Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

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Episode iv Massanutten Mountain 100

by John H Powell

As you may recall, in episode I, my first 100 miler, I covered the 'what goes on in the mind of a runner between the miles of 4 and 99' which we learned was pretty much nothing. I recall the ditty was "ouch, ouch, ouch" sung to almost any tune. That, and the refrain, "you look like crap", popping into mind whenever anyone passed me.

I remember mile 100 was pretty cool. The last mile. The aftermath was terrific. Really made me realize how great it was not having blisters all over the bottom of my feet. Even now, three years later, I still think this is great.

John H Powell
Jphn H Powell
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard

You won't recall episodes ii and iii because I never wrote them. I mean how many people want to read, "Greetings, I quit. Spent a bit of money on travel, and then I wimped out." Getting right down to it, how many people want to write that? No body.

Hardrock 100 you may recall I sent some of you an article "It's Gonna Suck to be You" went early to acclimate with my 8 year-old son Charlie. We went to 11,000 feet. He blew chow all over the place. We went lower for the remainder of the week. Come race day, mile 15, it was like I was running through Jello. Mile 29, a nice aid station conveniently located before the hike over 14,000 ft, was a very good place to stop. I did. I probably need several years to acclimate to this altitude.

Cascade Crest 100 (6 weeks later). Knowing I would be in such good shape from training for and running Hardrock, I decided it would be appropriate to run another 100-miler immediately afterwards. So I signed up several months in advance (before the Jello fest of Hardrock). Since training well for Hardrock produced very little, I decided going to Normandy, drinking wine and eating cheese, was a much better training plan. So I did. It was a great plan, if all you want to do is run 68 miles and then go home. Again, I won't point fingers (Gaulois, cheese, wine).

Clearly I didn't have what it takes to finish. I honestly thought I would finish that second one without really making an effort.

And .. It really grated on me. Sort of. For a little while at least.

Oh I had good reasons to quit, I knew, (I didn't feel like going any further) but still I was not, and still am not, thrilled with the trend I'm seeing. But maybe it's just I'm not in to running 100 miles. I did it. Been there, done that. Maybe there are more important things in life than putting the world on hold and going out and training ridiculous miles week after week just to feel absolutely miserable for 95 of 100 miles? Maybe.

But let a little time go by and all that learned wisdom heads right out the back window. Straight out. I picked out a quaint 'little' run in the Shenandoah River valley in Virginia and set my sights on finishing another 100-miler. As an added 'fun' element I thought I would video my experience and make a lovely movie out of it just to share with you all. Memo to me: don't use a 10-year old cell phone to make a running movie.

Massanutten Mountain 100. What kind of a name is that? I still can't pronounce it. Well this will be good. I've realized that to finish you have to really, really want it. Then when you reach that point in the race where you say 'what the @#$ am I doing here?' you can say 'finishing'. If you don't really, really want to finish, you reach that point in the race where you say 'what the @#$ am I doing here?' and you answer, 'holy crap, I don't know, I'm going home.'

How did I choose this one? Well for one, I could use my United miles to get there. It isn't that far from DC. Not going to spend a lot of dough to run 68 miles (if that was what I was going to do). Little did I know ... Window seat? Extra. Emergency exit row? Extra. Your first check-ed in bag? Extra. Potty? Extra. I spent some coin in the end. People, this airline must be in serious pain. I don't want to fly on an airline in serious pain. Even I can figure this out.

I also chose this one because it is in the Shenandoah River valley. The name sounds so historical it actually was. On the hour-long drive from Dulles to the race HQ I went by exit signs to Bull Run, Manassas, and somewhere else. Very cool Civil War era stuff around here. Apparently Stonewall Jackson gained his claim to fame running around in this neck of the woods. I tell you this because, had this been my first hundred miler, and had I written a report about it, I would have told you that what goes through the mind of 100 mile runner during miles 5-100.9 is, "wouldn't have wanted to attack over this trail, wouldn't have wanted to attack over this trail". Repeat ad nauseum. But this wasn't my first 100-miler and that is not what I am reporting on in this report. In this report, I am reporting on what goes on in the mind of a person really, really wanting to finish a 101.9 mile race.

What I didn't know when I chose this? Good question.

Well I didn't know that this run is considerably harder than Western States 100. What? The clue would have been, had I known to consider, that the finish deadline was 6 hours longer than WS 100. We were given 36 hours to finish, while at Western States, we got only 30 hours. Naturally I assumed that people in the East are considerably slower than people in the West.

