Remembering How To View the Glass

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
May 8-9, 2004

by John Prohira

John Prohira at Shawl Gap aid stationMy mother's mother seemed to have an endless stock of stories, verse and expressions that she'd use when offering guidance to her grandchildren. I gave her my attention because she was my grandmother but also because the supply of hard candy she kept in her apron pocket was as never ending as her anecdotes were. I forget exactly what I was complaining about the day she gave me a lemon drop and told me that I could view my situation like a glass of water; one half full or half empty. Memories of that day with Grandma surfaced again and again over the weekend of May 8-9. Without admitting to doubts I began the Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run. I was convinced that the glass containing my preparation, fitness and health I brought to the race was near empty. I had forgotten that not only could a glass be filled to varying degrees but also that that container could be refilled, emptied and filled again. I needed to remember lessons learned while ultrarunning and that faith and a sense of humor can be as valuable as proper training.

The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club's (VHTRC) Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run (MMT100) is my favorite ultra of the year. Anticipating this race helps me maintain my sanity during western New York's endless winter. I run the Hinte-Anderson Trail 50K in March as a prelude to another VHTRC event; the Bull Run Run 50 Miler. April's Bull Run helps prepare me for what begins and ends three weeks after that - "the toughest 100 miler East of the Rockies." There is much to appreciate about the MMT100. I fell in love with the views of the Shenandoah Valley as seen from atop the mountain the very first year I joined the Massanutten "rock hoppers." There is a primitive, rugged and very real beauty in mile after mile of rock trail cut through the forest leading up, down and along the mountain ridge. I've had some of the best hallucinations of my life during the early morning hours on Short Mountain. More than anything it is the people who are associated with the event that bring me back year after year. Everyone there be they runner, support crew, volunteer or club members involved in the race's direction understands up close the effort the other is making. Those marking the course for the runners do so and then remove said markers before the weekend is over leaving no trace in the forest; I understand how imposing an undertaking that must be. It is challenging manning an aid station for hours on end, attending to tired and dirty runners. It cannot be easy to crew for loved ones as they move on from aid station to aid station. I find the bond of mutual respect intoxicating and reason enough to take part and to be one of them.

Going into the Hinte-Anderson race I was at the top of my ultrarunning game, albeit a relative assessment, I was never stronger or more confident. I was running well and running long, logging over 80 miles per week. When I assessed the glass that contained my training it was full, no doubt about it. In the blink of an eye I was reminded that the trail is a place where humility can be forced upon me. As quickly as a child tips their cup of juice over, emptying the contents on the kitchen floor my physical reserves and abilities were spilled onto a muddy Maryland trail. I severely injured my left piriformis and hamstring muscles during the 50K. This was a not so subtle reminder of how dynamic life and fortune can be.

Rest and rehab were in order and I traveled west to lick my wounds. Spiritually recharged after visiting my best friend in California I participated in the prelude to MMT along Bull Run. The result was slow and uncomfortable. . . . . but. Yes, "but". I tell my children that "no" is a complete sentence. Over the next 20 days "but" became another. I wanted to join those lining up at the ranch on the second Saturday in May but I was injured. I did not want to miss this year's MMT but. But. But. But. The injury would not allow me to train so I instead put myself in the hands of a chiropractor and a deep-tissue massage therapist. I also analyzed crude statistics using data gathered from my previous MMT100 efforts. I do not know how many of you have ever had deep massages but this was my first experience with them. I visited a guy renowned in the Rochester area as one who will find the source of an injury, work trigger points, release muscles in spasm but cause great pain and discomfort while doing so. I could not believe that I was paying someone money to hurt me as much as he was hurting me. His fingers felt like lead pipes being dug into my hamstrings. Tears were brought to my eyes as he drove his elbow deep into my gluteus maximus. All the while he's telling bad jokes and doing Peter Lorre imitations. I was writhing in pain and this guy seemed to be enjoying himself. I was honestly afraid to turn around and see just how much fun he was having. But . . . it worked! All the ancillary pain associated with the injury left the day after the first massage. I applied ice. I stretched and rested. Joining my friend Sven on Friday for the drive to Virginia I felt better than I had in six weeks.

