Most of the crew traveled on the same flight from Chicago to Burlington, VT on Thursday morning. We were coincidentally seated close together on the flight, a good omen. We met John Gruber at the airport as he had flown in from Detroit. John had helped me get through my first marathon a few years before. After a quick stop at the Vermont Sandwich Company for lunch and free bread samples, until they took the basket away (Ryan was eating too many free samples), and a stop at the local grocery store for supplies we were on our way to Pittsfield in our Suburban and Town Car convoy.
We met up with Greg Almond, Ryan’s neighbor from Madison, WI, Ryan’s parents and their friends Vinny and Claudia Spitzer from Lake George, NY at the race site and the crew was assembled.
We learned that some cranky neighbors had complained about tents and our ability to place our command center near the start/finish line was in question. This somehow was worked out by placing the tents behind the barn and out of direct line of sight from the road. Ryan was a few hours away from starting a challenge that to most is unimaginable, running 200 miles, a distance he had never attempted and a race length that was new to the sport of ultra-running in North America.
Ryan laced up and toed the line for a 6:00pm start with 14 other tough competitors. A young athlete named John Dennis, who had just laid down a very fast 100 time of 15:21, was a late entrant, considered a top contender and was one of the 14. The 200 mile distance had not yet been accomplished by any of the field so there was an uneasy sense of the unknown as they milled around full of anticipation and nervous as Race Director Andy Weinberg gave last minute instructions. The following is a short video of the pre-race announcements and the start:
At precisely 6:00pm the horn blew and they were off. Ryan led the group around the left turn and down the first hill and they were off on an epic race that would play out over the next three long days.
Ryan Dexter, aka The Punisher, leads the 200 mile competitors around the first turn.
On the 30-40 mile lap Mike and I ran with Ryan, starting around midnight Thurs. We power walked up the steep slopes, ran the flats and flew down the down hills. Only a few wet spots at this time so the course was fast. The head lamps lighted the way but it was difficult to see the subtleties of the trail and Mike helped by calling out wet spots and other cautions in advance. Ryan was stubbing his toes frequently and this was extremely painful for him. Every time he would kick a rock or a root he would scream out in agony. And, there were rocks, roots, stumps and other obstacles everywhere. I later told Ryan that he needs to run at least 40 miles next time before I can keep up with him.
Team works on Ryan's Feet Early on in the Run.
Late Sat. night Darren was working on the blisters of one of the young 100 mile competitors from Texas. Darren was very good at this as he had learned from some of the best and his caring and careful approach was very much appreciated. Little details like rounding the corners of the blister tape helped prevent them from rolling back and creating a friction point. He had on his head lamp and was busy working away. When he finished one of the farm hands came up and asked him if he was a doctor and proceeded to get advice on a blister he had on his hand.
On Thurs night, technically Friday morning I finished up and took a shower and got to bed around 4:30am. The cots were better than the concrete floor but tough to sleep well or actually at all. There was a loud whining mechanical noise that started almost the second I hit the cot. I was up at 7:00am and had a great breakfast at the country store. The egg sandwiches were fantastic. I ordered two but they were so big I ended up giving Andy Weinberg half of one.
I ran the 110-120 leg with Ryan and John which was Friday early evening, with the first 5 being in light and the second 5 in the dark. I wore the big Petzl Ultra headlamp and ran as best I could over Ryan’s left shoulder, illuminating the ground in front of him. This often meant running just off the trail in the weeds. The light was very bright. I remember once I got caught up in some small limbs and whipped Ryan’s legs with them, he screamed out in pain. Sorry buddy. The lap seemed slow as we were having trouble getting Ryan to run as he was tiring fast. By now John Dennis had built up a considerable lead, more than lapped us at this point. We all knew he had gone out too fast and it was just a matter of time until he would regret the early speed and we kept telling Ryan this since he did not like being down by more than 10 miles. We had nothing but respect for John’s abilities and he was putting up some impressive times and as he stayed fast through 110, 120, 130 and 140 we were beginning to wonder if he would ever crack. He is an elite runner to say the least and could be a real force in the future.
Later I saw John Dennis after he had broken down and was unable to continue. Reportedly had blood in his urine and was dizzy and cramping. I saw him arm climbing the stairs with straight and almost inoperable legs. He ran 160 miles before dropping out. Tremendous effort!
I had a little food and needing sleep hit the cot for a brief night’s sleep Fri. night. I never could get the fact out of my mind as I was showering, eating or sleeping throughout the weekend that Ryan was always out on the course running and never really stopped.
Other than the first lap I believe we had at least two of the crew with Ryan on each subsequent lap.
