Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Terms with conditions

Well overdue full MMT report


Recovery from Massanutten took longer than usual, both physically and mentally. I really didn’t feel my body was back in full swing until running my next race at the Mt. Diablo 50K, three weeks later. It was the first truly warm weekend in the Bay Area which promised the usual hot temps heading up the mountain. Perhaps having been bested by the heat at MMT helped me out since I ended up having a relatively good race. In fact, due mainly to others suffering or dropping out from the conditions, I placed much better than expected.

Emotionally, things were taking even longer. Coming to terms with my finish was proving difficult. It’s not that I’m so performance driven as to be overly upset with my actual finish time and it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d slogged to the end of a long race. Whether out of sheer bullheaded stubbornness or a prideful unwillingness to quit, I should have at least been able to find some small joy in crossing the finish line. Instead, I felt only relief that it was over. In retrospect, I think it was a result of the low mental state I’d allowed myself to get stuck in, walking those long final miles. The self-doubts, the lingering questions, the specters of epics past whispering retractions in my ear, all worked to further degrade my sleep and calorie depraved brain.

It started out as do most such adventures with an appropriate mix of cautious optimism and fear. I’d come up with a fairly aggressive time goal to test my fitness, but reminded myself that big summer plans didn’t allow me to kill myself chasing splits in this first major race. When I stopped on the way to the Friday race check-in and felt the thick hot air flow in through the door of my rental car, I should have tossed any thoughts of a strong finish right then and there. Humid 90s were certainly not something for which the unusually cool west coast spring had prepared me. Just walking around, dropping my bags, chatting with the surprising number of people whom I knew at my first race on the other side of the country, I was sweating profusely. However, after returning to my hotel, clouds and a cooling breeze had moved in.

My renewed hopefulness went unexamined as other concerns came rushing in from home. Some work “emergency” had me on the phone sitting outside the hotel – the only place I had coverage – until about 9:30pm. Any hopes of taking advantage of my late-afternoon (PST time) energy lull and get some early sleep, were shot. In fact, by the time my 3:30am wakeup call came round for the start at 5, I think I’d have managed all of 2 hours sleep. As I drove the winding roads to the start, my only hope was that the good rest I’d managed two nights previous would be enough to make up for how out of sorts my body felt.

Stressed, sleepless and constipated, weren’t exactly how I had imagined feeling at the beginning of the race. Furthermore, the forecast for mid-80 temperatures weren’t going to help matters either. Nonetheless, I started out well. I took things very easy in the early miles along the fireroad. I walked many of the slight inclines, watched plenty of people pass me and enjoyed some time getting caught up with Olga. As we left the road and entered the first climb, I continued my moderate pace. In previous years, this climb up Short Mountain came much later in the course and I heard many a tale about how much easier it was to be taking this section early on.

We hit a few short downhills at the top of the climb and I was eager to test myself on these super rocky, technical trails. I passed a few folks and had one near miss trying to stop quickly coming up on a slower party. While I managed not to hit ground as I slid along the leaves, it was my first hint that it wasn’t the rocks that were the true source of this place’s well-deserved reputation. After a bit, I caught up with Andy Kumeda who I know is typically a fast started so I was probably being a bit over enthusiastic. Still, I knew a big downhill was ahead leading to the Edinburg Gap aid station so I wasn’t too concerned.

Andy caught me on the next climb out of Edinburg and then I him on the downhill after the peak. We stuck together for a while after that, departing and rejoining depending to which of our relative strengths the course played. I pulled over to empty my bladder letting Andy go ahead and it was quite some time before I caught him again at an aid station. My explanation for where I went was quite simply to show him my cuts and bruises. Very shortly after we parted, I had set back out along the relatively flat terrain. I let my mind wander for only the briefest passage of time and immediately found myself down on the rocks.

I would have 3 such falls in the coming miles. Handling technical downhill only to trip on flatter trail, is nothing new for me. However, Massanutten raised the stakes quite a bit. There really was no place along these trails where it was safe to let down the guard. The flat sections and uphill sections required the same diligence as anything heading down. For me, it seemed they required an even more concerted effort. Time and again, I would fly down a big hill and my natural tendency was to automatically relax my focus only to be reminded by the rocky course of what a dangerous habit it was. I, literally, had to tell myself over and over in my head to “focus, focus, focus” as I moved along these trails. At times it became stressful and it was certainly one of the least enjoyable aspects of those early miles even though my race seemed to be going quite well.

