I was just outside of the Gap Creek aid station when I saw the stormtrooper helmets.
Just off to the left of the rutted, rocky single-track trail, there were three of them, neatly perched atop some trail-side bushes.
It was about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. I’d already been awake for 23 hours and on the run for most of that time.
With 35 miles left to go in the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-mile run, I was sleep deprived and starting to hallucinate.
I knew those stormtrooper helmets weren’t real, that they weren’t there. But still, for a moment, I saw them shining bright white and black in the twin beams of my flashlight and headlamp.
That’s when I knew for certain that it was going to be a long, weird night in the mountains.
Go big or go home
It was last fall when I first entertained the notion of entering MMT as my first 100-miler.
I still had some residual disappointment after opting against running the Umstead 100 last spring thanks to lack of training and lingering injuries. But after a summer spent rebuilding my strength and confidence, I was running well — and spending way too much time around veteran 100-miler studs.
And so it was that I found myself in the Shenandoah Mountains with about a dozen fellow ultrarunners out for an 18 mile “recovery run” the day after the VHTRC Women’s Trail Half Marathon. On the fast descent down the Dickey Ridge Trail, I fell in with Sophie Speidel. She’d won her age group and placed 11th overall at the half-marathon the day before, but was showing no signs of being at all tired, based on the kind of pace she was setting.
Like all newly acquainted ultrarunners, we got to talking about races we’d run and I mentioned my missed opportunity to run Umstead. She in turn told me about her first 100-miler, back in 2005 — MMT.
“Wait, you ran MMT as your first 100?”
The logic was sound, once I heard it explained. For a VHTRC runner, MMT is a hometown race. It’s easy for local crew and pacers to come out and provide support, there are friends working at all the aid stations, and a local race offers an opportunity to train on the course itself.
Hard to argue with that.
Looking back, that’s where my decision was made, on a glorious fall day in the mountains when the running was perfect. But I didn’t know it yet. At the time, I needed a bit more incentive before I’d be ready to admit out loud what I was just starting to consider.
The nudge came courtesy of Keith Moore, another veteran 100-miler who invited a few of us out for a hunter’s moon night run in the Massanuttens. We rolled up 18 miles of stomping around the northern end of the Massanutten Mountains with only the moonlight and our headlamps to guide the way and I had an absolute blast. The kind of crazy-ass adventure that’s good for my soul.
Even before we wrapped up the run and headed to Denny’s for a 2:30 a.m. breakfast, I knew I was going to put my name into the lottery for a starting position at MMT.
‘Toughest trail run east of the Rockies’
With 11 major climbs over 101.7 miles, the course challenges runners with 16,200 feet of elevation gain. The time limit is a seemingly generous 36 hours, but many back-of-the-pack runners still find themselves fleeing like wild animals ahead of mid-course time cutoffs.
In a typical year, one in three MMT starters will fail to complete the race.
None of the climbs are especially huge compared to other 100-mile events (especially the big-mountain courses out west), typically maxing out at no more than about 1500 feet of ascent. But when paired with the rocky terrain of the Massanutten course, those are some hard yards. And the ridge trails offer no relief — the rockiest sections of the course are the knife-edge ridge lines. At times, runners are doing more boulder scrambling than they are running.
In short, MMT traverses some of the gnarliest, rockiest, steepest and meanest mountain trails Virginia has to offer.
A tough journey to the start
That I even made it to the starting line for the May 14-15 race is due in large part to the help, advice and encouragement I got from a legion of friends.
I spent the winter and spring once again battling both injuries and doubt. This time, it was my right IT band that was the source of trouble. But my physical therapist, Dr. Farouk Elkassed, is a fellow ultrarunner and he knew that I needed to keep training if I had a chance of being ready for race day. Where other PTs would’ve told me to shut down for a few weeks, Farouk kept me in the game.
After a few disappointing early spring races, I finally turned a corner and started chalking up strong finishes. My weekly training mileage was terribly low – I only logged a few late-cycle weeks that topped 50 miles – but I felt healthy and strong. When I crushed my previous personal best at the Bull Run Run 50-miler in April, I knew I’d make it to MMT.
And I knew that if I made it to the start, my friends would make damned sure I made it across the finish line.
From Furnace to Furnace: Miles 1-32.6
Climbs: Short Mtn, Waonaze Peak, Powell Mtn
Time: 4 a.m. – 12:48 p.m.
