2010-05-15 - Half Massanutten Mountain Trails

~53.6 miles @ ~19.5 min/mi

A week ago Kate Abbott and I push the edges of our envelopes and get more than halfway through the 2010 MMT hundred mile race before withdrawing after almost 17.5 hours on the trail. We achieve one of our goals, a sub-20 minute/mile average pace over some incredibly tough-lovely terrain. We don't finish, and that's OK. It's a painful, joyous experience. No regrets!

See Massanutten Mountain Trails 2010 for Kate's report on the journey. Herewith a few snapshots that I brought back, focusing on some of the wonderful people we met along the way. Kudos meanwhile to all the race organizers, volunteers, families, friends, and fellow runners involved in MMT 2010.

Caren Jew

It's Caren's fault! After I melt down during the Chocolate Bunny training run I'm perched on a ledge about to jump—or rather, drop my name from the MMT waiting list. Night running is too hard. Massanutten is too rocky. I'm too weak, too slow. Comrade Kate is correct in her estimate of our chances of finishing MMT together: slim to nil.

Far too true—but as dear friend Caren gently advises in my moment of despair:

I just think you should at least give it a shot. There is no shame in a DNF. That is one tough course. Plus I think you're better than you give yourself credit for. And you're tough too.

Maybe your spouses have taken out extra insurance!

Cheerful thoughts! So thanks to Caren I stay on the MMT waiting list, and a few days before the deadline enough other registrants drop so I get in. Kate remains in the race likewise, though she still thinks we have at best only 1 chance in 10 of finishing. Ragingly optimistic Mr. Pollyanna, aka me, gives us 1:5 odds. I point out that Kate did well at the JFK and BRR 50 milers. She finished 52.5 miles in 11 hours at another event a week later. So why not roll the dice for a 100?

In response, Kate mercilessly reminds me that when we initially signed up I neglected to mention that MMT is ranked the toughest 100 miler east of the Rockies, among the 10 hardest in the US. But as Barkley Marathons veteran Ed Furtaw observes, it's good to seek one's limits, measure oneself against the impossible. And in fact, MMT this year turns out much like the Catoctin 50k 2008 race that Caren and I DNF'd together. We are better than we think we are. Thank you, Caren!

Carolyn Gernand

"I want Kate's escalator shoes—I've only got stair shoes!" groans veteran trail runner Carolyn Gernand at mile 41 as we climb the steep slope toward Veach Gap. Kate is power-walking the rocks ahead of us, arms pumping, hips swinging. All day Carolyn has been playing leapfrog with Kate and me along the trail. She catches us and passes on level and downhill segments. We catch and pass her during the climbs.

Like Kate and me, Carolyn is slower than most runners doing MMT today. Unlike Kate and me, Carolyn has finished The Ring and several other audacious trail runs. See 2009-09-05 - One Third of The Ring for Kate's and my attempted Ring last year; Carolyn passed us when we dropped at mile 25. Carolyn has huge stamina and a huger sense of humor. She also has a deep well of experience on the trails.

Today, Carolyn gives us impromptu nature lessons at several places along MMT course. She identifies squaw root, mountain laurel, flowering milkweed, flat green mosses with sprout-like blooms, and a host of other plants. We marvel at butterflies together, and jointly curse the gnats and stinging insects. Carolyn also provides background on notable features such as the dramatic overlook and hang-glider launching point near Woodstock Tower, mile 19.

A few miles after Powells Fort the MMT route leaves the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail and follows the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail as it switchbacks over a steep ridge. Kate blasts ahead and as we approach the crest I leave Carolyn behind in an effort to catch up. When I get to the top I plunge onward without looking about. I think I'm following the trail, but strangely enough there aren't any blazes. I'm lost!

After some minutes of blundering along the rocks I get scared, give up, and backtrack. As I return I suddenly see Carolyn vanishing over the hilltop in front of me. I scamper along to catch her, and find that if I had only turned my head I would have seen the yellow ribbons marking the correct course.

Carolyn and I speed-hike down the trail, but Kate is still nowhere to be seen. After a mile or so Carolyn tells me that a runnable section is coming up, so I race ahead and half a mile later spy Kate. At the Elizabeth Furnace aid station, mile 32.6, Carolyn cruises in as Kate and I prepare to leave.

The last time we see Carolyn during the race is near mile 47, where the course leaves the Massanutten Trail to zigzag down the steep Indian Grave Trail. The sun is setting behind the mountain range. Carolyn vanishes into the gloom ahead of us, dancing down the rocks.

