The Vermont 50
A long ride down memory lane
Tomorrow, Sunday September 30, marks the 26th annual Vermont 50 Mile Mountain Bike Race and Ultra Run in beautiful Brownsville, Vermont. While I realize that the market has surged with ultra and endurance events of all kinds, and we have seen the sport of mountain biking—in particular—grow in popularity in recent years, this race still holds my heart.
The course covers 50 miles of gravel roads, jeeps roads, singletrack and a tiny bit of pavement with over 8000 feet of vertical and for me, a special trip down memory lane. This is the very terrain I learned to mountain bike on.
When the weather cooperates, the views are fantastic. Classic Vermont. Private landowners grant permission for the day, as hundreds of riders and runners pass through their trails, not usually accessible to the public. Multiple aid stations staffed by generous volunteers are spaced every several miles with spectators and crew cheering the racers and each other on.
Back in the day, The 50 was the culminating event of the season for those of us lucky to be in the local riding community. Before the internet, before cell phones, strava and social media, it was the stuff of legends. As far as we knew, there was nothing like it, and it felt like the ultimate goal as a mountain biker. For me, anyway.
This year marks my fifth or sixth 50 Mile, but who’s counting? And as I prepare for the day ahead by checking gear, checking times, obsessing over details, I am also reflective of the past and a bigger vision than my finishing time.
I got my first mountain bike in 1996. I was 25 years old, working at Skunk Hollow and putting myself through school. Lou Schmertz was one of my bosses, who wouldn’t shut up about mountain biking. Literally. This guy’s mission was to get people on mountain bikes, and he was relentless in his pursuit. He organized a group ride on a night the Tavern was closed (the infamous Tuesday Night Rides still exist) and he welcomed everyone, even me.
Lou taught me to mountain bike, yes. He taught lots of people. He also taught me to encourage, have fun, include, welcome and step up. It’s no wonder The Vermont 50 became one of the events he was so closely involved with. It lined up with his values of inclusion, cooperation, and fricking having so much fun riding mountain bikes all day in Vermont.
Just like the trail, life has its challenges, and Lou had his share. Riding his bike in 2002, he was hit by a car and severely injured. Recovery was slow, and while he did get on the bike again, things were never really the same. Eventually he couldn’t ride anymore, but stayed ever present in the community and as the Course Manager of The Vermont 50. He was still in the mix, around his people and the thing he loved.
After my own version of trail obstacles over the years, in 2014 I had a renewed love affair with mountain biking and my biking community. I reconnected with my local bike chapter, became a certified Mountain Bike Instructor and together with my riding partner, Liz Burdette, started coaching women, leading clinics, rides and connecting community on bikes. Lou loved this.
We had a chance to talk about it last spring when our dear friend —and Vermont 50 Mile Race Director Mike Silverman— invited me to dinner at The Skunk. He had a vision: more women in The Vermont 50, especially novices. We brainstormed ideas and ways to increase accessibility. That’s really what The 50 is about. We threw around thoughts like an extending registration, using the momentum of the growing women’s group Liz and I had started, and maybe one day to try a relay.
It was a spirited dinner and conversation, to say the least, and for those of you who know us—there were a lot of laughs. I am grateful that Lou was there, I know he was so happy to see me on my bike and continuing to practice what he taught me.
Last September, after a Race Committee meeting, the Monday night before The 50, Lou Schmertz died in his home.
He was a clydesdale of a man. A loving father, a beloved son and brother, friend and mentor to many. It was quite a week leading up to that race. There was an emotional Tuesday Night Ride, time for music, family and friends at The Skunk's open mic on Wednesday, and a couple of days to get the course ready.
I had been anxious in the days leading up to the race, as one is. I hadn’t done the event in a decade, I was self-involved and performance oriented. Lou’s passing changed that and reminded me to focus on what is truly important to me when it comes to mountain biking: have fun, be nice.
I’m not fast, or necessarily rad. I won’t be winning this race tomorrow. But I will be the one smiling at you when you pass me, riding in the back of the pack on purpose and cheering for you when you make it to the top of the hill.
This year, The Vermont 50 is piloting a Women’s Relay option and I am proud to have been part of this idea. I’ll be riding on one of seven teams of women splitting the distance. I know most of them personally and ride with them often, the majority haven’t done anything like this before and are feeling the nerves. I cannot wait to celebrate their accomplishments with them.
My friend Lou has moved on, but I— and so many others —carry with us his contagious enthusiasm, his love for community, and his belief that everyone should be playing in the woods.
I’ll see you tomorrow, Lou. Thank you.
Here are some links to read more about
The Vermont 50 Mile http://vermont50.com/
The Skunk Hollow Tavernhttp://www.skunkhollowtavernvt.com/
Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sportshttps://www.vermontadaptive.org/
Or to check out what Liz and I are up to https://www.facebook.com/groups/1742285652699788/