103.7 miles in 32:21:02. I guess the best place to start this race report is explain why I came back to this rocky hell. I ran this race in 2011, and completed it in 32:22:02. If you notice the remarkably similar time, that is only the beginning of the parallels. I never wrote a race report last year, but I did find this blurb in an email from two days afterwards:
“If you asked me to make a decision today, I would be 50-50 on ever running another 100 miler again. My guess is the answer will be different in a month when senility allows me to forget some of the stupidity in doing this and all the associated angst and pain. But it wouldn't kill me to retire now.”;
Somewhere mid-race in 2011, I “bonked”, or so I have at least thought. I got light-headed and dizzy, and no amount of sugar, salt or fluid would correct it. The last 30 miles of that race were awful. I took a 45 minute nap at one aid station while it rained, and tried to quit at the last aid station. But I finished. Even though it was my slowest time in a 100 miler by nearly 9 hours, I felt better about finishing it than any other race. A month later I was running for distance again. Six months later, I entered the MMT100 lottery again.
I didn’t make the lottery, but eventually got in from the wait list, and spent the spring training as if I was going. I ran Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, a pair of 50 mile races in March & April, and a handful of long, difficult runs including back to back 33 milers in hilly conditions three weeks prior to the race. But I did not get up to the house in North Carolina and run true mountains that would simulate Massanutten. I was a little worried that would come back to haunt me (and it would). I came into the race with a modest goal of improving to a 28 hour finish. 24 hours is an elite finish, but unless I lose some more weight, and am able to train regularly in real mountains; that is not going to happen for me on a course like MMT. I didn’t have to run crazy-good to hit 28 hours, just smart and steady.
Patrick Bene came with me as a pacer, and Joe Dooley who lives in Virginia was there to crew me again. Friday we visited my parents and brother for lunch, and then more family in the mountains for dinner. I only got 3.5 hours sleep Friday night, but it never seems to get much better with the nerves before race day. We were up at 2:00 and off to the 4:00 start at Caroline Lutheran Furnace Camp. Massanutten Mountain in Virginia is a synclinal ridge that is roughly 50 miles long with a narrow valley between parallel ridges. The entire ridgeline stays below 3,000 feet, so it is not exceptionally tall. But the drops are precipitous and the entire mountain is one rocky outcropping after another. The race includes 11 major climbs of 750-1,500 feet each and numerous smaller ones. The weather was pretty decent with no rain or mud for the entire event. Starting time temperature was in the low 40s, I wore a tank top under a long sleeve shirt, gloves and hat.
The first half of the race was fairly uneventful. Early on I stayed pretty close to the pace chart I had prepared; and wasn’t having much difficult staying on track. There were a couple places I felt low and worried that I couldn’t keep up. But they were quickly followed by the wonderful endorphin highs, especially when careening downhill at breakneck pace making up time. Joe and Patrick met me at each crewed aid station and kept me supplied with everything I needed. I was especially careful to take in plenty of sugar and salt, I was NOT going to bonk as I had last year. The last 4 mile stretch coming into the Habron Gap aid station parallels the Shenandoah River, is very pretty, and I made good time coming through there. By now, I was a little off pace and knew that 28 hours was going to be a stretch. My legs just weren’t quite strong enough to push up the steep hills. I spent a few minutes at that aid station convincing Joe to drop Patrick off at the next aid station where he would begin to pace me and drive into Harrisonburg to watch NHL playoff game 7 of his precious Caps.
I knew from last year coming out of Habron Gap I had a mean 1,500 foot climb to Jack’s Notch. The temp were now in the high 70s, so I went shirtless and purposely took my time walking up the hill to conserve leg strength as I still had nearly 50 miles to go. But by halfway up I was really struggling. I was sweating profusely in the nearly full sun. My breathing was labored and I stopped several times to put my hang my head with hands on knees to recover. Soon I was light-headed and a dizzy. What was happening? I never feel quite like this when I am running no matter how bad I feel. Except once before. Massanutten 2011. What was it about this race? Panic swept over me. I still had well over 40 miles to go. I couldn’t do this again. I finished last year’s race feeling like a shell of myself. It took me weeks to recover, not physically, but mentally and emotionally. I could NOT do this again. I pulled into Camp Roosevelt, 63.1 miles and 16+ hours in and in a shambles.