On Sunday morning Kate and I are driving down Crisman Hollow Rd at 7am to pick up our drop bags from the Visitor Center aid station (mile 77.1). As we approach the Gap Creek aid station who's walking up the dirt road toward us? A tired but still chipper Carolyn Gernand! She's missed the 5:25am cutoff and can't find a ride to the start/finish area. So after running through the night and reaching mile 68.7 she decides to walk another five miles to Caroline Furnace. She's awesome!

The back of the MINI Cooper is full of Kate's and my gear, so Kate leaps out and gives up her seat. As I drive back to the start Kate visits with volunteers at the aid station. She applauds runners looping through, mile 95.4 on their return to the finish. Meanwhile Carolyn calls us "angels" and answers my questions about blister prevention (recommendation: tape hotspots early) and how the race went for her. I make Carolyn promise to run trails with me in the future. What a lady!

Stan Duobinis

"Stan! Stan!" I shout at the receding figure on Friday evening. It's almost 9pm, and Kate and I have just arrived at the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp, the start/finish area. Unlike many race participants, we work today and hit the highway as rush-hour traffic begins to recede. A major thunderstorm en route further slows our progress.

Stan Duobinis is the MMT race director, and even though it's late he cheerfully returns to issue us our race packets with t-shirt, water bottle, and numbered bib. His wife, Margie Schlundt, has reserved our quarters: a bunk bed in a cabin for Kate near the starting line, and for cheapskate me a cot in a sukkah, a screened hut half a mile up the road. Both Stan and Margie are ultra-helpful. Stan entertains us with his commentary on the history of the race—he's one of the few to have been at all 16 years of it.

Stan discusses course conditions, the reasons for choosing the new starting area, the tough hot-humid weather last year, Margie's post-retirement career in medical student training, and the true story of how he became MMT race director. That last anecdote involves a beer party at VHTRC founder Anstr Davidson's home and an offer that the prior race director claims not to remember when sober.

I retire to my sukkah to try to catch a few hours of sleep. There's nobody else in the building, so I get my pick among the dozen cots. Half an hour later Bill Sublett comes in and inadvertently wakes me. We met at the 2008-01-01 - Red Eye 50k, of which he was the founding father. I quote what I think is his rule for finishing a 100 miler, "You just have to not quit", but he disavows responsibility for the aphorism. (It turns out I was mistaken; another Red Eye 2008 runner, Lou Jones, told me that.) Bill and I fall asleep, but half an hour later I wake again as Anstr Davidson arrives at the sukkah. He apologizes and after a brief chat I close my eyes.

Revenge comes when at 3am Saturday morning my alarms go off. Bill and Anstr roll over. I gather up sleeping bag and pillow, then hike back down the half mile to leave the gear in my car parked by Kate's cabin. Indefatigable RD Stan is already bustling about, making coffee, setting out pre-race munchies. I help where I can, chug a Dr. Pepper, and nibble donut holes while Stan recounts more race tales. Margie appears and after another half hour other runners materialize, first in a trickle, then a flood. Kate and I find each other and get ready to rumble.

About 11:30pm that evening Kate and I are back, thanks to a ride from helpful volunteers who pick us up at the Habron Gap aid station. Stan is waiting at the finish line. Nobody has come through yet, but he's patient. Kate takes a long hot shower and retires to her cabin. I shower, chat some more with Stan, and nap in my car. At 1:25am the winner crosses the line. I'm slumbering. Stan is there.

Caroline Williams

Last year in a fit of Massanutten Mountain Midnight Madness Kate and I meet Caroline Williams at mile 48 of the 2009 MMT. Between 7:30pm and 2:30am Kate runs 17 miles with Caroline, through a violent thunderstorm, down flooded creek beds, over slippery rocks, and up precipitous mountain sides. Alas, Caroline misses the cutoff at mile 65 so I don't get a chance to pace her for the rest of the night. But I fearlessly predict that Caroline will succeed in her MMT quest another year.

In 2010 that prediction comes true: in an incredible feat of toughness (and with incredibly tough feet) Caroline crosses the finish line with less than 2 minutes to spare before the ultimate cutoff. Total time: 35:58:39. How does she do it? I can only quote from the movie Fight Club, "I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more."

Caroline gives us hugs before the race starts at 5am. She goes out fast and by the time Kate and I drop at Habron Gap she's almost 90 minutes in front of us. As we drive down Crisman Hollow Rd toward the Visitor Center, after giving Carolyn Gernand a ride back to the start from Gap Creek, we spy a pair of runners trotting along the road ahead where the course joins our route. It's Caroline and her pacer! Kate and I roll down the windows to shriek cheers of encouragement. We drive on to the aid station to tell her crew, inestimable ex-husband Walker Williams, to get ready for her. At 8:05am she's there.