MMT Course

I also discovered, once I was actually running (walking) that none of the 100 race reports I read about this race were joking when they mentioned how rocky it was. See copyright violated picture right. That is not the side of the trail. That is the trail. Go up. You try to run that.

Thirdly, not only weren't these trails runable, they weren't originally trails. There primary function was (and is) as a riverbed. Once the rains came, and oh how they came, the rocky trails that were clearly not runable (because as you can see, they have big rocks all over them) suddenly became rivers and streams. And not only that, they weren't just rivers and streams, they were rivers and streams with great big rocks. You try to run that.

Allow me to quote from the official website:

"Fifteen years is a long time to remember, so it's hard to rank this weather. There have probably been more violent storms, hotter and colder temperatures, and a wetter course. But we don't remember a prior occasion with the mix of these bad things all at the same time that we received this year.
"The day started out alright. But it wasn't really even cool at the start. Quickly, it became quite hot and humid. Then the rain started. Off and on, there was rain throughout Saturday night. Then on Sunday, the rain stopped, but the temperature dropped. It was windy and cold.
"One hundred and seventy-three runners braved this weather and 101 finished. It was the fourth highest attrition rate in the history of the event."
Passage Creek
Jay Dobrowalski in Passage Creek near Elizabeth Furnace
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard

And this isn't even the exaggerated version that I would write. Because, believe me, the words "off and on" are B.S. Whoever wrote those words, was not standing where I was standing all night long. There was no off.

And, since I'm into stream of consciousness here, I've got a few videos I'm going to attempt to share with you. They are not mine. Link to videos

I hope the guy who took them doesn't mind. In one of them (I ran most of the last 60 miles with Paul and he, poor guy, had only me for a subject in many of his vids) I look like Gimli the dwarf. Which is fitting since in real life Gimli must be from New Zealand (where Lord of the Rings in real life takes place) and Paul is from New Zealand as well. Anyhow, you can recognize me because I look like a dwarf when I'm covered up in my worthless rain jacket.

If you even bother to go to this website, scroll down to the 2nd to last video. And you will be able to tell, if the visual isn't enough, by the sound in the background that it is pouring. Just pouring. I'm watching it for the umpteenth time as I write this. I've also just noticed that we are at the place in the trail (on an out and back section at the very middle point) where in another hour I come back in pitch dark and totally wipeout falling completely off the trail and down the hill. I mean I am upside down airborne. No part of me is touching the ground for one very long thought duration (which was, "oh my, I'm airborne in the middle of a 101.9 mile run, what am I doing?" fortunately I had the answer ready "finishing"). And the part of me that is looking at the ground is not the part you want to land on namely the back of the head. To complete the aside, Paul has leant me his flashlight to get us through the latest section until I reach my drop bags that hold my flashlights. (You don't know this yet, because I haven't told you, but he was the one who laughed at me when I was trying to decide before the race which aid station to stash my lights thus I felt no remorse when I borrowed his.) This means neither he nor I have adequate light to move well through the slippery big rocks (seen now in video). I am tired, wobbly kneed, and more than a little off balance, so no surprise when I disappear over the side of a 4 foot drop (upside down and backwards), somehow Paul recognizes that I am no longer behind him (remember it is pitch black and raining so you can't hear or see much) and yells out "where are you?" This makes me wonder if I've screamed. I've always wondered if I would scream when I fall off the cliff. I don't think so, because I'm pretty sure I'd be all out of breath. But as I think about it now, I wonder, how did he know I'd disappeared so suddenly? Anyway. I said "down here". "What are you doing down there?" Paul asked. "Finishing", I said.

I will also add, that my falling down was completely Paul's fault. And because my falling down was completely Paul's fault his later wipeout in the middle of the trail (stream) and subsequent near death experience with a log were merely his comeuppance and my laughing at him wasn't as rude as he might have thought it was. I also wonder if Paul was the only one to knock himself out on the Short Mountain log? I mean it was about 5 feet 6 inches over the trail and as every knows, between the hours of, say 5am and 3pm the next day, ultra runners pretty much stare at their feet and aren't looking for a log to be dangling over the trail. I swear I thought he was joking with me when he went flat on his back after head butting the log. If I had known he wasn't joking lying there on his back ... in the mud ... at 3am ... I surly would not have laughed the way I did. Really. And come to think of it, Paul did kinda scream (or grunt-moan). That's how I knew to stop and turn around and laugh.

