Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

View of the Massanutten Mountain range

Well... after months of training, planning, and preparation, the weekend that I thought would never arrive was finally here. It seemed like just yesterday that my name was picked in the lottery to participate in this year's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler (also known as MMT 100 and billed as the "toughest 100 miler east of the Rockies"). I can still remember sitting at my computer when my randomly assigned number was selected and feeling mixed emotions of joy and excitement and thoughts of "Shit, I'm really going to do this?"

As an ultra runner, when people find out what kind of event I'm getting ready for or how long I am planning to be on my feet, they are usually completely baffled by the idea. Well, I can say that this was probably one of the few times that I was somewhat confused by my own plans. Nonetheless, I felt confident enough to give it a go at my first 100 miler attempt, having completed many 50K's, some 50 milers, and a couple 70 milers in the past. Having friends who are experienced ultra runners and getting advice from them also helps out. Looking back on my running, my most grueling effort to date was a 70 mile FA run organized by my trail club back in November of '07. This run was freezing cold, snowy, and took me a mind-boggling 28 hours to complete the 70 miles. However, I would soon learn that not even this would prepare me for the adventure about to take place in Virginia.

The enormity of the task ahead of me was finally beginning to sink in. The entire week leading up to MMT seemed to drag on forever. This might have been a good thing though as I needed every minute possible to get my act in gear and make sure that my checklist was complete. A couple of my most important last minute items were the drop bags that I purchased from Mickey's Army & Navy in Warren and the aid station/time cut-off "cheat sheet" that my friend Bob suggested I create. This came in handy along the course to remind me of where I was at, how much time I had to make each cut-off, and how many more miles I had to get to the next aid station. I also found a nice ultra marathon checksheet online that listed many items to consider when doing a 100 miler.

Since the race check-in was to take place between 2-4pm on Friday, I took the day off work and started driving to Virginia by myself around 8am or so. My plan was to meet my friend and fellow NEO Trail member Paul Lefelhocz (who was also attempting his first MMT 100) at the Skyline Ranch (race headquarters located just outside of Front Royal) for the dinner/pre-race briefing and then head over to the Scottish Inn where we were going to split the cost of a room for the evening. When I finally arrived at the Skyline Ranch the views were just as breathtaking as I envisioned them to be. The mountains were beautiful and the ranch was a very nice facility for an ultra event.

video

After a brief walk around the ranch I quickly got my drop bags out of my car and put them in their respective bins that were to be taken out onto the course. I had enough things to think about at this point without having to wonder if I forget to put an item in one of my bags. I then went upstairs to pickup my number and race bag and purchased a nice Virginia Happy Trails Club tech shirt for 10 bucks. After putting everything into my car I hung out with Bob Combs and Mike Dobies who had just arrived and soon after many more of our Ohio friends showed up including Bill Losey, Dan Fox, Rita Barnes, Roy Heger, Lloyd Thomas, and Dave Peterman. We busted out Dobies' home brew that he brought from Michigan and then the party began. Five empty growlers later, everyone was carbed up and in good spirits!

Bob, Me, Mike, Bill, Kerry Owens, and Todd Walker


Mike & Bob holding a couple dead soldiers

A little after 4 o'clock I went back inside the clubhouse and decided to listen to race director Stan Duobinis give the pre-race briefing since this was my first year here. Stan is a great guy and puts on a top notch event each year with the help of other VHTRC members. I was very impressed with their organization from beginning to end.

After the pre-race briefing I spotted Paul Lefelhocz and we sat down to enjoy an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner with salad and garlic bread. The food was delicious for the amount of people they were preparing it for! After dinner I took a few more pictures and was able to chat with world class ultra runner Karl Meltzer, who is from Utah. He ended up winning this year's Massanutten with an age group record time of 18 hours, 29 minutes (less than an hour off the course record). An incredible feat considering the weather conditions that we had.


Paul and I then drove to the Scottish Inn and just relaxed for the remainder of the evening. Around the corner from our hotel was a good burger and frozen custard joint called "Spelunker's". I walked there and had a vanilla waffle cone which hit the spot. It melted pretty fast though since it was warm and humid. Speaking of the weather, Saturday's high was forecasted to reach 85 degrees during the day, with a low around 60 at night and the chance of severe storms. Not the best conditions to attempt a 100 miler for the first time, but, there's nothing you can do about the weather!

