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2001 Race Article

[Reprinted with permission from the Vermont Standard, July 21, 2001.]

Ultra Runners Brave Heat To Complete 100 Miles

By Freelance Writer Julia Carlisle covers road-running, cycling, skiing and sailing in Juneau, Alaska

It was hot out this past weekend for the Vermont 100 ultra-marathon road and trail race, but it wasn't pouring rain and muddy like last year and it didn't quite reach 100 degrees with the awful humidity the way it did two years ago.

So, all things considered, said Race Director Priscilla Tucker on Sunday as the event came to a close, "We're feeling pretty positive."  

Windsor Fire Department volunteer Ron Vezina, who helped barbecue some 350 chicken halves for the runners, commented, "They are incredible. To run (the equivalent of) four marathons is just phenomenal."   

For their part, race participants are effusive in their love of this annual event and its volunteers, a fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, "It's beautiful, the race people are tremendous, there's a lot of aid and a lot of food," said 54-year-old Jim Sperling. His comment at the end of the event was, "It was hard, a lot of pain."   

Although Tucker said half a dozen people were taken to Mt. Ascutney Hospital to be treated for dehydration, 174 of the 279 registered runners completed the 100-mile race within the 30 hours that began in the dark at 4 am Saturday. For some the ordeal wouldn't end for another day and night, on Sunday at 10 am.

The course winds its way from the Smoke Rise Farm in South Woodstock through West Windsor, Reading, Hartland, Taftsville, Pomfret, Woodstock and surrounding towns, passing checkpoints staffed by some 150 volunteers, many of whom are as devoted to the race as its runners.  

Summing up the first post-race thoughts of many, Woodstock's 41-year-old Bill Blaiklock, having felt pretty good until the last miles of the 100, commented Monday, "I'm glad to be alive." He ran most of the race with Reading's veteran runner Joy Grossman. Blaiklock, who sells insurance and helps coordinate the Covered Bridges Half-Marathon, says he trained with long runs, hikes up Mt. Ascutney, downhills and walks. 

Training aside, it's teeth-clenching determination, along with water, Gatorade and "Gu" that got many through their 100 miles. In completing a race of this type people suffer blisters, nausea and muscle pulls, to name a few of the ailments. But the race just didn't appear that difficult for Vermont 100 ultra-marathon winner Joe Hildebrand. He crossed the finish line smiling and loose, without fanfare, late Saturday afternoon, completing the run in 15 hours, 54 minutes, although it was almost an hour off his time last year.  Despite his "slower" pace, which many attribute to the hot weather, he posed for a photo, then casually asked, "Is there some food here?"  

From the start, the wiry, bespectacled Hildebrand was running well. He appeared at Galaxy Hill, the Pomfret 18-mile checkpoint, first at about 6:30, cheerful and easily pouring himself a bright orange Gatorade.  Pomfret checkpoint veteran Ginny Holbrooke of Claremont was like a comforting mother, "Honey, would you like something to eat?" Hildebrand ate a little something, waved and galloped off through the Vermont fields. In fact, the Urbana, Ill., native just kept going, finishing the race almost a full hour before second-place Barry Lewis and third-place Stan Ferguson. 

The women's race held much more drama than the men's, as 34-year-old Ellen McCurtin held a 10-minute lead over the next woman heading into the last portion of the race. However, 29-year-old Francesca Conte found some extra juice, powering up to give McCurtin a run for the money. McCurtin garnered the women's title with only seconds to spare. Her time was 19 hours, 8 minutes and 6 seconds versus Conte's 19 hours, 8 minutes, 39 seconds.  

Women's third place went to 35-year-old Janice Anderson who came out to run the race with friend McCurtin. The three women, McCurtin, Conte and Anderson placed 12th, 14th and 16th overall.  

New Hampshire's 40-year-old Chip Merrow came in 7th with a time of just under 18 hours. That morning, his wife and crew, Jane Merrow, held a large sippy cup filled with a yellowish shake as she talked about her husband's strategy. "It's gonna be hot today. He'll try for fast, quick miles. He was hoping for a fog bank…He's eating dense calories, liquid food, drinking it five or six times." She added about the event, "It's hard to run at night, there's the fatigue, it's disorienting on the trail runs…It's just important to put in some good miles."

"Then," she added, "he'll just putter along."   

So what motivates people to compete in such an apparently insane event such as an Ultra? Merrow echoed a comment repeated by many, "He loves to run. It keeps him sane. It's his sport."  

Although at the higher level of the event, the Vermont 100 is, without a doubt, a true competition, the majority seeks to complete the race in 24 hours, although certainly to complete it at all is a victory. But, there is also the agony of defeat for those who just can't make it through all 100 miles. Racers are pulled by medical personnel if they lose 6 percent of their body weight or show signs of shock or dehydration. Their blood pressure is taken at the 84-mile mark. Too low and they're out.  

At the 44-mile mark at Camp Ten Bear in Reading Saturday, Woodstock Ambulance Director Butch Roy commented, "It's a hot day, but people are doing pretty good." Cornish's Peter Lynch concurred, "This is a pretty good year. The runners are a little later." But, he added, "It's hard at night. At midnight, it's cold, people lose their will."  

At mile 44 Saturday, Blaiklock was still doing quite well. He was cheerful and relaxed, saying "Things are good, they're going good." At the same time, one runner was given the warning, "Get salt, you're at five percent." That meant he had lost weight, was approaching the six percent cut-off, needed to take in salt to retain body fluids. Several women runners also weighed in, some having gained weight. In most cases that's a good thing, said Lynch. It means they're taking care of themselves, eating, staying hydrated. However, weight gain can also signal kidney problems if runners aren't ridding their bodies of liquid waste. 

Genuine medical problems force the exit of a 100-mile runner. For others, it might be the absence of will that leads them to drop. However, for some, it's just their simple common sense that dictates the outcome. Bill Rice, 48, dropped out after realizing he was "D-F-L: Dead Firetruck Last." He said after severe cramping in his calves, "I knew that if I was last, I'd fall down in the woods."  He had taken a few falls already and was concerned he might force an unnecessary rescue. But, he was upbeat, vowing "I'll come back."  

Rice stood next to his friend, retired 55-year-old firefighter Mike Brooks of Auburn, Maine, as he lay in a lounge chair with a Harry Potter book. Could be just another old bronzed, retired guy at the beach—nope. Brooks finished the race in 27 1/2 hours, was "feelin' pretty good" and had even gained three to four pounds. He said, "I'm thrilled."

Several doctors advised Brooks against competing since he has arthritis, knee problems and a big toe that doesn't move much. There are always concerns about the heart. But one woman, Dr. Heidi Brooks, the firefighter's daughter, was there to say, "He's in excellent shape."  Brooks himself said of running, "I love it so much."  

Joe Marroquin, 54, lay on the grass Sunday morning smoking a cigarette. Deeply bronzed, with deep, world-weary creases across his brow, he's no fresh-faced poster child for ultra-marathon running. But don't count him out. He completed the Vermont 100 in 22 hours, 12 minutes finishing 43rd out of 174.   

Oddly enough, Marroquin started running in 1997 after a divorce and as a way to quit smoking. Rather than drop one addiction, he picked up another. At first it was just a childhood dream to run the Boston Marathon, which he finally did in 1998.  He added, "I'm not an ultra runner, just wanted to do it." No crew, no entourage. He said he approached the race with the same attitude he's used in the 50 marathon road races he's completed: "I'm in this thing. I'm not going to let it defeat me." 

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