Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
May 8-9, 2004
by Aaron Schwartzbard
Date: Fri, 7 May 2004
> I hope that you have an awesome race :-) And I'll
> see you around 9am tomorrow morning!
Yeah, I hope I have an awesome race too. Unfortunately,
based on the way I feel today (a 3.5 mile jog was a
struggle, and I can feel my ankle a little), it'll take
some sort of christmas miracle. I know that I have a habit
of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but this
might be a tough one. Who knows... A little rain today
and tomorrow might make everything, well, right as rain.
Or, it might be a very long hundred miles. I'd suggest
coming prepared for all contingencies.
I'll see you tomorrow.
I've had good races. I've had bad races. I've been able to perform well
when by all standard reasoning, I should never have started, and I've been
able to get through some very low spots to reach a finish line. But at the
Massanutten Mountain Trail (MMT) 100 Mile Trail Run last weekend, I did
something for only the second time in my race history. More to the point,
I didn't do something: I didn't finish.
The first time I DNFd was at a marathon. I had not been racing for very
long, and that race was going to be my second marathon. Signing up for the
race was a last minute decision, so I didn't have a deep emotional
investment in the race. A few days before the marathon, I developed some
IT band troubles. Perhaps I shouldn't have started the race at all, but I
was only able to run 13 miles before I could run no more. In a way it was
a good experience. I learned something important: not finishing sucks.
Even if it's a race that doesn't mean a whole lot, even if it's due to
factors beyond your control, when you DNF, you feel like you've failed
where many other were able to succeed.
Throughout my racing career, I've carried that experience with me. There
have been times when I've considered dropping from a race. But the first
thought that comes to my mind is the memory of me standing at the finish
line of that marathon, watching other athletes get their medals while all
I had to show for my effort was a sore knee and some sweaty clothes. That
experience always reminded me that no matter how bad I felt, as long as I
finished what I started, I'd be satisfied.
Before driving down to Front Royal for MMT this weekend, I had some
concerns. Since January, I've had some tendinitis in my left foot. By the
beginning of April, it was getting bad enough that it was interfering with
training. After discussing it with my doctor, I decided that I'd ride it
out through some races in the middle of April, then take the period
between those races and MMT to try to heal my foot. I was somewhat
concerned about the April races, but my tendinitis didn't bother me
significantly. Then I spent three weeks wearing a large, plastic boot to
immobilize my ankle. I swam some and aquajogged a bit, but it definitely
forced the taper.
My second concern was allergies. I had never had allergies before, so on
the Wednesday before the race, when I was dealing with the pressure in my
head and the fluid coming out of my nose, I thought I had an ear
infection. I saw a doctor on Thursday, and learned that it was allergies.
The day before the race, I went on a three mile run. It felt long and
difficult and by the end, I could feel the tendinitis in my ankle. I knew
that it was not out of the question that I would be feeling better the
next morning, but I was still concerned.
When I reached race headquarters --- Skyline Ranch Resort in Front Royal
--- I was feeling a bit better. A weather front moved through on Friday
night, a couple hours of rain and wind. By the time I got to bed, I could
still feel my tendinitis, but my head was much less congested.
At 5:00am on Saturday, the race began. Three miles of road allowed the
field to spread out before the beginning of the single-track. Then a
couple miles of climbing allowed folks to get into a comfortable position.
Thinking about how I'd feel after 80 miles, I was holding back quite a
bit. Heading down hills, I had to be careful about foot placement to avoid
irritating my tendinitis. Heading up hills, I was just doing a relaxed
walk. On the flats... Well, I didn't have to worry about that since there
are no flats.
I passed through the second aid station, eight miles into the race, and
started another road section. The next 16 miles to aid station five (AS5),
Habron Gap, would alternate between rolling gravel roads and single track
trails several times. This is the easiest section of the race. According
to my plan, I'd reach Habron Gap (AS5) sometime around 9:00am. Although
that would be almost a quarter of the way through the race in terms of
distance, those first 24 miles are hardly worth mentioning. You do some
roads and some trails and you get warmed up for the difficulty to come.
Nobody ever won anything for getting to mile 24 first, so I settled in.
Scott Eppleman, then Peter Bakwin went by me. I continued to walk up hills
easily, so Scott and Peter were soon gone. Depending on the terrain, I'd
get within sight of them or I'd drop farther back.
