Or, “They should call this the Massanutten Mud Run.”
It rained on Friday. Not a cool summer rain or a light spring rain. This was torrential, the kind of rain that falls during monsoon season. Airlines cancelled flights (including the flight of my pacer and crew), roads shut down, and rivers broke their banks. My buddy Steve, not the best of drivers, but a fun guy and the most energetic supporter of ultrarunning a person could meet. Steve has an infectious laugh—MDR staph infectious. On Friday night, after dinner, driving back to our hotels, we were joking in the car and he began to laugh so hard that his legs locked, he pounded the steering wheel, grabbed his back, sputtered with uncontrolled delight. The truck lurched to a halt in the middle of the road, and it took all of his strength—developed over years of running in these mountains—to control his laughter enough for him to be able to drive on.
The course, normally quite a dry one, would be wet this year, they said. Expect a lot of water, they said. The traditional finish even had to be rerouted because the bridge over which runners cross before entering the field at Caroline’s Retreat had washed out. Thinking their would be some water, I had brought three changes of socks, in one of which I would start the race. Wet feet for a few miles is one thing. Wet feet for a hundred is another thing altogether. But, I was determined to make a go of it. I knew that no matter what, even if I walked the entire course, I could make the 36 hour cutoff. Not that I wanted to walk the entire way, but you never know.
This is a race that runners repeat. Many times throughout the run I was asked if this was my first MMT. Not my first ultra, or my first 100 miler, but my first MMT. “Yes,” I would way, to which they would almost invariably reply, “You’re doing great for a first timer. Got a great pace going.” The fact that I had a positive split of more than 10 hours should say something about how smart my pace was. Literally, the second half of the race took my 21 hours. In the time it took me to complete the second half of the race, Karl Meltzer could have run the entire course a second time. But I digress.
There seemed to be some confusion at the start, probably because the start had moved only the day before. Anyone without the benefit of knowing people who were volunteering for the race, or who chose not to attend the pre-race briefing, did not get the memo on the change. As the clock counted down to 4am, the RD was giving final positive thoughts on a great race. “If you aren’t having a good time out there, do what it takes to have a good time because that’s what this race is about,” he said. Then he looked at the clock. “We’re going to start in, oh, 2, 3, 1, go!”
The First Quarter
Within a mile of starting we crossed water. A cement bridge over the road, under which was a culvert to allow water to drain from the river to our left, was overflowing with water. My first thought was to jump over, or find some rocks to traverse, but it was just ankle deep water flowing over a bridge and the only choice was to go through it. So that’s what I did. My feet were briefly cold—it was around 50 degrees and I was wearing a short sleeved shirt—but then warmed up quickly as the water drained away. I was impressed with my new shoes, the Altra Olympus, and at how well they breathed. When we came across the second bridge and more flowing water. Again, there was nothing to do but wade through it.
I was taking it slow at this point, walking most of the way because during those first miles we were going uphill. My goal was to start easy, to run easy the whole way when I was running, walk the uphills and cruise the flats and downhills. That was what I focused on while I moved along the course, making the turn onto the narrow single-track Massanutten Mountain Trail that defines the majority of the course. Be like the turtle, I thought. Slow and steady wins the race. It struck me that in ultra running the tortoise and the hare may be more appropos than for any other sport. The hare is fast, after all, but it is the tortoise who has endurance, the tortoise who can outlast the hare. At least in a race longer than 50 miles.
I found myself jogging easily behind a long line of racers, men and women. We were running along the western ridge of the Massanutten Mountains, a the valley in the middle to our right. We had started down there somewhere. The air was chilly and I wished I had worn a long sleeve shirt, but there was nothing to do about that now. Distantly I heard running water, as I did throughout the day, and birds chirping in the trees, but mostly I heard our footsteps and the huffing of our breath as we meandered through the woods. There were few words, though some of these racers seemed to know each other. In the morning twilight we concentrated on placing our feet on top of and over the huge rocks and tiny boulders that littered the path. Then, like an alarm had sounded, five men turned off the trail simultaneously. Most of them clicked off their lights. It struck me that trail running was a unique venue for men to stand ominously in the trees in the dark with their privates hanging out while strange men and women filed past them, oblivious. Soon an orange sun fired up the sky and like Swamp Thing I felt the warmth of its rays on my chilled hands and face.