I'd completed Massanutten four times before, always with Bull Run as a tune up. On average it took me 3.1 times as long to run MMT's 100+ miles than Bull Run's 50. Calculating a projected MMT finish based on this year's BRR performance both reassured and frightened me. The data indicated success but . . . . . .35 hours and 52 minutes? That is a very long time to be on those rocks.

A thunderstorm lit up the sky on Friday evening and brought cooling relief and reasonable temperatures to race's start on Saturday. It was a perfect day to climb up and down a mountain. The race begins at the Skyline Ranch Resort outside of Front Royal, Va. and ends there 101.8 miles later. I and 135 other runners were being offered that distance along with 19000 foot of climb and up to 36 hours in which to do it. I was where I wanted to be. I'd spend the next day and a half trying to put a metric on my effort and ability and remembering that the sublime often fringes on the asinine. I wasn't trained but I remembered what it felt like when I was. When fatigue and frustration attempted to discourage me I remembered that weariness and aggravation accompanied me even during the years I was better prepared. I knew the course and how to run it. I understood that I would be uncomfortable at times. But I also remembered that I would experience enough positive moments to counter balance the negatives. Once the race began any hesitation and fear of re injury that slowed my progress was offset by an eagerness and sincere gratitude for being where I was. My west coast friend had pinned the word faith that was fashioned into a heart on the inside the pocket on my water belt. I'd look at it often during this rock fest. I understood that it would have to be the combination of intangible assets that got me to the finish line rather than physical strength. An interesting experiment was in progress.

The first dawn of the race came while climbing up and onto the Buzzard Rock Trail with the south fork of the Shenandoah River on our left or east of us. Views of the river, first the south fork and later the north would be offered throughout the day and night. The company was superb, the electric blue skies buoyed my spirits and the gentle breezes soothed my brow. Cheerful crowds greeted us at aid stations and I took fruit and cola while my bottles were being refilled with Gatorade and Ensure, in separate bottles not mixed together. I enjoy being under the forest canopy on single-track. That is my idea of what real trail running is. I like the sounds my feet make on the trail. Some of the Massanuten climbs offered the opportunity to scoot around rock outcrops and oddly angled trees growing along the ridge edge, all muscle groups would be used during this run. That first morning and again later in the run while under the trees I heard what sounded like raindrops hitting the ground from overhead. At times it sounded as if it were pouring rain. That could not have been the case for the skies were without a cloud. Odd. I asked about those sounds at the next aid station and was told what I was hearing was Brood X preparing to mate. Brood X is of a variety of cicadas that emerge from underground every 17 years. They do this as wingless nymphs that then crawl up into surrounding trees and break out of their hard shells. The cicada's wings quickly dry and their bodies harden as they prepare to eat and mate. What I heard falling in the forest like so many drops of rain were the hard shells the nymphs had lived in for so long. I can testify that there are indeed a lot of cicadas waiting to boogie on Massanutten Mountain.

Like the body of the cicada, the one I ended my journey with was not the one I began with. It never is. The distance and the effort required to span that distance does stuff to me. On balance it is good stuff. A physical toll is taken of course. Feet hurt, the result of sand and dirt creeping into my shoes then being pounded onto skin with every foot strike. I grew tired and I stunk! The simple promise of cool water splashed upon my dirty face at stations became a craving. I begin to torture trail companions with bad jokes. The way I view the world around me changes as a function of distance. Remembering Grandma's lesson about the glass being half empty or half full I could remain positive or piss and moan about the heat, the rocks and the climbs. The more tired and physically stressed out I became the more the little things began to affect me. I could build an endless list of what bugged me but that would be of little help getting me to the finish line. On the other hand I could notice, savor and remember that which gave me a positive mental and emotional boost. These I would put into the unfilled glass. As strength waned and dribbled from that container I refilled it with the energy I seemed to absorb by witnessing example after example of the better side of human nature. I cannot begin to measure how much of a lift I got watching VHTRC member Michele Harmon mend and tape the feet of very dirty runners at Gap Creek. These looked to be some very funky feet she was fixing. The attention she was giving others was a reflection of how much she and everyone else there wanted us to succeed. I came into every aid station to find Linda Sprouse waiting for her husband Tom. Tom, a strong and very capable runner, one of two MMT ten-time finishers was struggling. Linda always accompanies her hubby and crews for him during his ultra endeavors. We chatted while I refilled bottles and ate. Her comment about Tom made me chuckle. She said that unless he trained more next year she would not join him if he returned here. Spoken like one who truly understands. Most wives would complain that their man was spending too much time training. Lovely Linda did not want her man to stop doing this thing we do on the mountain. What she wanted was that he be better prepared so as not to suffer inordinately.

