Saturday, May 25, 2013

2013 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 race report

Well, one week ago tonight I was settling into my sleeping bag at the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp in Fort Valley, VA, feeling quite relaxed and more than ready for my first MMT100.  All told, the Massanutten Mountain trails were everything I was expecting - and more.  More rocks, more climbs, and more all around difficulty than I had had the pleasure of previously experiencing.  Pretty good value for the ultrarunning dollar!

I felt pretty confident coming into this race.  My training had been strong and consistent.  I had amassed five 90-100 mile weeks during my training cycle, which had begun with a good base building period beginning in January. My low mileage weeks before tapering were in the 65-75 mile range.  Winter was rough in southeastern MA with plenty of deep snows to contend with, but the runnable snow provided a good training obstacle that I can now look back on and say was pretty race (and pace) specific to the 'rocky hell' that is the beloved Massanutten.  With the help of my massage therapist, Tracey, and my foam roller, I had resolved whatever soft tissue problem was plaguing my right leg a few weeks before go time, and the 2 week taper really helped.  By the time race week approached I was feeling antsy - a good sign.

I pushed off Friday morning early to catch a brief flight from Logan to BWI, then make the 2.5 hour trek to Fort Valley, VA.  After picking up a pretty sweet ride from Hertz (Ford Fusion with leather sport interior and black rims!), I was cruising down the sunny highway in style.  After a few quick stops for weekend provisions (fruit, water, Vita Coco coconut water, Larabars, Veggie Straws and Ensure), and some lunch, I was out of the DC metro traffic before things got too clogged. Phew...

Northern VA was beautiful and sunny - and hot! It was 80+ degrees F and humid, and I was a little concerned for the race day weather, but was content with sticking to my plan of starting well-hydrated, covering decent ground in the early cooler hours and backing off if need be during the heat of the day. But I knew hydration and electrolyte balance were going to be key all day and was glad I had decided on my UltrAspire Impulse pack since I would need those 2 bottles.

The last time I'd been in this geography was for the first UROC 100K in 2011 that I had to DNF at close to the midpoint of the race (that story for another blog entry).  I was looking forward to running in VA again, and experiencing the Appalachian mountains, which I've always found to be scenic and inherently meditative for some reason.

I arrived to Caroline Furnace around 2pm, got settled into my assigned Cabin and packed my drop bags that I had planned out on paper. 
Flying to a race means having to plan a bit differently, so I couldn't just throw packed drop bags in my luggage, but they were all labeled, just had to pack them.  Off to the pre-race briefing at 4pm.  The pre-race meal was served up mighty fine - plenty of good food and company. I met some folks from the Maryland area some of whom were also running their first MMT100, so we commiserated on the pain that was to come.  One of the guys, Jim, who organizes a little known race called the CAT-100, was real nice and offered his wisdom from having run MMT a few years prior. I really like the culture of community you can find at ultras. Everyone is approachable, and I always end up meeting someone new.  You never know when you might need to call on a total stranger for help during the race (something always goes wrong somewhere), and people just help. It's a volunteer spirit and is a lot of what makes ultras so appealing, I suspect.  I excused myself a bit early to get my gear situated for the 3AM wake-up, and wished them all good luck. Also reserved some time to make a final trip outside camp up a hill to get some last cell reception and family contact before going dark for the race.  Of course nobody was available as the kids were having a grand time with "mimaw" and "grampa" out to eat...

I got my gear all set and laid out my banana, Ensure, bagel and watermelon breakfast and fell fast asleep with my relaxing tunes.  I deviated from my original plan of camping since the forecast had called for thunderstorms. No fun flying with wet gear. So one week before the race I switched over to a cabin. Good move, as the mattresses in the bunks were just cushy enough and I ended up with a pretty solid sleep that night.  It was a little warm at 60F overnight temp, and with my 20F rated bag, but no complaints. My body was certainly ready as I ended up waking one minute before my 3AM alarm.  My normal weekday training of getting up around 4AM helps also...was able to get my body going on its normal routine...ya know, everything flowing properly . . . OK, I digress...

Race check in and the spirit was "groggily electric". 
Some clearly don't want to be awake yet, and others are trying to psyche themselves up for the insanity to come - "let's do this!"  I searched for coffee, more for the aroma than the need for the drink, but alas I arrived too late. Only a few gritty drips left. Oh well.  I met up with the Trail Monster Running gang of gIant Parlin and George Alexion (and their spouses crewing for them) just before the start and before long we were dancing across the meadow toward Route 675 for the first few miles of the 2013 MMT 100.

