I signed up for the Mountain Masochist Trail Run (MMTR) on the day registration opened back in the beginning of May. At that point, my trail running season was at its peak. I had done much of my training on trails throughout the spring when temperatures were still mild, wildflowers were abundant and pesky insects (deerflies) were rare. Coming off of a great training period for Running Fit’s Trail Marathon which culminated in a win, I was eager for a new trail challenge! I thought MMTR, which had been highly praised by several friends, would be the race for me! My first ultramarathon!
Spring turned into summer and heat and humidity became oppressive. The deerflies came out of hiding and trail running became less enjoyable. Come July, I developed a bad overuse injury in my shin and was out for 3 weeks with no running at all. Upon returning to running, I knew I had to ease back in to prevent reinjury. Plus, I had to keep to soft, smooth and flat surfaces. This kept me away from trails even more and also made me realize there would be no way to put in the training I thought I’d need to even give me a legitimate chance of completing a tough 50+ mile trail run. I had to make a tough decision. Since running a fast road marathon (Detroit) was a priority and required a much smaller volume of training, I made a conscious decision to focus on road running and speed and hope that pure grit and determination would get me through MMTR, which was three weeks after the Detroit Marathon.
The more I ran roads, the less I missed trail running though it may be fair to point out the roads around where I live are unpaved, hilly, wooded and beautiful, many passing by lakes, streams, ponds and park land and often only sparsely populated. The roads are very much like very wide trails, though without the deerflies and hunters! Training for Detroit went well and my injury did not recur. I was excited and confident about the upcoming race.
Marathon day arrived and I toed the line with the goal of breaking 3:10. I thought I was probably capable of a 3:07-3:08 if I had a good day since all my build-up races put me in this time frame. Well, I had a good day. No, I had an unbelievable day! I started out with the 3:10 pace group, but left them very early and 22-23 miles into the race, ended up passing the 3:05 pace group and finished with a totally unexpected 3:03! Still giddy about that!
So now my key race for the year was out of the way and I suddenly realized that my race calendar still had one more race on it and it was a DOOZY!! I had NOT trained for MMTR. I had trained for a fast road marathon, not a mountainous, trail ultramarathon! Would I even have a chance of finishing?? The furthest I’d ever run was 26.2 miles. The longest I’d ever run was 3 hrs and 30-something minutes on somewhat hilly terrain, but not MOUNTAINS!! Yikes!!
My lack of training actually left me with little anxiety about the race. This may seem counterintuitive, but since I was not looking at this as a key race, I would not be devastated if I didn’t finish. I knew I could bow out at any time if things took a turn for the worse and I could try again some other time when I was more prepared. But I had paid for registration, so I might as well give it a try.
Off to Virginia!
After 11 hours of slowly watching flat Midwestern farmland morph into true majestic mountains covered with trees colored by autumn’s best, we finally pulled in to the Kirkley Hotel. We arrived with time to pick up our packets at the Aid Station to avoid the line on Friday night. That also allowed us to prepare all our gear on Friday early so everything was ready to go before the pre-race dinner even began. That made the dinner more enjoyable since one big chore/worry was already out of the way.
Dinner was over, my alarm was set for 3:30 AM and I crawled into bed expecting a night of running nightmares, from which I was mercifully spared! No dreams of going off course. No dreams of being late for the bus! No dreams of not being able to find my bib, shoes, socks, etc.!! My morning began well!
The bus ride to the start was pleasant enough. Since I was on a designated shuttle bus, once we arrived at the James River Visitor Center, I had to disembark and cram into another bus to keep warm until my own bus returned. This was only a slight annoyance as I at least had a spot at the front of the bus and was able to lean against the railing. If I had been forced to stand in the aisle, I imagine I would have been one grumpy little redhead. Again, I was spared unpleastantry. Another good sign.
The Race Begins!
As 6:30 AM approached, I somewhat reluctantly (because it was COLD) and somewhat excitedly (the race was starting!) removed myself from the warm bus and headed to the starting line. After some mumbled words from the megaphone which I hoped were not important, we were OFF!!!
