Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Race Report 2009

I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later I would have my first DNF. Going into MMT I was 6 for 6, but I had never attempted a 100 miler and certainly had never faced a beast of a course like MMT. I was confident going into the race, or at least I thought I was. My wife confided to me after the race that she had a bad feeling going into it because when I talked about MMT I would always say I would give it "my best shot" and "if I finish". I guess subconsciously I had given myself an out if it got to hard out there.

My longest race going in was Laurel Highlands in 2008. I gutted it out and did not quit when it hurt bad and I was mentally drained. I thought that experience would prepare me for MMT, but was wrong in that assumption. If I can describe MMT as another sporting event it would be a heavy weight fight. This course just keeps coming after you, body blow after body blow after body blow and then finally a hay-maker meant to knock you out. The experienced fighter/runner survives the hay-maker and suffers through the night to the hope that Sunday morning's sunrise must bring. My hay-maker came in Duncan Hollow on my way from 211 back to Gap Creek/Jawbone II.

My MMT story begins back in 2008 on the Laurel Highlands course somewhere around mile marker 32. I was really down at this point and an older gentleman caught me and I muster the strength to keep up with him. We talked and I learned that he worked the Edinburg Aid Station at MMT. He said it was a hard long slugfest of a race and not to run it. Of course I took this as a challenge. After a few miles I was feeling better and moved out past this man, never to see him again. I wish I would remember his name to thank him for helping me get to the start of MMT.

MMT is perfect logistically as my parents reside a mere 10 minuted from Skyline Ranch Resort. I have spent many Saturday mornings running the Signal Knob loop and other trails in the area. I have always been fascinated by the Massanuttens, from her rocky trails, great views, and rich history. So when it came time to put my name in the lottery I filled out the form and let it up to God to decide if I would attempt this race as my first 100. I hit the lottery and promptly sent my check in. I trained pretty hard for this race and ran most of the course (everything north of Gap Creek/Jawbone Aid Station).

As the race neared I had lined up a crew and a few pacers. My Dad started running right after crewing me at Laurel Highlands and was once again crewing this race along with taking pacing duties for part of the night portion. He even went and ran a 5k after he got me started at MMT (he set a PR, Good Job DAD!). My brother in law (we call him HD) was also on board for the long task of crewing and some pacing duty. I also had many others along for some pacing / crewing / support (Tope, John, Mark, Rex, Mom, my wife and daughter, Ashley, hope I did not forget anyone).

Round 1: The first few road miles were very uneventful, I just remember how hot and humid I was already feeling. I climbed up Buzzard rocks to Shawl Gap, and though about how good it will feel when I see this spot again on Sunday. I made it to the aid station 15 minutes ahead of plan, but was not worried as I did not work very hard to gain that advantage on my plan. I won round 1 of the fight.

Round 2: I put on my Ipod and cruised down the road to Veach Gap. This was another victory for me as I ran the flats and downs and walked the hills on this dirt road.

Round 3: The climb up to Veach Gap was not difficult for me, but some small body blows were being landed by MMT. Once on top there is a one mile section of rocky abuse, few more body blows landed here. I reached aid pretty unscathed, but man was it getting hot out here.

Round 4: The run down the Indian Grave trail is very steep. The trail designers forgot the switchbacks and my quads paid for it. I was pretty tired at the bottom and ran along with another guy who had finished Laurel Highlands last year just ahead of me. At the road to Habron Gap this man and a pack of runners ran away from me as I was getting a little tired. This road has very beautiful views, but was uneventful. I saw my crew at that aid station. I fueled up and was off. This round was a draw as MMT was wearing me down even more.

Round 5: The climb up Habron was very hot and very steep. I thought it would never end. At the top I sat down to empty my shoes out and met MMT veteran Gary Knipling (My crew kept referring to him as the Yoo-Hoo guy because of his jersey and consumption of that chocolate beverage). After this climb I was hot and made poor time getting off the mountain and into Roosevelt. Many runner passed me and I felt like quitting at this point. My crew fueled me up and sent me back on the trail just as the sky began to darken up. The rain was coming. I have not felt this bad in a race ever. I did not feel this bad when I dropped. I was totally drained after this section. MMT had landed many body blows here and the damage would be felt for the rest of the day. The climbs were beginning to wear on me.

