Last weekend was the Massanutten 100 miler. I love that race. It’s an annual reunion that after all these years, is as much about the people as it is about the experience of running the course. It’s one of the two races I plan everything else around each year. If all goes well, this will be my eighth finish – 800 miles at this race.
What it is
Massanutten starts outside Front Royal, Virginia, across the valley from the Shenandoah Mountain National Park. The Massanuttens are actually two parallel ridges and the course takes advantage of that. We essentially run down one ridge and back up the other side. Most of the aid stations are down below the ridge lines, so from the runner’s perspective the course follows a simple formula: climb, descend, aid station, repeat, repeat, repeat…
The footing is highly technical trail over most of the course. You run along extremely rocky sections of jumbled sandstone rocks that make a unique grinding “chink” when you knock one into the other. With all that sandstone, there’s also a lot of sand on the course (pack your gaiters). Water as well.
Some numbers will help complete the picture. Estimates give the course around 19,000′ of climb/descent, almost as much as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. The overall cutoff is a generous 36 hours, and many runners need it.
Race day this year is going to be interesting. The forecast is for thunderstorms, some severe, which seemed probable with an 80-degree high on Saturday and a 60-degree high on Sunday. Rob asks where I’d least like to be in a thunderstorm. The answer – Bird Knob, Short Mountain, Jawbone (Kern Mountain) – all high, rocky ridges that are fairly exposed to the sky. Places where you could easily be the tallest thing on a tall trail.
I’m going into the race more sleep-deprived than normal. Not a good thing on that course but it can’t be helped. I’d signed up for the Stonewall Jackson Division, a nice opportunity for runners who aren’t using pacers or crew, which I don’t usually use. I decide to switch gears and go with one bottle instead of a hydration pack. Several of the sections are 7-10 miles long but I’d run my early finishes here with one bottle, despite high heat and can do it again. My drop bags are at Habron Gap, Visitor’s Center, Gap Creek, Edinburg, and Woodstock Tower. The goal is to simply run well – more focused and comfortable that in the past several years. A little closer to potential, maybe under 30 hours, though finish time is secondary to the experience. I just want to honor myself and the trail.
Start to Habron Gap (24.7 miles)
So far, it’s all good. I focus on the running and my mechanics before it all “locks into place.” I’m in the back half but very comfortable. I safely pass the place I broke my hand in 2003. Cutoffs through these aid stations (MMT trailhead, Shawl Gap, Veach Gap, Milford Gap) are tight because there’s some gravel road and the course becomes tougher after Habron. The day is heating up and the humidity rising. Energy level is great, feeling great. It’s going to be a great day.
Habron Gap to Camp Roosevelt (34.2 miles)
Big climb in the rising heat. I pass a runner just out of the aid station who’s feeling dizzy. It’s going to be a hard day for some – half the field is first time Massanutten runners. I estimate the time this 9.5-mile section will take and nurse my bottle to last. Somewhere on the long, leisurely downhill I pass another runner, limping with a stick as a makeshift crutch.
Camp Roosevelt to Gap Creek #1 (39.8 miles)
Hot, but nothing epic. One side has been burned, maybe a controlled burn, and you can smell the charred wood for miles in the heat of the sun. Energy is flagging a bit, probably my typical low calorie intake problem. Still, things are running like clockwork. When I top the climb that descends into Gap Creek, I hear far away thunder.
Gap Creek/Jawbone to Visitor Center (48.2 miles)
The thunder has been growing louder, and shortly out of the aid station it begins to rain. The storm hits full force as we climb up to Jawbone, one of the three places I didn’t want to be in a storm. Jacket on, hood up, keep moving, keep moving… At least the rattlesnakes won’t be out. It dies down near the end of Jawbone. The trail empties out onto road and I’m almost happy to see it after the re-route from last year. Road speeds up the time to the aid station. I run the entire darn road down into Visitor Center. Ouch. Get my headlamp and gloves, plus a bit of food out of the drop bag, then get moving.
