I
t was around around mile 23 of the Vermont 50 that I thought about the duck. I’d read in On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee that the common green-headed mallard stores as much as a third of its carcass weight in fat for fuel and insulation so it can fly continuously for hundreds of miles. Deliriously, I envied this duck and wondered what it ate and how often. Hummingbirds, it turns out, double their weight during pre-migration feeding, or hyperphagia. As I sipped from the sports nutrition mix in my bottle, I thought of what could have been if only I had taken to heart the experience of migratory birds. They like to fly to warm places and mate. So do I. And there’s plenty of talk about using fat instead of carbohydrates as fuel during ultra-distance races. I had eaten but one slice of apple pie after dinner the night before.

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The Vermont 50 mountain bike and ultra run was founded in 1993 by Laura Farrell, also founder of the Vermont 100 (one of the four most prestigious 100-mile runs in the United States), and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a non-profit that provides sports opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities; in short, two races and an organization with soaring aspirations. 2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the the race, and more than 1,000 competitors — roughly two-thirds of them on mountain bikes — came to pound out some miles at Ascutney Mountain Resort in Brownsville and the surrounding towns. The expo the day before the race was indicative of the overall feel of the event: small-town but serious, with vendors like Suunto, Salomon and Karhu, plus free local ice cream from a truck called The Lazy Cow.

To simply call this race a 50 miler is to ignore its chief characteristic: hills. Garvin Hill. Scott Hill. Densmore Hill. French Hill. Verdun Hill, Blood Hill and Rowe Hill. The Vermont 50 route alternates between roads, dirt trails and single-track as it passes through Windsor, Hartland and South Woodstock, all the while accumulating 8,900 feet of vertical. That’s roughly the equivalent of climbing Mount Washington twice over the course of a 50 mile race. But if anyone was suffering from the hills, they did so silently, likely because the challenge of the course was offset by excellent event organization and the sights of the bucolic Vermont countryside during peak foliage season. Tears of pain only cloud a leaf-peeper’s eyes.

Tears of pain only cloud a leaf-peeper’s eyes.

The winner of the 50-mile run, David Le Porho from Montreal, finished in a staggeringly quick 6:09:31, almost a half hour ahead of the nearest competitor and more than four hours ahead of me. His pace was 7:24/mile. A handful of people finished just before and after the official cutoff of 12:00:00. And of course plenty of people didn’t make it across the line this time because of injury or exhaustion or the realization that running such a long way is an unusual way to spend a day.

It is a worthwhile one. We are not ducks or hummingbirds, and even if the experience of migratory birds ends up shedding only a little light on our own use of fat and mating habits (it might), attempting a long haul like the Vermont 50 asks that we reconsider what we thought was possible, what we might be capable of, and that even if we sit at desks in front of sophisticated machines most days, it’s possible to enjoy long bouts of prehistoric recreation on others. At the very least, crossing the finish line after a long race is good justification for the first of many large dinners, this one a paper plate of barbecue chicken and grilled pork belly.

This is where you pick up a pencil and start taking notes, duck.

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