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Just Say Yes! The Pemi Loop

13 Aug
Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

I’ll start this post by saying, just say yes. Say yes, even if you are pretty sure you are not trained enough to tackle it. Say yes because this might be the only chance you will get.

This is turning out to be one helluva Summer Of Adventure. Between planning for and then executing the whole Dames Across Rhode Island run, putting our house on the market with another fantastic sell-everything-not-nailed-down yard sale, pacing at Vermont, dealing with a Prius that decided to shed its mortal coil (hybrid battery bailed at  250K miles – well WELL past its warranty) and discovering the newly opened DeKoppet Preserve (more on that in another blog post…), the summer has gone by in a whir. Back in June, my friend Janet asked if I would be interested in running the Pemi Loop. My first thought was, OF COURSE I WOULD! But then I looked at the calendar. We had another thing planned coinciding with Janet’s planned traverse. I put it out of my head for awhile as a maybe, while still staying in touch with the planning on Facebook. Mary, Janet’s friend and fellow runner, who ended up pacing my last desperate miles at Dames Across Rhode Island, would also be attempting the Pemi Loop, as well as fellow TARC runner extraordinaire Annette, as well as Laura, a runner from Connecticut with a 3:38 marathon time. This was turning out to be a good group of strong women. Janet recruited Brenda, a friend from Trail Animals Running Club (who originally planned to run Dari), and as the summer wore on, I had to make up my mind: should I go? When the Other Planned Event fell through, I had no more excuses. I should go.

The Pemi Loop traverse circles through the Pemigwasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Starting and ending at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead off of the Kancamagus Highway, it can be run/hiked either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It is thirty two miles, and crosses about nine peaks, with the option of adding three more. Much of the trail is on exposed ridge; below the ridge, the trail is often rocky (it is the granite state, after all) and either descending or ascending one of its many peaks. The trail never goes around. The weather can be tricky and change quickly. Our forecast showed perfect conditions: a high pressure system would sweep out all the humidity and heat, bringing in clear, sunny conditions.


Adventure is one thing, keeping up with a group of strong fast women is another. This has been a cruelly slow summer for me. Sure, I have logged plenty of miles, but none of them have been fast. With nothing in particular to train for after DARI, I ambled from one trail race to another, to half marathon on road to long bike ride, training runs consisting of the odd eight mile dirt road commute to work, or a weekend 20 miler with plenty of walking; nothing terribly taxing, although the summer has been a hot one. While I knew I was going in to this under-trained, slow but strong, I had a deep desire to meet the challenge. I sent a message to Janet et al... I would be joining them!

In the weeks leading up to the traverse, we all did our homework. Annette messaged that she was a no-go; she needed time to heal an injury from her wicked cool adventure in Scotland. So now we were down to five of us. In a party-line call a few days before the run, we all laughed and planned for what we imagined would be a 12-14 hour adventure.  We weren’t shooting for any fastest known time, but we certainly could come in by sunset, in time for a nice dinner at the Woodstock Inn, and maybe a sit in the condo’s hot tub. I packed a bikini in my overnight bag. A little voice inside my head said, um, you know? This thing has mountains… lots and lots of them. Reading blogs by both mountain runners and hikers, I couldn’t decide if we were being overly optimistic, or whether I was being unnecessarily wary, but something worried me it was going to take a little longer. I had done, three times – once in very foul, cold weather – the western ridge trail from Haystack to Lincoln and Lafayette and down again – and all three times it had taken all day – eight or nine hours – to hike it. I wasn’t sure we would be much faster with the running, but I hoped we would. In fact, as I glossed over the elevation map, I had visions of the group of us gliding effortlessly across the ridge trail once we came out at tree-line. Because once we were up there, it would be flat and smooth ridgeline, right? Plus, I had the optimism of my fellow runners. We bolstered each other on the ride up, and over a great dinner at Portland Pie Company.

