Run a Hundred; Race a Hundred
by Bethany Hunter
Do you ever wonder what the legendary runners think about before a race? Does Yiannis Kouros ever get nervous before he sets yet another world record? Does Ann Trason ever feel those anxious butterflies when she stands at the starting line of Western States; or are those feelings reserved for us mere mortals? At least for me the preparation and anticipation before a race is sometimes more stressful than the actual event. I am always so glad when the race day arrives, so that the run can get underway. Good or bad, successful or not, at least the time has finally come!
This year as I drove up to MMT with my dad, my mind traveled back to last year’s race. I was preparing to run my first hundred-mile race, and I was so nervous I was sick to my stomach. The longest I had ever run at that time was 50 miles, and here I thought that suddenly qualified me to run 100 miles in the Massanutten Mountains?!? Would I really be able to finish? Just how far was a hundred miles anyway? Doubts filled my mind, but I knew barring any disaster I WOULD finish.
The weather last year was wonderful. It was a little on the hot side, but we did not get the notorious rain that plagued the race in previous years. I guess you cannot be so lucky two years in a row! In the pre-race briefing, race director Ed Demoney reminded us that our training would get us through the first 50 miles, and our minds would get us through the last 50 miles. I had no idea how true those words would be for me that day. I made it through 70 miles with few problems. I was relatively tired, but no more than anyone else out there. I was pleased to be feeling so good with only 30 miles to go. That was the calm before the storm, and I soon discovered just how far 30 miles could be when your body is screaming in pain. My left knee starting hurting with each step to the point where I could no longer run any of the flat or downhill sections. I was reduced to a whimpering, hobbling shell of a runner shuffling along into the endless night. David Horton (my pacer) helped me through those painful miles, by sharing his own past struggles. People ask me what I think about during all those hours on the trail. Well, at one point I stopped to stare at the ants that I saw crawling all over the trail. I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from, or if they were really ants at all. Then I realized that had there actually been ants on the trail, I would have been in a lot of pain since I had been standing in the middle of them for several minutes! At least I was not thinking about my hurting body at that moment!
Finally the night gave way to another gorgeous day, and my outlook steadily improved with the rising sun. After walking for probably 12-13 hours straight, I suddenly realized that my knee was not hurting so much anymore. Looking back, I think that a lot of the pain was mental more than physical. Sure I was hurting, but so was everyone else. I wanted to feel sorry for myself, and once my mind wandered down that path there was no turning back. We made it to the last aid station and I knew I would finish. I actually (sort of) ran the last 3 miles to the finish. 30 hours and 56 minutes after my ordeal began, I finished my first (and I swore my last) hundred-miler. No race since has meant more to me than that one finish because I had to dig deeper into myself than I ever thought possible. After all, is that not the very reason we challenge ourselves in the first place?
Now fast-forward a year to the 2003 Massanutten 100-mile race. I was back, and this year I had a very different objective. After finishing the grueling 250-mile Tuscarora stage race in March, I knew I was ready for MMT both mentally and physically. The question was how long would it take me, and would I be able to compete with Sue Johnston? She had won the race three times before and held the current female course record. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. Besides all that I still had to remember that no runner is ever guaranteed a finish in a 100-miler. A lot can happen before the finish, and it was not the time to be overconfident.
I was in a nervous, somber mood the night before the race, because this year I knew exactly what I would face the next day. There is a naïve calm that comes when you face an unknown challenge. That would not be the case this year. I knew that MMT could be a relentless predator waiting for one moment of weakness or one mistake to strike with a vengeance. That may be a bit melodramatic, but I really felt that it was me against those beautiful (huge) mountains.
Saturday morning FINALLY arrived and we were off! Rain began falling probably within the first hour of the race. It would continue for most of the day and into the night. At least we did not have waste time worrying about keeping our feet dry! The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, because it kept the temperature cooler than the predicted 80-degree weather. I chatted briefly with Gary Knipling before he was sidetracked by the local flora. Except for the race number he wore, you would never guess that he was running in the same race as the rest of us. I have never seen someone have as much fun in a race as Gary! I focused my thoughts mostly on eating and drinking early on. I knew that eating would be difficult later in the race, and I would need every bit of energy to finish strongly. The first 25 miles went by uneventfully, but I felt more tired than I liked at that early stage in the race. The same thing happened last year, so I was not too concerned. I tend to feel tired and sluggish in the beginning of most ultras before I get into my rhythm. In this case it took me about 25 miles to get into the groove. I had two Camelbaks, which I would switch out at each aid station. I snacked on cliff shots, pb&j sandwiches, beef jerky and cans of ensure throughout the race. I took an electrolyte capsule every hour to prevent muscle cramps, and tried to drink as much as possible. I was in the lead for most of the race, but Sue was never too far behind. I passed her one time coming into an aid station just as I was leaving. We were within 5-10 minutes of each other for most of the race. I had to fight my competitive urges tempting me to run too fast, and I forced myself to just run my own race.
