The race that almost wasn’t. That is how I can describe MMTR this year. I had signed up quite a while ago but due to a soccer tournament my daughter was playing in and I was coaching in I almost did not go. As it turned out the tournament was downsized to one game and the forecast called for a lot of rain. I jumped on the idea the game would be canceled due to the rain knowing that if it was not the head coach was going to be there, so coaching was covered. On Wednesday I decided to go. Earlier in the week I had asked a good running friend Jon if he wanted to tag along and crew for me. As always he said yes. Race On!
We left on Friday afternoon for the drive to Staunton, VA. All the hotels in Lynchburg were booked or overpriced due to Liberty homecoming. Staunton was less than an hour from the start. It would mean skipping the pre race festivities, but that was ok with me. After a stop at REI and some Chipotle for dinner we arrived at the hotel and I got organized and was in bed by 10.
The alarm rang at 4 and I was up with no problem. We pulled out of the hotel by 4:30 and made a quick stop at Sheetz for some gas, coffee, and food. I have been really focused on low carb and high fat nutrition. This really seams to work well with my body. If I eat a bunch of carbs even 2 hours before running I have been getting a micro bonk 30 minutes into my runs. This led me to purchasing a cheese stick, 2 hard boiled eggs, and a giant cup of coffee. Jon thought I was crazy as I chewed down my first egg. It was pretty bad, so I left the second one. We quickly were back in the truck driving down I-81 towards the start. A few miles down the road there was a car on the right berm with its blinkers on. I drifted into the middle of the road to avoid the car. I failed to see the other car directly across the road blocking half of the left lane. It it had its blinkers on I did not see them. Luckily I was wide awake, see coffee above, and quickly reacted to not hit this car. I called 911 to report it as someone else might not be as alert and have a major accident. The operator informed me that they had multiple calls and police were inbound. I hoped this close call was not an omen for the rest of the day. All I could do was hope that more close calls would not have this type of potential danger involved.
The race started on time and 300 runners ran off into the predawn morning. I noticed many first timers around me. I wore a heart rate monitor and wanted to take it really easy early on. This is hard to do when 300 people are bunched together on a paved road. After we hit the single track I settled in for the long day. I took it really easy on the initial sections of the course. I know I needed to have fresh legs for the climb out of Parkway Gate and Long Mountain. I might be the worlds slowest downhill runner so the climbs are where my day is made or lost.
I ran the entire climb out of Parkway Gate by Heart Rate effort. I had in my head that I could not let it get above 160. I knew this might be pushing it a bit, but I was pretty confident I could manage 160 for some time, as long as I took some recovery. If I allowed it to creep up above this the wheels will start to fall off, at least that was my theory. During the climb there were many people around sprinting ahead and then walking. I wish I knew what happened to them. Many were very much out of breath after the sprint interval. Personally getting out of breath like this would have put me in a hole that would be difficult to get out of.
The run down to the reservoir was relaxed. Many of the people I passed on the climb blew past me. This was my recovery time. I have ran this race enough times to know what lied ahead. The road section up to Long Mountain Wayside is my personal Crux of Mountain Masochist. Never have I run this race and not had this section determine the outcome in some way. Back in 2008, my first MMTR there was an aid station half way up. After this aid station all I could think about was a truck driving by and me hitching a ride, ending my suffering. In 2009 the aid station was gone and my mind was focused on how hard it would be without aid. I ran a big PR in 2011 when I ran most of this section and felt great the entire climb. In 2012 I walked the entire way up and the rollers at the top. I think I must have been passed by 50 people and this ended my day. I know that if do well here and manage to not blow up I will have a good race. If I push too hard the second half will be a suffer-fest. If I take it too easy I will risk running against cutoffs the rest of the day. For this reason I took it easy and fueled up on the run down to the Reservoir. I need to be prepared both physically and mentally to face this climb.
In reality my Crux is not much of a climb. It is all on a dirt road and climbs a little over 1000 feet in 4 miles. This is an average of 5% grade. It comes around 23 miles into the race. By Ultra standards there is nothing special here. Do not let these stats fool you, something about this section makes it formidable. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but trust me, do not underestimate it.
