Into Gray Air: My First VHTRC Training Run

By John Dodds

John with Deb Reno at MMTOn a cold, rainy day this past March, six runners completed a training run on a most difficult portion of the course of the MMT100 trail run. This is their story. No, wait--this is MY story - those other guys can write their own. Any resemblance to actual characters is purely intentional.

Getting there. You will need to know a little about how I came to go on this training run to better appreciate this story. I ran a marathon last August in upstate New York and at .9 mile of the race discovered it was actually a trail run as we headed into the woods at that point. This was my first trail run. At that race I met someone from Virginia (like me) who told me about trail runs in our area. One of them was the Mountain Masochist Trail Run (MMTR) which he encouraged me to run as my first 50-miler and which I did last October (not that I knew what I was doing mind you) [He was also the one who encouraged me to run the Boston Marathon two days after the Bull Run Run 50 this spring. Why I even listen to a person named WrongWay is beyond me!] After MMTR, I had a long-term delusion--I mean vision--of running a 100-miler next summer and started communicating via email with someone I had met at MMTR. She had run the Vermont 100 last summer, ran MMTR in a comparable time to me and was going to run MMT100; along the way (I think it was in February) I either agreed to or offered to be her pacer. In any event, I was going to be running some portion of the MMT100 in May.

WrongWay had told me earlier about VHTRC and on a particular Friday in March I checked out the website and found out there was a training run the next day at Massanutten. The day before I had taken off from work to run the length of the Potomac Heritage Trail twice and had rolled my ankle twice. I wasn't sure I should be doing another long trail run so soon.

I called the organizer--Russ Evans--to ask him about the run. He said it was a "rocky, kick butt" trail" covering about 21 miles (but would feel more like 27), will take 5-6 hours, and suggested I might not want to do it because of my ankle. I hung up, considered all the cons (there were no pros), and then called him back to say I'd go. Besides, I thought it would be a nice easy run through the woods (I thought "rocky, kick butt" might have been somewhat of an exaggeration) in preparation for the Shamrock Marathon that I was running the following weekend. Although not a requirement, I mailed off a $10 check to join the VHTRC.

Meeting the others. Russ gave me directions to something called the Gap Creek trailhead and told me to be there at 6:30 am. I was the first to arrive. Soon, all the others showed up and introduced themselves. "I'm Bill." "I'm Bill." "I'm Mike." "I'm Mike." It took me 2 months to finally get their names straight. So, let's do this again: they were Bill Sublett, Bill VanAntwerp, Mike Gholson, and Mike Lipton. Of course, there was Russ and then there was Jack McGriffin who came all the way from England for this training run. By all outward appearances, they looked like fairly normal people. I was a little nervous because I hadn't met any of them before, and they all knew each other. Besides, in my 3 years of running, I had never run with a group. Sure, 20 years ago I had, but that was in the Army in the Panama Canal Zone. We called it running in formation, and we ran in combat boots on the roads. I'm still trying to block out that experience.

The start. I brought along an outdoor thermometer just to check the temperature. It was 46. It was a cloudy, gray day. It seemed like one of those hypothermia days if you weren't careful. I wore tights (only one other person did at the outset, although a couple others put pants on later). And so we started off--I was in the rear. In about 10 steps we were in the woods. I mean really in the woods. Not even on a trail - just walking through fallen leaves and in between trees and bushes. And I was listening to this from the others: "I thought the trail was here." "No, I think it's to the left." "Isn't there supposed to be a bridge here somewhere?" We were off to a rocky start, and I hadn't even seen any rocks yet. But sure enough, they quickly found the trail and we headed up--and it was rocky. I figured that after this start things could only get better from here. I was wrong.

About ten minutes later it started to rain. And continued to rain. Forever. No, not really. We were on the trail that day for 5 hours and 50 minutes (I should say most of us were on the trail for that length of time; for one person it was longer as we shall see later). The rain stopped about 20 minutes before we finished. So, it would be correct to say that it only rained for 5 hours. And when the rain started so did the mindless banter so characteristic of ultrarunners. For example, someone mentioned the grave digging scene from Young Frankenstein where apparently someone said it could be worse--it could be raining (I hadn't seen the movie). And as they talked, they chortled. Defined by Webster's as "uttering a chuckling laugh." So it's more than just chuckling and more than just laughing. And that's what they were doing. I was getting a little apprehensive.