Odds seem long against Caroline's success, but we still have hope. "MMT Live" updates during the afternoon first indicate that she drops several miles later. Kate and I are sad—until the final report corrects the mistake and tells the tale of her last-minute finish. Brava!

A week later Kate has Caroline over to a family dinner. I'm invited to eat out about once every decade, but by sheer Dickensian coincidence I'm already booked at another friend's that very same night. So I make abject apologies, leave the other party early, get lost in Arlington, find the freeway, speed through the rain, and fortunately see Caroline at Kate's lovely home late Saturday evening. I admire her MMT finisher's buckle, praise the scars on her legs, interrogate her gently about the experience, and extract her promise to run with me again soon. Amazingly Caroline is almost recovered already. She ran 17 miles earlier that day.

Caroline tells how delighted she was to see us drive by her during the race. Her most vivid memory of that moment: Kate's beautiful skin, glowing radiant like a 20-year-old's. "Of course, you looked good too!" she tells me.

Carl Camp

"At MMT, if you think you're not going fast enough, slow down!" Kate advises me during the first mile of the race. She learns the rule from Carl Camp at the Hampton 24 hour run last month. Carl is a delightful gentleman whom Kate and I saw at several points during our attempt at The Ring last year. That day Carl is coincidentally crewing for both Caroline Williams and Carolyn Gernand. At Camp Roosevelt, mile 25, he commiserates with us when we drop. Caroline is through that location 45 minutes earlier; Carolyn comes past 20 minutes later. When we fail to rise to her challenge to continue, she treks onward. Carl then kindly gives Kate and me a ride back to our starting point at Elizabeth Furnace.

During MMT 2010 Carl runs ahead of us from the start of the race. But he doesn't feel good in the heat of the day and has to start spending more time in aid stations recovering, so by Veach Gap (mile 40.7) we're within 10 minutes of him. On the ridge a few miles later Kate and I catch up with Carl, just before a majorly scary "billy goat" part of the the Massanutten Trail. (It's the section described in 2009-01-04 - Massanutten Mountain Mayhem that Caren and I did in the opposite direction.) At this point my lower back is starting to ache, perhaps due to the weight of my hydration backpack, perhaps due to my leaning away from the cliff edge from frantic fear of falling.

Carl has drunk all his water but refuses to take any from Kate or me. "You might need it!" he says, and trudges along making cheery small talk. We come upon a couple of suffering runners who are complaining loudly about their ordeals. I'm reminded of the lines in the movie Kelly's Heroes by Donald Sutherland's ur-hippie character Oddball: "Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?" We hasten out of earshot.

Carl and Kate trot on ahead of me. Soon Carolyn catches up and passes too. Besides a backache and a tendency to list to the right, I'm starting to feel dizziness, intermittent weakness in the left leg, and an increasing number of blisters. Hopes of making it the whole distance, always a long shot, begin to crumble. Now the focus is on staying upright, catching Kate, and making it safely to the next aid station. I scramble down the rocks, having to actually sit at one point to lower myself in a steep spot. Kate materializes in the gloom and I learn that Carl and Carolyn have rushed down the hillside. We don't see them again—they're 10 minutes gone by the time we reach the next aid station. Later we learn that Carl makes it to Camp Roosevelt (mile 63.1) but becomes increasingly ill, misses the cutoff, and has to drop at 3:20am.

Mark McKennett

Powerful Mark McKenett's story has a happier conclusion. He's already finished one 100 miler, Grindstone, and is attacking MMT with confidence. We greet him at the start and admire his hair, which has been shaved into the letters MMT 100. Marks blasts out, and at Habron Gap is almost 3 hours in front of us. He survives the night, presses onward through the next day, and finishes in under 35.5 hours.

Mark has a Grindstone 100 tattoo on one calf. He tells me that he's not planning to get a separate MMT tat, but perhaps will add a silhouette of the VHTRC mascot bear, "Furbutt", below the Grindstone emblem. I see Mark at the MCRRC Thursday evening run and he looks strong and happy. We discuss future ultra plans. Bravo, Sir!

Kate Abbott

There's no way I can thank Kate enough for her constant and cheerful companionship, even in the toughest of circumstances. So instead, I must scold her! During MMT Kate fails to tell me how close to her edge that she's going, how much she's suffering, and how little she enjoys the final miles of our journey. Bad Kate! Next time, please let me know sooner, eh? Pushing the envelope is fine, but trail buddies have to share everything, good and bad, up and down. Otherwise, we might make a Very Bad Decision and get into Real Trouble.