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Arriving at the condo, we made last minute preparations before going to bed. I packed everything into my “kitchen sink” Ultimate Direction SJ hydration vest. I probably had two pounds of food – sliced turkey smooshed between four slices of Italian bread, cut into eight squares. A bag of cheezits, one of fig newtons, one of dried fruit and nuts. Three Builders’ bars, some Honey Stingers’ chews, and extra NUUN caps for my many water bottles. My pack’s bladder leaked the moment I put water in to it; three distinct holes told me a fork must have been in the sink the day I washed it. Brenda loaned me two collapsible 16 oz bottles which I filled and stuffed in the big pocket on the back, and with two bottles in the front – one with a Katahdin filter – I had 64 oz of water. All told my pack, including above-treeline just-in-case clothing and emergency gear, plus styling 1980s fanny pack added 20 lbs to my summer-solid frame.  It was going to bounce. Oh well. We went to bed, sleeping a few hours before the alarm cut in to the dawn.

Flume (4,328), Liberty (4,459), Little Haystack (4,780), Lincoln (5,089) and Lafayette (5,260)

We set out at 5:39 from the Lincoln Woods parking area, everyone cheerful and ready for the day. From the flat, easy Lincoln Woods trail, after a mile or so we turned left to ascend on the Osseo trail, which gently climbs (until it’s not so gentle and your heart is going BANG! BANG! BANG!) a granite-bouldered trail, reaching the summit of Mt. Flume in about an hour and a half. The weather was PERFECT. The small summit boasted stunning views, just an appetizer to the main course. We paused to take photographs, take stock of how we were feeling. I could not help but admire the grace and ease Mary and Janet showed taking the lead on the climbs. Laura stayed not far behind them. Brenda and I brought up the back. Janet was so happy that this had all come together and that we were all out here enjoying it. That feeling was contagious – soon we were all skipping along the small ridgeline trail on our way to Mt. Liberty. At one point, an emergency beacon app I had bought for my phone suddenly went off. It sounded like a school fire alarm. What the hell is that? Is that coming from the valley? No, it’s coming from MY PHONE!  I struggled to turn the darned thing off and prayed it didn’t really send a signal but merely sounded an alarm. How random! Why had it done that? I put my phone in airplane mode and forgot about it.

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What a beautiful day. Sunny, 70 degrees, with light clouds riding the front. Ahead, the visible peaks of Liberty, Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette showed us what was to come. It was hard to believe that from here, we would eventually be over there. Looking east, we could make out where we would be even later that day.

We actually ran some between Flume and Liberty. The trail stays fairly well at elevation, and was mild up and down, plenty rocky. It was walk, jog, run, step through some rocks, run a little, walk some more, for a couple of miles. Out along the knife edge of a cliff, into the low woods again. Suddenly, we emerged at Liberty, another summit that seemed less like a summit and more like the shoulder of the big summits to come. From here, we could see the ridge trail ahead, exposed and open to the weather, which fortunately was fine. We descended back down into the woods, and then down a steep side trail 800 feet to Liberty Springs campsite to get water. We were all pretty good with water at that point but the next water stop would be much further, so we chugged a few ounces to make room and then filtered some more to carry. Back up the side trail with mountain-cold spring water chill against our backs, we moved along. Soon, we ascended Haystack, and at that point, we were out on the ridge. On a bad day, this trail can feel like Siberia. Today, it was all skipping and hopping through alpine rock and granite-hugging stunted greenery. We stopped to admire the views, and I started my routine of eating something at each stop. Keep fueled, keep happy. I did not sit down. I generally don’t on these things. It is too hard to get back up. I tried to pay attention as my brain dueled with the two purposes of getting the trail done, and seeing the world around me.

