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(Unspoken) Lessons from a 3x Vermont 100 Champion

I've been looking forward to the Vermont 100 Endurance Race weekend for several months, ever since my coach Amy asked if I wanted to crew for and pace her husband (Brian Rusiecki) for the race. I immediately thought this would be a great opportunity to help give back to Amy for the time and effort she has put into my training and also a great way to learn from a very accomplished ultra runner. I looked forward to helping Amy by volunteering on Friday night before the race, Saturday morning, and wherever else I had time in the weekend to help out as needed in addition to getting Brian to the finish, preferably in one piece and before anyone else got there.

The weekend started simple enough. I went into work early on Friday so I could get out of town ahead of traffic and get up to Vermont in time to help out with anything that still needed helping. I met up with Amy and got a couple of things organized as well as grabbed all of Brian's bags for the race. One bag of extra clothes (we'll get to this later), a bag of fluids, and a bag of solid foods. I took his stuff back to my car and started unpacking and setting up my tent for the weekend.

View of runner camping area

This was one of the coolest parts of the event. There was one big field of tents set up for runners/crew and another big field of horse trailers set up (the Vermont 100 is one of the only races left that offers a 100 mile horse race on the same day/course as the 100 mile run).

View of horse camping area

I finished helping to get things sorted out for the 4am race start and volunteered to be back down just after 3am for any last minute preparation. By now it was almost 11pm and I still hadn't had dinner yet. I went up to my tent and made a sandwich, had a beer, and headed off to bed a little before midnight.

I didn't really sleep well as I was afraid I was going to sleep through my alarm and miss the start and/or miss Brian at the first aid station 20 miles in. I rolled around in my tent and heard my alarm go off at 3 and got up. I had everything laid out and ready for the day, including my breakfast. I ate that as I headed down to the race start. Everything was very well organized and just about ready to go.

Moments before the race start

At 4am on the dot, runners took off in the darkness. From this point on (for about the next 15 hours or so) I was to be the one and only crew for Brian (BDawg) and I would run the final 30 miles with him to keep him on pace and heading into the finish strong. Crewing essentially means helping the runner with whatever they need during the race. That could be filling up water bottles, giving a fresh shirt (lesson #1), refilling nutrition, general motivation, calf massage, you name it, if I can do it and it will help him finish faster then I'm on it. Crewing is much like general race support, except much more stressful (which makes me even more thankful for the amazing crew I've had in my past races - JG, Phil, Carl, Tyler, Woo, and more).

After crewing for 70 miles, of course, comes the fun part - the running the final 30 miles with one of the top 100 mile runners in the country. This part I've been stressing about for several months, almost as much as I've been looking forward to helping. As much as I wanted to stress about it, I knew that Amy wouldn't have put me with him for those last 30 if she didn't think I was capable of keeping up and accompanying him to the finish.

The race:

After the 4am start I knew that I had a couple of hours before BDawg got to the first aid station (21 miles). I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep thinking I would miss him at the aid stop. I wanted to just head directly over to the aid station and get set up and from there maybe nap a little bit if I had time. Amy said to wait a while to head over though because the aid station wasn't set up yet. I figured I could help set up, but she thought I should wait until at least 6am to head over to the aid station (mind you a 35 minute drive). So, I waited, and anxiously waited some more, until the clock hit 6am and I left the parking lot. I was simultaneously trying to follow a vehicle in front of me who also had a yellow marker for crew in the window and the turn by turn directions (GPS are no good in this part of Vermont), but somehow I missed a turnoff at a roundabout. So, I headed about 6 miles in the wrong direction until I decided to flip a U-turn and haul ass back on course. I knew at this point that there was a very good chance I would miss BDawg coming through the first aid station. I was flying down VT back roads (sorry Amy, I did take off my crew marker so nobody would know...) once I got back on course just hoping and hoping to make it in time. I whipped into the parking lot, grabbed the stuff and sprinted toward the course just in time to see Brian running past. I yelled at him just enough to grab his attention and sprinted to meet him with a fresh shirt, full bottles, and more gels. As he ran back onto the course I felt immediate relief and he was back on his own for another 10 miles or so.

The next few aid stations: 30 miles, 47, and 58 were pretty uneventful. Same change of singlet, refill of bottles, and nutrition mostly. Through the 47 mile aid station BDawg was about 12 minutes ahead of his pace from 2014 (where he missed the course record by less than one minute). He and the other runners had started out on a quick pace, but at this point, he was the only one still sustaining it. Through 58 Brian looked a bit out of it and said his stomach was upset and he couldn't eat much. He kept drinking soda to get in some calories. I told him to just get to mile 70 where I would meet him with one last round of nutrition, fresh shirt/shorts, and I would get him the rest of the way to the finish line.

I anxiously waited at mile 70 for Brian to come running down the hill for his last changeover and we would be off for the last 30 miles. I had heard he was about 15 minutes in the lead, but he had fallen off of his course record pace by about 20-30 minutes. Either way, a win is a win, I thought. I was still just hoping to keep up with him for the last 30 miles. As he came into the Ten Bear aid station for the second time, he changed shirts, got some oranges, dropped trow to throw on some fresh shorts and then we were off. As we left the aid station we walked a few steps while he ate a bit, then started to jog. There was a huge climb coming out of this aid station where B said he was looking forward to walking for a couple of minutes.

