Saturday, June 29, 2013

Race # 31 - Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run

photo by Bobby Gill

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run
4:00 AM
Fort Valley, VA
Time: 32:35:47
Place: 97th out of 151 finishers (198 starters)

"I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living.  Or get busy dying."
       --Andy Dufrain, The Shawshank Redemption

In December of 2012, I threw my name in the lottery for the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run.  "What are the chances?" I thought.  I doubt I get picked, but if I do, it'll be time to get busy and train.  Lucky me, I 'won the lottery'.  I waited almost until the last minute to pay my entry fee and the moment I clicked submit, the quote above immediately came to mind:  "Get busy living, or get busy dying."  Life is about taking chances, and this would be one of the biggest I've ever taken.  You only get one first of everything in life, and if successful, this would be an epic first 100 miler.

The race website includes race reports from previous years' runners so I read each and every one of them.  I watched YouTube videos.  I Google searched 'Massanutten 100' numerous times trying to find anything and everything about this race.  I wanted to make sure I had done my homework and was as prepared as I possibly could be by the time I got to the start.  Usually this is a good thing, but sometimes you read things you shouldn't.

When reading one runner's recap of his race, he presented the highs and lows he experienced.  Typical, just like others I had read.  But somewhere in this racer's text they had written:  "Do not do Massanutten as your first 100".  Instantly, doubt filled my head.  What have I gotten myself into?  Can I do this?  What if I fail?  Is it really that hard?  Just how hard is it?  When I told Summer about this, as usual, she reassured me that I can do this and to quit worrying.  That this was only one runner's point of view and I wouldn't be the first (or last) person to make MMT my first 100 miler.  Since Summer believed in me, it was my turn.  I had to believe in myself.  I had to believe in my training. 

Training was simple.  In addition to the normal 4-6 hour runs on Saturdays, I was already registered for a 100k in January (which I decided to DNF at the 50k mark since I was coming off an injury), a trail marathon in February, and a 50 miler in April.  Later I would add a 24 hour run in March to give me a race per month to prepare for this massive undertaking.  These races, along with my normal long runs which included as much elevation and rocky terrain as possible, would have to suffice.  Being four hours from the race site, attending the training runs the race held leading up to the event weren't really an option.   I just hoped everything I did was good enough to get me to the finish line.

I counted down the days for months.  Finally, May 17th arrived and it was time.  I asked my friend Jon to come pace me and he graciously agreed.  I had a supportive crew that consisted of my wife Summer and our sweet baby Gemma, my parents, and Summer's parents.  They were all willing to give up their weekend to come see me (briefly) at aid stations, to support me throughout the race, and most importantly, to be there when I (hopefully) crossed the finish line of my first 100 miler.

We made the drive up and arrived in time to get checked in and hear the pre-race meeting.  They informed us of many topics including the course marking (which proved to be excellent), the ticks (they were everywhere), and what we had to do if we decided to drop (we had to turn in our bib number instead of keeping it).  I was determined to take that bib number home with me.  Soon it was time for dinner and then I headed to the cabin where I had a bunk bed reserved.  Since the race began at 4am, I did not want to trouble my crew so early and make them try to get me from the hotel to the start in the middle of the night.  This meant that I would not see them until the 33.3 mile mark which was the first crew-accessible aid station (AS) they could see me at (unless they wanted to get to the 12 mile AS prior to 7am to catch me there).  We all said our goodbyes and I set up camp in the cabin and hung out with a few other guys on the porch.

The three gents whom I would be rooming with were all veterans of MMT.  We spent the evening conversing about the course, the race, the previous years in which they ran, and many other running related topics.  Darkness soon fell though and it was time to turn in.  I was hoping to get a good 5 hours of sleep at least.  That plan failed as a group of five other runners entered our cabin as they had just showed up for the next day's race.  They spent the next hour unpacking and preparing their gear.  I tried to sleep, but the lights, noise, and lack of air conditioning made it impossible.  Finally, sometime close to 11pm, the lights went out.  I spent the next hour or so tossing and turning trying to fall asleep.  I never have trouble sleeping before a race and this night's sleeplessness was not caused by nerves or anxiety, but instead maybe because of an unfamiliar environment, or lack of a real bed.  Who knows.  I had my alarm set for 3am but soon enough I was awake and it was 2:40.  As I laid there in bed, I thought about how long it may be until I was in that same position.  I had no idea what the course of the next day and a half would have in store for me, but there was only one way to find out.  The lights soon came on and it was time to get ready.  Soon thereafter we made our way to the start.  Six months of training, waiting, and anticipating.  It was all over.  It was go time.

I checked in with race coordinators, and met up with Larry, a friend through Facebook who was there to get his name off the 'Visitor's list', and complete this race some call the toughest 100 miler east of the Rockies as a member of the Solo Division.  Competitors classify themselves members of the Solo Division by having no crew, no pacer, and using no headphones for the entire race, something that would take true mental diligence to accomplish in my opinion.  He asked if I was nervous and surprisingly, for some reason I wasn't.  A quick picture together and we were soon counting down from 10.  The red numbers of the race clock showed 4:00 am when myself and 197 other runners all set off on the same journey:  To cover 103.7 miles by foot in 36 hours or less.

