Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
The World According to Rocks
by Brennen Wysong
THE PROPHET AT THE CROSSROADS
“Are you training for Massanutten?”
It’s mid-February, late in the afternoon, an hour north of New York City by train, and I’ve just come off the top of Bear Mountain, which rises above the Hudson River and the Bear Mountain Bridge, an impressive slate-gray structure that marks the lowest point on the entire Appalachian Trail. I’ve been running for the last five and a half hours; it’s been one of my most positive training runs to date; I’ve felt strong throughout the late morning into the afternoon, and the snow on the ground—rather than a hindrance—has given me sure footing among the rocks littering the Ramapo-Dunderberg and Appalachian trails from the town of Tuxedo to this spot in my run. But I’m frozen still now. Frozen still, not by the cold, as it’s a bright afternoon without the least hint of wind, but by what I’ve just heard. Having missed a quick turn down the mountain, I’ve doubled-backed at this split in the trail and returned to the AT, running past a rather impressive pile of rocks, waving at a fit, gray-haired man and his two younger companions out for a hike. His trekking poles have been clicking out a steady rhythm in his ascent, then suddenly fallen silent right behind me. It’s at that moment he asks:
“Are you training for Massanutten?”
Brennen on the Rocks of Kerns Mountain. All photos this page: Aaron Schwartzbard
Still months away from that bright February afternoon, hundreds of miles away from that spot on the east side of Bear Mountain, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 would in fact be taking place in northern Virginia’s George Washington National Forest on a perfect day in mid-May—and I was, indeed, planning on running it. But how did this stranger know? I imagine at that moment I was more cartoon than human; surely, my eyes boggled out of my head in astonishment, and some horn bellowed dumbly in the background for effect, for I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how this man had guessed my intentions. One prevailing theory was that he didn’t ask, “Are you training for Massanutten?” but, rather, had said, “You look like a big mass a nuttin’.” And yet, that seemed, at least to me, unlikely. I was feeling good; the run was going well; so I must’ve looked good doing it. And I knew without a doubt, despite the impending early darkness of a February day, that I would make it to the town of Peekskill before the sun even set, bucking what a young couple out for a hike had said to me on the other side of Bear Mountain, who’d claimed with some amusement that I’d better have a light to guide me down into that sleepy little town on the Hudson. I knew I’d prove them wrong. As I said, I was feeling good on this training run, and nothing could stop this raw, unbridled arrogance welling up within me. That, of course, was until the stranger tapped the heap of rocks beside us on the trail with the tip of one of his trekking poles and said to me:
“You should expect as much at Massanutten.”
This was not your typical heap of rocks. These were rocks ugly enough to make you gulp. There was something almost Biblical about them, and not in the New Testament sense. You’d never consider Jesus turning those stones to loaves. Instead, it was quite easy to imagine some Old Testament wrath emanating from their very cold cores. Perhaps Job, after all the destruction brought about him, would have been left to toil upon those rocks. After the plague of locusts and the army of frogs, maybe such rock rained down upon the Pharaoh’s head. Or, rather than the jawbone of an ass, perhaps Samson struck down his foes with such stones. Sure, such descriptions might seem entirely hyperbolic now. But, really, why wouldn’t I follow this train of thought up there on Bear Mtn.? After all, here I was encountering a complete stranger at an anonymous fork in a trail, and he suddenly seemed to know things about what the future held for me, far more than all the scuttling masses of humanity I passed on 34th Street in Manhattan on my way to work every weekday morning. Those people never tugged me by the elbow and pulled me aside and whispered in my ear that I was off to a newsroom on Madison Avenue—which, of course, I was. This stranger seemed, perhaps, a seer of sorts.
But as we continued to talk for the next few minutes, I found that there was a logical explanation for what he had asked me: It turns out he had paced his son during MMT the previous year. The question he had posed had merely been a stab in the dark, a stab that, of course, went right to the heart of the matter—and, perhaps, also offered a slight opening to pause over how such a big world can suddenly be made so small. And beyond that, it was good to get this stranger’s perspective, hear what he thought about the race, weigh his various suggestions, even if he were just like anyone else I crossed paths with in the world every day. Still, after we’d wished each other well, headed down the trail in our opposite directions, I couldn’t help but think there might actually be something prophetic in what he’d just said to me.
BRIDGE AND TUNNEL
On weekends, Manhattan is invaded on all fronts by suburban dwellers who arrive in the city by any number of bridges spanning the East and Hudson rivers or by the Lincoln and Holland tunnels funneling cars in from New Jersey. My fiancée Debra Zichichi and I live in a rather desolate area in midtown on the far West Side, which seems forever unhip and a little bit dreary, trapped between the galleries and clubs of Chelsea and the restaurants and theaters of Hell’s Kitchen. The one hot spot in our neighborhood is the famous Copacabana, whose crowds swarm 34th Street every Friday and Saturday night, standing in deep, frustrating lines that reach down the block even in the dead of winter, waiting to warm themselves to salsa and meringue on the dance floors.
Most Saturday mornings this past winter and into early spring, I woke within a few hours of the closing of the Copacabana to begin the short train trek north to the trails of Harriman and Bear Mtn. state parks to train for MMT. My street was usually brightly lined with beer and wine and liquor bottles from the previous night, the remnants of the club goers who parked on our block just west of 10th Avenue, quaffing large quantities of alcohol prior to entering the Copacabana, avoiding high drink prices within the club. A brisk walk on Saturday morning would land me at Penn Station within 10 minutes. But if I were heading east of the Hudson for a run, I’d cross east along 42nd Street through an oddly barren, early morning Times Square where the neon blazed my way to Grand Central Station.