The start line was fairly spaced out and afforded very little crowding at the start, from my vantage point.  I found myself running a few paces behind the lead pack but it was comfortable so I stuck with it. I counted 12 of us up there...making sure I was one of the last of the 12!  For light, I had purchased a CREE LED mini flashlight with 300 lumen output. The bugger was super bright during my at home tests, so it was fine. Except for that one little important detail of the battery. Instead of the single AA that I could've used, I opted for a compatible rechargeable Lithium battery from Ultrafire that I had fully charged and tested before the race. It worked famously - for the first 20-30 mins.  Then I noticed it seemed awfully dim. Too dim. But we were on the road and the other runners' lights lit the way so I plugged on. I figured I was OK with a dim light if that's what it wanted to do on me (cheap Made-in-China POS...). Well, right as we exited the road for the rocky trail at mile 4, I noticed my light was now completely dark. For whatever reason I let out an audible groan that my battery was dead, which immediately prompted 2 runners to pass and run away from me - OK so maybe that volunteer spirit isn't so strong at the front of the race.  Well, after a few panicked moments of trying to figure out what I would do, I found myself running the same pace as another guy (later figured out was Brad Hinton, 4th place finisher) who had both a headlamp and handheld, and eventually I was able to keep the dim fire burning on my pathetic device to supplement. I knew the forecast was clouds all day long, so no luck of an early morning break of light. I managed to keep pace with him until the first 90 minutes had passed though I did fall behind on a few sections and scrambled sort of blindly, but I found my eyes had adjusted well enough to avoid tripping like a fool.  I ended up coming through the Edinburg Gap aid station in just over 2 hours, which was a bit fast for the pace I'd mapped out for myself, but I was glad to have covered that early ground on the trail - whether or not that was proper thinking I wasn't sure.

The morning, and the whole day proved to be very humid, so I kept on the S-Caps and hydration, one bottle for water and the other a water with dissolved GU Brew tab. I also kept the nutrition strong with a good mix of real food and the occasional GU to avoid overloading my system with GU which has in the past caused GI distress. The checkpoints rolled on - Woodstock Tower, Powell's Fort, Elizabeth Furnace. Having studied the course map, turn-by-turn directions, and PATC trail maps I was visualizing in my head where I was on the map as the trail moved along. Between that and my iPod tunes filled with classics from Skynyrd, Zeppelin, CCR, Steppenwolf and moving beats from Michael Franti, Anberlin, Of Monsters and Men, and several others, I was cruising right along.
Shawl Gap (38 mi) was a quick stop for some Vita Coco water a few S-Caps, PB&J and chips and I was down the road. One of the very few road sections of the course. This section marked the point of the course that we had made the clockwise turn to head southerly on the course map after running northerly from the start, so a bit of a mental boost.  This stretch took me to Veach Gap at 41.1 mi where I met the refreshing goodness of a wet towel soaked in an ice bucket. This aid station had it goin' on. After the ice towel and getting water bottles refilled they could tell I wanted to keep on motoring, so after stuffing a few bites in my mouth, they sent me on my way with a baggie filled with watermelon and strawberries. Perfect! Who needs a crew with aid stations like this??  Then I realized they were just being nice since they knew what was to come:
A sustained climb up the ridge to get back on the Massanutten Trail. Well at least I got to enjoy some good watermelon and strawberries while I power-hiked. But actually this section, once I crested up on the ridge was a very enjoyable and runnable section. There was one part particularly fun that took us on the left side of the ridge and was on somewhat of a decline, so there was nothing on our left but trees and steep drop, and narrow, rock-hopping single track to maneuver as you picked up speed and made sharp turns. For whatever reason my body felt great here and I really loved it. It ended with a nice little kamikaze run downhill on tumbling rocks before leveling out in the woods as we approached mile 50 and the Indian Grave Trailhead aid station.  Then you're dumped onto a combination paved and gravel road for a few miles to mile 54 at the Habron Gap aid station.  Just before this aid station I was passed by, who I later identified as, Aaron Spurlock who finished 4 minutes after me. He was looking strong and wasted no time at Habron Gap, powering up the steep ridge climb.  I took a few moments at Habron Gap to slam an Ensure and grab some more trusty PB&J, and then off I went to power hike, trudge, up to the ridge. That climb was no joke and I decided I would sit for 15 seconds on a perfectly situated rock cropping out of the side of the hill as I guzzled some electrolyte drink. A fellow runner greeted me and we commiserated momentarily before proceeding on along the much more runnable terrain of the ridge.  I always find that when my body starts feeling a little "off" it's time for a hit of glucose and the GU - especially my supply of GU Roctane - hit the spot.  I was eagerly awaiting getting to Camp Roosevelt and mile 64 where I would meet up with my pacer. Finally it came and I was glad for company.
Up until about 10 days before the race, I was in the Solo Division.  As the race drew near I got cold feet to try to attempt a solo MMT on my virgin attempt, and cared more about a sub-24 hour finish. Without the luxury of available friends for this weekend, I was fortunate to find Andrew on the MMT race site's pacer page. He wanted to run, I wanted a pacer, we made contact, and it worked. Just go with the flow, man, it always works out somehow . . . (which for anyone who knows how much of a planner I am would be surprised at that attitude).  Well, Andrew turned out to be great company on the trail and even ended up being quite the photog.  We happen to work in somewhat related businesses, or at least can understand what the other does, so the mutual conversation worked well to dull the pain of climbing/stepping on the rocks. It was great, but I was surprised by how steep the grade got at several points later in the race.

