A grunt of frustration exits my mouth. Another rolling hill appears in front of us just as we reach the top of our current slope. Ahead I can only see trees and slopes expanding into the distance and the intersection a few miles back gives a painful reminder of our decision to continue on Spear Street. Adam and I are a little more than 10 miles away from Burlington, VT, on a back road just a few miles east of Charlotte, VT. I waddle down the hill, struggling to throw one leg in front of the next, and pump my arms as if they might be able to stay upright. As we reach the bottom of the hill, I drink the last few ounces of my water bottle, and suck down my final Gu. I take a look at Adam and Mike, and their quiet, emotionless expressions confirm my suspicions. We are all in a lot of pain.
While Route 7 would have provided a simple path from our beds in Middlebury to Burlington, we decided running on a busy highway was not in our best interests. So we went the back way. Weaving through dirt roads and small streets, we attempted the daunting 34-mile run on a cool November morning. With no training, and only minimal preparation, our cautious confidence and curiosity about ultramarathoning served as the only motivations for the run. Could we do it? We were fit enough college students, nearing the prime of our physical ability. While there were hundreds of reasons as to why we could not run such a distance (neither of us had run more than 10 miles at once, we both forgot completely about carbo-loading and hydrating the day before, and we had planned the route less than 24 hours before the run, just to name a few), we went for it.
Now, as we stop to check our route, I am taken by the marathons worth of miles we have just completed. My hamstrings and hip flexors lock. Bending over to put my hands on my knees, a small dribble of spit escapes from my dry mouth. It seems as if the only thing that will keep my muscles from failing is to keep them working. I reach into my fanny pack for any source of sustenance, even though I know it is empty. Adam only has a little water left, and Mike refuses to carry any with him. We have run about five miles from our last stash. Normally the intervals between stashes max out at four miles. Looking through our notes, we see that the next supply is “on the downhill, next to the stop sign. Hidden under a rock.” While unspecific and annoyingly short, the description offers a couple, albeit discouraging clues. First, we need to be in an area with stop signs. We haven’t seen one in miles. Second, we would need to be heading downhill. There is not a stop sign at the bottom of this hill, so we need to conquer at least one more long, grueling, steep incline. Standing in silence, I try to remember driving the route in the middle of the night just yesterday. Had we taken a left at the gas station a few miles back? I start to doubt myself, the run, and everything that did or did not go into it. “What the hell are we doing?”
The adventure all started in the sticky August heat, where Dartmouth College’s bookstore provided some needed air conditioning. Partially due to intellectual curiosity, and mainly because of the sweat dripping from our foreheads, we ducked into the store, cooling off as we thumb through various covers. On our way to Middlebury College from the North Shore of Boston, my friend Adam and I stopped in Hannover, New Hampshire, to stretched our legs and grab a quick bite. Adam, pensive and inquisitive, always thinks before speaking. It is a skill I wish I were better at. In the bookstore, Adam hoped to find a book to keep him occupied over the next couple of weeks, while I explored the comic book section.
Adam, shuffling through an ‘Outdoor Activity’ section of the stacks, picked out “Born To Run,” a nonfiction adventure book by Christopher McDougall, a book I’d read with fascination in high school. The book summarizes man’s potential ability to run long distances, at a level of efficiency and ease unparalleled on planet earth. Starting with the simple question, “Why does my heel hurt?”, Chris explores the human body’s functionality and true ability as endurance athletes. McDougall goes to countless chiropractors, masseuses, and doctors to solve his injury, yet no one can pinpoint the cause. For Chris, it seems as if he’ll never solve the problem. If it was impossible to identify why he feels pain, why would he think it would disappear?
Finally, McDougall hears of a running people, the Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, whose culture revolves around running. In the dry heat of northwestern Mexico, they sometimes run 200 miles in one session. Chris figures he might be able to learn a thing or two from these running gods, and decides to track them down. Hiding in trucks to evade drug cartels and crossing deserts and mountains, Chris endures the long schlep down south, eagerly awaiting his meeting with the famous group. However, when he gets there, he finds that the Tarahumara want nothing to do with him.
