Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
Exploring possibilities at the 2009 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
by Alan Gowen
I think it's about feeling different. Experiencing different feelings. Different from the ordinary. It's not about running, that's for sure. If it was about running I guess I'd run marathons. It seems somehow to go to something deeper. It is, as they say, more about the journey and not at all about the destination. It's the process. It's going through the process in order to experience, if only for a moment, life in a slightly altered state. It is the pressure to do well and the opportunity to do my best while at the same time letting go and throwing myself into an arena where failure is a real possibility. If it is the process, then the process is by design about how I feel along the way. It's about those feelings. It's about experiencing something deeper. Going through this process is all about different feelings and emotions. Expectations and surprises. Disappointments and victories experienced in a different dimension. It's about reaching into the void and grasping for something out there somewhere, vibrating and reflecting light, and yet impossible to touch. It's about connecting with the intangible. It's about getting nervous again. It's about the mountains. It's the power and the peace of those old mountains. It is air and sunshine and weather and nature. Daylight and darkness. Wind and water. It's about being part of it rather than just passing through. It's getting closer to where I came from, all the while moving and getting closer to where I want to be. It is doing it myself. Work through the process, concentrate on the process, and let the result quietly appear, as the layers fall away and through this process I experience life in an altered state.
But if it is all about the process, at least some of the process has become almost routine. The excitement of entry acceptance. The commitment. The training. The anticipation. Months go by. Race weekend arrives. Drive to the Fort Valley Friday afternoon. Prerace briefing and pasta dinner. Nerves. Saturday predawn. Run across the lawn and then into the great adventure.
May 16, 2009 was to be my fourth Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 miler, and upon acceptance into the race in December, I was anxious to be training on the course. Massanutten Mountain in winter is spectacular and on January 18, I was there for the first of Tom Corris' group training runs. About 15 miles into this run, as I ran down from Bird Knob, my right calf muscle tore, and with MMT four months away I found myself lame and unable to run. Won't go into all the details but winter passed and spring was here before I could attempt anything more than a mere shuffle. I had to let the training runs and races I'd so carefully planned all go by the wayside as I struggled to accept the fact that MMT probably wouldn't be in the cards for me this year. I delayed withdrawing from the race and finally on April 11, I got in some nighttime miles on the MMT course and actually ran a little bit for the first time since January. One week later I finished the Bull Run Run 50 miler in my third slowest time ever. The following week I had a miserable time trying to run 20 miles on the Appalachian Trail, and then in the last three weeks leading up to MMT I did two short runs of 6 miles each. That was my total training for MMT.
The process involves nerves, but I welcome it. It's all part of the experience. On Friday before the race Pam and I joined the other entrants for the prerace briefing and dinner and I found myself feeling very detached and worried about what lay ahead. I knew what was to come but I had no idea of how things would go for me considering my astounding lack of training. All the other runners were discussing how hard they'd trained and here I was with no training at all. How in the world was I going to run 100 miles with no preparation? I'd tried to maximize what was available to me while I waited for my torn plantaris muscle to heal, but how in the world was some walking and a few bike rides going to get me through 100 miles of mountains? What in the world am I doing here? Friends commented I appeared very serious. It wasn't seriousness as much as an almost zombie like detachment brought on by doing my best to mentally be where I needed to be. I was trance like within my cocoon, deliberately spun to shield me from not only the lows, but the highs as well. I was in an altered state; prepared to accept whatever I encountered.
The process involves planning. I was going to have a crew and pacers at MMT. Pam would be supporting me the entire time and our friends Beth and Rhonda would be joining Pam on Saturday morning and remain for the duration. They would all work together as my crew and they were all going to take turns pacing me. To make life easier I'd made up a pace chart for them. I used last year's split times between aid stations where applicable, and some splits from previous years to come up with a chart so that my crew would know when to expect me at the various aid stations. The chart also gave them the cutoff times, section mileage, cumulative mileage, estimated time of my arrival as well as distance and estimated time to the next aid station. I had all my supplies organized in bags and boxes. I had driving directions for them. I had drop bags just in case my crew ran into problems. Failure would not come due to lack of planning. Of course all the planning was part of what had over the past years become a routine part of the process of dealing with the uncertainties, anxieties, and expectations. Feeling detached and different somehow feels exciting as I pack all the supplies into the car.
