Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
by Jamey Groff
I made up my mind to run the 2007 version of MMT less than a week after I finished the 2006 race as my first 100-miler. Last years’ race went reasonably well until about the halfway mark. From there, it turned into a long slow struggle with physical pain, fatigue and frustration all the way to the finish. In summarizing last years race I wrote that “…I know I have a much better MMT waiting to get out…” In terms of my running goals since this time last year, running a strong 2007 MMT became #1 on the list, and was something that I pursued with an almost embarrassing devotion.
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard. Other photos from the author.
I probably did around six 25-35 mile days on different sections of the course since January. Additionally, I was able to put in up to three hours on the rocky southernmost trails of the Massanutten range, almost every Thursday or Friday morning before work. I followed a low-heartrate training plan since January, that was really fascinating to me, and I was very encouraged by the results. I ran lots of very slow miles at heartrates less than 145 beats per minute for nearly 3 months, and my pace at a similar heartrate improved by nearly four minutes per mile over that time. I also made sure to include plenty of hills, and spent as much time as possible on the rocky local trails.
I knew that my physical preparation was much improved, but I was extremely curious how it might play out during the race. This was still only my 3rd 100-miler, so I didn’t take for granted that something significant could still go wrong even though I felt much better prepared. I eventually adopted a 26-hour goal, which I thought was realistic.
Friday at the ranch was a good time to catch up with some people and enjoy a great meal. I even managed to get a great night’s sleep in my tent, which fortunately kept everything dry inside despite the steady all-day rain. Shortly after 4 am on Saturday, the first of my alarms went off. After getting ready, I looked outside and saw a perfectly clear, starry sky, which meant we would have great weather at the start.
Anyone who was at the race knows that the weather could not have been dialed up any more perfectly. I was rather chilly for the first stretch, but eventually warmed up and got into a comfortable pace. Almost from the start, I had some new calluses that were being irritated by my most trusty pair of trail shoes which I hadn’t worn for awhile—they caused me a lot of worry, but after stopping to tape them hours later, they never made more trouble. I felt pretty well up until the several miles of gravel road leading into the Habron Gap aid station (24 mi.), when my stomach was feeling rough. I knew it was the sports drink I had been using, which I had problems with in the past, but thought that I had figured out. I stopped drinking it, but it still took over two hours for my stomach to finally right itself.
I picked up my bottle pack at Camp Roosevelt and continued, still waiting to feel better. I had packed a shoe change at Gap Creek since that descent always seems to be a muddy quagmire. I kept my feet dry, but changed shoes anyway into a pair of road shoes—They felt absolutely fabulous: light, great fit, adequate protection & took the pressure off my calluses & minor blisters that had started. Given the way they performed over the next 60+ rocky miles, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be buying another pair of clunky trail shoes.
I viewed the day almost as two separate races. I had the first half where I was on my own & would try to make good time, not worrying too much about starting too fast. Then after the 211 aid station, I would be joined by my crew (wife Gen and brother-in-law Ben & his girlfriend Kim) which gave me something to look forward to. From there on I could rely on seeing familiar faces at aid stations to motivate myself to push on. I guessed that I might reach 211 for the first time at 3:30—I looked at my watch when I got there: 3:34, right on schedule. I briefly filled them in on some of what had happened throughout the day, then they whisked me out pretty quickly, heeding my earlier instructions to help me keep moving. This was the first time I’d ever had a crew, and I can’t emphasize enough how nice it was.
The out and back climb to Bird Knob was a little eerie—I passed all the top five runners coming the opposite direction either before 211 or well before the wildflower trail by the visitor center. I then saw no one else for what seemed like at eternity, and I was surprised to realize that I was only maybe 35 minutes behind the second “pack” of runners. This confused me, and I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more runners further ahead of me.
With the most acute stomach problems finally behind me, the rest of the race became a balancing act between eating & drinking enough to maintain some energy, and taking in too much, which would put me right back in nausea-land. It seemed like everyone I talked to was also struggling with stomach discomfort for some reason. I moved well back down to 211, then felt great on the way to Gap Creek, pleasantly surprised that I was able to keep my feet dry on the normally sloppy section of yellow trail that was new to the MMT course this year.
211E Aid Station:
My pacer, Ed, who paced me through a miserable 15+ mile walk at last year’s race, was waiting at Gap Creek. He and Ben would be alternating pacing duties for the rest of the night, which I think worked really well for all of us. At each aid station, Gen would be enthusiastic at how well I was doing and would get pretty excited when I moved up a position or two between each time we would see each other. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I became very motivated to finish strong. Eventually, it started to look like a top-10 finish might actually be a possibility, which blew my mind—in my wildest dreams I never expected to be that high in the standings. Ed & I left after less than a minute in the aid station, since I wanted to at least get through to Moreland Gap before it became flashlight time.
