Tuesday, May 20, 2008

RR: Massanutten Mountain Trails 100

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
May 17-18, 2008
Front Royal, Virginia
Miles: 101.8
Elevation: 23,000' Gain/23,000' Loss

Pictures are HERE

I was hoping and planning on coming home to sit down and write an exciting race report about how I tamed the rocky beast known as MMT by running it in under 27 Hours. Instead, I am more than pleased to write about how the beast tamed me and how I was lucky enough to survive my first trip to the Virginia hills. I have many thoughts and feelings about what happened in Virginia this weekend. The main feeling is the feeling of accomplishment. That even though I didn't achieve my immature time goals, I still accomplished something by finishing in the middle of the pack in an amazing field of runners during one of the wettest years in Massanuttens 15 year history.

For MONTHS heading into this race, all I heard about was the rocks at Massanutten. The race prides itself on being a notoriously rocky course even donning the motto, "Massanutten ROCKS!" I personally thought that race as a whole really did rock... but not because of the rocks everyone talked about ad nauseum. Coming from the Granite State of NH, having hiked and ran on REAL rocks for the last 15 years of outdoor adventure... I truly and honestly thought that the rocks at MMT were NOT THAT BAD AT ALL. However, I can see how someone from a place where there are no rocks similar to what they find at MMT could find the course very difficult and at times daunting. I think they were over-hyped and at times a joke. The REAL demon at MMT are the monster climbs. Long never ending climbs that take every bit of energy from your soul and suck the life right out of you. The hills caught up to me late in the race... and this is how the story goes...

The night before the race I went to the bathroom at Skyline Ranch resort and while I there I heard some conversation between fellow runners. I'm not sure of all of their names, but two of the guys were the RD's from Hat Run (I believe) and they were SUPER nice. They were talking to a guy from PA who I referred to as the "Suck Guy." This guy stood in the bathroom and collectively talked to all of us 100 Mile Veterans as if this was our first 100 Miler ever. He described the course almost in its entirety and told us all about what sucks. Short Mountain... Sucks. Kearns.. Sucks... Bird Knob... you guessed it... It SUCKS. Just as I was getting ready to step out of the bathroom, Tom Sprouse walks in and gave us what I thought was the equivalent of Moses coming off of Sinai with the stone tablets. The ONLY man to have ever finished MMT the previous 13 times was giving us the advice. He said, "This race is a mental race. If you expect to finish, you must keep your head in the game." AMEN! It was with this last bit of advice that I headed to the tent and retired for the night, truly excited for the adventure I was about to take on.

The pre-race breakfast was great. Bagels, juice and other fruits was a great pre-race meal. I was well rested and ready to run after having a good nights sleep. We stood on the line in the chilly morning air and as the command was given, we headed off into the mountains of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. As we made our way down the pavement of Front Royals back roads, I shivered. I had enough clothing on but for some reason my body was not keeping me warm. And then... behind me I heard him again... the "Sucks Guy." Once again I heard him describing to a runner how much Short Mountain... SUCKS. I let out a big UGH! and spoke to myself out loud.. "This sucks, that sucks... if it sucks so bad why are you here?!" He didn't hear me, but I was pretty upset by the negativity. Where this IS a mental race, I think hearing MORE about how much its going to suck and MORE about how rocky it is, is not going to make it any easier or more enjoyable. We took a left and headed into the woods which greeted us immediately with a deep and slick patch of light brown mud. Those who were not careful slid around... after the mud was the first section of rocks. I heard a female runner fall behind me. At this point, most people would offer her a hand up and ask if she is OK.. the "sucks guy" scolded her, "YOU HAVE TO BE PATIENT!" Now my patience was gone and I needed to get away from this guy. As we hiked up-hill, I did my best to distance myself from this dude.

The first climb was long and winding. Up and over various sections of rock, though the rock was nothing I hadn't seen before. I made it a point to myself to be very patient and hold back. Walk the uphills and run the flats and downs. I had plenty of insight from Steve and Deb Pero, Hans Bauer and others who gave me great advice on how to tackle the race. I made it a point to run as if someone had attached a set of reigns on me and was pulling back on them. I would hike the uphills at a steady yet easy pace... and not pay ANY attention to where I was. I knew two things. I started at "A" and needed to get to "B." A is the start and B is the finish. After topping out on the top of the first hill, I decided to give it a go and pass most of the group I was running with which included Kerry Owens. Every chance I got to pass some runners I took, hovering over the rocks and plodding down the course. As we exited the trail we came out onto an old logging road and that's when it hit me first. STOMACH ISSUES! My stomach gurgled and turned.. I felt horrible and dove into the woods through pricker bushes to take care of business... my day started to unravel but at this point I had no idea what lay ahead for me. I ran into Shawl Gap and managed to clean up fine. I was in an out of here as quick as ever at an aid station, testament to my fine tuned crew. Shawl Gap: 6:44 Am Right on Time.

