Peak Ultras Race Report
[Editor’s Note: Margaret Schlachter is the founder of Dirt in Your Skirt, a website focused on obstacle-course racing for women. Lately, Margaret has been experimenting with ultramarathon running. In fact, we met her while running ultramarathon distances at a five-hour track race in Utah this New Year’s Day! Margaret recently attempted the Peak Ultras 100 Mile. Here is her report.]
Peak Races’ motto is “people inspiring people” and this year’s experience at the Peak Ultras, one of the more obscure ultras held annually in the small town of Pittsfield, Vermont (population 400), was no exception. Peak Ultras seems to have a race for everyone, depending on just how far you feel like running. They offer 500-mile, 200-mile, 100-mile, 50-mile, and 30-mile options. They are known on the East Coast for their unforgiving courses, ever-changing weather conditions, and mostly self-supported format.
The Peak Ultras are not big races and most years the number of DNFs outweigh the finishers. It wasn’t until 2012 that the 500-mile race had its first finisher after years when Willy Syndram and Mark Hellenthal both completed the race within the 10-day cutoff. The 200 miler is arguably just as hard if not harder than the 500 with its 72-hour cutoff; only five have finished the race since 2006. The other three races have a more manageable time cutoff at 34 hours and the 30-miler is 19 hours.
The majority of the race is held over a 10-mile course up, over, and around Joe’s Mountain owned by Joe Desena, a former multi-sport endurance athlete. Race director Andy Weinburg works with the course designer Matt Baatz to create a deceivingly challenging course each year for all the participants. The West may have the big mountains with lots of elevation but the East is like the scrappy little brother that will have you rolling around in the mud. Joe’s Mountain might be the scrappiest of them all!
The journey to the 2013 edition of this race was initially to be a pacer/crew for Michelle Roy who was attempting the 500 for the second year in a row. Up until about a month before the race, this had been the plan as I was to use the week as training for a 24-hour race coming up in the fall. At the last minute, with a combination of Michelle’s encouragement and some nudging from race director Andy, I found myself heading back to Vermont for the first time since moving from the Pittsfield/Killington area last October, about to attempt the 100.
As I drove into town Thursday morning, the 500-milers had already been racing for almost a week but three of the four original participants still remained in the race, Nick Bautista, Michelle Roy, and Willy Syndram (unofficially). Nick had been crushing the pace all week; he had completed about 370 miles when I rolled into town and Michelle was at 320. The racers had battled snowy conditions at the beginning of the week, torrential downpours, trails that turned first into streams and then into shoe-sucking mud, and now the temperature was in the high 80’s and humid.
The story of the week, besides Nick and Michelle, was that of Willy who had come back to use the 500 as training for Silverton 1000 Mile Challenge. After finishing the first 220 miles well ahead of this record from 2012, he opted to continue running unofficially, leaving the 10-mile loop and exploring other trails in the area, helping mark course, going to the movies twice (bringing back popcorn for Nick and Michelle), helping pace and mentor Nick, and continuing to accumulate miles. He would finish the 10 days with 530 miles.
As Thursday afternoon drew near, the Pittsfield General Store, the unofficial headquarters of the race and town hub, was buzzing as the 10 racers looking to take on the 200 were given race instructions. Along the way, they found out one of the racers had ridden his bike about 40 miles to get from the bus stop to the race venue after his ride to the race fell through. There is never a dull moment at the Peak Races. The 200-milers took off Thursday afternoon and, out of the 10 starters, the conditions and course would take out all of the racers leaving no one to finish the 200-mile race in 2013. The closest would be Rob Spilotras at 150 miles and Phil Watson at 120 miles.
It was not until Friday afternoon that the most of 100-milers, 50-milers, and 30-milers arrived to town, the most popular of the races being the 50-miler with 88 registered. The pre-race pasta dinner also served as a meal for both the 500-milers and 200-mile racers and was appreciated by all, as the 500, 200, and 100 are primarily self-supported.