I came into the first aid station, Edinburg Gap, feeling good. I grabbed my drop bag and replenished my supply of pizza rolls and bean burritos I had make myself and was eating for nutrition on the run. The idea for making food like this came from Feed Zone Portables. The book has recipes for real food made into small portions and easily edible on the run. I had been training with pizza rolls for food, and have run ultra-distances before with bean burritos, so that was my food of choice for this race. Since I’d made so many, I made the decision early to attempt to forgo food from the aid stations and rely on my own food, and Perpetuem. For the first half of the race, I think that strategy worked for me.
Rather than leave my light and have to worry about retrieving the drop bag at the end of the race, I wrapped it around my hydration belt and pushed on. Outside of the aid station the trail became thick mud and streams that I mostly tried to avoid, concerned about keeping my feet dry for the next 88 miles. I did not realize yet how impossible that task would be. Briefly I felt relief when my feet no longer slipped on the slick muddy trail, until I discovered that this was because the first big trail climb of the course loomed in front of me. I paid no attention to the top of the hill, or to the steepness of the path. I kept my head low and watched each step as it fell before me and used the strength of my hips and quads to carry my body up. Boulders blocking the trail seemed small in comparison to my long legs. I did not push so hard that I was out of breath; rather, I hiked ever hill I came to, propelling myself quickly up and over each rise. The hard part about the hills for me was not the climb but the descent after reaching the top. In fact, the climbs felt too short, as halfway down each descent what I my legs wanted was to climb again. The descents were just as steep as the ascents, and more difficult to maneuver as gravity and momentum wanted to pull me faster and faster down the hill and with each foot strike I attempted to put a stop to that momentum. At times there were no switchbacks, just a muddy stream of a trail that led straight down. I tried to avoid the thick, deep, sloppy mud, which hurt me when my right foot came out from under me and I landed on my hip in the mud. I was lucky not to have landed on one of the many rocks on the trail. I got up and assessed damage and then continued down the trail.
Just before the Woodstock Aid Station I came to a small clearing on the left side of the trail. A man stood in a small clearing of grass ringed by trees save for a gap in the trees that looked out onto the western side of the Massanutten. The North Fork of the Shenandoah River meandered below as the Shenandoah Valley stretched out before me. Farm houses stood in wide grassy fields carved out of the trees. I stopped on the trail, a pizza roll in my mouth. “Wow,” I said, because it was all I could think to say. A man in jeans wearing an MMT cap stood near the edge of the field where the grass seemed to roll off into the valley below. “There’s an even more spectacular view on the other side of the aid station,” he said. Which shocked me in many ways: that there could be a view of the valley more amazing than this; that this man was standing on what looked like the edge of a thousand foot drop-off; that I was close to the next aid station. I turned down the trail and pushed on and came into the aid station with food in my mouth.
Steve was there, as was his friend Tom with whom I’d had dinner last night. Tom ran Hard Rock last year, and though he said it took a lot out of him, he wanted to go back. “Just not this year,” he told me.
“Most people come into the aid station to get food,” Tom said, “not in the middle of eating.” I laughed. Steve and Tom had already made fun of me for my bean burritos, and I was discovering that they did not taste as good as the pizza rolls while I ran. From my drop bag I replenished my bottle of Perpetuem and took two pizza rolls, as well as all the packets of ORS I could carry. My hands were beginning to swell, and I worried that I was off in my electrolytes. Had I been taking my S-caps? I didn’t remember. I downed two at the aid station while Steve and I chatted. The course so far had been spectacular, running along that ridge as the morning sun filtered in through the trees. “It gets better,” he told me.
I left Steve with my light and my thanks and pushed on. Beyond Woodstock was another view of the valley, though this one was partially blocked by power lines stretching down the side of the mountain. Still, the river twisted through the valley and the green trees and grass blanketed the earth. I stood up on a rock and enjoyed the view, marveling in the beauty of this place. I did not want to care about time (I had removed my watch before I started the run) and so allowed myself to just enjoy the moment.
