Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
Massanutten Mt Trails 100
Front Royal, Virginia
May 16-17, 2009
I have been running ultra races for about three years now and last year completed the Mohican 100 as my first 100 miler. This year, I wanted to run a more challenging course. From what I read, I knew the MMT 100 would bring just that. It did, and then some... As my T.A.C. teammate and fellow runner concluded: "MMT Rocks! And even the ending sucks." Let me tell you what I mean...
Joe Kulak, the author, and Dan Rosenberg
As a member of the newly formed Philly based ultra running club The Animal Camp (T.A.C.), I decided that I would run the entire race with fellow team member Dan Rosenberg with whom I train. Another member of the club, Joe Kulak, would run his own race well ahead of us slower "greasers" So what was the probability that both Dan and I would win in the lottery and get in, start together, run together, and finish together in a race where the finishing rate hovers around 60%?? This was only the second 100 for Dan and me, and luck would certainly have to be on our side to at the very least, get in. If we got in, we reasoned that we both have health insurance and that the only way to leave the course after starting was in a stretcher or with a buckle. We reasoned that there was no way someone in an Animal Camp jersey was getting dragged off the course for not finishing.
As luck would have it Joe, Dan, and I all won entry in the original lottery. Reservations were immediately made to stay in the cabins at the race start. Tim Ellis and Amy Congdon agreed to provide crew support/pacing for Dan and me, and Joe's father would crew him. We all arrived at the Skyline Ranch Resort on Friday before the race. After checking in and feasting on pasta, it was back to the cabin for the runners. Tim and Amy decided to scout out the aid stations and program the GPS. The evening was pretty much a blur, and I have to say that being around the larger group at the resort started to increase my stress levels.
The author, Josh Dennis
Before I knew it, the alarm was going off and it was 3:30 a.m. on race morning. Everything was laid out and so after getting changed, we all headed over to the Ranch for breakfast and then the start. The race started at 5 a.m. sharp and as soon as the running began I felt completely relaxed. After a short section on the road we entered the trail and the climbing began. In hindsight I don't believe the climbing ever ended. In any event, it wasn't long before Dan and I made it to Shawl Gap Parking (mile 8.7) area and dropped our headlamps with crew and picked up ice cold Ensure Plus and Gu's. The temperatures quickly began to make their way up into the mid 80's and humidity felt close to 100%. The plan, which we maintained throughout, was to take a Gu and salt tab every half hour and drink Accelerade in between. After a very quick transition at the aid station, Dan and I headed out. Somewhere between Veach Gap (mile 11.8) and Milford Gap (16.9) Dan began to experience double vision and feel dizzy. As a member of Animal Camp this only meant that he would have to tilt his head to the side to level the field. Our nutrition was where it needed to be so this episode took us by surprise. Anyway, Dan tilted his head to the side and kept running and recovered several miles later after another big climb or two. At this point, I was feeling great. I was surprised at how well we were climbing and at how great I was feeling. I knew it was just a matter of time for me.
Our crew next met us at Habron Gap (mile 24.7). To say that it is motivating to have a crew is an understatement. As we entered Habron, we could hear Tim and Amy yelling "Animal Camp." I barked in response to the calls. Tim and Amy quickly swapped out our water bottles, provided us with Gu, ice, Ensure Plus, Accelerade, and whatever else we needed. We learned that Joe had come thru the aid station some time earlier and was puking as he entered the aid station and was also puking as he departed. What this meant to us was that Joe was probably going to have a great race which he did. With no time to spare, we left Habron loaded up and ready for more hills. The climbing literally began as we left the aid station. The weather was really hot and humid so staying hydrated remained a top priority.
Some time after leaving Habron, the clouds rolled in over the mountains and the thunderstorms began. The rain was very heavy at times with intervals of large hail and it never seemed to let up. The rain was a welcome relief for the humidity and also got Dan and me really fired up. I can count on one hand the training runs we have had where we haven't run thru a creek, so running thru the creeks and streams at MMT was a welcomed relief. The course remained rocky and slippery, but that is why we were here, for the challenge. Dan and I both continued to run and climb strong for the next several hours eventually making our way to Visitor Center (Mile 48) where we again met up with our crew. After a quick dose of enthusiasm and refueling, we headed back onto the trail for what turned out to be my favorite section, Bird Knob (mile 52).