Saturday morning came quickly the 100- and 50-mile racers showed up at the starting line. Us in the 100-mile race would take on Joe’s Mountain 10 times and the 50-milers would spend the first 40 on another trail system over the infamous Bloodroot Gap, known for its nettles and high brush, then they would finish the last 10 on Joe’s Mountain. The 30-milers would start at another location later in the morning. Ten of us lined up to take on the 100 and the rest were there for the 50. We stood at the starting line drawn in the dirt by our race director, the 100 facing one direction and the 50 the other. After a few words, we were off via this unconventional race start.
It was early in the day but everyone knew it would be a hot one. As the small pack of us started up the initial climb covering the majority of elevation in the first mile and a half, the thought in everyone’s mind was “we have the pleasure” of doing this nine more times before the race finishes. Parts of the course bore names like The Labyrinth, Devil’s Throat, Escalator, and Noodles Revenge to name a few. The majority of the course was tight singletrack, bushwhacking, and large sections of ankle-deep mud. Any hope of finishing a lap with dry feet evaporated only a few miles into the course.
As we made our way through the first couple of laps, the last three miles of switchbacks seemed to get longer and longer. As the day continued, it got hot with temperatures in the high 80’s and the sound of thunder in the air from the other side of the neighboring mountains. With the exception of water at about 3.5 miles into the loop, you were on your own for aid, which made it at times feel more like a long trail run in the woods than a race. I spent a lot of time solo before the 50- and 30-milers started to show up on the trail. A couple times I passed Michelle and Nick, both were pushing through the miles, Michelle had slowed some from her pace earlier in the week. Nick continued to press forward still at a shuffle/jog after over 400 miles of racing.
It was not until the afternoon that Larisa Dannis would come flying through the trail while I was on my fourth lap. She would not only win the women’s 50-mile race but also beat all the men by about 50 minutes, finishing in 10:40. John Jenkins III would take top honors for guys at 11:27 followed by Terrence Fox (11:45) and Graham McShane (11:52). Rounding out the top three for women were Sara Pragluski-Walsh (14:37) and Kelsey Gore (16:04). Top honors in the 30 would go to Hugh Tower-Pierce (8:06), Teresa Lust (8:26), and Bill Coyle (8:45).
As the 50- and 30-milers finished, they feasted, or at least it seemed such, on a BBQ as the rest of the race continued. It was after lap four or five that I was handed a hamburger fresh off the grill and a cold Coke. It was the perfect boost to head out on the next lap. As I headed out for my sixth lap of the day, it was getting dark. Nick was at almost 460 miles and had been running almost non-stop since the previous Friday morning. The sixth lap would be my last as I succumbed to some foot issues and my inexperience in 100-milers became apparent. Peak Races might be the only race series I know that you enter into knowing that a DNF is more likely than a finish. The success rate of the 100-miler historically is about 30 percent. As Michelle said, “unlike other races, if you DNF [at Peak], you hold your head up high for what you did. It’s a deceivingly hard race.”
With my race over, I was able to continue to watch the action. Nick was finishing up his 46th lap on the 10-mile course, accompanied by his pacers and former competitor-turned-mentor Willy. People inspiring people is not only a motto with Peak, it is the truth. The inspiring parts of the race were watching the other competitors push well beyond their limits. This year Nick did just this. He pushed through foot issues, trench foot, and beyond anything he had done before. As he attempted what would be his last loop (47), everyone around was in awe of how far he pushed. He ended up having to turn around before the lap was over, finishing his race at 460 miles early in the morning Sunday. Other than Willy and Mark, he is the only competitor to go that far.
As morning came to Pittsfield on Sunday, only two competitors would finish the 100 under the 34-hour time cut-off. Jeff Woody, who had been impressive the entire race, finished at 29:20 and Conor Joyce finished in 31:40 sporting an extremely tight and short pair of pink shorts for his last two laps. As the race came to a close, talking with other racers, everyone, whether they had a DNF or a finish, loved Peak Races. A theme among those that competed is that Peak is a race with yourself, a race against yourself, and a race to test your limits. This is the beauty of Peak and the reason why so many others and myself already have it on our calendar for next year.