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Friday, June 8, 2012

Massanutten 100 Race Report (May 12-13, 2012)

Recap and Overview

Well, I gotta say, my "headlines" on this one look and feel pretty good!  Finishing strong with sub-10-minutes miles from about mile 99 or so.  Avenging my '09 DNF at MMT (the sloppy, stormy, steamy year).  For the first time ever, actually notching two finishes in consecutive 100 starts, stretching back to last year's Bighorn.  Getting my first 100 finish as a daddy!  I'm tempted to analyze it to death (more on that below), but mostly I've just wanted to enjoy it over these  four weeks now since it happened!  Any kind of success at this distance has been a long time comin', and it really, really feels nice!

A sweet feeling crossin' that finish line!
What stands out most about the "inner experience" at MMT was not ever losing the quite confidence that I'd make it across the finish line.  What seemed in question, from maybe the mid-point onward, was mostly how long it would take me and how much under the 36 hour finish cutoff I could go for the 103.7 miles.  That's still a pretty novel feeling for me in 100s, after five years and nine attempts at tackling these beasts.  I've only run "beasty courses" with muscular mountains (Bighorn, Cascade, Virgil, MMT), the genre of ultras that I love.  Now I'm 3 for 9, with a .333 batting average.  So will that be my ticket to the major leagues finally?! Nah--think I'll stick to the lower pressure of AAA ball for a while, come to think of it!. 

Giving credit where credit is abundantly due, the experience was all the more fun and enjoyable and successful thanks to the wonderful company and very able pacing of friend Steve Cooper.  He saw me through the nighttime slowdown, kept me moving across endless climbs and through the aid stations, and kept a laser-like focus on staying comfortably ahead of the cutoffs...all with a great sense of good humor, which kept my spirits high.  Thanks Steve, I owe you a BIG one, you're the best pacer a guy could ask for, and a true trail brother!

With friend Steve Cooper, my indomitable, peerless pacer!

The basic plotline was this:  The weather was good, and I felt very within myself through about mile 33 (Elizabeth Furnace).  The section from there to where I met Steve at  Camp Roosevelt (63.9) I was starting to feel the miles and slow down some, but still pretty steady.  The night wasn't as chilly as you might expect for May, but the climbs seemed extra tough, especially as the sleep monsters reared their heads.  The dawn, somewhere around mile 75 on the way to Visitor Center (78.1), brought some renewed energy.  From there on, day 2 got hotter, but my energy level was pretty good, and progress was steady if slow, though there were times when sections felt endless (like on the way to Picnic Area at 87.9), and Steve hustled me through that aid station concerned we were pushing the cutoffs too much. 

We left Gap Greek II at 96.8, knowing we had one monster climb in the heat, then a gnarly descent, and then the last 4-5 miles on rolling country gravel road.  I climbed well (as I did most of the race), but my feet were tender on the rocky, rolly descent.  Then somehow, once on the road, I "re-discovered" how to actually pick up my legs on runnable terrain (something I'd forgotten in all of the several sections of hilly dirt road this race throws at you every 20 miles or so to change things up).  Somehow, I found myself running the last miles in the 9:30-10:00 range, and getting my hopes up for a sub-35 hour finish, getting a bit giddy about the whole feeling!  But about half a mile out, having somewhat exasperated Steve with my push (even up some hills he shouted at me to walk and said *he* couldn't run), I gave up the ghost and throttled back a bit, letting him run ahead and take a shortcut across a field to the finish so he could take some shots with the camera I carried the whole race.  Sorry about that, Steve, somewhere between wanting to be done and amazed I still had legs and could do more than shuffle, I kind of lost my head there for a moment!  It was kind of an out-of-body experience, as I look back at it!  So, I certainly finished on a high note.

The MMT Experience  and My Logistics

But what of the "outer experience" of MMT, for those curious about the course, race organization, etc. I have to say, this race is a true model of organization, course beauty and difficulty, and--if you can say that for a race run by a veritable army of volunteers--professionalism.   Ultra at its best!

The course is as relentless as ever, covering essentialy the same ground as when I did it in '09 (missing the cutoff around mile 65).  Except that it does this in a different sequence, with the start/finish at Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp.  It's mostly about singe-track rocky, gnarly mountain trails that constantly take you up and down in the range of 1,200 to 2,900' above sea level.  Through Massanutten Mountain--which I recently learned is a "syncline" (a ridge composed of folds) to add to my trail vocabulary!--located in the Blue Ridge Mountains within the Appalachian range.  It's singular because it's a single ridgeline system, and the interesting thing is it's pretty much all forested (so only occasional clearings through the trees to appreciate how high you are above the valley!) and that you're often following the ridgeline as it dances up and down high above the valleys on either side.  Periodically, you dip down toward the valley at various "gaps," on or meeting dirt roads that link up to the next single-track section and more....you guessed it....climbing!  The aid stations are mostly located at those "intersections." 

The dirt roads (with brief sections paved) seem to make up maybe 15% of the course, and are constantly hilly, and with gravel that doesn't always feel nice on tender toes. But they're pretty as they're lined with fields and forests, with no real traffic to speak of beside support vehicles.  They break things up mentally and physcially, though I found myself somewhat dreading them, given the abovementioned "running problem"...all I could do was shuffle along and powerhike the hills, and a lot of folks I passed on single track would pass me on these sections!

