The Double Direction – Double Ring February 25, 2012
It’s hard to find a starting point to tell the story of this adventure. This was a big one for me. I’m quite sure it’s the first time I’ve ever toed the line and honestly was not sure I could complete the objective. Sure, failure is always possible at extremely long distances, but in previous events I knew I had the goods to get the job done if the catastrophic didn’t happen. But 142.2 miles on the hardest trail I’ve ever run is not an idea that inspires confidence. I really was unsure this was doable.
Maybe the genesis of this this run was at the 2009 Ring. Jim and I were on the west ridge near Woodstock Gap in the middle of the night. During all of our chatting, Jim said, “Do you know this guy Ryan Henry did a Double Ring?!” We both agreed the idea was absurd, but from that instant I think I knew that this was a task I would eventually put my mind (and body) to.
It was earlier this year when I looked at my goals for the coming spring I had determined that I needed to do a really long event. In preparing for my attempt at Hardrock this summer I need to do something long enough that sleep deprivation became a real issue. It needed to be in the 36+ hour range so that I could really see how I respond to a lack of rest. After scouring the calendar I finally settled down on the idea of actually going for the Double Ring. I dusted off my plan and went to work defining it better.
The entire 71.2 mile Massanutten Trail circuit is run two times each year in an organized event: The Ring and The Reverse Ring in September and February, respectively. My general plan was to incorporate my double attempt with the official event. This would allow me to take advantage of the people and resources on the course in my attempt. The plan was to begin the circuit in the clockwise direction (The Ring direction) on Friday morning finishing the loop early on Saturday morning. Upon finishing, I would turn around and head in the counter clockwise direction. I would take advantage of the event aid stations on Saturday get to run with lots of runners as they overtook me on the course. After noodling the timing with Mike Dobies via email, I had a final set of projected splits that worked.
A couple of weeks before the day of the event I floated my plan past Jim and Kim, who were also doing the Reverse Ring, to see if they thought it made any sense and see if they were game to help me out on Friday. Of course, my friends were always up for an adventure or a challenge; they were on board in a serous way. Kim and Jim had some suggestions and adjustments to the strategy.
The final approach went like this: Jim would pace me for the first loop while Kimba crewed us and set out aid caches at Edinburg and Woodstock Gap for the overnight portion of the run. Her duties fulfilled, she would leave the van at the start/finish area, retire to Portabello for the evening and start the Reverse Ring with the pack the next day at 6AM. Jim and I would finish the first loop using the cached aid. Upon finishing the loop, I would re-group (sleep if needed) and depart in the counterclockwise direction on my own. Jim would clean up, rest and eventually get back to the course to serve as crew for me on my second loop. Lots of emails, to-pack lists and to-do lists later Jim, Kim and I were on our way south on Thursday night.
Loop 1: The Ring
After a pretty good night’s sleep at Portobello, the three of us pile in the van and drive to Signal Knob parking area. Jim and I head down the trail at 5:15AM and Kim drives off to drop our aid cache and then on to our first checkpoint at Camp Roosevelt, mile 25. On the east ridge we bump into a thru hiker who introduces himself by his trail name Marty McFly. He is hiking the MT in 5 days going to counter clockwise direction. We tell him what we’re up to and he seems genuinely interested. He remarks that he has flexibility in his plan and he may adjust so he can see us down the trail.
We arrive at Camp Roosevelt where Kim laid out a great spread and we feasted well. At this point the weather is perfect: sunny and in the 60s. We did get drenched in a quick downpour, but it was still warm and not long after the front blew out and it got breezy. Kim met us again at Moreland for more hot fare. We got our gear for the 30 mile overnight push to my halfway point and Jim’s finish line.
It was now early evening and I remarked over our little dinner party that at this point, I only had 100 miles to go. We all got a good laugh. It sounded so preposterous that’s all we could do. Jim and I packed our gear and headed out. We got most the way over Short Mountain before the sun went down and we had a nice rhythm going as we buzzed along the trail. We were very conservative with pace and keep in a power walk mode, finishing the first loop in 21 hours 10 minutes.
Jim and me at the trail head at Moreland. 40ish down, 100ish to go...[Photo from Kimba]
Loop 2: The Reverse Ring
Now back at the parking lot where Kim had left the van, Jim whipped up some hot food and I did a wardrobe change. I downed chow and got ready to roll. Jim said he’d see me in a few hours and I started retracing our steps back up Signal Knob at about 3:18AM on Saturday morning.
On the way up I did something I’ve never done before: I pulled out my Ipod for help setup a rhythm as I power hiked up the slope. People would probably laugh at my playlist. It’s mostly top-40, auto-tuned pop music. Let them laugh. The beat to Party Rockers is just about right for a fast powerful hiking pace and that’s what I needed. About halfway up it started to snow but I was not concerned. I had a full belly and loose stride.