Camp Roosevelt is where Patrick was to begin pacing me, taking me in the last 40.6 miles. Imagine, taking 4 days off, flying 800 miles away to pace a friend and being told at the start your runner was quitting? I didn’t. I pulled in, looked Patrick dead in the eye, told him how I was feeling, and that I was done. Period. There was no way I was going told this to myself for 40 more miles. Fortunately Joe had gone off to see the hockey game and was planning to meet us at the Visitor’s Center aid station 14 miles away several hours from now. We had nothing to do for hours. Well, we might as well walk the next two legs and meet him there. At least I could say I had quit at 77 miles instead of 63. So off we went. Patrick and I tried to dissect what might have happened. I’d taken in plenty of salt, sugar and fluid; that was not a problem. But maybe I needed even more. So I took more salt pills, starting adding gels to the solid food I was already eating, and drank even more water.
We arrived at Visitor’s Center with me actually feeling pretty decent. Joe was there, the Caps had lost 2-1 and were out of the playoffs. I gave him my condolences and headed for the food. Patrick had blown out his shoe on a rock; so while he changed footgear, I ate quesadillas, potatoes and jelly beans. We pulled out quickly with me ready to go to the finish. Immediately out of that aid station is what is reputed to be the toughest climb on the course, Bird Knob. In truth, it is shorter than many of the others, but 78 miles in, tired legs suffer even more. We climbed almost 1,000 feet in just 1.5 miles. At the Bird Knob aid station, I pointed out the tent where I had slept the year before; but was ready to move on quickly. We only had 3 legs (out of 16) left on the course and I was ready to finish. But the next two shorter climbs did me in. I crashed completely. I had vertigo and felt totally out of control… of everything.
I couldn’t take any more rocks. The rocks are everywhere on this course. There are places where the trail itself is not self-evident. You simply look for a painted sign somewhere in the stone and crawl across boulders to get to the next point. I believe the organizers of the race take great pride in the difficulty of their course, and they should. It is brutally difficult in most places. Time after time, you finish a difficult climb looking forward to a fast descent. Only to find another boulder field with tricky footing falling down before you. At one point, late in the course, it turns left into a dry creek bed, and you simply traverse the rocks straight uphill for several hundred yards with the ravine rising above you on both sides. Throughout the course, small stones would skid under your feet, with the occasional sharp one sticking up to bruise your feet when landed improperly. Medium-sized stones require a little extra lift in your legs to clear lest you be tripped. And then there were the big boulders for which I came to regret man becoming bipedal. During the day, I was constantly using nearby trees or other rocks to brace myself with my hands before I stepped up or down a bigger drop-off. But at night, the millipedes come out by the thousands, so I could no longer use my hands. I know there are many courses with much more altitude to deal with, and courses with more elevation change. But I doubt any are so quite so singularly cruel when combined with the terrain itself.
We stumbled into the Picnic Area aid station at mile 86.9 and I was done. Or at least, I thought so. But Patrick didn’t. Joe gave me a look, knowing he had seen this before. But I would show them. I sat in a chair next to the fire and ate a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon. Then I ate a little more bacon. This was my post race meal. Just for good measure, I ate a third serving of bacon. I felt cozy sitting by the fire, I could feel sleep not too far away. But Patrick & Joe continued to talk to me as if I was headed back out. Another FUR, Traci Phillips, there to pace Michelle Matys was also at the aid station and took up the cause and began to berate the idea of dropping. How dare I? A volunteer pointedly told me no one else had dropped at this aid station, I would be the first. And he would have none of that at his aid station. I stubbornly replied to all of them that I was done, nothing they could say would get me out of that chair. Then, after 40 minutes in the chair, I looked at Joe and asked him to refill my water bottles. I told Patrick to get ready to go, jumped out of the chair, and started down the trail. Within 100 yards I went from a walk to a shuffle, a 100 yard later a slow trot, and soon I was running again. I can’t say now what changed my mind, but I was going to finish dammit.
