Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
by Gary Knipling
Gary Knipling after his 10th MMT finish. Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
The question is asked by Ben LaDieu on the cover of the MMT video: What kind of person runs 100 miles just for fun? This is a fair question. To most people the reward of finishing a 100 mile run would be the ultimate driving force for that “kind of person”. To come across the finish line is, indeed, the glorious culmination of any ultra run. But, I believe that “kind of person” cherishes more the experience and memories of the journey of 100 miles. I can only speak for the middle and back of the pack runners but, even there, a runner may be alone on the trail (physically and mentally) for hours at a time. A contact with a fellow runner or a helpful volunteer at an aid station may only last 15 seconds, but it leaves an impression that is profound. It’s those memories of sharing the trail that make the MMT experience so great.
This year I completed my 10th finish out of 11 starts. The 145 starters in 2007 were several less than the record 151 from last year. In my opinion, the course changes this year made MMT ’07 the toughest and slowest of the 13 runs. It was at least the slowest for me. The climb up Bird Knob from 211 #1 was about 1500’ of gain compared to about half that from past year’s climb from the Visitors Center. The longer (seemingly endless) climb to Gap Creek #2 from 211 #2 added another challenge compared to past years. Removed from the course were a couple of easy partial downhill road sections totaling 4-5 miles. In consulting with fellow runners, the opinion was that the ’07 course was 45 minutes to an hour slower than previous years, and that is conservative I believe.
A good thing for the runners as part of the new course is the long out-and-back from the bottom of Waterfall Trail through 211 twice and the southern turn around at the Bird Knob aid station. This totals about 14 miles where runners get to see other runners going opposite to them. Before the start, I was thinking I would be able to see the leaders on their way to Gap Creek #2 after I had been down Waterfall and was starting my Bird Knob loop. Because I was moving slower than expected and the leaders were moving faster, the first runner I saw on the Connector Trail was Rob Richardson, another first time MMTer. I asked Rob what position he was in and he thought he was 9th or 10th. I was disappointed not seeing Keith and the first handful of runners, but I was happy for them to already be well on their way to Gap #2 and beyond. Rob had prepared diligently for his MMT christening by attending several of the Tom Corris training runs and ended up finishing very strong with Ryan Henry, tying for 6th place, and being the last of the seven runners to break 24:00.
As I proceeded to 211 #1 and crossed the highway I could see the flurry of activity at this busy aid station. The first person I saw as I entered was Sophie Speidel who was hanging out just to encourage all the runners. Sophie is one-for-one at MMT having finished in the silver as second woman in 2005. As I approached her in the parking lot, I noticed she was holding a McDonalds vanilla milk shake that looked full complete with a straw coming out of the lid hole. I said: “Sophie, it’s great to see you”, but in my mind I was saying: “Damn, that milkshake looks good”. She must have seen the craving in my eyes because without hesitation she offered me the milkshake. I did not turn it down. I took it with me to a chair and anything else I consumed from there was a bonus. Sophie, I don’t know for whom that milkshake was intended, but it did wonders for me. Thank you again.
Gary's son, Keith on way to third place. In the next two weeks, Keith won at both Old Dominion 100s.
Photo: Anstr Davidson
Looking back, the 10-mile loop turnaround to Bird Knob was the worst and the best parts of MMT for me. I was tired, sore, queasy, and unable to keep down the nourishment I needed. But, as I proceeded up the trail and saw most of the runners ahead of me, at least half of them enthusiastically reported how well Keith had looked when they saw him and all confirmed his 2nd place position at that time. There were also some blank stares from some runners in worse shape than me, and that explains why there were more than 20 runners who dropped between 211 #1 and Gap Creek #2 in that 17 mile stretch. Thank you to all the runners who encouraged me by telling me of Keith’s great run to that point. Keith ultimately had the race of his life finishing 3rd and bettering his previous MMT-best time by more than three hours. He captured that elusive silver buckle to add to his now seven pewter’s.
