Thursday, July 18, 2019

Things I'd Do For a Pint Glass: The MMT 100

On paper the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 didn't look all that intimidating. The 18,500 feet of elevation gain, while significant, isn't all that monstrous over the 100-mile distance. The race website, however, fails to reiterate just how many large rocks have been tossed across the trails in the George Washington National Forest.

By all accounts, Massanutten is a somewhat easier course than the Eastern States 100—less technical with a several K feet fewer in elevation change, and without the switchback-less, scree-laden, 1,000-foot climbs. Training had been going well. In fact, it was the best training block I've ever had for a 100-miler, as detailed on a previous post

The MMT course is essentially a 100-kilometer loop around the ridge surrounding the George Washington National Forest, followed by a marathon-distance loop to the south, then a few miles down a road to bring it all back home. The course makes frequent drops down the ridge to aid stations at road crossings; this is where most of the elevation change comes in. There are a few sections with two to five miles of dirt road at a time, but otherwise it's all singletrack. 2019 marked the 25th straight year of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club's marquee event.

MMT welcome sign. 


I arrived to the starting line at Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp already in a handicapped state.

The afternoon before the race, I attended Hayley's grandmother's funeral, then drove seven hours straight down to northern Virginia to arrive around 9:00 p.m. I missed the expo, pre-race briefing, etc., but was able to get my bib and mug shot that night. The drop-bag drop-off deadline had already passed, but I'd made special arrangements with the Race Director and his drop-bag coordinator to leave my three bags in a bin behind the drop-bag transportation truck. (RD Kevin Sayers was very accommodating when I explained my predicament in an email a week earlier. More on this later.)

Pre-race mug shot. PC: Raj Bhanot
I then made my way to a stuffy bunk bed cabin shared with a dozen other runners. The lights were already out and I fumbled my way onto a top bunk, trying not to wake anyone although I doubt there was much slumbering anyway. Snoring, lack of fresh air,
race day nerves, and an unfamiliar setting all added up to about an hour of intermittent sleep before the 4:00 a.m. start. It was more a relief than anything when Kevin counted down from ten to one and sent us off into the forest's dark, early morning void.

We're off! PC: Raj Bhanot
200 headlamps bounced their way up and out of the valley along five miles of dirt road. "Five miles in 45 minutes—this is gonna be a walk through the park!" But to quote Wayne Campbell: "Yeah... and monkeys might fly out of my butt." We turned left onto a rocky uphill footpath, the first of many dicey trail sections.

The rocks here—and on much of the Massanutten course—are quite large, but not boulder-large. There's none of the scrambling or high-stepping that's required in the Catskills or Hudson Valley. Nor do they comprise that crunchy, loose scree that makes Eastern States and other "Rocksylvania" races so notoriously difficult. Massanutten Rocks™ are a happy medium—just the right size and dimensions to wear you down gradually. Death by a thousand paper cuts, DNF by a thousand ankle rolls.

After working hard on the northwest ridge's initial rocky section, we were rewarded with a loooooonnng, fast decent off the ridge into Edinburg Gap at mile 12.1 The lack of sleep and oddly timed eating schedule had left my stomach and guts in a funky state. By the time I'd reached this decent, though, I was warmed up, limbered up, and revved up to run. The drop off the ridge to the first full aid station was just like running the Finger Lakes Trail back home. I was back in my element. And then... more rocks.

As detailed in my pre-race post, my goal was to follow Jamie Hobbs' 2017 splits to a sub-24-hour finish. Of course, I hadn't had an opportunity to train on rocky terrain, and altogether underestimated the difficulty of MMT. By the time I reached Woodstock Tower I'd already fallen 26 minutes behind Jamie, and felt like I was working way too hard just to keep it that close. Only 20 percent of the way through, I'd all but accepted the fact that my 24-hour target was already gone with the wind. I paused at the overlook to take in the view and it helped soften the blow a little. I could see clear across the valley floor to the southeast ridge where I'd be running some eight to ten hours later.

Arriving at Woodstock Tower, mile 20.3. PC: Raj Bhanot
The next few hours passed with a runner named Jason, with whom I'd struck up a conversion about Oil Creek when I noticed the logo on his hat. We plodded along in cruise control mode over a long stretch of flattish, runnable trail. The trail snaked through the ridge's bright green flora while a gaggle of warblers warbled in full force. The run was becoming more enjoyable now that I was relieved of the pressure of having to average 14:18 per mile to meet an arbitrary goal.

The break in the rocky, technical trails allowed my mind to wander and I no longer had to focus on every step just to remain upright and sprain-free. I don't remember much about the long conversation with Jason except that, according to him, Grindstone is an easy, overrated hundo while Massanutten doesn't get the credit it deserves.

Early-mile cruisin' PC: Karsten Brown


Any experienced ultrarunner will tell you that no race ever goes perfectly. Things will always go wrong and you should expect the unexpected. The key is having the flexibility to adapt and roll with the punches rather than lose your head when the game plan goes awry.

