Before I began the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT 100), I knew I would go through a series of highs and lows. I’m not talking about elevation changes, although there were plenty of those (my Garmin fenix 3 measured a total gain of 19,160 feet). I’m talking about emotional highs and lows. I knew there would be times when I was glad to be out there, enjoying every second, and feeling that life couldn’t get any better. But I also knew there would be times when I wanted to quit. When I wanted nothing more to be done, and I might have quit if I wasn’t so stubborn, I mean persistent.
The race started at 4:00 AM at the Caroline Furnace Camp in the heart of the Virginia’s Massanutten Mountains and part of the George Washington National Forest. I had not run on any part of the course before, so every step, every rock (and there were a lot of rocks), and every ascent (and there were a lot of ascents), was new to me. Having read about the course on the main race website and other race reports, I knew that the course would be rocky and I knew that the course had some tough climbs. But nothing really prepared me for what I was about to face as I ran in the dark through the dewy grass at Caroline Furnace camp just after the race start.
The first emotional high was just before sunrise, after an ascent of about 2500 feet within the first 6 miles. This was a tough climb, but since it was early in the course and race morning adrenaline was still pumping through my veins, I still felt good and fresh at the top of the peak. The course continued along a narrow ridge trail for about 4 miles before it began to descend. That 4 mile rocky stretch was nothing short of amazing. It was still early and dark, but with the elevation, I could see the first sign of daylight peak over the horizon, sweep across the sleeping valley below, and turn the starry black sky, the kind you only see in the country, to a deep saturating blue. The yellow and orange from the sun wasn’t even visible yet, this was just the first hint of the day to come. In addition to the deepening blue sky, the mountain air was cool and fresh. I felt like I needed to hold onto my hat a few times as the invigorating wind blew up the mountain.
Running was still possible in some areas of this 4 mile stretch, but was slow going as I had to hop from rock to boulder and back to rock. This rock hopping was just a taste of what was to come throughout the entire course. Again, I knew that to be the case going into the race, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the long stretches of foot and leg jarring rocks combined with the seemingly never ending climbs. Long stretches of runnable trail was actually a rarity. But back to that ridge between miles 6 and 10, as the wind cooled my sweaty skin, and the sky turned to a natural deep blue that artists attempt but fail to recreate, that was my first high.
Unfortunately, the first low came about 25 miles into the race. I was getting tired, blisters were forming, and I was beginning to wonder how I would go another 75 miles. I was also beginning to realize that I started out too fast. Well, that’s not entirely true. Deep down, part of me knew I was going too fast during the first 10 to 15 miles, but delusions of grandeur had already filled my head as I had visions of crossing the finish line in under 26 hours, maybe even 24. That is how delusional I was. But that daydream started to crumble around mile 25 as I started another big and steep 800 foot ascent, the third big climb of the race. The race morning adrenaline had worn off and I hadn’t yet found that second wind, even though I was desperately searching for it as I put one foot in front of the other and knew that I had to continue to do that for what seemed like an endless amount of miles and hours in front of me. The third big climb and I was already starting to slow down. I knew the course would get harder from here. How was I going to make it through the multitude of rocks and climbs ahead of me? Was I crazy to even try this? I’ve already admitted that I was at least partly delusional at the start of the race and during the first 10 miles. Maybe I was completely delusional to think that I could run 100 miles through the mountains. These were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I lowered my head and continued to push up that mountain.
But continue to push I did, and fortunately I did eventually find that second wind. It was hiding around mile 45 and with it came my next emotional high, which couldn’t have come at a better time. The high came just after the 5th major climb. The course continued along a ridge until around mile 50 when there was an amazingly long and runnable descent. This long runnable stretch boosted my spirits and gave me a much needed confidence injection that would carry me up the next 2500 foot climb beginning just a few miles later at mile 55. But before that big ascent, my one and only drop bag waited at the Habron Gap aid station at mile 54. There, I changed socks, shoes, and put on a dry shirt (it rained before this point, but more on that later). I did have a spare long sleeve running shirt in the bag, but at that point, I thought I wouldn’t need it. It was warm enough and I thought my wind breaker would be enough for the night. Boy, was I wrong.
