Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tour de Vermont, Part 5

Click here to read Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

After the Mount Mansfield and Underhill State Park adventure, we needed lunch and then the plan was to head into Burlington and do some more running from there.  Having given up on the idea of literally running point to point across Vermont due to the logistics, we decided to make our 3rd night in Burlington so that we could enjoy the town and sample the local brews without having to worry about getting in a car and drive home from there.  On our way into Burlington we stopped in Essex Junction an the On Tap Bar.

We pulled into find a bizarre fundraiser car wash type deal going on in the parking lot but the place had a big deck with outdoor seating and lots of beer on tap.  We got a big table out on the deck with a decent, if a bit overly talkative waiter.  I think we ordered one of everything on the menu.  The food and beers went down easy.  About the only downside was the kiddie band that was playing inside (with speakers pumping the music outside.)  It's hard to describe so I'll just say you had to be there.  It was hard to listen to.

Kyle and his trusty steed, Sputnik
With some food and beer in us we headed into Burlington.  On the way we called ahead and Chris got us a couple of rooms at a full service Hilton a couple blocks from the water with amazing views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.  We checked in, took our first real showers in a couple of days and relaxed for a few hours before heading out for our 2nd run of the day.  After the Mansfield debacle, we only needed about 6 miles for a 20 mile day and Chris was determined to not run one step farther than that.  We ran along a really nice bike path, the Island Line Trail, right along Lake Champlain, past beaches and nice neighborhoods.  The sun was starting to go down and the views across the lake were amazing.  Meanwhile the sherpas headed out for a bike ride on the same path.  After a few days of screwing around with the bike that he'd bought from "the Russian" in Portsmouth, Kyle finally took it to a good bike shop in Stowe and got the beast road ready.  "Sputnik" was ready to roll.

As we jogged along the bike path my legs were feeling like cement and I was happy that Chris seemed just as sluggish as I was and in no rush.  We let Mark and Dan pull away, figuring they were going to end up going longer anyway.  At about 3 miles out, Chris and I turned around and headed back toward downtown Burlington.  Running was not fun at that point and the days and miles (and the mountain) were definitely setting in.

Chris and I got back downtown, got a soft serve ice cream and walked up the hill to the hotel.  While Chris went to the truck in the parking garage to grab some beers from the cooler, I took my 2nd shower in just a few hours then put on some clean clothes and took a cat nap on one of the beds.  Wow that felt good.  Chris and I were just chilling in the room watching some tv when Mark knocked on the door, all showered and ready to go get some dinner.  Dan was still out running and the sherpas were still on their bike ride so the three of us headed out for a little walk through downtown Burlington to find some grub.  I had been to Burlington a few times before but for some reason never in the summer.  It's really a beautiful city and has a great energy.  The weather was just about perfect and as we shuffled through town on cement legs with our flip flops dragging there was plenty of good people watching to be had.

We were all looking for some waterfront dining so at the recommendation of the concierge, we headed to Breakwater Cafe, right next to the ferry terminal.  We let Kyle and Evan know where we were--nobody had heard from Dan yet.  All of us it seems were in the mood for our first non-beer drinks of the trip: I got a couple of margaritas and we ate below average pub food waterfront as the sun set behind the mountains on the other side of the lake.  There was definitely a sense of accomplishment at having gotten over the mountain, and just generally having run 60-something miles in 3 days.  We were all really tired, but feeling good.  Eventually Dan showed up to Breakwater just before the kitchen closed and ordered some food.  The bastard had run18 miles or something (for a 30+ mile day), halfway out the Colchester bike way into the lake and back.  After dark, Breakwater cleared out pretty fast and they started to shut down.  It was just as well as we needed to sample some of the local breweries, of which there are plenty in Burlington.

