Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

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MMT 2010 Report

by Janet Thomson

I haven't written a race report since my first 100-mile run in 2006, but running Massanutten this year was enough of a unique experience for me that I feel compelled to describe it. Massanutten would be my fifth 100-mile run, having completed Rio del Lago (2006), Headlands Hundred (2007), Moab 100 (2009), and Western States (2009).

Janet Thomson
The author finishing
Photo: Ray Smith

Massanutten fell a week before my 31st birthday and I felt it was time to try to run the whole thing without a pacer. I'm a rather social person and I tend to struggle with running alone at night but I figured it was time to try running solo to see what it would be like. I didn't know anything about the course ahead of time, other than what I'd heard about the rocks on the course. This would be my first ultra on the east coast -- while I lived in the NY area until I was 21 it's now been a long time since I've experienced the humidity and the terrain.

My training for the event was also atypical for me. Since I'd been training for the Solvang double century bike ride until late March I actually hadn't been putting any long runs in between January and March. Beginning in April I got back to running, which gave me about 6 weeks to train for a 100 (even though I did have good strength built up from cycling). I managed to spend some time on hilly trails, but never put it more than 25 miles at a time. That would have to be enough.

I got to the east coast on Thursday before the event and spent the night in DC with a friend. The next day after finishing some work I drove out to the race site and was happy to pull into the parking lot right next to the only person I would know running the race, Steve Ansell from the Bay Area. Steve and I hung out during check in and the endless pre-race briefing, then I jetted back to my hotel for some food and a large glass of wine to put me to sleep. I managed to pass out early, around 8:30, but woke in an hour and it took another hour or two to fall asleep again.

My alarm went off at 3:40 and I first had the "oh god, I'm so tired, what the hell am I doing" feeling, but then recognized that as normal and just dragged myself into the shower. I knew 5-6 hours of sleep would be enough, and that the awful cup of hotel coffee would do the trick. I got to the race site at 4:30, lubed and sunscreened up, and walked to the start to check in and drop off a bag of clothes to get at the finish line. By the time I re-tied my shoes it was 5 minutes to the start. I suppose I had a mix of excitement and fear that combined to make me feel not emotional at all. The clock clicked over to 5 a.m., and we were off. As usual I lined up with the old folks in the back for the gradual uphill start.

Over the first half hour dawn approached and I walked with Scott and John from Maryland. They were great company and had run parts of the course before, so it was nice to chat for a while. We stuck together until mile five or so and then were roughly around each other through the first real aid station at mile 11. The trail from mile 3-11 was somewhat hilarious -- at first it was a regular trail with some small rocks in it, but then we started climbing over boulders. I could run for several steps at a time, but then I had to walk over rocks. It's been a long time since I've climbed up and over rocks like these -- really fun, but not exactly what I was expecting for a 100-mile run! This section was also hilarious because it was a symphony of bodily functions. For a while I was sandwiched between farty guy in front of me and panting/asthmatic woman behind me. And there was someone throwing up at mile five. Yikes. Yep, I'm running an ultra, alright.

At Edinburg
Janet coming off Short Mountain into Edinburg Aid Station
Photo: Anstr Davidson

The next set of miles passed well. We made it through aid stations around 20 miles and then 25 miles, at which point the heat started kicking in. It wasn't too warm (probably somewhere in the 70s) but it felt warm in the sun and I made sure to drink enough and take plenty of electrolytes. I was still enjoying myself quite a bit, with the continued mix of hiking/walking and running on the rocks. Luckily the boulders from the first section had turned into more runnable trails with lots of smaller rocks on them.

I had a bit of confusion when I rolled in to the aid station at mile 25. I checked in at the aid station and told them I was runner #160. I heard the guy say "1:48" and I thought, hmm, that's a bit later than I expected. That would be almost 9 hours for 25 miles, but I thought, well, maybe that section of boulders really slowed me down. I don't wear a watch during ultras so I really wasn't sure. Then I began to think, hmm, if I don't speed this up, I'm not going to be able to get my flashlight at mile 53 before it gets dark! Oh well. One foot in front of the other.

