Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
My Great Adventure at MMT
by Alan Gowen
All I could do was stand there, hands on knees, doubled over with pain, hope spinning away. Something had abruptly shifted, everything had gone wrong, and here I stood. Immobilized. The burning soreness in the bottoms of my feet I’d endured for miles, in the blink of an eye, suddenly became a stabbing hot-knife pain tearing through my right foot, extracting a cry of pain and an end to my progress. Ninety tough miles behind me. Twelve miles from the finish line. Pain winning out. Reality overwhelming desire. I couldn’t move.
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.
This was my third consecutive running of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile run, and this year had been different from the two previous efforts right from the start. The past two years I trained hard all through the winter and spring and when I stood on the starting line for those races I knew I was as ready as possible. On race day as I set out on the great adventure I knew I was physically prepared for what lay ahead, and this knowledge bolstered confidence enabling the necessary mental toughness and opening the door for two amazing and successful experiences for me at MMT.
This year however was another story all together. On Labor Day I’d torn my right hamstring bringing an abrupt end to my running. Just as I was very slowly beginning to come back from that injury, late January found me suffering a sudden traumatic life changing injury, speeding toward help through the cold winter air strapped to a gurney in a State Police helicopter. And so, after almost 6 months of not doing any real running, in early March I began to try to jog a little. I managed six miles with only 5 walking breaks. Two weeks later, March 29th found me turning in my worst performance ever at the HAT Run 50 km, followed two weeks later with my next to worst finish at the Bull Run Run 50 mile run. The following week was a 20 miler on the Appalachian Trail, and the weekend after that found me struggling at the Delaware Trail Marathon. In the remaining three weeks leading up to the MMT I did two 8 mile runs, and that was the extent of my training.
Through the late winter and early spring as I began to heal from my injuries and get my strength back, I was of course weighing whether or not I should withdraw from MMT. I was pretty sure I’d have to withdraw and I know those who knew me expected me to do so. But I kept feeling the pull of those old mountains. Odd as it may be, the very rocks and rugged climbs that make this race so hard seemed to be calling me to return. I simply felt I needed to be there. On the big adventure. Feeling the excitement and the connection to the landscape; a union that magically becomes stronger the longer I run, the harder I work, and the more stripped of all that isn’t essential, finding peace somehow in a more elemental state.
And now here I stood, 12 miles from my goal, stopped by blisters that seared my feet like hot daggers. Every attempt to walk meeting failure, frustration coming in waves, depression taking hold. I’d worked so hard, I’d pushed myself to do better than I deserved to do and now in seconds it was all going to slip away. If I can’t stand the pain, how in the world will I be able to get myself to the finish line? Pam was with me to pace me for this 7.5 mile section from Powell’s Fort to Elizabeth Furnace, and she offered her support, but my mood darkened and within seconds I was only giving one word answers or ignoring her all together. Should I ask her to find something to make a crutch from? If I was able to somehow begin walking, and even if I somehow made it up the long climb to the next ridge, would I be stuck without the means to get down off that mountain? The pain was in the front of my foot and walking downhill was out of the question. At this point it seemed it would be impossible for me to make the descent to Elizabeth Furnace. How would I get off that mountain?
As Pam and I headed down to Front Royal Virginia on Friday afternoon, my mood wasn’t one of excitement as it should have been but rather I was nearly debilitated with a sense of dread. I knew I hadn’t trained. What training I had done was a struggle, and I knew I was going to suffer mightily this year at MMT. My torn hamstring still gave me problems on short runs and I had nothing but fear of what it might do over the course of 100 miles. The record breaking amount of rain we’d been hammered with this spring played into my worries. Last year at MMT I’d experienced the first blister of my life after getting my feet soaked and my shoes full of grit from all the mud and sand. Grit that dug into my feet and quickly tore them to pieces. I knew that due to all the rain this year many sections of the course would be underwater and the mud would be almost never ending. Just one more thing adding to my burden of dread. The reality facing me was that even if I had an exceptionally good day, success at MMT this year was still very much in doubt. I tried to fortify myself as I knew I was about to step into that huge chasm between desire and ability.
It was raining and chilly when we arrived at the Skyline Ranch Resort which serves as race headquarters for the weekend. I got checked in and after the pre-race briefing, Pam and I shared the pre-race pasta with some new found friends and visited with other runners we’ve come to know over the years. After supper we spent some time helping to string the chem lights that would be used on Saturday night to mark the course through the darkness.
On Saturday morning the skies had cleared and a big red moon was floating just above the horizon as we drove back to the ranch. A few minutes before 5:00 we headed outside and assembled on the grassy lawn. Moments later, the signal to begin was unheard by me for the third year in a row, but exactly at 5:00 AM the assembled group of 156 runners began to make its way across the grass and onto the paved road that marked the beginning of this great adventure.