As we started, the music that filled the air around the start line soon faded, and sounds of footsteps and light chatter were all I heard.  The first four miles of the race were a mix of pavement and gravel road that lead up to the base of Short Mountain, our first trail section.  Since we were all so close together, I found no need for my headlamp until we reached the trail head.  Here I got to run a little, but that soon ended as I landed in a short line of people, and we all began the hike up Short Mountain. 

Eventually we reached the ridge where we had a few miles of easy running.  The weather was overcast, so there was no sunrise to view.  I was getting my first taste of the Massanutten rocks but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  I assumed it would get worse later which would prove to be a fair assumption.  Back in the short line of runners I was in, the pace was slower than I wanted it to be.  A female was in the front of this pack leading us and although I had over 90 miles remaining, I felt it was too slow.  Eventually some folks asked to pass and I went with them. 

I was a few miles from the first aid station (AS) and already, I was hungry.  This was not good.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I had two bananas before the race start, but that wasn't enough.  I started to get worried that I was in a calorie defecit and hadn't even made it 1/10th of the way through the race.  I sucked down a couple of gels, exactly what I didn't want to do.  Real food is always best, and I was hoping to conserve the gels until later in the race.  But I had no choice.  My stomach was growling.  I had to listen to it.

It was nearing 7am and I got a feeling that Summer would be at the first AS.  This was not part of the original plan.  My first time seeing my crew was supposed to be mile 33.3 which I guessed would be around noon.  But for some reason, I just had this feeling that at least part of them would be there waiting for me.  At 7:01am I rolled into the first AS at mile 12.1 and was so happy to see Summer, Gemma, and my mom all waiting for me.  Gemma did her part in waking up early and they decided to come see me.  It was such a welcomed surprise.

I immediately got into our cooler and slammed an Ensure.  These would be a staple for me throughout the race as the 330 liquid calories go down easily.  I ate some cookies and cheese (what a combo right?), refilled my handhelds, grabbed some pretzels for the trail, said my goodbyes and was off on the next section. 

The climb out of this aid station was probably a little over 1.5 miles.  I was alone most of the time but I soon caught up to a small group.  I stopped for a nature break though and lost them.  As I started back running, I heard another runner coming up behind me.  I let him pass and realized who it was.  The legend, Gary Knipling.  They could name this race after Gary.  At 69 years young this year, he completed it for the 16th time.  Absolutely amazing.

For my birthday, Summer bought me the DVD "Two Runners, 100 Miles" which is a documentary from the 2006 MMT100 showing Gary and another runner, Kerry Owens and their quest to complete this tough race. That was where I saw how social, outgoing, and just downright cool Gary was.  I had hoped I would get to meet him during my first 100.  At the pre-race festivities, I saw him passing out laminated cards to some runners that showed the aid stations, distances between, and cutoff times of each.  I had made myself something similar, but forgot to print it out.  I failed to ask him about it as I figured he only printed off ones for certain runners.

Meanwhile, back on the trail, as he passed by, I called out his name and then introduced myself.  Recently becoming 'friends' on Facebook, he knew who I was.  He also spoke to my mom a little at the pre-race festivities and mentioned that.  I just told him it was an honor to meet him and wished him luck the rest of the race.  He asked me to grab something out of his pack and I agreed.  It was one of the laminated cards.  He told me to take it and keep it for the race and although it had another runner's name on it that he couldn't find the day before, it would still be beneficial to me.  I graciously agreed and was glad to have it.  It would come in handy later on.  A true class act, I was so happy I got to meet Gary.

We both headed on up the trail and soon enough, I was running alone again at my own pace, just how I like it.  Then came a downhill that stretched for a couple of miles and soon leveled out to be some decent running.  This section was 8.1 miles that would soon lead into the Woodstock Tower AS where I had my first drop bag.

I came into it feeling fresh having the first 20% of the race done.  Weather was still lovely and I took advantage of all the AS had to offer.  The food was great and they had a bucket of water with wash cloths to wipe down with.  Such a wonderful idea.  I downed another Ensure and grabbed the honey bun I had packed in my drop bag.  Honey buns were also a staple for me during a long race like this.  They pack well for the trail too.

Sadly, there was one person there at this AS who was dropping.  Such a terrible thing given we were only a little over 20 miles into the race.  The race director was there and I overheard him agree to take the runner to another AS closer to the start.  I felt for him given it was only a little after 9 in the morning and months of training were now gone.

The next few miles were again runnable as this AS was one of the few that didn't have a climb coming out of it.  Shortly after getting back on trail, we were given an amazing view as the trees cleared and we could see out.  I had to stop for a photograph.

We then came up on a photographer who was taking pictures of the runners.

Photo courtesy Bobby Gill

Photo courtesy Bobby Gill

Myself and another runner stopped to capture the moment while the photographer snapped a few of us in the moment.

Photo courtesy Bobby Gill

He volunteered to take a picture with my phone in front of the overlook while there were no runners coming. 

 A downhill section took me into Powell's Fort AS.  No crew and no drop bags.  I tried not to spend too much time here but I had to make sure I ate enough as it was 7.5 miles to Elizabeth Furnace AS where I would see me entire crew for the first time.  This was the first AS that had bacon so I took advantage.  However, this bacon should have came with a disclaimer.  I grabbed some that was just cooked and it was extremely hot.  I cooled it down with some strawberries and then grabbed a waffle and some syrup to go and headed out of there on my way to see my crew.

