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2008 Times Argus article

Charlotte man places 3rd at ultramarathon

July 27, 2008

By James Biggam Staff Writer

[Original article link (may go dead after a while).  Reprinted without permission.]

Jack Pilla of Charlotte lost 10 pounds during the first 47 miles of last week's Vermont 100 Endurance Race.

Around mile 90, his wife was nearly crushed by a falling tree while she was offering Pilla support during an intense "microburst" storm.

All in all, it was par for the course in the world of ultrarunning.

"I felt pretty good afterwards," said Pilla, who placed third overall and was the first Vermont finisher with a time of 16 hours, 41 minutes. "They have a tub at the finish that was more for feet, but I just got my whole body in there and chilled out and got the mud off. I had a lot to eat and I don't think I've stopped eating since."

More than 260 runners set out to complete the 100-mile trek at 4 a.m. last weekend and 156 of those entrants reached the finish line in West Windsor before the 30-hour cutoff. Men's winner Andy Jones-Wilkins of Ketchum, Idaho, logged a time of 16:07:52, while women's winner Devon Crosby-Helms of Seattle, Wash., finished in 18:31:34.

This year's 20th annual Vermont 100, part of the Grand Slam Series of Ultrarunning, was especially competitive because wildfires in California forced the cancellation of the Western States 100. And by ultrarunning standards, both the men's and women's races were amazingly close. Jones-Wilkins edged men's runner-up Kevin Sullivan by 7 minutes, 27 seconds, while Crosby-Helms crossed the finish line ahead of runner-up Kelly Cronin by 19 minutes, 24 seconds.

"Ultrarunning is frequently like watching paint dry because great distances lead to great gaps between the runners," Race Director Jim Hutchinson said. "The sprint to the finish that you might see in a marathon has only happened once in 20 years at the Vermont 100, so this finish was very close for an ultra."

While an ultra-marathon isn't exactly a spectator sport, the Vermont 100 features 29 aid stations that allow race officials to keep tabs on the runners along the way. Hutchinson said a small group of entrants established an ambitious pace from the start, prompting some to worry about their well-being.

"Four runners moved out ahead quickly and were setting a pace early on that brought two things to mind," Hutchinson said. "First of all, it was a pace that would break the course record if they could sustain it. And second, the weather was hot and humid and the forecast was for clearing and very hot. So here's four guys going out at a blistering pace on a hot and humid day. And everyone was saying that they could never sustain that pace. One of the four dropped back around the 30- or 35-mile mark, but the other three carried on for hours and hours and hours. Finally one of the runners went back a little, but Andy and Kevin were so close the whole way. It was just a fabulous ultra-run, and it wasn't until the very end that we saw that Andy wasn't going to break the course record. He only missed it by 14 minutes."

With many of the country's top endurance runners on hand, Pilla felt a strong sense of Vermont pride as he hung with the lead pack for the beginning third of the race. He and fifth-place finisher Glen Redpath even managed to take the lead during some of the uphills before Sullivan and Jones-Wilkins used their longer legs to pull back ahead on the downhills.

As the heat picked up around 9 a.m. " five hours after the start " Pilla decided to let the other three runners pull ahead.

"After about 35 miles it was very warm and humid and I could feel my body burning up some, so I actually backed off at that point," said Pilla, who logged 450 training miles in June. "I know my body well enough and I knew it was going to be a long day, so I backed off and the three others kept going. I was all by myself from mile 35 up until I picked up my pacer at mile 70, and then my pacer kicked my butt and we passed Glen around mile 94."

After finishing, Pilla ate dinner, went to sleep and then woke up the next morning to go for a cool-down run prior to the awards ceremony.

Other racers were in much rougher shape afterwards.

"The range of conditions when people finish this race is unbelievable," Hutchinson said. "Some people can barely walk " there are people who literally can't get from the finish line to the aid station. They just ran 100 miles and suddenly they can't walk 50 feet. Then there's some who are chatting and eating, and there's everything in between."

While the fastest racers were sound asleep by Saturday evening, a steady stream of runners continued to file across the finish line throughout the night and into the morning. Adding the excitement were 88 horse riders competing in the 100-mile Endurance Ride, in addition to 28 runners competing in the 100-kilometer portion of the Vermont 100.

With the 30-hour cutoff looming at noon for the 100-mile runners, the event became a race against the clock for some.

Even though the winners had finished more than a dozen hours earlier, a dramatic scene unfolded as Karsten Solheim of Glendale, Ariz., approached the finish line almost precisely at the 30-hour mark.

"The last person finished with 19 seconds to spare," Hutchinson said. "There was a pretty big crowd and our volunteers had sent somebody along the trail to yell back when somebody was approaching. They yelled back, 'Runner coming,' and the crowd at the finish line was just going nuts. Everyone was yelling, 'Run faster, run faster,' cheering for the person to finish under 30 hours. And as this was going on, the horse ceremony was going on and they stopped their ceremony so that they could cheer that runner on."

Despite the fact that the 30-hour time limit had elapsed, two more runners also crossed the finish line within 23 minutes of the cutoff point.

Hutchinson described this year's event as one of the most successful in race history, noting that only one runner needed medical attention. He said that an individual came into an aid station in serious distress at mile 88 and an ambulance was on the scene within 15 minutes.

"It could have taken over 45 minutes for the ambulance to get to some places on the course, so this was the best possible location," he said. "Overall, we feel this was one of our better years."

Pre-registration for next year's Vermont 100 will open up in October.