A few minutes of panic set in when I reached Elizabeth Furnace at mile 33.3 and couldn't find my drop bag. I scanned the pile three or four times and asked two volunteers for help. No dice. The shirt and sock change I'd been envisioning for hours was a no go. Calorie-wise I'd be fine, but I pined over that dry shirt and those fresh, talcum-filled Farm to Feet socks. I sat for a few minutes, wondering if either of my other two drop-bags made it to their intended destinations. Maybe the special arrangements I'd made with the RD didn't work out somehow. Maybe this bag had been misplaced at an earlier aid station and I'd unknowingly passed it. Maybe I'd have to run the whole race without my own food, without a change of clothes or shoes, without recharging my watch, and without my preferred headlamp. Damn, at this moment I really regretted my decision to tackle this thing without a crew.

Sitting around with Jason at Elizabeth Furnace. PC: Raj Bhanot
In his article ADAPT: A 5 Step Plan for When Everything Goes Wrong, ultrarunning coach Jason Koop gives sound advice on how to handle a situation such as this.
"Acceptance of the situation allows you to move forward. It lifts the fog of emotion and enables you to think and act rationally. Accept first, and then you are ready to move forward."
Sprawled out under the aid station pavilion, I recalled the article, or at least its main points. I accepted the reality that my bag was not there and would not magically appear, no matter how long I stewed about it while remaining horizontal. It was on me to take action, and the only thing I could do was move forward. At least I could make progress while coming up with a plan B.

...and finally leaving Elizabeth Furnace. PC: Raj Bhanot
Jason was ready to roll when I was and we left Elizabeth Furnace together. I explained the misplaced bag situation, and he was kind enough to offer me anything I needed from his own bags going forward. He told me to find his crew and they'd let me borrow food, supplies, and gear as needed. One possible solution to the problem already!

We plodded on, heading eastward to the southeast rim before turning south at Shawl Gap, mile 38. This began a three-mile dirt road section under the blazing sun. I struggled to avoid walking, frustrated that I wasn't running a nine-minute pace or better on the road. At some point Jason, hobbled by a worsening leg injury sustained in an early fall, fell behind and ultimately dropped.

The course makes its way back up onto the southeast rim, again following the Massanutten Trail. The rim has some killer views of the Shenandoah River South Fork zigzagging its way through the valley. The loopy, ribbony curves don't seem like the most efficient path for a large amount of water to flow from Point A to Point B, but hey, I'm not the architect of this valley.

The ridge running was fun, but it wasn't long before we again dropped down to the valley for—ugh!—another exposed road section. This time my quads and calves were too banged up to run on the hard surface, so I walked most of the four-mile road. On the road I passed the 50-mile point in about 12:26 elapsed. Relief came when I reached the Habron Gap aid station at mile 54 and found my Elizabeth Furnace drop-bag waiting. At this point I didn't care about the mix up. I changed my socks and shirt, then continued on to Camp Roosevelt at mile 63.9 and found my next drop-bag. I put that bag's socks in my pack to change later and grabbed my backup headlamp. The sun was nearly down and I prepared myself mentally for the transition from day to night.


My memory of the next several hours is foggy but I'll do my best. I met another runner named Peter and we mostly stuck together for the next 20 to 30 miles. We helped each other say awake and stay on course as drowsiness gradually crept in. My Suunto refused to recharge with the portable USB charger I carried. At five percent battery I turned off the GPS and just used it for the time of day, which was annoying because I'd gotten used to knowing my total mileage at any given time. (I need to learn not to rely on this so much.)

The Gap Creek aid station is a the one spot we hit twice—at mile 69.6 and again at 96.8. I envisioned reaching that spot for the second time, with just a four-miles-down-the-road victory lap to follow. "See ya in a marathon" a volunteer called out as Peter and I left together. Needless to say, it would be one excruciatingly slow and painful 26.2.

Bird Knob, mile 81.6. I stumble in alone and deflated and collapse into a camping chair, lifeless. "Wake me up in 20 minutes" I mumble to the nearest volunteer.

"Uh, okay, but there's a cot right there if you'd rather lie down," pointing directly behind me.

I somehow chuck my pack on the ground and propel out of sitting position in the chair and face plant onto the cot, ready for my first ever mid-race nap. I honestly don't know if I'll go on, but since I'm well ahead of cutoffs I might as well wait it out. Visions of quitting dance in my head. "Why run massa-sumpin' when you can run massa-nuttin'?" I'd still go home with a prize—one of those dreaded engraved Visitor Award rocks the VHTRC gives out to anyone who DNFs past mile 50. Ugh. Then I'd be obligated to come back and exchange the rock for a buckle and get my name removed from the Visitors List. This deep into the race a pacer would have gotten me going zero to sixty in 10 seconds flat. But stupid me, I had to show off and enter the solo division. And for what? Another finishers award in addition to a belt buckle? The things I'd do for a pint glass!

I glance at my watch a few times and after 15 minutes prone but awake, I pass out cold for another five before I'm awakened by a gentle tap on my grimy shoulder. I asked the volunteer for another five minutes of self pity and he complies. Then I stumble drunkenly to my feet, chug a Red Bull, throw on my pack, and run almost every step of the next 10k leg. That Visitors Award will hafta wait.

