||Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile Run
||Saturday, May 10, 2003
||Front Royal, VA
||Run - 100 Mile
||Male 25 - 29
||11 / 117
||11th overall, 117 starters, 71 finishers, slightly tore my achilles near the end
Too much thinking will get you into trouble.
If I thought too much, I probably would have told myself that I wasn't ready for a long trail race. I certainly would have told myself that I wasn't ready for a 100 mile trail race. I absolutely would have told myself that I wasn't ready for a 100 mile trail race with 19,000 feet of ascent (and an equal amount of descent) over extremely rock terrain. Fortunately, I don't think too much.
I don't know what planted the seed, but sometime around last December, I decided that it'd be kinda cool to do the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile Run (MMT). The race was five months away. That seemed to be a reasonable amount of time to prepare, but in the spirit of not thinking, I decided not to make a final decision about it just yet. I'd just keep the thought in my head. However, never having run an actual ultramarathon, I figured that I should probably try to get a bit of experience just in case I decided to do MMT.
In December, I ran a 50 km trail run, I met some nice people, and I ended up having a jolly good time. I decided that ultramarathoners were some right good folk. In January, I didn't have much else going on, so I decided that I might as well go take a look at the MMT course. I ended up doing a couple training runs on the course, each one about 40 miles long. I learned that the MMT isn't the kind of guy you'd want your daughter to date. The MMT is not approved by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The MMT violates AT LEAST three statutes of the Geneva Convention. It's tough and mean, it likes to kick you when you're down, and if you ask for mercy, it'll only spit in your eye.
By the time February rolled around, friends started to talk about the MMT as if I had signed up. I'd always correct them "...that is, _IF_ I decide to do the race..."
Eventually, people around me started to ignore my protestations. "Yeah, whatever... Now, WHEN you do the race..."
Fortunately, this fit in very well with my strategy of not thinking. Somehow, it had been decided that I'd be running MMT. So I sent in my check.
In the months before MMT, I did a couple marathons, a few 50 km trail runs and one 50 mile trail run. I had been running well, but there are a lot of miles between mile 50 and mile 100. My primary goal was to finish within the 36 hour time limit. I'd prefer to go under 30 hours. If things went according to plan, 24-26 hours would be realistic, as would a top-five finish. But then again, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I didn't see much need for a crew or pacers, so whenever anyone offered, I politely declined. At one point, Chris Couldrey mentioned that she might enjoy trying to meet me at some of the aid stations, riding her mountain bike around the course. She asked me to look at the map to see if there seemed to be a reasonable way to get to some of the aid stations on a mountain bike without riding the race course itself. I realized that she would be able to get to almost every aid station that allowed crew access. In the weeks before the race, two things became clear: 1) I'd have a crew, and 2) Chris was going to have a fairly good training weekend.
The more I thought about it, the more I was glad that things worked out as the did. After 10, 15, 20 hours of moving, seeing a friend --- even if it's only for a couple minutes at an aid station --- can boost your spirits. Also, not knowing how I would handle the distance, I was glad to know that someone who had first hand experience doing ultra-endurance events, someone who had first hand experience supporting ultra-endurance events, and someone with whom I have shared many ultra-endurance adventures would be keeping an eye on me.
Eventually, race day rolled around. The weather forecast promised highs in the 80s, with occasional thunderstorms. Excellent. So at 5:00am on May 10, I, along with 116 other runners, started jogging down a dark road.
In my mind, I divided the race into a few sections. The 24 miles from the start to Aid Station 5 would require an easy, but steady pace. The next bit, to Aid Station 8, the Visitor Center, at mile 48, would be a critical time for fueling and keeping my legs feeling good for the second half of the race. From there to Aid Station 12, Moreland Gap, at mile 68, I'd start to feel tired, and I'd need to start relying on will power to keep me going. The section from Aid Station 12 to Aid Station 13, Edinburg Gap, is only eight miles, but it's over a notoriously difficult section of the course called Short Mountain. That's where I expected to be as the sun would set. Aid Station 13 to the end --- a 25 mile stretch --- would be the "survival" section. I could imagine what those last 25 miles would be like in the same way that I can imagine walking on the moon --- until I experienced it for myself, I'd have no way to know if the image in my mind would bare any resemblance to reality.
