Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
MMT 2012 Report
by John H Powell
This was my third running of Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run. As always, I ask myself, 'why'? I ask 'why' before. I ask 'why 'during (over and over). I ask 'why' right now. I don't always have an answer - typical of the 'during' period - and when I do, it is not often the same.
There are many levels of why. One level, why do it all? Why run 100 miles? Why do it more than once? And in particular, why run MMT more than once? It is, after all, a fairly nasty course when it comes to running - very little of it is 'runnable' in my book.
John H Powell
There comes a point in a race, surprisingly early for me, when I realize that the 'fun' part is over and it is time to persevere. I'd guess I reach this point between miles 10 and 15. No joking, truly. Prior to this, I'm pretty jazzed to be out and about enjoying the event, the sense of things to come, the beauty of the moment, all that comfortable point of view stuff. Then there comes that moment where you just know that you are exhausted. You really, really, really want to be done; now, yesterday, anytime other than some time still to come. You want done already.
Everything hurts, feet, head, back, shoulders, legs, muscles, eyes, etc. you are seeing strange things, you are thinking strange things, and at that point, you ask 'why?' At that point I say to myself, "remember this John, and remember how crappy you feel, remember, remember, and please remember." And as I say this I realize that I say this during every 100 mi run, at the stage when I know I would prefer to never feel this crappy again.
Yet, I realize no matter what I'm feeling now, or what I'm thinking, I will want to do this again. It always happens this way. You convince yourself you are bright enough to remember how bad you feel and then you forget. And then you sign up again. And then you feel bad again. Why is that? Maybe it is a mental condition. Maybe it is some weird addiction. I think most of us would agree that we had to have lost a few marbles to even come out in the first place.
But that is not really it either. Something happens when you get through a 100 mile event, through this event, this trauma, and it is not the fact of finishing, or the pride of accomplishment. No, you get exposed. You become human. A solo, born, live, die, being. Not a person collecting trophies and cars and houses and toys. It's more like you become a piece of nature. An animal of the kingdom of animals. You become alone and not alone. You are equal with everyone out there, perhaps with everyone on the planet. You are not thinking about wanting what others have, being what you are not, worrying about tomorrow, or fitting in, or paying bills. You just are - and not at all a bad place to be.
At some point you become completely vulnerable to the world and in some way you discover you are invulnerable. You lose the veneer you build around yourself in daily life. You no longer have the energy to hold it in place. You no longer have the desire to keep it there. You get to be yourself and that feels pretty damn good. Not just yourself on the inside, but you show yourself on the outside. You are synchronized interior with exterior. You may be overwhelmed at the end, you may be ecstatic, or you may be reserved, but you are you - and somehow whatever those forces are that cause us to build up our defenses, and walls, are gone.
I feel vulnerable in a way I don't need to cover or hide. All the doubts about me, about my self, my perceived shortcomings, my confidence and lack of confidence don't really matter anymore. I just am.
It is a tremendous thing to be open and vulnerable and exposed and in a bit of pain, and to know it's just ok to be that way. No one is critical of you. No one can be. No one would be. Whatever inferiority complex or protective covering we carry are completely gone. It is pretty cool.
I know this all goes away and I get normal again, of course. Life comes back. But it's nice to know there is this place I've been and I probably will be again. And perhaps that's getting close to the real 'why'.
Here follows my impressions, thoughts and experiences during 35:30 of MMT 100 this May 2012.
Alarm set for 2:30am, out the Days Inn Hotel in Luray by 3am, race morning check in 3:30am, start at 4am. Having just come from Seattle, this is 1 am start. I'm a little light on the sleep. The usual thoughts of 'why' and did I remember everything (or anything). Should I wear something warmer, start with H20 or fill up at first AS (aid station)? Etc. Just go!
