May 202009

by Stephen Wells

Author’s note: I was recently asked what I think about while I run for 24+ hours. After quite a few minutes of deep deliberation I concluded that I really think about nothing at all. This revelation was quite shocking and somewhat depressing; how can I spend that many hours thinking of nothing. I truly believe that success in these races is achieved by cutting off most conscious thought that is not related to managing one’s body: how is my breathing, what is that pain in my knee, when did I last eat or drink, is is time for another salt tablet, when is this thing going to end…no, strike that last thought as that is the type of conscious thought that will derail the best run race. Having said that, I must warn the reader that because I am not thinking much while on the course, I have a really hard time remembering exactly where I was at what times during most of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 that I ran on May 16th and 17th of 2009. I do remember experiences, feelings, and strategy. These I can share with you comfortably, but when it comes to the details, I ask for your forgiveness now.


So to begin, let me make one thing abundantly clear: Massanutten is hard. Of this make no doubt. It is rocky, rooty, rutted, rugged. Nasty. But with plenty of great views. And rattlesnakes. And on the day(s) I ran it, plenty rainy.

On to the details. This 100-miler was different in two very important ways from my two previous 100-milers. One, my wife and kids were missing from the cheering section having decided to stay home, and two, I was nervous. The first anomaly was understandable and tangible. While this did not make it okay, I could handle it. The second anomaly, or the nervousness, was much more destructive.
The nerves started weeks before the gun went off at 5 AM on May 16th, race day. The typical questions entered my mind, such as did I get in enough miles, did the difficulty I experienced on a number of training runs mean I was going to suffer on race day, and generally was I ready. Not helping matters was the cold and subsequent sinus infection I acquired a few weeks before race day that resulted in me bagging one of my longer training runs, a Boston Marathon double. And these nerves persisted to race day.
Not once have I lined up for a race wondering if I had what it took to finish. This terribly negative question was swimming through my thoughts early that Saturday morning as I stood around waiting for the annual Massanutten Mountain Trails pronouncement that started the race: “Get out of here!” Once I heard those words, all was okay with the world. The butterflies that had been dogging me for weeks were but mere memories. I was running now, doing one of the most simple things known to us bipeds. One foot in front of the other for no other reason but to have fun.

The Company:
As I am a Virginian, born and raised in Mechanicsville, VA, I felt this race was much of a homecoming of sorts for me. Also, I spent four years at Virginia Tech, deep in the mountains of southwestern VA, so I felt an extremely strong kinship with this race. Making this even more of a reunion was the fact that both my brothers, Chris and Jason, and my father joined me as my crew. None of them had ever witnessed anything like a 100-miler (unless you include Ironman Triathlons in the same class as a 100-miler, which I don’t), so this was quite an experience for them. Also joining me was my most excellent buddy, Jamie Anderson, as crew chief and pacer. Jamie joined me at mile 65 at Gap Creek II aid station and spent the next 12 hours with me. The hours with Jamie were both the best and worst of times. Luckily the worse came first and we finished with a big bang.

The Conditions:
The day started as I would have expected from a late spring day in Virginia: humid. When the sun rose the day turned humid and hot. While I am not exactly sure of the temps, around mid-day I would guess it got up into the mid-80s in the sun. The heat forced me to stop at each and every stream crossing for a nearly full body dowsing.
Around 2 PM in the afternoon I felt a nice breeze whip up and noticed the darkening clouds forming over the mountains to my west. As I was exposed on a mountain ridge, I got a little worried about the electricity those clouds were surely to carry so I picked up the pace a bit. But it wasn’t enough; the storm caught me as I was still exposed and the clouds let loose violently. Within minutes I was soaked to the bone and cold. Within a matter of ten minutes I went from melting to near hypothermic. There have not been many times in my life that I have felt such a quick shift in my body’s thermal capacity. I became even more worried at this time and hurried to the next aid station which luckily had crew access and I was able to add some layers. From that point on the weather alternated between sun and heat to intense rain. There was so much rain in this storm, which did not let up until near 2 AM on Sunday morning, that dry creek beds were turned into raging rapids.