Unfortunately, it was a Sunday night and several of the breweries we wanted to visit were closed.  Fortunately it was Burlington and there were plenty more to chose from.  We headed a few blocks to American Flatbread, brewers of Zero Gravity beers.  Somewhere on the way, we lost Chris and Mark--they were worn out and needed to crash.  So Dan, Evan, Kyle and I walked into Flatbread and ordered a few beers.  I started with a Black Cat Porter.  The beer was good, the restaurant was pretty cool inside, but it was a weird vibe--almost like we had crashed a private party.  Being Sunday night it seemed like the only people in the place were the staff and friends of the staff.  It was fine, just odd and after a couple beers we moved on.

Our next stop was Vermont Pub and Brewery, Vermont's oldest craft brewery.  This place had a bit of a gritty, no-frills feel to it and we sat outside on wrought iron furniture.  Other than Evan, who decided to experiment with some kind of beer/fruit smoothie hybrid, all of us liked our beers and the place was quiet with only a few other tables occupied.  It was a perfect night.  I was really, really tired but happy with how things had gone so far.  We kind of figured that the next day would basically be a victory lap with no mountains to climb and no huge distances to cover so there wasn't a lot to be stressed over.

After a couple of beers, we headed down the hill back to our hotel and crashed.  For reasons we still can't explain, Dan decided to sleep on the floor but I have to tell you the bed at the Hilton was top notch after two nights on the ground and 64 miles in three days.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tour de Vermont, Part 4

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

When we woke up on Sunday and made our coffee and breakfast, we had a vague idea that day 3 was going to be the toughest day.  When you endeavor to run across the state of Vermont, you have to at some point get over "the spine."  So why not do it at it's highest point, we figured, and run over the summit of Mount Mansfield.

We said goodbye to our home for two nights, the Lake Elmore campground, and headed back down the road to Stowe and Pickwicks, where we had finished the day before.  Chris was extra quiet as he drove down Route 100--every now and then I think I caught him taking peeks at the mountain up ahead and to our right.  Chris had, by far, done the least running of the four of us.  Mark and Dan are the young bucks of our group--they are both in their early 30's, they ran cross country together at D3 Allegheny College, and have marathon PRs of 2:28 and 2:31. I have a not-too-shabby-for-an-old-guy 2:49 to my name and have run 3000 miles a year for the past 3 years.  Chris had only really started getting back into running with any seriousness  this time last summer and has jogged a few half marathons with his wife, so he had reason to be concerned.  Not too many people can run the Stowe Toll Road to the summit of Mount Mansfield.  Let alone doing it after running 43 miles in the 2 days before then doing a 7 mile "warmup" just getting to the mountain.  Mark, Dan and I tried to play it cool because we didn't want to make Chris overly nervous about it--the fact is we all had total confidence he'd make it after seeing what a workhorse he'd been the first two days--but I know I was a little nervous and I'm sure Mark and Dan were too in their own way.

The starting point was Pickwicks on the Stow Mountain Road, about 7 miles from the start of the Toll Road.  It was actually a really good idea to start here and get some nice, gentle miles in before the sufferfest of the Toll Road.

We ran along the Stow Quiet Path, a rambling multi-use path along the river that winds its way up the valley toward Stow ski resort.  The weather had finally broken and it was crisp, beautiful morning as we jogged along the shaded path with views of horse farms, the river and the mountains.  There were lots of people out running, walking and biking along the path and nearly all of them were perfectly happy and friendly.  Every  now and then The Mountain would peek out at us from between the trees.  It looked gentle enough from a distance.

Only at the very end did our run up to the Toll Road get hilly--the last mile was steeply uphill, just to get us in the mood.  Eventually we made it to the start of the Toll Road, Mark and Dan went on ahead and I waited for Chris who had fallen back just a bit on the last hill.  Damn the thing was steep.  The start of it looked like it went up a wall.

