Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
May 19th & 20th, 2007
by Rob Richardson
I remember the day I decided to sign-up for the Massanutten 100. Race registration had just opened and I had the application printed out on my desk. I quickly filled out the application, followed by my signature and slapped it onto Shandra’s desk and said “What do you think”? “Am I nuts”? Shandra, who believes that anything can be accomplished with the right mind set and hard work, said without hesitation “I think you should go for it! It’s only a matter of time until you do a 100-miler”. That’s all I needed to hear. I folded the application, put it into a stamped, self addressed envelope and dropped it into the mailbox. I then poured my 2nd glass of wine.
Rob Richardson at Gap Creek
Photos on this page: Aaron Schwartzbard
(except at noted.)
It wasn’t until a few days later when my name showed up on the MMT100 registered runners list that it all became real. I called my family and started emailing my close friends to tell them the news about my MMT registration. Rob Barnes and Tony Escobar were the 1st of my friends that I told. Rob and Tony are both close friends of mine and I knew they would support my goal and hold me accountable for my upcoming training. I also called Mark and Debbie Shaffer, also close friends of mine. Mark, Debbie and I previously trained for the Bull Run 50-miler together and I knew that 2007 was Debbie’s attempt at MMT. Mark confirmed what I already suspected; Debbie also submitted her registration. I also emailed Michele Harmon and Mike Priddy. Michele, one of the most experienced ultra runners that I know, has always provided sound ultra running advice and could be relied upon for guidance throughout my training. I thought Mike might be interested in registering for MMT, as well as training with me; both of which he did.
My training strategy leading up to MMT was pretty straight forward. #1, I planned to run as many back-to-back long runs as possible and #2, I wanted to run all of Tom Corris’ MMT training runs. Prior to early January, I had never run on Massanutten Mountain. By attending Tom’s training runs I’d have the opportunity to learn the course and experience the terrain. During the 3-months leading up to MMT, Mike Priddy and I made most of Tom’s training runs and for those that we couldn’t make, we ran on our own time. I owe Mike a world of thanks for showing me the MMT course and for sticking it out with me on one particular snowy and icy 9+hr training run.
Aside from Tom’s MMT training runs, most of my long runs were with two good friends of mine; Rob Barnes and Vicente Lai. I’ve always felt that the journey leading up to a big race is the best part of racing itself. The months leading up to MMT proved to be some of the most fun training days that I’ve ever had. I met with both Rob and Vicente well over a dozen times for long runs on the W&OD trail during the very early morning work week hours. I typically don’t like running on paved trails, however being with these guys made it all worth while. Plus I figured the constant pounding on pavement over several hours would help strengthen my body for the pounding that I would receive at MMT. While we had some incredible long runs, the highlight of our W&OD training runs was a month out from MMT where we did 4 back-to-back Marathons (suggested by Shandra). At the time, I thought we were nuts but this proved to be the focal point of my training and what I felt resulted in a good race at MMT. Plus, it was a big confidence booster.
My overall race strategy for MMT was quite simple. Based on my training and past endurance races leading up to MMT, I was targeting to finish anywhere between 26 and 28hrs. I knew I wanted to go out slow vs. in the front of the pack and I wanted to keep my heart rate in check on the climbs and in a comfortable range during the descents and flats (140-150bpm). As far as nutrition, I planned to have a drop bag at every site that allowed a drop bag. At each of these aid stations I would drink an Ensure Plus (350 calories) in addition to refilling up my camelback with Hammer Gels, which I would take roughly every 30-45 minutes between aid stations. For fluids, I planned to drink Gatorade as long as I could tolerate it and then switch to mixed fluids (Gatorade/water) afterwards. I also planned to take 2 Endurolytes every hour, depending on race day temperature and exerted effort.
Packet pickup at Skyline Ranch was pretty uneventful with the exception of one minor glitch. Stan Duobinis, the race director for MMT, read the official time on his watch which allowed runners to sync up their watches if they so desired. I synched up mine as did a few others. When I got back to our hotel in Front Royal later that evening, I noticed that the clock in my room didn’t synch up with my watch – it was 1hr behind! So I set the clock correctly, took a Tylenol PM (to help knock me out) and started to close my eyes. Shandra said “Rob, you realize it’s only 7pm right?” I said, “No, it’s 8pm!”. It turned out that when I synched my watch with Stan’s watch, I accidentally set the time ahead by 1hr. We couldn’t help but laugh… With race gitters and all, I fell asleep close to 11pm.
