I come from a running family. A number of years ago, my dad decided that marathons were “too short” and embarked on ultra marathons. Ultras are technically anything longer than a marathon, so they range from 50k (31 miles) to 100+ miles, usually on trails. In fact, they usually call races 100-milers even if the courses run a bit long. What’s an extra mile or 3 when you’re already going that far?
Last weekend was my dad’s final 100-miler as the opportunity cost of training for them has gotten too high (his words as a fellow econ nerd). It was a 103.7 mile course on a mountain trail in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with over 18,000 feet of climbing. If that doesn’t sound like enough of a party, it also rained the entire week leading up to the race and during the race (as you’ll read).
Please enjoy the race recap below, written by Michael Walcott. 103 miles for his 103rd marathon/ultra marathon.
Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 (really 103.7 miles)
Executive Summary: I finished. Placed 98th out of 128 finishers. 190 started the race which means 62 dropped. Total time was 34:25, far beyond my expected time of 28-30 hours, but given the entirety of the event, I’ll take it.
The gory details: In Sunday school we used to sing, “The rains came down and the floods came up, the rains came down and the floods came up…..” It should have been the theme song for this year’s MMT.
Before I describe the race, let me thank Jim Perkins for his outstanding support. He met me at every crew accessible aid station, had the gear laid out, and did everything he could to keep me moving. He was out there the entire 35 hours making sure I had everything I needed. I could not have done it without him.
It rained a lot in the days leading up to Saturday morning. We went to get my race packet on Friday afternoon and the parking area was off limits due to standing water. Given a 4 am Saturday start we intended to camp at the starting line Friday night. I checked the forecast and it was supposed to start raining in the early evening and rain solid all night and into the next morning. I found a hotel room. It was a dump, but it was the best $100 I spent on the trip.
When the alarm went off at 2am I checked outside and it was pouring down rain. We packed up and set off for the start. They wouldn’t let Jim park so I jumped out of the van and walked the road to the starting line and big tent. The rain had quit and everyone was milling around waiting for the start. A few minutes before 4 a light rain started. One minute before 4 we get called out of the tent to the starting line, and at 4 we started. So did a steady rain.
We began by running across a water-soaked field to get to the road. Feet wet. They wouldn’t be dry again until I finished. Understand, I’m not wearing cotton socks and canvas tennis shoes. My trail shoes drain well and my socks are a high quality merino wool that do very well in wet conditions, but it was wet feet nonetheless.
The first 4 miles were slightly uphill on a paved road that turned to high quality dirt after a mile. There were two bridges on this road that were designed for water to run over the bridge if the creek was too high. Both bridges had fast running water over the road. After four miles we turned on to the first trail, and I got my first look at what I was facing for the day. They did not lie about the rocks. There were big rocks, little rocks, round rocks, flat rocks, sharp rocks, angled rocks, embedded rocks and loose rocks, every kind of rock. Not always, there were sections pretty much clear of rocks, but those sections were full of mud and running water.
The course is a big figure 8. About a 70 mile upper loop, clockwise, with a crossover at Gap Creek to make a smaller counterclockwise 30 mile loop back to Gap Creek. We would ascend to the ridge line, run along it, descend to an aid station and do it again. 11 major climbs plus lots of smaller ones. It became clear the lower sections would be ridiculously wet and muddy, but the higher one got on the trail, the dryer it got and the ridge trails were in pretty good shape and fairly runnable at times with minimal rocks.
All went well early on. The rain quit by 9 or so and it wouldn’t rain again for the remainder of the race. It stayed cloudy and foggy almost all day Saturday which ruined the views off the ridges, but kept it pretty cool. I had fallen pretty far back on the first climb, but now I was moving up playing leapfrog with a number of runners but eventually leaving them behind. The only incident was a creek crossing that was raging. I misstepped and lost my balance and started getting dragged downstream only my head above water. Fortunately I was crossing with a few others, and two grabbed me before I ended up in the Shenandoah River 20 miles downstream.
Sidebar – Here’s a story that epitomizes what I love about the ultra community. When I was rescued from the raging creek, my right shoulder got wrenched. Once out of the creek I was rotating my arm to check the damage and Alexandre Benoit, a runner from Canada, asked if I was ok. I had been playing leapfrog with Alexandre for a couple of hours. Earlier in the day he had done a face plant into a rock. His face was bloody and his upper lip was held together with a bandage. He offered me Biofreeze for my shoulder. I declined, but I was struck by his kindness. He was willing to stop, remove his pack and get me, a total stranger, some Biofreeze. When I’m not running I’m cycling. Cyclists are not like runners. A fellow cyclist’s goal is to inflict pain and drop you. Ultrarunners care for one another.
