Trail Monster Running

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 DNF Report

I could write a book on how I prepared for the MMT 100, but I’ll try to be brief and just do a little summary. Back in September of last year I had a catastrophic race failure at the Bruiser which left me with an achilles tendon problem that still bothers me 10 months later. Following the Bruiser I faked my way through training for the Stone Cat marathon, had an OK race and then decided I needed to take some time off to recover. I took two weeks off, a few weeks of very light running and then came the lotteries. I was hoping to get into Western States, this was my third consecutive attempt in the lottery, and being in June I’d have a full 6 months to prepare for it.  I also threw my name in for Massanutten, and as luck would have it that’s the one I got into. I was immediately nervous about attempting this race. It was a full month sooner than Western States, so I only had 5 months to train and I felt like I was starting from zero. I was also afraid of the potential for hot/humid weather on race day. Back in 2008 I traveled to Virginia to run the Bull Run Run 50 miler. After training all winter in Maine I found I was ill-prepared for the warm, humid weather of Virginia in the spring. This was going to be a similar situation of doing all my training in cold weather, then traveling south to race.

Starting in December I made a very gradual, cautious increase in my weekly mileage and laid out a training plan that included a lot of snowshoe running and hill work. I put very little emphasis on speed and focused mainly on strength and endurance. The one thing missing from my training was preparation for heat and humidity. In a last minute attempt to get myself ready I started doing hot yoga classes at a local studio about 3 weeks before the race. While I certainly worked hard and sweat a lot during those classes I don’t think they did much to prepare me for the conditions I encountered on race day.

Weekly mileage and time spent running from Stone Cat to the peak of training for Massanutten.

Not surprisingly the weather forecast for race weekend changed on a daily basis leading up to the event, and finally settled on overcast, relatively cool (for Virginia) but very high humidity. It all seemed quite manageable and I felt good going into the race. I was confident in my training and felt that I had a good chance at finishing around 26 hours. I totally geeked-out on previous race stats to come up with a pacing spreadsheet that would help my crew figure out an expected finish time based on my arrival at each aid station. I used this to determine a reasonable time/pace for each section of the race based on previous runners averaged splits. Part of my approach to mentally prepare for a race like this is to go all Rain-Man with data so that the time and distance between aid stations in worked into my brain and I have an easier time breaking the race down into manageable segments rather than focusing on the overwhelming enormity of the event as a whole.

Emma, Mindy and I left on Thursday morning, and crashed at Mindy’s parent’s house in PA that night. On Friday we slept in a bit, went for a short run on the AT then headed down to VA to check in at the race. We met up with fellow Trail Monsters and settled into our sukkah for the night. I was feeling really good about the race, confident in my training and support crew. I knew that there was going to be some hard times ahead, that’s part of any long race, but I wasn’t worried, just anxious to get on with it. I didn’t sleep well, in part due to snoring sukkah-mates, but I never really expect to sleep well before a big event like this. Way too much going on inside my head to get a decent nights sleep.

Up at 2:45 and the team jumped into action. Dressed, coffee, breakfast, bathroom and then a short walk downhill to the start. It was cool and overcast, there was some humidity in the air but not all that noticeable with the cool morning temperature. Focussed, comfortable and confident. There were hugs and handshakes all around and then we set off. 198 runners into the early morning darkness.

The first 4 miles of the race were on paved or dirt road, at a steady but runnable incline gaining about 700 feet. I estimated that I was somewhere in the top 25-30. Was this a good place to be, the right place to be? I felt good. I became aware of the humidity as soon as I started running. I was sweating but I was drinking enough so I wasn’t concerned. I made a quick stop at the first aid station at 4.1 miles to top up my water bottle. It was another 8 miles to the next aid station and first crew access and I wanted to be sure that I had plenty of fluid. After the aid station we turned onto trail and continued to climb another 800 feet or so on some mostly runnable terrain. Every now and then we’d hit a pocket of nasty, technical rockiness, but overall it wasn’t too bad on the way up. At the top of the hill, which was one of the highest points on the course, there was a stretch of relatively flat, but very technical trail that spread the runners out and I found myself running alone for the first time in the race. The course marking seemed a bit sparse and the trail overgrown, and since it was still dark I moved cautiously to negotiate the terrain and continuously look for course markings and the trail itself. By 9 miles the course started to drop, and so did my pace, from 14 to 12 to 10 minute miles!

