Wednesday, May 25, 2011

2011 Massanutten Mountain Trail 100

2011 MMT 
After I completed the Oil Creek Trail 100 last fall I decided to set my sites on another 100 mile footrace in the spring. After all of my conversations with my friends, MMT became the choice. The Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 (MMT) is run on a rugged mountain range in north western Virginia. The run utilizes the 70 mile orange blazed Massanutten trail in George Washington National forest plus a host of other trails which connect to the trail as well as some short road sections. The orange blazed circuit encircles Fort Valley and is the trail utilized in The Ring and Reverse Ring trail runs which I completed in September and February as homework for an attempt at MMT. The course itself is considered by many to be the toughest trail race east of the Rocky Mountains. The total elevation gain for the course is 16,000 ft. which is respectable, but certainly not noteworthy. What makes the trail tough is the terrain not the topography. The mountain range in which the trail exists is literally a huge pile of rocks which you must run on and over. The race has a reputation from turning the feet of the participants into hamburger over the course of the run. Sounds like fun to me…so I got into the lottery in November and was selected at random in the initial field.

Picture of the trail at Bird Knob. That orange Ironman looking mark on the tree is a trail blaze which marks the trail for hikers and runners to follow.
(Picture stolen from Kimba’s blog. Thanks Kim.)

Race weekend kicked off by picking up my friends Eric G. and Rick F. who were also both making their first attempts at MMT. Both Rick and Eric are accomplished trail runners. The drive down was great as the conversations about the races we had completed and trails we had seen was relaxing and took my mind off the task that loomed closely on the horizon.  We arrived at race headquarters in the mid-afternoon and after setting up camp  we stuffed our bellies at the pre-race dinner. I got to socialize with my VA friends over platefuls of pasta and took some good natured ribbing about staying on course at the Strausburg Reservoir, where I got off course at the Ring last September, which resulted in a DQ by race management.
The weather had been pretty nice on the trip down but as dinner ended and we retired to our campsite the rain picked up a bit. We huddled under the canopy of the open rear hatch of the Venture-van and had some fun at each others expense. As I crawled into the van to attempt to sleep, a whippoorwill in the woods behind our campsite started his nighttime song. One of the things that MMT is known for is the activity and song of these birds at nighttime which is unique to this time of year. It was really neat for about an hour, and then the novelty wore off. I did manage to get in two 1-hour naps during the night between being awakened by potty breaks, tent zippers, bird songs and bouts with panic attacks. This year the start time for the race was moved up to 4:00AM which really favors me. I usually have a sleepless night before a race so the early start time meant one less hour of lying on my back looking at my watch. I rise around 2:45 a.m. and do my pre-race prep and head over to the starting area to check-in and have a light breakfast.

A whippoorwill
After a bite to eat and some wise cracking about the day we are about to have we start to mingle near the edge of the tent and give salutations to one another as the starting clock counts down. At 3:56 a.m. we move out from under the tent and toward the starting line as race management barks out the final instructions on the path to follow out of the camp. At 4:00 there is a mighty shout as the throng of 195 runner stride off the line and proceed up the dirt road toward the trail head at Morland gap. The first three miles of the race is on a dirt road which leads to the trail head is almost all up hill. I walk at a brisk pace up the road as many other racers pass me running up the hill. This kind of racing requires extreme patience and self control. It’s going to be a long day and I do not need to run now. I conserve my legs as we finish the road section and turn onto the trail to summit and traverse Short Mountain, the first major climb of the run.
We are hiking in a single file line up and across the ridge and I chat with strangers and acquaintances in the predawn darkness. Somewhere in this area I come up behind Jim. I haven’t seen him during any of the prerace revelry. Jim’s oldest son is a collegian runner at Akron and was called up to run in the conference championship meet at the last minute. Being a good supportive dad, Jim drove out to the meet in Illinois on Thursday, then turned around and drove 13 hours back to Virginia on Friday and arrived at camp after I had turned in. We link up and he takes the next 15 miles to fill me in on all the details of his trip and the meet. His son had a great run and a proud dad skips no details which is great because I’m eating it up.
It may be helpful for me to point out for non-runners that while it’s not hard to find someone who runs the same average pace as you in any race, its very hard to find someone to run with. The problem is running the same average pace doesn’t necessarily mean you can stay together. Some people are better climbers or others are better decenders and others are better on the rocks and so it’s common to yo-yo all day with the same people and never work together. Jim and I on the other hand have a very compatible running style and a similar average pace. We approach the course with similar strategies so once we get together its very easy for us to keep linked up and work as a team to get around the course. My experience at OC100 proved to me the power of two so I’m very happy to run with Jim again.
The next few sections were not eventful except for one fact that became apparent. The air temps were not bad (I think in the mid-70s) but the humidity was about as high as it could be and not yield rain. This means that the sweat on your body doesn’t evaporate so you shed heat less efficiently. I’m using my heart rate monitor was usual to gauge my effort and my pace at the 50k mark is slower than I wanted though my heart rate is right where it should be. I had really wanted to take a shot at a sub-24hour finish at this race but I come to senses in this section and decide that if I don’t adjust my expectations now I may not finish at all. I do some math and decide that a goal of a sub-27hour finish is more consistent with the race day conditions.

