"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail" -Emerson

Redemption on the Mountain

It is a cool, crisp, comfortable day. The backdrop is a beautiful ski mountain, towering high above a quiet ski community resort in Virgil, NY, with trees coating the mountainside showcasing all the amazing colors of fall.  The clouds are low lying over the crest of its peak, and yet despite what one would otherwise only call a picturesque scene, there is an eerie haunting feel to what lies before us.

Alpine Loop in
the distance
The date is Saturday, September 22nd 2012, and I am standing once again at the starting line to Virgil Crest ultra marathon's 50miler. One year ago this date,  and a virgin to trail running in its entirety, I tried my hand at running fifty miles through the mountainside of Virgil, NY, in a race boasting 10k of elevation gain. In last year's attempt, the weather was cold and rainy, with shoe sucking mud adding to the experience. After managing 30miles in 10 hours, I threw in the towel as a broken, wet, and newly humbled ultrarunner.

This year I've come with others, a pack I'm so pleased to be able to call my friends, mentors, and comrades. We successfully scored an amazing deal at Greak Peak Ski Resort, in a kick-arse two room suite with 4 beds, a balcony, kitchen (duh.. for beer), and enough space to comfortably fit 8 runners with all their gear in tow. Johnny R and wife Diana came with spirits high and ready to party (oh yea, and also run... 100mi and 50mi respectively), while Vinny Cap and wife Nicole came ready to tackle the 100mi and 50mi. Jessi Kennedy was a last minute addition to our crew, which was awesome because she came with not only good brew, but cookies for all! We also had Elaine Abercrombie for the 50k, and another friend of Vinny's joining the crew for a fun filled weekend on the mountain. It was a great group that managed to keep such a fun and energetic atmosphere despite the mountain looming outside our hotel window. After our pasta dinner, we all retreated to the hotel bar, where we seemed to take over a birthday party crowding the area. Not to worry, after Johnny started talking about toenails falling off and pooping in the woods, we (without complaint) scored a nice large area to ourselves near the corner of the bar (Thanks Johnny!!) We enjoyed ourselves for a drink or two before heading back to our room for another beer or two and preparation for the morning ahead. The night felt young, but the time was almost midnight and for what lied ahead, we all quickly settled into sleepy time.

It wasn't even 4am when one by one alarms started sounding, urging groggy and sleepy runners out of our comfy sleeping arrangements and into the brisk darkness of morning. We all gathered our gear and made way to Hope Lake start, where we enjoyed complementary breakfast goodies and coffee. It was still dark at the start, as we all took our places near the beginning. With a snap of a horn by race director Ian Golden we all were off. We smoothly ran around the big beautiful lake, across a small foot bridge, around a nice paved path, and into the darkness of the woods. I settled into a slow pace with Johnny R and Diana as we made our way to Gravel Pit aka aid station 1. The first few miles are relatively runnable (for the experienced) with a few nice rolling hills that I so delightfully took the opportunity to walk. Not too far in, the sun began to rise, and the pack started to thin. Several runners, had the misfortune of running into an in-ground bee hive, and took a few stings as bonus from the mountain. Fortunately for me, Johnny was directing traffic around the site... so in being one of the trailing runners near the back, I was spared any stings!

After leaving Aid station 1 and heading through the woods to Alpine (aid station 2), Diana and I bid Johnny goodbye as we vowed to stick together and run so that he could zip off to try his hand at finishing 100 miles at Virgil Crest. We took it slow, Diana powered up the up hills, forcing me to keep tempo with her, while I bombed the down hills, forcing her to keep up with me. We were a great pair in that respect. It was nice having someone to run with me (usually, I keep to myself near the tail and randomly find new friends to share a miles with here and there along the course). This time it was different, we were a team.

Looking down from midway up Alpine
We made it to Lift House 5 Aid station with plenty of time left for the cutoff. We quickly grabbed some snacks (PEROGIES!!! YUM), and started our ascent of the infamous Alpine loop. It was a very slow climb, as the mountain is a relentless uphill death march to the top, whereas then runners are faced with several rollers, and as always, a new challenge presented by our demonic race director. This year, an added steep climb to a new vista (still wondering what that vista was...) was placed, and let me tell you, getting up that dirt climb was HELL! Thank god I brought my trekking poles with me. I watched several other runners struggle to find sticks to assist them in the small, yet brutally steep, hill. After making it to the top of the mountain, we looked down the ski slope of Hercules and thanked God we'd made it to the top. The downhill decent back to Lift House station was uneventful and at the bottom we celebrated again as we were still beating the cutoff.