The next 3 hours will stay in my head for a long time. Not long out of Picnic Area, the 10th of 11 climbs begins, and I soon regretted my decision. I told Patrick I had made a big mistake. This had been stupid. I was dizzy again, and my head was swimming. I wouldn’t be the same after this race for weeks. Running and finishing this race is no so important as to overshadow my bigger priorities of wife, kids and work. Finishing this race would be a selfish act on my part. I had every reason in the book to argue for stopping. And for every argument I threw out there, Patrick countered with two. We had a running (sic) three hour philosophical conversation back and forth that at times became surly (on my part at least). Without actually beginning to f-bomb him, I made sure Patrick knew how angry I was. None of that worked. He tried to shame me, asking me how I would explain to my kids that I had quit. Barrett’s never quit. But in my swirling head, I came up with explanations on how to deal with that. Then Patrick dropped his biggest bomb, “How will you explain this to your Dad?” That one hit closest to home. But I was done, or so I thought.
We came out of the woods, turned on to the last two mile downhill stretch on a gravel road to the Gap Creek aid station. I could walk this last stretch and be done. Another runner and his pacer passed us. I asked them to look for the big guy in a Caps jersey and ask him to drive up the hill and get us. Now, I wouldn’t even have to do the whole two miles. But we kept walking in case they didn’t see him. After a while Joe still hadn’t shown and we were still walking. Did he decide not to come get us and make me keep going? Jerk. I started trotting. Then Joe pulled up in the car asking which of us was injured. I snarled at him, “No one” and told him to just meet us at the damn aid station. I looked back and saw Patrick talking to Joe next to the car. I yelled back at them that I had been rooting against the Caps all along and beauty school owners (of which Patrick is one) were losers, and ran ahead to the last aid station. I quickly refueled, ate a breakfast burrito, asked the aid station volunteers to keep that jerk (Patrick) away from me, and took off.
Patrick caught me early in the uphill scramble on that last big climb and we forged upwards. It was difficult going, but my header felt better than it had in 15+ hours. The first mile coming back downhill is treacherous on wobbly legs, but as soon as the footing became less rocky, we started to run. We turned on to the final stretch of gravel road and I ran most of the last several miles. Patrick gloated that he had Jedi-mind f****ed me. And he was right. Clearly, I could finish, I was running solidly. In fact, I realized late, I might be able to beat last year’s time. We went as hard as I could the last half mile came out of the woods into the field at the finish, and broke into a flat out sprint to finish exactly 60 seconds better than 2011. Just over 0.5 seconds faster per mile. I complimented the race director on the aid stations and the volunteers who were fantastic. Patrick heard there were 150 volunteers for a race with just 205 entrants, that is impressive. Volunteers at all ultrarunning races seem to be very good people, and amazingly supportive. But what we experienced at MMT is a cut above. We chatted with Michelle Matys who finished just 12 minutes behind me and Traci, had a post race beer, and took off for Mother’s Day dinner with my family.
Two years in a row with very similar results. 103.7 miles (because 100 miles of rocks is not enough) in 32:21:02 for an 18:43 pace. I was 68th out of 125 finishers. A little over 24 hours later and I feel remarkably decent. No blisters, no injuries. My legs are massively sore, and I won’t run for a week at least. But I will be back at it soon, the Black Hills 100 in South Dakota is just 6 weeks away. I found out once again, just how good my friends are. Patrick proved definitively, once again, he is an amazing pacer. I come out of this race with plenty of material for self reflection as I consider what I have become (seven 100 mile races completed, including two at MMT), and what I have note (see the numerous attempts to quit and dependence on outside support to keep going cited above). I will go see my doctor or a sport nutritionist to try and get to the root cause of my vertigo issues. And I probably need to do that fairly quickly. Because within six months the selective amnesia all ultrarunners are prone to will have settled in, and I will be submitting my entry for the lottery to enter the 2013 MMT 100. 27 hours is absolutely doable on that course with the right training.