The sun was coming up and I was nearing the first crew access point, my spirits were high. The final approach to the aid station was down a dirt road and I came in fast, excited to see Emma and Mindy. Based on my arrival time I was on track for a 25:30 finish, only slightly faster than I expected to be, but this was good. I was pretty soaked with sweat already, so I decided to change my shirt, swapped out my single bottle belt for a double and was off. A quick and energizing stop. (27th place)

Next up was a 1000 foot climb, but the terrain was relatively mellow and a lot of it was runnable. It wasn’t even 7AM but I was becoming very aware of the high humidity. The air was thick and wet. My fresh shirt was soon soaked again. I was drinking a lot but had only peed once so far, it was dark and not very plentiful. Mentally I still felt strong so I kept pushing on at a pretty good pace.The climb took a lot out of me, but was followed by a nice long descent and then a relatively flat section of trail that allowed me to move pretty well for a few miles. But then I started feeling nauseous. I had been drinking Odwalla and eating trail mix for the first few hours of the race, but now I couldn’t get anything down without feeling ill. The rest of me was feeling fine, but I started to get concerned about maintaining the necessary caloric intake. When I got to the aid station at 20.3 miles I drank a ginger ale, none of the food at the aid station looked appealing so I grabbed an Ensure from my drop bag and walked out. 4:03 for 20.3 miles. On track for a 26 hour finish, so even though I wasn’t feeling great I was still on pace for my goal time. (29th place)

Soon after drinking the Ensure I started noticing a dull ache in my back which at first I thought was muscular but then realized was probably my kidneys complaining. I was still feeling a bit nauseous and wasn’t able to take advantage of the fact that the next 5 miles was flat or downhill and very runnable. I became very aware of how much sweat was pouring off me, the course was dry but my feet were soaked. I felt like I was drinking as much as my stomach could handle but I was getting worried that I was losing too much through sweat. It wasn’t even 9 AM and I was starting to suffer. The temperature was relatively cool but the air was still and heavy. I started to worry about what was to come, how much hotter was it going to get today? Only 12 more hours until the sun goes down. It was lonely on the trail, the only other runners I saw were ones that passed me and I was unable to keep up with any one of them for more than a few minutes.

At the next aid station, 25.8 miles I sat down for a minute to remove my shoes and shake out the debris. Definitely should have worn gaiters. There was a dog tied to the chair I was sitting in, we got a bit tangled and I got annoyed. There were kids in the woods searching for their other dog who had run off, every time they called his name the dog tied to my chair got more excited and I got more annoyed. At least it was good motivation to get up and move again. 5:08 for 25.8 miles, still on track for a 26 hour finish. (31st place)

The next few miles were a very gradual climb on a rugged dirt road. It should have been quick but was feeling very sluggish. I paused at a small stream crossing and splashed cold water on my face. I wanted to lay in it and float away... the course was great but the humidity was taking all the fun out of it. From dirt road to trail the course got progressively steeper and the climb was really beating me down. The pain in my kidneys was getting more noticeable, my legs seemed less responsive as if there wasn’t enough oxygen coming through the wet air and making its way to where is was needed. I also wasn't able to eat anything without feeling sick, 1/2 a Honey Stinger wafer was about all I managed to get in. This is when the first truly negative thoughts started creeping into my mind, that perhaps I might not be able to finish the race. This wasn’t fun and it was too early in the day to be suffering.

As I made my way along the long, gradual descent to the next aid station, about 1,400 feet down, my state of mind started to improve. Knowing that I was going to see Emma and Mindy helped pick me back up and feel more optimistic about getting through the race, and the downhill running helped physically too. I came into the aid station at 33.3 miles in 6:48, on track for about a 26:30 finish (31st place). Things weren't slipping too far off track, but I knew I needed to take a little extra time here to prep for the section ahead. While there I ate a popsicle, drank an Ensure, received an application of sunscreen and an ice-filled bandanna around my neck.

While the aid station stop was a great boost mentally, as soon as I left the course started another big climb, about 1000 feet over 2.5 miles. At least I had company for this next section, Ken from Toronto caught up to me and we stuck together until the next aid station. My kidney pain became more severe but at least I had a distraction in conversation.

The next aid station was less than 5 miles from the previous, and it was another crew access point, but after that it would be 16 miles before seeing my crew again. I came into 38 miles in 8:04, on track for 26:30 (35th place). I could feel hot spots developing on the balls of my feet so I changed socks and re-applied Hydropel. While doing this my hip flexors started to spasm and cramp. I mentioned to Emma the pain I'd been having and she confirmed that it was my kidneys. I'd been dealing with this for about 4 hours and I wasn't convinced it was going to go away. I peed for the third time while at this aid station, and just like the previous times it was very dark and not much of it. No obvious sign of blood like at Traprock, but not good considering the amount of fluid I was consistently taking in. Before heading out I switched over to my Nathan Hydration pack and also grabbed a handheld bottle. It was only 3 miles to the next aid station but then 9 to the one after that, and another 4 before I'd see my crew again.