Eventually, I realized that I was slowing down on the down hills. My legs
were starting to feel fatigued. That shouldn't be happening in the first
24 miles of a 100 mile race. At first, I attributed it to the care I was
taking in foot placement. I was just holding myself back, I decided.
Thinking about it a bit more, I decided, no, even if I wanted to go
faster, I couldn't go much faster. While that concerned me a little bit,
it was still early, and it could just be that my legs needed some time to
shake out three weeks of not running and the significant allergies I had
experienced earlier in the week.
On the last section of road before the Habron Gap aid station (AS5), I
was not too far behind Scott and Peter. I arrived at the aid station
before they had left, and Chris, my support crew, was there, waiting for
"Well hello, Aaron! Long time, no see."
"It's been far too long. How are you?"
"I'm fine. And you?"
Chris and I had not seen each other since January, and she wasn't able to
come down for the race until Saturday morning. I had e-mailed her my plan
for the race, and put all of my extra shouldn't-need-it-but-should-have-it
gear in my first drop bag. As I arrived, she handed me a can of Ensure and
a small can of V8. As I drank them, she swapped my water bottles with
fresh ones, and replaced the hammer gel flasks in my pack with full ones.
I hadn't planned on stopping at the next aid station (Camp Roosevelt ---
AS6), but the day was getting warm. I told Chris to have two bottles of
water ready for me at Camp Roosevelt. Everything worked as expected, and
having reached the first milestone of the day, I set out for the next
section of the course.
Out of Habron Gap (AS5), the course goes over the first significant climb
of the day. This was the first place where I was feeling bad. Not, "bad:
this is a long, hard climb." Rather, "bad: I'm feeling a lot worse than I
should be feeling at this point in the race." I struggled up the hill as
it became steeper and steeper. Just when the trail reached a ridge and I
thought the climbing was done, the trail turned to head up to a higher
ridge. I could finally start running again along the higher ridge.
I came to a blow-down that blocked the trail. I looked behind me to make
sure I wasn't missing a turn, then I bushwhacked my way around it. After
the next big blow-down, I became concerned. At Friday's pre-race briefing,
a representative from the forest service said that all the trails on the
course are in good condition, and Scott Mills, who had overseen the
marking of the course in the days before the race never mentioned any big
blow-downs. After bushwhacking around several more blow-downs, and not
seeing any course markings for four or five minutes, I decided to cut my
losses. I must have taken a wrong turn, so I needed to go back to the last
course marking I had seen. After several minutes of making my way back up
the trail, I ran into John Geesler. I asked, "Is this the right way?"
"Yeah, it's gotta be. This is the only way off the mountain."
"Okay, I just hadn't seen any course markings for a while."
"A little nervous after last year?"
Yup, he knew what was going through my mind. This was the second year in
a row that I met Geesler in this race while I was going the wrong way down
a trail and he turned me around. We ran together for a short while before
he pulled ahead. I was coming to the sad realization that this was not
going to be my day. I felt weak. That wasn't necessarily bad; I had many
miles ahead in which I could come around. The tendinitis in my foot was
slowing me down a bit. Again, not necessarily a bad thing; perhaps it
would just force me to run at a more conservative pace and save myself for
the later miles of the race. But my legs were feeling trashed. I've done
enough long events to know that most of the time, when you feel bad, you
just need to wait it out and things will get better. I've also done enough
to know when things are actually going wrong. This was a case of things
actually going wrong.
I don't mean that things were terrible. I mean that I knew that my legs
weren't going to just "come around." My goal had been to finish under 24
hours. Even before I reached Camp Roosevelt (AS6), I knew that this was
not the weekend that was going to happen. The best thing to do would be to
settle in and enjoy the day.It didn't look like we were going to get the
rain that some forecasters has expected. There wasn't a cloud in the sky,
and on the trails, with the shade and breeze, the temperature was very
nice. It was time to switch from race mode to long training run mode. No
pressure. Enjoy the day.
I caught up to John Geesler at about the same time that John Dove caught
both of us. The last few miles before Camp Roosevelt (AS6) consists of
small rollers. Geesler runs at one pace no matter what the terrain is. I
go slow up hills and fast down hills. On this kind of terrain, Geesler
should have been pulling away on the short climbs and I should have been
catching up on the descents. But I was keeping up with him on the up hills
(which meant that he was struggling), and I didn't have it in me to go
down the hills any faster than we were moving (which meant that I was
struggling). So the three of us ran until the trail came out of the woods
a short distance from the aid station.
