- May 24th, 2016
Race Report: Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
“You are not an ultra runner for completing a 50k; You are not an ultra runner for completing JFK 50 miler; You are not an ultra runner until you complete a 100 miler, and you are not a true ultra runner until you complete the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 miler!”
These were the words spoken by the race director, Kevin Sayers, during the pre-race meeting before the 2016 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run (MMT). The crowd of registered runners, volunteers, friends, and family responded with cheer and approval, and while this was obviously a way to get people excited and hyped up for the challenge ahead, I found the statement a bit sobering. I have run several 50k races and I have run the JFK 50 miler. I have also run a trail 100k that was rather challenging and kept me on the course for 15 hours, but even that race only covered about 60% of the distance I was about to attempt. Any race that exceeds the typical 26.2 mile distance is considered an ultra marathon and thus, one who runs an ultra marathon is considered an ultra runner, but it is often the course that determines the challenge rather than the distance alone. MMT promised to be both the longest and most technical trail race that I have ever entered.
It’s hard to say when my training began because I was uncertain about my chances of running MMT until a month out from race day. After running a great 100k trail run in August with my running mate, Wookie (Click here to read Wookie’s race report), I knew I was hooked on long distance trail running. Spending a whole day running on terrain that varies in consistency, elevation, and location provides for striking changes in scenery. Also, the challenge of managing weather conditions and my body’s systems is equally compelling. Running long means running smart; it takes strength and stamina, but it also takes knowledge and patience to go the distance. I find this kind of discipline to be immediately applicable to everything I do in my life.
After running the 100k in August, I began searching for a race that could realistically be my first attempt at the 100 mile distance. The race had to be close in proximity to Baltimore. If I am going to be running for over 24 hours, I cannot be too far from home or else the trip would require me to clear several days on my calendar. The race had to be sometime between May and August. As a teacher, these are the best months to take a weekend off. The race had to be point to point. Call me picky, but I get discouraged by loops and out-and-backs, and I prefer to be covering new terrain whenever possible. MMT satisfied all three of these requirements, the perfect fit! I entered the lottery and spent a few months on the waitlist, and finally I was moved to the entrants list in early April.
Now, getting back to what constitutes my training, I cannot say I had a specific plan other than to build a solid, base fitness level and to stay healthy. I sprained my ankle badly in October and relaxed my miles through the holiday season. The mild autumn made it possible for me to get back to regular running around mid December, and by January, I was in gear. My weekly routine included 2-3 days of mid-range distance runs (8-12 miles) in the city, one track workout focused on speed, two days of cross training with November Project, and one or two days of long runs either in the city or on trails. As a rule, I kept my heart rate below anaerobic levels during all runs excluding the track workout. I do not run with a heart rate monitor so my assessment is based on perceived effort and occasionally checking my pulse.
At this point I think it is necessary that I acknowledge the importance of November Project (NP), and specifically November Project Baltimore. I attend weekly workouts with this fitness group on Wednesday and Friday mornings. The workouts focus on running and strength training using primarily body weight (think squats, push-ups, lunges, box-jumps, running stairs, etc.). I consider these workouts to be cross training because they incorporate the strength training that I would otherwise ignore. But more important to me than the strength training is the sense of community that NP engenders. I have cultivated many relationships with people in Baltimore through NP, and most of these people have inspired me to find ways to improve myself. A prime example as it relates to my training is my relationship with a regular member of NP Baltimore, Kayode. He made a commitment to run every single day of 2015 (minimum 2 miles), and that is not a simple task for any person to complete. Such determination in the face of changing weather, personal obligations, the onset of illness, and unavoidable injuries is commendable, and when he completed his streak, he challenged the NP community to continue the streak in 2016. So naturally, I signed on for the month of January. Through a week long cold, a blizzard, and a busy teaching schedule, I logged 251 miles and even took 11th place in a 50k trail race. Accepting Kayode’s challenge and using it to develop my own physical and mental grit is but one example of the positive effects that NP continues to have on my life. If you live in a city with a NP tribe, I highly suggest you show up for a workout.
