Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
MMT 2010 Report
by Caroline Williams
For those of you who have hours to read my report, here it is. I started to write a few paragraphs for my own edification and maybe a few others; but after reading "Run Caroline, Run" thoughtfully written by a damn good runner, Rande Brown, I felt the urge to write this beautiful novel to a broader audience. And don't even think about thinking ugly thoughts about me! It took me TWO WEEKS to get it all down nicely; so you best direct any and all complaints to Rande.
The author after her finish
Photo: Susan Donnelly
After seven, 100-mile DNFs since my one and only 100-mile finish in 2005, I was more than ready to claim my victory at Massanutten Mountain 100 on May 16, 2010. To correct Rande, I only have one MMT DNF. That was last year. I trained, but maybe not hard enough. The weather was far from being ideal. However, the sheer number of DNFs—seven—was hard to accept. I was merely going through the motion at some of the 100s—particularly my third and fourth time at Vermont in 2008 and 2009. One simply cannot just go through the motions when facing the daunting distance. It was becoming easier to give up the fight and accept defeat.
It was a tough winter—toughest the Washington DC metro area had seen in decades with two snowstorms in February that forced the federal government to close its offices for an entire week. About four ultras in February had to be cancelled or postponed. However, starting in late February, I was able to get in ten, consecutive weekends of long runs. These were: 1. Reverse Ring. 2. Seneca Creek Trail Marathon. 3. Elizabeth's Furnace. 4. Oak Mountain. 5. MMT training run #3. 6. MMT training run #4 (aka, Chocolate Bunny). 7. Bull Run Run. 8. 24-Hour Run for Cancer Research. 9. Promise Land. 10. Icy 8-Hour (rescheduled from February). The Reverse Ring was tougher than expected with no one finishing the entire 71 miles. Six of us remained out there the longest by toughing it out to mile 46. Of course, it took me the longest to get there in just over 24-hours. I just didn't think that the ankle deep snow would slow me down that much. As one very strong and experienced runner, Steve Pero, said, "We went beyond fatigue." Two weeks later, at Elizabeth's Furnace, I had the most dramatic experience so far on trails when a fast moving stream swept me down. I was alone; and felt ecstatic to be able to get myself out of the water not long after going down. I was beyond grateful to be able to run after getting out of the stream, and find my way back to my car where there were friends waiting for my safe arrival. A week later, although still shaken by the previous Saturday's experience, I had a successful finish at Oak Mountain, near Birmingham, Alabama. Then at BRR, I was able to PR by more than 35 minutes. Still after that, I felt strong at the next three events. I don't ever recall finishing 10, consecutive long runs ever before. I was never more confident.
It was now time to train my mind to remain calm and confident. But, of course, nagging questions crept into my thoughts. Did I train enough? Did I over-train? Should I be doing anything now? Ignoring all that, I organized my gear, contacted my crew and pacer, and counted down the days to May 15.
Thoughts on Pacers and How I Met George
I have shied away from using pacers, as I think that finding a good one is difficult. I have never asked someone to pace me, as I think that one should be able to go through the journey alone. It's just too much to ask anyone—even someone that I would consider to be my best friend. I did, however, add my name to the list of runners needing pacers at my first time in Vermont in 2005. It did not work out. In fact, it was disastrous, as the pacer did not know the time cutoff at the aid station we were headed to. At the 24-Hour Race for Cancer in Hampton, Virginia, on April 17-18, I met George Nelsen, the RD. About a couple of weeks before, we spoke over the phone briefly about his race. Somehow the conversation got personal as I told him that I was adopted from Korea, and he responded that he and his wife adopted their two (now in their early 20s) from Korea. At George's race, I met Rebecca, his daughter. In her early 20s, Rebecca finished her first 50 miler at her Dad's event. George was also out on the course, as the race is easily managed by a few volunteers since the course is a flat, 3.75 mile loop. I saw many familiar faces that included Stan and Margie, MMT Race Directors. George and I covered a few loops together. On one of the first loops, he told me that Stan and Margie had said that I needed a pacer at MMT. Thinking that he's joking, I said with a laugh, "They told you that I NEED a pacer?!" He told me that he had signed up to pace a back of the pack runner, and that he really would like to see what some of MMT course really looks like. He said that he was there at the 211 East aid station with his daughter a few years ago, and that's where his daughter "caught the ultra bug." A while later, George brought up the subject of pacing me again, and I responded, "Are you asking me for a commitment?" I told him that while my name is still on the entrants list, there's no guarantee that I'll be at the start line. He seemed adamant, and giving into pressure, I accepted his offer.
