Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

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My Last MMT….I wonder

by Charlie Mercer, Bib #90

This is a wonderful event, organized by wonderful people. The volunteers were wonderful saviors. Every runner I ran with during the day and night was a wonderful human being. And we had wonderful weather. My crew was wonderful. My wonderful father-in-law Bob and wonderful mother-in-law Chris took turns (Bob: night, Chris: day) driving with my wonderful wife Lisa and my wonderful 2-year-old daughter as they traveled the highways and country roads to meet up with me on the course. I think everyone who saw Kate-Kate smiling and practicing her running skills at aid stations would agree that she is wonderful beyond words. My wonderful brother-in-law Ken, wonderful sister-in-law Anne and wonderful niece Irene were there at the end to give high-fives and also made it possible for me to run this race; I always knew that Irene was there to play with Kate when she got bored of chirping “yay Daddee runnin!”

Charlie Mercer
Charlie Mercer near Camp Roosevelt. Photos: Aaron Schwartzbard

So it is a bit strange to me that I can so easily proclaim, “I shall never run the Massanutten 100 again!” For if this experience was so wonderful, how could I pass up doing it again? Well, I’ve got one word for you. Starts with an ‘r’ and ends with an ‘s’. Yes, you guessed it. R-O-C-K-S. I was prepared for rocks, mind you. But I had only read race reports about them, never experienced them first hand. It was one heck of a time to meet them up close and personal for the first time. 100 miles of rocks. Flat rocks, jagged rocks, round rocks, tall rocks, hidden rocks, muddy rocks, rock steps, rock ledges, rocks everywhere. The amount of cumulative damage to one’s tendons, muscles and joints cannot be imagined…it must be lived.

And somehow or other, I lived it to the very end, a long journey of almost 34 hours. The highs and lows were not pronounced during the initial stages, began to oscillate more rapidly as the day wore on, and the night was simply one long low. It was atop Short Mountain at 4a.m. on the 2nd day where I called Lisa on my cell phone and assured her that I was finished, and that it would be a miracle if I even reached the Edinburg aid station. Luckily Lisa hid her concern well, and actually knew not to panic. I had gone through similar depths of despair on Mount Wilson at 4a.m. of the 2nd day during the Angeles Crest 100 miler. But this felt different. Like I was depleted of my last bit of energy, and that nothing could save me from unraveling into total dissolution. Lisa promised to pick me up at the next aid station if I could just keep moving. So I did, one heavy trudge after the other. It took over 4 hours to go 8 miles, and each step was bleary-eyed agony. Everything hurt, and every thought was negative. I could not fathom ever reaching safety or comfort again.

Ironically, it was during several conversations with fellow runners earlier during the day that I spoke at long length about the beauty of ultrarunning, and how it is important to manage the low points by recognizing the ephemeral nature of both highs and lows. Now, in the darkest hour before dawn on the 2nd day, I could not recall ever having those conversations. I was alone, physically, spiritually, mentally. I stumbled into Edinburg like a zombie, sat in a chair, and fumbled listlessly with my drop bag. Was there some magic elixir to be found once the bag was unzippered? Nope, just the same old stuff. I was handed potato soup and other grub by enthusiastic and kind volunteers. I nibbled and then something dawned on me: it was dawn. I thought, “somehow I made it through the night.” And then I noticed Lisa was not there yet. She’d driven back to home base (a rented cabin) to grab a few hours sleep when my dramatic, delirious, beseeching phone call came through to her. So I’d have to wait for her to arrive. And then a strange phenomenon occurred, one that also happened at the AC100. Even though I was bereft of sleep, stripped of soul, empty of will, I discovered that the dawn brought with it new reserves, new strength. It reminded me of my kinship with nature. The sun rises like the phoenix, and in its ashes so do we. While we are living, we are embedded in this cycle, and I had forgotten that my torturous night’s trek was caused not just by miles of navigating rocks, but also by the impudent disregard for the body and mind’s relationship to night. So here I was, walking away from this haven, and heading toward the Woodstock Tower aid station, 8 miles in the distance.

I called Lisa and broke the news. “I’m not going to drop, they’re going to have to pull me!”, I announced with calm bravado. “I’ll see you at the next aid station!” I ascended up the next section with newfound resolve, and that undeniable surge of confidence that stirs in one’s gut when the decision to cross the Rubicon has been made. No longer was I the victim of a treacherous, rocky darkness. Now I was the aggressor, and the new day unfolded in my mind’s eye. “Can I make the cutoffs?” was the initial question. For the next several hours I would compute various scenarios based on different hypothesized states of well-being at the remaining checkpoints. I could only walk for several miles after renewing in earnest my original quest, so I calculated that I would arrive in the 35th hour. Could I walk fast enough? Could I run the last few miles if I absolutely had to?

Charlie Mercer
Charlie and Kate cross the finish line

In the end, it did not come down to that. Somehow the 2nd day brought energy I did not anticipate it would grant, and I managed to jog for many of the last 15 miles on flats and downhills. I returned to the beatific vision of the 1st day’s beginning miles, when the wonderful sights and sounds were the only important stimuli, not the groans of the body and whimpering of the mind. The past and future slipped away, and again the present moment assumed its rightful prominence.

I saw my 2-year-old Kate running toward me as I ran onto the grassy field, and I made a detour from the course to pick her up and plop her on my shoulders for the final jog to the finish. We’ve practiced this tandem “running, running, running” maneuver in our backyard and at our local park, so I hoped we would not humiliate ourselves in a slow-motion stumble and fall. The crowd cheered as I lowered Kate to the ground, and she shyly turned her gaze back to the wonderful mountain. Someday she may return to acquaint herself with its rocky trails, but I doubt that I will. But one never knows in life what vistas may beckon with their siren call.

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