The Green Mountain National Forest is a serine, exquisite slice of untouched American wilderness. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1847 that the pines and hemlocks “stand like druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.” Beneath the forest’s quiet, misty canopy, however, wages a constant battle for survival amongst towering Aspen and Spruce trees, hazelnut and blueberry shrubs, coyotes and black bears; all vying for the same sunlight, water, and energy sources to make it another day.
Within that canopy, in the Pittsfield, Vermont, foothills of the Green Mountains, you’ll find the 47-year-old Michelle Roy. Since 2014, her purpose in the woods has been to complete the Peak 500. On one hand, it’s just a footrace. But on the other, it’s a 500-mile celebration of human ability and outright masochism. It’s no surprise that only four people have ever completed it.
Roy is not one of those four people. Despite an impressive ultrarunning resume, she has tried and come up short three years in a row. Yet next year she’ll be out there again. It’ll be her fourth attempt to run 500 miles. You might see this as a staggering pursuit for a person who only picked up the sport in 2005 and ran her first marathon in an unimpressive 7 hours, 30 minutes. You might wonder what she’s trying to prove. Or more importantly, who is she trying to prove it to?
“I started to challenge myself to do things that are so difficult I may not be able to finish them.”
Michelle Roy grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, about 150 miles southeast of Pittsfield. “I was never really into team sports,” she says. “Growing up, I gravitated toward hiking and mountain biking and what I used to call ‘adventuring.’” She’d walk all over town, sometimes just following the train tracks to see where they’d take her. She grew up to be a middle school teacher with a “live simply and leave no trace” philosophy. She’s committed to a zero-budget classroom, giving her supplies money back to the school district’s superintendent and using exclusively recycled and repurposed teaching materials.
“I guess I would describe myself as a teacher, a dumpster diver, and an ultrarunner,” Roy says. “My perfect life would be living off the grid on a mountain that I could run on every day. I enjoy 10 days in the wild wearing the same clothes and not showering.”
In 2005, Roy ran her first marathon. She was 34, and only just discovering her passion for the trail. Over the next couple years, she racked up tens of trail-running finishes in distances up to 50 miles. She even set her sights on the legendary Barkley Marathons, one of the toughest endurance events on Earth.
Then, in 2010, life dealt a couple massive blows. She was diagnosed with cancer over the Christmas holiday, and the man she’d been dating left, along with his three kids whom Roy had grown fond of. “One moment I was taking the kids to the Polar Express,” she says. “And the next I was moving from a home filled with children to a single room over a garage.”
Roy gave away most of her possessions and had surgery that January. And instead of letting the setbacks leave her crippled, she decided to use them as a source of strength. So she signed up for the Peak Winter Death Race, the sadistic obstacle race created by Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena. Roy showed up with four hummus sandwiches and little cold weather gear, and she managed to finish second overall as the only woman racing.
From there, she did six Peak Death Races (which no longer run) and three Peak Snowshoe 100 events. “When I found Peak races I started to challenge myself to do things that are so difficult I may not be able to finish them,” Roy says.
Her rising star landed Roy a spot in the Barkley Marathons in 2015. She didn’t finish the hellish 100-mile Tennessee course, but then again, none of the year’s 40 entrants did. It was through this process of self-discovery that Roy became fixated on ridding herself of a willful albatross: the Peak 500.
“Through these so-called ‘failures,’ I came to understand myself as an athlete and, honestly, as a person.”
Nick Bautista, one of the Peak 500’s four all-time finishers, wrote in 2015 that returning to Pittsfield for the race “was like visiting an old friend with whom I had an intimate and complicated relationship.” Another finisher, Kale Poland, calls the race an extreme mental vacation. "When you’re running for 20 hours a day, you can only think about food, water, sleep, and you don’t have to give a shit about your email," he says.
Gearing up for her first Peak 500 attempt in 2012, Roy was prepared to suffer. “To run 500 miles in 10 days ... you must be okay with being cold, hot, wet, sunburnt,” she says. “All of this can happen in a 10-day period in Vermont.”
On her first try, Roy made it 370 miles before running out of time. So the second time, she pushed herself harder, running as far as she could without resting. “When I hit 100 miles I slept,” Roy says. “Then I tried to do 50 miles a day after that.” But it didn’t work out. She eventually succumbed to exhaustion and sickness. The following year she burst a cyst that forced her to drop out again. “I cried a little, had my mini breakdown, and then I had to get up and take those steps back onto the trail, pain or not,” Roy says.
Between Peak races, Roy runs ultras throughout the year, and commutes to and from work on foot. She’s had the same two pair of running shorts and cold-weather pants for seven years, and she has no intention of replacing them.
She’s not one for finisher’s medals—she deliberately quit one Death Race just before the finisher’s skulls were handed out; she says she’s tired of the “accumulation of things to define strength and resilience.”
“You wouldn’t know what she’s accomplished because she doesn’t post about it,” Poland says. “Not many of us multi-day racers are doing it for the ego.” In that way, Roy’s lifestyle shares more with the cold, wet, necessary survivalism of the forests that inspire her than she does with our instantly gratifying, climate-controlled society. She’s not out there for the medal. She’s there for the fight. “Through these so-called ‘failures,’ I came to understand myself as an athlete and, honestly, as a person,” she says.
So why’s Roy coming back to the Peak 500? To prove to herself yet again that she’s meant to exist on the brink of human ability in the most adverse of conditions. That’s what drives her. She’s not trying to beat anyone in the woods, and that’s what makes her nearly unbeatable. She just knows she belongs there.