Mid-day of Day One, somewhere between
Powell's Fort and Elizabeth Furnance

The beauty of the course lies in the lush, mostly deciduous forest and the fact that you're constantly ascending and descending, either on the ridgeline or up and down it.  These are typically "Eastern" mountain trails--rocky, constant twists and turns, forest cover, switchbacks.  A lot of the vistas don't extend much beyond the rocks of all sizes and shapes at your feet, and the next switchback!  Every once in a while (and more than I remember was the case in '09) you got awesome views of the verdant valleys below, stretching for miles, with farmland, little dots of light at night, and other sections of the ridgeline seemingly running parallel miles away across the valley all visible, depending on which direction you're heading.  Those are the moments it dawns on you, "we're pretty high up!"  On the climb up from Habron Gap and heading toward Camp Roosevelt, around 9 or 9:30 with the night still new and the lights gleaming through the trees at a distance way down below, was when I felt inspired to start belting out Springsteen's "Jungleland"--from start to finish, at the top of my lungs!  It just felt so good to be out there and moving well and into the night!

Grazing cows on late afternoon of Day One, not far out
of Indian Grave and heading up to Habron Gap

The weather, my culprit (read: lame excuse!) in 2009 with the humidity, heat, t-showers, and trails turned to torrents of water in the nighttime all sapping my spirit and will to push hard, was mercifully kind this year.  According to weather.com, down in the valley in the town of Luray the daytime highs were 78 Saturday and 81 Sunday, with a nighttime low Saturday of 48.  But it definitely got colder than that up on the ridges, and someone said their car thermometer read 42 at the start.  But that's reasonably mild for that time of year down in VA, there was no rain or even sign of potential rain, and humidity was quite mild on Saturday and a little worse on Sunday but by no means unbearable.  We lucked out big-time with the weather gods! Still, the last few hours I was feeling the heat in the forest, especially on the way to Gap Creek II, and happy that clouds started taking turns with the sun toward the end.  I did get a little sunburn on the shoulders, despite several applications of sunscreen along the way both days.

The course was also about as dry as it can be--R.D. Kevin Sayers noted in the pre-race briefing Friday night.  Stream crossings were low, there was precious little mud, and only maybe one section where you feet got the tiniest bit wet as long as you hopped the rocks carefully on the crossings.

Looking down at a river (Shenandoah?) or canal mid-morning of Day One

Race organization was superb.  The course was very well-marked and wrong turns and getting lost weren't an issue. Volunteers at aid stations greeted you with drop bags (where you had them) and asked you right away, "what can I get for you?"  'Well gee," you were tempted to reply, "what's on the menu?"  But the stations were so well stocked, you could pretty much name it and they were likely to have it--snack food, sports drink, fruit, pretzels, chips, electrolytes, vaseline, bug spray, ice. 

I was carrying, and replenishing from my drop bags, my usual variety of gels, chews, Hammer and Lara bars, and occasional 8 oz. mini-bottles filled with Heed powder that I filled with water, as well as sometimes plastic bags of "pop chips" or pretzels. All in my Nathan vestpack, with a 2 liter bladder I usually filled about 2/3 full at each station, and which I never quite finished the whole race.  But at the aid stations I was munching on fruit slices (orange, melon, etc.) and salty snacks during the day, especially Saturday  So much so, with the fruit I guess, that I got a painful canker sore inside the lip, which led me to frequently bite my lip by mistake when I was chewing, and just got progressively worse. (My worst "injury" of the race, so I'll take it!).  From the middle on to the end of the race, I was more prone to go for the hot food that hit the spot--quesadilla squares, Ramen noodles and broth, even a hot dog at mile 64 and some turkey sausages at, like, mile 96.  Plus the salty snacks, which I filled up on in baggies, as the sweet stuff lost its appeal.

The course layout (sort of a giant loop with a lollipop thrown in where you there is only one aid station you hit twice--Gap Creek at 69.6 and 96.8 ) poses a dilemma if you're an over-preparer like me--way too many spots where you can have drop bags!  Ten different spots, for 11 times potential DB access, over the course of 15 aid stations.  In my case, I had Hefty clear "big bags" of varying sizes at all but but one of them, though considerably smaller than the large duffles or nylon crates I use for the few, twice-through DBs at out-and-back Bighorn. The spacing between stations at MMT is  such (on several occasions as far as 9-10 miles) that you really do need to carry a fair number of calories and a good amount of water.  If you were carrying handheld bottles instead, I'd say you'd need double bottles in half to two-thirds of the sections between aid stations.

Some Vital Stats

For all those gear and apparel fanatics out there, here go some stats!.....

* Shoe/sockliner/sock/gaiter changes:  1 (mile 56--Vasque Blur's with Injinji Nuwool liners and RaceReady gaiters)

* Shirt changes:  5? (short sleeve with armwarmers--> singlet--> singlet-->short sleeve with warmers for night--> singlet

* Outer layers:  vest (shed in DB at probably mile 12) and shell jacket (worn for first few miles and then stowed and put on for night section)

* Hat changes:  1 or two ("safari" cap with neck protection and "rain" cap stayed in pack)

* Gloves:  2 pairs Pearl Izumi biking (one for each day) and one pair lightweight full-finger for nighttime

* bandanna changes:   1 (mile 56)

* short change: 1 (mile 56, Race Ready)

Overall race stats 

Starters:  196

Finishers:  125 (64% completion rate)

My place:  117

Time:  35:03:33

Winning times:  Jason Lantz (19:33:18) and Eva Pastalkova (22:01:54-course record)

Runners ahead on early morning of Day One, probably
between Woodstock Tower and Powell's Fort

The Blow to Blow (for the true diehards, but you might just want to scroll down and view the pictures!)

