I did not have a lot of optimism going into this year's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in Front Royal, Virginia. Ever since limping the final 16 miles of the Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, California, back in March because of a pulled calf muscle, I have been nursing one injury or another for nearly two months.
The main problem has been my hips, which have been woefully out of alignment since a near-tragic waterfall incident last summer in which I was swept over a 30-foot falls while cliff-jumping in Vermont and was smashed on the rocks below. Right on my tailbone! Ouch! To add insult to injury, I was then swept over a smaller 10-foot falls and then had to drive 20 miles home in incredible pain without my contact lenses, which were flushed out of my eyes as the waterfall swirled me around like I was in a washing machine.
My ass looked the color of Barnie the Dinosaur for weeks afterward and I couldn't sit down without excruciating pain ... but it could have been worse ... much worse.
I thought I had rebounded from that injury months ago ... I began running again two months after the injury and after just two weeks of training, ran the Green Mountain Marathon in South Hero, Vermont, as a training run and got a Boston qualifying time of 3:28. But no one told me that Boston was going to fill up so fast and I failed to apply for the 2010 race ... so my time was rolled over and I'll run my one and only Boston next spring.
In December I had a pretty good effort in finishing second in a Fat Ass 40-miler in the Fells just north of Boston, and then after moving to Colorado at the end of the year, I was running fairly well out here despite the altitude. Then I drove to California to run the San Juan Trails 50K and Way Too Cool 50K on back-to-back weekends. San Juan Trails is a very difficult race, but despite some leg issues I was still in second place with about 6 miles to go when I followed the ribbons into some scrub brush and up a steep hill, causing me to cramp. I knew it was the wrong way, but that's where the ribbons went ... seems some dumbass mountain bikers thought they would have some fun and change the course. I waited five minutes for the next runners to arrive to find out which way to go and took off ahead of them, but I soon started to experience cramping and had to shut it down -- both runners passed me and I barely limped home in fourth place, matching last year's finish.
In the week between the two races I attempted to summit three 14,000-footers in the Sierra Nevada, but couldn't get into Stevens Pass to bag Williamson and Tyndall because of the deep snow and my trashed legs, and two days later was turned back within sight of the summit of Split Mountain by high winds and threatening weather ... and did I mention trashed legs?
The next day I turned 50 and hoped for a better result at Way Too Cool that weekend, my debut in a new age division. But at the 15-mile mark I repulled a calf muscle and pretty much limped it in from there. It seemed like 100 people passed me over the final half of the race, but I still ended up in 80th place out of almost 500 runners in a "decent" time of 5:01.
But upon returning to Colorado, everything below the waist hurt and it was very difficult to run. I began undergoing weekly PT to realign my hips, which I think were the main culprit, causing compensation issues down into my calves. But six weeks later as I boarded a plane to head back to New Hampshire for two big races and my daughter's college graduation, I was still in considerable pain and not the "race shape" I needed to be in to obtain my goals.
The first weekend home I ran one of my all-time favorite races, the Seven Sisters Trail Run in Amherst, Mass. This is the ninth straight year I've run this 12 miles of hell, probably the toughest race of its size anywhere, and with more than 250 people signed up to torture themselves!
The race starts with a half-mile climb up the same scree field you will finish on about two-plus hours later. By the top I already knew I was in trouble, and was faltering somewhere back in about 22nd place. At the three-mile mark of the six-mile outward leg, I repulled that damn calf muscle. I can usually work through this and it took me about a mile to work the pain out of my head to the point I could run, though climbing was painful. But at about the four-mile mark I decided I was either going to cash it in for the day as my friend Bojo decided to do, or see if I had anything in the tank. And suddenly I took off!
On the last, long mile and a half to the turnaround I picked off about six runners, including all the other masters ahead of me, and then picked up the pace on the way back, despite it being 87 degrees and very humid. I ended up picking off about four more runners -- including the guy with the ski poles who actually (Nick Cash!) led the first couple of miles -- and finished 11th overall in 2:10:31. Quite a ways off my goal time of becoming only the seventh master -- and second 50-year-old -- to ever break two hours on this course, but still a respectible race considering that most people were at least 10 minutes or more off their best times because of the intense heat.
But the main thing I came out of the race with was that I had no hip pain at all for the first time in two months! And when I overcame the calf strain, I was able to pick it up and start passing people, which I attributed to my altitude training here in Colorado Springs.
So I headed to Virginia two weeks later not knowing how I would feel -- other than hungover since I spent my last night in Keene drinking until 1 a.m. with friends who I won't see probably until I run Boston next April. The course at Massanutten had been changed since last year as the start/finish was now at Caroline's Furnace Lutheran Camp rather than the Skyline Ranch and this made for a different race.
