Training at Massanutten: One Schnitzel Too Many

by John Dodds

As I was leaving the HAT Run recently, I walked by Chris Scott and Phil Young. During our conversation, I mentioned that I was thinking about running the MMT100 this year. Chris said I better hurry since it was filling up fast. When they saw the somewhat concerned look on my face, they both started laughing. It was a laugh that said: "You, idiot. The MMT100 never fills up."

So, I did some checking. The limit this year is 150 and at this writing 64 [it's now up to 80 --Editor.] people have signed up. The most ever that signed up was last year: 128. MMT 100 has a reputation of being a tough course, and I suppose that is a deterrent. Then again, some people don't help matters much. For example, the next-of-kin block on the application form I think is a bit overdone. And have you ever read the race reports? By comparison, Moses' 40-year trek in the desert was a cakewalk. And we all know he didn't finish; in fact, I don't think any of the starters finished (I believe that was the first ultra--it was called the Promise Land 40). Just pick up a race report about MMT100 , and you read about temperatures in the mid-90s, humidity to match, downpours, hailstorms, forest fires, etc. C'mon; gimme a break. Do you actually believe that stuff? Those remind me of stories you read in Readers Digest where a ship hits a submerged volcano and 5 people survive in a life raft for 6 months with only one orange to eat.

I think we need a more balanced presentation of the course. Hopefully, that will entice more people to sign up and allay the fears of those idiots--I mean those decent, honest folks--who have already signed up. And having never run MMT100 and having only run ultras for a little over a year, I think I'm the right person to make that pitch. So, let me give you a brief account of my experiences at MMT crewing, pacing and training there.

Crewing. I had the good fortune to be part of a crew last year at MMT for some runners from New England; Ollie Holt was the other crewmember. Ollie was going to be a pacer (for Wes Finnemore) as well later in the day like me (for Deb Reno). Every time I write an article, Anstr puts in a picture of Deb even though I don't mention her. I have since found out that she doesn't particularly like the photo Anstr uses, so she told me to just get a "good" one from Victoria's Secret. The photo you see is not Deb; her hair is shorter.

There are a lot of responsibilities being someone's crew, but the main one is showing up at the aid stations before your runner gets there. Like the runners, we got up at 3 a.m. and accompanied them to the start, which was at 5 a.m. We hung out in the cabin after that and made it to the first aid station at 6:30 a.m. It was very hot and humid even at that time of the day, but Ollie and I were doing ok. Once the New England gang (NEG) passed through, we pretty much were done for several hours. Off to Front Royal for a nice breakfast of French toast in an air-conditioned diner. Oh, sure, once in a while, we thought about the runners out there in that heat but only briefly.

When we were done, I told Ollie that we had to go to a store to buy bandanas for Deb since she only had a red one, which didn't match her shorts and singlet. I was pretty insistent because I knew Deb had asked for a different color bandana that morning but no one had one. Fortunately, we found a great store, and I bought a couple bandanas. By then, it wasn't real clear to me that we were going to get to the Habron Gap aid station in time. I told Ollie that if we didn't make it in time, Deb would kill us. He said she wouldn't. I pointed out that if we missed her there, it would be another couple hours until we saw her again. That would mean 5 hours for her in the heat without her Ensure over ice (shaken, not stirred) and her ice-soaked bandanas. I can imagine us saying to her 5 hours later: "Gee, Deb, so sorry. Had to get a bite to eat and do a little shopping." I was pretty sure that she would have killed us if we had missed her.

But we didn't. We got to the aid station in time to see her arrive and get hosed down by Joe Clapper. It was so beastly hot, and Joe used a hose from a nearby house to water down the runners as they arrived. I was sweating, too, but not from the heat. Things were pretty uneventful for Ollie and me for awhile after that. Later, at the Gap Creek aid station, it started to pour, so I was pressed into service to help set up the tent over the drop bags so they wouldn't get soaked. Besides being called upon to do extra duty, another problem for a crew is finding out where to go to the bathroom. I had that problem at Gap Creek. Here's Anstr's description of this year's course: "There are three big climbs (Waterfall, Scothorn, and Jawbone) and the always crappy downhill to the Gap Creek aid station." Now, let's focus a bit on the "crappy" downhill part. I believe Anstr is talking about the rocky condition of the trail. Let me interject a personal note here. Last year, there being no bathroom at Gap Creek (that I knew of), I decided I would walk up the trail a bit and find a suitable place. I crossed the bridge, walked up the trail, then off the trail and found a nice big, flat rock behind a tree. "Perched" as my dad would say, I heard footsteps coming down the trail from above me. It was the first woman runner. Now, how did she get here so fast? As she came down the trail, I would slowly move around the tree so she wouldn't see me. Try doing that in a squatting position and making no noise. So, as far as the crappy downhill, I know of what Anstr doth sayeth. This year runners get to come down that trail twice.