But I wasn't there yet, so I didn't need to think about it. I just had to think about these first few miles, about running easily, about eating and drinking, about the large dog the just jumped out of the early morning darkness into the middle of the road! Whoa! Fortunately, before my heart-rate had a chance to jump, the dog sprinted past me toward the group of runners ahead. I called out, "DOG!" The dog caught up to the group, and ran along beside them. He was smart enough not to get under their feet or nip at their heels. He just wanted to join us for a little run. While running or cycling, I've come across many dogs that would play chase for a few hundred meters, but then grow bored or tired, and trot back home. This dog was different. Over the next several hours of the race, every time I'd think the dog had gone home, he come trotting down the trail from somewhere ahead of me, turn around and run with me for a little bit, then sprint up the trail to unseen runners ahead. (He ended up making it through 40 miles of the course like that before being "caught" at Aid Station 7, where he spent the rest of the day. If the let him continue, he might have done pretty well. It turns out that he ran along with the people marking the course the day before. What a dog!)
As I had planned, I just blew through the first few aid stations. I grabbed a hand full of pretzels at the second aid station, and a half of a banana at the fourth aid station. The pretzels were dry and took a long time to eat. The banana felt heavy in my stomach. I decided that I should just stick with what has always worked for me in the past: Hammer Gel, CLIP sports drink and water. My main fueling strategy was the same as it had been on all of my long runs --- I set my watch to beep every 20 minutes to remind me to eat and drink. Every 20 minutes, I'd have a bit of Hammer Gel, and I'd wash it down with some CLIP or water.
Sometime before I reached Aid Station 5, the sky became dark, the thunder crept closer, and eventually the rain started. I was running along a ridge, and the temperature seemed to drop significantly. Before the rain began, I was already soaked from sweating through the warm air and high humidity of the early morning. The cool rain was a relief. I had decided at the last minute before the race to put my Patagonia Dragonfly jacket into my pack. On the ridge, with the wind and the rain becoming stronger, I was glad I had decided to bring the jacket. I put it on. With the rain keeping me cool, and my jacket keeping me warm, I had reached thermal perfection. Despite the increasingly muddy trails, I was running easily and effortlessly. Every few minutes, I asked myself if I was running too fast. Each time, I decided that it would require MORE effort to go slower. Then, in a blink of an eye, I was at Aid Station 5. Twenty-four miles never passed so easily.
At the aid station, I grabbed my drop bag. I knew I had some CLIP powder, which a volunteer used to refill one of my bottles, while another volunteer topped off my water bottle. I replaced one of my Hammer Gel flasks with a full one, then took a moment to decide what else I'd need. A small can of V8, then a can of Ensure. I drank each one in a single gulp, and felt good to go. As I started along the trail again, I was joined by a doggie companion. He only ran with me for a mile or two before he got bored waiting for me at the top of the hills, and ran ahead to catch someone who could run up the hills faster.
Over the next few miles, the wetness started to become annoying. For the rest of the day, either rain was falling, or the temperature and humidity were rising. The ground had become saturated long ago, so the additional rain meant that the trail --- which, for the most part, had become creeks --- became deeper and deeper. On the ridges, I'd have to put my jacket on to stay warm. In the gaps and on the climbs, I'd have to take it off to stay cool. Sometimes, during a run, I'll start to crave some particular food --- chocolate cake, a bowl of fruit, a popsicle. On this run, it wasn't food that I found myself craving. It was a warm, dry bed. Through the rest of the day and night, I found myself fantasizing about being dry, lying down with my head on a soft pillow. Although I knew it would be a long time before I'd have the chance to indulge in such luxury, I took this as a good sign. As long as my biggest craving was a bed, and not a chocolate cake, I knew I was eating right.
Aid Station 6 was a quick one. As I came into the station, I saw Chris along with Gary Grilliot. As it happened, Gary was following his friend, John Geesler, around the course. John and I were running at a similar pace, so I ended up seeing both Chris and Gary at every aid station. Even if it's only for a few minutes over the course of the entire race, seeing friends through the day can help to lift spirits during the rough spots. I decided to grab a small section of a boiled potato. Vicki Kendall was at the aid station, and seeing that I was hardly eating anything, she told me "AARON, you HAVE to eat!" I assured her that I was carrying food, and that I was doing a good job of eating on the trails. Before the race she had warned me a couple times about how difficult it would be, and told me to be careful. Her concern at the aid station was a good reminder of the great support network of the ultrarunning community. Even when you're running around in the woods, and you feel like you might be the only one in the world, there are people out there who are concerned about you, and who are willing to devote their days and night to helping you reach your goals.
