The alarm went off at 3:00 am, but for the last 15 minutes I had just been laying there listening to car doors closing, feet shuffling along the gravel road and a few random conversations. When camping at the race start, rarely is an alarm needed. The night air was a cool 45 degrees F which made for pleasant sleeping conditions and it appeared that I had indeed gotten a few hours of solid sleep. Often, before these runs, sleep can be elusive as both the nervous energy of the up and coming race along with the mind busying itself going over various checklists does not allow for rest. I thought to myself, “one hour left before I try something that not too long ago I thought was just plain crazy”. As I slid the side door of the van open and felt the cool rush of air inside I audibly said to myself, “what in the hell are you doing here”? This had surprised me as during all my previous ultras I never questioned why I was out there (even during the worst of times). Before I even had a chance to register what I was really asking myself I quickly replied, “there’s no place I’d rather be”. I felt ready to go.
I came into this race with three goals:
- Have fun (it maybe hard for some to fathom having fun on a 100 mile run but being able to take in so much of a beautiful place in such a short time makes this a little more understandable)
- Finish (barring injury, this was going to happen)
- Come in under 24 hours (this, I felt, was unlikely. I knew plenty of runners that I thought were probably better than me that had not done this at MMT but also a couple that I felt I was a better runner than, who had. So it was possible)
The previous day, I had left Pittsburgh early in the afternoon with fellow local runner Jason Maruccio for the 4 hour trip to the Shenandoah Valley. The weather forecast for the weekend was calling for perfect running conditions – lows in the mid 40s, highs in the mid 60s and dry. But I knew that this part of Virginia had also received the same storms that came through Pittsburgh the previous day, so I was uncertain as to how this would affect the trails/race. Upon arrival at race headquarters, we saw a lot of standing water in the finish line meadow and the parking area was a mud pit. I learned they had received 2-1/2″ of rain in the previous 18 hours. Upon check in, we discovered the race start had been moved up the hill to the camping area. This seemed like a good idea as this would allow us to start with dry feet (in actuality, this would only give us a 10 minute reprieve).
Back to the start and the excitement was starting to build. All the runners were steadily working their way down to the start area. As I completed getting everything together, I then went down to the main building myself to check in for the start. After checking in, everyone started to assemble in loose packs in the campground parking lot. Even though most of these ultras seem to sell out these days, many of the entrants were people I had either seen, heard of, or knew from previous races. I had spoken with a couple guys I knew, Jim Blandford (last years winner) and Ryan O’dell from which I had run a good portion of the Glacier Ridge 50m the previous spring. It seems that a neurosis develops from running long hours in the woods that keeps the same people coming back for more punishment.
And then a little bit before 4:00, RD Kevin Sayers jumped up on a chair, yelled a few last words of advice, counted down from 10 and then sent us off on our way.
Typically my strategy on these runs is to start off by positioning myself a few places back from where I would like to place at the finish since there are always a few that go out too fast or some that unrealistically place themselves too close to the front. Starting out in the campground and then running four miles up Moreland Gap Road gave plenty of time for me to move into that position before hitting the single track.
Moreland Gap Road is 4 mile stretch of windy gravel road that continually climbs from the valley to a trail head for a climb up Short mountain (can’t understand where that name came from). Just a small amount into the road and we were running through deep rutted sections and lots of loose piled up gravel from the previous day’s deluge. About a mile into the run we came upon one of three areas were a drainage culvert crossing under the road could not handle the volume of water rushing off the mountains and flowed over the road creating a 40 feet wide section of ankle to shin high water. From here on out my feet would remain wet until I had finished.
And then thoughts of last year came to mind.
It was a year ago that I found myself running up this same road. Circumstances were a bit different. I had come into MMT last year with an IT Band injury. This had developed, seemingly out of the blue, a week after running Glacier Ridge Trail 50 mile, in the second week of April, 2013. I made it through that race fine but a week later, after waking up one morning to run into work, I had a dull pain on the outside of my left knee associated with a tight feeling on my upper outside shin which seemed to get worse as I ran. After trying a few more runs with the pain not allowing me to push past a few miles, I looked into it and realized I had all of the classic symptoms for Illiotibial Band Syndrome . With 3 weeks before MMT, I figured best I could do was give myself 3 weeks of no running and hope the inflammation and pain would be gone. Unfortunately, that was not enough time, and I found myself not being able to run by the end of Moreland Gap Road and then walking the next 8 miles. By the time I got to Edinburg Gap Aid Station to hand in my bib, I could not even bend my knee. I had then spent the rest of the next 30+ hours photographing other runners.