Karl Meltzer got his first win at MMT on his third attempt. I believe that speaks well for both Karl and MMT. Karl’s track record at century runs is phenomenal in that he rarely doesn’t come in first place. Matt Estes in 2005 and Sim Jae Duk in 2006, previously little known (but great) runners, surprised Karl and the entire MMT field with record runs. Karl’s pride and determination and pure physical ability brought him back to MMT in 2007 and he added another 100 miler to his long list of victories. Todd Walker returned again from Massachusetts to run his 3rd great race at MMT. Todd’s finishes are impressive: second in 2005, fourth in 2006, and second in 2007. Keith made Todd work for his 2nd place this year, when Todd was not able to claim it until the top of Bear Wallow Trail before the descent into Elizabeth Furnace.
Gary at Gap Creek with crew Bunny Runyan. Note his mango bakini bottoms. Photo: Amy Sproston
At Western States ’06, I had a chance meeting with a runner I knew by name only. In a bizarre set of circumstances I found myself being paced by fellow sexagenarian ultra runner, Zeke Zucker, from Vermont. Zeke added so much to my W$ experience in addition to getting me to an official finish in a very difficult year. I worked on coercing Zeke to come to Virginia for his first run at MMT, and he bit! I truly enjoyed showing Zeke and our crew of Yuen Chun and Bunny Runyan around the MMT course for a couple days before the event. Yuen even got a good sampling of the course as she logged in close to 20 miles on out-and-back runs from aid stations. Zeke and Yuen left Virginia with several mementoes including tired/sore bodies and feet and an MMT buckle for Zeke.
Marti Kovener was the convincing women’s winner beating Kari Brown by more than two hours. She was the first of the seven women finishers, and one of five finishing MMT for their first 100 miler. When I saw Marti in the lead coming back to 211East #2 as I was leaving 211 for the first time, she said she didn’t like being in first place. She had to deal with it because she kept her position until the finish. Congratulations to Marti, and what a way to break into century running. Four of the seven women finishers received silver buckles. In addition to overall winner Marti, Sharon Lapkoff was first in the 50+ division, Debbie Shaffer first in the 40+ division, and Joyce Fendley was first VHTRC woman. My wildflower consultant, Sue Donnelly from Tennessee, got her 6th MMT finish and Jen Jacobs gutted out her first 100 miler with 15 minutes to spare in 35:45.
These ladies each represent the “kind of person” Ben asked about.
There were at least five family teams running in MMT ’07 that I know of. Three time finisher (now) Rande Brown from Bedford, PA brought his wife Kari to run MMT for her first 100. Kari finished in fine style as second woman overall. Kari and I enjoyed most of the Stephens Trail together leading into Camp Roosevelt. Two sets of brothers, Jeff & Mark Radan and Brian & Chris O’Connor, shared the course of MMT. Jeff and Mark did their own thing and finished within 40 minutes of each other around 30:00ish, while second time finisher Brian ran the entire way with Chris to be sure he got his first MMT buckle and shed his Visitor status from 2006. These brothers are some of the “kinds of persons” who run 100 miles just for fun.
Son-father teams of Sean and Dr Jack Andrish and Keith and I finished out the family teams. Keith and Sean both had great runs and pushed and pulled each other to their 3rd and 4th place finishes and joined the seven runners who finished in less than 24 hours to be in the silver.
Pre-race Good Wishes
Friday evening I received a very nice good luck package from my buddy John Dodds. John knew I was attempting my 10th MMT finish, so he brought me the ingredients for my favorite post-finish rehydration beverage which when mixed with overflowing endorphins . . . . well, it’s a great combo! He also brought me a card with Superman’s shirt on the front and #70 marked on it. Inside were words of encouragement that closed with an emphatic command: “Don’t _ _ _ _ (four letter word, not “mess”) it up”. With a send off like that, no wonder I was feeling bullet proof at the start Saturday morning. Well, from Bird Knob until Powells Fort, I had a lot of time to think (and worry) about John’s final command. I also hummed and sang the words to Superman (I can’t stand to fly) by Five for Fighting over and over, especially the line: “I’m just a man in a silly red sheet”
Thank you John for such a nice thought. I looked for you to share some of my post finish libation with you – I must not have looked hard enough (?).
