Sunday, October 11, 2015

Smile... Tomorrow Will Be Worse: The Virgil Crest 100

[This is one of two race recaps I wrote about the 2015 Virgil Crest Ultras. Click here for the other, which is more an experiment in creative writing than a conventional race report. Click here to read the race itinerary document I created for my crew. ]

One late September evening, while volunteering to provide food and assistance to a bunch of runners at the Hitching Post, is when I first got the itch. I decided then and there that I'd like to run this thing as a 100 mile debutante. It felt so epic just to be there, filling water bottles for 100 mile runners coming into mile 44 or 56 late in the evening. Knowing what these warriors had already endured, and what trials lie ahead throughout the night, brought a certain level of respect for all those attempting to go the distance. Having marked half the course the day before, I knew it wouldn't be easy. I'd have loved to spend the night at the aid station if I didn't have to leave at 10:00 PM to go to work at the hospital.

I spent nine months training for the 100, starting in late January, and come September 19 I was ready to go. My successful run at the Green Lakes 100K three weeks prior gave me some much needed confidence going into Virgil Crest, while the adverse weather conditions and uphill battles at the Whiteface SkyMarathon in late June helped me prepare mentally. After scrambling last minute to finalize my pacer situation, I had created a step by step game plan to help me get through this monumental task. The night before the race, I drove out to Virgil for packet pickup and to check out a
few parts of the course. I went home and slept surprisingly well that night, given the amount of self imposed pressure I felt.

The calm before the storm: Sunset over Hope Lake on race day eve


The Course

The Virgil Crest Ultras begins at Hope Lake Park in the tiny, rural town of Virgil, NY. The route cuts over to the adjacent Tuller Hill State Forest, following some horse trails and the Finger Lakes Trail. Runners then descend a paved road and cross NYS Route 392 into Greek Peak territory. This alpine section is comprised of several ski slopes and steep trails and utility roads. After leaving the mountain, the Virgil course cuts into Kennedy State Forest and follows the orange blazed Finger Lakes trail to the top of Virgil Mountain at mile 25. Runners then reverse the course back to Hope Lake. 50 milers are done here; 100 milers have the pleasure of doing the whole thing again. The 100 mile race has an overall cutoff time of 36 hours, with pacers allowed for the second half. Virgil Crest is one of many trail races presented by Red Newt Racing and created and directed by Ian Golden.

3-D course map, designed by Jim Devona


The Race


The lot of us set out from hope lake in the 6:00 am darkness, headlamps ablaze to light the way for the first hour or so. 50 and 100 mile runners all started together, with 100 mile relay runners starting two hours later. The line of headlamps winding tightly around the lake's perimeter would have made for a great aerial view. Imagine a hovering UFO above the lake, its occupants watching the string of lights bobbing and weaving around the paved path and off into the woods. 

It's was all fun and games while runners laughed and joked around in the early miles, and before long the sun crested the eastern horizon, allowing us all to switch our headlamps off. I ran some of these miles with my friend Rusty, whom I marked the course with the year before. Rusty told me about his recent trip out to Colorado to run the TransRockies stage race and about his experience at UROC the year before. With all those mountainous miles under his belt only a month earlier, I was impressed that Rusty was now attempting his first 100 mile race.

I more or less blew right through the Hitching Post aid station at mile 6.3, stopping only to exchange my Ultimate Direction handheld bottle for my UD vest. I decided to carry double the water and triple the calories for the race's remainder. All the Finger Lakes Runners Club volunteers at this aid station were awesome at this first stop, as they were throughout the race over the next day and a half.

Somewhere in the early miles. Photo: Steve Gallow
The miles flew by all the way through the dreaded alpine section. The third and final major climb up Greek Peak was on The Odyssey - a black diamond ski trail with a 25-30 percent grade. I tried my best to power hike up the thing, using the climbing skills I practiced earlier this summer at the Whiteface SkyMarathon and Vertical Kilometer. The ascent sapped up a ton of energy and I was passed by Rusty around the halfway point despite having a five minute lead over him at the base. Upon reaching level terrain at the summit, I was forced to walk awhile to regain some energy and composure. I think this was the beginning of my early bonk.