I waved goodbye to Chris, Gary, Vicki and the rest of the crew at the aid station, and set out on the trail once again. I arrived at the next station, Gap Creek I, moments after John Geesler, Chris swapped out my drink bottles with full ones, gave me a new flask of Hammer Gel, I knocked back another can of V8 and another can of Ensure, then I set out on the next section of trail. John left the station right behind me. After Gap Creek I, the trail climbs up Kerns Mountain for almost a mile to Jawbone Gap, then follows a rocky, twisty path along the ridge for several miles. John and I were only a couple meters apart for a few miles. Along the ridge line, I'd pull a little bit ahead on the downhills and flats, and he would catch up on the climbs. Eventually, I found myself having a harder and harder time maintaining the pace. I realized that I was moving at John's pace rather than my own. Even though we were arriving at aid stations at similar times, we were running quite differently. Compared to most trail runners who have finish times similar to mine, I'm very slow up hills. I just don't have the leg strength to climb well. I make up for that disadvantage on the downhills. However, if I take the climbs too hard --- if I try to keep up with faster climbers --- my legs get too worn out to run downhills well. When I realized that, I eased off the pace a bit. John quickly passed me, and disappeared around the next bend.
The next aid station, Aid Station 8, at the Visitor Center, ended what I considered to be the second large chunk of this race. Aid Station 8 was at mile 48. Just short of half-way, I hoped to reach this point feeling like I could run a 50 miler. Unfortunately, I was having a bit of a low spell when I arrived. I wasn't feeling terrible, but prior to the aid station is a three mile stretch on a road. On the trails, especially on the trails of the MMT, one must devote so much mental energy to "keeping the rubber side down" that there isn't much mental capacity left to worry about how you feel. "ROCK! ROOT! BRANCH! ROCK! TURN! ROCK! Beep beep beep beep --- time to eat!" On the road, those distractions don't exist. It's just, "LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT... Hmm, this road sure is long..." At the aid station, Chris was ready with my fresh bottles. As she changed them, and as I drank my V8 and Ensure, she asked, "How are you doing?"
"I've been better." What I probably should have added was, "I've also been worse." A quick self-inventory told me that my legs were fine, my stomach was fine, my body was fine. I knew I'd bounce back in a mile or two. I wasn't feeling great at that point, but I wasn't feeling bad either.
For the first time during the race, I let myself look at my watch. Before this point in the race, I didn't want to know what my time or position was. If I was very far behind schedule, I might try to speed up even though I knew that going too fast early in the race would mean certain doom later in the race. I had expected to arrive at Aid Station 8 sometime around 2:30pm on Saturday. I looked at my watch: 2:15pm.
Leaving the aid station, I started up the climb to the highest point in the race. It was long, it was steep, it wasn't just un-runnable --- it was hardly walkable. Over and over, I thought to myself, "A climb like this in a 100 miler is ENTIRELY unnecessary." As much as I hated the climb, I found something at the top that changed my mind. At the top of the climb was a small clearing through the trees. At this moment, there was a rare lull in the (literal) storms that had been with us all day. Through the clearing, I could see 20 miles across the valley to the next range of mountains. Around the base of those mountains were clouds and fog, so just the rolling tops were visible. For that moment, I forgave the entire climb up to that point.
I continued forward, and before long, I saw Tom Nielson coming the other way. I had guessed he'd be leading the race by this point, so I offered a hearty, "Good job!" Or something to that effect. He offered a confused look in return. I wasn't quite sure what that was all about until a couple minutes later, when I came across John. John stopped to explain that after the top of the climb, we were supposed to do a clockwise loop. I missed the turn to start the loop, so I was going around in the wrong direction. (Later, Tom explained that when he saw me, he wasn't sure if he was going in the wrong direction, or if I was, hence the confused look.) He was worried that if I arrived at Aid Station 9 (half way around the loop) from the wrong direction, they might make me do the entire loop in the correct direction. What to do, what to do? I decided to cut my losses, and turn around there. I stuck with John so he could show me the turn. While running I asked if John had passed anyone else recently. He hadn't. Since I had been right behind him at the last aid station, that meant I was in third place.
Before we reached the turn, we came across another runner, Andy Brooks, heading in the wrong direction. He turned around with us to do the loop in the proper direction. After finding the turn, Andy and I ran together for a bit. He said that he believed he was in sixth place. That means that at least two people behind me made the correct turn, and were now ahead of me. Of course, my greater concern was the time my adventure had cost me. (Judging from the splits for this section, it seems that I ran for an extra 25 minutes, and Andy ran for an extra 5-10 minutes.)
After a couple miles, on an uphill section of trail, Andy left me behind. I finished the loop on my own, reached the overlook for another look across the valley, then started back down the steep section of trail that had been so difficult on the way up. It turned out to be similarly difficult on the way down. As I was going down the hill, other runners were coming up. As is common, we offered mutual congratulations on doing such a good job. When I passed Gary Knipling heading in the other direction, he stopped to shake my hand and say, "AARON, how are you doing?"
