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 🙂
After finishing my last ultra, The Highland Sky 40 (HS40), I was eager to see how much further I could go. I immediately signed up for CMMM 50 after HS40. Highlands was only my second ultra and longest distance to date. In between HS40 and CMMM 50 I had not what I would consider a great two months of training. I was still doing about 50 miles a week but I was having a hard time doing the long runs past mid 20s. I think a lot that had to do with the fact that it was such a hot summer but it was still a little disconcerting. I had only two training runs over 20 miles (27 and 29) and finished both of those on dead legs.
Five days before the race I was finishing my taper and I decided to go on a two day backpack (two blog posts earlier). I returned home after my trip with sore legs and a blister on the side of my left big toe. I was also given the information that one of our dogs was not doing so well and chances were that she would need to be put down. So on the day before the race, I was walking around on sore legs having just euthanized one of our dogs. Not really where I wanted to be either physically or mentally.
On race day, I took a half day vacation and went home to force a couple hour nap. Fortunately I was able to get some sleep. Around four o’clock having triple checked all my gear, I left Pittsburgh for a 3-1/2 drive to Beverly.
Upon arrival I recognized some of the usual suspects from HS40. Check in to me is quite intimidating. Just about everyone looks like very serious runners and with most wearing shirts from previous ultras ( lots of 50s and 100s) – the place was full of experience.
After the prerace meeting and 30 minutes of waiting, the clock approached 9:00. After humming the star spangled banner (sorry, won’t catch me singing), the countdown started from ten seconds and we were off.
My goal for this race was to come in under 9 hours. In my previous race, I ran half of it with Randy Young. I knew from looking at previous results that his brother Bill had always come in below 9 and sometimes low 8’s. As these two started off together, I felt it wise to try to keep up with them. At about 2 miles into the run, Bill started separating himself from Randy. I moved up next to Randy and chatted for a little bit and then asked him if his brother would be coming in under 9. He said,”yes” and I said “then I need to go chase him”.
So about 2-1/2 to 3 miles into the race I pull along side Bill. We passed the 1st aid station at 48 minutes into the race which was dead on the split I was going for. For the next 4 or so miles Bill and I leapfrogged each other as one would walk as the other ran up the steep forest road. My hamstrings were starting to get sore . At about 8-1/2 miles into the race, the terrain started to level off as we reached to the top of Cheat Mountain and roughly 3800 feet elevation. Our pace was semi-quick but manageable. Air temps started to cool (low 50s) and the breeze picked up (say 5 mph) which had running conditions ideal.
Approximately 13 miles into the race is aid station 2. The course now leaves the forest road section and onto hiking trails. This is the first time I had run at night on unfamiliar trails but the course was marked very well with hanging double-sided reflective ribbon. The trails are also not near as technical as HS40. It was mostly moss covered and spongy. Much of the trail is a carved tunnel through spruce and I imagined that even during the day a headlamp may be useful. A few rocks and roots posed as tripping hazards but it didn’t affect my pace as much as I had anticipated. After 3-1/2 miles of up and down trails we exited onto forest road 49. Bill and I caught up to another runner and it was around this point that I noticed that my ziplock baggy of endurolyte salt pills, ibuprofen and tums must have fallen out of pack. I was a little in panic mode but knew I had plenty in my drop bag at AS 4.
At a half mile into FR49, lit tiki torches lined the road for an additional half mile until we arrived at AS 3. I was finally out of water in my pack and had that filled half way. I also noticed a bottle of S-Caps at the end of the food table and opened that up, broke the seal, pulled out the cotton and popped three in my mouth. While in the aid station, I heard the other runner mention that his name was Joe Dudak which I had recognized from last years CMMM 50 results and remembered that he too was a sub 9 runner. As the three of us left AS 3, I’m thinking to myself that I’m in good company with these two as we ducked back onto the trails for the climb up Whitemeadow Ridge trail and on to AS 4.