Ollie and I were able to get a little bit of rest at the Visitors' Center, lying down in the grass. I don't recommend it because we got these huge yellow stains on the back of our shirts (probably just some Virginia fungus, but it came out easily in the wash). Wes and Deb came through ok, and Ollie and I hung around for the others. Then it started to pour again. The wind picked up and blew down the tarp over the aid station tables. By that time, I had put on my poncho and was waiting for one of the NEG to arrive. Then I went to the SUV where Ollie had stashed the body of another one--John--of the NEG. Well, he wasn't really dead. He had set an ambitious goal, and the heat just took its toll. We drove to 211 East and waited in the SUV for Deb since it was still raining a bit. John was periodically opening the back door, leaning out and throwing up in the parking lot, so I decided that I would walk up the trail to find Deb (it was after 6 p.m., so pacers were allowed on the course--at least I thought they were). That was pretty much the end of the crewing activities for us. Ollie and I were tired, but we were holding up well, all things considered. We next drove to Scothorn Gap where I would assume my pacing duties. Ollie later drove to the 730 aid station to join Wes. [I next saw John a couple months later as we trekked up the last hill at about mile 98 in the Vermont 100.]

If you haven't been to the Scothorn Gap aid station, you have to try it (you might have to enter the race though). This was run by Chris Scott and Colleen Dulin; the food was fantastic. Since I would now become a pacer, I started eating like there was a tomorrow (since I knew we would be still running tomorrow). My last crew duty was to get Colleen to heat up a burrito that Deb had in one of her drop bags (Deb makes burritos for later in the race; as I would find out on my own at Laurel Highlands the next month, these things are basically inedible late in a race). Colleen wanted to doctor it up with some cheese, but I insisted that she not do anything to it--you know how picky these ultrarunners are. Having won the burrito war with Colleen, I presented it to Deb when she came in, only to find out she had already scarfed up a cheese quesadilla that Colleen had made. I couldn't get Deb to take the burrito. "But, Deb, you don't know what I went through to get this damn thing heated up without any adulteration." No luck, though.

Pacing. Although my recollection is a little hazy, I believe I actually volunteered to be a pacer. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a pacer, but Deb explained that you just follow the runner, it won't be hard, it will be mostly at night, good amount of walking on the rocky trails, etc. I wasn't convinced. I had the fear that all pacers have: being left behind by your runner. I think ultrarunners get a secret satisfaction of leaving their pacer behind. I can imagine them in their old age sitting in rockers on the porch, saying, "Yep, I remember that race, left my pacer behind at the last aid stationą." And they would all laugh. And if they don't leave their pacer completely behind, the next best thing they like to do is to finish with their runner "in tow." So, I knew I would have to not only keep up but give the visual appearance that I was not struggling to keep up.

Before volunteering to be a pacer, I had done only one ultra--MMTR50 the previous October. Then I did the HAT Run and BRR50 plus joining VHTRC and doing some long training runs at MMT. With this amount of training, I was pretty confident I could keep up with Deb. And then the time of truth came.

It was at Elizabeth Furnace. Let me tell you about Elizabeth Furnace. It is a pretty place, alongside Passage Creek. I ran 40 miles at MMT one day in getting ready to be a pacer. I finished my run a little before 7 p.m. at Elizabeth Furnace. I had just come back across Shawl Gap and walked down to the creek to pour water over my head. Walking back to my car, I saw a rather large couple using a picnic bench and table for other than its intended purpose. I detoured around a set of trees so as not to interrupt. I have since referred to them as the Elizabeth furnacators. I hope you keep this in mind as you come into this aid station in several weeks.

Anyway, so here we are at Elizabeth Furnace on race day. We start to run out of the aid station, and Deb turns and says, "Did you see that?" See what? "Was that a woman coming into the aid station?" And I said, "No, actually, there are two women." And she was off like a shot. I had observed a similar phenomenon as a child in the fourth grade when my friend Timmy Johnson filled up his squirt gun with turpentine and shot a cat in the butt. I managed to grab three Fig Newtons off the table before heading out to catch up. As we were going up Shawl Gap, I couldn't help but think that I was at a serious disadvantage here. Sure, she had been running since 5 a.m. the previous morning, and I had just done pretty much the night session, but I was convinced all kinds of weird psychological things were going on in her head that drove her over that gap. I hadn't experienced all that she had gone through--the downpours, the hailstorm, the heat and humidity--yes, what they say about MMT last year is all true. In my mind, there was no way she should be able to get up the gap that fast. And coming down the backside was worse. As it turned out, her time for that last section tied for fifth of all runners that day. Wes and Ollie did it in the same time. Looking back, I think Ollie and I turned in a tremendous performance as pacers from Elizabeth Furnace to the finish (our runners did ok, too). I'm not sure we would want to tarnish that memory by actually running the MMT100 ourselves.