I didn't know how George would help me get to that finish line. I wasn't too uncomfortable with the idea, but I wasn't totally comfortable either. So to move closer to being comfortable, George needs to know as much about me as possible. I told him that while I am normally a very social person, I don't like to carry on lengthy conversations while I'm running. However, if I am silent for too long—it's not a good sign. I don't get sleepy at night. I told him that my main mistake during 100s is that I don't eat enough, and maybe his reminding me to eat would be helpful. Each of us worried about being too slow for the other. George thinks he is more of a road runner than a trail one. After many email exchanges and a few phone calls, we agreed to meet at Habron aid station, hopefully by 7:30pm on Saturday.
Twas the Night Before Christmas
It's finally the day before MMT. Walker is here, and we're picking up Farouk on our way out to the Days Inn in Luray. We are on time, and I'm calm. We pull into the Days Inn parking lot and see Gary Knipling and Bunny. Looking at me directly with determination in his eyes, Gary asks me if I'll finish it this year. I see a lot of familiar faces at the pre-race briefing and dinner. To name a few, Carl Camp, with whom I've had some excellent training runs; Susan Donnelly, a long time ultrarunner with the highest number of MMT finishes in the female category; Leonard Martin, who has gone out of his way numerous times this winter to make sure that I'm well trained; Sherry Meador, a determined woman who has many more 100 mile finishes than me, but so far no MMT finishes.
Caroline finishes the Short Mountain section
Photo: Anstr Davidson
As expected, I did not sleep well at the hotel. But I felt positive since I had been sleeping well for the last two weeks. I don't recall anyone counting down the seconds to the starting time. I don't recall any bells ringing. All I remember was that we were off and running the first section which was all road. Three point six miles to the first aid station at Moreland Gap. I was running with some strong runners, and that made me a little nervous. But I kept the pace since I knew that I would be slow on Short Mountain. I was making good time, arriving the first few aid stations a bit earlier than I had anticipated. But, I was about 15 minutes behind at Elizabeth's Furnace (32 miles in). Not yet halfway, and I was already moving slower than my predicted pace. I took in some calories, and swallowed another Succeed. Walker handed me my headlights at the next aid, Shawl Gap. I was looking for more Succeed; but I had none in my drop bag! Walker asked me if it could be in his car somewhere; and I said no. Negative thoughts were creeping in; but I just kept moving. Veach Gap came and went. At Indian Grave, I was glad to see K.C. Tackett and Leonard again. Young K.C. was running her first 100-miler, and we had trained a few times together on the course during some of the MMT training runs. I asked for some Succeed tabs, and they didn't have any. So after grabbing a few things, getting rid of my trash, and thanking Jaret and Kerry, I was off again.
I was running the road section to Habron fairly strong. It was getting dark, and the air felt cool. I stopped to pee; and was very glad to see that the color was clear. All good signs, which made me feel much better. I stopped thinking about not having Succeed tabs. I finally arrived Habron at around 9:15pm—almost two hours behind schedule. Walker was there with George, just as we had planned. I had some hot spots on my right foot, and George helped me to take care of that. My upper quads were also very sore, and heeding George's advice, I took a couple of Ibuprofen. Walker also handed me my Habron aid station drop bag, which included a good supply of Succeed tablets. I was off toward Camp Roosevelt.
