Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
by Gary Knipling
Gary Knipling with his mango bikini and his Yohoo at Habron Gap Aid Station. Photo: Sophie Speidel
When I look back on a 100-mile weekend it seems there is a full week of happenings and experiences that take place in just a 36-48 hour window. And, when considering how much sole (aka soul) time I have alone on the trail, each thought or encounter or experience must be magnified in my mind and body to leave that impression and memory. Some memories are good, some are bad. I believe Mother Nature protects us to help runners forget the bad times in an ultra run, but yet somehow embellishing the good times. If it were reversed, no one would ever sign up for a second 100-miler. After a little bit of time has gone by, the good times are coming back into focus for me for MMT ‘06.
The 12th running of the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 will be known as the year of the Fire and the year of “The Korean”, the honorable Sim Jae Duk, Sir. Before the events of the weekend of May 13-14 in the Massanuttens, I thought the times for runners would be slower by 30-45 minutes because of the altered course from the Cardinal Fire. As it turned out, the 2006 MMT had more finishers (113) than ever before with the highest rate of finishers ever (75%), and the number of runners under 24 hours was almost double (15) the previous best (8).
Why was this ?
The cool dry weather was the best of any I recall, and of the ten MMT’s I have run in, this is the only one where my feet and shoes were not water soaked at least once.
I believe the reputation of the toughness of MMT is getting out there to the ultra community and runners are better prepared for those rocks and rough terrain.
The quality and speed of the entrants is improving each year. Last year, Matt Estes came from nowhere to beat some quality runners. I respected so much that Matt came back in ’06 to defend his title, but who knew anything about Mr Sim ?
Newbies: The fun and anticipation of the MMT weekend starts early Friday afternoon when runners begin arriving at the Ranch. Every year I enjoy looking over the runners list to see how many “newbies” are coming for the MMT experience. In past years many very good runners have come to MMT, not having done their homework, and been beaten down by weather variables and the ever-present rocky trails to leave with a DNF to their credit. The elevation gain/loss of MMT is mild compared to many 100’s, but the course can steal the will of runners to cause them to forget the lenient, very doable 36 hour time limit.
Gary arriving at the Picnic Area. Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
I had had the opportunity to run with two first-timers near their home turf this past winter: Scott Mason in Utah and Tracy Moore in California. I had talked up MMT with Scott and Tracy and they definitely came through the challenge with great runs to their credit. I met another MMT rookie with a fantastic running name although he pronounces it with two syllables: Beat Jegerlehner from Los Altos, CA. Hans had recruited Beat to come to MMT at one of the 37 (well almost) one-hundred mile runs Hans did last year. I also ran with two new comers from Champaign, IL: Tracy Thomas and Brian Kuhn, as we worked our way from the top of Veach Gap to Milford Gap. I was with Josh Calhoun from Norfolk, VA on and off during the day on Saturday. I last saw Josh at Bird Knob aid station where about seven runners were swapping chairs to enjoy the chicken noodle soup and other sustenance from Carolyn and Harry and their crew. Josh hooked up with some trail friends Sunday and was part of the 8 runner pack finishing in 34:43. I ran some with Chris Wedge from Florida going into Camp Roosevelt before he just took off. Chris looked good as I saw him being paced by his wife Debbie in the “mixing bowl”. I’ll see Chris again at Leadville in August. A “newbie” in name only was Derrick Carr, a VHTRC regular who has helped mark the course for the previous 11 years. As a result of much peer pressure, Derrick registered for ’06 and had a very fine run finishing in the top 10. He was helped along on Short Mountain by the spotting of a mama bear and her cub as he was one of the few runners who were there in the daylight.
All of these and many more “newbies” had great runs in the 2006 MMT - there were 60 first time finishers among the 113 total (53%). Congratulations to all of you, but don’t tell too many of your friends about MMT.
“This guy is ______’ flying” The first time I even asked about who was leading the race was at AS #3 (Milford Gap). I didn’t know Sim’s name at that time, but the report was that the Korean guy was in the lead by three minutes as he came through Milford. The only English words he knew were “water, water” and “thank you”. His bowing to the aid station helpers had left a favorable impression. I figured his lead that early was a miscalculation on his part, but as the day and night progressed, Sim proved he knew what he was doing.
The only time I saw Sim Jae Duk on the course was as I was heading south near the end of Kerns I for me. I knew from the report at Moreland I, that Sim and Meltzer were within seconds at 211 East. Whom would I see first? When I saw a runner approaching, I realized quickly it was Sim. I stepped off the trail and began clapping and offering words of encouragement. As he went by me I tapped him on the back of his left shoulder and encouraged him more – he didn’t understand anything I was saying. In hindsight, I wish I had just remained quiet and bowed as he went by. He would have understood that. By my watch, I saw Meltzer about 3 minutes later with his trademark ear phones plugged in. As I looked into Karl’s eyes I could see an exasperated look. I offered some encouraging words but as Karl went by me the only thing he said was “This guy is ______’ flying”. With almost 40 miles to go for them, I wondered if Sim would fade. He got stronger.