Race morning, I awoke at 3:30am despite my alarm(s) being set for 4am. Waking up early is pretty typical for me on race day. Actually, I was thrilled that I even fell asleep, let alone to get 4+hrs of rest. I jumped out of bed, threw on my race gear, put band aids on my toes where I typically have trouble spots with blisters along with band aids on my nipples. I also threw down a bagel and some water. I hit the rest room and we walked out the door…the nervous jitters were long started.
We arrived at the race site with tents all over and racers wiping the dust out of their eyes. It was a nice morning compared to the slightly rainy evening the night before. The temperatures were in the low 50’s and the highs weren’t expected to get much higher than the upper 60’s throughout the day. To me, this was perfect race day temperatures. Shandra and I saw a few friends, took a few pictures and walked up to the race start a few minutes prior to 5am. Stan gave a few opening remarks and we were off.
Rob comes in to Shawl Gap
Photo: Anstr Davidson
The 1st few miles of the race were the best. For me, all of the nervous jitters leading up to the race instantaneously went away and I was doing what I love – running! As we started the 1st climb up to Shawl Gap, Aaron Schwartzbard was there taking pictures of all of the runners; capturing tangible memories that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve always appreciated the personal time that Aaron takes to come out to these races. I thanked Aaron and proceeded with the climb. When I came down into Shawl Gap aid station, I felt great. I guzzled down my Ensure and kept plugging away. According to my time splits, I was a few minutes ahead of schedule, but otherwise I felt fine.
Veach Gap and Milford Gap went by pretty uneventful. I remember as I approach Habron Gap that this particular climb was tough and would be warm this time of the morning. Plus I remember Keith Knipling mentioning that this was one of the tougher climbs of the day. When I came into the aid station, I downed 2 Ensures, refilled my Camelbak and replenished my gel supply. Up Habron I went. As I neared the top of the climb, I came across Jamey Groff. Jamey and I met each other this past year on a few MMT training runs and I had read his race report from the 2006 MMT. Based on Jamey’s training runs, I knew he was a good runner and it concerned me a bit that I had caught up to him. It turns out that Jamey was having some stomach problems during the climb, which helped explain why I crossed paths with him so early in the race. Jamey allowed me to pass near the top of the climb and I proceeded on the ridge line before the 4.5 mile downhill to Camp Roosevelt. As I approached Camp Roosevelt, I got really excited because Shandra and my pacer, Tony Escobar, were scheduled to see me there. At this point in the race I was about 30-minutes ahead of my race plan and it didn’t surprise me too much that when I came into Camp Roosevelt, Shandra and Tony were no where in sight. As usual, I drank an Ensure, filled my Camelbak and left the aid station – this time with my friend Jeff Heasley.
Near Camp Roosevelt
In 2003, I came out to see Jeff run his 1st MMT100. Jeff is from Colorado and I’m good friends with his sister Linda who I see fairly regularly at my wife’s Masters Swim program. Linda put me in touch with Jeff prior to the 2003 MMT race and he and I have been exchanging emails ever since. His willingness to provide advice and encouragement has helped me tremendously in becoming a better ultra distance athlete.
Jeff and I left Camp Roosevelt together and began a relatively easy climb towards Gap Creek I. The particular section that we were on had a gradual increase in grade, which I normally would have power walked if by myself. Jeff encouraged me to run this stretch and explained that a lot of time could be made up if we ran instead of walked. Running this stretch really wasn’t that bad and I was just happy to have company of a friend. Again, I was concerned about catching up with Jeff this early in the race and questioned whether I was going out too fast. But I felt good, had a lot of energy and my stomach was in check…so I just kept going with what felt right. Jeff and I got to the top of the climb and flew down into Gap Creek I together. While in Gap Creek I, I saw Shandra and Tony for the 1st time since the race started. I was already on a high from the fast descent into Gap Creek and seeing Shandra and Tony lifted my spirits even more. They both had my drop bag ready, I downed my Ensure, grabbed some Gel’s and I was off on the climb out of Gap Creek…again with Jeff. When we were part way up the climb, Jeff pulled off for a bathroom break. I knew Jeff was targeting a 24hr race and that our paths would cross later down the line.
The ridge line after the climb out of Gap Creek was pretty uneventful. The sights on the ridge line were beyond spectacular. That’s if you can take the time to lift your head to see the sights. Rocks are everywhere on MMT. You can’t help but constantly look at the ground. I was on the ridge line for a few several miles before approaching Waterfall Mountain. I had been down Waterfall before on a previous training run and new the downhill was quite tough. The sign at the top of the trail said it all: “Welcome to Waterfall – Fasten your Seatbelt”. Enough said.