Pacing is an excellent training opportunity, and it was the first time I looked at a woman's butt continuously for 15 hours.

Training at Massanutten. Toward the end of last year, the memories of MMT100 faded, and I actually started thinking that maybe I would enter the run this year. I've been running for a little over 3 years and have yet to make it to the end of the year in running condition. This past year was no exception. But I almost made it. I strained my Achilles tendon on December 30th on the Bull Run trail. I had to skip the New Year's Day Redeye Slugfest that was going to be the celebration of my 50th birthday the next day. Thus began my New Year and a full 5-week layoff period--no running at all. By the end of the first week in February, I was brave enough to attempt a 2-mile run. And thus began the comeback. To run MMT100, there are certain runs you'd like to have underneath your elastic waistband, such as the HAT Run and the BRR 50. Which, for me, meant an accelerated ramp-up shortly after I started running.

After several weeks running on flat land, I ventured onto the Potomac Heritage Trail for my first trail run and first test of my Achilles. I would also christen my new Montrails. I didn't do too badly except I took my first tumble trail running. I've fallen a couple times in the past but caught myself with my hands; this was the first time I landed on my shoulder. I looked back at the branch I tripped over, and I could have sworn it was smiling at me. Several days later I headed out to the Bull Run trail, which is where I hurt my Achilles in the first place. I got in a five-hour run. Again, not too bad, except for another fall--this time with a bloody knee and elbow. I was now 2 for 2 with the new shoes, not a good prospect. Late that night I took a flight to Germany for Reserve duty, arriving the next morning.

I had great plans for continuing my training in Germany. Except that I got a bad cold the day I arrived. And I never did adjust to the time change and got only three hours of sleep a night. And ate 5 meals a day, including the traditional light German fare for dinner--schnitzel, gravy, potatoes, and bread. Several days later, one of the other people in the group (an Army Ranger) asked if I wanted to go swimming after work. I said yes. What he meant was after dinner. I'm sure I've eaten less for dinner, but I'm not sure exactly when. We headed straight from the restaurant to the swimming pool. I didn't realize that one meal could actually change not only your body's specific gravity but also its center of gravity. The next day was our last day in Germany, and I was bound and determined to get at least one run in. So, after work the next day (and before dinner), I actually found a trail that looped through the hills surrounding the town. It was a great trail and I would have run longer, except that it got dark and people were waiting for me for dinner. As it was, I hadn't even run for an hour.

We got up at 4 the next morning to leave Germany. I was pretty glad to leave because I was basically schnitzeled out. After a wild ride on the autobahn in the rain, we got to the airport. After several hours in the airport, I boarded the plane for the 9-hour flight home. I got home late in the afternoon and starting getting ready for a training run at Massanutten the next day. With a week of practically no running and being a greater shadow of my former self since before I had left, I figured I had to get some exercise. And what better place than Massanutten?

It took me awhile to get ready: looking at the map, reading the new course description, figuring out where to run and plant aid, etc. I have done several solo runs at Massanutten and before I go out there I always call Russ Evans to get his thoughts. He was the one who led the first expedition, er, training run, I was on at Massanutten a year ago. I usually call him and say, "Russ, I'm thinking of doing this-and-that," and he'll say, "Most is ok, but I would do thus-and-so." And so I'd modify my plans. You see, I'm an unusual ultrarunner who actually listens to other people. There are 3 types of ultrarunners: (1) those like me who listen and do what is recommended, (2) those who listen but have absolutely no intention of doing what is recommended no matter how much sense it makes; and (3) those who don't listen at all--you can recognize these people fairly easily because they have both hands over their ears while you're talking to them.

As a result, this was the plan: start at the Gap Creek aid station, run up Jawbone Gap, turn left on Kerns Mt, follow that to Crisman Hollow Rd., then to the Visitors Center, which was my first aid stop. Then headed up Bird Knob past the scenic overlook to where the turnaround was last year; back down to 211 East, then Waterfall Mountain and down, where I had my second aid stop. Then down the road again to Scothorn Gap trail head and followed that trail up and then around to the Gap Creek trail and then down the crappy downhill to where I had started. It took 7 hours.