I moved from aid station to aid station always finding reason to continue. Over the rocks, up and down, all day and night and next day there was spiritual fuel there for the taking. While on the climb to Bird Knob via the highest point on the course my buddy Sven joined me. I have been attempting to describe the rock we traverse on this course to him and have never adequately done so. It pleased me to be able to show him in person. I had never been atop Bird Knob that late in the day before and was happy to leave as dusk fell. My headlamp was turned on during the descent. On the way down from Bird Knob I met the first of two companions who would run through the night with me, a soft spoken and quiet fellow named Bill from St. Louis who was a MMT veteran. We bid Sven goodnight as he returned to his car at the Visitor's center and we headed north on foot. Whippoorwills serenaded us and by simply placing one foot in front of the other we ran into and embraced the night.

Returning to the Gap Creek station we found it now illuminated with lights resembling Christmas decoration hanging from trees. There Bob Phillips another VHTRC member decided he'd keep us company over Short Mountain. This was Bob's MMT debut and it was a pleasure sharing a piece of the mountain with him. My date with Short Mountain began at 1:17 AM. 32 minutes after that Sean Andrish would win the race, crossing the finish line while I had 30 miles left to run. Amazing. When I come to races like this I watch the leaders before and after the event. In many ways they are my heroes, more so for the manner in which they conduct themselves when not running than for their superior physical ability. I never see them displaying bravado. I believe that they understand that we all run the same course and suffer; they just get that suffering over quicker.

There have been many descriptions of this course and its rocky reputation is well deserved. Only two words are required frame the most difficult piece of this 100-mile run - Short Mountain. There are twelve significant climbs during this race. Some involve 500-foot elevation changes. Other climbs are bigger. Some are steeper than others. All are on trail that is littered with rock. There are sections of the trail where dirt disappears and the runner scurries over the stone face of the mountain. Soon after those ascents the runner descends. Short Mountain is different in that once on top most runners stay there for hours. On Short Mountain it is five miles of rock, big ones and small ones, short one and tall ones. This fun is offered 68 miles into the run. It's a test of spirit. The moon rose in waning orange glory while we scampered over boulders, some the size of pickup trucks. The gentle glow of the big moon set the proper mood for running Short Mountain, which was not to fight the rock but instead go with them, over them and to just move forward while remaining vertical. The real world can be viewed while on up there and always reminds me that I am where I am by choice. I see the lights of the homes in the valley below and know that safety and comfort could be mine for the asking. I kept in mind that I was here because it was a challenge. It was a simple thing I was doing on Short Mountain but not an easy one. If it were easy what would be the point? I felt that all would be well so long as I did nothing stupid. Immediately after that revelation I was shown the importance of paying attention. While babbling on about something inane to my captive audience I tripped and came close to falling down the side of Short Mountain. That would not have been a good thing. Instead of stumbling and tumbling off the ledge I came down hard on my behind like a child would when first learning to walk. Boom - safe and sound on my bottom. I could hear my Higher Power chuckling while suggesting that I watch the trail.

