This Saturday, at four in the morning, nearly 300 runners will gather on the dewy fields of South Woodstock's Smoke Rise Farms for the state's most extraordinary endurance effort: the 15th annual Vermont 100. The ultramarathon, which is also raced by horses and riders, is a grueling round-the-clock ramble through the foothills of the Green Mountains that is almost four times longer than the standard 26-mile trek.
And it's not just any 100 miles. Winding through a handful of towns clustered around Woodstock, this is just about the hilliest network of dirt roads and trails organizers could find. "There's no reprieve the entire race," says Joy Grossman, 39, a Reading resident who is running her third Vermont 100 this year.
Everything seems hunky-dory when you hit Happy Valley at mile 9.6, but then you move on to the aptly named Agony Hill, which features a nasty dog in addition to a relentless climb. Over the long haul, there's an elevation gain and loss of nearly 15,000 feet -- more than three times the height of Mount Mansfield. If runners are lucky, the temperatures will hover in the 80s. Anything hotter just makes it harder to hang on.
In the world of ultrarunning, the Vermont race is known as a "baby 100." The mamas and papas are out West -- races like the Badwater 135, a mean and snake-infested trek through Death Valley, curiously sponsored by Kiehl's, the ultraexpensive beauty-product purveyor. Or the Wasatch 100 along the spine of Utah's mountains. Queens, New York, of all places, is home to the granddaddy of the ultras, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Inspired by spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, a handful of followers began running laps around a half-mile track on June 15 and will continue until August 5. Now that's devotion.
Ultramarathons date back to the late 19th century, when they were called "bunion derbies." But the podiatric implications of this activity are worse than that. Some Vermont 100 runners will have blisters so swollen that their shoes will have to be cut off; some will bind their feet in duct tape. Cramps are de rigeuer, as are nausea, vomiting and emergency trailside evacuations. Sure, there are porta-potties, but not always in the most convenient locations.
Most ultramarathon runners do not sleep. Those who do usually snooze right where they stop. When the thermometer plummets at night, hypothermia can set in; if runners drink too much water, without enough salt, there's the deadly threat of hyponatremia. They suck down a gooey substance called Hammer Gel and hope for the best. Even in the snake-free state of Vermont, ultrarunners face grave dangers, and must check in at regular medical stations to make sure their weight does not drop too precipitously.
If the body holds up, the mind can start to slip, setting the stage for some wild hallucinations: the Messiah, dragons, old settlers crossing the road. I once got suckered into running half the Wasatch, pacing a friend. In the wee hours of my 46-mile run, I hallucinated that the soles of my fellow runner's sneakers were speaking to me, accusing me of being a procrastinator. Of what I dared not ask; the only thing I was putting off was my next pee.
Why -- and how -- do ultrarunners do it?
It takes months and months of training, wherever and whenever. Perhaps more important than athletic ability, though, is the determination required. "Every year, there are people who can barely walk, barely communicate," says Vermont 100 race director Jim Hutchinson. "They just put one foot in front of the other."
Runner Joy Grossman borrows a line from The Little Engine That Could, repeating "I think I can, I think I can," when times get tough. Great athletes in tip-top shape can run mile after mile and still not be trained for an ultra. It's a mind-over-matter event in which men and women in their thirties, forties and beyond excel because they've accumulated years of physical and mental endurance.
Why bother? "All the free food at the aid stations," jokes one runner I know who's got a great sense of humor. He's not only racked up multiple ultras, but once ran around the South Pole in a "regular" marathon, without snowshoes. Fun stuff.
The food, admittedly, is fantastic: miles of buffet tables laden with steaming baked potatoes, sliced turkey, candy, cookies, coffee cakes, potato chips. And runners wonder why they get stomach cramps! I fondly remember recovering from my abusive-sneaker vision by tucking into a huge plate of pancakes, bacon and eggs at sunrise, becoming one of the rare runners who actually gained weight during the race.
For some participants, the "high" is summit views, the quintessential portrait of bucolic life in the Green Mountain State. "The Vermont scenery, it's motivating and uplifting," says Grossman. "This would be a drag if it were Pittsburgh." Or, say, Queens.
For others, the "why" is about the finish line, the belt buckle you get for finishing within 24 hours, the lifelong sense of accomplishment. Or the chance to score a Grand Slam, which is not, alas, a relaxing week at the beach, but a chance to run four ultramarathons in a row in one summer.
There's another great reason to run the Vermont 100: It benefits Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, which was founded in 1986 to create recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. Each year, proceeds from the race -- and its sister, the Vermont 50 in September -- provide VASS with a third of its operating budget.
In the winter, VASS offers low-cost adaptive skiing and snowboarding lessons, plus discounted lift tickets. During the summer, sailing, canoeing and kayaking are among the available programs. The equipment and instruction are expensive for VASS, but somehow the organization reaches more people each year. "We tend to start small," says executive director Erin Fernandez. "We plant a seed and watch it grow."
VASS' "blossoms" are as varied as the people who benefit from the program. Some get a thrill from the wind in their hair when they whoosh down a ski slope; others just enjoy connecting with nature, unencumbered by restrictions such as a wheelchair. For one weird weekend in July, their lives intertwine with the ultrarunners as VASS participants help at the Vermont 100 aid stations, cheering on the folks who, like them, have set goals that blow everyone else's mind.
"There is an enormous parallel between ultrarunners and disabled athletes," says Hutchinson, who is also an adaptive ski instructor. "For ultrarunners, it's an incredible mental leap to even conceive of running 100 miles, which is very similar to a paraplegic who decides to ski. The competition isn't the thing. The challenge is the point.