Near mile 60 another thunderstorm let loose as I was climbing one of these “dry creek beds turned into class V rapid” as lightning crashed all around me. I literally felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up at one of these strikes (generally not a good sign, especially if standing in a bunch of water). It was this point in the race that I started thinking that I might make this year’s Darwin Awards (“runner struck dead by lightning as he played in a puddle of water during a thunderstorm”). This was another point in the race where I felt my core body temp plummet as I was once more drenched. Luckily I was running with another runner at this time who shared the trash bag he had intelligently picked up at the last aid station. Later in the race I picked up my own trash bag and wore it for good long while through the night. Never will I embark on a long run again without some form of rain cover.
After the storm moved on in the early morning the rest of the race was spectacular. That is with the exception of the incredibly slick conditions the rain had created on the six hundred million rocks that litter this course. The rain, coupled with the lichen that canvassed the rocks, made for many a stumped toe and stumble. It was the culmination of many of these slips that forced me in the middle of the night to sit down and declare that I was “done”. My toes had taken such a beaten from every slide into the next rock that they wanted no more pain. This moment lasted all of 30 seconds, and from that point on (around mile 80) I probably ran the best pace I had all day. I chalk this up to the shame I felt at momentarily “quitting” in front of my buddy, Jamie.
The Course:
Without rehashing what is already printed on the MMT website, I will say this course goes up and down a lot. There are many mind boggling ups, downs, and all-arounds. The one brilliant thing about the MMT course is that there are very few climbs which do not reward the runner with spectacular views. Right out of the gate you spend a couple miles on a paved road, but it is dark and the asphalt is unnoticeable. By the time you finish the first ascent, I think it is called Buzzard Rock, the sun is rising over the Shenandoah Valley, and if there is anyone out there that doubts the existence of some kind of God need only see the sun rise over the Shenandoah Mountains of VA . On race day morning we were blessed with a beautiful layer of clouds that hung just over the valley, right below the mountain peaks. The sun was just glowing off the clouds. Of note was the view of a cool looking fish hatchery from this spot.

The first aid station is at the first of many of the mountain gaps this course trespasses: Shawl Gap. In any race the first view of a runner’s cr
ew is a very uplifting experience. Jamie did not disappoint and greeted me before I ever
reached the aid station. My dad and brothers were in aid station and I was happy to see that they all seemed to be excited to be there. At the next gap, Veach Gap, the aid station crew there had taken the time to fix the runner’s pancakes and sausage – a breakfast fit for any ultrarunner. There were a couple great aid station surprises during this race, including “take-away” bags for filling with food to carry between aid stations that were separated by particularly long and tough trails and most memorable was the sloppy joe station that I hit sometime around 1 AM. I never thought a sloppy joe could taste that scrumptious and be such a motivator. I credit this sandwich for the remarkable burst of energy I had over the last twenty miles of the race.

There are a few particularly rough spots on the course that I would be remiss if I failed to mention them. The first is Habron Gap at mile 22.4. Preceding this aid station is one of the rare stretches of dirt road that is extremely runnable. While I am not exactly sure how long this stretch is, I would guess it is near 4 miles. I entered the aid station feeling really good, only to be warned that while the stretch to the aid station measured only 11 miles it felt like close to twice that distance. So I filled up at the station in addition to filling a couple goody bags with grapes to munch on during the nasty, sun-drenched ascent that awaited me. The climb was long and dry, and I ended up having to ration my water a bit having emptied nearly both my handheld water bottles climbing to the summit.
Another rough spot for me was the Bird Knob. This is part of a lollipop loop at the southern end of the course. This section of the course goes up, and up, and up some more, and then forces you to scramble over some boulders, and then goes up some more to one of the more spectacular views on the course. I even took the time to enjoy the view, while voiding my bladder. It was during this part of the course that I was dealing with one of my lowest points of the race. I was having a hard time wanting to eat anything as my stomach was very unhappy with me. I did as I always do in these cases and kept hydrating, eating what I could, and just waiting out the low point in the knowledge that a high always follows. The descent of Bird Knob is as challenging as the ascent, especially with quads that have already endured 55 or so miles of pounding. I am a fairly competent downhill runner so I enjoyed the descent but my quads were hurting when I finally got down.

