I had all ready been awake for about 20 minutes when the alarm on my phone went off. I pushed down the button to make it snooze and left my head laying on my pillow. For the last 6 months of my life, the most challenging chore of everyday has been rolling myself out of bed. Today would be no different. I finally sat up and threw my running gear together rather quickly and emerged from my tent feeling like I was forgetting something. There was nothing missing, nothing except my sanity. My sanity, lost since I signed up for this dance with the rocks in Virginia’s Blue Hills. As I laced up my shoes, I coached myself into the crisp cool morning air with a ready or not here I come. I slowly staggered towards the ranch to find something for breakfast, say my prayers and line up in the field with the 172 other brave souls. After half a blueberry muffin, I checked in with the time keeper and lined up in the dew drenched field. We all stood anxiously waiting, breath rising into the darkness, smiles, fears, apprehensions… nothing matters in these moments. Nothing matters for the next 30 or more hours… nothing matters except for left, right… repeat. This is Massanutten.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Front Royal, VA – Skyline Ranch Resort
5:00 AM – Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
100 Miles of Rockish Hell
I’ve never had to assemble drop bags for any of the ultras I’ve run in and I’ve run in a few. I’ve always had a crew or have run on loop courses where it’s easy to get at my gear at the beginning and end of each loop. This was an entirely new experience for me and one that I truly had no idea what I was getting into. I packed up my drop bags with what I would later realize was the bare minimum. A few gels, drink mix, a zip lock baggy filled with bag balm, a rubber glove and a little index card with some inspiring thoughts. One drop bag had a change of socks. Another had a small windbreak jacket that stuffs into a tiny bag, small enough to hand carry and not be cumbersome. The bare minimum, only the essentials that I thought I’d need. I had entered into the Stonewall Jackson Division. No pacer, No Crew, no problem right? Right?…… riiiiiight.
We received the command to start and all of us took off down the road. I decided to hang out near the back of the pack this year and ease my way into the race. No sense in sprinting down the road when you have 100 miles to run. As we made our way through the darkness, i twas fun to follow the bobbing glow of a few hundred headlamps. I passed Gary Knipling while a Whip-or-Whil was heard in the distance. Gary honed in on it and pointed it out to a fellow runner. I smiled at his friendliness and was quickly reminded why I love this sport so much… people like Gary make it worth running. As we continued down the road I was all ready wanted to get back into my tent and wisk myself back to sleep. Instead, I took the left at Buzzard Rock and headed up into the forest and enjoyed the first climb of the day.
As we rise along the side of the first incline and sun rose against the eastern horizon. I’m soaking wet form the humid morning, sucking wind as I hurriedly climb the mountain. I listen to Bob Dunfey talk to a first time 100 miler Evan about the places they’re from. I enjoy listening in as we make our way to the first set of view points. The sky has gone from black to smokey orange to that grayish morning hue. As I stand atop of the first set of view points and glance off into Fort Valley, a thick layer of undercast lines the land below. I am quickly reminded of how I even got into ultra-running. It was these long days in the mountains that intrigued me most. I was enjoying another fine morning, starting a new great day and embarking on a huge adventure.
I love running downhill, something about it makes me feel so free, so alive. Feeling the earth pound beneath my feet as I careen down the side of a mountain is one of the biggest thrills to me. As I made my way through the forest and along a forest road, I heard the cheers of spectators echoing from afar. Not long after I emerged at the Shawl Gap aid station. Regis helped me locate my drop bag at which point I quickly applied new bag balm, replenished my gel pocket and refilled my water bottles.
My stop wasn’t very long and I was soon on my way running down a Virginia Gravel road. As I ran down the road I ran with a young man named Evan. Evan was running his first 100 miler. His only other ultra under his belt was the JFK 50. I commend him for his bravery in even starting this race, the young man was in exceptional shape and looking great. We ran together into Veach gap where we grabbed some breakfast. I rolled a pancake around a sausage and shoved it down my throat. I turned and saw Jim Lampman. We started talking and the three of us took off slowly up the trail, intent on taking the next climb easily. I tried to keep up with the boys but they were moving a bit too fast for my liking at this point in the race. I slacked back and let them take off ahead.