I arrived at the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp in Virginia’s Fort Valley at 3 a.m. for a 4 a.m. start. With only about three hours of sleep the night before the race, I knew sleep deprivation would be a make-or-break element of what the next 36 hours would have in store.
In my corner, though, was a truly amazing support crew. Bob Gaylord, Stan Spence, Sara Davidson and Toni Aurilio – all regulars in our weekend running group – came out to provide on-course support and help pace me through the tough nighttime portion of the race.
(Entrants in 100-milers are typically allowed to have another runner join them on the course to help set the pace and keep the runner safe as sleep deprivation begins to take its toll in the wee hours.)
Traveling in the glow of nearly 200 headlamps and flashlights, I made my way up Moreland Gap Road, a 3.6-mile warm-up before the real trail – and the real test – began. The first climb came quickly, a stumble-fest up Short Mountain, one of the rockiest sections of the course.
Caught up in the energy of the start, I made good time through the first 11.5 miles and blazed downhill into the Edinburg Gap aid station, where Bob and Stan made like a NASCAR pit crew, grabbing my headlamp and flashlight and resupplying me with fresh water bottles and sports drink packets; I wouldn’t see them again until the next crew-accessible aid station at mile 32.6.
As I started the trek up Waonaze Peak, I started feeling the first signs of trouble. The shoes I’d opted to wear to start the race, my Inov-8 Flyroc 310′s were slipping on the rain-damp rocks and starting to chafe my ankles. A heel blister less than 20 miles into the race? Problem. Big problem.
Through the Woodstock Tower (19.9) and Powell’s Fort (25.1) aid stations, my foot situation kept getting worse and I started making plans for an early shoe change and some blister maintenance at the Elizabeth Furnace aid station. In the meantime, I pulled out my iPod Shuffle to distract me from worrying over my feet. No joy. My iPod picked that moment to finally bite the dust, even though it had been working just fine at 3 a.m.
Between the beginnings of blisters and the busted iPod, I quickly found myself in a dark place, the first of many low points I’d have during the race. Hitting the 20-mile mark and knowing you’re only a fifth of the way done with your race can do bad things to your mental state.
To keep that thought at bay, I instead focused on getting to Elizabeth Furnace. I knew the full crew would be waiting there, as Sara and Toni had planned to link up with Bob and Stan in time for the four to be in position at mile 32.
With plenty of legs left at that point, I decided to keep ignoring that blister and instead enjoy the five-mile approach to Elizabeth Furnace, a downhill section that really lets you stretch out your legs and fly.
I rounded a bend in the road expecting that I’d find the crew at the aid station itself, but instead they’d set up shop in a parking area just ahead of the main station area. And they’d kitted themselves up in uniforms – sun visors and T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Team Rob” and some of my favorite Twitter hashtags, like “#dontstopgetitgetit” and “#winning” – the handiwork of Toni and her kids.
I started laughing my ass off, obviously, and immediately felt my mood lift.
As I dashed to the aid area they’d set up, I barked out my list: “Shoe change! Blister, right heel!”
Except Bob hadn’t brought his blister kit – he didn’t expect that my feet would be messed up quite so soon. D’oh.
So for the time being, we went with a quick fix for the blister – a Band-Aid from my medical kit – and I traded out my Inov-8 shoes for my Montrail Mountain Masochists. Since I’d see the crew again in just five more miles at the Shawl Gap aid station, Bob and I planned a longer-term blister treatment once he had his full treatment kit available.
With Sara and Toni in the mix now, the resupply effort was happening even more quickly, so once again I was back on the road quickly, stopping only briefly at the official aid station to grab some solid food to supplement the sports drink and gels that I’d been fueling with up to that point.
Racing the darkness: Miles 32.6-53.6
Climbs: Shawl Gap, Veach Gap, Habron Gap
Time: 12:48 p.m. – 7:36 p.m.
The forecast had called for rain throughout the weekend, with intermittent thunderstorms. Fortunately, the rain held off in favor of partly skies, warm temperatures and high humidity. But I had a dark, dark heart.
For all the energy boost I got out of seeing my full crew at Elizabeth’s Furnace, it faded fast. It wasn’t even 2 p.m. on Saturday, sundown wasn’t for another six hours, and already I was feeling the effects of sleep deprivation. I had plenty of leg strength and stamina left, but I so, so, so badly wanted to just lie down on the trail and take a nap.