I’d never trained for a spring run through the winter months, let alone a 100-mile race. Having run two 50Ks and 2 50 milers prior to MMT, I knew I was in unknown territory, and I knew I was entering it in an unpredictable season, one when the snow and cold might make for tough training. It was, in the end, one of the milder winters on record in southern New York state. Despite an early snowstorm in December, which worried me to no end with what was to come, the train north out of Manhattan beyond the tunnels usually swept through a string of suburbs only patchy with melting snow. The trails remained accessible for the most part until those early spring weekends when I no longer had to pray for days above freezing, the temperatures rarely dipping down too deep into the 20s, though I was forced off the mountain one Saturday afternoon, the snow so thick in the air I could barely see, my hands so cold I grew desperate with panic.
My training, I concluded soon after sending in my MMT application, was to be methodical. Debra had purchased me a calendar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just before Christmas. With May 13, race day, circled in such a way that it seemed the center of a tiny explosion, I worked my way backwards over the previous three and a half months until I reached the earliest days of 2006. Yes, it was a new year. The opportunity to turn a corner, turn over a new leaf, make resolutions, start fresh, begin again, what have you. In all truth, though, I’d really not cut back much on my mileage since the JFK 50 in November, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for considering the new year any different than the weeks leading up to it. I’d just been enjoying trail running too much over the late summer and fall months (I’d been running trails since June), so I was out there whether there was something to train for or not. And while I continued to head out to the flat banks of the Hudson River or up to Central Park many weekday mornings, I knew I was only doing those brisk six to eight miles runs in order to be prepared for exploring a few new trails in Harriman and Bear Mtn. or pushing myself a little farther on those Saturdays.
But there was that calendar. Yes, beyond May 13 enclosed in its tiny explosion, there were all those weekends extending back to the beginning of the year that seemed to need to be filled with something substantial. But what exactly? I did, in fact, think it wise to come up with some sort of training schedule for MMT, one that would prove I’d given this race some serious consideration, a lot genuine forethought so—if I didn’t actually reach the finish line—at least I could look back and begin pinpointing what I might do better for my next race.
I’ve found that taking advice about training for ultras is rather difficult, largely because folks bandy about two vastly different measuring sticks: one being the miles of your long run, the other being hours spent on your feet during it. Since I could never measure how far I’d actually gone in Harriman and Bear Mtn., I perhaps opted by default to choose to measure most of my long runs by the time spent on my feet. I thought it best to set up a cycle, one that would consider a number of peaks and valleys in my effort. My weekend schedule then, I determined, would be based on a four-week cycle that went something like this: medium-medium-hard-easy.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), my training schedule for MMT didn’t last long. I discovered it largely impossible to apply what dictated the mundane daily habits of my life to how I trained for my first 100-mile race. I’d had it with routine, with three-square meals a day, with brushing my teeth in a circular motion, with going to bed at this hour and waking up at that one. Routine was largely how I shaped my life, whether I liked it or not. And really, I needed something a little more open for my training, more in the spirit of the endeavor; otherwise, I figured, I might as well be consumed with the daily routine itself, forgetting about the possibility that I might actually do something as outlandish and pigheaded as tackle a 100-mile run.
Whether this logic was sound or not, I found myself simply doing what I could or simply doing what I wanted in my training. I was flying by the seat of my pants, catching what catch can, going on whims, hotdogging it. I was, quite frankly, thumbing my nose at what I’d written down in my calendar. My Saturday runs in Harriman and Bear Mtn. could range anywhere from four to eight hours in length; if I went short on a Saturday, I’d usually try to do a long run on Sunday on Central Park’s Bridal Path, taking few if any walking breaks, logging 20-plus miles that second day, for the pace was much quicker than I could ever keep in the state parks. On a couple of occasions, I jumped back on the train Sunday morning and hit Harriman and Bear Mtn. for the second time that weekend. One Sunday, I circumnavigated the island of Manhattan, climbing fences, running through rubble, cursing over 30 miles of pavement. I hit the Long Path one weekend right across the George Washington Bridge, where I ran along the Palisades to the town of Nyack, only to find myself stranded there, waiting for a bus that would take me anywhere near a train returning to Manhattan. One week, I decided I wanted to do nothing but “junk” miles: I put in over 80 of them at a good clip around the city just to say I’d done it. And with my weekday training, if I were exhausted from what I’d done on Saturday and Sunday, I might take both Monday and Tuesday off because my body was asking as much of me. Sometimes, I’d head out to do eight miles and then decide to run six or ten. Or, I’d run on a Friday when I’d planned to take it off. There wasn’t really anything that didn’t fit within my training because my training was not boxed into a plan. As long as I remained honest with myself, gave forth a genuine effort, listened to my body, I saw no reason to remain locked in to any particular aspect of a schedule that might or might not get me to the finish line.
THE XX, AND XY, FACTOR
Perhaps at this point you have imagined a man loping alone through the deep woods or among the glass and concrete of Manhattan. The truth be told, I was lucky enough to do many of my long training runs for MMT with my good friends Alex Kahl and Elizabeth Leonardis, a young couple from Manhattan who would be crewing for me during the race. Alex is an accomplished ultra runner in his own right, having completed four 100s and countless 50 milers and 50Ks, placing well at all of those distances. His training schedule ended up overlapping with mine since he is currently training for Western States. Elizabeth was training for Promise Land 50K over the winter, so the three of us often scheduled our Saturday runs in Harriman and Bear Mtn. together.
Post-MMT, I can now look back and claim that I had two of my worst long runs ever with Alex. And yet, somehow, because of what I was dragged through those days by both Alex and myself, they were also my best runs, for they revealed the most about myself to myself, allowing me to either give in to weakness or find any grit I might actually have within me.
The first run was on a Saturday in February; forecasts called for heavy snows that night, yet Alex and I decided to try a new section of the AT to the northeast of Bear Mtn. So rather than take MetroNorth along the Hudson, we took the Harlem line out of Grand Central running toward the border of Connecticut. The train deposits you at a seldom-used stop simply called Appalachian Trail; it’s rather desolate there; you feel many miles away from anything, and the stop does little to offer promise for the run to come. From the train platform, it’s about 45 miles to the nearest stop on the MetroNorth line skirting the Hudson.