The Struggle in the Middle of the Night
There were a few runners with me on that long 9.5 mile leg. The nagging doubts started to set in. I was moving much slower than what I had predicted. I was already two hours behind at Habron. Shortly after leaving Habron, Leonard Martin asked me if he could run with me for a while, and I said okay. But as my thoughts turned more negative, I felt like I was keeping him from running his race, as I felt his rhythm was stronger than mine. So I told him to get in front of me. Later, I met up with another male runner. I told him that I was strongly thinking of dropping at Roosevelt since I was moving much slower than what I thought. He seemed to think that I was giving up too easily. I sat down a couple of times, fighting my demons in the middle of the night. I wondered why I was feeling so low at this bewitching hour, for I have never dreaded these hours. In fact, I have actually enjoyed the night hours. Other runners speak of these hours as being their longest and toughest, but I had always enjoyed the quiet that these hours bring. I told myself that I needed to keep moving, that I couldn't quit before getting to an aid station. There were people waiting for me, and to keep them waiting longer than necessary would simply be wrong. So with a mental image of Camp Roosevelt locked in, I just kept moving forward. I didn't look at my watch. I didn't think of the cutoff. I was just looking forward to Camp Roosevelt to let people know that I had decided to drop; and I was at peace with my decision.
I was finally at Camp Roosevelt. I declared that I would drop. Almost immediately I heard people tell me no. Ted began to rub my shoulders, Walker handed me a cup of soup, George, sounding a bit angry, reminded me why he was there. Jeff Reed told me that I look too good to quit. I got up immediately after Jeff reminded me of the clock; and George and I took off.
On the Course with George Nelsen
Having just downed a full container of Ramen noodles, I felt energized again. George started off our journey together by asking me if I felt like talking. I was up for a few exchanges. It helped to lighten the burden. I was beginning to feel comfortable enough to re-direct our discussion from general things to race specific topics. I didn't have time to veer off course.
We got in and out of Gap Creek quickly, as I remembered Jeff Reed's warning at Camp Roosevelt. I checked my food and water supply, and felt that it was good enough to take us over Kerns Mountain. George wondered when that long section would end, as he was getting tired of kicking rocks. He then reminded me of the time, and how it would soon be daylight again. Sure enough, it was; and I felt amazingly strong running down Crisman Hollow Road toward Visitor's Center. I felt like I had traded in the body I had just a few hours ago for an entirely new and improved model that would take me to the finish. I saw fellow runners Kate Abbott and Mark Zimmerman as they were driving by. They had dropped last night. I saw another fellow runner, Keith Hosman and his wife Allison in their car. They were both volunteering. Without people I certainly would not be in this wonderful and challenging sport.
George and I had a few climbs left after Visitor's Center. Some of those climbs were totally rewarded by spectacular views. George got ahead of me at Bird Knob. I told him that the view from there was totally worth a few extra seconds to take in. I was very surprised at Bird Knob aid station. I had imagined that there would be one, lonely person at this remote aid station, with only a few offerings of bare essentials; but that was definitely not the case. There were at least five people there all very happy and excited to see me with a wonderful spread of goodies! I left there energized again. I warned George to look for the left turn not far down the road we were on. I had missed that turn at the previous, night time, training run; but I felt confident that the turn would be well marked at the race. We were going up again, but I knew it wouldn't be a long climb. We then went down; but it was not a rocky downhill. So I was able to move strong. Then the left turn onto the pink-blazed Brown Hollow trail. I was on this trail for the first time with Carolyn Gernand last summer, and several times since. I had never seen this new trail that's not yet on any of the trail maps in such a great condition. It seemed like someone raked all the rocks and leaves off the wide path. The trail looked naked to me, like a sheep that had just been shorn. It seemed like an endless series of short downhills. I ran down some of them sideways. While I knew this section would seem very long, 80+ miles into MMT, I thought we would never see the end of it. I was now a little more than 15 minutes ahead of the Picnic Area aid station cutoff. Walker tried to get me to sit down to take in more calories; but I strongly felt that I had to just grab and go. I knew I would be moving slow again through the next rough sections, and I just didn't feel like sitting when I didn't really need to. George and I were feeling happier with each passing aid station. We had a little over three hours to get to Gap Creek, the last aid that was about 8.5 miles away. That's about 20 minute pace, which seemed very doable. George was beginning to get tired of the rocks, and I was able to laugh about it. I was simply happy to be able to keep moving along, being able to shift our conversation between general topics to humor, and ultimately to the race itself. It truly was magical how well we worked together—especially toward the end.
