“But…we’re in the middle of nowhere!” It was not the first time John had said those words nor would it be the last.
The bus dropped us off in Vermont outside an establishment called Zooey’s Double Hex Restaurant. It was a large wooden building next to a highway. It had a lovely flower garden, bird houses, a totem pole and a giant bronze owl. Beyond it there was nothing but forested hills and lush meadows. It was certainly a beauty spot but there was no denying its being a peculiar choice of transport hub.
“Excuse me,” John approached the bus driver. “Could you tell us which way to town?”
“About three miles that way.” He looked doubtfully at our luggage and scratched his head. “It’s a pretty long hike.”
We looked around the parking lot for signs of a taxi or local bus stop, fruitlessly.
“Well,” I sighed, “Let’s go into the restaurant. I can charge the phone and call a taxi inside.”
In we went, with our giant backpacks and sense of doom. The waitresses and diners regarded us apprehensively. Feeling like the stranger in town in a Western movie, I scanned the place for an electricity outlet. Success! We pounced on a table and ordered a coffee and pie. There was no wifi but the waitress produced a phone book with a post-it stapled to one of the pages—the only taxi in town, apparently.
Ten minutes later we were riding through the little town of Manchester: solid white wooden houses on smooth green lawns, an old cemetery, outlet stores designed to look like wooden houses on green lawns.
“So how come you’re here?” asked Rob, our spry septuagenarian taxi driver.
“I’m running a race in East Dorset tomorrow,” I said. “It’s called the Lost Cat.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Huh. Well it’s part of the East Dorset Running Festival?”
“Never heard of that either.”
“Huh, well I hope it exists!” I tittered nervously.
“So I’m guessing you’re from Britain?” he asked.
“Close,” I said, “New Zealand.”
“New Zealand!” His eyes widened. “I have family there.”
“No kidding! Whereabouts?”
“Well, I don’t remember the name of the town but my aunt Jane decided to immigrate there back in the fifties. We’re all from Scotland you see, the Highlands, and my dad and most of the family decided to immigrate to the States but Jane went to New Zealand. She visited us in the sixties and taught us Highland dancing…”
As Rob reminisced at length about Aunt Jane, I looked out at the rich houses and golf courses, hearing nothing until we got to a little motel in a picturesque spot on the edge of a little forest and surrounded by grassy marsh spotted with wildflowers.
As he pulled up, I realized that we were miles from anywhere and I had no transport.
“Um, about that race tomorrow, would you be able to drive me to Dorset in the morning?”
“What time?” he said.
“Six o’clock,” I said.
“OK, I can do that,” he agreed.
At five-thirty I pulled my clothes on, laced up my shoes and grabbed my little backpack full of provisions. I ate the oatmeal I’d left in the fridge overnight and noticed that it had icicles in it, an interesting taste sensation. Rob showed up ten minutes early and I hauled myself in, leaving John to huddle in the warm bed.
“So where are we going?” Rob asked.
“The East Dorset Town Hall on Mad Tom Road.”
“Right,” he nodded. “I looked up the race. It looks like a tough one. Goes through a marble quarry up there.”
“That’s what I heard,” I said.
“Better make sure you don’t get lost!”
“Like the cat,” I chuckled. “Well, I have a powerful whistle.”
“Good idea,” he nodded. “I myself have a real English bobby’s whistle.”
“How did you get that?” I asked, intrigued.
“Well, it’s a long story,” he began, “My mother used to work at a grand old house called Black Hole Hollow Farm on the border between New York and Vermont. It was originally built in the eighteenth century. When my mother worked there it belonged to Ivar Bryce, who married the A&P heiress Josephine Hartford O’Donnell. Have you heard of A&P?”
“I’ve heard of the A&P Fairs.”
“Well, A&P was like the first supermarket chain. The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. They were founded back in 1859 by George Gilman, and then later he passed management over to George Huntington Hartford. You could always tell an A&P store because they used to put red Chinese lanterns outside and it.”
“Ivar was a peer of the British realm, you know, a cousin of Lord Montbatten. A very sad day when he died.”
“Yes,” I murmured.
