Spring, Massanutten, and The Ring of Fire

By Russ Evans

[Editor's Note: The pictures on this page are from Russ Evans. All links open in a new window. Most pop-up a picture relating to the text. The link, "The Father of the Boy Named Sue," opens another Web site in new window. If you click on any picture, you will get a pop-up of a larger picture. Some links are at the end of paragraphs as there was no natural link language in the text. -AD]

Bill Sublett, Mike Gholson, and Russ EvansIt was last Fall when I was talking to Bill Sublett and we decided that it was about time to tackle the Massanutten Ring run in the hard direction – counterclockwise. When considering the logistics, it seemed to make the most sense to start from Camp Roosevelt rather than the Signal Knob parking lot used in previous circuits, mainly to insure the long 24 mile stretch between Elizabeth Furnace and Camp Roosevelt was at the beginning of our run. We planned our assault on the course for March and started referring to it as the “Spring Ring”. A few trail running conversations later and Bill VanAntwerp had volunteered to be our crew, Mike Gholson had signed up for the run, and John Dodds had invited himself along to insure we received adequate harassment on the early part of our journey – he was only going to run this first section with us. It always adds a bit of stress having John Dodds along because you never know what ludicrous National Enquirer reports will be forthcoming – clearly, his day job does not keep him too busy.

In choosing the weekend for our run, we specifically chose the trail work weekend. Our contribution to the trail work was to be as “trail testers” – I mean, how else can one be sure that the other trail workers have adequately completed their assigned tasks? Anyway, as trail testers, we knew we were making our contribution to the club’s trail work efforts that weekend. I am happy to report that the trails were, for the most part, in great shape. There had been many blow downs on the Little Crease section near Veach Gap a month ago, and these were all gone this time, with evidence of being freshly cleared. I am sad to report though, that there were more than a few rocks still left on the trails.

The Start

We planned to meet at the trailhead at 5:15 AM Saturday morning, and be underway by 5:30 AM. John, Bill and I stayed in Luray the night before, while Mike was joining us from Harrisonburg. Bill VanAntwerp wasn’t going to meet up with us until Elizabeth Furnace. At 5:30 AM, Mike still wasn’t there. It is not like Mike to be late, but we weren’t worried. Instead, we went about making plans to ditch him and continue with our plans. You can tell that we are the kind of trail friends you want to have when you are having troubles. Just as we were getting out of the truck to get started, Mike showed up. A quick flurry of activity, photo documenting the start, and we were off on our adventure at around 5:50 AM. You could tell that Mike was grumpy because he hung back for the first hour or so of the run – I guess he was wondering what kind of trail buddies would just up and leave you behind.

The morning was quite cool at the start. We caught the sun as it rose over the Blue Ridge while we were running along the eastern spine of the Massanuttens. It was another great morning to be out on the trails engaging in the mindless trail banter that is typical of our runs. Soon enough, the morning started to warm up. We proceeded to shed some of our warmer layers to stay comfortable. Ultimately, the temps climbed up to the mid-sixties with clear skies, making for very enjoyable running during the day.

Trail Banter

Inevitably, when running with John Dodds, there is a lot of mindless trail banter. And some of that mindless chatter will be about chafing. We all know that John probably knows more about chafing than anyone – at least he has written more graphically about it than most care to know. Anyway, when the chafing conversation came up, I mentioned that I had heard through hearsay last week that the company that sells Preparation H had asked the estate of Johnny Cash if they could use his Ring of Fire song in their TV commercials. We all got a good laugh imagining how that contract negotiation might have played out. We also joked about how our Ring run was likely to be more like the Ring of Fire, with the amount of pain it was going to dish out. But at this early point in the run, we were all in good spirits and just enjoying our chance to spend the weekend on the trails. [Trail to Gary's Cabin | Indian Ridge Trail Head | Looking East from East Ridge of Massanutten Mountain | South Fork of the Shenandoah River | Bill and Mike Running]

VanAnimal and Kim – the best crew ever

Bill and Kim with three FinishersWhen Bill Sublett and I first planned this run, we envisioned doing it unsupported by just planting aid around the course. In retrospect, I cannot believe how naïve we were to think we could survive the Ring without crew support. When we came into Elizabeth’s Furnace, they had grilled cheese and chicken sandwiches ready to eat. All of our gear was readily available and laid out for us to re-stock. It was like this at every aid stop. And their cheerful demeanor was quite the welcome respite from the rigors of the trail. Bill V’s spirit is indomitable and he always seems to be in a chipper mood. He always had encouraging wisdom to impart. Kim was always helpful with refilling our camelbacks, pouring drinks, making sandwiches and/or soup. We could not have received better care. Looking back, I know that not only would the run have been more difficult without their help, I do not believe we would have been able to complete it. The course beats you up too much and we would not have been able to re-charge enough at the aid stops without their crewing assistance. Thank you Kim and Bill V.

