Catamount 50K: Oh, the Humanity (and Humidity)!

This photo from the Catamount 50K makes me giggle. I see a strong, confident, playful person crossing the finish line and wouldn’t guess she’d spent the past 30+ miles feeling like a giant wimp. The mountains will humble you like that!

I went into this race feeling a little apprehensive. I knew I was in great shape, but also knew I’d got a little excited in my first couple weeks living in Vermont. It would have been advantageous to taper down a bit in my training, but with the Green Mountains in my backyard and the Long Trail on my mind, it felt impossible not to go out and play.

I created a list in my head of all the reasons I probably wouldn’t do well. My legs weren’t fresh, the weather would be hot and humid, the course wouldn’t play to my strengths, the race entry list looked intimidating, and so on. It was like I was giving myself a bunch of outs so I wouldn’t feel bad if things didn’t go as I hoped.

I expressed all of that to Glenn, who had come up for the weekend to support (and dip his toes into ultra running himself), and annoyingly he countered with his voice of reason: I’d been training for this, I’m good at this, I can handle the challenge, the course actually would play to my strengths. Knowing it would be hot, we loaded up a cooler with ice and extra bottles and made sure we were prepared with hydration, nutrition, electrolytes, anti-chafe cream, sunscreen, the works.

The race consisted of two 25K laps, winding around the Trapp Family Lodge ski trails right by Mt. Mansfield State Forest. The first lap wasn’t bad at all. I took my time jogging and hiking the uphills, usually falling behind the runners around me going up, then floating down the other side of the hills, letting gravity pull me along and passing the same runners right back. The game of leap frog would continue as the race went on. The temperature was still cool in the 60s, and the sun was low enough that the trails were nice and shaded.

For a little while I was unintentionally leading the women’s race, though that didn’t last long! During a long uphill section leading up to the first aid station, I was huffing and puffing with my little jog/walk combo when I heard some voices chatting behind me, moving fast. I honestly wondered if it was two people on mountain bikes because of how quickly they were approaching, but no, they were runners, a guy and a woman wearing a red tee, just breezily gliding up the hill while having a conversation like they were out on an easy run, no big deal. Whoa! They both casually stopped at the aid station, not in any rush; I had everything I needed with me in my hydration pack, so I kept going, but I had a hunch it wouldn’t be long until I’d see them again.

After that was a nice, long, cruisy downhill section, which felt great after the long climb to the aid station. A woman wearing a Salomon vest who I’d gone back and forth with a couple times passed me here, and we both commented on what a relief it was to go downhill! I went with her and just tried to keep contact over the next several miles. At one point, she started to make a wrong turn and I called out to say “this way!” and we switched spots, me leading and her following. I was feeling tired though and eased up on the pace, and she passed me again not long after. We hit the infamous meadows, the cow pasture, which was known for being exposed in the sun and being deceptively slow-going with its lumpy footing and gradual uphill. Another woman passed me, Samantha, who I recognized from the Kettle Moraine 100 the previous summer (which I dropped out of after 50 miles)–I remembered she had done really well there, placing second, and what really impressed me was how positive and upbeat she was throughout while doing such a hard thing! She was running swiftly and smoothly, while I was starting to feel pretty wiped out.

Another woman passed me, who I hadn’t seen yet, and then the woman who had been chatting effortlessly up the hill earlier in the race passed me somewhere in the woods after that. She exclaimed, “You look SO strong!” and I just laughed and said “Ahhh I feel like I’m just kind of jogging along but thanks!!” We introduced ourselves (her name was Emily), I told her great job, and she continued on her way.

At some point I was surprised to hear and see Glenn cheering for me in the woods, he was also running, but had stopped at a point where two parts of the course go right by each other, and waited to see me go by.

So in the first ten miles or so, I had gone from first place to fifth place, I was not feeling amazing, the temperature was heating up, and once again my apprehension and doubt started to set in. I had a few miles to go until the halfway point, which was at the start/finish area. I decided to use those next few miles to keep a steady pace, recover, eat some snacks, drink water, take some salt tabs, and in general just take care of myself. I looked at my watch and saw that I was making good time, so there was no need to rush. I crossed the start/finish mat at 25K in 2:15 or so. Not bad at all! I had a hopeful goal of 4:30 for the 50K, so that was right on. However, based on how I was feeling, and with the temperature steadily rising, I knew the second lap would not be like the first.