Throughout the entire course, the climbs were all tough and the descents, even the ones that were too steep and rocky to run, still provided a nice break and chance to recover. However, each descent was a little bitter sweet. In most cases, there would be a much anticipated aid station, an oasis of support, food, and hydration, at the bottom of a big descent. But after that oasis, there was the next unavoidable climb. This physical roller coaster of descents, aid station, and ascents, perfectly mimicked the emotional roller coaster of traversing the MMT 100 course. I could almost hear the click, click, click of the roller coaster car on the track as I gritted my teeth and grinded up the rocky climbs, followed by the roar, wind, and stomach lifting descent that provided the boost of speed and propulsion to carry me over the next click, click, click climb.
But eventually, even a roller coaster car runs out of momentum. Each climb is just a little slower until sometimes you wonder if the car will stall and start to slide backwards before it reaches the peak. My mind and body felt the same way as the race continued and day turned to afternoon and eventually to dusk.
At this point, I haven’t yet mentioned the weather other than that amazing late night early morning breeze on that first ridge. And talk about the weather wouldn’t be complete without including the several weeks before race day when it seemingly rained every single day. The course would have been entirely muddy if not for all the rocks. Where there wasn’t rocks, there was mud. And where there wasn’t rocks and mud, there was an actual stream of foot deep water that had to be crossed. The good thing about the stream crossings was that it did clean the mud from my legs and shoes.
In addition to the rain leading up to race weekend, it also rained during the race. After the cool morning start and that first sunrise, the temperature rose to a nice warm high 60s and 70s. But like the highs and lows of the course and my emotions, the temperature didn’t want to be left out. The rain started late that afternoon and the temperature started to drop to the 50s and lower. The rain, combined with the falling temperatures and strong mountain wind, made parts of the race darn right cold. Especially at night, when all warmth from the sun faded and the mountain winds kicked into high gear, which brings me to my next low.
Once darkness swept over the mountain, so did a deep emotional low that lasted for a good 10 hours but felt like an eternity. There were hours when I didn’t see another runner. It was just me, stumbling through the mountains, stumbling over rocks, and searching for that next reflective marker with my headlamp to make sure I was still on the course. My mind played tricks on me, or at least I think it did. I thought every sound and rustle of leaves was a large animal just off the trail. For all I knew and could see, it might have been.
There wasn’t much running at night. It was more of a fast walk and sometimes a trot when there was a momentary break in the rocks and if I felt brave enough. Twisting an ankle or worse was a real concern. But much of that was secondary to the bone chilling cold. As I alluded to earlier, my light running wind breaker was not up to the task that night. Instead of swinging my arms, I tried to keep them tight against my body in an attempt to provide some additional warmth. But even that was of little help. Oh how I wished for that long sleeve shirt that I left in my drop bag. Instead of focusing on the pain of the moment, I tried to stay focused on the next aid station. Some of which were 5 miles apart. Others which were 9 or 10 miles. Those stretches of isolation can be really difficult at night. But seeing the lights of an aid station ahead, and hearing the rising voices of volunteers as they cheered me on when they saw my headlamp approach, that was what kept me going.
You have to be careful at the aid stations stops at night. It is especially easy and tempting to just sit down by the fire pit, drink some hot coffee, and decide to spend a few minutes warming up. But those few minutes could easily turn into 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 30. And before you know it, a good hour would have past. To avoid this, I decided not to sit down because I knew once I did, it would be hard to get back up. I did stand and warm myself up by the fire pits, and that hot coffee, with its burst of caffeine, provided just enough energy to pry myself away from the welcoming arms of the aid stations and its volunteers. But pry myself away and move on I did. Into the cold darkness and wind and onto the next rocky climb. Click, click, click. And then to the next slow descent in the dark. And then to the aid station beacon of light, only to repeat the same up and down, high and low, again.
