After a one year layoff, we returned to the Vermont 50 Mile Ride & Run for the 17th time. Our first was in 1999, six years after the 24 year old race was founded. Every VT50 has been memorable, but 2016 was special for many reasons. For us, the VT50 is about the community of athletes, volunteers, and spectators that come together to make this such a great event.
From the registration in May to race day on the last Sunday of September, we anticipate this event. We have met so many great friends and enjoy seeing them all. Some of them we only see once a year. Others we see all of the time. Over the course of 17 years, we have seen many mountain bikers and trail runners. This year, there were more than 1,050 finishers in the various categories including:
- (651) 50 mile mountain bikers
- (181) 50 mile trail runners
- (217) 50 kilometer trail runners
- (28) 50 mile relay teams
The kids mountain bike and trail running fun runs/races were on Saturday and there were LOTS of kids.
One of the highlights of the weekend came when I checked in at registration on Saturday evening. There was a large banner hanging in the tent. It listed 33 names of bikers/runners who have done 15 or more races. One of the names was mine and two others were Team Horst Sports mates, Arlen Zane Wenzel, and Arthur Roti. Seeing the list brought a huge smile to my face. Arlen introduced me to the race in 1999 and Art joined us a year later. Thousands and thousands of unique athletes have done the VT50 over the last 24 years and it is cool to think that only 33 have done 15 or more. That’s special.
In appreciation for our support of the race, which benefits Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, we each received a Farmhouse Pottery handmade mug. This was totally unexpected, but greatly appreciated. Every year, I go to this race to compete and compete hard. My goal is to have a better race than the prior year. I’m still at a level where I can expect to improve on last year’s time/performance, but that won’t always be the case.
We attended the race in 2014, but didn’t compete because I had crashed and broke my shoulder a month earlier. Debbie opted not to race, so we drove to various aid stations and cheered on our friends. In 2015, Debbie and I had the opportunity to go to Japan, where she ran the ULTRA-TRAIL Mt. FUJI, which was the same weekend. UTMF was a unique opportunity, and after 17 years in a row, we actually welcomed the break from the VT50, though I remember seeing all of my friends’ social media activity, and wishing I was there.
That made it easy to return in 2016, and we were thrilled to be there. We made it a family affair and in addition to our two children, we brought along my mother-in-law, Barbara Schieffer. She loves adventure and we enjoy sharing ours with her. She was a big help, keeping an eye on our children while we were racing. To keep things simple we camped at Ascutney Mountain Resort, practically in site of the start/finish. On Saturday afternoon, we met up with our teammates and friends. For the first time, the organizers held a kids mountain bike race. It was just for fun. There were one mile and two-mile events on the mountain trails. Our kids participated and had fun. The bike race was followed by the kids fun trail runs, which have been held for several years. Once again, there were 5K, one mile, and a 1/2 mile options. Our son did the 5K and our daughter did the one mile.
Autumn arrived last week and the weather changed on Saturday night, with the temperature on Sunday morning only in the mid-30’s Fahrenheit. It was quite cold. The day turned out to be a beautiful one, but it even by the end of my race, shortly after 11:00 A.M., it was still chilly. The sunshine was brilliant, but the air was cold, and a stiff breeze was blowing. The singlespeeders started in Wave 1 at 6:00 A.M. I used a handlebar light for the first hour, which was smart, since I skipped using one in 2013, and struggled a bit in the darkness. Debbie started with the 50 mile runners at 6:30 A.M. The other bike waves were in between.
The VT50 course is always tough, so we were fortunate to have extra dry conditions. There were only a handful of (barely) muddy sections, and there wasn’t any water on the course, which is amazing. There have been years where there wasn’t a dry spot and we were poured on. I remember some of those mudfests. I rode my Seven Sola SL singlespeed with my Niner carbon fork. I rode that bike all summer at the Winding Trails Summer Tri Series, but was a little unprepared for the beating I took with the fully rigid setup. By the 25 mile mark, I was wishing for a front suspension fork. I’ll consider one for next year, but there are no guarantees. I’m a bit stubborn like that. I like the bike the way it is, even though it compromises my ability to have a peak performance.
I checked my race log and came up with some fun statistics: I’ve done the race 15 times. I have ridden it 13 times, run it once, and one time, I rode to the 17 mile mark before breaking my chain (twice) and running the rest of the way to the finish. I’ve accumulated 82 hours of time on the various iterations of the course.