Anyway, the rainy spot, that is the second to last video on the list. If I were to give it a title I would call it "men are men" or "see the dwarf" - either one works. This report will really be weak if none of you go to the video page. Now if you go to the 4th from the bottom, you will know why one should never use a cell phone to make a movie of running 101.9 miles. [don't worry, I'll get over the movie narration thing shortly.] Here you see two guys at the start of the vid whom I might make fun of in the manner of "look at these guys, they look completely dazed out of their minds ..." except that as it pans over to me, I'd have to say "and look at this idiot talking to his dead cell phone. Is he about to Yak?" You might think he looks like he's about to get very ill (which may be true, I don't remember) but if you look closely you will see I'm trying to keep a cell phone dry while I talk to it. So I'll just say nothing. It is pouring out. It poured all night.

Fourthly (what I didn't know) is that they have big friggin rattlesnakes sitting in the middle of the trail every once in awhile (or once). That's the 5th from the bottom video if anybody's asking. And that is the reason I'm all bent over talking to my dead phone. I wanted to send the vid of the snake home to son Jack. When I got back and dried out my phone, we reviewed the evidence can't really see a snake on a screen with pixel resolution of 2.

Lastly, they have tics. I hate tics. Rattlesnakes are like huggable bunnies compared with tics. I hate tics. So now imagine running 101.9 miles through fairly dense undergrowth (which takes around 34 hours) and every time you brush up against a bush you attempt to do a tic check. Just imagine. Just imagine you have whiplash. Welcome to Whiplashville. Population you. Early on in the run I got this tic thing going where I ask every runner that passes me, "have you ever had lyme disease?" and "what's it like?" and "can you die?". None of these people "look like crap" a) because it is too early in the race and b) I haven't yet started to think that about everyone who passes me. I'm thinking how to identify whether I've got Lyme disease. I do think about how people look like crap later on. Once I'm resigned to dying from Lyme disease.

Speaking of which, if you ever go out to watch a 100, or 101.9 mile race, and it's early on say the first 40 miles don't say "you're looking great". Really. All a runner hears by that is, "not yet, but soon you will look like crap." It's okay to say "keep going" or "long way to go" or even "soon you will look like crap". Because if you say "soon you will look like crap" the runner hears "you don't look bad right now". And that is probably what you are trying to say.

Then again, if you ever go out to watch a 100, or 101.9 mile race, say whatever you please. Runners can't afford to be choosy about who watches them because there are so few people who would ever waste their lives in such fashion.

I will say it now. I can recall no moment during this event where I ever had a doubt about finishing. It had nothing to do with being in shape or any of the usual credits to a successful finish (not that I would know too much about successful finishes), rather everything to do with the company I found (thank you Paul) and the outlook we maintained over what really is a too rocky, too long, too wet, too muggy, too tic filled, too rattlesnaky 101.9 miles. Why 101.9? No idea.

Paul Sherlock and John Powell
John H Powell (right) with Paul Sherlock
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard

I first met Paul when checking in for the race on Friday - 53 year old New Zealander now living in Arlington. I wasn't sure which aid station to store my lights for the dark part of the race and while debating to myself I heard him laugh and say "blah, blah, blah" which I took to mean "you are such an idiot, you'll get it wrong anyway". Now if he were just some other skinny ultra running 53 year old, we might have had a throw down right there and then. Being 46, I'm pretty sure I woulda had him, maybe. But, given his NZ accent, he sounded quite charming and friendly and I took no offense. I'm also thinking that being from NZ he woulda had me so I didn't plan to find out.

I got him back for calling me an idiot however when having put my flashlight in the drop bag for the aid station I didn't reach until well after dark, I made him give me one of his and then tried to break it into pieces as I went over a 4 foot drop upside down and backwards. That taught him - call me names while I'm trying to figure out where to place my lights (either that or to not share his flashlight ever again).

Anyway .... next morning, race day, we start, blah blah blah (run, run, run, walk, run, walk, walk, run, run, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk .......) gets light ..... more run, run, walk, run, walk, walk, walk, walk .... Take a few phone vids, email to son Jack (technology can be cool), drop cell phone on trail and continue run, run, walk, run, walk, walk, walk, and discover cell phone not there ....