The last point of the race that left a mark on me was the run into the Elizabeth Furnace aid station at mile 96.8 and the climb out of that aid station. This aid station is entered and exited via a series of long – correction – very long, switchbacks. These things felt like they went on forever. Both of these sections (into and out of) are between 5-7 miles but they might as well be 20. Most notable is the last climb. At mile 97 you leave Elizabeth Furnace and climb. Forever. The climb is steep and switchbacks all over the place. If this point in the race wasn’t so close (it is actually 5 miles from the finish as the MMT 100 is really 101.8 miles), it would probably crush many runners. On the flip side, the descent is fast!
The Critters:
The mountains of Virginia are full of very cool critters. There were a couple that decided to pay me a visit during my run in their home territory. First up was the ornery timber rattlesnake. I saw this guy around 1 PM, shortly before the storms. He had decided to sun himself in the middle of the trail, although I am guessing he was forced out there by the 30-40 runners that were in front of me at this point. He was quite pissed. I decided I would try to save the runners behind me from a potential snake bite many miles from help by tossing a rock at the snake to “force” him off the trail. Well, he wasn’t going anywhere but at me. As the rock landed near him he rattled and struck. Now I have seen these things rattle in cages before (I have actually shared a rock unknowingly with one on a hot summer hike in Douthat State Park in VA many years ago), but I have never had one rattle and strike at me with no glass in between us. Needless to say this helped my pace a bit. To my credit, I did stand there until the next runner caught me so I could warn them of the snake. Good deed for the day done.
The next wildlife experience was courtesy of a curious whip-poor-will (take a listen to the sample call in the link). The call of the whip-poor-will can be heard all night, and is quite the treat. Despite the fact that according to Native American legend the bird’s call is death omen (not a good thing to remember during a 100-mile foot race), it is quite a beautiful call. Many descriptions of these birds mention that as nocturnal animals they are infrequently seen. Apparently no one told the whip-poor-will that befriended me and Jamie on the stone steps as Jamie and I were nearing Elizabeth Furnace. Dawn was approaching but we still had our headlamps on as we were climbing and my light caught the eyes of this little guy and the reflection startled me (I was jumpy all day and night after my rattlesnake encounter). After hearing the calls of these birds all night, it was quite cool to see one. He was sitting on a step right in the middle of the trail and let me get nearly close enough to touch him. He then flitted away and as we climbed a few more steps there he was again. So we got two close sightings of this very cool bird.
The Conclusion:

Massanutten was hard. But that is what made the accomplishment of completing the race that much sweeter. My finish time of 26:29 was over 6 hours longer than my best 100-miler (my first, the 2007 VT 100, which I finished in 20:27). I saw two sunrises and suffered countless bumps and bruises. I lost one toenail and a little pride when I sat down to “quit” in the middle of the night. But this race was one of the grandest events of my relatively short running career. The last 20 miles was spectacular. In the middle of the night I came out of one of my lowest lows and entered one of my highest highs (I once more must credit the Edinburg Gap aid station – I think – for the sloppy joe that had to have been laced with some kind of “speed”) and for the last 20 miles ran gleefully past over a dozen runners to finish in a very respectable 15th place. While I did not accomplish my “A” goal of finishing in under 24 hours to receive a silver belt buckle, I did qualify for the pewter buckle and left myself with a goal for my next MMT 100!
I had a great crew. The act of crewing is extremely selfless and without any formal recognition (read: No belt buckles.) The crew is required to stay motivated and awake for the same amount of time as the runner without the benefit of the adrenaline rush of racing. And most importantly, they are not granted the luxury of complaining as the runner is when he comes into a aid station all grumpy and sore. The crew must maintain a good attitude and outlook the entire time lest they bring the runner down. So thank you to my father, brothers Chris and Jason, and my adopted brother Jamie!

Posted by UltraFlash at 12:15 AM 3 comments

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