The climb out of this AS was gradual and eventually came to an apex.  Then we began a long downhill to Elizabeth Furnace.  I played leap frog with a few runners on this section and I believe it was here that we passed a lady hiking who mentioned she saw an 'adolescent cub' a couple of miles down the trail from where we were.  I kept my eyes peeled but luckily the cub and I never crossed paths.

Massanutten trails

Some Massanutten rocks

Yet another climb

There were several switchbacks on this section and since this downhill was around 4 miles long, occasionally I had to stop and walk just to give my legs a break.  Not that I was running fast, but it was still very early in the race and I had to be careful not to blow out my quads or something similar that could plague me later.

Soon enough, I emerged from the woods to crowds of people cheering me on including my mom who told me she just wanted to see me come off the trail and into the AS, which was still a few hundred feet away.

Coming in to Elizabeth Furnace aid station, mile 33.3
Elizabeth Furnace AS was a small picnic shelter that had a lot of great food.  I grabbed my drop bag, downed an Ensure, and then proceeded to change shoes.  My feet were fine, but I had planned to make three shoe changes during the race including socks and aquaphor so I stuck with the plan.  I had socks in a lot of drop bags in case it rained or there were deep stream crossings, but they were never needed.  I also swapped out my Nathan vest for my Salomon pack which had two extra handhelds.  I came into Elizabeth Furnace at 12:45 PM, so I was entering the heat of the day, if you wanted to call it that.  The weather was still cooperating and the overcast skies were keeping the temperatures from being too bad.  Still I wanted the option of having extra water in case I needed it.  The next two sections though were short compared to what I had been running so the extra handhelds didn't need to be filled up completely.

Switching from one pair of Hokas to another!
Downing some food!
Posing with my beautiful wife before heading back out
Mouth full of grapes and Gemma wanting to play in the plate of salt.

I was so happy to see my crew, but I knew I had to get moving.  It was 4.7 miles to the next AS and I would get to see everyone there again.  So I left out alone and headed up another climb.  This one was only about 1.5 miles and soon turned into a downhill.  As I drew closer to the Shawl Gap AS, we departed the woods and entered some trail that was exposed but since the clouds were out, it wasn't as bad as it could be.  I came up on a runner who had a bandaged knee that looked like it was in bad shape.  I asked him how it was and he simply responded "it's reminding me that it's there".  That would definitely be a long road ahead with 65 miles remaining and a bum knee already.

As I was coming in to Shawl Gap AS, another photographer was taking pictures of runners.  He said some words to me that seemed like he was talking to someone he knew.  Days after the race, I finally figured out it was another Facebook friend whom I had talked to for months about the race.  I had forgotten he was leading this AS so after the fact, I had to apologize for my cluelessness.

Gemma walking around the AS
photo courtesy Rob Dolan
 My crew was waiting for me and asked me how things were going.  38.1 miles in and I was still feeling pretty good.  This AS was dubbed as "The Bacon Station" so I had a few pieces, along with some oranges and cookies.  Another Ensure, a half quesadilla to go and I was soon on my way.  I wouldn't see my crew again until mile 54, which was 16 miles away.  I would be half way done at that point.  Only a short 5k to the Veach Gap AS and it was all road, some paved, some gravel.

Coming in to Shawl Gap AS
photo courtesy Rob Dolan

Oranges and bacon for me at "The Bacon Station"
photo courtesy Rob Dolan

photo courtesy Robin Denny
The road to Veach Gap AS was torture, as was every other road in the race, even though they were few and far between.  I just did not like being on pavement.  I tried to run on the shoulder when I could.  The gravel road wasn't as bad but it was a lot of uphill which I walked.  I soon rounded a corner and had reached Veach Gap AS.

The volunteers here, as well as every other AS were very welcoming.  They refilled my bottles as always, and offered me everything they had.  Again the bucket of wet towels was amazing.  I washed my face off and that was heavenly.  I had some fruit, Reese's Pieces, a quarter PB&J, another Ensure, threw my honey bun in my pack, grabbed a piece of turkey, and again headed on my way.  It was 9 miles to the Indian Grave AS, so another long section.  It started with a pretty significant climb, which would prove, in my opinion, to be one of the toughest of the entire race.

As I started on the trail, I took a bite of the turkey but it did not taste right.  Maybe because it had been sitting out in the warmer temps, who knows.  But I immediately spit it out and literally almost gagged and threw up.  I was really hoping to avoid that.  I could not afford to lose everything I had consumed as I was about to head up this climb and do a 9 mile section.  Luckily I was able to hold it down.  I took a nature break (bear attack), and then kept on truckin'.

The climb out of Veach Gap was ridiculous.  It was around 2 miles long probably, and was just one of those steep climbs where I could see exactly where I had to go and it looked never-ending.  Once I got to the part where I thought it ended, it just took a slight right turn and kept going up even further as far as I could see.  Not to mention that to my left, there was probably a thousand foot drop off the side of the mountain.  One wrong step and it's a long way down.

A photographer had hiked up this trail and found a nice perch to sit and take photos of the runners.  When I came upon him, I told him he was crazy to climb up this thing just to take pictures, but I thanked him for doing just that and smiled for the camera.

photo courtesy Aaron Schwartzbard

Once I finally reached the top of this brutal climb, I was up on the ridge but unfortunately, the terrain didn't really permit running.  The same drop-off to the left, and very rocky and uneven terrain kept me walking.  Some of it didn't even seem walkable!  But I took it slow and kept my footing and finally made it through this demanding section.  I then caught my second wind.  Well, maybe not second.  I don't know what number it was.  But I was feeling good.  Running felt good, and I had to take advantage of it while it lasted.  Ride the wave as long as I could.