Runners Start Their 100 Mile Journey
Photo by Tom Sperduto (www.tomsperduto.com)
Whippoorwills calling in the cool predawn darkness. Rosy glow subtle in the east. I unexpectedly felt comfortable on this beginning section that would deliver us to the trail head in 2.4 miles. Magically the dread that had held me down began to loosen its grip.
At the trailhead, I turned off the road, switched on my light, and the mud began. For the most part I felt it was wise to try to avoid the wet spots wherever possible. It seemed a small investment in time trying to go around mud and standing water would pay dividends by saving my feet.
My secret ambition this year was of course to be able to match my time from last year. Due to my lack of training and my still questionable hamstring, I knew this would be impossible. Yet nonetheless I’d made a chart for me and my crew that showed all of my split times from the year before.
The climb up Buzzard Rock went well. Sunrise at the top. On this beautiful morning all my anxiety, dread and misgivings spirited away. I was where I wanted to be, I felt fine, and I was happy with new found confidence. I arrived at the Shawl Gap aid station three minutes behind my time from last year. Pam was waiting for me and had me on my way in seconds. My time at the Veach Gap aid station was five minutes behind last year, but I made up some time climbing up to Milford Gap and arrived there at exactly the same time as one year ago. I was feeling great. Running the ridgeline I now felt complete. This is what I’d come back for. A brilliant sun shining down on these soulful old mountains. Shining down on me. In a year that had so many twists and turns and so many heart wrenching changes of fortune I was here in nature where I belonged and I willingly let the soul of the land wash over me. And it swept over me like a flood, and carried me along, a willing passenger riding the swift currents of the imperatives of nature.
Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard
I hit the Habron Gap aid station at 24.4miles, at exactly the same time I’d gotten there last year, and I was feeling strong. Amazingly, three more crew members had joined up with Pam to form Team Alan. Over the course of the next 28 hours, these friends would take care of me and as it would turn out in the end they would play a pivotal role enabling me to do what I never would have been able to accomplish without them. They had everything ready for me and in the blink of an eye I was on my way again.
It’s generally agreed that the climb up to Habron Gap is the hardest in the race. As I got higher and higher, I could feel my energy fading away. Once the ridge top was gained, my running was slow and labored. Even though I’d hit my earlier split times exactly to the minute, as I neared Camp Roosevelt at 33.3 miles, I knew I was going to get there about 15 minutes later than last year. My energy had returned, but even though I felt fine I knew my lack of training meant that I was moving just a little bit slower than I had in the past.
The trail up through Duncan hollow was to a large degree underwater. I knew beforehand I was going to get my feet soaked here and I was right. But I was feeling good, and as I made my way up and over the mountain I was looking forward to seeing Team Alan at Gap Creek. The trail leading down to Gap creek is hard to describe. A lot of the trail was under rushing water and what wasn’t under water was nothing but mud and loose rocks. I didn’t see the rattlesnake that so many others saw and soon arrived at the Aid station where Team Alan pulled off the most amazing pit stop imaginable. Those who witnessed it will be talking about it for years. My crew got my wet gritty shoes and socks off, my feet dried and powdered, dry socks and shoes, food and fuel and I was back on my way in about 1.5 seconds.
Kerns Mountain was great for me. The sun was shining and I was moving very well. I felt great as I made my way over the rocks. Just being in this place at this time was soothing. I seemed to become part of the landscape rather than just passing through. It is this connectedness with this place that I crave and my cravings were fulfilled. This is why I had to come back here.
Despite feeling great and moving really well, I hadn’t been able to erase all of the time deficit I’d established and I rolled into the 211 48 mile aid station about 13 minutes behind last year’s time. My friend and running buddy Chris had by now joined the small army that made up Team Alan, and he was pacing me as we began on our way toward Bird Knob at 6:00PM. As we ran I began once again to feel my energy flowing away, but Chris was able to keep my mind of my troubles and soon we were headed back toward 211. It got dark before we got off Bird Knob. The final 2 miles of this section are very runable and all downhill. But the trail is constantly twisting and turning and in the dark, even with our lights, it was very hard to follow the trail at anything more than a modest pace. I was now at the 58.2 mile point, and 26 minutes behind last year’s pace
At 9:23, under a brilliant moon, Pam joined me for the next section that would take us back to Gap Creek. The section from hell. We climbed and climbed, followed the trail up a gushing stream bed and then endured a couple of miles of nothing but mud and standing water before we finally made the turn onto the Gap Creek trail. The horrible Gap Creek trail I’d been on earlier. The trail that was under water and nothing but rocks and mud. As we were dealing with the trail and trying to make good progress it began to rain. It was only minutes before the rain turned into a downpour. Hard to see with the rain reflecting off our headlamps, the wind picked up and was whipping to 30 mph as the temperature dropped precipitously. I couldn’t believe how drastically the weather had changed, and as I neared the aid station I’d already decided that if it kept pouring down as hard as it was and the wind kept howling, that there was no way in the world I could ask my crew to endure such torture. If the weather didn’t change I was prepared to DNF for the first time in my life. My mind was made up. It was that bad.