I continued to average 50-60 miles per week in February and March hoping to be moved from the waitlist to the entrants list. I took 9th place in a 40 mile trail race in early March and I was still feeling strong. A week into April and I had been moved to the entrants list and suddenly things got real. I researched the race to try and quantify the numbers. 18,000 feet of elevation gain/loss and a trail as technical as any you would find along the Appalachian mountains. The website insists “Massanutten Rocks!” as a way to hint at the number of rocks along the course, and sure enough, there were more rocks on this course than any course I have previously run. Two weeks out from MMT, I ran one final race with Wookie. It was a trail 50k that I was running as a final tune up. Halfway through the race it became apparent that Wookie and I were poised to finish atop the podium, so Wookie began chasing the leader. I stayed with him most of the way, but let him go about 22 miles in. I was content to take third place, but even my sustained pace was enough to overtake the one runner between Wookie and myself. As I approached the runner, we chatted about 100 milers and he believed I was primed to tackle MMT. I passed him a few miles before the finish and ran up the hill to meet Wookie where we celebrated our strong showing.
After a week of rest and having made all preparations, I arrived Friday afternoon at the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp in the George Washington National Forest near Fort Valley, Virginia. I rented a car that morning in Baltimore and I was surprised by a free upgrade to a Jeep Patriot. This car may be worse on gas mileage than the economy class vehicle I reserved, but it was a welcome upgrade considering I was going to be parked in a forest where the roads in and out are largely dirt/mud and gravel. The drive took 2.5 hours as expected (no traffic) and I brought everything I needed for a solo weekend camping trip. Although my lovely partner and eternal support crew, Lisa, could not join me this weekend, I do enjoy the occasional weekend alone. It can be peaceful to shed all the noise and concerns that come with everyday life and the lack of cellphone service made the experience even more authentic. I pitched my tent and set up a rain covering in case of overnight showers (it had been raining all week), and I continued eating all evening. I attended the pre race meeting to stay current on course conditions and the progression of events and then I returned to my campsite in hopes of sleeping by 8pm. Obviously I didn’t really get to sleep until 9pm and even then, I was awake much of the night; the excitement could not be ignored. I woke up before my alarm at 2am, packed up my campsite, emptied my system, and made all final preparations. I jogged the half mile down to the start line and checked in. I was about to begin my first 100 mile run.
The First Half
As I waited in line to be officially listed as a starter, someone yelled, “hey November Project!” It turned out to be a member of the NP D.C. tribe who was there to support her friend. She noticed me wearing a NP shirt and gave me a big hug and introduced herself as Eryn. She told me she would look for me out on the course and was excited to hear that this was my first 100 miler. Since Lisa could not join me for the weekend, I signed up for the “solo division” during check in. This means I would run this race without a crew, pacers, or the use of a personal listening device. I can tell you in retrospect, a crew is desirable for this course, a pacer is advisable, but the personal listening device was no big deal for me – I don’t even run with a watch. Although it is daunting to participate in the solo division, meeting a person like Eryn at the start line is a reminder that nobody really runs alone. Everywhere you turn there is a volunteer or fellow runner willing to offer support. The trail running community is one of charity and integrity.
Photo credit: Paul Encanación.
With two full handheld bottles, salt tablets, and a waterproof shell stuffed into my spibelt, I crossed the start line at 4am sharp. The initial climb was steep but entirely on crushed gravel. The incessantly deliberate steps and the hypnotic movement of headlamps all the way up and down the road created a surreal sensation of weightlessness. I was probably going too fast from the start (I was actually running the initial 3 mile climb) but all I could do was think about how awesome it feels to be part of a 100 mile run. Of course, I was completely fresh so the pace didn’t feel fast, but honestly I just cruised up the hill with a goofy smile on my face taking in the fleeting moments of the start of a long journey. When we reached the top of the climb, there was a man with a pitcher of water. This was technically the first aid station, but nobody around me stopped for water here so it was right on to the ridge. Then came the rocks. The trail flattened out and I was ready to find a steady pace, but there were sharp pointy rocks all around me. In the dark with only my headlamp to illuminate the ground in front of me, I had to slow down and watch my step. I was able to power through 11 miles on a twisted ankle to finish a 50k in October, but there was no way I could go 96 miles in the same state. As I slowed down, runners began passing me left and right as I could only imagine that they were experienced with the course or perhaps just more daring than I am. Eventually the sun began to rise and the path became a little less treacherous. I was able to increase my pace a bit and found myself cruising into the Edinburg gap aid station for my first breather at 12 miles. It was a very short break as I simply refilled my bottles, got a shout out from Eryn again, and even had a little help forcing my headlamp into the strap pouch on my handheld from none other than MMT legend Gary Knipling. Gary is in his seventies and has completed the course a record 18 times. He wasn’t running this year, but it was great to see him at the aid station. When he says you are looking good, you tend to believe someone with such experience on this course.
