Massanutten 100 2019 - When Things Go Right

Continuing the story about Massanutten 100 (MMT) from the lens of the runner, I finished running MMT with a sense of joy and exhilaration previously unmatched. The feeling afterwards was a desire to do more of these crazy races, as opposed to the typical self-loathing and recovery. I encourage you to read my other post that highlights what my wife (aka crew chief - CC)  endured to get me to the finish in conjunction with this one.

MMT 100 was my 3rd attempt at the 100 mile distance and felt like the one I was most prepared for. Eastern States 100 was quite the uphill battle especially with it being a year after my DNF at Run Rabbit Run. That means, prior to MMT, my 100 mile finishing chances were 50-50. I figured with enough planning and training, and an experienced crew chief on my side, this should be a piece of cake (but a painful one).

Training Block

I had a previous post about my training, back when I was diligent about posting (ha). The short of it is that my legs and body were well trained and I felt very confident approaching MMT.

Race Day

Presentiment Morning

I drove to Massanutten with my friend Jason and his buddy Ryan (whom I have now gotten to know a lot better). My wife left straight from work and met me in my tent around 10 PM; she arrived to a quiet camp prepped for an early morning. A weekend during an ultra is not a time for sleep. We awoke to the sound of others around us gearing up for a journey full of sweat and doubt.

The crew that puts together MMT (the Virginia Happy Trails Club) is well known for their hospitality, and catering to a runners needs as they are ultra runners themselves. I had enough time for a bagel, some coffee, a banana, and then last minute application of lube. All the racers were gathered, checked in, and waiting for the countdown clock to hit zero and begin counting upwards. I don't think 'tension' is the correct word to describe the air of the start tent that morning... more like 'presentiment' - not a negative connotation, but the feeling was a joyful sense of something expectedly yet unknowingly challenging about to happen. There also wasn't a great sense of apprehension prior to the start as I've experienced before in short races (less than an hour); the nerves were heightened for the race and what might happen but knowing once we start, there will still be over 24 hours to feel everything.

The start was pretty chill: there was a birthday song to celebrate the life of a trail friend who passed, a quick speech from the RD, and then an airhorn that went off and we started. Start the clock - 04:00 AM, May 19, 2019.

Shared Miles

From the start, my plan was to run alongside my friend, Jason, for as long as possible. We've run together in other races, and both moved at a similar pace, even when we were both injured, so I felt he and I matched together nicely.

The first few hours in the dark were quick and joyful, spent in conversation of past races and training runs. It was easy to traverse big climbs and dance along ankle-breaking rock-strewn ridgelines early while feeling fresh and in good company. For the start of 100 miles, it's better to err on the side of caution and feel like the pace is slow.

This ideal start ended when Jason experienced rock-to-shin stumble around mile 20 on that would eventually cause him to drop from the race. It was an unfortunate stumble on the rocks, but he's a tough dude and made it pretty far before ultimately opting to fight another day.

Into The Furnace

When I met up with Meghan (CC - crew chief) at Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station (mile 33), I was feeling strong especially having completed 1/3 of the race. It's strange that I had covered 50 km and only seen CC (and Ryan) twice. I got to briefly hear how beautiful the countryside was to drive around while I informed them of the beauty of what I saw, then I let them know what happened to Jason but would find out later that he wasn't all too far behind me.

Up to this point in the year, temperatures had remained mild, with a day or two that bumped into the 80s (*F); otherwise, training for MMT was done mostly in cooler weather. 7 hours had passed by the time I left Elizabeth Furnace, which meant the day was just starting to warm up. If the temperature at 11 AM gave any indication for the rest of the day, we were in for a hot one.

I remember going up the next climb feeling sweaty and starting to feel a little tired, but had some motivation keeping up with a group of runners that all seemed to be about the same pace as I. As the race went on, this same group more or less stayed together. We didn't run with each other, but I would pass a few runners only to be passed a few hours later, and maybe I'd pass them again in a few hours. CC knew they were keeping up with me too as she would be at the aid stations waiting with the same people all day and night.

Beyond the 50k point, I knew nutrition was important, but it became more like second nature to focus on what I was eating, and my legs did their own things as they pounded my feet against the rocks. Being a bit more automatic allowed me to enjoy everything I was passing by. There was so much to take in: the peaks of a ridge that opened up into a big river below, or seeing Shenandoah NP in the distance, or being engulfed by a green tunnel, or just the smell of being in a forest; it's a beauty that I love trail running for. For some reason, it's even more enjoyable when there is a little bit of physical suffering going on.

Carnage at Habron Gap (Mile 54)

The stretch of road leading up to Habron Gap was said to be 4 miles; it felt like 10. It came right after a long climb and an exposed ridge in the heat for a few miles (fun?) then a relieving stop at mile 50 (Indian Grave AS). The folks at the Indian Grave AS knew how we were all feeling (zapped of all strength), and offered freeze pops to help cool off all who passed (thank you) before the approach to Habron Gap.

