What better way to usher in the cool, wispy air of Autumn then this short race in the Green Mountain State ? Needn’t think, the answer lay within the glow of my screen and the quarries of my mind. I can almost taste the sweet scent of a Christmas that never ends, glistening from the stiff bristles of every wavering spruce stalk above 3,000 ft. The Jay Peak Trail Running Festival, it’s short and it’s steep, and i knew it complete.
Into Burlington we land, rather late and very dark. Being as I had no accommodations, thus setting the theme for this entire experience, I waited for the last of Airport Personnel to retreat into the shadows of the night. All I could wonder was where Camels Hump (4,081) pierced the moonless night sky and if just maybe I could close my eyes and return, as i drifted into a narcotic sleep nudged between the seats in Terminal 1. Awoken only to the sound of a TSA agent politely asking me to relocate to the comfy couch beyond the terminals. I obliged politely through my stammer, slung my quilt over my shoulder, folded the z-rest and apologized before floating off beneath the leaves of some exotic tree in a large planter. A very good suggestion by a very kind person ..zZzZz…..
The day began by climbing up to the observatory tower, which provided stellar ground level views of the Green Mountain Crest rising abruptly in the distance from the verdant foothills preceding. Caught a Lyft into Burlington for some q-time with the city by the lake. Poked around for quite some time, basking in the rays that reflected from the clear waters of Lake Champlain. Only after acquiring safety materials and stopping at the grocer could I go on, and so I did rather timely. So timely that before I could have another bite, my Lyft had been on it’s way and soon to arrive. In I hopped and we were off down so many roads. Good conversation consisting of cricket chips and sustainable living. An hour and thirty minutes felt as though it were ten.
To be brief considering this is pre race and quite the wall of text has been erected, I had two days to taper and shuffle around. I’d been fairly familiar with the course from the Jay Peak 50k in 2016 and from what I understood at pre registration, it went relatively unchanged. Fingers crossed for more singletrack. The Long trail ascent to the double- wide switchbacks as well as the out and back down to Jay Camp make it obviously impossible to dislike this course. It’s just skiing with your feet.
Between you and I, my “basecamp” was in a heavily wooded thicket no more than 300 yards from the starting line. Considering the probable illegality of this, i’ll leave it to your imagination. After two days and three nights of light running/child like wonder and nutritious and delicious self cooked meals sitting pretzel style, the unofficial start had begun. I started among the front of the pack but knew very well that being dropped on the first climb meant little. The pace was considerably fast through the first gentle uphills/slightly flats. Around 9:30 mile. Although I knew this was fast for me and came to the realization that I very well may be running with 11 milers, I gave up a few spots during this phase before falling into a whimsical uphill groove.
The first bit of sigletrack was every bit as plush and fragrant as i’d remembered. The cut singletrack at Jay is exquisite and no matter your fatigue should never go unappreciated. The trail followed a babbling brook before poking out into some more green rollers that kept muscles guessing. I remembered the sustained ascent being early on and just as I was wondering I was greeted with a wide wall of green so steep that if you lean too much into your hands on your thighs, you’ll probably swallow some dirt from those in front. Here I’d reconvened and reminisced with Jay, a friend made from the race in 2016 and a veteran runner who I knew would inevitably smoke me this time around. By fate We were both running the same race again this year (35k) and seeing his familiar face on a 30% grade grinding our guts out made my already growing grin proceed to a smile that consumed half my face along with the sun.
Getting to the Gondola AS (probably not what it’s called) at the summit proper, is always fulfilling but not nearly as lovely as the final steep approach to its rounded top. Utilizing portions of the Long Trail is what takes the cake for me in this race. Between the ruts and the roots and the mist that rises from the rocks and your soul. So filthy yet so clean, the smell of moss and the sounds of your own breathing creating an ambient place in your head. These mountains are where I discovered this art of moving through space and time. Pickle Juice was much needed up top to help down below. I almost hit my head just before leaving the Long Trail. Guess I could use the extra brain cells.
Downhills are usually free miles but not today. I’d rather tip toe my way down odd shaped rocks and ankle grabbing roots than run down a black diamond ski slope for just over a mile but it’s all in good pain. I got dropped a handful of times on the descent by a few quick footed folks probably born and raised in New England. I wasn’t overly concerned as I knew there were many people running this year and considering how thin the herd had become I was confident if I could keep good pace I wouldn’t be entirely displeased with my place. Following the steepest descent were occasional rollers most of which I hiked and low grade descents filled with loose rocks and dusty dirt. Upon hearing the voice of the outstanding gentleman with the long dreads shouting words of encouragement, I pushed the pace as if I didn’t have to do it all again. Rolling in to cheers and loving gestures, I gulped down three cups of maple water, inhaled the end of a banana and stuffed a GU to go. Glancing at my paused watch, my elapsed time read just under two hours. With fleeting thoughts that I went out too hard the first lap, I left for my second ascent to be greeted with an almost unbearable cramp in my right calf and tight glutes/hammies. Maybe just a little too hard.