Last year, Steve Pero had instructed me to WALK out of the Skyline Ranch at the start, warning me NOT to run the 2.5-mile paved road to the trailhead at Buzzard's Rock. He knew that if I ran it, I would get caught up in too fast of a pace and probably would not finish my debut 100. He was right. I spent the remaining nearly 100 miles slowly catching the entire field and was still moving well at the finish line as I placed 11th in 25 hours, 8 minutes, a remarkable debut for an MMT 100.
Since this year's race began on a three-mile uphill dirt road, I told myself to walk it this time as well. The problem was the gun went off ... and so did I. Like a shot. It didn't take five seconds for me to get caught up in the competitiveness of the race, as everyone seemed to go out fast and run the entire three-mile uphill to Moreland Gap where we turned right and eventually headed for Short Mountain, which I had never seen before since we ran it in the dark last year.
I found myself in with a group of about seven which I figured were all in 20th to 25th place or thereabouts. I then broke ahead with a guy named John Gove from Macon, Georgia, and we ran together until about 8-10 miles into the race I noticed that my rain jacket and long-sleeved shirt had fallen off the back of my new Nathan 2.0 pack. The last thing I wanted to do was turn around and run back in the opposite direction, but that's what I had to do ... I would likely need both those items later in the race as there was a chance of rain and temps were supposed to drop into the 40s overnight. Neither happened, as it turned out, but I didn't want to lose either of those items either.
Fortunately, one of the others in the group we had been running with had picked up the two items and was carrying them only about a quarter-mile back, so I only lost about five minutes or so total. But I had to tie the shirt around my waist for the remainder of the race and stuff the rain jacket into the pack against the water bladder.
Now I found myself running with this group into Powell's Fort at 25.1 miles -- only to be told by one of them that we had covered the first quarter of the race in less than five hours!!! WAY TOO FAST!! By now, though, our pack was breaking up. John Gove took off, but I had to walk a ways and found myself with Ryan Henry from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and we ran together all the way to the next aid station at Elizabeth Furnace at mile 32.6. I waited for Ryan, who had a crew waiting for him, and then we started running the lower part of the long climb up to the ridgeline ... at some point Ryan fell off the pace and I never saw him again ... I heard later he dropped out at Habron Gap, or was it Roosevelt Camp?
I ran on to Shawl Gap and then ran/walked the 3.1 miles of tar/dirt road to the Veach Gap parking lot. I HATE roads, even dirt roads, and was glad to see the turnin to Veach Gap, where I chowed down on some tasty quesadillas and a piece of cake, passing both John Gove and another runner who were sitting at the aid station soaking their heads under washcloths in an ice tub. It was getting hot, that's for sure.
Heading out of Veach Gap you have another long climb back to the ridgeline and then you follow the ridge for miles before hitting the purple trail that drops you back down to another dreaded dirt road, the four-mile slog into Habron Gap aid station at mile 53.6. I walked the final 3.5 miles of this road, same as last year, even though last year the road came within the first 20 miles of the race. In the aid station I saw my two pre-race picks to win the race -- Sean Andrish and Mike Mason -- in a world of trouble. Sean was being coaxed back out on the course and Mike was in a chair and didn't look like he was going to move. But he did get up and followed me onto the trail that leads to the next long climb back to the ridgeline.
I was running again and feeling better and soon passed Sean Andrish who was sitting beside the trail with his head in his hands, in obvious pain. He gave me a "Great job!" as I went by and I never saw him again, either. Mike Mason, though, recovered enough to pass me just before the top of the climb and then he was able to run some along the ridgeline while I was again reduced to walking. Having gone out so fast at the beginning had placed my hopes of breaking 24 hours and breaking the senior division (50-59) record in serious doubt.
But when I hit the never-ending Stevens Trail that goes on and on and on before it reaches Roosevelt Camp at mile 63.1, I found I could run again and I ran this entire six-mile section, passing a cooked Mike Mason along the way, and got to Roosevelt Camp much faster than expected. However, I could still not consistently run after this and hiked the entire muddy road and big climb that led me to the top of the ridge again before the descent into Gap Creek aid station at mile 68.7. It was on this long downhill that I started to run again, but not very fast, and I came into the aid station a bit delirious and not in the best of shape, based on the questions I was getting from the medical person there.
I was having intestinal problems and generally had a sour stomach the entire race, but I got some hot soup into me and promised the medical person that I would pee before the next aid station, as it seemingly had been several hours since the last time I went. I also had stopped sweating, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, we had the major climb up Jawbone coming up next and by the time I got to the top, I was certainly sweating again, even if running was a bit of a stretch. I hiked most of Kerns Ridge to the two-mile downhill tar road into Visitor's Center at mile 77.1 and then as much as I tried, could not run hardly any of this road and walked into Visitor's Center having been passed by Dan Rosenberg of New Jersey and his pacer on the road coming down.