“You lying sack o’ sh_t”
Gary near Camp Rossevelt
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
As I was making my slow steady trek over Kerns Mountain and when my stomach was deciding whether to rebel or just stay sour, I took a break beside a table-sized rock to shed my belt and lube some rub spots. Soon along came my buddy from Maryland, Alan Gowan, moving rather briskly. I yelled out: “Here comes the stud Alan and you are looking great, Man”. Without any hesitation he said “You lying sack o’ sh_t”. As Alan moved on, I tried hard to stay close in hopes of at least getting to see his lovely wife and crew, Pam, at aid stations. Alan continued in “stud fashion” and had his second consecutive strong MMT finish.
As I was telling Bob Phillips about the Kerns Mountain/Alan incident in the glory of the finish line Sunday afternoon, Bob’s only comment was: “I’m glad someone finally got it right”
I benefited tremendously from an unlikely brew master in a remote place at MMT’07. Any VHTRC regular knows of our run-attendance champ David Snipes. I was “Sniped” in a great way in the middle of both Short Mountain and Saturday night. I was struggling at the time and trying to keep up with Dave and his pacer John. We were talking about many things. I made a statement as to how I would love to have some sweet tea about now. Dave says: “I have some”. Sure enough, Dave had two full hand-helds of his (now famous with me) special homebrewed sweet tea. I sheepishly accepted his offer of half a bottle, and boy was it good. As Dave and John moved ahead of me, Dave offered to leave a bottle of tea out of his crew supplies at Edinburg. He came through with his offer and Anstr had it waiting for me when I arrived. After Dave’s tea, Brenda’s soup, my 40 minute nap in the back of Challen Edward’s SUV (thank you again Challen) and the dawning of Sunday morning, I was ready to move on and find more trail experiences. Anstr saved me from carrying extra cargo on to Woodstock when he gently informed me I wouldn’t need my lights because of the impending daylight. Normally I am leaving Edinburg 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning, but not this year. Thanks Anstr for your good advice, yet again.
Representing 23 finishes, Tom Sprouse and Gary Knipling complete the 2007 MMT. Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
On the way to Woodstock Tower I found some of the runners who had passed me during my nap, including John Prohira, Paul Braun and MMT veteran Tom Sprouse. Tom and I had some good time together comparing grandfather stories when I learned of Tom’s other name, “Herbie”. Upon arriving at Woodstock I saw a bottle of Dave’s tea in the hands of Bill Van Antwerp. Bill offered me some when he sensed my craving. I accepted his offer, but always wanting to stay on the good side of the “Grim Reaper”, I only drank half the bottle.
I certainly didn’t expect to see Dave and John again before the finish, but as I was approaching Elizabeth Furnace along the blue-blaze Tuscarora Trail, there they were. Dave acted as if he was expecting me and promptly gave me another half bottle of his tea. That was the final kick in the pants I needed to get me over Shawl Gap #2 and on toward the finish where I caught up with Tom Sprouse once again with a mile or so to go. It was my honor to come across the line with “Dr MMT”, himself.
Dave’s willingness to share and to help a fellow runner out on the trail is another example of Ben’s “kind of person”.
In the initial bib number list of runners, there were sixteen 60+ year olds in the race. That number reduced to thirteen starters and seven finishers. It is known that Frank Probst needs cooler weather for him to be at his best. The predicted rainy, cloudy Saturday turned out to be more clear and warmer than expected. Of the 60+ group, Frank was well into the lead over Zeke Zucker and Bob Anderson by 75 minutes and 90 minutes, respectively, as he started up Bird Knob. Frank was the first I saw of this group coming back down from the Knob, but it was apparent the heat of the day had taken its toll. Frank called it a day at Gap Creek #2, and Zeke and Bob were left to juke it out over Jawbone and Short Mountain in the dark.
