Saturday, August 28, 2010

Long Trail Race Report!

When can falling 120+ miles short of your goal be considered a successful run? When you realize your adventure isn't about personal achievement at all, but about rallying an amazing group of friends to support a cause more important than any silly trail run. Thanks to all of you who so generously donated to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I have a big smile on my face while typing this report knowing the great thing we all accomplished. Together we raised over $3,000 for cancer research. Teamwork is awesome. Thank you!!

As for the down-and-muddy details of what happened up there over 150 miles of the VT Long Trail, here we go...

I knew I was up against a tough challenge when the pre-run forecast of rain, rain, and more rain came true. My crew (parents Joan and Steve) drove me up to the Vermont/Canada border from MA on Sunday under dark skies and steady showers. They, along with their over-stuffed Murano, would serve as my lifeline over the next three days in the mountains.
You need a slice of pizza or a roll of duct tape? The crew has it!

Since the Long Trail starts about 1.5 miles from the nearest road, I packed up my gear and hiked about half-way up to the LT the night before where I could sleep in a shelter out of the elements.
Great shot of me prepping in the rain just before I headed into the mountains
Steve's look sums up my feelings about the rain too!
...and off I go into the slop!
I was lucky enough to have some company in the Journey's End shelter: Peter, a recent retiree from upstate NY was ready to begin his own Long Trail adventure the next day as well. Pete was planning on taking about 4 weeks, and in many ways I was envious of his plan. I grew up vacationing, hiking, etc. in the mountains of New England, and as a result I truly feel at home up there. A nice side-note for this Long Trail adventure would be that I would finally complete a long-delayed goal of hiking all of New England's 67 peaks above 4,000 feet. Even though I didn't make it to the end of the Long Trail, I did get far enough to cover the last of the 4,000 footers on my list, so that's something to smile about!

The rain came down steadily all night as I half-slept in the shelter. When I awoke at 5 a.m. to hike the final half-mile up to the official start of the Long Trail, the trail was a flat-out river, and the fog limited my visibility to about 10 feet. I took me 40 minutes of slipping and tripping to finally get up to the start, and with a quick video post, I was off at exactly 6:00 a.m.. I knew I was in for a challenge to stay on record pace with the wet conditions, so I did my best to ignore any time-goals and just take what the trail gave me. This really held true for the whole adventure. I didn't run with any music or anything that normally affects my effort or speed in normal races. I just let the trail dictate what speed it would allow at any given point, and took advantage when I could. Since I knew I had crew stops (with fresh shoes and socks) at roughly 10, 20, and 30 miles, I was able to worry a little less about avoiding some of the crazy stretches of mud and just plow through when I felt like keeping my momentum going. Exactly how bad was the mud? I posted this clip just to give everyone an idea. Conservatively speaking, I'd say at least 50% of the trail for the 150 miles I covered looked like this:
Mother Nature laughs at my record attempt plans!
The first of FIVE shoe/socks changes on Day One
Even with all the mud and slick-as-ice rocks, I was able to move pretty well along the trail early on. My legs were in perfect shape to power up the steep inclines and hammer the downs that offered reasonable footing. I finished each of the first three 10-mile sections about 15 minutes ahead of record pace (using Cave Dog's pace chart from 2004 since JB basically ran the same pace last year). I knew I was in excellent physical shape coming into this adventure, and the biggest factor for me hanging close to the record would be the weather. Having made it through those first 30 muddy miles in such good time, I figured it would only get easier as the trail would hopefully dry out as the day(s) went on. Of course, I also thought Cop Rock was a good idea for a TV show, so you know, I've been wrong before.

Up next after my mile 30 crew stop was a 20 mile section without any chance for crew access, so I loaded up on extra water in my pack and headed out looking to make it through mile 50 in the daylight (something I never thought possible in the wet conditions to start the day). I had another nice section of progress here, signed into the trail register near mile 50 at Route 15, and packed up my overnight bag w/ my change of clothes and mylar blanket.
"Trooper" signs in yet another trail register

It got pretty cold at night, but I had my grandma's cookies to keep me warm!
My plan was to get up over Madonna Peak by midnight so I could grab some sleep on the trail before heading back down to meet my crew at Rt. 108 around 7 a.m.. The trail over Madonna Peak is notorious for being poorly marked and tough to follow. I knew this heading in and took extra time to make sure I was on the right route. As a note on the Long Trail markings overall, I must say I was surprised at how hard they were to follow on many of the open crossings near ski areas (Stark's Nest, you're totally off my Christmas card list!)...and then there was the 17 mile section between Lincoln Gap and Middlebury Gap where, apparently, they've decided to remove ALL trail blazes...can't figure out the reasoning on that at all, but some of the trees literally had chiseled out sections were the blazes once existed.