Now power hiking even the most mellow of rollers I knew it was only a matter of shaking it out. Between stopping briefly when my right calf gave indications of explosion and yearning for the pain to come as the ascent gradually grew, my mind loomed before the entrance of a cave I’d explored before but not for quite some time. Switching my train of thoughts to pickles/pickle juice, the trail continued straight from the rolling double wide and onto the soft cut that brought my head down from the clouds and back in the moment. Climbing steadily between 14-16 min/mile, my entire being loosened up as a primal response to the surge in elevation waiting behind the trees. The initial black diamond ascent was possibly my lowest point mentally during my time on the course. Whining and wheezing involuntarily in an attempt to keep place for the remainder of the race, I knew being caught this late at this grade and effort would be unlikely. At some point during this short and steep ascent my vision became slightly blurry. This is what I came for.
Seeing that gleaming white blaze as the ascent rounded etched a permanent happiness within my mind. The ascent was to be just as steep if not steeper toward the end and far more technical than the ski slop prior. I broke into an even stride feeling lighter as the path before me glow brighter in the sun just before afternoon. Referring to my splits, I was just above 23 min/mile average for the duration of this climb but understood that it had been accounted for on the prior ascent. After reading my ascent during that crest, I knew the rocks would indefinitely play tricks on me like the noises from beyond the walls of my tent. I slowed to a rather conservative hike for this short strip of trail climbing the stairway to heaven. Although I went the other way in 13′, at that point I figured i’d leave it to muscle memory. Fully indulgent in the many sights, sounds and smells of the Vermont woods, I was greeted with the large pipe that almost left an impression last time around.
Turning onto the switchbacks I almost immediately began to cramp again very subtly. It was like as the pickles grew closer my bearing on my trembling legs grew further. Up I walked keeping pretty steady pace ready but not excited for the far from free downhill to the Long Trail out n’ back. Toenails turning black, I tried to keep from hitting my heels and slowing myself down wherever the grade/my hamstrings allowed. In decent time the Long Trail reappeared to the right and obviously the game changed again. Mostly Technical moderate downhill all the way to Jay Camp proved even more stunning and striking the second time around and although the climb back up from the aid station was slow going, I almost felt that was the way it was intended to be. Still lightly cramping as the moderate climb threw in the occasional steep roller, I knew the remaining climbing would cumulatively be less than 1,000 ft. Such a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there.
After topping out to encouragement from organizers from the phenomenal SUB5/LOCO trail crew (you guys are the light at the end of seemingly EVERY tunnel) 🙂 I knew I could cruise and let the body recover on the last of these few almost free downhills. I’d seen no more than two people on the climb up and recalling the two short 200-300 ft climbs approaching, my stride grew slightly. This late in the race it’s better to gain time both up and down if strategically reasonable. My stride became airy and only sometimes heavy footed. The fatigue had settled very evenly and just before the few bends that provided clear line of sight, I recognized that I had not been followed. These last 4-5 miles of the trail were very meaningful, as it felt so incredible just to be there. The short mellow rollers came and went, some tightness persisting but smile never fading (maybe replaced by more panting). Beyond the last roller, I ran gently uphill on crushed gravel engaging my granny gear and growing closer to the conclusion of the second loop or in this case, the finish.
Holding a good clip for the last mile (probably because the sounds grew closer) I dashed to the finish as two younger spectators ran with me briefly and cheered me on to wrap things up. The love and encouragement of this race and this community as a whole are something i’ll take with me to the grave and beyond. I finished, I sighed with relief, grabbed the beautiful wooden medal that’s always awarded post race and stuck around briefly to watch a couple others finish… a little closer than i thought 😉 I had totally forgot that you could leave a drop bag at the start and had nothing more than what was on my person a the finish. Into the woods I disappeared and by the time I had a thought the cutoff time drew near but the live band was still wailing, fading into the moss,rocks,roots and trees only to be reverberated as whispers among the woods. I finished 11th place overall and became content realizing my ambitions this year were probably a bit lofty. Coming off of low base and being in the marvelous Green Mountain State I couldn’t be happier.