Race day morning brings high humidity and warm temperatures. The moon is peeking from between the clouds, and in the darkness of a spring morning I'm almost in a stupor. Uncertainties battling with determination. Wrapped in my cocoon, I feel almost like I'm floating, non-feeling outside into the darkness and up to the starting line. Dew on the grass. Waiting in the darkness. Protecting myself now, I'm feeling nothing. One last kiss from Pam and at 5:00 AM, I begin moving along with 172 others. We're all beginning our journeys, slowly at first across the wet grass of the same green lawn we'll be returning to at the end of our adventures. I make the turn onto the pavement, twilight glowing on the eastern horizon and I'm running on the road that will take me away from the ranch and into the great adventure.
The process is acute. It's all these feelings I'm having and dealing with. It's about how I'm moving through time and savoring the new along with the old. The unknown juxtaposed with the familiar.
The Trail on Buzzard Rock
I run the road trance-like through the darkness, the whippoorwill's call comforting somehow. In 2.4 miles I switch on my small flashlight and make the turn onto the trail, beginning the first big climb of the race. Soon I'm on the ridge top of Buzzard Rock and I'm moving well.
Fog in the valleys below. I take it easy and at 7:01 I arrive at the Shawl Gap aid station. At this point I'm only three minutes slower than last year, and I feel very good. Pam is there waiting for me and within seconds I'm on my way again. The day has become overcast, but it's quite warm and very humid. I get the next rolling gravel road section done in the identical time to last year, and begin the climb to Milford Gap where a portion of the trail dates from the revolutionary war.
Every year as I make my way up the Continental Army's escape route I find some other poor runner who becomes my history lesson victim, and this year is no different as I regale a fellow runner with amazing facts that are fun to know and tell. I get sucked into slowing down slightly while shooting the breeze with this fellow runner, but soon pick it up and roll into the Milford Gap aid station exactly three minutes slower than my predicted split for this section. I'm a little bit bewildered, because at 16.9 miles into the race I feel much better than I thought I would. The ridge top running soon gives way to a long downhill and then it's four more miles on a gravel road. It is here the sun finally burns through the partial overcast and I begin to really feel the heat. If the sun stays out and continues to heat things up, I have no doubt the predicted thunderstorms will soon be firing off. This road section is good to me and right on schedule I arrive at the Habron Gap Aid station at 24.7 miles. My split time for this section is one minute faster than last year. How could I be doing so well? I find myself trying to figure out what's going on. No training has, with one quarter of the mileage behind me, yielded a really good run for me. At this point I'm only 3 minutes behind where I was last year at this point. At the Habron Gap aid station Beth and Rhonda have joined Pam and they have everything ready for me. They let me know that of the 173 runners who've begun the race I'm now in 132nd place, and within 3 minutes I'm back on the trail.
The climb up to Habron Gap is one of the hardest in the race. The sun is beating down. I'm squinting. White light reflecting off the sand and rocks. It's hard. It is so humid that all the rocks are sweating, and there's no relief from the heat. I pass quite a few runners as I make my way up this steep climb. When I finally reach the ridge I begin moving pretty well, and everything seems to be going just fine. Curiously I continue to stay in a mind frame that allows no negative thoughts. But I'm not allowing any positive thoughts either. My trance of non-feeling allows neither joy nor disappointment. Anything could happen right now and this cocoon spun around me days ago would continue to protect me from whatever comes my way. How come I'm doing so well? There is no explanation. No training. I put it out of my mind and concentrate on the process, letting the day unfold as it may and rather than push things, I simply release. I let the race come to me on its own terms.
