The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler is a classic spring time race held each year in the beautiful Virginia mountains of Shenandoah. I have had this race on my radar for over a year, even before Oil Creek. I read a slew of race reports and studied the website. But I knew last year I was not trained for a mountain race like MMT. I was running on the Appalachian Trail occasionally but most of my long trail runs were on hilly trails like those found at Oil Creek. After studying and trying to pick the perfect first 100 miler for me personally I felt Oil Creek was a better fit logistically and with the way I was training so I went with it and completed my first 100 mile finish. It was such a great experience. OC is a magical race and so well done and I know I will return to best my inaugural finish time at some point. But I often would daydream of something really hard and mountainous. A race that will push me back or more importantly punch me back on my ass and force me to decide on how to respond. So I signed up for MMT lotto and got in.
My training post Oil Creek ramped up almost immediately. I slowly started doing more long runs on the AT and on Mt. Tammany. All winter long I would do mountain repeats almost weekly. 1,200 foot climbs up and down for hours. I was even able to get a full Buzzards run in out in Harrisburg which is an old marathon fatass race course that has some burly climbs and descents in and around the AT. I love signing up for trail races as training runs as well. So I did Tammany 10 (ouch), Hyner 50k, and Breakneck 42K as quad thrashing long runs. I ran Bull Run Run 50 miler as well to get some more long running miles in as well so I was forced to actually run. Those races were all so fun! I also kept doing short speed work during the work week on roads. The weekends were for climbing and technical trails. I would go out to Hamburg Pa a lot by myself and run Hawk Mountain and the reservoir where the AT runs through. Occasionally I would go out and run with Jimmy Blandford and company in Port Clinton and he would take us on guided tours of all the beautiful trails in his back yard. Well, I would try to keep up anyway he did win MMT and BRR so he's kinda fast. He's so great because he would wait for us at intersections and backtrack to make sure we weren't completely lost out there. I had a great six month training block with no injuries and felt rested and ready.
I would be paced by Casey Fisher at MMT who also paced me beautifully at Oil Creek. I drove down to his house outside of Baltimore and he drove the rest of the way. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Woodstock on recommendations from Jimmy and that was a great call. I'm just not a camper and the hundred or so dollars spent for a nice bed is a worth while investment for me personally. I am high maintenance I suppose. We did packet pickup then shot over to the Woodstock Brew House and had lots of beer and bbq. I was basically half intoxicated when I left. Oops..But most importantly I was relaxed and in a good mental state. I was not worried or very anxious about what was about to go down in those mountains. All you can do is show up and start running and see what happens.
|All smiles at packet pickup.|
|Finally got to meet this cool cat, Nick Combs.|
My pacer and crew Casey, myself, Maria, and her
pacer and crew Jun at the start.
Start to mile 33.3 Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station 8 hours 38 minutes
It was 4 am and we were off up Camp Roosevelt Road and then Moreland Gap Road for several miles before hitting the trailhead. The weather was cool albeit a bit humid but very pleasant running weather. The vibe at this start was laid back and calm which is nice. Just the sounds of feet hitting pavement and that awesome sight of headlamps all the way up the road. The climb up Short Mountain was not bad at all and was over before I realized and running the ridge line was somewhat a blur for any real detail. I did my general rule of hiking swiftly on the super rocky stuff and any hills and jogging the flats or descents. The classic blueprint for any mid to back of the packer. Pulling into Edinburg Aid Station at mile 12 I still wasn't feeling it exactly. I was loving the trail and the race and the views and the people but it was if I wasn't firing on all cylinders or something. I'm sure the beer the night before did not help either. I knew it would eventually pass I just had to give it some time. I made a pace card for times entering each station for a perfect race. Well any chance of hitting those times were gone by mile 12. Being completely unfamiliar with the course also made those times a bit ambitious but I think you should have hard to reach goals and see if you can get there. However I'm sure as hell not going to chase times on a card that early in a long race. I was taking what the course was giving me and trying to find the flow.