And this is where it gets a little funny. I decide since I have just discovered the phone is missing that I must have just dropped it. What? There I am, looking around at my feet and a guy passes me saying "can I help?" I say "well, I just dropped my cell phone somewhere right here" so we now both look down around my feet (there really is no cell phone down there guys). He gives up and continues on. Shortly the next guy passes, I ask him if he has my cell phone. What? I mean we are not standing at a bus stop where I just dropped my phone, no nothing like that. We are in the middle of a National Forest where Stonewall Jackson got famous doing the nature thing and I'm asking people if they have my cell phone? Shoot me now. Anyway, the funny thing is, this guy says, "yes, I just passed someone who claims they found a cell phone". Holy moly. I look down at my feet to see if there isn't someone down there finding my cell phone. I still think I just lost it. So I wait by the trail quite glad that my movie about running 101.9 miles is still 'on'. I wait. I wait. More runners pass by. "you got my phone? You got my phone?". "no", "no", "no". What am I doing? It dawns on me that if someone really did find my phone, and someone who has already passed me by knew about the finding, then the finder can't be too far behind me. Right? Maybe they dropped out? But we really are only a few hours into this thing. Finally I give up waiting. Boo hoo. I make it to the next aid station and I'm asking all around definitely now fully aware of how completely wrong it is for me to be walking around asking about my cell phone in the middle of a 100 mile race. I give up. It'll be the mystery story. I'm guessing I've used a good 20 minutes in pursuit of the phone. Back to the run.

I leave the aid station hoping against hope that someone will turn it in, and that someone else will deliver it to me further along the course. Because there are all kinds of people out here shuttling cell phones up the course? I head out just behind these two guys, and I remember this distinctly, one's looking fairly out of it (it has gotten very hot and muggy) and the other looks like he is dressed for a safari in Africa (khaki pants, pith helmet thing on his head) and they are both yakking it up to no end. I fall in behind them but soon realize I'm either going to have to pass them and get well ahead, or shoot myself. So I pass. Then, of course, I immediately get a pebble in my shoe and need to stop and deal with it. They pass me back. I catch up and at this point there is a pedestrian standing there yelling "you look great, you look great" and I'm thinking "uh oh, I like crap already" when the fairly out of it guy says to the lady on the side of the trail, "are you going back to the aid station? Will you take this cell phone with you? I found it on the side of the trail ..." What?

Now I'm thinking, well, I don't know what I'm thinking something about there being a god I suppose. I probably made a joyful four letter celebration to myself. Caught up to the lady and snatched my phone out of her hands. Again, what are the odds? [I better apologize right now. If this story goes public, I'm just reporting what I was thinking at the time ... ] Then I start to think. Indeed, what are the odds that my phone would be picked up by some guy who can't even remember he has my phone when I ask him as he runs by? Picked up by some guy who stands around in an aid station for 15 minutes listening to some other idiot ask around for a lost cell phone? I mean do you think he was like "that guy over there lost his cell phone ... I wonder if it is the one I found .... What is the probability that I would find his phone way out here in the middle of nowhere? Gotta be close to zero, best not say anything". Chaffed my hide it did.

Anyway. We all get tired and dingy and fall over and stuff, but this was too early I tell you. Wait til it is rainy and it is dark and you don't have your own light. I'm over it now. I met a lot of great people. In fact, by definition, anyone you meet at a 100 or 101.9 mile run is great. They just are. These are my people. My tribe.

Ed was one of the neat tribesman I enjoyed chatting with during the prelims. A veteran of the race as noted by all the people who came and said hello while we spoke, thus I was very much surprised to find him, as I headed up the trail a ways, sitting in the middle of it. I didn't know it then but he was just shy of the next aid station. Ed's a very good runner and probably wasn't having his usual day. He was looking around for his soul. I use the phrase because I a) I like it and b) I think it is one of those things you do when you get too dingy, or too sick, or too tired, or too feeling like yakking, you let go of your soul and you go to your little safe place and you wait it out. I think most ultra people would understand. I think Ed, if he were to read this would agree, he was looking for a little safe spot to let the moment pass and feel better.

Well it is hot, it is muggy, I, by dang, I'm not gonna let Ed sit there and suffer by himself. Plus I'm pretty sure I can get him to the aid station without blowing my chances to finish. Not sure what I would have done if I was worried about the cutoffs. We got safely to the station, but it took a while. Ed was not a happy camper. By now, I've figured out that I'm not going to win the race and I appreciated the moment to help it is a big part of the experience (helping and getting helped). I mention this episode because a) I would expect someone else to do the same for me and b) it was the lead in to the rest of my race.