Visitor Center to Bird Knob (52.1 miles)
The climb up Bird Knob is not the toughest but it’s close – it’s long and requires clambering over rocks. Plus, you know you’re going to have to descend it in a few miles. The good news is that this is the “turnaround” section of the course and there’s a fantastic view at the top, all sunny as far as I can see when I reach it. This section, Visitor Center to Bird Knob and back to Picnic Shelter is essentially a lollipop, and the one place on the course you see fellow runners going in the other direction and get a chance to see how everyone’s doing. The top part is a high, grassy plateau, some of the best running on the course but my energy level is low. Not sure why. I hear thunder again.
Bird Knob to Picnic Area (56.4 miles)
What a mental relief to turn around at this aid station and point north to the finish. We haven’t run this part of the course for at least a year and I’d forgotten how pretty it is, all bright green moss and white rocks and old twisty trees on the top of this big rock of a ridge line. With the thunder getting louder and random drops of rain starting, I want to get back down the mountain so I memorize some photos instead of stopping to take them with the camera. The thunder grows louder, quickly. I reach the junction with the ascent trail and see Rob, then reach the fantastic view on my left that had been sunny on the way out, just a few minutes ago. What I see as I glance over takes my breath away and I stop, transfixed. I am eye level with the wall cloud and so close that I can reach out and touch it. I turn and run. The sky opens up with rain, lightning, and hail. Hood up, clambering over wet boulders on the top of the descent, I’m soaked to the skin. I pass Vinny and we yell to each other over the noise, and then pass Gary Knipling, smiling in the rain (what else can you do?). I slide down the hill, now a mud flume, and hit the level nature walk trail. When I reach the Picnic Shelter a few minutes later, it’s packed to brimming with a huddled mass of crew, runners, and workers trying to stay out of the storm.
Picnic Shelter to Gap Creek #2 (64.9 miles)
It’s chilly and still raining, even though the storm has passed, so I keep moving to stay warm. I make it farther along this section than I usually do before turning on my headlamp. Good. I’m alone on this section. This, for me, is the hardest climb on the course. It never seems to end and has lots of steep grade, now complicated by slick mud. When I finally reach the top, the trail passes between two ponds brimming with frogs so loud, they’re deafening. You can’t help but smile at their enthusiasm. Still, it’s getting colder and I’m soaked. The trail emerges onto gravel road and before I can settle into a comfortable run, I suddenly jump sideways as my headlamp beam lights up a rattlesnake. It’s thankfully flat as a pancake, but my heart still takes a minute or so to calm down. A few steps later, a black salamander with neon yellow dots wiggles across my lightbeam. Lots of life out in the wet.
Gap Creek to Moreland Gap (67.7 miles)
I sleep through it, almost literally. Keep falling asleep on my feet and jerking awake, even as the temperature continues to fall. Arrive at Moreland barely on my own two feet. Ugh. It’s not going to get easier.
Moreland Gap to Edinburg Gap (75.9 miles)
Short Mountain. The climb isn’t bad and navigation is easier than in past years, but it’s still tough. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. The trail is sometimes hard to spot and you need good peripheral vision to be able to navigate smoothly, something that’s almost impossible in a headlamp beam. I sleep through part of this one too, yawning uncontrollably and slip twice on the wet rocks, once on each knee. I pass a few runners on this section, but it’s too cold and I’m too sleepy to talk much. When the trail finally descends down to the road that takes us the short way into Edinburg, it’s covered in fog. I step down into the fog and it’s hard to see anything, much less trail flagging, so I can only navigate by reflective markers. Thank goodness they’re clear.
Edinburg Gap to Woodstock Tower (84.1 miles)
This is a long, rambling section, my least favorite. Still alone. And for some unknown reason my plantar flares up out of the complete blue. Argh. Babying it doesn’t work. Limping doesn’t work. Stretching doesn’t work. Yikes, this could affect all my upcoming races if it continues. I slowly shuffle towards Woodstock and get passed by Regis Shivers, Jr. and his runner. Nice to see them. Still, I make it to Woodstock without turning on my headlamp as I usually do. Must be running faster?