The mountain. We made it up the first "climb" (as I found out they were called) and then managed to actually get some running in. I'm not sure how long it took us, but we came to a stop and were milling around for just a bit. Then someone said we were going up that trail. Apparently, we were at some kind of trail junction, but I didn't see a trail other than the one we were on. I asked what trail? He pointed, but all I could see was some kind of very, very steep drainage ditch of some sort with leaves in it. We started up with Bill S leading the way. It was my luck to be second (I would rather have been last). We kept going up and up. No stopping (why wasn't that allowed?). I was breathing so hard and my thighs were killing me. I dared not stop because Mike L was right (I mean right) behind me, and no else seemed to be having a problem. At the top, Russ quickly called out, "19 minutes." Someone else said, "I got 18." I uttered my first words on the run: "Felt like 45." And then I asked just what that thing was. The response: "Waterfall Mountain." Thanks, guys: my first run at Massanutten and you have to include Waterfall Mountain. Since I thought that the earliest I would be a pacer at MMT100 was mile 54, I asked if this was before then. They said yes. Whew! Someone asked if during the race, people would go up it that fast. Everybody was of the view that it would be a lot slower. [In MMT100, Russ would do it in 22 minutes. Slacker.] They also explained to me why Waterfall Mountain, despite its name, had no waterfall (I'm not sure I understood it now or then).

We ran down to a nice, paved road where Russ had "planted aid." This was a water-only stop. Two runners started on the road first. It was so gray that after they had run about 50 feet the rest of us couldn't see them; but we could still hear them. I was so grateful to be running on a road and it even started to go downhill! I didn't care if I had only been able to see 3 feet in front of me. The others were a bunch of whiners--complaining about having to run on a road.

A well-deserved break. The road led to the visitors center where Russ once again had "planted aid." This time it was Doritos, vanilla wafers and Pepsi. We stood there around this tree in the pouring rain eating. And mimicking people who thought ultrarunners were weird. "Oooh, how can they drink while they run?" "How can they eat while they run?" And I was thinking: "How can these guys chortle so much?" Actually, I was wolfing down the food because I was starving. And I was wondering that maybe I was perhaps a little bit like them, too. (Who would have guessed that three short months later, I would actually let Bill S talk me into eating a Sloppy Joe sandwich after 6 hours on what would be a 12-hour run on a hot day on the AT. "Hey, John, these buns are great," as he made himself another one. I had heartburn--but only for the next 4 hours.)

The mountain. Didn't we just do this? No, this is another mountain. MMT is like that. The mountains (or should I say "climbs"?) just don't quit. After our "meal," we ran down to a trail junction. Try as I might to jockey myself to the rear, I ended up third: Mike G in the lead and Mike L next. Again, up and up. No stopping, of course. Part way up, Russ pointed into gray air and said on a good day we would have a great, panoramic view. Bill S then added that it's sort of hard to see while we're running in a cloud. I told him that the correct aeronautical term he was looking for was "socked in." We finally made it to the top, and I do have to admit that the rocks on this portion of the trail were awesome. What's this place called, guys? "Birdknob Mountain." "Is this before mile 54?" I asked. Yes. Hooray!

On the way back down, we started talking about running 100s. Encouraging things, like how you get sick, etc. Bill S said he had never run a 100 without getting sick. I told him that I was hesitant about running a 100 but with that comment he had finally convinced me to try one. But I was really thinking that I had only written my $10 check to the VHTRC yesterday and that I could get to my credit union on Monday morning and stop payment on the check.

