After several years of gaining experience and cultivating endurance, 2020 sprouted an exciting crop of anticipated goals and experiences…until COVID-19 scorched the earth.
I had an exciting running line-up scheduled this spring culminating in my first 100 miler: Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT100). I knew it would be hard, but I had been building up for a few years and I knew I would be ready. In a matter of weeks, all of those races were taken from me. While my life doesn’t revolve around running, endurance running has definitely become one of the structural pillars. It has become a constant; a piece of who I am that has carried me through some pretty high highs and a couple very low lows. Along with MMT100, the VHTRC Chocolate Bunny (a nighttime mountain marathon) was also cancelled. This would have been my second running of the Chocolate Bunny. The first was last year on 4/20/2019, the day after my niece (Norah) died from an infection. So, as we approached the one-year anniversary of Norah’s passing, I was not ready to entirely give up either of these runs and I decided to run my own 100 mile race on the anniversary weekend.
I went back and forth on whether I should be doing this at all given the current state of things, but in the end I decided that this was about as essential as travel gets for me these days. I even cleared it with a medical professional (my sister, Deanna) to see if she thought this was a selfish endeavor. Given my training and precautions taken, she said she didn’t feel that this was irresponsible…completely insane, but not irresponsible. However, I still wanted to minimize any unnecessary COVID-related risks. The planned run consisted of four loops in the Massanutten Mountains on trails that I was very familiar with: a figure-8 south of US 211 past Caroline Furnace, the Chocolate Bunny route (in honor of Norah), a reverse of loop 1, and a loop North to Camp Roosevelt. Due to social distancing, the run would be done completely self-supported out of the back of my Honda Pilot at the US 211 Park and Ride where I would refill my vest every 26-28 miles (plus water refills from spring on loops 1 & 3 and water drop on loop 2). My main goal was simply to take my time and finish safely. After all, there was no medical staff and no matter how slow I was, I would end up with a personal record, course record, and a podium finish.
I starting at 2:30 pm on Saturday, April 19th and the first loop went off without a hitch. 28.26 miles and 5315 feet of gain in 6 hours and 47 minutes. Pretty sure this was my longest solo run ever and I was feeling good which gave a solid confidence boost. I had all my nutrition and hydration premixed and organized back at the car, but it still took me 15 minutes to check in with my virtual support team (tracking via Garmin LiveTrack) and get my vest loaded up before heading into the dark of night.
Next was Norah’s Loop starting around 9:30 pm. Loop 2 was a couple miles shorter than loop 1, but had 350′ more gain, no sun or moon, and way more rocks (thanks Kern’s Mountain). Some slight indigestion developed which further cemented my lack of urgency. So I put on some headphones (which I never do on trails), started an Audible book, and just plugged through the miles. This was both good and bad as the miles flew by and time passed quickly, but it definitely didn’t spur me on to a quick race pace. Looking back on this section, there are 5 miles sections that I don’t remember running as my brain was completely checked out from running…good thing I knew these trails well to keep from getting lost and have GPS to verify I was there. By the water drop at mile 45, I had worked out the stomach issues and was feeling better…though still not super motivated. I believed this lack of motivation might have saved me later on as I had relatively fresh legs when I rolled into my aid station at mile 53 (already a distance PR for me) to restock and pick up my first pacer (Jonathan Nyce) shortly before 6 am.
I’ve never spent over 20 minutes at an aid station before, but that’s apparently what it takes to repack my own vest and make my own ramen (totally worth it!!). The delay in loop 2 and long aid stop also got us pretty close to sunrise. So, as the horizon started to lighten up, I ditched the light and grabbed my ramen and headed back out for loop 3 starting with a 1700′ climb up to Bird Knob. Once we hit the top and headed down the gravel road on the other side, I started to do the math. I was moving well again, but my mileage and time were looking a bit long. So after a brief conversation with my coach (Mike Fox) via text, Jonathan and I decided to change my figure 8 loop to an out and back. This would cut 2 miles and save at least an hour from my total time by cutting out some technical trails that I had already done once on the first loop. (I guess that is the benefit of being your own race director.) Loop 3 seemed to take forever, but we actually made better time than I expected and hit the 81 mile aid station around 1:00 pm on Sunday where Jonathan handed the virtual pacer baton to Coach Mike Fox to pace the fourth and final loop.
