By Sophie Speidel
See Sophie's Pictures on Flickr.com
Friday, May 6, 2005. The day had finally come! I had been waiting anxiously for this day to arrive for over a year, ever since last April when I decided to enter my first 100-mile trail race, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT). I arrived at Skyline Ranch in Front Royal, the site of the start and finish of the race, around 3:00 pm and immediately saw Jill Quivey, who would be crewing for me all weekend with her husband Dave. Jill drove out to the ranch from her home an hour away just to check in with me, get my last-minute instructions, and get all the stuff I would need at every aid station. We were both very excited about the adventure awaiting us, and when I told fellow runner John Dodds that Jill and Dave would be helping me along with my pacer and coach Mike Broderick, he commented, “It takes a village to help Sophie finish 100 miles, eh?”
How right he was.
The energy and excitement in the room during the pre-race briefing was palpable. There were many (like me) who would be running their first 100 mile event, and there were 14 women entered in the field of 150 runners, which is pretty typical for MMT. This race is considered by many ultrarunners to be among the top-5 hardest trail ultras in the country, and it certainly deserves its reputation as “the toughest trail run east of the Rockies.” The course starts at the northern tip of the Massanutten Mountains, winds south along the eastern ridge before turning north along the western ridge. It is famous for the rocks that litter the trail as well as the excellent aid and support that every runner receives from race volunteers from my running club, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC), which started the first MMT eleven years ago.
Stan Duobinis, the Race Director, gave us a thorough briefing on the course markings, and what we could expect in terms of weather (it was going to be in the 60s during the day and in the 40s at night). As I looked around the room at all the veterans of this race, I began to wonder if I was up to the challenge of running 100 miles…and what I would have to do when the inevitable low moments would threaten to challenge my will to finish. I have never dropped out of a race in my life, but I once recall hearing a veteran of 100-milers say, “The only thing you can expect in a 100-miler is that something will go wrong. How you deal with that something is the test.” My students at the school where I am a guidance counselor and lacrosse coach had decorated my car with good wishes and my friends and family in Charlottesville had supported me all year as I trained for the race…so I felt the pressure of living up to their expectations as well as my own. This was going to be an adventure of a lifetime regardless of the outcome, and I couldn’t wait for it to start, but I was also scared to death.
After the briefing, I had dinner with friends and sat next to Mike Broderick, who was pacing me during the night portions of the run, and who had also been helping me prepare for MMT all year. Mike had finished MMT in 2004 in a time of 27:46, which I felt was also a reasonable time goal for me. I was wary of having any goal other than to finish, but I also tend run better with a time in my mind, so I was going to carry with me Mike’s time splits from last year as well as the splits of a runner who ran 27:12. Mike gave me last-minute instructions on how to pace myself, what to eat, and he reassured me that I had done all the training I needed to finish. At dinner I was surrounded by my close friends from the VHTRC, many of whom had finished MMT and were now crewing, pacing, or volunteering for the weekend. To me, this is the essence of the sport of ultrarunning, and the VHTRC in particular: it is filled with people who care deeply and passionately about trail running and about helping others achieve their goals. I am blessed to have these wonderful people in my life.
Saturday, May 7, 4:59 am: We were gathered on the front lawn of the Skyline Ranch, shivering in the 38 degree temperatures, listening quietly while Stan read the traditional pre-race prayer. I said an additional prayer of thanks to my family for their love and devotion to helping me achieve this goal, and to God for the blessing of my healthy body and this incredible opportunity I had before me to challenge myself beyond my known limits. Soon we were off and running into the darkness, and the adventure had begun at last! I started running at an easy pace along the road with my good friend and training partner Quatro Hubbard, which was only fitting, because Q was the very first person to encourage me to enter MMT, and we had been training together for this race ever since MMT 2004, when Q had to drop out at mile 62. He was back this year to finish what he had started a year ago, and I wished him well as I got into my pace and turned onto the trail.