This year was different and I felt that I was healthy.
After getting to the top of Moreland Gap Road, we take a right onto the trail to start our climb up to the ridge of Short Mountain. The first mile of trail was wet and muddy. The next few miles were some pretty technical single track. Through this section, some of the front runners pulled off trail to take their first pee of the day, so I was passing and getting passed a lot. As daylight started to fill the sky, I worked my way off the trail and on to the gravel road leading down to Aid Station 2. All I thought about was how my knee was feeling and getting past this milestone.
Heading out of Edinburg Gap AS is a climb up to near the top of Waonaze Peak and then a slight drop for some fairly level technical ridge running. It was early in the race but I was feeling pretty good. Of the few guys that I was running behind, or in front of, I knew many of them to be about 24 hour runners, so felt good about my current placement. The trail through this section did not have any significant climbs or falls. A couple times I had tripped on some rocks but in both instances caught myself before going down. I would continue this near tripping scenario for the rest of the race some 20-30 times and catching myself every time before going down (an accomplishment in itself). I would guess that 1 out of every 2 runners that I saw out on the course had bloody knees, elbows or palms.
Coming into the Woodstock tower aid station at mile 20 there are some beautiful views of the Shenandoah valley. I knew there was the time goal to be mindful of, but first and foremost, I wanted to enjoy being out here, so I stopped for a second to soak in the view and snap a picture.
About 2 miles after Woodstock Tower Aid Station, you cross over the mountain ridge and start descending down into the valley to Powell’s Fort Aid Station. After Powell’s Fort, you have a temporary break from the rocks and travel a gravel road section. All in all, I would guess that MMT is about 80 miles of technical trails and 20 miles of gravel/dirt road. These are mixed up pretty nicely giving you a chance to take a break from all the rocks and allowing an opportunity to make up some time. A few sections along this road had been washed out pretty good by the rain with some streams running over their banks swelling to 30′ wide ankle high crossings. It wasn’t just the fact that the extra water was keeping feet wet all day, with the increased probability of blisters, but also that the water was rushing fairly quickly and carrying a lot of sand like particles to get wedged down into the soles of your shoes. Despite my shoes repeatedly being submerged, my feet still felt good. I had been running in Drymax socks and put a few pairs through their paces at the very wet three day Trilogy stage run in West Virginia last fall with zero blisters.
After climbing another mountain, there is a 4 mile descent down to Elizabeth Furnace where I would put on my Camelbak hydration pack for the rest of the race. In a typical year, as you enter Elizabeth Furnace, you run a short 100′ section of trail next to the creek before making you way to the pavilion. This year, that section of trail was now under two feet of fast moving, debris filled water. This required the course to stay on the road a couple hundred feet longer and approach the pavilion from the opposite direction. Once in the aid station, I put my pack on and made my way back on trail for the climb up and over yet another mountain and down towards Shawl Gap Aid Station. At this point in the run, I am about 1/3 of the way through but feeling pretty good. My legs were a bit tired and energy level was down but nothing I would not expect at this point.
After the climb to the top, there is a long gradual descent to Shawl Gap Aid Station and mile 38. After getting to the aid station, I quickly drank 2 cups of ginger ale as my stomach was starting to feel a bit queasy. I was asked by a volunteer if I needed dosed with any bug spray but as of yet none were bothering me so I passed. I feel the one thing that can really hurt your times is to hang out at the aid stations any longer than necessary. On the other hand, when you find yourself struggling, it is sometimes good (and smart) to get in some good nutrition before going back out.
Out of Shawl Gap is a partially paved and partial gravel road section for a little over 3 miles. I run this whole section except for a couple hundred feet up a steep hill and arrive at Veach Gap Aid Station. I have heard that the next section was one of the tougher sections on the course, as you ascend a very long, what appeared to be, old logging road to the top of the mountain, run the ridge for four miles and then continue on a steep drop to Indian Grave Aid Station and the halfway point.