The heat now is in the mid eighties and the humidity is still very high. As I get closer to the next aid station at Camp Roosevelt I begin to pass other runners. Just a few at first and then considerably more. Runners are stopped and pouring stream water over their heads in an attempt to cool down. Everyone seems to be really suffering from the heat. I shave two minutes off my predicted pace and roll into Camp Roosevelt only 2 minutes behind schedule. My amazing crew is all ready for me and after quickly re-fuelling, I wipe the sweat and salt from my face and in minutes I'm back on the trail headed up Duncan Hollow. I'm now wearing a hat in an effort to fend off the biting flies. I've now traveled 34.2 miles and at1:25 PM I'm in 111th place
Duncan Hollow in the Heat of the Day
Duncan Hollow is, well, a hollow and there isn't a breath of air moving. Due to a recent controlled burn by the Forest Service, there isn't much leaf cover and the sun bakes me as I make my way up the stream that serves as the trail. My shoes are soaked from running in the stream, but the coolness of the water feels good on my hot feet. Finally the heat begins to bother me. I feel if I continue to push the pace the heat may become an issue for me. Rather than become a victim of the heat as so many other runners evidently have, I make the decision to simply dial it down a little bit and just walk. Not happy or sad. Not anxious or tired. Still in my trance. Just moving well and glad I'm here. I finally arrive at the very steep climb that takes me up through Peach Orchard Gap. As I begin my climb the skies darken and I can hear thunder getting closer and closer. Just before I reach the ridge, the heavens open as the first thunder storms of the day come slamming into the mountainside. I crest the ridge, rain pouring down,
and run the very rocky trail, now flowing with water, down to the Gap Creek I aid station. Despite my heat induced walking break, I'm still only four minutes behind my time at this point last year. Pam, Beth and Rhonda have things all set up beneath a canopy, since it's still raining. The temperature has dropped and they're all decked out in their rain gear. While I sit, relax, and drink an Ensure, they get my shoes off, clean and dry my feet and quickly help me into dry shoes and socks. After re-fuelling I'm out of there in 6 minutes. I've now traveled 39.8 miles and at 3:09 PM, I'm in 103rd place and feeling truly fortunate to have such a remarkable crew. The combination of extreme heat and cold rain is taking its toll on the field, and many runners have been forced to drop out of the race.
The climb up to Jawbone Gap goes well and by the time I reach the ridge the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking out. The temperature begins once again to rise. I haven't seen a soul since leaving the Gap Creek I aid station. I keep up a good pace until I'm on the top of Kerns Mountain where I take a minute to stop and look around. I slowly stow my jacket and hat. I turn and try to soak up a little of the energy of the mountains. Kerns Mountain is my favorite part of the MMT course. It's nothing but rocks, and the footing is horrible. Today the footing is even worse since the rocks are still wet from the rain. But being up on Kerns Mountain is part of why I'm here. It's part of why I felt that even though I wasn't trained, I had to get back to these old mountains. I want soak up the energy of the mountains. My trance, begun days before, seems to wane. My cocoon opens and lets some energy enter. I just stand there alone and for the first time today, quietly allow some feelings. Without permission sought or granted another layer is stripped away, and I welcome the primal feeling that washes over me.
Kern's mountain is tough, but finally I'm having some fun scrambling over the rocks. Its late afternoon. I've been running for 11 hours. I know I'll soon see my crew. Things are going really well. I am at peace. I make my way along the ridge, drop down to the road and run into the Visitors Center aid station, having not seen any another runners since I left the Gap Creek I aid station two and a half hours ago. My faithful crew is all prepared and I don't linger too long. I notice everyone is wearing jackets so I know the temperature is dropping. It has become totally overcast and the sky to the west is the borderless black wall of an approaching storm. I grab my lights, get a little to eat and take off, wanting to get the next climb done before the storm hits. I've now traveled 48.2 miles and at 5:44 PM I'm in 102nd place.
