by Ian Torrence
You can always return to an annual event, but they will never be the same. In 1995, I chose Massanutten Mountain Trails (MMT) 100 Miler as my first hundred-mile race. I stumbled and crawled my way the last 25 miles through the dark after continuously fighting off the urges to quit. In 1996 I pulled a groin muscle and hobbled the last 15 miles popping Ibuprofen all the way to the finish. In 1999 MMT became my first 100-mile win. I ran strong all day, into the night, and ended up having one of the best races of my career. This year would prove to rival these past years' adventures.
When I was younger I was accidentally shot with a BB gun at short range, but I think this was much more painful. At 64 miles into the race, on a short gravel road section, one of the only sections of the course without tree cover, the skies opened up. The storm started with high wind gusts blowing head on, the horizontal rain began, and then the nickel sized hail started to pelt the surrounding vegetation and me. The ice chunks stung my exposed arms, legs, and forehead. The lightening lit up the sky and the thunder crashed, and I'd go through it all again. The storm seemed to revive my spirits and it seemed to break up the long monotony that can be associated with many 100-mile races. I also knew that the storm would finally put an end to the hot and humid weather we'd been experiencing all day long.
I wasn't the only one who was having so much "fun" in the hailstorm. Most of the other runners were getting pelted, dodging lightening, and were busy avoiding falling tree limbs. As I came into the 68-mile aid station, headed by my friend, Phil Young, I found quite a site. Shirley, my girlfriend, and Glenda, my mother, were graciously acting as my crew for the entire 100-mile race, were soaked, and the many plates of food so carefully laid out on the aid station tables were floating in about an inch of water. The rest of the aid station's supplies fell unto the ground as they broke through the drenched paper bags in which they were stored. The tarp under which all of this was under remained standing, but barely. During the brief but powerful storm the aid station volunteers, Shirley, and my mother held the tarp from blowing away. I guess I had it easier during the storm than they did. All I had to do was keep moving forward instead of worrying about things blowing away and supplies getting ruined.
Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler is held in early May and winds through the ridges and valleys to the west of Front Royal, Virginia in the George Washington National Forest. The climbs along the course are by no means as long as some of those found in the western 100 milers, nor is high altitude a factor. But where MMT sneaks up on you is in its rocky and, at many times, unrunnable sections of trail. Most 100-mile events have 30 to 32 hour cut-offs for runners, at which time they are pulled from the race. MMT allows the runner 36 hours to complete the course. This is a testament to how rigorous the course is.
The runners gathered the Friday afternoon before the race at the check-in. At 5 am on Saturday runners would leave from the Skyline Ranch Resort serving both as the starting line and race headquarters for the weekend. Most runners, like myself, stayed at the ranch for the weekend in one of the small cabins or in one of the grassy tent sights. Packet pick-up, course information, rules, and instructions were provided by the race director, Ed Demoney, Friday evening. Runners then dug into a pre-race dinner.
Runners gathered on the lawn below the ranch house for the early morning start. The thermometer read 72 degrees and the humidity stood at 100%. I knew then that we all were in for a long day. Five miles into the course we climbed to the top of Buzzard's Knob, a rocky ridgeline. Far below, runners had sweeping views of the croplands and meandering rivers of Fort Valley. Normally the sunrise would greet the runners here. This year the sun stayed hidden behind a steamy, hazy veil. As the day progressed the temperatures rose as high as 94 degrees and the humidity hovered above 80%. Nearly half of the 130 starters drop out due to the hot, humid weather.
As I ran the course in the heat of the day I never felt comfortable. I drank gallons, but I was still losing more water than I could make up for. I forced myself to eat at every aid station even though nausea would sometimes result. I knew that my body needed the energy, even though what I ate sat like a brick in my stomach as I ran. This was far from a joyful experience.