Pre-Race: The drive in from Dulles in my rental car was uneventful, and it proved mostly convenient to stay at the camp, timing-wise, with the 4AM start and 2:10 AM awakening.  Though I learned while there the motels in Woodstock were a pretty close and easy drive (apparently easier than my experience driving from Luray in February for the training run when I had a flat while trying to check my Google map instructions!).  Given how little sleep I got--I guess mainly from nerves and the sound of snoring (despite earplugs) and being a little too hot in my sleeping bag in the cabin/bunkhouse with maybe 10 other runners--I think a little extra driving time would have been worth it to catch more than the hour or two of actual sleep I may have gotten.  But the nearby bathhouse was amazingly clean and spacious, and proved ok as a spot to tape my feet night before and then lube and get dressed and down a Cliff bar and banana morning of.

The highlight of the pre-race dinner was catching up with Steve, and lingering a bit after.  He was nice enough to help me carry the rest of my dropbags over from the cabin, prior to dinner.  I think it was pasta, bread, salad, and some kind of cobbler (no meat of any kind), with lemonade to wash it down, and I ate pretty well. But my stomach was kind of funny both before and after that (too much "grazing?"), so I took some anti-acids after dinner which settled things down.  The race briefing before it was uneventful and short, but having the jovial VHTRC veteran Gary Knipling (going for I think his 15th finish at MMT!) handle the "props" for the course markings overview was pretty funny.

It was pretty darn cold at the race start (42 someone said), so I was glad I had packed up all my stuff in the car and driven over to the start, mainly so as to avoid having to hike back up the hill to the cabin area parking after the race.  It meant I could get out, hit the port-a-san, and get back in the car till about 10 minutes prior, keeping the heater on.

Feeling suprisingly relaxed and confident at the start

(note*:  using official mileages for distance rather than my Garmin, but my pace is based on my Garmin splits and I only hit watch as I *left* each aid station so didn't do separate aid splits)

Start to Moreland Gap-mile 4.1* (12:53 pace*)

With such cool temps, it felt good to be moving!  After exiting the wet, grassy field, we headed out of the camp on paved road.  After a couple miles, it became dirt road.  All of it quite hilly.  Feeling fresh, I had to make sure to play it smart and walk parts of the longer, steeper hills.  Legs feel good. The aid station was water only, so I just topped off the bladder.  I took off the shell just after this station, as I was warming up and still had the technical tee and arm warmers and vest and light gloves.

By the dawn's early light!

Moreland Gap to Edinburg Gap-mile 12.1 (16:40 pace for 8.1m)  Official:  7:03 AM (3:03 accum.)  Cutoff:  7:50 AM

This section has a ton of climbing, and includes the infamous Short Mountain section, at around 2,800'.  It's quite rocky, too.  The section used to fall in the overnight on the old MMT configuration.

It felt good to hit single-track, and I was moving well.  And seeing well in the dark, even with just the lightweight headlamp (the cheap-o handheld didn't work).  At one point, I got stuck for a while behind a "conga line" of what seemed like a dozen runners (why people congregate together that closely on dark single track, I dunno!).  As I was feeling good, I chomped at the bit for a while, and then started calling out so I could pass left.  It felt good to get separation and finally "stretch the legs" and run my own pace and feel like I wasn't "dogging it." Somewhere during that time I heard a runner ask if the "whole course is like this" and say "I don't even really see a trail" and how he hoped he wouldn't get lost.  Another runner re-assured him.   Apparently, he wasn't expecting gnarly, rocky terrain where you had to watch each step.  I was thinking the dude was in for a long day in a half in the woods and didn't really know what he'd gotten himself into!  (Call it veteran chutzpah or something, though I kept that thought to myself!)

I was moving well in this section.  It was really cool to see the early morning runs begin to penetrate the forest, with occasional views of the valleys below and other ridgelines, and I got a few shots through the trees (below).

Steve was working this aid station, and it was great to see him.  He helped me fill the bladder, load some food from the dropbag, and dispense with the lights and vest (it was already getting warm), and trade in the full gloves for the biking gloves I like for daytime hand protection.  Grabbed a few mouthfuls of AS snacks and a cup of water, and off I went with Steve's loud encouragement.

Ready to head out of Edinburg Gap--so far, so good!

Edinburg Gap to Woodstock Tower-mile 20.3 (15:11 pace for 8.2 miles)  Official split:  9:17 AM (cutoff:  10:30)  Accum. time:  5:17

This section starts with a big, long climb, but continues with some sweet ridgeline running and nice windy, switchbacked descent with decent footing, where you can get up a head of steam.  Along the ridgeline I got some separation and I was enjoying cruising along, and occasionally seeing nice views down to the valleys on either side through the tree cover. Finally, on the descent, a few mountain goats zoomed by me, but no matter I was moving well.  (Not literally of course, and the only wildlife I saw over the two days other than squirrels and such were a black snack and what someone said was a timber rattler, the latter on a nice wide dirt road fortunately!)

While I could feel the effort aerobically, the legs felt good (maybe a little hip flexor tightness I hoped wasn't a warning sign).  And I felt pretty within myself, like I had another gear or two but knew better than to engage it as it was still EARLY!

Woodstock Tower to Powell's Fort-mile 25.8 (15:41 pace for 5.6m) Official split:  10:49AM (cutoff: 12:10)  Accum. time:  6:49

This section continues trends downhill but with some "bumps" along the way.  The last half mile is dirt road.  I never did see a "tower" or a "fort," but I guess they were near.  Anyway, I continued to move pretty well.  It was getting warm, but not uncomfortably so.

Powell's Fort to Elizabeth Furnace-mile 33.3 (18:00 pace for 7.5m) Official split 12:58 PM (cutoff:  2:30PM)  Accum. time 8:58

This section features a little dirt road, then heads up a steep climb, which was challenging in the full heat of the afternoon with the sun at its apex. But then it gives you a loooong switchbacked descent which seems to go on forever, and then crosses a road and rolls over a river with bridge before turning into Elizabeth Furnace.