The sun slowly illuminated the landscape as I came into the Powels Fort area. I noted to myself that the Reverse Ring runners were just starting their trek up to Signal Knob 8 miles behind me. With any luck they’d be catching me in a few hours.
For the next few sections really nothing very noteworthy happened except that as I came into Woodstock I had my first-ever exercise-induced hallucination. I knew I was close to the aid station and I saw the cars in a parking lot and I let out a cheer. But as I got closer, I realized there weren’t any cars at all and no parking lot, just trees and stumps and rocks. “Wow, that’s weird” I thought.
As the day wore on the wind had really picked up and the temperatures dropped. At Edinburg gap I had the exceptional Pesta corn chowder and got to chat with other runners as they passed me on their way up the mountain. It was a really shot to my morale as Keith K., Rande B., and Joe C. gave me a pat on the back and an “atta-boy” as they passed.
After the Edinburg AS, came the big 8mi push up and over Short mountain, one of the really tough sections of this course. I definitely came to low ebb on this section. At this point I’m about 32hrs into my adventure; well longer than I’d ever gone before. My perception of time really started to fall apart at this point. I would think to myself that an hour must have gone by, but when I looked at my watch it was only a few minutes. It took forever (in my mind) but I finally made it to Moreland where Tom S. had perogies and hot soup. Hot food really lifts your spirits in an ultra and this really did the job.
Me feasting on Pesta Cowder at Edinburg. [Photo from Burs Tweet]
The west ridge of the Ring features a nice 1-2 punch of Short and Kerns Mountain back to back. Both are tough but in different ways. Short is a pile of huge boulders you have to scramble over so it trashes your quads. Kerns is a covered in small pointy coble size rocks so it trashes your feet. By this point my feet are numb so I’m moving pretty well. A few minutes after the climb up to Jawbone Gap, Jeff B. caught up to me. I had been in kind of a funk for a few miles and was in need of human company. Jeff was moving really well. I had to really push myself to keep up with him. He was actually running the uphills! We tried to talk but the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hear much of what he said. Our conversation consisted mostly of him saying something and me shouting back, “WHAT WAS THAT?” Jeff dragged me over Kerns, through the Cristman Hollow aid station (which is a mile off the road and not accessible by crew) and down Waterfall mountain to the base of the climb up Dry Gap. Keeping up with Jeff had really depleted me. I started to fall off the pace and as I lost sight of Jeff, I dropped into a pretty healthy bonk.
I found a big rock and sat down and started feeling a little sorry for myself. It wasn’t an all out pity party, but I was definitely a bit cranky. I opened my pack and ate every calorie I could find in my pack. I also chugged a Starbucks espresso shot. This got me going again and I resolved to cover as much ground as possible before sun set. On the last part of the section, the long descent down Duncan Hollow, I started hallucinating a lot. They weren’t the extreme hallucinations some people have had: I didn’t see any bleeding trees nor was I looking for Mike Dobies house; but in the distance I would see very out of place things and as I approached they’d dematerialize into just another rock or stump. Some were very strange. I saw a guy in a white t-shirt on his knees laying floor tile. My grandfather had a keesh-hound and I swear I saw her standing in the woods with her big curly-q tail. I was lucid, but my mind was struggling.
I made it to the last check point at Camp Roosevelt, the 116 mile mark, just after sundown at 6:55PM. At this point, I had been awake for almost 39 hours. It was only a matter of time before I had to rest and I determined that it would not be safe for me to continue on alone. So when I got to the AS, I put on warm clothes and started eating. I would wait for another runner to come in and continue the course with them. Kerry Owens came in next and I was all ready to get myself together to head out with her and Doug. Then someone said Kerry didn’t want to relive her 2006 Reverse Ring where she suffered on the east ridge in high winds and she was dropping.
Me warming by the fire at Camp Roo. [Photo from Bob Fabia]
Next came in Gary K., Gary X., and Jeff G. The two Gary’s had already determined they were dropping, but Jeff was going on. Great, I thought, I’ll have a few more minutes while Jeff gets ready and then we can go. Wrong. Jeff was ready in about 45seconds and I was scrambling to get myself out and up the trail to catch him. This was probably my only real “mistake” of the day. I did not really assess my caloric needs very well.