The Toll Road is 4.5 miles long and has an average grade of over 10%.  The only thing I've ever run that beats that is Mt. Washington.  Chris and I talked a bit at the bottom by the toll booth and agreed that we were each gong to have to take this thing at our own pace and we'd just meet at the top.  I headed out up the first face and just got into it.  After only a few hundred yards the road went into the woods and was mostly shaded, thankfully, for most of the way up.  It was still cool but going up such a steep grade at any pace at all just generates a ton of heat and almost immediately sweat was just dripping off my forehead, off my nose and chin and just soaking my shirt.  I had a water bottle in my hand but that was it.  Every once in a while, I'd hear a car coming from behind or from up ahead and a carload of tourists would rumble slowly by and look at me like I had nine heads, but mostly I was alone with my thoughts.  My only goal was to run the whole thing, no matter how slowly.  I stopped once to look at the view on a particularly awesome overlook, but otherwise I just kept my head down and ground my way up that mountain.  When the trees started getting really small and the switchbacks closer together, I knew I was almost there.  I passed a couple of lower parking areas where I thought I was done but finally reached the summit.  The view was worth it.

At the top, Mark and Dan were nowhere in sight.  I stood on a rock pile over the parking lot for a while looking down into the valley, waiting for Chris.  After 10 minutes or so, I asked the girl who was sitting there by the warming hut if she had seen 2 runners go by.  She said that Mark and Dan had headed down the long trail about a mile to the gondola top station where there was a snack bar.  After a few more minutes I started walking back down around the bend to wait for Chris.  After just a couple of minutes, he came around the bend looking pretty rough but happy to have made it.

I let Chris catch his breath and take in the view for a minute before I suggested we head down the trail toward Mark and Dan.  It seemed like a good idea but pretty quickly both of us started bonking--we had all been so focused on running the mountain that we'd totally forgotten to do the math as in a 7 mile warmup plus a 4.5 mile run straight up a big mountain is probably about the outer limits of our glycogen supplies.  Oops.  So as Chris and I were scrambling along the top of the spine on the Long Trail, a rocky rooted hiking path that runs the length of Vermont, we were both in the midst of a fairly hard sugar crash and our water bottles were empty.  And of course we were in nothing but running shorts, t-shirts and lightweight trainers--not exactly mountaineering gear.

Eventually we found Mark and Dan on their way back.  Dan proclaimed, "We bought out the store!" and started emptying his pack of M&M's, crackers, cokes, water and lots of other goodness.  I like to say that Dan saved our lives up there with Peanut M&Ms and Coca-Cola.  Well, temporarily at least.  We still had to get down the other side.

Our savior, me and Chris on top of Vermont.
The way down was interesting.  There was no turning back as Kyle and Evan were supposed to meet us at Underhill State Park at the eastern foot of the mountain, having driven around via Smugglers Notch.  The only way for us to get there was to take a steep, rocky hiking trail called "Halfway House Trail."  It was roughtly 3.5 miles from the summit to the parking area at Underhill where we were supposed to meet the sherpas and just about all of it was super steep downhill, the first part ridiculously so.  The only people we saw on the trail were wearing some pretty serious hiking gear and had big packs and all kids of equipment.  We had running shoes.

I had a really hard time with the downhill trail--I probably rolled my ankle 7 times.  All the guys left me in the dust as I picked my way down the mountain until we finally reached what was basically a fire road that careened down the rest of the way to the parking area.

Once the trail turned into basically a dirt road, I just let my legs go and flew down the road out of control.  Again Mark and Dan were up ahead and Chris and I were together.  As we rolled into the parking area I still didn't see Evan or Kyle until I was almost past them.  I stopped short and blurted out, "Hey what's up, I just ran here from Stowe."  We immediately started laughing at how absurd that sounded.  But it was true.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Tour de Vermont, Part 3

This is the 3rd part of a series.  Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

On Saturday morning we headed out the the Green River Reservoir which was roughly back in the direction of where we had left off the day before.  The plan was just to run from there back through Morrisville to Lake Elmore campground.  This was a really pleasant run after the suffering and hills of the previous day.  The last 4 miles were basically up hill and it was already getting hot again at 10am when we were finishing, but it was manageable.  Mark and Dan ran ahead and Chris and I ran together for those last 4 uphill miles.  There was a big farm on the left side of the road and a guy on a ladder painting his barn.  He looked at us and said, "Nice day for a run, boys."  It was, at that point.  We had 12 miles in the books and it wasn't brutally hot out yet.

