Ultra-athletes endure 10 days of mud, sweat and 888km of rough trail running
GOSHEN — As you read this, be it at 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. or 2 a.m., a few “dedicated” souls are out running laps on a figure-8 course comprised of 26.4 miles of rocky, muddy, undulating trails in the Moosamaloo Wilderness. They’ve been running since 8:08 a.m. last Thursday, when 10 members of the newly formed Endurance Society crossed the start of Infinitus, an 888-kilometer (551.7 mile), 10-day trail race dreamed up by Vermonters Andy Weinberg and Jack Cary.
In the past week the racers have faced frost and snow on the trail, sleet and rain and temperatures soaring into the high 80s. They have encountered bear, moose, porcupines, snakes and, of course, mosquitoes.
“The bugs are vicious,” says John Sharp, a muscular Texan who ran into race headquarters at Blueberry Hill Inn’s cross-country ski center on Tuesday evening to get sprayed with mosquito repellent, wolf down macaroni and cheese and guzzle a PBR before heading back out.
Several other racers were also taking breaks on Tuesday. Jess Pendleton, 37, an insurance executive from Iowa, looked exhausted as she propped her feet up so fellow competitor Joel Gat could tape her blisters. She’d completed 11 laps (264 miles) in six days, sleeping only a few hours a night. A mother of two who only ran her first marathon seven years ago, she was in second place overall on Tuesday.
“I started running to lose weight after I was pregnant,” she said. “I did a couple of marathons, just walking and running at first, then a 50 then a 100. What I like about doing this is it is just you and running in the woods for a few days.”
The leader was Greg Salvorsen, a 28-year-old graduate student from Boulder, Colo., who by way of preparation ran a 100-mile race every month in 2014, and was on his 13th lap Tuesday evening. The goal: finish in 10 days with 20 laps, which essentially amounts to completing two marathons a day. On rocky trails.
Mark McCaslin, a former Home Depot manager from Michigan, ran a 400-mile race three weeks ago in preparation for the race at Blueberry Hill.
“I’ve done 200-, 300- and 400-mile races, so I’m hoping to make this one at least 500.”
Joel Gat, a brewer from Arizona, warmed up by doing a 100-mile race two weeks before. The problem was, it wasn’t just a running race:
“You had to run a mile, then chug a beer, then run a mile and chug another, and I got drunk after 27 miles and had to drop out,” he said with a big grin.
Nearly half the racers paused Tuesday evening to wrap their feet, eat and catch up.
“The worst part is always my feet,” said Rebecca Hansen, a 53-year-old pre-med student from Naples, Fla., who had bags of bandages and salve lined up on a table. Hansen has competed in the infamous Death Race in Pittsfield, Weinberg and Cary’s fledgling Frigus Race last winter (the 60K snowshoe race, held in sub-zero temperatures, was aborted midway) and a quadruple Ironman triathlon (that’s four times the regular distance of a 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run). As of Tuesday she was looking relatively fresh.
New Hampshire bike shop employee Kale Poland, who has completed a deca-Ironman (that’s 10 times the Ironman distance), was a favorite going into the Infinitus, but had to quit after 50 hours when his leg swelled up with gout.
The 10 contestants in Infinitus paid upward of $479 (the early registration fee) to participate. Most of them rolled out Thermarests on the upstairs floor to serve as a makeshift bed, and stopped only to grab a bowl of rice and beans or whatever else the organizers prepared each evening.
“It’s the perfect marriage — a fine country inn and adventure racing,” says Blueberry Hill Inn’s owner Tony Clark, his British accent betraying a sense of irony. The area, with more than 60 miles of trails, has played host to numerous cross-country ski race events before it shut down its trail grooming operations a couple years back. Now trail racing (and backcountry skiing in winter) is helping it make a comeback as a sporting center.
NOT QUITE SO LONG
In addition to the 888K, on Thursday, May 28, another group will start on the same course for the 72 hours of Infinitus (run as far as you can in 72 hours), and on Friday, there will be a start for the 48 hours of Infinitus. Saturday will see the start of an 88K trail race and Sunday will feature a rather pedestrian, by comparison, 8K (just short of 5 miles). All the races begin at 8:08 a.m. and all told Weinberg and Cary expect more than 200 members of their new Endurance Society to participate. The society’s motto is “Sodalitas perdurantium. Robur corporis fortitudo menti,” Latin for “Society of those who endure. Physical strength, mental fortitude.” Its logo: a skeleton crawling with a drawn sabre.
As of Wednesday morning Salvorsen had run 393 miles and was still in the lead of the Infinitus; Pendleton, who had racked up 330 miles, was in second.
For Weinberg and Cary, who previously worked with Joe De Sena to launch Pittsfield’s Death Race and Spartan Races, this is a new chapter. Since parting ways with De Sena, Weinberg and Cary have been embroiled in lawsuits and counter lawsuits with their former partner. Both Weinberg and Cary have full-time jobs, Weinberg as an assistant professor of physical education at Castleton State College and Cary as a software systems engineer in Winooski, but hope to make The Endurance Society profitable.
For these events, says Weinberg, “we wanted to capture the ‘fun’ of endurance events without the commercialism that has become associated with many of them. These events are totally different — there are no obstacles, it’s just trail running and testing your endurance. We intentionally want to keep them small, and even secret. But then we realized we also needed to get participants here.”
Part of the challenge of these endurance races, Weinberg said, is the mental aspect, which is where Cary comes in.
“I’ve raced in these types of events and the Death Race and I know what breaks me,” Cary said. “The challenge is to see how far you can push yourself without breaking. And that’s what I’ll try to do for others.”
To spook some of the runners, Cary began placing odd objects around the trails at night. A doll’s tea party might suddenly appear around the corner. A life-size clown is moved around the course. Masks and the number 888 randomly appeared in various segments of the course.
“After a few days of running your mind starts to wander and it’s easy to become disoriented at night on the trails,” notes Cary. In fact, after several racers went off course during the past couple of days and were temporarily “lost,” the organizers refused to let anyone run solo after dark.
The two are also planning another event that they promise will be even more physically grueling and mentally challenging: Sine Nomine, (in Latin that’s “no name”) will start at 1 a.m. on June 26 on private land in a remote corner of Addison County. The only detail the two have released is a subtly disturbing black and white video that intersperses images of kids on a merry go-round with army marches, people pedaling backward on old bicycles and clips of Albert Einstein.
Don’t get too excited to sign up. With a limit of 50 entrants, it is already sold out.
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