The climb up Bird Knob is the longest and most difficult climb of the race. I'm amazed at how muddy the trail is from the earlier storms and numerous times I have trouble with the footing as the climbing gets steeper and steeper. Even though it's only about 6:15 or so it's very dark and I begin to think about getting out one of my lights. The climb is very slow, but I get it done without any problems and begin running the rolling rocky trail that leads me out of the tree cover and onto a ridge top grass covered fire road. As I make my turn onto the fire road I'm completely in the open. The wind howls and within seconds the thunder storm slams in like a sledgehammer. Epic. The rain is almost horizontal and the thunder claps explode simultaneously with the lightning that's flashing all around me. The fire road is almost instantly under ankle deep water, and the temperature has fallen steeply. It is pouring down rain. I've put on my jacket and hat, but my feet soon go numb from running in the ice cold water that has submerged the fire road. Huge weather. I'm freezing. Was it only 5 hours ago I was suffering from the heat? I just put my head down and keep running, passing several groups of runners in the process. This is what I've come for. Experiencing something so different in a frame of mind unattainable by any other means. Another layer peeled away as I embrace my situation. The rain slacks off a little as the heart of storm passes and soon I'm at the bird Knob aid station. I've now traveled 52.1 miles and at 6:55 PM I'm in 96th place. I stand there in the rain and force down a little hot soup before hitting the trail a few minutes later. By now of course I'm soaked to the skin and quite cold. I run, jog, and walk along the rock strewn trail that loops around and soon I re-connect with the trail that brought me up Bird Knob. Going back down this steep trail in the rain is treacherous. I finally have to get my light out, and I make pretty good progress on the descent. Within a few hundred yards of the bottom though, I find myself out of control sliding in a river of mud, and within seconds I'm flat on my face. At first I can't find my flashlight but then I see a little glow coming from the mud and I dig it out only to bury it again when my feet go out from under me and I'm sliding down the hill flat on my back. I try to wipe the mud from my hands but I'm so covered with mud there's no place to wipe them. Well. Good thing it's raining. Maybe it'll wash some of this mud off of me. Within minutes I'm at the bottom of the descent from Bird Knob and running into the Picnic Area aid station. I've covered 56.4 miles and at 8:19 PM. it's raining pretty hard, it's very dark, and cold, and I'm in 95th place.
As soon as I arrive at the Picnic Area, my good friend Chris appears out of nowhere. He's arrived on the scene to pace me and I'm really glad to see him. Chris has paced me for some portion of MMT for the past three years and I'm really glad he's here right now. I somehow feel a little confused by the rain, the darkness, the mud, and the entire circumstance I find myself in. It's still raining and if there's anybody I'd want to be with me at this point it is Chris. We hit the trail and have a pretty tough time following it as it twists and turns through the dark woods. Much of the trail is under water and the normally inconsequential stream crossings become major affairs. I know without Chris's company on this section I would have gotten a little depressed. We seem to be going very slowly. Occasional fog makes it hard to see. The trail is hard to follow, there is mud and deep water everywhere and it's pouring down rain. With one last push through a swollen and rushing stream we finally make the turn, climb a hill and find our amazing crew ready and waiting for us at the RT. 211 road crossing. I'm thoroughly soaked and covered with mud. I put on an additional shirt, drink an Ensure and within two minutes Chris and I are headed up the long climb to Scothorn Gap. A lot of the trail here is under water. Big Run is raging out of its banks and the rain continues to fall. After miles of climbing, rocks, mud and water everywhere, we finally reach the gap where a left turn takes us onto a nice downhill run to Chrisman Hollow Road where after a death defying crossing of a very swollen and overflowing Passage Creek, we turn north and run the road into the Gap Creek II aid station. I've covered 64.9 miles. I've seen one smashed rattlesnake in the road and at 11:14 PM. I'm in 91st place.
Team Alan had worked out a plan for everyone to take turns running with me and the plan called for Chris to stay with me until the next aid station at Mooreland Gap, where Rhonda would take over pacer duties. But they'd gotten word the road to Mooreland was under water and that no vehicles could get through. Therefore, since we couldn't do the required car shuffle, Chris was done, and Rhonda stepped in as my pacer. The rain had just stopped as we headed off into the darkness and began the climb up Jawbone gap. For me, this was the second time in eight hours I'd had to do this climb. As we crested the ridge, intermittent fog became a small problem as the light from my headlamp reflected off the fog making visibility quite poor. I was still feeling quite good, and Rhonda and I were lost in conversation, making the time pass quickly. When we arrived, the Mooreland Gap aid station looked like a MASH unit with maybe 7 or 8 runners sitting beneath the canopy, changing socks, wringing out clothes or just trying to regroup. We didn't linger for more than a minute at the Mooreland Gap aid station. At this point I've covered 67.7 miles and at 12:28 AM. I'm still in 91st place.