We got back to the campground, took a swim in the lake and then moved campsites before heading into Morrisville for some lunch and beers.  We hit up the Rock Art brewery but they didn't have pub, just a tasting room, so we went to a restaurant called The Bees Knees which served Rock Art brews.  We ate everything on the menu and had about three beers each.  Life was good.  After lunch we went and hung out in a river while Mark went flyfishing and Evan went spearfishing.  Our plan was to hang out until later in the day when it would be cooler.   Hah.

It all worked out great until we headed back into town and got ready to set off for our second run of the day around 4pm.  Yeah it was like a hundred degrees out.  Whoops.  We "only" had 11 miles to go down into Stowe but unfortunately it was almost entirely in the sun.  We left from Rock Art brewery and headed south toward Stowe via Randolf Road.  It was an absolutely beautiful route with farms and views of the mountains including Mansfield in the distance.  But it was so hot we were all suffering almost immediately.  At one point Evan, he and Kyle having driven the cars down to Pickwicks in Stowe, rode back to meet us and give us some much needed water before continuing on his bike ride back toward Morrisville.  We thought we would see him again soon but not so much.  We wound up running the last 7 miles or so sans water.  I'll admit I got the most cranky of anyone on that particular leg, even swearing at some horses at one point and arguing adamantly that a horse was actually a donkey.  Long story.

We made it to Stowe in one piece, barely.  We met at Pickwicks then went and cooled off in the river before heading to the Shed brewery for some decent food and good beer to finish off a long hot day on the road.  We had 23 miles in the books (44 in 2 days) and the The Mountain awaited.

Tour de Vermont, Part 2

Continued from part 1.

We had run 17 miles in the blazing sun and we were in the middle of effing nowhere.  We had done a lot of talking, laughing, praying and suffering already and we were only partway through day 1.  With some actual running under our belts we were able to tackle the fact that logistically, we really hadn't thought this thing through all that well.  It was, in fact, going to be impossible to literally run across Vermont.  On the plus side, my hangover was gone.

But most importantly we needed some lunch.  After sucking down some water we made a plan: we needed to find a place to eat lunch, visit Hill Farmstead Brewery, and find a place to camp for the night.  The we could worry about our "afternoon" run.

We headed down into the town of Greensborough with Chris and me in Chris' truck and the Hudson brothers and Dan in Marks car.  Apparently the only thing in Greensborough is a gas station/grocery store where they pump gas in a crosswalk at a busy intersection and they have a deli counter but they don't make sandwiches to order.  We bought the place out of pre-packaged sandwiches and ate on the town green at a picnic table.  Actually there were only 5 pre-made sandwiches and 6 of us but Kyle (good sherpa) improvised and bought some groceries, including a cucumber, and making his own gourmet creation.

Come inside or we'll call the cops.
After getting some food in our bellies and checking out the local beach and/or freakshow, we made our way to Hill Farmstead Brewery.  This place was quite literally in some guy's barn on the family farm on a hilltop in Northeast Vermont.  The brewer is clearly an artist, if not the best salesman.  Later that night, Kyle did a dead on impression droning, "It's named after my grandfather.  It's an American Pale Ale.  Just drink it."  The beer was well worth it, though, and if you ever somehow find yourself in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, definitely stop in.  All 6 of us did a tasting of the 7 beers they had available and also bought some beer to take home.  I bought two 750's of a Grissette named "Clara" since, well, that's my baby's name.  It was excellent, as were just about all of the beers we tried there.  The ambiance was non-existent as we were literally sampling beer in a garage and they didn't even open the doors so we could get some air until it started to get downright uncomfortable in there but the beer was legit.

