Catamount Ultra 50k (Race Report)

The hills were not alive with the sound of music. That sound was feet sucking out of mud and probably swearing.

The Catamount Ultra takes place at the US home of the Von Trapp family, famously immortalized in The Sound of Music. This property in Stowe, VT, is beautiful, high up on the hills and affording gorgeous views of the mountains. At least, there would be pretty views if it wasn’t raining.

My running partners and I signed up for the 50k event in Stowe many months ago, and our training started mid-January – a full five months before this race – with the goal of Sehgahunda marathon in May and this 50k in June. An injury knocked one runner out of the race altogether, and financial obligations kept another from making the trip. Two others decided to drop down to the 25k. But I hadn’t spent five months of sore legs and muddy training runs for nothing. I was going to do the 50k.

The Catamount Ultra was not described as being overly hilly. But everything in Stowe is hilly, and I didn’t think about how much higher in elevation the start would be compared to what I am used to in New York state. Just driving up the hill to the Von Trapp property, my ears popped and my car’s engine whined. This was going to be hilly.

It was also going to be wet. They had rain for several days in Vermont, and the morning of the race, the air was heavy and saturated. I got to the parking lot at 6 am to sign in for a 7 am start, and the serious rain hit while I waited in my car. Nerves were fraying. I was told the race would take place on cross-country ski trails used by the US Nordic Team to train, and they would surely be set up to drain properly. If I knew the conditions ahead of me, I would have been even more nervous.

The hard rain stopped by 6:45, and everyone stood near the start line in anticipation. I was intimidated, to say the least. I’m used to being around a wide mix of people at the start of the race: some were there to win, some were there just to finish. But this race was probably the most elite runners I have been around. Surely, the 25k was the option for those just out to run and finish by the cutoff. I wasn’t sure I belonged with these people, many of whom discussed their 50-mile and 100-mile ultra races and carried nothing more than a handheld in anticipation of 31 miles.

This was a pretty low-key race. There were no timing chips, and aid stations were approximately five miles apart on the course. I hoped I had enough water in my pack to get me between each stop. But it was cool and wet at the start, so surely I’d be fine. I had replacement Tailwind with me to refuel when I could.

Just after 7 am, we took off. I started near the back of the pack, as I was intimidated by this crew of hearty runners, and we started up a hill. I was running pretty good, passing a few people, staying in a cluster of other runners who ran most of the early hills. One woman ahead of me was telling someone that this was a race of thirds: the first third is mostly uphill, the second third mostly downhill, and the third third was rolling but runnable hills. She was mostly right.

8a

The elevation profile prepared me for the steepest hills at the start, but the first few miles were pretty easy. In fact, there was a very runnable section between miles 2 and 3 that felt amazing. Then you hit the steep hill, and it climbs up for nearly two miles.

I trudged up that hill, soaked to the bone from the rain, but I still felt pretty good. Hills aren’t that bad when you’re fresh and prepared for them. I hit the peak and the first aid station in no time, and I was in good spirits knowing the downhill portion would be runnable and welcome.

Of course, I didn’t consider the mud. Running down that hill was dangerous, slippery, and often arduous. The mud was thick and spanned the whole trail. Some spots forced you to pick your way through carefully, and all I could hear in those hills was the sound of feet slapping through water and mud and the slurp as you pulled your foot up. This was to be the norm for the rest of the race.

Think about how hard running is and the amount of energy you expend just lifting your legs on a normal, dry course. Then compare that to the difficulty of fighting the mud for each step. It sucked your energy as much as your feet. Compound that with the difficulty of adjusting your stride to the mud and sliding awkwardly, and this was, without a doubt, the most difficult run I had ever completed.

At last, the longest downhill stretch was over, and I began to run beside another runner from Massachusetts. We were able to run for the next few miles, and we had a good conversation. This always helps me distract myself from the activity, and his pace kept me running faster than I might have all alone. We hit the aid station at mile 10 in an open field just as the sun was starting to peek out.

Here I learned another interesting lesson: If a man offers you a magical Mexican potion at an aid station during a race, take it. Alongside the cups of water, Gu, and soda were cups of Iskiate, a drink used by the Tarahumara people of Mexico. It’s chia seeds in agave and lime juice, and it was delicious. It was also supposed to be a great energy drink for endurance runners. I was looking forward to more the next time I hit that aid station.