At the bottom of Waterfall Mountain I enjoyed the easy gravel road leading out to RT211. I started to get really excited about seeing Shandra and Tony again, but nervous about the pending climb up Bird Knob. I had only climbed Bird Knob on one previous training run and knew the climb was tough – particularly with 48-50 miles on my legs. I came into 211 and was warmly greeted by all of the volunteers and in particular Shandra and Tony. As expected, they had my drop bag ready and handed me my Ensure. I downed some fruit also and made my way back onto the trail. The climb leading up to Bird Knob wasn’t as tough as I had expected; perhaps because I was planning for the worst. Half way up the climb, I remember a large overhanging rock that Sean Andrish had pointed out to me on a past training run. He said “Remember, this rock is only the ½ way point”. Remembering that helped me break the climb into manageable chunks. When I got to the top of Bird Knob, my heart rate quickly came down and I thoroughly enjoyed the easy run down to the Bird Knob aid station. I arrived at the aid station, downed some fruit and started making my way back to RT211. I felt absolutely great during the out and back stretch at the top of Bird Knob….in fact, probably the best I felt throughout the race. I believe I was excited about being ½ way finished with the race, even though the finish line was 47+ miles away. I was also excited about getting back to RT211 to see Shandra and Tony again.
After I left Bird Knob aid station, I ran into what seemed like everybody in the race. I saw CJ Blagg, Jamey Groff, Jeff Heasley, Mike Priddy and numerous other runners. We each exchanged encouragement to each other and proceeded on with the race. When I arrived back at RT211, Shandra and Tony greeted me with their smiles and yet another Ensure. I drank the Ensure, followed by a ton of fruit that Shandra had available. I kissed Shandra good night as I wouldn’t see her until sometime on Sunday. After RT211, Shandra dropped Tony off at Moreland, where he would pick me up later in the race and pace me in to the finish.
With Michele Harmon at Gap Creek
RT211 to Gap Creek was pretty uneventful. In my past training runs, this section always seemed to take forever. But for some reason, it went by relatively fast. I walked a good portion of the uphills and ran most of the flats and the rocky downhill to Gap II where I was greeted by Michele Harmon and Farouk Elkassed. Farouk helped get my Camelbak filled while Michele grabbed my drop bag and helped me get my stuff together for the long night ahead. I was still feeling good at this point and only grabbed a light jacket, which I tied around my waste. I was tentatively planning on changing socks, however my feet felt pretty good despite a few brewing blisters. I quickly left the aid station and was a few hundred yards down the road when I realized that I only had a few salt tablets left. I ran back to the aid station yelling Michele’s name and asked her to grab my drop bag and salt tablets. I filled a small container that I was carrying in my hand with salt tablets and was on my way for the climb out of Gap II.
Gap II was a tough climb as I expected but was over with before I knew it. I knew when I got to the top I only had around 2-miles or so until I’d see Tony. I ended up joining up with Kevin Townsend on the climb and all of the way to Moreland where I picked up Tony. Tony, Kevin and I left Moreland together and Kevin mentioned that we were track to break a 24hr pace. With 33+ miles to go, I didn’t want to get my hopes up but I can’t say that it wasn’t in the back of my head. Kevin broke 24hrs in at MMT in 2006 and was striving for the same goal this year. Each of us continued to plug away at the miles ahead. At some point between Moreland and Edinburg Gap, Tony and I separated from Kevin. I believe Kevin stopped for a bathroom break and unfortunately we never crossed paths again during the race.
At Edinburg Gap
Edinburg Gap to Woodstock to Powells is kind of a blur to me. I know at some stretch between Edinburg and Woodstock, Tony and I came across Ryan Henry and his pacer David Horton. They both were moving along quite well and I was just getting my 2nd wind. Ryan and David allowed Tony and I to pass, we exchanged some quick pleasantries and continued our trek to Powells.