Round 6: The rain would be welcome as long as it would not last too long. I was climbing strong as the rain began and I continued to climb hard to the top of Gap Creek. This section would have been wet without the rain, but this made it worse. My feet had been dry to this point, but not any more. I know I would get wet here from training runs so I was mentally prepared for it. The run down gap creek into the aid station was very wet, but not too hard on me. I arrived at Gap Creek/Jawbone in good spirits and feeling really strong. This 5 mile section made a huge difference in my mood. Man did I feel good at Gap Creek. The climb had wore on me some more, but I definately won this round.

Round 7: I had climbed Jawbone in training and was prepared. This is where I first felt slow as race winner Karl passed me running up the road section of the climb. I finally made it up onto Kerns Mountain and was not prepared for what I would find. I had heard that Duncan Hollow was hard and Kerns Mountain was possibly the worst section of the course. Consensus seams to be that Short Mountain is the hardest (this though helped knock me out of the race). Kerns Mountain is hard and I was not mentally prepared for it. I made some good time at first, but then slowed down. Eventually I was caught by a group of guys including Gary. I ran with them for a while and enjoyed a great overlook with them. I asked Gary how we were time wise and he said ok. If you could make it to Bird Knob before the sun goes down you will be in great shape to finish. This became my new goal. I had to make it up Bird Knob in the daylight. Kerns Mountain finally gave away to a nice wide trail as we winded down the road and then onto the forest road for the final descent through the hairpin turns and out to 211. I felt pretty good at this point and was ready to attack Bird Knob. Thunder could be heard off in the distance and I knew it was only a matter of time until we got wet again. MMT had definitely won this round, but I had recovered nicely in the last few miles and was still eating and still feeling pretty good.

Round 8: Since it was after 6, Mark joined me for the climb up and down Bird Knob. Just as we started to climb the skys opened and it poured hard. This rain lasted for a little while and we finally made it off the steep part of the ascent. We ran most of the top portion to the aid station and made it there well before dark. I quickly had some soup as I was getting cold. I wish I had my jacket for the rain. We started down the trail and by the time we hit the steep descent darkness had overcome us. I was very cold on this descent. At this point I was not eating as much as before and my energy levels suffered from it. I wish I had a coat and gloves as every time I put my hands down on a rock to help my descent they would instantly fall asleep. We finally made it off the mountain and I ate some more soup and put on a dry shirt and my rain coat. The rain was still falling, but at this point it was only a light mist. I spent a long time at the picnic area. On descent from Bird Knob the idea of dropping first entered my head. I was so cold and wet, and the car was so warm and dry. MMT had just set me up for a knockout blow.

Round 9 - The Knockout: The trip down to the 211 crossing was not difficult, but it was time consuming as I had lost a lot of speed and I was getting really tired. I now had my dad with me. He kept us moving and pushed me along. We crossed 211 and started to climb. Once we got onto the trail and I knew I was in trouble. It was so muddy and wet. There were numerous places where the trail was a river and many crossing where we were in water almost to our knees. This was demoralizing to me. I saw a sign and thought we would be at the road soon, but I misread it. Dad tried to correct me, but my mind was made up, we should be at the road soon. Of course my tired mind was wrong and we had a long way to go. I sat down one or more times to rest, the first time of the day I had done this outside of an aid station. Dad did a good job keeping me moving and motivated. We finally reached the road, but the damage had been done. MMT had delivered the hay-maker and I was not strong enough the bounce back up from it. I sat down for a while by the fire and ate. Then I walked to the car and HD cleaned up my feet. They looked pretty bad and were swelled up. At this point I unpinned my number from my shorts and instructed dad to give it to the aid station captain. My race was done, 21 hours and 65 miles was enough for me on this day.

I had convinced myself I would not be able to make it in time. In hindsight I think I had time to get to Edinburg and the sunrise. What I do not know is if my feet would have taken another 35 miles. I am happy I was able to make a decision when it was not my day. I will be back to remove my name from the visitors list. Above all I gained more experience in this one race than all my other races combined. It was a good run while it lasted. They say that "Massanutten Rocks" and I definately agree, but possibly harder than all those rocks are all those climbs. You do not realize it until you race it, but you climb in almost every section. This constant clmibing pattern is demoralizing. It was not the water or rocks, but the climb from 211 to Gap Creek aid that really did me in.

Thank you to all who helped me, my crew, my pacers, my cheerleaders, my cooks, and everyone else who has helped me along the way. Thank you to all the volunteers who make this great race possible. I could not have made it as far as I did without all of you. I will be back next year to finish what I started.