I caught up with Scott and John again for a bit, then took off. At some point between miles 25 and 32.7 we wound up "running" up something that looked like a dry creek bed. It was hilarious! Just rocks, rocks, rocks. It was beautiful and fun, and I felt really strong, and just powered up the hill. A beautiful view from the top. I trundled along and made it in good spirits to the 32.7 mile aid station. When I got there I asked the aid station folks what time it was, and the guy told me "1:53". I told him that couldn't possibly be true, because I passed mile 25 at 1:48. Then I realized that "1:48" actually had meant "runner #148" behind me... and I had stressed for no reason. Ha! I cooled off with some ice, had some coke, and got on my way. Here as at all the aid stations at the race, the volunteers were upbeat, helpful, and fun to chat with.

I took my first few ibuprofen in the next stretch, around 3 p.m., since I was starting to get a bit sore. Around 3:15 I came across Don, who told me about how this was his first 100-mi run since his quadruple bypass surgery seven months ago. He was feeling really sleepy because of the beta blockers. We chatted through the next aid station and on through the aid station at mile 40. He decided to drop at mile 40 since he was just too exhausted to continue -- he put up a good fight and I know he'll be back for more 50ks and 50-mi runs, if not more 100s. Nice job, Don.

After mile 40 I took a little break with mother nature, then continued on down the trail. It was almost 10 miles until the next aid station and there was a big climb heading out of the mile 40 aid station. I enjoyed powering up the climb, passing one guy mid-climb and almost catching up to another near the top. We yo-yo'ed for a while (I would almost catch him on uphills, he would pull away on downhills) until I finally passed him. It seemed like he didn't want to get chicked, because he stuck with me and we started to chat. It turns out it was Matt's birthday and this would be his first 100-mile run. He was using no pacers and no drop bags, and he lived along the course so he'd run the trails before. He seemed to be having a good time and we had a lot of common interests so we chatted happily until mile 50. We passed quite a few runners on this stretch, feeding off each other's energy through good conversation.

Matt needed to sit and drink at mile 50 so I took off, confident that he would catch up with me during the nighttime when I would inevitably fall apart and slow down. At the next aid station around mile 54 he caught up to me again as I was getting ready to leave. "Hi birthday boy!" "Hi Janet from another planet!" I told him I would need another bathroom break soon, so surely he'd see me along the trail soon. Little did I know I wouldn't see him again until the finish line.

The next stretch was a big deal for me. I had worried for months about running alone at night, and I was leaving the mile 54 aid station at 8 p.m., knowing that the next aid station was about nine miles away. I kept my flashlight off for as long as possible and enjoyed powering up the climb from Habron Gap. I passed a few more people on this section. Then I got up to the ridgeline and it was nearly dark. I saw the moon out of the corner of my eye and stopped to see the view. The scenery was beyond words -- there was a sliver of a moon, one really bright star, a hint of orange/yellow on the horizon, and then dark blue above and below the orange hazy section. It was stunning and I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. Well, time to move on. I switched on my flashlight and continued down the trail. The next miles went GREAT. I couldn't believe how happy I was and how well I was moving in the dark. I reminded myself that at Western States I didn't really fall apart until almost midnight, so this didn't mean the whole night would go well, but I was thrilled. I focused very carefully on my liquid, electrolyte, and food intake to make sure everything was perfect, and I kept a steady pace.

I rolled into the mile 63 aid station at 11:15, about 15 minutes ahead of what I had been shooting for. I had a quick bit of food and moved on -- the next aid station would be five miles away. I accidentally ate too much at the aid station and felt a little strange, but knew that if I kept my head positive and kept my body moving, the feeling would pass. I focused on all the people I love in my life, and how lucky I am to have such great friends and family. I had a delightful time, and soon enough the little bit of strange feeling passed. I began to climb the steep climb and was having a BALL. There was a flashlight down below behind me and one ahead of me, so I focused like a predator on catching the person in front of me. Up and over the hill, and down the backside. I could see there were a few people in front of me and I tried to catch them before the aid station. I came flying down the hill and said "hi guys, how's it going?!" They were a little shocked at hearing the excited, awake voice and said "whoa, you're a happy girl, you must be young! How come you're so happy?" I told them, "Life is fantastic, why wouldn't I be happy?!" They laughed, and I continued flying down the hill. The aid station lights were ahead and I came cruising in.