I found Chris, and while she swapped my empty water bottles for fresh
ones, I grabbed some ginger ale and mountain dew from the aid station. I
told Chris, "I think I'm gonna be moving to Plan B now. This is just going
to be a day to finish."
I left Camp Roosevelt (AS6) on the gradual climb that would take me over
the next mountain to Gap Creek I (AS7). The trail looks like a creek bed,
and with good reason. By this point last year, it had been raining for
several hours, and this trail had literally become a creek. In many
places, the water was mid-shin deep, and there was really no way around
it. This year, the weather was great, the trail was dry, and I had no
I had been looking forward to the race for a long time. The trails in the
Massanuttens are challenging and fun. I had no place else to be, and
plenty of time to cover the course. I took my time, making my way up the
trail and enjoying the day. Eventually, John Dove caught up with me. He
had spent more time in the last aid station. I let him by, and stuck with
him for a while. He said that Geesler was not feeling too good; he had
some stomach trouble. We chatted about the race and the trails. He had
raced here two years ago, and he was doing well until he feet became
trashed, and he had to do "the sad walk" for the last 15 miles (then
pledged never to try this race again). I had been here last year, and I
was doing well until my achilles became trashed, I had to do "the sad
walk" for the last 12 miles.
As we approached the next aid station, I just didn't have it in me to
keep up with him, so he pulled away over the last half mile. Chris was
ready at Gap Creek I (AS7, mile 39) with a can of Ensure and a can of V8.
While I drank, she swapped my bottles and hammer gel flasks. One of the
volunteers commented that Chris was like an Indy pit crew. We had a system
that would get me through the aid stations with minimal time wasted. If I
had still been racing, it would have been much more Indy-pit-crew-esque.
But I was in no particular rush at this point.
I left the aid station just behind John Dove, and hustled up to him at
the beginning of the climb up to Jawbone Gap. He had forgotten this part
of the course, so I described it to him --- a short climb that gets steep
in some places, then a left turn at the top to follow the ridge of Kerns
Mountain. The miles along Kerns Mountain are particularly slow since the
trail constantly weaves back and forth, with very short ups and down, over
rocky terrain with no good footing. After descending off the mountain,
there's an unmanned aid station and a two mile stretch of road before the
Visitors Center (AS8). The course is a large figure-eight, and the climb
at the beginning of this section --- up to Jawbone Gap --- is where the
north and south loops of the course overlap, so we do that climb twice.
"Huh, funny, I don't remember this climb at all. I certainly don't
remember doing it twice," he said.
"You probably tried to forget it."
Like I said, it's not so long, but it does get steep in places. It's
somewhat challenging at mile 39. It's less fun at mile 65. I didn't have
the energy to really move up the hill so fast, but I pushed it a little.
John, being polite (as we were mid-conversation), took it a little easy up
the hill. After we reached the top, I had to take it easy to recover, and
he kept moving. His goal was to finish under 26 hours. I kinda thought
that if he was at that point at that time, he was on pace for something a
bit faster than that. I didn't see him again, but he ended up running
under 24 hours.
Over Kerns Mountain, I did little more than walk the entire way. No
energy, hurting legs and the tendinitis in my foot were all giving me
problems. Still, it was a beautiful day to be on the trails. I started to
see other runners on the trail. I'd just step aside and let them pass.
Near the end, I saw Geesler.
"I'm glad to see you're feeling better. I heard you had some stomach
issues," I said as he went by.
"My stomach was shutting down. I could hardly keep my eyes open on the
trail. I took a little break at the aid station, and ate a bit, and I'm
feeling a little better now. How 'bout you?"
"Ehh, not my day," I told him.
"Maybe take a break and you'll come around."
I sort of knew that with the soreness I was already feeling in my legs,
it wasn't likely that I'd come around, but it sounded like a good idea to
take a break. At the next aid station, just take my merry old time. After
all, I was just out for a long training run.
The combination of the difficult trail along Kerns Mountain, the stretch
of road that follows it and having all that come at just the point in the
day when you're starting to feel the miles can really bring you down. Last
year, I got to the Visitors Center (AS8, mile 48) feeling the blahs, but
realizing that it was just a passing thing. This year, I was much more
prepared for this bit of road that offers no distraction from the fact
that you're Not There Yet.
The first person I saw as I came into the aid station was David Horton.
