Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

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The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
May 15-16, 2010

by Hamilton Tyler

All year I stared at the calendar with the date of the Massanutten Mountain 100 miler circled - May 15, 2010. This race was personal. My only drop at any distance was last year at this event. I dropped after 65 miles - a victim of horrendous conditions and the negative attitude they produced. This year my head was in a better state and I had trained harder and longer. I ran well this winter and spring completing several training runs on the course as well as the Holiday Lake 50k, B&A Marathon, HAT 50k, Bull Run 50 miler and the Promiseland 50k. Like everyone in the Mid-Atlantic area, I had a little lull in training during February when the blizzards dumped four feet of snow in this area.

The Massanutten course consists primarily of rocky single track trails in the Fort Valley, Virginia area with over 16,000 feet of ascent/descent over 102 miles. The run is one of the signature events put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. This year the course was reconfigured to relocate the start/finish to the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp near Fort Roosevelt at the southern end of Fort Valley, just over the mountain from Luray, Virginia. The camp was a nice location with excellent facilities. I stayed in one of the bunkhouses with several other runners since the start was at 5:00 am. I tossed and turned all night, finally falling fell into a fitful sleep sometime after 11:00 pm. People began to stir around 3:45 am and I roused myself, got dressed and grabbed some breakfast. It was not difficult to decide what to wear because the weather forecast was for sunny dry conditions with highs in the 70s during the day. I started in a short sleeve shirt and wore a Nathan hydration vest with a 70 ounce bladder.

170 runners gathered on the dirt road at the camp and at the stroke of 5:00 am we were off. Down the dirt road we went to a right turn onto Moreland Gap Road which was a three mile climb to the trail. I ran some of the uphill and walked steeper sections. I wanted to take advantage of any road on the course to pick up time.

And they are off! On time - 5:00 a.m.
Photo: Ray Smith

I turned off the road after 42 minutes onto the Massanutten trail. After one mile of trail I began the climb up Short Mountain. The climbs for me in 100 mile races are at a quick (or not so quick as the race progresses) walking pace in order to save my leg muscles as long as possible. My goal is to be able to run at the end. The old course had most of the runners encountering Short Mountain in the darkness of the early morning at mile 69 or so. I for one was glad to encounter it in the daylight on fresh legs. After the climb the trail runs along a very rocky ridgeline. I take this section slow, not wanting to turn an ankle and end my race early. The eight mile section goes surprising quickly. A little less than two hours after turning off the road I drop down to Edinburg Gap on a nice downhill section and stop at the aid station which is 12 miles total mileage.

Hamilton Tyler
Approaching Edinburg Gap aid station at mile 12
Photo: Anstr Davidson

After filling up with Gatorade and taking in some food, I begin the climb up to Waonaze Peak at the southern end of Powell Mountain. After a nice long climb, I reached the ridgeline and continue to make my way north. The temperatures are still moderate at 7:40 am in the morning and I make good time. The single track trail is not as technical as Short Mountain, but the section always seems to take me about the same time as Short Mountain. The last two miles of this section are off camber and have many small ups and downs which slow progress. I hear the aid station commotion at Woodstock Tower at mile 20 and arrive in a total elapsed time of 4 hours and 38 minutes.

I move quickly out of the Woodstock Tower aid station. One of my failings last year was spending far too much time at the aid stations. I grab some food to eat as I walk. The section to the Powell's Fort aid station at mile 25 is a little less technical so I run a little more than the last two sections. After Powell's Fort there is a dirt road section with a gradual ascent that allows me to run. A nice trail section leads pass the Strasburg Reservoir. Shortly after the reservoir I turn onto the Tuscarora Trail for a steep one mile climb. This is a slow slog for me with no switchbacks until just before the peak. I am rewarded with a 4 mile downhill run which allows me to stretch my legs out except for a few short boulder field crossings and a large black snake which slithers aimlessly across the trail as I approach.

I reach the Elizabeth's Furnace aid station at the northern end of Fort Valley after 32 miles in 7 hours and 45 minutes. I have a drop bag at this aid station and grab an Ensure to drink later. I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and potato chips to take in both calories and salt. Although my legs are heavy I actually feel pretty good. Crossing Passage Creek, the climb out of the valley up to Shawl Gap and the eastern ridgeline of Fort Valley is long but not too steep. After cresting the mountain I go straight over the saddle and down the other side to the aid station at the bottom. Quickly refueling with a cheese quesadilla and refilling with fluids I turn onto Route 613 for a 3 mile road section, much of which is uphill. It is around 2:00 pm and the temperature has risen into the 70s which is a little warm for me. I am taking one S Cap an hour to keep up with salt requirements.