For those who have not run Massanutten, I would like to make a few general points in the next three paragraphs:

1. The day at Massanutten was almost a carbon copy of my first run there last year, except that it didn't rain the whole time like last year (this time it rained only the last hour). In other words, it was a very gray day. At times, you could see only about 30 yards. All in all, though, it was a very enjoyable run--if you like running on rocks. While running on the Kerns Mt. trail and marveling at all the rocks, I had a revelation: God did not make the world in 7 days. When he woke up on the 8th day, he realized he had a shitload of rocks left over, so he sprinkled them on Massanutten. [I'm gently reminded that this is a family website, the picture of Anstr's prized squash notwithstanding, but I thought that literary decorum must yield to accuracy in this instance.] I asked the VHTRC chaplain if this was true. He said that it indeed was true and usually people find this out in one of two ways: (1) by divine revelation as in my case or (2) during the VHTRC new-members hazing ritual which, unfortunately, was discontinued several years ago after the unfavorable report of investigation by Amnesty International ("subjecting runners to degrading and often inhumane conditionsą") Considering all the rocks, I am reminded of Russ's description over the phone a year ago: "It's a rocky, kick-butt trail." Point: the course is very rocky--rockier than you can imagine.

2. It's not only the rocks that make it difficult, there are also these things called "climbs." I think this is the "kick-butt" part of Russ' description. There are so many of these and I don't want to describe them all because then no one would sign up for the race. I would, however, like to briefly describe one of them: Waterfall Mt. It is such a vivid memory last year as I looked up the "trail." It is more like a near-vertical drainage ditch. It is a trail in name only--sure, they paint the trees white along the way, but that's just to add insult to injury. This year was no different, except that I would have to do it by myself. As bad as it was for the racers last year, it will be worse this year because it is later in the race. Point: the course is very tough.

3. In my opinion, the most scenic part of the course I've been on (the last 60 miles) is the climb on Bird Knob. And I'm just talking about the rock formations. I've been to the so-called "scenic overlook" twice but the visibility was nil both days. I've been assured that there is actually something out there. It is hard to put in words the solitude you can find at Massanutten as you leave the city behind. For example, I was standing on the trail just past the scenic overlook enveloped by the primeval forest, low visibility, and absolutely no sound except for my urine hitting the bush in front of me. Can't get any better than that. Point: chances are you may be running by yourself a lot. And at night, too. It can be a little creepy at night, especially on Short Mt. where they say that Stonewall Jackson's one-armed ghost roams at night during the run. Nah, they don't say that; I just made that up.

It seems I can never write about ultrarunning without mentioning my orthopedic surgeon. And this is no exception. Two days after my run at Massanutten, I had a previously scheduled appointment with him for my back. I told him I thought I had a chronic back problem. When I told him my back had been bothering me since last August, he said that qualified for "chronic." I told him that certain simple life tasks were difficult to perform, like putting on shoes and socks and bending over the sink to wash my hands. The resulting x-ray showed a degenerative disc. He gave me some exercises to do and asked if I wanted a prescription for physical therapy. I told him I couldn't really afford physical therapy because I had a number of upcoming ultrarunning entry fees to pay.

He also asked me if I wanted him to look at anything else. Yes, I think I have a broken foot. I told him that I wake up at night and my foot is throbbing. He asked if I was still running. Yes, I just did 7 hours at Massanutten a couple days ago. Good thing about my doctor is that he doesn't try to humiliate you with any snide comments. He knows that mentally we are incurable. He just took an x-ray that showed nothing. He said it would get better, but he didn't exactly say when it would. In parting he said, "I hope I don't see you soon." He didn't sound too convincing; I'm sure he thinks of me as a steady revenue stream. And: I didn't tell him I had the HAT run coming up that weekend as I didn't want him to worry about me.

Well, I hope I've given you a fairly good idea of what you can expect at Massanutten if you haven't been there before. I'm sure those who read this and are still undecided will now send in their entry fees. Each of you must decide for yourself why MMT100 is the race for you. But don't let yourself be talked out of entering by detractors. For example, my first ultra as I said before was the MMTR 50 in October 1999 and someone asked me beforehand why I was going to run it. I said I wanted to know what it felt like to run 50 miles. His reply: "I don't have to jump off a 50-story building to know what it will feel like." Even though I'm not very good at logic, here is the line that I've found is a persuasive counter: "So, what's your point?"

Let me give you another example. I tell people I run the Boston Marathon because you can take free boxes of pasta off the tables at the pasta dinner. Someone will usually ask how that can be free when you add in the entry fee ($75) and transportation, lodging and meals (about $500). That is obviously faulty logic because at THE PARTICULAR MOMENT that you put the boxes of pasta in your bag, they are FREE because you didn't pay for them. [I would eat it more often but at $300/box, I only serve it on special occasions.]

If after reading this, you can come up with an unassailable reason for entering MMT100, please let me know by April 30th. For now, I'm thinking about helping out at one of the aid stations.

Happy Trails!

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