Monday, June 23, 2008

Green Mountain Relay...yes, I survived

My team finished the Green Mountain Relay in 28 hours this weekend. That's an average pace of 8:32 over 196.8 miles (the 200 mile thing was, apparently, a rounding off). Personally, I ran 23 miles, everything under 8:30, and most of it, except for one 7 mile leg with a big hill in it, right around 8 minutes a mile. So, I'm glad it's over, but before I forget I wanted to write down some highlights.

First leg, starting about 4 on Saturday: We are running around the same time as "Team Dinosaur" a bunch of college kids who drive a van fitted out in Stegosaurus spines and tusks and who wear a green dinosaur tail while they run. One of the girls on the team takes off a couple of minutes before my guy comes in, and as I leave, I say, "I'm going to catch that dinosaur chick." So I head up a very long hill (2.7 miles, 700 feet up) and I can't even see her for the first mile or so. About a mile and a half in (I'm guessing, there are no mile markers), I start to see her on the straightaways, so I dig in and start to reel her in. I pass her just a little past the top of the hill and slam down the dirt road, feeling like Wonderwoman or something. It is breathtakingly beautiful, as Vermont can be, with giant trees shading over the road and a brook running alongside, and Team Dinosaur, the ones who aren't running, are all at a swimming hole later on. I finish in about 59 minutes, for a 7.1 mile run, my slowest pace, but also the hardest leg I have to do.

My friend Jerry goes next, with an even bigger hill that ends, fittingly enough at a cemetery, then he too, has a long downhill and gorgeous sunny, Vermont in the summer views. He's faster than I am, coming in just under 7 per mile, then his son, who is 19 does the hardest leg of the whole course, racing another kid about his age the whole way and ending just over 6 minutes per mile for almost ten miles. I could maybe run one six minute mile if I had a gun to my head, but maybe not. Dana and Steve finish our first set and we end up in a tiny town called Hancock just as the sun is setting. The stores are all closing, so we go to a little café/bar where they still have food and get a sandwich. It's the solstice, which people sort of celebrate in Vermont (hippie thing, probably), so there is a small band playing bluegrass in the bar and I wish I could convey how beautiful it is to be eating finally, after a long day, on a porch in a little town with a white church and the sun turning pink over the mountains.

You're supposed to have 12 people on your team, and we only have 10 at the start and one of them goes home after her two legs, so by nightfall we are two short. So Jerry and I, instead of sleeping, get into the other van, and sign up for another leg. It is fully dark after the first two legs, which Ann, who put the team together does one after the other. We wear headlights and blinking vests and try to keep to the shoulder. I run again at about 11, 5 miles, two at a sharp downhill (Jerry has done the uphill right before me). It's pitch dark and foggy, and on a fairly major highway, but the van stays pretty close, and it is sort of fun running headlong into the dark down a hill in the middle of the night. There are some streetlights and lit-up businesses every half a mile or so, so I run one to another. It is cool and marvelously dark and I feel like a kid again. I finish in just about 39 minutes for five miles.

Another woman is running very late, maybe 12:30 or so, and we stop ahead to offer her water in a pull-off between two fields. I get out of the car, because I find that I am really tired in the car, but I feel pretty good when I'm outside. So I'm standing there beside one of the fences and this beautiful thoroughbred horse comes up and sort of snorts at me, and it is one of the most beautiful mysterious moments of the whole trip, the quiet, the stars, the horse and the sheer weirdness of being out in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. There is something large and white and hard to see in the other field. I am hoping a cow, not a bull. I stay away from the fence on that side.