It was far more civilized than the normal grunts of acknowledgment between trail runners. "I'm doing well. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm just fine. Do you know what place you're in?"
"Well, I was in third just a little bit ago, then I took a wrong turn and did some bonus miles, and now I'm in sixth."
Gary offered a sympathetic, "Oh," as if to say, "I'm sorry that happened," as we started to move in our respective directions once again.
I called back, "It just means I get to run more miles for the same low, low price!"
"That's the spirit!"
As I approached the next aid station, I saw Andy just ahead of me. For the next 10 hours, we would be running like that: he would pass me on the uphills, and I would catch him on the downhills. I passed him before coming into Aid Station 10, at Route 211 East. Arriving at the aid station, I didn't want Chris to worry that I was having significant trouble (which she might assume, noting my delayed arrival). Before she had a chance to say anything, I called out, "Well, I might have dropped a few places, but at least I got to run some extra miles!"
"Yeah, John told us what happened when he came through." As she swapped my drink bottle for fresh ones (and as I drank my V8 and Ensure), she warned me that she might not be able to make it to the next aid station before me. She had a long, slow climb up Route 211 (remember, she was getting from aid station to aid station on a mountain bike). I told her not to worry, since I had a long, slow climb too.
After leaving the aid station, the trail ascends for several miles. I realized that all of the aid stations were at Gaps in the mountain. Thus, I'd leave every aid station with two full bottles of water to carry up the hill. I'm not sure whom I should blame for this injustice, but you can be sure that whenever if find that person, vengeance will be mine. Anyway, I made it about a mile before Andy caught me, and passed me like I was standing still. I was a little frustrated by my bonus miles, and the fact that I had lost several places because of them. I decided that there was nothing I could do about anyone who was ahead of me or behind me, but there was something I could do about my own race. I was approximately 60 miles into the race. At mile 48, I was a little bit ahead of my predicted time. Before the race, it seemed reasonable that I'd run the first half in 10 hours, and the second half in 14-16 hours. That would put my race time between 24 and 26 hours. My bonus miles set me back slightly. What would I have to do to get back on pace, and finish the race in 24 hours?
While running, I started to do the math, working backward. After Aid Station 13, at Edinburg Gap, there is a one and a half mile climb that ascends 1,000 feet. From the top of that climb to the end of the race is 24 miles. I've run most of those 24 miles, and I believed that I could average a 15-16 minute per mile pace over that terrain. Twenty-four miles at 15 minutes per mile is six hours. To make it to the finish by 5:00am, I'd need to be at the top of that climb no later than 11:00pm. I'd prefer to make it there by 10:30pm. The climb itself would take about a half hour, so I'd want to be at Aid Station 13 by 10:00pm. The eight miles from Aid Station 12, Moreland Gap, to Aid Station 13 take most people about three hours because of the rocky terrain, and because most people do it entirely after the sun has set. I should be able to put a significant portion of it behind me before sunset, so I'd expect to take two and a half hours. That puts me at Aid Station 12 at 7:30. Aid Station 11, Gap Creek II, is only three miles before Aid Station 12, but those three miles include a significant climb over the first mile. I might take as long as 30 minutes to make it that first mile, then 30 minutes to do the remaining two miles. That's an hour, and that means that I need to be at Aid Station 11 by 6:30. I looked at my watch; it was just past 5:00pm, so I had a little bit less than an hour and a half to make it to Aid Station 11.
According to my watch, I reached Aid Station 11 at exactly 6:30 --- a good omen. Aid Station 11 doubles as Aid Station 7 (or vice-versa), so there's far more going on than at previous aid stations. There's a large crowd under the tarp, taking shelter from the rain, my doggie buddy was taking a nap after his long run earlier today, and someone was cooking quesadillas. Chris helped me get through what had become my standard routine. Someone offered a quesadilla, but my nutrition strategy had been working too well up to this point to change anything. A moment later, I was heading to Aid Station 12, at Moreland Gap, on the other side of a very big hill.
The climb up went as I expected it to go --- it took about 30 minutes. Down the other side, I started to push. I knew that it was on the downhills where I could make the best time. I arrived at Moreland Gap at about 7:20pm --- 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I arrived at the aid station just moments after Andy arrived. I topped off a water bottle, drank a can of Ensure, grabbed my flashlight, and set out once again. On the climb up Short Mountain, I knew that it was only a matter of time before Andy caught me. When he did, he asked, "Does the trail go down the other side?"