After being on the ridge for a while, I dropped down and had a nice downhill that carried me into the Indian Grave AS.  I caught up with another Facebook friend, Kim.  She was having a grilled cheese which looked fantastic so I put in an order for one.  This AS had ice too so I got to fill up my handheld with some cold water.  I asked the volunteers what the next sections were like and the debate began on whether the climb out of Veach Gap was worse than the climb out of Habron Gap.  I had no idea what it would be like after Habron, but I knew if it were anything close to what I did when I left Veach, it was going to be extremely tough.  I had some fruit and a grilled cheese, and then a large handful of Reese's Pieces to go then I headed off on the next 4.1 mile section to Habron Gap.

This section was mostly flat gravel road.  I ran a good bit of it but the generic, plain terrain seemed to make my body feel like it was taking a beating.  So I would play the landmark game where I would run to a certain landmark and then walk.  Then pick another landmark where I would start running again, and do this over and over until the Habron Gap AS was in sight.  Once it was, I steadily rolled in to see my crew.

It was around 6:45 PM when I arrived.  I was over half way done.  Mentally, in an ultramarathon, I think of it like a roller coaster with the climb up, the apex, and then the climb down.  The first half is the left side of this picture, half way is the apex, and then the second half is the right side, the downslope.  I know that anything can happen in the course of a long distance race such as this, but I always try to keep thinking that once you reach the half way mark, each step you take is literally getting you closer to the finish and there is no reason to quit.

I decided to change shirts here and really took my time.  The next section was 9.8 miles, the longest of the race.  I would also transition into darkness on this section.  I felt great.  I had an ice cream sandwich and many other things including an Ensure.  I reloaded my gel stock, grabbed my handheld flashlight and my secondary headlamp from my drop bag.  I had saved my good headlamp for Camp Roosevelt and had planned to try and get there before dark.  That wasn't going to happen.  I was so happy to see my crew.  Did I mention how good I felt?  For being 54 miles into this race, I couldn't believe how I felt.  But I guess you could say the fun run was over and the real race was about to start. This was the calm before the storm....

I taped Gemma's picture to my handheld bottle so she would always be with me and give me inspiration.

All smiles....for the time being

The extent of how dirty I got

< Insert caption here >

Gemma gave me a good luck kiss for the next section

Smiling again.....but not for long
And a good luck kiss from Summer.  I sure needed it I would soon find out.

I left Habron Gap AS and immediately started climbing.  On this section, I would climb up a mile or two, then run along the ridge for a few miles, and then a descent followed by a few miles of short ups and downs until reaching the Camp Roosevelt AS where I would pick up my pacer for the night.  The climb was ridiculous again.  I don't know which climb was worse:  The one out of Veach Gap or this one.  I guess it's whichever one you're doing in the moment.  So that being said, this climb was the worst.  There were switchbacks and long ascents where you could see ahead but couldn't tell where the end was.  Soon enough though, I made it to the top of the ridge.

Daylight was fading as I was running along the ridge.  My Garmin beeped notifying me of low battery.  Not to worry.  I had a small Duracell battery backup device that I could plug my watch in to and it would keep recording while it charged.  I bought this watch (Garmin 310XT) exactly for this reason.  I'm a sucker for the numbers and looking at the data about my run on the Garmin site.  So I stopped and got out the charger and plugged up the watch to it.  Then, all of a sudden, I looked at the face of the watch and there was nothing.  It was off.  I was completely dumbfounded.  What in the world had happened?!?  I was about to be super mad.

As I turned the watch back on, for some reason I was hopeful everything would still be there.  That was stupid.  There was no chance!  There I stared at the face of the watch, looking at all zero's, as if it was looking back at me saying "Ok boss I'm ready to record data for you so get running!"  I couldn't believe it.  The whole first half of the race was gone.  At the end of the day, it really wasn't that big of a deal and I really shouldn't have been getting so worked up about it.  I tried to put it in the past and remember the real reason I was out there.  So I restarted the data recording, turned on my headlamp, and headed on down the ridge.

Soon it was almost completely dark and my secondary headlamp I had packed for this section wasn't cutting it.  Another minute thing that caused me to waste mental energy.  I grabbed my handheld flashlight and started using it.  But this was difficult as I had two handheld bottles I was carrying.  One by one, minor issues were mounting.

Then it hit me.  The one thing that I really should be concerned about.  I had no idea what mile I was at, or how many more miles it was to the aid station.  The last time I saw mileage on my watch before it shut off I was at 56.xx.  I had to get to 63.9, but I didn't know how much was remaining.  In a race of this magnitude, you can't think about the whole thing.  You go aid station to aid station, finishing section by section.  In a way, I was running blind since I didn't know how far I was to completing this section.  I was officially down in the dumps.  It was completely dark now, and I was moving at an incredibly slow pace.  For the first of what would be many times, the thought of "Am I ever going to get to the aid station" crept into my mind.  I was discouraged.  I wanted to be done with this section.  I was ready to pick up my pacer so I wasn't alone.  I was ready to be done with the longest section of the race.