The climb up Short Mountain goes well and soon we're in that wonderland upon the ridge. A cold rain begins to fall, and fog reflecting from head lamps makes vision sometimes difficult. The scene becomes surreal. Rock formations revealed through fog and mist, rain falling, safe somehow in this new dimension protected in the dark and wet by the misty beams thrown by our lights. As we work our way over the rocks, I realize that protective cocoon I'd remained in for so long is now a thing of the past. I'm in a trance no more. I'm where I want to be doing what I want to do. Somehow through this journey of the body, the spirit strips away the protective layers. I'm in an altered state experiencing the width and breadth of a life without limits. It is indeed the process, and through this process life is somehow on some level redefined.
Despite the rain, strange fog and falling temperatures I can tell I'm moving very well. The third round of thunderstorms hits us, but by now it really doesn't seem like a big deal. Almost mysteriously the lights from other runners will appear through the fog and rain up ahead. A minimum of words exchanged as we soon pass them and keep on going into the night. Rhonda keeps up a steady stream of conversation to keep me distracted and it seems like very soon we're headed down, and as the rain continues, we come out of the woods and roll in to the Edinburg Gap aid station. Once again Team Alan is all prepared, and within a few minutes I'm headed back onto the trail with Beth pacing me for the next two sections. At this point I've covered 75.9 miles and at 3:27 AM. I'm in 64th place, and despite the epic weather I've encountered, I'm only 5 minutes behind my predicted pace. I've also just completed the past 8.2 mile section faster than I've ever done it before. In fact I somehow managed to get that section done in the 41st fastest time of anyone in the race.
Beth and I make good time up Powell Mountain. I've never liked this section in the past and this time is no different. The terrain seems as if it should be easy, but a combination of fatigue and odd footing combine to keep my pace slow. Whippoorwills calling. The rain finally ends, and a cloudy daybreak comes almost unnoticed. I can tell I'm moving well, and Beth is like a mother hen reminding me when to eat and drink, since for some bizarre reason or other I don't seem to be paying any attention at all to my watch.
Eight minutes ahead of my predicted pace we arrive at the Woodstock aid station. Pam and Rhonda are ready for us and while they're seeing to my needs I wolf down two grilled cheese sandwiches. Other than some PBJ sandwich quarters I've picked up from aid stations, this is the first solid food I've had in over 27 hours. Beth and I don't linger. We stock up and hit the trail. At this point I've covered 84.1 miles and at 6:42 AM. I'm in 56th place, and I've covered the last section faster than I ever have before.
My energy level remains very high, and I'm moving well. The only limiting factor at this point is my legs which feel pretty heavy, but I'm content with my progress. This is the first time I've done MMT without too many hallucinations. Last year I kept seeing nonexistent appliances. This year I saw multiple wicker baskets, but only shared my visions with Beth a couple of times, lest she think she was sharing the trail with a crazy man. As we began the descent from the ridgeline we could hear loud music, and we just followed our ears into the Powell's Fort aid station. We were now 16 minutes ahead of my predicted pace. As we ran into the aid station another crew called out to us to let us know they hadn't seen Pam anywhere. We both thought they were joking, but upon arrival at the aid station, Pam and Rhonda were nowhere to be seen. Immediately Beth and I began to refuel for the next section, but within minutes Pam and Rhonda appeared running as fast as they could from the car. I was truly glad to see them. Despite multiple changes of shoes and socks, my feet had become very tender from all the grit that had been washing into my shoes for the past 24 hours. I felt I needed to change shoes and socks here. We got the shoe change done, and with my dear Pam taking over to pace me we were on our way within about 10 minutes. At this point I've covered 89.3 miles and at 8:34 AM. I'm in 53rd place.
I've had multiple pacers at MMT over the past few years, but Pam has always paced me on this section. We have both run this section many times and years ago this was the spot where we began running ultras, so it is always very special so late in the race to have her with me here. She is so enthusiastic, supportive, and encouraging. She pushes me to run, but on the gravel road leading us to a big climb, a fast walk is just about all I have to offer. My energy and mood are really good, but now I can tell I have blisters on the balls of my feet. Despite several changes of shoes and socks, the endless hours of sand and grit washing into my shoes have left the bottoms of my feet very tender. I know I'm on the verge of having the blisters burst and so I'm being as careful as I can. Pam praises my progress, and is wonderfully supportive. I know she's lying to me about how well I'm doing, but the fact that she is trying to push me to do my best is heartwarming beyond compare.
