The man behind the table didn’t hesitate. “It’s exactly 4.8 miles to the finish,” he barked as I reached for my third cup of Mountain Dew. It was now 11 p.m. and his words were a punch to the gut. I thought I only had 3.5 miles to go, but it was really 5 more miles. All I could do was shake my head, and reach for a chocolate chip cookie. Then I grabbed a cup of warm broth and continued down the trail.
I’ve written that running 100 miles is like living a lifetime in one day. The ups and downs that it brings, the elation and disappointment, the pleasure and pressure, they are all there, strung together from hour to hour, even minute to minute, on a neural continuum. What I feel right now, I’ve come to learn, is altogether different from what I’m likely to feel after taking a few more breaths, or a few more steps, toward my destination.
The challenge now wasn’t whether I could make it to the finish. Heck, I had already run 95.2 miles and I wasn’t about to quit now. The challenge was whether I could finish in under 20 hours. I had kept the thought of this in the back of my mind, hoping that if I had a good day and ran smart, it could pull it off and have a new personal record. But was it within my grasp? With only an hour left, 4.8 miles to the finish and a big climb still to come, negative thoughts began to flood into my head.
I started to hear a voice. It was telling me that I had no chance. That I might as well not even try, because making it nearly 5 miles in less than an hour would be impossible. Then came the coup de grace…knowing I’d been running for 19 hours, the voice asked, didn’t I deserve to take it easy now?
There is an element about Vermont that is historic in the world of ultra running – and it involves horses. The concept of horses racing 100 miles is nothing new, and in fact dates back to 1955. Now in its 60th year, the Tevis Cup is an endurance event where horses and their riders cover 100 miles in one day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Back then no one had ever thought of a person running one hundred miles. Then, in 1974 a young equestrian by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh showed up at the Tevis Cup with his horse to ride one hundred miles. But his horse got sick and was unable to compete. So Gordy chose to run it by himself. Thus began the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the hundreds of 100 mile races that followed.
Like Western States, Vermont is one of the few 100 mile races where humans and horses run on the same trail. At Western States they run on different days. At Vermont horses and humans all run together - at the same time. To state the obvious, it makes for an interesting event. There is something primal about running side by side with horses along rugged trails in the middle of a forest. It is as intimidating as it is intriguing, and it is all sewn together with a stitch of adventure.
There is only one mile marker on the entire 100 mile course at Vermont. It is at mile 99. When I reached it, I stole a look at my watch. I had just 12 minutes remaining to finish under 20 hours. I knew I could run one mile in twelve minutes, as long as there was no more climbing to come. But there was more climbing to come. So I climbed. And climbed. Up the side of a hill that seemed to have no end.
By now the voice had gone quiet, and I was moving over the countryside without the burden of hearing what I can’t do, or what was impossible. Now I simply listened to the sounds all around me, my own footsteps, the distant voices of the finish line. I was now just a passenger moving along this dark Vermont trail, destined to take these final steps that would carry me to the end of this long journey. I turned the corner. I saw the lights of the finish line. I saw the clock. 19:58:08, :09, :10, :11.
I raised my arms. I did it.