By the time I made it to Habron Gap, I was exhausted and ready to cry myself to sleep for a long time. I took my time, needing a minute to compose myself. The heat evaporated a lot of my determination and made the remaining miles seem unconquerable. To CC, that sounded like I needed to consume more food and gave me no choice, along with some advil. She let me sulk just long enough to be annoying before promptly kicking me out of the AS to keep moving.

I was fortunate enough to have things go my way at this point. I was able to endure my battle against the heat, and my body was holding up well against the rocks, climbs, and miles... at least as expected; the same cannot be said for other racers out there. It's difficult to nail down specific reasons, but with the weather adding a significant challenge to us all, many runners didn't make it past Habron Gap. The race in 2019 saw some of the highest DNF rates in the race's history.

I made good time once I finally shook off the heat, and made it to Roosevelt Camp (mile 64) close to when I had predicted I would. As I got there, my time was about 15 1/2 hours. Previously, I have only actually completed one 100 km race - Worlds End Ultra, and my time there was 17:49. That means, during a 100 mile race, I finished 63 miles faster than when I was only running 63 miles.

Now a lot of times people ask me what I'm thinking about during a race of this distance. At this point, it was my time - it kept my mind occupied for about 2 hours before getting to Roosevelt Camp, and about 3 hours afterwards.

Night Miles

Night came shortly after Roosevelt Camp, offering reprieve from the heat and bringing about an equally challenging menace - sleep monsters and a headlamp tunnel. I shed a few tears once (ok a few times), my stomach felt like complete garbage, I was warned of a couple copperheads on the rocks, and I was falling asleep while running... but when you're expecting a bear to maul your face off and instead get attacked by 100 wasps, this really wasn't so bad.

I had to correct my upset stomach, and knew I would have to handle the exhaustion with a nap; to top it off, my feet felt shredded and swollen from all the rocks. In order, I downed lots of water and broth at Visitors Center AS (mile 78), took a 15 minute nap at Bird Knob AS (mile 82), and got a new pair of kicks and socks for the home stretch at the Picnic Area AS (mile 88).

The night felt tortuous yet swift. Because I handled the challenges that came up, in the moment I suffered, but the night masked the hours enough to make running with the discomfort tolerable. When I finally left Picnic Area, I knew I had less than a half-marathon remaining and it was still dark out, which gave me a huge boost of confidence.

Run It Home

It truly is difficult to explain the sense of joy that comes with enduring a night of running and being greeted by the sun while ticking away mile 90. My body didn't feel any better, but my mind wasn't going to let that slow me down.

At this point, the climbing was just something that had to be done. I probably put too much weight on my trekking poles (literally and figuratively), but they offered my legs the extra assistance I needed, even when running on the flat sections. I found out, after asking a runner + pacer on a descent, that I had erroneously loaded last year's MMT course onto my watch, which featured one additional climb before the finish. They happily informed me, "It's all flat from here."

That took a second to sink in, but realized I was relying on my watch's intel too much. Luckily, for my own sanity, I had already lost trust in my watch early on in the race. Now I just had to gut this sucker out, and run to the finish.

Let me tell you, running on flat road at mile 95 after being beaten up by rocks, hills, and heat isn't as easy as it sounds. I was running, but it wasn't pretty. I pretty much said hi and bye to CC when I got to mile 97... my quickest AS yet! I hobbled on down the forest road, took in the scenery, saw some normal (more sane) people packing up their camp for the weekend, as I made my way to the finish.

Finish and Afterthoughts

I cruised into the finish excited to be done and feeling good. The good folks at VHTRC announced my arrival as I cruised into the finish line to greet CC at 28:22. I did it! Not only did I hit my goal time, but my body wasn't completely wrecked, nor was I ready to sign off runnning. This was a well fought battle that I was so proud to have accomplished. CC was quite happy with my performance as well, and I think she loved it just as much as I did, but without the soreness or damaged feet or chaffing (she may have found the sweet spot with this sport).

CC and I stuck around the finish for a few hours to see the gang that I was with cruise across the line. Some runners collapsed, others look like they saved all their energy for the last 100m. It's amazing to see each person's battle with the course come to an end in triumph, and how it changes us... both crew and runner. It's not everyday people subject themselves to 100 miles of mental fortitude and physical endurance; yet when we do, we come out as stronger and more enriched people. Something I look forward to doing again.

MMT 2019 - Map Flyover and data from Tomas Castillo on Vimeo.

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Tomas Castillo

I'm an ultramarathon runner, and outdoorsman when I can, while keeping bees and playing with data on the side. I plan on sharing my explorations and adventures here.