Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
Mountain Trails 100 - 2008
I Believe I Can
by Joe Galioto
It's 4:45 AM and I'm sitting on the second floor of the Skyline Ranch Resort waiting for the start of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT) mile race, often referred to as the most difficult 100-mile ultra east of the Rockies. As I wait, I'm thinking about the past few months - all the training hours, the planning, organization, mental conditioning, and my supportive family. I'm thrilled to be here. Yet, while I've watched the MMT movie "a hundred times" and read all the race reports, I don't know what to expect given the circumstances. The conditions, we learn at the pre-race meeting the night before, are the worst they've been in fourteen years. Heavy rains much of the preceding week have left many parts of the course very muddy or even flooded. We were warned, "You will get wet."
Joe at Milford Gap
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
As the minutes go by, I can't sit still; I really want this race to start. I take the last nibble of my bagel and head outside where I see many other runners with their headlamps on, illuminating their own space. To my right, at the other end of the deck, I see Mary, Bob and Chris, and I make my way to greet them and offer everyone "good luck's." With about two minutes to go, the Race Director calls out the time and we synchronize our watches. With a final "good luck," I exit the porch so I can have this last minute to myself and "take it all in." I am ready!
With the official, "Get out of here!" we're off. Running down the road towards the trailhead, I remark to myself (albeit out loud) how beautiful this scene is: headlamps bobbing in the early morning darkness, 150 runners strung out in front of me, each with his own reason for being here, all with the same purpose - to cross that finish line. Yes, I'm finally here. After six months of wondering if I'd get off the waiting list, I'm finally here. I'm enjoying myself.
Not more than five miles in, I'm doubled over in pain. I feel my body temperature rising and I am starting to sweat, and it's not from the exertion. Apparently, my stomach has its own agenda and causing me pain is at the top of its list. I don't know what to do but standing still trying to make it go away is not helping so I continue forward. The pain continues to get worse and I frequently stop, occasionally ducking off into the woods, but nothing is helping. Some runners go by, each offering me comforting words and such. I keep looking at my watch knowing that time is ticking. I can't imagine - can't accept - being pulled from this race because I missed the first cut-off and yet, I am getting closer to that reality. Finally, perhaps in response to my umpteenth prayer, relief comes. I almost can't believe how quickly I have transitioned from agony to feeling great again. As I make my way back onto the trail, I catch a few runners and chat briefly. I run the last two miles to the Shawl Gap aid station thinking about what caused this and can only conclude that it was either the bagel or the Ensure. Ensure was supposed to be my primary nutrition at each aid station. I consumed a can prior to every run this year and never had any issues. Why today? I can't risk using it again and decide to eliminate it altogether and figure something else out. I'm in-and-out of the Shawl Gap aid station within a few minutes - I beat the cut-off by nine minutes!
I'm more than twenty minutes slower than my pre-race estimate, and while this next section is on roads, I caution myself to relax and not try to make it up at once. As I run down the hill, I keep turning around but don't see any of the runners I just saw at Shawl. "Did I miss a turn or something?" I wonder. I'm positive I'm going the right way so I continue forward and stop looking behind me because it's just making me wonder. Within minutes, I see a turn signal, which confirms I'm going the right way. Coming into the Veach Gap aid station, Tom Corris, who's tracking numbers, greets me and offers strong encouragement. I drink a few cups of ginger ale and take two pancakes and a mini-Hershey bar for the road. Before leaving, I listen to great rationale from the "Pancake Chef:" "Consider yourself lucky, you got the stomach issues out of the way early." I'm off feeling very refreshed.
In route to Milford Gap, I met Randy Dietz, and would proceed to run with him, or in his shadow, for the next twenty miles. Randy, who became a six-time finisher of this race after today, was great company. His course knowledge, running pace and dry wit all combined for an enjoyable time. We entered Milford, Habron and Camp Roosevelt together, but some confusion at Camp Roosevelt caused us to leave separately. The problem was that I didn't realize that the drop bags were set up along the road entering into the Camp and I went right by them. After grabbing some food and Gatorade while talking to Ed Demoney and Eric McGlinchey, I realized that I passed up my drop-bag as I came into the station. Eric, who was to be my pacer and was volunteering at various aid stations with Ed, offered to get my bottles refilled while I ran back to get my drop bag. This was really helpful and saved a few minutes. After grabbing some gels and electrolytes from my bag, I departed.
