The 2015 Virgil Crest Ultramarathons, held on the weekend of September 19th, were forecasted to have uncharacteristically pleasant weather. The race has become known for the unpredictable weather of central New York in autumn, but this year when my alarm rang at 4:30 a.m. a warm breeze and clear skies greeted me as I walked to the start line.
This was my second year running the 50 mile at Virgil, and I was excited to see what I could do. I hadn’t raced since Whiteface Skymarathon on June 27th, and I had been training as methodically as I could through a busy summer. I felt more prepared than ever before for a 50 mile, and hoped to be able to really race instead of just trying to survive to the end as I have in the past.
The vibe in the pavilion pre-race was excellent as ever, as everyone readied themselves for the day to come. Ian called us to the start line and I exchanged high-fives with MPF/RNR teammates Cole Crosby, Scotie Jacobs, and Ryan Welts. Cole was running the 50 as well, while Scotie was taking on the 100 with Ryan pacing him for the second 50.
I got my headlamp situated and gave my bottles to my parents, who were crewing for me until my wife Alli took over at 25 miles. And at that we were off at the “sound” of the ram’s horn to start our adventure!
Running trails in the dark by the light of a headlamp is something I have very little experience with but I find really enjoyable. You have to be in the moment all the time and react to what pops into the beam of light, and the snake of lights bobbing around Hope Lake is just such a cool sight to behold.
I was feeling smooth and comfortable so I settled in at the front of the pack with Cole, Jim Blandford from Pennsylvania, and another runner. We already had a pretty good gap when we hit the trails but we were chatting and enjoying the warm morning air so we rolled with it. Jim dropped back after a few miles, but he is a very experienced and savvy runner, so I knew I would see him again later in the race. Despite my legs feeling great initially, by the time we hit Greek Peak at about 14 miles my stomach was starting to feel not-so-hot and I was struggling to keep pace with Cole.
In the interest of self-preservation I forced myself to a more sustainable pace as Cole disappeared up the slopes of the mountain.This downward trend in my physical and mental state continued as we left the ski slopes. I just didn’t have any power. Every slight incline forced me into what felt like a shuffle, and I was on the verge of ejecting the contents of my stomach into the woods.
In retrospect I think I may have mixed the Tailwind in my bottles too strongly. Tailwind is really great stuff, but is deceptively heavy in calories. With 3 scoops in each bottle I think it was just too much for my stomach to handle as the day warmed up.
Alli was going to meet me at the turnaround at the halfway point of Rockpile AS, and coming into it I was rehearsing my drop-out speech. Even though I was running in second place I was just gassed out, felt like crap, and frustrated. Luckily Alli is the most positive and encouraging person I have ever met. She didn’t give me a chance to even start my speech! She gave me some ginger-ale and said “You’re doing great! You're fine! You felt like this last year at this point and you still ran great! Get back out there and get it done, I’ll see you at the next AS!” And with that, before I knew it I was back on the trail vaguely wondering how my plan to get in the car and go home hadn’t worked out.
I had my bottle filled with Coke and had drank some ginger-ale at Rockpile. This seemed to settle my stomach and my wife’s positive energy had broken up the pity-party I had been having for myself. All of a sudden I was feeling strong and motivated again! Apparently it just took me 30 miles to really get warmed up…
By this point I was getting reports that Cole was 18 minutes ahead. So while I was focused on cutting into his lead as much as I could, my immediate concern was holding off Jim, who had closed to within about 3 minutes.
I missed a turn in the woods and had to backtrack a bit to get back on course, which gave Jim all the time he needed to catch up. We ran together for a while and while it was good to have some company, I was watching for any weaknesses that I could use to get ahead of him. One thing was certain- descending was NOT his weakness. When we hit the long, steep descents of Greek Peak again he flew down them! I was just trying to stay upright and nurse my battered quads down while Jim was practically sprinting. By the bottom of the mountain he had about a 400-meter lead again. However, climbing was a different story! While I was by no means feeling strong, I was climbing well and found that I could close any gap he gained pretty quickly.
I knew the long road climb out of the Tenkate’s Crossing AS would be my opportunity, so after a quick refill of Coke I used some strategery to run the road as hard as I could. It paid off as I had a sizeable gap at the top of the hill! I kept pressing hard through the rolling trail, riding that line just short of blowing up.
I had no idea how far back Jim was, but at the last AS, Elizabeth Azze, Alli, and my parents were waiting and told me I had pulled back a few minutes on Cole. Again, this was good news, but I really didn’t want to cede second place so I rushed out on to the last section of trail before the finish.
I was tired but my stride still felt strong and smooth. Although it had been a day of ups and downs, this was easily the best I have felt in the late stages of a 50. The work I had done in the weeks leading up to the race was paying off as I felt I was still able to push.
The path around Hope Lake to the finish line is deceptively long. The finish is just across the lake and seems so close, but there is still almost a mile on the little paved path. The cheers from the line carried across though and helped to get me through. I was still running scared that Jim would catch me, and kept looking over my shoulder to make sure I wouldn’t be outkicked. It turns out that was unnecessary, as I had gained 20 minutes on him!
I finished 2nd overall in 8 hours and 24 minutes. 14 minutes behind Cole, but almost 20 minutes faster than I ran in 2014! This race gave me a lot of confidence for longer races in the future now that I am starting to gain the experience and strength needed.
It is a common theme in our sport that an ultra will show you a lot about yourself. A race will expose your vulnerabilities and reduce you to your core self. But it will also expose your strengths. You will find strength you didn’t know you had to keep pushing through the low points that inevitably come, and once you find it, this strength will stay with you in your life.
On this day I learned that sometimes the greatest strength can come not from within, but from those you surround yourself with. I would not have finished, much less run my best race thus far, had it not been for the love and support of my family, friends, teammates, and the trail running community.
As always, a huge thanks goes out to Mountain Peak Fitness, Red Newt Racing, Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company, Confluence Running, Run On Hudson Valley, Patagonia, and Ultimate Direction for the support.
Salomon Sense Ultra 4 Shoes
- Air flow Singlet
- Strider Pro Shorts
- Duckbill Cap
Injinji Original Weight Crew Socks
Garmin 910XT Watch
Ultimate Direction Handy 20 Bottle
Tailwind Nutrition Lemon Endurance Fuel
Petal Tikka R+ Headlamp