The race started uneventfully. I was running at a very easy pace, feeling good and comfortable in the perfect weather, and at every aid station Mike would tell me that I was running close to my time goal. Jill and Dave would have everything ready for me at each stop—I drank an Ensure or a V-8 and had a few PB and J squares, as well as a cup of water at each stop. Tom Corris did me a huge favor by making me drain a big cup of water before he would let me leave the aid station, and I was feeling well-hydrated. I was climbing the up-hills well and passing many runners, and I never felt uncomfortable or that I was pushing very hard. Along the way I saw wonderful friends who had come to support me: Bill Gentry, Emily Whitworth and her family, and my husband Rusty and my son Chapin, who met me at mile 62. I also saw many VHTRC friends who were volunteering at aid stations: Michele Harmon, Chris Scott, James and Rebecca Moore, Linda Wack, Chris Andres, Anstr, Brenda, and Lucia Davidson, Vicki Kendall…the list is endless. Mike would walk me out of every aid station and tell me what time I should get to the next one, which kept me focused, and I would take it easy to digest all the calories I had taken in as I started the next climb. I was having so much fun!
Usually in shorter ultras I run alone, but at MMT I looked forward to catching up with other friends along the trail. Along Kerns Mountain, at about mile 42, I learned that Mike Bur was just ahead of me by a minute, and this got me psyched. Mike had helped me come up with a race pace plan for MMT, and we had run on many training runs in preparation for this race. I finally caught him on top of Bird Knob, around mile 50, and we had a blast running together and sharing our stories of the day. Mike is an incredibly experienced and smart ultrarunner (despite what some might think) and I felt lucky to have the chance to run with him. We eventually hooked up with Steve Pero, another ultrarunning hero of mine (along with his wife Deb), and I was in ultrarunning heaven. Here I was, running on these fantastic trails in the middle of my first 100-miler, alongside two of the sport’s more experienced and knowledgeable (not to mention fun and good-looking) male runners… it just couldn’t get any better than this.
Speaking of good-looking guys…I saw my husband and my son at the next aid station. We were supposed to meet each other at the previous aid station, and when they weren’t there I was worried that they were lost, but as soon as I saw Chapin’s smiling face and heard “Mommy” from his 12-year-old voice I got a lump in my throat. How cool it was to have them there to experience this adventure with me! Chapin, Rusty and I had sat on our bed on Thursday night before the race to watch (for the umpteenth time) “A Race For The Soul,” which is a documentary of the Western States 100, and now they were experiencing first-hand what a 100-miler was all about. Rusty handed me the McDonald’s plain burger that I had requested, gave me a kiss, and I was off to Moreland Gap with Mike, who was allowed to start pacing me, and Steve. Mike Bur was only seconds behind us, and later I learn he had to drop out of the race at the next aid station due to chronic knee tendinitis.
Sunday, May 8. 12:08 am. Mike Broderick, Steve and I arrive at Edinburg after making good time over Short Mountain, which many think is the toughest part of MMT, because of all the boulder-size rocks and lack of runnable trail. In fact, the section after Edinburg Gap, up along Powell’s Mountain, has been my nemesis in previous runs. It was here back in September during the 71-Mile Ring ultra that I became sleep-deprived, nauseous, cold, and injured, and I was determined to have better luck this time. But as luck (or fate?) would have it, as soon as I climbed the trail to the ridge, I started to feel queasy. I asked Mike and Steve if we could stop and rest and when this became too frequent, Steve kept going, and rightly so…we were moving very slowly, compared to the great pace we had held over Short Mountain. Minutes after Steve left us, I began the throw up the entire contents of my stomach, and then I heard the voice of Kerry Owens wafting over the ridge. Kerry is another one of my ultrarunning heroes, and she is also over 40, so I was hoping to keep ahead of her and snag the Masters title that she had worked so hard to win in 2004. As soon as I heard her voice, Mike and I attempted to create some distance, but it was a lost cause: Kerry and her pacer John were moving very well and cruised by me as I was hugging a tree for support (how pathetic!). After they asked if I was okay, they were on their way, and I wished her well, telling her how strong she looked. If I was going to get passed by another woman, I told myself, at least get passed by someone I admire and respect! Kerry went on to win the Masters title and she improved her time from 2004 by more than 10 minutes.
