Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

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Massanutten 100 Mile Run Race Report

by Allan Holtz

Last weekend, at age 59, I completed my 4th Massanutten 100-mile endurance trail run in consecutive years in a time of 33:12:37, 68th out of 101 finishers and 173 starters. This race has a 36-hour time limit. Forty-one year young Karl Meltzer won the race in 18:29:57, setting a masters course record in the process. That’s impressive. Equally so I thought was the time of Vicki Kendall. Although she was not the first woman finisher, that honor goes to Amy Sporston for the 2nd year in a row with a time of 24:59:55. Vicki, at age 56, finished in 28:00:24. Sue Johnston is still the only woman to finish Massanutten under 24 hours. She did that twice, the last time in 2006.

Alan Holtz
Alan above Veach Aid Station
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard

Massanutten is a very popular well-organized race, the result of great leadership and a 15-year history. In order to fairly accommodate as many of the entrants as possible given the high interest in this race and its runner-crew induced road traffic congestion runner limit of 175 runners, a lottery entry process was held last December, wherein every entrant irrespective of number of finishes or prior race credentials had an equal chance of entry, based on the combination of their assigned lottery number and the last 3 significant digits of the closing DOW stock market number on a particular date. Then those on the wait list were ordered according to selective criteria, such as number of finishes and their lottery number. By race date, many of those on the initial wait list got to start the race.

The race starts and finishes at a horse-friendly ranch resort called Skyline Ranch Resort, at the north end of Massanutten Mountain about 5 miles southwest of Front Royal, Virginia. At check-in this year all entrants received a technical-fabric T-shirt and a cloth-carrying bag. A pre-race talk commenced at 4:00 PM, followed by a meal of all-you-can-eat spaghetti with tomato-based sauces, lettuce salad, bread, tea and water. The race starts at 5:00 AM Saturday morning. The sky is dark until about 6:00 AM, so one should bring a small light to start the race. The first 2.4 miles is on a road, so not much light needed until the trailhead. Check-in Saturday morning begins at 4:00 AM, along with a breakfast of assorted pastries, bagels, English-muffins, jelly, bananas, strawberries, kiwis, tangerines, various juices and coffee. Although I carried most of the calories I consumed during the race, the aid stations are plentiful and well stocked with a variety of food items. One can shower at the resort following the race. Hamburgers, pulled pork sandwiches, minestrone soup, potato chips and oranges await finishers. The official awards ceremony immediately follows the race finish at 5:00 PM Sunday, where all finishers receive a belt buckle with a cast image depicting flora, fauna, runners and the mountains surrounding the area. On the back of the buckle is an inlaid panel for inserting a nameplate mailed after the race showing ones name, race name, finish time and date of race. Special awards are given for winners of various categories, such as first male, first female, first master, first senior master, first Virginia Happy Trails Runner, first Jackson division runner and 5 and 10-year finishers with an engraved rock awarded to those completing at least 70 miles.

I ran what was called the “Jackson” division. This was the first year for such a designation. This division was named after the confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, who was credited with single-handedly stopping Yankee forces of considerably greater numbers at several battles during our Civil War. Jackson division participants promised to not use pacers or crew, i.e. to run self-supported, except for official aid station assistance. Near the mid-point of the race crew traffic can get horrendous, leading to road safety issues that could severely limit future race participation due to local government intervention. I think the race committee started this division to hopefully entice more unassisted runners, as well as establish the number of current runners using personal assistants. Future races might allow a fixed number of crew-assisted runners in order to address traffic concerns and an unlimited, or at least a much higher number of Jackson runners. This year an entry lottery was used, as the number of race entrants was nearly double the number of runners allowed.

Race temperature reached a high Saturday of 75-80°F before a hard rain lowered the temperature mid-afternoon. That rain felt good. Then it really rained hard from about 6:30 - 7:30 PM (59°F). I had nighttime clothes stashed 2 aid stations away when this rain started and I got very cold. After the race I realized when packing for the race days earlier, I had placed a plastic rain poncho in one of my many shorts pockets. I had forgotten I was carrying it the whole race! The thought to look for it never hit me. I remember feeling sorry for myself for not being able to protect myself from the cold rain, wishing I had a plastic garbage bag or something, when I was unknowingly carrying the solution to my problem in my back pocket. I even stopped at the Bird Knob aid station to warm up a bit inside an aid station attendant’s Grand Cherokee while he kept the engine running for me.

With water running down the trail most of the night during a continuing light rain, one's shoes were wet all night, until the rain stopped about 3:00 AM at which point much of the course became somewhat foggy until dawn. All night every little ways various mountain slopes would converge and fast-flowing streams would appear on what would normally be dry trail, requiring some care to avoid falling or being swept away. And these streams appeared more intimidating at night, as one never knew how deep they were or whether one's next step would be onto a slippery rock.