Team Alan got me into a tent for another shoe change. I got on warmer clothes, got a little to eat and with dry shoes and socks I headed back out. The rain had stopped as fast as it had begun, and with Beth as my pacer we headed off through the darkness up and over Jawbone gap to Mooreland Gap mile 67.7 where I got some hot soup. Beth stayed with me and soon we were on the climb up Short Mountain.
It was almost eerie how quickly the weather changed. It was now warm and still with a beautiful moon shining down. As we finished off the tough climb up to the ridge and began dealing with the infamous Short Mountain rocks, a sense of peace was almost palpable in the clear night air. Short Mountain is pure magic for me. Bright moon above, whippoorwills calling, Lights twinkling far below. Beth and I stopped and simply let the peace of these old mountains sweep over us and then carry us forward into the night. Further into the great adventure.
We got over Short Mountain in 3:11, a new record for me and at Edinburg Gap mile 75.9, after a stop just long enough for the mandatory potato soup, Chris once again fell in to pace me and we were off, making our way over Powell Mountain. Once the climb was behind us, the terrain is for the most part slightly downhill, but I was beginning to get some burning in the balls of my feet, and only felt comfortable running on the flat sections. Daylight arrived almost unnoticed as my old friend and I made our way along the rock strewn trail into the new day. Chris and I arrived at Woodstock Tower in 3:20 and I was excited. I’d been getting faster and faster and now despite my marathon-like aid station stop during the storm at Gap Creek, I was only 21 minutes behind last year’s time and I knew that feeling as good as was I’d be able to make up most of that time. With 84.1 miles under my belt the chance for me to finish at 33 hours or under was very real. Chris had some other commitments and so had to leave Team Alan here, but Beth took over pacer duties and after a grilled cheese sandwich and careful attention from Team Alan, I was on my way.
As we ran along toward Powell’s Fort, it started to become obvious that I wouldn’t be able to make up the time I wanted to. I was moving well, had plenty of energy, and was feeling strong. But my feet were a different story. Anytime the trail turned downhill, fire erupted from the balls of my feet. Burning, gritty, fire. On the final downhill into Powell’s I was reduced to almost tip-toeing, and I could feel my goal of matching last year’s time slipping away. Despite my foot problems, which at this point were significant, when Beth and I rolled into Powell’s Fort at 89.3 miles, I had made up even more time and was only 15 minutes off last year’s pace. I knew if my feet held out, despite being under trained and unprepared, that I was on the brink of pulling off a minor miracle. Sadly, it was not to be.
Pam took over pacer duties, and as we left Powell’s Fort for the final 12 mile push to the finish, I knew my feet were going to be a problem. We’d only gone a short distance when a sharp, stabbing pain, as if a knife had been thrust through the ball of my right foot, forced me to cry out and stop dead in my tracks. And so there I was. Not knowing exactly what in the world to do.
Fear and depression swept over me. Suddenly that final 12 miles appeared almost impossible. I curled my foot around and began trying to limp on the side of my foot. I managed to keep going until my ankle hurt so badly I had to try putting my foot down in a more normal fashion. As I limped along, Pam praised my progress. She told me how proud of me she was. All I could do was wonder if I had to walk every step of the way if I’d make it to the finish before the final cut-off. Part of the way up the long climb to the ridge, I had to sit on a log and take my shoes off and dump the sand out. The sand that had been digging into my feet. The pain eased minimally. I’d had a similar experience last year, and the pain had gone away. I kept hoping for this to happen, and the pain did actually lessen, but it took all I had to keep moving forward. We finally gained the ridge top, but now it remained to be seen if I would be able somehow to cover the four miles of downhill that awaited me, or if this would be the end of my race.
Ever so slowly I limped along, and bit by bit it gradually appeared that I was going to find a way to get this done. The pain was horrible, but I kept doggedly limping along as fast as I could. Pam was constantly supportive, always ignoring my foul mood. I’m not sure anyone else could have gotten me through the suffering. As the trail flattened out I was finally able to shuffle a little bit, and after 3 hours to cover only 7.5 miles, we finally arrived at Elizabeth Furnace. Team Alan to the rescue. They pulled off my soaking wet gritty socks, dried and powdered my feet and got dry socks and shoes on me. They fed me and got me back on my feet and on my way with a great selfless team effort.