I climbed the ridge and eventually caught up to the boys and passed them. I headed downhill as I normally do, careening along, no regard for loss of limb or life. I ran along side lloyd for a short while before we popped out of the woods and onto another road. As I made my way down the hill, it had been awhile since I had seen or heard from Evan or Jim. And then I heard, “Sherpa!” I had no idea who it was but I kept plodding along. Soon enough the group of runners behind me caught up. It was Evan, David Snipes and Gabe Rainwater. We all ran relatively together into Habron Gap aid station. While we ran in I saw a young runner walking slowly toward the station. We walked in, walked through and kept on walking. I heard an aid station volunteer give him some grief out loud for the world to hear. He said, “That boy was in 4th place heading into Shawl.. looks like her burnt himself out!” His sarcasm was noted and I was kind of pissed that someone would rub the young guys nose in it. I’m sure he felt bad enough. I quickly got what I needed, ate some food and took off with Sniper. We tackled the climb out of Habron together. Its a long slow slog of rocky switchbacks winding its way to the top of the ridge once more.
Once we reached the ridge, I took off again and enjoyed my favorite section of the course. The sun was out in full force now and its rays were beating down on us all. The temp slowly continued to rise as the temp now nestled itself into the upper 60s. The humidity still stifling, I love this kind of weather. I hurry along the ridge and catch back up to Evan. As we turned off the ridge we saw a random older woman walking along with no pack, no water.. nothing but a camera. I wondered if I even saw her at all but confirmed with Evan that indeed I had. I took off down the trail and into the enchanted forest. The run to Camp Roosevelt is a lot longer then it tells on paper. I was a sweaty mess on the way, I ran out of fluids and gels and was looking for any moving stream to dunk my hat into its soothing waters. I found one, doused my cap and slopped it onto my head letting the water trickle down my face, neck and back. I swear I could feel the steam rise off of my scorching skin. The temps continued to rise, eventually reaching into the mid 80’s. I love this shit.
Once i reached Camp Roosevelt I ran off to the restroom for a BM. After coming out of the outhouse, I stood in the field and placed my bag of lube at my feet while I put on my rubber glove. A guy walk over to me and asked me if I needed a hand. I’m not sure he really knew what I was about to do, where I was about to put the lube and all… so I chuckled, smiled and told him I was all set.. “unless you REALLY feel like doing this for me bub.” After I walked back to the aid table and chugged some Dr. Pepper. Would ya know, this was the first time in my life I had even tried Dr. Pepper?! I had my first right here at MMT. It was nothing spectacular and I chased it down with a mountain dew. I ate some lunch, Sandwiches, boost and gummi bears and even enjoyed munching on some fruit. I asked Evan if he was ready and we took off down the trail. Sniper came up behind us and we decided to make the walk to the top of the next hill together. Sniper is the consummate gentleman, quick to share his race knowledge and help you get through the race. He has the “mother hen” syndrome and works with it well. It was obvious that we were both trying to take Evan under our wing to get him through, but there was only so much we could do. Much of these races are up to the individual. David is an individual whom I would likely follow anywhere. his knowledge is deep and his friendliness contagious. For the second year in a row, I thank him dearly for his companionship on the trails.
The heat was really starting to get to people. Some slowed, some sucked wind… I smiled brightly and got that sick giddy feeling in my head that serial killers get in movies before they make a killing. Heat and humidity is my favorite. It fuels me. It drives me and as the day wears on and the temps continue to rise, I feel my pace picking up and my level of overall enjoyment picking up as well. I top out on Jawbone, run over the top and begin to descend down into Gap Creek for the first time today. As I sink down the mountain side I look off to the west. I hear a rumble in the distance and white puffy clouds continue to rise against the horizon. Looks like we’re in for a storm, I hope it doesn’t hit while I’m on Kerns! I rush into Gap and get my stuff together at the aid station. Phil Rosenstein is a friendly face I love to see at these races. He gets me a volunteer who finds me my drop bag, fills my bottles and directs me to the Cheese Quesadillas. I finish up what I need to do and head off down the road. As I turn the corner and start making the climb up Kerns, I look up to see an ominous black wall filling the sky. Yup… I’m going to be on top of Kerns, running the ridge while this Storm hits. GREAT!