The next stretch, from mile 20 to mile 30, was the roughest of the 100. The crash set in almost immediately after leaving TrailsRoc Junction outbound and lasted until I left the aid station again in the inbound direction. Coming into TrailsRoc the first time, 50 mile leader Cole Crosby was on his way out. Yep, less than four hours into the race and he already had gapped me by 10 miles. 

Photo: Steve Gallow
I felt like a slug for the next two hours, struggling to move forward at all. I think the heat was getting to me and I wasn't talking in enough sodium. I remember wondering how he hell I could keep this up for another 70+ miles when I felt so bad so early.

As I neared the 25 mile turnaround at the Rock Pile, the trail was adorned with copies of Ultrarunner Magazine hanging from the trees while Guns 'n Roses' Appetite For Destruction blared from a trailside boombox. It was like some sort of college dorm prank set deep in the heart of Kennedy State Forest. I again found many familiar faces at the aid station, but the salt and fruit I took in didn't provide any magical comeback. I sat down for a bit, then left while still feeling like death.

I somehow found myself back at TrailsRoc Junction, where I changed shirts and chugged some yerba mate. The #TrailRoc volunteers here were great, as always. I'm hoping to check out some of the club's events in the Rochester area sometime next year.

Look down into the valley close enough and you can spot the finish line.

Gridley Creek at TenKate's Crossing.
Photo: Gloria Lemus-Sanchez

Immediately upon leaving the mile 30 aid station I started feeling invincible, which I'll attribute to the caffeine. I met up with a pack of guys moving at my pace and together we powered through the alpine section. One of these guys told me he was running the 50M as his first foot race of any distance beyond a 10K.

Sweaty mountaintop selfie
Eventually I made it through TenKate's crossing at mile 36 and came into the Hitching Post at mile 43.7. Knowing that Hayley would be here kept me moving for the last few hours. She was nice enough to bring me an avocado and hot sauce sandwich, one of my favorite snacks but something I've never tried eating during a run. Gary, the first of my three pacers, was here as a volunteer. My mom and Aaron met me here too, and seeing everyone really lifted my spirits a lot. After I left the tent, the others drove a mile down the road to the race headquarters at Hope Lake - the start, finish, and halfway point aid station. Gary would jump in as pacer when I arrived.

Prior to the race, I had given my crew explicit instructions to get me out of that mile 50 aid station STAT. The rules for Virgil Crest stipulate that anyone who completes the first 50 miles within the allotted cutoff time of 17 hours before dropping will be counted as a 50 mile finisher. Although officially a 100M DNF, I'd still have a completed ultra under my belt if I decide to throw in the towel at Hope Lake. This fact, coupled with the siren call of delicious hot food and 50 milers celebrating their finishes, was enough to make me paranoid about opting for an easy exit from the pain cave. The plan was to refill my water bottles, grab some fruit for the road, and immediately leave town with Gary before the notion of dropping could even manifest itself in my consciousness. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and ultrarunners.

Thankfully the buzz I had going since mile 30 had not yet dissipated. I took longer than I wanted to at Hope Lake but never felt even the slightest urge to quit. Gary was a great pacer for the next section, keeping me moving forward while keeping up a conversation to distract me from the discomfort. The heat and humidity continued to make things difficult even after sundown. We were both sweating quite a bit, but that would soon change. 

Back at the Hitching Post at mile 56.3, I was again greeted by Hayley and Aaron. Aaron offered me his waterproof jacket as he heard there would be guaranteed rain. For reasons unclear to me even now, I repeatedly declined. This cloudy decision would haunt me soon enough and nearly ruin my race. 

