Rise Up Runner/Team Slug Grand Poobah Derek Hills contemplates levitating up some of the 9,000 feet of vertical gain that constitutes the Mountain Masochist 50-Mile Trail Run.
I’ve been debating with the idea of writing a race report. For some time now I’ve struggled with the idea of posting my thoughts online, as there are many “bloggers” (particularly ultrarunners) wasting bandwidth with incessant self-dramatization. However, I do hope to share some of my thoughts on the 2008 Mountain Masochist Trail Run with those who couldn’t be there, and perhaps inspire someone else to get out and push themselves a little more. So, I’ll apologize in advance if anything comes across as boastful.
I left the office around 11:30 am on Friday for the five plus hour drive to Lynchburg, VA in hopes of making it to the pre-race check in and dinner at a reasonable hour. The weather was absolutely perfect-upper 50’s, without a cloud in the sky. Oddly, we had identical weather on race day (I’m used to either rain or 100+ degrees/humidity). Traffic was sparse, and Mapquest landed me in downtown Lynchburg in 5 hours 16 minutes. I found my way to my hotel (I stupidly got a room about a mile from the “sponsoring” hotel, as they only had smoking rooms left), checked in, unpacked, and took a walk over to the Kirkley Hotel to get registered and check out the pre-race dinner.
I meandered through the lobby, and found myself in a long line of runner-types waiting to get registered. I recognized a few familiar faces, including Tom Green who was going to run this race for the 26th year (sadly, Tom DNF’d due to an injury which he was having surgery on the following week). Standing there, I began to feel overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. Most of these folks were the typical tall, lanky, sinewy mountain runner types. And there I stood-- the short, stocky flatlander. Just then, David Horton (former MMTR Race Director and ultrarunner extraordinaire) walked up the hallway, noticed a strange face, and introduced himself. I stumbled over my words at first. He asked where I was from, and when I told him “The Eastern Shore of Maryland” he jokingly replied, “Lots of hills over there!” My downward spiral of doubt accelerated, so I sped through the check-in, grabbed my number and swag bag, skipped the dinner and hotfooted it back to my hotel. Once there, I flicked on the TV, organized my gear, prepped and tape my already gnarly feet, obsessed over the alarm clock, and was asleep by 9:00.
I woke up around 3:30 a.m. and began my race day ritual of coffee, shower, prep., lube, gear check, etc.. Drove over to the parking lot at the Kirkley, checked in, and hopped on a warm bus around 5:45. As we sat in the parking lot, I tried to shut my eyes and block out all of the conversations going on around me. The bus left right at 6:00 a.m., and the drive over was dark and uneventful. When we arrived at the start area, the bus pulled right up to the port o’ johns, so I promptly got in line. Despite multiple layers (am temps were in the low 30’s), I began to shiver as I waited a good 15 minutes. After my turn, I slipped back onto the warm bus, reviewed all my gear and drop bag contents, and ate a power bar while it was still pliable. I waited until two minutes before the race start to get out.
Having obsessed over the course maps and elevation profile for months now, my plan was to crank it out to the first aid station, which would involve an out and back section on pavement (up and down a hill). This would ensure a fast warm up, and would provide a good “systems test”. While I cranked out the first few miles around an 8:00 pace uphill, and felt OK, I noticed that I wasn’t too far behind the “Team Montrail” and “Inov-8” shirts. At the turn around, it was downhill again, so I maintained the same pace while the frontrunners surged forward. It was going to be a long day, and I would need to conserve energy for the mountains. As the road leveled, I eased up the pace and maintained a steady 10 min. mile pace on the roads. There were a few long climbs that necessitated some short walk breaks, but the pace was overall easy, and as dawn broke the scenery of all the fall foliage along the river was nothing short of spectacular.
The course soon diverted into the woods. The first few miles were on single track, with a few tree hurdles, climbing, loose rocks and roots—plenty of excuses to get cautious. Knowing that the long climbs would be a huge time draw, I knew I’d have to push it and get a bit more careless with the trail conditions as long as the inclines weren’t too tough. The strategy worked well enough, although I was somewhat surprised at the next aid station that I was within 30 minutes of the cutoffs despite my decent performance on the roads. At that point, it became obvious to me that the cutoffs weren’t arbitrarily based on an even pace per mile for the entire 54 miles—they had to be based on historical data from aid station to aid station. Mentally, this would be the toughest challenge—knowing that in order to at least skim the cutoffs I would need to at least maintain consistent effort from point to point, regardless of the conditions.
Those first twenty miles were certainly hillier than I was used to, but tolerable. At the 26 mile aid station, I was dragging a bit. Mentally, I was beside myself, as I was only 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Physically, I was overheating a bit. I ran to the aid station, called out my number and dropped to the ground by my drop bag. I immediately stripped down to shorts and a tee shirt, and downed a Starbucks double shot. I felt somewhat delirious when I looked up to find Annette Bednosky filling up my Camelbak. A few familiar faces were standing around, but I was in a desperate rush to get the hell out of there.