Upon the long climb up to the top, I was noticing that I was starting to develop a hot spot on the ball of my right foot. At the top, I sat down on a small rock formation on the side of the trail to change into dry socks that I had in my camelbak. Having looked at my legs for the first time in a long while, I noticed 4 wood ticks clinging on for dear life. Fortunately, none of them had bored in and were probably just waiting for all the motion to cease, so they could make their way to a better location to feast. Now, I understood the bug spray question. As far as changing out the socks, this turned into a very difficult task. Every time I bent my knee to pull my foot up to untie my shoes, I would get a sharp cramp in my hip forcing me to straighten my leg to get it to go away. I was able to loosen the shoe a little by little before having to straighten my leg. I had to repeat this a handful of times to finally change out both socks. This had taken a substantial amount of time but I still had not been passed in the process. With feet feeling better, I continued to run the ridge as much as I could. I took it easy on the down hills into Indian Grave Aid Station knowing that I needed to save my legs for another 50 miles. Roughly 10 hours total had elapsed. I figured that if I was going to break 24 hours, I would need to run the first half in 10 hrs and the second in 14. My first half split gave me that opportunity. When going into this race, I had used Rande Brown’s aid station splits from last year as a guide for my own splits. At this point, I was a little ahead of those splits but I had heard that a 100 mile run doesn’t really begin until the second 50 and I had seen in the previous year’s splits how many runners, who were on a sub 24 pace, just to blow up in the second half and finish at 25-28 hours.
After a short stop at Indian Grave Aid Station, it was on to the 4 miles of gravel road to Habron Gap. I ran that entire 4 miles. While running this section to Habron, I started chaffing on my inner thighs. I was in need of some sort of body glide or lube to keep it from getting any worse and to hopefully help diminish the burning pain that was starting. Fortunately, a volunteer at the aid station found a jar of Vaseline with their medical supplies that did the trick. I then changed into a new dry t-shirt, another fresh pair of socks, drank an Ensure and then went back on to the road to back track for a couple hundred feet before making a left turn onto the trail for another long climb.
It was during this section that the wheels came off for the first time. No more than a quarter mile out of Habron, I started feeling very tired and queasy. I resorted to just slowly hiking with frequent stops on the way to the top, while having several runners pass me in the process.
After getting to the top, I started to feel a little bit better and tried to run some but this didn’t last long. I continued to switch between running and walking for the next 3 miles hoping for some improvement. As I started working my way off of the ridge and down into the valley, I started to hear footsteps. None other than Rande Brown was coming up behind to pass. He was right on time with his splits and I was slipping on mine. After mentioning to him how I was using his splits and how he always seemed to run the second half of the race very strong, he was on his way, leaving me behind with the feeling that I was just watching my sub 24 hour time run away from me.
I finally made my way into camp Roosevelt at mile 63+. I must have looked pretty bad as one of the volunteers sat me down and started hoovering over me tending to all of my needs. I was in a haze and she was almost angelic with her care. I probably stayed in the aid station for 8-12 minutes but I did leave there feeling much better.
The next section is a long run up Duncan’s hollow. On a dry year this is still supposed to be wet, but after the previous day’s rain, this was no different than running a couple miles up stream. My feet were still holding up pretty good but the water was introducing a lot of sand into my shoes and making this more uncomfortable. After the long wet stream run, there was another steep climb up Peach Orchard Gap (this section appeared to have been previously hit with a forest fire as it was low scrub and a bunch of black, charred pine trunks). This was followed by a steep down hill to Gap Creek. I was holding it together and able to pass a few on this section as other runners were taking their turns at falling apart.