Rolling into the Edinburg I saw Jun Bermudez a fellow TrailWhippass member who was there to crew and pace his friend Maria Campos. He helped me refill with Tailwind and gave me words of encouragement. He's a beast and has run this race twice and races such as the burly Bigfoot 200 so when coach Jun speaks I listen. As I ran out I got a great smile and fist bump from the one and only Gary Knipling. That was awesome and felt good. I have never spoken with him and he does not know me but the man's a legend. As I entered the trailhead there was my friend Paul Encarnacion shooting pictures. He lived up to his trail name of Ninja as I didn't even see him until I was right on top of him. I was a little startled and it made me laugh. I had a big mouthful of food also and was trying to smile. I got a fist bump from him and up the trail I went. Fist bumps and smiles go a long way in these races. It's always the little things.
|Leaving Edinburg Gap with a mouthful of food! Photo by Paul E.|
Leaving Edinburg you get a nice little climb up and over Waonaze Peak and then some rolling off and on rocky trail that seem like it never ends. It was here I caught a few of those land mine rocks buried underneath all those leaves from the previous fall season. At first I rolled my left ankle then ran it off. Then I rolled my right ankle twice and I cursed really really loud. The cursing was not for the pain but more for the fact that I knew my downhill confidence would suffer with so many more miles to go. I really enjoy running technical downhill and now I will need to be very careful on the downs. I roll my ankles enough in training and usually catch myself mid-roll to rarely do any lasting damage. But here with eighty miles to go I would really have to be cautious which would slow me down even more and mean more downhill braking. Downhill braking for endless miles also leads to the dreaded blown quads so now I have that to deal with. Another problem thrown in that you just have to work around and it's precisely that type of management that makes the 100 mile distance such a fun challenge.
Passing through Woodstock Tower aid station I met Jim Treece who was volunteering and helped me out with my Tailwind packets and getting water. I recognized him from FB and Paul's race video from Eastern States. He was so helpful and it was great to meet him. A few more rolled ankles later I rolled into Powell's Fort aid station to a big smile from Paul taking pictures and some of the best tasting hot french toast and bacon I could have ever dreamt up. Paul had asked me how I was doing and my response was not very enthusiastic if I remember correctly. But he knows what I was feeling and gave me great words of encouragement that really helped keep me on track and to stay focused.
Once again I don't remember much of the next few miles. However something really strange happened around mile 24 or so. A deer started following me. It was standing on the side of the trail motionless and I ran up on it and it startled me. I said hello and walked past the rather large female. It then hopped on the trail and started to run behind me as I ran. I kept glancing over my shoulder and it was maybe ten feet behind me looking directly at me, making eye contact. I then walked and it stopped and walked. I stopped completely and it stopped completely all awhile still making eye contact. It was acting exactly like a dog. I thought to myself "Am I imagining this?" I had no idea what to do so I started jogging again I mean I am in a 100 mile race here. It then started running harder then me and came right behind me by a mere few feet. I stopped and quickly turned around and it quickly stopped. There was another runner behind me by maybe fifty or so feet and I yelled to him "do you see this?" He responded with a "yes" but not sure if he saw the whole thing. I tried to take video but of course I didn't have enough memory on my phone so I was only able to muster up a deer selfie. I finally just sort of scared it off by clapping my hands and making a loud scat noise. My only guess is that someone routinely feeds the animal and it wanted some Tailwind or salt tabs.
|The trail gods granted me safe passage via the doe.|
A nice long fire road climb followed by a nice four mile descent had me re-focused and feeling much better as I entered to the encouraging cheers from the Elizabeth Furnace aid station. This was a big station full of energy, great vibes and familiar faces. Casey was quick to point me to my chair and grab food and drink for me. He knows exactly what to do. Then I saw Lori and Dean Johnson there and got some good information from them as they know the course really well. Jun was also there awaiting Maria. When I sat down in my chair I noticed Caroline Williams who was sitting right next to me. She was kind enough to get me an icy pop! So nice of her and it was so good! I certainly felt so much better and ready to tackle the next miles with my eyes on getting to Habron Gap at mile 54. But baby steps. Aid station to aid station. Run smart and run steady.
