Adding It Up
By John Prohira
Our most solemn and pressing problem is not "original sin" but "original splendor," the knowledge of our potential godlikeness. We grow sick with the guilt of having lived below our authentic level. - Theodore Roszek
I'll try to adequately describe a May weekend running in the Virginia mountains. One year I attempted this by recounting a parable about a snail told us by race director Ed Demoney the evening before our journey began. Last year it was babble about unicorns and maidens. I do not believe a complete picture was painted using either story. This time I'll try being more analytical when writing about the Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run. I'll use Massanutten Math while sharing with you impressions of one of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club's premiere events and the people associated with it. But you must keep in mind that there are many ways to do this math.
The two days of May 11th and 12th comprised a great weekend for kicking some rock on the mountain overlooking the Shenandoah Rivers. Daring Dan Lapota and I left Western New York on Friday morning for the drive towards the race's start in Front Royal, Virginia. One of the rewards this type of running has given me is people like Dan. There's a lot that that 100-mile virgin and I had in common, this became more evident as that morning rolled on and we moved south through New York, Pa., Maryland and West Virginia. Dan's taste in music is unparalleled and I was exposed to tunes I never knew existed. He obviously knew how to choose a traveling companion; I need not write that the conversation that day was witty, profound and intelligent. But the most important aspect of our bonding on the trip was the reinforcement and validation of the behavior we exhibit running trails. . . . the idea that more is better.
Doing math one needs numbers, here are a couple to begin with. There would be 131 runners lining up at the start line in a field behind Skyline Ranch Resort's clubhouse at 5AM on Saturday. The purpose of this endeavor is to end up there again after traversing on foot 100.9 miles with more than 18,000 foot of climb and a comparable amount of descent. If the task is to be done properly the runner must finish in less than 36 hours time. 82 of the starters would step across the finish line. Another factor to keep in mind when doing Massanutten Math is that everything counts, the little things and the big things. Things that can be measured like temperature, distance and elevation, also sights seen, sensations tasted and felt and thoughts and revelations that come during the journey.
The start of any 100-miler is always relaxed for me. More so for this one. Maybe because it's my favorite and I want to savor it. Maybe because it is so challenging and I've learned that patience is a virtue. We climbed into the dawn on Saturday chitchatting while sucking air. Up on top of the ridge looking off into first light of day and the valley below it was obvious that the reward of our ascent surpassed the effort. Through the rising fog I could literally see for miles. The sun felt warm and nurturing on the skin of my face, warm in spite of the breezes found on top of this and every other ridge we would visit during the next 1-½ days. We would climb up then down the east side of the mountain all the while traveling south away from the start. Then return from where we came by heading north, ridge running up and down the other side of the mountain. I carried and drank two bottles of fluid in between each aid station. One bottle contained CLIP. The other was filled with diluted Ensure Plus. I was using this on the suggestion of Greg Loomis, a friend and young ultra star. 350 calories could be taken in with each can of Ensure swallowed. I used that combination for more than 24 hours. Help was offered the runners along the course and added into my Massanutten Math calculations. 16 aid stations line the course at intervals ranging from 3 to more than 8 miles. Most but not all lie at the bottom of a descent. Early in the race it was easy to come strong into these stations looking like a runner, this changed quicker than I would have preferred. Dozens of aid station workers pampered and lied to the runners continually. I usually leave any aid station believing these fibs, deluding myself that I do indeed look strong.
I came into Camp Roosevelt at 33.3 miles around 12:30, 7 ½ hours after our start. I did the math and liked the result - almost 4-½ mile per hour + three climbs resulting in spectacular vistas of the world below. This aid station had the feel of a party about it and I had to leave before I saw more value in socializing than in MMT100 sight seeing. A couple of miles from the Visitor Center at 47 miles I was told that the race leader was a fellow who had never before run this distance, very impressive. Now about teatime it was beginning to happen to me. Something that used to scare the heck out of me, it's still a bit uncomfortable but I expect it and almost look forward to it. My ego's protective shell was beginning to crack, the distance and fatigue starting to humble lofty goals that were being replaced with gentler aspirations. I liken it to having the skin peeled off my body in thin layers at a time. As the energy begins to wane and the feet start to hurt my senses grow keener. It's like all my sensory receptors are becoming exposed. Like I'm wearing my nerves as a thin veneer. Emotion lay just below the surface, close to the world surrounding me, ready to receive messages that mean something important. It is definitely an altered state and at times a "sappy" and sentimental one at that. Life seems so big at that moment. I feel part of and I like it in spite of labored breath, the cyclical occurrence of nausea and tired legs. And with this changed view of the world comes the certainty that what I am doing is important. Without that certainty I will not continue, could not finish.