From here, the trail from the junction of the Falling Waters trail (which ascends steeply from a busy parking area a couple of miles below) until the other side of Lafayette has often been described as “Grand Central station.” There were day hikers, AT Thru Hikers looking dirt-tatoo’d and weary, families with little hiker children, and runners like us. Although it was only Friday, I counted fifty people between Haystack and Lincoln. Conversations melded together as hikers and runners passed in both directions. Janet, Laura and Mary were up ahead; Brenda and I were laughing at some private joke, as if these crowds, this herd of people, were not all  around us. There were a lot of high-school groups. One young boy descending the rocks toward us with a sour look on his face had on a New Order t-shirt beneath his over-sized pack. I said hello, complimented him on his shirt. He said Thank you like a high schooler would say politely to his friend’s mother. “I hope he didn’t steal that shirt from his grandfather” I said out loud. Someone chuckled. We were in two lines: one going up, one coming down. Everyone was talking, everyone was snapping pictures, admiring views, shouting to friends, parents snagging the collars of over-zealous rock-hopping children. The land drops off on either side.  I recalled to Brenda my time up here in a storm. It seemed to take forever in the high winds and cold rain to get from one blasted rock to another. By contrast, today we easily climbed up the rocks and could see our destination. At some point, the stupid alert app went off again. I quickly shuffled off my pack, reached for my phone and pressed around until it turned itself off again. “If this thing does this again, I’m uninstalling it.” After a third false alarm, I uninstalled the app and shut my phone off.  Pay attention. I thought to myself. You’ve only been up here three times and there is still so much to see. See that slide over there with mica shining in the sun? See the clouds backed up against Mount Lafayette? Hear the breeze against the rocks?
It was all so pretty, overwhelmingly so.

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The atmosphere on top of Mt. Lafayette – a whopping 5,000 plus feet – was jubilant. Lafayette is a sort of a crossroads; turn left, and one can descend to Greenleaf hut, and eventually to the Lafayette parking lot and route 93 far below. Our option was straight ahead, continuing over the summit ridge to descend, open views all around, another tumble of rocks, as if a giant child had thrown a handful of boulders down a long alley. Most of the hikers were back at Lafayette. It was much quieter here. Brenda and I hiked with an older guy – maybe in his late sixties? – who reminisced about bare-booting the Bonds trail in the dead of winter. Those were the days. No one does that, now. He teased us about our long day ahead. “The Pemi Loop? Hope you brought headlamps!” We laughed. I glanced down at my watch and saw that we were seven hours in and not yet to our halfway point. So much for our 14 hour goal. But then, they said it was easier on the second half… I thought of this as I clomped down the exposed granite and looked around. Nothing but beautiful green wilderness as far as the eye could see, and granite trail beneath the toes.

Garfield Ridge Trail, Mt. Garfield (4,500) and the madness of PUDs

Now began the Garfield Ridge Trail, down from Lafayette, leaving Ted Our Old Timer Hiking Friend at the Skookumchuck trail (the word means, according to Wikipedia, “strong water’). Brenda and I descended into a series of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). We hiked fast, hoping to catch up with the other three. Time seemed to slow. Below treeline, the trail now offered less for views and our eyes were busy scanning the trail ahead for foothold and loose boulder. Being unfamiliar with this portion of the trail, I had little expectation, but it did seem to go on. and on. and on… Eventually it turned upward, and soon we summited Garfield. A guy at the top, munching on a granola bar with a handsome black lab by his side told us our friends had just been there before us. We took the quick side trail to inspect the base of what once was the fire tower and to listen to the wind against the rocks at the top. 360 degrees of gorgeous. A French-Canadian couple lunched at the base of the tower. Hopping down near them, we asked if they knew which way the trail went, since it wasn’t readily apparent. We spent a few minutes with them looking for it, and finally found we had to go back down to where we had gone off the trail to come up. Once there, we ran into another group of summit dogs. I love meeting the dogs.

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

We were well behind the rest of our group, and it was getting on to late afternoon. Coming off of Garfield, a sign read 2.9 miles to Galehead hut, which is where we were headed to meet up with our gang. More granite bowling balls, a stop at the campsite to filter more water, another drop, and suddenly, just around a bend, the trail was IN a waterfall. I have hiked wet trail before, but this was exceptional. Steep, wet, with running water right down the middle, I had a moment of panic as I reached for a tree root and it pulled away from the rock. It took us nearly an hour to do that mile. Oy vey! Beyond that (finally!) we roller-coastered along rocky up and down trail. At one point, in the distance, we could see the Galehead hut, our next destination. It seemed incredibly far away from us. Around Garfield Pond we looped, and as the trail ascended again I thought to myself that this just HAD to be the ascent to the hut – because, well, it just HAD to be. My right ankle was twitchy and giving me some pain from turning it several times through the bowling ball trail. We passed a family with wee hiker children with their wee hiker backpacks. Up ahead, we came to a clearing, emerged from our climb to another juncture and there, there was the hut. Our halfway point, and we were nine hours in.