I hit the 32 mile aid station at Elizabeth Furnace more than 45 minutes ahead of my set split. While the heat was picking up, I continued to feel good and continued to stay on the sharp side of the pace chart. A couple of days before the race, I’d been asked what it is I think about during a 100 miles. Normally, the answer would be almost anything and everything. In this race – and especially in these most technical early miles – all thoughts were diverted to watching my feet. This over-focus on my every step is why I don’t have a particularly strong recollection of the miles leading up to Habron Gap. It also might help explain why I continued to gain time on my plans.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but not being able to really look around and enjoy the course, I was actually happy to be heading out onto the road. Hebron Gap, mile 53, was a major checkpoint for my status. I was 1 hour and 15 minutes ahead of schedule. If ever there was a point in this race for a wakeup call, that was it. But, the lies we tell ourselves at the half-way point aren’t the ones we need to hear much later in the race. I was feeling great.

I knew the conditions had taken their toll, I knew my pace was too fast; I told myself I had it under control. The next section was a long one starting with a steep grind of a climb. Trying to conserve energy on a steep climb is a bit of a lost cause. I could feel the heat built up in my body. Cooling down at night has always been an issue for me in these races. I tried squirting with occasional water on my head, neck, back, even directly on my stomach. I slowed. I promised myself to spend more time at the next aid station.

There’s a saying amongst those that run 100-mile races that the 100K and not the 50-mile point is nearer halfway. Camp Roosevelt was at mile 63. I was happy to be there. It would have been a good place to spend some extra time, to cool down, recoup, and prepare for the night. However, MMT has a sort of consolation prize that they give to those who drop out at this point in the race. They call it the Visitor’s Award. I didn’t want to be a “visitor.” I pulled out the miniaturized copy of the course profile I’d printed out. The next section was about 5 ½ miles with one sizeable climb.  It gave me slight pause, but the idea of being closer to mile 70 held a significant lure.

I tried to cool down as much as I could; I poured ice in my Buff and grabbed some more to munch along the way. I marched out onto the next trail. Night was descending and there were rumors floating round about cooling temperatures – perhaps even some rain. Hiking up yet another rocky, tree-covered ascent, I felt none of it. I don’t remember a lot about this section. I remember the night and realizing that it was actually easier to see the rocks by flashlight than through the sun’s scattered rays from the canopy above. I remember trying to cool myself with equal amounts of water dripped on my shirt as in my mouth. Mostly, though, I remember being OK.

I arrived at Gap Creek pretty much intact.

Mile 68.7 and I am only 16:20 into my race. Ten hours to go 33 miles. It still seemed within reason. I was feeling pretty good, but what is it I've said before about 100-milers? "Nothing you do in any shorter race can prepare you for what may happen after mile 70." However, the night always brings a renewed sense of wonder for me and I still held hope that the promised cool night temps would sweep in to offer a bit of respite

My only real concerns at the time were trying to cool down and a bit of constipation. Shortly after leaving the aid station, the course turned onto a gravel road. I decided to duck into the trees on the right side to see if I could take care of at least one of my worries. With little success, I popped out a short while later and continued on down the road. I was feeling good on the easy, rolling, non-technical terrain. I didn't see any course markings, but since I hadn't seen any side trails, I figured there was no need.

After a while, it occurred to me that someone should have caught up given my little break. I started to get worried and did my first of three stupid things; I sped up. Since I was feeling strong, my thinking was that I would either be putting some time in the bank that I could use on the upcoming climb or it would help me find out sooner if I'd missed a turn. When I first entered the road, there was another runner ahead of me. Surely he would be heading back by now if we were on the wrong path. I put my worries aside and kept pushing.