Not to be discouraged, McDougall hunts down ‘Caballo Blanco’, a somewhat illusive and wild figure in the world of ultra marathon running. Once McDougall finds him, Caballo Blanco offers him some welcomed insight on how to become a stronger runner. Light, quick, and short steps will offer McDougall a starting point from which he can build up an ultrarunner’s stamina. Finally, after a short period of tutoring, Caballo Blanco tells McDougall that he plans on putting on a race between the finest American ultrarunners and the Tarahumara. And Chris wants to join.
Even though I am not a runner, I read the book in high school. At the insistence of my little brother, Reed, I picked up the book, and was immediately hooked. It explored almost inhuman achievements in stamina and strength, and framed them as light jogs around the corner. I had never even run in a race. This explanation of the human body as the king of stamina in the animal kingdom had me wondering, and got several other runners thinking, too.
Shortly after it hit the shelves in 2011, the book inspired a running revolution of sorts. Runners embraced the “minimalist” movement the book preached, and started investigating alternative approaches to gear and style. Thinner soled shoes, including Vibrams, populated running stores and trails alike, offering runners seemingly healthier options. The transition away from thicker soled, padding-heavy shoes stemmed from a straightforward explanation of McDougall’s: we, as humans, have all the necessary support systems and cushioning we need. The feet, containing 26 bones each, are the most sophisticated shoes we could ever create. The Tarahumara run in skimpy half-inch thick leather moccasins, yet they can run the farthest, last the longest, and are rarely injured. Maybe if we returned to the basics, our bodies will surprise us.
In the bookstore, Adam and I imagined what it would be like to become an ultra runner. Neither of us had run more than a half marathon, although even that is a generous estimate of our infrequent weekend runs. Imagining what running an ultra marathon would be like, Adam and I debated our ability as athletes.
“Well, we could probably make it, right?”
“That’s the thing. I have no idea.”
“Well, what’s the farthest you’ve run?”
“About 10 miles I think. Probably less. I cramped pretty bad at the end.”
“I wonder what it would be like to try to run to Burlington.”
“What would it be like?”
Burlington, VT, sits 34 miles to the north of Middlebury, VT, where Adam and I attend school. Students frequently visit the city to get off campus, enjoy a bit more of an urban setting, or to explore the bustling Church Street marketplace. Route 7 in Vermont offers a straight shot up to Burlington from Middlebury College, and although the road is mainly made for cars, occasionally a student will bike to Burlington. One year someone took a skateboard up the highway.
Although neither of us has trained for such a long run, nor have we ever prepared our bodies for anything remotely similar, we started to think about the possibility during that August pit stop. Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not we planned to make the journey, our plans would have to wait. Adam and I both play soccer at Middlebury, and the season generally ends in mid-November. We put the idea on hold, and decided to talk about it later in the semester. Adam purchased the book, and we left the store. A tiny inkling of an idea had firmly planted itself in our minds, and would begin to grow over the coming months.
Almost a year earlier, I opened my phone to see a text from my Mother, exclaiming, “Reed just finished third!” My little brother, a freshman at Dartmouth College, had reached the podium in the indoor 800 meter Ivy League Championships. Excited for him, I gave him a call, and we talked a bit about the race and the season as a whole. While Reed had plenty to say about the entire meet, the general gist I sensed was “I probably could have done even better.” Ever motivated to do his absolute best, Reed’s mental fortitude, persistence, and refusal to back down are the qualities that have made him the runner he is today. In middle school, against the wishes of my parents, Reed decided he was not going to train for the cross-country championships. Instead, he would just win it. Worried what this would do to his ego, my parents urged him to attend practices, or least run on his own. The day of the championships arrived, and Reed, without a single second of preparation, won handily.
Not surprisingly, these are the same traits that many more of my family members share. My father, Mark, also ran at Dartmouth College, and was 2nd in the half mile in Vermont in high school. After college, he ran both the Boston and San Francisco marathons in two hours, forty-four minutes. My uncle, Rob, ran at Southern Methodist University, and participated in the NCAA championships in the 800 meter, and at one point held the record for fast mile time in the country for a college freshman. My older brother ran in high school, winning the California state championships on multiple occasions, with a team that included several future Division I runners.
On the other hand, I can count the number of competitive races I have run on one hand. I always needed a ball in the sports I played. With so many runners in the house I frequently ventured outside to jog around a park or two, but these jaunts never lasted more than a few miles. I never came close to recording one of the 70-mile weeks that Reed frequently churns out these days.