I left Shawl Gap and ran along the gravel road talking with a few fellow runners. I felt better and continued to take my time, being very patient. I passed right by Veach gap without stopping at 7:21. "Hot Pancakes!" It sounded delicious, but I was still worrying about my stomach at this point. I climbed to the next ridge and ran along the ridge with a HUGE smile on my face. I figured out a way to tame what rocks there were. My plan was to simply visualize running on a section of trail at home that closely resembled where I was. At this point in the race, I visualized Franconia Ridge. I ran into Milford Gap and enjoyed some fruit and topped off my fluids before continuing along the ridge. I was playing leap frog with the same runners and we began to notice. They would barrel up the climbs and I would barrel down the descents. Either way, I was loving the course and loving the day.. life couldn't get any better.

Just before Habron Gap aid station, while running along the long winding road that abuts the Shenendoah River (gorgeous!), I heard him AGAIN... the "Sucks Guy." This time he was talking about a different race that "sucks." I let him get ahead as I once again dove into the woods with stomach issues. I was now getting worried and frustrated. I arrived at Habron Gap at 9:57 Am and Paul and Sarah shoved some PB&J down my throat. My crew was working AWESOME today. Force feeding me, giving me what I needed, cooling me down and keeping me focused. I told Paul here that this was was all about "Discipline." The amount of focus I used to run over the stones, remain composed and try to remain patient was in an of itself, tiring. But as tiring as it was... I knew that I was doing it. That's all I can ask of myself. Damon Lease, an Ultra-Runner from VT, offered up bits of very valuable info to myself and my crew at each aid station. At Habron they warned me about the upcoming climb to the ridge. The second longest climb on the course.. take my time. And so it was..

I hiked slowly back up to the ridge and just enjoyed the sounds and smells of what would be considered summer in New England. Kerry Owens was right behind me and the same group of leap froggers was in front of me. I vowed to take it easy and just mosey up to the ridge and take it from there. Parts of the trail was pretty narrow with a long fall down a steep ridge to the left of us. I just kept moving and hoped I could stay on trail. Once on the ridge, I picked up the pace and moved right along. I walked most every little uphill and on the downhills that were steep, I stopped to walk to preserve the strength in my quads. I saw a group of hikers coming into the woods and behind them was a large group of Boy Scouts out for their weekend trip. As I ran by I asked the leader, "Boy Scouts?".."Yes".. "Remember to teach these Boys that they can do ANYTHING." Before arrive into Camp Roosevelt.. once again... I ducked into the woods. It was now apparent that I had diarrhea and I was not sure what was causing it. I spent the next 25 Miles trying to figure it out.... Camp Roosevelt: 33.3 Miles Done : 12:25pm

At Camp Roosevelt I changed my shoes and downed some soup. The day was certainly getting hot and a bit muggy. Paul told me that he was informed that the worst of the rocks was done with. I was actually pretty disappointed as I had hoped the rocks would have been more of a challenge then they were. My feet were wet and starting to blister from all of the water and mud on the course, to which I was told was unusual. Regardless of what it was, I was still on ONE mission... get to the finish. I changed shoes and socks and knew that at some point, I'd be popping blisters and taping toes.

I left Roosevelt and began a long wet climb (after the 1st mile) that seemed to never end. The first 2 or so miles out of Roosevelt was run right up a creek bed. The water was flowing and the mud was deep in spots. The field had now spread out quite a bit. Runners were spending more time in aid stations, I just wanted to keep moving. High up on this mountain side, I noticed the remnants of an old forest fire. Charred trees and earth all around and the green sprouts of new life rising through the old. Re-birth is often something I think of during these events. My skeleton tattoo tells the story. In these races, you tear yourself apart and are reborn to get to the finish. The sun was beating down on me and the breeze in here was null. I really felt like I was hiking through hell but kept moving forward. As I topped out on the ridge, I ran down the other side. As I ran into a section of switch back, I made a turn as I heard a hiss and SNAP! from out of the brush behind me. I quickly scurried forward and looked back to see a pissed off Rattlesnake that had lunged at me. GLAD IT MISSED! I was not pretty nervous and ticked off myself. The one thing I did NOT want to see was a Rattlesnake. I took the next switch back and down trail I saw 2 runners hunched over looking curiously into a tree off trail. As I got closer, I heard the rattle and they told me there was a rattle snake. I looked in and there it was. A yellow Rattlesnake, curled up ready to strike if need be. I was NOT hanging around and scurried down trail into Gap Creek I Aid station. 1:56pm