This is the kind of descent I love, as it was just gradual enough and the rocks thinned out enough that I could really let loose.  I passed maybe 4-6 people on that section.  At one point, I came across and went by a runner emerging through the forest who had clearly cut the switchbacks to make time, using trekking poles to essentially bushwhack on a straight line down the mountainside. I said, trying to make light of a practice that's not just bad competitive form but horrible environmental practice, "European rules, hey?"  An obvious reference to the common practices at races like Mont Blanc (that I'd seen some French competitors use at Big Horn and which really ticked me off frankly) which this individual (don't want to name though I figured out the name at the finish line) acknowledged with a knowing smile.

I went through a bit of an ethical dilemma after the race, especially after I'd seen this person come in among the very last finishers, of whether I should report it to the R.D.  It probably made the difference in this person finishing the race, if the person consistently cut switchbacks throughout the race.  I'm still tempted, but think I'll let it lie.  Somehow the slightly guilt look on this person's face at the finish and when s/he was gently confronted by me kind of spoke volumes to me.  I'm sure s/he realizes the finish wouldn't have been possible without breaking the rules.  I hope that realization also extends to what doing this does to the forests (erosion, etc.) that we as trail runners are supposed to be good ethical stewards of.  I know if I were an R.D., it's the kind of practice I would come down really hard on if I ever saw it or got reports of it.  It's just against the spirit of our sport (now down off my high horse!).

Anyway, this incident wasn't something that stuck with me much at the time, giddy as I was with my descent, and only really popped back me in my mind when I saw the "culprit" finish.  I felt really good coming into Elizaeth Furnace, in the full heat of the day.  And Steve was unexpectedly there to greet me and crew me, a real nice bonus!  I swapped out food, filled up my bladder (that's the one in the pack, for you non-trailsters!), changed my singlet for another, applied sunscreen and repellent (bugs were annoying but not biting), did a quick lube and "Desitin swipe," and drank some water and downed a few snacks.

Looking back now, I think this was as large a margin over the cutoffs as I got.

Here's are pics Jack Kurisky took and posted on race site of me coming into EF AS, with Steve in front with back turned [anyone know how to upload from Flickr?]:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/vhtrc/7211983952/in/set-72157629761691158

...and of me fumbling through my dropbag: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vhtrc/7211968338/in/photostream/

Elizabeth Furnace to Shawl Gap-mile 38.8 (19:56 pace for 4.7 miles) Official split:   2:39 PM (10:39 accum. time) Cutoff:  4:10

It doesn't look so bad on the elevation chart, but this proved the toughest section of the first half of the course for me.  The first half is a steep climb up switchbacks, and I felt the effort in the afternoon heat, even though I think we got some intermittent cloud cover.  I remember seeing Gary Knipling up head and could at times hear him talking to another runner when "their" switchback passed above "mine."  The second half is an even longer descent, though I don't really remember much of it.

This was my slowest section pace so far.  I gave back about 11 minutes on the cutoffs, something I realized as I left Shawl Gap and checked my pace chart. Nothing to induce panic, and hopefully I can make some time back in the sections ahead, I thought.

Shawl Gap to Veach Gap-mile 41.1 (19:42 pace for 3.1 miles)  Official split:  3:31 PM (11:31 accum. time)  Cutoff:  5:05

While this section is all dirt road, it's mostly down the first half and then all up the second.  But somehow, given the magic of cutoff math or something, I actually gained back some time on the cutoffs, despite the pedestrian pace I now see I posted.  I really don't remember much about this section, except that in general I was feeling a bit frustrated on the dirt road sections with my (usual) inability to lift the knees and generate some turnover.  Just general leg heaviness, even if everything else about my motion felt like I was "running."  Instead, all I could manage was a sort of shuffling motion, alternating with powerhiking.  (It was frustrating in part as the same folks who passed me on the roads were the ones I'd worked hard to pass on the single track not long before!)  There was also more sun exposure on the road sections, and it was the hottest part of the day.  But still, there I was, plodding onward!

Veach Gap to Indian Grave-mile 50.1 (17:50 pace for 9.0m) Official split:  6:22 PM (14:22 accum.) Cutoff: none

Back to the single track!  For the first two-thirds of so of this very long, pretty hot section, you're basically climbing back up from the 800' or so you start the section at back up to 1,900-2000' or so and yo-yo'ing there for a while, then dropping back down to the 800' or so mark over the course of the last few miles.

Judging by my improved pace from my split time, I was moving a little better on this section, happy to be back on single track. As I scratch my head to try to remember, this was the section where there were several of us moving up the pretty steep and long climb playing a bit of leapfrog.  Real nice views out toward the valleys below off to our left.  There was a nice guy I saw several times and who eventually finished ahead of me (Vinny from N.C. I believe?) who was talking about where the MMT course overlapped and diverged from the famous old 100 run out here whose name currently escapes me.

Once we reached the top of the ridgeline and started the up/down "ridgetop running" which is definitely my favorite aspect of this whole course, I found my form, got some adrenaline going, and picked up the pace and passed maybe a half dozen or so folks.  I think this was the section where at one point we were on narrow trail with a big boulder on our right and a fairly steep, forested slope headed down to our left.  Not a place for any false steps, as you might roll for a while!  I recall a woman who I think I passed in this section saying at the next aid station something about how scary that section was.  At the time, though, I both vaguely recalled it from MMT '09 and also thought it was pretty cool, especially as I was moving well!

