The Jay Mountain Marathon: Like None You’ve Run Before
When was the last time you really challenged yourself? I’m not talking about making the leap from running a five-km road race to a half-marathon.
Posted Wednesday, 11 January, 2006
I’m talking about walking up to the edge of a cliff and deciding to jump off, or more specifically, lining up for an early morning race and hoping you’ll make it back in time for dinner. Welcome to the Jay Mountain Marathon, just one part of a weekend full of events that is the Jay Challenge.
Conceived in 2002 by race director Dan DesRosiers, this event has grown tremendously over the past few years, attracting hardcore endurance junkies from across the U.S. Although the race is listed as a marathon, it’s actually 30.5 miles of mud, mountains and mayhem. How else can you describe a course that includes numerous river crossings, deep mud, a sand pit, a trip up and down Jay Peak, and through brush so thick you figure you can’t possibly be on the right trail? Sure enough however, there are the course markings.
The journey to northern Vermont doesn’t reveal what is about to transpire. Gently rolling hills, farmland, dense woodlands and traffic-free roads induce a state of pre-race relaxation. Jay Peak looms on the horizon, closer to Montreal than to Boston. Although not impressive in stature, at least compared with mountains in the western part of the U.S., or even many in New England, one statistic of which skiers are aware does impress: Jay Peak averages 355 inches of snow annually! That’s a lot of snow, and come springtime and into summer that means one thing: mud.
Arriving at the race venue gets the adrenaline churning. Vehicles are parked everywhere, loaded down with kayaks and mountain bikes. Each entrant is on the scene to test him or herself. Race director Dan DesRosiers is always around, directing volunteers, teasing veteran racers, and welcoming newcomers. Once you’ve met Dan he’ll always remember you and you’ll have a friend for life. He loves the athletes that come up here and compete in what is essentially his backyard.
The marathon is just one part of the endorphin fest Dan has lined up. On Friday there is a 26-mile paddle on Lake Memphremagog; Saturday is the 30.5-mile run; and Sunday brings a 65-mile mountain bike race with 10,000 feet of climbing! Usually mountain bikers have a look of confidence and even a bit of cockiness going into a race. Not here. They are very quiet and subdued before the race, probably wishing they were home in bed. It is one long day.
There are a few athletes that race all three days; the event is called the Jay Challenge. If you complete all three events you have my ultimate respect—and that of many others as well. Many consider it, but common sense usually prevails. Each event in and of itself is quite difficult. To compete three days in a row is like earning your master’s degree in pain management during one weekend. I wonder what becomes of the competitors that finish the Jay Challenge each year. Does it inspire them to even greater endeavors in life, or does it send them home shattered?
The marathon starts in a small field in front of the host hotel next to a general store, great for picking up last minute supplies, such as Gatorade, Powerbars and Ibuprofen. Runners mill about trading snappy banter and tales of previous year’s races. Most of the field opts to wear gaiters to keep small rocks and debris out of their shoes. It helps to know going into the race that you’ll probably double your previous worst time in a marathon. Many a runner has gone into the event looking to smoke the course, only to end up as crumpled shell. There are very few sections on which you can run hard. You can try running in the river or airing it out on the backside of Jay Peak, but one wrong move and you’re going to crash and burn. You’ll be looking for your teeth embedded in the nearest tree trunk. It’s an endless cycle of slogging through mud and then crossing a river. It’s actually quite refreshing to immerse yourself in the water for a few seconds. Don’t plan on keeping your feet dry, and expect a few blisters. It’s almost inevitable because your feet are constantly wet.
The aid stations are terrific, manned by local volunteers. It’s advisable to carry a water bottle and refill it whenever possible. Make sure you grab some food at the aid stations as well. If you’re new to trail running, you’ll soon realize you can’t run a race like this on water and Gatorade alone. It’s important to take in a significant amount of calories along the way.
The first year my friends and I ran the race was comical. No one at the aid stations had any idea where we were on the course. Finally after more than three hours of running we were told that we were halfway. It was like getting kicked in the stomach. Were they kidding? We had thought we’d run close to 20 miles by then. Thankfully no one broke down and cried, but we all took a handful of Advil and soldiered on. One member of our group had run a 2:19 marathon not too many years earlier. He finished this race in 6:57, exactly three times his personal best. He thanked us for making him three times the man he used to be.
Somehow, just when you think you can’t run another mile, the finish line looms on the horizon. You actually hear music and people partying while you’re still in the woods. Suddenly you emerge onto the lawn and down an open field toward the finish line banner, hoping you don’t fall because your quads won’t work anymore.
False bravado or blind ambition—either way it really is quite an experience. The scenery is spectacular, the terrain is challenging and the race committee is first class. Take on one event or all three and laugh—or cry—about it all year.