I left Gap Creek after more food, yummy grilled cheese!, and started my next climb. I didn't think this climb was too bad compared to the last two. I saw Aaron Schwartzbard sitting on the trail taking pictures. I swear he had a teleportation device because he was EVERYWHERE! I reached the ridge and came to a junction, I took a left and began to run along a rocky ridge. I passed another young runner and started to think... "Hmm... a junction" I continued to be bop along before turning to ask the runner behind me, "Hey!.. is this Kearn's?" When he told me it was I was shocked. I had heard a lot about how this place was horrible.. I ran the entire ridge until... Yup... back into the woods for some one on one time with "mother nature." But now I think I had the issue figured out. I think the diarrhea was being cause by the boost somehow. This thought was rather devastating. As I ran off of Kearns I was shocked to run into Serge Arbona. Serge had won Umstead in under 16 hours a few weeks ago. Was he tired? Was I too fast? I ran into 211E to a very loud and excited Dr. David Horton. He shook my hand and told me I looked great! My crew was ready, I took a seat and brushed my teeth. Sucked down my gels and drank some boost before heading up Bird Knob. At this point in the race I am 48 Miles in. I have not bonked once yet. I feel amazing, disciplined and patient. The diarrhea is getting to be a bit much and the chafe is getting bad... I left the aid station hoping to figure things out.

I ran and walked some with David Snipes "Sniper." David is an amazing gentleman in my opinion. He offered great encouragement and advice. The kind of guy who would all but wrap his hand around you to carry you through the course. He offered up some more advice, positive reinforcement and I took off on the climb up the knob. Bird Knob is the highest point on the course. As I made my way up to hill, the rest of the front runners were crashing down. It was so cool to see them all and they ALL looked great! As I neared the top, my issues once again took hold and I jumped into the woods through poison ivy. As I took care of the issue, everything burned. I went from a fast paced hike and running the downs and flats.. to a very slow , "Holy crap... this race just turned to hell." I know exactly how debilitating my chafe is.. In a race where I held steady on a Sub 24 Hour pace through 50 Miles.. was now being tossed for the sub 27. I struggled to Bird Knob aid where I used wet naps and Vaseline. Ate some banana and watermelon (so good!) and then turned around and headed back for 211E. When I got back to the aid, I was an hour later than I expected to return, sat in the chair and finally had to take stock of the situation. 58.2 Miles : 7:33 PM

I sat in the chair and peeled my shoes off. My feet are badly blistered. I don't dare touch the ones on my left foot. Instead I smear Vaseline into the skin fold crevasses on the balls of my feet to help quell the pinching sensation. I wrap my foot in pre-wrap and then athletic tape. Put the other pair of Brooks on and tend to my right. On my right foot is a monster blister on my big toe that rivals the one I got at McNaughton Park a month ago. I pop it and wrap my toe in tape. Care for the bottom of my foot as I did the left and put on the other shoe. I ask Sarah to give me my waist pack with my headlamp, paper towels and Body Glide in the pockets. I stopped drinking boost citing it as the reason for the stomach issues, and took my Pacer Paul. Paul was expecting to get me to that sub 27 hour finish and at the moment, I knew it was possible. I had a chance. We had no idea what lay ahead of us for the night...

We left 211 and marched briskly up hill. I was still able to run a few flat sections of trail before we got back into the woods near the junction where we split off from where I came down off of Kearns. After the split it was slowly getting darker. And as it got darker it got more humid and muggy in these woods. I had a great time telling Paul about my adventure so far. As the sun set and our headlamps came on, the trail got wetter and we were once again going up a creek bed (well... used to be a trail!). We slowly picked our way along staying to the sides of the deep mud and chilly water. I had no interest in getting my feet wet again. The effort it took to avoid the water and mud was just too much. What life I had in me I now felt getting sucked out. It was dark, getting cold and I was once again wet and muddy in a 100 mile race. As wet as it was and as slow as I was now finally getting, I still loved every minute of it. I thought of the "sucks guy" and professed to Paul that I had no idea what he was talking about. So far, this race was the toughest and neatest race I had done yet. I was going to finish for sure. I had no idea what the time would be nor did I care.. the goal is to always finish. We stumbled into Gap Creek II for a quick break. Moreland Gap wasn't far from here. We took off and thanked Sarah.