I tried to gather myself.  Up ahead I could see another headlamp.  I closed in on the runner and eventually asked if he knew how far it was to the AS.  He said probably around 3-4 miles.  I asked if he was familiar with the course and he was.  He told me what the course was like leading in to the AS, I thanked him, and then sped up trying to cover ground as quickly as possible.  I knew it would probably be at least an hour before I was done with this section.  Of course, the 'Am I ever going to make it to the aid station' thought came into my head.  That would become a habit the remainder of the race.  I was down in the dumps.  A low point of the race.  Physically I was fine.  Mentally, I was over it.  I was nearing 18 hours into the race.  Half way there according to time but more than half way in distance.  Night time was in full effect and I knew that if I could make it through the night, I would be ok.  All I could think about though was getting to Camp Roosevelt, seeing my crew, and picking up my pacer to join me for the rest of this adventure.

Months before MMT100, I pondered who I could get to pace me.  Being my first 100 attempt, I knew it  would be beneficial to have someone accompany me, especially through the night.  Summer suggested my friend Jon.  He was a local ultrarunner that I saw out on the local trails at Pilot Mountain State Park a few years ago.  I ran into him at my first ultra, the Uber Rock 50k, and then at my first 100k, the UROC 100k.  We made small talk at those races since we were from the same area.  However, we never trained together.  He trained alone as did I.  We had different schedules though as I was required to start training before dawn in order to get home and spend time with the family.  After being asked, Jon graciously agreed to pace me at MMT, as long as he didn't get in off the wait list.  As the days counted down and the race drew near, we watched as his name made it's way to the top of the wait list. I was getting nervous.  He agreed to pace me no matter what, but wanted to keep his name on the wait list so he would have priority next year if he didn't get in.  So I didn't want him to get in so that he kept his priority status.  Luckily, May 7 came as the last day to withdraw and Jon was number two on the list.  Talk about a close call!

It was 10:00 PM.  18 hours had passed since I crossed the start line and I had made over 63 miles thus far.  Finally, I made it to Camp Roosevelt.  This AS was less than half a mile to the Start/Finish line.  For that reason, it's the most common place to drop from the race.  If you make it to Camp Roosevelt and drop, you are given a 'Visitor's award'.  A rock with a plaque on it to remind you that you didn't make it the full 103.7 miles.  I did not want to take home a rock.  I came for a buckle, and it was going to take more than my mind to cause me to go home without it.

Finally, at 10:09 PM, I had made it to Camp Roosevelt.  My crew was anxiously awaiting me.  It had taken me almost three and a half hours to cover 9.9 miles, but I made it.  I threw it all at my crew.  "It's over.  I'm done.  I'm over it.  This is stupid."  These are all things I said in the 24 hour race I ran in March when it was almost midnight.  Summer told me the day before the race that I would get to that point, but I had to push through.  That's what ultrarunning is all about.  You're going to have highs, and you're going to have lows.  What makes or breaks a race is whether or not you can pull yourself from the depths of the lows and continue moving forward.  It's all mental.

Deep down, I knew I was full of it.  I knew I wasn't going to quit.  I had my parents and in-laws that had given up their weekend and paid for a hotel room all to come and support me.  My wife had wrangled a 1 year old all day and night just so they could see me a few minutes at a time throughout the entire day.  And Jon had driven four hours to give up his weekend and run with me through the night.  There was no way I was going to quit.  I just had to vent at this point with everything that had happened on the previous section.  Physically, I was fine.  Nothing hurt.  My feet were in great shape.  Quads were fine.  I was actually doing a lot better than some people that had came through Camp Roosevelt AS according to my crew.  And I was not alone in the fact that I came into it saying the previous section was awful etc.  Apparently that section makes or breaks your race.

I can't put into words how amazing my crew and pacer were at this aid station.  Only Summer had seen me in this condition before and she knew how to react.  My mom was probably worried about me, not understanding why anyone would want to do this to themselves, and not wanting me to feel this bad anymore.  My dad I could tell was eagerly waiting to anything he could to help.  Jon knew exactly where I was though.  As a fellow ultrarunner himself and having completed several hundreds himself, he knew exactly how I felt.  Everyone's support was pouring out and I was doing my best to show my appreciation even though I just wanted to pause and stop everything for just a few minutes.  I couldn't though.  I had to get it together.

Jon offered to check out my feet and clean them but I told him I would be changing shoes and socks at the next AS since the following section had potential for our feet to get wet.  I traded out my crappy headlamp for my good one, had an Ensure and some Ramen noodles, and made sure I had everything in my pack for the next section.  Then I got up to avoid getting stiff due to inactivity and headed to the food, trying to get more calories in me.  I had some fruit and was slowly pulling myself out of the depths.  Food was getting to the point where nothing sounded good.  When you eat for 18 hours, there isn't much that sounds appetizing.  But you have to keep fueling the fire.  I put on a long sleeve shirt for the night ahead, and soon enough, it was time to head into the darkness.  I said my goodbyes and told my crew I would see them at the finish line and off we went.

Smiling on the outside, full of other emotions on the inside

Discussing our game plan.  Or just staring at each other.  Who knows.

