After running the Bear 100 for seven straight years, I decided that it was time to try a new race. I was drawn back to my roots, and wanted to run the Virgil Crest 100 in Upstate New York where I lived for eleven years. The Virgil Crest Ultras (100, 50, and 50K), in their fourth year, are held above the town of Virgil, New York, and runs through the Greek Peak ski resort, where I used to ski in the 80s. This would be my third mountain 100-mile race in the past four weeks, Cascade Crest 100, Wasatch 100, and now Virgil Crest 100.
The course is a 50-mile out-and-back course with a tough mountain loop thrown in the middle, taking you up to the top of the ski mountain, not just once but twice during the loop. In all during the entire 100 miles, there were 20 significant climbs for nearly 20,000 feet of climbing along the entire way. You knew you were at the top because each time there was a ski lift shack greeting you. But most of the course runs through beautiful green forest, some of it almost dark enough for a flashlight during the day. The trails are soft and fast (if dry) with only a few short technical spots.
As a young Mormon missionary, I lived for six months in the nearby town of Cortland. And then after college I worked for IBM in Endicott, NY, about 30 miles to the southwest. For this trip, I stayed with a family, the Lawrences, who I taught and converted to the Church 33 years ago. They were great hosts and were very curious and supportive about my crazy hobby that brought me back east to see them. On Friday as they worked, I explored the VC100 course, first visiting Greek Peak looking up at the climb that I would need to do over and over again. I was glad to see and recall that these were hills, not the brutal steep mountains in the west. I could do this. I also explored a portion of the Finger Lakes trail in the forest. It was amazing and looked like it would be great fun to run through. The Finger Lakes Trail system is more than 950 miles of trail that runs throughout Central New York. The system is built and maintained almost entirely by volunteers and covers some of the most scenic land in New York.
The Lawrences took me to visit another family who I had not seen for about 22 years. I had attended college with their son. After a nice dinner, I went to the race briefing at the Virgil fire station and delivered my drop bag which I would be taken to the Lift House 5 aid station which I would visit eight times.
The race seemed to be very well-organized by race director, Ian Golden. There would be nearly 150 volunteers out on the course to help us during the race. The big question this year was how bad would the mud be? The trails had never fully dried out from recent Hurricane Irene and during the past couple days rain again fell. The flood waters from the hurricane basically wiped out two homes I lived in for eight years to the south.
The rain started again at 9 p.m. and I just prepared my mind for wet and sloppy conditions. The 100-mile and 50-mile race starts together. I would have preferred to have the 50-mile runners start an hour later as is customary with other races, so we could gage the competition better. But since Ian allows 100-miler DNFs to drop down to the 50, I guess it is fair to the 50s to have us start together.
In the morning we gathered at Hope Lake for the start, a very nice park for families to greet their runners. At 6 a.m. we started our epic adventure, running into the dark with a drizzle, humid mist falling on us. For the first half mile, I ran in second place to stretch my legs out. I had not run much since finishing Wasatch 100 two weeks earlier. As we left a paved trail and entered the forest, I was pleased to see how fast I could run on it with my Stinson Hokas. Despite the wet conditions, I seemed to have plenty of traction. I immediately decided not to avoid puddles, but just run through them. My shirt was already completely wet, but with the 65-degree temperature, I never was cold. In fact I never had to put on a jacket, even at night. It would rain lightly for the next four hours and be cloudy all day. Overall it was very pleasant running weather (at least for the first day).
As we ran deeper in the forest and climbed up Tuller Hill, the mud really made an appearance. Most were short stretches, but some were nearly a quarter mile long. There were only a few very annoying spots where I would sink down to my ankles. But my feet would be wet for the entire race and would look like prunes when I finally took my shoes off. There were two creek crossings that were deep. I just ran through them and cleaned some of the mud off my shoes. Running at such low altitude was a great treat. My breathing never became very labored and my lungs just didn’t take the heavy toll that they usually do during 100s.
I reached the Gravel Pit aid station (mile 4.4) in a fast 45 minutes, probably running in the top 10. I was very impressed with these eastern runners and their ability to run fast through these windy, rooty, muddy, forest trails. Dawn arrived, but because of the dark forest and mist, it seemed like true light would never arrive, but eventually I was able to turn off my flashlight. I reached the section of the Finger Lakes trail that I had previewed, knowing where I could really blast it down fast on the trail, and then hitting a mile of pavement taking me to the Greek Peek resort. I arrived at Lift House 5 (mile 9.7 at 1:45, still going pretty fast.
Next up was the “Alpine Loop” taking us up access roads and portions of black diamond ski slopes. Once over the top, there was a large group of us who were confused by the flagging. Eventually we figured things out and continued a fast run down the mountain. But once down near the lodges, the course turned back up, making us again climb up and over the mountain. My legs were really enjoying the climb and I was very pleased that for long sections I could keep a run going and re-pass many runners. I returned to Lift House 5 (mile 13.9) at 2:48. I was 17 minutes ahead of my predicted pace.