These past 34 miles have been - for the most part - uneventful. Yes, there have been rocks, hills, mud and an occasional stream crossing, but I was doing well keeping my feet dry, maintaining a good pace through the climbs and staying safe. My energy level was still high and I felt I was doing well with nourishment and hydration. My first problem would come in the form of the Duncan Hollow section leading into Gap Creek/Jawbone 1. The trail was very muddy and, essentially, underwater. While I had been previously avoiding stepping in the mud and wet sections, there was no way around this. So through the mud and wet I ran. A few minutes later Ed Cacciapaglia came up alongside me. He greeted me with this quip, "just think, we have to run through this again in the dark." In hindsight, I enjoyed it more, or rather tolerated it better, in the dark. Anyway, we chatted for a few minutes before he moved ahead, smashing through the water and kicking up mud and loose rocks as he went.
Photo by: Mary Vish
I could feel my socks squishing and my feet were saturated but I knew they would eventually dry… and they did, but it really didn't matter because there were more streams and mud up ahead ready to saturate me again. From this point until the end of the race, I kept two thoughts in my mind: the first was a description from Rebekah Trittipoe's book, "Under the Equatorial Sky," in which she describes the blisters and overall foot damage incurred by her and others at the Jungle Marathon from running through water and the second was a photo I saw in a book of David Horton's blistered feet after he ran The Long Trail with saturated, heavily blistered feet. I kept telling myself that "no matter how much my feet hurt, they will heal." Continuous forward motion was the goal from the beginning and I wasn't about to change it right now. Not far from the Aid Station there was a sign placed on the trail advising that a rattlesnake was in the vicinity and to stay to the right. No argument from me. When I arrived at Gap Creek, I contemplated changing my shoes and socks as I had put an extra pair in my drop bag, but I decided against it knowing they too would be saturated shortly. Instead, I cleaned the mud from my socks and insoles and continued on towards the 211 Aid Station.
Getting to 211 was uneventful, albeit it took three hours to traverse the 9.1 miles, which includes Kerns Mountain and Jawbone. On the way up, I met Rob Apple and Wesley Fenton. They were behind me and moving up. We stayed together for a little while chatting a bit and offering compliments to each other about how great we were all running. They eventually moved ahead and I would later see them on their way down Bird Knob. Just before arriving at the road crossing into the Aid Station, I saw Brennan Wysong headed in the opposite direction. We exchanged greetings and he said I still looked happy, which was a fairly accurate assessment.
Joe on the trail at Jawbone
Photo: Aaron Schwartzbard
When I actually got into the 211-1 Aid Station, Eric and Ed were both there and very helpful in getting me what I needed. Prior to the run, Eric and I agreed that he would begin pacing me at 211-2 but since I arrived at 211-1 after 6 PM, he could have commenced pacing me from here. However, I decided to run up and down Bird Knob on my own. I grabbed my headlamp and headed up Bird Knob, the highest point on the course.
About twenty minutes later, I saw Chris Mortensen and about fifteen minutes after that, Bob Curci. They are both from PA. I had met Bob at Herm's house last week and Chris at the pre-race dinner. Both were looking really strong and would eventually finish quite well. All these encounters with people I knew, and even those I did not, were great. Ultrarunning is often referred to as a community, and all these friendly exchanges of encouragement were exactly why. I appreciated their enthusiasm and tried to give back equally.
