It has taken a few days to digest the experience of the MMT 100 and to figure out what the lessons learned are. This is a very difficult race and course, 101+ plus miles over some extremely rugged trails, with steep downhills and climbs, and, most prominently, relentless rocks. When I threw my name in the lottery in January, I half hoped I would not get in. I was, however, one of the “lucky” ones. My regular running partner, Mark, was on the wait list. We promised each other that we would run together, even if one had to pace/crew the other.
When formulating my training, I knew I had a lot of things to overcome. 1) lack of trail running experience, particularly on this terrain. I did manage to get out to the course three times over the winter and spring but the severe weather this past winter made several of the runs extremely icy and prevented additional time on the course. Doing a training run out there is an all-day affair, between the two hour drive each way, staging cars and the run itself. Several other runners with experience on this course advised learning to run down the rocks—but I never managed to get the courage to try that. 2) lack of overall speed—not much that can be done about that. 3) A possible lack of enough base miles. I train at 40-45 MPW, while others hit 70-80. This boils down to sheer time and an unwillingness to spend more time away from family to get the miles in, not to mention the injury factor that seems to happen whenever I edge up towards 50 MPW.
So I dithered all winter about the race as Mark sat on the wait list. On one run out on the course, I completely lost my motivation 10 miles into a 40 mile run, turned around and went home, vowing not to do the race. Got in some decent training runs in the 30+ mile range on trails and had two very good 50+ mile events within a week and a good recovery. The day before the deadline to drop and get your money refunded, Mark came off the wait list. I wondered how I would feel if I did not try. I tried to resolve myself NOT to be disappointed if I did not finish. Realistically, I gave myself a 50% chance to get halfway and a 10% chance to finish. Mark was far more optimistic. I took to calling him Pollyanna, which he did not seem to mind, which was fortunate because I called him that multiple times during the race.
So last Friday, I found myself driving west to get situated the evening before the 5 am start. We arrived around 8:30 pm and found our respective cabins. I chatted with a woman who was bunking next to me who had 70 ultras under her belt. She was worrying about hypothermia, which I found astounding as it turned out to be 73 degrees at the start. When she heard that this was my first 100, she told me that she would be scared if this were her first 100. GULP. In for a penny, in for a pound. I select my gear and get some fitful sleep. I decide on the camelback (70 oz) vs fuel belt (40 oz). This turns out to be the correct call, as the day ahead will be hot, with 10 miles between some aid stations.
4 am rolls in and all the runners mill around the start, drinking coffee and eating donuts and bagels. I recall when I went to packet pickup for my first 50 Mile, how intimidated I was by how strong and wolf-like all the runners looked. Not so today, we all look like lambs heading for the slaughter. Among others, I see Carl and Caroline, comrades from the Hampton 24 hour, Carolyn, another VHTRC runner who knows all the trails like the back of her hand, Jason, who ran BRR with us the last two years and Peter, who is the cousin of another running pal.
5 am and we are off. The first 3.6 are on dirt and paved roads, mostly uphill. We do a light jog/power walk, preserving energy. I talk to a few runners, some newbies to the course and one gentleman who has finished 11 times. I ask him if he has a wind chime of belt buckles. He tells me about how one of the buckles he gave to his wife, who refused to let him quit at 95 miles, pushing him out of his aid station chair and down the course.
Short Mountain is next. A few runners pass on this steep section that is normally done at night. I am familiar with this section and it goes by easily. Another veteran runner passes, telling us that the time cut-offs are too generous in the first half of the race and that if we don’t get to Habron Gap (53.6 miles) by 9 pm, there is no way we will finish. I start to worry—the cutoff at Habron is 12:05 am. The first real aid is at Edinburg Gap (11.7 miles). We are feeling good and I have some boiled potatoes with salt. As usual, the volunteers are awesome, refilling my camelback. We head up the mountain to Woodstock Tower. This is a tough climb and it is getting hot. We ping pong with Carolyn thru this section. She is a quiet runner and Mark chatters. I chuckle to myself that she is going to run to get away from us soon. She does for a while until we catch back up to her at Woodstock (19.9 miles).
My feet are feeling hot, so I resolve to grease them every 10 miles. I decide to change socks at 22 miles. We see several stunning views, including a hang glider launch area. Mountain laurel and wild azaleas abound, as does a plant that is called squaw flower. The day is now quite warm and we come into Powells Fort and find that the volunteers have put ice in our camelbacks! Heavenly. I think I have a moment or two of doubt in the next section and start to wonder why I am out here. I feel better when I recognize part of the trail and I get ahead of Mark and Carolyn for a few miles. They catch up with me near the aid station at Elizabeth Furnace (32.6 miles). At this point we have about a two hour cushion on the 36 hour limit, hoping to add onto it at each section. That is not to be. Cell coverage is very spotty on the mountain but I do get a signal around 4 pm and call my family. It is nice to talk to them and my DH is encouraging. He asks if I feel like I have it in me to finish. I tell him that if we can keep the pace, we have a shot.