Gap Creek Aid Station gets passed through twice, both at ~70 miles and again at ~97 miles. I had read on previous race reports that it’s a good idea to try to get through the section from Gap Creek to the Visitor Center Aid Station, especially the technical ridge trails on Kern’s Mountain, before sunset. A steep climb out of Gap Creek and up Jawbone for the first time gets you to the top where first time runners proceed to the left and 2nd timers push straight on through to the finish. I reached the top, turned left, and started running the ridge just as the sun was hanging right above the western horizon. After a few miles of some gnarly Massanutten boulders, I got to the end of the ridge trail where an open area gives a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley. I stop and see a sign on a dead tree that says “Q’s view”. The sun was setting and this was a nice reward after completing the ridge
After a minute or two checking out the view and retrieving my head lamp from my pack, I started the quick descent off the mountain to Crisman Hollow road for the 3 mile run to Visitor Center Aid Station. This was a nice gradual downhill, so I ran the whole way. After about a mile on the road, the night settled in and everything turned black. With the relatively clear skies, the warmth of the day started to radiate into the atmosphere and a cool damp chill started to settle in. By the time I got to the aid station, I was starting to feel cold and not that good again. I sat down in a chair and a volunteer ran off for my drop bag. I grabbed a long sleeve shirt out of my drop bag and drank an Ensure. I also had my last pair of dry socks in this bag, so I swapped these out and hoped that these would take me through the last 25 miles. Again, this proved very tedious and time consuming. It was in situations like this that a crew could be very helpful. For this race, I decided to run in the solo division (no crew, no pacer, no music), so I was on my own. The volunteers were a big help but there were just a lot of runners coming in (many in pairs with pacers) that kept all of them so busy. So I sat there changing my socks, eating some hot corn chowder (a little too hot, had to have a volunteer run and get me an ice cube), salted boiled potatoes and did not get out of there for close to 15 minutes. I had put some caffeine pills in this last drop bag but forgot to grab them. Fortunately, for the rest of the run I did not experience any tiredness because of sleep deprivation. Due to my lengthy stay, I had probably dropped 5 or 6 places but as I started out and onto the trail for the climb up to Bird Knob, I just did not care.
Four miles later, after a struggle to get to Bird Knob, I stopped and drank a little ginger ale, grabbed a quesadilla for the road and got right back on the course. About 10 minutes out of Bird Knob, I finally started feeling better. I began picking up my pace on a gradual down hill and then started feeling good all around. My stomach was not upset. My legs did not feel fatigued. And my energy level was back up. In fact, I probably hadn’t felt that good in 60 miles. I started to push the pace and quickly began passing others as I wanted to make the most of this situation. I continued to run hard for about 2-3 miles and probably picked up 8 places in the process.
I made a quick stop (less than a minute) at Picnic Area Aid Station (mile 88), drank another Ensure, got some water and grabbed a few gels for the road. I continued to push myself to the bottom of the valley and then up a small hill to cross highway 211 and onto what would become the most difficult part of my day. I passed a few more, and then, after catching up to Kathleen Cusick, asked her what she thought our chances were of breaking 24 hours. She felt that it was not so good considering we still had a long, very slow, climb up a rocky ravine that was sure to be a gushing waterfall. I continued to push myself past Kathleen and put some distance between us. I was gaining on a headlamp in front, and when I got closer, I realized I had finally caught back up to Rande Brown. He had remembered me from before and asked me how we were looking on our 24 hour splits and I told him that we were close. I continued past him for a little bit and grabbed a gel out of my pack and squeezed it into my mouth and then some strange berry taste that I had never had before started making me really sick. I spit it out and just stood there hunched over soaking wet from the sweat of this last climb and shivering from both the cold air (mid 40s) and my depleted condition. I stood off to the side and let Rande pass on by. I started to feel dizzy and my fingers and lips started to tingle. I could hardly even walk. I even tried to force myself to throw up a couple times, in the hopes of feeling better, but could only dry heave. As I stood there, a panicked feeling started to build. I was worried that this was the “blow up” that was going to ruin my chances at a sub 24.
I slowly continued up the trail and came to the rocky waterfall section and hiked up, at times, on all fours as cold water splashed on me. I continued to sweat profusely from both the work required to get to the top and my body being out of equilibrium and not knowing how to manage my temperature. As I finally made the top, Rande was out of sight. Still, no one had passed me. I had the feeling that everyone must be suffering through this section. Finally on top, the trail turns into a kind of old jeep road with large, tennis ball size rocks and then it serpentines its way down to the bottom of the valley to meet up with Crismon Hollow road. I could do nothing but walk my way down most of this. My legs felt like rubber and my breath was short even though I was both walking and going down hill. At times, I had to just stand there for a moment or two and try to get my bearings. As I continued down, I started to see headlamps closing in behind me. In many cases they were coming at me in pairs from a runner who had a pacer. By the time I got to the bottom, Kathleen had caught back up with me (she was solo like me). There was yet one more stream crossing before getting to the road (this is the beginning of Passage Creek, the same creek that was a raging river 30 miles north at Elizabeth Furnace). Kathleen went down stream a little to use a downed tree to help her get across a narrower section (I think, my mind could have been playing tricks on me at this point) but I was in no shape for anything requiring dexterity. I just slowly plowed right through the center of the stream, eventually going thigh deep but fortunately, made it to the other side without going down.