Up, up, up Bird Knob went - 5.1 miles to be exact. I wasn't feeling tired but the fact that it seemed to go on forever was difficult. Twice I asked people on their way down how much longer and each time I heard responses that proved impossibly short - that or I was just moving impossibly slow. When I reached the Aid Station, the sun had just set and I knew the whole way down would be dark. My thinking was, "oh well, so I won't be able to cruise down parts of the hill even though I was looking forward to it, at least this aid station had gummy bears," which made me very happy for some reason. About thirty minutes down Bird Knob, I saw my friends Mary Vish and Jean Richards. We stopped to greet each other and talk about how long the hill was. We wished each other well and continued on our journey. About one mile before the 211 Aid Station, I lost my way. I had just moved ahead of some runners and couldn't find the glow light or other trail markers. I looked around and thought I found the trail and started in that direction. Good thing I didn't go very far because it was the wrong direction - I was headed back up Bird Knob! Together with the runners I had just passed, we were able to find our way. We would have trouble finding the trail one more time, but again we quickly found the right way.
Back at 211E-2, I changed into a long-sleeved shirt and took some GU's, electrolytes and a flashlight from my drop bag; Eric and I were then on our way. It was about 10:45 PM, we had approximately forty-four miles to go, I had built up a comfortable cushion of approximately eighty minutes versus cutoff and I felt great. For some reason, my legs were not tired despite all the climbing I did so far. Happily, this would not change for the rest of the way, though my feet were a different story.
Leaving 211 together, I started to run uphill but quickly switched to a power walk and would continue to alternate between the two. My race during the night hours was, except for the heavy rains at midnight, pretty uneventful. Needless to say, the terrain was more of the same: lots of steep uphills, lots of rocks and lots of wet, muddy trails. And, needless to say, none of it would steal my positive attitude!
When daylight appeared, as I was approaching Edinburg Gap at mile 76, something interesting happened: I started to see things on the trails. My hallucinations, however, had a common theme: most often, I would see tables filled with cups and bottles of Coke, but I also saw people, objects and a baby jogger (without baby or runner) at the top of a hill. Of course, none of these existed; they were just tree stumps or rock outcroppings or nothing at all. I think Eric was amused by all of this.
The Agony of the Feet!
Photo by: Mary Vish
The next twenty-five miles became a mathematical game. I was constantly calculating how fast I had to move in order to officially finish. Eric kept saying that I had a "flair for the dramatic" because I was going to finish with little time to spare. At some point, his Garmin watch battery died out and we were left to calculate speed on our own. Despite my cut-off cushion dwindling, I was quite confident that I would finish on time though it was to become the most painful twenty-five miles I have ever traversed. Each footstep was incredibly painful. The blisters, which were located on the balls of my feet, some toes and heels, were so painful that I thought I had something in my shoes. I stopped a few times to clean out my shoes, pop and drain blisters, apply Hydropel, and experiment with various degrees of shoelace tightness but it really didn't matter because nothing was helping. At some point, I realized that running through the streams was actually helping. Whereas early on I went out of my way to avoid stepping in the streams and puddles, now I was intentionally seeking them out. The water was cold and was numbing my feet, which made it a little easier to run. I realized that this was counter-productive because the wetter my feet were, the greater potential for more skin damage, but I really didn't care. As I said earlier, my mantra became, "no matter how much my feet hurt, they will heal." I was completely focused on moving forward.
Walking downhill towards the Elizabeth Furnace aid station at mile 96.8, I came upon a runner who had stopped and was saying that we couldn't finish on time, that we just couldn't do it. I tried convincing him that we still had plenty of time but he wouldn't listen. At that point I started running down the next hill. Eric asked if I felt okay and where the sudden burst of energy came from and I replied, "My feet are absolutely killing me and this energy burst will go away quickly, but right now I have to get away from the negativity; you can't stop believing." He jokingly replied that we needed to seek out more people to make me angry so I would keep running fast. (Happily, that runner started running again, eventually passed me, and finished the race.)
Leaving Elizabeth Furnace and going up that last long hill, I think I came close to breaking my own "low maintenance, no whining rule" as I was frequently stopping to adjust my shoes and socks in search of comfort. Eric didn't think I came close to breaking my rule, which is good because I didn't want to do that to my pacer, someone who volunteered his time to help me. I guess I just didn't expect to climb up the damn mountain at this point in the race. But, soon enough, we reached the top, high fived each other and made our way down the hill.
