Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Friend's Report of the Green Mountain Marathon

A good friend of mine who I have spoken of before, Rob Toonkel, writes some of the best race recaps out there. Rarely are they recaps of his actual race. His race is almost always an afterthought. Instead, they are yarns of the place he visited and his experiences there. His most recent one was I wanted to share with you. (Keep in mind Rob is the 4th youngest person to ever run a marathon in all 50 states. He also recently sent out an email with all kinds of stats about his marathons and which month he ran his best and on how little rest and on what day which I am going to flat out steal myself.) Enjoy.

A tale of two cities:

I'm going to describe two places to you by their typical weather:

A) Has an average high temperature in mid-to-late-October of 55 degrees and a low of 37. The sun shines less than half of the time, the average daily rainfall is nearly 0.10 inches and it snowed 2.0 inches last year at this time.
B) Has an average high temperature in mid-October of 68 and low of 37. The sun shines 75 percent of the time and average daily rainfall is a minimal 0.03 inches.

Now I'm going to describe what actually happened:

A) The high temperature over three consecutive days was 77, 64 and 72, with lows of 61, 58, and 51. The first day had a daily record rainfall of 1.22 inches, but the last has 67 percent of possible sunshine.
B) The high temperature over three consecutive days was 58, 44, and 59, with daily lows of 42, 38, and 37. It rained more than two-and-three-quarter inches over this span, including a daily record 2.48 inches one day. The percentage of possible sunshine on the middle day was exactly zerro percent (the first day with less than 20 percent sunshine since 06 August and just the second since 05 May)

City "B" is the city where I was told it is "always sunny," a city known as Denver, Colorado. Last Sunday (14 October), I ran a marathon in that 2.48 inch deluge during a weekend where the temperature failed to crack 60 degrees.

City "A" is the place where I was this past weekend, which started out wet, ended gorgeous with temperatures that never dipped below 50 degrees. This wasn't some southern locale. Follow along to a place where I ran my 100th different marathon, a place you'll want to remain: Grand Isle County .

Something Grand…
If you want to go to Grand Isle County , you've first got to find Grand Isle County . To do so, find New York. Then find Vermont. See that place where they are split apart by Lake Champlain? Now follow that little slice of land hanging down from Canada. The portion below the Canadian border is Grand Isle County .

Grand Isle County is everything you'd expect Vermont to be… and more. Black and white spotted cows straight out of a Ben & Jerry's ad on real working farms. Apple orchards and corn fields, again on real working farms. Red barns on green pasture. Dirt and gravel roads lined with majestic trees.

Look to the west and you'll see Lake Champlain with the Adirondacks as a backdrop. Look to the east and you'll again see Lake Champlain, only this time with Mount Mansfield majestically anchoring the Green Mountains. Everything is quaint, from the gas stations to the post offices to the country store to the Grand Isle County Courthouse.

But you won't find everything here. Starbucks? Not a single one in Grand Isle County. Applebees? No. CVS ? No. McDonalds? No. Wal-Mart? Don't even ask. Forget the cheap t-shirts and knicknacks too. If you want those, go to Ocean City or Myrtle Beach . Because you just won't find them in this little slice of paradise.

Little is an understatement when it comes to Grand Isle County . At just 83 square miles, it is the dwarf of Vermont counties. With just 6,901 people, it the least populous county north of Maryland, even though its population has doubled since 1970. (As a comparison, Kings County, N.Y. – which you may be more familiar with as "Brooklyn" – has 2.4 million people in 71 square miles).

Grand Isle County has endured an interesting history. At one time, the land was claimed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York. In 1764, the boundary of New York and New Hampshire was set along the Connecticut River , leaving all of Vermont in New York's hands, as part of Albany County. In 1772, it was split off from Albany County and became Charlotte County, N.Y.

Vermont claimed independence. New York and Massachusetts shrugged at this announcement. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris set the U.S. – Canadian border at 45 degrees north latitude, officially placing this icicle from Canada in U.S. hands. Not until 1786 did Massachusetts relinquish its claim to Vermont. It took New York until 1788 to give up Vermont, and then only by order of the United States Congress.