An AT thru-hiker hailed as I passed. “Are you coming from the South or the North?” I hesitated… didn’t we just come from the West? “uh, the West.” He scowled. “Yes but… on the AT it’s always North or South.” “Oh, then, uh, I guess the South.” He asked if we’d seen one of their friends, and we had, so we told him that we had seen her by the waterfall-trail and she had been hiking fairly well (as well as could be with a big AT pack and, well, the waterfall trail.) Brenda and I wasted little time getting up on the porch and inside. And there was Janet, Laura and Mary. Hugs all around. They had been worried about us. They had been waiting 45 minutes. They had had soup. There was no more soup, but I spied a coffee pot and went right to it. We refreshed, re-hydrated, re-fueled, and all caught up, and I insisted that if we happened again to get separated that they not wait. Brenda and I would be fine. But that’s not how Janet, Laura and Mary roll – they would wait for us on each of the following ascents and junctures ahead, because we were doing this together. As we talked and regrouped, I watched as families came in for the night, the end of their days and a good night’s sleep ahead. It was now 5 o’clock. Laura was feeling some stomach issues but was ready to press on.

South Twin (4,902), Mt. Bond (4,698), and Bondcliff (4,265)

We left Galehead hut to ascend South Twin Mountain. You know those stair machines at the gym? You know how they have like big, non-standard 14 inch steps? They would be perfect training for the ascent of Twin Mountain. The sun blazed on our backs as once again, we watched Mary and Janet glide on up ahead. Laura stayed back, dealing with her stomach, but soon found her wind and pushed out ahead of Brenda and me. Within minutes, they were lost to our view, and Brenda and I took turns pushing each other up the granite-strewn trail. I had known it was coming – I had read all about it – but it still surprised and humbled me with its relentless UP. At this point, we had been moving forward for twelve solid hours. It was pointless to whine, because we were all doing this together, we were all tired, but we were all amazingly strong and capable. And the best part was that we all knew it – for my part,  I felt secure in this experienced company of women – that Janet could not have picked a better bunch. If anyone was the weak link, it was me, because I was slow. But otherwise, there was no doubt we would all be able to handle what was to come.

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I have to admit it was hard at the top of South Twin when I saw how Laura, Janet and Mary had waited, yet again, for what looked like long enough to get cold, when we had barely gotten there and caught our breath. And I felt guilty about that. It was discouraging to feel that I was slowing them down. I had to take a moment to back it up in my brain and remember what we were doing this for. It was not a race! And some people are just naturally good at this, and dedicated to their fitness, and instead of discouraged I should feel inspired. Attitude change with altitude change!

Attitude summarily changed, we pressed on at a light jog to Bond on a truly luxurious softer trail just below treeline. What a beautiful, beautiful place to be. Finally finding flow on the quiet trail, the day’s frustrations left me. Quiet all around. Green summits in all directions. At the top of Mt Bond, a lone hiker took our photograph while we watched the sun get lower across the sky to the West, the way we had come. I fantasized momentarily about stretching out against the rocks, finding a good old rock pillow, and spending the night alternately sleeping like the dead and waking to watch the stars… ah… if only. We had miles to go. The hiker told us his brother was coming up the trail that we were going down, and to say hello. On the way down, we saw the brother, and I recognized the face – it was the one I had on earlier. The slow-hiker face. The holding-them-up face. I mentally wished him well, knowing he had a ways to go before their campsite. “Hope you all have headlamps” he said, as we passed.