I am a road runner primarily. Probably the biggest issue with transitioning to ultra distances for me is learning to run slowly. I like speed. I knew I couldn’t have speed during the race. Would I miss it? Would I go out too fast? As it turned out, fate intervened and I was unable to run fast for the first 5-7 miles of the race anyway. I wore a headlamp and a Spibelt that I’d never used before, breaking one of the cardinal rules of distance racing – never use untested equipment!! I knew better. I did it anyway. I paid. Though in retrospect, perhaps the equipment problems that slowed me down kept me from blowing myself up! I choose to look at it that way, at least.
The problems I had were the same for both the headlamp and belt. I couldn’t make them small enough! How many people have this problem??? I ended up taking off the headlamp and carrying it to the first aid station where they had a drop box for headlamps. Didn’t really need it anyway, as it turned out. The Spibelt was a minor annoyance the entire race, but I needed something to carry gels, bars, Gatorade powder packets, etc. Time to experiment with other types of “stuff” carriers, I guess.
Once I dropped off the headlamp, I felt relieved and able to focus on the race. Also after the first aid station, we left pavement for good until the last ¾ mile. We hit a trail and started climbing, and climbing we would continue to do for much of the race. During this initial climb, my husband, Matt, and I passed our pal, Rick, for the last time. We’d been doing a little bit of leap frogging due to a few early potty breaks.
The next 30 or so miles were wonderful. I felt strong. I ate and drank well. I enjoyed the scenery. I did take more potty breaks than I had hoped, but when you gotta go… The biggest difficulty I had was numbness in my fingers. I had great difficulty manipulating my drawstrings on my capris during bathroom breaks and could barely tear open my gels!
I stayed with Matt most of the time and walked all significant inclines and ran all the flats (what few there were!) and downhills and the slight inclines. I took note when I had run further than I’d ever run before (26.2 miles) and also when I’d raced longer than I’d ever raced before(4:54). You have to take note of milestones! Every time the road flattened out and I could start running, I continued to be amazed that I was not only ABLE to run, but that it really wasn’t that difficult!
Many others say the MMTR race really starts when you pass the halfway point and start the real climbs. I beg to differ. I still had a lot of energy at that point and climbing was not an issue. For me, the real mental battle began at “The Loop”. It is hard to say exactly what our distance was at the beginning of The Loop, since mileage at MMTR is a bit of an ongoing joke. If a section is marked as 2.9 miles, it may very well be 5 miles in reality! The Loop may have been at about 35 miles into the race. It started out pleasantly – we moved from road back onto a lovely section of very runnable singletrack. “Wonderful!” I thought. But it didn’t last long. Soon the relatively smooth surface turned into jagged boulders of all shapes and sizes with sharp edges. Plus, the trail once again started going UP and meandered in an unpredictable fashion! My poor little unprotected toes took quite a beating and I started feeling tired for the first time.
I thought I’d be relieved when the trail started going down, but no. The down may have been even more treacherous since the rocks remained but were often covered with leaves that made the smaller ones undetectable. No running this downhill section! It took total concentration and was exhausting.
I finally emerged from The Loop and stopped to rest for a few short minutes at the aid station. I ate, drank and refilled my bottle. The volunteers were amazing, as they were at every aid station. I was drained but moved on. As soon as I started running back on the gravel roads, I started feeling better. Matt and I had been running our own paces for the past 10 miles or so and were not always together. He had passed me in The Loop, but had slowed down to let me catch up with him when he finished The Loop. I caught him maybe a half mile later and we stayed together the rest of the race.
Even though I was feeling better, “better” was still relative! I was tired. My legs were sore. My left hip flexor was bugging me and my knees were achy. Nothing was so bad that I considered stopping. I knew that the real mental battle was just beginning.
More uphill. You’ve got to be kidding. Not only was it uphill, but it was STEEP – the steepest section we’d encountered so far (or did it just seem that way coming so late in the race?!). Not only was it steep, but it was rock and leaf-covered. Really!? So up the hill we trudged, slipping backward on the leaves a little with nearly every step. It seemed neverending. But it did end. Mercifully.
