Monday, May 14, 2012

The "Where I've Been At" Saga, Part 4: Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Mile Run Race Report

And now, the (maybe) exciting conclusion . . .

After the North Coast debacle (short version: about 50 miles in about 8 hours, then totally gave up because everything hurt too much), you might think that I wouldn't want to attempt one of the most difficult 100-mile races a week later.  And you would be right - sort of. 

As I woke up from my uncomfortable slumber in the back seat of Laurie's Nissan Versa at around 3 am, while North Coast was still going on around me, my first thought was that there was probably no way that I was going to be able to run MMT a week later.  But after staring at a neon-lit kite flying around in the night sky for what felt like a really long time, I looked down at my phone, and saw a missed call from Dave Snipes.  I called him back, and we talked about what was going on at North Coast, and, after we had finished talking, he said that he would put together drop bags for me for MMT.  No discussion about whether or not I should run the race - apparently, I was running it.

He wasn't the only one - Mark Rodriguez made hotel reservations, the girl I'm dating (after ragging on me for my plans apparently being ill-conceived and not entirely thought-through) immediately started discussing what she thought I needed to do in the next week to be ready for MMT, Meg Harnett got in touch with me about possibly pacing me at the end of the race . . . even my mom sent me a text message saying that she "had a good feeling" about the race.  So with all of that energy directed towards my running MMT, as the week went on, it seemed crazier and crazier to question whether or not I should run the race, in spite of the facts to the contrary.

And with the MMT 100, the facts are these:  The race is 103.7 miles (the current "official" distance, although I suspect that this measurement is a little short) of ragged, rocky, relentless mountain trails, punctuated only occasionally with gravel road sections to make you feel extra-terrible about not running because you're too tired from picking through rocks to run anymore.  Last year, I had a total meltdown at around 64 miles, but still managed to finish . . . in almost 32 hours.  That's a long time to be awake, and the prospect of another 32-hour slog after everything I had been through in the past month was not at all appealing, and, furthermore, seemed somewhat likely, after how poorly North Coast went.

But the week prior to MMT was occupied with travel to and from Israel, and by the time I got back on Friday, there was no time or opportunity to re-consider - Mark and Sniper had already put together my drop bags (with some assistance from Mike Bielik, who left some Hammer Gels with Sniper for me after the Bull Run 50-Miler) and made hotel reservations, and my girlfriend had planned the day around me leaving for the race.

I arrived at the Holiday Inn in Woodstock around 10 p.m., got to sleep around 11 p.m., and was up bright and early at a little after 2 a.m. for a 4 a.m. race start.  At least the 3 hours of sleep that I got was sound sleep, and I didn't feel too tired at the start line, or, for that matter, too cold, even though it was in the mid-40s (although my nagging sinus pain was suggesting that I may be coming down with a cold).  Most of the people I saw before the race (Jason Lantz, the eventual winner, Ryan O'Dell, 10 minutes behind me at the Winter Beast of Burden 100-Mile Run a few months ago, Jack Pilla, most recently of pulling-off-the-ground-at-the-Bandera-100k fame) looked at least a little bit cold, tired, and nervous, which made me feel a little better about my chances.

And when I say "chances," specifically, I mean my chances of finishing the race in under 24 hours.  Finishing any 100-mile race in under 24 hours is generally regarded as an accomplishment of note, but at MMT, finishing the race in under 24 hours is very difficult.  Each year, about 200 people start, and typically, only the top 10-15 runners finish the race in less than 24 hours - not to mention that about 40% of starters fail to finish the race.  But ever since I first came out to MMT, to pace Sniper in 2009, finishing this brutal race in less than 24 hours was a goal of mine.  Of course, considering my past month, finishing at all would be a minor miracle.  Then again, having made it to the starting line after all of that, and being presented with the opportunity to achieve this goal, there was also no thinking about whether or not it was realistic, given the circumstances.  Here was the opportunity, and I had to do my best to make the most of it.

In contrast to last year's start, this year's start, on the paved road, felt awful.  I was nowhere near the front of the pack, and all I could think about as we ran down the road was how much I wanted the road to end, so we could get on the trail, where hopefully this would hurt a little less.  Amazingly, once we turned onto the trail, I started speeding up, and passed a number of people who were ahead of me during the road section.  With my trusty dual-headlamp setup (one on the head, one around my waist), it may as well have been daylight in front of me, and I was running fairly comfortably over the rocks.