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Descending Bond, Mary turned to us and said, part motherly, part efficient cheer-meisterly: “Now, see Bondcliff up ahead? That’s our last mountain.


We have to get over that before sunset. We DO NOT want to be on the hard part of that descent after sunset.” We worked our way along this very, very rocky trail. Our ankles were quite tired, and our quads were sore, and OH, the views. Oh. To sit, to stare off into the never-ending wilderness, the sun sinking just beyond a tall peak in the distance, was all that the heart desired. The siren call of summit views. To our right, just feet from where we walked, the side of the ridge dropped sharply to a valley below. Ahead, the impressive summit of Bondcliff loomed. All ideas of time and what could be accomplished seemed to be swept from my head. It was 7:45 and sunset was in 30 minutes, if that. Beyond Bondcliff, the trail would go down – at first sharply, then less steeply, then eventually “boring and flat” another eight or ten? miles. I didn’t see us finishing before ten. So much for dinner out. Someone joked about food at the 24 hour CVS.

Janet and Laura pressed ahead, following Mary, who was anxious and therefore moving fast. Brenda and I dawdled, not yet willing to give up what we had climbed so hard to see. To our left, shadowed by our own mountain, the closer hills hugged in varying shades of green. The granite looked scorched, reflected in the red of the dropping sun. A few minutes of running along a spine of ridge, and then another climb. Past cairns and between low stone walls, we made our way up Bondcliff. At the top, Brenda took a few minutes to climb out on the profile and I snapped her photo while she snapped mine.

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Up ahead, a man in a blue running shirt with a big camera took photos of the sunset from a daring position at the cliff’s precipice. The mother in me wanted to drag him back from the edge and lecture him on safety. I’m pretty sure that his photographs of that day are awesome and were worth his precarious perch. We hiked past him, once again finding ourselves descending a mountain, the last of the day. A very quick few hundred feet of serious downhill – hands required and granite-hugging, knee scraping drops –  and we emerged in a little clearing where the other three waited for us. “Yay!” we cheered, celebrating getting off of the mountain just before sunset. Headlamps on, we now prepared to descend the last of the trail, a few hours ahead of hiking by headlamp and stars. At one point, the photographer we had seen ran down past us. And then it was just us for a long time.

My headlamp is pretty strong*. At river crossings, someone would call me to the front so I could point the beam forward to see where the trail led. We crossed the creek leading to the East Branch of the Pemigwasset several times. In the dark, with rocks flattened by my headlamp, I lost my usual rock-hopping fear and found myself crossing with ease, despite being tired. I wanted badly for Brenda and I to keep up with Laura, Janet and Mary. We were moving in a train, down the hip of the mountain, easing our way back. Songs came into my head. Very bad jokes were passed around. I thought about how lucky I am. Truly. How many people can be thrown together like this, use everything they had for eighteen hours, and come out in the end with a smile? While we were all tired, and desperate for our sleeping bags, something in me wanted to bottle this moment of fatigue and camaraderie… five women walking in a line, in the footsteps of so many before us, alternately quiet and rambunctious on the night trail. At some point, this night would be over, we would be back at the car, back at the condo, showered and done and part of us wishing we were still out there.

The trail finally emerged back on the flat former railroad bed of the Lincoln Wood Trail, described by everyone we passed as “boring and flat”, and we resumed what we had left in our legs of a running pace. The job here was to avoid tripping on old leftover rail ties. Other than that, it was wide enough for a truck and good for running. We ran, walked, ran, walked. I got ahead, for the first time that day, and turned off my high powered coal-miner’s headlamp to walk blindly in the dark. On again, off again. I could hear the others behind me. What a day. Finally, after almost exactly eighteen hours, we emerged onto the bridge across the river, only a stone’s throw from the parking area. We turned off our lamps and looked up at the carpet of stars. Laura pointed, “a shooting star!” Lucky us. Make a wish. It might just come true.

* shameless, unsolicited plug for the Petzl Tikka R+, which has never failed me and goes hours on a charge.