"AARON," he said, "I EXPECTED TO SEE YOU HERE A WHILE AGO!"
"Ehh, not my day."
I ambled over to Chris, who said, "Looky who's here!"
Gary, the president of the company where I work, had come down to the
race with his young son, Adam, to cheer and see what this 100 miler is all
about. He had recruited Michelle, another coworker, to help make a poster
on the company's big poster printer. Next to "RUN AARON RUN" was a picture
of me running. Well, that's not entirely true. It was a large picture of
my head making an angry face on a much smaller body (that is clearly not
mine) of someone running. So this was a perfect time for me to take a few
extra minutes to chill out and chat with folks. But Chris, being the good
support crew she is, eventually started to push me back on the trail.
Everyone else who is familiar with my normal habit of speeding through the
aid stations was starting to join in, so I figured that it was time to
start the next section. I explained to Gary that if I didn't leave
immediately, I'd be mercilessly flogged. He wished me luck, noting that,
"chances are probably well less than 30% that you'll be eaten by a bear!"
The next section starts down the gentle Wildflower trail for a couple
hundred meters before a right turn that starts an abrupt climb up to Birds
Knob. There are other climbs on this course that are long and climbs that
are steep and climbs that are technical. There are even climbs that are
any combination of two of those. The climb up to Birds Knob is the only
climb that is all three. I've done the climb on training runs that I've
started from the Visitors Center (AS8). Even with fresh legs, this climb
has made me wish that I had never been born. After 48 miles... Well... It
still makes me wish I had never been born, and I'm moving slower.
Geesler had also spent a few minutes at the aid station. He was right
behind me on the climb. I was moving slowly. "You wanna go by?" I asked.
So we inched our way to the top. Near the top, I saw something coming at
me. I jumped to the side of the trail, and so did Geesler. Peter Bakwin
was flying down the trail. About 15 feet behind him was Serge Arbona. I
hardly had time to comment to Geesler that it looked like an exciting
race, when we had to jump off the trail again to make way for Sean
Andrish. Moments later, Barry Lewis went by. A couple moments later, Scott
Eppleman passed through. It seemed like the top five guys were within
about four minutes of each other, and they all were running hard.
Geesler and I continued to the top of the climb. We finally reached the
short spur trail at the top that leads a couple meters out of the way to a
stunning view of the valley to the west. I told Geesler, "I'm not doing
all that work without some reward." I took a moment to follow the spur so
that I could enjoy the view. When I returned to the trail, I tried to run
a little, but my legs wouldn't have any of it. So this is how it would be:
even where the trail became fairly runnable, I wouldn't be able to take
advantage of it. A few moments later, Keith Knipling came by. "What's up
with the gimpy walk? How you doing?" he asked.
"Ehh, not my day."
"Yeah, I just don't have anything in me today. But you're doing great!"
After he disappeared down the trail, I realized that I wasn't walking
quite right --- he was right, I was limping a little. I was favoring my
good foot. I tried to break into a jog a few times. I'd make it about 15
feet before I'd have to start walking again. The volunteers at the Birds
Knob aid station (AS9, no crew access) refilled my water bottles as I had
a few sips of soda. I tried to leave the aid station jogging, but I gave
up on that in relatively short order.
I started looking forward to the descend from Birds Knob. It wasn't the
descent so much (no, I was sure that wasn't going to be particularly
comfortable) as the prospect of seeing people. Although the course is a
figure-eight, this section is a small "lollipop" off the south end. We
head up the long climb, then do a small loop, then head back down to
continue along the main figure-eight.
I returned to the climb, which, for me, was now a descent. I exchanged
good words with folks making their way up the climb. As I approached Gary
Knipling coming up the trail, I called out, "Ahh, the estimable Mr.
"Oh, Aaron, hello there!" He stopped to greet me with a handshake.
"How are you?" I asked.
"I'm uhh... So-so. And you?"
"A little worse than that."
"Ehh, not my day."
And with a wave and a farewell, we each continued in our respective
directions. A short while later, I saw a face that I thought I recognized.
"Kathy Roche-Wallace?" I asked, not quite sure.
"Hi... Aaron Schwartzbard... We met last October... You were doing the
triple, I was doing the double..."
"Oh, yes, hi!"
"How are you?" I asked.
"I'm not doing great. How are you?"
"I'm not doing so great either."
