Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
by Jack Andrish
Three miles. Thirty years ago when my wife and I began to run for fun and to gain a level of conditioning that would make our biking and skiing more enjoyable, three miles was plenty. We actually started with a one-mile loop around the neighborhood and stuck with that for a year or two until we actually got the ambition to go further. And we did, three miles; Lander Road to Meadow Hill to Sterncrest to home. Three miles and I thought that would forever be enough. Of course as time went on, three miles became six and eventually 26.2. And then one day Sean introduced us to the joy of trail running and “ultras.” And so 26.2 became 30 and 50 and even 100 miles. One hundred miles. Three miles no longer even registered a blip on our running scale. Practically a non-event!
Jack Andrish at Habron Gap Aid Station. Photo: Desiree Williams
I was exposed to the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 a few years ago as crew for my son Sean and volunteer at the finish line with Bunny. It became obvious that this was a special event; special because of the VHTRC enthusiasm and support and special because of the rugged terrain of Massanutten Mountain. Yes, I learned early on that “Massanutten Rocks.” It snuck into my mind that maybe someday I could be on the other side of the aid station, but with my limited skills, it was only a dream. But then I decided that this year I would try. At age 62, my future opportunities are finite. So I signed up and began preparing in the Metro Parks of Cleveland. Yes, Cleveland does have some hills and excellent single track trails; hundreds of miles actually; but certainly nothing to compare to the rockiness of Massanutten Mountain.
We arrived at Skyline Ranch on Friday in time for the check-in and the pre-race instructions. It was good to be a “runner” this time, but I also felt a bit sheepish and unproven. I don’t really like rocks. I am not good on rocks. I’m marginal at this distance even on much less technical terrain. Why am I even doing this? I’m going to get squashed on a rock or tumble down a ridge. My confidence was pretty thin. And then to add to the equation, we were informed that there had been a fire on the southern part mountain and the course was rerouted. We now got to run Kerns Mountain (Sean had always told me that this was the toughest part of the course for him), twice!
The good news was, however, that I had a great crew! Sue Ellen, Sean, and John Nelson would be at the aid stations along the way and share the pacing when nighttime came. It could be a picnic, if the weather permitted. And the weather did, big time. The conditions were perfect the entire weekend with only a brief shower Sunday afternoon.
But back to the race; 5 AM Saturday and “we’re off.” Three miles of gentle rolling, mostly downhill road got us warmed up. And then we reached the first trailhead going up to Buzzard Rocks. The climb was modest, but once on top of the ridge the rocks were (to me) unbelievable! They were huge and sharp and at times it was impossible to even conceive a trail if not for the runners in front of me. After a few miles of maneuvering through this gnarly precipitous terrain I was reasonably sure my time was limited. How could I ever meet the aid station time cut-off limits? But to my surprise, as the aid stations passed, my time “cushion” was increasing. I actually felt good and moved cautiously through the rocky sections and tried my best to run what I could. As morning turned into afternoon I was whistling along to “Tommy” and “Momma Mia” on my “iPod Shuffle;” and life was good!
By the time I arrived at the Picnic Area aid station I was two hours ahead of the time cut-off. Sean joined me shortly thereafter as I was on my way up Bird Knob and nighttime came as we rounded back toward Route 211 aid station. We had a great time together. How special to run with family in an event like this and to feel in control enough to enjoy the experience. Without a doubt, through mile 65, this was my best ultra ever; certainly my best 100 ever. But as Sean passed me off to John Nelson at the start of Short Mountain, I began to fade.
I love trail running and ultra running. I love the camaraderie of the training runs with friends; I even love the hours of running alone listening to my breathing or the sounds of the forest or even the sounds of the Cleveland Indians losing another game to the dreaded Chicago White Sox! And I love the hundred-mile distance. It stretches the limits of all of us, those of us with limited talent as well as the talented. But it is a fickle distance. There are so many opportunities out there for failure as well as success. We all know that the one sure thing about a 100 mile race is that something “bad” will happen and the big unknown is how we will accommodate and hopefully overcome. Our body is an engine and experience helps us keep this engine in metabolic homeostasis during these long and strenuous events; but “things happen” out there.
And so, as John and I maneuvered the rocks and ridgeline of Short Mountain I noticed my posture was becoming more stooped. John noticed too and astutely pointed out to me that I “was all crooked.” I had had back problems before in 100-mile events. The sequela of a spine infection at age 19 had left me with a scoliosis, which with age was decompensating (I’ve already lost 3.5 inches in height over the years). But this now was becoming “the issue” of my MMT 100 experience. By the time I got off Short Mountain I was struggling. But then Sue Ellen took over pacing duties and we had the best time possible under the circumstances moving from Woodstock Tower to Powell’s Fort. She got me through by singing the “left,right,left- right-left” song. Those 5.7 miles went by quickly, but my posture was getting worse; much worse than it ever had before. I just could not stand straight and my rib cage was compressing my pelvis. My stomach was “squished!” I was the human imitation of a pretzel. Sean took over pacing again at Powell’s Fort and we headed up and over to Elizabeth furnace; 7 miles of which 3 were up and 4 were down. The final mile of climbing was on a boulder field that seemed to never end! As we began the decent I tried to carry a pace, but I could not sustain. I could hardly walk a hundred yards without having to stop and bend/stretch my back and gasp for air. Those four miles traveling downhill to Elizabeth Furnace seemed like an eternity. It was the longest stretch I have ever experienced in total frustration. As we finally struggled into the aid station, Sue Ellen was there and had somehow found a walking stick for me to take for the final 3 miles. Three miles. It was only three miles; one steep uphill mile and two down into the grassy picnic area of the Skyline Ranch Resort, and the finish line. Just three miles. Three miles hardly counts at all, right? Heck, that’s only up Lander Road, around Meadow Hill Drive, Sterncrest, and home. That’s hardly enough to get warmed up. Wrong! I managed 97 miles of Massanutten Mountain’s rocky, gnarly trails with spectacular over-looks of the Shenandoah Valley below only to succumb to my frailties at mile 97+.
So what did I learn from this adventure in the Blue Ridge? I learned how lucky I am to have family and friends that support my “running” and are able to share the highs and provide comfort in the lows (no I’m not going to say “failure,” just “low”). And I learned what a beautiful event the MMT 100 really is; beautifully prepared and supported by the great folks of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club; and beautifully nestled in the rugged and spectacular trails of Massanutten Mountain. And yes, just three miles; perhaps there is a brace out there that can get me just three more miles!