Our Pemi Loop adventure came out differently in different measurements. I measured us at 28 miles, but Mary tells us it was 31 point something. In all, with stops of about 1.5 hours, our traverse took 18 hours. Out of the food I brought, I was left with three wedges remaining of the two sandwiches; half of the Cheez-its, most of the fig newtons, and a handful of nuts and dried fruit. All but one bite of the bars were gone. I had used two NUUN tablets and gone through about 5.7 liters of water. At different points, I wore all the clothes I brought except the tights. I did not need the backup headlamp but I recommend one anyway.

I want to say thank you thank you thank you Janet Sanderson for getting us all to agree to do it, for planning the adventure, and securing the awesome accommodations. Mary deserves mucho praise & hugs for her never-ending optimism and leadership. I am glad I got some time to hike with lovely Laura, whose still waters run deep, and whose persistence and strength in the face of feeling like crap is inspiring as hell. And many thanks to Brenda Morris, the most cheerful ultra-runner out there, who sure knows how to make a long slog the most fun thing ever. We went in smiling, and we came out smiling.


Vermont 100: Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers

23 Jul

It is 3:00 a.m. on a warm, rainy Saturday in July. The showers have just let up, and now the rain is a steady pit, pat on tent flies across a muddy field in the Mount Ascutney region of Vermont. We are all here, and no one is sleeping, for the 27th annual Vermont 100 Endurance Run footrace and horse rider event, which takes place on mostly private lands and dirt roads in the Hartland/Woodstock area.  All day Friday, the weather was gorgeous, but the rains came at night, fast moving, making me double-cross thankful that I was not running, but would be pacing a runner, for this event.

Suddenly, headlamps on, the first runners emerge from sodden tents, firing up camp stoves and slipping into gear that will carry them for the next 100 miles. As the 100-mile runners swiftly make their way to the main tent below, the rest of the campers turn over collectively in their sleeping bags. The next to rise will be the 100-mile runner crew (if the runner has a crew), followed by the 100-kilometer runners who will start later. And between tent city and the main tent, the horses and their trailers begin to awaken. Out come curry combs, picks, owners looking disheveled, with bits of hay in their coffee mugs. In the parking area there are two or three campers – an A-Frame trailer, a small home-built box trailer, and our Airstream B-190 hippie van, complete with tie-dye curtains and dancing bear decals that we thought we’d leave on when we bought it, in the spirit of happy camping. The hard top was certainly appreciated when the skies opened, and water for coffee heats easily on its propane stove. From our elevated loft window, we have enjoyed a view of rain, mud, runners, pacers, crew, dragging gear back and forth across a rain-drenched gully.

We get up around six o’clock, realizing that already the 100 milers have been on the trail two hours. A second round of activity erupts around seven o’clock as the 100 kilometer runners make their way to the start line. We watch. There are maybe thirty runners for the shorter distance, which still, at sixty odd miles, is a challenge and takes on much of the hardest part of the overall course. Off they go, skies cloudy but the rain holding off, for now. We mosey back up the hill, then out for breakfast. Up in Hartland, the Bassett family (a local family very involved in the race) owns The Hartland Diner that serves knock-out Vermont maple sausages. We each had three. A Bassett youth with red braided hair and “VT 100” in glitter on her cheeks serves us eggs, toast, sausages, and for Tom, big Vermont pancakes. As a pacer, I had the leisure of hanging out. Most of the pacers would not join their runners for several more hours. In the meantime, we finish our breakfast and joke about the diner’s decor, which consists of many plastic diner-saurs on the counter. Clever. The Bassett waitress asks if we were involved in the race. “I’m pacing” I reply. “Oh! I’m pacing too!” A brief exchange of smiles, pleasant see-you-theres.

The weather really starts to clear on our return. With the exception of backing into a fence (it was me), stopping to knock on the door, pay for the fence, the drive to and from breakfast was uneventful.

Back at camp, the sun came out strong. The 100 mile runners had been out for about six hours at this point. I estimated the mid-packers to be about mile 40. Nap time.

