The 2004 Mountain Masochists 54 Mile Trail Run
By Anstr Davidson
Photos by Sophie Speidel and Anstr Davidson
On October 17, David Horton held his 22nd Mountain Masochists Trail Run (MMTR) in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Lynchburg, Virginia. It was a continuation of a uniquely Virginia trail running experience. If you missed it, you missed it.
Dave Mackey won the event in 6:52:18, the third fastest time on the course. (He missed the second fastest time by seven seconds. He also owns the current course record, which he set last year.) Just under four minutes later, Sean Andrish finished in what would be the fourth fastest time.
After David explained all this trivia to Dave and Sean, I told him, "You are vindicated." David broke into a broad smile when I explained my meaning. Many, including me, have suggested to David that if he would just change his course to put the start and finish at the same point, and make it actually 50 miles long, MMTR would be a much more enjoyable event. David, however, has stubbornly refused. The only significant alteration of the course over the years has been to move the starting point from the Otter Creek Campground to the James River Visitors Center. That change merely substituted one section of flat pavement for another. The result is that 22 years of finishing times on the course are comparable. Dave and Sean both beat the times of prior winners like Courtney Campbell and Eric Clifton. More impressively, Nikki Kimball was the first woman ever to break eight hours.
David's refusal to change the course is an example of what MMTR is all about, and why is it such a great and frustrating event at the same time. By 21st Century standards, MMTR is not your normal ultra trail run. It's better than that, and it's less "user friendly" than that. It is unique, and it is all David Horton.
The Blue Train at MMTR: There was a cheering section for the VHTRC crew this year caused primarily by the fact that three of our great female trail runners -- Sophie Speidel, Kerry Owens, and Vicki Kendall -- were injured. Despite their injuries, each wanted to be part of the event. Unlike these fine ladies, I had no excuse for my absence from the starting line. I decided last year, however, that I didn't have to do MMTR each year. (Actually, last year I claimed I would work an aid station this year. Sorry, David, I lied!) So the beginnings of a VHTRC cheering section were formed. Eventually, Bunny, Dave and Jill Quivey, Brenda, and a few others joined the crew.
The Drive to the Real Virginia: I will never forget my first drive to Lynchburg for MMTR. It was a beautiful fall Friday afternoon. As I drove under I-64 out of Charlottesville, I reached the Real Virginia border check point. Here, I was required to show my passport and put a "God, Guns, and Guts made American Great" bumper sticker on my car. Since I did not have a pickup with a gun rack, I was given only provisional entry to Real Virginia. I drove the rest of the way to L'burg listening to inspirational radio from Liberty University. I felt so out of place that I might has well have been coming from Moscow as from Arlington, Virginia. (That was in the 1980's. Today, I would say, "I might has well have been coming from Bagdad as from Arlington.")
This year, we made that drive again, only this time, we made it early Saturday morning. It went quickly and easily. Near Culpepper, the sun came up and displayed a beautiful sunrise.
As we approached the border check point at I-64, the formalities were handled smoothly. We went on down Route 29 toward Route 60 and the "halfway" point of MMTR. (Our target aid station is listed as being at mile 26.9 on the course. No one, not even David, believes that it's really only 26.9 miles at this point. But what is clear is that David's rule of thumb, "double your time here for your finishing time," is dead on. So it is the halfway point in that sense.)
I don't think I have ever driven to this point on the earth though I have run to it many times. So I worry about getting lost. To add to my concern, we saw several Kerry yard signs. Are we in the right place? Surely no one in Real Virginia would support someone who only fought for his country on a boat rather than someone who hid in the Texas National Guard! But, sure enough, we arrived at the aid station.
Ah, David: Shortly after we arrive, the man himself, David Horton, arrives. He is in full David mode. I ask him when we can expect the first runner. I looks at a sheet of splits and says, "9:57 -- give or take a minute." We later see the first runner about 300 yards from the aid station at 9:56. David can't measure the course, but he sure has heck can predict how fast people will run it.
Typical MMTR "Trails": Purists like to point out that MMTR is not a trail run since most of the course is on dirt or asphalt roads. The "trail" going into this halfway aid station is a good example of this. It's a pretty country road. We walk along it, past houses with school buses as out buildings and porta potties in the back yards. This is obviously where old school busses go to die. There are two or three on the short section of road we cover.
Soon, we see a runner. It is Dave Mackey who will eventually win the race. He does not look like he is breathing hard. There is another runner and then, less than two minutes later, comes Sean Andrish. He does seem to be breathing hard. Is it that he is working harder to keep up and will die, or is he more focussed and will catch Dave? (It turns to be neither. Sean runs a great time but does not catch Dave.)
We walk back to the aid station to prepare for the action.
The Queens Arrive: When we come back, Kerry is in her chair with her "children" (two dogs). Soon, the other two stars of our entourage arrive. First it is Vicki. You know when Vicki is around. Trust me, you know. Vicki, in the relatively short time that she has been with the club, knows everyone. (Or almost everyone. If she doesn't know you, she just makes it up.) She cheers each runner as he or she approaches the aid station. Additionally, Vicki takes over as aid station caption, directing traffic and organizing the volunteers. Finally, she provides entertainment by showing her bruised leg to anyone who is sadistic enough to look at it.
A couple of minutes later, Sophie comes along. Sophie had been at the earlier aid stations and shows us several of her pictures (some on this page and in the collages elsewhere on this site). While she puts on a good show, it is clear that she is only here for the Wahoos (or is it Woohoos? Or Yoohoos?). (Wahoos are University of Virginia folks, I think.) These are Mike Broderick, Quatro, and Linda Wack. She is quite excited that the _hoos football will be playing Florida State that night. (Editor's Note: UVA, as did Navy on the same day, proved that it is a very good football team that is not in the same league with the real Division I schools. Sorry, Sophie, but UVA needs to stick to basketball.)