Starting loop 4, my legs and stomach felt surprisingly well. Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the impact of carrying a very full vest for 23+ hours and 80+ miles. Finishing loop three, my shoulders were already sore and I had switched vests to see if that would help…it did not and the pain just got worse. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a water source on this loop which meant that I had started with 3.5 L in my vest. I could handle it while walking, but when I tried to run, the pain in the shoulders was excruciating. So we walked for most of the fourth loop. Fortunately, Mike was an excellent pacer and almost kept my mind off the fact that the hours were slipping away very quickly. Miles 91-98 took took the form of a long stroll up (and up and up) the gravel Crisman Hollow Road as the possibility of finishing in 28 hours–then 29 hours–slowly drifted out of reach. When I was originally planning for MMT100, I had silently determined that I should absolutely be able to finish under 30 hours and even that was starting to slip out of my grasp. At the beginning of mile 98, I hit 29 hours which meant that I had to cover the last 3+ miles in less than 60 minutes to break 30 hours. Unfortunately, I had been averaging well over 20 minute miles during the fourth loop. The good news is that the last 3 miles was almost entirely downhill with 1350′ of decent. The bad news is that it started with Waterfall Mountain which is so steep and rocky that I actually slowed down compared to the pace I had been holding on the uphill gravel road. So with 1.4 miles left I found myself at 29:43 as the sun set on the final downhill double-track to the finish. I needed to finish under 30:00 so I took a deep breath and tried to stretch out my strides. I have never had such a slow pace feel so fast and hard as I pulled out a 11:21/mile pace to finish at 8:29 pm with a total time of 29:59:12…happy and completely spent.
Time to start dreaming about the next endeavor…after I take a couple weeks off.
Solo, but never alone
While it was a solo run, I definitely didn’t do it alone. For starters, the memory of my niece certainly pulled me through some hard miles. #run4norah Additionally, the appropriately distanced company of Jonathan Nyce and Coach Mike Fox leading up to and during the run was clutch. I also received messages of encouragement from friends and family while running and drew strength from the many VHTRC and CATs events and conversations over the last several years. Finally, with 3 miles to go, I found out that Rebekah and the boys were waiting for me at the finish line. Clearly not the largest crowd that I have had at the end of an ultramarathon, but definitely the best!
Pacers – Jonathan Nyce (miles 55-81) and Mike Fox (miles 81-101). First time I have ever had a pacer. The main purpose this time was to make sure that I made it back in piece or at least somebody would know where I was if I didn’t. Completely social distant, no contact or physical/aid station help of any kind, but worth every penny of their exorbitant salaries and then some. Thanks guys!!
Calories – 16,542 burned, 9796 consumed
Food – 13 Cashew Lemon Muir gels, 12 Peanut Butter Ritz Bitz packs, 4 Huma gels, 4 Paleo bars, 4 Bison Epic, 3 Lemon Larabar, 3 Stroopwafels, 3 Honey Stinger Waffles, Maruchan Instant Lunch ramen (broth from 2, noodles from 1), Pay Day candy bar, homemade cookie, pickles and pickle juice, and–in true VHTRC style–a shot of bourbon.
Hydration – Tailwind (16.5 servings), Muir Hydration (8 servings), total of 15+ liters of fluids
Aid Stations – The aid station staff was definitely pretty low quality this race. I’ve come to expect so much more from stations staffed by VHTRC members. I only ever saw one guy and I was getting tired of him by the end. I had stashed a gallon of water ahead of time for the middle of loop 2. There was also a mountain spring that I hit twice each in loops 1 and 3. Everything else, I carried with me and refilled/cooked/ate at the car between loops.
Sodium – 11 S! caps plus nutrition and hydration for a total of 16,795 mg sodium
Gear: I had a couple wardrobe changes along the way. Salomon Skin 5 vest (2x – 2 loops each), Salomon buff (2x – 1 loop each), lightweight gloves (2 loops), warmer gloves (1 loop), stocking cap (1 loop), short-sleeve compression shirt (3x), Eddie Bauer long-sleeve shirt (lightweight for 1 loop, 2x heavier weight – 1 loop each, Tesla compression shorts, Baleaf 5” running shorts, Injinji socks, Altra Lone Peak 4.5 shoes, Altra gators
Falls – ZERO! (Apparently, I wasn’t trying hard enough)
Blisters – Yep. On the ball of each foot, but I didn’t feel them until mile 98 and even then it didn’t hurt, it just felt weird. I had kept my feet dry the whole way until mile 85 when I had no choice by to wade through a stream. I’m sure this is what eventually created the blisters.