By Dan Lopata

When I was five years old, I owned a red knit hat with a Superman logo on it. Recently, I saw it on my sister's 4 year old son's head. She was kind enough to give it to me for luck at the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100.

Friday morning I left Rochester, NY with the intention of running/walking 100.9 miles in the George Washington National Forest in Northern Virginia.

Photo: Dan Lopata arrives at Shawl GapLet's set up the scene here. John Prohira, Rochester, NY's local Ultramarathon Guru and I pulled into the Skyline Ranch Resort around 2:30 in the afternoon. Now, I've seen pictures of these mountains that we were going to run on, and even took the time to visit the halfway mark of this trek five weeks prior, but somehow they just seemed a lot bigger to me on this day. The MMT is boasted as the toughest 100 miler east of the Rocky Mountains, with over 18,000-ft of climb and descent. You are allowed 36 hours to complete it, which equates to a measly 2.8 miles per hour. And they still call it a trail run! This should be no problem for SUPERMAN. OK, so we registered, set up camp, went to the pre-race briefing (where I won a pair of shoes!!!) and headed into town for our pre-race pasta...er, protein feed. We were fortunate enough to sit at a table with Deb and Steve Pero from New Hampshire, Mike Dobies from Michigan, two trail sweeps (people who pick up those mortals who are behind the cut-offs) from Virginia, and other assorted friends and relatives whose names escape me because I could only think about the next day. My apologies to those of you whose names I have forgotten in my self-centeredness, but you know, I'm SUPERMAN. We headed back to camp and tried to get some sleep before 4:00 AM to get ready for the 5:00 AM start.

3:50 AM Saturday. My alarm goes off and I'm ready to run by 4:15! The pre-race blessing is spoken at 4:55 and the informal "GO!" is shouted at 5:00 AM sharp. I don't feel anything, no anxiety, no nerves, nothing. I guess I'm a little cocky because I've just came off the Bull Run 50 miler 5 weeks ago and had quite the 50 miler/50k season last year, so I'm thinking that I'm an old pro at this sort of thing. Mind you, I've never stepped over 50 miles before in my life, this is my first 100-mile attempt. The first few miles are in the dark on asphalt, then past a quick aid station and onto single-track trail up Buzzard's rock, a 1200-ft climb. Steve and Deb Pero come running by me and tell me I'm breathing way to hard for this early in the race, and I should wait for John. What do they know? They've only completed more 100 milers all over the country than I can imagine, but don't they know who they're talking to? Well I did come to my senses and backed off slightly to the top. The sun came out, and I was treated to one of the greatest views in my life. A little further on and I find myself bounding down hill to aid station #2. I love downhill running and I'm letting it all hang out here at 9 miles. I can see that people think I'm nuts, but who cares? I'm SUPERMAN!

I picked up a short sleeve shirt at this station, refilled my bottles (Clip and Water), and grabbed the best tasting cantaloupe in my life. I took off down a dirt road to the next aid station running with John Prohira and Fred Davis. It's amazing how much you can learn about one person in a short time. I hope to see Fred soon again. We pulled into the next aid station, grabbed some boiled potatoes and ran out and up to Milford Gap, a rocky 1500 ft climb. I'm moving and shaking here, I feel great and pass numerous people on the climb, grab more fuel and head out. We're 17 miles in and I'm invincible! This hundred-mile thing is a piece of cake.

A short climb of 400 ft then a descent of 1200 ft to a road and then a few miles into Habron Gap at 24.4 miles. I became shocked on the road section of this part. You could see the Massanutten Mountain at Habron Gap in the distance and knew you had to climb it, it's very intimidating. But, the biggest surprise was seeing the runner in front of me spark up a cigarette!! (He eventually dropped at 57 miles because he was having a hard time breathing, but he was the friendliest guy you could ever meet). I ran into Habron Gap with Randy Deitz at 10:09 AM (5hrs 9min race time. I didn't qualify for Boston again!), grabbed some potato chips and started the climb.

Up to Habron Gap climbs 2000 ft in 1.5 miles!! Not too shabby! Again, I screamed up this mountain, feeling good. This climb affords some great views, but you need to be careful as to the left is a great big cliff and the path is extremely rocky. There have been serious injuries here as a result of falling in the past. After the climb, I slowed up a bit on the downhill, John passed me at some point here and entered the Camp Roosevelt Aid station 4 minutes ahead of me. Camp Roosevelt is at 33.3 miles, This would be the last time I saw John until the finish Line. I ate 1 1/2 Turkey sandwiches, drank Mt. Dew, had an ice cream sandwich and other assorted odds and ends, then left twenty minutes later. Heading to Gap Creek/Jawbone.

I don't remember this section at all, I think I was too busy digesting. But along the way through all these stations, I was playing cat and mouse with two other first 100-mile attempters. As I felt like superman, I took it upon myself to encourage them along.

Gap Creek offered up some fine Grilled Cheese that I took along with a third water bottle to complete the next 8 mile stretch to the Visitor Center. The third water bottle was the best decision I've ever made. I completed the next section and achieved Visitor Status. If you make it as far as the Visitors Center, and don't finish the entire course, you receive an award. This award is a rock from the trail and your name goes on the list of Visitors to the MMT. This list is updated and posted on the Internet and the only way to get off it is to complete the entire course during another running of the MMT. I heard it referred to as "The Embassing-Ass List" by a runner who got his name off the list this year.