Back into the woods, I began climbing again and I don’t remember being bothered by the rocks quite as much. The sun was coming up over the Shenandoah valley and as I reached the summit of the mountain there was a magnificent view that demanded my attention. Had this been a hiking trip and not a race, I would have stayed a while longer, but I took in the beauty and got back to the trail. Rest is important, but you never want to stop for too long at any point or else it becomes difficult to restart. The runs into Woodstock Tower and Powells Fort aid stations (#3 and #4) were largely flat or downhill so I was keeping pace with a steady stream of runners. It was around this time that I started to wonder if my pace was sustainable because I was feeling a little tired and heavy in my legs. I decided that this was probably the effect of my breakfast and morning shot bloks wearing off. I hate eating while running, but there is no getting around the need for real calories when running all day. I came into Powells Fort with a number of runners and raided the table of fruit. Pineapple, grapes, watermelon, strawberries, I ate almost entirely fruit at this aid station and it was so satisfying! I also made sure to pop some salt tablets and at this point, my initial electrolyte bottle from the morning (Hammer Perpetuum) was nearly empty, so I began filling that bottle with gatorade and proceeded with one bottle water and one bottle nasty perpetuum/gatorade mixture. This sounds gross and it probably was gross, but I didn’t really care because I was getting the salts I needed and tons of water from the fruit. The temperature was rising and so was the humidity, so I made it a priority to manage my fluids and salts.
Photo credit: Paul Encanación.
A modest climb followed Powells Fort and then it was on to a swift downhill approaching Elizabeth Furnace aid station. It was at this aid station that I became aware of how valuable a crew would have been. Elizabeth Furnace aid station was at the 50k mark of the race and nearly every runner that entered the aid station with me went quickly to a member of their crew who had everything from nutritional supplements to changes of clothing. I was soaking wet from the humidity and a change of shirt looked really nice, but alas, solo division. Now to be fair, I could have planned in advance to have drop bags at designated aid stations, but I only made time to prepare one before the race and that one waited for me at Camp Roosevelt (mile 63.9). So I turned my attention to the potatoes, pretzels, watermelon, and grapes. Suddenly I heard Eryn again asking how I was doing. It was great to see a familiar face and she forced me to describe the condition of my feet, specifically whether or not I was developing hot spots or blisters. I was feeling a little sore, but had she not asked I would have continued without checking. Sure enough I was developing blisters on both big toes. She advised me to tape them up now because this was still only mile 33, and 67 miles on ever enlarging blisters was not going to be possible.
I left Elizabeth Furnace feeling a little more confident. The food helped, the rest helped, and hey, I’ve got tape on my blisters – I’m on top of things! Another steep climb was followed by a sprint of a downhill. Even though my quads were beginning to take issue with downhill running, I had no choice but to fly down this section. For the first time since mile four, there were virtually no rock scrambles to deal with on the down hill(!) The grassy path demanded a quick pace right into Shawl Gap (aid station #6). A quick refill and an ice pop was all I needed; the next aid station was only three miles away and the section of the course that leads there was a gravel road. The road was not flat, in fact most of the hills had to be walked, but it was nice to not have to worry about each step potentially ending my race. Arriving at Veach Gap, the sky looked incredibly ominous. I knew it was supposed to rain today, and actually at this point I was looking forward to a break in the humidity, but with rain comes wet feet. The aid station captain told me the next section was difficult. Nine miles: three up, three down, and three across. Nine miles does not sound like a long distance in isolation, but during a 100 mile run, nine miles can take 2.5-3 hours. So after eating another ice pop and a bunch of salted potatoes, I proceeded up the mountain with two full bottles.