"No," I told him. "When you get to the top, you follow the ridge for several miles before descending to Aid Station 13 at Edinburg Gap. But the trail along the ridge is extremely rocky, so the more you can complete before the sun sets, the better off you'll be."
"How long do you figure we have before it gets dark?"
"The sun's supposed to start setting at 8:15."
"Okay, thanks." And with that, he continued on ahead. Once I reached the ridge, I decided to push a bit. I didn't have to start using my flashlight until 8:40pm. By then, half of Short Mountain was behind me. After the last bits of daylight were gone, the wind became strong. Being sheltered by the trees, the wind didn't feel very strong, but it grew louder and louder as it whipped through the trees, up the side of the mountain. Eventually, the wind faded into the back of my consciousness as the majority of my attention was focused on not running off the trail as the path twisted and turned under me. Near the end --- I knew I was near the end because the trail had started the two mile decent to Edinburg Gap --- I could see Andy's light in the distance. A few minutes later, I had reached him. I went ahead down the trail, fully aware that after the aid station, we would face the kind of climb that would make me wish I had never been born, and that on that climb, Andy would leave me in the dust once again.
I came into Aid Station 13 feeling good at 9:50pm, still about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Once again, Chris replaced my bottles and Hammer Gel. I had my V8 and Ensure. I spotted some pudding at the aid station, and decided that a bit of pudding would help get me up the next hill. Chris offered me a chair so that I could rest for a moment while eating. While I really wanted to sit down, I didn't need to sit down. I had been on my feet since the start of the race, and I knew that I'd be wise to resist the siren song of the chairs.
"Nope, I don't need the chair!"
One of the aid station volunteers, recognizing my prudence called out, "BEWARE THE CHAIR!"
I echoed, "BEWARE THE CHAIR!"
I had made it three quarter of the way through this race. The last quarter of the race would certainly be more difficult than the first. I had been wet and on my feet since 5:00am. As much as I didn't want to do the climb out of Edinburg Gap, I realized something amazing: I was feeling strong. I had prepared myself to be in the throes of misery and suffering by this point. I wasn't. Sure, I was sore, and I was quite tired. But moving forward still seemed like the natural thing to do. I hadn't had any stomach problems all day. I was worried about chafing, but none had developed. I wasn't running terribly fast, but as long as I wasn't on a steep ascent, I could still run. If I could get to the top of the next climb in 40 minutes, I'd still be on pace for 24 hours.
As I was leaving the aid station, Andy was arriving, as was Harry Bruell. Andy and I had been trading fifth and sixth place since the early afternoon. If Harry was catching up now, I had no doubt that it wouldn't be long before he passed us both. I couldn't control what Harry would do, so I just followed the strategy that I knew would work best for me: I'd take all the time I needed to walk leisurely up this hill, I'd take a half-mile to recover, then I'd start to push myself for the remainder of the eight miles to Aid Station 14 at Woodstock Tower.
Harry passed me three quarters of the way up the climb, and Andy passed me just before we reached the top. I ran easily for some distance, then, as my legs felt better, I picked up the pace. In another mile I passed Andy again. For several miles, the trail parallels the ridge line about 40 meters to the east. I knew that when the trail crossed over the ridge, I'd be two miles from the next aid station. Every time the trail turned toward the ridge, I thought I'd be crossing over, and that I had just two more miles to Woodstock Tower. Each time, the trail turned away again. I became frustrated and demoralized. A hundred miles is a long way to run. As a novice in this kind of thing, there's no reason I should feel the need to push myself over the last 40 miles to reach my own arbitrary time goals. Why not just take it easy the rest of the way?
I convinced myself that I didn't really care about my time or place very much. I started walking when I should have been running. By the time I crossed the ridge, I was so set on NOT pushing myself that I didn't care that I was just two miles from the next aid station. It wasn't until I reached a sign that said, "1 Mile To Aid!" that I snapped out of it. "Hey, I'm almost there! What am I doing? I'm having a great race, I'm feeling good, why am I being such a wimp?"
I started running again. Another sign told me I had half a mile to go. I ran more. Finally, the Aid Station came into view. It was the middle of the night, but I was easily recognizable by the green light of my flashlight. I heard Chris call, "GO AARON!" as she had when I approached each aid station, letting me know that I had really made another milestone.