The road ended. No flagging. No reflective strips. No trail, just a dead end. I won't commit into writing all the various curse words, but, believe me, I said them all. At that point I did my second stupid thing. I ran back, hard. I did check my GPS so I could see how many bonus miles I was logging. When I reached the missed trail-head it had been 1.8 miles from the end of the road –3.6 for the round trip. To add insult to injury, the trail was exactly on the opposite side of the road from where I’d ducked into the trees. What kind of dumb luck was that? And, speaking of dumb, I then went on to complete my trio of stupid things; I continued pushing the pace as I headed out onto this trail.

Once I reached the climb, I was forced to slow down allowing a couple of runners to pass me and providing me opportunity to regale with my tale of stupidity. I eventually hooked onto a couple of them and made it to the Visitor's Center aid station, mile 77. Despite what the official chart says, I actually did those 12 miles (should have been 8.4) at an 18:20 pace. According to my calculations I still believed I could target something in the 27 hour range. So, I went ahead and topped off all my stupid acts with one final display. I sucked down an Ensure, took some caffeine, ate bit more and then grabbed some chips to go for the steep climb to come.

My stomach was sloshing and I still felt warm despite the cooler temps, but I pressed on. Given what I’d been through and the food, I should have let digestion take its course. This peak was the top one of the course and I had visions of mostly downhill for the final 20 miles. The climbing became difficult and a few people passed me as I stopped for a couple of breathers. I was feeling a little dizzy. After clearing the rockiest section and heading onto a bit wider trail, I checked my elevation to see that I was nearly done with the hill. I stopped once more to catch my breath before the final push.

That's when it hit me.

I went from hands on my knees, to on my hands and knees. First, retching, then gagging, then vomiting my guts out. I know there were at least a few people who got to enjoy the display as I answered the "you alright?" question more than once. After--I'm not sure how long--I finally got the convulsions to settle, but I had gone from being too warm to now shivering and chattering teeth. I got up and put on my jacket and headed up the trail. In shades of Western States, anything beyond a slow walking pace sent me right back over the edge.

I sat down on the side of the trail. Then, I lay down and closed my eyes. As if to punctuate my condition, it began to rain. Wallowing in self-pity, I knew my race was over. I eventually got to my feet and started the slow slog to the next aid station, the beginning of a longer, slower slog to come. My "race" was over, but the epic had just begun.

The rest of the night is mostly lost in a haze of dizziness, nausea and convulsions in response to even the smallest exertion of effort. It really was a repeat of last year’s Western States, only worse. I do recall arriving at Bird Knob and trying futilely to get some small bit of food down. I remember being back on the side of the trail starting down the first hill. I remember throwing up half a Gu. I also remember thinking how long the remainder of the night was going to be if I had to walk the entire downhill section at a pace slow enough to keep my stomach from revolt.

Somehow, I made it to the next aid station. I can only piece together the path from the evidence, but things must have degraded pretty badly. I was, surprisingly, still only 1 hour 15 over pace at Bird Knob. That had stretched to 2:25 at Picnic Area. As I sat covered in a Mylar blanket trying to see if the salt and fat from a few nibbles of bacon would settle, I pondered why in the world I would want to go on. It was 8.5 miles to Gap Creek, back where my whole ordeal had started.  I knew if I made it to mile 95.4 that I would force myself to finish the race no matter what. However, the time and effort it would take to make it there seemed totally unfathomable to my calorie starved brain sitting miserably at the 86.9 mile marker. I sat for quite some time.

Nearly four hours. That is both how long it was until I arrived at the next aid station as well as how far I was off my pace chart once I was there. My pace chart seemed a distant fantasy of a past life at that point. Though they did nothing to help my stomach overall, I found that ginger candies would stay put. I took some more ginger and managed a bit of soup here. I was in no big hurry to leave Gap Creek as the volunteers were taking such good care of me. I wanted to see if there was any last chance of salvaging my stomach for those final miles. Numerous people came and went as I sat watching myself slip further back in the pack. I knew this was a trend that would continue as I trudged it “on in” so I eventually just came to terms with it and headed out.

As I headed back up the bit of trail that I’d missed the night before, I shared my tale with a few fellow travelers trying to smile at the misdeed and all that followed. The story just felt stale. I put my head down and focused on just getting through the final miles. I had one small glimmer of hope at getting it done sooner during the first bit of downhill. Alas, it was short-lived as my stomach immediately let me know that the final payment for my transgressions would be doled out to the bitter end.