Paul and I both knew we were going to have a really hard time getting any sleep the night before the race, especially since it starts at 5am. Plus, I am a night owl and used to going to bed late during the week. Surprisingly I crashed a little after 11 and got at least 4 hours of sleep! After waking up, coating my body in Body Glide and Vasoline, and getting my stuff together, I again headed around the corner of our hotel and picked up some of my usual pre-ultra food (a sasauge McMuffin, 2 sausage burritos, and a hash brown) from a McDonald's that opened up at 3am. Another perk of where we stayed!

We then arrived at race headquarters a little before 4:30 and mingled with everyone. You could tell everyone was a nervous wreck and anxious to get going. I hung out inside with Bob and Bill and then we headed out the door just before the race start for the pre-race blessing. The best way to describe how I felt the entire week leading up to this point was nervously excited. I don't think I've had this feeling since my first marathon. Once Stan told all the runners to go we were now on our way. What an awesome sight to see 180 headlamps moving in the same direction!

The race starts out on a 2.4 mile road section that you run on until hitting the Buzzard Rock trail section. Everyone moves at a decent pace here but you have to make sure to hold yourself back on sections like this and conserve energy for later. I stuck with Bob for awhile in the beginning and then he went on ahead and I never saw him again until about halfway into the race around Bird Knob. Once we got onto the trail it didn't take me long to realize how interesting this course was going to be. Rocks and boulders began popping up more frequently and really increased as we approached the first vista point. By the time we reached Buzzard Rock the sun was now high enough for us to see a thick layer of fog below us. The sky and horizon really looked beautiful.

I believe it was at aid station #3, which is almost 12 miles into the course, that the famous VHTRC breakfast was served. Here they had pancakes, sausage, and a few other things. I wasn't too hungry at this point (maybe because of the high humidity and all the water I was already trying to consume to keep up with the rising temps), but I grabbed a couple pancakes. A little bit further down the trail I could sense myself getting nauseous and stepped to the side of the trail to puke up some water and some of my McDonald's breakfast. Maybe my body wasn't down with the burritos today? Of course everyone near me asked to make sure I was alright. I said, of course! I was actually happy to puke early and get my body in line. I've found that the only problem with puking is when it comes later in a race and you lose energy that is extremely valuable.

I was cruising along pretty good up until the Habron Gap aid station and then the sun really starting to beat down on everyone. Luckily I had planned in advance to pick up my Camelbak hydration pack here that I left in my drop bag and wear it during this long and hot section of the course. I also made sure to load up on food at this aid station and noticed that I was beginning to take a strong liking to red skin potatoes dunked in salt. I knew that eating these along the way would help keep my potassium and salt levels up. After leaving the Habron Gap aid station you don't reach the next aid station until another 9.5 miles. This is the longest stretch of trail without aid. It's also a pretty tough section that has a long climb in an unshaded area and gets really hot during the middle part of the day. Here's a picture that a professional photographer took of me as I stopped to catch my breath...

When I reached the Camp Roosevelt aid station (mile 34) I could tell that I was starting to waste more time fueling up and hydrating than I probably should have, but I thought that with the hot weather we were having that it was probably smarter to spend a litte more time here than to completely crash later. After this aid station I met up with a runner named Scott Hodukavich and one of his friends and we stuck together for awhile. Shortly after meeting them some dark clouds rolled in and the wind really began to pick up. The cooler air felt great and we were all looking forward to a rain shower to cool us down. Even though there was some close lightening with this storm it didn't end up being too severe, but it did drop a decent amount of rain.

The rain must have rejuvinated me because I began to pick up the pace and walk up hills with more of a purpose. Heading into aid station #7 (Gap Creek/Jawbone 1) I was really on a high and cruised in there leaping from one rock to the next. Here I talked to Tom Corris who was working the aid station and he helped get what I needed to clean my feet and change socks. This was my largest drop bag since you hit it twice during the race (mile 40 & 65) The first time I met Tom was at the Laurel Highlands 70 miler last year. He has always been a tremendous help at aid stations and always gives off a positive vibe to runners.

