Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
In A Different Dimension
My race at MMT
by Alan Gowen
Had I known how well I was going to do, I know I would have done better. But for some reason or other, convinced I was moving slower than in reality I was, the burden of doubt and frustration I was carrying with me over Kern’s Mountain after almost 12 hours of running became a tangible thing. Weighing me down as I moved ever slowly forward; deeper into the great adventure that was the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 mile Run.
Alan Gowen on first climb. Photos: Aaron Schwartzbard unless otherwise noted.
The Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-mile run is put on every year by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, the running club to which Pam and I belong. This 100-miler is considered by most who know it to be one of the more difficult 100 milers in the country. The course is just about all trails and those trails are nothing but rocks. In fact, the term trail really doesn’t really apply to many of the rockier portions of the course. The route is along the ridges of the Massanutten Mountains, and the aid stations are in the valleys below. Thus, every descent to an aid station is followed by a climb back up to the ridge. This results in over 19,500 feet of elevation gain and loss during the course of the run. The climbs are long and unforgiving, and many of the descents are simply too rocky to really run. The only thing more impressive than the difficulty of the race is the beauty of the setting. The steep Massanuttens erupting from the Shenandoah Valley floor underscore a natural beauty that rivals anything I’ve seen anywhere.
I shall waste little effort here trying to describe my run at MMT last year when I ran my first 100 miler. (Alan's 2006 Report) That second weekend in May, when on a quest for answers excitement flowed, the surprises were all good, the sun shone down specifically it seemed on me, and at age 56 I experienced an almost supernatural adrenaline high that lasted over 20 hours, carrying me through a life changing experience; answers of course remaining unfound, but truths being quietly revealed. Somehow, mission accomplished, I was more. Therefore, I knew within days after completing the 2006 race that 2007 would find me back at the starting line for MMT. All the while though, I also knew that the unique mystical experience of the 2006 race could never be repeated.
After sending in my race application on the very first day it was available, my MMT training began in January. Since I’d been running at least one ultra per month for over a year, I felt that I really wouldn’t have to ramp up too much to get ready for MMT, but the first group training run covering 26 miles of the course left me wondering what sort of condition I was really in. During the late winter and early spring I seemed to settle into a routine of poor training run experiences, and at the final group training run that covered the last 30 miles of the MMT route, I finished dead last. Finally in April I broke out of my slump with a good run at the Bull Run Run 50 miler, and as race day approached, I felt that physically I was as ready as possible.
My mental preparation though was another story all together. My running accomplishment of which I’m most proud is my mental preparation for running MMT last year. Since it was my first 100 miler I really didn’t know what to expect and I had prepared myself extremely well to accept the course as it came to me as the race unfolded. I was very focused on remaining in the moment, concentrating on the process and letting the result take care of itself. This year however, was totally different. The 2007 course is somewhat different from last year’s and I knew it was gong to be longer, slower, and harder. As I did last year I made up a pace chart showing the aid stations, distances between aid, cumulative distance, and my expected arrival time at the aid stations as well as my projected time to get to the next aid. I’d made this up for my crew so that they’d know when and where to be expecting me during the course of the run, and I’d based all my projected times on the times I’d actually run last year. But I knew that last year had been absolutely perfect for me and I really questioned what would happen this year if I found myself lagging behind last year’s pace. I’d also found as I’d done the math that the best I could hope for this year, because of the changes to the course, was to for my race to take me almost an hour longer than it had last year. I didn’t know how the course changes, with a lot more climbing, would affect me as compared to last year. I simply couldn’t get things to come into focus and I seemed to be almost obsessed with making comparisons to last year, and fearing the outcome. And whereas last year during the race I had stayed focused on the moment, I was afraid this year, since for the most part I knew what to expect, that as the race wore on I’d be constantly projecting into what I now knew lay ahead. As race day drew near, I was revising my pace chart, reviewing my crew instructions, obsessing about my equipment, checking the worsening weather report every hour, and just generally going nuts. I was a mess.
Pam and Alan before the start.
