2009 Massanutten Trails 100

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The MMT100 is generally considered the toughest 100 mile race east of the Rockies, and one of the toughest in the US. Some of that toughness comes from the elevation change, which is about 20,000 feet of ascent and the same descent. However, the real challenge is the rough trails. Some of the trails are good running, and some of the trail is rocky and you have to work on where to put your feet. However, a significant portion of the course is so rocky there is nowhere flat to put your feet. For many runners, a good chunk of MMT is not runnable; in fact, it is tough walking, let alone running.

1 Highlights

  • Buzzard Rock. The first part of the race starts easy, a road section, a nice trail, then a solid climb up to Buzzard Rock. It is on Buzzard Rock that I get some of the best views, and also my first taste of what the course was really like - rocky! The narrow ridge immediately starts to tear at my feet, which are not impressed.
  • Habron Gap. This is the aid station at 24.5 miles, and time for me to check out the feet. Sadly the news is not good; I have blisters that require bursting. To have problems after less than 25 miles is grim news and I have to make some hard choices. There is no way I can continue running at a reasonable pace without my feet being completely destroyed before the end. The wise course of action is to drop at this point, but I decide that by taking it easy, I can finish. (I'm still not sure if I made the right choice or not - I'll have to wait and see how badly my feet scar from the blisters.) At Habron I leave my water bottle and put on my hydration pack. Up to this point the temperatures have only been warm and the Aid Stations reasonably close together. From here on, you need to carry a lot more fluid. I also pick up my first iPod and I really appreciate the tunes!
  • To camp Roosevelt. The next stage is a hard climb with a lot of sun and temperatures rising sharply. I pass a runner I know who is having a problem with the heat - Heart Rate elevated, flushed, dizzy and generally unhappy. I am worried about him, but he is resting and he seems coherent. At this point, heat stroke is a real possibility, but I feel well equipped (legionnaires hat, white UnderArmour HeatGear Top, full hydration pack). I've done a little heat adaptation training the previous weeks, and so I progress well. But I find myself out of fluid two miles before the Camp Roosevelt aid station, and I am grateful for the TLC I receive there. I'm not dehydrated too much, but I realize I need to conserve fluids even with a 72oz hydration pack.
  • First rain. On the way to the next aid station, Gap Creek, the heat gives way to the first rain of the day. It's not too heavy, but I don a rain cover and keep moving to the visitor center aid station. At the visitor center aid station, the rain had died out, so I pack a better waterproof, and start the climb to Bird Knob.
  • Storm on Bird Knob. Without the rain, things warm up quickly, with humid conditions and a steep climb. Then the first big storm of the race hits, with lightning and rain heavy enough to reduce visibility. I am amazed at how quickly I go from being too hot to shivering in the cold and struggling to get a rain coat on. (It's not often you get heat exhaustion and Hypothermia in the same race.) With just my thin top and the waterproof jacket, I have to push the pace a little to keep warm. I am worried about anyone caught up here without waterproofs, as Hypothermia would set in very quickly. I only spend a few moments at the bird knob aid station, as I need to keep moving to keep warm. The decent from Bird Knob is tough, with the rain and poor light as the sun sets. I take my only fall of the face here, slipping down a slick rock. Luckily, I am wearing padded cycling mitts, which protect my hands from the worst of the fall, otherwise that would have been a nasty way to DNF. I notice on my decent that one of my two lights is malfunctioning - it's my new, ultra-bright headlight, which is bad news.
  • Leaving picnic area. Leaving the picnic area Aid Stations is an emotional low point of the race. My primary headlight is not working, leaving me with my secondary, waist mounted Petzl; this is a great light source for most conditions, but it is not up to the challenge. The rain is torrential, and it is like navigating a bayou - there is no solid ground, and I have to guess were the path is. Trying to find the trial markers is very hard at this point, and I cannot even make out a real path. Just as I am beginning to feel a little lost and overwhelmed, two other runners appear and between us, we work out the route. After we leave this low lying area, the path becomes much clearer. I am so grateful for their company; I feel like I have been rescued after weeks lost in the wilderness, not just ten minutes of fumbling in the dark.
  • The night. The group of runners expands to five of us, moving through the night, keeping company and looking after each other. We share resources, including clothing, as well as encouragement and advise. Various storms come and go through the night, with strong winds at times. In the gaps in the rain, the fog limits visibility, but it seems to be raining more often than not. There are stream crossings, some of them swollen, and in the dark they are unpleasant - crossing ink black, fast moving water, with no idea of the depth or your footing is not fun. There are also sections of the trail which are now streams, so we are wading through cold water for what seems like forever. My primary headlight comes back to life, and is a thing of joy - the beam of light is brilliant and illuminates the trail far ahead, picking up the trial markers easily. In fact, with a good headlight, it is easier to navigate at night, as the reflective trail markers can be picked up far ahead at a glance. The bright light also reduces the feeling of confinement, increasing the size of my world from a few feet to the curves in the trail. At night we try to stop only briefly at the Aid Stations, though the second time we go through Gap Creek they have a huge fire going, and the runners who have dropped there look so peaceful and comfortable. Leaving the fire is remarkably hard. The trip up and over short mountain is legendry within the race, not because of the climb, but the rocky terrain becomes even harder at night.
  • 2nd Dawn. When the second dawn rises, it is just a dull glow behind dense clouds, but to us it is a thing of immense beauty. If you have never experienced it, you cannot imagine how the second dawn gives hope and imbues strength. It is like a rebirth. I also start to use my second iPod, a shuffle I purchased for the race - music inspires the savage beast ;}
  • Later stages. From the second dawn to the final aid station at 97 miles are uneventful. Not quite a death march, but a steady movement, with occasional runs where possible. My feet have been cold and wet for about 28 hours, which is a mixed blessing. The cold keeps them numb and prevents swelling, but I know that they are undergoing some significant damage, and I refuse to look at them. Sleep deprivation creates a few odd minor hallucinations, but experience means I don't take them serious. One of our group sees a complete aid station, along with tent, tables, and people, which is the most frustrating hallucination, as it gets our hopes up.
  • Final section. The last five miles, from Elizabeth Furnace at mile 97 (it's 102 miles total) is remarkably nasty. This is a climb up and then a descent to the finish, but five miles at the pace we are making takes forever. Luckily, about two miles out we are joined by a few runners who want to finish as a large group. They join us a the point where the trail flattens out and becomes runnable, with a number of stream crossings to numb the feet. I am really glad I had the group, as the last section leaves you feeling you are at the finish for a long time. I cross the finish line with 9 other runners and a pacer, which appears on the MMT web site as a video.
  • Aftermath. My feet took way too much damage on MMT. I have over a dozen blisters, one of them about four square inches. If I had normal skin, I would shrug this off as some temporary suffering, but with RDEB, each blister is likely to cause permanent scaring. When RDEB scars, the scars are far weaker than the original skin, making further blistering more likely. I won't know for some time if my decision to continue the MMT was a catastrophic mistake or not. (I actually have "non-Hallopeau-Siemens Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa" for those with a medical interest.)

