by John Guendelsberger
Early January 2005, I set running MMT 100 as one of my goals for the year. In my only previous 100-miler, 2001 Old Dominion, I finished in 23:15. I knew I was in for a bigger challenge at MMT (over 80% trail) compared to Old Dominion (20% trail). I had about 4 months to train. I gradually increased my weekly mileage from my usual 40 to 60-70 by March and April. I did a couple of 50K runs (a Fat Ass and HAT), a 50 miler (BRR) and made several weekend trips over to the MMT course, usually running/walking for about 8 or 9 hours before heading home. Three of these trips were with VHTRC runners, once to cover the first third of the course to Camp Roosevelt, once to do the Chocolate Bunny night run from 211 East to Woodstock, and a third time over the last 15 miles of the course. These sessions on the trail with other runners preparing for MMT got me familiar with the course and confident that, if things went well, I could finish within the cutoff. I'm very grateful to Tom Corris and the many volunteers who organized these truly helpful training runs.
I spent lots of time studying the posted runners' reports from previous MMTs and the split times. I meticulously prepared my expected arrival times for each aid station. As a rough measure I hoped to arrive at Camp Roosevelt by 1 p.m., Route 221 East by 8 p.m., Woodstock by 6 a.m., and finish by noon. I carried my splits with me for the entire race but, as it turned out, I never looked at them and never really worried whether I was on schedule or not. This is the luxury of being a middle-of-the pack runner. I could pretty much run as I felt, enjoy the trail, and not worry about time, place, or cutoffs.
As the day for MMT drew near I was still puzzling over what shoes to wear, what lights would work best at night, and what to eat during the run. In the end, I decided to wear road shoes for the first 40 miles and then switch to a pair of well-broken-in Montrail Hardrocks. I need to carry two lights -- a headlamp and an LED handheld in order to pick my way through the rocky portions of trail at night. I decided to stash Ensure 350s and V-8s in my drop bags (idea taken from Aaron Schwartzbard's very helpful reports on MMT). I practiced downing the 350s in training runs, and was glad I did as they have the consistency of latex paint and, if chugged too quickly, tend not to stay down.
Thursday night before the run I got little sleep. I had not yet prepared drop bags and was lying awake thinking through what I would need and where. It took me several hours Friday morning to prepare and mark the bags. Once done, I headed over to the Skyline Ranch and got settled into one of the chalets within walking distance of the start. I'd be alone Friday night. My wife Nese and 9-year-old son Eren would drive over Saturday afternoon and meet me on Sunday at the finish. After the race briefing and a helping of pasta, I turned in early. I set a travel alarm and the alarm clock in the cabin, but was worried they might not work. I called home and Nese agreed to give me a 4 a.m. wake-up call. With that, I felt relaxed that I wouldn't miss the start, and slept soundly. Both alarms and Nese's call came through.
It was chilly as I walked to the start so I kept on several layers of shirt and jacket. I put on a waist belt with two bottles, one for water, the other Gator Aid. Before I knew it we were bunched up along the road waiting for the start signal. I took it easy for the first 2.5 miles on the road, just enjoying the exhilaration of actually being a part of this group of runners taking on the mountain. I eavesdropped on conversations of nearby runners some of whose voices or names I recognized as friends exchanged greetings and good wishes.
When we headed onto the trail, I managed to step into the middle of the stream and headed up the first hill with wet feet. As a long line of us moved up single file, I felt something bulky in my right jacket pocket. When I reached inside I found that I'd forgotten to drop the travel alarm in my car, as planned. Oh well, at least I could check my time before dropping it at the aid station. Several runners passed me on the uphill climb. At the top of Buzzards, I stopped to tighten laces and get a good view of dawn breaking over Fort Valley on the right. After finishing the climb to the summit, I felt relaxed and comfortable on the first downhill stretch into Shawl Gap. There I downed the V-8 quickly and took along the Ensure to sip gradually as I headed up the road section. I stashed the clock in the drop bag, but forgot to check the time. Had I looked, I'd have learned that I was already 15 minutes behind schedule.
The 3 mile road section to Veach Gap has some ups and downs. Feeling pretty warmed up after the Shawl Gap downhill, I had shed my outer jacket and vest jacket at the aid station. That still left me with a short sleeve shirt and a long sleeve shirt over it, but I was wishing the sun would rise a little bit over the tree line on our left to give us a bit more warmth. I had projected half an hour for this section but my splits show that it took me 41 minutes. I had now covered two sections of the course and was 25 minutes behind my projected time. Probably a good thing I didn't know this at the time because I probably would have pushed the pace prematurely.
I like the second climb that leads to Milford Gap. It starts up a gradual slope with some twists and turns through the lower wooded section then heads up a long steep rocky straightaway with a steep dropoff and expansive view over the looping Shenandoah on the left. The morning sun and the effort of the climb now had me feeling warm and energized. On the way up I slurped another Ensure and felt pretty good by the time we got to the ridge and headed to Milford Gap. I felt like I was moving along well, was enjoying the run, and thinking how lucky we were to have such perfect weather.