Just then, running down a short slope to the aid station, one foot picked up a stick and caused it to hit the back of the other foot. It didn't hit hard, but I was stunned by how much it hurt. At that moment, I thought little of it because I didn't realize that the pain I felt was just a sneak preview of what would come later for me. I was happy to be at the aid station. I was happy that I only had two more aid stations after this one. I was happy that I was feeling good, and I was happy to be so happy. The time was 12:30am. I was hoping to get to this point by 12:15am, but I still had time to cover the remaining 18 miles if I could maintain a 15 minute per mile pace. Those 18 miles had two notable climbs --- a one mile climb before a four mile descent to the final aid station, and a two mile climb after the final aid station. I could handle those climbs, and since there was more downhill than uphill, I was still feeling good about my prospects for 24 hours. I had been pushing myself, but I knew that if it came down to it, I'd be able to go a bit harder over the last few miles. As Chris and I went through our routine, I heard, "Hi there, Aaron."
John Geesler was sitting in a chair, resting, staring off into space. "Hey, how are you, John?"
"Oh, I'm feeling a little weak." He didn't seem too concerned about it, so I knew that he'd come around eventually. He did. After I finished my can of Ensure, I turned around, and John was gone. He was on the trail again. Following his lead, I set out to Aid Station 15, Powells Fort. There were only two more aid stations between me and the end, and ahead of me were a couple miles of some of the most runnable trail on the course.
I was running strong, and I passed John. I realized that I was back in fifth place. A top-five finish would be great. There was the possibility that someone could come rocketing past me, but as long as I didn't slow down, it didn't seem likely. And I didn't think I'd need to slow down. I realized that my feet were hurting a bit, and that they had been hurting for a while. I suppose I should have expected that. After 19 hours of work, and 18 hours of thorough saturation and dirt, I was asking a lot of my little feetsies. I expected that after a couple miles, I'd forget about the pain in my feet, and start to think about some other pain. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. It couldn't happen, since my feet felt like they were getting worse with every step. The trail descends for two miles before Aid Station 15, so I knew I was getting close when I started going downhill. I should have been working the downhill, but my feet wouldn't let me. Still, I didn't worry about the situation too much. I was still feeling good overall, and I knew that seeing Chris and Gary at the aid stations always made me feel better.
A hundred meters from the aid station a volunteer warned me to be careful of the water on the short bit of trail to the aid station. For a moment, I thought, "Ooh, I better keep an eye out for that." Then I started to laugh, as I remembered that I had been running through water for what seemed like... Well, forever.
As I shuffled into the aid station, I told Chris that my feet were really hurting. She asked if I wanted to change socks. I didn't see much of a point, since it would take all of five minutes before the clean socks would be just as wet and dirty as what I already had on. Better to stick with the devil I know. The rest of the race would be a bit of a struggle, but I only had 10 miles left, and I was still feeling strong. One more aid station --- Aid Station 16 at Elizabeth Furnace --- then something like three and a half miles to the end. I took a deep breath, then started running again. As I left the aid station, Andy was arriving. I was glad to see that he was still doing well.
But it didn't take me long to realize that I wasn't doing so well. Without an aid station just ahead of me to distract my mind, I realized that my feet hurt. They really, really hurt. The backs of my heels hurt from rubbing against wet sand all day. It was as if someone had traced around the cuff of each shoe with a razor blade, so each time my foot didn't land completely flat, it felt like lemon juice on a wound. My right foot is half a size bigger than my left, and the smallest toes on my right foot were being squeezed. All of that was very painful, but tolerable. There was something else, something that nearly stopped me in my tracks. Something that prevented me from running. Something that I knew I would not be able to ignore, and something that would only become more painful over the last 10 miles. At first I wasn't sure what it was. Eventually, I was able to separate all the distinct pains, and I found that the worst pain was in my Achilles tendons. In both legs, it felt like someone was driving a spike through my Achilles tendons. Over 90 miles of rugged trails, during which I was almost constantly moving up a hill, forcing the tendons to do a huge amount of work, or moving down a hill, causing the back of my shoe to dig into the tendon, irritating the already-sore soft tissue, I had done some damage.
Within a half-mile of leaving the aid station, I knew that my race was over. As long as I could move, I'd continue to move, but already the pain was so intense that I could only walk slowly, taking small steps. Although later, my world would be nothing other that physical agony, at that moment, two feeling were in focus: pain and frustration.
The pain, I've already explained. The frustration was due to 90 good miles being spoiled by 10 bad ones. I would not be finishing in 24 hours, or even 25 hours. Even if I could ignore that, I wouldn't be able to ignore the stream of runners who would be passing me, or the thought that those runners would think that I had just melted down. I knew that I'd want to stop each runner to explain that I had run a smart race, that I ate and drank well, that my training was good, that if it weren't for the searing pain in my feet, I'd be running! Of course, none of that matters to anyone else.