Me at 50k mark at Eliz Furnace. Yes, that’s dirt on my shirt. Yes, I fell.
(Thanks to Bobby Gil for taking this picture.)
As we start the middle third of the race we enter the road sections of the course. The MMT course follows the orange blaze Ring loop, but to make up the additional distance and to add more climbs the course descends off the ridge, then runs parallel to the ridge in the valley and will re-ascend the mountain further south on the course. In the valleys we follow gravel roads which are hazy hot and humid. It’s been very cool in Pittsburgh where I train so I haven’t gotten in any heat-runs to acclimatize my body to these kinds of conditions.  As I heat up and miles accumulate I start to run into a deficit and I know it. I’m hot and I don’t feel like eating. When I get into an aid station, none of the solid food is appetizing and I’ve had my fill of the lime-Gatorade I’m using to flavor my homemade energy drink. This is the start of trend.
After one of the road sections we move into the Veech gap aid station where Bur and Kerry O are working. As I fuel up and try to find something I can eat I’m talking and joking with them. I’m not concentrating and make a huge freshman mistake: I walk out of the aid station with Jim and Rande B (who is running like an animal) and forget my handheld water bottle. About 200 yards down the trail I realize it and turn around to retrieve it. I get heckled by Bur for my bone-head mistake and get back out on the trail. At this point there is no harm and the smart thing to do would be to throttle back and slowly make up the gap with Jim and Rande over the ten mile section. Instead I push hard and catch them on the ridge in about five miles. Not smart. We run the ridge and descend to Indian Grave gap aid station. Again I’m not feeling any solid food, I’ve developed a major headache (a sign of dehydration) and I’m feeling woozy. Not good.