Finally up and over Duncan Hollow and down into the Gap Creek/Jawbone aid station (first time through) at mile 69/70. This drop bag location had my headlamp and other gear, so after a quick gear change, and some awesome pierogies to go, we were out of there on on our way up to the ridge at Jawbone Gap. Another lovely steep grade.  But the reward at the top was runnable (though rocky) single track over Kerns Mountain, and at least one beautiful view of the valley below:
It would be awhile before we got to the next aid station, Visitor Center, but the ridge running made for an enjoyable time, albeit frustrating in some parts where all else being equal it was runnable - but this is where Massanutten proves it has no equal. It has rocks. Lots of rocks. Too many rocks. Rocks with grasses growing up above them that hide the rocks. Rocks on top of rocks on top of rocks.  But eventually we made our way through and out onto the road taking us down to the Visitor Center at mile 78.  Another Ensure, some quesadillas to go, hot soup for the soul and we were onto the trail. Finally flicked on the headlamps (no failure this time: I was using a Bright Medic 300 lumen headlamp with trusty Energizer AAAs) and prepared for our Bird Knob climb.  As we climbed up, and up, the air cooled, the fog rolled in and yes, the millipedes came out.  It wasn't too bad, but it added a new obstacle to just be mindful of hand placement in addition to trying to remember to step up, or watch your footing.  But again, the summit/crest came and this time atop the ridge there was aid. I gladly tried the advertised corn chowder and other choice eats, and away we went, confident the sub-24 hour finish was still within reach. I was sensing the finish, coming through Bird Knob at mile 81, but knew I still had a long way and a couple more climbs to go.

Somewhere running downhill after Bird Knob I started to develop some sore spots on both feet, in the same places. I really didn't want to mess with taking my shoes off so just dealt with it the best I could. I knew the point would come that pain would increase, then top out, and then not get any worse, so I started mentally preparing for just that.  The descent from Bird Knob into the Picnic Area aid station at mile 87.9 really aggravated those hot spots, but the orange slices, hot soup, applesauce and potatoes at the Picnic Area aid station took precedent over the feet.  I came into Picnic Area in 9th place I think and there were a few of us clustered together.  Stopping for the 2 mins for food and trying to stuff Vaseline into my upper socks made us leave the aid station in 11th place. Whatever, the sub-24 finish was still very attainable.  Press on!

My memory is a little foggy after Picnic Area getting to the Gap Creek/Jawbone aid station again for round 2, but I remember more rocks - perfect softball and larger sized ankle-rolling rocks - and several stream crossings.  The Vaseline stuffing trick didn't seem to do anything, so the pain in the ankle areas started to aggravate more. I just resolved to keep running and deal with whatever foot disaster awaited me at the finish.  I wasn't going to let a silver buckle out of my grasp that easily.... I focused, with the help of my pacer Andrew, on more water, more S-Caps, more food. The Larabars (bananas foster flavor) really did the trick to keep real calories in me.  And we kept surmising where we were on the course and how far we might have to go and how long it would take us - how much cushion, if any, did we have on that 24-hour mark?  Before too much lucidity of thought could be had we had to fight our way up the aptly named Gap Creek. By this point I was super thankful that the rain and thunderstorms they'd called for never materialized, or we would not have had the luxury of crystal clear ankle deep water, but rather muddy shin or knee deep water to wade through - over those pesky rocks no less:

 Well, we landed on wanting to come into Gap Creek/Jawbone II at the 22 hour mark so we'd have plenty of cushion to run the last 7 miles in 2 hours.  We ended up about 30 minutes ahead of that chosen schedule and once that hit us, we knew the silver buckle was pretty much mine for the losing - but that wouldn't happen.  The Gap Creek/Jawbone aid station was my lengthiest stop of the day - I'm estimating 3 minutes (maybe it was more), but we were getting our final read on the last section ahead, changing out my batteries and I found both hot soup, potatoes and some awesome cherry pie to snarf down. At mile 96.8 after 21:30 hours running anything will taste "awesome", for sure.  I don't think they noticed me, but I saw my pre-race meal friends from Maryland coming through Gap Creek for their first time as I was leaving my second time through.  It was nice to see they hadn't dropped and I mentally wished them well as we passed them by on our way up Jawbone for the final push.  This time atop Jawbone we could cross the red ribbon and proceed down the other side - blister pain and all!


Mile 98 - a refreshing feeling and the sub-24 hour finish was essentially in the bag.  One aid station staffer at Gap Greek a few miles before confidently predicted I'd finish around an even 23 hours, but I wasn't so sure. But I was sure happy to crest mile 98 and see what my legs had left.  Descending off Jawbone was another painful endeavor because of the ankle blisters but it was more frustrating to know I was going downhill and supposed to be running but just couldn't find enough stretches to actually run before the rocks forced a more careful stride.  Eventually we dumped out on the gravel road (Route 730) for the final 3.7 miles back to Caroline Furnace Camp.  Yes, reaching Route 730 totaled 100 miles, but this is a 103.7 mile race, so not quite done yet.  But at least I was sub 23-hours at the 100 mile mark!  The road miles ended up being a welcome opportunity to stride out after all those rocks.  The first mile ticked off in 9 and a half minutes according to pacer Andrew, but my legs didn't like the hard-packed road surface descent, so I slowed a bit to cover the remaining miles in 11-12 minute pace or so.  Oh, we did get to see a local rattlesnake on the road, which Andrew didn't see at first as he was off to the left, but I jumped right over being in the middle of the road. So Andrew excitedly ran back to snap a photo while I continued on, hoping he didn't get bitten - not exactly sure what I would've done if the snake had attacked . . . I was focused on my finish and that was far too close to worry about that!


Well, Caroline Furnace Camp soon appeared in the lonely darkness. One more final assault on the psyche with a brief but steep hill up the entrance road, then veer off into the woods, down the hill (one more chance to trip!), over the creek and around the mowed meadow path to the finish.  Final finish accomplished in 23:22, and good enough for 10th place overall!


Not too shabby for a first attempt at Massanutten. I was super pleased with my finish and overall performance on the day.  I had mapped out a pacing strategy based on a 23:30 finish and it turned out to get me right there.  My main focus all day was keeping hydration, electrolytes and calories up, and I  must've hit the magic balance since I didn't have a bio-break all day, save for one brief bladder emptying late in the day after the sun went down.  I wanted to have fun, but I also wanted to successfully go after the silver buckle finish and I was happily able to do both.  Coming through aid stations starting with Camp Roosevelt, volunteers remarked on how good I looked and that I was at least joking and having fun. Ras Vaughan, the Rastafarian Pacific Northwest ultrarunner reportedly has the motto of: "An ultramarathon is like a mullet: business up front and party in the back," so I guess I was trying to bring a little party flavor to the front end of the race.  It worked for me at least, and it kept my spirits high.

A big shout-out is in order for the following individuals who were critical to my race support:
1) the volunteers - no race could occur without volunteers and the MMT100 volunteers are top notch. Good job guys.

2) my pacer - Andrew was perfect company but even more than that was a detail oriented pace guide who really kept pushing me and encouraging me when I needed to hear it. He also happens to be a certified running coach, so if anyone is looking for a coach in the Washington, DC area, look him up. He works for Fexy Coaching. It's Andrew Simpson.  I lucked out!

3) last but certainly not least - my wife.  We are expecting our 3rd child in 5 weeks, which gives us 3 children under the age of 4, and she is a saint for allowing me to pursue this crazy hobby amidst all the other time pressures we have of 2 other kids, my career, etc. Honey - thank you, thank you, thank you. I owe you. Of course you already knew that!

Time for me to rest up - actually time to start training up: I've got a 50 miler in 3 weeks (TARC 100/50) and the Vermont 100 5 weeks after that.  Yes, we'll have baby #3 sometime in that interval.  So, here's to the Everyman in all of us who really have no business doing this crazy running, but still find the time to squeeze it in!