Oy Vey, Jay!

We trekked north this weekend to compete in the Jay Mountain Marathon in the Jay Peak region of Vermont. Jay is is a 33 mile (52km) ultra-marathon trail race on grueling New England  terrain. Of course, the race is barely in New England because you can see the province of Quebec, Canada, from many spots on the course. Run in various formats since 2003, the Jay Mountain Marathon, or Ultimate XC Challenge (Jay Edition), as it is now called, is the brainchild of Dan Des Rosiers, an adventure racer and hard core race director. Arguably, Jay is one of the most difficult foot races at its distance, anywhere in the world.

Previously, the Jay Mountain Marathon was the second stage of the three day, Jay Challenge, Des Rosiers’ pièce de résistance. The Challenge was postponed this year, but Des Rosiers promoted the run as a stand alone event. I am proud to say that I’m a 2005 Jay Challenge finisher. The Challenge combines the 26 mile Jay Crossover (kayak) with the Jay Mountain Marathon, and the 70 mile Jay Mountain Bike.  This is truly an epic race. In the past, competitors had the option to compete in one or more of the three events. Most competitors focused on a single stage, but a small group of brave athletes competed and completed all three. In 2005, while I did the full Challenge, Deb focused just on the run, which she won, and beat me by about 18 minutes, after I led her for half the race. Last year, I chose to just ride the Jay Mountain Bike, because it was a week after the Sea to Summit, which I chose to focus on. Deb skipped the race and crewed for me because she was eight months pregnant with our son. The S2S remains the toughest single day athletic effort that I have completed, but two years ago, the Jay Challenge became (and remains) the toughest multi-day event that I have done. Race Director Des Rosiers refers to his strategy for the the event as “exponential”. With the Challenge, he has designed a race that purposely gets harder by the day and also by the year. Two years ago, I suffered dearly during all three events, and I was still benefitting from the peak fitness that resulted from our Long Trail thru-hike that had ended three weeks prior. An inner force drove me to finish the adventure in a total time of just over 20 hours. Jay Challenge 2005 and Sea to Summit 2006 are two events that will stand out on my list for a long time.

Deb and I didn’t realize how much that thru-hike training helped us in 2005…until yesterday. We both went into the race with trepidation and a bit of sleep deprivation. Two years ago, we didn’t have an eleven month old baby to care for. We have now had nearly a year long event that I dubbed, the “Shep Challenge”. Childcare has proven to be a detriment to training–at least for us. However, we try to not make excuses and give it our all. The race course was slightly longer and slightly tougher. Already known for its serious bushwhacking and stream running, Des Rosiers had more of both in this year’s race course.

Jay Peak, viewed from North Troy, Vermont.

I started yesterday’s race steady and then picked it up a bit on the ascent of 3968 foot Jay Peak, the race’s namesake mountain. I had some great feelings on the way up the mountain, recalling our climb of Jay on the final day of our end-to-end hike. That day, it was pouring rain and we had been on our feet since 3 A.M. Yesterday, we had only a little view, but mercifully, it was dry. The descent of Jay was just as difficult as in the past. Running down double black diamond ski trails destroys the quadriceps, and when you still have 24 miles to run, strikes fear in your heart. Both times I have run the race, this is where I have begun to falter. My legs just can’t take the pounding.  New this year was a nasty “flag to flag” bushwhack before Aid Station #4. I started to fade in one of the long stream running sections. The rocks were very slippery. Deb caught me between Aid Station #5 at mile 21 and #6. I looked back, saw her and held up so that we could run together. I could tell that she was hurting and vowed to stick with her. I led the uphills and she led the downhills.

At  Aid Station #6, also known as the “blueberry patch”, we saw Shep and our friends. We fueled up and sat for a few moments. Deb tried to feed the baby, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He was fine. She hit her low point after we left the aid station and I was glad to be there for the emotional support. The wicked “power line” climb was brutal in the mid-day heat. We ended up staying together until mile 32 when I looked back and saw another woman giving chase. Deb had been in fourth since she caught me back at 21 and she had started to gap me. I yelled for her to “pick it up” and she did, holding her spot and putting three minutes into me over the last mile or so. Just like past years, the race organization and race volunteers were fabulous. The locals come out in force to support the race and that makes it special.

Mentally, I was strong for most of the race, only faltering in the last 5 miles, but physically, I was hurting from the point I started descending Jay Peak back at the 10 mile mark. It was the longest run of my career, and today, I don’t feel like doing it again. My cyclist body just can’t take the pounding. The tall grass, beaver dam bog, mud, and tons of water, including a river crossing that requires a rope, are all Jay signatures. Still, it was beautiful to see Northern Vermont again. We got to spend some quality time with friends that we first met two years ago, and the weather was pretty good. The predicted thunderstorms held off until late in the day, after we had already finished. On the way home today, we stopped for lunch in Hanover, New Hampshire, one of our favorite New England towns. We relaxed on the main green at Dartmouth College and dined at one of our frequent stops, The Jewel of India.

Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.    Jewel of India Restaurant, Hanover, New Hampshire.   

In reflecting on the Jay adventure, Deb and I are realistic. She finished 28th and was 4th woman. I finished 33rd. Our results were worse than last time. Being new parents (especially for Deb since she had the baby and spends most of the day with him) has definitely had an impact on our athletic performance, but we are OK with it. We talked about it and agree that we are in a new category now. Actually, Deb said, “for now”.

The Appalachian Trail passes through Hanover, New Hampshire.

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