Only a few minutes into the climb I felt rain drops, heard thunder, and knew it was time to put on the waterproof shell. What started with a steady rain turned into a downpour. The already rocky climb became rocky, muddy, and flooded. This climb was torture. The trail just kept going up with tiny false peaks that gave way to more incline as far as my eyes could see. The combination of tired legs and no clear summit in sight was discouraging enough to make me want to stop and rest, but as a rule, I do not stop on a climb until I reach a summit. I decided it was best not to look up and instead keep my eyes on my saturated feet so as to make sure my legs keep moving forward and don’t trip on the rocks. I tried hard to stick to this resolve, but I kept looking up to see if the end was in sight. I couldn’t help it, I had to know if I was close; like a terrible car accident, I couldn’t avert my gaze and this added to my discouragement. Then suddenly, soaking wet, struggling to breath, and growing frustrated by the second, I began laughing a little at how ridiculous all of this was. I thought to myself, “what am I doing out here in these conditions?” I knew the answers, but in an abstract way, this whole scene was comical. A timely existential distraction was just what I needed to avoid stopping along the climb because out of nowhere, I realized I reached the top! After confirming that this wasn’t a false peak, I got back into gear and ran the ridge in the pouring rain. Keeping with the trend in this race, a long and steep downhill section lead into the aid station, so as I began to descend, I knew I was less than three miles out. For the past twenty miles or so, I had been running with familiar faces, leap frogging each other along the course and spending time at aid stations together. The runners who were a part of my general group had all recognized that I was a superior descender and they all kindly made way for me to bomb down the hill into the aid station. I have never thought of myself as being good on the downhills, but I seemed to have a lot of confidence during the daytime and true to their observation, I was far more confident than everyone around me when it came to descending the rock scrambles. As I ran into Indian Grave Trailhead aid station, I was met with cheer and applause from the volunteers. I was also ready to eat! Black bean burgers, fruit, pretzels, grilled cheese, potatoes, chips, and they even had IPAs! I couldn’t bring myself to have a beer just yet, but I ate everything and as I asked if I could have a second black bean burger, the grill master said to me, “you just ran 50.1 miles, you can have anything you want.”
The Second Half
With a full stomach I continued along another gravel road to the Habron Gap aid station. The late afternoon sun started peaking through the cloudy sky and the rain seemed to be contained on the other side of the mountain. It is fun running by houses along back country roads wondering what these people think of someone like me going by with a number attached to my shorts and looking drenched and tired. It was also nice to be off the mountain for a little while and back on a flat surface again. The segment was only four miles and I reached Habron Gap feeling like the hardest climb was behind me. Many people were changing shoes and socks and reapplying vaseline, tape, and other things. Again, a crew would have helped, but even a drop bag would have been useful at this aid station. It didn’t look like I had seen the last of the rain, so fresh socks were only going to stay dry for so long. My feet at this point were thoroughly saturated and the downhills made my skin feel like it was being ripped from the bones. I knew there was plenty more of this to go, so I tried to step lightly and not dwell on pain that was bound to increase anyway. I saw Eryn one last time and she mentioned I was doing great to be through Habron Gap before sundown. On my way out of the aid station I saw Gary Knipling again and he asked how I was doing. I told him I was happy to be done with the Veach Gap climb, but then he warned me that the ensuing climb was going to be even harder. I thought about that for a minute, but what could I do about it? So I thanked him and headed back to the mountain ready to face the Habron Gap climb.