Ascending Veach Gap the course returns to trail, which is exposed to the sun and hot. Reaching the top I turn south onto the Massanutten trail for another short climb to top out after 1,000 vertical feet over just under two miles. I fall in with Phil from Pennsylvania during the climb and we work together for much of the next 20 miles as our paces are close. I take in as much fluids as I can comfortably to combat the heat. I am trotting along on an easy section when a rock jumps up and grabs my foot resulting in a textbook drop and roll in what turns out to be the only fall of the race. I manage to avoid any rocks and the only damage is an extra layer of dirt. I reach the Indian Grave trail which leads down the eastern side of the mountain. Although downhill, parts of the trail are too steep for me to run comfortably. I reach the Indian Grave aid station at mile 50 in a total time of just over 12 hours at 5:00 pm. The 9 mile section took almost two and a half hours. It is really hot by this point so I wrap some ice in a paper towel and put it in on my head under my hat to run the next section. This seems to work and I start to feel a little better.

The next 4 mile section is road and leads to the base of Habron Gap. Phil and I run almost all of this section and reach the Habron Gap aid station after 50 minutes or so.

Habron Gap aid station at mile 54
Photo: Bobby Gill

I have a flashlight in my drop bag at Habron Gap because I figured it would probably get dark before the next aid station which is 9.5 miles away. I eat as much as I can stomach and grab an Ensure and some gels to take in during the section. The 2 mile climb up to the ridgeline is 1,200 feet of vertical climb which goes slowly and I stop to catch my breath several times. Reaching the ridgeline I turn south, again on the Massanutten Trail. A little less than 3 miles later the course turns right onto the Stephens Trail for 4.7 miles to Camp Roosevelt. The Stephens Trail is a little less rocky and the temperature starts to drop as the sun goes down and Phil and I made good time. I reluctantly turn on my flashlight about a mile before Camp Roosevelt when I start to have difficulty seeing the rocks. I don't want to risk another fall.

I finally reach Camp Roosevelt at mile 63, a little less than three hours after leaving Habron Gap at around 8:45 pm. I have been running for 15 hours and 45 minutes as night falls. Camp Roosevelt was the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in the country. It is a major aid station and the first aid station where a runner may pick up a pacer to run with them to the finish. Veteran ultrarunner Prasad Gerard has graciously volunteered to pace me from Camp Roosevelt to the finish. I spend time at Camp Roosevelt putting on new socks, a long sleeve shirt and eating as much as my stomach will allow to try and build up energy for the long night. Camp Roos is a dangerous place because it is less than a mile from the start/finish which makes it a little too convenient to drop from the race. More than a few runners succumb to the siren song of Camp Roos and end their race.

I have a good energy level as I leave Camp Roos and head into the darkness of Duncan Hollow following the Massanutten Trail. I wear both a headlamp and use the flashlight for maximum light. It is great to have Prasad with me. Not having a pacer last year was certainly a contributing factor to my drop. Prasad and I turn onto the Gap Creek trail to climb over the mountain. We reach the top to find a boy scout troop that is camped in the clearing at the top, unaware of the race. They offer encouragement as we run by their tents and warm fire. Down the back side of the mountain we go to Gap Creek.

The Gap Creek aid station was the scene of the crime in 2009. It was at Gap Creek after 65 miles that I dropped last year. We reach Gap Creek at mile 63 at 11:15 pm. I am careful not to go near the fire which is warm and inviting. Prasad will have none of my delay tactics to spend time at the aid station and he ushers me out in short order. I am not exciting about tackling Kerns Mountain the toughest section of the course.

Gap Creek aid station - mile 63 - night version
Photo: Bobby Gill

We climb the Jawbone Gap Trail up Kerns Mountain and turn south along the ridgeline. The Kerns Mountain section is four miles of rocky ridgeline with a bunch of climbovers. I am able to run very little and progress is slow. I have run Kerns several times so at least I know it is going to be tough. After what seems like an eternity, we reach a less rocky section that I know signals the end of Kerns and after a short drop we reach Crisman Hollow Road.

The Crisman Hollow Road section is two and a half miles that is mostly downhill so we run almost the entire way to route 211. We cross route 211 that runs between New Market and Luray in the New Market Gap. I have travelled 77 miles in approximately 21 hours and it is 2:00 am. My stomach has gone a little south. Prasad is cajoling me to get out of the aid station, but as we start to leave I am suddenly lightheaded and dizzy. The aid station personnel want me to lay down on the cot, but luckily for me (and unluckily for one runner) a runner is already wrapped in a blanket in the one available cot. Once you lay down it is very hard to get going again. I settle for sitting down on a bench. The Gatorade I have been drinking all day and night has not tasted good for a while, so I am probably down on fluids. Prasad and the aid station volunteers bring me cups of ice cold water that goes down better as I sip it. I nibble on some saltines which taste bad but I know I need calories and something solid in my stomach. I am scared that my race is slipping away. After about 10 minutes I start to feel better and Prasad prevails on me to hit the trail again.