Silver Senior Corris: Over the past few years, my good buddy Tom Corris and I have had a routine we’ve shared when running in the same ultra run. It has never been planned, but it has just seemed to work out that way. I typically go out too fast and Tom will catch me before half-way. We run a while together, swapping tales, and then he pushes on. I’ve come to rely on a second wind (or 3rd, or 4th, or 5th?) toward the end, and I can sometimes get back in sight of Tom by the finish. All was going true to form with Tom and me when he caught me coming out of Habron Aid Station. I knew something was different this time when I couldn’t hang with Tom as he mechanically trudged up the longest and hardest climb on the entire course to Habron Gap. I wondered if I would see Tom again before Sunday morning.
As the day progressed I would get good reports of how well Tom was doing at each aid station. As I made my way up through the rocks of Bird Knob and finally topped out onto the flat pipestem trail before the loop, I saw two runners coming hard on a rocky, technical part of the trail. One was Tom Corris. I barely had time to say Hi because of the tight winding trail. I actually wondered to myself if they were pushing it hard to “show off” to those poor suckers 3+ miles behind them. As the race unfolded, Tom was not “showing off” – he was just getting it done in not sub-28:00, not sub-27:00, but a sub-26:00 first place 50’s division winner 25:46. In addition to helping so many other runners prepare for MMT with the training runs Tom has organized, the Trail and his preparation were paying him back with one tremendous performance. Congratulations Tom! You brought the Senior Silver back to Virginia.
Gary in a chair at the "Mixing Bowl." Photo: Sophie Speidel
The Mixing Bowl: At strong urging from the Forest Service (meaning dictated), the aid station was moved from the Visitors Center right along Rt 211 to the Picnic Area about ¼ mile down the trail. The runners were to visit this station twice, before and after going up Bird Knob. Because of the fire and course alteration, runners hit the Picnic Area a third time in ’06 as we retraced our way back up Crisman Hollow Road toward Moreland Gap II. The Picnic Area then became a “mixing bowl” for runners of all speeds coming and going in and out of this station. For me in the middle of the pack, I saw fellow runners there that ultimately finished anywhere from 22 to 35 hours during my three passes. Keith caught me sitting in a lawn chair trying to fatten up in my first visit and his second. Even though Keith bested his previous PR by 1:20 in a great run 25:02, he is still chasing that teasingly elusive silver buckle out of his eight finishes. In addition to seeing many familiar runners and their crews at the Picnic Area, the highlight for me was visiting with Dennis Herr seated in a chair on the edge of the action. Thank you Sue for bringing Dennis up from Harrisonburg to hang out for the afternoon.
The Picnic Area will become a very strategic aid station for runners in future MMT’s and one to remember the good advice: “beware the chair”.
Tom Sprouse at the finish. Photo: Anstr Davidson
Dead Man Walking: After hitting the “mixing bowl” for the third time, I was encouraged that I was finally actually heading north and toward the general direction of the Ranch finish line. It was just about sundown and the shadows beneath the tree canopy were becoming fainter. When I approached the side trail coming down from Bird Knob I saw a runner I recognized right away as the veteran MMTer Tom Sprouse. I could also see right away that Tom was covered with blood from the right side of his face down his chin and neck with large red blobs on his shirt and then the blood stream crossed his body to jump his dark shorts and continue down his left leg from the knee down. He looked to me like a dead man walking. I could sense that I was more alarmed than Tom. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. I was dumbfounded, but Tom proceeded to tell me how he caught a toe at the top of Bird Knob coming down and became airborne before hitting a rock with the right side of his head and his left knee. What looked like one continuous blood flow on his body was actually two separate wounds which I interpreted as good, or at least not-so-bad. After talking with Tom for a minute, I was so relieved that he seemed like the same old Tom to me (I can barely call him that). I could see that a firm clot had formed on the jagged laceration along the arc of his right ear and at the point of his left knee. No new blood was evident. I suggested to Tom that if someone insisted on cleaning him up, to not let them mess with Nature’s band aid/clot that was in place. I thought of Tom quite a bit during the night wondering if he was still on the course. Tom went on to finish his 12 for 12 MMT in amazing style with his fastest time in the past four years with the help of his Gu-pushing pacer, Mike Price.
Enjoying your company: While on the Bird Knob loop, I was playing froggie (leap frog) with my buddy and wildflower consultant, JJ Rochelle from Tennessee. JJ has many MMT buckles (5 after ’06) and usually runs with his trail and life companion Sue Donnelly who was back home nursing a stress fracture this year. When I finally got into Moreland II after a struggle over Kerns Mountain in the dark, JJ came into the aid station right behind me. Station captain Chris Scott could sense my down spell, probably from my green color, and suggested some tapioca pudding to quell my stomach. I had one and when it stayed down, I took another with me to help get over Short Mountain. I left the aid station, but JJ caught me just before the top of the tough climb. We commiserated with each other as we took a short sit down break and enjoyed the quiet calm night. After we started our slow progress there was one stretch of about 20 minutes of complete silence as we ambled along. I told JJ: “I’m sure enjoying your company”. He said: “Me too”. There was another lengthy period of complete silence until a Congo line of runners and pacers went by us including Ed Cacciapaglia with pacer Russ and David Snipes with pacer Kevin. Ed and David both went on to finish strong and each improved on their 2005 MMT finishes by about two hours.
