Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
My MMT Race
by Alan Gowen
We were all just standing there. I never even heard the race director say go. And without warning I became aware that the group of runners clustered in front of me had begun a slow jog across the lawn, and within seconds I was running through the cool pre-dawn darkness into the unknown. Unsure of myself, riddled with anxiety and doubt; worried and apprehensive about what may or may not lay ahead, I carried the weight of my anxiety clumsily along with me as we soon made the turn from the grass and onto the road that would lead to one of the great adventures of my life.
Pam and Alan Gowen at Habron Gap Aid Station. Photo: Sophie Speidel
The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 mile race is considered by most to be among the hardest 100 milers in the country. It is all mountains, and those mountains are all rocks. The rocky MMT trails lead over 18,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. The course is along the mountain ridges, and the aid stations are in the valleys. Therefore every descent to an aid station is followed by a climb back to the rocky ridge. Some of those climbs are very long and very steep indeed. I hadn’t chosen MMT to be my first 100 mile race because I wanted to do a hundred miler. I had chosen MMT because it was something, it seemed, I just had to do. I had chosen MMT because it was something I had heard about from my friends in the VHTRC. I had read about it. I had seen the pictures. I had seen the proud finishers. I had seen how success at MMT had changed others who had found their victories there. And I knew that this was something I simply had to experience for myself.
I really can’t remember when I decided to enter the race, but my first official MMT training run was on February 6 when Pam and I ran out and back 16.4 miles on the Edinburg gap to Woodstock gap section of the MMT course. Over the next few months I made 6 more trips to the Massanuttens and either running alone or with friends on Tom Corris’s group training runs, I had soon covered the entire route of the race. My training went well right up to 5 weeks before MMT when I briefly considered withdrawing from the race after struggling physically and mentally at the Bull Run Run 50 miler. I ended my training earlier than I had planned when fatigue became my constant companion, and what was to be my last long training run became an exhausting ordeal. These two bad experiences close together and right at the end of my training left me very apprehensive, as race day got closer.
Whereas my physical and mental preparation for this undertaking was a little suspect, I was pretty comfortable with all of my other preparations. On race day I was going to have a crew, consisting of Pam and two of our friends and running buddies, Lenny and Chris. In studying data from previous versions of MMT, I noticed that in 2004 there were quite a few runners who I knew ran about the same or maybe a little bit slower than me in 50 milers. I noticed that these guys all finished between 34 and 35 hours. So I averaged the split times of the group of 15 runners who finished between 34 and 35 hours in 2004, and used the resultant splits as my projected schedule for the race. I used this information to prepare a schedule to give my crew an idea of when to expect me at the aid stations. I had prepared a list of everything I wanted them to have ready for me when I did arrive too. I had a list of questions they were to ask me. I had collected all of the things I thought I was going to need and organized it all in bags and boxes. The weather forecast called for cool temperatures and rain on both of the days I’d be running, so I also had a bag with all sorts of different clothes, and changes of shoes and socks. I had also prepared three drop bags to be at various points along the course just in case my crew got lost, had car trouble, or fell asleep. I was determined not to let a mistake in planning lead to failure at the finish line.
Pam and I drove down to the Skyline Ranch Resort on Friday afternoon. The Skyline Ranch serves as the race headquarters and it is here the race begins and ends. After the pre-race briefing we joined friends outside for the pre-race meal. After visiting for a while we left and made our way to the Hampton Inn in Front Royal where we had reservations for the night. I felt tired and was fighting to stay awake, but since it was still early I knew if I went to bed that I’d be awake again by 9:00. So we grabbed some coffee and went for a nice leisurely walk around the historic downtown area before returning to the motel. My anxiety level was very high, and after going to bed I lay awake reviewing all my preparations until I finally fell into a fitful sleep. Awake before either one of the alarms went off; we were back at race headquarters by 4:10am.
Pam and Alan before the start.
I checked in and we spent the remainder of the time nervously talking with friends. Since this was my first 100 miler, there was no shortage of advice from many who knew me and I know, were wondering what in the world I was doing there. At about 4:50 everyone began moving out of the lodge and soon we were assembled on the grass. 5:00am. A quick kiss from Pam and before I knew it those long awaited first steps into adventure were behind me and I was moving into the darkness and into the unknown.
MMT was to be my 46th ultramarathon. In every previous race, especially the 50 milers, I had reached a point where I felt exhausted, there was no gas in the tank, and all I could do try to hang on and drag my tired body across the finish line. I assumed that MMT would be the same. I knew that at some point I would crash and then it would become an ordeal to keep moving. The only question I had was when this was going to happen. I had a new eating strategy planned, and the other thing I was going to do differently from past races was to do whatever it took to conserve my energy in the early portions of the race. I knew this was a very hard course, and I was determined to take it as it came. I was determined to let the course come to me rather than try to fight through the obstacles that I knew lay ahead.