Coming off of Short Mountain Brenda Davidson's famous potato soup awaited us at Edinburg Gap. Brenda, the kinder, gentler and prettier Davidson was joined by other helpful aid personnel while her husband Anstr in Anstr-like fashion got us what we needed and told us to leave. This combination of tasty reprieve and good-natured harassment was what this tired runner needed. I was lapped by the sun while climbing out of that aid station on the way to Woodstock Tower where hang-gliders jump into the wind and ride the thermals like big birds. Here is where Bob pointed out a rock at least 12 inches long, 4 across and at least that deep appearing to hover a foot off the ground. Evidently this rock had been wedged in between two saplings that carried it off the ground and into the air as they grew. It was now appeared to be permanent part of the tree. It is details like this seen along the way that stick in my memory making the experience bigger.

Last year I came into Woodstock before dawn but on this Sunday the morning was in full bloom. The next trail, the one into Powell's Fort is the gentlest on the course, without climb and for the most part downhill. This is not necessarily a good thing when feet are distressed but I allowed gravity to do its thing with me. I looked forward to seeing James Moore's big smile at that aid station. Not only was I fed and watered there but also I was given a short-sleeved shirt by Mr. Moore. Sometimes it is the simple things that matter most and I moved out into the last twelve miles of the Massanutten Mountain course decked out in a clean shirt and with a cap full of ice on my head and feeling better than I had all night.

Last year I had finished my race at 11:26 on Sunday morning. This year I left Powell's Fort just before 11AM, 30 hours and 90 miles after beginning what seemed a lifetime ago. This distortion of time and space is another reason I am so enamored with 100-mile runs. Once I begin the race it is as if I step off the face of the earth into an alternate existence. I remove myself from the real world and come to believe that what I am doing is very important. I believe and revel in the things the aid station personnel tell me. That I look strong and capable. Here in the 100-mile world the discomfort in the feet and legs is proof that I am doing what I set out to do - endure. The trail ultramarathon is an active reprieve from life, a dynamic vacation.

At 2:03PM I visited the last aid station. I sat down and drank the coldest and best tasting chocolate milk in the world. I knew what awaited me, what stood in between the finish line and where I sat. Postponing it would not really help. I moved out of Elizabeth's Furnace past the remnants of the stone structure bearing that name. I knew that in a couple of hours I would have my reward, the simple recompense of sitting down and sharing the communal endorphin glow with my friends. I sucked on a hard candy and thought again about that old woman who used to harangue me whenever she thought I needed it and smiled. Maybe she wasn't as crazy an old coot as I had thought. I made good progress on the last climb but was reduced to a hobble on the steep downside. My body refused doing what my head was suggesting it do. I was way past demanding my tired bones do anything, now I was finding that the gentle persuasion of mind over matter that had gotten me this far was beginning to fail. The entire lower half of my body cringed with every step down the rocky path back towards the Ranch Resort. Six runners passed on by and there was not a thing I could do about it other than wish them well. I think seeing them pass by was good for me. More humility offered up. About two miles before the finish I saw my buddy Sven walking towards me. Over the next 45 minutes he would distract me from my discomfort by sharing his exploits of the weekend with me. He told me of his bike ride into West Virginia and of witnessing the leaders finish. We talked about all manner of stuff, all taboo subjects for anyone other than friends - women, religion and politics.

Then there is was! The finish line found 35 hours and 35 minutes after the race's start. Sven moved off the trail allowing me my moment of glory running across the last field alone. I took a deep breath and ran as best I could towards those waiting for me. It was sweet. It always is. Along the trail lessons are presented. Learning from them is up to me. I like to do the experiment and see what happens. During endurance events like this I am certain that I am alive and know that life is very big. After a day and night on the trail that is obvious, I see it and feel that it all around me.

Many thanks to all involved in staging and supporting this event. Stan Duobinis directed a class act. The MMT race director's baton was passed from Ed Demoney to Stan in transparent fashion, which is an excellent indicator of success.

Many times during the night I promised myself that I would never again come to a race as unprepared as I had this year. Then I realized that the last seven years of ultrarunning had permanently equipped me with much of what is needed to get from start to finish. In many ways I was prepared. I am grateful that I understood that. I am thankful for being able to see that the glass was half full. Had it been half empty this year's Massanutten Mountain 100 Miler would have ended differently for me.

Happy Trails,

John Prohira

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms, their energy. Your cares and tensions will drop away like the leaves of autumn."
- John Muir

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