 45 minutes behind William and we figured we would help him get through 10 Bear. I know how seeing a familiar face can reinvigorate a runner or just some simple phrases like "looking strong" can do wonders.

After we helped Quin through, we headed up to the newly staged aid station called Seven Sees. Last year I remember climbing up the road to this particular spot. It was a decent climb, and there was a horse aid station to the left. It was during the heat of the day and I would have really loved a runner aid station on the right:) Kudos to you VT100. Hanley and I waited for quite some time for Williams' arrival. We moved in and out of the trees, under and around the aid tent, just trying to stay dry from the sudden down pour. Many runners were coming in saturated and knew that stopping would be futile. Some, like my new bud, Gray Weaver, waited a few moments for the rain to die down before his departure.

As the rain stopped, we moved back to the road and looked nervously down the hill. Hanley knew Williams gait and his attire for the afternoon. As he came into sight, we both took off to meet up with him. His first words were something to effect of "I'm really sorry guys, I think my race is over".

Hanley and I had previously spoken about what to do and say if the "dropping" situation came up. We had it all planned out and were ready for the excuses to pile up. I will say, that William had a case of exercise induced asthma going on, so my attempt to push him through this low point was tough. I didn't want to send the poor guy back out if he couldn't even breath.

The medical personal checked him out and said his vitals were good, but an inhaler would greatly improve his breathing and hence his running. After this exchange and a new time goal, William set off towards Margaritaville just 3.5 miles away (17 miles for us).

We figured, we had just enough time to drive to a drug store, get the inhaler and be back before William arrived. He said he would walk the entire way to Margaritaville so 45 minutes to an hour sounded right. It ended up taking us about an hour, with no luck on the inhaler, to arrive at the handler station. We had expected the worst, but when we pulled in, William was jumping up and down screaming, "I need shoes, I need new socks, I'm ready to go, lets do this!" As quick as Hanley and I could move, we got new shoes, socks, moleskin and nutrition for the next push back to Camp 10 Bear.

With our new found energy, Hanley driving and I navigating, we made our way to 10 Bear, but not before a dinner break (thanks Hanley!!) and some Spanish conversation at a local country store. Upon our arrival, we set up quickly, but not really anticipating William coming through till around 8 PM.

7:30 PM - William comes into Camp 10 Bear so fast, I think he may have past it if it wasn't for the medical folks trying to weigh him! He was on fire. Running hard and ready to go. Luckily I was all geared up and simply put on my AK Race Vest and headed out with him. It was a brief stop for him and then we were both ready to conquer that last 30 miles together.

Running this race last year, I remember the last 30 miles being tough. I recall a trail climb out of 10 Bear that went on forever and some quick single track to break things up. William and I initially set off like bats out of hell and quickly passed runners and pacers going up the hill. It must have been at least 5  pairs that we passed before the wind came out of the sail. His breathing was heavy and a full on sit-down was necessary.

I will take full responsibility for this one. I pushed the climb when I should have taken it easy. He is a trooper, however, and recovered after just a few minutes of rest.

I am now kicking myself for not bringing my phone to take pics during this section. Seeing the beauty of this course (as a pacer) is something that I truly enjoyed. Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoyed running it last year, but when your going all out and 70 miles in, sometimes the scenery is tough to take in.

The next aid was the Spirit of 76 aid at mile 77. I know there is a decent hill leading up to the aid and advised William of this. We walked up and Hanley was there waiting with filled bottles and Williams snack of choice, gummy bears. We moved quickly through the aid and headed out through the fields and back into the woods. William was feeling pretty good at this point and I decided to take the lead on some single track, pushing the pace ever so slightly. Looking at the clock, a sub-24 was in the bag, but how close to last year's time could we come. His 21:56 from 2012 was solid and we were right on pace to come close to that.

For anyone that has run, paced or crewed the VT100, the course is relentless. Never flat, never too steep, but constantly up or down. The downs got me last year, but this year I had fun running down them. William was also powering down them at this point and power hiking the ups. In fact, I think William may be the second fastest power walker I know. My wife is absurdly fast when it come to walking and I often times need to break out into a brisk jog to catch up with her. William was killing the hills and the flat sections with this technique when we needed a rest from running. People that were running ahead, were soon coming back to us, even though were weren't running per say. We simply "walked" faster than they "ran".

Bill's Barn was the next stop on this train. I knew the medical staff was pretty strict up there and told William to put on his game face. At 89 miles into the race, there were more quiet moments/miles than there was talking. I don't think I ever attempted conversation for the sake of doing so. I knew where Williams' head was and didn't want to distract him from his goal. We approached the barn and quickly got weighed in and fueled up. One of William's friends had driven over from NH to meet him at Bill's. It was only a brief visit, but like I mentioned, seeing a familiar face can do wonders.

I again took the lead onto some single track heading out of Bill's. William followed and we ran through the woods like it was a simple 5 mile jog. He had a great pace, was picking up his feet and was doing really well going downhill (as I remember at this point in my race last year, my quads hated me and downhill running was pure agony).

Keating's and then Polly's. Simple. The end was in sight and we were now in the single digits as far as mileage goes. William was still powering up the hills and running most of the downhills. The flat sections were mostly a power walking opportunity where we could refuel and refocus on the next task at hand. We had a good system going as to what he needed at the next aid and I hope that my constant reminders to eat and drink weren't too pushy.

Both Keating's and Polly's went, as we were now deep into the night. We hit the last unmanned aid station with 1.4 miles to go. We both remembered there would be one more hellacious climb then some single track to the finish. At the top of the climb, William took off. He and I both knew it was under a mile and whatever you got left, you leave it out there. 22:58. Done.

In my second attempt at pacing someone through a 100 miler, I can honestly say that I love it. No stress leading up to the race. 30 miles of exercise. A snack bar every few miles to fill your face. And just make sure "your guy" gets to the finish. This is mostly in jest, as I felt completely responsible for William and his safe passage over those last 30 miles. There is an art to pacing and with experience comes benefits to you and to your runner.

Our crew chief Hanley should be commended, for not only providing us aid and support at each handler station, but for finding each aid station by herself, in the night, in Vermont. Well done.

To William. You have shown me great courage and should be extremely proud of yourself. You were down and out and came back from the dead. I have never seen that first hand and you, my friend, proved it right before my eyes. I thank you for that.

I must also thank the VT100 organizers, volunteers and all those who showed up to run, crew and pace this amazing race. This has become a special weekend for me now and I think this will be my ticket to ride (now that I'm relocating to DC). I may be gone, but I'll never lose sight of those green mountains. See you next July.

Far North Endurance Pics - with a great shot of Josh and Crew at Stage Road


  1. You got my right arm and right leg in the photo with Nick.
    Good story and photos. I know most of those spots.
    Nice seeing you out on the course. Long day. Well, "long night" for some of you.

    1. Hey Jim! Nice to meet you and congrats on your accomplishments. It was a great weekend all around. Can't wait to do it again next year.

  2. It was great seeing you out there. Looking forward to some trail miles once you get down here!

  3. That is one of the more unique finish line signs I have ever seen.

    Nice job on the pacing. I agree with your sentiment. Most the fun, less of the pressure.

  4. Great report, Justin...and nice work pacing!