As we came to the point where we had to make a sharp left turn quite steeply down off the ridgetop and onto another trail ("down into the abyss," I thought!), there were a couple guys I came upon or who came up behind me who were wondering if this was the correct turn.  But it was clearly marked, and the section ahead had we continued was marked with "don't go there" criss-cross flagging tape, so I quickly told them yes before I darted down the steep downhill first.  It then seemed like we were heading downhill forever, with lots of turns and switchbacks and a full head of steam ("no brakes" and "keep those knees up" I kept thinking).  I felt like I was in full stride, though I fully expected some of the folks I'd passed on the ridgeline to pass me back.  One guy finally did when it leveled out a bit, and then as we headed into a more level section of windy, forested trail a couple more did ("wish I could run the flats as well as the downhills," I thought, though there are precious few "flats" on this course!).  The ending section was an unusual "Serengetti" grass field type section, where I think the below pics by one of the official race photographers was taken.  Many of us kept wondering when or if we'd EVER reach this aid station, and once off the ridgeline the heat of the late afternoon and of the clearing where the aid station was were keenly felt!

There's an awesome sequence of shots of this final grasslands section (with me in them!) here on Flicker at these URLs (by Jack Kurisky):  http://www.flickr.com/photos/vhtrc/7212015570/in/set-72157629761691158/



Indian Grave to Habron Gap-mile 54.0 (22:43 pace for 3.9 miles but includes 20 minute-ish aid stop)*  Official split:  7:28 PM (15:28 accum.) Cutoff:  9:00 PM

Back to the dreaded dirt roads!   This section I remembered from '09.  Forever, mostly uphill, windy dirt roads.  Through some pretty country, with forests and pasture land including a big field full of cows, bulls, and calves.  It was still warm. I recall being frustrated by--surprise, surprise!--the inability to lift the legs and being stuck in shuffle mode, as lots of folks scooted by.

It was great to reach Habron.  Psychologically and symbolically, I thought of it as the halfway point even if it was past that distance-wise--the place to change into your night apparel and gear, embark on the longest and toughest section, and for me the last section alone before picking up Steve at Roosevelt. 

I knew this would be my longest stop, and in the end it was a good 20 to 25 minutes.  As I changed socks, liners, shorts, top layers (into short sleeve and arm warmers) and put on headlamp and gloves and hat, I sat in a nice chair and ate some Ramen noodles with broth, and couldn't resist also downing a hot dog as I heard volunteers offering dogs to others.  There were probably a few other fingers snacks in there too, on the way out, and some water.  Also re-lubed important areas and applied repellent and Desitin (not both to same place however!).   Gary Knipling had come in not long before I took off into the woods across the road for what I knew would be  a looong but crucial section.  I remember looking at my watch as I left the station and seeing that I had just over an hour on the cutoffs, maybe like 1:05.

Habron Gap to Camp Roosevelt-mile 63.9 (26:15 for 9.8 miles counting CR aid stop)  Official split:  11:34 PM (19:34 accum.) Cutoff:  1:15 AM 

Instead of dreading this section, I kind of strangely looked forward to it.  It would be the first night section, I had run about half of it (out and back from Roosevelt) on a February training run, and it proved to be a very pleasant night with some gorgeous nighttime views.  The climbs are massive on this section.  For about the first five miles you are mostly climbing, from 700' at Habron up to a high point around 2,350', and you stay up on the ridgeline for quite a while.  Then you have a long switchbacked descent over several miles, and the last couple miles are sort of rolling, all of it finishing back down around 700' or so.  All of it single track, and most of it pretty technical.

I turned my headlamp on maybe 10 minutes out of Habron, as it was already growing dark in the woods.  Not long after, some sore stomach I'd been experiencing from time to time ("treating" with some ginger chews or candies I carry for that) turned into a full-blown need to make the race's "first trip to the woods" to take care of some urgent business.  Quite relieved after that, I set off and got back into a good climbing rhythm. Once I had gained the ridgeline, and some running could resume, and I could really appreciate the views a couple thousand feet down into the valley (of scattered lights of houses, farms, little towns, etc.) was when this sort of idyllic "it's great to be alive and alone in the woods feeling" set in and I started signing "Jungleland" about as loud as I could.  It was somewhere betweeen that feeling, and maybe subconsciously wanting to keep any critters or creatures at bay and warm them I was coming.  But it felt really good. The woods at night will make you do the goofiest things!

I passed a few people who were either stopped (are you ok? I asked and they nodded) or moving more slowly in the night, and I was moving well.  Since I was getting the low battery signal on my first Garmin, and had smartly planned ahead (for a change) and had the second waiting for me at Habron in my DB, I decided to stop at exactly mile 60.0 on the watch.  It read 18:01:06 when I got there.  So I put the new watch down on a rock while I fiddled with my pack and it acquired the satellite signal.  That took a minute or two, and one guy I'd just passed passed me back, and I explained to him what I was doing.  Then I set off and passed him again.

It felt good to finally reach the turn where you head down another trail and start the long, snaking descent.  I got a decent rhythm and passed some folks, even if I felt like from my training run I should be moving faster.  When I got down to the more rolling section, I found myself able to run quite a lot, and was passing more folks, and it was a pretty cool "game" to see their lights move ahead of me around the many curves and twists and to try to move through the gap and overtake them.  I was feeling good as I entered Roosevelt, and greeted Steve, who said he was worried and had been there a while and was relieved to see me. 

Even with what looks like a pedestrian pace on paper, I actually made decent time on this section, and came into Roosevelt with my gap on the cutoffs back out to an hour and a half, as it had been when I came into Habron.  Mission accomplished, and from here on I'd have great--make that stellar!--company.

Camp Roosevelt to Gap Creek I-mile 69.6 (29:19 for 5.8 official miles)  Official split:  2:10 AM (22:10 accum.)  Cutoff:  3:45 AM

After a good 10 minutes or so for Steve to gather his stuff and me to swap a few things to/from the drop bag and eat some solid food (Ramen noodles or quesadilla squares I think) and fill the bladder and take in some fluids, we set off.  We were immediately climbing, and that pretty much set the tone for this epic section. 