The Billy Goat Trail

I don’t know why everyone always complains about the rocks on the Signal Knob Trail. I mean sure, it’s rocky, but going up it isn’t much worse than the rocks on Short or Kerns Mountain. We even saw mountain bikers cheerfully playing on this section; actually, they were huddling around an obviously broken bike, trying to breathe life back into it for another trip down the trail. However, we didn’t find this section particularly troubling at all.

When we arrived at the top, I started to take a picture when all of a sudden a billy goat comes scrambling up from over the edge. He was quite friendly and was very interested in any food we might have available. In fact, he became a bit pesky and wouldn’t leave us alone because he was sure we had some food for him. It was pretty strange to see this healthy looking billy goat hanging out at the top of Signal Knob; we were wondering where he came from. We eventually started down the road, finally arriving at Mudhole Gap where Bill and Kim were ready for us. We figured we had a couple of hours of daylight left and the temperature was still quite comfortable. A quick re-charge and we were back out on the trail.

Winter Views and Spring Weather

Aid Station CrewThe next section was actually quite enjoyable. While the trail was a bit rough with a few blow downs, it wasn’t that bad. Running along the ridge top, we had great winter views through the trees and we could see the North Fork of the Shenandoah River reflecting the late afternoon sunlight. The temperature was still comfortably Spring-like. Mike was saying how he hoped he would be able to see Woodstock in the daylight, since the only time he had ever been there before was in the middle of the night during MMT. We passed through a couple of tree-cleared sections near the end that provided great valley and river views. We staged a couple of “running” pictures with this backdrop.

Soon enough, we arrived at Woodstock. We grabbed lights and made our preparations for night running. We were expecting the next section to be long and difficult, as it typically is in MMT. I remember fiddling with my GPS for an inordinately long time – up to this point, I had successfully captured the complete track of our route on it. After replacing the batteries, it kept shutting down as soon as I turned it on. Eventually, I took out the batteries and re-inserted them to try and get them reseated in the battery compartment. This worked, but my trail cohorts had left me behind by then. I finally caught back up to them just as the last light of day was leaving us. [Trail Amphibian]

The Father of The Boy Named Sue

About this time, the wind started to pick up as a front started to move through. We were still traveling on the West slope of the mountain and feeling the full force of the wind coming out of the West. We were starting to appreciate that the second half of our adventure was going to be in somewhat more adverse weather conditions than the first half. But that was delayed for a bit because we then passed over to the East side and were protected from strong winds that had started up. During this time, we found ourselves able to run most of this section. The trail was in excellent shape and it was quite runnable. I have been on this section enough to see it when it is bad, so these great conditions were a nice surprise. We covered the section from Woodstock to Edinburg in 2:45, a lot faster than we had been anticipating.

Somewhere around this time, I asked Bill Sublett if he knew the words to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. I knew Bill liked country music and he often bursts out into song while we are on the trail. I figured if anyone would know the words to the song, it would be Bill. He is actually pretty good too – at least, I usually recognize the song he is singing anyway. But he did not know the words to Ring of Fire. However, he said he did know the words to a little known sequel to Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue, called The Father of the Boy Named Sue. Bill then launched into his rendition and had us cracking up while we were running along.

We were also able to make a couple of cell phone calls while up on the ridge. Mike got to talk to his daughter and find out how her basketball tournament had gone that day. I got a chance to say hello to Beth, my wife, and most importantly, find out how I was doing in my NCAA March Madness pool. She also gave us a weather report and said it looked like some rain would be coming with the weather front moving in on us. It sure is tough being alone in the cold dark mountains at night!

Short Mountain – NOT!

It was windy when we arrived at Edinburg Gap and prepared for Short Mountain. For the first time since the start, we sat down at the aid station and ate. Bill V had set up a nice windbreak to shelter us a bit from the wind. We were still feeling surprisingly good and were happy that we had made such good time on the last section. Maybe Short Mountain would go fast too.