As I climbed slowly up the side of Kerns I kept looking up and watching the dark clouds engulf the bright blue sky. I started wondering what to do. Do I keep moving on and putting myself into a dangerous situation? Or do I sit still and wait for the storm to blow over and tackle the ridge at safer time? Not knowing how big the storm was, how long it was going to last etc.. I decided to just keep moving. Just as I was about to reach the ridge, I felt a drop, then another… and another. The winds blasted in from the east almost as if the air was being sucked from the earth to fuel the storm. The Winds shifted, the skies opened and all hell broke lose. My pace suddenly quickened as I hurriedly rock hopped across one of the rockier sections of the course. Thankfully my love of running on rocks serves me well here as I pass a few runners in my hast to make it across the ridge. Lightning places and dances all around, thunder booms against my ears. A few times, flash bangs make me stop and close my eyes in fear. I gather my wits and continue to run against the pounding rains. I’m soaked from head to toe. Water lines the trails and the rocks are now a slippery mess. A cooling wind ushers itself in from the west. The clouds depart and as I lower myself off of Kerns and onto the road that leads to 211, the sun emerges once again. I survived whatever mother nature had to throw at me as I continue to do battle with her. However, the battle would rage on…
I continued down the mountain along the paced road. It’s been awhile since I had seen any other runners now. The yellow flagging that marked the course was sporadic at best. A car drove up from ahead and I stopped to ask if I was going the right way. They confirmed it for me and I continued to move. The hast in running across the top of Kerns to escape the storm sucked some of the life out of my legs and I stopped to walk the road often. I followed the switchbacks all the way down, crossing 211 and entering into the Visitors Center. I got my drop bag here and finally started to dry off. As I looked around the aid station for food, I spotted some Dunkin Donuts boxes. HEAVEN! I asked if I could have one and the aid station volunteer knew I must be from New England. DnD’s is like jet fuel for us. I sucked down a chocolate donate and gave a NY Yankee shirt wearing volunteer some crap. All conversation ended when she showed me the name on the back of her shirt… “DENT” UGH!
I left the VC and headed up BIrd Knob. The climb is steep and tiresome. The length of the day is now starting to get to me. My legs are beginning to tire as a cool breeze continues to blow across my face. As I ascend the Knob, runners ahead of me come careening down. We exchange pleasantries as they rush on by. I push my way trough thick areas of briars before reaching the top of the Knob. At the view point I looked West and noticed a thick haze had settled into the Valley once again as the temps had once again risen. I hurried along trying to make good time to the Bird Knob Aid station. After a quick stop for some fruit, I took the turn and headed back on an adjacent ridge. As I continued to move I noticed another wall of black approaching from the West. I was taken by surprise that another storm could be knocking on our doorstep. I was finally dried off and moving well. The well grew higher and higher and came closer and closer. Thunder rumbled in the distance more frequent then before. I knew we were in for a doozy. I picked up the pace once again and scurried off of Bird Knob as fast as I could. I flew past various runners making the trek up the mountain themselves. I had one goal in mind and that was making it down off the steep and muddy section safely before the rains came.
As I reached the base of the knob, I felt a few drops fall on my skin. I ran briskly towards the aid station which lie just ahead. I heard what sounded like wind drawing closer, I knew better.. it was the rain. Just as I stepped in under the canopy of the Picnic Area the skies opened once more only this time with the voraciousness of a million Niagara falls… or so it seems. While the rain fell outside and the lightning flashed brightly all around, I tended to my needs. Lube, food, refills, etc. I opened my drop bag and saw a dry pair of socks. CRAP! I had made a major mistake in putting these in too early. I wrapped them into a zip lock bag and stuffed the into a pocket to use later. It was crowded under the canopy and I was starting to feel claustrophobic. My anxiety started to race.. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like a trapped rat. Another runner had his wife and what seemed like 20 kids under the damn canopy with us… I grew nervous and needed to escape. I took whatever else I needed and stepped out into the rain. I made my way down the trail once more as the water tried its best to drown me. Only this time some of the rain hurt.. yes, it was hailing and it stung. The trails were now raging rivers. My feet were soaked and my shoes did not drain the best. I popped out of the woods at 211 E to the sight of a volunteer who was about to help me cross. I asked him the time… at 56.4 Miles into the race it was 6:38pm, about an hour ahead of my time from last year. I was shocked especially after having taken my time most of the day. I crossed 211 E, smiled and vowed to continue pushing on as far as I could before the sun went down.
