Whose bright idea was it to enter a race named the "Mountain Masochist"? Oh that's right... it was my idea. In my defense, I signed up as an overflow entry, trusting the ultrarunning community to not cancel their race entries en masse. No such luck - I got into the race ten weeks beforehand, and even on race day, there were still slots available to be filled.
My interest in the Mountain Masochist has its origins in a run I did in the year 2000. After pledging a fraternity (which shall remain unnamed), I was forced into early morning runs twice a week for the duration of my pledgeship. Mid-way through "Hell Week" - the final week of pledgeship - our group was taken out for an excursion on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the break of dawn.
It was a magical run. Mostly because one badly out-of-shape pledge brother held us back to the point where we were almost walking, and the rest could enjoy a quiet sunrise over the serene Blue Ridge Mountains. This was the very first time in my life I experienced running as runners do, and not as the torture it is for most other people. Though it would still be years before I took up regular running, and even more years before I started running "for real", that morning stayed stuck in my mind.
Once entered, I resigned myself to some hard training and ramp-up races, hoping what I could do would be sufficient for running 50 miles. But then again, how in the world can you really prepare for something like that? I figured if I could run 50K without too much difficulty, I could probably put together 50 miles one way or another.
I flew out to DC on Thursday and hung out with friends before getting a full night's sleep and driving down to Lynchburg on Friday. I was staying in the host hotel for the night - the Kirkley - which certainly eased the logistics for me.
Friday evening featured a pre-race dinner, where I was first exposed to the colorful Dr. David Horton - RD emeritus - as well as the new RD, Dr. Clark Zealand, and some other characters. Many runners seemed to know each other from the other ultras run in Virginia, like the Grindstone 100, Hellgate 100K etc. I tried to pry some useful intelligence out of MMTR veterans, and filled myself up on pasta and lasagna.
After a short and broken night of sleep, my alarm(s) went off at 3:20am (EST). Ouch. I got my gear together, checked out of my room and climbed aboard one of the five school buses that would take us to the start on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Promptly at 4, they snaked their way out of the parking lot and transported us to our destination. Most runners stayed in the bus til just before race start at 5:30.
It was, of course, pitch black as we got going, with most competitors wearing some form of headlamp or other. As the first six miles or so were on asphalt, it wasn't a problem. I spent some time chatting with a runner about headlamps, wildlife (mountain lions out West vs. bears out East) and whatnot as I paced some easy eight to nine-minute miles. By the time aid station #2 popped up, it was bright enough to discard my headlamp in the provided drop box and start the first climb into the trails of the Virginia mountains.
The sunrise was nice. Still fresh and finally in the forest, I enjoyed the morning even though my pacific-time-adjusted body was ready to fall asleep again. The trail running was completely different than what you'd experience in California because of all the foliage on the ground. The fallen leaves would cover rocks and roots, turning some stretches into really treacherous terrain.
After about ten miles, my energy level dipped precipitously, mostly because of the lack of sleep and time difference. I didn't feel right mentally and was fighting the terrain more than I'd have liked. As the miles ticked by, I pulled out of my low with the advance of the morning hours. Elevation changes weren't too momentous, and I felt like I was running a decent race.
The idea of having to run 50 miles still hadn't properly registered in my head, though. It was surreal to check my Garmin, see 15 miles on it, and think that I was still over 50K away from the finish.
The running conditions, meanwhile, took me by surprise a little. After enjoying a typical California fall, I had to negotiate the mass of golden leaves that littered the ground in the more northern Blue Ridge Mountains. In and of themselves, they weren't bothersome, but they completely obscured the ground proper, leaving me to balance over whatever rocks, roots or potholes they hid. Early on, this wouldn't be a problem - but later, it would be another story.
But a lot of the course was on fire roads, which made for pretty steady and uneventful running. I made idle chit-chat with other runners while we passed the miles until the race got serious. Which was a little bit past mile 20, when we started a grinding climb into the higher elevations. Though tired, I still felt fairly decent and even passed a few runners on my way up (utterly meaningless at this point). Finally, I crested a hill and emerged on a large clearing to the sight of a clear day and sunny sky. Not much further on, I found Aid Station 10 at mile 26.9 - inofficial half-way point and drop-bag station.
I managed to lose lots of time negotiating my drop-bag, and felt envious of those running with a crew. The simple task of changing shirts and re-loading my running vest with gels and food seemed as difficult as an algebra exam. At one point, I leaned over to pick up my sun glasses and all the gels fell right out of my vest! By the time I exited the aid station, I saw that I was right back at the tail end of the people I'd overtaken during the initial climb.
The next segment of the course featured the ascent of Buck Mountain, or as I unceremoniously dubbed it, "F*ck! Mountain!" It seemed to take forever, and in truth, it was a pretty long section, taking several miles and eating up a good 2,000 vertical feet. For a long time, the "Rocky" theme music would waft over the mountain side from the aid station at the top of the climb, taunting us runners. Feeling more and more tired, I realized I was right around 31 miles, my previous max. It would be unchartered waters from here on out.
Transitioning to fire road again, I trudged on until reaching the entrance to The Loop, a technical 5-mile or so section that would take runners near the summit of Mount Pleasant. As I began, I realized the sun was starting its descent from the sky! I'd been running a long time indeed.