As it was, I didn't get lost heading over Madonna Peak, but that section did prove to be super muddy and slippery (made worse by that fact that I was doing it in the dark). After getting to a good spot to lay down, and taking the time to clean up with some baby wipes and change my clothes, I only had 90 minutes to sleep (between 2 a.m - 3:30 a.m.) before I had to get back on the trail to meet my parents at the appointed time. As expected, this time passed like a blink of the eyes, and I was up and on the move before I knew it.  I was probably a little anxious to get started on the massively-tough second day, and in my haste on the dark trail, I took a couple stupid wrong turns wasting about 30 minutes total. At one point, I was so turned around, I needed to crack out my compass to make sure I wasn't actually headed back up toward Canada on the trail. So stupid!  Delays aside, I made it back to my crew in good shape and ready to tackle the big climbs of Day 2.

First up was the highest peak in the state of Vermont, the "Chin" of Mt. Mansfield. This was a beautiful (and tough!) climb, and I posted this clip about 500 feet below the peak as the sun started coming out. I figured with sun and wind the trail would be finally drying out and I could have a strong day on solid trails, but man-oh-man was I wrong. Nearly this entire 20 mile un-aided section was a mud bog mess (with the exposed rocks above the tree line being the only dry terrain I would traverse all day).  I felt like I was in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner with 'water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink'!  Even though things weren't going easily (on top of struggling w/ the terrain, I had two hard falls when trying to push the pace), I did force a smile when passing by this sign so I could send the pic to my wife's Nebraska-native family:

By the time I made it back to my crew at Bolton Notch Road, I'd fallen more than a couple hours off record pace and was tremendously frustrated w/ the all the mud. My legs still felt surprisingly strong, but they wanted to RUN, and there was precious little of that on this day. After the next short and somewhat easy section, followed by the only three paved road miles of the Long Trail (that I reached, anyway), I pulled into Duxbury Road parking lot at the foot of the huge Camel's Hump climb ready to regroup and have some dinner. The crew had a tasty pizza waiting for me, and I was more than happy to make it disappear!
Enjoying dinner while checking out the work ahead of me when the sun goes down.
I felt fantastic after my dinner break and actually enjoyed the tough 7 mile climb up and over Camel's Hump. It wasn't until the top section that the trail reverted to its usual muddy mess. Prior to that, I was enjoying the best trail conditions of the whole 95 mile journey to this point. After making it up and over the Hump, I headed a couple miles back down to find a vacant tent platform to crash on for a couple hours. I was pretty tired after such a long, hard day (and only 90 mins of sleep the night before), and I was happy to be able to get 3 hours of sleep here in the appropriately-named "Wind Gap". That wind, I should point out, provided me with one of the more humorous moments of my adventure: About 2 hours into my sleep, I had a dream in which a couple morning radio DJs were reading off a list of the "Top 10 Most Useless Consumer Products". They were laughing at #7 on the list, the "Emergency Space Blanket", when I woke up and realized I was shivering like crazy as a result of the wind blowing my emergency blanket off my feet. It's crazy how quickly the brain works like that!

Because of the cold and wind, I woke up again before my 3:45 a.m. alarm and hit the trail to warm up. I had my nutrition plan operating to perfection on the whole trip, and I smiled at how completely fresh my legs felt even after nearly 48 hours of being beat up on the trail. Even my knee, which I smashed up pretty badly on Day One was starting to feel better as well. I was a couple hours behind record pace getting to Appalachian Gap, but with things feeling as good as they did, and the trail hopefully improving in the miles ahead, I was confident I could make up the time once I was able to run a little more.

First up on Day 3 was a 12 mile section to Lincoln Gap that would climb up and over two more 4,000ft. peaks. My fresh legs laughed at the climbs, and the predicted rain held off throughout the morning, but other than that, the section was a disaster. I lost the trail twice when passing over unmarked sections by ski trails (seriously, why aren't these things marked better...or AT ALL, even?!!!) and wasted about 30 minutes walking around in circles looking for the correct route. In addition, the 4 mile ridge line between Mt. Ellen and Mt. Abraham was a pure slop-fest. I really was trying to run (fueled by my trail-marking frustrations), but the mud and slick rocks would have none of it. When I made it down to the crew at Lincoln Gap, they were happy with how quickly I covered the section, but I let them know about all the delays and knew I lost a big opportunity to get back on record pace because of it.
Storming down to the road after a frustrating section. Note that sign says the trail is closed through Memorial Day to preserve it through the Spring Mud Season. Here's one vote to formally extend "Mud Season" through August!
Everyone says the trail gets easier once you head south of Lincoln Gap, so I was excited about starting out on the next 17 mile section through the Breadloaf Wilderness to Middlebury Gap. The good news was, even though the mud was still horrendous, there definitely were more runnable sections of this trail, and the climbs were short and easy as well. The problem was, with more runnable sections, the number of my slips and falls increased as well. The most notable fall involved me banging the inside of my already-banged-and-swollen knee extremely hard on a rock (this spectacular fall also involved me bouncing off my chest and knocking out my wind for a while). I knew I needed to keep moving to keep the knee from stiffening up too much, but it was certainly painful going for a mile or two. I knew I dodged a serious bullet, and even though I couldn't run as well as before with the new hitch in my gate, I still made good time over the section and had made up a huge chunk of time on the record pace.  I arrived for a some dinner at Middlebury Gap in a good mood and ready for things to get faster and easier on the final 130 miles or so.
All smiles at Middlebury Gap with dinner in my belly and easy miles ahead
I headed into the darkness ready for a couple more hours of moving before grabbing an hour or two of sleep wherever convenient along the way. Just as things were looking really good (and my parents had just promised me the forecast was for nothing but clear skies for the rest of the week), it started to rain again. Son of a Blaze! Not again!!