Photo: Anstr Davidson
On Friday, the day before the race, Pam and I drove down to the Skyline Ranch Resort. The Skyline Ranch is the starting and finishing point of the race, and it also serves as race headquarters. It was 50 degrees and raining as it had been all day, and I was riddled with anxiety about what the rain would mean for my run. After the pre-race briefing and pasta diner at the ranch, Pam and I helped to string some of the 500 chem lights that would be hung to mark the course when darkness arrived Saturday night. We finally left the ranch to check into our motel and then grabbed a cup of coffee and walked around the historic area of downtown Front Royal through the cold drizzle as I tried to deal with the dark sense of foreboding that I just couldn’t seem to shake. Back at the motel I nervously got my things ready for the next day. After a fitful night I was awake before either one of the two alarms sounded, and my spirits momentarily soared upon finding that not only had the rain stopped, the skies were completely clear and star filled with the big dipper hanging just above the horizon, oddly upside down. By 4:15 AM Pam and I were back at the ranch, and I was anxious for the adventure to finally begin.
We moved outside and assembled at the starting line on the lawn just before 5:00 AM. A quick kiss from Pam, a loud blast from an air horn, and finally at the top of the hour I was moving along with the other runners into the darkness, our journey finally begun.
As I settle into a nice easy pace on the first 2.4-mile road section my anxiety grabs me. I just don’t seem to be able to relax and let things come as they may. Am I running too fast? Didn’t I take a walking break on this hill last year? The trailhead at Buzzard Rock soon appears and I find myself on the first big climb of the race. My small hand held flashlight is all I need to navigate the roots and rocks, and as I get further up the climb I begin to relax a little. As I make my way along the course, I don’t seem to be as stressed as I’ve been for so many days now, and I slide into a sort of zombie state, neither anxious nor exuberant. Stars disappear and darkness fades. Sunrise at the mountaintop
Alan coming into Shawl Gap aid station
Photo: Anstr Davidson
I try to hold back and save my legs as I run downhill to the first aid station of the day at Shawl Gap. I feel good and find myself 6 minutes ahead of my time last year to this point. Pam is waiting for me, and within seconds, I’m on my way once again. My spirits begin to rise. The day is spectacular. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and the sunshine feels good in the cool of the early morning. The beauty of this place is overwhelming and all the natural elements seem to combine and nurture me and carry me along into the day.
My crew this year is huge. Four people will be supporting me. By the time I reach Habron Gap at 24.4 miles our friends Lenny and Adele have already joined Pam. Aside from the pace chart, I’ve given my crew specific instructions for every aid station, along with a list of what to have ready for me, and just to make sure that nothing’s forgotten a list of questions I want them to ask me. I’ve gotten everything organized for them in bags and boxes, along with instructions for everything. They’re all set up for me and after exchanging my bottles and drinking an Ensure, I’m quickly on my way again. On the climb up to Habron Gap I pass several runners, some of whom I know to be stronger runners than I am. I wonder about this as I make my way up to the ridge. I’m still moving a few minutes faster than last year, and I feel fine. Disappointingly though as a defense against stressing out comparing this year to last year, I still seem to be in a sort of zombie state, not worrying, but not happy and excited. Just sort of non-feeling as I move further and further into the day. Further and further into the great adventure.
Alan near Camp Roosevelt
With unbelievable efficiency from my crew, I’m in and out of the Camp Roosevelt aid station at 33.3 miles very quickly. The next section of trail I’ve only trained on once before, and it seems to be more of a climb than I remember. As I make my way up Duncan Hollow, it also seems to be a lot further until I reach the turn that takes me up and over Peach Orchard Gap. For the first time I feel like I have to really work to get this section done. I think I’m going slower than I am, and I begin to experience a small letdown, feeling disappointed that I don’t seem to be able to enjoy myself anymore. Arriving at the Gap Creek aid station I tell my crew that the effort is hard and for them to be aware I feel like I’m slowing down and that for the next 30 miles or so, due to the changes in the course from last year to this year, all the time estimates I’ve given to them on my pace chart are really nothing more than guesses.
As the day wears on, sunshine beating down from a deep blue sky, I get further and further behind my time estimates. I feel disappointed that based on my estimates I’m slowing down. For some reason or other it never occurs to me that my estimates are probably wrong and that in actuality I just may be doing fine. When I finally pull into the 211 aid station I’m over a half hour behind my time estimate. I’ve been dreading the long climb up from 211 to Bird Knob, the longest climb of the race, but surprisingly it goes well. At the Bird Knob aid station I have some magic broth and noodles and as I make my way back down to 211 I begin to feel better, my mood improves and by the time I see my crew I’m feeling fine physically, and mentally I’m much better than at anytime since the race began. I’m happy that Bird Knob wasn’t the living hell it was last year, happy that my non-scientific time estimate for the 10.2-mile section from 211 up to Bird Knob and back to 211 had taken me 3hrs. 12 minutes as opposed to the 3hrs. 13 minutes I’d predicted, and happy to be with my crew; the best crew at MMT.