After Sean, there is a long wait for the rest of the VHTRC crowd. The runners present an interesting mix of the new and the old trail running crowd. From the old crowd are Dave Drach (prior Ultrarunning "cover boy"), Dennis Herr (former two time MMTR winner), and, of course, Tom Green, who is the only person to have done all MMTRs but who will go down in history as the first person to do the Grand Slam. For the most part, I don't know the new crowd, but Vicky does. So we do pretty well.
The Weather: Despite predictions to the contrary, there is rain in the air. (What do you expect? The weather man works for the Commerce Department.) It turns out to be a good day for the runners, especially Frank Probst who hates warm weather, but it's a bit cold for the spectators. The sun seems to come and go. Some runners complain of sleet at the higher elevations.
On to the Finish: Well before the last runner has arrived at the halfway point, we decide that our work there is done. We drive to the finish with Vicky following. Sophie drives to the loop. She will run the loop a couple of times for practice. (The loop is one of the few single-trail sections of the course. Some think it is hard, but it is actually quite enjoyable. The first couple of miles are very nice running.)
The drive to the finish seems long. We probably could have run faster than driving. No, we get there and no finishers are there yet. If Dave and Sean could not have run faster, we couldn't. As we drive, we look to the mountains that the runners are traversing. They are beautiful and rugged. (The mountains, not the runners.)
The Finish: Once a year, the little store at Montebello finds a gold mine on its steps. The MMTR finishes in front of it and runners, crew, and locals with the number 3 on their cars, come in for sustenance. The store owners always seem to be surprised by this. As the first runner is approaching, the coffee pot is nearly empty and there is only one pot of soup. They could sell enough soup to float the Titanic, but like some politicians, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But they are friendly and have bathrooms, that's what is important.
The finish of MMTR is not very remarkable. But it is appropriate for the course and, over the years, has come to be special. You come off the mountain, past a sign that says "one mile" (which you don't believe as none of the other distance designations had any connection to reality), and on to an asphalt road. That is where you started this morning -- on a 14 mile road section. (Ok, it's not 14 miles. It is only nine.) You assume that this freakin' final road section will never end. But if you have done it before, you know that it will. You have a short stretch where they can't see you from the finish area. Here is where you walk if you need to and get refreshed. Because soon you will be within sight of the finish and you must run the rest of the way.
The finish is not on the road. But you need only make a left turn and run 10 yards off the road and you have finished. There you will find David waiting for you. He will agree with you that the course is long and sucks. He will laugh. You will just be happy it's over.
The Winner: Perhaps to symbolize the anticlimactic nature of the whole thing, Dave Mackey comes charging in and promptly trips as he makes the left turn. Through dumb luck, I happen to take my picture as he goes down. So I have the picture of The Fall. He gets up and finishes.
The Others: Dave leads a long stream of finishers (216 to be exact, though we don't stay for them all). It is quite amazing that after I see the winner, people who could clean my clock look slow.
We greet the finishers and take pictures of the VHTRC members. We do not worry that we will miss a finisher since Vicki will announce his or her approach. It is cold and windy. We find excuses to go into the store. Some of us test the hypothesis that alcohol warms you up. The hypothesis is wrong, but who cares.
Our final VHTRC runner finishes. We decide to get going while it is still light. Brenda and I can get home in less than three hours, but we decide we will splurge and find a hotel. There are plenty of hotels in Charlottesville and the Yoohoos are playing Florida State on the road so we should be able to find a room, right? Wrong. There is no room at the inn. Tip: buy stock in Charlottesville hotels.
(We do find a couple of places that have smoking rooms available. Why do the hotels allow smoking at all? Some of those rooms may have gone begging. Just to let people smoke? What is wrong with that picture?)
The Montrail Cup: I almost forgot. MMTR was the last event in the Montrail Cup. Montrail and Patagonia are very good companies. Their people seem to support trail and ultra running sincerely. But the notion of a series of trail runs is silly. I spent a very enjoyable day at MMTR. I know who won and where most runners finished. But I don't know and don't care who won the Montrail Cup. I did not hear anyone else mention it. Even if I cared who won the Montrail Cup, the fact that MMTR was in the series would not have been a factor in my entering the run. (No one in contention for the Cup would have been anywhere near me!)
A race series is for big, fancy events. MMTR is not a fancy event. In fact the best thing about MMTR is that it is not fancy and is inconsistent with the Oprahization of running.
While the mainline running community is running slower and making things easier, MMTR continues to make you finish in 12 hours, to give you a hard course, and to have perfectly fine aid stations that don't coddle you. MMTR is the way trail running was in the '80s. If you think that "everyone is a winner," your finishing time doesn't matter and that, by paying an entry fee, you have a Constitutional right to finish no matter how slow you are, then MMTR is not for you.
Much as I think that the Montrail Cup is not credible, I don't worry about it. Nothing will change MMTR. David's stubbornness will prevail. And that is a good thing.
Epilogue: Last year, when I actually ran the race, I said:
"There are some who claim that David Horton's Mt. Masochists Trail Run engages in false advertising because most of the course is not single track trail and because its clearly longer than 50 miles. But these people miss the point. MMTR is about mountains, not trails, and it clearly lives up to the first word in its name. It also lives up to the second word. You have to be a 'masochist' to run it. In this sense, you get exactly what David promises you at Masochists." [More from last year.]
Ultimately, it's all about David. Anyone who knows him could write a very long book about him. But the bottom line with David is that he has provided more great ultra running experiences for more people than anyone. Thanks, David!
I'll see everyone next year!