Gap Creek aid station
Gap Creek aid station
Photo: Bobby Gill

At the aid station (for mile 68 and mile 95.6) I encountered Steve from Delaware, who helped change my flashlight batteries and got me some food. Tater tots, yeah!! All the aid station guys were great! It was 1:25 a.m., a little later than I'd hoped (was hoping for 1 a.m.), but I was chipper and they said I was the happiest person they'd seen out there. I felt great, and set my sights on the next aid station. It would be about 8.5 miles, so I hoped to make it to the Visitors' Center (mile 76.9) at or before dawn. Off I went up the hill, smiling and thanking the aid station volunteers.

The next section was INSANE. We were back to the land of boulders. Several times I actually laughed out loud because of the ridiculousness of the boulders. I was reminded of being a kid and climbing over boulders deep in the backyard with my brother. It made me smile and I couldn't wait to see Ken and tell him about the memories. During this section I focused on passing people, not getting passed, and moving as fast as I could, comfortably. I was truly like a predator again, and I would get sad if someone was moving so slowly that it was easy to pass them -- I wanted the challenge of stalking them. I felt a little bit bad for stalking people like this, but I was honestly still so surprised to be so awake and feel so happy in the middle of the night! I was still a little warm, my body hadn't cooled down since the heat of the day, but I was moving well. At mile 75ish there were some cartons of water and a dirt road, with a sign saying 2.4 miles until the Visitors Center. The rain started at that point, and I ran down the open dirt road in the fog and the rain, cooling off and feeling great. I started to get a bit worn down near the end of the road and really couldn't wait to get to the Visitors Center.

I got into the aid station starting to feel a little bit "down," probably some fatigue catching up with me since I hadn't had any caffeine in three hours. I asked what time it was, and when they said "4:15" I yelled "NO SHIT!" I thought I wouldn't get there until 5 or 5:30, and especially with all that time climbing over the boulders, I was really surprised. I insisted to them that I wasn't feeling 100%, but they told me I looked amazing and they couldn't believe how happy I was. We had a great time chatting, I drank three cups of coke, thanked them profusely, and was on my way. Next station was only 3.5 miles away. Yeah!

I passed a few more people on the climb up to Bird Knob and still felt great. I kept moving fast, hoping to get to the mile 80.5 aid station at dawn. I got to the top of Bird Knob (someone had vandalized a lot of the ribbons on that section of the course, but luckily the ones at the top of Bird Knob were still intact), and kept moving through the flat section. Then the wheels came off. Someone had said that there was "a bit of flat" before the next aid station. To me that means less than a mile. Well, I kept moving, and I just wasn't getting there. I was tired, I was getting cranky, the sun was coming up and I was still NOT THERE YET. The wheels really started falling off and I started whimpering. I FINALLY got into the aid station at mile 80.5, mentally beat. I had focused entirely on getting through the night section, which I did with flying colors. Only one person passed me all night (as opposed to at Western States, where I think 30 people must have passed me at night), and I passed a ton of people. But I had no game plan for the morning. Here it was, 6 a.m. at mile 80.5, and I still had 21 MILES TO GO. I'd been on the course for 25 hours already and I was just falling apart. I tried to pull my shit together and get moving. Gary Knipling came flying into the aid station at that point, beaming, full of energy and smiles as Gary always seems to be, and he took off literally speeding down the big hill out of the aid station. I started to slowly pick my way down the hill, shuffling, with tired baby steps.

The next 6.5 miles were awful. I tried to be like Gary and, as he said, "wrap it up!" but I was just overwhelmed with the enormity of the mileage left. I tried to be speedy, and I climbed the hills well, but the downhill really hurt. My road shoes were thin and with not enough training and all the downhill pounding, my feet were swollen, sore, and blistered. I felt awful. I tried listening to music but I wasn't into it so I took off the headphones and tried to just powerwalk. I kept going down and down and down and still the aid station wasn't there.

Then I started hallucinating. Since the next aid station was called "Picnic Area" I kept hallucinating "Picnic Area" signs. At every turn I thought, maybe it's around the corner, and I'd turn the corner and see a Picnic Area sign, only to realize soon that it was only a log or a branch or a rock. Then I hallucinated a person in a red shirt sitting in a camping chair by the trail. I was really falling apart, whimpering, crying, then being too tired to cry and just letting the cry peter out. This section truly lasted forever, I had no idea when the aid station would arrive, and I had no idea how I'd cover another 14 miles after getting to this aid station.