Next up was a long 11.2-mile (22.4 total) out-and back on the Finger Lakes white blaze trail. It started off with another tough climb to the top of a ski lift. Once on top, I had to take my usual long bathroom break in the woods and fell back into mid pack, probably about 20th place. The running was great fun but very slow in muddy portions which messed up my rhythm. The trail would periodically cross over dirt roads. With my preview the day before, it helped to know where I was and what to expect ahead. I reached Rock Pile (mile 20) at 4:35, 10 minutes behind my predicted schedule. As I was going up the final large climb, that even had a few ropes on trees to help, I was greeted by the front-runner, already about eight miles ahead of me. Amazing! I counted the runners ahead and was about in 23rd place, clearly mid pack. I kept telling myself to be patient, that sooner or later many of the runners ahead would slow down.
I arrived at the turn-around point, Daisy Hollow Road (mile 25.1) at 5:48, about 20 minutes off my schedule. Now it was time to turnaround and head back. It was fun to see all the runners behind me and it gave me extra motivation to run faster as they approached. Back at Rock Pile, I noticed that indeed, runners were slowing down. One was even already changing his socks. I passed several running down the next hill and then did my best to maintain a fast pace all the way back to Lift House 5. I arrived there (mile 36.3) at 8:33, 38 minutes late. I just couldn’t figure out how I could get back the time and quickly concluded that a sub-27 hour finish would not likely happen with these tough trail conditions. It didn’t help that my stops at Lift House 5 and my drop bag were a bit too long. I changed out of my sweat-drenched shirt several times, doing my best to avoid the inevitable chafing problems that would arise.
We again climbed up the Alpine Loop, but this time in the opposite direction. Once over the top and down, I met a runner who was very confused. He had not remembered from the morning that we actually climbed up the mountain twice. I chuckled, pointed up, and assured him we did go up twice, and up we went. It was always sweet to be on top again. Most of the times I would really blast down the other side fast.
All that was left for the first 50 miles was to return through the forest for a nine-mile windy run, up and down alongside creeks. There were some pretty rooty sections and small side creeks to jump over. But the final four miles was a very nice smooth and fast trail. A woman runner caught up to me and started to give me nice encouragement, so I showed her how I could dig deep and really run fast. She did her best to keep up and gave me nice compliments. Finally Hope Lake came into view and I finished the first 50 miles in 12:48 before sunset. I stopped at my car to clean a foot and change a sock, solving some hot spot problems. I was again away at about 13 hours, now faced to do the entire run over again, this time most of it in the dark.
On the other side of the lake, I ran into a 50-mile runner finishing without a light in the dark. He was stumbling around and asked me if there were any turns ahead. I wished him well and understood why he was going slower than planned. We all were. Many 100-mile runners would quit the race after 50 miles, having no desire to run the muddy course again. But I was determined.
My run to Lift House 5 went well, but instead of the 1:45 it took in the morning, I ran that stretch in 3:07. Usually I go into a major bonk on the first climbs after sunset during a 100-mile race. I started to feel the problem coming on, so I was very careful, ate right, took plenty of electrolytes, and backed off the pace. I know I was getting lazy and letting the mud slow me down, but I really feared bonking all night. I came across many of the back-of-the pack runners who were really struggling.
The run up the Alpine Loop was lonely in the dark without any lights ahead that could be seen to catch. On the way back up from the other side, another runner almost caught up, but I turned on the jets on the way down. I was having great fun running on the trail at night. I returned to Lift House 5 (mile 64.1) at 17:57, exactly at midnight. I cleaned my other foot hoping to keep the blisters away for awhile longer.
OK, 18 hours gone and I was 2.5 hours behind schedule. Now I was getting worried. I had planned to at least finish in less than 28 hours, which would give me plenty of time to shower and catch my flight home. But now I felt a real urgency because I realized it would be very tough now to just finish in less than 30 hours.
For the 22.4-mile out-and back, I really worked hard on my pace. I passed several runners, including the runner that Phil Rosenstein was pacing. I shared with him my schedule problem. Reaching the Daisy Hollow Rd turnaround was frustrating, because I thought I had seen a sign at the last aid station that the distance was 4.2 miles. It was actually 5.1 miles and it seemed to never arrive. On the way back, I finally really found the speed. I put on the same song I played at Cascade Crest and that really woke up my legs. I improved the “back” portion time by nearly an hour, arriving at Lift House 5 (mile 86.5) at about 26 hours, at 8 a.m. Despite my slowness, it seemed like there were only about 10 runners ahead of me. (Indeed, I was now in 11th place). I concluded that there must have been a large number of DNFs. I should have changed shoes at this point, but I knew I could save about ten minutes if I just pushed on ahead. I had been contenplating stoppint at mile 90 in order to catch my flight, but the more I thought about it, that would be about the stupidest reason ever to DNF a 100-mile race.