Back up the long climb to the ridge on Kearns, but instead of the left I took earlier, we headed down into the gap on the other side of the ridge I had been toying with for the better half of the day. As we ran into Moreland Gap, I took a seat and tended once again to my feet. The blisters were bad and I re-taped everything. Snipes told me about the ridge being windy and to dress warm. I really appreciated his advice and grabbed a long sleeve shirt. The wind whipped through the aid station as stuff flew everywhere. Sarah Sat beside me and looked into my eyes. As I looked into hers... I knew that we were about to head into a bad place.

Paul and I left Moreland Gap at 10:54pm. We headed into the darkness winding our way up another steep relentless climb. My climbing has slowed to a crawl. The chafe hurts so bad, my blistered feet are tender and it is taking my everything to get to the ridge. Deb Pero warned me about this place, telling me that there are many false summits and that you always continue to go up hill a little more. We made the ridge and a squall line moved in. The wind whipped at 30+mph, the rain was cold and came down sideways. All long the ridge the trail took us up onto the ridge then dumped us to the left. We'd run downhill only to run back up. Our pace slowed to 1 maybe 2 mph. We crawled. I weaved left and right in a drunken stupor. Paul asked that if I was to take a field sobriety test, would I pass. The answer was a laugh filled NO. Every tree stump turned into a human sitting on the side of the trail. At one point, as I moved my light, the shadow from a white rock made it move at the same time that Paul Burped. I thought it was a toad and I jumped 3 feet in the air. Paul asked what was wrong and I told him that I thought that rock was a toad. "You mean like the Southern Burping Toad?" Wise ass...

We continued along the ridge, very slowly and Paul told me that at Edinburg Gap I was going to sleep for 15 minutes. Yes Sir! It continued to rain off and on. The wind whipped and we finally made it to Edinburg Gap. It was now 2:20 am and it took us almost 3.5 Hours to go 8.2 miles. As I got to Edinburg I was cooked. I looked around the station and in my limited vision, it resembled a triage in a war zone. Runners laying everywhere. It was cold. I slumped into a chair and they wrapped a blanket on me. I drank soup. And as I closed my eyes, I began to shiver uncontrollably. They picked me up and moved me to the fire. As I sat there, they threw another log on. The fire burned so bright, I thought someone was shining a flashlight in my face. Phil Rosenstein was here working the station and he is a familiar face. He asked how I was doing, I was lucky to know where the hell I was. After 15 minutes, I put on my fleece pants and rain jacket and we headed back out onto the trail. Next Stop.. Woodstock Tower.

As Paul and I headed into the woods, I continued to use the patented "Sherpa Shuffle." I used my hands to spread my cheeks and tried to prevent further friction. The cafe is now so bad that it is down right annoying. My feet KILL. But the diarrhea has finally stopped. Was it the boost? Or something else I ate? Much to be learned. As the clock continued to tick, Paul got more and more tired. For the first time ever, even my pacer was hallucinating and going crazy. The 8 miles to Woodstock seemed more like 30. We were assured that we missed the station but just kept going. Paul wanted to sleep now and we almost stopped dead on the trail for another nap. I tried picking up the pace. I thought ym my grandfather. For 14 years he sat in a wheelchair unable to walk.. at this point in the race, after 80 miles of the most enjoyable hell I have ever been through.. I told myself to "walk damnit." Paul said a few minutes later, "I can't believe you're still walking." As I tried to go over a log, A whip-or-whil flew out from under my foot and I jumped back three times in rapid succession. (Paul said it looked funny.) I told him about the bird and not far down the trail we heard its noise. These things do NOT SHUT UP! They go on and on and on and on. They were cool at first. Now... we wished we had a gun.

We walked into Woodstock Tower. Sarah was tired and ready to be done. And so were we. The sad part was, we still had quite a few big climbs to go and over 33 miles left to cover. I thought about this concept only briefly, not caring where I was, how far I had come, how much left and how much time to get there. Finishing is ALWAYS the #1 goal and I was going to no matter what. Even if it meant stumbling in past 36 hours. I didn't care. I took no food, and no drink refills at Woodstock. I had given up on eating and drinking. Nothing tasted good anymore... the only thing I wanted to taste was success and a Long Trail Double Bag. I sat slumped in my chair as paul took a nap. I re-wrapped my feet again and felt sick as a dog. I wanted to throw up so bad. Sarah said I looked white as a ghost. Dave Humphreys had finally caught me and he sat in a chair next to me. We talked... I don't know what he said, I was in another world, crying inside and trying not to cry outside.