Time on your feet: Even though I had talked with several pacers about helping other runners before MMT, I hadn’t planned on having a pacer for myself. Don Padfield had volunteered to be a pacer to help a runner, but he also wanted the experience of night running and time on his feet in preparation for a very difficult 100 miler he plans to run in September in Washington State. I saw Don’s MMT runner struggling with blisters while I was in the Bird Knob loop. When I saw Don waiting for his runner at the Picnic Area as I came down from Bird Knob, I told Don he would be tested to keep his runner on the course. Don tried hard to keep his runner going, but the thought of taking on Kerns and Short Mountains in the dark with trashed feet was daunting and Don’s runner dropped at Picnic Area III. Don quickly went into Plan B mode and after driving his runner all the way back to the start/finish, he drove to Edinburg Gap to await my arrival. He had quite a wait.
Gary at Moreland I. Photo: Anstr Davidson
When JJ Rochelle and I finally pulled into Edinburg about 2:30 Sunday AM, there was Don, like a puppy dog waiting for a walk, hoping to get some time on his feet. After relishing one full cup (with one ice cube) of Brenda’s famous potato soup and absorbing by osmosis some of the excess energy from the night owl critters assembled at Anstr’s party/aid station, JJ and I left the aid station dragging Don with us. Even though it was just time on his feet for Don, it was a great boost for JJ and me to have Don along. He had obviously read the Pacer’s Handbook as he was careful to never be in the lead and never offered to carry anything for us.
Just after daylight Sunday as we pulled into Woodstock Tower, JJ’s biological clock was telling him to push the snooze button on his alarm clock. When he sat down in a chair with a blanket, it was amazing how quickly “gone” he became. Don and I started to leave for the final push to the finish without JJ, but we felt for the aid station crew to have to listen to JJ’s snoring so we shook him awake and forced him to go with us. He was in sleep walking mode for the first couple miles toward Powells Fort, but with Don’s urging, we all three actually started running again going down into Powells. Real breakfast food from the Moore’s and the Margies was a treat and all of a sudden Sunday was a brand new day. From there we could smell the finish line and we pushed and pulled each other to a finish just before noon at 11:45.
Lady Slipper. File Photo
Wildflowers: Because of the title of this report I feel compelled to mention at least some of the wildflowers observed on the 2006 MMT course. Although not as many in most years, runners were treated to the presence of pink Lady Slippers (aka Indian Moccasin Flowers). Scotty and his marking crew had even designated a few with yellow ribbon to catch the attention of the runners. The pink Wild Azalea was there but not bountiful and fragrant like other years. I saw just one Dwarf Iris up on Bird Knob which was on the right side of the pipestem going back down. At least two other runners mentioned to me they saw that particular flower at that spot. Many years there are hundreds in that three mile loop on Bird Knob. The only place I have ever seen Columbine on the course was off limits this year because of the fire. I looked hard to find it in favorable habitat along the gravel road between Camp Roosevelt and Moreland I, but I missed it if was there. The only place for seeing the deep purple Sundial Lupine was not by-passed because of the course change. There it was again this year near where the pavement turns to gravel on Crisman Hollow Road. A late treat for me that I pointed out to JJ and Don late Sunday morning was several clusters of Spiderwort, a bright purple and yellow flower in the saddle of Shawl Gap. Of interest, I didn’t see them in bloom the day before just six miles into the run. I believe they were there but still closed and sleeping when we ran past there just after daylight on Saturday.
For other wildflower sightings, I’m going to use Anstr’s approach to listing them (and drag him down with me). With the standard disclaimer of “as far as I remember”, the wildflowers I saw on the 2006 MMT course were as follows:
- Little bright yellow ones growing right on the trail on Indian Grave Ridge,
- White flowers with cute little leaves growing from the bank along the road going to Habron aid station,
- Low dense patches of iddy biddy blue flowers with yellow centers near the Powells Fort pavilion, and
- Clusters of purple flowers growing on a stem near where the pavement started on Crisman Hollow Road.
All across the Country, more and more runners are signing up to run 100 milers. MMT has filled up the past two years and I’m sure that will be routine from now on. The word is getting out in the ultra running community about the great challenge and experience there is to be had at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run. Thank you to Stan and all the VHTRC friends and volunteers who allowed me and other runners to experience, yet again, the good and the bad of the MMT. For those 2007 MMT hopefuls, be ready to sign up early when registration opens around the first of December. Until then.
Gary (# 67)