I walked up the fire road alone, pushing myself back up towards Jawbone and Gap Creek II. I seldom saw runners, and when I had, I passed them and they were soon out of sight and/or ear shot. I’d been alone since coming off of Kerns around mile 42 or so.. I’m still alone now. I still have no crew, no pacer and I really feel good about my performance thus far. But as I continued to climb up through towards Gap Creek, I remember how much we’d be forced to walked THROUGH the creek. Rain continued to lightly fall as chilly winds flowed in from the west. The sun was setting now, darkness was once again filling the sky and my feet were saturated. Up ahead I heard a few voices, I picked up the pace to catch up. It was Regis and Gabe. They had their headlamps out, I brushed on by and continued to push without mine. We leap frogged a few times as we made our way down the road, eventually making it to the aid station. As I rolled on in, I finally took my head lamp out and turned it on. Phil Rosenstein welcomed me into the aid station and asked if I wanted a pacer. I thought about it for a minute seeing as I was growing more and more tired of running alone. But, I’d come this far in the Jackson Division… no pacer, no crew… I’ll continue without. I thanked Phil and headed off down the trail and once again climbing to the top of Kerns Mountian. Rain continued to fall lightly as lightning flashed and thunder echoed off the mountainsides. It was an eery night and quite something to experience on my own. Like a nightmare as a young child, I walked through the forest, alone, scared and tired, unsure of what lay around the next corner. As I pulled into Moreland Gap I was happy to see the lights, hear the generator and anxious to eat some food.
I sat down in one of the chairs at the aid station and took care of business once more. I’m growing more and more homesick as the night wears on. I wished I had a crew to look forward to, a pacer to keep my company. I think of why I didn’t take Phil up on his offer. I throw a twinkie down my throat, eat some warm soup and continue to shiver a bit. I take out the jacket I had in my drop bag back at Gap Creek II and decide to throw it on. It offers little protection from the rain and wind, but enough to keep me from being too chilled. I’m still soaked from head to toe from the continuously falling rain. Lightning flashes less frequently and the storm continues to blow over. Gabe and Regis leave the aid station and I follow. We leap frog a bit more on the way up Short Mountain before the disappear into the distance. My feet begin to ache. I feel the blisters getting worse and as the rain stops, I decide to sit down and change my socks finally. I sit down on a rock and use the light of my headlamp to investigate my feet. I painfully pry my shoes off my feet for the first time during the race. I wring out my socks and place them at my side. I take one of the socks and begin to rub the grit out from the wrinkles. Wrinkles so deep you can sink a dime liberty deep into the cracks. These skin fold wrinkles are the most painful things to endure in ultra running, mine are deep, wet and filled with grit. I hold my breath as I scrub the dirt free gasping for air between each rub. I place my new dry socks on, put my soaked shoes back on my feet, rise to my feet and slowly start to move forward. The race has just changed as my pace instantly slows… I should have left the damn things alone.. but the damage is done and I’ve got such a long way to go still.
I slowly pick my way across the rock strewn ridge of Short Mountain. Of all the places on this course, THIS is truly Hell on earth. Rocks lay about without any real rhyme or reason. You stretch your legs to find a decent place to plant your foot, you use your hands and arms to maneuver up, over and around boulders. Its the slowest of slow goings and your patience is truly tested. At one point I stopped on the ridge and looked to my left and right. To each side, in the valley below lie a city of lights. I imagine people snuggled warmly in their beds, whisking away to a night of comfy sleep next to their loved ones. And here I am, losing my patience, taking deep breaths, damn near crawling across a mountain top…. there is no place else I’d rather be. I slowly wind down off the ridge as runners start to catch me and pass me. There isn’t much talking out here at night, there is nothing more then supreme concentration and relentless forward progression. I stumble into Edinburg Gap and surprisingly the aid station is sorta empty. Last year this place was a triage, this year after finally drying off, it starts to rain lightly one last time. I sit under the tent and mull over the food. Nothing looks tasty anymore, and the Cream Cheese roll ups look disgusting. This is not the place you want to hang around long at… and after seeing those wraps, I knew it was time to mosey along. I was off once again.