Scott sitting in the chair and me getting stuff out of my bag on the right

Before I left this aid station I had some more salted potatoes and a delicious quesadilla that was cooked by this gentleman in the picture below...

I left Gap Creek #1 feeling pretty good about myself since I still felt strong 40 miles into the race. The next section (8.4 miles) until the visitor center aid station proved to be more mentally and physically tough. At least I had someone to run with though. I met Chris Stotler, who I've run with before, just after leaving the Gap 1 aid station.

This next section of trail leading to the visitor center aid station is run across a very long ridge with nice views of the valley to your left and right. You have to be careful through here though because it's pretty technical. The further we ran along this ridge the darker we noticed the sky was getting to our right. A large storm was brewing in the valley but it seemed to be sitting still over that area. I kept telling Chris that hopefully it stays over there while we're running along this ridge. And for the most part it did seem to be staying over there. The thunder began to get louder and closer though so we knew our time was running short. Just as we began to descend off of the ridge, the clouds began to roll over the hillside more and the wind started to pick up. We knew this was going to be a big storm so we picked up our pace as we headed downhill to this road which then leads to the visitor center aid station.

I was running a little bit ahead of Chris and when I reached the road section I looked straight ahead and saw a large cloud in the sky that looked like it was beginning to rotate some. The clouds to my right were also moving in strange up and down directions. At this point I was beginning to get a little concerned with the situation. Soon the rain and lightening started and there were strikes that were probably 50 yards away from me. Then, just when I thought the worst had come it started hailing on us about the size of large marbles. Luckily I saw a jeep coming up behind me on the road. I flagged it down and asked if I could hop in their vehicle until the worst passed. They said... sure, hop in! They were a nice young couple from the area that was just out sightseeing for the day. I sat in their parked car for about 10 minutes (this amount of time would come back to haunt me at the end of this report) as the hail pelted their windshield and for a moment I thought it was going to do some damage to their car. I told them what kind of event was going on today and they couldn't believe me when I said where we started from. As soon as the storm began to weaken I thanked them for stopping, and then was back on the road again to the visitor center.

When I arrived at the visitor center aid station I was a little concerned with how much time I had above the cutoff. I think they said I was less than a half hour under so I tried not to take too much time here. This guy who was volunteering told me, "Sorry to break it to you but you have to keep going!" This made me laugh for a second and then I hopped back onto the trail.

Down the trail I went until I came to where you make a right turn and start heading up to the top of Bird Knob. You know when you reach this point because you can look up and see tons of boulders scattered throughout making you wonder where your next steps are going to be. I walked up this climb pretty slow, trying to conserve energy. Soon after the incline began I saw Bill Losey coming downhill and then Bob Combs following. We talked only for a second, both offering me encouragement. I needed some extra motivation at this point though so I took out my iPod shuffle for a second. When I turned it on the song "Hurts so good" by John Mellancamp played, making me chuckle. This was pretty ironic because it was definitely hurting so good at this point! Once you reach the top it levels out for quite awhile and you run along the top of the ridge until you reach the Bird Knob aid station (mile 52) and then you begin your descent back down. During this stretch I also saw Mike Dobies go past me.

By the time I got to the Bird Knob aid station I was beginning to get a little cold since it was dark, rainy, and I only had a cutoff tech shirt on. I asked the volunteers there if they had any garbage bags that I could wear as a jacket but they did not. They did have some nice hot chicken noodle soup though that tasted pretty good. So... I was going to have to tough it out another 4 miles until I got to the picnic area aid station to put on warmer clothes. Before leaving Bird Knob I saw a headlamp coming towards me so I waiting a second to see if the person coming down the hill would be interested in joining me on the trail. That person was Carl Camp, the last finisher of this year's MMT. He said he wasn't going to take too long at the aid station so I waited for him and after he was done grabbing a few things we took off on the trail together.