2 My Tips for MMT100

  • Don't do MMT unless you are very strong on very tough terrain.
  • Don't do MMT as a first 100 miler. Seriously.
  • I used a single water bottle for the first 25 miles, travelling lighter and faster, then swapped to a hydration pack. I think this is a good approach unless the conditions are extremely hot at the start.
  • There are a lot of stream crossings - forget about swapping Shoes/socks to keep your feet dry.
  • The last section is long and tough - be ready for it mentally.
  • Carry a waterproof and thin thermal at all times - a thunderstorm can create Hypothermia quickly.
  • Print off a chart of the Aid Stations, with cut of times and distances. I laminated mine and kept it in a pocket, but I should have turned it into a wrist band.
  • Print out the detailed route and keep it somewhere safe. I never needed mine, but it was nice to have if you get off course.
  • The aid station volunteers at MMT are amazing - they offer a lot of TLC in addition to the practical care. Be nice to them; they are the unsung heroes of the race.

3 Things that worked well for me

  • New Petzl MYO RXP Running Light - amazingly bright!
  • Nathan 020 hydration pack. This was the most common pack on the race and worked great for me. I use a Camelbak bladder in mine, as I like it more than the Nathan version that comes with the pack. http://blog.irunfar.com/2008/10/nathan-hpl-020-review.html
  • Wearing cycling mitts saved my hands after a fall (More at Running Trails)
  • I did not eat at the Aid Stations. Instead, I used a quart Ziploc bag and filled it with goodies at each aid station, then ate on the move. I ate more and saved time.
  • PB&H. I mixed peanut butter, honey and flax oil together, then put it into a squeeze tube (http://www.rei.com/product/696007). This is an amazing food; easy to eat, tasty and highly nutritious. Make it up so it is only slightly sweet.
  • I did a few heat adaption runs in the two weeks preceding the race. Running in 60 degree weather with long pants and thermal tops is horrible, but it worked.
  • I think my high mileage training worked well. I did four 20 mile runs a week, which gave me a lot of strength.
  • I did one overnight run which helped me get used to the night and sleep deprivation. I did a 20 in the morning, then did an easy 40 with some good friends that night.
  • My Sierra Designs waterproof - only weighs 4oz.
  • The new Under Armor long sleeved heat gear top. I have a white one to reflect the heat, it is UPF 30+ and anti-odor.
  • Don't think about what to eat. Just look at the food, smell it and see what appeals. I believe that the subconscious understands far more about what the body needs and has great insight - just go with what appeals. If I'm not hungry, I don't push it - I rely on my body letting me know what it wants. The Ziploc bag of goodies really helps here - you can take food for later on the trail when the munchies strike.
  • Abstaining from Caffeine for a couple of weeks before the race seems to help.
  • I think my recovery is speeded up by high Protein intake, lots of organic cocoa powder, vitamin C and bathing the feet in Epson salts.

4 What I ate

  • I got through about 6 peanut butter cups. I ate a huge number of cookies, which seem to work well for me, as well as cheeseits. Also, a three slices of pizza, a hotdog, PB&J sandwiches, 3x 6oz tubes of PB+Honey+Flax Oil mix, lots of broth, a few gu, ~3 gallons Gatorade (probably not enough), pancakes+syrup (too messy), toasted cheese sandwiches (awesome!), m&ms, Ramen noodles, Electrolyte Capsules, red bull (though not much to my surprise)