Somebody must have noticed me helping Ed get settled in at the aid station because I got a number of thank you's. As luck would have it, I'm turning to leave and Paul appears walking out at the same time. Paul is probably thinking, 'hey, the new guy is alright. I'll say thank you and get on my way. Hope he's not a clingy type." And I'm thinking "hey, there's Paul, I think I'll follow him around for the next 25 hours." As you can see, our minds just clicked.

We fell in to a reasonably comfortable pace and started chatting. I don't remember a word of it. Paul has done the race a number of times. Wasn't the least worried about when he would finish and appeared to be completely in the moment. That, my friends, is quite a skill. While I am busy with the "wouldn't want to charge that hill, wouldn't want to get shot by someone over there, you look like crap ..." thing, Paul is up ahead saying things like "what a view. What a great day. Isn't this fun? Man it is raining, what an adventure." I must admit, not exactly contagious, but oft reminder of the right way to get through these adventures. Participate in it. Don't be in a hurry to get through it. And the miles and the hours went by. Sometimes we were separated on the trail and sometimes we stayed close, same group of people passed us and we passed them back.

I will confess it was nice having someone around who knew the course and knew how to pace for a finish. I know I wasn't actually making a plan about the rest of the race, but I did think about trying to keep pace and draft a bit. There is no denying that two people can really pick each other up. Assuming they can tolerate each other. Since at no time was I aware of Paul faking a heart attack and he could have done so easily - I'm going to assume the enjoyment was mutual. We kept each other moving. We went in to aid stations together and we came out together. (aid stations are always the place you can gracefully break with someone if it suits you either stay longer or leave quickly never hard feelings) There may have been one moment near the end where Paul was having a mild fake heart attack. I remember him saying something like "blah, blah, blah" which I interpreted as "shut up. We all have blisters." But really that is the only time.

Having next to no expectations makes the running a little easier. I was never thinking 'where is the damn aid station. It should be just up ahead.' The usual tough time is at night. Paul and I managed to chuckle at our situation with trails (riverbeds) filled to the brim, shoes full of silt and no chance to dry off. Nothing to do but laugh and go on. Paul is a very strong walker and I learned a great deal about how to keep up the pace without getting unduly tired. We power hiked all night and stayed even with a number of runners who were running then resting.

While the whole nighttime experience was great, I definitely didn't like being on my feet for so long. 27 hours was long enough. When I reached that point and I still had 20+ miles and, as it turned out, seven hours to go, it was a little depressing. I remember slowing to a slower walk and thinking "here we go, one foot in front of the other and we'll get there", Paul slowed as well. It was getting light. Paul then remarked we'll probably get passed by a few runners. A minute later, woosh, one goes by, another, and these people are actually running. Nope, not gonna do it. I got blisters man. Then I see Paul pick it up a bit and I'm glad to see he's got energy. I am sure I will finish and, in my head, I wish him luck. I know I will see him at the finish line. So I get in my momentum pace and plod along. Not too much further I discover Paul sitting trailside waiting for me. What's up? Just waiting for me? Oh that is the worst. I got blisters. No, no, no. Go on ahead. Course I didn't say these thoughts out load. I believe I said "@#$". As we began our descent into the aid station (fort powell which is all well and good as I like the name, but there was absolutely no fort) I started to run. As I ran I realized that I could visualize hurting back on my blisters. Taking the fight to them. Hurting them. Yes, yes. I can do this. You punk blisters.

And for the last 8 miles we moved really well. We caught those people who passed us even though they looked like crap and we pulled people faster who were slowing down and we caught others who were moving well. Before I knew it, there were 11 of us all crossing the finish line together nearly 34 hours after we had all started together.

Again, Why? I still can't answer this. Try as I might. Maybe the answer is a moving target. I don't know. I got a little choked up crossing the finish line. That surprised me a bit. I realized I was just so damn tired. So damn tired. Maybe that was my reason for this one. Just so I could be so damn tired that I would tear up and hug a few strangers. How often do you feel like doing that? It's not a bad thing (as long as you don't breath through your nose while doing it).

I'm looking forward to my next 100 miler in the Wasatch Mountains in September. Wonder if it will feel like running through Jello? Wonder if I will cry like a baby at the end? A high school classmate of mine died from a brain tumor last week. That's how my Dad died. We all will die. Of that we have no choice. What we can choose is how we live.

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Ten finishers
Ten finishers (one pacer) including the author, far right
Photo: Bobby Gill