Bill had the lead, with Joe in the middle and me bringing up the rear. Not long after we got on the trail and were working our way up a steep section, I must have gotten a little to close to Joe as he proceeded to fire a few “warning shots” at me. He quickly apologized and noted that he was trying to get some separation before letting go. Having gone through that plenty enough times to know that there is not much one can do to stifle, I told him, “no problem”, and then followed up with,”…ahh, you know I’m going to have to put that in the race report?” (and me being a man of my word, there you go).
We arrived at AS 4 (23.3 miles) and the drop bags at about 3:50 into the race. I resupplied myself with Endurolytes, gels and bloks and slammed an Ensure Plus for a quick 350 calories. A minute later I was on FS92 and heading south ahead of the other two. After about a half mile, I took a quick left onto what I thought was the trail but this soon dead ended into a gated dirt road with no trail markers. I turned to look behind me to see the head lamp of a runner continuing on the road. I ran back onto the road and followed the runner an additional hundred feet or so to the correct turn and onto Stonecoal Trail. I followed this runner (someone new, not Bill or Joe) for the next 4 miles down to AS5. Upon getting to the aid station we were informed that we were 4th and 5th.
Leaving AS 5, we continue another 1-1/2 miles on dirt forest road and then jumping back onto the trails for 2 more miles. As soon as we get on the trails we caught up to another runner. This turned out to be the first female (Meg Harnett). I remembered her taking off at the beginning and couldn’t believe how fast she went out. It took me almost 30 miles to finally catch up. After exiting the trails and back onto more forest roads, I pair up with the other runner and ascend to AS6.
Once again at the drop bags, I drink another Ensure Plus, get more water and was off running. For the next 10 miles, me and the other runner, Matt Bugin, ran and walked side by side. Somewhere around mile 42 Matt said he was fighting off GI issues and then pulled off the side of the road as I continued on. So I’m now by myself and holding a pretty good pace. I was very surprised that i felt this good this far into the race. Sure my legs were sore, I was a bit winded and energy was down but nothing was debilitating enough to the point where I felt that I could not keep this up for the next 8 miles.
I continued on down the mountain and pulled into AS 8. I grabbed a few orange wedges and drank two cups of Mt. dew. I was leaving AS 8 as Matt came in. I continued on alone for the next two miles at a good enough pace that I did not see any headlamps behind me the couple times I slowed to walk the small hills. Around mile 47-48 is when my GI issues started. The cramping I was experiencing was forcing me to walk to get them to go away. It was also shortly after that Matt caught up with me. He had seemed to have straighten himself up and was pushing on strong for the last 1-1/2 miles. I knew that in 4th overall I was still guaranteed a masters’s 1st and did not bother to chase. Chances are I would have been 4th anyhow.
After missing the last turn into the finish and costing me another 10-15 seconds, I finally rambled across the last stretch of grass and onto 100 feet of gravel parking lot to cross the finish at 8:07:26.
Being my first 50, I was really satisfied with the outcome. Based on how bad I felt during my long training runs, I was surprised that I never really felt bad at all this race. There are many variables that go towards having a good running day and I think I may have been on the positive side of just about all of them. And this is where I feel I got lucky.
So as I work my way up distances I’m thinking my next step is a 100k or even a 100k++. At this point I have my sites set on Horton’s Hellgate. I do realize, however, that that race is a special race that not just anybody gets to run so I’m hoping he’ll let me in even though I lack the experience of most Hellgaters. In my mind, I have at least removed any doubt that I can finish.
It’s was on my way home from my backpacking trip that I got the bad news. Daisy was not doing so well and Dy was worried that this was the end. She had been dealing with kidney failure for the last four months. It had been a roller coaster of ups and downs. She was now the worst she had ever been.
Upon arriving home things looked very grim. She had not anything to eat in the last three days and appeared to be in severe pain. As her condition steadily declined throughout the day of Wednesday we knew it was time to make a decision. Dy had scheduled an appointment for Thursday morning which we knew was going to be a last time we would see her.
She had a great little personality and loved to be around us. We will miss her.