During the morning hours of our run, it was going well for me, especially as the climbs were shorter than what we’re used to farther south, and the trail was less technical than the those running through Harriman and Bear Mtn. However, though we were making decent time, I was surprised the pace wasn’t eating up more miles as we moved toward the early afternoon. Alex seemed effortless on the climbs while I struggled to keep him within my sights. And though we didn’t forecast how long our run would take, Alex and I did plan on meeting Elizabeth and our friend Jennifer Bower, who was also training for Promise Land, somewhere out there along the trail, as they would start at our end point later in the day and run to meet up with us before turning around for an out-and-back. Hours slowly passed. A few flurries gave way to bright sunshine. And while the trail turned rockier, indicating to me we were entering familiar territory, I was losing all sense of how far we had gone and how far we had left to go.
We then reached a point in the run where it seemed entirely inconceivable to me that we hadn’t yet met Elizabeth and Jennifer on the trail. I grew frustrated, then angry, then anguished. And I believed––which compounded these emotions––that finally reaching Elizabeth and Jennifer certainly would be no relief, as our meeting only brought us halfway home, since we would then still need to retrace their steps however-many miles to reach the Hudson. Although our perceptions of time, of course, is relative (“I can’t believe how time flies!,” “Boy, sitting through that was like pulling teeth!”), I’d never really experienced its elasticity to such an extreme during a run. I’d given up on the moment, considered it an empty vessel, for I was too busy forecasting, anticipating what lay ahead. As I allowed myself to escape what’s essential in the here-and-now, I gave into my misery and wore it on my shoulders like a cloak for many miles to come. Since I’d never met Jennifer (we’d only corresponded through the ultra list), she basically encountered a quiet, broody monster out on the AT that day. And I wish I could say Elizabeth’s and Jennifer’s positive attitude had been immediately infectious. But my spirits wouldn’t pick up until well after dark, when the inevitable second wind came, sending me down the trail with glee in my step, leaving me to think over every wrong turn a consuming anticipation had taken be down that day.
My final long training run for MMT would present a problem of an entirely different kind. Although I considered heading down to Virginia for the Bull Run Run as my last big mileage weekend, I decided it would be best to stay near home, where I could run trails that were closer to the conditions of MMT. Alex and I mapped out a run that would take us north from the train station in Tuxedo along the RD and AT trails over Bear Mtn., then back south along the Suffern-Bear Mtn. Trail to the town of Suffern, which lies two train stops south of our starting point in Tuxedo. A favorite training run for both Alex and me has been the SBM Trail from the east side of the Hudson down to Suffern. Depending on your starting point (either the train stop in Peekskill or Manitou), the course covers between 27 and 31 miles with over 10,000 of elevation gain. There are only a handful of big climbs on the SBM (elevation tops out in the park at around 1,200 feet); however, none of the big climbs have any switchbacks, and beyond them, you are constantly going up and down over trails that are often as rocky as those at MMT. An added difficulty on the SBM is finding the trail itself; since there is often no well-worn path to follow, you are sometimes relegated to picking your way from point to point by the yellow blazes on the trees and rocks themselves.
So our plan that Saturday for my last long run before MMT was to hit the SBM with a good 20 miles already under our belts, compounding every difficulty I’d ever experienced on that trail with much fresher legs. Alex and I discussed running the whole thing at “race pace,” so that meant we’d try to do a steady 15-minute mile. But that Saturday morning, we left Tuxedo with temperatures already creeping up into the 70s. I hadn’t yet had the chance to adapt to warmer weather, so I was making sure to drink often and take three Endurolytes every hour, and we were probably knocking out 13 minute miles most of the way.
The run was going well up until we started ascending the west side of Bear Mtn.; we’d just done two good climbs over Black Mtn. and West Mtn. in quick succession, only having Bear Mtn. in the way before we began heading back south. Although there was a long way left to go, I felt confident that my training had prepared me to tackle the return trip once we’d dropped down near the Hudson on the Major Welch Trail and hooked up with the SBM trailhead.
But it was here on the west side of Bear Mtn. that my quads began to tingle, then mildly cramp up. Having drained my Camelbak and one of the two Platypus I was carrying in my pack, Alex and I stopped at a stream, where he filtered water with his pump, insisting I drink plenty before we continued on. I felt like an overripe gourd by the time we resumed our ascent, and I sensed all the water slogging about my insides, leaving me more oceanic than terrestrial. But my attitude was that I’d rather feel mildly discomforted by this bloating than to have to battle cramping. After all, it wasn’t too difficult a leap for me to remember a runner I’d been closing in on during the last mile of JFK in November: A few hundred yards from the finish line, I caught him, but only because he had just collapsed to the ground with leg cramps so excruciating that he let out a yell of pain so precise that it cut right into me.
I only made it a few more minutes into our ascent up Bear Mtn. before the cramps struck my quads again. And while I was still far from panic, I did wonder how long it would be before my drinking with this diligence would free my body from these waves of constricting pain. I felt fine for the most part going down Major Welch toward the Hudson River. Although I never considered the possibility of making a decision here, I now know that I could have been at a MetroNorth train station within forty-five minutes if I’d wanted to pack it in for the day. But, like I said, it was never an option; I believed quitting would have turned MMT into a role of the dice; I needed this run for even the least bit of confidence come race day. And so Alex and I reached the SBM trailhead. I considered how fresh and positive I’d been when I’d come to this point during previous training runs, knowing those days I had many miles ahead of me, yet Id’ been confident in my capacity to deal with them. I was already under a cloud now.