Our friend Chris has joined the crew and now, at 9:00 PM Chris, who paced me for a good portion of the race last year, runs with me to the Gap Creek aid station. As we move off into the night I’m feeling some of that magic excitement that sustained me so well last year. The experience of running these mountains through the dark coolness of a spring night is heaven for me, and to be doing it with Chris makes it that much more special. The trail into Gap Creek is a horrible combination of rocks, standing water and mud. All day long I’d been careful to keep my shoes dry. Now here in the darkness I have no choice but to run through the mud and standing water soaking my feet; the water driving the dirt straight in to my feet through my socks. The crew is ready for me though with dry shoes and socks, but in my rush to get going again I don’t take the time to clean the dirt and grit from the bottoms of my feet, a mistake which will come back to haunt me later on.
At Moorland Gap Pam takes over the pacing duties from Chris and soon we’re up on the very narrow ridge of Short Mountain. This place is just amazing and we both love being here. The rocks are horrible, the trail’s hard to follow as we move along cocooned within the light bubbles from our headlamps, and my legs seem to be turning to mush. But it’s so absolutely beautiful and peaceful in a rugged sort of way and we know how lucky we are to be here in the early morning darkness, experiencing life in a dimension that very few ever will. As I struggle with the footing, struggle with uncooperative legs, struggle with feet that are becoming a little bit tender, and struggle with my unreasonable obsession about my pace, Pam is unfazed. She is continually chipper, loving and upbeat, praising my progress; my mate willing me forward, further and further into the darkness. Further and further into a different dimension. Further and further into the great adventure.
Prior to the race, when I’d figured out my pace chart for my crew, I’d been able to use a lot of my times from last year. But this year the middle portion of the course was different, and so I’d had to make a lot of assumptions and just sort of guess at a lot of my time estimates. My most optimistic prediction of my finishing time was 33 hrs. 11 minutes. When Pam and I rolled into the Edinburg Gap aid station at 75.9 miles into the race, I was 29 minutes behind my predicted schedule, and I was carrying some disappointment with me, that was in actuality slowing me down. But once again the crew was ready. Lenny and Adele had me in and out of the aid station in no time at all, and Chris was with me once again as we ran out of the aid station and forward to Powell Mountain.
As we make our way up the next climb, Chris mentions to me that he thinks I’m in 55th place. What? That’s impossible! Last year at MMT in my most fantastic running experience ever I was thrilled to finish in 74th place out of 151 starters. This year, I knew I was well behind what I had thought my pace was going to be and it just seemed impossible to me that I could actually be in 55th place out of 145 starters. But somehow this news changed something inside of me, and almost imperceptibly I began moving just a little bit faster. Had I know all along how well I was doing, I know I would have done better.
It’s after 4:00 AM and as Chris and I make our way over the rocks and along the trail, my legs are feeling pretty wobbly. An odd combination of rubbery-ness, stiffness, and fatigue conspire to limit my running to the seldom-found smooth portions of the trail. Also as time wears on, my feet seem to be becoming more and more tender so that at the places where I can run, my feet burn with every step. As odd as it may sound, in all of my running experiences including this very race last year I’ve never had a blister, and therefore I wasn’t aware of what was going on, as I thought I simply had a little bit of dirt in my shoes. For many hours I’d also been having a problem with my hands swelling, and now as the darkness of the night faded into the sunshine of a new day, the swelling was becoming pretty severe.
Chris stays with me through the Woodstock Gap aid station and I notice that I’ve covered this section faster than I did last year. As the sun shines down upon us we arrive at the Powell’s Fort aid station at mile point 89.3, once again at a faster split time than I’d run last year. Pam joins me to run the next 7.5 miles, and as we make our way out of Powell’s Fort, running along a short grassy old road, I’m momentarily overcome with emotion. I’m 12 miles from fulfilling my goal, and I’m here in the breathtakingly beautiful Massanuttens, in this wonderful place on a perfect sun filled spring morning. I’m deep into the great adventure, running with the love of my life, and I find myself on this short section of grassy old road. The exact spot where I began running ultramarathons many years ago. For me, the fatigue, unfelt but real nonetheless, constant effort, relentless adversity, and burning desire all combine for some unknown reason to lay me bare. Life in a different dimension.