At 6:40am we left Woodstock Tower and headed for Powells Fort. The long relentless climbs at MMT had taken their toll on me and humbled me. This late in a race, you hope for aid stations closer apart... here they are 7 or 8 miles away. A long way to struggle before your next chance at some love. Paul and I quietly moved along. I think Paul was pretty pissed at me. What he thought was going to be a 13 hour run, was turning into a 19 hour death march. He wanted to be done as did I... I was enjoying it still.. him... I don't know. We pressed on. We got to Powell's fort where they were making breakfast. I wasn't hungry.. I wanted to be done. I was feeling less nauseas though and sprinted out through the field. We continued walking shortly there-after.

Elizabeth Furnace is 8 miles after Powells. Another long long time between aid stations with a big climb in the middle. The climb was long and tough. I had to stop many times, lean against a tree and take stock of the effort. We had to ford river crossings, more mud and water touched my tortured feet. Now it was so old it was funny. We struggled together, my pacer and I. Paul is training to run his first 100 Miler at VT in July... this was the best training he could have ever done. Over the ridge and we tumbled down into the furnace. As we approached the aid station, the sky clouded over and the rain began to fall again. We ate cold pizza at the aid station and we had 5 miles to go. I kissed Sarah goodbye and we headed off.

We had one more climb and it was here. I picked up the pace as best I could first passing Dave Humphreys as he limped with a troubled foot himself. I asked him if he felt at home here at MMT to which he replied, "Yeah except we actually have ROCKS at home!" Ahh... spoken like a true New Englander. I continued to push up the hill passing another runner and his pacer. A woman came running down and spoke to us about the DNF situation. Some of the names we heard were shocking. THESE people did not finish and here I was... still moving forward. I was shocked and also ignited. We continued up hill. Paul told me that at the top he was going to find a big stick and every time I walked from there to the finish he was going to beat me.

We started to head down the other side. Paul stopped in the woods for a minute.. and I rounded the corner to find a group of runners. I looked back and yelled to Paul, "Hey..!" I waved my hand and we were off. We passed the runners and kept pushing. I didn't want to be passed again. I was in 60th at The Furnace... how many more could I find in the last 2 miles. 99 miles into a race and I ran every step I could. Through streams and mud. Over logs, on gravel roads. We picked off another runner and kept pushing. Down the hill and turned onto the pavement, there was another runner walking.. we passed him, went up the hill and heard the music. I smelt the barn... lets go!

We headed into the woods and I gave it what I had left. I came here wanting to let it all out on the course. Give it all I had and leave nothing to spare. I did just that. Rocks, climbs, roots, mud, water, rattlesnakes, scortched earth, the evil darkness, pain and sickness... I had conquered it all in one of the top toughest courses in our sport. We rounded the corner and there it was. I was so damn excited to see it. 24 Hours... 27 Hours.. who cares! The goal of EVERY RACE is to FINISH. I came to MMT and took on the rocks. As I ran through the field I thanked Paul and them kicked it in. I gave it my best all out sprint and ran through the pouring rain towards the finish. As I got to the line, I slowed and jumped over. Shook someone's hand and gave Sarah a hug. I was all smiles. I was challenged... and I'd go back in a minute to take the challenge again. I finished... 32 Hours and 9 Minutes. Sarah had my chair ready and crocs. I sat down and she knelt beside me. We looked at each other. Tears welled up in her eyes.. she knew EXACTLY what this one took and she said, "I am so proud of you." As I drank back my favorite brew... that was all I needed to hear.
156 Starters - 101 Finishers
I was 54th in 32:09

Congrats to Todd Walker on his impressive win and to Keith Knipling for giving it all he had for 2nd. Special thanks to all of those who offered advice and support before, during and after the race. The Pero's, Bedford Boyce, David Snipes, David Horton, Gary Knipling, Damon Lease... and many many more. Could not have done it without you. Also to the countless volunteers who were out there for numerous hours taking care of our needs, one of THE BEST organized races from the aid station/volunteer aspect that I have ever been to. Thanks to my sponsors: Brooks, Nathan, Nuun, Darn Tough, Peak Adventures and Long Trail Ale. I want to thank my coach Karl who told me that the only goal at MMT for me is to survive. HUGE THANKS TO MY CREW AND PACER! Sarah and Paul, absolutely excpetional work from them and I appreciate it. And lastly.. I want to thank my parents and Moe.. for again instilling in me the best advice I ever got in my life, "You can do anything you put your mind to."

Next Up:
Jun 14: Pittsfield Peaks 55
Jul 19: Vermont 100

And because the rocks were what I thought they were gonna be.. here is a special bonus video in honor of the course.