Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-miler

As much as I didn’t want to admit it beforehand, I knew Steve Pero was right. Pero, a veteran of several Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 races who has run this race in 27 hours, told me something that to most runners would be shocking on the face of it. He said to walk … WALK! … the first 2.4 miles of last weekend’s MMT in Front Royal, Va., which would be my first 100-miler and my first race of more than 50K.
Steve knows how I like to go out strong at the start and in a 50K, that strategy works well, such as at last August’s MMD 50K in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when I took off from the start, powered up the ski slopes of Wildcat Ski Area and was long gone by the time anyone else reached the summit. I won that race by almost four hours, covering the rugged 32-mile course through the White Mountains in 11 hours flat. (Later that night I was “penalized” a minute around the campfire for claiming my time was actually 10:59, so it went into the “record books” as 11:01).
But Steve knew if I employed the same strategy at MMT, I would go out too fast, blow up and crash and burn. So as much as it grated at every fiber in my body, I watched the entire field of 173 runners run the first 2.4 miles to the trailhead at Buzzards and I was in a group of five walkers in last place entering the woods.
Did this decision pay off for me? You be the judge.
Let’s back up a bit. Back in January when the original field was picked, I was 40th on the wait list. Steve said, “Better luck next year.” I said, “Hell no, I’m getting in this year and I’ll be ready!” Well, by the end of April I had moved up to No. 1 on the wait list and on May 1 came the email from RD Stan Duobinis that I was in. I had spent most of the winter in southern California training in good weather, having run well at the Sedona Marathon and the San Juan Trails 50K while out there.
When I returned to New Hampshire in April, I broke Steve Pero’s nine-year-old course record at the Don’t Run Boston 50K, slicing 22 minutes off his time by running 5:16 on a grueling course in the Blue Hills of Boston. So I knew I was running pretty well.
But this was also going to be my first 100-miler and no matter how well I thought I was running, I knew I should defer to Steve on how to approach it. I’m glad I did.
Now those who know me well would think I would have been in near-panic mode watching the entire field run by me to the point that I was in last place. But in reality, it didn’t bother me in the least … I knew I’d have a full day to catch as many people as possible. I started out immediately, working my way up through the field, which was not easy, since everyone was strung out along the first ridge and I had to pass everyone by going up into the bushes.
By the time we had reached the aid stations at Shawl , Veach and Milford gaps I had moved up to around 30th and was moving well despite a calf problem that was definitely slowing me down … but again, that was a good thing. At one point, I think it was at Veach, I saw Tom Corris, who was not entered but holds the recognized seniors course record, and I asked, “Is that leash still attached?” as I pointed to my back. He yelled back, “Yes, and keep it there!”