Start - 0 mi
Count down and off we go. Relief, it's finally here. The course is slightly different from the last time I was here, a little more open and a little flatter at the start. Quickly on the dirt road and 4 miles to the trailhead. Time to warm up, chat, smile, reflect. It's going be a wonderful day. Catch up with a few friends I haven't seen since my last time. Carter and Charlie share the road and it's good to see them.
My goals are to nourish well throughout the day so I can keep energy up, keep re-hydrating, take care of my feet and avoid what blisters I can, and to be very efficient in my energy usage. This last led to my shuffle run approach which almost killed me in the next section.
Edinburg - 12 mi
The old course covered this section in the deep hours of the dark and always seemed so long and foreboding, now daylight comes, and we all have early energy and a general buzz of goodwill over Short Mountain and on to Edinburg. I conclude over this stage, after the sun came up to prove my early suspicions, I need to start running with glasses. I kicked more rocks over this section than I could imagine a foot could endure. Always my right one, too. I must lead with that foot. I was having a hard time seeing the rocks. I wasn't the only one, there were some impressively large uprooted rocks on the trail.
I realized after awhile that I was not doing a very good job of picking up my feet with each stride. I was shuffling, and while this felt like I was using less energy, I was also not going to make it much farther into the course before breaking a toe. I promised myself I could cry if I stubbed my toe one more time. I modified the promise to crying only if stubbing the right middle toe. I didn't really want to cry yet (at least not in front of everyone) - whimper, yes, but cry? No. I proceeded to now start stubbing my left foot as I protected my right. This allowed for a few stumbles but when I finally went down in a heap on the trail, I slowed down and I started picking my feet up. I don't think I needed to do this with every step, but since I realized I was having trouble clearly seeing the path I decided to pick them up with every step. There I am, the marching band leader. The Drum Major in the woods. Next time I will (or should) wear glasses.
The middle toe on my right foot became the predominant factor of my race until I reached Shawl gap (mi 38) where it finally settled down. Either it settled down or other issues gained greater attention.
Woodstock Tower - 20 mi
Having slowed, I fell back from the group I'd been running with and just tried to establish a neutral pace where I could reasonably stand the discomfort. Still the day was young and I wasn't too worried about things. I was sure the toe wasn't broken - I could move it and I think I would not be able to do that if it were broken. So deal.
It's starting to get warm. Predicted high mid 70s. It felt like 80s already.
I'm trying not to anticipate. Don't get caught looking for the expected turn, or drop to the aid station, or anything. Just move along the trail and try to keep a good attitude. I tend to use other runners as motivators to keep going. (don't let them catch me, or I might try to catch them - it's a bit of a game and reflective of my competitive nature).
It wasn't that long before the false drops off the ridge line became the real drop down to Powells Fort AS. One marathon down, three to go.
Powells Fort - 26 mi
I was feeling low on energy pulling in to the AS. I realized I hadn't taken any salt tablets and the sun was now up in full. Oops. No tablets on me. Hmmm. Asking at the AS (people manning the AS all along the course were absolutely amazing, welcoming, helpful, dedicated, friendly, supportive, etc. We were well treated. THANK YOU ALL.) no salt tablets but they did have raw salt. I dabbed a few potato quarters in, but it wasn't the same. Then I sat next to a gentlemen who seemed pretty beat, head-in-hands, and he looked at me and said "here", two salt tablets. I think he saved my day. A few minutes down the trail and I felt remarkably better. I'm sure it was the salt tablets. (I later found all my salt tablets in my dop kit back at the hotel - not sure how I spaced on that).
Leaving the AS I knew there was a good long forest service road ahead of me and NO ROCKS to stub on, so I promised myself I would take advantage and attempt to run most, if not all, the flat sections. This worked over the next 2 miles.
Uphills are fine. Rock kicking is really just a level trail event. Uphill is hiking so you aren't swinging your foot over the trail (and into a rock) and downhill is dropping or stepping, so again, you aren't swinging through a rock. (Maybe the leaders were swinging over the trail on downhill run, but I wasn't.)