The last five miles of the loop were mostly through open fields, and the guy I was running with pulled ahead. I hate field running; the grass makes it difficult to judge the levelness of the terrain, and it’s open to the elements. Plus, all those shiny, flat things were not rocks; they were cow manure.

You run right by the Von Trapp Lodge, where the race starts and ends, but there were over four miles still to go. This is disheartening in a distance race. At one point, you head on mountain biking trails for a little bit of welcome singletrack running, but then it’s back out into the fields. And the mud. Oh, the mud…

I hit a patch of mud so deep that I went in past my knee. I had to grab my leg to pull it out. All I could think about was how much worse this would be in the second loop, after all the 50k and 25k runners had been through. And it was still worse than I expected.

At last, you come to the finish line for the mid point of the 50k race. My running partner whose injury kept him out of the race was there to cheer me on, which was nice, and I refilled my Tailwind for the first time here. The sun was out full force now, and it was getting hot, although I was still soaking wet (mostly from the rain, but maybe sweat as well). It was hard to return for the second loop, especially since you start up hill. I felt so good a few hours ago the first time I did this stretch, and now I was walking as soon as I was out of sight of the crowd.

That flat or downhill stretch was still runnable in the first third of loop 2. In fact, it was the most runnable portion of the entire course. But it was followed by that long uphill again, and I felt miserable. The hill went on forever, and my legs were tired from running and fighting the mud. I was hot and grumpy, and I sucked down Tailwind like it was all that mattered. At one point, I even contemplated dropping from the race, but I knew I’d have to do it at the aid station at the top anyway, so it kept me going.

Finally, the aid station was in sight, and I slunk in feeling dejected. Both bottles of Tailwind were half empty, so I pulled a pouch of caffeinated Tailwind from my pack and split it between the bottles with fresh water. Several other runners came in as I refueled, so I left quickly to stay ahead of them. We all knew what was ahead.

As difficult as the downhill was the first time, it was ten times worse now. Most of the trail was a mess of thick mud and running water. The runnable parts from the first loop were not runnable now, and the hard parts the first time were painfully difficult. I was swearing and trudging through, passing a few people and getting passed here and there. We commiserated in our misery. Worse mud was yet to come.

I found myself running through the water with relief. Water was nothing compared to the mud, and it cleaned the shoes off temporarily. Plus, the temperature was getting downright hot, and I was feeling blisters develop. Cool, wet feet felt nice at this point.

At the end of the long hill, when it opens up to be runnable again, I got my second wind. Maybe it was the caffeinated Tailwind; I had never tried it before. Or maybe it was just the chance to run again. But I felt better, and I passed people, and I came in to the second aid station feeling like I was going to finish this thing.

The Iskiate was almost gone, but one cup remained, and even though it was warm, it was delicious! I also caught up to the guy I was running with on the first loop, and I passed him for good on the way out of this aid station. The sun was out, the weather was warming, and I was finally dry.

Of course, running through the fields in this last third were worse than before. The mud was so thick, I went past my knee at one point. You would start running for several strides, then have to walk through the mud. You’d run again for a bit, then walk. It was demoralizing! One runner passed me while running through all the mud, and I thought I would never see her again. But she must have burned out running through that stuff, and I passed her up a hill, finishing quite a bit ahead of her by the end.

These long races are interesting… There are always moments when you’re completely done, and others when you’re amazed that you’ve surpassed marathon distance and are still running. I honestly felt better running into the finish than I had at the end of the first loop. Although this was not a fast race, mostly by virtue of all the mud, I finished a very respectable (for me) 57 out of 99 people running the 50k in under 6:30. I imagine I would have shaved well over an hour off that time with less mud.

Overall, this was a decent race. Two loops are rather imposing mentally, and the mud made it extraordinarily difficult physically. In fact, I’d say it was the most challenging race I ever ran. I wish more of the race was run on the singletrack mountain biking trails rather than the ski trails. The Von Trapp Brewery had beer at the end, which tasted amazing. There were giveaways, but I couldn’t hear the guy shout out numbers even if mine was called, and if you weren’t there to immediately respond, you didn’t win (despite being told anyone on the course could still win). But I never win anything anyway.

Everyone I talked to was quite nice. I felt like I belonged with this group of runners. I wasn’t fast, and I’m not elite, but neither was I out of place. All the training I did this winter in wet, muddy, cold conditions paid off, it seems. For the first time, I really felt like I was a part of the running community. And for the first time, I considered maybe I have an even longer race in me for the future.

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