Only five miles to go. Beth was with me once more as we headed up the final climb of the day. My feet were still very painful but the stabbing sharp pain had subsided. Once on the ridge, it would be all downhill to the finish. All I could manage was a herky-jerky walk; my sore feet holding me back. Down we went though and soon we were wading through streams and slopping through mud, seemingly going in circles before finally stumbling out on a gravel road. We shuffled along, made the turn to pavement and within moments I could see the bridal path that would lead to the finish. Spirits rising, I stiffly shuffled along when just as I stepped off the pavement onto the trail, I involuntarily cried out in pain as a hot knife seemed to go all the way through my left foot and I was once again stopped in my tracks, this time with the finish line only yards away. I almost couldn’t believe this was happening. But there was only one thing to do. I curled my foot under and began shuffling along on the side of my foot. Along the bridal path, through the woods and then I made the turn onto the grassy field. The same grassy field I’d left in starlit darkness a day and a half before. And I began to run. For the first time in 8 hours I was pain free as the adrenaline kicked in and I was sprinting flat out across that grass, focusing on the finish line and Ed Demoney’s outstretched hand. Running faster than I’d run during the entire event, I was racing with all I had up to the finish line and suddenly I was done. 33:34:10. 70th of 156. 8th of 23 in my 50-59 age group.
Every year I’ve done MMT I’ve had a crew. Always in the past I’ve known there was no way my race would have gone so well without them. But this year, due to me needing so much attention and all my multiple shoe changes I know there is no way I would have finished the race without them. Lenny and Marikay Wrabel were the backbone of the team and they along with Beth Weisenborn and Pam were with me all day, all night, and all of the following day. Chris has paced me at MMT for the last two years and did his stint twice as pacer once again this year.
My only regret is that he couldn’t be there at the finish. Being part of a hundred miler was new for Beth, but you’d never know it. She was the perfect pacer. And Pam of course was a gem, the most special of all. Especially when she helped me get through my depression and disappointment when troubles with my feet threatened to sideline me. My crew stepped up and rather than just being along for the ride, they each took some ownership of this endeavor, and that made all the difference in the world. They saw to it that I did well. That these great friends worked together and put forth so much effort means more to me than I can say.
Fielding a force of nearly as many volunteers as runners for MMT, The Virginia happy Trails Running Club is beyond compare. For me, a lot of the allure of MMT is to be in a place I know supported, encouraged, and surrounded by people I’m proud to call my friends.
On my way to my two previous MMT finishes, I never really had to deal with the possibility of failure. And it would seem on the surface that the third time around wouldn’t offer much new or different. In fact it would seem that by the third time around it would actually have become routine, and in an odd sort of way, this year’s race unfolded in a very similar fashion to my previous races here. But this year proved to be entirely different when 12 miles from the finish I truly though my race was over.
How I was able to do as well as I did at MMT this year, I’ll never know. All logic says I should have withdrawn my entry. I was stupidly undertrained and full of uncertainty. But something deep seemed to reach out to me and move me and call me back to those rugged old mountains. Not to return in a voyeuristic, just passing through fashion, but something more. Something more fundamental. I felt I had to be there and once arrived I knew. Once arrived and I was breathing hard and the sweat was flowing and the muscles were working and the sky was clear and the sun was shining down, I felt a peace and a comfort and a rhythm and a connection with nature out there in those old mountains and I was no longer just passing through but somehow I was a part of it all.
I had to deal with several sad challenges beyond my control in the past few months, and yet I’d willingly subjected myself to still one more challenge. I had knowingly placed myself an arena where failure was a possibility, and maybe that possibility was part of the allure. It seemed I had to do this. I had to get into those mountains, become part of the landscape and push myself and if I succeeded that somehow, on some level, I’d have risen above the burdens I’d been bearing these past months, and be able to move forward having somehow on some dimension put some of those worries and uncertainties behind me. And then 12 miles from the end of my race, when it seemed as if everything was falling apart and failure was almost certain, it was, unknown to me, just the icing on the cake.
Because the way I see it, rewards are earned. And the reward is in direct proportion to the effort.
For many reasons this was by far my most difficult run at MMT. And after sprinting across the finish line I soon found myself just sitting there on the edge of the porch momentarily overcome with emotion. My finish here for some reason I don’t understand had somehow closed the door on the challenges of the recent past. The effort had allowed me to draw from a deeper well than I knew I possessed. The effort had been huge. Lucky me. The reward is beyond compare