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R.I. ultramarathoner runs into thunderstorms, hallucinations on Vermont’s Long Trail

Jeremy Howard of Little Compton made it within 14.6 miles of his 273-mile goal and raised $10,000 for The Play Brigade

Jeremy Howard, of Little Compton, R.I., on the Long Trail in Vermont.
Jeremy Howard, of Little Compton, R.I., on the Long Trail in Vermont.Courtesy of Jeremy Howard

PROVIDENCE — Temperatures soared into the 90s during the day and plunged into the 40s at night.

One of his shoes ripped, and thunderstorms drenched him, leaving his feet waterlogged and swollen.

Still, he kept running, plodding through the fog, going without sleep until the hallucinations began.

Rhode Island ultramarathon runner Jeremy Howard was on track to beat the fastest known time on Vermont’s Long Trail without assistance. But the unforgiving conditions eventually took a toll on his mind and body, stopping him 14.6 miles from the end of the 273-mile course.

“I was going after this thing hard and on pace to do it,” Howard told the Globe on Friday. “But it would not have been safe.”

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While he is a dedicated, goal-oriented athlete, he said he came away from the ordeal more grateful than disappointed. “It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had,” he said.

Howard, 49, of Little Compton, R.I., set out to break the record while raising money and awareness for The Play Brigade, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to creating inclusive opportunities in play, recreation, and sports. About $10,000 has been raised so far.

Howard said he was inspired along the route by hearing the stories of “trail ambassadors” – people with various disabilities who were nominated by friends or family to support him mentally along the way. Each day of the trek, he received their stories via text to boost his spirits.

And now, volunteer runners will be finishing the last 14.6 miles of the run for him as they continue to raise awareness and funds for The Play Brigade.

Howard’s journey began at 6 a.m. Thursday, June 16, when he stepped onto the Long Trail at Vermont’s border with Canada.

For the first two days, the weather was perfect, he said, and he remained on pace to beat the unsupported fastest known time — 5 days, 23 hours, 48 minutes — set by Jeff Garmire in July 2019.

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But heat baked the trail on the third day. While Rhode Islanders are accustomed to ocean breezes, it can can “incredibly hot and humid” in Vermont, he said. “It got pretty toasty.”

On the fourth night, a bank of thunderstorms rolled in. He had just a few minutes to grab a tarp and ball up under a tree before the downpour began.

By that point, one of his shoes had ripped, and with the rain soaking the trail for 30 hours, his feet ended up waterlogged and swollen.

As the miles ticked by, he slept less and less – about six hours the first day, then four, then two. For the last 25-hour stretch, he said, he went without sleep.

“I had taken trail-side naps and got only about 13 hours of sleep over five days,” he said. “I found myself in a dangerously vulnerable mental capacity.”

Simple tasks, like packing his bag, became incredibly difficult. “It’s like you are stuck in mud and don’t know how to get out of the mud,” he said.

At some points during the last two nights, he thought he saw a person or an animal or a shelter up ahead — but they weren’t really there. “Hallucinations had become normal,” he said.

He ended up losing his glasses, so it was tough to use his phone to navigate with GPS, and he dropped his paper map. “The last night was a comedy of errors,” he said.

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With less than 15 miles to go, he realized he was wobbling on the trail, and when he reached a peak in the dark on a cold night, he knew it was not safe to continue.

He picked up his phone and saw that the battery was at 3 percent. Still, he managed to reach his wife, and they met at a road crossing.

The race ended for Howard at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22.

When his feet are healed, he plans to complete the 14.6 miles later this summer. Meanwhile, anyone wishing to donate, or sign up to help Howard finish the last leg of his run, can do so here.

Now back home in Little Compton, Howard said it was a “privilege” to undertake the challenge.

“And to do so with the support, and in the name of those that don’t have that luxury, is far bigger than any missed time goal,” he said. “I am forever indebted to the ambassadors and their families who brought meaning to my efforts. While my challenge may end, theirs is ongoing. My respect for them is immeasurable and beyond words.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.