The morning was beautiful as I climbed the Alpine Loop for the last time. The sun was rising and it looked like it would be a wonderful day. Could I finish in four hours? As I finally lost my uphill energy on the climb, I decided to throw in the towel with hopes to catch my flight. I called my wife and had her change my flight to the next day. I then assured her that I would now just take it easy for the rest of the race. I probably should have continued on as fast as I could, getting back to the forest before the morning heat. Little did I know…. On the way down, I was greeted by enthusiastic 50K runners going up, looking nice and fresh. They all gave me great compliments.
When I reached Lift House 5 for the last time (mile 90.7), I was surprised that I felt terrible. The morning heat and humidity quickly slammed me. The aid station volunteers were great. I lay down in a cot in the shade for nearly ten minutes until I finally felt better again. Eventually I jumped up, and actually ran out of the aid station to cheers. But the next mile up the hill on exposed sunny pavement, slowed me way down. I had not counted on both heat and humidity. I thought the forecast called for clouds both days.
Finally I reached the forest again and it was a bit cooler. But soon, I collapsed down on the trail, trying to feel better and find energy again. I would then get back up and be able to somewhat run again. But the pattern would continue. Down and up. Front-running 50K runners soon were passing me and offered me any assistance. One even offered to stay with me until the next aid station, but I refused, said he had a race to run, and I would be OK. I ran out of water but dipped my bottle into a side stream that looked safe. I used the water to cool myself off the best I could.
Well, with at about mile 94, I felt the worst that I had ever felt during a 100-mile race. I was very dizzy, thowing up, hot, bonky, and had little energy. I realized that I had symptoms of heat exhaustion. My core body temperature was just too high. What was I going to do? At the pace I was going, it would take forever to reach help at the next aid station. I have got to admit, that this was about the scariest I had felt during a 100-mile race. (On a personal note, I guess I will mention that during this very low time, I offered a couple prayers, asking for help. I didn’t know where that help would come from, but I knew it could come.)
I know when it is OK to push through tought times, but things just weren’t right. What I feared most is being a nuisance for the race director to worry about. I didn’t want to have to be carted off to the hospital. I wasn’t a rookie 100-miler, this was supposed to be my 45th finish.
Finally a 50K runner stopped and could tell how bad I looked. He noticed that I looked very ashen. He said he would send someone back from the aid station that was now about a mile away. Soon, a guy came running down the trail to me. He was great and could see that I was determined to keep pushing ahead. He called the race director and gave him my status so he wouldn’t worry and we pushed on ahead together. It gave me comfort that someone was at least there to catch me if I passed out.
Finally at Gravel Pit (mile 96), I just threw myself down in the shade by the aid station table. Phil Rosenstein was there and he and others took over and did their best to help me. With a bag of ice and cool towels, I was able to start bringing down my body temperature. Was I going to quit at mile 96 of a 100-mile race? Now that would be wild, one for the books! Thankfully, not one person at that aid station suggested that I consider quitting. But they carefully checked on me. I was pretty incoherent at first, not knowing what I wanted to eat or drink.
After about 15 minutes, I finally felt much better after Phil had me drink an Ensure. The cool towel on my neck was working and the ice bag on my face felt wonderful. Could I finish? I just was too chicken to do it alone. I asked Phil if he would “run” to the finish with me. Phil was great. He quickly made arrangements for someone to drive his car to the finish and went to put on his running shoes.
I got up and told the aid station guy that I was going to give it a try. If it didn’t work, I would return. But it worked. Phil was great company, keeping my mind off my blisters (should have changed those muddy shoes) and we even ran some stretches at a good pace. I kept the cool towel with me to try to keep my face and neck cool. Phil continually suggested for me to eat and drink things. Phil provided me a service that I will remember for the rest of my life, an act of true kindness and friendship. I believe my prayer in faith was answered. Bill, Phil’s runner later let me know, “Our plan was for him [Phil] to skip the Gravel Pit aid station . . . I was surprised to see him at Gravel Pit when I rolled in. Obviously some little birdie must have told hime he’d be needed. there.”
Finally, Hope Lake came into view and we ran that last mile pretty hard to the finish. I finished in a slow 32:42:34, in 17th place but it was a finish, not a DNF. I quickly got my belt buckle from Ian and went directly to my air-conditioned car. I noticed that the outside temperature was 86 degrees. Those last ten miles took me 4.5 hours as compared to 1:45 on that same stretch for the first ten miles of the race. 56 runners started, and only 29 finished.
Recovery for the next six hours was tough. My body temperature was still too high and nothing felt good except sitting next to a fan with cool rags. But I eventually pulled out of it and awoke the next morning feeling much better.
What did I learn? It is silly to take a desert runner to the heat and humidity without proper heat training. I just didn’t expect the heat. I thought I would be finished by 8 a.m. I would have been fine if I had run that fast, but the muddy course tossed those plans out the window.
Virgil Crest 100 is a wonderful race. Two things came together this year to make it tough: Unusually muddy trails, and heat/humidity for the second day. If both could be avoided, it would be fantastic race conditions and a beautiful course. I hope to return. This was my 45th 100-mile finish. Next up is Pony Express Trail 100. I have a long break this time, four weeks.