After a summer of oppressive heat, I was looking forward to getting out in the woods to do some walking. Finally in the third week of August, the weather cooled down enough to make for comfortable hiking temps. I decided on heading back down into WV to do a two day backpack in the Roaring Plains Wilderness area of the Monongahela National Forest. This section of the mid-Atlantic continues to be my favorite spot. A 3-1/2 hour drive from home isn’t too far and the variety of geography is unparalleled in this part of the world. I decided to go from Sunday the 19th until Tuesday the 21st. I had my first 50 miler scheduled for the following week and had only a slow 3 mile run on Monday planned so I figured a 6 mile or so hike would be at least equal. After completing an 8 mile run on Sunday morning, I grabbed my pack and Jethro’s (my 15 month old Lab) and we left mid morning. I arrived at South Prong Trailhead about 1:00. We got onto the trail and followed South Prong about two miles before taking a left onto the hidden passage to take us out to the rim of Longs Canyon. We arrived at the camping spot that I had in mind at about 5:00. This is definitely one of the best spots.
Click on images for larger size
With a fantastic view
We then spent the rest of the evening at the campsite. I set up camp, got a fire going and cut a bunch of wood as someone else decided they were done for the evening.
On Monday morning we awoke to cloudy conditions. My plan for the day was to hike over to Haystack Knob and then hike back or even consider a bushwack straight shot back to the campsite if terrain wasn’t too bad. We didn’t get that far. We had hiked the rim up to the boulder section but the terrain was too difficult for Jethro to continue. This area is a talus slope of desk sized boulders that goes on for about a quarter mile. there was no way he was getting through that. We turned around and I decided to try to take the Teepee trail to Roaring plains and continue or hike. This turned out to be very exhausting and after getting to the Roaring plains trail we were out of water. The closest water was near the campsite and given the cloudy conditions, I wasn’t going to be able to see much from Haystack anyhow. We then traced our steps back to the campsite. I decided to just take it easy for the rest of the day, cut more wood and try to grab a few more pics.
I came across this race somewhat by accident. Around the end of August 2011, I was doing an internet search for hiking/backpacking possibilities within Roaring Plains, WV (slightly south of Dolly Sods Wilderness). I had done a few hikes in this area on South Prong and Roaring Plains trails and I also traveled a few unofficial trails along Long Run Canyon and out to the “point” (mid-atlantic hikes is a great source). This time in particular I was looking for GPS tracks to get me out to Haystack Knob. I stumbled upon a site about Roaring Plains West being declared a national wilderness area and within the description it had mentioned a “40 mile mountaintop marathon” (ironically, one of the pictures on that site is the WVMTR website banner photo, and shot from of all places – Haystack Knob). I followed up until I found the WVMTR website and the HS40 event page and after reading the description immediately set this race as my goal.
At this point, I would have considered myself an avid runner but not really a serious runner. I had been running off and on for the past 10 years or so but I was very streaky with large swaths of time (months) both on and off. I was never into the racing scene and did it more for enjoyment and the positive health benefits. I have only raced one each 5k, 10k and marathon ( all PRs :-)) with the latest one in 2003. When I did enter a race, I would take that seriously, however, and had respective times of 18:18, 39:04 and 3:06:23 (after a 1:27 half split 😦 ). Fortunately, when I did come across this race, I had been on one of my running streaks and already had a weekly 20 mile base to work with. But I had never run a trail before.
In preparation for the Highlands Sky 40, I felt that it would be wise to try to get a 50k under my belt to give me some small measure of what to expect. After a little internet research I came across a local 50k trail run called the Marshall Mangler just north of Pittsburgh. This was a November race which gave me two months to prepare. Luckily, I live only 2 miles from a county park which probably has around 50 miles of single track trails for me to train on. I quickly learned to love running the trails and avoided streets whenever possible. Trails also allowed me to run with my lab.
So the Mangler came and I finished in a decent 5:26 but then backed off a lot in December and January (that damn streak thing). I entered a local 20 mile road race in February to get me back on track and then afterward continued to log 40 to 50 mile weeks throughout the spring to prepare for Highlands.