|Coming into Elizabeth Furnace mile 33. Photo by Casey Fisher|
Miles 33.3 to 63.9 Camp Roosevelt 18 hours 16 minutes
I felt energized as I made the climb up the Tuscarora trail out of the furnace up to High Peak Mountain. I totally attribute it to seeing all those friends at the aid station and feeding off that energy. It really is amazing how it can boost you. Just a few minutes is all it takes. The key would be how long can you feed off of it. Only time will tell. As I made my way up and over and down the Shawl Gap Trail I finally was able to stretch the legs out and run. Once you crested the top of the mountain you received a very nice two mile or so stretch of super runnable wide fire road type trail down to the Shawl Gap aid station at mile 38. It was here it started pouring down rain on me and I was completely alone on the course and I did not see another runner in front or behind me. It was magical. Just me and the trail and the rain. It was here running down this trail that I really found a stride and felt so damn good. I had energy I had fun and I was in the zone. It took 38 long miles to hit it, but I was now warmed up, happy, and ready to roll.
I cruised into Shawl smiling from ear to ear and clapping my hands and happily yelping my bib number "176!" I told Dave who I now realize also happens to be XtremeTaper from the Runningahead.com forums which I belong to that I had a drop bag and had him searching for one in the rain. But in my happy go lucky state it turns out I didn't have one. Bummer. Oh well no big deal I felt great and didn't really need anything but a top off of fluids and maybe a beer. I shake Dave's hand and introduce myself and he snaps a few pics of my soggy smiling face! Thanks Dave! Then Dean Johnson shows up with says he's got cold beer in his car and proceeds to run me out to the road and pours me a Citra IPA. Hot damn did that taste good! Lori steps out of the car and they both give me a breakdown of the next few road miles to Veach Gap Aid station. I thanked them re-filled my cup with beer and headed off down the road in the pouring rain chugging the beer. Life was good.
I actually did not mind this road section. It was hilly and rolling but it was actually nice to run a smooth surface and not worry about watching your foot placement. The break from the trail was a welcome one for me. I ran here fairly well and even ran some of the inclines on the road that I probably should have speed walked but I was feeling good as the rain poured down. I did start to notice however that I was starting to chafe in a few spots that needed attention. All the rain and sweat washed off the Ruby's Lube that I love so much. The initial application lasted 40 miles which is pretty damn good I would say. I unfortunately forgot to put it in my pack and only had an emergency bar of Body Glide which is total crap but will work in a pinch. So there I stood in the middle of the road with my hand down my pants applying the Body Glide and did not realize a runner who was right behind me. As he came up on me I said "sorry gotta lube up ya know?" He smiled and laughed because clearly in a rough 100 miler my behavior was clearly acceptable and understandable. I just hoped none of the local home owners who lived on that road saw me. It wasn't very long before I pulled into Veach Gap with my energy levels starting to drop. I talked with the station leader and he said it was a long way to the next aid at Indian Grave so it was best to top of fluids and fuel up. It was a nine mile trek. Three climbing, three along the ridge, and three miles down. So what did I do? I sat my butt in a chair for just a few minutes to lower my heart rate and mentally prepare. I needed to eat. I ate a few pieces of fruit and a salted potato. I knew it wasn't enough and was hoping to rely on some Tailwind to get me there. I stood up, thanked them and off I went up the climb. It was here I broke out my portable charger to charge my watch and cranked on some tunes. A little Prince always breaks the ice and keeps things happy.