It was not too long before I left the road, climbed to the ridge and crested down for the 4 mile run to the next aid station. I usually very much enjoy downhills but today was an exception. What with kicking rocks, and difficulty focusing without glasses, I was content to move cautiously. The good part is I was no longer feeling overly tired. The bad part, I was slow. My running pal, Paul (Sherlock), was moving well and, checking his progress at each AS, he was steadily building a gap on me. I think we both had the assumption that being together over the night hours would be a great thing. Two people can keep each other moving better than one alone - especially at night. It goes like: "stop whining." "Drink." "Keep moving." "You are wobbling a lot." Is that a giant standing over by that tree?" "You've stopped." "Are you barfing?" "Are you always that loud when you barf?" "Keep moving." "I don't know." "Would like me to lead, or do you just want to keep standing there?" Etc, etc. Said by one or the other of us. It helps to pass the time. Especially when you've stopped and are barfing, loudly.
But darkness was still a ways off and my goal at this point was to catch Paul, if I could, by Habron AS which is where it starts to get dark. It is a little strange to realize that I'm planning for some intersecting event with some other runner to occur in another marathon's distance and it didn't seem that far off. Everything is relative - especially in 100 mile run.
Elizabeth Furnace - 33 mi
There is something about MMT that I cannot quite figure out. I get very disoriented at many points along this course. I think I'm facing east when I notice the sun is setting in front of me (west), or I'm turning left off a ridge when I know I should be dropping to the right. This time I tried to pay a little better attention to how the trail was winding, but still many mysteries. I'm usually pretty good with directions. Oh well. I think the course gyrates too much. Coming down into the Elizabeth Furnace AS is one of those spots that I can't orient. Part of it is the noise of a highway we cross, combined with echoes that bounce loudly off the far side of the valley. Very disorienting.
Elizabeth Furnace is the last AS before the finish on the old course. I have fond memories coming in knowing the home stretch was next. They handed out ice cream sandwiches and at that point, diet really didn't matter. Those tasted sooooo good.
No ice cream bars this time. Still the fond memories pulled me in and the residual "barn door" feeling pulled me out. I recall the following climb wasn't bad and the distance relatively short to the next AS at Shawl Gap (5mi). I could do this. The climb up relatively slow, but I got some wheels back on the descent as much of the lower trail is through meadow on rockless terrain. Shawl comes quickly. I'm running again.
Shawl Gap - 38 mi
Surprisingly though, I'm losing ground on Paul. Good for him. He's moving well and I'm now 30 minutes behind. Suddenly the idea that I was going to catch Paul without working went out the window. Hmmm. Hmmm. I couldn't really process this. So I continued my routine of applying diaper rash ointment to the bottom of my feet every so often to stave off the blisters as long as possible. Working so far. Ate as much as I could. Drank lots, and heading down the trail and quickly onto the road to the next AS.
I'd forgotten about this next little AS and was delighted to see it appear shortly. The big event of this section was the angry rattlesnake sitting on the shoulder of the road guarded by a State Trooper. The guy running in front of me literally jumped sideways a foot when he noticed the snake. I laughed, not knowing why he jumped. Then I felt myself twitch a little as I arrived. They are menacing creatures.
Veach Gap - 41 mi
Veach is definitely an in-and-out AS. The next sections is super long (9mi) with a big long ridge run. It wasn't too bad - relatively flat and runnable (as opposed to rocky and sharply rolling as much of ridge trail is), but I realized now if I wanted company at night I needed to get going. Grabbed a Cool Pop, sucked it down, saw the bag of ginger I'd given Paul earlier lying on the table and headed up trail. Typical of Paul, I thought. Were it me, I would have said "thanks for the ginger" and then picked a spot shortly up the course to toss it to the wild animals (assuming I didn't want it). Paul, on the other hand, decided to carry it 41 mi and then leave it strategically in a place where someone else could take advantage of it. I almost thought of bringing it with me, but then I thought, "why", and left it.