As we turn and begin the long steep switchback filled climb up Green Mountain, we're passed by a runner and his pacer. We have to simply let them go because I'm going as fast as I can. This is only the second runner to pass me in the last 56 miles. When we finally crest the ridgeline, I'm expecting to be able to run a lot of the four mile downhill trail into Elizabeth Furnace, but my legs just won't allow anything but a very slow herky-jerky jog. I try as hard as I can but finally I realize this is the best I'm able to do. Pam never wavers in her praise of my effort. To be sharing this experience with the love of my life is special beyond words.
Pam & Alan Crossing the Stream at Elizabeth furnace.
We finally arrive at the road, make the turn and enter the parking lot for Elizabeth Furnace. As we turn to enter the aid station we have one more stream crossing to navigate but in seconds we find Beth and Rhonda waiting for us. They quickly see to my needs and within 2 minutes I'm back on the trail with Rhonda pacing me for this final section of the race. At this point I've covered 96.8 miles and at 11:17 AM. I'm in 55th place.
Rhonda and I begin the final climb of the race. The time goes by quickly and without too much drama we're soon at the top of that very rocky, very long and
The Final Climb of the Race
meandering climb. Nothing but downhill from here. Unfortunately my legs will still allow only a simple slow jog. We navigate the steep downhill, and continue
through the woods. A couple more stream crossings and we finally come out of the woods onto a gravel road. As we jog down the road I check my watch and see I'm going to finish in a time that will be a personal record for me. Down the road, make a turn, and soon I can hear Beth cheering. She'd walked out on the course from the finish line, and in a couple of minutes we pass her and make the turn onto the bridle path, through the woods and then finally I can see the lawn. The same lawn that I'd last seen at the start of the race more than a day before. The same lawn that was dew covered and wet when 173 runners had all begun their great adventures in unison in the inky darkness of a pre-dawn morning in May. I make the turn onto the lawn and begin to slowly pick up the pace. I can see the finish line. I can hear the loudspeaker.
Somehow the adrenaline kicks in and my tired legs begin to carry me faster and faster. Rhonda is right behind me and just as I begin to kick it into gear she tells me there are two women coming up fast right behind me. I pull out all the stops and give it everything I have, racing faster than I have during the entire race, flying across the lawn, friends and family cheering, I'm running flat out up to the finish and suddenly I'm done.
My fourth time at MMT, at age 59, I've turned in my fastest time ever. I've covered 101.8 miles in a personal record of 32 hours 5 minutes and 34 seconds, and I've finished in 57th place out of 173 starters. The epic weather took a heavy toll on much of the field resulting in only 58% of the field completing the race.
Every year I've run MMT I've had a crew and that crew has played a very large part in the success I've had. This year Team Alan was amazing and I know that without their selfless remarkable efforts I never would have done as well as I did.
Pam and Alan
Beth, Rhonda, and Pam all worked together sharing responsibilities and uniting in a common effort, taking ownership in my race and helping me achieve more than I thought possible. All the while this perfect mix of personalities combined in a way that allowed them to actually enjoy being a part of this grand adventure
My old buddy Chris, appearing out of the dark and rainy night to pace me during my time of need only to then simply disappear after he got the job done meant more than I can say. It is humbling indeed to have these guys give so much so enthusiastically and I know I'll never be able to thank them enough.
Rhonda, Beth, and Alan
No training. Epic weather. Astonishingly devoted crew. People appearing out of the dark cold rain and fog to help me and give me food. Heat and brutal storms. Surging streams and unforgiving rocks. Water and wind and the soul of the mountains. How in the world I was able to run a personal record time and finish in the top third of the field is something I'll never know.
As I made my way toward the finish through the final miles of the race, I could feel a shifting of imperitives. I could feel some sort of return to my normal world. The world that surrounds me on those other 363 days. I felt as if I was leaving a part of me up there on those rocky trails. A part of me I can only find when I work through that process and allow all those layers to be so quietly peeled away. Redefining possibilities and revealing life in an altered state.