With each step I winced in pain. My feet were growing more and more tender, more swollen, more wrinkled. Those dry socks have long since soaked through from more puddles and stream crossings. There was no way around it. The rain finally stopped again and my head started to hang as I moved slowly forward. Once again, this course was humbling me. Where I once felt amazing and on top of the world, I’m now feeling sullen and I’m slowly falling apart. My arms are tiring, my legs have tons of energy but my feet are limiting my ability to even walk. As I make my way up towards the Woodstock Ridge, I grow confused and start to lose focus, the pain is taking over and I begin to wonder if I’ll finish. If there was a pacer ready at Edinburgh, I would have dropped from the Jack and taken one. I’m lonely, cold and tired but I continue on. The hours crawl by and soon the sun begins to rise once again. The earth turns a dark shade of gray and I start to grow sleepy. I weave left and right down the trail, struggling to stay asleep and then it happens. One minute I’m walking down the trail and the next I am having a conversation with my mom, Sarah and some dude in a Patriots Sweatshirt. After a quick 5 seconds, I find myself back on the trail and catch myself from crashing head first into a tree. I keep moving forward when the delayed reaction hits me. I stop and ask myself, “Wait a minute… mom and Sarah aren’t even up here. And who the hell was that guy?!” I start laughing once I realized what had happened. I had fallen asleep while moving forward and immediately fell into a dream state. When I came too, I caught myself from crashing to the rocks below and continued walking as if nothing had happened. I decided maybe it was nap time for safety sake, I laid down in the rain soaked leaves and slept heavily for about 5 minutes. When I woke up, I painfully rose back to my feet and continued to stumble down into woodstock tower aid station. The whole thing reminded me of that Running Superfans commerical.. check it out.. its the best way to explain it’s humor:
Just shy of the station nature called. I ducked off into the woods and had a BM. I used a leaf and things immediately started to burn. I got back to the trail and started to cry. How could I screw things up so bad… I was doing so great.. now I’m just destroying myself. I walk a few yards down the trail and find a pile of baby wipes sitting on the side. I don;t know who’s they are, where they came from, used or not, how long they had been there… it didn’t matter. I picked them up and used them to cool my aching backside. Woodsotck tower…When I got there, I had arrived at the same exact time that I had last year. I remember the shape I was in then… and evaluated the shape I was in now. I went from being over an hour ahead of last years time… to dead on in the last 20 miles. Oh how the world turns.
I sit in the chair at Woodstock and think about dropping out. I want to do nothing more, nothing less then to drop. But as I look around, I have no ride, no way out. I figure what the hell, there is nothing better to do in this area except keep moving forward and thats what I’m going to do. I have until 5pm to finish. I’ll use it all if I have to. I made it last year, I can make it this year. I painfully pulled off my socks and shoes again, put on a rubber glove and smeared vaseline all over the bottoms. My feet are in such bad shape that I actually gagged when I saw them, they smelt like rotting flesh, looked even worse and to the touch… it was excruciating. Words will NEVER be able to describe the pain I am experiencing from my feet. Put I put my shoes back on, rise once again, and slowly make my way back into the woods.