I reach Picnic Area, the penultimate aid station, and ditch all my unneeded gear in a drop-bag I left just for that purpose. The final half marathon takes me an eternity and includes a mile of the toughest terrain the course offers up. The trail goes through a ravine, over a large pile of boulders that requires using my hands, and then up a 10% grade through a rocky stream bed with nowhere to step except through the water. In retrospect, this is would be an incredibly fun trail to navigate under most circumstances, but 93 miles into 100 it's Pure Unadulterated Hell. I'm lost so deep in the pain cave I barely notice the daylight fading in. I am rewarded with neither a beautiful sunrise view nor a renewed strength, but instead with more boulders and more pain.

I sit down on a boulder to gather the mental strength required to keep moving. I trudge a quarter-mile. I sit down on a boulder to gather the mental strength required to keep moving. I rue my life choices and condemn every boulder, pebble and stone to the deepest bowels of Hades. I get up. I trudge a quarter-mile. I sit down. I rue my life choices. And so it goes.

This routine continues on for some time, until... "Wait! What's that? A road? Good God, there's actually an end to this thing!" I finally start running again, keeping to the softer dirt on the shoulder. It's now almost 8:00 a.m., two and half hours past sunrise, and I finally get that born-again feeling that comes with ultramarathon sunrises.

A mile on the road and I reach Gap Creek II, completing the South Loop Marathon in... what? eight hours? nine? Who knows? My first pass through Gap Creek was a few lifetimes ago. I take a bottle refill from a little girl and we exchange a silent, knowing fist bump. Her eyes are a giveaway that she understands completely all I've been through over the past two days, that she's as thrilled as I am to be oh-so-close to the end.

"Number 110, over and out." I trot on down FR-274, around the campground and across the finish line.


Done! Finish line pics PC: Raj Bhanot

1,000-yard stare, immediately after finishing. PC: Raj Bhanot


The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100, while an easier course than Eastern States, was the toughest time I had at any ultra aside from my first 100 at Virgil Crest. As it turns out, the heat on this day affected everyone. Historically, MMT's finish rate over the first 24 years is 66%. In 2019 only 96 of 190 starters finished (50.5%). The top runners' times were all slower than average, and only the top eight broke 24 hours. By comparison, in 2017 Jamie Hobbs was the last of 19 runners to go sub-24. (You can geek on on all of MMT's historical data here.) What's more, the 2019 course's final leg was shorted by three miles and a 900-foot climb was eliminated. So even with the easier course, times were slower and the drop rate higher. At the awards ceremony, RD Kevin said he thought the 80-90°F daytime temps were the main culprit.

I finished in 29:01:14, 36th place, and was given a pewter belt buckle for the effort. (Due to problems with my watch, I wasn't sure of my elapsed time near the end and might have forced myself to run 1:15 faster had I known!) Now that I know the course and it's many pitfalls, I'll have to come back better prepared to nab a sub-24 silver buckle.

The post-race festivities were amazing! Loads of savory, calorie dense food with plenty of vegan options; applause for finishers that became more and more raucous as the clock ticked upward toward the 35:00 final cutoff; a "blackout nap" back in the stuffy cabin followed by another 9,863 or so calories down the hatch.

Kevin began the awards ceremony immediately following the last finisher. All the runners who opted to stick around were called up by name, their finishing times announced, and were given their buckles while posing for a picture. As a crew-less, pacer-less, headphone-less solo runner, I was awarded bragging rights and a pint glass. One guy got an extra commemorative buckle for finishing his 20th MMT, and another guy his 10th. Overall and age-group winners were also announced. (Full results.)

Awards presentation. PC: Raj Bhanot
Awards presentation. PC: Raj Bhanot
It took awhile for this race to sink in and then motivate myself to write about it. I've had two months to the day to reflect on the experience, yet I'm still struggling to put into words the good vibes and all around atmosphere exuded by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. Yes, there were loads of selfless volunteers handling my nasty, sweat soaked gear without batting an eye. Yes, there was many a runner out there to party for 30+ hours, enjoying every second of it while getting a little exercise on the side. To me, this group seemed very tight knit, but with open arms welcoming me into their inner circle. It's difficult to describe, but different than any other race I've been to—and in a completely positive way.

So, thank you once again to Kevin Sayers, VHTRC, and the entire MMT crew, plus Jamie Hobbs for the detailed, pre-race intel. While MMT was far from my best race, it was one of the most fulfilling.

Loads of top notch swag.
The MMT buckle is the most detailed buckle I've ever seen.

Easy going on the northwest rim. PC: Lokesh Kumar Meena‎
PC: Lokesh Kumar Meena
PC: Lokesh Kumar Meena

Arriving at Powell's Fort, mile 25.8. PC: Cathy Greer Hart
Powell's Fort AS. PC: Cathy Greer Hart
Powell's Fort AS. PC: Cathy Greer Hart

Tell it like it is. PC: Toni Aurilio

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