I look happy but I’m faking, this is the beginning of my decent into the unhappy place. Can you see the insincerity in my smile?
(Thanks to Aaron Schwartzbard for taking this picture.)
We head back out on the road and back into the sun. I wet down my bandanna and tie it on my head like a bonnet to shield my head from the sun and prevent heat stroke.  It’s still not hot for May, but my lack of acclimatization magnifies the effect of the sun and humidity. The road isn’t dusty but it’s dry. If there had been a muddy ditch by the road I would have wallowed in it like a pig at this point. Somewhat ironically, the Shenandoah River is less than 200 yards east of the road and I can see canoe-ers paddling along in the cool water. It’s almost mocking me as try not to look to my left. At this point Rande is running strong and has pulled way ahead. He’ll go on to run an amazing race and finish in 24:30. Jim is somewhere behind me as I run from shady spot to shady spot along the road.
I make it into Habron Gap aid station (49miles on the trail) feeling whipped. I had vowed not sit in a chair until Camp Roosevelt (aka Camp Roo) aid station but I feel so bad at this point that I give in and plop down. The aid station is in a tough location: there isn’t much shade, it’s hot and breezeless in the eastern side of the ridge and it’s on a road so it’s cramped. None of the food appeals to me but I suck down some broth and eat some fruit and top off my bottles. Jim is in and out of the aid station and I decide to go with him. We head out of the aid station onto the almost 10mile section to Camp Roo which includes a tough climb up to the ridge. I’m a switchback below Jim on the trail when I cough a few times. Then I have a weird cough and then I feel it… I upload everything I’ve tried to eat for the past two hours onto the right side of the trail in a few violent convulsions. I know its only two hours worth based on what I’m staring at as I wrench my guts out and cling to a piece of deadfall along the trail. I sit down on a log and Jim yells down to me to make a good decision and remember I have 9 hard miles to more aid. I shout back with false optimism that I’ll regroup and see him later but I feel horrible. I’ve never gotten sick in an ultra before and I have no experience to tell me how my body may react to this turn of events.
Racing an ultra boils down to making series of binary decisions which, if done right are strung together get you to the finish line in the shortest amount of time: do I run this hill or walk this hill?; do I eat a cheese sandwich or slice of pizza?; do I change my socks or ignore my feet? Each outcome has consequences and leads to the next decision. Each choice brings the next and they link together into a long chain. So here I am: do I turn around and walk back to a hot exposed aid station in the valley or continue on a long section of trail up a huge climb to an aid station that I know will have lots of food choices and my drop bag. I look in my pack: I have 300 calories and 50oz of water, maybe enough to get me to Camp Roo but I’m not certain. I turn around and take three steps back down the hill back toward Habron aid station where I’ll regroup before tackling the tough section of trail in the hot weather. I stop. No, I’m making the wrong choice. I waffle for a minute in indecisiveness and then turn back around and head up the trail toward Camp Roo. A few minutes after I start up the trail I see Jim above me on another switch back. I thought he’d be farther ahead and I hope he hasn’t seen me. I’m sure he thinks I should go back and regroup but he’d never say it, he’d not question my decision because he knows this is my problem to solve. If this gamble fails and it’s the wrong decision I don’t want him to know I didn’t make the conservative choice.
As I stagger up the steep trail I feel woozy again. My stride shortens to a half a step and my progress is slow. I come to a big rock and sit down and feel sorry for myself for a few minutes. As I’m sitting there Brad K and another runner come up the trail. I had met Brad earlier in the day and he asks how I feel. I tell him I’m in an unhappy place and he laughs and tells me to follow him up the hill. I fall in behind the two and tie an invisible rope around his waist. I know from seeing him run earlier in the day, Brad is a tough and very fit trail runner. Good guy to follow when you feel aren’t feeling so hot- so I focus on his back and try to keep up. On the last switchback I’m really struggling and they pull ahead. My legs feel like concrete. My arms are quivering. All I can think is, “I have 7 miles to go, I made the wrong choice. I should have gone back.” But as I crest the ridge Brad and the other runner are standing by a rock stretching. As I come into the little clearing one of them shouts, “you made it!” As they trot down the trail I follow them. One of the ultra-sayings is, “if it hurts to run and hurts to walk, you might was well run” so I force a trot. I start to feel better but I’m not out of the woods yet.
Not too far down the trail I we catch up with Jim which surprises me. Brad, Jim and I run together all the way to Camp Roo. There is great tree cover on the ridge which gives a nice rest from the sun and a strong breeze cools us. As I cool down I feel infinitely better than I did on the climb. As we enter the aid station I tell Jim I’m going to stay for a while and not to wait for me. I get my drop bag, some soup and cheese quesadilla and wolf it all down. Then I lie back on the picnic bench for ten minutes and close my eyes. I get up and do it all again: more soup and another quesadilla. 20 minutes in the aid station and I feel like a new man. I fill my bottles grab a Jello pudding pack for the road and start the long wet walk up to Gap creek trail. I hike uphill for an hour before I eat my pudding just in cause I upload again. But I keep my food down for an hour so I figure its there to say and I crack open the pudding. Vanilla pudding will never taste the same again. I could have eaten four of them it tasted so good.

At Gap Creek putting batteries in my lamp. That’s Brad in the background.
(Thanks to Aaron Schwartzbard for taking this picture.)
As I continued the climb I caught several runners who had passed me while I was recouping in the aid station and just as we toped out on the ridge I caught up to Brad and his pacer. We talked about other races and places and they filled me in on their exploits. They pace each other in events alternating the pacer duty. I was right about them earlier in the day: very good runners. They tell me about their experiences at the Leadville 100 which passes the time. The next aid station is Gap Creek. This aid station is actually visited twice on race day at the 68 and 94 mile marks. In my drop bag here I retrieve my primary lighting and a warm hat and mix my first caffeinated beverage for a long night. After Gap Creek is Kerns Mountain. Many runners will argue about whether Kerns and Short are the toughest mountain on the course. I personally think that Short is harder but given its place on the course, Kerns is a major obstacle in your path to a finish. Kerns is covered in mostly small rocks all set pointy side up and it punishes the undersides of your feet.
Along the ridge I catch Jim again so we run together to the Visitor’s Center aid station. My feet feel funny and I think I’ve got some blisters so I stop to evaluate the situation. At this point it’s pouring down rain and with 24 miles to go it’s too far to push through. Better to evaluate the situation and make remedial changes to fix the situation. I peel off my socks and three aid station volunteers evaluate my feet since I can’t bend my leg around to see them myself. At this point I have to point out to the non-ultra geeks who read this that volunteers are a breed apart. These wonderful souls of their own volition will inspect the ugly shriveled blistered bleeding feet of complete strangers and if needed will apply moleskin, Vaseline or whatever to their feet for them. How many people would do that for their spouse, let alone a stranger? It turns out my feet aren’t blistered so I change into dry socks and grab a grilled cheese and head back out. Again, the aid station workers blow my mind: they put something in this grilled cheese (spicy mustard, I think) that tastes AMAZING. All food tastes better after 75 miles.

