Fueled by pizza and cheese puffs, Maine native wins grueling 500 mile Vermont race — on foot

Posted June 18, 2014, at 2:29 p.m.
Last modified June 19, 2014, at 10:59 a.m.
Maine native Kale Poland celebrates completing and winning the grueling Peak 500 ultra marathon earlier this month in Vermont.
Courtesy of Peak Races
Maine native Kale Poland celebrates completing and winning the grueling Peak 500 ultra marathon earlier this month in Vermont.
Courtesy of Peak Races
Kale Poland's feet swelled two sizes over his nine days of running the Peak 500 Ultra Marathon.
Courtesy of Peak Races
Kale Poland's feet swelled two sizes over his nine days of running the Peak 500 Ultra Marathon.

For some, the idea of sitting behind the wheel and driving 500 miles is an exhausting thought.

Now, imagine stepping out of that car and racing 500 miles, under your own power, on your own two feet, up and down a mountain over and over again.

Last month, Turner native and ultra-runner Kale Poland did just that, averaging more than 50 miles a day in the Peak Ultra 500-Mile Race held in the Green Mountains of Pittsfield, Vermont.

In its three-year history, only four of the more than 50 people who registered to compete have completed the race within the 10-day cutoff limit. That short list includes Poland, who crossed the finish line in first place this year on June 1 in nine days.

“In theory and on paper, any ultra-runner can look at this race and say, ‘50 miles a day, I should be able to do that in 10 to 14 hours a day,’” Poland said earlier this week from his Laconia, New Hampshire home. “So, yeah, on paper it looks easy.”

The reality, he said, was quite different.

“Once the fatigue set in, it was all you could do to get those 50 miles a day in,” he said. “It was brutal.”

For nine days, Poland, who works as a bicycle mechanic at MC Cycle & Sport in Laconia, ran, hiked and slogged his way up and over the 10-mile loop and 2,400-foot vertical climb.

“Over the course of the whole 500 miles, we climbed Everest four-and-a-half times,” Poland said. “There was a total of 120,000 feet of course elevation.”

In the process, Poland went through eight pairs of running shoes, and his feet became seriously infected due to blisters and chafing.

It rained during the first 30 hours of the race and, despite changing his shoes and socks every lap, his feet were never really dry.

“Swelling feet is normal for the most part,” he said. “But mine swelled a little more toward the end because they got infected after I got blisters.”

Poland knows he should have taken better care of his feet — which grew two sizes during the race — but he did not want to lose that time.

“Those last two days of the race I was sick of dealing with my feet,” he said. “You could spend about two hours a day dealing with your feet, and that’s a lot of time. To be honest, I just did not want to do that, so I slacked off.”

Poland’s feet are still recovering, but he did say he felt good enough to go for a long run just a week after finishing the Peak.

“Yeah, they still look really gross with peeling blisters,” he said. “But I am able to get back into regular running shoes, and I’ve been running daily.”

His feet were not the only thing to take a beating. During the race, Poland got only two to fours of sleep between 50-mile laps.

Poland said his laps tended to finish around midnight, at which point he’d grab two hours or so on a cot in the race “barn,” a cabin that served as the event’s base camp.

“I was the only one there without a crew,” Poland said. “Everyone else was in a camper or stayed at a hotel in between the laps and got to sleep on real beds and take showers.”

Eschewing fancy energy drinks and snacks, Poland relied on a race diet of what he called “real food,” like pizza, cheeseburgers, cheese puffs and macaroni and cheese, to provide the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he figures he burned each day.

It was the same diet that fueled Poland through other extreme races.

In 2012, Poland completed the World Cup Ultratriathlon Challenge in Monterrey, Mexico, a so-called “decatriathlon” equivalent of 10 Ironman triathlons in one shot.

“This race was different than the ‘deca’ which, for the most part, I hated the entire time I was doing it,” he said. “This [Peak 500] race was doing something I really loved — hiking — and from that mental standpoint it was easier because it was more enjoyable.”

Enjoyable despite the fact that the hiking at times was over very steep and rugged terrain, often bushwhacking over trails marked only by flagging tape.

“There were some ridiculously steep parts,” Poland said. “When you left that barn — I am not kidding — it was completely vertical for the first mile and half, and I remember thinking, ‘I have to do this 49 more times.’”

Poland did end up getting some outside support thanks to a runner he met on the course.

“Mark Jones is a local guy from Pittsfield and he ran a lap with me and we hit it off,” Poland said. “After that, he coordinated people to help me, to run with me and he even washed my socks at one point. This dude’s the man.”

Clearly, a race like the Peak 500 is not for everyone.

“These are really a special breed of people,” Doug Drotman, media spokesman for the event, said. “These are people who have done marathons and triathlons are now looking for something more to quench that competitive thirst.”

For winning the Peak 500, Poland was presented a walking stick and a belt buckle.

“I did it for the experience, and it was really worth it,” he said. “Not because I won, but it was being out there in the woods with the owls hooting at you and seeing bear tracks [and] I would think, ‘How lucky I am to be able to do this stuff?’”

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