As Tony and I came into Powells, I was getting happier and happier that the finish line was gradually approaching. I knew right after Powells that there was a 2+ mile gravel road with a slight increase in grade. And I knew that I had to run as much as I could. Unfortunately, I was taking more and more breaks on this stretch and I lost some unexpected time. As the gravel road ended, we went back into the woods and around a lake to our right. I knew that the 2nd to last climb of the race was approaching. I also knew that while this climb was somewhat steep, it was relatively short. As we went up the climb, I looked into the distance and could see other lights approaching. I couldn’t tell how far away they were, but suspected about 10-15 minutes. Tony and I reached the top of the climb quicker than I expected. As we started making our 4.5 mile run down to Elizabeth Furnace I stopped and told Tony that I thought we were going the wrong way. We both decided to turn around and run back to the top of the hill (only a few hundred feet fortunately). As we reached the top of the hill, we realized that we were going the correct way and turned right back around. Seconds after we turned around, Ryan Henry and David Horton caught up to us. At the time, I didn’t realize that these were the same guys we passed between Edinburgh and Woodstock, but I could tell that they were on a mission to make it to the finish line in under 24hrs. We stepped aside to let Ryan and David take the lead towards Elizabeth Furnace. I told Tony on the way down that we couldn’t lose these guys otherwise we weren’t going to make it under 24hrs. To me, we were flying down the hill…In reality we were probably only doing 9-minute miles, but at the time I swore we were doing sub 7’s. From this point on to the end of the race, Tony and I said only a few words to each other. We both were pretty tired at that point and I didn’t want to unnecessarily waste any energy talking. As we approached Elizabeth Furnace, I remember hearing David say “You hear that generator…we’re almost there!”. Now to me, “Almost there” meant 2-minutes…maybe 3. But as it turned out, we had a good 10-minutes to go. Those 10-minutes felt like an eternity.
Tony Escobar, Rob's pacer
As we came into Elizabeth Furnace, I told Tony that we weren’t stopping at the aid station. If we were to break 24hrs, I figured we only had time to shout out my race number before we started the last climb towards the finish. But as we came into Elizabeth Furnace, we did stop…for all of about 20-30 seconds…just enough time to down about 3 orange slices before we were running again.
The last climb of the day was 2.5 miles. The climb wasn’t that steep, but it seemed to drag on forever. Ryan and David were leading up the mountain as Tony and I took up the end. They set a pretty good pace – not to hard – not too fast, which was just fine with me. As we hit the top of the climb, I looked at my watch and realized that we had 30-minutes to the finish line (2.5 miles). I remember David saying “We’re gonna break 24!”. I couldn’t help but smile. I knew the last few miles were mostly downhill and if I didn’t get injured, I should be fine. As we started the downhill, Ryan and David seemed to be flying once again. It was all Tony and I could do just to hang on. My heart rate wasn’t too high, but the overall wear and tear the last 24hrs was starting to take a toll. Plus, the downhill was a bit steeper and rockier than I was expecting, which added to the overall exhaustion.
As we were approaching Skyline Ranch, David pointed out “There’s the finish line!”. We were almost there! We made a short stretch through some woods and came out to a field lined with glow sticks. I could see the finish clock just ahead. This was the 1st time in the last 9.5 miles that Ryan and I were running side-by-side. Ryan said to me “Is that you Rob?” and I said “Yes”. He said “Good”. Instead of battling it out like you would typically see at the end of a 10K race, Ryan and I wanted to finish together. Although we both only ran the last few hours together, we both had come so far in the last 24hrs…why spoil the moment. I looked up ahead and saw Shandra smiling and waving her hands. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful sight. Since race results weren’t posted online over night, Shandra made a gut prediction that I might come in right around 24hrs. Fortunately she was right.
Ryan, David, Tony and I crossed the finish line together and I couldn’t have been more elated to simply stop running. I looked at Tony and gave him a huge hug…I didn’t even need to say anything…he knew I was feeling an overwhelming range of emotions, but most importantly he knew I was thankful for him being there with me. I looked at Shandra and we embraced. I looked over at Ryan and David and shook both of their hands; congratulating them on a fantastic race. I also thanked them for pacing Tony and I in the last 9.5 miles. Without their help, I don’t think we would have broken 24hrs. I sat down on the porch at Skyline Ranch in disbelief that I actually finished my 1st 100-miler. And I did it under 24hrs. I put my head down for a brief moment as tears started to well up into my eyes.
I owe a world of thanks to both Rob Barnes and Vicente Lai who trained most of my mid-week long runs with me leading up to MMT. Without both of these guys, training would have been quite lonely. The memories that we shared on the W&OD trail will last a lifetime. I can’t thank Tom Corris enough for setting up all of the MMT training runs….I’d probably still be lost on the mountain if it weren’t for him. Thanks to Michele Harmon who provided incredible tips/advice on how to approach my 1st 100-miler. They worked! I’m thankful to Mike Priddy for initially bringing me out to MMT and showing me the trails, particularly on the days that we couldn’t make Tom’s training runs. And to my wife Shandra, who’s love and support throughout this past training season was nothing but supportive. I couldn’t have done it without you! And lastly, to Stan and all of the MMT Volunteers - I can’t thank you enough for putting on such an incredibly organized and successful race. The aid stations were spectacular, the course markings were excellent and the volunteers were nothing but supportive. You’re the best!