2009-01-04 - Massanutten Mountain Mayhem

~17 miles @ ~25 min/mi

Sunday morning's Massanutten Mountain Trail journey proceeds along the blue line from Camp Roosevelt at lower left to Veach Gap at upper right. Photos show cheerful Caren Jew on an atypically smooth segment of the über-rocky trail, and Mark Zimmermann making a mudra on a leafy slope above the valley to the east of a ridge line scramble. Namasté!


photos by Caren Jew—GPS trackfile adapted from Bobby Gill's excellent report—background terrain courtesy Google Maps

The MMT jinx continues! Just as happened last year, when a training run began with near-disaster on ice-sheathed roads, today's trek to the Massanutten Mountain Trail gets off to a bumpy start. On Interstate 66 in the pre-dawn darkness a huge buck lies in the left lane, multipoint antlers sticking up, struck dead by an earlier vehicle's impact. Caren is driving and makes the right decision when it looms in her headlights: go over it rather than swerve and risk disaster. Thump!

We're shocked and shaken by the impact, and though Caren's car still drives straight we stop at the next exit, Front Royal, to check the undercarriage and identify the source of a low-speed scraping sound. Veteran ultrarunner Gary Knipling is coincidentally there with a friend at the gas station. He and I lie down on the asphalt and I shine my flashlight on the bottom of the chassis. Besides furry fragments we see cracked plastic and a blue/white pair of wires hanging down, apparently leading to the right front passenger door—a line to the open-door sensor? I reach across, fix the wiring back in place temporarily, and since nothing else seems broken we continue onward.

After following the winding Fort Valley Rd five miles between steep eastern and western ridges of the mountain, Caren finds the tortuous dirt lane to Veach Gap and after a scary journey parks. Whew! Gary and other runners chat with us and we contribute our bit to the aid station cache. Here at Mile 17 is the first place to replenish water and food on today's trek. Some runners plan to go farther, but for us it's the endpoint. Gary shows off Dallas Cowboys thong-underwear that he's carrying today, and complains, "I wish it said Cowgirls!" We reassure him that we embrace his trail-running lifestyle, whatever it may be. (^_^)

At 6:30am we meet kind ultrarunner Carter Wiecking, who lives nearby and who gives us a ride to the start at Camp Roosevelt. We stop along the way to let her neighbor's dogs out for a walk, and chat about kids, brain chemistry, long-distance horse races, testosterone-driven differences in ring-index finger lengths, and a variety of other fun topics.

After a brief orientation lecture by organizer Greg Loomis, at 7:30am our journey begins with a 500-foot climb along a winding path. We quickly capture our rightful place, "DFL"—dead, uh, last—and meet our friends today, the bright orange dot-dash blazes painted on tree trunks every few hundred feet. The Massanutten Mountain 100-miler follows parts of the trail, but in the opposite direction. Caren and I joke as we labor along about how easy it would be if only we were doing the race and going downhill instead of relentlessly up.

Finally, with everyone else out of sight, we reach the crest—whew!—at a corner of Mountaintop Dr where Fort Valley Rd zig-zags. From here for the next ~15 miles, about six hours, we follow the ridge line northeastward, admiring views into the valleys to either side. A thick blanket of brown leaves conceals rocks and roots. Contrary to earlier forecasts the weather is near-optimal, just above freezing with light intermittent winds. A rising sun soon peeks through broken clouds and gleams off the meandering loops of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River on our right. Rocks are covered with varieties of lichens and mosses, in some places giant curled-up black ones.

Every 3-5 miles Caren and I take a break to eat, drink, and unfold my map on the ground to gauge our progress. We're mostly speed-hiking and only run during the rare segments where the trail is relatively smooth. This turns out to be fortunate, since although we don't know it another runner ahead of us, Amy Agnolutto, takes a nasty tumble on some sharp rocks and tears her knee wide open. Quick work on the part of her savvy companions saves the day: the wound is bandaged, cellphone calls are made, Amy is escorted during a hike down a seldom-used side trail, and after a couple of hours reaches a place where an ambulance can take her to a hospital where the injury is cleaned and stitched up. Gruesome photos posted later on the VHTRC news page are accompanied by warnings such as "They are graphic. Do not look at these pictures after eating."

But unaware of that near-disaster, Caren and I continue cautiously shuffling through the piles of dried leaves and trying not to get injured while making relentless forward progress. I reminisce aloud about some of my interminable monologue topics from last year's run on the same mountain and resume my Mr. Know-It-All rôle, with additional discussions on:

At one point we hear what sounds to me like a jet airplane taking off—but the sound continues for minutes upon minutes. Then Caren spots its source: a noisy-long freight train heading south from Harpers Ferry in the valley to our east, perhaps five miles away from us. We reach an ultra-rocky trail segment that's scary semi-technical in places as it scrambles over boulders on the side of the ridge. This leads to a discussion of "The Varieties of Runnable": embarrassingly runnable, mostly runnable, runnable only during a race when trying to make a cutoff, runnable at great risk of bodily harm, runnable only by elites, totally unrunnable, etc.

Caren and I both stay well-hydrated, and after more than 6.5 hours we arrive at the side trail to Veach Gap. The descent of 500+ feet is comfortable though it includes several stream crossings and boggy areas where we see the first ice of the day, in protected patches where the sun never shines. We pass a fancy trail shelter, and then for the final mile Caren insists that we run it out. We blast into the parking lot to discover nobody else there, just her lone car—next to which sits a splendid cache of leftovers from the Aid Station. Especially welcome are the mint-flavored Oreos, the Tootsie Rolls, and the cylinder of Pringles potato chips. We take turns driving cautiously home. We feel tired but triumphant, in spite of what turns out later to be significant damage to Caren's car from our close encounter with the deer carcass on I-66 so many hours earlier.

On the Massanutten Mountain Trail Caren as usual comes up with the big insight of the day: I run in order to have something to write about. As usual, she's right!