Glenn and I had strategically placed our cooler very close to the finish line. I had a second hydration vest already filled with a bladder of water, snacks, and salt tabs. It was nice and cold from sitting on a pile of ice in the cooler. I took my first vest off, put the second one on, slathered some anti-chafe cream on my thighs, which didn’t seem to do much good because my legs were so sweaty so it didn’t really stick, and then right behind me an aid station volunteer asked if I’d like a cup of ice. I said, “sure!” and dumped the ice into the front of my sports bra. After maybe two minutes at the finish area, I took off for my second 25K lap. Rob, one of Glenn’s colleagues called out, “Just one more lap!!” which made me laugh.

The chilled pack with cold water and ice cubes melting down my chest felt fantastic. The sun was getting higher in the sky. My shorts and tank top were completely saturated in my own sweat. I couldn’t believe how much I was sweating. My run/hike combo uphill started to slant more toward hiking, though hiking didn’t feel that much easier than running, and my little run was still a tad faster than my power hike, so I still ran whenever I could even though it felt very slow. My downhill floats were not as floaty, as my joints were starting to feel a bit more tender with each step. Up ahead, two different points of the course merged a bit so I could see at least two women runners ahead of me, Emily and Samantha. I think I had also seen the woman in the Salomon vest that I’d tag-teamed with in the first half (let’s just call her “Sal”) leave the halfway point just as I was coming in. The other woman that had passed me in the first half in the meadow, I had no idea where she was.

Getting to that first aid station (for the second time) at the top of the hill was a slog, but it felt like a mini-victory, knowing I’d get that nice long downhill again. I think I passed Sal at the aid station as she was refilling her handheld, though my memory is a bit fuzzy. I want to say she passed me again shortly after, and I wouldn’t see her again for a while. My approach to the long downhill was much more gingerly than in the first lap, as I could feel the impact a lot more with each step. The course flattened out into a nice little single track section that I actually felt pretty zippy for as I went through, plus it was nice and shaded.

In between the zippy, feeling-okay moments, there were other moments when like I was just in survival/get-to-the-finish mode. I felt tired and weak, my self-esteem was plummeting, and I marveled at how I could dedicate so much time and energy into a sport I’m not even good at. I don’t actually believe that, but it’s what was running through my head in the moment. I felt like I was moving so slowly, and I felt like my little run/walk combo was just so lame. In retrospect, it was not lame. The fact that I was still picking up my feet and moving forward as fast as I could made all the difference.

I really try not to compare myself to others, as I don’t think it’s super healthy or productive. However, I found myself falling into the comparison trap and was having an internal battle trying to snap out of it at different moments in the race. As I got passed by someone earlier in the race I just thought, “Wow, they are so strong,” then in the next moment I interrupted my own thought with, “You are strong too!” Another moment in the race I was feeling sorry for myself, and reasoning, “Well geez, I’m only human,” but then it also occurred to me, “Well, everyone else here is human too!” It’s really not fair to just assume someone has it easier than me, or that they aren’t experiencing the same conditions, emotions, fatigue, or whatever else. In a way, it made me want to take more ownership in the way I was racing.

I popped out of the woodsy single track section and emerged at another aid station. Sal had stopped to refill her bottle, and lo and behold, there was Glenn taking pictures and cheering for me. He must have stopped after 25K, which he had been planning to do if he wasn’t feeling the ultra distance after the first lap. It must have not been his cup of tea after all, which I didn’t blame him for!

I still had plenty of water in my bladder pack, so I waved and kept on going, trying to put a little distance on Sal. It didn’t take her long to catch back up, and she got away from me again after that. She was a fighter. Next was the dreaded cow pasture, round two. At this point the sun was just blazing, the temps were well into the eighties, maybe nineties in the direct sun, and there was nowhere to hide. I was starting to catch up to and pass the 25K runners/walkers, who had started an hour after the 50K start (so they were on their first lap). No one seemed particularly happy in this section. I had found a good rhythm, and just tried to keep my pace and effort as steady as possible, even though I felt like I was just crawling along.