Somewhere between the onset of the sleep monsters and the grueling nature of this section, I remember this being a real struggle, and only the pleasant banter back and forth with Steve about anything and everything really kept me moving.  Around me, in people I passed and others who passed me, you could sort of see the strain and even "carnage" in people's eyes in the quickly headlamp-lit glances, particularly those who'd stopped to catch their breath or just gather themselves.  Not a pleasant look, especially as it was sort of how you imagined yourself looking!  On the elevation chart, this is one of those "needles" that seem to go straight up, in this case from 700' to 2,500' in the space of about four miles.  I remember it as among the steepest sections of the whole race, and one of those where there was lots of "hands on knees" climbing and even a few scramble-type bits.  I kept wondering when we'd reach the top in the dark, as it just seemed to go on forever.  I'm not positive, but I believe it was in this section that I gladly downed one of the Starbuck's shots that Steve had stowed in my DB and I'd brought along.

Finally, we got to the last two miles or so of technical, switchbacky descent, and could finally do some running.  We couldn't quite figure out where the aid station was, as we seemed to be sort of circling it, and we could hear noise well before we could see any lights.  It was with great relief that we got to the busy scene in a clearing that is this two-way aid station (in a great irony, it serves as both mile 69 and mile 96--was that intentional?!).  I'm not sure if it was there, but this may be where I actually had a turkey sausage to chase down the noodles or quesadilla I had.  You felt the chill as you stopped, so hot, hearty food really hit the spot.  In the end, for the bulk of the night I think I ended up with the shell jacket over the short-sleeve and arm warmers, and a superthin little beanie under my camp, plus superlight gloves. That was plenty warm, and I'ver experienced a lot colder in the nights at Bighorn some years.   I was using both my handheld and headlamp, and getting additional illumination from Steve behind me, though at times that created some glare for me.

Despite my glacial pace for this brutal section, I kept a 1:35 separation on the cutoffs coming into Gap, which was reassuring.  I was still moving steadily, Steve kept telling me (even if they were sweet lies all pacers tell!), and wasn't having any of my usual nighttime bugaboos, like stomach problems or complete desire to curl up in a ball or total loss of energy.  I continued to take in calories and hydration and electrolytes, thanks in part to Steve's urging.  Somewhere along here or the next section when I complained of sleep deprivation, Steve had me take a whole Vivarin (I'd been taking a half, or 100mg, every 5 hours, along with two Advil), which helped perk me up.  But I resisted the second Starbuck's shot he offered, as I was fearful of my stomach with the milk and the sugar rush.

Gap Greek to Visitor Center-mile 78.1 (31:11 pace for 8.5 miles) Official split:  6:24 AM (accum. 26:24)  Cutoff:  7:30 

My pace definitely hit rock bottom on this section during the the toughest part of the night.  The first mile or so is pretty much straight up, then you follow the ridgeline for what seems like forever (close to 5 miles), then you finally come to a descending double-wide trail/dirt road that leads you to the road, and then there is a (paved) road section lasting a little under 2 miles that is mostly downhill.

I generally felt a little more alert on this section.  The initial climb was tough, and then it seemed to take a lot of meandering and at times a little semi-scrambling to negotiate along the ridgeline.  But there was something cool about doing that under the moonlight and with temps that were manageable and views down toward all the lights below and mostly off to our right as I remember.  You kind of felt like you were on top of the world, while the rest of humanity slept one off!  But eventually we were like, "does this ever end, and shouldn't there be a left turn pretty soon to take us down to the road and toward the Visitor Center?!"

I remember it dawning pretty much as we headed off the ridgeline, and by the time we hit the road we didn't need lights any more.  A couple folks passed us pretty early on the road section, one in particular zooming by.  For me it was a mixed blessing, as Steve seemed to be under some kind of illusion that a smooth surface actually meant runable on my 75-mile legs--rude awakening!  It was pretty much a shuffle on my heavy legs, and I remembered the section from '09 as it was for me the last one before meeting my pacer then and just before the big storm hit that year at nightfall. 

Steve was getting worried about the cutoffs, and made it clear going into the aid station that it was going to be a short stop.  We got out of there in pretty much record time, as I may have grabbed one or two items from the DB and lubed, can't remember but I think I changed into my daytime singlet there, and quickly chowed on something and took some water and filled the bladder.  Steve inhaled some solid food, and we were off up Bird Knob, with only about an hour on the cutoff.

I wasn't really thinking about this a lot at the time, but I remember reading someone say in a report from last year you could "smell the finish" from this point.  For me, having always DNFd 100s at a mile starting with a "6" (or once a "4), pscyhologically getting to the "7's"--and doing so intact and still moving and with a margin on the cutoffs--felt like crossing an important barrier.  I'd made it through the night and I was determined to finish this damn thing!

Visitor Center to Bird Knob-mile 81.6 (22:42 pace for 3.5 miles) Official split:  7:49AM (27:49 accum.) Cutoff:  none

The average pace is deceptive as I was moving quite well on this steep, continuous, twisty, rocky 3-mile single-track climb up 1,100' followed by a descent of about half a mile.  Somewhere between the feeling of starting a new day, the food I took in at the aid station, and Steve's sense of urgency something put a sense of purpose into my climbing.  As we approached the top, I told Steve I'd need to take care of certain bathroom needs, and he informed me we were "on the same schedule" and once we got to the woods at the top he divided up the t.p. and we went our separate ways off the trail to each have a few minutes of peace.  We had to chuckle about that one, but I think we both felt better thereafer. We started bombing the downhill into the aid station (which was billed as water only though it had some snakcs and we went through in less than 30 seconds I think), and that momentum carried over into the following section.  We were moving with a purpose, and our spirits were good!

