As I sit here staring at my puffy feet, which are still too swollen to put on shoes, I am still trying to process what transpired this past weekend in the mountains of Northern Virginia. I ran my best 100 mile race ever, with nearly everything going perfectly and totally exceeding all of my expectations. To be honest, the race is still a blur to me. I usually remember minute details, but this one seemed to pass so quickly that I can’t recall everything. What is etched in my mind are the incredible aid stations, my unbelievable pacer and crew, and the rocks – oh the rocks. Here is my attempt to recap my experience at the Massanutten Mountain 100.
(Just a few hills)
I met my friend Dave (he was running Massanutten as well), his wife Kim, and pacer Liza (more on her in a bit) at the airport, grabbed some much-needed caffeine, and squeezed into a very uncomfortable middle seat (I’m 6’6” – guys like us don’t fit into these seats very well) for the 3 hour flight up to Baltimore. Upon arriving in Baltimore, we met up with Dave’s friend and pacer, Sean, who had procured some snacks for the drive down to northern VA. It was a good thing he did this because the drive took us 4 hours (I think I’d go crazy if I had to deal with DC traffic on a daily basis). We arrived at the campground that would serve as the start/finish for our race, dropped off my drop bags, and grabbed our bib numbers for the adventure we would set off on in the wee hours of the morning. After having dinner in the nearby town of Luray, we settled into the bunk beds at our cabin (a 5 minute walk from the start) for a few hours of sleep. As has been the case in my last 3 races, my bed was far from comfortable, as I had a top bunk which was a good deal shorter than my body, causing my legs to stick out pretty far off the edge. Oh well, it seemed to work out fine at Syllamo and Miwok.
(Liza carrying all my stuff - just kidding)
(Dave and I before the start)
Just before 3AM, the alarms went off and we all started to prepare for the 4AM start. Although I didn’t sleep well, it was really nice not having to drive anywhere for the start. 10 minutes before we were scheduled to take off, we walked down from our cabin to the starting area, where race director Kevin Sayers sent us off into the woods at precisely 4AM. My dream goal for this race was to break 30 hours, although I figured a more realistic “A” goal was to set a 100 mile PR (31:49 from Tahoe in 2011). This was going to be tough since the course was notorious for its climbs and rocks. Everyone talks about the rocks at Massanutten. I was curious to see how they stacked up to the rocks we have here in South Texas (at Bandera). Add to this the fact that the course was 103.7 miles and this was sure to be a wicked trek.
(Massanutten has lots of rocks!)
The first 4 miles are run up a gradual incline on a dirt road, which I really liked because it allowed me to ease into the race and slowly let my legs warm up. It also allowed runners to separate themselves a bit before we hit the singletrack climb up Short Mountain at mile 4. Since Liza, Kim, and Sean were planning on meeting us at the first crew-accessible aid station (Edinburg Gap – mile 12), I started with only one handheld water bottle and a flask filled with my EFS “Slurry” concoction. I topped off my water at mile 4 as we veered sharply onto the trail. The first thing that hit me was the rocks.. They were everywhere. Big, small, and everything in between. If the entire course was like this, it could be a long day. Up Short Mountain we went, climbing over rocks the entire time. I felt good and tried to maintain a consistent hiking rhythm. My plan was to push (but not overdo it) during the daylight hours, knowing it would be tough to move over the rugged terrain at night. I carried a card with me that had the average arrival time of people who finished around the 30 hour mark last year. I wanted to check my progress every few aid stations to see if I could stay on this pace. 2 hours and 45 minutes after we started, I ran into the Edinburg Gap aid station, where Liza handed me my Ultimate Direction pack (which I would carry for the rest of the race) and a new Slurry. Feeling good, I ran out of the aid station and headed for the next climb.