  1. The section from 211 to Gap II was definitely the most brutal. I was lucky to get out of there but it was totally my lowest point and I think is where the most drops happened. I liked the boxing analogy. Get back into the ring next year!

  2. Justus we met along the trail at MMT. You mentioned in Round 7 stopping at an overlook with Gary and a group admiring the view, I also was one of the group. I took a short video clip which includes you, I could e-mail if you wanted. I checked the times we left the visitors center and 211 and they almost exactly the same. I felt equally miserable and cold on those sections. I didn't have a crew and when I got to 211, probably I only reason I didn't drop was it looked equally miserable sitting around waiting to try and get home. I actually got colder when I stopped, so it was some incentive to just keep moving. I was lucky I met up with another runner John Powell and we stayed together for 70 miles! We did make it to the finish again teaming up with Gary KIpling and came across the line 10 runners holding hands, the power of the group. Great you can share your experience, I struggle with the written word, I really believe we are in these events together You are living a large life and looking forward to chance throwing us together again on the trails. See you next year

  3. Jim, Thanks for reassuring me about how rough the going was on from 211 to Gap Creek. I still think about how bad I felt walking down the trail there. Congratulations on the finish.

    Paul, I remember you taking the video at the overlook. The next day when I looked at my splits and calculated the pace I would need if I could make it to Edinburg by the cutoff I realized I had 10 hours and not the 8 I thought the when I dropped. Still not sure if my feet would of held up and man was I tired. Not having a crew would make this race much more difficult as my crew really helped me at the aid stations. Congratulations on the finish. I will email you and would like a copy of the video. I will be back next year, count on that. I have a little unfinished business with the mountain.

  4. Brian O'ConnorMay 20, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    I'm glad to hear that you are coming back next year. Between the heat and then the torrential rain, getting to mile 65 was quite a feat for a first time hundred miler.
    For the record: most veterans are not very intimidated by Short Mt. It is one of the longer sections, but you have already run on the worst of what MMT has to offer. Short Mt. is just more of the same...
    Since you have opportunity to train on trail, I would recommend running it several times in the daylight hours. You should find most of it as runable as any other section. It will remove some of the mistique from the mountain's arsenal. I think it has an undeserved reputation, probably more from where it comes in the race, i.e. when we are tired physically, mentally, and emotionally, rather than being any harder a section than Habron to Roosevelt, or some of the other sections.
    The first year I did it, I found myself hating it, and it did me in. I now enjoy the nightime view off the left (I can never remember the town), and enjoy jogging the backside of it into Edinburg with my brother.
    I hope you have your visitors' rock. I earned one at my first attempt. My buckles are buried in a box in the basement, but my rock is proudly displayed on my mantle piece. E-mail Stan if you didn't get yours; I'm sure he will be happy to send it to you. You earned it.
    See ya next year...

  5. Brian, Thanks for the insight into Short Mountain. For me it is hard to say which section of MMT is the hardest. I felt my worst from Habron to Roosevelt. Kerns Mountain was a beast and Duncan Hollow/Gap Creek with all its water is also a candidate. I really need to get stronger mentally and push through the doubt. I did not make the awards ceremony and I have emailed RD Stan about getting my rock. It will be highly motivating to look at that on my desk every day and know I need to train a little harder to bring home a buckle next year.

  6. Justus,
    I love your outlook and admire your fortitude. We have no idea really what to expect on our first 100M. Your story is so helpful to me as I train for my first 100. Your race that day was 65 miles, and you ran your race. We learn from every experience, and you learned from this one. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. YOU ARE A TOTAL NUT!!! In a good way!

  8. Good post, and good plan to finish it up next year, although I have yet to attempt even a 50 (this fall for me), I have read many of my fellow Minnesotans attempts at 100, you are not alone in a dnf. The 100 is a journey that few make on their first attempt. Best of luck next year.

  9. Justy,
    We are so ridiculously proud of you. We prayed for you to be proud of whatever you did. You've accomplished something many of us would never even contemplate. Your perseverance is strong and for that, excellent work my friend. You ran the race.

  10. Justy,
    Thanks for taking us along on your run via your blog entry. I'm so impressed with how you did given the circumstances and dare I say, it makes me wanna try one too! I know you'll conquer next year -- keep up the great mental attitude and faith to persevere. That's what it takes in every aspect of life, eh? Great job buddy! We'll see ya out there again some weekend! Keep pressing forward!

  11. Good try : Are you planning on going back next year? I don't know what pushes you to do this but good luck in what ever race you are in.