I knew Bob and Zeke were up there but I was in good company with fellow sexagenarians Tom Sprouse, and Al Sauld from Wisconsin. I never saw Al on the course after Bird Knob, but I knew he was close to me as I saw his crew Tim at each aid station after 211 #2.
Bob Anderson knows the ins-and-outs of Edinburg Gap very well with his now eight MMT finishes, and he had another plus in his champion crew Kari, his wife. Bob passed Zeke going through the aid station and he never looked back (well, maybe a little) to win the Super Senior silver buckle by almost 30 minutes. Congratulations to Bob on a very steady, smart and controlled race.
These older “mature” men are the “kinds of persons” Ben asked about.
There are many ways to get through a 100 mile run – just ask some runners and you’ll get that many answers. A way I have always thought difficult is to run from start to finish with a buddy. There were at least two sets of runners (three counting the O’Connor brothers) that stayed together at MMT ’07. The boys from North Carolina, Bedford Boyce and John Teed, stayed within sight the entire way for their first MMT buckles. I leap frogged with the “Tar Heels” on and off from Veach Gap until 211 East #2. Another buddy pair getting their first 100 finish were twenty-year olds Fabian Ortiz and Joseph Raines. Fabian and Joe were “tethered” at the shoulder, so to speak, because they did the entire run sharing one camel back. That explains how and why I saw a runner pass me on top of Buzzard Rocks early on with no sign of a water system at all. They were sure moving better than me all weekend because I didn’t see them again until near the top of Shawl Gap #2 Sunday afternoon when I came upon them sitting on a large flat rock. I was fearful of a problem when I first saw them, but when I stopped to talk I learned they were doing great and just savoring their moment and place. I believe they knew they had the finish in the bag and loved it so much they didn’t want it to end.
Bedford & John and Joe & Fabian are other prime examples of Ben Ladieu’s question.
“X” on His Back
The person who may know the MMT course better than anyone is Tom Corris. You may also think that by the way he runs it. For the past several winters Tom has organized training runs on the course. This is especially important for any aspiring “newbie” as Tom can attest to the fact they get lost much more than veterans. Tom spends so much time helping others run the trails; you wonder when he does it himself. Tom had another fantastic finish (12th overall) and defended his title as first Senior (50’s decade) with a time very close to ’06 on the harder course. Team Corris, consisting of Kirstin and son and daughter, Danny and Chelsea, were also big factors in keeping Tom powered up for his victory. Tom will have an “X” on his back next year when he defends again against hungry runners in that tough division.
Tom will also have the benefit of his new bride, Kirstin Walcott, to help him with his cross training next year. Congratulations, early, to two great friends.
Todd Walker ran 21:11:43, bettering Peter Bakwin's 2004 record performance for masters (age 40-49) runners. But according to RD Stan, there was a another record performance in 2007. A runner set the record for getting the most lost – an estimated 22 miles off course. I never talked with John Pati from New York, but he apparently missed a turn in the little clearing on top of Bird Knob at the top of Ant Hill Road. It was right at dark when he got off trail. When he realized he was lost he heard some voices from runners or from the aid station personal and tried to bushwhack toward them. He became even more turned around. With a fading light, low water, and a moonless night, John pushed through some brushy, rough terrain to work his way off the mountain and ended up at a farm house at daylight Sunday in Rockingham County, which is adjacent to the southern turnaround in Page County. He convinced the alone older lady in the house to call the Ranch to let them know he was found and then 911 to receive assistance in getting back to the start. I understand from eye witnesses at the Ranch that he was considerably scratched up but in good spirits, and declared that he will back for MMT in ’08. We look forward to seeing you next year, John.
