The goals are always different, but the process remains the same...
This time, the goal was to cover one of the burlier hundred mile courses in less than a day. In a race where 25-50% of the field routinely fails to finish, and sub-24 hours is almost exclusively the domain of the top ten, this is no mean feat. For me, it would mean cutting at least 5 hours and 30+ finishing slots off last year's performance.
Hopes and dreams by themselves are not enough, so I began to train. Nearly 1000 miles of running since the new year, including races, back-to-back long runs, and seeking out the most brutal terrain accessible to me, left me as well prepared for any race I've ever done. Hours were spent making and adjusting a race schedule based on the splits of sub-24 finishers from last year. I fine tuned every aspect of my aid station strategy and nutrition plan. Since the moment I won the race-entry lottery, Massanutten crossed my mind at least once every single day. This may qualify as an obsession, because I never tired of sticking to the plan and every training run was tackled with enthusiasm, no matter the weather or my tired legs.
Twelve tiresome hours of navigating the from one end of the BOS-WASH megalopolis to the other got Miriam and I to the starting line in Fort Valley, Virginia. The day was finally here and I was ready, well trained, and injury free.
We started in the dark at 4 am, running across a field and up several miles of dirt road. My pace seemed fast enough and sustainable, but I couldn't help but notice how many headlamps stretched out ahead of me. Dozens of them. I reminded myself to ignore them and to do my own thing; they'll run their race and I'll run mine. I power-hiked up Short Mountain and ran across the ridge top, sometimes struggling to stay on the trail in the dark and heavy fog. It had rained the night before and conditions were extremely humid; all the foliage was dripping wet and I was soon soaked to the skin. I descended from the ridge with a group of four or five runners all going a similar pace and we arrived at the Edinburg Gap aid station right on time.
Miriam supplied me with a new water bladder, a fresh gel flask and a good luck kiss before sending me on my way. Feeling good, I worked my up and across the next ridge, through Powell's Fort and onto my favorite part of the course, a long gradual descent through a leafy green tunnel into Caroline Furnace.
Shortly after this, I began to hit a rough patch. Experiencing some mild nausea and concerned that I had not peed in a while, I upped my water intake pretty rapidly. I seemed to be sweating a lot, but wasn't experiencing any cramping, so I cut back on my salt-tablets in the hope that I'd stop retaining water and allow my body to flush some the ultrarunning nasties out of my bloodstream. Despite this, the water just seemed to stagnate and slosh around in my stomach. By the time I made it to an aid station, Indian Grave, I think, I was feeling terrible and accepted the volunteers' invitation to sit down and rest for a few minutes. I downed a cup of ginger ale and promptly vomited up the contents of my stomach onto the ground. The aid workers were very helpful and seemed to understand exactly what was going on. Within minutes I was back on my feet and feeling much better. Now armed with the knowledge that sodium depletion doesn't just cause cramps, it can also shut down your digestive system, I began taking more salt-tablets was able to continue on chasing my goal. The volunteers at this station may just have saved my race, and for that, I owe them.
Last year I arrived at Camp Roosevelt at dusk with blistered feet and limped out alone in the dark. This year there were hours to spare, my feet felt great, and I had a pacer. John, a complete stranger, responded on the VHTRC website to my pacer request and would help keep me moving for the rest of the race. I was certainly happy to have his help and we spent the next few hours getting to know each other, a welcome way to pass the time.
Rolling through the aid station at Gap Creek, we were still almost exactly on schedule. Up next was Jawbone and Kern's Ridge, one of the tougher parts of the course, and I was pleased to be in a position to do this part of the course before the sun went down. All of the abrupt twists and turns, ups and downs, and boulder hopping were far easier to do in daylight. As a bonus, we got some excellent views of the surrounding countryside as well as Bird knob up ahead.
I had some chicken noodle soup, my favorite, at Visitor Center and then were on our way up Bird Knob. By now it was completely dark and we found our way through the boulderfield here by headlamp and flashlight. Despite a difficult and swampy descent that felt very very slow, we arrived at Picnic Area with a bit of time to spare. My planning was working out, but I was also beginning to tire mentally and physically. My left achilles was making running difficult and, as it got later and later, I got very quiet. John did really well dealing with me and was attentive and helpful at all times. When I didn't want to talk, he let me just focus on chugging along. I didn't have a lot to say, but it was always comforting to have his headlamp beam behind me and hear his words of encouragement.
Both last year and this year, the most difficult part for me was the steep and muddy climb between Picnic Area and Gap Creek II. This section doesn't really stand out on the elevation profile of the course, but it has taxed me like no other area. In places, the grade was so steep I felt like I was going to stall out and fall over with every step. Unlike other notorious parts of the course like Short Mountain, Jawbone, Kern's, and Bird Knob, this part doesn't have a name that I'm aware of. It deserves one.
After much suffering, we crested the top and began the long downhill road back to Gap Creek, the last aid station. Because you pass through this station twice, we encountered quite a few other runners here and things were quite busy. After Gap Creek, the course re-climbs Jawbone before splitting off toward the finish. I remember passing other runners, knowing I was over a full marathon-distance ahead of them, and being vaguely embarrassed because my shirt stank of ammonia and BO. It was so foul, they might have able to smell me coming. On the way up Jawbone I passed Gary Knipling, a 14 time MMT finisher who offered kind words of encouragement that helped keep me moving strong up the last climb.
Once we were over the top it was, quite literally, all downhill from here. It began to rain and after a few miles of slippery trail we were dropped out onto the final road section with enough time in the bank that I could walk to the finish and still break 24 hours. Just as we exited the trail head and I was feeling sorely tempted to just mosey the rest of the way, a headlamp and a solo runner appeared right behind me. John and I just exchanged a look and took off running. I was currently in 9th place and didn't really feel like dropping down, not on the homestretch. I'm glad the other runner showed up when he did, because it kept me honest and I ran hard for every remaining step. It was an exhilarating feeling, running under headlamp in the rain in the wee hours of the morning, at a pace more appropriate for a short lunch break run than the finishing miles of a hundred.
Within sight of the finish I realized that this was the moment I'd prepared for for six months. It was finally a reality; I was going to run Massanutten in under a day and finish feeling strong. I enjoyed the sensation for the next few seconds before crossing the line in 23 hours and 17 minutes.
As with all my races, I owe a lot to the people who helped me along the way. My wife, the race volunteers, my fellow runners, and especially my pacer. I'm not sure if I could have done it without their help and for that I'm grateful.
All photos by Miriam Wilcox. the rest can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hockeycrew/sets/72157626613297143/with/5727944635/