The problem wasn't so much my legs as it was my arms -- my arms hurt like hell from the straps of the Nathan pack, as this was the first time I had attempted a long race with a hydration backpack. But I was at least glad to be back on singletrack and headed at a fair clip down the cinder path to the turn up Bird's Knob, which most people were dreading. But even though I couldn't run the flats or even the downhills, one thing I could still do was climb and I was a climbing fool going up Bird Knob. Chalk that up to the training at altitude as well. I quickly passed two runners and then re-caught Dan Rosenberg, who commented that I was a "Climbing Mojo." Or was that "MoFo?"
Either way, I opened up a good-sized gap on them and raced right through the Bird Knob aid station and down the dirt road to the turnin to the next long climb, a new section we had trained on back in January. Reaching the top, I refueled quickly and downed several more electrolytes, and then peed again -- the second time since Gap Creek. Things were working better now. Suddenly, I heard voices coming up the trail and knew that Dan and his pacer were re-catching me. I didn't want to be in a duel with this guy for the remaining 20 miles of the race, so I took off fast down the switchbacks and when I heard them still close, I turned my Fenix light down to its lowest setting so they couldn't see me ahead of them. I made the turn onto the pink trail that led back to Picnic Area aid station and suddenly I found I could run again!
I ran and ran and ran for several miles, forgetting how long this stretch of trail is. Even when you bottom out and start back up to the aid station, it was a hell of a long hike before reaching Picnic Area at 86.9 miles. When I got there, I was told I was in 12th place, but since I passed no one else the remainder of the race and ended up 11th, I'm not sure what happened to the other runner who was supposed to be ahead of me. Maybe he was sitting in the final aid station at Gap Creek when I went back through as I didn't spend more than a moment there.
From Picnic Area, there is a 1.7-mile runnable section to where you cross Route 211, which I was able to fly through, and then you start up a grass-covered dirt road to the next climb and I found I was able to run this entire section as well, even though it was almost entirely uphill. Things were looking up! I had already pretty much decided I was not going to become the first 50-year-old to ever break 24 hours at Massanutten, but I calculated that if I could maintain this pace, I could still get the age group course record which was 24:47 and had stood since 1997, the long-standing course record at MMT, I believe.
There was considerable climbing ahead before reaching a four-way crossroads and a left-hand turn that led you down a rock-strewn (any description of the Massanutten course with the word 'rock' in it is of course redundant) road that dumped you out on Crissman Hollow Road and about a two-mile run back to the Gap Creek aid station.
I felt considerably better coming into this aid station this time as compared to several hours earlier. I did little more than a NASCAR pit stop, a splash of fuel and then I was out of there. Back up Jawbone, the long climb to the ridgeline and then over the top and back down to Moreland Gap, only about four miles from the finish line. I did not remember this section of trail being so incredibly nasty ... it was not safely runnable in the dark as it was strewn with menacing rocks and boulders, but I tried to run it anyway as I knew I was flirting with the course record. The problem was, where was that Moreland Gap Road? It took absolutely forever to reach the road again and to the familiar territory we had covered all too fast 24 hours before.
Now, however, I found that my legs were finally giving out, and while I was able to run this road uphill the morning before, I could not run it downhill now ... and the clock was ticking. I was able to run for quarter-mile increments and then walk for a quarter-mile and it seemed forever again before I reached the front gate of the Caroline's Furnance Lutheran Camp and the finish. However, we didn't finish by running the half-mile up the road into the camp which would have reversed our journey from the morning before ... this time we entered the woods and followed a trail that much to my disbelief and discomfort snaked its way toward the finish line and never seemed to get any closer.
I was fearing that the minutes I needed to break the record were being wasted trying to find out which hanging reflector to head towards as I groped my way over the last half-mile in the final darkness before dawn. But I was able to scramble my way up the final little hill and heard cheers coming from the finish as my light penetrated the darkness. I followed some yellow ribbing that seemed to pen me into a box for a moment before realizing where the finish line was and then sprinted for the clock which I could see was fortunately well under the 24:47 limit I needed to beat. I raced across two seconds before the clock ticked off the next half hour as I finished in 24 hours, 29 minutes and 58 seconds, a new course record for the 50-59 senior division by over 17 minutes.
Unlike last year, when an infected toenail that would need to be surgically removed two days later caused me to hobble around the rest of the day waiting for the awards, this time I was able to walk fairly well, though my attempts to sleep were dashed by shooting pains throughout my legs. It was a long, tiring day waiting and watching the remaining 100-plus finishers come across, capped by Caroline Williams who emerged from the woods and made it to the finish line with about 65 seconds to spare before the 36-hour cutoff! Great job, Caroline! Especially since we were later told she made it from Gap Creek the final 6.3 miles in 2:07, a remarkable time for the last-place finisher since it took me 1:47 to cover that final distance.
It's now five days later and I'm back in Colorado Springs and my legs feel pretty good. I am walking up and down stairs with no pain and no struggle and generally feeling fine. I hope to be able to start running again in another week and be ready for the San Juan Solstice 50-miler on June 19. Then after pacing at Hardrock, I should be set for Swan Crest 100, a first-year race in Montana, on July 29. Wish me luck!