Alan Holtz
Alan leads Mike Dobies on the trail
Photo: Aaron Schwardbard

Always very rocky, this trail beats up one's feet. If you wear lightweight flexible shoes like INOV8s, your feet get internally bruised on the rocks. If you wear heavier, stiff, thick-soled shoes like Vasque Velocity, your feet slip in the shoes on the various rock angles and you get blisters. Wear a snug fitting shoe, so your feet don't slip, you get blisters other places due to simply running so many hours in tight shoes. This year I made an acceptable compromise by wearing INOV8-295 shoes the first 68 miles and Vasque Velocity shoes the last 34 miles. My feet were just starting to feel slightly bruised when I made the switch at the Edinburg Gap aid station and the final 34 miles was not enough distance to form blisters in the Vasque shoes.

I also believe foot survival is related to training history. The more long distance one runs on similar surface to the race of interest, the better your feet will perform and survive. Even then, properly fitting shoes, laced to the right tightness with toenails trimmed or sanded helps. Possibly the steady rain this year actually helped as well, in that it keeps feet cooler, as heat build-up in feet contributes to foot problems in races.

This year at Edinburg Gap a kind aid station attendant unclipped my gaiters, removed my shoes and socks, applied fresh Bag Balm to my feet, put on a new pair of Injinji toe socks and the fresh shoes and reattached my gaiters, while I sipped on a mix of noodle and potato soup. In a 100-mile race I like to be accomplishing as much as I can at the same time when I’m at an aid station, so I always ask for help whenever I plan to stop at an aid station. Then one must be sure to kindly thank those who helped you.

Being cheap, I did not want to check a bag on the airplane ride to Baltimore-Washington International airport, because it would cost me an extra $15 each way. I also wanted to use my homemade maltodextrin-soy protein-cinnamon-water gel as my primary fuel source for this race. One cannot transport more than a 3 oz container of liquid in carry-on luggage aboard commercial aircraft today. So at home I weighed out five 400-gram batches of powder I double wrapped in plastic bags to carry on board. Solid food is OK to carry on board. I also had some power cables for my cell phone and Garmin Nuvi GPS in the same bag, along with a few empty bottles for the gel, once I mixed it up, something I planned to do in a blender at my in-laws home in Woodbridge, VA upon arrival.

Needless to say, this combination of items raised concern at the MSP-Humphrey terminal security check-in. When my bag exited the X-Ray scanner, a security manager was called. He put gloves on and proceeded to remove my powder, a couple bottles and the cables from my bag. After asking me what these items were and were for, he took a test patch and wiped various surfaces of the inside of my duffle bag and the outside of my powder bags. Following a quick analysis of the test patches, he said I could repack my bag and be on my way. I suppose I should be thankful that the airport security is so thorough. I think they have been gigged for letting contraband past undetected during unannounced tests.

Mid-May on Massanutten Mountain is a beautiful place. Many flowering bushes, trees fully leafed out, a mix of dense flora and the occasional open vista showing the Shenandoah Valley below stir the senses of every runner every step of the way. One has mile long ascents and descents to navigate. Generally the closer to the ridge one climbs, the rockier the trail becomes. Some sections are dirt with scattered rocks, while others are simply a maze of entangling slippery sharply angled rock formations large and small with the trail becoming a personally determined path of least resistance. These rockier sections are especially challenging to traverse at night due to ones limited vision.

Extra strong flashlights are a big advantage in this race, even at the expense of a little added weight. I had recently bought a new Rayovac 4.5 watt LED handheld light that takes 3 size C batteries. This flashlight provided great light throughout the 10 hours of darkness, even with the rain and fog without needing to change batteries. In addition I wore an LED headlamp the main purpose of which was to allow me to see my watch periodically while still shining my main light onto the trail ahead.

With regard to calories in this race, I consumed about 6000 calories of my gel out of the total 10,000 calories I had prepared. I carried a 24-ounce bottle of gel at the start. I refilled it at the 24, 48, 68 and 85-mile aid stations. Except for later in the night, when I wanted a bit of soup, followed by a morning pancake, some V8 juice and a noontime ice cream treat, water was the only thing I took from aid stations. I carried a single 32-ounce water bottle, which in the heat of day Saturday was just adequate for the longest section of the race, 9.5 miles from Habron Gap to Camp Roosevelt (miles 24.7-34.2). This amount of gel cost me ~$3.30 compared to about $60 for an equivalent number of single-use 100-calorie each commercial gel packets. Plus I had the convenience of not having to mess with all the wrappers and the flavor and consistency was mixed to my liking. This way too, I had a consistent food supply that was easy to digest as opposed to relying on a mix of harder to digest items of uncertain calorie level at variably-spaced aid stations, often 2-4 hours apart for me. One tries to run at as steady a pace as possible, so ones fueling should be equally steady for best results.