Photo by: Mary Vish
As I came out of the woods and started along the gravel road for the remaining mile or so, I saw a few runners ahead and then I turned around and saw that the last of my fellow warriors had also just made it out of the woods. Almost instinctually, we all came together, side-by-side, as we power walked up the small incline. While you could see the remnants of nearly 36 hours of pain, suffering and even joy on each of our sweat crusted faces, even more, you could feel the glory of our inevitable accomplishments start to show. We offered each other congratulations, thanked each other for the encouragement we offered along the way, and briefly chatted. But then, because we still had a job to finish, we separated as we each resumed our running and headed the remaining half-mile to the finish line. It was then that I decided I wanted to stay back to let everyone have their own moment as well as to savor my own; my time and placing really didn't matter. As I ran down the long finishers chute - a moment I envisioned for the last ten hours - friends and strangers were all cheering for me and I could hear Stan call out my name on the loud speaker. Overcome by adrenaline, I thrust my fist in the air. I was alive! I never gave up. Never thought I wouldn't make it. And here I was a finisher of the MMT 100. It was a beautiful moment!
The picture here is rated "VG" for "Very Gross." This picture is not suitable for small children or anyone eating dinner. It shows a toe after running MMT. Click on this picture at your own risk!
I was honored that within seconds of my finishing, Stan, Ed and Gary Knipling walked over to shake my hand and congratulate me. I was so happy that Mary and Bob had waited for me to cross the finish line; it was so nice to see them as I ran through the chute - thanks guys. Also, thanks again to Bob, who got food for me after I finished. I know you were dealing with your own sore legs but you still offered to walk inside and get stuff for me. Special thanks to Eric McGlinchey who volunteered to pace me. I enjoyed our time on the trail together and I'm still laughing about your offer to let me carry your backpack, in addition to my own stuff, so I could determine if I should get one in the future - whoever heard of the runner muling the pacer! Thanks to all the runners I spent time with on the trail, all the aid station and event volunteers, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC), who does a phenomenal job organizing this event, the Race Director, Stan Duobinis, who did a great job with the event and for answering my frequent emails, and especially to my family, whose support always gets me through everything.
Throughout the entire event I felt that I was very accurate with my nourishment, hydration and electrolyte needs. I neither gained nor lost any weight. Many people have asked what I ate during the event so I decided to share that here. Keep in mind that I wasn't keeping track of this during the race so I am estimating in some cases.
- 19 GU gels
- 5 Clif Mojo bars
- 1 Clif classic bar
- 2 Pancakes
- 32 Red potato halves (some with salt, some without)
- 1 Turkey and cheese sandwich
- 3 Grilled Cheese sandwich halves
- 5 Quesadilla wedges
- 2 Cups Chicken Noodle soup
- Handful of Gummy Bears
- Few pieces of Crystallized Ginger
- 2 cups Ginger-ale
- 8 cups Coca-Cola
- Half can of Red Bull
- 26 Water Bottles (combination of plain water and Gatorade/water mix)
- 36 Endurolytes
I am typically very quick and efficient through aid stations, spending less than five minutes in each. In this race, however, I found myself spending much more time there. While in some cases it was because I wanted to clean my socks and shoes, pop blisters or change clothes, many times it was just because I was not sure what I wanted. After the early stomach episode, I was being very careful with regards to what I consumed (though the above list may make you think otherwise, I had consumed every one of those foods, except the quesadillas, at some point in the past with success). Using drop bags at every station was a little time-consuming, though it worked fine because it allowed me to take more gels and electrolytes with me and leave behind other stuff I previously took but no longer wanted. Could my time have been faster had I been quicker in these stations? Most likely, but I did what seemed right for me at that time.
My splits, both predicted and actual, for the race are shown in the table below, along with some other detail. Interestingly, my actual times were behind my predicted times all day except for the 8.2 mile section at mile 84 into Woodstock Tower when my pace was about two minutes faster per mile. I guess I paid for it in the next 5.2 mile section to Powell's Fort as I was behind the predicted time by about five minutes per mile. Overall, I was about 2:20 per mile slower compared to my predicted time.