But as soon as we hit a four-mile dirt road that led into the Habron Gap aid station, suddenly I couldn’t move at all. Out of the shade of the woods, the hot early day sun and the humidity hit me like a road block and stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly found I couldn’t run at all and had to walk again … this time I was completely frustrated as I watched about 30-35 people that I had just worked so hard to pass go back by me as I walked the entire four miles to the aid station.
I was ready to drop, I was so discouraged. And this was only 20 miles into the race! Tom Corris was also at this aid station and I told him how my calf problem had caused me to compensate with my stride and now I had problems in my hips and buttocks. I asked him if I should drop out. Fortunately, his response was that I had a major climb coming up immediately out of Habron Gap back up to the ridegline and I should see how I felt when I got up there.
Again, I got solid advice. I started up and I was immediately cranking the uphills. I must’ve passed at least 20-25 people on the long climb and then at the ridgeline we turned left and continued along the top of the ridge for several miles before turning to the right and heading toward the next aid station at Camp Roosevelt, which was about 32 miles into the race and where we ended our training run back in January.
Long before we got to Camp Roosevelt I had caught up to John Cassilly and Marlin Yoder who had dropped me before we had even gotten onto the dirt road that I walked. When they saw me, their eyes bulged out … “We’d given you up for dead!” they said. So I knew I was moving much better, but still didn’t feel like I was near my potential.
John and I got out of the aid station before Marlon did and we walked a while expecting him to catch us, but he never did. During this walking stretch, a guy from the VHTRC named Pedro passed us and it turned out he is the only person who passed me after Habron Gap aid station … and I would pass him back on Short Mountain in the middle of the night just before he dropped out.
Soon, I ran ahead of John and he didn’t go with me, so when we turned to go up over another ridge and down into Gap aid station, I was running alone. I hurried through Gap and made the long climb up Jawbone to Kerns Ridge, seeing a deer in the trail on the way, feeling much better. But the heat was still hampering me … I wasn’t used to the humidity more than the 80-plus temps.
That would all change on Kerns. I could hear thunder off to my right and saw a very dark sky, so I knew we were going to get dumped on. And boy did we. It was the first of three major thunderstorms we got during the race that by the finish had the temperatures in the 50s, not the 80s. I soon became a very happy camper and felt myself buoyed not only with energy but with confidence as I was able to pick up my pace even though I had run the whole section by myself. I did chase another runner into the Visitor’s Center aid station, where during our second training run in Jaunary we had nice hot quesadillas waiting for us … I ate 16 of them that day. But on this day, no quesadillas, which was a bummer.
Next was a solid climb up onto Bird Knob, which is a lollipop route in that it goes up the stick, then there’s a loop, and then you run back the stick. I passed a couple more runners going up the stick, but then got to the loop and caught up with Robin Meagher from Atlanta. I had run with her and some others on the first day of training in January and they all dropped me on that same dirt road. When I caught her in the race on Bird Knob, she promptly dropped me again as I needed to walk/run for a while.
But I caught her before we had completed the loop and also passed another group of three that included Donna Utakis, who at the time was the second woman. She was on the side of the trail with some problems and Robin wanted to push the pace to put some distance on her. But I stayed with her and when we came off of Bird Knob down into the next aid station at Picnic Area, I had broken away from Robin and was seemingly running very well. I made quick time from there to 211 where you cross the highway and where I saw Kerry Owens drinking beer after she had dropped out of the race earlier … well, it WAS her birthday after all, so I guess she was entitled.
I power-hiked from 211 for the next couple miles until we reentered the woods and then the trail had several nice runnable sections on it as we climbed to a four-way intersection and made a left on a mud-filled trail that led back to the road that the Gap aid station is on (sorry, being new to MMT, I don’t know the names to all these roads and places).
During this time we got our second major thunderstorm just as I reached the highest point. Lightning and thunder were all around me, but the only thing to do was to keep moving. I ran all the way off that summit and most of the dirt road leading back to the Gap aid station, where it was still pouring and everyone was under cover.
I made a big mistake at this aid station. I decided to change shoes, even though my Inov8’s had felt so good to my feet that I had made mental note of this several times. It would have been one thing if I had clean socks waiting for me at Gap, too, but I only had the dirty pair I had taken off the first time through there. I tried to knock any grit and debris out of them and then put on my Salomon’s, which don’t have the tread the Inov8s do, but have much more cushion … not till talking to Bill Losey after the race did I realize that switching from a pair of shoes with no heels to one with big thick heels is about the worst thing you can do for your Achilles.
Anyway, my idea of putting “dry” shoes on didn’t even last until I was out of the aid station as I had to run through a huge puddle of water, so any advantage I felt I would gain by the change in shoes was lost instantly. And in hindsight, I’m sure the switch was the reason for the big blister I got on my left heel and definitely caused the jamming of my right big toenail that would plague me in the final miles of the race and would cause me to have to go to the hospital two days later. The doctor took one look at it and said it was severely infected and she had to surgically remove the nail and now I am out of action for at least a few weeks or running, not to mention that I can’t walk and am in a lot of pain from this.
All from switching out a pair of shoes!