After a few miles of rolling hills I began a steep descent down a trail that quickly turned muddy. I was careful with each step as runners bombed past me, more deft at allowing the momentum of the trail to carry them down this steep course. I was cautious about the mud and, more importantly, about falling. A bad spill on this trail could lead to a race ending injury if I wasn’t careful. The words of my daughter were always present in my mind: “Daddy, don’t fall.” Then I reminded myself of my sage words of wisdom to her. “Everybody falls. What matters is that you get back up.”
I came into Powell’s Fort feeling strong still, refilled my water bottles, ate a pizza roll, and moved on. Here we followed a dirt road, wide and dry. I enjoyed the brief respite from descents and rocks. The sound of flowing water was loud here, and when I turned a corner I saw why. A river crossed the road. A hiker, pack high on his shoulders, attempted to cross this river on a log that lay halfway over the road. He had two walking sticks and when he came to the end of the log he stepped into the water–up to his knee. I quickly realized there was no way around this torrent and without stopping I barrelled through, the water rising above my knee. I came out the other side, shoes sloshing in the dirt, blocking my mind from thoughts of blisters or trench foot. From here on, I decided, I would not bother avoiding the water. If my feet were going to get wet, I’d let them.
To Camp Roosevelt: What Kind of Animal Are You?
Rather than feel uncomfortable and sloshy, the icy water felt good, cooling my hot feet and tired legs. I no longer felt slowed down by the mud. In fact, running in the middle of the muddy trailed turned out to provide better traction. The edge of the trail, where more runners had attempted to avoid the water, was slick and treacherous like black ice on a dark morning. Running or walking through the middle of the mud, my feet fell more firmly, my footing more sure, now that I had given up the idea of staying dry.
At Shawl Gap aid station I saw my crew for the first time, and took the opportunity to sit down. I did not have a change of socks, and since I did not feel any hotspots on my feet I chose not to even remove my shoes. My hands were swollen and I mentioned this to Reiko, who would pace me to the finish later. She suggested I was either taking too little salt or too much. “I’m taking two S-caps every hour,” I told her.
“That’s a lot,” she said, and suggested I stop. While I refueled, she struggled to get my wedding ring off. My fingers were so swollen that the ring might cut off circulation. With some effort, and some Aquaphor, she managed to finally get it off. “Don’t lose that,” I said. “I’ve never taken it off for a race, ever.” Within ten minutes of arriving at Shawl Gap I was moving out. Reiko told me I had to make up the lost time by spending as little time as possible at future aid stations. Since I had spent less than a minute at the ones preceding this one I figured I had time. I ran along a dirt road with another runner, Dan from Arlington, who was running in the Solo Division. Solo runners agree to run without pacers or crew and rely soley on the supplies they leave in drop bags, or provided by the aid stations. We jogged easily together on this portion of the course, walking the uphills and cruising slowly on the flats and descents. Three miles later we came into the Veach Gap aid station. I filled my bottles and ate a pizza roll. Dan retrieved supplies from his drop bag. I continued on the trail.
We had then a steep, one-thousand foot climb over less than two miles. The rocky trail seemed to rise straight into the sky. I power hiked it, my long, strong thighs and hips carrying me up and over the top of the ridge. There was a short rolling section along the ridge, and then another couple miles downhill. This seemed the steepest part of the course so far, and this time, having given up on keeping my feet dry, I plunged into the river of mud. And I did not allow myself to stop. I did not land each foot fall with the intention of preventing a fall. Rather, controlled, I took that descent by the horns and rode it down into the valley. I scrambled and scampered over rocks and between boulders. I scurried over wet leaves and sloshed through mud so deep I thought I might leave a shoe behind. “This is the elevator shaft,” one runner told me as I barreled past him, free falling down an elevator shaft. Then the river of mud and water dried and the trail widened and became less steep but still a fast descent, but I did not want to lay the hammer down. This section would end the first half of the race for me, sure, but there was still another 50 miles to travel. I eased back, let my foot falls stop my forward propulsion, pounded my feet against the dirt to stop myself from going too fast, from burning my engine too hot too soon.
