Vermont 100 | Vermont | July 19, 2003
A Pretty, Horsey Affair
By Gary Dudney
Vermont. The name comes from French explorers who called the mountains they saw there, Vert Mont, or the Green Mountains. And in mid summer they are as green as can be, rolling away in long gentle ridges as far as the eye can see. Arriving in Vermont from the central coast of California, where the hills are burned yellow by late May and only the scattered oak trees retain their green leaves, Vermont seems like the Garden of Eden with lush green plants thriving and blanketing the landscape. If the chlorophyll were to leak out, the whole state would be awash in the stuff six feet deep. The drive to the check-in on Friday takes us past quaint villages, rustic barns, immaculate dairy farms, covered bridges, and maple forests. There are horses and stables everywhere.
This is the fifteenth running of the race, a fact race management is obviously delighted over. Jim Hutchinson, Race Director, who happens to look quite a bit like Santa Claus, is quite pleased to be presiding over what has become a classic stop on the ultrarunning circuit. He says the goal of the race is “…to have fun, finishing is optional.” He also draws our attention to a pot-bellied pig in the nearby field who seems to be lording it over two beleaguered horses. “Don’t be alarmed if the pig shows up at your tent in the middle of the night,” he says. “Oh, yes, and don’t eat it either.”
The pig notwithstanding, the Vermont 100 is actually a pretty horsey affair. Race check-in takes place in an indoor riding arena where horses are being trotted up and down getting their physicals as the runners sit having their blood pressure checked and getting theirs. Smoke Rise Farm, race headquarters, is crawling with carpenters lugging around power tools building a huge round training facility for the horses just above the farm’s amazing carriage house where antique sleds and carriages are on display. The farm is on loan for the weekend from Dina and Steve Rojak, the owners, who have to rate right up there in the stratosphere as far as friends of ultrarunning go.
A horse race follows the same course as the run and starts just an hour later. Thus as we’re running along the maze of Vermont country lanes and trails, from time to time, a hollow clippety-clop gains on us and we look around as two beautiful horses canter effortlessly by, race numbers painted on their flanks, their riders bouncing up and down smoothly like pistons in a Rolls Royce. A snatch of conversation floats above our heads as they disappear up the road. “Did you know I moved last week?” “Really? Did Jim come over and help? Why didn’t you call me?” “Oh, I knew you were too busy.” “Don’t be silly!”
The horses have their own aid stations, grassy paddocks with clean water where they can relax. The better runners beat all the horses to the finish by the way. Farmers along the course have left tubs of water near the road. A hose snakes down from the farmhouse and keeps the water topped up and fresh for the horses, and for dipping runners’ caps as well.
As the race goes on, runners start joking with the riders as they go by, “How much for your horse?”
The start of the race at Vermont is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s just shy of four o’clock in the morning. We’re milling around in the indoor riding arena sipping coffee and adjusting our running belts. I feel the tug of sleep still plaguing me as shouts and whistles summon us outside into the crisp air. It’s dark on Smoke Rise Farm. We file past the farmhouse where amazingly someone is sitting on the porch playing “Chariots of Fire” on an electric piano.
Suddenly, with a huge bang, a star bursts above us and fountains out a hundred streams of silver light. Then another explosion, this one streaming purple and green, and another that produces curly cues of screaming comets. Rocket after rocket whistles upward from a point up on the hillside, until a final flurry of explosions signals the end of the fireworks.
The three hundred runners around me give a rousing, appreciative cheer. I feel thoroughly awake now. “What a great way to start a hundred!” I’m thinking. Then we take off down a dark country lane. Now I’m thinking, “Uh-oh.” I was a little more comfortable when the race was still just a theory.
But soon we are in a rhythm and the miles slip by. As the light comes up, we find ourselves running through a thick mist that hangs over frog ponds and wet areas along the road. The frogs offer a few creaky greetings. We pass cabins and homes scattered through the forest. Their tall steeply pitched roofs and mammoth stacks of firewood–whole buildings given over to firewood–suggest what the winters must be like here. The weather gives us a break this year. Overcast skies in the morning give way to scattered clouds in the afternoon which often dampen the effects of the bright summer sun. Fast times overall and an enormous number of runners earning their sub 24 hour buckles will result from the relatively cool temperatures.
There are miles and miles of stone fences, most of them only a couple of feet high and constructed haphazardly, it seems, with only a thought to moving the stones out of the fields. The way the stones are scattered about makes me think of Robert Frost’s line from Mending Walls, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and the way his neighbor in the poem blithely repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I think of the ultrarunning community, the way friends are quickly made on the trail, the help from the volunteers, the encouragement offered one another in the dead of night. No walls there.
We pass people sitting on lawn chairs out on their grass watching us go by. They wave. Occasionally a radio is directed out a window for our benefit. A man sits on his porch playing his electric guitar for us. Random acts of kindness.
Deep in the forest I come upon a strange network of blue tubes stretched among the trees at about eye level. What is this? An alien landing zone? An exotic science experiment? Then I notice that a short, separate tube is plugged into each tree and realize this must be the modern way to gather maple sap. “Learn something new everyday,” I tell myself.
The course marking is superb. Large unmistakable yellow plates with big black arrows direct the way. These are multiplied at turns. Smaller plates with nice little “c’s” painted on them are scattered along the course, “confidence” markers just letting you know that everything is okay. At night there are glow sticks almost always beckoning from a distance.
I’ve heard this course described as “relentless” and the last twenty or so miles of the race bears this out. Encouraged to run a fast first fifty by a course that follows the more gentle contours of the land, the second half of the course does not seem so kindly and exacts payment. We march up steep endless roads, one after another, with the next glowstick always appearing impossibly high up above us, marking yet another turn and rise in the road. The square opening formed by the gap in the trees where the road continues up in the distance keeps shaping itself into a waiting building, a church, a town hall, where there must be an aid station, but the illusion disappears every time as we get closer. The course is like a whip, ending in a sharp painful crack.
But end it finally does through a corridor of plastic water jugs lit up by glowsticks. A small crowd waits next to the barn. Letha Cruthirds, who doesn’t even know me, spontaneously gives me a hug as I finish. I come in one minute over 23 hours. My helper explains it’s his fault as back at the Jenneville aid station I asked to sleep for ten minutes and he gave me eleven.
A few minutes later I’m sitting in the riding arena on a wooden chair covered up by–what else–a horse blanket. I imagine there is an older white-haired man sitting next to me. He is whispering,
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch the ultrarunners go.
New England folk sure think it’s queer,
To see you come from far and near,
To run like this, for pity’s sake,
Perhaps there has been some mistake.
These woods you know are dark and deep,
A buckle here will not come cheap,
You’ll glimpse your soul before you sleep,
You’ll glimpse your soul before you sleep.