And we're off!
The next section was 5.8 miles to Gap Creek.  From the emails I traded with other veterans in the weeks leading up to the race, this would be a section where I could potentially get wet feet.  I was surprised I had made it this far into the race and not gotten wet yet.  As Jon and I walked along the side of a creek, there was minimal water flowing down the trail.  Had we not been blessed with such amazing weather, it was obvious that we would have had wet feet.

We discussed the first 64 miles of the course.  I told him about the terrain, the climbs, how I had been eating and drinking, and many other things.  I was so thankful to have someone with me for once.  Given that I train alone and usually race alone, I'm not used to having company but it was welcomed at this point.  I told him again, as I did the week before the race, to just get me through the night.  After doing my first overnight race in March, I knew just how another sunrise could rejuvenate a runner, and I was looking forward to it.

The veterans I traded emails with months before the race informed me that the section between Camp Roosevelt and Gap Creek would be the best chance to have wet feet.  Therefore, I planned to change shoes the first time at Gap Creek, mile 69.6.  Luckily, the weather before the race set up the course great and we did not encounter any water that caused us to get wet as the creeks weren't very high.

This section had a pretty tough climb.  It was dark though, so we couldn't tell how far we had to go or where the top was.  Sometimes that's a good thing,  Sometimes not.  I was slow moving though.  My biggest issue throughout the entire night was being sleepy.  My body was fine.  I wasn't hurting like some runners were.  I was just tired.  Once we reached the peak of this climb, it immediately turned downhill.  While somewhat rocky, the downhill was somewhat runnable.  We caught up with a few runners and passed them just before arriving at the Gap Creek AS.

We arrived at Gap Creek the first time at 12:30 AM.  There was a campfire, but I wasn't cold and the heat of it turned me away.  I pulled up a chair and a volunteer was kind enough to bring my drop bag to me.  My amazing pacer, Jon, proceeded to help me with my shoes.  He was eager to do everything he could to help me.  I changed shoes and socks and he grabbed me some food.  Eventually I made my way up to the buffet and they had a lot of hot food but none of it looked appealing to me unfortunately. Jon was enjoying some pierogies though and said they were pretty good.  I didn't even know what a pierogi was so I didn't want to try anything new.  I just stuck with the fruit and same things I had been eating all day.  Soon, we departed for another brutal section.

Kerns mountain is the next climb and one of the worst of the race.  Again, I was moving so slow.  It was as if my legs did not work on the uphills.  We finally reached the ridge and it was so eerie.  Imagine being on the top of a mountain, in the middle of the night pitch black darkness, cool wind occasionally brushing across your skin.  For some of you reading this, you know what I'm talking about.  For the rest, aside from what I just told you, it's indescribable.  I'm not afraid of the dark, but I sure was glad Jon was there with me.  There were times I was getting so tired that I had to sit down on a rock for a few seconds and close my eyes.  If I had been up there alone, I would have probably just stopped to take a nap.  We saw a couple of other runners but they had no pacers.  That was impressive. I just could not imagine doing this by myself.  But then again, this was my first 100 attempt and I felt it was necessary to have a pacer.

As we made our way along the ridge, we were coming to the closing stages of this 8.5 mile section.  All of a sudden, I got this thought/feeling that if I run fast, I can get to the next AS sooner and would be able to sit down.  I told Jon it was time to run and I took off.  The terrain was generous on this section and we took advantage of it.  It felt like I was running a 6 minute pace although I'm sure it was probably around 9 or higher.  When you've been moving for over 20 hours though, breaking into a stride makes you feel like you are flying.  We then exited the woods onto a gravel road.  I stopped and turned back to see why Jon had stopped.  There were a couple of coolers on a table as we came off this trail section.  It was an unmanned AS with water and an almost empty package of cookies.  Jon and I both took one and left the remains for the folks behind us.  I thought to myself how random.  And how dangerous maybe?  To leave an open package of cookies on the top of the mountain in the spring?  Maybe those who did this knew better about the bear population than I did, but it didn't seem wise.  I just imagined coming off that trail section and seeing a bear munching on some cookies.  That'd be nuts!

The final miles of this section were on road.  Whether gravel or paved, it was still road.  I didn't like it.  It hurt, but it had to be done.  Jon did an amazing job of making me run as much as I could.  I would run for a while and then I would take a walk break.  Eventually we could see lights off to the left and assumed it was the Visitor's Center AS.  While we seemed so close, it seemed to take a long time to get there, but we finally arrived at the 78.1 mile checkpoint.  It was 4:11 AM and it had taken me 3 hours and 41 minutes to cover the previous 8.5 mile section..  I was now over 24 hours into this race.

As I came into the AS, Jon told the volunteer with the clipboard my number and I grabbed a chair.  The volunteer walked up to me and proceeded to speak a complete sentence to me.  He might as well have been speaking Swahili because I didn't understand a single word he said and I'm sure the expression on my face proved it.  He repeated himself and it finally registered with me.  His name was Dave and he was another person I knew from the online running world I was involved in.  It was great to finally meet him but the circumstances were pretty crazy.

We sat there next to each other and I just closed my eyes for a few minutes.  I guess you could call it some sort of sleepy trance.  I told Dave about how my race was going, the good and the bad.  He assured me that I had plenty of time and I would definitely be finishing the race.  He was very familiar with this section of course so I had him tell Jon and I what the next few miles were like.  I had some soup and Ensure and grazed again at the well stocked tables.  But again, we had to be on our way so Dave and I said goodbye and we were off.