A few miles south on the SBM, the trail poses its most difficult climb, one that begins ascending over a vicious field of boulders, then steadily climbs a dirt trail covered with loose stone, where you then hit an incredibly steep section that basically has you picking a path by leaping ever-upward from rock to rock like a mountain goat. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much goat left in me that day. Throughout this climb, I was cramping up again. My pace slowed in some lame attempt to fight off the waves of pain; then I’d hobble along forward in the hopes that the movement would break the locks on my muscles. Alex waited for me at the top, always encouraging me on, but the doubts were multiplying at a crazy rate within my mind.
I would worry like a mother over my muscles as we continued slowly along the SBM. It wasn’t long until I was reduced to a power walk, as any running would cause cramping. But now my body had chosen to rebel against me in new ways; the cramps were playing games with me, moving from my quads to my calves, my calves to my inner thighs, my inner thighs back to my quads. And just as I thought I was learning the new rules of this game, I found the cramps would now indiscriminately strike on down hills and flats. Alex doted over me throughout this ordeal, insisting that I continue drinking, despite my doubts that anything would help, for I felt so full of water I suspected it would start spouting prodigiously out of my ears.
Writing this now, I rest certain there are worse runs waiting for me out there, brooding gloomily on the horizon, tricky in the way they’ll snatch my spirit, but the genuine grief I felt that Saturday was in fact good for me. It was good because it held up a mirror for me to look into myself, and that reflection said, when reduced, this is what you are made of. After three hours, the cramps finally released me from their cage. The evening grew cool on the trail. The sun was setting. We reached a fire tower under new darkness. And I managed to begin running again. But because we’d lost so much time, Alex and I ended up having to drop down to a road running parallel to the trail and hightailing it into Suffern to catch the last train back to Manhattan. It was well past 11 o’clock by the time we reached town, over 13 hours into our journey. And though we didn’t complete what we’d set out to do that day, I don’t think I could’ve had a better last long run to prepare me for MMT.
FOR THOSE ABOUT TO ROCK …
After spending Thursday night before the race with my family in Baltimore, my brother Pat, Debra and I squeezed into his car loaded down with camping and race gear and began heading south toward Front Royal, Virginia. Alex and Elizabeth traveled separately in a rented Jeep we picked up in New Jersey Thursday afternoon. I didn’t feel as well rested as I should have during our trip down; I’d long heard that the night before the race would offer little in the way of rest, and it was important to sleep as much as possible two nights prior to the event. Unfortunately, I’d already begun tossing and turning on Thursday night, and all it did was put all the more pressure on me to rest up between Friday afternoon and my wake up time of 3:45 on Saturday morning. I hoped to sleep in the car ride down to Virginia; it didn’t happen. I thought I might catch a nap on Friday afternoon after we’d set up camp; we arrived at Skyline Ranch, which served as race headquarters, just before the race briefing began. Knowing we’d be camping out Friday night, which didn’t seem ideal for someone from New York City, I was beginning to hold little hope I’d go into the race Saturday morning well rested.
The early views of the Massanuttens did little to settle my nerves. As we drove toward them, the mountains slowly erupted out of the west above an easy, rolling landscape bright with afternoon sunlight. But it wasn’t anxiety I was feeling now; I was full of excitement over these views before us, the prospects of the following day’s race among the mountains, the fact that I’d finally arrived to climb and descend them again and again. Over the previous months, I’d studied these mountain on maps. I’d traced their topography beneath my finger, trying to imagine from that Godlike view what they were actually like. Now, as we pulled into the Skyline Ranch, the Massanuttens dwarfed me, made me wholly human, and I felt strangely drawn to them.
After Pat, Debra, and I had set up camp, we headed over to race headquarters for the briefing. I felt awkward arriving a few minutes late. We ascended a set of stairs into a room full of racers and their crews. I was immediately struck by all the recognizable faces. But these weren’t people that I actually knew; they were ultra runners who I’d seen pictures of on the VHTRC Web site, whose race reports I’d returned to again and again, considering their strategies, what had and what hadn’t worked for them. While Pat and Debra hung back on the stairs, I found a place to stand right behind Stan Duobinis, the race director for MMT. Stan radiated a confidence as he spoke about everything from the particulars of the course itself to aid station etiquette. There was simply something in his demeanor that made me feel I was in good hands, that every single variable that might factor into this race had already been considered, that I wouldn’t be left up in those mountains if anything might happen to go wrong.
After a good dinner lasagna, salad, and dessert, we returned to camp to wait out the hours. Alex and Elizabeth, who had arrived during the briefing, decided to go for a run on the first part of the course. My friend Jeff Lynn and the runner he was pacing for, Amanda Perron, stopped by our campsite sometime after dark. I wasn’t much good, though, for conversation; I’d basically been reduced to poking about the fire, shuffling back and forth to the bathroom, worrying over little aches I feared might turn into larger issues. But I also felt strangely subdued as the hour crept toward 10 o’clock; while I expected to be bouncing off the walls of the tent, there was a small part of me turned so wistful by the campfire that I wished there wasn’t a race to be run the next day. I simply wanted to enjoy the company of my brother and fiancée, enjoy the quiet that was so foreign to me in New York City, the dark outline of the mountains in the near distance. This unexpected desire also filled me with a small fear: Wasn’t I, I asked myself, supposed to be focusing entirely on this race now? Shouldn’t I have been visualizing what was to come the next day, going over in my mind how I might deal with any number of setbacks? And finally, I asked myself, how could something that had mattered so much to me over the last few months suddenly turn less significant within just hours of its arrival?