Dan Rosenberg leads the author above Veach Gap.
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
The climb at Bird Knob was epic in my opinion and we climbed it in the middle of heavy thunderstorms and rain just before sunset. I recall bouldering for a bit further up into the climb and thinking to myself there is no other place I would rather be. It was simply amazing. The heavy rains caused a consistent flow of water down the sections where there was a trail and it was mud underneath. At this point, if you weren't climbing on rocks you were in a feeder stream with mud underneath! I fell too many times to count, but it really didn't matter. I felt like a kid playing out in the rain waiting for someone to yell at me to come inside, but as irony would have it, I am 36 years old running a predetermined course that I am required to finish in order. I forgot for a moment that this was even a race. At some point, we made the turnaround (lollipop) and headed back down what we had just climbed. It was so muddy and slippery out there my description does no justice for what we were experiencing. I remember being covered in mud coming back down when we ran into Gary Knipling. What can I say other than Gary, you are bad ass!! I remember seeing Gary in the MMT documentary video from years past and have run into him several times recently, but it was something else to run into him on the trail while running MMT in the middle of a storm on what turned out to be my favorite section. After watching the video the first time, I remember thinking the course couldn't be that bad, Gary was always smiling. Well, I have come to the conclusion that he is just always smiling!
After climbing and running for so many hours, my memories become blurred. What remained constant was that we always seemed to be climbing up a mountain littered with rocks and then immediately running back down and starting over with a new climb. The MMT version of Groundhog day. What stands out is that Tim, who is also a T.A.C. member, jumped in to pace us at Gap Creek/Jawbone II (Mile 64.9). With the exception of a five mile section, Tim ran with us the remainder of the race. Between Moreland Gap (mile 67.7) and Edinburg Gap (75.9), we encountered the infamous "Short Mountain" section of the course. I had been told that this section was not the place to be at night and here we were on Short Mountain at about 11 p.m. in the rain. The section was not as bad as I had pictured it to be. What was difficult was running along the ridgeline at the top for a mountain jumping from rock to rock and waiting for the trail to descend but it just seemed to go on and on. It was difficult but not nearly as difficult as I imagined it to be.
I hit my low point some time between Edinburg Gap (75.9) and Woodstock Tower (84.1). I didn't sleep at all on Friday night before the race, and it was now that I would pay the price. We were running thru the night and I began to feel really dizzy and my vision was blurred. The worst part was that I was falling asleep while I was running, literally. I draw the comparison to driving at night and seeing the lines and nodding off. Dan was running in front of me and Tim was behind me pacing and I couldn't escape the tunnel vision of the headlamp. I caught myself a few times, and both Tim and Dan kept talking me thru it while on the move. I have health insurance, but didn't want to fall off the ridgeline that we were running along which would have meant more than what that type of insurance would cover. The solution was to deal with it and just press on, whatever happens, happens. We at T.A.C. don't quit. I should mention that while we were running this section, Joe crossed the finish line with a time of 22:57:02 which was good for 8th place overall. That's just Joe. If you know him, it's probably fair to say that he is a source of motivation no matter who you are.
The sun came up just before we reached Woodstock Tower (Mile 84.1), and I was now feeling completely refreshed. Tim was running strong pacing us and once again his commitment would be tested to keep us moving. Dan's quads were really feeling the beating from the constant ups and downs of the course and he finally hit his low. We pressed on and Dan shuffled thru his pains. At this point all miles seemed like "Horton" miles. It's amazing what sleep deprivation and running does to the mind. Tim stopped pacing to crew with Amy between Woodstock Tower (84.1) and Powell's Fort (89.3), and I then fully realized how much Tim was helping us. Both Dan and I on several occasions would see the Powell's Fort aid station up in the distance. Dan even yelled out that he saw an unmanned aid station with Gatorade and pretzels just up ahead where the cars were passing. I too saw what he was talking about. Eventually we got to that point and there was no aid station, only trees, rocks, and forest, certainly no cars, not even a road in sight. This happened several times until I got so fed up with seeing things that I ran ahead at pretty much a sprint for about a mile to find where the hell Powell's Fort was. It really was crazy. I swear I saw the Gatorade and pretzels!