Throughout the semester, Adam and I continued talking about the idea. While we never settled on a specific date, the feeling was always mutual: we would run the 34 miles to Burlington as soon as our soccer season ended. Frequently, we would remind each other of our plans, stressing that we needed to do it sooner rather than later. When the season ended on November 5th, we took a little over a week to allow our bodies a bit of recovery time, and to come to terms with the fact that our competitive careers had just ended. And finally, late at night on Wednesday, November 16th, we set the date for our run: November 18th.
All day Thursday I sat in class, trying to ignore the upcoming run. Pushing the thoughts of dehydration and fatigue to the back of my mind, I walked home at the end of the day without any reservations about the ultramarathon ahead. Then, my friend Zack approached me in the dining hall.
“What do you guys have planned for water and stuff?”
Oh no. In all the excitement and buildup of the run, Adam and I had completely overlooked hydration and fuel for the entire run. Panicking, I texted Adam, asking him what he thought about the issue. His response failed to inspire.
“Can’t we just bring a water bottle or two?”
Scrambling, we put together resource stashes of water, Gatorade, and fruit snacks, and placed them along our planned route. The “trail” would follow Route 7 north for a few miles, then turn off onto Town Hill Road into New Haven, VT. From there we would ride North Street into Barnumtown, and several miles farther turn onto dirt roads, until joining up with Spear Street just outside Burlington. We would then turn onto Allen Road, and merge back up with Route 7 until reaching the city. Simple enough on paper, but far more difficult in practice. We took over two hours planting the nine pairs of bags, and hiding them on the side of the road, with small white flags signifying their locations. Every four miles or so, we would be welcomed by a ‘hydration sack’, hopefully fueling us for the next bit of our run.
Friday morning, my alarm buzzes at 6:30AM. Rolling out of my covers, I text Adam to confirm he has also shaken the inevitable grogginess. He sends back a smiley face, and I start on breakfast. I have no idea what to cook – are eggs too much? Is one bowl of oatmeal too little? I settle on two fried eggs and a large helping of oatmeal for the each of us. Hoping this will suffice, Adam and I dress for the run, and head to the door. Double-checking my fanny pack, I notice I am missing a key ingredient: the Gu. Rechecking the kitchen, my room, and any cupboard I can find, the vital energy packets fail to show up. Starting to worry, I ask Adam if he has it, or has seen it anywhere. Not only has he not seen the Gu since yesterday, but he reacts with a typically pragmatic response.
“Well, we’re going to run if we have the Gu or not, so might as well start. Right?”
And off we went. At first we joke about feeling sore or tired, or that the eggs and oatmeal might come back up faster than we had hoped. In the frosty morning, our muscles move smoothly, our feet cranking forward and back. Mainly, we discuss the logistics of avoiding oncoming traffic, or how much farther we have until our first rest stop. While pleasant, the silence irks me. Foolishly, I make an incorrect judgment about the upcoming journey. If we cannot find a meaningful subject of conversation when we are freshest, why would we discover one later?
About seven miles in, we turn off Route 7, and reach our first rest stop. We gladly gulp down the water and Gatorade, although neither of us feels too fatigued. In the cool morning air, the water stings as it drips down our throats. We know we have a long way to go, but with our slow pace and the comfortable chill of the morning, we feel like we could go forever. With the water polished, we turn back onto the road to continue the route. I step on something hard, bumpy, and gooey. Looking down, I see the bag of Gu, sitting a foot off the road. Elated, I shout at Adam to stop and revel in our miraculous finding. Together, we rejoice the fortunate discovery. The bag must have fallen out of the car the night before, when we placed our resource stashes in the dark. Stocking up, we split the supply of nearly forty packets, and smile. Now, with fuel for the whole route, anything other than success seems impossible.
About halfway through the run, we stop on the side of the road to wait for our friend, Mike, to join up with us. Until this point, the run has gone without hiccup. Over the last 17 miles, the conversation has opened up as easily as our legs. We’ve chatted about the current state of our lives and our futures, contemplating our time in college, and our deepest regrets. With no one else on the road, it feels like any secret will be held forever in the sprawling Vermont fields. At one point, we have to evade a few packs of vicious-looking front-lawn dogs. After the first encounter, Adam tells me he has a fear of the animal that he does as much as he can to cover up.