“He was also a great friend of Ian Fleming. He’d come and visit him in Vermont and wrote some of his books there. Word is that Bryce got Fleming a job at the BSC.”
“It was a sort of British secret service unit in World War II, based out of New York. But they used to have secret meetings here in Vermont, at the house.”
“Huh! I guess it makes sense, they could pretend to be playing golf and stuff.”
“Yes. And riding. The Lady, Josephine Hartford was very fond of horses. She bred racing horses.”
“Anyway, when Mrs. Hartford died and the house was sold, they found a secret cupboard where she kept all her love letters, and my mother was very protective of her memory, she insisted on keeping the letters private. Apart from that, everyone who worked there was allowed to take some kind of keepsake. My mother took a tin of A&P tea from 1860, oolong, which I keep in my pantry at home. My son came home last month and told me that he’d just had the best cup of tea he’d ever tried and I told him he’d just used my 150-year-old tea. But the other thing my mother took was the bobby’s whistle.”
By the time we got to Dorset, it was misty and freezing cold. I wondered if it was always like this at six o’clock in the morning and I just didn’t know it because I slept in so much. I asked Rob to come pick me up at three o’clock, hoping I’d have finished the race by then.
At the town hall, race volunteers had only just arrived and were sorting food into piles to send to various aid stations along the course. It was too early to register, so I headed to the General Store to get some coffee. It was so warm in there I lingered looking at s’mores ingredients, Vermont postcards and other knick-knacks. I bought a coffee and slunk around the store, loathe to venture back out into the chill mist. Looking out the window, I saw cars starting to arrive and people starting to gather around. Finishing the coffee, I threw the cup away and headed back up the hill. Sure enough, a line had formed in front of a fold-out table and we were given T-shirts and bibs.
Standing around waiting for the race to start, I chatted with a woman who’d come from Death Valley, California.
“I had the weirdest experience yesterday,” she said, “The bus dropped me off next to this restaurant, but there was nothing around! I looked for a taxi but nothing. And my hotel was four miles away. So I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m walking four miles!’”
I mentioned the same thing had happened to us and wondered exactly how often it happens on any given week in Manchester, VT. We observed how casual this race seemed to be compared to others we’d tried and suddenly realized that everyone had lined up behind us and that the race was about to start.
The first part of the course was along tree-lined gravel roads that took us past a maple-syrup farm, an apple orchard, a horse-training facility and an atmospheric bog. None of us knew where we were going in advance because the organizers had kept the course secret. One rationale for this could have been that rich property owners didn’t want too much traffic. Another might have been so that we could have a genuine ‘lost cat’ experience, wandering cluelessly through the wilderness.
At the first aid station there was a table of maple-syrup shots and I downed one in one gulp. About five minutes later I felt like a giantess and powered past a bunch of slow-pokes on a busy highway. Aware that we had some hills ahead (the directors had hinted that much), I wanted to make as much speed as I could on the downhill. We got down the road to a national park where we had to do a ‘lollipop loop’ that was a lot less pleasant than it sounds, an undignified scramble up a narrow dirt track criss-crossed with thick trip-wire roots. Chugging up the hill I was surprised and touched that a young woman stepped aside and spoke some encouraging words to me. The conditions were not conducive to kindness–most of us were in a pretty bad mood. Three cute-but-sadistic signs anticipated this, posted one after another on a particular steep bit:
Whenever I enter a race I end up in awe of the people who express kindness and encouragement in spite of the physical difficulties everyone is having. This seems like an almost unattainable level of social grace.
This forest course included a little bit of quarry—a marble slide covered in dirt and rocks. By this point, I could feel that I was reaching the peak of the maple-syrup high and that lactic acid was streaming through my legs and that there could be hell to pay, especially since we were not yet even a quarter of the way through the course.
Thankfully, the next stretch was relatively easy, a jog around the lake shore. The problem was that people were being too damn slow, fearful of roots and rocks. Remembering the South American desperadoes of my race in Patagonia, I thought they wouldn’t have been bothered by the roots the way these scaredy cats were. I dodged around them and hoped that I wouldn’t tire out and be passed by them in the near future.