I put my energy saving plan into play right from the start by taking walking breaks on the uphill portions of the first 2.7-mile road section of the race. With light just beginning to show in the eastern sky, I made the turn at the trailhead and headed into the woods. A small hand held flashlight was all I needed to illuminate the rocks and roots. This was my first time running with chem.-lights marking the way. Fairyland comes to mind. Soon we were on the first climb of the day. I was determined to take it easy and as I climbed I made sure that anytime I felt my pulse becoming rapid I would back off, sometimes coming to a complete stop. As we climbed the mountain, the sun climbed in the sky. Sunrise at the top. After running the ridge I started the downhill section that leads to the first aid station. I had run this section before and knew this particular downhill was very easy to really hammer. And downhill running is my real strong suit. But I held back, trying to save my legs for what I knew lay ahead. I thought I knew how much I wanted to do this race, but I was really surprised to find tears streaming from my eyes when in the middle of this long downhill I began to picture myself crossing the finish line.
Alan running into Shawl Gap aid station. Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
I arrived at the Shawl Gap aid station about 10 minutes behind my projected schedule. Team Alan, consisting of only Pam at this point, sprang into action and within seconds I was on my way again. I felt anxious and very stressed as I made my way along to the next aid station. When would I crash? When would this become a monumental struggle to the finish?
Time calmly unfolded before me; sunlight pressing down as I pushed further into the day. Trying to keep my anxiety in check I kept moving at a pace I thought would conserve my energy. I worked hard to stay in the moment. To concentrate on the here and now. To stay in the present. To let the course come to me and focus on the process, letting the result take care of itself. I walked every place that even resembled uphill. At 24.4 miles I was over 20 minutes behind my schedule, but I still felt very good. I was one quarter of the way to the finish and it didn’t bother me to be behind schedule as long as I was feeling good, but I was still however, very worried.
I had run the first 31 miles of the race in a training run and it had been a horrible experience. I’d run completely out of gas and it had become a struggle for me to make it to the end of the run at a place called Camp Roosevelt. What would happen today? Was this where I would crash? Now on race day though, I found myself feeling strong as I neared Camp Roosevelt, and I think this is where things began to change for me. When the expected crash didn’t materialize here, without granting permission, a little hope snuck in the front door as a little bit of doubt disappeared.
Phil Hesser (center) finishes the 2001 MMT with Loreen Hewitt and Leonard Martin
It was a photo taken at the MMT finish line on a cloudless day. Phil Hesser, running as always with his mouth closed, but smiling as he sprinted to the finish line with two others, tied for last place, as the sun shown down on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I wanted to do that. Maybe not last place, but I really didn’t care. I wanted to run across that lawn in the sunshine of a Sunday, a different person than the one who had started on that same lawn in the darkness of a Saturday morning. That photo had grabbed a hold of me 5 years ago and told me MMT was something I had to do. Now today, despite the weather forecast and my constant worries, the sky was sunny and I was reveling in the beauty around me. I was here. I was doing it. I was happy. And the reality of my happiness swept over me, and nurtured me and carried me into the day; obstacles ahead to be conquered by my desires.
At about 43 miles, around 3:15 in the afternoon, I was actually having fun scrambling over the rocks of Kern’s Mountain. The sun was warm and the air was cool and I was where I wanted to be. This part of the course is an out and back section and judging by the time of day, even though I was still outbound, I knew the front runners would be soon be coming back toward me. Suddenly my periphery sensed motion. My gaze came up from the rocks and I saw what at first I thought was a woman running very hard straight toward me. I love to see the elite women run fast on rocky terrain. It always appears that their feet never touch the ground. Even the elite men seem to pound the ground a little, but the women seem to simply float above the earth. Of course the woman running toward me was not a woman at all, but the race leader, Sim Jae Duk. I have never seen a man run with such grace. He was concentrating so hard I could almost feel his energy like ozone in the air as I deferred and he sped past. He was flying. As the other leaders came past they were all running very fast, but they were also running like humans. I knew from seeing them run that barring any catastrophe, Sim had the race won.
I hadn’t really been aware of it. Not it’s weight or its form or its size. But the burden of doubt and anxiety I had carried with me from the start was formidable. My realization of its very existence came only when I began to dimly feel that burden getting lighter. As I came down off of Kern’s Mountain I was ahead of my schedule. I felt great. I didn’t feel even close to crashing. It evidently wasn’t going to rain anytime soon. My confidence swelled to fill the void as my fears floated up and away into the late day sun.
