A month has passed since Kyle Robidoux took his final strides uphill, stepped across the finish line of the Vermont 100 and was engulfed in a raucous round of applause, hugs, and tears from a few dozen friends, well-wishers, and fellow finishers.
It was Sunday morning, July 16. He’d just run 100 miles.
He needed a chair to sit down. Not long after, he’d enjoy a cold celebratory beer and collect his first belt buckle that he earned for his 28 hours, 11 minutes and 53 seconds of perseverance on the singletrack trails and dirt country roads of rural Vermont.
“It does feel surreal to a certain extent,” said Robidoux, 41, who lives in Roxbury, Mass. “I always have to remind myself, ‘hot damn, I just ran 100 miles, and I’m still alive!’ It’s something that I worked toward for six months, and it came to fruition and I accomplished it.”
For Robidoux, having a coveted 100-mile finisher’s buckle is a nice reward. It’s the typical American payoff for running that distance, dating back to the sport’s roots in 100-mile horse rides. Robidoux says earning the buckle won’t be his lasting memory of the race, however. He has Rehtinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has caused him to gradually lose his vision. He is legally blind; he has a small field of vision during the daytime, but no vision at night. He ran all 100 miles himself, but he had a support crew, pacers, and a team of sighted guides who were with him for parts of his 100-mile journey. Most were with him at the finish line – some next to him, others waiting with first dibs on hugs.
The finish line was electric; the moment was magic. That shared celebration is what will stick with him.
“I will remember that finish, and finishing it will all my guides and crew who were there,” he said. “That was so much more important to me – that experience – than a belt buckle, because without my guides to physically get me over the trail, and the crew and pacers, there’s no way I’d be able to do that and accomplish a goal that I worked toward for six months. It makes me proud to be a part of a sport where athletes are so willing to volunteer their time to help me achieve this huge goal.”
Inspiration and Action
Robidoux was no stranger to ultramarathons prior to entering the Vermont 100. He ran nearly 55 miles at 24-Hour Around the Lake in 2014, and then completed the 100K race at the TARC 100 in 2015. In 2016, he ran the 50K race at the Vermont 50, led the first all-visually impaired team to compete in the ultra division at the Ragnar Relay, and then closed out the year by finishing the 60-mile race at Ghost Train – a race that served as his qualifier for the Vermont 100.
Still, 100 miles was just a distant idea – a temptation – until a year ago.
“In terms of my signing up for the 100, it really goes back to the previous spring where Jason Romero did his transcontinental run and ran 51 or 52 miles per day with no days off,” Robidoux said.
Romero, 47, of Denver, Colo., is legally blind and has the same eye disease as Robidoux. Visual limitations haven’t kept Romero from taking on endurance challenges that few humans would dare attempt. In the spring of 2016, Romero became the first blind person to run across the United States, and Robidoux was in awe of the accomplishment.
“That really inspired me as a peer to really push myself to sign up for a race and a distance that I wasn’t comfortable with,” Robidoux said. “That’s what got me to want to sign up for a hundred-miler.”
Robidoux planned to run the 45-mile race at Ghost Train as a qualifier for the Vermont 100, but VT100 race director Amy Rusiecki told him he would need to run the 60-mile race to have it count. Rusiecki agreed to guide Robidoux for the extra 15 miles to help him accomplish his goal, and it was there that a friendship was formed – and that the groundwork was laid for the creation of an Athletes with Disabilities Division for VT100. Rusiecki asked Robidoux what she and the race committee could do to provide a level playing field for Robidoux and other athletes with disabilities
“I said, ‘Aim for the sky and do an Athletes with Disabilities Division,’” Robidoux recalled. “During the run, she got real quiet and I could sense her brain turning on how to do this.”
A few weeks later, Rusiecki got the blessing of the VT100 race committee and an Athletes with Disabilities Division was created. In addition to providing a separate awards division, the race committee also made plans to accommodate sighted guides along the race route.
Robidoux was ecstatic. Not only would he take part in the Athletes with Disabilities Division, but Romero also planned to fly in from Colorado to compete at VT100.