Despite these questions running about inside my head, it seemed I was somehow ending up in the right mindset for the night before the race. I make this claim because, despite all I’d read, I did in fact have a decent night’s sleep. I probably woke once every hour, but it was not a struggle to fall back asleep. And while Pat had set his alarm for four o’clock, I rose into a cold where I could see my breath at 3:45 and began my preparations for the race beneath the narrow light of my headlamp and a nearly full moon.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve sometimes wondered how MMT relates to my individual will and my larger capacities as a human. I’ve asked myself if this particular race actually began that Saturday morning at five o’clock or sometime much further in the past. As I stood in the glaring red light of the giant digital clock and waited for the race to begin, I considered myself a vessel that held a very particular amount of potential that had accumulated over the past five or six months. There would, of course, be decision to make over the following day and night. But it also seemed to me that much had already been decided for me, that luck would surely show its fickle hand in various ways, that I––at least the “I” lining up in the dark that morning––wasn’t necessarily going to get me across the finish line. I’m both comforted and disturbed by this possibility. To some extent, I believed I was giving myself over to something beyond my control, and I was content with that giving. I was willing to submit to the fact that there was something bigger than my cold, shivering self who waited there, which would help decide a course for me that day, even if it was for something as insignificant as a race. But another part of me felt a victim of my history. It didn’t seem fair that this race might be the culmination of months of training and contemplating its outcome on a daily basis. A part of me didn’t want to leave anything to luck or the simply unpredictable, to the potential of my feet getting trashed beyond 50 miles, to my stomach troubling me due to what I ate or drank, to exhaustion slowly drawing me into its web, to an injury waiting beyond the next rock. A part of me wanted to entirely assert my will, roar with it, proving I was completely in the here and now, neither a composite of what had come before me nor the possibility of what I might one day become.
I’m at a loss as to what actually started the race. After getting encouragement from my brother, one last kiss from Debra for good luck, I found myself moving through a fence with a few missing split rails, the sure road underneath my feet then, voices and bodies surrounding me in the thick, shifting darkness. And despite the fact that there were 150 other runners on the road with me that morning, I felt completely alone over those first few miles while I gathered myself as if in defense against anything that might be out there. Alex and Elizabeth had left Skyline Ranch before the race began; they wanted to watch the runners as they hit the first stretch of trail; I heard them call out my name in encouragement as I headed toward the first rocks, my mind completely in the race now, my focus so tight I didn’t reply.
Since I didn’t bring a headlamp, I tried to keep close to the runners farther up the trail even though their stingy lights did little to guide me. I was feeding more off their rhythms in the gloom gathered about the hardwoods, knowing what lay ahead of me by what slowed them down or allowed them to speed up. There seemed a weight in the silence we kept as we made our first climb in a loose string up to Buzzards Rock. All I could hear in the early morning was my breathing. Then it was Matt Davies—an amazing runner from Tennessee who would go on to finish 13th in under 24 hours—who broke the silence.
“I wonder if there are any ticks out this early,” he said.
Brennen arriving at the Shawl Gap Aid Station
I’m not sure if Matt was really concerned with ticks or not; it didn’t seem to matter; he’d broken the silence. By the time we were running along the sharp spine of Buzzards Rock, the sunrise had unsettled the brooding sky, and a number of runners had formed a loose group to dance together among the rocks. I’d brought two handhelds filled with Clif, and I was drinking often, already feeling myself sweat, knowing I already needed to be attentive to the little things. After a swift down hill, where Keith Knipling and Sue Johnston flew past me as if I were standing still, I ran among the thigh-high grass of a fire road and pulled up at the second aid station to have my bottles refilled by the aid station volunteers. The day before, Alex had made me promise to eat at the second aid station. It made sense since your hunger can wane later in the day; I felt the need to take advantage of it now, even if it set me back a few minutes. So I had fruit and cheese, thanked the volunteers, then went on my way down a stretch of dirt road. But I found myself stopping a few hundred yards out of the aid stations to tighten my shoelaces, making sure to take care of the little things.
After the section of rolling dirt road, which ran past houses where their residence still surely slept at this early hour of the morning, I began the long climb along a short section of the Tuscarora Trail toward Veach Gap. I felt strong in my climbing; after the section of road, I was enjoying the variety the course had to offer. Topping off along the ridgeline, I was actually surprised that the trail wasn’t any rockier. The trails around Buzzards Rock had been brutal with sharp outcroppings angled in every direction, evoking the angry maw of some monster, and I’d expected those rocks to set the tone for the day. But beyond Veach Gap, I felt pretty much at home, in familiar territory, because I ran trails like these most weekends in Harriman and Bear Mtn. As runners swept past or fell behind, it wasn’t long before we began swapping names among our little group. But for whatever reason, we ended up calling each other by our home states; there was New York (me); Tennessee (Matt); Ohio (Greg Trapp), whom I’d met at JFK; Wisconsin (Kelly Korevec), who Debra and Elizabeth would come to affectionately call “Kid” Kelly, as he was the youngest runner in the race; Massachusetts (Donna Utakis), who was the only MMT veteran among us; and New Hampshire (Hans Bauer), who ran the race with a pair of scissors cinched to his shorts, simply to do what children were always told not to do—which, of course, was not to run with scissors. Although this group would swell and scatter and reform, I’d remain within it for the first one-third of the race until mile 34 at Camp Roosevelt.
The aid station at Habron Gap (mile 24) was my first opportunity to see my crew. Although I didn’t need any particular food or supplies at this point in the race, I received such a jolt of energy from Debra, Pat, Alex, and Elizabeth that I can’t even begin to imagine them not being there for me. The aid station seemed such a whirlwind of activity after the steady, quiet rhythms we’d established out on the trails. The world suddenly seemed a bit more complicated to me here at this oasis, though necessarily so, as here is where you take care of those little thing, where you prepare for the next section of the race, breaking everything down into digestible segments. After another kiss from Debra, I headed for the trail ascending the longest climb of the race and caught up with Matt and Kelly.
Although I had no trouble with the climb, and even shared a pleasurable moment of looking out over the twisting bends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River with Matt and Kelly, this section leading toward Camp Roosevelt would shift my perspective a bit on the day. Matt had taken the lead throughout our time together; and though I feared I was drafting off him, I also wondered if this was the pace I should be keeping at this stage of the race. At about mile 30, after Donna had joined us again, we ran through a wooded section ravaged by insects who had eaten away the canopy of leaves above us. The sun was bright and hot here. And though the trail was entirely runnable, I was feeling a bit overworked for what I was getting in the way of progress. Nothing seemed effortless anymore—and the race hadn’t, really, even begun.