Unfortunately, my stomach was a little less comfortable, and I spent a total of about 30 minutes during the first third of the race taking "bathroom breaks," mostly in the woods, with the exception of the "real" bathroom break at Elizabeth Furnace.  Other than these unscheduled stops, I was mostly feeling okay - taking what the terrain would give me, and backing off a little bit as it gradually warmed up.  Much of the first third of the race is a blur in my mind, punctuated by loops of "Someone's in the Wolf" by Queens of the Stone Age and thoughts that a sub-24-hour finish might be possible.  After the first 20 miles or so, I wasn't gaining on anybody, but I wasn't losing ground, either.  I was mostly running alone, with a nearly blank mind.

The race only started to become distinct in my mind when I reached Habron Gap, knowing that the next section, nearly 10 miles long, in the mid-afternoon heat, to Camp Roosevelt (mile 64-ish), was the one that ruined me last year.  In my mind, if I could make it through this section relatively unscathed, I should be able to finish strong.  I had also skimmed times from last year, and realized that if I made it to Camp Roosevelt around 5 p.m. at the latest, I had a good chance at finishing in under 24 hours. 

In spite of the seemingly never-ending yellow trail to Camp Roosevelt, on which I ran out of water and wound up walking the last mile and a half of, just to be safe, I made it to Camp Roosevelt not feeling too bad at all, and was in and out of the aid station quickly (just long enough to drink some Gatorade from my drop bag), prompting the volunteer in charge of the aid station, who had been there last year when I spent three hours there, to comment on my improved "through" time.  It was around 20 minutes after 5 p.m. when I left the aid station, and while I was thrilled that I was still in the 24-hour-finish ballpark, I was trying to keep restrained, as the last third of the race is notoriously difficult, and any number of things could happen to mess things up.

And sure enough, not long after, mini-disaster.  All this time, I had been waiting for my cold to sneak up on me and ruin my race (which it never did), but I hadn't anticipated that my left contact lens, which had been bothering me since earlier in the race, when I took a branch to the eye when I took my eyes off of the trail for a second to drink from my hand bottle, would actually fall out of my eye.  But there, on Kerns Mountain, picking through some of the nastiest rocks on the course, with 30+ miles to go, I felt the lens loosen, blinked, and then it was gone.  I spent a few seconds looking for it on the ground, before I realized that (a) I wasn't going to find it, and (b) even if I could find it, it wasn't going back in my eye.  I would just have to re-learn to run over the rocks with compromised depth perception.  As it turns out, this is not easy, and my feet were hating me the entire time.  (Miraculously, for as many times as I stumbled, I didn't fall to the ground - sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.)

Fortunately, I made it off of Kerns Mountain before the sun set, and just after sunset, I was climbing Bird Knob, and now very seriously thinking about going sub-24.  I had been running fairly conservatively up until this point, and feeling relatively good the entire time.  But now that I couldn't reliably run over the rocks, I got the feeling that I was going to have to be careful on the really technical sections, and run every runnable section as quickly as I could.  I had already lost 10-15 minutes by walking the flat section at the end of Kerns Mountain, and I lost another 10-15 minutes by walking the flat section at the end of Bird Knob.  But when I made it to Bird Knob, and had three major sections of the course left, and was still looking at a potential sub-24-hour finish, I decided that perhaps this feeling should be more than that, and that I was going to have to buckle down and run everything that I could.  And considering the safety net that I had following the upcoming purple/pink trail section leading to the Picnic Area aid station (Meg Harnett was waiting to pace me, if I got into trouble), now seemed like the best time to put this plan into action.

In spite of lots of rocks, and not being able to see very well, I somehow made it to the Picnic Area at around 19 hours, 35 minutes, leaving me a little over 4 hours to complete the last "16" miles of the course ("16," because with the rampant mis-measurement of the course, plus the rugged terrain, this "16" miles is more like 18 miles).  I bounded down the steps to the Picnic Area aid station, where somebody offered me a chair, and, after looking at my watch, I flatly responded "I think that's a really bad idea right now."  I also turned down Quattro's offer of a shot of Jim Beam, instead choosing to twin-fist Gatorade and Coke (it really seemed to be doing the trick).  I was happy to see Meg, and although I didn't need her services, I thanked her for being there, and continued down the trail without much delay.  At this point, I was a man on a mission.

From here to the finish, the journey is painstakingly clear in my mind, and I could recount it in overwhelming detail, but for the purposes of keeping things simple:  I rock-hopped the best I could down the orange trail to the 211 road crossing.  I reached the wide white Massanutten Mountain Connector Trail on the other side of the road and was pleasantly surprised to find a few flat stretches that were runnable.  Then I was displeased to find that the section beyond the connector, leading to the yellow trail, was a lot more uphill than I had anticipated.  (But overall, between the two sections, the total amount of runnable trail was as I had expected.)  I hauled down the rocky yellow trail as best as my vision would allow, then turned right onto the road to the Gap Creek aid station, and, seeing that I had taken only a little over 2 hours to complete the last 9-ish miles, felt very confident about my chances in the last section.  Twin-fisted Gatorade and Coke at the aid station, and then I was off.

