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Massanutten Mountain Midnight Madness

If the ultrarunning proverb is true and CREW is an acronym for "Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting", then what does PACER stand for? I suggest "Patient and Cheerful Escort Runner"—a rôle that friend Kate Abbott played with panache during the night of 16-17 May 2009 for Caroline Williams as Caroline attempted the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 miler. Unfortunately, after surviving unseasonable heat and humidity from the 5am start through mid-afternoon ... followed by thunderstorms, torrential rains, and golf-ball-sized hail ... followed by slippery rocks, muddy trails, and knee-deep stream crossings ... Caroline missed the 2:15am Sunday morning cutoff at mile 64.9 by less than 15 minutes. But she had a superb race and joins the honorable list of "Visitors", those who survived the first half of MMT but haven't yet finished. (Note the word "yet"—I predict that Caroline will succeed another year!)

My great pleasure through the night was helping runners at aid stations, supporting Kate and Caroline, and meeting Caroline's real crew: her ex-husband Walker Williams, a true gentleman. Alas, my pre-race notion to pace Caroline between miles 65 and 76 didn't happen. Maybe another time! Meanwhile, Kate Abbott's lovely report on her adventure:

The MMT is a very demanding 100 mile trail race in the George Washington National Forest. It is one of the main races for the VHTRC (Virginia Happy Trails Running Club) and is held in May. There is a 36 hour overall cut off, with various time limits along the way. I have ventured into the ultra realm, with several 50 Milers under my belt, but this event seems daunting. When running partner Caroline asks Mark and me to pace her for portions of the race we jump feet first into the idea. The plan is that I will pick her up at Mile 48 and take her to Mile 65, from 7 pm to around 2 am, and then Mark will take her to Mile 75, which will get her to daylight. Simple, right?

On the drive up to the mountain Mark reminds me that I picked the hardest climb and that it will be dark. Gulp. I am normally sound asleep by 10 p.m., preferably 9 p.m. The thunderclouds loom and the day has been very warm. The racers started at 5 am. The rain hits and I have to pull over on Interstate 81 for about 10 minutes until it passes. Mark points out the ridges to the east that we will be climbing. We reach the meeting point around 7 pm where Caroline's crew, Walker, is waiting for us. It is pouring. Runners are straggling up the hill into the aid station. One tells us he is dropping because the hail beat him up so badly. Another young man asks me if I think the rain is finished. I give him some chicken nuggets and tell him I think so. What do I know?—but I want to be positive.

Caroline appears. She is soaking wet and tell us she has had stomach issues. She staggers into the aid station and dons a couple of layers. It is raining hard. The aid station volunteers tend to her and give me some advice: "keep her moving, keep her talking, and keep her drinking." They tell me there is very little of the next eight miles that is runnable. They give me a packet of food, make sure I have a headlamp and fluids and send us on our way. We are 25 minutes behind the cut off. The first 1/3 of a mile and I realize Caroline is pretty tired. Her previous instructions to me were to stay in front of her and not worry if she is not too talkative. We turn right and head up the trail to Bird Knob. It is four miles to the aid station.

And the climb begins. A 1500 foot climb up boulders, on a narrow steep path slick with mud. Runners are coming down the hill. They all greet us. I feel like an impostor as they mistake me for a real racer and encourage me. Caroline knows everyone, it seems, and she is in good spirits. I try to stay about 30 feet in front of her and pick up the pace as she seems strong. It starts to rain even harder and the thunder booms and lightning sears the sky. The forest is, for an instant, as bright as day. As the sun sets behind the clouds it is getting dark; we pull our headlamps out and put on windbreakers. Finally we reach the ridgeline and can see lights of the town New Market below. There the trail is easier and there are pancake-like flat rocks. The rain has stopped but it is quite foggy. This scares me. I can hardly see a few feet in front of me. Steam rises off our bodies. We travel along a logging road of sorts and manage a trot for about 15 minutes before we hit the aid station at Bird Knob. This is the turnaround point, 52.1 miles

I gently urge Caroline out of the aid station and we head back to the trail. A bit more of the road and then we're back on the path, circling around to the trail down the hill. This gets pretty scary. I realize what a huge responsibility I have as I try to encourage her down the hill, keeping her moving over thick and very slippery muddy patches. The rocks are treacherous. She slips four times. I worry about our pace. Our 25 minute cushion has slipped to 15. Finally, we emerge from the mountain and reach the next aid station, the Picnic Area at mile 56.4. I have some chicken soup here. Coming out of the Picnic Area, we are 10 minutes ahead of the cut off.

The next aid station is at the US-211 crossing 1.7 miles away. The coffee with sugar hits Caroline and she is running ahead. I train my flashlight in front of her. I think I hear some traffic up ahead, which is weird. It turns out to be a huge stream created by the deluge. We wade through, ankle deep. It will be the first of many water crossings. Mark and Walker are at mile 58.1. Just under seven miles to the next cut-off, with two and a half hours to do it. We catch up to some runners as we head up another dirt road. We are moving well and talking to the other runners. One of them I recognize from BRR 50 last month. He is clearly struggling and his speech is slurred. I talk to his pacer for a while, an Air Force pilot. They slow markedly and we pass them.

The rocks start again. My Garmin loses signal so I am not at all sure of our mileage. I am very worried about the cut-off. The climb is steep. A young man, Brian, who had asked me about the rain earlier is with us. I can sense he could go faster but he does not seem to want to be alone. He stays with us. Caroline slows quite a bit and says she is at a low point. I offer her food and try to encourage her. We are climbing a steep rocky trail that has turned into a rushing stream. Our feet are cold and it is raining again. I am pretty sure we will miss the cut-off but try to keep them moving. We get off the rocky trail onto another logging road. It is a steep decent for what seems like about half an hour. Another runner passes us; he says he is struggling to meet the cut-off. The logging road emerges onto a dirt road and we turn right. It is a few minutes past 2 a.m. A car approaches us and the guy tells us that is a mile and a half to the aid station and that we have less than ten minutes. I urge Brian on ahead and we break into a trot.

We can see headlamps dancing ahead of us. I hope against hope that the mileage is less than what the fellow told us. Caroline announces that she thinks we missed the 2:15 am cut off but we keep moving. Mark and Walker emerge from the darkness and gently tell us that we are timed out. I feel heartbroken for Caroline. She looks exhausted and crestfallen but she is sweet nonetheless. She and Walker head into the aid station to sign out and Mark loads me into my car for the ride home.

Once in the car, I wonder aloud if I could have/should have pushed her harder. Mark reassures me that Caroline was in charge and it was a very tough day out there due to the weather. We decide that next year for MMT for us is too soon. I alternate between hyper awake and very sleepy. The seven hours and 17 miles is catching up with me. We switch out drivers and I get home around 4:30 am.

It was an honor to be out there and I am so glad I did it. Along the trail I reflected on the beauty of my life and, as midnight came, told those around me that today was my 17th wedding anniversary. I seemed to shake off the funk that had come over me since the BRR 50. I was grateful for the company of such wonderful friends.

(cf. 2008-01-20 - Massanutten Mountain South Training Run, 2009-01-04 - Massanutten Mountain Mayhem, 2009-01-25 - Eagle Run, 2009-02-26 - Bull Run Trail Fun, ...) - ^z - 2009-05-17