Redemption Found In The Massanutten Mountains
Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
May 8-9, 2004
by Robert W. Youngren
"I'm just not enjoying myself... I think I want to quit..." I was 0-3 at the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 (MMT100) (actually 101.8 miles) located in the rock strewn mess known as the Massanutten Mountains near Front Royal, Virginia. On a scale of 1 to 10 in difficulty, the MMT100 is an 8.5, trailing only the nearly impossible Barkley 100 mile and more sane Hardrock 100; about on par with the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah. In fact the MMT100 was designed to create a 100 mile run in the East as difficult (or more some would argue) as the notorious Wasatch Front. I think they succeeded. After all, I'd run over 176 miles in these Massanutten mountains without a finish! This was my fourth time coming into the Camp Roosevelt aid station (about 34 miles) in the past 5 years and once again I was considering ending my run.
Over trained and burned out I toed the line for my first attempt to finish the MMT100. On the hottest MMT100 ever I struggled and dragged my tired legs through to Camp Roosevelt aid station, 34 miles in about 7 hours, and called it day. Less than an hour after I bailed, a huge hail storm hit that cooled the entire course and its participants.
Different year different strategy. This year my wife Kathy and I decided to run together hoping our camaraderie would get us through whatever challenges MMT100 could throw at us. Unfortunately the monkey wrench that derailed the Youngren train this year had nothing to do with the MMT100. Kathy's Mom and sister-in-law were to crew us this year. At the first crew access opportunity at around 8 miles only our sister-in-law was there and she told us that Kathy's Mom was very sick and was unconscious back at the cabin we rented at the start at Skyline Ranch. We told our sister-in-law to forget about us and to get back to the cabin and check on her! So over the next several hours Kathy and I fretted over what was wrong with her mother and what we should do! Finally, we decided that when we saw our sister-in-law again that it would be best if we dropped out. We expected that we would see our sister-in-law again fairly soon, but after many hours and several crew access points and not seeing her, we became quit concerned. Finally after thirteen and a half hours and 58 miles later our sister-in-law finally returned and so ended my 2nd attempt at MMT100. Turns out our ditsy sister-in-law had gotten lost trying to find us (ended up on an entirely different mountain range to the east, i.e. the Shenandoahs, but that is another story) So to complete the story I must explain that it turns out it was a good thing we dropped out when we did because Kathy's mother was indeed very sick. We didn't know about it at the time but she had come down with a rare flesh eating disease, some strange staph infection that was eating away one of her legs!! After some rest back at the cabin we left the next morning back to Washington D.C. and to a hospital (sorry I don't remember where). Lucky for her, the country's leading specialist in this area was a resident at the hospital and he immediately recognized what the infection was and began a very aggressive treatment. She ended up having to stay up in D.C. for a couple months to fully recover but she is alive and well and back to her usual energetic self! I really think if things had been different Kathy and I would have finished. The weather was great and we were feeling pretty good; of course we still had a long way to go so you never know??
After a 1 year hiatus (to run the Western States 100 Mile), I returned to the MMT100 a very determined man. I was going to finish at all costs, I didn't care what my time was; I would walk in just under the cut off if I had to! Well the MMT100 had other plans for me. Rain lashed the course all day long. Despite the cool temperatures it was just miserable OUT THERE. I came to MMT100 not in great physical shape but my mind was strong and so I plodded on through the mud and blinding rain. Unfortunately I made a rookie mistake. In runs of this length I have always worn a pair of compression or spandex shorts underneath my regular running shorts to help prevent chaffing between my legs which is quite common. Between the compression shorts and Body Glide (an anti-chaffing lubricant) I've not had trouble with chaffing. To my amazement I not only didn't wear my compression shorts (didn't even pack them) but I also didn't apply any Body Glide so after fifty odd miles of running in the rain I came down with the most severe chaffing I've ever had. I'll spare the details but suffice it to say my progress was severely slowed. It became so painful to even walk at a miserably slow pace that it would soon become clear that it would be impossible to even just "walk it in under the cutoff." In fact, the last 8.2 mile section took me over seven hours to complete! Yes, 7 hours! (look it up!). Shockwaves of pain radiated up and down my legs with each six inch step. I would take about 20 steps and have to take a break, 20 more steps and another break. After several sets of this I had to sit down and rest. Like an oxygen deprived Everest climber I struggled ever forward as they would struggle ever upward. Except I wouldn't be reaching my "summit", instead after 28 hours I finally pulled into the aid station at 84 miles only a half an hour under the cutoff. I didn't need to see a graphic plot of my pace to realize that I wasn't going to make the next aid station under the cutoff so I called it quits right then and there. My mind was still strong but my body was beaten. I physically could not go any further. I had broken out in a cold sweat, my body was in shock from the pain…
May 8th, 2004
This year can be summed up in one word. REDEMPTION. I was back and I wasn't going to be beaten this time. Leading up to MMT100 I knew I was in shape after logging more miles in a month than I had in over 2 years. I had done plenty of back to back long runs and lots of running on pavement. I found that as rocky as MMT100 is the best way to prepare for the pounding my legs were going to take would be to do most of my mileage on the roads. The technical trail running would take care of itself but my legs needed to be ready for the brutality that is the definition of the MMT100. I also had the benefit of now having knowledge of the entire MMT100 course. Between my 176 plus mile of past MMT100 failures and some training runs and other races in the Massanutten Mountains I had now covered just about every foot of the MMT100 course. My body was prepared but how would my mind deal with the remembrance of 3 past failures and the agony of last year...?
