Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week in Review - 8-14 May, and Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile Run Race Report

I'll be brief with the mileage, since the mileage was brief (mostly), and the race report is the meat of this post:

8 May - 1 mile, Patterson Park (10 minutes)
9 May - 7 miles (45 minutes), out of what was supposed to be a 1-mile "garbage run" - just felt good and kept going, through Patterson Park in the dark
10 May - 1 mile, Patterson Park (10 minutes)
11 May - 4 miles, in two laps around Patterson Park (32 minutes)
12 May - 1 mile, at APG (10 minutes)
13 May - 3 miles, Patterson Park (24 minutes)
14 May - 70 miles, Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Mile Run (0400-2359; remaining 31.7 miles run from 0000-1147 on Sunday, 15 May 2011)

Total Minutes: 1331
Total Miles: 87

The point is, mostly a taper week for MMT, then the race. Still debating the merits of the taper; I think in this case, it was neutral.

Now, the race report:

It's hard to believe as I type this that at one point, about 20 miles into the race, I was thinking that there might not be much to write about. However, considering the epic nature of arguably the most difficult 100-mile race on the East Coast, it's not surprising that as the day progressed, I accumulated more and more race report material (along with pain, fatigue, and other unpleasantness), and the end result is what you read here.

To those who have been following along, it should come as no surprise that my goal for this race was to run as fast as I could, compete well, and place as high as possible. My strategy was essentially to run my own race, and only if things were close in the last 15 miles or so, to start pushing beyond my comfort zone. With all that still in mind, it wasn't unnerving to me that at 0400, a semi-circle formed in the front row behind the starting line - nobody seemed to want to take the lead.

Since the first 3.6 miles were on a road that was intermittently pavement and gravel, I did the honors. It wasn't intentional; it was the pace that felt comfortable to me, which put me a few seconds ahead of the chase pack, including Karl Meltzer. Karl mentioned that he was having flashbacks to a few years ago, when he was chasing a Korean guy who was ahead of him by about two minutes all day long (and ended up winning the race, and setting the course record). This was either good or bad, depending on how long I could maintain this intimidation factor.

As it turned out, of course, the answer was "not long," since within minutes of reaching the trailhead, Karl, along with about 7 other guys who were better at running rocky trails in the dark with a headlamp than I am, passed me. While it never feels good to be passed, I wasn't too worried, since my race strategy essentially consisted of staying within my limits, running comfortably, and letting the people who went out too fast come back to me, while I kept my pace steady.

Once the sun rose, and I could see more than a few feet in front of me, this strategy seemed to be working. Up through Elizabeth Furnace, I continued with my "even effort" approach, power-hiking the climbs, running relaxed on the flats, and stepping quickly on the downhills, working my way back to (guessing about) 5th place.

Unfortunately, after Elizabeth Furnace (around mile 33), things started to fall apart. For one thing, this was the start of areas that I remember distinctly from the training runs this past spring, and for another thing, this is one area where I distinctly remember running poorly at the beginning of Training Run #2. So when the two guys (Jeremy Pade and Jason Lantz) who I had passed on the previous downhill passed me on the climb, this took some of the wind out of my sails. When we reached the downhill on the backside, and I started running to retake my position, I found that although my legs weren't sore, I had no energy. My feet started slapping the ground uncomfortably, and, for fear of blowing out my quads, I slowed. Another person passed me. When I reached the road (Shawl Gap aid station), I sensed trouble.

From there, things got worse. The road was fairly exposed, the temperature was rising, and the humidity was high. All of this, combined with imprecision in my nutrition, and an early effort level that may have been just a bit too much, and suddenly, I was relegated to walking most of the next 3.1 miles on the road, when I should have been running them, so of course more people passed me on the way to the next aid station (Veach Gap). Not good.

The potential nail came after the 9.5-mile stretch following the road. Without going into too much detail, the constant ups and downs, the rocky trails, and the length between aid stations left me at Camp Roosevelt, Mile 63.1, very close to giving up. The last section had been several hours of running and feeling okay for about 5 minutes, then feeling awful and dragging myself forward for about 20 minutes, ad (physical) nauseam. Knowing that the next 38 or so miles were only going to get more difficult, I was losing confidence in my ability to finish the race. It also didn't help that Camp Roosevelt was about 6-tenths of a mile (downhill) from the finish area.

I sat at Camp Roosevelt for a long time. I tried eating cookies, brownies, potato chips . . . if it was on the table, I tried it, up to and including Slim Jims and dried mango. Nothing seemed to be helping my energy level. I walked around the aid station little, I sat down, I sprawled out on a picnic table, wrapped in somebody's jacket. I even drank a few sips of Brittany Zale's Rolling Rock. Nothing seemed to be working. All the while, people were coming into the aid station to cheers and clapping, and leaving to even louder cheers and clapping. The aid station volunteers were encouraging; they didn't want me to quit, but I just wasn't ready to go yet. I wasn't ready to quit, either.