There was another big hill but by this time I was buoyed by my magnificent performance around the lake. After a mouthful of gummy bears, I chugged up the hill with little trouble, reached the aid station and chomped a ripe banana.
I don’t remember a lot about what came next, except a brief feeling of euphoria and fellow feeling for everyone as we all set off downhill. The houses around us looked so pretty and the grass looked so green. The white road wound for miles through trees and pastures until we got to an aid station and I thought, ‘Can’t be long now!’
‘What race are you doing, the half-marathon?’ A kindly man with a clipboard asked me.
‘No, the marathon.’
‘Ah, OK, so you have to go down that road and then come back.’
Unaware of how many miles I’d already done, I hoped that meant it was a quick little ‘lollipop loop’ and set off optimistically down the road. To my surprise I saw two of the race leaders—the shirtless gazelle boys who’d sped off at the very beginning. They were coming back, presumably after doing the little loop, and looked tired.
When the third one passed, walking, I asked if there was far to go and he laughed bitterly.
“You could say that,” he said.
What followed was a strange experience—for about twenty minutes I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me. Then, I heard soft voices conversing, as of angels. I wondered if it was a hallucination but it turned out to be two women I’d seen earlier—they were running the whole thing side by side.
“Just one little hill and it’s over,” said one of them as they passed me.
I laughed, since the hill we’d just come down was not exactly little. In lock-step, feet crunching on the gravel in unison, they advanced into the distance. I caught up with them at the next aid station, where the girl volunteering said that they’d forgotten to bring knives so we’d have to spread peanut butter on the bread with a fork. I took a couple of pretzels and asked what mile we were at.
“About 21,” she said, and I felt a surge of hope. We all pushed off again and again the dauntless duo disappeared into the distance. I felt the familiar feeling that comes near the end of a long run, a sort of lonely melancholy that reminds of me of the dying insect in Ted Hughes’s poem “Cranefly in September”:
Aimless in no particular direction,
Just exerting her last to escape out of the overwhelming
Of whatever it is, legs, grass,
The garden, the county, the country, the world –
I tried to ameliorate the feeling with a pep-talk: ‘Well, I’m doing the best I can right in this moment’. It was demonstrably true and seemed to help.
Then came the hill. This was not bad because I met a lot of people going down who looked at me with a funny kind of respect in their eyes. I could see the dynamic duo up ahead and though I knew I probably wouldn’t catch up to them, it helped somehow to have a moving target.
At the final aid station, I saw the duo turn the corner where an arrow indicated ‘50k’.
‘What race are you doing?’ The volunteer asked.
‘The marathon,’ I said, feeling lost again.
‘You only have about a mile to go,’ she said. ‘Go along that road and take the first right, then turn left where you see the arrow.’
I followed her directions and eventually found myself in what looked like a dry riverbed, a stony, rubbly slide of definite ankle-breaking proportions. This was the place in the race where I considered swearing out loud but decided against it because I suddenly saw someone sitting on the ground and thought with alarm that he’d probably come to grief and I’d have to scrape up rusty memories of first-aid. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that because he jumped up and started taking pictures. I’ve never understood why people want pictures of themselves running. Maybe there are some people who look their best after 26 miles of gut-churning exertion, pouring sweat and chafing in every crevice, but I’m definitely not one of them.
It was shortly after this that I came out behind the General Store and realized there were only a couple of blocks until the finish line. Hallelujah!
I stomped out onto the flat asphalt and ran the sidewalk where some kids were ringing cowbells for every runner that passed and an elderly couple on a porch clapped encouragingly.
Back at the East Dorset Hotel, there was a gathering of kind people clapping for everyone who finished. One I reached the end a girl gave me a dog-tag and a pint glass and I wobbled over to a clear area to stretch. At that moment a man came over and gave me a coaster saying I’d finished second female in the marathon. This surprised me because I’d taken five hours and fourteen minutes, which isn’t exactly a blistering pace, but it was certainly nice to be holding some kind of prize.
I spent the next couple of hours in a shady spot by a church watching the other runners come in and eating a sandwich, feeling pleased.