The general flow of the course was to ascend steeply to the ridgeline, traverse over gently rolling terrain at the top, then descend down a rocky trail to the next aid station. This pattern was repeated over and over until we had completed nearly 104 miles. I had 8 miles between Edinburg Gap and the next aid station at Woodstock Tower. I tried to hike the uphills hard, jog the flats (there weren’t many on this course), and run the downhills as hard as I comfortably could without trashing my quads or rolling an ankle. I took consistent nips on my Slurry every 20 minutes, trying to keep a steady flow of calories in my system. I drank plain water as well. Since the Slurry mix had electrolytes in it, I was able to only have to use 2 sCaps the entire race. It was nice not having to worry about popping pills every hour despite the humid (but relatively comfortable) weather. My shirt was drenched with sweat from the humidity, but overall I felt pretty good.
(Photo by Bobby Gill)
After grabbing a few things from a small drop bag I had at Woodstock (mile 20.3), I set out for the fairly flatish section between there and the next aid station at Powell’s Fort (mile 25.8). I honestly couldn’t tell you much of what happened between Woodstock and Elizabeth Furnace (mile 33), but I remember I felt great coming into the aid station, where I startled Liza by arriving so early. She quickly helped me top off my water and off I went.
Between Elizabeth Furnace and Shawl Gap (mile 38), things changed. The day was warming up and I entered the point of the race where my stomach didn’t want to take in any calories. I wasn’t nauseous or sick, but nothing sounded good. This usually happens to me when I push the pace or the temps start to rise. I entered Shawl Gap (mile 38) a bit behind on both fluids and calories, and my crew could see it in my eyes. I sat down briefly while Sean and Liza filled my bottles. I quickly drank one down and filled it again. After a couple minutes, I trudged off down the road, where a 3.5 mile stretch of gravel road awaited. Knowing I was in need of fuel, I tried to nibble on some Stinger chews I had in my bag. This seemed to help a bit and soon enough I was at the Veach Gap (mile 41.1) aid station, where the volunteers were extra friendly. I grazed at the food table and managed to wolf down enough calories to convince myself I was ready to go.
(Headed out of Veach Gap - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)
After a brief section of runnable trail, we started climbing again. Much of the course is buried beneath the lush greenery of the Virginia Mountains, but every once in awhile you are rewarded with beautiful views of the valleys below. I was starting to feel much better after catching up on calories and fluids, and now that I had my music on, the descent down into Indian Grave (mile 51) was fast and furious. In my estimation, I need to be at this aid station at roughly 12-13 hours to have a chance at a sub 30 finish. When I glanced at my watch and saw that it read 11:21, I was shocked. Almost halfway done, and I was ahead of schedule. Still a long way to go I reminded myself. Things can change quickly.
(High on a ridge - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)
I grabbed a few things from the aid station and headed out for a rolling 4 miles of country roads, during which time it started to drizzle. I enjoyed the brief sprinkle, as well as the tunes I had blaring on my iPod. I passed a few runners (I had passed lots of people since mile 20 and had yet to be passed by anyone since then) and jogged into Habron Gap (mile 54), where Liza was waiting to take care of me. I sat down (something I normally try not to do in a race) and let the wonderful volunteers (and Liza) do their work. After handing me a popsicle (I hesitantly put it in my mouth as visions of Joe T and his bloody lip flooded my mind), I climbed back onto the trail for the longest stretch between aid stations of the course, nearly 10 miles. On the bright side, I knew Liza would be waiting at Camp Roosevelt to pace me the last 40 miles (hopefully) to the finish.
The climb out of Habron Gap was brutal. I was sweating profusely and felt like my legs were turning to sludge. Each step felt labored, but I knew I needed to just put my head down and keep moving forward. The rocks were huge, and it was often difficult to find a good spot to place your feet. Having music helped, and despite feeling bad I wasn’t getting passed by anyone on the climb. Soon I reached the top, where we rolled up and down the ridge on narrow trail, a steep drop to the left and solid rock to the right. To say this trail was narrow would be an understatement. Nearly 3 hours after leaving Habron Gap, I arrived at Camp Roosevelt (mile 63.9).