Pam welcomes Alan to the finish line
Pam ran this section with me last year and being with her here once again brings me a wonderful sense of contentment. Making our way along a gravel road I begin to do some math and realize that if I can just keep up my pace I should be able to finish in a faster time than the 33:11 I had predicted. In fact, if I push hard I just may be able to finish in less than 33 hours. The sun pours down as Pam and I make our way up the switchbacks and soon we crest the ridge. The trail here is some of the very best and smoothest trail in the entire race, and it’s just about all downhill for 3 or 4 miles. But as I force my legs once again to run my feet burn in protest. Finally I can take it no longer and I sit down, take my shoes and socks off and try to get the dirt off the bottoms of my feet. My legs are too stiff to allow me to see the bottoms of my feet and after I get my shoes and socks back on I try running once again. In a very short while the pain becomes almost unbearable. As I wonder what to do I realize there is nothing that I can do. I obviously have blisters but I have no way to treat them. I’ve come a long way. My legs are tired, my hands are aching and swollen, resembling those dead groundhogs one sees inflated along the roadsides, and I need to get this thing done. I run. The pain is excruciating. What choice do I have? It’s like a knife going into my foot. I run. After all, what exactly is pain anyway? I run. Slowly the pain seems to go away and soon, to the unwavering praise of my wife, I’m jogging along the trail, and actually running every now and then. Deeper into the great adventure. Life in a different dimension
Seeing the final aid station of the race at Elizabeth Furnace coming into view, excitement rips through me. Pam and I run in together as I call out to Chris, “It’s time to take me home, brother!” My crew works their magic and I’m off on the final 5 miles with old friend Chris once again falling in behind me. I know the finish line is getting closer with every step, and the much-dreaded final long climb up to Shawl Gap, thanks to being with Chris passes more quickly than I’d expected. I’m happy; Chris is great company and soon we’re over the ridge and headed for home. Just as last year I feel the trail is leading me around in circles. It seems longer than I remember, but I force myself to run, trying with everything I have to get to the finish in under 33 hours. Finally, up a road, around a bend, through a little bit of woods, my body is screaming at me to walk but somehow I keep up my stiff and jerky run. We make the turn and there it is. The grassy lawn leading back to the finish. The same grassy lawn I’d left in starlight more than a day before. I’m really running now. Chris asks, “Got anything left?” and I’m pouring on the coal, running faster than at any point in the whole race. As we get nearer I hear Mike Bur on the loudspeaker announcing that I’ll break 33 hours, and now I’m flying giving it everything I have. Friends cheering. Pam, Lenny, and Adele cheering. Up to the finish line and then suddenly I’m done. 32:59:10. 54th out of 145.
Team Alan, or part of it, anyway, has a group hug
I know I had the best crew at MMT. Lenny and Adele were so thorough and focused on my needs that never at any aid station did I really have to think for myself. Lenny knew the routine from last year and knew just what to do. But Adele was an amazing addition to the team. I’ve run hundreds of miles with Chris, and it just feels so right that he’s the one helping me through the night and to the finish line. Pam is the love of my life and having her run with me on this great adventure is special beyond words. Team Alan was perfect. That these friends would give so much is very humbling indeed.
There is no better sustenance than the enthusiasm of my VHTRC friends. So many had such kind and encouraging words for me, and the encouragement I received from everyone meant a great deal to me. It certainly helped to make what could have been an ordeal into a great adventure, shared with this great family of friends.
All of my anxiety, trying to compare this years run to my magical run of last year proved to be all for nothing. I knew from the start that I wouldn’t have as good a run as I did last year, and that false belief caused me no end of worry and during the race itself, when I fell behind my projected schedule, without knowing it I stopped pushing and never got going again until Chris let me know for sure that I was exceeding my expectations in spite of myself. I thought last year was special when I finished 74th. But this year finishing a harder, slower and longer race in 54th place, surpassed anything I ever thought I was capable of.
After my race was over, Team Alan headed for some much needed rest. After being up for over 36 hours, Pam helped out serving food to the finishers, and I just sat there in a folding chair. I sat watching others come to the end of their big adventure. I basked in the golden sunshine with a glow of satisfaction and shared with my friends congregated all around.
And just as in the reprieve that comes at the end of a sunny day, captured within the melancholy that comes at the end of the great adventure, the world sheds its urgency and desires. And with calmness and clarity something sacred is revealed.
On this day, in this place, amazed at what I’ve done, life is in a different dimension here in the land of milk and honey. This is where I’m supposed to be.