Shortly after leaving the Hitching Post the steady rain began to fall. At first it felt refreshing, cooling down my skin and core temperature. But before long the precipitation would become almost unbearable. In the dark with limited visibility, we were forced to walk through the most technical terrain Virgil had to offer. We slowly picked our way over crevasses and slick roots as Gary's glasses kept fogging up. I began shaking uncontrollably from the cold and could barely manage to open and eat a gel. Aaron's jacket would have undoubtedly been a blessing at this stage. 

Gary reminded me about the exposed parts of the course coming up in the alpine section. Without the cover of trees on the steep slopes, the rain would be pouring down in buckets on my head as I slowly suffered through the unforgiving terrain. I knew then that I'd be a sure DNF if I couldn't track down a jacket. 

Gary agreed to go with Maria to retrieve Aaron's jacket while I waited under the shelter at TenKate's Crossing, eating and trying to dry off and warm up. Aaron was attempting to sleep in my car at Hope Lake while the rain beat down on the windshield. I'd call him to let him know Gary would be coming up for the jacket. 

As Gary and I hopped out of the road to turn down Carson Road, the rain stopped. I was thankful for the reprieve but still freezing cold and soaking wet. We ran the mile downhill into TenKate's crossing at mile 63. As we passed the 100K mark, it was now officially the longest distance I've ever run continuously.

My drop bag at TenKate's was soaking wet, so changing my shirt and socks was out of the question. I switched pacers from Gary to Jeney. One of the AS volunteers from Mountain Peak Fitness selflessly lent me a Mammut rain jacket, not really giving me a choice but to take it. My friend Nick grabbed me some broth and filled my bottles. I found out that once the rain started runners started dropping like flies; now only 16 of us remained. Jeney had been waiting for two hours and was ready to go. 

We made short work of the Alpine Section and I remained in good spirits as we arrived at TrailsRoc Junction at mile 70. I'd been timing my stops at each aid station. By the time I traded water logged socks for dry ones, restocked my pack, and warmed up by the fire, we spent nearly half an hour at the aid station. I had been doing okay at keeping my AS times low, but this time I felt like I needed the extra rest. 

The time passed pretty quickly over the next several hours. My phone battery died as I tried to take a picture of the sunrise from atop the mountain. With Jeney's encouragement I passed two runners on the Alpine Section around mile 82, moving into the top 10. Despite trying to avoid a competetive mindset, the prospect of a top 10 finish gave me the energy lift I needed to keep moving as I accelerated on a long downhill stretch. I came into TenKate's Crossing feeling strong. 

Aaron was ready to pace me for the final half marathon and we moved out quickly. From the base of Carson Road I caught a glimpse of my friend Rob up ahead. Aaron and I walked the hill and then hit the trail running, albeit slowly. I had last been on this stretch of trail with Gary, moving in the other direction in the rain. Now it was much later, but the sun was out and I was almost home. 

The technical nature of the FLT made things tricky, but we soldiered on and passed Rob after a few miles, along with his daughter Emily who was pacing him to the end. I invited them to join us, but Rob's feet were hurting and he told me to continue on without him. 

Somehow I lost all sense of time and perceived distance during this leg and felt like we were moving fast and going nowhere. In reality, we were moving pretty slowly and gone was my ability to perform simple math calculations after 27 hours and 90 miles. I kept looking at my watch, certain that we were closer to the final aid station than we actually were. I could feel some blisters developing near the balls of both feet, and soon every step was slightly painful. By this point I didn't care. 

I rolled into the Hitching Post for the last time still feeling pretty good. 94 miles down, just a measly little 10K to go. Hayley met me here again after driving home for a night of restless sleep. She was excited that I was looking solid and feeling so strong at this stage in the race. I swapped my UD pack for the trusty handheld in order to lighten the load. I didn't hang around long to rest up; At the next stop I could finally quit moving altogether. 