After 15 times, I’m still seeking that perfect race. I’ve had some stellar results, and can’t count this year as one of them, but it was still a solid ride. I went out strong, but one hour into the race, I had a wicked crash. I came into a sharp right hand turn at the bottom of a fast descent with too much speed. I made the turn, but was out of control and right after the bend, there were deep ruts in the trail. I wiped out hard, falling on a fallen tree that had been moved off trail. I hammered my left arm and hip. For a moment, as I lay in the woods, I thought I broke my arm. There was another rider right behind me. He saw the whole episode. He yelled back to check on me and I indicated that I was OK. I remounted and after a few tentative pedal strokes, I got moving again. Both the hip and arm hurt bad, but after the initial shock, I knew I could get to the finish, barring another hard crash. Of course, at that moment, the thought of four more hours on the bike kind of bummed me out.
I don’t know what kind of impact the crash had, but by the 15 mile mark, I knew that I was lacking some of my usual zip. I was hurting by 20 and went through a long bad patch that lasted until mile 40. Somewhere in between, I made the decision to stop at an aid station and eat some real food. I had been relying on what I carried, including some gels, some energy drink, and water. Some days, that works for me, but yesterday, it wasn’t enough. When I stopped, I ate some pretzels, bananas, and potatoes, which revived me. Things improved, and by mile 40, I was picking up the pace again. However, it was too late. After my strong start, I had been passed by more than 60 people, which was demoralizing, but understandable. Despite the effort to ride fast, I made sure to soak in some of the incredible views. It was a gorgeous day in Vermont.
I never felt comfortable on my bike, which happens. I accepted my fate for the day and pushed as hard as I could. The last five miles were harsh, with some additional singletrack before the final twisting descent to the line. Three of my teammates had passed me earlier in the race. Led by Anthony Eisley, we had an awesome day. He was followed by Mike Wonderly, and Arlen. Not far behind me was Spike McLaughlin. He was followed by Erik Emanuele. Then, he was followed by Art Roti and Mark Hixson, who smashed their own tandem record in fine fashion. Congratulations to all of the riders and runners. With so many finishers, there are more than a 1,000 stories to be told. There were so many great performances.
Debbie was our lone runner. She put together a good race, her first ultra since Wapack and Back in May. The VT50 has never suited her strengths, but she wanted to give it another shot, and was happy with her result. She prefers rugged and mountainous courses. Vermont has hills, but there are more dirt roads than she likes. She finished in 8 hours and 53 minutes and was third in her age group, which was a morale booster.
In addition to our teammates, we saw so many friends, that it would be difficult to list them. It was great to race with our Coach, Al Lyman. Once again, Race Director Mike Silverman, and his volunteer team, did a fantastic job. Every year, the race develops a bit more, without losing its grassroots vibe. From the live music on both Saturday afternoon and Sunday, to the USA made technical t-shirts, to the farm fresh fruits and vegetables at the finish line, to the maple syrup awards; this race gets the details right.
We had a lot of gear to pack up, but by 5:00 P.M., we were on the road again, and headed south. We made a pit stop in Northampton to visit Paul & Elizabeth’s for dinner. It was a nice way to celebrate another Vermont 50.
9/27/16 Update: I neglected to mention that I was happy to see the race organizers make an extra effort with recycling. This makes for a much more sustainable race. There were clearly labeled bins throughout the start/finish area that included single-stream recycling, compost, and trash. I wish I had a photo. This is great. What made me unhappy was how many people disregarded the signs and just threw everything in the trash. I saw volunteers picking recyclable materials out of the trash, which is deplorable. The Vermont 50 community needs to do better. At Horst Engineering, we recently launched a revamped recycling program and battle similar challenges with our employees, but the process is getting better. Of course, it doesn’t improve without letting people know (education) when it isn’t working to expectations. I would expect that the VT50 committee would share this feedback with the competitors. Also, Debbie noticed (its easier to see when you are running) LOTS of trash out on the course, and especially energy food (gels, bars) packets. This is ridiculous. If you aren’t carrying a pack, then you should have pockets. This race should be run with a Leave No Trace philosophy. Most of the trails are on private property and for one day a year, we are given the privilege to ride/run on them. Let’s not blow it.