On Saturday, July 26, 2008 Jodi and I were up in far northern Vermont so I could run the Jay Mountain "Half" Marathon. I put "Half" in quotation marks because the half marathon distance is 13.1 miles but the Jay Mountain Half is officially listed as 19 miles.
Jay is a trail race. In fact, it's official name is the Ultimate XC Vermont Edition, and the organizer, Dan, really does mean to make it the "Ultimate" race. One of his volunteers told Jodi his goal is to make you cry for your mommy before you finish. Well Dan, sorry to tell you that you failed. I certainly hurt plenty, but I was having way too much fun to cry.
If I hadn't run Jay this year I would have been in New York City to run the NYC Half Marathon on Sunday. I ran NYC last year in 1:53 or something like that, and I remember people complaining about the hills in Central Park.
The Jay Half is a trail race so comparing it to a road race is completely unfair, of course. But let me start by telling you that it took my over 5 hours to complete the Jay course. My watch read 5:09:30 when I finished, though I haven't seen the official time posted yet.
A few minutes before the race started Dan called the runners together and went over a few points about the course. He told us things like "If you pass somebody stuck in the mud up to their waist, please help them get out," and "when you get to the first culvert on the first stream portion of the course, stay to the left to climb up the rocks. If you go in the middle the water will be over your head and you won't be able to climb up into the culvert." Okay. Got it.
That finished, we lined up for the start. Usually at the start of a race runners push towards the front, but in this event there seemed to be a general reluctance to go first and everybody hung back trying to be towards the rear of the pack. I managed to get myself about 3/4 of the way back. Dan counted down from ten, said "Go!" and we were off up the first grassy slope at an easy jog. In a few minutes we were into the woods and running along a path more or less in single file. We were heading steadily uphill but not very steeply and the runners were sorting themselves out as people occasionally passed or were passed. There were a few muddy stretches and at first people, including me, worked to skirt the mud and keep their feet dry. Later on during the run I would repeatedly think back on this and laugh.
The first few miles continued like this, with a few more muddy stretches thrown in so that everyone got their feet wet and dirty and could quit wasting time trying to stay dry. Then we turned right and suddenly the world tilted up. In fact, it tilted up so steeply that there were actually ropes stretched from tree to tree to allow us to haul ourselves up the hill hand over hand. That was fun!
Somehow I don't remember a lot of detail of this section. I think the first aid station was at about mile 4. A bit after this we were running along through the woods again and could hear a mountain stream tumbling down over the rocks. Soon the sound got louder and sure enough we broke out of the trees and found ourselves right in the stream with the orange flagging we were following strung from tree branches over the stream. We all turned upstream and started wading from rock to rock in water that was anywhere from ankle deep to waist deep. We struggled up the stream for a long time, until we finally came to the first culvert. Here we had to climb up into the mouth of the culvert which we used to run under Rt 242, then back into the stream until we reached the second culvert. I'm not sure how long the stream portion of the course was. I have 1.5 miles in my head, but I'm not sure if I read that somewhere or heard it or what, so it may or may not be accurate. In any case, after the second culvert we climbed out of the stream and up to the second aid station at the base of one of the ski trails at Jay Peak. I believe this aid station was at something like 7.5 miles. From here it was about 2.5 miles, and about 2600 vertical feet, to the summit of Jay.
There was a 3 hour time limit to reach the summit of Jay; those arriving after that limit would be pulled from the race. I reached the second aid station in just a few minutes under two hours. Two hours to go 7.5 miles! From here I could look up and see the summit of Jay w a y u p t h e r e. If I were hiking up Jay I would figure about 2.5 hours, using the 30 minutes per mile plus 30 minutes per thousand feet of elevation gain formula. I knew I had to reach the summit in about 65 minutes so I started off pushing a bit harder than I would have liked to. Absolutely nobody was even trying to run as it was way too steep for that. I started plodding up at a pace as fast as I thought I could sustain. I actually passed a few people on the way up, including one poor guy puking his guts out on the side of the trail. As we neared the summit the ski trail got even steeper and I and others were reduced to walking a few paces then stopping to breathe. Finally just before the very summit we turned off the ski trail and joined the Long Trail as it scrambled over the rocks to the summit. I made the climb in 45 minutes, with 20 minutes to spare! Whew!