From here we started off towards Rock Pile Aid station. This section of course has its moments. Sometimes it's very runnable, with beautiful pine needle forest flooring, and then at other times its plagued with rocks, roots, and climbs needing ropes to assist runners up and down. For the most part, I was pleased I had my partner in crime with me, and we made the best of the section by joking, eating jolly ranchers, and taking snapshots of ourselves along the way.  In all honestly, I remembered this section a lot harder the previous year, and was thrilled I was still moving with such ease.

At rock pile, I quickly found my drop bag, grabbed some snacks, and we set off to our far aid station, Daily Hollow. Diana was quickly fading and already talking about dropping at miles 25. She was losing her mojo and talking her into sticking it out was getting harder and harder. The climbs to Daisy Hollow didn't make it any easier to convince her to keep on going. With less than a half mile to the aid station, I left Diana in an attempt to get my aid and get out, since I knew the last 25 miles I'd now be alone, and be slower, and soon be heading into the darkness of night again.

She did end up dropping at Daily Hollow, and I soon bid her goodbye as well as I head back towards Rock Pile. I moved pretty well still, more walking here and there, but for the most part I was still capable of running all the flat sections. My spirits were still high, and I knew I now had to move it on my own willpower if I wanted to finish this race. I had made it to hell (mile 25)... now it was time to make it back (to mile 50). I showed up back at Rock Pile, again with time on the clock, and was more than elated. Last year, at this point, I was toast... done... finished. This year, I was still moving, feeling good (for 30ish miles) and pressing on! I grabbed some ibuprofen, thanked the aid volunteers for their hard work, and zipped down the trail back towards Lift House. The miles were a bit slower, and I sung songs to myself to keep happy. Eventually I made it to Lift House, and boy was I glad!

Lift house in reverse around Alpine loop didn't seem as horrific as the first time around. I made it to the crest just as the sun started to duck behind the mountain, and quickly descended back to Lift House just as darkness officially took over. My cutoff cushion was getting stretched thin, so I hurried as fast as I could back out of the aid station and towards the road, where I would in total darkness, alone, make my way up the hill and back to the trail. Elaine caught me in her car, lighting the road for a brief moment, before she said farewell to me as I slowly disappeared into the woods. Later I would find out that she was afraid for me as I disappeared into the pitch black woods, fearing I would get eaten by a bear or lost in the woods. Truth be told.. so was I.

I think I ran a bit faster this section back to Gravel pit because I was scared of being alone in the woods. The creeks and pops of the branches below my feet, and the echoes of distant "things" in the woods scared me into keeping the pace up! Every now and then the trail would briefly light up with the headlamp of another runner (a hundred miler starting loop two), and then the darkness would return. I had never run trail at night, so this experience was new and exciting, yet at the same time eerie and lonely.

Carl & I at the finish
Finally, I arrived back to Gravel Pit. Ian was waiting at the aid station, and my cutoff cushion was now down to a mere minutes. Funny how time slips away from us on such long runs! A quick high 5 and he urged me on to finish what I had failed to accomplish last year. The last section was very long for me. I think I had exhausted myself physically and mentally, and ended up walking more periodically then I wanted. Near the last mile, I met up with another solo runner, a Frenchman name Carl from Canada, finishing his first 50 at Virgil. He was just as beat up as me, and with only minutes before cutoff, I vowed to stick with him his final push. Neither of us would come in before cutoff, even if we sprinted, so finishing together seemed like a better way to end the experience. We power walked the last quarter mile, and finished side by side, only a handful of minutes after the 16.5hr cutoff. There was no friends, or screaming fans, waiting for us both at the finish, just Ian standing by to shake our hands, take a picture, and hand us our finisher cups. It was bittersweet finishing this race, for both of us, yet so much more rewarding for me in knowing that the mountain hadn't defeated me again. I may not have been first place, I definitely wasn't last place, but in my mind, I had won.