I don't remember very much about the Veach climb. The ridge line however I remember was actually very runnable and it was here I passed a few folks as I jogged along and I caught up with a super badass Sophorn Choup. She is so funny and such a joy to see at races. I call her the Cambodian Killer because she is so tiny and nice but has such a fire in her that you can see as soon as you talk with her. She was also doing her first MMT but has paced here something like three or four times so she knows the back half of the course very well. I decided to hang with her as long as I could. She was speed walking this section or as she calls it "old lady shuffle!" It was so funny. You swing your hips and look ridiculous but I have to tell you it saves your legs and you can clip along at like a 15 minute per mile pace. Which is all you need to do. So we "old lady shuffled" our dumb asses all the way into Habron Gap aid station laughing all along the way all the while discussing the back half of this course and the insanity that we will face doing Eastern States in August. But she warned me about the back half of the course and how hard it really is. I took serious note of that, and wouldn't you know she was dead on. But first we had to roll in Habron Gap aid station at mile 54 to pick up our pacers and get ready for nighttime, when the race really starts to get fun!
|Sophon old lady shuffling Page Valley Road and killing it! ha ha|
|These views at mile 52...parts of this course were brutal but others were so peaceful and magical|
that you could not help but fall in love. And yes of course we are climbing that mountain as
soon as we leave Habron Gap at mile 54.
Casey was dressed and ready to go when I pulled into the aid station. I sat down and needed a sock change badly but of course it was the one thing I missed packing in my drop bag. I am pretty sure I mumbled to myself that I was a stupid idiot. But thankfully Casey had a pair. We grabbed some food, changed socks and put on a long sleeve shirt and jacket and Casey gave me his poles since I had a mechanical issue with mine rendering them useless. Off we went up the infamous climb up Habron. This one is a long one clocking in at roughly four miles long and 1,600 vertical feet. I felt really strong here however with the poles and picking up Casey to start the long journey through the darkness and hopefully to the finish. We passed Sophorn and her pacer halfway up and she did not look the same here as when we were smiling on the road. She looked very different and I could see she was struggling and I did not want to bother her knowing she was in a dog fight and needed to work though it. She is one tough women and I had faith that she would be able pull out of it. I wished her luck and we moved up to the top on a steady pace. Once at the top you re join the MMT trail and then Stephens Trail all the way back into the the big aid station Camp Roosevelt at mile 64. I don't remember much about Stephens except we were able to get most of it in before the sun fully set and darkness came so that was a nice mini accomplishment.
Mile 63.9 to 103.75 and the finish 32 hours 58 minutes
At camp we were greeted by none other then Robin Watkins. How cool is that? Talk about an elite badass ultra runner! Hopefully she didn't think I was overly creepy yapping away with her like little school girl. Either way it was great to meet her and her husband Adam. She got me soup and water and even got me some bag balm! They even gave us a complete course breakdown on what to expect. This by the way was incredibly helpful. Here is how Robin explained the next five and half miles of the course heading to Gap Creek. "Duncan Hollow will be wet so don't worry about keeping your feet dry just plow right through and Kerns is slow going especially during the night hours." Great sounds tough but doable. So off we went out towards Duncan Knob and the Gap Creek climb and holy shit was it a mud pit. It was insanely wet with shin deep fast moving water in areas and other spots deep pools of stagnant water. We sloshed right on through. It was not runnable however, it was slow going. It simply became a matter of getting through it and hopefully the climb was dry. The climb was dry from what I remember but it was steep and long and tough and rocky and somewhat dangerous in spots. It was pitch black and Casey pointed out all the lights way down below. It was really cool to stop and see that realizing how high up we were. I think it might have been the town of Luray that we could see but I wasn't sure. As we reached the top we immediately of course starting going down the other side. This was a wet flowing slick muddy mess of a trail. Casey and I joked that we hated the mud and wished for the rocky climbs but then while climbing we would rather have the mud. We just couldn't find a happy medium. But off in the distance we could hear cheers and eventually saw the string of Christmas lights down below signaling we have arrived at the Gap Creek Aid Station.