Going back up Jawbone I was still cranking, however, and quickly caught up with Greg Loomis and his pacer Brian. Greg was looking good, but as soon as we crested the summit and headed down, I took off and surprisingly he didn’t go with me. Turns out he was cooked and dropped at the next aid station, much to everyone’s surprise later on.
Coming into Moreland aid station I passed Joe Clapper (though I didn’t know who he was until later that night at the party at Kerry’s and we figured it out) and he and his girlfriend Michelle, who was pacing him, said I shot past them moving very fast and was out of the aid station just as they arrived. I did feel good. It was now dark and still raining and I had not felt hindered in any way … I felt I was actually picking up speed instead of losing it, which was the feeling that Steve Pero wanted me to experience when he suggested his race strategy with me.
The next section of trail was a ridge run over Short Mountain which was not short in any stretch of the imagination … it was only 8.2 miles to Edinburg Gap aid station, but it seemed more like twelve! I soon caught Pedro, who had passed me just after Camp Roosevelt, and he stuck with me for quite a while … and actually got ahead of me a couple times as I had to start making regular “trips” to the woods with intestinal problems during this section.
I also had my only real mishap of the race on Short Mountain. I prided myself in that I didn’t fall down once during the race, but I forgot about what happened on Short. Apparently, a tree fell down during one of the storms and was lying across the trail at about six feet off the ground. I was moving a full tilt power-hiking with my head down and flashlight pointing at the ground when, BOOM, something nailed me in the forehead and laid me out like a Mike Tyson right hook! I flew backward and fell to the ground among the rocks and let out a yell. Pedro goes, “What did you hit!” and I shined my flashlight up at the tree and exclaimed, “THAT!”
I couldn’t even get up on my own … Pedro had to lift me back on my feet. Thank you Pedro. The next morning at Kerry’s I couldn’t even lift my head up off the pillow without the aid of my hands, so I know I had whiplash, but I also spent all day Monday really loopy and lacking in mental clarity and the doctor diagnosed a mild concussion. Good thing I had my hat on … I think the bill of the cap took some of the blow for me … at least that’s what Quatro Hubbard said later, as he had the exact same thing happen to him later in the night when he hit the same tree!
From the next aid station at Woodstock to the following one at Powell’s Fort was only a little less than six miles and it was largely runnable. At this point, I knew I had moved up to 12th place and was still moving very well … surprisingly so. I felt great, to be honest. My legs felt fresh and powerful and I was still able to run whenever opportunity presented itself. Looking at the split times between these two aid stations, I covered the distance only one minute slower than did Glen Redpath, who was the second-place finisher, and was faster than several of the people who were ahead of me.
When I came into Powell’s Fort I ran into Mike Bur, who was running the aid station, and had come down the trail a bit to see who the runner was coming in. He was elated to see that it was me and said that there was another runner in the aid station who seemed reluctant to leave and that I would easily pick up another place and move into 11th spot. But I had been watching the splits between me and Amy Sproston, the lead woman, and I hadn’t really been gaining any measurable time on her at the last three aid stations, so I didn’t know if I could catch her for a top-10 finish or not. Coming out of Powell’s Fort, I must’ve misunderstood Mike Bur’s directions because I headed right on a dirt road when I should’ve turned left. This cost me about five minutes as I spoke with some crew members for other runners and they finally told me which way the race went. But this road was a lot longer than the mile Mike Bur said it was till it went into the woods again … more like two miles or more.
By now the trail was nothing but mud and rocks everywhere with no good footing so from here on out I simply ran right through the middle of every puddle I saw. We got to a sharp right turn, which is where the trail started to climb again and believe it or not, this was a welcome sight. My toe was really beginning to hurt and the pain came entirely on the downhills where it would jam into the toe of my shoe. Going uphill it didn’t hurt at all, and I was still climbing like crazy … I was able to fast-hike every climb and felt entirely fresh still.
But as soon as I got to the top and started over the other side I found the trail was not “runnable the whole way” was Mike Bur had promised. It was rooty and rocky and completely muddy with a stream running down it in most places. I could not run this with my toe the way it was and since Mike had told me this was the “never-ending trail” into Elizabeth Furnace aid station, I hunkered down for a long hike out of there. I was unable to run hardly any of this long and tedious section even though at the bottom sections of it were entirely runnable.
Unfortunately, I had to hike this section, though it was still definitely a fast-moving power hike. But the trail did wind on for miles and every time I thought I saw the lights of an aid station down below, I would turn a corner and they would disappear. Finally I came out on the road and could see the aid station across the parking lot and the river, but since it was so dark and there were so many cars in the parking lot, I could not see the bridge crossing.
So I hustled across the lawn and down the riverbank and yelled to the people at the aid station where do I cross? They yelled, “At the bridge,” and I responded, “Yeah, but where is it?” Finally I saw it to my right and made my way to it and across, and tip-toed along the trail next to the riverbank as the fast-rising water had covered the trail into the aid station.
I didn’t even stop at the aid station. I just called out my number and kept right on going. In hindsight, I should have asked how long ago Amy Sproston had left the aid station, because I would have found out it was only 38 minutes ago, meaning I had cut my deficit to her almost in half in just over 10 miles. There is a long climb out of Elizabeth Furnace and I was cranking it pretty hard until the final stages of it when I finally was beginning to waver a bit … probably because I could see no lights ahead of me and knew there was no one closing on me from behind … I had been the hunter for many, many hours now and I knew I wasn’t being the hunted. Though later I found out that Amy Sproston’s pacer saw my flashlight coming up the mountain and it spurred them on … if I had seen their flashlights it might have spurred me on.

