Vermont 50 2013

The Vermont 50 is one of those races I look forward to each year, whenever I am able to enter it. Actually registering can sometimes be as challenging as completing the race itself. On-line registration opens on May 25 in the evening and the mountain bike field often fills up in a matter of minutes. One year it was around 12 minutes, others it has been closer to an hour. I’ve missed the registration a couple of times in the past but managed to get in by the skin of my teeth this time around. It’s always a gamble, too, because you have no idea what race day will be like four months later. Some years it can be clear and frosty, others cold and raining. This year, things worked out extremely well and the weather turned out to be as close to perfect as anyone could imagine.

2013 was the 20th running of the Vermont 50 and would be the 5th time I’ve raced it. It is run as a fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports – a non-profit organization that provides equipment and support to help people with disabilities participate in many different sports.

Kids race too!  Photo by Jim Lyall
Kids race too! Photo by Jim Lyall

Whether biking or running (yes there are people who run the 50 miles), the Vermont 50 becomes a weekend affair. On Saturday, we needed to get our registration packs at the Ascutney base area. I also left off a drop bag with some stuff I might need at mile 30 of the race. This year, they had quite a few vendors set up with tents. They even had free ice cream. Those extra calories would get burned off the next morning anyway.

Vendor tents on Saturday.
Vendor tents on Saturday.

My alarm went off at 4:15am. What was I thinking? This was way too early. I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed and tried to overcome the mental fog. Everything in my being wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and sleep for a few more hours. I am not a morning person. After eating a bowl of oatmeal, I finished getting my gear together and loaded up the car. It was dark out. There’s something amusing about witnessing 1300 cars converging on the same spot in the wee hours of the morning. My wife dropped me off and I had just enough time to sign in, get my final details organized and line up for the start.

Signing in before the start.
Signing in before the start.

The singlespeed riders went off with the experts at 6am sharp. It was amazingly dark when we hit the road. This was not your typical pre-dawn low-light conditions but “blanket over the head” dark. Overnight, a thick layer of fog had settled in the valleys and was blocking what little ambient light might otherwise be available from penetrating down to ground level. It actually made me a bit nervous on the start since the pack didn’t seem to be slowing down any. We followed a gradual descent for less than half a mile before the climbing kicked in with gusto. At least the race organizers had put some glow sticks out along the edge of the trail on some of the non-traveled road sections. Since I was flying with limited visibility, I shadowed one of my fellow singlespeed riders who had a headlight. This worked well for the first few miles.

Just as we were getting enough daylight to actually see with, the course turned to the first real trail section. This always ends up being a long hike-a-bike section and my legs were screaming. By the top of that climb, we were mostly above the valley fog and could get down to some real riding. For some reason I was having trouble settling into a groove.

Photo by Jim Lyall
Photo by Jim Lyall

The early part of the race generally consists of gravel roads and a lot of Vermont class-4 roads. These are technically demanding enough that it keeps things interesting while not creating the insane traffic jams that would be inevitable if single-track were introduced this early into the race course.

My plan was to get in a reasonable position early on and hold my own for the first third of the race, saving my energy to attack later in the race. Somewhere around 12 to 15 miles in I realized that I was having difficulty maintaining my typical race pace. I just had no energy or drive. I actually stopped on one of the long gravel road climbs to take a break and mentally regroup. I seemed to be losing ground in the field but I couldn’t figure out why. I decided to press on and work out the remainder of the race as best as I could. I would not let myself DNF without good reason.

As I mentioned before, the weather for the race this year was exceptional. I normally don’t look around much while I’m racing but found myself taking in the scenery this year at several points. Foliage was near peak and the sky was a perfect blue. With the early morning sun lighting things up, it really was spectacular. It was the kind of scenery you see printed on postcards. If I weren’t racing, I would have stopped to get some photos. I was tempted on numerous occasions even though I was racing.

More climbing!  Photo by Jim Lyall
More climbing! Photo by Jim Lyall

For me, Garvin Hill is the turning point of the race. It is the highest point on the course and it is after this point that the course turns more technical. Every year they place an aid station right at the top of the long climb. I stopped at the top of this big grassy climb for a few minutes to rest and refuel. Again, the view was amazing. Reluctantly, I returned to the race at hand.

The middle miles of the race are always a bit unclear to me. More single-track is introduced and we spend less time on gravel which is a definite plus in my book. I was now getting into things a bit more. I found myself catching up to riders in the tighter terrain and passing a few here and there. I took one more final rest and refuel at one of the aid stations somewhere after mile 30. I was hungry and ate quite a bit here. The specifics are all a bit of a blur now.

See all the flat sections? Me either. The elevation profile looks like your typical Vermont skyline.
See all the flat sections? Me either. The elevation profile looks like your typical Vermont skyline.

The final leg of the race was a blast. Much of the remaining course was single-track and I was starting to feel good. I caught and passed many riders in the final 10-12 miles. I don’t know if it was the food or if riding single-track is just more motivating but I was having fun. In previous races, I’ve pretty much hated the final climb up the mountain, but I was almost into it this time around. That’s not to say that I was wishing for more climbing by the time I was well up the mountain.

It felt glorious as I rolled out of the woods and began my descent of the final switchbacks toward the finish. I was able to keep the power on to the end and finished just under 5 hours. That put me in 9th place among the singlespeed riders and 84th in the overall field. Not my best performance by a long shot but nothing to whine about either.

Finishing up!
My finishi!

With the good weather and dry conditions, course records were set in pretty much every category. The winning bike rider came in at 3:55. Three hours and fifty-five minutes to cover 50 miles of mountain biking. I’m still having trouble getting my head around that pace. Equally mind-boggling was the winning run time of 6:09 – ON FOOT!

Once I had recovered a little, I changed into some dry clothes to enjoy the post-race meal in the sun. Pretty much everyone seemed to be in good spirits as they finished this year. A little later, my wife, myself and our daughter helped out with the finish line work of recording racers as they came in. It was actually quite fun to take part in this way.

The final descent to the finish.
The final descent to the finish.

As always, the Vermont 50 was a well run event. There were many, many volunteers who worked all weekend and were up well before we had to get moving on Sunday morning. Mike Silverman, the organizer, seemed to be everywhere all the time making sure things were running according to plan. A huge thank you goes out to him, all the volunteers and to the numerous landowners who let us invade their property for one day a year for this lunacy. Given the scale of the event this is no small feat. I’m hoping to be back again next year.

Mike Barton after a blistering 50 miles in 3:55  Photo by Jim Lyall
The Mason Racing Team had a great day! Photo by Jim Lyall
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