The first person to pass me was Andy. I knew that was the last time I'd see him before I finished. I found that I was disappointed that it would end like this. Even though it was mostly in passing, I felt like we had run a long way together, and I really looked forward having a good race with him to the end. Who could finish ahead of whom? The uphill runner, Andy, or the downhill runner, Aaron? We had been arriving at the aid stations so close to one another that I expected it to be a great race between the two of us to the finish.
Next was John. That put me in seventh place, but I was glad to see that he had gotten his strength back. He was running well when he passed me.
A mile later, before I could make out what he was saying, I could hear the unmistakable voice of David Horton. I had seen him at Aid Station 11, Gap Creek II. He had that 'Pacer In Waiting' look about him. "Ahh," I thought at the aid station, "I bet he's going to be pacing Bethany Hunter." If Bethany was right behind me now, she was well on her way to a new women's course record!
A few meters behind me, he called out, "NOW, WHO DO WE HAVE HERE?"
I was caught off guard. On the trails, I'm not accustomed to hearing complete sentences. Sure, there's usually a grunt or two between runners in passing, but complete sentences? It's unprecedented! Though I suppose that if you're David Horton, you can set your own precedents. "Uhh, Aaron," I replied.
"Yup. Who's this?" I don't know why I asked. Maybe it was to be polite. Even though they were still behind me, I knew who was back there.
"Bethany," said Bethany as she ran past me. And she really RAN past me. It wasn't the sort of jog-shuffle that everyone else was doing at this late stage of the race; she was running hard and fast.
"OH DRAT!" Horton was moving past me. "I JUST STEPPED IN A PUDDLE! THAT'S THE FIRST TIME ALL DAY!" Then, turning to me, "NOT!" And they just flew away, down the trail, until they were completely gone, save for the disembodied voice of Horton in the darkness saying, "NOW I'M SURE THE TURN IS COMING RIGHT UP HERE!"
Behind me, I saw another pair of lights. As I struggled to keep moving, the lights caught up. "Who's this?" I asked.
Oh my gosh, Bethany Hunter and Sue Johnston were only minutes apart, and both on pace to break the course record! Although 100 mile races might not be known for their appeal to spectators, this was certainly exciting. While it's never a great feeling to be passed late in a race, if I could find a silver lining, it would be that I got a chance to see that part of the race.
That put me in ninth place overall, seventh man. The pain was getting worse, and I had a mile of climbing and four miles of descent before I'd reach the next aid station. During the descent, I found myself on the verge of tears. Although I didn't consider it for even a moment, I understood why someone might DNF at mile 98 of a 100 mile race. I thought about the phrase that has gotten me through many rough spots over the past few years: This is not the worst I've ever felt. I realized that I might not be able to apply that phrase to this situation. Although nothing above my ankles would have prevented me from pushing hard to the end, the pain in my feet and Achilles tendons was almost more than I could take.
It was only the small voice of reason it my mind that kept me going. That voice reminded me of the Proof Of Induction Of Ultrarunning. It goes like this:
If an ultrarunner has taken X steps, by putting one foot in front of the other one more time, he will have taken X + 1 steps.
I have taken 152,738 steps.
I can take 152,739 steps.
Nevermind that each of those steps was slow, short and excruciating. As I descended to the final aid station at Elizabeth Furnace, I occasionally looked behind me to see if anyone was approaching. Each time I looked back, I'd see a light in the darkness. I'd think, "Here comes someone else." Then I realize that I was only seeing one of the glow sticks that marked the course. They were hanging from trees every hundred meters or so.
I knew that I was close to the aid station when I started to hear a generator. After 10 minutes of hearing the generator, it seemed not to be getting any closer. The sound was bouncing off of the mountains, and the trail was moving perpendicular to the direction in which I would need to head to get to the generator. I only grew more upset as the trail continued, and I wasn't getting any closer to the aid station. I knew that once I arrived at the aid station, the last three miles would probably take a little more than an hour. Get to the aid station, then one more hour.
After limping around what felt like a cruelly circuitous final quarter mile to the aid station, I arrived at an aid station for the first time feeling miserable. I had one last can of Ensure. I just wanted to hear how close I was. I said, "It's about three more miles?"
"Actually, it's five more miles."
I nearly broke down right there. I had the mileages wrong for the last two aid stations. Three miles was in the ballpark of an hour. Five miles would be in the ballpark of two hours. Two hours. Suddenly, the distance I had to go doubled. I hobbled out of the aid station knowing I'd make it to the end, but not knowing how.
