To Catch a Unicorn
by John Prohira
It said that in the days of old if a maiden were to sit in a meadow near the deep woods a unicorn would come to her and lay his head upon her lap. That is how one caught a unicorn. How very odd and out of place this must have seemed to a maiden who found the uninvited mythical beast approaching her as she innocently sat upon the grass near the forestís edge.
All it takes is 32 hours on Massanutten Mountain for me to be able to link unicorns and ultrarunning. The MMT 100 mile is an ultrarunning event over trails of the Massanutten Mountain in the one-million acre George Washington National Forest. This national ground can lay claim to much American history. It was home to Native Americans, passageway for pioneers and battleground during the War of Independence and our countryís Civil War. I was surprised to learn that in the 19th century these mountains were denuded of all trees and that the rich mantle of hardwoods and hemlocks that we ran through were second-growth forest. This mountain range contains remnants of pre-historic volcanic explosions, lava flows and the glacial deposits from the Ice Age. The intense freeze-and-thaw during the Ice Age cracked open the sandstone bedrock and produced jumbles of car-sized blocks of rock. These rocks appear to have been thrown about the MMT course in lunatic fashion by giants long since departed. Here on, over and around these block fields 119 runners attempted to move up and down one side of Massanutten for 50 miles and then up and down the other side ending where they started 100.1 miles and more than 16000 vertical feet ago.
It was great weather for this type of thing, perhaps mid forties at raceís start at 5AM on Saturday, May 12th. The skies were clear and we waited under a waning moon for our adventure to begin. For the 7th time in 7 years runners from across the country and world listened as prayers were offered to their Higher Power, asking for help through the day and night and next day and giving thanks for this chance to run and play in the woods. This spiritual aspect of our endeavor always touches me. But as irreverent as I often am I wondered if the hard rock and roll band AC/DCís song "For Those About To Rock" wouldnít have also been appropriate. The race began, the sun came out and temperatures in the 70ís came with it. I was putting out a lot of water as sweat all morning and afternoon. But this is good and expected, itís only when all manner of water production cease that the ultrarunner grows concerned. Drink, drink, drink and pee, pee, pee. All is well. It was warm down off the ridge at elevations of 600-800 feet. Atop the mountain at between 1800-2700 feet, cool and refreshing breezes helped put a spring into my step. The runners were offered over one dozen opportunities to climb into the cooler air. At mid afternoon short and gentle rain showers arrived, but for only minutes at a time, and they were appreciated for the feel of their spritz. It was understood at this junction that the night would grow cold. Temps that night after 18 hours on our feet would feel much colder, more extreme than similar conditions that morning. I had packed a jacket and was comforted by that sage decision. There would be no need to change out of my shorts, socks or shoes.
The aid stations, always-cheerful places to visit were for the most part positioned off the mountain at low points of the course. It was usually a downhill run to aid. The staples were offered us there, fruit and drink, Gatorade and water, coffee and soup later on. Sandwiches and candy, band aids and ibuprofen, salt and chips and always, always smiling faces lying to us blatantly about how well we looked. I traveled to this event alone, without a crew and depended on drop bags Iíd packed for my special needs. What they contained were my own drink mix, electrolyte capsules, GU, lamps and batteries and odd clothing, a toothbrush for late in the race along with chocolate covered coffee beans for that early morning pick me up. Drop bags are to be labeled with the runnerís race number and Iíve learned the importance of uniquely identifying them. Itís always a help to be able to pick your bag out of a cluster easily when the brain is half asleep late into a long run. This year at my wife Lisaís suggestion I purchased a dozen brightly colored plastic Hawaiian leis and attached then to my white drop bags. Helpful aid personnel and myself were able to quickly spot my bag and I had a lot of fun with anyone who would listen to me go on and on about getting leid at the aid stations.
It is a very beautiful course along the Shenandoah Valley, Iíve attempted to describe it to you a couple of years ago, I believe I failed at that task then and do now. My words cannot capture the thrill of looking at the mountain, green and lush, off in the distance the day before the race and knowing that Iíd soon be up there. How can I justifiably tell you of stirring the views atop Bird Knob Peak, at the midpoint of the race. Or of how ruggedly meaningful it is to struggle along the ridge atop Short Mountain, at times crawling on hands and knees over the slabs of rock, to do this at 1AM under a headlampís glow and see the lights and hints of civilization below in the valley, to view the real world and know that I was temporarily not part of that. One thing I did miss this year was the serenade of the whippoorwills. Two years ago they sang to one another along the trail from dusk to dawn. This year I heard only one, obviously a hopeless and helpless romantic, singing into the night without reply. The only other wildlife that came into view were other birds and a couple of rabbit. And no snakes! Thank God. I do not like them and worried about running like this in snake country. They are so, so . . . reptilian! Yuck! I looked as we ran along the sun drenched rock ledges and overhangs and Mr. Rattlesnake was nowhere to be found.
