Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 Miler

Saturday November 2, 2013
Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 Miler was the final race in the Lynchburg Ultra Series.  I had done the other three 50k races in the series during the spring.  Comparing my finish times to those of other series finishers from prior years showed that about half of those with similar times did not meet the 12 hour cutoff.  I approached the race expecting the toughest run of my moderate running experience.
It was a beautiful day to be outdoors
Race morning temps at Wildwood KOA Campground in Monroe Virginia were about 50 degrees at start time.  The forecast called for mostly sunny skies and temps remaining rather steady, then dropping into the 40s during late afternoon with the approach of a cold front.  There was a slight possibility of showers also late in the day.  We would also be higher in the mountains later which also factored into cooler conditions.  The 6:30 am start meant there would be about 45 minutes of running in the dark.

I positioned myself behind about three fourths of the runners.  At the start signal, we ran around the end of the campground pond then up a dirt road to the paved road.  After about a mile and a half of pavement the course followed the first of many forest service roads.  There soon was a small stream crossing then another get-your-feet-wet place where we crossed under the Blue Ridge Parkway through a tunnel made for the stream to flow through. There we some spectators at this spot and it was fun to hear the cheers as we approached through the darkness.  

Most runners wore headlamps that lighted the way until full daylight.   During the dark period we could only see for a short distance and focused mainly on the area near our feet.  I was amused at one of the wet and muddy places by an exclamation made by another runner as she stepped into a messy spot.  I wondered if she was expecting a sign warning of the mud hole.  Anyone who started with clean and bright shoes would have a hard time finishing with them looking so nice.  There many water crossings, puddles, and soft muddy places.

The pack of runners had spread out enough that we didn’t have much of a slow down when adjusting to the double track conditions of the forest service/jeep roads.  The course seems to be about 80 percent some type of road and the remainder single track trails, some of which were fairly technical.  And there was a lot of climbing and descending – a stated 9200 feet of ascent and 7200 feet of descending.  The longest climb (in both miles and elevation change) of the day began just before halfway on the course.  And in the tradition of races connected to David Horton there are some extra miles with the consensus that this course is really 53 or 54 miles long.

My concern for the day was to stay ahead of the cutoffs and not push myself hard enough for prolonged heavy breathing or extreme muscle fatigue.  I simply ran along at what seemed to be a comfortable long-run pace.  There seemed to be relatively little conversation in the first miles.  It made me think that most people near me were thinking of the tough day ahead of us.  Now and then crowding would mean a little waiting to get through a narrow point or to get what I wanted from an aid table.  As in other long races I had taped a printout to my water bottle that let me see the elevation profile and aid station locations, distances, and cutoff times.

Seq Time
My actual times
Peavine Mtn
Dancing Creek
Parkway Gate
Robinson Gap
Irish Creek
Long Mtn
Buck Mtn

Wiggins Spring
Loop – IN
Loop – OUT
Salt Log Gap
Forest Valley
Porters Ridge

During the first part of the course I settled into my pattern for the day.  I ran the flats, down-hills and easy up-hills.  I hiked the steeper up-hills, frequently running 100 steps uphill, then hiking until my breathing recovered before running again.  This allowed me to keep making good progress without burning myself out.  For a while I ran with a guy who had also run Wineglass Marathon 4 weeks prior.  We had been doing the same pace then too, and very likely chatted a while during that race.
During one of my 100 step running cycles I passed two guys hiking uphill.  When I got to 100 steps and shifted to hiking, one of them called to me about quitting so soon.  One of them had “bet” the other that I wouldn’t run the whole way to the top.  Maybe if I knew how far away the top was and if I would be getting the $20, I might have run to the top.

I came into aid station 1 at 7.6 miles about 30 minutes ahead of the 1:55 cutoff.  I filled my water bottle and skipped the food choices.  The crowd at the food area overruled any interest I had in a snack.  I planned to eat a gel every 30 minutes and supplement with aid station foods and beverages.  Through the first half of the course, my margin ahead of the cutoffs increased a little.  I generally used the cutoff times at aid stations to estimate how long I would run until the next break.  If I always kept my pace equal or faster than 12 hour pace, I would be able to finish.  At the Long Mountain station it seemed I was on pace for a finish time of about 11 hours.  This would soon change.

Around mile 20 I was passed by one runner I recognized – Rebecca Trittipoe.  She has finished this race more than any other woman and is also the author of several books that I have at home.  As the long uphill went on and on, my 100 step plan allowed me to catch up to her.  We passed a couple of miles together chatting about her running and writing as I almost interviewed her.  And when the next mountain ridge became visible Rebecca confirmed that we would “get to go up there”.  Eventually I ran ahead a bit and came to the Long Mountain aid station almost 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff.
This pic was taken when almost halfway done.  Still need to get to the top of the ridge behind me.
I quickly refilled my bottle and grabbed some snacks to eat during the climb that resumed from there.  I was hiking with another guy and eventually remembered that drop bags were at this last aid station.  I had forgotten to refill my supply of gels and pick up an extra layer that I might need as the day cooled off later.  So after climbing for about 5 minutes I turned around and ran down the logging type road against traffic.  Of course I received a lot of puzzled looks and a few people asked if I was ok.  I felt silly, but thought it was best to give up some of my time buffer to make sure I was properly supplied for the next 5 or 6 hours.  Checking my watch, I saw that I had lost about twelve and half minutes because of my mistake.