As Gary suggested, this climb picked up right where Veach Gap left off. It was more steep at times and the intermittent rain made sure the ground was saturated and slick. This section was also the longest stretch between aid stations: 9.8 miles. I could give you a dozen examples of what made this section difficult, but you can just read about the Veach Gap climb again and imagine all of that in capital letters or somehow accentuated. Instead, I will give you a few reasons why I was able to stay relatively positive during this stretch. I knew that the next aid station was going to be Camp Roosevelt. That is significant for two reasons: first, because I would reach my one and only drop bag, and second, because that aid station is at mile 63.9 or roughly the 100k mark. I knew I could run 100k, I’ve done it before, even if something goes wrong later in the race, I knew I wouldn’t be defeated before reaching the 100k mark. This was really when I started mentally thinking aid station to aid station as a goal in itself. Another important difference between the Veach Gap climb and the Habron Gap climb was the nature of the trail. I admit Habron Gap was harder in general, but it was a switchback climb. I like switchbacks because each turn is a chance to reset your focus and tackle one leg at a time. It was still incredibly steep and long, but I felt like I was reaching a new level with each turn – gaining experience points, if you will. Somehow the change in direction motivated me to keep going. Veach Gap by contrast was long and straight up as far as my eyes could see. There were no small victories, no boosts in moral, no achievements unlocked. The Habron Gap experience was also probably tempered by the fact that I had already conquered the Veach Gap climb, so I was ready to deal with another monster hill without as much complaint. All things considered, this was probably the most physically challenging portion of the course, but I was in the right mental state at this point, and it did not break my spirit. I arrived at Camp Roosevelt knowing I was going to continue.
The sun was starting to set and it seemed to be getting darker even faster because of the cloud cover. The afternoon heat and humidity had gone away and it was now getting cold. The breeze was cold enough to reduce the dexterity in my hands and it took me a long time to unknot my shoe laces, remove my wet socks, powder my wet (and frozen) feet, and put on new socks. The pain I was feeling in my feet was so overwhelming that I wasn’t bothered or even aware of my bright red chaffing spots around my groin. An aid station volunteer said to me, “I don’t mean to stare at your crotch, but it looks like you have some bad chaffing on the inside of your legs.” She was right, it was bad. I reapplied vaseline, but the burn of the chaffed skin really didn’t bother me at all because I could only think of my throbbing feet. Pain is interesting because it is completely controlled by the brain. Obviously we need to know when we are in pain for purposes of survival, but it was fascinating to observe the mind over matter sensation as my brain recognized one area of pain as being more immediately important than another. All my attention was on the state of my feet and I could not feel anything else. I left Camp Roosevelt knowing every step would be one more than I have ever taken in a race, but I also knew I still had about 40 miles to go.
The climb back up the mountain was gradual and not particularly steep, but it was entirely inundated with flowing water. The rain was still coming down on and off, but so much rain had fallen during the day that the runoff turned the trail into a stream. At first I was trying to step on the rocks that were partly above the water, soon I was jumping from side to side looking for any dry land, and finally I took a wrong step and sunk deep into shin-high water/mud. “That’s that,” I thought. Half a mile at best in dry socks and now back to soaked feet. Now it seemed pointless to jump around the sides of the trail, so I simply marched uphill for about 3 miles in shin-high water rushing over muddy jagged rocks. The sun was retreating behind the mountain and I was not able to reach the summit of the climb in time to use the last bit of daylight on the descent, so I stopped at the peak and took out my headlamp that I had kept in the pouch on my bottle since mile 12. Before reaching the peak, I was marching through the water with another runner who said he dropped out last year at Camp Roosevelt. I was keeping a faster pace than he was and I eventually left him behind, but I was impressed by his determination to come back and finish what he started last year. I later found out that he did finish and that made his achievement even more impressive. I’m not sure I would have the courage to come back to a 100 miler after knowing I only made it 60% of the way the year before. The downhill was steep and fast but covered with rocks and I was running at dusk when everything is hard to see. I had my headlamp on, but the relative light in the air made everything glow in equal luminescence, thus altering my depth perception. Still I was moving fast down the slope until I suddenly saw a bright orb reflecting from my headlamp beam. It was the eye of a snake! It probably didn’t pose a threat but it startled me nonetheless. I walked carefully around it and proceeded down the hill towards Gap Creek aid station. As I got close, I heard the cheers of the crowd and saw a roaring bonfire across the river. Without skipping a beat, I ran right through the river and into the aid station. I didn’t see a bridge and I was already soaked so, whatever. I wanted to sit down in a folding camp chair.