While I still felt extremely sleepy and tired, I knew the sun was coming up soon and it would be daylight.  Mentally I tried to inspire myself by saying things like "today I will become a 100 mile finisher" and similar things and that it was only a matter of time before I'd be crossing that finish line.  But first, I had to make it to Bird Knob.

As we climbed out of the Visitor's Center AS, we were not alone.  Some runners we passed while others passed us.  Suddenly I looked up at the sky and it was no longer black.  It was turning purple and I reassured myself it would soon be blue.  This climb wasn't all that bad, and it seemed to level off and we were running again.  The sky never turned blue as the clouds that covered the sky on Saturday had decided to stick around on Sunday.  I didn't care.  It was getting light out and we were rolling in to Bird Knob AS.  They had bags of bacon.  Imagine the largest bag of beef jerky you can find at a gas station and then triple the amount the bag contained and that's what the bags of bacon were like.  I had several pieces, along with some ramen noodles.  There was a campfire here as well but I stayed away.  We didn't stay here long.  Now that it was daylight, I was alive and well so we got out and headed on to the next section.

We left Bird Knob on a downhill road that soon had us turn off onto a trail that went up.  It was steep and rocky and again since it was light, we could see exactly where we had to go.  In the darkness of the night, you can't see these sort of things which is sometimes a good thing. But the hill seemed never-ending and I was a slow moving individual going up.  Soon though, we reached a downhill.  This was probably one of the longest downhills of the race.  I had reached a point where going up the hills was slow as could be.  My legs felt dead as if they had no energy to push me.  But as we reached the downhill, mentally I convinced myself to run.  And I mean RUN.  I took off.  Running downhill was a piece of cake.  My legs didn't hurt, so I just let gravity do it's job while I kept myself upright.

There was no break in the downhill.  It wasn't like it was down for a few hundred yards, and then up for a little.  It was just straight down for around 2.5 miles.  As I'm 'blazing' the downhills, I convince myself that the faster I run, the sooner I finish.  I held nothing back.  I seriously felt as if I was running 5-6 minute pace but my Garmin proved me wrong as it showed somewhere around 10:20 pace for a mile.  For once, Jon wasn't pushing me.  In fact, I was pushing him.  Later I found out I was pushing him to his limits and he told me that he thought he was just going to have to let me go and catch up later.  He held on and we made it to the end of the hill.  A short uphill and then we made it down into the Picnic Area aid station.

It was 7:30 in the morning.  I had covered 87.9 miles.  I sat down, and as my amazing pacer offered me breakfast food and many other things, all I could think about was how much I didn't want to eat.  But I had to.  The volunteers brought my drop bag to me and had an Ensure then packed my honey bun into my backpack.  I asked veteran volunteers to explain the last few course sections to me and they did so with great detail.  I gathered myself, grabbed a handful of Reese's Pieces and we set out on our way to the last AS of the race.

88 miles.  In the grand scheme of things, I was so close to finishing the race.  But in the same respect, I was so far away from that finish line.  The next section was truly a mental test that pushed me to the brink of sanity it seemed.  As we left the Picnic Area AS, we had a short downhill section that was easy to run.  Soon enough though, we hit an uphill.  I began to wonder how long this uphill was.  My legs had no energy.  While I could blast the downhills and not have any problems whatsoever, I couldn't go up.  This was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.  I didn't understand it, and I was completely frustrated.  Imagine what a zombie looks like walking in the movies.  That's what I felt like, and that's the pace it seemed like I was moving.  No matter what I did, walking up a hill seemed like a never-ending feat.

Crossing a creek around 9am.  Carefully, as I hadn't gotten wet the entire race!
I made it!

The next few switchbacks, on any other day, would be runnable.  If I were out on a training run, I probably wouldn't consider walking them.  I had no choice at this point.  I was growing angry at my legs.  Why I had no energy to push myself up these hills at a reasonable pace was beyond me.  I was also sleepy, and the fact that we were moving at a snail's pace was causing me to literally fall asleep while I was walking.  But we kept moving, one foot in front of the other.  And if the current mental angst wasn't enough, I was faced with a change in the trail that was almost the straw that broke the camel's back.

The trail had been easily defined and marking was excellent.  But then it was almost as if the trail ended and the course markings lead us up a creek bed.  Like the course designers said, "hey let's make them walk up a creek bed 90 miles into the race....that'll be funny."  Not that getting wet at this point was aggravating.  I didn't care about that.  I'd rather have wet feet for the last 13 miles than the last 70 miles.  It was just another factor that was wasting mental energy.  At this point I was just getting mad.  I tried to stay positive, but I couldn't.  All I wanted was for this section to be over with.  I just wanted to sit down, maybe even close my eyes for a minute or so.  I knew I would finish before the 36 hour cutoff.  So time wasn't a factor.  But this 8.9 mile section just kept going, and going.