I get back and we are dividing up the next series of six legs, where Jerry and I will hop back into the other van and take our places again. The only easy legs are the ones right up front, and so the choice is between a little rest in between and a harder leg, or a flat one right after the last one. It is quite late, and hard to sleep in the van. I take a 5.4 mile leg with a pretty big hill at the beginning, then a tour grade descent of over 15% at about 3 miles. This is another really magical run. The race has a staggered start with the slower teams leaving before the faster ones, with the goal of making sure that people finish more or less at the same time. In theory, this means that there should be more people around as you get further into the race, but in fact, it seems almost at random whether you are running in a bunch of two or three, or entirely alone. This 2:30 a.m. run, I was almost entirely alone, the whole time, only the van alongside for company. But it is amazingly fresh and sweet in Vermont at this time of night, the smell of wet grass and hay and running water. The moon comes out from behind the clouds during this run, and I can see a little even beyond what the flashlight illuminates...there are huge mountains wrapped in mist and giant, gnarly trees and deep, peaceful meadows, rolling off into the distance. The run goes through a little town, almost entirely dark and silent, and then I see some lights through the trees, lots of them, and it's the end of my leg.

We are now in ski country, just past Killington and coming up on Okemo. Jerry's son, Jake, does the next 6.8 mile leg, mostly flat, again at a ridiculously fast pace, but so smoothly that it looks like he's not running at all. Jake is the only one who seems to be able to sleep in the van while it's moving...he hands off to his dad, who has signed up for the toughest leg of all, a 6.6 mile grind up Okemo's mountain. (There's a reason why people pay $75 a day for the chairlift...it is a long, long slog.) it is, by now, about 3 in the morning and none of us except Jake have slept at all. The hill is unbelievable, and Jerry flags. With about a mile and a half to the change, we put Steve in, and he finishes the hill and does the next leg. Jerry is kicking himself all the way into the next transfer. He has run about 18 miles at this point, including two out of three of the ski resort legs, which are very, very tough. We pull into the transfer area at 5:30 a.m. in full light again, and head to Bromley (another ski area), where we can rest in the parking lot until the other team is done. Two of our people get in the other van. The rest of us talk about whether we'd rather sleep or eat (there's not really time for both). We decide to sleep. I get out my son's sleeping back and close my eyes for about an hour, but it's bright sun by then, and I can't really drift off. I volunteer for the next leg, which is mostly downhill, 5.4 miles. This is my last leg. This is when it starts to rain, monsoon hard, and with thunder and lightning.

Jake takes over when I finish and does about 4 miles of his 6.8 mile leg. At 4 miles, it begins to thunder in earnest. We are on top of mountains, under trees...just where you're not supposed to be. His dad pulls him back into the car, and Steve finishes the leg. It gets worse. We talk about whether we should pull out of the race. There are really only a couple of people on the team who have any running left in them by this point. one of the women in the other van has left to go home. We are down to nine, I am in that sleep and blood-sugar-deprived state where you feel like you are really sad...my legs are hardly able to move anymore. We talk about waiting for half an hour and seeing if the weather clears. We try to pull Steve off the road, but he shakes us off. It clears a little bit and Jerry does 3-4 miles to the transfer. We talk Kevin into a 3 mile run (he's got back problems), but the minute he starts, the thunder clouds go right over us, and there are some strikes within a mile...his wife pulls him back into the van. We wait. It clears finally and some of the people from the other van, Kevin, Ann and Dick offer to do a mile or two. We are about 15 miles from the finish, and the rain stops and we finish somehow, mostly Steve and Jerry carrying the team.

And then we get to eat, and we go home.

So, there were some amazing moments. There were some really awful moments. (After my last leg, I go into a diner where the Van 1 people (who did a lot less and a lot easier mileage than the Van 2 people, even without all the switching and extra legs) were having a full breakfast...there was no room at their table, so I go to the counter, but I can't get the waitress and I know they're about to leave, so I end up not getting anything to eat. This is the low. It just seems so unfair and so unbearable that I might have to run again, and these people who have been able to SLEEP and EAT do not. I get really mad and depressed, and I know that is mostly the low blood sugar, but I still cannot wait to get back into the other van. Where, late in the race when everything falls apart, we all share an ice-cold can of Heineken and I have never tasted a better beer in my life.

I don't think I would do this again unless we had a full, official team, with more people who would run the harder legs, but it was definitely an interesting experience. I'll write about music tomorrow I promise, but for now, I've got to try to get some work done.