Gap Creek aid station was lively because it was the only aid station that runners would visit twice. Leaving Gap Creek at the 70 mile mark, runners circumnavigate the southern terminus of the mountain and curl back up by mile 96. There was great aid at Gap Creek and the volunteers helped me take my shoes off so that I could re-tape my wet blistery feet. I also could not open my headlamp battery slot to change my batteries that I picked up from my drop bag. A volunteer helped me with that too, and it was a wise move because I would need full power from my headlamp to get through the night. I cannot stress enough how supportive the aid station volunteers were. This was a ultra marathon put on by ultra runners and everybody there was experienced and knew just what a runner needs in every situation. Leaving Gap Creek, I found myself climbing the Jawbone hill. It was a steep set of switchbacks but didn’t last too long. When I reached the top, I realized I was running with another guy that I had been leap frogging earlier in the day. I decided that I would introduce myself since we were about to run through the night.
The runner’s name was Ron and he was seeking his fourth MMT finish. He had a pacer with him named Tim who happened to be in charge of the 50k that Wookie and I had run two weeks ago. He remembered us fondly and said he was impressed I was out here running my first 100 miler so soon after that race. He also seemed surprised that I would choose MMT as my first 100 miler because he believed MMT to be one of the harder races this country has to offer – and he has experience with 100 milers on both coasts. I felt the greatest challenge MMT had to offer was the technical nature of the course. Similar to the early morning stretch, I lost all confidence on the jagged rocks at night and I was reduced to walking any section with excessive boulders. Many times I landed on sharp edges of rocks and the contact felt like a dagger sticking all the way through my spongy skin and stabbing my bone. My feet were screaming at me to stop, but now my mind began shifting attention away from my feet and toward my heart and core temperature. As we climbed the mountain, the winds became violent and swift. Soon we would reach the peak and dance through the boulder field that is Kern’s ridge. The sound of the wind whipping across the ridge grew louder as we approached the peak, and my skin became cold and dry. My nerves were on edge as if I was about to walk on stage for a performance, and then all at once, the wind hit me like a ton of bricks.
It was cold atop the mountain, roughly 37 degrees F, and I still only had a rain shell over a short sleeve shirt. Again, a crew would have been perfect because they could have been at Gap Creek with a bag of extra clothes ready to alert me of the temperature drop. Ron and Tim both pulled out warm layers when we reached the peak – they were showing their experience in the face of my rookie mistakes. We were never able to maintain a quick pace because the boulders and rocks were too crooked to land on in any regular fashion. I wanted nothing more than to descend from the mountain, but we had to be patient with our steps at night. I tried to push the pace leaving Ron and Tim a little bit behind me, but I kept getting lost and had to wait until they caught up to me standing confused at an intersection. My mind was playing tricks on me at every turn, I was clearly exhausted. At times I was convinced I was seeing a flag that marked the trail, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a collection of leaves. I decided it was prudent to stay close to Ron and Tim because it seemed like they knew the course pretty well despite their own exhaustion. We finally descended the mountain and got out of the path of the wind. This, paired with an increased pace, got my heart rate going and I began to break a sweat again. I was feeling better about my core now that we were moving, but I was nervous about my consciousness and reaction time. I was worried that I might start taking bad steps in my exhausted state and I was really looking forward to the next aid station.
When we arrived at Visitor Center (aid station #12), my spirit was immediately crushed by the geography of our destination. Visitor Center was out of the woods and on an open hill without protection from the mountain. The winds rushed right through the aid station biting me down to the bone. I stood freezing at the food table trying to pass hot corn chowder through chattering teeth. I then took several cups of coca-cola with hopes that the caffeine would sharpen my wits. I gravitated towards the bonfire, but even that wasn’t enough to keep me warm. I had to keep moving or I would freeze to death. So back to the trail I went feeling less than rested but optimistic about Bird Knob aid station being only 3.5 miles away. When I arrived at Bird Knob, I was disappointed to see that the aid station did not even have a bonfire. It also was not sufficiently protected from the wind and I was freezing again. The volunteers had a warm vegetable broth for me and I sat in a chair and wrapped a blanket around my damp body. In this moment I felt better, but I knew if I stayed in a chair with a blanket for more than a few minutes, my race would be over. A runner next to me was fast asleep on a beach chair wrapped in blankets. I gazed upon him like the carcass of an animal that collapsed in the desert under the hot sun. I knew that would be me if I didn’t get back on the trail right away. I made haste towards the trailhead as it was a half mile down the road from the aid station and I would not be protected from the wind until I reached the woods.