The three mile stretch of road should have been fast but I had nothing. 9:38 for the first downhill road mile, then much slower as a few ups got in the way. I "ran" for a while with a guy from Delaware who was suspiciously dry. He had a small damp patch on the back of his shorts, but the dude didn't seem to be sweating at all. Meanwhile I'm leaving a streak of sweat down the middle of the road and sloshing in my shoes. This immediately pissed me off, and his attempts to make friendly conversation were not welcome. It wasn't his fault, I was just getting into a bad place mentally and despite his efforts it wasn't helping to pull me up. Shortly before the next aid station he pulled away and I was a bit relieved to be on my own, seeing how good he was looking was making me dwell on how bad I knew I looked. 8:53 when I came into mile 41.1, now on track for a 27 hour finish (the extra time I took at the previous aid station set me back to 43rd place).

Nasty climbs, but plenty of runnable sections too
From the aid station it was a 3 mile climb with about 1,300 feet of gain and I don't think I ran a step. With every foot I climbed up my head went deeper down into dark place. The air was suffocating, sweat was streaming off me at a rate I couldn't keep up with, I was nauseous and couldn't eat anything. How could I ever continue? Guilt began to set in as I thought about all the people I would be letting down if I didn't finish the race, but I wanted nothing more than to stop. I came here to run, but this was an embarrassment.

Eventually I stopped sweating. This was not good. I've dealt with heat exhaustion a few times before, was this a symptom of heat stroke? The strange thing was that it wasn't even hot, just insanely humid.

After an eternity I finally reached the top of the climb, but then the terrain became so technical I couldn't get into a running rhythm. I shuffled along the ridge tying to let myself cool down. It wasn't really working, but I did start to sweat again. I thought more about dropping but I didn't want to give in just because things weren't feeling right on the inside. Maybe if I took a dive into the rocks I'd mess myself up bad enough that I'd have a good, visible excuse for not continuing. Of maybe if I just run full out, balls to the wall until I get to the next aid station I'll pass out when I get there and they'll pull me from the race. There must be some way to end this where I'll have something to blame. I need an excuse that's better than "I'm just not feeling it today."

Things didn't get much better once the course started downhill. Lack of fueling left me feeling weak and I didn't have the strength to bomb down the 1,300 foot descent as I would have liked. My attempts to run lead to shooting pains in my abdomen, bad enough that I had to stop and sit for a few minutes at one point.

At the next aid station I sat down and drank some warm broth. It was the only thing I found appealing even though it was warm. I was in a daze, staring blankly at the ground. Almost half way through the race. 50 miles done in 11:19. 53+ to go. I was on track for a 27:15 finish if I were to continue on a track of "normal" slow down, but I was falling behind at a faster rate than normal. Besides, what reason did I have to believe that things would improve? The next stretch was 4 miles of pretty mellow dirt road, maybe it could get better.

Not long after I started running again the shooting abdominal pains returned and were bad enough to cause me to walk on multiple occassions. My road running pace slowed from 11 to 12 to 13 minutes per mile. If I can't even run on a gently downward sloping dirt road how can I expect to tackle the mountains that still lie ahead. I'd completed 5 of the 11 major climbs of the race and felt like it was killing me. I was done. I made up my mind that I was going to drop when I got to the next aid station at 54 miles.

12:10 for 54 miles, on track for a 27:30 finish if you were to believe my pace chart, which I didn't. Emma and Mindy were there cheering as soon as they saw me coming along the road. I wanted so badly to make them proud but I was suffering in ways I hadn't suffered before. I told them: "I think I have to stop. This is bad." I sat in my chair and cried for a minute. They brought me food and drinks and comforted me. They did all the right things. We talked it through, I got up and walked around. I drank and ate and drank some more. I peed and it was starting to look better. We talked about continuing with the race, the next section was 9.9 miles starting with a 1,500 foot climb. I couldn't do it alone. By now it was 4:30 in the afternoon, pacers could join at 63.9 miles or at 6:00 PM, whichever came first. If I waited until 6 then Mindy could run the next section with me, and then Emma would be there to see me through the rest of the race. But that's such a long time to wait. I ate and drank and walked around some more. I was starting to feel a lot better. Maybe I'm not done afterall.