At least that’s what Alex said to me at the Camp Roosevelt aid station when I expressed my concern over my diminishing returns. Although I probably wanted to graze here a few more minutes around the food, get my wits about me in the cool shade, hunker down before heading back out, my crew had the good sense to shuffle me back out on the course before I’d had too much time to ponder over a mild low point. More importantly, I thought, was my response to what Alex had said: I’ll come around, I told him, which meant my confidence—even if chipped—was far from splintering.
The section of dirt road leading to the first crossing of Kerns Mtn. is a gradual climb. I was alone now. Donna, Kelly, and Matt had gotten out of Camp Roosevelt well ahead of me; and though I knew I was loosing good company, I was surprisingly content to tackle some miles by myself at whatever pace I might deem fit. At first, I walked all the hills toward the Moreland Gap aid station, which is at around mile 38. But feeling a little stronger now, enjoying the warmth of a perfectly clear day, I decided to pick out a spot in the near distance along the road and simply run up to it. I was drawn to just about anything, whether a shadow over the road or a patch of weeds or an oddly angled rock. The point was to just keep moving with a little goal in mind. “You eat the elephant one bite at a time,” a runner told my brother and me during my first 50K the previous September. Here I was taking little bites, which I’d follow with a minute or so of walking, only to pick out the next spot where I’d run to. By the time I could see the crest of the hill in the road, I’d caught up with Kelly and headed into the aid station right behind him.
When Kelly left Moreland Gap a minute ahead of me, I thought I could probably catch him if I picked up the pace over the next few minutes. But I chose to keep my own pace and tackle Kerns Mtn. alone. For the second time that day, I experienced firsthand why MMT has a reputation for being so brutally rocky. The transformation of the trail seemed rather abrupt, too; coming along a gradual climb of dusty single track, I was suddenly confronted by a field of rocks that seemed like large choppy whitecaps breaking across an angry sea. And I felt adrift at sea then, for much of my control was lost here among the rock, as no agility seemed enough to guide me across the hazard. Mentally, I’d prepared myself for hitting such sections during the race. I’d traveled across enough rocks during my training runs to know how and when to give into them, understanding I’d have to be alright with a much slower miles here, realizing impatience with my progress was my worst enemy, that it might erect a huge mental block. And in some ways, I gradually grew comforted by the pace that I’d been so reluctantly forced to settle into. I began power-walking the climb toward the ridgeline. And I almost thought I was making my way among the rocks at pretty decent clip, but it was at that moment I heard a sudden buzzing in my ears, which grew louder, only to fade briefly away, only to grow again louder still.
It was a large fly. It at least sounded large to me, as I never actually saw it. Even at my crawl up the trail to the top of Kerns Mtn., I guess I was managing to move just fast enough to stay one step ahead of it. That was until I realized this fly had cunning, that it was in stealth mode, moving out my view behind me, zeroing in on the back of my head. So was it genuine joy I felt when I managed to flail away behind me and kill it? And then, on the other hand, was it genuine despair when I discovered that fly had friends, that I was doomed to climb Kerns Mtn.—Hell enough—with this added torment? I’d like to say by focusing on the noisome buzzing about me that my mind was entirely removed from the torments of crossing the treacherous path laid beneath my feet. But I was fully aware of everything: the rocks, the climb, the endless, senseless buzzing.
The paved road section gradually unrolling downhill to the Picnic Area aid station was a welcome relief after Kerns Mtn. and the company I’d kept atop it. It was on this stretch of road that I caught a glimpse of the frontrunners, Sim Jae Duk, then Karl Meltzer, both of them moving effortlessly along the climb, then Matt Estes and Todd Walker near the crossing of Route 211. For a moment, I was not only a runner but also a spectator at an amazing race that had remained so close after 60 miles. These were runners I truly admired; I watched them with wonder as they blazed by me, knowing they would be done numerous hours before I’d even contemplate the finish line. It would be late at night—I believe over MMT’s famous potato soup—that I would hear Sim was well on his way to finishing in first, a feat that came to astound me, as I would later learn that he’d never run a 100-mile race.
Brennen on Wildflower Trail going into the Picnic Area
After crossing Route 211, I came to a section of the course that would be heavy with traffic over the next few hours as I orbited in and out of the Picnic Area aid station. My crew was waiting for me when I arrived—ever supportive, always encouraging, ready to provide me with whatever I needed. As I drifted away from the picnic tables laden with food and drinks, I crossed out of a closed-off area around the aid station to quickly discuss my pacing plans with my brother. Prior to the race, I wasn’t certain if I’d arrive for the third time at the Picnic Area aid station after six o’clock, the time designated for picking up pacers. If I did in fact make it through the station for a third time before six, I would then have to cross Kerns Mtn. alone again, where Pat could then join me upon my second pass through the Moreland Gap aid station.
It was at this point when I sensed my brother beginning to take command of the situation, for he felt confident I’d be passing through here a third time just about six, which meant that he’d be ready to join me then. Even though hours would still have to pass before six, I caught fire with something in my brother’s excitement. Pat—who’s usually rather quiet, who sticks to himself much of the time—can come alive at ultras, approaching complete strangers, striking up conversations on the trail, his voice growing loud and boisterous. I now felt there was something to look forward to in the near hours. As I headed up toward Bird Knob, I was already thinking about taking my brother on a little tour of Kerns Mtn. and how much I’d enjoy his company there and beyond.