The author (left) and Dan Rosenberg near Camp Roosevelt.
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
Shortly after my arrival at Powell's Fort, Dan arrived and we headed back out on the trail to finish what we had started. It was now 7:58 a.m. and we had been running for over 27 hours and I had been up since Friday (about 48 hours). I will admit that at this point the only thing I wanted to do was finish. From Powell's Fort to Elizabeth Furnace (96.8) I just remember climbing. After reaching the final stop at Elizabeth Furnace I figured the last five miles should be easy, or so I thought. As soon as we left the final aid station we began to climb on a rocky switchback trail all the way up to the top of the mountain about a mile and a half long and then back down for about a mile and half. The final mile or two was on a gravel road which dumped us into the field for the finish. Dan and I ran across the field and thru the chute together wearing TAC jerseys and a finishing time of 31:39 for the 101.8 mile course. Johnny Cash was blaring as our names were being announced. Amy was screaming with enthusiasm and Tim had the glow of altruistic pride. When Stan Doubinis shook my hand at the finish I knew we had accomplished our goal. Despite this year's finishing rate of 58% being the third lowest in MMT history, all three TAC runners left with a buckle! While shaking Stan's hand as he lay on the ground, Dan coined a modified version of the MMT slogan which certainly resonates with me: "MMT Rocks! And even the ending sucks." Stan seems to find humor in Dan's words but now it was time to get the party started.
The initial plan called for beers and a party at the finish, but in reality it turned out to be more in line with a "mash" unit. Given the mental aspect of a race as grand as MMT, I decided against looking at my feet or changing shoes and socks during the race for fear that I would not like what I would see and my visions would in turn drain my mental momentum during the race. The moment of truth came after I was driven back to the cabin by Amy post race and removed my shoes to assess the damage: blisters under my two big toenails and blisters just about everywhere on my feet with half being popped and raw. I noticed cuts all over my legs and chaffing everywhere. I began to feel extremely cold and for whatever reason, began to experience the pre-hypothermic shivers. I decided to take a shower to clean up but that plan was foiled when I noticed the water in the shower was brown. I simply dried off the best that I could and crashed on the futon. I next remember Tim rushing into the cabin telling me that Dan "flat lined!" In reality I later learned that just after I left the Ranch, Dan experienced the feeling of extreme nausea and was unable to eat anything. After he lay down on the ground, he turned completely yellow and was very disoriented. Members of the crew and fellow onlookers provided two more salt tablets for Dan along with a cold drink. Shortly thereafter, Dan regained his color and was driven back to the cabin where he crashed for several hours.
Now it's easy to discount the low points that both Dan and I experienced during our 31 plus hour adventure of the MMT 100 for the sake of pride or whatever other reason. Regardless, I don't think I could ever put into words what it was fully like, so I am left with simply providing the roadmap for what we went through. We have a saying in The Animal Camp that "If it doesn't hurt, sign us up for something that does." I will tell you we were right on the money with selecting MMT this time around. Thanks again to Stan, the VHTRC, fellow runners and all the volunteers that make this race possible. Tim and Amy, "out of TAC respect" I'm sure Dan and I will be banging out a few extra pushups the next time out on the trails because you know that's how we roll. We salute you and are forever grateful!! And my report wouldn't be complete without mentioning the work my brother Ed did behind the scenes to come up with pacing charts for Dan and me as well as our crew. I can't begin to explain how valuable they were throughout the entire run. Ed, I love you brother!..Well, it's time to get back out on the trails for the next 100 which is just over a month away.