Bird Knob to Picnic Area-mile 87.9 (22:08 pace for 6.4 miles) Official split:  10:04 AM (30:04 accum.)  Cutoff:  11:00AM

We kept moving well down the opening downhill, climbed strongly the first long uphill, another descent, and then another steep uphill.  On that second one, we passed two runners (one with a pacer) with whom we had been yo-yo'ing and would continue to yo-yo throughout the rest of the race.  I was feeling quite strong on the climbs and I think Steve said something to that effect.  Then it was another (cool, technical) descent back into more heavily forested terrain, where we went along on a section that seemed to go forever.  One person (not one of the ones I'd passed) overtook us, and I think I recall he had poles, as it occurred to Steve to fashion poles out of sticks and give them to me as he wanted me to move faster.  I did this for maybe a quarter of a mile until my shoulders got really sore!

By the time we reached the last couple miles of the section, which trended steadily upward, I was feeling the heat of the day and we kept wondering where the hell the aid station was!  Finally we spotted it across a field, and Steve was again insistent that it be a super-short stop as we were losing time to the cutoffs (down under an hour as we came in).  As I slathered on some sunscreen quickly and grabbed some snacks to carry, I recall he gave me the rest of whatever solid food he was scarfing down so I didn't have to wait for the volunteers to serve me.  "Hurry hurry, we gotta get out of here!" was the gist of it.  I know we were out of there in less than five minutes, and one or two runners pulled in before we left and we beat them out.  At the time I may have thought the rush was slightly excessive, but didn't say anything and kind of knew in my heart of hearts we did need to hustle along!  (Pacers are usually right!)

Picnic Area to Gap Creek II-mile 96.8  (20:36 pace for 8.9 miles) Official split:  1:13PM (33:13 accum.) Cutoff:  2:00PM

This was a long hot section with a ton of climbing.  Whoever said the current course "frontloads" the climbing compared to the old one clearly didn't have this section in mind!  And it definitely felt like a hotter sun and more humidity than day one, though the clouds did start to peak in some too.

After a brief descent, this section climbs pretty much continuously from mile 89 to 94, picking up about 1,500' over that stretch, and then over the last 3-4 miles gives about half of that back.  All on technical single track, except for maybe the last half mile on forest service road.  I felt strong and we passed some folks on this section.  I was gaining confidence as the finish grew closer!  Steve didn't know it as well as some previous sections from all the running he's done on the course (his course knowledge overall was a real asset), and we were starting to get concerned about whether we'd ever find the aid station. And we were anxious about where we stood with the cutoffs, though by my Garmin I thought we were doing ok pace-wise and that turned out to be the case.

There was a certain sense of tension release getting here, and even Steve I think said something coming in like "I think we're going to finish this one!"  While we didn't dawdle, we paused just a little bit more than at Picnic Area to eat some food (quesadilla maybe for me?) and replenish fluids. This was our last aid station!  We left with maybe 40 minute on the cutoffs.

Striding toward the finish (against the backdrop of the beautiful Massanutten Mountain we'd been traversing for two days)

Oh, glorious finish line!

Gap Creek to Finish-103.7 miles!  (15:13 pace for 6.9 miles)  Official finish time:  35:03:33  Official cutoff:  36:00

With its steep upward climb of about 750' over 1.2 miles, the first part of this section is identical to the first climb up and out of Gap Creek.  But then you turn the opposite way, and I remember being concerned on the way up that we might miss the turn.  but it was very clearly marked and Steve even double-checked the turn to make sure.  I felt strong on the climb despite the heat, but when we got to the 1.6 mile section of technical mostly downward trail I could really feel the tenderness in my toes and felt a little uncoordinated on the rocks.  "Don't fall now after you've stayed on your feet for a hundred miles with no tumbles" (but plenty of stumbles and mis-steps), I thought!  I recall one or two folks passing us by on this section, but I didn't much care.

Then we turned onto the dirt road for the last 3.8 miles of rolling and mostly downward forest service road. I thought to myself, "let me see if I can actually run." And I was amazed to discover, I actually could!  I could pick my knees up and raise my feet off the ground, and before you knew it I was posting a 10 minute mile.  Where was that coming from, and how long could I hold it?!   Steve thought it was nothing short of miraculous, as did I!  Then came a 9:29 mile, and a 9:17.  We were zooming by folks (except one guy who passed me somewhere in the last mile and half such was *his* kick!).  It was a giddy, almost out-of-body feeling.  I felt so light, and I thought, "if I slow down I don't think I'll ever regain this momentum.  Must...keep...running!"

By that point I was definitely starting to think that a sub-35 hour finish was possible if I could continue the charge.  But my Garmin mileage was running long, and I didn't quite know where the turn to the camp area and the finish was, and how much mileage there was from there.  I had been along that section in the dark early miles of the race (in the other direction), so I didn't know how long it might be till we turned either.  And as we approached a hill near the turn, Steve shouted "let's walk this," but I replied something like "gotta make 35 hours, no time!"  And then as we rounded the turn into camp, where I thought we might have a quarter mile or so left but it turned out to be more like .7, I started charging up the last major hill. Steve yelled something I don't remember but clearly indicating he wasn't pleased and wasn't sure he could keep up.  "Still have a chance for 35 hours," I shouted.  But when I crested the hill and saw the trail dipped into the woods instead of heading straight across camp, and I saw there was less than two minutes left to 35 hours, I slowed up and said to Steve that now I just wanted to finish strong but could ease off a little.  Somehow I think I had been channeling those last few miles the inner marathoner I still had inside from a half dozen years or more ago!