We spoke for a few more moments before continuing on. The previous
October, she had finished second overall in the Odyssey Triple Iron
Triathlon. Anyone who saw how strong she was at that event that took
nearly 60 hours to complete could have no doubt that she's an amazing
athlete. On this hill, she seemed to be having about the same sort of day
I was having. While I was sorry to see that things we're going well for
her, it was a good reminder that even the toughest athletes have bad
Shortly after finishing the descent, another person passed me. It was the
first woman, and eventual winner, Annette Bednosky. "Annette!" I said as
she passed, "You're doing AWESOME!"
"Thanks, Aaron. What's going on with you? The foot thing?"
"Ehh, just not my day. But YOU'RE doing AWESOME!"
"Thanks. I have no idea where the next woman is... Could be two minutes,
could be two hours!"
She really was doing great. I didn't have all the number in my head for
the course record, but I knew she couldn't be too far off, and she was
I checked the time. The last time I saw Chris, I was only 15 minutes
behind the slow end of my predicted splits. She might not have realized
that things were going to slow down dramatically. Having walked almost the
entire way since the Visitors Center (AS8), I'd be more like an hour or an
hour and a half late to the next aid station, 211 East (AS10).
Although I wasn't feeling great, I still felt pretty fortunate. The
weather had turned out to be wonderful, the trails were in good condition,
and I had enough time that I could enjoy the day (and night and next day)
on the trails without any pressure other than to move forward at a
conservative pace (not that I had much choice in the matter).
When I arrived at 211 East (AS10), I had traveled 58 miles. Chris was
waiting, but this time, she wasn't so quick to push me out of the aid
station. I thought that the amount of time it took me to cover the last
section made her realize that things were going downhill from here
(figuratively, of course). Later, she would note that the thing that
concerned her most was watching the way I had to side-step up the short
embankment to the aid station. She knew that my foot was giving me
After leaving the aid station, I was ready to do some math. Perhaps this
section of trail somehow inspires equations. Last year, when I reached
this point I was slightly frustrated, but for a different reason. Last
year, I had lost 20 minutes on Birds Knob due to a slight detour. I wanted
to make up that time. It was on this section of trail that I started to
calculate when I would like to reach each of the remaining aid stations. I
had decided that with the distance almost 60% behind me, I could start to
push. This is where I really started to race last year.
This year, however, I was doing a different sort of math. 'A little past
6:00pm, 23 hours left in the race, 40 miles, if I do 30 minute miles,
that's 20 hours, which is 2:00pm tomorrow, but I'm walking a little faster
than 30 minute miles now, so maybe 22 minute miles or 24 minute miles, so
maybe noon tomorrow, if I don't slow down significantly, but I've been
slowing down, so how slow is my saddest sad walk?' There were too many
variables. Maybe if I had paper and a pencil... In any case, I had almost
23 hours in which to cover a little more than 40 miles. Seemed reasonable.
Just keep moving.
The funny thing is that out of all the times I've done the section of the
course between 211 East (AS10) and Gap Creek II (AS11) --- I've done it
many times in training runs --- it has always seemed long. It seems to go
up and down and weave back and forth through the hills. This time, despite
moving slower than I ever have on this section in the past, it seemed to
go by relatively quickly, until I reached the descent. The long, rocky
downhill at the end was challenging. My legs were absolutely rebelling. I
was having a difficult time gently inching my way down. (The last time I
ran down this section of trail, my biggest problem was that I was moving
so fast that my eyes were tearing up in the wind, making it hard to see
It was getting to the point that my legs weren't just hurting; they were
becoming difficult to control. I didn't have the strength or reflexes to
deal with a stumble or poor foot placement. So each step required a bit of
planning. At the bottom of the descent. I came to a gravel road that I'd
have to follow for a mile and a half to the Gap Creek II aid station
In the state of mind I was experiencing, road sections can be deadly.
Trails give you some distraction. Limping down the road (and by this
point, my limp had become a bit more significant), with a long
straightaway ahead, I had nothing to consider other than how much my legs
hurt. I would expect my legs to be tired by this point, and even a little
sore. But not like this. Something was wrong. And I didn't like it. Not
So I kept moving with those sorts of thoughts in my head, interrupted
only by the occasional car passing (such as the pick-up truck that wasn't
associated with the race, but that had a concerned driver --- "Hey...
Uhh... You okay? You need a ride someplace?") or the occasional runner
passing (usually asking, "You alright?" To which I would usually reply,
"Ehh, not my day.").
