Practice makes perfect, but not quite if you’re running a 100-mile race. Just ask Andre Blumberg, who completed the Vermont 100  at the weekend, his second 100-miler in three weeks.
“They don’t get easier,” says Blumberg, 43, a Hong Kong-based German IT director who has chalked up an impressive resume of trail ultramarathons in the past couple of years.
The Vermont 100 – set in West Windsor in Vermont, the New England state famous for its maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s – is one of the original 100-mile runs in the US and part of the four-race Grand Slam of Ultrarunning .
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the event, which was created as a fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, an organisation that provides sports and recreational opportunities to the disabled or handicapped.
What makes the event really unique is that horses race alongside participants on a similar course. The loop starts and finishes at Silver Hill Meadow, and consists of 70 per cent dirt of jeep roads, with the rest on woods trails (and a couple of miles on pavement). There are few stretches that are flat; runners find themselves either going up or down most of the time, for a total elevation gain (and equal descent) of about 4,500 metres.
Participants get 30 hours to complete the challenge. Those who do it under 24 hours get a buckle; those who take a bit longer get a plaque.
Blumberg earned his plaque in 26 hours, 16 minutes and 42 seconds, but he says it wasn’t pretty.
“I made a lot of mistakes in this race. I underestimated the humidity. I went out too fast because I was too confident, and it pretty quickly fell apart for me. It was really just about hanging in there and soldering on.”
But Blumberg is not fussed that he didn’t get the buckle he targeted, because he’s still on course for the big goal: joining the exclusive club of finishers of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.
Having completed the legendary Western States 100  three weeks ago and now the Vermont 100, he’s halfway there. The Leadville 100  (Aug 17) in the Colorado Rockies and the Wasatch Front  (Sept 6) in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains remain.
Of the 31 who signed up to the Grand Slam challenge this year, 26 are left. Only 234 people (200 men, 34 women) have ever successfully completed the Slam, which was created in 1986. Most hail from the US; just 20 are from overseas, including only one from Asia (Japan).
Blumberg says after completing Western States, a much tougher race, in 26:37:11, he felt quite confident – and that contributed to his Vermont struggles.
“I didn’t pay [the Vermont 100] the respect it deserves. I think a 100-miler always deserves respect no matter how many you’ve done because it’s still a long way. You need to be mentally ready for it, not only physically.
“I learned a good lesson here. For the next race, I will need to spend a few more days before the race to dial-in mentally, go through my race plan, look at the course map, and read old race reports and watch YouTube videos from past competitors, to get a better appreciation of the race.”
Here, Blumberg shares more of his Vermont 100 experience.
The race finished for you at about 7am Sunday morning (7pm Hong Kong time). Within 24 hours you were on the plane back to Hong Kong and back in the office on Wednesday morning. How do you recover with the quick turnaround and all that travel?
The first thing that I did as soon as possible after the race was to get an ice bath for my feet, and another a couple of hours later. I also have a recovery drink, First Endurance Ultragen, which I’ve been using for some time and which I feel is quite good.
We skipped the awards ceremony, which was at 11am on Sunday. We got back to our accommodation at about 8am and just crashed, slept until 2pm, had a huge lunch and then started our journey home. We had to drive three hours to Boston to catch our flight to Hong Kong via New York.
The other part of recovery was between Western States and Vermont. I didn’t do a lot of running. For the first week I basically did no exercise at all. In the second week, I started with a 5km jog and did a few sessions on the treadmill and stationary bicycle in the gym. The longest runs I did were two or three 10km runs in Central Park, New York, the week before Vermont.
The first run that I did in Hong Kong after Western States I somehow went out a bit too fast and I strained my right Achilles, which was really stupid. It was actually quite painful the day after while walking to the office, so I was quite worried. Later on it subsided, but came back again during the other training runs. During the Vermont 100 race itself, it flared up as well fairly early, but, you know how it is, sometimes you just keep running and it goes away. After five to six hours, it just disappeared. After the race I felt nothing.