I was very methodical in my fueling during the race. Every 15 minutes I slowed for a swig of gel followed with a couple gulps of water. Then every hour I first consumed a Succeed S-cap with a gulp of water. My mental alertness was consistent throughout the race. I had no issues with cramping and no issues with stomach or intestinal distress. For a 33-hour race, that level of calories amounts to 182 calories per hour plus the pancake, soup and ice cream, well under the published limit of 250-300 calories per hour of carbohydrate that most people can properly process into glycogen without issues while running. According to my Polar heart rate monitor I burned 12697 calories during the race. So I replaced approximately half of my calorie requirements during the race. In previous 100-mile races I have had intestinal issues due to improper calorie amounts and type.

This year via radio reports from all aid stations starting with Shawl Gap (mile 8.7), runner position was provided to the finish line on a regular basis. The final report of section progress proves interesting I think. I would recommend that race officials consider increasing the early aid station cutoff times some. I don’t know if that would encourage anyone to slow down early in the race or not. If it did, I think that would increase the finish rate. I notice that my time into Shawl Gap (7:12 AM), only 8 minutes left on the cutoff time, was the 3rd slowest time at that point out of 173 reported runners, i.e. only 2 people came into that station after me, plus one person at the same time as me. I went on to finish, as did the person entering that station with me (Leonard Martin). At 58%, this year’s finish rate was the 4th lowest in the race’s 15-year history, no doubt weather related.

I was getting concerned about missing the cutoff as I approached that 8.7-mile aid station, so early in the race. Still my heart rate at that time (average = 114 bpm) was much higher than I was able to maintain throughout the race (average last 5 miles = 93 bpm, whole race 104 bpm), implying a bit slower pace at that time would have left me with more running capacity later with a potentially faster finish, had I the cutoff luxury of going slower to that point. My heart rate tends on the low side. For example, I run a typical road marathon at an average heart rate of about 130 bpm in 3:55, without heart rate drop-off at the end of the race. If I run the first half at a higher average heart rate, i.e. I am running faster, I can’t maintain that heart rate and associated pace and I finish the race slower.

Alan Holtz
Alan on the trail
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard

This year at Massanutten, although I was an hour slower the first 64 miles of the race compared to last year, deliberately holding back some based on heart rate, I was enough faster the last 38 miles to finish the race 40 minutes faster this year. Many of those reaching that early aid station 15-20 minutes ahead of me did not finish the race. While there are many reasons for not finishing a 100-mile race, starting out too fast is a big reason. Being concerned about missing a cutoff can entice people to go out too fast at the start. Whether a later cutoff would be enough incentive for such people to slow down early in a race or not, I don’t know, but I think it worth a try.

One casualty of this race for me was my digital camera. I had the day before the race bought a "water resistant" camera case. I now assume that meant water would not harm the case. I carried my camera in this case and the rain got to the camera and ruined it. It says "denali tech Los angeles" on the case. So don't buy one of these thinking it will protect a camera from rain - it won't, at least not a very hard rain. This was the third digital camera I've "lost" to trail running in 3 years. First one (water resistant – my wife, Marilyn bought that one for me) fell out of my pocket on a hard surface. Second one (not water resistant - I bought it) was ruined when I fell in a stream and now this one.

At the finish this year someone told me the aid station reports indicated that I had quit at 85 miles, the Woodstock Tower aid station. I guess this is much like Mark Twain’s famous line that reports of his early demise were obviously false. This is the 2nd race now at which I was surprised to learn at the finish that I had earlier quit. They did get the results correct though at the finish. The race Web site also links to several great photo lists supplied by several people, showing nearly every runner at several scenic locations in the race. Particularly good are those taken by Aaron Schwartzbard. I must also include a big thank you to Bradford Boyce, who was kind enough to let me share a room with him the night before the race at the Super 8 Motel, in Front Royal.

One circles the mountain in this race, with very little repeat surface. Although considered one of the more technical 100-mile trail runs in the USA, this race attracts lots of first time 100-mile hopefuls. The final 5 miles after the last aid station (Elizabeth Furnace) is a summary of the entire race. It features a long switch-backed climb with a section of very technical rocks to test one's climbing muscles. Following that is a steep straight descent with strategically scattered rocks to land on to jar your joints if you land stiff-knee or test your quads if you bend your knees. Then comes a bit of mud along a small lake, a couple stream crossings to wet your feet one last time, some rolling lightly-rocked trail, a small rise to a short section of gravel road and a bit of pavement. Then with the finish line at Skyline Ranch Resort within eyesight, one crosses a bit of grass, a short stretch of bare dirt trail and finally a cone-lined grassy sprint to the finish - to a cheering crowd while an announcer calls out your name. Now finishing, Allan Holtz, number 85, from Oakdale, Minnesota. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

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