Finally, at about 10 minutes to 9 p.m., things started making sense to me. I realized that part of the reason why I couldn't quit was that when I curled up as though I was going to give up, I could feel my bib on my stomach. This reminded me of how at the pre-race meeting on Friday, as the race director was saying that if you were dropping, you had to turn in your bib (for accountability purposes), I clutched my bib to my chest fiercely as I stood next to Sara and said "not turning this in." I had waited too long for the opportunity to run this race, and I wasn't going to let go that easily. I thought about what Dave Snipes said as he passed through the aid station about an hour ago. A woman was saying that she was pacing somebody else, and that she was going to "drag me along" with them for the rest of the race. Snipes responded that I knew the course, and that it was (if you're not feeling well, which I wasn't), a good 14-hour walk to the finish over the last 38 miles, and that I shouldn't let somebody force me into doing it. I decided that it was my decision to come here, and it was my decision to finish or not to finish, and that it was time to make that decision. Since I was curled up on a picnic table, trying to sleep and failing miserably, even though I had slept only about 3 hours the previous night, and been awake for 18 hours since then, I knew what my decision would be.

I got up, put on my bottle belt, my hat, and my headlamp, and shuffled out of aid station purgatory towards the next section of the course, nearly 3 full hours after I had reached the aid station, to the loudest cheers yet.

Of course, the boost from this was short-lived, and within 15 minutes of walking down the trail, I started feeling weak and listless again. I tried my best to tell myself that I was just out for a pleasant walk in the woods at night, and at times, this was effective, but it didn't help that I was heading up another huge, muddy, rocky climb. Still, I pushed up and over, and after another nearly 6 miles of excruciating pain, I found myself at Gap Creek/Jawbone I. The aid station was lit up like Christmas, and again, when I sat down, I was having a very hard time getting up and moving forward again. I spent perhaps another half-hour here, again, questioning whether or not the 6-mile chunk that I had taken out of the remaining distance was enough to convince me that I could finish. The aid station volunteers were again very encouraging, and continued to tell me that I looked good. Finally, after a much shorter bout of self-doubt, I headed out on the 8.4 mile stretch of course to the Visitor Center.

This 8.4 mile stretch was my lowest point. I was not about to run and potentially break myself, but walking meant slow progress, and it was after midnight now, nearing the 24-consecutive-hours-awake mark. All this time, in the back of my mind, I couldn't forget the last training run, when I did this in the daylight, and it went so much faster. In fact, the part of the training run that had gone the best - the rock-picking, randomly-climbing-and-dropping trail fiasco on Kerns Mountain - at night, in the fog and rain, by the light of my headlamp, was a demoralizing disaster. While I had held my position over the last stretch of course, people who were WALKING were overtaking me here. They were all very friendly and supportive, and tried to get me to come along with them, but the reality was that I just couldn't make myself walk that fast. As I stumbled in to the Visitor Center, after what seemed like an interminable stretch of road (which is how roads tend to feel when you've relegated yourself to walking them), I was thinking that maybe now was the time to take my souvenir rock from the Visitor's Center and go back to camp.

Not so fast, though, because the aid station captain (who reeked of alcohol), was running frantic ultramarathon triage. Outside, the rain was pouring down, and broken runners were pouring into the tent and flopping down onto folding chairs, while the aid station captain and his assistants were rushing around with cups of soup, egg salad sandwiches, and trash bags to use as makeshift ponchos, trying to get the runners out as quickly as possible. For my part, I wrapped myself in a blanket and napped for about 20 minutes, until Captain Liquor woke me up, and told me that I was his project, and he was going to get me out of there. Not wanting to argue with a drunk, lest he grow belligerent, and wanting less and less to DNF, I complied, and took off my shoes so they could bandage my feet, and ate the soup, and put on the trash bag, and shuffled off to climb Bird Knob.

It was at this point that the pain stabilized. Perhaps food was finally digesting. Perhaps the trash bag was keeping me warm enough that my muscles were getting the blood flow they were craving. Or perhaps, at 5 in the morning, I had gone past the point where quitting made any sense at all, as I had already been out for a stupid-long time. As miserable as it was not to run the flat section at the top of Bird Knob, I was now convinced that things were at least not going to get worse. Plus, the sun was rising as I reached the top, which, in addition to allowing me to put away my stupid headlamp, was pretty to look at.

I had reached the turning point at an opportune time, since the aid station at the top of Bird Knob, in stark contrast to the mayhem at Vistor Center, was small, subdued, and seemingly bored with this whole endeavor. With their mumbling, forced, "keep it up, dude," attitude, I was convinced that if I had asked them for a ride back to the start, they would have told me that I could hang out there until the aid station closed, and then, after they packed up, if there was any room in any of the cars, maybe I could come with them. If I ever wanted to see my friends and family again, I had no choice but to continue the walk down the road to the pink and purple trail, and the Picnic Area.