After the Milford aid station, the trail continues for a couple more miles on the ridge, then heads down a purple-blazed trail to another road section of about 4 miles. On the ridge runners were getting thinned out quite a bit. For some stretches there would be no other runner in sight. As we neared the end of the road section, however, I ended up in the midst of about 20 runners within about 100 yards. There was something reassuring about the company of this large clump of runners all of whom looked in great shape. I was still running easily and comfortably. I'd left no drop bag at this aid station, so quickly refilled the bottles to head up the steep climb and then the long downhill section to Camp Roosevelt. I'd now fallen 42 minutes behind schedule, but didn't know it, felt great, and was looking forward to the spectacular views on the tough climb up and, after that, what I remembered as a nice runnable section of trail downhill to Camp Roosevelt.
On the way up the hill I fell in behind John Prohira. I mentioned that I'd read his reports on previous MMTs. We talked a bit about his "3 Bull Run + 1 hour" formula. I mentioned that this was one of the benchmarks I'd considered in setting my goals for the run. Under that formula, I might aim for a 28 hour finish. But for a first MMT, my overriding strategy was to chart a conservative pace to the finish. If I had legs to pick up the pace at the end, fine. As we parted John said "stay within yourself." I picked up the pace a bit, but kept this advice in mind for the rest of the run.
I caught up with Ed Shultze in this stretch and ran some of the downhill with him. At one point, I offered the comment that I thought we were almost to Camp Roosevelt. Ed said he wasn't sure and that a lot of the trail looked the same here. After another mile, I ventured that I'd been wrong but that now we were almost there. We had just passed some rather rotund hikers going the other way and carrying no water, so I felt pretty safe with my second prediction. About a mile and half later we arrived at Camp Roosevelt. I kept kind of quiet during that stretch.
My projections called for arriving at Camp Roosevelt by 1 p.m. My splits show that I was 15 minutes late but didn't know it and didn't ask the time. Three of the toughest climbs and one third of the course were now behind me, and I was still feeling pretty good, considering. I grabbed some food, said "hello" to Vicki Kendall working at the aid station, and headed back out.
The first part of the trail out of Camp Roosevelt is a gradual uphill with a stream to the left. Here I ran a bit with Chuck Wilson from California. We talked about how lucky we were that this piece of trail was practically dry. Chuck described how last year there had been considerable rain and this stretch had been a muddy mess. This year there were just a couple of wet spots, easily avoided by using the stepping stones in place.
I had some trouble when I got to the downhill stretch to Gap Creek Three years ago I turned my right ankle on the trail portion of the JFK 50 at mile 13. I finished but ended with an ankle swollen to grapefruit size and three months of physical therapy before I could get back to running. I've gotten better at avoiding sprains, but I still approach rocky downhills cautiously to avoid rolling an ankle.
I was looking forward to the Gap Creek aid station because trail grit had filtered through my socks and I could feel the first hint of blistering under my toes and heals. Michelle Harmon and other aid station folks gave me great help in changing socks, attending blisters, and getting into the Hardrock trail shoes. With fuel and fresh feet, I felt great heading up to the ridge and then the long stretch over Kerns Mountain.
Halfway up the climb to Jawbone Gap, I saw Chuck again and he commented that I must have spent a long time in the aid station. I explained that I'd changed socks and shoes and we ended up talking about shoes and gaiters. If gaiters don't fit or are made of the wrong material they can be uncomfortable or break apart during the run. He showed me how his attached with velcro at the back of the shoe and were made of a silk-like material that avoided chaffing problems and kept the dust out well enough that he did not need to change socks during a 100 miler. I appreciated all this good advice and, given what I would experience with blisters later in the day, I'm convinced that I will not take on another 100 miler without trying gaiters.
If feels great to get to the top of the climb at Jawbone, but all you really think about, once you catch your wind, is that you have to climb it all over again 25 miles later. After the top, Kerns mountain trail seems to go on forever. Once you cross over the ridge to the east side, the mountain tricks you several times into thinking you are headed down to the road, only to send you back up toward the ridge again and again. Finally, the ridge was finished and I could enjoy the gently winding downhill trail to the road section. The 2 miles of road is pretty much downhill and the last section is a hairpin turn that drops fairly steeply to where it meets Route 211 at the Visitors's Center. It is tempting to let go and get in a fast mile or so at this point, but my quads were warning me that I'd pay a price later if I tried to gain a few minutes by pushing this downhill. So I tried to take it easy.
On the road to Visitor Center I was wondering whether I'd see Nese. We'd made rather loose arrangements to meet at this aid station if possible. Nese was there! She had my drop bag all ready, wet towels to wash the salt off my face and neck, and a bag of snacks for the trip up to Bird Knob. What a great lift this gave me. Nese told me it was about 6:20 and assured me I was nearly on schedule. Hearing that I was within 20 minutes of my plan at this point in the run didn't seem so bad.
Nese walked with me down the wildflower path. We looked for the Lady Slippers that might be in bloom on the side of the trail but somehow missed them. At the start of the climb to Bird Knob I saw that some runners had left their belts along the side of the trail to pick up on the way back down. This hadn't occurred to me before, but now seemed like a good idea. I stashed my belt and took along just one water bottle. I knew I could get a refill at the top and that one bottle would be plenty. This is a tough climb and I appreciated a break from the belt. It saved me energy and time on this stretch.