A funny thing happens in the course of endurance events. As the fatigue
of the miles takes its toll, the athlete becomes less and less able to
present himself to the world as he would like to present himself to the
world. Instead, he is reduced to his most primordial self. Normally, that
sort of thing would come much later in a race for me, but I seem to have
started this race at a deficit. After the mile and a half I spent on that
stretch of road at the end of 65 miles, when I finally reached Gap Creek
II (AS11), I was so happy to have reached the aid station, and so pained
my by current situation, and so exhausted from whatever it was that was
making this Not My Day... Rob Saraniero was the first one to greet me.
"How you doing, Aaron?"
"I... Uhh..." and I tried to go on, but there was nothing there. I could
feel the tears starting to well up. It took everything I had not to start
bawling right there.
"Hey man, what's the matter? What's wrong?"
I tried to say, "Everything," but I think it came out more like,
I put my head down, and just tried to keep walking. A brief glance
around, and I could see a swirl of Chris and Rob and Mel and Michele and
other volunteers who were keeping some distance from what was obviously a
fairly bad scene. I stopped moving so Chris could change my water bottles.
I felt that I needed to get out of there before I broke down, so I started
walking again. Chris stopped me, "Wait! I'm not done!" So I let her
finish, then she handed me a flashlight (the sun was about to set), and I
hightailed it out of there at top speed. Of course, top speed just about
one notch above a hobble. I had to face it, I was officially doing the sad
walk. 'Well, THAT was most undignified,' I thought.
I started the climb up to Jawbone Gap for the second time in the race.
I'd be on the northern loop of the course again soon. I decided that I
needed some milestones to keep me going. How many more climbs? This climb
is one. Then the climb up Short Mountain after Moreland Gap (AS12). And
the climb after Edinburg Gap (AS13). And then between Powells Fort (AS15)
and Elizabeth Furnace (AS16), and finally after Elizabeth Furnace (AS16).
Five more climbs. 'I can do five more climbs.'
A greater concern was whether my sore foot could do five more climbs. I
had to turn it at odd angles to get up the hill. I tried walking sideways
and backwards, but I decided that I'd probably trip. I had to start using
my light somewhere around the top of the climb. After the descent down the
other side of the mountain I was having significant trouble with the
trail. With the darkness of night being added to the mix, I was coming
close to falling on rocks that I could easily pass on a good day.
Everything that had gone wrong was coming together to make the trail
almost impassable for me. My left foot wasn't quite working correctly, my
legs were hurting to much to make any sudden moves and I had so little
energy that the effort required to compensate for my other issues just
wasn't there. At one point, I tried to step up onto a rock. Half way
through the step, I found myself falling backward. If not for a
conveniently placed tree, I would have fallen hard onto some other rocks.
It was around that time that a couple guys passed me and asked how I was
"Not so well."
"Well you must be doing alright if you're here already!"
Now that it was dark, they couldn't see the difficulty I was having. All
they could see was my green light moving forward. But in a way, they were
right. My green light was moving forward, and it was much closer to the
front of the race than the back. I had plenty of time, even at a much
slower pace. However, the section between Gap Creek II (AS11) and Moreland
Gap (AS12) is only about three miles. In that distance, in my precipitous
descent through the day, I had crossed the threshold between "not my day"
and "can't safely go on."
This course is known as being very rocky. That's one of the challenges of
it. But out of the entire course, one section in particular is know for
being especially rocky: Short Mountain. It's an eight mile stretch with a
challenging climb at the beginning, a long, moderate descent at the end,
and nothing but rocks in between. I might risk it on other sections of the
course. But attempting Short Mountain with the way my legs were felt like
too much of a risk.
As I approached the aid station, Chris, walked toward me. "How are you?"
I didn't bother to answer. "What's the cut-off for this aid station?"
"I'm not sure. You want me to find out?"
She found the aid station captain, and returned to me a moment later.
"3:30am." I checked my watch. It was 9:30pm.
"I need to... Uhh... Take some time here."
"You want a seat?"
We both knew what that meant. I don't sit during races. Even when things
are tough, I stay on my feet until the end.
In the past, Chris has declared two rules for this kind of event:
- Never quit at night
- Never quit without being timed out.