I struggled up Jawbone Gap for the second time - this time around, it was much cooler, which made the climb easier, then decided to walk the rocky backside to the road, even though it was downhill - far too dangerous and unnecessary to try to run at this point.  Once I reached the road, after one final pause to urinate on the trail (because really, who puts one of the nastiest, rockiest sections of trail less than five miles from the finish that DOESN'T have some sort of malice in their hearts?), I began a deliberate, rhythmic run, at just around 3 a.m., an entire hour left to cover the last "3" miles (probably more like 4+), all on roads and easy trails.  As I made the final turn to the finish, I knew that I had my sub-24, but instead of being overwhelmingly happy, I was just frustrated that I still had to run the "Chapel" trail behind the camp (in deference to this being a "trail" race), instead of taking the more direct route on the road, as vehicles would.  In "protest," I began walking, much to the chagrin of those waiting at the finish, who could see me (well, my headlamp, anyway) from far away, and, after requesting that I shake my headlamp to confirm that I was a finisher, demanded that I run through the finish line, because otherwise, they would run out of applause.

And, with minimal fanfare, 23 hours, 32 minutes, and 19 seconds later, I was finished.  In relief, I dropped my hand bottles on the ground, and had an awkward moment with the race director, since he was there to shake hands with every finisher, but the way I had dropped my bottles made it look as though I wanted a hug instead (it wound up being a handshake).  Then I sat down and started shivering uncontrollably - maybe that was the illness finally catching up to me.  The volunteers wrapped me in a blanket and tried to feed me (shredded chicken), but I really couldn't eat, and within a few minutes, all of the pain that I had been ignoring the entire race hit me, all at once, and it was so overwhelming that I nearly vomited.  Fortunately, 3 or 4 minutes of being hunched over a trash can, not vomiting, seems to work just as well as actually throwing up.

Eventually, after sitting at the finish line in my blanket for what seemed like forever, seeing four more people finish under 24 hours (and one person finish just 6 minutes past the mark), and making no real attempt to move, I decided that I needed to try to shower and sleep, and I made it as far as my car (which a volunteer had to lead me to), where heat was plentiful, before I passed out with the engine running, waking up a couple hours later, sweating profusely, as the heat had been on full blast.  Finally, I drove to the showers, cleaned up, and came back to the finish line just in time to see Meg pacing somebody in - I was glad to see that she had the opportunity to experience part of the course.  We hung out for a while at the finish line before I drove her back to her car at the Picnic Area (where she then proceeded to go out for more running), then drove back to the finish line to watch others finish, and wait for the awards ceremony and my beautiful silver belt buckle.

Yes, it is beautiful, and I feel okay saying that, even if it sounds a little silly, because other people saw it up close and in person and said the same thing, too.

For reference, the over-24-hour finisher's buckle, from last year.
Even as I write this now, with about a day to reflect on what happened, I'm still having trouble processing it all.  Of course, I always hope for the best, and I always want to believe that every time I start a race, I completely have it in me to achieve my goal.  Many times, though, that doesn't happen, and considering the circumstances, I was fully expecting this to be one of those times.  All during the race, the buckle was changing from silver to pewter to silver to pewter again in my mind. 

The best I can come up with is that with this race, I approached it with a healthy sense of balance.  Not just the kind of balance that you need to run over "trails" that are better described as rock piles, but the kind of balance over the week prior to the race that put training, sleep, nutrition, family, and friends in the places where they belonged.  That balance allowed me to step up to the starting line with a clear and healthy mind, and to approach each section of the race with an appropriate level of emotional investment.  And that approach allowed me to focus on my goal of running sub-24-hours, and not get too caught up in "racing."  In truth, there was at least an hour of slack time in that performance, and under better circumstances, I may have attempted to push harder.  But I'm very happy with the way this turned out - the storm clouds of last month really did have a silver lining.


  1. Great run and report. I went blind in one eye halfway through JFK 09 and didn't have to deal with rocks, etc. like you did. Congrats on a real HTFU run!

  2. Sorry I didn't wander over and say hi and congrats.. I was just content to sit in my chair after finishing. I was just reveling in my selfishness of non-activity.

    Nice job of no-taper. I may even be moved to follow you on Badwater website.