I was then onto the road section and a one and a half mile run to Gap Creek for the second time. Starting the road, I had a hard time getting my legs moving. Between my shirt being soaked from sweat and my legs being wet from the stream, I started to become very cold and chills had settled in. Although I was trying to run, I could muster no more than a pathetically slow, shuffling jog. About halfway through this road section, I was gradually starting to feel a little better and warm up. Near the end, I was able to pick up my pace and my body was starting to feel closer to “normal”. By the time I arrived in Gap Creek, I was again doing ok. All of the aid station splits that I wrote on my hand held bottle with a sharpie, had long ago smeared away, but the last aid station split time I had committed to memory, and that time was 2:20 am. Looking at my watch, I had arrived at 2:15 am. My legs were tired and my feet were sore but I knew that if I did not fall apart, like I had 30 minutes earlier, then I stood a good chance of breaking 24 hours.
For the second time, I climbed up Jawbone to the 1st time/2nd time split. As soon as I got to the top, I just stood in front of the plastic dinner plates painted with arrows that directed first timers to the left and second timers straight on through. When passing through Gap Creek AS for the second time, I noticed there were quite a few runners there that were just passing through for the first time. For a couple seconds, I just stood there staring at the plates and thought of how grateful I was that I was going straight ahead. I then shook these thoughts from my head and dropped over the other side for the last 6 miles and to finish what I started.
After a very long and technical 2 miles, I exited the trails and was back on to Moreland Gap Road for a 4 mile, mostly down hill, run to the finish. I pushed myself about as hard as I could but still was only able to churn out 9 minute miles. I was hoping that the past 24 hours had allowed all the water rushing up over the culverts to drain to their proper place but they still seemed to be rushing about as much as before. So it was three more “stream” crossings for me. Finally making the last turn off of Moreland Gap Road and onto Camp Roosevelt Road, I looked down at my watch to see it was 3:45 am and I finally was certain I was going to break 24. I finished at 23:46:58. The plan had come to fruition. Rande had come in four minutes in front of me and was sitting at the finish in a chair, wrapped in a blanket. Kathleen would finish 12 minutes behind me and get her sub 24 after all. Results.
All in all, it was a very good experience and I was happy with the result. This race really does stand out in the ultra world. The volunteers were just completely on the ball and you could tell that most (and certainly all that helped me) had done this before. The course has a mixture of brutal toughness to forgiving runnable sections. Even with the added difficulty of all the water on the trails, this was probably offset, somewhat, by the very comfortable, cooler daytime air temps. The amount of information that can be gleaned off the race website is second to none. Without the very detailed aid station split time spreadsheets from previous year’s races, it would be hard to work up a doable game plan on this course, since it was all new to me. And it’s very satisfying to leave this race with no regrets. Last year I had a hard time watching all the finishers come in, loathed in self pity, as I sat there shooting pictures of some, understandably, very proud people (even though one shot from the trip did become memorable). This year, things held up for me. In a 100 miler (or 103.7 in this case), everyone is guaranteed to have some low points, so I’m glad I remained patient, didn’t overly panic and let the race come to me as they say. The plan had worked pretty well. My aid station splits throughout the race were fairly close (say about + 15 minutes) from what I projected, even though I felt much of the second half of the race was out of my control. In the end, completing the whole 100+ miles distance for the first time was not as satisfying as I thought it would be. I think it was more rewarding knowing I pushed through the “downs” while making the most out of the “ups” to meet a goal, regardless of the distance.
… and I guess sometimes, it just plain feels good not quitting at something. And in the most simplest of terms, that is what endurance running is – not quitting at something.
…and my sub 24 hour silver belt buckle 🙂