Caroline finishes with George
Photo: Ray Smith
I don't recall the details of the last aid station. All I remember was that we were in and out of there within a couple of minutes. I'm sure Walker was there, as it was a crew meeting point. I am sure that I thought of the last climb up Jawbone after leaving Gap Creek. I'm sure that I grabbed some items, or at least made sure that I had enough calories to climb that last big one as best as I could. So we were off again, only this time no more aid stations. Only the finish line waited on us. I was pumped, and I had only positive thoughts as I knew I would see the entire course no matter what. I knew I was close to the cutoff, but chose to not look at my watch. Also, George's Garmin had run out of juice, so he couldn't help me even if I begged. We encountered two men riding their horses. I said, “Beautiful horses! Can I get a ride to the finish line?” We all laughed. A little later, I saw Herman Richards, a talented runner, coming toward me asking if I had seen his wife, another talented runner, Jean, who was sweeping that day. I was somewhat relieved to tell him that I had not. Within a few minutes, George and I are off the trails onto dirt road. I thought that once we hit the final road, that we were no more than half a mile from the finish. Someone we passed said that we actually had 3.6 miles to go. I was shocked, and I ran for my life. Myriad of emotions came over me, one of which was total surprise at my ability to sprint during the final stage of a tough 100 miler. I tried to remain calm and focused, but there were annoying cars that kicked up dust as they drove by us. George was caught up in the moment as well, as he picked up is pace and got ahead of me at one point. I told him that I needed to lead, and we agreed on running side by side. I saw the start of the trail section and heard some familiar voices. Sherry Meador, who had dropped at Veach last night, was running toward us. Leonard Martin and a few other runners were right at the start of the trail section. Leonard, in his slow and calm way of speaking, told me that I have .6 miles to go. I'm thought, Point six miles??!! That long??!! Choking back the tears, I yelled, “I still may not make it!” I said to myself not to loose it. Sherry was right there by George and me, constantly yelling for me to keep moving. It was becoming just too much, and I had to tell her to just leave me alone, as I was struggling up the hill. Finally, I saw the finish line; and as we agreed a few miles back, George and I locked hands and raised them toward the sky. I didn't look at the clock, but somehow I felt certain that we had just made it.
Caroline, still seven seconds under the time limit, with fellow finishers Vicki Kendall (left) and Barb Isom
Photo: Ray Smith
It was indeed a sweet victory after seven, 100-mile DNFs. My solid, ten consecutive weekends of long runs played a role in my finish; but I cannot attribute my success to my training alone. People—my fellow runners, volunteers, George Nelsen, and Walker Williams—definitely helped to make my MMT journey possible. It's not a cliché. No one journeys through life (or MMT) completely alone; even the ones who sign up for the Stonewall Jackson Division. I used to think that MMT is popular because we ultrarunners love a good challenge. MMT offers plenty of that. I now believe that MMT will never lack entrants because it is well supported by quality volunteers. Walker and I have been on the volunteering end more than the running end, but having been a part of both, we clearly have a full understanding from both perspectives.
I would be remiss if I didn't also show appreciation to the following people: Tom and Kirsten Corris for their MMT training runs; Quatro and Mike Bur for the Reverse Ring and for Elizabeth's Furnace 50K. I need to thank again Camp Roosevelt people—Ted for the shoulder rub, and Jeff Reed for allowing me to whine and getting me out of there. Stan and Margie for correctly predicting that I'll need a pacer to get me through their race, and not being shy about telling George of the fact; and finally to all of you at the finish area for that huge and sincere congratulatory applause.
Your Fellow Ultrarunner,