Evening hours are growing. Feels very hot. Long uphill out of Veach and on to the ridge. This was one of the longer ridge sections (or so it seemed) but didn't feel unreasonably long as I recalled from the past. I knew there were a couple false descents so I don't get too anxious, although a couple wobbly moments left me teetering on a very steep and long fall opportunity, and eventually found myself dropping down to the cooler shaded lower section of this leg. I knew if I were to catch Paul while it was still light, I ought to step it up now, and thus I slowly got my turnover going and slowly started feeling better about my running ability. It's interesting to discover the connection between the mind and the body. Both are tired, but either one can wake the other. The mind can force the muscles but so too can the muscles influence the mind. This time, my muscles encouraged my mind. I made good time. So good that I caught up Paul just as we came to the AS.
Indian Grave - 50 mi
At this point, and I think this is true of all my runs, the dusk period sparks a little motion revival that I try to ride as long as possible. The section to Habron is mostly road (no rocks to stub) and so we shuffle run as much we can. I'm thinking about the night to come and how the upcoming session is where Paul completely ran out of gas our last run (he dropped after Habron). Hope things are different this year. I can tell Paul's thinking of the pending reunion with his family at Habron. He says to me, "I'm really looking forward to seeing my family". That's how I knew what he was thinking. They are out to cheer him (us) on.
We arrive and there they are. We were also pleased to run in to Charlie and Carter again. Hadn't seen them for awhile. Carter paced Charlie and I the second half of my last run. (After Paul ran out of gas). Now Carter was entered in the race (Charlie as well) and Charlie was committed to seeing Carter get to the finish line. This was going to be Carter's first 100 mile finish. She looked strong and they looked confident. Good omens.
Habron Gap - 54 mi
Two marathons down, two to go. In my mind, this is the halfway point. This is also the transition section from day to night. By the time we reach Camp Roosevelt it will be after 11pm. This is another long leg - 10mi. Did a lot of gear switching at the AS. Changed shirts, pulled out camelback, left hand-held water bottles, got out extra clothes, rain gear, etc. decided not to switch shoes, put on the Desitin (diaper rash ointement - now applying to more than just the bottom of my feet), and off we went., We were probably 40 minutes ahead of the last race time and feeling good that Paul seemed less inclined to run out of gas.
The pattern continued. Leave AS, climb hill, run ridge, and descend to next AS. As we peaked the ridge, the sun set and dusk changed rapidly to night. For some reason I have memories of all these sections being much longer than I was experiencing this year. I think I was just geared up to avoid that feeling of "will the AS ever arrive?" That is a bad mode to get in. It makes one grumpy. But we were slowing and Paul's strategy of gagging down nothing but GUĻ was not really paying off. Still, we made it to Roosevelt and along the way Paul bumped in to a fellow runner who had recently been to NZ. That perked him up and I listened to him and Rob chat about earthquakes and cars and grandmothers and a bunch of other NZ stuff. This carried us all the way to Roosevelt.
Camp Roosevelt - 64 mi
Arrive 11:15, 11 min better than last (when Paul dropped), so we're not really doing much better time-wise, but we think we are, and that was good. In, eat, out. Paul wants none of this AS. I tell him to eat. He needs nourishment that will sustain him, not gag him like the Gu. We still have a long way to go. Next thing I know, he's popped a bit of everything into his stomach. Broth, gu, salt tablets, crackers, who knows what else. No wonder he throws up about 5 mins. After leaving the age station.
Wow. I don't know what I would have done had I been Paul. He's hanging on this stub of a tree and barfing up broth, gu, salt tablets, crackers, and who knows what else. Everything's on the outside. Actually, I do know what I would have done. I would have turned around and gone back to that nice warm comfy AS. That is much easier than going 40 more miles to the nice warm comfy finish line, which is what Paul decided to do. Quite amazing.
As Paul described, there was no way he was going back to the place he dropped before. He was only going one way this time. So after talking to this tree stub for a few minutes he looks up and says, "I feel better, let's go." OK.