The Vermont 100 started as a dream, but it was quickly becoming real.
Long Runs and Logistics
Robidoux put in the requisite training for the Vermont 100. The more complicated preparation involved building a team of crew, pacers and sighted guides, and figuring out their logistics. He needed guides for 100 miles, pacers for 30, and a crew from start to finish.
Ultimately, he assembled an all-star team. Rusiecki, Maggie Guterl, Samantha LeBlanc, Elaine Acosta, Nicole Ponte and Michelle Becker signed on to guide him. LeBlanc would also pace later in the race, as would Karin George. Robidoux’s wife, Jill Kimmel, and their daughter would crew for half the race before heading to their daughter’s triathlon. Additionally, Jeff LeBlanc and Chris Knighton committed to crewing the whole time.
His team was set; it was time to run.
It All Comes Together
At 3:50 a.m. on July 15, Robidoux stood a few feet from the starting line with Rusiecki. His face conveyed focus, ready for the battle ahead. Rusiecki grinned from ear to ear, excited to see her friend make his dream become a reality.
Rusiecki led Robidoux into the pack of runners. They made their way through the pack and found a spot near the back, hoping to avoid the early bottleneck during the early miles before the pack separated. Soon, they were on their way.
The early miles clicked away quickly, first by headlamp and then by the first rays of daybreak as a light drizzle and thick fog lifted. Robidoux and Rusiecki cruised along the smooth country roads and the abundance of downhill sections. They reached the aid station at mile 15.5 a solid 20 minutes ahead of schedule.
“I felt confident and in a good place,” Robidoux recalled of the early miles. “Amy did an incredible job guiding me, not only through the traffic, but through the singletrack and doubletrack where there were mud and puddles, and where people were trying to pass us and we were trying to pass other people.”
Guterl guided for the next 15 miles, and she and Robidoux cruised through more fast downhills. Robidoux chatted with other runners as the miles flew by. He felt good, but he eventually began developing blisters on his feet from the wet, muddy early miles. Additionally, the hard pounding of the rock-based country roads gradually took its toll on his knees.
“Probably 30 miles in I knew that my legs were not going to hold up,” he said.
Robidoux departed the aid station at mile 30 in good spirits and with new guide Samantha LeBlanc. Robidoux dealt with deteriorating blisters through that stretch, which included a few hot miles on pavement, but LeBlanc kept him moving steadily ahead. He was particularly excited to reach mile 47, the Camp Ten Bear aid station, where dozens of his friends in the Trail Animals Running Club were volunteering.
“There is nothing better than rolling into your local trail community and having them staff this fantastic aid station,” he said. “They make you feel like a rock star. People were loud and supportive, and they boosted my energy tenfold.”
While the Trail Animals gave Robidoux an emotional boost, a medic tended to his battered feet. His first blister burst during the previous stretch of miles, and a few more were forming.
“I’ve never had issues with blisters, and I was starting to get concerned,” he admitted.
The medics patched up his feet, his crew fed him, Robidoux changed his socks, and then he and Acosta headed out for an 11-mile trek to the next aid station. A few miles out of Camp Ten Bear, they passed a sign that said “49.8 miles to go.” That made the task ahead sink home.
“By then I was toast on the hills,” he said. “My lack of climbing and elevation training caught up to me quickly. I did a lot of road hill repeats to condition my legs, but it did not condition my respiratory system. For the first time I had to stop mid-climb to take a breather, even though my legs felt decent.”
Robidoux entered the Vermont 100 with hopes of finishing in less than 24 hours, and for much of the day he was ahead of that pace. Between the blisters, tired lungs and an achy knee, his pace slipped. He was still on pace to finish sub-24 when he reached the Margaritaville Aid Station at mile 58, he said, but he knew those chances were about to slip away.
Ponte took over the pacing duties at Margaritaville, and she guided Robidoux through a grueling 11-mile stretch back to Camp Ten Bear. His body was done.