Coming out of Elizabeth’s, I gutted out an 800 foot climb, followed by a welcome three-mile descent into Shawl Gap. Captained by my friend Rob, the Shawl Gap aid station was a welcome sight. On the agenda: Blister treatment, a resupply of gels and sports drink for the 16-mile push to Habron Gap, and some of Rob’s aid station quesadillas.
Rob’s sarcastic wit is as good as his aid station quesadillas, so while Bob worked on my blister – popping, disinfecting and taping – Rob delivered an unceasing stream of grief. His favorite line: “This is supposed to be a race! Run faster!”
Once again, I felt a burst of energy from my crew – their cheers and encouragement were better than anything else I might’ve gotten at that aid station. But once again, it was short lived.
As soon as I was back out on my own on the trail – the runners had all spread out pretty well by that point and we each were running more or less solo – I started fading again and sleepiness started taking hold.
I’m not sure how to even begin to describe the frustration I felt about that. With my blister situation dealt with for at least the time being, there was No. Damn. Reason. why I should be feeling like crap. But yet there it was.
And I began to doubt.
One overwhelming truth was clear in all the advice I’d solicited from all of the ultrarunners I know: Sleep deprivation can be the kiss of death in a 100-mile attempt.
Because your body wants to go to sleep at a certain point in the night, your system starts to slow down – you don’t digest food as well, you don’t run as fast, you start dozing off even while you’re still walking or running. Slow down too much and you risk missing a mid-point cutoff on the course and being kicked out of the race.
Or, short of all that, your will to continue is slowly but surely being eroded. Whether the weakness is mental, physical, or emotional, lose one of the three for too long and you’re done. You’ll find yourself turning in your number and dropping out even before you fully comprehend what you’ve done.
To make it through the night, I needed to pick up one of my crew to join me as a pacer on the course.
With the option to pick up pacers first available at the Habron Gap aid station (53.6), I needed to make it there.
That meant I was going to have to reach in and find some spine.
Fortunately, I was on a part of the course at that point that I had gotten to know through one of the MMT training runs I’d done earlier in the year. Yes, it was a section that chewed me up and spit me out, but at least I knew what to expect.
Once the tough climb out of the Veach Gap aid station was done, it would be relatively smooth sailing to Habron Gap. In fact, with two long sections of relatively flat road in this part of the course, I wouldn’t have to fight the Massanutten rocks the entire way to Habron.
And so it went for those long miles. I caught quick bursts of energy after refueling at the Veach Gap (40.7) and Indian Grave (49.7) aid stations, only to see them fade once back on trail and alone on the run. I was quickly losing interest in the gels that I brought as a key component of my fueling plan, but the solid food at the aid stations – fruit in particular – was exactly what I wanted, so I made sure to increase my intake.
I reached Habron Gap just before sunset, resupplied and caught the crew up on my current state. Stan peeled off from crewing duty to join me as a pacer – his company a timely and welcome addition for the long, steep two-mile climb back up to the Massanutten ridge line, one of the toughest of the entire course.
And then things got weird: Miles 53.6-77.1
Climbs: Duncan Knob, Kern’s Mtn
Time: 7:36 p.m. – 4:20 a.m.
The company of a pacer was exactly what I needed. In so many ways, the stop at Habron Gap felt like a fresh start.
I was more than halfway done at that point and the prospect of company to keep me awake and focused throughout the night gave me new hope.
Where the previous miles had passed in a haze of microsleeps and miserable bouts of feeling sorry for myself, the 10 miles between Habron and the Camp Roosevelt (63.1) aid station flew by in a blur of fun conversation – and the beginnings of what seemed like sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations.
That it took three hours to cover those 10 miles only occurred to me much later. Habron Gap is one tough damn climb.
Continuing my strategy of not wasting precious time in the aid stations, I blazed through Camp Roosevelt as quickly as resupply and refueling efforts would allow. With the cool of the evening setting in, I inhaled a cup of noodle soup and the warm, salty broth hit my system like a rocket. Or, maybe it was the 5 Hour Energy shot that did that.
It would be just five miles from Roosevelt to the Gap Creek (68.7) aid station, but with a tough climb over Duncan Knob to contend with, it wouldn’t be a fast five miles by any stretch. Climbing 1,200 feet over four miles, starting gradually and then going steep for the last 1.5 miles, Duncan Knob is no fun during the day, let alone in the wee hours.