As I came into the 50 mile Indian Grave Trailhead aid station, at the top of a shallow climb, I felt the first twinges of an ache in my shin. It was just a hint, and then it was gone, and then I saw Steve again and he cheered me on. “You’re an hour ahead of me,” he said. “You look great. How do you feel?” The truth was I felt great. 50 miles in and I had yet to have a low point. I was running fairly slow, taking it easy, walking the ascents still, and that descent was the fastest I had taken so far. “You’ve got 4 miles to Habron, and eat something there because the section after that is the toughest on the course.” I ate some bacon–I could never pass up bacon–and wish I had eaten more of it. But then I was gone, along a dirt road again, and soon Dan caught up with me and we jogged together again for a time until we came to Habron Gap where Dan continued and I took advantage of some of the aid station fare, including a frozen popsicle which tasted mmm-mmm good. On my way up the next climb I began to sing. I was surprised that I hadn’t begun singing before this, as singing is something that I enjoy doing while running. It takes my mind off any pain or fatigue I may be feeling. There was only one song stuck in my head all day, though, thanks to my daughter.
You must be swift as the coursing river
With all the force of a great typhoon,
And all the strength of a raging river,
Mysterious as the darkside of the moon!
A guy on the trail in front of me requested Country Road, so I began to sing it. A camera captured the moment.
Unfortunately, within 4 miles, I realized I was running out of steam. I ate another pizza roll and slowed down, not attacking the hill with quite so much power as much as trudging up it desperately. I should have eaten more, I know that now, but at the time I was strangely still trying to conserve my food, like I would somehow runout before the end of the race. Eating the food at the aid stations seemed, for some reason, outside of my scope. Like I wasn’t allowed. Looking back I can see how foolish the idea was, but at the time I was focused on the idea that the bulk of my nutrition had to come from what I had prepared before hand. The trail was beautiful, another steep rise followed by rolling hills along the ridge line. To my left, the eastern side of the Massanutten Mountain and the twisting South Fork of the Shenandoah River coursed through the valley. To my right the valley in the middle of the Massanutten Mountains themselves. It was during this section that I began my struggle with seeing things in the trees. I was desperate to get to Camp Roosevelt where I would change socks and see my wife and daughter and pick up a pacer. Every corner I turned on the trail I looked through the trees and saw trucks and cars and tents. I heard voices in the wind, music through the rustling leaves. I swore I saw a white truck, and then it was gone. Then, a few minutes later, in a different part of the forest, another white truck, and again it was gone. Then I heard voices, and I thought I must be hallucinating still. Until two people appeared on either side of the trail. “I thought I was dreaming you,” I told them. They laughed and clapped and told me I was close. Just ahead, through a parking lot where there was, indeed, a white truck parked, through a muddy stream, but what difference was mud anymore, I was so close.
And then I was there. And there was my daughter and my wife and a chair, which I took, and was wrapped in blankets and jackets because the cold was starting to set in. I needed to eat, needed to change socks, needed to rest for a few minutes to regain my composure, regain myself. Little m brought me goodies from the aid station, cookies and pieces of fruit and candy. I changed my socks and my shirt and my hat. I got my headlamp on and replenished my fluids, Perpetuem, pizza rolls. I ate strawberries and a banana maybe, and m brought me more cookies which tasted so good I kept sending her back for more. I gave myself time to rest, to digest and restore myself. And when I was ready I stood up, not nearly as stiff as I was afraid I might be. Reiko’s husband, Stephane, would pace me for the next section, called Duncan Hollow. “You ready?” I said. He looked like a man on vacation, convertible pants turned into shorts, running shoes laced and white socks protecting his ankles. “We’re gonna go slow,” I told him, and he nodded.
I kissed my wife and hugged my daughter and told them I would see them at the finish where m promised to run with me across the finish line. I would hold onto that promise to see me through the darkness of the next 17 hours.