Carl reminds me a lot of my friend Joe Novicky and is very friendly to talk to. He also carries on a good conversation so it made the next few miles go by pretty quick. After about a mile Carl took a pretty big wipeout on the trail and fell backwards onto his back, hitting his arm and elbow in the process. It didn't look pretty at all and I quickly asked him if he was alright. He didn't say much at first but he was able to get back onto his feet fairly quick. I noticed that the back of his arm was bleeding but it definitely could've been worse. The rocks were definitely very wet and slippery by now and the rain continued to come down on us. Surprisingly, it ended up raining for about 4 hours straight. I thought that after the last large storm we had that the cold front would quickly move through and it would be dry for the rest of the evening. Wrong... Soon, Carl pulled ahead of me on the trail and I was left by myself, trying to navigate the same area with large boulders, except this time I was going downhill, making it even tougher. I kept telling myself to pick up my feet and not get injured because this was not the time nor place for that to happen.

Eventually I could see lights shining from the picnic area aid station. I was happy to be here. A female volunteer immediately asked me, "What can I get you?" She laughed when I said, "I'm not really sure right now. I'm going to have to think about that for a moment." After gathering my sanity and eating a few things I met another nice gentlemen with a long gray beard. He was a great example of what you want every volunteer to be like at an aid station. Very attentive, efficient, and knew the right things to say and do. I changed the battery in my handheld light since it was beginning to die, tried to eat a ham sandwich, hydrated, and was on my way. I left the aid station with Chris and a couple others who had caught up to me.

We trudged along and eventually met up with a large group of people... a few of which were pacers. We talked, told jokes. and tried to ignore the fact that we were getting very sleepy at this point in the early morning. Soon the group split up and I spent the next 6-7 miles with Caroline Williams and her pacer. The trails were now streams at this point and it was becoming almost comical. The water was consistently higher than our shoes and at times it came up as high as my knees! All of this cold rushing water was starting to make my blisters burn and causing lots of grit to get inside my shoes.

We kept pushing on but increasingly began to wonder how much time we had left to get to the next aid station. I guess I didn't bother looking at my cheat sheet because I was too concerned with making forward progress. After many ups and downs we finally hit a long dirt road that meets up with a paved road and then leads to Gap Creek/Jawbone II aid station at mile 65. After running on the paved road for awhile a car came towards us and a guy yells out the window, "You've got about 10 minutes left to make the cutoff and about a mile and a half to the aid station." I couldn't believe it. This was going to be extremely hard to make the cutoff but somehow in my tired and delusional mind I thought that I could sprint fast enough to make it. So, I left Caroline and her pacer and said that I was going to go for it. I picked up the pace tremendously and was suprised how much energy I still had left in my legs. A few times along the way I would stop, catch my breath, and then take off sprinting again. When you know you only have so much time to get somewhere and you're exhausted it seems to take forever.

Finally I came up on the aid station but right after I came to a stop one of the volunteers told me that I missed the cutoff by 10 minutes and had to drop. He said if I was only 5 minutes past the cutoff he might have let me go. I was disappointed that my journey had come to an end and had a tough time accepting this since this was my first DNF, but realized that rules are put in place for a reason. Once I came to grips with everything though I soon began to realize that I had put up a decent fight on one of the most difficult ultra courses in the country. This was my first time stepping foot on this course without the help of a crew or pacer, and we experienced some of the worst weather conditions in the race's 15 year history. I began to feel a little better about myself but certainly I was not happy about the end result. Are there things I could've done differently leading up to and during the race? Yes. Could I have done more training in Virginia? Sure. This is all part of the learning experience that takes place with ultra running. Part of me, however, still believes that it was better going into this race without knowing in advance how many rocks and steep climbs I would have to encounter.

Sometimes things work out and other times your plans fail. I have learned that ultra marathons teach you more about yourself than almost anything else in life and this is what continues to attract myself and others to these kind of events. The unknown factor... the uncertainty. If the end result was guaranteed there would be no reason to begin the quest in the first place. One thing I do know is that I met a lot of new great friends this past weekend and I'm already looking forward to coming back next year to earn my buckle. Massanutten ROCKS!!

To read additional race reports from other runners, click here.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Excellent report. Epic conditions out there. A DNF as a time out is far better than just a DNF.
I believe I will be joining you in the MMT lottery for 2010.