The Visitor Center is a big station with many people milling about waiting for loved ones and many special treats are offered there. I washed the salt cakes from my face and feasted upon fresh fruit and cola while waiting for my bottle to be refilled by workers always at the ready. I bid these kind folk farewell and headed towards the southern most part of the course. From the Visitor's Center it's up and up to the highest point on the MMT100. As I scrambled up others made their way down. With my new found awareness I looked deep into their eyes and empathized with each. Some of my Virginian friends bounded down the steep trail. Other's tiptoed. It was a treat to see the Knipling father-son combination running so close to one another, Gary the father with the biggest grin on the course chasing Keith the son and thirty years his junior. Surrounded by more competence than I find anywhere else in the world it seemed as if the valley below smiled at us. 51 miles and 5:45 PM. All was well and it was time to head home.
On trails of this type lessons are presented and examples are shown. Here on Massanutten Mountain men and woman from across the country and from around the world were testifying. They had been doing it for hours now. It starts to rub off on me. It was a testament to their lifestyle and embrace of life that had brought them to the starting line. All worked their math and magic in private and individual ways; all possessed the stuff of life that I want. As I made my way past Bird Knob, readying for the descent I caught out of the corner of my eye the sight of two of my favorite people sitting on a rock overhang with their arms around one another. Here the combination of hours of nausea, love and loyalty had brought Steve and Deb Pero to a standstill. It frightened me to see these two strong and capable runners sitting. Their declared plan had been to run the course together. Both are veterans of this race and many other challenging 100-mile and multi-day events. Steve had taken sick and as the result had been unable to eat and refuel. He was spent. Deb on the other hand felt fine. But her devotion to her husband would not allow her to leave him even after being encouraged to do so by Steve himself. I was touched then as I am now writing of it. Deb could have left her man in the hands of capable aid personnel at the bottom of this hill and continued on. He would have been fine. But innate faithfulness and allegiance on her part would not allow that. It seems that the lovely Mrs. Pero takes a pledge seriously.
I'm trying but still coming up short in describing the beauty of that example of love and what it means to me. The math atop Massanutten Mountain was beginning not to add up. It brought to mind questions asked me about my running and silly responses I often give about how my spouse handles my running, the time away from family and the travel involved in doing what I do. I usually say, "Lisa doesn't mind. She doesn't seem to miss me. I think that she just isn't all that fond of me." I know that is not true. But in the midst of factoring the image of the Peros into the my Massanutten Math I was struck by how great a gift of love Lisa gives me by recognizing the importance of what I do. Although not something she wants to do herself she understands and sees the value in my going off into the woods like this. She gives me the opportunity to chase the sort of spiritual food I need in order to be the best person I'm capable of being. Lisa is special and a very amazing woman.
With images of strong, secure and devoted women in my head the descent was effortless. Others were marching up the hill as I came down. Best wishes were offered in both directions. At 7:30 PM I reached my headlamp and gloves. A young man at that aid station handed me a wet, cold washcloth for my face and head and it was heaven! Six climbs waited in the next 40 + miles but none as intimidating as those encountered so far. I'm enamored with the sensitivity that accompanies ultramarathoning fatigue, this emotional view of the world. As night approached the price paid for the spiritual experience of 100 miles on Massanutten Mountain grew more costly. Perhaps saying that the cost grew dearer would be a better description. The biggest source of discomfort was my feet. No surprise there. Running/walking on that much rock has to take its toll. In the weeks leading up to this event I thought perhaps I'd toughen the bottoms of my feet up by smacking them with my wife's meat tenderizing hammer. I didn't but that is how they felt, very tender. It had rained in the days before this race and there was a lot of water on the course but not much mud because in order to make mud one needs dirt not rock. There was one muddy section of trail late in the race that I reveled in, it felt as nice on my rock weary feet as plush carpeting might. Mountain runoff followed the path of least resistance often flowing down our trail. The water levels in the course's streams were high enough to require the use of stepping-stones or log bridges in efforts to keep feet dry. My shoes seemed always to be wet, my socks damp. That combination of wet feet, trail dust in shoes and the charm of MMT rocks eventually slowed me down to less than 3 miles per hour.
I found the rocky descents most difficult. Time required to cover the nighttime downhills increased skewing the math. The anticipation of the pain that would greet every foot plant became at times intimidating, then it would pass only to return. In other years I worried about the infamous Short Mountain section of the course at 70 miles. Here atop the ridge for 2-3 miles the course meanders over rock fields, over boulders larger than pickup trucks. But at least it was relatively level up there. Short Mountain's reward included views of the sparsely lit sleeping valley below. One moment to wished I were down there, safe and secure, the next I thanked my Higher Power that I wasn't and I appreciated where I was. All day we had followed yellow streamers as trail markers and confidence builders. After dusk the occasional beacon of yellow glow sticks reminded me that all was well and that someone, probably many some ones had taken the time and effort to place them there for us. These same generous souls would return soon and remove all markers, leaving the forest as it was found a few days earlier. More entries to be put onto my math card. I spent the night with a runner from Harrisburg, Pa. I'd met at dusk. Randy and I kept one another on course and relatively amused and distracted. Whippoorwills sang along some sections of night trail but not as many as I remember the first year I came here. Barred Owls occasionally hooted and at dawn I became convinced the one sat just up ahead off trail on a rock watching and waiting for us. My trail companion had no comment on this figment of my imagination and we continued to move towards the finish through our hallucinations.