It took me nearly two hours to pick my way through that five-mile section. It was there that the hallucinations really started kicking in.
There were the stormtrooper helmets, of course, but lots of other fun things too. Garden gnomes carved out of wood, squirrels and lizards skittering across the trail, a tall wooden fire-watch tower that straddled the trail.
None of which was actually there, of course.
How to describe what this section of the run felt like? Remember that scene in “Apocalypse Now” where Capt. Willard’s patrol boat arrives upriver at the Army supply base, and it’s this bizarre hive of lights, noise and activity, wildly out of context for a guy who’s been immersed in the darkness of his journey for what seems like forever?
That’s what the Gap Creek (68.7) and Visitor’s Center (77.1) aid stations were like. I was so out of it that I barely even remember coming through Gap Creek the first time. I was hustled in and out by my crew and sent with pacer alongside to climb Kern’s Mountain.
I ran this section of the course not even a month ago, but seeing it on race day after being awake for 24 hours straight, with the rain now finally starting to come down after holding off all day? It didn’t seem a damn bit familiar.
We reached the Visitor’s Center at 4:20 a.m. and I could tell that a meltdown was imminent. I was cold and soaked to the skin after getting rained on for three hours in just a short-sleeve T-shirt. I was starting to chafe badly in my nether regions. I was hungry as hell. And still I kept fighting the urge to curl up in a ball and catch some Z’s.
But wow, I saw so many friends at that aid station.
My full crew was there, of course, and they took full charge of the situation, telling rather than asking what needed done. I was bundled into a long-sleeve T-shirt and windbreaker and fed copious amounts of soup. And other friends called out my name, cheered me on, came up to say hi and otherwise made me feel like an absolute rockstar even though I still had at least 24 more miles left to go.
It was like my friend Jill told me at Bull Run Run last month: “Just get to the Visitor’s Center and we’ll kick you across the finish line.”
Once I was finally warmed up a bit, I cleared my head well enough to remember to grab a stick of Bodyglide and a tube of Vaseline to get my chafing issues in order. So what if I had an audience of more than a dozen friends and acquaintances? Priorities are priorities.
Relentless forward progress: Miles 77.1-86.9
Climbs: Bird Knob
Time: 4:20 a.m. – 8:15 a.m.
And here’s where the wheels came completely off.
I spent the majority of this section more asleep than awake, really, with a pacer being the only thing that kept me moving forward and not giving in to the temptation to curl up on a damp boulder to hit the sack for a dozen hours.
I’d seen someone else do that earlier in the evening, actually, and damn, but it looked tempting. I spent mile after mile trying to convince myself that a quick nap would be ok, that I would surely wake up with no trouble and that I would be able to get moving again just fine.
And yet the sane part of me knew that was utter nonsense. The thing that would get me home fastest would be relentless forward progress, no matter how slow. I had enough time in the bank that I frankly could’ve walked the entire rest of the way to the finish and still come in under the 36-hour time limit.
But really, who wants to do that?
So it was run, walk, stop and doze standing up for a second or two, then repeat. Over and over again. Up Bird Knob, along the ridge line and, finally, on the downhill backside of the knob. I averaged 2.5 miles an hour through this section – not much better than a cripplingly slow walking pace.
My quads were cashed, my calves were burning and my feet were absolutely wrecked after being encased in wet shoes and socks for hours on end. I knew more blisters were forming and that I was developing the beginnings of a good case of trench foot. A shoe and sock change at the Picnic Area (86.9) aid station would be critical if I wanted to make it through the final section of the course.
I was beating myself up mentally the entire time, disappointed in my inability to muster a second wind and hoping like hell that the beneficial effects of the 6 a.m. sunrise would finally start to kick in.
When I reached the Picnic Area, I knew I needed to stop and regroup.
Don’t call it a comeback: Miles 86.9-101.7
Climbs: Dry Run, Jawbone
Time: 8:15 a.m. – 1:12 p.m.
At the Picnic Area, Bob flew into action like a man possessed. I’d heard he was a blister ninja, but the work that I saw him do at Shawl Gap was nothing compared to what I saw here.
Within seconds of being planted in a camp chair, I was out of my shoes and socks, my feet were drying out and Bob was applying alcohol and antiseptic and starting to pop, clean and tape the three or four blisters I’d developed over the last 20 miles or so.
Soon, both heels were taped up, as were my left big toe and the pinkie toe on my right foot. With some time to let my feet dry out, I’d be good enough to get to the finish.