With only a wet jacket and tank on top, I’m desperate for a warm, dry shirt. For miles, I’ve been fantasizing about the dry shirt I put in the drop bag, so it’s the first thing I reach for at the aid station. I open the bag…no shirt. Can’t believe it. I didn’t pack it after all. Well, I can’t change that now. I look down and my knees are shivering involuntarily, all on their own. Ok, the only option left is to keep moving fast enough to generate heat. I am not about to drop for hypothermia. It’s not to that level yet. I grab two cookies and head quickly out of the aid station.
Woodstock Tower to Powell’s Fort (89.3 miles)
Dawn finally arrives and I turn off my headlamp but it’s too cloudy to get that immediate dawn energy boost. The coldest temperatures always seem to hit right before dawn and I’m still wet and cold. It’s too cold to consider slowing down. After wandering for miles along the rim of the ridge, the start of the descent to Powell’s Fort is a welcome landmark. Regis, his runner and I trade places again. Regis runs up a hill I can only imagine running at this point. Finally, I hit the road and run the short distance into the aid station. Eggs and pancakes! I miss Rebecca and James Moore but the food and volunteers are still wonderful.
Powell’s Fort to Elizabeth Furnace (96.8 miles)
Ahh, my favorite climb! I make it up the road and start trudging up the climb. Energy level is still down, but it’s all good. I reach the top and baby my knee through the never-ending switchbacks down to the road. The creek is higher than I’ve seen it before, thank goodness we take the bridge across. After the bridge, the course takes an immediate left along the water and at one point is underwater. I step on the edge, trying to find a place to step around it and lose my balance in the mud, slipping in up to my waist. It didn’t look that deep and the creek next to me is swirling, angry with mud. It’s a little frightening. I wade across and climb out, then walk up dripping to the aid station. Was that absolutely necessary? I sit and chat with Janice and crew (where is John Dodds?) a bit longer than I should before heading out carrying the cookies they pushed on me. Good aid station.
Elizabeth Furnace to Finish
The long, looping climb up to Shawl’s Gap goes slow but suddenly I’m there. Wow. This is such a special place. It’s quiet and I’m still alone. A year ago, Rob, Wesley, Zane and I were here at Zane’s first 100 and we paused for a quiet moment before the finish. A lot has happened over the past year. I’m so grateful to be here again and can’t believe it’s almost over. I don’t want it to be over. I still myself for a moment of meditation, thank the trail for allowing me this experience, promise to see it again next year, and start down the hill. Soon, I hear fast footsteps pounding down the hill behind me. It’s Regis and his runner, whooping and hollering all the way down in delight. Yes! That’s the way to end a 100-miler!
Soon enough, I hit the gravel, then the pavement, then the meadow, then the woods where I can hear the announcer. I turn left and emerge onto the grass field with the finish line in view on the far side. I want to cry and smile and in the end I relax and bask in the sun on my face as I run all the way to the line. It seems surreal. Even after seven finishes, each one is special. I cross the line smiling with joy.
Everyone comes in, one by one. Kathleen Cusick, Jay Finkle, Zane, Rob paced by Wesley, Gary Knipling and a gang of nine runners(!), Vinny, and Leonard paced by John Dewalt. Vicki Kendall ran a fantastic race and is already gone but I hope to see her soon. It was a good day and the sun even emerged to warm us up. I won the women’s Stonewall Jackson award, a beautiful silver buckle.
Flowers! So here’s my flower list. It’s not up to Gary’s standards (I can’t yet match the flowers to the sections) but it was a great year for flowers: bluets, rattlesnake weed, pussytoes, fringe tree,
daisy, crown vetch, wood sorrel, Bowman’s root, pink lady’s slipper, sweet azalea, birdfoot violet, geranium, common blue violet, green & gold, daisy fleabane, daisies, rue anemone, may apple, lupine (coming into Visitor Center), bladder campion, squaw root, catalpa tree, false Solomon’s seal, smooth Solomon’s seal, common yellow sorrel, violet wood sorrel, red clover, Carolina vetch, smooth vetch, garlic mustard (yuck).
Can’t wait until next year!