I made it to the turnaround point well under my time from last year and ahead of my projected pace for this year. To be honest I was not even looking at my watch for most of the race. I just ran according to how my body felt and tried to concentrate on eating and drinking. In spite of the rain and the muddy trails, I was actually enjoying myself. The rain finally stopped later in the evening after being a steady force throughout the entire day. My pacer, David Horton, began running with me at mile 64. I was thrilled to have some company for the upcoming sections. The 8.2 mile section crossing Short Mountain was the beginning of the end for me last year, and took me about 3.5 hours to complete. This year we were able to make it about halfway across before having to turn on our lights. Covering the distance before nightfall made a huge difference for me, and I got to the next aid station in 2.5 hours (a whole hour faster than last year!).
My dad was constantly keeping track of how far behind Sue was at each aid station. I knew she would keep pushing to the end, and she has a reputation for being a strong finisher. I could never relax knowing she was always right back there. And she proved why she is so good when she passed me for the first time 85 miles into the race. Initially I felt like the wind had been let out of my sails. I had led the race for so long only to get passed with 15 miles to go. I thought that I would have to settle for second place after all. Then I realized something. Even though she had passed me initially, I was staying with her on the trail. The race was on. I can only speak for myself, but I did not really want to race her to the finish. After all, we had already covered over 85 miles, but I knew neither of us would let up. We formed a pattern in which she would pass me on the uphills, while I was able to make up the distance going downhill. The odds were in my favor since there was more downhill in the final stages of the race. If I could just stay with her to the last climb, I knew I would have a chance to win. We both came running into the second to last aid station, grabbed a little food and drink and were off again into the darkness in less than 3 minutes. As we ran along a dirt road I looked over and saw a light on the side of the path. Whom did I see but John Geelser sitting there fixing his shoes. We passed by without a word, but I remember thinking that I had never seen John in a race before. He had been way ahead of me earlier in the race, and I hoped he was not having serious problems. I made it to the top of the climb in the lead and faced a long 4-mile descent to the last aid station at Elizabeth Furnace. My quads were feeling fairly strong at this point so I just let myself fly on the downhill. I had nothing to lose. I guess the adrenaline kicked in, because I ran faster in those four miles than probably any other point in the race. I felt almost like I was in a trance. I forgot about winning or losing and just let my body glide down the trail. People always talk about endorphins and the runner’s high, and I think that is as close as I have ever been to such a feeling.
We made it to Elizabeth Furnace and began the last five-mile section to the finish. I drank a can of Boost and some Mountain Dew, left my pack with my dad and took off on the final leg of my journey. I had been able to eat the entire race up to this point, but I guess all the running finally got to me. Not long after leaving the aid station I suddenly coughed and proceeded to throw up three times. I had not felt nauseous at all beforehand, so I was sort of surprised to throw up. Oh well, I only had a few miles to go and no time to waste. Unfortunately now I was hungry and had not brought any more food with me. The last climb was torture. I felt like all the energy had drained away and I was running on fumes. I saw the light of a runner ahead of me on the switchbacks, but could not quite catch the mystery man. Come to find out it was Harry Bruell, whom I had run with earlier in the day. My one consolation was the fact that Horton was tired as well. Sorry, but it did make me feel better. Running the last three miles down to the finish I thought back to the different things that had brought me to this point. All the time and effort (and even some tears) were paying off. I finally relaxed and let myself enjoy the moment. The sun was beginning to rise and the morning was glorious. I got a little choked up when the clubhouse came into view signaling the end of the adventure. Horton and I were both grinning like idiots probably looking like mental patients running down the final stretch of road. I crossed the finish line to a few cheering souls in a time of 24 hours 40 minutes, which was a new women’s record. Sue finished about 15 minutes behind me looking just as strong as she did at the start of the race. She also beat her old course record by about 35 minutes! Despite all the rain and mud, it turned out to be an incredible day.
It is hard to compare my two Massanutten experiences. Both are special to me for very different reasons. Last year’s finish was a battle of will and determination just to finish. This year I had to decide if I would be happy finishing but knowing I did not give it my all. Sue helped me to do just that and I would not have wanted it any other way. Life does not get much better than this!
Bethany Hunter at finish -- Photo courtesy of Bunny Runyan