Then came another nice section of runnable singletrack. It was leaf-covered still and there were rocks hidden, but with care, one could run it successfully. Matt and I did run it, and we were nearly successful. We were very near the end of the race at this point, maybe mile 46-48, and we were running along with Matt in front when a hidden rock came out of nowhere and slammed into my left big toe. I screamed. Tears welled up in my eyes. For about 30 seconds I was sure it was broken. Then emotion overtook me and a staunch determination. I didn’t care if it were broken, I was finishing this race, damn it!!! Tears streaming down my face, I motioned to Matt to keep going. I couldn’t even talk at that point, I could only wave him on.
The next half mile I limped along in a pseudo-run, but the pain subsided a bit and eventually I was able to run somewhat normally. There were a few more times when I softly tapped the toe against other rocks which made me scream in pain again, but I gritted my teeth and kept going. I was so emotionally and physically spent, I just wanted the race to be OVER! Matt kept asking me if I wanted to walk a little, but walking was the furthest from my mind. I wanted to go FASTER and be DONE! During this final downhill section, I also started to get chilled again. My fingers were frozen. I needed that finish line badly!
When I saw the “one mile” to go mark painted on the ground, I had a renewed energy. A quarter mile later when we hit pavement again, you never would have known I had over 50 miles already behind me. I wish I knew my exact pace, but I’m betting I did a 7:30 minute mile at minimum, probably faster.
Crossing the finish line in Montebello was one of the most emotional and satisfying experiences of my life. I’m still not sure it has really dawned on me what I accomplished. People talk about completing a marathon being a feat that some tiny percentage of the population will ever do and here I was covering a distance of more than double a marathon in the mountains! 9200 feet up and 7200 feet down!
Matt and I crossed the line together, officially one second apart. 10 hours and 31 minutes. We were nearly 1 ½ hours ahead of the cutoff! We were 93 and 94 out of about 230 finishers. Definitely something to be proud of. Not only did we finish, but we finished ahead of the curve!
After throwing on some warm clothing, getting a bit to eat and inspecting my battered toe, we watched for Rick to come through the finish. After celebratory hugs, Rick had me reach into his Nathan pack and pull out my reward, a “50” pendant necklace! I think I like the necklace more than the Finisher shirt from the race itself!
Following a VERY long bus ride back to the Kirkley, we cleaned up and headed to the post-race meal and awards presentation. At dinner, I kept thinking that I was glad I did the race, but I’d never do another 50. I should have known better. I said the same thing after my first marathon. The very next morning, I was thinking about which 50 would be next, though I still swore I’d never do MMTR again. Another morning came and I decided that I not only wanted to do MMTR again, but I wanted to break 10 hours next time and even started making plans on how to do it!
A few stats:
MMTR 2011 Nutrition
6 Hammer gels
2 Clif Shot Bloks
3-4 pieces potato
3-4 fig newtons
2 small bologna/cheese sandwiches
2 small PB&J sandwiches
1 ginger snap
1 piece oatmeal crème cookie
4 wafer cookie pieces
~6 oz cola
~45 oz Gatorade
Weather – high 30s to start, high of low to mid-50s, sunny, got very cold again near the end.
I never removed my gloves and my fingers were numb and unresponsive for much of race.
Clothing – capris, short-sleeved Brooks tech shirt, arm sleeves, thin gloves, PI headband/ear warmer, Injinji toe socks and Brooks Launch shoes – the shoe/sock combo was a great choice! I had not a single blister or hot spot during the race. I only rarely wished for better traction and, of course, really wished for a toe bumper after the rock incident. Ouch.
Gear – Nathan handheld, double-pouch Spibelt and Petzl Tikka
Terrain – Pavement, gravel roads, old logging roads and two track, technical singletrack with large, sharp rocks/boulders, less technical singletrack with leaf-covered smaller rocks, some very small stream crossings