We started off well enough, I asked some questions and got a feel for what he would need during the race. Did he want me to run in front, or behind? Did he like to chat a bit or just be more quiet and focused? Was I allowed to run ahead of him into the aid stations to fill his bottles? I had been given a strict "NO list" by Amy of things not to do, and figured I was safe as long as I didn't pee on him, spit on him, cough/hack the whole time, have so much energy that I needed to run back and fourth in front of him to slow down enough, etc. It seemed simple enough. Also, I had been given a special "motivator" if I needed to pull it out of my back pocket (Lesson #2).

I knew about 5 or so miles into running with BDawg that he was not in a great place mentally (Lesson #3) but that he was doing what he had to do to keep moving forward. He said he was pretty trashed and hadn't taken in many calories for the past few hours, but hoped that drinking soda would be enough calories to get him to the finish. I hoped that my charm and charisma would do the trick.

Brian knew this course and what was coming up. He also knew that he took off too fast and his legs were beat from the constant up and down hills of the VT100 course. There is no flat section on this course, basically you're going up or you're going down almost at all times. That takes a beating on your legs as the race wears on. Luckily he had tried some new shoes for this race (Hoka One One - road shoes not trail surprisingly enough) and he said his feet felt pretty great. At least he had that going for him. Here I was 10 miles in and my feet already felt the pounding on my old Saucony Peregrine trail shoes with about 800 miles in them (I really need to throw these things away).

We ventured on, sometimes quiet for a few miles and sometimes chatty. I tried my best to feel out BDawg to see how he was doing and if some friendly conversation would help or not. I think more often than not it just annoyed him. Finally I got the hint. I did ask Brian if he wanted to listen to some music as I had my phone with me and a couple of bars to maybe load up some Spotify if we were lucky. Unfortunately I couldn't load any stations he thought would be good, but just a "workout" playlist I have saved due to the poor service. The mix of rap and hip-hop was just not doing it for him and I shut it off after a couple of songs. Later I was able to find some bluegrass though that I think perked up his spirits for a while.

Either way, we moved forward at a pretty solid pace. We averaged 10:10 pace for the final 30 miles, though that wasn't quite what he had in mind. It was also slower than I expected. My average HR for the 30 miles was only 153 (low end of my zone 1). I expected to be pushing zone 2-3 most of the day struggling to keep up, but as BDawg was also struggling this was all he could do to keep moving forward.

We hopped through aid station to aid station eventually making our way to the last 10 miles or so. I made a joke about the sun going down (Brian does not like to finish after dark!), but it didn't go over so well. I later made another joke about getting a great view of his ass the whole day as we passed some spectators, but that also got no response unfortunately. I personally thought it was pure gold, but I knew if a good ass joke got nothing out of him, then I had better just hang out a few steps behind and keep quite. So that's what I did, that and take photos. I took lots of photos throughout the day of Brian and of the beautiful Vermont scenery. I was still having a great time, a great run, and was happy to be there if he needed anything.

As we approached the final few miles BDawg was getting more visibly tired and was ready to be done running. He knew he had at least a 30 minute lead and we kept pushing to the finish. With about a mile to go we came out to a field where he said they change the course every year to "keep runners on their toes" and we circled through the field and to a trail into the finish line. I snapped a few photos from behind as he took the win and immediately removed myself from the course and walked around the finish line (as I have not yet earned the honor of crossing it for myself).

After the race, I hung out at the finish for a bit and watched some runners come in, helped Brian to his tent/bed for the night, then went back to volunteering. I brought Amy some food, drove the shuttle from aid station to aid station while spectators and crew hopped in and out. This proved especially challenging not knowing the roads and not being able to use working GPS in the area. Once I hit a couple of aid stations with nobody needing rides, I figured it was okay to drop from 2 to 1 shuttle for the night hours (it was now almost midnight). I went back to the finish line for a bit and asked Amy if she needed anything else, then made my way up to my tent for bed. Shortly after getting into my tent the rain began (and wow did it thunderstorm all night), which I enjoyed sleeping in, but I know it was rough on the athletes still on the course. The next morning I went back to help out a bit more by organizing the prizes to be given out to the top finishers of the 100 mile and 100 kilometer races. They had your traditional (bad ass) trophies, but also tons of donations from their many sponsors which were great to be able to spread out across the finishers as well.

All and all it was a great day and weekend and I feel like I learned a lot about Brian, crewing/pacing an athlete, ultra running, and definitely the Vermont 100 course. I look forward to being able to help out again next year if needed.

Oh yeah, those (unspoken) lessons...

Lesson #1 - it turns out, and this is something that I've just never even thought about, that taking a few seconds to throw on a fresh shirt can make a world of difference to your mentality even if it's only dry for a few minutes. I'm definitely going to have to keep this in mind in the future.

Lesson #2 - BDawg is a "F'n pu$$y"! At least that's what his wife told me to call him if he started struggling. Though, today wasn't really the day for that kind of motivation. It is helpful to know how to motivate a runner you're helping out when the time comes. Not everyone responds to "you got this" "you can do it" or "nice job" but some people (myself included) respond better to something along the lines of "get your slow ass in gear you lazy MF'er" you know, or something like that.

Lesson #3 - Watching someone as experienced and talented as Brian gut through a tough race and still come out on top really helped me to realize that it can happen to anyone. Even the guys at the front of the pack are still struggling just as the guys in the middle or back of the pack are. Maybe they've learned how to deal with it a little differently than most, but hopefully one day if I'm struggling I'll be able to think back to watching BDawg chug up those hills with virtually no gas left in the tank and still winning the race.

I know there are probably a few other valuable lessons I learned this weekend, but for now, I'll keep those to myself until I can figure out if/how to put them into words...

Awesome rainbow over camp the night before the race

Amazing course marking, almost imposible to go off course!

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