The course had been changed this year and everyone agreed that it was significantly harder. I do believe this pleased our race director. Those wearing altimeters claimed it to be almost 3000 more foot of climb, maybe so but really no matter. What I do know is that this is one tough course either way. Iím thinking that the last four years Iíve spent as a long distance journeyman is beginning to pay off. I need not worry about putting an addition on my house to accommodate all the trophies Iíll be bringing home from races but my times have improved. Iíve run all my races this year to date very conservatively, all in preparation for this 100 miles in the Virginia woods. I ran aggressively from raceís start, and letís remember that these are relative terms. I reached the half way point of 50.2 miles atop Bird Knob 2700 ft above sea level and 12 hours and 27 minutes after my start. An average of about 4 miles per hour. During the night I gave a lot of that back, during the nine hours of darkness I covered only 19.2 miles and allowed 6 or more runners to overtake me. By raceís end another 6 would pass and there really wasnít much I could or would do about it. I had run my race as I had planned and accepted the outcome.
I came off the mountain at 12:45 on Sunday afternoon and crossed the finish line 9 minutes later. Three hours faster than my last visit to the MMT. I saw a lot that weekend. Two sunrises and one sunset, a moonrise and twice morningís fog lifting from the river valley. I witnessed resurrection Saturday night. My friend Steve Pero from Mass., a fast and very capable runner looked positively green when I came upon him sitting on the grass at 48 miles. Steve thought his race was over; he couldnít keep anything in his stomach and was growing weaker mile by mile. Instead of quitting here this man decided to take a nap and to see what happened, he had gained plenty of time as a buffer against the cutoffs. As I bid him farewell wishing him well I thought his day done. Yet Steve was one who passed me on Short Mountain hours later, looking like a new man and finishing his race 4 hours before me. At the 90-mile aid station Peter Moore from Vermont and I chatted before our second to the last climb of the day. Pete had fallen he said among the rocks on Short Mountain and driven a stick into his calf. A medic miles back had cleaned and bandaged him up and although he looked the mess he was continuing on in. He left me with a wave and a smile at 9AM and for the next 10 miles I followed his blood, at times in puddles as large as silver dollars upon the rocks, every 80-100 feet. I worried that he had hurt himself more than he acknowledged. Yet I saw no sign of him again until after raceís end and his return from the emergency room where he received 12 stitches after a finishing time one hour better than mine. Examples both in perseverance, strength and determination. Then there is Hans-Dieter Weisshaar of Landwerhrhagen, Germany. This man I consider to be a gentleman in the strictest sense of the word. A gentleman, a humble and gentle-man. Last year Hans became the only person in the world to have started and completed 20 100-mile races in a calendar year. This was a feat accomplished at the age of 60. So strong. When asked, as we are after the race how we did, you know asked by fellow runners or well wishers Hanís answer is always the same, "Wonderful! I ran 100 miles today". It was this man who advised me last year when I was in the midst of personal turmoil to "let go of the anger, that is the most important thing you must do, then you will heal." How true this was and is. I had the opportunity to thank Hans on Sunday.
Hereís where my unicorn analogy comes into play, bear with me. I came into ultrarunning because I had lost the rewards once gained from my running. Something was missing. I found trails expecting to obtain some form of satisfaction in doing the unusual, something odd, something different, doing something that set me apart as an individual. Surprise, surprise when I found the unexpected. It might as well have been a unicorn laying his head upon my lap. Maybe that is what grace is, the unexpected. Like that innocent maiden sitting in the sunny meadow enjoying her day, minding her own business and finding a rare and unasked for gift. Me too, me too, just not all that innocent.
As a reward for coming off the mountain hours before raceís end, with other runners still out on the course behind me I was given the opportunity to witness their finish, to look into their eyes, to identify with and know what was going on inside of them, to better understand the value in our struggle. When I began ultrarunning it was an attempt to set me apart, to place my individual stamp upon myself, looking into my fellow runner eyes after 100 miles almost knocked me off my feet. I was them. They were me. I was connected, not apart. And I liked that! And that realization went deeper. I was connected as a human not just as a runner of long distances. As a part of humanity, with all the same strengths and frailties that all humans have. Big smile here! Looking into the eyes of my fellow Massanutten travelers allowed me to recognize the immense capability of man. Whether it is here or elsewhere, we are all capable of accomplishing wonderful things and do accomplish them on a daily basis, struggles or not. Many people inherently know this stuff, I have to go into the mountains to find it. No matter. Can I keep this gift, this insight? I hope so. Weíll see. I realized that what draws me back to the 100 mile distance is the emptying of myself that is required in order for my finish, I empty all that is John out and then have the opportunity to refill it with better stuff. It doesnít happen perfectly, most of the old stuff, the old behavior and attitudes come rushing back in ASAP, but as an unexpected gift of Godís grace maybe only 99% comes back, not all the pettiness, jealousies and resentments fill back in. The other 1% is filled with good stuff, the simple stuff, the kind stuff, stuff I want to be made of.
Iíve been told to examine what I believe, for I am or will become what I believe. I will do that. And I believe the unicorn I found is made up of all of the above. I went to a race billed as being the toughest 100-mile trail run east of the Rockies and came home with much more than I bargained for. I knew I would bring home sore legs and feet. Hoped Iíd also earn a finisherís buckle. I got all of that and more. Lucky man.As is my habit please a couple of meaningful closing quotes.
This course is so hard I wonít even have to lie about it when I get home. - Unknown
You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you - Heraclitus
A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame and money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well. - G. K. Chesteron