I decide to let Paul lead to see how he was doing. Boom, he's out of sight in not time. I asked him later what was up. He wanted to get as far from Camp Roosevelt as quickly as he could. I'm still amazed.
I don't mind this section, although I hear people complain about it. It is deep, dark, and muddy but it never seems to take that long. It's the next section I don't like, Kerns Mtn. Nothing for it, but to push on. We are reduced to walking, it's the night, and that's the way it goes. Some runable trail on the way down the ridge but not for me.
Last time, I don't know how, it takes us 3 yours to cover the past 6 miles. This time we made it in, hey, 3 hours. But at least we had the purge and recovery session to blame.
Gap Creek I - 70 mi
We see this AS twice. This is the intersection point of our figure eight course. Now I think, 20 mi out, 20 mi back and we're done. It's less than that, but I want to confuse myself with a complete inability to do simple math. I think this helps me panic in a few minutes.
3:45 to cover this section. Kerns is just a brutal leg. Nothing to do but get through it and experience the dawn as close to the end as you can get. I begin to get nervous on our progress as it seems we are creeping. Paul has only had broth and crackers for the past 6 hours. I've been able to eat and drink pretty well so I'm able to focus my misery index on my feet. Neither of us are setting land speed records.
I take the lead over Kerns, one) because Paul doesn't need the added burden of having to look up all the time to figure out where the trail is (it turns every few feet) and two) I want to see if I can get a better sense of direction over this section. I can see the lights of highway 211 (I think that's what I'm seeing) off in the distance and this is our destination, so I keep tabs on how its orientation changes. It moves all over the place, all very confusing, we're going left when I expect us to go right. Yet, we pop out on the 2 mile road section right on schedule, right on course. Time to run. Paul said he was dreading this part. Could have fooled me. He just motored on. I chased. Sun rises as we begin the run down to Visitor Center. Day number 2, three marathons down, one to go.
Visitor Center - 78 mi
Now I'm beginning to do that "are we gonna make it in time?" thing I sometimes do. I will typically do this when I consider the pace we are doing and miles left to do and I realize that we won't finish before the deadline. Paul will argue it wasn't true, but I'm pretty sure it was. We needed to pick up our pace. What Paul did not realize when he told me to "shut up" about finishing in time, is that I don't walk as fast as he does. Even when he's barfed and I haven't. He's still faster than me. I need to run, or I don't finish. So after telling him to "shut up" about me shutting up, we move up the trail. We leaped-frog (leap-frogged?) Charlie and Carter once again, they enjoy the AS more than we do, and then they zoomed by us on the way to Bird Knob. We catch sight of their tails at the next AS, but for the last time, as they leave us in the dust until the finish line banquet. I notice we are now tracking right on the times from my last running and I recall how much effort I put in to finish from here. I'm not working as hard and I know I'm in a little trouble.
Paul seems to have completely come out of his funk and back in his grove. What a rally. Paul knows he can motor in from here and he becomes the lead while I wobble about. As I said, I'm starting to worry about making cutoffs and finish on time. I'm becoming a worry-wort, Paul's beginning to not be a worry-wort. We're like too old hens in a barnyard. Except Paul has a head, and I don't.
I see, in comparing our splits from this year to last, I manage to pace at almost exactly the same time. But the effort is different. Last time I steadily pushed almost every step. This time I'm going way slow walking and then way faster on running. It makes for an interesting combination of Paul steadily walking while I'm falling back on the walk, and keeping up on the run. Finally Paul takes pity on me and agrees to push and run some sections that I know he would have preferred to steadily walk. This pays off. We budget 3 hours each for the next 3 sections knowing that would give us a buffer of some time to finish.
