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.