The climb to Bird Knob is unique to the MMT course. Long, rocky, and steep (it’s not uncommon at any one time to find a combination of two of those three characteristics), the ascent can easily take its toll on runners before the course levels out and even becomes quite runnable beyond a fork leading to a loop in the trail. And though I struggled up the climb due to the nature of the ascent itself, I was also suffering from a sudden drop in blood sugar. I slowed to a standstill two or three times on this climb, even stopped to sit on a large rock, eating a gel, then some Shot Bloks that Debra had given me, for I felt I didn’t have the least bit of energy left in me. Here was my second low point of the day; knowing it’s nature, what would help me recover, I drew again on my patience with the belief that I’d be through this spot soon enough. When I did regain my feet, I continued toward the loop on a somewhat rocky trail at a walk. Sue Johnston then came the opposite way in first place, and I could do little but marvel at her steady, consistent pace. I began running again after I’d entered into the loop, where it opened up onto a large, flat grassy stretch, which took me to the southernmost aid station on the course. From there, I began moving north toward the many miles still awaiting me beyond nightfall.
After a quick second pass through the Picnic Area, an easy downhill to the Route 211 aid station, I took my first sitting break of the race as my crew brought me soup and something to drink. Since I believed my feet were holding up well, I chose not to lube them again and not to change my socks. I pounded a Mountain Dew MDX, which Debra had managed to track down at a local grocery store (we couldn’t find it in New York City anywhere before we left). At just about every aid station from here on out, she’d have one waiting for me along with Shot Bloks to carry in my pocket along the next stretch of trail. I was pleased to see how much Debra was enjoying crewing. Back in New York, she had worried a bit about taking on this role and showed some concern over how I might look and feel later in the race. But her energy and positive attitude were infectious during these few moments we had to spend together in the aid stations, a little something to carry me over the next few grueling miles, something intangible that was growing more and more important as I traveled north.
My brother joined me during my final pass through the Picnic Area. Despite my extended break at Route 211, I felt I’d been strengthened by it, and I’d managed to take the long uphill with a combination run/walk at a decent clip. It was a treat to be able to take Pat over ground I’d already covered earlier in the day. After crossing 211, I showed him where I’d seen the frontrunners moving so effortlessly along the paved section. Pat and I were now beginning to establish our new roles here; since I’d never run a 100 and he’d never paced for one, we just moved at the pace I dictated along the road uphill. I’d say let’s run to a particular spot, and he’d simply follow me, coming to a stop whenever I did. We passed Kerry Owens on this section leading to Kerns Mtn. A veteran of MMT, she said she often passed runners on Short Mtn. (and she would, in fact, pass us on the rocky stretch of trail a few hours later). Where the road met the trailhead, Pat and I fell in with Hans, who would cross most of Kerns Mtn. with us before taking off to the next aid station on his own. For me, it was often good just to listen to the two of them talk. I recalled things Hans had told me earlier in the day, which I’d ask him to repeat to my brother. It’s a rare intimacy you often share during a race of this nature; although I barely knew Hans, I was thriving off what he and my brother had to share with each other, including Hans’ idea of a run that would go through all of the New England states and how he might pogo stick to the top of Mtn. Washington..
We managed to make it into the Moreland Gap aid station before complete darkness. Although I would have benefited from my headlight, I decided to take the last rocky stretch without it. We passed a runner and his pacer less than a 100 yards from the road leading into the aid station; my brother and I must have been raising quite a racket, as they asked if it was just the two of us making all the noise.
Leaving Moreland Gap, my brother and I got momentarily lost for the first and last time of the race. The trail, as it is throughout, is well marked with ribbons and glow sticks at night; however, we drew up short of a creek, believing we’d turned the wrong way, not being patient enough for the next ribbon to appear. We backtracked and came up on the runner and his pacer we’d passed coming into Moreland Gap, who assured us we were going the right way, as there was no other way to go. It was a lesson well learned. Despite how our conversation could pass the time, ease some of the lesser pains, we vowed to keep a better eye on the trail ahead of us throughout the night as our awareness waned.
At this point in the race, I didn’t know we were actually climbing Short Mtn. Until we were passed on the descent by Diana Widdowson, who would go on to finish a strong second behind Sue Johnston, I remained oblivious to the fact that this was the stretch of the race that many runners hated and waited for in dread. Perhaps the new darkness masked many of the hazards from my view. All I can remember along this stretch of trail that might have distinguished it from any others was the way it wound up and over larger rocks, how I took a wrong step or two on a number of occasion as I tried to navigate among the ribbons and glow sticks, only to have my brother reel me back in from his position behind me. In a way then, the night can seem at least in one way to a runner’s advantage, as it closes a larger world into that single precious beam, bringing one’s focus to a manageable distance. I think it may allow a runner the ability to concentrate on the sudden here and now rather than what may lie twenty yards or a mile or ten miles ahead, which could be an entirely false destination, a chimera out there in some foggy future, as no one, perhaps, in a 100-mile race is ever granted the absolute right to get there.
Yes, my vision was closed down to a manageable point atop Short Mtn. by the darkness. And suddenly erupting within it then was Hans. As Pat and I continued to climb, the beam on my headlamp suddenly shaped him out of the darkness, sitting dejectedly on a rock, a glow stick lying right beside him.
“Are you alright?” I asked, for I couldn’t imagine anything but an injury had brought Hans to a standstill up there on Short Mtn.
“I broke my headlamp down before the climb,” he said, genuine fatigue and even loss in his voice. “I’ve been trying to guide myself with this glow stick.”
I’ve long wondered how Hans had ever made it that far along the trail of Short Mtn. by the meager light of a glow stick. We were miles from the beginning of the climbing, and he had fumbled at an impressive rate among the blinded rocks. Luckily, Pat had both a headlamp and a small handheld flashlight with him. Although I’d miss the extra beam to guide us, Pat was kind enough to give the flashlight to Hans so he could go it alone. He hung with us for a few more miles on Short Mtn., then took off into the night entirely on his own.