Despite my fatigue, I decided to attempt some proper running - at least on the uphills - only to have my race start to unravel. As I was moving up the leaf-covered trail, I rolled my right ankle, hard. Switching to a walk, I let the pain settle for a couple of minutes before setting out again. Almost no sooner had I started jogging, when bam! Rolled my right ankle once more. A little harder this time. Cursing the trail, I waited out the pain, then tried picking it up... and again, I rolled my ankle, this time transferring off of it before I could cause more damage. And with that, the competitive running portion of my day, at least on the single-track trails, ended. Afraid of really hurting myself, I decided to walk any technical trails as best I could.
Surprisingly, not too many people caught me in this section, and by the time I exited the loop - now having run somewhere around 40 miles - I found I could move fairly well once back on fire road. A volunteer warned me, "it's uphill now!", and I replied: "Good!" At this point, I preferred the uphills to the downhills, with good reason: my quads were pretty shot, and any type of downhill running resulted in agony, not to mention endangering my weak right ankle.
Up or down though, there was no denying the wheels were gradually coming off. My pace slowed to 15-minute miles at points, and even the more runnable sections saw me maybe eking out 12 minutes for the same distance. My nutrition strategy also failed me. Originally, I had planned on one gel every 45 minutes, but in the late miles, they got harder and harder to stomach. Finally, I unpacked a vanilla-flavored Hammer Gel, took a slug, and almost blew it all back out right then and there. That was it for gels, there was just nothing I could do.
The 40s (mile 40+, that is) weren't a lot of fun. The fire roads were not particularly scenic, and all I could do was keep putting in the work to cover the miles. I did not ever have a huge low, nor did I find myself in a corresponding high, either. Never doubting my ability to finish the race, however slowly, I methodically plodded on. Endured, you could say. I think that was the point.
Although other runners would pass, I gradually recognized two other competitors who were moving at my pace, and we kept up some conversation as the afternoon wore on. Pacing with them helped me focus, and kept me motivated.
With around five miles to go, the course headed into some gnarly - and hilly - single track. Inevitably, I fell behind everyone else and got passed by more and more people. I was astounded by some of these runners, who looked like they were just warming up, while the leaf-covered ground and rolling terrain was challenging me to the max. Finally, I limped into the last aid station, which was officially listed as 2.9 miles from the finish line. All race, I'd been hearing horror stories about "Horton Miles", and some gossip had reached me that the final stretch was seven miles, not three! Luckily, the aid station crew came clean and revealed the actual distance to the finish line was 3.9 miles. I could deal with that, and embarked on the closing act of my 50 mile tragedy.
As the course crested another high point and started its final descent into Montebello, even more people bounded by me. I was especially jealous of those with pacers, and I recognized the benefit of company in tough stretches like that. All I got was a lady walking a dog who lied to me about the distance to the finish (misguided, but appreciated, and I almost believed her!) Soon enough, the 1-mile marker appeared, and then thankfully, mercifully, I got my wonky ankle off of treacherous trails and onto predictable asphalt. Accelerating to my new max speed (9:30/pace?), I held off further runners and crossed the finish line with 10:39 on the clock.
Holy crap! What a run!
Dr. Horton was right there at the finish, shaking hands with all the runners. I picked up my finisher's shirt and ambled over to the bench press set-up, fancying a go at the "Iron Horse" award (most reps at 135lbs/95lbs for men/women), but somebody had cranked out 35 already! Laughing, I skipped the work out, which would have probably been a travesty in the state I was in anyway.
Collecting my head lamp and drop bag (which now magically contained an unexpected pair of women's "arm panties" - weird), I managed to hop on the first bus back to the Kirkley, full of runners with which to trade war stories. One guy made me feel like a wuss - he was going to head to the Carolinas that night in order to run a marathon *the next day*!
The Kirkley staff was awesome: they set up a number of rooms with soap, shampoo and towels so we could get cleaned up! It was definitely much appreciated - I was expecting the usual "go the swimming pool" treatment. I felt like a VIP.
I skipped the post-race dinner to drive Route 60 to Lexington so I could visit/crash at a friend's place from college. How, I don't know, but I am probably lucky I didn't kill myself. My adventure ended the next day with a return to DC and a (thankfully) direct flight into SFO. What a weekend.
In no particular order, here are Things I Now Know that I was ignorant of before.
50K shape is not 50 mile shape. It's not even in the ballpark. Not even the same sport. Being able to run 50K well had no bearing on my performance at MMTR. 50 miles are tough!
You can fake your way through shorter trail runs even when you primarily train on roads. But the bitter truth is revealed in the ultra distance. I feel that by only running trails on weekends, neither my quads nor ankles were able to handle the rigors of the Mountain Masochist while my hamstrings and calves had reserves left. Which did me no good. Specificity of Training - simple lesson.
Ultra nutrition is still a higher-level mystery to me. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done, but gels apparently are not the answer.
Finally, to mis-quote Dean Vernon Wormer: "Color blind and running on fall foliage is no way to go through life, son." The leaves were an unexpected hazard. Lesson: stay in California!
Right now, I don't think I'll ever return to Virginia for running - heck, right now, even a marathon sounds ambitious - but I was blown away by the great race put on by Clark Zealand and team. I cannot imagine the logistical nightmare of putting on a 50 mile point-to-point race, but I certainly appreciated the pay-off. And I can honestly say, the course marking (white ribbons) were by far the best I have ever seen in my life, and a real life-saver for a guy like me who could get lost in a phone booth. Thumbs up from this California runner - what a great event.
MMTR Race Site
Eco-X Sports Blog
Garmin Connect Activity Details