Hans-Dieter finishes MMT with a little help from his friends. Photo: Anstr Davidson
The scene around the finish line on Sunday afternoon is always full of mixed emotions. Mike Bur and Quatro Hubbard sure added a festive touch this year with the public address system and the refreshments of the Furbutt Café. Most runners coming across the finish line are able to muster some degree of energy and at least fake a strong finish. There were at least two runners who looked to be in a painful crippled state as muscle cramps in their torso caused an uncontrolled twisting of their bodies. Jeff Collins from California was able to come across alone in just under 34:00 in contorted fashion. Century-runner legend Hans-Dieter Weisshaar was hurting and twisted badly as he finished with a cadre of concerned and respectful runners Vince Swendsen, JJ Rochelle, and Leonard Martin who refused to pass Hans as they caught up to him with a mile or so to go. These four men were the last official finishers in 35:49:35. They are all experienced MMT “Rockers” with a total of 24 finishes between them. Leonard is especially familiar with close finishes as he got his 5th finish with all being between 35:35 and 36:00. These men also embody Ben’s query as to the “kinds of persons” who run 100 miles for fun.
Wild Azalea near Powells Fort on trail work day. Photo Anstr Davidson
Since Anstr allows me to post these rambling words under the guise of a Wildflower Report, I should mention something about the flora at MMT ’07. This was the first year MMT did not fall on Mothers Day weekend. The Forest Service requested (meaning, left no choice) to Stan and the VHTRC to move the date a week later to not interfere with other forest activities. That week difference combined with a relatively dry spring in Virginia changed the types and numbers of wildflowers seen along the course. Rather than the long list of wildflower sightings, I will comment on just a few observations along the course.
I never tire of seeing pink Lady Slippers and I was beginning to wonder if I would see any until I finally did near Camp Roosevelt. I missed seeing one earlier near Habron Gap that Kari Brown told me about. There were quite a few at the higher elevation on Bird Knob but overall there were many fewer than usual. The Wild Azaleas (the flower on the buckle) were also past peak. This pink-flowered shrub can get head high and pleases us with sight and smell. Ridge tops are their preferred location and they were most plentiful for me on Kerns Mountain.
Mountain Laurel on first trail section. Gary missed these (it was dark). Photographed by Anstr Davidson while marking trail.
The beautiful three-petaled purple Spiderwort was in the usual high places on the course. I showed some to Greg Trapp from Ohio as we topped out on Peach Orchard Gap before our descent into Gap Creek #1. There are always some Spiderwort at Shawl Gap that are not fully open early Saturday morning when we pass, but are fully open and brilliant midday on Sunday for my visit to Shawl Gap #2.
A sighting the week later helped was that of Fringe Tree. This is a small tree or large shrub (take your pick) with fragrant drooping white flower clusters. Sue Donnelly saw two trees on trail left in the rocks going up Bird Knob. When she told me about them at the aid station I looked for them coming back down, but still missed them in the fading light as I came through. One sighting I didn’t miss at Bird Knob was that of Turkey Beard. That is because Carolyn Gernand showed me several plants almost within the limits of her aid station. This is an uncommon flower that shows as a white cluster on top of a single sturdy stem 3’- 4’ high. I had only seen Turkey Beard at one location at past MMT’s, and that was at the top of Waterfall Trail the years we went up instead of down it.
Columbine (in nearby Shenandoah National Park one week later)
Photo: Anstr Davidson
Keith helped confirm another flower that I have only seen at one location on the course – Wild Columbine. This showy reddish-orange drooping flower loves rocky shale slopes like that found along the Massanutten Trail next to Big Run going up to Scothorn Gap from 211 #2. There was plenty of daylight for Keith to see it as he passed – it was dark dark when I got there.
All total, I saw close to forty different wildflower species. It is just a reminder to all of us that we are never alone out there if we take the time and interest to look around.
For many runners MMT has become a rite of spring in the Massanutten Mountains that brings them back year after year. Under 50% of the finishers this year (45/94) were first timers. This is actually the lowest percent of “newbie” finishers in the past several years which indicates most runners who run it for the first time choose not to return. That’s OK. All runners are welcome to test the rocks and terrain of MMT. Whether a veteran or an aspiring MMT buckle holder, be ready to sign up in December of 2007. The initial 160 slots were filled in less than two weeks for this year.
For Stan & Margie, Anstr, Kevin, Valerie, the Bills – Sub & Van, Bur, Quatro and the many, many other volunteers: Thank you for making the MMT experience available for so many runners. Until 2008---)