With food and some beer in our stomachs it was time to figure out where we were going to stay that night.  It was a lot harder to figure that out then we had figured.  We had a campsite reserved in at Lake Elmore for the 2nd night, but there was NOTHING between where we were and there.  After some debate, we decided to head over toe Lake Elmore and see if we could get in there for Friday night as well since we had already given up on connecting the dots across the state.  Mark took a wrong turn and then blew a tire on a dirt road a mile from the campground so while the Hudson pit crew changed the rubber, Chris and I went to try and talk our way into the sold out campground.  The girl at the ranger's shack was originally from Georgetown, MA.  Jackpot.

After the quick tire change and then setting up camp, Mark went to the grocery store from some food to grill then we headed out for a run to get ourselves over 20 for the day while the sherpas headed out for a bike ride to try and earn their beers.  Chris and I went about 4 miles for a 21 mile day, Mark and Dan went a little longer. We all took a swim in the lake then settled in for some food and some beers.  It's amazing what you can accomplish when there are no women involved.  Other than the fact that we'd run 21+ miles in 95 degree heat, it was just like a guy's camping trip at that point.

Time to kick back and relax with some beers and some laughs.  Tomorrow would be another day with more miles, more heat and more hills.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tour de Vermont, Part 1

Mark, Captain Dan, Chris and Me...before Mt. Mansfield
This adventure is not the sort of thing I can explain and have it make any sense, to be honest, so I'll just go ahead and tell the story.

For the past year or so, a group of us have been meeting at the RMHS track every Thursday night for a workout, and then heading to Grumpy Doyle's for a few beers.  We call this the "Thirsty Thursday" workout.  The core group of 4, who showed up just about every Thursday even during the darkest, coldest nights of winter, were: Mark, Dan, Chris and me.

None of us are really sure how it happened but at the bar over a few beers after one of those cold, dark workouts in the snow, we came up with the idea to do a pub run of sorts across the state of Vermont.  I think we were probably drinking Long Trail when  this discussion happened or maybe one of us brought up that Vermont has the highest concentration of brew pubs per capita in the US.  Either way, over the course of a couple of Thirsty Thursdays, the plan was born and it quickly gained enough steam that none of us could stop it.  It took a few tries to find a weekend that worked for all of our families, but we eventually settled on July 22nd-25th and each of us put it on our respective Family Calendars meaning that the wives had signed off and it was law.

I'm fairly certain that several of our wives only agreed because they never actually thought we would go through with it and, to be fair, it sounded so half-baked and pointless that I can't say I blamed them.  But for reasons I can't really articulate, none of us ever wavered even for a minute.  It was as if--similar to the weekly emails that fly around on Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings looking for a roll call for Thirsty Thursday--once you said you were in, you were in.  As the day got closer one of us would sometimes say to the others, "So this is gonna happen, huh?" and the rest of us would just sort of nod.  I can remember during one momentary crisis of faith trying to reassure Chris, who has done the least amount of running of all of us and was beginning to worry about the mileage.

I said, "Think of it like this: we're gonna wake up in the morning, get some coffee eat some breakfast and then go for a 90 minute to 2 hour jog.  Then we're gonna jump in a river, get some lunch and a couple beers and hang out for a while.  Then we're gonna go for another 90 minute or 2 hour jog.  Then we'll get some dinner and some more beers.  And that's it!  That's all you have to do for the whole day is run twenty miles or so.  No wiping asses, no screaming kids, no chores, no email, no customers to deal with, no wives.  Nothing."

"I can do that," he said.

