Originally published in Marathon and Beyond Magazine, July/August 2005
Daniel DesRosiers stood on a picnic table, surrounded by 55 runners, outside The Lodge in Jay, Vermont. Something about that French-Canadian accent seemed to strike everyone funny as he gave the pre-race briefing. Or maybe it wasn’t the accent–maybe it was some of the course details he was delivering.
“You probably want to leave a full change of clothes at aid station six,” he shouted, “as well as a change of shoes and socks. Between stations five and six, you will be in the river, out of the river, in the river, across the river…you will be very wet!”
More giggles from the crowd. A runner from Boston that I’d been chatting with leaned over and whispered to me, “Was it like this last year?”
I shook my head. Last year’s Jay Challenge Marathon had been a difficult trail run with lots of mud and a grueling climb up Jay Peak, but it sounded as if this year’s course would make it look tame. A number of runners, intimidated by the course descriptions on the website over the past two months, had asked for and been granted a 6:00 a.m. start, two hours before the rest of us.
Dan continued, “Many of you have probably done an adventure run before. But for those of you who haven’t, believe me, you are in for an adventure!”
More laughter from the crowd. I reflected that some were probably laughing at the mock-seriousness of Daniel’s tone, but others were laughing out of nervousness. Or perhaps out of sheer confusion—was he kidding or not? There appeared to be a fair number of road marathoners in the crowd, several of them working on their “50 States Club” list. They probably had no idea what they were in for.
A BRIEF HISTORY
I had discovered the Jay Challenge in 2002, while surfing the net. I was on an extended visit with my mother in New Hampshire, so I thought I’d find a nice little New England race or two. The website was enticing; it described a full three days of events, including a 50-mile mountain bike race and a 26-mile kayak race across Lake Memphremagog, from Quebec to Newport, Vermont. I was an adventure racer and accustomed to multi-sport challenges, so I decided to enter both the marathon and the mountain bike race.
I found the event that year to be wonderfully new and small. I stayed at the Jay Inn, a plain, economical hotel at the base of the Jay Peak ski area, and arrived the night before the kayak race. I had decided I was too poor a paddler to enter the event that day, so I volunteered, giving me the opportunity to meet the race director and many of the volunteers. Dan, a hyperactive stockbrocker from Montreal, dashed about the course like a man possessed, making sure every detail of the event was taken care of and occasionally stopping to argue with his equally hyperactive wife Lisa. They were delightful. Their most prominent assistants were Chip and his wife Janet, who was very pregnant but still lugging aid station supplies around. Chip headed up the brigade of friendly ATV drivers who patrolled the courses on the marathon and bike days. The rest of the volunteers were Jay locals—the entire town, it seemed to me. There wasn’t a soul in the small town of Jay who wasn’t excited to see Dan bring a new event to the area and anxious to help in any way they could. It gave you Rockwellian visions; it made you want to find a town like that to move to immediately.
There were only 11 marathoners, and I met every one of them. Several were there for all three days. I paired up with a friendly, outgoing New Yorker named Les who was competing in all three events, and we ran most of the marathon together. It was a tough course that year, but not more than I expected, and I finished in six hours, placing third overall.
NO SIX HOUR COURSE THIS TIME
Four hours after the start, at aid station five, I realized that I hadn’t known what I was in for this year either. Naturally I had expected to be close to the halfway point in three hours, based on last year. At station five, I discovered that it had taken me four hours to hit mile 13. I tried to hide my disbelief while my running companion for the last five miles, Ken from Boston, borrowed a cell phone to call his wife and tell her he would be late at the finish line.
We’d been told that the hardest part of the course, physically speaking, was over. We’d climbed Jay Peak, descended via quad-burningly steep ski slopes, and slogged through miles of deep, shoe-sucking mud bogs. But the technical part was yet to come.
We left the aid station reluctantly and ran across a field, then plunged back into the woods on a muddy ATV trail. Ken talked about his brother, an ultrarunner for Team Montrail, who he would be pacing in the Leadville 50 in two weeks.
“Dan ought to consider offering a 30 mile course next year”, he said. “The ultrarunning crowd would love this extreme stuff.”
I nodded, thinking that as an adventure racer, I ought to be loving it too.