Sitting on the side of the road, we see a black Subaru approach. The vehicle slows, and pulls into a driveway just near us. Out of the vehicle pops Mike, short, with bright red hair. His curiosity and overall happiness bring an immediate rejuvenation to the run. We offer him some water, but he refuses. Strangely, Mike does not take a single sip for the entire second half of the run.
Just a couple of miles outside of Monkton, VT, we cross a covered bridge, and turn onto Spear Street. As we exit the comforting shade of the bridge, we look up the street to see a discouraging sight. A seemingly never-ending hill greets us, with several switchbacks that disappear into a large forest. Panting, tired, and miserable, Mike, Adam, and I let out a few loud yells to motivate our bodies. The hill will be tough, and we need every ounce of energy to conquer it.
Foot by foot, we climb the hill, slowly but surely leaving gravel behind us. Eventually, we reach the top, and look back at the covered bridge. It looks tiny in the distance, its roof covering a thumb-width of river. Mike captures it perfectly, stating that he “didn’t think we could make it up this.” A little farther down the road, we reach a gas station in East Charlotte, VT, and one of our supply stashes. Unfortunately, the surroundings look unfamiliar. While Mike uses the bathroom, Adam and I debate how to proceed. While neither of us remembers the gas station, our instincts tell us to continue forward. Again, Adam encapsulates the general sentiment in only the necessary amount of words.
“We definitely would have remembered turning onto this road.”
Continuing on, our instincts are almost immediately rewarded. Halfway up another steady hill, we hear loud music quickly approaching us from behind. Turning, I see here friends of ours leaning out the windows of a car, shouting encouragement and pumping their fists. They stop to chat briefly, and continue on their way to Burlington. The brief encounter offers us a newfound strength. Little did I know, this short rejuvenation would be the beginning of the end.
With a returned vigor in our muscles, we unconsciously speed up. Conquering a few more hills, we cruise through the Vermont backwoods, and can almost taste the finish line. The sun beams above, but in the forest, the rays meet their doom at the tops of the forgiving branches. In the shade, we can run forever. About two miles after meeting our friends, another car slows next to us. An older woman leans out of her driver side window, and eagerly shouts to us.
“Were you boys running earlier in Monkton?”
“Yeah, that was us! Why?”
“That’s incredible. I saw you there this morning! Today I’ve been to work, went home, went to the grocery store, and now I’m driving back home. And you’ve been running the whole time! Wow!”
She speeds away. The attempt at a light joke does little to sooth my body. I now realize how incredibly far we have run, and how far we still have to go. Seeing the ease at which the woman travels into the distance and beyond my vision reminds me of the absurdity of our journey. We reach the top of another steady incline, and finally it all hits me. A grunt of frustration exits my mouth as another rolling hill appears just as we reach the top of the last one. Ahead I can only see trees and slopes expanding into the distance. The intersection a few miles back gives a painful reminder of our decision to continue on Spear Street. We are still a little more than 10 miles away from Burlington. I waddle down the hill, struggling to throw one leg in front of the next, and pump my arms as if they might be able to help me stay upright. As we reach the bottom of the hill, I drink the last few ounces of my water bottle, and suck down my final Gu. I take a look at Adam and Mike, and their quiet, emotionless expressions confirm my assumptions. We are all in a lot of pain.
There is something about a group dynamic that helps conquer pain and fear.
When surrounded by ones peers, the temptation to express worry or aggravation minimizes, and the pack continues on. With Mike and Adam silently grinding next to me, I could never tell them how I really felt. I would later find out they had similar doubts as to our ability to finish the run. In challenging times, a group is ones friend. In silence, we doubled down on our efforts, and reached the next stash.
Finally, the end is in sight. We turn back onto Route 7, and with one more rest stop left, we decide to walk a little. After all, we want to finish the run running. Breathing deep, Adam and I cautiously grin at each other. The cars heading up and down Route 7 fly past us, but with over 30 miles behind us, we know we can finish. Without agreeing to it, we slowly pick the pace back up, and eventually reach the same slow, steady jog we have grown accustom to over the day. Eventually, Chipotle comes into view. We’ve done it. We limp into the parking lot, and waddle past everyday customers. We reach the door, and pat the large wooden handles as if they might offer some sort of reprieve. Elated, we turn to each other. Without a finish line, or banner, or fans clapping us over the line, our company is our only reward. And it’s the best one out there. Beaming, we begin to laugh. Mike breaks the laughter, piping up as only he could.
“Want to run back?”