After drinking as much Gatorade and water as I could hold, eating some snacks, and refilling all of my bottles, I set off running down the other side of Jay, on ski trails just as steep as the ones we had just struggled up. Near the bottom we turned off onto a cross-country ski trail which soon turned into a sea of mud. For the next several miles the trail taught me a lot about mud; all the different varieties and consistencies and depths of it that can exist in the woods of Vermont after a solid week of rain. Sometimes it was only ankle deep, sometimes I sank in to my shins or to my knees. Sometimes it was so thick I would sink in and not be sure if my foot was ever going to come back out or not, and if it did whether my shoe would still be attached to it or not. Sometimes I swore. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I giggled. There was another aid station in here somewhere, but I don't remember exactly where it was. I do remember telling the volunteer that handed me a cup of Gatorade that I wished it were a relay so that I could stop there and she could carry on. She just laughed at me and refilled my Gatorade cup and offered me a brownie.
So we ran in mud for miles and miles. How many miles? I don't know, really. Finally the route broke out of the woods and I found myself running down a dirt road. Wow! I could actually run. I wondered how long this would last, and what nasty surprise this would lead to. The route signs pointed down this first dirt road, and I was passed by a couple in a car and I remember wondering what they would think when they saw me running down the road coated in mud up to my thighs with more mud splattered all over my back and coating my butt and even my water bottles since I had fallen in the mud just a few minutes before. The route turned left and uphill on another dirt road and I kept running, marveling that part of the course was actually runnable, then took another right turn and went gently down until a sign finally directed me off the road and back into the woods. To my great surprise the route here was mostly dry and wonderfully runnable terrain, but by now I had been going for over four hours and I found myself only able to alternate walking and jogging. Between watching my footing and checking out the piles of moose scat along the trail, I stole a glance at my watch and noted that while I thought I was doing great with my strategy of alternating walking the uphill and trickier parts with running the level or downhill parts of the trail, I was actually barely managing a 15 minute per mile pace. Oh well, barring catastrophe I knew I wouldn't be pulled from the race and would be allowed to finish, so I just accepted my pace and forged ahead.
Eventually this trail brought me to another stream, and this time instead of running up the stream we were running down it, which is even harder since the current tends to want to sweep your feet out from under you. This stream even went over a little cascade which objectively probably wasn't all that scary, but by now my legs were showing signs of independence and were not always responding to commands from my brain, so I muttered something about this being "slightly insane" and managed to pick my way down without being swept away and carried on.
Finally, we reached a point where the course sign pointed right up the stream back and we ran up to and across the road, then around the "infield" area and back through the same banner we ran out of to start the race. Just before the finish line there was a small drainage ditch and as I jumped over it I fell with my nose literally a foot away from the finish line. I jumped back up and over the line. Finished! Wow!
Once we got home Sunday afternoon I downloaded the data from my Garmin into my computer and looked at the elevation profile of the route. The total elevation gain is shown at 4,561 feet. The profile looks like a huge, inverted 'V', with the summit Jay Peak in the center. My data shows a total distance of 17.0 miles, while the official distance is listed as 19. I'm not sure which is more accurate. I know the course does get changed a bit each year, and I don't know how they measure the course. It really doesn't matter. It's not really about the distance, it's about the terrain.
I did carry a camera with me -- a waterproof disposable -- and took a few pictures. If any of them come out I'll post them. Also, at the last minute Jodi decided to shoot video at whichever of the aid stations she could get access to so she brought her new camera with her. I've seen the raw footage and it's good, though it's only at the aid stations and she couldn't access the really crazy parts of the course. Jodi will be editing the footage into something coherent, but I'm not sure when that will be. She shot in HD and needs to upgrade her version of FinalCut Pro before she can edit it as the version she has can't handle HD. Oh, and of course she got me falling at the finish line on video for all posterity.