The Finish


The last section was mostly a blur. I remember shuffling forward in silence for awhile to reflect on the day and take it all in. At some point Aaron ran up ahead on an incline. At the top he turned back and yelled to me "This is it! The last hill. Just downhill and around the lake to the finish." Knowing there was only about a mile to go was an amazing feeling. Trading singletrack for pavement for the last time felt better yet. We rounded Hope Lake counterclockwise via a paved path - the same path I had set out on 99 miles ago. We saw another runner with his pacer less than half a mile ahead of us. In a race this long, runners separated by only a few minutes is comparable a few seconds difference in a road marathon.

Aaron and I rounded the final curve and I veered into the grass for the straightaway, trying my best to appear strong as people clapped and yelled. I crossed under the finish line banner in 29:25 and feebly jumped into Hayley's waiting arms for a hug. My mom was there too, having driven back up from Johnson City to watch the finish. 

It felt so good to finally get off my feet and shed the shoes. (The Salomon Sense Pros performed very well for the distance and type of terrain.) Keeping with the tradition of 100 mile races, Ian awarded me a belt buckle for my efforts, as he did with all the hundo finishers. I grabbed some hot food and made myself at home in a camping chair by the finish line for the next hour, standing to applaud Rob and Emily as they came in soon after me. 

After several plates of veggie burgers, portabello burgers, salad, and potatoes, it was time for a massage. Dale Cooper, local LMT extraordinaire, was available for finish line massages like he usually is at Ian's races. Let's just say that the massage was so much more excruciatingly painful than anything I endured during the 100 miles or in any other race ever. In other words it was what I expected. Completely torturous and totally worth it. 


The Aftermath 


The completion of Virgil Crest brings my nine months of training and preparation to and end. I'd have to say, looking back several weeks later, than my run couldn't have gone any better than it did. After hearing so many horrific tales from 100 mile veterans, I was totally expecting to bonk many times, have stomach issues, mental meltdowns, and unbearable pain with every step after mile 75. Aside from some minor blisters there was no pain or injuries. Despite getting pretty tired, I never bonked after the mile 30 rebound, never hallucinated, and never came close to breaking down into a sobbing mess. I attribute the lack of GI issues to sticking with calories than have always worked in the past - primarily Justin's Nut Butter, Tailwind, GU Roctane gels, Guayaki yerba mate, S-Caps, salt potatoes, and assorted fruit from the aid stations. I took in a good mix of simple carbs, fat, and electrolytes from these sources, plus the occasional caffeine boost as needed. 

With the hundred under my belt I haven't decided yet what's next, besides some much needed R&R. I have no idea how long a full recovery will take and don't want to rush back into anything. Four weeks after Virgil Crest, that deep sense of accomplishment still lingers heavily, and the buckle is a constant reminder that anything is possible if one is willing to dedicate the time and effort. 

The list of people who helped see me through this thing is long. I couldn't have made it without Hayley, who selflessly supported me throughout the entire training process with all those hours and miles spent in the woods. Thank you Mom for driving up to "check up" on me in the evening and again at the finish. My pacers Gary, Jeney, and Aaron kept me moving in the right direction and kept me sane every time my brain began to suggest otherwise. big thanks to all the volunteers and volunteer groups who gave up part of, or in some cases all of, their weekend to ensure the safety and well being of the runners - Finger Lakes Runners Club, #TrailsRoc, the RNR/MPF team, Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Co, and Team FLRTC. Also, it was a pleasure sharing the trails with and talking to so many people during the early stages of the race, particularly Rusty, Rob, and Tom. And lots of thanks and gratitude to Ian Golden for once again working tirelessly to ensure that Virgil Crest remained a safe and well organized event on a challenging but beautiful course. I look forward to coming back to Virgil Crest in some capacity again year after year. 

Ian's compilation video:


  1. Congratulations on an AWESOME race Pete! You are amazing!! What a wonderful experience for your first 100 and how fun that your family was able to be out there to support. It was great to see you looking so good as you headed back to complete the first 50 while I was out for my 3rd little leg :)

  2. Great job and compilation of the whole. Good to have you and hope you're recovering well and smiling on visions for the next adventure.

  3. Thanks guys! It was good seeing you out on the course.