On the climb up, I saw several runners on their way back down from Bird Knob. Among the first were Sophie Speidel and Mike Bur. Both of them looked great as they worked their way through the last rocky section of the descent. Kerry Owens went by soon after, also looking good. Then came Gary Knipling looking strong and on his way to another super finish.
The folks at Bird Knob aid station fixed me up with a cup of hot chicken broth, quite a treat at this halfway point in the run. After the aid station there is a long downhill stretch on the road and then more downhill on dirt trail until a gradual climb up the white trail loops us around to meet orange again and back down the hill. I stuck with a group of about eight runners who race-walked much of this portion at a steady pace. I was able to run some of the downhill, but cautiously. I had a good feeling during the last two mile stretch into the 211 aid station knowing that I'd see Nese again. My schedule called for an 8 p.m arrival time. I arrived at 8:02.
The sky was darkening as I prepared the headlamp and flashlight for the night portion of the run, filled the bottles and tried to down the last of the Ensure that I'd been nursing. As I said my goodbyes and thanks to Nese and aid station crew, the rain began. What started as a gentle drizzle when I crossed 211 soon turned into a shower. Fortunately, it lasted only a few minutes. I was wet but not completely drenched.
Night fell as I began the white trial at the top of the hill. The combination of headlamp and flashlight were working well. I was wondering whether I had packed enough clothes for the night as the air had cooled considerably after the rain. As I finished the downhill and reached the road, a car passed by and, by sheer luck, it was Nese. She had gone over to the mall and bought me a jacket for the night but was not sure whether she was on time to find me at Gap Creek aid station. I ran the 2 mile road section pretty hard to meet her there. Once there, I changed into dry socks, shorts, shirts and jacket. I felt like a new person beginning the second trek up to Jawbone Gap.
The climb went pretty quickly, but in the rocky section after the summit, I began to feel a blister on my left foot. At the Moreland aid station, Nese was waiting. We lanced the blister and put on a bandaid. I sat here a bit and had some coffee and soup. This gave me a boost. The blister was quite painful as I limped out of the aid station but within a half mile or so the pain was gone. I was looking forward to Short Mountain. I'd enjoyed running it during the daytime a few months ago. I'd also spent several hours clearing the trail and freshening the blazes with an MMT work crew a few weeks ago. Someone (Vickie?) had applied a touch of orange paint to rocks in the middle of the trail at points where the trail turned. These marks helped in finding my way along at night. I did the climb in good time and moved along in a pretty upbeat mood during the three hours (midnight to 3 a.m.) it took me to pick my way through Short Mountain's rocks and boulders.
After fueling up on the legendary and wonderful potato soup at Edinburg, I began what turned out to be the toughest section of the course, the 9 mile stretch to Woodstock. I hadn't remembered that the initial climb continued for as long as it did. I thought I'd reached the ridge a couple of times only to find myself facing another ascent. I saw not a soul during my 3 plus hours on this section. I was dealing with serious blister problems again on heals and toes. I also neglected to keep eating during this stretch and was nearly out of energy by the time I reached Woodstock at about 6 a.m.
At Woodstock I sat down to replenish. I probably spent about 10 minutes eating an orange, some PB&J squares and downing a coffee and coke. The sun was up now so I stashed my lights and headlamp and headed back out knowing that the end was near (one way or the other). The next part of the trail to Powell's Fort is slightly undulating and much easier to run than the last two sections. It felt good to run this portion, however slowly. The downhill stretch came sooner than I had expected and I felt pretty good as I arrived at Powell's Fort knowing that there would be breakfast. Not only were there wonderful scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausages (Thanks James Moore!), but Nese had slept a few hours, gotten up early, driven over and arrived 10 minutes before I showed up. Nese helped me do one more blister maintenance job and then sent me off to finish up.
After the road section heading north, the course turns sharply right and heads once more back over the mountain and down to Fort Elizabeth aid station. I had lots of company on this climb -- Sophie Speidel and her pacer Mike Broderick, Ed Cacciapaglia and his pacer Rayna -- all of whom I'd run with on these trails in the weeks leading up to MMT. At the top Ed and Rayna took off and charged to the finish line to finish under 31 hours, just before noon. I picked my way down the hill and into Fort Elizabeth. The wonderful folks at this last aid station fixed the blisters one last time and got me some nourishment. Nese encouraged me that I could still make it by noon if I pushed. I struggled along in the fastest walk/shuffle I could put together. The climb up seemed much longer than I had remembered from the training runs. So did the descent till I finally hit the final bit of road to the Ranch. Somehow, I found a last bit of energy to run the couple hundred yard grassy section to finish in 31:18, just a bit after noon.
With the accomplishment of finishing the MMT 100 comes a deep feeling of gratitude to all the volunteers who make this event possible and help us along the way and to friends and family members who encourage or at least tolerate our long trail runs. THANKS!