At Moreland Gap, I must have eaten too much and was nauseous and even light-headed on the climb toward the Short Mountain ridge. I took some ginger and continued climbing, and after about 20 minutes or so, felt good enough to start making better time on the ridge, even passing a few folks along the way. The night was cool and there was a nice breeze on the ridge that felt wonderful. The whippoorwills were singing and it was clear enough to see out over all the lights in the distant towns down in the valley. I was glad to be feeling well enough to enjoy the transition from day to night running.
I took a few minutes in the Edinburg aid station to tape another callous, briefly see Dennis & of course, drink some of the soup. Ben took over pacing duty & we resumed on Powell Mountain, making what I felt was pretty good time all along the way. At one point I got a bit sleepy, but I followed Ben’s wise advice to take caffeine immediately rather than waiting for it get worse—I never felt sleepy the rest of the night. We pulled into the Woodstock Tower aid station around 1am. Even though it felt like the last few miles took forever, we managed over an hour faster than my time on this section last year, when things were going very poorly. Gen told me there were several runners who were right behind me who also would want to get into the top-10. I later wondered how she knew that, and if she may have fabricated it to keep me moving. Whatever the case, I only spent enough to time to fill bottles and drink some ginger ale before heading back out.
The section into the Powell’s Fort aid station was uneventful. We didn’t see another soul, and just continued on, running the flats & downs and walking the ups. Ed resumed pacing duty after Powell’s Fort and we passed another runner on the road section, which gave me another jolt of energy, allowing me to be able to run the majority of the slightly uphill gravel road over the next 1-2 miles. The climb that followed was steep and long, but it was kind of nice to do it in the dark, never being able to see past my flashlight beam to anticipate how much further I had to go. When we got to the top, I did my best to run on the long downhill that followed. I struggled a little to keep running well, and I ended up doing a lot of really short, 5-10 second walk breaks, since my legs were, really for the first time all day, feeling too tired to run continuously. We passed Brennan, who was still moving well, within 5 minutes of the reaching the next aid station. Again, this section took an hour less than last year due to the injury I had, and I thought about it a lot that I just couldn’t believe how well I was feeling during the overnight, especially given last years’ experience.
The only task left was to go over and down from Shawl Gap a second time. The climb wasn’t so steep, but went on forever. I had some trouble following the trail once we descended again since it was dark and the trails were less defined. At one point I took a wrong turn that fortunately dead-ended in a thicket after just a few hundred feet. We had to backtrack to get back out and spent a few nervous minutes trying to find the correct route. We reached the final grassy field & I ran toward the finish line and the maybe 6-7 people that were there watching in the pre-dawn. I laid down for a minute, exhausted, but elated to have finished in 24:36, a time I was very happy with, especially given how many people thought that this years’ course was somewhat slower than in the past. It was an improvement of over 5 hours from last year, which really made all the extra training seem very worthwhile.
After showering & trying to get warmed up, I spent the rest of the day visiting, dozing off and sampling the excellent food from the café (Thanks Q!), but mostly watching other runners finish. For some reason, my state of mind allowed me to sit for hours on end, watching others come to the end of their journeys. I especially admired the folks that finished near the end of the afternoon on Sunday—it takes serious toughness to stick to it for that long. There was a great atmosphere at the finish, with more people seeming to hang around because of the food, music and great weather. As finishers arrived, there was always lots of applause along with Mike Bur on the P.A. system welcoming runners “back to the ranch.”
I’ve heard others say that a good crew can save a couple of hours over the course of a hundred miler, and now I completely believe it. Gen & Kim were great and it was very cool to have such upbeat, encouraging pacers in Ed & Ben. I know I had lots of family wondering how I was doing out there, including some of my wild aunts and my mother who were all together on a sisters weekend, and I really appreciate everyone who supports me doing things like this even though it may be on the fringe of sanity in their minds.
I heard that there were nearly as many volunteers as runners this year, many of whom probably got little more sleep than the runners did. I hope they all heard it countless times over the weekend, but I'll just say again that all of their efforts were deeply appreciated. Thanks also to Aaron for taking, and making available all of those amazing pictures. Thanks especially to Stan, Anstr, Mike, Bill, Kevin, & Valerie, who organize all of those critical elements that make MMT so special. Whether I end up running or volunteering, crewing or pacing, MMT weekend will definitely be on my calendar for 2008.
Jamey with pacers Ed (left) and Ben (center) after the finish