But in fairness, Kate tells me that she doesn't fully realize how rough things are getting until the next day when, she says, "Everything hurts except my hair." OK, I'll forgive you—this time.

"I've just gotten my 17th wind!" Kate tells Carl Camp and me as we stumble along the trail near mile 45. At MMT Kate experiences more bad patches than in any prior ultra. Fortunately the bad patches are short, 5-10 minutes each. In between she's relentlessly joyful, relentlessly brisk in zipping through the aid stations, and relentlessly determined in attacking the hills. I salute her, relentlessly.

For my part of the social contract, I try not to contribute too much to Kate's woes. When she declines my offer at the start of the race to lecture on quantum mechanics I bite my tongue. When she threatens to pull out her MP3 player and crank up the volume to block out my blatering, I smile at her. When we're hiking along the road to the final aid station and I stop every quarter mile to gape upward at the stars, I accept the snub as Kate trudges on. Kate does in turn listen to my explanation of the Earthshine we observe on the setting Moon's dark side. (Yep, the Mr. Know-It-All personality emerges as the sun sets!) But when we see the glow of the roadsigns in our flashlight beams, Kate for unknown reasons spurns my offer to explain the optics of retroreflection. She also inexplicably asks me not to sing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" whenever I see a plastic yellow trail marker hanging down from a branch along our course.

And seriously, I apologize for not realizing the extent of Kate's blisters and other race-related stresses. I don't know that she thinks she sees a bear as she leads our twilight scramble down Indian Grave Trail. And I take full blame for snookering her into the final 3.9 mile deathmarch down the dirt road from the penultimate aid station to Habron Gap. Yes, it does get us to 52.7% of the way to the finish line. Yes, it does lower the cost of the race to under $3 per mile. Yes, it does move us up 7 notches in the DNF list. And honestly, I thought it would be easier to get a ride back to Caroline Furnace from there. Sorry that we have to wait for 90 minutes, wrapped in blankets, shivering as mosquitoes feast on my bald pate. But it's noble of us to stick together and not take advantage of the cars that have room for only one rider. "Leave no one behind!" remains our mantra.

The next day at McDonald's in New Market I'm struck by how similar Kate's and my blister patterns are, in size and location, as Kate takes off her sandals to exhibit yesterday's handiwork. I'm sure the other people eating breakfast don't mind.

Next Steps

Future plans for Team Alpha-Omega? Hard to say right now. Kate firmly disavows all desire to revisit the Massanutten Trail, whether for some hypothetical Ring or MMT or other adventure. I'm less certain.

But I must confess that somebody has lured me into registering for the Cheat Mountain Moonshine Madness 50 mile night run this coming August. Wonder who did that?

Data Dump

Based on unofficial times that I recorded during the MMT 2010 race, this table lists the distance between aid stations, cumulative race distance, cutoff times, Kate's and my pace on that segment, and our overall average pace to that point. See [1] for a course map and elevation profile.

Aid Station Dist.
Cutoff Split Time Clock Pace
Caroline Furnace 0005:00 AM 00:0000:0005:00 AM --
Moreland Gap 3.63.606:15 AM 00:5400:5405:54 AM 15.015.0
Edinburg Gap 8.111.709:35 AM 02:3903:3308:33 AM 19.618.2
Woodstock Tower 8.219.912:55 PM 02:4406:1711:17 AM 20.018.9
Powells Fort 5.225.102:50 PM 01:4007:5712:57 PM 19.219.0
Elizabeth Furnace 7.532.605:20 PM 02:2110:1803:18 PM 18.819.0
Shawl Gap Parking 537.607:00 PM 01:3711:5504:55 PM 19.419.0
Veach Gap Parking 3.140.707:55 PM 00:5712:5205:52 PM 18.419.0
Indian Grave Trailhead 949.7none 03:1516:0709:07 PM 21.719.5
Habron Gap Parking 3.953.612:05 AM 01:1717:2410:24 PM 19.719.5

(cf. Between, Big Stick, MMT from A to Z, Massanutten Mountain Midnight Madness, More MMT 2009 Notes, Massanutten Mountain Trails 2010, 2008-01-20 - Massanutten Mountain South Training Run, 2009-01-04 - Massanutten Mountain Mayhem, 2009-09-05 - One Third of The Ring, 2010-01-15 - Massanutten Trail over Short Mountain, 2010-04-03 - Chocolate Bunny...) - ^z - 2010-05-23