The next two sections of the course felt like they were the longest part of the race for me. I’d imagined the Powell Mtn. section would end up a bit of a break after Short Mtn., but our progress slowed considerably over this section, frustrating me quite a bit, as I thought I should have been able to tackle it much faster. Having come off Powell Mtn. with the intention of blazing through the aid station, I neglected Pat’s needs and whisked him away before he could get a grilled cheese sandwich. I myself would end up during this next section feeling deep hunger, which grew as unmanageable as the rocks or darkness, for I felt it gnawing away at me. But in terms of the race overall, I was feeling strong if conservative in my approach to the mounting distances. My feet had seemingly held up well, despite one large yet painless blister on the outer edge of my right heel, and I’d not needed to change my socks through more than 80 miles. Making it this late in the race, I felt a growing confidence that I would finish barring an accident. It was during this section that Pat and I fell in with Bill Graney from California. A veteran of four other 100-mile races, Bill made for good company as we descended from the ridge through cooler pockets of air and the first bird songs of early morning toward the aid station at Elizabeth Furnace.
Since Alex was pacing for “Kid” Kelly, only Debra and Elizabeth met us at the second-to-last aid station. Everybody’s energy, I think, was running low at this point, and we all simply went through the motions of moving forward. It was just before dawn now. Despite the remaining gloom, the birds were opening up more fully into song. I lingered around the food before heading back out, watching Bethany Patterson rise wearily to take on the next road section, fighting off the problems she’d been having.
Pat and I tackled the road with a mixture of running and walking. There was enough light by the time we rose above a pond on the next section of trail to see its still gray surface stretch across a basin to the opposite ascent. Perhaps its stillness seemed deceptive in the newly broken gloom. But for whatever reason, I asked Pat to toss a rock into the pond to prove that it was real, its surface shattered in an instance, ripples fanning outward. We hit another short section of road, then a rocky climb that seemed to run along a creek bed. I killed my headlamp and stuffed it down inside the pocket of my shorts, confident that the last miles would be covered in natural light, pleased to have made it through the desperate night ours with little or no desperation.
The descent to the final aid station on the course left me disappointed with my capabilities at this stage of the race. Here, coming into Elizabeth Furnace, it’s an amazing stretch of trail slowly moving down along switchbacks to the aid station. And despite the views opening up with the dawn, which should have encouraged me with the promise of all the downhill, I was unable to push myself hard enough to run through the general pain and fatigue and make up some time before the final climb. Debra, Alex, and Elizabeth were waiting on our arrival. Pat and I had spent a minute or two in the aid station when Garry Rarer came through looking strong. Getting one last encouraging push from my crew, Pat and I headed out with Garry along the benign grassy flats until they met the brutal final climb of the race. I’m actually glad this climb came so late in the course; going straight up rather than following switchbacks, this stretch of fire road would probably have been far more discouraging if it had been many miles from the finish line.
I felt as if were simply climbing this last rise on autopilot; though I’d been fortunate enough to avoid those doldrums of the early morning hours before dawn, something essential had been taken out of me somewhere in the last five miles prior to reaching the Elizabeth Furnace aid station. My spirit had seemed to flee away from me somewhere out there on the trail, leaving me to simply struggle through a fatigue unlike any I’ve ever experienced. As my brother and I climbed that last ascent, I knew I had little left of any of my original desires upon entering into this race; finishing was but a base need for me now, no different than my breathing and heartbeat, the one step in front of another that had gotten me to this particular point in the race––it was in my vital rhythm. And, surprisingly, crossing that finish line now seemed somehow completely outside the realm of any real joy. Although I could imagine the triumph of the accomplishment, how I should feel about what I was about to do, my body was making more essential demands that outweighed and eclipsed those emotions about reaching this goal. There are times even now that I’m sadden by my inability to revel in covering those many miles, not really able to taste triumph. But then I consider what the accomplishment has meant in other ways to me, what I received instead of joy, what it might come to mean as I grow further away from the race itself, even if it is perhaps more visceral and allusive.
The decent to the finish line was long and sometimes steep and crossed a few quiet streams. The sky had given over to gray clouds. And though there was a threat of rain, the morning was cool and pleasant as Pat and I came out on a gravel road slowly unrolling to a last stretch of pavement. Skyline Ranch finally came into view for us. I didn’t look back at the mountains over my shoulder, wouldn’t see them again until after I’d finished, sitting beneath them as I had the night before, watching other runners now finish their own races. After we’d moved through a small stand of trees, Pat and I came to the field of high blond grass stretching toward the finish line. He began peeling off from me here, and I gave him my thanks.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and then, without a pause: “Just don’t ask me to do it again.”
What I think Pat really meant was that he was my brother and that he would be there whenever I asked––whether it was for another race or the many other things that left me in need.
Running those last few hundred yards, I spotted Debra, Elizabeth, and Alex in the small crowd gathered around the finish line. I could see the digital clock glowing as red as it had the previous morning. I felt a renewed strength in those last steps toward the race’s end, but I also understood it was but a temporary reprieve from my fatigue. Crossing the finish line in 27:15:14, I felt enormously tired once again. But mostly, I felt grateful––grateful for my capacities, for those who’d believed in them enough to support me along the way, to a community of runners who gathered for such an event, offering me the strange and alluring and demanding possibility of putting one foot in front of the other again and again and again.
… WE SALUTE YOU
If this were the Oscars, the orchestra would have long ago struck up a song upon its strings to break to a commercial. So I’ll make this short: Thanks again to Pat, Debra, Elizabeth, and Alex. Also, thanks to Stan Duobinis, Anstr Davidson, all the great volunteers at the race, and VHTRC. Finally, I truly appreciate all those runners who have contributed their race reports to the MMT Web site. Special thanks go to Sophie Spiedel, Ed Cacciapaglia, John Prohira, Annette Bednosky, and Aaron Schwartzbard, whose races and reports made me feel a little bit less alone as I moved toward race day.
See you next year.