Just down the trail I once again started to fall asleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, a runner passed me and I almost fell into him. I once again stopped and took a 5 minute nap. When I woke up, I saw the runner up ahead. Looks like he had the same issues as I and in asking him it was confirmed. I continued to push on as some of the runners I saw climbing Bird Knob as I had run down were now beginning to catch me. What a huge crush to my confidence. As I continued to descend back down into Fort Valley I heard music playing in the distance. I stopped and listened carefully to which I heard a band named Shine Down. I started to move closer when I recognized the song.. everyone has “their song.” A song that exemplifies their life… the song that blared through the woods was my song. I started to tear up as I listened and picked up the pace as little as I could making my way into the aid station. Have a listen:
Shinedown – I Dare You – Acoustic – Shinedown
I sat down in the aid station and ate a few pancakes and bacon. I’m growing more and more delirious as the day wears on. The sun has risen now as a cool wind blows through the valley. I start to walk out of the aid station without having accessed my drop bag. I turn around, walk back in and ask for some help. They get me my bag and I use the lube and take the gels. I’m starting to slowly lose my mind. My vision is foggy, I’m seeing things everywhere and even hearing voices as I wander down the trail. Regardless of these things, my mission remains to finish and I walk forward. I leave Powells Fort and head off down the road, stopping in the woods once more, this time using my old soaked socks for cleaning. Not far after getting back out on the road, Phi had caught up to me, he was pacing Jen. They walked with me for a short bit as Phil came up behind me and wrapped his arm around me. He gave me a hug and said, “One things for sure John, you sure know how to suffer.” You got that damn right! I continued to shuffle as we continued to joke. My spirits were high despite being in the state I was in. Jen and Phil decided to start running.. I had to follow.. I held my breath and picked up the pace struggling to keep up with them. The pain was almost unbearable, knocking the wind right out of me.. as we made it to the next climb, they took off without me and I was once again alone. I just wanted to cry. I stopped climbing and sat down on the trail wiping tears away from my face. I had no idea how I was going to do this. I had no idea how on earth I was doing this… I’m still seeing things and hearing things, I’m going crazy. I’m tired… I’m done…. I stand up once more and tackle the hill. As I reach the top I take a huge breath then want to cry once more when I read the sign that says Elizabeth Furnace is 4 miles away yet.
I try my hardest to boogie down the hill into the Furnace. I could hear the cars rushing by on the road below, the river we were to cross rushing by and then I saw someone. “John!? What’s going on!” It was Josh and I was so damn happy to see him. I had thought and hoped they’d come to the furnace to see me. Josh is the man, he lifted my spirits and welcomed me to the station. But first, a river fording?! I don;t think so! I deliberately walked myself into thorn bushes to bushwhack around having to get my feet wet. I walked inside and asked for a piece of Pizza. I had been thinking of it for hours. I was starving, yet the barn was near. I could smell the finish, one last climb. One last agonizing climb, one last foot crushing downhill…. it was almost over. I left the station trying to chase after David Yeakel. I slowly shuffled away saying, “I’m off like a heard of racing turtles!” I heard laughter as I entered the woods once more. Not far up the trail, as I walked excruciatingly and painfully slow I saw Aaron Schwartzbard who was taking photos. I was sure to smile.
It is amazing what we are willing to push our bodies through. The obstacles that appear before us, what we must over come if we are to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So to in life we face these daunting struggles, moving ever closer to the finish line controlling the way our story unfolds. I wanted to quit, but I did not. I was in excruciating pain, yet I kept moving forward. I had been seeing and hearing things for well over 6 hours, yet I ignored what I saw and heard focused on only one thing.. the finish line. As I made my way through the forest and down the final decline, I could hear the applause at the finish line. I got emotional yet smiled brightly. I was doing it.. I was doing it. I held my breath and forced a slow jog down the forest road and out onto the pavement. One turn, two turns… and there was Josh.. “John.. You made it!” I was so happy.. Into the woods I went, walking towards the music. I emerged out into the field and followed the yellow flags down towards the finish shoot. I held my breath and picked it up into whatever left of a run I had. I waved at those who clapped, I wanted to cry, I smiled, I’d done it.. I MADE IT. I DID IT ALONE! 33 and 35 minutes after I started, with no crew and no pacer, I crossed the finish line of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler. I weathered the storms, tamed the rocks, climbed the mountains and ran down the other sides. I fell to my knees and kissed the ground. I looked up and said, “Thank god!” I stood and Stan Duobonis Shook my hand. I looked in his eyes and said, “I’ll never come here without a crew again.” But I had a blast.
101.8 Miles in 33:35
74th out of 101 Finishers (173 Started)
30th out of 48 Stonewall Jackson Finishers (97 Started)