I had given Steve my camera, and so once we crossed the little bridge where you enter the final field and they have you do a little U-turn to sort of drag out the whole finish scene, he shortcutted it to the finish line so he could get some shots of me.  A nice aspect of MMT is that they hold the awards ceremony till the 35-hour mark and many/most people linger around to enjoy the BBQ and relax even if the vast majority have finished (of those who finish).  So it was pme pf the biggest crowd I've had the pleasure of finishing in front of  in most of my ultras and definitely my three 100 finishes (the only time you really want a crowd in an ultra except the start maybe is at the finish!).  It felt great to be moving strongly across the field and to cross the finish line with gusto!  They announced my name and I think where I was from and that it was my first MMT finish. The R.D. shook my hand, and Steve was there to greet me. It was a an awesome feeling of a job well done!  Massanutten sure does rock!

The brotherhood of 39 miles of shared Massanutten trails (priceless!)

The Aftermath (Afterglow!)

I was tired but not totally wasted right after the race.  Walking slowly and  and a little afraid to examine what was under the tape on my feet and see what was up blister-wise.  I devoured the last hamburger and a plate of other food during the award ceremony, and as the last finishers came in they would briefly interrupt the ceremony. I love the fact they call up each finisher one by one (or take the buckles to those who aren't ambulatory!), and acknowledge and give special awards to 10-time and 15-time (Gary Knipling!) finishers.  (How Gary had left Habron at 54 and gone on to finish almost an hour and a half in front of me I'd love to know, especially as he's in his mid-60s. I'd kill for that stamina!)  It was really a nice feeling for me to get that finisher's buckle, let me tell you! 

Probably the hardest part physically was the drive of close to two hours to my hotel near Dulles Airport--staying awake!  Steve had had me popping full Vivarin tablets every 4-5 hours during the last 50 miles of the race, I think, and I had a Starbucks expresso in my cooler in the car I took before hitting the road.  But after a while I had to turn off the AC and radio (which I thought might be lulling me to sleep), open the windows and really, really focus.  Unfortunately there were no rest areas till near my exit, otherwise I would have stopped for a nap.   It was Sunday early evening and I hadn't slept more than maybe an hour or two since Thursday night, after all!   I managed to find a Burger King for a takeout drive-through meal near my airport hotel before checking in, where I ate and showered and quickly hit the hay.

While I was moving slowly, I was actually pretty intact. Even the next morning as I got up early for the 7AM flight, I found that I could powerwalk and even run a few steps to catch the tram and get through that spread-out airport in the relatively short time I thought I had (turns out I was the first to our gate!).  The massage home visit I had scheduled for later that morning shortly after getting back was definitely the ticket to start the healing!  As was the nap that afternoon, and all the catching up on sleeping (and eating, especially craving protein) that I did for the rest of the week as I moved into a low-key but "active" recovery.  With Bighorn only 33 days away at that point!  The main casualty was my left big toenail, which finally took 3 1/2 weeks to come off after the race!

Lessons from MMT

Things all seemed to come together perfectly for this--a good training season, great pacer, wonderful weather, calm mindset aided by being in such a busy work period, and maybe now some veteran experience with 100s where I'm less prone to panic at setbacks.  I've already talked at length about how Steve kept me in that blissful state of somewhere between focused and distracted (!).  And how the weather was about as good as you could expect for May in Virginia.

As far as training, I think the volume was just right and the key training runs were perfect prep (Febapple 50K in February, Mt. Tammany 10 hour in March, and Traprock 50K and the 41 miler at Harriman in April).  Mt. Tammany especially was very specific training for the persistent and often steep climbs, and just for the mental part of constantly "heading back up." Interestingly, this was the first time going into a 100 that I didn't have a full 50-miler under my belt (I've had as many as two).  That wasn't intentional, as I couldnt' find one that worked, but Mt. Tammany plus the Harriman run were good substitutes in the end, whatever my trepidation I "wasn't doing enough." 

Also, while I did several back to backers, I probably did less than in some previous years.  Anyway, overall I think I had good volume, just enough speed, probably better and more specific strength training especially for core and legs,  and was adequately raced but not "over-raced."  In the back of my mind was the idea MMT was the first of a string of summer 100s, and that I didn't want to "burn out" in the spring.  So that, plus being superbusy and being a daddy for my first 100 season, I think all helped me find what proved to be a good balance, even if it felt improvised and less than optimal a lot of the time!

As far as the mindset thing, there weren't any moments of panic but more like quiet urgency and a certain steadfastness and confidence I could get throw slower patches and wasn't in an "eternal slowdown" at any given point.  That's been pretty slow coming and hard-earned (call it the school of hard 100 knocks), but hopefully something I can now carry into my return trip to Bighorn!

What does finishing in 35 hours and change bode for Bighorn with its 34 hour cutoff and higher elevation coming up next week, or the other 100s I have planned for later this summer (Cascade Crest at 32 hours, and possibly The Bear with its 35 or 36 hours)?  Well, this one was officially almost 104 miles and by my two Garmins strung together I got about 104.75, so that right there could make an hour's difference or so (I like to think!). Beyond that, I have to hope that the more consistently technical nature of the MMT running helps compensate for the much high elevation and longer climbs of Bighorn.  We soon shall see!  But I'd have to say, with the combination of last year's finish (on Bighorn's "alternate" snow course) and the MMT finish, I'm at least headed into Bighorn with a lot more confidence than I ever have had in my previous four starts.

All in all, I really loved everything about the MMT experience.  And while running a race in mid-May at the tail end of a busy semester and with the heavy training coming at my very busiest time of the year in the spring is far from optimal, I'm sure some year I'll be back for more glorious punishment!

1 comment:

Kim said...

Great MMT race report. I think you are set up proper for your next ultras. BEST of luck!!