Ok, back to our exciting story. Around 30 miles the stomach decided to go south, and I got sick. For the next 3 hours I fought the nausea and other problems, but I’m no longer eating or drinking enough. The battle of the mind and body begins.
By mile 54 I’m 3 hours behind my target time and only 90 minutes in front of the cutoff. I gear up for the night, and I’m not feeling good. It doesn’t get better. The next section was 10 miles, and it took me 3.5 hours. I stopped several times and turned off my headlamp and did a 360. Nothing but pitch blackness. I didn’t know where I was, and there was no one else around. I couldn’t even run the downhills, and my stomach was a mess. I finally get to Camp Roosevelt at 64 miles.
I had read and been told that the section from Roosevelt to Gap Creek was the wettest part of the course. I wondered how much wetter could it get? Turns out, a lot. A runner earlier in the day told me the first 2 miles out of Roosevelt was in a creek bed. The trail is a creek, and it would be wet. She did not lie. I’m climbing a creek with 6 inches of running water coming down. It wasn’t steep, but it was wet. What she forgot to tell me was the wall I had to climb after the creek bed, and the nasty descent after the climb. At 1:30 AM I staggered into Gap Creek. I was beat both physically and mentally.
Perkins meets me and sort of catches me as I wobble to one side. An aid station worker holds me up from the other side as they discuss whether I should sit. I don’t want to sit. Then God sent Heather. I’m standing in a daze, the other two are discussing what to do with me, and Heather appears with energy that belies the time of day (1:30am) and a smile on her face she asks, “Do you want a pacer?” Addled brain or not, I know a good deal when I see one. If a pretty, 30-something wants to pace me, there is only one correct answer, and I reply, “Yes I do.” Certain logistics are discussed (like how to get her back to her car), the deal is made. I had a pacer.
While I was still suffering physically, having Heather as pacer made huge difference in my mental state. After a tough climb, we got to the first runnable section and like a good pacer Heather suggested we run a little. I tell her I can’t run, but I can shuffle fast. So she said, “Let’s shuffle.” So we did. Turns out Heather is from Michigan, so am I. Heather is an alumna of University of Michigan and a fan of the Wolverines, so am I (a fan of the Wolverines – Go Blue!). Heather has only sisters, I only have brothers, well you get the picture. Words cannot adequately express what an important role she played in getting me to the finish. If she’s not at Gap Creek, I don’t make it. Perkins told me on the way home he thought I would quit at Gap Creek. I looked that bad.
We get to the next aid station, and Heather asks if I want her to keep pacing. I tell her she can take me all the way to finish if she wants, but I’m grateful for what she’s done. She decides to keep going. We climb Bird Knob and get there at sunrise. We take a moment to appreciate the view, it was spectacular (it’s not like I was going to win). We head for the Picnic Area aid station, the next to last one, but it’s a haul. We were on that one section for as far as we could see, and we could see pretty far down the trail, it was a muddy river. Heather said, “They should call this the 100-mile river trail.” We stop on a downhill section to let a couple runners by. I tell Heather I don’t think I can go much farther. I’m falling asleep standing up, and I can feel my stomach is totally empty. I’m moving on fumes. We keep thinking the aid station has to be close. I’m hallucinating. I see the fence line, a road and a picnic shelter around every corner only it’s just more woods when we get there. Even Heather is hallucinating the aid station. Eventually, it is the aid station and not a hallucination.
Picnic Aid is the breakfast station. The staff recognized my plight, sat me down and force-fed me pancakes, bacon and Coke. Force-fed might be a bit strong, but they were insistent on getting some calories into me before they kicked me out. It made the difference. With some calories and Heather’s part command, part question, “Time to shuffle?” we made the 9-mile trek (with a 4-mile nasty climb) back to Gap Creek in under 3 hours. Heather didn’t need a ride back to her car, she ran back.
Sidebar – About 2 miles out of Picnic the trail crosses a main highway. As we approached it, I noticed someone sitting by the trailhead. It was Perkins. He said he thought I might want my sunglasses – I did. That’s an example of the kind of great support Jim provided all during the race.
When we hit the road leading into Gap Creek I finally knew I was going to make it. I had 4 hours to cover less than 9 miles and over 5 miles of that was on a gravel road going downhill. Short of breaking a bone I was going to finish. I said goodbye to Heather and started off on the last section. I passed 8 runners coming home and even ran, not shuffled, a good bit of the last road.
So ends the rambling tale of the MMT 100. Thanks to all for your supportive comments before and after the race. If you ever want to try the race, let me know. I’ll gladly be your crew.