Vermont 100 itself was harder for me, but my body actually feels better now than after Western States.
How was the race compared to Western States?
Vermont is considered an easier course, but it’s constant up and down, and the uphills are a little too steep for me to run because I’m not fit enough. So I hiked the uphills.
I wanted to go sub-24 – obviously my first goal was to finish – so my pacing plan was laid out for that. Despite my Achilles and a tight hamstring, the first 20 miles or so was pretty much on track, and at one stage I was 34 minutes ahead of my plan. But then it started to collapse.
Obviously I hadn’t seen the course before, so it’s always difficult to come up with a plan based on paper. It was quite humid, and despite training in Hong Kong regularly I just don’t cope very well in humidity and heat. I’m much better in the cold.
The other thing was that I had stomach problems as well, which is quite unusual for me. Usually I have quite a resilient stomach. I fell into an energy hole starting around four hours into the race, and it was probably related to humidity as well. So I started walking – I hiked and walked close to 55 miles, which was really frustrating. Much later on I recovered a bit and my stomach came back. For two hours I just had water and nothing else. But I was just absolutely craving hot chicken soup, and they didn’t have any until mile 65 or so.
The other mistake I made was that once I started having stomach problems, I started switching from my powdered energy drink and water to coke. Coke is good fuel; you really feel excellent at first, but then after the sugar spike you quickly fall into the energy hole. For me, once I start using coke, I have to stick to it otherwise I really crash and burn. Normally I don’t touch coke until later in the race.
I knew the stomach would settle eventually, which it did. The last couple of hours of the race was quite good, I had a bit of a surge again, but it was little too late at that stage. So I finished below expectations but I’ve no hard feelings about it.
What do you think about, especially during those long slow miles of walking?
Time does pass very slowly when you’re struggling and it’s always a bad sign once you start looking on your watch early on in the race. Usually I don’t bother much about my watch until about midway. I do occasionally look to see how I’m going compared to my plan and my splits, but this time it felt like I was looking at my watch every couple of minutes.
At times I was looking at my watch and it was something-point-two miles. After a while I’d look at it again and it was still something-point-two miles. I thought, “Oh my god, it should be point-three or point-four by now!” That was very frustrating, especially in the final several hours during the night and early morning when everything hurts.
What I thought about was to really keep going and carry on. I didn’t run much with others. Once I knew that I wouldn’t do sub-24, I took it a bit more casually and enjoyed the scenery more. I also chatted and had a bit of a laugh with the volunteers at the aid stations.
It was very hard and compounded by the fact that this race didn’t allow participants to use music on the course. Usually I do; at Western States I used it in the night. The rules are such in Vermont because it’s also a horse race and they have safety concerns. When horses pass you or you want to pass a horse – I didn’t pass any, but on technical downhills it seems the fast runners do – you have to have communication with the rider.
It’s a great course with a super landscape that reminded me of the German countryside I grew up in, but I found the no music rule really stupid and because of that, I probably won’t do this race again.
What’s your mindset like now that you’ve reached the halfway mark of the Grand Slam challenge? Usually it’s the first half that’s harder.
It usually is, but in terms of the Grand Slam races, three and four are actually tougher. I think reality sort of set in after Western States, that the Grand Slam is actually quite difficult – and now I think even more so. If I get through this, I’ve really achieved something.
I’m still confident, I still think I can do it, but I need to pull myself together and get my act together to prepare for Leadville. I’ve looked at the stats, and I think most people attempting the Grand Slam drop out at Leadville, because it’s at a high altitude (the elevation goes up to 3,850 metres) and there are fairly tight interim cut-offs too.
The other thing is I’ll be doing the race entirely on my own. My wife, Paper, is not joining me this time so I won’t have crew. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a big disadvantage; I’ve just got to plan a bit better about what I have in my drop bags at the aid stations.
I think Leadville is really going to be the crux of the Grand Slam. If I get through it, I’m fairly confident I’ll finish the Slam.