I grabbed food, a handheld flashlight and headed up to Bird Knob a 1000-ft climb that scrambles over boulder fields. The summit at Bird Knob is the highest elevation on the course at 2800 ft. but we've already ascended cumulatively over 9500 ft by this pt. I hooked up with Bob Lisey from Ohio at this point. I spent the next 11 hours with this man, truly a privilege in my opinion. We ran into the aid station at Rte. 211 and grabbed some chicken noodle soup. Here things get interesting.

I grabbed my headlamp... I clicked it on... NOTHING HAPPENED!! I know I put brand new batteries in it just before placing it this drop bag, but I didn't test it. So it's dark, and I'm trying to figure out which way the batteries are going in... I SAT DOWN... Finally I get it working...I TRY TO STAND UP...now I know why they say, "Beware the Chair." Anyhow, I get to my feet and it takes a good half-hour just to loosen up again which was too bad because this was a fairly smooth section of trail that could be traversed quickly on fresh legs. Oh well, I listened to the whippoorwills and moved on back to Gap Creek.

At Gap Creek, more mistakes were made. Here was the knit Superman hat that was definitely not appropriate because it wasn't that cold, but I had to show it off. I had a fresh pair of socks and a pair of shoes on size bigger than my starting pair, but I didn't change into them even though I had wet feet and "Hot Spots" developing. EGO sucks.

A quick hop over to Moreland Gap and then upward and onward over the famed Short Mountain. Now, throughout the day people were talking about the "hills" that they had to climb. I've climbed hills, what we were climbing here were MOUNTAINS people. This is not just ultra lingo, these are REAL MOUNTAINS, and their ain't nothing SHORT about any of them. There were three of us trying to negotiate this in the dark. I was finding that I could not walk down hills without pain. One member of our trio couldn't find the trail after taking two steps, any time he lead. All in all it took 4 hours 11 minutes to complete this section. The most demoralizing point came when Hans-Deiter Weishaar came flying by, singing with his German accent, "I love Short Mountain, I think I'll come back next year just for Short Mountain," He gave each of us a friendly pat on the back, but none of his energy rubbed off. (Maybe he's Superman?)

Into Edinburg Gap at 75 miles at 5:25 AM I have 11 1/2 Hours to complete 25 miles. 2.4 miles per hour! It's a cake walk right? I said goodbye to my new friend Bob at this point as he resurrected with the rising of the sun. But now I could see the rocks I was stepping on and it hurt before I even put my foot down on them. I traveled fairly well over the crest of the next climb. At around three miles in I stopped to dump a stone out of my shoe on my left foot, but nothing came out of the shoe. I just had a really painful blister on the bottom of my big toe. When I put my shoe back on, I must have laced it too tight and very rapidly my left shin hurt so bad that I could not take a full step forward on it. It took me five hours to complete this section before I called it quits. 83.2 miles in 28 Hours 53 minutes.

This was the most humbling experience in my life, Aid station volunteers were walking up the trail urging on the runners, I didn't want them to see my tears. When I finally made it to the aid station I could barely spit out the words, "I'm Dropping" I watched two other runners come in and drop, and I watched 4 others come in and continue. Suzi Cope got up from her chair, looked me in the eye and said, "Come on, don't you want to play anymore?" I said, "I would love too, and I would if I could" and wished her well. I had been introduced to Suzi Friday night where she told me that I would never forget my first 100-mile experience, and that she would not forget this race as it would be her last 100-mile race. Going out on top!! There goes one special lady.

I caught a ride back to the start/finish where I showered, set up a chair and forced myself to watch people walk, run, and crawl over that darned finish line. I cried and then became inspired as I watched new friends and old cross that line. I reached some realizations during those moments:

  1. I'm not SUPERMAN, I'm just me... a very small piece of this plan called the world and I need to know where I fit
  2. I can finish this race, but not without some help and a lot of humility

One more thing, the people at this event and events like it are outstanding. The Volunteers go out of their way to make things right. The Course Marker, Scott Mills and his gang are incredible-Scott ran over 75 miles this weekend just ensuring that runners could follow the route. Ed Demony the Race Director and his countless hours of organization and delegation. Anstr Davidson the web master, Bill Van Antwerp tracking the runners... the list goes on. But, what struck me most was this. Those people that ran this race came from all walks of life, Male, Female, Black, White, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Taoist, Bhuddist, Jewish, Gay, Straight, Colonels, Doctors, Business Owners, Security Guards, Students, etc. etc. etc. But the 100.9 miles of the MMT course doesn't care about any of this, the course and the distance were the great equalizers, we are all the same when we're running it, simple human beings, trying to accomplish a simple task regardless of it's enormity. I looked into the eyes of the finishers, and I want what they have.

Congratulations to all who started this run and experienced it's grandeur. Congratulations to all who finished this run and have given me the courage, hope and fortitude to continue on and attempt the next ultra.

Clark Kent... er I mean...
Dan Lopata
Another proud member of the "Embarassing-Ass List"

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