At Visitor’s Center in the middle of the night.
(Thanks to Aaron Schwartzbard for taking this picture.)

Jim left the aid station while I messed with my dogs but I catch up with Jim again and now I think I’m feeling slightly better than he. I take the lead and push us forward to up Bird Knob to the aid station where Dan Pesta and his team awaits us with the most amazing corn chowder on the planet. MMT runners have written poetry about Dan’s chowder and it tastes divine. I have told myself all day that I won’t think about the finish or what I’ll do after until I reach Dan’s aid station. As I leave I let myself fantasize about lying in the cold water of the creek that runs beside race headquarters. It’s amazing the things that you look forward to near the end of a big event. I could have written Haiku about the act of brushing my teeth.
Jim chases me all the way to the Picnic area aid station at the 85mile mark where Quatro and his team await us. At this point I feel really good. I know that unless something catastrophic happens I’ll finish the race, the only question now is how fast. Jim and I work our way up from the south section of the trail and catch couple of other runners on the climb. I’m feeling good enough to run some up hills which is great. We hit Gap Creek aid station the second time and we can smell the barn. We do some math and know that a sub-26 is in the bag (though Jim struggled with the math for a bit and made me scratch my head) and sub-25 is possible but it would take a great last section. We table the math as we tackle the last very technical section of trail before the road home. At this point it’s been raining for a while and the rocks on the decent to the road, which are covered in lichen, are super slick. The sound of a rubber shoe sole sliding across the flat surface has a very unnerving quality to it. Jim and I hear this sound a few times and decide it’s not worth getting hurt at this point so we take it slow. It takes us 53 minutes to cover the trail to the road. One word: slow.
When I see the road I know it’s a long downhill 5k road run to the finish. I look at my watch. I think we can break 25hr if we run hard but Jim says he’s done. I poke at him a few times but he doesn’t bite. Finally I say I’m going for it and he says to have at it. I feel bad leaving him behind, but my competitive nature takes over. I’m racing down the hill not sure I can make it but I’m going to try. I come to the camp entrance and I have two minutes to get to the finish. And then I see it: A BIG UP HILL TO THE UPPER CAMP LEVEL. It’s almost an insult to climb a hill in the last half mile of a 100 mile race but I should have expected nothing less. MMT is the course that never gives up. Well, that’s it, there’s no way I’ll break 25hrs so I stop and wait for Jim, we’ll finish together. We wrap up the victory lap and cross the line side by side in 25:11:25 and 14/15 place.
I’m so tired I can’t eat so I go lay in the creek for a while and after a shower I crawl into the car for a nap. I’m awakened at 9:30 by MC Bur announcing a finisher on the PA system so I drag myself out of the van and go to the tent for the bbq and post-race party. I have an incredible time at the party and get to watch many friends finish as we stuff our faces with every calorie we see. One of the great ironies of the long course ultra is that the early finishers cross the line in the dark of night and are greeted by a firm hand shake from a few hardy volunteers and the race director. The later finishers cross the line to a roaring crowd, blaring music and a raucous crowd. In fact the later you finish, the more people there are in the tent screaming for you as you finish.
Of all of the amazing races I watched end on Sunday, by far I was most amazed by my friend Kimba who was the first female Ohioan to complete MMT. Kimba’s finish was her collision with destiny. Eric and Rick both had great races at MMT and when they post a run report I’ll make a link to it on this page. When final official finisher came out of the woods he had less than three minutes to run the victory lap to the finish line before the cutoff. The crescendo of applause for this fellow felt like we were at football game.
Many thanks to the Virginia Happy Trail Running Club and their awesome volunteers. As always you host an amazing party in the mountains of Virginia.