We talked to Karen who was crewing for Dima. I told her I couldn't go on alone and she suggested I wait for Dima to come in and and we could run the next section together. I liked this idea. I'm back in the game! I got changed into clean, dry clothes and continued to eat and drink. I felt so good I contemplated leaving before Dima came in, but continued to wait to be sure I was feeling as good as possible. Dima arrived around 5:00 and Karen tended to his needs. He walked over to me and said "I hear you want to suffer with me." That's right.

The best part about my hour-long break is that it allowed me to get my head back into a better place. I got rid of all the negative thoughts, and by removing myself from the suffering I was able to remind myself of why I was doing this and regain the confidence that I could finish the race. I was intimidated by the fact that I still had almost 50 miles to go and that it would probably take me another 16 hours to finish, but at least I felt good about taking on the next section of the race.

Dima and I walked up the hill together and it was great to have company on the trail, especially someone as energetic as Dima. He was the first to admit that his legs were struggling with he course, but he knew that his mind was strong enough to get him through the entire race and it was his mental energy that helped keep me going. Our pace was very slow, but this is what I needed, I had been pushing hard all day and it great to finally be moving at a comfortable pace. We talked and joked and laughed and kept plodding along uphill for 1,500 feet. When we reached the top I felt ready to run, but Dima's legs were a little reluctant to pick up the pace. I was grateful for his company, and even though I thought I could probably move a bit quicker I let him set the pace. I reminded myself of how bad I felt before and didn't want to go there again so I was happy to keep it easy going.

A few more miles and we started the long descent that would lead to the next aid station. As soon as we started down the shooting abdominal pains returned. This time around I was in a much better mental state and I felt better about honestly assessing my situation. With the mental confidence that I could keep going what did I really think about the way I was feeling? Not good. After two hours of running with Dima I felt like I was getting back into the same place that I was before. My body wasn't functioning the way it needed to to keep me going for the rest of the race. It's not surprising that I felt better when I stopped running, but it didn't fix my problems, it just put them on hold until I started up again.

A few miles from the next aid station Bill Susa (whom I'd met at Virgil Crest 100 in 2011) caught up to us and we ran together for a while. I explained everything I had been going through all day and it was good to get his perspective. Dima was strongly advocating the "fight through it" approach and Bill the "listen to your body" approach. I appreciated everything they had to say and they both helped me come to the decision that I shouldn't continue. (Bill went on to finish in 29:19 and Dima in 31:04.)

I'd had a lot of time to come to terms with this decision, and I was glad that I tried to continue after I was almost certain that I had to stop at 54 miles. It was clear that even though I was well prepared for the terrain my body couldn't handle the weather. So frustrating. I felt so bad for Emma and Mindy investing so much time in supporting me and not being able to be part of getting me to the finish. They continued to support me after I stopped running and I am grateful for everything they did.

After snacking at the aid station where I dropped I got changed and the three of us headed out to find something more substantial to eat. I hadn't been able to eat much all day and I was famished. The new plan was to get a few hours of sleep and then Mindy was going to get up and pace George, but we found out before going to bed that George had dropped at the same place as me. As far as we knew Tom and Bob were still out there. In the morning we were slow to rise, but realizing that our friends were still out running we got ready to head down to the finish line for breakfast and to cheer on the finishers. George was already talking about the TARC 100, but as Emma and I walked to the finish line I told her "Do not, under any circumstances, let me sign up for the TARC 100."

We found Tom walking up the hill back to the sukkah, we just missed his finish in 27:20. After a round of congratulations we headed down for breakfast and in search of information about where Bob was on the course. While eating we learned that Bob had recently left the aid station at mile 81.6 miles and we all decided that as soon as we finished we'd go find him on the course.

While eating, and watching runners finish the race Emma leaned over to me and said "You can do TARC if you want." It was still way too soon for me to seriously consider this, but I appreciated her saying it, and it got me thinking...

After breakfast the whole team packed up and headed off to meet Bob, we realized we didn't have enough time to meet him at 87.9 miles so went to the 96.8 aid station (the race is actually 103.7 miles). Even though Bob was participating in the Stonewall Jackson division (no crew, no pacer) we knew that he was cutting it close to the cutoff and that given the choice of finishing with a pacer or not finishing at all it would be an easy decision to make. Emma got ready to run and the rest of us got prepared to help him through this last stop as quick as possible. Ann and Mindy went up the course to intercept Bob and find out if he wanted to accept our support, and when he came along they relayed the message ahead to George, Emma and I: "He'll take it!" We took his pack, prepped two water bottles and got him on his way in less than 2 minutes with Emma as his pacer. It was great to see the team rally around our last running member, and even better to be there when he crossed the finish line in 35:40. I am in awe of his strength and determination.