I have made the climb up Bird Knob many times, but this time it seems to go on forever. I lose track of the number of times I have to stop to control my breathing and lower my heart rate. I struggle some with the few boulder scrambles. After a 1,000 foot vertical climb the trail levels out and we reach the overlook and are able to see the lights of New Market to the west. We reach Ant Hill road and start to run again after walking for almost an hour. It begins to rain, first just a drizzle and much harder. I have a shell strapped to my pack which I quickly put on. While it is not that cold, probably around 50 degrees, I do not want to get wet because my slow pace is not generating much body heat. Prasad declines my offer of a trash bag to stay dry and continues his shirtless ways. We reach the Bird Knob aid station at around 3:40 am. After a short one mile jog down the road we make a left turn onto the Roaring Run Trail which is not very long, but very steep. We top out and head down the other side looking carefully for the left turn onto the Brown's Hollow trail. Miss this turn you go all the way to the bottom of the mountain to Catherine's Furnace. We find the turn as it is well-marked. The entire course is well-marked with the night sections marked with reflective strips which are easily seen from a distance.

Brown's Hollow Trail - looks more inviting during daylight
Photo: Anstr Davidson

After a short climb we start a downhill section where I am able to get running again. When I do have to walk I feel like I am going to fall asleep while walking. A nice green tent appears next to the trail and I wonder who would camp so close to the trail. As I approach the tent it morphs into a large boulder and is gone. A few minutes later I see a female runner sitting on the side of the trail wearing a blue singlet. I think that she must be cold even though the rain has stopped. But as I approach her to ask if she is alright, all I see is a small tree. I keep my hallucinations to myself.

The eastern sky begins to brighten with the coming day. It takes two hours to cover the 6.4 miles to the Picnic Area aid station at mile 87 and we arrive around 5:40 am. I have now been moving for 24 hours and 40 minutes. There is a smorgasbord at this aid station and I am hungry. I drink some hot coffee and eat a ham and cheese sandwich. It has been a long slow night. In roughly nine hours of darkness I travelled about 25 miles. The food and the daylight give me new energy and we leave the Picnic Area for the two mile downhill section to the 211 parking area. We reach the parking area and cross route 211 again to the Massanutten connector trail which is actually a dirt road.

The four mile section from the 211 parking area to the Scothorn Gap trail has never seemed like such a climb to me. Every part of the trail just seems to go up and I am able to run a very small part of this section. It is only a 1,200 vertical foot gain over four miles, but this late in the race it seems like much more. I am relieved to reach Dry Run which is a dry rocky creek bed that I know is near the end of the uphill section. We finally reach the Scothorn Gap trail and turn left and are shortly on a dirt road, slowly jogging the one and a half miles downhill. We cross Gap Creek and turn right onto Crisman Hollow Road. We continue to jog the mile and a half along the road and reach the Gap Creek aid station (which also was the mile 69 aid station) at mile 95. It has taken 2 hours and 40 minutes to cover the 8.5 miles from the Picnic Area aid station.

The Delaware Trail Dogs running club is running Gap Creek and they have outdone themselves. There are pancakes and french toast which taste fantastic. I am still grabbing them as Prasad finally prevails upon me to head out for the last 6.3 mile section at 8:25 am after 27 hours and 25 minutes. Prasad is doing a fantastic job keeping me moving and trying to protect my goal of breaking 30 hours.

Up Jawbone we go for the second and last time. When we top out we are done with the long climbs. Instead of turning south on Kerns as we had some nine hours earlier, we go straight over the top and down the backside. I am careful on this last rocky section not to drag my feet and fall.

We reach Moreland Gap Road which is downhill for three miles. I am close to breaking 29 hours so we push onward, running almost the entire way down at a good pace. We reach the bottom and I realize that I only have a few minutes to negotiate the six-tenths of a mile trail to the finish. Unfortunately the trail is uphill which is only fitting for the end of this race which has over 16,000 feet of ascent and descent. I run as hard as I can, even the uphill. What feels like a full sprint is probably only an 8 minute mile. The cabins of the camp finally appear and I hear the finish line party. I miss breaking 29 hours by less than a minute, but it is not for lack of effort.

My official time is 29 hours and 46 seconds. I am thrilled to finish as well as relieved. Out of 170 starters, 114 runners (67%) finish within the 36 hour cutoff. I cross in 44th place, but I am really racing the clock, not other runners as well as testing my limits. I thank Prasad for being such a big part of my finish.

Crossing the finish line on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.
Photo: Ray Smith

The 102 mile journey that began at 5:00 am on Saturday morning ends at 10:00 am on Sunday morning. The journey to the finish line of the 2010 Massanutten 100 miler has really taken much longer. I ran my first marathon in October, 1995, my first ultra in March, 2001 and first 100 mile run in June, 2005. In January, 2006 I showed up and was welcomed at a Massanutten Gap Creek to Gap Creek training run by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club which I joined a short time later. I endured two surgeries which shut down my running for various times. I ran a couple of the VHTRC Massanutten training runs each year and did three other "easier" 100 mile races, but the rockiness and steep climbs of the Massanutten trails scared me off. These VHTRC people were hardcore! When I began to think that the training runs on the MMT course weren't so bad, I thought I was ready. My first Massanutten attempt in 2009 ended at mile 65. I learned from the first attempt and trained harder and longer for the past year. I cleaned up my diet and dropped weight.

I have developed more of a positive mental attitude which is ultimately what propels you to the finish line of any ultra. Your body will do amazing things that you never thought possible if your mind will allow it. To think that an event is "impossible" is to admit defeat without giving yourself a chance.

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