Pacing at Vermont 100 is a curious job. The pacer is picking up his or her runner, for the most part, at mile 69.4 at an aid station called Camp 10 Bear (or Bear 10, I’m not really sure.) The runners are tired. They have just run 70 miles. At six-thirty p.m., Camp 10 Bear was a very busy place. The two port-o-lets doors were constantly locked. Crew, most looking like bedraggled family members, stood around car hatches gaping with gear. When would their runner arrive? Did someone see him at the last aid station? I heard so-and-so dropped. Here come some horses! This is how conversation goes at 10 Bear. Runners, riders, crew cars arrived in trickles, each time an occasion for applause, cheers, families running forward to take water bottles and find out what their runner needed. The crews looked as tired as the runners and had been up driving back roads since five. A scan of the food at the Trail Animals Running Club Aid Station told me that, as usual, the best of the aid stations was right here.

I go from spectator to evaluator to friend to big sister in a fell swoop at 7:30 p.m. as I spot my runner. He is shaking his head as he comes down the hill, not smiling. I greet him and we move to get him weighed in. Then he immediately sits in hopes of recovering from a sour stomach, and after a few minutes, taking some time to lie down on one of the aid station cots, under a pop up tent. There are two other runners there – one with trench foot, one with severe chafe. They commiserate. I am anxious and want to get us moving, but I know that I have to be patient. Then the skies open. Sheets of rain come down. We are for the moment barely covered by the tent. We wait to run. Run? Off we go.

Crews cannot help after the aid station. This is now the pacer’s job. While we can’t carry gear for the runners, we can “hold on to” a bottle or jacket while the runner adjusts her pack, or headband, or while he tries to eat. Pacers can try to make conversation. Sometimes, this is not effective and is even annoying to the runner. A good pacer needs to know when to shut up. A great pacer can sense when to pull out a good story after a long silence. Mostly it’s a guessing game. A pacer needs to be thinking for his runner, willing to let a fart happen without comment, be ready to run ahead to aid stations to get water, or saltines, or to shout out a runner’s number. A runner just needs to at most run, but at best, by this time, walk efficiently. Each step forward is further than the last one. Sunset happens. The runners look hang-dog while the pacers try to be perky, taking in the view before everything goes black.

At dark, headlamps come out and bop along in front and behind, picking up sparkling sodden leaf reflection and mud spatter. At one point, I go down so fast I barely feel the landing as my butt slides in the mud. Hopping up, I am covered from ass to shins in Vermont’s finest.

Pacers from 10 Bear only cover the last thirty miles. Much of this is walking and fast hiking, but nothing too technical. Someone says this is the hardest part of the whole route because of the unrelenting mud and hills. Aid station, big hill, enter trail, mud, slide, down, out onto dirt road, a few miles, aid station. Several moments of bliss as we bop down a mud-covered trail when my runner is feeling well.

At the next aid station, Spirit of ’76, a volunteer remarks that they have seen many, many upset stomachs all day. Could it have been dinner the night before? No, probably not, he says. It was the rain and then the sun that came out, and the humidity. It is humid, still. Maybe seventy five degrees, at night, and the air is like breathing a cloud. I remark on the jazzy patriotic decor and pretty lights. A time-wizened volunteer tells me one runner came through and asked, “What does Spirit of ’76 mean?” I laugh. Probably wasn’t born yet!

The runners look battle-worn. Some lie down on the ground napping and alternately shivering. A couple go and retch up whatever is in their stomachs – not much. Hard to eat on a sour stomach. Hard to catch up when you haven’t eaten. Can I help? Would you like some soup? Soup seems to do the trick for now.

Crews look worried. They have been following – and then waiting on – their runners all day. Some of their runners have not come in yet. Even though the cut-off is a long way away, did they get caught in that awful storm? Are they somewhere out there being sick? Are they in a ditch? No, not likely. Just making their way, one foot in front of the other.

I have that go-go-go-go need in my legs. It’s one thing to have only gone seven miles when your runner has gone 76. Let’s find some compromise. I hear other pacers making the same case on either side of me. The pacer also has to continually assess the situation. Shivering is not good. Here, I say, hold this soup. The shivering stops. I get drillmaster big-sister bossy. This is not well received. But cajoling does nothing. Only time fixes this.