So I resumed my pattern of hiking and looking for occasions for 100 quicker steps.  This climb went on and on.  I gradually became aware that my stomach was too full.  It seemed I wasn’t digesting/absorbing the gels and food as fast as normal.  I tried eating a ginger cookie.  I decided I would eat more from the aid tables and especially look for salty foods more than sweet choices.  There were two more aid stations to visit before entering “the loop”.  The loop section of single track was described by some as the best part of the course, and by many as the toughest, most challenging part.  And last year an additional out and back section was added to the summit of Mount Pleasant.
I passed this guy heading into the loop.  And later he helped me through the toughest miles after the loop.
Upon entering the loop I was running on a wide smooth path that is somewhat enclosed by tall rhododendrons.  It is flat to slightly downhill and very pleasant.  There were several family type groups out for a walk as I came through.  They were very considerate and made room for me to pass easily.  Then the trail changed to the expected single track with rocks and roots.  And it turned slightly up-hill.

In the loop my energy level or strength seemed to fade.  The uphills took more out of me and the tricky footing and narrow path required more care.  It was a really enjoyable place in the forest but I was slowing more and more.  On the out and back section there were other runners going the opposite direction and that meant stepping aside frequently.  The view from the summit was really amazing and I took several photos but they didn’t nearly capture the beauty.  I punched my bib as required and started down.  I was thinking more about the cutoff time and started to wonder whether the runners still going to the summit could return quickly enough to beat the time limit.

As I checked my watch now and then I kept expecting to be done with the loop very soon.  I ended up taking more time there than the cutoff times allowed.  A couple other runners nearby were also pushing to get to the aid station and hoping to stay ahead of the cutoff.  When I finally came out of the loop I had only a 15 minute margin.  The sky was now overcast and a mid-afternoon chill was underway.

I got my bottle refilled with the last water available there, grabbed some snacks and started down the road.  As I was looking for the turn another runner joined me on the road.  We had passed each other several times in the last couple hours.  He seemed to adopt me as his responsibility to keep me ahead of the cutoffs.  Darin is a Virginia Happy Trails Running Club runner with lots of experience in ultra races including several MMTR 50 finishes.  He encouraged me to not worry about the small time buffer.  We ran everything that was flat or downhill and hiked the uphills.  He told me of numerous other races and other times he has done this one.
We arrived at the next aid station to be told we now had a 7 minute margin.  I took some chicken broth and some chips, pretzels and PB&J.  We had a steep mile of gravel road to climb to the next aid station and 20 minutes in order to not lose any more time.  As we hiked up the road we were chilled by a cold breeze that included some sprinkles of rain.  We made the climb in 17 minutes, quickly refilled before taking off for the next section.  One of the volunteers said we had 4 plus very tough miles to the final aid station.

This section was mainly trail again, somewhat rolling with one really steep climb.  Darin took the lead, setting the pace.  I’m sure the pace with him was faster than I would have managed if I was running alone.  During this section I felt I was moving at my limit and wondered whether I would know if I was working so hard that I could get into medical trouble.  I had promised my wife Rose that I wouldn’t hurt myself or have a heart attack and that I would come home alive.  So I prayed that God would let me know to slow down before anything like that would happen – regardless of my hopes for an official finish.  (I think that may have sounded over-dramatic, but thoughts like those do spring up sometimes.)  When we reached that steepest climb of the day, Darin power hiked this hill faster than I could manage and gradually moved ahead of me and out of sight.  He had gotten me through the toughest part of the remaining miles.

I was able to keep moving and was leap-frogging with a couple of other runners through the remainder of this section.  Coming into the last aid station I saw that I had an hour left to make a 12 hour finish.  The cutoff schedule gave a 45 minute span for the final section.  The volunteer said it was 3.75 miles to the finish – all downhill.  This was good news for sure.  There was no water available here, so I took GU drink for my refill.  In these last miles I would learn how bad this drink tasted to me and that it seemed to trigger a gag reflex.  Sipping a little now and then was all I could tolerate.

I remember thinking I would be ok for an official finish unless I got hurt and couldn’t run anymore.  When the hillside beside the road was steep, I moved away from the edge to make sure if I stumbled I wouldn’t fall over the edge.  A lady caught up to me and we ran together a little while until I slowed to walk for a few minutes and she kept running.  It was pleasant to talk about soon finishing our 50 mile day. 

I resumed running and passed a fellow who was walking.  He asked if I knew how far it was to the finish.  I told him it was something over a mile because there was to be something saying it was a mile to go.  In a few minutes I crossed the 1 mile mark.  Soon I caught up to the same lady who had gone ahead.  We ran together again and gradually increased our pace.  It seemed there would be no one else to catch or pass and we discussed whether to sprint across the finish.  I wasn’t feeling like racing anyone.

The finish area came into view but it wasn’t immediately clear where the line was.  As we approached the area we could see we would cross an intersection then turn left onto the grass and have maybe 20 yards to the finish line.  I got my camera out so I could take a photo of the race clock.  The other runner surged ahead a little in the last few steps and my finish time was a second later at 11:40:07.

Race director Clark Zealand was at the line congratulating the finishers and I thanked him for the race.  I found my way to pick up the finisher’s shirt, pick up my drop bag and get onto the bus for a ride to the post-race meal and awards event.  I was almost completely exhausted as I sagged into a seat and began my recovery.  After a long day of constant motion and a few hours of concern about the cutoffs, my goal was achieved of completing the LUS races.  I would receive a nice jacket as a LUS finisher. 

Some numbers to consider:  325 starters and 250 finishers, that’s 75 DNFs or almost 25%.  My finish placement was 221 of the 250.  The winner finished in 7:09, the top ten finishers were under eight hours.  There were 23 more finishing before 9 hours, 51 more before 10 hours, 49 more before 11 hours, and 120 finishers in the last hour.  So almost half of the finishers came in during the last hour!