I booked a room at the Timberline Hotel through the HS40 website as I did not want to be bothered with breaking down a campsite after the race and also didn’t want to worry about dealing with inclement weather the night before. My best friend, Mike, decided to join me for the trip to the race and we left Pittsburgh at 2:00 pm and arrived at Canaan just after 5:00 the day before the race . After checking in to the hotel we left for packet pickup and dinner at around 5:30. Upon arrival, it felt as if we had just crashed someone else’s family reunion. It seemed as if everybody knew each other and I was very glad that Mike had joined me and I wasn’t alone but in reality everyone was so friendly that I would have still been comfortable. Packet pickup went smoothly. The Swiftwick socks were a nice bonus. Pre-race dinner was very good and race briefing very informative.
Race day started with an alarm at 4:00 (but I actually tossed and turned since 2:00). I arrived at the Canaan Valley lodge at 4:30 and at 5:00 we all packed into either buses or vans and left for the start. At this point in the day it was still pretty dark and I was glad it was because the caravan of vehicles took the first left off of 32 onto Jenningston-Lanesville Road. I had been on this road a few times when coming down for hikes and it is a very narrow, winding road with shear drops. This road could have easily been featured on History Channels IRT Deadliest Roads. I felt a bit at ease being in the van and not one of the buses but that comfort level was soon erased when I noticed the driver wiping the condensation off the inside windows because the defroster was not working. But sooner than expected we arrived at the starting area safe and secure.
Arriving at near 5:30 with air temps in the high 40s and conditions near perfect, I immediately walked over to the line for the port-a-johns which was already about 40 people deep. It took me almost 20 minutes to finally get into one and had me out at 5:55, just 5 minutes before the start. I noticed that there was still a handful of people mulling around the port-a-johns as the start was counting down. This is probably the only aspect of the race that I felt could be improved. Four ( I believe) port-a-johns probably is not quite enough to handle an influx of that many people at one time so close to the start.
At six am on the nose we were off. Starts are another aspect of ultras that I really like. The number of runners seems to always be a manageable size – no elbows, no bumping, no getting your heels stepped on and no absurdly fast jack rabbit starts. I had read in some previous reports of trying to position yourself in front of the main pack so as not to get stuck within the large mass of humanity working its way up the mountain. So I got in behind the group of a dozen or so of the top runners that were expected to finish 7:00 or less and worked a comfortable 7:40 pace for the first 2 miles of the road positioning myself around 20th place when we turned left onto the right-of-way through the private property and up to Flatrock Trailhead. I took a small point-n-shoot camera in the hopes of getting some shots but knew that it was getting put away the minute it became a distraction.
** Pretty much all shots were taken on the run with a fairly crappy compact P&S camera. I was hoping the sports setting would keep shutter speeds high enough but 3 out of 4 shots still turned out blurry and unusable. What I was able to salvage is probably good enough from a documentary standpoint. **
The right-of-way section is a 1/4 to 1/2 mile of waste high grass on a very narrow single track that gives only a marginal view of foot placement. I could have easily seen someone going down there but I, and everyone else I saw, made it through with no problems. From the trailhead there is a long continuous ascent along flat rock run up what was probably an old logging road. It is right after this section that the notorious stinging nettle reside. These, to me, were pretty much of a no-show. This early in the year they are only about knee high and one can avoid them for the most part by staying on the center of the trail. The only ones that really nailed me good were the stalks that got bent over by the feet of earlier runners and remained poised in the middle of the trail. Although, I could see this being a real nuisance for back-of-the-packers.
The trail continues, switching back a few times and crossing Flatrock Run before making a dramatically steep push up to Flatrock Plains at about the 5 1/2 mile mark. Since leaving the road I had probably passed about three runners. While working my way up through the steep section and finally on top, I got in behind a familiar face at HS40, Randy Young. I knew from looking at previous race results that Randy was an 8 hour runner (what I was shooting for) and between him and his brother, Bill, had 19 of 20 HS40’s under their belts. At this stage I felt it wise to hang with Randy and ensure a decent pace while guaranteeing not to get off trail.
After getting to the top, close to mile 7, the trail opens slightly to fern and heath covered meadows. At this point, the trail becomes more runable and not terribly rocky or wet (at least this year). Moving onto Roaring Plains Trail, the trail becomes pretty much rock covered forcing eyes to concentrate of foot placement and missing , what I know from past hikes to be, an amazing place. Continuing on, we get to the trailhead of Roaring Plains, then through maybe a 100′ section of pipeline road and past AS#2 at about 1:50 into the race. The course then follows about a 1/2 mile of forest road before taking a sharp left onto Boars Nest Trail.