"Just tell me Rob, are you going to quit or not!" Kathy was very upset with me and I don't blame her. We invested a large chunk of time and energy to travel 11 hours up here just to quit at 34 miles. On the longest section of the day (over 9 miles without aid, a long climb and nasty terrain) I began to overheat and the dry heaving began. The MMT100 course design is very simple, the first half is run basically south bound on the East Massanutten range to its end and the second half is run generally due north on the parallel West Massanutten range. So it was no wonder with views of the West range (which I desired to be heading north on) that as long as I was heading South, I wasn't heading North and so I was not really getting any closer to the finish; only further and further away with every step. So by the time I got to Camp Roosevelt my mind had almost completely betrayed me. But I made up my mind rather quickly after Kathy gave me the ultimatum: if you quit now we are never coming back.
I decided that the weather was overall not too hot and my body felt actually pretty good and I'd never have another chance to finish this thing. So I refueled and headed back OUT THERE. Once I had my mind in the game my pace began to improve. I sped up dramatically and after awhile caught up with Greg Gearhart a Mississippi native who I knew through the muddy ultra runs held in his state. Turns out we would run together from about half way through to the finish. We discovered we both were alumni of the Virginia Military Institute and so we had much to talk about in order to pass the time. As late morning turned to afternoon and afternoon to evening, the sun began to ease its heat hammering abuse. At dusk Greg and I headed up onto the infamous Short Mountain which is basically an 8 mile long boulder field that must be traversed, by most, at night! Shortly into this section, over 30 miles away from the finish, we caught up with my friend Dennis Herr who had been waiting for us to catch him for several miles. Turns out Dennis had the same record at MMT100 as I and because of that Dennis jumped on board our night train and the "Three Amigos" was born. We would all stick together over the next 11 hours to the finish. We experienced my highs like seeing a weasel and whooper-will that swooped over our heads repeatedly and landed at my feet, and also many lows like struggling to stay awake over that dreaded 2a.m. till dawn time frame when your body should be in its most deep sleep and stumbling half asleep over many carelessly strewn rocks. Somehow dawn finally greeted us less than ten miles from the finish. With the sun rising so did our spirits and so our pace began to improve. Being forced to walk for 9 hours straight because the trail is so littered with boulders and rocks is no fun; it stiffens your running legs and you forget what it was like to be able to run. We breezed through the remaining miles and only in the last mile did the nasty trail disappear leaving a nice paved road and grassy field to cover to the finish. As we crossed the line I had tears in my eyes, Greg had a grin a mile wide and Dennis couldn't believe he had finally made it! We gave what spectators were there a little show as we reenacted the Three Amigos solute after we crossed the finish line together.
Sometimes accomplishing our goals don't always come easy. Sometimes it just takes a lot of patience and a bit of luck. I learned that unless the body and mind are in synch one will not be successful. What experience gives us are opportunities to try to synch up the two. When they are in tune there is no limit to what we can accomplish. Now if only I can figure out how to crack that Barkley Fun Run nut; I'm 0-4 there! I'll work on that...I'll keep you all posted.
For more information about the Barkley Marathons go to http://mattmahoney.net/barkley/index.html
MMT 2004 Report | MMT Home Page
Greg Gearhart, Rob Youngren, and Dennis Herr finish the MMT