As Jeff and I soldered up Kennedy Mountain we had lots to discuss as we’d never run together. This was good as it helped the miles pass. A few miles into the section though, my lack of sleep really started to hit me. I found myself nodding off, kind of sleep walking. I stopped Jeff and told him I could not continue with him: I was afraid I would stumble and bust the teeth out of my head. I felt really bad leaving him because that would mean he would spend the rest of the night alone on the ridge. I had done the same last year (by design) and it is a long lonely stretch of trail. We wished each other well and I found a nice rock with a leeward over-hang. I took off my pack and put it in the middle of the trail where the next person could not miss it. Jim had instructed everyone on the course to rouse any sleeping Cam-Baker they encountered on the trail. I put on every piece of clothing I was carrying and pulled out an enormous trash bag. I crawled inside, checked my watch and then rolled under the rock overhang out of the wind. I was out cold instantly.
I awoke shivering uncontrollably and looked at my watch: I had been asleep for 30 minutes. Shivering is the body’s way of trying to generate heat. When people become hypothermic, it’s a result of not reacting to this shivering mechanism. The correct response is to immediately elevate your core temperature. For me, that means getting up and hiking. For a few minutes it’s very hard to get moving because I’m stiff. But my mind has reset and the fog my head has lifted. A few miles later I’m feeling okay and making good time. Near the Milford Gap trail intersection I see a fire ring and I’m thinking about pulling out my lighter and starting a fire when I hear something moving on the trail behind me. I see a light and I call out. IT’S KIMBA! She is the last runner of the day and is ready to pace me to the finish line. I fall in behind her. I let her spot trail while I just hike along and hang on for dear life. At Milford Gap we have 13 miles to go: just a half marathon and we can rest.
The last tough climb of the course occurs at Veech Gap. Before starting the assent, I soak my aching feet in the creek which feels really great. The Veech Gap motel is closed this year (some years the VHTRC hikes in and erects a tent at this location but not this year) but the pool is open and my feet are in heaven. On the climb Kimba donates some calories as I try to keep my energy up. I’m still moving forward but it’s really beginning to be unpleasant. I consciously determine not to be negative or whiny.
Jim, Marty and me at the finish area. [Photo from Jim]
The decent to Elizabeth furnace is a long steady downhill. As we come into the camp area I think I see a hiker ahead. Kim confirms I’m not hallucinating. As we approach we hidey-ho and low and behold: ITS MARTY MCFLY! He’s adjusted his schedule and camped overnight at Elizabeth furnace to see the finishers. He was just packing up as we came down the trail. We exchange high fives and we head for the finish line and Marty says he’ll see us there. When we get to the river, Jim and Q are waiting. They try to offer us a ride to the finish but with on ¾ of a mile to go we blow right past. There’s one last insulting little climb to get to the parking area but it’s over soon and we stumbling to the lot. Q and Jim are there. We snap pictures and I collapse in chair. Marty arrives not long after and we all sit around for minute and bask in the afterglow of hard epic adventure. 51:25:30 is the official time. It’s a new “fastest known time” for a double Ring. Ryan Henry had the record at 52hrs but he’s the only other person to have finished the deed.
The VHTRC Northern Territory Contingent at the finish area. [Photo from Q]
Not long after we are at Portabello cleaning up. My scent is not fit for human company, but after a shower we’re eating breakfast and lounging before our car ride home. There’s high spirits and hi-fives and lots of thank you’s. The overall finish rate of the Reverse Ring is just about right for this event: 7 of 18 starters made the finish line. Yours truly started with a 3 hour head start on the field and finished dead last in the official Reverse Ring standings with personal worst-ever performance on the course of 29:22. A good time was definitely had by all.
I’m so appreciative of Q and Bur who organize this madness and to the many volunteers from VHTRC who work the aid stations and host us. The only thing crazier than running in cold, windy conditions is standing around in those conditions at an aid station and then waiting on the runners hand and foot. I am profoundly blessed to be associated with this group.
As I struggle with these last few sentences, I realize there is no way I can express my gratitude to Jim and Kim. Without Jim and Kim, none of this could have happened. My eyes are not dry as I type these words. Only people who have shared an experience like this together can understand their bond. I have a twinge of guilt for what it took to get this done. This all brings to mind something my father once said to me: “no one in this life accomplishes anything, except that he stands on the shoulders of others to do so.” I don’t know if he authored it or borrowed it, but it is profound and appropriate: there is self-sufficiency in neither ultras nor life. If I we accomplish something, we do it with help of others. What we did last weekend is neither “great” nor “noteworthy.” It’s meager and small and really quite unimportant in the greater scheme of life. But to me, it was the attempt and eventual attainment of a goal whose completion was not guaranteed. If “success is about over reaching our abilities and living to tell about it,” then it was a success. Nothing more and nothing less.
Me at Portabello after a shower. [Photo from Burs Tweet]