Like so many 100 mile races, Massanutten’s last miles are road miles – long, arduous road.
If earlier in the race I had been pining to be able to think or just let my mind wander, I now had opportunity aplenty.  In fact, I had too much of it. I’d struggled through the final miles of a race before. Bighorn came to mind. However, in that case, I was hobbled by a strained Achilles and managed to maintain sufficient motivation to go as fast as pain would allow. Here, I was down with a complete inability to push. What’s worse, I allowed my emotional state to follow down the deteriorating path of my physical condition. Whether from exhaustion, lack of calories, self-reproach or some combination of all these, I completely lost touch with any sense of motivation.

I kept moving forward because I had no other direction to go. I had no interest in talking to passing runners. At this point, my story just sounded like so much excuse. I hadn’t run a tough 70 miles only to push myself over the edge. I had run a stupid race; fooling myself into thinking I had ability beyond my means.  I was a 30-hour finisher arrogating himself into running a 26 hour pace. Past and future doubts came creeping into my psyche. Western States, C2M, and every other finish off the mark were evidence of my self-deception. And what of my future plans? Redemption at Bighorn, three 100s in three months, repeat at Plain, another PR at Javelina: what was I thinking?

All perspective was gone. The final single track trail – a victory lap for some – was simply one last slap in the face for me. Crossing the finish, I felt only relief to be done. I don’t know that anybody has look as dejected as I upon accomplishing such a challenging task. I felt a tiny bit better, cheering in other runners though talking about my own race still rung hollow. I couldn’t really eat yet and I had to make it back to Dulles, so I opted out of the awards ceremony.

I drove back to town and stopped at the frozen custard stand before heading onto the freeway. As the first swallow of cool, sweetness reached my stomach, a sliver of light penetrated my gloomy outlook. It’s not that I felt any better about my race, but it was the first hint of knowing that I eventually would.


Massanutten is a unique event. While I didn’t quite approach it as one should a new experience, I can, at least now, embrace what it had to offer. Much like living at sea level and taking on my first race at significant altitude, coming from the west coast, and tackling this race presented many new challenges. From the time difference to the early start to the weather to all the inherent difficulties of the course itself, every aspect holds a lesson. I’m not sure if I’ll return for a repeat attempt any time soon, but I will certainly look back over this one many times in the coming years.


Danni said...

Yay for kicking that race's butt!

Ric Munoz said...

Definitely worth the wait to read the final report, Steve. I've been checking back every few days hoping to find the outcome of your experience. Thank you for recounting everything in such a compelling manner -- each and every sentence was RIVETING. I learned a lot about just how tough it can get out there. I wish I weren't such a sissy about running on trails. Once of these days (it may not be until my next life rolls around) I hope to toss aside my crackpot fears about getting injured on rocky trails so that I can appreciate fully the myriad challenges of a race like MMT. The vivid images you described of your 30 hours will stay with everyone who is fortunate enough to read your report. Best of luck with your recovery!

Eudemus said...

Thanks Ric, I'm glad you stuck with it to read the whole thing. I figure getting through such a long write-up might give a sense of what an epic it was :-)

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Thanks for the full recounting. Sounds like this one really kept you honest :). The body is really mysterious with its ebbs and flows of energy. I guess if we forget that, it will give us a swift kick! I hope someday to get my training up to snuff and injuries under control enough to even attempt a race such as this. For now, I am content to be amazed at stories such as yours.

Take care!

olga said...

It is always eyes opening to me to start writing, because I find so many things in my head I couldn't place before that. It's a story of life more than a race report - any 100M is. I am not the one to tell you "way to stick it in", or "should have stopped", or "you're an idiot with too far fetched goals", or "shit happens". Each of us is required to put a label on our races ourselves. And even then it is allowed to change numerous times.
I saw you did Swan Crest. Is it going to be a couple of months before I know how it went? :))

Eudemus said...


Thanks for the comments. I believe you definitely understand. I am still working on my Bighorn race report. It will be a while until I get to Swan Crest as my work schedule is pretty crazy right now. However, I did take pictures and will upload them soon.