Finally we made it in to Gap Creek around 12:30 am Sunday morning. Some kind women got my drop bag and gave it to Casey and he went fishing in my poorly prepared drop bag and gave me the Starbucks Double Shot that I downed. This women sat me in a chair and held a flashlight over me so I could see. She was like my own personal assistant. All awhile some other kind gentlemen retrieved food and drink for me and explained the next section. It was nothing short of astounding what these people were doing! Who were they? They were the best volunteers I have ever come across in any race! They were light years better from any other race I have run. I just could not get over the incredible kindness that I was receiving. Then it dawned on me as I sat in that chair under that women's watchful eye and flashlight. This is MMT! This very thing is what makes this race so unique and special! As much as the course grinds you down physically and pummels you mentally stripping you down to a helpless vulnerable child, if you can just get to the next aid station these amazing people go so far above and beyond to prop you back up, clean you and feed you, and then gently push you back out on course. It's almost a nurturing parental thing in a way. I have never experienced it before. But I get it now.
We had 8.5 miles to go to get to Visitors Center. And we were bluntly told it was a long way but first we had to climb the notorious Jawbone and get across the Kerns Mt ridge. Now Jawbone is only around an 800 foot climb but it seems like Everest for some reason. It's a nasty slow and a rocky boulder mess with false summits and as we neared the top Casey correctly pointed out that you can hear the cold wind howling on the ridge. "Oh Lovely" I thought to myself. This climb took a lot out of me mentally and it was a hard grind. I thought to myself "no more 100 milers, I am done done done with this shit!" But hey I wanted a challenge so here you go. Finally we were at the top or so we thought and as we turned a corner we were greeted with yet another boulder scramble. I just stopped at the base staring up into the climb, my headlight shining across the boulders into oblivion. The wind was blowing with an evil force and I turned around to Casey and murmured "you have to be f**king kidding me, right?" He cracked a calm reassuring smile as if to let me know that the ridge wasn't going to get done standing around. He didn't need to say anything. I climbed up on the boulders and we made our way to the top of the ridge. On and on it went up and down over and around. Nothing but un-runnable narrow creviced boulders and drops so you all you did was pound your legs over and over slowly weakening them. I was exhausted and my face was cold and tired of the wind smacking it around. 30 minute miles were what we were doing. 30!!! I started to throw a temper tantrum cursing the course, the mountain, the RD. I completely lost it throwing F bombs around for anyone to hear. But nobody was there. It was 2:30 in the morning and it was only Casey and I. Standing there at one point I turned around during my tirade and I watched Casey calmly pull out a bag of trail mix and he was smiling and munching on it. He offered me a dried strawberry. He said "these are really good, do you want one?" I finally took one and popped it in my mouth and it was surprisingly really good. As we stood there munching on these snacks the absurdity of my reaction to the trail hit me. Casey who is an experienced 100 mile runner having done Eastern States the inaugural year and Mohican and several others knew to just let me rant and managed to change the subject without saying anything. He realized that less is more. He was calm, cool, and said little which is what I like. I don't want a chatterbox pacing me. He made me realize on my own that I was having a breakdown and it would pass but make it quick cause you need to keep moving. That one little dried strawberry changed everything. Who would think that? How is that possible? A stupid dried fruit made the light bulb go off in my head. I re-focused turned back around and we started to move again. I still complained don't get me wrong but it was much less intense and I didn't stop moving. Soon enough the trail started to slowly level off and smooth out and I started running again and running well down and down we went and popped out on somewhat creepy and desolate stone road. We trotted along this road for a few miles and it started to dive down towards civilization and we new Visitors Center was close. We popped across route 211 and up into the aid station around 4 am. It took over 3.5 hours to do this 8.5 mile stretch of pure hell. We just completed the dreaded Kerns ridge and it took a lot out of me personally. My feet were destroyed, my confidence shattered, and I was cold and on the verge of tears. But then I saw my buddy Emir who was working the station and another friend from central PA Gary Bowman who's runner he was supposed to pace dropped out of the race. Then this crazy women convinced me to sit down and she would fix my feet while I ate! What?? I just couldn't believe it. Emir grabbed a hot cup of soup for me as I sat down. The women took my muddy wet shoes and socks off dried and cleaned my feet and lubed them up and just like a mother would do she rolled my fresh socks up and slipped them on. Gary was cleaning all the sand and rocks out of my shoes and gave them to her and she put them on, laced them up and we were on our way. Now those are good people doing this work at 4 am and I'm sure all of them were up all night.