Farther down, I stopped to go to the bathroom. The others kept on going. Now you have to realize that I have absolutely no idea where I was at any point in time during this run and never listened to what Russ said ("We'll be on the orange trail and then we'll be making a right onto the white trail at blah, blah, blah"). I had never seen a map of this place. I was just a follower of the person in front of me. What did I care about what color the blazes were on trees? Besides, what were the chances of there being a trail junction before I catch up to them? As I found out -- 100%. And what were the chances that they would just keep on going knowing that I have no idea where I was? Again, 100%. So, now I'm running down the trail by myself and came to - you guessed it: a trail junction. Which way to go? Hell if I knew. There was a 90 degree turn to the right, but I didn't remember any 90-degree turn to the left coming up. In fact, I didn't remember anything about anything coming up. I just followed the person in front of me. Going straight, rather than right seemed to be more directly downhill. But then I noticed that there was a small log lying across the trail that continued straight and somewhere I remembered that you weren't supposed to cross those logs. So, I went right yelling "HELLO" and "HEY" as loud as I could as I ran. I finally heard a response and saw the bright yellow vest Bill V was wearing. The thoughts of being stuck on that mountain by myself vanished. Had I been lost, I'm sure they would have soon come back to look for me, but then again maybe I wasn't so sure about that.

The rest of the run. Was pretty uneventful as I remember. At least for me it was uneventful. We seemed to be on the return route back to the cars. We went by the trail junction for the dreaded Waterfall Mountain. At some point in time we split up. I remember Mike G and Bill V going on ahead. Later, Mike L and I ran ahead of the other 3. When Mike L and I arrived back at the cars, only Bill V was there. He had been there about 5 minutes. He asked about Mike G. "We thought he was with you, Bill." Then Russ, Bill S and Jack came in. No Mike G. And time went by - and by - and by. Still no Mike. We were all getting concerned because Mike G had taken off his long shirt and gave it to someone else to carry; he was wearing a singlet and shorts. The rain had just stopped but the temperature was still in the 40s. Russ sent Bill S in a car in one direction and Jack in another direction to see if Mike G had come out onto a road somewhere.

After about an hour had gone by since Mike G should have arrived, Mike L, who had driven with Mike G and who was obviously distraught about his friend's "disappearance," announced: "I feel like having a poptart." But, alas, he didn't have any. Bill V asked him what kind he liked. Mike L told him the kind with brown sugar. Bill V went to his car and said, "I have one!" So they split his last poptart. And I was thinking: "Can man's affinity for poptarts override the heartfelt concern for a lost fellow runner's safety?" Apparently so. By this time I was imagining Mike G curled up in a ball, shivering, attempting to stay warm. I told Russ that I thought we needed professional help (not psychiatric for the poptart connoisseurs but search & rescue kind of help). So Mike L and I were elected to go to Luray to the police and fire department (the visitors center on 211 was closed at that time). As Mike L looked into his rearview mirror to pull out, he saw Mike G in it. As we got out of the car, I was surprised that Mike G was actually none the worse for wear and was in very good spirits - although he was a little disgusted with himself for not taking the right trail. He had been gone for 2 hours by this time.

Bill S and Jack returned in their cars, and we all had a mini-reunion of sorts. Russ seemed to be relieved. After all, this was the first VHTRC training run he had organized. It had been cold and rainy but at least he could now say that there had been no fatalities. I think the standards for what was a "good" training run were racheted down bit by bit as they day wore on.

Funny thing, though: as I drove home that day, I thought, "You know, it wasn't really all THAT bad."

Knowing that Russ had spent a lot of time setting up this run, I sent him the following appreciative email:>

Just wanted to say thanks for organizing last Saturday's training run. Not sure what part I liked the best: lack of visibility, the cold, or the constant rain.

Not to be outdone, he wrote back:

I am glad you came out and also that you managed to enjoy it - the weather sure didn't cooperate, so it must have been the great company :-) Hope to see you out on the trails again sometime soon. If this still interests you, watch the website's training run page for future planned runs.

Aftermath: I was a pacer at MMT100 which was a great experience (I started at mile 59). I've also been on other runs with these people and others from VHTRC at MMT and on the AT. So -- I hope this story will encourage you to sign up for your "first" VHTRC training run. As they say: "Happy Trails."

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