But when I got to the gap and started down the final downhill to the finish line, I was starting to slow down because of the treacherous wet and muddy terrain and the fact that my toe was now throbbing. I hiked much of this final section and ran a little of it until I got to the bottom and knew where I was and then pretty much ran the final mile or so to the finish line. I was still running a very strong pace as I came out of the woods into the field and headed the final few hundred yards to the finish at 6:08 a.m. on Sunday morning.
I had really thought I could break 24 hours on this course and am confident that I can in the future, but I was initially disappointed that I didn’t at least break 25 hours … but then Steve Pero was at the finish line telling me I had just run an incredible time for a first-ever 100-miler and that he was completely impressed. So suddenly I felt considerably better.
My legs then realized that the race was over and they decided it was time to shut down. Can’t really blame them. It was a painful experience to limp over to my campsight to get my clothes so I could go shower, and then I went back to my tent, which was completely soggy from the day and night of rain (which had now stopped) and I called my girlfriend who had been waiting to hear that I had finished … safely. Then I tried in vain to get some sleep … my sleeping bag was wet, I was in severe pain, my stomach was bothering me and there was a loud, obnoxious bird in a tree right outside my tent!
After about an hour of this I gave up and decided to go inside and try to eat breakfast, which was now hot and ready. Then I spent the next several hours either sitting still in the cold, chilly air or hobbling around trying to work the kinks out of my leg. It was a long day, but an enjoyable one, watching everyone else finish what is undoubtedly one of the toughest races in the country. It was an honor to receive my belt buckle at the awards ceremony as an MMT finisher even though I don’t have a belt to wear it on!
Then we drove over to the Portobello (Kerry Owens’ house) where about 30 of us were assembled for a party, but most of us were too beat up to carry on too much. I did stay awake long enough to climb in the hot tub and have a third beer, but then it was off to bed. Woke up about 9:30 the next morning and painfully hit the road for the long ride back to New Hampshire. Stopped every couple of hours to “stretch” my legs, which meant to hobble like a 100-year-old man up and down the sidewalk at a rest area getting plenty of weird stares.
Then the next day I had a doctor’s appointment and that’s when I learned I would be losing that toenail immediately and that my body was going to need much longer than I had thought to recover. I guess this means I am going to miss the Nipmuck Marathon on June 7 as I don’t think in my wildest imagination that I will be ready for that race, especially since I hope to be in Vermont this weekend hiking Camel’s Hump and some other mountains with Darlene. We decided there was no point in driving to Baxter for the weekend when the trails may not even be open, so I guess I won’t get Mount Fort and will be stuck on 99 on the New England Hundred Highest list for a little while longer.
But MMT was an incredible experience and I look forward to my next 100-miler (maybe Grindstone in Virginia in October) and getting back to MMT as soon as possible to snatch that seniors record away from Tom Corris. I hear he won’t be taking this lying down!


  1. Garry, great post. Look forward to reading your missives.

  2. your flashlight didn't spur me offense. i knew someone was coming, but frankly didn't care, and was moving so slowly it didn't really matter. if you'd been close enough to catch me, you would have at the pace i took the last climb.

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  4. Garry, btw, Tom does not have the Seniors Course Record. It belongs to Alfred Bogenhuber, who was 59 when he set it in 1999 (24:47:20 on a very fast course that has not been run since, apparently). Tom has the 2nd and 3rd fastest times.

  5. Laughing my A$$ off because you got CHICKED and didn't break 24 hours. The good news is maybe it let some air out of your swollen head.

  6. Roger, that's a pretty lame comment to make to a guy who ran a great time on a difficult course. My guess is your jealous because you aren't able to...nice of you to let people know who you are!
    Good job, Garry! Don't listen to this jerk...