Second dawn brought with it Woodstock Tower and the 83-mile mark. I was told that hang gliders use this section of mountain as a launch point, but then at that point in the day I'd believe anything (refer to earlier statement about aid personnel and their lies). As always here, the last 12 miles are a blur. Breakfast including bacon and eggs was offered at the 88-mile mark. I passed on that taking instead pepperoni and ice cold water. A man fishing in Passage Creek near the last aid station in Elizabeth's Furnace asked what we were doing and why. Believe it or not I had no answer for him other than , "we like to run." Chris Scott and his pretty assistant fed and watered me one last time then turned me out and back onto the trail encouraging me over one last climb and descent.
My entries into my Massanutten Math ledger continued, but now my documentation contained more of the intangibles than hard facts. Mark Twain said that - "anyone who has had a bull by the tail knows five or six things more than someone who hasn't." I like that. It made sense to the weary traveler I now was. Sunday morning I knew a few things about a few things and was pleased with that. I appreciated more the little stuff. Like ice-cold water and the revitalizing the aroma of azaleas growing along the trail. I knew the importance of seeing lone violet-like flowers growing between rocks finding enough dirt to survive and blossom. I felt the genuine goodwill and best wishes for success from my fellow runners. A strong long-legged Texas lady passed me after dawn and I was truly happy for her and the fact that she would finish before me. After 30 hours on trail I presumptuously assume I understand why others running the ultramarathon do it. Hans-Dieter Weisshaar from Germany returns each year to run on the mountain, as does the exotic Catra Corbett from the west coast. Is it "original splendor" they chase? I think so. These people are my heroes. I understand completely why the famous Suzi Cope would declare at the pre race briefing this to be her last 100-miler. This ageless runner would finish the toughest race east of the Rockies and then leave on her terms. What conviction! There was purity in the naïve energy and excitement of my friend Dan as he blasted down the hills early in his race. There was also a deep strength and courage in his waiting at race's end for others finishing what he didn't. Dan had earned Visitor's status by reaching mile 83 where his race ended, an effort that would have gotten him across most every other 100-mile finish line in the country. I knew he was saddened by his DNF but his example of rising above disappointment and cheering the rest of us on is something I'll not soon forget.
It just doesn't add up. I tried using the mountain math but it didn't work. All the parts, big and small taken together are many more times bigger than the sum of their parts should have been. Even when it seemed to work it didn't. Michael Bur is an engineer I chatted with a bit before and after our race. Michael loves numbers and statistics; it's what he does for a living. He had researched the race. Analyzed previous years splits and projected finishing times for himself based upon that data. He had a good race, tying for 5th place in less than 26 ½ hours. He showed me his race plan, the calculated times into aid stations, the times out. One after another, on and on. He showed me on paper what his goal time was. Then he showed me his watch that had recorded his effort which differed 15 seconds from his projection over 100.9 miles. Wow! That's what the couple of pounds of muscle in man's head can do. The brain can calculate trips to the moon, split atoms or dam a river. The brain can calculate how fast a strong runner like Michael will take to get home providing nothing goes wrong. That adds up. But something this humble man said in not taking complete credit for his outstanding finish was an addendum to my mountain math. Michael said - "I had a good race because nothing went wrong." The same brain computing trajectories of rockets can also compose music and poetry and get a runner not as strong as Michael across the finish when it really shouldn't be possible, even when something does go wrong. That's what amazes me. That's what I'm in love with.
Soon after the halfway point I was for all intensive purposes skinless, completely exposed and fully aware of just how fragile I am. I believe that to be a very good thing to realize about oneself. Funny that it's only the finer parts of the race that I remember most vividly and hold dear. Stepping across that finish line more than 32 hours after starting was rewarding, it always is. The bigger reward is knowing that there are gentle, sentimental things I can do and want to do only because of the difficult and painful moments endured out there undergoing a measure of risk and trying to be more. Tragedy is a man wanting to be more than he is and failing at it. I saw no tragedy at this year's MMT100. No one starting that journey failed.
My math analogy doesn't quite work in explaining the weekend. I'll keep trying. I write this stuff in order to share with others but also because I want to remember it. My writing exercises help cement the experience, it helps lend a sense of permanence to something that is for me so intangible yet so very important.
In closing here's a couple of quotations I'd like to share after a quick view of the MMT100 course:
Life is a desperate struggle to succeed in being in fact that which we are in design. - Ortega y Gasset
Beyond the very extremity of fatigue and distress we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction." - William James, "The Varieties of Religious Experience."
If I can't go faster I'll go longer. - Doug Barber
And one I've used before:
This course is so tough I won't even have to lie about it - Unknown
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