There was a fair amount of planning that went into this thing but when the day finally arrived we still basically only had the roughest outline of a plan.  Chris pulled into my driveway at 6:20am, I grabbed my backpack (which I'd packed at 3am after getting home from the FORR road race that three of us help organize), sleeping bag and camping pad by the kitchen door and jumped in his truck.  We headed to the Starbucks on Walkers Brook to meet up with Mark, Dan and Mark's brother Evan, who would serve as one of our two "sherpas."  Our other sherpa would be Mark's other brother, Kyle, whom we would pick up in Hooksett, NH on the way up.  When Chris and I met Evan is when we found out that the Sherpas were bringing bikes...details.

Dan and The Map
On the ride up I drank two 32 oz. bottles of Gatorade and a medium Dunkin Donuts coffee.  And I was still a bit dehydrated from all the beers I drank after running around in 97 degree weather organizing a road race.  I got a little nauseous at one point but I kept that to myself so as not to ruin the vibe.  We were all pretty psyched that it was finally here, this thing was really going to happen.  Our next stop was at a Target in Hooksett to pick up Kyle and already Dan was breaking out the map.  After months of planning we still hadn't exactly figured out a route, or places to stay for 2 of the 3 nights....details.

We'll have a sixer of this one.
We made a couple of other random stops in search of a bike pump and a sleeping bag (details) but eventually we made our way to the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville, VT, otherwise known as Point A.  It was 11am and roughly as hot as the surface of the sun but none of us even cared, we were just excited to get going.  After some more consulting of The Map and planning a meeting place with Evan and Kyle we bought a six pack of Trout River Red, drank a ceremonial first beer in the parking lot and got the show underway.  It was actually happening.

It didn't take us long to reach the edge of Lyndonville and then we were out on an open road running past farms with absolutely no shade at all.  If we hadn't been so excited to be underway we would have been a little worried about how hot it was.  I had never been to this part of Vermont.  It was beautiful.  The first leg was fairly easy, just rolling along toward Wheelock in farm country.  After 7 miles we came upon Evan and Kyle who had found a good place to set up a water stop for us.  It was right by a river so we decided to take a swim to cool off and let Mark try to catch the Brook Trout that we had all just spooked by jumping in the water.

They call it fishing, not catching.
We probably rested for a half our by the river, enjoying the water before putting our shoes back on and heading back out.  During the rest, Evan had gone around the bend on his bike and came back to report that the road we were heading to was ridiculously uphill.  He seemed overly excited about this, actually.

Stupidly, I was looking forward to some uphill--after all we'd come to the Green Mountain State.

Lambs for the slaughter.
We started running, turned a corner and crossed a bridge and there we saw Vertical Mile Road.  It's actually a misnomer--it's at least three miles long.  Some locals came by in a car just as we were posing for a picture in front of the road sign like a bunch of flatlander tourists.  "You guys gonna run Vertical Mile?  Good luck with that! Hahaha!"

The first mile of Vertical Mile Road wasn't all that bad, really.  It was steep, over 10% I'd guess, but it was over relatively quickly.  The problem was that was just the beginning.  Vertical Mile road when on for another couple of miles with a couple of long uphill sections and then went dowhill only briefly before connecting with Stannard Mountain Road.  And that is where we started to make deals with God.

The laughing and chatter had mostly died out once we were a good hour into that 2nd leg after the stop by the river.  And this was starting to get genuinely hard now. We covered 10 miles of mountain dirt roads with names like Minister Hill Road, Wheelock Mountain Road and Stannard Mountain Road.  When all the road names have either Hill or Mountain, you know somethings up. And we got a lot of strange looks from the locals who must have been wondering what in God's name the four shirtless Massholes were doing running in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the heat of the day.  I'm pretty sure we wondered ourselves a few times.  There was a lot of dehydration, staggering, swearing, getting chased by dogs, nearly getting run off the road by dump trucks, dunking our heads in creeks by the side of the road, eating dust, deer flies, cresting hills only to see that the hill kept on going and a lot of other stuff I can't even remember.  But eventually we caught up to Evan and Kyle parked at what sure as hell seemed like a good spot to stop for a bit and go find a brewery.  It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon of day 1.