Well eventually I got to the Picnic Area and I just burst into tears. The guy asked how I was doing and I just cried and said "I need help, I'm not doing too well." I sat in a chair and three aid station people came over to help me out. They were really sweet, and got me potatoes and salt and some awful tasting coffee (but I was so glad to have it!). I really needed to be taken care of and assured, I was just mentally exhausted. The woman there was very kind and told me I was making great time, I could walk it in and still have plenty of time. I found out that it was only 8 a.m., I had actually made great time getting to that aid station even though it felt like forever.

I picked myself up and started down the trail. Nine miles to the next aid station, then 6.5 miles to the end. I can do this. I started to move slowly and began to feel a bit better. Then a woman I had passed at night came flying past me with her two pacers. These women were like a vision -- beautiful women in their 30s/40s in cute outfits with perfect, perky running form. All of a sudden I was inspired to cut the crap and start running. I took off after them as best I could, powered up some hills, and passed them. At this point I could go uphill really strongly still, but the downhills were killing my feet. I got to the top of the hill around mile 92 (I'd guess), and then slowly began the awkward, rocky descent. I was listening to music this whole way (thanks, Caroline, for the ipod shuffle you got me five years ago!) and thought it was hilarious when "move, bitch!" came on. Man I love that song.

The three women passed me soon on the downhill, looking super strong. I tried to get to the next aid station in good spirits, but once I hit the dirt road and the aid station wasn't immediately apparent I fell apart again. Whimpering, crying... I was a mess again. It was probably 3/4 or a full mile to the aid station along the road and I just couldn't get moving. My feet hurt, I was tired, and dammit where was that aid station! Eventually I got there, and lo and behold, Steve from Delaware and the other guys from the night before were still at the aid station! I was happy for some human company, I hadn't run with anyone for the last 45 miles (16 hours), and I was ready to chat. I plopped into a chair and got some Coke and food, joked around with them, and Steve offered to run the last piece to the finish line with me. He'd gotten a few hours of sleep at night and was interested to see the finish line.

So, off we went! I was really grateful to have company. Steve had run a 50k before and was curious about 100-mile runs so he decided to volunteer. We chatted a bunch, and I managed to keep my "I'm so sore" crap inside my head. I focused on asking him questions about him and his family so I could be distracted. We eventually hit the dirt road, which meant 3.5 miles until the end. Now that may not sound like much, but knowing I had probably half an hour of road time before the last piece of trail was a bit devastating. We continued on, and with his company it really wasn't bad.

In true Massanutten style, the last piece of trail to the finish line winds up a hill (seemingly unnecessarily) and then back down towards the finish. All of a sudden, we were there! There was a whole crowd of people cheering on the finishers, and Steve and I were done. After some hi fives and smiles, we sat on a bench and watched other folks finish up. I think at that point I was too tired to be really emotional. Usually I get choked up at the end of 100s, but I was just relieved to sit down. I took my dry clothes and awkwardly limped to the shower -- they had handicapped showers there, with seats in the shower. Best thing ever after 32:09 on my feet!!!

I napped for a while near the finish line and woke every time the crowd cheered new people towards the finish line. My birthday boy buddy Matt finished, as did John. Scott unfortunately had to drop at mile 63 after feeling the heat too much earlier in the day. Eventually I saw Steve Ansell stumble sleepily out of his car. After being on 26-hour pace, he took a wrong turn, added 3.5 miles to his route, lost it mentally, ran too hard, and then got stomach problems and had to walk the last 27 miles in. Poor guy only finished an hour before me. What a huge effort... I'm proud of him. Steve was ready to leave the race area too, so I gathered my drop bags and Steve drove me to my car so I could head back to DC.

Overall, the race was fantastic. The scenery was amazing, the course markings were fantastic, the volunteers were wonderful, the course was challenging but SO MUCH FUN, and most of all, I had a great race! After wondering if I'd even finish, I completed the race four hours before the cutoff and felt great for all but miles 80-90. How great! And most of all, I learned that focusing on the love and happiness in my life gives me the strength to do whatever I set my mind to. I'm so grateful for all the people who helped me along the way, and who supported me emotionally. You all are the best, and I'm truly a lucky girl!

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