So how do you get to a place that's physically connected to Canada without crossing the border? Yes, there is a bridge from Burlington, but the simplest way to do so is to take the Adirondack Northway (the name for I-87 north of Albany) to Plattsburgh, and then take a 12-minute ferry ride across the lake. This ferry runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, although as the website ( notes, "departure times may vary due to wind, ice conditions or traffic." A picture of the ferry is here:

Ups and Downs
The days leading up to the race were not filled with anticipation, however. In many ways, they were filled with dread. That's because the forecast wasn't rosy. As the weekend got closer, the predicted weekend weather continued to worsen – from a 20 percent chance of showers on Saturday (race) morning to a 30 percent chance to a 40 percent chance, and so on. By Thursday night, the forecast for Saturday morning had become, "periods of showers and thunderstorms, some of the storms could produce gusty winds. Chance of precipitation is 80 percent."

Running one marathon in the rain is tough. Running marathons on back to back weekends in the rain is the stuff that misery is made of. Given the forecast, it came as no surprise that it began pouring Friday night. Pouring might have been an understatement. You could hear the rain pounding on the roof of the adorable bed and breakfast where I stayed (more on this 165 year old farmhouse here: All I could hope was that it would rain itself out.

Running Weather (or not)…
Race day of the Green Mountain Marathon dawns, and two things are obvious. First, it's not pouring. It's not even raining. Second, it's not cold. Sure, it was gray, and there may have been some fine drizzle in the air from time to time, but the weather is more May or September than late October. It's 60 degrees. In October. In Vermont.

The course is a out-and-back (meaning you run to the halfway point, then turn around), beginning and ending at the local and adorable elementary school. What else can I say about the course? Well, it is half on dirt, half on pavement. It follows mostly rural roads. The lake is almost always visible to one side. And to the other side is some scene – a small, cute house set into the trees, a farm ringed by a white rail fence, an apple orchard – that makes you imagine the way things should be. It was that gorgeous.

But I haven't even begun to describe the leaves. You see, peak season for foliage in northern Vermont should have been two weeks ago. But when the temperatures refused to cool down, the trees refused to turn on their brilliant show. So the peak came late.

I'm not sure any pictures would do it justice. You can not re-create this scene using technological means. In some places, it was as if certain trees were picked to be certain shades. In other cases, it was as if someone had simply tossed paint at random. It was that kind of perfection.

Since everyone could use a little slice of Vermont, look at these pictures:

After the race, the refreshments were so distinctly Vermont, it was as if the race was crawling into my soul. Last week in the much-ballyhooed Denver race, finishers were treated (?) to a power bar and a stale bagel. That may be Colorado's way of treating visitors. It isn't Vermont's. Inside the adorable elementary school gym, tired runners were offered fresh Vermont apples, fresh cider donuts (if you don't know what a cider donut is, you're missing one of the best things in life), and unpasteurized apple cider, complete with sign warning that children and the elderly should not drink it because of the possibility of harmful bacteria. If you've never had fresh unpasteurized apple cider, I will describe it to you this way… forget it, I can't. Just imagine heaven in a glass. I happened to have four.

The fresh Vermont apples were so delicious that I wound up buying ten pounds of them at the orchard that was located just beyond the school. Six pounds made it back to D.C., and you can smell them from fifteen feet away. I may never be able to eat a months-old, cold-stored, grocery-produce-section apple again. Like Vermont itself, there is no comparison.

By Saturday night, all the clouds had given way to a canopy of stars and the sound of the lake lapping lightly at the shore. The clouds had completely cleared by Sunday morning, leaving a blissful blue sky and temperatures that sang late June much more than they did late October. I need not expand on the scene coming south down the Adirondack Northway. Let's just say glistening peak foliage and leave it there, because it just doesn't seem fair to gloat any further.

…I suppose you might be interested in the results of the actual race. As you might expect, it's kind of hard not to be exhilarated by the scenes described above. I can't say whether it was the cleanliness of the air, the sight of the lake, the smell of autumn with the feel of summer, the sound of geese in their patented v-formation, the rustling of the leaves, the mooing of the cows or the foliage that drew your attention and made you want to come closer… It might have been all of those and it might have been none of those, but the result was this – six days after running in the rain in Denver, I finished my second marathon of the week in 3:28:43, my sixth best time ever (out of 113).

I just so happened to look at the upcoming forecast for Grand Isle County . Tucked into the predictions for the coming weekend – "chance of rain or snow."

Wishing you a very Vermont (that is to say, "ideal and perfect") day.

1 comment:

Yellow Scuba said...

I am so completely sold on this race!! Oh, my goodness. I love Rob's report style, and hope you'll share more of them in the future. Congratulations on a great race, Rob. I felt like I was in VT, which happens to be one of my very favorite places. :)