Along this silly-colored section of the course, I started seeing crew and volunteers who had seen me back at Camp Roosevelt and Gap Creek, when I was so close to calling it quits. The little boost I got from the little joy they seemed to be taking in seeing that I hadn't quit was enough to get me to start running again when the pink trail started going downhill. I was afraid to attack as hard as I had on the training run, but the fact that this section was now feeling closer to training run speed was a huge mental boost, not to mention that I was passing people now that I was actually running again. As I barrelled down the rocky trail at near-top speed, torn-up feet and growing quad bustage be damned, I hoped that this momentum would carry me through the 9-ish miles from to Gap Creek/Jawbone II, arguably the most difficult section of the course.

Then I got to this section, and decided that "doing" was better than "hoping," so I power-hiked the easy downhill trail section to Route 211 (the part that is apparently there to lull you into a false sense of security), and then, doing my best Mount-Whitney-at-Badwater-last-year impression, I attacked the awful white trail climb. Now I was (relatively) moving, at nearly 15-minute mile walking pace, putting distance on the guy who had left the last aid station just after me, and passing people on the trail ahead of me. I was getting that "rush" that I felt at the end of Badwater as I felt myself come back from the dead, and to top it all off, after braving the rock-pile climb to the top, I ran down the yellow trail to the road, and, for a while on the road (although I returned to walking, for fear of burning out before the last 5+ mile section). I reached Gap Creek/Jawbone II with a huge smile on my face as the aid station volunteers welcomed me back, to which I could respond only with laughter. There was just no other way to explain what I had been through for the past 10-ish hours since I left that aid station the first time.

Deciding that there was no sense in lingering the second time around, I crossed the road to climb Jawbone (again, now muddy and slippery from all of the foot traffic through), and this time, go over the top and down. Because I fouled up this part of the last training run, I hadn't seen the back side of Jawbone, but I vaguely suspected that it was steep and rocky, and my suspicion was confirmed. Yes, just one last reminder that Massanutten "rocks" before the finish. Now, with about four miles to go, I wasn't afraid to give it a little more gas, and I passed nearly a dozen people between the top of Jawbone and the finish, powered by my vigorous walk, my reckless abandon on the downhills, and my 7-minute miles on the road section leading to the finish.

I ran the entire last road section all the way through the line, finishing in 31 hours, 47 minutes, and some-odd seconds, to the cheers of the crowd, and the welcome-back of the aid station captain who had suffered through me at Camp Roosevelt for 3 hours. Dave Snipes handed me a grape soda for some reason (that seems to be his thing after we run), and after that, I don't remember too much in detail, other than food went in, the tent came down, and the shower happened. Sara returned for the post-race awards ceremony, and to drive me home (and ran to hug me when she finally found me - I ran to meet her, which was perhaps evidence that more of my struggle was mental than physical), and we had some pleasant together-time as I gave her the brief summary of my struggle, and she gave me the brief summary of her car struggle (the makeshift parking lot in the field had turned to mud, making it very difficult to get the car in and out).

Although the race didn't turn out as I had planned, in some ways, it was better. Since I hadn't finished a 100-mile run since Beast of Burden last August, I had a feeling that, despite my strong training base, my first 100 back would be a little bit difficult, especially with the DNF ghosts of Grindstone and Oil Creek haunting me. And, in truth, I think that those experiences had some effect on my mental state when things started to fall apart. In that sense, it was very important that I finish a race that's this difficult, to reaffirm that I can do this, and, moreover, that I'm at my best in these types of races. In retrospect, I probably had more in the tank than I thought, but the mind-body coordination wasn't there. The teaching points from this experience (careful pacing early in the race, consistent nutrition, high weekly mileage, training as much as possible on rugged trails) will serve me well at the Old Dominion 100 in three weeks, in my quest to complete all of the Virginia 100s this year (which includes revenge of Grindstone in the fall). Perhaps most importantly, though, I'm excited about my still-nebulous plans for adventures between now and Badwater, and, prior to this race, I felt as though I needed that kind of energy to motivate my training.

Plus, I got a new belt buckle (for now, the pewter one, but next year, definitely the sub-24-hour silver version), so I can finally put away the Beast of Burden buckle:



In conclusion, the buckle is cool because it has a bear on it. :)

1 comment:

  1. I'll be short and simple..."sometimes our slowest and toughest runs, are the ones that make us so much better in the future". You persevered, and got it done. Running 100s is not about "training", it's about being tough. You were tough to keep going. My guess is the next time you plan to run 100, you'll kill it. Great job out there! It was nice running with you...briefly. :-)

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