Morning eventually did come, but that didn’t stop me from doubting seriously it ever would. I was looking forward to that emotional high I thought would come with the rising sun. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen. With the daylight, came the nausea. Something in my body must have gotten off balance. I don’t think it was a lack of hydration, although there was one aid station where I refilled my hydration pack with water that tasted truly awful. I don’t think it was a lack of calories, as I was also careful to refuel at aid stations. I don’t think it was low sodium, as I did take the occasional salt tablet. Maybe it was low sugar. Or maybe it was just the constant running and jarring motion for nearly 25 hours. Whatever it was, it lasted until the end of the race. For a while there, I was dry heaving every 20 or 30 yards. My mind continued to play tricks on me. At one point, I could have sworn I heard a wild boar’s snorts behind me and when I turned to look over my shoulder, I even thought I saw its brown body on the trail. But it may have been a tree trunk laying across the trail, even though I didn’t remember stepping over one at that point. But on I pressed. Eventually, the nausea did get a little better, but I felt it was still there, just below the surface, for the rest of the race.
There were a few final steep climbs that second morning. Remember earlier where I talked about the stream crossings. Well, there was one ascent were it was essentially climbing up a small stream. Water flowed over my shoes as I looked for the next stable place to step. And there was another climb around mile 90 that really kicked my teeth in. I don’t know that it was necessarily the steepest or longest climb of the race, but it sure felt that way. Around every curve up the steep trail and bend around the large boulders, I hoped was the peak, only to see that the ascent continued up and up and up. Click… Click… Click… I thought the roller coaster car would surely stall this time.
But through shear stubbornness, again I mean persistence, I pushed forward, through the nausea, through the dry heaves, through the blisters, and through the screaming muscles that were pushed well past their limits.
Reaching the last peak, which was actually the second time up this same peak, there was a roughly 6 mile downhill stretch to the finish. The last four miles were also on a paved road heading back to the Caroline Furnace base camp. When I hit that paved road, I had been running for about 29 hours and 15 minutes. I was well past my primary and backup goals at this point. But I knew I could still finish in under 30 hours if I pushed it to the finish. So I ran as fast as my body would allow. I swallowed back the nausea and pain and kept running.
When I finally reached that grassy field of the Caroline Furnace camp, it started to hit me that I was actually almost done. The finish line was in sight. I could hear the race director saying something over the loud speaker as I approached, but I was too focused on that finish line to hear. I sprinted that last 200 yards even though, at that point, I already knew I would finish in under 30 hours. But having to deal with constant nausea and pain for the last 5 hours, I wanted to finish as strong as I could.
I finally crossed that beautiful finish line in 29:53:46. Standing at the finish line, talking to the race director, I looked back over that grassy field to the Massanutten Mountains. After two sunrises, one freezing night, countless bone bruising rocks, and dozens of soul searching steep climbs, I had finally finished. And I am not ashamed to admit that at that point, my mind was swirling with a mixture of both highs and lows. Part of me was still on top of that first ridge, again experiencing that first emotional high and thinking nothing could be better than this. But part of me was still running through the cold night, alone, searching for that aid station and its welcoming warm light.
To be perfectly honest, that low part of me never wanted to run again. I told my wife this and she wanted to get it in writing. Don’t get me wrong, she enjoys running, but these long races are hard on her also. She has to drive across unfamiliar mountain roads by herself searching, sometimes unsuccessfully, for the next aid station. And although she supports me fully and I am thankful for it, there are obviously other ways she would rather be spending a weekend. But she was there at the start and there waiting for me at the finish. She also did manage to meet me at the Camp Roosevelt aid station around mile 63. Without supportive family and the awesome volunteers at each aid station, events like these wouldn’t be possible. So before I close this race report, I do want to wish a big thank you to all supportive family, friends, strangers, and volunteers.
A few final words. As I mentioned above, when I was done, even though I was glad to be finished, I never wanted to run again. But now that a few weeks have passed, the pain and emotional lows have faded and the highs and feelings of accomplishment have remained strong and vivid. Don’t tell my wife, but my delusional self is already thinking about the next 100 mile race. But before then, there will be other runs and other races. Just like during the MMT 100, I’ll continue to put one foot in front of the other. Up, click, click, click, and down, with all its roar and wind. Hopefully more highs than lows. Forever. Or at least as long as my stubborn self will let me.
I hope this race report was both interesting and informative. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.