Liza Howard is a great friend, and as soon as I got into MMT she agreed to pace me. In the interim, she got pregnant, so I assumed she wouldn’t be able to pace me any longer. Boy was I wrong. Pacing someone is difficult enough, but doing it 4+ months pregnant is unbelievable. I couldn’t have done the race without her help, and I am very grateful for her being there. The initial section of trail leaving Camp Roosevelt led us through an area that had been affected by fires, but interestingly the fires seemed to only have burned one side of the trail. The footing was rocky, muddy, and very wet in places. Up to this point I had managed to keep my feet fairly dry, but that was about to change. My legs didn’t feel too bad, but I wasn’t feeling much like running, so I continued to hike as quickly as I could. Daylight was slowly fading, and I hoped we could make it 7 miles to the next aid without the aid of my headlamp. Up and over a steep climb (no surprise here) and into Gap Creek (mile 69.6) we went, just as darkness was settling over the mountains. I was in need of a sock change and some solid food, so I sat down while Liza unlaced my shoes and helped me put on fresh socks. A volunteer gave me 2 cups of chicken noodle soup, which has always been my go-to late night food in ultras. Having fresh socks felt like heaven, and after a few minutes I was ready to tackle the next climb.
(Eating soup at Gap Creek - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard))
(Liza tending to my feet - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)
We made our way up a jeep road that eventually turned onto a singletrack trail, all the while steadily climbing. We would make this exact climb once more in the race, at mile 96, so I made a mental note of what to expect. The first ¾ of the climb wasn’t too bad, but then we hit a section filled with large rocks that made navigation slow and labored. I had to stop briefly a few times to catch my breath and take in calories. This stretch seemed to take a lot longer than I had anticipated it would, but we still managed to get to the Visitor Center (mile 78) over an hour ahead of my “goal” time. I sat down and ate half a hamburger and some quesadillas, washing it all down with 2 cups of ginger ale.
On the way out of the aid station, we linked up with another runner and his pacer (local guy) who told us what to expect over the next 25 miles. He warned abut the climb up to Bird Knob (mile 81), saying it was steep and that we would face a boulder scramble near the top. All of this sounded fairly daunting in my weary, sleep-deprived state of mind. We slogged our way up the mountain, ready for this boulder scramble we had been warned about. When the scramble never came and we found ourselves standing on top of the climb, we found ourselves relieved and excited that this section had been far less troublesome than we had anticipated. Another mile of running and we arrived at the Bird Knob Aid station (mile 81.6).
We didn’t stay at Bird Knob long, and I now knew that finishing was no longer in question. It was just a matter of what my time would be. I had 21 miles to go and plenty of time to complete it. This section of trail was pretty neat because once we ascended to the ridge top, we were engulfed in a cloud, making it difficult to see. There was a fine mist hanging in the air, which added to the surreal effect of the surroundings. I was starting to get sleepy and knew I needed to find caffeine at the next aid station, but it seemed to take forever to get there. 2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Bird Knob (it sure seemed like it took longer than that), we were greeted by another round of ultra friendly volunteers at the Picnic Area (mile 87.9). I ate several slices of grilled cheese downed a cup of Coke and one of Mountain Dew while Liza put fresh batteries in my headlamp, and then we were off again.
Only one aid station stood between me and the finish line, just under 16 miles away. I started doing some mental calculations and realized I had a good chance to break 30 hours, but I knew it was no slam dunk. I still had a nasty section to navigate between the Picnic Area and Gap Creek, a stretch that would shoot us straight up a drainage full of rocks, water, and plenty of mud. My feet would remain wet the rest of the race, and the mud made for slippery footing. I’d love to say this section was enjoyable, but it wasn’t. As dawn approached, I was filled with a renewed sense of energy, bolstered in part by the caffeine spike from the soda I drank. With less than an hour to go before we reached the final aid station, we turned off our headlamps and enjoyed the quiet solitude of the new day. We broke from the woods out onto a dirt road, and soon we could see the lights of Gap Creek (mile 96.8), where I would stop for the last time.