About an hour later, while moving pretty well despite the conditions, I had another surprise fall and hit the inside of my knee again. The resulting stream of expletives came out my mouth so hot and fast I think they actually dried out a mile of trail in front of me. I tried to walk it off for 20 minutes or so, but the pain and swelling was far too much to think about moving ahead safely, especially in the rain. I was able to hike up a little further to get cell coverage and let my crew know I needed turn around and meet them back at Middlebury Gap. I took a few minutes to record my "video of defeat", and then I broke off a nice crutch from a dead tree and began the s-l-o-w trip back down the mountain. With my knee limiting my leg flexibility to about 10%, I wasn't very stable on my feet when I hit the rocky sections, but I had to make my way off the mountain, so down I went.

Just to prove Nature didn't care about my (or any human) intentions, about a mile from the road I came upon a toad sitting in the middle of a wooden plank covering a mud bog . I didn't want to step on the toad with a wobbly step, and since I couldn't go around him due to the deep bog, I used my cane to give him a little tap on the butt to get him to jump out of the way. To my surprise, he didn't budge one bit! After another tap, and no reaction, I realized what he was really telling me: That toad, just like the rest of Nature, really didn't care about my plans. The toad wasn't moving for me, the rain wasn't stopping for me, and those rocks weren't drying off for me. In the months of preparation for this adventure, I had done all I could to put myself in the best position to break the speed record by controlling all the things I could (training, nutrition, gear, etc), but without a little luck from nature, it just wasn't possible to reach that goal. ...and even though I hate to fall short of any goal, I was OK with being forced to stop this time. There was simply nothing more I could do.

As it turned out, it rained all night long, and my knee swelled up even more making anything more than a slow, painful limp impossible. I gave it all I could during my 60 hours on the trail, and I tip my hat to Jonathan Basham, Cave Dog, and all the men and women who have made it through the entire Long Trail. It is, indeed, a rugged trail that rewards you with views of  beautiful countryside (when it's not slapping you in the face!). I highly recommend planning an adventure on the LT if you like this type of terrain, and I'm more than happy to lend some planning advice for anyone planning such a journey. Just let me know!

As for where I go from here, I'm not really sure. My legs feel fresh and strong, but my knee is pretty messed up. I'll need to give that some solid rest and rehab before getting back out on the training roads/trails. I'll most likely miss the Trilogy in WV, which pains me quite a bit since I've been looking forward to it for months, but I need to make sure this knee is 100% before I start beating it up again!

Finally, once more with great heart-felt emotion, I want to thank all of you for your donations and support for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We've raised over $3,000 together on this adventure, and I couldn't be more proud to count all of you as my friends. You guys are the best!!


Saul Wisnia said...

Sorry about the injury, Dan, but congrats on another great effort for the Jimmy Fund.

TonyP said...

Amazing effort Dan!

Chris Roman said...

You are truly an inspiration, amazing effort :)

Dusty said...

Well done! You did amazingly well considering the bog-like conditions. Congrats on the funds you've raised too!!

Stanley said...

The bears on the trail were so impressed that they actually made some online donations as well.

These are not "average" bears.

Cornhusker Man said...

Great job. Thanks for letting all of us share in the adventure?

Ric Munoz said...

I'm sorry you fell short of the goal, Dan, and that you sustained that knee injury - ouch. But you raised the money and I'm sure that makes up for the disappointment. You continue to be a profound source of inspiration for all of us! And, not that this will make you feel any better, I went off course at Lean Horse for six miles (missing route marker at mile 35) and ended up dropping out at 65 miles. That experience is a mere cipher compared with yours, but I wanted you to know you were not alone in the disappointment department. Hope you recover quickly so that you can attack the next race on your schedule!