Almost immediately, after getting on to Boar’s Nest, you need to cross the upper south fork of Red Creek. With water levels low, there was no problem getting across dry. After crossings and continuing up a small hill the trail levels off to more rocky and wet running. It was at this point a group of three runners closed in on me and I let them get through. Right after these three got through we hit the steep descent of Boar’s Nest and all runners, including Randy, were gone in an instant. I was dumbfounded. This section of trail is insanely steep and these guys went at it like it was a slight downhill grade. I continued slowly working my way down but really felt the soreness and burning in my quads with every jarring foot placement. Eventually I made it to the bottom.
Once again the trail appeared to resemble the remnants of an old logging road. I was able again to pick up a reasonable pace but was worried that the trashing my legs just took was going to come back and haunt me. Finishing off Boar’s Nest, I jumped onto the South Prong Trail and started working my way back up hill again. This is about 13-1/2 miles and 2-1/2 hours into the race. I finally ended up catching up to Randy. I asked him about how he was able to fly through that down hill section and he says – “you just have to kamikaze it. Holding back is going to tear your legs up”. He then proceeds to tell me one of the guys that just past us was John Logar and that he had recently completed a 135 mile run through the depths of Minnesota in the middle of winter ( Arrowhead 135), coming in 3rd and earning him rookie of the year. Crazy!
Again the trail is the remnants on an ancient logging road with areas washed out. We follow the lower slope of the mountain and South Prong upstream 2 miles to a stream crossing. After crossing the creek, the trail continues up hill and then makes a steep right opening up to a forest road and AS#3. We arrive in 3:00 hrs which is on the front end of the splits I had in my mind so all was according to plan.
After leaving AS#3, the trail ascends steeply again to Red Creek Plains. Within a 1/2 mile, the top has been reached and a very rocky section ensues.
At about mile 18 you hit the first elevated boardwalk bridges. These were constructed by the forest service to protect the fragile wetlands and upland bogs. Continuing on through a total of 10 bridges (I think), you finally empty out onto the forest road to continue another mile uphill to AS#4. Right after leaving the trail and hitting the road, two gentlemen informed us that we were 20 and 21.
AS#4 is about 19.7 miles into the race and where drop bags are located. I had been running with Randy for the last 13 miles but this is where we parted ways. Randy had his family volunteering at AS#5 so he bypassed AS#4 while I stopped in. Although I planned to change my shoes, up until mile 16 I was figuring I wouldn’t need to but the constant back and forth of picking foot placement while running the rocky sections of South Prong Trail created pressure on the large joint at the back of my big toes so I ended up swapping shoes for a different fit. My buddy Mike was at AS#4 to crew me, and after filling my camelbak, he was forced to tie my shoes, as every time I bent over to do it myself, I would get a cramp at the top of my leg by my hip. While in AS#4 refueling, Ragan Petrie (eventual women’s winner and new course record holder), refilled her Nathan water bladder about halfway, grabbed a few morsels and was gone. Ragan was about 1/8 mile ahead of me out of AS#4 before I left.
The Road Across the Sky (RATS) to many is a blessing and a curse – a blessing to finally be off the technical rocky sections but a curse in that you are on a very open and exposed section were the sun can wear you down and being able to see 2 miles down the road with little dots for people can drain you mentally. For me it was definitely more to the blessing side. The temps were very comfortable and at 10:00 am the sun was still low enough in the sky for me to catch some decent shade on the road. I was glad to finally be able to settle in to a consistent pace. I just put my head down and tried to squeeze out a continuous 8:30 to 9:00 min/mile pace. Four miles into the RATS, Ragan had probably increased her lead to a mile and was approaching the large last hill before descending to AS#6. To me, it seemed as if she had finally started to walk a little which gave my mind all the excuse it needed to allow me to also walk a little (looking back, she probably ran that whole damn road with no walk breaks. Given her finishing time, she probably ran the second half of the race 45 minutes faster than the first!).