HOW NOT TO TRAIN FOR AN ADVENTURE RUN
Training for a one-day adventure run is not like training for anything else. Forget intervals on the track; they won’t help much if the course is too rugged to run fast. You must prepare for the unexpected, for things like hopping fallen trees and running through mud and keeping your balance on a rocky river bank. I find the only way to train for that kind of stuff is to get out in the woods and do it. Never mind simulating those movements with agility drills in the gym—just get out there in the real thing.
Not that I did that, of course. Knowing what you should be doing and actually doing it are two entirely separate activities in my world. Next year, however, I might attempt to heed my own advice.
RIVERS OF PAIN
The first river crossing was hip deep, the water cool and refreshing. We paused to scrub mud off our calves. The course markers took us off trail and into a bushwhacking section, where we had to stay alert to keep on course, battling dense undergrowth and poison ivy. There were several more river crossings, and suddenly, we were no longer crossing the river—we were running in it. The course markers stretched ahead of us as far as we could see, and they were all hanging from trees over the river. The river banks were too steep and rocky to run on. We walked to avoid slipping on the smooth polished stones at the bottom of the river, but I fell twice anyway.
After nearly a mile, we saw the pink flagging move up over a steep bank and out of the river. As we got closer, we could see the reason: a waterfall. We scrambled up the bank and through a backyard that I recognized as Dan and Lisa’s own, and then we crossed a road and plunged back into the woods. We met Maria, an exhausted runner from Argentina, who was limping. She needed company to get to the next aid station, where she planned to drop out, so we slowed our already slow pace to walk with her.
“I did not expect such difficulty”, she said, ruefully. “In Argentina we do some short adventure races, but even they are not so tough.” She laughed.
We came to another river crossing and this time the water was over my head. A lifejacket hung in a tree, and a cable stretched across the water. A volunteer in a kayak, Stephan, shouted up to us.
“If you let your feet float up to the surface and then pull yourself along the cable backwards, that’s easiest! Or you can swim if you want.”
I went first, plunging into the cold water with a little scream. After a minute, it felt good. When all three of us were across the river, I felt a second wind coming on. Rejuvenated by the water, we ran again, chatting exuberantly about river crossings and how all marathons should have one.
At aid station six, we had drop bags waiting for us with fresh shoes and socks. A makeshift dressing room was set up for those who wanted a full change of clothes, and there was a hose for rinsing off mud. Maria sat down and put ice on her knee while Janet, one of the race organizers, called for an ATV pick-up. I ate salted potatoes and waited for Ken. We had eight miles to go.
GETTING TO KNOW DAN
I had gone back to Jay again last year, a few months after the race. Dan was holding an orienteering day for those participants planning to come back in 2003 (thank god he later decided to discard the orienteering portion of the race—I couldn’t have handled it), and several of us, including Les, came for the weekend. Dan graciously volunteered his time for the clinic and did not charge us for it.
We met at the Jay Country store, another Rockwellian vision, part old-time nuts and bolts country store and part souped-up-for-the-tourists wine and cheese shop. We sat at tables in the back and poured over maps, learning the features of topographical maps and how to read them. Then we plunged into the woods and did not come out again until 2:00 a.m. the next day.
I learned then that Dan’s events would always be more than you bargained for. And as an adventure racer or ultrarunner, isn’t that what we look for? To come out with battle scars and war stories and a feeling of accomplishment earned by exceeding our own self-perceptions?
THE LAST EIGHT MILES
Those last eight miles were on relatively easy terrain, but after what we’d been through, we were spent. We walked most of it, trying to keep the mud off our fresh shoes. We caught up to two women running their 50 States, who had started at 6:00 a.m. They were walking, still engaged in the fruitless effort to keep the mud off their shoes, and they were complaining about the difficulty of the course. We traveled with them for a while, but soon tired of the whining and moved on.
The finish line finally came at 4:00 p.m., eight hours after the start, and I was never so grateful for a finish line.
“I know what you’re thinking—that I’m an adventure racer and used to this kind of challenge,” I informed Dan after the race, “but this was a lot more adventure than I expected.”
Daniel merely laughed, and said with that quirky French Canadian accent, “But I told you so! You will be back again next year.”
And I will.