Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
The Pursuit of Happiness
by Jack Andrish
It’s nearly one week since I got to the starting line of the 13th Massanutten Mountain Trail 100. Our plane is traveling at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and a movie is playing, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The pursuit of happiness, that’s it! Ultra running is all about the pursuit of happiness. It is all about the pursuit.
Photos: Aaron Schwartzbard
Last year was my first attempt to complete the MMT 100. I knew from my son and his friends that this was a very difficult course; difficult and perhaps dangerous even, with rocks and roots (especially rocks) galore. But I had crewed a couple of times for Sean and couldn’t resist the chance to do it myself. After all, I was not getting any younger and my opportunities were obviously becoming limited. So under perfect weather conditions, I ran and completed all but the last 3 miles! My back had literally collapsed and I baled at Elizabeth Furnace with only 3+ miles to go. But I had surprised myself by almost completing the course and this year I would finish the job. I brought an assortment of back braces and I would see the last three miles of the MMT 100.
Cleveland had a strange winter this year; almost spring-like during December and January and then Bam! February, March and into April the snow came and stayed. Even Easter day brought 2 ½ feet of new snow. These are not the best conditions to train on the trails through the Metro Parks of Cleveland. But I did manage a 50 K in March (Arizona); a 50 mile in Virginia (BRR); and a 24 hour Adventure run with Sue Ellen outside of DC in April. I thought that this should have toughened me up a bit for MMT. After all, I only needed three more miles.
Once again, this year brought perfect weather. We were so lucky. The rain on Friday opened up to a clear and cool day on Saturday. The course would be a little different this year, however. Last year there were last minute changes that had to be made because of a fire at the south end of the course. Some road sections were substituted for traditional trails. And this year we would also experience traveling down “waterfall” trail as well as two trips up and over “jawbone.” Oh well, what difference would that really make to the overall 100 miles? Oh was I naïve!
As usual, getting to the starting line was a thrill. Sue Ellen would crew for me and Steve Core would be my pacer. Life was good. I ran the first 20+ miles with John Nelson (or rather John ran with me since he is much faster than I am, but he had made a conscious decision to run slow in the beginning and save something for later). I did notice that some of the early climbs, such as the one after Habron Gap, seemed longer this year (they weren’t, it was just my perception). But then we moved through sections that were different from last year, such as the up-and-over section to Gap Creek 1; and Jawbone 1 on the way to Kerns Mountain. No road sections this year; just relentless up hills and steep downhills. And then there was “waterfall.” Wow! I had only fallen once up to that section. Perhaps about mile 30 I had tripped and as my fall was imminent, I grabbed for a small tree with my right had (I didn’t want to fall on my right rib cage, still smarting from a fall a couple of weeks earlier) but this merely resulted in flinging my body 180 degrees around and landing my left thigh directly onto a rock. Ouch! But this was nothing compared to what could have been on “waterfall.” About a third of the way down this very steep and rocky path, I tripped again. Oh no! As I lurched forward toward a very rocky face-first landing, I panicked. But sometimes a little adrenalin is a good thing and my feet recovered with a cat-like quickness that they had not seen for decades. I recovered and felt blessed!
Sue Ellen helps Jack at Gap Creek
The next section of the “race” is always my favorite, regardless of the event. It is the “mystical” time when day turns into night. But this year, for me, on Massanutten Mountain, this coincided with the five mile climb up to Bird Knob, only to then turn around and traverse down the steep, boulder ridden top section and on again to the Rt 211 aid station. I was fatiguing. But I had company again with my pacer and Steve was great; patient and thoughtful. Sue Ellen had met me at every available aid station and picked up my spirits (and made me drink my Ensure!). As we left “211” and moved on to Gap Creek 2, this section is claimed to be only 6.8 miles, but for me it seemed to never end. It was nice to pass the “waterfall” trail section and not have to climb up that very steep trail, but as it turned out, I may have preferred that to what we had instead; a relentless long uphill followed by a shoe-sucking mud/rock downhill. My quads were shot. I could not run a step of the downhill. And yes, I missed the time cut-off at Gap Creek 2; about 65 miles into the run and a little after 2:30 in the morning. Massanutten had won. As Sue Ellen drove me back to the start/finish, I learned that Sean had had his ups and downs too, but had finished and placed fourth. And later that afternoon, I watched John Nelson finish his first 100 miler in an excellent time of just under 32 hours.
So why another DNF for me at a 100 miler? It has been two years and three 100 milers later since I have completed the distance. I tend to be mechanical in my analysis of problems. Heck, I’m mechanical in my approach to sports. I have always figured if I understood the mechanics well, I could achieve some level of success. And ultra running has its mechanical side in training as well as execution. I clearly was not prepared for this year’s MMT; last year’s MMT maybe with some forgiving road sections. But I was not for this year’s course with its relentless uphills and steep downhills. I clearly had not paid my dues this winter/spring to prepare for this. But somewhere there is also a little voice in me that questions my mental toughness that is required to push through the tough times after 60 miles. I prefer not to listen to this voice, just as I prefer not to look at my (old, bent) shadow, but it’s there nonetheless.
So what is the attraction that brings us back? What is the attraction “that allows a man to practice a sport without ever having any hope of doing it well?” I think it is “the pursuit of happiness.” And there are as many opportunities for happiness preparing for and competing in an ultra running event as there are runners in the event. Sure, it is the pure joy of crossing the finish line after successfully completing a 100 miles. But it is also the happiness of merely making it to the starting line; the thrill of the first climb; the exhilaration of meeting family and friends at the first aid station and all that follow. The joy of bonding with nature while running, alone, through some backcountry trail and knowing that you are (still) ‘in control.” It is the pursuit that brings us back. It is the pursuit that makes this dance so very difficult to let go.
I was fortunate to have had this opportunity again, to share a weekend with family and friends; participating in a wonderfully supported event; over spectacular scenery and terrain. It was a truly happy pursuit.
May 25, 2007