Things got better and I began to look forward to the five-mile ridge run headed towards the Kennedy Peak fire tower at around the 30-mile mark. Last year a pie plate atop the tower had a written quote from our President in regards to his relationship with some White House intern. As I neared the fire tower my thoughts wandered from my stomach pains to my guesses at what this year's mystery quote would be. Once achieving the top of the rickety, wooden tower I found the quote scrawled on a yellow pie plate. It cited that very intern and referred to the lesson she had learned about what not to put into her mouth. It is true, anything that distracts you from the actual task at hand of running 100 miles is a good thing, especially if it is bad humor.
One of the most famous MMT course sections is an eight-mile section of trail between the 66 and 74-mile aid stations. The fabled Short Mountain traverse is anything but short. The rocks on this section of course are incredible. There are very few areas where a runner can land flatfooted on the earth. The views of the surrounding countryside are amazing, but you pay for them with ankle wrenching twists and a constant barrage of toe tripping logs and granite. Upon entering this section I recalled how easy it felt the year before, but this year proved to be a different story. I was having a real tough time. I was finding it hard to keep my running momentum and lifting my knees high enough to avoid the jagged terrain. Walking was so much easier. I waged a mental battle with myself in order to keep myself running. I was lucky enough to pass through this section during the day. Many runners that come through this section in the dark find it a footing nightmare.
Throughout most of the day Chad Ricklefs, a strong runner from Colorado, and I swapped leads. We never got too far out of one another's sight. We pushed each other through aid stations. We seemed to work off of each other. When one of us were feeling slow and sluggish the other was usually feeling better. It was good to work with another runner for more than half the race.
Some the factors that helped me to keep moving along were the fact that I was supported by an incredible group of people this year. My crew met me at aid stations with fluid, food, and encouragement. I looked forward to seeing them at every stop. I was especially pleased to be visited at an aid station by two friends that I used to work with while I was employed by the National Park Service.
Many of the runners that ran through the night did not have company. I can still remember the first year I ran MMT and how it felt walking the long, dark sections alone. It was a creepy and demoralizing experience. I was lucky enough to recruit a friend, Steve Smith, who had never run or paced at an ultra event before. Steve is a superb biathlete from Maryland. He met me at Edinburg Gap (74 miles into the course) and paced me to the finish. He ran behind me through the night offered company in what would have been an otherwise lonely six hours. We quizzed each other on questions from "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire", talked about his latest races, complained to each other about slamming our toes into the rocks, and shared the views of the setting sun in the west. We both had a good time.
As Steve and I closed in on the finish line we caught up to Frank Probst and Derek Carr. They, along with Scott Mills, were busily marking the dark course with glow sticks. Because the last half-mile of the course was still unmarked and hard to follow, Derek paced us to the last straight away across the ranch's lawn to the finish. Shirley, my mother, and Steve's wife, Deena, were there at the ranch house to greet us at a little after one o'clock Sunday morning. I finished almost an hour slower than last year, but considering the conditions, I was elated and just happy to sit down.
One hundred milers seem to leave me in an extended fantasyland. When I finish them I can't sleep, I'm hungry, and my legs throb with pain. My internal clock is thrown awry. Adrenaline leaves my body too slowly. Sleep finally comes at some odd hour in the early morning. I awake with a growling stomach and force the rest of the people I'm sharing sleeping accommodations with up for breakfast.
For the next 16 hours, sixty other runners crossed the finish line. A low-key awards ceremony was held after the course closed at five o'clock Sunday afternoon. Ed Demoney awarded the coveted belt buckles to the finishers and the Visitor Awards to those who made it to the Route 211 Visitor Center located at the halfway mark on the course.
After all of the festivities were over, a small band of runners and crew retreated back to my childhood home in Maryland for dinner and a warm bed. Patrik Gunnarson (who paced fourth at MMT), Jonathan Worswick (who finished third) and his girlfriend, Kate, joined Shirley and I for the drive back to Maryland. Tales of our recent adventure were shared and plans for the next 100-miler were already set in motion.
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