As I started the climb I know that I need to stick to my 160 BPM effort. I know if I could run all but the steepest parts at this effort it would be a good day. Half way up things were going well, but then I let me ego take over and I soon was hitting the high 160s and even 170 on the monitor. I had to slow it down some, but I had to push at the same time. Cutoffs were not an issue, but something inside of me said push. Luckily for me I soon hit the rolling hills at the top and my heart rate was able to settle back down under 160. I could feel some exercise induced asthma coming on. Did I push too hard? Would this slow me down to chasing cutoffs or even not finishing? It turns out this was just another close call on the day. Not as dangerous as the first one, but still could have wrecked my race. I think the few minutes that I gained by pushing hard were lost in the next section where I had to take it easy to recover. I do not think the overall outcome of my race was impacted much by this effort. 5 or 10 minutes, maybe, but who knows, not me.
The second half of the race was spent picking people off. My slow start was now paying off. Starting slow gives you the advantage of catching people as the day wears on. This can be a big mental high and is a strategy I recommend. This would be my first time running the new loop. Overall the loop was not as hard as I remember save the climb up to the top. It is not a hard climb, but it becomes more technical because you are passing people going the other way. It is well worth the effort as the view is spectacular. On a different day I could sit up and gaze for hours, but today was not that kind of day.
I always feel the race is winding down after exiting the loop. The run to Salt Log Gap is all rolling hills on a dirt road. The climb out of Salt Log up the road is steep, but short. As I climbed up this road the skys turned dark and it started to rain. I was regretting not grabbing a long sleeve shirt from Jon. I knew I would by pretty bad off it the skies opened up. Luckily the storm blew over, hypothermia avoided.
The section of trail to Porters Ridge is tough. It comes 40+ miles in and always seems to take at least an hour to complete. There are two short but steep trail climbs. Steep enough I was gasping for air. After you climb the second one there are rolling hills to the aid station. I remember back in 2009 I thought there was a cutoff at Porters Ridge. I also though I was not going to make it. I pushed this section hard with the fear of a DNF at the forefront of my mind. When I got to the aid station I learned there was no cutoff. I finished that race with 15 minutes to spare. This year I just wanted to get to the final section.
I love the final section of MMTR. It is a place where I could finally run with a little reckless abandon and not worry about effort level or pain tolerance. 3.6 miles, all downhill. An old logging road transforming into an old gravel road, transforming into an old paved road, transforming into a state highway, transforming into a finish line. I have always finished this race strong and this year was no different. I ran the entire way down and was thinking I could maybe break 11:15 if i ran really hard. This would take a 3+ minute record for this section, but why not go for it. I passed some racers walking it in. Most perked up and ran after me for a while. One guy took a hard fall, but hopped back up and was ok. My lungs really started to burn as I searched for the one mile to go marker. It did not come. My 11:15 goal had slipped away. I not set my mind on 11:20 and continued to push. I finally hit the 1 mile to go. A quick glace at my watch read 11:12. I would need to run an 8 minute mile to reach my goal. Normally this would be no big deal, but 50+ miles in it would be a big challenge. I had not run a mile this fast all day. I dug a little deeper and began to push it. As I passed the fish hatchery I felt it was going to be within reach, but not by much. Why do all mountain races have fish hatcheries? I made the turn on the the main road and could hear the finish line. I dug even deeper. I could see the clock and it was not good. I dug even deeper and did my best 100 meter sprinter impression to cross the line at 11:19:56. My final and most rewarding close call of the day.
This was not my fastest MMTR by any means, but it was my best effort. The new course is harder, more single track up front and the extension on the loop. The road section to start the old course allowed runners to bank a lot of time. I am not sure how much different this course is, but I think for a mid to back packer like me it is at least 25 or 30 minutes longer. Keep this in mind as you plan to run this race.
Lastly I want to think my Family for giving me the time and grace to train and participate in ultras, Jon for coming along and crewing me, Clark for putting on another great MMTR, and God for giving me the will to try and the ability to do these things.