The real climbs began. And they continued. And continued. The first real climb up Buck Mountain was harsh. Maybe 3000 feet in about 5 miles, with few sections I considered runnable. Fortunately, the trail was mostly wooded and cool, and footing was decent. I pushed forward, trying to run the short inclines, and speed hike everything else. One of the runners I had been yo-yoing with (on his 6th MMTR) was starting to have a tough time, and told me that it would be hard work to escape the cutoffs at this point. My legs were feeling pretty heavy, and his comments made me nervous. Then, I heard something. Far off in the woods, from somewhere up the mountain, I heard some familiar music…Rocky. Yup. The Rocky theme. Now I usually don’t run with music, and I’m not really a big movie aficionado (or a Rocky fan), but between the music and several inspirational posters with scripture verses that appeared out of nowhere, I caught my “second wind” and started running uphill towards the next aid station.
By the time I reached the next aid station I had gained a reasonably significant lead over the group I had been plodding along with, and had actually made up some time on this leg. I departed with a new spring in my stride, and covered the next, largely fast, downhill stretch in decent time.
The next aid station marked the entrance to the notorious “loop” section. While the terrain didn’t look bad on the elevation profile, I’ve heard that the loop will quickly humble even the most skilled runner. Expecting the worst, I was surprised to find myself running on some beautiful downhill single track for the first mile or so. From there, it started to get ugly. First a few wet stream crossings over some loose rocky areas. Then rocky/rooty ascents and descents, all densely covered with leaves, so you had no idea what you were stepping on. Fortunately, I managed to stay vertical, and survived this 5+ mile leg in just over an hour. On my way out, I came across another familiar face…err, head—a young runner I’ve often seen at several events whose trademark is to shave the race initials onto his head. We chatted a bit on the way out of the aid station, and yo-yoed along for a mile or two, comparing war stories.
The remaining 10 miles were tolerable. A few decent climbs, which proved difficult on tired legs in the warmer afternoon temperature. I was pleasantly surprised when one girl I had been running with earlier caught up to me. Apparently, the guy she was running with (the 6 timer MMTR dude) had dropped and she was now on her own. We held pace together for a while, and forced the other to run when the other would slow down. At the next to last aid station, I was still 15 minutes ahead of the cutoffs, so I checked in and left right away. The trail led me straight up the final hill of death. The overall distance of this section wasn’t terrible…maybe about a mile or so, but it was all nearly straight uphill…the type of climb where you had to stop every so often to catch your breath, and grab a tree to keep from going backwards.
After finally reaching the last aid station, the remaining 5 or so miles were a gift. A couple of mild, runnable climbs, with virtually all descents on gravel mountain roads. A few wet/rocky crossings here and there, and a very fast final couple of miles back out to pavement. I caught up with another young girl named Becky I’d been yo-yoing with for most of the day. It was going to be her first Masochist finish as well. As we approached the finish, we passed another runner who was hobbling along on fumes. A few of Becky’s friends drove past and cheered us on. As we picked up the pace for a final sprint to the finish, she summed it up by saying, “I’ve been going all day for this!” and offered to cross together. My slug roots came through…I knew we were approaching the 12 hour cutoff for an official finish, and there was a possibility that I could at least snag the DFL title, so I graciously let her go first. David Horton was right there, wildly cheering us across the finish. Eleven hours, fifty three minutes and fifty seven seconds.
The bus ride back to the Kirkley hotel was an experience in itself. Dozens of exhausted, stinky runners were packed in, with the heat blasting, as the bus wove through the mountain roads. It was a war zone—folks were moaning, others were stretched out on the floor. Many rested their tired feet on the backs of the seats in front of them. I chugged another Starbucks double shot and chatted about the days events with a gentleman sitting next to me named Lew McGrath, who had just finished his 6th MMTR (in 9:25), after previously winning the Iron Mountain 50 miler (Eric Grossman’s 50M race held in October—now on my “must do” list for 2009).
About an hour and a half later, I was back at my hotel. I peeled off layers of dirt, grit, salt, and clothes, showered for a half hour, and headed out the door for a few post race recovery beers and sandwich. It felt great to zone out and stuff my face.
MMTR is not just another 50-miler. Any rumors you’ve probably heard about it are true. It’s beautiful, it’s incredibly challenging, the volunteers and race organization are absolute top-notch. When you finish it once, you’ll want to go back and do it again. Yet it’s not a race that you can just “go and run”, especially if you’re even a mid-packer like myself. It is a course where each of the 54 miles, and 9200 feet of gain and 7200 feet of loss demand your respect.