What had started as a day of strong, comfortable running was now a night of energy-depleted slow walking, with the occasional stumble thrown in for good measure. We were supposed to arrive at the next aid station, Woodstock Tower, at 3:10 but we didn’t get there until 4:55, due to the fact that I was low on energy, cold, and bonking. My legs felt fine and I wasn’t sleepy (a first!), but I had no energy to keep moving, due to getting sick up on the ridge. I was getting passed by many runners who been an hour or more behind me at aid stations, and my resolve to keep moving was waning. Gary Knipling, who had helped me make it through the night during the Ring, passed by and asked if I was doing okay. “Gary, I’m going to drop at Woodstock,” was my reply, and then I experienced something that I will never forget: Gary, who is typically a jovial and fun-loving fellow, looked me in the eye and said, in a very stern and serious tone, “Sophie, you are NOT going to drop. I will see you at the finish.” When I finally arrived at Woodstock, I announced to Rusty, Dave, and Jill the same thing, and I got absolutely no support. My crew had turned against me! I sat at Woodstock for about an hour eating, sleeping, and arguing with anyone who would listen about WHY dropping out made total sense to me, and that I was totally at peace with my decision. Rusty would just counter by reminding me of all the training hours I had put in (along with all the sacrifices he and the kids had made to help me); Jill and Dave reminded me of Dave’s DNF at MMT a year ago, one that still makes him cry to think about; and Mike just remained quiet and composed. I kept begging Mike to tell them it was a good decision, since he had seen me at my absolute worst out on the trail, but he wouldn’t. He just told me to keep eating and then asked me to take a walk up the hill.
The sun was rising, and Fort Valley was beautiful in the mist below. Mike put his hands on my shoulders, looked right at me and said, “Sophie, 100-milers are not supposed to feel good. You are going through a bad patch and I know you will finish if you just walk with me to the next aid station. You have 10 hours to go 15 miles to the finish line. And most importantly, you do not want to go to school on Monday and have to tell those students who wrote good luck wishes all over your car that you quit….” That did it. He was absolutely right. I could not quit on my students, on my family, and on my dream of finishing my first 100. We walked back down the hill and onto the trail.
Sunday, May 8, 12:47 pm. The rest of the race was a blur. I was feeling good enough to jog slowly, and I actually climbed the last two ascents at a good clip (at least that’s what Mike kept telling me). I ate eggs, bacon, and sausage at the Powell’s Fort aid station and pizza and ice cream at Elizabeth Furnace, the last aid station before the finish. I even ran the last three miles of the race, finally grasping the enormity of what I was about to accomplish. As I crossed the field that led to the finish line, I heard my name being yelled by my friends, and I started to cry. I cried out of exhaustion, elation, joy, and with a grateful heart for all who had a part in helping get through MMT. Thank you especially to Jill, Dave, and Mike for everything you did for me to see me finish, and to Rusty, Chapin, Carter, Virginia, and my family for helping me to reach this goal. I love you all!
What I’m looking for after all this time, keeps me moving forward trying to find it
Since I learned to walk, all I’ve done is run
Ready on my mark, doesn’t everyone need a place in the world
Could be right before your very eyes, just beyond a door that’s opened wide
Could be far away or in your own back yard
There are those who say you can look too hard for your place in the world
It takes some of us a little longer
A few false starts will make you stronger
When I’m sure I’ve finally found it, I’m going to wrap these arms all around it
Could be one more mile or just one step back
In a lover’s smile or down a darkened path
Friends will take our side, enemies will curse us
But to be alive is to know your purpose
It’s your place in the world.
--Mary Chapin Carpenter