Bird Knob aid station was at mile 81, so I still had more than twenty miles to go, but now I started rationalizing my task: If I can make it to Picnic Area, then there is no way I won’t make it back to Gap Creek, and from there I will certainly be able to do the final seven miles to the finish. Obviously this was all just a way to take my mind off the agonizingly slow pace that carried me through the night. The trail went up, I power walked up the hill. The trail went down, my quads cursed my momentum. The trail gained altitude, I froze. The trail descended to the river bed, I got soaked. All in my private world of mental exhaustion illuminated by a single light emanating from my forehead. And so the race went on until I arrived at Picnic Area (aid station #14). It was past 3am and I was beat. I sat by the fire even though I had been warned never to do that in a 100 mile race. I didn’t care, I was wet, cold, exhausted, and I couldn’t really feel my feet anymore. The next stretch was nine miles back to Gap Creek. If I made it to Gap Creek again, I could walk the final seven if necessary and still finish this race. So I got out of the chair and kept moving my legs at any pace that I could sustain. That nine mile stretch lasted all night. In reality it last about 3 hours but it felt like all night. When the sun started to rise, I knew it was close to 6am and I knew Gap Creek was near. Dawn proved to be as difficult on my vision as dusk had been. I was certain I saw trail signs along the path that turned out to be nothing more than logs or sticks and shadows. Finally with the sun up at 6am, I was able to remove my headlamp and enter Gap Creek aid station hungry for breakfast.
At 6:50am and only seven miles to the finish line, I suddenly realized I was going to beat my 30 hour projection. My goal all along was to simply finish, but I had hoped to finish around the 30 hour mark if things went well. The volunteers served me waffles with syrup, donuts, cantaloupe, and muffins. I feasted with renewed spirit and the expectation that I was going to finish under 30 hours. At this point Tim said goodbye to Ron as his job of pacing him through the night was complete. I asked Ron if he wanted to stick together en route to the finish, and he agreed. We had to ascend Jawbone one more time, but at the top we went straight on the path and proceeded through one final technical section before returning to the gravel road leading back to the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp. Ron and I alternated between running and walking along the final three miles of road. I again demonstrated my fatigue by suggesting a few times that we run until “that mailbox up there on the left,” only to find out as I got closer that it was not a mailbox, rather a branch. This happened a few times as I pointed to trash cans that were stumps, and telephone poles that were shadows. When we were within one mile of the finish, Ron looked at his watch and it was only 8:30am; we were going to beat 29 hours for sure. I picked up the pace as we entered the camp and Ron gave me the go ahead signaling that he wanted to take it easy on the final downhill and across the bridge. I crossed the bridge into the field and entered the runway of flags leading to the finish line. I heard my name announced over the speaker and cheers went up as I crossed the same archway where the journey began 28 hours and 41 minutes ago. The race director gave me a handshake, a finisher’s hat, a belt buckle, and a pint glass for running in the solo division. I congratulated Ron as we headed back to our respective campsites.
I tried to take a shower at the camp bathroom before leaving, but the water was freezing, I forgot to bring a towel, and suddenly all my chaffed body parts burned in unison upon standing in the shower stall. I decided I should make for home, but this took a while because I had to stop twice along the highway for hour-long naps to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. But guess what? I completed a 103.7 mile race! Somehow that realization took a while to sink in. I was just relieved to be done and so completely exhausted that I wasn’t even especially excited. As I sit here three weeks later and write this account of the race, I am more excited now about the finish than I was in the moment, but a slideshow, put together by Alfonso Ong, captures me at the finish line with enough energy for a fist pump (my picture is at 2:38 of the slideshow ).
A 100 mile run proved to be a special journey, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience than what I had at the 2016 MMT. Kudos to the VHTRC and all the volunteers that made this race possible. I can definitely see myself running another 100 miler in the future, and possibly returning to MMT again!