|This women was brave to work on my stanky mashed feet! She was a saint!|
Photo Emir Dedic
We crossed the busy Route 211 and up past a gate on a fire access road heading towards Scothorn Gap. This climb started innocent enough it seemed. However it is a four mile climb with about 1,500 feet of gain and doing this with already 90 miles on the legs was a grind. The latter stages of this climb were endless as well. At one point we were just standing there in shin high flowing water staring up a creek bed and seeing three flags all in a line up as far as you can see. I actually turned around to Casey and quipped "this can't be right can it?" How funny is that? The flags are right in front of my face several flags to be exact and I still do not believe they actually expect us to climb this. And there was no were else to go, nowhere but up the flowing creek following the flags. Casey just smiled which made me smile and I'm pretty sure we both laughed at that point. So up we went. We got to the top and a nice little meadow area and down we went again. We passed a solo female runner who was walking it in due to ankle rolls and ran into a group of hipster hikers coming up who didn't even acknowledge me when I said hello to them. I have to admit that really agitated me, but whatever. And there it was, Crisman Hollow Road. The road that the Gap Creek Aid station is on which is mile 96!! Casey and I power hiked this road and came up on a guy walking towards us with winter clothes on and he was taking our picture. So we started jogging of course and when he dropped the camera from his face he had this very large grinning smile. It was Jimmy Blandford! I was so happy to see his smiling face! I heard he dropped earlier and he was just out taking photos and enjoying the surroundings. I shook his hand and introduced him to Casey and all three of us walked down the road and he told us about his race and the issues he had and gave us the breakdown on the final seven miles. Nothing like receiving course recon from a guy who has won the race. Then we heard runners coming up behind us and it turns out it was Gary Bowmen and his daughter Laura! They were out getting some training miles in since Gary was unable to pace due to his runner dropping. Again I cannot emphasize how uplifting seeing my friends on the course like this. It really means the world to me and now I can smell the barn. But one thing I was feeling was hunger.
We ran into Gap Creek and I shouted my number and a volunteer asked me what I needed. Behind him someone was grilling burgers and you can smell them and see the smoke. I said "Do you have a cheeseburger?" He responded with "Absolutely, do you want mustard on it?" I nearly fell over with happiness! The entire race from Elizabeth Furnace onward I asked most of the aid stations for a cheeseburger but struck out every time. But here, with seven miles to go at the final aid station after 31 hours of mountain running this guy handed me and Casey each a piping hot big fat greasy cheeseburger and at the moment everything was right with the world. We both were so happy and thanked them over and over as we walked off and up towards the final climb, Jawbone. We inhaled those burgers and I could see the solidified grease on the outside of my palm. It was awesome. It was the perfect fuel at the precise moment to get us another seven miles to the finish. Jawbone was a little tough on tired legs but it was the last climb and I could smell the finish so I didn't care how much it hurt and honestly that burger dulled the pain pretty damn well. At the top of Jawbone you get to the pie plate signaling it's all down hill from here, and it actually is.
|The famous mile 98 pie plate. I look like I am asleep but|
I'm really just in a burger coma! Photo Casey Fisher
|There just is nothing like the 100 mile distance. Photo Don Riley|
|I love an RD that personally greats each runner. That's the way|
it should always be. Photo Jim Blandford
100 miles is a special distance in my eye. It is just such an emotional roller coaster. It's the only distance I really want to do. At Edinburg I was uncertain. At Shawl I was in flow state and so high. On top of Kerns I was angry at the world and everything in it vowing to never run another 100 miler ever again. At Visitors Center I had to hold back tears. And on the wet Scothorn Gap climb I was laughing at the absurdity of it all. 100 miles will strip you bare and open you up for all the world to see and there is just something so damn magical about that. Only then can you reach your potential and see a side of yourself you never knew was there.