Having passed through this aid station earlier in the race, I recognized a few faces who offered to fill my bottles and get me food. As I was stripping off any unnecessary gear to make my pack as light as possible for the final push, a volunteer asked if I wanted a piece of French toast. Heck yes I did! As if that wasn’t good enough, she stuck a huge piece of sausage in the middle. Wow, talk about hitting the spot! After devouring my piece of toast, we thanked the volunteers and hiked up the road to begin our final climb.
We had made this climb earlier, and while it was certainly steep, the footing was relatively smooth, making it much easier to navigate than the nasty drainage we had ascended in the previous section. Once we reached the paper plate marking the 98 mile mark at the top of the climb, I glanced at my watch to see if I would make it safely under 30 hours. Much to my surprise, I realized I had a chance to get under 29 hours. I was ecstatic. The descent down the singletrack to the road that would take us home was far from graceful, but I managed to stumble/hobble, shuffle most of it. Once we hit Moreland Gap Road, there was a sign that told us the finish was 4 miles away. 4 miles of road to finish this race – I could handle that. Much to my chagrin, the road gently sloped down, meaning I had no real excuse to walk. As I started to jog, my legs felt really good. I wasn’t setting a blistering pace like Dave had earlier, but I was able to run much of the 4 miles back to camp. Liza and I calculated where we believed the 100 mile mark was and noted that I reached it in roughly 27:25 (which would have been a 100 mile PR by 4 and a half hours). If only we could have stopped right there. We ran/shuffled/hiked, laughing and telling stories along the way. We finally turned onto the property of the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp and saw a sign pointing us to the finish line of the Massanutten 100. In what seemed like a cruel joke, we turned again, this time back onto a winding singletrack trail. This didn’t last long, and in a matter of minutes we hit the big grass field, where I could see the finish line. I ran as hard as my legs would allow. 28 hours and 15 minutes after I left this exact spot (103.7 miles ago), I crossed the finish line.
(Crossing the 100 mile mark)
(With RD Kevin Sayers - Photo by Bobby Gill)
I’m still shocked that I ran the time I did. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would run sub 30, much less sub 29. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “perfect” 100 miler, but this was about as close as I could come to having that magically perfect race. I never puked, something that I would normally do 4-5 times in a race of this distance. I only consumed 2 sCaps, choosing instead to get most of my electrolytes from EFS liquid shots and electrolyte drink (most often in the form of a “Slurry”). Best of all, I had zero chafing, a malady that has crushed me in the past (thank you Monkey Butt!). My feet got wet, but I managed to come away with no blisters, thank to my Injinji socks and Brooks Cascadia shoes, which have always been the perfect shoe for me. Joe Sulak had me ready to rock in the mountains. Thanks for all the strength work and killer workouts! Time flew by for me during the race. There is usually a point in a race (often more than once) when I get overwhelmed with the distance/time still left to cover. That never happened at MMT. I felt like things were over almost as soon as they had begun. I had a blast out there, enjoying my time in the woods and mountains. While not having Cindy there to help crew was a bummer, getting to share the experience with other close friends was special. I can’t say enough about Kim, Dave, and Sean. And Liza was amazing. There’s no way I could have done this without her help. To do what she did (while pregnant) was nothing short of miraculous. I am blessed to have such a great group of friends. Massanutten was by far the best overall race I’ve been a part of. The volunteers went above and beyond, always there to get what I needed. They were the best I’ve ever seen. The course was both challenging (certainly tougher than Tahoe and close to being on par with Wasatch) and beautiful., playing to my strengths as a decent uphill hiker. MMT is a must do, and I can’t wait to get back.
(Sean, Dave, Kim, Myself, and Liza)