A pacer is fortunate if she has made sure to catch sleep for several hours before going out to pace, because a pacer needs to keep a clear head when the runner starts to get bleary. I am reminded of college drinking days, walking home from a party with someone much drunker and much more prone to be just about to puke than me (we all had that friend, right?) Trying to distract. I look around at what scenery I can detect in the dark – grassy hillside, wet tree limbs dripping, some animal crashing through the woods ahead. We come upon a pacer-less runner we had spent some time with before. She is off-and-on. She does not want a pacer. She is stubborn and resolute as she stumbles forward. I am beginning to think this 100 mile thing is for the birds, and I am glad I did not sign up to run it. (Nor will I ever. Tom jokes I will be online signing up for my first within days of Vermont… it’s been four and I’m still never doing it. Eighty is plenty for me.)

There are fleeting moments of great revelation between runners and pacers. I see a pair of headlamps ahead and hear laughter as we climb a hill. Laughter is good. We are catching up, and I strain to hear the conversation. On and off we pass people, and they pass us. In my head I have an image from my runner’s story that won’t go away. A good story to remember to tell Tom later when I get back to the hippie van.

An unmanned aid station and several hills later, I am beginning to school-nurse worry about my runner friend. We discuss the situation. Things get better, but then slip back to worse. The words “not sustainable” are uttered and I wrack my brain trying to think of every anti-nausea solution out there that hasn’t been tried yet. It is three a.m. and I know from studying the elevation that we have a couple of good dirt road hills ahead. I have a tin full of first aid but none of it will work, unfortunately. At Cow Shed Aid Station, I know we are just down the road, down the hill, from headquarters and the campground. From here the route goes out away from headquarters and back again in another part of the clover leaf. Runners at this point, mile 83, are either jubilant or simply done. There is a nice campfire here that seems to dry the humid air. A man tending the fire asks questions and talks a lot. The chairs are all taken. One runner snores, given in to sleepiness.  This aid station has COFFEE, which I take, black please and thank you! Soup for my runner.  The volunteers quietly chat as runners come and go. A decision is made. We are Calling It A Day at mile 84. A respectable distance but nothing much registers except weariness for my runner. I offer myself to pace a new runner but I know that at this point, every runner who wants one has got one. I will jump in the van with another pacer and runner who are CIAD. The van arrives. The pacers climb back to the third bench back, since the driver wants the sick runners to sit near a window, just in case. I greet my fellow pacers, one on either side of me. The woman on my right says, “My runner already got taken, but I had to wait.” We are all quiet. “You guys should check in with medical.” It is a short drive back up the hill to the campground and the big tent. We stagger out of the van and into the tent. Now I get to be runner, if needed, for dry clothes, cell phone, wallet? Then I am released from duty. It is a little less than 24 hours since my runner started. I go back and forth in my head as I walk back to the car. Should I have not let him quit? Should I have not insisted on the medical tent check? I get into the van and Tom is sleeping. He wakes up when he hears me. Another adventure over. Now we can sleep. In the morning, I will find out how my runner fared, but for now, it’s lights out.

Sunday we rise bright and early to another gorgeous sunny day. Oh, had the weather been like this yesterday it may have meant a little less trench foot, a little less chafe, a little less sick and shivering. Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers start to pack up. You know the runners because they walk funny. Crews sleep in. The horse owners are taking down temporary fencing and brushing everyone down. There are still runners out there.  In order to be official finishers, they must finish by ten. I wonder when my runner would have finished had he felt better. I am guessing 25, 26 hours, enough for a coaster but not a buckle. It will take time for him to get back into the swing of things, to find and sign up for another 100 attempt. This distance is not for sissies. Even the 30-hour folks are tough as nails and determined as the horses that joined them on the trail yesterday. We see them stagger in, the sun at their backs, a day and night out there behind them. They are all heroes to me, course finished or not.

Photo courtesy


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