Leaving the RATS and jumping on to Bear Rocks Trail, the track was still very runable. The north section of Dolly Sods is mostly an open meadow. This section of trail appeared to be an old jeep road. The trail descended to the beginning of Red Creek. Halfway down I passed Joel Wolpert snapping shots with his
5D2 MkIV and 70-200 2.8 (and still the owner of the course record for an additional hour). The trail then crosses red creek and continues into a deciduous forest before emerging into a meadow where a slight ascent gets you to the top of a knoll. Before you lays the open expanse of Dolly Sods North. After passing a couple hikers I finally caught a glimpse of another runner ahead.
At this point I turn off of Raven Ridge Trail and south onto Rocky Ridge Trail. I quickly determine that it is aptly named. I slowly continued gaining ground on the other runner and at mile 31, the beginning of the boulder section, probably came within 100 feet. This has the section of boulder gardens and sweeping views of Canaan Valley. However, at this stage my legs are shot and I’m just sick of all the damn rocks. I had been running alone for about 2 hours now and my internal arguments that I’m having about continuing to push through are no longer sounding convincing to my physical self. The camera is now a distraction and gets stuffed into my shorts pocket and stays there until I finish.
I finally make to AS#7, Willie’s aid station, but felt completely depleted. I drank two cups of Dew and a volunteer filled my camelbak halfway with water. I continued on. The trail again starts to resemble an old jeep road again and descends slowly for about a mile but there is still a hell of a lot of rocks. At the end of Rocky Ridge is a junction where Breathed Mtn Trail heads east and Big Stone Coal Trail heads south. The course takes a sharp right into a couple hundred feet of forest before exiting on to a ski slope. As I turn up slope I notice the runner I was gaining on before near the turn at the top. He’s about 1/8th of a mile ahead of me but at this point I have nothing left to put on a chase and resort to looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not going to get picked off.
I walk the entire slope. The course then works it’s way back into the forest on not so rocky single track with ample shade continuing slightly uphill. Starting downhill, I notice ramps and jumps which I believe is for mountain bikers but for the life of me cannot figure how anyone could take a bike down there. It is also here that I take Randy’s advice from earlier and “kamikaze it”. I throw caution to the wind and start flying downhill hoping that I don’t catch a toe. About halfway down I catch another runner who appears to be struggling. I pass him and by the expression on his face it seemed as if he was resolved to the fact that his legs just weren’t listening anymore. I continued to finish up the downhill section surprised at both my speed and the fact that my legs felt good.
At the bottom of the hill, I turn left on to a gravel road and follow that slightly uphill and then turn right on to a gravel section that goes downhill and becomes Freeland Road. I pass by AS#8 as my water is still good and with only 4 miles left any new calories are probably not going to make it into my system before the finish.
The rest of the race is mostly roads and pretty flat to the finish. There is one section between Freeland Road and and Canaan Valley SP that parallels 32 where high grass was cut down to about 10″. That felt like running in sand. And just a little “kick ’em when they’re down” course reminder, the last 1/8 mile leaves a comfortably straight and level path to send you up a winding, rooty section before opening up to the last 100′ feet of downhill running to the finish.
It probably couldn’t have been a much nicer day for running given the second week in June. The somewhat dry spring had left the trails in great shape which is probably reflected in the fast finishing times. Both male and female course records fell with finishing times of 5:51:00 (Frank Gonzales) and 7:03:51 (Ragan Petrie). This should, however, take nothing away from their efforts. After setting the course record for CMMM 50 last year, it’s no surprise for Frank to bag this one. As for Ragan Petrie, she was in 22nd place arriving at AS#4 slightly before the halfway mark in the race. She then continued to pass an additional 12 men (me, being one of them) on her way to getting the record.
The race itself is a very well put together event. Dan Lehmann does an outstanding job as RD. The volunteers were all very friendly, helpful and anxious to do whatever they could for you. It was amazing how everyone seemed to know each other and I discovered the “ultra culture” creates such a friendly atmosphere (I guess misery truly does love company :-)). The course itself is really fantastic. It just throws everything at you. To really appreciate it, however, one also needs to do a few hikes in the area and take in what it has to offer. Both Roaring Plains and South Prong are outstanding hikes but hardly appreciated when the only visuals you get are 5-10 feet ahead on the rocky trail picking your next foot placement. Bear rocks at sunrise should be on everyone’s bucket list. Then there’s the view down Red Creek valley from Lion Head or the Unnamed Vista. And so on – all great stuff.