Bird Knob - 82 mi
This is where I begin to get fuzzy. I remember the loop from Bird Knob to Picnic Area is pretty straight forward, up hill, over crest, down hill, loop back around and brief uphill to AS. But this time we go up hill, over crest, down hill, no loop back around, just run, down, down, down, away from the Picnic Area, seriously away from the Picnic Area, beginning to get so serious that I'm thinking I should turn around. I slow down, I start looking for any and every piece of trail tape (they have this yellow tape hanging from trees every so often) and I know we're going the wrong way. We are going a long way the wrong way. Someone is playing a joke and has moved all the trail tape way out in the wrong direction. There are little people all over the place watching me. Maybe they moved the tape. Poor Paul, I need to catch up to him to tell him he's going the wrong way. I can't turn around and leave him out there alone. So I keep going. I am so tired. Finally I see Paul waiting for me and chatting with his wife on the phone. He's been waiting. I don't mention the all the gnomes I was seeing. We keep going to the aid station. I need to eat something. I did this section in 2:06 in 2010, 2:17 in 2012. We gained an hour on my internal pace chart. Still I'm convinced we aren't going to make it in time.
Picnic Area - 88 mi
Bacon and eggs were so good. Paul has me calmed down. John, were good, we can relax. Like hell we can. I'll only be comfortable if we can run 15 minute miles from here. It's the only way. I know this. So the next 2 miles are fairly flat (no rocks) and we run. Not blazing, but as fast as I can go. It is 2 miles to the road crossing and a good gauge for our speed. We make it in 46 minutes. We're doomed. I've figured out that we are doing 23 minute miles. My math is superb. We greet Paul's family for the last time during the race and then head out for the last tough section and I know, if we don't do it in 3 hours, we won't finish. I look at Paul, he looks pityingly at me, and I say, I don't know if we can do this, but there is only one way to try. And I start running. And I run. Slight uphill, I run. More uphill, I run. In violation of all unspoken rules of engagement, I keep running uphill. At this point, were I Paul, I might have tried to hit me with a big rock. He didn't, thankfully. He ran with me. We caught up Ali and the three of us motored.
Much as the last race when I questioned everyone I passed whether they had ever had lime disease and what did it feel like, and do I have any tics on me? This time I questioned Ali on how long this section took, and had he done this before, and how fast were we going? Fortunately Paul had the presence of mind to take the lead and I filed in line. I was not going to not finish (DNF) because of time. I walked fast. Amazing what the mind can do. Somehow I kept up with Paul's walk pace.
We eventually popped out on to the road leading to the last AS, and clearly we were going to finish well within our allotted time. This meant we made it. We were going to finish! Unreal. All that worry and we pulled it out. Fantastic. We were done! Time to celebrate. Relax. Coast. And with that, every bit of wind went out of my sails. I have never really experienced that finish line collapse, when a runner sees the line 100 yds ahead and their body just stops. They've been mentally holding it together and the end arrives and they let up just a wee bit too soon. It's a funny thing when neither the mind nor the body can make it happen. I actually thought I was done and here I have six more miles to go. Unreal. Not fantastic.
Gap Creek II - 97 mi
I did finish, not with a bang, but a whimper. Still a finish is a finish. I did what I had to do to get to the end. I was disappointed to be lagging so badly, but you know, it is what it is. I'm really glad we pushed when we did. I'm sure if we hadn't pushed we probably would have covered the last section much more quickly and perhaps finished a few minutes sooner, but heck, how was I to know?
Finish - 103.7 mi
Four marathons down, none to go. Paul and I tied for 120/121 place with a time of 35:30:25. There were 4 official finishers after us. I stopped by a store for some anticipated nourishment needs back at the hotel. A 6-pack of beer, a quart of ice cream and large bag of bbq potato chips. I earned it.
I then proceeded to sleep for 17 hours. The first three in the bath tub with an untouched beer in my hand, the next twelve in a bed with all the lights on and ice cream melting on the table, and final 2 with the lights off and ice cream still melting all over the table. I didn't mind that I didn't eat the ice cream, it was peace of mind knowing I could and didn't want to.