We finally reached the end of the uphill section and got to some downhill running.  I was so happy to have a change in terrain.  The downhill miles flew by and we soon came into the Gap Creek AS for the second time.  It looked different this time around compared to the first time I arrived, when it was just after midnight.  I sat down and a volunteer was promptly attending to me.  I didn't care about food.  I told him how I was just so sleepy and he asked if I had any caffeine.  I told him I had been drinking Coke, etc. at the AS's but it didn't seem like it was doing it's job.  He went and grabbed me an espresso flavored GU that had more than the normal amount of caffeine other gels have.  I downed it.  Although I'm not a fan of coffee flavored anything, especially coffee, I forced it down and hoped that it would soon be the pick-me-up I needed.  My drop bag was brought to me and the volunteer examined what was in my pack to see if I could shed some weight.  Socks, headlamp, flashlight, unopened gels, who knows what else, was all still in my pack.  We threw it all in my drop bag and I got myself ready for the final section.  I was soon on my way to the finish line.

Leaving Gap Creek AS, you have to climb Jawbone for the second time.  The first was in the middle of the night and I remember it sucked.  I was not looking forward to it, but I also knew it was my last climb of the race.  It didn't seem as bad this time around in the daylight and soon enough we had reached the top of the climb and the 'pie plate' which we encountered earlier.

The 'pie plate' some 98 miles into the race.  "To the finish!"
After climbing jawbone for the second time, there is one final rocky section about a mile long.  A farewell trail of the Massanutten terrain.  One more reminder of what one has endured for over 100 miles.  Jon and I passed by a gentleman who would soon be finishing his 10th MMT100.  What an amazing feat that is!  We shared a few words, congratulated each other, and then we pressed onward.

We emerged from the woods off the trail and onto a gravel road.  The final four miles or so were on this gravel road which was all slightly downhill.  My feet were bruised and sore.  That was the only real pain I had.  It was just a matter of time before I would be crossing that finish line.  I couldn't believe what I had done.  Jon and I talked while we alternated walking and running.  I apologized to him for all the negativity I spat out of my mouth throughout the night but he was truly understanding and knew exactly where I was coming from.  Only another ultrarunner can relate.  I thanked him for giving up his weekend to accompany through the night to accomplish something I never dreamed existed.

We made one final turn onto another secondary road and walked the final uphill.  It was short but still deserved one of those "seriously, you had to throw in this final hill?" comments.  Once we reached the top we turned onto the trail that I had taken some 33 hours before as I walked from the cabin to the Start line.  Jon asked how far it was and I told him less than a mile.  He stopped me and said he had something to give me.  I didn't know what to expect.  He pulled out a necklace that said "Run 100" on it and said he wanted to give me something for finishing my first 100 miler.  It almost brought me to tears as I realized what I had accomplished and that you only get one first of everything in life.  And this would always be remembered as a keepsake from my first 100 mile race.  I was so grateful.  The fact that he knew this was special really meant a lot to me.  I can't say enough thank you's to him for all he did for me.

Since I hadn't seen my crew since the Camp Roosevelt AS the night before, I had no idea where they were or if they would be at the finish line waiting for me.  I had tried to text Summer throughout the night but sometimes I didn't have signal and sometimes I just forgot.  I would be super disappointed if they weren't there.  So I had Jon run down to the finish line first and make sure they were there before I exited the woods.  As I drew near, I crossed the bridge over a creek and I could see the tent and finish line.  He gave me a thumbs up and I knew all was well.

When you exit the trail, you are lead around a few large trees and you have a straight line maybe 50 yards long to the finish line where everyone is waiting for you.  I could hear my crew yelling for me.  It was one of the strangest feelings I had ever had.  I didn't know what to think.  Did I really just do what I thought I did?  Did I just cover 103.7 miles by foot?  I did.

As I drew nearer to the finish, I could hear one of the race marshals announcing my name and said "you can crack a smile anytime now, Nathan".  And I did.  I high fived my Dad and crossed the finish line in 32 hour, 35 minutes, and 47 seconds.  The race director was there to greet and congratulate me.  I mentioned to him that it was my first 100 and gave him kudos for a heck of a challenging race.

Coming in to finish my first 100 miler
Photo courtesy Tom Toogood

A high five from my Dad

Photo courtesy Bobby Gill

The race director, Kevin Sayers, as I told him it was my first 100.

Summer and I embraced while sharing a couple of tears.  I believe she was more emotional than I was but again, I didn't know what to think.  We both knew however, everything that I had done the previous six months leading up to this.  All of the early mornings I set out to go run for hours.  All of the sleep I gave up on Saturdays.  All of the races I ran in preparation for this.  It was all coming to a close before my eyes.  I am truly blessed to have someone to support me in doing this crazy thing called ultrarunning.  Summer, you are my wife, my partner, and most importantly, my best friend.  Thank you so much for being there for me.

Summer and I at the finish

Then I got to hug my sweet baby Gemma.  She had no idea what I had just done, but I was so thankful that I had made it to the finish alive and well and was able to hold her.  One day we'll look back on these pictures and I'll tell her all about my first 100 mile run.

Gemma and I
My wonderful family
My amazing pacer, Jon and I
Post-race photo

Keepsake from my first 100

And finally, the buckle.
I can't say enough about the way this race was conducted.  From the race director, to the volunteers, to the aid stations, everything was amazing.  The volunteers at each aid station were energetic and positive and willing to do whatever a runner needed to make their day a success.  At many points during the race I swore up and down that if I made it out of the race alive, I would never go back.  It didn't take too long for that feeling to go away after the race.  2014 plans have yet to be made but if I don't make it back to MMT100 then, I'll be back someday.  There's just something about this race, and now I know why so many keep coming back to the Massanutten mountains in the middle of May.