I had been dreading the climb up Bird Knob. I had done this climb three times before and it had always been a killer, even when I was fresh. Now with 48 miles in my legs I knew it would be a struggle. It was. I moved up that climb like a glacier. Eventually achieving the top, I had no energy to run. And so I walked. And walked. The trail meanders out onto an old grass covered forest road that’s almost perfectly level. I tried to run, but could only go about 200 ft. before fatigue forced me to walk again. Jog. Walk. Clouds rolled in across the sky and oddly, the sky darkened along with my mood. This is it, I thought. Finally. The huge thing I had been wondering about and dreading, and fearing. The huge thing that could wreck my race had finally happened. I’ve crashed. The wheels have fallen off. Now I was left wondering how hard the struggle to keep moving was going to be. The Bird Knob aid station is at the 50.9-mile point. The amount and variety of food available here required a printed menu and yet nothing appealed to me. I tried to get some chicken soup down. I tried some pretzels. I tried some PB&J. Nothing would work. I couldn’t eat. I ambled off feeling exhausted, and it was with great effort that I jogged downhill on the gravel road leading away from the aid station. Soon I was back in the woods and still all I could do was walk. The Bird Knob Trail goes back the way it came and finally I was going back down that hellish hill I had come up over an hour before. But it was so steep and my legs were so rubbery that the downhill trip was every bit as hard as the uphill had been. I finally made the turn that would take me back to the picnic area, buoyed on by the knowledge that each step I took was taking me back home to the finish line. Somehow, as I had hoped I could, I came back from the dead and with spirits rising, on the downhill section leading to the 211E aid station I turned in the 27th fastest time of anyone in the race.
Pam joined me as my pacer at the 56.9- mile 211E aid station. As the sun set we traveled back together past the picnic area and onto Chrisman Hollow Road. I wasn’t even aware that darkness had come as we walked into the night on our way to Kern’s mountain, chem.-lights glowing along the way. The full moon now playing hide and seek with the puffy clouds. The whippoorwills calling. Our headlamps lighting the way. We shared. Thoughts and emotions. Love. How special to be here doing this. How lucky we were to be sharing these woods, this moonlight, this beauty. Nighttime in the mountains. How lucky we were to be using this gift given to us, rather than letting it slide away, unseen and unrealized. My legs were almost gone by now and I was no longer able to really run on the rockier portions of the trail. I did however manage to maintain a fast walk, and as we neared Mooreland gap the trail improved and I was running once again, my mate willing me forward
Chris started pacing me at Mooreland. I also, at 11:50 at night, ate some hash browns, the first solid food in over 20 hours. As Chris and I spun tales of our misspent youth, my legs continued their metamorphosis to mush. An odd combination of pain and wobbliness left me unable to run anything at all except a level smooth trail. And since there was no trail of that description to be found, I was reduced to about 20 miles or so of walking. The very good thing now was that I felt great and seemed to have plenty of energy, except for maybe on the big climbs where I found myself going pretty darned slowly. Somewhere between Edinburg gap and Woodstock gap, almost unnoticed, the darkness melted away. The sun once more shining above as my friend and I moved together into another day.
Once we got to Woodstock gap I had a grilled cheese sandwich, and here at 84.3 miles I felt like I was home. My introduction to ultrarunning had been at the now defunct Dogwood Half Hundred 50K, on these very trails. From Woodstock almost to the finish, I had run this section many times before. I knew I was going to finish MMT, and even though I still couldn’t run I could smell the barn and was anxious to get to the finish. Chris stayed with me all the way to Powell’s Fort Camp at 90 miles, and Pam joined me once again there. As Pam and I fought our way up the switchbacks of the climb that would take us up and over the ridge, I could hear voices coming up the road from Powell’s, and that spurred me on with a little more purpose. Before the race had begun I had been looking forward to the long downhill section from the top of this ridge all the way down to the 97.7 mile aid station at Elizabeth Furnace. This section is just about all downhill and I had been looking forward to really hammering down this excellent trail as I had done so many times before. Unfortunately, my legs weren’t going to allow me anything but a walk. Or so I thought. After cresting the ridge, haunted by those voices I’d heard behind us, I was finally able to run just a little. Not a pretty run, but not walking either. The further down the hill we got the smoother the terrain and the more I could run. After 20 miles of walking, I was running once more. My legs were coming back. I knew I was almost two hours ahead of my schedule, I still felt very good, and I was determined not to be passed by the owners of those voices. Soon I was gong at a pretty good pace, and I was able to run just about all of the last few miles into the Elizabeth Furnace aid station. Pam had run on ahead to alert Chris that I was coming, since he was going to run the final 3.2 miles with me. At 97.7 miles I was 1 hour and 51 minutes ahead of my predicted schedule, and I was beginning to think that maybe I could finish in less than 33 hours instead of the 34 hours and 20 minutes I had planned for.