The rain had turned the course in to a muddy sloppy mess and by the time I ran the 170-180 lap with Ryan, (Darren and Mike) late Sat. afternoon many of the paths were active, flowing creeks and the footing was just terrible. Especially on tired legs that had run 170 plus miles like Ryan’s. Travis had done the previous lap and he told me Ryan was staggering and occasionally falling to the right (I think) and to get ready to catch him. Demah joined for the second half and it was good he did because Ryan was sleep deprived and tired beyond belief and mentally he was about gone. Almost exclusively walking by now he would frequently fall asleep while moving and Demah used every conceivable form of motivation to get him going. At the top of the mountain Ryan curled up in Demah’s arms like a baby and went to sleep. A few minutes was all Demah allowed of sleep and off we went after I ran up to the unmanned water table and got him some Vaseline as he was incredibly chaffed. Soon after this Ryan seriously asked Demah if he could run naked to avoid the chaffing pain. Demah calmly answering “no Ryan you know you cannot do that”. Lots of praying and encouragement but the crash was fast approaching.
When we wobbled to the end of the lap Demah asked me to run ahead and make sure we had a positive cheering reception for Ryan which I did. Darren soon ran ahead too and told me to go back and tell Ryan John Dennis had quit (DNF) which we found out from John Gruber when we arrived at the start/finish. I did that hoping to pump him up but Ryan was disappointed. He appeared to be thinking – why should I continue to kill myself when my main competitor is out. Whatever the case, Ryan was mentally done at this point and it was soon thereafter he said he was going to quit and Demah did not argue. I think he knew that Ryan was not really done but continuing to push a totally spent and broken Ryan was not possible. At this point although Ryan was mentally wasted, his well prepared body was still answering the call and although he was beyond tired he was not cramping and showed no signs of his physical systems being unworkable. All the long training miles were now paying dividends. The following short video is from this point in the race - mile 180 - when Ryan was ready to call it quits:
Ryan’s parents were just fantastic through this whole thing. Seeing your child suffer like this could not have been easy. But while balancing Ryan’s immediate well being with his need to complete a long focused upon objective was difficult, they always seemed to provide the right kind of encouragement and loving concern. You can see where he gets his strength, determination and genuine nature.
Bed and Breakfast Pittsfield, VT. $350/night upstairs, $25 on the basement floor. Not bad actually.
Ryan’s Mom offers love and encouragement as Ryan heads out for 180-190 lap.
This one must have been very very tough but he got through it, showered, took about a 3 hour nap and headed out again. I did some community laundry until about 4:30am and then headed to the cot. I set my alarm for 3 hours later and crashed. Well before my alarm went off Mindy came by and woke John and me with news he was getting close. It was so cold the muddy and loose trail was freezing up and the course and a motivated Ryan were getting faster. After 190 plus miles Ryan was ahead of my estimated finish schedule, and kicking butt on the last lap in the freezing cold as the snowy dark of night welcomed the much needed warmth of the morning sun. We hurried over to the finish and quickly noticed it had snowed for several hours as the cars were covered and the mountain peaks were white. I decided to meet Ryan and the group out on the course and get some pictures of him coming in. Ryan and the crew were all smiles as the end was in sight. The following video was from the bridge at the bottom of the mountain roughly 1/2 mile from the finish line (199.5 miles completed):
It was 7:20am Sun morning. Ryan had been on the course since Thursday at 6:00pm, enduring his third night without sleep barring the 2 short naps. He stormed up the final hill and across the finish to cheers and congratulations. Andy put a medal around his neck and presented him with a plaque and a cool hammer trophy as the champion and first place 200 mile finisher. Hugs from his Mom on Mother’s day and from his Dad and the crew a call home and I am sure a huge sense of pride and accomplishment on completing such an arduous task. We were all proud to have been able to witness such an achievement and play a small supporting role.
Ryan’s support crew was a very dedicated and talented group. No other competitor had anywhere close to this level of support. Nine crew plus Ryan’s parents and their friends provided support and encouragement throughout the race.
Anthony was a hulking farm hand and a kind soul who was walking the AT and stopped off in Pittsfield, VT because he liked the area. He lived without heat in the animal barn. He was a very engaging and intelligent fellow for sure with a quirky streak that fascinated everyone. He wanted to see what this trail running was all about so he decided to go along on the 180-190 loop. It was just above freezing, raining and approaching midnight. He liked to run barefoot and that he did through the cold wet and muddy, not to mention incredibly rocky, 10 mile trail. You almost had to be there to believe this.
Mike Younglove, 100 mile finisher. Mike Younglove had been asleep on the couch prior to Ryan’s last lap. Mike had run 90 miles at this point. I believe he had run the last 50 or so in a row. I tried to wake him twice and could not get him up. Luckily Demah was more persuasive and got Mike going for his 10th and final lap to complete his 100 mile run.
Demah, Travis and Ryan power up steep section of trail.
Ryan chugging down some SportQuest Products late in the race.
Darren Fortney, 100 mile finisher.
Snow Sat. night made for tough going on the course.
Randy Steiner (Thor) at halfway point stocking up.
The course looped up and down the mountain.
The Hammer Throphy
Ryan Dexter, 200 mile Champion.
Team Punisher at the Finish.
The Leader Board tells the tale. There was one other 200 mile finisher, Mike Siltman.