"Hey, you're in ninth place!" called the aid station volunteer.
"That'll change soon." I was feeling uncharacteristically pessimistic. As soon as I was back on the trail beyond the aid station, I broke down. I started bawling. It was 10 percent frustration, 85 percent physical pain, and five percent despair. It's that five percent that pushed me over the edge. It took about five minutes before I was able to compose myself. A few minutes later, starting a two mile climb --- the last climb --- two runners running together passed me. That put me in 11th place. Near the top of the climb, I was passed by another runner with a pacer. I reached the top of the trail, and found a sign that read, "Elizabeth Furnace - 2" next to an arrow point down the trail I just came up. That means I have three more miles to go.
During those last few miles, I remembered my "bonus miles" earlier in the race. "I should be done." No use thinking that. I needed something other than that, and other than my feet, to occupy my mind. The finishers' award is a belt buckle. Some of the top finishers get sterling silver belt buckles. Earlier, I was in contention. By this point, I assumed I was out of the game. I was in 12th place. But the men's buckles are awarded separately from the women's. I was 10th man, so I'd be 10th in line for one. The first place man would get one, as would the first runner in the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC organizes this race), and I knew that at least one VHTRC member was ahead of me. The first international competitor would also get a sterling silver buckle, and that would be Andy, since he had come from England to do the run. That left six other people ahead of me. Unfortunately, only the six men beyond those already mentioned get the silver buckles. I was out by one place.
Wait! After the last aid station, when I counted two runners passing me together, perhaps they weren't two runners... Perhaps they were a runner and a pacer. That would make sense. If that's the case, and if no one else passes me in the last couple miles, then I get the last silver buckle. I have no idea how close anyone is behind me, but if I don't do everything in my power to move faster, and if someone passes me, and if that really was a runner and a pacer, then I'll only be that much more frustrated with myself.
Even though it wasn't so amusing to me at the time, I imagined that I must have looked like a tall, skinny Mr. Magoo, hunched over, face contorted in pain, arms swinging wildly to help make forward motion, but only able to take slow, itty-bitty steps. As miserable as I was at that moment, I had enough presence of mind to file that image away so I could laugh over it later.
I knew the end of the course crossed a field, so every time it looked like the there might be a clearing ahead, I'd become excited, but each time, it turned out not to be the field I needed. When a similar thing happened between Edinburg Gap and Woodstock Tower, as I was hoping to cross the ridge so that I'd be two miles from the aid station, I became frustrated. This time, each time I found that I hadn't reached the end, it only made me work harder --- there was still more of an opportunity for someone to pass me.
When I finally did reach the correct field, the people at the finish line spotted me before I spotted them. I was starting to think, "Now here's the field, how much farther to the finish line?" I heard some cheers, and realized that just needed to make an arc around the field, and I'd be done. Somehow, I added a slight spring to my pitiful, painful shuffle. And the funny thing is that after finishing, I was so happy to be done that I didn't even think of sitting down until someone offered me a chair.
My final time was 26 hours and 15 minutes. The 12 mile walk from Aid Station 15 to the end took me five long, frustrating hours. I was 11th overall, ninth male, and I got the last silver buckle. I'm grateful to Chris, who not only kept me moving swiftly through the aid stations, but who did so while sprinting around the Massanutten Mountains on a mountain bike with 30 pounds of gear on her back. I'm also grateful to everyone who devoted their time and energy to creating this challenging, rewarding experience. I tried to say, "Thank you," as much as possible during the race, but unfortunately, sometime, we get so wrapped up with our own business that we forget to make our appreciation known to those who deserve it.
I'd have a hard time explaining exactly how I feel about my race. On the one hand, it's a very challenging course, and I'm proud to have completed it. I think that between the time I first considered doing the race and the finish line, I did many things right. I think that if I did anything wrong, it was only because I had never run 100 miles before, so I didn't know what wouldn't work for me (I'll be thinking about shoes quite a bit in the near future), and that's just part of building experience. On the other hand, I don't feel that I raced anywhere near my potential. I don't mean that I could have gone faster if I trained differently (possibly) or if I had more than a few months of ultramarathoning behind me (probably). I mean that on that particular day, I was ready to go a couple hours faster. I realize that wrong turns and foot problems will always be part of trail running, so I don't plan to dwell on what "could have been." Rather, it makes me eager for the next time. I know I can do better, and I want to prove it to myself. I'm sure I won't get it right the next time around, or even the time after that. But I sure will enjoy trying.