I barely stopped at Elizabeth furnace. I just slowed down to drink that last Ensure of the day while Chris caught up to me. I didn’t even stop at the aid station itself, and ran as well as I could until we came to the last climb of the race. It’s hard to describe this climb. It’s an old abandoned forest road. It’s also steep. Like a cliff. .7 miles straight up. Cruel and unusual punishment. Once at the top though it’s downhill to the finish line. And I can run. My legs are back and I’m running! I’m going to finish! I’m going to finish better than I ever dreamed.
I’ve never seen the very end of the course. I know I’m close, and yet I get the feeling the trail is going in a big circle. We finally break out of the woods and there are no ribbons to mark the trail anywhere in sight. I feel panicked. Chris goes one way and I go another and for a few stressful minutes we can’t find the route. Finally we spot a ribbon far down a gravel road, and now the adrenaline is pumping as we run harder toward to finish. Up over a little hill, along a field and then a turn and I can see the finish line. I’m on that lawn. The lawn I’d seen in the photos. The finish I’d thought so much about. The end of this journey. A tear escapes before the emotion that starts to grab at me passes as I begin to run faster and soon I’m in a sprint. Family and friends cheering. Up to the finish line. Done.
Lenny joined Pam before the Habron Gap aid station. He saw to it that everything was ready for me not only there but also at every aid station thereafter. He was amazing. Pam and Lenny were always ready for me, cris-crossing the mountains and valleys, regardless of whether I was behind or ahead of schedule. Chris finally joined them on Saturday at around 8:00pm and so as Pam was running with me, Chris and Lenny were the crew. When Chris became the pacer, Lenny and Pam took care of us once again. Lenny had to leave at 3:00 am after the Edinburg Aid station, but he got everything ready so that Pam could grab a nap before she had to meet us at Woodstock. Chris is the perfect pacer. He always has stories to tell and the time always passes quickly. Chris and I have run hundreds of miles together, and it just seemed right that this close friend should be the one seeing to it that I made it over the mountains in the dark. Pam was, of course, a gem. While she was running with me, she was chipper and upbeat. She was praising my running even when I looked more like Walter Brennen limping out to the barn to call Luke in to dinner. I could tell how much my success meant to her. What could be more fulfilling than being out there running the race of your life together with the love of your life?
Team Alan was perfect. I know I had the best crew at MMT. That they gave so much so I could succeed is very humbling indeed. I couldn’t have done it without my friends, and the only disappointment of the entire MMT experience was that Lenny couldn’t be there at the finish.
There is no better sustenance than the enthusiasm of my VHTRC friends. So many had such kind and encouraging words for me, and the encouragement I received from everyone meant a great deal to me. It certainly helped to make what could have been an ordeal into a great adventure, shared with this great family of friends.
Alan at Habron Gap aid station. Photo: Desiree Williams
Even as I stood on the starting line for MMT, I really didn’t know if I could finish or not. At the very best I hoped it would be 50 miles or so until I ran out of gas. My most optimistic plan had me finishing near the back of the pack, in a time between 34 and 35 hours. And I would freely admit to anyone who would listen to my nervous chatter that I would be more than satisfied to just somehow be able to finish before the final 36 hour cut-off.
I will never understand what happened. I finished in 32:14:48 in 74th place out of 151 starters. I was 12th out of 33 in my age group. From the time I got out of the car on the morning of the race at 4:10am, I never sat down even once until I sat to take my shoes off to get a shower after the end of the race. When I took those shoes off, it was the first time I had touched the laces since I tied them at 3:30 the morning of the race. I had no blisters. I never got tired. I had no stomach issues. I never crashed. And except for that two hours of purgatory up on Bird Knob, I never ran out of energy. After the race Pam and I went with my brother and his partner into Front Royal to get something to eat. And then as Pam slept I drove the 100 miles back home. After one more supper, I watched TV and at 10:00pm, 43 hours after I got up, I finally came back down to earth enough to go to bed.
I had wanted to experience MMT for myself. And yes indeed. I did. I found success beyond anything imagined. I think somewhere, out there, just out of reach, that I’d foolishly thought there might just be some answers to be found. Who am I? What am I made of? What am I capable of? These answers, of course, aren’t to be found among the rocks and trails; the woodlands, whippoorwills, lady slippers, peaks and valleys of the Massanuttens. Nor are they waiting there at the end of that grassy lawn.
But just as in the reprieve that comes at the end of a sunny day, captured within the melancholy that comes at the end of the great adventure, the world sheds it’s urgency and desires. And with calmness and clarity something sacred is revealed. I’m more.
Somehow on this weekend in May I did what I never believed I could do. I know I’ll never be quite the same