Once I hit the shade of the woods again, it felt like “go time”. The rest of the course would be mostly uphill, not an easy way to finish! I think there were about five miles to go; 4 hours and 19 minutes had passed since starting, and I figured if I could finish in an hour (12 minute miles), I’d be pretty happy.

Toward the beginning of the long, uphill climb I was surprised to catch up to Sal again. We had gone back and forth so many times throughout the race, I couldn’t think of anything new to say (usually it was “nice work!”, “good job!”) and I think this time I just uttered “hey” and she said “hey” back. We both just put our heads down and kept powering up the hill.

From that point I just ran as much as I possibly could. Again, it felt like the most demoralizing and pathetic run ever, but it was still a run. I really don’t mean that as a put down on myself or anyone else out there, but it’s how it felt in the moment. The mountains just have this way of humbling you and reminding you of your humanity.

The course snaked its way back through the woods and gradually up along the foothill where the Trapp Family Lodge, my destination, was resting. I continued catching up to 25K runners and walkers, which helped give me little mini-goals to work toward. I didn’t know if I had put a gap on Sal. I often heard footsteps behind me and couldn’t tell if they were mine, or the 25K runners, or Sal’s, or someone else in the 50K. I didn’t dare turn around to look.

I felt very tempted to walk, and I did here and there, but every time I kept powering up a hill I imagined it to be a super boost, banking a little more time between myself and the next women. It felt like the best move I had in my back pocket to defend my position. I even imagined a crowd cheering, “DE-FENSE!” clap clap clap. I had been confused about what place I was in after the halfway mark. I guessed I was fourth at best, but maybe fifth, I just didn’t know.

Feeling tired and dazed, I finally, finally, crested the long climb and got to enjoy a nice, relaxed stride down the remaining grassy two hundred or so meters to the finish, smiling the whole way. Glenn was waiting at the finish line snapping photos. I finished in 5:03:58, meaning I’d covered the last five miles fifteen minutes sooner than hoped. The next women after me finished in 5:06, 5:08, 5:11, 5:12. Yowza- not too far back! I immediately sought shade under the aid station tent and collapsed in the grass. Wowee… what a tough race!! After downing a few cans of ginger ale that Glenn brought over me, and sort of sitting in a daze for a while, I decided it would be good if I changed out of my wet clothes and got something dry on.

I did the slowest walk ever to the restroom and started cleaning myself up. Next thing I knew, I heard a knock. It was Glenn. “Liz? They’re doing awards- you got third!” Whaaa? My first thought was that the results were messed up, but then I remembered the aid stations, and how I really didn’t stop at any of them (except in the middle to switch out my pack). So maybe I just got in and out of the aid stations quicker and that made a difference. However it happened, wow, I was not expecting that! I earned a fancy new Black Diamond hydration pack for my effort. More than any prize, it was a very nice little confidence boost and it felt like a confirmation of the hard work I’ve been putting in.

Emily, the woman in the red tee that looked effortless and told me I looked strong, finished 1st in an incredible 4:21, a top-2 performance of all time. Samantha, who I’d remembered for her upbeat attitude at Kettle Moraine and who looked smooth and swift, finished 2nd in 4:35, also a top-10 of all-time on that course! I got to see my friend Kat fly down the finish chute, celebrating with her arms outstretched as she finished her first 50K and ultramarathon.

I’m glad I had this experience leading up to my time on the Long Trail. It was an important reminder of how easy it is to get in a negative headspace when you’re not feeling good or not making big, valiant strides. Like, “I feel bad, therefore I must be doing bad.” If you’re still putting one foot in front of the other, you need to trust that you’re still making progress, and hold onto hope that things will turn around (they may not always, but most times they do). There’s really nothing heroic-feeling about surrendering yourself to whatever the trail offers you, in fact it’s the opposite. I’m learning more and more it’s about setting your ego aside and accepting that yes, you are indeed human! Isn’t that what makes it great?


Thanks for reading. If you enjoy my writing, please consider buying me a coffee. Your support keeps this little newsletter/blog going, for which I’m so grateful. Another great way to support is by sharing this with someone in your circle that might like it too. Until next week! ~Mercury


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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