A word on pace—although 18-19 MM would seem exceedingly slow to most runners, on this terrain, it is about all we can do. If we can hold it, we may make it in 35 hours or so. Shawl Gap is next (37.6). I change shoes and shirt and get my flashlight and headlamp. It is 5 pm and we are still at a 2 hour cushion. SpreT is there—he tells me I am not even sweating and laughs at my gynormous flashlight. Caroline is reportedly running very strong, a full hour ahead of us. Carl is a bit ahead but he spent 30 minutes in the aid station. Then SpreT and the others shove us out of the station and down the road, quesadillas in hand. The next section is road, 3.1 miles of it, most of it uphill. We pass a house with 9 dogs who bark fiercely at us. We see a bunny rabbit and hear firing from a civil war enactment somewhere nearby. My legs are starting to hurt, particularly my hips. My shoulders ache from the camelback. I take some advil. Veach Gap and 40.7 miles. I eat a grilled cheese sandwich and have some cold coke.
The next section is brutal climbs. The sun is starting to come down and parts of the climb are in deep shadows. I feel like I get my 17th second wind and move ahead of Mark and Carolyn for a while. We are now on the section of the trail where I took a terrible fall last summer so I slow down a bit out of caution. We pass two runners, both of whom have blood on their legs. Up ahead, I spot Carl. He is completely out of fluids and complaining of having to stop and cool down at the aid stations. He refuses any of my fluid. We run together for a mile or so until a downhill where he does his characteristic hard run and disappears into the twilight. My eyes are starting to play tricks on me—I imagine a bear in a tree and I wait for Mark and Carolyn to catch up before heading down the steep, rocky purple trail to the next aid. Headlamps are on now and this trail frightens me. It is so steep that I crab scuttle down several sections. My quads protest every inch. My feet feel like hamburger. Mark tells me that his left leg is feeling numb and his back hurts. The name of the next aid is Indian Grave (49.7 miles) and I comment that it may be OUR grave. It is full dark now and exhaustion has set in. I want to quit in a big way and tell Mark that there is zero fun factor now. We are not sure if we can get a ride from this station but Mark points out that the following aid (Habron Gap 53.6) is only four miles and is all road. The aid station is well stocked as usual and I contemplate the bottle of Jack Daniels next to the coke and Mountain Dew. I decide not to have a shot and later realize it might have been a good idea to numb myself!
The next four miles are horrible. Although the stars are brilliant and the night has cooled off, I scarcely notice anything except my feet and quads. We talk about whether to try for Camp Roosevelt, which is 9.5 miles from Habron and very technical. It does not seem to be a good idea on any level, and it is unlikely with the 90 minute cushion we have, that we can get to Roosevelt by the 3:05 am cut off. We hobble into Habron Gap at around 10:24 pm and announce that we are dropping. Jason is there as are two other guys who have also decided to drop. Carolyn goes on.
Once we stop moving, we get very cold. The aid station volunteers give us blankets and we sit, like refugees, hoping for a ride back to the start/finish area. I call my family—my DS#1 exhorts me to go on and I feel like crying. My DH is much kinder. At around midnight, a kind soul who has been sweeping the trail takes us back to the start area, about 10 miles away. I convince Mark that we should try to sleep a few hours before heading home in daylight. I limp for the showers, suddenly overcome with shaking. There are a few other walking wounded around. I think I used all the hot water in the camp trying to get warm, examining my feet, which are pretty awful. I crawl to the cabin and talk to a crew person there, who tells me that she dropped at MMT a few years ago and was so happy to have dropped. I try to sleep but even two Tylenol PMs do nothing to get me to sleep. I hear the winner finish, just over 20 hours. Sometime around dawn the first woman finishes. At 6:30 or so, we pack up the car and head out of the finish area to cheer for those who are still out there. We see Carolyn walking down the road, having dropped when she timed out at Gap Creek #1 (68.7). Mark gives her a ride back to the start while I sit at Gap Creek to cheer on the runners who are coming thru that aid station for the 2nd time, at 95.4 miles. Some look dazed and others look euphoric. One of the sweepers tells me Carl got really sick and timed out at Camp Roosevelt.
Mark picks me back up and we take the road down towards the Picnic Area (77 miles). We see Caroline running with her pacer, the RD from Hampton 24 hour. We scream encouragement. We stop at the Picnic Area to retrieve our drop bags and talk to Caroline’s crew, who say they had to push her out of Gap Creek #1. She has a slight cushion but it does not look great, as the next section is very rocky and tough. A stop at McDonalds and we head home. I am dizzy with exhaustion and my DS#3 asks what those things are under my eyes. Later in the day, I see from the website that Caroline timed out at 80.5. Much to my astonishment however, we learn that the website was incorrect and she WAS THE LAST OFFICIAL FINISHER, in 35:58:40!! Holy smokes that was so impressive!
The next few days were tough. I felt mentally exhausted, everything except my hair hurt and I was disappointed in myself, wondering if I could have gone on. My metabolism seems a bit off—at one point I am up 7 pounds from my norm and I can’t sleep. Gradually, I realize that I did take it as far as I could, given the issues I had identified from the start—lack of trail time and lack of speed. By Tuesday, I am able to walk a bit and do a couple of miles. I talk to my yoga students about the experience and how I finally “found my edge”. I was definitely at the outer edges of my personal envelope. By Wednesday, I can run a little, albeit in Crocs, and Thursday I finally sleep decently.
Would I try this course again? It seems very unlikely, but I would like to try for 100 ... some day!
Thanks for reading!
Kate Abbott - 2010-05-21