Not long after we left Edinburg, it started to shower; nothing too much, just enough to get wet. I also remember starting to feel a bit queasy and breaking out into a cold, clammy sweat. I sat down on a rock to let it pass, knowing that my friends would not leave me behind. Soon enough, I realized I better get going or I would never be able to catch back up to them. I caught up to them just as we were completing the climb to the ridgeline on Short Mountain. The rain had made the rocks slippery and treacherous. The going became a lot slower and the fun was now becoming work. I would find it hard to describe what we did on this section as a “trail run”. We were now just concentrating on making relentless forward progress.

At one point, the skies opened up and it started pouring. We scrambled to get our garbage bag ponchos on and get some protection from the rain. Eventually, we finally started our descent off the long Short Mountain and worked our way down to Moreland Gap where our saviors were waiting for us. This was probably our low point in the adventure. We still had the long difficult section of Kerns, the end seemed very far away, it was now cold and windy and more wet weather was possible. “Why am I doing this?”, I wondered a couple of times out loud.

But Bill V and Kim did a fantastic job of feeding and preparing us for the next section. One thing for sure, when feeling like the pits, it was great to see the smiling, cheerful faces of Bill and Kim at our aid stops. These are the stops where their help was the most critical to our ability to complete the course. We were actually close to our cars at this point and, without their help, I could see us bailing and heading straight down Moreland Gap Road back to our vehicles and calling it a day.

Silent Night

Kerns Mountain was not much different than Short Mountain. I don’t think that any of us hardly spoke to each other on that whole section. It was still very high winds and we were exposed to the full brunt of it on the ridge top. At least it didn’t rain anymore – but the rocks were still wet and slippery, so the going was patient. I am just going to say that we managed to complete this section and leave it at that.

Just before we began our descent, I made the mistake of asking Bill Sublett how long the upcoming last section was going to be. “Ten miles”, he said after looking up the distances on a laminated chart he had prepared. “Ten miles!!!”, I groaned. At our current pace, it was going to take forever. I was ready for this adventure to be finished.

Again, Bill and Kim were ready for us as we came into the aid station. Some hot soup and hot chocolate and we were on our way. A couple glimmers of hope were that daylight would be upon us in about an hour and we would be traveling on the East side of a mountain and somewhat sheltered from the raging winds.

Bill Sublett and the Four Minute Mile

Bill Sublett left shortly before Mike and I from the last aid station. We were sitting inside of Bill V’s truck warming up a bit. We waved as he headed out. But soon we got out and started on our way too. I remember it being very windy and actually running at a good clip as I was anticipating the drop down Waterfall Mountain to get some shelter from the wind. Soon enough, we made the right turn that started us on our descent. The steepness of this particular slope always amazes me. It seems impossibly steep and I was glad that we were descending and not ascending it this time.

At Scothorn Gap TrailJust after Mike and I got to the bottom of Waterfall Mountain, we caught up to Bill. We now began the climb up to Scothorn Gap. I did not remember this climb as being particularly steep, but it seemed like it was hard work this time. As we continued on the climb, it started to get light out and soon we turned off our lights. Eventually, we finally made it to the intersection of the Massanutten and Scothorn Gap trails. Mike paused to puke here. Bill and I left him to his solitary misery while we continued the climb to the top of Duncan Hollow, singing Motown hits from The Temptations as we went. At this point, we knew we had about six more miles, but nearly all of it was downhill.

Even though Mike had not yet caught back up with us, Bill suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to run some of this for a while. I said sure, knowing Mike would be along soon and that he had been running strong throughout the whole adventure – probably the most consistently strong of all of us. Well, Bill took off faster than I have ever seen him run before. I backed off briefly and then Mike came around the corner complaining about his stomach. I told him that Bill was just ahead and we had a long stretch of downhill running.

All I can say is that Bill must have really been cranking. It was a very long time before we were finally able to catch up to him – and that was only because he had dropped back into a walk again. He said it might have been the fastest trail running he had ever done and he just wanted to get this finished.

Soon we hit the turnoff to the right where we cross Passage Creek and then had a nice last mile of exceptionally well-groomed trail to our finish. Bill V and Kim were there to greet us as we finally completed our adventure. Our total time was 26:09:37 for the 70+ miles; it was about 8:00 AM on Sunday morning. No question about it, The Massanutten Ring is a tough beast to conquer. I am very glad to have completed it and I can also say I am in no rush to repeat it! And there is no way we could have done this without our fantastic crew support from Bill V and Kim – they were even willing to cook us breakfast at the finish line!

Map with Russ's GPS Data on the Run
This is a 894 x 1200 picture!

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