I just needed to wait. Rationally, I knew I had time, and that if I didn’t use it to regroup, I’d never make it anyway. But still, there was that moment of panic that all endurance athletes know, the one rooted in “but what about my finish time!?”
Of course, Bob helped me make the right call. As he worked on a couple of other blister cases at the aid station, I ate a couple of pancakes, drank some Coke and, finally, dozed a bit here and there.
It was 45 minutes well spent. By the time I left the aid station, shod in dry shoes and socks and a fresh T-shirt, I felt like a new man and started putting down some fast miles to show for it.
I made it to Gap Creek (this time mile 95.4) in about 2:20, which while by no means a blistering pace was still a hell of a lot faster than I’d been over the previous segments.
Better yet, I finally felt awake.
At Gap Creek, I finally knew – knew for sure, damnit – that I was going to finish this thing. That I’d be the proud owner of a pewter buckle signifying that I am a finisher of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-mile run.
So for the first time in hours, I found my sense of humor. We goofed around at the aid station. I laughed. I made jokes. I ate some more.
Then, finally, I said: “Ok, let’s go get me a buckle.”
And with that, we were out of the aid station like we were shot out of a cannon, hell bent to knock out the final six miles of the race.
Apart from the final tough climb up Jawbone, which rises about 700 feet over the course of roughly a mile, the final section of MMT is flat-ish, or predominantly downhill. The last 3.6 miles or so is on road, in fact – the same road we traveled to start the race more than a day prior.
The descent down Jawbone hurt. It hurt bad. My quads were pretty much blown at that point, and every downhill step ached, whether I was walking or jogging. I slipped on rocks. I tripped on roots. But still, I kept pressing ahead. It was time to be done.
With just 3.6 miles of road between me and the finish line, I had a new goal.
In the mountains, I ran from aid station to aid station. On this last section, I was running from racer to racer, trying to pass as many people as I could over those last few miles (though I resisted doing that here and there when my body decided I was pushing too hard).
I rolled up about a half-dozen runners altogether. In each case, I got a mumbled “good job” or “nice work” as I cruised past.
That road section seemed like it was never going to end, but at the same time, oh man did I feel cocky.
I had one thought in my mind, which kept repeating itself in a variety of ways. It more or less amounted to: “Dude, you’re just about to complete a 100-mile run. 100 miles! 100!”
That thought was tempered by the fact that I knew I wasn’t going to finish anywhere close to the front of the pack, or even the middle. But that’s not really what running 100s is all about. For me, anyway. Especially this first one.
I was feeling cocky because I knew that once I crossed that finish line, I’d be joining a club within a club, a select few people who have ever completed a 100 mile foot race. Less than 4,500 people did so in the U.S. in all of 2010.
But even more so, I was feeling good because I knew how many people were eager to see me finish. I spent a lot of those last few miles thinking about all of the people I needed to thank for their part in helping me to get to this point in my running experience.
One of them – I’m not sure who it was – helped make the finish line experience absolutely perfect, in fact.
As I was dashing through the field to the finish and the race headquarters tent just beyond, I could hear race director Kevin Sayers on the PA announcing finishers. I was just far away enough – and just new enough to the 100 scene – to not be immediately recognizable. So somebody helped make sure my name got announced on the PA.
“Hey, we’ve got another runner coming in folks! It’s … hey, which runner is that … ? It’s … Rob Colenso, ladies and gentlemen! Rob Colenso! Let’s give him a hand!”
I crossed the line to the cheers of dozens of friends and fellow ultrarunners – Bob, Stan, Sara and Toni were right out front. I needed to shake Kevin’s hand as he greeted finishers, but that had to wait.
What I wanted to do first and immediately was hug my four crew members and thank them for being there for me over the past 33 hours, 12 minutes and 24 seconds of running.
It’s no small thing to ask someone to crew or pace for you, and all four of them volunteered before I could even ask. They were signed on as soon as they’d learned I had entered MMT.
Beyond those four, my god there are so many people I need to thank. I’ve gotten to some of you already and I’ll see the rest of you on the trails soon enough. The help I got along the way came in so many forms, and at unexpected but perfect times.
An exhortation to suck it up, a subtle word of encouragement, a vote of confidence, a previously unheard bit of advice, an invitation to a small and intimate mountain training run.
It all added up to me completing MMT as my first 100-mile run.