B y Bill Toscano
John Ehntholt stood at the starting line in the dark.
It was 4 a.m., July 21, and when the starting gun sounded, Ehntholt would be 100 miles and, as it turned out, 20 hours and 30 minutes from the finish line.
Ehntholt, a Granville native who is a certified welder and fabricator at Rozell Industries in Queensbury, is a veteran ultramarathoner, having run more than a half-dozen races longer than 26.2 miles, and this particular challenge was the Vermont 100, held July 21 in West Windsor, Vt.
He said people most often ask him what the toughest part of the race was.
“My low point in the race? I remember it vividly,” he said. “Somewhere around mile 68 of this 100-mile adventure.
“I had felt good early on in the race, being patient, then made a move at mile 14 put myself in 15th place overall by mile 22, only for my stomach to start feeling bad about mile 30. But I climbed out of that hole and was feeling good after 48 miles. I was thinking, wondering, dreaming, of what my finish time could be if I stayed strong like I felt again.”
Then, just past the 62-mile aid station, the course had a tough, three-mile climb.
“I could feel myself going back to my ‘hurt locker’ again. I tried to keep it in check, but my stomach was a mess again and my energy level was going downhill as my body was going uphill.”
That brought him to the 68-mile point.
“ Coming down a steep dirt road in the open sun, my body decided it had had enough of the food I ate over an hour ago and it forced me to stop as I has heaving badly to throw up. There was nothing there though. I could taste the blood in my mouth as I stopped heaving. I spit into my hand so I could see the blood in my spit and then whipped in on my shorts. I heaved again and a little bit of something came out. It looked like a blood clot is all I could think of. It felt like I was throwing up my own stomach.”
Ehntholt pulled himself together.
“I started running again and about a quarter mile down the road it all started happening again. I’m in the left lane of this dirt road still. My back is humped up as my body tries to throw up once again, so much so that my right calf begins to cramp. But success this time as a big wad of pineapple goes to waste in the road. But it’s all red now, dark red pineapple mixed in with the blood that was no doubt in my stomach for some reason.”
“I sense a runner going by and he asks if he can do anything to help me … I reply ‘no,’ and he says something as he continues onward. I look at him going down the road and there is a car coming my way. I stand up and wipe my chin, walk to the side of the road and begin running again after the car goes by.”
The Vermont 100 is one of the original 100-mile runs established in the U.S. and benefits Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. VASS also benefits from the Vermont 50, which is scheduled for Sept. 30.
The race, held on a hilly course over back roads and trails, is limited to 300 runners, and those competitors must finish within 30 hours to be recognized as a finisher.
Leigh Schmidt set the course record in 2004 in 14:53:09. He also holds the 100-kilometer record in 9:35.32. Kami Semick set the women’s 100-mile record of 16:42:32, and Jacque Schiffer ran the 100K race in 13:44.29 in 2010.
This year’s winner was Brian Rusiecki, who finished in 14 hours, 54 minutes and 5 seconds.
Getting some help
Ehntholt had a two-person crew helping him during the race — Jeff Mannion of Saratoga, who served as his pace runner later in the race, and Heidi Whitney, an accomplished runner from Granville. “I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “They were giving me food and drink every eight to 22 miles along the course.”
After his struggles, he got to an aid station. He told the crew there he felt “great” and had lost only two pounds since the start. After some soup and ginger ale, he headed out with his pace runner.
“We pushed on towards the finish line. It was good to have company and someone to talk to out there after 13 hours of running so far,” he said. “Sometimes, we ran great. Sometimes, we walked slowly. I thought the long hills to be a cruel joke and began hating them oh so much. One section was so long and steep that I think a car would have to have a ladder to get up it.”
Then it got dark
At the 87-mile mark, night fell and Ehntholt started getting frustrated, but he made it to the 89-mile aid station, a barn at the top of a hill.
At least, Ehntholt thought it was the top.
“It was like a slap in the face after heading out of that station to find out I was not on top of a mountain, that I had to head right back out and climb some more on legs that were dead long ago.” Mannion helped him get through the next 10 miles, then he saw the sign that said, “Mile 99, 1 mile to go”.
That was the key.
“We could start hearing the crowd at the finish line and as we approached it through the woods. We fought off the last guy trying to catch us. I just ran towards the lights and had this vision of standing underneath the finish line with both of my hands raised in victory not even caring about my time or what place I was in,” Ehntholt said.
A very busy man
Ehntholt, whose best marathon time is 2:48.25, which he ran in the Boston Marathon in 2008, is a former national-level competitor in karate. He is a second-degree black belt and retired in 2000. Ehntholt won a silver medal at the AAU National Championships in 2000 and has a gold and a bronze from the Goju-Ryu world championships.
He had been a runner before focusing on karate and returned to the sport in 2002. He has run 100-milers before, and finished one in 17:33:20 in Umstead, N.C., in 2010. That same year he finished a 50-miler in Canandaigua Lake in 6:34.25. He also completed 47.23 miles in a six-hour race in 2009 in Buffalo. In terms of shorter races, he has done a 17:33 five-kilometer race, ran a 29:41 five-miler and finished a 10-kilometer race in 37:26.
He has won 24 road and trail races, seven of them ultradistance races ranging from 50 kilometers (31 miles) to 50 miles. He is in his sixth year of ultramarathoning.
“Ultras can be humbling and have a way of stripping you down to bare bones. But, they also have a way of making you feel bulletproof,” he said. It can be a double edged sword.”