As for my effort, I’m pretty satisfied. I came into the race hoping to break 8:00 and finished 7:34:47. Given the 200 entrants, I somehow found a way to just break into the top 10%. I held it together on the second half and was able to pass two while not being passed. My stomach held up with no queasiness or bathroom breaks and all toe nails remained intact. I guess it was a good day.
What probably best sums up my experience is what I did the following day. While checking the WVMTR site to see if results had been posted, I noticed that CMMM 50 just posted that the online entry had been closed but a few spots were still open for mailed in paper forms. I quickly sent an email to CMMM 50 RD, Adam Casseday (3rd place HS40-2012) to get in on one of the last spots. So now I have a 50 to get ready for.
Helped Rich out as second shooter for a wedding this past Saturday. Probably not my cup of tea.
Had a few good ones but would rather hang out on trails somewhere shooting landscapes.
Here’s what I got. All shot with The 5D2 and 70-200 II @ 2.8
One week later and once again the forecast was for scattered thunderstorms. After being scared off last week, I decided to take my chances this week and head off on the hike. I settled on doing an out and back on the Laurel Highlands Trail starting from Ohiopyle.
I left the house at 5:15am on Sunday morning so I could make it to Ohiopyle by 6:30am. I figured I’d stop off at Cucumber Falls before the crowds showed up to grab a few comps before heading over to the trailhead. As hoped, the parking area was empty giving me the place to myself. I spent about an hour there before leaving.
I drove over to the trailhead and I was the only vehicle in the lot. I got my gear together and was on the trail by 8:00am.
The day started out pleasant enough with mostly clear skies, however, through the river valley where the trail followed, a thick mass of fog hovered over the river. Initially this made for nice cool conditions and since I was doing an out and back, any views that were missed early due to fog could be seen on the way back. Hiking out of the trailhead follows a service road for about a quarter of a mile and then the trail leaves and heads up a steep slope with stairs cut in before leveling back off and continuing to follow the edge of the mountain, railroad tracks and river southeast. At about the mile and a half mark the trail starts ascending rather quickly to get to the first vista.
At the first vista I paused to catch my breath. The fog was still thick at this point and only the silhouettes of the nearest trees were visible. As I reached to grab a drink from the side of my pack I noticed some movement around my right foot. Looking down I realized the movement was a swarm of yellow jackets. Quickly, I jumped away to see that I was standing right in front of their nest opening.
After getting away from the nest and being thankful not to be stung or followed, I took a shot or two and proceeded on my way.
Shortly after the first vista the sun started to burn through the fog illuminating the trail.
I continued along the edge of the mountain before descending quickly to a small creek called Rock Spring Run. At this point the trail turns into an a roller coaster where it is continual ups and downs for the next 6 miles. I had three additional vistas that I wanted to get to and clouds were building as the day moved on. I was determined to get a good workout in at the same time so I continued on at about a 3mph pace.
For the most part the next three vistas were pretty much a bust. There was nothing dramatic or awe inspiring at any of them. Two of the last three ended just being a small clearing through the trees with a brief view of the surrounding hills.
At about the six and one half mile mark the path takes a continual one mile ascent with a 1000 feet elevation gain. After getting to the top and leveling off I heard some distant thunder. It was here that I decided to cut 9 mile out hike to 7.5 and turn back with the hopes of making it back before things got ugly.
I worked my way back making good time and getting a good workout. The storm never did materialized and at worst about twenty minutes of light drizzle fell. Slowly the sky started to clear up again and by the time I got back to the first vista the weather was nice.
I finished up the hike and got back to the trailhead at 2:30pm. Total miles was 15 and total time was 6:30.
Still having some energy left after making it home, I whipped up a steak salad to get back some (if not all) of the ~2000 calories I burned on the hike.