I wasn't ready to hand over my number just yet. This aid station would be
open for another six hours. People would come though this spot almost six
hours after I arrived, and they would finish. I should be able to take my
time, to recover here, to start moving again and get to the end. The guys
on the trail were right; if I'm at mile 68 at 9:30pm, I'm doing alright.
And anyway, the whole point of this sort of thing is that you DON'T stop
when it gets tough. It's OKAY! It's SUPPOSED to hurt!
But not like this. I know how it's supposed to hurt, and it's not like
this. In fact, I've been in much worse places --- mentally and emotionally
--- during long races, and I've kept going. This isn't about overcoming
difficulty. This is about recognizing one's own limitations. On this day,
my legs just weren't working. Not only would I be risking significant
damage to a tendon in my foot if I were to keep going, but I'd be putting
myself in the path of some completely new and exciting injury.
I spoke with Kevin Black at the aid station for a short while. He pointed
out that some days, things just weren't meant to be. I watched other
runners and crews come through, and offered encouragement. Chris and I
chatted for a while about nothing in particular. She told me how much she
had been enjoying the day. Last year, she had ridden her mountain bike
from aid station to aid station as my support crew (completing a parallel
100 miles on dirt and gravel roads around the race course). This year, she
drove, and spent more time in the company of other people at the aid
stations. She thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all the great
volunteers and other crews who were out there.
After two hours, it was time to give up the ghost. I knew that many of
the people I had seen pass through the aid station would finish. I knew
that people who would arrive after I had left would be able to finish.
Unfortunately, I also knew that even if I waited until 3:30am, my legs
would not be in any shape to allow me to go on.
I thought about my first DNF, in that marathon. I remembered how much it
stuck with me. I had a much greater emotional investment in this race. I
asked myself one last time, couldn't I just tough it out a little longer
to avoid having the memory of this race as a DNF for years to come? I
could surely at least start moving up the trail. The beginning isn't so
bad. But if I start, I'll keep going. And it's just too much of a risk, no
matter HOW much time I have.
While Chris retrieved her car, I unpinned my race number. I hobbled over
to the man with the clip board, and told him that I was done. Offered him
my race number. "Do you need to take this?"
"I'm not sure." He called over the aid station captain. "Hey, we need to
take the race number?"
The aid station captain came over and looked at the number. "No, you can
keep that." And with a smile that was either sardonic or sympathetic --- I
couldn't decipher it in the light of the aid station tent --- he said,
"It's your souvenir."
After we drove away, I worried that I would look back at this point, and
second guess my decision. Did I stop just because I was tired, and I
happened to have some convenient excuses? In hindsight, I might not trust
my judgment. Fortunately, Chris and I have similar views about these sorts
of events, and whether my judgment after 68 miles was trustworthy or not,
Chris was certainly an objective party, and she's more aware of my
abilities and limitations than anyone else. If I could have gone on, she
never would have let me stop. As it was, she later admitted that before I
even arrived at the aid station, she was pretty sure my day was over. She
wasn't planning on letting me continue without a fight.
We were fortunate enough to get back to the race headquarters (where I
had rented a cabin for the weekend) just after Sean Andrish had left the
last aid station, Elizabeth Furnace (AS16) with a large lead. We stuck
around to see him finish. After running a great race, there were about six
of us waiting at the end of a large field at 1:30am so that we could
congratulate Sean on an amazing accomplishment.
I showered, slept for a few hours, got some breakfast, then returned to
the finish line to watch the rest of the racers finish. I got to cheer in
many of the people I had seen pass through the Moreland Gap aid station
(AS12) the previous night. At 5:00pm on Sunday, the race was over, and all
runners had been accounted for. We had 138 starters and 88 finishers.
After the awards ceremony, I packed up and headed home. While walking
from my car to my front door, a neighbor asked why I was walking oddly.
Fortunately, I had a good excuse that might not have been the whole story,
but it was certainly true.
"I have some tendinitis in my foot."
"Oh man, that must have you really bummed out. So you won't be able to
"Nah, not for a few weeks."
"So what'll you do?"
"I dunno. I guess swim a lot."
"Yeah, pools are gonna open soon!"
After putting a few things away, I was ready to finally get some real
sleep. But before I went to bed, I had one more thing to do. I found my
race number, and my safety pins. I crawled to the side of my bed next to
the wall, and pinned my number to the wall. It's high enough not to get
knocked off my my covers, but low enough that I'll see it. It's the only
thing on the walls in my bedroom. It's not really a souvenir. It's
motivation. For next time.
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