“Miles 60-70 were just brutal,” he said. “It took me about four hours to go those 10 miles. I never thought about dropping, but I was ready for it to be done. That’s when it became aid station to aid station mode.”
That new focus may have helped break the race into shorter segments to focus on, but each segment had its own cruelty to it. The Vermont 100 course has numerous climbs during the second half of the race, and many of the aid stations rest at the end of a long climb. LeBlanc jumped in to pace Robidoux to mile 76 while Ponte continued to guide. After a few more climbs, they reached Spirit of ’76 and turned Robidoux over to Becker and George who would guide and pace Robidoux the final 24 miles.
Most of the next four miles were downhill, which made Robidoux’s feet and knees scream as he trudged ahead. It was pitch black running through the thick tree cover at night, and he counted on Becker and George to keep him moving forward and upright. He was battling hard mentally with a long way to go.
“I hit mile 80, and that’s when it started to feel real,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to do this! I can grind out a 20-mile finish. It may take a while, but I can get this done.’ That was the first time I let my mind wander to think I was going to do this.”
The final 20 miles were a grind with lots of power hiking and plenty of trust in Becker and George. Robidoux watched his second sunrise of the race before arriving at Polly’s Aid Station, mile 94.5, at 6:16 a.m. He had been going for more than 26 hours. This was the final stop before the finish line.
“It felt good coming out of Polly’s. I could taste it (the finish line),” he said. “My knee really wasn’t allowing me to run, but I ended up just crushing a power hike to the point where I was almost running but was still walking. I passed a couple runners and felt really good.”
After about two miles on dirt roads, the course returned to singletrack trail for the final miles. There were some steep, muddy climbs and multiple ventures across meadows. It was scenic but slow. The technicality of the trail and the crankiness of his knee slowed his pace, but soon he could hear the finish line in the distance.
“About a mile out, that’s where you start to feel it,” he said.
Robidoux stopped about a quarter-mile from the finish line and sent George ahead to gather the rest of his crew and pacers. He wanted them to share the final strides with him. A few minutes later, Robidoux was officially a 100-mile finisher.
“For me, part of the feeling when I finished was sense of accomplishment, it’s everything off your shoulders,” he said. “But it’s also a sense that I spent six months – if not longer – working toward this goal, and not only running, but also talking about it with my wife and family and friends, and recruiting and scheduling my guides. Any time you put in that kind of commitment, it’s part relief and part pride that you accomplished it.”
Slow Recovery; More Miles Ahead
Recovery has been slow. He couldn’t flex his left knee past the 20-degree point for two weeks after the race. As a precaution, he recently had an X-ray that revealed plenty of tenderness and swelling and showed that his kneecap was slightly tilted forward. There was no damage, however, and he receive the go-ahead to start running again.
He hopes the knee will calm down enough to allow him to increase his mileage soon. After all, he has another 100-miler coming up in October. He is returning to Ghost Train in New Hampshire – the site of his Vermont 100 qualifier last year – and he hopes to finish 100 miles in less than 24 hours.
Will he return to the Vermont 100 in the future? It’s possible. As a visually impaired athlete, the sounds of Vermont tantalized his ears.
“I don’t have a favorite section, but I’d say 80 percent of that course ran along some body of water, whether it’s a river or brook,” he noted. “As I’m becoming more audio-centric than visual, I just love being out there hearing the trickle of the water. That was a really rich, really enjoyable experience.”
That said, while he still has limited vision, there are more places he’d like to see on foot.
“Vermont was great; it’s so beautiful, and the people and the support are just wonderful,” he said. “But I am at point with my eyesight where there are so many places want to explore and see while I can.”
Get Involved: How to Create Opportunities for Athletes with Disabilities
Race directors who are interested in creating an Athletes with Disabilities Division at their hometown race and runners who are interested in becoming a sighted guide can visit UnitedInStride.com for more information. Robidoux said he has already been contacted by a few race directors since Vermont 100 who are interested in establishing an Athletes with Disabilities Division at their races, and he is happy to share suggestions.